2013...mewhat-popular - %2

Jake Shimabukuro Rocked the Ukulele Before It Was Cool

| Mon May 6, 2013 4:30 AM EDT
Jake Shimabukuro, epic uke player.

Update (May 8, 2014): PBS will rebroadcasting Life on Four Strings starting on May 9, 2014. Check your local PBS listings for times.

While the jury is out over whether guitar rock is enjoying a renaissance or fading from relevance, the guitar's little brother, the ukulele, has entered the zeitgeist in a big way. With it's small body, four strings, and a range of just two octaves, the uke is among the humblest of instruments. But in the past few years, the uke has popped up in the hands of artists from Taylor Swift and Jason Mraz to Paul McCartney and Jack Johnson. In 2011, Eddie Vedder put out an entire album of quavering love songs that sound like the brooding inner monolog of a heartbroken surfer. With Zooey Deschanel as their queen, the cutie-girl set has made the ukulele nearly as ubiquitous as bird tattoos.

Much its recent popularity, though, is owed to Japanese-American virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro who in several ways resembles the instrument he has mastered: charming, unassuming, Hawaiian. But in Shimabukuro's hands, as he breaks out experimental jazz, lays down a steady blues train, or shreds on rock anthems, this little jumping flea becomes a melodic monster.

Through the late-'90s and early aughts, Shimabukuro carved out a respectable living as a touring artist, but his career exploded in 2006 after a video of him performing While My Guitar Gently Weeps became one of the first YouTube videos to go viral. Forget what the internet says about the overuse of the word "epic." This performance defines it:

Soon after, late night TV shows began knocking on his doors. He was invited to play duets with the likes of Bette Midler and Jimmy Buffett. And now his existence is the subject of Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings, a documentary airing May 10 on PBS. Through intimate conversations and inspiring performances, the film offers of portrait of the man and his instrument. I caught up with Shimabukuro recently to talk about his dream collaboration, meeting the Queen of England, and what it's like to go viral.

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What We Know—And What We Don't—About the Oregon Medicaid Study

| Sun May 5, 2013 11:42 PM EDT

I've been spending a bit of time this weekend trying to understand better what the real issues are with the Oregon Medicaid study that was released on Thursday and shortly afterward exploded across the blogosphere. Unfortunately, I've come to the conclusion that it's next to impossible to explain it in a way that would be understandable to most people. My readers, however, are not "most people," so I figure I'll take a crack at it anyway. The damage may have already been done from the many misinterpretations of the Oregon study that have been published over the past few days, but who knows? Maybe this will help anyway.

First, to refresh your memory: In 2008, Oregon expanded Medicaid coverage but didn't have enough money to cover everyone. So they ran a lottery. If you lost, you got nothing. If you won, you were offered the chance to sign up for Medicaid. This provided a unique opportunity to study the effect of Medicaid coverage, because Oregon provided two groups of people who were essentially identical except for the fact that one group (the control group) didn't have access to Medicaid, while the other group (the treatment group) did.

There are several things to say about the Oregon study, but I think the most important one is this: not that the study didn't find statistically significant improvements in various measures of health, but that the study couldn't have found statistically significant improvements. It was impossible from the beginning.

Here's why. The first thing the researchers should have done, before the study was even conducted, was estimate what a clinically significant result would be. For example, based on past experience, they might have decided that if access to Medicaid produced a 20 percent reduction in the share of the population with elevated levels of glycated hemoglobin (a common marker for diabetes), that would be a pretty successful intervention.

Then the researchers would move on to step two: suppose they found the clinically significant reduction they were hoping for? Is their study designed in such a way that a clinically significant result would also be statistically significant? Obviously it should be.

Let's do the math. In the Oregon study, 5.1 percent of the people in the control group had elevated GH levels. Now let's take a look at the treatment group. It started out with about 6,000 people who were offered Medicaid. Of that, 1,500 actually signed up. If you figure that 5.1 percent of them started out with elevated GH levels, that's about 80 people. A 20 percent reduction would be 16 people.

So here's the question: if the researchers ended up finding the result they hoped for (i.e., a reduction of 16 people with elevated GH levels), is there any chance that this result would be statistically significant? I can't say for sure without access to more data, but the answer is almost certainly no. It's just too small a number. Ditto for the other markers they looked at. In other words, even if they got the results they were hoping for, they were almost foreordained not to be statistically significant. And if they're not statistically significant, that means the headline result is "no effect."

The problem is that, for all practical purposes, the game was rigged ahead of time to produce this result. That's not the fault of the researchers. They were working with the Oregon Medicaid lottery, and they couldn't change the size of the sample group. What they had was 1,500 people, of whom about 5.1 percent started with elevated GH levels. There was no way to change that.

Given that, they probably shouldn't even have reported results. They should have simply reported that their test design was too underpowered to demonstrate statistically significant results under any plausible conditions. But they didn't do that. Instead, they reported their point estimates with some really big confidence intervals and left it at that, opening up a Pandora's Box of bad interpretations in the press.

Knowing all this, what's a fair thing to say about the results of this study?

  • One fair thing would be to simply say that it's inconclusive, full stop. It tells us nothing about the effect of Medicaid access on diabetes, cholesterol levels, or blood pressure maintenance. I'm fine with that interpretation.
  • Another fair thing would be to say that the results were positive, but the study was simply too small to tell us if the results are real.
  • Or there's a third fair thing you could say: From a Bayesian perspective, the Oregon results should slightly increase our belief that access to Medicaid produces positive results for diabetes, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure maintenance. It shouldn't increase our belief much, but if you toss the positive point estimates into the stew of everything we already know, they add slightly to our prior belief that Medicaid is effective.
  • But you can't say that the results are disappointing, at least not without a lot of caveats. At a minimum, the bare fact that the results aren't statistically significant certainly can't be described as a disappointment. That was baked into the cake from the beginning. This study was never likely to find significant results in the first place.

So that's that. You can't honestly say that the study shows that Medicaid "seemed to have little or no impact on common medical conditions like hypertension and diabetes." That just isn't what it showed.

POSTSCRIPT: That said, there are a few other things worth saying about this study too. For example, the researchers apparently didn't have estimates of clinical significance in mind before they conducted the study. That's odd, and it would be nice if they confirmed whether or not this is true. Also: the subjects of the study were an unusually healthy group, with pretty low levels of the chronic problems that were being measured. That makes substantial improvements even less likely than usual. And finally: on the metrics that had bigger sample sizes and could provide more reliable results (depression, financial security, self-reported health, etc.), the results of the study were uniformly positive and statistically significant.

Who's Using Chemical Weapons in Syria?

| Sun May 5, 2013 9:55 PM EDT

I haven't seen this picked up anywhere else, but Reuters is reporting that a UN official says they have no evidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons in its ongoing civil war:

U.N. human rights investigators have gathered testimony from casualties of Syria's civil war and medical staff indicating that rebel forces have used the nerve agent sarin, one of the lead investigators said on Sunday.

The United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria has not yet seen evidence of government forces having used chemical weapons, which are banned under international law, said commission member Carla Del Ponte.

I have no idea if this is reliable or not. However, for more on just how shaky the evidence is about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, you might try this Guardian piece from a few days ago. Overall, it suggests that the Obama administration might indeed be wise to collect more definitive evidence about this before they do anything rash.

Don't Call It "The Five" in San Francisco!

| Sat May 4, 2013 5:13 PM EDT

Maria Bustillos writes in Aeon that when she drives from Los Angeles to San Francisco, she always takes I-5, the most direct route:

This is the way I always go. Not only because it’s fastest, but because, despite the conventional wisdom, I find it the most beautiful of all. California natives always call it just ‘The Five’: not Highway Five or Interstate Five or I-5.

Hoo boy. As soon as I read that I knew she was going to get some angry responses. Sure enough, here's the very first comment:

"The" in front of a highway number is NOT a CA native expression! It is rather, a SoCal thing based largely on CHP and LAFD radio chatter. It has become widespread all over the west into Arizona, Nevada and even Oregon, but is roundly discouraged in The Bay Area and in Norcal.

I'm not sure about Oregon, but this is definitely a Southern California thing that has spread throughout the southwest. It goes north to about San Luis Obispo or Monterey, but stops there. It's also, oddly enough, common in the Buffalo/Toronto area, but apparently nowhere else in the United States.

However, I don't think there's any evidence that this habit is based on CHP or LAFD chatter. Unfortunately, it's not clear what it is based on, since none of the explanations I've ever heard have really been convincing. The full story is here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Gitmo Detainee Explains Why He's on Hunger Strike

| Sat May 4, 2013 9:00 AM EDT

Obaydullah, a detainee at Gitmo who was first captured in Afghanistan in 2002, filed a declaration in federal court in March that was unsealed and posted by the national security blog Lawfare on Friday. The declaration goes into striking detail about the circumstances that Obaydullah (who goes by one name) says provoked the hunger strike at the detention camp, which began in February and now involves 100 out of the 166 remaining detainees, according to the Pentagon's count.

"In response to the dehumanizing searches, the confiscation of our personal items, and the desecration of the holy Quran, I and the men at Camp 6 and some at Camp 5, waged a hunger strike on Feburary 6 2013," the declaration reads. "But our strike continues because conditions have gotten worse, not better, and there is no hope that we will ever leave here."

The declaration corroborates the descriptions of Gitmo defense attorneys who have said that although the hunger strike began as a response to what the detainees saw as desecration of their holy books, it has now grown into a protest of the Obama administration's policy of indefinite detention. According to Obaydullah, conditions had improved until the February "shake down" that he says provoked the strike. In response, Obaydullah says, the guards began to interrupt detainees' prayers and moved detainees to more restrictive conditions. Access to recreational facilities was limited and, according to Obaydullah, camp authorities deliberately began to lower the temperature in Camp 6 to the point of "freezing." "All of these actions showed me and the other prisoners that camp authorities were treating us the way we were treated in the years under President Bush," Obaydullah writes.

In his declaration, Obaydullah hints at what the detainees would require to end the three-month protest. "We plan to remain on strike until we are treated with dignity, the guards stop trying to enforce old rules, our prayer and religion are respected, and our Qurans are handled with the care and sanctity required."

Obaydullah has been challenging his detention for years with little success. Although he maintains he was never a fighter for Al Qaeda or the Taliban, a federal judge concluded in 2010 that the evidence against him "unmistakably supports the conclusion that it is more likely than not that petitioner Obaydullah was in fact a member of an al Qaeda bomb cell committed to the destruction of U.S. and Allied forces," and was therefore lawfully detainable.

"I am losing all hope because I have been imprisoned at Guantanamo for almost 11 years now and I still do not know my fate," Obaydullah concludes.

Here's the full declaration:

 

 

Like Most Libertarians, Iron Man Grows Up and Moves On

| Fri May 3, 2013 5:46 PM EDT

Iron Man 3
Walt Disney Studios
129 minutes

"There's no politics here; it's just good old-fashioned revenge," Tony Stark (a.k.a., Iron Man) declares to a swarm of TV news reporters, following a terrorist attack that leaves a good friend of his in a coma. "There's no Pentagon, it's just you and me," Stark says to his latest nemesis. 

This statement also applies to the film itself.

The third installment in Marvel's Iron Man series is the first in the franchise that wasn't directed by Jon Favreau. The man at the helm this time around is writer/director Shane Black, who is famous for penning Hollywood action flicks like 1987's Lethal Weapon, and for directing 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also starring Robert Downey, Jr. The first two films portrayed Tony Stark/Iron Man as he was intended to be depicted: as a suave, hard-partying, right-wing billionaire who battles America's enemies, foreign and domestic. In the DVD commentary of the first Iron Man, Marvel frontman Stan Lee discusses why he created the character in the first place. He wanted to piss off some hippies:

It was the height of the Cold War. The readers—the young readers—if there was one thing they hated it was war, it was the military, or, as Eisenhower called it, the military-industrial complex. So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer. He was providing weapons for the army. He was rich. He was an industrialist. But he was good-looking guy and he was courageous…I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like—that none of our readers would like—and shove him down their throats and make them like him.

Though no one should ever accuse the Iron Man movies of pulling for any particular political agenda, the first two films did preserve the comic books' gleefully rightward lean. (After all, Favreau identified Elon Musk, the libertarian billionaire who co-founded the galactic transport company SpaceX, as the inspiration for the on-screen version of Tony Stark; Musk also had a cameo in Iron Man 2.)

In the first Iron Man, Stark's bad-boy charisma is defined by his belief in a Peace-Through-Strength-on-steroids mindset:

Although he undergoes something of a personal and political makeover later in the film, the beginning of Iron Man 2 shows Stark in familiar form. When he's called to a hearing on Capitol Hill, lawmakers pressure him to turn over his terrorism-fighting toys to the US government and military. In response, a defiant Stark denies the government his property, cockily mocks the panel of lawmakers, and brags that he "successfully privatized world peace." This is met with wild cheers from the gallery.

There are no politics to Iron Man 3, beyond the political assertion that lethal and indiscriminate terrorism is bad. Director Shane Black, who co-wrote the screenplay, is far more concerned with the slam-bang fight scenes and the romance between Stark and his live-in girlfriend Virginia "Pepper" Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow). So much of the film focuses on Stark, once the consummate care-free playboy, settling down with the love of his life. It's a genuinely interesting and tender part of the story—and the best and most convincing romance in the modern comic-books-as-film cannon. Their relationship demonstrates just how softened and vulnerable (touchingly so) Tony Stark can get.

With his single life, goes his ideology.

Check out the trailer for Iron Man 3:

Iron Man 3 gets a wide US release on Friday, May 3. The film is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief suggestive content. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

Click here for more movie and TV coverage from Mother Jones.

To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

To listen to the movie and pop-culture podcast that Asawin co-hosts with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg, click here.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 3 May 2013

| Fri May 3, 2013 1:52 PM EDT

April showers are behind us, and now it's time for May flowers. Today, temps in Southern California are headed up into the 90s, so Domino headed into the backyard to bask in the warmth. In this photo, she's trying to disguise herself as a pool of water, hoping that some local birds will think she's a bird bath and fly right into her waiting jaws. It didn't happen this morning, but you never know. Maybe next time.

Are Republicans Playing Jedi Mind Tricks on Immigration Reform?

| Fri May 3, 2013 1:48 PM EDT

Greg Sargent explores the immigration debate on the right, and explains why Marco Rubio and others are making the arguments they're making:

They are subtly making the case to their base that a defeat for immigration reform is actually a hidden victory for Obama....The idea is that if we don’t pass the Gang of Eight plan, Obama wins. This case is being made on several levels. On the one hand, this notion of leaving the issue “entirely in the hands of Obama” is a partly a suggestion that the President just may use his executive powers to solve the undocumented immigrant problem himself if we don’t pass the Senate plan — just as he did with the DREAMers.

....There’s a key nuance here. As I understand the thinking, GOP base voters are turned off by the political argument that we must reform immigration because if we don’t, Obama will be able to screw Republicans over politically with Latinos....That’s why the argument can’t be openly stated as: If we embrace reform, Obama loses. It has to be carefully calibrated in the manner Rubio has adopted: Not doing anything opens the door for a far greater victory for Obama later. He will be able to do for the undocumented what he did for the DREAMers — while not securing the border — a twofer for Obama.

Obama is playing his part in this dance, too. He and the White House frequently take care to say — not in these exact words, but this is the message — that while he supports the Senate compromise, it’s far from the liberal dream legislation he’d like.

Interesting. Basically, Sargent is suggesting that Republican base voters respond more strongly to the suggestion of a crafty Obama victory if they do nothing than they do to the possibility of an Obama loss if they do something. Partly that's because they've been trained to think of Obama as a cunning grifter constantly putting one over on them, and partly because they're not really convinced that passing immigration reform will help Republicans.

I'm not sure if I buy this or not. But I might!

A Different Kind of War Requires a Different Kind of POW Camp Too

| Fri May 3, 2013 12:46 PM EDT

ThinkProgress passes along the following exchange on CNN between Jeffrey Toobin and former Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer. The subject is whether and why we need the Guantanamo prison:

TOOBIN: This country fought Adolf Hitler. And I don’t really believe that Osama bin Laden and his group are worse or more dangerous than Adolf Hitler. And we managed to defeat Adolf Hitler by following the rule of law.

FLEISCHER: They followed the law of war. They wore uniforms and they fought us on battlefields. These people are fundamentally, totally by design different. And they need to be treated in a different extrajudicial system.

Ed Kilgore has a bit to say about just how law-abiding the Nazis actually were (ahem), but I want to give Fleischer his due and assume that he intended to say something a bit more insightful than he actually did in the heat of real-time debate. Putting aside the war ethics of the Third Reich, Fleischer is right about a few things:

  • We are mostly fighting against non-state actors.
  • There are no geographical boundaries to this war.
  • There is no way to eventually declare victory, and no way for anyone to formally surrender.

The problem is that this undermines Fleischer's point, I think, rather than supporting it. Guantanamo is fundamentally a prisoner-of-war camp, but it's unlike any POW camp in history because we haven't put in place any boundaries on it. It's simply a life sentence for many of the prisoners, even if the evidence is thin or nonexistent that they ever fought against us in the first place.

So yes: we're fighting a different kind of war. That means we need to rethink how we handle POWs too. So far, we haven't really faced up to that.

Clarence Thomas Suggests "Elites" Like Obama Because He's What "They Expect From a Black Person"

| Fri May 3, 2013 11:54 AM EDT

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas says he always figured there'd be a black president, but that it would have to be someone "the elites" and "the media" approve of—an oblique shot at President Barack Obama.

"[T]he thing I always knew is that it would have to be a black president who was approved by the elites and the media because anybody that they didn’t agree with, they would take apart," Thomas said during a panel about his life and career at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in early April. "You pick your person. Any black person who says something that is not the prescribed things that they expect from a black person will be picked apart."

The implication of Thomas' remarks is that President Obama was only elected because he fits with the "prescribed things that they expect from a black person." Thomas' statements were were also aired on C-SPAN and picked up by Fox Nation.

It is unusual for sitting Supreme Court Justices to make public criticisms of sitting presidents. "Clarence Thomas seems more interested in becoming a Fox commentator than preserving the integrity of the Court," says Adam Winkler, a professor at the University of California School of Law. "Justices should not take pot shots at the president. It's beneath the dignity of the court."

Thomas' perspective may stem in part from the difficult 1991 Supreme Court confirmation battle he faced after being accused of sexual harassment by former colleague Anita Hill. Indeed, they mirror remarks he made at the time, when he said that the confirmation process had become "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree." A narrow majority of the Senate ultimately voted to confirm Thomas' appointment. Reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson later published a book providing compelling evidence that Hill had in fact told the truth.

President Barack Obama was twice elected by a majority of the American electorate. Indeed, while there is some wisdom in Thomas' remarks about race and social expectations, it's virtually inevitable that any presidential candidate will seek to earn the approval of elites, both financial and in the media itself. Supreme Court justices, on the other hand, serve for life and are by design insulated from popular sentiment.

"There's a great irony in that Thomas has his position because he was approved by elites in the Senate," says Winkler, "while Obama owes his position to the voters."

Here's the video: