2007 - %3, March

Police Surveillance is the Quickest Way to Take the Fun Out of Puppet Making

| Sun Mar. 25, 2007 2:36 PM EDT

My friend was one of the Billionaires for Bush. She worked tirelessly and hardly slept, organizing new ways of getting other students to care about the election looming. Humor is our best strategy, she thought.

So in the spring of 2004 she spent a few evenings in the backyard of an off-campus co-op, twisting chicken wire into a globe, plastering it with paper mache, and painting on green land and blue sea. Bigger than she was, it took the help of a few friends to carry to a rally in front of the university president's office, where she and some Billionaires, dressed ridiculously in furs and cocktail dresses and tuxedos, ferociously smashed it to bits. But chicken wire is hard to smash. The wire cage eventually wound up in the backyard, recycled into an an overflow compost container.

Was she being watched? What if she had a hunch and entertained the thought—well, that would make her crazy. Who would perceive her as dangerous? Who would have the time to watch? Who would even care? If she'd wondered out loud to her doctor—well, that falls under a few diagnoses in the DSM-IV. She would have been sent to the loony bin. And she was. She spent a few weeks in the psych ward and was forced by school officials to take the rest of the semester off. I saw her once, in a group, during visiting hours, and couldn't think of a damn thing to say.

But she would have been right. Today the New York City Police records covering those months were exposed. Jim Dwyer writes in the New York Times, "From Albuquerque to Montreal, San Francisco to Miami, undercover New York police officers attended meetings of political groups, posing as sympathizers or fellow activists, the records show. They made friends, shared meals, swapped e-mail messages and then filed daily reports with the department's Intelligence Division." They sent daily notes back to New York on forms called DD5s, describing the activists, their meetings, and their plans. My friend's name must be in those piles of paper.

Another Billionaire, Marco Ceglie, told the Times, "It was a running joke that some of the new faces were 25- to 32-year-old males asking, 'First name, last name?' …. Some people didn't care; it bothered me and a couple of other leaders, but we didn't want to make a big stink because we didn't want to look paranoid."

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"...You Have To Trust Us, It's Not About Transgenderism"

| Sun Mar. 25, 2007 12:43 AM EDT

That's what the city commissioners of Largo, Florida said after they finalized the dismissal of City Manager Steve Stanton today in a six-hour meeting. After Stanton announced he was planning to live his life as a woman, the commission voted to dismiss him last month. The mayor and one commissioner voted to keep Stanton, but the other five members of the commission voted to fire him.

"I think we're pretty well convinced," said Commissioner Gay Gentry. "You have to believe us, you have to trust us, it is not about transgenderism."

What, then, you might ask, is it about? According to the commissioners, they "lost confidence in him." There was some talk about his having "bullied" employees, but the commission had not only given Stanton good reviews--they had given him a very large raise. The real reason for the lost confidence is best expressed by commissioner Jimmy Dean: "This little thing has made Largo the laughingstock of the whole country. It's a disgrace." Now that the city has been "cast in a negative light," the commission can no longer feel confident about Stanton's performance.

Got it? Stanton can no longer perform his duties acceptably because the city is embarrassed.

Stanton's contract says he can be fired without cause, and he hasn't decided whether to file a lawsuit against the commission.

Global Warming Bad For Allergy And Asthma Sufferers

| Sat Mar. 24, 2007 1:45 PM EDT

Global warming may be bad for asthma sufferers. Longer plant growing seasons are leading to weeds scattering vast amounts of pollen and conquering new territory, according to Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent for Reuters. By spring, pollen has been in the air for months in the northern hemisphere even in countries where snows normally bring a winter respite for allergics. In southern Sweden hazel trees have been flowering since December. "In the United States the incidence of asthma is up nearly four times since 1980," said Paul Epstein, Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. "No one has really been looking at the aerobiology dimension (such as pollen). But I think it helps account for it," he said. Any further warming will make things worse.

Epstein ran a study showing that ragweed produced 60 percent more pollen when grown under twice normal concentration of carbon dioxide. At the same time, the stalks grew only 10 percent more. "Warming is touted as good for agriculture, but weeds may be reacting disproportionately fast," he said. "This is an issue with great importance for human health and agricultural yields."

Sneezing my way through this blog, I kid you not. Julia Whitty

Top Ten Stuff 'n' Things, 3/23/07

| Fri Mar. 23, 2007 9:10 PM EDT

Let me be clear: liking this stuff (and these things) in no way causes anyone to be hip. I don't know how to be hip and never have. I know some of the hip people, but when we hang out it's always kind of awkward, because I'm clearly not one of them. My T-shirts are like, at least two steps behind the times, and I make mashups for Pete's sake. So not hip! But don't worry about me! It's fine!

Good News for Ravers: Ecstasy Isn't So Bad

| Fri Mar. 23, 2007 6:27 PM EDT

Earlier today researchers at Bristol University published "a landmark paper" that finds that alcohol and cigarettes are more dangerous than many illegal drugs, including ecstasy and pot.

To anyone who didn't already know that ecstasy doesn't give standers-by second-hand cancer or cause people to start fights, the study breaks the shocking news that while (illegal) coke and heroin are ranked most harmful, they're followed closely by (not illegal) barbiturates, alcohol, and tobacco. Pot comes later, and ecstasy way after that.

The real news here is that all the experts agreed that current substance classification is wack. BU's David Nutt hopes that the study will lead to a change in the prevailing "ill thought-out and arbitrary" system by knocking some sense into those on the losing side of the war on drugs.

—Nicole McClelland

Weird Weather Watch: Winter Sunbathing in Colorado

| Fri Mar. 23, 2007 6:08 PM EDT

Temperatures in Grand Junction, Colorado, hit record highs for five days in a row last week. Sunday's balmy 75 degrees topped an 86 year-old high by nearly 20 degrees.

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Yet Another Reason for Universal Health Insurance

| Fri Mar. 23, 2007 5:49 PM EDT

California's Department of Managed Health Care randomly selected 90 (of more than 1,000) cancelled individual Blue Cross plans and investigated whether the company had cause to cancel them. Score: 0 for 90. Blue Cross broke the rules in every single case.

The policies were individually purchased plans in which policy holders had become pregnant or sick, apparently triggering Blue Cross to rescind the policy. Retroactively—leaving individuals, hospitals and doctors holding the bag for care already provided. Policies can only be legally rescinded if the applicant lies on the application to conceal pre-existing conditions.

Individuals pay exorbitant premiums for coverage purchased outside of employer group plans, and are also more vulnerable to such cancellations in California law. But this is bad news for everyone, not just those who have to buy individual plans. Who pays when hospitals and doctors aren't reimbursed? The taxpayers do, one way or the other. The taxpayers also paid for the state's investigation, whose end result is a measly $1-million suit against Blue Cross, whose annual profit is more than three times that. Blue Cross policy holders funded an entire department of the company devoted to finding reasons to cancel the policies of sick or pregnant people.

About 6.5 million California residents, or about 18 percent of the population, lack health insurance.

Tip to Thieves: Rolexes Engraved "Paris Hilton" Are Not a Good Idea

| Fri Mar. 23, 2007 5:19 PM EDT

It's Friday afternoon and this blogger is going to indulge in a brief moment of "I'm smarter than you." (It's a blogger thing.) Not that I'm such a genius, but I think if I were an LAX airport employee and were going to steal some stuff from passenger luggage, I would avoid luggage belonging to celebrities. Chances are, they'll have one of their people report the theft, and chances are city officials will investigate since Los Angeles' very existence depends on its being celebrity-friendly. So, you see, I am smarter than the 8 luggage screeners and 3 others being charged with stealing jewelry, expensive watches, and cigarettes from Paris Hilton and the singer Keyshia Cole.

What an amazing Friday! I'm veritably high on myself right now.

Global Warming Could Reverse Trend Toward Bigger Human Brains

| Fri Mar. 23, 2007 5:02 PM EDT

Early humans developed larger brains as they adapted to colder climates. A warming climate might reverse that trend. Imagine that, while you still can.

This is the result of an analysis by University at Albany researchers to be published in the spring edition of Human Nature, according to a press release from the University of Albany. The research suggests that human cranial capacity as an indicator of brain size grew dramatically during our evolution. The authors suggest a key environmental trigger to the evolution of larger brains was the need to devise ways to keep warm and find food in cold climates.

In other species, problems of cold are solved by hibernating or migrating, and/or by growing fur and fat. During human evolution, however, the authors surmise that solutions to the problems of cold produced progressively "smarter" strategies, such as the development of cooperative hunting techniques and more sophisticated tools and weapons. Increased brain capacity also brought with it the use of fire as a means to keep warm and cook, adaptations in clothing and shelter, and the development of more refined social skills.

So, if our smarts have caused all the trouble with global warming in the first place, will getting dumber help?

Optimistic Report on the Surge All Talk

| Fri Mar. 23, 2007 4:00 PM EDT

Time has a report card on the effectiveness of the surge, which makes it sound like things are looking up. I'm a skeptic. Not because I hate America, but because this administration and its uniform-wearing parrots have cried wolf once (or thrice) too many times.

The Time report doesn't do much to change my mind.

First, like other reports, it touts the fact that some Iraqi families are returning to their Baghdad homes. But look closer. The numbers given are miniscule, and all they indicate is that those people hope the surge will work—not that it is working.

Second, they caught a few terrorists. Cool. Moving on…

Time repeatedly quotes Petraeus saying things like, "They're really quaking in their boots." These assessments are more meaningless than a coach's halftime interview.

I'll give them this point: "Violence in the city has dropped by about a third since the surge began in mid-February," but (a) one month is not long enough to predict a trend, and (b) it seems some of the new tactical ideas should have been implemented long, long ago:

The tactic of sprinkling U.S. and Iraqi troops like salt across the city — instead of keeping them concentrated in a handful of bases — seems to be paying off so far…Operation Safe Markets — where the U.S. military encircles bazaars with concrete barriers — have kept car bombs away from crowds.

They only just thought of this now?

And for those of you meticulous readers who need me to respond to every bit in the article—or those right-wing bloggers among you waiting for an easy way to prove me wrong (obviously the thing I didn't mention destroys my whole point, right?): The report also mentions helicopters. It's true, I mentioned rise in helicopter shoot-downs as a bad sign, and they have subsided. But:

U.S. military helicopters are flying increasingly under cover of darkness and at 2,000 feet, four times higher than normal, beyond the reach of the crude weapons used by the insurgents to take potshots at airborne targets… Army chopper pilots have long been taught to hug the terrain…to limit their exposure to any individual on the ground seeking to shoot them down. But increasingly, U.S. pilots are trading the protection offered by lack of height for the masking offered by lack of light.

Overall response: C-.