2009 - %3, March

Is the Galactica Finale Bad News for Lost?

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 2:39 PM EDT
I'll admit I've never been as much of a Battlestar Galactica fanatic as some people, even though I'm enough of a sucker for apocalyptic sci-fi that I stood in an opening-night line to see The Core. But even that skepticism wasn't enough to prepare me for the pile of stinking silliness that was the show's final episode on Friday night. Turns out the mystery song was a Google Map to the really real Earth, and God was directing them there the whole time through magic angels, or maybe demons, but whatever, their work here is done so they're gonna go "poof" and let you guys go about mating with the natives and making more people who can eventually make more robots. And, scene. Questions that had seemed vital, propulsive forces to the show's dramatic arc—What's the deal with reincarnated Starbuck? Who are the secret Cylons and why are they there? How does this world intersect with present-day Earth?—were tossed aside with quick "God did it" explanations or comically deadpan titles: "150,000 years later." Did the show bite off more than it could chew, or just crumple in the face of overwhelming expectations? And what could it mean for everybody's other favorite sci-fi ensemble mystery?

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"The Fempire:" Female Screenwriters Give Hollywood a Run For Its Money

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 1:58 PM EDT

Lotsa good feminist stuff on the wires today, like these four under-30 screenwriters kicking ass in Hollywood and watching each other's backs. Again, the Times

"Mr. Spielberg will call her and she'll be afraid to answer the phone," Ms. Scafaria said of Ms. Cody. "I'll be like, 'Answer the phone!' "
Ms. Cody said: "I'll think it's all over. I’m a pessimist."
Ms. Scafaria said, "He’ll be calling to praise her."
Ms. Cody won an Oscar for her screenplay for "Juno." Ms. Scafaria is the screenwriter for "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist." ...
With their pals Dana Fox, who wrote "What Happens in Vegas," and Liz Meriwether, a playwright-turned-screenwriter, they make up a Hollywood powerhouse writing posse who call themselves "The Fempire."
You can find them at work in their Laurel Canyon homes in their pajamas, or sitting next to one another at laptop-friendly restaurants. To see them gathered amid the dinosaur topiary around Ms. Fox's swimming pool with their dogs (they all have dogs) is to see four distinct styles of glamour that bear little resemblance to traditional images of behind-the-scenes talent. Whenever one of them has a movie opening, they all rent a white limousine and go from theater to theater to watch the first audiences react...
I especially love the way they fly around the country supporting each other at premieres and, most importantly, giving each other permission to just fracking enjoy their success. To own it, something too many of us have a hard time with:
"This was never truer than during the hoopla surrounding "Juno," Ms. Cody’s story of a pregnant teenager who decides to have her baby and give it up for adoption. The other women lent or bought outfits for Ms. Cody, but that was the least of it.
"They supported me through the wildest time in my career," Ms. Cody said. "They helped me be excited for things when I was kind of shellshocked. They were the ones who had to literally take me aside at the 'Juno' premiere and say: 'This is fun. You will never forget this. Please enjoy yourself.'"

From the mouths of babes.

Bringing Science to Journalism

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 1:40 PM EDT
Chris Mooney has written an excellent WaPo column calling on journalists to agree to follow a more empirical process, one which is "constrained by standards of evidence, rigor and reproducibility that are similar to the canons of modern science itself." He makes his case by calling out George Will, who is all too happy to continue misleading his global-warming-denying audience.

Will also wrote that "according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade." The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is one of many respected scientific institutions that support the consensus [.pdf] that humans are driving global warming... Climate scientists, knowing that any single year may trend warmer or cooler for a variety of reasons—1998, for instance, featured an extremely strong El Niño—study globally averaged temperatures over time. To them, it's far more relevant that out of the 10 warmest years on record, at least seven [.pdf] have occurred in the 2000s—again, according to the WMO.

Readers and commentators must learn to share some practices with scientists—following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is. It's also what good journalism and commentary alike must strive to be—now more than ever.

Well said. This echoes what Mooney wrote for Mother Jones's September/October 2008 issue. After working for over a year as a fact-checker for MoJo, I must say that I couldn't agree more.

The Importance of Pakistan

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 1:35 PM EDT

David Kilcullen, an Aussie military man who is (was?) a top adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, sat down with the Washington Post to talk about the war on terror. He emphasized, above all else, Pakistan.

What is the real central front in the war on terror?

Pakistan. Hands down. No doubt.

Why?

Pakistan is 173 million people, 100 nuclear weapons, an army bigger than the U.S. Army, and al-Qaeda headquarters sitting right there in the two-thirds of the country that the government doesn't control. The Pakistani military and police and intelligence service don't follow the civilian government; they are essentially a rogue state within a state. We're now reaching the point where within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state, also because of the global financial crisis, which just exacerbates all these problems. . . . The collapse of Pakistan, al-Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons, an extremist takeover -- that would dwarf everything we've seen in the war on terror today.

You can see the whole thing here. Kilcullen, who is promoting a new book, also spoke with Wired's Danger Room.

Price Discovery

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 1:31 PM EDT
Felix Salmon writes:

How Treasury's Bank Bailout Could Make Things Worse

....The minute the Treasury plan is put into action, we'll have a lot of public price discovery for the banks' bad assets. And if the prices don't clear — if the minimum price the banks will accept is higher than the maximum price that the public-private partnerships are willing to pay — then no one will any longer be able to perpetuate the fiction that America's banks are solvent.

....The big hope of the Treasury plan is that the private sector will be willing to pay a higher price for leveraged assets than it would for unleveraged assets....During boom years, that was a wager that many investors were willing to take. But now? I'm not sure. Chalk it up as yet another thing-which-has-to-go-right in order for this scheme to work. There are far too many of those for comfort.

Um, how is this a bad thing?  Isn't a whole bunch of very public price discovery exactly what we want?  Then we get to find out for sure whether banks are solvent, as they claim, or irredeemably underwater, as a lot of us suspect.  Right now they can lie about their books and no one can really prove them right or wrong.  After these auctions, though, smoke and mirrors will be a lot harder.

I don't have any more insight than anyone else about whether this is a deliberate part of Geithner's plan.  Oddly enough, though, his tongue-tied interviews about it make me suspect that it might be.  Geithner might not be the most silver-tongued spokesman in the Obama orbit, but he's not a doofus.  If he's having trouble explaining the plan in public, one reason might be that he's unable to fess up to the central pillar of the whole thing: forcing banks to put up or shut up.

Somebody is wrong about all this stuff, after all.  Either the critics are wrong, and banks are actually perfectly solvent, or else the banks are wrong, and all their memos about how they're practically sagging under the weight of all their Tier 1 capital are just a bunch of hooey.  Geithner's plan goes at least part of the way to figuring this out.

Facebook For Refugees

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 12:50 PM EDT
Facebook helped you reconnect with your ex, check up on your favorite band, and join Chesley Sullenberger's fan club, and sure, those things are fun. But what about helping the global diaspora of displaced persons figure out where their former neighbors are and what's become of them? A bit more important, you might say, and the goal of a new social networking site created by German NGO Refugees United. Der Spiegel reports that the site is already available in 23 languages, with developers currently putting together a Bhutanese version to serve the surging number of refugees arriving in the United States from Nepal; Washington recently agreed to take 60,000 of them.

From Der Spiegel:
The idea is actually a very simple one. Each year, millions of people are uprooted by war, famine or natural disaster. Escaping catastrophe, though, is not always an orderly process. Families can easily get separated and, once the displaced cross borders, often get sent to widely dispersed destinations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are over 1.5 million minors who have lost contact with their parents...
The Red Cross system, though -- as efficient as it may be -- requires refugees to apply for help from a third party. Requests are sent first to Red Cross headquarters in Geneva from where they are then sent to personnel working in the conflict zone in question. Should Refugees United, as the Mikkelsens call their organization, attract enough members, it could provide the displaced with a new way to search -- one that they control themselves.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from tracyhunter.

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The Byrd Rule

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 12:46 PM EDT
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have never roused myself to understand the intricacies of the budget reconciliation process and the Byrd rule. The reconciliation process is basically designed to eliminate Senate filibusters on budget resolutions, but it's the Byrd rule that specifies what counts as a budget issue and what doesn't. But who decides what the Byrd rule itself says?  Ezra Klein:

The Byrd rule allows senators to challenge the acceptability of any provision (undefined) of a reconciliation bill based on whether or not its effect on government revenues is "merely incidental" (undefined). Thus, if you enter reconciliation with a health-reform bill, it's not clear what's left after each and every provision — however that is defined — is challenged and a certain number of them are deleted altogether: the tax portions, certainly. And the government subsidies. But is regulating insurers "merely incidental" to government revenues? How about reforming hospital delivery systems? How about incentives for preventive treatment? Or the construction of a public plan? An individual mandate?

It's hard to say. The ultimate decision is left up to the Senate parliamentarian, whose rulings are unpredictable. Under George W. Bush, Republicans managed to ram tax cuts, oil drilling, trade authority, and much else through reconciliation. But they were as often disappointed: The GOP leaders fired two successive Senate parliamentarians whose Byrd rule rulings angered them.

Ah, I see. The Senate parliamentarian will decide whether we get healthcare reform this year. That's comforting to know. Perhaps Ezra's next task should be an in-depth profile of Alan Frumin, apparently the people's representative for all things healthcare related.

Housing News

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 11:56 AM EDT
Looking for some good news?  Well, there isn't much, so this will have to do:

The National Association of Realtors said Monday that sales of existing homes increased 5.1 percent to an annual rate of 4.72 million last month, from 4.49 million units in January. It was the largest sales jump since July 2003.

Sales had been expected to fall to an annual pace of 4.45 million units, according to Thomson Reuters.

....February’s median sales price was up slightly from January, which recorded the lowest median price since September 2002. Prices are down about 28 percent from their peak in July 2006.

It's not clear what caused this, since home prices are almost certainly going to keep falling another 20% or so.  In fact, this might even be bad news in a way, since the faster we hit bottom and get back to trend growth, the faster we're likely to see the end of the recession.  But really, these days, who knows?

Exposing Torture

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 11:32 AM EDT
This is good news:

Over objections from the U.S. intelligence community, the White House is moving to declassify — and publicly release — three internal memos that will lay out, for the first time, details of the "enhanced" interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for use against "high value" Qaeda detainees....According to the administration official, ex-CIA director Michael Hayden was "furious" about the prospect of disclosure and tried to intervene directly with Obama officials. But the White House has sided with Holder.

Obama's record so far on the related issues of torture, civil liberties, detention, and surveillance has been mixed.  I hope that part of this is simply the caution of a new administration that doesn't want to make irreversible decisions before it's given them enough thought.  Releasing these memos is a small sign that perhaps once they've settled in they'll start unraveling the abuses of the Bush-era more thoroughly.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

More on the Dems' Quiet Oversight of Obama

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 11:21 AM EDT

On Thursday, Mother Jones broke the story that congressional Democrats had sent a private letter to the Obama administration asking key questions about what the president is doing to recover millions of White House emails that went missing during the Bush administration. The Democrats sent their letter a little over a week after the committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), wrote the administration asking about email issues, but the Dems did not make their letter public until today. What we had heard at the time, but could not confirm, was that one of the reasons the Democrats on the House oversight committee might have wanted to keep their letter private was that they had in fact copied-and-pasted their questions from Issa's letter. It turns out that the copy-and-paste story is true: Mother Jones has finally obtained a copy of the Democrats' letter (PDF of both letters). Two of the Democrats' four questions are word-for-word reproductions of questions Issa asked in the letter he sent to Gregory Craig, the White House counsel, a little over a week before. The other two questions in the Democrats' letter are very similar to ones in Issa's letter.

Republican staff members told the Washington Times on Saturday that they had asked the majority Democrats to sign onto Issa's letter. Jenny Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for committee Democrats, told the Times that emails from the Republicans asking the Democrats to sign on were "overlooked." But Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, claimed that the Dems were "clearly embarrassed... that they sent essentially the same letter to the White House that congressman Issa had already asked congressman Towns to sign on with him jointly."

Whatever the truth of the matter, Rosenberg promised the Times that the Dems will put their letter online today. They just did, but there's no explanation of why it took so long. The date on the Dems' letter is February 27.