2009 - %3, July

Sunscreen: Still Shady

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 7:50 PM EDT

July 4th weekend beach time is upon us, and the FDA still hasn't finalized its rules about what sunscreen manufacturers can claim on sunscreen labels. The new regulations were proposed back in 2007, and two years later, they still haven't been published. That means sunscreen manufacturers are still getting away with exaggerated claims. ("All day protection!" "Sweat proof!" "SPF 100!" Sound familiar?) The Environmental Working Group recently posted its 2009 Sunscreen Guide, and it found that three out of five sunscreens on the market still either don't work as well as they claim to or contain potentially hazardous chemicals, or both. Not exactly what you want to hear right before your holiday weekend on the beach.

On the bright side: EWG found that this year, 70 percent of sunscreen products contain strong UVA filters, compared to just 29 percent in 2008. Another improvement: This year, 19 percent fewer sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a UV blocker that scientists suspect seeps into the skin and enters the bloodstream.

Still, it's awfully hard to tell from the labels which products are safe and effective. And that's bad news for those of us who don't want to spend our summer beach days dressed like the folks in the picture.

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Financing the Future

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 7:20 PM EDT

Josh Green has an interesting article in the Atlantic this month about green energy and how it's thoroughly taken over the geek culture of Silicon Valley:

Last year, cleantech was the third-largest recipient of venture funding, after IT and biotechnology, with investments of $5.8 billion. But that statistic doesn’t begin to convey its psychic significance. It’s all anyone wants to talk about.

Exhilaration over clean energy has so thoroughly swept Silicon Valley that it has transformed the local culture. Conspicuous consumption has given way to conspicuous conservation. The favored status symbol is no longer the giant yacht or the sprawling mansion but the home designed to be so ruthlessly energy-efficient that it generates its own power and produces a surplus that can be selflessly fed back into the grid.

....The excitement extends to President Obama’s early emphasis on renewable energy, which has convinced Silicon Valley’s leading minds that here, at last, is a president who understands. “California is the new Texas,” [Mike] Danaher exulted. “There’s a mind-set [in the White House] that innovation and entrepreneurship really can change things.”

This ties into what I was talking about yesterday: although conservation and increased efficiency are key (probably the key) components of any effort to curb global warming, to get all the way there we're going to need both the invention of new green technologies and far more widespread deployment of existing green technologies.

That takes money.  Way more money than Silicon Valley venture capitalists can provide.  And that in turn means we need policies that provide incentives to invest in this stuff — incentives that get to the right place at the right time and don't come and go with every change in congressional mood.

The rest of Green's piece is an interesting look at how not to do that.  Turns out that ever since Jimmy Carter tried to get us started on this stuff, the incentive of choice has been tax credits.  These are a problem for two reasons.  First, Congress and state legislatures have to renew them periodically, and when they don't (which is often) suddenly a bunch of promising projects go poof.  Second, tax credits only work if you owe taxes, and startups don't usually owe taxes.  To take advantage of them, then, requires you to team up with someone big who does.  Unfortunately, it turns out that there are only a very few candidates for that role:

Investment banks and hedge funds stepped in to fill the void, engineering tax-equity vehicles with suspiciously complicated-sounding names, like “partnership flip structure” and “inverted passthrough lease,” to exploit the tax benefits....For renewable-energy companies, tax-equity deals meant life or death: the combination of credits could offset two-thirds of the capital cost of a project.

....Just as Wall Street bankers bet that housing prices could never fall and got wiped out when proved wrong, Congress seems never to have imagined that Wall Street might someday have no profits and need no tax equity. Early last year, the multibillion-dollar tax-equity universe consisted of 18 providers. After September’s record carnage, the number dropped to four. Credit froze, and most projects ground to a halt. All of a sudden, not just a few start-ups but the entire renewable-energy industry was staring into the Valley of Death.

Tax credits still have their place, but the Obama administration is already supplementing them with other incentives (direct grants, loan guarantees, and direct investment by the Department of Energy, courtesy of February's stimulus bill) and planning to supplement them still further with others (chief among them tightening renewable energy standards and increasing the price of carbon via cap-and-trade).  Read the whole thing for more.  It's a good primer on how critical it is to get the financing piece of the puzzle right if we want to make serious progress on climate change.

WRONG: Vegetarian diet 'weakens bones'

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 7:11 PM EDT

Why can't the media report science correctly? According to this AFP story: "People who live on vegetarian diets have slightly weaker bones than their meat-eating counterparts."

They could hardly misreport a scientific study more spectacularly. I mean, how hard is it to:

 

  • Assess the fact that differences in bone density (which the researcher himself deemed "clinically insignificant") did not lead to any increase in the number of bone fractures?

The Australian news reported the story somewhat more accurately.

But this headline and misleading story have been virulently misreported today. And what is the effect but to reinforce meat-eating habitats that are bad for the health of individuals and for the health of our world?

Jeez.
 

New El Niño Making More Hurricanes

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 6:25 PM EDT

El Niño years typically produce fewer Atlantic hurricanes. But that seems to be changing. According to a report in this week's Science a new kind of El Niño is appearing, one birthed in the Central not Eastern Pacific. It's called El Niño Modoki, from the Japanese meaning: similar but different.

What's different about El Niño Modoki is that its Central Pacific warming is associated with a higher-than-average hurricane frequency and a greater potential for those storms to make landfall along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and Central America.

Why El Niño is changing is unclear. It could be part of a natural oscillation of El Niño (the data are sparse before the 1920s). Or it could be El Niño’s response to a warming atmosphere. Pacific trade winds appearing to be weakening, which might account for the warming of the tropical Pacific shifting westward.

The researchers are also currently investigating La Niña, the cooling of the surface waters in the Eastern and Central Pacific. In the past, La Nina was associated with a greater-than-average number of North Atlantic hurricanes. But La Nina seems to be changing its structure as well.

The latest ENSO quick look shows a possible El Niño developing sometime between now and the end of August based on elevated sea surface temperatures across both the Central and Eastern Pacific.
 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 2, 2009

Thu Jul. 2, 2009 4:56 PM EDT

Cameron Jessen works the controls of an EOD robot as his cousin, Michael Miller, watches through a protective mask. The two were at the 22d Chemical Battalion June 19 for the dedication of a conference room in the name of Cameron's father, Sgt. 1st Class Kevin P. Jessen, who was killed in Iraq. (Photo courtesy army.mil).

Washington Postgate

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 4:43 PM EDT

Journalistas in Washington and beyond the Beltway on Thursday were chortling over the news--brought to you by Politico--that the Watergate-famed Washington Post had cooked up a plan to hold private salons, where lobbyists and association heads could pay mucho bucks (up to $250,000) to wine and dine (or tea and snack) with Obama administration officials, lawmakers, and Post editors and reporters.

Selling access! Both anti-MSMers and non-Post MSMers jumped on Washington's big-gun newspaper for this violation of journalistic probity. And before the story could make the evening news, publisher Katharine Weymouth had strangled this for-profit salon in its crib, claiming the paper's marketing department had gone overboard. She noted that the paper had indeed decided to hold a series of dinners, but that the flier promoting the pay-to-sup salons had not been vetted by her or the newsroom. It does sound to me like the marketing guys and gals might have been too exuberant. No newspaper exec or editor in his or her right mind would have greenlighted the project described in that flier.

Still, there's nothing like kicking a newspaper when it's down. At the White House press briefing room, there was much eye-rolling and amusement over the caper. Journalists there joked with Washington Post correspondent Michael Shear about paying five bucks to have coffee with him. (All day long, Washington Post reporters were expressing their own outrage to friends and associates.)

When it was Shear's turn to ask a question of press secretary Robert Gibbs--he said he wanted to ask about health care, as other journalists giggled in anticipation--Gibbs could not refrain. He quipped, "the counsel's office has advised me to ask Mike exactly how much each of these questions will cost me." Pretty funny. But Shear took his lumps for his team well and pressed ahead with his queries. (What were they? Who was paying attention to that?) 

Next up for questioning came Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times. And what was the most pressing issue of the day for the newspaper of record? The troops pull-back in Iraq? The opposition in Iran? North Korea missile launches? The god-awful job loss numbers? No, it was that embarrassing story about the Washington Post. Zeleny asked if any White House officials had been solicited by the Post to be special guests at these salons. Gibbs said not that he was aware of any WHite House aides who had been invited, but the press secretary indicated that administration officials at other agencies might have been roped in by the Post. He said he could check on that. So far, the White House has not released any statements expanding on his answer.

What does all this mean? Probably not much. It's obvious that drenched-in-red-ink newspapers are trying to find new revenue streams. The marketeers of the Post just went a wee bit too far. It's not as if they were trying to be sneaky about it. After all, the story emerged because the business side of the Post was circulating a flier promoting the salons. And as soon as this terrible idea became public, it was killed. But as one somber New York Times reporter told me, this episode is a sign that at all major newspapers--including his own--the marketing people are in ascendance. That's natural, considering the state of newspapers, and, on one level, those of us who enjoy and support papers like the Times and the Post (even though they can be quite aggravating at times) ought to be rooting for the marketing teams. But this tale is a reminder that the marketing of journalism can be a two-edged sword. Today, a lot of media folks eagerly grabbed that sword and slashed away at the Post.

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Quote of the Day

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 4:05 PM EDT

From Tyler Cowen:

About a year ago, five or so people sent me links about chessboxing for "Markets in Everything."  I didn't think it was weird enough to merit inclusion in the series.  But now, with the addition of "Swedish" and "ladies" to the mix (or is it the "convivial party atmosphere"?), I think it is weird enough.

Roger that.

A Problem-Plagued Watchdog, Recovery.gov Emblematic of Stimulus

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 3:17 PM EDT

Although President Barack Obama pledged that taxpayers would be able to monitor "every dime" of the $787 billion dollar stimulus bill, a government website that is supposed to track the expenditures is off to a rocky start. Months after going live, Recovery.gov provides only sketchy information about government purchasing and is undergoing a rushed bidding process to be revamped. The problems that Recovery.gov faces are the central problems of the stimulus: The need to roll out projects quickly while meeting long-term goals and preventing taxpayer money from being wasted.

From the start, Recovery.gov was an ambitious project. Never before has the government sought to provide so much data about contracting in a single, user-friendly format. Moreover, the Obama administration is requiring that stimulus money be tracked not only to recipients like state agencies--which is normal practice for federal spending--but also to sub-recipients that could include individual contractors. Yet so far, Recovery.gov hasn't delivered on that promise. It's little more than a collection of press releases and general breakdowns of spending.

After taking considerable flak over the site, the Federal Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board issued a request for bids to revamp Recovery.gov on June 15th, requiring proposals to be submitted a mere 11 days later. Bypassing the typical "full and open competition" bidding process, the board limited bids to 59 pre-approved contractors "because of the speed with which we have to handle this particular procurement," a spokesman told Federal News Radio. Whoever won the contract would have to roll out the new site in less than a month. On Tuesday, Federal News Radio reported that only two contractors actually submitted bids--far from an ideal level of competition.

"They are required to have open competition, but everyone pretty much knew that the incumbent vendor was going to get the contract," says Tom Lee, a technology director at the Sunlight Foundation, an open government advocacy group that had considered submitting a bid of its own. "There's just no way another organization could get up to speed quickly enough to get the work done."

 

Cheney's Interview with the Feds

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 2:39 PM EDT

I've been unhappy about the Obama administration's embrace of several Bush-era secrecy rules, but I'm on the fence about the latest one.  David Corn reports that they're continuing to fight the release of Dick Cheney's interview with the FBI in the Valerie Plame case:

On Wednesday night, in another move that puts the administration on the side of secrecy over openness, Obama's Justice Department filed a memo supporting its ongoing opposition to a lawsuit requesting the release of the Cheney interview. This memo included a declaration from Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who said that if the Cheney interview is made public it could cause public officials in the future to not cooperate with criminal investigations.

I guess what I'm unclear about here is the distinction, if there is one, between an ordinary FBI interview and one with a high-ranking politico.  Just speaking generally, it strikes me that it's genuinely in the public interest for interviews like these to be kept private unless they lead to criminal prosecutions.  Lots of people really would would be less forthcoming during FBI investigations if they knew their interviews might become public, so it's reasonable that the default position should be that they stay confidential.  That's certainly how I'd want things to stand if I were dishing dirt to the FBI.

Now, perhaps things should be different for non-ordinary people like vice presidents.  But I don't know if that's part of the legal argument here or not.  Are there any law bloggers out there who can step in and explain what's going on here?

UPDATE : Jeralyn Merritt points out that FBI interviews are also kept private in order to protect the names and reputations of the innocent, those who don't get indicted:

Even though this isn't a grand jury secrecy case, I think in order to protect the privacy and reputation of those who are mentioned or discussed by the subject of a law enforcement interview, the reports of these interviews, untested by cross-examination, should remain in government hands and not subject to release via a FOIA request.

....The same rule should apply to Cheney as to everyone else. In my view, the Congressional Committee had a right to the documents since they are federal officials investigating a matter related to the subject matter of the grand jury's Valerie Plame leak investigation. But CREW and the public don't. It's too bad that Dick Cheney is the one who wins if the material is not released to CREW and the public, but I'd rather have that than a precedent that allows reports of law enforcement interviews of the average citizen who ultimately is not indicted, and who may have slandered Tom, Dick and Mary during their interview, subject to public disclosure.

How Long in Afghanistan?

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 1:54 PM EDT

I haven't been keeping close tabs on the details of our mission in Afghanistan lately, but Steve Hynd mentions something today that's interesting.  Back in March, Barack Obama said we would be focused primarily on counterterrorism — killing bad guys — but now that's changed.  Without really announcing anything, the mission is now apparently focused on counterinsurgency and nation building:

Counter-insurgency "clear, hold and build" has entirely taken over from counter-terrorism "hunt, kill and disupt". That might be the right thing to do — although I have my doubts — but the point is that it wasn't what Obama said would happen and government policy has radically shifted in favor of an interventionist, long-war, nation-building policy straight from the military and the folks at CNAS without any official announcement or very much public debate. In fact, it's almost as if Obama himself hasn't been told.

I don't have anything much to say about this, and it might even be that Steve is drawing too strong a conclusion from a couple of hazy data points.  I'm not sure. But it seemed worth sharing.  Just how long is Obama planning on staying in Afghanistan, I wonder?