2013 - %3, February

Things I Didn't Know, Part 9,763

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 12:01 PM EST

From a CNN piece on today's Italian election:

Polls are banned within two weeks of the elections, but the most recent ones had Bersani holding onto a slender lead over Berlusconi. Grillow was a distant third.

No polls in the final two weeks of the campaign! I wonder what effect something like that would have had on our election last year? Would fewer analysts have made fools of themselves? More? Would Nate Silver have spontaneously combusted?

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 25, 2013

Mon Feb. 25, 2013 11:08 AM EST

Pfc. Dylan Redecker, a rifleman with Company B., Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, provides security during a bilateral boat raid as a part of exercise Cobra Gold 2013 here, Feb. 15. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Katelyn Hunter.

 

Too Much Night Light Makes Us Fat, Cranky—and No Safer

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 8:15 AM EST
National Park Service

Sometimes a bright idea can be too bright. Today's gas stations and parking lots are often ten times brighter than they were 20 years ago. The ubiquitous glare confuses wildlife, degrades our mental health, and occludes our view of the universe—all because we think that it makes us safer. But does it? Not necessarily, as Paul Bogard, the author of "End of Night: "Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light," points out:

In 2008, PG&E Corp., the San Francisco-based energy company, reviewed the research and found "either that there is no link between lighting and crime, or that any link is too subtle and complex to have been evident in the data."

The data actually speaks more clearly about how light pollution makes us less safe. A recent American Medical Association report (pdf) concludes that the disrupting effects of nighttime lighting on our bodies' circadian rhythms may contribute to "obesity, diabetes, depression and mood disorders, and reproductive problems." Moreover, artificial light causes our bodies to suppress the release of melatonin, elevating our risk of contracting cancer, and especially breast cancer.

Eight in ten kids born in the US today will never see the Milky Way, according to Bogard. Of course, we have it easy at night compared to songbirds, sea turtles, and countless other creatures whose mating and eating habits have been thrown off by our glare.

None of which is to say we ought to start driving without headlights or getting around Manhattan with flashlights. But why not take a cue from the City of Lights? Starting in July in Paris and other parts of France, window lighting and lights on building facades will be turned off after 1 a.m., saving the annual equivalent of 750,000 households worth of energy. Now there's a truly bright idea.

5 Shows You Don't Want to Miss at Noise Pop 2013

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 7:12 AM EST
Thao Nguyen performing at Treasure Island, 2009.

Small discovery music festivals are different from the major money-makers, and for that, lord bless 'em. Like New York's College Music Journal marathon, or CMJ, which floods lower Manhattan with hundreds of bands every fall, the Bay Area's Noise Pop offers an action-packed week, a paralysis of choice, and the possibility of stumbling upon the unknown band that happens to blow up in 2013.

Typically, this might mean that there are plenty of duds amid the treasures, but I have to say that the 2013 assembly looks exquisite. Maybe it's a testament to the Bay Area's fertile music scene, or a renewed manifest destiny that's pulled talent to the spot, but the seven bands below—from the snarling guitars of the Bay Area garage scene to Thao Nguyen's inimitable vocals—represent just a slice of what's out there.  If it helps ease the pain of choosing where to use your festival badge, here are my picks, which are by no means comprehensive, and of course, totally subjective.

Body/Head
Tuesday, 2/26 @The Rickshaw Stop

It still feels a little raw to discuss Kim Gordon's new project, Body/Head, with Sonic Youth on an indefinite break. But all three members of the band have kept busy—Lee Ranaldo released a solo album in 2012; Thurston Moore is set to tour in March with his new outfit, Chelsea Light Moving; and last year, Gordon started playing shows with free-noise guitarist Bill Nace as Body/Head. Nace and Gordon's performances flower from on-stage improvisation, and from what few clips are available online, they promise to deliver something heavy and ferocious, tapping into Gordon's idolized experimental aesthetic. 

The Mallard
Thursday, 2/28 @The Great American Music Hall

There's something wholly bewitching about The Mallard's lead singer Greer McGettrick, between her rude, twangy guitar rhythms and her drawling assault on the microphone. McGettrick spent five years working the Fresno music scene before coming to San Francisco, where Thee Oh Sees' John Dwyer encouraged her to put out an album on his label Castle Face Records. That was last year's fuzzy and addictive Yes On Blood, and this year, the band is set to put out a "weirder" and "darker" followup. This might very well be the season that The Mallard comes into its own, though the band's shows are plenty dark and deliciously weird as is. (The Mallard will also be playing this show with Tehran's The Yellow Dogs, who deserve an honorable mention: Before moving to the States in 2010, they played underground—literally—risking imprisonment for pursuing a musical genre banned by the theocracy as too Western.)

OBN IIIs/FUZZ, Blasted Canyons
Thursday, 2/28 @The Knockout

There were too many bands I wanted to write about that were playing this particular show, so forgive the abridged descriptions of each: Austin's OBN IIIs are co-headlining, having put out an irrepressibly catchy punk rock album on Matador last year. They're sharing top spot with Fuzz, the latest music project from the Bay Area's Ty Segall, who takes on vocal duties from behind a drum set. (Don't worry—Segall's just as raucous with sticks as he is with a guitar.) Also representing the Bay Area are Blasted Canyons, instrument-swapping ambassadors of noisy punk, featuring Wax Idols' fierce Heather Fedewa. All three bands are very much worth seeing on their own, but together, Thursday night at the Knockout makes for one stellar lineup.

Rogue Wave
Friday, 3/1, @Bottom of the Hill

Whatever happened to Rogue Wave? The Oakland band's discography is loaded with expertly crafted indie rock classics, but their history has been plagued by tragic hiatuses over the past decade. With members weathering slipped discs, a kidney transplant, and an apartment fire resulting in the death of former bassist Evan Farrell, the band took another year-and-a-half break after the release of 2010's Permalight. This year, Rogue Wave will make an "intimate" appearance at Noise Pop, and then perform at Napa Valley's Bottle Rock music festival in May. It's a rare opportunity to catch them live, and an even better one to revisit and get lost in albums like Out of the Shadow and Descended Like Vultures beforehand.

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down
Saturday, 3/2 @The Great American Music Hall

There's no real substitute for the sting and shape of Thao Nguyen's voice, her keen, imaginative lyrics, and the deceptively simple "pop" hooks embedded in the colorful, rough-around-the-edges compositions for which she's known. Earlier this month, the San Francisco songwriter and her band, The Get Down Stay Down, put out We the Common, an album inspired in part by Nguyen's work with a women prisoner's advocacy program, and maybe Nguyen's most ambitious yet. Noise Pop is one of Nguyen's few California shows before she tours the country in March and April, and I intend to make the most of it.

Click here for more music coverage from Mother Jones.

After Sandy, Scientists Hunt for Sewage in New York City's Harbors

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 7:12 AM EST

For most people affected by Superstorm Sandy, the damage was plain to see: Devastated homes, impossible traffic, even lost lives. But for Bruce Brownawell, the storm's biggest consequences are buried under several meters of seawater. Brownawell is a marine scientist at SUNY-Stony Brook who has spent the last several years becoming intimately acquainted with the chemical makeup of mud on the floor of various bays, harbors, and inlets in the New York City area.

When Sandy hit, several local scientists saw opportunity: For Bruce, it was a chance to return to these areas and investigate how strong storm tides shifted mud around—particularly in areas close to several low-lying sewage treatment plants that were knocked out during the storm and dumped raw sewage into the water for days. To do that, he and colleague Jessica Dutton of Adelphi University strapped on mud-proof waders and headed out to Hempstead Bay off the south shore of Long Island. Climate Desk crammed onto the boat for the inside dirt. 

VIDEO: Wait Until China Acts on Climate. What? They Are!?

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 7:12 AM EST

Did you hear the one about the Chinese carbon tax? Sorry. Not a joke.

That was one bit of news drowned out by last week's (understandable) conniption over Chinese computer hacking. China plans to introduce a carbon tax, says state-run news agency Xinhua. That's right, that great thorn in the side of global carbon reduction treaties, that recalcitrant negotiator and world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is now on the path to imposing its own tax to tackle dangerous carbon emissions.

Now, we should treat this news with some caution. I say "on the path" because not many other details were forthcoming, and China's environmental regulations tend to be like cheap Swiss cheese: a bit rubbery and full of holes. Ella Chou, an analyst for Brookings and a clean-energy consultant, points out in this great post that the tax is "puny," and local governments may still try to skirt it:

Local governments would continue to come up ways to give industries tax rebates and subsidies to attract them to their own jurisdictions, so the effect of the environmental tax or the carbon tax on the industries would be negligible.

Still, China's decision deals a powerful blow to the oft-stated rhetoric that the United States must wait for China before bringing domestic climate legislation to the floor of Congress. James Fallows makes this point at Climate Desk partner, The Atlantic:

Chinese officials have long used U.S. inaction on climate and carbon-tax issues as a rationalization for not taking steps of their own. On average, we're still quite a poor country, the spokesmen would say. If the rich U.S. can't "afford" to deal with emissions, how could we? Now the country is taking this carbon-tax step for reasons of its own reasons—as a way to deal with pollution and as another step in un-distorting the economy. But as a bonus it gets talking points to prod the US to do its part.

The basic message: It's small, and we'll have to wait to see what the whole package will look like. But it's action. So it may be time to update those action-resistant talking points, guys.

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12 Ways the Sequester Will Screw the Poor

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 7:12 AM EST

Men waiting in a bread line, New York City, 1910

When Congress agreed on automatic slash-and-burn spending cuts in 2011—if no big bipartisan deficit reduction package could be achieved—the cuts were designed to be so unpalatable that Republicans and Democrats would feel compelled to concoct a better deal to replace them. President Barack Obama says avoiding the deep cuts, called sequestration in DC-speak, should be a "no-brainer." But Republicans are increasingly saying the sequester won't be so bad. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said Thursday that the $85 billion in cuts "would really help a long way and get us on a sustainable fiscal path."

One problem is that many poor Americans rely on services the government provides. The White House released a report Sunday emphasizing the ways in which the cuts will hurt the middle class, but although important entitlement programs such as Medicaid, Social Security, and food stamps are exempt from sequestration, many programs for low-income families are on the chopping block. Here are 12 of them:  

Public housing subsidies: $1.9 billion in cuts would affect 125,000 low-income people who would lose access to vouchers to help them with their rent.

Foreclosure prevention: 75,000 fewer people would receive foreclosure prevention, rental, and homeless counseling services.

Emergency housing: 100,000 formerly homeless people could be removed from their current emergency shelters.

Educational programs: Learning programs for poor kids would see a total of $2.7 billion in cuts. The $400 million slashed from Head Start, the preschool program for poor children, would result in reduced services for some 70,000 kids.

Title I Funding: The Department of Education's Title I program, the biggest federal education program in the country, subsidizes schools that serve more than a million disadvantaged students. It would see $725 million in cuts.

Rural rental assistance: Cuts to the Department of Agriculture would result in the elimination of rental assistance for 10,000 very low-income rural people, most of whom are single women, elderly, or disabled.

Social Security: Although Social Security payments themselves won't be scaled back, cuts to the program would result in a massive backlogging of disability claims.

Unemployment benefits: More than 3.8 million people getting long-term unemployment benefits would see their monthly payments reduced by as much as 9.4 percent, and would lose an average of $400 in benefits over their period of joblessness.

Veterans services: The Transition Assistance Program would be forced to cut back some of the job search and career transition services it provides to 150,000 vets a year.

Nutritional Assistance for Women & Children: The government's main food stamp program is exempt from cuts, but other food programs would take a hit. Some 600,000 women and children would be cut from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which provides nutrition assistance and education.

Special education: $978 million* in cuts would affect 30.7 million children. For example, the scaling back of federal grants to states for students with disabilities would mean that cash-strapped states and districts would have to come up with the salaries for thousands of teachers, aides, and staff that serve special needs kids.

Job training programs: $37 million would be slashed from a job retraining and placement program called Employment Services, and $83 million would be cut from Job Corps, which provides low-income kids with jobs and education.


*Correction: This originally read "$978 billion"; "million" is correct.

8 Offbeat Facts About Tonight's Academy Awards

| Sun Feb. 24, 2013 5:17 PM EST

Much like Hanukkah, the White House Correspondents' Dinner, or North Korea's annual gymnastics festival, the Oscars come only once a year.

And if you are one of the tens of millions of viewers who decided to forego another rerun of The Mentalist or Betty White's Off Their Rockers, and instead watch a bloated and self-aggrandizing Oscar telecast, here's a supplement to tonight's viewing. This will not be a drinking game, a score card, an Oscar bingo card, a running count of how many awards Meryl Streep has won this evening whether or not she's been nominated for anything, or my self-indulgent list of predictions or favorite Oscar snubs.

Instead, here are a few things you should know (that you probably didn't, or had at least forgotten) about the 85th Academy Awards:

1. The state department has taken sides this year.

That's newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry signing an official departmental tweet the day before the Oscar ceremony. It seems as though the Department of State is not on Team Les Miz or Team Beasts of the Southern Wild.

2. The director of the 2013 Academy Awards is also famous for screaming profanity on CNN.

Speaking of John Kerry…Don Mischer, who is directing the Oscar broadcast for the third time in a row, is one of the most sought-after producers and directors of live television events. His résumé includes Olympic opening ceremonies, Prince's Super Bowl halftime show, this Taylor Swift documentary, and We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.

He is also famous for loudly swearing on live television while producing the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Following candidate Kerry's acceptance speech, the grand arena balloon drop didn't go according to plan: As many as 100,000 balloons failed to fall from the ceiling on cue. CNN aired live a long audio clip of Mischer yelling about confetti and balloons, as Van Halen's "Dreams" blasted on the loudspeakers. This tirade climaxed with a frustrated, "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU GUYS DOING UP THERE?!?!" which was heard by many of the 4 million viewers watching from home. (The money quote is at the 1:49 mark of the video below.)

The Federal Communications Commission subsequently received at least 25 complaints about Mischer's loud swearing.

3. The host of this year's Oscars was nearly killed by Al Qaeda.

Seth MacFarlane, Ted director and Family Guy creator, is hosting the show tonight. Both he and future Ted star (and would-be terrorist-puncher) Mark Wahlberg were scheduled to fly on the American Airlines flight that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Wahlberg ended up flying on a different flight, and MacFarlane didn't board on account of his travel agent giving him the wrong departure time (also, he was hungover and overslept).

Here he is discussing this with Larry King:

4. Maggie Simpson, Ayn Rand, and the Academy Awards

The Longest Daycare is one of the films up for this year's Best Animated Short Film. It stars Maggie Simpson from The Simpsons in a dialogue-free 3D short with music by Oscar-winning German composer Hans Zimmer.

Charts of the Day: Doctor Pay in America and Other Countries

| Sun Feb. 24, 2013 4:13 PM EST

In Steven Brill's monster health care article in Time this week, he argues that hospital executives are overpaid but doctors aren't. If we paid Medicare rates for all medical services, he says, "no doctor could hope for anything approaching the income he or she deserves." Felix Salmon pushes back:

Weirdly, in 24,000 words which include a lot of railing against the large salaries enjoyed by hospital executives, Brill never supports or clarifies this assertion: he never says how much money doctors deserve, how much they actually make, or how high physician salaries would need to be in order to make future doctors want to practice. That last one, in particular, seems very unconvincing to me: the world is full of highly-qualified doctors who would love to be able to practice in the U.S. for much less than the current going rate.

In his conclusion, Brill says—again, without adducing any evidence whatsoever—that “we've squeezed the doctors who don't own their own clinics, don’t work as drug or device consultants or don’t otherwise game a system that is so game able”. It’s a bit weird, the degree to which Brill cares so greatly about keeping doctors’ salaries high: he certainly doesn’t think the same way about teachers.

You'd really like to see some data on this score, wouldn't you? Well, here it is. The two charts below are from an OECD report that compares the average remuneration of GPs and specialists in a selected set of countries. The data is from 2004, and the figures are in PPP-adjusted dollars:

The bottom line is that compared to other rich countries—all of which pay Medicare rates or less for medical services—American doctors are pretty well paid. The report also shows compensation as a ratio of the average wage in each country, and the story is similar (though GPs look a little closer to the OECD average when you compare their pay to average wages).

So is this more or less than US doctors "deserve"? On that score, it's worth pointing out that most American doctors have to pay their own medical school bills, a cost that's picked up by the government in most other countries. Despite that, it's a little hard to argue that American doctors, especially specialists, have been squeezed to the breaking point. I too would be interested in seeing Brill back up that contention. 

A "Sequester" Is Not the Same Thing as a "Substitute for the Sequester"

| Sun Feb. 24, 2013 2:22 AM EST

Whose idea was the sequester? Bob Woodward wrote an op-ed yesterday that says it came from the White House. Apparently, in return for raising the debt ceiling, Republicans wanted some kind of automatic trigger that would force everyone to negotiate a future reduction in the deficit, and the only thing Obama's budget wonks could come up with was the sequester. So they suggested that, and both parties then overwhelmingly voted for it.

Fine. But then there's this:

The final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester....So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.

This is just damn peculiar. Even phrased the way Woodward did, it's obvious that these aren't the same things. The fact that there were no tax increases in the sequester—i.e., in the mechanism used to goad both sides into a future deal—has nothing to do with what the two sides agreed would be in the substitute for the sequester. The details of the substitute were obviously a subject for future negotiation. For chapter and verse on the fact that both sides knew perfectly well that Democrats would propose tax increases as part of the substitute, see Ezra Klein, Brian Beutler, and Dave Weigel.

I'm perplexed by Woodward these days. He really seems to have some kind of weird jones against the Obama White House. I can't quite figure out where it comes from.