2013 - %3, May

M. Night Shyamalan: He Who Must Not Be Named

| Fri May 31, 2013 4:07 PM EDT

If you're surprised to hear that M. Night Shyamalan has a new movie out this week and wonder why you hadn't heard about his return to the director's chair, it's because that was precisely the idea. His new film After Earth (released on Friday) is a soul-smushingly boring sci-fi flick about a monster-infested future Earth that stars Will and Jaden Smith. The fact that the marketing department of the project took great pains to downplay Shyamalan's role is the only interesting part about it. 

There was a time at the tail end of the '90s that gun-jumping critics and fans hailed Shyamalan as the "next Hitchcock." 1999's The Sixth Sense was borderline classic. Unbreakable and Signs also showed his promise as a director who could deliver thrills and dark drama. But beginning with 2004's The Village, Shyamalan embarked on a road to acute mediocrity, which then merged onto a highway of insipid aimlessness, which then plummeted off an unfinished overpass of "Why Are You Still Here?"

This rapid degeneration has made him into a critical and pop-cultural punchline, which was apparently not lost on the the people marketing his new film. The AP reports:

While Shyamalan's name is the first to pop up in the credits at the conclusion of the Sony Pictures film, it's been notably missing from trailers, TV commercials and marketing signage—a stark contrast to his previous films like Unbreakable and Lady in the Water, which were prominently billed as being "from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan."

Much in the same way that a marketing campaign will go out of its way not to use the word "gay" when promoting a film about two despondent gay cowboys, the marketing campaign for After Earth has gone out of its way not to mention the words "M. Night Shyamalan." That sort of tells you everything you need to know about how highly Sony thinks of the 42-year-old director and his current standing. Ditto the movie.

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British Columbia Rejects West Coast Pipeline Plan

| Fri May 31, 2013 2:49 PM EDT

Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, which was rejected on Friday.

While we've been having a big fight over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline down here in the US, Canada has also been debating a massive pipeline for exporting tar sands oil, the Northern Gateway. And on Friday, the government of British Columbia put the kibosh on that whole idea.

BC's environment minister said Friday that Enbridge, the company seeking to build the pipeline, had not adequately answered the government's questions about the project, and that there were still outstanding concerns about spill prevention and response. The CBC reports:

"British Columbia thoroughly reviewed all of the evidence and submissions made to the panel and asked substantive questions about the project, including its route, spill response capacity and financial structure to handle any incidents," said Environment Minister Terry Lake.
"Our questions were not satisfactorily answered during these hearings."

The Northern Gateway would run from the heart of the tar sands in Alberta, through British Columbia, and to an export terminal in Kitimat. Anti-pipeline activists in the US are cheering BC's Gateway decision as a win against tar sands development. 350.org founder Bill McKibben sent around a statement shortly after the announcement:

For years the tar sands promoters have said: ‘if we don't build Keystone XL the tar sands will get out some other way.' British Columbians just slammed the door on the most obvious other way, so now it's up to President Obama. If he approves Keystone XL he bails out the Koch Brothers and other tar sands investors; if he rejects the pipeline, then an awful lot of that crude is going to stay in the ground where it belongs.

The BC government was quick to say, however, that this "is not a rejection of heavy-oil projects" in general—keeping open the possibility for another proposed pipeline, Kinder Morgan (which we also talked about here). Nevertheless, it certainly makes plans to export tar sands oil more complicated.

CLARIFICATION: As the Globe and Mail explains, British Columbia does not have ultimate authority on the pipeline decision; the Canadian government does. But this is expected to influence its decision:

It does not have veto power over what would be a federally regulated project but its opinions carry much weight in the Joint Review Panel's deliberations, said Michal Moore, an economics professor at the University of Calgary and a former energy regulator.
"I would think that when they play a card like that, when they don't have direct control over the decision, that card is meant to be a place marker that says, ‘This issue is really important to us and we want to make sure that you take it very seriously,'" Mr. Moore said. “It’s the moral equivalent of throwing down a gauntlet, ‘that you better address our concerns in your decision, no matter what the decision is.'"

The headline on this story has been changed to reflect this clarification.

Friday Cat Blogging - 31 May 2013

| Fri May 31, 2013 2:04 PM EDT

Today we're back to quiltblogging. The quilter-in-chief is helping out with the photography by waving a finger in the general direction of the catbloggee-in-chief.

This is a Mystery Quilt. Here's how this works. Apparently you get instructions for making it a bit at a time. First, you get instructions on what fabric to buy. Then you're told to do some cutting. Then some other cutting. And some stitching. Then some other stuff. Eventually, when you get to the final page of instructions, it all comes together.

Now, it seems to me that it's fine to call this a mystery quilt while it's being pieced together. But once it's done, shouldn't it be something else? When you receive the final page of instructions, shouldn't you slap your head and say Aha! That's what it is! I guess not.

In any case, this is a Debbie Caffrey pattern, machine pieced and hand quilted using 1930s reproduction fabrics. It was done some time ago, back when Marian still preferred hand quilting. No longer, though. Machine quilting, I'm told, has improved dramatically in recent years, and anyway, some time back Marian found a machine quilter she adores who now does all our quilting for us. She's really good (and has the backlog to prove it).

In other news, Grumpy Cat has landed a film deal. Seriously.

Cigarette Maker Funded Dark-Money Conservative Groups

| Fri May 31, 2013 1:49 PM EDT

When we use the term "dark money," we're usually referring to politically active nonprofit groups—like the kind at the center of the recent IRS scandal—that spend millions on political campaigns yet don't disclose their funders. Think Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, and pro-Democrat Patriot Majority. Rarely, if ever, does the public learn who bankrolls these organizations.

This week, though, we got one such glimpse. As the Center for Public Integrity reported, Reynolds American Inc., the corporation behind Camel and Winston cigarettes, funded several high-profile dark money groups in 2012. Reynolds doled out $175,000 to Americans for Tax Reform, conservative activist Grover Norquist's anti-tax group. The company also gave $50,000 to Americans for Prosperity, $45,000 to the US Chamber of Commerce, and $100,000 to the Partnership for Ohio's Future, an Ohio Chamber-backed group that supported restricting the worker bargaining rights.

Here's more from CPI's Dave Levinthal:

The tobacco company’s donations are just a fraction of the nearly $50 million that those two groups reported spending on political advocacy ads during the 2012 election cycle, almost exclusively on negative advertising. Federal records show that Americans for Prosperity alone sponsored more than $33 million in attack ads that directly targeted President Barack Obama.

But the money, which Reynolds American says it disclosed in a corporate governance document at the behest of an unnamed shareholder, provides rare insight into how some of the most powerful politically active 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofits are bankrolled.

Reynolds American is the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, which makes Camel and Winston brand cigarettes.

“The shareholder specifically requested that we disclose information about 501(c)(4)s, and in the interests of greater transparency, we agreed,” Reynolds American spokeswoman Jane Seccombe said.

Large corporations—tobacco companies or otherwise—almost never release information about their giving to such groups, and it’s most unusual for the groups themselves to voluntarily disclose who donates to them.

After the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which freed corporations to pump vastly more money into American campaigns, businesses faced two options. They could donate to super-PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money but must disclose their donors. Or they could fund politically active nonprofits, which can dabble in politics but don't name their donors. In the wake of Citizens United, we heard countless warnings about a "flood" of corporate cash into politics through big-spending super-PACs. But that flood never quite materialized: For-profit corporations accounted for just over $1 of every $10 raised by super-PACs in the 2012 election cycle. Instead, it was a small band of millionaires and billionaires that gave super-PACs most of their dough.

What the relatively small Reynolds American Inc. donations suggest is that corporations chose the nonprofit route and so avoided scrutiny of their political giving in today's big-money era. In this case, Reynolds' donations were disclosed only because a pesky shareholder asked for them to be. That's not the case for most corporations, whose giving remains a secret.

Internal Polling Proves It: That First Debate Was a Disaster For Obama

| Fri May 31, 2013 12:57 PM EDT

As you may recall, last year Obama's poll numbers fell off a cliff after his first debate performance. However, I wrote a couple of posts suggesting that Obama's problems actually started about a week earlier: "In the ten days before the debate, Pollster shows Romney gaining 2.4 points and RCP shows Romney gaining 1.8 points."

However, although Romney's numbers started to improve before the debate, Obama's numbers didn't start to fall until after the debate. Today, Josh Green gets his hands on internal Obama campaign polling that shows just how dramatic the drop was. The Obama organization surveyed 10,000 people per night in swing states, so their polling was far more accurate than the smaller tracking polls of outfits like Gallup. There are four main turning points:

  • Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate (or perhaps something else around the same time) produced a monthlong slide in Obama's numbers, capped by a small but sharp drop during the Republican convention.
  • The Democratic convention produced a sharp uptick.
  • The 47 percent video produced a sharp uptick.
  • The first debate was a disaster, wiping out nearly all the gains from the convention and the video.

In the end, though, what you see is a lot of regression to the mean. In June, Obama stood at about 52 percent in swing state polling. Things went up and down after that, and by early October he was back to 52 percent, where he stayed for the final month. It kinda makes you think we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and angst by not even having a campaign, doesn't it?

How Jesse Eisenberg Disappeared Into His Latest Role

| Fri May 31, 2013 12:47 PM EDT

Jesse Eisenberg prepares for his roles the same way just about any other responsible actor would: He does his research.

In 2007's The Hunting Party, Eisenberg played a TV news reporter and wannabe war correspondent. The film, also starring Richard Gere and Terrence Howard, is loosely based on an Esquire article from October 2000 that tells the true story of how three American and two European journalists accidentally set off an international incident after drunkenly deciding to hunt for a fugitive Serbian war criminal hiding out in Bosnia. To prepare for this role, Eisenberg hung out with members of the real-life "party," which included author and war correspondent Sebastian Junger (whom Eisenberg calls a "total badass").

In 2010's The Social Network, Eisenberg played Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a role that earned him his first Oscar nomination. To prepare, Eisenberg "read everything [he] possibly could" on Zuckerberg and activated a phony account on Facebook—a website he claims he had never seen before gearing up to play Zuckerberg.

His latest film, released on Friday, is action director Louis Leterrier's Now You See Me (Summit Entertainment, 116 minutes).  Eisenberg plays J. Daniel Atlas, a cocky Vegas illusionist who steals from the wealthy and wicked and then literally showers the money onto his working-class audiences. Eisenberg teams up with Woody HarrelsonIsla Fisher, and Dave Franco as a band of Robin Hood-like criminals who routinely outsmart and mystify an FBI agent played by Mark Ruffalo and an Interpol officer played by Mélanie Laurent.

To prep for this "intense character," as he put it, the 29-year-old actor became an amateur magician.

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Social Security Report: Nothing Much Has Changed This Year

| Fri May 31, 2013 12:41 PM EDT

The previous post covered the latest actuarial report on Medicare finances. So how's Social Security doing this year? Answer: about the same. Last year the trustees projected that the Social Security trust fund would be exhausted in 2033. This year they project that it will be exhausted in 2033. The long-term actuarial deficit actually increased slightly, mostly due to changes in demographic assumptions, but the change was so small that it had no impact on medium-term projections.

Given the inherent uncertainty in this kind of stuff, it's wise not to dive too deeply into these numbers. The bottom line is that SSA is projecting slightly higher long-term costs than last year, but not enough to really affect anything over the next few decades.

UPDATE: This post originally said the long-term deficit increased slightly due to changes in economic assumptions. Apparently I dropped a line when I read Table II.D2. It was mostly changes in demographic assumptions that drove the higher expense rate. In particular, the 75-year window moved out a year. Sorry for the error. I've corrected the text.

Medicare's Future Looks a Little Better This Year

| Fri May 31, 2013 12:05 PM EDT

Today we get new reports on the health of Social Security and Medicare. Here's the bottom line on Medicare:

For the 75-year projection period, the HI actuarial deficit has decreased from 1.35 percent of taxable payroll, as shown in last year’s report, to 1.11 percent of taxable payroll. The more favorable outlook is primarily due to (i) lower projected spending....(ii) lower projected Medicare Advantage program costs....and (iii) a refinement in projection methods that reduces assumed per beneficiary cost growth.

I wouldn't make too much of this, since year-to-year changes are pretty sensitive to economic assumptions and to current law, which can change. In fact, the chart on the right shows just how much future projections rely on planned reductions in the Sustainable Growth Rate formula for payments to doctors, as well as other cost savings mandated by Obamacare. If we stick to our guns on these things, Medicare spending looks fairly restrained in the future. If we don't, it doesn't.

That Story You Knew Was Bullshit? Yeah, It Was Bullshit.

| Fri May 31, 2013 11:25 AM EDT

If you have a life, you may have missed Wednesday's blockbuster Daily Caller story about IRS commissioner Doug Shulman's 157 visits to the Obama White House. The number of White House visits over the past four years, the Caller reported breathlessly, "strongly suggests coordination by White House officials in the campaign against the president’s political opponents."

You may have noticed that I didn't bother blogging about this in real time. I was too busy trying to decide whether to slit my wrists or jump off a tall building, so I didn't have time. The story was obvious bullshit,1 of the kind the Caller specializes in, but who's got the time to figure out exactly how and why it's bullshit? And who was going to volunteer to spend a day of their lives they'd never get back debunking it?

Well, the answer turns out to be Garance Franke-Ruta. And the explanation for all those entries in the White House log, roughly speaking, is (a) the fact that Shulman was cleared for a meeting doesn't mean he actually attended a meeting, (b) nearly all of Shulman's meetings were related to a biweekly group working on healthcare reform, and (c) virtually all of the meetings took place in buildings other than the White House.

Is it worth clicking the link and reading the details? On the one hand, no, of course not. Are you serious? On the other hand, Franke-Ruta deserves to have her heroic efforts get some love. It's your call.

1I am, needless to say, using this word in its technically correct sense. But you knew that already, didn't you?

Hands, Ears, Brain Dominance, and Cell Phone Use

| Fri May 31, 2013 10:36 AM EDT

Austin Frakt, who apparently has a better memory for my blog than I do, emails today to draw my attention to a new study, "Hemispheric Dominance and Cell Phone Use," which is designed to figure out which ear we use when we're talking on cell phones. I was hoping this study would confirm that we left-eared folks are more charming and intelligent than the rest of you lot who use your right ears, but no such luck. In fact, the authors didn't really conclude much of anything. They found that 68 percent of right-handed people use their right ear and 72 percent of left-handed people use their left ear.

And, um, that was about it. As you probably know, right-handed people generally use the left side of their brains for language processing, and vice-versa for lefties. [Nope. See update below.] So the researchers wanted to find out if auditory hemispheric dominance (AHD) matched up with language hemispheric dominance (LHD). It doesn't: "Our study suggests that AHD may differ from LHD owing to the difference in handedness and cell phone ear use."

Alternatively, most people don't really care much which ear they use, and lefties use their left ear because they're more comfortable holding their phones in the left hands. Ditto in reverse for righties. All in all, I have to say that this study doesn't really tell us much, but I figured it was worth a follow-up. Original discussion here.

UPDATE: A meddling neuroscientist emails to tell me I'm a victim of old wives tales. Most people, including most lefties, process language on the left side of their brains. Right-brain language processing is a little more common among lefties, but it's still a small minority.