2013 - %3, November

The Cause That Paul Walker Remained Dedicated to Until the Moment of His Death

| Sun Dec. 1, 2013 8:43 AM EST

Paul Walker, best known for starring in the popular Fast and Furious franchise, died Saturday in a car accident in Valencia, California. He was 40.

It would be difficult to make the case that Walker was a particularly influential or exceptional actor. But he was a fine action star and was decent in his heavier dramatic fare. But beyond his on-screen credentials, all available evidence suggests that Walker was, up until the moment he died, a celebrity who genuinely cared about the world around him—someone who used his celebrity for worthy causes.

According to a statement posted to the actor's Facebook fan page, Walker died "in a tragic car accident while attending a charity event for his organization Reach Out Worldwide."

Reach Out Worldwide, formed by Walker in 2010, is a 501(c)(3) that provides rescue and recovery aid in the wake of major natural disasters. The group supplements rescue efforts with its own team of paramedics, doctors, and search-and-rescue professionals. Reach Out Worldwide has lent its services to disaster-relief efforts in the Philippines, Alabama, Indonesia, Chile, and Haiti. "I'd made a few runs into Port-au-Prince and was negotiating with the army to give me baby formula, tents, extension cords," Walker told the Daily Telegraph, an Australian tabloid newspaper, in 2011. "I was hustling for everything."

Here's his explanation for why he started Reach Out Worldwide:

Because of my travels with work and pleasure, a lot of the times disasters would strike in areas that I'd been. You think of the faces—they might not be people you're in contact with but you can't help but wonder how that family was you had dinner with. That stuff starts crossing your mind and you feel so helpless. I would be consumed with anger, like, "Fuck! I wanna be there, I wanna do whatever I can." One of my best friends had heard it too many times and ultimately he just held me accountable. He punked me out: "So you gonna pack your bags and go to Haiti and help out or what?"

"When the shit hits the fan," Walker continued, "that's when you actually see the best in people."

Hours, one of the last films Walker starred in, is scheduled for a mid-December release. It's a fitting send-off for Walker: The film is set in a hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, with Walker playing a father desperately trying to protect his newborn daughter.

Here's a clip of Walker and the Fast & Furious 7 cast encouraging fans to help victims of Typhoon Haiyan:

 

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The Final Frontier: 500 Microseconds Between Wall Street and Chicago

| Sat Nov. 30, 2013 3:57 PM EST

A couple of months ago, there was a big scandal over the fact that someone apparently learned about a Fed decision sooner than they should have. It takes seven milliseconds for a signal to travel from Washington DC to Chicago over a fiber optic cable, but a couple of big orders were placed on the Chicago exchange a mere couple of milliseconds after the Fed announcement. Shazam!

But if an advantage of a few milliseconds is so important, why bother with fiber optic cables? Why not mount repeaters on blimps or something, and then relay wireless signals? At the speed of light, it would only take about four milliseconds from DC to Chicago.

I suppose I should have guessed, but naturally someone is doing this:

Ari Rubenstein, a "Star Trek" fan who counts physics as a hobby....heads Strike Technologies, a New York company that's part of a budding cottage industry racing to build networks of ultra-fast microwave radio transmitters linking the world's financial hubs.

....Strike, whose ranks include academics as well as former U.S. and Israeli military engineers, hoisted a 6-foot white dish on a tower rising 280 feet above the Nasdaq Stock Market's data center in Carteret, N.J., just outside New York City.

Through a series of microwave towers, the dish beams market data 734 miles to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange's computer warehouse in Aurora, Ill., in 4.13 milliseconds, or about 95% of the theoretical speed of light, according to the company.

Remember that Keynes thing about goosing the economy by burying money in landfills and letting people dig it up? In terms of social utility, this strikes me as about the same thing. It's hard to imagine millions of dollars being spent more uselessly. Even gold-plated toilet seats probably have more value to society than this.

In any case, I still think my idea for a neutrino communications network that transmits directly through the earth is a better bet. Sure, you'd need a million gallons of chlorine or heavy water or something to act as the detector, but that seems pretty trivial in order to save another 500 microseconds. Who's going to be the first to do this?

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 November 2013

| Fri Nov. 29, 2013 2:26 PM EST

Today is a "Where's Waldo" edition of Friday catblogging, except that Domino is a lot easier to find than Waldo. Our quilt this week is another double Irish chain. Thanks to poor planning on my part, nearly all of our Irish chain quilts got backloaded into the end of the year, which is why you're seeing a bunch of them lately. And there's still one to go. This one is machine pieced and hand quilted.

In other news, I'm reliably told that whatever else you may think of it, the Daily Mail is your go-to destination for pictures of cute cats and other animals. Also, judging from its front page, it's the place to go for hyperbolic Black Friday News. Here is today's top headline in the US edition: "Black Friday chaos sweeps America: Man shot for a TV and another is stabbed for a parking space as shoppers turn violent." You may, if you wish, take this as a data point against my thesis that Black Friday is fading away.

Chicken vs. Turkey, Round 2

| Fri Nov. 29, 2013 1:51 PM EST

In the great chicken vs. turkey debate, a friend writes in with further data to support turkey lovers:

Consider how we deal with other fowl.

Duck certainly has a lot more flavor than either chicken or turkey, but it is far less available, more perishable (hence sold frozen) and substantially more expensive (4-8x more expensive than chicken). Similarly, other domesticated or farmed fowl is both more expensive and less available, regardless of taste. An average goose is roughly the size of a medium turkey, but offers less meat and more bone per pound of live weight. But the ultimate determining factor is that it is simply more expensive.

Game birds, such as guinea fowl, partridge, pheasant, quail, squab, cornish hens and a variety of ducks (as opposed to the standard Muscovite) are harder to raise, are inefficient meat sources and are supremely more expensive than both chicken and turkey, which is why we tend to save them for holidays and other special meals, if we eat them at all. No one in his right mind would argue that they are flavorless, and few would worry about their relative taste value compared to chicken, despite frequent personal dislikes of the particular flavors.

In other words, chicken isn't objectively tastier, it's just cheaper and easier to farm, in addition to being more convenient for consumers. So ignore the turkey haters and enjoy your leftovers today.

Black Friday Is Now Just a Dark Shade of Gray

| Fri Nov. 29, 2013 1:26 PM EST

This year's meme of the day—literally—is that Black Friday is just a bunch of meaningless hooey. To sample just a few: Neil Irwin tells us that Black Friday sales have no broad significance; David Lazarus says Black Friday crowds are losing out to the internet; Suzanne Kapner says Black Friday doorbusters are just an illusion; Lydia DePillis says Black Friday is a terrible and dangerous tradition; and the staff of the Christian Science Monitor this year debunks no fewer than 16 Black Friday myths.

Is it like this every year? Maybe. But I don't remember quite such relentless dyspepsia over Black Friday in years past. Plenty of horror, shock, and disgust, to be sure, but not mere shoulder-shrugging dismissal. Because of this, I'm officially declaring that the Black Friday bubble has peaked. If you own stock in Black Friday Inc., it's time to sell.

Park Service to Congress: Only YOU Can Prevent Government Shutdowns

| Fri Nov. 29, 2013 6:00 AM EST

Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the frustration Americans felt during the October government shutdown, which cost the economy an estimated $24 billion, than the furor over the shuttering of more than 400 federal national parks. Republicans accused Democrats of keeping veterans from seeing the World War II monument in Washington, DC. Democrats blamed the Republicans (who effectively held the nation's budget hostage for 16 days until they couldn't politically afford to anymore) of seizing the park issue to distract from the economy. But now, the US National Park Service—which lost $450,000 a day in park entry and activity fees during the shutdown—has a new message for Congress: No, we're not going prepare for another government shutdown, because you need to do your job.

The smack-down took place at a hearing last week before the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, which weighed in on a new bill introduced by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) in October. The Provide Access and Retain Continuity (PARC) Act, which has 17 Republican co-sponsors, would allow states to keep national parks operating in the event of another shutdown and would make them eligible for reimbursement by the federal government. (During the shutdown, six states entered into a similar agreement.) Right now, the government is only funded until January 15, meaning that Republicans could potentially pull the same shenanigans all over again in 2014. Stewart tells Mother Jones, "This bill is designed to provide some safeguards to local communities that rely heavily on access to public lands in the event that a shutdown does occur."

According to a National Park Service spokesman, more than 11 million people were unable to visit parks during the shutdown, and the park service lost about $7 million in park entry fees. The Park Service also estimates that communities within 60 miles of a national park suffered a collective negative economic impact of $76 million for each day of the shutdown. But Bruce Sheaffer, Comptroller of the National Park Service,testified that the agency "strongly opposes the bill." He said:

We have a great deal of sympathy for the businesses and communities that experienced a disruption of activity and loss of revenue during last month’s government shutdown and that stand to lose more if there is another funding lapse in the future. However, rather than only protecting certain narrow sectors of the economy...from the effects of a government shutdown in the future, Congress should protect all sectors of the economy by enacting appropriations on time, so as to avoid any future shutdowns.

Sheaffer took issue with other parts of the bill, noting that forcing the Park Service to rely on state revenue would be "a poor use of already strained departmental resources" and would "seriously undermine the longstanding framework established by Congress for the management of federal lands." While Sheaffer didn't object to another GOP-backed bill on the table—the Protecting States, Opening National Parks Act, which would reimburse states for National Park expenses incurred during the October shutdown—he concluded that planning for another shutdown "is not a responsible alternative to simply making the political commitment to provide appropriations for all the vital functions the federal government performs."

Scheaffer's position had support from Rep. Raul Grijalva, (D-Ariz.), who told Cronkite News Service at the hearing, "We shouldn’t be coming up with doomsday preparations." But Stewart says, "The [Park Service] opposition is odd and misses the point. Of course the preferred course of action is to avoid future lapses in funding." He adds, "While I cannot predict the future, I do not anticipate another shutdown during the 113th Congress."

When Mother Jones asked the National Park service whether it considered the GOP's fixation on funding national parks a way to deflect blame away from the shutdown, a spokesman said, "Your question asks us to speculate on an issue. We don't do that."

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Chicken vs. Turkey Is an Unfair Fight

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 4:58 PM EST

This year, Matt Yglesias's annual bout of turkey hate takes a quantitative approach:

Consider these striking facts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistical Service's latest report on poultry production (PDF).

It reveals that in the United States in 2012 we produced a staggering 49.5 billion pounds of chicken meat worth an aggregate of $24.8 billion.

By contrast, we raised a paltry 7.3 billion pounds of turkey worth just $5 billion.

If everybody likes turkey so much, then why aren't you buying any?....Here at Slate we think it's very important to be clear on what's a contrarian take and what's the conventional wisdom. And the conventional wisdom is that turkey is bad and you should eat chicken if you're interested in some not-very-flavorful poultry. People eat turkey on Thanksgiving because it's traditional, but people do not enjoy eating turkey.

Unfortunately, there's a confounding variable that Matt has failed to consider: as the illustration on the right demonstrates scientifically, turkeys are big. One reason that we don't buy turkeys routinely throughout the year is that your average household of 2.58 members doesn't want that much of anything. Most of us don't cook big standing rib roasts very often either, but that's not because we don't like beef. It's because they're too damn big for everyday consumption. Add to that the fact that roasting a turkey is a pain in the ass, and you just aren't going to have turkey very often.

Now, that said, it's hard to escape Matt's central contention that turkey isn't really all that tasty. Most of us eat it only alongside forkfuls of cranberry sauce or drenched in gravy, which pretty much gives the game away taste-wise, doesn't it?

Still, this raises yet another question. Of that 49.5 billion pounds of chicken, I'd guess that a sizeable fraction of it is consumed in the form of chicken nuggets of some variety. So why aren't there turkey nuggets instead? Once you batter it and toss it in a deep fryer, turkey would taste just fine.1 And that brings up a second reason that we eat more chicken than turkey—one that should be of special interest to a Moneybox columnist: it's cheaper. According to that Ag Department document above, chicken goes for 50 cents per live-weight pound while turkey sells for 73 cents.

In other words, we don't really need to get into inherently personal arguments about the relative tastiness of chicken vs. turkey. Chicken is both cheaper and far more convenient than turkey for your average consumer, and that's enough. It's no surprise that it's the world's poultry of choice.

1Wouldn't it? I'm no foodie, and anyway, I happen to like nibbling on turkey leftovers from the fridge with nothing more than a little salt as seasoning. But maybe there's something about turkey meat that makes it poorly suited to the indignities of nugget-dom. Anyone happen to know?

Dems Say Boehner Blocking Farm Bill, Wants More Food Stamp Cuts

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 1:13 PM EST

Over the past month, the House and Senate have been working to come up with a compromise farm bill—the five-year piece of legislation that funds agriculture and nutrition programs. The main sticking point is the level of cuts to the food stamp program. House Republicans want to cut $40 billion from the program, while the Senate wants to trim $4 billion. Last week, the talks fell apart, and the two sides are fighting over why.

A Democratic aide tells Mother Jones that House Speaker John Boehner shot down several informal compromise farm bill proposals because the food stamps cuts were not deep enough. Boehner's spokesman denies this.

The Democratic aide says the joint House-Senate panel that is trying to work out a deal presented Boehner with a few proposals that contained food stamps levels close to what the Senate wants. Even though Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)—the chairman of the House agriculture committee and a top member of the compromise panel—was willing to give a lot of ground to the Senate on food stamps, he says, Boehner rejected the proposals. "Boehner is playing spoiler," he adds. "That's why [negotiations] fell apart."

Another source familiar with the negotiations echoes the Dem aide's claim, saying that the House leadership has Lucas on a tight leash. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is on the compromise committee, told Congressional Quarterly the same thing last week. "I'm hearing that the speaker still keeps inserting his people into the process," and that House members on the farm bill compromise panel "have to go and check with the speaker’s people [who] say they want this and this and this. I hear that's one of our major problems."

But a spokesman for Boehner says the assertion that Boehner shot down the food stamps proposals "is absurd." He adds that "the Speaker has full confidence" in Lucas and the rest of the House GOP team that is working out a compromise farm bill. On Friday, Lucas said negotiations stalled because of differences over the crop subsidy provisions in the legislation.

If Boehner did reject the compromise committee's food-stamp proposals, he adhered to something called the Hastert rule—an informal measure used to limit the power of the minority—which says that a "majority of the majority" party must support a bill before it is brought up for a vote. It was first used by former House speaker Dennis Hastert in the mid-90s.

Boehner may not use the Hastert rule on the farm bill, but time is running out to reach an agreement. The two sides were supposed to have a final compromise bill on the House floor by December 13. A Senate agriculture committee aide says that negotiations are technically still ongoing, but the deadline may be pushed into next year. The farm bill is already more than a year behind schedule.

If fruitless negotiations end up delaying a farm bill for another year, Democrats may be the unlikley winners. Some Dems have been considering voting against any compromise farm bill in order to kill the bill. If that happens, food stamps would continue to be funded at current levels.

Quote of the Day: Green Goo Edition

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 1:08 PM EST

From Stephanie Mencimer, after whipping up one of the holiday offerings in The Romney Family Table:

My DC-bureau testers lost their nerve when presented with the green goo. Some claimed nut allergies (a likely story!). Fortunately, Caldwell, like me, hails from the Jell-O belt and was undeterred.

Fearless journalism indeed.