2014 - %3, May

Quick Reads: "The Skeleton Crew" by By Deborah Halber

| Tue Jul. 8, 2014 5:41 PM EDT
The Skeleton Crew

The Skeleton Crew

By Deborah Halber

SIMON & SCHUSTER

Tent Girl. The Lady of the Dunes. The Head in the Bucket. These are just a few of the nicknames given to America's 40,000 unidentified corpses by amateur web sleuths. For decades, members of this thriving, heroic, and macabre internet subculture have been cracking cold cases that have long stumped law enforcement. But what motivates them to spend countless hours poring over police reports and autopsy photos? Deborah Halber replaces the classic whodunit with what you might call a whosolvesit. She discovers that many web sleuths throw themselves into their dark hobby to escape their own damaged lives. Some find their share of fame and fortune; others, only more demons.

This review originally appeared in our July/August issue of Mother Jones. 

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Cops and Firefighters Could Soon Be Charged for Disclosing Fracking Chemicals in North Carolina

| Mon Jun. 2, 2014 12:50 PM EDT

North Carolina lawmakers have softened a controversial bill that would have made it a felony to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. Under the version of the law that passed the state legislature on Thursday, the offense has been knocked down to a misdemeanor. But legal experts say the language may still allow companies to press criminal charges against individuals who disclose what they learn about fracking chemicals—including doctors or fire chiefs.

Known as the "Energy Modernization Act," the legislation is partly meant to establish protocols for firefighters and health care providers to access information about chemicals during emergencies. However, it also gives oil and gas companies the right to require emergency responders to sign confidentiality agreements. The previous version of the bill, which was introduced on May 15 by three Republican state senators—​including a member of North Carolian GOP leadership—called for fines and prison time as punishment for disclosing proprietary chemical formulas.

Following widespread public outcry, lawmakers have reduced the penalty to community service. But they failed to clarify confusing language from an earlier draft that might subject fire chiefs and health care providers to criminal charges. This provision could prevent emergency responders from speaking about their experiences with chemical accidents to colleagueseven when the information is relevant to emergency planning or patient care.

How much the public is entitled to know about chemicals injected into the ground during the fracking process to break up natural gas-rich shale formations is one of the hottest issues surrounding fracking. Most energy companies maintain that the information should be proprietary. Public health advocates counter that they can't monitor the environmental and health impacts without knowing what chemicals are involved.

Many North Carolina officials have come down hard on the side of industry. As Mother Jones has reported, the North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission, which is writing fracking regulations to complement the Energy Modernization Act, put off approving a near-final chemical disclosure rule because Haliburtona major player in the fracking industry​complained that the proposal was too strict.

The current version of the act sailed through the North Carolina legislature with no debate. Following the bill's passage last Thursday, Gov. Pat McCrory told reporters that he "absolutely" supports the legislation. This week, he's expected to sign the measure into law.

Tom's Kitchen: Farmhouse-Style Roasted Potato and Egg Scramble

| Sat May 31, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

In the years I spent working on a small organic farm in North Carolina, we'd often spend the wee hours of the morning harvesting a variety of vegetables. One of my favorite crops to pick was potatoes, which required a kind of subterranean treasure hunt. One of us would plunge a pitchfork into the earth and upturn a potato plant, and another, on hands and knees, would quickly snatch the dirt-caked orbs dangling from the roots and place them in a bucket.

Occasionally, a potato would get "speared"—unintentionally stabbed by the fork—making it unmarketable. We'd separate them out, and march them into the kitchen for a post-harvest "second breakfast" of potatoes, just-laid eggs, and any other vegetables on hand. Early-morning harvests generated a fierce hunger, and nothing satisfied it quite like these just-dug treasures roasted in a hot oven—sweet, creamy, and sumptuous, justifying their name in French: pomme de terre, or apple of the earth.

Now when I go the the farmers market, I can never resist "new" potatoes, which are just potatoes that haven't been stored long. Recently, at the stand of an excellent Austin farm called Green Gate, I spied some purple potatoes—which are not only rich in health-giving phytochemicals, but also deliver an extra dose of earthy flavor.  I grabbed a couple handfuls, came home, and tried to recapture that farmhouse magic.

Note: You can omit the eggs and just use the below recipe as a guide for roasting potatoes.

Farmhouse-Style Roasted Potato and Egg Scramble
Serves two

Ingredients
About .75 pounds new potatoes, preferably blue or purple, chopped into bite-sized pieces
Olive oil
Sea salt
1-2 shallots, minced
3-4 eggs from pastured chickens
A few slices of decent cheese—I used Organic Valley "Grassmilk" raw cheddar
Some coarsely chopped herbs, for garnish. (I used cilantro, but parsley, chives, and even arugula would all work great.)

Adjust your oven's top rack to between 6-8 inches below the broiler (you'll be finishing the potatoes under the broiler). Turn the oven to 400 degrees F and insert a large cast-iron or other heavy-bottomed, over-proof skillet. Your going to want to cover it, so find an oven-proof cover that will work with the pan before proceeding.

Dab the chopped potatoes dry with a towel. When the oven comes to temperature, remove the skillet. Proceed with caution: It will be blisteringly hot. Add enough oil to cover the bottom, and drop in the potatoes along with a good pinch of salt. Using a spatula, toss the potatoes around in the pan until they are well-coated in oil. Cover the skillet and return it to the oven. The cover will help the potatoes cook faster by essentially steaming them in their own moisture.

While the potatoes are cooking, crack the eggs into a bowl, along with a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper, and whisk them together with a fork until the yolks and whites are just combined.

Check the potatoes every ten minutes or so by plunging a fork into one of the larger pieces. When the fork penetrates easily, it's time to remove the skillet's cover, turn off the oven's bake function, and turn the broiler on to its highest setting. Place the skillet under the broiler and cooking, checking often, until they're brown and crisp on one side. Flip them with a spatula, and brown/crisp them on the other.  Remove the skillet, placing it on the stove top. Turn off the broiler and shut the oven door.

Add the chopped shallots to the pan along with a small glug of oil, tossing it all with a spatula. The pan will still be sizzling hot, and will cook the shallots. When the sizzling has calmed down, turn the heat to low and carefully pour the mixed eggs over the potatoes, covering the skillet bottom with the eggs. When the edges have set, flip the eggs with a spatula. Lay the cheese slices onto the eggs, and return the skillet to the still-hot oven until the cheese has just melted—a couple of minutes.

Serve with a green salad, toast, and white wine for dinner, or tortillas and coffee for breakfast.

Wait, So the New "Transformers" Movie Is a Pro-Immigration Allegory?

| Fri May 30, 2014 5:39 PM EDT

Michael Bay's big, loud action movies sometimes have plot elements resembling political messages. The Rock (1996) depicts the blowback from illegal American covert operations overseas. In Armageddon (1998), the NASA-recruited team of deep-core drillers agree to embark on a dangerous mission to save the planet from an asteroid—on the condition that they never have to pay taxes again. In Bad Boys II (2003), the film's heroes illegally invade (and destroy large chunks of) Cuba, all in the name of fighting the drug war.

But could the 49-year-old director's latest film, Transformers: Age of Extinction (in theaters June 27), actually be an allegory for the plight of undocumented immigrants in modern-day USA? Well, the film is currently being marketed that way. As flagged by Entertainment Weekly earlier this week, the Paramount Pictures-associated website TransformersAreDangerous.com documents the (obviously purely fictional) rise of anti-Transformer sentiment in America. In the previous Transformers film, some of these alien robots killed a bunch of people and blew up a lot of stuff in Chicago, so the advent of a "KEEP EARTH HUMAN" movement isn't exactly stunning.

Much of the anti-Transformer/pro-human propaganda certainly resembles what you might expect from anti-immigration hardliners. Here are a couple posters from the website:

Transformers: Age of Extinction
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

And here's a fake PSA on the "fall of Chicago":

So will this dose of mindless, robots-battling-robots summer fun also double as Michael Bay's impassioned cry for immigration reform? Dunno. We'll have to wait until the end of June to find out. In the meantime, here's a trailer for the upcoming Transformers flick:

Here's Mindy Kaling's Hilarious Speech to Harvard Law: "You Will Defend BP From Birds."

| Fri May 30, 2014 3:10 PM EDT

Here's actress/comedian Mindy Kaling speaking at this year's Harvard Law School Class Day on Wednesday:

With this diploma in hand, most of you will go on to the noblest of pursuits, like helping a cable company acquire a telecom company. You will defend BP from birds. You will spend hours arguing that the well water was contaminated well before the fracking occurred. One of you will sort out the details of my prenup. A dozen of you will help me with my acrimonious divorce.  And one of you will fall in love in the process.

Later, on a more serious note, Kaling urged graduates to "please just try to be the kind of people [who] give advice to celebrities, not the other way around." She continued: "You are entering a profession where no matter how bad the crime, or the criminal, you have to defend the alleged perpetrator. That's incredible to me."

You can check out other highlights from her speech here, and you should watch the whole thing above.

Friday Cat Blogging - 30 May 2014

| Fri May 30, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Today is snoozing day. Much like every other day, in fact. I recommend that if you're having trouble falling asleep, take this picture to bed with you and stare at it until you fall serenely into a zenlike feline state. Let Domino be your sleep guru.

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The Obama Doctrine Is to Not Have a Doctrine

| Fri May 30, 2014 2:42 PM EDT

Fareed Zakaria takes on the cult of foreign policy toughness—far too common even among centrists and some liberals—that instinctively equates military force with decisiveness and everything else with hesitancy and weakness:

Obama is battling a knee-jerk sentiment in Washington in which the only kind of international leadership that means anything is the use of military force. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said in his speech Wednesday at West Point. A similar sentiment was expressed in the farewell address of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a strong leader who refused to intervene in the Suez crisis, the French collapse in Vietnam, two Taiwan Strait confrontations and the Hungarian uprising of 1956. At the time, many critics blasted the president for his passivity and wished that he would be more interventionist. A Democratic Advisory Council committee headed by Acheson called Eisenhower’s foreign policy “weak, vacillating, and tardy.” But Eisenhower kept his powder dry, confident that force was not the only way to show strength. “I’ll tell you what leadership is,” he told his speechwriter. “It’s persuasion — and conciliation — and education — and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know — or believe in — or will practice.”

Maybe that’s the Obama Doctrine.

Please spare me from more doctrines. But Zakaria is basically saying that the Obama Doctrine is not to let yourself get seduced by the straitjacket of doctrines. I guess that's a doctrine I can live with.

You know, the one time I felt a little sorry for Sarah Palin was when she got so much grief for not knowing the Bush Doctrine. Hell, I didn't know it either. You're either with us or against us? Bring 'em on? We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud? The truth is that I still couldn't tell you. Nor could I really tell you about the Carter Doctrine or the Reagan Doctrine or any other doctrine more recent than the Monroe Doctrine. They never really meant all that much, did they? Every president has an underlying worldview, and that's about all we can expect. I think Obama has articulated his as well as anyone has.

Jay Carney Is Stepping Down as White House Press Secretary

| Fri May 30, 2014 2:28 PM EDT

Jay Carney is stepping down as White House Press Secretary, President Obama announced Friday. Carney, who joined the administration in 2011 after more than two decades in journalism, will be replaced by Josh Earnest. Earnest had served as Carney's deputy.

Gone but not forgotten, we'll think of Carney whenever we watch A Christmas Story.

 

 

America Is Becoming a Bit More Liberal. That's Pretty Unusual Six Years Into a Democratic Presidency.

| Fri May 30, 2014 12:21 PM EDT

Why are there more moderate Democrats than moderate Republicans? This has never been because Democrats are spineless wimps who won't stand up for liberal values. The main reason is simple: there aren't very many self-identified liberals in America. There never have been. Self-IDed conservatives have outnumbered self-IDed liberals by 10-15 percentage points for decades. This means that Democrats are forced to appeal more to the center than Republicans are.

But Gallup reports that this is changing. On social issues, the ID gap has narrowed to nearly zero. On economic issues conservatives still have a healthy 21 percentage point lead, but that's way down from 2010. Here's the chart:

In one sense, you should take this with a grain of salt. Sure, there are now more self-IDed liberals, but that's compared to 2010, a high-water mark for conservative identification.

In another sense, this is pretty unusual. Normally, the country gets steadily more liberal during Republican presidencies and steadily more conservative during Democratic presidencies. This is, presumably, because voters get increasingly tired of whoever's in power and more open to the idea that the other guys might have better answers. But this time that hasn't happened. There's too much noise in the Gallup chart to draw any definitive conclusions, but if you compare the numbers now to the average from the last few years of the Bush presidency, the country has actually gotten a bit more liberal. That's something that rarely happens six years into a Democratic presidency.

The trend is more noticeable on social issues, which shouldn't surprise anyone. On gay rights in particular, the country has plainly moved in the direction of more tolerance, and conservatives are just flatly out of step. As this trend continues—and it's inexorable at this point—the conservative position strikes more and more people as not merely misguided, but just plain ugly. And you don't self-ID with an ideology that you think is ugly.

It's a funny thing. People say they don't like President Obama's foreign policy, but it turns out they approve of the specific things he's doing. They say they don't like Obamacare, but they like the things Obamacare does. They say they don't like Obama's economic policy, but they largely approve of his actual positions. You see this over and over. It doesn't look like Obama is doing much to move the country in a more liberal direction, but in his slow, methodical, pragmatic way, he's doing just that. A lot of people might not know it, but they're attracted by his no-drama approach to incremental social change. It frustrates those of us who want to see things change faster, but in the end, it might turn out to be pretty effective.

Hillary Clinton Takes on the Benghazi Crackpots

| Fri May 30, 2014 11:22 AM EDT

Politico has "obtained" the Benghazi chapter from Hillary Clinton's upcoming memoir, and their writeup includes this:

Clinton addresses lingering questions about how military assets were deployed to try to rescue personnel at the besieged compound, writing that Obama “gave the order to do whatever was necessary to support our people in Libya. It was imperative that all possible resources be mobilized immediately....When Americans are under fire, that is not an order the Commander in Chief has to give twice. Our military does everything humanly possible to save American lives — and would do more if they could. That anyone has ever suggested otherwise is something I will never understand.”

Me, me! Call on me! I understand. Allow me to blogsplain it to you....

Seriously, though, this is pretty much the right attitude for Clinton to take. Of all the nonsense that's been spewed about Benghazi, the never-ending series of "stand down" conspiracy theories has undoubtedly been the stupidest. Every time one got swatted down, another one popped up to take its place. It was a fast-response team from Italy. No wait. It was a team Gen. Carter Ham was going to send in until Obama ordered him not to. It was a garrison in Tripoli. It was a C-110 team in Croatia. It was a different team from Tripoli. By the time all these theories had been aired, it was apparent that half the United States military was thought to be within striking distance of Libya on the night of the Benghazi attacks.

And as little sense as most of the Benghazi conspiracy theories make, this one made even less. There's simply no reason that any president of the United States would get in the way of a rescue mission in a situation like Benghazi. But none of that ever mattered. To this day, there are millions of Fox News watchers who are convinced that the deaths in Benghazi could have been prevented but President Obama refused to allow it. Why? Well, if he's secretly bent on undermining the strength and influence of the United States, it all starts to make sense, doesn't it? And I wonder where anyone could have gotten that idea?