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Romantic Ballads Meet Tall Tales in This Epic Tony Joe White Collection

| Mon Feb. 9, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Tony Joe White
The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings
Real Gone Music

Tony Joe White scored his biggest hit way back in '69 with "Polk Salad Annie," but continued to make great music long after that stomping swamp-rock classic (and does to this day). Collecting three fine albums and six rare singles sides, The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings showcases the Louisiana man's early '70s output. With a deep, come-hither voice not unlike Barry White (no relation) or Isaac Hayes, White is equally adept at gorgeous romantic ballads ("For Ol' Times Sake") and rockin' tall tales ("They Caught the Devil and Put Him in Jail in Eudora, Arkansas"), infusing everything he does with funky good humor. If "Backwoods Preacher Man" or "I've Got a Thing About You Baby" doesn't make you smile, seek professional help pronto.

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With a Name Like Gurf Morlix, and a Cover Like This, Your Album Had Better Be Good

| Mon Feb. 9, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Gurf Morlix
Eatin' at Me
Rootball

Don't be deterred by the spectacularly ugly cover art. Eatin' at Me is an unassuming gem. Since the end of his collaboration with Lucinda Williams in the '90s, singer-guitarist Gurf Morlix has produced a series of striking solo albums marked by dark visions and virtuosic, albeit tastefully understated, musicianship, and this downer-fest is no exception. Populating his songs with a host of memorable misfits, from teenage criminals to haunted vets to deranged lovers, he evokes these lost souls through a winning combination of weary, regret-soaked vocals and dusty, stripped-down roots grooves. But Eatin' at Me is never merely glum: Thanks to generous portions of mordant wit and Morlix's genuine empathy for his characters, it's actually uplifting in a twisted way—much like a great blues record.

The Dangerous Chemical Lurking in Your Beer Can

| Mon Feb. 9, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Almost exactly 80 years since its debut, the beer can remains a wildly popular vessel for America's favorite alcoholic beverage. According to the Beer Institute, cans accounted for (XLS) 53.2 percent of the beer market in 2012 (the latest year for numbers), versus 36.5 percent for bottles and 10 percent for draft. And the can's market share has been inching up—as recently as 2004, just 48 percent of beer came in cans.

Sure, massive conglomerates like Miller SAB and AB InBev (maker of Budweiser) use BPA-lined cans. But so do craft beer makers.

But here's the thing: Like most other commercially available cans, beer cans are lined with epoxy that contains bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that keeps foods from reacting to aluminum, but that has also become associated with a range of ailments, including cancer, reproductive trouble, and irregular brain development in kids. BPA is well established as an endocrine-disrupting chemical, meaning that it likely causes hormonal damage at extremely low levels. The question is whether we get enough of it in beer (and other canned goods) to cause harm.

For me, this isn't an academic question. Sure, massive conglomerates like Miller SAB and AB InBev (maker of Budweiser) use BPA-lined cans. But so do my beloved craft beer makers—the small and midsize brewers that have popped up nationwide over the past quarter century to challenge the hegemony of corporate swill. Ever since pulling the ring off my first Dale's Pale Ale—made by the excellent Colorado brewer Oskar Blues—several years ago, I've been enamored of canned beers and their throwback charm.

I'm hardly alone. According to the website Craftcans.com, Oskar Blues launched the canned-craft craze in 2002. Today, nearly 500 craft breweries, a least one in every state, offer canned product. In my current hometown of Austin, several excellent local brewers are retailed only in cans. Colorful canned six-packs dominate the coolers of top local beer emporia. In 2013, Whole Foods reported a 30 percent nationwide increase in canned-beer sales. A decade ago, cans accounted for precisely zero percent of my beer consumption; today, that number hovers above 50 percent, or about the national average for all beers. Is my turn to cans harming me?

The Food and Drug Administration, after a lengthy review process, has opted to give BPA a tentative thumbs-up. In 2012, the FDA banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups, and added containers for infant formula to the list the following year. But last year, citing its most recent safety assessment (PDF), the FDA pronounced BPA "safe at the current levels occurring in foods." The European Food Safety Authority recently ended its own BPA reassessment with the same conclusion, though the French government vehemently disagrees and has instituted a ban.

But the FDA's sort-of embrace of the can industry's favorite liner is highly controversial among a swath of scientists, as my colleague Mariah Blake showed last year. Blake reports that "roughly 1,000 published studies have found that low-level exposure to BPA—a synthetic estrogen that is also used in cash register receipts and the lining of tin cans—can lead to serious health problems, from cancer and insulin-resistant diabetes to obesity and attention-deficit disorder."

One researcher says it is "highly possible" that BPA leaches from can linings into beer.

And both the FDA itself and Consumer Reports have shown that BPA does indeed travel from can linings into the food we eat. Back in 2010, Health Canada, the Canadian version of the FDA, tested (PDF) 16 beer samples—eight from cans and eight from bottles—and found BPA in all of the canned beer and in just one of the bottled. But it called the levels "extremely low," and reiterated its assessment that "current dietary exposure to BPA through food packaging uses is not expected to pose a health risk to the general population."

But BPA researcher Karin Michels, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, told me that she knows of no research that assesses how much BPA actually makes it into our bodies from drinking canned beer. She herself coauthored a 2011 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, finding that a "group of volunteers who consumed a serving of canned soup each day for five days had a more than 1,000 percent increase in urinary bisphenol A (BPA) concentrations compared with when the same individuals consumed fresh soup daily for five days," as the Harvard press release put it.

A similar study by Korean researchers published in Hypertension found that on days when subjects drank canned soy milk, the BPA levels found in their urine surged by 1,600 percent, and their blood pressure rose significantly, compared to days when they took their soy milk from bottles (not the first time that BPA has been associated with cardiovascular dysfunction).

Michels told me that the Hypertension study, which she called "very important" and "pretty well designed," is among the only to test the impact of drinking beverages from BPA-lined cans. She told me that this study, along with her 2011 one on soup, are relevant to beer drinkers and that more research on BPA and beverages is "urgently needed." She added: "In fact, I am submitting an application to NIH [National Institutes of Health] as we speak on exactly this [BPA in canned beverages], but who knows whether it will be funded."

BPA-free can linings are only approved for low-acid foods like beans. For high-acid substances like tomatoes or beer, there's no approved alternative yet.

Yun-Chul Hong, coauthor of the soy milk study and director of the Institute of Environmental Medicine at Seoul National University, told me that it's impossible to say whether BPA from canned beer makes it into our bodies at significant levels because no one has measured it. But "from my research and [that of] others, I think it is highly possible," he added. Given that Americans quaff beer at the rate of about 21 gallons annually per capita (PDF), more than than half of which is canned, that's not a comforting statement.

As for Oskar Blues, the brewer whose work I so admire and that launched the can craze among craft brewers, it continues to offer its product only in cans (with the exception of kegged beer at bars). The company is holding a line that it has maintained for years: It's seeking viable BPA-free cans, but so far hasn't found them. "We are staying on top of this issue, not much has changed in the last few years," marketing director Chad Melis said. He added that a BPA-free can lining does exist, but it's only approved for low-acid foods like beans. "The FDA will not approve BPA-free linings for use with other foods that have a level of acidity (beer, tomatoes, soda, etc.) due to the fact that acidic foods are able to react with the metal through the container's lining if the lining hasn't been hardened with BPA, therefore defeating the purpose of the lining altogether," he wrote in an email. He  directed me to this BPA fact sheet (PDF) from its can supplier, Ball, the globe's largest aluminum can maker, and noted the recent pro-BPA decisions from the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority.

I appreciate that Oskar Blues communicates straightforwardly about BPA. And I acknowledge the ecological advantages of cans (more efficient shipping, storing, recycling, etc.), as well as the pleasure of popping the top on an ice-cold can of beer on a hot day. I can't say for certain that BPA from my canned beer habit is harming me. But until more research emerges, I'm cutting back on cans and turning back to bottles.

President Obama Urges Grammys Viewers to Stand Up Against Sexual Violence

| Sun Feb. 8, 2015 9:55 PM EST

“It’s on us—all of us—to create a culture where violence isn’t tolerated, where survivors are supported, and where all our young people – men and women – can go as far as their talents and their dreams will take them." —President Obama.

Watch:

A Baton Rouge ER Is Closing Because Bobby Jindal Won't Accept Medicaid Expansion

| Sun Feb. 8, 2015 8:42 PM EST

Louisiana's capital city is losing one of its emergency rooms:

The Baton Rouge General Medical Center-Mid City will close its emergency room within the next 60 days, a victim of continuing red ink and the Jindal administration withdrawing the financial support that kept it open.

....The General’s Mid City campus suffered a financial hit as a result of the April 2013 closure of the LSU Earl K. Long Medical Center....More and more poor and uninsured patients from the low-income neighborhoods of north Baton Rouge ended up at the Mid City hospital, which was the next-closest facility.

Mid City hospital reported losses of $1 million a month as more and more patients who could not pay arrived. Losses jumped from $6 million to $8 million annually from 2009 to 2012, then up to $12.5 million in 2013, according to Baton Rouge General. Last year, the facility lost $23.8 million.

The nearest ER for residents who are currently served by Mid-City is now 30 minutes further away, and it's a certainty that people are going to die because of this. But what's the real story behind this closure? Shouldn't the expansion of Medicaid be offsetting the increased losses on uninsured patients?

You bet it should. And it would, if Bobby Jindal were willing to accept Obamacare's offer of virtually free Medicaid expansion. But he's not, and that means Baton Rouge is losing one of its central emergency rooms and more people will die who otherwise could have been saved. That's some nice work, Bobby. Michael Hiltzik has more details here.

How to Turn Off Tynt, the Most Annoying Thing on the Internet

| Sun Feb. 8, 2015 8:31 PM EST

 

You know how when you copy text from certain websites, it pastes with a bunch of junk you didn't mean to copy? Like promotional crap for the website?

Business Insider adds "Read more:" and the URL:

Daily Mail adds that and Twitter and Facebook links:

This is a super annoying service, designed to boost SEO, provided by a company called Tynt.

 

Places pay for this service. A place I used to work (briefly) paid for this service. It was super annoying! One day a colleague showed me a little known secret to turn it off and made my life immeasurably better.
I now share this little nugget with you:

 

Step 1) Open a browser.

Step 2) Type in the URL of an offending site.

Step 3) add ?disableTracer=on to the end of the URL. (example: http://www.businessinsider.com?disableTracer=on)

Step 4) Press Enter.

Step 5) You're done!

You'll have to do this for every browser you use and every site, but trust me, if you visit one of these sites often, it's worth it.

UPDATE: An even easier way to turn this off for all websites is to go here, and just click "opt out." You'll still have to do it in each browser but you won't have to do it for every site. (Thanks to indispensable friend Stefan Becket for the tip.)

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Saying Goodbye to Dean Smith, College Basketball's Liberal Conscience

| Sun Feb. 8, 2015 5:46 PM EST
Michael Jordan with his college coach, Dean Smith

Famed college basketball coach Dean Smith died Saturday night at the age of 83, after years of decline. His on-court prowess as the frontman at North Carolina from 1961 to 1997 is unforgettable: 879 wins, two national championships, 11 Final Four appearances, and a lasting legacy as a hoops innovator. But for many, it's his off-court example—which manifested itself in something people in Chapel Hill still call the Carolina Way—that made him a legend.

Smith was an outspoken liberal Democrat who was anti-nukes, anti-death-penalty, and pro-gay-rights in a state that sent Jesse Helms to the Senate for five terms. (In fact, North Carolina Dems even tried to convince Smith to run against Helms.) His father, Alfred, integrated his high school basketball team in 1930s Kansas; years later, Smith would do the same at UNC, recruiting Charlie Scott in the mid-1960s to become the first African American player on scholarship there and one of the first in the entire South.

This story, from a 2014 piece by the Washington Post's John Feinstein, has been making the rounds today. It's worth re-reading:

…In 1981, Smith very grudgingly agreed to cooperate with me on a profile for this newspaper. He kept insisting I should write about his players, but I said I had written about them. I wanted to write about him. He finally agreed.

One of the people I interviewed for the story was Rev. Robert Seymour, who had been Smith's pastor at the Binkley Baptist Church since 1958, when he first arrived in Chapel Hill. Seymour told me a story about how upset Smith was to learn that Chapel Hill's restaurants were still segregated. He and Seymour came up with an idea: Smith would walk into a restaurant with a black member of the church.

"You have to remember," Reverend Seymour said. "Back then, he wasn't Dean Smith. He was an assistant coach. Nothing more."

Smith agreed and went to a restaurant where management knew him. He and his companion sat down and were served. That was the beginning of desegregation in Chapel Hill.

When I circled back to Smith and asked him to tell me more about that night, he shot me an angry look. "Who told you about that?" he asked.

"Reverend Seymour," I said.

"I wish he hadn't done that."

"Why? You should be proud of doing something like that."

He leaned forward in his chair and in a very quiet voice said something I've never forgotten: "You should never be proud of doing what's right. You should just do what's right."

RIP, Dean.

Jungle Primaries in California: It Looks Like a Big Fat "Meh"

| Sun Feb. 8, 2015 1:41 PM EST

A few years ago California adopted what's mockingly called a "jungle primary." Instead of Democrats and Republicans each running their own primary, there's just one big primary and the top two vote-getters move on. That might be two Democrats, two Republicans, or one of each.

The idea behind the top-two primary was simple: it would produce more moderate candidates. Instead of appealing to the most extreme segments of the electorate, candidates would jostle to get votes from the center. Democrats could benefit from appealing to right-leaning centrists and vice versa for Republicans.

So did it work? So far, the answer appears to be no, though the evidence is a little hazy because of another change California made at around the same time: moving all initiatives to general elections. Because of this, turnout at primaries plummeted. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that Californians were eager to go to the polls to vote for initiatives, but not so eager when there was nothing more interesting at stake than a primary battle for the state legislature. This changed the composition of the primary electorate, so it's hard to make solid comparisons with previous years.

That said, it still doesn't look like much changed. In 2012, for example, researchers polled voters using both a traditional ballot and a top-two ballot. There was no difference in the results. One reason is that most voters knew virtually nothing about any of the candidates. Were they moderate? Liberal? Wild-eyed lefties? Meh. Voters weren't paying enough attention to know. Mark Barabak of the LA Times summarizes a pile of studies published recently in the California Journal of Politics and Policy:

Voters were just as apt to support candidates representing the same partisan poles as they were before the election rules changed — that is, if they even bothered voting...."To summarize, our articles find very limited support for the moderating effects associated with the top-two primary," Washington University's Betsy Sinclair wrote, summarizing half a dozen research papers.

For starters, voters will have to pay far closer attention to their choices. Some candidates may have hugged the middle in a bid to entice more pragmatic-minded voters, but the research suggests relatively few voters noticed. There was little discernment between, say, a flaming liberal and a more accommodating Democrat; in most voters' minds they fell under the same party umbrella.

In addition, voters will have to be less partisan themselves, showing a far greater willingness to support a moderate of the other party over a more extreme member of their own. Research into 2012's state Assembly races found an exceedingly small percentage of so-called cross-over voters: just 5.5% of Democrats and 7.6% of Republicans sided with a candidate from the other party.

Now, it does turn out that moderate Republicans were more willing to cross over than any other group: 16.4 percent of them crossed over to vote for Democrats. However, this is most likely due to the simple fact that California has a lot more Democratic districts than Republican ones. This means there are a lot more districts where voting for a Republican is useless—and always has been.

The full set of studies is here. Bottom line: early evidence doesn't suggest that a top-two primary makes much difference. Perhaps it will in the future as voters get more accustomed to it, but for now they're voting the same way they always have, and for the same kinds of candidates.

Google Can Do Well With Its New Communications Products, But Only If It Acts Like a Genuine Startup

| Sat Feb. 7, 2015 6:18 PM EST

Brian Fung tells us that Google is making a "serious play in the communications space," featuring an aggressive strategy that includes rollouts of new products like ultra-fast internet service, new smartphones, and even wireless service:

Google’s investments in telecom pit the company against some of the largest voice and Internet providers around. But Google has a key advantage: It doesn’t make its money from Internet service subscribers. That’s why it will be able to drive down prices for consumers, to adopt business practices that would be unsustainable for other carriers and to influence Washington policy debates in surprising ways.

“This is a multilayered strategy,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president for the consumer group Public Knowledge. “Even if Google only makes 10 percent profit margin on its fiber and wireless offerings, that’s enough for it to be successful and to achieve the desired result of driving more use of its applications.”

This isn't quite right. Or maybe I should say it's only half right. It's true that these new services will probably help Google increase sales of its core products, thus offsetting low margins in the communications space. But that's not the real reason Google can afford to do this. The real reason is that Google is a new entrant, which means that entering these new businesses doesn't force it to cannibalize any of its current businesses.

This is the key problem that kills old companies when new technology hits the street. Every cheap new widget they sell means one less expensive old widget they sell, and very few companies have the stones to just accept reality and really dive into the new widgets regardless. So they sell the new widgets, but only half-heartedly. They defeature them. They limit their sales channels. They don't spend enough on marketing. Meanwhile, a startup with no such issues eats their lunch because their new widgets are their main business and they just sell the hell out of them.

That's Google's big advantage in this space. The fact that entering the telecom business might—might!—boost sales of other Google products is great, but it's just a bonus, and not one they should be thinking too hard about. In fact, if their new products are tailored too tightly as mere helpers for their old product lines, they could end up in the same position as all those old dinosaur companies that couldn't quite put their hearts into new tech. That road is well trod, and it's usually a pretty grim one.

Today's Intriguing News About New Contraception Options

| Sat Feb. 7, 2015 5:34 PM EST

Megan Thielking tells me something I didn't know today:

With some financial help from the Gates Foundation, Massachusetts drug manufacturer MicroCHIPS Biotech is developing an implantable contraceptive for women. Contraceptive implants currently on the market are thin plastic devices that are put under the skin on the upper arm, where they release hormones for up to three years. If a woman decides she wants to have a baby, the implant needs to be removed.

But the MicroCHIPS implant will last up to 16 years, and women will be able to turn it off via remote control if they're trying to get pregnant. Trials in humans are expected to start next year, but the same microchip technology has been tested successfully in women with osteoporosis. MicroCHIPS Biotech says the implant could reasonably be on the market by 2018.

There are also some new options for male contraception that look promising. Interesting stuff.