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Nate Silver Finally Gets One Wrong

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 9:49 PM EST
Penélope Cruz won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress?!?  But Nate Silver said it would be Taraji P. Henson.  Can we ever trust him again?

UPDATE: Ben Stiller's Joaquin Phoenix bit was pretty funny.

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Mau Mauing Rahm Emanuel

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 7:13 PM EST
Matt Yglesias thinks Rahm Emanuel should stop whining about Paul Krugman's criticism of the stimulus bill.  In fact, he should thank him:

If you propose something, and every single progressive in all the land immediately lauds it as the greatest bill ever written, then your legislation is now an extreme left proposal and it’s doomed. If you’re going to make concessions to political reality then you need to weather a bit of criticism from your left — that’s what establishes the proposal as moderate and sensible. Things like “some liberal economists such as Paul Krugman say the proposal is too small” is a helpful piece of context-setting that prevents the proposal from appearing too radical.

This sounds right to me, but I wonder if it's really true?  Let's turn it around.  When Rush Limbaugh criticized George Bush's immigration plan, did that convince liberals that maybe Bush's position wasn't so bad after all?  Maybe it did!  But I'm not so sure about that.

(At least in the short term.  Constant kvetching can certainly change the center of gravity of public opinion over periods of years or decades.  But that's a different thing.)

Anyway, it seems like there ought to be some clever way to test this theory.  In general, does criticism from the extreme left or right help a bill's prospects with moderates?  How might we figure this out?  Any ideas?

DNA Testing

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 6:45 PM EST
Over the past few years hundreds of innocent people have been freed from prison thanks to DNA evidence.  So why isn't it more widely available? Answer: because prosecutors and state governments tend to fight DNA testing requests tooth and nail.  Defense attorney and civil libertarians are on the opposite side, of course, and shortly the Supreme Court will hear a case deciding whether they'll get their wish to make testing more widely available:

They are opposed by victims rights groups; the vast majority of states, which have a patchwork of laws granting DNA access; and the federal government. The governments say that creating a constitutional right to the testing would infringe on states' rights, overwhelm them with frivolous demands and create an endless right of appeal for those convicted of the most violent crimes.

Set aside the states' right argument for now.  I'm more interested in the question of whether constitutional protections for DNA testing would, in fact, result in lots of frivolous demands and endless appeals.

If there were, literally, no restrictions at all, maybe that's what would happen.  Maybe every con with time on his hands would demand test after test just for the hell of it.  Maybe.  But if the court required even a minimal showing of cause, wouldn't frivolous requests dry up?  What's the point, after all?  If you're guilty, then you know perfectly well that DNA isn't going to get you off the hook.  So why bother?

That's why I've never found this argument very persuasive.  Prisoners who know they're guilty have little incentive to demand DNA tests.  Conversely, though, prosecutors have loads of incentive to deny DNA tests, even — or maybe especially — in cases where it might well prove wrongful conviction.  This suggests that the court should adopt some kind of balancing test: not an absolute right to endless DNA testing, but at least a presumption in favor of it.  Make the hurdle just high enough to deter the genuinely frivolous, but low enough that nobody has to rot in prison for years just because they didn't have access to a simple test.  We are, after all, in favor of not imprisoning innocent people.  Right?

Rahm Emanuel

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 3:17 PM EST
I sometimes get the feeling that it's impossible to write a bad profile of Barack Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.  Or at least, impossible to write a boring profile.  The guy's just too good a quote machine.  Here he is in Ryan Lizza's recent New Yorker piece complaining about critics who didn't like the way the stimulus bill turned out:

“They have never worked the legislative process,” Emanuel said of critics like the Times columnist Paul Krugman, who argued that Obama’s concessions to Senate Republicans — in particular, the tax cuts, which will do little to stimulate the economy — produced a package that wasn’t large enough to respond to the magnitude of the recession. “How many bills has he passed?”

....The stimulus bill was essentially held hostage to the whims of Collins, Snowe, and Specter, but if Al Franken, the apparent winner of the disputed Minnesota Senate race, had been seated in Washington, and if Ted Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, had been regularly available to vote, the White House would have needed only one Republican to pass the measure. “No disrespect to Paul Krugman,” Emanuel went on, “but has he figured out how to seat the Minnesota senator?” (Franken’s victory is the subject of an ongoing court challenge by his opponent, Norm Coleman, which the national Republican Party has been happy to help finance.) “Write a fucking column on how to seat the son of a bitch. I would be fascinated with that column. O.K.?” Emanuel stood up theatrically and gestured toward his seat with open palms. “Anytime they want, they can have it,” he said of those who are critical of his legislative strategies. “I give them my chair.”

Read the rest, of course.  It doesn't really turn over any fresh ground, but it's still good stuff for political junkies.

Sleep

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 2:23 PM EST
All of us have things we believe in even though we don't really have any evidence for them.  One of mine has to do with the causal direction of depression and sleep problems.  The conventional wisdom says that depression causes you to sleep badly, but I've long thought it was more likely the other way around: poor sleep makes you depressed.  So I'm happy to report that Science™ has finally caught up with my uninformed prejudices:

Doctors studying psychiatric disorders noticed long ago that erratic sleep was somehow connected. Adults with depression, for instance, are five times as likely as the average person to have difficulty breathing when asleep, while between a quarter and a half of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) suffer from sleep complaints, compared with just 7 per cent of other children.

Until recently, however, the assumption that poor sleep was a symptom rather than a cause of mental illness was so strong that nobody questioned it. "It was just so easy to say about a patient, well, he's depressed or schizophrenic, of course he's not sleeping well - and never to ask whether there could be a causal relationship the other way," says Robert Stickgold, a sleep researcher at Harvard University. Even when studies did seem to point in the other direction, the findings were largely overlooked, he says.

....So how does poor sleep lead to behavioural and psychological problems? Some of the links are apparent. For example, every parent knows that tired children usually become hyperactive rather than sleepy. Sleep disruption also bumps up stress hormone levels, which could contribute to daytime anxiety, a component of many psychiatric disorders. More intriguingly, it now seems sleep disruption can fundamentally interfere with the brain's ability to process emotion and to react to an emotional stimulus in an appropriate way.

[Etc. etc.]

I used to look forward to sleep.  It was relaxing; it was pleasant; it would make me feel better about the world.  But it's been a long time since that was so.  Now it's just something I do when I get tired every night, with no prospect that I'll feel anything other than tired and grumpy when I wake up in the morning and then stay that way pretty much all day.  Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong enough with my sleep that it's obvious on a routine sleep test.  I found out years ago that I have mild sleep apnea, but it's pretty mild and the fix is a C-PAP machine, which I tried but was never able to tolerate for an entire night.  So no help there.

But now, science is on the case!  Hooray!  Maybe they'll finally start taking this stuff seriously.  Maybe.  (Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Nikki Finke's Oscar Prediction: Epic Fail

| Sat Feb. 21, 2009 7:32 PM EST

This just in: water may possibly be wet! The irascible Los Angeles columnist Nikki Finke is claiming there is "flopsweat panic" backstage that the Oscar ceremony, now just 24 hours away, will be a dud, and even CNN agrees. Stars from Jack Nicholson to Nicole Kidman have apparently begged off presenting, Peter Gabriel pulled out after being offered 65 seconds to perform his nominated song, and fans of The Dark Knight are attempting to boycott the ceremony because it didn't get enough nominations. Finke also has a whole list of other complaints, including something about how previous actor winners are being forced to present as a group, which is apparently scandalous. She also claims that "trophy boys" will now join the young ladies who carry the statuettes onto the stage, an acknowledgment that "only females and gays" watch the show any more. It'll be the biggest failure ever!

But honestly, let's just remember that the Academy Awards is always a terrible TV show. Jon Stewart had a few good moments last year, but for most of the ceremony he was little more than a placeholder, and No Country for Old Men's wins were widely anticipated. In 2006, it was The Departed and Ellen Degeneres (yawn), and in 2005, the big Crash-Brokeback upset only came at the last minute of a very long and boring ceremony. Finke claims ad rates are down from $1.7 million last year to $1.4 million this year, but that probably has little to do with anticipation of a crappier show and more to do with that wee little, you know, collapse of our entire economic system. Of course Hugh Jackman will be embarrassing to watch, but no worse than anybody else—don't get me wrong, I'd pay to see Wolverine read (and then rip up) the phone book, but real-life Jackman in song-and-dance mode is smarmy and self-satisfied. The only good thing about the Oscars this year will be the same thing that's always good about them: watching with your snarky film-buff friends who mercilessly skewer the winners and presenters. Plus, it's an excuse to have a cocktail at 3pm.

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The Senator from Blago-land

| Sat Feb. 21, 2009 5:11 PM EST
Senator Roland Burris, Blago's pick to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat, did not have a good week. He's under investigation for making contradictory statements about his fundraising connections to the disgraced ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich; new Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and a coalition of black ministers have called on him to resign; the White House has urged him to think about his future; an Illinois newspaper discovered he did not reveal all his lobbying clients (including mortgage bankers and the tobacco industry); and his key Capitol Hill staffers have fled his office. The question is, can he hold on and resist the calls for him to pack it in? On Friday night, I pondered the Burris matter on Hardball:

R.I.P. Socks

| Sat Feb. 21, 2009 1:54 PM EST
Sad cat news today:

Word tonight that Socks Clinton, the one-time Arkansas stray adopted by the Clintons who rose to international prominence and literary fame as sole feline inhabitant of the White House, died today....Upon leaving the executive residence in Washington, the Clinton family gave the cat to the president's secretary, Betty Currie, who had recently lost her own pet.

....Though reticent in public, Socks was known as an affectionate creature, even tolerating the First Dog, a brown Labrador named Buddy, who was killed in a 2002 collision with a car near the Clintons' suburban New York home.

....Some foreign leaders were said to have even requested to have their photo taken with the First Kitty, which he tolerated because he favored diplomacy over militancy. At the end Socks was reported unwilling to eat and unable to stand. He had a last walk outdoors Thursday in Currie's arms.

This has been a bad year for presidential cats. Rest in peace, Socks.

Safe Haven

| Sat Feb. 21, 2009 1:17 PM EST
Looking for a safe haven for your money?  Beirut probably isn't the first place that comes to mind. But it turns out that back when Wall Street was running wild, Lebanon's central banker, Riad Toufic Salame, was busy keeping his country's banks some of the safest in the world:

In 2005, he defied pressure from the Lebanese business community and bucked international trends to issue what now looks like a prophetic decree: a blanket order barring any bank in his country from investing in mortgage-backed securities, which contributed to the most dramatic collapse of financial institutions since the Great Depression.

....He says the mortgage-backed securities worried him from the start. He watched curiously as investment bankers engaged in what he calls "rituals" to please the credit ratings agencies and got back such safe assessments of their products. He didn't get it. Why were these considered safe investments? They were just too complicated. They went against a major tradition in Lebanese and Middle Eastern banking: Know to whom you're fronting cash and who's going to pay you back.

"We could not really sense who would be responsible in the end to collect these loans," he said. "And we do not perceive banking as being a place to speculate on financial instruments that are not really concrete."

"Know to whom you're fronting cash and who's going to pay you back."  Words to live by.

Georgian Band to Protest Putin at Eurovision?

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 7:39 PM EST

God bless the Eurovision Song Contest. It's so, like, Austin Powers-y. Established in 1956, the event invites European countries to each submit a song, and then a winner is selected. It's like the UN meets American Idol, and it's given us ABBA, Bucks Fizz, and, erm, Verka Serduchka! But the latest edition of the contest, set for Moscow in May, has been sullied by the grating melody of politics, as Russia's rivals to the south appear to have taken the opportunity to stick it to the Russian prime minister. Georgia's entry, by a band called Stephane and 3G, is a song entitled "We Don't Wanna Put In," which, in its sung form, sounds a heck of a lot like "We Don't Wanna Putin." Sneaky! Georgians are denying there's a "hidden message" in the track, but gee, it's hard not to hear it (watch the awesome video above). Eurovision specifically bans any lyrics "of a political nature," so it remains to be seen if Stephane and 3G will get away with it, and they better watch out—that guy knows judo! Lucky for them, there's no easily-singable phrase that sounds like "Saakashvili." Actually, "We Don't Wanna Suck His Willy" comes close. Russians, feel free to use that.