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Food News Round-Up

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 7:04 PM EST

As I was browsing the internet and reading e-mails today, I came across a number of interesting food-related headlines. Instead of blogging them all, I've put them in an easily digestible (no pun intended) format, below:

  • Tomorrow, Greenpeace will release a new version of their list of supermarkets ranked in order of seafood sustainability. At the top, Whole Foods. At the bottom, stores like Trader Joe's and Price Chopper that still stock "red list" animals like swordfish and Chilean sea bass.
  • A new gadget that looks like a Pixar character produces drinking water out of humid air.
  • Netflix is buying DVDs of a controversial animal rights documentary, despite the fact the film has no distributor. The documentary, Earthlings, was requested by so many Netflix users that the company decided to make an exception to their usual policies.
  • PETA's Bruce Friedrich, via the Huffington Post, raises some interesting points about a comprehensive food policy under Obama.
  • Vanilla-lovers may be in trouble. A nasty, orchid-killing fungus has broken out on the island of Madagascar, which produces 60 percent of the world's vanilla beans.
  • Experts say just because a fruit is brighter, or tastes better, doesn't mean it's more nutritious.
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    Obama Makes Early Demands of Special Interests Public

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 5:56 PM EST

    Think back to when Dick Cheney formulated energy policy early in President Bush's first term. Because the White House did not release the names of the people Cheney met with, nor the demands they were making of the administration, the public did not know until 2005 that Cheney had met with oil executives, and that those executives supplied Cheney with "detailed energy policy recommendations."

    The Obama Administration is determined to do things differently. It is posting the policy proposals it is receiving from special interest groups on a section of its website called "Your Seat at the Table." What is the teacher's union demanding on education reform, for example? Not only can you find out on the transition's site, you can comment on the union's proposals and submit your own ideas on the subject.

    It's another early step toward open government for the new administration and it's something to be applauded, especially if it leaves these documents up after decisions start to get made, so watchdog groups can determine whose wishes were fulfilled and whose were not.

    Blackwater Contractors Indicted For Manslaughter, "Surrender" in Utah

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 4:42 PM EST

    The Justice Department has unsealed a 35-count indictment (.pdf) against five Blackwater contractors charged with the manslaughter of 17 Iraqis in a Baghdad traffic circle in September 2007. Those indicted, all former US soldiers and Marines, include: Donald Ball from West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard from Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten from Sparta, Tenn.; and Paul Slough, from Keller, Texas. All face up to 30 years in prison under an obscure law dealing with the use of machine guns in violent crimes that federal prosecutors have adapted for the case. A sixth Blackwater guard also involved in the shooting incident, Jeremy Ridgeway, took a plea deal (.pdf) offered by the Justice Department.

    The unsealed documents offer a gritty, blow-by-blow account of what happened as "Raven 23," the Blackwater security convoy's radio call sign that day, entered Nisour Square and opened fire—either in self defense, as Blackwater has claimed, or "upon a sudden quarrel and heat of passion," as the indictment alleges.

    The five Blackwater guards "surrendered" to authorities today in Salt Lake City, Utah, in hopes that a potential trial there would involve jurors more sympathetic to their case, reports NPR.

    Finally, Some Consistency: Time, Guardian, New York Release Best Album Lists

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 3:41 PM EST

    mojo-photo-lilwaynecarteriii.jpgIdolator points out that three biggies have just weighed in on the best albums of the year, making the list-obsessed among us all giddy. Time, New York and the UK Guardian released their lists today, and while each have the character you'd expect from the publication (Idolator calls them "mainstream," "middlebrow" and "muso") there's actually some interesting similarities, which is nice, considering the mixed, Nick-Cave-elevating-by-default tally of recent lists. Both New York and Time had the same Top 2: Lil Wayne and TV on the Radio. Of course, the Guardian has to be all cool and diverse, throwing the not-even-out-in-the-US Amadou and Mariam in at #2, while Time, bafflingly, includes Metallica. USA! USA! But perhaps the most important thing to realize about the average of these three lists is that it turns out to very closely resemble my Best Albums of the First Half of 2008 list posted back at the end of June, proving, once again, that the Riff is your best bet for scientifically sound arts and culture commentary.

    Check out the three Top 10s as well as another super-consensus chart after the jump.

    *John Thain's Bonus

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 3:15 PM EST

    JOHN THAIN'S BONUS....The Wall Street Journal reports on the latest in the bonus soap opera:

    Merrill Lynch & Co. chief John Thain has suggested to directors that he get a 2008 bonus of as much as $10 million, but the battered securities firm's compensation committee is resisting his request, according to people familiar with the situation.

    ....A few months ago, when the board began seriously considering 2008 bonuses, a proposal was presented to the compensation committee by Merrill that Mr. Thain should be paid in excess of $30 million, according to people familiar with the matter. That number has since come down in recent talks with various board members and Mr. Thain has recently indicated to committee members that $5 million to $10 million is more reasonable.

    Well, that's mighty big of him, isn't it? Especially for a guy who got a $15 million bonus just for signing on at Merrill a year ago.

    But garden variety outrage isn't what I'm after here. What I want to know is: what was Thain's bonus plan when he was hired? According to the Journal, "Merrill shares were trading above $50 when he was hired, and his pay package was structured heavily toward his ability to increase the price by another $40 or more. Merrill's shares have fallen steadily this year, closing Friday at $13.04 in 4 p.m. New York Stock Exchange composite trading."

    Look: the plan he signed is the plan he signed. If his bonus was based on increasing Merrill's stock price, and instead their stock collapsed, then he shouldn't get a bonus. Instead of just saying so, though, Thain and the compensation committee will apparently go through something that's become standard American CEO kabuki, in which the comp plan is essentially rewritten if "bad luck" reduces bonuses below a level that's tolerable to our titans of industry. In this case, Thain's argument is that he saved Merrill by selling it off to Bank of America, a deal that BofA had been lusting over for ages and that required, according to news reports, little more than a couple of days to put together.

    This isn't a matter of outrage toward John Thain personally. For all I know he did the best he could with the hand he was dealt. But that doesn't matter. He's getting paid plenty of money for showing up to work, and arranging a shotgun marriage after presiding over a historic collapse hardly seems deserving of special attention. If he doesn't have the horse sense to figure that out on his own, BofA might want to think twice about keeping him aboard.

    Abortion Politics

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 2:46 PM EST

    ABORTION POLITICS....In the New York Times yesterday, Ross Douthat made the case that hardline views on abortion didn't have much to do with the Republican defeat in November. I think he's basically right about that. Abortion just wasn't a high profile issue this year.

    However, then he goes a step further, arguing that conservatives aren't really so very hardline on abortion these days anyway. "Compromise, rather than absolutism," he says, "has been the watchword of anti-abortion efforts for some time now." Steve Benen replies:

    The evidence of conservative willingness to "compromise" on abortion is surprisingly thin. In 2005, for example, pro-life and pro-choice Democrats crafted the Prevention First Act, which aimed to reduce the number of abortions by taking prevention seriously, through a combination of family-planning programs, access to contraception, and teen-pregnancy prevention programs. Dems sought Republican co-sponsors. Zero — literally, not one — from either chamber endorsed the measure.

    What's more, this year, pro-life activists in South Dakota and Colorado forced strikingly inflexible anti-abortion measures onto their statewide ballots. Both lost, but it was a reminder of the movement's "absolutism" on the issue.

    There is, of course, another side to this as well. As Ross himself points out in his piece, the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade means that "the pro-life movement is essentially trapped." He takes this to mean that pro-lifers can't offer any genuine compromises because Roe doesn't allow them, but there's more than a whiff of disingenuousness to this. After all, does anyone really believe that the pro-life movement wants to overturn Roe (and Casey) merely in order to open the door to European-style compromise on abortion law? Anyone care to sound out James Dobson on that notion?

    The truth is more prosaic: pro-life activists have done exactly what you'd expect them to do. They've pushed for the most restrictive possible laws they can get away with, and in many states they've succeeded in making abortion de facto unavailable. If Roe were overturned, compromise would be the last thing on their minds.

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    George Bush's New Neighborhood Doesn't Care About Black People

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 2:13 PM EST

    President Bush's future neighborhood, the wealthy Dallas area called Preston Hollow, has some unfortunate secrets:

    Until 2000, the neighborhood association's covenant said only white people were allowed to live there, though an exception was made for servants.
    Enacted in 1956, part of the original document reads: "Said property shall be used and occupied by white persons except those shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of different race or nationality in the employ of a tenant."

    I'll add this thought. The president bought his ranch in Crawford just before running for president and will move to a swanky suburban neighborhood just after leaving office. It's almost like his cowboy image was an affect cultivated for maximum political gain. Imagine that.

    And here's the inspiration for this post's headline:

    Biden and the Senate

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 2:13 PM EST

    BIDEN AND THE SENATE....Harry Reid got some attention over the weekend for telling the Las Vegas Sun that Joe Biden should stick to his end of Pennsylvania Avenue after the inauguration:

    In a move to reassert Congressional independence at the start of the new presidential administration, the vice president will be barred from joining weekly internal Senate deliberations, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun...."He can come by once and a while, but he's not going to sit in on our lunches," Reid said. "He's not a senator. He's the vice president."

    ....A spokeswoman for the vice-president-elect said "Biden had no intention of continuing the practice started by Vice President Cheney of regularly attending internal legislative branch meetings — he firmly believes in restoring the Office of the Vice President to its historical role."

    "He and Senator Reid see eye to eye on this," said Biden's spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander.

    This is fine, and certainly in keeping with tradition. But here's the funny thing: of all the things that Dick Cheney did to expand the role of the vice president, spending more time on Capitol Hill was one of the few that seemed pretty legitimate to me. The vice president is, after all, the president of the Senate, so the idea that he might spend a lot of time in the Senate cloakroom taking the temperature of presidential initiatives and just generally working to help round up votes — well, that doesn't really sound like much of an abuse to me. The fact that Republican senators tended to knuckle under to Cheney's strongarming says more about Republican senators than it does about whether the vice president is a good choice to liason with Congress.

    Of course, all Reid has said is that Biden won't be welcome at Democratic caucus meetings, so maybe we're all reading more into this than is really there. That really was a bridge too far for Cheney, but there's plenty the vice president can do outside of formal caucus meetings if he wants to. And offhand, I can't think why he wouldn't want to.

    Chart of the Day - 12.08.2008

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 1:39 PM EST

    CHART OF THE DAY....Via Andrew Revkin, Maxwell Boykoff of Oxford University charts media mentions of global warming over the past five years. The dark line is the European media and the heavy dashed line is the North American media. As you can see, during the past two years media attention to global warming has nearly halved in both places. (The other lines are Oceania, South America, and Asia.)

    What makes this especially perverse is that it's come at the very time when climate scientists are getting increasingly cataclysmic in their warnings about the danger of global warming. It's no longer a vague theory and it's no longer a matter of gradual change. Most climate scientists now think that we're getting very close to a tipping point at which we'll basically destroy our planet if we don't make some big changes very quickly. Here's Bill McKibben, from our current issue, on the most important number on earth, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere:

    And so we're now in the land of tipping points. We know that we've passed some of them — Arctic sea ice is melting, and so is the permafrost that guards those carbon stores. But the logic of Hansen's paper was clear. Above 350, we are at constant risk of crossing other, even worse, thresholds, the ones that govern the reliability of monsoons, the availability of water from alpine glaciers, the acidification of the ocean, and, perhaps most spectacularly, the very level of the seas....We can't rule out, in other words, the collapse of human society as we've known it. "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted..." We should add the phrase to the oath of office for every politico on the third planet.

    Are you listening, politicos?

    Non-Outliers

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 12:54 PM EST

    NON-OUTLIERS....Matt Yglesias defends Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers:

    I've seen a few people express the notion that Gladwell's conclusion — that success is determined largely by luck rather than one's powers of awesomeness — is somehow too banal to waste one's time with. I think those people need to open their eyes and pay a bit more attention to the society we're living in. It's a society that not only seems to believe that the successful are entitled to unlimited monetary rewards for their trouble, but massive and wide-ranging deference.

    Beyond that, it's a society in which the old-fashioned concept of noblesse oblige has largely gone out the window. The elite feel not only a sense of entitlement, but also a unique sense of arrogance that only an elite that firmly believes itself to be a meritocracy can muster.

    Point taken. But just to push back a little, I'm not sure it's the outliers who are the biggest problem here. To a certain extent, I think most people already understand that there's more than a little bit of luck involved in the fact that IBM decided to license Bill Gates's MS-DOS instead of CP/M or that 24 turned out to be a monster hit for Kiefer Sutherland. The star who gets a lucky break early in his career is practically a cliche. What's more, I think most of us don't begrudge the occasional outliers their jackpots all that much. Sure, Gates and Sutherland were both good and lucky, but at least they were good.

    The bigger problem is with the vast amounts of money earned routinely and consistently by people who aren't even all that good. Ordinary CEOs and ordinary Wall Street executives, for example, have gotten enormous paydays over the past few decades not because they were really any better than their predecessors, but simply because they were riding a wave of prosperity. And it's not just a lucky few, either: it's all of them. Most of these guys aren't even outperforming the market significantly, let alone acting as titans of industry, but one way or another they've managed to convince themselves that a rising tide is a sign of personal brilliance. This allows them to sleep easily at night as they keep worker pay stagnant and use the resulting enormous buckets of money to reward themselves and their peers with comp packages that would make Croesus blush.

    I wish Gladwell would write that book. It's one thing to make a story about geniuses interesting, but it's the corrosive and stifling triumph of the non-geniuses that could use a popular touch. Maybe next time.