*Friday Cat Blogging - 23 January 2009

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 4:07 PM EST

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Poor Inkblot! After two weeks of warm, sunny weather, winter has reasserted itself. It's raining outside, and that means he'd have to get his delicate little paws wet if he wanted to go outside. That was not to be, of course, so after a few minutes convincing himself that the rain was here to stay, he decided discretion was the better part of valor and deposited himself on the bed for a nice midmorning snooze.

And why not? It's been a busy week, hasn't it? I think I might need a little snooze myself. Coming up next week: guest catblogging! I'll bet you can hardly wait.

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The GAO Slams EPA's Regulation of Toxics

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 4:06 PM EST

Yesterday the Government Accountability Office released its annual list of government programs that it considers to be at risk of waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement and due for reform. The list included three new programs: the financial regulatory system (duh), the FDA's regulation of drugs (Vioxx, and this), and the EPA's regulation of toxic chemicals. The last has received little press, except here and here in Mother Jones (MJ contributor Mark Schapiro also published a book on the subject), which makes the GAO's bold suggestions much more striking.

The GAO says the EPA has a huge backlog of unperformed assessments that are needed to determine whether individual toxic chemicals should be regulated:

Overall the EPA has finalized a total of only 9 assessments in the past 3 fiscal years. As of December, 2007, 69 percent of ongoing assessments had been in progress for more than 5 years and 17 percent had been in progress for more than 9 years. In addition, EPA data as of 2003 indicated that more than half of the 540 existing assessments may be outdated. Five years later, the percentage is likely to be much higher.

Of course, as we've pointed out, Europe has stepped into this vacuum with a much more stringent set of toxics regulations that essentially puts the burden of proving the safety of chemicals upon the industries that use them. The logical thing would be for the US to simply adopt Europe's approach, and that's essentially what the GAO is now suggesting. The government should "shift more of the burden to chemical companies for demonstrating the safety of their chemicals," the GAO says, "and enhance the public's understanding of the risks of chemicals to which they may be exposed."

"I Won"

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 3:49 PM EST

"I WON"....Jonathan Weisman reports on today's bipartisan stimulus meeting at the White House:

Challenged by one Republican senator over the contents of the package, the new president, according to participants, replied: "I won."

The statement was prompted by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona , who challenged the president and the Democratic leaders over the balance between the package's spending and tax cuts, bringing up the traditional Republican notion that a tax credit for people who do not earn enough to pay income taxes is not a tax cut but a government check.

Obama noted that such workers pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, property taxes and sales taxes. The issue was widely debated during the presidential campaign, when Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, challenged Obama's tax plan as "welfare."

Good. Obama's efforts to maintain good relationships across the aisle may mean that he's wiser than me in these matters, but I still don't think it's going to work and I hope he doesn't waste too much energy on it. This is the right response for something that's already been hashed out a hundred times before.

Monty Python Proves Free Stuff Boosts Sales, Silly Walks Still Funny

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 3:34 PM EST

mojo-pythonchannel.jpgIt's been a recurring theme around MoJo (and in my life) to impress upon people the seemingly counterintuitive notion that giving your creative output away for free can often increase sales, something the music industry misunderstood disastrously and only now is begrudgingly coming around on. But it's rare we're given such a clear, obvious example of this theory, like the one Boing Boing pointed to over on Mashable. After being frustrated by thousands of YouTube users posting stuff without permission, venerable British comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus created their own YouTube channel with a whole bunch of their sketches and shows on it. As the Pythons put it in a statement on the site:

For 3 years you YouTubers have been ripping us off, taking tens of thousands of our videos and putting them on YouTube. Now the tables are turned. It's time for us to take matters into our own hands. We know who you are, we know where you live and we could come after you in ways too horrible to tell. But being the extraordinarily nice chaps we are, we've figured a better way to get our own back: We've launched our own Monty Python channel on YouTube. No more of those crap quality videos you've been posting. We're giving you the real thing - HQ videos delivered straight from our vault.
We're letting you see absolutely everything for free. So there! But we want something in return. None of your driveling, mindless comments. Instead, we want you to click on the links, buy our movies & TV shows and soften our pain and disgust at being ripped off all these years.

So, what happened? Did a greedy public return all their videos and sit comfortably at home, chuckling over how much money they're saving? Nope. In fact, the presence of the YouTube page seemed to help increase their DVD sales "by 23,000 percent," with a DVD jumping up to #2 on Amazon this week. Like Mashable said, nobody thinks owners of copyrighted content "should give everything away for free and simply hope that the fans will send them money." But it's clear that "cracking down" on what looks to our not-quite-caught-up-with-the-internet brains like a copyright violation can most definitely harm your bottom line, while going with the flow can help it. Either way, it also means we now can embed Python sketches here to our hearts' delight. After the jump: Money, Bicycle Repairman, Every Sperm is Sacred!

The 9 Worst Obama Editorial Cartoons

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 3:20 PM EST

obama_tophat.jpg For the most part, America's editorial cartoonists have gotten better at drawing Obama over the last year. They're no longer depicting him as a generic black guy but as an unique individual with his own distinctive features. (I'm sure there's a dissertation topic in there somewhere about how this somehow mirrored many white Americans' evolving views of candidate Obama.) But there are some still some stragglers, whom I feel obligated to call out—in the name of improving the quality of political satire, of course. Not that good editorial cartoonists have to be good caricaturists: The Washington Post's Tom Toles, who is for my money the most original of the newsprint cartoonists, draws Obama like he has a bow tie stuck behind his head. But at least it kinda, sorta looks like him.

What bugs me are the cartoonists who still do the random-black-dude thing or use some kind of slapdash combo of Obama's most prominent features ("Big ears? Check! Angular chin? Check! Longer than average torso? Check!"). Or worse. After the jump, a collection of nine of the most egregious examples of editorial cartoonists' attempts to capture Obama's likeness, and some thoughts on who—or what—they actually look like.

Is Wikipedia Eating the World?

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 2:51 PM EST

IS WIKIPEDIA EATING THE WORLD?....Three years ago, Nick Carr did a Google search for ten topics off the top of his head. He found that Wikipedia entries were the #1 hit in two cases and among the top ten hits in all the others. Today he did the same searches again and found that Wikipedia was the #1 hit for all ten. This leads him to say this:

What we seem to have here is evidence of a fundamental failure of the Web as an information-delivery service. Three things have happened, in a blink of history's eye: (1) a single medium, the Web, has come to dominate the storage and supply of information, (2) a single search engine, Google, has come to dominate the navigation of that medium, and (3) a single information source, Wikipedia, has come to dominate the results served up by that search engine. Even if you adore the Web, Google, and Wikipedia — and I admit there's much to adore — you have to wonder if the transformation of the Net from a radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one is a good thing. Is culture best served by an information triumvirate?

When I first saw this passage over at Andrew Sullivan's blog, I dismissed it. Wikipedia doesn't seem to dominate the searches I do. Quite the contrary, in fact. Usually they're only barely in the top ten.

But then I clicked the link and read Carr's search results. Apparently, for searches of standard topics, Wikipedia is far more prevalent than it is for the kinds of searches I do, which tend to be fairly random assemblages of search terms. What's more, my Google default is set up to return 50 hits per page, so even if Wikipedia is at or near the top, it's only one of many hits. But if you use the standard Google search page, it's one of ten. And if you routinely use the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button to go straight to the top hit, then Wikipedia rules. Carr, it turns out, has a more penetrating point than I thought. (On the other hand, he also has a vested interest in making this point since he's on the board of editorial advisors of Encyclopedia Britannica.)

I'm still not sure what to think about this, but my guess is that way more people use Google his way than mine. And although I'm a big fan (and defender) of Wikipedia, which I think is a miraculously useful reference tool considering how it's put together, I'm not quite sure how I feel if its hegemony in the search universe is really as complete as Carr suggests. So for now, I'm just passing this along.

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Public Diplomacy

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 2:06 PM EST

PUBLIC DIPLOMACY....Public diplomacy cheerleader Marc Lynch is unhappy over the news that Hillary Clinton may be about to choose an undersecretary of state for public diplomacy whose roots are in marketing, not statecraft. I won't pretend that this propsect gives me the same heartburn that it gives Marc, but I certainly agree with his basic criticism:

I don't know Judith McHale at all, and obviously have nothing against her personally. But the position of Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs should go to someone with experience in and a vision for public diplomacy, and who will be in a position to effectively integrate public diplomacy concerns into the policy-making process. Appointing someone with no experience in public diplomacy but with a resume which "involves selling a message" has already been tried: the first post-9/11 Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers, whose tenure lasted only 17 months (October 2001-March 2003), focused on "branding" America through television advertising showing happy Muslim-Americans, and is generally considered to be an utter failure.

Actually, I think Marc is being too nice here. It hasn't just been tried once, it's been tried three times. After Charlotte Beers left, the position was briefly given to Margaret Tutwiler, who at least had a bit of diplomatic experience, but for the past four years it's been held first by Bush pal Karen Hughes, who was famously clueless about anything beyond the borders of the United States, and then by James Glassman, who was only marginally more qualified. Neither one of them had any serious overseas experience at all.

Maybe Judith McHale will be brilliant at the job. Who knows? We'll have to learn more about her. But it would sure be nice to get someone for this job who speaks a few languages, has spent a lot of time overseas, and doesn't think of the job as merely a branding exercise. Stay tuned.

Paterson to City: Drop Dead. The Governor Hands New York's Senate Seat to an Upstate Blue Dog Conservative

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 1:58 PM EST

Governor David Paterson's appointment of Kirsten Gillibrand, a one-term Congresswoman from a conservative upstate district, to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat is a slap in the face to both New York liberals and to New York City in general. Yesterday, as Gillibrand emerged as the frontrunner, the Village Voice's Wayne Barrett branded her "too Republican to replace Clinton," and "out of step with New York voters, particularly Democrats, on a host of issues."

Gillibrand has described her own voting record as "one of the most conservative in the state." She opposes any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, supports renewing the Bush tax cuts for individuals earning up to $1 million annually, and voted for the Bush-backed FISA bill that permits wiretapping of international calls. She was one of four Democratic freshmen in the country, and the only Democrat in the New York delegation, to vote for the Bush administration's bill to extend funding for the Iraq war shortly after she entered congress in 2007. While she now contends that she's always opposed the war and has voted for bills to end it, one upstate paper reported when she first ran for the seat: "She said she supports the war in Iraq." In addition to her vote to extend funding, she also missed a key vote to override a Bush veto of a Democratic bill with Iraq timetables.

Gillibrand's positions and voting record can be seen as especially offensive to New York City. As Barrett writes:

Gillibrand has a one hundred percent rating from the National Rifle Association ….Gillibrand even opposes any limitations on the sale of semiautomatic weapons or "cop-killer" bullets that can pierce armored vests….Gillibrand voted against both…financial service bailout bills last fall, which have delivered billions to New York, salvaging institutions like Citigroup. An editorial in Crain's, the city's premier business news magazine, said recently that Gillibrand "should be disqualified" from seeking the Senate seat "by her politically expedient vote" against the bailout.

Upstate residents may resent the city's perceived dominance of politics on both the state and local levels, but they are in fact biting the hand that feeds them: The city has historically paid about 20 percent more in federal taxes and twice as much in state taxes than it gets back in services from those governments. And it seems like the wrong time to do anything that could be hard on New York City, which is already hurting badly. As I wrote late last year, while the effects of the economic meltdown are felt nationwide, New York stands at its epicenter, and is taking the heat on two fronts: It is suffering, along with the rest of the country, from the far-reaching fallout of the Wall Street debacle. But it is also directly dependent upon the financial industry itself: Jobs, retail, services, the real estate market, and an astonishing 20 percent of the state's tax base all rest upon the now crumbling foundation of the financial sector. The trip from Wall Street to Main Street is a lot shorter in New York than it is anywhere else.

Air Force Wings Are Made of Gold!

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 1:25 PM EST

God damn, I'm so proud of my twelve years in the United Friggin' States of America's Air Force! I always am, but some days bring it home more pungently than others.

Hoo-ya! (blow me, Army.)

Check out this video of President Obama's first Air Force One flight.

Hard core, nut job lefty that I am, I joined up in March 1980, when Carter was almost out, then endured eight years of Reagan (whom I LOATHED LOATHED LOATHED), then Bush I (whom I pitied, but respected), and was out by the time of Clinton (for whom I had such high hopes and for whom I actually voted). But I always served with the diligence of my WWII, Jim Crow sharecropper father before me. And my brother who hated America's racism but was nonetheless motivated to join during the Iranian hostage crisis (and the uncle who lost a leg in Viet Nam).

I kept my eyes on the prize of America, just like the motivated AIR FORCE individuals staffing Air Force One. The military is a conservative place; likely, most of the crew wanted McCain to win. But check the pilot talking about the time honored military credo of 'respecting the rank, whether or not you respect the individual,' and you'll understand why we don't have banana republic-coups here every other week.



| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 1:20 PM EST

INFRASTRUCTURE....Conservative wunderkind pollster Frank Luntz says he's amazed: Americans really, really want more spending on infrastructure, even if it means higher taxes:

Last month, I conducted a national survey of 800 registered voters on their attitudes toward infrastructure investment....The survey's findings were unlike any other issue I have polled in more than a decade.

....Fully 84% of the public wants more money spent by the federal government — and 83% wants more spent by state governments — to improve America's infrastructure. And here's the kicker: 81% of Americans are personally prepared to pay 1% more in taxes for the cause. It's not uncommon for people to say they'd pay more to get more, but when you ask them to respond to a specific amount, support evaporates.

....And Americans understand that infrastructure is not just roads, bridges and rails. In fact, they rated fixing energy facilities as their highest priority. Roads and highways scored second, and clean-water treatment facilities third.

And what impresses Luntz the most about all this? That even 74% of Republicans are willing to pay higher taxes to improve infrastructure.

The lesson here is one that won't be new to blog readers: economic stimulus is all well and good, but infrastructure is mainly a long-term commitment. It's fine to get it kick started in the current legislation — even at the risk of bits of it being a "muddled mixture" — but Obama should make it clear that this is something that will be properly planned, properly funded, and properly prioritized in the out years. That means fewer roads, but more transit, more electrical grids, and more wind farms. Right?