Maybe I'm late to the online book-recommending party, but I just came across Book Seer, a site that allows you to enter in a book you've enjoyed, and based on that book, pulls up a few suggestions (compiled from other sites like Amazon, Library Thing, and Book Army). This is the kind of thing that really can suck me into an Internet vortex, but I have a frighteningly long to-do list this morning, so I decided to give myself some rules for experimenting with Book Seer: three books only, one fiction, one nonfiction, one poetry. For fiction, I chose David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, since I was curious to see whether Book Seer had any other books up its sleeve about addiction, tennis, and Quebec separatists. My nonfiction choice was Angler, Barton Gellman's Dick Cheney biography, which I haven't read but always intend to, and my poetry pick was Jane Kenyon's collection Let Evening Come, since I recently finished it and was pretty moved by it.

1. Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace).

The results: Amazon uncreatively recommends a bunch of other DFW titles, Library Thing does the same, plus some DeLillo and Pynchon (fair enough), but Book Army has this list:

I guess the idea is coming of age stories? Which I guess Infinite Jest is. Sort of.

Most intriguing recommendation: Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis-Lessons from a Master (A Fireside book) by Brad Gilbert

2. Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (Barton Gellman).

The results: Kind of a weird mix of books about business and books that are in some way related to the presidency, including:

Most intriguing recommendation: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner

3. Let Evening Come (Jane Kenyon).

The results: Lots of Mary Oliver, who, like Kenyon writes about the natural world (and New England specifically) plus some greatest-hits-of-poetry type suggestions (The Waste Land, Leaves of Grass, Shakespeare's sonnets: all good, though not particularly Kenyon-ish).

Most intriguing recommendation: Without: Poems by Donald Hall

Okay. Back to work.

It's too easy to tune out news about Afghanistan's impending elections. They might be corrupt, they're in the midst of disarray, mm-hm, that sounds about right for that faraway fucked-up place. For a more gorgeous and engaging primer, check out the piece by the talented Mr. Tamim Ansary on The Rumpus. The author of Destiny Disrupted, who recently spoke with Mother Jones about his country and his newest book, makes the case for what's at stake not just for Afghanistan but for America's image there--perhaps a more accessible cause for concern.

Yesterday the New York Times' Home & Garden section finally addressed the story that the White House press corps has dared not bespeak: The possibility that sewage sludge fertilizer has contributed lead and other toxins to the soil in the President's vegetable garden.

A few months ago, it was the quaint Garden section that casually broke the news that the White House garden, which had been created by Michelle Obama to the delight of local and organic food advocates, contained 93 parts per million of lead--a level that is higher than natural background levels but not dangerous. The piece led me to wonder if sewage sludge fertilizer, which had been applied to the South Lawn in the past, could be one cause of the lead contamination. That post created a frenzy in the blogosphere as some people made ridiculous claims that the Obamas were poisoning themselves.

Lost in the obsession over lead levels (which the White House now says have been reduced to an extremely low 14 ppm) was much of any discussion about why people should be concerned about eating produce from land applied with sludge. So the Times deserves credit for acknowledging the issue, even if its reporting was surprisingly cursory and a bit misleading.

Taking issue with my claim that sludge was used on the White House lawn for at least a decade, the Times quoted retired White House gardener Irv Williams, who said it was applied only once, in 1985. When I originally reported on sludge, I had left multiple messages with the White House press office trying to reach Williams or anyone else with the gardening staff, but none of them were returned.  So instead, I relied on several stories about sludge and the White House from the '80s and '90s. In 1988, the Washington Post reported that ComPRO was used on the South Lawn "last August." If that's true, then Williams' memory is a bit unreliable. A decade later, the Post reported that ComPRO was being discontinued and that Williams was none too pleased about this. "Meanwhile, along Pennsylvania Avenue, the grounds crew at the White House is preparing for life after ComPRO," the Post reported. "Irv Williams, who has taken care of the White House grounds for 38 years, said they will make due, even though ComPRO has helped the South Lawn." Around the same time, an EPA official told the New Scientist: "The Clintons are walking around on poo, but it's very clean poo." In short, if sludge had long ago been discontinued at the White House, it certainly wasn't the impression being conveyed by government officials.

Why could that be? One reason could be that the EPA was very keen on using the White House example as a PR tool for the selling of sludge to home gardeners and agricultural America. So it's ironic that the spin now seems to have changed directions. In an apparent attempt to counter my message that sludge use by the government was common, the Times added, "And in 1994 President Bill Clinton sent a directive to government agencies telling them to start using environmentally friendly practices for landscaping government grounds, like reducing the use of toxic chemicals."

Really? Then how do you explain what Williams told the Post in 1999, when asked how he would replace ComPRO: "We'll do the same thing we did before we got it--use grass clippings that decompose and regular commercial fertilizer (my emphasis). More to the point, in September, 2007, the EPA adjusted its government procurement standards for the "landscaping products" category to specifically include "compost made from recovered organic materials," including "compost made from biosolids" (the EPA's term for sludge). The standards recommend that government agencies use only compost that meets this definition. 

So contrary to the impression conveyed by the Times, it's pretty safe to assume that sludge--with all of its flaws--is still in wide use by the government. At least the paper's gardening section isn't parroting the of Post's "Ornamental Gardener" column of the late '80s, which described ComPRO as "attractive, hummuslike and easy to handle" and conducive to "ideal conditions for healthy root growth." Instead, the Times reports that good sources of organic matter for gardening include "composted leaves, non-acid peat, and well-rotted manure." But sludge? Don't hold your breath.

 

According to a new Zogby poll one in three Americans say they have been seriously impacted by the recession, and 14% say their households have been "devastated." Also, fewer than half of all adults (41%) expect their household financial situations to return to pre-recession conditions.  Predictably, adults with lower household incomes reported being harder hit by the recession, though 1 in 5 adults with family incomes above $250,000 reported a "four" or "five" on the scale of "no impact" to "devastating."

Perhaps playing up their cynicism Republicans indicated the most hardship (40% say they are at or near devastation, compared with 28% of Dems), and only a third of Republicans think they'll ever make it back to their pre-recession comfort level.

Here's another entry in the bulging Shepard Fairey as Walking Pop-Culture Contradiction file: The designer of the IOHP*, who got his start tagging and stickering public places, has declared war on graffiti on his home turf. The Eastsider reports:

A few days ago workers sandblasted the brick exterior of his Echo Park studio, gallery and ad agency - called Studio Number One - and applied a shiny layer of anti-graffiti coating to the walls. Frequent tagging and graffiti had apparently taken a toll on the Sunset Boulevard building and Fairey, who rose to fame by employing the same hit-and-run tactics of graffiti artists and taggers.

"When graff seeped into the raw brick it was very difficult to clean," said Fairey, creator of the Obama "Hope" poster, in an email forwarded by one of his employees. "The building is historic and I love and want to protect the brick. The city was never any help with removal. Graffiti is par for the course."

Fair enough—there's a difference between bombing an abandoned building and a cool old building. But perhaps Fairey could have worked out an arrangement that made his studio a site for street art while also protecting it? Teflon-coating the wall probably won't stop the "graff." As one Eastsider commenter notes, "This place just got a huge bullseye on it."

 * = Iconic Obama Hope Poster

Update: In which I get an email from Nice Shepard Fairey and other critics get an email from Crazy Angry Shepard Fairey.

When President Obama first nominated Alabama doctor Regina Benjamin as surgeon general, critics charged that the nominee was too fat to serve as the nation's leading public health advocate. Those same critics will no doubt find more ammunition in today's Washington Times, which reports that Benjamin has financial ties to big-time fast-food corporations—the scourge of public health advocates everywhere. According to the Times,  Burger King paid Benjamin about $10,000 to serve on an advisory board, where she supposedly advocated for healthy improvements in the company's food offerings. Given that the company's new "Angry Triple Whopper" contains nearly 2,000 milligrams of sodium, 91 grams of fat and 1360 calories, it's hard to see how much influence Benjamin had.

The Times homes in on Benjamin's ties to the fast-food giant, but buried in the story as well is the news that Benjamin received $20,000 for sitting on an advisory board at ConAgra, one of the nation's biggest processed food companies, maker of Slim Jims, Fiddle Faddle, the ever-popular Manwich sloppy Joe sauce.  NYU prof and nutrition guru Marion Nestle told the Times that the corporate food payments were hugely problematic for someone whose job it should be to encourage the public to shun those companies’ products. "Fast-food companies are not public health agencies; their job is to sell fast food - and the more, the better," Dr. Nestle said. "For me, this would represent an impossible conflict of interest."

Facing big budget cuts, hard-pressed state prison officials have come up with a new way of paying for operating costs: charging inmates for room and board, health care and other amenities, according to USA Today. The money generally comes from prisoners’ families, many of whom are extremely poor.
In Arizona's Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, Sheriff Joe Arpaio humiliates prisoners by making them wear pink underwear and forcing them to sleep outdoors in 100 degree heat. Reports USA Today: "Earlier this year, he announced that inmates would be charged $1.25 per day for meals. His decision followed months of food strikes staged by convicts who complained of being fed green bologna and moldy bread."
Below the jump, some other examples cited by the paper:
 

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Rodney Bracey, the religious programs specialist for 7th Marine Regiment, plays a game on his NetBook during a pre-deployment training exercise here Aug. 5, 2009. Bracey is a 39-year-old native of Danbury, Conn. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Luis R. Agostini courtesy marines.mil.)

Some must-reads from around the web:

Is the White House ignoring an economic time bomb?

Why Australia's cap and trade plan failed.

DiFi's office swamped with misdirected Organizing for America volunteers.

Newt Gingrich: for death panels before he was against them.

Obama's first rendition?

Why editors are awesome, despite jokes you may have heard suggesting otherwise.

David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is on twitter, and so are my colleagues Daniel Schulman, Nick Baumann, and our editor, Clara Jeffery. You can follow me here. The magazine's main account is @motherjones.

Off to Pittsburgh

I'll be at Netroots Nation this weekend, so blogging will be either light or very light for the next few days.  To make up for it, though, you might be able to watch me on TV.  I'll be moderating the lunch keynote panel on Saturday with Dean Baker, Jon Corzine, and Anna Burger, and the NN website suggests this will be carried live on either C-SPAN or C-SPAN2.  I don't know for sure if this will actually happen, but tune in at noon Eastern time and find out!