From the San Francisco Chronicle today comes a great story about how major produce buyers are imposing secret scorched-earth measures on hundreds of thousands of acres where spinach and leafy greens are grown. Trees are being bulldozed, frogs and rodents are being killed, and farmers are creating wide crop buffers of bare dirt, all in a misguided attempt to prevent another outbreak of E. Coli. The changes are taking a heavy toll on the Salinas Valley, the nation's "salad bowl," which is incredibly biodiverse and traditionally a hotbed of sustainable agriculture. By eliminating the natural checks and balances on the agricultural ecosystem, the measures might be doing more harm than good. There has never been an E. Coli outbreak on small-scale farms---farms that are integrated with the local ecosystem and sell to the region's farmers markets.

 

To those of you that have not already read "We Bring Fear," Chuck Bowden's amazing piece on the plight of Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, well, get on it. For everyone else,  I thought I'd share with you how Immigration and Customs Enforcement used a ridiculous legal argument to keep Emilio behind bars and separated from his son for seven months.

Mother Jones obtained a copy of one of the rejection letters sent to Emilio and his lawyer, Carlos Spector, after they requested Emilio's parole. (See annotated version below). In it, Robert Jolicoeur, Field Office Director at the El Paso center where Emilio was detained, claims that Emilio failed to meet 4 of the 5 criteria required for asylum applicants to receive parole. But the grounds are bogus, as you'll notice—and this is an example of what Carlos Spector referred to as the "Guantanimization of the refugee process." (It's a dirty little secret that during the Bush years asylum applicants from Mexico were held indefinitely to discourage them from pursuing their asylum claims.) The nonprofit Human Rights First released a great report on refugee Guantanimization in April: "U.S. Detention of Asylum Seeks: Seeking Protection, Finding Prison."

See Emilio's actual rejection letter and read a debunking of each provision after the break.

Our intrepid political blogger Kevin Drum posted last Thursday on whether anyone is actually using Bing, Microsoft's newly revamped, rebranded search engine. So I just had to share some fun stuff I read in Business Week last month about how Bing—already targeted by bloggywags as an acronym for "But It's Not Google!"—got its name. (I can't say I use Bing, but I have tried it: The home page is prettier than its rival's, but after searching it for "Michael Jackson," and looking at the list of results, I got to thinking that the Gates Posse should have called it Biig: "But It Imitates Google!")

Big companies just can't come up with clever names the way we at Mother Jones brainstorm clever headlines—that is, in a brief, frenzied series of internal emails. These days they feel compelled to outsource. According to the June 15 story by Bizweek marketing editor Burt Helm (the issue caught my attention because my birthday is June 16) Microsoft hired a firm called Interbrand, which set eight of its employees to brainstorming around themes like "speed" and "relevance." In six weeks, the team came up with 2,000 names, then nixed the lamest—somehow overlooking Bing—and whittled the list to 600.

In March, citizens of Louisville, Kentucky, experienced KFC-themed pothole repairs. Now, folks in New York City, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles can tread on sidewalks bearing ads for Domino's Pizza.

GreenGraffiti, the Netherlands-based company Domino's partnered with for the campaign, claims all kinds of green cred. Plus, its site says, it's doing the cities a service by washing the sidewalk (though the gross gum in the image shown here suggests that squeaky clean is not the goal, and not everyone is convinced ads are more attractive than dirt).

Good thing Domino's is targeting walkers, since the focus of the campaign, the American Legends Pizza, has 40 percent more cheese than a regular pizza.

Blah Blah Blah

So.....how's the Sotomayor hearing going?  Let's turn on the TV.

Ah, it's Senator Tom Coburn, the guy who absolutely did not advise John Ensign to pay $96,000 in hush money to his lover's husband.  Coburn, it seems, is troubled.  He comes from the heartland.  He thinks the law should be stable.  It's the glue that binds us together.  He shakes his head.  Now he's troubled all over again.  We can't pay attention to foreign law.  The oath of office is important.  Empathy is bad.  Aristotle had it right.

Etc. etc.  Jesus.  The Senate would be a much better place if senators weren't allowed to speak.  Is there really any reason at all for an entire day of inane opening statements from these people?

UPDATE: Patrick Leahy is now spending more time blabbing about a brief outburst in the gallery than the outburst itself took.

Alison Leigh Cowan of the New York Times investigates Standard Form 152, the form that allows federal bureaucrats to create new forms. Apparently it's being used a lot these days:

Last year, Americans spent nearly 10 billion hours [pdf] filling out more than 8,000 different government forms and other official requests for information tracked by the federal budget office. That compares with roughly one billion hours spent on similar paperwork in 1981, which in hindsight looks to have been a refreshingly uncomplicated time.

Sounds grim.  But there's some slightly good news: according the to the linked CRS report, about 80% of all those hours are dedicated to tax forms.  Aside from taxes, all that remains is about 2 billion hours of form-filling nirvana, and I'm willing to bet that 80% of that is incurred by compliance officers and other paid professionals.  That leaves only about 400 million hours for us ordinary citizens, which works out to about two hours per year per adult.

So once you do your taxes you only have about two additional hours of government form filling out to do each year.  To be honest, that's less than I would have guessed — but that's probably because I've been fooled by the fantastic increase in private sector forms that make up the unseen superstructure of the internet age.  Here's my guess for me personally: one hour spent filling out government forms in 2008 (an accountant does our taxes) and, oh, let's say 10,000 hours spent filling out various annoying and idiotically designed online forms that allow me to buy things, access sites, write blog comments, take stupid quizzes, and order new services that allow me to continue living my convenient 21st century net-centric life.

OK, maybe not 10,000 hours.  But I wouldn't be surprised if I spend 30-40 hours a year filling out various online forms for one thing or another.  How about you?

A friend just returned from a family reunion in Ireland. A lot of his relatives are doctors. The Irish ones make less money, but they love their jobs, not least because they all have portable digital devices with all their patients' information (including, for example, x-rays) available at the touch of a button. My friend's American doctor relatives make more money, but none of them seem to have access to anything like the Irish doctors' portable electronic medical records: all of them are still doing some, if not all, of their record-keeping on paper.

This is silly, and the government is working to change it. The stimulus plan includes billions of dollars to support computerization of medical records. But in a great new cover story for the Washington Monthly, Philip Longman explains that the Obama administration may be doing it all wrong. Longman compares two hospitals that adopted electronic medical records around the same time: Midland Memorial in South Texas, and the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Things went great in Texas, but terribly in Pennsylvania. "The devil, as usual, is in the details," writes Longman:

While many factors were no doubt at work, among the most crucial was a difference in the software installed by the two institutions. The system that Midland adopted is based on software originally written by doctors for doctors at the Veterans Health Administration, and it is what’s called "open source," meaning the code can be read and modified by anyone and is freely available in the public domain rather than copyrighted by a corporation. For nearly thirty years, the VA software’s code has been continuously improved by a large and ever-growing community of collaborating, computer-minded health care professionals, at first within the VA and later at medical institutions around the world. Because the program is open source, many minds over the years have had the chance to spot bugs and make improvements. By the time Midland installed it, the core software had been road-tested at hundred of different hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes by hundreds of thousands of health care professionals.

The software Children’s Hospital installed, by contrast, was the product of a private company called Cerner Corporation. It was designed by software engineers using locked, proprietary code that medical professionals were barred from seeing, let alone modifying. Unless they could persuade the vendor to do the work, they could no more adjust it than a Microsoft Office user can fine-tune Microsoft Word. While a few large institutions have managed to make meaningful use of proprietary programs, these systems have just as often led to gigantic cost overruns and sometimes life-threatening failures. Among the most notorious examples is Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles, which in 2003 tore out a "state-of-the-art" $34 million proprietary system after doctors rebelled and refused to use it. And because proprietary systems aren’t necessarily able to work with similar systems designed by other companies, the software has also slowed what should be one of the great benefits of digitized medicine: the development of a truly integrated digital infrastructure allowing doctors to coordinate patient care across institutions and supply researchers with vast pools of data, which they could use to study outcomes and develop better protocols.

Read the whole piece.

A lot, of course. The New York Times reports that Goldman Sachs, "which only recently paid back its government bailout money, will report blowout profits from trading on Tuesday"—$2 billion in four months. The company is set to pay out $18 billion in compensation this year, which works out to over $600,000 per employee. In addition to the TARP money it received, Goldman was a major beneficiary of the federal government's bailout of AIG. But, you know, everyone does this sort of thing, so it's all good. Move along now—nothing to see here.

Behind the Curtain

Dan Drezner spent the past week guest lecturing at the Barcelona Institute for International Studies and reports back:

One mildly surprising finding from surveying my students was the extent to which many of them believed that the United States government was consciously manipulating every single event in world politics.  Ironically, at the moment when many Americans are questioning the future of U.S. hegemony, many non-Americans continue to believe that the U.S. government is diabolically manipulating events behind the scenes (For example, the Ghanaians in the crowd wanted to know why Obama visited their country last week.  The standard "promotion of good democratic governance" answer did not satisfy them, They were convinced that there had to be some deeper, potentially sinister motive to the whole enterprise).

Actually, the United States probably is trying to manipulate every single event in world politics. Dan's students were right about that.  The part they're missing is that they don't understand just how bad we are at it.  Answer: really bad.

Somehow, the battle over whether to require chain restaurants to prominently disclose nutritional information has become a hot button issue. And it could flare up as lawmakers consider enacting a federal calorie labeling policy. New York City reinstituted the practice last year, and California is on track to follow its example. But calorie labeling has so far stalled outside of these progressive havens.

Why all the controversy? As Ezra Klein writes, calorie labeling is such a good idea that it will "one day come to seem like the most natural thing in the world."

It turns out that the only drawback to requiring restaurants to disclose calorie information is that it could make people healthier... which could be bad for unhealthy restaurants and has therefore drawn the ire of the restaurant industry. In a brief following the defeat of a labeling measure in Maryland, the Restaurant Association of Maryland wrote that they do not oppose labeling but that they "simply want flexibility in how the information is displayed and nationwide uniformity through a federal approach." Will they show calorie information under the counter, or in the trash can, perhaps?

By giving consumers the means to make more informed, healthy decisions about their meals, calorie labeling fits perfectly into our capitalist ideals. The consumer can choose a 400-calorie salad from Cosi, for example, or a 1,000-calorie burger and fries combo from McDonald's. I, for one, know the euphoria that follows the knowledge that I just saved myself from 400 calories by ordering "fresco" at Taco Bell instead of my default 970-calorie choice Grilled Stuft Burrito and Double Decker Taco.

Why not let people enjoy the simple pleasures of eating healthy or unhealthy when they choose?