The world of journalism takes another hit. Walter Cronkite was the voice of a generation, maybe not mine, but he shaped media for decades, not in the anchor chair necessarily, but in people's living rooms. From what I remember, and from what my grandfather would tell me (he just passed away at the age of nearly 101), Cronkite made people feel a part of the news as it unfolded. "He was right there," he'd say, "giving you the straight scoop!"
 
Cronikite shaped what people cared about at a time when there weren't the Twittering masses to do the telling. And he knew what he was talking about, all the time. Not that we necessarily want to return to such a narrow sieve through which we hear the day's truths, but he did a fine job with such a weighty task.
 
And that's the way it was.

The Case for a Water Tax

Despite the summertime fun that ensues when a burst pipe transforms a neighborhood street into a water park, the problem has gotten a bit out of hand. Last year alone, America experienced 240,000 water main breaks, resulting in the loss of billions of gallons of water. And it's only going to get worse. In the next 20 years, the EPA predicts a shortfall of more than $500 billion in needed drinking and wastewater infrastructure investments. We're headed towards a future of sputtering faucets and overflowing sewage plants.

This week, Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) proposed an interesting solution: funding the repair of America's water works with a tax on products that burden it. He'd extract funds from cosmetics, toothpaste, and pharmaceuticals--they're often difficult to remove in wastewater plants and can harm the environment--and bottled beverages, which have a carbon and water footprint that goes far beyond the liquids that they contain.

The tax might be a tough sell in Congress (see the gas tax), but it begins to lay the groundwork for a more logical approach to regulating water. Scientists now have the tools to calculate the water footprints of a wide range of businesses and products. I explore how crunching those numbers could help solve the water crisis in our current issue.

 

In an attempt to scare the public regarding the Dem's health reform bill, Republican leaders have been pushing this chart. (That's not all they've released. Oh, and remember Harry and Louse? They're baaaack!)

Liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America struck back yesterday with this attempt to scare the public regarding the GOP's easy media manipulation.

So who wins? Gotta say, my money is on the GOP. It's easy to sit back and do nothing except scare people about changing our current healthcare system, which, by god, is the thing people need to be scared of.

As far as the media is concerned, well, I'd say the public is already pretty jaded.

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The McDonald's Happy Meal turned 30 today. As a lover of food that is horrible for me, I am willing to admit that the Happy Meal proves that delicious ≠ good. In fact, since the Happy Meal was introduced and started luring children like a creepy stranger promising toys, childhood obesity has quadrupled to 17 percent.

David Knowles highlights the unhappy stain that the golden arches have left on our health and environment in the past three decades. An excerpt:

Hugely successful, every one of McDonald’s competitors followed the chain’s PR brainstorm, linking food with cheap toys, and it didn’t take long for corporations to see the inherent marketing opportunity. Before long, all that disposable plastic crap inside the bag alongside the high-fat, high carbohydrate meals was hawking Hollywood movies, tv shows, and the like.

And the plastic! Think of the number of discarded crappy toys that end up as trash in our oceans. Every few months, it seems, I’ll find a good half-dozen of the things collected in some drawer or other of my kids’ rooms, and we don’t even eat fast food (barring the occasional road trip). The ubiquity of figurines from the latest animated film is an undeniable fact. Kids play with them for an afternoon, maybe a week later, and then they’re trash.

Yes, I know full well that kids love “Happy Meals” and the Pavlovian promise of a free toy. But these meals should be viewed as nothing less than plague on our society, making kids fatter and the oceans more polluted. Their predatory marketing strategy has kids (and their parent’s wallets) right in their greedy sights. So, happy birthday, “Happy Meal”. Here’s hoping against hope that you’ll be discontinued before you hit 31.

Think of it as the Red Scare in reverse: Worrying whether the hipster at the cafe is secretly a communist is about to be replaced with worrying whether the hipster cafe is secretly a Starbucks. Yesterday, the chain revealed that it's dropping its name from a location in Seattle's trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood and replacing it with "15th Avenue Coffee and Tea." That's right, the people's coffee provider is going underground.

At least two other local stores will follow suit, Kiera notes on the Riff, as the chain tests out marketing coffee with neighborhood-specific names rather than a slutty mermaid, who is getting blown towards the rocky shore of the recession by competition from the Golden Arches.

That Starbucks is making the name switch in Seattle's Capitol Hill rather than a truck stop in Alabama is telling. It suggests that the chain may be most concerned with countering the hipster and anti-corporate backlash, which has kept the store out of trendy neighborhoods in some cities. San Francisco, for example, has blocked Starbucks and even American Apparel stores over concerns about neighborhood character.

The new stores will also sell alcohol, and Starbucks may want to draw a firm line between "wet" and "dry" outlets. Yet sometimes that line is already blurred. In 2004, I interviewed John Winter Smith, a man on Sisyphean mission to visit every Starbucks in the world, who told me that a store in Plano, Texas served him cocktails from a secret mini bar. "They had a couple of bottles in a back room and were mixing up stuff," he said. Now that's what I call neighborhood character.

With the help of $44 million from the US government, Rwanda decided last week to extend its multi-layered judicial system for another year. The system is comprised of an international criminal tribunal for the most heinous criminals associated with the 1994 genocide, and the semi-traditional gacaca courts, which practice restorative justice on the community level. The extension has been praised because it gives the government a chance to determine the innocence or guilt of many of the alleged criminals that remain untried. But Hutus claim that the Rwandan government is partial to the country's Tutsi minority—largely the victims of the 1994 genocide—and that the process is fueled by revenge, not justice. Is the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government manipulating the courts for its own political and ethnic gain with US dollars?

(Check out Mother Jones' fantastic photo essay on Rwanda: "Can You Love a Child of Rape?")

Gacaca, literally “on the grass,” is a restorative system which allows perpetrators responsible for crimes including isolated murder and destruction of property during the genocide to decrease their prison sentences if they plead guilty, apologize, and agree to supplement their shortened jail time with community service. But the gacaca courts have been instructed by the RPF to focus only on crimes that occurred during a limited timeframe, most of which were committed by Hutus. During the protracted civil war that preceded the genocide, though, The Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Army was also responsible for murder, rape, and destruction of Hutu property. Also, gacaca judges are untrained and elected by the community, which raises concerns about international standards of due process and impartiality.

While it's important that the major perpetrators of the genocide be held accountable for their crimes, without fair trials that cut across ethnic groups, these supposedly restorative courts could perpetuate, not end, Rwanda's horrific cycle of violence that has plagued Hutu and Tutsi controlled governments for the past half-century.

In news that should come as no surprise to anyone, it turns out that cats are pretty devious when it comes to getting humans to feed them.  The latest research shows that cats have two kinds of purr: there's the normal happy kind that we all know and love, and then there's "solicitation purring," a surprisingly annoying kind used in the morning to get us off our backsides and out to the food bowl:

"The embedding of a cry within a call that we normally associate with contentment is quite a subtle means of eliciting a response," said Karen McComb of the University of Sussex. "Solicitation purring is probably more acceptable to humans than overt meowing, which is likely to get cats ejected from the bedroom."

....McComb got the idea for the study from her experience with her own cat, who would consistently wake her up in the mornings with a very insistent purr. After speaking with other cat owners, she learned that some of their cats also made the same type of call. As a scientist who studies vocal communication in mammals, she decided to investigate the manipulative meow.

Domino has recently taken up this behavior too, though it's not clear why.  Around five or six in the morning she suddenly gets all perky and wants everyone to pay attention to her.  But the food bowl already has food in it, and that's not what she seems to be interested in anyway.  She just wants attention.  There's obviously something devious going on here, but I'm not sure what.

Anyway.  On to catblogging.  We recently acquired a new rocking chair, and it instantly became the new bestest thing in the world.  Domino doesn't rock much, but she loves the chair.  On the right, Inkblot is watching studiously as Domino crosses his field of vision.  You can't be too careful around these parts.

Three Seattle Starbucks locations are getting a homey makeover, the Seattle Times reports:

The ubiquitous coffee-shop giant is dropping the household name from its 15th Avenue East store on Capitol Hill, a shop that was slated to close at one point last year but is being remodeled in Starbucks' new rustic, eco-friendly style.

It will open next week, the first of at least three remodeled Seattle-area stores that will bear the names of their neighborhoods rather than the 16,000-store chain to which they belong.

The new stores will eschew anything that smacks of corporate branding—even their coffee bags will bear the name of the shop instead of the Starbucks logo. And the folksiness doesn't stop there, folks: Amenities will include beer and wine, hand-pulled espresso shots, live music, and poetry readings.

In order to figure out what makes neighborhood cafés tick, Starbucks HQ sent observation teams out to do some authenticity recon. Stealth missions these were not: One local coffeehouse owner told the Seattle Times, "They spent the last 12 months in our store up on 15th [Avenue] with these obnoxious folders that said, 'Observation.'"

Creepiness of rebranded coffee bags and synthetic hominess aside, there's actually something encouraging about this: Starbucks' attempt to emulate the little guys suggests local coffee joints are weathering the recession better than I thought. I had assumed mom-and-pop cafés woudn't be able to compete with the chains. Maybe I was wrong. Cool. But can the real little guys compete with the fake little guys? Man, oh man. Would that DFW were around to tackle that one.

HT J-Walk Blog.

This shouldn't come as any surprise at this point, but Democrats have decided to drop card check from the Employee Free Choice Act.  It never had unanimous support within the Democratic caucus and Republicans were sure to filibuster it, so it had no chance of passing.

But without card check, what's left?  Nathan Newman says "quite a lot":

Let's rename the bill, the "Prevention of Illegal Firings Act" (PIFA) and it's still important labor law reform....Majority signup provisions would be dropped, but elections would be held within five days, employees could not be forced into mandatory meetings, and unions could campaign on company property during the election period.

....This is worlds away from the present situation where elections take well over a month at minimum and often far longer, while mandatory meetings and firings destroy union support and any penalties come in months and even years later for employer actions — and the costs to the employer from those penalties are so minimal that they act as no deterrence.

If anyone wants a frame for this new labor law, it's simple — cracking down on illegal corporate behavior during union elections. The bill becomes a "tough on crime" bill, pure and simple. It's not everything labor wants and it's a dramatic compromise to placate conservative Democrats, but it would be a major improvement for workers rights if it passed in this form.

Centrist Dems have gotten what they wanted.  So will they support the bill now?  Stay tuned.

In a speech in Chicago today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates (again) called on Congress to resist the urge to pack the defense budget full of pork. And because certain lawmakers have been digging in their heels this week, Gates wasn't mincing words. The best bits (emphases mine):

We must also get control of what is called “requirements creep”—where more features and capabilities are added to a given piece of equipment, often to the point of absurdity. The most flamboyant example of this phenomenon is the new presidential helicopter...Once the analysis and requirements were done, we ended up with choppers that cost nearly half a billion dollars each and enabled the president to, among other things, cook dinner while in flight under nuclear attack...

The F-22, to be blunt, does not make much sense anyplace else in the spectrum of conflict. Nonetheless, supporters of the F-22 lately have promoted its use for an ever expanding list of potential missions. These range from protecting the homeland from seaborne cruise missiles to, as one retired general recommended on TV, using F-22s to go after Somali pirates who in many cases are teenagers with AK-47sa job we know is better done by three Navy SEALs. These are examples of how far-fetched some of the arguments have become for a program that has cost $65 billion—and countingto produce 187 aircraft, not to mention the thousands of uniformed Air Force positions that were sacrificed to help pay for it.

h/t: Danger Room.