A new study in Science shows the best way to maximize "miles per acre" from biomass is to convert it to electricity, not ethanol.

Compared to ethanol used for internal combustion engines, bioelectricity used for battery-powered vehicles would deliver an average of 80 percent more miles of transportation per acre of crops, while also doubling the greenhouse gas offsets to mitigate climate change.

"It's a relatively obvious question once you ask it, but nobody had really asked it before," says study co-author Chris Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution.

The researchers performed a life-cycle analysis of bioelectricity versus ethanol technologies, taking into account the energy produced and also the energy consumed in each.

Bioelectricity was the clear winner in the transportation-miles-per-acre comparison, regardless of whether the energy was produced from corn or from switchgrass.

A small SUV powered by bioelectricity could travel nearly 14,000 highway miles on the net energy produced from an acre of switchgrass. A comparable internal combustion vehicle could only travel 9,000 miles on the highway.

"The internal combustion engine just isn't very efficient, especially when compared to electric vehicles," says lead author Elliott Campbell of the U of California Merced. "Even the best ethanol-producing technologies with hybrid vehicles aren't enough to overcome this.

While the results of the study clearly favor bioelectricity over ethanol, the researchers caution the issues facing society in choosing an energy strategy are complex.

"We found that converting biomass to electricity rather than ethanol makes the most sense for two policy-relevant issues: transportation and climate," says David Lobell of Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment. "But we also need to compare these options for other issues like water consumption, air pollution, and economic costs."

Now Jay Bybee wants to explain his legal advice to members of Congress. Roll back the clock to February 2003, and Bybee's stock answer to members of the Senate judiciary committee considering his nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals: "As the head of the Department's Office of Legal Counsel, I am obligated to keep confidential the legal advice that my Office provides to others in the executive branch. I cannot comment on whether or not I have provided any advice on this matter, and, if so, the substance of that advice." Asked about the opinions his office rendered on everything from the establishment of a Violence Against Women office in the Justice Department to the Pentagon's use of data mining to the administration's enemy combatant policies, Bybee refused, on more than 20 occasions, to provide any information.

Recently, Bybee has gotten a lot more talkative. And it's no wonder why. There's a mounting drumbeat to impeach him from the federal bench for his role in drafting memos that provided a legal rationale for harsh interrogation techniques that many believe amount to torture. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is finishing up an internal probe that may recommend disbarment proceedings—though likely not criminal prosecutions—against Bybee and ex-OLC official John Yoo. According to the Las Vegas Sun, Bybee has recently reached out to members of Nevada's congressional delegation in order to "tell his side of the story."

The step suggests that Bybee believes maintaining the judicial branch’s customary distance from the political process is no longer in his best interest.

Ever wonder whether the nutritional labels on your food are telling the truth? Wonder no more: For just $800, you can order "Typical Diet," two six-ounce bottles of a freeze-dried blend of four days' worth of all your daily recommended fat, protein, calories, vitamins, and minerals, prepared by the US government's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). 

Nutritious and delicious? Maybe not. I'm not sure anyone has ever tasted this concoction (and in fact NIST warns it's not for human consumption"). It's used as a standard against which food manufacturers test the nutritional content of their products. The Guardian points out that fans of Typical Diet might want to check out NIST's other fine food products, which include baby food composite, meat, and a standard issue fish from Lake Superior, methylmercury and all. But the fun doesn't stop there:

Nist offers many kinds of useful and, to the connoisseur, delightful Standard Reference Materials. Its catalogue runs to 145 pages.

Prospective purchasers can peruse page after page of bodily fluids and glops, among them bilirubin, cholesterol and ascorbic acid in frozen human serum. There are other speciality products in dizzying variety: toxic metals in bovine blood, naval brass, domestic sludge and plutonium-242 solution, to name four.

Prices are mostly in the $300-$500 range. There are bargains to be had, including an item called "multi drugs of abuse in urine", on offer at three bottles for $372.

Good news for all you 2012ers out there: Typical Diet doesn't expire till 2016, so you can start stocking up now.  


From Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC):

"Marginal tax rates are the lowest they've been in generations, and all we can talk about is tax cuts.  The people's desires have changed, but we're still stuck in our old issue set."

The noteworthy thing about this quote isn't that Patrick McHenry is a Republican, it's that he's Patrick McHenry.  This is not Olympia Snowe.  McHenry is a young man who made his bones by insisting loudly and on all occasions that, no matter who else was in the room, he was still the most right-wing guy there.  But he's also a young man who made his name as a guy willing to do whatever it took to climb the political ladder.  If he's decided that maybe taxes aren't the road to electoral glory anymore, the GOP better start looking for another issue.

For more, read "Getting Ahead in the GOP," Ben Wallace-Wells's profile of McHenry in the Washington Monthly a few years ago.

Walter Pincus has an interesting piece about the newspaper biz in the Columbia Journalism Review this month.  The points he makes aren't exactly new, but they're worth making anyway.  For example:

We have turned into a public-relations society. Much of the news Americans get each day was created to serve just that purpose — to be the news of the day.

....In 1981, at the beginning of the Reagan administration, Michael Deaver — one of the great public-relations men of our time — began to use early-morning “tech” sessions at the White House, which had been a way to help network producers plan the use of their camera crews each day, to shape the television news story for that evening. Deaver would say that President Reagan will appear in the Rose Garden to talk about his crime-prevention program and discuss it in terms of, say, Chicago and San Francisco. That would allow the networks to shoot B-roll. The president would appear in the Rose Garden as promised, make his statement, perhaps take a question or two, and vanish.

After a while, the network White House correspondents began to attend these sessions, and later print reporters began showing up, too. On days when the president went off to Camp David or his California ranch, Sam Donaldson, the ABC News White House correspondent, began his shouted questions to Reagan, and Reagan’s flip answers became the nightly news — and not just on television. The Washington Post, which prior to that time did not have a standing White House story each day (publishing one only when the president did something newsworthy), began to have similar daily coverage.

At the end of Reagan’s first year, David Broder, the Post’s political reporter, wrote a column about Reagan being among the least-involved presidents he had covered. In response, he got an onslaught of mail from people who said they saw Reagan every night on TV, working different issues. It was a triumph of public relations.

....Today, mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, presenting both or all sides as if they were refereeing a game in which only the players — the government and its opponents — can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance, and at times even accuracy.

Read the whole thing.

A long, sternly worded letter about President Barack Obama by billionaire hedge fund manager Clifford Asness made its way around the blogosphere on Thursday. The letter, which first appeared on Zero Hedge, accuses Obama of favoring the United Auto Workers union and its members in the deal to bail out Chrysler. The Obama administration has criticized some of Asness' fellow fund managers for refusing to accept its bid for the Chrysler bonds their funds hold. Most Chrysler bond holders, including several TARP recipients, had agreed to take big losses, but nine hedge funds held out for a better deal, forcing the company into bankruptcy. So Obama criticized them as "speculators" who were "refusing to sacrifice like everyone else" and who wanted "to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout." Asness thinks that's a horribly unfair thing for the President to say:

The President and his team sought to avoid having Chrysler go through [the bankruptcy] process, proposing their own plan for re-organizing the company and partially paying off Chrysler’s creditors. Some bond holders thought this plan unfair. Specifically, they thought it unfairly favored the United Auto Workers, and unfairly paid bondholders less than they would get in bankruptcy court. So, they said no to the plan and decided, as is their right, to take their chances in the bankruptcy process. But, as his quotes above show, the President thought they were being unpatriotic or worse.

Arlen Specter may have lost his seniority when he defected to the Democratic Party, but thanks to the generosity of Dick Durbin (D–Ill.) he's getting his hands on a gavel nonetheless:

Senate Democratic leaders have reached agreement with Sen. Arlen Specter to partially restore the party switcher's status on the Judiciary Committee, by granting Specter the chairmanship of the Crime and Drugs Subcommittee.

Under the deal, which Senate Democratic aides outlined this morning, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) would give up the gavel of the prestigious post, which holds jurisdiction over most Justice Department activities.

So Specter now controls the hearings for "most Justice Department activities."  Not bad.  No wonder he took the news of his demotion the other day so calmly.

Factlet of the Day

Over at the mothership, James Ridgeway points to a piece at the New Rules Project by Stacy Mitchell about credit card fees.  Not the million and one consumer fees that sting us all like a horde of angry gnats, but the plain vanilla transaction fees that are charged on every single credit card purchase:

Although the exact rate charged on any given transaction varies widely depending on many factors, including the size of the business and the type of card, the average interchange fee in the U.S. is now about 2% of the value of the sale — two to six times the regulated rates imposed on Visa and MasterCard in Australia and much of Europe.

....Interchange fees now comprise a substantial share of the income these companies make on credit cards.  In 2004, card issuers took in $28 billion in interchange.  By 2008, that figure had shot up to $48 billion.  That's more than one-quarter of all credit card revenue and more than the total collected by banks in credit card late fees, over-the-limit fees, and ATM fees combined.

Needless to say, merchants have no bargaining power at all here, since they can hardly stop taking credit cards and rules prohibit them from directly passing along the transaction fees to consumers.  In Europe, transaction fees have been cut to 0.3%, but that took EU-level government action.

This leads James to say that "piecemeal laws to protect consumers from a handful of the most devious practices will never get to the real problems. The answer to the credit card mess is a full fledged investigation by Congress, followed by meaningful regulation that takes in all the powerful players in the credit card business, including the banks that are at the bottom of it all."  Alternatively, there's my proposal: round up all the credit card company CEOs and have them shot at dawn.  Just as a warning to others, you understand.

Local News

Here in Los Angeles, one of the most common media laments is about how poorly the LA Times covers local news.  Matt Yglesias, writing from the other end of the country, wonders if this is inevitable:

While it’s true that the coverage of local issues in DC offered by The Washington Post is not all it could be, the fact of the matter is that most people don’t even know what you could be learning by reading the Post. Not only is it going to be intrinsically difficult to ever find a viable revenue model for paying a reporter to cover the zoning board if people don’t want to read about the zoning board, I’m not actually sure how much social value is created by unread articles about zoning boards. If an article about proposed modifications to the Purple Line falls in the wilderness and nobody’s there to read it, are we really making a difference?

My sense of local news isn't that great, but it's always been a little bit different than this.  The fact is that most communities have a pretty hard core of activists who do go to planning board meetings and city council meetings and so forth.  And 99% of the time, they just do their thing and the local paper does no more than print short blurbs about what's going on.  And the rest of us ignore it.

But every once in a while, something becomes a big deal.  Not because the Times or the Post does or doesn't have a reporter at a board meeting, but because the activists suddenly start screaming louder and the community gets up in arms about something.  Then the local press starts to pay attention.

In other words, it doesn't matter that much if the local paper reports assiduously on local zoning board meetings.  What matters is that the community itself has some minimum level of activist organization and that the local press still exists and can pick up a story when it gets hot.  Unfortunately, the local press can't do even that much if there's no more local press.  That's why they matter.

I've mentioned my girl-crushes before, haven't I?


Hmmm...eyelash flutter...stentorian throat clearing.


Well, as Liz Lemon on 30 Rock would say, consider me bi-adjacent/curious where Rebecca Traister is concerned, as well as Heather Havrilesky, Amy Poehler, Samantha Power, Wanda Sykes, Ani DeFranco, Anne Lamott, Dolly Parton, and Bjork. (Or so their attorneys tell mine.)

Awesome as Traister is (and we've Salon-overlapped in person a few times. She rocks in person AND on paper), each week she wows me with her insights. Finally, this week, I had to blog my frickin' heart out over her. She's talking about two bad-mommy/bad-daddy memoirs that just came out. (Mom's here. Dad's here.) Damned if her childless ass doesn't see through to the heart of things:

Like Hillary Clinton, who proposed healthcare reform that made her a pariah in 1993, and 15 years later found herself campaigning against half a dozen candidates using her ideas as a model, Waldman may have found that her outrageous reputation has been eclipsed by a blogosphere drowning in bad mother confessionals. But she is still a true lightning rod, and her new book is generously studded with Ayelet-astic grenades. She writes of aborting a baby at a comparatively late stage because of a genetic abnormality, and in her ensuing grief and guilt, wreaking havoc on other women suffering similarly by joining their online "heartbreaking choice" support group and then insisting that they use the word "abortion" to come to terms with what they had done. Waldman writes about how she gave up her beloved criminal defense job not because she was anxious to slough off her professional responsibilities or because it was a pragmatic necessity, but because she was jealous of her work-at-home husband's days alone with their baby. She writes about her disappointment at the fact that her children are not exceptionally gifted, and the stages of denial, grief and anger upon learning that one of her kids had some learning issues. She confesses her surety that she will one day be jealous of her son's wife, and her fears that her kids will inherit her bipolar disorder.
Waldman remains an invaluable answer to Caitlin Flanagan, the silver-tongued specter of maternal servility. From the first, she admits to escaping the doldrums of her self-determined stay-at-home motherhood by developing her writing career, something Flanagan rarely cops to in her profitably published paeans to opting out. Where Flanagan flogs her formula for marital bliss, which is that if you serve your husband hot meals, keep his house, raise his kids and give him blow jobs, he will repay you by remaining faithful and caring for you through illness, Waldman's considerably more appealing equation is that if your husband cooks a hot meal, does a load of laundry and shoulders his half of the childcare, he will get a blow job.

Take that! Fucking Flanagan.

Lewis (whom I idolized at the dawn of my New Republic-launched career), Traister channels thusly: