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Eat Burger, Waive Right to Sue

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 12:07 PM EST

whataburger-photo-shop.jpgMandatory arbitration agreements forcing people to give up their rights to sue are now standard fare in everything from cell phone contracts to Hooters' employment agreements. But the owner of an East Texas Whataburger has apparently taken arbitration mania to a new level. Every public entrance to the burger franchise displays a sign informing people that simply setting foot on the premises means that they are giving up their right to sue the company for any reason, even if, for instance, they get a little e coli along with their fries. Instead, customers will be forced to arbitrate their claims before the American Mediation Association, an organization that seems to consist of three lawyers in Dallas hired by the Whataburger (part of a 58-year-old fast food chain deemed a "Texas treasure" by the state legislature).

Attorney Dan Sorey spotted the sign in early January while in Kilgore investigating the scene of a motorcycle crash for a case. The Whataburger offered an ideal vantage point to study the intersection where the crash happened. Sorey says when he went in, he told a befuddled cashier that he didn't think that the arbitration notice was enforceable, that anyway he wasn't agreeing to it, and, "I need a taquito and a coffee." He says he sat down, watched some traffic, and ate his taquito. "I didn't choke, I didn't burn myself, and I didn't sue 'em," he reports. Sadly, while we suspect there is a good story behind the signs, the Whataburger franchise owner did not respond to requests for an interview. We'll just have to assume that the signs are the product of one too many late-night talk-show jokes about McDonalds' coffee lawsuits.

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REALLY Bad News Day for Hillary Clinton

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 10:55 AM EST

clinton.jpg Check out this collection of stories from around the web.

First, there's a crushing ABC News story about Hillary Clinton's inaction during her tenure with Wal-Mart.

In six years as a member of the Wal-Mart board of directors, between 1986 and 1992, Hillary Clinton remained silent as the world's largest retailer waged a major campaign against labor unions seeking to represent store workers....
"I'm always proud of Wal-Mart and what we do and the way we do it better than anybody else," she said at a June 1990 stockholders meeting.

The story reports that video of Wal-Mart's many private board meetings never shows Clinton reacting to the other board member's vicious anti-union statements. The story also reports that Clinton's main effort on the board, improving conditions for female workers, accomplished little. Further, the story says that Clinton will keep $20,000 in donations from Wal-Mart executives, and that former President Bill Clinton has regular private meetings with Wal-Mart's current CEO.

Then there is David Broder who writes in the Washington Post that Barack Obama is the Democratic frontrunner, despite Hillary Clinton's polling leads in many February 5 states. Broder points to establishment Democratic opinion trending toward BHO.

The advantage has shifted back to Barack Obama — thanks to a growing but largely unremarked-upon tendency among Democratic leaders to reject Hillary Clinton and her husband, the former president.
The New York senator could still emerge from the "Tsunami Tuesday" voting with the overall lead in delegates, but she is unlikely to come close to clinching the nomination...

That establishment that is heading Obama's way? That's the one the Clintons have owned for nearly two decades. Think we're done? Oh, no. More after the jump.

Can We Win the War on Terrorism Without Destroying Our Military?

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 10:53 AM EST

However you think the war is going, or whether we should even be fighting it, one can help but for fear the military itself.

Washington Post:

Suicides among active-duty soldiers in 2007 reached their highest level since the Army began keeping such records in 1980, according to a draft internal study obtained by the Washington Post. Last year, 121 soldiers took their own lives, nearly 20 percent more than in 2006.
At the same time, the number of attempted suicides or self-inflicted injuries in the Army has jumped sixfold since the Iraq war began. Last year, about 2,100 soldiers injured themselves or attempted suicide, compared with about 350 in 2002, according to the U.S. Army Medical Command Suicide Prevention Action Plan.

Fred Kaplan looks at the dumbing-down of new recruitment standards so the military can maintain itself:

The Literature of Presidential Endorsements: Angelou v. Morrison

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 10:41 AM EST

The always excellent Laura Miller, Salon book critic (who has edited me in the past), offers a refreshingly brief and lovely review of Maya Angelou's endorsement of Clinton and Toni Morrison's of Obama.
Miller (on Angelou on Clinton):

...a string of campaign-trail clichés: "She is in this race for the long haul. She intends to make a difference in our country. Hillary Clinton intends to help our country to be what it can become." Possibly Angelou means this pablum as a crypto-postmodern witticism, in which Clinton's implied promise to deliver a known quantity to the White House is mirrored by slogans so standardized they seem to have been extruded from the machines that make the plastic toys for McDonald's Happy Meals. But what do you think are the odds against that?

Miller (on Morrison on Obama):

Morrison lauds Obama for his "creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom," then goes on to observe that "it is too bad if we associate it only with gray hair and old age. Or if we call searing vision naiveté. Or if we believe cunning is insight. Or if we settle for finessing cures tailored for each ravaged tree in the forest while ignoring the poisonous landscape that feeds and surrounds it." This is a classic Morrisonian metaphorical progression. It sounds great -- sonorous and rich with lofty concepts and moral authority. Each sentence technically makes sense. Yet somehow, by the time you get to the end, things have gotten out of focus. What exactly is she talking about?

Ah, book nerds. Where would you be without us?

At GOP Debate, McCain and Romney Bicker Over Whom Reagan Would Love More

| Wed Jan. 30, 2008 10:19 PM EST

At the end of the final Republican presidential primary before Super-Duper Tuesday, CNN's Anderson Cooper, the lead moderator, noted it had been "a remarkable evening of politics." Not so.

The debate, held at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, California, on Wednesday night, was all-too predictably a contest in Reagan-hugging, with John McCain, the apparent frontrunner, and Mitt Romney, the apparent No. 2, trying to out-Reagan the other. Neither said much new. After all, they agree on keeping in place George W. Bush's war in Iraq and his tax cuts. But the two men needed something to argue about, so they tussled over McCain's charge that Romney last spring supported setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. This was the exchange that would be sliced and diced by the pundits and the analysts. In a way, both McCain and Romney were wrong.

This dust-up began last week when McCain said "Romney wanted to set a date for withdrawal similar to what the Democrats are seeking." McCain pointed to an ABC News interview, during which Romney was asked, "Do you believe that there should be a timetable in withdrawing the troops?" His reply:

Well, there's no question--but that the President and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about. But those shouldn't be for public pronouncement. You don't want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you're gonna be gone. You wanna have a series of things you wanna see accomplished in terms of the strength of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police and the leadership of the, of the Iraqi government.

Was Romney talking about a timetable for a withdrawal or a timetable for other steps? He wasn't clear. So the interviewer pressed him: "You wouldn't do it publicly because - the President has said flat out that he will veto anything the Congress passes about a timetable for - troop withdrawals. As president, would you do the same?" And Romney said,

FEMA Creates Its Own Disaster

| Wed Jan. 30, 2008 7:18 PM EST

frog.jpg

Remember FEMAvilles? They were those thousands of trailers sitting in a cow pasture while victims of Katrina and other storms remained homeless. In 2006, the empty trailers were just one more insult to the already-battered citizens of the Gulf Coast. Yet amazingly, it gets worse. Not only did FEMA put off distributing the trailers, it also put off testing those trailers for toxic chemicals. Now, new documents reveal that once public outcry finally forced the agency to conduct the tests, it squelched the results of its own report—that the chemicals in question may cause cancer.

Salon reports that in 2006, following reports of a rash of medical problems experienced by trailer residents, the agency asked scientists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to prepare a "health consultation" regarding toxins in the trailers. When chief of toxicology Christopher De Rosa insisted that the report address the long-term cancer risks associated with formaldehyde (a chemical used for embalming which, in addition to its other health effects, may trigger spontaneous abortions), FEMA went around him and had two of his associates prepare the report instead. When De Rosa discovered the deceit and complained to both his boss and FEMA's attorney, he was removed from his job.

Though the report, initially released at the beginning of 2007, was finally revised to include the cancer risk last October, the damage has likely already been done. Salon reminds us that the people the agency actually did manage to place in trailers "almost immediately...called FEMA to complain of illnesses, from breathing difficulties, bloody noses and rashes to more serious problems, and even deaths, possibly connected to high levels of formaldehyde gas permeating the trailers." And as the victims of Katrina continue to move out of the region, their long-term heath problems will go with them. What's most shocking, though, is the amount of effort the agency continues to devote to obscuring its own mistakes. When the next Katrina strikes, will FEMA have done anything to learn from them?

—Casey Miner

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Heat Increases Baby Bottle Chemicals

| Wed Jan. 30, 2008 5:34 PM EST

baby-bottle.jpgA University of Cincinnati study has found that the hotter the liquid, the faster polycarbonate plastic bottles release toxins. Currently, reusable water bottles, baby bottles, and many other containers are made out of polycarbonate plastic. (For an easy guide to types of plastics and their dangers, click here.)

Researchers found that plastic bottles holding boiling water released bisphenol A, an environmental pollutant, up to 55 times faster than those containing room-temperature water. Baby formula is commonly boiled in preparation, so it's likely that very hot formula could leach high amounts of bisphenol A from baby bottles. However, the researchers do not know how much bisphenol A humans would have to consume before it became harmful.

Bipsphenol A is known to cause cancer and hormone irregularities and is "just one of many estrogen-like chemicals people are exposed to," said lead researcher Scott Belcher, "and scientists are still trying to figure out how these endocrine disruptors—including natural phyto-estrogens from soy which are often considered healthy—collectively impact human health."

While scientists figure out the effects, you might consider switching your plastic travel mug to stainless steel.

There's No Accounting For Taste, Part 3: People Like What Other People Like

| Wed Jan. 30, 2008 5:04 PM EST

Celine Dion and hit parades

Lately, there's been an ongoing Riff debate about whether popular music totally sucks or just mostly sucks. Mother Jones staffers may be appalled to find the relative merits of "My Humps" being argued on the (virtual) pages of their esteemed publication, but I think it just shows the temerity of our journalistic commitments: we'll visit Iraq or Fergie-stan. The question of why people like what they like—or, more accurately, how in God's name they can freakin' stand that crap they're listening to—has popped up in a few other interesting places lately, and in both instances, it turns out musical taste has little to do with music.

Previewing the Final Debate, Obama and Clinton Attack and Counter-Attack

| Wed Jan. 30, 2008 4:47 PM EST

Will the last Democratic debate before Supersaturated Tuesday, scheduled for Thursday night in Los Angeles, be a mano-a-mano slamfest? During the previous gathering of Democratic candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton got rather nasty, as John Edwards attempted to play the grown-up. With Edwards departed from the race, finally there will be a direct Clinton-against-Obama face-off. And the tensions--and stakes--are obviously higher. Yeah, it's easy to depict this as a sporting event. The Super Bowl debate, etc. (CNN calls it campaign coverage "Ballot Bowl '08.") But at this point in the contest, the not-so-great policy differences between the two are not what counts. What matters are the persons--and that includes how they punch, whether they punch, and how they take a punch. Many--if not most--voters will make a final determination based on their impressions of the character, values, judgment, experience, and talents of the two remaining contenders. And here's the last chance Clinton and Obama each have to compare him- or herself to the other--up close and personal.

On Wednesday, the campaigns provided a preview of what could come. During a speech in Denver--where over 10,000 people turned out to see him--Obama presented a sharp critique of Clinton. "Democrats will win in November and build a majority in Congress not by nominating a candidate who will unite the other party against us," he proclaimed, "but by choosing one who can unite this country around a movement for change." He went on:

It is time for new leadership that understands the way to win a debate with John McCain or any Republican who is nominated is not by nominating someone who agreed with him on voting for the war in Iraq or who agreed with him in voting to give George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, who agrees with him in embracing the Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to leaders we don't like, who actually differed with him by arguing for exceptions for torture before changing positions when the politics of the moment changed.

The Prison-Industrial Complex Keeps on Creating Wealth, For Some: Wanna Play "Don't Drop the Soap"?

| Wed Jan. 30, 2008 2:41 PM EST

It was one of those where you check the URL to make sure you didn't accidentally end up at The Onion's site. One of those times when you could only wish you'd been punk'd.

The son of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is peddling a board game titled "Don't Drop the Soap," a prison-themed game he created as part of a class project at the Rhode Island School of Design.
John Sebelius, 23, has the backing of his mother and father, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gary Sebelius. ...
John Sebelius is selling the game on his Internet site for $34.99, plus packaging, shipping and handling. The contact information on the Web site lists the address of the governor's mansion. ...the address will change when John Sebelius moves.
"Fight your way through 6 different exciting locations in hopes of being granted parole," the site says. "Escape prison riots in The Yard, slip glass into a mob boss' lasagna in the Cafeteria, steal painkillers from the nurse's desk in the Infirmary."
The game includes five tokens representing a bag of cocaine, a handgun and three characters: wheelchair-using 'Wheelz," muscle-flexing "Anferny" and business suit-clad "Sal 'the Butcher."'

How righteous he must feel for invoking Italian-American stereotypes instead of designing corn row and "grill" game pieces and characters named Raheem, 50 Cent and Deonte'Nazarea.

Rest assured that the young entrepreneur has only harmless fun in mind. It's victimless, no? It in no way reflects on the flaming chasm between the classes (since we don't have those here): "This game is intended for mature audiences -- not children -- and is simply intended for entertainment...".

As were public hangings and chuckling whilst those silly Christians tried to evade those slapstick lions in ancient Rome. Good, clean fun at no one's expense. Pack a pick-a-nick basket and bring the fam.

Please, please let Colbert have this guy on and force him to play his own game while the world watches. I volunteer to hold the stopwatch and see how long it takes for the young designer to either feel ashamed or let loose with a few choice Freudian slips about how 'decent' people really feel about the incarcerated. Disapproving of them is one thing. Dancing on their skulls while they're buried alive is another.

On a trip to Italy, I was all excited to visit the torture museum at San Gimignano. We thought it would be a big hoot, but a mere five minutes in, we were all silent, horrified and ashamed at having tried to find the fun in torture. Finishing the tour seemed like the only possible penance; I've never wanted to escape from anyplace more. Unbelievable, the technology and ingenuity we've devoted to maiming one another. Now I feel silly. What a waste of time feeling bad. We should have designed a game based on it. Anybody got a fiddle I can play while Rome burns?