Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for September 20th, 2007

No answers from Congress

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This is odd—no one wants to answer a simple question:

Hear that? That silence is the sound of my phone not ringing. It’s been a familiar quiet since I first started trying to get some answers about Rep. Don Young’s (R-AK) Coconut Road earmark last month.

Someone, apparently acting on Young’s behalf, managed to change the bill’s language in the massive 2005 transportation bill after it had passed both houses of Congress, but before the President signed it into law. The change no doubt gratified real estate developer Daniel Aronoff, who’d raised $40,000 for Young earlier that year in his push for $10 million to construct a highway interchange. Young’s language change steered that cash away from the community’s requested use and to Aronoff’s pet project.

So a few weeks ago, I decided to figure out how, in a very technical sense, a bill’s language can change after it passed both houses of Congress. Surely there must be a process to keep bills awaiting the President’s signature safe from tampering, or so I assumed.

But after being passed repeatedly from office to office, I’m still none the wiser as to how Young might have changed the bill’s language. It’s become crystal clear, however, that those who should know don’t have a ready answer — and don’t seem eager to find one.

I started with a call to the current House clerk in late August; I heard nothing. Then I tried the House clerk who was in place in 2005 when the rewording occurred. Jeff Trandahl, now the executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, was on a cruise two weeks ago. When he returned, his secretary called to let me know he is too busy to talk — too busy indefinitely, that is. I pressed, asking if that means he is saying no comment. “No, he is just too busy with an upcoming fundraiser.” (Classic Washington blow-off line!)

Undeterred, I went back to the current clerk’s office last week. I explained, again, what I was trying to find out and got an answer! I was told: call the Committee on House Administration and ask for its spokesman, Kyle Anderson. (Apparently other reporters are interested in the same question, so the two offices worked together to come up with a solution.) Anderson was sympathetic, but still passed me back to the House Parliamentarian’s Office.

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Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Congress, GOP, Government

Why we rent

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Median income priced out

Note how the median housing price has moved far above its historical relationship with median income. More here, with explanations.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 5:14 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

Telecommunications desperation

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From EFF:

Newsweek’s top story today exposes the desperation of the telecommunications companies in light of cases like EFF’s class-action lawsuit against AT&T, which accuses the telecom giant of assisting in the illegal surveillance of millions of Americans. The telecoms and the Administration are heaping pressure on Congress to get a ‘get out of jail free’ card for their role in helping the government spy on their customers:

The campaign—which involves some of Washington’s most prominent lobbying and law firms—has taken on new urgency in recent weeks because of fears that a U.S. appellate court in San Francisco is poised to rule that the lawsuits should be allowed to proceed.If that happens, the telecom companies say, they may be forced to terminate their cooperation with the U.S. intelligence community—or risk potentially crippling damage awards for allegedly turning over personal information about their customers to the government without a judicial warrant.

The telecom’s worries are telling. Our case is representing a class of U.S. residential customers, and does not include any terrorists – just ordinary folks who use the phone and email. The per person penalties are quite reasonable – If the telecoms were not spying on millions of innocent Americans, there is no way for the liability to become “crippling.”

Moreover, the Administration obtained prospective immunity in the so-called Protect America Act earlier this year. If the telecoms are only operating under the extremely broad parameters of the PAA, there is no liability reason to stop cooperating moving forward. And yet they are so worried about liability, they threaten to terminate their cooperation.

To achieve in Congress what they could not achieve in court, the telecoms are not holding back:

Among those coordinating the industry’s effort are two well-connected capital players who both worked for President George H.W. Bush: Verizon general counsel William Barr, who served as attorney general under 41, and AT&T senior executive vice president James Cicconi, who was the elder Bush’s deputy chief of staff.Working with them are a battery of major D.C. lobbyists and lawyers who are providing “strategic advice” to the companies on the issue, according to sources familiar with the campaign who asked not to be identified talking about it. Among the players, these sources said: powerhouse Republican lobbyists Charlie Black and Wayne Berman (who represent AT&T and Verizon, respectively), former GOP senator and U.S. ambassador to Germany Dan Coats (a lawyer at King & Spaulding who is representing Sprint), former Democratic Party strategist and one-time assistant secretary of State Tom Donilon (who represents Verizon), former deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick (whose law firm also represents Verizon) and Brad Berenson, a former assistant White House counsel under President George W. Bush who now represents AT&T.

Against these lobbyist Goliaths, we need as much grassroots support as we can muster. Join EFF, and call Congress today to help stop the spying.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 4:36 pm

Another language instruction site—and free (for now)

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Take a look at Mango.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Daily life, Education

Start a fire without matches or lighter

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Take a look.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 3:02 pm

Posted in Science

Great long-distance bike trails: no cars, no trucks

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This post is very good news for those who like to bicycle:

A quickly emerging network of abandoned railway lines are being converted by regional governments into superb bike paths. In addition to offering very gentle grades that are ideal for bikes, many of these new trails are satisfying long. The longest rail trail is over 300 miles long, and the longest off-pavement bike trail in the country stretches 2,500 miles. On these bike roads you can cruise along for weeks without ever encountering a car, or worrying about being bumped off the white line by an oblivious motorist. These are not paved roads, but packed gravel or dirt. Many sport spectacular tunnels and bridges courtesy of the former railways. At the same time these trails pass through small towns affording local eateries and rural lodging, as well as the usual camping spots along the way. I tell you, there’s nothing like arriving at the soft pillows of a B&B after a long day of pedaling.

Many of these trails did not exist as bike paths even a few years ago. More are being opened every day. There’s great effort to sew short sections together into long haul bike-primary paths. Eventually you will be able to cross the country via a series of interconnected car-free roads. In the meantime, the clearinghouse for the latest additions to the bike-road network is the Rail to Trails Conservancy. But you don’t have to wait to enjoy some fantastic overnight tours on roads without cars. Here are six of the longest continuous bike trails in operation right now, in ascending order of length.

Much more info (and photos) at the link.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 2:51 pm

Posted in Daily life

Washing fruits and veggies

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The Wife called in with some info she gleaned from NPR. Cook’s Illustrated tested many ways of washing fruits and veggies, including the special fluids sold for that purpose. The best way of all: a solution of 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water. You can put it in a spray bottle for things like apples, plums, and the like: spray on, dry off. For lettuce, broccoli, and that sort of thing, put the solution in a pot and let the veggies soak a bit, then rinse them under water.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 2:42 pm

Posted in Daily life, Food

CCTV and crime

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I blogged earlier on how the legions of CCTV cameras in England have not seemed to reduce crime one whit, the original stated purpose of going to all the expense of installing the cameras and monitoring the feeds. Now, it turns out, the cameras also do not help in solving crime. So why have them? Spend the money in some useful way. The story:

London has 10,000 crime-fighting CCTV cameras which cost £200 million, figures show today. But an analysis of the publicly funded spy network, which is owned and controlled by local authorities and Transport for London, has cast doubt on its ability to help solve crime.

A comparison of the number of cameras in each London borough with the proportion of crimes solved there found that police are no more likely to catch offenders in areas with hundreds of cameras than in those with hardly any.

In fact, four out of five of the boroughs with the most cameras have a record of solving crime that is below average.

The figures were obtained by the Liberal Democrats on the London Assembly using the Freedom of Information Act. Dee Doocey, the Lib-Dems’ policing spokeswoman, said: “These figures suggest there is no link between a high number of CCTV cameras and a better crime clear-up rate.

“We have estimated that CCTV cameras have cost the taxpayer in the region of £200 million in the last 10 years but it’s not entirely clear if some of that money would not have been better spent on police officers.

“Although CCTV has its place, it is not the only solution in preventing or detecting crime. Too often calls for CCTV cameras come as a knee-jerk reaction. It is time we engaged in an open debate about the role of cameras in London today.”

The figures show:

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Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 2:29 pm

Posted in Government

Useful reminder tool

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To keep my mind clear—and because I tend to forget—I like reminder systems. I have a bunch of reminders—particularly recurring reminders—in my Outlook Calendar, in ReminderFox, and now on Memo to Me, which sends me email reminders. Very useful. People think I don’t forget, but I do forget. That’s why I use reminders.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 2:10 pm

Posted in Daily life

Good rant on current “journalism”

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From Krugman’s blog:

One of my pet peeves about political reporting is the fact that some of my journalistic colleagues seem to want to be in another business – namely, theater criticism. Instead of telling us what candidates are actually saying – and whether it’s true or false, sensible or silly – they tell us how it went over, and how they think it affects the horse race. During the 2004 campaign I went through two months’ worth of TV news from the major broadcast and cable networks to see what voters had been told about the Bush and Kerry health care plans; what I found, and wrote about, were several stories on how the plans were playing, but not one story about what was actually in the plans.

There are two big problems with this kind of reporting. The important problem is that it fails to inform the public about what matters. In 2004, very few people had any idea about the very real differences between the candidates on domestic policy. It remains to be seen whether 2008 is any better.

The other problem, which has become very apparent lately, is that this sort of coverage often fails even on its own terms, because the way things look to inside-the-Beltway pundits can be very different from the way they look to real people.

Which brings me to the Petraeus hearing.

To a remarkable extent, punditry has taken a pass on whether Gen. Petraeus’s picture of the situation in Iraq is accurate. Instead, it was all about the theatrics – about how impressive he looked, how well or poorly his Congressional inquisitors performed. And the judgment you got if you were watching most of the talking heads was that it was a big win for the administration – especially because the famous MoveOn ad was supposed to have created a scandal, and a problem for the Democrats.

Even if all this had been true, it wouldn’t have mattered much: if the truth is that Iraq is a mess, the public would find out soon enough, and the backlash would be all the greater because of the sense that we had been deceived yet again.

But here’s the thing: new polls by CBS and Gallup show that the Petraeus testimony had basically no effect on public opinion: Americans continue to hate the war, and want out. The whole story about how the hearing had changed everything was a pure figment of the inside-the-Beltway imagination.

What I found striking about the whole thing was the contempt the pundit consensus showed for the public – it was, more or less, “Oh, people just can’t resist a man in uniform.” But it turns out that they can; it’s the punditocracy that can’t.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 2:01 pm

Posted in Media

Giving (and getting) free stuff

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The Freecycle Network is worth checking out. I’m gradually trying to divest myself of possessions. Mostly I use Goodwill, but it would be even better to give things directly to someone who could use them. And it turns out that the Freecycle Network does have a group here in Monterey County. The purpose of the Network:

The Freecycle Network™ is made up of 4,109 groups with 3,864,000 members across the globe. It’s a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (& getting) stuff for free in their own towns. It’s all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills. Each local group is moderated by a local volunteer (them’s good people). Membership is free. To sign up, find your community by entering it into the search box above or by clicking on “Browse Groups” above the search box. Have fun!

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 1:58 pm

Posted in Daily life, Environment

The weirdness of some on the Right

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There are weird people all along the spectrum, but this weirdness, reported by Glenn Greenwald, is pretty amazing. (I realize I’m running a higher proportion of political posts today, but a lot seems to be going on. And in general I’m running factual reports, not opinion pieces. Or so it seems to me.) Greenwald (who includes some heartfelt criticism of Democrats in the column as well):

Writing in National Review a couple of days ago, Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute blatantly violated the New Rule in America which prohibits questioning the credibility of a four-star General in a Time of War, when Ledeen (during a Time of War) attacked recently retired Four-Star General John Abizaid for explaining why a nuclear-armed Iran is less dangerous than a U.S. war with Iran. Said Ledeen in attacking the General:

Abizaid Speaks! Oh Dear… [Michael Ledeen] General Abizaid has unburdened himself on the subject of nuclear Iran. He thinks Iran is kinda like the Soviet Union, it’s deterrable, and while he’d rather Iran not have nukes, all in all we could live with it. . . .

I’m grateful for this bit of enlightenment from the former commander of Central Command, whose failed strategy in Iraq led us to fight more effectively, especially against the Iranians’ depredations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It was under Abizaid that the copious evidence of Iranian activity was suppressed, and we, let’s say, took it easy on the thousands of Revolutionary Guards killers running all over the country. He now wants to extend that policy to Iran itself. He’s got plenty of company in Foggy Bottom, Langley, and the White House.

So Gen. Abizaid, who “failed” in his mission, also “suppressed” the “copious evidence” of Iranian involvement in Iraq. That sounds like Ledeen is accusing General Abizaid of being less than honest — how else can one characterize someone who “suppresses” evidence? — and that, as we learned this week, is not allowed. The Commander-in-Chief just explained this morning that such attacks are “disgusting” and constitute attacks on The Troops Themselves. This morning, Ledeen wrote a post reciting the only political argument he knows (other than slandering Four-Star Generals in a Time of War) — namely, that we are at War with Iran and have been for 3 decades:

But We Are at War with Iran [Michael Ledeen] The current kerfluffle over Adhmadinejad’s proposed pilgrimage to Ground Zero shows once again how bad ideas drag us irresistibly to bad policy. Having refused for nearly thirty years to deal with the reality that Iran declared war on us in 1979 and has been waging it ever since, we are now acting as if Iran were just another country and its president therefore entitled to all the usual courtesies for visiting foreign dignitaries.

As I wrote recently:

Ledeen is plagued by the single most absurd yet fundamental contradiction one can imagine. His central argument, repeated over and over and now a staple in neoconservative mythology, is that Iran has been at war with the U.S. continuously ever since 1979. We just haven’t fought back yet. Yet Ledeen played a central role in brokering the sale by Israel to Iran of highly advanced weapons as part of the Reagan administration’s Iran-contra shenanigans in the 1980s. A military confrontation with Iran would likely subject U.S. troops to attack from the very same nasty weapons which Ledeen and his friends provided to Iran during a time when, Ledeen and neoconservatives now insist, Iran was waging war on the U.S. As Scott Lemieux, among many others, has noted, providing arms to a country “waging war against the U.S.” — as Ledeen did with Iran in the 1980s if his central premise is to be believed — is called treason.

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Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 1:51 pm

Posted in Democrats, GOP

Paul Krugman now has a blog!

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Add it to your reader: the Paul Krugman blog. Here’s a sample:

For some reason a couple of people who have written to me in the last few days, on matters unrelated to this post, have mentioned in passing that the Democrats won a “narrow victory” in 2006. Apparently this is conventional wisdom, what you get from reading or watching a lot of commentary. So I thought it might be worth pointing out that it’s absolutely not true.

In fact, it’s quite strange how the magnitude of the Democratic victory has been downplayed. After the 1994 election, the cover of Time showed a charging elephant, and the headline read “GOP stampede.” Indeed, the GOP had won an impressive victory: in House races, Republicans had a 7 percentage point lead in the two-party vote.

In 2006, Time’s cover was much more subdued; two overlapping circles, and the headline “The center is the new place to be.” You might assume that this was because the Democrats barely eked out a victory. In fact, Democrats had an 8.5 percentage point lead, substantially bigger than the GOP win in 1994. Also, the new Democratic majority in the House isn’t just larger than any the Republicans achieved over their 12-year reign; it’s much more solidly progressive than their pre-1994 majority.

It’s just one election, and may not represent a trend (although I think it does.) But the 2006 election was, in fact, a progressive landslide.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 1:40 pm

Posted in Media, NY Times

Fox censored Sally Fields

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Fox says that they cut Sally Fields’s speech because she used the forbidden phrase “Goddamned”. But, oddly, others on Fox can use the phrase (repeatedly) any time they want:

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 12:50 pm

Posted in Business, GOP, Media

The one-minute vacation

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This is a very nice idea: a one-minute vacation:

Surely you can spare a minute to clean your ears? Take a one-minute vacation from the life you are living. One-minute vacations are unedited recordings of somewhere, somewhen. Sixty seconds of something else. Sixty seconds to be someone else. A new one-minute vacation will be added each week on Monday if I can manage it (so far, there are 296 vacations).

Here’s an example:

 ‘Anyone who has vacationed in the far north woods is instantly brought back to that place just by hearing the calls of Common Loons, an eerie-sounding water bird that calls from dusk to early morning. The loon is so much of a water bird that it is incapable of standing erect or taking off from land; even in the water, it takes 80 to 600 feet to get into the air, and as it takes flight it slaps water with its wings the whole way. This is the sound of a raft of eight socializing adult loons ending their get-together to disperse back to their own territories. Recorded in northern Wisconsin on June 22, 2006, in the early morning.’ So writes today’s contributor, the amazingly resourceful and dedicated nature recordist Rich Peet.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 12:06 pm

Posted in Daily life

Cheap pore cleaner for your nose

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You know those nose strips you wet, apply across your nose, let dry, peel off, and look at under the microscope? (The stuff looks like telephone poles under the microscope.) Well, Daytipper has a cheap alternative:

Use school glue as a cheap pore cleaner
Want a great way to unclog pores without spending a lot of money on pore pads? Use Borden’s School Glue. Yes, you know the kind that costs about 50 cents that your kids use on their school projects. It is non-toxic and works just as well if not better than the pore pads. Spread thinly across your nose and let dry then peel off. You will see the results.

Someone try it and post in the comments….

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Daily life

Break free of consumerism

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“It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Much of our activity these days is nothing more than a cheap anesthetic to deaden the pain of an empty life.” – Unknown

“The things you own end up owning you.” – Tyler Durden in Fight Club

Beyond a minimum threshold of poverty, money doesn’t buy happiness. Wealth may seem like a solution to your problems, but often it simply replaces the ones it solves. As paychecks increase, lifestyles usually match those increases. This results in the same financial worries and budgeting problems, just with more stuff.

A preoccupation with owning things is a poor attempt to fill a vacuum. Occasionally stuff can fill that vacuum. Buying that new computer or fancy car might temporarily shrink the hole. But quickly you adapt to the new upgrades and the hole grows, enslaving you to earn higher and higher paychecks with no way out.

The Problem Isn’t Out There

Stuff isn’t really the problem. I’m not a monk living in a temple, forsaking all consumer goods and taking a vow of poverty. I work to earn money and I have a fair number of possessions. Not owning things is not better than owning things, since they simply different manifestations of the same crisis.

That crisis is the dualistic reasoning that says you can own stuff. My car, my clothes, my girlfriend, my husband, my friends, my anything. By knifing the world into what you have and what you do not, you commit a fatal error in understanding.

Ownership is an invention. It’s something that doesn’t exist in nature, but a societal construct. In some ways it is a very useful construct. It allows groups to function and interact with each other. The error happens when you focus on this myth so much that it becomes real, and you can’t see any alternative.

The Lonely Man and the Myth of Ownership

Pretend you were the only person on earth. You were born from unknown origins and have always lived alone. Let’s say that you are also completely self-sufficient and can survive complete isolation.

Now tell me, what would you own?

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Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 10:43 am

Very cool: call in your reminders

with one comment is a free service that allows you to call in your reminder to yourself, which they’ll then send to you (or others) as text in an email. This looks like a great service for people who are often in their car with a mobile phone. Look at the video:

Some other free reminder services:

  • Google Calendar. Go to “Settings” then “Mobile Setup.” Enter your phone number. Then enter important reminders into GCal via your computer or even your phone if you have web access. You’ll receive a text message reminder.
  • – free reminder service that will send you an email reminder. (phone reminders cost extra)

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 10:35 am

There’s nothing that can’t be made worse

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And sold for more. Take produce, for example. Via the Accidental Hedonist, this story:

When it comes to eating fruits, vegetables and grain, bigger is not better for you. A report issued this week examined several recent studies by food scientists, nutritionists, growers and plant breeders. It found clear evidence that as the produce we eat gets larger, its vitamins, minerals and beneficial chemical compounds significantly diminish, as do taste and aroma.

Growing bigger tomatoes and ears of corn leads to a bigger yield for the producer, but the trade-off is the lower nutritional value.

Some say the gutting of the nutritional value of what we eat could affect public health, particularly in poorer countries. “There is no sinister villain behind this,” said Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist for the Organic Center, which commissioned the report. “Increasing the amount of food grown per acre, by itself, is a good thing.

“The problem is that until recently, no one ever checked to see what was happening to the nutritional value of these much larger tomatoes, bigger grapefruit and the rest of the crops.

“Now we’re in trouble. Not just the U.S. but almost every Western country that is using improved growing methods,” Benbrook said.

Because of the work of plant scientists and crop breeders, farmers have doubled or tripled the yield per acre of most major fruits, vegetables and grains over the past 50 years.

Agriculture’s “almost single-minded focus on increasing yields created a blind spot” in nutritional content, said Brian Halweil, author of the Organic Center’s report, “Still No Free Lunch.”

“Almost more alarming, this decline has escaped the notice of scientists, government and consumers,” wrote Halweil, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and a member of the Organic Center’s scientific advisory board.

The report said studies found:

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Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 10:19 am

Molly paying attention

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Molly at attention

Here’s Molly on top of her kitty tree, paying close attention. She’s getting larger by the week—visibly. Still a very sweet kitty: playful, affectionate, and curious.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 9:54 am

Posted in Cats, Molly

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