Later On

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

Archive for February 25th, 2009

Innumeracy at CNN

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Tremayne at Open Left:

Just a quick point on CNN polling on reaction to President Obama’s speech last night. I’ve seen in several places the idea that two-thirds reacted favorably to Obama’s speech. Now two-thirds is a very big percentage in modern politics but it also dramatically undercounts the masterful job Obama managed last night. CNN’s polling actually shows that 92 percent of those surveyed had favorable impressions and only eight percent (8!) had a negative reaction. I’m pretty sure those eight percent represent the entire shrinking audience for Rush Limbaugh.

So, where did the "two-thirds" meme take hold? Who mischaracterized CNN’s poll results? Why CNN of course.Their lead:

A new national poll indicates that two-thirds of those who watched President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress reacted favorably to his speech.

They then point out that 68 percent were "very positive," 24 percent were "somewhat positive" and 8 percent were negative. Why did they downplay their own surprising results? I think it’s because the real result breaks the "conflict" narrative that so dominates political coverage. It’s good for business when there are two evenly-matched sides that disagree vehemently. If 92 percent are content there’s really not much to talk about….don’t really need 24 hours of cable coverage for that.

It could also be they are skeptical of their own numbers. 92 percent is rather astonishing.

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25 February 2009 at 4:44 pm

OLC and its reading of the statutes

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Daphne Eviatar in the Washington Independent:

Facing vigorous questioning from Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and other skeptics during her confirmation hearing today before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Indiana University law professor and Office of Legal Counsel Director-nominee Dawn Johnsen said that if confirmed, she would urge the release of all OLC memos interpreting congressional statutes.

Alluding to the OLC under President Bush, which refused to release memos concerning the interpretation of statutes regarding torture and the treatment of detainees, Johnsen said that “when the executive branch acts contrary to statute in secret, that goes right to the heart of what makes our great constitutional democracy work. In this system, we as Americans are all proud of the fact that the government is responsible to us, and we the people are the government. If we don’t know how the executive is interpreting a statute, congress can’t do its job of oversight.”

That’s consistent with her previous writings on the subject of the OLC and secrecy. During her hearing, Johnsen has otherwise been getting beaten up for her past criticisms of the OLC by the more conservative senators on the Judiciary Committee — but has received high praise from Democratic senators, particularly Dianne Feinstein of California and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold.

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25 February 2009 at 3:39 pm

Too many czars

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Steve Benen has an excellent post that begins:

Senate Pro Tempore Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has noticed that the White House has appointed a series of policy "czars" in the Obama administration cabinet, covering issues as diverse as healthcare and climate change. Byrd has also noticed that these "czars" don’t need Senate confirmation and may be protected, in theory, by executive privilege.

And he’s not happy about it.

"Too often, I have seen these lines of authority and responsibility become tangled and blurred, sometimes purposely, to shield information and to obscure the decision-making process," Byrd wrote in the letter.

"As presidential assistants and advisers, these White House staffers are not accountable for their actions to the Congress, to cabinet officials, and to virtually anyone but the president," he continued. "In too many instances, White House staff have been allowed to inhibit openness and transparency, and reduce accountability."

Byrd also urged the president to prohibit the right of executive privilege from appointees’ in agencies overseen by the Senate.

Two quick things. First, Byrd is probably right. The "czars" operate, as practical matter, as heads of offices that sort of look like presidential taskforces. Obama has vowed transparency and accountability, and I suspect he means it, but this current mechanism could be improved to satisfy the needs of congressional oversight.

And second, …

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25 February 2009 at 3:37 pm

The Truth Commission

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25 February 2009 at 1:48 pm

Cops responding to incentives

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Very good post at The Agitator, which begins:

Tearful Atlanta Cops Express Remorse for Shooting 92-Year-Old Kathryn Johnston, Leaving Her To Bleed to Death in Her Own Home While They Planted Drugs in Her Basement, Then Threatening an Informant So He Would Lie To Cover It All Up

Sorry, but I’m having a hard time conjuring up any sympathy for these guys. They’re due to be sentenced this week. To put it into perspective, all three are expected to receive about the same sentence as Ryan Frederick. That ain’t justice.

I will say, however, that evil and inexcusable as these bastards are, there’s some truth in this excerpt:

Tesler said when he joined the narcotics unit, he was told to “sit, watch and learn” from superiors who cut corners to meet performance quotas for arrests and warrants. “I was a new part and plugged into a broken system,” Tesler said.

Tesler said when he saw Smith about to plant baggies of marijuana inside Johnston’s home to make it look like a drug house, he shook his head in disapproval. Tesler said he falsified the police report and later lied about the raid because Smith told him to follow the cover-up script. Tesler said he wasn’t about to “rat” on a senior officer.

His father, Jack Tesler, said his son was “being vilified and over-prosecuted.”

Smith said his moral compass failed when he began to think “drug dealers were no longer human.”

“I saw myself above them,” he said.

This is what happens when you declare “war” on American citizens. You dehumanize them. And you instill an ends-justifies-the-means, win at all costs mindset in your “warriors.” This mindset infected the entire narcotics unit at Atlanta PD. You’d have to be awfully naive to believe the problem is limited to Atlanta.

Officers Junnier, Smith, and Tesler are going to prison. But you could make a good case that they were only responding to incentives. …

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25 February 2009 at 1:34 pm

Nationalize the damn banks and put sensible people in charge

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Northern Trust received $1.6 billion in bailout funds and announced in December that it was eliminating 450 jobs because “the macroeconomic environment has been extraordinarily difficult.” But as TMZ reports, that hasn’t stopped the bank from spending “a fortune last week in L.A. hosting a series of lavish parties and concerts with famous singers”:

Northern Trust, a Chicago-based bank, sponsored the Northern Trust Open at the Riviera Country Club in L.A. We’re told Northern Trust paid millions to sponsor the PGA event which ended Sunday, but what happened off the golf course is even more shocking.

Northern Trust flew hundreds of clients and employees to L.A. and put many of them up at some of the fanciest and priciest hotels in the city. We’re told more than a hundred people were put up at the Beverly Wilshire in Bev Hills, and another hundred stayed at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. Still more stayed at the Ritz Carlton in Marina Del Rey and others at Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica.

Northern Trust said in a statement that the parties were funded through “our normal cash flow,” not bailout funds. But lawmakers are having none of it. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) called it “insulting” and “disgusting.” Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said that the bank should “pay the government back for the money it spent.”

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25 February 2009 at 12:53 pm

Posted in Business

Excellent post by John Cole

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With a quote from Scalzi. Read it all.

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25 February 2009 at 12:43 pm

Obama’s War on Terror

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Joanne Mariner has a good post on Obama’s WoT. It begins:

“I don’t think there’s any question but that we are at war,” said Eric Holder at his confirmation hearing in January, referring to al Qaeda attacks on US targets from the 1990s onward.

When asked by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina whether someone arrested in the Philippines who is suspected of financing al Qaeda could be considered “part of the battlefield” of that war, Holder answered yes.

Disappointing many who expected the Obama administration to mark a clean break from the Bush presidency’s world view, the attorney general-designate signaled his apparent approval of the “war on terror” paradigm. A month later, in a set of four cases involving detainees held at the US military prison in Afghanistan, the views he endorsed were reflected in government papers filed in federal court in Washington.

The petitioners in two of the four cases, Haji Wazir v. Gates and Amin al-Bakri v. Obama, sound very much like the hypothetical suspects mentioned by Senator Graham. Both Wazir and al-Bakri were well-off businessmen, not terrorist operatives, and they were both arrested in friendly countries far from any battlefield. Wazir was picked up in Dubai in 2002, and al-Bakri was seized later that same year in Thailand.

They have now been held for more than six years as “enemy combatants” without charge or trial, most of that time in military custody at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. When legal challenges against their indefinite detention were filed in federal court, the Bush administration tried to get the cases dismissed, claiming that the courts have no jurisdiction over enemy combatants held in Afghanistan.

In papers filed last Friday, the Obama administration agreed. “Having considered the matter,” said the Department of Justice, in a curt response signed by Acting Assistant Attorney General Michael Hertz, “the Government adheres to its previously articulated position.”

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25 February 2009 at 12:22 pm

Pentagon budgeting secrecy good?

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Spencer Ackerman has a good thought:

In the abstract, this sounds like a terrible idea, but in this particular case, it might be worthy. Subscription-only Inside The Pentagon reports that Defense Secretary Bob Gates is forcing all participants in his fiscal 2010 defense-budget review to sign non-disclosure agreements. Sounds awful, right? An outrageous affront against openness and disclosure?

Well, it might be a reformist measure.

As ITP’s Jason Sherman explains, what usually happens in budgetary meetings is representatives from a military constituency see their ox at risk of being gored, so they blab to the press or to sympathetic Hill staffers or affiliated contractors about The Great Calamity About to Befall National Security. Miraculously, everyone’s ox is spared, defense budgets bloat, and wasteful programs perpetuate themselves.

“Obviously, he is trying to break the iron triangle,” said the former Pentagon official, referring to the trio of forces — lawmakers, defense contractors and the Defense Department — that shape military spending. “The goal is to buy enough time to make an honest evaluation before you start responding to all the outsize buzz. The longer you can hold those guys off and look at it internally,” the former official said, the better the chance to construct a comprehensive proposal that can be presented in its entirety.

It appeared last night from President Obama’s speech that difficult budgetary choices are indeed forthcoming from the Pentagon. That surely got the attention of every defense lobbyist on Capitol Hill and northern Virginia. Gates’ battening of the hatches is an indication that he just might mean what he says about cutting Pentagon waste.

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25 February 2009 at 12:19 pm

"Liberal bias" in the media: evidence shows the opposite

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Of course, that’s convincing only to people who respect evidence and facts: the reality-based community, in other words. Still, this is interesting:

A visual analysis of television presidential campaign coverage from 1992 to 2004 suggests that the three television broadcast networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — favored Republicans in each election, according to two Indiana University professors in a new book.

Their research runs counter to the popular conventional notion of a liberal bias in the media in favor of Democrats and against Republican candidates.

Maria Elizabeth Grabe and Erik Bucy, both associate professors in the Department of Telecommunications of IU’s College of Arts and Sciences, report their findings in their book, Image Bite Politics: News and the Visual Framing of Elections (Oxford University Press).

"We don’t think this is journalists conspiring to favor Republicans. We think they’re just so beat up and tired of being accused of a liberal bias that they unknowingly give Republicans the benefit in coverage," said Grabe, who also is a research associate in political science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. "It’s self-censorship that journalists might be imposing on themselves."

Grabe and Bucy’s book is the culmination of the first major research project analyzing the relatively unexplored territory of visual coverage in presidential elections and how that influences public opinion. Between 1992 and 2004, they found, candidates were steadily shown more visually, in what they call image bites, while their verbal statements, or sound bites, decreased in average length.

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25 February 2009 at 11:32 am

Setting food guidelines: Finland v. US

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Matt Yglesias has an interesting post, which begins:

One of the craziest stories I heard while I was in Finland was the shocking tale of the 1999 school lunch reform. The way this worked is that in 1999, parliament passed some legislation guaranteeing a nutritionally balanced school lunch. So the National Nutrition Council wrote some guidelines dictating that a properly balanced lunch would feature fresh or cooked vegetables covering half the plate, a starch (potatoes, rice, or pasta) covering a quarter of the plate, and meat or fish or a vegetarian protein alternative covering the remaining quarter. A desert of berries or fruit is served “if the nutrient content of the main course is not adequately diverse or if it contains little energy” along with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk and bread.

It was a crazy story not because the nutritional guidelines are crazy. Nor because the nutritional guidelines are perfect. This still actually leaves a lot of variance depending on exactly what’s served. But what’s crazy about it is the way it happened. Parliament felt children should eat a well-balanced meal, and so guidelines were written by a government agency and then implemented. Like magic!

Continue reading to see how we approach this task in the US. The "WIC" that is mentioned later is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children – better known as the WIC Program. More info on that here.

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25 February 2009 at 11:16 am

AK-107 and AK-108

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Recoil-reduced versions of the AK-47. Take a look at the animation.

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25 February 2009 at 10:35 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Closer look at Kindle 2

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25 February 2009 at 10:33 am

The fight against reality continues

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"More than 770 companies and interest groups hired an estimated 2,340 lobbyists to influence federal policy on climate change in the past year," according to an analysis of Senate lobbying forms by the Center for Public Integrity. That number represents a 300 percent increase in the number of global warming lobbyists since 2003.

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25 February 2009 at 9:27 am

TARP problems foreseen

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Center for American Progress:

Yesterday, government officials charged with overseeing the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) warned lawmakers that the "U.S. government’s rescue of the financial system is vulnerable to fraud that could potentially cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars." In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for TARP, cited problems with the reconstruction of Iraq, hurricane relief efforts, and the 1990s savings-and-loan bailout as evidence of the potential for fraud. "History teaches us that an outlay of so much money in such a short period of time will inevitably draw those seeking to profit criminally," he said. Acting U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told the subcommittee that while the Treasury Department has made progress in recent months, the lack of "comprehensive written policies and procedures governing TARP" could "increase the risk of wasted government dollars," adding that there are "high risk issues that still need attention." The warnings come as the Obama administration prepares to begin a series of "stress tests" to determine whether some of the nation’s largest banks will need additional aid to survive if economic conditions worsen beyond policymakers’ expectations. The Government Accountability Office has previously warned that TARP lacks the necessary oversight to "ensure integrity, accountability, and transparency" in the spending of rescue funds.

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25 February 2009 at 9:25 am

Smarter Wikipedia

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Looks like a good Firefox add-on. Read about it.

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25 February 2009 at 9:24 am

Posted in Daily life, Software

Summary of Obama’s speech

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From the Center on American Progress:

Thirty-five days after being inaugurated as America’s 44th president, Barack Obama discussed his economic agenda before a joint session of Congress last night. He focused on three priorities — health care, energy, and education — that will form the backbone of his long-term vision for economic growth and development. Those three core policy areas also received significant attention in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which Obama signed into law earlier this month. "Now is the time to act boldly and wisely — to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity," Obama said last night. Although the President came into the House chamber with sky-high approval ratings, Americans remain deeply worried about the recession. He offered them not just a budget plan but what he called "a vision for America — as a blueprint for our future." He declared, "We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before."

MOVING IMMEDIATELY ON HEALTH CARE: Obama emphasized health care reform as the key to both restoring economic health and ensuring that the American dream lives on, and he made it clear he would not wait to move on a bold plan. "So let there be no doubt: health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year," he said. Congress is already acting. In November, Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, released his own principles for health reform and has since held numerous meetings on restructuring the system. And under the direction of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), "many of the leading figures in the nation’s long-running health care debate have been meeting secretly in a Senate hearing room" and "appear to be inching towards" a consensus that real reform will require every American to have health insurance and find ways to make it affordable. The Wonk Room’s Igor Volsky notes that Obama left the details of reform up to Congress — and "the devil will certainly lie in the details." Still, as Obama pointed out, he and Congress have already "done more to advance the cause of health care reform in the last thirty days than we have in the last decade," including passing landmark health IT innovation, new incentives for disease research, and unprecedented funding for preventive care, all in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He also signed a law providing health insurance to 11 million children, a bill Bush vetoed twice.

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25 February 2009 at 9:07 am

Politicians love pork

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The GOP as much as the Democrats. Some so-called "pork" is, of course, for worthy projects, but it all gets called "pork." Here’s the story:

Republicans are expected to deliver a daylong rant Wednesday against Democratic spending legislation, yet the bill is loaded with thousands of pet projects that Republican lawmakers inserted.

Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, included $142,500 for emergency repairs to the Sam Rayburn Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., joined state colleagues to include $1.425 million for Nevada "statewide bus facilities." The top two Republicans on Congress’ money committees also inserted local projects.

In all, an estimated $3.8 billion worth of specific projects, called "earmarks," are in the $410 billion spending bill that the House of Representatives is to vote on Wednesday. Easy passage is expected. The Senate is expected to act soon, too, since federal agencies will run out of money a week from Friday unless new funds are enacted.

House Democrats estimate that Republicans inserted 40 percent of the earmarks in the bill. An independent budget watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the 60-40 Democratic-Republican ratio followed historical patterns.

Earmarks are back even though both parties’ presidential candidates criticized them sharply last year. As recently as last week, President Barack Obama boasted that his economic stimulus plan was earmark-free.

The House measure would fund most domestic programs for the remaining seven months of fiscal 2009 at a level 8 percent higher than last year. Many Republicans want a spending freeze instead.

"That’s exactly what we should do," said Ensign, the chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

Still, he vigorously defended his earmark requests. …

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25 February 2009 at 8:53 am

Posted in Congress, GOP, Government

Education or cultivated ignorance?

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I would say cultivated ignorance:

The overwhelming majority of Texas schools use scare tactics and spread myths in place of teaching basic sex and health information that students can use to protect themselves and others, according to a report released today by watchdog group Texas Freedom Network.

TFN’s two-year study of education materials from 990 Texas school districts showed that about 94 percent of public schools use abstinence-only programs that usually pass moral judgments while either downplaying or ignoring contraception and health screenings.

Two percent ignore sex education, according to the report, written by David Wiley, professor of health education at Texas State University, and Kelly Wilson, assistant professor of health education at Texas State.

They put much of the blame on school administrators’ fear of controversy and religious groups that teach that sex is shameful.

Texas continues to have one of the nation’s highest teen pregnancy rates despite receiving more federal abstinence funding than any other state.

"I thought I was no longer capable of being surprised by the ignorance among our students," Wiley wrote in the report. "Then last year a sincere male student asked aloud, ‘What is my risk for cervical cancer?’ Clearly, ignorance surrounding sexuality and health is a problem among young people today."

Wiley and Wilson analyzed thousands of pages of curriculum materials, district policies and other documents that were obtained from nearly all the state’s 1,031 public school districts through requests under the Texas Public Information Act.

Findings of the report, Just Say Don’t Know: Sexuality Education in Public Schools, include: …

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25 February 2009 at 8:48 am

Reboot the FDA

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Months before an Angier company shipped deadly bacteria-tainted drugs, the federal Food and Drug Administration received numerous complaints about sediment and debris in the medicine.

The FDA received reports about AM2PAT as early as 2005, but not until December 2007 did the agency pull any of the drugs off the market.

AM2PAT, which is now the subject of a criminal investigation, sold tainted syringes of heparin and saline that have been linked to five deaths. Hundreds more people were sickened, often after receiving the medicines during chemotherapy, kidney dialysis and other intravenous procedures.

Two men pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court this week for their roles in the scheme, which involved falsifying documents to make it appear that proper sterility tests had been conducted. The company’s president, Dushyant Patel, faces 10 charges, but he has not been arrested. Authorities believe he fled to his native India.

Conditions at the plant, detailed in court documents and photographs, depict a facility in flagrant violation of proper manufacturing processes. Prosecutor Jason Cowley said the company’s "chief microbiologist" was a teenager who dropped out of high school. A key piece of laboratory equipment designed to catch evidence of contamination was broken, and another gauge was out of commission for a year. The so-called clean room, where air is carefully controlled to reduce the spread of germs, was ventilated with an ordinary room fan.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration – charged with overseeing more than 10,000 drug-device makers in addition to thousands more pharmaceutical manufacturers, food processing companies and animal-feed plants – received …

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Written by Leisureguy

25 February 2009 at 8:43 am

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