moldybluecheesecurds 2

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

8-Year-Olds Publish Scientific Bee Study | Wired Science | Wired.com

8-Year-Olds Publish Scientific Bee Study | Wired Science | Wired.com: "A group of British schoolchildren may be the youngest scientists ever to have their work published in a peer-reviewed journal. In a new paper in Biology Letters, 25 8- to 10-year-old children from Blackawton Primary School report that buff-tailed bumblebees can learn to recognize nourishing flowers based on colors and patterns."
No one is too young for science and science is fun. To quote the kid: "We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before." This is absolutely brilliant and should be part of every school curriculum.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Ban on Cribs with Drop-sides Seems Like Overreach

In the last decade, 32 infants have died in cribs with sides that can lower down, called drop-side cribs.  Because of this, and a bounty of recalls (over 7 million cribs), the U.S. government is going to essentially ban the sale of drop-side cribs

I agree that we have a problem when manufacturers have to recall so many cribs.  But there are approximately 8 million children who are age 0-2 and in the last decade there have been over 40 million kids in the last decade who have been ages 0-2.  That means 1 in every 1.25 million infants has died in a drop-side crib in the last 10 years.  For comparison, 2,500 infants die of SIDS each year (1 in every 1,600 infants).  And 40,000 Americans die every year in car accidents (1 in every 7,500 people).


It's a tragedy when a child dies, but enough of a tragedy to ban every drop-side crib?  I'd be more confident if we knew that cribs with fixed sides will be manufactured with more care for safety than drop-side cribs, but I doubt it (it would be interesting to know how many infants died in non-drop-side cribs in the last decade).

There are many hazards for infants, but I can think of a few (persistent endocrine-disrupting chemicals like BPA) that probably deserve more attention than drop-side cribs.

Monday, December 06, 2010

TSA's misdirected anti-terror efforts: a "nude awakening"

There's probably no better summary of my feelings about the latest techno-mythical anti-terror device at airports.  From a college junior, no less:

The odds of dying on an airplane as a result of a terrorist hijacking are less than 1 in 25 million — which, for all intents and purposes, is effectively zero — according to Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. By comparison, the odds of dying in a normal airplane crash, according to the OAG Aviation Database, are 1 in 9.2 million. This means that, on average, pilots are responsible for more deaths than terrorists.

In the same vein, the average American is 87 times more likely to drown than die by a terrorist attack; 50 times more likely to die by lightening; and 8 times more likely to die by a police officer, according to the National Safety Council’s 2004 estimates. I can go on, the point is this: the risk of a terrorist attack is so infinitesimal and its impact so relatively insignificant that it doesn’t make rational sense to accept the suspension of liberty for the sake of avoiding a statistical anomaly.

To cut all taxes or not?

Paul Krugman says of extending all the Bush tax cuts (including those for the wealthy) "Let's Not Make a Deal."

But Nick Silver suggests that Democrats don't necessarily have any bargaining chips, unless they're seriously prepared to let the entire $4 trillion tax cut program expire.

My vote?  Let the cuts expire and see if Republicans are willing to start fresh with tax cuts in January when they have to argue about the deficit impact.  Or just pass an entirely new program of Obama middle-class tax cuts.  Let the Republicans oppose that.

Hard to understand opposition to food safety

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Sunday, December 05, 2010

This Election Celebrated Multiculturalism

From my Uncle's brilliant Christmas letter:
And – this may surprise some of you – I'm pretty darn grateful for the elections just past, not for policy reasons (considering, if you will, how well the GOP did the last time it controlled the House) but because it's pretty darn cool that, having elected a black man President, we now have a Speaker who is, well, kind of an orange color, which I think speaks well for the inclusive impulses of the American electorate.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Buy organic strawberries

California sacrifices farm workers in favor of strawberries | Grist: "Strawberry pickerAfter a long battle, the state of California has overruled its own scientists and approved the use of the powerful neurotoxic pesticide methyl iodide on strawberries as a replacement for the ozone-depleting pesticide methyl bromide. Grist has covered the issue extensively, but it was Sam Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc, who brought up the crucial point:"

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Pollution Makes Gays - Support the Environmental Protection!

Pollution Making 'Male Birds Mate With Each Other': Scientists : TreeHugger

P.S. subject is very, very tongue in cheek

Close the Washington Monument

Schneier on Security: "The grand reopening of the Washington Monument will not occur when we've won the war on terror, because that will never happen. It won't even occur when we've defeated al Qaeda. Militant Islamic terrorism has fractured into small, elusive groups. We can reopen the Washington Monument when we've defeated our fears, when we've come to accept that placing safety above all other virtues cedes too much power to government and that liberty is worth the risks, and that the price of freedom is accepting the possibility of crime."

How Germany got it right on the economy

Harold Meyerson: "But then, Germans have something to honk about. Germany's economy is the strongest in the world. Its trade balance - the value of its exports over its imports - is second only to China's, which is all the more remarkable since Germany is home to just 82 million people. Its 7.5 percent unemployment rate - two percentage points below ours - is lower than at any time since right after reunification. Growth is robust, and real wages are rising."

It's quite a turnabout for an economy that American and British bankers and economists derided for years as the sick man of Europe. German banks, they insisted, were too cautious and locally focused, while the German economy needed to slim down its manufacturing sector and beef up finance.

Wisely, the Germans declined the advice. Manufacturing still accounts for nearly a quarter of the German economy; it is just 11 percent of the British and U.S. economies (one reason the United States and Britain are struggling to boost their exports). Nor have German firms been slashing wages and off-shoring - the American way of keeping competitive - to maintain profits.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Public Disinterest (in Making Media Work)

Guernica / Public Disinterest: "In 1930, the FRC made clear the meaning of public interest by denying a license renewal to a Los Angeles station used primarily to broadcast sermons that attacked Jews, Roman Catholic church officials, and law enforcement agencies. In 1949, the FCC again defined what it meant by the public interest when it introduced what later became known as the fairness doctrine. Broadcasters had to devote “a reasonable percentage of time to coverage of public issues; and [the] coverage of these issues must be fair in the sense that it provides an opportunity for the presentation of contrasting points of view.”

...

Seventy-five years after the Federal Radio Commission declared there was no room on the public airwaves for “propaganda stations” and denied a license renewal to a station that attacked Jews and law enforcement agencies, the airwaves are filled with both propaganda and venom. Today the airwaves, stripped of commons rules, feed hatred."

My Nerdy Half Has Died and Gone to Heaven



Monday, November 29, 2010

Antibacterial soap keeps you TOO clean

Medical Daily: Study suggests that being too clean can make people sick: "Researchers also found that people age 18 and under with higher levels of triclosan were more likely to report diagnosis of allergies and hay fever."
Triclosan is the common anti-bacterial agent in soap and other household products. While purporting to protect people from infection, these products a) don't actually work and b) often simply strengthen germs. And now we know that they actually harm health in the long run. Brilliant.

The article also notes that the chemical BPA can have similar negative effects on the immune system.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fighting Bullying With Babies

NYTimes.com: "The typical institutional response to bullying is to get tough. In the Tyler Clementi case, prosecutors are considering bringing hate-crime charges. But programs like the one I want to discuss today show the potential of augmenting our innate impulses to care for one another instead of just falling back on punishment as a deterrent. And what’s the secret formula? A baby."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Do Body Scanners Make Us Safer? - Room for Debate - NYTimes.com

Room for Debate - NYTimes.com: "There are now about 385 full-body scanners at 70 airports in the United States, with 1,000 scanners planned by the end of next year. Many passengers are disturbed about the nearly-naked images created by the scanners and even more distressed with the thorough pat-downs for those who refuse to go through the machines. One citizens group is encouraging travelers to opt-out of the scans on Wednesday, one of the busiest travel days of the year.

Are Americans being unreasonable in resisting these measures? Are other nations handling airport security in more effective, less intrusive ways? What options should the T.S.A. consider?"


Great discussion at the NYT. I highly recommend the essays by Bruce Schneier and Rafi Sela.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Welcome America, newest banana republic

Earlier this month, I offended a number of readers with a column suggesting that if you want to see rapacious income inequality, you no longer need to visit a banana republic. You can just look around.

My point was that the wealthiest plutocrats now actually control a greater share of the pie in the United States than in historically unstable countries like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana. But readers protested that this was glib and unfair, and after reviewing the evidence I regretfully confess that they have a point.

That’s right: I may have wronged the banana republics. 

Democracy requires a reasonable level of income equality or it ceases to be democracy.

Warren Buffett: Bailout was "pretty good for government work"

A lot of conservative talking heads have slammed the stimulus bill and the bailout, but at least one beneficiary of a stable American economy, Warren Buffett, thinks Uncle Sam did a pretty good job.
Well, Uncle Sam, you delivered. People will second-guess your specific decisions; you can always count on that. But just as there is a fog of war, there is a fog of panic — and, overall, your actions were remarkably effective.

Judicial elections in Minnesota

Ever flip over your ballot and wonder who the heck all those judges are?  I work the polls on Election Day, and I can almost never find time to learn about the judges.  So why do we elect them?

Minnpost writer Eric Black examines that question:

Should Minnesota stick with the current system of choosing judges by competitive elections and maybe even make judicial elections more similar to elections for other offices by allowing judicial candidates to run as partisans?

Or should the state switch to a system in which judges are recommended by a panel of experts, appointed by governors to vacancies on the bench, and face the voters only in retention elections in which the incumbents do not have opponents? Under this plan, which has been proposed by a commission but could be adopted only by a state constitutional amendment, the voters would decide whether to retain the judge for another term or remove him or her from the bench.

I feel like we should go the second route, that letting judicial candidates run as partisan candidates will be bad for our justice system.  Anyone else?

Find a Minnesota Food Shelf

A weekend attempt to find a place to donate food to a food shelf led to me discover how hard it is to find a food shelf on the internet. 

Anyway, I like solving problems, so here's a map of every food shelf in Minnesota.  Click the marker for the name and phone number of the food shelf.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Air Security has Jumped the Shark

There's talk about the health risks of the machines, but I can't believe you won't get more radiation on the flight. Here's some data:
A typical dental X-ray exposes the patient to about 2 millirems of radiation. According to one widely cited estimate, exposing each of 10,000 people to one rem (that is, 1,000 millirems) of radiation will likely lead to 8 excess cancer deaths. Using our assumption of linearity, that means that exposure to the 2 millirems of a typical dental X-ray would lead an individual to have an increased risk of dying from cancer of 16 hundred-thousandths of one percent. Given that very small risk, it is easy to see why most rational people would choose to undergo dental X-rays every few years to protect their teeth. More importantly for our purposes, assuming that the radiation in a backscatter X-ray is about a hundredth the dose of a dental X-ray, we find that a backscatter X-ray increases the odds of dying from cancer by about 16 ten millionths of one percent. That suggests that for every billion passengers screened with backscatter radiation, about 16 will die from cancer as a result.
Given that there will be 600 million airplane passengers per year, that makes the machines deadlier than the terrorists.

Read more on Schneier's blog.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Red tape for a good reason

Minn. tells the stork: Take your time | StarTribune.com: "Minnesota might become the first state in the nation to create a policy against a common practice in obstetrics: inducing childbirth early just for the convenience of doctors or mothers.

Mindful of research showing health problems with babies delivered early, the state Department of Human Services has proposed that hospitals create plans by 2012 for reducing elective inductions prior to 39 weeks gestation. The penalty for those without plans? Fill out onerous paperwork for every state-funded delivery."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Can someone explain why Obama has to give in on tax cuts for millionaires?

I just read that the White House has hinted it is willing to allow the Bush tax cuts to extend (temporarily, ha ha) for all Americans.  In other words, Obama's going to let millionaires have a tax cut while the budget is deep in the red. 

Why is this dumb?
  1. President Obama is supposedly the Democrat.  Democrats are supposed to favor the middle class, not the wealthy.
  2. The President and Democrats still control Congress until January.  Why not extend the middle class tax cuts and let the wealthy ones expire?  When the Republicans come back in January and try to re-up for millionaires, they'll have to find offsetting spending cuts.  Good luck!
  3. The middle-class only extension is the most popular strategy, according to polls. 
  4. Obama's swallowed the Republican line about the deficit, hook, line and sinker.  So why not tell them we can't afford big tax cuts when the budget is in the red?  Helloooo!

Conservatives should like rail

Conservatives should like rail - JSOnline: "A passenger rail system well known to many people in Wisconsin, Chicago's Metra, provides some examples. In DuPage County, one survey showed that more than 15% of commuters with incomes over $75,000 took the train instead of driving. In Lake County, the figure was 13%. In the same counties, less than one-tenth of people with incomes over $75,000 took the bus. In fact, in Lake County, the mean earnings of rail passengers were more than $76,000; the figures for bus riders were less than $14,000. Most strikingly, the mean earnings of the people on the trains were more than double those of people driving to work alone.


These demographics suggest Metra carries lots of passengers who think of themselves as conservatives and usually vote Republican. When conservative governors or other officeholders say 'kill the trains,' they are killing the type of public transport that other conservatives want and use. If they promote buses as a replacement, they are offering something conservatives won't consider."

Thumbs Down to the "Attention Deficit Commission"

To put this more succinctly: any serious long-term deficit plan will spend about 1% of its time on the discretionary budget, 1% on Social Security, and 98% on healthcare. Any proposal that doesn't maintain approximately that ratio shouldn't be considered serious. The Simpson-Bowles plan, conversely, goes into loving detail about cuts to the discretionary budget and Social Security but turns suddenly vague and cramped when it gets to Medicare. That's not serious.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Appropriate Response to Recount Demagoguery

Eric Black's post about MN GOP Chairman Tony Sutton's ridiculous rants about the best election system in the country.

Tracking Your Federal Tax Dollars

A short, concise "receipt" for your federal tax bill.  I read through it and I always want to know where Republicans will start cutting.  The big stuff is at the top, so will they cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security?  Military?  If you drop much further, there's not much to cut.

Maybe we should let some tax cuts expire so we don't have such a big line item for "Interest on the national debt." 

OMGWTFBBQ!  We can't do that, it makes sense!

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Obama's India Trip

Does not...
...cost $200 million a day
...require 1/10th of the Navy
...require 500 hotel rooms

The stories about the India trip are as true as unicorn meat



Can we still be one country if we don't even have one set of facts?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sloppy political reporting

Minnpost.com: Almost every single indicator in Minnesota’s 7th District points to a razor-tight race, or perhaps a GOP upset victory.
Every indicator except the poll numbers, which according to election analysis specialist Nate Silver of the New York Times, give the Democrat Peterson a 98% chance of victory.


Dear Derek Wallbank of Minnpost. Your story has great quotes, fun figures, and almost no fact. Just the kind of useless horse race reporting Minnesotans really need.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Lemons, Mileage, Stadiums, and Snacks

Lemon Socialism
Although it appears that the TARP bank bailout program will cost much, much less than forecast ($50 billion instead of $350 billion), the financial reform bill left a big opening for the government to do more bailouts.

Tax Miles, Not Fuel
New fuel economy rules mean less money for road upkeep even as Americans can drive further on a tank of gas.  It's time to tax miles driven rather than fuel.

New Twins Stadium Providing Some Returns for Taxpayers
Although far less than the amount taxpayers are putting in to pay off their $350 million contribution to the stadium, the sales tax instituted to help pay for the stadium is also going to help libraries and youth sports.  Apparently, Hennepin County was more clever than most stadium hosts.  Too bad they didn't spend the entire stadium budget on those programs...

"Snacklash"
How do you know Americans are petty?  When they complain about a compostable chip bag because it is too loud.  "Haven't they ever had chips while watching TV?"  Sun Chips maker Frito Lay will now only have the original flavor in the compostable bag, with the rest going back to the non-biodegradable variety. 

Dear whiny snackers, haven't you ever heard of a bowl?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Donald Duck Meets Glenn Beck in Right Wing Radio Duck

Liberal v. conservative - illustrated by fire



I was hoping Fox News would have a nice piece about the triumph of conservative ideology. "Firefighters uphold policy against freeloaders!"

What a crappy policy to have fire protection as an optional fee. This family got screwed by ideology, not just a fire.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Tea (Kettle) Movement

Tom Friedman says the Tea Party is all steam and no plan.  I'm still waiting to see if there's a non-Democratic Party with a plan to govern the country and not just bankrupt it with tax cuts.

The Tea Kettle movement can’t have a positive impact on the country because it has both misdiagnosed America’s main problem and hasn’t even offered a credible solution for the problem it has identified. How can you take a movement seriously that says it wants to cut government spending by billions of dollars but won’t identify the specific defense programs, Social Security, Medicare or other services it’s ready to cut — let alone explain how this will make us more competitive and grow the economy?

And how can you take seriously a movement that sat largely silent while the Bush administration launched two wars and a new entitlement, Medicare prescription drugs — while cutting taxes — but is now, suddenly, mad as hell about the deficit and won’t take it anymore from President Obama? Say what? Where were you folks for eight years?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Study: Real Men Do Apologize

Miller-McCune.: "men are, indeed, less likely to say “I’m sorry.” But they’re also less likely to take offense and expect an apology from someone else.

Their conclusion is that “men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.” Whether on the giving or receiving end, males are less likely to feel an unpleasant incident is serious enough to warrant a statement of remorse."
Interesting. They go on to talk about how mixed gender relationships can suffer when the female takes offense at something the man doesn't think is an offense, and the lack of acknowledgment (or apology) can rankle.

FactChecking ‘The Pledge’ | FactCheck.org

FactChecking ‘The Pledge’ | FactCheck.org:

Summary

The Republican “Pledge to America,” released Sept. 23, contains some dubious factual claims:

* It declares that “the only parts of the economy expanding are government and our national debt.” Not true. So far this year government employment has declined slightly, while private sector employment has increased by 763,000 jobs.
* It says that “jobless claims continue to soar,” when in fact they are down eight percent from their worst levels.
* It repeats a bogus assertion that the Internal Revenue Service may need to expand by 16,500 positions, an inflated estimate based on false assumptions and guesswork.
* It claims the stimulus bill is costing $1 trillion, considerably more than the $814 billion, 10-year price tag currently estimated by nonpartisan congressional budget experts.
* It says Obama’s tax proposals would raise taxes on “roughly half the small business income in America,” an exaggeration. Much of the income the GOP is counting actually comes from big businesses making over $50 million a year.

For details on these and other examples please read on to the Analysis section.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Republican promise to repeal would toss kids off health care

Who is affected?

Andrew (13) and Emily Thompson (11).  She has autism, he has attention deficit disorder.  And until we got health care reform, insurance companies refused to cover them.

Ryan, age 6.  He survived leukemia.  Insurance companies refused to cover him.

Tucker Morefield.  He's 15 and lives with cerebral palsy and hit the $1 million lifetime maximum coverage on his parent's insurance, so the insurance company stopped paying the bills. 

Health care reform means that these kids will get health insurance and proper health care.

And Republicans want to take it away.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Voting, Learning, Happiness, America, Nutrition, iPhone photos, Cats, Flight Search Engine

  • Are you registered to vote?  If you live in Minnesota, check online!
  • Need focus as you learn, mix it up!  Changing locations and varying your topics helps you learn better than cramming a single subject in the library.
  • More money makes you happy to a point, but freedom means more.
  • What it means to be America, a thoughtful 9/11 editorial.
  • The false security of nutrition-based eating, and the value of focusing on food.
    • a) the percentage calories from fat in a food is meaningless,
      b) the percentage of saturated fat in a food is meaningless,
      c) the human body does not need to eat grains, be they whole or refined,
      d) you can forget about reading the Nutrition Facts altogether
      .
  • Finding the date/time for your iPhone photos: a free app
  • Cats should wear collars outside
  • Awesome, visual flight search website

It's about effing time

U.S. Zeroes In on Use of Antibiotics by Pork Producers - NYTimes.com: "Now, after decades of debate, the Food and Drug Administration appears poised to issue its strongest guidelines on animal antibiotics yet, intended to reduce what it calls a clear risk to human health. They would end farm uses of the drugs simply to promote faster animal growth and call for tighter oversight by veterinarians."

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Slowing antibiotic resistance

Key To Slowing Rise Of Antibiotic-Resistant Infections Is Pharmaceutical Conservation: "'This is a war we cannot win unless we adopt a two-pronged strategy: one that would boost the supply of new drugs and at the same time preserve the ones we have left,' says Aaron Kesselheim, M.D., J.D., M.P.H., one of the paper's co-authors."

I write about antibiotic resistance a lot, because I think its one of the most pressing issues of our time. We take for granted that when we get seriously ill, there will be a cure. But the truth is that we give so many antibiotics to animals and to sick people that don't need them, that we are in danger of losing all our cures.

And this article points out that the market cannot keep pace with antibiotic resistance because the incentive is to overuse drugs once they are newly developed, leading to accelerated resistance.

The article proposes changing the incentives and rewarding pharmaceutical companies for promoting judicious use of new drugs. It's something that needs to happen.

A decent analysis of the federal deficit

Contributing Columnist - One Nation, Two Deficits - Op-Ed - NYTimes.com: "Let’s look at the facts. The projected deficit for 2015 is 4 percent to 5 percent of G.D.P., depending on whose assumptions you use. A sustainable level is more like 3 percent or lower. So we need deficit reduction of 1 percent to 2 percent of G.D.P., or about $200 billion to $400 billion a year by 2015. These figures are uncertain, but they’re the best we have (and they may well turn out to be too optimistic)."
I think it's a dumb idea to be so deficit-crazy when our economy is in shambles, but this is a pretty objective analysis of the situation. You'll note that he's not suggesting we can balance the budget and keep the Bush tax cuts permanent. He's also not suggesting that we can't raise taxes (although there's obviously no political courage for that, either).

We don't just eat poorly, we make food poorly

NYTimes.com: "the larger truth is: industrial agriculture is itself unhealthy.

Repeated studies have found that cramming hens into small cages results in more eggs with salmonella than in cage-free operations. As a trade journal, World Poultry, acknowledged in May: “salmonella thrives in cage housing.”

Industrial operations — essentially factories of meat and eggs — excel at manufacturing cheap food for the supermarket. But there is evidence that this model is economically viable only because it passes on health costs to the public — in the form of occasional salmonella, antibiotic-resistant diseases, polluted waters, food poisoning and possibly certain cancers. That’s why the president’s cancer panel this year recommended that consumers turn to organic food if possible — a stunning condemnation of our food system."
It's pretty sad when your government tells you to avoid buying conventional food because of the dangers in the food itself (pathogens) but also because of the extreme environmental and human impact of making food industrially. And as I just wrote about, we can grow our food organically and get better food and a healthier environment, without significantly sacrificing yields.

As to the profits of the agribusiness sector, that's another story. When it comes to the unhealthy food we eat, follow the money.

Study confirms organic food is healthier, tastier, better for soil

Grist: "Does growing food organically really matter?"
The study design was both careful and comprehensive in scope. The strawberries were grown on 13 conventional and 13 organic fields, with organic/conventional field pairs located adjacently in order to control for soil type and weather patterns. The data was drawn from repeated harvests over a two-year period, and the strawberries were picked, transported, and stored under identical conditions to replicate retail practices. And just as farming is a complex business, scientists contributing to the study range from soil and food scientists to genetics experts and statistics specialists, who analyzed 31 soil properties, soil DNA, and the relative taste and nutritional quality of three strawberry varieties in California.

The results are pretty convincing: organic strawberries are healthier, tastier, and better for the soil than conventional strawberries.

What I find fascinating and heartening, however, is the results regarding soil quality.

Despite the conventional practice of spraying soils with synthetic fertilizers, the study found that organic fields contained significantly higher amounts of nutrients. Organic and conventional soils contained similar levels of most extractable nutrients, but organic soil had higher levels of zinc, boron, sodium, and iron. Organic soils also performed better through a number of biological properties, such as enzyme activities, micronutrient levels, and carbon sequestration.

In other words, all that effort being expended denuding soil of microorganisms with pesticides and fumigants and then replenishing a few key nutrients (e.g. nitrogen) is a colossal waste. And it means that even as fossil fuels run down, we can still grow high quality produce. And according to a UCS study cited in the same article, we can also keep high crop yields to feed the world.

QED

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Be still my beating heart

The Minnesota DFL put together a video about the GOP candidate for governor. It's clever, pointed, and well put together. I didn't know they had it in them...

Monday, September 06, 2010

We don't have WWII to save us from this economy

Op-Ed Columnist - 1938 in 2010 - NYTimes.com: "Here’s the situation: The U.S. economy has been crippled by a financial crisis. The president’s policies have limited the damage, but they were too cautious, and unemployment remains disastrously high. More action is clearly needed. Yet the public has soured on government activism, and seems poised to deal Democrats a severe defeat in the midterm elections.

The president in question is Franklin Delano Roosevelt"
Frankly, I find this comparison frightening. The Democrats held on to Congress in 1938, and World War II came just before the 1942 elections might have ended their time at the helm. Will there be a similar savior for the Democrats and our economy, or will the party of Hoover get a second chance at a Great Depression?

Friday, September 03, 2010

Just one more reason to breast feed if you can

Breast Milk Sugars Give Infants a Protective Coat - NYTimes.com: "Such findings have made the three researchers keenly aware that every component of milk probably has a special role. “It’s all there for a purpose, though we’re still figuring out what that purpose is,” Dr. Mills said. “So for God’s sake, please breast-feed.”"

Who agrees on the mosque in NYC?

NYTimes.com: "In short, the proposed community center is not just an issue on which Sarah Palin and Osama bin Laden agree. It is also one in which opponents of the center are playing into the hands of Al Qaeda."
What, really, is the harm of a religious center devoted to tolerance? It could be a powerful symbol of healing, built so close to a place where religious extremists caused so much harm.

Voting for 'None of the Above'

In Nevada, No One Is Someone to Watch - NYTimes.com: "Since 1975, Nevadans have had the choice of voting for “None of These Candidates,” which appears as a ballot line along with the named candidates. The option has waxed and waned in popularity. But in 1976, None of These Candidates actually won the plurality of votes in the Republican primary for a United States House seat. (The nomination was awarded to the second-place finisher, Walden Earhart.) And in other cases, the ballot option has played a spoiler role: the 1.2 percent of voters who selected None of These Candidates in the 1996 presidential race was larger than the margin separating Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. And in the 1998 Senate race, the 8,125 votes for None of These Candidates easily outdistanced the 395-vote margin between Harry Reid and John Ensign, allowing Mr. Reid to be re-elected."
Fascinating look at the impact of a "none of the above" option on the ballot. In short, there's somewhat of an incentive to go negative, because it can draw away your opponent's leaners.

Where Did Our Water Go? Trading Public Water Fountains for Private Bottled Water

Peter H. Gleick: Where Did Our Water Go? Trading Public Water Fountains for Private Bottled Water: "It is time to stand up and demand that our public places and spaces have clean, working, water fountains. It used to be that no city in ancient Greece and Rome could call itself civilized unless public fountains were available for everyone. Even today, when our tap water is remarkably safe and inexpensive, we need water in our public areas."
An interesting piece highlighting a few particular public places (stadiums) where public water fountains are being removed for expensive, wasteful bottled water. Stupid.

Duke Nukem Forever is back: coming to both consoles and PC

Duke Nukem Forever is back: coming to both consoles and PC: "According to Pitchford, Gearbox began finishing “Duke Nukem Forever” in late 2009. “Clearly the game hadn’t been finished at 3D Realms but a lot of content had been created,” he says. “The approach and investment and process at 3D Realms didn’t quite make it and it cracked at the end. With Gearbox Software we brought all those pieces together. It’s the game it was meant to be.”"
Pigs can fly!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Moralizing trumps governing for MN GOP

He's decided to turn [a free federal comprehensive sex education] program away in favor of failed abstinence-only policy, for which the state of Minnesota will shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars...Research has repeatedly found that teens who report that they received comprehensive sex education are 50 percent less likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy.

But why base your decision on facts when it feels so good to be righteous.  Oh yeah.  So good.  Mmmmm....

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

This is journalism - and the NY Times got it

Welcome (and Welcome Back) to FiveThirtyEight - NYTimes.com: "Instead, there seems to be something about politics that can make the rational parts of the brain turn off. FiveThirtyEight was designed to be the antidote to that. For readers just becoming acquainted with FiveThirtyEight, the blog is devoted to the rational analysis of politics, and sometimes other data-rich subjects. In Congressional and presidential elections — for which there is a lot of high-quality data available — this will sometimes take the form of quite explicit forecasts, like Harry Reid having a 42 percent chance of keeping his seat in Nevada (hypothetically) or the Republicans having a 20 percent chance of winning the Senate (again, hypothetically). In other cases, it simply means trying to prioritize objective information over subjective information in dealing with issues in the news."


This blog debuted during the 2008 elections and is the most coherent, fact-based election analysis you can get. Read it. Daily.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rubber Made from Chewed Gum Could Replace Plastic : TreeHugger

This could be a gum game-changer...

Rubber Made from Chewed Gum Could Replace Plastic : TreeHugger: "Designer Anna Bullus read the statistics of the gum problem in London -- that the government spends 150 million [pounds] annually to clean up gum, over 30,000 pieces of which end up stuck to Oxford street alone each day -- and she decided there must be a better way to deal with the problem. So, she headed to the laboratory and came up with a way to transform chewed gum into a useful rubber that can be made into anything from toys to boots. But she's starting out by making chewed gum into discrete but identifiable waste bins for used gum."

FOX News hates the mosque, and helps fund it

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Monday, August 23, 2010

Where you vote can affect how you vote

Miller-McCune Online: "The researchers suspected voters who had to walk by classroom doors or rows of lockers to cast their ballot would be more likely to vote for the school-funding measure. The numbers showed their hunch was right: “People who voted at schools were more likely to support raising taxes to fund education (55.0 percent) than people who voted at other polling locations (53.09 percent).”"
The article also notes that the closer your polling place (or more convenient it is to you) the more likely you are to vote. It highlights a Colorado county that created 32 "Vote Centers" closer to areas of travel. Voter turnout increased "significantly."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

What 3G really means

Ksplice: "“Oh, I’m sorry sir. We’ve changed the labeling of that model. That phone doesn’t have true 3G. It doesn’t say that on the back any more. If you like I would be happy to sell you the next model, the SCP-6400, which has true 3G.”"

  • What Sprint sold as “3G” in 2002 (1xRTT voice), it rescinded later that year and relabeled the phones.
  • What counted as “3G” for Sprint in 2003 (1xRTT data), isn’t any more either.
  • What in 2004 constituted “true ‘third generation’ (3G)” to Cingular/AT&T, the company had retroactively downgraded to 2G or 2.5G or 2.9G by 2007.
Read more.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Freedom of religion

If Catholics can build churches near playgrounds, then Muslims should be allowed to build a combination mosque / community center in New York City, even if it is two blocks from the former World Trade Center. 

On the principle of freedom of religion, that should be enough.  But the irony is that this proposed building, Cordoba House, was intended to promote cross-cultural understanding and counter extremism.

Here's the original story about the community board vote to approve the center. 
And here's a nice quote from the folks who want to build this and why they chose this location:
When Khan’s organization found a vacant property on Park Place, the former site of a Burlington Coat Factory that had been damaged by airplane debris on September 11, 2001, the potent symbolism of the site also became a compelling rationale for the project. “We decided we wanted to look at the legacy of 9/11 and do something positive,” she explained in an interview. Her group represents moderate Muslims who want “to reverse to trend of extremism and the kind of ideology that the extremists are spreading.”

So, who's the extremist here?  The Muslim organization wanting to promote moderation and worship, or the people like Newt Gingrich who suggests that every American Muslim must be held accountable for 9/11?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Turning off the Free Wifi

TreeHugger: "Coffee shops were the retail pioneers of Wi-Fi, flipping the switch to lure customers. But now some owners are pulling the plug. They're finding that Wi-Fi freeloaders who camp out all day nursing a single cup of coffee are a drain on the bottom line. Others want to preserve a friendly vibe and keep their establishments from turning into 'Matrix'-like zombie shacks where people type and don't talk."


I'd think a decent compromise might be to limit free wifi access to 30 minutes. After that, you have to pay (or buy more food/drink). That allows casual patrons to take advantage, but not someone who wants to freeload all day.

This Would Beat Pumping Water in the BWCA

Super Cheap Nanotech "Tea Bag" Cleans Water Instantly (Video) : TreeHugger: "Could a simple 'tea bag' of carbon and antimacrobial fibers that costs just pennies be the solution for quickly filtered drinking water on the go? Scientists from Stellenbosch University in South Africa hope they've found the solution to drinking water problems in rural African communities. Lacking water sanitation services, the communities can turn to a simple water bottle that uses cheap, removable sachets to clean their drinking water. And comparing the clean water solution to tea bags isn't far off -- they're using the same material that go into producing bags of rooibos tea."

Monday, August 16, 2010

In this family we take the philosophies of Ayn Rand seriously

Our Daughter Isn't a Selfish Brat; Your Son Just Hasn't Read "Atlas Shrugged".:

"I'd like to start by saying that I don't get into belligerent shouting matches at the playground very often. The Tot Lot, by its very nature, can be an extremely volatile place—a veritable powder keg of different and sometimes contradictory parenting styles—and this fact alone is usually enough to keep everyone, parents and tots alike, acting as courteous and deferential as possible. The argument we had earlier today didn't need to happen, and I want you to know, above all else, that I'm deeply sorry that things got so wildly, publicly out of hand.

Now let me explain why your son was wrong.

When little Aiden toddled up our daughter Johanna and asked to play with her Elmo ball, he was, admittedly, very sweet and polite. I think his exact words were, 'Have a ball, peas [sic]?' And I'm sure you were very proud of him for using his manners.

To be sure, I was equally proud when Johanna yelled, 'No! Looter!' right in his looter face, and then only marginally less proud when she sort of shoved him.

The thing is, in this family we take the philosophies of Ayn Rand seriously...

Read the rest here.

An illustrated guide to using i.e. and e.g.

When to use i.e. in a sentence - The Oatmeal

The bigots die off and things get better

FiveThirtyEight: Politics Done Right: CNN Poll is First To Show Majority Support for Gay Marriage: "A landmark of sorts was achieved today as CNN just came out with a poll showing a 52 percent majority of Americans agreed with the statement that 'gays and lesbians should have a constitutional right to get married and have their marriage recognized by law as valid.' Some 46 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The perfect board game?

Perfect German Board Game Redefines Genre: "Since its introduction, The Settlers of Catan has become a worldwide phenomenon. It has been translated into 30 languages and sold a staggering 15 million copies (even the megahit videogame Halo 3 has sold only a little more than half that). It has spawned an empire of sequels, expansion packs, scenario books, card games, computer games, miniatures, and even a novel—all must-haves for legions of fans. And it has made its 56-year-old inventor a household name in every household that's crazy about board games, and a lot that aren't."

Seen on twitter regarding urban design

It's a good question. There was no green space on the Death Star, but it was certainly dense and mixed-use.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me again and again, and I'm a fscking idiot

NYTimes.com: "[Rep. Paul] Ryan has become the Republican Party’s poster child for new ideas thanks to his “Roadmap for America’s Future,” a plan for a major overhaul of federal spending and taxes. News media coverage has been overwhelmingly favorable; on Monday, The Washington Post put a glowing profile of Mr. Ryan on its front page, portraying him as the G.O.P.’s fiscal conscience. He’s often described with phrases like “intellectually audacious.”

But it’s the audacity of dopes."
Krugman goes on to show how this "plan" involves unspecified cuts of 25% in non-defense spending as well as privatizing Medicare. Oh, and it raises taxes on the lower 95% of Americans to give whopping tax cuts to the top 1%.

I think Krugman's analysis of why Rep. Ryan's sham-plan in getting attention is also worthwhile:

So why have so many in Washington, especially in the news media, been taken in by this flimflam? It’s not just inability to do the math, although that’s part of it. There’s also the unwillingness of self-styled centrists to face up to the realities of the modern Republican Party; they want to pretend, in the teeth of overwhelming evidence, that there are still people in the G.O.P. making sense. And last but not least, there’s deference to power — the G.O.P. is a resurgent political force, so one mustn’t point out that its intellectual heroes have no clothes. [emphasis mine]

For these folks, I think "tea bagger" is appropriate

Massive Censorship Of Digg Uncovered: "A group of influential conservative members of the behemoth social media site Digg.com have just been caught red-handed in a widespread campaign of censorship, having multiple accounts, upvote padding, and deliberately trying to ban progressives. An undercover investigation has exposed this effort, which has been in action for more than one year.

“The more liberal stories that were buried the better chance conservative stories have to get to the front page. I’ll continue to bury their submissions until they change their ways and become conservatives.”
-phoenixtx (aka vrayz)"

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Boycotting big box stores in favor of a big box internet retailer might not be the solution.

In the news recently, Best Buy and Target have been outed for making big donations to a PAC supporting Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. Calls to boycott these stores have arisen, but leave people with the question: where else do I go?

For Best Buy, I have to say that Newegg.com replaced them years ago for me. They have the best customer service of any retailer I frequent and they couple that with better prices than Best Buy, no $30 Monster cables (that only cost $2) and quick shipping.

Target is harder, and one Minnpost writer suggests a solution:

Now that Best Buy has threw some money into MNForward as well, where should people who are not interested in supporting Target or Best Buy turn to buy household items and electronics? David Brauer brainstormed Amazon.com:


This seems like a poor choice. Yes, Amazon doesn't give large sums to either political party, but Amazon is just another big box store, but without paying taxes. Since internet purchases remain a tax-free zone, Amazon doesn't contribute to local infrastructure (e.g. those roads that carry their delivery trucks) in the way a local store does. And local businesses provide 2-3 times the economic return on dollar spent.

I don't have a great answer to this, if your goal is to shop not-Target and local, but I'd love some tips.

For Hybrid Cars, a Hybrid Invention - Green Blog - NYTimes.com

This is an interesting new tech story about a way to make hybrid vehicles with a combination of batteries and capacitors. Read on for a description of the latter and how it could be an improvement over a battery-only hybrid.
NYTimes.com: "Capacitors store only small amounts of electricity, but they can accept it or deliver it very quickly without damaging themselves. By contrast, lithium ion batteries, the kind now favored for cars, can store large amounts but have trouble delivering it fast enough to allow good acceleration. What is more, they don’t capture energy very well, a problem in electric cars. Electric cars are designed so that when a driver hits the brake pedal, the electric motors switch functions and become generators, converting momentum back into current. But the current flows very fast.

Engineers refer to these two qualities – the ability to store energy, and the ability to deliver it quickly, as energy and power. Lithium ion has good energy storage but poor power; capacitors are the opposite.

So AFS Trinity marries lithium ion and capacitors."

The on-road, straddling subway

TreeHugger: "What if there was a way to get most of the benefits of a subway, but without the costs of digging up all those tunnels? The Chinese company Shenzhen Hashi Future Parking Equipment Co. thinks it might be able to do just that with a concept it calls the 3D Fast Bus (which has also been called the straddling bus), and kind of giant bus/train that straddles the street and allows cars to drive right under it."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Weekly roundup #2

What we don't know about sunscreens.  A fascinating discussion of the tradeoff between slathering on active chemicals and getting roasted by the sun.  Lesser of two evils?  Note: the one thing we know for sure is don't use sunscreens with Vitamin A.

If you think property taxes are high, start thinking about how much of those tax dollars are going to support your car.

Does the 10th amendment give the states power to nullify federal laws that are beyond the scope of the constitution?  Eric Black asks whether lawsuits to the Supreme Court would be more appropriate than threats of nullification.

Weekly roundup

  • Increased focus on tests means lest time for physical education in schools: read more
  • There's no scientific evidence that special running shoes provide any benefit: read more
  • Pork-filled Counter-Islamic Bomb Device: would it ruin a suicide bomber's day to be covered in pork (unclean) when they detonate their device?  read more
  • Financial Reform: what's in it and how does it work?  read more

Dear Apple,

I got your iPhone 4 after wanting an iPhone for a long time.  It's nice.  I like the apps, the internets, and the camera.  However, I think you should call it an iPuter, because the phone part blows.

If I hold it with no case, the amazing AT&T bar thief takes all my bars.  No calls.

If I have the case on, but the network is congested, I get voicemail notifications several hours after the call (and the phone never rang).  Text messages come through in clumps when you have a spare moment.  Sometimes the phone has to be reset to be a phone (Hello, are you Windows?)

If I have the case on and the phone to my ear in my dining room and a plane flies over, the call dies. 

And although my phone does 100,000 more things than my Motorola RAZR on the Sprint network, I never dropped a call with the RAZR.  Ever.  I've dropped at least 10 calls in 1 month oh this shiny piece of industrial design. 

Really, it's sad.  And I hope it's AT&T's fault, because it's more fun to blame the phone company than someone who knows how to advertise cool.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Was this giving a fish or teaching to fish?

TreeHugger: "Circle of Blue writes, 'A technology once heralded as a simple solution to Africa's drinking water problem now stands as a broken, unused and poorly planned reminder of international water aid's latest misstep.'"
You may have read about the PlayPump a couple years ago, an innovative concept where kids playing on a playground merry-go-round would pump water for parched African villages. Sadly, it never worked as promised. Like so many clever concepts to help the developing world, this one lacked sufficient follow-through.

Read more...

Monday, July 26, 2010

John McCain: climate coward

NYTimes.com: "There was a time when Mr. McCain was considered a friend of the environment. Back in 2003 he burnished his maverick image by co-sponsoring legislation that would have created a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions. He reaffirmed support for such a system during his presidential campaign, and things might look very different now if he had continued to back climate action once his opponent was in the White House. But he didn’t — and it’s hard to see his switch as anything other than the act of a man willing to sacrifice his principles, and humanity’s future, for the sake of a few years added to his political career."

We’re Gonna Be Sorry

Congress gave up on climate change legislation last week, and I think Tom Friedman's summary expresses my sentiments well.

NYTimes.com: "The last word goes to the contrarian hedge fund manager Jeremy Grantham, who in his July letter to investors, noted: “Conspiracy theorists claim to believe that global warming is a carefully constructed hoax driven by scientists desperate for ... what? Being needled by nonscientific newspaper reports, by blogs and by right-wing politicians and think tanks? I have a much simpler but plausible ‘conspiracy theory’: the fossil energy companies, driven by the need to protect hundreds of billions of dollars of profits, encourage obfuscation of the inconvenient scientific results. I, for one, admire them for their P.R. skills, while wondering, as always: “Have they no grandchildren?”"

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Post-vacation catch-all

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tom Emmer is an idiot

His first idea for transforming Minnesota government is the completely politically safe proposal to cut legislator pay and per diems

First of all, this will make no difference in the budget.  Even a 10% cut (steep by any standard) would save maybe $1 million in a budget of over $15 billion (0.1%).

Emmer thinks that the salary and benefits for legislators create "career politicians," a vague term that seems to imply he would prefer laws to come from amateurs rather than professionals. 

Not to mention, I doubt there are many legislators in it for the pay.

Legislators make $35,000 a year for "part-time" work that includes three months of full time labor (January-March) and two months of 18-hour days (April-May) followed by district meetings, fundraising, and campaign work. 

I'll be waiting to hear his next amazing proposal for transforming government with bated breath.

Monday, June 28, 2010

NASA Releases Time-Lapse Video of Gulf Oil Spill : TreeHugger

TreeHugger

The most striking thing about this video to me is not the oil spill, which is horrific, but the dead zone in the Mississippi river delta from agricultural runoff. Farmland spills nutrients and chemicals into the Gulf like this every year. And the dead zone looks a lot bigger than the spill.

Is your iPhone killing Congolese children?

Op-Ed Columnist:

A fascinating column on the minerals that go into modern electronics and smartphones and how they cause civil strife in exporting nations (like blood diamonds).

Kristof talks about pressure building on manufacturers to ensure that their minerals are not coming from conflict areas, but this strikes me as insufficient. Much like the U.S. getting off Middle East oil will only encourage other countries to stick with them (lower prices!), action solely by U.S. manufacturers would be insufficient. Wouldn't sanctions organized at the U.N. level be more effective? We need to stop everyone from buying, not just American tech companies.

I'm not really familiar with the historical consensus on South Africa, but from what I remember divestment was a good part of the strategy for putting pressure on the South African government to end apartheid. In that case, perhaps what Kristof suggests is enough. But I'm not convinced.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Spongebob sells Snickers

Study: Cartoon characters attract kids to junk food - CNN.com: "In the study, which is published this week in the journal Pediatrics, Roberto and her colleagues presented 40 children ages 4 to 6 with paired samples of graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks, and baby carrots. Each pair of sample foods was identical down to the clear packaging, except that one of the packages had a sticker of Shrek, Dora the Explorer, or Scooby Doo on it.

Between 50 percent and 55 percent of the children said that the food with the sticker on it tasted better than the same food in the plain package. (The percentage varied with each food.) And between 73 percent and 85 percent selected the food in the character packaging as the one they'd prefer to eat as a snack."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rational parenting

Schneier on Security: "Here are the facts: About 61 children each year choke to death on food, or one in a million. Of them, 17 percent—or about 10—choke on franks. So now we are talking 1 in 6 million. This is still tragic; the death of any child is. But to call it 'high-risk' means we would have to call pretty much all of life 'high-risk.' Especially getting in a car! About 1,300 kids younger than 14 die each year as car passengers, compared with 10 a year from hot dogs."
Maybe the American Academy of Pediatrics is overreacting in its call for large-type warning labels on the foods that kids most commonly choke on...

Why don't women buy at Best Buy?

MinnPost: "when it comes to chains, there seems to be a weird gender split. While men go to Best Buy, women go to Target. Burger King is for men; Wendy's is for women. Wal-Mart refers to its generic customer as 'she.'"
Fascinating look at how businesses learn to cater to the opposite gender, and how it can pay off.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Monday, June 14, 2010

We've met the enemy and he is us

President Obama is addressing the nation about the oil spill on Tuesday.  I hope what he says will sound something like this.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Another food post: salt, snake oil and ketchup

Salt, from NY Times (via Minnpost):

Since processed foods account for most of the salt in the American diet, national health officials, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Michelle Obama are urging food companies to greatly reduce their use of salt. Last month, the Institute of Medicine went further, urging the government to force companies to do so.

But the industry is working overtly and behind the scenes to fend off these attacks, using a shifting set of tactics that have defeated similar efforts for 30 years, records and interviews show. Industry insiders call the strategy “delay and divert” and say companies have a powerful incentive to fight back: they crave salt as a low-cost way to create tastes and textures. Doing without it risks losing customers, and replacing it with more expensive ingredients risks losing profits.
Why can't the processed food companies cut back? 
Companies argued that foods already low in sugar and fat would not sell with less salt.
Read more for a description of a Cheez-It sans salt, and you may believe them.

On "Snake Oil", From Minnpost:
In essence, say [Forbes] reporters Matthew Herper and Rebecca Ruiz, these foods are “masquerading as drugs”:
The world's biggest food companies are stuffing ostensibly beneficial bacteria, omega-3 fatty acids and other additives into packaged foods. They are funding clinical research in order to justify health claims — often deliberately vague — that blur the line between nutrition and medicine. The foods promise to boost immunity, protect your heart and digestive system or help you sleep. In some cases, like the ProBugs kefir, manufacturers aren't adding new ingredients but merely repackaging old foods with bold new health claims.
Finally, for those feeling proactive, a recipe to make your own ketchup, sans salt if you desire, and without high fructose corn syrup.

Banks renege on agreement to buy back bad loans

Banks got loan coverage from government-backed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as they went out offering subprime loans.  They signed agreements that they would buy the loans back if they failed to "meet certain standards relating to borrower incomes, job status or assets."

Just kidding!

Freddie also said that as of the end of March, 34 percent of its buyback requests had been outstanding for 90 days or more. Three months earlier, that figure was 30 percent. That increase suggests a greater reluctance among banks to respond to Freddie’s demands.
And who's left holding the bag as bank profits are rising?
taxpayers are the ones holding the bag when institutions try to avoid losses by refusing to buy back problem loans they have sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance giants that are wards of the state.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The inanity of page counts

When debating actual legislation, there's one sure-fire attack to levy at your opponents: "your legislation is longer than [insert complex sounding document]." A good recent example is the Facebook privacy policy, which was accused of being longer than the U.S. Constitution. This is a particularly inane comparison, because the trim 4,400 words in the U.S. Constitution make it the shortest of any country's.

The recent conversation over energy legislation is a good example, and I am ashamed to say that I've been guilty of it with regard to the House Waxman-Markey climate legislation. But here's a great refutation of that point, from a Grist chat with energy analyst Trevor Houser:
"Our litmus test for legislation that will fundamentally alter the behavior of the U.S. energy sector -- a $2.2 trillion part of the U.S. economy -- for the next 40 years is whether or not it can be kept under 100 pages?"
Sometimes wanting simple is just being simple. Brilliant.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Has education reform finally come?

This extensive piece in the NY Times Magazine discusses the federal Race to the Top education funding that provides cash in exchange for schools coupling teacher compensation and tenure with student performance. 

My gut reaction is that this is a good thing, that there should be an element of accountability for performance for teachers.  But at the same time, there are many factors out of a teacher's control. 

The article does discuss a fascinating anecdote, where a charter school and a public school in Harlem share the same building, but the charter school's very different style (and performance-linked pay for teachers) is getting much better results:

A building on 118th Street is one reason that the parents who are Perkins’s constituents know that charters can work. On one side there’s the Harlem Success Academy, a kindergarten-through-fourth-grade charter with 508 students. On the other side, there’s a regular public school, P.S. 149, with 438 pre-K to 8th-grade students. They are separated only by a fire door in the middle; they share a gym and cafeteria.

On the charter side, the children are quiet, dressed in uniforms, hard at work — and typically performing at or above grade level. Their progress in a variety of areas is tracked every six weeks, and teachers are held accountable for it. They are paid about 5 to 10 percent more than union teachers with their levels of experience. The teachers work longer than those represented by the union: school starts at 7:45 a.m., ends at 4:30 to 5:30 and begins in August. The teachers have three periods for lesson preparation, and they must be available by cellphone (supplied by the school) for parent consultations, as must the principal. They are reimbursed for taking a car service home if they stay late into the evening to work with students. There are special instruction sessions on Saturday mornings. The assumption that every child will succeed is so ingrained that (in a flourish borrowed from the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a national charter network) each classroom is labeled with the college name of its teacher and the year these children are expected to graduate (as in “Yale 2026” for one kindergarten class I recently visited). The charter side of the building spends $18,378 per student per year...

Although the city’s records on spending per student generally and in any particular school are difficult to pin down because of all of the accounting intricacies, the best estimate is that it costs at least $19,358 per year to educate each student on the public side of the building, or $980 more than on the charter side.

But while the public side spends more, it produces less...

To take one representative example, 51 percent of the third-grade students in the public school last year were reading at grade level, 49 percent were reading below grade level and none were reading above. In the charter, 72 percent were at grade level, 5 percent were reading below level and 23 percent were reading above level. In math, the charter third graders tied for top performing school in the state, surpassing such high-end public school districts as Scarsdale.
Same building. Same community. Sometimes even the same parents. And the classrooms have almost exactly the same number of students...

Dan Goldhaber, an education researcher at the University of Washington, reported, “The effect of increases in teacher quality swamps the impact of any other educational investment, such as reductions in class size.”
Is tying teacher compensation to performance the answer?  Or does it require a much more comprehensive effort (note the much longer hours of the charter school teachers, among other requirements)?  In reality, the charter teachers probably get paid less per hour.  It'd be interesting to know if their job satisfaction is better...

Combo update: high MPG in trains, taxes and economic growth get along, discipline beats IQ

Freight trains have doubled fuel efficiency since 1980
Cars are the big news in fuel economy because of the recent increase in CAFE standards, but it's trains that really scoop the efficiency scores.  One ton of freight ( on a train moves 480 miles per gallon.  For comparison, and Honda Accord would have to get 320 MPG to match it).  That's probably why liberals love commuter rail, beneficiary of $9.3 billion in stimulus dollars.

High taxes don't cause growth, but they don't kill it either
A nice chart by Paul Krugman exploding the conservative-spread myth that high taxes and growth aren't good bedfellows.  Also note that the federal debt wasn't rising back then, either.

Hard work trumps natural ability
In the long run, it's hard work that matters, not innate IQ (and IQ can be increased through study).  A study of students found that "Students who were more self-disciplined and were able to delay gratification performed better than their peers who had higher IQs."  In other words, keep at it.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Red pens make you see more errors?

MinnPost: This is an example of an interesting hypothesis and good reporting.
"But, as a study [PDF] published online in the European Journal of Social Psychology earlier this month reports, “people using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than people using blue pens.”"
Fascinating, but the article also includes the study limitations.

The current study has limitations, of course. The study did not control for the volunteers’ age, level of education or other possibly confounding factors. And none of the volunteers were experienced teachers.

In other words, it was true for this set of volunteers, but may not have a significant impact on people who grade for a living.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Oil Spill: Obama failing at his 9/11

Op-Ed Columnist: "President Obama seems intent on squandering his environmental 9/11 with a Bush-level failure of imagination. So far, the Obama policy is: “Think small and carry a big stick.” He is rightly hammering the oil company executives. But he is offering no big strategy to end our oil addiction."
It's time to transition to a clean energy economy and Obama couldn't have asked for a better rhetorical tool. If only there were pending legislation he could champion...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Senator tries to fight banks on ATM fees

Sen. Tom Harkin:
"The national average per ATM transaction is $2.50...on average, the real cost of processing a transaction today is only 36 cents or less."
Why should we care? First, because ATMs are like slots to the casino, they're a serious money generator disproportionate to their customer value.

But second, because it punishes folks who don't withdraw a lot at one time:

Some people may think that $2.00 is not much, but here is the other unfair thing about it. The average person going to an ATM machine takes out on average $20.00 or $50.00 to get them through a day or two, and they are charged $2.50 for accessing that money. Yet someone else may withdraw $500.00, and they pay the same $2.50. The burden falls more heavily on low-income and moderate-income people. That is grossly unfair.
Sen. Harkin has an amendment to the The Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010 (financial reform bill), but he faces uphill slogging.

Shoot your Senator a note and tell them you're tired of being Bank of America's hot nickel slot machine.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Libertarians and the real world

If libertarianism requires incorruptible politicians to work, it’s not serious.

From a nice blog post by Paul Krugman about the inanity of self-regulation by oil companies like BP.

Go figure: bees and neurotoxins don't mix

Results are in from a pesticide ban in Italy, and it turns out that the mysterious colony collapse disorder that was decimating honeybee populations was the disorienting result of neurotoxins in "nicotine-based neonicotinoids" pesticides

Yet another example of the unintended consequences of a chemical policy that assumes things are safe. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The new climate bill - American Power Act

A new climate bill was introduced in the Senate yesterday and it establishes a much-improved cap-and-trade program compared to the House version. It still has some gaping holes (see links for descriptions of the 2 billion tons of carbon offsets) but it's a reasonable framework.

Click around for a comprehensive review and some commentary on the bill from the author himself, Sen. John Kerry.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Understanding the Gulf oil spill

Here's a very thorough analysis of the causes of the leak and explosion at the oil platform, by one of the gubernatorial candidates in Texas (with a fair amount of experience in the field).  A very well-reasoned assessment of the oil leak causes.

Ditching pesticides to kill mosquitos more effectively

The U.S. used a lot of the pesticide DDT to rid itself of malaria-carrying mosquitoes before the chemical was largely banned and the DDT is still one of the more effective chemicals to attack mosquitoes.  And yet, as Mexico has discovered, landscaping can be more effective than DDT (to which bugs can develop resistance).

According to Yale 360, Mexico once used DDT and other insecticides to fight Malaria, even spraying it inside people's homes (though pesticide-soaked wallpaper seems to be slightly safer...). As much as 70,000 tons of DDT was used between 1957 and 1999 in the effort to prevent malaria. However, in 1998, Oaxaca introduced methods of clearing vegetation along waterways and it showed effective - so effective that the number of malaria cases dropped from 17,500 to 254 in two years, and Mexico incorporated the more eco-friendly methods.

By 2008, Mexico had ditched insecticides including DDT in all its anti-malaria efforts and the number of deaths from malaria reported during that year was a whopping zero. 
Just a lesson that what seems easiest often isn't, and that chemicals are not the be-all, end-all of preventing pests or disease.