What I'm reading ed. 100315

Ooof, this is what happens when you don’t post for 3 weeks. There’s a huge post below the cut, so here’re my top five reads.

    1. Our tax code is a mess (Bartlett)
    2. It’s the economy, stupid
    3. Waterboarding detailed: (caution, some may find this disturbing.)
    4. Iraqi elections reactions from Iraq and the Middle East
    5. Nature vs genetically modified wheat: Wheat stem rust makes a comeback. (Wired)

    And one for fun:  2010 SXSW mp3’s (legal)

    As usual, highlights are in red.




    • How to fix the Senate (WaPo)

      The Post asked former politicians and others to name one idea — other than reforming the much-discussed filibuster — that might get Congress moving. Below are contributions from Mack McClarty, Norman J. Ornstein, Mark J. Penn, Warren Rudman, Sarah Binder and Forrest Maltzman, Dana Perino, and Rob Richie.

    • Nothing is ever going to get done this year: 290 bills that have passed the House but not the Senate (TheHill, via ForeignPolicy)
    • Barack Obama’s Facebook (Humor)
    • Alcohol laws (and enforcement) gone awry. (MoJo)

      Arrested for drinking in a bar? Sounds like the ultimate catch-22. Since 2006, when Texas overtook California as the state with the most drunk-driving fatalities, cops and a beefed-up task force from the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission have used a 1993 law as a pretext to enter any bar and arrest its patrons on the spot. The public intoxication standard, backed by the Texas-based Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is so broad that you can be arrested on just a police officer’s hunch, without being given a Breathalyzer or field sobriety test.

    • Our tax code is a mess (Bartlett)

      As one can see in the table below, for those in the middle quintile (20%) of income, 25% had no tax liability or a negative liability while the rest paid between 3.2% and 9% of their income in federal income taxes. Even among the ultra-wealthy, the top 1% of tax filers, effective tax rates vary 10-fold between 2.6% and 26.9%. At a minimum this violates what was once an important principle of taxation–that those with similar incomes ought to pay roughly similar taxes.

    • Senator Dikembe Mutombo blocks record amount of legislation (theonion)
    • John Yoo’s emails were deleted, eh? How…convenient. (MoJo)

      However, we were told that most of Yoo’s email records had been deleted and were not recoverable. Philbin’s email records from July 2002 through August 5, 2002—the time period in which the Bybee Memo was completed and the Classified Bybee Memo…was created—had also been deleted and were reportedly not recoverable.

    • Sen. Evan Bayh’s proposal to save the Senate (which he’s leaving)
    • Rahm Emmanuel profile (TNR)

      Still, there was never much doubt he would sign on. “He had twenty-seven reasons–he wants to spend time with his kids, be a devoted father. They’re at a tender age. I mean, all of them were right. But too bad,” says Zeke, nodding at the family ethic of public service. “He knew he had to take the job. He had no choice. It was his duty. … It was everything that had gone into forty-nine years of him being raised.”

    • NYT Rahm Emmanual profile
    • When and for what Budget Reconciliation has been used. (infographic)
    • Interview with Sen. Michael Bennet on reforming the senate (Klein)

      I’m sure as long as the Senate has been around, you’ve heard people complain about things. But nothing in the rest of the world operates like the U.S. Senate. Nothing. What became apparent to me pretty quickly was that one of the consequences of the way it operates is that we move in an enormously slow pace on the one hand, but in a way that terribly compromises outcomes on the other.

    • Do we have too many elections?

      Yesterday was election day in Texas, and I voted. And I voted. And then I voted some more. If my count was correct, I voted fifty-two times.

      But this is ridiculous. The correct word for most of the elections that happened in Texas today, and that happen in primary elections around the nation all spring and summer this year, is farce. No one has any idea what they’re doing (especially in primaries, and in nonpartisan elections, in which you don’t even get a useful cue about what to do).

    • Fear: always a good (Republican) donation motivation (politico)
    • It’s the economy, stupid

      As predicted, the press continues to invent an array of silly narratives blaming the tactics of Obama and his staff for the President’s current political standing.

      The latest example is George Packer’s New Yorker article, which heads downhill from the hack subtitle “The President’s failure to connect with ordinary Americans.” As I wrote, presidents “connect” when they’re popular, and they’re popular when the economy is strong.

    • Know your congressmen: The Whip

      What do party whips actually do?
      They count votes. The principle task of a party whip, formally known as “assistant party leader,” is to keep track of the number of votes for and against a piece of legislation. They’re also responsible, along with the party’s leader, for “whipping up” support for a particular position.

    Health and Healthcare

    • BPA. It’s everywhere.

      Major U.S. foodmakers are quietly investigating how to rid their containers of Bisphenol A, a chemical under scrutiny by federal regulators concerned about links to a range of health problems, including reproductive disorders and cancer.

      But they are discovering how complicated it is to remove the chemical, which is in the epoxy linings of nearly every metal can on supermarket shelves and leaches into foods such as soup, liquid baby formula and soda. It is a goal that is taking years to reach, costing millions and proving surprisingly elusive.

    • Local Produce-Off: Walmart vs Wholefoods Taste Test
    • Medical Malpractice Reform (Cohn)

      The key is finding ways to fix the malpractice system so that it helps both physicians and the patients, rather than one at the expense of the other. And there are several promising possibilities for achieving that.

    • You walk wrong. And its because of your shoes
    • 5 conservative ideas for healthcare reform. (NYT) And liberal commentary (Klein)
    • The Bipartisan Health Summit. (video) (transcripts – WaPo, HuffPo) Quote of the Day:

      We could set up a system where food was probably cheaper than it is right now if we just eliminated meat inspectors and we eliminated any regulations in terms of how food is distributed and how it’s stored. I’ll bet in terms of drug prices, we would definitely reduce prescription drug prices if we didn’t have a drug administration that makes sure that we test the drugs so that they don’t kill us.

      But we don’t do that. We make some decisions to protect consumers in every aspect of our lives. And we have bipartisan support for doing it, because what we don’t want is a situation in which suddenly people think they’re getting one thing and they’re getting something else — they’re harmed by a product. What Secretary Sebelius just referred to — which is not a Washington thing; in fact, state insurance standards in many states are higher than anything that’s done in Washington — is as a consequence of seeing consistent abuses by the insurance companies and people finding themselves helpless to deal with.

    • The President’s new Healthcare Compromise in handy-dandy table format. (original pdf)
    • Reconciliation and healthcare: When was it used? (table, npr)
    • Obama’s post-healthcare-summit letter (pdf)
    • Government food subsidies: 2007

      I’m sympathetic to the argument that taxing “bad” food is too blunt an instrument to use in the war against obesity (food isn’t like cigarettes, because we don’t need tobacco to live, etc…). But let’s be clear: the federal government already has a tax policy affecting what we eat, and it dramatically distorts the price of our food … and the size of our waists. (link)

    • What “ramming a bill down America’s throat” looks like (see Medicare Part D) (Klein)

    Economics and Business

    • 10,000+ words on Paul Krugman (New Yorker)
    • End of Hummer (NYT)
    • Efficiency: evidently only a “good thing” when practiced by the private sector. (WSJ)

      The problem is one that crops up with all sorts of technological fixes: Make it easier and more convenient to collect fines and fees, and soon you’ll be collecting more fines and fees.

    • In defense of efficiency (sometimes)
    • Parsing marketing claims: It pays to think like an skeptical. (baseline)

      Every major bank other than Goldman Sachs must be ecstatically happy that Goldman exists, soaking up all the attention with its escapades in Greece and Italy. The other banks, by contrast, are trying to make themselves out to be white knights. See, for example, JPMorgan’s ad today in multiple major print newspapers describing its commitment to small business lending:

      The main claim is in the second paragraph: a commitment to lend $10 billion to small businesses in 2010. These kinds of marketing claims are difficult to verify. But I gave it a shot.

    • Online vs off-line shopping (infographic)
    • All you ever wanted to know about the federal deficit and debt (bartlett)


    • Waterboarding detailed: (caution, some may find this disturbing.)

      On one level, the detailed instructions can be seen as helping to carry out kinder, gentler waterboarding, with so much care and attention given to making sure detainees didn’t stop breathing, get pneumonia, breathe in their own vomit or die.

    • Bringing donuts to China.
    • Remarks by Secretary of State Clinton at NATO (Commentary)
    • Qat: Exacerbating the drought in Yemen

      The bitter and mildly narcotic leaf is key to Yemen’s economy, and yet its enormous need for water is on course to make the capital, Sana’a, the first in the world to die of thirst. With the problem extending across the nation, the country is almost literally chewing itself to death.

    • A profile of Iranian Reform Candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi
    • Red Scare. Or not. China.
    • Profile of Father Rick Frechette: Grace in amid the destruction in Haiti.

      Caring for orphans, ransoming hostages, burying the dead—it’s all in a day’s work for Father Rick Frechette.

    • An interview with Nicholas Kristof (MJ)
    • The fight over US military bases in Okinawa (MJ)

      The current row between Tokyo and Washington is no mere “Pacific squall,” as Newsweek dismissively described it. After six decades of saying yes to everything the United States has demanded, Japan finally seems on the verge of saying no to something that matters greatly to Washington, and the relationship that Dwight D. Eisenhower once called an “indestructible alliance” is displaying ever more hairline fractures. Worse yet, from the Pentagon’s perspective, Japan’s resistance might prove infectious

    • Interview with Liu Xiaobao’s (Chinese writer and dissident) wife.
    • From the Burmese refugee camps in Thailand (graphic, motherjones)

      If Sudan is the bar against which we’re measuring genocide, okay: Burma was alongside Sudan on the list of the world’s worst displacement situations for four years running. Sudan’s mortality rate for children under five, a common measure of conflict epidemiology, is 109 per 1,000 live births. In eastern Burma, it’s 221. In the Darfur genocide, 400,000 civilians have been killed. A junta chairman once estimated that the body count of Burma’s civil war—the Karen are only one of seven major minorities that have been involved in dozens of armed insurgencies—”would reach as high as millions.”

    • The Princelings: the next generation of Chinese political power players
    • Iraqi elections reactions from Iraq and the Middle East

      “I say to those who aimed at the innocent Iraqis on election day with rockets and mortars and others that this cowardly act did not stop Iraqis crawling to the voting centers, and voting for the person they believe is most qualified to lead them in the future. This made Iraqis be more persistent and insistent to participate. But unfortunately, fear is still in the hearts of Iraqis because of the delay in announcing the final results of these elections, because this delay is being used as a cover to forge the results, and I hope this won’t happen.”

      From an Iraqi journalist working for The New York Times in Adhamiya

    • Think you love your mother? Think again.

      FUZHOU: Wang Yuxia’s husband once promised to take her to all the beautiful sights across the country. But when he suddenly died, it seemed her dream had died as well.

      So it was up to her sons to carry out their father’s promise.

      Realizing their 81-year-old mother gets carsick easily and they cannot afford to travel luxuriously, they built a three-wheeled carriage to take her around the country – powered only by their own feet and the determination to express love.

    Technology and Science

    • A peek inside the Google Machine. (Wired)

      Every couple of years there’s a major change in the system — sort of equivalent to a new version of Windows — that’s a big deal in Mountain View but not discussed publicly. “Our job is to basically change the engines on a plane that is flying at 1,000 kilometers an hour, 30,000 feet above Earth,” Singhal says.

    • E-waste is rapidly increasing in developing countries (ScienceDaily) (Full Report)

      China already produces about 2.3 million tonnes (2010 estimate) domestically, second only to the United States with about 3 million tonnes. And, despite having banned e-waste imports, China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries.

      Moreover, most e-waste in China is improperly handled, much of it incinerated by backyard recyclers to recover valuable metals like gold — practices that release steady plumes of far-reaching toxic pollution and yield very low metal recovery rates compared to state-of-the-art industrial facilities.

    • What Microsoft will tell the courts about you.
    • Nature vs genetically modified wheat: Wheat stem rust makes a comeback. (Wired)

      Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus.

      But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”

      Indeed, 90 percent of the world’s wheat has little or no protection against the Ug99 race of P. graminis.

    • Reply-all: The bane of inboxes everywhere. (Humor)
    • The state of the InternetJESS3
    • The great Pacific garbage patch has a little Atlantic brother. (NG)
    • Government internet surveillance: only a human rights violation when the US doesn’t do it.
    • US declassifies part of cybersecurity plan
    • The impact of Google on science in China

      “Research without Google would be like life without electricity,” says Xiong Zhenqin, an ecologist at Nanjing Agricultural University in Jiangsu province.

    • How gas pedals work. (Popular Mechanics)
    • Youtube launches autocaptioning
    • Foodspotting: This app makes me want to get an iPhone.
    • Google: why it stalks you.
    • Chilean earthquake shifts Earth’s axis
    • Human waste disposal on the cheap (NYT)

      A Swedish entrepreneur is trying to market and sell a biodegradable plastic bag that acts as a single-use toilet for urban slums in the developing world.

      Once used, the bag can be knotted and buried, and a layer of urea crystals breaks down the waste into fertilizer, killing off disease-producing pathogens found in feces.

      The bag, called the Peepoo, is the brainchild of Anders Wilhelmson, an architect and professor in Stockholm.

    • How the internet is affecting your brain (classic, 2008)

      I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.

    Culture and Society

    • 10 rules for writing fiction (part 1, part 2)

      Margaret Atwood:
      1 Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

    • The Future of Money (Wired)
    • Mythbuster’s Adam Savage on Failure (1 hr video)
    • Immigrants and (not) crime (Chapman, Balko)

      This is not really hard to understand. Today, as ever, most foreigners who make the sacrifice of leaving home and starting over in a strange land do so not to mug grandmothers or molest children, but to find work that will give them a better life. Coming here illegally does not alter that basic motivation.

      In other words, they want to become full-fledged Americans, and they’re succeeding. Is there something scary about that?

    • “Does America face a Hispanic crime problem or merely a Hispanic crime hoax?”
    • Teacher union run schools in LA: An experiment worth watching
    • The impact of gay soldiers in foreign militaries. (pdf report)

      …concludes that foreign militaries that allow gays and lesbians to serve openly achieved success by implementing an inclusive policy quickly and under decisive leadership.

      Other key conclusions of the new study are that preliminary findings that open gays do not disrupt military effectiveness hold over time, including in Britain, whose policy of non-discrimination marked its ten-year anniversary last month; that successful transitions did not involve creating separate facilities or distinct rules for gays or straights; and that the U.S. has a long tradition of turning to foreign armed forces as relevant sources of information about effective military policy.

    • Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
    • Painting while blind
    • Girl Game: Can SF women learn to be Pick Up Artsts?

      Valencia said her mother has a theory about men. “A good guy is like a good bra,” she used to say. “He should uplift and make you look beautiful. He should fit really well. He should flatter you and never poke you in the wrong place or make you uncomfortable.”

    • An augmented federal definition of poverty

      The old definition, developed in the mid-1960s using data from a decade earlier, was based on the cost of food and a family’s cash income. The new one, acknowledging that food has become a smaller share of poor families’ costs, will also consider expenses such as housing, utilities, child care and medical treatment. In gauging people’s resources, the new method will include financial help from housing and food subsidies, in addition to money from jobs and cash assistance programs.

    • Why the signage in Penn Station is so confusing (Slate)

      Instead, I learned there’s a reason professionals call what they do not “sign-making” but “wayfinding.” Their goal is to help users find their way through complicated environments. That requires a lot more than good-looking signs. To create a sign system that works, designers must first understand how people will use a space.

    • The 10 most addicting sounds
    • You’re only as old as you feel (scidaily)
    • I’m kind of ambivalent about this Taiwanese-Census campaign
    • Smoove B is not a fan of Valentine’s Day (theonion)
    • Tom Hanks: Actor or Historian (Time)
    • Millenials: Talks a green game, but do they walk it?
    • Building a better teacher

      The odyssey produced a 357-page treatise known among its hundreds of underground fans as Lemov’s Taxonomy. (The official title, attached to a book version being released in April, is “Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.”)

      I first encountered the taxonomy this winter in Boston at a training workshop, one of the dozens Lemov gives each year to teachers. Central to Lemov’s argument is a belief that students can’t learn unless the teacher succeeds in capturing their attention and getting them to follow instructions. Educators refer to this art, sometimes derisively, as “classroom management.”

    • Water usage in Edmonton during the USA-Canada gold medal hockey game
    • Public vs Private schools. Personal reflections from Ta-Nehisi Coates
    • 2010 SXSW mp3’s (legal)
    • The future of libraries
    • Wealth building disparities, gender and race.

      Young women ages 18-35, whether white or non-white, are beginning their adult years with a median wealth of zero, meaning that at least half of women in this age group had no wealth or had debts greater than the value of their assets (see Table 3). However, while white women in the prime working years of ages 36-49 have a median wealth of $42,600 (still only 61% of their white male counterparts), the median wealth for women of color is only $5.

      More from Ta-Nehisi Coates


    • Photos of Shanghai (ngm)
    • Epic Lego Crawler Town
    • The line between Photography and Photoshop

      Here’s a list of things people do to and for photographs, ranging from the innocent and traditional to the dangerously artificial. If you were running a photography contest, at what point would you draw the line and say “That’s not photography anymore?”

    • 33 ongoing conflicts around the globe (FP, photos)
    • Images from Chilean earthquake aftermath.
    • Images from the Winter Olympics (Opening Ceremonies, Week 1, Week 2
    • Evolution of Olympic pictograms
    • Scenes from Baghdad (photos)
    • 47 Years of the Mustang
    • The monster guide to taking better profile pictures (humor)
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