May 23, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 5:56 AM


Hezbollah may call 'general mobilization' against IS (TIMES OF ISRAEL AND AP May 23, 2015)

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned Friday that the Islamic State posed an existential threat to Lebanon and said his organization may soon be required to call for a general mobilization to fight the group.

May 22, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 4:16 PM


At Last, Scrutiny for Public-Union Deals (MATTHEW J. BROUILLETTE, May 21, 2015, WSJ)

Year after year, elected officials behind closed doors negotiate labor contracts for 19 million state and local government workers. The result? Skyrocketing salaries, health-care costs and pension benefits are making services like public schools and policing unaffordable for taxpayers. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, compensation for government workers nationwide has grown 21% since 2000, compared with only 9% in the private economy.

Fortunately a growing list of states now shine light on secretive contract negotiations with public-employee unions--putting taxpayers back in charge. In April, Idaho's governor signed a bill requiring open meetings and records in all executive labor negotiations. Colorado did the same last fall for public-school district contract talks. Similar legislation is advancing in Washington, and the Pennsylvania Senate passed two transparency bills this month.

Posted by orrinj at 4:12 PM


The disenfranchisement of America's center (David Ignatius, May 21, 2015, Washington Post)

Hillary Clinton's move to the left on trade and other issues is a reminder of the growing power of activists in the wings in presidential nominating politics -- and a corresponding diminution of the power of the center.

"Social and demographic shifts mean that no left-leaning position Clinton takes now would be likely to hurt her" in next year's general election, The Post's Anne Gearan writes in a recent assessment of Clinton's strategy. Meanwhile, GOP candidates are doubling down in the other direction, as they move toward their party's right wing.

No one genuinely believes that Hillary would oppose trade, or business generally, as president, anymore than anyone believed Mitt would oppose amnesty.  The only modern politician silly enough to try to stay on the wing that the primaries had pushed him to was Al Gore and it cost him an unlosable election.

Posted by orrinj at 4:07 PM


No more dieting, and 7 other things we do differently after reporting on health care (Julia Belluz and Sarah Kliff, May 20, 2015, Vox)

3) Getting health care is dangerous, so use the health-care system as little as possible

Medical errors kill more people than car crashes or new disease outbreaks. They kill more people annually than breast cancer, AIDS, plane crashes, or drug overdoses. Depending on which estimate you use, medical errors are either the third or ninth leading cause of death in the United States. Those left dead as a result of their medical care could fill an average-size Major League Baseball stadium -- sometimes twice over.

We typically think of hospitals as places where we go to get better. And that's definitely true; we've seen lifespans extended and diseases cured as a direct result of advances in modern medicine.

At the same time, hospitals are dangerous places. This is something I've learned a lot about in the past six months, as I've been working on a yearlong series about fatal medical harm. I've come to understand that every trip we take to the doctor's office and every stay in the hospital comes with the risk of something going wrong.

In many cases, screening doesn't help people -- it turns healthy people into patients unnecessarily
The doctor could prescribe us the wrong drug, or the wrong dose of the right drug (this happens about 1.5 million times each year). Improper hygiene practices -- a nurse who forgets to wash her hands before accessing a central line catheter, for example -- could lead to a deadly blood infection. This happens about 30,000 times each year.

This is not to say health-care professionals are trying to harm patients. Quite the opposite -- every doctor I've ever met is trying to do his or her absolute best to help patients. That is, after all, why they went into medicine in the first place.

Medical harm reflects the fact that medicine is complicated and humans are fallible. Doctors will make mistakes if their hospitals don't set up the proper systems to safeguard against harm -- if they don't, for example, create a checklist that reminds a nurse to wash her hands before accessing a central line, or switch to a digital prescribing system that makes it way harder for a pharmacist to misread a doctor's scribbled drug prescription.

Modern medicine can do incredible things, and the work providers do day in and day out is humbling. But each trip to the hospital is a chance for something to go wrong, too -- something I keep in mind thinking about my own care decisions.

-Sarah Kliff

Posted by orrinj at 4:04 PM


The unbearable lightness of Hillary Clinton's management style : Two stories about Hillary Clinton's tenure at State raise some troubling questions that will need to be answered at some point before November 2016. (Daniel W. Drezner, May 20, 2015, Washington Post)

[T]wo stories this week do give me some serious pause.

First, the New York Times' Nick Confessore and Michael Schmidt add some detail to an ongoing story about former speechwriter Sidney Blumenthal's access to Hillary Clinton during her time in the office.

[There are] a series of memos that Mr. Blumenthal -- who was not an employee of the State Department -- wrote to Mrs. Clinton about events unfolding in Libya before and after the death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. According to emails obtained by The New York Times, Mrs. Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time, took Mr. Blumenthal's advice seriously, forwarding his memos to senior diplomatic officials in Libya and Washington and at times asking them to respond. Mrs. Clinton continued to pass around his memos even after other senior diplomats concluded that Mr. Blumenthal's assessments were often unreliable [emphasis added].

But an examination by The Times suggests that Mr. Blumenthal's involvement was more wide-ranging and more complicated than previously known, embodying the blurry lines between business, politics and philanthropy that have enriched and vexed the Clintons and their inner circle for years. [...]

Every policy principal comes into office with a coterie of close friends and private advisers that can bend the principal's ear from time to time. It happened fairly frequently when I was working in government. As a result, an op-ed or private correspondence by a close friend gets pulsed into the system by a cabinet secretary that otherwise would have disappeared into the ether. This phenomenon is hardly unique to Hillary Clinton.

But the depth of this phenomenon might be unique to Clinton. I can't recall a private person being able to insert 25 memos into the system -- especially someone like Blumenthal, who was in no way, shape or form a Libya expert. And it's costly for a bureaucracy to shoot these things down, particularly when they come from the secretary. [...]

Even more disturbing, however, is the Wall Street Journal's Laura Meckler's report on how Clinton's political staff at the State Department interfered with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests:

When Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, her staff scrutinized politically sensitive documents requested under public-records law and sometimes blocked their release, according to people with direct knowledge of the activities. [...]

There is simply no way to spin this as anything other than Clinton's staff contravening the rules of the bureaucratic game to protect her political viability for a 2016 campaign.

Posted by orrinj at 4:00 PM


If you don't want your food genetically modified, tell nature to stop it. (Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, May 22, 2015, Reuters)

Recent research drives home how misled alarmists are about genetically modified food. All human beings, two Cambridge University scientists have established, are genetically modified, including Chipotle's customers. Over the years, hundreds of foreign genes have jumped into human DNA through a natural phenomenon called "gene flow." As a result, all humans carry genes that originated in algae, bacteria and fungi.

If humans can safely accept alien genes without mishap, why not food, too?

Farmers and breeders have for centuries used cross-breeding to improve the genetic characteristics of crops and animals. Because this process involves gene transfers within the same species, environmental advocates label it "natural" -- even though cross-breeding is clearly man-made. Modern genetic splicing makes it possible to combine genes from completely different species to produce much-needed products, including pest-resistant and high-yielding crops.

Posted by orrinj at 3:58 PM


The new Saudis : Chaos in the Middle East casts Saudi Arabia as the Arab world's leader. But it must reform faster (The Economist, May 23rd 2015)

[S]audi Arabia is grappling with three new factors. All around, Arab states have collapsed or faded away. Iraq, once the Arab bulwark against Iran, is devastated, as is Syria. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is busy consolidating its counter-revolution. That leaves Saudi Arabia as the only state with the standing, size and wealth to salvage something from the wreckage.

A second factor is geopolitical realignment: the American protector wants to retreat from the chaos, and the Iranian arch-enemy is surging forward. By negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, America has deepened Arab monarchs' fear of abandonment. They think they must fend for themselves.

The third factor is the new economics of shale: America has displaced Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest oil producer. As the price falls, Saudi Arabia is fighting to retain its share of the market and put higher-cost producers out of business.

The trouble is that the plan is not working. The war in Yemen, though popular at home, is going badly. After weeks of bombing, the Houthis are still advancing. A naval blockade has led to a humanitarian crisis that is causing outrage.

The war, and the rush to buy Western weapons, are burning a hole in the public finances. Saudi Arabia is running a double-digit budget deficit at a time when the oil price shows little prospect of further recovery. Although the princes are changing the pecking order in their palaces, they are not giving the people any more of a voice. On the contrary, Bedouin-style consultation has yielded to top-down direction. They have done nothing to revise their unholy pact with Wahhabi clerics, whose puritanism helps underpin jihadist ideology--indeed, public beheadings are more frequent.

The old Saudi model, in which the people ask no questions of their munificent, American-protected rulers, is reaching a dead end. 

Posted by orrinj at 3:55 PM


Traditional energy firms to go extinct with solar power becoming as cheap as coal (Jerin Mathew, May 22, 2015, IB Times)

Technological advancements in the production of solar panels would make solar power as cheap as coal, in a further blow to major energy companies, claims John Straw, author of the book, iDisrupted.

The price of the crystalline silicon modules, which are currently used in solar panels, has recently dropped to $0.50 (£0.32, €0.45) per watt in 2014 from $4 per watt in 2007 - a development once believed to be impossible.

The price drop is primarily attributed to a new low cost production method, which replaces the previous inefficient production process.

The cost of solar panel production is expected to be cut further to as low as $0.25. Massachusetts-based 1366 Technologies claims that its new method of silicon wafer production can further reduce costs. The company says it was able to cut the overall cost of a crystalline silicon module by a further 20%, rivalling the cost of coal.

Posted by orrinj at 3:49 PM


Author retracts study of changing minds on same-sex marriage after colleague admits data were faked (Ivan Oransky, Retraction Watch)

In what can only be described as a remarkable and swift series of events, one of the authors of a much-ballyhooed Science paper claiming that short conversations could change people's minds on same-sex marriage is retracting it following revelations that the data were faked by his co-author.

Donald Green, of Columbia, and Michael LaCour, a graduate student at UCLA, published the paper, "When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality," in December 2014. The study received widespread media attention, including from This American Life, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post,  The Los Angeles Times, Science Friday, Vox, and HuffingtonPost, as LaCour's site notes.

David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, graduate students at University of California, Berkeley, were two of the people impressed with the work, so they planned an extension of it, as they explain in a timeline posted online yesterday:

As we examined the study's data in planning our own studies, two features surprised us: voters' survey responses exhibit much higher test-retest reliabilities than we have observed in any other panel survey data, and the response and reinterview rates of the panel survey were significantly higher than we expected. We set aside our doubts about the study and awaited the launch of our pilot extension to see if we could manage the same parameters. LaCour and Green were both responsive to requests for advice about design details when queried.

Earlier this month, they began a pilot of their extension. They soon realized that

The response rate of the pilot study was notably lower than what LaCour and Green (2014) reported.

When Broockman and Kalla contacted the firm they thought had performed the original study upon which the Science paper was based,

The survey firm claimed they had no familiarity with the project and that they had never had an employee with the name of the staffer we were asking for. The firm also denied having the capabilities to perform many aspects of the recruitment procedures described in LaCour and Green (2014).

May 21, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 8:56 PM


Will US fast food workers fight for $15 backfire? (Deutsche-Welle, 5/21/15)

The problem is that in the high-tech, globalized world of the 21st century, businesses have greater leverage over workers due to the double threat of outsourcing and automation.

"We already have lost a lot of jobs to off-shoring and to new, sophisticated capital equipment that replaces unskilled workers," Lee Ohanian, an economist at the University of California Los Angeles, told DW via email.

"It probably won't be long before McDonald's has an app that allows you to touch an icon on your smart phone, order a happy meal for your kid, pay for it, and then go pick it up," he said. "Call this the 'Uber app' for fast food restaurants."

Posted by orrinj at 8:53 PM


IDF claims it is easing travel around West Bank for Palestinians : New roads paved, previously closed junctions reopened, officers say, arguing that terror less likely to flourish if economy thrives (ONATHAN BECK May 22, 2015, Times of Israel)

The IDF's Judea and Samaria Division is quietly promoting actions to ease travel and movement for Palestinians around the West Bank, even as critics in Israel and abroad slam an aborted plan for separate bus lines for settlers and for Palestinians, Israeli military officials said.

The policy aims to better the lives of Palestinian residents and avoid penalizing them for the crimes of terror organizations active in the West Bank, the officials told the Ynet news site.

Posted by orrinj at 8:29 PM


Yet Another Ghost Town in China Shows Extent of Regional Debt Crisis (Bloomberg, May 21, 2015)

China's Ordos city, where towers that sprang from Inner Mongolian farmland now sit empty, is showing the hangover has just begun from a decade-long building boom.

Ordos City Huayan Investment Group Co., a developer whose chairman headed a group of livestock researchers, is at high risk of defaulting on 1.2 billion yuan ($194 million) of bonds if investors exercise an option to offload them in December, said Haitong Securities Co. and China Investment Securities Co. Also in the city, Inner Mongolia Hengda Highway Development Co. asked noteholders to defer rights to sell back private securities in April due to cash shortages, according to China International Capital Corp.

The city whose fortunes reversed as a coal boom turned to bust is grappling with China's slumping property market that researcher SouFun Holdings Ltd. said led to more than 10 "ghost towns." Five years after the first building was finished in the eastern city of Tianjin's replica of Manhattan, the district remains almost deserted. 

Posted by orrinj at 8:25 PM


Low Rates Mean You Can Now Get a Mercedes With a Chevy Income (Ben Steverman, May 21, 2015, Bloomberg)

Low interest rates make it possible to afford pricier cars for the same monthly cost. In the past five years, the average vehicle's cost is up about $5,000, to almost $33,000. 

Despite this, the monthly payment on that car is up only about $30, an analysis by Bloomberg Intelligence shows. That's because the interest rate on the average five-year auto loan is now only about 3 percent per year, down more than four points since 2009.

Gas prices have also tumbled. That has little direct impact on car buyers, but it has a psychological one, says Bloomberg Intelligence senior auto analyst Kevin Tynan. When prices are high, consumers tend to be more conservative. Now that they're low, drivers can feel like using their savings to upgrade their wheels.

Finally, luxury automakers such as BMW and Mercedes are eager to get young buyers to try their cars. They've come out with lower-priced models, and they're offering big incentives for those who lease them.

Posted by orrinj at 8:21 PM


In Saudi Exile, Yemen Leaders Risk Losing Touch With Country (Deema Almashabi, Mohammed Hatem, Nafeesa Syeed, May 19, 2015, Bloomberg)

Hadi still enjoys support in parts of Yemen, especially the south. That's being eroded, as Yemenis on the ground view him as endorsing prolonged airstrikes amid severe food and fuel shortages, said Farea al-Muslimi, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

The Riyadh meeting "is simply irrelevant to everything," al-Muslimi said. It will make Hadi more unpopular, because "you're going on TV and asking the world to keep bombing your country."

The United Nations World Food Programme said on Tuesday that the five-day cease-fire wasn't long enough to reach all those needing aid, and called for regular "predictable pauses." The UN estimates that 1,820 people have been killed and more than half a million displaced since March.

Leaders who are in touch with their people hold elections.

Posted by orrinj at 8:17 PM


'You'd Have to Be Insane Not to Conduct Some Soul-Searching' (ROBERT DRAPER, MAY 20, 2015, NY Times Magazine)

"We just keep losing," Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut told me. "You'd have to be insane not to conduct some soul-searching. And that soul-searching, when you keep losing, can easily -- unfortunately -- lead to recriminations and backbiting."

Impatience toward the party's House leadership -- headed by the minority leader, Nancy Pelosi -- began bubbling over after the midterms. As Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio, a former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told me: "After the last election, they refused to even admit that we were just destroyed. They were patting themselves on the back for the losses we took: `Oh, it could've been so much worse.' There's a great deal of frustration." She added: "Most members don't want to come to caucus or whip meetings. I think some of them see the House as a quagmire, and they want to find a way out."

It was in that atmosphere of postelection anxiety that House Democrats began having furtive discussions on the House floor and on the phone with Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. Since winning his House seat in 2002, Van Hollen had been a rising star in the Democratic Party. He had solid progressive credentials, and Pelosi accorded him star-pupil status in her caucus. And at 56, he is what Washington considers youthful; Pelosi, Steny Hoyer (the minority whip) and James Clyburn (the assistant Democratic leader) are all in their mid-70s. By January of this year, several of Van Hollen's colleagues, convinced that the party was in desperate need of a new direction, were encouraging him to immediately begin mounting an effort to succeed Pelosi by the end of 2016.

The question was how. Apart from making vague references to the desirability of "generational change," Pelosi had sent no signals as to when she might give up her top post. What she had made tacitly clear was that she had no intentions of ceding it to Hoyer, who like Pelosi was raised in Maryland and about whom Pelosi nurtured some ancient but intractable grudge.

Speaking of her attitude toward Hoyer, one Democratic congressman told me: "That's not been good for us, and it has complicated a lot of our challenges. I consider myself a real fan of Steny. But the cards on the table are the ones we have to play. If the only way there's going to be a change is for Chris to ascend, then that's what we have to do."

Still, for Van Hollen to ascend, he and his supporters would have to furnish proof to Pelosi that he could muster a majority of votes within the caucus to beat Hoyer in a leadership race. So, early in 2015, Van Hollen proceeded to do just that. In this task, he was assisted by seven House Democratic colleagues from across the party spectrum: Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut liberal who happens to be one of Pelosi's closest associates; Steve Israel, a centrist representing Long Island who had until recently been Van Hollen's successor at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; two veteran progressives, Lloyd Doggett from Austin and Paul Tonko from upstate New York; the two-term moderates Beto O'Rourke from El Paso and Dan Kildee from Flint, Mich.; and Donna Edwards, a fellow Maryland representative and a protégée of Pelosi.

But then something entirely unexpected took place: On March 2, Maryland's senior senator, Barbara Mikulski, announced that she would not be seeking another term in 2016. Van Hollen had thought hard about running when the other Maryland Senate seat opened up in 2006. Now, after 27 years holding her seat, Mikulski had offered a rare opportunity for a fellow Maryland Democrat to break free from the minority in the raucous lower chamber and join the elite Senate. For an upwardly mobile politician like Van Hollen, such a temptation was akin to a biological imperative -- unless, perhaps, Nancy Pelosi offered him the one enticement that might keep him in the House. 

...and realize it's hostile to the very idea of the soul?

Posted by orrinj at 8:13 PM


Yes, Robots Really Are Going To Take Your Job And End The American Dream (Ben Schiller, 5/20/15, Co.exist)

[T]here's reason to be believe that, unlike those previous times, we really are entering an age when people will work less. As author Martin Ford puts it in his recent book Rise of the Robots, "this time is different." New artificially intelligent machines, he says, are not so much tools to improve the efficiency of workers but really are tools to replace workers themselves.

"The question of whether smart machines will someday eclipse the capability of average people to perform much of the work demanded by the economy will be answered by the nature of the technology that arrives in the future--not by lessons gleaned by economic history," he writes.

Surveying all the fields now being affected by automation, Ford makes a compelling case that this is an historic disruption--a fundamental shift from most tasks being performed by humans to one where most tasks are done by machines. That includes obvious things like moving boxes around a warehouse, but also many "higher skill" jobs as well, such as radiology and stock trading. And don't kid yourself about your own importance: that list almost certainly includes your job.

We really could be headed for an economy with many fewer jobs in it and a severely eroded middle class, he argues. one aspired to be a paver.

Posted by orrinj at 8:11 PM


Is Rooftop Solar Finally Good Enough to Disrupt the Grid? (Nathan Richter, MAY 21, 2015, Harvard Business Review)

Over the past two decades, there have been many attempts to reform the electric utility market. The costly and complex operations of transporting energy have made utilities natural monopolies, while regulatory barriers and the high fixed costs of building and maintaining regional electrical grid infrastructure have also kept much competition at bay. But recent technological advances and new business models are now allowing nimble players to compete and provide consumers with cost-saving alternatives. With the rise of distributed forms of energy, such as rooftop solar power, and batteries, it's become much more feasible to match individual demand for electricity with on-site production.

Distributed energy systems are basically comprised of small-scale energy-generating devices (the most common example being solar panels) that allow for electricity to be produced on-site and consumed immediately, without drawing from the local electrical grid. Recent developments, such as falling solar panel prices and increases in efficiency rates (the rate at which sunlight hitting panels is turned into usable energy), have made distributed energy increasingly economical, while new business models and financing methods have made it more accessible. [...]

In the case of distributed energy, various financing options let consumers save in a number of ways. They are offered either solar leases (leasing the panel and its energy for a fixed periodic payment) from a solar company, power purchase agreements (they purchase each unit of electricity produced by the panel at an agreed upon rate), or solar loans (the consumer, rather than the service provider, owns the panel; effectively a solar panel mortgage). In each case, the cost per unit of electricity is not only cheaper but more stable when compared to rates charged by utilities.

With the introduction of batteries that can store electricity, such as Tesla's, solar energy's value proposition may well increase. Batteries can store excess solar energy produced in the middle of the day when the sun is strongest and then release the energy at peak price hours. While this isn't quite as cost-effective for the residential sector yet, due to battery costs and regulatory issues, batteries are already being used in commercial and industrial sectors, where extra charges for using energy during high-demand periods can make up 30% of electric bills. Instead, batteries can pull electricity from the grid when prices are low, like in the middle of the night, and store it. That electricity can then be consumed later when energy is more expensive and demand charges come into play.

New energy management software can also help identify consumption inefficiency and automate electricity usage when necessary by collecting site-specific energy data. But before distributed energy can make a greater impact, more comprehensive energy management platforms must be developed. Ultimately, Internet of the Things software could optimize the interactions between a distributed energy system comprised of solar panels, batteries, and commercial or residential buildings' energy management systems, based on real-time data from each component -- much the way Uber's platform oversees and coordinates a ride by transmitting and analyzing data from mobile devices.

Posted by orrinj at 5:10 PM


Millions Spent on Benghazi Probes with No Answers in Sight (ROB GARVER, 5/19/15, The Fiscal Times)

After spending nearly three years and countless millions of taxpayer dollars, the federal investigations into the September 2012 attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, which killed an American ambassador and three other U.S. citizens, have thus far yielded no proof that the Obama administration orchestrated a cover-up to conceal either a failure to prevent the attacks, or a bungled response in the aftermath.

The House Select Committee on Benghazi was supposed to change that. Created to deliver the final word on the long-running saga, the committee headed by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), a former prosecutor, has the funding, the jurisdiction and the subpoena power that lawmakers said would be necessary to bring an end to the debate over what happened in Libya in 2012.

However, in an interview with his hometown Greenville News, Gowdy over the weekend set out to lower expectations. 

Posted by orrinj at 4:59 PM


Dive into Ross Macdonald's California noir masterpieces : The legendary writer of psychoanalytic mysteries captured the culture of postwar California better than anyone (SCOTT TIMBERG, 5/20/15, Salon)

The Library of America has just released "Four Novels of the 1950s," edited by Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan. (Ross Macdonald was the pen name of California-born, Canadian-reared Kenneth Millar, who lived in Santa Barbara with his wife, the mystery writer Margaret Millar, and died in 1983.)

We spoke to Nolan, a veteran journalist, from his home in Los Angeles.

Let's start with Macdonald in general. There are hundreds of detective novels coming out every year. For people who don't know Macdonald's work, why is this guy worth reading? Similarly, why is it worth Library of America, which is sort of the guardian of the literary world, putting out 60-year-old novels?

Well, as you know, they put out the best of American literature, including nonfiction and speeches and poetry. Of course, a lot of the things they publish are much, much older than 60 years. But Macdonald matters because I think he's one of the finest fiction writers in American literature, not just detective fiction but all of American modern fiction. The things that are most interesting and appealing about him, and valuable to people still, are the beauty of the expression, of the language, the beauty of the prose, which has poetic qualities and is informed by a great lyric talent. The beauty of the expression, and it's the emotional content and the human experience that touches people in the heart in ways that are very special to a lot of readers. A lot of empathy, which is not always the same as sympathy, but often it is. It represents a lot of experience, it's beautifully expressed, that a lot of people can relate to.

Although he initially wrote about criminals and traditional elements of crime fiction, as he matured as a writer and a person, he dealt more with universal situations. You could say his overarching theme was the dysfunctional family, which I think anybody can relate to, because all our families were to some degree dysfunctional. He drew on his own youth and on his own experience as a parent, and the themes that recur in his books are things that were crucial to his own life.

Posted by orrinj at 1:25 PM


Political Mobilization:  Researchers Seek Participants in Online Study

My name is Raynee Gutting and I am conducting an online survey about people's personal characteristics and beliefs, and how people become politically active and engaged. The study is brief and interesting, and should help me understand how individuals think about important political issues and American society more generally. In our current political climate, I think developing an understanding of how people interact with the political environment is critical for America to thrive. I hope you will take a few minutes to participate!
The survey can be accessed by using the following link.  We ask you to please do not discuss your participation in the study for the next few weeks (please do not post comments), as to not influence other participants! As a thank you for your participation, you will have the opportunity to enter into a lottery to win one of four $25 Amazon gift cards. 

Follow this link to the Survey:

I am based at Stony Brook University.  This study has been approved by Stony Brook University's Institutional Review Board protecting research involving human subjects. Questions about participation or results of the study can be directed to Raynee Gutting at

May 20, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 7:32 PM


Give Up on Netanyahu, Go to the United Nations (HENRY SIEGMAN, MAY 19, 2015, NY Times)

[I]t was clear to anyone familiar with the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that what little hope remained for a two-state solution would depend on the emergence of an Israeli government entirely under the control of Israel's far right. Only a far-right government that so deeply offends American democratic sensibilities -- as this one surely will -- could provide the political opening necessary for a change in America's Middle East policy.

Mr. Netanyahu has wasted no time providing that offense by appointing as his justice minister a Knesset member, Ayelet Shaked, who approvingly posted an article on her Facebook page that called for the destruction of "the entire Palestinian people, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure."

The victory of Israel's far right has thus provided an unexpected, if narrow, opening for Mr. Obama, allowing him to call for a reassessment of America's peace policy.

Such a reassessment must begin by abandoning the old assumption that Palestinians can achieve statehood only by negotiating with Mr. Netanyahu. Because of Mr. Netanyahu's statements and behavior during the elections (not to mention the continued construction in the settlements), that belief has been irreparably discredited. It is now certain that a two-state agreement will never emerge from any bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Such an agreement can only be achieved if the United Nations Security Council, with strong support from the United States, presents the parties with clear terms for resumed peace talks that will produce an agreement within a specified timeframe.

Just do it unilaterally and, as with Israel, American recognition will suffice,

Posted by orrinj at 7:25 PM


NFL Has Let QBs Become Masters of Inflation (Chip Scoggins, 5/19/15, Star Tribune)

Turns out, NFL quarterbacks are a meticulous bunch when it comes to footballs and getting them prepared for game day, even if they stop short of letting air out of them.

Once footballs arrive in shipment, equipment managers use -- among various tricks -- a dirt compound, water, players' sweat, Coca-Cola, special brushes, dryers, steam baths and good old-fashioned elbow grease to make footballs feel worn.

New footballs have a slick, waxy sheen that makes them hard to grip. Quarterbacks hate shiny footballs.

"You just can't play with a brand-new ball," former Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham said. "It's virtually impossible. The statistics would never be what they are now." [...]

Most quarterbacks are incredibly particular about their preferences. ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck preferred less air, more nubby leather and raised laces.

"I was crazy picky," he said.

As a young player, Frerotte had equipment managers wrap new footballs in damp towels and put them in the dryer to soften the leather. Hasselbeck saw guys drench towels in Coke and wrap the footballs to add some tack. Hasselbeck liked to practice on grass in the morning to take advantage of dew.

Quarterbacks say the best breaking-in method is to have teammates use footballs in practice to get sweat on them. Former Denver Broncos quarterback Adam Weber only wanted running backs handling them.

And only the right amount of sweat.

"You can get too much sweat on it and ruin the ball," Weber said. "You have to find that perfect medium."

Hasselback knew a football needed more work if the ball discolored his hand.

"I would be like, 'Dude, my hand's pink. You didn't even get the first layer off,' " he said.

Former Viking Sage Rosenfels said geography plays a role in the process, too. When he played in Miami and Houston, his footballs would be game ready after only a few practices because of the high humidity.

That wasn't the case in Minnesota, but Rosenfels said Vikings longtime equipment manager Dennis Ryan had a special touch with footballs. Rosenfels declined to reveal Ryan's methods, saying only that everything was "all legal, the things that they did."

"It's a special sauce I don't think Dennis would give away," Rosenfels joked.

He's right. The Vikings wouldn't provide the secret formula, either.

Frerotte, who played for seven NFL teams, also gave his stamp of approval.

"Dennis is probably the best I've ever seen in getting the ball ready," he said. "The method that he uses is great because it doesn't ruin the integrity of the ball. It gets that wax off and gets you a good grip so you can throw it."

Posted by orrinj at 7:08 PM


U.S. Releases Contents Of Bin Laden's English-Language "Bookshelf" (Rosie Gray, 5/20/15, BuzzFeed)

 "Of the 38 full-length English-language books he had in his possession, about half of them were conspiracy theory books" about the Illuminati, Freemasons, and other conspiracy topics. Texts listed on the "bookshelf" include Bloodlines of the Illuminati by the American conspiracy theorist Fritz Springmeier; The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11 by the 9/11 conspiracy theorist David Ray Griffin; and The Secrets of the Federal Reserve, a book by the Holocaust denier and anti-Semite Eustace Mullins.

Posted by orrinj at 7:03 PM


Mao's China: The Language Game (Perry Link, 5/19/15, NY Review of Books)

It can be embarrassing for a China scholar like me to read Eileen Chang's pellucid prose, written more than sixty years ago, on the early years of the People's Republic of China. How many cudgels to the head did I need before arriving at comparable clarity? My disillusioning first trip to China in 1973? My reading of the devastating journalism of Liu Binyan in 1980? Observation of bald lies in action at the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 and in the imprisonment of a Nobel Peace laureate in more recent times? Did I need all of this to catch up to where Chang was in 1954 in her understanding of how things worked in Communist China, beneath the blankets of jargon? In graduate school I did not take Chang's Naked Earth (published in Chinese in 1954 and translated by Chang into English in 1956) and its sister novel, The Rice-Sprout Song (also published in 1954 and translated by Chang into English in 1955), very seriously. People said the works had an anti-Communist bias.

Sadly, it was instead 50 million Chinese who were getting the cudgel, not the fellow travellers in the West.
Posted by orrinj at 6:59 PM


Evangelical Protestants Are The Biggest Winners When People Change Faiths (LEAH LIBRESCO, 5/19/15, 538)

Pew's survey data makes it possible to calculate where all 12 of the religions for which Pew has data -- including some non-Christian religions -- settle into a steady demographic distribution. This equilibrium is the logical extension of present trends, fast-forwarding until a new, persistent normal emerges. This kind of analysis gives us a chance to zero in on one factor that drives religious change -- recruitment of new members and retention of old ones -- but excludes other factors like immigration and doctrinal shifts. (You can check out the model and data on GitHub.)

If conversions went on as they do today and all other factors were held steady, America would wind up with the religious demographics of the stable distribution.

Unaffiliateds would wind up modestly gaining ground (from 23 percent at present to 29 percent).1 And Christian denominations would drop a little (from 69 percent at present to 62 percent at equilibrium).2

But there would be substantial redistribution among Christian groups, with evangelical Protestants gaining (26 percent at present to 32 percent) and Catholics losing more than half their current share of the population (21 percent to 8 percent).

Why do evangelicals wind up ahead of other Christian sects in this model? They're better at holding on to the people born into their tradition (65 percent retention compared to 59 percent for Catholics and 45 percent for Mainline Protestants), and they're a stronger attractor for people leaving other faiths. According to Pew's data on conversion rates, 10 percent of people raised Catholic wind up as evangelicals. Just 2 percent of people born as evangelicals wind up Catholic. The flow between mainline and evangelical Protestants is also tilted in evangelicals' favor. Twelve percent of those raised evangelical wind up in mainline congregations, but 19 percent of mainline Protestants wind up becoming evangelical.

Posted by orrinj at 6:41 PM


Scott Walker jobs agency in 'chaos' amid calls for federal probe (Zachary Roth, 5/19/15, MSNBC)

Three days after being sworn in as Wisconsin governor in 2011, Scott Walker announced an ambitious plan to turn the state's commerce department into a semi-private corporation laser-focused on economic growth and job creation.

"Transforming the Department of Commerce will align state government with our most important mission: creating jobs," Walker said in a statement announcing the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), whose major role would be to make loans to private companies.

Four years later, as Walker lays the groundwork for a presidential run, WEDC appears rudderless and deeply troubled. Government and press reports have raised serious questions about the agency's transparency, effectiveness, political independence and compliance with the law. Walker, who serves as chair of the WEDC board, has twice in recent months announced major shifts to the agency's structure and mission--and this week he has been forced to deny that he knew about a questionable loan to a political contributor's company.

Democrats are calling for a federal investigation. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's job growth continues to lag far behind the nation's--taking a toll on the governor's popularity at home.

Posted by orrinj at 1:38 PM


The GOP Is the Strongest It's Been in Decades (Sean Trende & David Byler, May 19, 201, RCP)

Our index is the sum of five parts: presidential performance, House performance, Senate performance, gubernatorial performance and state legislative performance. The first is measured by the party's performance in the previous presidential popular vote (NB: In this, and all other measurements, third parties are excluded). 

House performance is the average of the popular vote for the House and the average of the share of the House won by the party. This helps mitigate the effects of gerrymandering.  Senate performance is the share of the Senate held by the party.

Gubernatorial performance is the party's share of governorships (again, with third party candidates excluded). We do not weight for population, for reasons explored further below.  For state legislatures, we average four numbers: the share of state Houses and state Senates held by each party along with the share of state House seats and state Senate seats held by each party.

This gives us five metrics, all of which run on a scale from 0 to 100.  Adding them together gives us a scale from 0 to 500.  We then subtract 250 from the total.  All this does is assign a score of zero to a situation where the parties are evenly matched, rather than 250. A positive score then means that the Republican Party is stronger while a negative score means the Democratic Party is stronger.

We ran the scale back to the founding of the Republican Party in 1856. The average score is -4 and the median is -6, suggesting that over time the parties have been pretty evenly matched.  The low score for the Republicans came in 1936, when they hit a bottom of -119. Their strongest performance was 108 in 1866 (post-Reconstruction, their strongest performance was 79 in 1920).  The standard deviation was 45.6 - in plain English, that means when a party rises above 45 it can be thought of as doing unusually well, and when it rises above 90 or so it is doing exceptionally well.  About 60 percent of the results fall between -30 and 30.

Before the 2014 elections, the parties were pretty close to parity: The index stood at 7.98.  This indicated an insignificant advantage for the Republicans, although it placed them well above their post-World War II average of -20.

It goes without saying that Republicans improved upon their showing in the 2014 elections.  Their 54 Senate seats represent the second-best tally for the party since 1928.  Their 247 House seats is the most the party has won since 1928, although when combined with the popular vote percentage, it drops to the second-highest since then (in 1946, the party did slightly better).

At the state level, the GOP's share of governorships is the ninth-highest since Reconstruction, and the third-highest in the post-war era (1996 and 1998 were higher). The party's showing in state legislatures is the highest since 1920, the ninth-highest ever, and the third-highest since the end of Reconstruction.

Overall, this gives the Republicans an index score of 33.8.  This is the Republican Party's best showing in the index since 1928, and marks only the third time that the party has been above 15 in the index since the end of World War II.

Posted by orrinj at 1:36 PM


Doctor Uses 3-D Printing To Help Rebuild Parts Of 2-Year-Old's Face (Jared Keever, April 9, 2015, Opposing Views)

A 2-year-old Oregon girl is smiling again -- but this time with a new smile -- after undergoing a complicated surgery to rebuild portions of her face. The doctor who did the work is saying everything worked out so well because he was able to use 3-D printing to plan his approach to the procedure. 

May 19, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 9:00 PM


The U.S. Underestimates Growth : The official statistics are missing changes that are lifting American incomes. (MARTIN FELDSTEIN, May 18, 2015, WSJ)

[T]he problem begins at the beginning--when an army of shoppers go around the country at the government's behest to sample the prices of different goods and services. Does a restaurant meal with a higher price tag than a year ago reflect a higher cost for buying the same food and service, or does the higher price reflect better food and better service? Or what combination of the two? Or consider the higher price of a day of hospital care. How much of that higher price reflects improved diagnosis and more effective treatment? And what about valuing all the improved electronic forms of communication and entertainment that fill the daily lives of most people?

In short, there is no way to know how much of each measured price increase reflects quality improvements and how much is a pure price increase. Yet the answers that come out of this process are reflected in the consumer-price index and in the government's measures of real growth.

This is why we shouldn't place much weight on the official measures of real GDP growth. It is relatively easy to add up the total dollars that are spent in the economy--the amount labeled nominal GDP. Calculating the growth of real GDP requires comparing the increase of nominal GDP to the increase in the price level. That is impossibly difficult.

The measurement problem is particularly severe for new products. Consider a new drug that improves the quality of life, reducing pain or curing a previously incurable disease. The ability to buy that new product means that a dollar is worth more than it used to be, and that the properly measured level of real GDP is higher.

The official method of calculating the price index doesn't incorporate this new product until total spending on it exceeds some threshold level. It is then added to the government's price calculations, but only to record whether the cost of the drug goes up or down. The main effect of raising well-being when the drug is introduced is completely ignored. The same is true of other new products.

The result is that the rise in real incomes is underestimated, and the common concern about what appears to be the slow growth of average household incomes is therefore misplaced. Although the dollar amount of median household income nearly doubled in the past two decades, the increase in the official price index has cut the corresponding increase of real household income down to less than 5%.

Official statistics also portray a 10% decline in the real median household income since 2000, fueling economic pessimism. But these low growth estimates fail to reflect the remarkable innovations in everything from health care to Internet services to video entertainment that have made life better during these years, as well as the more modest year-to-year improvements in the quality of products and services.

Posted by orrinj at 8:53 PM


Antony Beevor: 'There are things that are too horrific to put in a book' : The historian Antony Beevor tells Keith Lowe why his next book will confront one of the last taboos of the Second World War (Keith Lowe3:51PM BST 17 May 2015, The Telegraph)

If there's one thing that sets Beevor apart from other historians - beyond his gifts as a storyteller - it's that he is not afraid to look at the most uncomfortable, even frightening subjects, but does so in a way that doesn't threaten the reader. There's rarely a judgmental note to his writing. It's like having Virgil there to lead you through the underworld: he doesn't leave you stranded amid the horror, but leads you back out again, a wiser person for having undergone the journey.

He has a knack for choosing controversial subjects at the right moment - when they are raw enough to touch a nerve, but not so raw as to be too painful to acknowledge. His latest is an account of the battle of the Ardennes in 1944. The book, which comes out this month, is a natural progression from his earlier history of D-Day. There is the same political tension between the British and American commanders; there is the same desperation in the fighting of ordinary soldiers on both sides; but at the heart of it lies another dark subject: the indiscriminate killing of prisoners. This, Beevor says, is "unmentionable", one of the last taboos of the war. "I still haven't read any American historian on the subject of the shooting of prisoners. And until recently I don't think many British historians have written about the British killing of prisoners. That was something the Germans did, but we prefer not to talk about our boys doing it."

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