Friday, December 29, 2006

A Pre-Christmas Anecdote

With all the mishegas of the holiday season I haven't taken much time out for reading, writing or arithmetic. (Rush Limbaugh likes to say readin', 'ritin', 'rithmetic and Rush are the four Rs of a good education. I do love listening to him rant about how Democrats control the weather.) So to tide everyone over until I can get down to some serious 'ritin', here's a wee story from the week I was trying to get out of DC...

I had been trying to get an interview with Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Tex.) for a few weeks, especially after the election, because he's in line to chair the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee next year and a lot of environmental issues flow through that august chamber. (It covers preparations for battle, including training range weapons firing involving eventual cleanup.) I had tried not to badger his office too much -- although he cruised to re-election, I don't doubt he had bigger fish to fry than my questions about the Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative -- but after the immediate election aftermath was over and I was looking for next-day stories I needed something to come through. I was about to start a fresh round of barely disguised pleading when his office called me and offered a phone interview the next day. This doesn't usually happen when you're in my position. You typically have to cajole press secretaries until they remember who you are through sheer attrition; so them calling me out of the blue was a nice gesture. The next day, sure enough, Ortiz calls me -- from his truck out on a highway in Texas somewhere. I can hear the air rushing through his window. His press person is conferenced in from Washington. There we all are, getting down to business, when the flack says "Excuse me, everyone. Mr. Ortiz, the Speaker-elect is looking for you." So I'm on hold for five minutes while he talks to Nancy Pelosi about who knows what. Then I get my interview.

This is not a story with a punchline. It's what my day is like when things are interesting.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

When The Hammer Falls, It Falls Hard

You'll remember, won't you, way back near the beginning of this bloggysey (I just made that up!) that I warned against the prospect of getting a Dooce dropped on me. If you're really suffering too much from postmodern ennui to follow the link, the term refers to getting fired for whatever it is you wrote on your blog. If you don't get why, look it up -- I don't normally send people on pop culture wild goose chases, so you know when I say it's okay, you can trust it's for real.

Anyway, the point is that while my career is perfectly safe, someone at the company got the proverbial Doocing last week. I won't go into the details for reasons too tangled and richly, ironically obvious to explore. Suffice to say this person had the gall to question management decisions in rather saucy terms -- without naming names or company affiliations, but clearly with enough cheek to launch the ship of an internal investigation that finally pulled into port around the time I ran into him at a bar on Tuesday with some friends, drinking and smoking and smoking and cursing and not shaving. After several years at the company, he had been unceremoniously shown the door. I tell this story only as an illustration that these things really happen.

He got a new, better-paying job already.

Vegetarianism Is A Sign of Intelligence, Say Scienticians

Sorry, lamb-basters: the proof says you're not as smart as me.
British researchers have found that children's IQ predicts their likelihood of becoming vegetarians as young adults -- lowering their risk for cardiovascular disease in the process. The finding could explain the link between smarts and better health, the investigators say.

"Brighter people tend to have healthier dietary habits," concluded lead author Catharine Gale, a senior research fellow at the MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre of the University of Southampton and Southampton General Hospital.

Recent studies suggest that vegetarianism may be associated with lower cholesterol, reduced risk of obesity and heart disease. This might explain why children with high IQs tend to have a lower risk of heart disease in later life.

The report is published in the Dec. 15 online edition of the British Medical Journal.
Normally I'm not one to gloat, but I'd like to take this opportunity to shake my head in wonder and say how often I told you so. Go ahead and read the rest of it, if you even can. I'll wait over here nibbling my lettuce and letting my brain grow to enormous size.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

First Real Post-Election News Dump

The long-awaited News From Lappland:

Archer Daniels Midland May Undermine Global Warming Regulations

Corporate agriculture interests may decide to kill us all for their short-term profits. You have to follow the link if you really want to get the full picture -- it takes a surprisingly short amount of time -- but here's the gist of it:
Ethanol's revival is intimately linked to one company, the giant grain-trading firm Archer Daniels Midland, and one seemingly unrelated product, high-fructose corn syrup. The story centers on a man who arguably counts as corporate America's most generous and influential political donor of the second half of the 20th century, former ADM CEO Dwayne Andreas. To understand the weird and lucrative nexus between an industrial sweetener, a gas substitute, and a grain magnate, we need to go back to the days of disco.


Just how much does government manipulation on behalf of ADM's twin corn-processing units cost U.S. taxpayers and consumers? That's a tricky question, because the subsidy programs are so indirect and complex. For example, the corn subsidies that have kept ADM's feedstock of choice cheap for so long don't go to the company, but rather farmers. Nor does the sugar quota involve direct payments to ADM. Consumers pay the tab in the form of higher food prices. In addition to these difficulties, several states and even municipalities have put in place policies that favor corn processing.

In a landmark study this year for the Geneva*-based International Institute for Sustainable Development, researcher Doug Koplow attempted to come to terms with the situation. Here's how he described the "major challenge" of quantifying the value of government support for ethanol and other biofuel: "Virtually every production input and production stage of ethanol and biodiesel is subsidized somewhere in the country; in many locations, producers can tap into multiple subsidies at once.

After 50 pages of detailing seemingly every one of those supports, Koplow reaches his estimated bottom line: total government support for ethanol clocks in at somewhere between $6.3 billion and $8.7 billion per year.

Let's crunch numbers here. ADM controls a third of the ethanol market, so (taking Koplow's lower estimate) let's say it benefits from about $2 billion in government largesse. If we use its third-quarter profit report as a base, ADM can be expected to make about $700 million in profit from ethanol over the next year. That means that every dollar in profit ADM makes from ethanol costs the public about $2.85. Note that Koplow's analysis doesn't even attempt to reckon with the sugar quota, which has played such a powerful role in corn ethanol's ascent.
Bush May Lift Drilling Ban in Alaskan Bay

Keep your eye out for what happens on this the next few days and weeks. The outcome will be something of a harbinger on the future of oil vs. land conservation. Think of it as an under-the-radar ANWR.

Brazil Protects Great Swath of Amazon

This is happening in a state where the loggers usually call the shots, which makes it especially good news.
Known as the Guayana Shield, the 57,915-square-mile area contains more than 25 percent of the world's remaining humid tropical forests and the largest remaining unpolluted fresh water reserves in the American tropics.

The protected areas will link to existing reserves to form a vast preservation corridor eventually stretching into neighboring Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.
Protester Immolation Virtually Unnoticed

It's hard to read things like this. Some people just cannot handle the way our country is being run.

Fox News Memo: Watch For Terrorists Crowing About Dem Election Victory

This speaks for itself, as though we really even needed any more proof that Fox is completely divorced from reality. It's depressing to think anyone watches, isn't it? I mean, really? What do they think they're getting out of it?

John LeCarre, Spy Novelist, Goes to The Congo

I've been meaning to post this for a while. It's a powerful story well told.
It was the strangest journey of my life and it always will be. I was looking for fictional characters I had invented, in a country I had never visited. The distant town of my imagination was Bukavu in Eastern Congo, known formerly as Costermansville and built in the early twentieth century by Belgian colonialists. It stands at the southern end of Lake Kivu, at 4,800 feet the highest and coolest of all Africa's Great Lakes. I had written my novel in a period when for personal reasons I had felt unable to leave England. Now, too late if my previous books were anything to go by, I was about to check its people and places against the reality.

* - See comments for a clarification on this. I can only point out that I didn't write the article, as this person -- who is unknown to me -- seems to think.

And Now... What This Means For The Country

I keep promising it, now I'll spill it.

1) The election means I wait around the office wondering whether John Warner, a relatively sane but very conservative senator, will take the minority ranking member position on the Environment and Public Works Committee in the next Congress. (It's a mark of environmentalists' desperation and jungle fever anxiety that they've come down to rooting for him. Because...) If he doesn't, James Inhofe, global warming skeptic extraordinaire, will get that plum assignment, from where he can scuttle, filibuster, delay and undermine any kind of environmental policy Barbara Boxer may want to put forth. A consensus is growing in the gossip community that Warner, who floated the ranking member idea himself, has always had his eye on the Intelligence Committee instead and made a stink to ensure he got his way. This could be the case, for reasons having to do with many senators, several committees and an avalanche of personal interests, but we don't know yet. The bottom line is that with Inhofe, global warming legislation -- which, depending on your point of view, would either be a waste of money or a way to prevent living on Venus -- would face a terrific hurdle. And so we all wait.

2) On a related note, it means we won't have any more Inhofe-sponsored hearings on whether the media has done a good job covering "climate variation." I went to today's media circus as part of my job; it was newsworthy mostly in an Onion sort of way.

3) It means we'll finally know the truth, or at least more of it, about those damn prisons that were built with our tax money and run in the name of our security. Prisons where agents of our elected government continue to torture innocent people, deny "enemy combatants" basic human rights, let alone legal protections, and spread fear and resentment supposedly with our best interests in mind. If these operations have yielded a single really good piece of intelligence, don't you think we would have heard about it by now?

Speaking of which, several years ago my uncle got me a copy of Chris Hedges' War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, which I hadn't ever sat down to until last week. I read it practically straight through. I cannot recommend it highly enough -- it's a quick read and very intellectually and morally stirring. He was the New York Times war correspondent for many years, and his stories go back to covering El Salvador. I didn't know this, but he was at one time a divinity student. His commentaries on war, patriotism, hate, love and death read like the classics. You cannot buy this book soon enough.

4) It means we can expect a five-day work week from Congress, as opposed to the current two days. According to the Washington Post:
Hoyer and other Democratic leaders say they are trying to repair the image of Congress, which was so anemic this year it could not meet a basic duty: to approve spending bills that fund government. By the time the gavel comes down on the 109th Congress on Friday, members will have worked a total of 103 days. That's seven days fewer than the infamous "Do-Nothing Congress" of 1948.

Hoyer said members can bid farewell to extended holidays, the kind that awarded them six weekdays to relax around Memorial Day, when most Americans get a single day off. He didn't mention the month-long August recess, the two-week April recess or the weeks off in February, March and July.

He said members need to spend more time in the Capitol to pass laws and oversee federal agencies. "We are going to meet sufficient times, so the committees can do their jobs on behalf of the American people," he said.
Next time you want to argue in favor of the GOP Congress From Hell's Intestine, think about that 103 days figure before you say something you can't take back. That's your money they're getting paid with.

5) It means I'll actually have Capitol Hill issues, bills and debates to cover rather than hustling bureaucrats for table leavings and giblets. That will be a nice departure, believe me.

6) Hopefully it means taking North Korean diplomacy seriously, as Bush has. . . uh, not done.
Remember how the whole premise of Bush administration North Korea policy was that we shouldn't be offering 'pay-offs' to the North Koreans in exchange for them giving up their nuclear program?

From today's Times:

"The United States has offered a detailed package of economic and energy assistance in exchange for North Korea’s giving up nuclear weapons and technology, American officials said Tuesday."

So after six long years of incompetence, arrogance, dithering and disaster, in which the president allowed the NKs to waltz into the nuclear club unimpeded, they're now back to the same policy they insisted on ditching in the first place. Only now with a hand infinitely weaker than it was in 2000 since back then the NKs didn't have the bomb.
7) It means this guy no longer has a place at the table and will just run for president on his way into the mists of time.
Hunter had wanted the island closed off for private hunting for several groups over the years. Hopefully with his quixotic run for the presidency in 2008 and the Dem majority, this will be the last we hear of this stupid hunting on Santa Rosa Island B.S.
I almost wrote a story about this once: Hunter, the outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wanted at one time to close off Santa Rosa Island, off the coast of his native California, to create a private hunting playground for himself and his friends. (No one liked the idea.) Now that he'll soon be in the minority party, he's throwing his hat into the ring, hoping to corner the reactionary and super-reactionary vote on his way to the White House.

It means plenty more, but you get the idea. Let the good times roll.