Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Nobody Expects . . . The Enlightenment

The last days we and the world have been trying to digest the Obama Cairo Speech. Here's my two and a half cents.
�I think it's been so hard for people to make out what happened because he did so many things they'd never in their lives seen before.� Primarily, I think, it was the sight of the most powerful politician in the world conducting his nation's business with the premise that pure reason is his best argument.� That an appeal to the ability of people involved in tribal, small-bore obsessions to can step back and see the large picture for long enough to actually change their behavior.� At other times this can be foolhardy state-craft.� The bet here is that the world has had enough of the old way and will give a new approach 5 good minutes.� By crafting the speech as well as he did, he put the ray of light and heat on the world of Islamic, Iranian and Israeli resentment and reminded them that their worlds are interconnected.� This would only be possible, perhaps, right now and with this president; a man who understands all these worlds, appearing on the barren landscape of the last 9 years. This could change the game. For Netanyahu, he no longer has a US cover for inertia.� His government could fall if he deals, so he may calculate falling for a cause may be worth it.� Besides who wants Avigdor Leiberman in your face all the time anyway? For Ahmadinejad, who faces a tough election, Obama removed the polarity, and therefore, perhaps, the oxygen for hate.� He may have to go now too.� And Bin Ladin perhaps, compared to Obama, starts to seem less real.� In any case, his show is old and may not get the viewers he used to.� I want to blog about the war in Afghanistan, the use of mercenaries and the murderous (and counterproductive) remote control bombs.� It's time to nail Obama on that and other things.� But for now, there must be an acknowledgement of this miracle.� A president from the age of reason, telling truth to a candid world, in its own language.� I really can't recall a president doing that (JFK comes close but would never mention that we have been about overthrowing governments.� Well natch).

�In this moment I have to say, as a citizen of Planet Earth I am very, very proud of him.

Global weapons spending hits record levels

�US accounts for more than half total increase to $1.4tn
�China now second biggest spender in world league table

Worldwide spending on weapons has reached record levels amounting to well over $1tn last year, a leading research organisation reported today.

Global military expenditure has risen by 45% over the past decade to $1.46tn, according to the latest annual Yearbook on Armaments, Disarmament, and International Security published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

Though the US accounts for more than half the total increase, China and Russia nearly tripled their military expenditure over the decade, with China now second only to the US in the military expenditure league table.

"China had both the largest absolute and the largest relative increase," says the Sipri report. The increase "has roughly paralleled its economic growth and is also linked to its major power aspirations," it adds.

Other regional powers, including India, Brazil and Algeria, also substantially increased their spending on arms, the report says.


California's Water Woes Threaten the Entire Country's Food Supply


By Scott Thill

Nearly a third of the country's food supply comes from California, but drought there may be a catastrophe for farmers -- and the rest of us.

What a difference an administration makes. Samuel Bodman, the previous secretary of energy under the Bush administration, spent his short term stumping for nuclear power plant construction, polluting the hell out of the Earth, profiting off global warming and trying to significantly downplay America's singular role in greenhouse-gas emissions.

The new one? Well, he's a doom prophet with a Ph.D.

"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen. We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going," Steven Chu told the Los Angeles Times in February, shortly after taking office in January. "I'm hoping that the American people will wake up," he added, just in case there was any confusion about the gravity of the situation.

That kind of apocalyptic foresight has made Chu a breath of fresh, dystopian air. For eight nearly insufferable years, the American public has had no shortage of political tools telling it everything is going to be all right, that the United States is the greatest country in the world, that reports of our impending environmental devastation have been greatly exaggerated, and so on. By contrast, Steven Chu is a Cassandra on a mission from reality. But few, especially in the state he singled out, feel like buying what he is selling.

"Dr. Chu is not a climate scientist," argued Jim Metropulos, senior advocate at Sierra Club's California chapter, echoing the same conditional given in the Los Angeles Times article in which Chu was quoted. "Obviously, he's versed on it, but he's taking an apocalyptic view. I think it's not sustainable in its current form. We rely on imported water to grow high-value crops, but maybe the agriculture we have today may not be the agriculture we have decades from now."

That's a big maybe.

Here are some not-so-fun facts: California's agricultural sector grows approximately one-third of the nation's food supply and is nourished by diverted rivers and streams filled yearly by runoff from its prodigious Sierra Nevada snowpack, as well as groundwater pumping and other less-reliable methods. That snowpack -- which once sparked the first, but not the last, water war that helped transform a semi-arid Los Angeles into an unsustainable oasis less populous than only New York City -- is disappearing fast. Hence Chu's worrisome prediction.

To make matters worse, a crushing drought, now well into its third year, has made simply everything problematic. In California's central valley, home to a majority of the state's agricultural output, farmers are leaving hundreds of thousands of acres fallow, and the resultant economic depression is having a domino effect that could cost California $1 billion to start and is causing residents of a one-time food powerhouse to go hungry.

In April, a series of spring showers and storms upped the snowpack to 80 percent of normal. At the beginning of May, it stumbled to 66 percent, compared to 72 percent the year before. Complicating that are recent federal directives mandating reductions of water deliveries to California farmers and urban users by 5 to 7 percent in hopes of preserving the Pacific Coast's salmon fishery, which is hovering, like the state's snowpack, on the brink of extinction.


Opinion of the Week, from the NYT Opinion section, swear to God, Guy Walks Into a Bar...


SHE was about 19. No older. Maybe younger. An insurance company would have given her 60 more years to live. I figured a more accurate projection was 36 hours, or 36 minutes if things went wrong from the get-go.

She was blond and blue-eyed, but not American. American girls have a glow, a smoothness, from many generations of plenty. This girl was different. Her ancestors had known hardship and fear. That inheritance was in her face and her movements. Her eyes were wary. Her body was lean. Not the kind of lean you get from a diet, but the Darwinian kind of lean you get when your grandparents had no food � and either starved or didn't. Her movements were fragile and tense, a little alert, a little nervous, though on the face of it she was having as good a time as a girl could get.

She was in a New York bar, drinking beer, listening to a band, and she was in love with the guitar player. That was clear. The part of her gaze that wasn't wary was filled with adoration, and it was all aimed in his direction. She was probably Russian. She was rich. She was alone at a table near the stage and she had a pile of A.T.M.-fresh twenties in front of her and she was paying for each new bottle with one of them and she wasn't asking for change. The waitresses loved her.

There was a guy further back in the room, wedged on an upholstered bench, staring at her. Her bodyguard, presumably. He was a tall, wide man with a shaved head and a black T-shirt under a black suit. He was part of the reason she was drinking beer in a city bar at the age of 19 or less. It wasn't the kind of glossy place that had a policy about under-age rich girls, either for or against. It was a scruffy dive on Bleecker Street, staffed by skinny kids trying to make tuition money, and I guessed they had looked at her and her minder and made a snap decision against trouble and in favor of tips.

I watched her for a minute, and then I looked away. My name is Jack Reacher, and once I was a military cop, with heavy emphasis on the past tense. I have been out nearly as long as I was in. But old habits die hard. I had stepped into the bar the same way I always step anywhere, which is carefully. One-thirty in the morning. I had ridden the A train to West Fourth and walked south on Sixth Avenue and made the left on Bleecker and checked the sidewalks. I wanted music, but not the kind that drives large numbers of patrons outside to smoke.

The smallest knot of people stood next to a place with half a flight of stairs leading up to its door. There was a shiny black Mercedes sedan parked on the curb, with a driver behind the wheel. The music coming out of the place was filtered and dulled by the walls but I could hear an agile bass line and some snappy drumming. So I walked up the stairs and paid a $5 cover and shouldered my way inside.

Two exits. One the door I had just come through, the other at the end of a long dark restroom corridor way in back. The room was narrow and about 90 feet deep. A bar on the left at the front, then some upholstered horseshoe benches, then a cluster of freestanding tables on what, on other nights, might have been a dance floor. Then the stage, with the band on it.

The band looked as if it had been put together by accident after a misfiling incident at a talent agency. The bass player was a stout old black guy in a suit with a vest. He was plucking away at an upright bass fiddle. The drummer could have been his uncle. He was a big old guy sprawled comfortably behind a small, simple kit. The singer was also a harmonica player and was older than the bass player and younger than the drummer and bigger than either one.

The guitarist was completely different. He was young and white and small. Maybe 20, maybe 5-foot-6, maybe 130 pounds. He had a fancy blue guitar wired to a crisp new amplifier and together the instrument and the electronics made sharp sounds full of space and echoes. The amp must have been turned up to 11. The sound was incredibly loud. It was as if the air in the room was locked solid. It had no more capacity for volume.

But the music was good. The three black guys were old pros, and the white kid knew all the notes, and when and how and in what order to play them. He was wearing a red T-shirt and black pants and white tennis shoes. He had a very serious expression on his face. He looked foreign. Maybe Russian, too.

I spent the first half of the first song checking the room, counting people, scanning faces, parsing body language. Old habits die hard. There were two guys facing each other across a table with their hands underneath it. One selling, one buying, obviously, the deal done by feel and confirmed with furtive glances. The bar staff was scamming the owner by selling store-bought beer out of an ice chest. Two out of three domestic bottles were legit, from the refrigerator cabinets, and then the third came from their own cooler. I got one of them. A wet label and a big margin. I carried the bottle to a corner seat and sat down with my back to the wall.

It was at that point that I saw the girl alone at her table, and her bodyguard on his bench. I guessed the Mercedes outside was theirs. I guessed Daddy was a B-grade oligarch, millions but not billions, indulging his daughter with four years at N.Y.U. and a credit card that never stopped working.

Just two people out of 80 in the room. No big deal.

Until I saw two other guys.

They were a pair. Tall young white men, cheap tight leather jackets, heads shaved by blunt razors that had left nicks and scabs. More Russians, probably. Operators, no question. Connected, no doubt. Probably not the best the world has ever seen, but probably not the worst, either. They were sitting far apart from each other but their twin gazes were trained on the girl alone at the table. They were tense, determined, to some degree nervous. I recognized the signs. Many times I had felt the same way myself. They were about to go into action.

So two B-grade oligarchs had a beef, and one was protecting his kid with drivers and bodyguards, and the other was sending guys around the world to snatch her. Then would come ransom, and extortion, and demands, and fortunes would change hands, or uranium leases, or oil rights, or coal or gas.

Business, Moscow-style.

But not usually successful business. Kidnappings have a thousand different dynamics and go wrong a thousand different ways. In my experience, average life expectancy for a kidnap victim is 36 hours. Some survive, but most don’t. Some die right away, in the initial panic.

The girl’s pile of twenties was attracting waitresses like wasps at a picnic. And she wasn’t shooing any of them away. She was taking one fresh bottle after another. And beer is beer. She was going to have to visit the restroom, soon and often. And the restroom corridor was long and dark, and it had a street exit at the end of it.

I watched her in the gaudy, reflected light, with the music shrieking and pounding all around me. The two guys watched her. Her bodyguard watched her. She watched the guitarist. He was concentrating hard, key changes and choruses, but from time to time he would lift his head and smile, mostly at the glory of being up on the stage, but twice directly at the girl. The first of those smiles was shy, and the second was a little wider.

The girl stood up. She butted the lip of her table with her thighs and shuffled out from behind it and headed for the corridor in back. I got there first. The sound from the band howled through it. The ladies’ room was halfway down. The men’s room was all the way at the end. I leaned on the wall and watched the girl walk toward me. She was up on high heels and she was wearing tight pants and her steps were short and precise. Not drunk yet. She was Russian. She put a pale palm on the restroom door and pushed. She went inside.

Less than 10 seconds later the two guys stepped into the corridor. I guessed they would wait there for her. But they didn’t. They glanced at me like I was a part of the architecture and shouldered in through the ladies’ room door. One after the other. The door slammed behind them. The music played on.

I went in after them. Every day brings something new. I had never been in a women’s bathroom before. Stalls on the right, sinks on the left. Bright light and the smell of perfume. The girl was standing near the back wall. The two guys were facing her. Their backs were to me. I said, “Hey,” but they didn’t hear. Too much noise. I caught them by the elbows, one in each hand. They spun around, ready to fight, but then they stopped. I am bigger than the Frigidaires they had been dreaming about back home. They stood still for a second and then pushed past me and pulled the door and headed out.

The girl looked at me for a moment with an emotion I couldn’t read, and then I left her to do what she needed to do. I went back to my seat. The two guys were already back in theirs. The bodyguard was impassive. He was watching the stage. The band was finishing up. The girl was still in the bathroom.

The music stopped. The two guys got up and headed back toward the corridor. The room was suddenly crowded with people standing and moving. I went over to the bodyguard and tapped him on the shoulder and pointed. He took no notice. He didn’t move at all, until the guitar player started backing away off the stage. Then he got up, the two movements perfectly synchronized, and I knew I had gotten it all wrong.

Not an indulged daughter. An indulged son. Daddy had bought the guitar and the amp and hired backup musicians. The boy’s dream. Out of the bedroom, onto the stage. His driver at the curb, his bodyguard watching all the way. Not a team of two from his rival, but a team of three. An adoring groupie. The boy’s dream. A classic honey trap. A last-minute tactical conference in the bathroom, and then action.

I shoved my way through to the back and got to the street well ahead of the bodyguard, just as the girl was hugging the boy and turning him through a half circle and pushing him toward the two guys. I hit the first one hard and the second one harder and got blood from his mouth all over my shirt. The two guys went down and the girl fled and then the bodyguard showed up. I made him give me his T-shirt. Bloodstains attract attention. Then I left through the front.

The obvious move would have been to turn right, so I turned left, and I got the 6 train at Bleecker and Lafayette, heading north, the last-but-one car. I settled in and checked the faces. Old habits die hard.


40 Amazing 3D Art Pieces

DjDrako - deviantART

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Sha-X-doW - deviantART

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Jesar - deviantART

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weilynn - deviantART

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Mironor - deviantART

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Kutsche - deviantART

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Bodnar - deviantART

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Orphaned Tweets

When people sign up for Twitter, post once, then never return.

Illustration by mark alan stamaty. click image to expand.After examining some 300,000 Twitter accounts, a Harvard Business School professor reported last week that 10 percent of the service's users account for more than 90 percent of tweets. The study dovetails with recent analysis by the media research firm Nielsen asserting that 60 percent of Twitter users do not return from one month to the next. Both findings suggest that, thus far, Twitter has been considerably better at signing up users than keeping them.

Which got us to thinking�there must be a legion of Twitterers out there who sign up, tweet once, and never return. In the spirit of the great blog One Post Wonder, "a collection of blogs that have one post," we set out to find these orphaned tweets. Different people obviously have different tweet metabolisms, but we decided that any account that's been dormant for at least six months is fair game. We found several thousand of them.

Naturally, many orphan tweets betray skepticism about microblogging. "I don't get it... what's the point of this thing?" read ben_pursell's first and last tweet. "Twitter deez nutz," remarked beebles, rather caustically, before signing off for good. Yet a surprising number of one-and-done Twitterers demonstrate keen enthusiasm, leaving us to ponder what led them to change their minds:

sk8ie I'm here!
7:42 AM May 16th, 2008

micatron sign me up damn it!
9:28 AM Sep 11th, 2008

treyharness This technology is awesome. If you haven't signed up already, do it now so we can all stay connected. Its much easier than email or phone.
7:25 PM May 7th, 2008

Some one-time users don't seem to understand what kind of service they've signed up for.

brittanyblevins what kind of donuts are you offering?
12:23 PM May 8th, 2008

reginarowland o1o6AqhQ0B
9:46 PM May 19th, 2008

pmosterday Director of Advancement
12:55 PM Nov 20th, 2008

The lion's share of these singular postings describe a discrete experience or a current mood. This is probably because an orphan tweet is also a first tweet, and first-timers typically stick to answering the question hovering above the Twitter dialog box: "What are you doing?"

beckysomsel heading north for a party!
6:44 AM Dec 5th, 2008

anord04 eating a miniature pie
10:21 AM Jun 23rd, 2007

kttheet Wearing a gigantic t-shirt (2XL).
9:56 PM Apr 22nd, 2008

apsolutely4me picking lint from Judy's naval while she is napping!
4:10 PM Sep 7th, 2008

ChristianDA Designing performance nutrition for Navy SEALs. Fighting government corruption (tall order). Telling American stories.
12:58 PM Nov 28th, 2008

Because orphan tweets are followed by a long silence, these ephemeral status reports take on a strange permanence. Is anord04 still working on that miniature pie? Was it bigger than it first seemed?





Education really does pay.

An overwhelming number of schools participating in a controversial program that pays kids for good grades saw huge boosts -- up to nearly 40 percentage points higher -- in reading and math scores this year, a Post analysis found.

About two-thirds of the 59 high-poverty schools in the Sparks program -- which pays seventh-graders up to $500 and fourth-graders as much as $250 for their performance on a total of 10 assessments -- improved their scores since last year's state tests by margins above the citywide average.

The gains at some schools approached 40 percentage points.

For example, at PS 188 on the Lower East Side, 76 percent of fourth-graders met or exceeded state benchmarks in English -- 39.6 percentage points higher than last year, when the kids were in third grade.

At MS 343 in The Bronx, 94 percent of seventh-graders met or surpassed state standards in math this year -- 37.3 points higher than last year, when the students were sixth-graders.

In all, of the 61 fourth and seventh grades involved in the pupil-pay program, only 16 improved less than the citywide average gain in math since last year, while 21 did so in reading.

Principals at the highest-scoring schools cautioned that the Sparks program was just one of many factors in the test-score jumps.

But many reported seeing indisputable academic benefits -- including more motivation, better focus and an increase in healthy competition for good grades among students.

"It's an ego booster in terms of self-worth," said Rose Marie Mills, principal at MS 343 in Mott Haven, where nearly 90 percent of students qualify for federal poverty aid.

"When they get the checks, there's that competitiveness -- 'Oh, I'm going to get more money than you next time' -- so it's something that excites them."

More than 8,000 kids have collectively earned $1.25 million since September in the second year of the privately funded pilot program.


What I Learned Today


is roughly the percent of GM that we each own.

$362 is what each of us paid for that equity stake.

That's because $50,000,000,000 is the total amount the US Treasury has spent of GM's survival. (That's $30.1 billion for 60% of New GM's equity + $20.6 billion that we spent trying to keep them out of bankruptcy.) And that's just the beginning of it.

So $83,000,000,000 is what New GM would have to be worth in order for us to break even on our investment.

But $56,000,000,000 is what GM was worth at its all time peak in 2000.

And it's only worth about $7,300,000,000 now.

So New GM would have to have about a 48% increase in value from its all time peak. Likely?


GE sucks up government money, invests in secret stuff that we're not allowed to know about

Jason sez, "GE bought a patent for a device called a Stamet Pump that was developed with significant taxpayer money by DOE and then refused to share the device with other firms or the public at large. DOE argued unsuccessfully that the patent should be part of the public domain. This device has tremendous potential in aiding gasification of certain types of coal, something that would pave the way for carbon sequestration from coal-fired power plants. DOE argued with GE execs that they should either release the technology to the public domain or license it to multiple other firms in the interest of the public, since it was funded with public money. Also intriguing in this story is that the state of Wyoming has partnered with GE to build a $100 million gasification test center using this technology--Wyoming is chipping in half of the money from federal funds that were released to the state after a long battle by coal-friendly legislators. Wyoming released the documents detailing the partnership with so many pages blacked out because of "intellectual property, commercial, and trade secrets" that no one can figure out the answer to questions like "what does Wyoming get for its $50 million?" GE and Wyoming decided to start a new test center after DOE officials, upset at GE's selfishness, pulled the plug on other gasification research based on the device and instead shifted their funding to a competitor who would presumably be more willing to share the fruits of taxpayer research dollars."

$100-million GE-Wyoming Coal Project Found Willing, Discreet Partner In Wyoming


If the Journalism Business Fails, Who Pays for Journalism?

You can't open a newspaper�or read a newsmagazine website�these days without seeing a report wondering if X, Y or Z "can save journalism." Maybe that's the wrong question.�

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that nothing saves journalism. "Journalism," that is, as a profession and as currently constructed: a full-time job paid for by newsgathering entities through a combination of subscriptions and advertising.

[Update: Some commenters at Romenesko argue this is a narrow definition of journalism. Agreed. That's the point. It is the narrow definition implicit in all those articles about "Will _____ save journalism?" But. However you do define journalism�a term I generally hate anyway but have no substitute coinage for�it will still be practiced by human beings who need to pay rent and purchase food. Where will they get that money? And thus, how will the activity of journalism be enabled, if not by the presently-constituated�profession of "journalism"? Especially if "unnamed model that someone else will invent later" is not an allowable answer? That's the question of this post.]

Let's assume�with maybe a rare few exceptions�that just goes away. Let's assume that you can improve journalism as much as you want, take advantage of the possibilities of new media as much as you want, but in general, people still simply do not want to pay for it, and it still remains worth far less to advertisers than it used to be. Let's assume newspapers fold en masse, and going online-only does not save enough money to pay people to do journalism as their chief source of income. That's gone.�

What replaces it? And by that, I mean, who pays for what replaces it?�

Here are a few thoughts. This is entirely thinking out loud. I'm not endorsing or decrying any of the below options. I'm not saying they would be as good as, better than, or worse than, what we have now. But anybody who cares about journalism should at least be taking a cold-eyed, honest look at them, and thinking about what they would mean:

* Day jobs. Think of this as the literary-fiction / poetry model. A lucky few, best-selling creative writers right now are able to support themselves through their work. The rest work in other fields, teach in MFA programs (basically support programs for authors) or rely on other external sources of support. (William Carlos Williams was a doctor; Wallace Stevens sold insurance.) Those who stick with it do it because they're passionate, but they don't expect ever to make a living at it. If journalism is not a revenue producer, much of it could become like freelancing�but freelancing you can't live off of.�

* Crowdsourcing. This is a variation on the "day job" possibility, except that rather than a single person producing journalism "on spec," some kinds of news are drawn from amateur reports�Twitter, Flickr, etc., etc.�and gathered/moderated/curated/encouraged by editors, "community managers" or what have you. (The upshot of both this and the "day job" model might be that you may make a living at filtering or managing content, but not so much by creating it�at least, not directly, not in the old-fashioned sense.)�

* Interested parties. If for-profit companies can't make a business out of reporting on issues, non-for-profits may hire more people to write and blog on their particular areas of policy interest. Matt Yglesias�who himself blogs politics for the Center for American Progress thinktank�wrote about this possibility last week. Tim Cavanaugh of Reason magazine argues that public-relations professionals could start doing more of the work of investigative reporters.�

* Nonprofit foundations. There's increasing talk about trying to run news institutions funded, NPR-style, by donations or deep-pocketed sugar daddies. In practice, of course, this could be just another variation on "interested parties," above, depending how many people are willing to spend a lot of money on journalism with no agenda. (Insert discussion about whether there is such a thing here.)�

* Product placements and sponsorships. Last week we saw Starbucks paying eight figures to "brew" MSNBC's Morning Joe. Former CNN reporter Miles O'Brien is seeking aerospace companies to sponsor his online reporting about aviation, according to the Washington Post. Meanwhile, the Daily Beast and other websites are using branded content or "sponsored stories."

* The business is the news outlet. But why bother contracting the work out by "sponsoring" other people's news organizations? If journalism increasingly does not work as a standalone business entity, could it be a loss leader for a business that makes money by selling stuff? Business, of course, already produce a lot of what could be called "service journalism" online. If the market can't support, say, standalone parenting magazines or websites, might Proctor & Gamble�which sells a lot of stuff to parents�want to produce its own?�

* The news outlet is the business. One of my favorite local-news outlets in Brooklyn is Brownstoner, which covers the borough's events, news and real-estate market with a granularity the New York Times can't. As a business, it doesn't just rely on standard advertising; its founder is a principal in Brooklyn Flea, a popular and growing antiques, crafts, etc. market in Fort Greene. If journalism itself doesn't pay for journalism, will it become a branding tool to establish businesses that sell things people will pay for?�


The newspaper suicide pact

Primarily written Friday night at O'Hare International. Lightly edited, with links added today. --dc

I think I'll remember last week as the moment when I finally knew, with a certainty approaching fatigue, that the newspaper industry � the business and passion that both shaped and warped me over the past 20 years � had chosen ritual suicide. The choice appears grimly reached and irrevocable.

The issue is "paid content." That's the generic term. I consider it a euphemism for an entire suite of frustrations and furies that have been boiling out of my former profession since its once-invincible business model began its final slide to the deep in 2008. On the surface, paid content is the reasonable idea that people should have to pay for the professionally produced content they consume. Its core, however, is a post-rational demand that consumers abandon their habits of the past decade in favor of new behaviors intended to restore media companies to the profitability ordained to them by God Almighty.

Does it matter that this is an idea with a known, recent history of failure? Or that human beings have no intention of paying for news they've always received for free? Does it matter that we already� know a return to the paywall-era of the early 2000s will cost these legacy media companies money they will never recoup? No, no and no.

There has been no shortage of writing debunking this, but what of it? The audience that counts in this case � media company executives � decided this future sometime earlier this spring. All that remains now are the details and marketing terms: "Paywalls" are out; "Pay Windows" are in. The wall must be easy to use, but it must also be "permeable." And so on.

Confused? Don't be. Your newspaper overlords believe they can sell you their content if they can just get� everybody on the same page and nail the sales pitch this time. They're looking for the magic words, not the underlying logic (the tricky part? Doing all this without breaking federal anti-trust law).

This is folly, of course. Even MIT Technology Review Editor and Publisher Justin Jason Pontin concluded that news and opinion must be given away to the aggregators, and that was in an essay advancing the case for paid content.

Pontin comes from the magazine field, which suffers from similar woes but is a fundamentally different beast than the general bundling machine we call the American metro newspaper. All sorts of content can be sold online quite profitably (you can read my thoughts on this here and here), but trying to force people to pay for generic news content because your advertising rates have dropped so low they no longer cover the cost of your operations? Have fun selling that one, boys.

And sell it they are. This spring and early summer has been a continuous parade of naked emperors and specious arguments. There's the Cable TV argument. The iTunes argument. They've argued the Watchdog Case and the Piracy Case. And as the combined knowledge of the network ground each of these quickly down to dust, the salespeople moved on to the next one. Did the "blame the bloggers" approach flop? OK: Blame Google.

Health insurers want you to keep smoking, Harvard doctors say

Health and life insurance companies in the US and abroad have nearly $4.5 billion invested in tobacco stocks, according to Harvard doctors.

"It's the combined taxidermist and veterinarian approach: either way you get your dog back," says David Himmelstein, an internist at the Harvard Medical School and co-author of a letter published in this week's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The largest tobacco investor on the list, the 160-year old Prudential company with branches in the US and the UK, has more than $1.5 billion invested in tobacco stocks. The runner-up was Toronto-based Sun Life Financial, which apparently holds over $1 billion in Philip Morris (Altria) and other tobacco stocks.� In total, seven companies that sell life, health, disability, or long-term care insurance, have major holdings in tobacco stock.

Why is it a big deal? "If you own a billion dollars [of tobacco stock], then you don't want to see it go down," says Himmelstein, "You are less likely to join anti-tobacco coalitions, endorse anti-tobacco legislation, basically, anything most health companies would want to participate in."

The letter is the third report that the doctors � who all support a national healthcare program � have published in the last 14 years.�

We decided to check in with some of the insurance companies mentioned in the letter to learn more about their policies with respect to tobacco stock.� Prudential was unable to respond by press time.� Sun Life, however, flatly denied the charges.

"Sun Life does not carry significant holdings in tobacco stocks," says representative Steve Kee, "We do not disclose specific holdings and, for good measure, we conducted a review further to your inquiry and our exposure to 'tobacco' stocks is less than 0.005 percent [about $5 million] of the investment portfolio.� Importantly, tobacco-related businesses can be part of a broader conglomerate involving other aspects such as food production."

Himmelstein rechecked his numbers in the Osiris database, and said, "I fear that if Sun Life has a dispute, it is with Osiris not with us."

In any event, the doctors' persistence over the years seems to be working to some extent.� They targeted MetLife and Cigna in their 1995 and 2000 letters to medical journals, but neither is listed in the latest reckoning, indicating that the insurers no longer hold enough to stock to be noted on filings for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.� In addition, a representative for Cigna says they currently have no direct holdings in tobacco stock unless it is part of an index fund.

But with $4.5 billion still invested in Big Tobacco, many insurers are reaping profits from a cancer-causing industry.� As Himmelstein puts it, "Is this who we want running our healthcare system?"


600,000 Seniors About To Lose Their Homes

More than 600,000 seniors are delinquent in their mortgage payments or already in foreclosure, USA Today reports.

Unlike younger people, many are on fixed incomes and lack the money or job opportunities to catch up on payments when they fall behind.

"I've got a lot of seniors who have just been nailed," mortgage specialist Dean Wegner told the newspaper.

"They're upside down (owing more on their mortgage than their homes are worth), they can't refinance and they're on a fixed income."

Conventional wisdom holds that most seniors have paid off their mortgages or have significant equity in their homes. But the reality is, hundreds of thousands of older homeowners are suffering in the housing crisis.

A recent report from AARP showed that 25.5 million seniors ages 50 and older have a mortgage � and that older Americans with subprime first mortgages are nearly 17 times more likely to be in foreclosure than Americans of the same age with prime loans.

Senior mortgage woes are creating challenges for retirement communities and assisted-living centers, which are finding that new members can't move in because they are saddled with homes they can't sell because people usually sell their homes to finance the entry fees.

Worse yet, a study done by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 36 percent of workers ages 55 and over have less that $25,000 in savings and investments aside from the values of their homes.


Homeland Security Nominee Withdraws Amid Questions About Torture

Political Punch

by�Jake Tapper

President Obama's nominee to be U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis withdrew his name from consideration Friday after it became clear lawmakers would question his involvement in interrogation and detainee policies under President George W. Bush.

Philip Mudd, currently a top official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said he was bowing out because he knew "this position will require the full cooperation with Congress and I believe that if I continue to move forward I will become a distraction to the President and his vital agenda."

Democrats on Capitol Hill had signaled their intention to probe Mudd's knowledge of and role in approving brutal interrogation techniques -- some of which qualify under international law as torture -- used by CIA officials against detainees.

From 2003 through 2005, Mudd was Deputy Director of the Director of Central Intelligence National Counterterrorism Center. He joined the agency in 1985.

Mudd is the second potential Obama administration official to opt out of what was looking to be a grueling confirmatiom process because of ties to Bush-era interrogation policies. President Obama was considering the nomination of intelligence official John Brennan as CIA director when, in November, Brennan withdrew his name from consideration after liberal commentators assailed him as a defender of the Bush administration's counterterrorism programs. Brennan serves as the White House homeland security czar, a position not needing Senate confirmation.


American Artifact: A film with six posters


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