Friday, December 25, 2009

Elevator button of the week

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Whaddaya Mean Obama Hasn't Done Anything?

A blow-by-blow breakdown of the young president's first year reveals that today's frustration stems not from a lack of policy so much as a lack of common ground. The myth of the American center looms in this, the second part of a week-long series on our country since the 2008 election.

BONUS QUIZ: How Well Do You Know the News of 2009?

By: John H. Richardson

A timeline of Obama's first year reveals that today's frustration stems not from a lack of policy so much as a lack of common ground. Therein lies the myth of the American center.

Read more of Esquire.com's "The Year of Obama" series with part one from Charles P. Pierce, part three from S.T. VanAirsdale, part four from Thomas P.M. Barnett, and part five from Scott Raab

I have figured out The Problem With America Today. My inspiration was the recent one-year-later cover of Newsweek, which encapsulates the current conventional wisdom about President Obama in a single headline: YES HE CAN (BUT HE SURE HASN'T YET). Or, as Saturday Night Live put it, President Obama's two biggest accomplishments thus far are "Jack and Squat." You can find other versions of this perspective from Matt Lauer and David Gregory on NBC, from thousands of obnoxious bloggers, even from the hapless governor of New York.

These days, the argument that Obama hasn't accomplished anything may be the only example of real bipartisanship in America.

Here's the conventional wisdom in a single paragraph: Three hundred and sixty-four days after he was elected president, Obama is still stuck in Iraq, hasn't closed Guantánamo, is getting deeper into Afghanistan, hasn't accomplished health-care reform or slowed the rise in unemployment. His promises of bipartisanship are a punch line (see above). And there's still no peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. What a failure! What a splash of cold water in the face of all our bold hopes!

But the conventional wisdom is insane. Consider the record:

A week before he was sworn in, Obama jammed part two of the bank bailout down the throat of his own party — a $350 billion accomplishment.

Two days after he was sworn in, Obama banned the use of "harsh interrogation" and ordered the closing of Guantánamo.

A day later, Obama reversed George W. Bush's funding cutoff to overseas family planning organizations — saving millions of lives with the stroke of a pen.

Three days after that, Obama gave a green light to the California car-emissions standards that Bush had been blocking for six years — an important step on the road to cleaner air and a cooler planet.

Two weeks after that, Obama signed the stimulus bill — a $787 billion accomplishment.

Ten days after that, Obama formally announced America's withdrawal from Iraq.

A week later — we're in early March now — Obama erased Bush's decision to restrict federal funding for stem-cell research.

In April and June, Obama forced Chrysler and GM into bankruptcy.

In June, Obama reset the tone of our relations with the entire Arab world with a single speech — an accomplishment that the Bush administration failed to achieve despite a series of desperate PR moves (anyone remember Charlotte Beers?) and a "public diplomacy" budget of $1 billion a year.

Also in June, Obama unveiled the "Cash for Clunkers" program, a "socialist" giveaway that reanimated the corpse of our car industry — leading, for example, to the billion-dollar profit that Ford announced on Monday.

I haven't even mentioned Sonia Sotomayor, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the order to release the torture memos, Obama's push for charter schools, his $288 billion tax cut, or the end of Bush's war on medical marijuana. Or the minor fact that he seems to have — with Bush's help, it must be said — stopped the financial collapse, revived the credit markets, and nudged the economy toward 3.5 percent growth in the last quarter.

Oh, and one more thing: President Obama is now a month or two from accomplishing the awesome and seemingly impossible task that eluded mighty presidents like FDR, LBJ, and WJC — health-care reform.

http://www.esquire.com/print-this/obama-timeline-110309

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How Progressives Can Move Obama to the Left

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By Cenk Uygur

There are many debates among progressives now on the true nature of Barack Obama. Did he mean anything he said on the campaign trail? Is he really a progressive? Did he ever mean to challenge the status quo or was he using the word "change" as a campaign gimmick? Is he just a corporatist like most other politicians?

After talking about this with a great many progressives on our show, I've come to some conclusions. These are so self-evident that they will be viewed as obvious in hindsight.

Does he mean well or does he have bad intentions? Come on, don't be ridiculous. Of course, he means well. But in his own mind, George Bush thought he meant well, too (for the most part). I'm positive that Obama thinks that he is doing the best he can to bring about as much change as he can within the limits of this system.

Is he a true progressive or a corporatist sell out? Well, that depends on what you mean. Has he wound up helping corporate America tremendously through health care "reform," finance "reform," etc.? Well, Wall Street certainly seems to think so (and so do most progressives). Did he do that because he thought, "I can't wait to help corporate America and screw over the little guy"? No, I'm sure he thought he had to accommodate the powers that be in order to affect any change at all in this system. But the bottom line has been the same, either way - the system has been tweaked but corporate America chugs along with even more government largesse than before.

I'm sure Obama is a progressive that would help the average American if he thought he could. But apparently he thinks he can't. He can only bring them a small amount of change because of what he thinks the system will allow.

You can criticize him for lack of imagination, duplicity during the campaign, lack of spine and political miscalculation. And you might be right about some or all of that, but all of those aren't the essence of Obama. The core of Obama is a man who is a cautious politician. That is what he is at his center. He can't help himself. Asking him to be something else is asking a rock to be a little less hard. He is what he is.

So, what Obama does by his nature is find the middle ground. As an excellent innate politician, he will find the political center of any field and rush to it. That's where elections are won - the center. So, that's why he sounded so progressive during the primaries, because that was the center of the left. And why he sounded like such a reformer during the general election because the great majority of Americans desperately wanted change.

So, what happened to that Obama? The country is the same, so why did Obama drop the progressive reformer angle and go toward the right and corporate America? Because his field changed. He went from campaigning all across the country to being in the middle of Washington, DC. The center of Washington is very different than the center of the country.

The Washington bubble leans far more to the right than the rest of the country (poll after poll indicates this). The corporate media in Washington are pros at protecting the status quo and view people who challenge the system as fringe players. A natural politician would naturally move right to accommodate this new environment. Obama can't help himself. Why does a scorpion sting, why does a horse gallop? Because they were made to. Hoping Obama snaps out of it is hoping against reason and nature.

http://www.opednews.com/articles/How-Progressives-Can-Move-by-Cenk-Uygur-091224-432.html

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Disqualified Christmas Decoration

Anonymous note:

Once again, I was disqualified from my neighborhood "Best Decorated House" contest due to my 'bad attitude'! Folks with tons of money to spend on decorations, lights, and utility bills in these hard times just don't appreciate simplicity.

disqualifieddecorations-425

http://artoftheprank.com/2009/12/25/disqualified-decorations/

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Holiday Cheer

Animated_Christmas_TreeThe Guardian's Dan Kennedy has an intelligent piece about why the great newspaper collapse of 2009 didn't pan out as expected. If you remember, early this year there were dramatic closures in major markets like Denver and Seattle, along with threats of similar harsh medicine in San Francisco and Boston. But as 2009 comes to a close, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe are still alive and kicking and there have been no major newspaper shutdowns in nine months. Kennedy points out that publishers took strong action to reverse the tide after that scary first quarter, cutting back sharply on expenses, boosting subscription prices and finding novel new ways to generate revenue. They also had considerable success whittling down the debt that has paralyzed many of their operations

Most daily newspapers, in fact, operate in the black but massive debt accumulated during multiple rounds of consolidation earlier this decade were threatening their existence. The threat is still there, but it looks like there was more fat in newspaper operating budgets than many observers had believed. Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth has pointed out that her paper employs twice as many journalists as it did during the Watergate years, even after multiple rounds of cutbacks.

Time to celebrate? Hardly. This industry is not a growth story and probably never will be, but it does appear that publishers are finding ways to gracefully manage their print operations down to sustainable levels. Early experience indicates that online news publishers can the profitable at about 20% of the expense level of their print counterparts. It's likely that some publishers will figure out ways to get there without shutting down the brand entirely. Of course the price of advertising is also in decline, but that's a different problem entirely.

It turns out that shares a Gannett Corp. were a heckuva buy in March when they plummeted to $1.85. The stock hit $15.49 on Wednesday as a leading analyst upgraded his outlook for the newspaper industry, saying December could be the industry's best month in three years. Well Fargo Securities analyst John Janedis said the slide in advertising is slowing and that ad revenues could be down only 8% or 9% next year, compared to more than 30% this year. Janedis raised his rating on Gannett to "outperform" from "underperform" and on New York Times Co. to "market Perform" from "underperform."

Not in Our Back Yard

We continue to be amazed at how newspapers bury the lead when announcing bad news about themselves. Check out this press release from the Washington Times as reprinted on Talking Points Memo:

The Washington Times today announced that it will begin producing a more focused Monday through Friday edition designed to feature its most distinctive news and opinion content.

Offered as a combination controlled market and paid general interest newspaper at a price of $1.00, the new print edition will be available at retail outlets and newspaper boxes throughout the D.C. metropolitan area. The current newspaper's last Sunday edition will publish on December 27.

That's right: the news is that the Times is killing its Sunday edition. This is on top of laying off 40% of its staff a few weeks ago. The paper is also reportedly considering eliminating its sports section entirely. Perhaps the Times reporters wouldn't bury the lead on this particular story, but the PR department surely did.

http://www.newspaperdeathwatch.com/

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Taliban stalls key hydroelectric turbine project in Afghanistan

Convoy diverted British troops from front but generator may never be used

by Jon Boone in Kabul 

Kajaki dam, AfghanistanTwo thousand British troops took part in the mission to deliver 220 tonnes of equipment to the Kajaki dam, pictured. Photograph: Bronwen Roberts/AFP/Getty Images

An enormous hydroelectric turbine dragged at huge cost by British troops through Taliban heartlands last year may never be installed because Nato has been unable to secure a 30-mile stretch of road leading to an isolated dam in northern Helmand.

The daring mission to deliver 220 tonnes of equipment to the Kajaki dam in Afghanistan in September 2008 was hailed as one of the biggest success stories of the British Army's three-year deployment in Helmand.

Two thousand British troops took part in the five-day convoy through enemy territory, which was launched because the main road leading to the dam was too vulnerable to Taliban attacks.

Senior British officers privately say the enormous diversion of scarce military resources for the operation allowed the Taliban to make major gains in other critical areas of the province, including Nad Ali, which subsequently saw some of the most intense fighting between British forces and insurgents.

Within a couple of months of the Kajaki operation, areas close to the British base in Lashkar Gah had deteriorated so badly that troops had to be resupplied by air drop.

The dam continues to be besieged by Taliban fighters and, 15 months after the mission by the UK troops, the turbine's components remain unassembled because huge amounts of cement that are required to install the equipment cannot be delivered safely.

Now the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the wing of the United States government which has so far pumped $47m (£29m) into the project, intended to electrify much of southern Afghanistan, says it is packing the turbine parts away and looking for other energy projects to invest in across Afghanistan.

"Our message is that until we have a secure road we cannot continue with the installation of turbine two," said John Smith-Sreen, head of energy and water projects for USAID in Kabul.

"When the turbine was moved in by British and American forces it was a huge effort and it was done in a point of time. But we can't move in the large quantity of cement and aggregate that we need in a point of time, we need a sustained effort," he said.

The road would need to be secured for about half a year.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/13/afghanistan-turbine-taliban-british-army

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Top Ten Dinosaur and Fossil Finds: Most Viewed of 2009

National Geographic

Large, "lost," or simply unusual, a bevy of prehistoric beasts were brought to life in National Geographic News's most popular paleontology stories of the year.

giant trilobite picture

Top ten dinosaurs and fossil discoveries picture   10. Biggest Trilobite Sea Beasts Found ... in Swarms

The "remarkable," yard-long, horseshoe crab-like arthropods roamed in swarms of up to a thousand animals, a May study suggests.

Top ten dinosaurs and fossil discoveries picture   9. "Lost World" of Dinosaurs Survived Mass Extinction?

An isolated group of dinosaurs may have outlived their doomed relatives by as much as half a million years, an April study suggested.

Top ten dinosaurs and fossil discoveries picture   8. A Third of Dinosaur Species Never Existed?

Young dinosaurs weren't Mini-Me versions of their parents, evidence presented in October suggests—meaning that up to a third of dinosaur species may be misidentified.

Top ten dinosaurs and fossil discoveries picture   7. Tiny "T. Rex" Found —150-Pound Species Came First

No heavier than a small man, Raptorex was Mini-Me to T. rex's dinosaur Dr. Evil. But in this case, the tiny gave rise to the titanic, researchers said in September.
See pictures

Top ten dinosaurs and fossil discoveries picture   6. Five "Oddball" Crocs Discovered, Including Dinosaur-Eater

A "saber-toothed cat in armor" and a pancake-shaped predator are among five strange, dinosaur-era crocodile cousins discovered in the Sahara, archaeologists announced in November. Meet BoarCroc, PancakeCroc, DuckCroc, RatCroc, and DogCroc.
See pictures

 
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/12/091222-top-ten-dinosaurs-2009-fossils.html
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Obama Extends Diplomatic Immunity to Interpol by Executive Order

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The Fifth Column

President Obama has issued an amendment to Executive Order 12425,  designating the international law enforcement agency Interpol as a "public international organization," thus extending diplomatic immunity to the law enforcement group

The amendment to the Executive Order -- which does not need to be put to the senatorial test of "advise and consent" -- reads:

"By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, including section 1 of the International Organizations Immunities Act (22 U.S.C. 288), and in order to extend the appropriate privileges, exemptions, and immunities to the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), it is hereby ordered that Executive Order 12425 of June 16, 1983, as amended, is further amended by deleting from the first sentence the words "except those provided by Section 2(c), Section 3, Section 4, Section 5, and Section 6 of that Act" and the semicolon that immediately precedes them."

The text of Section 2(c), which now applies to Interpol states:

"(c) Property and assets of international organizations, wherever located and by whomsoever held, shall be immune from search, unless such immunity be expressly waived, and from confiscation. The archives of international organizations shall be inviolable."

Because of this move by the Obama Administration any and all Interpol offices in the United States cannot be searched due to its status as a diplomatically protected organization. It's offices are considered sovereign and its files are not subject to legal request, be it by subpoena or discovery.

The website ObamaFile.com notes, "If any branch of government wants to keep documents out of the hands of the US court system, just hand them over to Interpol until the smoke clears." It added that Interpol can maintain files on US citizens.
 
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Verizon Responds to Consumer Complaints

A few weeks ago, I wrote about two particularly nasty Verizon Wireless practices. First, Verizon doubled the early-cancellation fee for smartphones, the price you pay for canceling before your two-year contract is up (it's now $350).

Second, I passed along a note from a Verizon whistleblower who identified a really outrageous Verizon profit center: if you accidentally hit one of the arrow keys on your Verizon cellphone (which come premapped to various Verizon Internet functions), you're charged $2 instantaneously, even if you cancel instantly. (Verizon confirms that on many models, you can't remap those buttons to other functions even if you're tech-savvy enough to try.)

To my delight, the F.C.C. got on the case, even citing my original post. It formally asked Verizon for some answers about both issues.

Verizon hemmed, hawed, asked for an extension on the deadline, and finally responded on Friday. You can read the entire outrageous document here here.

Why is it outrageous? Because basically it denies everything. It says, in essence, "We've doubled the cancellation fee because we felt like it," and "We don't charge those $2 accidental-Internet fees. You must be mistaken."

O.K. Let's take these one by one.

First of all, Verizon explains the doubled cancellation fees like this: "Verizon Wireless incurs additional costs to sign up customers, such as advertising costs, commissions for sales personnel, and store costs. These costs are higher for Advanced Devices."

Huh? It costs more to advertise a BlackBerry than a regular flip phone?

Verizon also says that the higher fees help to recoup its expenses for building up its data network. Yet no other other carrier has felt the need to double the fee.

Here's what really gets me, though. Verizon justifies early-cancellation fees by noting the huge gap between a customer's purchase price and a phone's real cost. For example, you might pay $200 for a BlackBerry that, on the open market, would cost $500. Over your two-year contract, you're paying Verizon back the rest of the full price. That's how the American cellphone industry works.

O.K., great. We're with you so far.

But if I were the F.C.C., I'd have two big questions about this:

1. How come our monthly bills don't drop at the end of two years, once we've fully paid for the phone?

2. Verizon says that we, the customers, can avoid the early-cancellation penalty if we're willing to pay the full retail price of the phone up front ($500 or whatever). Fine. But then why do we have to pay the same monthly fee as somebody who got the discounted price?

What are we missing here?

http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/21/verizon-responds-to-consumer-complaints/

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Decade of Doom

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