the latest from Joebloggers

PATRIOT II slips through - while we sleep

I have a theory: we, as humans, are biologically engineered to react not proact.

That's at least the best way I can explain the uproar after the PATRIOT Act became law - and the almost silent somnabulence over the wiretapping bill that is now making its way through Congress.

PATRIOT wasn't a sweetheart of a bill, but - in spite of the legitimate concerns of civil libertarians - it made relatively incremental changes in surveillance law. While it may have made it easier for the feds to get a warrant to search your home or listen in to your phone calls, it at least required the feds to go to court to get a warrant.

The new surveillance gives up the idea of warrants entirely. True, if an American is the target of an investigation, federal spies would still need to go to court to get the okay to tap your phone. But if someone abroad - or someone that is "reasonably" believed to be abroad - whom the feds thinks is connected to terrorists calls you, your conversation might be being listened in on - without a judge ever knowing.

a not very special special interest story

David Leonhardt, the New York Times' competent and clear-speaking economics reporter, offered a nifty little example of how small "special interests" hold such big sway on Capitol Hill.

Here's the story: Congress was thinking of passing a bill to inch down the prices Medicare pays out for medical equipment - by using competitive bidding, instead of the old way of indexing inflated prices. You know, kind of like what happens in the free market, when buyers and sellers negotiate the best price. The bill probably would have saved Medicare about $1 billion a year, which is barely a fiscal bandaid; still - as Medicare slides towards bankruptcy - every bit helps.

But while $1 billion in savings would hardly be noticed in the federal budget, a $1 billion loss would certainly not be missed by the medical equipment industry. That's why what you'd expect would happpen, happened; lobbyists and a surge in campaign support from the medical equipment industry miraculously made Congress' competitive bidding plans disappear.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

I don't know, am I? As you may have seen before, I can lose my concentration and sanity both in a very short time. De ja vu: I was on the NYTimes at about five in the morning, and an ad for the new Samsung Instinct (new phone) caught my attention. I'm used to the General's car insurance ads letting me crash into cars while I'm checking my e-mail, but I was a little surprised that there was a game with this phone ad, let alone a memory game. Since no one else was up so early and I really had nothing better to do, I decided to play. I had been able to remember 12 of the flashing buttons (too hard to explain) before I finally lost.

accelerating to doomsday

While global warming may be walking us in slow motion toward widespread destruction and misery, European scientists are devising ways to zippily end life as we know it - if not gobble up the earth wholesale.

Okay, not really.

But that's what a couple of Americans are contending a particle accelerator project at the European Center for Nuclear Research will do - blasting bits together that could create a black hole on earth (which all of us would collapse into, I'm guessing, in a matter of milliseconds) or other strange things called magnetic monopoles and, um, "strangelets."

Scary stuff. So scary, in fact, that I'm going to blindly put my faith in those European scientists that they know exactly what they're doing.

And if I and they are wrong - I look forward to having my mass smashed in with y'all in infinitely dense space. 


Do Me a Favor and Walk to School

I attend an out-of-district school which is about 16 miles from my house. The only bad thing is that it costs us anywhere between 40 and 50 dollars to fill up the gas tank in my mum's Mazda. Unfortunately, after a year of driving two sixteen mile trips a day, our gas bill has really skyrocketed. And to think that as recently as two years ago gas was only about $2.00 a gallon. It's too bad we live so far from our school, otherwise we could just walk.

Vice-President Clinton?

One thing I'd like to quickly get out of the way: now that the two candidates for president are Barack Obama and John McCain, I am officially endorsing Barack Obama. Wonderful: with that out of the way, let's get rolling. 

Since the Democratic National Convention, many people have questioned whether or not Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama will choose Hillary Clinton as his running mate. Some supporters of Hillary Clinton's initial run for president began a campaign, " pressure Senator Barack Obama into choosing her as a running mate," (thanks NYTimes).  According to the article, Clinton stopped the campaign, saying that it was up to Obama to decide, and no one else.

bang for your development buck

A bunch of economists (including nobel laureates) are asked "if you had $85 billion bucks over four years, how would you spend it to get the best benefit for the world?"

The answers - published by the Copenhagen Concensus Center - are surprising. (If you don't want to download the pdf, see a synopsis here.)

Top of the list: for a cost of $60 million a year you can add Vitamin A and Zinc to the diets of children in the developing world - and get back $1 billion in health and cognitive improvement.

Many other solutions are similarly simple and unsexy - and a good reminder that while  we fret over flashy fears like terrorism, the developing world suffers daily from lack of basic health and nutrition needs.

One solution to global problems - lowering carbon emissions to stave off global warming - gets dissed again this year, as it has since the Copenhagen Consensus has gone into business.

High-Stakes Testing: A Student's Point of View

This week, my school in Place-You've-Never-Heard-Of, California, began administering the California Standardized Tests (CSTs). This year is different for me than in previous years because, instead of just testing in math and language arts, we are also taking tests for science and social studies. Unfortunately, I was not very satisfied with my education this year. We had a textbook, but we never really read much in it, and instead focused on a limited assortment of principles. I never really understood why we focused on such a limited spectrum of information, but I just ran with it.

swords - and subsidies - into ploughshares

I have to admit I was asleep on this one too.

While the rich world was scrambling to get a grip on its credit markets, the poor world was sinking into a serious food crisis - of the kind that brings on riots (in a dozen nations already) and possible social and political upheaval (knock on wood).

The good news is that DC is waking up - in great part because it realizes that global social unrest is bad for national security.

The even better news is that a global crisis gives the US the chance to spread a lot of American good will - for a discount price.

Right now, we give about $2 billion a year in food assistance to the rest of the world (USAID). That's not a piddling sum - but when you think about the fed's $30 billion bail-out of Bear Stearns, the $100 billion+ in support after Katrina or the fact that we spend about $2 billion in one week in Iraq - we have a lot of room to be a heck of lot more generous.

how safe is safe?

A New York Times article this week reported on what's become a common story over the past few years: federal or state crime fighters are collecting/storing/sorting yet more information on us. In this week's update, the info they're collecting is DNA from anyone who happens to be arrested or detained by the feds (including detained immigrants).

I was giving it a ho-hum read until I came across the justification for the practice: “The regulations will save lives, prevent
crimes, and bring justice for victims and their families.” Again, nothing surprising there - and who, after all, can complain about preventing crime, particularly heinous crimes against young people?

But then the question got begged: what are our expectations of the government to prevent crime? The assumption seems to be that the more crime we prevent the better. But is that always true? Is there a point when will we be "safe enough?"