January 2011, Part 1

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Treading Water On Unemployment:  In the latest job report, the unemployment rate fell, but only because so many people dropped out of the work force.
The United States economy ended the year by adding 103,000 jobs in December and with a lower unemployment rate, the Labor Department said Friday, but as thousands of Americans gave up looking for work, the numbers suggested that joblessness could continue to weigh on the recovery.

The unemployment rate fell to 9.4 percent last month from 9.8 percent, its lowest rate since July 2009, the department said in its monthly report.  But the figures also showed that the civilian labor force declined by 260,000 in December, as many Americans stopped applying for jobs.
Bottom line:  In the fourth quarter, the economy added just enough jobs to keep the unemployment rate roughly steady.

We need to do better.

(There are three graphs next to the article that show our problem quite clearly.

Apparently — though I will wait for more evidence before coming to a definite conclusion — the ADP estimate of job growth was too high.)
- 8:45 AM, 7 January 2011   [link]

Platform 51?  That's the new name for the British Young Women's Christian Association.

According to the article, leaving "Christian" out of their name will make it easier to get government grants.  (Britain is still, officially, a Christian country.)

(Presumably the people who chose "Platform 51" don't know about Area 51, which is the first thing many Americans will think of when they see the new name.)
- 8:04 AM, 7 January 2011   [link]

Congressman Inslee Obstructs:  Pointlessly.  American voters delivered reasonably clear messages to Congress in last November's election; they want limits put on the national government.  And the voters want Congress to work on the business of the country, not play partisan games.  Democrat Jay Inslee, among others, is unhappy about those messages.   That's the most likely explanation for the silly obstructionism shown in this video, where Inslee goes on and on, trying to delay the reading of the Constitution.

Was there a point to this obstructionism?  No.  Will it make him even more disliked by the Republican majority?  Yes.  Is he likely to accomplish anything in this session with that attitude?  Probably not.  Would his district be better off if Inslee resigned so that we could have an effective representative?  Most likely.

(In theory, Inslee represents Washington's 1st district.  In practice, he mostly represents special interest groups with agendas that hurt the 1st district.  For instance, the district is heavily dependent on trade, but Inslee has been a consistent opponent of trade liberalization.)

Last October, the Seattle Times, in an extremely funny editorial, endorsed Inslee, claiming that big spender Inslee is "worried about the deficit and is ready and positioned to do something about it".  Since he is no longer positioned to do something about the deficit, perhaps the Times will withdraw their endorsement.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(There may be another reason for Inslee's adolescent behavior.  He is, as everyone (except perhaps the editorial board of the Seattle Times) knows, planning to run for governor.  But recent moves by the current governor, Christine Gregoire, suggest that she may be planning to run for a third term — which would, probably, make it impossible for Inslee to move into the governor's mansion any time soon.)
- 7:02 AM, 7 January 2011   [link]

Working Class Man Replaces Upper Class Woman:  I doubt that many newspapers used that headline to describe John Boehner replacing Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House.

But it is true, as a comparison of their Wikipedia biographies shows.

First, Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi is Italian-American and was born Nancy Patricia D'Alesandro in Baltimore, Maryland, the youngest of six children of Anunciata M. ("Nancy") and Thomas D'Alesandro, Jr., who was a Democratic party U.S. Congressman from Maryland and a Mayor of Baltimore.[4]  Pelosi's brother, Thomas D'Alesandro III, also a Democrat, was mayor of Baltimore from 1967 to 1971, when he declined to run for a second term.

Pelosi was involved with politics from an early age.  In her outgoing remarks as the 60th Speaker of the House, Pelosi noted that she had been present at John F. Kennedy's inaugural address as President in January 1961.  She graduated from the Institute of Notre Dame, a Catholic all-girls high school in Baltimore, and from Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University) in Washington, D.C., in 1962 with a B.A. in political science.  Pelosi interned for Senator Daniel Brewster (D-Maryland) alongside future House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.[5]  She met Paul Frank Pelosi (b. April 15, 1940, in San Francisco, California)[6] while she was attending Trinity College.[7]  They married in a Catholic church on September 7, 1963.  After the couple married, they moved to New York, and then to San Francisco in 1969, where Mr. Pelosi's brother, Ronald Pelosi, was a member of the City and County of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors.[8]
(Paul Pelosi was already quite well off when the two married, and became wealthier, often through investments that, shall we say, intersected with his wife's political career.)

Next, John Boehner.
Boehner was born in Reading, Ohio, the son of Mary Anne (née Hall) and Earl Henry Boehner, the second of twelve children in a family of German and Irish descent.[2]  He grew up in modest circumstances, having shared one bathroom with his eleven siblings in a two-bedroom house in Cincinnati.  His parents slept on a pull-out couch.[3]   He started working at his family's bar at age 8, a business founded by their grandfather Andy Boehner in 1938.[3]  He has lived in Southwest Ohio his entire life.  All but two of his siblings still live within a few miles of each other, two are unemployed and most of the others have blue-collar jobs.[4]

He graduated from Cincinnati Moeller High School in 1968, when U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was at its peak.  Boehner enlisted in the United States Navy but was discharged honorably after eight weeks because of a bad back.[5]  He earned his bachelor's degree in business from Xavier University in Cincinnati in 1977, becoming the first person in his family to attend college, taking seven years as he held several jobs to pay for his education.[3]

Shortly after his graduation in 1977, Boehner accepted a position with Nucite Sales, a small sales business in the packaging and plastics industry.  He was steadily promoted and eventually became president of the firm, resigning in 1990 when he was elected to Congress.[6]
(As far as I know, Nucite Sales never benefited from governmental favoritism while Boehner was working there.)

If you wanted a Speaker who understands the wealthy, especially the politically-connected wealthy, you might choose Nancy Pelosi.  If you wanted a Speaker who understands the working class and the middle class, you might choose John Boehner.

(Many Republican leaders have come from similarly modest backgrounds.  Newt Gingrich and Denny Hastert both came from middle class families.  Reagan, Eisenhower, and Hoover all came from modest backgrounds, as did the greatest of them all, Lincoln.)
- 3:20 PM, 6 January 2011
Debbie Boehner, the Speaker's wife, is, to use her own word, reassuringly "normal", and very much in touch with ordinary citizens.
- 7:30 AM, 7 January 2011   [link]

Bad News On Oil Prices:   Certainly.
Energy Policy:  Oil prices are surging to levels that will soon crimp economic growth.  And what's our government doing about it?  Just making it worse.

Since President Obama took office in January 2009, the price of oil has rocketed 117% to $90.41 a barrel and gasoline has jumped 67% to $3.07 a gallon.  In the 34 industrialized nations, oil imports have surged 34% in the last year to $790 billion.  The U.S. alone has seen a $72 billion jump.

All this imperils a fragile recovery from the financial crisis.  "Oil prices are entering a dangerous zone for the global economy," says Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency.
Note that this surge in oil prices has come during a slow recovery, not during a boom.

The drop in natural gas prices will ease some of our problems, but there are many areas where natural gas can not, quickly, substitute for oil, as we are seeing, even now, at the gas pump.

A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation will give you an idea of how many jobs that increase in the cost of our oil imports might be losing us.  Assume that a job costs an employer, including benefits, et cetera, $100,000 a year.  Then, if we could have avoided that $72 billion jump, we might have had somewhere around 720,000 extra jobs.  That's too high, because not all of the money would have gone into extra jobs.  But much of it might, and if even half of it did, we would have a far better employment picture.  (Feel free to send me a better analysis if you see one.)

(For those who think that we should cut back on fossil fuel use, especially oil:  We could do that by putting additional taxes on petroleum.  Most likely that would have allowed the federal government to capture some of that $72 billion, which would be far better than sending it to Venezuela, Russia, and other miscreant nations.  Incidentally, if the Obama administration has advocated such a policy, I would have applauded them for their courage, especially if they had promised to use the additional revenue productively.)

Those rising oil prices are not just damaging our economy, they are also providing immense resources to many nations who do not wish us well.  For example, Russia.
- 10:53 AM, 6 January 2011   [link]

I'll Miss White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:  Mostly because he was so open in his contempt for reporters, most of them his ideological allies.  He was botching his job, again and again — and seemed to have no idea that he was failing, no idea that he was becoming a joke.  (A press secretary should have generally good relations with reporters — which is much easier when the secretary is representing a left wing Democrat than when he is representing a moderate of either party, or a conservative Republican.)

Here's a recent example of a Gibbs botch.
Gibbs was asked about Obama's 2006 vote [against raising the debt ceiling] and statement that "the fact that we're here today to debate raising America's debt is a sign of leadership failure."

The reporter said Obama had said it was wrong to vote to raise the debt ceiling because "Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren."

Gibbs said Obama's vote was not necessary at the time to secure passage of the bill, which squeaked by 52-48, and that he was using the occasion to call for fiscal discipline.
But it's not OK, Gibbs went on to say, if Republicans do the same thing this year.

Now that's just plain funny.  (Granted, Gibbs did not have an easy answer to that question.  But he could have evaded the question, or even admitted that Obama had been wrong in 2006.)

(The best explanation I've seen for Gibbs being press secretary comes from Toby Harnden (who thinks that Gibbs did not leave voluntarily).
It's hard to exaggerate the importance of Gibbs in ObamaWorld.  He's been with Obama since April 2004, when the now 44th President was just a state senator running for the US Senate.  On the campaign trail, he was part of the towel-snapping, sport-loving, male-dominated inner circle that Obama relied on.  Gibbs was always much more than a spokesman — he was in on all the big decisions and his opinion counted with the main man.

For the White House press corps — the hack pack who attend the briefings every day and travel as part of the White House entourage — Gibbs came to embody what they increasingly disliked about the Obama administration.  Gibbs, they believed, was arrogant contemptuous of the press, dismissive of individual reporters and often did not return emails.
Could it be that Gibbs' arrogance, an arrogance that Obama shares, is one of the things that Obama likes about him?

Harnden's Telegraph colleague, Nile Gardiner, thinks that British reporters will be especially happy that Gibbs is leaving.  With good reason, since Gibbs went out of his way to insult them.   Needlessly.)
- 10:18 AM, 6 January 2011   [link]

"The American People Love Government"  So says Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Is he right?  Well, some Americans love government, Harry Reid, for instance, but many Americans, perhaps most, don't.  Those who want evidence for this argument are invited to attend any open government meeting, or visit any office that dispenses licenses.

Should we love government?  Not in my opinion.  Instead, we should emulate the designers of our Constitution and treat government, at every level, with a certain amount of suspicion.  Since men are not angels, as James Madison reminded us, in Federalist No. 51, we should expect that any human institution will be flawed, and will be exploited, from time to time, by ambitious and greedy men.  Since governments claim — rightly — a monopoly over some uses of force, the men who control them can be more dangerous than those who control other institutions.

We should respect our governments, if they are performing well, but we should never love them, since love is, all too often, blind.
- 8:11 AM, 6 January 2011   [link]

Vaccine Link To Autism Study Fraudulent?  That's what the British Medical Journal is saying.
"Science is at once the most questioning and . . . sceptical of activities and also the most trusting," said Arnold Relman, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, in 1989.  "It is intensely sceptical about the possibility of error, but totally trusting about the possibility of fraud."1  Never has this been truer than of the 1998 Lancet paper that implied a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and a "new syndrome" of autism and bowel disease.

Authored by Andrew Wakefield and 12 others, the paper's scientific limitations were clear when it appeared in 1998.2 3  As the ensuing vaccine scare took off, critics quickly pointed out that the paper was a small case series with no controls, linked three common conditions, and relied on parental recall and beliefs.4  Over the following decade, epidemiological studies consistently found no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.5 6 7 8 By the time the paper was finally retracted 12 years later,9 after forensic dissection at the General Medical Council's (GMC) longest ever fitness to practise hearing,10 few people could deny that it was fatally flawed both scientifically and ethically.  But it has taken the diligent scepticism of one man, standing outside medicine and science, to show that the paper was in fact an elaborate fraud.
That man is Brian Deer, and the extent of the fraud that he has uncovered is astonishing.

Children died because parents believed that paper and chose not to have their children vaccinated.   Wakefield made a great deal of money from the paper, indirectly.

I perhaps should add that libel laws are much tougher in Great Britain than in the United States.  The BMG's lawyers (or would they be solicitors?) would certainly have told the magazine to have solid proof of all their charges before publishing this editorial.

(How bad was the paper?  So bad that I believe I would have spotted some of its flaws — and I am certainly no medical expert.  I have never seen a full explanation of the Lancet's decision to publish the paper, but I would certainly like to see one.  And an explanation for the years it took them to retract the paper.)
- 6:14 PM, 5 January 2011   [link]

Good News On Jobs:   Maybe.
Companies added nearly 300,000 jobs in December, according to an unofficial count by a private payroll firm — more than in any month in the past decade.  The news raised hopes that the government's official report Friday on last month's job creation could be a blockbuster.
. . .
Some economists expressed skepticism about ADP's monthly figures because they often don't track the official government employment data.  Others said that the report's estimate of job gains was so high that it at least reinforced evidence that hiring is picking up as employers gain more confidence.
Let's hope the ADP count is reasonably accurate.

(If we like, we can note that this gain, assuming it is real, came in the month after the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives, and made gains in almost every state.)
- 2:36 PM, 5 January 2011   [link]

Nineteen Democratic Dissenters!  I knew that some House Democrats were going to protest Pelosi, but I never expected that this many would.
Nineteen House Democrats voted for someone other than Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for speaker on the first day of the 112th Congress, an indication of the still-simmering discontent within the caucus following November's midterm shellacking.
This many haven't dissented from their party's choice, in at least two decades.
Mrs. Pelosi, meanwhile, received 173 votes, but watched as 19 Democrats from her caucus either opted for another candidate or merely voted "present."

It was the most defections from a party caucus's candidate in at least the last two decades, and underscored the simmering tensions among House Democrats who suffered staggering losses in last year's midterm elections.
(Every House Republican voted for John Boehner.)
- 12:47 PM, 5 January 2011
More and a minor correction;  You would have to go back to either 1923 or 1913 to find a similar number of defectors.

Boehner did not vote for himself, "as is custom", but he received every other Republican vote, which rarely happens.  There are usually a few dissenters, or a few members who aren't present, often because of illness.
- 8:30 AM, 6 January 2011   [link]

Unfortunately, Nancy Pelosi Is The Leader Of The House Democrats:   If she weren't, her deficit claims in this video would be even funnier.
Deficit reduction has been a high priority for us.  It is our mantra, pay-as-you-go.  Unfortunately, that will be changed now.
So, Pelosi tells us that deficit reduction was a high priority — but that it won't be in the new Republican-controlled House.

But, wait, there's more.  Having made a sharply partisan attack (she also attacked Senate Republicans for blocking job creation), she has written (or at least approved) this USA Today op-ed, where she says she is willing to work with those dastardly Republicans.
In the new Congress, Democrats are prepared to join congressional Republicans in focusing on job creation and strengthening our future.  At this time of continued economic challenge, one place to start would be our "Make It In America" strategy — a series of steps to bolster America's manufacturers and our competitiveness so that we continue to lead the world economy.  By creating jobs in our manufacturing and clean energy sectors, and making critical investments in our infrastructure, we can keep America No. 1.  And with our plan, we can do so in a fiscally responsible way.

That press conference bit, and that op-ed, would provide great material for a Saturday Night Live skit, or for monologues from our late-night comedians.

(Does Pelosi believe what she said and wrote?  I fear that she may believe much of it, really I do.)
- 6:53 AM, 5 January 2011   [link]

Samuelson Gives Obama Mixed Grades On The Economy:   Sample;
Obama helped stabilize the economy - and psychology.  Both what he did and how he did it mattered.  He acted with self-assurance and decisiveness.
. . .
The trouble is that Obama, having stabilized the economy, weakened the recovery.  What's missing from [Larry] Summers's valedictory is any sense of contradiction between the administration's ambitious social and regulatory agenda and the business confidence necessary for hiring and investing.  Of course, the connections existed.  The health-care law raises hiring costs by requiring in 2014 that all firms with more than 50 employees provide health insurance or be fined.  The law brims with complexities and uncertainties that make it hard to estimate the ultimate costs.  Will firms with, say, 47 workers eagerly expand beyond 50 if that imposes all the extra costs?  It seems doubtful.

Choices had to be made.  The administration could either concentrate on promoting recovery or devote itself to more narrow and, usually, partisan objectives.  It couldn't do both - at least, it couldn't do both effectively.  Obama's solution was to pretend the choices didn't exist.
He isn't the only politician to pretend that choices don't exist, but he pretends more often than most politicians.  For example, during the 2008 campaign, he proposed dozens of new programs, some of them extremely expensive — and during the same campaign, promised to control spending.  (For a similar example, see this post on congressional candidate Suzan DelBene.)

And there is a general point that Samuelson does not make, but could:  Obama was successful with the economy when he was copying what Bush had been doing — and unsuccessful when he began doing what Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid wanted.

(For the record:  I am still uncertain whether the Bush and Obama interventions at the end of 2008 were necessary, or even whether they were conducted intelligently, if they were necessary.  But I am absolutely certain that the Obama portion of the auto bailout was disgracefully tilted toward the United Auto Workers.)
- 1:11 PM, 4 January 2011   [link]

Governor Gregoire Agrees With Me:  Not on every issue, perhaps not even on most issues, but on one important issue we do agree.

In August, I said that the governor should take a voluntary cut in pay and benefits.

In December, the governor asked the state salary commission to cut her pay.

A commission that sets salaries of elected officials in state government said Thursday it can't order a pay cut, as requested by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The governor and other statewide elected officials have asked that their paychecks be reduced by the same level expected to be cut from the pay of state workers.

However, the Washington Citizens' Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials said the state constitution forbids it from reducing pay and only allows it to freeze or raise salaries.

(Cynics might suspect that the governor, who was, before she became governor, the state's attorney general, might have known that the state constitution forbids the commission from making those cuts.)

Although the commission can't cut her pay, she can, voluntarily, return part of her benefits and pay to the state.  Returning 25 percent, as I suggested, would be enough to save at least one low-level job.

I want Gregoire to take this voluntary cut, because I want her to take some responsibility for the state's budget problems, at least symbolically.  I don't expect her to ever admit openly that Washington state taxpayers were unwilling to give her, and her political allies, all the money they wanted to spend.   But giving some of her benefits and pay back would be an indirect admission that she failed to control spending.

And we need that admission, even if it comes indirectly, if the state is to begin moving toward more sensible budgets.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(Fans of greater redistribution will be delighted, I imagine, by my suggestion, since I am urging the governor, who is quite well off, to give up a little money that could be used to help a low-income state worker.)
- 11:05 AM, 4 January 2011   [link]

Tea Is Important In Scotland:  But should it be this important?
An ambulance driver who refused to respond to an emergency call in which a woman died because he was on a tea break is to keep his job.

Owen McLauchlan, 23, was suspended from duty as a technician with the Scottish Ambulance Service two months ago after he failed to accept a call-out. Mandy Mathieson, 33, died after suffering a heart attack only 800 yards from the ambulance station in the Speyside village of Tomintoul.
To be fair, he might not have been able to save her even if he had responded immediately, but he should have tried.

(I did a quick search on this story, trying to find more about the rules governing these ambulance drivers.  If this article is correct, a rule change in 2007 allowed ambulance crew to either be available full time, and get paid a little extra, or to have guaranteed half-hour breaks.  McLauchlan chose the second.

That sounds like a weird compromise between a union and the actual requirements of the job.)
- 8:19 AM, 4 January 2011   [link]

One Last Failure for Governor Schwarzenegger.
When Esteban Nunez was arrested after a stabbing death in 2008, a co-defendant told police the son of former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez had boasted that his dad would get them out of trouble.

The parents of the victim said that Esteban Nunez was right—political connections had helped.

Outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision during his final hours in office to reduce the manslaughter sentence of Esteban Nunez from 16 to seven years sparked criticism that he was doing a political favor for an old ally.
Schwarzenegger didn't even include the commutation in a whole set of pardons and commutations, which is the usual way of partially disguising this kind of naked political favor.
- 7:51 AM, 4 January 2011
Correction:  Schwarzenegger did combine this commutation with other commutations and pardons.  And he also gave some of his allies last minute jobs.  Some even got jobs Schwarzenegger has said should be eliminated.

Schwarzenegger did not consult with the district attorney on this commutation, which is customary in California.
- 3:51 PM, 4 January 2011   [link]

Cornucopian John Tierney Wins A Bet:  Against, naturally, a Malthusian pessimist.
Five years ago, Matthew R. Simmons and I bet $5,000. It was a wager about the future of energy supplies — a Malthusian pessimist versus a Cornucopian optimist — and now the day of reckoning is nigh: Jan. 1, 2011.
. . .
I called Mr. Simmons to discuss a bet.  To his credit — and unlike some other Malthusians — he was eager to back his predictions with cash.  He expected the price of oil, then about $65 a barrel, to more than triple in the next five years, even after adjusting for inflation.  He offered to bet $5,000 that the average price of oil over the course of 2010 would be at least $200 a barrel in 2005 dollars.
As anyone who follows energy prices knows, Tierney won that bet, easily.  Read the rest of the column to learn why he expects the good times to continue.

(In general, I agree with Tierney — but I see more danger than he does that political leaders can make things worse, at home by silly regulations, abroad by silly regulations and war or the threat of war.)
- 7:16 PM, 3 January 2011   [link]

> 200,000 Files:  This morning, I installed the latest version of the Norton utility package, Internet Security 2011.  (Which, probably because I clicked wrong somewhere, took me two tries.)

When I install the new version of Norton each year, I always run a full scan of the system, which, as I understand it, checks every file in the system.  According to the scan, I have more than 200,000 files on my rather simple Windows 7 installation.  (Though that does include the files on the install CD.)

Do I need more than 200,000 files?  Of course not.  And, in principle, the system would run better if I had many fewer files.  But it is way too much work for me to figure out which ones I don't need, so I just leave the extras alone, unless they cause problems.

In principle, the programs that installed them could have left out any of the files I don't need.  But in practice, to do that they would have to be almost fiendishly clever, or they would have to use almost endless installation routines to figure out what files I might need.  It's simpler for both sides if they install everything, including the kitchen sink.

This reminds me, odd as it might seem at first glance, of a Gore-Tex coat I bought years ago.  The coat has seven separate pockets, nine if you count the hand warmer pockets separately.  That many seemed excessive when I bought the coat.  But then I realized that different wearers would use different sets of pockets, and that it was far simpler for Lands' End to put in all those pockets rather than make different styles for different users.

(For the curious:  I use Norton because, in recent years, it has received good reviews and hasn't caused me any problems.  Competitive products may be just as good, but it is common for these utilities to cause problems when you mix them, so I have stuck with Norton.

Those who want on-line back-ups might want to pay just a little more and step up to Norton 360.  I have no experience with their on-line back-ups, but it is a simple enough utility so that I would expect it to work without problems.  I should add, though, that the space they offer is far too limited for anyone doing videos, or even a great many photos.

Every year, in this area, I see deals that let me buy a new version of the Norton package almost free, though I have to jump through some hoops.  So each year I buy a new version, rather than renew on line, or sign up for one of their yearly subscriptions.)
- 2:45 PM, 3 January 2011   [link]

Was The Erin Brockovich Story True?  Probably not.  You can find a brief explanation here.
Residents in the California desert town of Hinkley, whose struggles with toxic drinking water were documented in the film "Erin Brockovich," may find relief in the results of a state study.

There has been concern over new findings that the cancer-causing agent chromium 6 is growing there again.

But the California Cancer Registry said Monday it just finished three different studies that found the rate of cancer in Hinkley in recent years was nothing extraordinary.

The studies found that cancer rates remained unremarkable from 1988 to 2008.

Researchers said the 196 cases of cancer reported during the most recent survey of 1996 through 2008 were less than what would be expect based on demographics and the regional rate of cancer.
Or a much longer explanation here, along with photos of Brockovich and Julia Roberts playing Brockovich.

The Daily Mail adds some details about what Brockovich has done after she scored her big victory with Hinkley.
It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Hinkley is not the only case that Brockovich has handled that raises doubts about her reputation and credibility as an environmental campaigner.

She has subsequently spearheaded a string of high-profile lawsuits against other companies that have been unsuccessful once tested in court.  In 2003, for example, she alleged oil wells under the campus of Beverly Hills High School were spewing another carcinogen — benzene — causing cancer among students and staff.

A judge ordered her to hand over the data on which her assertions were based and found the evidence did not hold up.  The lawsuit against the oil companies that operated the wells was dismissed.
(Why are we learning about this from a British tabloid, rather than, for instance, our newspaper of record?  You'd have to get the answer to that question from the editors at the New York Times, but I am not the only person who has suspicions about their motives.  The Washington Post did carry an AP story on the new findings, but the story no longer seems to be available on the web site.)

Here's a key point:  Chromium 6, or hexavalent chromium, is known to be carcinogenic when inhaled.  But there appears to be no evidence that it is cancerous when ingested.  The residents of Hinkley did get some chromium 6 in their water, but they did not breath it in any significant amounts.

These findings are not new; I learned that there was little evidence that the Hinkley pollution was causing significant health problems at the time of the original controversy.  But I learned that, not from "mainstream" news organizations, but from conservative magazines.
- 1:53 PM, 3 January 2011   [link]

Most Mathematicians Will Be Amused:  Most math educators will despair when they see the error in this Associated Press article.
Scientists and physicists estimate the number of atoms in the universe at 10 to the power of 80 — 10 followed by 80 zeros.

During the worst of Zimbabwe's economic meltdown and hyperinflation, Zimbabwe's highest money denominations were logged at 10 to the power of 25 — 10 followed by 25 zeros — or the equivalent of nearly one third of the number of atoms estimated in the universe.
Shamelessly copied from Small dead animals.

Extra points to those who can calculate the correct fraction in their heads.
- 9:16 AM, 3 January 2011   [link]

Belated Happy New Year To All Of You:  I've been busy trying to repair my back-up desktop computer — unsuccessfully — and un-busy enjoying the sunshine out here, and the improbable sight of an NFL team with a losing record getting into the playoffs.

But I'm back, and am resuming regular posting.
- 8:21 AM, 3 January 2011   [link]