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Hot Coffee

Tonight on HBO, a documentary about that famous case against McDonald’s by the woman who was burned by too-hot coffee. You probably don’t know what you think you know…

5-4

If only we’d put up a fight against Roberts and Alito. But liberals don’t like to fight:

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a provision of a campaign financing system in Arizona that gives extra cash to publicly funded candidates who face privately funded rivals and independent groups.
The 5-4 ruling is the latest in a series of decisions by the court’s conservative majority upending campaign finance laws. But, giving a glimmer of hope to advocates of limiting the role of money in politics, the court did not launch a broad attack on taxpayer-funded campaigns.

Instead, Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion dwelled on the so-called trigger mechanism in Arizona law that provides differing levels of money to publicly funded candidates based on the spending by privately funded rivals and independent groups.

The law was passed in the wake of a public corruption scandal and was intended to reward candidates who forgo raising campaign cash, even in the face of opponents’ heavy spending fueled by private money.

The court said the trigger violates the First Amendment, but left in place the rest of Arizona’s public financing system.

“Laws like Arizona’s matching funds provision that inhibit robust and wide-open political debate without sufficient justification cannot stand,” Roberts said.

Shrink, shrank, shrunk

Well, I had a good talk with the prescribing shrink and she totally agreed with me about the potential downside of the meds. “The truth is, we really don’t know how they work and they may suppress neurotransitters in the brain,” she said. “This would explain why so many people have trouble going off them.”

She asked me what I wanted to do. I said I’d like to see if an increased dosage helped for now, and then start tapering off at the end of the summer. She thought that was a good plan.

She also said something interesting: That maybe writing about things triggered by emotion as I did in the past amplified negative associations and depressed feelings, and that the distance might be more useful. Hmm. I’m going to think about that.

Recipes

I’m going to start cooking again, so I thought I’d ask people for their favorite easy recipes. What’s your signature dish?

Fogged in

The meds are not working all that well anymore. The mood? Definitely regulated. (It takes a lot to upset me these days.) The focus? Not so much. I’m seeing the prescribing doctor today, I’ll see what she says.

The big problem for me is that I simply don’t want to write now. I mean, I want to, but I don’t feel emotionally connected at all when I do it. Even my blog posts are a little… abstract, and I’m not sure this tradeoff is worth it — that, and the potential damage to my neural pathways.

Because for a very long time, writing has been my primary means of emotional expression. Since I’m apparently not having many strong emotions right now, the drugs seem to have dried up that particular well.

Now, there are still some pluses. It’s a lot easier to stay on top of day-to-day maintenance stuff, and I’m a lot better about taking care of myself. I’m not as compulsive about blogging, which is good. And I love it that I no longer get all that upset about perceived slights, present or past. (It’s a plus that I’m not wallowing in the pit of progressive despair over the failings of the administration, right? Because despair is contagious.)

But is it worth it if I can’t write the way I used to, need to? Nope.

In any event, I’d already decided to be off the Wellbutrin by the fall, starting to gradually wean myself off by the end of the summer. Hopefully some of the newer habits will stick.

Hedge funders attack NJ teachers

Yes, because people who have learned to manipulate and game the economic system to make billions of dollars and have no experience with educating children (one of them who keeps a pair of brass testicles on his desk and rubs them during the trading day for good luck) are absolutely best suited to educate yours:

A new group backed by two hedge-fund founders is taking aim at New Jersey’s largest teachers union.

Better Education for Kids wants to end the use of seniority in teacher-hiring decisions, implement an effective teacher-evaluation system and weaken tenure.

Much of this conflicts with the policies of the New Jersey Education Association, or NJEA, which represents about 200,000 teachers, retirees and education professionals.

Better Education for Kids was started by New Jersey residents David Tepper and Alan Fournier, who founded the Appaloosa Management hedge fund and the Pennant Capital Management hedge fund, respectively.

It’s the first major foray from the hedge-fund community into New Jersey’s education-reform scene. Hedge-fund managers and employees have been active in New York education circles for years, as support for charter schools came into vogue.

Better Education for Kids last week launched a $1 million ad campaign. In September, the group will evaluate its next steps, with an eye toward not only this year’s November elections but also the 2013 legislative elections. In an unusual cycle, all 120 lawmakers are up for election in two straight cycles.

The group has hired two high-profile political consultants: Mike DuHaime, a Republican and top adviser to Gov. Chris Christie, and Fox & Shuffler, a lobbying firm whose founders were in top positions with former Democratic governors.

Sucking up electricity

There are a lot of things we’ve grown to love and depend upon that use a scary amount of electricity. (Don’t even get me started on the Google server farm.) But this is something that can be fixed if Americans are willing to adapt to a minor inconvenience:

Those little boxes that usher cable signals and digital recording capacity into televisions have become the single largest electricity drain in many American homes, with some typical home entertainment configurations eating more power than a new refrigerator and even some central air-conditioning systems.

There are 160 million so-called set-top boxes in the United States, one for every two people, and that number is rising. Many homes now have one or more basic cable boxes as well as add-on DVRs, or digital video recorders, which use 40 percent more power than the set-top box.

One high-definition DVR and one high-definition cable box use an average of 446 kilowatt hours a year, about 10 percent more than a 21-cubic-foot energy-efficient refrigerator, a recent study found.

These set-top boxes are energy hogs mostly because their drives, tuners and other components are generally running full tilt, or nearly so, 24 hours a day, even when not in active use. The recent study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that the boxes consumed $3 billion in electricity per year in the United States — and that 66 percent of that power is wasted when no one is watching and shows are not being recorded. That is more power than the state of Maryland uses over 12 months.

“People in the energy efficiency community worry a lot about these boxes, since they will make it more difficult to lower home energy use,” said John Wilson, a former member of the California Energy Commission who is now with the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation. “Companies say it can’t be done or it’s too expensive. But in my experience, neither one is true. It can be done, and it often doesn’t cost much, if anything.”

The perpetually “powered on” state is largely a function of design and programming choices made by electronics companies and cable and Internet providers, which are related to the way cable networks function in the United States. Fixes exist, but they are not currently being mandated or deployed in the United States, critics say.

Similar devices in some European countries, for example, can automatically go into standby mode when not in use, cutting power drawn by half. They can also go into an optional “deep sleep,” which can reduce energy consumption by about 95 percent compared with when the machine is active.

One British company, Pace, sells such boxes to American providers, who do not take advantage of the reduced energy options because of worries that the lowest energy states could disrupt service. Cable companies say customers will not tolerate the time it takes to reboot the system once the system has been shut down or put to sleep.

Fringeology

Here’s an excerpt from Steve Volk’s new book. I’ll be interviewing him tomorrow night:

If the universe doesn’t seem quite weird enough for you yet, consider the matter of time, a particularly sticky wicket: To explore the subject, physicists Yakir Aharonov and Jeff Tollaksen devised an incredible experiment, in which the act of measuring a particle predictably changes the value of the same particle in — get this — an earlier measurement. Numerous labs around the world have been successfully conducting and replicating the experiment, which seems to indicate something awfully wild about reality: an action taken in the future can affect what happens in the present, at least at a subatomic level.

Aharonov and Tollaksen aren’t sure exactly what to make of their own experiment. But this is precisely the spot at which we can use a real, scientific mystery to understand something about ourselves and how we react to the paranormal. Most likely, you rebelled, internally, during this last paragraph. The controversial results of this experiment — the mysterious nature of their findings — may have bothered you so much that you simply dismissed it as impossible. But without belaboring the nature of time, there is a part of your brain that probably sent you a tremulous message to watch out when I wrote something that seems so nonsensical. Maybe you furrowed your eyebrows, your pulse quickened, you momentarily held your breath or even felt angry or dismissive, as if what I had written must be false and I must be stupid or even craven to write it. But here’s the thing: that wasn’t you, or at least not the rational, reasonable you. That was your brain talking — most dramatically, your amygdala, a necessary but frustrating part of the brain. The amygdala is the spot in the brain I accuse of making us seem to lack humility — the part of our brain that can cause us to haughtily dismiss information we find threatening or don’t understand.
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Tiered care

Let doctors whine all they want — we all know many doctors are turning away Medicaid patients, especially if they’re specialists. We’re not going to figure out how to solve this problem by simply guessing at how widespread the practice is:

WASHINGTON — Alarmed by a shortage of primary care doctors, Obama administration officials are recruiting a team of “mystery shoppers” to pose as patients, call doctors’ offices and request appointments to see how difficult it is for people to get care when they need it.

The administration says the survey will address a “critical public policy problem”: the increasing shortage of primary care doctors, including specialists in internal medicine and family practice. It will also try to discover whether doctors are accepting patients with private insurance while turning away those in government health programs that pay lower reimbursement rates.

Federal officials predict that more than 30 million Americans will gain coverage under the health care law passed last year. “These newly insured Americans will need to seek out new primary care physicians, further exacerbating the already growing problem” of a shortage of physicians in the United States, the Department of Health and Human Services said in a description of the project prepared for the White House.

Plans for the survey have riled many doctors because the secret shoppers will not identify themselves as working for the government.

“I don’t like the idea of the government snooping,” said Dr. Raymond Scalettar, an internist in Washington. “It’s a pernicious practice — Big Brother tactics, which should be opposed.”

In other words, he wants to take public money when it suits him, but he doesn’t want any serious oversight?

According to government documents obtained from Obama administration officials, the mystery shoppers will call medical practices and ask if doctors are accepting new patients and, if so, how long the wait would be. The government is eager to know whether doctors give different answers to callers depending on whether they have public insurance, like Medicaid, or private insurance, like Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Predictable

Israel is bringing pressure to bear from several angles to either stop this aid flotilla — or make it officially invisible to the rest of the world:

The Foreign Press Association has accused the Israeli government of using “threats and intimidation” to stop media coverage of a 10-ship flotilla due to sail to the Gaza Strip this week.

The ships are sailing to protest against Israeli restrictions on Gaza and to commemorate last year’s flotilla, which was intercepted by the Israeli navy, who killed nine of the Turkish participants.

Israel has restricted the supply of goods and the movement of individuals in Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007.

Two of the ships, the Tahrir and the Audacity of Hope, are docked in Athens, where the harbourmaster has banned the latter from leaving port until its seaworthiness is established.

Some of the other ships, including the Irish ship Saoirse, have already set sail from European ports. The ships are expected to meet in the Mediterranean before approaching Gaza later this week. The flotilla is expected to carry up to 500 passengers.

A Dutch-Italian boat will carry three members of the European parliament and one member of the Israeli parliament. Passengers on the Audacity of Hope include the author Alice Walker and Hedy Epstein, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor. Passengers have been undergoing training in non-violent resistance techniques and instruction in what to expect if Israeli soldiers board their ship. They have also been provided with T-shirts with the message “Unarmed Civilian”.

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