Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Inside the Mind of an Octopus

Sy Montgomery explores the minds of octopuses in a fascinating and beautifully written piece of science journalism for Orion Magazine:

I had always longed to meet an octopus. Now was my chance: senior aquarist Scott Dowd arranged an introduction. In a back room, he would open the top of Athena’s tank. If she consented, I could touch her. The heavy lid covering her tank separated our two worlds. One world was mine and yours, the reality of air and land, where we lumber through life governed by a backbone and constrained by jointed limbs and gravity. The other world was hers, the reality of a nearly gelatinous being breathing water and moving weightlessly through it. We think of our world as the “real” one, but Athena’s is realer still: after all, most of the world is ocean, and most animals live there. Regardless of whether they live on land or water, more than 95 percent of all animals are invertebrates, like Athena.

Montgomery interviews octopus scientists, a scuba diving philosophy professor, and an aquarium volunteer who found his post-retirement calling as an octopus whisperer.

[Photo credit: hankplank, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: The Best of the Week's News


  • “I am the Koch brothers’ brother from another mother!” Herman Cain proclaimed during an appearance at Americans for Prosperity, Friday. This delicious scoop comes from Dave Weigel of Slate.
  • Cain’s campaign accepted tens of thousands of dollars of legally dubious in-kind contributions from Prosperity USA, a non-profit headed by Cain’s chief of staff, Mark Block, Mark Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed late last week. Block is also the former head of the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a non-profit co-founded by the arch conservative Koch Brothers.
  • Nick Confessore of the New York Times reported that an outside lawyer would be looking into the Cain campaign’s finances to determine whether the tax-exempt Prosperity USA violated campaign finance laws by paying for a variety of expenses for the Cain campaign including iPads and a trip for Mark Block to meet David Koch.
  • In other campaign finance news, the downfall of New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine and his bankrupt brokerage firm MF Global may prove embarassing for President Obama, considering that Corzine raised at least $500,000 as an Obama bundler, according to Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam of the Washington Post. They note that MF Global recently wrote a clause into a bond issue promising to raise interest rates by 1% if Corzine was appointed to a post in the Obama administration. As MF Global went into the eighth-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, it was revealed that the firm had “lost track” of an estimated $633 million in client funds. The FEC is investigating whether MF Global gambled and lost other people’s money.

[Photo credit: Wandermule, Creative Commons.]



More on "Buy Here Pay Here" Used Car Dealerships

The third and final installment of Ken Bensinger’s investigation of so-called “Buy Here Pay Here” used car dealerships ran today in the Los Angeles Times. Therein, Bensinger examines what alternatives there are for the clientele of BHPH dealerships, low-income buyers with bad credit who need a car to keep a job. Clear it With Sidney blogged about Parts 1 and 2 of this remarkable series yesterday.

[Photo credit: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons.]

Occupy the Lot?: Used Car Industry Hits New Moral Low as New Subprime Bubble Swells

These aren’t used cars so much as usury cars….

In a special three-part series, Ken Bensinger of the L.A. Times investigates the wildly profitable but little known world of “Buy Here Pay Here” used car dealerships. These lots cater to a very specific clientele: People with terrible credit who need a car to hold a job.

In part 1, Bensinger explains the Buy Here Pay Here business model: sign, drive, default, repossess, and resell.

Faced with the choice between getting hosed buy a used car dealer and sleeping on the street, buyers will pay any price and accept financing on any terms. The dealers know it. Cars are priced above their Blue Book value and financed at an average interest rate of 20.7%, triple the national average.

Buy Here Pay Here dealerships are only nominally selling cars. Their real business is financing. And because they write their own loans, they are exempt from most forms of regulation. The “Pay Here” part of the name indicates that the buyer delivers payments in cash to the dealership.

You’d think that selling cars on credit to the country’s least reliable borrowers would be an unprofitable business. Not so. The average BHPH dealership turns a 38% profit.

The thing is, these dealers don’t care if customers make their payments. In fact, it’s better if they don’t. These cars come standard with hidden GPS trackers and remote ignition locks for easy repo. If a customer falls behind, the car is seized an resold. Bensinger found that cars were often resold at higher prices the second and third times around. 

In part II, Bensinger reveals that Wall Street is in on the racket. (At this point the reader may experience a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach and an unshakeable sense of deja vu. That’s a common side effect of devastating investigative reporting. Do not be alarmed. Be enraged.)

Financial chopshops have sprung up on Wall Street to cash in on the BHPH boom. Loans originated by BHPH dealers are being securitized, meaning that financial wizards are chopping up these ultra-subprime auto loans and packaging them into securities for investors to buy. Some of these products are rated AAA.

This is the exact scam that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. Bad loans are being repackaged as securities backed by what are surely inflated ratings and pawned off on hapless investors.

These securities will turn into so much worthless paper if the BHPH industry can’t keep all the balls in the air. But neither the securitizers nor the used car dealers care because, they’ll have already made their money.

The third part of the series will run tomorrow. Sidney can hardly wait.

If the word gets out, Occupy the Lot could be the next phase of the Occupy Movement.

[Photo credit:, Creative Commons; visit on the web.]

Charlotte Allen Suggests Last-Minute Halloween Costume Idea: Misogynist Concern Troll

Unaccountably, the Washington Post The LA Times gave Charlotte Allen space to insinuate that skimpy Halloween costumes cause rape. Allen, a contributing editor at a conservative website called “Minding the Campus” is deeply concerned that the feminist anti-rape activists of SlutWalk and the Halloween-industrial-complex are accessories to sexual assault:

The other reality that feminists tend to deny is that rape and sexual desire are linked. Rape, in that view, is a purely political act of male dominance. This ignores the fact that the vast majority of rape victims are under age 30 — that is, when women are at their peak of desirability.

Rape is a criminal act, and it is a crime most men won’t commit regardless of how short a girl’s skirt is or how lovely her legs. But the fact that rapists tend to target young women rather than grandmotherly types suggests that in the real rape culture (in contrast to the imaginary rape culture of some feminist ideology), the faux-hos of Halloween and their SlutWalker counterparts marching in their underwear — like a man walking at night with a bulging wallet — should be careful about where they flash their treasure.

The relevant question is not whether rapists desire their victims. No doubt many do. It would be surprising to learn otherwise, given that so many rapists are dating, or married to, their victims.

The question is whether a sexy Halloween costume increases a woman’s risk of rape. Allen thinks it does, but offers no evidence to support her thesis. You’d think that would be fatal to an op/ed blaming rape on “sexy witch,” “sexy nurse,” and Lady Gaga costumes, but Allen is determined to make up in handwaving what she lacks in data.

Her conjecture is that women under 30 get raped more often because they’re the sexiest women, and therefore, anything a woman does to look even sexier increases her risk of rape.

This hypothesis is rooted in the inaccurate stereotype that rape is an uncontrollable frenzy of lust that women provoke in men. That’s like imagining all theft as an uncontrolled frenzy of consumerism. Nobody doubts that thieves want what they steal, but we don’t assume that the sheer desirability of an unguarded car stereo pushes them over the edge.

But the fact that most rape victims under 30 tells us little about the motives of rapists. As feminist blogger and practicing attorney Jill Filipovic notes, most victims of non-sexual assault are also under 30:

But, funny thing: Younger people are also the most likely group to be the victims of aggravated, non-sexual assault (just so we’re all on the same page here, the term “aggravated assault” means “the crime of physically attacking another person which results in serious bodily harm and/or is made with a deadly or dangerous weapon such as a gun, knife, sword, ax or blunt instrument”). In fact, younger people are victimized by violent crime more often than older folks as a general rule. A person between the ages of 12 and 24 is six times more likely to be the victim of a robbery than a person over the age of 50; about half of people who report being the victims of aggravated assault are under the age of 25. Men are much more likely than women to be the victims of violent crime. In every age group, black people are the most likely to be the victims of violent crime.

So yes, it is true that younger women are more likely to be targeted for sexual assault than older women. But it’s not because of The Sexy — unless hormones and hard-ons are what are causing criminals to choose their (mostly male) targets for robbery and assault also.

It is disappointing that the Post Times gave Allen a platform for victim-blaming, and sloppily argued victim-blaming at that.

[Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein, all rights reserved.]

#Sidney's Picks: The Best of the Week's News

  • Last week, Sasha Chavkin of the New York World broke the news that the public B110 bus line in Brooklyn was sending women to the back of the bus to accomodate the religious sensibilities of the local Hasidic community. On Tuesday, Chavkin reported that the private company that runs the B110 had promised to end sex segregation.
  • Ever wonder what happened to those scoundrels who nearly broke the capitalist system? No, not Occupy Wall Street, the bankers. Braden Goyette of ProPublica has an informative cheat sheet to bring you up to speed. 
  • Speaking of sleazy bankers, the updated edition of Ed Vulliamy’s 2011 book Amexica: War Along the Borderline is going on Sidney’s reading list. Vulliamy tells Democracy Now! how the Wachovia bank allegedly helped launder tens of millions of dollars for the Sinaloa drug cartel.
  • Massachusetts senate candidate Elizabeth Warren tells Luke Johnson of the Huffington Post that she not only supports the aims of Occupy Wall Street, she laid much of the intellectual foundation for the movement. This is true. As a Harvard professor, Warren did pathbreaking research on consumer debt and middle class bankruptcy. That line is also an interesting piece of political self-presentation. The Occupy Movement is understandably wary of politicians trying to coopt their movement. But if Warren can sell herself as one of the original intellectual architects of the movement, she may create space to court the Occupy activists without seeming to coopt them.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Firedoglake Book Salon with Will Bunch and Lindsay Beyerstein, Thursday at 2:30 Eastern

At 2:30 Eastern, I’ll be hosting Pulitzer Prize-winner reporter and blogger Will Bunch at the Firedoglake Book Salon. We’ll be discussing Bunch’s new book, “The Battle for the Brooklyn Bridge.” Bunch tells the story of the mass arrest of Occupy Wall Street protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, an event which would prove to be a galvanizing moment for the Occupy movement.

Click here to join us from 2:30-4:00 Eastern. Bring questions.

[Photo credit: Adrian Kinloch, Creative Commons.]


Letter from Mississippi: Inside the Egg-as-Person Movement

Mississippi is poised to vote on a ballot initiative that would redefine fertilized eggs as human beings. Amazingly, both the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates have endorsed this proposal.

Irin Carmon of Salon travelled to Mississippi to interview the leaders of the local Personhood movement. Officially, the impetus for redefining fertilized eggs as people is to ban all abortion prior to overturning Roe and, ultimately, to lay the groundwork to challenge Roe itself. As Carmon discovered, that’s only part of the agenda:

[T]he Personhood movement hopes to do nothing less than reclassify everyday, routine birth control as abortion. The medical definition of pregnancy is when a fertilized egg successfully implants in the uterine wall. If this initiative passes, and fertilized eggs on their own have full legal rights, anything that could potentially block that implantation – something a woman’s body does naturally all the time – could be considered murder. Scientists say hormonal birth-control pills and the morning-after pill work primarily by preventing fertilization in the first place, but the outside possibility, never documented, that an egg could be fertilized anyway and blocked is enough for some pro-lifers.

Indeed, at least one pro-Personhood doctor in Mississippi, Beverly McMillan, refused to prescribe the pill before retiring last year, writing, “I painfully agree that birth control pills do in fact cause abortions.” Bush does prescribe the pill, but says, “There’s good science on both sides … I think there’s more science to support conception not occurring.” Given that the Personhood Amendment is so vague, I asked her, what would stop the alleged “good science” on one side from prevailing and banning even the pill?

Bush paused. “I could say that is not the intent,” she said. “I don’t have an answer for that particular [case], how it would be settled, but I do know this is simple.” Which part is simple? “The amendment is simple,” she said. “You can play the ‘what if’ game, but if you keep it simple, this is a person who deserves life.” What about the IUD, which she refuses to prescribe for moral reasons, and which McMillan told me the Personhood Amendment would ban? “I’m not the authority on what would and would not be banned.” No – Bush simply plays one on TV. And if her amendment passes, only condoms, diaphragms and natural family planning — the rhythm method – would be guaranteed in Mississippi.

The proponents of ovum personhood in Mississippi come off as profoundly disingenuous and/or hopelessly off-message. A cynical reader might conclude that even they aren’t serious about this egg-as-person rhetoric. Are they really prepared to call for the death penalty for women who use IUDs? Because by their logic, those women are serial killers. It seems like this “egg as person” talk is just a pretext to restrict the rights of women.

[Photo credit: Sir Chalky, Creative Commons.]

Extra! Extra! Newspaper Execs Reap Huge Bonuses for Lackluster Performance

Why not occupy the newsrooms?” asks media columnist David Carr of the New York Times. Carr notes that, like Wall Street financiers, newspaper executives are reaping massive bonuses for lackluster performance:

[…] Craig A. Dubow resigned as Gannett’s chief executive. His short six-year tenure was, by most accounts, a disaster. Gannett’s stock price declined to about $10 a share from a high of $75 the day after he took over; the number of employees at Gannett plummeted to 32,000 from about 52,000, resulting in a remarkable diminution in journalistic boots on the ground at the 82 newspapers the company owns.

Never a standout in journalism performance, the company strip-mined its newspapers in search of earnings, leaving many communities with far less original, serious reporting.

Given that legacy, it was about time Mr. Dubow was shown the door, right? Not in the current world we live in. Not only did Mr. Dubow retire under his own power because of health reasons, he got a mash note from Marjorie Magner, a member of Gannett’s board, who said without irony that “Craig championed our consumers and their ever-changing needs for news and information.”

But the board gave him far more than undeserved plaudits. Mr. Dubow walked out the door with just under $37.1 million in retirement, health and disability benefits. That comes on top of a combined $16 million in salary and bonuses in the last two years. [NYT]

Lest you think this is an isolated aberration, Carr points out that the Tribune Company is paying out up to $115 million in bonuses as part of a deal to exit bankruptcy. “The Tribune story includes overleveraged purchases, feckless management and a culture of personal enrichment, all hallmarks of the Wall Street way that have left protesters enraged,” Carr writes.

Gannett and Tribune executives tried to make newspapers profitable by slashing news budgets and payrolls. They sacrificed journalistic quality without restoring profitability. They have reaped bonuses for doing so.

Carr argues that the optics of these deals is bad management piled on injustice:

Newspapers are asking their employees for shared sacrifice and their digital readers to begin paying. So, lucrative packages won’t cut it. As newspapers all over the country struggle to divine the meaning of the Occupy protests, some of the companies that own them might want to listen closely to see if there is a message there meant for them.

Clearly, reporters are part of the 99%.

[Photo credit: wili_hybrid, Creative Commons.]

WaPo Ombudsman: The Truth Unfair to the Koch Brothers

The Ombudsman of the Washington Post, Patrick B. Pexton says that his paper should not have republished the Bloomberg Markets magazine expose of Koch Industries:

The story was about illegal or questionable business practices by Koch subsidiaries dating back to the 1990s and earlier. The Post story, shortened from the original, describes Koch company activities that include bribing foreign officials in Africa, the Middle East and India to get contracts; selling petrochemical equipment to Iran (legal at the time); being found liable for a pipeline explosion that killed two teenagers in Texas; falsifying records about the amount of oil pumped from federal and Indian lands; and misreporting the amount of benzene emissions at a refinery.

It all looks pretty bad, and it is, on many levels. Koch companies paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and settlements to resolve these cases, no small change.

But I think The Post erred in republishing this story, or at least in the way it did. And when the Kochs complained to The Post after publication, The Post’s response wasn’t handled well.

Pexton concedes that Koch Industries bribed officials, traded with Iran; neglected a pipeline so badly that it exploded and killed two teens; falsified records to steal oil from the U.S. Treasury and Indian tribes, and pumped vast qualities of untreated benzene into the air and lied about it.

Pexton admits it all looks “pretty bad.” He goes on to say that, as far as he can tell, it’s all true:

Now, I couldn’t find any outright falsehoods in the story that would warrant corrections. Bloomberg, too, has published no corrections. But I think the story lacked context, was tendentious and was unfair in not reporting some of the exculpatory and contextual information Koch provided to Bloomberg.

His main objection is that the reporters didn’t remind readers that Koch Industries isn’t the only flagrant law-breaking corporation out there, not by a long shot:

As Indiviglio and Rubin wrote, lots of companies have foreign subsidiaries that until recently did business with Iran, including GE, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar. Many multinational companies have been investigated and prosecuted for violations of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and been fined and prosecuted for violating clean water and clean air laws.

Are the Kochs worse, better or in the middle? We can’t tell from this story.

For Pexton, adequate context requires a precise accounting of where Koch Industries stands in the grand scale of corporate wrongdoing. That’s an ambitious project. We can’t know for sure how bad Koch Industries is until we’ve looked at all the other companies.

As the original story notes, the Kochs have been champions for the rights of all corporations to bribe, steal, pollute, and endanger innocent people. For all we know, some firms have imitated, or even surpassed the masters.

The ombudsman of the Washington Post is calling for a forensic audit of the capitalist system. Talk about burying the lede.

The Post should immediately allocate all necessary resources to conduct a complete audit of corporate malfeasance, in the interest of providing full context. The Ombudsman has spoken: The Koch Brothers deserve it! 

[Photo credit: AMagill, Creative Commons.]