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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: February 7, 2009

Implementation is what may bedevil Barack Obama as it has presidents before him. His policy mandate is clear — to get the economy moving and get us out of Iraq — but how to make these happen is the hard part….Increasingly the government causes things to be done, and pays for things to be done, but it no longer does those things itself.” — Elaine C. Kamarck reviewing  The Next Government of the United States: Why Our Institutions Fail Us and How To Fix Them in The American Prospect

A FRUSTRATED WORLD stands by wringing its hands, charges Martin Fletcher while a brutal ruling elite practices something “not far short of genocide” in Zimbabwe. The existing security forces could be toppled with ease — most of them would simply melt away at the first sign of resistance — he writes in the Times. “Yet our leaders still balk from taking the one step that would save this dying nation.”

IT SOUNDS LIKE an old movie plot but a group of eminent scientists is urging the UN to set up a network to search for asteroids which may be on their way to collide with earth. Even the fact that such encounters are likely to occur only two or three times every thousand years is too big a risk to take without some kind of preparation reports the International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation. It warns that missions to destroy such threats will have to be launched well ahead of a predicted impact.

ONE OF THE most productive things that the Utne Reader (“the best of the alternative press”) did was to initiate a series of nationwide “salons” a decade ago, in which like-minded people met for intelligent conversation.  Now, founder Eric Utne is organizing Community Earth Councils which he hopes will bring together thinkers of different generations for similar discussions. At 62, he’s decided that he’s an “elder” and that communities have always needed councils of elders (60+) connecting with youngers (16-28) “to address local social and environmental challengers at the local level.” (

WRITING IN Forbes, the chief partner in one of Manhattan’s top law firms, Evan R. Chesler, suggests that maybe it’s time to abandon the much-reviled method by which attorneys are rewarded — the “billable hour” when “the clients feel they have no control, that there is no correlation between cost and quality.” Comparing the way in which customers hire a contractor, Chesler proposes that once the price has been agreed upon, “the billable hours should be relevant.” But because litigation is often predictable, the price should be periodically revisited.

DRUG ENFORCEMENT OFFICIALS seized what they claimed is a street-value crop of $16 billion of marihuana in northern California last year, another indication (comments Fortune) that pot is booming. The reports that there are 350,000 medial marihuana users in the nation, served by 400 cannabis clubs in California alone which is the top-using state. Almost 9% of Californians have toked in the past month and the going rate for top-grade medical weed is $3,000 per pound.

FROM YEARS OF cross-breeding experiments, Manila’s International Rice Research Institute has evolved a strain of rice that can survive under flood waters two weeks or more — at least four times as long as the regular variety which is inedible after being deprived of light and oxygen for four days. The Institute’s Dave Mackill explains that typhoons typically destroy millions of tons of rice in Southeast Asia every year, “and floods will only increase.”

BRITISH PUBLISHERS Mills & Boon whose ten “Romance” categories include Modern, Medical, and Historical, are about to introduce a new genre, Spice, dealing with casual sex and bondage. The first title, Spies, Lies, and Naked Thighs goes on sale next month and is expected to do at least as well as the other titles which, collectively sell 200 million books a year in 25 languages and more than 100 countries. Owned by the Canadian publisher Harlequin, the company releases 50 titles each month, all written (reports The Week) to “a tried and tested romantic formula.”

CAN’T DECIDE ON the best wedding present? The World reports on a trend for renting ATM machines for the reception which can print ‘deposit’ slips. These, guests place in envelopes with a congratulatory note, and leave for the couple to retrieve. The ATM machine costs $155 a day to rent.

THE WILCOCK WEB: For $30 you can buy a huge calendar with a bubble to pop for every day of this year (….  Advocates of delaying the switch to digital television (Feb 17) because not enough viewers are ready are opposed by stations that claim it will cost them an extra thousands of dollars a month to maintain dual signals….Having just banned advertising on state-owned TV channels after 8pm, France hopes to eventually ban it altogether in a year or two in hopes of ending “fruitless battles” with commercial television….And now that smoking is banned in Amsterdam bars, business is booming for the Rain Showtechniek company that sells a machine which reproduces the smell of cigarettes without the smoke… Kevin Alderman, better known as Stroker Serpentine at the sex shop he runs on Second Life, is devising an alternative online sex world called Eros 3-D where he claims sexual encounters will be almost real….Atheism is a non-prophet organization……The world’s best-known clock, London’s Big Ben, just began a year’s worth of celebrating its 150th birthday….Voters want a fraud they can believe in says the cynical Will Durst…. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are currently 33 people looking for work in the U.S. for every ten openings…. Memo from the Cowboy Palace Saloon “Your garbage disposal probably eats better than 30% of the people in the world…..What’s been termed President Abraham Lincoln’s “death warrant” — the handwritten pass sending his bodyguard on an out-of-town mission three days before his assassination — is among the exhibits at the just-opened Huntington Library exhibition till April 27) celebrating the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth…SAD is what’s being reported in the Rockies, meaning “sudden aspen decline” due to the bark beetle killing off hundreds of thousands of trees….The karaoke machine was voted “most annoying gadget” in a British poll….Education authorities schools in Yorkshire ruled the word ‘schools’ had “negative connotations” and now describe themselves as “advanced learning centers”:….“Bureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern despotism.” — Mary McCarthy (1912-89)