Patt Morrison for December 28, 2010

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It happens so regularly during the winter months that it’s largely accepted as standard practice: when it rains, Southern California’s beaches are inundated with raw sewage and other toxic runoff from an inundated sewer system that cannot handle large volumes of water. After one of the wettest Decembers on record, beaches in San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties have been closed to the public for weeks because of repeated sewage spills and, with more rain on the way before the new year, beaches won’t be suitable for people anytime soon. Are the sewage systems in the area so antiquated and the region in general so ill prepared for big storms, that raw sewage on our beaches is just an accepted part of doing business in Southern California? How bad is the problem and what kind of resources would it take to update our storm runoff capabilities?
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There are infamous examples of bad Christmas presents—fruitcake, bunny-themed pajamas from grandma, the toy rifle that will shoot your eye out (hat tip to “A Christmas Story”). But there are also honest mistakes made by gift givers that happen not just over the holidays but for birthdays and all other special occasions—differing tastes in music, clothes, bad sizing estimates. The embarrassment that is felt on the part of both the givers and recipients of bad presents is one motivation for Amazon.com’s patented new approach to giving gifts but another potent motivator is the economic inefficiency of returning those bad gifts. Amazon is working on a way for people to return gifts before they receive them, allowing users of the website to specify a “convert all gifts” option that would in effect keep an online list of lousy gift-givers whose choices would be vetted before anything ships. Critics say that Amazon’s idea takes the spontaneity, the surprise and the manners out of gift giving. But if it allows you to ditch the fruitcake before you even receive it, are manners a worthy sacrifice at the alter of bad gifts?
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STRATFOR report: Mexican Drug War – no easy options

2010: President Felipe Calderon declared war on Mexico's powerful cartels. He replaced many corrupt local cops with better trained, better paid, and more effective federal police. Result: the cartels have been weakened, but at a price - a jump from 6,000 to more than 11,000 civilian deaths in the year. And the cartels are fighting back. In 2010, they got their hands on improvised explosive devices like those used against American forces in Iraq. Entire Mexican provinces are now under cartel control, according to a report released on Monday by the global intelligence company STRATFOR. Mexico may be slipping into civil war. The questions both Mexicans and Americans are asking: should Calderon step up his war against the cartels, as bloody as it may get before his country slips into civil war? Should he accept assistance from the US in this effort? Or should he back off of the cartels in order to cut down on the death count? A back-burner story may move to the front burner in 2011.
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Where does your personality come from? That’s the question the Human Connectome Project is setting out to answer. Combining computer science with genetics and neuroscience, the new field of conectomics is aiming to do something similar to cracking the human genome, but in this case they want to find out how memories, personality traits and skills are stored. Experts involved in the project compare it to untangling a bowl of spaghetti. Together, they hope that untangled picture will offer a kind of mental map of an individual and show where nature meets nurture. The field is still very young, but has already garnered some strong support from the National Institutes of Health, which bolstered it with $40 million in grants to researchers across the country this fall. Patt talks with one neurologist leading up the project at the University of California, Los Angeles about the territory he aims to chart.
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One of the less volatile but still controversial elements of the $858-billion federal tax bill signed into law December 17th was the gutting of tax credits for energy-efficient home improvements. Still thinking about installing solar panels or insulation, replacing your front door, or otherwise weatherizing your home? It would behoove you to do so in the next four days, before those tax credits are slashed from 30% of the cost to just 10% with a $500 maximum for things like insulation, exterior windows and storm doors, skylights, and metal and asphalt heat-resistant roofs. Looking at some energy-efficient windows? If installed before this Friday, December 28th, they’ll net you a tax credit of $1,500, but wait until the New Year and you’ll be looking at just $200. Patt talks with a tax and energy expert about how to get in your last minute credits and about the larger question of how Washington’s decision to cut these tax incentives could affect homeowners’ decisions to invest in long term savings by installing high-efficiency upgrades.
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Congress wrapped up its so-called lame-duck session last week with an unexpected string of victories for President Obama and Democrats, including the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the nuclear-arms reduction agreement, a health bill for 9/11 responders, a food safety bill, middle-class tax cuts and the extension of jobless benefits. But legislators taking a holiday break won’t have long to rest before they’re back at their desks in Washington on January 3rd, with a new Republican majority in the House and a slimmer than before Democratic majority in the Senate. And what’s on the table? Try this… the omnibus spending bill (failed in the lame-duck voting but will be back on the floor before the freshman congressmen and women find their offices), tax overhaul, education, immigration, redistricting, increased investigations of all-things Obama, and funding of the various parts of the health care bill. How will all this shake out? We find out from our California representatives, starting with Congressman Henry Waxman, former chair of the House Government Reform and Energy and Commerce Committees.
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