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The Looming Olive Oil Apocalypse

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 4:02 PM EST

The world's most celebrated olive oil comes from sun-drenched groves of Italy. But Italy is also a hotbed of olive oil subterfuge, counterfeit, and adulteration—and has been since Roman times, as Tom Muellar showed in an eye-opening 2007 New Yorker piece (which grew into a book called Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.)  Next year, getting real olive oil from Italy is going to be even harder than usual. Here's the LA Times' Russ Parsons:

As a result of what the Italian newspaper La Repubblica is calling “The Black Year of Italian Olive Oil,” the olive harvest through much of Italy has been devastated—down 35% from last year. 

The reason is a kind of perfect storm (so to speak) of rotten weather through the nation:

When the trees were turning flowers to fruit in the spring, freezing weather suddenly turned scorching, causing the trees to drop olives. Summer was hot and humid, leading to all sorts of problems. Then in mid-September, there was a major hail storm, knocking much of the fruit that remained onto the ground.

Other major olive oil-producing nations suffered similar calamities; Parsons reports that in Spain and Mediterranean neighbors, production is also "forecast to be far below last year's." And California, that big chunk of Mediterranean-like climate on our west coast, where excellent olive oil is produced? Parsons says the epochal drought is pinching production, and he quotes Muellar to the effect that "frankly, I hear about a lot of games being played there too, with labels and quality alike." Sigh.

I find all of this distressing. I came of age as a cook in an era of olive oil hegemony. I treat it like the oil that powers my car, as something to be relied on casually, as if it appeared by magic from nowhere. (Nearly all my Tom's Kitchen columns feature it.)

Once a staple of Mediterranean polyculture—farms and households would feature olive trees in mixed groves along with a multitude of other crops—olive oil production has long since industrialized. Here is The Ecologist from 2008:

Industrial olive farms grow their olive trees, planted at high densities, in massive irrigated orchards on lowland plains. The olives are harvested by machines that clamp around the tree’s trunk and shake it until the olives fall to the ground. Oil is then extracted by industrial-scale centrifuge, often at high temperatures. In contrast, small, traditional farms are often ancient, their trees typically planted on upland terraces. The farmers manage their groves with few or no agrochemicals, less water and less machinery. Olives are picked off the ground by hand and the oil extracted by grinding the olives in a millstone and press. Demand for cheap, mass-produced oil is making it a struggle for the smaller, traditional farms to be economically viable, however.

….

Intensive olive farming is a major cause of one of the biggest environmental problems affecting the EU: widespread soil erosion and desertification in Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal. In 2001, the European Commission ordered an independent study into the environmental impact of olive farming across the EU. The report concluded: ‘Soil erosion is probably the most serious environmental problem associated with olive farming.

I fear that next year's olive oil crunch is a harbinger of things to come. I am officially in search of alternative cooking fats. One I've come to appreciate: lard from pasture-raised hogs. Lard's rotten nutritional reputation is the result of outdated and discredited science. And it makes food taste really good, too.

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Thanksgiving Films, Ranked

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 3:04 PM EST

Ho ho ho and merry Thanksgiving! Here is a ranking of twenty Thanksgiving films. What is a "Thanksgiving film"? For the purposes of this post it is a film that is both a) on Wikipedia's list, and b) one I, Ben Dreyfuss, immediately recall seeing and have an opinion about.

1. Hannah and Her Sisters

2. Rocky

3. Scent of a Woman

4. Rocky II

5. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

6. Home for the Holidays

7. Avalon

8. The Ice Storm

9. The Morning After

10. For Your Consideration

11. Grumpy Old Men

12. Addams Family Values

13. Funny People

14. Spider-Man

15. The Object of My affection

16. The Other Sister

17. Bean

18. Son in Law

18. Tower Heist

19. Unknown

20. Jack and Jill

Disclosure: I haven't actually seen Jack and Jill but I'm pretty confident it's the worst. Also, The Last Waltz was not included in this ranking because though it is on the Wikipedia list of Thanksgiving films, it shouldn't be. Still pretty good though!

We Fact Checked Aaron Sorkin's Climate Science on "The Newsroom"

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 12:29 PM EST

I watch too much TV drama, so I can say this with a degree of certainty: It's rare that climate change comes up. (Television news programs also contain "tepid" coverage, in general, according to watchdog group Media Matters). That's why it was so weird/exciting for this climate reporter when global warming received its very own subplot on Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama The Newsroom over the last two episodes.

First, a little context: Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) is the show's once daffy news producer whose role this season seems exclusively designed to reverse earlier charges of sexism against Sorkin. She's now good at her job! During a convoluted scene on a train from Boston to New York, Maggie overhears and records a top EPA official talking shit on the phone about President Obama to another journalist, off-the-record. Even though that agreement of confidentiality doesn't extend to the other Amtrak passengers, she eventually tells the official she won't use his juicy Obama-dissing quotes. So impressed by her ethics, the official, Richard Westbrook (Paul Lieberstein), rewards her with a scoop: an embargoed EPA report. WHOA! WHAT A SCOOOOOP! (For the uninitiated, while a heads-up about a study is great to get a jump on your competition, reports are circulated and embargoed all the time). Anyway... Maggie also gets an exclusive interview with the official, the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA (WHAT A GET!) and in the most recent episode, she produces a segment for host Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) about the report's dire warnings.

The scene is odd for a number of reasons. The Newsroom packages its drama based on last year's events, and at that time, the news that the world was approaching 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had been publicly anticipated for weeks. So, not a scoop in any way, or anything that anyone following the science didn't already know.

But putting that aside, let's take a look at Sorkin's "facts", as presented in the episode. How do they measure up? Let's go line-by-line through the scene above.

 

In the weird parallel universe of The Newsroom, I'm not sure when these "latest measurements" were meant to have been taken. But he's right. We covered this at the time: The world passed that 400 ppm threshold for the first meaningful way in May 2013, when the daily mean concentration of carbon dioxide was higher than at any time in human history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The measurements are indeed taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii; you can follow what's known as the "Keeling Curve"—a measurement of atmospheric concentration of CO2—on Twitter, naturally, thanks to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

 

Depends what you're defining as catastrophic failure, I suppose.  Say you were born last year, when I assume this episode was meant to be set. If we follow along current emissions trends, the planet will be 3.96°F-8.64°F (2.2°C–4.8°C) hotter than preindustrial times by your retirement. (You can type your birth year into this cool interactive, driven by data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to check how hot it will be when you're old). That's above temperatures recommended to be in the supposedly "safe" zone by the IPCC, and could definitely result in a variety of "catastrophes" and "failures". As deaths increase due to things like extreme weather, droughts and wildfires, this statement seems true enough when applied to individual episodes of calamity, which will surely increase. (The number of annual deaths in the UK due to heat, for example, is predicted to rise by 257 per cent by 2050.) The EPA official is right, in one sense. But it's also arguable that deaths are already and will continue to be linked to climate change events. The line in the script infers the failure of the planet as a whole, which I think is artful flourish to illustrate just how glum this fellow is feeling.

 

Yup. That's what the science says. The last time the atmosphere clocked 400 ppm it was 3 million years ago—the "Mid-Pliocene"—when sea levels were as much as 80 feet higher than today (see this 2007 research paper authored by a group led by NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University.) I'd probably add an "around" or "about" before the "80 feet higher" in the above statement; the studies leave a margin of error. But this statement checks out.

 

His point is sound, but I'd like to see the writers' sourcing—these numbers seem to date to around the late 1990s. According to a more recent 2011 NOAA report, 55 percent of the world's population lives within 50 miles of the coast. The UN has a slightly different number: Over 40 percent of the world's population, or 3.1 billion, lives within 60 miles of the "ocean or sea in about 150 coastal and island nations." In the US, 39 percent of the nation's population lived in counties directly on the shoreline in 2010.

 

That seems right.

 

There's consensus amongst 97 percent of climate scientists that global warming is happening and that's it's a manmade disaster. And I've heard climate scientists use this analogy before. (For what it's worth, there are other things that can influence the boiling point of water, including altitude.)

 

He's talking about the "carbon budget", and again this is sound, despite Newsman Will's growing anguish at a pretty devastating interview. The 565 gigaton number was popularized by Bill McKibben in a 2012 Rolling Stone article that Newsroom writers seem to have read. The number is "derived from one of the most sophisticated computer-simulation models that have been built by climate scientists around the world over the past few decades" (done by financial analysis firm Carbon Tracker) and is what we can add into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have a reasonable chance of success of staying below that safe two degrees warming threshold. Our grumpy scientist is so despondent because, yes, 2,795 is the number of gigatons of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves in the hands of fossil-fuel companies and petrostates. In short, it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn, writes McKibben. Carbon Tracker says 80 percent of these assets need to remain unburned.

 

All of these things are predicted by the IPCC—I mean, not the permanent darkness thing, I don't think that's meant to be scientific. But yes, as we reported in May this year, Europe faces freshwater shortages; Asia can expect more severe flooding from extreme storms; North America will see increased heat waves and wildfires, which can cause death and damage to ecosystems and property. Especially in poor countries, diminished crop yields will likely lead to increased malnutrition, which already affects nearly 900 million people worldwide.

So, in all, well done Newsroom. Informative, accurate, if a little heavy-handed on the doom and gloom.

Europe Wants To Make Its Memory Hole Global

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 11:51 AM EST

Europe's infamous right to be forgotten is on track to become truly Orwellian:

Europe’s privacy regulators want the right to be forgotten to go global. In a new set of guidelines agreed Wednesday in Brussels, the body representing the EU’s 28 national privacy regulators said that search engines should apply the bloc’s new right to be forgotten to all of their websites.

....Google may consider a way to apply the ruling on Google.com without applying it globally [...] by returning different results depending on whether the person is searching from an Internet Protocol address located within the EU. But it is unclear if such a move would satisfy regulators, as it would only make it harder to sidestep the ruling inside the EU, not globally.

“These are fundamental rights. My rights don’t go away at the border,” one data-protection official said of the idea of using IP addresses to apply the rule.

I understand that the EU has a more expansive view of personal privacy than the US and other countries. What's more, I'm generally on their side in this battle when it comes to truly personal information. Both corporate and government collection of personal buying habits, internet browsing patterns, and so forth deserve to be reined in.

But here we're talking about largely public information. It's bad enough that the EU is insisting that people not only have a right to control genuinely personal data, but also have a right to shape attitudes and perceptions that are based on public record. It's even worse that they're now trying to impose this absurdity on the entire planet. If they insist on having a continent-wide memory hole, I guess that's their business. But they sure don't have the right to foist their insistence on artificially altering reality on the rest of us. Enough's enough.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Undergoes Heart Surgery

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 11:14 AM EST

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is "resting comfortably" after undergoing a coronary catheterization procedure, a press release from the nation's highest court announced Wednesday morning.

Ginsburg, who at 81 is the Supreme Court's oldest member, is expected to be discharged in the next 48 hours. From the release:

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent a coronary catheterization procedure this morning at MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center to place a stent in her right coronary artery. The coronary blockage was discovered after Justice Ginsburg experienced discomfort during routine exercise last night and was taken to the hospital. She is resting comfortably and is expected to be discharged in the next 48 hours.

Ginsburg has pushed back against suggestions she step down while President Barack Obama is still in office. In an interview with Elle last September, she defended her resistance to such calls. "Anybody who thinks that if I step down, Obama could appoint someone like me, they’re misguided. As long as I can do the job full steam…. I think I’ll recognize when the time comes that I can’t any longer. But now I can."

Under Pressure From Obama, France Delays Warship Sale to Russia

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 10:38 AM EST

I confess that I'm surprised to read this:

France has put on hold a controversial deal to supply Russia with two high-tech amphibious assault ships following international concern over Moscow's military involvement in Ukraine

....After months of wait-and-see messages from the French, Hollande's declaration Tuesday was at least clear: It would not be appropriate to deliver the control-and-command vessels given the current conflict between Moscow-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine, he said.

....In June, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, had insisted that the contract had been signed and sealed and had to be honored. On Tuesday, following months of pressure from the United States, Fabius appeared to have changed his mind.

Huh. I guess the weakling Obama really is working quietly behind the scenes on stuff like this, and really does still have some clout on the international stage. Who knew?

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Tom's Kitchen: Gratin of Hearty Greens

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 10:22 AM EST

I'm a greens fanatic: mustards, kale, collards, chard, you name it. I eat them in some form more or less every day, sometimes more than once. At this point, a meal—even (or especially) something as simple as a fried egg for breakfast—just seems naked, incomplete, without them. Their ubiquity in my daily life can make them seem unexciting for a special feast like Thanksgiving. Really, again, greens made like I always do them, sautéed with onion until tender and then finished with a lashing of vinegar? At the same time, there was no way I could imagine Thanksgiving without leafy greens—especially since they reach their peak of flavor in the fall.

So rather than forsake them or serve them the same old way, I decided to dress them up into something richer and more elegant: a gratin. To get ideas on how to pull it off, I dug into James Peterson's excellent 2002 tome Glorious French Food. Along with recipes for the three classic gratins—potatoes, leeks, and squash—it also includes advice on how to improvise one: merely pour cream and cheese over the desired vegetable, and bake in the oven until a "savory crust forms on top." That's when I knew that I not only had a winning side dish for the holiday table, but also something dead simple and yet tasty: perfect fodder for a Tom's Kitchen column.

Peterson advises that in most cases, vegetables should be cooked before the baking stage, "so that the moisture they contain is released during the precooking instead of remaining in the gratin, where it would dilute the surrounding sauce." So I started the dish in the same way I usually cook greens—which gave me the chance to work in onions and garlic—before finishing in the oven with cream and cheese. The result was magical—sweet, creamy, tender greens, mashed up with a snap of caramelized cheese. Note: there's also a vegan variation below.

Gratin of Hearty Greens

Enough extra-virgin olive or butter to generously cover the bottom of a large pan
3 medium onions, halved and sliced thin
3 bunches of hearty greens such as kale or collards (I used two kale, one collards)
4 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced
Sea salt
1 pint heavy cream
4 ounces grated cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano (which I used) or Gruyère
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper

Place a large heavy-bottom pot over low-medium heat, add the onions, and let them sauté, stirring occasionally, until they are very soft.

Meanwhile, prep the greens. Remove the stems that run down the center by holding the leaf in one left hand and slicing down each side of the stem with a knife. By the time you're done, you'll have two piles: one of stems and one of leaves. I apply a whole-beast ethos to vegetables, and consider greens stems to be highly flavorful. So bunch the stems in a pile and slice them finely, crosswise. Set aside. Now chop the greens and set them aside, too. The point of separating them is to give the stems a head start cooking, as they take a little longer.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Now the onions should be soft. Add the chopped garlic and stir for a minute or so, until it has released its fragrance. Add the chopped stems and a pinch of salt, stir to mix them with the onions and garlic, and cover the pot. Let them cook for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Now add the greens and another pinch of salt, using tongs to carefully mix in with the sautéed veggies in the pan. Add about a half cup of water (or stock) to the pan, and turn heat to high until the water begins to boil. When it does, turn heat down a little bit, and let the greens simmer, covered, stirring occasionally until they're nearly tender but still a little al dente. At that point, remove the lid and let them cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid in the pan has evaporated.

Turn off the heat, taste, and add a little salt if necessary. Arrange the cooked greens in a casserole dish large enough to comfortably fit them all. Pour the cream over. Sprinkle the cheese all over the top. Give it a vigorous lashing of black pepper. Bake until the top is well-browned (30-45  minutes). Serve hot. This dish can be made a day or two in advance and reheated in a 350 F oven just before serving. Better yet, cook the greens until they're tender and then store them in the fridge until the big day, when you bake them off with cream, cheese, etc.

Vegan variation: Replace the cream with coconut milk and replace the cheese with bread crumbs (or slivered almonds) .

 

Obama Has Really Gotten Inside the GOP's Head

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 9:50 AM EST

Jeremy Peters writes in the New York Times today that the tea party has morphed from an enraged bunch of economic populists to an enraged bunch of anti-immigration zealots. And by cracky, they want Republicans to crush the tyrant Obama for his immigration insolence and they want them to do it now:

Satisfying the conservative base will be difficult. Tea Party activists are not likely to sit patiently while a lawsuit works its way through the courts. And many have already expressed skepticism about the Republican leadership’s willingness to see through a fight over appropriations.

....“Yes, there’s a risk to overreacting, but there’s a risk to underreacting as well,” said Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. “And I fear that’s the way the congressional leadership is leaning.” Mr. Lowry suggested one way Congress could react. “If I were John Boehner,” he said, referring to the House speaker, “I’d say to the president: ‘Send us your State of the Union in writing. You’re not welcome in our chamber.’ ”

Oh man, I can't tell you how much I wish they'd actually take Lowry up on his suggestion. Can you imagine anything that would strike middle America as pettier and more pointlessly vindictive than this? Anything that would seem feebler and more futile? Anything that could possibly be more evocative of a five-year-old throwing a tantrum?

I guess you could if you put your mind to it. But it would be hard. Obama is really inside their heads, isn't he?

(Via Steve Benen.)

GOP Takes Revenge Over Immigration Order in Tax Bill. Obama Tells Them to Pound Sand.

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 11:59 PM EST

Danny Vinik describes the tax extender package currently wending its way through Congress:

Imagine somebody asked you to imagine the worst possible deal on taxes. It'd probably have the following qualities:

It would be bad for the environment.

It would be bad for the deficit.

It would give short shrift to the working poor.

And it would be a bonanza for corporations.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to conjure up such a package. Congressional Republicans already have. And for some unfathomable reason, Senate Democrats including Harry Reid seem inclined to go along—although the White House has vowed to veto such a deal if Congress goes ahead and passes it.

Actually, there's nothing all that unfathomable about what's going on. The tax extender bill may be a dog's breakfast of legitimate tax provisions running interference for a long laundry list of indefensible giveaways and corporate welfare, but it's always been supported by both parties and it would have passed long ago if not for an outbreak of routine sniping over amendments and 60-vote thresholds last spring. That aside, the whole thing is a perfect bipartisan lovefest. Republicans and Democrats alike want to make sure that corporations continue to get all their favorite tax breaks.

In fact, the only thing that's really new here is the nature of Obama's veto threat. He's made the threat before, but primarily because the extenders weren't being paid for and would add to the deficit. The fact that middle-class tax breaks might not also be extended was sort of an afterthought. Now, however, that's front and center:

The emerging tax legislation would make permanent 10 provisions, including an expanded research and development tax credit....a measure allowing small businesses to deduct virtually any investment; the deduction for state and local sales taxes....tax breaks for car-racing tracks....benefits for racehorse owners.

....Left off were the two tax breaks valued most by liberal Democrats: a permanently expanded earned-income credit and a child tax credit for the working poor. Friday night, Republican negotiators announced they would exclude those measures as payback for the president’s executive order on immigration, saying a surge of newly legalized workers would claim the credit, tax aides from both parties said.

So there you have it. This bill is the first victim of Republican frothing over Obama's immigration order. As revenge, they left out Democratic tax priorities, and Obama is having none of it.

This is all part of the new Obama we've seen since the midterm election, which seems to have had an oddly liberating effect on him. Over the course of just a few weeks he's been throwing sand in Republican faces with gleeful abandon: cutting climate change deals with the Chinese; demanding full net neutrality regulations from the FCC; issuing an executive order on immigration; and now threatening to veto a Republican-crafted bill unless they include expanded EITC and child tax credits. It's as though he's tired of their endless threats to go nuclear over every little thing and just doesn't care anymore. Go ahead, he's telling them. Make my day.

A Nuclear Deal With Iran Probably Won't Happen

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 5:56 PM EST

Over at Foreign Affairs, Aaron David Miller and Jason Brodsky run through four reasons that we failed to reach a nuclear deal with Iran by this weekend's deadline. This is the key one:

An internal IAEA document that was prepared in 2009 detailed an April 1984 high-level meeting at the presidential palace in Tehran in which Khamenei — then president of Iran — championed a decision by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to launch a nuclear weapons program. According to the account, Khamenei said that "this was the only way to secure the very essence of the Islamic Revolution from the schemes of its enemies, especially the United States and Israel."

....The fact is that Iran knows what it wants: to preserve as much of its nuclear weapons capacity as possible and free itself from as much of the sanctions regime as it can. The mullahs see Iran’s status as a nuclear weapons state as a hedge against regime change and as consistent with its regional status as a great power. That is what it still wants. And that’s why it isn’t prepared — yet — to settle just for what it needs to do a deal. Ditto for America. And it’s hard to believe that another six months is going to somehow fix that problem.

This is why I'm skeptical that a deal can be reached. Iran wants to have nuclear weapons capability. The United States wants Iran to verifiably abandon its nuclear ambitions. Everything else is just fluff, and it's hard to see a middle ground here.

This doesn't mean an agreement is impossible. Maybe there really is some halfway point that both sides can live with. It sure isn't easy to see it, though. The disagreement here is just too fundamental and too definitive. One side wants to be able to build a bomb, and the other side wants exactly the opposite. How do you split that baby?