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This Map Shows Why The Midwest Is Screwed

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 4:44 PM EST

The ongoing drought in California has been, among other things, a powerful lesson in how vulnerable America's agricultural sector is to climate change. Even if that drought wasn't specifically caused by man-made global warming, scientists have little doubt that droughts and heat waves are going to get more frequent and severe in important crop-growing regions. In California, the cost in 2014 was staggering: $2.2 billion in losses and added expenses, plus 17,000 lost jobs, according to a UC-Davis study.

California is country's hub for fruits, veggies, and nuts. But what about the commodity grains grown in the Midwest, where the US produces over half its corn and soy? That's the subject of a new report by the climate research group headed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer (who recently shut down rumors that he might run for Senate).

The report is all about climate impacts expected in the Midwest, and the big takeaway is that future generations have lots of very sweaty summers in store. One example: "The average Chicago resident is expected to experience more days over 95 degrees F by the century's end than the average Texan does today." The report also predicts that electricity prices will increase, with potential ramifications for the region's manufacturing sector, and that beloved winter sports—ice fishing, anyone?—will become harder to do.

But some of the most troublesome findings are about agriculture. Some places will fare better than others; northern Minnesota, for example, could very well find itself benefiting from global warming. But overall, the report says, extreme heat, scarcer water resources, and weed and insect invasions will drive down corn and soybean yields by 11 to 69 percent by the century's end. Note that these predictions assume no "significant adaptation," so there's an opportunity to soften the blow with solutions like better water management, switching to more heat-tolerant crops like sorghum, or the combination of genetic engineering and data technology now being pursued by Monsanto.

Here's a map from the report showing which states' farmers could benefit from climate change—and which ones will lose big time:

Risky Business

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No, Saudi TV Didn't Blur Out Michelle Obama's Face When the President Met King Salman

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 4:32 PM EST

Twitter is hopping right now about how Saudi TV allegedly blurred Michelle Obama's face, thanks to this YouTube video:

Only it's bullshit. The YouTube uploader appears to have added the blur, not some Saudi TV network.

(Here is another video the YouTuber uploaded that's blurred.)

This version shows no such blur:

 

Nothing is real on the internet.

Mormon Church Comes Out in Support of LGBT Rights

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 2:38 PM EST

In a groundbreaking news conference on Tuesday, the Mormon Church officially announced its support for some LGBT rights, on the condition that the same legal protections are extended to all religious groups. But in doing so, the church also made clear their endorsement did not reverse the church's opposition to same-sex marriage. 

"We call on local, state, and the federal government to serve all of their people by passing legislation that protects vital religious freedoms for individuals, families, churches, and other faith groups while protecting the rights of our LGBT citizens in such areas as housing, employment, and public accommodation in hotels, restaurants, and transportation," Elder Dallin Oaks, a top official of the church, said. "[These] protections are not available in many parts of the country."

"We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values," church officials stated

"We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values."

The announcement comes as an anti-discrimination bill makes its way through Utah's state legislature that seeks to ban gender-based discrimination in the workplace and housing. In the past, the church has made overtures towards friendlier LGBT stances, but Tuesday's press conference is by far its most clear endorsement of gay rights. Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer has covered the church's evolution on same-sex marriage:

In the five years since the LDS church sent busloads of the faithful to California to canvass neighborhoods, and contributed more than $20 million via its members to support the initiative, it has all but dropped the rope in the public policy tug of war over marriage equality. The change stems from an even more remarkable if somewhat invisible transformation happening within the church, prompted by the ugly fight over Prop. 8 and the ensuing backlash from the flock.

Although the LDS's prophet hasn't described a holy revelation directing a revision in church doctrine on same-sex marriage or gay rights in general, the church has shown a rare capacity for introspection and humane cultural change unusual for a large conservative religious organization.

"I am proud that the LDS Church has seen fit to lead the way in non-discrimination," state senator and founder of the Utah Pride Center Jim Dabakis said in a news release following the announcement. "As a religious institution, Mormons have had a long history of being the victims of discrimination and persecution. They understand more than most the value and strength of creating a civil society that judges people by the content of their character and their ability to do a job."

Watch Tuesday's announcement below:

ISIS Fighters Lose Kobani In Win For Obama's Iraq Strategy

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 12:33 PM EST

From the LA Times:

Kurdish fighters in the Syrian border town of Kobani appeared poised Monday to deal a decisive defeat to Islamic State militants after months of street clashes and U.S. aerial bombardment, signaling a major setback for the extremist group.

....The apparent breakthrough shows how U.S. air power, combined with a determined allied force on the ground, can successfully confront Islamic State. The military watched with surprise as Islamic State continued sending hundreds of fighters, vehicles and weapons to Kobani, which was of no critical strategic importance to the overall fight but had become something of a public relations fight.

"Essentially, they said, 'This is where we are going to make a stand' and flooded the region with fighters," said Col. Edward Sholtis, a spokesman for U.S. Air Force Central Command, in charge of air operations in the battle against the Islamic State.

My expert in all things Kurdish emailed me this comment today: "This is a big deal, and it proves the viability of Obama's strategy of working with proxies in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS. My prediction is we won't hear much boasting about it from Obama though. These aren't the politically chosen proxies."

I've been one of the skeptics of Obama's strategy, and I'll remain so until the Iraqi military demonstrates the same fighting ability as the Kurdish peshmerga. Kobani, after all, is more a symbolic victory than anything else, and ISIS continues to control large swathes of Iraq. Nonetheless, at a minimum this shows that ISIS is hardly unbeatable, something that Iraqi forces probably needed to see.

Bottom line: this is a proof of concept. When we can do the same thing in Mosul with Iraqi forces in the lead, then I'll be a real believer.

Obama's Trip to India Shortened His Life by 6 Hours

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 12:08 PM EST
President Obama met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the weekend.

Over the weekend President Barack Obama was in India for talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on nuclear power, trade, climate change, and other topics. The climate piece was, if not necessarily a letdown, certainly less exciting than Obama's wide-reaching deal with China in November. Crucially, the China deal included specific carbon emissions reduction targets; those were left out in India over Modi's (arguably justifiable) insistence that the country be able to aggressively expand its electricity infrastructure to fight poverty.

Instead, India committed to expand its solar power capacity by 33-fold within seven years, and to work closely with the United States in advance of major UN climate talks in Paris in December. (India's participation will be vital for the summit to produce a meaningful international agreement.)

As Bloomberg's Obama got a first-hand taste in the trip of how important it is for India to fuel its growth with clean energy sources. India is already the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China and the US, and air pollution in many of its cities far exceeds even the infamous levels in Beijing and other Chinese megalopolises.

In fact, Delhi—the capital city where Obama's meetings took place—has the world's highest concentration of PM 2.5, according to the UN. These tiny airborne particulates can increase the risk of heart disease and a host of really awful respiratory ailments. The PM 2.5 levels in Delhi are so insanely bad that breathing the air for only a few hours can have irreversible health impacts…even on the leader of the free world.

From Bloomberg:

During Obama's three-day visit, PM2.5 levels in Delhi have averaged between 76 to 84 micrograms per cubic meter, according to data collected by India's Ministry of Earth Sciences…Those levels translate roughly into an estimated loss of 2 hours a day in life expectancy, said David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge, who specializes in quantifying risk in a way that is understandable to the public.

Obama was there for three days, so that's six hours off his life. That is profoundly terrifying. It also underscores how, for developing countries, the need to stem pollution from power plants is about much more than solving the long-term problem of global warming. It's about addressing an urgent pubic health crisis.

This post has been updated.

Check Out the Adorable Creatures and Gorgeous Vistas Obama Wants to Protect in Alaska

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Dall sheep are one of the 250 animal species that depend on the coastal plain in ANWR.

On Sunday, President Obama announced that he will call on Congress to increase the protection of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by adding more than 12 million acres of it to the National Wilderness Preservation System—the highest level of conservation protection. If Congress signs on, which is pretty unlikely, it would be the largest wilderness designation since the Wilderness Act, signed in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The refuge covers nearly 20 million acres and contains five distinct ecological regions. It is home to at least 200 species of birds, 37 land mammal species, eight marine mammal species, and 42 species of fish. There are plenty of political reasons why Obama wants to protect it, but here are a few of the ecological ones:

ANWR
The coastal plain provides spring grazing for caribou and other mammals. Associated Press
Conservationists argue that oil and gas drilling in the coastal plain would threaten the millions of birds that nest there. USFWS
MUSKOX
The furry musk ox—the Inupiat's call it "omingmak" ("the bearded one")—lives on the coastal plain year round. USFWS
There is a unique ecosystem of animals—that includes the arctic fox—that have adapted to survive in ANWR. USFWS
Tundra swan
Tundra swans rely on the remote and undeveloped refuge to nest. USFWS
Caribou
Caribou migrate through the coastal plain. David Gustine/USGS
According to the US Department of the Interior, oil and gas development could pollute water resources in ANWR. USFWS
ANWR is an important denning area for polar bears. Alan D. Wilson
The Alaska marmot, considered highly vulnerable to changes in habitat, calls ANWR home. USFWS

To hear Obama talk about the importance of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, watch this video:

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Dust From Factory Farms Carries Drugs, Poop Bacteria, and Antibiotic-Resistant Genes Far and Wide

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Does what's deposited onto the feedlot floor stay in the feedlot? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

Ever approached a feedlot teeming with thousands of cattle? Unlike industrialized hog and chicken farms, where huge enclosed buildings trap at least some of the smell, cattle feedlots are open-air—as anyone who has driven Highway 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco can testify. Turns out, when you inhale the aroma, you're not just getting a blast of ammonia and other noxious fumes. You're also probably breathing in tiny particles of antibiotics, bacteria from cows' "fecal matter and gut flora," and antibiotic-resistant gene sequences. That's the conclusion of a new study from Texas Tech researchers, who analyzed air samples taken just downwind of ten cattle feedlots in Texas and states to the north, each containing between 20,000 and 50,000 cows.

The team placed portable air samplers 10-20 yards upwind and downwind of feedlots in the fall and winter months, when temperatures are mild and wind is moderate, and analyzed the particulate matter. Monenisin, an antibiotic growth promoter widely used on beef and dairy feedlots, turned up in 100 percent of samples, at much higher rates downwind (mean: 1,800 parts per billion) than upwind (below the level of measurement.) Now, monenisin isn't used in human medicine, meaning that it doesn’t directly contribute to antibiotic resistance that affects us. But tetracycline antibiotics—used commonly to treat urinary tract infections and pink eye—showed up in 60 percent of the downwind samples and 30 percent of the upwind samples, again at much lower levels upwind.

Levels of antibiotics in the air outside of feedlots were similar to those typically found within large enclosed hog operations.

To put these findings in perspective, the authors note they found antibiotics in the air outside of these feedlots at levels similar to those typically found within large enclosed hog operations—meaning that finding yourself 20 yards from a giant cattle lot is a lot like being inside a hog house.  

They also found bacteria "common to fecal matter and gut flora" at significantly higher levels downwind than upwind, including several that can cause human infections, including including corynebacterium), Leptospira, Clostridia, Bacteroides, and Staphylococcus.

And they picked up gene sequences that confer resistance to tetracycline at rates ranging from 100 to more than 1,000 times higher downwind than upwind. And get this: Those tetracycline-resistant genes appeared at much higher rates than those typically found in the liquid manure lagoons that build up in beef feedlots—meaning that wind may be even more prolific than water at spreading antibiotic-resistant genes from the farm to the surrounding region.

So how is all this nasty stuff moving from the feedlot to the surrounding air? The authors offer a simple explanation: The ground in feedlots "consists primarily of urine and fecal material," the study notes. In the morning, all of that … stuff is relatively stable, held more or less in place by moisture from humidity. But after hours of sunlight, the floor material "becomes dry and brittle, thus becoming source material for fugitive dust."

So what does this all add up to? The study doesn't comment on whether the particles the researchers found are at high enough levels to directly cause human harm. But that's not the main concern—most of us don't spend much time near massive concentrated cattle operations. (Feedlot workers are another story.) The larger issue is those antibiotic genes, traces of antibiotics, and fecal microbes that are being scattered far and wide. The authors note that of the nation's 2,100 large-scale (1000 head or greater) cattle feedlots, more than three-quarters are in the region of area study, the southern Great Plains (a swath stretching from northern Texas through parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado)—the very region with the "highest frequency of dust storms in the United States." The region's semi-arid conditions—as well its its propensity for prolonged droughts—provides an ideal environment for the "wind scouring of dry soils," and "aerial transport and deposition" of feedlot particles into "surrounding soil surfaces, water surfaces, vegetation, and other living organisms."

And that's under calm weather conditions. "Fronts and other major weather patterns frequently sweep through this region, and are often associated with exceedingly high wind velocities which themselves transport significant masses of particulates into the atmosphere and across the region and continent," they add. And once in the environment, resistance genes can jump from bacteria that don't pose a threat to humans to ones that do, the authors note.

The study is yet another reminder that the massive amounts of waste generated on factory farms don't stay on factory farms. (Here's a 2011 paper from North Carolina State and Kansas State researchers showing that cockroaches and flies carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria from large hog facilities; and a 2014 one from Johns Hopkins and University of North Carolina researchers finding that resistant bacteria leave the farm in the noses of workers.)

Scott Walker Is the Winner in 2016's First Republican Campaign Cattle Call

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 5:05 PM EST

Rep. Steve King (R–Tea Partyville) held his big annual Republican confab in Iowa this weekend, and most of the 2016 wannabe candidates for president were there. But I know you're all busy people who don't care about the details. Youjust want to know who won. Take it away, Ed Kilgore:

The consensus winner (first announced by National Review's John Fund, but echoed by many others) was Scott Walker, who did exactly what he needed to do: show he could twist and shout with the best of them despite his "boring" image, and make an electability argument based on the fruits of confrontation rather than compromise. This latter dimension of his appeal should not be underestimated: at a time when MSM types and (more subtly) Jeb Bush and Chris Christie continue to suggest Republicans must become less feral to reach beyond their base, here's Walker saying he won three elections in four years in a blue state by going medieval on unions, abortionists and Big Government. So Walker's passed his first test in the challenge of proving he's not Tim Pawlenty, and that's a big deal given his excellent positioning in the field.

Kilgore's "Tim Pawlenty" comment is a reference to Midwestern boringness, which has generally been seen as Walker's chief shortcoming. You can judge for yourself if you watch his 20-minute speech in Iowa, but I'd say he still has some work to do on this score. He wasn't terrible, but he never sounded to me like he really struck a connection with the crowd. He knew the words but not the tune—and even his words were a little too stilted and lifeless. Anytime you deliver an applause line and nothing happens, your words still need some work. And anytime you deliver an applause line, fail to wait for applause, then interrupt yourself to tell the crowd "you can clap for that, that's all right"—well, your delivery needs some work too.

I'm on record saying that I think Walker is the strongest candidate in the Republican field. He's got the right views, he's got a winning record, he's got the confrontational style tea partiers love, and he doesn't come across as a kook. But yes, he needs to work on the whole charisma thing. If he gets serious about that, I still like his chances in the 2016 primaries.

Here's How Much You Should Tip Your Delivery Guy During A Blizzard

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 3:45 PM EST
A delivery cyclist battles through mounting snow in Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood in New York City last February.

As you may have heard, a blizzard is about to destroy life as we know it on the Eastern seaboard. Your children, your children's children, their children's children will all learn of this snowfall in stories. If a normal snowstorm is, as the wise men used to say, "God shedding a bit of dandruff," then what we are about to experience can only be described as, well, God shedding...a lot of dandruff? An avalanche of dandruff? One or two revelations of dandruff? We're going to be knee-deep in God's dandruff, is what I'm saying.

If, like mine, your fridge is bare of everything but the essentials (Tabasco, old Bloody Mary mix, a few jars of pickles) then you're probably hoping to make it through this thing via one of two ancient ways: 1) master-cleanse or, 2) Seamless. Assuming you take the second door, the question becomes: What do you tip a delivery man during a blizzard? What is morally acceptable?

Let's first dispense with the question of whether or not it is ever acceptable—regardless of gratuity—to order delivery during a blizzard. Leave that to the poets and the ethicists. It doesn't matter in the real world. People order delivery more during bad weather. Them's the facts. You are going to order delivery in bad weather.

During really bad weather like blizzards and apocalypses, a lot of restaurants nix their delivery offerings altogether—and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has banned all non-emergency vehicles, including delivery bikes, after 11pm Monday night. But the ones that manage to stay open—and in this case are willing to deliver on foot well into the night—reap the benefits of constrained supply. If this were Uber, it would result in surge pricing to get more restaurants delivering. But since GrubHub and its parent company Seamless don't do that—and they shouldn't unless there is some way of ensuring that the increase goes to the delivery person and isn't pocketed by the owner—we're thrown into this sort of state of moral worry. You know in your bones that the guy who brings you pizza in sub-zero weather should get more than the guy who brings you pizza when it's 68 degrees and sunny. But how much more?

GrubHub Seamless crunched the numbers on tips during last year's polar vortex and found that residents in some zip codes increased their tips by as much as 24 percent, but on the whole, New Yorkers raised their normal tipping amount by a meager 5 percent. In the Midwest, however, where the temps dipped especially low, gratuities rose higher, to 14 percent in Chicago and 15 percent in Detroit and Minneapolis. Maybe the stereotypes are true and Midwesterners really are the nicest people in the country.

So, more. Tip more. How much should you tip a delivery man in a blizzard? More. More than you usually tip. Whatever you usually tip, tip better. Are you a good tipper normally? Become a great tipper. Are you an awful tipper? Become a just-bad tipper. (Also, you're a very bad person, and no one likes you very much.)

Want a strict system? Don't trust your heart to lead you to the right amount? New York magazine can help. Last year they spoke to Adam Eric Greenberg, a UC San Diego Ph.D. who co-authored an empirical analysis on the relationship between weather and tipping. Here's what he told them:

When the weather is bad, be a bit more generous by tipping 20 to 22 percent. If it's raining outside, tip 22 to 25 percent. If there's any snow accumulation, add a dollar or two on top of what you'd tip if it were raining. Having to work as a delivery guy during a blizzard is similar to getting stuck with a party of 20 as a restaurant server, so if you hear weather forecasters promising a "polar vortex, " a 30 percent tip is not outrageous.

So, there you have it: 30 percent. Anything under 25 percent and you go to Hell.

Does the Internet Really Make Dumb People Dumber?

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 1:55 PM EST

I don't normally get to hear what Bill Gates thinks of one of my ideas, but today's the exception. Because Ezra Klein asked him:

Ezra Klein: ....Kevin Drum, who writes for Mother Jones, has a line I've always thought was interesting, which is that the internet makes dumb people dumber, and smart people smarter. Do you worry about the possibility that the vast resources the internet gives the motivated, including online education, will give rise o a big increase in, for lack of a better tterm, cognitive or knowledge inequality that leads to further rises in global inequality?

Bill Gates: Well, you always have the challenge that when you create a tool to make activity X easier, like the internet makes it easier to find out facts or to learn new things, that there are some outliers who use that thing extremely well. It's way easier to be polymathic today than it was in the past because your access to materials and your ability if you ever get stuck to find people that you can engage with is so strong.

But to say that there's actually some negative side, that there actually will be people that are dumber, I disagree with that. I mean, I'm as upset as anyone at the wrong stuff about vaccination that's out there on the internet that actually confuses some small number of people. There's a communications challenge to get past.

But look at IQ test capability over time. Or even take a TV show today and how complex it is — that's responding to the marketplace. You take Breaking Bad versus, I don't know, Leave it to Beaver, or Combat!, or The Wild, Wild West. You know, yeah, take Combat! because that was sort of pushing the edge of should kids be allowed to watch it.

The interest and complexity really does say that, broadly, these tools have meant that market-driven people are turning out more complex things. Now, you can say, "Why hasn't that mapped to more sophistication in politics or something like that?" That's very complicated. But I don't see a counter trend where there's some group of people who are less curious or less informed because of the internet.

I'm sure that was said when the printing press came along and people saw romance novels and thought people would stay indoors and read all the time. But I just don't see there being a big negative to the empowerment.

Unsurprisingly, Gates agrees that the internet can make smart people smarter. By analogy, the printing press also made smart people smarter because it gave them cheap, easy access to far more information. Since they were capable of processing the information, they were effectively smarter than they used to be.

It's equally unsurprisingly that he disagrees about the internet making dumb people dumber. It's a pretty anti-tech opinion, after all, and that's not the business Bill Gates is in. But I think his answer actually belies his disagreement, since he immediately acknowledges an example of precisely this phenomenon: the anti-vax movement, something that happens to be close to his heart. Unfortunately, to call this merely a "communications challenge" discounts the problem. Sure, it's a communications challenge, but that's the whole point. The internet is all about communication, and it does two things in this case. First, it empower the anti-vax nutballs, giving them a far more powerful medium for spreading their nonsense. On the flip side, it makes a lot more people vulnerable to bad information. If you lack the context to evaluate arguments about vaccination, the internet is much more likely to make you dumber about vaccinating your kids than any previous medium in history.

The rest of Gates' argument doesn't really hold water either. Sure, IQ scores have been rising. But they've been rising for a long time. This long predates the internet and has nothing to do with it. As for TV shows, he picked the wrong example. It's true that Breaking Bad is far more sophisticated than Leave it to Beaver, but Breaking Bad was always a niche show, averaging 1-2 million viewers for nearly its entire run. Instead, you should compare Leave it to Beaver with, say, The Big Bang Theory, which gets 10-20 million viewers per episode. Is Big Bang the more sophisticated show? Maybe. But if so, it's not by much.

In any case, the heart of Gates' response is this: "I don't see a counter trend where there's some group of people who are less curious or less informed because of the internet." I won't pretend that I have ironclad evidence one way or the other, but I wouldn't dismiss the problem so blithely. I'm not trying to make a broad claim that the internet is making us generally stupider or anything like that. But it's a far more powerful medium for spreading conspiracy theories and other assorted crap than anything we've had before. If you lack the background and context to evaluate information about a particular subject, you're highly likely to be misinformed if you do a simple Google search and just start reading whatever comes up first. And that describes an awful lot of people.

Obviously this has been a problem for as long humans have been able to communicate. The anti-fluoridation nutballs did just fine with only dead-tree technology. Still, I think the internet makes this a more widespread problem, simply because it's a more widespread medium, and it's one that's especially difficult to navigate wisely. Hopefully that will change in the future, but for now it is what it is. It doesn't have to make dumb people dumber, but in practice, I think it very often does.