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Feeling Hungry? Have a Deep-Fried Butter Ball.

| Wed Apr. 13, 2016 11:09 AM EDT

Nutritional research is really hard. To do it right, you need a large sample of people; you need to randomly assign them to different diets; they need to actually stick to the diet; and they have to be followed for years. In real life, this is almost impossible.

However, back in the 60s we had different ideas about how we were allowed to treat mental patients, and that led to a large-scale study of cholesterol and saturated fat at a mental institution in Minnesota. Whatever you think of the ethics of an experiment like this, it's pretty much ideal from a research point of view. The patients can be fed whatever you want; they have no choice but to stick with the diet; and physically they're fairly typical. So the study got done, and the researchers concluded that a low-fat diet was a good thing.

But it turns out the researchers were pretty dedicated to finding that result in the first place. Recently, the full results of their study were unearthed and analyzed, and it turns out their conclusions were wrong. Totally wrong:

The fuller accounting of the data indicates that the advice is, at best, unsupported by the massive trial. In fact, it appears to show just the opposite: Patients who lowered their cholesterol, presumably because of the special diet, actually suffered more heart-related deaths than those who did not.

The higher rate of mortality for patients on the special diet was most apparent among patients older than 64....“Had this research been published 40 years ago, it might have changed the trajectory of diet-heart research and recommendations” said Daisy Zamora, a researcher at UNC and a lead author of the study.

....“What this research implies is that there is not enough evidence to draw strong conclusions about the health effects of vegetable oils” Christopher Ramsden, a medical investigator at NIH and a lead author of the study, said in an interview.

Ramsden and colleagues discovered the missing data during their research examining the potentially harmful effects of linoleic acid — a key constituent of most vegetable oils — on human health.

Their paper notes that before the advent of agriculture, humans got 2 to 3 percent of their calories from linoleic acid; today most Americans, awash in cooking oils and oils added to snack foods, get much more. Preliminary research suggests a link between linoleic acid and diseases such as chronic pain, Ramsden said.

I've mentioned before that I'm semi-convinced that nutritional advice for the past half century has been wildly off base. It's quite possible that the rise in obesity and other health problems in America is due not to saturated fats, but to our enormous intake of vegetable oil. That, after all, is what's new in American diets since 1900. Before then, we barely used vegetable oil at all and we were pretty healthy. Now we use it by the tanker car and we're in pretty sad shape.

To know for sure, we need two things. First, researchers with an open mind. Second, reliable nutritional studies. Unfortunately, since forcing mental patients to be saturated-fat guinea pigs is no longer on the table, it's as hard as ever to conduct reliable studies. Still, keep in mind that the weakness of nutritional studies works both ways: all the evidence that saturated fats are bad and vegetable oil is good is pretty thin too. Go ahead and smear some butter on that toast.

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The World’s Largest Coal Company Just Filed for Bankruptcy

| Wed Apr. 13, 2016 11:04 AM EDT

These are truly dark days for coal. The year started off badly for the industry when Arch Coal, the second-biggest coal producer in the United States, filed for bankruptcy. That announcement was swiftly followed by more: China said it plans to close 1,000 coal mines, US coal production dipped to its lowest level in three decades, and the Obama administration laid out plans to raise the cost coal mining on federal land.

On Wednesday, the slow and steady die-off of coal claimed its biggest victim. Peabody Energy, the world's largest coal company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US. The company won't close, but will have to reorganize and borrow new funds to pay off its existing debts. According to Reuters, the bankruptcy is the end result of crushing debt brought on by Peabody's multi-billion dollar acquisition in 2011 of a major Australian coal producer. That move was meant to offer Peabody greater access to Asian markets but, because of plummeting prices and demand, turned out to be a devastating financial burden.

Conditions at home in the US certainly didn't help. In addition to new climate change regulations from Obama that are designed to severely curtail the nation's coal consumption, coal has been getting hammered by competition from natural gas made cheap by the fracking boom. The Peabody announcement means that companies accounting for nearly half of the country's coal production have filed for bankruptcy in the current downturn, Reuters reported.

Of course, the coal industry isn't going away anytime soon:

While coal use has also stalled globally, largely because of China's economic slowdown and its efforts to protect domestic miners and rein in rampant pollution, most analysts expect consumption of the fuel to remain stable or rise in the future.

Some 500 coal-fired power stations are currently under construction, 80 percent of which are in the Asia-Pacific region, where emerging markets as well as developed economies such as Japan and South Korea are still seeing consumption grow.

In any case, the Peabody bankruptcy was quickly celebrated by environmentalists as a big win for the climate. Peabody came under fire late last year, when an investigation by the New York State Attorney General found the company had misled its shareholders about the risks climate change could pose to its bottom line.

"Perhaps if [Peabody] had spent more time and money diversifying their business rather than on lobbying against climate action and sowing the seeds of doubt about the science, they might not have joined the long (and ever growing) list of bankrupt global coal companies," 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben said in a statement.

Disturbing New Evidence About What Common Pesticides Can Do to Brains

| Wed Apr. 13, 2016 6:00 AM EDT

For defense against the fungal pathogens that attack crops—think the blight that bedeviled Irish potato fields in the 19th century—farmers turn to fungicides. They're widely sprayed on fruit, vegetable, and nut crops, and in the past decade they've become quite common in the corn and soybean fields. (See here and here for more.) But as the use of fungicides has ramped up in recent years, some scientists are starting to wonder: What are these chemicals doing to the ecosystems they touch, and to us?

A new paper in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications adds to a disturbing body of evidence that fungicides might be doing more than just killing fungi. For the study, a team of University of North Carolina Neuroscience Center researchers led by Mark Zylka subjected mouse cortical neuron cultures—which are similar in cellular and molecular terms to the the human brain—to 294 chemicals "commonly found in the environment and on food." The idea was to see whether any of them triggered changes that mimicked patterns found in brain samples from people with autism, advanced age, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

"What's most disturbing to me is that we've allowed these chemicals to be widely used without  knowing more about their potential effects."

Eight chemicals fit the bill, the researchers found. Of them, the two most widely used are from a relatively new class of fungicides called "quinone outside inhibitors," which have surged in use since being introduced in US farm fields in the early 2000s: pyraclostrobin and trifloxystrobin.

Now, it's important to note, Zylka told me in an interview, that in vitro research like the kind his team conducted for this study is only the first step in determining whether a chemical poses risk to people. The project identified chemicals that can cause harm to brain cells in a lab setting, but it did not establish that they harm human brains as they're currently used. Nailing that down will involve careful epidemiological studies, Zylka said: Scientists will have to track populations that have been exposed to the chemicals—say, farm workers—to see if they show a heightened propensity for brain disorders, and they'll have to test people who eat foods with residues of suspect chemicals to see if those chemicals show up in their bodies at significant levels. 

That work remains to be done, Zylka said. "What's most disturbing to me is that we've allowed these chemicals to be widely used, widely found on food and in the environment, without knowing more about their potential effects," he said.

How widely are they used? The paper points to US Geological Survey data for pyraclostrobin, a fungicide that landed on the UNC team's list of chemicals that trigger "changes in vitro that are similar to those seen in brain samples from humans with autism, advanced age and neurodegeneration." It's marketed by the German chemical giant BASF's US unit under the brand name Headline, for use on corn, soybeans, citrus fruit, dried beans, and more. BASF calls Headline the "nation's leading fungicide." The USGS chart below shows just how rapidly it has become a blockbuster on US farm fields.

Use of pyraclostrobin in the United States has spiked since 2002.

 

Then there's trifloxystrobin, which also made the UNC team's list. Marketed by another German chemical giant, Bayer, trifloxystrobin, too, boasts an impressive USGS chart, reproduced below.

US Trifloxystrobin use has boomed since 1999. USGS

 

In an emailed statement, a BASF spokeswoman wrote that cell tissue studies like Zylka's "have not demonstrated relevance compared with results from studies conducted on [live] animals." She added, "While the study adds to the debate of some scientific questions, it provides no evidence that the chemicals contribute to the development of some diseases of the central nervous system. This publication has no impact on the established safety of pyraclostrobin when used according to label instructions in agricultural settings." A Bayer spokesman told me that the company's scientists are looking into the Zylka study and "don't have any initial feedback to offer right now." He added that "our products are rigorously tested and their safety and efficacy is our focus."

As Zylka's team points out, both of these chemicals turn up on food samples in the US Department of Agriculture's routine testing program. Pyraclostrobin residues, according to USDA data compiled by Pesticide Action Network, have been found on spinach, kale, and grapes, among other foods, in recent years, while trifloxystrobin has been detected on grapes, cherry tomatoes, and sweet bell peppers. Again, there hasn't been sufficient research to establish whether these traces are causing us harm, Zylka stressed, but since they are entering our bodies through food, he thinks more research is imperative.

Meanwhile, a disturbing picture of the ecosystem impacts is emerging. These same chemicals also leave the farm via water. A 2012 US Geological Survey study found pyraclostrobin in 40 percent of streams in three farming-intensive areas. In another 2012 USGS study, researchers looked for a variety of pesticides in the bed sediments of ponds located within amphibian habitats in California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, and Oregon. Pyraclostrobin was the most frequently detected chemical of all, turning up in more than 40 percent of tested sites.

Pyraclostrobin turned up in 40 percent of streams in three farming-intensive areas.

Studies suggest that as the fungicides leach out into the larger environment, they're harmful to more than just fungi. Oklahoma State researchers found BASF's pyraclostrobin-based fungicide Headline deadly to tadpoles at levels frequently encountered in ponds. And a 2013 study by German and Swiss researchers found that frogs sprayed with Headline at the rate recommended on the label die within an hour—a stunning result for a chemical meant to kill funguses, not frogs. I wrote about the study when it came out. "These studies were performed under unrealistic laboratory conditions," a BASF spokeswoman told me at the time. "The study design neither reflects conditions of realistic agricultural use in practice nor the natural behavior of the animals."

Then there are honeybees. In a 2013 study, a team of USDA researchers found pyraclostrobin and several other fungicides and insecticides in the pollen of beehives placed near farm fields—and that bees fed pyraclostrobin-laced pollen were nearly three times more likely to die from common gut pathogen called Nosema ceranae than the unexposed control group (more here).

Meanwhile, the industry is enthusiastically marketing these products. "Headline fungicide helps growers control diseases and improve overall Plant Health. That means potentially higher yields, better ROI and, ultimately, better profits," BASF''s website states. "It can help secure a family's future, fund a college education, finance an equipment upgrade, or maybe buy just a bit more of a vacation for the whole family." Such supposed benefits aside, I wish we knew more about the environmental and public-health costs of these increasingly ubiquitous chemicals.

The Pay Gap Is Costing Women $500 Billion Per Year

| Tue Apr. 12, 2016 4:57 PM EDT

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, a law meant to close the wage gap between working men and women. But more than 50 years later, women on average earn just 79 cents for every dollar paid to men. And according to a new report by the National Partnership for Women and Families that was released before National Equal Pay Day on Tuesday, the persistent wage gap means women lose a combined $500 billion every year.

"It is unacceptable that the wage gap has persisted, punishing the country's women and families for decades," wrote Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership, in a press release. "At a time when women's wages are so critical to the economic well-being of families, the country is counting on lawmakers to work together to advance strong, fair and family friendly workplace policies that would promote equal pay."

The National Partnership used Census Bureau data to analyze the wages of workers in every state and Washington, DC, and broke down the numbers by state and congressional district, as well as by demographic information. Louisiana has the biggest pay gap (women there are paid 65 cents for every dollar), and DC, with just a 10 cent difference, has the smallest.

The gender pay gap is even larger for women of color. African American women are paid 60 cents for every dollar paid to white men, and Latin American women make even less, at 55 cents for every dollar. All in all, the pay gap amounts to more than $10,800 in lost wages for the average woman each year.

That's costly for families, many of which rely on mothers as the sole or primary breadwinner. According to the National Partnership, mothers are the heads of households in nearly 40 percent of families. Yet the wage gap for mothers is even larger than for women overall: Women with children are paid 71 cents for every dollar paid to fathers, and single mothers make only 58 cents for every dollar to fathers.

Wage inequality got national attention in March when five high-profile players on the women's national soccer team filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the US Soccer Federation of gender-based wage discrimination. The players—who last year brought in their third World Cup gold medal and are projected to rake in $18 million in revenue next year—say they are paid four times less than their male counterparts.

"Simply put, we're sick of being treated like second-class citizens," wrote Carli Lloyd, who scored a record-breaking hat trick in the final World Cup game against Japan last year, in a New York Times op-ed on her decision to file the complaint. "It wears on you after a while. And we are done with it."

The Gender Pay Gap Is Still About 21 Cents Per Dollar

| Tue Apr. 12, 2016 3:59 PM EDT

Today is Equal Pay Day, so let's break down the numbers for the gender pay gap. According to an up-to-date study by Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, the current wage gap for annual earnings is 21 cents: On average, women earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns.

So that's the headline number. But what are the causes of the gap in men's and women's earnings? Blau and Kahn break it down into seven buckets:

You can look at this two ways. The first is to say that the pay gap due to discrimination (the most likely cause of the "unexplained" part of the chart above) is about 10 cents per dollar, since roughly 11 cents is explained by other factors, such as experience in the job, occupation, industry, etc.

The second way—which is my take—is that it's true that some of the gap goes away when you account for the fact that women tend to work in different jobs than men and take more time off to have children. But that's all part of the story. When you look at the whole picture, women are punished financially in three different ways: because "women's jobs" have historically paid less than jobs dominated by men; because women are expected to take time off when they have children, which reduces their seniority; and because even when they're in the same job with the same amount of experience, they get paid less than men. All of these things are part of the pay gap. Whether you call all three of them "discrimination" is more a matter of taste than anything else.

But however you choose to approach it, the gender pay gap still exists. It's at least 10 cents per dollar, and more like 21 cents if you accept that most of the mitigating factors are gender-based as well.

Kansas Voters Have 21 Days to Register if They Speak English, or 15 if They Speak Spanish

| Tue Apr. 12, 2016 2:47 PM EDT
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach

Prospective voters in Kansas were given different instructions for how and when to register to vote depending on whether they received the English- or Spanish-language voter guide issued by the Kansas secretary of state's office.

The English-language version correctly informed voters that they could register up to 21 days before an election. But the Spanish-language version told voters that they had only 15 days to register, according to the Kansas City Star. Passports were listed as a valid proof of citizenship in the English version; in the Spanish version, they were not.

Craig McCullah, who oversees publications in the secretary of state's office, apologized in the Star for the "administrative error" and said he was "diligently working to fix" the issue. He said the online versions were corrected within a day and the physical versions were sent to a translating service to eliminate discrepancies.

It's unclear exactly when the errors were introduced or whether the erroneous voter guides had an effect on registration for the state's presidential caucuses on March 5.

The botched voter guides, first flagged by a Democratic consultant in Daily Kos, have sparked the latest in a series of controversies over strict voter registration policies in Kansas under Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

A former Justice Department counsel in the George W. Bush administration and law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, Kobach was known for helping craft anti-immigration laws in Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia and for pushing the idea of self-deportation. Since becoming secretary of state in 2010, he has restricted access to the polls in Kansas and pursued criminal prosecutions for alleged instances of voter fraud, despite its rare occurrence. In 2013, even as the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring proof of citizenship for federal elections in Arizona, the state established a two-tier voter system that required Kansas residents to provide proof of citizenship to vote in state and local elections.

Kansas is one of several Republican-controlled states that imposed tighter voter restrictions after the 2010 midterm election. Those policies have prompted legal challenges from civil rights advocates, who argue that such restrictions affect young, minority, Democratic-leaning voters. In January, a Kansas district court judge, Franklin Theis, struck down the state's two-tier system, noting that Kobach, as secretary of state, "is not empowered to determine or declare the method of registration or create a method of 'partial registration' only." Kobach plans to appeal the ruling.

In February, the American Civil Liberties Union again challenged the state's voting policies, claiming the proof of citizenship requirement would keep at least 30,000 people, or 14 percent of Kansans who tried to register, off the voter rolls. The lawsuit is also seeking to prevent the state from tossing out more than 350,000 registration applications that are considered incomplete because prospective voters did not provide proof of citizenship.

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Paul Ryan Does Not Want to Be Your Next President

| Tue Apr. 12, 2016 2:07 PM EDT

Paul Ryan will apparently be making a Shermanesque statement about an hour from now:

Ryan...has arranged a hastily called 3:15 p.m. press conference inside the Republican National Committee. Advisers say he will insist — in his clearest terms yet — to the GOP’s big donor and lobbyist class that he will not attempt to claim the nomination at the July convention in Cleveland.

“He’s going to rule himself out and put this to rest once and for all,” a Ryan aide said, requesting anonymity to discuss the planned speech.

Stay tuned. Presumably this is good news for Ted Cruz.

UPDATE: And the press conference is now over:

“Let me be clear,” Mr. Ryan said. “I do not want nor will I accept the nomination of our party.” He added that he had a message for convention delegates: “If no candidate has the majority on the first ballot, I believe you should only turn to a person who has participated in the primary. Count me out.”

That seems suitably blunt.

Weekly Flint Water Report: April 2-7

| Tue Apr. 12, 2016 2:00 PM EDT

I got tired of waiting for Michigan's DEQ to post Friday's water testing result, so here is this week's Flint water report through Thursday. As usual, I've eliminated outlier readings above 2,000 parts per billion, since there are very few of them and they can affect the averages in misleading ways. During the week, DEQ took 368 samples. The average for the past week was 10.07.

Can You Guess Who Gets the Most Abuse in Comments?

| Tue Apr. 12, 2016 12:52 PM EDT

The Guardian decided to analyze their corpus of 70 million comments to see who gets the most abuse. The results won't surprise you:

Although the majority of our regular opinion writers are white men, we found that those who experienced the highest levels of abuse and dismissive trolling were not. The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men…And the 10 regular writers who got the least abuse? All men.

Of course, certain subjects invited more abuse than others:

And abuse that starts in one place can spread astonishingly quickly via social media:

Avalanches happen easily online. Anonymity disinhibits people, making some of them more likely to be abusive. Mobs can form quickly: once one abusive comment is posted, others will often pile in, competing to see who can be the most cruel. This abuse can move across platforms at great speed—from Twitter, to Facebook, to blogposts—and it can be viewed on multiple devices—the desktop at work, the mobile phone at home. To the person targeted, it can feel like the perpetrator is everywhere: at home, in the office, on the bus, in the street…This must surely have a chilling effect, silencing people who might otherwise contribute to public debates—particularly women, LGBT people and people from racial or religious minorities, who see others like themselves being racially and sexually abused.

Is that the kind of culture we want to live in?

Is that the web we want?

The article also includes a short quiz: Which comments would you ban? I disagreed with two out of eight of their real-life examples.

Trump to Hotel Workers: Drop Dead

| Tue Apr. 12, 2016 11:47 AM EDT

The hero of the blue-collar working man apparently has his limits. Workers at the Trump International Hotel voted to unionize a few months ago—hardly surprising in a union town like Las Vegas—but Donald Trump is having none of it:

Ever since the vote, Donald Trump's managers have fought unionization every step of the way. They filed 15 objections with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging intimidation and forgery by union officials. After the claims were either withdrawn by Trump or dismissed by the labor board, the unions were officially certified as bargaining agents last month.

But the Trump Organization still refused to negotiate, and last week, at the last possible moment, the hotel filed for a review of the case with the labor board in Washington, further putting off contract talks.

…Union officials said the 523 workers at the Trump hotel stand to make an additional $3.33 an hour, based on the standard pay for comparable workers at other union hotels. Assuming they all worked full-time, that increase would add about $3.6 million to the Trump hotel's annual labor expenses, not including the cost of health insurance and other benefits.

As usual, Trump talks the talk, but that's about it. When his own money is on the line, he doesn't give to charity, he doesn't support working stiffs, and his "self-funded" presidential campaign is actually a bunch of loans that he expects to be paid back. That's our Donald.