Blogs

This Is the Most Terrifying Shark Video You'll See All Week

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 7:54 PM EDT

Good evening! Here is something terrifying:

 

I have nothing to add. Just, wow, terrifying. If I lived near that beach, I would probably be scared to go back in the water.

Is this video as scary as Jaws? No. But it probably makes more sense, to be honest.

Have a super night.

(via Ryan Broderick)

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Is Clean, Green Fusion Power In Our Near Future?

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 6:50 PM EDT

Fusion is the energy source of the future—and it always will be. That used to be a Unix joke, but in various forms Unix has actually become pretty widespread these days. It runs the server that hosts the web page you're reading; it's the underlying guts of Apple's Mac operating system; and Linux is—well, not really "popular" by any fair definition of the word, but no longer just a fringe OS either.

So maybe fusion is about to break through too:

Lockheed Martin Corp said on Wednesday it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready in a decade.

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed's secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.

....Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet....Lockheed said it had shown it could complete a design, build and test it in as little as a year, which should produce an operational reactor in 10 years, McGuire said.

Over at Climate Progress, Jeff Spross is containing his enthusiasm:

At this point, keeping the world under 2°C of global warming will require global greenhouse gas emissions to peak in 2020 and fall rapidly after that....So by Lockheed Martin’s own timeline, their first operational CFR won’t come online until after the peak deadline. To play any meaningful role in decarbonization — either here in America or abroad — they’d have to go from one operational CFR to mass production on a gargantuan scale effectively overnight. More traditional forms of nuclear power face versions of the same problem.

A WW2-style government mobilization might be able to pull off such a feat in the United States. But if the political will was there for such a move, the practical question is why wait for nuclear? Wind and solar are mature technologies in the here and now — as is energy efficiency, which could supply up to 40 percent of the effort to stay below 2°C all by itself.

Jeez. I get where Spross is coming from, but come on. If Lockheed Martin can actually pull this off, it would mean huge amounts of baseload power using existing grid technology. It would mean cheap power from centralized sites. It would mean not having to replace every building in the world with high-efficiency designs. It would mean not having to install wind farms on millions of acres of land. It would mean not having to spend all our political efforts on forcing people to make do with less energy.

More generally, it would mean gobs of green power at no political cost. That's huge.

The big question is whether Lockheed Martin can actually pull this off. Lots of people before them have thought they were on the right track, after all. But if they can, it's a game changer. Given the obvious difficulties of selling a green agenda to the world—and the extreme unlikelihood of making that 2020 deadline with existing technologies—I'll be rooting for Lockheed Martin to pull this off. Cynicism can be overdone.

Editors' note: Over on the Blue Marble blog Climate Desk Producer James West spoke with a thermonuclear plasma physicist who doubts the significance of this breakthrough and called Lockheed's announcement "poppycock." So there's that.

Texas College Rejects Two Nigerian Applicants Because of Ebola Panic

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 5:43 PM EDT

At least two college applicants from Nigeria received rejection letters from a Texas community college because of Ebola panic. Let's note: Nigeria has had only 20 cases of the disease since July 20. The country has been so successful in containing the outbreak, the Centers for Disease and Prevention dispatched a team to learn its methods.

Ebola has, however, killed more than 4,400 people in neighboring Liberia. Perhaps Navarro College confused Nigeria with Liberia? African countries do look and sound so similar! The story:

Kamorudeen Abidogun, a medical engineer in Richmond, Texas, told CNBC that five family relatives in Nigeria were applying to Navarro College using Abidogun's mailing address. At least two of the applications were denied.

"With sincere regret, I must report that Navarro College is not able to offer you acceptance for the Spring 2015 term. Unfortunately, Navarro College is not accepting international students from countries with confirmed Ebola cases," the letter explained.

An official has since apologized for any "incorrect information" that may have been dispersed to applicants—their rejections were actually due to a restructuring of the college's diversity priorities:

"Our focus for 2014-15 is on China and Indonesia. Other countries will be identified and recruitment efforts put in place once we launch our new honors program fall 2015."

Should the Military Treat Ebola Patients in Africa?

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 5:42 PM EDT
US Marines arrive in Monrovia to provide support to Liberians in the fight against Ebola.

At the request of the Liberian government, American troops have set up shop in the country to help deliver aid and build treatment centers. It's all part of an effort to slow the disease's spread and, hopefully, mitigate some of the outbreak's more pernicious side effects, such as hunger.

So far, US military doctors and nurses are not actually treating patients. But three members of Congress—Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) believe they should be.  

"Our capable military medical and technical personnel have unique skills, resources, and experience working in similar environments to West Africa," the three wrote in a letter to President Obama. "They responded to the Cholera outbreak after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the aftermath of the tsunami in Indonesia. We must stop the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and protect Americans from the spread of the virus."

Pentagon officials have said that US troops will be proving logistical support and that there are no current plans for them to provide direct care. "We are not anticipating that military personnel will be treating the people," General David Rodriguez, head of the military's Africa Command, said at an October 3 press briefing. "There's no intention right now that [service members] will be interacting with patients or in areas where they would necessarily come into contact with patients."

Still, Rodriguez left open the possibility of military doctors treating patients at a later date. "That will be a decision made in the future if that ever gets to that point," he said. "But the international community has said 'Not right now. That's not what we need.'"

Ebola would certainly present a risk for any military personnel treating patients. Of the more than 4,000 people who have been infected in Liberia so far, 207 have been health care workers, according to Liberia's Ministry of Health and Social Welfare

The Marines are already warning their personnel to take precautions, even though they're not currently working with patients. "You must be aware of the risks," the Corps' top doctor says in an instructional video. "Understand what to do if you come into contact with someone suspected of having Ebola, and what to do if you become ill."

Many conservatives were outraged that Obama sent troops to help fight Ebola. Chances are, a sick service member would give new life to that debate.

Lots of People May Misunderstand Thomas Piketty, But That Doesn't Mean They're Wrong

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 4:32 PM EDT

Thomas Piketty is having another moment in the blogosphere. As you may remember, he's famous for the equation r > g, which states that the rate of return on investments is historically higher than economic growth. This means that rich people with lots of investments get richer faster than the rest of us wage slaves, and this in turn produces growing levels of income inequality.

Is Piketty right? In one of its quarterly polls of economists, the University of Chicago's Institute on Global Management asked if r > g has been the most powerful force pushing towards greater income inequality since the 1970s. Pretty much everyone said no. Take that, Piketty!

But wait. As Matt Yglesias says, this isn't evidence that Piketty is wrong. Quite the contrary: it's evidence that hardly anyone has actually read his book. You see, Piketty doesn't say that r > g has been a big driver of income inequality in recent years. He says only that he thinks it will be a big driver in the future.

This is good clean fun as a gotcha. But liberals should understand that it also exposes one of the biggest weaknesses of Piketty's argument: r > g has been true for centuries, but the rich have not gotten steadily richer over that time. Wealth concentration has stayed roughly the same. Piketty argues that this is likely to change starting around 2050 or so, but this is an inherently iffy forecast since it's several decades in the future. What's worse, he bases it mostly on a projection that economic growth (g) is shortly going to suffer an unprecedented fall. This makes his forecast even iffier. Piketty may be right, but projecting growth rates for the second half of the century isn't something he has any particular expertise in. His guess is no better than anyone else's.

Beyond that, there are also serious suggestions that Piketty has improperly measured r. What this all means is that (a) Piketty's measure of r is questionable because he seems to have conflated gross and net returns and (b) his measure of g is questionable because it's so far in the future. Other than that, r > g is great.

Making fun of misreadings of Piketty's book may be good sport, but those misreadings unwittingly raise serious questions. A proper reading suggests that—for now, anyway—r > g as a driver of income inequality should continue to be taken with a grain of salt.

Christopher Nolan Films, Ranked

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 4:04 PM EDT

Ahead of its November 5 premier, Interstellar graces the cover of this week's Entertainment Weekly. The Christopher Nolan-helmed space opera looks pretty great! But Nolan's films always look great in advance. Some of them ended up making good on the promise of their trailers, but others haven't. Nolan has made seven films that have seen wide release. (His first film, Following, I have never seen and didn't know about until ten seconds ago and is thus not included on this list.) Of those seven films, one is great, four are good but forgettable, and two are bad bad bad. Here are his films, according to me, a fan with an opinion. 

1. The Dark Knight

2. The Prestige

3. Memento

4. Insomnia

5. Batman Begins

6. The Dark Knight Rises

7. Inception

Here is the trailer for Interstellar:

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The Feds Just Approved a New GMO Corn. Here's Why I'm Not Rejoicing

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 3:39 PM EDT
High-tech seeds, old-school herbicides.

In September, the US Department of Agriculture greenlighted new GMO corn and soybean products engineered to resist two kinds of herbicides, Roundup (glyphosate) and an older, more toxic one called 2,4-D (which was one of two ingredients in the powerful defoliant used in the Vietnam War called Agent Orange). And on Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency approved of a new 2,4-D formulation called Enlist, which has been designed for use on the novel seeds, in six corn/soy-heavy states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. That means starting in spring 2015, farmers in the Midwestern Corn Belt will likely be dousing their crops with 2,4-D as well as Roundup, in an effort to control the plague of weeds that have evolved to resist Roundup.

The authors predict that glyphosate (Roundup) use will hold steady at high levels—and use of other herbicides, like 2,4-D, will soar.: From Mortensen, at al, ""Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012The authors predict that glyphosate (Roundup) use will hold steady at high levels—and use of other herbicides, like 2,4-D, will soar.: From Mortensen, at al, "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012So what's the big deal? In this 2012 post, I laid out research by a team led by Pennsylvania State University crop scientist David A. Mortensen (paper abstract  here) on how the new products are at best a temporary solution to the problem of "superweeds"—they lead farmers down a path of ever-increasing reliance on agrichemicals. They argue that chances are "actually quite high" that Dow's new product will unleash a new generation of weeds resistant to both herbicides, because when farmers apply 2,4-D to weeds that are already resistant to Roundup, they'll essentially be selecting for weeds that can resist both. Their projection of how such double resistance will affect herbicide use is at the left—a boon for agrichemical sales, but not so great for the environment.

Jeb Bush: "What's the Paycheck Fairness Act?"

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 3:01 PM EDT

Jeb Bush, one of the GOP's top 2016 presidential prospects, campaigned Monday for Terri Lynn Land, the Republican running for Senate in Michigan. At an event in the Detroit suburbs, a staffer for Progress Michigan, a liberal advocacy group, asked Bush whether he thought Land should support the Paycheck Fairness Act.* Bush appeared not to know what the proposal is.

The high-profile legislation, much touted by Democrats, aims to close the wage gap between men and women. It would beef up legal protections for workers who ask about the wages of co-workers or share information about their own earnings while directing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to gather information on wages from employers. In September, the bill died in the Senate after Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), filibustered it.

The bill has been part of a national debate about the GOP and women, and it has played a prominent role in this Senate campaign, in which Land is running against Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.). Land, who served as Michigan's secretary of state from 2003 to 2010, has been criticized by Democrats—including President Barack Obama—for saying she did not support the Paycheck Fairness Act. Yet Bush didn't seem to know anything about this bill when the Democratic tracker asked about it:

Progress Michigan: Do you think Secretary Land should support the Paycheck Fairness Act?

Jeb Bush: Excuse me?

Progress Michigan: Do you think Secretary Land should support the Paycheck Fairness Act?

Bush: What's the Paycheck Fairness Act?

Progress Michigan: The Paycheck Fairness Act is a piece of legislation that would ensure women receive the same pay as men...equal pay for equal work.

Bush: Equal pay for the same work, not for equal work—I think that's the problem with it. I think there's a definition issue.

Progress Michigan: So you don't think Secretary Land should support it?

Bush: I don't know. You'd have to ask her.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that the tracker who questioned Bush worked for American Bridge 21st Century, the Democratic oppo research outfit.

No, There's Still No Evidence There Was an Active WMD Program in Iraq

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 1:35 PM EDT

C.J. Chivers of the New York Times has a long piece today about chemical weapons found in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. A few dead-enders are now gleefully claiming that Bush was right after all. Iraq did have WMD!

This is ridiculous enough that—so far, at least—the savvier wing of the conservative movement is staying mum about the whole thing. There are three main reasons for this. First, most of these weapons were rotting remnants of artillery shells used during the Iraq-Iran war in the 80s and stored at Iraq's Muthanna State Establishment as well as other nearby sites. Murtaza Hussain of the Intercept explains what this means:

The U.S. was aware of the existence of such weapons at the Al Muthanna site as far back as 1991. Why? Because Al Muthanna was the site where the UN ordered Saddam Hussein to dispose of his declared chemical munitions in the first place. Those weapons that could not safely be destroyed were sealed and left to decay on their own, which they did. The site was neither “active” nor “clandestine” — it was a declared munitions dump being used to hold the corroded weapons which Western powers themselves had in most cases helped Saddam procure.

In other words, these shells weren't evidence of an active WMD program, which had been George Bush's justification for the war. They were simply old munitions that everyone knew about already and that were being left to degrade on their own.

Second, the Bush administration kept its discoveries secret. If any of this were truly evidence for an active WMD program, surely Bush and Dick Cheney would have been the first to trumpet the news. The fact that they didn't is pretty plain evidence that there was nothing here to back up their prewar contentions of an Iraqi WMD program.

Third, there's the specific reason these discoveries were kept secret. Chivers tells the story:

Participants in the chemical weapons discoveries said the United States suppressed knowledge of finds for multiple reasons, including that the government bristled at further acknowledgment it had been wrong....Others pointed to another embarrassment. In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.

Far from being a smoking gun of Saddam Hussein's continuing quest for illegal WMDs, these discoveries were evidence that Western powers in the 80s were perfectly happy to supply illegal WMDs to an ally as long as they were destined for use against Iran. This was not something Bush was eager to acknowledge.

Iraq had no active WMD program, and it was an embarrassment to the Bush administration that all they could find were old, rotting chemical weapons originally manufactured by the West. So they kept it a secret, even from troops in the field and military doctors. But lies beget lies, and American troops are the ones who paid the price. According to Chivers, "The government’s secrecy, victims and participants said, prevented troops in some of the war’s most dangerous jobs from receiving proper medical care and official recognition of their wounds."

Today, the consequences of our lies continue to haunt us as the rotting carcasses of these weapons are apparently falling into the hands of ISIS. Unfortunately, no mere summary can do justice to this entire shameful episode. Read Chivers' entire piece to get the whole story.

Please Rescue Us. Now Go Away.

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 11:47 AM EDT

Ed Kilgore brings the snark:

I realize the remarks of politicians should not be imputed to the entire populations they govern or represent. But still, it's hard to avoid noting that Texas—the very sovereign State of Texas, I should clarify, where the federal government is generally not welcome—was at a loss in dealing with a single Ebola case until the feds stepped in.

Sure, this is just a cheap gotcha. But sometimes there's a real lesson even in the simplest gibe, and Kilgore offers it: "It would be helpful to see some after-the-fact reflection on why the resources of a central government are sometimes necessary to avoid catastrophe."

That won't happen, of course. Instead, conservatives are already using this as an excuse to trash the federal government for not coming to their rescue sooner. This will undoubtedly be only a brief preface to yet another round of across-the-board budget cutting because everyone knows there's far too much waste and fat in the system. The irony of it all will, I'm sure, go entirely unnoticed.