Last weekend, when I finally ventured into my backyard garden after a long El Niño winter of rain, I knew it wasn't going to be a pretty sight. But I was not prepared for just how bad things had gotten. A few years back, Alan Weisman wrote a great book called The World Without Us, about what might happen to the planet if humanity suddenly vanished. He could have used my backyard as a visual. "Messy" would be a major understatement: Rosemary forest. Compost pile taken over by spindly weeds. Waist-high grasses, grown so thick I couldn't even see the edges of the vegetable bed. Cat poop everywhere.

So I have my work cut out for me. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, considering the long winter has meant I've done a lot of sitting around, and all that weeding will be a good workout. Just ask gardening exercise guru Jeffrey Restuccio, who has written two books on the fitness advantages of yardwork. "To me the greatest benefit of eating organic food is not the food itself," says Restuccio. "It's the exercise that you get growing that food."  He's also developed a series of moves that maximize the fitness benefits of gardening. (The lunge-and-weed looks especially awesome.)

With the help of the University of South Carolina School of Public Health's Compendium of Physical Activities, Restuccio estimated the amount of calories burned during half an hour of common gardening activities. Unsurprisingly, turns out that in general, activities that require less power from the grid are also a much better workout. For example:


Ride-on mower: 101 calories
Push mower with motor: 182 calories
Push mower: 243 calories


Power shears: 142 calories
Manual shears: 182 calories

Weeding is also pretty good exercise, at 182 calories burned in a half hour. Restuccio doesn't calculate how many calories you'd burn applying a chemical weed killer, but I'm guessing it's pretty similar to watering, which burns only 61 calories. (One exception to the greener gardening=better exercise rule: "gardening with heavy power tools," which burns a whopping 243 calories, presumably because the tools are, well, heavy.)

Full list of 18 gardening activities and calories burned:

war photo 040510

During a team-building challenge, US Army 1st Lt. Alan Roy, right, and Sgt. Luis Garcia crawl through an obstacle course on Camp Taji, on Iraq, March 23, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Sgt. Travis Zielinski.

False Profits

In a review of Dean Baker's False Profits, Daniel Davies notes that although Wall Street's infamous financial legerdemain (along with dollops of occasional fraud) helped to amplify the financial bubble that crashed to earth in 2008, it wasn't the primal cause:

It’s necessary to be clear here — the original sin here was the real estate bubble, a bubble which could and should have been the object of anti-bubble policy, and which wasn’t, because of a massive, ghastly policy error on the part of the Federal Reserve. This is Dean’s thesis, and he names the guilty men.

....None of the arguments made by housing bulls during the bubble made a lick of sense, for the simple reason that the ratio of house prices to rents was constantly increasing — any fundamental change in the economics of housing ought to have shown up equally in the rental market as in the market for house purchase, and the “buy versus rent calculation” wasn’t an anomaly or a quirk — it was a simple and easily comprehensible piece of information showing that prices were in a bubble, which was almost universally ignored.

There's a lively debate in the economics community about whether it's possible to recognize bubbles as they're happening. For example, we still don't know for sure if the 2007-08 oil runup was a bubble or whether it was caused by fundamental issues of limited supply and rising demand. (Probably a bit of both, it turns out.) But as both Dean and Daniel point out, housing is different. In the housing market there are several well known and historically rigorous metrics that do a pretty good job of telling you whether prices have become untethered from reality. The ratio of price to rents is the most fundamental, but there's also price-to-median income and mortgage payments as a share of income. By 2002 all three had started to rise dangerously, and by 2004 they were plainly in bubble land. Even if it's true generally that bubbles are hard to distinguish reliably, this one was easy.

I've mentioned before that I sort of waffle about how important all the other stuff was (the overseas savings glut, the credit derivative free-for-all, reckless abuse of leverage, ratings agency corruption, etc.), but no matter how important it was, the housing bubble was plainly the ur-cause underlying everything else. The Fed should have been doing something about it, not egging it on.

Salon’s Joan Walsh recently called out white working class voters who wrongly think health care reform only helps people of color. On Thursday, the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity released a fact sheet (PDF) that bolstered Walsh's argument by explaining that recently passed reforms won’t improve the low quality treatment received by racial and ethnic minorities.

The bill won't tackle social factors like poor food quality, toxic or pollutant-riddled neighborhoods, poverty, and other bad deals that are disproportionately dealt out to people of color and that contribute to their generally poorer health. The Kirwan Institute applauds the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act for expanding (PDF) the number of health care centers in the country and insuring a projected 16 million people. But the Institute also points to health and care disparities affecting different ethnic communities. People of color are less likely to get lifesaving heart medications, bypass surgery, dialysis, or kidney transplants—but they are more likely to have feet and legs amputated for late-stage diabetes treatment. That means the battle for improved health care is not over. And more legislation is needed to address racial health disparities.

In the Wall Street Journal today, Carl Bialik has some startling news about weight loss:

How many calories must a dieter cut to lose a pound? The answer most dietitians have long provided is 3,500. But recent studies indicate that calories can't be converted into weight through a simple formula.

....Consider the chocolate-chip-cookie fan who adds one 60-calorie cookie to his daily diet. By the old math, that cookie would add up to six pounds in a year, 60 pounds in a decade and hundreds of pounds in a lifetime.

But new research [suggests] the cookie fiend probably will see his weight gain approach six pounds, and then level off, pediatrician David Ludwig and nutrition scientist Martijn Katan wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year. The same numbers, in reverse, apply to weight loss.

There's a disturbing lack of common sense at work here. The handy illustration on the right, taken from the article, is for a 210-calorie cookie, not a 60-calorie cookie, but still: does anyone believe that adding a single cookie to your daily diet will take you from 200 pounds to 320 pounds in six years? Has anyone ever believed that? Of course not. It defies reason.

Not surprisingly, then, no one has ever suggested such a thing. Ceteris paribus, a certain number of calories will sustain a certain amount of weight. Take, for example, this calorie calculator from the fine folks at the American Cancer Society. It says that 2,818 calories per day will sustain a sedentary 200 pound man. Now add in that 210-calorie cookie. According to the ACS, 3,028 calories will sustain the same man at a weight of 215 pounds. It does not say that after 30 years he will weigh 830 pounds.

This is not based on dazzling new science. It's the same result you'll get from every calorie calculator in the world. It's possible that new research will change the simplistic formula this is based on, but it's going to be a rather more subtle change than 6 pounds vs. 600. Common sense should have sent this story back to rewrite.

David Corn joined Perry Bacon on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews to discuss the recent uptick in violent threats towards lawmakers and President Obama.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

NPR's ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, has done a little sleuthing about the number of the network's female commentators and sources, and the results aren't pretty. Well, this is a good-looking chart, but you get what I mean:


"NPR listeners heard 2,502 male sources and 877 female sources on the shows we sampled," Shepard writes. "In other words, only 26 percent of the 3,379 voices were female, while 74 percent were male."

The problem is hardly limited to NPR; Mother Jones has posted the scary statistics about the gender disparity in magazines, in the blogosphere, and everywhere else, from golf clubs to Hollywood. I recently did my own scientific study, in which I saw the December Harper's sitting on a friend's bathroom floor and counted on my fingers that every one of the six contributors mentioned on the cover was a man. I've also conducted a follow-up that involved looking at The Daily Show's 2009 guest list on Wikipedia and tallying that it featured only 36 women; only one guest was a woman in each of February and March; in September, none was.

"Many times we hear there are no women, or there are more men to tap into as experts," said Women's Media Center president Jehmu Greene in Shepard's blog post. "I think that's a mindset that is common in the media. Clearly, it is worth it to do the extra work for the story to get the female perspective which many times can be different, unique and necessary." That's why the WMC is devoted to populating the media landscape with more ladies—a cause I'm honored to participate in as a member of its 2010 Progressive Women's Voices class.

While Shepard laments her organization's shortfalls on the gender front, she points out that it is still "an industry leader with female correspondents and hosts." To wit, it has launched an initiative to diversify its on-air voices, and hopefully, this chart will soon be less skewed. Points out Jill Geisler of the Poynter Institute, for the analysis win, "I doubt there is a conscious, systemic aversion to selecting women as sources at NPR. But benign neglect is still neglect and its impact just as harmful to society."



Thousands of webcams pointed at roads, airports, parks, and other outdoor environments could enable researchers to monitor climate change on a continental scale.

We know that climate change is shifting the timing of some plant phenology (flowering, budding, senescence) in some environments. Yet monitoring large scale changes is difficult—satellite images suffer from inaccuracies due to cloud cover, while on-the ground monitoring is accurate but expensive.

So researchers from UCLA tested a webcam approach, based on the notion that public cameras installed for other purposes are free online. They collected images twice a day from more than 1,100 georeferenced public webcams across North America from February 2008 to 2009. Their findings:

  • Webcams are as good or better at detecting the spring green-up and the fall die-off than satellite-based data
  • Webcams have fewer poor quality days, shorter continuous bad data days, and significantly lower errors of spring and fall estimates in various vegetation types

The data weren't perfect. The researchers lacked control over where the cameras were looking and for how long. They provided hugely varying image resolution. Some cameras disappeared suddenly.

Yet overall the results were extremely useful for large scale monitoring. From the abstract:

"Additional advantages of a public camera-based monitoring system include frequent image capture (subdaily) and the potential to detect quantitative responses to environmental changes in organisms, species, and communities. Public cameras represent a relatively untapped and freely available resource for supporting large-scale ecological and environmental monitoring."

The paper is in Global Change Biology. Thanks to Conservation Maven for the link.

For much of the last week, revered liberal dork Rachel Maddow has been blasting Massachusetts senator Scott Brown for sending out fundraising e-mails suggesting she could run against him in 2012. Since—according to Maddow, who would presumably know—the MSNBC anchor is not going to run against Brown, this makes Brown a "liar." To a certain extent, Maddow has a point: Brown is, of course, deliberately spreading an untruth in the hopes of boosting his fundraising totals. But the notion that a politician might sensationalize his opposition for his own gain is hardly much of a scoop, and while it reflects poorly on Brown, it doesn't make him history's greatest monster, either.

But there’s a bigger reason why Maddow should cool it with the criticism: she'd actually make a pretty compelling candidate. For a state that’s so heavily Democratic in its local and federal officers, Massachusetts has a remarkably thin bench of political talent. Barney Frank isn't running. John Kerry's already has a job. Boston Mayor Tom Menino would never run. And incumbent Gov. Deval Patrick, facing a tough re-election bid, isn't really in a position to think two years ahead. If the 2012 Democratic primary were held today, it would likely pit Rep. Michael Capuano (whose brand of antagonistic populism is so underwhelming he once lost to Martha Coakley) against Rep. Stephen Lynch (pro-life, pro-Iraq war, and "foragainst" Health Care). Either one would probably be an improvement over Brown, but given how rarely these seats become available, it's a bit of a wasted opportunity for progressives.

Maddow shouldn’t call Scott Brown a liar. She should take him up on the offer! She’s wonkish, affable, articulate, and, as we’ve seen, unafraid of a challenge. From a substantive standpoint, few commentators spend as much time harping on the shortcomings of Senate procedure as Maddow does (she once conducted an interview with "the Bill" from Schoolhouse Rock). Who better to come in and fix it? At the very least, she'd give complacent Bay State Dems something to be excited about. If Stuart Smalley could do it...

I happen to like this picture a lot, so Friday Catblogging this week is turned over entirely to Inkblot, the great snoozeball himself. He is, perhaps, dreaming of tuna Easter eggs. Or something. I myself am dreaming of old school chocolate Easter eggs. Have a good weekend, everyone.