2010 - %3, October

Firefighting in Obion County

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 9:26 PM EDT

Everybody is chattering today about the South Fulton Fire Department. Why? Because they provide fire protection for the city of South Fulton, Tennessee. If you live outside the city, you have to rely on the County of Obion to provide fire services.

All perfectly reasonable. Except that the County of Obion doesn't provide any fire services. So if you live in the nearby vicinity and want fire protection, you have to pay South Fulton $75 per year. Gene Cranick didn't pay the fee, so a few days ago, after he started a fire in a couple of barrels in his backyard and the fire got out of control, the South Fulton Fire Department didn't respond when he called. "I thought they'd come out and put it out, even if you hadn't paid your $75, but I was wrong," he explained succinctly.

This has spawned a lot of outrage. How could the South Fulton Fire Department just sit around and not respond? Both the fire chief and the mayor are getting a lot of heat. But I have a different question: why is the County of Obion apparently not generating any outrage of its own? This is not a new problem, after all. The county has declined to provide fire services for a long time, it's been a lively issue for a long time, and they know perfectly well that local cities won't always respond to their fires. Courtesy of the world wide web, for example, here's "A Presentation Regarding The Establishment And Implementation of a County-Wide Fire Department," dated March 18, 2008, describing exactly how fire services work in the County of Obion. Also included in this document: a plan to create an Obion County Fire Department by merging the services of the various municipal fire departments in the county along with a plan to raise about half a million dollars to fund it. Revenue would come from either a 0.13 cent property tax increase, a fee on electric meters, or a flat subscription fee.

The county commissioners of Obion County apparently decided against this plan. Didn't want to increase taxes, I suppose. As a result, Gene Cranick's house burned down.

His isn't the first one, either. The county knew this was a longstanding problem, they knew it might happen again, and two years before Cranick's house burned down they had a proposal in front of them to address it. But they didn't. If anyone should be getting grief over this, shouldn't it be them?

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The Ocean: A Snapshot 2000-2010

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 7:24 PM EDT

The first Census of Marine Life has concluded a decade of investigation into the whos, how manys, and wherefores of the denizens of the World Ocean and released their findings today.

(NASA image by Robert Simmon and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, based on MODIS data.)

(Photo Mila Zinkova, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

While there's debate over the costs of the enterprise ($650 million, $75 million of which came from the Sloan Foundation), I say: Money well spent.

(Photo © Julia Whitty)

The historic enterprise will almost certainly be followed by similar investigative decades in years to come, à la the International Polar Year. Science follows the footprints of past scientists, orienteering along maps of prior research, recalibrating the compass to current understanding.

The census includes the investigations of 2,700 researchers from 83 nations sailing aboard 540 expeditions to the farthest- and deepest-flung regions of our world.

(Venus flytrap anemone. Photo Ian MacDonald, Florida State University, Census of Marine Life.)

The results have appeared in 2,600 scientific publications. Most of those are open access online. Here's the bibliographic database.

(Larval tube anemone. Photograph courtesy Cheryl Clarke-Hopcroft/UAF/CMarZ, Census of Marine Life.)

The data are now available to everyone in more than 30 million records listed online in the Ocean Biogeographic Information System database. This database greatly contributes to a 21st-century trend of data sharing. A new scientific revolution.

Among the highlights of the census:

  • More than 1 million species likely inhabit our oceans, less than a quarter described by science and that's not counting microbes, which potentially number in the hundreds of millions.
  • 6,000 possible new marine species were added to the catalogue of life on Earth
  • Formal scientific descriptions were made of more than 1,200 new species
  • 35,000 species were barcoded (genetically analyzed), an efforts that's redrawn our understanding of the tree of life
  • Extremophile life turns out to be normal in marine habitats
  • Rare species turn out to be common in marine habitats
  • Even after a decade of intensive effort, for more than 20 percent of the ocean’s volume, the census database has no records whatsoever

(Copepod. Photo Uwe Kils, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

(Acantharian. Photo Linda Amaral Zettler. Census of Marine Life.)

(Squidworm. Photo Laurence Madin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Census of Marine Life.)

The pdf of the highlights report:

First Census of Marine Life 2010: Highlights of a Decade of Discovery

Reposted from my blog Deep Blue Home.

How Climate Legislation Failed

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 5:52 PM EDT

Ryan Lizza has a big piece in the New Yorker about the failure of climate legislation to move forward this year, and it's worth a read. But I agree with Jonathan Zasloff: if you come away thinking that the White House is mainly at fault here, you've taken away the wrong message.

Quick summary: early on there were two possible strategies for getting a bill through the Senate. The first was to round up four or five Republican supporters, since everyone knew there were at least a few Democrats who would never come on board. That never really went anywhere because there just weren't any. In the end, Lindsey Graham was the only Republican willing to support a climate bill.

So then there was Plan B: get industry groups on board, and hope that they could put pressure on Republicans to do the right thing. So John Kerry, Graham, and Joe Lieberman (collectively KGL) went to work. They got the Chamber of Commerce on board by promising to preempt EPA regulation. They got T. Boone Pickens on board by promising a bunch of tax incentives for natural gas. They got the big oil refiners on board — for a few weeks, anyway — by agreeing to remove refineries from the cap-and-trade regime and instead have them pay something called a "linked fee."

Along the way there were some screwups. The White House unilaterally agreed to support $54 billion in nuclear loan guarantees. Then the EPA agreed to slow down its plans to regulate carbon. Finally, at the end of March, Obama announced a plan to allow more offshore drilling. All of these are things that KGL wanted to hold in reserve as bargaining chips with wavering Republican senators. But even so, they kept plugging away until April, when a White House source apparently told Fox's Major Garrett that Obama opposed the linked fee. Graham's policy aide, Matthew Rimkunas, emailed Lieberman's aide, Danielle Rosengarten:

The subject was “Go to Fox website and look at gas tax article asap.” She clicked on Foxnews.com: “WH Opposes Higher Gas Taxes Floated by S.C. GOP Sen. Graham in Emerging Senate Energy Bill.” The White House double-crossed us, she thought. The report, by Major Garrett, then the Fox News White House correspondent, cited “senior administration sources” and said that the “Obama White House opposes a move in the Senate, led by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, to raise federal gasoline taxes within still-developing legislation to reduce green house gas emissions.” Including two updates to his original story, Garrett used the word “tax” thirty-four times.

“This is horrific,” Rosengarten e-mailed Rimkunas.

“It needs to be fixed,” he responded. “Never seen [Graham] this pissed.”

A week later Graham had pulled out and the bill was effectively dead. And there's not much question that Obama didn't help matters much. But Jonathan identifies the key passage from the story, which took place months before any of this other stuff:

Back in Washington, Graham warned Lieberman and Kerry that they needed to get as far as they could in negotiating the bill “before Fox News got wind of the fact that this was a serious process,” one of the people involved in the negotiations said. “He would say, ‘The second they focus on us, it’s gonna be all cap-and-tax all the time, and it’s gonna become just a disaster for me on the airwaves. We have to move this along as quickly as possible.’ ”

That's it. I've long thought that Obama's approach to climate change was woefully inadequate, but even if Obama had done everything in his power to move climate legislation forward there's simply no evidence that it would have worked. With public support so weak, one story on the Fox News website was enough to sink Graham's support. If it had ever gotten to the point of being treated to the kind of 24/7 Fox treatment that Graham was afraid of — and it would have — there isn't a single Republican who would have touched the KGL bill with a bargepole. Industry "support," which mostly means only that they would have been slightly less vicious in their opposition than usual, would have meant nothing. There would have been no Republican support. Period.

Lizza's piece is a good one, and it's worth reading the whole thing. But be sure to back away from the trees occasionally to take stock of the forest. All of the insider byplay is interesting in a human sort of way, but underneath it all it's clear that the bill simply never had a chance. No conceivable combination of policies and giveaways would have produced 60 votes. It's time for Plan C.1

1Also known as Plan EPA. I think history's ultimate judgment on Obama will depend on whether he has the guts to lend his support to a strict EPA enforcement plan that might, in the end, finally force the Senate into action. Stay tuned.

Panda Death and Japan-China Relations

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 5:00 PM EDT

Right now, China-Japan relations are not exactly warm and fuzzy. The two countries share thousands of years of history, some of it involving war, and this weekend there were protests throughout Japan after a Chinese captain allegedly used his boat to ram two Japanese coast guard ships near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which both countries lay claim to. The Chinese captain was under arrest, but Japanese authorities released him and refuse to release video of the incident, sparking thousands of Japanese to take to the streets.

Another spanner in the works: the death of a panda in a Japanese zoo was determined to be a result of "human error." Oji Zoo panda Kou Kou was having semen extracted when material from his stomach went into his lungs, asphyxiating him. The inhalation of vomitus is called aspiration asphyxia, and it's the reason doctors tell you not to eat before a procedure. If you regurgitate while unconscious, on your back, whatever you ate will be breathed into your lungs, blocking the airflow and possibly killing you. Japan must now pay China around $500,000 for the death of Kou Kou, and it's unknown if the incident will affect a July deal in which China will rent two pandas to the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo in exchange for about $1 million a year. Pandas are notoriously bad at breeding in the wild, but have tremendous appeal for zoo visitors. While some have suggested we let the panda go extinct, the animal remains a diplomatic tool for China, even in tense times. China is recently ran a contest for six people to become "Pambassadors": panda ambassadors who will spend a month working at China's Chengdu panda reserve. One of the six Pambassadors is a Japanese woman. Seems like she may have a harder job than she originally signed up for.

Could a George W. Bush Republican Win Back Latinos?

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 2:55 PM EDT

Adam Serwer flags a trend from the latest Gallup poll that should give Democrats pause. While Democrats has retained support from blacks, support among Latinos has collapsed:

Serwer rightly flags the declining support as a sign that Republicans managed to win the immigration debate: they've criticized and obstructed Democratic attempts to pass an immigration overhaul, then turned around to blame Obama for failing to take action. Conservatives also have used Arizona's immigration law as a sign that Republicans are willing to take action. According to the Immigration Reform Law Institute, an anti-immigration group, political candidates in at least 12 states have promised to introduce state laws similar to Arizona's. Even if Latino voters don't approve of such measures, the GOP efforts also have succeeded in highlighting the Democrats' seeming inaction on the issue.

Big Oil's 2010 Gusher

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 2:51 PM EDT

Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, oil and gas interests have flooded campaign contributions to congressional candidates. It's not surprising, as the spill invigorated new debate about the safety of offshore drilling, the cost of reliance on fossil fuels, and the future of the oil and gas industry. The next Congress will likely have a lot to say about energy policy, and oil and gas interests are making sure they play a role in determining the make-up of the 112th Congress.

The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the oil and gas industry has given more than $17 million to congressional candidates and federal political committees so far this year. The spending outpaces previous mid-term election cycles, CRP reports. Most of the money is going to Republicans, but there are a few Democrats who have brought in pretty hefty sums from oil and gas interests as well.

In just this election cycle, ten House candidates have hauled in north of six figures from the industry. In the lead is Oklahoma Democrat Dan Boren at $183,850, but 16 of the top 20 recipients are Republicans. Rounding out the top ten:

  • Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), $166,232
  • Chet Edwards (D-Texas), $158,830
  • Joe Barton (R-Texas), $145,620
  • Mike Conaway (R-Texas), $129,450
  • Eric Cantor (R-Va.), $125,550
  • William Flores (R-Texas), $117,302
  • John Fleming (R-La.), $108,250
  • Mike Ross (D-Ark.), $106,350
  • John Boehner (R-Ohio), $104,300

Fifteen of the top 20 recipients in the Senate are Republicans. David Vitter (R-La.) tops the list of at $512,284, for this campaign cycle (which goes back to January 2005). But Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) isn't far behind, at $464,500. The other top recipients in the Senate are all GOPers:

  • Richard Burr (R-N.C.), $221,250
  • Rob Portman (R-Ohio), $213,258
  • Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), $208,750
  • Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), $196,550
  • James DeMint (R-S.C.), $182,323
  • John Hoeven (R-N.D.), $172,650
  • John Thune (R-S.D.), $171,885
  • Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), $137,450

Find out more about who owns Congress in this piece from the September/October issue of Mother Jones.

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How the Recession Affected Us

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 2:43 PM EDT

I tweeted this over the weekend, but it really deserves a weekday post of its own. It comes from Michael Linden and Heather Boushey and it shows how incomes have changed just during the recession of the past two years. In both years, the well-off did better than the poor and the middle class, and last year the well-off and the rich actually improved their lot while everyone else continued to slide.

This is only a two-year snapshot, so you don't have to worry about different inflation rates or different consumption baskets or any of that stuff. None of it is anywhere big enough to matter over the course of 24 months. Basically, the story of the past decade is this: the rich did really well during the Bush years while the middle class stagnated (even the inequality skeptics don't really question this); the rich got some great tax cuts at the same time; and then, when the recession caused by their recklessness hit, they suffered the least while the poor and middle class suffered the most:

All those facts and figures reinforce what most people already know: The middle class took this recession right on the chin while the rich suffered no more than a glancing blow. And yet somehow in Washington the talk is all about tax cuts for rich people.

....This is how absurd our national conversation has become. We’re actually fighting over whether we should borrow hundreds of billions of dollars and give that money to the only group of people in the country who are already back on track. Instead of focusing on a policy that would exclusively benefit those who make more than $250,000 a year we should be discussing how to get wages and middle-class incomes rising again, the best ways to bring people out of poverty, and what we can do to address the ever-widening disparities between the super-rich and everyone else. Our priorities are indeed skewed when the dominant argument over economic policy pertains to $100,000 tax cuts for millionaires while our middle class is barely treading water.

"Absurd" only barely begins to describe this. Disgraceful and revolting are more like it.

Spinmaster Chalabi Strikes Again

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 2:32 PM EDT

Ahmed Chalabi is at it again. In a discussion on the future of Iraq with Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn at last week's Washington Ideas Forum, the Iraqi with nine thousand lives insisted that the issue of weapons of mass destruction was only "marginal" in the lead up to the Iraq War. The short conversation failed to explore the former provisional president of Iraq's impressive knack for dishonest saber-rattling and naked opportunism.

A prominent dissident voice since the early 90s, Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress fed the Bush adminstration bogus evidence on Saddam Hussein's non-existent WMD program that was used by the White House to justify the invasion. Flash forward to the present: Chalabi has assumed a prominent place in the administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, leading continuing efforts to weed out members of Saddam's Sunni Baathist party. Meanwhile, the National Iraqi Alliance—of which Chalabi's INC is a part—finished third in the March elections.

"The issue was never weapons of mass destruction," he insisted. "It was the repression of Saddam against the Iraqi people, and the threat that Saddam constituted against the Iraqi people." Chalabi maintains that he and the INC didn't provide misleading evidence on WMDs, but merely introduced the Bush administration to those who provided it.

A Sense of Where We Are: Home

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 2:32 PM EDT


View Westward Expansion in a larger map

So just like that, we're back in San Francisco. But stay tuned: I'll be wrapping up the blog this week with some more dispatches from the road, and a few closing thoughts.

Real Genius

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 2:13 PM EDT

Ezra Klein points out today that Mark Zuckerberg wasn't responsible for the invention of social networking. Technology had made the idea possible, and lots of people were doing it:

This is a rather common phenomenon: It's called "simultaneous invention," and it happens all the time: Technology advances to the point that the next step is obvious to multiple people, and so they all take the next step at approximately the same time. In the end, one of them gets the patent, or the market share, and so squeezes the other out and becomes synonymous with the invention. That's what happened with Alexander Graham Bell, who in all likelihood invented the telephone after Elisha Gray.

Go to London and ask someone on a street corner who invented the light bulb, and if you're an American you'll probably be surprised at the answer you'll get. Likewise, Darwin and Wallace conceived of natural selection at about the same time, Newton and Leibniz both invented calculus, and huge masses of inventors were responsible for automobiles, airplanes, and computers.

But here's a question I've never taken the time to research properly: what inventor was most ahead of his time? That is, which one invented something important that was so out of the blue that it probably would have been decades or more before someone else invented it if he hadn't? Let's limit this to the past few centuries and actual working products, not just sketches and descriptions. I don't really have any good candidates here, though I suppose accidental inventions like penicillin might be in the running. How about Isaac Newton's invention of modern mechanics? Was anyone else close to that when Principia was published in 1687? Any other nominees?

UPDATE: So far, the leading contenders in comments are Einstein for the General Theory of Relativity and Tesla because — well, you know, Tesla.

Of course, I was a little slippery about whether only physical inventions count, or whether theoretical discoveries also count. Maybe we need two different categories? In any case, General Relativity seems to have a lot of support in the theoretical discovery department.