2010 - %3, October

Eco-News Roundup: Friday October 29

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 7:14 AM EDT

Voting Block: GOP's successful bid for seniors to oppose Medicare reform.

Fins for the Win: Finland has remarkably low health care costs, but great care quality.

Second Wind: Murkowski's campaign gets a last-minute surge from energy companies.

Outside Parties: European oil and gas companies are funding US anti-climate legislators.

Sick in Haiti: A cholera outbreak in Haiti has killed hundreds.

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

VIDEO: Living Large on Tea Party Air

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 6:16 AM EDT

So much for the image of tea partiers as scrappy, low-budget activists running a revolutionary "starfish" operation destined to change history with their homemade signs and political potlucks. Over the past week, national coordinators of the Tea Party Patriots, a group that claims to represent 2800 local chapters and as many as 15 million people, have been "flying for freedom" and "landing for liberty" in various states to help buck up local activists trying to get out the vote for Tuesday's election. The plane they're using, dubbed "Patriot One," belongs to a big GOP donor in MontantaMark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin have made sure that their every move during the flying "GOTV" tour has been filmed by Luke Livingston, the founder of Ground Floor Video who produced "Tea Party: A Documentary." The resulting slick, high-production value clips are posted on the Tea Party Patriots website.

Judging from the video, the tea party leaders have been much more overwhelmed by the coolness of flying on the swank private jet than on the less glamorous work of actually getting voters to the polls. The video below comes complete with a "Top Gun" soundtrack and devotes the first full minute and a half to footage of Meckler and Martin getting on the plane (in slo-mo), getting off the plane, being cool inside the plane. Martin even interviews the pilot. Whether all this jetting around will bring out a single voter remains to be seen, but the video definitely should get some laughs (though maybe not from the grassroots activists these folks claim to represent). Check it out:

 

Do the Rich Need Coddling?

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

A couple of weeks ago I sort of vaguely intended to write a bit about the extreme sensitivity of the American business community. I had just read someone (I forget who) saying that he had been out in the world chatting with business folks and had fully expected their anger with Barack Obama to rate about an 8 out of 10. But no! It was 10 out of 10. They were in an absolute frenzy of combined rage (over what he was doing to them) and fear (over what he might say about them if they dared to criticize him publicly).

Needless to say, this seemed crazy to me. On a substantive front, after he took office Obama continued George Bush's rescue of the banking system, boosted the economy by passing a stimulus bill, and saved untold thousands of businesses by rescuing GM and Chrysler. His healthcare reform bill was so business friendly it's a wonder the industry didn't keel over in hypoglycemic shock after it was passed. On the rhetorical front, he's taken a few modest shots at the financial industry, but not much more. So what were they all so apoplectic about?

But then I stopped and decided there was no point. If I asked, business folks would say they were afraid to invest because of Obama's blizzard of new regulations. They'd say they were afraid he was going to raise their taxes. They'd say he had somehow screwed up the banking sector so that they could no longer get loans the way they used to. They'd say they were afraid of cap-and-trade and card check, which Obama supported even though they both went nowhere. Looking at the big picture, they'd claim the administration is squeezing them on all sides because its actions have resulted in slow hiring, higher taxes, impaired lending, and further limits to individuals' ability to deploy capital in business ventures (whether their own or other people's).

Or, as John Gapper put it earlier this week, quoting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Obama has "vilified industries while embarking on an ill-advised course of government expansion, major tax increases, massive deficits and job-destroying regulations." Gapper himself says there's some truth to this: "Mr Obama has failed to understand or communicate the role big business plays in remoulding the economy and creating highly skilled and highly-paid jobs. Unlike Bill Clinton, the previous Democratic president, he sounds as if he thinks multinationals do little but suck work out of the US."

And Gapper's evidence? As Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias point out, precisely one thing: Obama's criticism of large companies for using tax breaks to ship jobs overseas. That's it. Something that's virtually a staple of American politics. Obama is following in the footsteps of thousands when he complains about this, including plenty of Republicans when they're in a tight election campaign.

What's remarkable about all this is that Obama is, patently, not anti-business. All of the corporate complaints above, when you dig an inch below the surface, amount to lashing out at phantasms. However, although Obama isn't anti-business, it is fair to say that he's not especially business friendly. And after decades of almost literally getting their every heart's desire from Republican presidents and congresses, this has come as something as a shock to the corporate community. When Obama puts a tax break in the stimulus bill, it's aimed mainly at the middle class, not the rich. When he hires a labor secretary, it's someone who actually thinks labor laws should be enforced. When he says he wants to pass a healthcare reform bill, he actually does it. (Its impact on big business is close to zero, but no matter.) There's no evidence at all that Obama wants to punish big business, but at the same time it's quite plain that he cares much more about the middle class than he does about the rich.

And that's pretty hard for them to take. So they're apoplectic. On a scale of 1 to 10, he's a ten. Merely refusing to coddle the business community endlessly is all it takes these days.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 29, 2010

Fri Oct. 29, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

U.S. soldiers and airmen set up the broadcast antenna for the American Forces Network Europe Tactical Mobile Radio and Television System during Exercise Saber Strike, a U.S. Army Europe event, in Adazi Training Area, Latvia, Oct. 18, 2010. U.S. Army photo by 1st Sgt. Chris Seaton

Quote of the Day:

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 12:11 AM EDT

From Charles Peters, founder of the Washington Monthly:

The lesson of history is that private enterprise can do great things, but you have to watch it like a hawk.

Words to live by.

Do Sugary Sodas Make You Fat?

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 9:11 PM EDT

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler writes:

Politicizing Soda Science

Today’s NYT reports on how New York City’s health commissioner pressured his staff to create a scary anti-obesity ad campaign, featuring this ad, even if it meant stretching the available scientific evidence on the potential health consequences of drinking a can of soda per day. In the end, they produced an ad that was “defensible” because, as one participant in the discussions put it, the ad’s language was “broad enough to get away with.”

Now, there are a bunch of things you might say about this right from the start. Maybe governments shouldn't be in the business of running nanny state ads about personal nutrition. Maybe this particular ad was disgusting and shouldn't have been released. Maybe obesity isn't really that big a deal in the first place. But those weren't the issues at stake. Rather, it was this single sentence in the ad:

Drinking 1 can of soda a day can make you 10 pounds fatter a year.

What, I thought, could be wrong with that? A can of sugared soda contains about 150 calories, and adding 150 calories a day to your diet would almost certainly produce a ten-pound weight gain over the course of a year or so. There are some caveats, of course:

  • If you cut out 150 calories elsewhere, you won't gain any weight.
  • If you exercise more, you won't gain any weight.
  • Your exact weight gain will depend on your age, current weight, etc.
  • If you have a miracle metabolism, you might not gain any weight at all.

This all seems pretty obvious, and while you'd probably mention it in a longer piece, it hardly seems necessary in a 30-second spot. But it turns out the scientists, especially Michael Rosenbaum of Columbia, seemed to think it should all be included. The ad, he said, was "misleading in that there is no reference to energy output changes."

So I'm curious: what do you all think of this? I'm open to argument here, but it seems crazy to me, less a politicization of science from the health commissioner than a case of geekdom run amok among the scientists. I mean, if you can't tell people that adding a bunch of calories to your diet will make you gain weight, what can you tell them?

POSTSCRIPT: And while I'm at this, can I complain once again about how journalistic conventions can ruin a story? It's actually hard to tell exactly what happened here because the reporter insisted on "adding value" by not relating things in a simple chronological fashion. Nor does she tell us what the original sentence they were arguing about was. It's a real mess.

UPDATE: Via comments, I do see one problem with this ad that I didn't notice before. The phrase "10 pounds fatter a year" might lead you to believe that you're going to gain ten pounds years after year. In fact, you'd gain (about) ten pounds and then just stay there.

This interpretation didn't occur to me when I saw the ad. However, it's a plausible one. Something like "10 pounds fatter in a year" might be better.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

America's Broken Election System...in Afghanistan

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 5:56 PM EDT

The other day, on the front page of my hometown newspaper was a shocking tale of Iranian perfidy in Afghanistan headlined "Iran Is Said to Give Top Karzai Aide Cash by the Bagful." The mounds of euros reportedly being passed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff Umar Daudzai were a familiar form of influence peddling—intended, as the New York Times piece put it, "to buy the loyalty of Mr. Daudzai and promote Iran's interests in the presidential palace, according to Afghan and Western officials here. Iran uses its influence to help drive a wedge between the Afghans and their American and NATO benefactors, they say."

The Times even had a vivid account of a "large plastic bag bulging with packets of euro bills" being passed to Daudzai on a plane departing Iran. Strange, though, how few seem to remember the way American "benefactors" launched this latest disatrous chapter in Afghanistan's three-decade-old catastrophe by proudly delivering their own bag-equivalents stuffed with cash. Back in 2001, with planning for a US invasion ramping up, CIA agents reportedly appeared in Taliban-free northern Afghanistan with devastatingly convincing arguments for supporting Washington: metal "suitcases"—okay, when it comes to bribery, call us a little classier than our rivals—stuffed with millions of dollars in non-sequentially numbered hundred-dollar bills. Back then, it was called "preparing the ground" for invasion and, at the time, was considered not perfidious corruption but brilliant spycraft. Of course, in one form or another, as Karzai—who, as Juan Cole recently commented, "appears not to understand the word 'corruption'"—noted in a news conference this week, American money has never stopped flowing in staggering amounts.

Science Shots: Micro-Foodwebs, Shrinking Brains, and More

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 5:26 PM EDT

An idiosyncratic sampling of the latest science papers. Forthwith: The tiny foodwebs between ants, plants, and fungi; How smoking shrinks brains; How conservation saved 20 percent of threatened vertebrate species. Plus a bonus image from space of this week's monster extratropical storm.

  • German reasearchers have found that a specific region of the cerebral cortex of active smokers is thinner than in lifelong nonsmokers. They used brain MRI images to measure the thickness of the orbitofrontal cortex in both groups and found signigicant thinning in smokers, the exact amount related to their daily cigarette consumption and to the duration of their smoking habit. They'll be conducting further research on the brains of ex-smokers. The human orbitofrontal cortex is poorly understood, but seems to be involved in decision-making and expectation associated with reward and punishment. The paper: S. Kühn, F. Schubert, J. Gallinat. Reduced thickness in medial orbitofrontal cortex in smokers. Biological Psychiatry. DOI:10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.08.004.

Approximate location of the OFC shown on a sagittal MRI. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Approximate location of the OFC shown on a sagittal MRI. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  • A new paper in Science finds that 20 percent of vertebrates reviewed on the IUCN Red List are now considered threatened or worse, and that an average of 52 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians move one category closer to extinction each year. Lead author Michael Hoffman says the alarming findings should not obscure the benefits of conservation action, without which, species losses would now be 20 percent higher. "Nonetheless," write the authors, "current conservation efforts remain insufficient to offset the main drivers of biodiversity loss in these groups: agricultural expansion, logging, over-exploitation, and invasive alien species." The paper: M. Hoffmann, et al. The Impact of Conservation on the Status of the World’s Vertebrates. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1194442.

American Bison skull heap. There were as few as 750 bison in 1890 from economic-driven overhunting. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.American Bison skull heap. There were as few as 750 bison in 1890, the survivors of overhunting. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  • Some plants provide symbiotic ants with food and a specialized nesting cavity, known as a domatium. In many of these  ant–plant symbioses a fungal patch also grows within each domatium. Experimental research from France and Cameroon shows just how deeply involved the three species (plant, ant, fungus) really are. The researchers provided carbon and nitrogen to the arborial African ants and tracked the nutrient distribution between plant, ant, and fungus over the course of nearly two years, uncovering a surprisingly complex micro-foodweb. From the abstract:

The symbiotic nature of the fungal association has been shown in the ant-plant Leonardoxa africana and its protective mutualist ant Petalomyrmex phylax. To decipher trophic fluxes among the three partners, food enriched in 13C and 15N was given to the ants and tracked in the different parts of the symbiosis up to 660 days later. The plant received a small, but significant, amount of nitrogen from the ants. However, the ants fed more intensively the fungus. The pattern of isotope enrichment in the system indicated an ant behaviour that functions specifically to feed the fungus. After 660 days, the introduced nitrogen was still present in the system and homogeneously distributed among ant, plant and fungal compartments, indicating efficient recycling within the symbiosis. Another experiment showed that the plant surface absorbed nutrients (in the form of simple molecules) whether or not it is coated by fungus. Our study provides arguments for a mutualistic status of the fungal associate and a framework for investigating the previously unsuspected complexity of food webs in ant–plant mutualisms.

Head view of ant Petalomyrmex phylax. Credit: AntWeb.org, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Head view of ant Petalomyrmex phylax. Credit: AntWeb.org, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  • The monster storm that fouled many a travel plan this week (including mine), possessed unusually strong winds, rain, hail, and widespread tornadoes. It set a record for the lowest pressure not associated with a hurricane measured over land in the continental US. At 5:13 p.m. CDT, the weather station in Bigfork, Minnesota recorded 955.2 millibars (28.21 inches of pressure)a low pressure corresponding to a Category 3 hurricane. Thanks to the Earth Observatory.

Strong extratropical cyclone over the US Midwest, 26-27 October 2010. NASA Earth Observatory imagery created by Jesse Allen, imagery provided courtesy of the NASA GOES Project Science Office.Strong extratropical cyclone over the US Midwest, 26-27 October 2010. NASA Earth Observatory imagery created by Jesse Allen, imagery provided courtesy of the NASA GOES Project Science Office.

Chart of the Day: Texting

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 4:56 PM EDT

Here's the latest on texting:

The Nielsen Company analyzed mobile usage data among teens in the United States for the second quarter of 2010 (April 2010 – June 2010). No one texts more than teens (age 13-17), especially teen females, who send and receive an average of 4,050 texts per month. Teen males also outpace other male age groups, sending and receiving an average of 2,539 texts.

I wonder how this really breaks down? The obvious headline result is that teen girls send a text every 6 minutes of every waking hour. But they probably don't. More likely, it comes in bursts: a couple of texts an hour most of the time, but 40 or 50 an hour during serious texting times.

That's my guess, anyway. What say you, parents of teenagers? Do your kids text constantly, or do they do it mostly in bursts? (Via Jon Mandle.)

Terror Trial Update: Police Minders and Pocket Change

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 4:33 PM EDT

Read Karen Greenberg's previous coverage of the trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court.

Even before the trial of Ahmed Ghailani started, the role of the Tanzanian National Police has haunted the proceedings in an unsettling way. On Wednesday, these suspicions received some added weight when Ghailani's cousin, Ladha Hussein, took the stand. Ten years older than Ghailani, Hussein sat 20 feet away from the cousin he hadn't seen since 1998. As Hussein talked through a Swahili translator, Ghailani, dressed in a white button-down and tie, watched with open-eyed interest and unflagging attention.

For a while, all seemed normal. The prosecutor attempted to shed doubt on Ghailani's alleged terrorist connections by asking about the time that Ghailani, who visited Hussein and his cousin's parents several times a week, brought a friend from Mombasa. Similarly, the prosecution asked about Ghailani's announcement in 1998, a month or so before the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, that he was going to "look for livelihood" in Yemen. At first, defense counsel Peter Quijano's cross examination also took the expected road, eliciting the fact that Ghailani wore what he called "Western" garb, jeans and a T-shirt—evidence that he had not become intensely religious.