2011 - %3, February

Yikes! Amazon Drought Causing More Carbon Emissions Than US

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 7:20 PM EST

A new study in Science predicts that last year's drought in the Amazon rainforest, its worst on record, will lead to carbon emissions of about 8 billion metric tons by the end of this year, or 2.6 billion metric tons more than what the United States emitted in 2009. The drought, the study says, created a water deficit that increased tree mortality in three epicenters, hindering the forest's ability to absorb carbon dioxide. (To visualize the scale of the drought, think of rainfall shortages over an area more than seven times that of California.) What's most alarming about the Amazon's droughts, though, is that they're causing carbon-emission levels high enough to probably cancel out the amount of carbon the forest absorbed over the past decade.

As Reuters reports, the study's lead author Simon Lewis, an ecologist at the University of Leeds, warns:

If events like this happen more often, the Amazon rain forest would reach a point where it shifts from being a valuable carbon sink slowing climate change to a major source of greenhouse gases that could speed it up.

Deforestation has already diminished forests' capacity to absorb carbon worldwide; it's responsible for as much as 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. The study's findings mean that now droughts are pushing down forest coverage and quality even further. Translation: Not only are forests getting worse at slowing climate change, they may actually be accelerating it.

Lewis notes that more research is needed to determine whether the Amazon drought was the result of more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or if it was simply a climate anomaly. But even if we're not causing the decline of the Amazon through emitting greenhouse gases, humans have already made a broad and profound physical impact on land quality. The NASA graphic from 2003 (below) depicts the intensity of human environmental footprint around the world, based on population density, land transformation, human access, and power infrastructure, measured on a scale from 1 (least influence/dark green) to 100 (most influence/purple):

Center for International Earth Science Information Network/NASACenter for International Earth Science Information Network/NASA

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Harvard Interviews, Undocumented Students, and Me

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 7:03 PM EST

Amadis Velez, a history and English teacher at Mission High School, is in the middle of a heated Spanish conversation with one of his students when I arrive. Apparently his student, Lourdes, has just received an invitation to do an interview with Harvard University. But she doesn't want to go. "How is that possible?" I ask Velez.

It turns out that Lourdes is an undocumented student—one of at least eight undocumented teens in Velez's class, and roughly 2.5 million undocumented minors in the US. She lives with the daily fear of being deported. (PDF) In San Francisco, and in this school, she can temporarily tune out that anxiety, Velez explains. In Cambridge? Maybe not. "Harvard and Stanford are the only two places I know of where undocumented students get a full ride," Velez tells me later. Will Lourdes give Harvard a chance? Velez doesn't know for sure. In fact, only an estimated 20 percent of undocumented students enroll in college. (PDF) Velez is famous at Mission High for his dedication to sending more undocumented high school seniors to college.

In today's class, as in every other class Velez teaches for seniors, he will go over important deadlines for college applications and scholarship deadlines first. But before he gets started, he has an announcement.

"Eman* got accepted to the State University of San Francisco, everyone!" he says, pointing to a student near me. Eman's wearing a blue Hijab with silver stitching around the edges and smiles shyly as the class erupts into applause and who-hoo-ing.

I recognize another student near me from choir, a teen who moved here from the Philippines a year ago, and ask her if she applied to college anywhere. "Yes! I applied to eight UC campuses, the University of San Francisco, and the University of Southern California," she tells me. She's hoping to get into USF. "I heard they have a great nursing program," she says.

Next, Velez spends 10 minutes talking to class about the Meritus College Fund, a local scholarship fund that awards $12,000 college grants to low-income students from San Francisco. "Maria, how many hours would you have to work to make this much money at your job at Hot Topic?" Velez asks. "One year," Maria says. "See! And you can make this in two hours of your work doing this application. Now, that's a really good deal," Velez says. This gets everyone's attention.

"Do they need letters of recommendations?" Jakob wonders. "Three of them," Velez responds, and Eman clasps her face in panic. "One of them can't be from your teachers." "Where am I going to get that?" Jakob looks upset. "Think of anyone who knows you really well: club advisor, coach, someone in your church." "Can my bus driver do it?" a student from the back yells out, and everyone bursts out laughing. "Jakob, he comes to the bus every day on time," Jacob responds and laughs.

As Mr. Velez finishes reviewing the application process, I think about how Velez reminds me of Manuel Gonzalez, the community college history professor who changed my life. "Manny" was my Mr. Velez when I moved to the United States from Latvia in 1994. Back then I worked full-time as a property manager and went to a community college in the evenings. By 22, I had finally saved up enough money to go to community college classes full time. "Every single one of you can transfer to a UC," Manny told us in his class almost daily. "I'll teach this class in the same format as they do at UC Berkeley, so you'll be well prepared and ready to hit the ground running when you get there."

Manny—like Velez for some of his students—was the first person in the US who said I should go to the best schools. He worked our asses off in the classes: challenged us to ask a lot of questions, defend our views in public even though most of us had thick accents and often didn't use the right words, made us rewrite our papers until he said they were as good as those at UC Berkeley. He also praised us constantly and took us out for pizza. When the time came, he helped me write my college applications and personal statements.

Suddenly Velez turns to me. "Kristina, you are an immigrant," he says. "What do you think about the rules in this country?"

"Well, the most useful advice I got from my counselor at UC Berkeley when I arrived there as a starry-eyed community college transfer is to 'Never take 'no' for an answer no matter what they tell you,'" I recall. "For every five people who say 'no,' there is one who'll say, 'yes,'" he told me. Human beings are flexible."

Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Previous Mission High dispatch: What happens to class dynamics when the star student stays home?

How To Block Skeezy Online Stalkers

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 6:24 PM EST

Should you worry about your privacy when joining an online dating site? I answer this question in my latest online etiquette column, Dear @nna. Here's an excerpt:

Generally, posting information on online dating sites isn't any more worrisome than posting it on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. Most of the same rules apply, except for a few no-brainers which I will post anyway, because I don't have very much faith in humanity. Don't be a dumbass and share your full name, your address, phone number, credit card, or anything else you wouldn't give to a stranger unless they were really hot.

Plenty of people are vague on dating sites about what they do in order to protect their identity, while still getting the points of their personality across. For instance, if you're an investment banker, you can just say "soulless." Don't list your company, obviously, and limit the number of photos you share. You have to post at least one photo though, or people will think you are Nick Nolte and then you'll never find true love....

Read the rest of my online etiquette column at SF Weekly.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [1]

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 5:21 PM EST

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

1. The Riddle of Jimmy Carter | Nicholas Dawidoff | Rolling Stone | Feb. 3, 2011 | 63 minutes (15,821 words)

How does it feel, more than 30 years after leaving office, for your name to still be synonymous with presidential disappointment? Jimmy Carter, his wife Rosalynn, and his former aides submit to a thorough exploration of Carter's influence on the world and the presidency. It's complicated:

"When you talk with people like [former speechwriter Hendrik] Hertzberg about Carter, it's clear that they think of him as a flawed leader, but such an intelligent, determined, decent and compelling person that they want him to have been a great president. Only 44 men have been president. What was Carter missing that Lincoln and FDR possessed? At the Winter Weekend, I decide to ask Carter what he thinks are the qualities necessary to be a successful president. In the hours I spend with him over the course of five formal interviews and other casual interactions, his answer is the most revealing thing he tells me."

"At first, citing Roosevelt during the Great Depression, Carter says, 'successful service in a time of crisis.' But this isn't answering the question. 'I don't draw a distinction between personal attributes and political attributes,' he says. 'Personal attributes can be described as tenets of major religious faith. I worship the Prince of Peace. All the great religions stand for peace, justice, the alleviation of suffering, telling the truth. Those are all measures of an academic teacher, in business, the medical world.'

"He pauses. 'I'm fumbling around,' he concedes. 'I don't really know how to define it. I look from a subjective basis. Another measure of success is to get re-elected, no doubt about it.'"

See also: The 1976 Playboy Interview with Jimmy Carter

2. 'Nobody Gets Married Any More, Mister' | Gerry Garibaldi | City Journal | Feb. 1, 2011 | 19 minutes (4,701 words)

Provocative, beautifully written teacher's account of the teen pregnancy problem at a Connecticut high school—and why no politician will go near it. The essay follows other recent longreads (see below) criticizing school reforms that focus too singularly on data-centric measurements like teacher performance and student testing, and ignore larger social problems.

"Here's my prediction: the money, the reforms, the gleaming porcelain, the hopeful rhetoric about saving our children—all of it will have a limited impact, at best, on most city schoolchildren. Urban teachers face an intractable problem, one that we cannot spend or even teach our way out of: teen pregnancy. This year, all of my favorite girls are pregnant, four in all, future unwed mothers every one. There will be no innovation in this quarter, no race to the top. Personal moral accountability is the electrified rail that no politician wants to touch."

See also: How Billionaires Rule Our Schools (Dissent Magazine)

3. Why Reality Shows Failed on Russian TV | Peter Pomerantsev | London Review of Books | Feb. 3, 2011 | 13 minutes (3,204 words)

Programs like "The Apprentice," "Big Brother" and "Next Top Model" have been hits all around the globe—but not in Russia. Pomerantsev, who joined a production team that imported the shows for Russian audiences, quickly found out why:

"For the Russian version of 'The Apprentice,' Vladimir Potanin, a metals oligarch worth more than $10 billion, was recruited to be the boss choosing between the candidates competing for the dream job. Potanin goaded, teased and tortured the candidates as they went through increasingly difficult challenges. The show looked great, the stories and dramas all worked, but there was a problem: no one in Russia believed in the rules. The usual way to get a job in Russia is not by impressing at an interview, but by what is known as bat—'connections.'"

See also: Alex Pappademas's 2010 GQ profile of "The Situation" from MTV's "Jersey Shore"

4. Shaken-Baby Syndrome Faces New Questions in Court | Emily Bazelon | New York Times Magazine | Feb. 2, 2011 | 33 minutes (8,175 words)

Parent's worst nightmare, further complicated by new medical questions about the symptoms—and timing—of shaken-baby syndrome. When prosecuting caregivers and parents, it's no longer as simple as determining who was with the baby at the time:

"The child may be lethargic or fussy or may not eat or sleep normally for hours or days, while the subdural hemorrhage and other injuries become more serious, ending in acute crisis. This has made some doctors wary of pinpointing the timing of a child’s injury — even when they are sure that abuse occurred—lest the wrong adult take the blame. 'The police want us to time it within one to three hours,' says John Leventhal, a Yale pediatrics professor and medical director of the child-abuse programs at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital. 'But sometimes we can only time it to within days.'"

More Emily Bazelon: What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince? (Slate, 2010)

5. Show the Monster| Daniel Zalewski | The New Yorker | Feb. 7, 2011 | 49 minutes (12,168 words)

Hollywood can be the "Land of the Slow No," even for established directors like Guillermo del Toro. Zalewski follows del Toro's progress (and setbacks) with high-profile, creature-filled projects like "The Hobbit," "Frankenstein" and H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness."

"The meeting at Universal, he said, was at ten-thirty: 'I've never been this nervous going to a meeting. This invested.' He added, 'There are certain rules to dating a movie. You try to fall in love when it’s a reality, and try not to be completely head over heels on the first date. But I’m hopelessly in love with the creatures.'

"Del Toro indicated that he would not be willing to make radical adjustments to his vision. 'I don't want to make a movie called "At the Mountains of Madness." I want to make this movie. And if I cannot make this movie I'll do something else.” He paused. 'It'll be horrible.'"

See also: How Harvey Weinstein Got His Groove Back (Bryan Burrough, new Vanity Fair)

Got a favorite Longread? Share it on Twitter (#longreads) or email it: mark@longreads.com

Anti-Abortion Group to Host Event Near Site of Tiller's Murder

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 5:17 PM EST

An anti-abortion rights group leading the effort to prevent Dr. Mila Means from offering abortion services at her Wichita office are planning an event at a public school tonight—right across the street from where Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in his church in May 2009.

Anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder murdered Tiller while Tiller was serving as an usher at the Reformation Lutheran Church, an assassination that came after years of escalating protests aimed at the doctor. Tiller was the last doctor in town performing abortions, but Dr. Mila Means has been training so she can begin offering abortion services at her practice. A judge, however, has blocked her from proceeding at the behest of the landlord that owns Means' office building. The landlord argues that protestors and demonstrators will create a "nuisance" at the office complex—and this will violate Means' lease. Anti-choice groups have pledged to hold daily protests at Means' office, if she begins offering abortions there.

On Friday night, one of these outfits, Kansans for Life, is hosting a prayer meeting at the Coleman Middle School as part of its campaign against Means. An email sent to supporters this week under the subject line "WARNING" exclaims that Means is attempting to open a new "killing center" and calls on residents to stop it. From the email:

So, when grave evil threatens our community, what should we do? Pray! We NEED God’s protection and guidance. Without it, our city will be plagued by those preying on women and killing children, once again.

That the event is being held in a public school so near the site of Tiller's murder has inflamed some in a community still scarred by the event. Kari Ann Rinker, the state coordinator for the National Organization of Women and the parent of a 6th-grader at the school, argues that the school district should have given the request to use the space from Kansans for Life more consideration before approving it—and allowed the community to weigh in.

Susan Arensman, a spokesperson for the school, says the school facilities are available for community members to rent, and the group went through the usual steps to reserve the space for the evening. "They filed out all the paper work, went through the proper procedures," Arensman notes.

But Rinker maintains that the school should have turned down the request to rent the space, given the nature of the event and its proximity to the church where Tiller was slain. "This community is in denial, embracing those that should not be embraced," says Rinker.

Friday Cat Blogging - 4 February 2011

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 4:00 PM EST

The fence is becoming an increasingly popular hangout spot. A couple of days ago both cats hopped up at once and created a logjam. Domino couldn't figure out how to get down with Inkblot in the way, so she headed off in the wrong direction and got stopped by the rose bush. After convincing herself there was just no way through a big mass of thorns, she turned around and hopped down onto the air conditioning unit. Apparently Inkblot hadn't counted on that bit of trickery, which meant there was no longer any point in blocking the way. So he headed over to the bird bath and hopped down too. I still don't know for sure how they get up there, though.

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Science Shots: Smart Farms, Warm Nests, the Perils of an Ugly Mate

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 3:49 PM EST

A new paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B finds that female Gouldian finches get seriously stressed out if they end up with mates they find unattractive. Experiments were conducted with the two color morphs of this species—the red-headed variant (below) and a black-headed version. Females who were forced by limited availability to partner with the color morph other than their own suffered. The authors note:

In socially monogamous animals, mate choice is constrained by the availability of unpaired individuals in the local population. Here, we experimentally investigate the physiological stress endured by a female (the choosy sex) when pairing with a non-preferred social partner. In two experimental contexts, female Gouldian finches (Erythrura gouldiae) socially paired with poor-quality mates had levels of circulating corticosterone that were three to four times higher than those observed in females that were paired with preferred mates. The elevated level of this stress hormone in response to partner quality was observed within 12 h[ours] of the experimental introduction and maintained over a period of several weeks.

Females paired with "ugly" males were also slower to reproduce, laying eggs a month later than females who paired with preferred males.

 

Male Gouldian finch. Credit: Martybugs, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Male Gouldian finch. Credit: Martybugs, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

An interesting paper in PNAS assesses the global phosphorus (P) cycle. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plants and animals, is used heavily in agricultural fertilizers, and is also a bycatch, so to speak, of livestock production (manure). And it's a limiting nutrient for aquatic organisms. Which means that fertilizer and manure runoff can overfertilize waterways, leading to hypoxic conditions known as dead zones and dwindling fish catches. In a perfect world, we'd use only enough of it and no more.

The new study examined the P cycle for 123 crops around the world. Highlights:

  • On a global scale we put more phosphorus into the global cycle than croplands removed (overfertilized)
  • Yet there's strong regional variation, with 30 percent of croplands phosphorus deficient, often in areas producing forage crops used as livestock feed
  • Croplands with P surpluses were fertilized, so to speak, more by fertilizer use than by manure production

Obviously, balancing the global phosphorus imbalance will improve both economies and ecologies—a worthy task as we navigate a world of ever higher food prices.

 Satellite image of Kansas crop fields. Credit: NASA.Satellite image of Kansas crop fields. Credit: NASA.

 

A new study in Environmental Biology of Fishes finds that warming water temperatures bode poorly for some cold-blooded species—notably for three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus)—anadromous fish that can spawn in freshwater and migrate to saltwater. They're found in all the circumpolar waters of the world.

Sticklebacks invest heavily in parental care. The males are nest guarders and spend much time fanning their clutches of eggs with their fins. When their waters get warmer, they fan a whole lot more, with poor results. The authors note:

In two separate experiments with temperatures raised by 2°C [3.6°F] to 6°C [11°F] above 16–17°C [61-63°F] ambient over a whole breeding season, we quantified changes to parental-care behaviour and the resultant reproductive success of G. aculeatus. As temperature increased, male parental-care behaviour was altered, particularly the fanning of the fertilised eggs... [A]ll egg incubating fish consistently fanned at a faster rate in higher temperatures... The consequence was that these fish had a higher rate of incubation failure and an increased likelihood of mortality. The pattern of alteration to parental care behaviour and decreased reproductive success with higher temperature was remarkably consistent across the individual fish, which suggests consequences at the population level of increased ambient temperatures.

 Three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). Credit: Piet Spaans, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). Credit: Piet Spaans, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

Finally, for those of you who've been snowed in or iced under or flooded out this week, here's a blissfully dry desert meditation: Demoiselle cranes (Grus virgo) overwintering in Rajasthan, India.

 

CRANES OF KHICHAN from warmeye on Vimeo.

 

 The papers:

  • Graham K. MacDonaldElena M. BennettPhilip A. Potter, and Navin Ramankutty. Agronomic phosphorus imbalances across the world's croplands. PNAS. 2011. 
  • Kathryn Hopkins, Brian R. Moss and Andrew B. Gill. Increased ambient temperature alters the parental care behaviour and reproductive success of the three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus).Environmental Biology of Fishes. 2011. DOI: 10.1007/s10641-010-9724-8.

  • Simon C. Griffith, Sarah R. Pryke, and William A. Buttemer. Constrained mate choice in social monogamy and the stress of having an unattractive partner.

 

Scenes from Yellowstone

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 3:37 PM EST

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Once hailed as "America's best idea," Yellowstone was the world's first national park. Changing the way we interact with nature, the Pulitzer prize-winning author Wallace Stegner put it best when he said national parks "reflect us at our best, not our worst."

In the gigantic 3.5million square miles of land, Yellowstone is host to a large number of interesting animal species, including bison, cougars, lynx, bobcats and coyotes.

The whole park actually sits on a caldera, often referred to as a "supervolcano," and has at its heart the same conditions that brought about the start of life on Earth. This means it holds one of the world's natural wonders, as you can see in this video.

The volcano means Yellowstone remains geologically very active. Recent changes in the volcanic springs have killed these pines by cooking their roots, as the branches freeze in winter.

 

It's safe to say that Yellowstone is a place of natural beauty that's inspired conservation and preserved countless areas of outstanding natural interest around the world.

Obama and Canadian PM Expected to Discuss Pipeline

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 3:01 PM EST

President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are meeting in Washington, and on the slate of topics for discussion is energy policy—which is likely to include the massive pipeline that a Canadian company wants to build to transport oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries in Texas.

Environmental groups are using the visit to urge the administration to reject the proposed 1,661-mile Keystone XL pipeline project. In a letter sent to Obama on Friday, 86 national and regional environmental groups described imports from the tar sands as the "world's dirtiest form of oil," and urged his administration to deny TransCanada's request to build the pipeline across the plains:

The pipeline would drive further destruction of Canada’s boreal forest, bring the threat of dangerous oil spills through America’s heartland, exacerbate air quality problems in communities surrounding the refineries that the pipeline would service, and significantly increase the carbon intensity of U.S. transportation fuel, which would undercut the emissions reductions achieved by increasing U.S. automobile efficiency.

"America does not need this dangerous and expensive pipeline," the groups, which include the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and Friends of the Earth, conclude.

Ahead of the visit, the oil industry also sent a letter to Obama urging the administration to approve the project. Obama and Harper are holding a joint press conference at 3 p.m. It will be interesting to see if the pipeline comes up.

Corn on The Last Word: The Right on Egypt

Fri Feb. 4, 2011 12:27 PM EST

David Corn and Media Matters' David Brock were on The Last Word last night, trying to make some sense of the right's conspiracy theories about the unrest in Egypt: