2011 - %3, March

Would You Like E-Coli on That Burger, Mr. President?

| Wed Mar. 23, 2011 10:01 AM EDT

The consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch has launched an ad campaign attacking Republican budget cuts to food safety and water protection. The House GOP budget slashes $88 million from the USDA's meat safety inspections and $241 million from the food safety budget of the Food and Drug Administration, as I previously reported. Food & Water Watch's cartoon-style ad shows House Speaker John Boehner offering President Obama a hamburger tainted with E. Coli, rat hair, ground glass, spoiled lettuce and tomatoes. When Obama refuses, Boehner takes a big bite out of the burger:

The ad will run in Boehner's Ohio congressional district and serve as part of Food & Water Watch's "public safety alert" about the GOP's proposed cuts. "At least 14 Americans died and many thousands became ill from tainted spinach, peppers, peanut butter and eggs in recent years," Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a press statement on Wednesday. "Now, Washington is seeking to slash the budget for our food and water protections, which will put more people at risk."

The group also points out that the House has proposed slashing nearly $2 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency's funds for water infrastructure—money critical to keeping drinking water clean and sewage-free. The group adds that funds for the program are also "drastically reduced" under Obama's own 2012 budget, and the group calls on the president to step up his own efforts as well. "President Obama should not let House Republicans gut these protections, and should step up to make sure the budget bolsters our ability to provide Americans with a safe supply of food and water," Hauter said. 

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9 Bills That Would Put Creationism in the Classroom

| Wed Mar. 23, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

State governments are grappling with massive budget deficits, overburdened social programs, and mountains of deferred spending. But never mind all that. For some conservative lawmakers, it's the perfect time to legislate the promotion of creationism in the classroom. In the first three months of 2011, nine creationism-related bills have been introduced in seven states—that's more than in any year in recent memory:

 

1. Texas

Legislation: HB 2454 would ban discrimination against creationists, for instance, biology professors who believe in intelligent design. Defending his bill, Texas state Rep. Bill Zedler told Mother Jones, "When was the last time we’ve seen someone go into a windstorm or a tornado or any other kind of natural disaster, and say, 'Guess what? That windstorm just created a watch'?"

Status: Referred to Higher Education Committee.

 

2. Kentucky

Legislation: The Kentucky Science Education and Intellectual Freedom Act (HB 169) would have allowed teachers to use "other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner." Kentucky already authorizes public schools to teach "the theory of creation as presented in the Bible" and to "read such passages in the Bible as are deemed necessary for instruction on the theory of creation." The state is home to the world-renowned Creation Museum and it may soon build the Ark Encounter, the world's first creationist theme park.

Status: Died in committee. 

 

3. Florida

Legislation: SB 1854 would amend Florida law to require a "thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution." In 2009, Florida state Sen. Stephen Wise, the bill's sponsor, rhetorically asked a Tampa radio host: "Why do we still have apes if we came from them?"

Status: Referred to Senate Committee on Education Pre-K-12, which Wise chairs.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 23, 2011

Wed Mar. 23, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

Cavalry Scout Club cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York train with Austrian cadets and Soldiers during an excercise in Austria. Photo via US Army.

Corn on MSNBC: Scott Brown Stands Up for Planned Parenthood

Wed Mar. 23, 2011 4:00 AM EDT

David Corn joined Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC's The Last Word to discuss the House Republicans' bill that would force the IRS to conduct abortion audits and how some prominent Republicans like Scott Brown and Lisa Murkowski are pushing back.

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

Our National Cat Problem

| Wed Mar. 23, 2011 12:59 AM EDT

From a New York Times article passing along the startling news that cats hunt and kill birds:

The American Bird Conservancy estimates that up to 500 million birds are killed each year by cats — about half by pets and half by feral felines. “I hope we can now stop minimizing and trivializing the impacts that outdoor cats have on the environment and start addressing the serious problem of cat predation,” said Darin Schroeder, the group’s vice president for conservation advocacy.

As it happens, I've been trivializing the impact of cats on birds my entire life. I mean, cats kill birds. Bears kill salmon. Birds kill worms. The strong survive and the adaptive fitness of the species is improved. Cycle of life and all that. Why are we supposed to be upset about this?

But despite the fact that my own cats contribute 0% toward this avian holocaust, I understand that I have biases in this area. Maybe I'm taking things too lightly. So here's my question: assuming that this 500 million number is correct, what percentage of the entire bird population does this represent? I did a bit of desultory googling but got bored before I found an answer. So I'll put my vast audience to work. How many birds are there in the United States? Do cats kill 10% of them each year? 1%? A tenth of a percent? Just how serious is this national scourge of cat predation?

MAP: The Troubling Spread of Radiation in Japan

| Tue Mar. 22, 2011 8:57 PM EDT

A map of radiation levels in Japan released by the US Department of Energy on Tuesday evening indicates that potentially dangerous levels of radioactive contamination have spread beyond the 13-mile evacuation zone surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The data is sure to further undermine confidence in Japan's response to the disaster. US authorities have recommended that Americans stay at least 50 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Here's the map, which was generated from the DOE's Aerial Monitoring System and ground sensors:

Spread of radiation for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plantSpread of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

To put these numbers in context, a typical chest X-ray produces 10 mRem. US EPA guidelines require government intervention if the public is exposed to more than 1000 mRem over four days. People near Fukushima could be exposed to that amount of radiation at least every 3.3 days in the red zone and anywhere from there to every 19 days in the orange zone above. Of course, it's unclear from the chart to what degree radiation levels in the area fluctuate over time. "Measurements show an area of greater radiation extending northwest from the accident," a DOE backgrounder notes, adding with dry understatement: "This area may be of interest to public safety officials and responders."

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The Future of Investing

| Tue Mar. 22, 2011 8:00 PM EDT

Felix Salmon:

American workers are facing a double whammy here: they’re losing access to private equity at exactly the point in time where private equity is becoming a very large and important part of the international capital markets. Meanwhile, it’s the rich foreign clients of Goldman Sachs — the global rentier class — who are getting that coveted access to equity in Facebook.

The two separate whammies here are:

  • The fact that fewer companies are going public, opting instead to finance themselves through private equity and trading their shares via investment banks who set up private exchanges to match well-heeled buyers and sellers. Ordinary schmoes like you and me don't have the opportunity to invest in companies that do this.
  • The steady decline of defined-benefit pension plans, which were managed by professionals who had access to a wide variety of investment opportunities, and the accompanying rise of defined-contribution plans like 401(k)s, which are managed by ordinary schmoes like you and me who have access to a very limited range of standard investment funds.

In other words, you and I don't get to invest in Facebook. Only rich people with access to the special private exchange set up by Goldman Sachs get to do that. And if this trend continues, you and I won't be able to invest in any of the hottest companies of the future. Only rich people and big fund managers will be able to do that, which means that the returns on their retirement portfolios will be a whole lot higher than yours and mine. And that's on top of the fact that their returns are already higher than ours, thanks to their access to a wider range of hedge funds and investment vehicles.

Felix isn't happy about this: "What we don’t want is a world where most companies are owned by a small group of global plutocrats, living off the labor of the rest of us. Much better that as many Americans as possible share in the prosperity of the country as a whole by being able to invest in the stock market." Agreed — but like Felix, I don't have any bright solutions to this. And who knows? Maybe this is just the flavor of the day on Wall Street and the public stock market will make a comeback shortly. But the overall story of the past couple of decades has been the steady funneling of all the richest investment opportunities to a smaller and smaller class of the super rich, and this trend fits right in. It's a problem worth thinking about.

Sheppard on "Hardball": Determining America's Nuclear Safety

Tue Mar. 22, 2011 7:12 PM EDT

Kate Sheppard and Johanna Neumann joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the danger Americans face from our aging fleet of nuclear plants.

Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. For more of her stories, click here. She Tweets here. Get Kate Sheppard's RSS feed.

Science of the Quake: the Dissenters Arrive

| Tue Mar. 22, 2011 6:36 PM EDT
Tsunami flooding at Sendai Airport. Credit: Samuel Morse, courtesy USAF, via Wikimedia Commons.

Interesting clues from science, a few reflections, plus one refraction, in the wake of Japan's triple disasters: earthquake, tsunami, nuclear.

A letter in this week's Nature posits a fascinating hypothesis for why the enormous forces that build mountain ranges, trigger earthquakes, and create volcanoes, cause some areas of continental crust to buckle but not others. The culprit seems to be quartz:

Here we show that the abundance of crustal quartz, the weakest mineral in continental rocks, may strongly condition continental temperature and deformation. 

Furthermore, quartz-rich crust may also steer the process of plate tectonics: that shape-shifting of continents and oceans that continually, albeit slowly, rewrites the map of our world. If so, then quartz could be the weak trigger underlying the Japan Trench—epicenter of the 2011 Tōhoku (Sendai) Earthquake.

The work for this study was done with freely-available data from EarthScope—a program of the National Science Foundation that deploys thousands of seismic, GPS, and other geophysical instruments to examine the structure and evolution of North America.

 

EarthScope planning map.EarthScope planning map.

 

Science Insider reports that there are no drugs other for radiation poisoning other than potassium iodide, which only treats for the radioisotopes of iodine. But there are some in development:

A drug called Ex-RAD, developed by Onconova Therapeutics Inc., currently being tested as a prophylactic that could be given to first responders in a nuclear attack or to individuals preparing to enter a radioactive site. It's not the only drug though being tried out—CBLB502 has been shown to be effective in mice and monkeys.

Meanwhile, an interesting article in BBC Science puts Japan's nuclear emissions in a broader perspective, reminding us of the hazards of radiation we choose to accept:

A whole-body CT scan as part of a medical check-up... can deliver you a dose equivalent to being 1.5 miles from the centre of the Hiroshima explosion. Because more than 70 million CT scans are carried out each year, the US National Cancer Institute has estimated that 29,000 Americans will get cancer as a result of the CT scans they received in 2007 alone.

 CT scanner. Credit: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons.CT scanner. Credit: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Australian Broadcasting Company reports on collateral damage to internet service from Japan's megaquake:

Two [fiber-optic] cables linking Japan and the United States were damaged following the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, causing a 30 percent slowing of [internet] bandwidth. The damage may take a month to repair.

NASA's Earth Observatory posted an illuminating image of the damage to Japan's electrical grid, as seen from orbit (below).

The yellow areas indicate lights that were functioning in 2010 and 2011. Red shows power outages on March 12, 2011. Blue and green show clouds. Magenta shows lights obscured by clouds. The bright green points may indicate lights not observed in 2010 but visible in 2011. When you consider that Japan is roughly the size of California and 3.4 times more populous, that's adds up to a lot of people in the dark.

 Electricity Losses in Northeastern Japan following the Sendai quake. Yellow indicates lights functioning in 2010 and 2011. Red: power outages on March 12, 2011. Blue and green: clouds. Magenta: lights obscured by clouds. Bright green: may be lights not obElectricity Losses in Northeastern Japan following the Sendai quake Credit: NOAA National Geophysical Data Center.

 

Speaking of in the dark, Nature News published an interesting article by  Geoff Brumfiel called The Meltdown That Wasn't. (Not yet, at any rate, and hopefully never.) He describes just how treacherous the early hours and days at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant must have been:

In the moments after the power was lost, the operators "would have literally been blind", says Margaret Harding, a nuclear engineer in Wilmington, North Carolina. Harding worked for two decades with General Electric, which designed Fukushima's boiling-water reactors, and she witnessed a similar outage in 1984 during a safety test at a boiling-water reactor in Switzerland. "Basically the emergency lights came on and all the panels went black," Harding says.

Brumfiel goes on to describe a guesstimated blow-by-blow of events and actions at reactor 1, including a variety of things done right:

At some point, the falling water levels must have left the fuel exposed... As temperatures rose above 1,000 °C, the steam in the pressure vessel began to oxidize the zirconium, probably releasing hydrogen gas. Meanwhile, fuel pellets, liberated from their shell, began to fall to the bottom of the reactor. The meltdown had begun... This was the crucial moment...  Slowly, the pile could build towards a 'critical mass' that would restart the nuclear process normally used to generate electricity... Nobody can be sure about this sequence of events because there has never been a full meltdown in a boiling-water reactor. Harding says that she thinks it's unlikely that the nuclear processes would have reignited. Even if they did, the worst case, in her opinion, is that the fuel would have burned through the steel pressure vessel and splattered onto the 'base mat', a thick concrete slab that would have spread out the fuel, extinguishing any fission reactions... But even that might have been catastrophic. The volatile hydrogen gas generated by the zirconium was safe inside the steel pressure vessel, but it was liable to explode if exposed to air in the outer containment vessel. If the blast were big enough, it might have breached the outer vessel's thick, concrete walls.

Finally, the dissenting views are washing up. Michael Hanlon, science editor of Britain's Daily Mail, writes that what's happened in Japan should be an ENDORSEMENT of nuclear power (his caps):

Think about it: despite being faced with a Magnitude 9 Great Earthquake which knocked the whole island of Honshu several feet to the west, a 35ft tsunami and the complete breakdown of the infrastructure, a handful of rather ancient atomic reactors have remained largely intact and have released only tiny amounts of radiation.

So easy to say from half a world away. Wonder if Hanlon would feel the same way if he was one of the Fukushima 50 trading his health, maybe his life, to try and keep it that way.

 

Questions for Guy Kawasaki, First Apple Evangelist?

| Tue Mar. 22, 2011 6:20 PM EDT

Guy Kawasaki, one the original marketers of the Macintosh computer in 1984, has been called the Dale Carnegie of Silicon Valley for his books on how to enchant friends and influence people. A tech entrepeneur's tech entrepeneur, his bestselling 10th book, "Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions," came out March 8. I'm interviewing Kawasaki later this week; got a question for Apple's first evangelist? If there's a Mac anywhere in your proximity, you might, so please feel free to add them to the comments below and I'll take a look.

Here are a few I'm tinkering with to get you started:

1) How would you describe the art of (and need for) enchantment to a college student about to enter a challenging job market?

2) Is there an area in American public discourse where people who should be enchanting others currently aren't?

3) Today's new tech companies seem generally better organized and less prone to excess than the dot coms of the late '90s, which is probably great for investors but sort of boring from a party standpoint. Am I right in thinking that start-up culture generally has calmed down and grown up somewhat? 

4) How has Silicon Valley changed most dramatically since you were first at Apple?

5) Given how ubiquitous the glowing Apple logo was at this year's SXSW Interactive, it's clear that the concept of Apple evangelism you created continues to succeed. Do you see any downside to the ubiquity of Apple products in geek circles? Do you ever think, 'hey, maybe that worked a little too well in Silicon Valley?

6) What one piece of advice would you give to a nonprofit or individual trying to change the world for the better?