2011 - %3, October

Awesome Animal-Inspired Inventions

| Sat Oct. 22, 2011 3:00 PM EDT

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

Passive Cooling—An office building inspired by termite mounds

The humble termite may still pose a threat to wooden buildings, but in Africa their home has inspired a new, green, and efficient form of building.

Termites live in termitaria—towering nests commonly called 'anthills'. The ability of termites to control the temperature in these mounds has led to the building of one of the most green examples of architecture in the world.

The Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe has no conventional air conditioning or heating but temperature is controlled year round using techniques from the termites.

Inside the mounds termites farm a fungus, which is their primary source of food, and it must be kept at 87 degrees Farenheit while the temperature outside can range from 35 degrees at night to 105 during the day.

Amazingly, the termites manage to do this by constantly opening and closing heating and cooling vents in the mound over the course of a day. The termites do this constantly to keep their temperature regulated.

The mainly concrete Eastgate Centre works in a similar way. Outside air that is drawn in is either warmed or cooled by the building mass. It is then vented into the building's floors and offices before exiting via chimneys at the top.

Eastgate uses less than 10 per cent of the energy of a normal building of its size, and the owners have saved $3.5 million just because they didn't have to install air conditioning. It also means the tenants pay rent that's 20 per cent lower than in neighboring buildings. All thanks to the termite.

Humpback whale-inspired hydroelectric turbines

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Book Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

| Sat Oct. 22, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Thinking, Fast and Slow

By Daniel Kahneman

FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX

Our brains have two systems for decision making: One is fast and automatic, driven by emotion; the other is a slow and deliberate, if sometimes impractical, check on the first. This engaging book, a culmination of years of work in behavioral psychology that earned Daniel Kahneman the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, examines the interplay between these systems to explain why, for instance, we vote for attractive politicians and tend to be overconfident in our ability to predict the stock market. "The issue of which of the two selves matters more is not a question only for philosophers," Kahneman writes. It has real-life implications for politics and public policy.

The Right-Wing Media Assault on Occupy Oakland

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 8:00 PM EDT

Nearly two weeks ago, demonstrators in Oakland pitched tents at a plaza outside City Hall to express solidarity with the month-long Occupy Wall Street protests in Manhattan. The encampment's population has since expanded to several hundred people at peak hours, with more protesters at a second location a few blocks away in a public park. The occupation has also become a convenient target of conservative rabblerousers, who have pointed to scattered incidents of violence and other reported problems to paint the Occupy Wall Street movement as a lowlife collection of drug addicts, communists, and militant anarchists. On Friday afternoon, the city posted notices saying those who don't leave the occupation will be subject to arrest.

Right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart and his associates have helped lead the charge against Occupy Oakland, highlighting unflattering local news reports to cast the occupation as a "rat-infested squalor with complaints of vandalism, public urination, sexual harassment, and sex in public." Breitbart alleged that a female TV newscaster was told by an occupier suspicious of the media that "we shoot white bitches like you around here." Blogger John Sexton pointed to an Oakland Tribune report of one man putting a substitute teacher in a chokehold and another who later had to be subdued with a board to the head after wielding a large knife. Others jumped on reports of complaints from the city about a rat problem. Occupy Oakland, Sexton declared (update: quoting the words of one police officer), had descended into a real-life "Lord of the Flies."

While there is truth to many of these reports, the reality of Occupy Oakland is less bleak. As a tall, red-bearded young man who introduced himself as Roger told me, "We didn't set up in a nice park in the middle of New York City. We set up in Oakland." And that's just it: The occupation is an experiment in self-governance; its problems are reflective of the problems of the city at large. The camp is open to all, and it attracts all kinds. Roger said he wished the media would focus more on its community-building successes, like the free food and clothing it provides and the sense of safety it's given the homeless living in an environment that might otherwise be even rougher.

Mitt Romney Whistles to the Wingnuts

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 5:13 PM EDT

Mitt Romney's campaign strategy is fairly simple. He can't afford to dive too far down the tea party rabbit hole because that would hurt his chances in the general election, but he still needs the tea party vote in the primaries. So instead of flat taxes and electrified fences, he tries to appease them with absurdly over-the-top criticisms of the Great Satan himself, Barack Obama. Here's how this worked today, in his reaction to Obama's announcement that all U.S. troops would withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year:

President Obama’s astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women. The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government. The American people deserve to hear the recommendations that were made by our military commanders in Iraq.

Well, the naked political calculation was that instead of withdrawing American troops by the end of 2009, as he originally said he'd do, he agreed to follow the timeline negotiated by....George W. Bush in 2008. And talks over troop immunity failed because the agreement negotiated by — yes, George W. Bush in 2008 — cut off immunity at the end of 2011 and the Iraqi legislature flatly refused to consider extending it. And finally, the opinion of the military commanders in Iraq is, I'm pretty sure, adamantine: no immunity, no troops. Admiral Mike Mullen made this clear a couple of months ago when he — not Obama — insisted that troops would stay in Iraq only if they were (a) given immunity from local prosecution and (b) the immunity agreement was approved by Iraq's parliament.

So Mitt is being a horse's ass here. Still, as a campaign strategy it's not bad. And his decision not to try to out-wingnut the wingnuts was vindicated by Michele Bachmann's statement, which said that not only should we have stayed in Iraq, but we should have "demanded that Iraq repay the full cost of liberating them given their rich oil revenues." Even Dick Cheney never went that far.

Senate "Compromise" On Domestic Military Detention Deteriorating

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 5:13 PM EDT

On Thursday night, the Senate voted down a Republican-backed amendment that would have completely banned federal criminal trials for terrorism suspects believed to be associated with al-Qaeda.

The 52-47 vote on New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte's amendment was largely along party lines. The Senate GOP's libertarianish contingent, represented by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voted against the proposal, while Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) voted with the GOP. The vote is the latest blow to the problematic bipartisan "compromise" on domestic military detention reached earlier by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

That compromise measure would have made military detention the default option for terrorism suspects believed to be part of al-Qaeda but would have left open the option for federal trials as long as the Secretary of Defense gave explicit approval. As I wrote last week, the compromise detention provision—a rule that even former Bush administration officials criticized for limiting the president's options for dealing with terrorism suspects—would make it far less likely that someone like convicted underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab would be tried in federal court. (The now-defeated Ayotte amendment, of course, would have banned such trials outright.) Early this month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), at the Obama administration's request, held up the entire defense authorization bill over the detention provisions.

"Senator Reid remains committed in working with Republicans, but he stands firm in his position on the detainee provisions," said a Senate Democratic aide, who added that Reid was hoping to reach a compromise on the detention issues "by the end of the year."

Chris Anders, a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes both the amendment and the compromise provision, says Democrats should no longer feel obligated to compromise.

"It should be clear now that the bipartisan... detention 'deal' is a farce," Anders says. "It's like if I tell you that I won't run you over with my red truck if you give me a 1,000 dollars, then after you pay me, I go out and find a blue truck to try to run you over."

Report: Countries Catch Way More Bluefin Tuna Than They're Supposed To

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 4:48 PM EDT
Bluefin tuna at the Tsukiji Market, Japan.

Countries around the world are selling more than twice as much Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna than international standards allow, according to a new report from the Pew Environment Group. The report, released earlier this week, compares the recorded volume of Atlantic bluefin tuna caught and traded in the Mediterranean Sea and northeastern Atlantic Ocean with catch quotas set by the intergovernmental body responsible for regulating the fish's trade.

Pew looked at bluefin tuna trade data recorded over the last 13 years by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), Eurostat, Japanese customs, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Croatian Chamber of Economy, plotted in the graph below. The data tells us that while the overall recorded catch and international quota declined over time, in recent years the difference between the quota and actual trade volume has increased significantly:

Pew Environment GroupPew Environment GroupIn 2008 the amount of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna traded on the global market was 31 percent larger than ICCAT's quota that year. In 2010, the gap expanded to 141 percent.

We've long known that national fishing fleets regularly break ICCAT's catch quotas. But the extent to which the nearly extinct bluefin tuna is being overfished is concerning, particularly since the report doesn't account for bluefin tuna traded on the black market. On this point: In February 2009 a team of British researchers wrote in the journal Public Library of Science that between 2000 and 2003, an average of 30 percent of all bluefin tuna caught around the world were caught illegally:

John Pearce et al/www.illegal-fishing.infoJohn Pearce et al/www.illegal-fishing.infoReliable and comprehensive data is important, not least because it informs major decisions about species protection. As I reported here in May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—the US agency that oversees the Atlantic bluefin tuna—declared that the fish did not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. NOAA reached its decision at the time on the assumption that fishing fleets abided by ICCAT quotas. Whether Pew's findings will prompt NOAA to revisit its decision remains to be seen.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

GOPers Hit Obama for Iraq Withdrawal

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 4:19 PM EDT
Spc. Austin Davenport passes out Iraqi flags to children in Baghdad, Aug. 11, 2007.

The shock and awe didn't last long. On Friday afternoon, just minutes after Barack Obama announced that America's war in Iraq would be finally, truly over at year's end, critics of the president punctured what could have been a national moment of solemn reflection and relief.

"As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end," Obama—the president whose administration has ended the lives of Osama bin Laden, Anwar Awlaki, and just yesterday, Moammar Qaddafi—said in his announcement Friday. "The rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year." Obama added that US-Iraq relations would change dramatically on January 1, 2012, to "a normal relationship between sovereign nations"—a recognition of the past nine years' weirdness that, although perfectly obvious, still seemed poignant when spoken aloud.

Nonetheless, the end of US military operations in Iraq—100,000 troops have already left the country, and the final 39,000 will be gone by late December—is already being spun by some Republican critics as an admission of defeat, part of a larger attempt to paint Obama and his party as soft on national security. That narrative is increasingly divorced from reality.

Eric Cantor, Friend of the Poor?

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 4:00 PM EDT
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.)

On Friday at the University of Pennsylvania, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) will deliver what is, essentially, the Republican response to Occupy Wall Street (the same Eric Cantor who referred to the protestors as "mobs"). A Cantor aide told Politico that the congressman will "talk about the various socioeconomic classes and how Washington should stop pushing different people down the economic ladder and instead can work together to ensure that all people have the ability move up."

What qualifies Cantor to speak about inequality? Not much. Here are a few of the greatest hits from the last few years of the GOP's war on the poor:

Unemployment insurance (UI)—which, as numerous studies like a recent one from Moody's Analytics have pointed out, is one of the most effective forms of stimulus—is scheduled to expire at the end of this year. But Republicans want to reform the system before giving it new life. According to Politico, Cantor's speech could shed some light on the GOP's plans. To get a sense of what he might say, check out this speech he delivered at the conservative Heritage Foundation in late 2009 on undoing the Obama administration's economic recovery plan. The centerpiece: Requiring UI recipients who are most likely to exhaust their benefits to participate in education, training, or "enhanced job search" as a condition of eligibility.

As an example, he cited a program enacted in Georgia in 2003 that uses unemployment insurance to pay companies to train and, ideally, eventually hire job-seekers. But the program overpromised and undelivered, ballooning both in size and cost, according to a recent interview with Georgia Labor commissioner Mark Butler:

Friday Cat Blogging - 21 October 2011

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 3:14 PM EDT

On the left, we have the miracle of foreshortening. It looks like Domino is investigating a rose about twice the size of her head, but the rose is actually a couple of feet in front of her. What she's really looking at is probably some invisible dust mote in the cat dimension. On the right, we have the miracle of bad framing. As usual, I focused on Inkblot's eyes and then forgot to reframe the shot, cutting him off at his knees. Or whatever passes for knees on a cat. Still, it's sort of a cool picture. It's amazing how a few blurry leaves in the foreground can make it look like Inkblot is in the middle of the Amazon rain forest, isn't it?

Are Qaddafi's Killers War Criminals?

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 3:07 PM EDT

Was Moammar Qaddafi—who was wanted by the International Criminal Court for committing war crimes—himself a victim of a war crime? Amnesty International thinks it's a good possibility:

Video footage which emerged yesterday appears to show that Colonel al-Gaddafi was alive when he was captured by anti-Gaddafi troops in Sirte yesterday.

"If Colonel al-Gaddafi was killed after his capture, it would constitute a war crime and those responsible should be brought to justice," said Claudio Cordone, Senior Director at Amnesty International.

Killing a combatant after he's surrendered is a violation of both the International Criminal Court's statutes and the Geneva Conventions. But as Foreign Policy's David Bosco points out in this excellent analysis, the fact that Qaddafi's death likely was a war crime probably doesn't matter.

The choices of the prosecutor and the rulings of the ICC judges in recent years have made abundantly clear that the court prioritizes large-scale crimes that form part of a broad pattern or practice. Given that emphasis, it is unlikely the court will ultimately prosecute anyone for Qaddafi's killing unless they decide that there existed within the anti-Qaddafi forces a broad practice of war crimes or crimes against humanity and that the Qaddafi killing was a manifestation of that.

What's more, the new Libyan authorities could foil any ICC investigation by carrying out their own investigation. With  a national investigation underway, the ICC must yield unless it determines that the investigation is a sham. To the chagrin of many (mostly outside Libya, it seems), Qaddafi will never now see a courtroom in the Hague; neither will whoever killed him.