Islamic State of Iraq Flag

As I wrote last week, the appearance of a flag used by Al Qaeda in Iraq flying over a Benghazi courthouse has caused some anxiety over the extent of extremist sympathies among rebels in Libya.

A similar flag—which Brandeis researcher Aaron Zelin identifies as being associated with the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization of jihadists that includes al-Qaeda's Iraqi franchise—has been popping up elsewhere in the region. This second flag has been described in some quarters as cause for concern and been greeted with outright hysteria in others. Earlier this morning, the Clarion Fund, a conservative organization where current Mitt Romney adviser and former Lebanese Forces member Walid Phares serves on the advisory board, sent out an email warning that Al Qaeda "had seized control of Libya."

Writing at Foreign Policy, Will McCants, a former State Department counterterrorism adviser, says that the flag's "appearance in Benghazi certainly raises questions about the sympathies of some within the movement that ousted Muammar al-Qaddafi, adding to widespread reports of fighters sympathetic to al Qaeda among the rebels." But he cautions against reading too much into the use of the flag:

[T]he appearance of the flag in other Arab countries is not necessarily evidence of growing support for al Qaeda or terrorist group's presence. It could just as easily be youth taking advantage of their newfound freedom to scare their elders, or repressed Salafis using the most shocking symbol possible to voice their anger in public. There is also an element of "Wish You Were Here" photography to many of the photos of the ISI's flag being unfurled around the Arab world and posted in jihadi forums. This is not to say that the appearance of the flags, particularly in protests, should be ignored. But more corroborating evidence is needed before hitting the panic button.

Former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group member and rebel commander Abduljawad Bedeen also downplayed the presence of the black flags, telling Reuters that, "First of all, al-Qaeda doesn't even have an official flag. And just because they've used a similar one doesn't mean they have exclusive rights to it...If they were to send people here they would have a very, very weak presence...I don't think the Libyan people would accept it." Although the words of a former LIFG member could be dismissed as mere spin, Libya expert Ronald Bruce St John told me something similar last week. 

In the spirit of avoiding the panic button, it's worth recalling Osama bin Laden's 2004 message in which he bragged that "All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies."

Health Tab for Climate Change: $14 Billion

Climate change-related disasters caused $14 billion in health costs in first decade of the 2000s, according to a new paper published this week in the journal Health Affairs. The paper looks at six case studies of weather events in the US, all of the type predicted to increase or grow more severe as climate change progresses, like hurricanes, floods, and heat waves. It then determines the cost of disease, injury, and death related to those events.

Each individual event can be pricey. Ozone pollution in the US over the period of 2000 to 2002 cost $6.5 billion in emergency room visits, missed days at work or school, or early deaths (a particular concern for the elderly and people with preexisting respiratory conditions). The California heat wave in 2006, during which record temperatures were recorded all over the state over a two-week period, cost $5.4 billion. A lot of those costs came from hospitalizations and ER visits for problems like dehydration and heat stroke.

Sure, going to the hospital is pricey. But dying isn't free, either. The researchers used the EPA's value of a statistical life—a rough estimate of how each individual life costs—of $7.9 million.

$14 billion is a pretty big number for just 10 years. But that's only looking at a handful of specific incidents. There are also costs associated with climate change that don't stem from extreme events—things like increased problems related to asthma or allergies, or even problems like kidney stones, as we reported last year.

Seal Fur Sheds Light on Antarctic Krill

Antarctic fur seal (right), Weddell seal (left), Penguin Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica.: Credit: © Julia Whitty.Antarctic fur seal (right), Weddell seal (left), Penguin Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica.: Credit: © Julia Whitty.How do you assess the health of a marine invertebrate—namely Antarctic krill—when there's no historical baseline to measure it against?

In an intriguing piece of detective work reported in PLoS ONE a team of researchers from China and the US turned to analyzing old seal hairs to determine changes in abundance of krill in the past century.

Antarctic krill.: Credit: Uwe Kils via Wikimedia Commons.Antarctic krill.: Credit: Uwe Kils via Wikimedia Commons.

Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, is a keystone species in the Southern Ocean and the primary consumer in a foodweb supporting fish, penguins, seabirds, seals, and whales. They school in swarms of up to of 30,000 individuals per cubic meter and are perhaps the most abundant animal on Earth, with a total biomass estimated at ~379 million metric tons.

In the video below (starting at 00:01), you can see humpback whales bubble feeding on krill in Antarctic waters. 


There's evidence of a decline in krill biomass in parts of Antarctica in the past 30 years—but when did it begin?

To look deeper into history, the authors analyzed core samples from lake sediments near an Antarctic fur seal colony on King George Island in the South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. They dated the fur in the cores via stable carbon (δ13C) in the samples. They inferred the abundance of krill in the seals' diet via the nitrogen (δ15N) isotopes in the fur. From the paper:

Since Antarctic fur seals feed preferentially on krill, the variation of [nitrogen] in seal hair indicates a change in the proportion of krill in the seal's diets and thus the krill availability in local seawater.


Antarctic krill grazing on algae living on the underside of sea ice.: Credit: Uwe Kils via Wikimedia Commons.Antarctic krill grazing on algae living on the underside of sea ice.: Credit: Uwe Kils via Wikimedia Commons.Their results indicate that krill began to decline in the diet of fur seals in this part of Antarctica nearly a century ago. That time frame correlates with increasing sea surface temperatures and dwindling sea ice. (See my post Life Inside the Sea Ice for more about the relationship between krill and sea ice.) From the PLoS ONE paper:

In this region for the past decades, the sea ice shows a decline trend, and this is in coincidence with the decline trend in krill populations. Like the seal [nitrogen] values, the sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly in Southern Ocean (50°S) also shows an obvious increasing trend for the 20th century, and the significant correlation between them... suggests that the inferred decreasing krill population is linked with warming ocean and declining sea ice extent.



 The paper: 

  • Huang T, Sun L, Stark J, Wang Y, Cheng Z, et al. Relative Changes in Krill Abundance Inferred from Antarctic Fur Seal. PLoS ONE. 2011. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0027331.


On Tuesday, Mississippi asked voters to decide whether or not to ban all abortions and many forms of contraception. The voters said no. But if anti-abortion groups get their way, there will be a host of similar measures on the ballot in 2012.

Efforts are underway in at least six states to adopt similar laws via constitutional amendments, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, which is tracking the initiatives. The specific language varies from state to state, but all of the measures seek to redefine human life as beginning at conception. (And as my colleague Nick Baumann reports today, federal lawmakers are also circulating similar measures.)

The Urban Turkey-Raising Diaries

From May to November, my friends and I raised a couple of heritage turkeys, Stripes and Tires, in a backyard in Berkeley, California. This is a diary about what it's like to care for (and become attached to) animals that you know you're going to eat. Apologies for the slow load time; shouldn't take more than a few seconds.

Four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters provide air support for soldiers conducting an air assault exercise as part of the Full Spectrum Training Event in Hohenfels, Germany, October 14, 2011. The UH-60 crews are assigned to the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade-Europe. US Army photo by Richard Bumgardner.

The Spotlight Moves to Italy

In a sense, the problem with Greece has never really been about Greece. A Greek collapse, even a total one, would be bad news for Europe but it would be manageable bad news. Greece is small enough that the EU could bail them out completely they had to.

(Whether they'd want to is another question entirely. But they could afford to if push came to shove.)

The bigger problem is that problems in one wobbly country make investors freshly nervous about Europe's other wobbly countries too, and last week's psychodrama in Athens has made them very nervous indeed. In particular, it's made them nervous about Italy, which has tons of debt and a clownish prime minister who makes Herman Cain look like a statesman. As a result, nobody wants to buy Italian bonds, which means that Italy has to offer higher and higher interest rates to attract buyers. But higher interest rates make it even harder for Italy to ever pay off its debt, which makes investors even more nervous about getting repaid, which sends interest rates even higher, etc. etc. This eventually leads to collapse, and Italy is big enough that the EU can't easily bail them out even if they want to.

But wait! There's more. The Wall Street Journal explains what happens when Italian bond rates go up and the spread between Italian rates and German rates widens:

In some ways, the widening of that spread has caused a vicious selling cycle thanks to rules that govern the use of government debt as collateral for borrowing money, otherwise known as repurchase, or repo, agreements.

Analysts point to the rules set by LCH.Clearnet Group Ltd., the main clearinghouse for repurchase agreements. LCH.Clearnet requires higher collateral for repo trades involving government bonds that yield 4.5% more than a basket of triple-A-rated European sovereign bonds for five consecutive days. Market watchers said Italy is on the cusp of falling into that riskier bucket....Should the collateral requirements be triggered, it would make Italian debt less attractive for banks and investors who use their holdings as a cheap way to borrow money. Some market watchers said there has been selling of Italian debt in anticipation of the stricter guidelines.

This is sort of a special case of the more general vicious cycle described above. Basically, it's like a run on the bank, and it's the same dynamic that brought down Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. The vicious cycle in cases like this tends to accelerate toward the end, which is why Bear and Lehman collapsed within a week once their weakness became apparent. Sovereign countries are a little better off in this regard, but not a lot. If investors become convinced that Italian bond yields are going to continue widening, it becomes, first, a self-fulfilling prophecy, and then a full-scale panic. Last week was all about Greece. This week might be all about Italy.

Where the Money Is

As a public service for readers who are planning to enter college soon, here's a list of the 25 top-paying majors. If you want to make a lot of money, it turns out your choices are pretty simple. You can major in business and roll the dice on becoming a top trader/rainmaker on Wall Street, or you can just buckle down and major in some kind of engineering. It doesn't matter much what it is, though petroleum engineering is surprisingly lucrative. And be sure to stay away from being a high school guidance counselor. The full sortable list is here.

The Great Rocketfish Power Adapter Mystery

Apple Computer seems to think that $50 is a fair price for a spare iPhone charger, so I headed off to Best Buy today to see if I could find something more reasonably priced. And I did. But can anyone explain this?

On the left, you can buy a power adapter plus a cord for $21.99. On the right, you can buy just the cord — the exact same cord — for $24.99. Surely there's a breakdown of the free market at work here. But of what nature, exactly?

Solar Power and its Discontents

Can solar power ever get cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels on a level playing field? Photovoltaic solar cells are getting cheaper a lot faster than most people realize, and last week I posted this chart originally constructed by Ramez Naam:

Naam refers to this as "Moore's Law" for solar: in the same way that electronic components get steadily cheaper every year, so will the cost of solar. He estimates that the price of solar has declined at a fairly steady 7% per year for the past three decades, and if that continues, then solar will compete with fossil fuels by 2020 or so and will be significantly cheaper by 2030. This sounds great, but Joshua Gans urges caution:

Think about what that means for environmental policy. If we believe Moore’s Law in solar, then the safe bet in terms of behavioural reactions is not to react. Within a decade or two, energy will be socially as cheap as it is privately as cheap now. That means that changing habits for environmental austerity is not the way to go.

In other words, why bother conserving if solar is going to get so cheap that we'll have all the clean electricity we need within a couple of decades? This comes via Tyler Cowen, who makes a different point:

If a solar breakthrough is now likely, in which market prices do we see it reflected?....Is there any reason, based in industry-wide market prices, to be optimistic about the near-term or even medium-term future of solar power? I don’t see it.

I don't see it either, but I think the correct answer to both of these objections is the same: everything is uncertain. The reason we should keep pushing on conservation and efficiency is because solar might not follow a Moore's Law of its own. The progress so far can make us hopeful on this score, but it can't make us so certain that we're willing to put all our eggs in a single solar basket.

That same uncertainty is the answer to Tyler's point as well: the power industry hasn't reacted to the drop in solar prices because the industry is still uncertain it will happen. And there's more. The price of solar has been dropping exponentially for 30 years. That's not a prediction, it's a historical reality, and yet the power industry hasn't so much as blinked. So why should we expect them to react to it now? The fact is that industries routinely fail to react to technological competition until it's literally on their doorstep — or even tromping through the door and plonking down on the sofa to make itself comfortable. Hell, IBM stock continued to rise all through the 80s. It wasn't until 1987 that investors finally figured out what technologists had known for years, namely that those newfangled PC things might put a serious damper on the growth of big proprietary systems.

Solar power looks likely to get a lot cheaper over the next decade or two. That's good news for residents of planet Earth and bad news for fossil fuel suppliers, but neither group should bet the ranch on it happening. For Earthlings in general, this means we should stay focused on lots of different ways of reducing carbon emissions just in case solar doesn't pan out. For fossil fuel suppliers, it means they should spend some time hedging their bets, but not much more for now. For investors it means — well, different things for different investors. If you think it's likely that the price of solar will keep falling, you should figure out ways to invest in solar. If not, not. Right now, price parity is far enough off that only a few far-sighted investors with lots of appetite for risk are likely to spend significant sums betting on it, which in turn means that broad markets aren't yet affected.

And they might never be. It all depends. But the fact that they aren't reacting yet to something that's at least ten years off doesn't really tell us much about how promising the solar market is. All it tells us is that most investors don't really have very long time horizons.