2011 - %3, November

Independent Panel: EPA Underestimates Atrazine's Cancer Risk

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 5:00 AM EST

Atrazine is the second most widely used pesticide on US farms. According to its maker, the Swiss agrichemical giant Syngenta, US sales of it are booming. Does it cause cancer?

The EPA, which regulates pesticide use, has been operating under the assumption that the chemical is "not likely to be a human carcinogen." But in 2009, the agency launched what it called a "comprehensive new evaluation of the pesticide atrazine to determine its effects on humans." As part of the process, it charged a panel made up of independent scientists and public health experts to "evaluate the pesticide's potential cancer and non-cancer effects."

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R. Crumb on Album Covers, Charlie Patton 78s, and Occupy Wall Street

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 5:00 AM EST

Don't go bothering Robert Crumb. The renowned cartoonist and American expat lives somewhere in the south of France, but when I call him to talk about his latest book, he steadfastly refuses to tell me where: "I don't want people coming here looking for me," he says, "so I don't tell the name of this town." He won't elaborate on whom he might be hiding from, but it's easy to believe that Crumb, 68, has a cult following. Over his nearly lifelong career, this icon of 1960s underground comics has created beloved characters like Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, was the subject of a Terry Zwigoff documentary, and even illustrated the book of Genesis. ("First I was gonna make a satire," he told me. "But the original text is so strange by itself you don't have to satirize it.") In 1991, Crumb was inducted into the prestigious Will Eisner Hall of Fame. Maus creator Art Spiegelman has called him "a monolithic presence, who rewrote the rules of what comics are."

But behind the overt sexuality and anti-establishment riffs that characterize Crumb's comics, his muse has always been old-timey American blues. He's a die-hard collector of 78 rpm records from the likes of Memphis Minnie and Robert Johnson. Crumb himself is an accomplished banjo player, and made a splash in the 1970s underground folk music scene with his Cheap Suit Serenaders. He began drawing album covers and cartoon portraits of musicians while living in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood during the 1960s, and has since created an extensive portfolio of illustrations of classic rock figures like Janis Joplin, his old blues heroes, and his own band. This week WW Norton releases The Complete Record Cover Collection, a compendium of Crumb's greatest music cartoons and album covers. I spoke with Crumb about trading records for art, Janis Joplin's fatal quirks, and getting the hell out of the United States.

To view a selection of art from the book, check out our slideshow.          

The Finely Tuned Soul of Fitz and The Tantrums

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 5:00 AM EST

Nestled between the folk stylings of Justin Townes Earle and the bluegrass twang of the legendary Ralph Stanley at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival last month, soulsters Fitz and the Tantrums took to the Tower of Gold stage to transform the crowd into a hot, sweaty dance party.

Hailing from Los Angeles, the six-piece soul-pop band lays the Motown swagger on thick. But "we didn't want to make our album Pickin' Up the Pieces pastiche or revival, though some are quick to label us as that," says singer Michael Fitzpatrick. "There are a lot of different influences pouring out, hip-hop, new wave, ABC, Talking Heads, and even with the Motown and Stax influences, it's truly a hybrid of our music tastes and sensibilities." 

The fact that I can't stop humming Average White Band's "Pick Up the Pieces" while writing about them goes to show that good funk is all about the feel. "We're high energy," Fitz explains. "That's where the tantrum comes in. We wanted it to sound like somebody just ratcheted the sound up to 11 and we're careening off the tracks." 

Another Dubious Execution Under Rick Perry?

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 5:00 AM EST
2012 GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry

Update: On Monday afternoon, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Skinner's execution to review how changes in the state law on DNA testing requests affect cases like his.

"Any time DNA evidence can be used in its context and be relevant as to the guilt or innocence of a person on death row, we need to use it."

This was the statement of none other than George W. Bush, Texas governor. He said it in June 2000, about granting a last-minute reprieve to death row inmate Ricky McGinn, who was seeking DNA testing of forensic evidence he claimed might exonerate him. (It didn't, as it turned out, and McGinn was executed several months later.) Bush was running for president when he made his decision to delay the execution to allow for DNA testing.

Today, Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry faces an almost identical decision with the case of Hank Skinner—the main difference being a greater likelihood that Skinner might actually be innocent of the crime for which he has been sentenced to death. Skinner, who is scheduled for execution on November 9, was convicted in 1995 of killing his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons. He insists he was passed out from intoxication at the time, and that the real perpetrator was probably Busby's uncle (who has since died). At the time of his trial, Skinner's lawyers chose not to have certain items tested, they said, because his DNA would likely be everywhere in the home he shared with the victim. But since 2000, Skinner has been arguing that there's a chance DNA evidence could exonerate him.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 7, 2011

Mon Nov. 7, 2011 4:57 AM EST

Private 1st Class Daniel Adjei, a truck driver assigned to A Co., 407th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, stares into the twilight at a UH-60 Blackhawk as it comes in for a landing at the landing zone on Camp Ramadi, Iraq, October 31, 2011. Rotary-wing aircraft land at Ramadi to drop off and pick up personnel and to refuel. Personnel at the Ramadi LZ test the fuel daily to ensure it is up to standard, and keep track of the amount issued to each aircraft. Adjei is from Chapel Hill, N.C. Photo by the US Army.

Should You Go to the Circus? How About the Rodeo?

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 4:30 AM EST

After reading Deborah Nelson's incredibly depressing piece on circus elephant abuse, I'm pretty sure I'll never enter the Ringling Bros. big top again. But it did get me wondering about other forms of animal entertainment.

Just a few weeks ago, some friends and I went to the Grand National Rodeo. Protesters outside the arena warned us that "rodeos are not fun for the animals." Yet inside, the announcer assured us that the horses and cows were well cared for and healthy, and that they even enjoyed the "exercise" of shaking off hapless cowboys. And after watching one guy limp out of the ring after getting dragged by a bucking bronc, I had to admit that it did seem like the riders took more abuse than the animals. So are all animal shows really as cruel as Ringling Bros.? Or is there such thing as good old-fashioned performing-critter fun?

The law subjects tigers to the same confinement rules as monkeys or dogs.

Unsurprisingly, circuses that they adhere to rigorous standards of animal welfare. Ringling Bros. says that its approach to animal training is "built on respect, trust, affection and uncompromising care." Yet by law, circuses are really only required to follow one piece of legislation: the Animal Welfare Act. Enacted in 1966, the law is meant to regulate "the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers." But Delcianna Winders, PETA's director of captive animal law enforcement, told me that the AWA has been criticized for its lack of species-specific rules—under the law, an elephant or a tiger is subject to the same confinement rules as, say, a monkey or a dog. And even when USDA inspectors find evidence of abuse, as Nelson shows in her piece, the animal keepers often get away scot-free.

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Life Is Grand on Wall Street

| Sun Nov. 6, 2011 4:28 PM EST

The Jets just won their game and I'm in a good mood. So I guess it's time to head over to the ol' computer and see what's up in the world today. I wonder what the Washington Post has for us? Just one short click and—oh, crap:

Do I have the heart to read this? I guess I have to. I am a professional, after all. Let's dig in:

The largest banks are larger today than when Obama took office and are returning to the level of profits they were making before the depths of the financial crisis in 2008, according to government data. Wall Street firms—either independent companies or the high-flying trading arms of banks—are doing even better. They've made more profit in the first 2½ years of the Obama administration than they did during the entire Bush administration, industry data show.

…A recent study by two professors at the University of Michigan found that banks, instead of significantly increasing lending after being bailed out, used taxpayer money to invest in risky securities to profit from short-term price movements. The study found that bailed-out banks increased their returns by nearly 10 percent as a result.

…"The too-big-to-fail banks got bigger profits and avoided failure because of trillions of dollars of loans directly from the Federal Reserve," said Linus Wilson, assistant professor of finance at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "Today their profits are boosted by lower borrowing costs because their managers and creditors expect a Fed lifeline when markets get jittery."

Banks have also benefited from the massive increase during the recession in unemployment insurance, which is a joint federal and state program. Increasingly, banks offer debit cards to the unemployed to collect their benefits. These debit cards carry a range of fees that bolster bank bottom lines.

That's it. I can't go on. Read the rest yourself if you have the stomach for it.

Chart of the Day: The Dying of the American Dream

| Sun Nov. 6, 2011 11:57 AM EST

Jared Bernstein directs us to Katharine Bradbury of the Boston Fed, who has done a longitudinal study of income mobility over the past four decades and concludes that Horatio Alger is slowly dying. Today, the rich are mostly staying rich and the poor are mostly staying poor:

By most measures, mobility is lower in more recent periods (1995–2005) than in the late seventies and the eighties (the 1977–1987 or 1981–1991 periods). Comparing results based on pre-government income suggests that an increasingly redistributive tax and transfer system contributed to rising mobility into the 1980s, but that its impact has since waned. Overall, the evidence indicates that over the 1969-to-2006 time span, family income mobility across the distribution decreased, families’ later-year incomes increasingly depended on their starting place, and the distribution of families’ lifetime incomes became less equal.

The study tracks the income of families over a ten-year period, and includes only families that were both independent (i.e., not living with their parents) and not retired for each ten-year period under study. Income is also adjusted for family size. Putting this study together with everything else we know, we can see a grand total of four things happening during the 35-year period from 1970 to 2005:

  1. Income inequality is increasing: the rich are much, much richer today than they used to be.
  2. To deal with this, tax rates on the rich have gone down.
  3. Income mobility is decreasing. If you start out poor or middle class, you're more likely to stay there than in the past.
  4. To deal with this, government assistance to the poor has gone down.

Jared suspects that these things are correlated. I suspect he's right. "The relationship between income concentration and political power is one important link," he says. In other words, more income concentration among the rich has given them more political clout, and that's allowed them to influence public policy in ways that encourage even more income concentration among the rich.

I'd add to that another dynamic: as the poor increasingly stay poor, the public starts to view them not as victims of larger trends, but as a permanent underclass that's not willing to work hard enough to better themselves. And who wants to see their tax dollars spent to support a bunch of shiftless layabouts?

The chart below tells the main story. The number of poor families who move up at all has decreased over the past 35 years, and the number who have moved up more than trivially has decreased even more. The American Dream isn't what it used to be.

Quote of the Day: Blog Fodder as Life Motivation

| Sat Nov. 5, 2011 10:14 AM EDT

From Andrew Sprung, after screeching to a halt in the middle of reading a book review because he thought — incorrectly, it turns out — that he might have caught an error:

This leads me to confront my own bias, which was toward finding a flaw, as in this post. You could call it predatory reading, a reflex triggered or neutralized by all kinds of confirmation biases as I work my way down a page. Not to mention the miracle of internet search and access — its wow factor may be getting long in the tooth, but it's still operative!

It's true. My reading these days is far more directed than in the past. If it doesn't seem likely to provide fodder for a blog post, I skim right past it. If it not only seems like potential blog material, but might even contain an error that I can glom onto, then Eureka!

But congratulations to Andrew for not finding an error and getting a post out of it anyway. That's professionalism, my friends.

Race to the South Pole: Looking Back 100 Years

| Sat Nov. 5, 2011 8:00 AM EDT
Members of the Terra Nova expedition at the South Pole: Robert F. Scott, Lawrence Oates, Henry R. Bowers, Edward A. Wilson, and Edgar Evans.

This post courtesy BBC Earth's Race to the South Pole series. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

One hundred years ago two teams set off on an epic race across the Antarctic wilderness. Led by Roald Amundsen from Norway and Captain Robert Scott from Great Britain, the men set out to conquer this vast icy continent and to become the first to reach the South Pole. For one group the adventure would end in triumph, for the other it would end in tragedy.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Scott and Amundsen's separate attempts to be the first to the South Pole. In this series we will explore how these men found themselves racing across one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet.

We will look at how their different approaches, from the equipment they carried to the polar travel techniques they employed, led to wildly contrasting outcomes. The adventure began more than 10 years earlier, in 1897, when a great, global effort to uncover the mysteries of Antarctica began.

People knew that a huge, frozen continent lay beyond the wild seas at the southern end of the earth, but it wasn't until 1820 that explorers first laid eyes on Antarctica. Before then ships had failed to penetrate far enough through the frozen ocean to carry their passengers within sight of land.

During the winter of 1897, a Belgian ship carrying a crew of explorers, called the Belgica, was trapped in the ice off the coast of the continent. The crew became the first people to endure an Antarctic winter and sparked a period of exploration that would last for 25 years.

During that time scientists, geographers, and adventurers would compete to become the first to explore uncharted territories and claim the credit for their respective nations. But it was the parallel journeys of Scott and Amundsen that would capture the imaginations of people across the world.

Scott had been planning his Terra Nova Expedition for years. His aim was to be the first to the South Pole after Ernst Shackleton had narrowly failed during an earlier expedition. Scientific research was also an important part of Scott's expedition to Antarctica.

But when the American adventurers Frederick Cook and Robert Peary laid claim that achievement, Amundsen turned his attention towards the other end of the earth. Only his brother Leon and second-in-command Thorvald Nilsen knew of Amundsen's plan until after his ship, the Fram, had set sail.

Scott only learnt of this change of direction months later when his ship, the Terra Nova, docked in Melbourne, Australia. There he was handed a telegram from the Norwegian. It read:

'Beg to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic—Amundsen.'

Even though Scott publicly insisted that this news would change nothing, the reality was that he was now locked in a race to the South Pole.