2012...orks-tea-party - %2

VIDEO: Drought, Floods, and One Giant Storm: The Year in Climate Insanity

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 12:10 PM EST

2012, the hottest year on record in the United States, has been a wild year for Climate Desk. We've scoped out coal-guzzling data centers; traipsed across New York City's solar-paneled rooftops; stepped through the ashes of Colorado's record-breaking wildfire season; mingled with drought-striken cattle; been awed by the North Dakota fracking boom; cruised down the shrinking Mississippi River; strained to hear through the climate silence; seen communities pick through debris left by Superstorm Sandy; and more.

Along the way, we've depended on you to share stories and insights about this warming world, what we see as the most important issue of our time. A big thank you to all our readers, and we can't wait to give you a front-row seat to whatever 2013 has in store. To be continued…

To stay on top of the climate conversation, follow us on our website, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

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Boehner's Plan B: "For Backing Out"

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 11:52 AM EST

On Monday, President Obama rolled out his latest deficit deal compromise, which would reauthorize the Bush tax cuts for those making under $400,000, extend unemployment benefits, and cut Social Security spending. It's pretty close to the deal House Speaker John Boehner offered last Friday. But on Tuesday, Boehner pulled out a not-so-fun sounding "Plan B," which involves letting tax cuts expire for those with income above $1 million...and then just not really dealing with the rest of that fiscal cliff thing.

Democrats say Plan B is a signal that Boehner has backed out of negotiations over the fiscal cliff. And now the center-left Center for American Progress has taken a look at Plan B, and found it wanting.

Meet the Weeds That Monsanto Can't Beat

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 7:06 AM EST
"Integrated pest management" in action.

When Monsanto revolutionized agriculture with a line of genetically engineered seeds, the promise was that the technology would lower herbicide use—because farmers would have to spray less. In fact, as Washington State University researcher Chuch Benbrook has shown, just the opposite happened.

Sixteen years on, Roundup (Monsanto's tradename for its glyphosate herbicide) has certainly killed lots of weeds. But the ones it has left standing are about as resistant to herbicide as the company's Roundup Ready crops, which are designed to survive repeated applications of the agribusiness giant's own Roundup herbicide.

For just one example, turn to Mississippi, where cotton, corn, and soy farmers have been using Roundup Ready seeds for years—and are now struggling to contain a new generation of super weeds, including a scourge of Italian ryegrass.

"Fight resistant weeds with fall, spring attack," declares a headline in Delta Farm Press, a farming trade magazine serving the Mississippi River Delta. The article's author, a Mississippi State University employee, lays out the challenge:

In 2005, Italian ryegrass resistant to the commonly used herbicide glyphosate was first identified in the state. Since then, it has been found in 31 Mississippi counties and is widespread throughout the Delta. This glyphosate-resistant weed emerges in the fall and grows throughout winter and early spring.

The solution: "fall residual herbicide treatments followed by spring burn-down applications, where a nonselective herbicide is applied to fields before planting." Translation: to combat the plague of resistant Italian ryegrass, Mississippi's cotton farmers must hit their fields with a "residual" herbicide in the fall—meaning one that hangs around in soil long enough to kill ryegrass for a while—and then come back with yet another herbicide in the spring, to make sure the job has been done.

This multi-poison approach to weed control, apparently, is what passes for "integrated pest management"—purportedly a system of low-pesticide crop protection—these days.

“The integrated pest management program we recommend uses fall residual herbicides to help reduce the overall population and numbers,” [Mississippi State University extension professor Tom] Eubank said. “Fall tillage can also reduce weed numbers, but it is generally not as effective as residual herbicides. Producers should come back in the spring or late winter with an alternative herbicide program that attacks the plant using a different mode of action.”

In lieu of crop rotation and biodiversity, the non-toxic way to control weeds, the MSU extension service promotes what the article calls a "diversified herbicide program." And thus we get a clear look at why, since the introduction of Roundup Ready seeds in the 1990s, herbicide use has spiked.

Short Takes: The Central Park Five

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 7:06 AM EST

The Central Park Five

Sundance Selects

119 minutes

Out of the 3,254 rapes reported in New York City in 1989, it was a brutal attack on a Central Park jogger that gripped the populace and helped create the notion of the "superpredator." Here, a team including Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah tells the story of five Harlem teens wrongfully convicted of raping and beating a white woman to near death—then exonerated after years in prison by DNA evidence and the confession of a serial culprit. The men, all under 16 at the time of the rape, recount their helplessness in the face of police intimidation and a vengeful public. Perhaps the film's most haunting aspect is the refusal, by police and prosecutors who ignored exonerating evidence and sent five boys upriver, to offer the filmmakers a word of remorse.

The Elephant Ouroboros

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 2:53 AM EST

I haven't yet seen a print copy of our current issue, but apparently Steve Brodner did the illustration for my piece about the Republican Party. Judging from the video he did of the creative process, it must be a helluva drawing. I think I probably need a signed, poster-size copy for my wall. Enjoy.

Shale Oil Might Be Less Awesome Than We Think

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 10:25 PM EST

How much new oil production can the United States get from shale formations like Bakken or Eagle Ford? The usual estimate is in the neighborhood of 3 million barrels per day by 2020, but I've read a few suggestions that this may be a considerable overestimate. The problem is that shale oil wells decline very rapidly, which means you have to drill a lot of wells to keep production at that level.

James Hamilton recently attended a lecture by David Hughes of the Post Carbon Institute, and he passes along some hard numbers on this. According to Hughes, the average well declines about 70% in its first year and about 30% per year over the succeeding four years. In the case of Bakken, which is the biggest shale formation currently active, this means that it might well hit its expected production rate of 1 million barrels per day, but it will then decline very rapidly, down to almost nothing within a few years. The chart on the right shows just how fast the decline occurs.

If this turns out to be accurate, and if it applies to other shale formations as well, the United States will never hit that 3 million barrel target. Declines in early fields will begin sooner than expected, and production from later fields will barely be able to keep up. By 2030 or so, shale oil might be played out completely. Shale oil is still likely to be important, but if Hughes is right, it might be less important than we think.

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Good Patent News Today

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 7:22 PM EST

From CNET:

A key patent that Apple successfully used against Samsung in its multibillion-dollar courtroom brawl earlier this year has been invalidated by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All 20 claims of U.S. patent No. 7,844,915 -- also known as the "pinch to zoom" patent -- were invalidated by the USPTO today, following a re-examination.

I continue to believe this is a mistake. The 915 patent doesn't cover pinch-to-zoom and Apple has never asserted that it does. But I might be wrong about that. It's certainly me vs. the entire rest of the world on this issue.

But forget that for a moment. This is actually way better news than it seems. Here is part of Claim 8 of the 915 patent (this is the claim that was at issue in the Apple-Samsung suit):

determining whether the event object invokes a scroll or gesture operation by distinguishing between a single input point applied to the touch-sensitive display that is interpreted as the scroll operation and two or more input points applied to the touch-sensitive display that are interpreted as the gesture operation;

That's Apple's claim: that it has a patent to a programming method that can distinguish between one finger on the touchscreen (scrolling) and two fingers on the touchscreen (gesturing). This is far worse than patenting pinch-to zoom. It broadly suggests that Apple has exclusive rights to the entire concept of one finger vs. two. The fact that the patent office has invalidated it—along with every other claim in the 915 patent—is great news. Something this broad should never have been granted a patent in the first place, and it's gratifying that the patent office has finally come to its senses and figured this out.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, I'm still mystified by the media's insistence that the 915 patent covers pinch-to-zoom. But like I said, I might well be the one mistaken here. What I'd like to see is one direct quote from either Apple, Samsung, or Google that explicitly mentions "pinch-to-zoom." So far, the only place I've ever seen that phrase (or anything similar) is in summaries by reporters. None of the lawyers or PR folks for any of these companies ever seem to mention it.

POSTSCRIPT 2: If you're interested, here's my complete set of posts about this from last August:

I remain confused about this, but read the posts if you want to get up to speed on the whole issue. Remember: in a patent, the only things that matter are the claims. All the rest is just window dressing.

Military Women Get (Slightly) More Access to Abortion

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 5:20 PM EST

Lawmakers have produced a conference report reconciling the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013. The report indicates that the final bill will retain a measure that will allow women in the military to use their Defense Department health insurance to pay for abortions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

The measure, which was introduced by New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D), allows military women to use their government-issued health care to pay for an abortion if they are raped, just like any other woman who works for the federal goverment is already allowed to do. For years, military women have had tight restrictions on their ability to use their health benefits for abortions, and were only allowed to do so if their lives were in danger. That this provision made it into the final bill is a big deal, as House Republicans were expected to block it.

Reproductive rights groups praised the change. "For too long, servicewomen and military dependents have been denied an important aspect of health care coverage," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. "It was unconscionable that women who survived rape or incest were forced to pay out-of-pocket for an abortion."

Defense Bill Nixes Ban on Indefinite Detention for US Citizens

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 4:41 PM EST

In a closed-door negotiation, top Republican and Democratic lawmakers have killed a ban on detaining American citizens without trial.

The Senate approved the ban, a bipartisan effort led by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), as an amendment to the 2013 defense spending bill in a vote last month. But once the House and Senate met to negotiate the differences between their versions of the bill, the ban was scrapped. 

Of the four main negotiators on the defense bill, only one of the Democrats, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), opposes domestic indefinite detention of Americans. The Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), believes detaining Americans without charge or trial is constitutional, and only voted for the Feinstein amendment because he and some of his Republican colleagues in the Senate convinced themselves through a convoluted legal rationale that Feinstein's proposal didn't actually ban the practice. Both of the main Republican negotiators, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif) and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) believe it's constitutional to lock up American citizens suspected of terrorism without ever proving they're guilty.

Civil liberties groups aren't shedding any tears over the demise of the Feinstein-Lee amendment, either, though. They believed that because Feinstein's proposal only guaranteed due process for US citizens and legal residents, instead of all persons within the United States, that it was ultimately unconstitutional anyway. 

"I was saddened and disappointed that we could not take a step forward to ensure at the very least American citizens and legal residents could not be held in detention without charge or trial," Feinstein said in a statement to Mother Jones. "To me that was a no-brainer."

The demise of the Feinstein-Lee proposal doesn't necessarily mean that Americans suspected of terrorism in the US can be locked up forever without a trial. But it ensures that the next time a president tries to lock up an American citizen without trial—as President George W. Bush previously tried—it will be left up to the courts to decide whether or not it's legal.

Republicans Are Still the Same Old Republicans

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 4:22 PM EST

John Boehner's "Plan B" is obviously just political theater. Hell, it's not even good political theater. Sure, it allows the the top marginal rate for millionaires to increase to its fiscal cliff level (i.e., the level it will be at if we do nothing), but capital gains rates would go down, dividend rates would go down, and estate tax rates would go down. "Pease" limits on itemized deductions are eliminated, and the planned phaseout of the personal exemption goes away too. On net, millionaires do pretty well for themselves. At the same time, tax rates on the poor and middle class would go up.

This is just a bad joke. But the negotiations of the past few weeks have made clear that nothing has changed in Republican-land. Boehner just flatly doesn't have the support of his caucus for a real deal. So he makes up weird stuff about interest expenditures "not counting" as a pretense to reject Obama's latest offer, and then tosses out a plainly unserious plan as a way (he hopes) of creating a land mine for Democrats.

This is grade school stuff. Apparently, there's simply no way to make a deal with House Republicans. Boehner is doing his best to mask that uncomfortable fact, but that's where we're at. The lunatics are still running the asylum.