2012 - %3, January

Can a New Kind of Rice Revive Japan's Tsunami-Ravaged Paddies?

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 7:00 AM EST

The March 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan was the fourth biggest earthquake ever measured, and hands down the biggest earthquake in Japan's recorded history. The stats are terrifying: 9.0 magnitude, 16,000 deaths, 1.5 million households left without water, and of course, ongoing reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. Less obvious to Western observers were the agricultural repercussions of the ensuing tsunami, whose massive waves crashed up to six miles inland and left more than 58,000 acres of Japanese rice paddies (roughly four times the size of Manhattan) completely saturated with saltwater.

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2021: Newt's Space Odyssey

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 9:48 PM EST

Courtesy of ShutterstockCourtesy of Shutterstock; Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia CommonsNewt Gingrich launched a Twitter frenzy on Wednesday when he delivered a major policy address on space at a Holiday Inn in Cocoa, Florida. Gingrich promised to complete a manned lunar colony on the moon by the end of his second term—January 2021—and set side aside 10 percent of NASA's budget for prizes that would encourage entrepreneurs and inventors to experiment on their own. It's a side of Gingrich we've seen flashes of on the campaign trail, but now he's boldly going where he's never gone before—or at least not in a long, long time.

Before he was a presidential candidate, extraordinarily well-compensated historian, speaker of the House, or really anyone of importance in Washington, DC, Gingrich was totally obsessed with space travel. He sponsored the Fundamental Space Act of 1984, which offered a path to statehood for future space colonies (the bill died in committee). That same year, he authored his first book, Window of Opportunity, to put forth his thoughts on how best to conquer the final frontier. (The cover features a giant bald eagle flapping its wings over the planet.) As sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle put it in the introduction: "It's raining soup and Newt Gingrich has the blueprints for soup bowls."

Pick up your spoons. Here are some of the best, or at least wildest, ideas contained within those pages. All quotes are from Window of Opportunity, unless otherwise noted:

We should have had a New York Times Moon bureau by now. Or at least a few underfed stringers: "If we had developed at a reasonable pace from 1969, today we would have eight to twelve space shuttles, two manned space stations, and a permanently operating lunar base. Each news magazine would have a section devoted to the week's news from space."

Send a team of astronauts to go to Halley’s Comet. "Projects like visiting Halley’s Comet could be easily undertaken by a program whose strength and sophistication would be unchallenged." Basically, Gingrich anticipated the plot of Deep Impact.

Cut food stamp budget to buy space shuttles. "Food stamps crowded out space shuttles; energy assistance crowded out a solar power satellite project that would have provided energy for all; more bureaucracy in Health and Human Services shoved aside a permanently-manned space station; the vision of a malaise-dominated decaying Western culture smothered the dream of a permanently-manned station." Besides, who really needs food stamps when the moon is made of cheese?

Cut farm subsidies; send farmers to space. Ok, this one wasn’t in his book but it’s too good to omit. In 1986, he told the World Science Fiction Convention: "If we'd spent as much on space as we've spent on farm programs, we could have taken all the extra farmers and put them on space stations working for a living in orbiting factories." Somehow that subject didn't come up in Iowa.

Pay your taxes; win a trip to space. "The shuttle is already comfortable enough to carry anyone free of severe health problems into space, and the next generation shuttle will be even more like an airliner. We should begin with a candidate-selection lottery based on individual income tax forms and offer to send each year’s winner on a shuttle flight." Not to be confused with the equally appealing option of sending our candidates into space.

Create man-made climate change, using mirrors. "The climate group at the Woods Hole conference suggested that a large array of mirrors could affect the Earth's climate by increasing the amount of sunlight received by particular areas, citing recent feasibility studies exploring the possibilities of preventing frosts in Florida or enabling farmers in high altitudes to plant their wheat earlier."

And fight crime. "Ambient light covering entire areas could reduce the current danger of criminals lurking in darkness. Mirrors could be arranged to light given metropolitan areas only during particular periods, so there could be darkness late at night for sleeping."

Mine the moon. "The moon is an enormous natural resource, possessed of more than enough minerals and materials to provide everything a self-replicating system needs. Structural glass and ceramics can be made by crushing rocks and molding them by hand; oxygen and water can be manufactured from the Moon’s soil to form life-support systems for humans." And unobtanium. Don't forget unobtanium.

Self-replicating robots in space. "At the present there is a fight between the planetary scientists who debunk a manned station and the manned-space advocates who debunk robots. Both sides miss the point. We want both people and machines in space, in large numbers, as rapidly as possible." The theory of the Earth’s demise in which self-replicating robots self-replicate ad infitum and consume all matter on earth is called "Grey Goo." You'll want to know that.

Huh? "Congressman Bob Walker of Pennsylvania has been exploring the possible benefits of weightlessness to people currently restricted to wheelchairs."

Peace in our time. "The welfare state could have reached out to our allies and to the Third World and built a cooperative venture that would have knit all freedom-loving people together in building a better future for all mankind—it decided not to. Today we stand on the verge of a moment of the movement of a 'Unified Free World Alliance' into space."

Study: Restored Wetlands Don't Measure Up

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 8:06 PM EST

You've probably heard of old-growth forests and their importance, but old-growth wetlands? A new study suggests that older wetlands, like ancient redwood groves, are more biodiverse and better at storing carbon than ones that have been restored. In a meta-analysis of 124 other studies examining 621 areas around the world, an international team of researchers found that restored wetlands contain about 23% less carbon than their predecessors and about 26% less variety in native plant life—even after 50 to 100 years of restoration. "Once you degrade a wetland, it doesn't recover its normal assemblage of plants or its rich stores of organic soil carbon," said study co-author Daniel Moreno-Mateos, a postdoctoral fellow at UC-Berkeley. This depletion, he added, will "affect natural cycles of water and nutrients, for many years."

Although an estimated (PDF) half of the wetlands present in North America at the time of European settlement have been destroyed, more recent trends suggested a reason for optimism: the pace of wetlands loss has seemingly slowed drastically in the United States, dropping from a rate of nearly 500,000 acres a year from the 1950s to the 1970s to around 60,000 acres per year from 1986 to 1997. Some data even suggests there’s been a net gain since the late '90s.

But this study could call cast a shadow on those strides: US policy is based on the principle of "no net loss," which allows for development that destroys existing wetlands as long as its restoration or substitution is sufficient to leave total acreage unchanged. While this principle theoretically takes quality as well as quantity into account, in practice, there's been little effort to track (PDF) wetlands function. 

This new research suggests that counting acres isn't enough, and that we'll have to look more seriously at wetlands' condition and function if we want to reap the many benefits they provide, including carbon storage, reduced flood risk, and improved water quality. Restoring already-degraded wetlands is still better than not restoring them, but not destroying the ecosystems in the first place looks like the best option of all. Says Moreno-Mateos, "preserve the wetland, don't degrade the wetland."

VIDEO: Gabrielle Giffords Bids Farewell—for Now

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 7:40 PM EST
Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)

On Wednesday, Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) stepped down from her seat in the House of Representatives. In her farewell speech—read on the House floor by her colleague and close friend Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.)—Giffords thanked her colleagues and constituents, and briefly touched on key issues that have been close to her heart while in office:

In public service, I found a venue for my pursuit of a stronger America—by ensuring the safety and security of all Americans, by producing clean energy here at home instead of importing oil from abroad, and by honoring our brave men and women in uniform with the benefits they earned. I found a way to care for others. And in the past year, I have found a value that is unbreakable even by the most vicious of attacks.

Here is C-SPAN footage of the emotional goodbye (click here to read the full text of her speech, as well as her letter of resignation to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer):

Giffords—a respected Blue Dog Democrat—has been recovering for the past year from a gunshot wound to the head she sustained during a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona. At the "Congress on Your Corner" public event held in front of a Safeway on January 8, 2011, gunman Jared Lee Loughner opened fire, killing six attendees and wounding another thirteen.

Unsurprisingly, an outpouring of support came from both sides of the aisle on Wednesday. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Giffords the "brightest star among us," and said that she "brought the word 'dignity' to new heights" in her recovery from the assassination attempt. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) tweeted: "Rep. Giffords is an inspirational leader who will be missed [in] #Congress. R's, D's wish her nothing but the best as she continues to recover."

On Tuesday night, reverence for Giffords was also on full bipartisan display as she attended President Obama's State of the Union address. Her arrival inside the House chamber was especially poignant.

In her formal letter of resignation, also submitted to House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday, Giffords wrapped up her farewell by promising, "I will recover and will return."

Dow and Monsanto Team Up on the Mother of All Herbicide Marketing Plans

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 6:43 PM EST
Expect to see lots of this stuff blanketing the Midwest for a long time if Monsanto and Dow get their way.

During the late December media lull, the USDA didn't satisfy itself with green-lighting Monsanto's useless, PR-centric "drought-tolerant" corn. It also prepped the way for approving a product from Monsanto's rival Dow Agrosciences—one that industrial-scale corn farmers will likely find all too useful.

Dow has engineered a corn strain that withstands lashings of its herbicide, 2,4-D. The company's pitch to farmers is simple: Your fields are becoming choked with weeds that have developed resistance to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. As soon as the USDA okays our product, all your problems will be solved.

At risk of sounding overly dramatic, the product seems to me to bring mainstream US agriculture to a crossroads. If Dow's new corn makes it past the USDA and into farm fields, it will mark the beginning of at least another decade of ramped-up chemical-intensive farming of a few chosen crops (corn, soy, cotton), beholden to a handful of large agrichemical firms working in cahoots to sell ever larger quantities of poisons, environment be damned. If it and other new herbicide-tolerant crops can somehow be stopped, farming in the US heartland can be pushed toward a model based on biodiversity over monocropping, farmer skill in place of brute chemicals, and healthy food instead of industrial commodities.

Yet Dow's pitch will likely prove quite compelling. Introduced in 1996, Roundup Ready crops now account for 94 percent of the soybean crops and upwards of 70 percent for soy and cotton, USDA figures show. The technology cut a huge chunk of work out of farming, allowing farmers to cultivate ever more massive swathes of land with less labor.

When Roundup Ready crops hit the market in the mid-1990s, farmers started applying more and more Roundup per acre.: From Mortensen, at al, "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012When Roundup Ready crops hit the market in the mid-1990s, farmers started applying more and more Roundup per acre.: From Mortensen, at al, "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012But by the time farmers had structured their operations around Roundup Ready and its promise of effortless weed control, the technology had begun to fail. In what was surely one of the most predictable events in the history of agriculture, it turned out than when farmers douse millions of acres of land with a single herbicide year after year, weeds evolve to resist that poison. Last summer, Roundup-resistant superweeds flourished in huge swathes of US farmland, forcing farmers to apply gushers of toxic herbicide cocktails and even resort to hand-weeding—not a fun thing to do on a huge farm. A recent article in the industrial-ag trade journal Delta Farm Press summed up the situation: "Days of Easy Weed Control Are Over."

Mitt Says Newt Was for "Self-Deportation" Before He Was Against It

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 5:52 PM EST
Mitt Romney at Florida CPAC in 2011.

Fielding questions from Univision's Jorge Ramos Wednesday afternoon, former Massachussetts Governor Mitt Romney said Newt Gingrich was for "self-deportation" before he was against it. 

Romney's right: Gingrich once endorsed the strategy of making everyday life for unauthorized immigrants so miserable that they would "self-deport." Speaking to Ramos on Univision earlier on Wednesday, Gingrich said that "self-deportation" was an "Obama-level fantasy." He didn't mention that he'd endorsed the idea fairly recently. Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald hunted down the quote, which comes from an appearance Gingrich made on the Laura Ingraham show in 2010. "We have to enforce this law," Gingrich tells Ingraham. "We have to do that first. No work, self-deportation. Come back. We can figure out our immigration system after we enforce this border. But I just think you're not going to get the support of the people unless we really see that border enforced."

Gingrich has been running an ad in Florida calling Romney an "anti-immigrant" candidate, but the campaign withdrew the ads after Florida's Cuban American Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said the ad was "inaccurate, inflammatory, and doesn't belong in this campaign." Romney told Ramos Wednesday that it was "very sad for a candidate to resort to that kind of epithet."

Romney also suggested that Gingrich's criticism of "self-deportation" was just pandering. "It's very tempting to come to an audience like this and tell people what they want to hear," said Romney, who's been on both sides of immigration issues a few times himself.

There's a limit to how far Romney's willing to go, however: He's not willing to tell Latino voters he's Mexican American. When Ramos asked whether Romney, whose father was born to US citizens in Mexico, would count as the "First Mexican President" of the US, the former governor said no.  

"I'd love to be able to convince people of that in a Florida primary" Romney joked. "I don't think people would think I was being honest with them if I said I were Mexican American, but I'd appreciate it if you'd get that word out."

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8 Things to Know About the Navy SEAL Raid in Somalia

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 4:20 PM EST

The latest example of Obama-era military badass-ery transpired last night around the time that you were probably asleep or detoxing from the president's third State of the Union address: Just moments before President Obama took the podium, a team of more than two dozen US Navy SEALs rescued two hostages from a group of Somali pirates. By the end of the raid, nine Somalis were dead, three were detained, and the two kidnapped aid workers—32-year-old American Jessica Buchanan and 60-year-old Dane Poul Hagen Thisted—were safely extracted from the camp in northern Somalia where they were being held. The pair had been held hostage since October.

Here are a few things you should know about the mission:

1. The Somali pirates may have been stoned and sleeping: The outcome of the raid might have been a little different if the kidnappers had just said no. A pirate named Bile Hussein told the AP over the phone that the SEAL team caught the camp guards after they had passed out from chewing qat, a narcotic leaf popular in much of the Middle East and East Africa for its euphoric qualities. (Hussein said he was "not present at the site but had spoken with other pirates who were.")

The Spinach Index: A Delicious Economic Indicator

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 4:19 PM EST

Here's a tasty indicator of the country's economic health: Are you buying spinach in a bunch or in a bag?

Last year, the USDA's research wing looked at how spending habits at the grocery store changed from 2004 to 2009, and noticed some predictable patterns during the recession. Shoppers ditched name-brand, designer-label products for store-brand knockoffs (think Kellogg's Lucky Charms vs. Ralph's Magic Stars) to the record-breaking tune of 810 new off-label products appearing on the shelves in 2009—7 times more than in 2001—with sales outpacing those of name-brand products. Warehouse clubs and supercenters, like Sam's Club and Aldi, jumped 2 percent in total share of food sales during the recession, while traditional stores continued a long-term decline. Overall, food spending declined 5% between 2006 and 2009 (inflation adjusted), according to the USDA. 

You might guess that shoppers also cut back on healthy, fresh foods in favor of cheaper packaged items, but the USDA looked closely at one nutritious item—leafy greens—and noticed an interesting consumer trend.

Whenever personal household incomes dropped by 1 percent from 2004 through 2009, the sales share of bagged leafy greens—the convenient pre-packed stuff that's washed, chopped, and dried for you—immediately dropped by 1 percent. But the overall sales of fresh spinach, lettuce, and and other leafy greens stayed flat during the recession, because each 1 percent decline in household income also saw a nearly immediate 1 percent jump in the sales share of loose, bunched greens, the kind you weigh and buy in bulk.

The USDA researchers were surprised to see how closely and quickly changes in the national economy impacted the way shoppers adjusted their spinach-shopping habits, and they re-ran the study after making sure they were measuring the edible portions of bagged greens and bulk greens equally, getting the same results. Shoppers were willing to forgo the convenience and time savings of pre-packed as times got tougher, but they wanted to keep the same amount of leafy greens in their diet. They did it by reaching for the colander and the cutting board instead of the plastic-wrapped stuff. The cost savings are enormous, after all: on average, convenience greens cost 300 percent more than the old-fashioned kind. 

Gingrich: Maybe We'll Bomb Castro If I'm President

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 3:30 PM EST
Newt Gingrich has a grandiose idea.

During his interview with Univision's Jorge Ramos this morning, Newt Gingrich was asked just how far he was willing to go in order to eliminate the Castro regime in Cuba. Gingrich said that he thought it was "baloney" that Obama intervened in Libya (a decision Gingrich was on both sides of on multiple occasions) but apparently hadn't thought of bombing Cuba. Gingrich said this contrast was "fascinating," and wondered why Obama "doesn't quite notice Cuba." 

"The US bombed Qaddafi, are you prepared to the same thing with the Castros?" Ramos asked. Gingrich equivocated, suggesting he'd be open to the idea if there were a popular uprising like the ones in the Middle East and North Africa, but then seemingly attacking Obama for not having done so:

Well I think at the moment you don’t need to...in that case you had an uprising. I would say bluntly, because I find it fascinating that Obama is intrigued with Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, but doesn't quite notice Cuba. I would just argue if there was a genuine, legitimate uprising we would of course be on the side of the people. And we should be prepared to be on the side of the people. But in that sense, I don’t see why Cuba should be sacrosanct, and we should say, don’t do anything to hurt...we’re very prepared to back people in Libya, we may end backing people in Syria, but now Cuba, hands off Cuba, that’s baloney. The people of Cuba deserve freedom.

Here's the video:

Gingrich also said that he would take "all the tools that Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Prime Minister [Margaret] Thatcher used to break the Soviet Empire," to force regime change in Cuba. "They went at it psychologically, they went at it economically, they went at it diplomatically, they went at it with covert operations." Going back to using covert operations to try to depose the Castro regime—why didn't anyone else think of that?

Davos Man Is Trembling in His Armani Boots

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 2:06 PM EST

George Soros thinks we're in for some bad times:

He doesn’t just mean it’s time to protect your assets. He means it’s time to stave off disaster. As he sees it, the world faces one of the most dangerous periods of modern history—a period of “evil.” Europe is confronting a descent into chaos and conflict. In America he predicts riots on the streets that will lead to a brutal clampdown that will dramatically curtail civil liberties. The global economic system could even collapse altogether.

“I am not here to cheer you up. The situation is about as serious and difficult as I’ve experienced in my career,” Soros tells Newsweek. “We are facing an extremely difficult time, comparable in many ways to the 1930s, the Great Depression. We are facing now a general retrenchment in the developed world, which threatens to put us in a decade of more stagnation, or worse. The best-case scenario is a deflationary environment. The worst-case scenario is a collapse of the financial system.”

Is Soros just a naturally gloomy guy? Or are things really that bad? Felix Salmon is roaming the corridors of the Davos conference and says that gloomy or not, Soros is no outlier:

No one but Soros will actually say these things, at Davos — but everybody here fears them, which is one reason why we have the slightly ludicrous sight of billionaires bellyaching about the global burdens of inequality.

Security this year is tighter than ever — the first rule of security at these events is that it can only get ratcheted up, rather than loosened at all — and there’s a besieged feeling to this Alpine town I haven’t felt before. The financial crisis concentrated minds and was seen as a big problem to be addressed and even maybe solved. But the current breakdown of trust in global institutions cuts at the heart of the World Economic Forum’s founding principle — that if you get a bunch of important people together in the same place, they can actually make a difference.

I doubt that it's time to stock up on canned food or anything, but it's an interesting observation. Are the world's governing elites losing confidence in their own abilities? I wouldn't blame them if they were, considering how they've responded to the events of the past few years. When the big test finally came, they didn't do very well.