2012 - %3, February

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 17, 2012

Fri Feb. 17, 2012 5:57 AM EST

US Army Staff Sgt. Jonathan Price, a squad leader assigned to 3rd Platoon, Blackfoot Company conducts security checks near the village of Narizah located in the Tani district of Khost Province, Afghanistan, February 10, 2012. Photo by the US Army.

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Yet More Evidence That Banks Are Too Heavily Regulated

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 11:50 PM EST

The Wall Street Journal reports today that between 2007 and 2010 a group of six big banks conspired to artificially manipulate a key interest rate, the yen London interbank offered rate, also known as yen Libor:

The yen Libor rate is set daily by a 16-bank panel, organized by the British Bankers' Association. Around 11 a.m. London time every day, each bank submits estimates to the BBA of what rates it would pay to borrow from other banks for different time periods. The top four and bottom four quotes are then discarded, and Libor is calculated using an average of the middle eight quotes.

The Canadian watchdog [investigating the case] said lawyers acting for the cooperating bank had told it that traders at six banks on the yen Libor panel—Citigroup Inc., Deutsche Bank AG, HSBC Holdings PLC, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC and UBS—"entered into agreements to submit artificially high or artificially low" quotes, according to the court documents.

The traders used emails and instant messages to tell each other whether they wanted "to see a higher or lower yen Libor [rate] to aid their trading position(s)," according to a court filing. Each of the traders would then "communicate internally" with the person at their bank who was responsible for submitting the Libor quote, before letting each other know if this attempt to influence the quote had worked.

Just a few rogue traders, I'm sure. Nothing to be concerned about. Move along now.

Better Grad Students, Please

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 9:17 PM EST

Thoreau complains about a grad student in his upper division biophysics class:

One of the problems involves the entropy change from evaporating a cubic centimeter of water. She asked me how she’s supposed to know the number of atoms in a cubic centimeter of water. Um, this is basic freshman chem stuff.

No, that's not right. It's junior chem stuff. High school junior, that is. At least, that's where I learned it.

The same student apparently also had a problem converting joules to electron volts. Well, I don't know the conversion myself. But I typed "joules electron volts" into Google and got the answer in .33 seconds. So I guess at least some grad students don't know how to use Google either. This does not bode well for our coming economic war with China, does it?

Virginia Legislature Votes to Slash Abortion Funding for Low-Income Women

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 7:02 PM EST

In Virginia, a low-income pregnant woman who wishes to abort because her fetus has a totally incapacitating deformity or mental disability may no longer be eligible for the aid she needs to do so. On Thursday the Virginia Senate Committee on Education and Health approved House Bill 62, which would repeal the section of the state code that authorizes the Board of Health to fund abortions for pregnancies with certain complications.

The bill puts no restrictions on women who can afford to abort these types of pregnancies. That's why the Pro-Choice Coalition of Virginia (which includes NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and the ACLU) has deemed the legislation discriminatory. "When a woman receives a catastrophic prenatal diagnosis, she should have the same options her wealthier counterparts enjoy to end the pregnancy safely and with dignity," the Coalition said in a press release sent out Thursday morning.

It's worth mentioning that the state shells over almost nothing for these types of abortions each year—in 2011, funding was approved for 10 abortions, costing the state a grand total of $2,784. Which makes the bill's passage that much more of a social, rather than a financial, issue.

HB 62 comes on the heels of two other Virginia bills aiming to limit abortions in the state. Just this week, the state's House passed a different bill redefining a "person" to include a zygote, which, as my colleague Kate Sheppard points out, could potentially make abortion and some forms of oral contraception illegal. And another Virginia bill would require all women to get an ultrasound before getting an abortion and be offered a chance to see the imaging, for apparently no other reason than the belief that women don't understand what's happening inside their bodies during pregnancies.

Why I Don't Want Target To Know Quite So Much About Me

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 5:09 PM EST

Charles Duhigg has a fascinating story in the New York Times Magazine this week that's all about the way retailers use data mining and microtargeting to sell you more stuff. Among other things, he tells the story of how Target exploited a pile of clever statistical relations to predict when women were pregnant so that they could send out coupon books full of items that pregnant women might want to buy. As it turns out, Target was unamused by Duhigg's curiosity about how this all worked. When he asked Target to comment, they refused. When he offered to fly out to company headquarters, they told him not to come. When he did anyway, a security guard escorted him off the premises. Quite plainly, Target was concerned that their customers would freak out if they discovered just how much Target knows about them and how accurately Target can aim its marketing bazookas in their direction.

And it turns out Target was right: pregnant women did freak out. So they fine-tuned their coupon books to contain a bunch of random stuff (lawnmowers, videogames) among all the pregnancy-related items. Women who got those coupon books just figured this was the stuff on sale at Target this week and had no idea that it was more than a coincidence that half the offers were for diapers and onesies.

Longtime readers will be unsurprised to learn that I'm not thrilled by this kind of thing. But Felix Salmon challenges people like me to explain why:

Nowadays, computers have made it increasingly possible to fine-tune personalization down to the individual level, where it can sometimes get “spooky”....If sophisticated corporations manage to make their marketing materials less spooky, I don’t think there’s going to be much popular opposition to continued targeting — at least not in this country. Germany is different: Germans care a lot about their privacy, and fight hard for it.

Here, however, I’ve never received a good answer to the “why should I care?” question.

I'll admit up front that my reaction to this is mostly emotional: I just don't like the idea of Target or anyone else knowing so much about me. But the truth is that Felix is right. I don't really fear Target. The worst thing they can do with all their data mining wizardry is send me personalized coupon books. If I don't like it, I can toss them in the trash.

(As it happens, I actually think the increasing power of modern marketing in the hands of giant corporations is something we should all take a little more seriously than we do. But that's a topic for another day. For now, let's assume that Target's use of my personal data is pretty benign.)

So then: what's a good reason to be uneasy about this? Well, if Target can use statistical relations to predict pregnancy, I'll bet they can predict other things too. For example, the early stages of Alzheimer's. And much of the data that Target and other retailers collect is also available to other marketers at a price.

Sadly, not all of them have the scruples that Target does. If you were, say, a semi-shady company hawking dubious life insurance schemes, who would be your best prospect? Answer: someone still in enough control of their faculties that they live on their own without lots of supervision from their children or other caregivers, but just infirm enough that their judgment isn't so good anymore. They'd be perfectly suited to be scared/bullied into buying a bunch of crap they don't need. Hooray for data mining!

Alternately, keep in mind that it's not just corporations that can get their hands on this stuff. The federal government can buy it too for whatever profiling schemes the whiz kids at NSA come up with. I'm not super excited by this prospect either.

Now, it's true that scammers have preyed on the elderly for a long time, and governments have collected information about their citizenry for a long time too. But a problem that's small and controllable when the targeting data is both diffuse and arduous to collect can become cancerous when the data is cheaply and broadly available. Roughly speaking, then, that's my answer to the question of why I care. It's not Target per se. It's not my local supermarket. It's the fact that everyone is doing this, the data is all getting collected in centralized databases, and this stuff is then accessible to just about anyone, not just folks who want to send me coupons.

I suspect there's not much we can do about this. And maybe the good outweighs the bad in any case. After all, the internet is still a good thing even if pedophiles occasionally use chatrooms to stalk their prey. Still, I think there are legitimate reasons for concern. Life is more than just coupons.

Exxon Valdez Oil Walloping Mom and Pup Sea Otters

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 3:59 PM EST

 Sea otter nursing pup.: Mike Baird via Wikimedia Commons.

Sea otter nursing pup: Mike Baird via Wikimedia Commons.

A new paper in MEPS reports on the strong lingering effects of oil on sea otters in western Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez disaster that killed hundreds of thousands of birds and thousands of marine mammals 23 years ago.

The researchers report that exposure to oil has hardly ended—and the likelihood of exposure is highest for mothers with pups than any other members of the otter population.

Although initial assessments found the Exxon Valdez oil decayed quickly and therefore was of little consequence long-term to wildlife, these assessments have not held up in the long term. From the paper:

[C]ontrary to claims of rapid recovery and limited long-term effects, ample evidence accumulated in the decades since the spill has demonstrated that not all injured species and ecosystems recovered quickly, with protracted recovery particularly evident in nearshore food webs... Sea otter population recovery rates in heavily oiled western [Prince William Sound] were about half those expected, and in areas where oiling and sea otter mortality were greatest, there was no evidence of recovery through 2000.

Click for larger image: James L. Bodkin, et al. MEPS. DOI:10.3354/meps09523James L. Bodkin, et al. MEPS. DOI:10.3354/meps09523

To get a better sense of why this might be, the researchers recorded the foraging behavior of 19 sea otters in waters where lingering oil and delayed ecosystem recovery have been well documented. They found that while otters can forage up to 302 feet (92 meters) deep, much foraging takes place in the more heavily-oiled waters of the intertidal zone. Here's how that breaks down:

  • Between 5 and 38% of all foraging was in the intertidal zone.
  • On average female sea otters made 16,050 intertidal dives per year.
  • 18% of the females' dives were at depths above the 262-foot-deep (0.80-meter-deep) tidal elevation.
  • Males made 4,100 intertidal dives per year.
  • 26% of male intertidal foraging took place at depths above the 262-foot-deep (80-meter-deep) tidal elevation.  

Joe Robertson via Wikimedia CommonsJoe Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

Overall, estimated annual oil encounter rates ranged from up to 24 times a year, with a conservative average of 10 times a year for females and 4 times for males.

Worrisomely, exposure rates increased in spring when intertidal foraging rates doubled and when females were nursing small pups. The problem apparently arises most from the otters' habitat of digging in intertidal and subtidal sediment for clams:

Exposure levels [to oil] cannot be quantified, and the biological and ecological consequences of the exposure that results from the identified [clam-eating] path are difficult to assess and largely remain unknown. However, we now know that variation in individual and seasonal dive patterns means that some sea otters are much more likely to be exposed to oil than others. We also know that most exposure comes at a time of year when most adult females are giving birth, and that pups have few mechanisms to avoid or mitigate exposure to oil. 


The open-access paper:

  • Bodkin JL, Ballachey BE, Coletti HA, Esslinger GG and others (2012) Long-term effects of the 'Exxon Valdez' oil spill: sea otter foraging in the intertidal as a pathway of exposure to lingering oil. MEPS. DOI:10.3354/meps09523

 

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Undie Bomber Gets Life

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 3:46 PM EST
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

Judging by its lethality, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to blow up a plane en route to Detroit on Christmas 2009, using a bomb hidden in his underpants, was a spectacular failure. The would-be terrorist burned himself horribly and was subdued by nearby passengers. 

Abdulmutallab received multiple life sentences for his crimes Thursday afternoon. When discussing terrorism however, there are ways to measure the success of an attack other than its deadliness—such as whether or not the attack is successful in, well, terrorizing people. In that sense, it's difficult to view Abdulmutallab's botched bombing as anything but an unqualified victory. Shortly after the attack, Republicans proclaimed the attack a "success" as part of a campaign to make the president look weak on national security. Some demanded that he be subjected to co-called enhanced interrogation techniques and placed in military detention. They insisted that by allowing federal agents rather than military officials to interrogate him, that America had made itself vulnerable to another attack—Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) likened an FBI interrogation of Abdulmutallab to an interview with CNN's Larry King. 

The Abdulmutallab incident was just one of several that came during a spike of homegrown terrorist incidents in 2009, a trend that has subsided but also involved numbers so small that any decrease or increase was bound to look dramatic. Nevertheless, Abdulmutallab's impact has been substantial. While Republicans failed to overturn Obama's executive order banning torture, his arrest lead to a bipartisan effort in Congress to force federal agents to ask permission from the military to investigate terrorism cases where the suspect is believed to be a member of Al Qaeda. While the administration managed to force changes to last year's National Defense Authorization Act that make its provisions "mandating" the military detention of noncitizen terror suspects apprehended on US soil almost meaningless, there is now a presumption in the law that the military has a domestic role in counterterrorism. 

You'd think that someone who couldn't even blow himself up right would be a joke, a punchline. Instead, in accidentally setting himself on fire, Abdulmutallab managed to inspire a panic that culminated in the Congress altering the law. Imagine what could have happened if he had actually killed someone.

Rep. Darrell Issa's "Religious Freedom" Sausage Fest

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 1:39 PM EST

There's something surreal about watching a congressional hearing in which a room full of men spend a morning publicly discussing birth control, menstrual pain, ovarian cancer, and migraine headaches. But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, convened just such a hearing on Thursday.

The hearing, entitled "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama administration trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?" was striking for its lack of female voices. Democrats on the committee had attempted to include at least one female viewpoint, that of Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown University, a Catholic university whose health plan doesn't cover contraception. But Issa deemed Fluke "not qualified" and plowed ahead despite the obvious flaw of holding a hearing on birth control coverage that doesn't include a single member of the population most likely to use it.

Democrat Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) protested the glaring omission in her opening statement: "What I want to know is, where are the women? I look at this panel, and I don’t one single individual representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning. Where are the women?"

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) expressed outrage over the nature of the hearing, which not only excluded women but also witnesses who didn't agree with the Catholic Church.  Aiming his criticism at Issa, he said,

I think everyone understands what is going on here today. The Chairman is promoting a conspiracy theory that the federal government is conducting a “war” against religion. He has stacked the hearing with witnesses who agree with his position. He has not invited the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities, Catholics United, or a host of other Catholic groups that praised the White House for making the accommodation they made last week. He has also refused to allow a minority witness to testify about the interests of women who want safe and affordable coverage for basic preventive health care, including contraception. In my opinion, this Committee commits a massive injustice by trying to pretend that the views of millions of women across this country are meaningless, or worthless, or irrelevant to this debate.

The rhetoric at the hearing got so one-sided that, at one point, the Democratic women on the committee actually left the room, with DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) denouncing Issa's hearing management as akin to that of "autocratic regimes."

The hearing dragged on, with Republicans providing plenty of fodder for future Democratic campaign ads blasting them for being anti-women, with Democrats responding with actual science on the many ways that birth control pills can save lives, not just prevent pregnancy. And on it went, in a proceeding that made it hard to believe it's 2012 and not 1912. After three hours of testimony and questions, the committee took a break, and then returned for a second panel of witnesses. That panel included two women. But of course, they were opposed to birth control requirements, too.

Liberal Lunch Nazis Force Innocent Little Girl to Eat Chicken Nuggets!

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 1:18 PM EST

Have you been following the great North Carolina school lunch totalitarianism story? Me neither. But as near as I can tell, a little girl who was enrolled in Raleigh's "More at Four" Pre-K program came to school a few days ago without any milk, so someone — teacher's aide? cafeteria worker? who knows? — told her to go through the lunch line and get some. (It was free.) But she got confused and thought she had to get a whole new lunch. When she told her mother about this, the mother decided that school bureaucrats were forcing her child to eat their lunch instead of the one she packed for her daughter. A local TV station picked up on this, and before long the conservo-sphere was reporting that jack-booted thugs in North Carolina were forcing every child in their schools to eat only their Obama-approved chicken nuggets instead of nutritious family-packed meals.

Seriously. That seems to be approximately what happened — though I'll grant that the school system's communication apparatus seems to bear a wee bit of fault here too. Mark Thompson has the entire bloody blow-by-blow here.

Welfare vs. Tourism in the Sunshine State

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 12:47 PM EST

Mike Konczal says the illustration on the right is his favorite graph of the week. It's based on data from the Welfare Transition program in Florida and it shows two things. The line shows tourism revenue: high in winter, lower in spring, and lower still in summer. Obviously the tourism industry in Florida needs more workers in winter than in summer.

The bars show the sanction rate in the WT program: higher in winter and lower in summer. Apparently, when the tourism industry needs more workers, welfare case workers are more likely to force their clients out of the system and into the job market (i.e., "sanction" them).

The authors say that the correlation between these two things is .95, which is, frankly, too good. If Florida's welfare bureaucracy was trying to match up workers with the needs of the tourism industry, they couldn't produce a correlation that perfect. So there has to be something more going on here.

Still, this is nonetheless pretty persuasive evidence that case workers do, in fact, calibrate sanction levels to the needs of the job market. So my next question is this: is this a bad thing? Mike doesn't really take a position, though he seems vaguely disapproving. And it's possible that the details of the sanctioning regime are objectionable. But just in general, is there anything wrong with welfare case workers trying to push clients into the job market when jobs are available, but being more lenient when jobs just aren't there? Offhand, I'm not sure I see a problem with this.