2012 - %3, February

How Factory Farms Are Killing Seals

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 4:00 AM PST

The meat industry defends its reliance on routine antibiotic use by flatly denying the practice poses any public health problem. The view is summed up by this 2010 National Pork Producers Council newsletter: "[T]here are no definitive studies linking the use of antibiotics in animal feed to changes in resistance in humans." The claim, I guess, is that the drug-resistant bacteria that evolve on antibiotic-laden feedlots stay on those feedlots and don't migrate out.

That contention is looking increasingly flimsy. My colleague Julia Whitty recently pointed to a new study showing that a particular antibiotic-resistant pathogen "likely originated as a harmless bacterium living in humans, which acquired antibiotic resistance only after it migrated into livestock." In its new, harmful form, Julia reported, the bacterial strain "now causes skin infections and sepsis, mostly in farm workers."

And humans aren't the only creatures paying the price of routine antibiotic use. A research team from the Pacific Northwest has found that terrestrial pathogens, including strains of E. coli resistant to multiple antibiotics, are now infecting sea mammals. The researchers collected and performed autopsies on more than 1,600 stranded seals and otters over 10 years. They found that infectious diseases accounted for 30 to 40 percent of the deaths. "Comparing the diseases found in marine mammals with terrestrial mammals has identified similar, and in many cases genetically identical disease agents," the researchers report.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 24, 2012

Fri Feb. 24, 2012 3:57 AM PST

US Army Staff Sgt. Tom Maahs, from Maple Shade, N.J., who is with the Task Force Paladin explosive ordinance disposal unit, inspects the site of an IED through his rifle scope on a street near the wood market in Gardez on February 18, 2012. US Army photo by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD.

Gay Marriage Now a Reality in Maryland

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 11:29 PM PST

It's official:

Maryland will join seven states and the District in allowing same-sex marriage, ending a year-long drama in Annapolis over the legislation and expanding nationwide momentum for gay rights. The Senate passed the measure by a vote of 25 to 22 Thursday night, and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has vowed to sign it into law.

But will this turn into an election year headache for the White House?

To win some of the final votes needed for passage in the House of Delegates last week, backers agreed to conditions that could help opponents place the new law on the November ballot....[This] presents a potential dilemma for President Obama. He has been heavily courting the gay community for donations and votes in his reelection campaign but has stopped short of fully embracing marriage rights. Obama has said his views are “evolving,” a statement viewed by many supporters in that community as a strong hint that he will soon endorse the cause, perhaps if and when he is safely reelected.

Gay rights activists can be expected to pressure the president to publicly support the Maryland law in November. At the same time, however, Obama will probably be pressured by many African American leaders in Maryland to join them in opposing the measure.

If it ends up on the ballot, it will be hard for Obama to avoid taking a position. Perhaps it's finally time for his evolution to turn into an epiphany.

The Death Star Is a Surprisingly Cost-Effective Weapons System

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 7:44 PM PST

There's been a lot of loose talk about the Death Star lately. I want to put it into a bit of perspective.

As background, some students at Lehigh University have estimated that it would be a very expensive project. The steel alone, assuming the Death Star's mass/volume ratio is about the same as an aircraft carrier, comes to $852 quadrillion, or 13,000 times the world's GDP. Is this affordable?

Let's sharpen our pencils. For starters, this number is too low. Using the same aircraft carrier metric they did, I figure that the price tag on the latest and greatest Ford-class supercarrier is about 100 times the cost of the raw steel that goes into it. If the Death Star is similar, its final cost would be about 1.3 million times the world's GDP.

But there's more. Star Wars may have taken place "a long time ago," but the technology of the Star Wars universe is well in our future. How far into our future? Well, Star Trek is about 300 years in our future, and the technology of Star Wars is obviously well beyond that. Let's call it 500 years. What will the world's GDP be in the year 2500? Answer: Assuming a modest 2 percent real growth rate, it will be about 20,000 times higher than today. So we can figure that the average world in the Star Wars universe is about 20,000 times richer than present-day Earth, which means the Death Star would cost about 65 times the average world's GDP.

However, the original Death Star took a couple of decades to build. So its annual budget is something on the order of three times the average world's GDP.

But how big is the Republic/Empire? There's probably a canonical figure somewhere, but I don't know where. So I'll just pull a number out of my ass based on the apparent size of the Old Senate, and figure a bare minimum of 10,000 planets. That means the Death Star requires .03 percent of the GDP of each planet in the Republic/Empire annually. By comparison, this is the equivalent of about $5 billion per year in the current-day United States.

In other words, not only is the Death Star affordable, it's not even a big deal. Palpatine could embezzle that kind of money without so much as waving his midichlorian-infused little pinkie. If it weren't for the unfortunate breakdown in anti-Bothan security and the shoddy workmanship on the thermal exhaust ports, it would have been a pretty good investment, too. In other words, yes: totally worth it.

UPDATE: Rewritten once, then twice, to make it absolutely crystal clear that Star Wars took place "a long time ago" but that its technology is quite a ways into our future. Everyone happy now?

UPDATE 2: Apparently the canonical figure for the size of the Republic/Empire is 1.75 million full member worlds. Needless to say, this makes the Death Star even more affordable.

Editors' Note: This post spawned a number of high-caliber comments from our readers, and we've been nerding out on the great gags and trekkie humor. Here's a few you should not miss, lightly edited for clarity:

1. Stephanus Mark Van Schalkwyk

"Come on! They built one for the movie! That didn't cost 1.3 billion times the planet's GDP! Or did it? Is that what caused the housing crisis?

On that same note, the Death Star is not something we'd need while we have bankers. Just infiltrate a couple of bankers onto a planet and kablam! whazoop! the planet is destroyed. "

2. kgnova:

"Build the Death Star you will.  With workers from Tatooine who unemployed they are.  But Jedis's health care coverage -- even those for the Dark Side -- covers contraception.  Difficult will it be to provide a sufficient work force to maintain your weapon."

3. Hittheroad.ca: DUDE. This is completely faulty logic. Star Wars happened "a long time ago...." Duh.

Kevin Drum: Yeah yeah. Fine. I've cleaned up the language. And now off to the sand pit of the Sarlacc with you.

4. Toby Scott:

"There may be a bit of a PR problem here: Death Star isn't testing well as a name. Given that it's the size of a moon, why not build in some leisure facilities from the start. You're more likely to get funding if you market it as a great holiday destination that will end unemployment and just happens to be capable of blowing up planets."

5. Snarki, child of Loki:

"'If it weren't for the unfortunate breakdown in anti-Bothan security and the shoddy workmanship on the thermal exhaust ports, it would have been a pretty good investment, too. In other words, yes: totally worth it.'

Well, that's what happens when your procurement rules require going with the lowest bidder.

SOME things are eternal."

6. pjcamp:

"Have you SEEN The Corbomite Maneuver? Kirk already won that battle."

American Households Not as Reckless as You Think

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 4:37 PM PST

Everybody knows that household debt in America has increased dramatically over the past few decades. But why? One possibility is that we've all been borrowing recklessly and living wildly beyond our means. But there are other possibilities too. Your debt-to-income ratio will go up if (a) your debt increases or (b) your income declines, and that can happen in several ways:

 

  • If you borrow more, your debt burden goes up.
  • If interest rates go up, your debt burden goes up even if you're borrowing the same amount as before.
  • If your income goes down (or grows more slowly than it used to, preventing you from paying down your debt at previous rates), your debt-to-income ratio increases.
  • If inflation falls, your debt level doesn't erode as quickly and your debt-to-income ratio may increase.

So which is it? Josh Mason and Arjun Jayadev recently decided to take the standard formula for decomposing public-sector debt changes and apply it to household debt over the past century or so. What they discovered was that although households did increase their borrowing during the housing bubble era (2000-06), that hasn't been a general trend over the past few decades. It's the other stuff that's changed:

If interest rates, growth and inflation over 1981-2011 had remained at their average levels of the previous 30 years, then the exact same spending decisions by households would have resulted in a debt-to-income ratio in 2010 below that of 1980, as shown in Figure 2. The 1980s, in particular, were a kind of slow-motion debt-deflation, or debt-disinflation; the entire growth in debt relative to earlier periods (17 percent of household income, compared with just 3 percent in the 1970s) is due to the slower growth in nominal income as a result of falling inflation.

....Neither the 1980s nor the 1990s saw an increase in new household borrowing — on the contrary, the household sector in the aggregate showed a primary surplus in these decades, in contrast with the primary deficits of the postwar decades. So both the conservative theory explaining increased household borrowing in terms of shorter time horizons and a general lack of self-control, and the liberal theory explaining it in terms of efforts by those further down the income ladder to maintain consumption standards in the face of a falling share of income, need some rethinking.

In some sense, you can say that people got accustomed to a certain level of borrowing in the immediate postwar era and then kept it up in the Reagan-Volcker-Greenspan era. Unfortunately, they didn't realize that the world had changed. Or, more accurately, they didn't realize how much it had changed. In particular, they didn't realize that growth was going to be permanently slower, inflation was going to be permanently lower, and wage growth was going to slide inexorably toward zero. So even though household borrowing went down over time, it didn't go down nearly enough. The chart below shows how much the debt-to-income ratio has increased in real life (black line) vs. how much it would have increased with the same level of borrowing but under the financial conditions of the postwar era (red line):

Based on this, Mason and Jayadev conclude that hectoring households about their borrowing habits isn't going to have much effect:

Going forward, it seems unlikely that households can sustain large enough primary deficits to reduce or even stabilize leverage....As a practical matter, it seems clear that, just as the rise in leverage was not the result of more borrowing, any reduction in leverage will not come about through less borrowing. To substantially reduce household debt will require some combination of financial repression to hold interest rates below growth rates for an extended period, and larger-scale and more systematic debt write-downs.

At a guess, more systematic write-downs are not in the cards. Deleveraging is thus going to be a very slow, very painful slog that will depress economic growth even below the sluggish rates we've gotten used to over the past 30 years. Welcome to the future.

Alaska Releases Second Batch of Palin Emails—Without Telling Requesters

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 4:12 PM PST
Oops, we forgot to tell you.

Three and a half years ago, I triggered the Sarah Palin email saga, when shortly after she was picked to be John McCain's running mate, I filed a request for "all emails sent and received by" Palin during her entire tenure as governor of Alaska. Last June—after other media outlets and citizen activists had joined the effort to pry these records out of Alaska state hard drives—the state released 24,199 pages of emails that covered only part of Palin's time as governor, up through September 2008. The state promised emails from the subsequent 10 months—up until her surprise resignation in July 2009—would be released later. That day came today—but, oddly, without any notice to me or other requesters.

The state turned over 34,820 pages of email only to the Associated Press (withholding almost 1,000 emails). This dump also included emails supposedly inadvertently left out of the initial release. I and the other requesters—including MSNBC.com, the Anchorage Daily News, the Washington Post, ABC News, and CNN—should have been informed of the release and provided copies of the material. But we've been frozen out.

This development is particularly curious, given that prior to the original release, the state of Alaska devoted much time to discussing all the details of that release with all the requesters. It was a rather elaborate process that entailed—to the state's credit—much communication and coordination. This time, the state has improperly just handed the emails to the AP, without any interaction with the other requesters. This is a selective release and certainly not in keeping with the spirit, if not the actual dictates, of Alaska's open-records act. 

Andrée McLeod, a citizen watchdog in Alaksa who has long pursued Palin records, fired off an angry email to Gov. Sean Parnell (who served as Palin's lieutenant governor), state Attorney General Michael Geraghty, and Randall Ruaro, who handles public records requests within the governor's office. It says:

Why was I not notified that the emails were available for release in response to my records request?

It is absolutely unfathomable that you have released the emails in such a disparate manner solely to the Associated Press, before anyone else.

This is totally egregious and smacks of cronyism.

I've sent my own note to these officials:

As the original requester, I am quite surprised I received absolutely no notice of the release of this second batch of Palin emails—especially after all the coordination that went into the initial release. This strikes me as a selective release. Like other requesters, I would like an explanation as soon as possible.

Palin is not much in the news these days, but it's not up to the state of Alaska to decide to whom to release these records. This move has a fishy smell to it.

UPDATE: After AP reported it had a copy of the second set of Palin emails, the Anchorage Daily News contacted the governor's office and was informed that the state was mailing discs with the material to various requesters. (I have yet to be told that by the state.) The newspaper quickly arranged to get a copy of the discs directly from the governor's office and has started posting the individual emails on its website. It's apparently a slow and painstaking process—partly because of the manner in which the data was compiled—and as of late Thursday night (Washington time), the ADN had only been able to post 148 of the individual emails. At this rate....

UPDATE II: By Friday morning, the Anchorage Daily News had uploaded about 7400 of the Palin emails—and they're searchable. Its reporters were just about to dive in and start looking for nuggets. You can, too, here.

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Your Daily Newt: "How Do You Have a Private Life?"

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 3:44 PM PST
Former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich feeds a panda.

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Newt Gingrich once told an interviewer that he's been fighting to save Western Civilization since 1958, so it shouldn't come as a total surprise that he spends most of his waking moments attempting to extrapolate grand, sweeping meanings from incredibly mundane items (Popsicles, for instance). As he told Atlanta magazine, his plans to save America often left little time for anything else:

"If you said to me, 'What are your hobbies?' they would be reading, going to the movies, going for long walks, animals and the outdoors. But the truth is when I read, I am reading about something that relates. When I go to the movies—I saw Parenthood the other day—I think, 'What does that tell me about America?' In a sense, I am almost always engaged. And that has a disadvantage to really break out of that and stop to think, All right, how do you have a private life?"

All of which gives some much needed context to Gingrich's confession, to CBN's David Brody last spring, that his extramarital affaiirs were "driven by how passionately I felt about this country."

DIY Weather Records

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 1:17 PM PST

 Record extreme temperatures for 1-23 February 2012.: Wundergound

Record extreme temperatures for 1-23 February 2012: WundergoundWundergound has launched a cool new tool today called Record Extremes that lets you see and sort US and international records for temperature, rainfall, and snowfall set on a map and a table.

The image above is one I generated for the month of February (so far: 1-23 Feb 2012), looking at daily-maximum-high-temp records and all-time-max-high-temp records for the lower 48. It returned 450 record highs plotted on the map, plus a list of each record in a table format (not shown).

The site is a lot more interactive than this screen save. You can click on each record on the map and see its stats, then zoom in for a closer look.

Many of the icons on the map above are actually bundles of several records in close proximity. As you can see, it's been a record-breaking February in the US, with some places breaking multiple records (gray icons).

As for the data behind the tool, here's what Angela Fritz at WunderBlog writes:

The product uses data from three sources: (1) NOAA's National Climate Data Center [NCDC], (2) Wunderground's US records, and (3) Wunderground's International records. The NCDC records begin in 1850 and include official NOAA record extreme events for... weather stations in all 50 US states as well as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Pacific Islands. In this database you can find records for maximum high temps, minimum high temps, maximum low temps, minimum high temps, snow, and precipitation on daily, monthly, and all-time scales.

 

And the Winner Is…Sarah Palin!

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 1:16 PM PST

I was wondering which conservative would be the first to try to squeeze some political juice out of President Obama's apology for the Koran burning in Afghanistan, and I guess I should have known. Sarah Palin, of course. Actually, I don't know if she's the first. But she's the first I've seen, and The Corner is still quiet about the whole thing. So here she is, along with a smattering of the comments from her fans. Enjoy.

The Lorax: Blowing Smogulous Smoke

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 1:02 PM PST

Fans of The Lorax have raised concerns that the new big-screen version is neglecting the environmental message of the beloved Dr. Seuss book. The movie doesn't come out until March 2, but the initial trailer and promotional materials ignited a round of complaints on the web.

Now people are having a (rather justified) heart attack about the fact that The Lorax is now being used to cross-promote a new SUV. Earlier this week, Mazda announced that it has partnered with Universal Pictures to promote the new "'Seuss-ifed' 2013 Mazda CX-5 crossover SUV." The cross-promotion includes commercials with a cartoon version of the car driving through a valley of Truffula trees. The ads claim that the car is "Truffula tree friendly" –whatever that's supposed to mean, given that the car is a standard fuel-injection-engine SUV. Sure, it's apparently better than other SUVs on the market. But not that good.

Here's the ad:

Branding professional Jason Bittel was apparently so inspired by this atrocity that he wrote his own Seuss-tastic poem:

A Lorax-branded combustion engine? I mean, seriously?
Not a hydrogen? Not an electric?
Not even a Thneed-sponsored cross-breed?

Whoever is in charge of branding
For the Lorax’s mula-making machine -
Have you read the book you’re hijacking?
Did you misinterpret what it means?

Update: Then there's these "Lorax-approved" disposable diapers. Because, you know, there's nothing that says "we speak for the trees" like the 3.6 million tons of nappies (2 percent of total municipal waste!) that Americans throw away every year.

Update #2: That's not all. According to AP, the film has nearly 70 "launch partners." The list includes Whole Foods, Pottery Barn Kids, Stonyfield Farm, HP ("Print Like the Lorax"), Doubletree Hotels (Costa Rica "eco-travel" giveaway), and the EPA's EnergyStar program. And don't forget IHOP, which is featuring Lorax-themed dishes because "Planting trees can make you hungry!" Among the eco-friendly offerings: