2012 - %3, January

Monster Heat Wave Stomps NOAA Website

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 1:03 PM EDT

Derived from Mizunoumi via Wikimedia Commons.

Derived from Mizunoumi via Wikimedia Commons. 

March's mutant heat has been so extreme it's crashed the 'Extremes' section of NOAA's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) website. Why? Because:

  1. the software couldn't handle the huge number of high-temperature records being set and
  2. the site couldn't handle the huge demand from people wanting to see the records

I've been so frustrated at being unable to access the site in the midst of one of the most extreme weather events in more than a century of record keeping that I found myself visited by a feverish little brain worm called 'conspiracy.' 

Credit: NOAA National Climatic Data Center.Credit: NOAA National Climatic Data Center.

But according to Jeff Masters at Wunderblog the NCDC has spent the week reengineering their software to handle the extreme load on both records and demand.

Today the site is up and running again—though only with data through last Sunday. You can see in the chart above the monster rate of broken records. A few noteworthies:

  • Not only are daytime high-temp records (Hi Max) falling but more impressively the number of nighttime high-temp records (Hi Min) are falling nearly as fast.
  • Hi Max records are outpacing Lo Max (daytime low-temps) records by 25-to-1 last week.
  • Hi Min records are outpacing Lo Min (nighttime low-temps) records by 16-to-1 last week.

 

Historic heat wave in N. America turns winter to summer: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using data from the Level 1 and Atmospheres Active Distribution System (LAADS).

Monster heat wave in N. America turns winter to summer: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using data from the Level 1 and Atmospheres Active Distribution System (LAADS). 

NASA's Earth Observatory just published this map showing the intensity and scope of the heat wave as surface temperature anomalies. The map compares the current heat wave to average temps for the same eight-day period in March from 2000-2011. Warmer than average temps are red, near-normal temps are white, cooler than average are blue. From the Earth Observatory:

Records are not only being broken across the country, they're being broken in unusual ways. Chicago, for example, saw temperatures above 26.6°Celsius (80°Fahrenheit) every day between March 14-18, breaking records on all five days. For context, the National Weather Service noted that Chicago typically averages only one day in the eighties each in April. And only once in 140 years of weather observations has April produced as many 80°Fahrenheit days as this March. Meanwhile, Climate Central reported that in Rochester, Minnesota. the overnight low temperature on March 18 was 16.6°Celsius (62°Fahrenheit), a temperature so high it beat the record high of 15.5°Celsius (60°Fahrenheit) for the same date.

 

 Global temperature trend: NASA Earth Observatory, Robert Simmon.

Global temperature trend: NASA Earth Observatory, Robert Simmon.

Clearly 2012 is stomping the norm since 2000. And as you can see in this chart of rising global temperatures, the norm since 2000 has stomped all the norms of the prior century.

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Bye Bye, Cancer-Causing Strawberry Fumigant

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 12:50 PM EDT
Soon to be methyl iodide-free.

Methyl iodide, a highly toxic pesticide intended for large-scale plantings of strawberries and other fruit crops, gained approval from the EPA in 2007 and the California Department of Pesticide Registration in 2010. Yet its maker, chemical giant Arysta, abruptly yanked it from the US market Tuesday.

What happened? Methyl iodide's inglorious exit ends a saga that exemplifies corporate capture of the regulatory agencies and the potential for popular organizing to push back against it.

Healthcare Might be in Healthier Shape Than We Think

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 12:47 PM EDT

Austin Frakt posts a chart today showing that productivity growth in the healthcare sector sucks. In the durable goods sector, for example, productivity doubled between 1995-2005. In the healthcare sector, it went down by a few percent. In the middle of an economic boom, healthcare actually got less productive.

But wait. What does this mean? If I run a widget factory, measuring productivity is straightforward. If I make twice as many widgets with the same amount of labor and capital, my productivity has doubled. Hooray! But what does healthcare produce? What precisely needs to double to say that healthcare productivity has doubled?

Austin links to a paper by David Cutler, who admits that "Productivity growth is notoriously difficult to measure in health care." Why? Because "Accurate productivity assessment requires a good output measure." Official figures put productivity growth in the healthcare sector at -0.2% per year, but:

Other studies have looked more closely at health care costs and output, and can be used to assess the productivity of medical care over time. Figure 2 shows the cost per additional year of life attributable to medical care between 1960 and 2000.

The value of a year of life is generally taken to be about $100,000 (Cutler, 2004). Thus, costs per year of life below this amount are generally considered to be good value, while costs above this amount are considered to be poor value. Most of the estimates of cost per year of life are below $100,000. Thus, medical care on average is giving good value for the dollar. But the trend is adverse. Cost per year of additional life was lower in the 1960s and 1970s than in the 1980s and 1990s.

I just flatly don't get this. For one thing, it makes sense that people will value their lives more highly as they get richer. America is a much richer country than it was in the 60s, and it's hardly surprising that we're willing to spend a lot more to extend our lives by a year than we were then. This is more a reflection of spending priorities than it is of productivity.

More importantly, though, this just seems like a terrible measure. Even though everyone acknowledges that lifespan isn't a very good way of measuring the quality of healthcare, we keep on using it anyway. But that's like looking for your keys under the streetlight just because the light is better there. You end up missing enormous strides that have nothing to with lifespan. Lasik surgery doesn't extend your life, but a lot of people sure get a lot of benefit from it. When I tore a meniscus in my knee, I recovered fully and quickly thanks to arthroscopic surgery. I thought that was great, but it didn't extend my lifespan by a single day. Asthma inhalers save lives, but they also dramatically improve quality of life above and beyond that. The list of advances like this is endless.

I don't know how you measure that. Maybe it's impossible. But I halfway wonder if we should just admit that we have no good measure of healthcare productivity and give up on pretending otherwise. Just treat it like a gigantic productivity black hole, and concentrate our attention instead on simple efficiency, where we do at least have decent comparative measures. Some regions, and some practices, really do produce similar outcomes with less spending than other areas and practices, and that's worth looking at. But I'm not sure how you translate that into a traditional productivity measure.

We spend a lot of useless money on medicine. No argument there. But that's as much a value statement as it is an objective measure of productivity. I might think it's a waste to spend $100,000 keeping an 80-year-old man barely alive in a hospital bed for an extra six months, but if the man is your grandfather, you might disagree. And if that happens more today than it used to, it's just because we all have a lot more money to spend on this stuff, not because medicine has gotten less productive.

However, I'll be curious to see further posts on this subject from Austin and the gang. Are there better measures of healthcare productivity out there? I'd be interested in hearing about them.

Researchers: GM Crops Are Killing Monarch Butterflies, After All

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 12:00 PM EDT
A monarch butterfly in all its majesty.

If any insect species can be described as charismatic minifauna, it's the monarch butterfly. The gorgeous creatures flutter about in a migratory range that stretches from the northern part of South America up into Canada. The monarch is the only butterfly species that undertakes such a long-distance migration. And when they alight upon a place en masse, heads turn. No fewer than five states—Texas, Alabama, Idaho, illinois, and Minnesota—claim the monarch as their state insect. 

Unfortunately, the monarch populations appear to be in a state of decline. Why? A new study (abstract; press release) from University of Minnesota and Iowa State University researchers points to an answer: the rapid rise of crops engineered to withstand herbicides.

Wall Street Rolls Merrily Along

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 11:22 AM EDT

Felix Salmon writes something peculiar today. He's not too keen on the JOBS Act, a bill designed to loosen securities regulations on small businesses, and yet it's gotten wide bipartisan support anyway:

I don’t fully understand the political dynamics here. A bill which was essentially drafted by a small group of bankers and financiers has managed to get itself widespread bipartisan support, even as it rolls back decades of investor protections. That wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago, and I’m unclear what has changed.

Felix! What's unclear here? Dodd-Frank is the exception, not the rule, and even Dodd-Frank's very modest rules are currently in the process of being eviscerated by human waves of Wall Street attorneys. Besides, a bill like the JOBS Act would have been eminently possible two years ago. In fact, in April 2009, a mere few months after the Great Meltdown, big banks successfully gutted a "cramdown" bill that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to reduce the principal owed on mortgages. And not only did they gut it, but they even got Congress to hand over billions in new bailout money at the same time. I guess they figured they were owed something for all the time and money they'd spent lobbying.

Long story short, nothing has changed. And that's the problem.

Term-Limit Vigilantes Strike Again in Illinois

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 11:02 AM EDT
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.)

It was sort of buried under the news of Mitt Romney's—surprise!—blowout victory in the Illinois primary, but there was another election on Tuesday with national implications: In Illinois' newly configured 16th congressional district, freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger knocked off 10-term incumbent Don Manzullo by double digits to the win the GOP nomination. Manzullo was expected to retire after redistricting but ran anyway, and was opposed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whose Young Guns super-PAC chipped in $50,000 in radio ads. So Kinzinger's win shouldn't come as a total surprise.

But what's interesting in this case is the involvement of the the Campaign for Primary Accountability, the anti-incument super-PAC I profiled earlier this month. Chaired by Texas construction magnate Leo Linbeck III, the goal of CFPA is to fund primary challenges to longtime incumbents, regardless of party. The group spent $200,000 on ads attacking Manzullo for, among other things, voting to fund the National Endowment for the Arts. CFPA has now been a factor in six House races—seven, if you count the preemptive retirement of Indiana pumpkinshooter Dan Burton (R)—and been on the winning side of three of them, knocking off Ohio GOP Rep. Jean Schmidt in addition to Manzullo and Burton. (In the other Illinois primary of note on Tuesday, CFPA-backed challenger Debbie Halvorson lost handily to Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.)

Kinzinger would have challenged Manzullo anyway, super-PAC backing or not; his alternative was to run against Jackson in a heavily Democratic district which includes Chicago's South Side. But midway through the primary campaign, the CFPA is happy to take credit.

"We fell in all six races we've accomplished our purpose—we've increased turnout, we've increased participation in the primary process, and we've made these races more competitive," says Curtis Ellis, the super-PAC's spokesman. "If you look even at last Tuesday's results [in Alabama], [GOP incumbent] Spencer Bacchus spent $1.6 million contacting voters. That's something he hasn't done in this century! His vote totals were 59 percent. That's the lowest he has ever received. His challengers got 41 percent of the vote. That's a more competitive election than that district has ever seen since Spencer Bacchus took office in 1992. Our success has never been measured in candidates being defeated. Our success is measured in how competitive these elections are. And in all cases, they're more competitive than they've ever been."

The group plans to release a new list of incumbent targets on Thursday; long-tenured congressmen from safe seats are officially on notice.

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Chart of the Day: Fox News and Trayvon Martin

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 10:22 AM EDT

I've noted on several occasions that Fox News spent pretty much the entire summer of 2010 fanning the flames of xenophobia and racial resentment, and a few days ago I wondered if the ridiculous Derrick Bell incident foreshadowed a reprise during this year's election summer. We'll have to wait for summer to find out, but ThinkProgress reminds us today that there are two sides to this kind of thing: there's the wildly overwrought coverage of stories that keep the frenzy alive, but there's also the wildly understated coverage of stories that contradict the favored narrative of white culture under assault.

The Trayvon Martin story is just that. Adam Weinstein has a quick explainer here if you need to get up to speed on the story of a black kid in Florida who got shot by a white neighborhood watch patrolman for no apparent reason. The neighborhood watch guy was barely even questioned after the incident, which was apparently written off by the local police force as just one of those things. It's been a big story. And how has the news channel of conservative white folks covered it? ThinkProgress has the answer below. Apparently Trayvon Martin just doesn't fit into the Fox agenda.

Via Julian Sanchez.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 21, 2012

Wed Mar. 21, 2012 10:16 AM EDT

A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from A Company, 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, follows Mi-17 helicopters from Kandahar Air Wing during an air assault training mission in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on February 29, 2012. Photo by the US Army.

Walmart's Local Food Push: How Serious?

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 8:36 AM EDT

So I've got a piece in the March/April issue of the print Mother Jonescheck it out. I dig into Walmart's big push into local and organic food, comparing reality on the ground to the hype of press releases. My article is a short sidebar to Andy Kroll's long, beautifully reported look at the retail behemoth's larger campaign to "go green," which takes him, inevitably, to China, source of 70 percent of the goods Walmart sells. Happy reading.

The Truth About Mike Daisey—and Walmart

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
A Walmart store in Beijing, China.

Mike Daisey made you care. Give the man that much.

For all the flaws and fabrications in his monologue "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," excerpted and then retracted on the popular radio program "This American Life," Daisey changed how you looked at your iPhone or iPod or iPad. He caused you to consider how and where your Apple gadgets were made, and who made them. That Daisey lied about meeting underage workers at Apple supplier Foxconn does not mean Apple suppliers don't hire underage workers. They do. That Daisey misrepresented meeting a man with a hand snarled from repeating the same motion on an Apple production line doesn't mean such injuries aren't common in China. They are. Daisey's lies have stained his reputation. But Apple's once-glittering reputation is tarnished, too. For that Apple can blame Daisey, and even more so the reporting team behind the New York Times' superb iEconomy series.

But the problems plaguing the Chinese manufacturers are not limited to Apple. Far from it.

Today, you can read my investigation into an even more massive American corporation that, like Apple, depends on cheap, fast, and nimble Chinese labor: Walmart. It's a story 18 months in the works, and it reveals how the world's largest retailer has fallen well short on its much-hyped sustainability campaign, especially in China, where so much of Walmart's products are made.

Walmart launched its sustainability campaign in 2005, billing it as a boardroom-to-break-room effort to shrink the retailer's waste footprint, slash emissions at its stores and suppliers worldwide, and stock its shelves with more environmentally friendly products. Walmart's "green" embrace fit into a broader makeover at the embattled retailer. Walmart redesigned the company logo, de-cluttered its shelves and store aisles, and changed its slogan from "Always Low Prices" to "Save Money. Live Better."