2012 - %3, July

Friday Cat Blogging - 27 July 2012

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 3:04 PM EDT

I'm afraid I have heartbreaking news today. On Tuesday night I left the back door open and apparently Inkblot slipped out during the night. He never returned.

We've scoured the neighborhood, put up flyers, and checked with the local shelter, but there's no sign of him. It's inexplicable. It's not the first time I've failed to close all the doors at night, and never in his life has he ever strayed more than a couple hundred feet from home. I don't know what happened this time. I just can't figure it out.

I kept hoping he'd come trotting through the door any moment, sporting his usual quizzical expression, wondering what I was so worried about and asking when dinner was going to be served. Then he'd go back to stealing my chair out from under me and demanding to be held upside-down so he could suck on my armpit. I kept hoping I wouldn't have to write this post. But he hasn't come back, and if he were anywhere nearby he'd have returned long ago. We haven't given up hope entirely, but at this point I'm afraid we've lost him for good. As you can imagine, it's been a very sad week around here. He was the best of cats.  

I have two pictures today. The top one is the first picture I took of Inkblot after we brought him home from the shelter on July 10, 1999. He was about two months old at the time. The second one is from Sunday. It's the last picture I ever took of him. He was 13.

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Modern Music is Tedious and Unimaginative

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 2:27 PM EDT

I'm not going to pretend to understand this, but a group of Spanish scientists say they now have empirical evidence that modern pop music is boring:

We find three important trends in the evolution of musical discourse: the restriction of pitch sequences (with metrics showing less variety in pitch progressions), the homogenization of the timbral palette (with frequent timbres becoming more frequent), and growing average loudness levels.

Basically, musicians are using fewer and simpler note sequences, less variety in timbre, and then making up for it by cranking up the volume. The chart on the right, which is really the only comprehensible one in the paper, shows the evolution of timbral variety, peaking in the 60s and then dropping off dramatically every year since.

Later, during a Q&A with neighborhood kids, the researchers added, ¡Quítese mi césped!

Presidential Race is Too Close to Call

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 12:33 PM EDT

Earlier this morning I predicted that it wouldn't be long before political scientists began plugging second-quarter GDP numbers into the election models to figure out who's going to win in November. I predicted correctly! First out of the gate — first that I've run across so far, anyway — is Seth Masket, who provides us with the chart on the right. I've added the horizontal dashed red line to show exactly where the latest numbers put us, and the news is slightly bad for President Obama: Masket's regression shows Obama winning about 49.7% of the popular vote. Masket provides all the proper caveats:

This isn't the strongest correlate with presidential vote shares. Real disposable income does a bit better, as do measures that incorporate third quarter growth. But still, by itself, this measure explains 39% of the variation in vote shares.

You'll notice that there's a red dotted line projecting the 2012 presidential vote based on GDP growth this year (an average of 1.75%). It basically hits the trendline right at 50%, continuing to indicate a really, really close contest. Notably, we're experiencing slower economic growth than George W. Bush had to contend with in 2004 or his father faced when he lost reelection in 1992.

Of course, I'm not making a forecast (political scientists are apparently terrible at that). I'm just suggesting that what we've seen so far this year from the economy is consistent with a very close election, and that things with more modest influences on the vote (campaign spending, voter turnout efforts, new voter ID requirements, etc.) could end up making all the difference.

Well, maybe Masket isn't making a forecast, but that won't stop the rest of us. Unfortunately, the numbers really are too close to be meaningful. It's not as if Obama is winning or losing by five percentage points or something. Given the limits of the model and the tightness of the numbers, Masket is right: it's still anyone's race. This year, at least, it looks as if the economic fundamentals are so evenly balanced that all the other campaign stuff really is going to make the difference. Just the way the media likes it.

POSTSCRIPT: Do you want my prediction? Sure you do! My guess is that the economic fundamentals really are on a knife-edge this year. However, voters usually keep parties in the Oval Office for two terms and toss them out after that. So if your party has held the presidency for one term, you have about a two-point built-in advantage. If your party has already held the presidency for two terms, you have about a two-point disadvantage.

It doesn't always work out that way, but take a look at all the outliers at the top right of the chart: they're all candidates running for second terms. Now take a look at the outliers below the green line. They're all candidates running for third, fourth, fifth, or even sixth terms (poor old Adlai in 1952).

Obama is running for a second term. So I'd add about two points to Masket's number and forecast a popular vote majority of around 51% to 51.5%. That's my current guess, unless something really huge happens between now and November.

UPDATE: Using a similar methodology to mine, Alan Abramowitz's model gives Obama about 50.5% of the popular vote.

Yesterday's Romney Gaffe Was Real, Not Fabricated

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 11:47 AM EDT

Mitt Romney's verbal stumbles in London yesterday probably won't have much long-term impact on the presidential campaign. Still, Dave Weigel points out something interesting about them. The best-known gaffes of the past few months have been mostly fabricated by the opposing campaign trying to make hay out of something that only barely exists. But not this time:

Compare this to what the British press has termed the "Romneyshambles." By chance, I was in a BBC studio yesterday morning to do a radio interview with another outlet. Non-reporter staff — people who did not cover the campaign, much less work on it — were chattering about Mitt Romney. The general tone was that, yes, they'd had some problems staging the Olympics, but that was up to them to talk about, not some American who'd run his own Olympics 10 years earlier. As I waited, I saw Prime Minister David Cameron — who is, remember, the first Conservative PM since 1997 — make a backhanded slap at Romney. "Of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere," he said. Later, like everybody else, I saw London Mayor Boris Johnson — also a Conservative! — make fun of "some guy named Mitt Romney" in front of a massive Olympics crowd.

There was no rival campaign cooking this up. There was no social media director making sure people tweeted it, or hashtagged it, or Google+'d it, if Google+ is still a thing. British Conservatives and media actually got pissed off at what they heard as an unhelpful insult. We've suffered through so many phony gaffes, we'd forgotten what a real one looked like.

That's an interesting point. As interesting as we're likely to get, anyway. And who knows? The fact that it's real, and that Romney followed it up with a series of other odd, Palinesque gaffes, has the potential to make a small dent in Romney's only real strength as a candidate: the notion that he's smart, disciplined, and well-briefed. Not so much, it turns out.

But for my money, if you're looking for a classic "gaffe," the kind that reinforces what everyone thinks of a candidate already, it was this cringe-inducing response to a question about the dressage competition:

I have to tell you, this is Ann’s sport. I’m not even sure which day the sport goes on. She will get the chance to see it, I will not be watching the event. I hope her horse does well.

This was painful to hear. I mean, what would any normal husband do if his wife were involved in an Olympic competition, even one he personally found boring? He'd attend! He'd cheer! That's what married people do. But Romney has been taking some flak for being a rich dude lately, and he's obviously calculated that being associated with a multimillion-dollar sport — and an obscure, sort of prissy one at that — wouldn't do his campaign any good. So he threw his own wife under the bus. Mitt Romney is willing to be whatever the electorate wants him to be, and apparently he crunched the numbers in his head and decided that America's heartland voters didn't want him to be associated with his wife's sport.

It's a trivial thing, but still, in its own trivial way it's really contemptible behavior, even for a guy who long ago decided he'd do anything to become president. The first time I read that quote I recoiled, and I still do a day later even after I've seen it a dozen times. What a gutless little weasel.

Later Today We'll Finally Know Who's Going to Win in November

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 11:04 AM EDT

GDP was up 1.5% last quarter. That's not so good. On the other hand, it's better than expected. And first quarter GDP was revised upward.

Later today people will all start diving into the numbers and trying to build detailed narratives around the housing sector or the tradeable sector or the state of the household appliances market or whatnot. But you know what this really means? We now have numbers for all the political scientists to plug into their election models so they can tell us who's going to win in November. Isn't that exciting? 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 27, 2012

Fri Jul. 27, 2012 10:25 AM EDT

A Paratrooper from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, searches for improvised explosive devices along Highway 1 in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. Dismounted troops are often better at finding wires leading to IEDs. US Army photo by Capt. Thomas Cieslak.

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Release the Romney Jokes!

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Forget—for the moment—Mitt Romney's tax records, his calendars, his list of bundlers, and his gubernatorial emails. What the public really needs to see are the Romney jokes.

In his 2004 book about his stewardship of the 2002 Winter Olympics, Turnaround, Romney, describing his management style, wrote the following:

We instituted a rule at Bain Capital that every meeting had to begin with a joke. I love jokes and I love laughing. The humor spread through the entire meeting: people were always on the lookout for a laugh. When Ed [Eynon] began the process of having task forces [at the Salt Lake Organizing Committee] determine which should be our guiding principles, I directed that "fun" needed to be one of them. It was. And I always tried to begin meetings with a joke, just to keep things in their proper perspective.

This is information voters must have: Romney's jokes. Did the gags make it into the minutes of the Olympics meetings? Did Romney keep a list? A set of index cards? Yes, many of the Olympics records were destroyed after the games, despite Romney's public declarations of transparency. But is it possible that some of the gags survived?

In search of the missing Romney jokes, I did contact a former Bain Capital partner, and asked if he would reveal what riddles, gags, or jests Romney shared in the boardroom to lighten things up during his days as a chieftain of high finance. Did Romney favor the knock-knock variety? Chickens crossing roads? Saucy limericks? Clergy-walking-into-bars scenarios? His official response: no comment. So you know they must be good.

Ann Romney has hailed her husband as a prankster. But a funny guy? That has yet to be seen. Reporters covering the GOP presidential candidate should demand immediate access to the Romney gags. And if Romney refuses to release his jokes, the obvious question will linger until Election Day: what's he hiding?

Your Weekend Longreads List on the Genetics of Life

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Photo by djem/ShuttPhoto by djem/Shutt

longreads

Can your genes be "owned" by someone else? Well, over a quarter of them already are, but the debate rages on about whether or not this is kosher. Last Friday, the the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit began hearing a Supreme Court-mandated case over whether isolated human genes can be patented in the first place. The defendants, Myriad Genetics, hold patents for two genes hugely implicated in breast cancer—and by extension control the means to test the genes for potentially dangerous mutations.

It's unclear whether this case will settle the two-year tug-of-war over whether our naturally-occurring genes can qualify as patentable human inventions. But in the meantime, here are some weekend #longreads that weave together stories about families, politics, and self-identity—all through the lens of our basic genetic building blocks. For more long stories from the pages of Mother Jones, check out our longreads archive. And, of course, if you're not following @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter yet, get on that. Have a great weekend, readers!



"Facing Life With a Fatal Gene"
| Amy Harmon | The New York Times | March 2007

When a daughter tests positive for carrying the lethal Huntington's gene, it means her mother must be a carrier as well. Amy Harmon's moving account tells the story of a girl determined to face her inevitable disease head-on, and a mother who insists on denying it—while already beginning her downward spiral into brain disease.

In the tumultuous months that followed, Ms. Moser often found herself unable to remember what normal had once been. She forced herself to renounce the crush she had long nursed on a certain firefighter, sure that marriage was no longer an option for her. She threw herself into fund-raising in the hopes that someone would find a cure. Sometimes, she raged...She never, she said, regretted being tested. But at night, crying herself to sleep in the dark of her lavender bedroom, she would go over and over it. She was the same, but she was also different. And there was nothing she could do.
 

"Defining Jews, Defining a Nation: Can Genetics Save Israel?" | Jeff Wheelwright | The Atlantic | March 2012

A conference of Israeli and American geneticists studying Jewish DNA devolves into the question: What does it mean to be a Jew?

Is a person Jewish because of blood or because of culture? Must Jewish identity follow the biological pathway of descent, like those tongue-twisting names in the Hebrew Bible connected by begat, or can Jewishness be acquired merely by espousing the faith?…The implications of the debate matter for more than just Jewish Israelis. Allowing for biological yardsticks of Jewish ancestry begs a question about the blood origins of the Palestinians in their midst. On the family tree of humanity the two peoples are surprisingly close, or so says science.
 

"An Error in the Code" | Richard Preston | The New Yorker | August 2007

An extremely rare genetic mutation discovered in 1964 causes boys to have strikingly devastating self-mutilating behaviors. This is the story of two men living with the disease, and what they can tell us about the genetic roots of human behavior.

I went back several times to visit James Elrod and Jim Murphy, and began helping their staff with daily tasks. Elrod spat in my face a few times, and gave me a left jab to the jaw. Once, his Kevlar-covered fingers closed on my skin like pliers; he apologized while we both worked to get them loose. Murphy, at his thirty-third birthday party, planted his face in his cake, and then punched me. Nevertheless, I came to like them a lot.
 

"My Genome, My Self" | Steven Pinker | New York Times Magazine | January 2009

Experimental psychologist and popular science writer Steven Pinker takes us on a unique quest of self-discovery: having his genome sequenced and posting it online for geneticists to analyze. This is the story of what he learns along the way.

People have long been familiar with tests for heritable diseases, and the use of genetics to trace ancestry—the new “Roots”—is becoming familiar as well. But we are only beginning to recognize that our genome also contains information about our temperaments and abilities. Affordable genotyping may offer new kinds of answers to the question “Who am I?”—to ruminations about our ancestry, our vulnerabilities, our character and our choices in life.
 

"Who Owns My Disease?" | Arthur Allen | Mother Jones | Nov/Dec 2001

The Human Genome Project was just drawing to a close, and one family dealing with a rare genetic disease decided to take the issue of gene patenting into their own hands.

After overcoming their initial awe at scientists and their jargon, they came to a disheartening conclusion. "We realized nobody knows what's happening with this disease," Sharon recalled…With the help of friends, neighbors, fellow patient advocates, and the Internet, the Terrys embarked on an unprecedented project: They sought out people with PXE and their family members, and asked them to provide blood and tissue samples. "We realized that if we got enough people's DNA, we could find the gene," Sharon Terry explains. "So we decided to make a central repository. And we decided to keep the key to the repository ourselves."

Alarming Loss of Species in Protected Forests

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Tropical  forest, Malaysia Peter Coxhead via Wikimedia CommonsTropical forest, Malaysia: Peter Coxhead via Wikimedia Commons

I was interested to read a new paper in the science journal Nature this week. Not least because it was co-authored by more than 200 scientists from around the world—a veritable who's-who of researchers from the world of tropical forest ecology.

The gist of the paper is alarming:

  1. The rapid disruption of tropical forests worldwide probably imperils global biodiversity more than any other force today.
  2. The best hope lies in protected areas.
  3. Yet many protected areas are not effectively protecting biodiversity.

The authors write:

Our analysis reveals great variation in reserve 'health:' about half of all reserves have been effective or performed passably, but the rest are experiencing an erosion of biodiversity that is often alarmingly widespread taxonomically and functionally.

Comparison of ecological changes inside vs outside protected areas: Laurance, et al, Nature 2012 DOI:10.1038/nature11318Comparison of ecological changes inside vs outside protected areas, for selected environmental drivers. The bars show percentage of reserves with improving vs worsening conditions: Laurance, et al, Nature 2012, DOI:10.1038/nature11318

The authors studied more than 30 different categories of species—from trees and butterflies to primates and large predators—in protected areas across the tropics in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. They calculated how these groups have fared in recent decades and identified the drivers of environmental change.

Lead author William Laurance of James Cook University in Australia and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama told me:

One of the things our study demonstrated was a sort of "mirror effect"—that the changes inside vs. outside [the reserves] tend to be positively correlated.

In other words, the reserves are only as strong as the lands surrounding them. And their power to protect biodiversity—that is, a full, healthy spectrum of lifeforms from the smallest to the largest—is threatened by activities on their borders, particularly from the illegal encroachment of colonists, hunters, and loggers.  

Jaguar, an apex predator: US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia CommonsThe jaguar, an apex predator: US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia CommonsThe authors found that some guilds—that is, ecological groups of plants and animals—were more at risk than others. The most sensitive guilds included apex predators, large non-predatory vertebrates, bats, stream-dwelling amphibians, terrestrial amphibians, lizards and larger reptiles, non-venomous snakes, freshwater fish, large-seeded old-growth trees, epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants, like orchids), and ecological specialists.

Several other groups were somewhat less vulnerable, including primates, understory insectivorous birds, large frugivorous [fruit-eating] birds, raptorial birds [birds of prey], venomous snakes, species that require tree cavities, and migratory species. In addition, five groups increased markedly in abundance in the reserves, including pioneer and generalist trees, lianas and vines, invasive animals, invasive plants and human diseases.

Considering that the most endangered species are living in protected areas that are themselves embedded in extremely degraded landscapes, then the picture looks even gloomier.

Juvenile howler monkey picking berries: Alphamouse via Wikimedia CommonsJuvenile howler monkey picking berries: Alphamouse via Wikimedia Commons

But in my article in the May/June 2012 issue of Mother Jones, Can One Incredibly Stubborn Person Save an Ecosystem?, I wrote about the need to spend more time discussing and dissecting success stories in conservation biology. As things stand, the bad news stories overwhelm us and threaten to defeat our willpower and continued efforts.

So I asked Laurance, if we were to turn his paper around for a moment, what can we say is working in the 50 percent of reserves that are doing a decent job protecting biodiversity? His answer:

In very general terms, the 50 percent of reserves that were doing relatively well had (1) better on-the-ground protection inside the reserve, and (2) had suffered less-intense changes outside the reserve. 

Thus the paper presents a blueprint of what to do, as well as what not to do, if we want to maintain Earth's biodiversity in a rapidly changing world. The authors conclude:

Protected areas are a cornerstone of efforts to conserve tropical biodiversity. It is not our intent to diminish their crucial role but to highlight growing challenges that could threaten their success. The vital ecological functions of wildlife habitats surrounding protected areas create an imperative, wherever possible, to establish sizeable buffer zones around reserves, maintain substantial reserve connectivity to other forest areas and promote lower-impact land uses near reserves by engaging and benefiting local communities. A focus on managing both external and internal threats should also increase the resilience of biodiversity in reserves to potentially serious climatic change in the future.

The paper:

  • William F. Laurance, et al. Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas. Nature (2012). DOI:10.1038/nature11318

New Study Shows That Medicaid Expansion Really Does Save Lives

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Most of the recent conversation about Medicaid expansion has been about costs. If states decide not to participate in Obamacare's expansion of Medicaid, how much will it save the federal government? If they do decide to participate, how much will it cost the states?

But what about the benefits? What happens when more people are eligible for Medicaid? I usually caution people not to focus too much on death rates when they look at questions like this, since mortality is notoriously hard to measure. What's more, the value of reliable medical care shows up far more in quality of life than it does in raw death rates. Decent dental care may not extend lifespans enough to show up in gross mortality statistics, but it's sure as hell still worthwhile for the folks who get to keep their teeth intact.

That said, preventing unnecessary deaths is still an important metric of decent access to medical care. So how does Medicaid stack up on this score? A trio of Harvard researchers tackled that question by looking at three states that expanded Medicaid eligibility between 2000 and 2005 (Arizona, Maine, and New York) and comparing their change in mortality rates with nearby states that didn't expand Medicaid eligibility. The chart below shows the results. In the expansion states, Medicaid enrollment went up dramatically, from 8% to 13% of the population. At the same time, mortality rates went down substantially, from 320 per 100,000 to 300 per 100,000.

As usual, you should interpret these results cautiously. Three states is a small sample, and the results are dominated heavily by strongly positive results in New York (in fact, mortality actually went up in Maine). Still, this study strongly suggest that Medicaid expansion really does extend lives. It's a helluva bargain for states that participate.