2012 - %3, October

DOI's Polar Bear Scientist Investigation Ends in Confusion

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The long, strange case of a government scientist under investigation for alleged malfeasance appears to be over, but the official report on his case, if anything, makes the whole thing even more bizarre.

In July 2011, we told you about Charles Monnett, a wildlife biologist with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in Alaska who was placed on administrative leave and investigated by the Interior Department's inspector general. Monnett had coauthored a 2006 paper in the journal Polar Biology that documented four dead polar bears in the Beaufort Sea in 2004, projecting that declining sea ice might cause more bears to die in the future. The paper was later cited in efforts to get the polar bear protected as an endangered species. Needless to say, it was rather unexpected when the IG's investigators came after Monnett for vague "integrity issues" five years after the paper was published.

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Drones Could Help Conserve Endangered Wildlife

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

A collage of images of orangutan nests photographed by conservation drones.

This post first appeared on the Scientific American website.

What better way to study the world's largest arboreal animals than by putting an eye in the sky? A team of scientists working in Indonesia has done just that by launching inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles (a.k.a. drone airplanes) to study critically endangered Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) from above the treetops. The technology is already being put into use in other conservation projects around the world.

Autonomous drones can help scientists and conservationists to inexpensively collect timely, high-resolution data, says Serge Wich, professor at the Research Center in Evolutionary Anthropology and Paleoecology at Liverpool John Moores University. Wich and his partner, Lian Pin Koh, assistant professor of applied ecology and conservation at ETH Zurich, have developed a lightweight drone system that costs about $2,000—including the batteries, software, cameras, and flight stabilizers. Other commercially available drones, by comparison, cost as much as $50,000. Wich and Koh have set up a Web site, ConservationDrones.org, to help spread the technology around the world, and have recently consulted on similar projects in Nepal, Malaysia, and Gabon.

Armageddon in Greece

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 1:29 AM EDT

The New York Times reports on the latest draft budget from Greece:

The draft budget spells out about $10 billion in spending cuts and savings for 2013. About one-quarter of that would come through reductions in civil servants’ salaries and social welfare benefits, and about 15 percent through cuts in spending on health, defense and local authorities, the government said.

....The draft budget is expected to be revised significantly because it must be approved by the country’s troika of foreign lenders — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — before it can be submitted for a parliamentary vote. The troika is insisting on further cuts in the public sector — including laying off public servants, a political third rail in Greece and other European countries — while the coalition government has been pushing back.

....The negotiations are taking place against a backdrop of unrelenting, depression-level conditions in the Greek economy, which the draft budget predicted would contract by 6.5 percent this year and by 3.8 percent in 2013 — far more than the troika’s earlier estimates and about 25 percent below its peak before the crisis struck. The budget says unemployment is expected to rise to 24.7 percent from 23.5 percent this year.

Just for perspective, this is about a 10% cut in total government spending. The U.S. equivalent would be a cut of about $350 billion in federal spending and another $200-300 billion in state and local spending. All against the backdrop of an economic catastrophe that rivals the Great Depression in scope and will be made even worse by the proposed spending cuts.

If you happen to be wondering why Greeks are rioting in the streets, this is why. You might be too if this were happening to your economy.

So How Did That Whole "Lesser of Two Evils" Thing Work Out For You in 2000?

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 8:56 PM EDT

I'm a little nonplussed that it's suddenly become a thing to write about whether any self-respecting liberal can vote to reelect Barack Obama, given that he's a warmonger who kills innocent Muslims with his drone attacks. The reason I'm nonplussed is that this meme got kicked off by a piece written last week by Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic, and Conor isn't a liberal. Of course he's not thrilled about the prospect of voting for Obama. Not only does he dislike Obama's foreign policy, but he doesn't like Obama's domestic policy either: as far as I know, he's not a fan of Obamacare or the stimulus bill or Dodd-Frank or Obama's dismissal of Simpson-Bowles or any of that. There's nothing much there for him to like aside from the repeal of DADT.

In other words, Conor's piece is about the equivalent of E.J. Dionne telling us why he won't vote for Romney. Of course he won't. Who cares?

That said, if you're an actual lefty agonizing over whether you can possibly support the lesser of two evils this year, I have nine words for you: How did that work out for you in 2000? Even if you assume that Al Gore would have passed the Patriot Act; and invaded Afghanistan; and given the NSA free rein to engage in wholesale amounts of warrantless surveillance; and approved the torture of enemy combatants — even if you assume all that, do you think we would have invaded Iraq if Al Gore had been president? That didn't just happen, after all. It's not as if the public was baying for Saddam Hussein's scalp. It happened only thanks to a very determined effort by Dick Cheney and his fellow neocon sympathizers, and it happened only after a very deliberate, months-long marketing campaign from the Bush White House.

Now sure, you can spin weird counterfactuals here if you want to, but really, there's just no plausible scenario in which this would have happened under President Al Gore. And on the warmonger front, that's a pretty big deal, no? Frankly, if Al Gore had literally implemented the entire Bush agenda except for the Iraq war, that would be reason enough to vote for him.

In other words: yes, there really is a difference. Libya and the drone strikes don't even come close to comparing to Iraq. So go ahead and vote for Gary Johnson if you must, but do it with your eyes open. Whatever good it accomplishes, it also puts us one vote closer to having Dick Cheney's old foreign policy gang back in the West Wing. I'm not quite sure how the math on that one ever gets above zero.

Mia Love May Have Been Her Parents' "Ticket to America" After All

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 5:42 PM EDT
Mia Love

Last week, Mother Jones raised questions about the story Utah GOP congressional candidate Mia Love tells on the campaign trail about her Haitian immigrant parents. She often highlights their tale of coming to the US with $10 in their pockets and making it in America without any help from the government. She has claimed they came here legally and thus, she and her parents are different from those other immigrants her party would like to see barred at the gate. Yet in 2011, Love described her birth in the US as "our family's ticket to America," because it allowed her parents to beat a deadline in the law and gain "citizenship." Her story suggested that she was what members of her party derisively call an "anchor baby."

I tried to confirm Love's story about her birth and whether it could have allowed her parents to gain citizenship, because her description conflicts with current immigration law. I interviewed a host of immigration lawyers and put the details Love had provided about her family's immigration story to federal officials at both agencies that have jurisdiction over immigration. None of them could find a specific provision in the law that matched the one Love described. After researching the subject, a spokeswoman for the US Citizenship and Immigration Service said that US policy since 1924 has been to bar minor children from petitioning for their parents' permanent residence. As a result, I suggested that Love's story might be inaccurate.

However, it turns out I was wrong on one count. There was a measure in place that would have allowed Love's birth to help her parents attain permanent resident status if they registered before 1977. The law, passed in 1976, was never codified, meaning that it was never made part of the US code, so someone looking in the US code books for the Immigration Nationality Act, of which it is part, wouldn't necessarily be able to find the provision. It often exists as a footnote in some versions of the code, according to Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer with Lane Powell in Alaska. (It's also described in this State Department manual.)

Forbes first reported on Friday that this particular law allowed residents of the Western Hemisphere to use a child born in the US to apply for resident visas. The Forbes story also suggests that despite her protestations, Love's parents were probably in the country illegally, at least for a while, after overstaying their visas—something that nearly half of all illegal immigrants in the US have done. Stuart Anderson, the executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, writes in Forbes:

In discussing the parents’ path to America with Margaret Stock, we both came to the conclusion that Mia Love’s parents likely came to the United States on tourist visas and then overstayed those visas for at least a few years. Stock says it’s possible Mia Love’s parents conscientiously filed regular extensions to those visas and that those extensions were all approved. More likely, Mia Love’s parents were in the country out of legal status and, it turned out, after Mia’s birth a provision of U.S. immigration law that would expire in a year may have helped them stay legally.

Since Mother Jones first raised these issues, Republicans have rallied to Love's side, taking issue with our use of the term "anchor baby" and claiming that her family's immigration story is irrelevant to her campaign. Michelle Malkin, who has said that "anchor babies" undermine national security and the integrity of citizenship, snarked on Twitchy,

Note the question mark and quotes around “anchor baby.” The Mother Jones writer isn’t saying Love is an “anchor baby” to undermine her huge lead; she’s just “asking questions” about “what Republicans derisively call an ‘anchor baby’.” You know, by suggesting her parents “gamed the immigration system” and raising questions about Love’s truthfulness...Note to Mother Jones’ readers: Love’s parents came to the United States as legal immigrants. Not that she had much say in the matter.

Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright told the Salt Lake Tribune that questions about Love's immigration history should be off limits:

[T]his line of questioning is inappropriate. I think for a candidate to have to speculate on her parents’ motive during her conception and birth is outside the scope of what questions are appropriate during a campaign. The fact is her parents are U.S. citizens and if people have questions about that, then they should take those questions to the government agency that granted them citizenship.

Study: Stupid Photos of Adorable Cats Boost Workplace Productivity

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 4:14 PM EDT

Scientists in Japan have found that LOLcats aren't the useless workplace distraction we all thought they were. Via Sarah Kliff:

thisVia the Graduate School of Integrated Arts and Sciences, Hiroshima University

A team of researchers at Hiroshima University recently conducted a study where they showed university students pictures of baby animals before completing various tasks. What they found...was that those who saw the baby animal pictures did more productive work after seeing those photographs—even more than those who saw a picture of an adult animal or a pleasant food.

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We're Still at War, Terrifying Helmet-Cam Edition

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 3:47 PM EDT

First-person shooter enthusiasts, eat your heart out.

One presidential candidate completely ignored Afghanistan in his nomination acceptance speech. The other has given sunny, salutary statements about the US mission there ending in 2014. But while Romney and Obama campaign on jobs jobs jobs, more than 80,000 American service members remain in Afghanistan, risking their lives for a foreign policy that could charitably be described as "adrift."

What does that war look like to its practitioners? Like this:

That's video from the helmet-mounted camera of an American soldier who took four bullets from enemy fighters in this brief hillside firefight in Kunar Province. Fortunately, he sustained only minor injuries, even though he was hit in the helmet and his eye protection was shot off.

The soldier, who has not been identified, told his story last week to a combat documentarian known online as Funker350. The soldier's unit was conducting reconnaissance of a local village when they came under fire on the hillside. "[T]he rest of the squad was pinned down by machine gun fire. I didn't start the video until a few mins into the firefight for obvious reasons," the soldier said. "I came out into the open to draw fire so my squad could get to safety."

The attackers seemed to have hit everything but the soldier's flesh. "A round struck the tube by my hand of the 203 grenade launcher which knocked it out of my hands," he said. (The launcher is visible attached to the underside of his rifle barrel.) "When I picked the rifle back up it was still functional but the grenade launcher tube had a nice sized 7.62 cal bullet hole in it and was rendered useless."

All's well that ends well. But it's worth every politican—and voterasking whether the end goal in Afghanistan, whatever that is now, is worth the risk to Americans like this one.

(h/t Alex Horton)

Forget Baconpocalypse—Fishageddon Will Be Worse

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 3:30 PM EDT

If cats have any rival as objects of internet fixation, it may be bacon. Over the years, the salty, fatty, sweet, crispy stuff has gained iconic status among hardcore foodies and fast food fans alike. Thus we get sites like Bacon Today, which delivers "Daily News on the World of Sweet, Sweet Bacon." Or as a July Wired headline summed up the internet's cured-pork fetish: "Zombies and Bacon: Manufacturing Memes."

And so, when a British pork industry trade group issued a press release last week titled "Europe's pork and bacon supply is contracting fast," bloggers sniffed an easy post in a "bacon shortage" meme. And so the "baconpocalypse" was born, complete with cutesy blog posts about how we'll have to cut back on bacon donuts and candy bars. Or as one business site insisted, "Forget adding on bacon to your cheeseburgers or the 'B' in that BLT."

Of course, all of this is click-groping internet piffle, as Slate's Matt Yglesias showed. The UK pork industry's press release wasn't really about bacon specifically, but rather about pork in general. And while it's true that a catastrophic drought in US corn and soy country means higher hog-feed prices and thus higher pork prices next year, the effect on American consumers will be minimal. Mother Jones' own Asawin Suebsaeng showed that the alleged great bacon shortage will shave just a pound per capita off of US bacon production in 2013—leaving us with an ample 45 pounds of bacon per person to make do with over the year. Overall, US pork prices will rise just 2.5 to 3 percent next year, the USDA projects. Wendy's will likely continue peddling its "Baconator" burger unimpeded.

It's Zinger Time!

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 2:55 PM EDT

With the first presidential debate approaching, we're starting to see lots of retrospective pieces about famous debate gaffes of the past. The Wall Street Journal has a greatest hits parade here, and it's fun because it includes video clips of the various moments. Still, don't take it too seriously. The most famous gaffe of all, Richard Nixon's refusal to wear makeup and his profuse sweating in the television studio, probably didn't actually make any difference. The myth that Nixon lost the debate among TV viewers but won among radio listeners was seriously called into question long ago. And as Bob Somerby reminds us, Al Gore's famous sighing in 2000 didn't prevent him from posting a convincing win over George Bush in the overnight polls. It was only after the media got hold of the sighing meme that it took off.

As for the others, who knows? Reagan was already well ahead of Jimmy Carter when he invented the debate zinger in 1980, and it's pretty unlikely that George Bush looking at his watch in 1992 really made much of a difference. As for the Ford and Dukakis gaffes — well, I don't know. But I guess I'd like to see some evidence that there was a sharp tick in the polls shortly afterward.

In any case, if there's anything that partisans of all stripes should hold against Ronald Reagan, it's the idiotic obsession we now have with debate zingers. Romney's team has apparently been hard at work on the zinger front, and the New York Times reports that they've "equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August." Great. I don't doubt that Team Obama is doing the same, but the big difference here is that the Romney guys actually bragged about it. This is so mind-numbingly stupid that Romney probably ought to be tossed out of the race just for sheer campaign incompetence.

It's October, So It Must Be Time For a Surprise

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 1:03 PM EDT

Anton Brand/Shutterstock; Harry E. Walker/MCT/ZUMAAnton Brand/Shutterstock; Harry E. Walker/MCT/ZUMAAccording to Craig Unger at Salon, a "highly reliable source" tells him that the Romney campaign is "chortling with glee" over an October Surprise they plan to unleash in the coming days.

Republican operatives are primed to unleash a new two-pronged offensive that will attack Obama as weak on national security, and will be based, in part, on new intelligence information regarding the attacks in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens on Sept. 11....[The source] added that they planned to release what they hoped would be “a bombshell” that would make Libya and Obama’s foreign policy a major issue in the campaign. “My understanding is that they have come up with evidence that the Obama administration had positive intelligence that there was going to be a terrorist attack on the intelligence.”

Really? Well fine. I wasn't going to do this, since the prospect of an October Surprise hasn't really been a topic of conversation this year, but back in 2004 it was, and I wrote a short little history of October Surprises for the Washington Monthly. It never got published, but by God, no research should ever go to waste, should it? So in honor of October 1st, here it is. If you have the stamina to make it all the way to the end, there's even a short little contest. Enjoy.


In July 1940, at the height of his powers and running for an unprecedented third term, Franklin Roosevelt surveyed the Democratic party in search of a running mate. After due consideration his eyes lighted on his Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, a selection his closest advisors and most of the Democratic party chiefs warned him away from. FDR refused to listen: "They will go for Wallace or I won't run," he insisted testily.

And why not? Wallace was popular, a good speaker, and had done a creditable job of running the Department of Agriculture. What's more, he was honest to a fault, a fervent New Dealer, and intensely loyal to Roosevelt. Oh, and one more thing: in this era before FBI background checks, it turned out that Wallace had an additional trait that FDR either didn't know about or didn't take seriously: he was a wee bit eccentric.

Unfortunately for Roosevelt, his Republican opposition did know.