2012 - %3, October

You Will Pay For Hurricane Sandy—Even If You Live Nowhere Near It

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 2:37 PM PDT

By now you've already heard about Hurricane Sandy. Or Frankenstorm. Or the Snowincane, if you prefer. As I write this, the storm is barreling toward the continental United States, promising to wreck havoc on the coastal Mid-Atlantic and New England.

It's supposed to hit coastal Virginia, where I've spent quite a bit of time in the past few months reporting about sea level rise, storm surges, and efforts to make communities safer. You'll have to wait a bit longer for that piece, but in the mean time, Sandy is a good reminder of what some regions of the country are up against.

Sure, this region does get big storms. There was Hurricane Isabel in 2003, a Nor'easter named Ernesto in 2006, Nor'Ida in 2009. In August 2011 they got Hurricane Irene. But sea level rise makes everything worse. Higher sea levels mean bigger storm surges and more damage to coastal regions.

Tide measurements have found that the sea level on Virginia's Middle Peninsula has risen 14.5 inches in the past 100 years, and scientists expect the seas here to rise another 27.2 inches by the end of the century. Overall, sea level is rising four times faster along the east coast of the US than the global average. The area along the Chesapeake Bay is particularly at risk, because the ground is sinking as the seas are rising.

In the US, we have 4,514 miles of shoreline—20 percent our total miles of coastline—that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says is highly vulnerable to sea level rise. That includes 82 percent of Virginia's coast. You can see what that means for storm surges with this great map that Climate Central created. Jeff Masters, the director of meteorology at Weather Underground, says we can expect 3 to 6 foot storm surges where Sandy makes landfall.

Climate change is already speeding up sea-level rise. But it's also making mega storms more likely. A warmer climate and more moisture in the atmosphere makes for more extreme storms, as Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research explains. As Masters put it, "I call it being on steroids kind of for the atmosphere."

Experts are already projecting that Sandy will be a billion-dollar disaster for the US. Last year, Irene alone causing $4.3 billion in losses—and that was just one of 14 storms that cost at least a billion dollars. And while damage caused by a storm like Sandy can be expensive for people who live in its path, it's also costly for everyone else: After Social Security, the National Flood Insurance Program is the second largest fiscal liability for the US government, insuring $527 billion of assets in the coastal flood plain. Private flood insurance is difficult, if not impossible, to come by.

"This is going to be bad, but if we continue along this path of carbon pollution, it's just going to be a lot worse," says Amanda Staudt, a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation based in Reston, Va.—which is also expected to be hit by the storm. "Every time one of these disasters starts unfolding that clearly has a signature of a climate change impact, I begin to think that maybe this will be the time people will get it, that is what climate change means for us."

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"Movie & An Argument" Podcast: 'Cloud Atlas' & 'Happy Endings'

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 2:36 PM PDT

On this week's episode of A Movie & An Argument, With Alyssa Rosenberg & Asawin Suebsaeng, we discuss (scroll down for audio):

Listen here:

Pass the Cheetos, Kal-El: Superman Becomes a Blogger

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 1:35 PM PDT

A confesson: I'm basically a Superman stan, since I was a child, and when I started working as a journalist, I'd joke to people that as a kid I had always wanted to be Superman, but now that I was grown up I wanted to be more like Clark Kent. 

As someone who came to professional journalism through blogging, I was excited to see that DC Comics, as part of its reboot of the DC universe, is recasting Clark Kent as a disillusioned reporter who quits the Daily Planet to become a blogger after becoming disgusted with a corporate takeover of the Metropolis Daily Planet. DC has increasingly incorporated elements of print journalism's decline into its products (in the animated feature Justice League: Doom, Superman literally tries to talk an aging laid off reporter out of throwing himself off the roof of the Daily Planet), but I didn't expect DC to take the story this far. According to a USA Today interview with writer Scott Lobdell, Superman leaves to start "the next Huffington Post or Drudge Report."

"I don't think he's going to be filling out an application anywhere," the writer says. "He is more likely to start the next Huffington Post or the next Drudge Report than he is to go find someone else to get assignments or draw a paycheck from."

Drudge and Huffington Post are actually very different entities. The former is today a right-wing aggregator whose primary objective is shaping the coverage of national news outlets, while the latter aggregates but also runs an extensive news-gathering operation whose reporters regularly scoop their more august rivals. There was a time when mainstream media referred to blogs derisively. But now that the medium is professionalized most understand that blogging is form, not content, and that good reporting is good reporting whether it's done by a website or by a nightly news broadcast. The "upstart" veneer to news blogging is largely gone—it's now something professional writers are simply expected to know how to do.

How well Superman's writers understand that will determine the longevity and effectiveness of this latest change. For it to be something more than a timestamped gimmick, Clark Kent's motivations for being a reporter have to stay essentially the same: Journalism in the public interest is just another way that Superman tries to save the world. 

Friday Cat Blogging - 26 October 2012

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 11:49 AM PDT

This morning Domino was basking in the sunshine playing with her new catnip mouse. (It's the bright blob on top of her paws.) This afternoon will be a little more stressful, featuring another trip to the vet. Hopefully the news won't be too bad.

If you need an additional cat fix, check out this LA Times profile of the guy behind the Henrí videos. I didn't know this, but it turns out Henry is his neighbor's cat. He himself lives alone. It takes all kinds, I guess.

2012 Most Racialized Election in Past Two Decades

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 10:36 AM PDT

John Sununu, the surrogate the Romney campaign uses to promote crazy uncle memes they can't afford to be associated with themselves, told Piers Morgan yesterday that Colin Powell was endorsing Barack Obama mainly because, hey, Powell's a black guy and endorsing Obama is the kind of thing you do in order to stand with "somebody of your own race." Atrios:

What's "amazing" (horrifying) is that while old white dudes like Sununu instantly jump to the idea that the main thing which drives African-American voting habits (congratulations, Senator Steele) is racial solidarity, but would freak if you suggested white people are more likely to vote for white people.

Funny he should mention that. The Washington Post reports today that this year's election is the most thoroughly racialized in the past 20 years:

The 2012 election is shaping up to be more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988, with President Obama experiencing a steep drop in support among white voters from four years ago.

....Nearly half of all of those who supported Obama in 2008 but now say they back Romney are white independents. Overall, whites make up more than 90 percent of such vote “switchers.” Romney’s advantage here comes even as 48 percent of white voters in the tracking data released Monday said Romney, as president, would do more to favor the wealthy....Most whites, with and without college educations, saw Obama as doing more to favor those in the middle, not the wealthy.

Do you think John Sununu was unaware of this when he made that comment? If you answer yes, please contact me immediately. I've come across an exciting opportunity to help a Nigerian widow collect her inheritance and I think you might be able to help.

BLAME THE UNITED NATIONS FOR ALL CAPS WEATHER SERVICE BULLETINS

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 9:40 AM PDT

Matt Yglesias is unhappy that the National Weather Service continues to issue its bulletins in all caps, as if they were still using an old-style teletype. I direct his attention to this survey from 2006:

NWS Customer Survey for Official and Experimental Products/Services

Name of Product/Service: Use of mixed case and extended character sets in NWS text products

1. On a scale of 0 to 10 (10 highest), rate technical quality of this product/service (e.g., forecast accuracy, timeliness, problems with display). Etc.

And to this notice from two years ago:

BEGINNING MAY 28 AND CONTINUING THROUGH SEPTEMBER 15 2010...

NWS IS SEEKING USER FEEDBACK ON THE PROPOSAL TO CHANGE ALL NWS TEXT PRODUCTS TO INCLUDE UPPER AND LOWER CASE ALPHABETIC CHARACTERS RATHER THAN ALL UPPERCASE AS IS PRESENTLY DONE. ADDITIONAL PUNCTUATION AND OTHER CHARACTERS THAT ARE PART OF THE INTERNATIONAL REFERENCE ALPHABET NO. 5 WOULD ALSO BE PERMITTED.

And finally to this 60-page document from November, 2010:

2.1 Characters, Case, and Punctuation for Narrative Text. Narrative text uses upper case and only the following punctuation marks in the text: the period (.); the three dot ellipsis (...); the forward slash (/); the dash (-); and the plus (+). Use of other characters may inhibit the proper dissemination or automated processing by certain users’ systems.

The goal of the NWS is to move to mixed case letters with additional allowed punctuation in its text products, while maintaining current text rules in products that are under the purview of the [World Meteorological Organization] requirements listed in the document above or that are required under international or national agreements. Until such changes are officially announced via Public Information Statements, offices will abide by the rules in the paragraph above and in the following sections of this document.

In other words, NWS is on it!  But apparently international conventions are slowing things down. However, last year, a few select NWS offices began using mixed case, and NWS apparently offers a "non-operational product" nationally that also uses mixed case. What's more, they want your feedback, since this will "help the NWS better plan the eventual transition of all NWS text products to mixed case and the expanded character set." I have helpfully retyped this public information statement since it was, of course, originally issued in all caps.

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The US Economy Is Kind of Meh

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 9:02 AM PDT

A couple of years ago, wonky bloggers started really digging into new releases of economic data. When GDP numbers were released, you could find a dozen posts diving deep into the weeds and explaining why the numbers did or didn't really matter: defense spending was artificially up, inventory gains were wacky, the timber industry had an unusually good quarter, etc. etc.

Then that got tiresome, as everyone realized that there are details like that every quarter. Most of the time, the headline number is pretty much the best indication we have of how the economy is doing.

Now we've entered a third phase, in which the fashionable thing is to discount even the headline number because it's just going to get revised next quarter anyway. So who knows?

I have a feeling that people who are new to economic analysis go through these phases routinely, while the wise old hands nod along and wait for them to pass. Now a new generation has done this, and a few years from now we'll all be nodding along with a smile when a fresh batch of kids comes along and discovers that GDP reports and employment reports come with loads of detail to analyze and are always revised once or twice before they settle down.

In the meantime, GDP grew 2% last quarter. That's not terrible, but not great. We need to do considerably better if we want to get unemployment down to acceptable levels. And like it or not, that's about as much as we know: the economy isn't terrible and isn't great. It would be nice to know more, but we don't.

Obama's Ground Game Advantage May Not Be As Big As It Looks

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 8:07 AM PDT

The chart below has been making the rounds over the past couple of days. It shows how many field offices each campaign has in the top ten swing states, and it's pretty stunning. Obama has twice as many offices as Romney in Virginia. Twice as many in Florida. Three times as many in Iowa. And more than three times as many in Ohio.

What's going on? Our working assumption should be twofold: (a) the Romney campaign has plenty of money, and (b) they aren't idiots. So what's the deal? I've been meaning to mention something about this, but today Seth Masket does it for me. He makes three suggestions, and I suspect the third one is probably correct:

He's counting on field organizational efforts from the parties, church organizations, and other allied groups to do the same sort of things that the Obama offices are doing.

There's been a disconnect in the ground games of the major parties for some time. Democrats tend to rely on paid, professional operations, while Republicans rely more on volunteer efforts, largely from evangelical churches. This is something that actually works in the Republicans' favor, since volunteer efforts from friends and neighbors tend to be more effective at switching votes than professional phone banks. (Also cheaper.) On the other hand, the professional organizations are often more thorough, and are better at the actual logistics of getting people to the polls.

In any case, I wouldn't be surprised if that's what's happening here. This is just a difference in the way the parties handle elections these days, not necessarily an indication that the Obama organization is kicking Romney's ass.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 26, 2012

Fri Oct. 26, 2012 7:45 AM PDT

Cpl. Frank P. Wippel, a rifleman with 1st platoon, Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, scans the surrounding area for enemy during Exercise Croix du Sud at Camp la Broche, New Caledonia, Oct. 13. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Erik Brooks.

What We Can Learn from the Greek-Island Diet—and What We Already Know

| Fri Oct. 26, 2012 4:03 AM PDT

In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, there's an extremely evocative article on life on the Greek island of Ikaria, pop. 10,000, whose "jagged ridge of scrub-covered mountains rises steeply out of the Aegean Sea." The focus is on the unusual longevity and good health of the people who live there. The author, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner, specializes in reporting on what he calls "blue zones"—pockets where populations manage to avoid succumbing to debilitating modern health scourges like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Buettner assembled a team of academic researchers to look hard at the island's demographics. They concluded that Ikarians are "reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do." The situation for men is even more extreme: Ikarian men in particular are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health. Buettner continues:

But more than that, Ikarians were also living about 8 to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and cardiovascular disease, and they suffered less depression and about a quarter the rate of dementia. Almost half of Americans 85 and older show signs of Alzheimer’s. (The Alzheimer's Association estimates that dementia cost Americans some $200 billion in 2012.) On Ikaria, however, people have been managing to stay sharp to the end.

Genetics can't explain the phenomenon, Buettner argues. On the next island over, he writes, people "with the same genetic background eat yogurt, drink wine, breathe the same air, fish from the same sea as their neighbors on Ikaria," but "live no longer than average Greeks." So, the obvious question here is, what are the Ikarians doing differently? The typical American impulse would be to identify some wonder substance driving the Ikarians' good health, concentrate it (if not synthesize it in a lab first), stick it in a pill, market it heavily—and then find out the wonder substance is all but worthless. We've learned that isolating nutrients, stripping away the context of their presence in whole foods, is not a recipe for health, as Michael Pollan showed in his In Defense of Food. Consuming beta carotene in the context of a carrot is good for you; gulping down a beta carotene pill, it turns out, not so much.