2012 - %3, November

Thanksgiving Longreads: What Lab Creation Are You Eating?

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 6:17 PM EST

1947 Spam ad featuring pineapple and BBQ sauce. Yum?1947 Spam ad featuring pineapple and BBQ sauce. Yum? James Vaughan /Flickr

longreadsFor the past hundred years or so, the food industry has used the laws of chemistry to beat nature into submission. Apples that don't brown! Bread that rises to ethereal heights! Twinkies that last forever!

But Twinkie-makers do not last forever, and while feats of laboratory science were once hailed as progress, foodie culture has since turned against convenience and long shelf lives. These longreads explore how science and marketing have shaped our perceptions of what we eat. Tuck in.

For more long stories from Mother Jones check out our longreads archive. And, of course, if you're not following @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter yet, get on that.


Twelve Easy Pieces (Apples)| Jon Mooallem | New York Times Magazine | February 2006

As the famous mind behind a different type of Apple product once said, "People don't know what they want until you show it to them." So while it may seem preposterous that a simple apple is too inconvenient to eat, makers of pre-sliced apples think they're onto something.

 

For years, suspicion has been growing in the orchards of the Wenatchee Valley in Washington State and in the food industry at large that fruit, nature's original hand-held convenience food, is simply too poorly designed for today's busy eater. The apple, for instance: whatever it has meant to Americans over the years—from mom's pie to the little red schoolhouse—getting our mouths around one has also apparently meant some unspoken aggravation. Next to a banana or a grape, it's a daunting strongbox of a fruit, prohibitively so for anyone with braces or dentures; and even if you can break in, there's no guarantee a given apple will eat as sweet as it looks.

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VIDEO: A Solar Thanksgiving for Battered Rockaways

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 5:56 PM EST

Since Hurricane Sandy, the historic Belle Harbor Yacht Club in the Rockaways—one of New York City's hardest-hit neighborhoods—has become an indispensable hub for supplies, volunteers, and a much-needed round of drinks. Three weeks after the storm, the oft-maligned Long Island Power Authority still hasn't re-connected this building, not to mention its neighbors, back to the grid, leaving locals to face the prospect of a cold, dark Thanksgiving.

But outside, the sun is shining, and a trio of local solar power companies have seen an opportunity to bridge the gap left open by the electric utility. The yacht club, among several area buildings, is now plugged into a portable solar power generator, which frees volunteers from the endless gas lines that plague those dependent on traditional generators and leaves them ready to dish out hot plates of turkey and stuffing to the beleaguered community.

The Federal Deficit Is Shrinking Already, But That's Not Really a Good Thing

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 3:31 PM EST

So how's the federal deficit doing? Last month the Treasury Department figured that the FY2012 deficit would clock in at about $1.1 trillion, or 7 percent of GDP. That's down considerably from three years ago, when the deficit peaked at a hair over 10 percent of GDP.

Jed Graham, using the three-year change as a benchmark, says this is the biggest peacetime drop in 75 years:

Believe it or not, the federal deficit has fallen faster over the past three years than it has in any such stretch since demobilization from World War II....If U.S. history offers any guide, we are already testing the speed limits of a fiscal consolidation that doesn't risk backfiring. That's why the best way to address the fiscal cliff likely is to postpone it.

....Other occasions when the federal deficit contracted by much more than 1 percentage point a year have coincided with recession. Some examples include 1937, 1960 and 1969.

This three-year window feels a little like cherry-picking to me. I'm not sure it has any special value aside from the fact that it happens to give us a comparison with the peak deficit year of 2009, therefore making this year's decline look especially steep. Still, there's no question that no matter what window you look at, the deficit is shrinking at a pretty rapid pace, as the chart on the right shows. And Graham is right: this means that the government "already has its foot on the brakes" at a time when our recovery from the Great Recession is still pretty fragile. Braking even harder isn't a great idea right now.

There's nothing wrong with negotiating over long-term deficit reduction, but that's all we should be negotiating over: long-term reduction. Over the next year or two, there's really no reason we should be shrinking the deficit at all.

Discredited Conservative Behind "Unskewed Polling" Says Voter Fraud Won Swing States for Obama

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 1:37 PM EST

From BarackOFraudo.com.From BarackOFraudo.com.

Dean Chambers launched the website UnskewedPolls.com in the final months of the election to counter what he saw as a Democratic bias in most presidential polls. Chambers' site was a hit among Fox-watching, reality-denying conservatives. He predicted Romney would win 275 electoral college votes and Obama would win 263.

Chambers was, as he later admitted, horribly, embarrassingly wrong. But the embarrassment continues.

This week, Chambers launched a new site, BarackOFraudo.com. As the URL suggests, Chambers does not believe Obama won the 2012 election fair and square. Instead, Chamber contends that Obama won the swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida "by voter fraud." (That's the map posted above.)

Post-election, there's no evidence of widespread voter fraud in any of these states, and certainly nothing suggesting Obama's wins in those four states depended on voter fraud. So Slate's Dave Weigel asked Chambers for evidence backing up his serious accusations. What followed was a collision between fact-based reporting and fact-free magical thinking:

"I'm getting credible information of evidence in those states that there enough numbers that are questionable and could have swung the election," he says. "I'm only putting good credible information on there, like the actual vote counts, reports, and mainstream publications reporting voter fraud. There's a lot of chatter, though. There are articles people have sent me that don't hold up. Crazy stuff."

What's not crazy? "Things like the 59 voting divisions of Philadelphia where Romney received zero votes," says Chambers. "Even Larry Sabato said that should be looked into." (I've looked into this: 57 precincts gave McCain no votes in 2008. There's such a thing as a 99 percent Democratic precinct, and such a thing as a 99 percent Republican precinct.) Same story in Ohio. "Some of the precincts or divisions in cleveland were projected to be 99 percent Obama. That's a part of the state where it's known that a lot of ballot box scamming has been done in the past. There were isolated reports of people voting for Romney and having votes changed, though they didn't get much attention.

What about Virginia, then? "When votes were being counted on election night, 97 percent of the precincts were counted, and Romney was still leading 50-49," says Chambers. "When that remaining 3 percent were counted, a lead of 80,000 or so votes for Romney were turned into 120,000 for Obama." I pointed out that Virginia's stagger-stop-stagger count often works like that, with Democrats gaining in the end. "I was surprised it wasn't being projected for Romney when 97 percent was in," said Chambers. (The state was actually called earlier based on vote patterns.)

Fortunately, Chambers' failure to come with a country mile of predicting the presidential race means no one will take his voter fraud jeremiad seriously. Not even the Drudge Report, an avid endorser Chambers' Unskewed efforts, has stumped for his latest venture.

Obamacare Still a Bargaining Chip in Fiscal Cliff Talks

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 1:17 PM EST

In an op-ed today, House Speaker John Boehner said that Obamacare needs to be on the table during negotiations over the fiscal cliff:

The president’s health care law adds a massive, expensive, unworkable government program at a time when our national debt already exceeds the size of our country’s entire economy. We can’t afford it, and we can’t afford to leave it intact. That’s why I’ve been clear that the law has to stay on the table as both parties discuss ways to solve our nation’s massive debt challenge.

Democrats aren't very happy about this, but honestly, it's the same thing Boehner has been saying for the past couple of weeks. Here he is two days after the election:

It’s pretty clear that the President was re-elected, Obamacare is the law of the land. I think there are parts of the health care law that are going to be very difficult to implement and very expensive and at a time when we’re trying to find a way to create a path toward a balanced budget, everything has to be on the table....There are certainly maybe parts of it that we believe need to be changed — we may do that, no decisions at this point.

So what's the point of all this? Greg Sargent suggests that Boehner knows he's going to have to compromise on taxes sometime soon, and this is a way of building up some much-needed cred with the conservative base before that grim day comes to pass:

In that context, this latest could be another sop to the Tea Party — reassurance to the Tea Partyers who are soon going to be asked to accept some very uncomfortable compromises on the fiscal cliff that, don’t worry, really, seriously, the GOP leadership still has Obamacare in the crosshairs! But Dems see a serious side to this. One Dem I spoke to worried that the mere fact that Boehner still has to throw sops like this to the Tea Party wing means he feels more beholden to them than Dems had hoped — which wouldn’t bode well for the talks.

I guess I'd take this as fairly ordinary jockeying for position during a difficult negotiation. Boehner knows he doesn't have a lot of leverage, and threatening Obamacare—which Democrats care about a lot—is a good pressure point. It's just one more bargaining chip he can use to limit the damage on the tax side of things. Keeping it on the front burner is probably just smart politics.

Is Your Clothing Toxic?

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 12:47 PM EST

Lots of people worry about their clothing. But they probably don't worry about whether it's toxic. Greenpeace International's newest research indicates that you probably should.

Greenpeace tested 141 items of clothing from 29 countries, and found that 89 contained nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), which are toxic, bioaccumulative chemicals that have been identified as hormone disruptors. They also found high levels of phthalates in four pieces of clothing, and amines from azo dyes that have been identified as carcinogens. The clothing came from major international brands, including Armani, Levi's and Zara. This was a follow up to an August 2011 report that found similarly distressing chemicals in clothing.

I read the report yesterday while wearing a Zara shirt and Levi's jeans. So yeah, not very reassuring.

Other brands Greenpeace IDed as including harmful chemicals: Benetton, Diesel, Esprit, Gap, H&M, Victoria’s Secret, Mango, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. See the full "Toxic Threads" report here.

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A World Without Software Patents Would Be a Perfectly Good World

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 12:35 PM EST

The head of the patent office had some advice for critics of software patents yesterday: "Give it a rest already." Basically, he made a case that software patents are a positive force because they spur innovation. Tim Lee is unimpressed:

This argument ducks the central question in the software patent debate: do patents, in fact, provide a net incentive for innovation in the software industry? Many entrepreneurs say that just the opposite is true: that the disincentive to innovation created by the threat of patent litigation dwarfs any positive incentive effects created by the ability for a firm to get patents of its own.

Empirical evidence backs this up. For example, in a 2008 book, the researchers James Bessen and Michael Meurer found that for nonchemical patents, the costs of patent litigation began to exceed the benefits of holding patents in the 1990s. Software and business patents were particularly prone to litigation.

More recent research has estimated that litigation by patent trolls costs the economy at least $29 billion per year, and that figure may be as high as $83 billion.

I don't know if these numbers are correct, but I'd add another argument to the mix: We already know what would probably happen if software patents didn't exist. That's because, for the most part, they didn't exist until the early 70s, and thanks to fights between the courts and the patent office, they didn't become common until the late 80s. And yet, the era from the 50s through the 80s was about as dynamic and innovative as you could possibly imagine. Lack of patents simply doesn't seem to have had the slightest effect on the growth of the software industry.

The world is different today, of course. But I see little evidence that software patents are any more necessary now than they were during the adolescence of the computer industry. Rather than spurs to genuine innovation, they've evolved into little more than virtual armaments that big companies use to fight virtual wars with each other. And virtual wars are no better for economic growth than real ones. Honestly, it's long past time for software patents to be put out of their misery and for software companies to focus their attention on inventing new stuff, not wasting countless man-hours of time building defensive patent portfolios with no real-world value aside from providing protection against other companies who are building their own defensive patent portfolios for the same reason. This particular arms race got out of hand a long time ago.

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

Wed Nov. 21, 2012 12:33 PM EST

An MV-22B Osprey with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 161, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), takes off from Forward Operating Base Jackson, Afghanistan, Nov. 7, 2012. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Alexander Quiles.

Greek Debt Still Unsustainable; Eurozone Leaders Still Refuse to Admit It

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 10:41 AM EST

This week brought yet more talks on Greek debt and yet more denying of reality. The Greeks are mad, the Germans are tired, and everyone knows something has to give.  The Guardian summarizes:

Why the talks failed

While finance ministers were arguing last night, Reuters got their hands on a document prepared for the meeting. It showed that Greece's debts can only be cut to a sustainable level if eurozone countries accept losses on their loans to Athens, provide additional financing or force private creditors into selling Greek debt at a discount.

....It said that either member states accept "capital losses or budgetary implications", or push back the target date for Greece's debts to fall to 120% of GDP by two years, to 2022. Eurozone countries are not, yet, prepared to accept the first option, while the second option is unacceptable to the IMF. Thus deadlock.

That's about the state of things. Greece's debt is flatly unsustainable, and the technocrats know it—when they're writing for private consumption, anyway. At some point, eurozone leaders are either going to essentially forgive all of Greece's debt or else Greece will leave the euro.

Writing off Greece's debt is actually doable because Greece is a fairly small country. But everyone is afraid that if they do it, then Spain, Portugal, and Ireland will all want the same treatment. And that's not doable. Thus the impasse.

For now, anyway. In a few days everyone will figure out yet another can-kicking exercise, and the immediate crisis will be averted for another year or so. Unless some other country blows up in the meantime, of course.

SUNY Buffalo Shuts Down its Frack-Happy Shale Institute

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 6:13 AM EST

Remember that questionable study put out by the State University at Buffalo earlier this year, the one that claimed Pennsylvania was doing a good job at regulating the fracking industry? This week SUNY Buffalo's president announced his decision to shutter its publisher, the school's own Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI).

University president Satish Tripathi did not mince words when it came to explaining why. "Conflicts—both actual and perceived—can arise between sources of research funding and expectations of independence when reporting research results," he wrote in a public letter released to the university community on Monday. "This, in turn, impacted the appearance of independence and integrity of the institute's research."

In May, the study released by the university's newly created institute claimed that the likelihood of natural gas industry violations in the Marcellus region had decreased between 2008 and 2011, a tribute to Pennsylvania's regulating efforts. In fact, the rate of major environmental accidents increased by 36 percent, as later pointed out by corporate and government watchdog, the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI).

The PAI's followup was also quick to highlight passages patently lifted from the authors' previous reports, the study's failure to disclose the authors' relationships to the natural gas industry, a fudged peer-review process, and blatant "industry spin." In the days following the PAI report, Timothy Considine, one of the study authors, told the Washington Times he stood by his interpretation of the numbers, while the university promised to "examine all relevant concerns." After an investigation requested by the school's Board of Trustees and a 10,000-plus signature petition led by faculty and students calling for the institute's closure, it now appears that SUNY Buffalo has taken down the institute's old online domain for good.

Tripathi's decision to close the SRSI came in the midst of increased scrutiny over industry-funded academic reports. Last month, the industry-backed Marcellus Shale Coalition canceled its funding of a Penn State hydraulic fracturing study after faculty members declined to take part. The project's earlier publications had been co-written by former Penn State professor Tim Considine, one of the co-authors of the SUNY report. The University of Texas at Austin has also launched a probe into its controversial research on groundwater contamination—though the chair of that investigation previously served almost two decades as a ConocoPhillips boardmember.

Is this a small victory for academic accountability? Sure, an "institute" did break under the weight of incisive coverage and public criticism. But maybe the SRSI's brief lifespan had more to do with industry deadlines than anything else. The SRSI met its end a week-and-a-half shy of New York state's due date for a decision about regulating hydraulic fracturing within its borders—and if the state fails to meet this deadline on November 29, it'll have to draft a new set of regulations and usher in another round of public comments. Yesterday, Governor Cuomo announced that the deadline is likely to be extended (again), which could push the decision to end the state's fracking moratorium back several months. That, as Bloomberg points out, could mean it's already "too late" for New York to snag some of the Marcellus' fading winnings. In the end, the Shale Institute just might not have been worth the effort. At least they gave it a college try.