2009 - %3, March

Shady AIDS Charity With a Big Web Campaign

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 7:33 PM EDT

This story was first published on ProPublica.org.

Peter Taback's first reaction to the Center for AIDS Prevention's prominent advertisement on the New York Times' Web site was jealousy. Taback, communications director for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, was impressed another organization had cast its reach so far.

But on closer inspection, his envy shifted to outrage.

The Beverly Hills-based Center for AIDS Prevention has mobilized a nationwide fundraising campaign, but members of the tight-knit AIDS community in California have never heard of the group. Its history is shrouded in mystery, and even people who have interacted with the group are uncertain of its purpose. The Web site offers incorrect information about AIDS prevention and treatment -- such as the suggestion that birth control pills prevent the spread of HIV (PDF). The charity's proprietor also has ties to a for-profit company that sold ineffective herbal AIDS remedies to replace antiretroviral drugs.

The center is committing "public health malpractice," Taback said. "To have misinformation like that on the Web site is profoundly disturbing."

As charitable giving constricts with the economy, many AIDS foundations and treatment facilities are struggling to stay afloat, and AIDS advocates were also concerned that funding could be diverted from urgently needed services.

Meanwhile, the center's own financial and legal history is, at best, questionable.

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New Species of Ice Invading Arctic

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 6:22 PM EDT
A different kind of ice is replacing ancient Arctic ice. The new stuff is qualitatively different. It's thinner, darker, wetter. Worse, it may already be changing the local weather and the ability to grow new ice. It could even alter the oceanic circulation that mediates global climate, reports Nature. Oh, it's bad for polar bears too.

Until recently, the Arctic maintained a lot of multiyear sea ice that takes years to grow and thicken and survives from one year to the next. Some melts each summer. But only in small areas. Too small for the wind to work up big waves. The new ice growing in these calm ponds forms unbroken sheets known as nilas ice.

But the multiyear ice is now melting so fast that vast areas are opening up. Big enough for big weather to set up waves. And these waves chop up the new ice as fast as it tries to form. Ice crystals tossed around in these conditions combine to form a slushy mixture called grease ice. After that, it sets into thin round pancakes of ice three to six feet in diameter.

Why is that worrying?

  • Round pancakes leave areas of dark open water between them.
  • This open water accelerates warming since less of the Sun's radiation is reflected (albedo).
  • Seawater slops up between the pancakes onto the ice so that falling snow melts rather than freezes on top.
  • Wetter pancake ice keeps the overall surface darker and warmer.

Jeremy Wilkinson of the Scottish Association for Marine Science in the UK says: "This whole cycle is not in models of the Arctic or the Antarctic. It's one of these conundrums that people haven't looked into." Young ice isn't that well studied because there used not to be much of it around. Now it's proliferating like an invasive species.

Wilkinson and colleagues just completed a series of lab experiments measuring the difference between nilas and pancake ice. They found that pancake ice actually forms faster than nilas ice. But this faster formation extracts fresh water from the ocean faster, leaving the seas saltier, which is likely to have an impact on ocean circulation, ice growth, and air temperature. The big stuff.

BTW, although the extent of the sea ice was greater in 2008 than during the record low of 2007, the additional ice was all young ice. Multiyear ice actually declined below 2007 levels.

Add to this the recent news that climate change and accompanying ice loss is now the single biggest threat to the survival of polar bears—stir in a dram of Canadian insanity in the form of an "extreme" polar bear hunt, whereby rich dudes throw down $35,000 for Inuit guides who save their asses from getting lost, sled dogs who haul their lardasses across the miles, and heated tents that keep their precious asses frost free—well, what can I say… How many of these manly men are getting fat bonuses from AIG, I wonder?

How Far To Fall?

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 6:09 PM EDT
Via Andrew Sullivan, Mike at No Empty Wallets wants to know why I think home prices have another 20% to fall.  It's nothing complicated.  The most widely accepted barometer of home prices is the Case-Shiller home price index, which canvasses housing prices in 20 cities.  Here's the raw data.

Case-Shiller was at 150 in December 2008.  The GDP price deflator stood at 123.  So the inflation-adjusted value of Case-Shiller was about 122.

In January 2000, when home prices were near their historical trend levels, Case-Shiller stood at 100.  The GDP deflator stood at 99.  So the inflation-adjusted value of Case-Shiller was about 101.

My arithmetic is pretty simple: getting from 122 back to 101 is about a 20% drop. (The chart on the right, from Calculated Risk, is a year old, but even so it gets the same point across for the graphically minded.  The orange line is the 20-city index.  It's fallen 20% in the past year, and looks to have another 20% to go before it reaches pre-bubble trend levels.)

Actually, it's worth noting that I'm being a little generous here, since in a recession values often overshoot on the way down.  Mike suggests that lower mortgage rates and the upcoming stimulus tax credit will prop up prices a bit compared to past levels, and that's possible.  But mortgage rates are only slightly lower today than in 2000, and the effect of the tax credit is hard to judge.  I'm just guessing like everyone else (and since I have a house I'm trying to sell I'd be delighted to end up wrong about this) but I'd keep my money on a further 20% drop.  We still have a fair bit of recession ahead of us.

Friendly Reminder: Amadou & Mariam Album Out Today

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 5:38 PM EDT
National borders not only make traveling to my summer compound in Monaco incredibly bothersome (ahem!), they also really gum up CD release schedules. Especially here in the United States of Kiss My Ass, where great music from around the world often gets delayed for months, if not years. Either labels are scared that us slack-jawed yokels just won't get it, or I guess they need a couple extra months to form brilliant marketing strategies? Whatever, it makes me mad, since we do have the internet in America, and an internationally-savvy press, desperate to jump on the Next Big Thing, isn't going to wait for a release date 90 days away, so then anybody reading that review has to go searching around for a little Rapidshare RAR file. Who would be so thoughtless? Oh. Well, to make up for it, I'll act as your release-date alarm system: Malian duo Amadou & Mariam's Welcome to Mali is finally out today here in the Homeland. Hooray! That means you can give them money on iTunes and everything. Welcome to Mali was for a while the highest-ranking album of 2008 on Metacritic, although the site has since moved it to the 2009 list out of respect for our flag, I guess (where it's currently tied with Animal Collective for best-reviewed album of this year). Back in November (I know, I'm sorry) I gave the album an enthusiastic review, and I only like it more now; its mishmash of styles and traditions feels both guilelessly celebratory and deeply respectful, even moving. Plus I'm a sucker for that Afropop guitar sound. After the jump, the oddly affecting video for the Damon Albarn-produced "Sabali," a more electronic-based track than the rest of the album. You can also isten to the whole album at their web site.

NPR Kicks GMA's Butt

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 5:21 PM EDT
Speaking of NPR, those guys are going great gangbusters, ratings-wise. Bucking the trend experienced by just about every other media outlet, NPR has seen major listenership growth in the past eight years, reaching a record in 2008. While there are no nationwide radio ratings, NPR adds up local ratings for stations that carry its programming, and that total has grown 47 percent since 2000, with nearly 21 million people tuning in to their daily news programs every week. Broken out into specific programs, this means that NPR's "Morning Edition" has an average daily audience of 7.6 million, which the Washington Post says is "about 60 percent larger than the audience for 'Good Morning America' on ABC and about one-third larger than the audience for the 'Today' show on NBC." Who knew? Of course, as many of us in the non-profit world are aware, increased audience doesn't necessarily translate to increased revenue. The broadcaster was recently forced to lay off 7 percent of its news staff due to revenue shortfalls (primarily because of a pullback in corporate giving) and they're still about $8 million short for this year. At this risk of sparking flames of populist rage, I'd like to point out that NPR's entire annual operating budget is $160 million, which happens to look pretty similar to another recent number, something to do with bonuses? Flames... of populist rage... rising...

Car Stereo Theft a "Dying Crime"

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 4:54 PM EDT

Here's an interesting trend noticed by NPR's Morning Edition: the theft of car stereos, once a ubiquitous urban crime, may be going the way of train robberies:

It's a crime that plagued car owners throughout the 1990s. But according to the FBI's latest crime report, car stereo thefts have fallen by more than half over the past 15 years, from more than a million in 1994 to just over 400,000, even as car theft rates have remained high. Washington, D.C., police officer Mark Lakomec has seen a dramatic difference on the street. For 10 years, his job has been to spot stolen cars, which he does two to three times a night. In the 1990s, he said, every stolen car was missing the stereo. These days, he says thieves will take just about anything — umbrellas, sunglasses, even motor oil — but they leave the radio


NPR gives a variety of reasons for the change, primarily the fact that most cars now come with tolerable stereos, custom-fitted to the dashboard, thus discouraging theft. Moreover, these days cars don't have stereos, they have Entertainment Systems, with DVD players and flip-down screens and Bluetooth interfaces and soothing interactive voice commands, and how do you steal the Hal 9000 from a Prius? The article mentions a piece of equipment also destined to go the way of the dodo bird, the trunk CD changer. Remember those things? It was like carrying a little jukebox in your trunk, and it seems like just three years ago that cool people had them. Nowadays, even my dad's pickup has an 1/8 inch plug for my iPod so I can play him the new Coldplay song.

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Mexico's Drug War, Fully US Loaded

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 3:20 PM EDT

Guest blogger Mark Follman writes frequently about current affairs and culture at markfollman.com.

The raging drug war in Mexico is about to command even greater attention inside the United States. It's not just the gruesome tales of drug cartel violence to the south; the US is far more caught up in the maelstrom than many north of the border may care to realize.

Today at the White House, Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano laid out an Obama administration plan to throw additional money and manpower at the problem, amid mounting fears about "spillover" of violence and corruption into the United States. On Wednesday, Napolitano will go to Capitol Hill specifically to address the crisis, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to arrive in Mexico.

The administration is deploying big guns like Napolitano and Clinton with good reason. As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, "The government is girding for a possible Katrina-style disaster along the 2,000-mile-long Mexican border that would involve thousands of refugees flooding into the US to escape surging violence in northern Mexico, or gun battles beginning to routinely spill across the border." A recent story from international reporting start-up GlobalPost shows how joint US-Mexican operations have been implicated in the spreading violence, on both sides of the border.

Some relatively obscure testimony by senior officials from the ATF and DEA to a Senate subcommittee last week contains stark details about our country's role in the predicament. Simply put, the US is serving as a vast weapons depot for the drug gangs.

Feminism: What's in a Name?

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 2:58 PM EDT

Slate's XX Factor has a fascinating discussion about Sandra Day O'Connor's passing on calling herself a feminist even though she totally is one. Need proof?

Do you call yourself a feminist?
I never did. I care very much about women and their progress. I didn’t go march in the streets, but when I was in the Arizona Legislature, one of the things that I did was to examine every single statute in the state of Arizona to pick out the ones that discriminated against women and get them changed.

So, 'feminists' march in the streets (which is bad) but don't fight for a seat in government from which to focus on women's equality? I ain't mad at Sandra. The woman haters have worked very hard to make the word "feminism" synonymous with man- and baby-hating. With—gasp!—lesbianism and everything 'unladylike'. With all that scary protesting and refusing to play nice. Ah well, I much prefer women (and men) who pass on the name but fight the power anyway. Sandra O is just in the closet but active as hell on the feminist down low. Works for me.

As a side note, SDO'C rocks as an interviewee. What a breath of fresh air to hear someone say, essentially, 'Screw you. I'm pushing a majorly important new website and you want to talk about inanities. Shut the frack up (sorry—HUGE Battlestar Galactica fan), and let's talk about what I agreed to talk about.' Here's a taste of that great old-chick no-nonsense:

Although you were nominated to the court by President Reagan, you became known as a centrist who disappointed conservatives and provided relief to liberals.
Look, that's your spiel, not mine. I tried to decide each case based on the law and the Constitution.

Old feminists rock. Whatever they call themselves. BTW: if you're not a feminist, what are you: anti-feminist?

Afraid of Risk?

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 2:53 PM EDT
Brad DeLong points to a defense of Tim Geithner's toxic waste plan from Christopher Carroll:

Unlike the critics, the Treasury has absorbed the main lesson from the past 30 years of academic finance research: asset price movements mainly reflect changes in investors’ collective attitude toward risk.

....The details [of the Geithner plan] flow from an overarching view that the markets for the “toxic assets” that are corroding banks’ balance sheets have shut down in part because in those markets the degree of risk aversion has become not just problematic but pathological. The different parts of the plan reflect different approaches to trying to coax private investors back into the market by reducing their perceived degree of risk to levels that even a skittish risk-shy hedge fund manager might find tempting.

I don't want to disagree with this, but I think it's worth looking at it from a slightly different perspective. Obviously risk aversion goes up and down with economic conditions, but one problem with our financial markets is that over the past 30 years they've largely convinced themselves that risk doesn't really exist anymore.  This is especially true on the fixed income side of things, where I think it's been years since the Wall Street crowd really, truly, thought there was any risk left in the market for anyone smart enough to read a yield spread.  You just needed to have the right models and the right hedging strategy.

At the very least, investors should have learned their lesson on this score in 1998, when Long Term Capital Management collapsed.  There were multiple reasons for LTCM's failure, but the biggest one was that they felt comfortable taking enormous leveraged positions because they were convinced that their models had essentially hedged all the risk away.  They hadn't, of course, and they crashed spectacularly.  But in the end the Fed oversaw a rescue, LTCM's investors lost some money, and then they dusted themselves off and convinced each other that this was a once-in-a-century event they didn't really have to worry about.  (The guys responsible for LCTM's implosion went back to Wall Street 12 months later to start a new fund.  They had no trouble raising capital.)

But this time it's different.  It's pretty obvious that all the credit derivatives in the world, no matter how cleverly they're constructed, don't genuinely hedge away risk.  It's still there, and all the guys who thought they'd discovered a magical way to insure high returns forever discovered that they were wrong.

So, yes: risk aversion is sky high right now.  But this is more than just the normal ebb and flow of animal spirits.  It's sophisticated investors rediscovering the idea that risk really exists at all, even for them.  That's a tough transition.  Tim Geithner's about to find out if Wall Street has made it yet.

Police Deaths Call for Renewed Assault Weapons Ban

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 2:19 PM EDT
Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder voiced his desire (and his boss') to renew the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. He said as much in response to questions about cartels and drug wars in Mexico. But after four police were gunned down in northern California this weekend the idea now hits closer to home.

Saturday, when four cops were killed by a parolee, was the deadliest day in the history of the Oakland police department. Lovelle Mixon, a convicted felon jailed for five years for assault with a firearm, shot the first two officers with the handgun he was carrying (illegally) after the police stopped his car for a traffic violation. He then used an AK-47 type assault rifle to gun down two SWAT officers before he was killed in a shootout. True, California has an assault-weapons ban and it didn't keep the rifle out of Mixon's hands, but a federal ban could only strengthen local enforcement efforts. The battle will be hard fought; last week 65 House Dems sent Holder a letter opposing his efforts to enact any sort of federal ban on assault rifles, citing concerns over ownership restrictions. "We will strongly oppose any legislation that will infringe upon the rights of individual gun owners," the letter stated.

The opposition to Holder moving on the ban has all been under the backdrop of the weapons concerns on the border and in Mexico, but will the debate shift now that police officers are getting gunned down here at home? Meaning, once Dianne Feinstein proposes new legislation related to the deaths of these four slain officers, what will the pro-gun Dems, and everyone else, say then?