2009 - %3, April

They're Nuts

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 8:48 PM PDT

I often feel like I should have more to say about the state of modern American conservatism than "They're nuts."  We can do better than that, right?

But then I read something like this.  And what can you say other than, "They're nuts"?  What's more, it's getting worse.  David Frum is trying valiantly, but there really needs to be more adult intervention than just him.

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Talking Harman, Gonzales, AIPAC, Wiretaps, and Cheney on "Hardball"

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 5:39 PM PDT

Another scandal, another Hardball appearance. Tuesday night's subjects: the Harman-AIPAC-Gonzales controversy and ex-Veep Dick Cheney's continuing assaults on the Obama administration. Not much time to probe the depths of the Harman tale--because it takes a fair bit of time just to explain why it involves a possible double quid pro quo. (Harman allegedly offering--during a conversation intercepted by the NSA--to use her influence to reduce espionage-related charges for two AIPAC officials, and a suspected Israeli agent, in return, vowing to help her become House intelligence chair by arranging for a mega-donor to withhold campaign funds from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales blocking a preliminary FBI probe of Harman because Harman, a California Democrat, could help the Bush administration defend its warantless wiretapping program. As for Cheney, what's there to say about his compulsion to fire potshots at Obama? He's certainly not heeding what Al Gore said after the 2000 election was finally resolved: "It is time for me to go." I did note that Sean Hannity interviewing Cheney is a bit like Igor grilling Dr. Frankenstein.

Something Rare In The Air: Osmium

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 3:58 PM PDT

The rare element osmium is on the rise globally. Why? Because of the increased consumption of refined platinum, the primary ingredient in catalytic converters used in cars to reduce smog.

Ooops. Hate it when that happens. You know, unintended consequences.

A volatile form of osmium is generated during platinum refinement and also during the normal operation of cars and is now dispersed globally through the atmosphere. Osmium occurs naturally. But Dartmouth researchers were surprised to discover that most of the osmium in rain, snow, and in the surface waters of rivers and oceans is produced during the refining of platinum. Their paper is forthcoming in PNAS.

"It’s interesting, maybe ironic, that we stopped adding lead to gasoline in the 70s so that catalytic converters could be introduced to remove smog from car exhaust," says Dartmouth Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Mukul Sharma.

The research team measured osmium in precip in North America, Europe, Asia, and Antarctica, in surface water and deep water from the North Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Southern Oceans. Human-made osmium also comes from chromium smelters, hospital incinerators, and the normal operation of cars, but it’s primarily the industrial extraction and refining of platinum that produces the bulk of the osmium found in rain and snow.

Some 95 percent of the world’s platinum comes from South Africa and Russia where it's roasted at extremely high temperatures during extraction and refinement. The heat turns the sulfur in the ore into sulfur dioxide and releases osmium. Neither country has environmental regulations for the process.

"It’s surprising that we are seeing this measurable increase in osmium on a global scale," says Sharma. "And we can virtually blame it on one thing: our insatiable demand for platinum-based catalytic converters. Fortunately, unlike lead, the concentration of osmium in water is extremely small and may not adversely affect biology."

Well let's just hope that's true.
 

5 Questions for Penguin Scientist Ron Naveen

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 2:48 PM PDT

Guest-blogging scientist Ron Naveen is the president of Oceanites, Inc., and the principal investigator of the Antarctic Site Inventory project. In honor of Earth Day, Julia Whitty and I asked him to answer a few questions about his work. He wrote the following dispatch from last week's Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Baltimore, MD.

Mother Jones: What are you doing right now?

Here I am, The Penguin Guy, ensconced in the chrome-glass expanse of the Baltimore Convention Center for my second week of this year's Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. I've been going to The Ice for 25 years and to these meetings for 15, keeping an up-close and personal eye on the world's diplomatic community and whether it's truly conserving Antarctica for all future generations.

I count penguins. That's my life's work. The penguin population changes that my colleagues from The Fagan Lab at the University of Maryland and I detect—and our underlying analyses of how the warming Antarctic Peninsula affects these changes—will provide clues as to what's going to happen to those of us living in more temperate latitudes, decades down the line. My penguins, as the proverb goes, are "canaries in the cage"—or, more accurately, "canaries in The Ice"—sending us signals we shouldn't ignore.

So from my perspective, it's totally necessary to see how my work, and the work of so many other scientists, gets translated, used, and possibly abused in these meetings.

Nearly 400 diplomats, Antarctic program managers, logistics experts, and polar scientists from 47 countries attended this year, probably no more than a third of whom have ever visited Antarctica. All business is done in four official languages—English, Spanish, French, and Russian—with smatterings of Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Czech, Portuguese, and other languages filling the air during coffee breaks.

At the State Department in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially and formally opened the Meeting with the heads of Antarctic Treaty Delegations and a potpourri of foreign ministers.

Many of us streamed the Secretary's opening session on our laptops at the Treaty's Committee On Environmental Protection meeting here in Baltimore. Clinton created quite a splash with her pitch that, with respect to dealing with climate change, the "US is back!" That US representatives were essentially muzzled for eight years from pursuing climate-related matters in these meetings is astonishing, but hey, that was the last administration and, happily, a new era has dawned. See clips and quotes on The Oceanites Feed site I maintain.

Waiting Times

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 1:50 PM PDT

This has been a staple of the healthcare debate for a long time, so it's not as if we haven't been warned.  But today the Washington Post reports that in certain regions, waiting times to see a doctor in Canada are getting completely out of hand:

Just six months ago, the clinic delivered same-day care to most callers, the gold standard from a health perspective. But in October the delays crept to four days, then 19 in November and 25 in December. In January, HealthServe temporarily stopped accepting new patients, and almost immediately 380 people put their names on a waiting list for when the crunch eases.

Sorry.  Did I say Canada?  I meant North Carolina, of course, where more than a quarter of adults now have no health insurance:

A steep rise in unemployment has fueled a commensurate increase in the number of people who do not have health insurance, including many middle-income families.

"I used to be upper middle class," said Amy, who called HealthServe every morning for weeks before getting in to see Talbot.... "I haven't told anyone I'm coming here," she said, asking that her last name be withheld because she is embarrassed to be seeking discounted medical care.

Best healthcare in the world, baby!

When Tea Parties Attack

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 12:34 PM PDT

This video from a tax day Tea Party in South Carolina is making the rounds on the Internet. Republican Congressman Gresham Barrett voted for the bailout bill, and hoo-boy that did not go over well when he tried to speak. I won't describe the video any further, just see for yourself. He gets points for persistence, at least.

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Lefty Eco-Terrorist Added to FBI's "Most Wanted"

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 11:41 AM PDT

On the heels of the uproar caused by the release of a Department of Homeland Security memo warning that returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan could be recruited by right-wing, domestic terrorist groups, the FBI announced Tuesday the addition of a fugitive eco-terrorist to its "Most Wanted Terrorists" list. It's the first time a domestic terrorist has been added to the list, created in late 2001 after the 9/11 attacks; others, like anti-abortion bomber Eric Rudolph, have appeared among the "Ten Most Wanted" list, an altogether different and longer-running list established under J. Edgar Hoover in 1950. Osama Bin Laden bears the dark distinction of appearing on both.

The fugitive in question is Daniel Andreas San Diego, 31, a computer specialist wanted for his alleged role in bombing attacks on two office buildings in 2003. He's thought to be hiding in Central America, possibly Costa Rica. From the FBI:

Daniel Andreas San Diego is wanted for his alleged involvement in the bombing of two office buildings in the San Francisco, California, area. On August 28, 2003, two bombs exploded approximately one hour apart at the Chiron Corporation in Emeryville. Then, on September 26, 2003, one bomb strapped with nails exploded at the Shaklee Corporation in Pleasanton. San Diego was indicted in the United States District Court, Northern District of California, in July of 2004.

San Diego has ties to animal rights extremist groups. He is known to follow a vegan diet, eating no meat or food containing animal products. In the past, he has worked as a computer network specialist and with the operating system LINUX. San Diego wears eyeglasses, is skilled at sailing, and has traveled internationally. He is known to possess a handgun.

Reward's $250,000, in case you're interested.

Prosecuting Torture

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 11:27 AM PDT

Barack Obama has said pretty clearly that he doesn't plan to prosecute the CIA agents who tortured prisoners during the Bush era.  But what about the policymakers?  Here's what he said at a press conference a few hours ago:

Q: You were clear about not wanting to prosecute those who carried out the instructions under [the OLC's] legal advice. Can you be that clear about those who devised the policy?

THE PRESIDENT: [...] With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that that is going to be more of a decision for the Attorney General within the parameters of various laws, and I don't want to prejudge that. I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there.

The way this question is worded, it sounds as though Obama's answer applies to the legal team that wrote the OLC memos.  But of course that's absurd.  There's no way you could prosecute the OLC lawyers without also prosecuting the guys who accepted their memos and ordered the torture carried out.  That means people like John Ashcroft, George Tenet, Dick Cheney, David Addington, and George W. Bush.

Would Eric Holder do that without Obama's approval?  It's hard to believe that he would.  Might he appoint a special prosecutor instead?  I doubt it.  That might delay things a bit, but the conclusion would still be foreordained: anyone with even a modest bit of integrity would conclude very quickly that President Bush and his staff did indeed authorize illegal torture of prisoners under U.S. control.

So what happens next?  I don't know for sure, but my guess is that after a suitable waiting period an internal DOJ report of some kind will conclude that successful prosecution is unlikely and no further action should be taken.  End of story.  We'll see.

Aging Behind Bars

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 11:23 AM PDT

Among the grotesque realities of modern American life is the exponential rise of geriatric prisoners–men and women in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s, who committed crimes decades ago, are feeble and ill, yet remain incarcerated not only as a punitive measure, but on the premise that they are a threat to society. Many of these inmates want to get out of prison only so they can die in what many call the “free world.”

People age faster behind bars than they do on the outside: Studies have shown that prisoners in their 50s are on average physiologically 10 to 15 years older than their chronological age, so 55 is old in prison. And even by conventional standards, the United States is experiencing an exponential jump in the number of old people in prison. The causes of this increase go beyond the graying of the population at large: Long mandatory sentences without parole mean that offenders who enter prison while still in their teens or twenties may remain there until they are old–if they don’t die first.

The problem is most acute in states like California, Texas, and Florida, which have large prison systems and strict and harsh sentencing laws. In California, the population of prisoners over 55 doubled in the ten years from 1997 to 2006. This contributes to the overcrowding that has reached crisis proportions. It also yields a sense of utter hopelessness within prison walls. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, some 85 to 90 percent of the men who pass through the prison gates will never leave. Angola has its own hospice, mortuary, and graveyard.

A Desi's Lament

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 11:14 AM PDT

Indian Americans have been appointed as the United States' Chief Technology Officer and Chief Information Officer, and were offered (but turned down) the gig as Surgeon General, butttt it turns out they can't get the ambassadorship to India. That goes to former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer. I'm starting to think we've been typecast.

But as unfortunate as this pigeon-holing is, it makes sense that the first Indian Americans in national-level public service would work in fields Indians are most associated with. Others will follow behind them, and won't be similarly limited. It's just a matter of time until there is an Indian American ambassador, an Indian American senator, and eventually, an Indian American president.