2011 - %3, August

How to Avoid Being Crushed by a Boa Constrictor

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 3:57 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Never one to shy away from getting hands on with the animal kingdoms greatest hunters, "Deadly 60" presenter Steve Backshall gets to grips with the heavy-bodied king of the squeeze.

The strongman of the snake world, a boa constrictor is capable of exerting 6 to 12 lbs per square inch of pressure, and literally squeezes the life out of its prey, as Steve found when he tested this... on himself!

Not a situation many of us would like to find ourselves in. Here's how to behave around the big guns.

• Back off: If you come across a snake, especially a big one, give it a wide berth. They're shy and would rather be left alone.

• An angry snake is a dangerous snake: don't poke or harass them, you could be asking for trouble.

• Leave it to the experts: Dealing with snakes is a tricky business. Steve is an expert herpetologist, and is used to handling snakes.

• Help at hand: Never handle big constricting snakes alone. Steve had a number of strong men at hand to remove the snake if he got too hot under the collar.

• Remain calm: Director Nikki ensured no one startled the snake as it may cause it to tighten its grip further.

• Medical help: When attempting to handle a big snake like this, director Nikki ensured that the team consisted of first aiders, and local snake experts.

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Biodegradable Plastics Emit Methane Faster

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 3:21 PM EDT

A study financed by plastics manufacturer Procter & Gamble has found that biodegradable plastics emit methane faster than other kinds of trash. The study was carried out by researchers from North Carolina State University and published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Researchers focused on one type of biodegradable plastic called PHBO, which is one of a few plastics Procter & Gamble is developing under the trade name Nodax. The study found that PHBO emits more methane than food waste or newspaper in landfills and, because it degrades much faster than newspaper, will emit that methane in a matter of years rather than decades. Some landfills are able to capture and use methane, but the EPA estimates that two-thirds of landfills do not have methane collection capabilities.

"If we want to maximize the environmental benefit of biodegradable products in landfills," study co-author Morton Barlaz told Science Daily, "we need to both expand methane collection at landfills and design these products to degrade more slowly, in contrast to FTC guidance." The FTC policy Barlaz is referring to requires that any product labeled as "biodegradeable" to "completely break down and return to nature, i.e., decompose into elements found in nature, within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal." 

While Barlaz emphasized that biodegradable plastics are not necessarily more friendly to the environment and should decompose more slowly, the study's lead author, doctoral student James Levis, has said that the study should not be taken to imply that regular plastics (which can take centuries to decompose) are better than biodegradable plastics: only that when considering a plastic, one should think of the entire life-cycle, including where it ends up and how long it stays there.

Campaign Watchdogs Fire Back at Romney Super PAC's Mystery Donor

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 3:20 PM EDT
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

On Thursday, NBC's Michael Isikoff broke the story about a mysterious, recently dissolved company that donated $1 million to a super PAC affiliated with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. That company,  W Spann LLC, was formed in March, donated to the super PAC—called Restore Our Future—in April, and dissolved in July.

Now, the campaign watchdogs are barking back. Reuters reports that Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission and Department of Justice on Friday asking the agencies to investigate the mysterious donation. The complaint alleges that the company, whose owners and true purpose remain unknown, violated FEC rules by falsifying the true nature of its identity.

But that’s not all. Democracy 21 and the CLC contend that the brief, wondrous life of W Spann appears to have had no purpose other than to raise a massive chunk of change for Romney. They allege that W Spann was an entity created primarily to influence elections, and note that it made more than $1,000 in campaign expenditures. If that's true, the watchdogs argue, then W Spann should have registered as a political action committee.

"If W Spann LLC itself meets the definition of a political committee, then it should've showed up at the FEC to tell the public and the world where it got its million," said Paul Ryan, a lawyer with the CLC. The argument has some merit: after all, the folks who brought us W Spann have yet to explain why the company existed for only a matter of weeks, or why its signature investment was in Romney's political future.

Democracy 21 and the CLC see the short life of W Spann as a direct result of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections. We won't know for sure whether any existing regulations were violated unless the FEC and DOJ decide to weigh in. But in the meantime, the watchdog groups' decision to push for an official investigation should send a clear warning to would-be W Spann copycats: following W Spann's lead might not be as easy, or as legal, as you think.

Friday Cat Blogging - 5 August 2011

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 1:57 PM EDT

Well, this has been kind of a dismal week. So would you like some cats to cheer you up? Of course you would! On the left, Domino suddenly perks up and gives me a good stare. On the right, a few minutes later, it's Inkblot's turn. Can you guess why they're staring at me? Huh? Can you? I'll give you a hint: These pictures were taken at about 4:55 pm a few days ago.

What the New York Times Got Wrong About Gay Nazis

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 1:45 PM EDT

Ahead of Rick Perry's big prayer and fasting rally in Houston on Saturday, the New York Times' Erick Eckholm had an interesting piece Thursday on the newfound prominence of the American Family Association among social conservatives. But as Sarah Posner notes, there was a small problem:

The Times' handling of some of the AFA's most incendiary rhetoric is puzzling. Here's an organization whose most visible representative, radio host Bryan Fischer, spouts blatantly racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-gay rhetoric. But, hey, while some people call that hate speech, there's always two sides of a story, right? Like "Adolph Hitler was a homosexual and that the Nazi Party was largely created by 'homosexual thugs.'" That, in the Times piece, is a "disputed theory," rather than a conspiracy theory made up by anti-gay zealots.

For real. The Times quote in full reads: "Mr. Fischer trumpets the disputed theory that Adolph Hitler was a homosexual and that the Nazi Party was largely created by 'homosexual thugs'— evidence, he says, of the inherent pathologies of homosexuality." Fischer has since gone even further, stating that today's gay rights activists are "literally" Nazis, who are waging a SS-style campain to crack down on dissenters. That's no surprise because both of those theories stem from the same book, The Pink Swastika, which posits that gay rights organizations in the United States are the intellectual heirs to the Third Reich and are attempting to use Hitler's repressive tactics to advance their radical agenda.

The problem is that the facts do not support Fischer's theory, and so inasmuch as we care at all about facts, his theory has not been "disputed," it has been "rejected" or "debunked." Ron Rosenbaum has published a pretty thorough takedown of the "gay Hitler" thesis—but his takedown is targeted at a reputable, relatively disinterested historian—which the The Pink Swastika's authors are not.

In reality, gays were targeted for extermination by Hitler, not recruitment. Bob Moser, who notes that somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 gays were arrested during the Third Reich, finds this quote from Heinrich Himmler, Hitler's security chief: "That wasn't a punishment, but simply the extinguishing of abnormal life. It had to be got rid of, just as we pull out weeds, throw them on a heap, and burn them." That is literally what the Nazis did to about 10,000 gay men.

The much larger problem here is that the question of whether or not gays are Nazis—and whether or not that argument is worth condemning—has somehow become a partisan issue. When the Southern Poverty Law Center classified the American Family Association and a handful of other social conservative organizations as "hate groups" earlier this year (on account of their frequent promotion of such debunked charges) the reaction from high-profile Republicans was swift. Dozens of congressmen, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) signed on to a letter of support for the organizations:

This is intolerance, pure and simple. Elements of the radical Left are trying to shut down informed discussion of policy issues that are being considered by Congress, legislatures, and the courts. Tell the radical Left it is time to stop spreading hateful rhetoric attacking individuals and organizations merely for expressing ideas with which they disagree. Our debates can and must remain civil - but they must never be suppressed through personal assaults that aim only to malign an opponent's character.

On the one hand, conservatives accuse gay rights activists of reprising the worst tactics of the Third Reich. On the other hand, liberal groups call them out on it. See, both sides do it!

The Dog That Hasn't Barked

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 1:31 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan weighs into the debate about whether Obama has been a successful president and concludes unsurprisingly1 that he has been: "Obama is easily the winner and currently stupidly under-rated," he says. But at the end of his post he tosses out this aside:

But notice what hasn't happened. Where are all the scandals promised by Michelle Malkin? Where are his Katrinas and Monicas?

This struck me because I happened to be thinking the same thing a couple of days ago.   Democrats in Congress have had a few wee bouts of bad behavior lately, but nothing out of the ordinary. All in all, despite the noise machine's woeful attempts to talk up his alleged Chicago thuggishness, Obama's presidency has so far been almost completely free of scandal. No sex scandals, no money scandals, no conflict-of-interest scandals, no nothing. This is why his less judicious enemies are still pathetically beating the Bill Ayers drum: because they haven't been able to come up with anything better.

The usual time for a party/presidency to become scandal-ridden is year 6, which for Obama will be 2014 if he gets reelected. So far, though, he's run such a clean shop that I wonder if he'll avoid the six-year itch completely?

1Unsurprisingly for anyone who reads Sullivan's blog, anyway.

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Chart of the Day: The Real Employment Picture

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 1:02 PM EDT

The economy added 117,000 jobs in July. Unfortunately, we need to add about 150,000 jobs each month merely to keep up with population growth. So the real net job growth picture is actually negative. The chart below shows real net job growth since 2009, and it's obviously not a pretty picture. It would be nice if Republicans in Congress would allow us to do something about this.

Book Review: Why the "Green Revolution" Was Not So Green After All

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 11:44 AM EDT

In 1968, India's farmers cranked out a record-setting wheat crop at a time when many observers feared the nation would plunge into famine. That triumphant harvest represented the culmination of decades of work by a group of foundation-funded US technocrats. Their effort, which became known as the "green revolution," still casts an imposing shadow more than four decades later.

Its technological architect, the Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, was all but beatified upon his death in 2009. In its obituary, Reason Magazine proclaimed him "the man who saved more human lives than anyone else in history," while The New York Times wrote that he "did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself."

Meanwhile, the powerhouse funding institution most associated with the Green Revolution, the Rockefeller Foundation, has joined forces with today's richest funder, the Gates Foundation, to recreate Borlaug's magic in Africa. Their "Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa" push got a de facto endorsement from President Obama when he tapped Gates' chief ag-development man, Rajiv Shah, for a top research job at USDA. Today, Shah serves as director of United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Thus the "green revolution" idea still percolates in high-level development policy circles. But if our top foundations and development policymakers are pushing to recreate the green revolution for an entire continent, than it's worth figuring out precisely what led up to that famous bumper crop nearly half a century ago—and what it means for the future. In his 2010 book The Hungry World, the University of Indiana historian Nick Cullather does just that.

The Neoliberal Dilemma

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 11:29 AM EDT

Here's the latest on George Bush's Medicare prescription drug program:

Even as health costs continue to rise, Medicare beneficiaries will see the average price of a Part D drug plan decline slightly next year, the Obama administration announced Thursday....Popular with beneficiaries, the program has also proven far less costly than budget analysts originally expected, in part because of competition among private plans and the growing use of less expensive generic drugs.

....Though celebrated by the Obama administration, the widely acknowledged success of the Part D program is also fueling calls from conservatives to expand privatization of the Medicare program. Many House Republicans pointed to the drug program in pushing their plan to replace Medicare with a system of vouchers that seniors would use to purchase private health coverage.

These two paragraphs encapsulate perhaps my biggest frustration with public policy these days. On the one hand, I feel like I should acknowledge that I was wrong about the architecture of Part D. I believed that routing the benefit through hundreds of private insurers would prove both confusing and costly. But in the end, the confusion proved manageable once the kinks were worked out of the initial rollout, and competition among insurers has kept the price of the program significantly lower than expected. (Competition isn't the only reason it's come in under budget, but it's clearly a factor.)

So I'd like to take that as a public policy lesson, something we can all learn from. But where's the similar kind of acknowledgement on the other side? Nowhere. We already know what an architecture like Part D does for Medicare as a whole: it's basically Medicare Advantage, which has been a huge boondoggle. After more than a decade, the federal government still has to heavily subsidize Medicare Advantage providers, and the evidence is overwhelming that it fails to provide benefits anywhere close to its additional costs. It just doesn't work.

So that's a public policy lesson too. But there are no takers on the conservative side of the aisle. They simply ignore it, and instead insist on using the success of Part D to continue pressing for their ideological hobbyhorses.

This is pretty much the reason I'm no longer a neoliberal, but a recovering neoliberal. The neos believed that liberals should devote a lot of energy to getting public policy right, even if it meant gutting a few sacred cows along the way. The idea was that the public would never support an activist government unless they were convinced that it was being run as leanly and efficiently as possible. The problem is that this only works if the other side plays ball. After all, what's the point of agreeing to abolish a poorly working program if conservatives refuse to meet halfway and try to build a better program in its place? For most liberals, even a poorly working program is better than no program at all.

Politically, then, technocratic neoliberalism just doesn't work given the true-believer obduracy of the contemporary Republican Party. So we're left with trench warfare instead and no one's happy. Conservatives are unhappy because liberals keep defending programs that have poor track records, while those of us who suffer from the neoliberal temperament are unhappy because we're too busy fending off knife attacks to have a real chance of reforming the delivery of government services. Welcome to the modern world.

Interior Approves Shell's Arctic Drilling Plans

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 10:57 AM EDT

The Department of Interior gave Shell the green light to begin drilling in the Arctic on Thursday, though the move is expected to prompt a legal challenge.

Enviros were hoping that the administration would take a more cautious approach to drilling there, given the disaster in the Gulf last year and the overwhelming evidence that a spill in the Arctic would be really, really bad. But with the conditional approval of the DOI's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), Shell will be allowed to drill four shallow-water wells starting in July 2012.

Reuters has more on the approval for Shell:

 

While this is a step forward in Shell's push to tap the Arctic's vast oil and gas reserves, the oil giant still has a long way to go before it can begin carrying out its ambitious drilling plans.
The conditional approval of the exploration plan is contingent upon Shell receiving permits from other government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Earthjustice and other environmental groups say they are assessing their options for responding to the decision, which could include a legal challenge to the permit. So while Shell is closer to drilling, it's not quite a done deal yet.