2011 - %3, October

Image-of-the-Week: Seaweed Exodus

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 1:17 PM EDT

Kelp.: Credit:Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikimedia Commons.Kelp in Tasmania, Australia. Credit:Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikimedia Commons.Our knowledge of global-warming changes in the ocean is paltry compared to changes on land. Now a new paper in Current Biology reports on alarming shifts in distribution of 52 species of seaweed in Australia during two periods: 1940-1960 and 1990-2009. In the interval between those periods, waters warmed by about 2°C/3.6°F on Australia's Pacific coast and by about 1°C/1.8°F on the Indian Ocean coast. The authors drew upon more than 20,000 records in Australia's Virtual Herbarium (a very cool online database), and found that marine algae migrated south towards cooler waters as the ocean warmed—shifting south on the east coast by about 200km/124mi and on the west coast by about 50km/31mi. There's only so far algae—and all the species dependent on them—can shift before they run of of landmass to anchor to. In an interview with Australian news, lead author Thomas Wernberg says a "back of the envelope type calculation" suggests that 25 percent of Australia's temperate marine species could be at risk of extinction by 2070. 

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California Cuts Medicaid Payments to Doctors

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 1:05 PM EDT

The federal government has given California permission to cut its payments to physicians treating Medicaid patients by 10 percent.

Says Cindy Mann, deputy administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the action gives California the flexibility it had requested to address its budget shortfall. "We know that the reductions that are being approved today will have significant impact on affected providers, and we regret the very difficult budget circumstances that have led to their implementation," she said.

Due to the partnership between the federal and state governments which funds state Medicaid programs, states are not permitted to make major changes without approval from the Department of Health & Human Services.

California already spends less per Medicaid beneficiary than any state in the nation, resulting in approximately 50 percent of California physicians currently refusing to see lower income patients due to insufficient payment rates from the state's safety net program. The further cuts, which will save the state some $673 million dollars, is likely to reduce that number dramatically, resulting in a severe decrease in medical care availability to the state's poor.

US Drone Warfare: Ethiopia Edition

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 12:30 PM EDT

It's official: another half-acre, multi-million-dollar US drone base has been confirmed, this one on Ethiopian soil. The Washington Post reports:

The Air Force has been secretly flying armed Reaper drones on counterterrorism missions from a remote civilian airport in southern Ethi­o­pia as part of a rapidly expanding U.S.-led proxy war against an al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa [al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia], U.S. military officials said...The Air Force confirmed Thursday that drone operations are underway at the Arba Minch airport. Master Sgt. James Fisher, a spokesman for the 17th Air Force, which oversees operations in Africa, said that an unspecified number of Air Force personnel ­are working at the Ethio­pian airfield "to provide operation and technical support for our security assistance programs."

The Arba Minch airport expansion is still in progress but the Air Force deployed the Reapers there earlier this year, Fisher said. He said the drone flights "will continue as long as the government of Ethi­o­pia welcomes our cooperation on these varied security programs."

Though the Post story emphasizes elements like the drones' "Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs," BBC News reports that, although the aircraft can be fitted with such firepower, American officials speaking to the BBC on Friday "stressed that the remotely-piloted drones were being used only for surveillance, and not for air strikes" and that the Reaper drones were flying unarmed "because their use is considered sensitive by Ethiopia's government." (According to Tesfaye Yilma, the head of public diplomacy for the Ethiopian embassy in DC, it's their explicit policy not to "entertain foreign military bases in Ethi­o­pia.")

Just last month the Post published a run-down of the Obama administration's growing "constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations" in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, aimed at eliminating key Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia. The United States has already conducted lethal drone strikes in at least six countries since 2004, including Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as the military's reliance on this supposedly "low-risk" form of war is only ballooning.

Elizabeth Warren's Volunteer Army

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 10:15 AM EDT
Volunteers at a organizational meeting for Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren

Nick Baumann flagged this photo that Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren snapped at a campaign event at Framingham State College on Tuesday evening. It is, as he notes, somewhat unusual for a candidate to draw that kind of crowd on a weeknight, one month into a race that's still a year away from being decided. But that's actually been the norm for Warren, who despite being a first-time candidate has rolled out an impressive volunteer operation in the Bay State for her campaign against Republican Sen. Scott Brown. Warren's big crowds are all the more noteworthy given that she's only running for the seat because of the shortcomings of the last nominee, state Attorney General Martha Coakley.

In addition to 300 people at the event in Framingham, Warren drew another 100 on Wednesday night at a union hall in Springfield. And at 7:30 on Thursday morning, about 100 supporters filled the rec room at the Scandinavian Living Center in West Newton for a joint appearance with Newton mayor Setti Warren (who dropped out of the race almost as soon the other Warren—no relation—entered it). For progressives still scarred by the Coakley collapse, Warren's emergence has been cathartic.

"When I woke up this morning and I saw it was raining, I thought, 'I hope she doesn't cancel!" said Barbara Darnell of Newton, a nod to Coakley's famous declaration that she didn't want to campaign outside in the cold. "She's just gotta get out there." And she's glad the candidate showed up: Warren answered Darnell's question about the middle class (she's in favor of it) and won her over with her brief remarks.

Friday Cat Blogging - 28 October 2011

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 10:00 AM EDT

On the left, Domino really is staring at the giant rose this week. It's not just a trick of perspective. On the right, Inkblot is reacting warily as Domino explores a gigantic bag that had been full of electronic goodness just a few moments before.

Why the early catblogging this week? Because Southern California Edison has kindly informed us that electric power in our neighborhood will once again be out for the day. So no blogging for me. This post was prescheduled Thursday night, and my computer has been safely shut down for the duration. Have a good weekend, all.

Flier to OWS Protesters: "Defending Against Tear Gas"

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 9:30 AM EDT

"Maalox is a must." That's one of the many tips to be found in "Defending Against Tear Gas," a fascinating flier making the rounds on the internet today (and shown in full below—click to embiggen), that instructs Occupy protesters on how to protect themselves when The Man breaks out the CS canisters for crowd dispersal. As some cops and local governments get physical in their dealings with occupiers, the flier's info could prove vital to minimizing chaos and injuries. It also shows how information-sharing among the protesters and their sympathizers is spreading organically at a rapid clip.

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OWS Beats The Tea Party—In Google Searches

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 6:48 AM EDT

Tea party activists have been very adamant that their movement, which started with spontaneous public protests in 2009, has nothing at all in common with Occupy Wall Street. Tea partiers insist that OWS doesn't really speak for regular Americans—the way they say their movement does. But now comes data, albeit rather unscientific, that offers evidence that Americans are much more interested in OWS than they ever were in the tea party.

The Google Politics and Elections team has teased out some comparisons between tea party-related Google searches and OWS searches to see which group had more demand at their peaks. The results? "Occupy Wall Street" has been a far more popular search term than "tea party."

Google Politics and ElectionsGoogle Politics and Elections

 

The Google team also looked at the volume of media coverage for each movement. By that measure, OWS isn't quite keeping up.

They write:

Despite big leads in polls and search traffic for Occupy Wall Street, it is almost in a dead heat with the Tea Party for the volume of news coverage. Using Advanced Search in Google News we found that between October 7 and last week, Occupy Wall Street only barely bests the Tea Party when we examine the number of news pieces covering each movement: 29,000 to 22,000.

Other interesting takeaways from the Google search crunching: Searches for "tea party" peak each year around tax time and then peter out again. And while New York would seem like the obvious hot spot for people searching for OWS news, the state actually ranks third in OWS searches, behind Vermont and Oregon.

The Google search numbers dovetail with public opinion polls showing that OWS is twice as popular with regular Americans than the tea party. They may also reinforce what the tea partiers have been saying all along: the two groups have nothing in common.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 28, 2011

Fri Oct. 28, 2011 5:57 AM EDT

Abigail Castro, 21 months, clings to her dad, Spc. Kory Castro, following his return to Fort Riley, Kan., October 21, 2011. Spc. Castro, assigned to 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, was one of more than 250 1st Infantry Division Soldiers who returned from a 12 month deployment to Iraq as part of the Dagger brigade's first "main body" flight. The remainder of the brigade's 3,000 Soldiers will return to Fort Riley throughout the next several weeks. Photo by Mollie Miller, 1st Infantry Division Public Affairs.

Quote of the Day: Some Wee Questions for the SEC

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 12:33 AM EDT

From Jed Rakoff, the federal judge overseeing the SEC fraud settlement against Citigroup:

How can a securities fraud of this nature and magnitude be the result simply of negligence?

Good question! This is #9 of nine questions that Rakoff has about the settlement, in which Citigroup has been fined an arbitrary amount, with no real explanation for how the amount was calculated, no real explanation of just what the fraud entailed, and no admission by Citigroup of any culpability. I suspect that Rakoff isn't going to get any satisfactory answers to his questions, but good for him for asking.

Banks Surrender on Debit Card Fees — For Now

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 12:10 AM EDT

Good news from the Wall Street Journal:

A month after Bank of America got pummeled by consumers and politicians for introducing plans for new debit-card fees, most other big U.S. banks are steering clear of imposing similar charges.

Following eight months of consumer testing, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. has decided that it won't charge customers who use their debit cards to make purchases....J.P. Morgan joins U.S. Bancorp, Citigroup Inc., PNC Financial Services Group Inc., KeyCorp and other large banks that have said in recent days that they won't impose monthly fees on debit cards. None of those banks said they made their decisions because of the outcry over Bank of America's fees.

Well, of course they didn't say it. But I think we can all take a pretty good guess that Bank of America's PR debacle had something to do with it.

BofA imposed its monthly debit card charge to make up for lower interchange fees mandated by Dodd-Frank, and that's why other banks have been considering it too. But as far as I'm concerned, banks could have avoided this mess completely simply by allowing merchants to pass along interchange fees to their customers if they wanted to. That is, allow merchants to post a sign saying "2% surcharge on all debit card purchases" and see what happens. If merchants try it, but competition eventually forces them all to stop, that's a convincing signal that interchange fees are a reasonable cost of business for having a reliable, risk-free payment system. If not, then not. But banks resolutely refused to allow this, which suggests very strongly that they knew perfectly well their fees were out of line and would get passed along to consumers in a free market. And having those fees passed along would have caused consumers to use their cards a lot less. So the last thing they wanted was transparent fees subject to normal market forces.

I don't know how this is all going to turn out. It's possible, of course, that banks will eventually figure out some other hidden or semi-hidden fee structure to replace the interchange fees. Obviously they're going to try to make up their lost interchange fee revenue somewhere. But my hope is that as long as they're forced to make it up with transparent fees of some kind, consumers will have a chance to react normally to those charges and market forces will then have a chance to exert some discipline on the banks — as they're doing now with the monthly debit card fee. This will keep fees as low as possible and consumers will benefit. We'll see.