2012 - %3, December

Obama Data Guru: I'm Not a Sorcerer, I'm You

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 10:54 AM EST
OFA data director Ethan Roeder.

Now that the campaign is finally over the non-disclosure agreements are starting to lapse, Obama campaign veterans are starting to come forward to tell their stories of what worked and what didn't. (Sometimes in these very pages.) Today, it's Ethan Roeder's turn. In a New York Times op-ed, the campaign's data director says he's nothing like what you've heard:

I've grown accustomed to reading inaccurate accounts of my day job. I'm in political data.

If I'm not spying on private citizens through the security cam in the parking garage, I’m probably sifting through their garbage for discarded pages from their diaries or deploying billions of spambots to crack into their e-mail. Reading what others muse about my profession is the opposite of my middle-school experience: people with only superficial information about me make a bunch of assumptions to fill in what’s missing and decide that I’m an all-knowing super-genius.

Sadly for me, this is a bunch of malarkey. You may chafe at how much the online world knows about you, but campaigns don’t know anything more about your online behavior than any retailer, news outlet or savvy blogger.

Roeder's right that OFA wasn't digging through confidential records or sifting through dumpsters. But that's also not an allegation I've heard anyone make. Nor is it really the case that the campaign was working with the same set of information that's available to a news outlet or savvy blogger. Detailed donor histories aren't publicly available. Nor are party files, which included notes on caucusing and volunteering and issue preference. And even the savviest of bloggers don't purchase bulk consumer databases. The campaigns are doing more or less what big retailers are doing, but in the eyes of privacy watchdogs, that's kind of the point: As I put it in a piece for the magazine back in September, "In practice, the Obama team isn't doing anything private companies haven't already been doing for a few years. But the scope of its operation represents a major shift for politics—voters expect to be able to obsessively analyze information about the candidates, not the other way around."

There's a lot more in the Times op-ed, and Roeder does a good job of explaining the campaign's real breakthrough—figuring out what to do with all of this data to maximize every interaction it had with voters, donors, and volunteers. Go read his whole piece

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House Republican Conspiracy Theorist Hearts the Word "Lunatic"

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 10:48 AM EST

"Terror baby" conspiracy theorist, birther conspiracy theorist, and Muslim Brotherhood inflitration conspiracy theorist Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), who also said the Aurora shooting happened because we lost Jesus, would like America to make sure the term "lunatic" remains in federal law. He was the lone no vote yesterday on a House bill that ends the use of the outmoded and offensive term, which appears in laws that allow banks to act as a trustee of mentally disabled people's estates.

But Gohmert's nay vote wasn't out of self-interest. As the Washington Post reports, it was due to his sense of civic duty: "To keep spending and not pay the price, that is immoral," Gohmert said. "That's why we shouldn’t eliminate the word 'lunatic.' It really has application around this town...We want to eliminate the word 'lunatic' from the federal code? That's lunacy."

Sandy Price Tag: $50 Billion

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 7:13 AM EST
A beach house in Far Rockaway, New York destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

A few weeks ago, my colleague Kevin Drum wrote that Congress was "about to get hit in the head with the price of climate change." Well, here it is. On Wednesday, news broke that President Obama is expected to ask for around $50 billion in disaster aid in response to Hurricane Sandy. And even that is not nearly as much money as the affected states have asked the federal government to provide.

From the New York Times:

The White House is assembling a spending request to send to Capitol Hill as early as this week, and while the final sum is still in flux, it should fall between $45 billion and $55 billion. That represents an enormous sum at a time when Mr. Obama is locked in a titanic struggle with Republicans over the federal deficit, but is significantly less than the states sought.
Unless an austerity-minded Congress adds to the president’s plan, state leaders would have to figure out other ways to finance tens of billions of dollars of storm-related expenses or do without them. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were seeking a combined $82 billion in federal help both to clean up and restore damage from Hurricane Sandy as well as to upgrade and harden infrastructure to prepare for future storms.

Climate-fueled megastorms like Sandy, droughts, wild fires—none of these are cheap. And while this is one big, expensive storm, we've also been paying for billion-plus-dollar disasters more frequently in the paset few years.  For so long, all we seemed to hear from Congress about climate change were complaints that we can't afford to deal with it. Now that a giant bill is coming due, I wonder what they'll have to say.

Less Arctic Ice-->Less Sunlight Reflected Back-->Even Less Arctic Ice

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 7:13 AM EST

 Daily Arctic sea ice volume in thousands of cubic kilometers 1979-Aug 2012: Photo by ironpoison via Flickr. Graph modeled ice volume data from the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington

Daily Arctic sea ice volume in thousands of cubic kilometers 1979-Aug 2012: Photo of melting ice by ironpoison via Flickr. Graph modeled ice volume data from the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington. Mashup: Julia Whitty

The seventh annual Arctic Report Card released by NOAA finds the rapid melting underway in northern lands and waters is unlikely to diminish in the face of continued global warming. The single biggest finding: Despite fewer weird warm spells in the Arctic in 2012, compared to the past ten warm years, snow and ice extent continued to melt at a record-breaking pace.

Ominously a new mechanism seems to be driving these changes. Disappearing ice and snow no longer reflect as much sunlight from the Earth. Meanwhile increasingly open waters and snow-free lands absorb more sunlight. This creates a self-reinforcing cycle of continued melting even during cooler times. It bodes poorly for recovery or stability in the far north.

No one is more amazed at the staggering rate of change than the scientists observing it. Bob Pickart, a physical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and co-author of the Report Card (also principle investigator of the icebreaker cruise I tagged along on in the Arctic Ocean in October: see my Arctic Ocean Diaries)—tells me:

It is mind-boggling how quickly the Arctic system is changing and how unstable it appears to be. It is clear that there are strong, disturbing trends, but it is also evident how complex the system is and hence how hard it is to predict what all the consequences will be. In some ways I feel that the scientific community simply can't respond quickly enough to sort all these issues out. 

Jeremy Mathis, a chemical oceanographer at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and also principle investigator on the Arctic Ocean cruise I joined in October, tells me:

The 2012 Arctic Report Card is another stark reminder of how quickly the Arctic is charging. Sea ice extent is diminishing in summer at an unprecedented rate and we do not yet understand the biological consequences for other stressors such as ocean acidification. While there is no base-line left to study in the Arctic we should increase our efforts to monitor and anticipate how the rapid changes we our observing today will impact high latitude ecosystems and the charismatic megafauna that they support.

 Global warming is ampliified in the Arctic, where in the past decade no part of it was cooler than the long-term average:  NOAA climate.gov team

Global warming is amplified in the Arctic, where no part of was cooler than the long-term average in the past decade: NOAA climate.gov teamStay tuned. I'll be writing more in-depth about other changes in NOAA's Arctic Report Card in the coming days.

Listen: “The Climate of the 2020s and the 2030s is Already Preordained"

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 7:13 AM EST

Sometimes it's good to be reminded about reality—in that painful, cold shower kind of way. And British climatologist Professor Sir Bob Watson, former chair of the IPCC, pulled no punches during a withering, breathless indictment of climate inaction yesterday in his keynote address at the American Geophysical Union Fall meeting in San Francisco.

Perhaps the best thing to do is present to you with Sir Watson's conclusion, delivered at the crescendo of an hour-long lecture. It's what could be called the ultimate climate change stump speech:

We are not on a pathway to a two degree world—much more likely three to five. Climate change is not just an energy issue, but it's the way we manage our land: We've got a major challenge producing the food we need for 9 billion people by 2050, whilst simultaneously reducing emissions by agriculture. We absolutely need governance reform from the national to the global level. Vested interests in certain parts of industry are controlling the debate... We've got to eliminate perverse subsidies in transportation, energy and agriculture. They do little for the federal treasury, and they adversely affect the environment. We need to incentivize new policies to get them to penetrate the marketplace, some of the new renewable energy policies. We clearly need an Apollo-scale project on things such as carbon capture and storage. No single country should go it alone: We need Europe to work together with the US, Japan, China, and the private sector for the technologies we need for tomorrow. It's quite clear: there are cost-effective and equitable solutions to climate change, but we need more leadership, political will—they both seem to be in short supply at the moment—and it will require substantial changes in policies, practices and technologies, and they're not currently underway.

Take a listen:

Clothing Giant Zara Pledges to Ditch Toxic Chemicals

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 7:13 AM EST
Even the mannequins are protesting.

Talk about dirty laundry.

Last month we learned that our jeans and Ts might contain cancer causing chemicals. The news came from a Greenpeace report which also charged some of the world's largest clothing manufacturers with dumping toxic dyes and other pollutants into the waterways. 

The report sparked protests in 80 cities around the world from Greenpeace supporters who set their sights on Zara, the world's largest clothing retailer. Seven hundred protesters staged mannequin walkouts at Zara stores launching Greenpeace's Detox Campaign.

The effort seems to be working: Zara, its parent company Inditex, and Spanish-based retailer Mango pledged last week to eliminate all hazardous chemicals in their supply chains and products by 2020. Inditex will begin by requiring 120 of its suppliers to disclose pollution data by the end of next year, informing people living near these facilities about what chemicals are being discharged into their local environment.

While Greenpeace hails Zara's new pledge as a victory, reaching the 2020 commitment of removing toxic chemicals entirely will probably require a total overhaul of Zara's supply chain. If, like Walmart, Zara uses subcontractors, that would be quite a tall order.

For the sake of the people who live nearby these plants and the various species and plantlife that depend on these water sources (not to mention the 7 billion people who routinely wear clothes) here's hoping that Zara can make good on its promise.

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8 Drones That Aren't Out to Kill You

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 7:13 AM EST

A new flock of drones is taking flight in America's skies, and they are here to help. Really. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a.k.a. drones, are ready to take over jobs that are too dangerous or simply too boring for human pilots. What's holding them back, until 2015 at least, are FAA regulations that bar the commercial use of robot aircraft.

Government agencies and state universities are already using drones in ways that do not include secretly tracking and killing people. Eventually we may have FedEx drones or even personal taco delivery vehicles. But in the meantime, here are eight cool things drones can already do:

Farming: The Japanese have used robo-crop-dusters for decades, but those FAA regulations have kept ag limited to government sponsored projects. That could change when the FAA allows the commercial use of drones in 2015. Farmers and ag programs are gearing up for drones that can monitor the growth of crops as well as the drones like the crop dusters used in Japan. And with the shortage of skilled ag pilots, drones could very well swoop in.

Chasing storms: Since 2007, NASA has owned a pair of Global Hawks, the same UAVs used by the military to spy on foreign countries. Fitted with instruments to monitor clouds, winds, and temperature, the Global Hawks can hang out where few human pilots want to—in the middle of a hurricane. In September, a Global Hawk spent nearly two weeks monitoring the life cycle of the bizarrely long-lived Hurricane/Tropical Storm Nadine. NASA scientists hope to use the drones to glean insights into how hurricanes form, especially now that climate change has made superstorms a more pressing problem. (Check out NASA's website for an interactive view of the Global Hawk—with bonus action music!) 

Photo of Tropical Storm taken from a Global Hawk aircraft. NASA/NOAAPhoto of Tropical Storm Frank taken from a Global Hawk NASA/NOAA

Catching poachers: When you're trying to track poachers across thousands of acres, it helps to have eyes in the sky. The World Wildlife Fund has tested a fleet of small, hand-launched, camera-equipped drones in Nepal. And the WWF just won a $5 million Google grant to implement a drone-based poacher surveillance system in Asia and Africa. 

Watching the environment: The scientists who came up with the WWF drones have already used them to monitor orangutans and deforestation in Indonesia. The US Geological Survey also has a whole office devoted to drone projects. Its aircraft have monitored invasive species in Hawaii, crane migration, and a dam removal in Washington. Most of these projects involved Raven A drones retired from the army.



Going into the danger zone: In the first weeks after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, when radiation levels near the plant were too dangerous for humans, in flew an 18-pound robot called the Honeywell T-Hawk. The T-Hawk sent back videos of stunning devastation. Drones are no stranger to danger. BP has tested quadrotor drones in its oil fields, inspecting rigs while outmaneuvering gas flares that occasionally burst into fireballs.

 

Looking for trouble: Officers of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office with their Shadowhawk drone. Vanguard Defense IndustriesThe Montgomery County Sheriff's Office's Shadowhawk drone Vanguard Defense Industries Not surprisingly, law enforcement agencies are quite interested in getting their hands on drones. The Customs and Border Protection Agency has been using them for several years. Last year, one of its Predator Bs helped track down cattle thieves in North Dakota, leading to the first drone-assisted arrest in the United States. Last year, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office in Texas became one of the first local police departments to buy its own drone. It cost $300,000; compare that to the $3 million price tag for a helicopter. But police drones bring up a whole host of privacy concerns. And safety concerns as well: Montgomery's relatively simple drone crashed into a SWAT team during a photo op.

Protecting human rights: On the flip side, some activists have suggested drones can be used to monitor human rights violations. The cofounders of the Genocide Intervention Network have argued that drones should be used by human rights organizations to document violence in Syria, where the government has tried to silence journalists with targeted killings

Journalism: Old-school newsgathering was based on shoe-leather reporting; are drones the future of journalism? Matt Waite of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln thinks so. The lab has used footage shot by drones to report on the Midwestern drought, and a drone has documented protests in Poland. But drone journalism remains legally dicey, at least until the federal ban on commercial drones is lifted in 2015. The FAA investigated The Daily in 2011 for flying a drone over natural disasters in Alabama and North Dakota. But journalists can still dream about having the ability to grab scoops from above.

Well, anybody got a spare drone we can use?

How the War on Drugs Caused the Fake Pot Problem

| Wed Dec. 5, 2012 7:12 PM EST
Spice "herbal incense": Not for human consumption (wink wink)

Yesterday, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration published a "first-of-its-kind report" finding that synthetic marijuana, commonly sold as "herbal incense" with names like K2 and Spice, was linked to more than 11,400 drug-related hospitalizations in 2010. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who'd spearheaded a recent bill banning chemicals used to make fake pot, quickly responded to the news with a statement: "This report underscores that a federal ban was right to protect public safety…Still, cynical manufacturers are evading the federal ban by altering chemicals or ignoring the ban altogether. Anyone who might be tempted to try this drug should realize its use can end in tragedy, such as the loss of my constituent, David Rozga."

Rozga was an 18-year-old Iowan who may have had a history of depression and committed suicide in June 2010 after smoking K2 with his friends. Soon, reports of the dangers of synthetic pot, ranging from nausea to hallucinations and seizures, were all over the local and national news. Later that year, the Drug Enforcement Agency invoked emergency powers to temporarily ban the drug as lawmakers scrambled to outlaw it for good.

"This report confirms that synthetic drugs cause substantial damage to public health and safety in America," drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief who came into the Obama administration as a reformer, said in a statement about the SAMHSA report. "Make no mistake—the use of synthetic cannabinoids can cause serious, lasting damage, particularly in young people."

The irony in all this, of course, is that synthetic marijuana only exists because of the federal prohibition on the real stuff. While smoking pot isn't as benign as many advocates claim, particularly when used by teens, it's still one of the safest recreational drugs. Synthetic pot, on the other hand, was largely unregulated in 2010 (as its still-legal derivatives still are), and because it only contains synthetic cannabinoids and not THC—the primary part of the cannabis plant that gets you high—it's good for passing drug tests but provides a worse high with an elevated risk of adverse effects. (The SAMHSA report says there were more than 461,000 emergency room visits in 2010 involving real marijuana. But this is a misleading statistic since it counts a patient's mention of marijuana use regardless of whether it was a factor in the hospitalization.)

Not that the prohibitionists would ever tout the relative safety of pot over its synthetic counterparts. In 2007, responding to constituents' letters asking that he support the legalization of marijuana, Sen. Grassley likened pot to rape, genocide, and counterfeit money:

After several thousand years, civilized societies have failed to eliminate murder, rape, or child abuse. Nor have they eliminated organized crime, the manufacture of counterfeit money, or genocide. But no one seriously sees these failures as justification for surrender. Illegal drug use costs society at least as much as any of these social ills. Yet we do not hear any calls to legalize these abuses. Why then should we give up? Should we surrender to the criminals, and legalize marijuana? No. Instead, we should do whatever we can to prevent criminals from gaining the upper hand, do what needs to be done to give our families, our friends, and our neighbors a safe and secure place to live.

Meanwhile, in the past month, recreational marijuana use has been legalized in Colorado and Washington. Medical marijuana is legal in 18 states and Washington, D.C., and 58 percent of voters now support legalization.

4 Measures in the Defense Authorization Bill That Are Good for Women

| Wed Dec. 5, 2012 6:57 PM EST

The Senate unanimously passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2013 on Tuesday. The giant bill includes four provisions that, if included in the final version of the law, could help women in the military. It's not clear whether the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will approve any of these measures, but here they are: 

 

  1. Military women who are raped would be able to use their government health benefits to get an abortion. The Hyde Amendment blocks the use of government funds—including government-funded healthcare—for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or when the health of the mother is at risk. But under the more strict Pentagon policy, women in the military are blocked from using their health benefits to pay for abortion even if they become pregnant from rape. To correct this disparity, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H) authored a measure in the NDAA that would increase access to abortion care for military women. 

  2. The military would be forced to improve how it handles reports of sexual assaults. This provision, from Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), requires the military to keep restricted reports of sexual assaults on file for 50 years, so that veterans can access forensic examination records in order to file disability claims and criminal charges against their rapist (if the statute of limitations has not run out). It also requires the Department of Defense to expand its annual report on rape in the military and to set new policies on how to prevent and respond to sexual harassment cases.

  3. Convicted sex offenders would be discharged. According to the DOD's own statistics, 36 percent of convicted sex offenders have been allowed to remain in the military. Right now, only the Navy requires convicted sex offenders to go through the discharge process. This measure, from New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, would expand the Navy's policy to all branches of the armed forces.

  4. It would force the DOD to review its policy of excluding women from combat roles. This measure, also from Gillibrand, requires the Pentagon to come up with a plan for lifting its current policy blocking women from serving in combat roles, a policy that is also the subject of a recent lawsuit. The measure doesn't set a hard deadline for changing the rules, but does require the agency to issue a report on the matter within a year.

Quote of the Day: Maybe Raising Tax Rates on the Rich Isn't Such a Bad Idea

| Wed Dec. 5, 2012 6:30 PM EST

From Senator Tom Coburn, on whether he'd rather raise revenue by increasing rates on the rich or by closing loopholes on the rich:

Actually, I would rather see the rates go up than do it the other way because it gives us a greater chance to reform the tax code and broaden the base in the future.

Coburn is a diehard conservative, but he's also been off the reservation on taxes for a while, so this isn't a huge surprise. Still, I think he's right, and I have a feeling that even some House Republicans might eventually agree with him if they think this through a bit.

There are two ways to come at this. First: which is simpler and easier, raising rates or closing loopholes? I'd say raising rates is easier, and if it's done now it will make it harder to raise them again in the future. This means that if Democrats want to soak the rich again, they'll have to do it via closing loopholes, which is a harder lift.

Second, there's Coburn's point. If you want to have any chance at all of broadening the base and lowering rates in the future, you can't close loopholes now. You need to leave them there as bargaining chips. Tax reform will be more likely if rates are higher (making them easier to lower) and loopholes are all still intact (giving you plenty of stuff to close in return for lowering rates).

If you're a slave of Grover Norquist and hellbent on never raising revenue in any way at all, none of this matters. But if you're smart enough to pound sand, you know that raising revenue is inevitable eventually. And if it's going to happen eventually, Coburn is right: you're probably better off just giving in on the higher rates now. It makes further hikes less likely and makes conservative-friendly tax reform more likely. As a bonus, it also removes the stigma of defending the rich at all costs, even if it means depriving the middle class of a tax cut. That might not be so bad for the Republican Party's tattered image.