2013 - %3, January

Yup, Ashley Judd Sounds Like She's Running for Something

| Sun Jan. 20, 2013 4:07 PM EST
Actress Ashley Judd and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)

The surest sign yet that Ashley Judd might actually run for Senate? She's starting to talk like she might actually run for Senate. On Saturday, the actress and activist told guests at the Bluegrass Ball in Washington, DC that she was "certainly taking a close look" at challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2014. She didn't, however, answer a Politico reporter's question about gun control legislation—a subject that other red-state Democrats like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Montana Sen. Max Baucus have also avoided. So on Sunday, I put the question to her again at a brunch reception for EMILY's List, the organization dedicated to support pro-choice female Democratic candidates.

Judd didn't take the bait: "I really enjoyed—I was very proud of the Vice President's role on that," she said. "I liked the consultation and the full voice of people across the spectrum of opinions and ideology about it. I thought focusing in particular on video game creators was important. And I hope that there will be buy-in."

Thus concluded the Mother Jones Ashley Judd interview. Of course, the biggest hint that Judd is seriously considering a run might just be how she exited the brunch EMILY's List brunch—carpooling with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.):

2014 should be fun.

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With Warming, Soil Releases More CO2... Though Less Over Time as Microbes Adapt

| Sun Jan. 20, 2013 1:06 PM EST
Study plots at the Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site in Massachusetts where researchers have been warming two areas with underground cables to simulate a warmer climate. The photo shows a January thaw on a 50°F day. The heated plots melted before the unheated ones: Alix Contosa, postdoctoral researcher at University of New Hampshire

Warmer temperatures from a warming climate force the release of carbon dioxide from soils into the atmosphere, driving even more climate warming. That's the bad news. The good news is that the effect diminishes over time—over 18 years, and counting. This according to a new paper just published in Nature Climate Change.

We know that microorganisms in the soil release 10 times the CO2 that humans release on a yearly basis. These soil processes are normally kept in check by plants, which uptake C02 from the atmosphere. But a warming climate is driving changes in the carbon cycle.  

Model soil bacteria: pmecologic via Flickr

To examine how that might be unfolding on at least one patch of our planet—the Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site in Massachusetts—the researchers warmed two plots with underground cables, one plot for two years, the other for 18. They then measured the efficiency of soil organisms in utilizing food sources that come from plants. Here's some of what they found:

"When the soil was heated to simulate climate warming, we saw a change in the [soil] community to be more efficient in the longer term," says Frey.
  • In the two-year scenario, warming temperatures drastically reduced the efficiency of soils to utilize complex food sources (specifically phenol) from decomposing wood and leaves by 60 percent.
  • In the long-term scenario, where soils were warmed to 9°F (5°C) above ambient temperatures for 18 years, the soil microorganisms regained some efficiency—suggesting that warmed soils might eventually release less CO2 than otherwise predicted.

Why the change? The authors hypothesize that long-term warming may change the community of soil microorganisms to become more efficient. Perhaps the composition of the species changes, or the original species adapt, or the availability of various nutrients changes, or some or all of the above.

"While they're low on the charisma scale soil," says lead author Serita Frey, at the University of New Hampshire, "[soil] microorganisms are so critically important to the carbon balance of the atmosphere."

(Thanks microorganisms!)

These findings could lead to critical changes in the way the carbon cycle is predicted, since common ecosystem models don't factor in the temperature response of the microbial community. "There is clearly a need for new models that incorporate an efficiency parameter that is allowed to fluctuate in response to temperature and other environmental variables," says co-author Johan Six, at the University of California, Davis.

In the video, author Serita Frey describes her long-term work with soil.

The paper:

  • Serita D. Frey, Juhwan Lee, Jerry M. Melillo, and Johan Six. The temperature response of soil microbial efficiency and its feedback to climate. Nature Climate Change. DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1796

There Are Limits to Hardball

| Sat Jan. 19, 2013 11:26 AM EST

House Republicans have apparently agreed to raise the debt ceiling for three months, and liberals are widely declaring victory. I'd advise caution on two grounds. First, we haven't yet seen the actual proposal, so we don't know if they're offering a clean bill or one with obnoxious conditions. Second, is three months really that big a victory? Jaime Fuller Paul Waldman, echoing many others, writes:

There's a lesson for the White House: Hardball works. Unlike in previous crises, President Obama didn't try to make a bunch of pre-concessions in the hope that Republicans would moderate their position. He simply told them that the debt ceiling wasn't up for negotiation. It just had to be raised, and that was all there was to it. And what do you know, he won. For three months at least. Then we get to do it all over again.

I don't entirely disagree with this, and I'm certainly in favor of Obama adopting a more tough-minded negotiating posture. Still I'm not sure that "hardball works" is really the lesson to be learned here. I think the lesson is that hardball works if your opponents have a weak hand. In the case of the fiscal cliff, taxes were going to go up automatically if Republicans refused to make a deal. Their hand was disastrously weak. In the case of the debt ceiling, the business community told them in no uncertain terms that playing games with the full faith and credit of the United States government would be catastrophic. Republicans knew this was true, and they knew they'd be blamed for it. They had no way out.

In both cases, Obama could have blown it. He could have failed to recognize the strength of his own position and made preemptive compromises. It's to his credit that he didn't. Still, to say that hardball won these arguments misses a big piece of the story. Whether it works in the future will depend a lot on how weak the Republican position is. It's not a cure-all.

Tom's Kitchen: Wine-Braised Beef Short Ribs

| Sat Jan. 19, 2013 6:06 AM EST
Hmmm, ribs.

Braising—cooking something, usually meat, at low temperature in a covered pot with a little liquid—is a fundamental technique. Demanding a little preparation and a lot of patience, braising ever-so-slowly transforms tough, inexpensive cuts of meat into something sublime—and conveniently napped in its own luscious sauce (i.e., the cooking liquid). If you're a meat eater and you haven't braised before, now is the time. It's not something you'll be tempted to do in the summer.

I got the braising bug recently through the confluence of two factors: a cold snap here in Austin and the arrival of an advanced copy of Michael Pollan's new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, due out in April. I'll have more to say about it soon—expect a review around publication date—but let it suffice to say for now that it contains an entire, very evocative chapter on the act of slow cooking meat in a little liquid.

Pollan's prose made me crave the smell of beef, mirepoix vegetables—onions, carrots, and celery—and red wine gurgling gently on the stovetop. That is the essence of a French-style braise—you can also use the flavor palates of other cuisines. (In fact, for a Tom's Kitchen last year, I braised pork ribs in a Mexican-style chile-pepper sauce; and you could certainly do the same for beef ribs.)

To me, the most attractive candidates for the braising pot are tough, bone-in cuts like ribs. Tough cuts are tough because they're full of collagen, and braising works by melting the collagen into gelatin, giving rise to fork-tender meat. And bones are good because they enrich the cooking liquid, essentially turning it into a full-bodied sauce. The result is supposedly really good for you—the radical whole-foods group Weston A. Price Foundation ascribes great nutritional value to bone-enriched stocks:

Stock contains minerals in a form the body can absorb easily—not just calcium but also magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals. It contains the broken down material from cartilage and tendons--stuff like chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine, now sold as expensive supplements for arthritis and joint pain.

Braises tend to taste even better the the day after cooking, but there's another reason to cook beef short ribs a day in advance: if you can let the cooking liquid cool overnight, the fat can be easily skimmed away. Beef ribs are a fatty cut, and too much fat in the final sauce makes the dish overrich. You can also serve them the same day—just carefully skim the cooking liquid of fat before reducing it in the recipe's final step.

Wine-Braised Beef Short Ribs
Serves 4, with a little leftover

Olive oil
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 pounds beef short ribs from grass-fed cows
1 large onion, diced (here's a great video for a simple, effective onion-dicing technique)
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 bottle inexpensive but drinkable red wine, preferably not aged in oak
1 bay leaf, plus some fresh or dried thyme

Pat the beef ribs dry with a towel, and liberally season them with salt and pepper on all sides. Place a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or a brazier (a shallow version of a Dutch oven) over medium heat, and add just enough oil to coat the bottom. When it's hot, brown the ribs on all sides. Be patient and allow for a nice caramelization—it will add big flavor to the dish.

Remove the ribs to a plate and add the diced veggies to the pot. Saute them, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until they're very soft. As you stir, try to scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan into the sizzling veggies. If they the veggies to scorch before they've turned soft, turn the heat down a bit.

Wine + mirepoix veggies = magic

Now add the wine and herbs and turn the heat to high. Again, stir with a wooden spoon, liberating any brown bits that might still be clinging to the bottom. Bring to a boil, and let the wine reduce by about a third. Now turn the heat to the lowest setting on your stovetop, and place the ribs, bone side down, along with any juices that have accumulated under them, into the pot. Cover and let them simmer gently, checking every half an hour or so, until the meat is very tender (a butter knife should easily penetrate it). This will take about three hours.

Remove the cooked ribs to a plate, and pour the cooking liquid into a wide-mouthed jar. Cover both and store in the fridge overnight. Clean the pot. The next day, about an hour before you plan to eat,, skim the hardened fat from the top of the cooking liquid, and then dump the cooking liquid into the cooking pot. (Actually, the "liquid" may retain the shape of the jar—the gelatin from the bones will have given it considerable body.) Turn the heat to medium to melt the liquid. When it is fully melted, turn the heat to high and let it boil until it has reduced by about half. Taste for salt and pepper. Turn heat to low, and return the ribs, bone side down, to the pot. Cover, and let them simmer gently until heated through. Serve the ribs napped in their sauce, with a hearty seasonal vegetable, such as roasted turnips, as well as something green, like sauteed kale.

A One-Sentence Review of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "The Last Stand"

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 8:07 PM EST

If you do not go see the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie now, you are failing your country, your family, and your own personal god.

 

The Last Stand gets a wide release on Friday, January 18. The film is rated R for strong bloody Ahnold throughout. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

Click here for more movie and TV coverage from Mother Jones.

To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

To listen to the weekly movie and pop-culture podcast that Asawin co-hosts with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg, click here.

Friday Downer: BPA Substitute Is Still Bad For You

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 5:27 PM EST

Years of research have found evidence that Bisphenol A—also know as BPA—is making humans fat and anxious, screwing with our ovaries, and making us develop tumors in our breasts and brains. Those findings have prompted regulators in the US, Canada, and the European Union to ban BPA in baby bottles (though other products still contain it). But new research published this week in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives indicates that a major chemical substitute isn't much better.

BPA creates problems when it leaches into foods and liquids, since inside the human body it mimics estrogen and screws with your endocrine system. Given the ever-growing body of evidence that it's bad for you, manufacturers have been looking for BPA substitutes. One of those newer substitutes is Bisphenol S. While it is less likely to leach from the plastic when it comes in contact with heat or sunlight, it can still leach into food and liquids under normal use. This most recent study, conducted with rat cells, found once it got into their bodies, Bisphenol S behaved much like BPA. Like BPA, BPS also disrupts the endocrine system, making cells signal, grow, and die in ways they shouldn't. 

Study co-author Cheryl Watson, a professor in the biochemistry and molecular biology department at the University of Texas, notes that both BPA and BPS can have a large impact even in small doses, much like hormones. "If hormones act that potently, it's not much of a surprise that componds that mimic hormones act very potently," Watson told Mother Jones.

Watson also suggested that there should be more testing of chemicals like BPS before they're put into consumer products. She's working with other biologists and chemists on an effort, called Tierd Protocol for Endocrine Disruption (or TiPED) to get the two branches of science to collaborate on this kind of testing. "Why not pretest chemical before someone does all the work and investment of putting them into a product, and then we spend the next 20 years fighting about it?" said Watson. "Think of all the money spent on lawsuits, human disease. There's an awful lot of societal expense in regulating these products after they are introduced."

 

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Vets, PTSD, and Kids: A Google+ Hangout with Mac McClelland and Military Moms [VIDEO]

Fri Jan. 18, 2013 5:13 PM EST

For her story on how PTSD affects the wives and children of returning vets, Mac McClelland spent countless hours with military moms Brannan Vines and Kateri Peterson. This morning, the three of them sat down again—online this time—to answer reader questions in a Google+ hangout. The complete conversation, hosted by our multimedia producer Brett Brownell, is below.

Read or listen to the magazine story read by Mac herself.

TSA Dumps Porno Airport Scanners. Good Riddance!

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 4:37 PM EST

 

Image from a backscatter X-ray airport scanner, of the kind that will be gone from all US airports by June: US Dept of Homeland Security via Wikimedia Commons

By June those X-ray-emitting, full-frontal-and-full-backside-exposing airport scanners will be gone, the Transportation Security Administration announced today. The reason: Rapiscan, their maker, can't meet the software requirements to block the naked view of travelers for a more generic one.

David Kravets at Wired Blog writes of another potential (and potentially more ominous) reason for the ban—falsifying test data:

The announcement comes three months after Rapiscan came under suspicion for possibly manipulating tests on the privacy software designed to prevent the machines from producing graphic body images.

The European Union has already banned backscatter X-ray scanners over health concerns... worries that most X-rays are received by one of our more supersensitive organs: our skin. I wrote about that here and here.

TSA removed 76 of the X-ray scanners from busier airports last year and will dump the remaining 174 by June, reports Bloomberg. Although all those porno scanners are destined for government agencies across the country. Sorry, federal employees. 

Meanwhile in US airports TSA will continue to deploy the (presumably safer) millimeter wave technology scanners made by L-3 Communications, which has mastered generic-outline imaging. 

Personally, I'm just glad I won't have to get to the airport extra early anymore to make the extra long wait for an extra special pat down.

The 9/11 Trials Could Drag on for Years

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 3:37 PM EST
A detainee at Gitmo tosses a soccer ball.

The Defense Department on Friday refused prosecutors' request to drop conspiracy from the list of charges facing 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-defendents, a decision that could drag the entire process out for years. 

Prosecutors at Guantanamo Bay wanted to drop the conspiracy charges because there's a good chance those charges will be thrown out if the 9/11 defendants are convicted and appeal. Last October, a federal appeals court overturned the conviction of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former limo driver, who had been the first Gitmo detainee to be tried and convicted by military commission. The opinion, written by a conservative judge appointed by George W. Bush, strongly suggested that charging terror suspects with conspiracy in military commissions is unconstitutional if the conspiracy occurred before Congress made conspiracy a war crime. The Constitution forbids ex post facto (after the fact) prosecutions—that is, trying people for acts that were not crimes when they were committed. The laws governing military commissions trials were passed after the 9/11 attacks. "The Court of Appeals had it absolutely right that military commissions cannot try defendants for conduct that is not a war crime," says ACLU attorney Zachary Katznelson. 

The Department of Defense released a statement Thursday saying that "dismissal at this time would be premature, as the viability of conspiracy as a chargeable offense in trials by military commission is still pending appellate review." That's true, but if the appeals court decision survives, and the 9/11 defendants are convicted anyway, they could easily appeal the verdict, even possibly securing a new trial, explains Andrea Prasow, a former defense counsel for Hamdan now with Human Rights Watch. "That would mean many more years of litigation," she says. "The victims of 9/11 have already waited more than 11 years for justice—they shouldn't have to wait another decade to achieve some finality."

None of this would have been a problem if the alleged 9/11 conspirators had been tried in civilian court, where there's no dispute over the legitimacy of conspiracy charges in terrorism cases.

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 January 2013

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 2:53 PM EST

This week's set decoration idea comes from my sister (aka Inkblot's Aunt, in comments). Get a box, she said, put a quilt in the box, and then put the cat in the box. Or, better yet, just wait for the cat to hop into the box on her own. After all, a cat in a box is a timeless theme of catblogging, no?

We did this outdoors because our recent cold snap turned into a warm spell this week, so Domino was already outside sunning herself when I hauled out my camera. Besides, the light is better. This week features a second iteration of the Yellow Brick Road quilt design, which you can compare to last week's version here. It's machine pieced and machine quilted.