Blogs

200-Plus New Frogs in Madagascar

| Tue May 5, 2009 8:18 PM EDT

Somewhere between 129 and 221 new species of frogs have been identified in Madagascar—nearly double the known amphibian fauna on the island. The new study suggests that biodiversity in this biodiversity hotspot has been significantly underestimated, even in well-known and well-studied national parks.

"People think we know which plant and animal species live on this planet," says Miguel Vences of the Technical University of Braunschweig, one of the authors. "But the century of discoveries has only just begun—the majority of life forms on Earth is still awaiting scientific recognition."

In the 15 years prior to these findings, researchers had discovered and described over 100 new frog species from Madagascar and believed their species inventory to be nearly complete.

But the new surveys show far more species than suspected. The results come from DNA sequencing of 2,850 specimens of amphibians at 170 sites. The data don't show suggest more individual amphibians living in Madagascar—only more species diversity. Which means the new species are likely fragile and less populous.

The new research also implies that total biodiversity of all species on Madagascar could be higher than previously thought. Therefore the continuing destruction of rainforest in Madagascar may be affecting more species than we know.

Although many reserves and national parks have been created in the past ten years, real protection on the ground is thin. Madagascar has already lost more than 80 percent of its historic rainforest.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that nearly one-quarter of the new species were discovered in unprotected areas.
 

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How Do You Say "Chickens Coming Home To Roost in Japanese"?

| Tue May 5, 2009 7:55 PM EDT

Ah, technology animating the voices, and the sins, of the past.

Huffpo links to a piece on how Google has stirred up Japan's past bigotry (read: forced it to acknowledge it) simply by taking an interest in its history and uploading vintage maps from its past:

The maps date back to the country's feudal era, when shoguns ruled and a strict caste system was in place. At the bottom of the hierarchy were a class called the "burakumin," ethnically identical to other Japanese but forced to live in isolation because they did jobs associated with death, such as working with leather, butchering animals and digging graves.
Castes have long since been abolished, and the old buraku villages have largely faded away or been swallowed by Japan's sprawling metropolises. Today, rights groups say the descendants of burakumin make up about 3 million of the country's 127 million people.
But they still face prejudice, based almost entirely on where they live or their ancestors lived. Moving is little help, because employers or parents of potential spouses can hire agencies to check for buraku ancestry through Japan's elaborate family records, which can span back over a hundred years.
An employee at a large, well-known Japanese company, who works in personnel and has direct knowledge of its hiring practices, said the company actively screens out burakumin job seekers.

 

If These Are "The Best And Brightest" Pray That We Never See "The Worst and Dumbest"

| Tue May 5, 2009 7:53 PM EDT | Scheduled to publish Tue May 5, 2009 7:53 PM EDT

Though it seems impossible, everyday we hear newer and more inane arguments for why the torturing Bushies and economy-busting Wall Streeters shouldn't have to answer all our pesky questions and, you know, live with the consequences of all their besting and brightest-ing.

At Salon, Michael Lind (a former colleague) dispenses quickly with this latest argument, of which he offers the following examples: 

Government service already asks a lot of individuals. It entails sacrifice, pays little, and often violates privacy. Adding risk of prosecution to the mix will make recruiting the best and brightest that much more difficult.

 

Iraqi Militias and a Hideous New Torture for Gays: Say It Aint So!

| Tue May 5, 2009 7:52 PM EDT

 Please, please tell me I'm being punked. Please. From ThinkProgress:

Relying on an International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission translation of a recent Al Arabiya story, the blog Towleroad reports that Iraqi militias have been engaging in some particularly brutal tactics toward gay men in Iraq:

"A prominent Iraqi human rights activist says that Iraqi militia have deployed a painful form of torture against homosexuals by closing their anuses using 'Iranian gum.' ...Yina Mohammad told Alarabiya.net that, 'Iraqi militias have deployed an unprecedented form of torture against homosexuals by using a very strong glue that will close their anus.' According to her, the new substance 'is known as the American hum, which is an Iranian-manufactured glue that if applied to the skin, sticks to it and can only be removed by surgery. After they glue the anuses of homosexuals, they give them a drink that causes diarrhea. Since the anus is closed, the diarrhea causes death. Videos of this form of torture are being distributed on mobile cellphones in Iraq.'"

OK. It's a punkin'. Has to be.

The Alarabiya.net link leads to something or other in Farsi or Arabic (I guess?) which gives the vast majority of us ig'nent 'Mericuns any idea of what's going on.

For once, I'll be ecstatic to learn that I was gullible beyond belief. 'Cuz I just can't believe this shite. But these days, it's hard to calibrate our once-reliable bullshit-o-meters.

 

 

Taxing Carbon

| Tue May 5, 2009 7:19 PM EDT

Should environmentalists concerned about global warming support a quick, simple carbon tax rather than a complicated, long-term cap-and-trade plan?  James Hansen thinks so, but Joe Romm explains the facts of life to him:

1. A carbon tax, particularly one capable of deep emissions reductions quickly, is a political dead end....

2. A carbon tax that could pass Congress would not be simple. Advocates of a tax argue that simplicity is one of its biggest benefits.  Again, those advocates seem bizarrely unfamiliar with the tax code in spite of the fact that they pay taxes every year....

3. A carbon tax is woefully inadequate and incomplete as a climate strategy.  Why?  Well, for one, it doesn’t have mandatory targets and timetables.  Thus it doesn’t guarantee specific emissions results and thus doesn’t guarantee specific climate benefits.  Perhaps more important, it doesn’t allow us to join the other nations of the world in setting science-based targets and timetables.  Also, a tax lacks all of the key complementary measures — many of which are in Waxman-Markey — that are essential to any rational climate policy, but which inherently complicate any comprehensive energy and climate bill.

It's true that in some pure economic sense a tax is a more efficient way of pricing carbon than a cap-and-trade plan.  But that's only if you get exactly the tax you want (you won't) and only if you accept a very specific sense of the word "efficient" (which you shouldn't).  And even if you magically got the simple, efficient tax you wanted, a tax lacks the one critical thing that cap-and-trade provides: a cap.  End of story.  If you want to reduce greenhouse gases, the best way to do it is to cap them.  This is something the public can easily understand.  The trading scheme that comes along with it is, admittedly, complex, but it's only there to allow us to go after the low hanging fruit first and reduce the cost of complying with the cap.  It's the cap itself that's key.

Like Romm, I don't really understand how it is that smart people don't get this.  Politically, cap-and-trade is the only climate plan that has even a remote chance of getting through Congress, it's the only plan that institutes a firm limit on greenhouse gases, and it's the only plan on the table.  Is it really worth giving all that up for the chimera of a tax that has some esoteric technical advantages on a whiteboard, but in the real world can't pass and wouldn't solve the carbon problem even if it did?  It's hard to see why anyone serious about real-world change would buy into this.

Bloggers on the Bus

| Tue May 5, 2009 4:54 PM EDT

If you're interested in the political blogosphere and the netroots in general, Eric Boehlert's Bloggers on the Bus is a great read.  It's built around potted sketches of some of the best known liberal bloggers (Atrios, Digby, Jane Hamsher, John Amato, Arianna Huffington, Glenn Greenwald, and others) and some of the blogosphere's greatest campaign hits during 2008 (the Obama MySpace debacle, the John Hagee meltdown, the Sarah Palin eruption, the great sexism debate), and Boehlert really does a terrific job of diving in and explaining how everything unfolded.  I followed almost all of this stuff pretty obsessively in real time, but I still learned lots of details I'd never heard of before.

It's a very fast, entertaining read, and since it focuses (almost) exclusively on the liberal blogosphere it mostly avoids the sense of triumphalism you might get in a more partisan book.  Which is a good thing since it ends with this:

The bad news for liberal bloggers was that as the Obama campaign unfolded, as his new commuhity-based coalition was being built and celebrated, it became obvious that bloggers were never really invited to the party.  Liberal bloggers simply never became active partners with Obama in the way they had been with the Dean insurgency four years earlier, and the way they had been with scores of Democratic politicians in skirmishes throughout the Bush years.  Why?  Mostly because Obama didn't seem to want the bloggers around.

That's true, isn't it?  For all the hype, the liberal blogosphere in 2008 had its biggest impact in state and local races, just as it did in 2004.  It's true that it was much more successful in pushing stories into the mainstream media than it was four years ago, but in terms of being active in the Obama campaign itself, it wasn't.  And that was primarily a choice made by Obama himself, who apparently felt that the raw partisanship of the blogosphere was something he wanted to keep at arm's length.

There were a couple of things missing from the book that struck me.  The first is specific: the Jeremiah Wright firestorm, which begged to be included in any book about the 2008 campaign, but which Boehlert inexplicably never mentions.  The second is more general: Boehlert does a good job of showing how the blogosphere managed to gain attention for stories that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, but at times his account feels too blinkered.  The mainstream media played a pretty big role in all this too, and even in a book about the blogosphere this deserves a little more attention.  At the very least, there should have been a chapter devoted to the relationship between blogs and the MSM.

But these are nits.  If you're looking for a blog's eye view of Campaign '08, Bloggers on the Bus is a terrifically readable and carefully reported book.  Highly recommended.

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GAO: Cybersecurity Threats 'Growing'

| Tue May 5, 2009 3:44 PM EDT

The Government Accountability Office released a report Tuesday concluding critical federal information systems are "not sufficiently protected to consistently thwart cyber threats," which are "evolving and growing."

According to the GAO, a majority of those threats come in the form of unauthorized access and improper use, from people who fall into several categories: Foreign spies, thieves, hackers, "hacktivists"—people who engage in "politically motivated" attacks on the Web to "send a political message"—terrorists and, "disgruntled insiders."

Reported incidents of attempted and successful security breaches have more than tripled since 2006, to more than 16,000, all while the GAO has, over the last several years, submitted "hundreds of recommendations to [federal] agencies...to fully implement information security programs."

The failure to completely enact those security programs has left 20 "major agencies" with "inadequate information system controls over financial systems," according to the report. The GAO also cited cybersecurity "vulnerabilities" at the Tennessee Valley Authority, which controls more than 50 nuclear, hydroelectric and fossil fuel power plants, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the US's nuclear weapons research sites.

Last month, Senators John Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced a bill that would give the President and the Secretary of Commerce broad powers to shut down internet traffic in the case of a cyber threat. Without such action, Snowe said the US would risk experiencing a "cyber-Katrina." The bill, the Cybersecurity Act of 2009, was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which has yet to vote on it.

Big Pharma Profits from Grandmother's Little Helpers

| Tue May 5, 2009 2:47 PM EDT

The Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report today summarizes two new studies from the journal Health Affairs, documenting the explosion in the use–and cost–of psychotropic drugs over the last decade. One study found that between 1996 and 2006, “prescriptions for mental health medications increased by 73% among U.S. adults and by 50% among children.”  As of 2006, one in 10 U.S. adults takes at least one prescription for this purpose.

I’ve written before about the growth of antidepressant use among the over-65 crowd (myself included), which seems to be the new way to deal with what a drag it is getting old. But the new study also finds dramatic growth in the use of other medications: ”The study found that the number of U.S. seniors receiving psychotropic medications, including dementia and antipsychotic drugs, doubled during that time period.”

This points, in particular, to the increasing treatment of older people with cognitive loss, and any kind of agitated or unruly behavior, as “psychotic.” It’s impossible to know for sure, but I suspect this has something to do with the fact that the drug companies have been pushing their lucrative psychiatric medications on this vulnerable population–the most notorious (and illegal) example being Lilly’s campaign to urge doctors to prescribe the antipsychotic drug Zyprexa for off-label use on elderly patients with dementia.

Unsurprisingly, the second study published in Health Affairs documents a steep rise in spending for mental health care during the same ten-year period–more than 30%, with ”nearly all of the increase caused by psychiatric drug costs.” Big Pharma reaps even more rewards from mental health than from other medical fields: “Drugs accounted for 51% of mental health care costs in 2006, while drugs accounted for 26% of spending for all other health care costs, according to national data.” The Kaiser article makes note of the trend toward ”greater reliance of the use of psychiatric drugs compared with other forms of psychosocial treatments such as therapist visits.”

Defending the Defenders

| Tue May 5, 2009 2:00 PM EDT

From the Washington Post:

Ex-Bush Officials Launch Bid to Soften Interrogation Report

Former Bush administration officials are lobbying behind the scenes to push Justice Department leaders to water down an ethics report criticizing lawyers who blessed harsh detainee interrogation tactics, according to two sources familiar with the efforts.

In recent days, attorneys for the subjects of the ethics probe have encouraged senior Bush administration appointees to write and phone Justice Department officials, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the process is not complete.

Can't say as I blame them, I guess.  But surely they realized that someone at DOJ would rat them out, didn't they?

Civic Order

| Tue May 5, 2009 1:11 PM EDT

David Brooks says that if Republicans had learned the right lessons from watching Westerns, they'd be a little less interested in rugged individualism and a little more interested in community and civic order:

They would begin every day by reminding themselves of the concrete ways people build orderly neighborhoods, and how those neighborhoods bind a nation. They would ask: What threatens Americans’ efforts to build orderly places to raise their kids? The answers would produce an agenda: the disruption caused by a boom and bust economy; the fragility of the American family; the explosion of public and private debt; the wild swings in energy costs; the fraying of the health care system; the segmentation of society and the way the ladders of social mobility seem to be dissolving.

But the Republican Party has mis-learned that history. The party sometimes seems cut off from the concrete relationships of neighborhood life. Republicans are so much the party of individualism and freedom these days that they are no longer the party of community and order. This puts them out of touch with the young, who are exceptionally community-oriented. It gives them nothing to say to the lower middle class, who fear that capitalism has gone haywire. It gives them little to say to the upper middle class, who are interested in the environment and other common concerns.

I think this column suffers from Brooks' usual weakness for extending metaphors beyond their useful life, but his central point is a pretty good one.  The American public is obviously in the mood for a little less cowboy capitalism and a little more stability, and there are both liberal and conservative ways of getting there.  Democrats obviously support the liberal path, and to compete the GOP needs to stop offering up its usual menu of non-answers and instead figure out a conservative way to tell the business community to behave itself, a conservative way to produce more clean energy, and a conservative way to genuinely address everyday healthcare concerns.  It's not impossible, but the true-believer rump of the party wants nothing to do with it — and they're suffering the consequences.  They could do a lot worse than to spend a little less time listening to Rush Limbaugh and a little more time listening to Brooks.