First, check out this vivid simulation of the ugly synergy between population growth and C02 emissions. It's called Breathing Earth and it simulates realtime births outpacing deaths as carbon dioxide emissions spew at ~1,000-tons a second.

Too bad we can't turn Breathing Earth into the default screensaver on all new computers. Maybe: from screensaver to worldsaver.

Another interesting simulation, this one published in an upcoming PNAS, describes how Earth's 1-billion-year lifespan can be more than doubled by adjusting atmospheric pressure.

[Simply put: the only reason we can't breath easily atop Mount Everest is not because there's less oxygen in the air. In fact there's the same amount of oxygen at 29,000 feet as there is as at sea level. What's different is a greatly reduced atmospheric pressure that causes oxygen molecules to be dispersed over a much greater volume of space.]

Well, about a billion years from now, believe it or not, greenhouse Earth will fail. Ever-increasing radiation from our aging sun will heat Earth to the point where atmospheric C02—the kickstarter for plants that turn inorganic sunlight into organic life—will have been pulled out of the air by weathering rocks. Oceans will evaporate. The atmosphere will burn away. All life will disappear.

But Caltech researchers propose a solution: Reduce the total pressure of the atmosphere itself by removing massive amounts of molecular nitrogen.

Nitrogen is the mostly nonreactive gas comprising 78 percent of the atmosphere. Removing a bunch of it would regulate surface temperatures and allow C02 to stay alive in the atmosphere and support life for an additional 1.3 billion years.

Strikingly, no external influence [read: intelligent life or intelligent design] is necessary to remove N. The biosphere will accomplish this task all by itself—since nitrogen is incorporated into the cells of living organisms and is sequestered with them when they die.

In fact this reduction may already be underway. Earth's atmospheric pressure may be lower now than it was earlier in the planet's history. To assess this, some researchers are examining gas bubbles formed in ancient lavas to determine past atmospheric pressure.


"Law enforcement's challenge every day is to balance the civil liberties of US citizens against the need to investigate activities that might lead to criminal conduct," Joseph Persichini, Jr. of the FBI said yesterday. He was struggling to explain why, despite 88-year-old James Von Brunn's website full of hate speech, his criminal record, and numerous other warning signs, the FBI wasn't actively investigating him when he mowed down a security guard at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday.

But consider the case of Syed Haris Ahmed, a 24-year-old Georgia Tech student who was found guilty of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists on Wednesday. His crime bears a lot of resemblance to the stuff that Von Brunn had been getting away with for years: He wrote emails and chatted online about engaging in violence. In his case, it was jihad. (For the record, evidence against Ahmed also included amateurish "casing videos" of Washington landmarks.)

US Attorney David Nahmias openly admitted that Ahmed’s case did not involve an imminent threat or act of violence. “We will not wait to disrupt terrorism-related activity until a bomb is built and ready to explode,” he explained. “The fuse that leads to an explosion of violence may be long, but once it is lit...we will prosecute them to snuff that fuse out." Ahmed is now facing 15 years in prison. He's already spent the last three in solitary confinement at Atlanta's US Penitentiary.

It makes you wonder if law enforcement applies a different standard to different kinds of terrorists. And if they think some terrorists' civil liberties are more sacred than others'. One thing is certain: They shouldn't, because if we've learned anything in the past few weeks from James Von Brunn and Scott P. Roeder, it's that old white men can do a lot more damage than young Muslim ones.

You may have missed it, but Robert Gibbs is a funny dude. Behold our list of top five funniest moments in the Gibbs press room (and see the videos, too).

Everybody is green today.  On the left, the mighty hunter Inkblot is in search of his prey: a blade of grass or two to munch on — which he will eventually barf up.  On the right, the mighty snoozer Domino has burrowed her way under a quilt and is wondering why she's being disturbed in her hidey-hole.

In other feline news, Scientific American examines the evolution of the housecat and concludes that it's all about the food bowl.  They love us because we feed them.  Needless to say, this is not exactly breaking news, especially for those of us who open cans of cat food each night and are exposed to such piteous cries that you'd think we had been keeping our furballs in kitty concentration camps all day until dinner was served.  Luckily, they make up for this mercenary attitude by being really cute, which is clearly their comparative advantage.  Otherwise they'd never have lasted.

Kevin Drum responds to my earlier post on Obama's refusal to release more photos of detainee abuse:

We already have plenty of images of detainee abuse, and what we're fighting over here is more images, not videotape.  It's genuinely not clear that releasing yet more images will really accomplish anything.

If a court orders the photos released, they should be released even if they do end up causing some harm.  Still, I think it's worth at least acknowleding the fact that releasing the photos is likely to do some damage and isn't likely to tell us anything we don't already know.  It's really not a great combination.

Kevin's right that we're trying to get more images, and he's right that releasing the photos is likely to cause more damage. But I think there is a good chance that the new photos will show us something we haven't seen much of before: visual evidence of abuse in places other than Abu Ghraib. Even if they don't, I can see several things releasing the photos might accomplish. 

Many people still deny that torture and abuse of detainees even took place. (See, for example, Marc Thiessen's debate with Michael Ware on CNN earlier this week.) More evidence won't convince those people, of course, but it will help build a volume of evidence to present to them and others. It will demonstrate that we acknowlege our mistakes, rather than trying to cover them up. In addition, we know from the CIA videotape debacle that any evidence left unreleased is vulnerable to destruction. Releasing the photos would prevent that from happening again. We can't just sit around and hope the photos get released sometime down the line—there really is a chance they may be destroyed. That is especially true if any photos still exist that show people committing crimes, such as rape of detainees, that no one was ever prosecuted for. Releasing the photos is the only way to know whether more people should have been prosecuted for detainee abuse than actually were prosecuted for it.

The broader point, though, is that I shouldn't have to defend releasing the photos. In a society that supposedly values transparency and freedom of information, the burden of proof should be on those who want to conceal information about what the government does. One of the great ironies of Obama's position on the photos is that he issued a memo earlier this year encouraging agencies to release any FOIA'd information they were not legally compelled to withhold. (As opposed to the Bush-era presumption that you should withhold almost everything unless you were legally forced to release it.) In his memo, Obama inadvertently makes a great case for making the photos public:

The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," Obama said in the FOIA memo, adding later that "In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

It's almost as if all that was bullshit.

Detainee Photo Update

In a conference committee meeting yesterday, House negotiators held firm on their insistence that an upcoming war spending bill not include a Senate amendment that retroactively exempts detainee abuse photos from disclosure under FOIA.  Senate negotiators then dithered a bit, finally backing down only after Barack Obama promised to "take every legal and administrative remedy available" to ensure the photos are not released.  The photos, Obama said, wouldn't add "any additional benefit to our understanding of what happened in the past and the most direct consequence of releasing them would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

Nick Baumann isn't impressed:

Obama's argument against releasing the photos is total poppycock. It should be totally non-controversial that additional photos will add to our understanding of what happened in the past. There's a reason the CIA destroyed the interrogation video tapes: images convey a different kind of truth than words do. It's one thing to read that Americans abused detainees, not just in Abu Ghraib, but throughout the world, encouraged by the highest levels of government. It's another thing entirely to see the photographic evidence of that abuse. The second part of the White House's argument is equally silly, because it can be extended ad infinitum. Are we supposed to keep secret anything that makes the US look bad? If Obama does decide to pull a Cheney and classify the photos as secret, he better get ready for a long slide down a slippery slope. What happens the next time there's something that embarasses the US and might inflame opinion against Americans? Will he classify that, too?

I agree entirely with Nick's second point, but not with his first.  It's true that images are different from words and videotape is different from images.  But we already have plenty of images of detainee abuse, and what we're fighting over here is more images, not videotape.  It's genuinely not clear that releasing yet more images will really accomplish anything.

That doesn't mean that Obama's position is correct.  Preventing release via legislation or unilateral classification just because you don't like the possible result of a court fight is an appalling precedent to set.  If a court orders the photos released, they should be released even if they do end up causing some harm.  Still, I think it's worth at least acknowleding the fact that releasing the photos is likely to do some damage and isn't likely to tell us anything we don't already know.  It's really not a great combination.

Across the pungent world of waste, a climate debate has been raging. Which is better: turning yard clippings and food scraps into compost, or landfilling them and capturing the methane that they release to produce energy?

Last month, I happened across this question while riding in a muddy pickup across the top of Altamont Landfill, a 30-story hill of garbage run by Waste Management, the nation's largest trash collection outfit. "To me, I think it's good to have more organics in the garbage," operations manager Neil Wise told me. Organic matter in landfills generates methane, a potent and flamable greenhouse gas; Altamont currently captures enough methane to power 8,500 homes.

On the other side of this debate is the City of San Francisco, which this week voted to make composting lawn clippings and food scraps mandatory for every city resident. The nutrient-rich product fertilizes more than 200 Bay Area vineyards. Composting advocates worry that outfitting more landfills with "methane wells," possibly with the aid of carbon offsets created through a climate bill, will detract from those efforts. 

Here's my take: While capturing methane from landfills is certainly worthwhile, evidence suggests that composting is far better. A nine-year study by the Rodale Institute, to be published in the next issue of Compost Science and Utilization, a peer-reviewed journal, found that applying compost to cropland sequestered a staggering 10,802 pounds more carbon dioxide per hectare each year than farming with conventional manure fertilizer. That's more than the yearly emissions of a Chevy Impala. "That's a pretty big deal," says Rodale research director Paul Hepperly, the author of the study. "When you are composting, you are stablizing the carbon" in organic matter.

And though capturing methane at a landfill also reduces greenhouse gasses, it can't match composting's associated benefits. Compared to raw manure, Rodale also found that compost applied to farmland led to a 600 percent reduction in nitrate leaching, which can pollute steams and groundwater, and improved the soil's retention of water by a factor of three. "This relates to looking at things wholistically," Hepperly said, adding that the ultimate goal should be an "agricultural system that invests more in our environment and takes less out of our resources."


Mapping Iran

Over at TPMCafe, Todd Gitlin linked today to a post at the Internet and Democracy Blog mapping out the support for the two main presidential candidates in the Iranian blogosphere.  And since we're all whiling away the time waiting for real news now that the polls have closed, I thought I'd share their colorful results with you.  Basically, Mousavi has support from all over the blogosphere, while Ahmadinejad's support is confined mostly to only the most conservative precincts.  This is presumably good news for Mousavi, as is the high turnout so far, which means that urban voters are probably voting in substantial numbers.

No telling what this means, really, but it's kind of cool.  Enjoy.

Friday Photoblog

The new issue of Dispatches is out! This time around the dense, book-sized magazine takes on Poverty. Um, a broad topic to be sure, but given the mag’s already hardy reputation for taking on massive, country-sized subjects, like "Iraq" and "Russia," "Poverty" is likely to deliver the goods.

In their last issue, Dispatches tackled Russia largely by focusing on Putin. (How can you not?) "On Russia" includes essays on Putin & power (by Mark Franchetti), the country’s push to be an energy superpower (by Andrew Meier) the FSB (by Andrei Soldatov), the Putin Youth movement (by Ilana Ozernoy) and, tied more loosely to Putin (because everything in Russia today is somehow tied to the man), the flourishing of computer hackers and the non-punishment of organized crime.

Of course, being a magazine cofounded by VII founding member Gary Knight, Dispatches always features an ample amount of photography. "On Russia" showcases Seamus Murphy’s “East of the Sun” and wonderful collection of Russian photos from 1860 – 2008, curated by Olga Korsunova, Nadya Sheremetova, and Yuri Kozyrev.

There’s a lot to digest.

As a side note, if you sign up for a subscription to Dispatches before Monday, June 15th (hurry!) you have the chance to win an Antonin Kratochvil print from his project “In God’s Country.”

While you’re over at the Dispatches website, be sure to check out the video of a conversation between Susan Meiselas, Gary Knight and Tim Hetherington on War & Photography. They aren’t just some of the best photographers of our day rehashing old stories, but some of the smartest photographers digging into a highly charged subject.

Also, don’t miss former World Press Photo secretary (and current VII Photo Managing Director) Stephen Mayes’ essay on the state of photojournalism, from last April, but every bit as poignant today, a year later. And while you’re at it, if you have 45 minutes to kill, listen to his exceptionally insightful speech from this year’s World Press Foundation awards ceremony, hosted on the Lens Culture website. The takeaway quote (paraphrased): “90% of photos show only 10% of the world.” His list of done-to-death photo essay subject rings particular true to these ears.

Speaking of World Press Photo, the new annual will be available soon (entrants have received copies), with selections from this year’s winning entries. Always a must-see.

While World Press represents the best of the established, working photojournalism community, Magnum photographer David Allen Harvey’s online-only BURN magazine has created a healthy $10,000 emerging photographer grant. The finalists are on the site now. Winning entry to be announced at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photography in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend.

The LOOK3 festival has emerged as one of the best photo festivals in the US. Wish I were there to give a first-hand account of the going-ons this weekend. I hear that the Luceo Images gang (including Mother Jones contributing photography Matt Eich) is there in force, getting a fair amount of attention.

With workshops by Brian Storm (of MediaStorm), Eugene Richards, David Allan Harvey, Larry Fink and James Nachtwey, exhibits by Martin Parr, Gilles Peress, Paolo Pellegrin, World Press Photo, POYi, Redux’s American Youth project and lots more, saying the LOOK3 festival gives you plenty of bang for your buck would be an understatement. Word is they're taking a hiatus next year, so if you can make it this week, it'll be worth the effort.

Alright, that should hold you till next week's snapshot.

Chart of the Day

Via Andrew Gelman at the Monkey Cage, here's a cool chart showing changes in attitudes toward gay marriage at the state level.  (The original paper is here.)  Andrew says there's all sorts of cool statistical wizardry involved in creating it ("multilevel regression and poststratification"), but the bottom line is not just that attitudes toward gay marriage are becoming more liberal everywhere, but that they're becoming more liberal fastest in the states that were most liberal to begin with.  Andrew is surprised by this ("I generally expect to see uniform swing, or maybe even some 'regression to the mean'") but I don't think I am.  My guess is that there's some kind of positive feedback for these kinds of things, where more liberal attitudes feed on themselves as the resulting change turns out to be fairly obviously benign or even beneficial.  Andrew has a couple of other plausible explanations too.  For now, though, just revel in some cool chartmaking and the good news it conveys.