This week, we will focus on positive contributions that people are making to combat the extinction of frogs worldwide:

- In Panama, American and Canadian ex-pats are working to save the golden frog (pictured above).

- At Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, and Plymouth University in England, professors are learning about why tadpoles have been turning into deformed frogs at incredibly alarming rates.

- Inmates in Washington state are making the most of their sentences by breeding frog species that have rapidly declined in recent years. Check out the video below for an amazing related story:

 

On a sidenote, today I entered the Save The Frogs poetry competition (deadline at midnight tonight) by submitting the following entry:

I entered the swamp, in search of a frog
His name was Mudraker, he hailed from Prague
Though he spoke Czech, his issues were global
Rapid decline, much worse than Chernobyl.

Mudraker came to the US of A
But non-native bull-frogs, scared him away
He battled pesticides throughout the year
Habitat destroyed, he remained austere.

His friends, victims in a deadly abyss,
finished from chytridiomycosis
Don't surf the net or drive Mitsubishis,
Now's our last chance to save these species.

You may have seen this photo, highlighted today by Fox News:

You should note that photos can lie, and this one does. It was debunked yesterday by (gasp!) Fox News: 

And yet the network continues to imply that the photo is an accurate portrayal of reality. Shocking, I know. Does Fox not watch its own programming?

(via MediaMatters)

Healthcare Weirdness

Ezra Klein says he's "baffled" by Michael Kinsley's column on healthcare reform in the Post today.  He's being way too kind.  I read it last night and Kinsley's column isn't even coherent.

Do we need a root-and-branch reform of healthcare in America?  "The answer is probably yes," Kinsley affirms.  But then, without warning, he pulls a high-speed U-turn out of his hip pocket and declares that we shouldn't bother right now regardless.  Why?  Because healthcare reform gets its urgency "merely from [its] association with truly urgent measures like the stimulus package." Because it will cost $100 billion per year or so and it really ought to be free.  Because it will be politically difficult.

Huh?  Healthcare reform was viewed as urgent long before the banking crisis.  Its cost is no surprise at all.  And everyone knew it would be politically difficult from the get go.  None of this is news and none of it makes any sense.

And what makes even less sense is the "low hanging fruit" that Kinsley suggests we implement in place of broad change: malpractice reform, electronic recordkeeping, and comparative effectiveness research.  That's not low hanging fruit.  It's low hanging gnats.  They're all good ideas, but they'd have only a tiny impact on costs and essentially no impact at all on broadening coverage.  It's like telling GM to spend more time designing prettier hubcaps.  Very strange.

Good Stories Gone Bad

On Thursday USA Today published a piece saying that February's stimulus money has "gone overwhelmingly to places that supported President Obama in last year's presidential election."  Matt Yglesias comments:

The insinuation of the piece is that the stimulus bill’s funding streams are being artfully manipulated or something to disproportionately direct resources toward Obama-loving constituencies....[But] the secret to the riddle seems to be that areas that benefit from federal spending formulae tend to support the Democrats. Not as a result of short-term fluctuations in voting patterns or federal spending levels, but as a structural element of American politics.

Actually, that's not quite right.  It's weirder than that.  I just got around to reading the piece, and aside from the factual statement in the lead, it doesn't insinuate that the money is being unfairly distributed.  In fact, every single paragraph after the lead quotes people saying that there's nothing dubious going on and the money is just being distributed by formula.  The piece doesn't quote a single person, not even Sarah Palin, suggesting that there's any monkey business going on here.

But if there's no hanky panky, why bother publishing the story in the first place?  My guess: it's the old problem of reporters not being willing to spike a story when it doesn't pan out.  Brad Heath spent a bunch of time analyzing stimulus spending, but when everyone he called told him there was nothing amiss he just hated the idea of spending all that time and not getting anything out of it.  So he wrote it up anyway, ending up with a nonsensical piece that basically rebuts its own reason for existing.  Dumb.

Breath Tests Take a Hit

The California Supreme Court has decided to make drunk driving convictions even harder to get than they are now:

Alcohol levels in a breath sample are converted mathematically to derive a blood-alcohol percentage....The standard formula for converting breath results to blood-alcohol levels is not accurate for everyone, however, and can vary depending on an individual's medical condition, gender, temperature, the atmospheric pressure and the precision of the measuring device, the court said.

"The question is whether a defendant who has a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08% or more measured by breath is entitled to rebut that presumption that he was under the influence" in certain cases, Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote. The court's answer was yes.

....San Bernardino County Deputy Dist. Atty. Mark A. Vos, who prosecuted the case before the court, said the ruling was "going to make DUI trials a little more difficult to put on" because more technical evidence will be permitted. The numbers are going to be flying back and forth in DUI trials, so prosecutors are going to have to adapt," Vos said.

I guess things have changed.  This kind of evidence was presented ten or fifteen years ago in the DUI case I sat on, but I suppose it must have been outlawed at some point since then.  This court ruling (PDF) makes it admissible yet again.

(Ah, I see: this AP story says the Supreme Court barred drivers from attacking the variability of breath tests in a 1994 case.  I think my case was a year or two before that.)

As a legal matter, this might be the right ruling.  I don't know — but the decision was unanimous, which suggests there was little controversy about it.  As a practical matter, though, it's a pain in the ass.  In the trial I sat on, the defense attorney played up this stuff for all it was worth, essentially trying to convince the jury that breathalyzer tests were so variable as to be completely useless.  And it almost worked.  Most of the jury was initially willing to let our guy walk because they were so confused by all the testimony that they figured there just had to be reasonable doubt.  It basically turned the case into a circus — and one that, needless to say, can only be played by wealthy defendents who can afford fancy lawyers.

I was disgusted by the whole thing.  If there's a very specific reason to think a particular breath test is wrong — equipment malfunction, relevant medical condition, etc. — then I wouldn't mind this kind of testimony.  But just as a general catchall to allow defense attorneys to throw mud on the wall and confuse people?  No thanks.

Attention has shifted to Afghanistan, but the results of the (yes, still ongoing) American presence in Iraq continue to reveal themselves. Among them is a report (PDF) released Thursday by UNESCO, alleging that American soldiers and private contractors sullied one of the world's richest archeological sites after the 2003 invasion. The site has long suffered from plunderers and mismanagement, but the American operation seems to have only worsened things. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, became the location for "Camp Alpha." The impact of thousands of soldiers and their heavy equipment on the historic site caused "a considerable amount of damage," said the British Museum's John Curtis, after the report was released to the press in Paris.  

From the AP:

American troops and contractors, notably from KBR — then a Halliburton subsidiary — dug trenches several hundred yards (meters) long through the ruins, bulldozed hilltops, and drove heavy military vehicles over the fragile paving of once-sacred procession paths, according to a report presented Thursday at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris...

UNESCO officials stressed that the damage didn't begin with the U.S. military or fully end after it left. Many of Babylon's most famous artifacts were ripped off walls by European archaeologists during the 19th century and remain on display at the Louvre and Pergamon Museums in Paris and Berlin.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein also restored or distorted some of the ruins so badly that it prevented UNESCO from listing Babylon as a World Heritage site in the past, UNESCO officials said.

Looting and black-market trading has continued on a large scale since the site was handed back to Iraqis, they added.

The scale of the damage means it is too early to assess how much money will be needed to restore and fully protect the site, said Curtis and the other experts who prepared the UNESCO report, which caps five years of investigation and multiple findings by Iraqi and international academics.

 

 

 

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Matthew Martin, commander, Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, talks with a villager during an operation in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, July 3, 2009. The Marines are part of the ground combat element of Regimental Combat Team 3, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Pete Thibodeau/Released.)

Just in case you missed these health, environment, and science stories from our other blogs:

Torture couture: Class up your t-shirt collection with these fine garments.

Political science: What percentage of scientists identify as Republican? A new Pew survey has the un-shocking answer.

Dr. Evil: Who best to fix healthcare? Why a fraudulent former hospital exec, of course.

Six characters in search of the drug war: How backward policies and forward-thinking traffickers got us to this point.

Let the circle be broken: Carbon-related positive feedback loops caused a horrendous drought in the Amazon in 2005. Just another joy of climate change.

Worry while you work: Mandatory furloughs, wage freezes, and benefit cuts are just some of the recession-related bummers keeping American employees up at night.

Photo of the day: Iraqi soldiers learn to use a terrain board to plan missions.

 

Flu Mutating

Barack Obama warned today of a resurgence of flu this autumn. But it's summer in the northern hemisphere. Hard to fret in warm weather. Right?

Well here are some developments worth the worry, summed up by New Scientist.

In June, more than 98 percent of genotyped flu cases in the US were caused by the pandemic swine flu—which is to be expected, since seasonal flus tend to die out in summer.

But the same high percentages of pandemic flu are appearing in the southern hemisphere, where swine flu, A(H1N1), is replacing the seasonal flu.

In the Australian state of Victoria, swine flu now accounts for 99 percent of all flu cases, with similar numbers from South America. The seasonal vaccine is proving useless.

The pandemics of 1918, 1957, and 1968 also completely replaced their seasonal flus.

Yet many drug companies are still laboring to produce seasonal flu vaccines for use later this year for the northern hemisphere—when they might well prove useless.

It's also possible that three viruses will be circulating later this year: the milder H1N1, plus H3N2, plus the swine flu A(H1N1). In this complicated scenario, seasonal and pandemic vaccines would be needed with people in different age groups requiring vaccines based on their exposure to past flus.

During previous pandemics, the pandemic virus mutated and its effects worsened. Some ominous signs are emerging now with swine flu, including a mutation to the virus's polymerase enzyme that allows it to replicate more efficiently. This mutation appeared in Shanghai and could make the virus more contagious or more virulent or both.

Three cases of resistance to the main antiviral drug Tamiflu were discovered last week in Denmark, Japan, and Hong Kong—including one in a girl who had never taken the drug. This suggests that Tamiflu-resistant swine flu might already be circulating.

Plus the news from Germany today that swine flu is capable of spreading from people to pigs and then rapidly between pigs. This was an experimental exposure in Germany. But if swine flu really does get loose in the ghastly world of pig farms, there's a risk of the virus mixing with other strains to create a real flu monster.


The German researchers were heartened the virus did not spread to five chickens housed with the pigs. That's the worst case scenario: a swine-avian flu hybrid. The H2N3 seasonal flu currently circulating has the ability to bridge that gap since it's composed of swine and avian flu genes dating back to the 1957 pandemic.

Enjoy smmer. Winter's going to get interesting.
 

My favorite Kevin Drum graf today:

According to a recent Pew survey, 55 percent of scientists are Democrats and only 6 percent are Republicans. This is good news for everyone. Democrats now have quantitative backup for their sneers about Republicans being anti-science. Likewise, Republicans now have quantitative backup for their sneers about scientists just being a bunch of liberal shills who aren't to be trusted on questions like climate change and evolution. We all win!

Plus, four stories for your Thursday MoJo Mix.

1) Where in the World is the FTC? MoJo finds them briefing corporate lawyers in Aruba and Cancun.

2) How many Time journalists does it take to change Sarah Palin's defensive pull-out story into a coherent "just the frontier spirit we need for national office" narrative? (A: Five, at David Corn's last count.)

3) From the "Really, This Kind of Racist %)@* Still Happens?" file: A private Philly swim club booted an inner city day camp after members refused to swim with black kids. Stay classy, Philly.

4) Welcome to the High Sierras, where the woods are lovely, dark, and...full of gun-toting narcofarmers. Still up for a weekend hike?

Laura McClure hosts podcasts, writes the MoJo Mix, and is the new media editor at Mother Jones. Read her investigative feature on lifehacking gurus in the latest issue of Mother Jones.