I'm Back

New York City was lovely, thanks for asking.  But imagine my surprise when I came back and discovered that my absence meant twice the usual amount of catblogging last Friday.  That's above and beyond the call of duty from David Corn, who was filling in for me while I was gone.

Needless to say, I really was on vacation.  My catblogging post was written last Tuesday and showed up on Friday via the miracle of prescheduled posting.  Don't believe me?  Here's a nice picture of the Statue of Liberty at sunset to prove that I was in the Apple this weekend.  Still not enough?  I also have some lingering inner ear wobbliness thanks to flying with a cold, which I plan to use as an all-purpose excuse for the rest of the week if I write anything unusually off kilter.

Anyway, this is just a placeholder to let everyone know I've returned safely, full of good deli and Italian food.  Blogging on matters of actual substance will resume Tuesday morning.

Amid an unsettling report today of Tamiflu resistance in a Danish A(H1N1) patient, comes a study in The New England Journal of Medicine tracing the swine flu's 90-year evolution.

The current flu strain has genetic roots in an illness that sickened pigs at a swine show in 1918 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A near-century of development since then may include this flu's accidental resurrection from an extinct strain.

Here's what likely went down. At the same time the 1918 flu pandemic was spreading among humans, pigs were hit with a similar respiratory illness. Early experiments confirmed the 1918 swine virus and a human strain emerged about the same time.

According to the authors of the new paper, there was a temporary "extinction" of this strain of virus from humans in 1957. But then it reemerged 20 years later in a small 230-person outbreak in 1976 among soldiers in Fort Dix, New Jersey. That outbreak did not extend beyond the military base.

However the next year H1N1 reemerged in people in the Soviet Union, Hong Kong, and northeastern China. The genetic origin of that 1977 strain turns out not to be the 1976 Fort Dix strain. Instead, it was closely related to a 1950 human strain.

Which means that given the genetic similarity of the two strains, reemergence was likely due to an accidental release during laboratory studies of the 1950 strain that had been preserved as a "freezer" virus.

Ouch. Hate it when that happens.

The authors hypothesize that concerns about the Fort Dix outbreak stimulated a flurry of research on H1N1 viruses in 1976, which led to an accidental release and reemergence of the previously extinct virus a year later. The reemerged 1977 H1N1 strain has been circulating in various seasonal influenzas ever since—including today's.


Or maybe it wasn't such an accidental a release? Conspiracists, restart your engines.
 

Most people accept that politicians do stupid things in the service of parochial interests and paleolithic ideologies. It's a problem as old as Congress. Yet occasionally a Congressman does something beyond stupid--something that causes thinking people to wonder if this representative has the intelligence or integrity to serve in public office. These moments are like ice sheets splitting off the Arctic Shelf and sliding into the ocean--they're fun to watch and yet totally depressing.

Today's example comes from Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla), who has ordered a Congressional investigation into how the EPA "suppressed" a report that questioned the science behind climate change. Grist notes that the "suppressed" report was written by an economist with no training in climate science, includes no original research, cites old and irreputable references, and was nonetheless accepted, unsolicited, by the EPA's climate scientists for consideration. If the meagreness of the report's policy impact is a scandal, then so is the fact that Joe the Plumber isn't the go-to guy for rewiring your attic.

And yet Inhofe tells Fox News that this EPA economist, Alan Carlin, "came out with the truth" and that "they don't want the truth at the EPA." Inhofe really could be this stupid, or there could be a deeper, more cynical political logic at work. Fox concluded that "the controversy is similar to one under the Bush administration--only the administration was taking the opposite stance." Fox's message to its readers seems to be that the legitimate James Hansen scandal and the phony Alan Carlin "scandal" cancel each other out. It's all just politics.

If you believe that, how do you decipher the truth behind climate change? One way would be to start with what you already think you know and then look for those scientists--or economists posing as scientists--who support that position. Last week Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga) claimed that global warming was a "hoax"--a statement, impossible to back up with more than partisan intuition, that was met with applause on the House floor.  It must have been quite a spectacle: A big chunk of legislators, smaller than in years past but still frozen in their beliefs, taking a jolly plunge into insanity.

 

 

Over at Slate, Richard Hasen claims that the Supreme Court's call for reargument of Citizens United v. FEC is a prelude to the Roberts Court overturning Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the decision that allowed limits on corporate spending in elections.

Some people believe that the influence of money in politics is, in Larry Lessig's words, "not the most important problem, [but] the first problem,"—the problem we have to deal with before we can properly fix any of our other problems, just as an alcoholic needs to fix her alcoholism before she can fix her other, bigger problems. It almost goes without saying that turning a firehose of corporate money towards politicians' campaign coffers would be akin to offering an alcoholic unlimited free drinks.

President Obama joined Secretary of Energy Steven Chu Monday in announcing new regulations designed to cut carbon emissions and energy use with efficient technology, along with $346 million from the stimulus bill for efficiency research.

The regulations specifically target lighting, which the Department of Energy says consumes seven percent of all energy we use. While compact-fluorescent bulbs and incandescent lighting aren't the most inherently exciting subjects, the DOE says the new regs will curb 594 million tons of CO2 and eliminate the need for 14 coal-fired power plants—over the next 30 years.

While 594 million tons is a huge chunk of carbon, over the next thirty years it will equate to less than one half of one percent of our total carbon footprint. Americans regularly emit around 15.6 trillion pounds—about 78 billion tons—of carbon every year. In other words, the energy department's plan is a step in the right direction, but it's a minuscule one.

The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade energy bill passed the House of Representatives 219-212 on Friday. OpenSecrets notes that the legislators who voted against the bill received, on average, twice as much money from the energy sector than those who voted for it. Just another day on the Hill.

Kevin is still gone. He'll return tomorrow. Until then, you have me.

Today, Iran's Guardian Council, after a partial recount (that was fast!), declared that--stop the presses!--Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidential election. Some Iranians not happy with this decision wanted to express their outrage. But, it seems, there were no organized protests. A contact in Tehran, who opposes the government, emailed me this note:

We went to Valiasr Street, but at this part it was just plain-clothes [security officers] and police. People couldn't stop and we came back home. Valiasr Street is about 12 miles, longest street of Tehran and Iran. People say in north of Valiasr Street, people gathered but police tried to disperse crowed using tear gas. Today many people in the street were showing V with their fingers to each other. I think hope for change spreads among the people.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm at the Personal Democracy Forum conference today. And as I got the above email, I was speaking to John Kelly, chief scientist of Morningside Analytics. He has studied Internet usage in Iran. Kelly was telling me that he's worried that social netowrking could interfere with successful organizing in Iran. How so? After all, such a remark sounded like blasphemy at this gathering, where speakers and attendees routinely speak of the transformative political power of the Internet.

Kelly explained that his concern was not related to a prospect that had been discussed at a panel discussion on social networks and Iran: that a repressive government can easily penetrate and/or block social networks to undermine or disrupt an opposition. Instead, Kelly said, he wondered if social networking--blogging, Twittering, forwarding email--gives people the feeling they are participating in an opposition and leads them to believe they don't have to hit the streets.

Of course, Twitter and the rest can facilliate opposition by spreading the word about protest actions. But does social networking also undercut old-fashioned in-the-street networking? (It seems clear that autocratic governments tend not to yield power without being confronted physically and, often, violently.) I don't know if Kelly is right or not. But it was interesting to hear him note that the sword of Twitter might have two edges.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

UPDATE: The White House shot down the Time magazine report noted below that President Barack Obama and Michelle have picked the chapel at Camp David as the church for their family. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "There have been no formal decisions about joining a church."

Washington has been buzzing for months about where the Obama family will finally lay down some local church roots. Various congregations have been quietly lobbying, but it looks like the president is going to follow in his predecessor's footsteps and make Camp David's Evergreen Church his spiritual home, Time reports today. No doubt DC's black churches are crushed, but Evergreen apparently offered the Obamas a modicum of privacy that the city churches did not. But Evergreen also has another major draw: It's current chaplain is none other than Lt. Carey Cash, the great-nephew of the late, great music star Johnny Cash.

As Time's Amy Sullivan notes, Obama couldn't get much farther from his former controversial minister Jeremiah Wright than he could with Cash. The younger Cash, 38, did a tour of Iraq with a Marine battalion and, like his famous uncle, is a southern Baptist. (Evergreen, though, is a nondenominational church that caters to Camp David's military personnel.) The Navy rotates chaplains through the church every three years, so Cash's arrival in January was just a coincidence. But if he has any of his uncle's charisma, the Obamas are no doubt in for a treat. Johnny Cash was a gospel singer at heart and was considered something of a preacher himself, after all. He was even close to religious icon Billy Graham, who once made a cameo appearance in one Cash's songs. "The Preacher Said "Jesus Said'" anyone?

F-22 Headed for Veto Smackdown?

The Senate Armed Services Committee has approved more funding for the F-22 fighter jet, setting Congress on a collision course with the White House—which, as I reported last week, has threatened to issue its first veto if the F-22 money remains in the legislation that reaches Obama's desk. Both the committee's chairman (Carl Levin) and its ranking Republican (John McCain) opposed buying more planes, but were overruled in a 13-11 vote. 

The Senate did, to its credit, hold the line on Defense Secretary Robert Gates' proposed cuts to the missile defense program, although at $1.2 billion these were one of the smaller reductions on the table. (Missile defense boosters will likely offer amendments to restore the money.) But the F-22 addition is particularly bad, for two reasons. First, while the House squeezed $369 million into the defense authorization bill just to keep the production line open, Senate Armed Services has expanded the defense budget by $1.75 billion. This is ostensibly enough to fund more seven planes in full, although in reality they cost far more. And second, it's become apparent that the few backers of the Gates budget in Congress don't have a whole lot of leverage. Barney Frank failed to get an amendment removing F-22 funds to the House floor. And if McCain and Levin couldn't convince a couple more colleagues on Armed Services to nix the F-22, their chances of winning over the full Senate (where there are already 44 known fans of the plane) seem pretty bleak. 

You probably hate your cell phone service provider. Most of us do. They do things like require us to buy their plans if we want a specific phone; massively overcharge us for text messages, which cost almost nothing for them to provide; and make us buy a new charger every time we want a new phone. If you're wondering exactly how badly you're being screwed, you might be interested in this report (PDF) from Consumers Union and five other non-profits that are arguing for stricter regulation of telecom companies. You may also be interested to know that the people who live in the socialist dystopia called the European Union no longer have the cell phone charger problem. In that regulation-devastated hellscape, the telecom commissioner is pushing for per-second billing, regulators are working to lower roaming fees, and telecoms have agreed to make a universal charger that will work with all phones. Meanwhile, here in the good old US of A, most people pay over $500/year for cell phone coverage—"much more than users in most other developed nations," according to Consumers Union.

The text messaging situation is especially ridiculous. The money quote from the nonprofits' report:

[C]onsidering how little data is transferred in an SMS message, at 20 cents per message, consumers pay the equivalent of almost $1,500 per megabyte of data transferred, a rate over seventeen times more expensive than receiving data from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Behold the wonders of the unfettered free market!