News on health, nature, climate, and the environment from our blogs and other sites.

Lies of August: One reporter is getting fed up with healthcare misinformation.

Grumble Down Under: Pacific island nations are demanding climate control. [ENS]

Slimming Down: Kevin Drum's feline friends are losing weight and looking good.

Earthly Manipulation: Scientists debate artifically manipulating the climate to counteract global warming. [Nature]

Ex Ex-Gay: The APA goes on record repudiating gay-to-straight conversion therapy.

Under the Counter: A backroom deal might allow drug manufacturers pricing control.

 

Gavin Castleton
Home
Five One Inc.

You’ve heard this story before: Boy meets Girl. Boy and Girl fall in love. They hit a rough patch, work it out, and love overcomes, happily ever after. Now, try out this twist: Boy meets Girl. They fall in love. Things get rough. And then zombies show up. That's the idea behind this epic 14-song album on micro-label Five One Inc. After parting ways with his longtime girlfriend, Providence, R.I.-based Castleton wanted to chronicle the breakup's effect on his life. Home is a lush, musically diverse endeavor, recorded on a shoestring but so rich in its production it's hard to believe it's not coming from major-label resources.

The songs cover a wide variety of styles and emotions, but together craft a twisted Joss Whedon-like musical storyline. It's an album that demands to be listened to as a whole, not merely as a collection of disjointed songs. I prefer the second half (the zombies show up six songs in as a metaphor for the buried baggage that is slowly tearing the couple's love affair to shreds.) That’s not to say the first half of the record doesn’t have its stellar moments; the groove that emerges four minutes and twenty seconds into “Stampete” is irresistible. Some lyrical moments were lost on me, relationship details that left me scratching my head. I let those slide in anticipation of the zombie ordeal. I caught myself holding my breath the first time I listened to “Unparallel Rabbits,” so caught up was I in the tale unfolding through my headphones.

[Read Monday's liveblogging here.]

No one has ever accused the military of being a bunch of treehuggers—but that doesn't mean they're blind to the military and strategic implications of global warming.

"We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today," said retired General Anthony Zinni in a New York Times article yesterday, "...or we will pay the price later in human terms."

The article by NYT writer John Broder is particularly well-timed.

Tomorrow, former Commander-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, will address a "National Clean Energy Summit" in Las Vegas. While the theme of this year's summit (the first was held last year) focuses on jobs, the Times article dovetails perfectly with the larger context of the gathering: the dawning reality that no area of human activity will be untouched by a changing climate. From jobs to wars, the facts are the same.

Studies by military and intelligence analysts warn of "profound strategic challenges" to the US due to the affects of climate change, reports Broder. The climate-induced crises include famine, water wars, mass migration, epidemics and massive storms.

While the military is not an environmental organization -- think Agent Orange or nuclear testing in the Pacific -- their view is and always has been utilitarian and mission-driven. Sometimes, environmental and military needs coincide. That's the case now with global warming -- just as it was in 1817 with a different issue.

You needed wood to build and maintain a fleet in the 19th Century and so the Secretary of the Navy reserved large swaths of hardwood forests on the east coast. Deforestation was halted (for a time) for national security reasons.

Maybe someone should print a bumper sticker (if one doesn't already exist): Support the troops. Fight global warming.

Check back here tomorrow when I'll be live blogging the summit.

The first session begins at 10 AM (1 PM on the east coast) with opening remarks by Al Gore, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Podesta (the Center for American Progress is a host of the event) and other heavy-hitters. Should be interesting. You can check out the agenda yourself, here.

Osha Gray Davidson edits The Phoenix Sun and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here.

 

James Fallows on the healthcare "debate":

Nearly fifteen years ago, after the collapse of the Clinton health-reform effort, I spent a lot of time working on an Atlantic article (and subsequent book chapter) about how, exactly, the discussion of the bill had become so unmoored from reality and finally determined by slogans, stereotypes, and flat-out lies.

It's better to do that after the fact than not to do it at all....But if there's a chance, it would obviously be better still to keep the current debate from ending up in the same intellectual/political swamp in which the previous one drowned.

By all means, let's document it now, in real time.  Let's start with the "Dems want to kill granny" meme.  Its starting point is clear, I think: July 16, 2009, when Betsy McCaughey went on Fred Thompson's radio show and said, "Congress would make it mandatory — absolutely require — that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner....All to do what's in society's best interest or in your family's best interest and cut your life short."

From there it entered chain email hell and took on a life of its own.  But when did it hit the mainstream and become an acceptable topic of soberminded, bien-pensant he-said/she-said journalism?  I'd date that to August 8, 2009, when Charles Lane wrote in the Washington Post that although the right-wing agit-prop is "rubbish" — nicely establishing his non-wacko credentials — he's pained to say that after a careful reading of the House healthcare bill, supporters of Section 1233 might have some 'splainin to do after all:

I think they protest too much: If it's all about obviating suffering, emotional or physical, what's it doing in a measure to "bend the curve" on health-care costs?....Indeed, the measure would have an interested party — the government — recruit doctors to sell the elderly on living wills, hospice care and their associated providers, professions and organizations. You don't have to be a right-wing wacko to question that approach.

Indeed not!  Not anymore, anyway. Tout Washington now has license to talk earnestly about this as if it were actually a sensible topic of conversation.  Thanks, Charles!

Dogs may be smarter than most people think they are, according to the findings of a Canadian researcher. But when it comes to knowing that they're getting shafted, they are just as dumb as a lot of politicians--and the voters who support them.

The web site LiveScience yesterday reported on recent studies conducted by Stanley Coren, an academic from British Columbia who has done extensive research on canine intelligence. Coren says that the average dog compares favorably with a human two-year-old in language abilities; smarter breeds, like my Border collie, rate with kids six months older, and can understand about 250 words. Dogs fare even better in math, showing abilities similar to a four-year-old. And in terms of social development, they are more comparable to human teens, Coren says, "interested in who is moving up in the pack and who is sleeping with who and that sort of thing." (This may or may not be a compliment to dogs, depending on what you think of teenagers).

Coren also studied the responses of dogs on some issues that might be seen to have political implications:

While dogs know whether they’re being treated fairly, they don’t grasp the concept of equity. Coren recalls a study in which dogs get a treat for “giving a paw.”

When one dog gets a treat and the other doesn’t, the unrewarded dog stops performing the trick and avoids making eye contact with the trainer. But if one dog, say, gets rewarded with a juicy steak while the other snags a measly piece of bread, on average the dogs don’t care about the inequality of the treats.

If that’s the criteria, it appears that dogs suffer from the same intellectual shortcomings as some adult humans. Why else would so many working-class and middle-class people vote for politicians who oppose tax hikes for the rich? Why else would they stick up for a health care system that screws them over, leaving them with crumbs while the wealthy and the insurance and drug companies keep their jaws around the juicy steak?

In this area, at least, canine intelligence seems to be about on par with that of most Republicans--and quite a few Democrats, too. (Again, you may or may not think this is a compliment to dogs. I know what I think.)

My dog Jenny: Smarter than Max Baucus?

My dog Jenny: Smarter than Max Baucus?

 

Howl

After several weeks spent ginning up ferocious opposition to healthcare reform, culminating in a relentless and coordinated effort to incite howling mobs to shut down town hall meetings across the country, I would like to congratulate the conservative movement for their ingenious strategy of blaming the whole thing on "SEIU thugs."  Seriously.  It's brilliant.  Yadollah Javan would be proud.

The latest on the climate front:

Bjorn Lomborg, an influential figure among climate change sceptics, has thrown his weight behind a drive to forge a global deal to halt rising world temperatures at a summit in Copenhagen this year.

“It’s incredibly important. We need a global deal on the climate,” Mr Lomborg told the Financial Times....“If that disappoints some people who are sceptics, I am not the least bit unhappy.”

Hey, that's great!  Except, um, for what comes next:

He is concerned that the United Nations-led consensus that a climate treaty must focus on cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from rich countries is mistaken. “It’s a costly way to achieve very little,” he said.

Instead, Mr Lomborg argues, there are cheaper ways of halting temperature rises. These include tackling sources of climate change other than carbon dioxide, such as methane and soot; investing in new tech­nologies; adapting to the effects of climate change; planting more forests; and weighing up whether emissions cuts are cheaper to do now or later.

So what exactly is new here?  Lomborg has always accepted the fact of climate change, he's just argued that halting it isn't as important as cleaning up drinking water in Africa or tackling malaria or doing more agricultural research or whatnot.  He's never denied global warming, he just thinks it's not that big a deal.

So it sounds like nothing much has changed on that front.  The U.S. military, however, is slowly but surely starting to see reality:

The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.

....An exercise last December at the National Defense University, an educational institute that is overseen by the military, explored the potential impact of a destructive flood in Bangladesh that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into neighboring India, touching off religious conflict, the spread of contagious diseases and vast damage to infrastructure. “It gets real complicated real quickly,” said Amanda J. Dory, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, who is working with a Pentagon group assigned to incorporate climate change into national security strategy planning.

....Ms. Dory, who has held senior Pentagon posts since the Clinton administration, said she had seen a “sea change” in the military’s thinking about climate change in the past year. “These issues now have to be included and wrestled with” in drafting national security strategy, she said.

Well, that's going to pose a problem for conservatives, isn't it?  What are they going to do when four-star generals start telling them they need to take climate change seriously?  Their heads will explode.

Which wouldn't be such a bad outcome, I suppose, would it?

Today I stormed the halls of corporate America.  And got my butt kicked.  Here's my sad but all-too-common tale.

My cell phone battery has slowly deteriorated into a state of decrepitude so pronounced that even I began to notice it.  Obvious solution: buy a replacement.  But then I got some junk mail from Verizon telling me that I had a $100 credit coming my way if I upgraded my phone.  Hurrah!  Why buy a new battery if I can get a whole new phone for free?

So I went to the Verizon store and picked one out.  Not much different from my current phone, but it had a couple of handy new features.  And since it retailed for $99.95, I'd get it for free!  Except, there's a problem:

I'm sorry, Mr. Drum, but you can't get that phone.

Why not?

It's only available if you're on a nationwide plan.

But I am on a nationwide plan.  I can call anywhere in the U.S. and Canada for one low monthly charge.

Sorry.  I didn't mean nationwide, I meant Nationwide™.

Oh.  Well, can I switch to a Nationwide™ plan?

Yes, but not like the one you currently have.  The cheapest Nationwide™ plan has more minutes than your current plan and costs $10 more per month.

So my free phone will actually cost me $240 over the life of the two-year contract?

Um, yeah.  Pretty much.

And why can't this new phone work on my existing plan?

Well, Verizon is really trying to get everyone to switch to the Nationwide™ plan.

Great.  I actually went into the store steeling myself for the fact that my "free" phone wouldn't actually be free.  There'd be a "transfer charge" or some alleged government waste disposal fee — or something — and I'd end up paying twenty or thirty bucks for one reason or another.  But $240?  My cynicism wasn't up to that.

So instead I got a cheap replacement phone.  No new features, just a slightly different shape.  A wee bit smaller and lighter.  Plastic case instead of metal, so it'll probably break before long.  But it works on my current plan, so it's really free.

Sort of.  Actually, it cost me $50.  Why?  It took me a while to decipher what the clerk was telling me, but even though it's a $79 phone (regular price, not any kind of special deal) and I had a $100 credit, I was required to pay $50 at the register and then send in my receipt to get a $50 mail-in rebate.  So now I have to do that.

What's really remarkable about all this is that I suspect most people don't even complain about it.  It's just the way corporations treat us these days and complaining about it is useless.  It's not as if any other cell phone company would have treated me any better, after all.  They make their money on people who buy high-minute plans and send lots of text messages and download tunes and upgrade to email and broadband.  I don't do any of that, so they don't really care about my business.  And why should they?

End of rant.  But since every post is required to have a political point of some kind these days, here it is for this one: there was nothing unusual about my experience.  Barely even anything to get upset about, really.  So if you wonder why I'm not bothered by the idea of government-funded healthcare, that's why.  Frankly, my dealings with the government, on average, are better than most of my dealings with corporations.  The government might sometimes provide poor customer service just because they lack the motivation to do better, but corporate America routinely provides crappy customer service as part of a deliberate and minutely planned strategy.  I'll take my chances with the feds.

Robots in Our Future

Gregory Clark says that although unskilled laborers have done relatively well for the past two centuries, that's about to change:

The economic problems of the future will not be about growth but about something more nettlesome: the ineluctable increase in the number of people with no marketable skills, and technology's role not as the antidote to social conflict, but as its instigator.

....[In] recent decades, when average U.S. incomes roughly doubled, there has been little gain in the real earnings of the unskilled. And, more darkly, computer advances suggest these redoubts of human skill will sooner or later fall to machines. We may have already reached the historical peak in the earning power of low-skilled workers, and may look back on the mid-20th century as the great era of the common man.

I recently carried out a complicated phone transaction with United Airlines but never once spoke to a human; my mechanical interlocutor seemed no less capable than the Indian call-center operatives it replaced. Outsourcing to India and China may be only a brief historical interlude before the great outsourcing yet to come — to machines. And as machines expand their domain, basic wages could easily fall so low that families cannot support themselves without public assistance.

With the march of technology, the size of a future American underclass dependent on public support for part of its livelihood is hard to predict: 10 million, 20 million, 100 million? We could imagine cities where entire neighborhoods are populated by people on state support.

Of course, this is roughly the argument people made in the 19th century too: if machines can spin cotton and mine coal and harvest crops, what's left for unskilled laborers to do?  The answer, of course, turned out to be: something else.  Productivity increased so dramatically during the Industrial Revolution, and with it the quantity of goods produced, that everyone stayed employed even though population increased and the labor content of most commodities went down.  The nature of the work changed, but 10% of a thousand, it turned out, kept as many people employed as 50% of two hundred.

So is Clark just engaged in neo-Ludditeism?  Maybe.  But there really does seem to a fundamental difference between machines that take the place of muscle power and machines that take the place of brain power — though it's hard to say for sure since we haven't really seen what computers can do yet.  Probably a lot more than most people think, though.  Clark's IVR transaction with United Airlines may seem trivial — an example of automated phone hell, in fact — but Thomas Newcomen's atmospheric engine seemed barely worth the trouble too at the time.

The only reason the Industrial Revolution didn't put millions of people out of work is that it created lots of new jobs that required just enough human judgment that they couldn't be done by machine.  But once computers can provide that judgment, then what's left?  According to Clark, high taxes on everyone else.  Don't anyone tell Newt Gingrich.

Netroots Nation

Quick housekeeping note.  I'll be at Netroots Nation in Pittsburgh on Friday and Saturday of next week.  It's always nice to meet people who read the blog, so if you'll be there too and happen to see me wandering the hallways, be sure to stop me and say hi.

I'll also be moderating the noon keynote panel on Saturday, "Building a 21st Century Economy."  The panelists, who will be doing most of the actual talking, are Jon Corzine, governor of New Jersey; Anna Burger, chair of the Change to Win labor coalition; and Dean Baker, the economist who's been warning us about the housing bubble longer than just about anyone.  Should be a good session.  If you have any questions you'd like tossed at these guys, leave 'em in comments.