Would you like to meet Rachel Maddow?  Do you live near San Francisco?  Our fundraiser this Saturday with Maddow has been sold out for weeks, but we thought it might be nice to give away a pair of tickets to one of our blog readers.  (I'll be there too, in case you need even more incentive to come.)  If you're interested, just leave a comment and we'll choose a random winner on Thursday evening.  Make sure you're registered so we have an email address to contact you.  Good luck!

The Three C's

Fred Kaplan writes that the Obama administration will soon have to choose its Afghanistan strategy: either CT (counterterrorism) or COIN (counterinsurgency).  Steve Hynd doesn't like either option: he suggests plain old C (containment) instead.  Read and decide.

Cruel and Unusual

Atul Gawande has a piece in the New Yorker arguing that lengthy periods of solitary confinement are so debilitating that it basically amounts to torture.  You can read the whole thing and decide for yourself, but I actually found this short passage to be the most convincing argument:

The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional. Writing for the majority in the case of a Colorado murderer who had been held in isolation for a month, Justice Samuel Miller noted that experience had revealed “serious objections” to solitary confinement:

“A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover suffcient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

If you go down the whole list of accepted norms in treating people — child labor, civil rights, treatment of the mentally ill, minimum housing standards, workplace safety, etc. — virtually everything that was even a close call in 1890 is universally reviled today.  Nobody's in favor of kids working in mills, Jim Crow laws, packed lunatic asylums, rat-infested slums, or miners dying of black lung.  Our penal system is apparently the exception.  But if we knew, even in 1890, that long-term solitary confinement is essentially barbaric, can there really be any question about it in 2009?

Twenty years after Exxon Valdez and we're still shipping it, pumping it, burning it. Twenty years since James Hansen published a prophetic paper foreseeing what we're now experiencing. A commenter from my earlier Exxon Valdez post lives on a 30,000 acre XOM oil lease in South Texas and made this film, which I like. This is what he/she had to say:

They dump all the time and don't care. It's horrible. Our ground water is full of BTEX and lots of clusters of leukemia around their old leases. The Railroad Commission turns a blind eye. I made a webpage: http://www.RanchoLosMalulos.com. I go around the lease and post stuff so you can all enjoy the soap opera of watching XOM dump. We sample stuff and put the lab results, have professional ground water monitoring wells done, it's so filthy. Exxon Mobil seems to get away with a lot in this world. Their commercials make me cringe.
Obama better pick up the pace.  I'm about to fall asleep.  If he doesn't start bringing a little more pizazz to these things the networks are just going to pull their cameras and go home.

UPDATE: OK, this was good.  Ed Henry asked Obama why it took him a few days to respond to the AIG bonus scandal.  Answer: "It took me a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I say something."  Ba-da-bum!

This story was first published on ProPublica.org.

Peter Taback's first reaction to the Center for AIDS Prevention's prominent advertisement on the New York Times' Web site was jealousy. Taback, communications director for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, was impressed another organization had cast its reach so far.

But on closer inspection, his envy shifted to outrage.

The Beverly Hills-based Center for AIDS Prevention has mobilized a nationwide fundraising campaign, but members of the tight-knit AIDS community in California have never heard of the group. Its history is shrouded in mystery, and even people who have interacted with the group are uncertain of its purpose. The Web site offers incorrect information about AIDS prevention and treatment -- such as the suggestion that birth control pills prevent the spread of HIV (PDF). The charity's proprietor also has ties to a for-profit company that sold ineffective herbal AIDS remedies to replace antiretroviral drugs.

The center is committing "public health malpractice," Taback said. "To have misinformation like that on the Web site is profoundly disturbing."

As charitable giving constricts with the economy, many AIDS foundations and treatment facilities are struggling to stay afloat, and AIDS advocates were also concerned that funding could be diverted from urgently needed services.

Meanwhile, the center's own financial and legal history is, at best, questionable.

A different kind of ice is replacing ancient Arctic ice. The new stuff is qualitatively different. It's thinner, darker, wetter. Worse, it may already be changing the local weather and the ability to grow new ice. It could even alter the oceanic circulation that mediates global climate, reports Nature. Oh, it's bad for polar bears too.

Until recently, the Arctic maintained a lot of multiyear sea ice that takes years to grow and thicken and survives from one year to the next. Some melts each summer. But only in small areas. Too small for the wind to work up big waves. The new ice growing in these calm ponds forms unbroken sheets known as nilas ice.

But the multiyear ice is now melting so fast that vast areas are opening up. Big enough for big weather to set up waves. And these waves chop up the new ice as fast as it tries to form. Ice crystals tossed around in these conditions combine to form a slushy mixture called grease ice. After that, it sets into thin round pancakes of ice three to six feet in diameter.

Why is that worrying?

  • Round pancakes leave areas of dark open water between them.
  • This open water accelerates warming since less of the Sun's radiation is reflected (albedo).
  • Seawater slops up between the pancakes onto the ice so that falling snow melts rather than freezes on top.
  • Wetter pancake ice keeps the overall surface darker and warmer.

Jeremy Wilkinson of the Scottish Association for Marine Science in the UK says: "This whole cycle is not in models of the Arctic or the Antarctic. It's one of these conundrums that people haven't looked into." Young ice isn't that well studied because there used not to be much of it around. Now it's proliferating like an invasive species.

Wilkinson and colleagues just completed a series of lab experiments measuring the difference between nilas and pancake ice. They found that pancake ice actually forms faster than nilas ice. But this faster formation extracts fresh water from the ocean faster, leaving the seas saltier, which is likely to have an impact on ocean circulation, ice growth, and air temperature. The big stuff.

BTW, although the extent of the sea ice was greater in 2008 than during the record low of 2007, the additional ice was all young ice. Multiyear ice actually declined below 2007 levels.

Add to this the recent news that climate change and accompanying ice loss is now the single biggest threat to the survival of polar bears—stir in a dram of Canadian insanity in the form of an "extreme" polar bear hunt, whereby rich dudes throw down $35,000 for Inuit guides who save their asses from getting lost, sled dogs who haul their lardasses across the miles, and heated tents that keep their precious asses frost free—well, what can I say… How many of these manly men are getting fat bonuses from AIG, I wonder?

How Far To Fall?

Via Andrew Sullivan, Mike at No Empty Wallets wants to know why I think home prices have another 20% to fall.  It's nothing complicated.  The most widely accepted barometer of home prices is the Case-Shiller home price index, which canvasses housing prices in 20 cities.  Here's the raw data.

Case-Shiller was at 150 in December 2008.  The GDP price deflator stood at 123.  So the inflation-adjusted value of Case-Shiller was about 122.

In January 2000, when home prices were near their historical trend levels, Case-Shiller stood at 100.  The GDP deflator stood at 99.  So the inflation-adjusted value of Case-Shiller was about 101.

My arithmetic is pretty simple: getting from 122 back to 101 is about a 20% drop. (The chart on the right, from Calculated Risk, is a year old, but even so it gets the same point across for the graphically minded.  The orange line is the 20-city index.  It's fallen 20% in the past year, and looks to have another 20% to go before it reaches pre-bubble trend levels.)

Actually, it's worth noting that I'm being a little generous here, since in a recession values often overshoot on the way down.  Mike suggests that lower mortgage rates and the upcoming stimulus tax credit will prop up prices a bit compared to past levels, and that's possible.  But mortgage rates are only slightly lower today than in 2000, and the effect of the tax credit is hard to judge.  I'm just guessing like everyone else (and since I have a house I'm trying to sell I'd be delighted to end up wrong about this) but I'd keep my money on a further 20% drop.  We still have a fair bit of recession ahead of us.

National borders not only make traveling to my summer compound in Monaco incredibly bothersome (ahem!), they also really gum up CD release schedules. Especially here in the United States of Kiss My Ass, where great music from around the world often gets delayed for months, if not years. Either labels are scared that us slack-jawed yokels just won't get it, or I guess they need a couple extra months to form brilliant marketing strategies? Whatever, it makes me mad, since we do have the internet in America, and an internationally-savvy press, desperate to jump on the Next Big Thing, isn't going to wait for a release date 90 days away, so then anybody reading that review has to go searching around for a little Rapidshare RAR file. Who would be so thoughtless? Oh. Well, to make up for it, I'll act as your release-date alarm system: Malian duo Amadou & Mariam's Welcome to Mali is finally out today here in the Homeland. Hooray! That means you can give them money on iTunes and everything. Welcome to Mali was for a while the highest-ranking album of 2008 on Metacritic, although the site has since moved it to the 2009 list out of respect for our flag, I guess (where it's currently tied with Animal Collective for best-reviewed album of this year). Back in November (I know, I'm sorry) I gave the album an enthusiastic review, and I only like it more now; its mishmash of styles and traditions feels both guilelessly celebratory and deeply respectful, even moving. Plus I'm a sucker for that Afropop guitar sound. After the jump, the oddly affecting video for the Damon Albarn-produced "Sabali," a more electronic-based track than the rest of the album. You can also isten to the whole album at their web site.

NPR Kicks GMA's Butt

Speaking of NPR, those guys are going great gangbusters, ratings-wise. Bucking the trend experienced by just about every other media outlet, NPR has seen major listenership growth in the past eight years, reaching a record in 2008. While there are no nationwide radio ratings, NPR adds up local ratings for stations that carry its programming, and that total has grown 47 percent since 2000, with nearly 21 million people tuning in to their daily news programs every week. Broken out into specific programs, this means that NPR's "Morning Edition" has an average daily audience of 7.6 million, which the Washington Post says is "about 60 percent larger than the audience for 'Good Morning America' on ABC and about one-third larger than the audience for the 'Today' show on NBC." Who knew? Of course, as many of us in the non-profit world are aware, increased audience doesn't necessarily translate to increased revenue. The broadcaster was recently forced to lay off 7 percent of its news staff due to revenue shortfalls (primarily because of a pullback in corporate giving) and they're still about $8 million short for this year. At this risk of sparking flames of populist rage, I'd like to point out that NPR's entire annual operating budget is $160 million, which happens to look pretty similar to another recent number, something to do with bonuses? Flames... of populist rage... rising...