Clean Air

CLEAN AIR....Here's some unexpected good news. The Bush administration has decided to back down on its last-minute efforts to loosen a pair of environmental regulations:

The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday abandoned its push to revise two air-pollution rules in ways that environmentalists had long opposed, abruptly dropping measures that the Bush administration had spent years preparing.

....The proposal on parks would have changed the rules for new plants being built nearby....Clean-air advocates had protested that this might allow parks such as Virginia's Shenandoah — where the famous mountaintop views are already obscured by smog and haze — to become even dirtier on certain days.

....The other rule dealt with the agency's New Source Review process, which dictates when existing power plants must implement additional pollution-control measures....John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said the rule would have allowed plants to operate for longer hours and produce more overall pollution.

"I am stunned. I've been fighting these dirty rules for years," Walke said. "And within the span of an hour," he said, both were suddenly moot.

It's not clear what prompted this about face. But it's welcome news regardless.

And Now For Something Completely Different

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT....Yesterday I posted a chart that plotted the frequency of prayer vs. partisan affiliation. It came from Razib Khan, who created it using data from the University of Chicago's General Social Survey. Today, although he was happy that a few blogs linked to it, he lamented that "alas, the practice of looking to the GSS to test some intuition or CW hasn't spread like wildfire."

Well. That's like catnip around here. I myself have never done this for a simple reason: I didn't know I could. But it turns out that some fine folks at Berkeley have built a simple web interface for the GSS and several other big databases (here), and anyone who feels like poking around can do so. So I did.

The interface lists all the questions that the GSS asks and allows you to plot variables against each other to see what pops out. I did that for a while, generating nothing of any value, until I finally discovered something of vital importance: one of the questions on the 2006 GSS was, "How many people named Kevin are you acquainted with?" And there was even a followup question: "How many of those people named Kevin do you trust?"

I had to find out. Now, I could have plotted this against anything I wanted — age, sex, religious attendance, zodiac sign (really) — but this is a political blog, so I plotted it against party affiliation. The results are on the right, and they're a little disturbing. Eyeballing the numbers, people appear to know an average of two Kevins each, but they only trust about half a Kevin each. So on average, people only trust about 25% of all the Kevins they know.

That's a little deflating, isn't it? But interesting! If you're named Kevin, that is. You can check out results for your own name, but only if your name is Kevin, Karen, Shawn, Brenda, Keith, Rachel, Mark, Linda, Jose, or Maria. Your guess is as good as mine about why they chose those ten.

You can also do other stuff, of course, and that includes mining the data and abusing the results to produce results you find pleasing. And then blogging about it. You can probably expect some of that in the future. Until then, have fun.

Clean Coal: Caroling at a Home Near You

clean-coal-carolers.jpg

Everyone seems to be getting into the holiday spirit, even...lumps of coal? A coal trade group called American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) has sponsored a holiday campaign called "The Clean Coal Carolers" which features lumps of cartoon coal singing songs like "Frosty the Coalman" and "Abundant, Affordable." The website allows you to choose which hats and scarfs to dress the coal in. But all the scarves in the world can't hide the fact that "clean coal" is more a buzz word than an actual technology.

Last month Casey Miner reported for Mother Jones that:

The types of technology the industry says it will use are expensive and ineffective at best, and potentially catastrophic at worst—in other words, even if we were able to get our technology up to speed and somehow capture the carbon leaving every coal plant in the country, we wouldn't have anywhere safe to put it.

The Clean Coal Carolers also have a Facebook page with 22 fans, including one named "Asthma" and another "Black," short for Black Lung. Those are either parts of ACCCE's elaborate ruse or they are smart-ass kids who have studied Al Gore's "Reality" ad campaign, launched last week to "debunk the clean coal myth," and Mother Jones' past coverage of clean coal like "Follow The Money Deep Under Ground" by Shadi Rahimi and "Scrubbing King Coal" by James Ridgeway.

The Zero dB Project: Torture Playlist

Earlier today, the British human rights law organization Reprieve launched a campaign against the use of music as a weapon in war, called Zero dB (zero decibels = silence). Artists Massive Attack and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello joined Reprieve to demand that the US military stop playing their songs to captured detainees. Back in February, Mother Jones compiled a playlist of the songs used to induce sleep deprivation, "prolong capture shock," disorient detainees during interrogations—and drown out screams. The mix was based on a leaked interrogation log and the accounts of soldiers and detainees. For more, listen to MoJo's Torture Playlist—and a conversation with investigative reporter Justine Sharrock about "no-touch torture."

From the AP:

For many detainees who grew up in Afghanistan—where music was prohibited under Taliban rule—interrogations by U.S. forces marked their first exposure to the pounding rhythms, played at top volume. The experience was overwhelming for many. Binyam Mohammed, now a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, said men held with him at the CIA's "Dark Prison" in Afghanistan wound up screaming and smashing their heads against walls, unable to endure more. "There was loud music, (Eminem's) 'Slim Shady' and Dr. Dre for 20 days. I heard this nonstop over and over," he told his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith. "The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night for the months before I left. Plenty lost their minds."

Multiple Choice Redux

MULTIPLE CHOICE REDUX....So what's the dope on Europeans and multiple choice tests? First up, my editor emailed this morning to weigh in:

I went to school in Germany and Italy, and I never had to break out a No. 2 pencil to fill in little circles until I took the GRE to come to the US. It may have changed a little, but by and large European education systems don't use them — lots of tests, and lots of questions, but generally of the fill-in-the-blank or provide-the-answer-here variety.

So: it sounds like European testing is more rigorous than in the U.S. But hold on. Robert Waldmann, who provoked the question in the first place, adds this:

The tradition in Italy is that most exams are oral (I am not kidding). Also students seem to have been taught to recite the 5 pages from the textbook which are most related to the question they are asked.

On US vs Italian high schools, obviously Italian high schools are more rigorous (I mean US high school is very exceptional as is the fact that most people in the US completed high school way back in the 20s). However, there was a comment by Italian students who were in the US on an exchange program that with multiple choice tests one has to think. Compared to learning by rote and reciting that is really true.

Hmmm. I think we need better agreement on just what "rigorous" means. If the Italian alternative to multiple choice is parroting back sections of a textbook, multiple choice starts to look pretty good.

In any case, there were lots of good comments to my original post from people who went to school in Europe, and the general consensus is that multiple choice tests are virtually unknown there. So here's another question: aside from standardized testing (i.e., NCLB-related stuff) how common are multiple choice tests in the United States these days? My schooling is now 30 or 40 years in the past, but my recollection is that there was very, very little of it in my extremely average suburban high school. It wasn't unknown, mind you, and I remember one of my English teachers saying that he liked to include at least a short MC section on his tests because you can't BS your way through it no matter how talented you are at that kind of thing, the way some people can with essay tests. But that was mostly the exception, not the rule. And yes, my math teachers all insisted that we show our work. (Much to my and my classmates' abiding dismay.)

Anyway, as long as we're on the subject, here's yet another tidbit. Via email and personal discussions, the one topic that seems to come up almost universally with teachers at the university level is writing. It's not so much that their kids are bad at math or reading or specific areas of knowledge (though there's always some of that, of course), but that they can't write. And they are convinced that this is getting worse, and that it's not just that they have over-rosy memories of students in the past. Anyone care to weigh in on this? Do high schools not require very much writing these days? Or what?

mojo-photo-mashups121008.jpg

How crazy is it that this goofball amateur phenomenon of combining the vocals of one song with the instrumentation from another continues to produce interesting, amusing, and hypnotic tracks, despite being declared dead, useless, and stupid? While Girl Talk's more or less enjoyable album (consisting mostly of fast-paced combos featuring rap over hipster rock) is landing in many year-end Top 10s, I've always preferred the well-constructed mashup song to the hyper laptop DJ set, a focused short story to the mixtape's sprawling novel. Here are a couple of the best recent tracks (and, well, one concept album).

NPR Lays Off Staff, Cuts Shows

mojo-photo-nprlogosm.jpgIt turns out that the economic downturn has taken its toll even on the non-profit among us (gulp!) as National Public Radio announced today it would lay off 7 percent of its staff and cut two underperforming shows. "Day to Day," a midday news program, got the axe, as did, perhaps more troublingly, "News and Notes," NPR's latest attempt to reach out to an African-American audience. Both shows were based at NPR's new Culver City studios. So was this my fault for not giving money to both of our local public stations?

Man-Made Chemicals Reduce Animals' Masculinity

red-deer-stag.jpgThis week, the British organization CHEM Trust, which is financially supported by WWF-UK and Greenpeace, published a report (.pdf) reviewing scientific literature on the reproductive health of wildlife in contact with chemical pollutants. These pollutants include the usual suspects: phthalates, bisphenol A, PCBs, DDT, atrazine, etc. All of these chemicals have been covered extensively by Mother Jones, such as in the current issue's "Let's Go Europe," about European chemical regulations.

In a press release, the report's author, Gwynne Lyons, commented that, "Man-made chemicals are clearly damaging the basic male tool-kit." The report concludes:

Some of the most prevalent effects reported in male wildlife, which are associated with pollutants, are related to genital disruption (GD). GD includes an array of manifestations. Notable amongst these are: intersex features (such as egg tissue in the testes of the male); small phallus; small testes; undescended testes or other obvious structural defects of the male reproductive tract; or ambiguous genitals.

And the human implications?

Taken together, the effects seen in wildlife should raise concerns for contaminant induced genital disruption in human male infants. Indeed a condition called testicular dysgenesis syndrome, including birth defects of the penis of baby boys, cryptorchidism (undescended testes), reduced sperm production and testicular cancer, has been suggested, because there is evidence to indicate that these effects may be interlinked in causation. Scientists have also noted that the rapid pace of the increase of human male reproductive disorders indicates an environmental cause as do studies following baby boys born to immigrants who take on the same risk for testicular cancer, as the offspring of residents born in that country.

[Update: Mother Jones reporter Josh Harkinson points out that male Polar Bears have been hit especially hard by pollution-related "genital disruption"—their penises are shrinking.]


Photo used under Creative Commons license.

Jindal Bows Out

JINDAL BOWS OUT....Is Louisiana governor and GOP superstar Bobby Jindal planning to run for president in 2012?

At a news conference Wednesday with Bob McDonnell, Virginia's 2009 Republican candidate for governor, Jindal was asked if he was interested in being president, AP reports.

His answer: "No."

Jindal said he's planning to run for reelection in 2011, something that would make pivoting to a national campaign logistically and politically tricky.

I'd say this confirms that Jindal isn't an idiot. Sure, it's possible that Barack Obama is going to crash and burn and turn 2012 into a Republican year. But what are the odds? Far more likely is that Obama is a shoo-in for a second term, and whoever runs against him will suffer the same fate as George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, and John Kerry. The GOP will find someone to embark on this suicide run, but it will have to be someone both dumber and with a lot more jejune self-regard than Jindal. Palin 2012!

mojo-photo-nycsubway.jpgLast year's engaging documentary Helvetica made the point that the font's use as the main typeface of the New York City subway is symbolic of its status as a singular "modern" design. Anyone who's visited New York knows that the plain white-on-black lettering seems to bring a modicum of calming order to the tangled, chaotic system. Clearly this was all part of some benevolent modernist designer's brilliant plan, right? Nope, it turns out it was kind of an accident. The Transportationist blog points out a fascinating recent article in the AIGA Journal of Design that shows just how haphazard the process really was.