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Bee Die-Offs Are Worst Where Pesticide Use Is Heaviest

| Thu May 14, 2015 1:34 PM EDT
Dancestrokes/Shutterstock

The nation's honeybee crisis has deepened, with colony die-offs rising sharply over last year's levels, the latest survey from the US Department of Agriculture-funded Bee Informed Partnership shows. A decade or so ago, a mysterious winter-season phenomenon known as colony-collapse disorder emerged, in which bee populations would abandon their hives en masse. These heavy winter-season losses have tapered off somewhat, but now researchers are finding substantial summer-season losses, too. Here are the latest numbers.

Chart: Bee Informed Partnership/University of Maryland/Loretta Kuo

Note that total losses are more than double what beekeepers report as the "acceptable rate"—that is, the normal level of hive attrition. Losses above the acceptable level put beekeepers in a precarious economic position and suggest that something is awry with bee health. "We traditionally thought of winter losses as a more important indicator of health, because surviving the cold winter months is a crucial test for any bee colony,” Dennis vanEngelsdorp, University of Maryland entomologist and director for the Bee Informed Partnership said in a press release. But now his team is also seeing massive summer die-offs. "Years ago, this was unheard of," he added.

And here's a map a map depicting where losses are heaviest:

Chart: Bee Informed Partnership/University of Maryland/Loretta Kuo

The survey report doesn't delve into why the nation's bees are under such severe strain, noting only, as USDA entomologist and survey co-coordinator Jeffrey Pettis put it, "the need to find better answers to the host of stresses that lead to both winter and summer colony losses."

A growing weight of science implicated pesticides—particularly a ubiquitous class of insecticides called neonicitinoids, as well as certain fungicides—as likely factors.

Here are US Geological Survey maps of where two major neonics, imidacloprid and clothianidin, are grown. Note, too, the rapid rise in their use over the past decade.

Chart: USGS

 

 

Chart: USGS

A 2013 paper co-authored by the USDA's Pettis and the University of Maryland's vanEngelsdorp found that lows levels of two particular fungicides, chlorothalonil and pyraclostrobin, "had a pronounced effect" on bees’ ability to withstand a common pathogen. Here are the USGS's maps for them.

 

Chart: USGS

 

 

 

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Your Weak Handshakes Are Slowly Killing You

| Thu May 14, 2015 12:17 PM EDT

The life of someone with a weak handshake, already burdened with the stereotypes of being passive and awkward, just got much worse. According to a new study published in The Lancet, a weak hand grip may be strongly correlated to an increased chance of being diagnosed with a cardiovascular disease and even a premature death.

"We think it fits the measure of someone's frailty, and frailty can be thought of as your ability to withstand having a disease," the study's lead author Dr. Darryl Leong explained, according to CTV News.

The study, which focused on roughly 140,000 adults across 17 countries, asked participants to squeeze objects as hard as they could. After measuring their grip strengths, those who demonstrated a lack of muscular strength were shown to be at a far greater risk of having a heart attack.

While previous studies have shown similar links, the new findings are the first to show that handshakes can be a reliable indicator of premature mortality. But the study did not establish whether illnesses were the consequences of reduced muscular strength or if the diseases were already present. From the Economist:

If the former is true, then building up strength through exercise might avert early death. If it is the latter, a person’s cards are probably marked irreversibly. Most likely, it is a bit of both, with muscle strength being a good marker of "real" ageing—in other words, of generalised biochemical decrepitude—which correlates only imperfectly with someone’s calendar age.

You can read the study in its entirety here.

Bad News for Simpsons Fans

| Thu May 14, 2015 8:20 AM EDT

Harry Shearer, the iconic voice of countless "Simpsons" characters including Mr. Burns and Ned Flanders, sent out a pair of ominous tweets last night signaling he may be exiting the show due to what appears to be a contract dispute with executive producer James L. Brooks:

Fox recently renewed the show for another two seasons to last till 2017, but Shearer was reportedly still trying to work out his contract. Judging by the tweets sent out last night, it looks an agreement couldn't be reached. We're still hoping for the best, but for now, we leave you with this clip:

 

Asians Are Kicking Ass in Silicon Valley, So Why Are So Few in the Boardroom?

| Thu May 14, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Asians are far less likely than whites to land tech leadership roles. Ascend

When people talk about the need for diversity in tech, they aren't usually talking about Asian Americans. Though they make up less than 6 percent of the overall workforce, Asians account for a whopping 17 percent of all tech-sector workers and a far higher percentage of engineers. (At Twitter, for instance, people of Asian descent hold 34 percent of the technical positions.) By focusing exclusively on the obvious need for more blacks, Latinos, and women in Silicon Valley, however, diversity advocates have missed a key point: Asian workers are far less likely than whites to end up in the leadership ranks.

White workers were 2.5 times more likely than Asian workers to end up in leadership roles, the study found.

According to a study that the nonprofit Ascend Foundation released last week, white workers are two and a half times more likely then their Asian counterparts to serve as executives at major tech companies. The study, which examined the workforce demographics at Google, HP, Intel, LinkedIn, and Yahoo, found that the "Asian effect" was nearly four times greater than gender as a glass-ceiling factor. (The authors also pointed to leadership gaps for blacks and Latinos, but dismissed those results as less statistically significant, given how few blacks and Latinos are employed by the industry overall.)

The finding for Asians is notable, among other reasons, for what it says about the case of Ellen Pao, whose unsuccessful sex discrimination case against her former employer, the VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, obsessed the technology press. Though the particulars of her case are unique, the study suggests that Pao, as an Asian American, was 40 percent as likely as a white woman and 28 percent as likely as a white man to land in a leadership role.

"Asians are generally stereotyped as being nonconfrontational or timid," says Pandora's Lisa Lee, "so they may be overlooked."

The "bamboo ceiling," as author Jane Hyun terms it, is hardly limited to technology, but its existence in a sector where Asians are thriving illustrates the intractability of the problem. Hyun blames the workers for the promotion gap, arguing that they need to take a page from Sheryl Sandberg and "lean in." But other observers, such as Lisa Lee, a senior diversity manager for Pandora, point to the need for companies to curb their preconceptions about who will make a good leader.

"Asians and Asian Americans are generally stereotyped as being nonconfrontational or timid," says Lee, the former publisher of Hyphen, a magazine about the Asian-American experience. "So they may be overlooked for leadership roles because they're not thought of as leadership material. This has nothing to do with their actual skills or abilities. Part of the solution is companies making a concerted effort to address bias in the promotion process to ensure it's more fair for everyone."

There may be additional factors at play. Mario Lugay, a program officer at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, which advocates for diversity in tech, makes the point that non-Asians are quick to lump Asians into one category, whereas Silicon Valley, for example, includes economically disadvantaged Southeast Asians and foreign-born workers from a variety of cultures. "My hope is that we strive to research and address the nuances of underrepresentation," says Lugay, who is Filipino. "That includes the diversity within the category of Asian, as well as Asian Americans."

Health Update

| Wed May 13, 2015 6:27 PM EDT

Today was my one-week follow-up at City of Hope, and everything seems pretty peachy. My counts are down since I'm no longer getting meds that artificially stimulate white blood cell production, but even without the meds my counts are all within the normal range and will likely be even better at my next follow-up. Every other lab result was positive too. I will remain fatigued for some time, but the extreme fatigue should last only another week or two. We hope.

Assuming that I have no setbacks, the next real milestone will be a bone marrow biopsy at the end of June to see if I've achieved total remission. I will then have to decide if I want to begin Revlimid maintenance therapy, which I'm very much undecided on at the moment (my doctor is all in favor). Other than that, I just wait to get better.

For my follow-up visit today I was directed to the DEM clinic. I wonder how they knew? And where do Republicans go? I guess it's a secret. But I'll bet their clinic is pretty nice. Probably open bar and free massages while you wait.

Pope Francis Will Officially Recognize Palestinian Statehood

| Wed May 13, 2015 11:59 AM EDT

The Vatican is set to sign a new treaty to formally recognize the state of Palestine. The statement was released by a joint commission of Vatican and Palestinian officials on Wednesday, and indicated an agreement had been "concluded," with an official signing to take place soon.

Though the Vatican has long hinted at supporting an official recognition, Wednesday's news signals the Vatican's first legal shift from recognizing the Palestinian Liberation Organization to the state of Palestine, according to the AP. In 2012, the Vatican applauded the United Nations' decision to formally observe a Palestinian state.

Shortly after the statement's release, Israel expressed disappointment in the Vatican's decision.

"This move does not promote the peace process and distances the Palestinian leadership from returning to direct and bilateral negotiations," the Israeli foreign ministry said, according to the AP. "Israel will study the agreement and will consider its steps accordingly."

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Alan Grayson Just Called a Reporter a "Shitting Robot"

| Wed May 13, 2015 11:23 AM EDT

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.)—known as something of an active volcano ever since he said in a 2010 floor speech that the Republican health care plan was to "die quickly"—is considering running for Senate next year. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already settled on a candidate, Rep. Patrick Murphy, but Grayson believes that "our voters will crawl over hot coals to vote for me."

That feeling of invincibility extends to his dealings with reporters. To wit, today's interview with Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times:

Alan Grayson!

This Is the Perfect Response to Fox's Racist Theory About Michelle Obama's Time at Princeton

| Wed May 13, 2015 11:07 AM EDT

Over the weekend, Michelle Obama delivered a passionate, candid commencement speech to the graduating class at Tuskegee University, Alabama, in which she addressed the daily slights of racism she has endured throughout her life. From Saturday's ceremony:

We've both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives. The folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety, the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores. The people at formal events who assumed we were the help. And those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country, and I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day.

It was a powerful speech, and naturally, the folks at Fox News were not happy. Fox News contributor Angela McGlowan on Tuesday suggested the speech was yet another example of the White House dividing the country on issues of race, asking, "Why didn't the first lady share the reason why she got into Princeton was probably because of Affirmative Action?"

"The reason why she became an associate at a law firm was probably because of diversity, they needed a woman—not saying that she wasn’t qualified—but they needed a woman, and a woman of color," she said.

Comedy Central's Larry Wilmore was not having it. In a segment on the Nightly Show, he fired back: "When a coke-snorting, alcohol-guzzling son of a CIA director DUI's his way into Yale and ultimately into the Oval Office because his daddy's was in both places, that's affirmative action."

George W., we hope you're watching.

Watch the full segment below:

 

These Are the Reasons Why Cats Still Rule the Internet

| Wed May 13, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Ana Marie Cox.

I was at a small conference on religion and public policy recently—the Faith Angle Forum, it's called. It's a pretty heady affair with Serious Journalists talking Serious Subjects: the theological-versus-cultural origins of ISIS's brutality, whether you can use "principled pluralism" to bring together the left and right regarding gay marriage, and—headiest of all—a presentation from the former chief rabbi of England on "religious solutions to religious environments."

So, obviously, I was sneaking in some cat-picture viewing between sessions. (This is a proven productivity practice and a much needed source of solace in discussing these troubled times.) I was also particularly tickled to inform the other attendees, during the Islamic State panel, that one of my favorite cat photo platforms, BuzzFeed, also has been doing some pretty stellar reporting on ISIS's use of social media. There were surprised but polite murmurs!

There are things we bloggers have in common with cats: We are antisocial. We like things on our own terms. We break stuff for fun. We're judgy.

At dinner, one of the presenters from the panel, Princeton Near Eastern studies scholar Bernard Haykel, asked me about BuzzFeed. He is up on his jihadi poetry and can explain the reasons why Salafi Islam resists outside calls for reform, but he has not apparently seen Anna Kendrick quotes as motivational posters.

"It's a great news site that also has lots of cat pictures," I told him.

"Hmmm," he said. "Why cats?"

Haykel uses the internet primarily for the study of ISIS propaganda and debates among Muslim theologians, so it's difficult not to see in his question the suggestion of what the internet's pro-cat bias must look like to an outsider: A MASSIVE RECRUITMENT EFFORT. Or, at the very least, a successful co-option of an entire medium to support the tuna-industrial complex.

I am so used to taking cats on the internet for granted, it had been some time since I thought about why cats.

The simple version of the story is this: Early bloggers, like Kevin, were cat people. Atrios. Glenn Reynolds. Me. Bloggers=cat people. There are theories about why blogger people are cat people, of course. There are things we have in common with cats: We are antisocial. We like things on our own terms. We break stuff for fun. We're judgy.

Though there are also things that make cats attractive to us, things cats have that blogger-types might want for themselves: Grace. Self-actualization. Sleeping 18 hours a day.

That early bloggers popularized cat blogging doesn't really explain why cats are still the internet's favorite pet, though it seems like we could extrapolate that the typical modern internet consumer is, temperamentally, more like the early bloggers than not. More insecure, more skeptical, less eager to please than your Boomer generation and its slavish canines.

Ana Marie Cox/Instagram

And there are more concrete influences to consider: Americans are living alone longer, moving around more, and have less money than they used to—cats fit the cultural moment. Cats are less burdensome than dogs on a daily basis, but that compromise is met with limited rewards: conditional affection, no tricks, hairballs. Perhaps millennials and cats make a match because cats are very much like the on-demand economy, which trades convenience for only elusive security.

Cats are Uber, but for love.

Well, I am being unfair to cats. And to Uber, for that matter—Uber has made a practice of occasionally delivering kittens to offices in need of mid-day pick-me-ups. These stunts sell out quickly, which attests to the internet's cat fixation but also to the ultimate snuggle-worthiness of cats—and humans. Sure, we may find cats' affections maddeningly, attractively unpredictable but, deep down, we suspect cats love us. And perhaps because that affection is so hard to pin down, it feels genuine.

On the internet, where everything is suspect, cats—while sneaky—are above suspicion. The internet is virtual. Cats are real. The internet is about debate. Cats are undebatable.

As Kevin himself pointed out back in 2004, the cats are the medium, not the message:

"I'd just blogged a whole bunch of stuff about what was wrong with the world," Mr. Drum said. "And I turned around and I looked out the window, and there was one of my cats, just plonked out, looking like nothing was wrong with the world at all."

"Why cats?" Bernard asked. Because cats.

Monsanto Bets $45 Billion on a Pesticide-Soaked Future

| Wed May 13, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Once an industrial-chemical titan, GMO seed giant Monsanto has rebranded itself as a "sustainable agriculture company." Forget such classic post-war corporate atrocities as PCB and dioxin—the modern Monsanto "uses plant breeding and biotechnology to create seeds that grow into stronger, more resilient crops that require fewer resources," as the company's website has it.

That rhetoric may have to change, though, if Monsanto succeeds in buying its Swiss rival, pesticide giant Syngenta. On Friday, Syngenta's board rejected a $45 billion takeover bid. But that's hardly the end of the story. Tuesday afternoon, Syngenta's share price was holding steady at a level about 20 percent higher than it was before Monsanto's bid—an indication that investors consider an eventual deal quite possible. As The Wall Street Journal's Helen Thomas put it, the Syngenta board's initial rejection of Monsanto's overture may just be a way of saying, "This deal makes sense, but Syngenta can hold out for more."

The logic for the deal is simple: Syngenta is Monsanto's perfect complement. Monsanto ranks as the globe's largest purveyor of seeds (genetically modified and otherwise), alongside a relatively small chemical division (mainly devoted to the herbicide Roundup), which makes up just a third of its $15.8 billion in total sales.

Syngenta, meanwhile, is the globe's largest pesticide purveyor, with a relatively small sideline in GMO seeds that accounts for a fifth of its $15.1 billion in total sales.

Combined, the two companies would form a singular agribusiness behemoth, a company that controls a third of both the globe's seed and pesticides markets. To make the deal fly with US antitrust regulators, Syngenta would likely have to sell off its substantial corn and soybean seed business, as well its relatively small glyphosate holdings, in order to avoid direct overlap with Monsanto's existing market share, the financial website Seeking Alpha reports. So the combined company would have somewhat smaller market share than what's portrayed below:

In trying to swallow Syngenta, Monsanto is putting its money where its mouth isn't—that is, it's contradicting years of rhetoric about how its ultimate goal with biotech is to wean farmers off agrichemicals. The company has two major money-making GM products on the market: crops engineered to carry the insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, which is toxic to certain insects but not to humans; and crops engineered to withstand the herbicide glyphosate, an herbicide Monsanto sells under the brand name Roundup.

Syngenta is the main US supplier of the herbicide atrazine, which has come under heavy suspicion as an endocrine-disrupting chemical.

The company markets both as solutions to farmers' reliance on toxic chemicals. Bt crops "allow farmers to protect their crops while eliminating or significantly decreasing the amount of pesticides sprayed," Monsanto's website declares; and its Roundup Ready products have" allowed farmers to ... decrease the overall use of herbicides."

Both of these claims have withered as Monsanto's products have come to dominate US farm fields. Insects and weeds have evolved to resist them. Farmers have responded by unleashing a gusher of pesticides—both higher doses of Monsanto's Roundup, and other, more-toxic chemicals as Roundup has lost effectiveness.

Monsanto's lunge for Syngenta and its vast pesticide portfolio signals that the company thinks more of the same is in the offing.

One immediate winner would be the Monsanto's formidable PR department. Battle-tested by years of defending the company from attacks against GMOs and also from the World Health Organization's recent finding that glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic to humans," the department would also find plenty of opportunity to flex its muscles if Syngenta came on board.

Syngenta is the main US supplier of the herbicide atrazine, which has come under heavy suspicion as an endocrine-disrupting chemical that messes with frogs' genitalia and seeps into people's drinking water. Syngenta is also one of two dominant purveyors of neonicotinoids—blockbuster insecticides (annual global sales: $2.6 billion) that have been substantially implicated in declining health of honeybees and other pollinators, birds, and water-borne animals. Both atrazine and neonics are currently banned in Europe, and widely, albeit controversially, used in the US.

All of which would make it ironic if, as some observers have speculated, Monsanto hopes to use the deal as an excuse to move its corporate HQ to Syngenta's home base in Europe, in order to avoid paying US taxes.