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Friday Cat Blogging - 10 October 2014

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 3:05 PM EDT

Catblogging has become harder recently. There's no shortage of cuteness, obviously, but getting good pictures of the cuteness is tricky. The problem is simple: 55-year-old human reflexes combined with cheap-camera shutter lag are simply no match for 10-month-old kitten reflexes. This produces lots of pictures like the one on the right. You'll just have to take my word for it, but that's Hopper carrying around one of her stuffed mice. I've muted all the chirping sounds from my camera, which reliably caused them to turn their heads just as the autofocus finally whirred to its proper setting, but even so I have hundreds of photos like this one.

Still, they slow down once in a while, so catblogging isn't completely lost. On the left, Hopper is behind the drapes trying to chase down an errant bug. On the right, Hilbert is majestically surveying his space.

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Scott Walker Is Bragging About a Pro-Life Endorsement He Didn't Receive This Year

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 2:41 PM EDT
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been caught again playing fast and loose with the facts on the issue of abortion. Earlier this week, as I reported, Walker's campaign released a new ad about a bill he signed that restricted abortion rights for women in Wisconsin. In the ad, Walker says, "the bill leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor"—a statement that falsely implies that Walker supports a woman's right to choose an abortion, when in fact he wants to ban all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.

Now, the Capital Times of Madison, Wis., reports that Walker's campaign website touts an endorsement from a pro-life group that Walker didn't actually receive this year. On his 2014 campaign website, Walker touts an endorsement by the group Pro-Life Wisconsin. Under the "Walker on Values" section, it reads:

In my campaign for governor, I am proud to have been endorsed by Wisconsin Right to Life, which recognized my long commitment to right to life issues and noted that my election "would greatly contribute to building a culture of life where the most vulnerable members of the human family are welcomed and protected."

I was also endorsed by Pro-Life Wisconsin which said that a Walker Administration "will have far-reaching, positive effects for Wisconsin citizens who value the dignity of all innocent human life."

Here's the problem: That's not true. Pro-Life Wisconsin endorsed Walker during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign and the 2012 recall election. But the group did not endorse him in this year's gubernatorial race, as the Capital Times reported:

Pro-Life Wisconsin evaluates political candidates by their responses to a 10-question survey sent during each election cycle. In order to receive an endorsement, a candidate must answer "yes" to every question—giving them a "100 percent pro-life" rating—and complete an interview with members of the political action committee board.

"Scott Walker did not complete our 2014 candidate survey and therefore is ineligible for an endorsement," wrote Matt Sande, director of the Pro-Life Wisconsin Victory Fund PAC, in an email. "His campaign manager stated in a letter that 'our campaign will not be completing any interest group surveys or interviews.'"

That didn't stop Walker's website from listing Pro-Life Wisconsin as an endorser. Neither the Walker campaign nor Matt Sande, who runs Pro-Life Wisconsin's Victory Fund PAC, responded to requests for comment.

You Thought California's Drought Couldn't Get Any Worse? Enter Fracking.

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 2:22 PM EDT
Pumpjacks extract oil from an oilfield in Kern County, in California's ag-heavy Central Valley.

I have a great idea. Let's take one of the globe's most important agricultural regions, one with severe water constraints and a fast-dropping water table. And let's set up shop there with a highly water-intensive form of fossil fuel extraction, one that throws off copious amounts of toxic wastewater. Nothing could possibly go wrong ... right? Well...

Almost 3 billion gallons of oil industry wastewater have been illegally dumped into central California aquifers that supply drinking water and farming irrigation, according to state documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity. The wastewater entered the aquifers through at least nine injection disposal wells used by the oil industry to dispose of waste contaminated with fracking fluids and other pollutants.

The documents also reveal that Central Valley Water Board testing found high levels of arsenic, thallium and nitratescontaminants sometimes found in oil industry wastewaterin water-supply wells near these waste-disposal operations.

That's from the Center for Biological Diversity. Hat tip DeSmogBlog.

Americans Hold Wide Range of Opinions on Various Subjects

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 1:57 PM EDT

Ashley Parker apparently drew the short straw at the New York Times and got assigned to write that hoariest of old chestnuts: a trip through the heartland of America to check the pulse of the public.

So how's the public feeling these days? Here's Heather Lopez, a church worker in Terre Haute, Indiana:

“Instead of being a country that’s leading from behind, I would like to see us spearhead an all-out assault on ISIS,” she said, referring to the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria and has claimed responsibility for the beheadings of two American journalists. “I would like to see every one of them dead within 30 days. And after we’ve killed every member of ISIS, kill their pet goat.”

Roger that. You will be unsurprised to learn later that Ms. Lopez "said she got much of her information from Fox News." Where else would she? We're in the heartland, folks! And not by coincidence. Parker's trip was deliberately designed to take her nowhere else. Because, as we all know, real people can be found only in small towns and cities in middle America.

Not that it matters. Also unsurprisingly, Parker ran into people with a wide range of opinions. It turns out that America contains lots of people and they think lots of different stuff. It's remarkable.

Was Obama Naive?

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 12:39 PM EDT

Paul Krugman has finally come around to a fair assessment of Barack Obama's term in office: not perfect, by any means, and he probably could have accomplished more with better tactics and a better understanding of his opponents. Still and all, he accomplished a lot. By any reasonable standard, he's been a pretty successful liberal president.

Ezra Klein says this is because he abandoned one of the key goals of his presidency:

From 2009 to 2010, Obama, while seeking the post-partisan presidency he wanted, established the brutally partisan presidency he got. Virtually every achievement Krugman recounts — the health-care law, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, the financial rescue, the stimulus bill — passed in these first two years when Democrats held huge majorities in congress. And every item on the list passed over screaming Republican opposition.

....Obama spent his first two years keeping many of his policy promises by sacrificing his central political promise. That wasn't how it felt to the administration at the time. They thought that success would build momentum; that change would beget change. Obama talked of the "muscle memory" congress would rediscover as it passed big bills; he hoped that achievements would replenish his political capital rather than drain it.

In this, the Obama administration was wrong, and perhaps naive.

This is, to me, one of the most interesting questions about the Obama presidency: was he ever serious about building a bipartisan consensus? Did he really think he could pass liberal legislation with some level of Republican cooperation? Or was this little more than routine campaign trail bushwa?

To some extent, I think it was just the usual chicken-in-every-pot hyperbole of American presidential campaigns. American elites venerate bipartisanship, and it's become pretty routine to assure everyone that once you're in office you'll change the toxic culture of Washington DC. Bush Jr. promised it. Clinton promised it. Bush Sr. promised it. Carter promised it. Even Nixon promised it.

(Reagan is the exception. Perhaps that's why he's still so revered by conservatives despite the fact that his actual conduct in office was considerably more pragmatic than his rhetoric.)

So when candidates say this, do they really believe it? Or does it belong in the same category as promises that you'll restore American greatness and supercharge the economy for the middle class? In Obama's case, it sure sounded like more than pro forma campaign blather. So maybe he really did believe it. Hell, maybe all the rest of them believed it too. The big difference this time around was the opposition. Every other president has gotten at least some level of cooperation from the opposition party. Maybe not much, but some. Obama got none. This was pretty unprecedented in recent history, and it's hard to say that he should have been able to predict this back in 2008. He probably figured that he'd get at least a little bit of a honeymoon, especially given the disastrous state of the economy, but he didn't. From Day 1 he got nothing except an adamantine wall of obstruction.

Clearly, then, Obama was wrong about the prospects for bipartisanship. But was he naive? I'd say he's guilty of a bit of that, but the truth is that he really did end up facing a hornet's nest of unprecedented proportions. This might have taken any new president by surprise.

Alaska's Stranded Walruses Face a New Threat: Oil Drillers

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 12:07 PM EDT
walrus map
Yellow lines show the movement of radio-tracked walruses in 2013; the green highlighted section is where offshore drilling leases are available. USGS

Remember that jaw-dropping photo from last week that showed 35,000 walruses crammed onto a narrow strip of land because they couldn't find enough space on the disappearing Arctic sea ice? Turns out melting ice isn't the only thing the walruses have to worry about.

Last month, the energy blog Fuel Fix reported on details of Shell's newest plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. The company has a history of failure in the Arctic since it first got a federal green-light to explore there in 2012. Now they'll be heading back out next summer for another try, with up to six new wells in the Chukchi Sea.

The ocean expanse north of Alaska where Shell wants to drill is the most popular hangout for Alaskan walruses, as the map above, from a US Geological Survey study of walruses last year, shows. The yellow lines show the movements of a group of walruses over a two-week period in July 2013; red X's mark where researchers deployed radio tags on the walruses. The green outline indicates the cluster of Arctic oil drilling lease locations administered by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, including those Shell is eyeing. The wells would be upstream of Hanna Shoals, a biologically rich shallow shelf that tends to hold sea ice longer than other areas.

The Shoals are vital walrus habitat, especially as climate change diminishes sea ice throughout the Arctic, said Margaret Williams, Arctic programs director for the World Wildlife Fund. Risks to the walruses (and other marine life, for that matter) include disturbance by ship traffic and the fallout from oil spills. Spill cleanup is particularly challenging in icy waters, and the nearest Coast Guard station is across the state in Kodiak. 

"It's an amazing place that is full of life, with a very rich food chain," Willaims said. If oil and gas drilling goes forward, "you have a huge potential mess."

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The Supreme Court Just Blocked Scott Walker's Voter ID Law

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 11:51 AM EDT
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

Update, Sunday, October 19: On Saturday, the Supreme Court upheld Texas' "discriminatory" voter ID law, potentially disenfranchising some 600,000 largely minority voters ahead of the midterms.

Update, Wednesday, October 15: After a federal trial court struck down Texas' "discriminatory" new voter ID law last week, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the state can enforce the restrictive law after all in November. Opponents of the law may file an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court.

On Thursday evening, two separate courts blocked restrictive voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas that could have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of mostly black and Latino voters in the upcoming November midterm elections.

Both states' laws would have required voters to provide photo identification before casting their ballots. Such laws reduce minority and youth turnout, according to a Government Accountability Office study released Wednesday.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued an emergency order blocking a voter ID law Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed in 2011. The court cited no reason for its move, which is common for emergency orders. Voting rights advocates challenging the law had charged that if it were in effect in November it would "virtually guarantee chaos at the polls," the New York Times reported, as the state would not have enough time to issue IDs and train poll workers before the election. There are about 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin who lack an ID. Most of them are black or Hispanic.

Also on Thursday, a federal trial court in Texas struck down that state’s voter ID law, ruling that it overly burdened minority voters, who are less likely to have a government-issued ID, and as such violated the Voting Rights Act. More than 600,000 registered voters in Texas lack appropriate IDs.

The move by the Supreme Court reverses a recent trend by the high court upholding voting restrictions. The court upheld a law in Ohio that cut down on early voting, as well as a measure North Carolina enacted in 2013 eliminating same-day registration and banning the counting of ballots accidentally cast at the wrong precinct.

Both Texas and Wisconsin had claimed their laws would crack down on voter fraud. Confirmed instances of in-person voter fraud are rarer than UFO sightings.

Germany Continues to Demand a European "Austerity Suicide Pact"

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 11:25 AM EDT

Matt O'Brien is gobsmacked that Germany continues to promote the virtues of austerity even as Europe edges ever closer to a triple-dip recession:

Germany should stop obsessing about its short-term deficit, and start spending more on roads and bridges and schools instead. Markets are all but begging it to....But out of some misplaced sense of fiscal self-righteousness, Germany would rather let its critical infrastructure fall into disrepair than take this free money.

....But Germany is stubbornly sticking with spending cuts instead, and it's making the rest of Europe do the same.

It's an austerity suicide pact, and Germany doesn't even want the ECB to cushion the blow. It turns out, though, that forcing your customers into a worse depression than the 1930s isn't good for you, either. It's left Germany, which despite its image as an economic powerhouse has only grown 1.1 percent a year the past decade, teetering on the edge of its own slump — with Russian sanctions maybe enough to push it over.

It really is stunning to watch this play out. Germany is playing the same role that Republicans played in the US in the aftermath of the Great Recession, except that Europe's economy is in worse shape than ours was and Germany's enforced austerity is worse than anything even the tea party was able to achieve. The evidence is overwhelming that this conduct is hurting Germany itself as well as the rest of Europe, but there's simply no budging them. What are they thinking?

We Have a Saudi Arabia Problem, Not an Islam Problem

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 10:55 AM EDT

Fareed Zakaria steps into the brawl touched off by Bill Maher and Sam Harris last week about whether Islam is inherently violent and reactionary:

Places such as Indonesia and India have hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t fit these caricatures. That’s why Maher and Harris are guilty of gross generalizations. But let’s be honest. Islam has a problem today. The places that have trouble accommodating themselves to the modern world are disproportionately Muslim.

In 2013, of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim. Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority. The Pew Research Center rates countries on the level of restrictions that governments impose on the free exercise of religion. Of the 24 most restrictive countries, 19 are Muslim-majority. Of the 21 countries that have laws against apostasy, all have Muslim majorities.

There is a cancer of extremism within Islam today. A small minority of Muslims celebrates violence and intolerance and harbors deeply reactionary attitudes toward women and minorities. While some confront these extremists, not enough do so, and the protests are not loud enough. How many mass rallies have been held against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in the Arab world today?

I'd put this differently. I don't think the world has a Muslim problem. It has a Saudi Arabia problem. The closer a country is to the warped influence of Saudi Arabia, the more violent and illiberal it is. Go west to Tunisia and Morocco and Islam becomes more moderate. Go north to Turkey and it becomes more moderate. Go east to India and Indonesia and it becomes more moderate.

Obviously this is hardly a perfect correlation. If you want to find exceptions, you can. But generally speaking, Saudi Arabia is the epicenter of Islam's problems, a country that stands for virtually everything that the liberal West condemns. It is almost feudally anti-democratic. It is corrupt. It is theocratic. It treats women and gays horribly. Its legal system is barbarous. It is intolerant of any religion other than its own fundamentalist strain of Wahabi Islam. It is no coincidence that 15 of the 19 terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia and the rest came from nearby countries. Saudi Arabia is a country that, by rights, should be shunned by every government on the planet.

But they're not. For historical reasons, we've instead forged a longtime alliance with the princes of Riyadh. The world is paying a high price for this.

This Is Your Teenager's Brain on Soda

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 10:46 AM EDT

A growing number of doctors and public health experts now see sugar as one of the main culprits behind both widening waistlines and chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes. But scientists are only just discovering how the sweet substance affects the brain—especially the developing brain. As you might guess, sugar isn't exactly making young people sharper. In fact, researchers at the University of Southern California recently published a study showing a connection between sugar consumption and memory problems.

For the USC study, scientists gave adolescent rats sugar-sweetened drinks that contained either sugar or high-fructose corn syrup in "concentrations comparable to popular sugar-sweetened beverages." They observed the animals' ability to navigate through mazes compared to a control group of rats given plain water. The adolescent rats on sugar "were impaired in learning and remembering the task," says Scott Kanoski, the corresponding author of the study and an assistant professor of biological sciences at USC-Dornsife.

The researchers also found evidence of swelling in the part of the brain called the hippocampus. The swelling appeared in the adolescent rodents who consumed both sugary solutions, although the results were more pronounced for the rats given high-fructose corn syrup (usually the sweetener used in soda). Damage to this part of the brain is often found in people who suffer from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

The results of a memory test conducted. "Effects of Sucrose and High Fructose Corn Syrup Consumption on Spatial Memory Function and Hippocampal Neuroinflammation in Adolescent Rats," Hsu et al.

Kanoski says they did not determine why sugar influences the brain this way, but stressed that there was a clear connection to how it could impact youth. "We know that not only with adolescents, but with all critical period of development, there seems to be a higher susceptibility to environmental influences on behavior and biological systems," he says.

The study came out of a long line of research, headed by Kanoski and others, looking at the negative effects of the Western diet. This diet is high in saturated fats and simple sugars, and rats raised on it don't turn out too well: "They gain weight, they have increased adiposity, impaired glucose tolerance," Kanoski has found. Maybe even more disturbingly, they have "impaired cognitive processes," he says. Since these animals have similar physiological and neurobiological systems as humans, they serve as a reflection of how this diet might be screwing with our health and memories, too.

More than a quarter of teens drink at least a soda a day, and close to a fifth drink two or more.

In Kanoski's study, adult rats were also fed sugary diets and had to go through the mazes, but they didn't suffer the same cognitive defects as adolescents high on sugar. Assuming the results would hold true for people, that means we're feeding the population whose brains are more vulnerable to sugar the most sugary beverages. According to a 2011 National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief, teens and young adults consume more sweetened drinks than any other age groups. A food marketing study published by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012 shows that spending on soda marketing to teens was "higher than any other food category for teen marketing." This publicity appears to be working. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that more than a quarter of teens drink at least a soda a day, and close to a fifth drink two or more.

There might still be hope, though. Kanoski's team is now looking into whether sugar's negative affects can be turned around. Although Kanoski says he doesn't have results on this yet, "there have been other studies showing that animals can recover from cognitive deficits." But until stronger evidence of this turnaround arrives, add soda to the list of things you only realize later in life you wish you hadn't indulged so much in as a teen.