2011 - %3, April

Map: Transgender Employment Rights Make Headway

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 5:38 PM EDT

This week, Hawaii lawmakers voted to protect transgender people from public and private workplace discrimination, making the state the 13th (in addition to Washington, DC) to do so. Nevada's state Senate is considering similar legislation, and state committees in Connecticut and New York recently have as well. Another bill made some headway in Maryland before its Senate axed it.

The activity highlights an often neglected part of the LGBT rights struggle. On Monday, I blogged about a study with the obvious conclusion that "LGB" (lesbian, gay, and bisexual) teens were more likely to attempt suicide when they lacked support networks. That prompted a reader to ask, "…why leave out the T? Were trans kids not part of the survey? Generally, it's LGBT, not LGB."

Trans people weren’t part of the survey, and there aren’t a whole lot of statistics about discrimination against them. But a landmark survey of 6,450 trans and gender non-conforming people released in February by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force revealed some disturbing numbers:

  • Ninety percent of responders reported facing discrimination at work.
  • Unemployment rates were double the national average.
  • More than a quarter said they had been fired due to their gender identity.
  • Those who had lost their jobs were four times as likely to be homeless and 70 percent more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.

And, perhaps most remarkably (and most related to Monday's post), 41 percent of responders admitted to having attempted suicide.

In addition to DC and the 13 states that provide full employment non-discrimination protection for trans people, nine states have executive orders that mandate protection for state jobs. (It would be 10, but Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, let an executive order covering trans people expire in January.) On the federal level, the efforts of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to establish workplace protection rights have stalled since 2007, although President Obama has voiced his support.

Here's a look at where things stand now:

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Slow Crawl from Water to Land

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 3:30 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

The writer C.S. Lewis once said that 'Humans are amphibians–half spirit and half animal.' He may have been speaking symbolically, but he wasn't too far from the truth!

The name "amphibian" comes from the Greek meaning 'two' and 'modes of life'. Their ability to transform from water-breathing juveniles into an air-breathing adults meant a better chance at finding food and less of a chance that they would have to fight for it. But learning to breathe wasn't the only thing up against these aquatic pioneers. The greatest challenge was how to get there.

In the beginning, one group of amphibians developed multi-jointed leg-like fins which allowed them to crawl along the sea floor. And incredibly, the mudskipper pictured above is part of that same family. And not only were their bodies in an evolutionary deviation, but their minds were too!

In a recent study, fossils from 500 million year old rocks were found to have be exhibiting extraordinary ways of dealing with issues of protection as well as dry skin. Likened to the modern hermit crab, these brave explorers would adopt abandoned shells they probably found on their way toward the tidal flats and beaches where they could feed. And not only would the hard shell protect and disguise their fleshy body, but the inner chamber would also enable their gills to stay moist. Effectively using the shell as a tool to facilitate their terrestrial adventures into the unknown. Clever crawlers indeed.

Yet if the search for a shell was anything like the BBC Earth hermit crab video below, it may give us an idea why the animals of the oxygen-rich marine waters also developed other ways of living on land. Hot competition or what?

While acquiring many unique methods for biological, behavioural and ecological adjustment, amphibians have positioned themselves as one of the most innovative species on the planet. Always subject to change, the now three modern orders of amphibians include: frogs and toads, salamanders and newts, and caecilians which are limbless amphibians that mostly resemble snakes. Still, they retain a role which is vital to human society and it's survival.

Whether it's substances created from their glands that provide principle source for our medicines, or if it's the eating of insects, therefore lowering the potential for insect-borne disease to spread, humans owe amphibians tremendous respect.

And it's not only what they've done but what they are doing right now. Genetic researchers have recently found that frog DNA has several genes arranged in the same order as in humans. And one of these genes known as p21 has the ability to block, and more importantly unblock, the power to heal—but not just heal, recreate! Though still at the very early stages of study, this just proves that although it may have been a very slow crawl from water to land, it was definitely worth the wait!

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 April 2011

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 2:05 PM EDT

The cats were a little boring this week, so I didn't have a lot of new pictures to choose from. So here's the same bench from last week, but this time with both cats on it. I should note that this little scene of domestic bliss didn't last long. They never do. Eventually Inkblot gets a burr up his butt and ends up with the bench all to himself.

In other cat news, here's the story of George, who survived the fires raging in Texas this week and returned home in fine fettle. Apparently sardines did the trick. And I want to remind everyone that next Friday is the day of the royal wedding of Wills and Kate. With the help of my Anglophile sister, I'll try to have appropriate catblogging pictures to mark the great occasion. Assuming the cats cooperate, of course. Which they might. Or might not. Check in next week to find out.

Unsuck Earth Day, Please

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 2:00 PM EDT

This post was first published on Earth Day 2011.

Confession: I can't stand Earth Day. I know I'm not alone; by time I was born it was already getting a little cliché. And I actually do believe the equally tired idea that it should be every day, not just one single 24-hour period at the end of April that sometimes coincides with both Easter and Passover and the hockey playoffs. The reason I dislike it so much is that it has become just another excuse to peddle products of dubious "green" credentials and host events that involve celebrities in the lower-B-list category.

But I'm finding it especially hard to handle this year. Wednesday was the first anniversary of the Gulf oil disaster. It also comes against the backdrop of last year's total failure to pass a climate and energy bill in the Senate—or pass even the most basic legislation responding to the oil spill, arguably the worst environmental disaster in US history. Frankly, this Earth Day sucks because it just serves to remind me that the environmental movement is not exactly the powerhouse it was 41 years ago. Back then, millions of Americans mobilized not just to honor the environment as something worth protecting, but to demand that their leaders do something about it. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act as we know them today are all products of that generation of environmental activism.

If you can't make hay of a disaster—a visible, fast-moving one like the oil spill or a less tangible one like climate change—is there any hope of changing things? I know that the country's leading environmental groups have spent a good deal of the past year discussing, at least internally within individual groups, where the heck they went wrong. But there is still an unwillingness, it seems, to have a real conversation between groups and in the progressive community more broadly about what went wrong and what can be done better in the future.

To that end, a report released earlier this week has been creating a stir in the green world: In Climate Shift, Matthew Nisbet, a communication professor at American University, evaluates why environmental groups failed to pass a climate bill. It's generated quite a bit of controversy on two particular points—one, the conclusion that green groups actually outspent foes of the legislation and two, that media coverage of climate science has actually been pretty good. (Full disclosure: My partner is a colleague of Nisbet's at AU.)

Pack and Crack: Now Even Better!

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 1:55 PM EDT

The Washington Post reports that blacks are increasingly migrating into the suburbs, making the GOP's "pack and crack" gerrymandering strategy even easier than it used to be:

“The practical effect is great for the GOP,” said Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. “In state after state, it’s allowing Republicans to pack more heavily Democratic close-in suburbs into urban black districts to make surrounding districts more Republican.”

....Over the last few rounds of redistricting, Republicans have made a habit of “packing” as many reliably Democratic black voters into as few districts as possible, virtually guaranteeing black representation for those districts while also making nearby ones more winnable for the GOP.

In a way, this is almost a bipartisan, or perhaps biracial, strategy. Republicans like it because packing all the black voters in one place gives them more winnable districts elsewhere, and Democrats go along with it because it gives African-American candidates a chance to win congressional seats. Unfortunately, this is pretty much their only chance: only a handful of black members of Congress come from majority white districts because the sad truth is that, for the most part, white voters are still largely unwilling to vote for black candidates. And just to restate the obvious, this works out pretty well for Republicans, which goes a long way toward explaining why Fox News spent practically the entire summer last year scaring the hell out of white people.

Peep Show: The Best and Worst Peeps Art on Etsy (Photos)

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 12:40 PM EDT

I love a good Peep. Besides the Hunky Jesus Contest, the Peeps invasion of every drugstore and bodega in San Francisco is one of my favorite things about Easter. But why limit your Peeps intake to Easter-time? As these crafty folks on Etsy show, it's easy to get your Peeps fix year-round. My top 5 favorite Peeps-related crafts are below. And below the jump, the worst Peeps crafts found on Etsy. Prepare yourself.

1) Love Peeps AND Star Wars? Look no further! I can only speculate as to what a peeping Darth Vader would sound like. But really, can anything beat Boba Fett in knitted Peep form? I think we both know the answer to that one.

2) This woolly chick is not only very cute, she's well-proportioned for a Peep. I'd recommend it for a child if it wasn't a choking hazard.

3) While there are a number of cute, felted Peeps dolls on Etsy, these are the only ones I've seen that come in "screaming" and "regular."

4) Mama and baby Peeps. These are just too sweet. I love how the mothers seem so pleased to have three babies strapped to them with a piece of felt. We should all be so lucky.

5) Peeps scarf. You actually can't buy this scarf, just the pattern. Still, it's crafty, fun, and Peeptastic, even if they do kind of look like roadkill on the pavement.

Okay, those are the ones I liked. Below, my pick of the worst. And believe me, there was a lot to choose from.

1) I like the idea of a Peeps wreath. But for $20? And some of the Peeps are busted. This is surely the fastest shortcut to an epic ant infestation.

2) This is the equivalent of a scary clown painting, but with Peeps. I can feel them following me with their beady little asymmetrical eyes.

3) Peeps candle. Peeps are made out of marshmallow, right? So to show a group of them bathing in marshmallow stew is bit like me sitting in a hot tub full of blood. As the candle burns, I can only imagine the wax Peeps slowly melt into a vat of their own innards. Keep the kids away from this one.

4) Love on Peepback Mountain. This artist has combined a great romance movie, Brokeback Mountain, with Peeps. It is quite obviously shot in someone's backyard, but I kind of love that they've stolen some little girl's toys as props. I wonder how much of the $20 sale she'll get?

5) Unzip this artist's heart, and inside you will find a dirty, battered, Peep.

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Apple Knows Where You Are

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 12:36 PM EDT

When I first heard that Apple iPhones were collecting location data on users, I was a little skeptical of the possibility that this was just a mistake. The data, you see, was collected in a .db file, and that's not really something you're likely to do by accident. If your intent is to hold just the current location data in memory (and there are plenty of good reasons to do that), you'd just hold it in memory. You wouldn't create a database structure to do it.

Well, according to the Wall Street Journal, my skepticism was warranted:

Apple Inc.'s iPhones and Google Inc.'s Android smartphones regularly transmit their locations back to Apple and Google, respectively, according to data and documents analyzed by The Wall Street Journal—intensifying concerns over privacy and the widening trade in personal data.

Google and Apple are gathering location information as part of their race to build massive databases capable of pinpointing people's locations via their cellphones. These databases could help them tap the $2.9 billion market for location-based services—expected to rise to $8.3 billion in 2014, according to research firm Gartner Inc.

Neither Apple nor Google have deigned to comment on this issue. If they actually have an explanation for this, that better change pronto.

Who's Really Courageous Here?

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 12:10 PM EDT

Paul Ryan is "courageous" for proposing huge cuts to Medicare and Medicaid in order to finance tax cuts and balance the budget by 2050. But how about the Congressional Progressive Caucus? Their plan balances the budget sooner than Ryan's, and their numbers are more honest to boot. So why haven't they gotten any attention? Matt Steinglass thinks he knows:

The budget savings come from defence cuts, including immediately withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq, which saves $1.6 trillion over the CBO baseline from 2012-2021. The tax hikes include restoring the estate tax, ending the Bush tax cuts, and adding new tax brackets for the extremely rich, running from 45% on income over a million a year to 49% on income over a billion a year.

....Mr Ryan has been fulsomely praised for his courage. The Progressive Caucus has not. I'm not really sure what "courage" is supposed to mean here, but this seems precisely backwards. For 30 years, certainly since Walter Mondale got creamed by Ronald Reagan, the most dangerous thing a politician can do has been to call for tax hikes. Politicians who call for higher taxes are punished, which is why they don't do it. I'm curious to see what adjectives people would apply to the Progressive Congressional Caucus's budget proposal. But it's hard for me to imagine the media calling a proposal to raise taxes "courageous" and "honest". And my sense is that the disparate treatment here is a structural bias rooted in class.

Bingo! The Beltway elite mostly understands things like Medicare and Medicaid as academic subjects. They themselves don't really need them, so they can accept big cuts with considerable equanimity. But taxes are a different story. Higher tax rates affect them and their friends directly, so they're wide open to intellectual just-so stories about how high taxes are economically destructive.

This same personal dynamic also leaves them wide open to believing that entitlement cuts are courageous while tax increases on the well-off aren't. Ask a Wal-Mart clerk, though, and their life experience would probably push them in exactly the opposite direction. Neither one is inherently correct, but the difference is that Wal-Mart clerks don't usually get op-eds printed in the Washington Post. Beltway elites do. So one meme takes off and the other doesn't, even though both are equally rooted in little more than personal experience and class bias.

BREAKING: Anti-Shariah Bill Sponsors Are Kind of Clueless

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 11:44 AM EDT

On Wednesday, members of the North Carolina House debated HB 640, a bill to ban the use of Islamic Shariah law in state courts. This is nothing new: Since the beginning of 2009, two dozen states have considered such proposals, stemming from concerns that unless serious action is taken, American citizens will be forced to adhere to a draconian interpretation of Shariah. That's the argument, at least, but through each of these bills, there's been one nagging flaw—no one can explain, when pressed, why such legislation is necessary.

At this point, the drill is getting kind of familiar. How familiar? Well, here's Laura Leslie, of Raleigh's WRAL:

Rep. Verla Insko asked [State Rep. George] Cleveland twice for an example of a case that would show a need for the bill. "I do not have any specific examples off the top of my head," Cleveland finally replied.

Hey, that sounds similar to the scene on Tuesday when the Missouri House voted on a bill to ban Islamic law from state courts:

Raw Data: Everyone Loves Oil

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 11:25 AM EDT

"Price elasticity" is a measure of how people react to rising prices. A high number means they cut back sharply when prices rise. A low number means they just suck it up and keep buying.

So what's the elasticity of oil prices? This is important, because it tells us, for example, how people are likely to react to higher taxes on gasoline. Will they use less and find other ways to get around? Or is it damn the torpedoes, keep burning the stuff, and figure out other places to cut back?

Stuart Staniford draws our attention to the latest estimates from the IMF, and as he says, they're pretty eye popping. Here's the table:

Take a look at the bottom row. "Non-OECD" means poor countries, and the IMF figures that short-term price elasticity in poor countries is -0.007, which means that a 1% increase in price leads to only a 0.007% decrease in consumption. Put another way, even a 50% increase in price leads to only a negligible 0.35% decrease in consumption1. Long-term elasticity is higher, but even here a 50% price hike would lead to only a 1.8% decrease in consumption.

The rich world is modestly more sensitive. In the short term, a 50% price increase produces a 1.2% decrease in consumption. In the long term, it produces a 4.7% decrease.

Part of the reason for these tiny effects is that income elasticity is quite large. That is, when income goes up, oil demand also goes up. In the short term, a 1% income increase in the poor world produces a 0.7% increase in oil demand. So as long as incomes are going up in the developing world (and they are), the effect of higher incomes swamps the effect of higher oil prices.

If these numbers are right, they're pretty stunning. Even in the rich world, it apparently takes massive price increases to significantly reduce the demand for oil, even over a 20-year horizon. In the developing world, forget it. As long as incomes are going up, demand will go up. Urk.

1Actually, elasticity isn't necessarily linear, so a 50% increase might have a bigger effect than 50 times a 1% increase. However, it's probably not wildly non-linear at these levels, so the response to a 50% price increase is still likely to be quite small.