Blue Marble - January 2010

I Can See You're a Democrat

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 6:49 PM PST

Republicans look powerful. Democrats looks warm.

At least that's the conclusion of a new study in PloS ONE that reveals we can accurately identify if someone is a Republican or a Democrat from their headshot alone.

The Tufts University authors explain their three-tiered research:

  • In Study 1, perceivers were able to accurately distinguish whether US Senate candidates were either Democrats or Republicans based on photos of their faces.
  • Study 2 showed these effects extended to Democrat and Republican college students, based on their senior yearbook photos.
  • Study 3 showed these judgments were related to differences in perceived traits among the Democrat and Republican faces. Republicans were perceived as more powerful (translation: with faces showing more dominance and maturity) than Democrats. Democrats were perceived as more warm (translation: with faces showing more trustworthiness and likeability) than Republicans.

Prior research (and good old common sense) reveals that we all draw conclusions about others based on their appearance and behaviors. The face is the number one conduit of nonverbal communication about human behavioral traits, dispositions, and identities—including age, gender, race, and sexual orientation.

Most interesting, we in Western cultures judge competence and power from the faces of political candidates—and our judgments are fairly accurate predictors of a candidates' margin of victory. We may be born with this ability, since even children can judge politicians' faces and predict their electoral success.

But do crows do even better? According to a recent study in Animal Behaviour, crows recognize and remember—even years later—the faces of humans who've mistreated them.

If crows could vote, would we have suffered a second George Bush II term?

The article Democrats and Republicans Can Be Differentiated from Their Faces is open access online. Read for yourself what interesting creatures we are. Thanks to The Situationist for the link.
 

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Eco-News Roundup: Friday January 29

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 5:17 AM PST

Pact Facts: The Gloucester 'pregnancy pact' wasn't fact, but Lifetime has a movie about it anyway.

Still a Majority: Sen. Kent Conrad says Congress isn't meant to have a 60-seat requirement.

Pro-Nukes: Sen. Lindsey Graham says Obama is bullish on nuclear.

Seeing Brown: Enviros say Arkansas Democrat Sen. Blanche Lincoln is one of Congress' dirtiest.

Tips from Kerry: John Kerry thinks climate activists can take a page from Tea Partiers' playbook.

DOA?: Now that Brown's elected, can healthcare reform be resuscitated

No Way: It may be illegal to alter healthcare bill's abortion clause, says Harry Reid's rep.

Coal Speaks: New bipartisan pro-coal group comes to Congress.

Passing Blame: Why are Democrats blamed for healthcare failure instead of Republicans?

Sneak Attack: The PR firm behind Swift Boaters may have climate in its cross-hairs.

State of Affairs: How's healthcare looking pre-State of the Union address?

Capped: Cap and trade may be truly dead now that Sen. Lindsey Graham has abandoned it.

Big Moment: Some point out that if healthcare is passed, it'll be huge historically.

Low on Totem Pole: Obama's SOTU speech gets to healthcare around the 10th paragraph.

Good News?: Some cautiously good news on prospect of passing healthcare bill.

 

 

Whole Foods to Employees: Lose Weight

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 4:30 PM PST

The idea that Whole Foods Markets might not be as wholesome as consumers assume isn't really news. Kate Sheppard recently reported that the grocery chain earned a 27 out of a possible 100 rating on its sustainable business practices according to a recent report, and CEO John Mackey is a climate change skeptic. An August op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Mackey against healthcare reform led some consumers to call for a boycott. But Mackey's most recent antics have angered not only those in favor of healthcare reform, but also consumers who care about privacy issues and body policing.

According to documents received by Jezebel, employees who participate in Whole Foods' new Team Member Healthy Discount Incentive Program will be ranked according to BMI, cholesterol, blood pressure, and nicotine use. While all Whole Foods employees receive a 20 percent store discount, those who achieve the "Platinum" level in the program by having low results in all four metrics get bumped up to a 30 percent discount. But it's not just employees' lifestyles that count. The program also rewards employees simply for having good genes: Non-smoking employees who have a BMI under 24 (18.5-24.9 is considered normal), but have inherited high cholesterol, will be relegated to "the lowest-scoring biometric" and will have to make due with a 27 percent discount. Employees who do not meet Platinum requirements for other health reasons (like diabetes) are similarly out of luck.

Documents state that the initiative is "directly in line with two of our core values—supporting team member happiness and excellence and promoting the health of our stakeholders through healthy eating education." While it's common knowledge that not smoking and having lower blood pressure and total cholesterol can lead to better health, it seems a bit much to assume that hitting the questionable BMI metrics will lead to happy and healthy employees. Good thing Mackey doesn't have to worry about employee unions collectively questioning the new policy, since those, like high BMIs, are frowned upon.

In a letter sent out to employees, Mackey states that the program is being implemented to lower rising healthcare costs for both Whole Foods Markets and its employees. Mackey might do better working towards real health care reform—policies that could lower costs for all US employers and individuals—rather than whittling the waistlines of his employees.

 

 

Vermont's Nuclear FAIL

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 1:07 PM PST

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama praised nuclear energy as a promising renewable option to help solve the country's energy crisis. But rising radioactive chemical levels at a nuclear plant in Vermont give us another reason to be queasy about the idea... as if we needed one.

In response to leaks of tritium (radioactive hydrogen) at nuclear plants in Illinois and New York, the Vermont Yankee plant began monitoring the harmful chemical in 2007. In recent weeks, tritium levels have spiked in water sources surrounding the plant, prompting Vermont lawmakers to question whether they should extend Vermont Yankee's operating license, which expires in 2012. The New York Times reports:

Vermont's governor, Jim Douglas, a longtime supporter of the plant, said on Wednesday in a statement that recent events had "raised dark clouds of doubt" about the reactor’s safety and management. He suggested that the Legislature put off any decisions on the future of the plant, located in the town of Vernon.
If the nuclear plant were to be denied an extension, it would be the first such move by the public or its representatives since 1989, when residents in Sacramento voted to close the Rancho Seco nuclear plant, owned by their municipal utility. No state legislature has ever voted to close one.

Despite the environmentally harmful waste and potential dangers associated with nuclear energy, applications to build new reactors have surged in the past three years. But as the need for increased renewable energy production expands, so does the perceived necessity of nuclear power. And nuclear lobbyists hope to capitalize on this trend by securing massive federal loan guarantees for new reactors from the Climate bill currently being debated in Congress.

But nuclear energy isn't the homerun that the NEI and congressional politicians want you to think it is. And chemical mishaps like the tritium scare in Vermont should make Congress pause before it prioritizes the industry over cleaner, safer renewable options like wind and solar. 

Is Your Co-Worker an Alien?

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 6:01 AM PST

Prepare to have your mind blown.

A new Scientific American article by Paul Davies suggests that life as we know it on earth did not necessarily come from a single source. In fact, proof of extraterrestrial life could be "right under our noses—or even in our noses," but it cannot be scientifically proven because "we've just scratched the surface of the microbial world." As Davies tells the Associated Press:

Unusual organisms abound — including chemical-eating bacteria which dwell deep in the ocean and organisms that thrive in boiling-hot springs—but that doesn't mean they're different life forms entirely.
"How weird do they have to be to suggest a second genesis as opposed to just an obscure branch of the family tree?" he said. Davies suggested that the only way to prove an organism wasn't "life as we know it" was if it were built using exotic elements which no other form of life had.

Thankfully, this concept has already been breached by the immortal genius that is Battlestar Galactica. As the survivors of the 12 colonies learned the hard way, our ancestors (in some form) could have collided with alien life forms long before recorded history. Now, I'm not suggesting that you should start suspecting that your friends or co-workers are aliens, or even worse, robotic cylon aliens. But if you're about to embark on a journey to discover extraterrestrial life, at least consider the possibility that it's you.

(h/t David Knowles)

News From TreeHugger: EPA Slaps Coal Plant With Big Fine, Brazil's Lula Tells Rich World to Clean Up, Texas Gets a New Load of Mercury Waste

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 6:00 AM PST

Editor's Note: A weekly roundup from our friends over at TreeHugger. Enjoy!

Kansas Utility Agrees to 500 Million Dollar Penalty for Coal-Fired Power Plant Emission Violations

The corporate owner of a Kansas coal-fired electricity generation plant has agreed to a half-billion dollar settlement for Clean Air Act non-compliance. Per the EPA news release: Westar Energy to Spend Approximately $500 Million to Settle Clean Air Act Violations. Emissions to be cut by more than 75,000 tons annually. That's roughly 6.7 million dollars per ton of excess pollutants emitted since they first modified their coal-fired plant without proper permit approvals. With the Cheney protectorate gone, they, and many other coal-fireds, have to do what the law long required.

US Official Tells Wind-Powered World Bank to Stop Funding Coal Power Plants

There's all sorts of pot and kettle talk going on in this one. The Times of India reports that US Executive Director at the World Bank Group Whitney Debevoise has written a letter saying the World Bank and other multilateral development banks should stop funding building coal power plants in developing nations; they instead should "remove barriers to and build demand for no or low carbon resources."

World Solar Forum: "Rich Nations, Clean Up Your Mess!"

Although the venues of the World Social Forum were scattered throughout the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil and the issues ranged from economic injustice to looming environmental catastrophes, the antagonist at each was shared: Capitalism. The highlight of the second day of the Forum was a visit from Brazil's President Lula, who delivered a rousing speech articulating much of what was discussed earlier in the day, vowing that Brazil is prepared to take the lead on Green reform—and that other nations, particularly the world's biggest polluters, need to make up for the harm they've caused.

States Step Up to Defend Endangerment Finding

Last year, the EPA issued a long awaited set of guidelines on regulating large, stationary sources of CO2. The rules, known as the "Endangerment Finding," used the authority granted to the agency through a Supreme Court ruling that found CO2 to be a pollutant that the EPA could regulate. While environmentalists, especially those skeptical of Congress' ability to regulate CO2, rejoiced, some industry groups protested, filing a lawsuit. Today, 16 states and New York City joined the lawsuit on behalf of the government.

Tons of Unwanted Mercury Will Make 40-Year Visit to Texas

The USDOE prepared a full Environmental Impact Statement as the basis for selecting a site to store tons of mercury which no longer can be legally exported. Now we know what happens to all those old mercury thermometers - off to Texas, where they will be interred at a new facility managed by Waste Control Specialists, LLC, near Andrews.

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America Seesaws on Global Warming

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 4:39 PM PST

Public opinion, that dizzying pendulum, is swinging towards disbelief on the issue of global warming. According to a new national survey (pdf), public concern about global warming dropped sharply since late 2008. The researchers from Yale and George Mason universities found:

  • Only 50 percent of Americans now feel "somewhat worried " or "very worried" about global warming, a 13 point decrease from 2008
  • Only 57 percent of Americans think global warming is happening, down 14 points
  • Only 47 percent of Americans think global warming is caused mostly by human activities, down 10 points
  • Only 34 percent of Americans believe most scientists think global warming is happening, down 13 points
  • Some 40 percent of the public now believes scientists strongly disagree over whether global warming is happening or not

Furthermore, the number of Americans who think global warming will never harm people in the US or elsewhere or other species is rising. Principle investigator Anthony Leiserowitz, whose earlier study I wrote about in the Thirteenth Tipping Point, told George Mason University:

"Despite growing scientific evidence that global warming will have serious impacts worldwide, public opinion is moving in the opposite direction. Over the past year the United States has experienced rising unemployment, public frustration with Washington, and a divisive health care debate, largely pushing climate change out of the news. Meanwhile, a set of emails stolen from climate scientists and used by critics to allege scientific misconduct may have contributed to an erosion of public trust in climate science."

The first thing these alarming results tell me is that the public misunderstanding of science is profound. The second, that scientists need to get louder fast, and those with tenure should start shouting now. Third, that we desperately need scientists willing to enter the political fray, to shape rational government and rational policies. We've got too much political science and not enough scientific politics.

Will Obama even mention global warming in his State of the Union address tonight?
 

Coke's New, Semi-Green Bottles

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 3:55 PM PST

Last May, Coke announced that it would be making new plastic bottles composed of 30% sugarcane-based materials. Just this week, the new PlantBottle™ finally reached US shelves. But just because Coca-Cola is using Brazilian sugarcane to make part of its bottles, does that mean they're green?

Using sugarcane does reduce the amount of petroleum put into each 20 oz. bottle, and cuts down on carbon emissions by about 15%, according to a study funded by the company (it's still awaiting third-party analysis). But, it's still plastic. Plastic makes up 11% of all municipal waste, and takes hundreds of years to biodegrade in landfills: only 7% of it makes it to a recycling facility. If Coke really wanted to be green, they could cut out plastic all together and only use aluminum cans. Cans are recycled more often (55%) than plastic bottles and can be melted down and converted into new products infinitely, whereas plastic generally only gets one or two more go-arounds, turned into lawn edging or fleece jackets, before it degrades beyond further usability.

But what about the sugarcane? Does it really have to get flown all the way from Brazil? And does it have to come from sugarcane used to make ethanol, rather than the sugarcane already being used to make the sugar and molasses that go into Coke? Without knowing more about Coke's exact manufacturing and bottling process it's hard to tell how much the sugarcane's origins contribute to the final product's carbon emissions. At least the PlantBottle™ is a (small) step in the right direction. It would be great if Coke could make fully biodegradable, low-emission bottles like these Japanese sake bottles made of squid. Until then, I'll take a look at the PlantBottle™, but I'll buy a can.

 

 

No More Bison? Try Tanks

| Tue Jan. 26, 2010 6:50 PM PST

Fort Riley in the Flint Hills of Kansas is situated inside 100,000 acres of North American tallgrass prairie—a rich ecosystem once home to a complete iconography of American wildlife: bison, wolves, bears, coyotes, and eagles, to name a few. Now it's home to the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, and home to tanks and other heavy military machinery.

You might imagine that explosions and tanks are incompatible with wildlife. But 11 years of birdlife surveys from Fort Riley, compared with 11 years of birdlife surveys at the nearby Konza Prairie Biological Station, found the number and composition of landbird species essentially identical at both.

How can this be? The 8,600-acre Konza Prairie is a nearly pristine tract managed by the Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University specifically to minimize human impact on the landscape. Fort Riley is seriously downtrodden countryside managed by the US Army specifically to maximize the favorable outcomes of violent conflicts.

The authors hypothesize that the secret to Fort Riley's biological success may lie in the fact that tanks and explosions mimic the erstwhile effects of bison and wildfires on the environment here. Heavy equipment and live-fire exercises trample, burn, and fragment the prairie into a mosaic of disturbed and undisturbed areas similar to what existed prior to humans supressing fire and annihilating the bison.

(Other explanations are possible too, says the paper in Environmental Management: Fort Riley may act as a population sink, killing off its birds, which are then replenished by colonizers from the surrounding countryside—though the authors doubt this explanation.)

This study does not address the fate of wildlife other than grassland birds. But its results bode positively for at least the possibility that the other 2.5 million acres of military bases owned by the US military might similarly hide super secret pockets of biodiversity… a fragment of good news in this, the International Year of Biodiversity.

This is what I love about science: The only predictable outcome is that your assumptions will be challenged by the data.

Thanks to the blog Conservation Maven for a heads up on this story.
 

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday January 26

| Tue Jan. 26, 2010 6:14 AM PST

Bowl Ban: Nothing says Superbowl time like anti-abortion commercials. Go team!

Pitch Lesson: Want to stop climate change? Stop talking about it, says one ad man.

Pay More: The Chamber's record-breaking anti-climate lobbying spending.

Starting Over?: Here's what starting healthcare reform from scratch might look like.

Selling Short: Pelosi doesn't have what she needs to pass Senate healthcare.

Know Nothings: Poll shows Americans know very little about healthcare reform bill.

Adios 2009: Special interest lobbyists stymied healthcare and climate last year. Niiice.