Blue Marble - February 2012

Mazda Enlists Kids to Market Cars in Exchange for Library Books

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 4:03 PM EST

The internet was aflurry last week after Mazda launched new advertisements for its crossover SUV featuring the endorsement of The Lorax. Many balked at the idea that the much-loved Dr. Seuss book that debuts on the big screen on March 2 would be used to sell cars. But today it gets even worse: Apparently, Mazda is now deploying people in Lorax costumes to schools to get kids to convince their parents to test-drive the new car.

From the Washington Post:

The sales pitch is part of the National Education Association’s “Read Across America tour — Driven by Mazda,” which arrived at Alexandria’s James K. Polk Elementary School on Tuesday.
It was a hybrid event: a celebration of reading, a fundraiser for public-school libraries, and an opportunity to market Mazdas to the pint-size set. While they don’t buy many cars themselves, they have direct access to parents who do.

According to the National Education Association's website, Mazda and Universal Pictures are teaming up to raise up to $1 million for public school libraries. The catch, though, is that public school libraries will get $25 for every test-drive of a Mazda vehicle between Feb. 21 and April 2, 2012. So, in order to get the money, schools will need to get parents to go test-drive the cars—hence the need to enlist a fleet of mini-marketers.

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10 Coal-Fired Power Plants Shuttered

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 3:12 PM EST

Christmas came on Leap Day for anti-coal activists. On Wednesday, two Midwestern utilities announced the closure of a total of ten aging coal plants, including two intercity Chicago plants that have long been a focal point for environmental groups.

Midwest Generation announced that it will close Chicago's Fisk Power Plant in 2012 and the Crawford Plant in 2014. Local and national activists have been targeting those two plants for their impacts on poorer city neighborhoods, and new mayor Rahm Emanuel also recently threatened to shut them down. GenOn Energy announced that it is closing eight plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey because the cost of complying with tougher new pollution rules will be too high.

Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, both of which are running campaigns focused on closing older, polluting plants, were certainly cheered by the news. "The Fisk and Crawford coal plants have loomed over the City of Chicago for a hundred years, fueling climate change and exposing families to dangerous levels of soot, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide," said Kelly Mitchell, a Chicago-based Greenpeace organizer. "After a groundbreaking ten-year grassroots campaign to shut down these archaic plants, Chicagoans have reclaimed their right to clean air."

New Hot Guy App Reminds You To Touch Yourself

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 2:21 PM EST

Can hot dudes get women to do regular breast self-exams? That's the inspiration for a new app, wherein studly guys pop up on your phone every month to remind you to feel yourself up. It comes from the Canadian charity Rethink Breast Cancer, which focuses on women under age 40. Here's their promotional video, wherein the hot guys demonstrate how to conduct an exam while strutting around shirtless:

A colleague currently at TEDActive sent along the video after seeing the group's presentation. It's both funny and accessible, though I must admit to feeling like one of the YouTube commenters who found the over-the-top sexualization of men just as disturbing as when it's women using their bodies to sell a product or idea. I also had to wonder if they're planning to make a corollary app for lesbians, but that would probably end up being used for purposes other than reminding women to conduct self exams.

California Government Has No Idea Fracking Is Happening

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 1:00 PM EST

Gas well drilling in Sutter or Colusa County, California: CalWest/FlickrGas well drilling in Sutter/Colusa County, California CalWest/FlickrThere isn't supposed to be much fracking in California. In the past, the state's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) has said that it "does not believe that fracking is widely used" in the state. More recently, the division allowed that the practice is "used for a brief period to stimulate production of oil and gas wells," but added (PDF) that "the division doesn't believe the practice is nearly as widespread as it is in the Eastern U.S. for shale gas production."

Californians, then, should be able to breathe a sigh of relief, since the controversial practice of fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, has been linked to a host of environmental problems, including air pollution, groundwater contamination, and possibly even earthquakes.

But according to a report (PDF) just released by the Environmental Working Group, fracking is much more common in California than the regulators would like you to believe. A team of EWG investigators has unearthed dozens of industry documents and academic papers indicating that the practice has been going on in at least six California counties for 60 years or more. And evidence suggests that it's still going strong: "We asked Halliburton, 'What percentage of wells are you fracking in Kern County, for example?,'" says Bill Allayud, EWG's California Director of Governmental Affairs. "And they said 50 to 60 percent of oil wells." A 2008 paper by the Halliburton subsidiary Pinnacle Technologies detailed the widespread current use of fracking in California.

The DOGGR didn't respond to the multiple emails I sent asking for comment, and EWG says that in a meeting earlier this month, division officials claimed again that it did not have any information about fracking in California. But the really strange thing is that the practice is clearly on the agency's mind: In 2010, the DOGGR requested funding to broaden its regulatory program to include new oil extraction technologies like fracking. It received more than $3.2 million for that very purpose in its 2010-11 budget, but according to the EWG report, so far it has not used the funds to regulate fracking. "They told us that regulating fracking is not on their plate," Allayud says. "Until they see manifest harm, they won't act." 

Wild Parrots Crash the 'Burbs

| Tue Feb. 28, 2012 6:46 PM EST

Feral parrots in San Francisco.

San Francisco's famed wild—actually, feral—Telegraph Hill parrots are fleeing the overcrowded flighways of the city for the gentler skies of suburbia, reports the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Approximately 100 of the conures have been seen about 10 miles south on the slopes of San Bruno Mountain in Brisbane feeding on juniper and hawthorn berries. 

Or maybe it's the reverse of a fascinating study of wild crows in Seattle a few years back, which found that young suburban-raised birds moved into the city when they reached sexual maturity, joining large flocks of single birds looking for mates.

Maybe San Francisco's mated birds are looking for a quieter 'hood to raise the kids. 

 

 

It's Polar Bear Day. How Much Do You Care?

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 2:34 PM EST

Happy International Polar Bear Day! In case you haven't heard, polar bears could be gone by 2050, we're losing enough Arctic ice each year to blanket Alaska, Texas, and Washington state, and a host of oil companies are straining at the leash to get at receding Arctic ice shelves—estimated to contain some 25 percent of the world's untapped oil reserves—despite the inherent dangers of arctic oil exploration (imagine cleaning up a BP-sized oil spill in subzero conditions).

A lot of this is probably old news by now. Indeed, recent General Social Surveys have shown that Americans today know quite a bit more about polar regions than they did in 2006. But knowing more doesn't necessarily mean caring more, as seen in a recent analysis of public perceptions about polar regions (PDF). So exactly how much do you care, compared with the rest of the country? Take this survey and find out.

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Does Dry Cleaning Cause Cancer?

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST
A shuttered dry cleaner

Rarely do I darken the doorstep of a dry cleaner. That's mainly because I am too cheap and lazy; I admit to having inflicted some verboten wash cycles on my few dry-clean-only dresses, followed by a sheepish line dry. The result is usually wrinkly but passable. I'm lucky: As you probably could have guessed, freshly pressed suits are not the prevailing style at MoJo HQ. But I know plenty of people, especially men, who have to haul their collared shirts to the dry cleaner every week.

Unfortunately, all that dry cleaning takes a toll on the environment. The main reason is the chemical solvent that the vast majority of the nation's 34,000 dry cleaners use: tetrachloroethylene, or "perc" (short for another one of its names, perchloroethylene), which has found its way into soil, streams, and even drinking water. This month, in its first update on perc since 1988, the EPA officially identified it as a "likely human carcinogen." It also changed the chemical's reference dose—the amount of a substance considered to safe to ingest every day—from 0.01 miligrams per kilogram of body mass a day to 0.006 mg/kg, a decrease of 40 percent.

Heartland's Tips For A Taut Tummy

| Sat Feb. 25, 2012 12:36 AM EST

Sure. From time to time we're all a little distracted by that stubborn Winter padding. Too much New Year cheer. Now it's nearly March! And goodness knows we've all done some light non-work-related Googling at the office desk on an otherwise quiet Friday afternoon.

But in the middle of an all-out international PR-offensive against alleged "fraud"; and "theft"; leveled at several quarters of the "lamestream media", maybe it's best to not only minimize, but close a few browser windows? Even if it was a pop-up ad.

A string of emails released Friday afternoon by the Heartland Institute, in the form of screenshots, details how scientist Peter Gleick obtained sensitive documents by posing as a board member.But they also reveal divided attention at a crucial moment in the Institute's PR campaign. An open browser window at the bottom of many of the screengrabs is titled "42 Best Ways To Lo..."

A quick Google reveals pages and pages of referring links to 42 Best Ways To Lose Stomach Fat Fast.

The Guardian also points to other areas of carelessness in the email release:

... it does not appear, from Friday's release, that Heartland has had a security overhaul. Despite redactions, one of the emails contained a list of board recipients, including one email address.

Malaria Cure for Mom Risks Child's Immunity

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 4:06 PM EST

Life cycle of malaria.

Being born with immunity to the diseases prevalent in your 'hood because you inherited the antibodies from your mother (who suffered and survived the disease) is an important factor in human survival and adaptability This is especially true in places where you're likely to be reinfected with the same disease/parasite multiple times in your lifetime.

But what happens if you treat the mother for the infection? Will her children inherit maternal immunity? The evidence remains inconclusive as to whether treating human moms for malaria improves the survival rate of their kids. But a new study in mice shows: not so much.

The paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B finds that:

  • Baby mice born to moms who had been infected by malaria had their mortality reduced by 75 percent compared to babies born to moms who had never been infected with malaria and had no antibodies to confer. 
  • Baby mice born to infected moms treated with antimalarial drugs received fewer maternal antibodies and consequently died at a rate 25 percent higher than babies born from infected, untreated moms.

The authors write:

We observed the same qualitative patterns across three different host strains and two parasite genotypes. This study...highlights a potential trade-off between the health of mothers and offspring, suggesting that anti-parasite treatment may significantly affect the outcome of infection in newborns.

I wrote in an earlier post how rising global temperatures are likely drive malaria into 'hoods where it doesn't live now. 

The open-access paper:

  • Vincent Staszewski, Sarah E. Reece, Aidan J. O'Donnell, and Emma J. A. Cunningham. Drug treatment of malaria infections can reduce levels of protection transferred to offspring via maternal immunity. Proc. R. Soc. B 2012 : rspb.2011.1563v1-rspb20111563.

 

DIY Weather Records

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 4:17 PM EST

 Record extreme temperatures for 1-23 February 2012.: Wundergound

Record extreme temperatures for 1-23 February 2012: WundergoundWundergound has launched a cool new tool today called Record Extremes that lets you see and sort US and international records for temperature, rainfall, and snowfall set on a map and a table.

The image above is one I generated for the month of February (so far: 1-23 Feb 2012), looking at daily-maximum-high-temp records and all-time-max-high-temp records for the lower 48. It returned 450 record highs plotted on the map, plus a list of each record in a table format (not shown).

The site is a lot more interactive than this screen save. You can click on each record on the map and see its stats, then zoom in for a closer look.

Many of the icons on the map above are actually bundles of several records in close proximity. As you can see, it's been a record-breaking February in the US, with some places breaking multiple records (gray icons).

As for the data behind the tool, here's what Angela Fritz at WunderBlog writes:

The product uses data from three sources: (1) NOAA's National Climate Data Center [NCDC], (2) Wunderground's US records, and (3) Wunderground's International records. The NCDC records begin in 1850 and include official NOAA record extreme events for... weather stations in all 50 US states as well as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Pacific Islands. In this database you can find records for maximum high temps, minimum high temps, maximum low temps, minimum high temps, snow, and precipitation on daily, monthly, and all-time scales.