Blue Marble

Why Superdelegates Are a Mob

| Mon Mar. 3, 2008 10:13 PM EST

Prison.jpg What happens to the Democratic primary when you plug it into the Prisoner's Dilemma? You know, that classic game theory tool (born from mathematics and economics and now used across many disciplines to analyze optimal behavior strategies when the outcome is uncertain and is dependent on the choices of others). Well, you might think superdelegates are good. You might think they're bad. But according to polysciblogger Jay Cost at RealClearPolitics the outcome is essentially anarchy:

The core problem is that the Democrats have empowered the super delegates to break a tie, but they have not empowered anybody to manage the super delegates. There are no rules that demand the super delegates convene and discuss with one another. There is nobody in charge of regulating the debate. There is nothing to punish the super delegates who are small-minded, nothing to reward the big-minded. There are no time restrictions that require them to make up their minds prior to the convention. They are wholly unfettered. Thus, the super delegates have a great deal in common with a mob. They're a mob of experienced, qualified politicos who care about the party. If the Democratic Party were to be put at the mercy of a mob—this is the mob you'd want. But it is a mob nonetheless. This is why large institutions—like the House and the Senate—have reams of rules governing member behavior. If the members of those institutions are to do their jobs ably, they need a framework for interaction. Otherwise, their talents may be squandered amidst the chaos.

Squandered talents. Amidst the chaos. Sounds like Normal to me… Thanks to Jake Young blogging at Pure Pedantry for pointing the way on this.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Who Does Your Unconscious Want to Vote For?

| Mon Mar. 3, 2008 8:41 PM EST

228705707_b26afccb91_m.jpg Maybe not who your conscious mind prefers. Want to find out? Take the 10-minute online Project Implicit test designed by psycholowonks at the U of Washington, the U of Virginia and Harvard. The test is fun, made me laugh, and will crack that oh-so-dark door to your secret feelings about the main candidates. Thanks to Peter Aldhous at Short Sharp Science for the heads-up on this, and for his results revealing a secret crush on Hillary. He's not alone, the test shows that many rate Clinton higher on the implicit test than their conscious attitudes speak—for both men and women.

As for my unconscious, it's, well, so unconscious and insists on paralleling my conscious, which rates Clinton high anyway... The really fun part, the one we'll surely never know, is: Who would the candidates themselves secretly prefer?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

China's More-Child Policy?

| Sun Mar. 2, 2008 6:48 PM EST

566394520_9e9b6d4f93_m.jpg China is considering scrapping its one-child policy because of worries about an ageing population and how much of a social net the country can afford without the traditional reliance on large families to care for the aged. "We want incrementally to have this [one-child policy] change," said Vice Minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission Zhao Baige. Planet Ark reports that teams studying the issue would have to consider the strain of China's huge population on its scarce resources.

Okay, it doesn't take a lot of number crunching to recognize that no amount of young workers "supporting" the elderly will make up for droughts, floods, deforestation, dustbowls-for-croplands, climate change, sea-level rise, extinctions, and economic meltdown that will follow in the wake of more people on our little world. This goes for all nations toying with or employing pronatalist policies: US, France, Russia, Australia, Canada, Japan, and growing…

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Missing Link Never Lost

| Fri Feb. 29, 2008 2:11 AM EST

493px-Horseevolution.png At least not since 1861, when the first Archaeopteryx fossil bridging birds and dinosaurs was discovered. Creationists have got it wrong (again), according to a new piece in New Scientist. Archaeopteryx rose from German limestones only 2 years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, wherein he predicted that so-called missing-links would be found. And they were. And they are, writes Donald Prothero:

In the 1870s the iconic sequence of fossil horses was documented. By the time of Darwin's death in 1882 there were numerous fossils and fossil sequences showing evolutionary change, especially among invertebrates. Evidence of evolution in the fossil record has vastly increased since then. Yet the idea still persists that the fossil record is too patchy to provide good evidence of evolution. One reason for this is the influence of creationism. Foremost among their tactics is to distort or ignore the evidence for evolution; a favourite lie is "there are no transitional fossils".

In fact transitions are everywhere: the emergence of vertebrates from echinoderms (sea urchins, starfish & kin); the "fishibian" sequence (pdf) whereby fish crawled ashore; the transition from synapsids to mammals; plus sequences showing how giraffes got their long necks, seals returned to the sea; and the hippolike transition that returned manatees and their kin back to the ocean… The list is growing, deepening, and, well, evolving.

NYs Black Cabs Go Green

| Thu Feb. 28, 2008 2:52 AM EST

237M3847b.jpg Good news for New Yorkers. And Earthers. New York City set new fuel emissions standards for the city's 10,000 black taxis Wednesday. Town car owners must switch to hybrid tech within 5 years. The move, reports Reuters, is part of Mayor Bloomberg's grand plan to decrease the city's carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Yellow cabs in New York are already under a 2012 deadline for going green. Black town cars serve mostly corporate clients and make 2 percent of the city's transport-related emissions. Hybrids will cut that in half.

Not to mention sweeten the urban air.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Biodiesel Burps... Wrong Mix

| Wed Feb. 27, 2008 11:20 PM EST

Soybus.jpg What if the biodiesel you're buying doesn't have as much biodiesel as advertised? Or a whole lot more? Well, according to a new analysis of more than 20 distributors and small U.S. retailers, blends sold as 20% biodiesel contained as little as 10% or as much as 74% biodiesel. The study by Christopher Reddy at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and colleagues is published in Environmental Science & Technology.

The problems are manifold (pun, sadly, intended): from a shaken public confidence to tax credits given in excess of what sellers deserve. Plus, blends containing more than 20% biodiesel can damage hoses and gaskets in cars manufactured before 1993, and can also freeze in cold temperatures. This could plug fuel filters or freeze fuel solid in the tank. The blending problem is most apparent with smaller mom-and-pop retailers mixing it themselves. From ES&T:

The biodiesel industry is trying to rein in the problem, says Amber Pearson, a spokesperson for the National Biodiesel Board, by working with ASTM on standards that will include biodiesel blends. States will then have to adjust their own regulations to include blend verification.

Growing pains, let's hope.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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China Sacks Plastic Bags

| Wed Feb. 27, 2008 1:25 AM EST

Chinese_dragons.gif The dragon is changing its color. China launched a surprise crackdown on plastic bags in January. Now production of ultra-thin bags is outlawed and supermarkets and shops are forbidden from handing out free carrier bags starting June 1. Reuters reports via the Xinhua news agency that the country's largest plastic bag maker—Suiping Huaqiang Plastic Co, which employed 20,000 workers—has closed following a state-led environmental campaign discouraging plastics. Before the ban, China used 3 billion plastic bags a day and refined 37 million barrels of crude oil yearly for packaging.

Compare with America's 380 billion plastic bags a year. That's right: 1 billion-plus "disposable" bags a day. Of which only 1 percent get recycled. The rest go into landfill. Or to kill wildlife.

Go green dragon.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

The West Gets 500% Dustier

| Mon Feb. 25, 2008 10:41 PM EST

dustbowl.jpg The west wasn't always so dusty. It got a whole more so in the past 200 years, 500 percent more so—thanks to American expansion, complete with trains, ranches, and livestock. Sediment records from dust blown into alpine lakes in southwest Colorado's San Juan Mountains over millennia indicate the sharp rise in dust deposits beginning in the middle of the last century. "From about 1860 to 1900, the dust deposition rates shot up so high that we initially thought there was a mistake in our data," said geologist Jason Neff of the University of Colorado Boulder. "But the evidence clearly shows the western U.S. had its own Dust Bowl beginning in the 1800s when the railroads went in and cattle and sheep were introduced into the rangelands. There were an estimated 40 million head of livestock on the western rangeland during the turn of the century, causing a massive and systematic degradation of the ecosystems." The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act imposed restrictions on western grazing lands, and the deposits show a coinciding decrease in dust that continues to this day.

Another reason to bring back the bison.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Business 101: Get Green

| Fri Feb. 22, 2008 9:20 PM EST

1337749333_03b6978c70_m.jpg Great piece in the Christian Science Monitor on a worldwide greening business climate. Notably, clean technology investments are on the rise because going green is turning out to be good for the bottom line. Businesses are surveying CO2 footprints, purchasing greenhouse-gas credits, and hinging executive bonuses on environmental targets. Meanwhile, Florida now requires investment managers of state money to report on the potential effects of climate risk as part of their semiannual reviews. Influential California state employee and teacher pension funds, collectively managing $420 billion, are devising strategies tied to climate change and potentially pulling capital from ungreen businesses. From the CSM:

A new study by international consulting firm McKinsey finds that half the necessary cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions can be achieved at a net profit. The study shows that investment in energy efficiency of about $170 billion annually worldwide would yield a profit of about 17 percent, or $29 billion. The Financial Times reports: "Diana Farrell, director of the McKinsey Global Institute, said: 'It shows just how much deadweight loss there is in the economy in energy use.' She said the most inefficient sector was heavy industry in China, with the second residential housing in the US, where homes are large, poorly insulated.

Meanwhile Michael Specter in the New Yorker writes that "Possessing an excessive carbon footprint is rapidly becoming the modern equivalent of wearing a scarlet letter." He reports on Sir Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco supermarkets, Britain's largest retailer:

McCain: Environmental Truant?

| Fri Feb. 22, 2008 8:11 PM EST

McCainCrop.jpgThe League of Conservation Voters recently released its 2007 environmental scorecard—Sen. John McCain's score: 0. This has to be a disappointment for the Republican front-runner who received the LCV's green endorsement in 2004, and who posts a (slightly) better lifetime score of 24. (This is out of 100; in comparison Senators Clinton and Obama post lifetime scores of 87 and 86, respectively.) But it appears that his embarrassing low score is a result of his absence at every key environmental vote of the year, including the votes to repeal tax breaks for big oil. Likely you remember the media buzz over McCain's other missed votes.

So his voting record begs the question: how green is McCain? Well, as the environmental online magazine Grist notes, he has been outspoken on global warming and the need to decrease carbon emissions. He also seems to oppose drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, although he has missed important votes on this as well. On the other hand, he passionately promotes coal and nuclear power, and endorses heavy subsidies for both. Meanwhile, Opensecrets.org places McCain third on the list of top Senate recipients of Oil and Gas industry contributions, ranking just under Sen. Clinton. Oh, and he joins only six other Senators from 2007 with a score of 0 from the LCV. The Sierra Club gives a concise rundown:

McCain was the only member of Congress to skip every single crucial environmental vote scored by the organization, posting a score lower than Members of Congress who were out for much of the year due to serious illnesses—and even lower than some who died during the term.

Yikes.