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Archive for July 2010

We might as well start stacking the chairs

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The party’s definitely over. From nature:

Nature 466, 591-596 (29 July 2010) | doi:10.1038/nature09268; Received 21 January 2010; Accepted 9 June 2010

Global phytoplankton decline over the past century

Daniel G. Boyce1, Marlon R. Lewis2 & Boris Worm1

  1. Biology Department, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, B3H 4J1
  2. Department of Oceanography, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, B3H 4J1

In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton) account for approximately half the production of organic matter on Earth. Analyses of satellite-derived phytoplankton concentration (available since 1979) have suggested decadal-scale fluctuations linked to climate forcing, but the length of this record is insufficient to resolve longer-term trends. Here we combine available ocean transparency measurements and in situ chlorophyll observations to estimate the time dependence of phytoplankton biomass at local, regional and global scales since 1899. We observe declines in eight out of ten ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year. Our analyses further reveal interannual to decadal phytoplankton fluctuations superimposed on long-term trends. These fluctuations are strongly correlated with basin-scale climate indices, whereas long-term declining trends are related to increasing sea surface temperatures. We conclude that global phytoplankton concentration has declined over the past century; this decline will need to be considered in future studies of marine ecosystems, geochemical cycling, ocean circulation and fisheries.

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2010 at 12:14 pm

ADL decides bigotry okay if not directed at Jews

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The ADL is a big fat disappointment. A couple of stories: first, Steve Benen:

When I heard that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) had issued a statement on the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero in Manhattan, I was relieved. Finally, I thought, a sensible, credible voice committed to combating bigotry and prejudice could remind the right-wing about the importance of respect, freedom, and how there are no second-class faith traditions here in the United States.

And then I read the statement, and my relief disappeared.

The ADL’s statement started off really well. It reiterated its commitment to religious liberty, "categorically" rejected the "appeals to bigotry," and condemned those "whose opposition to this proposed Islamic Center is a manifestation of such bigotry."

But then the ADL went badly off course.

"The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process. Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found."

What? That doesn’t make any sense. The right manufactures a controversy, motivated by nothing but bigotry, so the facility should be built elsewhere? Why, to reward the bigots? And how many blocks away would be necessary to satisfy these demands?

"Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain — unnecessarily — and that is not right."

This is genuinely incoherent, and a statement I suspect the ADL will one day look back on with regret and embarrassment.

What the Anti-Defamation League is arguing is that the sensitivities of bigots are more important than the religious liberty of American Muslims. The ADL believes faith communities should be free to build buildings, unless it might bother those who hate those faith communities.

The ADL seems to acknowledge and fully appreciate the fact that opponents of the Cordoba House are motivated by bigotry, but inexplicably calls for the accommodation of that bigotry.

As Adam Serwer concluded:

Let’s be clear. This is not about the proposed Islamic Center. There is already a masjid in the neighborhood, and it’s been there for decades. This is about giving political cover to right-wing politicians using anti-Muslim bigotry as a political weapon and a fundraising tool. By doing this, the ADL is increasingly eroding its already weakened credibility as a nonpartisan organization.

I learned a very important lesson in Hebrew School that I have retained my entire life. If they can deny freedom to a single individual because of who they are, they can do it to anyone. Someone at the ADL needs to go back to Hebrew School.

And here’s Alex Pareene in Salon:

The Anti-Defamation League has come out against the construction of an Islamic Community Center in Lower Manhattan, to be called the Cordoba House. The Cordoba House is also known as "The Ground Zero Mosque," an appellation bestowed on the project by the fear-mongering bigots who’ve made it the centerpiece of a campaign of anti-Muslim hysteria.

Opposition to the Cordoba House was limited, initially, to right-wing populist kooks like the editorial board of the New York Post, and their rage-columnist Andrew Peyser. Then it went national, as people who know damn well what they’re doing stoked ethnic resentments and encouraged plenty of otherwise decent people to give in to base fears of scary Arabs who want to kill you, all of you, because that is their nature.

The Anti-Defamation League, which exists, in theory, to combat anti-semitism, is now promoting Islamaphobia for no real reason other than, you know, lots of other people seem to dislike this mosque thing.

Here’s their shameful, mealy-mouthed statement. It begins with boilerplate about the importance of religious freedom:

We regard freedom of religion as a cornerstone of the American democracy, and that freedom must include the right of all Americans – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths – to build community centers and houses of worship.

Unless some right-wing bigots stir up enough of a fuss.

We categorically reject appeals to bigotry on the basis of religion, and condemn those whose opposition to this proposed Islamic Center is a manifestation of such bigotry.

Hah, I don’t think you guys know what "categorically reject" and "condemn" mean! For future reference: "condemn" does not mean "join."

However, there are understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site. We are ever mindful of the tragedy which befell our nation there, the pain we all still feel – and especially the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001.

The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process. Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.

In recommending that a different location be found for the Islamic Center, we are mindful that some legitimate questions have been raised about who is providing the funding to build it, and what connections, if any, its leaders might have with groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values. These questions deserve a response, and we hope those backing the project will be transparent and forthcoming. But regardless of how they respond, the issue at stake is a broader one.

Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.

So! They categorically reject bigotry, they recognize that freedom of worship is a cornerstone of American democracy, but these Muslims are probably connected to terrorists and while they have the right to build a house of worship anywhere they wish, they probably shouldn’t because it would make Newt Gingrich mad.

What a fucking joke.

(Even after a lengthy, well-funded and publicized campaign to promote Islamophobia and invent reasonable-sounding rationales for it, spearheaded by one New York’s major daily newspapers, only 36% of Manhattanites oppose construction of the "Ground Zero Mosque.")

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2010 at 10:05 am

Posted in Daily life, Religion

One big GOP problem: Bad faith

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On the tax cuts, for example. Steve Benen:

President Obama hosted a meeting at the White House with the leadership of both parties, from both chambers, and the discussion reportedly turned to Bush’s tax cuts. GOP leaders want all the cuts to remain in place, no matter how many billions of dollars it adds to the deficit. The president wants to keep the cuts for everyone except the very wealthy.

By all accounts, the chat wasn’t especially constructive, but I was glad to see this exchange took place.

Mr. Obama, who did not join the Senate until 2005, reminded Mr. Boehner and the Senate Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, that the tax cuts’ architects purposely left the deficit problem to a future administration, according to aides from both parties.

"I wasn’t there," Mr. Boehner quickly countered. "I didn’t structure that deal."

The room briefly went quiet as participants seemed to ponder that statement from a legislator first elected in 1990. "How long have you been here?," a Democrat asked Mr. Boehner, and the others broke out in laughter.

They’re laughing at you, John, not with you.

It’s a telling anecdote. The White House vision is to largely follow the game plan crafted by Congressional Republicans less than a decade ago. It was the GOP’s idea — they passed tax cuts, which overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy, and set the cuts to expire at the end of 2010. The point was to obscure the cuts’ cost, play a dangerous budget game, and make it so that the GOP wouldn’t have to pay for their own experiment. We saw the results, which can only fairly be described as "total failure."

Obama is prepared to do part of what Republicans included in their own plan — letting tax rates for those making more than $250,000 return to the same levels that existed when the economy was strong, as was outlined in the Republican plan of the Bush era. Reminded of whose idea this was in the first place, Boehner, in effect, argued that he has nothing to do with the plan he voted for, and which was crafted by his own caucus.

Indeed, Boehner was, at the time, responsible at the committee level for helping shape the tax-cut package, and was on hand at the White House for the bill-signing ceremony.

No wonder the room broke out in laughter.

As for the substance, Boehner told the president allowing the higher rates to return to pre-Bush levels would be bad for small businesses (small businesses that need some help, which Senate Republicans have blocked). As a policy matter, Boehner’s argument is patently ridiculous, but the fact that he’s pushing it in a private meeting confirms my suspicions — Boehner actually believes his own nonsense, and isn’t quite sharp enough to realize he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

In the meantime, Boehner is also urging Republicans to stop referring to the Bush tax cuts as the Bush tax cuts. GOP members are supposed to fight for the failed former president’s tax policy, but avoid using the failed former president’s name.

They really do think voters are fools.

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2010 at 10:00 am

Stress and its costs—and how to fight it

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Jonah Lehrer has a long and interesting article on stress at Wired:

Baboons are nasty, brutish, and short. They have a long muzzle and sharp fangs designed to inflict deadly injury. Their bodies are covered in thick, olive-colored fur, except on their buttocks, which are hairless. The species is defined by its social habits: The primates live in troops, or groupings of several dozen individuals. These troops have a strict hierarchy, and each animal is assigned a specific rank. While female rank is hereditary — a daughter inherits her mother’s status — males compete for dominance. These fights can be bloody, but the stakes are immense: A higher rank means more sex. The losers, in contrast, face a bleak array of options — submission, exile, or death.

In 1978, Robert Sapolsky was a recent college graduate with a degree in biological anthropology and a job in Kenya. He had set off for a year of fieldwork by himself among baboons before he returned to the US for grad school and the drudgery of the lab. At the time, Sapolsky’s wilderness experience consisted of short backpacking trips in the Catskill Mountains; he had lit a campfire exactly once. Most of what he knew about African wildlife he’d learned from stuffed specimens at the Museum of Natural History. And yet here he was in Nairobi, speaking the wrong kind of Swahili and getting ripped off by everyone he met. Eventually he made his way to the bush, a sprawling savanna filled with zebras and wildebeests and elephants. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Sapolsky remembers. “There was an animal behind every tree. I was inside the diorama.”

Sapolsky slowly introduced himself to a troop of baboons, letting them adjust to his presence. After a few weeks, he began recognizing individual animals, giving them nicknames from the Old Testament. It was a way of rebelling against his childhood Hebrew-school teachers, who rejected the blasphemy of Darwinian evolution. “I couldn’t wait for the day that I could record in my notebook that Nebuchanezzar and Naomi were off screwing in the bushes,” Sapolsky wrote in A Primate’s Memoir. “It felt like a pleasing revenge.”

Before long, Sapolsky’s romantic vision of fieldwork collided with the dismal reality of living in the African bush. His feet itched from a fungal infection, his skin was covered in bug bites, the Masai stole his stuff, he had terrible diarrhea, and he was desperately lonely. Sapolsky’s subjects gave him no glimpse of good fellowship. They seemed to devote all of their leisure time — and baboon life is mostly leisure time — to mischief and malevolence. “One of the first things I discovered was that I didn’t like baboons very much,” he says. “They’re quite awful to one another, constantly scheming and backstabbing. They’re like chimps but without the self-control.”

While Sapolsky was disturbed by the behavior of the baboons — this was nature, red in tooth and claw — he realized that their cruelty presented an opportunity to investigate the biological effects of social upheaval. He noticed, for instance, that the males at the bottom of the hierarchy were thinner and more skittish. “They just didn’t look very healthy,” Sapolsky says. “That’s when I began thinking about how damn stressful it must be to have no status. You never know when you’re going to get beat up. You never get laid. You have to work a lot harder for food.”

So Sapolsky set out to test the hypothesis that the stress involved in being at the bottom of the baboon hierarchy led to health problems. At the time, stress was mostly ignored as a medical subject. It was seen as an unpleasant mental state with few long-term consequences. “A couple of studies had linked stress to ulcers, but that was about it,” he says. “It struck most doctors as extremely unlikely that your feelings could affect your health. Viruses, sure. Carcinogens, absolutely. But stress? No way.” Sapolsky, however, was determined to get some data. He wasn’t yet thinking lofty thoughts about human beings or public health. His transformation into one of the leading researchers on the science of stress would come later. Instead, he was busy learning how to shoot baboons with anesthetic darts and then, while they were plunged into sleep, quickly measure their immune system function and the levels of stress hormones and cholesterol in their blood.

In the decades since, Sapolsky’s speculation has become scientific fact. Chronic stress, it turns out, is an extremely dangerous condition…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2010 at 8:37 am

Posted in Daily life, Health, Science

Recognize this?

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Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2010 at 8:32 am

Posted in Daily life, Drug laws

GOP unanimously blocks important legislation

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One commenter has somehow come to the conclusion that the GOP is not blocking legislation in the Senate. While it’s true that some legislation has passed, the GOP has not given up its fight to keep things stalled. Steve Benen:

It’s been pretty unpleasant watching the Senate lately.

  • The DISCLOSE Act came up, and every single Senate Republican joined together to block the bill from even getting a vote.
  • A package of incentives and tax breaks for small businesses looked to be in good shape, but every single Senate Republican joined together to knock that down, too.
  • Twenty obviously qualified judicial nominees were brought forward, and the GOP blocked votes on all of them.
  • Medical care for 9/11 victims came up, and Republicans prevented it from passing, too.

And these are just developments since Tuesday.

But early next week, the chamber will have another important opportunity to pass a critical piece of legislation. Annie Lowrey reported:

[Thursday night], Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) attached an amendment with funding to preserve teachers’ jobs and to provide much-needed Medicaid funding to states to a Federal Aviation Administration bill. The amendment is fully paid-for, and the FAA bill is just a vehicle. Reid filed cloture, meaning the Senate will vote on the provisions on Monday.

The amendment includes $10 billion in funding for teachers’ jobs and $16.1 billion in funding for the Federal Medical Assistance Percentages, or FMAP, program, which provides Medicaid funding to states. For offsets, it closes foreign tax credit loopholes to raise $9 billion; it also cuts $2 billion from Medicaid drug pricing, $8.4 billion in rescissions and $6.7 billion from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

There were no further details released at the time. At first blush, cutting food stamps to pay for Medicaid — both problems aid the most economically distressed Americans — and teachers’ jobs seems like a hard compromise to swallow, though it is unclear when the cuts will take effect and what portions will be cut.

Paying for this through food stamp offsets is rough, but it may not quite as bad as it appears. A source close to the talks told me this afternoon that the $6.7 billion from SNAP won’t go into effect until 2014 and the money comes from an increase that came through the Recovery Act. For Democrats, it seems like a reasonable trade-off — they get to save a lot of jobs and bolster Medicaid in the short term, while having three years to replenish the extra funds for food stamps.

But what about for Republicans? What kind of resistance should Democrats expect when this comes up on Monday night?

I don’t doubt they’ll come up with something, but Republicans — especially Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine — really don’t have any excuses here. This bill will help states, save jobs, and improve the economy … without adding a penny to the deficit.

On Monday, Snowe and Collins specifically endorsed a Medicaid funding extension, but said they didn’t want to vote for a bill that wasn’t paid for. Well, this bill is paid for. Collins said the job-saving state aid should phase down over time. Well, to accommodate her concerns, this bill does exactly that.

So, Republican moderates, what’s it going to be? Are you willing to take "yes" for an answer?

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2010 at 8:31 am

Posted in Congress, Daily life, GOP

More Right-wing hatred of the poor: Phyllis Schlafly

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She’s a mean old woman. Charlie Eisenhood at ThinkProgress:

Over the past two months, many Republican pundits and members of Congress have been calling for the end of unemployment benefit extensions for the millions of Americans who can’t find work. Meanwhile, GOP Senators held the unemployment insurance (UI) extension bill hostage for weeks as 2.5 million Americans were left without the “desperately needed lifeline” of UI benefits. Even as five workers fight for every one job opening, Republicans are still calling the unemployed “spoiled” and suggesting that blocking benefits is fine because it only affects a “small amount of people.”

Last week at a fundraiser for Michigan GOP congressional candidate Rocky Raczowski, conservative pundit Phyllis Schlafly added her voice to the chorus crying out against government assistance for the poor or unemployed:

One of the things Obama’s been doing is deliberately trying to increase the percentage of our population that is dependent on government for your living. For example, do you know what was the second biggest demographic group that voted for Obama? Obviously the blacks were the biggest demographic, y’all know what was the second biggest? Unmarried women. 70% of unmarried women voted for Obama. And this is because when you kick your husband out, you’ve got to have Big Brother Government to be your provider. And they know that. They’ve admitted it. And they have all kinds of bills to continue to subsidize illegitimacy…

The Obama administration wants to continue to subsidize this group because they know they are Democratic votes.


Schlafly’s argument is specious. She talks about “subsidizing illegitimacy,” but not all single women are mothers. Less than 20 percent are mothers to young children. The rest include millions of widows, millions of young never-married women, and plenty in between — some of whom have kids, but most of whom do not.

The fact that programs like UI and food stamps help unmarried women is only a byproduct of the system designed to help everyone in need – men and women alike. In fact, men are receiving more UI benefits than women – the unemployment rate for men is a full 2.2 points higher than it is for women.

That didn’t stop Schlafly from doubling down on her falsehoods in an interview with TPM yesterday. “All welfare goes to unmarried moms,” she claimed. “They are trying to line up their constituency for Obama and Democrats against Republican candidates.”

Of course, government assistance goes to both genders. But moreover, considering that 84 percent of custodial single parents are mothers and a quarter of American children are being raised by unmarried mothers, supporting single women is critical for supporting children. As the Center for American Progress’ Liz Weiss puts it, “When single mothers lose their home, suffer from hunger, or can’t find a job, their children also lose their home, go hungry, or suffer from greatly reduced household resources.”

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2010 at 8:27 am

Fitness notes

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Up a pound from yesterday, probably due to the lamb curry I made with some meaty bones I bought at Whole Foods. But: the New Balance walking shoes arrived, and I’m wearing them now. So today (and in days to come) I will be taking some walks, which should accelerate the fat loss.

My idea is to determine whether my knee problem was in fact due to the MBT design. Here’s the plan:

1. Take long walks in the New Balance shoes.

a. If my knee then starts hurting, it clearly wasn’t the MBT shoes at fault, but rather the combination of my weight and knee.

b. If the knee doesn’t start hurting, then switch to the MBT shoes for my walks.

After I walk a lot with the MBT shoes, I will note one of two outcomes:

1) No knee problems: Then it’s not the MBT design, but was my weight and knee.

2) Knee problems arise: Then it is the MBT design.

I’ll keep you posted.

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2010 at 8:23 am

Posted in Daily life, Fitness

Creed again, with Rooney

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Last day for the Creed for a while, but I wanted to see how it would with the Rooney Style 2 Finest—and it works quite well indeed, producing a lather that, in quality and amount, was strikingly similar to that produced with the Omega Lucretia Borgia synthetic-bristle brush and better than the horsehair brush could manage (though again the horsehair brush has had few uses, so still may be breaking in, and I may learn how to use the brush better).

So: a great lather, and the 1940’s Gillette Aristocrat with a previously used Swedish Gillette blade did a fine job, although I did get one small nick on my upper lip. No problem: My Nik Is Sealed does indeed seal ni(c)ks.

A splash of Floris London JF, and I’m good to go.

On Monday I’ll do a three-day trial with another good tallow soap, but one that’s much less expensive: the Vintage Blades LLC’s own shaving soap.

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2010 at 8:18 am

Posted in Shaving

Coffee lids: Who knew?

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I had no idea.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2010 at 2:08 pm

Interesting story of one man’s awakening

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This article by Susan Berfield in Bloomberg Businessweek is definitely worth reading and pondering. It begins:

On June 30, Alex Bogusky went for a bike ride in the hills outside Boulder, Colo., then made his way downtown to the century-old house-cum-studio he had renovated and dubbed FearLess Cottage. Once inside, he called Miles Nadal, his boss in Toronto, and resigned. Bogusky was 46.Adweek had named him creative director of the decade, and the agency he helped build, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, was bringing in more than a billion dollars in billings. He had a dream title of his own making, chief creative insurgent, and a salary close to $2 million.

Bogusky’s conversation with Nadal, the owner of CP+B’s parent company, MDC Partners (MDCA), was followed by an e-mail. Bogusky hoped Nadal saw him "as a friend who wants to try something new." He signed it, "Love, Alex." Then Bogusky and his wife, Ana, spent much of the afternoon sitting on their porch contemplating what he had just done.

MDC relied on CP+B for at least one-quarter of its $546 million in revenues last year, and Nadal often referred to Bogusky as the Steve Jobs of the industry. In a lengthy statement to Bloomberg Businessweek, MDC concluded: "Our future has never looked brighter and neither has Alex’s." MDC would not grant an interview to discuss exactly how bright its future would be without the most famous name in advertising.

Bogusky declined to comment for this story, too, though he left plenty of clues about his state of mind, as revealed in interviews with industry peers, co-workers, and family members. There are also hints about why clients, such as Best Buy (BBY), Burger King (BKC), Domino’s (DPZ), Microsoft (MSFT), and Kraft (KFT), which had just awarded its Macaroni & Cheese account to CP+B, did not want to say much about him. Perhaps the most telling of Bogusky’s statements before resigning was . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2010 at 1:37 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

Extremely cool engine

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I particularly like that you can just add another engine if you need more power. David Welch and Mark Clothier write in Bloomberg Businessweek.

(click image to enlarge)

Retired Ford (F) engineer John Coletti got a call in 2007 from Vinod Khosla, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, wanted advice on a new engine technology in which he was considering investing. A mutual friend suggested he contact Coletti, who had served as the chief of Ford’s performance division. Coletti was skeptical that the design in question could deliver a promised 50 percent improvement in fuel economy. “Any time you hear about a new engine technology, you look for the Achilles’ heel,” the engineer said.

He pored over the EcoMotors International opposed-piston, opposed-cylinder (OPOC) engine. To his surprise, he concluded that it could perform as advertised. Coletti joined the company as president and chief operating officer in February 2008. Khosla and Microsoft (MSFT) founder Bill Gates were impressed, too, and together have invested $34 million in EcoMotors. They are attracted by a motor that, in theory, would allow a large pickup to achieve 27 miles per gallon. The company plans to license the technology to carmakers that would make their own OPOC engines, or manufacture and sell the engines through joint ventures.

Traditional engines have one piston per cylinder; EcoMotors’ version has two. The design saves space and weight, allowing for a 95-pound engine that is one-third the heft of a small, conventional four-cylinder motor and 15 percent to 19 percent more efficient. Designed by Peter Hofbauer, a former Volkswagen engineer and founder of EcoMotors, the small, modular engines can be hooked together to power autos of different sizes. A pair would yield a 150-horsepower motor suitable for a midsize car like a Toyota (TM) Camry. When the car is coasting, one of the engines shuts down, delivering a 50 percent boost in fuel economy. That’s a similar efficiency gain to what a hybrid gets, only EcoMotors says its model is less expensive. An OPOC engine will add roughly $600 to $900 to the cost of a vehicle, compared with an extra $3,000 for a hybrid, according to Don Runkle, chief executive officer of EcoMotors. Says Coletti: “This technology is disruptive to the industry.”

The question is …

Continue reading.

UPDATE: They didn’t survive.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2010 at 12:56 pm

Sadness response strengthens with age

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Interesting. I think I’ve noticed this. Laura Sanders writes in Science News:

As people grow older, sad films seem sadder.

In a recent study, people in their sixties felt sadder than people in their twenties did after viewing an emotionally distressing scene from a movie. This heightened emotional response to sorrow may reflect a greater compassion for other people and may strengthen social bonds, researchers propose.

The finding is an important contribution to emotion studies because it adds to a growing body of work showing that emotions don’t deteriorate, says Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen, who was not involved in the research. “One of the important findings of this is that the emotion system is in no way broken in old age,” she says.

To explore how feelings of sadness change with age, researchers led by Robert Levenson of the University of California, Berkeley brought 222 study participants into the laboratory to watch neutral, disgusting or sad movie clips. The volunteers made up three age groups: young people in their twenties, middle-aged people in their forties, and older people in their sixties. Before watching the movies, participants were hooked up to monitors that recorded physiological responses such as blood pressure, heart rate and breathing patterns. 

Levenson and his team chose two gut-wrenchingly sad scenes to elicit responses: In the first clip, from the movie 21 Grams, a mother is told of the deaths of her two young daughters. The second scene, from The Champ, depicts a young boy watching his father die after a boxing match. (The disgusting clips were also well chosen: They showed a woman eating horse rectum and a man sucking fluid from a cow’s intestines, both on NBC’s Fear Factor. The neutral scene showed two men talking about nothing in the absurdist film Stranger than Paradise.)

In addition to measuring physiological responses to the movie clips, the researchers asked people to describe how they felt. People in their sixties reported …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2010 at 12:18 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Another sign of the decline of the US

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This one is pretty obvious and is a story in Bloomberg Businessweek by Eric Pooley:

Right now the U.S. Senate is conducting a master class on the perils of legislation by rearview mirror. On July 27, when Majority Leader Harry Reid unveiled the "Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act," the two most powerful clean energy provisions were missing: a cap on carbon emissions from the electric power sector and a national Renewable Electricity Standard (RES), which would require utilities to generate at least 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2021. For years, business leaders from General Electric’s (GE) Jeff Immelt to venture capitalist John Doerr have warned that if America failed to pass a comprehensive climate-and-energy bill, the country risked losing the clean energy race to China—sacrificing the jobs of the future in a timid, ill-fated effort to preserve the jobs of the past. Now those warnings are coming true.

Clean energy advocates were angry but not surprised on July 22, when Reid said he was pulling the plug on the carbon cap. Powerful utilities were withholding support. President Barack Obama wasn’t trying to forge a compromise. And key Democratic senators had no appetite for a bill that might cause a modest, short-term increase in electricity prices—potentially endangering some 20th century manufacturing jobs—even if it helps create many more 21st century jobs by making clean energy competitive with coal. The disappearance of the renewable energy standard, however, was a shock. Both the House and Senate have passed RES bills in the past, yet it has never become law. With elections looming, this may be the last chance for years to set the rules of the road for energy investment.

While the carbon cap, at this intensely partisan moment, has exactly zero Republican supporters, at least four GOP senators have signaled support for the RES. Proponents are hoping to introduce it as a floor amendment—and whether or not they have the votes to pass it, this is a debate worth having.

In a meeting with business leaders and environmental advocates early last year, Obama economic adviser Larry Summers described a "scissors" approach to economic recovery, according to several people who were present but not authorized to discuss it publicly. The first blade of the scissors, Summers explained, was the stimulus package and its tens of billions for clean energy deployment. The second blade would be a mandatory, declining cap on carbon, which would remove the investment uncertainty that has hobbled the energy market, and draw billions of private dollars off the sidelines. Utility chief executive officers such as Lew Hay of NextEra Energy (NEE), Ralph Izzo of PSEG, and Jim Rogers of Duke Energy (DUK) have all said they are ready to invest in clean energy just as soon as Congress establishes a carbon cap that creates a clear, steady price signal for dirty fuel—in effect, pricing in some of the social costs of carbon pollution that have never been part of America’s energy bill.

The scissors is missing a blade…

Continue reading. The US waits while its rivals advance.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2010 at 12:16 pm

When we’re not poisoning the oceans, we’re over-fishing them

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Is the human race suicidal? Looks like it. Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the New Yorker:

The Atlantic bluefin tuna is shaped like a child’s idea of a fish, with a pointy snout, two dorsal fins, and a rounded belly that gradually tapers toward the back. It is gunmetal blue on top, and silvery on the underside, and its tail looks like a sickle. The Atlantic bluefin is one of the fastest swimmers in the sea, reaching speeds of fifty-five miles an hour. This is an achievement that scientists have sought to understand but have never quite mastered; a robo-tuna, built by a team of engineers at M.I.T., was unable to outswim a real one. (The word “tuna” is derived from the Greek thuno, meaning “to rush.”) Atlantic bluefins are voracious carnivores—they feed on squid, crustaceans, and other fish—and can grow to be fifteen feet long.

At one time, Atlantic bluefins were common from the coast of Maine to the Black Sea, and from Norway to Brazil. In the Mediterranean, they have been prized for millennia—in an ode from the second century, the poet Oppian describes the Romans catching bluefins in “nets arranged like a city”—but they are unusually bloody fish, and in most of the rest of the world there was little market for them. (Among English speakers, they were long known as “horse mackerel.”) As recently as the late nineteen-sixties, bluefin in the United States sold for only a few pennies a pound, if there were any buyers, and frequently ended up being ground into cat food. Then, in the nineteen-seventies, the Japanese developed a taste for sushi made with bluefin, or hon-maguro. This new preference, it’s been hypothesized, arose from their exposure, following the Second World War, to American-style fatty foods. The taste for hon-maguro was, in turn, imported back to the U.S. Soon, fishing for bluefin became so lucrative that the sale of a single animal could feed a family for a year. (Earlier this year, a five-hundred-pound Pacific bluefin went for an astonishing three hundred and forty dollars a pound at a Tokyo fish auction.) First, the big bluefins were fished out, then the smaller ones, too, became hard to find. Tuna “ranching,” a practice by which the fish are herded into huge circular nets and fattened up before slaughter, was for a time seen as a solution until it was shown to be part of the problem: as fewer bluefins were allowed to reach spawning age, there were fewer and fewer new fish to fatten.

Bluefin catches are managed—the word is used here loosely—by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. The commission, known by the acronym ICCAT—pronounced “eye-cat”—is based in Madrid, and its members include the U.S., the European Union, Japan, Canada, and Brazil. In 2008, ICCAT scientists recommended that the bluefin catch in the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean be limited to between eighty-five hundred and fifteen thousand tons. ICCAT instead adopted a quota of twenty-two thousand tons. That same year, a panel of independent reviewers, hired by the commission to assess its performance, observed that ICCAT “is widely regarded as an international disgrace.” (Carl Safina, the noted marine conservationist, has nicknamed the group the International Conspiracy to Catch All the Tunas.) By most estimates, bluefin stocks have fallen by eighty per cent in the past forty years. According to other assessments, the situation is even grimmer. Callum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at England’s University of York, has calculated that there is now only one bluefin left for every fifty that were swimming in the Atlantic in 1940.

Last year, in an effort to save the Atlantic bluefin from annihilation, Monaco proposed that the fish join animals like the giant panda and the Asian elephant on a list of creatures that cannot be traded—either alive or cut up for parts—across international borders. When the proposal came up for a vote at a U.N. meeting in Doha this past March, the U.S. voted in favor of it. “The science is compelling,” Tom Strickland, the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, told the Times. “That species is in spectacular decline.” Nevertheless, the measure was defeated. (The vote—sixty-eight to twenty, with thirty nations abstaining—was widely seen as a victory for Japan.) The following month, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, and oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf is one of only two known Atlantic-bluefin spawning sites, and April is the start of the spawning season.

If the Atlantic bluefin tuna were the first species to be fished into oblivion, its destruction would be shameful. But, of course, its story has become routine. Cod, once so plentiful off the coast of Newfoundland that they could be scooped up in baskets, are now scarce. The same goes for halibut, haddock, swordfish, marlin, and skate; it’s been calculated that stocks of large predatory fish have declined by ninety per cent in the past half century. In 1943, Rachel Carson was a young biologist working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when she wrote a booklet titled “Food from the Sea.” The point of the boosterish guide was to convince American consumers of the delectableness of fish like the wolffish, an enormous creature with a bulbous head, big teeth, and an eel-like body. Wolffish is “one of New England’s underexploited fishes, a condition that will be corrected when housewives discover its excellence,” Carson wrote. Apparently, she was so persuasive—and bottom trawling so wrecked its habitat—that the wolffish is now considered a threatened species…

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Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2010 at 12:11 pm

Scientists Find Evidence That Oil And Dispersant Mix Is Making Its Way Into The Foodchain

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The effects of the oil spill continue. Dan Froomkin reports in the Huffington Post:

Scientists have found signs of an oil-and-dispersant mix under the shells of tiny blue crab larvae in the Gulf of Mexico, the first clear indication that the unprecedented use of dispersants in the BP oil spill has broken up the oil into toxic droplets so tiny that they can easily enter the foodchain.

Marine biologists started finding orange blobs under the translucent shells of crab larvae in May, and have continued to find them "in almost all" of the larvae they collect, all the way from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Pensacola, Fla. — more than 300 miles of coastline — said Harriet Perry, a biologist with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

And now, a team of researchers from Tulane University using infrared spectrometry to determine the chemical makeup of the blobs has detected the signature for Corexit, the dispersant BP used so widely in the Deepwater Horizon

"It does appear that there is a Corexit sort of fingerprint in the blob samples that we ran," Erin Gray, a Tulane biologist, told the Huffington Post Thursday. Two independent tests are being run to confirm those findings, "so don’t say that we’re 100 percent sure yet," Gray said.

"The chemistry test is still not completely conclusive," said Tulane biology professor Caz Taylor, the team’s leader. "But that seems the most likely thing."

With BP’s well possibly capped for good, and the surface slick shrinking, some observers of the Gulf disaster are starting to let down their guard, with some journalists even asking: Where is the oil?

But the answer is clear: In part due to the1.8 million gallons of dispersant that BP used, a lot of the estimated 200 million or more gallons of oil that spewed out of the blown well remains under the surface of the Gulf in plumes of tiny toxic droplets. And it’s short- and long-term effects could be profound.

BP sprayed dispersant onto the surface of the slick and into the jet of oil and gas as it erupted out of the wellhead a mile beneath the surface. As a result, less oil reached the surface and the Gulf’s fragile coastline. But more remained under the surface.

Fish, shrimp and crab larvae, which float around in the open seas, are considered the most likely to die on account of exposure to the subsea oil plumes. There are fears, for instance, that an entire year’s worth of bluefin tuna larvae may have perished.

But this latest discovery suggests that it’s not just larvae at risk from the subsurface droplets. It’s also the animals that feed on them.

"There are so many animals that eat those little larvae," said Robert J. Diaz, a marine scientist at the College of William and Mary.

Oil itself is of course toxic, especially over long exposure. But some scientists worry that the mixture of oil with dispersants will actually prove more toxic, in part because of the still not entirely understood ingredients of Corexit, and in part because of the reduction in droplet size.

"Corexit is in the water column, just as we thought, and it is entering the bodies of animals. And it’s probably having a lethal impact there," said Susan Shaw, director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute. The dispersant, she said, is like " a delivery system" for the oil.

Although a large group of marine scientists meeting in late May reached a consensus that the application of dispersants was a legitimate element of the spill response, another group, organized by Shaw, more recently concluded "that Corexit dispersants, in combination with crude oil, pose grave health risks to marine life and human health and threaten to deplete critical niches in the Gulf food web that may never recover."

One particular concern: . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2010 at 11:58 am

More on GOP obstructionism

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I do hope my GOP readers will take note of this post (and chart) by Steve Benen:

Yesterday, Senate Democrats tried to win confirmation for 20 pending judicial nominees, nearly all of whom enjoyed bipartisan support at the committee level, and all of whom have run into needless Republican obstructionism. How many of the 20 were approved yesterday? None — Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) blocked all of them.

"President Obama’s nominees are moving considerably faster … than President Bush’s nominees," the right-wing Alabaman said on the floor. Senate Dems put together this fact-checking video, which makes plain that Sessions either doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or he’s deliberately trying to deceive, hoping those listening don’t know the difference between fact and fiction.

The White House has faced some criticism, much of it deserved, for not being more aggressive in sending judicial nominees for consideration. But it’s certainly not the administration’s fault that the Senate confirmation process is effectively broken, with Republicans using filibusters and holds to block votes on qualified would-be jurists.

The Center for American Progress released a report this morning, and the results are both striking and irrefutable. Even district court nominees, whose confirmations used to be routine, are being blocked in record numbers, thanks to Republican tactics that have never even been tried in the Senate.

From the report: "Such tactics are completely unprecedented, and so are their results. Fewer than 43 percent of President Obama’s judicial nominees have so far been confirmed, while past presidents have enjoyed confirmation rates as high as 93 percent. And President Obama’s nominees have been confirmed at a much slower rate than those of his predecessor — nearly 87 percent of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees were confirmed."


The report added, "It is easy to manipulate the Senate rules to create a crisis. If a minority of senators broadly object to the Senate’s entire agenda, then it is literally impossible to confirm more than a fraction of the hundreds of judges, executive branch officials, ambassadors, and other nominees that each president has a responsibility to appoint, even if the Senate shuts down all other legislative business to do so."

This political paralysis is unsustainable, and it’s going to get even worse if the Senate Republican caucus grows in the next Congress, as seems extremely likely.

It’s ridiculous to think of a judiciary filled with recess appointments, but it may come to that.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2010 at 11:51 am

The United States: The prison nation

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Despite the popularity in the US of the word "freedom," in fact the US locks up in prison a large proportion of its population: more than any other nation on earth, per capita. Take a look:

US prisoners

The graph is from an interesting article in The Economist, which begins:

THREE pickup trucks pulled up outside George Norris’s home in Spring, Texas. Six armed police in flak jackets jumped out. Thinking they must have come to the wrong place, Mr Norris opened his front door, and was startled to be shoved against a wall and frisked for weapons. He was forced into a chair for four hours while officers ransacked his house. They pulled out drawers, rifled through papers, dumped things on the floor and eventually loaded 37 boxes of Mr Norris’s possessions onto their pickups. They refused to tell him what he had done wrong. “It wasn’t fun, I can tell you that,” he recalls.

Mr Norris was 65 years old at the time, and a collector of orchids. He eventually discovered that he was suspected of smuggling the flowers into America, an offence under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This came as a shock. He did indeed import flowers and sell them to other orchid-lovers. And it was true that his suppliers in Latin America were sometimes sloppy about their paperwork. In a shipment of many similar-looking plants, it was rare for each permit to match each orchid precisely.

In March 2004, five months after the raid, Mr Norris was indicted, handcuffed and thrown into a cell with a suspected murderer and two suspected drug-dealers. When told why he was there, “they thought it hilarious.” One asked: “What do you do with these things? Smoke ’em?”

Prosecutors described Mr Norris as the “kingpin” of an international smuggling ring. He was dumbfounded: his annual profits were never more than about $20,000. When prosecutors suggested that he should inform on other smugglers in return for a lighter sentence, he refused, insisting he knew nothing beyond hearsay.

He pleaded innocent. But an undercover federal agent had ordered some orchids from him, a few of which arrived without the correct papers. For this, he was charged with making a false statement to a government official, a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Since he had communicated with his suppliers, he was charged with conspiracy, which also carries a potential five-year term.

As his legal bills exploded, Mr Norris reluctantly changed his plea to guilty, though he still protests his innocence. He was sentenced to 17 months in prison. After some time, he was released while his appeal was heard, but then put back inside. His health suffered: he has Parkinson’s disease, which was not helped by the strain of imprisonment. For bringing some prescription sleeping pills into prison, he was put in solitary confinement for 71 days. The prison was so crowded, however, that even in solitary he had two room-mates.

A long love affair with lock and key

Exceptional America

Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country. Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. Overcrowding is the norm. Federal prisons house 60% more inmates than they were designed for. State lock-ups are only slightly less stuffed.

The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.

In 1970 the proportion of Americans behind bars was below one in 400, compared with today’s one in 100. Since then, the voters, alarmed at a surge in violent crime, have demanded fiercer sentences. Politicians have obliged. New laws have removed from judges much of their discretion to set a sentence that takes full account of the circumstances of the offence. Since no politician wants to be tarred as soft on crime, such laws, mandating minimum sentences, are seldom softened. On the contrary, they tend to get harder…

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Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2010 at 11:48 am

The GOP and insane resistance

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I’ve had a couple of comments from Republicans. Their comments were civil and  naturally enough supported the Republican view, but both comments showed the same problem: they were talking about the GOP of 10-20 years ago, when it was still rational.

For example, regarding the use of the filibuster, one commenter did the "both parties are guilty" trick, apparently in ignorance of the one-sided use of the filibuster:


That is from this post by Kevin Drum. While it is true that both parties have used the filibuster, do you notice anything unusual about the current Congress?

Another said that the problem was that Democrats rejected all ideas from the GOP and would not work together. That also shows considerable ignorance of what is happening. Healthcare reform had so many GOP ideas in it that it’s generally seen as the Mitt Romney plan—the same thing the GOP supported in Massachusetts. Indeed,take a look:

… a few of the Republican initiatives included in legislation passed by Congress:

Includes personal responsibility incentives: Allows health insurance premium to vary based on participation in proven employer wellness programs

(Sources: H.R. 3468, “Promoting Health and Preventing Chronic Disease through Prevention and Wellness Programs for Employees, Communities, and Individuals Act” (Castle bill); H.R. 4038, “Common Sense Health Care Reform & Accountability Act” (Republican Substitute bill); H.R. 3400, “Empowering Patients First Act” (Republican Study Committee bill); H.R. 3970, “Medical Rights & Reform Act” (Kirk bill), “Coverage, Prevention and Reform Act”)

Advances medical liability reform through grants to States: Provides grants to States to jump-start and evaluate promising medical liability reform ideas to put patient safety first, prevent medical errors, and reduce liability premiums.

(Sources: S. 1783, “Ten Steps to Transform Health Care in America Act” (Enzi bill); H.R. 3400, “Empowering Patients First Act” (Republican Study Committee bill); H.R. 4529, “Roadmap for America’s Future Act” (Ryan bill); S. 1099, “Patients’ Choice Act” (Burr-Coburn, Ryan-Nunes bill))

Extends dependent coverage to age 26: Gives young adults new options.

(Sources: H.R. 4038, “Common Sense Health Care Reform & Accountability Act” (Republican Substitute bill); H.R. 3970, “Medical Rights & Reform Act” (Kirk bill))

Allows automatic enrollment by employers in health insurance: Allows employee to opt-out.

(Sources: House Republican Substitute; H.R. 3400, “Empowering Patients First Act” (Republican Study Committee bill); “Coverage, Prevention, and Reform Act” )

Mechanisms to improve quality.

(Sources: H.R. 4529, “Roadmap for America’s Future Act;” S. 1099, “Patients’ Choice Act;” H.R. 3400, Republican Study Group bill; S. 1783, “Ten Steps to Transform Health Care in America Act” (Enzi bill))

Community Mental Health Centers. The President’s Proposal ensures that individuals have access to comprehensive mental health services in the community setting, but strengthens standards for facilities that seek reimbursement as community mental health centers by ensuring these facilities are providing appropriate care and not taking advantage of Medicare patients or the taxpayers.

(Source: H.R. 3970, “Medical Rights & Reform Act”)

That’s just in healthcare reform. The same thing happens in other legislation as well. Cap-and-trade, for example, was proposed by the GOP. The Dems signed on, and the GOP immediately then opposed the idea.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2010 at 11:16 am

When the police turn against citizens

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It’s always a danger sign when the police start to turn on the citizens they supposedly are protecting. Ed Brayton:

Here’s an appalling story of sheriff’s deputies in San Luis Obispo, California conspiring to fake a police report and invent a reason why they violated the 4th amendment. A man was target shooting on his own property in an unincorporated rural area and someone called 911 to report hearing shots fired. Based solely on that information, they cuffed the guy and searched his home — without anything remotely like probable cause.

They then took his keys from him to open a locked gun safe in his home, again without anything even approaching probable cause. As the deputies admire the guns they found in the safe, they were told by dispatch that the man had a clear record and that the weapons in his safe were legally registered. Having found nothing, they then had to invent a reason why they went in.

The whole thing was caught on the audio recorders the deputies were wearing — a perfect example of why every single law enforcement officer should have such recorders on them at all times when they’re on duty. There are three Youtube videos documenting all of this and they are worth watching in their entirety.

Bear in mind: The man has done nothing illegal at all. All of the weapons that they seized were legally registered. And they were executing an illegal search to even see the guns in the first place. Every one of those deputies should be fired, immediately.



Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2010 at 9:00 am

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

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