Monday, April 23, 2012


USA Today publishes the results of a yearlong investigation into the environmental and health hazards posed by long-closed lead smelters; it's a sad story of negligence by government regulators:
More than a decade ago, government regulators received specific warnings that the soil in hundreds of U.S. neighborhoods might be contaminated with dangerous levels of lead from factories operating in the 1930s to 1960s, including the smelter near Shefton's house, Tyroler Metals, which closed around 1957.

Despite warnings, federal and state officials repeatedly failed to find out just how bad the problems were. A 14-month USA TODAY investigation has found that the EPA and state regulators left thousands of families and children in harm's way, doing little to assess the danger around many of the more than 400 potential lead smelter locations on a list compiled by a researcher from old industry directories and given to the EPA in 2001.

In some cases, government officials failed to order cleanups when inspectors detected hazardous amounts of lead in local neighborhoods. People who live nearby — sometimes directly on top of — old smelters were not warned, left unaware in many cases of the factories' existence and the dangers that remain. Instead, they bought and sold homes and let their children play in contaminated yards.

The USA TODAY investigation shows widespread government failures taking several forms:
• A failure to look. At dozens of sites, government officials performed cursory inquiries at best. In Minnesota, Indiana and Washington, state regulators told the EPA they could find no evidence that some smelters ever existed.
Yet in those states and others, reporters found the factories clearly documented in old insurance maps, town council minutes, city directories and telephone books — even in historical photos posted on the Web.
•A failure to act. In Pennsylvania, Maryland and Wisconsin, the EPA sent investigators to scores of sites from 2004 to 2006 after verifying a lead smelter once operated. The investigators recommended soil tests in the neighborhoods. Most of the tests were not done.
•A failure to protect. Even when state and federal regulators tested soil and found high levels of lead, as they did around sites in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago and Portland, Ore., they failed for years to alert neighbors or order cleanups. Some kids who played in yards with heavily contaminated soil have dangerous levels of lead in their bodies, according to medical records obtained by USA TODAY.

The lessons we should have learned from BP's disaster in the Gulf haven't yet been enshrined in much-needed legislation:
Unfortunately, the US Congress — caught up in partisan rancour, including debates about expanding offshore oil drilling — has failed to adopt legislation to address the lessons learned and the recommendations of the oil-spill commission and others. Such legislation should codify the executive reforms mentioned earlier into law, increase liability limits, and dedicate sustained funding for oil-spill research and environmental assessment and monitoring.

Even in the current constrained fiscal circumstances, improved oversight and essential R&D could be supported by industry fees amounting to pennies per barrel, imperceptible within the daily fluctuations in price on the world market or at the pump.

New laws were passed within a year of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. If important lessons are not to be lost as the events of 2010 fade from memory, there is a pressing need to change the law to make such accidents less likely, and our response more effective.
After all, fines just aren't enough:
After its previous convictions, BP paid unprecedented fines — more than $70 million — and committed to spending at least $800 million more on maintenance to improve safety. The point was to demonstrate that the cost of doing business wrong far outweighed the cost of doing business right. But without personal accountability, the fines become just another cost of doing business, William Miller, a former investigator for the Environmental Protection Agency who was involved in the Texas City case, told me.

The problem then (and perhaps now) is that it is the slow pileup of factors that causes an industrial disaster. Poor decisions are usually made incrementally by a range of people with differing levels of responsibility, and almost always behind a shield of plausible deniability. It makes it almost impossible to pin one clear-cut bad call on a single manager, which is partly why no BP official has ever been held criminally accountable.

Instead, the corporation is held accountable. It isn’t clear that charging the company repeatedly with misdemeanors and felonies has accomplished anything.

At more than $30 billion and climbing, the amount BP has paid out so far for reparations, lawsuits and cleanup dwarfs the roughly $8 billion that Exxon had to pay after its 1989 spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska. And BP will very likely still pay billions more before this is finished.

And yet it is not enough. Two years after analysts questioned whether the extraordinary cost and loss of confidence might drive BP out of business, it has come roaring back. It collected more than $375 billion in 2011, pocketing $26 billion in profits.

What the gulf spill has taught us is that no matter how bad the disaster (and the environmental impact), the potential consequences have never been large enough to dissuade BP from placing profits ahead of prudence. That might change if a real person was forced to take responsibility — or if the government brought down one of the biggest hammers in its arsenal and banned the company from future federal oil leases and permits altogether. Fines just don’t matter.

In order to maximize profits, Discovery decides its best to give into the reality-deniers:
The vast majority of scientists agree that human activities are influencing changes to the climate — especially at the poles — and believe that the situation requires serious attention. That scientific consensus is absent from “Frozen Planet,” for reasons that shed light on the dilemma of commercial television, where the pursuit of ratings can sometimes clash with the quest for environmental and scientific education, particularly in issues, like global warming, that involve vociferous debate.

Including the scientific theories “would have undermined the strength of an objective documentary, and would then have become utilized by people with political agendas,” Vanessa Berlowitz, the series producer, said in an interview.

She added, “I feel that we’re trying to educate mass audiences and get children involved, and we didn’t want people saying ‘Don’t watch this show because it has a slant on climate change.’”

This approach — anticipating criticism and tiptoeing around it accordingly — is a reflection of the political and ideological fury that infuses many conversations about climate change. Some scientists say that the politicization of the subject has succeeded in causing governments, corporations and media outlets to shy away from open discussion about it.

“Many organizations, and it sounds like Discovery is one of them, appear to be more afraid of being criticized by climate change ‘dismissives’ than they are willing to provide information about climate change to the large majority of Americans who want to know more about it,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

The people who are dismissive of human effect on climate change make up about 10 percent of the American population, according to Dr. Leiserowitz’s research, but they sometimes drown out the broader conversation about the subject, making themselves seem more numerous than they are.

In private, some people involved in the production said that Discovery and its production partners, including the BBC, were wary of alienating any of the potential audience for “Frozen Planet.”

First and foremost, “Frozen Planet” is a natural history documentary, said Eileen O’Neill, the president of Discovery. The series seeks to entice viewers with footage of seals, penguins, polar bears and other animals of the polar regions. Here’s the visual evidence, it asserts, of a warming planet; make of it what you will.


One of the seven episodes, “On Thin Ice,” was devoted to climate change. It placed the narrator of the British version of the series, David Attenborough, in front of the camera to show how warming trends are affecting humans and animals in the Arctic. Shown standing at the North Pole, Mr. Attenborough told viewers: “The days of the Arctic Ocean being covered by a continuous sheet of ice seem to be past. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing, of course, depends on your point of view.”

Mr. Attenborough then noted the new opportunities for energy exploitation and commercial shipping. But he did not note that the vast majority of scientists believe that human activities are contributing to the warming trends evident there.

That hasn’t gone unnoticed. Greg Brian, a television writer for Yahoo, wrote earlier this month that by sidestepping the climate change science, Discovery has created a perception “that even bringing it up will bring a bevy of angry letters, protesters, or (worse) defectors from ever watching the particular cable channel again.”

Others said that the series was a lost opportunity for climate change education.

“It’s kind of like doing a powerful documentary about lung cancer and leaving out the part about the cigarettes,” said Bill McKibben, a scholar and climate change activist. “There’s no scientific mystery here: the poles are changing because we’re burning so much carbon.”

Discovery executives counter that by saying their approach may gain the attention of viewers who wouldn’t watch a straightforward documentary about climate change science.
And while Tucker Carlson may not think so, this is another reason why public broadcasting is so necessary — because the market may not prioritize recognizing those facts that make the powers that be uncomfortable. With programs like this, for example. (Watch the full episode of Earth: The Operators' Manual here.)

How to take on the climate change deniers:

The true importance of the pink slime controversy:
Americans are notorious for an unwillingness to eat anything but the choice cuts of meat — at least, when they know what they are. Most show little or no reluctance if it’s been ground, highly processed, and/or deep fried. But this tendency to flinch once you’ve seen the raw ingredients should not be confused with what is truly gross about pink slime — and that’s not just that it comes from the parts that would make people squeamish if they ate them straight off the animal.

No, what’s gross about pink slime is the fact that it’s a process that was developed to repurpose meat that was previously considered unfit for human consumption because of its high rate of pathogens. What they do to it is gross, yes — but it’s not the ammonia alone that’s the problem, either. It’s why they have to add ammonia that should make it unappetizing, particularly because they failed to tell us they were putting it in our burgers.

The huge error the industry made was trying to pass it off as true ground beef. In fact, the USDA whistleblower who coined the term pink slime observed that it technically fits the definition of something known as “beef-patty mix” — a meat additive. I think what kicked off the outrage wasn’t just pink slime itself (although the visceral gross-out factor is big), but the clear indication that the industry was trying to pull a fast one. We all know what ground beef is — and pink slime just isn’t ground beef.

But it’s also true that the broad use of pink slime lowered the cost of meat and resulted in fewer cows required to make a hamburger (by exactly how much and how many fewer is difficult to measure). For the record, industrial agriculture is very good at using the whole animal — the pork industry used to say they used “every part of the pig but the oink” — though this is less true in the age of diseases like Mad Cow, which have made cow and pig brains off-limits.

Because after all, if the animal is raised in an inhumane, pathogen-filled manner, eating every last ounce of it won’t solve our problems. Yes, eating meat efficiently is important — but so is eating a whole lot less of it.

In my view, the main positive impact of all of this attention pink slime has gotten is that it has made people think more critically about their meat consumption. Not that it’s enough, mind you, but it’s a start. And if it makes a few people nauseous along the way, well, I’m okay with that, too.

As David Cole noted in a piece I shared earlier, the feds are now prosecuting speech and thought crimes under the guise of terrorism; when there's a separate legal system for Muslims — one in which Constitutional protections, and high-falutin' concepts like liberty and justice don't exist — it's easy to make up any reason to send a man to jail, even if he never committed a crime:
On April 12, Mr. Mehanna was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison. Hearing this, most Americans would probably assume that the F.B.I. caught a major homegrown terrorist and that 17 and a half years is reasonable punishment for someone plotting to engage in terrorism. The details, however, reveal this to be one of the most important free speech cases we have seen since Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969.

As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others.

At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes.


MR. MEHANNA’S crimes were speech crimes, even thought crimes. The kinds of speech that the government successfully criminalized were not about coordinating acts of terror or giving directions on how to carry out violent acts. The speech for which Mr. Mehanna was convicted involved the religious and political advocacy of certain causes beyond American shores.

The government’s indictment of Mr. Mehanna lists the following acts, among others, as furthering a criminal conspiracy: “watched jihadi videos,” “discussed efforts to create like-minded youth,” “discussed” the “religious justification” for certain violent acts like suicide bombings, “created and/or translated, accepted credit for authoring and distributed text, videos and other media to inspire others to engage in violent jihad,” “sought out online Internet links to tribute videos,” and spoke of “admiration and love for Usama bin Laden.” It is important to appreciate that those acts were not used by the government to demonstrate the intent or mental state behind some other crime in the way racist speech is used to prove that a violent act was a hate crime. They were the crime, because the conspiracy was to support Al Qaeda by advocating for it through speech.

Much of Mr. Mehanna’s speech on Web sites and in IM chats was brutal, disgusting and unambiguously supportive of Islamic insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. In one harrowing IM chat, which the government brought up repeatedly during the trial, he referred to the mutilation of the remains of American soldiers in response to the rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl as “Texas BBQ.” He wrote poetry in praise of martyrdom. But is the government right that such speech, however repulsive, can be criminalized as material support for terrorism?


We have the resources to prevent acts of violence without threatening the First Amendment. The Mehanna prosecution is a frightening and unnecessary attempt to expand the kinds of religious and political speech that the government can criminalize. The First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston should at least invalidate Mr. Mehanna’s conviction for speech and reaffirm the Supreme Court’s doctrines in Brandenburg and Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. Otherwise, the difference between what I do every day and what Mr. Mehanna did is about the differences between the thoughts in our heads and the feelings in our hearts, and I don’t trust prosecutors with that jurisdiction.

Inequality as a driver of insufficient political action to stem the Great Recession:
Why has the response to the crisis been so inadequate? Before financial crisis struck, we think it’s fair to say that most economists imagined that even if such a crisis were to happen, there would be a quick and effective policy response. In 2003 Robert Lucas, the Nobel laureate and then-president of the American Economic Association, urged the profession to turn its attention away from recessions to issues of longer-term growth. Why? Because, he declared, the “central problem of depression-prevention has been solved, for all practical purposes, and has in fact been solved for many decades.”

Yet when a real depression arrived — and what we are experiencing is indeed a depression, although not as bad as the Great Depression — policy failed to rise to the occasion. Yes, the banking system was bailed out. But job-creation efforts were grossly inadequate from the start — and far from responding to the predictable failure of the initial stimulus to produce a dramatic turnaround with further action, our political system turned its back on the unemployed. Between bitterly divisive politics that blocked just about every initiative from President Obama, and a bizarre shift of focus away from unemployment to budget deficits despite record-low borrowing costs, we have ended up repeating many of the mistakes that perpetuated the Great Depression.

Nor, by the way, were economists much help. Instead of offering a clear consensus, they produced a cacophony of views, with many conservative economists, in our view, allowing their political allegiance to dominate their professional competence. Distinguished economists made arguments against effective action that were evident nonsense to anyone who had taken Econ 101 and understood it. Among those behaving badly, by the way, was none other than Robert Lucas, the same economist who had declared just a few years before that the problem of preventing depressions was solved.

So how did we end up in this state? How did America become a nation that could not rise to the biggest economic challenge in three generations, a nation in which scorched-earth politics and politicized economics created policy paralysis?

We suggest it was the inequality that did it. Soaring inequality is at the root of our polarized politics, which made us unable to act together in the face of crisis. And because rising incomes at the top have also brought rising power to the wealthiest, our nation’s intellectual life has been warped, with too many economists co-opted into defending economic doctrines that were convenient for the wealthy despite being indefensible on logical and empirical grounds.

Philosopher Michael Sandel on how our lives suffer when we allow the logic of markets rules our lives:
At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It's not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.

And so, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?

The prison-corporate complex — the past and future of free-market capitalism?:
Prisoners, whose ranks increasingly consist of those for whom the legitimate economy has found no use, now make up a virtual brigade within the reserve army of the unemployed whose ranks have ballooned along with the U.S. incarceration rate. The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S (formerly Wackenhut), two prison privatizers, sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM.

These companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or prisoners to work on the outside. All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.

Rarely can you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, and subject to martial discipline at the first sign of recalcitrance -- unless, that is, you traveled back to the nineteenth century when convict labor was commonplace nationwide. Indeed, a sentence of “confinement at hard labor” was then the essence of the American penal system. More than that, it was one vital way the United States became a modern industrial capitalist economy -- at a moment, eerily like our own, when the mechanisms of capital accumulation were in crisis.

Coming to terms with death via psychedelic drugs:
Lauri Reamer is a 48-year-old survivor of adult-onset leukemia. Before the leukemia, she was an anesthesiologist and a committed agnostic who believed in “validity” and “reliability,” the scientific method her route to truth. Reamer recalls the morning when all that changed, when, utterly depleted, she bumped her leg on a railing and saw a bruise rush up, livid on her pale flesh; it was then she knew something was terribly wrong. After that came the diagnosis, the bone-marrow biopsies, the terrible trek toward a recovery that was tentative at best. “I believed I was going to die,” Reamer told me.

Reamer made it through the leukemia — or, rather, she went into remission — but the illness and the brutal bone-marrow treatments she underwent left a deep mental scar, a profound fear that the cancer would return made it difficult to experience any joy in life. Her illness was lurking around every corner, waiting to haul her away. “When I was near death, I wasn’t so afraid of it,” Reamer said, “but once I went into remission, well, I had an intense fear and anxiety around relapse and death.”

It was in the midst of this fear that, one day in May 2010, Reamer learned about Griffiths’s study at Johns Hopkins. For years, Griffiths had been studying the effects of psilocybin on healthy volunteers. He wanted to see if particular doses of the drug could induce mystical states similar to naturally occurring ones: think Joan of Arc or Paul on the road to Damascus. Griffiths says that he and his research team found an ideal range of dosage levels — 20 to 30 milligrams of psilocybin — that not only reliably stimulated “mystical insights” but also elicited “sustained positive changes in attitude, mood and behavior” in the study volunteers. Specifically, when Griffiths administered a psychological test called the Death Transcendance Scale at the 1- and 14-month follow-up, he saw subjects’ ratings rise on statements like “Death is never just an ending but part of a process” and “My death does not end my personal existence.”

“After transcendent experiences, people often have much less fear of death,” Griffiths says. Fourteen months after participating in a psilocybin study that was published in The Journal of Psychopharmacology last year, 94 percent of subjects said that it was one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives; 39 percent said that it was the most meaningful experience.

Wondering whether he could see the same shifts in attitude in terminally ill patients, he designed a study that gave subjects a high dose of psilocybin (higher than Grob had given) in one session and a dose that varied from subject to subject in a second session. Because the study is continuing, Griffiths did not want to discuss the precise amounts of the drug given, but said that “dose selection in the cancer study is informed by what we have learned in the prior studies.”

At the end of September 2010, Lauri Reamer took her first dose of psilocybin. “I mostly just cried through that session,” she says. Three weeks later, she went back to Johns Hopkins for her second dose. She remembers a lovely room with a large plush couch. Griffiths entered and wished her well. Reamer had pictures of her children and items that reminded her of her recently deceased father, and after swallowing the psilocybin capsule, Reamer sat with two study coordinators and looked at the memorabilia. She talked about what each item meant to her, waiting for the drug to take effect, assessing her own internal state. “And then it happened,” she told me. “I was at first sitting up on the couch and talking about my daughter’s baby blanket, which I’d brought with me, and then I went supine. They dimmed the lights. I got dark eyeshades. They put headphones on me, and music started pouring into my ears. Some dark opera. Some choral music. Some mystical music. There was a bowl of grapes; they were big juicy grapes,” Reamer says, and she remembers the sweetness, the freshness, the tiny seeds embedded in the gel.

Once the drug took effect, Reamer lay there and rode the music’s dips and peaks. Reamer said that her mind became like a series of rooms, and she could go in and out of these rooms with remarkable ease. In one room there was the grief her father experienced when Reamer got leukemia. In another, her mother’s grief, and in another, her children’s. In yet another room was her father’s perspective on raising her. “I was able to see things through his eyes and through my mother’s eyes and through my children’s eyes; I was able to see what it had been like for them when I was so sick.”

Reamer took the psilocybin at about 9 a.m., and its effects lasted until about 4 p.m. That night at home, she slept better than she had in a long time. The darkness finally stopped scaring her, and she was willing to go under, not because she knew she would come back up but because “under” was not as frightening. Why she was less afraid to die is hard for her to explain. “I now have the distinct sense that there’s so much more,” she says, “so many different states of being. I have the sense that death is not the end but just part of a process, a way of moving into a different sphere, a different way of being.”

For-profit academic publishing companies are an extractive, exploitative industry:
[T]he survival of entire university departments depends on the publication records of their leading academics. So academia has become a publish-or-perish world.

This gives enormous power to outfits like Elsevier that publish key journals. And guess what? They wield that power. An annual subscription to Tetrahedron, for example, costs a university library $20,269 (£12,600). And if you want Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, that'll set the library back €18,710 (£11,600) a year. Not all journals are this pricey, but the average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is still $3,792 and many journals cost far more. The result is that unconscionable amounts of public money are extracted from our hapless universities in the form of what are, effectively, monopoly rents for a few publishers. Most major British universities are giving between £4m and £6m a year to outfits like Elsevier, and the bill has been rising faster than the rate of inflation over the years.

But it's not just the exorbitant subscriptions that stink; it's the intrinsic absurdity of what's involved in the academic publishing racket. Most publishers, after all, have at least to pay for the content they publish. But not Elsevier, Springer et al. Their content is provided free by researchers, most of whose salaries are paid by you and me.

The peer reviewing that ensures quality in these publications is likewise provided gratis by you and me, because the researchers who do it are paid from public money. (One estimate puts the value of UK unpaid peer reviewing at a staggering £165m.) And then the publishers not only assert copyright claims on the content they have acquired for nothing, but charge publicly funded universities monopoly prices to get access to it.

The most astonishing thing about this is not so much that it goes on, but that people have put up with it for so long. Talk to university librarians about extortionist journal subscriptions and mostly all you will get is a pained shrug. The librarians know it's a racket, but they feel powerless to act because if they refused to pay the monopoly rents then their academics – who, after all, are under the cosh of publish-or-perish mandates – would react furiously (and vituperatively). 
As astrophysicist Peter Coles note, the issue extends beyond for-profit, monopolistic control of publicly-funded knowledge creation — it's a question of openness and transparency in science, and what that means for the credibility and legitimacy of the scientific endeavor:
[O]pen access isn't just about the end products of research. It's the entire process of scientific enquiry, including the collection and processing of data, scrutiny of the methods used in the analysis, questioning of assumptions, and discussion of alternative interpretations. In particular, it's about access to scientific data.

I believe all data resulting from publicly funded research should be in the public domain, for two reasons. First, it's public money that funds us, so we scientists have a moral responsibility to be as open as possible with the public. Second, the scientific method only works when analyses can be fully scrutinised and, if necessary, replicated by other researchers. In other words, to seek to prevent your data becoming freely available is plain unscientific.

If scientists are reluctant to share their data with other scientists it's very difficult to believe they will be happy to put it all in the public domain. But I think they should. And I don't mean just chucking terabytes of uncalibrated raw data onto a website in such a way that it's impossible to use for any practical purpose. I mean fully documented, carefully maintained databases containing raw data, analysis tools and processed data products.

It's time to embrace recycled wastewater.

Thoughts on Earth Day from Alex Steffen (an old piece that's no less relevant today) and Elizabeth Rosenthal.

Celebrate Earth Day by blogging in the WaPo about a paper on which Karina's a co-author.

A shortage of power hampers India's economy.

Green space and development as smart infill.

Dams could threaten the ecology of the Andean Amazon.

Thinking about zoning as a local-scale governance institution.

Where in America does it especially suck to be a woman?

Thomas Friedman: biggest wanker of the decade.

Speaking of wankers, it's Krauthammer Day!

The pervasiveness of the ever-expanding Surveillance State under Obama.

Drones and the secret war machine.

And get ready for domestic surveillance via drones. Oh good. (h/t Andrea)

Tax breaks for universities?

The tax system as government spending.

Undocumented immigrants pay taxes. GE does not.

They both suck. But one side is far suckier — and far more responsible for the lack of worthwhile legislation — than the other.

The radical Right loves Christianity when it serves their purposes. None of this social gospel nonsense for them, however.

The bizarro-world Gatsby: from segregationist to fake Cherokee.

David Rees: Proust of the pencil world.

A new resource on Kony, Uganda and the LRA.

Eric Hobsbawm remembers Tony Judt.

Stand your ground.

Pineapples don’t have sleeves.”

Paul F. Tompkins is a funny man.

People have been sharing plenty of clips from The Last Waltz in light of the Levon Helm's death; the finest performance from that film, in my opinion, was actually not a song by The Band, but their backing of Van Morrison on his classic “Caravan”:

And Heather's Happy Link of the Day: I'm pretty sure this qualifies as porn for bibliophiles.

Friday, April 20, 2012


The EPA unveils new rules regarding fracking, but don't get too excited:
“It sets a floor for what the industry needs to do,” said attorney Erik Schlenker-Goodrich of the Western Environmental Law Center. “The reality is we can do far better.”

Over the past few years, more information has come out about fracking’s potential harms to the environment and human health, particularly relating to the risk of groundwater contamination. In addition to the many potentially toxic components of the highly pressurized fluid injected into the ground during the natural gas drilling process, fracking can also release cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and greenhouse gases like methane into the air. The federal government has made moves to tighten regulations, and we’ve chronicled the history of those regulations.

The EPA’s new rules don’t cover most of those issues. Instead, they address a single problem with natural gas: air pollution.

“These rules do not resolve chronic water, public health and other problems associated with fracking and natural gas,” Schlenker-Goodrich said.

The agency is actually barred from regulating the impact of fracking on groundwater because, in 2005, Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act. Congressional proposals to give the EPA more oversight have so far failed.

The for-profit college industry is a scam, supported by welfare-hating/crony capitalism-loving GOP legislators (with a bit of assistance from Dems, as well):
The for-profit educational sector is an industry almost entirely subsidized by the federal government. Around 70-80 percent of for-profit revenues are generated by federal student loans. At the same time, judging by sky-high dropout rates, the for-profit schools do a terrible job of educating students. The Obama administration’s efforts to define a credit hour and require state accreditation were motivated by a very understandable desire: to ensure that taxpayers are getting their money’s worth when federal cash pays for a student’s education. In contrast, Foxx’s legislation is designed to remove that taxpayer protection. So here’s a more accurate title for her bill: “The Protecting the Freedom of For-Profit Schools to Suck off the Government Teat Without Any Accountability Whatsoever Act.”

The for-profit educational sector has been growing extraordinarily rapidly for the past decade: 12 percent of all post-secondary students are now enrolled in for-profit schools, up from 3 percent 10 years ago. But the main beneficiaries of the growth appear to be the shareholders and executives of the largest publicly traded for-profit schools, not the students.


One would imagine that Republicans, who theoretically oppose government involvement in the private sector, and are always looking for ways to cut government spending, would approve of efforts to seek greater accountability for taxpayer funds. Virginia Foxx, after all, was notorious for being one of only 11 members of Congress to vote against a federal relief package for victims of Hurricane Katrina, citing the “high potential for the waste, fraud and abuse of federal tax dollars.”

But as it turns out, Foxx herself is benefiting from the waste and abuse of federal tax dollars. Among the top 20 financial contributors to Foxx in the 2011-2012 cycle are the Association of Private Sector Colleges/Universities, the Apollo Group (owner of the University of Phoenix), and Corinthian Colleges. Since federal student loans comprise the vast majority of the revenues of those for-profit schools, it follows that their campaign contributions to Foxx are also made possible by U.S. taxpayers.
And it's not just taxpayers that lose, it's students, too:
The lead plaintiff in the class-action suit, Chinea Washington, claims The Art Institute of California, Hollywood, led her to believe that federal grants and loans would cover the entire $89,000 cost for a bachelor's degree in interior design.

In November 2011, after three years of study, Washington was provided notice by the "college" that she had reached the federal loan/grant aggregate limit of $52,340 and that it would cost $37,000 to complete the degree. Washington dropped out with $52,160 in debt. Because The Art Institute's credits are not transferable, Washington has been swindled out of $52,000 and three years of her life.

The only way to describe $89,000 for a four-year degree with non-transferable credits from a non-academic college is as a fraud and a swindle, and that characterization possibly fails to convey the frustration and downright victimization students like Washington must feel.

Like subprime mortgages, for-profit colleges are a scam driven by payment of commissions to sales staff known as recruiters. The payment of commissions to high-pressure salespeople is so central to the scam that the umbrella trade group for for-profits, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU), has sued the federal government to overturn its ban on incentive pay.

It cannot be stated strongly enough: for-profit colleges could not engage in the ongoing exploitation of students and theft of federal money without the direct cooperation and assistance of the federal government in what can only be termed an immoral economy. The same forces that demonize everything government does or attempts to do are busy feeding from the government trough. The hypocrisy is untenable, the federal subsidies unfathomable and the lack of criminal prosecution unconscionable.

For-profit colleges are a kickback scheme where politicians enact favorable legislation and regulations that allow for-profit colleges to maintain access to student loans and grant money. The for-profit colleges then "give" a small cut of the federal money back to the politicians to enact favorable legislation.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest boosters of for-profit colleges doesn't have a lick of understanding about how expensive college has gotten and illustrates it in her typical compassionate-free, bile-filled ignorant ways :
I went through school, I worked my way through, it took me seven years, I never borrowed a dime of money. He borrowed a little bit because we both were totally on our own when we went to college, totally. [...] I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there’s no reason for that. We live in an opportunity society and people are forgetting that. I remind folks all the time that the Declaration of Independence says “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” You don’t have it dumped in your lap.
Nope, she really doesn't have a clue at all:
Representative Virginia Foxx (R – N.C.) has no patience for students who whine about their student loan debt. After all, she was able to work her way through college without taking on a single penny of debt. According to Foxx, “We live in an opportunity society… You don’t sit on your butt and have [a college education] dumped in your lap.” Thank goodness we have someone like Foxx who is willing to push back against those lazy, whiny, and entitled student borrowers. “Kids these days have no work ethic,” you can almost hear her say, “when I was at the University of North Carolina, I worked hard to pay my exorbitant tuition of $87.50.”

That’s right, Virginia Foxx paid $87.50 in tuition. That was the price of a full semester’s tuition at UNC in 1961. The Chair of the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training is completely out of touch with the very different realities facing today’s students.

To be fair, prices have gone up a lot since 1961. If you take that $87.50 and adjust it for inflation, the actual dollar amount is a whopping $671.30 per semester. Including tuition and fees, Representative Foxx would have paid $279 for the academic year—about $2,140 today. That’s about equivalent to what students pay right now at community colleges, not public four-year institutions—especially not public flagships.

In-state students at Representative Foxx’s alma mater pay $7,008—more than three times what Foxx paid. It took Foxx seven years to graduate, probably because she was working to put herself through college. During the 7-year period she was at UNC, tuition and fees increased about 0.6 percent per year. Compare that to UNC students who have seen their tuition and fees increase on average 7.2 percent per year since 2005. UNC students who take fewer classes in order to subsidize their tuition through work have found themselves in a losing battle with steep tuition increases.

They have also come up against work that pays less and less. When Representative Foxx was working her way through college, the minimum wage was worth about $9.62 in today’s dollars. Today’s students who work minimum wage jobs earn about 30 percent less per hour while paying much more in tuition. If Representative Foxx worked 20 hours a week for an entire year during her time at UNC, she would have made approximately $9,795 before taxes, which would probably cover her entire cost of attendance. Using the same calculation, a student today working 20 hours a week for an entire year would make $7,176. This would barely cover tuition and fees. It wouldn’t even make a dent in the estimated full cost of attendance of $20,660. Indeed, if a student worked 40 hours a week, a situation not feasible for a full-time student, he would only net $14,352—still leaving a considerable gap. That gap is exactly where student loans have come into play.
Her ignorance is best captured by Wonkette:
So yes, you’re right, we do in fact have a leader of a House education committee who is not aware of exponential rise in higher education costs over the last 20 years, which, along with exponentially rising health care costs and exponentially rising mortgage/rent payments, are the three most visible threats to our viability as an “opportunity society” that doesn’t randomly fuck people over with hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, at birth, for the crime of trying to secure basic modern needs.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in academia, the corporatized university doesn't have a problem with professors being whores for industry:
Scores of animal scientists employed by public universities have helped pharmaceutical companies persuade farmers and ranchers to use antibiotics, hormones, and drugs like Zilmax to make their cattle grow bigger ever faster. With the use of these products, the average weight of a fattened steer sold to a packing plant is now roughly 1,300 pounds—up from 1,000 pounds in 1975.

It's been a profitable venture for the drug companies, as well as for the professors and their universities. Agriculture schools increasingly depend on the industry for research grants, a sizable portion of which cover overhead and administrative costs. And many professors now add to their personal bank accounts by working for the companies as consultants and speakers. More than two-thirds of animal scientists reported in a 2005 survey that they had received money from industry in the previous five years.

Yet unlike a growing number of medical schools around the country, where administrators have recently tightened rules to better police their faculty's ties to pharmaceutical companies, the schools of agriculture have largely rejected critics' concerns about industry cash. Administrators have set few limits on how much corporate money agricultural professors can accept. Faculty work with industry is governed by confidentiality rules that veil it from public view.

In certain ways, the close relationship between animal scientists and pharmaceutical companies has never served the public well. Few animal scientists have been interested in looking at what harm the livestock drugs may be causing to the cattle, the environment, or the people eating the meat. They've left most of that work to scientists outside of agriculture, consumer groups, and others who take interest.

But with the introduction of Zilmax, the situation may have reached a tipping point. Critics say some academic animal scientists have become so closely tied to the drug companies that they may be working more in the companies' interests than in those of farmers and ranchers—the very groups that land-grant universities were created to serve.


Responding via e-mail to questions from The Chronicle, Lawrence says he has a consulting arrangement with Intervet that pays him "no set amount" each year. He says the company has also paid him fees for lecturing and had reimbursed his travel expenses, but he declines to say how much he has received or whether he was paid to write the response in Beef magazine.

Lawrence says he doesn't view his speeches or articles as work done to promote Zilmax. "I do not tell beef producers to use or not use Zilmax. I report the data." He adds that it isn't necessary for him to tell ranchers that some packing plants won't accept cattle fed Zilmax, because that wasn't part of "our data collection."

West Texas A&M officials decline to say how much Lawrence had received in research grants from Intervet, arguing that the information is proprietary to the pharmaceutical firm. And executives at Merck, which acquired Intervet in 2009, decline to reveal how much the company has paid Lawrence and other animal scientists in consulting and speaking fees. By contrast, in response to Congressional pressure, the company recently began disclosing payments it makes to medical academics and physicians who have similarly helped sell its human medicine products.

In response to a list of questions from The Chronicle, the company sent a one-paragraph reply that says it has financed a variety of "scientific education initiatives" aimed at "helping animal health and livestock professionals achieve improved standards of overall animal care." It delivers "balanced scientific information to these audiences," the statement says. For those events, the company says, it selects speakers, "many of whom are considered scientific leaders in their particular field, who have knowledge and expertise in the subject matter."

Indeed, Lawrence is not the only professor who has added academic luster to corporate-sponsored research, taking grants or other money from Intervet and then helping promote Zilmax. Bradley J. Johnson, a professor of meat science and muscle biology at Texas Tech University, has been a paid consultant to Intervet on the subject of "growth-enhancement technologies" since 2004, according to his curriculum vitae. He has made several presentations about Zilmax at events held by Intervet, including one in July 2009 titled "Understanding the Zilmax Advantage."

Both Lawrence and Johnson have written scientific articles about Zilmax with company employees. One of those, by Johnson, published in the Journal of Animal Science in 2010, was a review of previously published research on the drug—much of it financed by Intervet. The team concluded that, even though Zilmax made beef less tender, it had "minimal effects on consumer acceptance" of the meat. Zilmax, they wrote, "can be an important management tool in the U.S. beef industry." There was no disclosure that Johnson was a consultant to Intervet.

In an e-mail, Johnson says he stands behind those conclusions. He says the drug has "a well-established advantage" in producing more meat when fed to cattle in their last 20 days.

Editors at the Journal of Animal Science do not require authors to publicly disclose their ties to companies, even when an article discusses the product of a company from which they have received fees. The journal is the main scientific publication of the American Society of Animal Science, which has received financial support from Intervet and other pharmaceutical companies. The lack of a disclosure policy stands in contrast to policies at many other scientific publications. For example, The New England Journal of Medicine requires authors to detail their ties to companies in a lengthy statement, which is available on the journal's Web site. The medical journal also won't allow scientists to write review articles like the one Johnson wrote with the Intervet scientist if they have "significant financial associations" with a company selling a product under review.

Meghan Wulster-Radcliffe, the animal-science society's chief executive, says Johnson's corporate connections were revealed internally when the article was peer-reviewed. If the reviewers had found the article to be biased, she says, it would have been rejected.

In response to questions about the lack of disclosure in the articles about Zilmax, she says, the journal's editors have decided to change its policy and will begin requiring authors to publicly reveal their industry ties. "We have no problem adding a public declaration," she says.

As for Johnson, he says he doesn't recommend any specific pharmaceutical product, because he has done research on "every approved growth-promoting agent used in beef-cattle production." In fact, he became a consultant to Elanco, manufacturer of Optaflexx, in June 2010. In his public presentations for Intervet, he says, he focuses on explaining the science of how the drug increases muscle growth.

His compensation from Intervet, he says, averaged less than $7,500 a year from 2005 through 2011. "This modest income has no impact on my overall lifestyle, and I am not dependent on any consulting income to sustain my lifestyle," he says. "In addition, due to the nature of my endowed-chair position, I am not dependent on research grants from these companies, either."
Lack of accountability in academia seems to be a recurring theme today; even after the UC-Davis pepper spray incident show the complete failure of the leadership of that school, Linda Katehi gets away with offering faux apologies and has the support of her highers-up:
Linda Katehi, of course, will likely remain where she is. UC President Mark Yudof gave a nice demonstration of how things work, for example, when he instantly responded to his ”cursory reading” of the report (on the day it was released) with a vow to work with Katehi to move forward:
Even a cursory reading of the report confirms what we have known from the start: Friday, Nov. 18 was a bad day for the UC Davis community and for the entire UC system. We can and must do better. I look forward to working with Chancellor Katehi to repair the damage caused by this incident and to move this great campus forward.
It’s a neat rhetorical trick, allowing him to take cognizance of the report, and to speak about it, but without being burdened by any necessary knowledge or apprehension of its contents. He’s only given it a “cursory reading,” you see. And yet his first response — the one he gives before really reading the thing — will, in all likelihood, be his last, neatly underscoring how basically and totally indifferent he is to its actual contents: by vowing to work with her, apparently, no matter what the report said about her, the one thing shown not to be on the table, as far as he was concerned, is her replacement.

Katehi’s recent “state of the campus” speech makes her personal immunity just as clear: after uttering the words “I take full responsibility for the incident” she follows them up with (in the same sentence) a remarkable redefinition of “responsibility” as “authority,” continuing with:
“and I consider myself accountable for all the actions that need to be taken to make sure our campus is a safe and welcoming place.”
It’s a radically warped and self-serving misunderstanding of what accountability is, the claim that having fucked up to a tremendous extent is precisely what gives her the obligation to be the one that cleans up the mess. In her mind, apparently, showing yourself to be unworthy of trust is precisely what necessitates staying on to formulate the policies and reforms which will reassure us that such a thing will never happen again. The crucial point would be, then, that a variety of policies and procedures were already in place to prevent exactly this sort of thing from happening. The problem was that Linda Katehi and company simply ignored them and did whatever they felt like.

On Fresh Air, we are reminded of just how little the NYPD cares about the Constitution; if you're a suspected Muslim or radical, you're guilty and Constitutional protections don't apply to you:
[W]hat we've seen in the documents is that the police department uses officers to sit in parking lots or sit outside mosques and just collect license plates and take pictures and videos of people coming and going from mosques.

We know that they train video cameras on poles and point them at mosques. We know that they use informants called mosque crawlers to just sort of soak up everything that happens inside the mosque, and even stuff about lawful protests and, you know, write your congressman, all ends up in intelligence files — even if it has no connection to terrorism.


[T]he intelligence division, in addition to sort of monitoring Muslims for potential terrorist attacks, they also used their undercover officers to keep tabs on protests and groups that might protest inside New York City. So one document we were able to obtain showed an undercover officer going down to the People's Summit in New Orleans, which is just a gathering of liberal groups kind of loosely under the banner of repealing NAFTA and free trade agreements, and equalizing the division of wealth in the United States. And what we saw is political activists being put into place documents for, you know, one guy introduced a film about the plight of the Palestinians. One person was in there, you know, just noted that she was in attendance and she is a labor organizer for housekeepers and nannies. They talked about, you know, all the different groups that were there and who might protest, what their issues were. And the whole idea is that, if there were ever a going to be a big protest in New York City, we'd know who the key players were and we'd know, you know, what to expect. And I think the feeling was that nobody wants a repeat of, you know, Seattle or Quebec riots, so we have to keep tabs on this. And that was surprising to us, because even though we had known there had been some spying ahead of the Republican Convention in 2004, we didn't realize that it continued along the same vein, long after the convention was over.
But it's not just in New York where being a Muslim is a crime; the feds are in on the act, too, stripping Muslims of their free speech rights, for instance:
In 2009, Tarek Mehanna, who has no prior criminal record, was arrested and placed in maximum security confinement on “terrorism” charges. The case against him rested on allegations that as a 21-year old he had traveled with friends to Yemen in 2004 in an unsuccessful search for a jihadist training camp in order to fight in Iraq, and that he had translated several jihadist tracts and videos into English for distribution on the Internet, allegedly to spur readers on to jihad. After a two-month trial, he was convicted of conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization. The jury did not specify whether it found him guilty for his aborted trip to Yemen—which resulted in no known contacts with jihadists—or for his translations, so under established law, the conviction cannot stand unless it’s permissible to penalize him for his speech. Mehanna is appealing.

Under traditional (read “pre-9/11”) First Amendment doctrine, Mehanna could not have been convicted even if he had written “39 Ways” himself, unless the government could shoulder the heavy burden of demonstrating that the document was “intended and likely to incite imminent lawless action,” a standard virtually impossible to meet for written texts. In 1969, in Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court established that standard in ruling that the First Amendment protected a Ku Klux Klansman who made a speech to a Klan gathering advocating “revengeance” against “niggers” and “Jews.” It did so only after years of experience with federal and state governments using laws prohibiting advocacy of crime as a tool to target political dissidents (anarchists, anti-war protesters, and Communists, to name a few).

But in Mehanna’s case, the government never tried to satisfy that standard. It didn’t show that any violent act was caused by the document or its translation, much less that Mehanna intended to incite imminent criminal conduct and was likely, through the translation, to do so. In fact, it accused Mehanna of no violent act of any kind. Instead, the prosecutor successfully argued that Mehanna’s translation was intended to aid al-Qaeda, by inspiring readers to pursue jihad themselves, and therefore constituted “material support” to a “terrorist organization.”


The government provided no evidence that Mehanna ever met or communicated with anyone from al-Qaeda. Nor did it demonstrate that the translation was sent to al-Qaeda. (It was posted by an online publisher, Al-Tibyan Publications, that has not been designated as a part of or a front for al-Qaeda.) It did not even claim that the “39 Ways” was written by al-Qaeda. The prosecution offered plenty of evidence that in Internet chat rooms Mehanna expressed admiration for the group’s ideology, and for Osama bin Laden in particular. But can one provide “material support” to a group with which one has never communicated?

Water wars: American-style. (h/t Wifey)

Get antibiotics out of ag.

Large cities are what drives the US economy.

Kill first, take names later.

Colonialism was awful, so let's get rid of the evidence.

Open the proceedings at Gitmo.

To the Pope, women's rights and social justice are fundamentally at odds with Catholicism.

Sex discrimination doesn't matter at SCOTUS.

Could it be that Sheriff Joe is finally going to be taken down?

No, Facebook probably isn't making us sad and lonely.

Small towns with great Main Streets.

What things look like on the inside. (h/t Wifey)

Revisiting Greil Marcus on The Band's final show. (h/t Wifey)

And in Heather's Happy Link of the Day, Wifey finds the GREATEST THING EVER:

And there are some accompanying animated GIFs, which are also THE GREATEST.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The research projected a sea level rise of 13 inches in New York by 2050, and found that global warming-related sea level rise more than triples the odds of a 100-year flood or worse by 2030.

Without global warming, the odds of such a flood would be just 8 percent by 2030, but with global warming the odds rise to 26 percent.

In addition, the funnel shape of New York Harbor has the potential to magnify storm surges already supplemented by sea level rise, threatening widespread areas of New York City.

Even without sea level rise, a 100-year flood would inundate large portions of the subway system, Jacob’s team concluded. But with a 4-foot rise in sea level, storm-related flooding would inundate much of Manhattan’s subways, including almost all of the tunnels crossing into the Bronx beneath the Harlem River and the tunnels under the East River. Five of the city’s subway lines have extremely low points of entry to tunnels, subways, or ventilation shafts: they are less than 8 feet above sea level.

Although Jacob’s team used a 100-year flood definition that differed from Climate Central’s, both analyses came to the same, disturbing conclusion: New York is at increasing risk of coastal flooding from a combination of storms and sea level rise.
In a recent talk, climate change expert Neil Adger discusses how embracing community identity can assist with better climate change adaptation:
“For more than a decade we have been looking at the economic costs, and the infrastructure, and the things that policymakers really focus on whenever they think about the impacts of climate change,” said Adger. In doing so “we realized that that doesn’t necessary motivate people in terms of what they believe the impacts of climate change are.”

Drawing from work on adaption in Australian agriculture, Adger explained that culture can be a barrier to effective adaptation where governments and policymakers fail to engage communities on a cultural basis.

More detailed information is needed to identify what people care about, how people construct perceptions of climate risk, and the best ways to engage people locally.

This is not easy, however. “I think the difficulty of looking at the cultural impacts of climate change is that they are very place specific,” Adger said.

But there is a significant payoff from the investment. “The cultural embedded-ness of our relationship with climate is also potentially a huge motivation for action and for change,” he said. This motivation can extend beyond adaptation to actually encourage people to decarbonize the economy, to mitigate the potential for negative climate change impacts in the first place, and to act as “citizens rather than as consumers.”

Pickety and Saez get a nice profile in the NYTimes and preach the gospel of equality:
“The United States is getting accustomed to a completely crazy level of inequality,” Mr. Piketty said, with a degree of wonder. “People say that reducing inequality is radical. I think that tolerating the level of inequality the United States tolerates is radical.”

As much as Mr. Piketty’s and Mr. Saez’s work has informed the national debate over earnings and fairness, their proposed corrective remains far outside the bounds of polite political conversation: much, much higher top marginal tax rates on the rich, up to 50 percent, or 70 percent or even 90 percent, from the current top rate of 35 percent.

The two economists argue that even Democrats’ boldest plan to increase taxes on the wealthy — the Buffett Rule, a 30 percent minimum tax on earnings over $1 million — would do little to reverse the rich’s gains. Many of the Republican tax proposals on the table might increase income inequality, at least in the short term, according to William G. Gale of the Tax Policy Center and many other left-leaning and centrist economists.

Conservatives respond that high tax rates would stifle economic growth, at a minimum, and cause some businesses and high-income workers to flee to other countries. When top American tax rates were much higher, from the 1940s through the 1970s, businesses could not relocate as easily as they can now, say critics of Mr. Piketty and Mr. Saez.

“I materially disagree with the idea you can raise a marginal tax rate to 70 percent and not have an impact on economic growth,” said Ike Brannon, an economist at the American Action Forum. “It’s absurd on its face.”

But Mr. Piketty and Mr. Saez argue that history is on their side: Many countries have higher tax rates — and the United States has had higher tax rates — without stifling growth or encouraging the concentration of income in the hands of the very rich.

“In a way, the United States is becoming like Old Europe, which is very strange in historical perspective,” Mr. Piketty said. “The United States used to be very egalitarian, not just in spirit but in actuality. Inequality of wealth and income used to be much larger in France. And very high taxes on the very rich — that was invented in the United States,” he said.

Mr. Saez added, “Absent drastic policy changes, I doubt that income inequality will decline on its own.” 
The article is accompanied by a couple very important graphics:

Meanwhile, over at a discussion on inequality at the Boston Review, the two economists claim the top marginal tax rate could be as high as 83% without harming economic growth.

Yes, health screenings are important and early detection can be quite important; nevertheless, let us not fall into the fall trap of believing that more screenings and diagnostic testing solve everything:
You don’t often hear calls from doctors for fewer tests and procedures.

And that’s too bad. Many of them have been oversold, their benefits exaggerated and their harms ignored. Consider cancer screening. For decades, it has been nearly impossible to watch television, read popular magazines or ride public transportation without seeing advertisements urging regular mammograms, colonoscopies or P.S.A. blood tests. These messages have had a profound effect: the public is now extremely enthusiastic about the notion that we should routinely screen people without symptoms for cancer. In one national survey, most Americans said that cancer screening is almost always a good idea and that finding cancer early saves lives most of the time.

Certainly, the rationale behind screening seems obvious. The earlier cancers are diagnosed, the more often lives will be saved, right? With enough screening, we might even stop cancer.

If only. Finding cancer early isn’t enough. To reduce cancer deaths, treatment must work, yet it doesn’t always. Second, it must work better when started earlier. But for some cancers, later treatment works as well. (That’s why there is no big push for testicular cancer screening — it is usually curable at any stage.)

And some of the worst cancers aren’t detected by screening. They appear suddenly, between regular screenings, and are difficult to treat because they are so aggressive.

So how can we be confident that getting a screening test regularly is a good idea? The only way to be sure is to look at the results of randomized trials comparing cancer deaths in screened and unscreened people. Even when screening “works” in such trials, the size of the benefit observed is surprisingly low: Generally, regular screening reduces fatalities from various cancers between 15 percent and 25 percent.

What does that mean? Think about a “20 percent off” sale at a store. Whether you save a lot or a little depends on the item’s regular price. You’ll get huge savings on a diamond ring, pennies on a pack of gum.

The benefit of screening is like a sale, only you don’t save money — you “save” on your chance of dying. Whether you save a lot or a little depends on the “regular price”: your chance of dying without screening.

For most of us, the chance of dying of cancer in a given 10-year period is small: less than 1 percent. So regular screening with a proven test may bring a 20 percent reduction in a 1 percent risk over a decade. Put another way, two deaths would be prevented for every 1,000 people screened during that period.

And what of the other 998 whose fate was not changed by screening? Some of them will have been harmed.

The most familiar harm is a false alarm: The screening test is abnormal, but in the end there is no cancer. False alarms matter because the follow-up tests needed to rule out cancer can be painful, dangerous and scary.

But overdiagnosis — the detection of cancers never destined to cause problems — is arguably the most important harm of screening. Some cancers grow so slowly that they would never cause symptoms or death. When screening finds these cancers, it turns people into patients unnecessarily.
Retractions are on the rise in scientific publishing:
“Nobody had noticed the whole thing was rotten,” said Dr. Fang, who is a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Dr. Fang became curious how far the rot extended. To find out, he teamed up with a fellow editor at the journal, Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. And before long they reached a troubling conclusion: not only that retractions were rising at an alarming rate, but that retractions were just a manifestation of a much more profound problem — “a symptom of a dysfunctional scientific climate,” as Dr. Fang put it.

Dr. Casadevall, now editor in chief of the journal mBio, said he feared that science had turned into a winner-take-all game with perverse incentives that lead scientists to cut corners and, in some cases, commit acts of misconduct.

“This is a tremendous threat,” he said.

Last month, in a pair of editorials in Infection and Immunity, the two editors issued a plea for fundamental reforms. They also presented their concerns at the March 27 meeting of the National Academies of Sciences committee on science, technology and the law.

Members of the committee agreed with their assessment. “I think this is really coming to a head,” said Dr. Roberta B. Ness, dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health. And Dr. David Korn of Harvard Medical School agreed that “there are problems all through the system.”

No one claims that science was ever free of misconduct or bad research. Indeed, the scientific method itself is intended to overcome mistakes and misdeeds. When scientists make a new discovery, others review the research skeptically before it is published. And once it is, the scientific community can try to replicate the results to see if they hold up.

But critics like Dr. Fang and Dr. Casadevall argue that science has changed in some worrying ways in recent decades — especially biomedical research, which consumes a larger and larger share of government science spending.

In October 2011, for example, the journal Nature reported that published retractions had increased tenfold over the past decade, while the number of published papers had increased by just 44 percent. In 2010 The Journal of Medical Ethics published a study finding the new raft of recent retractions was a mix of misconduct and honest scientific mistakes.

Several factors are at play here, scientists say. One may be that because journals are now online, bad papers are simply reaching a wider audience, making it more likely that errors will be spotted. “You can sit at your laptop and pull a lot of different papers together,” Dr. Fang said.

But other forces are more pernicious. To survive professionally, scientists feel the need to publish as many papers as possible, and to get them into high-profile journals. And sometimes they cut corners or even commit misconduct to get there.


[T]he scramble to publish in high-impact journals may be leading to more and more errors. Each year, every laboratory produces a new crop of Ph.D.’s, who must compete for a small number of jobs, and the competition is getting fiercer. In 1973, more than half of biologists had a tenure-track job within six years of getting a Ph.D. By 2006 the figure was down to 15 percent.

Yet labs continue to have an incentive to take on lots of graduate students to produce more research. “I refer to it as a pyramid scheme,” said Paula Stephan, a Georgia State University economist and author of “How Economics Shapes Science,” published in January by Harvard University Press.

In such an environment, a high-profile paper can mean the difference between a career in science or leaving the field. “It’s becoming the price of admission,” Dr. Fang said.

The scramble isn’t over once young scientists get a job. “Everyone feels nervous even when they’re successful,” he continued. “They ask, ‘Will this be the beginning of the decline?’ ”

University laboratories count on a steady stream of grants from the government and other sources. The National Institutes of Health accepts a much lower percentage of grant applications today than in earlier decades. At the same time, many universities expect scientists to draw an increasing part of their salaries from grants, and these pressures have influenced how scientists are promoted.

“What people do is they count papers, and they look at the prestige of the journal in which the research is published, and they see how many grant dollars scientists have, and if they don’t have funding, they don’t get promoted,” Dr. Fang said. “It’s not about the quality of the research.”

Dr. Ness likens scientists today to small-business owners, rather than people trying to satisfy their curiosity about how the world works. “You’re marketing and selling to other scientists,” she said. “To the degree you can market and sell your products better, you’re creating the revenue stream to fund your enterprise.”

Universities want to attract successful scientists, and so they have erected a glut of science buildings, Dr. Stephan said. Some universities have gone into debt, betting that the flow of grant money will eventually pay off the loans. “It’s really going to bite them,” she said.

With all this pressure on scientists, they may lack the extra time to check their own research — to figure out why some of their data doesn’t fit their hypothesis, for example. Instead, they have to be concerned about publishing papers before someone else publishes the same results.

“You can’t afford to fail, to have your hypothesis disproven,” Dr. Fang said. “It’s a small minority of scientists who engage in frank misconduct. It’s a much more insidious thing that you feel compelled to put the best face on everything.”

Adding to the pressure, thousands of new Ph.D. scientists are coming out of countries like China and India. Writing in the April 5 issue of Nature, Dr. Stephan points out that a number of countries — including China, South Korea and Turkey — now offer cash rewards to scientists who get papers into high-profile journals. She has found these incentives set off a flood of extra papers submitted to those journals, with few actually being published in them. “It clearly burdens the system,” she said.

A Goldman Prize for standing against a dam in Kenya.

America's GHG emissions are heading up again.

Following his excellent series on walking for Slate, Tom Vanderbilt appears on NPR.

Build bike lanes and they will bike.

Greenpeace takes a look at how clean/dirty the cloud is.

The Nigerian Delta isn't getting any cleaner.

ExxonMobil is full of lies and deceit.

Lying GOP governors and trains.

Ten reasons we should explore the deep oceans.

India and Pakistan quibble over water — probably a sign of things to come.

Glenn Greenwald tells the stories of many who many who have suffered by virtue of having dark skin and being critical of US foreign policy.

The AP's excellent series exposing the NYPD's deep-seated anti-Muslim policies — criminalizing Muslims for appearing to be Muslim — wins a Pulitzer.

An absolutely brilliant open letter to the male politicians who believe the goings-on of ladyparts should be legislated.

In order to understand how conservatives really think about motherhood, stop listening to their platitudes and start looking at how they actually act. And that way is a way that shows they actually have no respect for women’s choices, for women’s rights, and not even for how real the work of motherhood actually is.”

A judicial minimalist on the “obvious constitutionality” of Obamacare.

The Founding Fathers didn't seem to mind individual mandates.

The NYTimes on Scopes Redux.

Financial incentives to motivate doctors.

Scientific illustration and online publishing.

The Economist takes a brief look at long-form writing.

Learning from Britain's failed empire.

ALEC relents.

This is what happens when public universities go corporate and adopt all the trappings of the corporate world.

Bittman on making pizza at home.

An oral history of outlaw country.

An interview with Spiritualized's Jason Pierce on NPR.

The WSJ looks at South Asians in jazz.

Heather's Happy Link Of The Day: Bourbon!

Monday, April 16, 2012


It's time to start thinking about our technological innovations more systemically and within their social context:
The shale gas R&D projects assumed a kind of vacuum. The only criteria were technical feasibility and economic profitability, and the innovators failed to consider questions about how the technologies would play out in the real world. What is the long-term fate of the chemicals that remain underground? What do we do with the toxic mixture of fracking fluids and naturally occurring radioactive materials that flows back up the wellbore during drilling and production? How will roads handle the increase in traffic volume that results from the roughly 1,000 truck trips (hauling fracking fluids and waste water) it takes to get each well producing? What are the air quality and climate implications? Can we safely frack in places where people live? What happens when the wells run dry? Is it wise to further commit ourselves to a finite fossil resource that requires such extreme measures to extract?

Why weren’t these questions asked with the same rigor as the technical questions? It is because we have an innovation system that only asks “how to,” not “what if?” As a result, we have enormous powers to change the world and the way we live, but essentially zero capacity to guide those powers wisely or responsibly. We promote transformative research with one hand and clean up its messes with the other. And throughout we lack any clear sense about what needs transforming and why.

The lesson from shale gas development is one we should have learned a long time ago: We need to rethink and broaden the parameters of innovation.

The current myopic system is too much like Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” We unleash poorly understood powers and try to ride out the resulting problems. Goethe’s is a story of humans controlling nature through an artifice that, in turn, controls humans. It results in the kind of reverse adaptation one can find in many U.S. cities, where people seem to be primarily in the business of creating habitats for cars, despite the pollution and financial drain.

As our technological powers grow, we can no longer chalk things up to unintended consequences. Instead, we need those who design our technical systems to take broader social and ethical questions into consideration. This isn’t a novel insight: In the ‘60s the American musician Tom Lehrer put it in the form of a song about the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun: “ ‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.” Once the frack fluid is pumped down, who cares where it goes?

For too long, “innovation” has meant just this kind of thoughtlessness, in which questions of social context are not in anyone’s department. Engineering models simplify nature in order to control it. But there is always the danger that the models overlook something important. Unless the models can be challenged and complexified, we won’t know what we have overlooked until it is too late. As with shale gas development, we’ll be forced to try to cobble environmental and social values onto a juggernaut that already has significant momentum.

We need to frack the innovation system—create fissures to let in more people and more perspectives. Researchers must obtain the informed consent of individuals participating in trials of new pharmaceuticals. The same should hold for things like shale gas development that amount to large-scale social experiments. Those of us living atop shale plays have been enrolled as unwilling human subjects of research. There are pitfalls to including the public in science and technology policies: Those who shout the loudest, even if they are a small minority, may end up setting the course. But these problems are no more difficult than those associated with getting gas out of shale. We just have not invested comparable time or intellectual energy into processes of design-by-democracy.

Some might argue that we now account for the broader contexts of innovation through the ethical, legal, and social implications research that often accompanies major R&D projects. Shale gas would have turned out better, they will claim, if it would have had ELSI researchers working in parallel with the scientists and engineers. But too often ELSI researchers dare not bite the hand that feeds them.

More importantly, the ELSI model of innovation reinforces the wall between the two cultures: Humanists do “values,” and scientists and engineers do “facts.” But there is no such thing as “value-free” work. Our innovators cannot help but make choices with social and ethical dimensions. No ethics expert can do this thinking for them. If we want to rid ourselves of a myopic innovation system, then we need scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who see things in the round.

Industrial ag is a terrible, terrible thing:
Mice sometimes ran down egg conveyer belts, barns were thick with flies and manure in three barns tested positive for salmonella, he said. (Actually, salmonella isn’t as rare as you might think, turning up in 3 percent of egg factory farms tested by the Food and Drug Administration last year.)

In some cases, 11 hens were jammed into a cage about 2 feet by 2 feet. The Humane Society says that that is even more cramped than the egg industry’s own voluntary standards — which have been widely criticized as inadequate.

An automatic feeding cart that runs between the cages sometimes decapitates hens as they’re eating, the investigator said. Corpses are pulled out if they’re easy to see, but sometimes remain for weeks in the cages, piling up until they have rotted into the wiring, he added.

Other hens have their heads stuck in the wire and are usually left to die, the investigator said.


Centuries ago, we humans amused ourselves by seeing other people executed or tortured. Until modern times, we considered it sport to see animals die horrible deaths. Now our sensibilities have evolved so that there is an outcry when animals are abused — unless it happens out of sight on farms.

The police would stop wayward boys who were torturing a stray dog, so should we allow industrialists to abuse millions of hens? Shouldn’t we agree on minimum standards?

Granted, it is not easy to settle on what constitutes cruelty to animals. But cramming 11 hens for most of their lives into a cage the size of an oven seems to cross a line.

Somehow, fried eggs don’t taste so good if you imagine the fetid barn in which they were laid.

You needn't be consciously racist in order to hold prejudiced views against black men:
Very few Americans make a conscious decision to subscribe to racist views. But the toxic connotations that the culture has associated with blackness have been embedded in thought, language and social convention for hundreds of years. This makes it easy for people to see the world through a profoundly bigoted lens without being aware that they are doing so.

Over the last three decades, a growing body of research has shown that racial stereotypes play a powerful role in judgments made by ostensibly fair-minded people. Killers of whites, for example, are more likely to receive the death penalty than killers of blacks — and, according to the psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, juries tend to see darker defendants as more “deathworthy” in capital cases involving white victims.

As Vesla Weaver, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, has written, “virtually every aspect of life and material well-being is influenced by skin color, in addition to race.” Studies have shown, for example, that darker-skinned blacks are punished more severely than others for the same types of crimes; deemed less worthy of help during disasters like Hurricane Katrina; disfavored in some hiring decisions; and more likely to be unemployed.

These preconceptions are at work even in the early grades at school, where voluminous data show that children of color are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled or declared “disabled” and shunted into special education.

Stand Your Ground laws seem to be a lovely excuse for people to kill at will:
“I have no problem with people owning guns to protect themselves,” says Bill Kuch, Billy’s father. “But somehow, we’ve reached the point where the shooter’s word is the law. The victim doesn’t even get his day in court. I don’t think most Americans realize it, but that’s where we are.”

In Florida and across the country, “Stand Your Ground” laws — the same kind of legislation that authorities cited for not arresting a neighborhood-watch volunteer after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in February — have coincided with a sharp increase in justifiable-homicide cases.

Pretty amazing: in just two months, we've raised $110,000 for cancer treatment. Looks like we'll need another $40-50,000 and we'll be set. We can do it.

Speaking of raising money for cancer treatment, this happened:

The market didn't create sprawl; government subsidies and other forms of intervention like land-use regulations did.

How walking became passé.

The resilience of the Arctic’s ecosystems in terms of withstanding risk events is weak, and political sensitivity to a disaster is high. As a result, companies operating in the Arctic face significant reputational risk, the report says.”

Daily temperature variability can be deadly to the elderly.

An inter-agency task force on fracking.

As Donald Shoup would no doubt tell you, free parking ain't free.

SoCal's attempts to move towards sustainability actually look fairly impressive.

Trees: they're important.

How clean is your electric-powered car/plug-in hybrid? Depends on how clean the source fuel for your your electricity is.

Keep peat moss where it is.

Subsidizing dirty energy.

Yup, we sure do love doing it.

Tennessee flips reality the bird, and instead encourages teachers to lie and teach nonsense.

Climatologist Michael Mann fights back against those peddling lies and misinformation about climate change.

Chris Christie is a lying fraud.

No, Republicans don't actually value women's work.

And they don't much care for motherhood if the mother in question is poor.

Yes, the modern-day GOP is as insanely batshit conservative as you suspected.

The GOP's War On Women gets even worse here in Arizona.

A fundraiser for Trayvon Martin's family? Yeah, that'll get you fired in Michigan.

Open access now.

Even The Economist is in favor of OA, as they recognize Elsevier makes millions in profits off of doing next-to-nothing.

How much do faculty earn?

An investigation places the blame on UC-Davis leadership and the police for the violent crackdown on student protesters.

An absolutely fantastic profile of Robert Caro.

Ultimate goes pro.

Microsoft Word is a bloated piece of crap.

The jig is up: Matt Groening reveals the location of Springfield.

The AVClub offers a primer on how to get acquainted with the Velvelt Underground.

Wifey asked me to make her a Talking Heads mix; I did. [Spotify]

[P]erformances in the desert of Western Sahara. Music played with no thought of Western commerce or polish and no urge to bow to foreign sensibilities. This is music borne of struggle, and it's fucking amazing.”

James Farm, whose self-titled debut, was one of the finest releases of last year — jazz or otherwise — performs at the Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival; NPR has the recording.

Turns out Neneh Cherry is still around — and the influence of her late father, Don Cherry, appears to be rubbing off on her. And she's got a great cover of Suicide's “Dream Baby Dream” on her upcoming album.

(The Boss' cover ain't too shabby, either, but Neneh's version takes the cake.)

Get excited about the new Santigold album:

Does Pulp still have it? Hell yes. An absolutely fantastic performance of their classic, “Common People,” on Fallon that will BLOW YOUR MIND:

Your favorite feature returns! Heather's Happy Link Of The Day takes us on a trip investigating the depth of lakes and oceans.

As for Wifey, she's been doing things. And cultivating eggs in her salads.

We sure do create lots of trash:
Life of Garbage