Sunday, February 28, 2010

Science Sunday: The Coming Bear Wars

While it may not be the Crips and the Hoods, the looming street fight between polar and grizzly bears is shaping up to be bloody -- and one-sided.
A study published in Canadian Field Naturalist says that grizzlys have entered polar bear territory, setting the stage for deadly bear versus bear encounters.
"This is worrying for the polar bears because grizzly bears would likely hibernate in polar bear maternity denning habitat," explained Linda Gormezano, a co-author of the study. "They would come out of hibernation at the same time and can kill polar cubs."

Gormezano and her colleagues documented sightings of the bears in Canada's Wapusk National Park. The bears are moving into the Canadian province of Manitoba in regions traditionally thought of as polar bear habitat.

"Grizzly bears are a new guy on the scene, competition and a potential predator for the polar bears that live in this area," said Robert Rockwell, who also worked on the study. He is a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History and a professor of biology at the City College of the City University of New York.

He recalled that "the first time we saw a grizzly we were flying over the middle of Wapusk, counting fox dens" when Gormezano "shouted, 'Over there, over there -- a grizzly bear.' And it wasn't a dirty polar bear or a moose -- we saw the hump."

Before 1996, there was no evidence that grizzly bears encroached on polar bear territory. From that year on, however, there have been at least 12 sightings, negating the prior theory that the barren landscape north of the Hudson Bay was impassable, in terms of resources, for migrating grizzly bears. But the flexible bears, which can eat everything from meat to berries, have crossed the gap and likely won't look back much, since the polar bear region is known for its abundant caribou, moose, fish and berries.

"Although we don't yet know if they are wandering or staying—the proof will come from an observed den or cubs—these animals will eventually be residents of this national park," said Rockwell. "The Cree elders we talked to feel that now that grizzly bears have found this food source they will be staying."

The big question is how to deal with the newcomers since both grizzly and polar bears are listed as species of special concern.

Hat tip to DiscoveryNews

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Three Cheers For Olympic Ice Hockey

I've done my share of pissing and moaning about the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, mostly because of NBC's amazingly sucky coverage. But one aspect of the quadrennial event is once again thrilling -- ice hockey -- and the reason could not be more simple. Ice hockey is a thing of beauty when the players can actually play it, while what passes for hockey in the National Hockey League in the U.S. is tag-team wrestling between goon squads with blades.

Olympic men's teams are chockablock with NHLers, but Olympic rules prohibit fighting, and without fighting there is no need for beefy enforcers, checking lines and endless substitutions that . . . slow . . . down . . . the . . . pace . . . of a game that is supposed to be played at breakneck speed.

And I love this fact all the more because true-blue pro hockey fans hate it.

Meanwhile, women's hockey as an Olympic event is on thin ice because Canada and the U.S., the gold and silvery medal winners respectively, are in a class of their own.

Cartoon du Jour

Ben Sargent/Universal Press Syndicate

Carly Simon's Guessing Game Is Ovah

"You're So Vain" was a mega hit for Carly Simon in 1972, but the subject of her scorching put down has remained a secret until now.

C.R. Johnson (1984-2010)

Photograph by Adam Turner/The Associated Press

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Guillaume Vogoureux

Friday, February 26, 2010

Da Summit: Partisan Politix At Its Worst

The sweet smell of bipartisanship (think of a Cinnabon bun) was in the air at the outset of President Obama's health-care reform summit yesterday. The table had been changed from U-shaped to O-shaped so that Republicans would have more TV face time in explaining why they have been nakedly obstructionist on the most important legislative initiative of my lifetime.

They did not disappoint.

Republicans, of course, had been deriding the extraordinary event as "political theater," but they were the biggest actors -- and petulant ones at that -- over the four-hour gabathon, and the
sweet smell quickly turned to swamp gas as Senator Lamar Alexander, physician of Tennessee, kicked things off with a litany of reasons why Republicans would not support any form of reform remotely resembling what Obama says Americans need and the House and Senate have more or less legislated.

Alexander's remarks translated crudely into "it's quite all right with us that there are
45 million uninsured Americans and millions more underinsured because they're too dumb to vote or vote Democratic if they do. Oh, and if you have a pre-existing condition, screw you."

From there things went downhill faster than Lindsey Vonn.

The gold medal winner was Senator Tom Coburn, veterinarian of Oklahoma, who blamed food stamps for diabetes
and obesity, which doesn't have bupkis to do with reform and is dead wrong anyway.

The silver medal went to the Republicans, too numerous to mention, who believe the health-care reform is unconstitutional, and the bronze to those who want to abolish Medicare and replace it with vouchers but claim they're opposing reform to save Medicare.

A majority of Americans support reform even if they don't like the inner workings of the congressional sausage factory. Me neither. But they will get at least a watered down version of reform, and come election time in November there will be Republican who will rue their obstructionism when voters put on the latex gloves and tell them to bend over and cough.

Cartoon du Jour

Michael Ramirez/Investors Business Daily

Oh What A Lovely War!

Iraq is the gift that just keeps on giving and now one of the biggest critics of the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history is arguing that at least 30,000 troops should remain there for the indefinite future and not just until the end of 2011.

Hercules Was Not An Ordinary Man

As President George Washington's chief cook, he was one of the first great chefs of Philadelphia, a city with a long and rich culinary history. He went by only a single name -- Hercules.

He seemed to be everywhere at once as he supervised preparation of elaborate banquets in the presidential mansion at 6th and Market streets, but Hercules was not an ordinary man. Click here to learn why.

Rich Lady In A Journalistic Ghetto

The execrable Sally Quinn finally gets what's coming to her.

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Thierry Draus

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Toyota's Epic Recall Fail: When Saying You're Sorry Falls On Deaf American Ears

There is a cultural chasm between Japanese and American society that bubbles beneath the surface largely unnoticed until something like trying to end a world war or the massive recall of 8.8 million Toyotas happens.

That recall has revealed the Toyota corporate culture to be hypocritical in the extreme, witness a memo in which executives chortle that they have saved the world's largest automaker $100 million by recalling several thousand floor mats rather than address an epidemic of stuck accelerator pedals that may have caused as many as 35 deaths. And so the repeated apologies by company President Akio Toyoda, the grandson of Toyota's founder, are falling on largely deaf American ears.

Among them my own.

I lived in Tokyo and traveled from one end of the country to another, so I am well aware of the "I'm sorry" dynamic of Japanese society. And while respectful of societal mores that can seem so strange to the average Westerner and occasionally remained so for me despite my deep affection for the country and its people, I came to understand that an apology -- whether from a cab driver or the prime minister -- can be as empty as an American's "Excuse me" after bumping into someone stepping off of an elevator, which makes Toyoda's statement that he took "full responsibility" in testifying before a congressional committee yesterday the equivalent of empty calories.

As if that were not bad enough, there is another cultural difference that has undermined Toyota: The Japanese obsession with consensus building amidst a crisis where consumers and the media wanted quick answers.

Perhaps the army of ad men and damage-control consultants trying to put Toyota's image back together again will finally get through to those insular and, it seems, xenophobic corporate executives back in Japan. But that was not apparent listening to Toyoda's tortured testimony, which was reluctantly given after days of vacillating about whether he would take up an offer to drop by Congress for a chat before he would be compelled to do so.

As it is, the 53-year-old Toyoda's ham-handed management of the crisis is even more difficult to understand because he received an MBA at an American college and then lived in New York City for several years and should know that he can't bow his way out of this mess.

So it perhaps was inevitable that Toyoda-san wouldn't come off as slick as James Lentz III, the oleaginous president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, who grudgingly admitted in congressional testimony on Tuesday that the recalls may not have entirely solved the unintended acceleration problem.

Lentz had to be reminded that Toyota still has not launched an in-depth investigation into the onboard electronic management system that some experts believe may ultimately be at fault but it keeps denying have anything to do with a crisis that has seen its sales and share price tank. Nor did Lentz note that weeks after the recall, some owners of the affected Toyota and Lexus models still have not received notifications.

Let's be clear that when it comes to hypocrisy the U.S. is the world leader, and some of the very men and women questioning Lentz and Toyoda positively reek of the stuff, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration helped grease the skids for Toyota's epic recall fail by not doing its job. That clearly was the back story in the defensive testimony of NHTS head Ray LaHood, who was on the hot seat before Toyoda. Let's also be clear that some of the unintended acceleration incidents might have been driver error.

Toyota made its nut in the U.S. by manufacturing vehicles that are dull compared to the competition but more reliable than the competition. Now that the reliability imprinteur has been shattered, it's left with dull cars and a sucky reputation that will take years to overcome.

But then Toyota's inability to come to terms with the cultural differences of its largest market in dealing with a largely self-created disaster is . . . uh, so Japanese.

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

End Of The Road For The Hummer

It is richly ironic that Toyota beat out General Motors as the world's leading automaker because it supposedly put quality and reliability before profits and the Japanese automaker now finds itself caught in the slings of adversity because it too put profits before quality and reliability.

An upshot of GM's profligacy is that the American public is now a majority shareholder in the once mighty company, which has been shedding brands like a molting dog as a condition for getting billions of dollars in federal loans.

But GM is still stuck with a bummer called Hummer and announced yesterday that the gas-guzzling brand will be put out of its misery now that a deal with a Chinese company has fallen through.

Photograph by Tim Boyle/Bloomberg News

Is You Or Is You Ain't An Island?

Are the Okinotoris islands or reefs? The Australian government wants to know because it is "excising" distant islands to prevent illegal immigrants from reaching what would otherwise be recognized as Australian soil.
Hat tip to bldblog/Photograph by Tim Maly

Prehab Is The New Rehab

Just ask that Charlie Sheen.

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

Johan Remen Evensen of Norway takes flight during the team ski-jumping finals at the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.

Photograph by Doug Mills/The New York Times

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Grateful Dead As A Business Model

It is richly ironic that without intending to -- in fact, intending to do just the opposite -- the Grateful Dead embraced a business model that has subsequently been adopted by much of corporate America

That strategic improvisation, including focusing on their most loyal fans and getting way out ahead of the competition in embracing the Internet.

Early on, the Dead established a telephone hotline to alert fans to its touring schedule before public announcements, reserved for them the best seats at each venue, and capped the price of tickets and distributed them through its own mail-order house, which is exactly how I got tickets to the Furthur show reviewed above.

More here.

Image for The Atlantic by Zachariah O'Hora

'When There Were No Strings To Play'

By Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia
In the attics of my life
Full of cloudy dreams unreal
Full of tastes no tongue can know
And lights no eye can see
When there was no ear to hear
You sang to me

I have spent my life
Seeking all that's still unsung
Bent my ear to hear the tune
And closed my eyes
When there were no strings to play
You played to me

In the book of love's own dream
Where all the print is blood
Where all the pages are my days
And all my lights grow old
When I had no wings to fly

You flew to me

to me

In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed
When the secrets all are told
And the petals all unfold
When there was no dream of mine
You dreamed of me
Photograph by Kimberley Keyes

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

(ca. 1974) 
The Dead were well ahead of the rock 'n' roll curve when it came to their sound, but none of the systems they employed could top the Wall of Sound, which to my ears produced the best live concert sound evah both indoors and out.

The Wall of Sound actually was eleven separate systems. Vocals, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and piano each had their own channel and set of speakers. Phil Lesh's bass sent signals from each of the four strings to a separate channel and set of speakers for each string. Another channel amplified the bass drum, and two more channels carried the snares, tom-toms and cymbals. Because each speaker carried just one instrument or vocalist, the sound was exceptionally clear and free of distortion.
The Wall of Sound consisted of 89 300-watt solid-state and three 350-watt vacuum McIntosh tube amplifiers generating a total of 26,400 watts of audio power through 586 JBL loudspeakers. The system projected high quality playback at 600 feet with an acceptable sound projected for a quarter mile, at which point wind interference degraded it. Four semi-trailers and 21 crew members were required to haul and set up the two 75-ton systems, one of which would go ahead to the next city on a tour while the other one was being used. The other would then "leapfrog" to the next show. 
The first Wall of Sound shows were in February 1973 and the last in October 1974 during the legendary closing week at Winterland memorialized in The Grateful Dead Movie.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Torture Report: This Era's 'Hiroshima'

Given my general state of disgust (see post below), I have little inclination to wade into the report by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility that basically absolves Bush Torture Regime legal architects John Yoo and Jay Bybee. Besides which, we've known for a couple of weeks that the report would state that the men merely used "poor judgment" in crafting memos justifying the use of torture, which is a far cry to the professional-misconduct allegations in the original report.

But letting the release of the report and commentaries about it go unremarked on would be poor judgment on my part, so I'll call attention to perhaps the best reason about why, its softened conclusions notwithstanding, the OPR report must be taken seriously -- James Fallows' view that it should be to this era what John Hersey's Hiroshima was to the post-World War II era.

Hiroshima, of course, was a definitive (if fictive) account of the atomic bombing of the Japanese port city and a must-read for people on both sides of the never ending debate over whether using this ultimate killing machine was morally appropriate.

As with Hiroshima, Fallows states, the Justice report should force us to confront what was done in the name of the citizens of the United States of America.

While there can be no absolutes in debates about the morality of nations harming others, let alone their own, my own mind is made up. As I argue here, use of the atom bomb was justified. As I have argued over and over in dozens of posts over the past two years, the use of torture was not.

Ahem, Dick Cheney and his mouthpiece daughter of course could not disagree more. As Fallows deconstructs the Cheneys' argument, since Hiroshima was necessary, the atom bomb should be our first resort in any international conflict.

It' All Seems To Be Crap With A Capital C

There is far too much whining in the blogosphere and I'd like to think that I'm an exception. But not today.

While it hasn't snowed hereabouts for over a week, we've recently seen more sun than clouds and the DF&C and I had a marvelous weekend topped off by a delicious home-cooked dinner on Sunday evening, everything seems to be Crap with a capital C.

Sitting through hours of Winter Olympics "coverage" on NBC is like a high-definition root canal. An hour blown on an homage on Team USA and its 1980 upset of the Commies at Lake Placid, gauzy profiles of athletes who overcame adversity, endless yammering by commentators in front of butt ugly artificial fires flickering in hideous fireplaces, and . . . oh, once in a while some actual event coverage, like ice dancers doing racially insulting routines.

Then there is what's going on in Washington and out on the hustings: The beyond painful slouch toward watered-down health care reform as usurious insurers jack up premiums to criminal levels, the Democrats trying to out-stupid the Republicans, a godawful jobs picture and the institutional and societal reluctance to come to terms with torture.

At least things are going well in Afghanistan if you don't consider that the Afghan Army consists of a bunch of bums in badly fitting uniforms and the number of civilian deaths from U.S. air strikes is waaay out of control.

And then I read this.

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Oscar

Monday, February 22, 2010

You Know That Society Is Doomed . . .

When Osama bin Laden is allowed to rewrite the U.S. Constitution.

When a man fatally stabs a woman and then torments her family by using her cellphone to send text messages that she was still alive.

When the true answer is not the right answer.

When the CEO of Hooters is shocked that people believe that his woman employees are exploited.

When an apartment manager beats a tenant to death for locking himself out.

When a call for bipartisanship is seen as a demand for surrender.

When a football stadium has had as many names as Elizabeth Taylor had husbands.

When a whites-only basketball league is organized.

When White House officials refuse to give a straight answer when asked what motivates terrorists.

When 12 year olds are threatened with prison time for acting like 12 year olds.

When a philandering pol makes his wife agree to remove the "promise to be faithful" part of their wedding vows.

When credit card debt is decreasing.

When meetings of the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board are closed to the press.

When the owner of a bowling alley burns down his competition.

When the head of a state anti-gambling task force wins a jackpot in a neighboring state that allows gambling.

When Air America declares bankruptcy and stops broadcasting.

When a state senator proposes eliminating the senior year of high school in order to close a budget gap.

When a city's post-Super Bowl celebration is tame.

When flashcards are considered to be a terrorist threat.

When a disabled four-year-old is ordered to remove his leg braces and walk through an airport metal detector.

When people oppose same-sex marriage because men can't breast feed.

When the White House reaches out to Cuba.

When a ho-hum British movie about Charles Darwin fails to find a U.S. distributor because it's considered too controversial for religious America.

When a pack of vicious wild beagles attacks the residents of an affluent Long Island community.

When Republicans break with the judgments of the military establishment.

When a college basketball coach compares a four-point loss to the earthquake in Haiti.

When a restaurant encourages patrons to do the wild thing in their bathrooms.

When people oppose a plan to attack childhood obesity because it makes fat kids feel bad about themselves.

Click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here for previous installments of You Know Society Is Doomed.

Cartoons du Jour

Tony Auth/The Philadelphia Inquirer

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Nicoleta Gabor

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Science Sunday: Uncle Inuk Upsets The Prehistoric Native American Apple Cart

It has become axiomatic that the more we think we know about the origins of prehistoric populations in the Americas the less we really know. This is because as soon as scientists publish another tome about early Native Americans in clomps a bigfoot like Inuk.
Inuk is a 4,000-year-old man who was a member of the Saqqaq culture, the earliest known people to have inhabited Greenland. The reigning theory is that the Saqqaq were descendants of Native American groups that settled the Arctic regions of Alaska and Canada about 11,000 years ago, but an analysis of four fragmentary bones and several hair tufts belong to this ancient man has blown that theory to smithereens.
An analysis of a nearly complete sequence of nuclear DNA extracted from strands of Inuk's hair -- the first such sequence obtained from an ancient person -- reveals that his father and mother came from northeastern Siberia as a consequence of a previously unknown and relatively recent migration of northeastern Asians into the New World about 5,500 years ago.

Danish-led excavations more than 20 years ago unearthed four fragmentary bones and several hair tufts belonging to this ancient man, dubbed Inuk. His remains were found at a Saqqaq culture site, the earliest known people to have inhabited Greenland. Saqqaq people lived in Greenland from around 4,750 to 2,500 years ago. One popular hypothesis traces Saqqaq ancestry to Native American groups that had settled in the Arctic regions of Alaska and Canada by 11,000 years ago.

"We’ve shown that this ancient individual was not related to Native Americans but derived from an expansion of northeastern Asians into the New World and across to Greenland," geneticist Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen told ScienceNews reporter Bruce Bower.

Willerslev and fellow scientists conclude that the Saqqaqs diverged from their closest present-day relatives, Siberian Chukchis, about 5,400 years ago. That calculation implies that ancestral Saqqaqs separated from their Asian relatives shortly before departing for the New World and rapidly traversed that continent to reach Greenland. No land bridge connected Asia to North America at that time, so migrants probably crossed the Bering Strait from what's now Russia to Alaska by boat, Willerslev speculates.

The DNA analysis is something of a coup because studies of ancient humans and their ancestors usually face enormous technical challenges. Fossil bones get contaminated with the DNA of those who unearth these finds as well as with fungal and bacterial DNA. Measures to enrich ancient DNA include generating multiple samples of the same genetic sequences and isolating genetic fragments that show no signs of contamination.

Because DNA from hair contains little contamination from fungi or bacteria, the research team focused on Inuk's locks. Frozen conditions following his death also helped to preserve Inuk's DNA and prevent significant contamination. The team generated 20 copies of his genome to confirm that significant contamination had not occurred.

About 84 percent of the DNA extracted from Inuk's hair was his.

"It is amazing how well-preserved this ancient genetic sample is, presumably due to its rather young age and the permafrost in which it was found," said geneticist Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

In contrast, 40,000- to 70,000-year-old Neanderthal bones studied by Pääbo’s team have yielded genetic sequences that, because of substantial contamination, generally include no more than 4 percent Neanderthal DNA.

IMAGES (From top): Reconstruction of Inuk's face by Nuka Godfredsen; Saqqaq descendants, Representation of nuclear DNA; Chukchi descendants; Bering Strait; Representation of a Neanderthal.