Monthly Archives: January 2016

Genetics and Food Security

There is a food crisis sneaking up on us right now. A lot of them, actually. A lot of little one, some big ones. There are always places in the world where food has become scarce for at time, and people starve or move. You’ve heard of the “”Syrian refugee crisis,” and the often extreme reactions to it in Europe and among some in the US. That started out as a food crisis, brought on by human pollution induced global warming in an already arid agricultural zone.

Nearly similar levels of climate change related pressure on agricultural systems elsewhere has led to very different outcomes, sometimes more adaptive outcomes that won’t (at least for now) lead to major geopolitical catastrophes as we have now in the Levant and elsewhere in West Asia. What’s the difference? The difference is how agriculture is done.

Are GMOs a solution? Are GMOs safe, and can the produce a small or medium size revolution in crop productivity? What about upgrading traditional agriculture to “industrial agriculture”?

And speaking of GMOs, what is the latest in GMO research? How should GMOs be regulated, by the method they are produced, or by the novel or altered traits they have? How do we communicate about GMO research and GMO crops? What about labeling?

These and many other questions are addressed ad Mike Haubrich, me, and Anastasia Bodnar talk about “Genetics and Food Security” on the latest installment of the Ikonokast Podcast. GO HERE to listen to the podcast. Also, if you go there, you can see a picture of Anastasia holding her latest GMO product, a corn plant that can see and talk!

Also, Iknokast has a Facebook Group. Please click here to go and joint it!

And, if you have not yet listened to our first podcast, with author and science advocate Shawn Otto, click here to catch up!

How Machines Work Zoo Break: Excellent New Macaulay Book

David Macaulay is famous for his “how things work” books. How Machines Work: Zoo Break! is a new book that is really fun. So fun that it took me a long time to get it back from Amanda and Huxley so I could review it.

The concept is simple. A story, a simple story, is constructed, that has nothing to do with machines. Except it has everything to do with machines. Two critters, Sloth and Sengi, are in a zoo and trying to escape. Their various escapades lead to situations that allow the exploration of all those interesting mechanical concepts, such as inclined planes, levers and fulcrums and leverage, wheels, pulleys, zippers, and so on.

The book’s cover is a machine with gers, and you can turn one of the gears to watch the sloth go up and down. That is great fun for the littler kids. Every page has 3D pullouts and thingies that demonstrate the physical concepts explored by Macaulay. The book is just a lot of fun.

Sloth, the main character, is a sloth. Sengi, Sloth’s sidekick, is a Sengi. What is a Sengi? It is also known as an Elephant Shrew. What is an Elephant Shrew? It is a forest dwelling insect eating critter that looks vaguely like a rodent but with an elephant like trunk, sort of. In the old days (before the 1990s) we used to say that “An Elephant Shrew is neither an Elephant and a Shrew.” In the old old days, Sengi were classified as shrews. Then, they became reclassified as something other than shrews, but still, obviously, not closely related to elephants. The “elephant” in the name is just because of the elephant-trunk-like nose. But more recently, Sengi were reclassified again into a group that includes elephans (and aardvarks and some other stuff). And it is because Sengi are related to elephants (closely enough) that Macaulay used a sengi (played by Sengi the Sidekick) … he felt an elephant would be the perfect character but they were too small, thus the shrew. And, as you will see, in the end, tamed.

Other Macaulay books (small selection, there are several):

  • The New Way Things Work
  • The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body
  • Underground
  • Hip-Hop Artist Baba Brinkman Crowdfunding Climate Change Album

    I’m not sure what an “album” is, but I think it is like a CD.

    Anyway, if you don’t know who Baba Brinkman is, check this out. (he previously produced “The Rap Guide to Evolution.”)

    Then, head on over to the Indiegogo site to see his project. This is likely to be a go, with your help. He’s a fourth of the way there already, and he has a lot of fans and supporters. I have no doubt that this so-called “album” will be great.

    Also by Baba Brinkman:

  • The Rap Guide to Religion
  • The Rap Guide to Evolution
  • The Rap Guide to Evolution: Revised [Explicit]
  • The Rap Canterbury Tales
  • The Rap Guide to Wilderness
  • The Rap Guide to Human Nature [Explicit]
  • Dead Poets
  • Who won last night’s Republican presidential debate?

    UPDATE for Feb 6th debate:

    This post was originally written for the previous GOP debate. Here are a few comments on last night’s debate.

    I watched the debate at a debate watching party of DFL activists, so naturally I saw very little of it because we were a loud and raucous crowd. But this morning I re-watched portions of the debate, and checked out the online commentary and polls.

    Once again, most of the commentary by experts has little to do with the on line polls. The on line polls show Trump as having won by a huge landslide, while the experts are talking about this or that lower level candidate having done better than expected, etc. etc.

    One of the key features of last night’s debate was the attack on Rubio by various lower level candidates, including Christie. Rubio was just starting to emerge from the back and of the pack over the last few weeks. But, last night, he was effectively eaten by his fellow Republicans, and contributed himself to his own demise. So, he was a big loser. I loved his repeated spirited defense of President Obama’s administration. Rubio made a great case that the President has helped move our country in line with other countries in a lot of ways that people of all political persuasions, in their heart of hearts (for those that have hearts) really want. Good going Marco!

    It is possible that the biggest winner of the GOP debate, given all the infighting, was actually the Democratic Party.


    Just a quick comment about last night’s debate.

    As you know, Donald Trump did not show up at last night’s GOP debate. Yet, online polls not only show him winning, but winning by a larger margin than most earlier post-debate online polls.

    In addition, much of the conversation during the debate, according to reports, was about Donald Trump, who was not there.

    Political commenters over the last few days, commenters who often get things right, said that not showing up last night would hurt Trump more than helping. That did not happen. This election year, in relation to the GOP primary contest, has involved a very large gap between what experts say and what people actually do, a larger gap than usual.

    One way we know Trump won the debate he didn’t show up for is that most debate polling web pages included him anyway.

    On the one page where Trump was not included, Paul was far ahead of the other candidates. This tells us something, perhaps, about the overlap between Trump and Paul in either a) who supports the candidate or b) how good the supporters of the candidate are at gaming the online polls.

    I’m very interested to see what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire, in both parties. We’ve been watching the polls, regular and on line, for weeks now. I strongly suspect that this is one of those years where people who actually go in to the process and participate will be a different group than those who clickity click buttons on line or even answer polling questions. I do think Trump will do well in both primaries, but I suspect the overall pattern in those two states will be different than for online and scientifically done polls.

    In the Democratic race, there has been a huge difference between what expert observers have said about who did well in the debates and what the post debate polls, especially on line polls, have shown, with Clinton winning the hearts and minds of observers and Sanders scoring big in the polls. How will this pattern be challenged in the actual caucus and primary votes coming up? This will be very interesting.

    The Great Human Race: How to survive

    The Great Human Race is a new production of National Geographic, in three parts. I recently viewed the first episode, “Dawn” which comes with this description:

    All people can trace their roots to the savanna of East Africa, the home of one of the first members of the human species — Homo habilis. Archaeologist Bill Schindler and survival instructor Cat Bigney face what early man did as they work together to survive in the wild savanna just as these primitive people did 2.6 million years ago — without any weapons or fire. But they soon find that living like our ancestors is harder than they expected.

    Great Human Race premieres Monday, February 1, at 10/9c on National Geographic Channel.

    Photo at the top of the post: NG Studios

    NGS has asked me to participate in a roundtable (here is the link to the roundtable) focusing on this documentary, specifically addressing this question:

    Do you think that experts today can accurately replicate the challenges that Homo habilis faced thousands of years ago? And do you think that experts today could survive and thrive as Homo habilis did?

    This is very much my area, and I’m glad to contribute to the discussion. The short answer is, of course, no, this is too hard. But, we can try and in so doing, we can develop some interesting thinking about early human evolution.

    My contribution to the conversation centers on two rules of being a human hunter gatherer. Homo habilis was not, of course, a human, but we assume that this early hominin had some incipient human traits, further developed with early Homo erectus/ergaster. The two rules of being a human hunter gatherer refer to important aspects of living off the land that my research indicates apply to modern humans living without agriculture or animal husbandry as a source of food. I don’t know if these rules applied to earlier hominins or not … that is the $64,000 dollar question.

    Rule 1: If you don’t know where it is, you are not likely to find it.

    Much of the story in the first episode of The Great Human Race has to do with the two scantily clad protagonists, a professional survivalist of sorts and an “experimental archaeology” expert, set lose in the African Savanna to see what would happen, searching for various resources. I won’t give you a spoiler, but the episode ends with their discovery of one of the most important resources they need to survive, with that discovery realized in a very spectacular way.

    I spent a lot of time in the 1980s and early 1990s living with, and studying the foraging patterns of, the Efe Pygmy foragers of the Ituri Forest, Zaire (now Congo). One of the things I discovered and documented is the simple fact that most of the resources they use are not really found by them, as though they had no idea where they might be. They already know where most of the stuff they can eat either will be, or are likely to be.

    Bot men and women gather plant resources, but this is more of a woman’s job. In most cases, the more important plant resources are well known fruiting trees or concentrations of trees, or patches of wild yams that are frequently exploited. Women catch fish in streams that they have fished repeatedly before. This involves damming the stream at two points and removing the water from between the dams so the fish are easy to harvest.

    Men seasonally hunt honey, and much of the honey is taken from trees they have exploited in the past, and check on a regular basis to see if the bees have settled in that cavity again. They do occasionally cut down a honey tree, but this is fairly rare (it is very hard work).

    Even hunting, which one might assume is somewhat random, is done with a great deal of expectation based on knowledge. One type of hunting (not the most revered but among the most predictable) is to take porcupines or other small mammals from cavernous areas beneath rock piles that are found here and there across the landscape. If you find a rock pile and try to get at the animals hiding in it, even with the use of dogs, the animals can easily escape as they have many hidden exists. But if you return to the same rock pile repeatedly, you know where many of these escape routes are and can block them with wood or stone. A repeatedly used rock pile can be exploited with a high degree of confidence in success.

    One of the most productive methods of hunting is the ambush. A well known tree that produces a fruit eaten by small ground mammals such as duikers is identified as currently producing the bait. A nearby tree which is climbable is used as a hide, where the Efe man waits for his prey, shooting it from the tree. The Efe almost always camp in locations that were previously used as camps, so at any given location where they are living, any of the men can easily point out the location of excellent ambush sites, rock piles, and nearby potential honey spots, and the women, and some of the men, can easily point out the locations of nearby fruit trees or yam patches.

    There is uncertainty as to what resource will pay off, and not every resource is so easily predicted, but most of the wild foods the Efe gather and hunt are exploitable because of this knowledge.

    The information is probably shared among people in a group, but remarkably little conversation centers on this topic. You don’t hear Efe talking about the location of this or that resource more than you hear, say, Americans talking about the locations of this or that grocery story. Certainly, such things are part of the normal conversation but do not make up a large percentage of it.

    Rule 2: If you are doing it right, the use of a given instance of a resource can increase its future return.

    This is probably a more important finding than that related to the first rule, and is rather counterintuitive. If the Efe use a resource, they will quickly use it up. This is one of the main reasons they move frequently from camp to camp over the year. But, the value of that resource, both the likelihood that it will produce something, and the abundance it produces, is enhanced by their very use of it.

    I’ve already implied a couple of examples. If you block off a few exit ways on a rock pile, you don’t unblock them when you are done. Those escape routes may remain blocked between uses. If you add to your ambush trees a blind to sit on (usually just a few sticks tied on here and there) or modify the tree to make it easier to climb, these modifications may make the use of that ambush spot easier in the future, allowing you to climb and sit in the tree more quickly, more quietly, and more comfortably. Efe will also remove branches that interfere with their view and their shot.

    Often, after an Efe man has finished taking the honey and comb out of a bee nest way up in some tree, he will spend a few more minutes making the cavity the bees had nested in larger. This may increase the amount of honey that can be fit into that cavity the next honey season.

    When Efe women harvest yams, they tend to keep the “head” of the yam, attached to the above ground vine, intact, and rebury it. The space where they took the yam out will then be filled, with a little luck, with more yam months later.

    As the Efe walk along the trails they habitually use to get around in the forest, they maintain the trails to keep them open and passable. it takes an Efe twice as long to traverse a given distance of forest without a trail as with a trail. This is a huge long term enhancement in the return of foraging.

    As the Efe walk along a trail, they often grab up fruits from trees along the way. They eat the fruit as they walk, or stop at a resting place and eat it there. I documented five species of fruit tree where the Efe spit out or otherwise discard the seed of the fruit. This process of dispersal, well known to plant ecologists, enhances the number of those fruit trees along these trails, roughly doubling the abundance of these seasonally consumed fruits.

    And there’s more, I won’t bore you with now. Much of the energy the Efe put into foraging enhances future return, including the development and maintenance of the basic knowledge of where various resources are.

    There is some evidence that chimps do something like this as well. Chimps are probably primary dispersers of some of the fuits they exploit, almost certainly enhancing the abundance of that type of tree or plant. Where chimps use nutting stones (this is rare, but there are some groups that do this), they seem to keep track of the where the stones were left, so finding this rare object is much more efficient.

    Given that chimps use prior knowledge and enhancement a little, and human foragers are capable of using these two “rules” a lot, I would assume that some of this would have been going on with Homo habilis.

    I should mention that the observations I’ve made with the Efe have since been made among other groups of foragers. This seems to be a general pattern among African tropical and subtropical foragers, and possibly beyond. If you don’t already know where something is, you are not likely to find it. And, once a resource is exploited, foragers are often likely to enhance its future value. The emergence of those two features of modern human foraging must have been part of the hominin evolutionary story.

    How Did Climate Change Cause The Great More’Easter of 2016?

    Storms like last weekend’s blizzard and widespread snowfall can happen, in theory, any winter, but large snowfall storms in the US Northeast have been significantly more common in recent years than in previous recorded history. Over the last few years we’ve seen these large snowfalls happen farther south than usual, as was the case with the 2016 Blizzard. Climate scientists are pretty sure that this blizzard was either outright caused or significantly enhanced (you really can’t tell the difference) by human caused global warming. How can a blizzard, a big cold thing, be caused by warming? Because climate is not a simple thing.

    Just trust me, this was an effect of global warming. Or, if you like, read on, and I’ll give you the gory details.

    There are two factors that needed to come together to make a storm into a large southern-offset blizzardy mess like this one. First, there needed to be cold air tracking farther south than usual, and this happened as a result of trade wind and jet stream meanderings which have become more common with climate change, and made more likely this year, probably, because of El Niño. Second, there needed to be more moisture in the air coming off the Atlantic Ocean. This happened last weekend, and during other recent storms over the last few years, because the Atlantic is much much warmer than it usually is in the immediate region of the coast. Warmer water provides more moisture to the atmosphere via evaporation, and that relationship is not linear. More sea surface warmth equals more more moisture.

    The Atlantic hasn’t been just a bit warmer. This region of the Atlantic has been anomalously very warm for several years and has been getting more warmer annually.

    There are two reasons for this extra warmth. One is pretty straight forward. Sea surface temperatures globally are warmer because of human caused greenhouse gas warming of the surface of the planet. This has been enhanced over recent months because of El Niño, but it is a larger and longer term phenomenon with El Niño warming riding on top of that overall increase. Any randomly chosen patch of the world’s ocean is likely to be warmer today than it was ten or twenty years ago.

    The second reason is a little more complex. Weather (and it’s big brother, climate) happen because of the uneven distribution of the Sun’s energy on the surface of the earth. Extra heat accumulates near the equator (which is pointing, relatively, more directly at the Sun), and this heat is redistributed through the movement of air and sea currents towards the poles. However, since the oceans and continents are not evenly or symmetrically distributed, or otherwise laid out to make this redistribution of heat efficient, this gets pretty complex. For example, the Pacific is huge while the Atlantic is narrower and restricted as one goes north. Notice also that the Indian Ocean is not connected directly to northern regions, only to the south, so extra heat builds up there and has to make its way towards both poles via long and convoluted currents.

    One result of this complexity is what we call the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). This is sometimes referred to as the Atlantic Conveyer and people will sometimes use the term “Gulf Stream” to refer to part of that, but really, it is all more complex than that and not so easily labeled.

    Warm water that started near the Equator (including both in the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, via South Africa) moves north in the Atlantic, on the surface. Up in the North Atlantic, this warm water becomes relatively even warmer (since the air is cooler in the north) and passes as well into areas where the air may be relatively dry. This causes heat to leave the water carried by the current, and evaporation to take place. Evaporation not only cools the water, but makes it extra salty. Saltier water is denser, so the cooling, hyper-saline waters at the northern reaches of the currents sink to the bottom of the ocean, pulling even more of the north-flowing surface current with it. This is like the electric motor that turns a conveyor belt. The lower part of the “belt” is the saltier, colder water now flowing back south, in the opposite direction, towards equatorial regions where it can later re-emerge and warm up again.

    That is the simple version. If you just put water in a big place it will rotate because energy supplied by winds (or other currents) will be deflected by the Earth’s rotation, so you get, in the simple case, a counter-clockwise rotation (in the Norther Hemisphere). To the side of such a rotating masses of water, one tends to get counter-gyres (running clockwise). Trade winds push surface waters along, contributing to currents. Between the movement of the currents themselves, differential heat across the sea surface and at some depth, and air the currents, the surface of the ocean tends to not be very flat, though it looks rather flat from any given normal human vantage point. At present, the North Atlantic is mounded up in such as way that the sea surface is lower along the North American east coast than it would be were none of these things were happening.

    All this results in a big blob shaped area in the North Atlantic where the surface waters are relatively cold, into which warmer currents mostly from the south (including the Gulf Stream) flow, cooling, sinking, being part of the conveyor.

    What happens if you turn this conveyor off? For one thing, heat that is normally contributed to the atmosphere at northern latitudes as part of the process is no longer available to the various trade winds that pass over them. So, downwind regions (i.e., northern Europe) may experience cooling. Under certain conditions, this could cause a shift in climate in the direction of an Ice Age. We are currently experiencing such warming planet wide that this is not a possibility, though there is a famous movie in which this (rather unrealistically) happens.

    Another effect can be a change in the mounding of water around the North Atlantic, with an effective regional sea level rise (measurable in inches, probably) along the Northern Hemisphere east coast.

    Another effect is, of course, that the hot water moving north into the North Atlantic where it might otherwise cool gets stuck, almost like it is backed up, and becomes warmer and warmer.

    All of these effects can happen with a mere slowdown in the AMOC, not only if it stops completely, and we seem to have seen these effects.

    Stefan Rahmstorf, a scientist who studies these things, has an excellent writeup about a slowing AMOC and its effects, here at RealClimate.

    The graphic at the top of this post is from his post. This shows sea surface temperatures across the world’s ocean as relative change caused by doubling the planet’s normal CO2 level. This is a model indicating that in the North Atlantic, there would be cooling in the far north, and extreme heating along the Northern Hemisphere’s east coast. So that is what the physics says is likely to happen in a warming world.

    Here is a portion of the Climate Reanalyzer daily summary showing today’s actual sea surface temperature anomalies (how far above or below a long term average the actual sea surface temperature is measured to be).

    Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 12.35.38 PM

    Find the purple spots in the North Atlantic. That is the head of the AMOC, more or less, and here we have record low relative sea surface temperatures. Along the east coast are several blobs of red, showing near record or record high sea surface temperatures. There are stripes and blobs of very warm water all along the coast, made relatively warmer first by the simple fact that the sea surface is warmed by global warming, then made even more extra warm because of the recent slowing down of the AMOC. (Click through to see the whole globe, the scale, and to play with the data.)

    Why is the AMOC slowing down?

    First, note, that this is not a short term oddity of weather. Rahmstorf asserts that this is a long term condition.

    (1) The warm sea surface temperatures are not just some short-term anomaly but are part of a long-term observed warming trend, in which ocean temperatures off the US east coast are warming faster than global average temperatures.

    (2) Climate models show a “cold blob” in the subpolar Atlantic as well as enhanced warming off the US east coast as a characteristic response pattern to a slowdown of the AMOC.

    Stefan and other scientists have effectively argued that this slowdown is caused in large part by the addition of fresh water from melting glaciers in Greenland. The fresh water interferes with the process by which waters at the head of the AMOC becoming hyper-saline, and thus slows down the conveyor belt. There are probably also increases in freshwater flow from major rivers into the North Atlantic, also resulting from climate change, that contribute to this.

    Let me clarify something here in case there is some confusion. The cooling of the regions of the North Atlantic having to do with AMOC did not provide wintery conditions to cause this blizzard. That is something happening much father away. We may be seeing cooling effects in part of Europe because of this (I’m not discussing that here) but the Blizzard of 2016 (which we hopefully don’t bother to call “2016A” assuming there will not be another) was not hyped up because of that cooling, but rather, from the backed up surface warmth much nearer New England and the rest of the US East coast.

    The slowing down of the AMOC has been going on for decades, and seems likely to continue. It is not that clear what would happen if the AMOC simply shut down, or even if it could. Will the action simply move to a new latitude, or will some sort of conveyor system continue but with a very different configuration? Will additional slowdown of the AMOC cause important sea level rise in the US East? One thing that seems very likely is this. With increased surface warmth, and no reasonable expectation that warming will slow or reverse in the near future, Greenland will continue to contribute abundant fresh water to the region, and quite possibly, increased rainfall in major river basins will add even more freshening. The AMOC is not likely to stop slowing down, or to regain its strength.

    The slowing and other changes in the AMOC may be a qualitative and long term outcome of anthropogenic global warming. It seems likely that enhanced sea surface warmth off the US East Coast will be with us for the long term. A blizzard like the one we had over the weekend is much more manageable in regions that normally have frequent heavy snow storms, like Massachusetts and Upstate New York. If they happen now and then father to the south, that is a bit of a disaster, but if it is only now and then, it is not likely that we could or would do much about it.

    But if annual or nearly annual middle-Atlantic blizzards are now part of the “new normal” of our disrupted climate, then infrastructural changes may be required. Roads and parking lots, and even sidewalks, are constructed with the prospect of frequent snowfalls in mind in northern states. Maybe that is what we should be doing in the formerly less snowy regions along the Atlantic. Snow plows … lots of them … will be needed. Complex and annoying (and costly) parking rules to make room for snow clearing are common in snowy states. Should “snow emergency” procedures and parking rules be set up for the mid-Atlantic?

    People will have to learn, either the easy way or the hard way, that during a blizzard warning, one does not simply venture out onto the highways. Minnesotans and northern New Englanders and everyone in between keep blizzard kits in their cars. These are life saving items for when you do get stuck for 30 hours on a highway in the middle of nowhere. People who commute to Washington DC may consider this inexpensive investment. And so on.

    Finally, will there be another Snopocalypse this winter, somewhere in the US? I think not. With El Nino, things are warming up, and even in the usually blizzardly places, like New England or around the Great Lakes, I suspect we’ll have more slush and rain than deep snow. But you never know. On the other hand, global warming and El Niño enhanced storminess and raininess could cause more flooding, both inland and in coastal regions. But climate science denying Senator Jim Inhofe may have to wait until next winter to get a new snowball.

    More’Easter Jonah The Storm Continues: Updates

    According to Paul Douglas (pers. com) there is some important news on what Jonas still has planned.

    There is likely to be major flooding along the coast of Cape May, and in some areas of New Jersey there may be coastal flooding nearly of the magnitude that happened with Superstorm Sandy. So far storm surges have exceeded the original predictions.

    The region from Washington DC to New York is likely to have another half foot or more of snow, and storm totals will be two to three feet with much larger drifts over that area. This snow will taper off this evening over much of the area.

    The map at the top of the post is a prediction for the snowfall totals for this storm (from here).

    Jeff Masters notes, “This storm will certainly rival some of the biggest mid-Atlantic storms in recent decades, and some model runs have cranked out snow totals beyond historical precedent.”

    For the northern regions affected by this storm, the areas it is moving into now, there is less certainty.

    So far there are many places with 12 to 20 inches of snow on the ground across western New Jersey, the DC area, large areas of Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. New York around the city haws already seen a foot or moe in many places.

    Boston is going to get a more normal snow storm, just a few inches total.

    There have already been major power outages in North Carolina.

    Dark Money by Jane Mayer

    The book is: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

    Also by the same author: The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals.

    Here is my version of recent American political history:

    Everyone in America knows that if you want to identify the people or corporations, and the motivations, behind politics, you follow the money. Americans have historically differed in the degree to which they formulate this concept in their own minds as conspiratorial end-times ranting or shrug it off as just the way things are. But in recent years, changes in the way that money is spent on politics have made the most extreme and paranoid-seeming views most likely to be correct.

    Yes, in the old days, political parties were run by bosses and unions were often run by thugs, voting was often rigged and decisions about what the government should do about this or that thing were handed to the elected representatives by cigar smoking back room denizens. If you don’t know about this “Gilded Age” of American Democracy that is just because you haven’t read about it. (You could start here.)

    But that was ancient history, and during the 1960s and 1970s numerous changes were made in the law, lots of nefarious actors rounded up and pushed out, transparency became a previously unspoken of concept, and the the government got cleaned up. Somewhat. A lot, really.

    You might say, “yeah, right, cleaned up, like Watergate and the Pentagon papers.” You’d be right to point that out. But notice that when Watergate happened, America got pissed. That is in part because we were in the process of cleaning up the government over those decades.

    And, part of this cleanup may have involved the strengthening and organization of a strong Liberal elite that thereafter tended to run things in certain states, certain cities, and now and then nationally. This elite probably arose from the marriage of Northeastern Intellectuals (including both Republicans and Democrats) with Hard Core non-Northeastern Democrats that didn’t happen to be crazy racist bastards like George Wallace.

    In those days, in the 60s, various wealthy individuals started to organize a backlash against this, funding individuals who might be future elected officials, producing books and TV shows (like Buckley’s Firing Line, and later, The Bell Curve), and so on. This organization often involved the formation of secret (or nearly secret) societies, exclusive meetings or conferences, and a process of auditioning low level or would be politicians. The Family. Bohemian Grove. That sort of thing.

    Over time two things happened. First, more of the wealth that was available was attracted to this effort, and second, with the concentration of wealth, there was simply more money to put into this effort. But, still, the laws of the lands, and the regulations of elections, those elements of reform that had tossed the bosses, cleaned up the unions, expanded voting rights, and so on, stood in the way of the would be puppet masters.

    What are these people up to and what do they want? That is beyond the scope of this humble blog post, but if you are reading my blog, you probably know that one of the objectives is to stop policy action on climate change. Action on climate change means keeping the carbon in the ground. Keeping the carbon in the ground means assets will be stranded. Stranded assets means that people like the famous “Koch Brothers” will move from being nearly the wealthiest people in the world to being the 20th wealthiest people in the world. And that, dear reader, is a situation up with which they will not put.

    As you know, eventually, the law was changed mainly in the courts, the regulations obviated, a new and more effective effort to repress or control voting emerged, the unions effectively attacked, and the newly dubbed “1%” who were really the “0.1%” in most cases took over. And now, they are in charge. Or nearly so. To the extent that they are not, they will be in a few years.

    Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right is a remarkable book that covers the latter part of this history, from the nadir of right wing power to the verge of total control, but mostly, the very recent years, and of course, a lot of this is about the Koch Brothers and their rise to power and influence.

    And so, right now, I am faced with the task of getting you to read this book. I will do two things that I’m sure will work. First, I’ll tell you, truthfully and with enthusiasm, that this book is very well written, well documented, highly credible, very important, and while you read it you will probably have to be restrained at several points. Just. Go. Read. It.

    Second, I’ve selected a handful of excerpts to give you a flavor. I normally don’t use a lot of excerpts in a book review, but since I imposed my own personal version (I was in some of those back rooms, and fought in the streets against the old guard more than a few times) recent history of American Politics, I’d like to give Jane Mayer a chance to enthrall, inform, and entice you with her own words.

    So, from the book:

    In a 1960 self-published broadside, A Business Man Looks at Communism, Koch claimed that “the Communists have infiltrated both the Democrat [sic] and Republican Parties.” Protestant churches, public schools, universities, labor unions, the armed services, the State Department, the World Bank, the United Nations, and modern art, in his view, were all Communist tools.

    That was Fred Koch.

    By the time Barack Obama was elected president, the billionaire brothers’ operation had become more sophisticated. By persuading an expanding, handpicked list of other wealthy conservatives to “invest” with them, they had in effect created a private political bank. It was this group of donors that gathered at the Renaissance. Most, like the Kochs, were businessmen with vast personal fortunes that placed them not just in the top 1 percent of the nation’s wealthiest citizens but in a more rarefied group, the top 0.1 percent or higher. By most standards, they were extraordinarily successful. But for this cohort, Obama’s election represented a galling setback.

    Keep this in mind. Obama’s election set them back, because the were already at the gates. Not covered in so much in this book is the fact that Clinton was a setback as well, years earlier, in its own way (though not nearly to the same degree).

    in a stunning turnaround in 2008, Scaife met with Hillary Clinton, who had fingered him as the ringleader of what she called a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to torment the Clintons. … After a pleasant editorial board chat, Scaife came out and wrote an opinion piece in his own paper declaring that his view of her as a Democratic presidential contender had changed and was now “very favorable indeed.” The rapprochement testified both to Hillary Clinton’s political skills and to Scaife’s almost childlike impressionability. Repeatedly in his memoir, he changes his political views after meeting antagonists in person, whether the liberal Kennedy family member Sargent Shriver or the Democratic congressman Jack Murtha. “Like many billionaires, he lived in a bubble,” concluded his friend Ruddy

    That was Richard Scaife, a banking and oil magnate.

    During a catered lunch at the summit, [early Tea Party leader Peggy] Venable introduced Ted Cruz [at an Americans for Prosperity conference] who told the crowd that Obama was “the most radical president ever to occupy the Oval Office” and had hidden from voters a secret agenda—“the government taking over our economy and our lives.” Countering Obama, Cruz proclaimed, was “the epic fight of our generation!” As the crowd rose to its feet and cheered, he quoted the defiant words of a Texan at the Alamo: “Victory, or death!”

    Not an original idea of Cruz, but you get the point.

    For the Koch network, Walker’s improbable rise was a triumph. Koch Industries PAC was the second-largest contributor to Walker’s campaign. More important, the Kochs were an important source of funds to the Republican Governors Association, which Republicans used in Wisconsin and elsewhere in 2010 to work around strict state contribution limits. The Kochs’ PAC had also contributed to sixteen state legislative candidates in Wisconsin, who all won their races, helping conservatives take control of both houses of the legislature and setting the stage for Wisconsin’s dramatic turn to the right…Walker had also benefited enormously from the philanthropy of two other archconservative brothers, the late Lynde and Harry Bradley…

    Bradley funded the publication of the infamous “Bell Curve” by Herrnstein and Murray.

    By 2009, the Kochs had indeed succeeded in expanding their political conference from a wonky free-market swap fest to the point where it was beginning to attract an impressive array of influential figures. Wealthy businessmen thronged to rub shoulders with famous and powerful speakers, like the Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Congressmen, senators, governors, and media celebrities came too. “Getting an invitation means you’ve arrived,” one operative who still works for the Kochs explained. “People want to be in the room.”

    The new smokey back room, but probably with better food.

    With Ryan declining to run, the Kochs and their operatives searched anxiously for an alternative…. The search for a more promising candidate set off a torrid courtship of Chris Christie, the tough-guy governor of New Jersey. David Koch invited Christie to his Manhattan office, where the two spent almost two hours bonding over Christie’s brawls with the unions and other liberal forces. The governor’s scrappy blue-collar style, combined with his plutocrat-friendly economic policies, made him an almost irresistible prospect. By June, the Kochs had given Christie the keynote speaker slot at their seminar, where he could audition for his party’s leading role in front of the people who could pay his way.

    Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who preceded Christie as a speaker, provided a perfect foil. In a prelude to Perry’s later “oops” moment during the Republican debates, the governor made a poor impression on the numerically minded businessmen in the audience by displaying five fingers to illustrate a four-point plan, only to be left with one digit still waving in the air, programmatically unac- counted for.

    The rich and powerful interviewing the prospective puppets.

    Go read the book. Report back.

    Who Will Win The Iowa Caucus?

    The answer: One Republican and One Democrat/Independent.

    The Iowa Caucus is pretty much up for grabs in both parties. Over recent days, a clear Trump lead has been erased, and Cruz is now ahead in recent polls. Over roughly the same period, a clear Clinton lead has been erased, and Sanders is now ahead in recent polls.

    FiveThirtyEight (Nate Silver) is still predicting a Clinton victory for the Dems, but a Cruz victory for the GOPs. The Clinton victory prediction is of high confidence, while the Cruz prediction is not, and Trump is close behind.

    One way to look at the polls is to track changes and put a lot of faith in the most recent information. Another way is to use as much data as seems relevant (even looking outside polls) and assume that this gives a better prediction, and go with that. The latter is the method used by FiveThirtyEight. So, Nate Silver’s method will be a big winner if Clinton and Cruze cinch the Caucus, but not so much if Sanders sandbags Hillary and Trump trumps Cruz.

    People put a lot of significance on the Iowa Caucus because it is the first real contest among candidates. But then, after the caucus has become history, they are less likely to care too much about it. How important is it as a predictor of the outcome of the entire primary season?

    That depends on the party.

    Barack Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter and George McGovern all won the Iowa caucus (or came in above the other candidates) and went on to be the Democratic Party nominee. Dick Gephardt and Tom Harkin also won the caucus, but did not become the nominee. One might say that the Iowa Caucus predicts the nominee pretty well for Democrats.

    Gerald Ford, Bob Dole, and George W. Bush all beat the other contenders and went on to get the nomination. But most of the time, the Iowa Caucus was either won by an unopposed Republican (so we can’t count those years in assessing its significance) or was won by a candidate other than the eventual nominee (such as Rick Santorum in 2012, Mike Huckabee in 2008, and Bob Dole in 1988). Overall, the Iowa Caucus means little in the Republican Party, if we go on history, especially in recent years.

    Despite FiveThirtyEight’s claims, based on a good analysis of hefty data, I’m going to say that there has been too much flux in the polling numbers to call the caucus at this stage, just over a week prior.

    From the mouths of babes: “We’re worried. Please debate science.”

    I had previously mentioned the ScienceDebate ad with the kids asking for a science debate. Here is some local coverage on the story (the ad was made here in the Twin Cities) including an interview with one of the stars, Susanlyn Singroy. (I don’t agree with everything she said, but what the heck, she’s asking for a debate, and is up for it!)

    Here is the coverage.

    More about here.