Look at gerrymandering on a map – then take it out of the hands of Congress

Click to enlarge

President Barack Obama spent the last chunk of his 2016 State of the Union Address talking about how to “fix our politics.” His first solution? Stop gerrymandering, the shaping of congressional districts to guarantee electoral outcomes. “We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” he said.

At least one geographer has heeded Obama’s call to action. Using data from the US Census Bureau, Alasdair Rae, a geographer and urban planner at Sheffield University, built maps of every congressional district—all 435 of them—to show just how screwed up they really are. When Rae maps them individually, removed from the context of their surrounding districts, you can really see the extent of the problem. “There are some shapes that are quite egregious,” Rae says.

The worst offender? “North Carolina was and is often used as the archetype,” Rae says. His map shows the state’s 12th district undulating northwest to southeast like an eight-bit snake. Now, technically gerrymandering is against the law—unless topography gets in the way, districts are supposed to be contiguous regions. But the 12th…well, look at it. Its irregular blocks of land all connect, but only at their corners. Legislators call this “point contiguity,” and when you see it on a map, you can bet something dicey is going on…

Rae’s maps alone won’t end gerrymandering. But the ease with which he made them might hint at some weapons in the fight. In Florida, for example, when the Supreme Court ordered the congressional map redrawn, the trial court ignored legislator ideas in favor of a proposal from Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. In Virginia, after the state supreme court found a district unconstitutional, the court’s special master received proposals from anyone who was interested — crowdmapping! — in coming up with a new version. Today, at least five more states have ballot initiatives calling for independent commissions to take over redistricting from political parties. “If you want to get equal and fair representation in Congress or in any legislative body,” Rae says, “then sometimes you’re going to have to draw some weird shapes on maps,” The fight against gerrymandering is the purplest of purple issues. It’s not Republicans versus Democrats, but voters—and mapmakers — versus both.

Canadian courts, Canadian politicians, are more courageous than American – on this issue. As people became more outraged over politicians playing the gerrymandering game, a movement started in Manitoba grew into a federal change. Change over to an independent body.

Given the usual American states rights crap, it will probably take us another few decades to achieve that level of reason. But, we must if we are to achieve anything approaching democratic representation.

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Judge rules FBI illegally denied freedom of information act requests

The FBI unlawfully and systematically obscured and refused to answer legitimate requests for information about how well it was complying with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a Washington DC court found…

US district judge Randolph D Moss ruled in favor of Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhD student Ryan Shapiro, finding that the government was flouting FOIA, a law intended to guarantee the public access to government records unless they fall into a protected category. Moss found that the FBI’s present policy is “fundamentally at odds with the statute”…

The bureau shot down requests for information so regularly and thoroughly – sometimes saying that records were unavailable, sometimes that they didn’t exist, sometimes that it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of records – that Shapiro and his co-plaintiffs asked for more information about the process by which they had been so often refused.

And those requests for clarifying information were categorically denied on the grounds that any information about the FBI’s reasons for denying previous FOIA requests were by their very nature secret.

Shapiro and his fellow plaintiffs contended that the government often acts in bad faith and was trying to shield itself from scrutiny as broadly as possible. In doing so, they said, it had stretched the law to breaking point by including harmless documents in the broad categories of material it refuses to hand over or discuss…

❝“The FBI does nearly everything within its power to avoid compliance with the Freedom of Information Act,” Shapiro said. “This results in the outrageous state of affairs in which the leading federal law enforcement agency in the country is in routine and often flagrant violation of federal law.”

Justice Department spokesman Bill Miller said, blah, blah, blah.

Terrorism, any of the fear and trembling categories are all acceptable reasons for breaking the law. Sacrificing constitutional freedoms on the altar of national security. Whether the politicians keeping chairs warm in Congress or the White House call themselves conservative or liberal.

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Training for the next time your zebra escapes

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 5.04.11 PM


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The fighter jet setting new records for consuming dollar$

The helmet is only $400K

The F-35 Lightning II jet was slated to become the future of stealth aircraft for the US military and its allies. But since its start in 2001, the project has faced a relentless stream of technical glitches, from software issues to reports that the plane’s engine cannot withstand the high-tech threat of Canadian birds.

There’s also the ever-looming issue of cost. By the time it’s completed, the government’s spending on the F-35 project is set to exceed $1 trillion, more than any other military project in history. Helmets for the jet alone reportedly cost $400,000…

The plane, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, was meant to appease critics worried about cost by appealing to three military branches at once. The aircraft meets the requirements of the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, each of which have traditionally made their own planes. The problem is, making one plane that can handle each branch’s needs has proved more than difficult.

A number of US allies who have put orders in for the planes have cut down the number they will eventually receive in recent years, citing too much variation in cost projections. One of eight partners, Canada, is still debating whether or not to pull out of the program all together.

“The reality is that there is no such thing as absolute stealth,” said Gen. Norton A Schwarts, former US Air Force Chief of Staff. So far, that reality hasn’t stopped the US from trying to manufacture the most costly and ambitious plane in military history.

Depending on the flavor, these critters will go for $200-$300 million each. Congress and the Pentagon now believe the sucker must be built because – you guessed it – we’ve already invested too much in the project. So much for science projects where decisions are made by politicians.

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Federal oversight of medical devices needs reform — what are the odds?

In response to recent infections and deaths from tainted medical scopes, U.S. lawmakers are wrestling with how to keep other dangerous devices from harming patients.

Members of Congress, federal officials, and health-policy experts agree that the FDA’s surveillance system for devices is inadequate and relies too heavily on manufacturers to report problems with their own products.

But fixing the federal warning system to enable more timely identification of risky scopes, implants, and surgical tools means overcoming significant challenges in Congress, from partisan divisions to the need for more government funding. Even then, it could take years for a new system to be up and running.

Patient advocates are skeptical of the FDA’s commitment to reform. Federal auditors have criticized the agency’s oversight of devices since the 1990s.

The latest push for changes came from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who issued a report Jan. 13 exposing failures by the FDA, device makers and hospitals that contributed to the nationwide spread of antibiotic-resistant infections from a gastrointestinal scope. Senate investigators cited 19 superbug outbreaks in the U.S. that had sickened nearly 200 patients from 2012 to 2015…

The Senate report faulted the FDA for taking 17 months to investigate before issuing its own warning in February 2015. In the meantime, seven more hospitals suffered outbreaks and 68 patients developed dangerous infections…

Part of that proposal, putting bar codes on every instrument for the first time, is already being phased in over the next few years. But experts say those unique identifiers will be of little use unless Congress requires hospitals and doctors to include them on insurance claim forms…

Representatives of the device industry said they welcome the debate, but they too emphasize that regulators have plenty of authority already. Device makers wield considerable influence with Congress, contributing to lawmakers of both parties.

After safety problems with certain drugs a decade ago, Congress helped create the Sentinel program to better track medications. The program analyzes claims data on more than 170 million Americans from several large health insurers, dozens of hospitals and disease registries.

Robert Califf, MD, the FDA’s deputy commissioner and the president’s nominee to lead the agency, said during his confirmation hearing that regulators need a Sentinel-like system for devices, too.

An FDA spokeswoman said the agency is blah, blah, blah.

Yup, we need a program to combat the inefficiencies and political cowardice of the FDA. Trouble is, we have to rely upon the even greater inefficiencies and political cowardice of Congress to challenge and change the FDA.

Sounds like one more good reason to vote in some useful Congress-critters.

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California drought means nothing to crop production for export

alfalfa for export
Click to enlarge — Alfalfa packed for export

In eastern Riverside County, almost to the Arizona border, is the Palo Verde Valley, where scorching summers, mild winters and access to Colorado River water have made it an agricultural hot spot, especially for alfalfa.

Some of the hay crop grown in the valley is used for domestic cattle and the rest is sold to other countries where land or water shortages preclude industrial-scale growing operations. The same is true in the Coachella Valley, the high desert of San Bernardino County and other Inland growing areas.

This month, a subsidiary of Saudi Arabian dairy company Almarai paid almost $32 million for 1,790 acres of prime farm land along the Colorado River in Blythe.

Almarai’s Fondomonte California LLC is growing feed for its cattle in Saudi Arabia. In 2014, the company bought almost 10,000 acres of farmland in Vicksburg, Ariz., for $47.5 million.

The Saudi government has ordered conservation of scarce water resources and is phasing out the growing of crops and green fodder for livestock over the next three years.

Almarai’s Blythe purchase comes in the midst of California’s drought, which has prompted statewide rationing for residents and businesses. The shortages have led some to wonder whether it’s wise for farms like Almarai to grow alfalfa and other thirsty crops for export.

One vocal critic is UC Riverside economist Christopher Thornberg, who says the practice is akin to exporting water.

“They have already destroyed their water tables, now they’re destroying ours,” he said.

Same as it ever was. It’s OK to ignore the fact that a whole state is affected by drought – if you’re a good ol’ boy making a buck selling to foreigners. The PR boys keep up their rant that California growers are the vegetable garden for America. Regardless of how much of a crop is really grown for export.

Now, the foreigners [gasp] who are smart enough to cut out the middleman have started moving in to buy land and water rights. Gonna call Ghostbusters?

Or is it time to face reality and make sensible decisions about water use and allocation?

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Cartoon for the whole election cycle

Thanks, gocomics.org

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UK scientists are getting ready to edit human embryos

Scientists in Britain just got approval to conduct research that involves editing the genetic material of healthy human embryos.

This is a big deal: The UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is the first government agency in the world to endorse research that involves altering the human genome for research — a move that could signal broader acceptance for a promising (but controversial) new area of science.

Controversial – in almost every instance – ethical considerations feature the opinions of folks who are barely up to the 19th Century in understanding science. That’s not just one of my snarky remarks. It’s a fact, Jack.

The research team, led by Dr. Kathy Niakan at the UK’s Francis Crick Institute, is trying to better understand which genes allow a healthy human embryo to develop. Niakan’s team will use a promising new technique, known as CRISPR/Cas9, to edit genes that are active following conception. They’ll then stop the experiments at day seven and destroy the embryos (so that they can’t be used to start a pregnancy).

The hope is that this gene hacking could help researchers better understand what causes miscarriages and infertility — and perhaps one day lead to better treatments for infertility.

To understand why today’s news is a big deal, you have to understand the revolutionary technology that makes it possible.

CRISPR/cas9 — or CRISPR, as it’s known — allows researchers to edit, cut out, and replace genes in any animal more quickly and efficiently than any form of genetic editing that’s come before.

This technology could allow us to better understand our biology and how certain diseases work. One day, perhaps, it might even allow us to erase horrible diseases right out of the human genome.

Here’s the part that scares the crap out of professional True Believers.

Even more fantastically, it’s at least theoretically possible to use CRISPR to hack the human race — to design humans that look or speak a certain way or that have resistances to certain diseases. That said, this possibility is still years away, and creating such “designer babies ” remains illegal in the UK, the US, and most other countries.

I’m not going to present a detailed response to the nay-sayers who range from bible-thumping science-haters to serious scientists who still have to answer to a budget committee. Unneeded at this stage of development of this medical technology.

But, understand something. Like it or not we live in a profits-driven world. All economies may not need capitalists but they all need capital. The money will eventually get to somewhere a profit can be made. So, all the idealism in the world about dramatic cures, ending many cursed diseases will not deter someone, somewhere, from trying out designer babies.

Technology will evolve. Processes will become easier, facile. Demand exists – and someone will fill that demand, legally or otherwise. Science doesn’t stop progressing just because priests and politicians say it must. Bright inquiring minds won’t go blank. Good guys will keep at it. Bad guys will keep at it. Fools always fail at regulating the future.

I haven’t any crystal ball; but, Occam’s Razor likely still works. Either designer babies will be possible and regulation will follow – or the task will prove unfeasible – a waste of time. Everything else has to do with making society’s cultural mouthpieces feel useful.

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The tank cars of Madison County

stored tank cars
Click to enlargeWalter Hinick/Montana Standard

Alongside a quiet dirt road south of Silver Star in Madison County, the wind now howls around five miles of rail cars that came to rest on a disused rail line more than a week ago.

Migratory ducks and geese land in the All Nations ditch — a 2-mile waterway that snakes alongside the Jefferson River, heading north toward Whitehall — in the spring. Although no one knows for sure yet how long the rail cars will continue to be parked on the track, come springtime, ducks and geese could find empty tank cars throwing a shadow over their watering hole.

About 12 households along Bayers Lane are close to the nearly 500 tanker cars sitting on a line that hasn’t been used since 2001, resident Jeanne Elpel estimated. She’s concerned more cars are coming, and no one knows how long they are all going to be there.

Elpel owns five acres on Bayers Lane, nestled in a valley between the Highland and Tobacco Root mountains, about 10 miles north of Twin Bridges. Her patio overlooks All Nations ditch. In the distance, from her patio, the snow-capped Highlands are within sight.

And now, on the other side of the ditch is a long line of unloaded tank cars.

Montana Rail Link, a Dennis Washington-owned company, owns the rail line, but not the cars. The railroad company, based in Missoula, declined to say who owns the cars other than saying they belong to “regional rail shippers…”

The Federal Railroad Administration in Washington D.C. confirmed that 491 tank cars are sitting in storage on MRL’s track in Madison County. Marc Willis, deputy director of public affairs for the FRA, said the tank cars might contain residual amounts of oil, but the cars are considered empty

Folks understand the rail line is owned by Rail Link. They have a right to do what they want with their property. Concern over environmental damage stemming from the parked tank cars is legitimate however. Anyone who’s ever worked around flammable materials knows an “empty” container often represents more danger from explosion and fire than a full one.

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Cloud seeding helping to get more water for the West

A researcher with the Colorado Water Conservation Board says cloud seeding in southwestern Colorado is helping to squeeze more water out of passing snowstorms, using heaters that vaporize silver iodide to form artificial ice.

In southwest Colorado, workers light generators that look like large propane tanks, shooting flames into pans that send vaporized silver iodide up to the base of clouds. There, the silver iodide forms an artificial ice crystal that draws in more water, forming larger snowflakes. Then they fall to the ground…

Researchers say a study in Wyoming conducted from 2005 to 2014 found cloud seeding can add 5 to 15 percent more precipitation.

Eric Hjermstad, co-owner and director of field operations for Western Weather Consultants, which does cloud seeding, said every bit of water helps the parched Southwest.

Hjermstad said seeding helps build snowpack to replenish aquifers and helps fill reservoirs such as Lake Powell for other Western states struggling to find water.

One Durango city councilor contributed a factoid – in a manner that added nothing to the discussion. That is – cloud seeding doesn’t add to the capacity of clouds to dispense water. If you get extra in one place, you get less elsewhere. He was worried about the Navajo Nation. But, he was in Durango – which is East of most of the Navajo Nation.

The prevailing winds in the Southwest flow west to east. There is a certain amount of variation from weather fronts pressing southward; but, again, they’re already past most of the Diné. Certainly this would prove useful here in New Mexico for regions still facing drought. If we didn’t have a governor owned lock, stock and barrel by the Oil Patch Boys we might have a chance to try this ourselves.

And once storm clouds get east of New Mexico they’re mostly over plains that ain’t especially short of water. I have friends in Texas who wish we’d stop sending ’em storms. :)

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