Blogs

How Superbugs Hitch a Ride From Hog Farms Into Your Community

| Sat Sep. 13, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
If you walk this line, you might just get MRSA in your nose.

Factory-scale farms don't just house hundreds of genetically similar animals in tight quarters over vast cesspools collecting their waste. They also house a variety of bacteria that live within those unfortunate beasts' guts. And when you dose the animals daily with small amounts of antibiotics—a common practice—the bacteria strains in these vast germ reservoirs quite naturally develop the ability to withstand anti-bacterial treatments.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria leave these facilities in two main ways. The obvious one is meat: As Food and Drug Administration data shows, the pork chops, chicken parts, and ground beef you find on supermarket shelves routinely carry resistant bacteria strains. But there's another, more subtle way: through the people who work on these operations.

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Unredacted Court Docs Reveal Yahoo's Name and Other Top-Secret Stuff

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 5:59 PM EDT

Yahoo has just released 1,500 pages of previously classified documents relating to its legal challenge to the government's warrantless wiretapping program. Yahoo lost the case in 2008 and was ordered to cooperate with National Security Agency or face a $250,000 fine for every day that it withheld its customers' data. The ruling in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was released to the public only in heavily redacted form, became a legal precedent for the warrantless wiretapping program that was later revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Today, based on a successful appeal by Yahoo, a slightly less redacted version of that court ruling finally became public.

Below, I've posted the more lightly redacted version released today as well as the redacted version of the ruling released in 2008. A side-by-side reading of the two documents may offer some insight into how the government has sought to cover up the true nature of its surveillance activities, or it might just be an example of how little has changed.

The new version of the ruling is notable for what it doesn't disclose: Key evidence presented by the government. A block of text that had previously been removed from the ruling still does not fully explain why warrantless searches are necessary to thwart terrorists:

Scanning the 1,500 pages of newly unsealed documents will take a while. Here are few examples of new information contained in the partially unredacted ruling:

  • The name of the plaintiff (Yahoo) and its law firm
  • A footnote defining the term "surveillance" to mean "acquisitions of foreign intelligence information." But part of the definition of the term still remains redacted.
  • The date when the government moved to force Yahoo to comply with the order (November 21, 2007)
  • A mention of "linking procedures" (defined as "procedures that link [redacted] targets.") as a one of the safeguards against unreasonable searches

You can help us out by pointing out any other interesting tidbits in the comments; we'll note additional highlights here if we find anything worth noting.

The slightly less redacted ruling released today:

 

 

 

The original redacted court ruling:

 

 

 

The Great State Of California Will Not Be Split Into Six Mediocre States

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 5:55 PM EDT

One day a lemming will fly. That day is not today:

Backers of a much-publicized initiative to split California into six separate states failed to collect enough valid signatures to qualify the measure for the November 2016 ballot. the secretary of state's office said Friday.

Supporters of the Six Californias measure sponsored by Tim Draper, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, turned in more than 1.13 million signatures. But a statewide sampling showed that only 752,685 of them were from voters registered in California, short of the 807,615 needed to qualify for the ballot, the secretary of state said.

Happy Friday!

Friday Cat Blogging - 12 September 2014

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

A few of you have written to ask if we plan to get another cat. The answer is probably yes, but not immediately.  And what does "not immediately" mean? There's no telling. A new cat could walk into our lives tomorrow, or it might take a little while longer. We'll see.

In the meantime, my mother's cats continue to be perky and photogenic, and ever since she learned how easy it is to take pictures with her iPad and email them directly to me, I've been getting more photos of her brood. Below you can see the latest. Mozart has pretty plainly settled in to alpha cat status, and Ditto just as plainly isn't quite sure he's happy about that. But it's too late. Ditto has the bulk, but I think Mozart has whatever indefinable feline quality it is that makes him boss. It's his house now.

See for Yourself Just How Damn Complicated the Middle East Has Become

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 1:49 PM EDT
mid east relationship chart
David McCandless/The Information Is Beautiful Project

Behold, the Middle East! If we could just understand what all the strong countries, the falling-apart countries, the unrecognized-countries, the "non-state actors", and the outside powers all thought of each other, we might be able to chart a clear way forward, right? Don't get your hopes up, although the latest project by British data visionary David McCandless is a really valiant effort to make sense of it all nonetheless.

McCandless' charted 38 regional players— from Afghanistan to Yemen, Al Qaeda to the European Union— and connected each to its major friends and enemies. The result is a tangled ball that illustrates the enormously complicated relationships in the region. (You can parse each actor's relationships on the full, interactive version on McCandless' site, Information Is Beautiful, which you should really check out.) 

McCandless calls this work an "ongoing, evolving diagram," so it may be missing a few connections (Russia's close, getting closer relationship with Iraq, for instance). If you have more ideas, he welcomes input at the email address posted on his site.

Pennsylvania Teenager Simulates Oral Sex With Jesus Statue, Faces 2 Years in Prison

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 1:39 PM EDT

Teenagers are prone to dumb, tasteless pranks, but one 14-year-old is facing prison time for his latest stunt. The teen, from Everett, Pennsylvania, hopped on top of a statue of a kneeling Jesus—in front of an organization called "Love in the Name of Christ"—and simulated oral sex with the statue's face. Naturally, he posted the pictures to Facebook, which made their way to authorities.

Officials in Bedford County charged the teen (whose name hasn't been released) with desecration of a venerated object, invoking a 1972 Pennsylvania statute that criminalizes "defacing, damaging, polluting or otherwise physically mistreating in a way that the actor knows will outrage the sensibilities of persons likely to observe or discover the action." You'd think an appropriate punishment for a kid violating this seldom-invoked law might be picking up trash or, at worst, paying a fine. If convicted, he faces much worse: two years in juvenile detention.

Truth Wins Out, a LGBT advocacy nonprofit, has argued that the law is unconstitutional because it violates the establishment clause—"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"—and free speech rights—"Congress shall make no law abridging the right to hump a statue of Jesus."

Pennsylvania is not the only state with a "venerated objects" law—many states have some version of it, but most define "desecration" as vandalizing or otherwise physically harming an object of civic or religious significance. Alabama, Tennessee, and Oregon have laws like Pennsylvania's, which can be interpreted to punish individuals—like this bold, dumb teenager—who simply decide to do something offensive.

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If You Want Good Workers, You Need to Pay Market Wages

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 1:28 PM EDT

Today the Wall Street Journal is running yet another article about the inability of manufacturing companies to attract good employees. And Dean Baker is annoyed:

If employers can't get enough workers then we would expect to see wages rising in manufacturing.

They aren't. Over the last year the average hourly wage rose by just 2.1 percent, only a little higher than the inflation rate and slightly less than the average for all workers. This follows several years where wages in manufacturing rose less than the economy-wide average....If an employer wants to hire people she can get them away from competitors by offering a higher wage. It seems that employers in the manufacturing sector may need this simple lesson in market economic to solve their skills shortage problem.

The chart on the right shows what Baker is talking about. It's a slightly different series than the one he uses in his post, but it makes the same point. Manufacturing wages are rising more slowly than in the rest of the economy. If manufacturing companies are really desperate for qualified workers, they have a funny way of showing it.

Now, it's possible that what they really mean is that they don't think they can be competitive if they have to pay higher wages. So they want lots of well-qualified employees to work for below-market wages. And who knows? That's possible. But if that's really the problem, then apprentice programs and skills training aren't likely to solve it.

Quote of the Day: Salt Your Pasta Water, Capiche?

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 11:53 AM EDT

From Starboard Value LP, a private investment firm critical of Olive Garden's current management:

If you Google "How to cook pasta", the first step of Pasta 101 is to salt the water. How does the largest Italian dining concept in the world not salt the water for pasta?

Quite so. On the other hand, Starboard refers to Olive Garden as an "Italian dining concept," which is a strike against them. So I guess I don't know who to root for in this monumental battle for control of low-quality quasi-Italian food.

Surprise! Our Arab Allies Aren't Really Going to Do Anything to Help Us Fight ISIS

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 10:43 AM EDT

Here is the least surprising story of the day:

Many Arab governments grumbled quietly in 2011 as the United States left Iraq, fearful it might fall deeper into chaos or Iranian influence. Now, the United States is back and getting a less than enthusiastic welcome, with leading allies like Egypt, Jordan and Turkey all finding ways on Thursday to avoid specific commitments to President Obama’s expanded military campaign against Sunni extremists.

....The tepid support could further complicate the already complex task Mr. Obama has laid out for himself in fighting the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: He must try to confront the group without aiding Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, or appearing to side with Mr. Assad’s Shiite allies, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, against discontented Sunnis across the Arab world.

If Arab countries just flatly didn't want to support our anti-ISIS effort, that wouldn't be surprising. American intervention in the Middle East hardly has an enviable history of success. It would be entirely understandable if they just wanted us to keep our noses out of things.

But that's not what's going on. It's not that they don't want American intervention. Many of these countries have been practically begging for it. The problem is that they want our help solely in support of their own sectarian and nationalist pursuits. They want America to commit an endless well of troops and arms in service of ancient enmities and murderous agendas that they themselves are unwilling to commit their own troops and money to. And for some reason, we keep playing along with the charade.

Fighting ISIS isn't really part of this agenda. It's Sunni; it's anti-Assad; and it's far away. Most of our putative allies in the Middle East either don't care very much about it or have actively supported it in the past. They'll pay lip service to destroying it now because they don't want to break with the United States entirely, but that's about it. It's just lip service.

By tomorrow they'll be back to privately griping that we haven't turned Iran into a glassy plain or something. And then, like a couple who knows their marriage is broken but can't quite bear the thought of divorce, we'll be back to stroking their egos and promising that we really do share their interests. We don't, thank God: we're not quite that depraved. We just want their oil and a sort of unstated tolerance of Israel.

It never changes. Next year the details will be slightly different, but we'll go through the same dance all over again. Hooray.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 12, 2014

Fri Sep. 12, 2014 10:29 AM EDT

Nathan Mitchell, an aviation machinist airman of the US Navy, performs maintenance on a helicopter. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Oscar Albert Moreno Jr.)