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One Tweet Shows How Far We As Americans Still Have To Go

| Sat Apr. 25, 2015 8:33 PM EDT

Tonight is the White House Correspondents' Dinner. It's a really dumb event where journalists play grab ass with the subjects they cover. I think it's a venial sin at worse, because every industry has its stupid, embarrassing events, but even I, an apologist for it, found myself nodding along when I read this tweet.

He's talking about the WHCD at the Washington Hilton in DC and the protests against the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. But in all seriousness, this tweet is evergreen. Terribly, awfully, intensely depressingly evergreen. This is America in 2015.

I'm going to watch the WHCD if I can, write some jokes, embed it in a blog post, etc...But the truth is: It doesn't matter. What matters is what's going on down the road. What matters is what's going on down so many roads.

 

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Tales From City of Hope #7: Weekend Update

| Sat Apr. 25, 2015 12:54 PM EDT

Since my actual stem cell transplant happened on Thursday, that counts as Day Zero. Today is Day +2. It turns out that part of the prep for the transplant was an IV injection of both Benadryl and Ativan, so I was pretty conked out the entire day. Friday was about the same. Strong stuff, but today I seem to be more alert. For now, anyway.

My white cell count continues to drop, which is paradoxically a good thing. Basically, my immune system will drop nearly to zero, probably around Monday or Tuesday, and then begin rebounding. Assuming nothing goes wrong, the main effect will be lots of fatigue and poor appetite. So let's hope nothing goes wrong, shall we?

In the meantime, while I wait for a guest post from President Obama, my mother has promised to deliver me a traditional chocolate birthday cake of my childhood on Sunday. We shall christen it the Day +3 cake since we're not even within shouting distance of my birthday at the moment.

Otherwise, today is busy! Marian is here, doing some laundry while I'm being hydrated for four hours. Later my sister is coming, and our friend Eileen a little after that. Should be quite the party.

This Stat Will Make Deforestation Hit Home

| Fri Apr. 24, 2015 4:33 PM EDT
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

Okay, so deforestation is sad, and it's Arbor Day so we should be extra sad about it. But there are so many things to be sad about, right? Well maybe this stat, from a study that came out last month, will make the loss of the world's forests sink in for you:

More than 70 percent of the worlds's forests are within 1 kilometer of a forest edge. Thus, most forests are well within the range where human activities, altered microclimate and nonforest species may influence and degrade forest ecosystems.

That's right, we've arrived at the point where the majority of the forest in the world is just a short walk from the stuff humans have built. If you need that in graph form, here you go:

Science Advances

According to the study, which was published in the journal Science Advances, the largest remaining contiguous forests are in the Amazon and the Congo River Basin. The study also synthesized past forest fragmentation research and found that breaking up habitats to this degree has reduced biodiversity by as much as 75 percent in some areas.

Happy Arbor Day…

Say What You Will About Almonds, but They Are Wildly Popular

| Fri Apr. 24, 2015 2:39 PM EDT
An almond orchard in California.

California's thirsty almond orchards have been generating an impressive amount of debate as the state's drought drags on. But that won't likely stop their expansion. The title of a new report from the Dutch agribusiness-banking giant Rabobank explains why: "California Almonds: Maybe Money Does Grow on Trees."

The report is "exclusive for business clients of Rabobank," but an accompanying blog post offers some good tidbits. "Drought conditions and the stronger US dollar have increased the price of almonds for all buyers," it states. On the US East Coast, wholesale prices for premium almonds have risen 20 percent since last year. "In Europe, the almond is becoming increasingly popular, not only as a nutritious snack but especially as a go-to ingredient for manufacturers," it continues. There, wholesale prices are up 50 percent since last year, while "buyers in India and Hong Kong are paying 25 percent and 20 percent more, respectively."

Those higher prices will evidently more than compensate California farmers for higher watering costs, and inspire them to expand acreage. Rabobank expects California almond production to rise by 2 percent to 3.5 percent per year over the next decade, accoring to Sacramento Bee's Dale Kasler, who got a look at the Rabobank study.

That's impressive growth. If almond output expands by 3 percent per year over the next ten years, then—using this trusty formula—production will grow a whopping 34 percent between now and 2025. That's a lot of growth for a state that already churns out 80 percent of the world's almonds. This scenario doesn't imply a 34 percent expansion in almond acreage—some of the almond trees that will contribute to that growth in output have already been planted and will be coming into production over the next few years (it takes almonds about four years to begin producing after they're planted). But it does imply a robust expansion. Kasler quotes the study:

Higher prices and good profits for California almond growers will continue to encourage more planting of almond orchards.... Nurseries report very little slowing in orders of new trees.

 

Friday Cat Blogging - April 24 2015

| Fri Apr. 24, 2015 2:35 PM EDT

While Kevin is undergoing treatment, we've invited lots of exciting guest writers to stop by in his honor. But there's no reason the hospitality can't extend to another species, is there?

This week's Mother Jones affiliated cat is Max, who joined reporter Patrick Caldwell last summer as the fifth (and only feline) resident of his Washington, DC row house. Here's a shot of Max exploring the dark corners of his realm.

 

So amazed to discover the underground territory

A photo posted by Patrick Caldwell (@patcaldwell) on

 

Max's background is almost as shrouded and mysterious as that crawl space. How old is he? No one knows. How many people have cared for him before Pat and his roommates? No one's quite sure about that either.

As the story goes, Max has been bequeathed from shared home to shared home like a well-loved futon as his keepers have, one after the other, moved out of the beltway. And while that might make him sound like a very mobile cat, Pat reports he's quite sedentary in most respects. His favorite form of play—swatting at things just above his head—can and usually is performed while reclining on his back. This Thanksgiving, he gave the humans a brief scare by slipping away while they were out celebrating. But true to his nature, when they came home Max seemed to have whiled away the hours just a few yards from the window they'd mistakenly left open.

Unlike Hilbert and Hopper, Max can't count on Southern California's sun to keep him warm, so over the winter his roommates cleverly rigged up a cat bed right above a radiator. Ready for a nap?

 

 

I feel ya buddy

A photo posted by Patrick Caldwell (@patcaldwell) on

 

With the roommate most responsible for Max heading to Kansas City for medical school come fall, this peripatetic puss's future is a bit unsettled. Will he stay with his current community, or will he head west? If he stays, what if the new roommate is allergic, or—as hard as this may be to imagine—not a cat person? Yes, there may be yet another loving home in his future.

Whatever happens, there's no doubt Max will land on his feet. Cats always do.

Bonus Friday Cat Blogging - 24 April 2015

| Fri Apr. 24, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

In the top photo, Hopper is scrooched under Karen's display case just to show she can do it. But something has caught her attention. It turned out to be Hilbert, who was innocently walking down the stairs and got pounced on a few seconds after this picture was taken. And with that the evening festivities were on.

The next day Hilbert found something more relaxing to do. He discovered the kitchen window and curled up to watch the local parrot population. What could be more entertaining?

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Native American Actors Walk Off Set of New Adam Sandler Movie Over Racist Jokes

| Fri Apr. 24, 2015 10:37 AM EDT

About a dozen Native American actors quit the set of a new Adam Sandler film, produced by Netflix, to protest the script's portrayal of Apache culture and what the actors claim are racist jokes about native women and elders.

According to a report by Indian Country, the actors of "The Ridiculous Six," a spoof of the classic western flick "The Magnificent Seven," complained to producers about the offensive stereotypes, which include the naming of female characters as Beaver's Breath and No Bra. One scene also has a native woman "squatting and urinating while smoking a peace pipe."

Allison Young, a Navajo Nation tribal member and student, said the actors talked to the producers and told them what they found offensive. "They just told us, 'If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave,'"she said. "I didn't want to cry but the feeling just came over me. This is supposed to be a comedy that makes you laugh. A film like this should not make someone feel this way."

Loren Anthony, another tribal member and actor, told Indian Country that while he initially had reservations about appearing in the film, producers had assured him the jokes would not be racist. But from the very beginning, he said, things "started getting weird" and what were supposed to be jokes were simply offensive.

Netflix defends the film as a supposed satire. "The movie has 'ridiculous' in the title for a reason: because it is ridiculous," the company said in a statement. "It is a broad satire of Western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of—but in on—the joke."

"The Ridiculous Six" follows a string of flops for Sandler, whose recent films include the 2012 movie "Jack and Jill," which succeeded in winning every single category at the Razzies that year. His latest production stars Nick Nolte, Steve Buscemi, Will Forte, and Vanilla Ice. A preview of what that looks like below:

 

Awesome time with all my fellow Native's - Navajo, Apache, Comanche, Choctaw. Cherokee.

A photo posted by Vanilla Ice ✅ (@vanillaiceofficial) on

 

"Nothing has changed," Young says. "We are still just Hollywood Indians."

If You Read One Post About Labor Force Participation This Decade, Let It Be This One

| Fri Apr. 24, 2015 9:40 AM EDT
President Bill Clinton signs welfare reform legislation in 1996.

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 through today to pitch in posts and keep the conversation going. Here's a missive from Max Sawicky, a DC-based economist and blogger. You can read his always entertaining work on welfare policy, politics, and many other topics at MaxSpeak, You Listen! or find him on Twitter.

I started blogging in May of 2002. In those days the liberal side of the blogosphere was relatively thin, so I got a bit of notoriety. In my recollection, that fall I started noticing the blog of Mr. Kevin Drum. As the weeks went on I noticed this guy Drum was writing a lot, all well-reasoned, articulate prose. Other people were noticing as well. He left me in the dust. At least Kevin was reading me. At some point he came through D.C. with his wife and we had lunch.

I'm honored to be invited to contribute to this festschrift. Yes, that's the word his editors used when they got in touch. Such high-falutin academic terminology. I prefer to think of it as a roast. But there is nothing funny about Kevin. He's just too damn reasonable and level-headed. No doubt this contributes to his success. I usually have something obnoxious to say about everybody, but with Kevin I draw a blank. Since I've been able to infiltrate the ginormous Mother Jones web site, I need to come up with something. My default mode is attack, so here's some MaxSpeak love for KD and MoJo.

In this post from just last weekend, Kevin links to a bit from Tyler Cowen. That was your first mistake, Brother Drum. I realize linking is not endorsing, though KD offers a limited, tentative 'interesting possibility' type of approval. You see, the prolific and very smart Tyler hails from the zany economics department of George Mason University. No good can come from referencing him. These characters spend all their time excoriating Government and social protection for the working class from tenured, Koch-subsidized positions at a public university. Sweet.

Professor Cowen briefly discusses a paper suggesting the Clinton era welfare reform (sic) reduced labor force participation. (I too am an economist, in case you didn't know. Ph.D. from Dave's All-Night University.) The paper suggests that the causes are the imposition of work requirements under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF; formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or just 'the welfare'), and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

The TANF explanation makes no sense. To get benefits you have to work, sooner or later. Previously, you didn't. How could that reduce labor force participation? (On pushing welfare people into Social Security Disability Insurance, thus far there is no evidence of that.) The other cause—the EITC providing enough benefits to a couple to enable one spouse to work less—is pretty well known, though the magnitude of the effect is weak. This is all basic stuff in the literature, as noted in Cowen's comments section by Virginia Postrel, but it's evidently new to Tyler. In his defense, Tyler publishes a dynamite guide to ethnic dining in the MD/DC/VA metro area.

So the upshot is this whole mess is thesis interruptus. Even Tyler is skeptical in the end. Though he alludes to it vaguely, the implication of one spouse working somewhat less because the other earns more is not necessarily Bad, unless you're a Stakhanovite. More time not working can be more time with the kids.

The 1996 welfare reform looked good in the late '90s, but that was when the whole labor market looked really, really good. Since 2000, not so much. Poverty rates, for instance, have consistently gone up since then. People have not been empowered to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Looking to Tyler for enlightenment on anti-poverty programs is like taking Driver's Ed from Vin Diesel.

Your go-to sources on the plight of the poor would include Jared Bernstein, Matt Bruenig, Kathy Geier, Shawn Fremstad, and Elise Gould, among others, and occasionally your humble servant.

I wish Kevin the best for an industrial-strength recovery so he can continue to set a good example for progressive commentary, while also providing me periodically with inviting targets. And I look forward to Mother Jones' exposé of Scott Walker's background in Wisconsin animal husbandry. With the obligatory slide show.

Tales From City of Hope #6: What Does Kevin Smell Like?

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 9:58 PM EDT

As you recall from yesterday, the DMSO preservative used to keep my stem cells fresh was alleged to cause a distinct body odor. So today, after the transfusion, I asked everyone who came into my room what I smelled like. The results are displayed on the right in chart form because Science™.

The results were disappointing. My sample size was dismally small, and 100 percent female. No single result rose to the level of significance at the 95 percent level. There wasn't even a modal response. In fact, it was worse than that. One respondent said garlic, but all four of the others said definitely not garlic. One said sweet and another said not sweet. And one person said there was no odor at all.

The best I can conclude is that there is an odor of some kind, but everyone smells something different. I should add, however, that the test conditions were suboptimal. I'm such a good stem cell producer that I only needed two bags of cells. Some people need as many as ten. This means less DMSO for me and therefore less odoriferousness. Beyond that, given the poor state of the data, your guess is as good as mine.

The Feds Say One Schmuck Trading From His Parents' House Caused a Market Crash. Here's the Problem.

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 7:17 PM EDT

On Tuesday, the Justice Department and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a key Wall Street regulator, blasted out press releases declaring a great victory in their war on illegal manipulation of financial markets. The reason for the feds' braggadocio? They think they've caught the guy who caused May 2010's "flash crash," a market seizure that vaporized a trillion dollars in shareholder value in a matter of minutes.

Federal regulators say that Navinder Singh Sarao, a 36-year-old British futures trader whose company was reportedly based in his parents' home, illegally placed huge sell orders he never intended to complete, artificially driving down the price of a key futures contract so he could later swoop in to buy it cheaply. (This is called "spoofing" in financial jargon.) There's one big problem, though: By charging Sarao with "contributing to the market conditions that caused" the flash crash, federal regulators are changing their story about what really happened to financial markets five years ago.

Here's the background. In the days and weeks after the flash crash, the Securities and Exchange Commission, alongside other regulators, worked diligently to figure out what had happened. The flash crash was chaos: Liquidity evaporated, the same stocks traded at both a penny and at $100,000, and CNBC hosts freaked out even more than usual. (Prices eventually returned to normal, and the SEC canceled some of the weirdest trades.)

The flash crash was essentially over in five minutes. But it took regulators nearly five months to come up with a theory about what happened. And in late September 2010, when the SEC and the CFTC—the same agency now charging Sarao with causing the crash—released a joint report on what happened, they didn't mention spoofing, let alone Sarao. Instead, they blamed a large trade by a firm out of Kansas City.

It's not even clear that the feds' new explanation is correct. As Matt Levine notes over at Bloomberg View, regulators believe that Sarao continued to place massive fake sell orders in the years after the flash crash, but somehow that activity never triggered another crisis:

If regulators think that Sarao's behavior on May 6, 2010, caused the flash crash, and if they think he continued that behavior for much of the subsequent five years, and if that behavior was screamingly obvious, maybe they should have stopped him a little earlier?

Also, I mean, if his behavior on May 6, 2010, caused the flash crash, and if he continued it for much of the subsequent five years, why didn't he cause, you know, a dozen flash crashes? 

So I mean…maybe he didn't cause the flash crash?

But in some ways, it doesn't particularly matter whether regulators' new theory is correct. What matters is that it took so long for them to develop it.

As I reported in January 2013, today's financial markets move so fast that regulators can't even monitor them in real time, let alone intervene if something starts to go wrong. Sophisticated trading algorithms can buy and sell financial products faster than you can blink—all without human intervention, let alone real-time human judgment. When something does go wrong, it can take months or years to figure out what happened. "A robust and defensible analysis of even a small portion of the trading day can itself take many days," Gregg Berman, who wrote the 2010 SEC/CFTC report, told me in 2013.

Since real-time intervention by human regulators is impossible, regulators have to rely on automatic measures—fail-safes that stop trading if prices rise or fall too fast, for example. But these sorts of automatic braking systems are, by definition, designed in response to the previous crisis. "We're always fighting the last fire," Dave Lauer, a market technology expert who has worked for high-speed trading firms, said in 2013. As I wrote then:

Years of mistakes and bad decisions led to the 2008 collapse. But when the next crisis happens, it may not develop over months, weeks, or even days. It could take seconds.

More here.