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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.

 

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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?

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.

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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.

Bitcoin's Problem With Women

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 5:41 PM EDT

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 contribution from Felix Salmon, who, after years of blogging on finance and the economy for Reuters and other outlets, is now a senior editor at Fusion.

Nathaniel Popper's new book, Digital Gold, is as close as you can get to being the definitive account of the history of Bitcoin. As its subtitle proclaims, the book tells the story of the "misfits" (the first generation of hacker-libertarians) and "millionaires" (the second generation of Silicon Valley venture capitalists) who were responsible for building Bitcoin, mining it, hyping it, and, in at least some cases, getting rich off it.

The tale is selective, of course: Not everybody involved with Bitcoin talked to Popper, and the identity of Bitcoin's inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, remains a mystery. But Popper did talk to most of the important people in the cryptocurrency crowd, and he tells me that he put real effort into trying "to find a woman who was involved in some substantive way."

The result of that search? Zero. Nothing. Zilch. Popper's book features no female principals at all: The sole role of women in the book is as wives and girlfriends.

There are nasty consequences of this. If you are a woman involved with Bitcoin, you are invariably going to get treated like an outsider. As Victoria Turk says, "it seems that the only Bitcoin community that particularly welcomes female participation is the NSFW subreddit r/GirlsGoneBitcoin," which is basically a site where women get paid in cryptocurrency to pose nude. Or look at Arianna Simpson's enraging account of what it's like to be a woman at a Bitcoin meetup:

The person who actually suggested the event to Ryan was another young woman (the only other woman at the event), a VC who was in town from San Francisco and was interested in checking it out for the first time. The aforementioned groper knew Ryan vaguely from other Bitcoin events, and greeted their arrival with a warm "Oh, nice to see you! I see you brought your girlfriend this time." When the two of them try to point out that a) they are not together and b) she was actually the one who had brought him, they are cut off with a swift "Sure, sure, I just wanted to see what the dynamic was between you two." Apparently that's code for "checking if you're ok with my hitting on her," as that's exactly what he proceeds to do.

Men make up an estimated 96 percent of the Bitcoin community, which means that if Bitcoin does end up succeeding, as its adherents think it will, and if the people who own Bitcoin see their holdings soar in value, then all of the profits will end up going to what Brett Scott calls the "crypto-patriarchy." Not many men, to be sure: As Charlie Stross says, the degree of inequality in the Bitcoin economy "is ghastly, and getting worse, to an extent that makes a sub-Saharan African kleptocracy look like a socialist utopia." But it's not many men, and effectively zero women.

Popper doesn't dwell on the almost complete absence of women in the Bitcoin story—in fact, he doesn't mention it at all in his book. And the Bitcoin elite themselves aren't doing much introspection on the topic. (We still have Bitcoin developers like the one in Simpson's article saying things like "women don't care about cryptocurrencies.") But the gender gap is a bigger problem than Bitcoiners realize. Unless and until women can be brought into the Bitcoin fold, broader adoption is simply not going to happen.

If you talk about Bitcoin with the people who use it, the language they use is always about technology and finance. Bitcoiners tend to think in terms of how things work, rather than how they're used in the real world. Buying and selling Bitcoin is still much more difficult than it should be, despite many years of development, which implies that people aren't concentrating enough on real-world ease-of-use.

In general, people buy Bitcoin for one of three reasons: because they're speculating on its future value, because they are doing something illegal, or because they have ideological reasons for doing so. But if there's ever going to be broad adoption of Bitcoin technology, it will need to be appealing to law-abiding people who neither know nor care what the blockchain is, and who have no particular beef whatsoever with fiat currencies.

That's a product design job, and frankly, it's a product design job well suited for women who aren't approaching the problem while grinding the ideological axes so widely held inside the Bitcoin community. As one woman involved with Bitcoin put it to me, "Money is a political issue for Bitcoiners. It's a human issue for everybody else."

Right now, Bitcoin is almost purpose-built for the $582 billion international remittances market, where women are half of the senders, and two-thirds of the recipients. And while there is no shortage of Bitcoin-based remittance products out there, none of them seem to be designing for real-world use cases. The developers are solving technical problems, and ignoring the much bigger and more important human problems.

Let's say you wanted to build a mobile savings app in sub-Saharan African. If you asked male Bitcoin developers to build such a thing for a target audience of young African girls, they might have talked about how to maximize the amount of money saved. But, working on the ground in South Africa, the Praekelt Foundation came from a different perspective. Apps like these aren't really about maximizing savings, so much as they're about empowerment. If you can build a product for girls that ratifies their identity and individuality and gives them self-esteem, then you're creating something much more valuable than a few dollars' worth of savings: You're keeping them in school, and you're keeping them healthy, and you're helping them to not get pregnant. That's the kind of way that cryptocurrencies could change the world. The problem is that the men in Popper's book just don't think that way.

Bitcoin boosters like venture capitalist Marc Andreessen have an interesting reaction when people criticize Bitcoin on the grounds that the community is just male nerds. Yes, they say, it is—just like the internet was, 20 years ago. In other words, far from treating the homogeneity of Bitcoin as a problem, they treat it as being auspicious. And, so far at least, there's no evidence that they're really attempting to fix the problem.

The lack of women in Bitcoin isn't just an issue of equality. It's a fundamental weakness of the currency itself. As long as the Bitcoin community is dominated by men geeking out about the blockchain, it's never going to be able to make the human connections that are required for widespread adoption. Right now, the best that anybody can hope for (and no one's holding their breath even for this) is that a handful of female geeks might be welcomed into the clique of male geeks who are working on Bitcoin-related projects.

But even if that happens, it's not even close to being sufficient. Bitcoin, at its core, is an attempt to solve big socioeconomic problems through technology. So long as it remains an overwhelmingly male domain, it's going to continue to concentrate on the economic problems, while missing the big social problems. Which means that it's going to continue going nowhere.

This Incredible Video Captures a Chilean Volcano Erupting for the First Time in Over 40 Years

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 5:21 PM EDT
 

BREAKING: Volcano Calbuco has just erupted in Chile and people have been evacuated. See updating story here: http://on.ryot.org/1bkdBMhBe sure to like our page too for any important updates: RYOT (h/t https://youtu.be/_MdUQY6xQG4)

Posted by RYOT on Wednesday, April 22, 2015

More than 4,000 people in southern Chile have been evacuated after a powerful volcano, shown above, erupted twice—first on Wednesday evening and then again several hours later, resulting in a spectacular lightning display across the night sky. This is the biggest eruption of the Calbuco volcano since 1972. No deaths or missing people have been reported so far, according to Chile's interior minister, Rodrigo Penailillo. Below are more remarkable photos of the volcano's eruption:

Tales From City of Hope #5: My Stem Cells Have Come Home to Papa

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 1:28 PM EDT

It is 9:49 am PDT on April 23, and my stem cell transfusion is complete. It took less than 20 minutes. Now the stem cells just have to graft and start multiplying, each of them eventually maturing into some kind of blood product (red blood cell, white blood cell, platelet, etc.). This will take about a month, but I'm not home free even then. It turns out that these will initially be "baby" cells, and it takes them about a year to fully learn how to do their jobs. Who knew that itty bitty cells had to attend cell training school?

The entire remainder of my visit at City of Hope is just waiting for my immune system to recover and to keep an eye out for severe side effects in case they happen. In a few days I'll be losing my appetite, but apparently this is because I'll be losing my sense of taste. In the past, I've lost my appetite due to IV painkillers in the hospital or extreme fatigue at home. In both cases food tasted normal, but I just couldn't stand the thought of eating anything.

So will this be better or worse? Presumably, food will be tasteless but not repulsive. That strikes me as no fun, but actually more tolerable than being actively repulsed by food. We'll see.