Blogs

Rand Paul Thinks Ebola Is More Contagious Than AIDS

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 2:08 PM EDT

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) reportedly put on his scientist hat this morning, telling CNN's Ashley Killough that Ebola is more easily spread than AIDS–a statement that is an irresponsible, flat out lie.

Paul's posturing is just the latest in a series of Ebola-truthing tactics he and other members of the GOP have been fully employing as of late. Perhaps more seriously, Paul's theory calls into question the types of feverish, vomit-spewing cocktail soirees he suggests he frequents.

For a deeper look into the contagiousness of Ebola compared to other diseases, check out the charts below from David McCandless and NPR:

 

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We Require Affirmative Consent For Most Things. Why Not Sex?

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 1:21 PM EDT

Ezra Klein has taken a lot of heat for his defense of California's new "Yes Means Yes" law, which puts in place an "affirmative consent standard" on university campuses to decide whether a sexual assault has taken place. In other words, the mere lack of a clear "no" is no longer a defense against sexual assault charges. Instead, you have to make sure that your partner has given you a clear "yes."

Klein defends himself here in exhausting detail. Most of it you've probably heard before, but perhaps the most interesting part is this: "More than anything, what changed my mind on Yes Means Yes was this article by Amanda Taub, and some subsequent conversations with women in my life." Here's Taub:

When our society treats consent as "everything other than sustained, active, uninterrupted resistance," that misclassifies a whole range of behavior as sexually inviting. That, in turn, pressures women to avoid such behavior in order to protect themselves from assault.

As a result, certain opportunities are left unavailable to women, while still others are subject to expensive safety precautions, such as not traveling for professional networking unless you can afford your own hotel room. It amounts, essentially, to a tax that is levied exclusively on women. And it sucks.

And here's Klein:

Every woman I spoke to talked about this tax in the same way: as utterly constant, completely unrelenting. It's so pervasive that it often goes unmentioned, like gravity. But it colors everything. What you wear. Who you have lunch with. When you can hug a friend. Whether you can invite someone back to your house. How you speak in meetings. Whether you can ask male colleagues out for a drink to talk about work. How long you can chat with someone at a party. Whether you can go on a date without having a friend who knows to be ready for a call in case things go wrong. Whether you can accept seemingly professional invitations from older men in your field. Whether you can say yes when someone wants to pick up the tab for drinks. For men, this is like ultraviolet light: it's everywhere, but we can't see it.

I have some hesitations about this new law, but it's hardly the apocalypse that some of its detractors have made it out to be. It doesn't change the standard of proof required in sexual assault cases and it doesn't change the nature of the proceedings that govern these cases. These may both be problematic, as some critics think, but they're separate issues. "Yes Means Yes" changes only the standard of consent, and does so in a pretty clear and unambiguous way.

Beyond that, keep in mind that this is just an ordinary law. If it were a ballot initiative, I'd be adamantly opposed. But it's not: if it turns out to work badly or produce unintended consequences, it can be repealed or modified. And it's not as if the current situation is some kind of utopia that should be defended at all costs. We'll know soon enough if the law's benefits are worth the costs. In the meantime, it seems like a worthwhile experiment in changing a culture that's pretty seriously broken.

Nepal Just Had a Deadly Freak Avalanche. Is Climate Change To Blame?

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 12:32 PM EDT
Rescue workers carry the body of an avalanche victim at the Thorong La Pass in Mustang, Nepal, on October 15.

Hikers on one of Nepal's most popular mountaineering routes may have had a deadly face-off with climate change this week, when a freak storm swept in and triggered an avalanche that killed at least 27 people.

Rescue work is underway for dozens of hikers who are still missing. October is typically a time for clear skies in Nepal, and already some scientists are pointing a finger of blame at global warming for the unseasonable storm. From the Toronto Star:

The current situation in Nepal — the incessant rain, blizzard and avalanche — appears to have been triggered by the tail of Cyclone Hudhud in neighboring India. The cyclone, reports suggest, was among the strongest storms recorded off the Indian coast.

“Storms in that region are getting stronger,” said John Stone, an IPCC lead author and adjunct professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. “It is not inconsistent with what scientists have been saying.”

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a regional agency based in Kathmandu that serves eight countries, said in a May report — just weeks after the April avalanche on Mt. Everest — that rising temperatures have shrunk Nepal’s glaciers by almost a quarter between 1977 and 2010, with an average of 38 square kilometers vanishing annually.

The report said that besides bringing more intense and frequent floods, avalanches and landslides affecting millions of people living in remote mountain areas, such changes could also hit adventure-seeking mountaineers.

As if summitting a giant Himalayan peak wasn't scary enough already.

Let Us Now Praise Placebos

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 12:02 PM EDT

Placebos are fascinating things. They shouldn't work, but they do. And it's not just pills, either. In certain cases, it turns out, fake knee surgery can relieve pain just as effectively as real knee surgery. Austin Frakt writes about the placebo effect today:

Given the strength and ubiquity of placebo effects, many physicians prescribe them. In fact, doing so was common practice before World War II, with supportive publications in the medical literature as late as the mid-1950s. This practice faded away after the rise of placebo-controlled trials that yielded treatments that were shown to be better than placebos, but it has resurfaced in new forms.

Today, the widespread use of antibiotics for conditions that don’t require them is a form of placebo prescribing, for example. Acetaminophen for back pain appears to be a placebo as well. These may help patients feel better, but only because they believe they will do so. The active ingredient adds nothing. To the extent some doctors trick patients in an effort to achieve a placebo effect, most patients don’t seem to mind. Nevertheless, deliberately harnessing just the placebo effect by prescribing a treatment that does not have any additional direct physical effect is an ethical gray area.

I didn't know that placebo prescriptions were common before World War II. Interesting! I've also lately been trying to figure out whether acetaminophen is actually doing anything for the back pain I'm suffering thanks to an injury a few months ago compounded by some more recent cat-related idiocy that aggravated it. It kinda seems like it might, but I can't really tell. But now I know. If there was an effect, it was a placebo effect.

Still, I'm disappointed that the placebo effect wasn't more significant for me. Maybe this is why I've never had a lot of luck with medication in the first place. It's not that it never works, but that most of it doesn't seem to work very well. Perhaps it's because I rarely have much confidence in the stuff, so I only get half the effect. It would probably help if I were more gullible.

The only recent exception I can think of is prednisone, which miraculously and instantly cured my breathing problems a few months ago. It only lasted a couple of days, unfortunately, though even after that my breathing was vastly improved, if not back to normal. But it did no good because, placebo or not, my doctors had no clue why it worked and were therefore unwilling to try more of it. Nor did it lead to any subsequent treatments since they had no clue what was going on and essentially decided to pretend the whole thing was just a coincidence. And people wonder why I'm skeptical of the medical profession.

What's the Point of an Unenforceable Noncompete Agreement?

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 11:06 AM EDT

We all learned recently that sandwich shop Jimmy John's forces its workers to sign a noncompete agreement before they're hired. This has prompted a lengthy round of blogospheric mockery, and rightfully so. But here's the most interesting question about this whole affair: What's the point?

Laws vary from state to state, but generally speaking a noncompete agreement can't be required just for the hell of it. It has to protect trade secrets or critical business interests. The former makes them common in the software business, and the latter makes them common in businesses where clients become attached to specific employees (doctors, lawyers, agents) who are likely to take them with them if they move to a new practice. But none of this seems to apply to a sandwich shop. Clare O'Connor of Forbes asked an attorney about this:

“There’s never a guarantee, but I can’t see any court in the world upholding this,” said Sherrie Voyles, a partner at Chicago firm Jacobs, Burns, Orlove & Hernandez. “Every state law is different on this issue, but the general idea is that it’d only be upheld if it’s reasonable. The test would be, is there a near-permanent customer base? No. Customers at Jimmy John’s are probably also customers at Subway.”

Voyles said she can’t imagine any Jimmy John’s outlet actually enforcing this non-compete clause (indeed, there’s no evidence any have tried), but can’t see any reason it’d hold up in court. “It’s not the kind of interest protected by law,” she said.

The Wall Street Journal nonetheless reports that litigation over noncompete clauses has risen over the past few years, but this appears to be mostly in places like the software industry, where trade secrets are important. Not so much in the fast food business.

So again: what's the point? I've not heard of a single case of Jimmy John's actually taking someone to court over this, and it seems vanishingly unlikely that they would. That seems to leave a couple of options. First, it's just boilerplate language they don't really care about but left in just in case. The second is that they find it useful as a coercive threat. Sure, they'll never bother going to court, but maybe their workers don't know that—which means they're less likely to move across the street to take a higher-paying job. In other words, it's a handy tool for keeping workers scared and wages low.

So it's either stupid or scummy. Take your pick.

UPDATE: Stephen Bainbridge, who actually knows what he's talking about, agrees that a noncompete clause like this is pretty much legally useless. But he quotes Cynthia Estlund explaining why it might have value anyway:

Even a manifestly invalid non-compete may have in terrorem value against an employee without counsel.

In terrorem? Lawyers actually use this phrase? I guess it gets the point across, doesn't it?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 16, 2014

Thu Oct. 16, 2014 10:40 AM EDT

A US Marine participates in an advanced rope technique course in California. (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Steve H. Lopez)

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Court Strikes Down Arkansas Voter ID Law

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 10:39 AM EDT

On Wednesday, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state's restrictive voter ID law, ruling that it violated the state's constitution. The unanimous decision, which comes just days before early voting begins in the state, could impact a Senate race considered key to a Republican takeover of the Senate.

Arkansas' law, enacted in 2013 after the Republican-controlled legislature overrode the Democratic Gov. Mike Beebee's veto, would have required voters to show a government-issued photo ID at the polls. Studies have shown that photo ID laws disproportionately burden minority and poor voters, making them less likely to vote. The state Supreme Court ruled that the voter ID law imposes a voting eligibility requirement that "falls outside" those the state constitution enumerates—namely, that a voter must only be a US citizen, an Arkansas resident, at least 18 years of age, and registered to vote—and was therefore invalid.

The court's ruling could help swing in Democrats' favor the tight Senate race between Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and his opponent, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton.

After the Supreme Court gutted a section of the Voting Rights Act last year, Republican state legislatures around the country enacted a slew of harsh voting laws. Since the 2010 election, new restrictions have been enacted in 21 states. Fourteen of those were passed for the first time this year.

Arkansas was one of seven states in which opponents of restrictive voting laws filed lawsuits ahead of the 2014 midterms. Last week, the US Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin's voter ID law. A federal court last Thursday struck down a similar law in Texas—only to have its ruling reversed this week by an appeals court. The Supreme Court recently allowed North Carolina and Ohio to enforce their strict new voting laws.

Rick Scott Takes Late Lead In Southeast Division of Jackass Competition

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 1:24 AM EDT

WTF?

In one of the weirdest, and most Floridian moments in debate history, Wednesday night's gubernatorial debate was delayed because Republican Governor Rick Scott refused to take the stage with Democratic challenger Charlie Crist and his small electric fan....Rather than waiting for the governor to emerge, the debate started with just Crist onstage. "We have been told that Governor Scott will not be participating in this debate," said the moderator. The crowd booed as he explained the fan situation, and the camera cut to a shot of the offending cooling device.

"That's the ultimate pleading the fifth I have ever heard in my life," quipped Crist, annoying the moderators, who seemed intent on debating fan rules and regulations. After a few more awkward minutes, Scott emerged, and the debate proceeded, with only one more electronics dispute. When asked why he brought the fan, Christ answered, "Why not? Is there anything wrong with being comfortable? I don't think there is."

There are plenty of Republicans who I find more extreme, or more moronic, or more panderific than Rick Scott. But for sheer pigheaded dickishness, he's a hard act to beat. Jeebus.

This Is the Most Terrifying Shark Video You'll See All Week

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 7:54 PM EDT

Good evening! Here is something terrifying:

 

I have nothing to add. Just, wow, terrifying. If I lived near that beach, I would probably be scared to go back in the water.

Is this video as scary as Jaws? No. But it probably makes more sense, to be honest.

Have a super night.

(via Ryan Broderick)

Is Clean, Green Fusion Power In Our Near Future?

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 6:50 PM EDT

Fusion is the energy source of the future—and it always will be. That used to be a Unix joke, but in various forms Unix has actually become pretty widespread these days. It runs the server that hosts the web page you're reading; it's the underlying guts of Apple's Mac operating system; and Linux is—well, not really "popular" by any fair definition of the word, but no longer just a fringe OS either.

So maybe fusion is about to break through too:

Lockheed Martin Corp said on Wednesday it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready in a decade.

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed's secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.

....Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet....Lockheed said it had shown it could complete a design, build and test it in as little as a year, which should produce an operational reactor in 10 years, McGuire said.

Over at Climate Progress, Jeff Spross is containing his enthusiasm:

At this point, keeping the world under 2°C of global warming will require global greenhouse gas emissions to peak in 2020 and fall rapidly after that....So by Lockheed Martin’s own timeline, their first operational CFR won’t come online until after the peak deadline. To play any meaningful role in decarbonization — either here in America or abroad — they’d have to go from one operational CFR to mass production on a gargantuan scale effectively overnight. More traditional forms of nuclear power face versions of the same problem.

A WW2-style government mobilization might be able to pull off such a feat in the United States. But if the political will was there for such a move, the practical question is why wait for nuclear? Wind and solar are mature technologies in the here and now — as is energy efficiency, which could supply up to 40 percent of the effort to stay below 2°C all by itself.

Jeez. I get where Spross is coming from, but come on. If Lockheed Martin can actually pull this off, it would mean huge amounts of baseload power using existing grid technology. It would mean cheap power from centralized sites. It would mean not having to replace every building in the world with high-efficiency designs. It would mean not having to install wind farms on millions of acres of land. It would mean not having to spend all our political efforts on forcing people to make do with less energy.

More generally, it would mean gobs of green power at no political cost. That's huge.

The big question is whether Lockheed Martin can actually pull this off. Lots of people before them have thought they were on the right track, after all. But if they can, it's a game changer. Given the obvious difficulties of selling a green agenda to the world—and the extreme unlikelihood of making that 2020 deadline with existing technologies—I'll be rooting for Lockheed Martin to pull this off. Cynicism can be overdone.

Editors' note: Over on the Blue Marble blog Climate Desk Producer James West spoke with a thermonuclear plasma physicist who doubts the significance of this breakthrough and called Lockheed's announcement "poppycock." So there's that.