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The Goal of "6 Californias" Remains a Mystery

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 2:42 PM EDT

Now that billionaire eccentric Tim Draper has gotten enough signatures to qualify his "Six Californias" initiative for the ballot in 2016, I can no longer imperiously demand that the media stop paying attention to him. If this is going to be a ballot measure then it's obviously a legitimate news story.

So a friend emailed this morning to ask what Draper's deal is. Beats me. Officially, his motivation is a belief that California is simply too big to govern. As plausible as this is, it's hardly a sufficient explanation. So what is it that's really eating him? Well, Draper is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, so a few months ago Time asked him about that particular sixth of California:

How would you like to see things done differently in Silicon Valley, if it had its own government?

The issues of Silicon Valley are things like when Napster came out. No one knew how the law should be handled. It was a new technology. And no one quite knew whether it had some violation of copyright or not ... And the people who were making those decisions were very distant, and not familiar with what Napster was. Now we have Bitcoin. We have very uncertain laws around Bitcoin. I believe if there were a government closer to Silicon Valley, it would be more in touch with those technologies and the need for making appropriate laws around them. Silicon Valley is seeing great frustration. They see how creative and efficient and exciting life can be in a place where innovation thrives, and then they see a government that is a little lost.

This makes no sense, since both copyright law and monetary policy are set in Washington DC, not Sacramento. But let's accept that Draper was just burbling a bit here, and not hold him to specifics. What's his beef? Basically, he appears to be retailing a strain of techno-libertarian utopianism or something. Information wants to be free! Technology will save us all! Just get government out of the way!

Or something. I don't know, really. The whole thing is crazy, and it's yet another example of how easy it is for billionaires to get publicity. Paying a signature-gathering firm to get something on the ballot in California is pretty trivial if you have a lot of money, and it automatically gets you a ton of exposure. So now Draper has that. But what's the end game? Even if his initiative passes, he knows perfectly well it's going nowhere since Congress will never approve it. So either (a) he's just a crackpot or (b) he has some clever reason for doing this that's going to make him even richer. It's a mystery.

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Government Failures On the Rise? Take It With a Grain of Salt.

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 12:40 PM EDT

Paul Light has gotten a lot of attention for his recent study showing that "government failures" are on the rise. I've seen several criticisms of his study, but it seems to me that basic methodology is really the main problem with it. First off, his dataset is a list of "41 important past government failures (between 2001 – 2014) from a search of news stories listed in the Pew Research Center’s News Interest Index." Is that really a good way of determining the frequency of government failures? A list of headlines might be a good way of determining public interest, but it hardly seems like even a remotely good proxy for cataloging government failure in general.

For example, 2007 appears to be an epically bad year for government failure. But among the failures are "wounded soldiers," "food safety recalls," and "consumer product recalls." Those all seem a bit amorphous to count as distinct failures.

This methodology also mushes up timeframes. Fast & Furious is counted as a government failure in 2011, but that's just the year it made headlines. The operation itself ran from 2006-11. Likewise, the "postal service financing crisis" is hardly unique to 2011. It's been ongoing for years.

Some of the items don't even appear to be proper government failures. Was the Gulf oil spill in 2010 a government failure? Or the Southwest airline groundings? In both cases, you can argue—as Light does—that they exposed lax government oversight. But this basically puts you in the position of arguing that any failure in a regulated industry is a government failure. I'm not sure I buy that.

Finally, on the flip side, there are the things that don't show up. The government shutdown in 2013? The fiscal cliff? The debt ceiling standoffs? The collapse of the Copenhagen conference? Allowing Osama bin Laden to escape from Tora Bora? The scandalous demotion of Pluto to non-planet status?

Maybe I'm just picking nits here. But given the weakness of the core methodology; the small number of incidents; the problems of categorization; and the overall vagueness of what "failure" means, I'm just not sure this study tells us much. I'd take it with a big shaker of salt for the moment. It seems more like clickbait than a serious analysis of how well or poorly government has done over the past decade.

California Farms Are Sucking Up Enough Groundwater to Put Rhode Island 17 Feet Under

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 12:39 PM EDT

California, the producer of nearly half of the nation's fruits, veggies, and nuts, plus export crops—four-fifths of the world's almonds, for example—is entering its third driest year on record. Nearly 80 percent of the state is experiencing "extreme" or "exceptional" drought. In addition to affecting agricultural production the drought will cost the state billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and a whole lot of groundwater, according to a new report prepared for the California Department of Food and Agriculture by scientists at UC-Davis. The authors used current water data, agricultural models, satellite data, and other methods to predict the economic and environmental toll of the drought through 2016.

Here are four key takeaways

  • The drought will cost the state $2.2 billion this year: Of these losses, $810 million will come from lower crop revenues, $203 million will come from livestock and dairy losses, and $454 million will come from the cost of pumping additional groundwater. Up to 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs will be lost.
  • California is experiencing the "greatest absolute reduction in water availability" ever seen: In a normal year, about one-third of California's irrigation water is drawn from wells that tap into the groundwater supply. The rest is "surface water" from streams, rivers, and reservoirs. This year, the state is losing about one-third of its surface water supply. The hardest hit area is the Central Valley, a normally fertile inland region. Because groundwater isn't as easily pumped in the Valley as it is on the coasts, and the Colorado River supplies aren't as accessible as they are in the south, the Valley has lost 410,000 acres to fallowing, an area about 10 times the size of Washington, DC.
  • Farmers are pumping enough groundwater to immerse Rhode Island in 17 feet of it: To make up for the loss of surface water, farmers are pumping 62 percent more groundwater than usual. They are projected to pump 13 million acre-feet this year, enough to put Rhode Island 17 feet under.
  • "We're acting like the super-rich:" California is technically in its third year of drought, and regardless of the effects of El Niño, 2015 is likely to be a dry year too. As the dry years accumulate, it becomes harder and harder to pump water from the ground, adding to the crop and revenue losses. California is the only western state without groundwater regulation or measurement of major groundwater use. If you can drill down to water, it's all yours. (Journalist McKenzie Funk describes this arcane system in an excerpt from his fascinating recent book, Windfall.) "A well-managed basin is used like a reserve bank account," said Richard Howitt, a UC-Davis water scientist and co-author of the report. "We're acting like the super-rich, who have so much money they don't need to balance their checkbook." 

Weird Al's "Blurred Lines" Parody Song About Grammar Is Pretty Great

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 11:51 AM EDT

You know the song "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke? It's really catchy and you hear it on the radio and you get it stuck in your head and you hum it and bob your head back and forth a bit but then you listen to the lyrics a little closer and you realize it's maybe about date rape and you get disgusted with yourself and you find the nearest mirror and point your finger in your face now and think, "Stop it! Get this date rape anthem out of your head!" but the beat is catchy and you can't just exorcise it immediately so you run desperately in search of another catchy song to take its place and you're poring over Spotify and flipping through old NOW CDs and what was that stupid song from the '90s that you used to get stuck in your head all the time? "Chumbawumba"? So, you listen to "Chumbawumba" and it works—ta-da! "Blurred Lines" be gone!—but now you're going around singing "He drinks a whiskey drink/He drinks a vodka drink/He drinks a lager drink/He drinks a cider drink/He sings the songs that remind him of the good times/He sings the songs that remind him of the better times" all week and no one likes you because you won't stop singing "Chumbawumba" and you lose your friends and you lose your family and you lose your job but you just keep on singing "I get knocked down but I get up again/You're never gonna keep me down" right up until the time you get knocked down and in fact don't get up and are kept down and die alone in a ditch…all because you listened to "Blurred Lines."

Well, Weird Al Yankovic has a new parody of "Blurred Lines" called "Word Crimes" which is just as catchy but about grammar instead of date rape. So, lean back, relax, and let this impressive parody get stuck in your head.

(via Gawker)

Why Can't We Teach Shakespeare Better?

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 11:11 AM EDT

After writing about a common misconception regarding a particular scene in Julius Caesar, Mark Kleiman offers a footnote:

Like many Boomers, I had to read Julius Caesar in the 10th grade; not really one of the Bard’s better efforts, but full of quotable passages and reasonably easy to follow. (As You Like It, by contrast, if read rather than watched, makes absolutely no sense to a sixteen-year-old; I was fortunate enough to see a performance a year or so later, but I suspect that some of my classmates never discovered that Shakespeare wrote great musicals.)

Brutus’s speech would have been a perfect scene to use as an example of dramatic irony. But I doubt my teacher had any idea what the passage was about, and the lit-crit we read as “secondary sources” disdained anything as straightforward as explaining what the play was supposed to mean or how the poet used dramatic techniques to express that meaning.

This was my experience too, but in college. I remember enrolling in a Shakespeare class and looking forward to it. In my case, I actually had a fairly good high school English teacher, but still, Shakespeare is tough for high schoolers. This would be my chance to really learn and appreciate what Shakespeare was doing.

Alas, no. I got an A in the class, but learned barely anything. It was a huge disappointment. To this day, I don't understand why Shakespeare seems to be so difficult to teach. Was I just unlucky?

GOP Congressional Candidate Mistakes YMCA Campers for Migrant Kids

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 10:27 AM EDT

Arizona congressional candidate Adam Kwasman was at a protest of a new shelter for migrant children when he got word that a busload of kids was headed in the protesters' direction. Kwasman, a Republican state lawmaker, raced toward the small yellow school bus. He gave a breathless account of what he saw to a local news crew: "I was able to actually see some of the children in the buses, and the fear on their faces. This is not compassion."

But the local news crew had bad news for Kwasman: the kids on the bus weren't migrants. They belonged to the Marana school district and were headed to the YMCA's Triangle Y Camp. Reporter Will Pitts said he could see the children laughing and taking photos of the news crews with their iPhones. "Do you know that was a bus with YMCA kids?" Brahm Resnick, of the Arizona Republic asked Kwasman. Kwasman replied, "They were sad too."

Kwasman is one of three Republican candidates running for the nomination in Arizona's first district. Watch the full video of his interview with Resnick here.

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

Wed Jul. 16, 2014 9:59 AM EDT

The Village of Willowbrook Parks and Recreation department hosts a "Touch a Truck" community event where around 300 children interacted with military vehicles provided by the US Army on display in Illinois. (US Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michel Sauret)

Watch Jon Stewart Try to Get Hillary Clinton to Admit She's Running For President

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 8:23 AM EDT

Hillary Clinton is running for president. She has not officially announced this yet because it's 2014 and tradition dictates that prospective candidates pretend to "weigh all their options" and "talk about it with their family" for a few years before actually coming out and declaring. Presumably she'll announce sometime next autumn. Anyway, she's running for president.

Her most recent non-campaign campaign stop was on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart last night. Clinton came on nominally to talk about her new memoir "Hard Choices" which documents her four years as Secretary of State in the Obama administration. “It’s an incredibly complex and well-reasoned, eyewitness view to the history of those four years," Stewart begins, "and I think I speak for everybody when I say, no one cares. They just want to know if you’re running for president.”

What followed was a very entertaining game wherein Stewart tried to trick her into betraying her presidential ambitions. (When Stewart asks whether she'd like her next office to come in a particular shape, Clinton replies, "You know, I think that the world is so complicated, the fewer corners that you can have, the better.”)

Watch the whole extended interview. It's pretty great.

8 Reasons Why Jose Antonio Vargas Won't Be Deported

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

On Tuesday morning, Jose Antonio Vargas, one of the most prominent and vocal undocumented immigrants in the United States, was detained at a Texas airport after traveling there to report on the plight of unaccompanied minors crossing the border. The Border Patrol took him into custody when he showed them a Filipino passport and no other form of identification. This was one of the few times Vargas, who self-identifies as the "most privileged" undocumented immigrant in the US, has had that privilege seriously questioned. He was released on Tuesday evening and issued a statement through his nonprofit organization, Define American:

I've been released by Border Patrol. I want to thank everyone who stands by me and the undocumented immigrants of south Texas and across the country. Our daily lives are filled with fear in simple acts such as getting on an airplane to go home to our family.

Vargas reminds those watching his case that he is representative of so many more undocumented children. But there are also many reasons why his is a special case—and why he won't be deported:

  1. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a celebrity.
  2. He's been detained, and released, before: Two years ago, a year after he revealed his status as an undocumented Filipino immigrant, Vargas was driving through Minneapolis without a legal license while wearing headphones, according to MinnPost. Although the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office was signed up for a Bush administration initiative called Secure Communities that encourages local law enforcement to hold booked undocumented immigrants for ICE, Vargas was released after roughly five hours. It's unclear how much information authorities had about Vargas' citizenship, though MinnPost points out that it was unusual for police to haul him in, given that those suspected of driving without a license tend to be issued a citation on the scene.
  3. He's dared the ICE to deport him, and it did nothing: As Vox points out, Vargas essentially surrendered to the feds in 2012 when he called ICE and "asked what the government wanted to do with him." The agency declined to comment. Technically, they can come knocking anytime they want to deport him, and they have not done so.
  4. He's not a priority: The Obama administration claims it prioritizes cases having to do with "national security, public safety, and border security," including repeat offenders who have crossed the border after deportation, convicted criminals, and "recent border crossers." Vargas doesn't fit these descriptions, considering he's been convicted of no crime and has lived in the United States since he was 12 years old. (Though CBP has its own policies on what constitutes a recent border crosser, prioritizing any unauthorized entry regardless of how long ago it occurred.)
  5. The courts are already backlogged: As MoJo's Stephanie Mencimer wrote earlier this week, immigration courts are drowning in cases, especially with the sudden influx of unaccompanied minors. There are currently 30 vacancies on the immigration bench, dozens more judges eligible for retirement, and a backlog of 375,503 cases—up 50,000 since 2013. A case like Vargas' could've sat around for years before it was addressed.
  6. Prosecutorial discretion might have favored him anyway: Even if Vargas' case were taken up by ICE, the government could have chosen at any time not to proceed. ICE can waive deportation in cases where a defendant has "positive priorities," including status as a veteran, longtime US residency, a degree from a US college or university, or even just "ties to the United States," including a "role in the community" or "work as a volunteer." Vargas arrived as an undocumented minor and was unaware of his status until he was older. He's been a journalist since he was 17. He's a graduate of San Francisco State University. And now he's the founder of nonprofit advocacy group Define American. Not only does he fit many of the positive criterion, he doesn't fit into the clearly defined "negative" categories: He is not a clear threat to national security, a gang member, or a convicted criminal.
  7. He has a slew of lawyers, immigration groups, and public figures supporting him: Chris Rickerd, a policy council expert in the American Civil Liberties Union, says Vargas' "equities are such that he should be allowed to continue his stay in the US." Allegra McLeod, a law professor at Georgetown University, claimed that she thought "his long-standing ties to this country would make the claim that it would be a moral disaster for this country" if officials were forced to consider his deportation. Cristina Jimenez, a representative of the youth immigration group United We Dream, declared in a statement: "We stand in solidarity with Jose Antonio and demand for his immediate release, but we must remember that there are thousands of people along the border that live with this same fear every day." New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also announced his support for Vargas in a public statement Tuesday, describing him as an "exemplary man whose tireless work has helped raise awareness around the lives of millions of undocumented immigrants living on American soil" and encouraging authorities to use discretion when it came to his case. 
  8. He'd be a giant headache when the government already has plenty. (See also No. 1.) We'll just have to see if the outcry over Vargas'  release would be any less of a headache for the Obama administration than his deportation might have been.

Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Take almonds and just…wait, why add water?

Almonds are a precious foodstuff: a crunchy jolt of complete protein, healthful fats, vitamins and minerals, and deliciousness. Given their rather intense ecological footprint—see here—we should probably consider them a delicacy, a special treat. That's why I think it's deeply weird to pulverize away their crunch, drown them in water, and send them out to the world in a gazillion little cartons. What's the point of almond milk, exactly?

Evidently, I'm out of step with the times on this one. "Plant-based milk" behemoth White Wave reports that its first-quarter sales of almond milk were up 50 percent from the same period in 2013. In an earnings call with investors in May, reported by FoodNavigator, CEO Greg Engles revealed that almond milk now makes up about two-thirds of the plant-based milk market in the United States, easily trumping soy milk (30 percent) and rice and coconut milks (most of the rest).

A jug of almond milk containing roughly 39 cents worth of almonds, plus filtered water and additives, retails for $3.99.

Dairy is still king, of course, comprising 90 percent of the "milk" market. But as our consumption of it dwindles—down from 0.9 cups per person per day in 1970 to about 0.6 in 2010, according to the US Department of Agriculture—plant-based alternatives are gaining ground. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that sales of alternative milks hit $1.4 billion in 2013 and are expected to hit $1.7 billion by 2016, with almond milk leading that growth.

Now, I get why people are switching away from dairy milk. Industrial-scale dairy production is a pretty nasty business, and large swaths of adults can't digest lactose, a sugar found in fresh dairy milk. Meanwhile, milk has become knit into our dietary culture, particularly at breakfast, where we cling to a generations-old tradition of drenching cereal in milk. Almond milk and other substitutes offer a way to maintain this practice while rejecting dairy. (Almond milk has been crushing once-ubiquitous soy milk, perhaps partly because of hotly contested fears that it creates hormonal imbalances.)

All that aside, almond milk strikes me as an abuse of a great foodstuff. Plain almonds are a nutritional powerhouse. Let's compare a standard serving (one ounce, about a handful) to the 48-ounce bottle of Califia Farms almond milk that a house guest recently left behind in my fridge.

A single ounce (28 grams) of almonds—nutrition info here—contains six grams of protein (about an egg's worth), along with three grams of fiber (a medium banana) and 12 grams of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (half an avocado). According to its label, an eight-ounce serving of Califia almond milk offers just one gram each of protein and fiber, and five grams of fat. A bottle of Califia delivers six eight-ounce servings, meaning that a handful of almonds contains as much protein as the mighty jug of this hot-selling beverage.

What this tells you is that the almond-milk industry is selling you a jug of filtered water clouded by a handful of ground almonds. Which leads us to the question of price and profit. The almonds in the photo above are organic, and sold in bulk at my local HEB supermarket for $11.99 per pound; this one-ounce serving set me back about 66 cents. I could have bought nonorganic California almonds for $6.49 per pound, about 39 cents per ounce. That container of Califia, which contains roughly the same number of nonorganic almonds, retails for $3.99.

        Click here for more comparisons. Mother Jones

The water-intensive nature of almond milk, of course, is no secret. By law, food manufacturers have to name ingredients in order of their prevalence in the product. For Califia and other almond milk brands, it starts like this: "filtered water, almonds." Given that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond in California, where 80 percent of the world's almonds are produced, drenching the finished product in yet more water seems insane.

Califia does make a couple of splashy nutritional claims: "50% more calcium than milk," the bottle declares, and "50% RDI of Vitamin E." Almonds are a great source of these vital nutrients, but not that great. Our ounce of whole almonds contains 74 mg of calcium vs. 290 mg for a cup of whole milk, and 7 mg of vitamin E, about 37 percent of the recommended daily intake.

How does Califia's beverage manage to outdo straight almonds on calcium and vitamin E when it lags so far behind on protein and fat? Again, the answer lies in the ingredients list, which reveals the addition of a "vitamin/mineral blend." All fine and well, but if you're interested in added nutrients, why not just pop a vitamin pill?

Califia almond milk contains an added "vitamin/mineral blend." So why not just pop a vitamin pill?

Moreover, almond milk isn't just a few nuts packaged with lots of water. It often contains additives. For example, in addition to vitamins, the Califia product, like many of its rivals, contains small amounts of carrageenan, a seaweed derivative commonly used as a stabilizer in beverages. Academic scientists in Chicago have raised concerns that it might cause gastrointestinal inflammation.

I'm not saying your almond milk habit is destroying the planet or ruining your health, or that you should immediately go cold turkey. I just want people to know what they're paying for when they shell our for it. As for me, when I want something delicious to moisten my granola or add substance to a smoothie, I go for organic kefir, a fermented milk product that's packed with protein, calcium, and beneficial microbes. Added bonus: According to the label, it's lactose-free—apparently, the kefir microbes transform the lactose during the fermentation process.

The industry, meanwhile, aims to take its lucrative almond milk model on the road. FoodNavigator reports that White Wave is setting up a joint venture to market its plant-based milks in almond-crazy China.