Blogs

The Majesty of the Law, Rare Wine Edition

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 11:32 PM EDT

Rudy Kurniawan is a rare wine dealer who was convicted of defrauding his billionaire clients by pouring cheap wine into faked-up bottles and pawning them off as rare vintages. Yesterday he was sentenced to 10 years in prison despite his attorney's plea for leniency:

“Nobody died,” Mr. Mooney said. “Nobody lost their job. Nobody lost their savings.”

Judge Richard M. Berman interrupted him to ask, “Is the principle that if you’re rich, then the person who did the defrauding shouldn’t be punished?”

Stanley J. Okula Jr., a federal prosecutor, said it was “quite shocking” that Mr. Mooney was arguing for a different standard for those who have defrauded rich people. “Fraud is fraud,” he said. “There is no distinction in the guidelines, or in logic, for treating it differently.”

Quite right. As we all know, the law treats the rich and the poor equally. And the rich especially equally.

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Shorter Trees Could Make Peaches Cheaper

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 7:18 PM EDT
Millions of peaches, peaches for me.

When it comes to peach and nectarine trees, bigger isn't necessarily better. An orchard worker can spend as much as half of his or her day lugging around the ladders required to reach the branches of a typical 13-foot tree. Plus, the danger of climbing the ladders drives up the cost of workers' compensation insurance—growers of peaches and nectarines pay about 40 percent more for it than growers of low-lying fruit like grapes.

Now scientists at the University of California are trying to shrink the cost of labor on peach and nectarine farms by shrinking the plants themselves. In a 4-acre orchard south of Fresno, researchers are growing trees that they expect to max out at seven or eight feet. They say the shorter trees, which would not require a ladder to harvest or prune, could cut down on worker injuries and slash labor costs by more than 50 percent. If cultivated correctly, the mini-trees could be as fruitful as their taller counterparts.

If the experimental orchard works, it could have environmental perks too. In comments to UC Davis, one farmer estimated it costs him $1,400 an acre to thin his 250-acre peach and nectarine farm. Because of the high cost of ladders, many of his fellow growers are switching to almonds, he said. And almonds, as we've said before, are sucking California dry.

Fly Through Pyongyang With This Gorgeous Timelapse Video

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 5:35 PM EDT

Enter Pyongyang from JT Singh on Vimeo.

Timelapse videos of mega-cities like New York have become something of a viral video cliché in recent years. (If you're anything like me, you lap them up without shame, all the same). But I bet you've never seen the capital of the world's most reclusive nation, North Korea, quite like this before. The filmmakers—JT Singh and Rob Whitworth—spent six days in Pyongyang filming this video that delivers you right into the very-human nitty gritty of a place that looks far less creepy than those "Mass Games" videos would lead you to believe.

Even so, how much can we rely on this portrait for an accurate take on North Korea as a whole? Not a lot: the capital is home to the ruling elite, and used by the regime as a showcase city; people here are hardly representative. For example, 16 million of North Korea's 24 million people suffer from critical food insecurity, relying only on state-rationed food, according to the UN; one out of every three children is too short for his or her age. Hunger, poverty, lack of electricity, brutal repression and political reprisals... you name it: A UN special inquiry recently described North Korea's human rights violations as without "parallel in the contemporary world."

It's also true that the video is effectively an advertisement for a company operating out of Beijing called Koryo Tours, which has run tours into North Korea since 1993; the group covered the filmmakers' travel expenses. (Full disclosure: I'm pals with Vicky Mohieddeen, who accompanied the film crew, and works for Koryo).

But I think it adds vital perspective to a place shut away from the world by its repressive government. It's oh-so-interesting taking a look inside.

Friday Cat Blogging - 8 August 2014

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 2:50 PM EDT

Last week you could barely see Domino's face, so this week we get a close-up. Here she is outside in the summer sun enjoying a chin smooch from Marian.

In other cat news, click here to read about Coco, the lovely Siamese Wi-Fi sniffing cat from Virginia. If I tried this with Domino, she would sniff out my Wi-Fi and....that's about it. She doesn't roam much, and these days even less than usual. I don't think she's ventured more than ten feet from a doorway in years.

Tennessee Gubernatorial Nominee Explains Why He Wants to Send Governor to Electric Chair

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 2:27 PM EDT
Charlie Brown for Governor

They did it again. On Thursday, Tennessee Democrats picked a statewide candidate with zero political experience. His campaign platform is based on sending incumbent Gov. Bill Haslam (R) to the electric chair. Charlie Brown, a retired engineer from Oakdale whose name is misspelled on his own Facebook page, may owe his victory in the gubernatorial primary to appearing as the first name on the ballot. But he gives full credit to God. "I got down on my knees and prayed about it," he told Mother Jones, when asked about his campaign strategy. "That hit you pretty hard, huh? That took you for a loop, huh?"

In 2012, anti-gay activist Mark Clayton, who also had no political track record won the nod to take on GOP Sen. Bob Corker. His name was also the first name listed on the ballot. Clayton initially filed to run against Haslam this year but was rejected by the state party. The state party did not, however, unite behind a more experienced candidate to challenge the popular Haslam.

The 72-year-old Brown did not raise money or campaign actively for the seat. Instead, he sent two letters to the editor to every major newspaper in the state, outlining his plans for Tennessee, which included bringing back teacher tenure, restoring benefits for civil servants, spending his gubernatorial salary on large deer for hunters, and raising speed limits on the interstate highways to 80 mph "because everyone does anyway." (Brown says he has been pulled over for speeding, but "not lately.") "Let me give you something: My main interest is to put the Bible back in school," he said on Friday. "You can write that down."

"I'd still like to put his butt in that electric chair and turn it on about half throttle and let him smell a little bit," Brown said of Haslam. "You can print that if you want to."

Shortly before the election, he says a higher power intervened on his behalf. "I was sitting on the interstate waiting on a guy," he said, "and something hit me just like that, and it said to get down on your knees to pray. I got down right there on the interstate. There's a wide place, where there's a pullout. There wasn't anybody there. And I got down and asked the Lord to get me through this thing and he did. Now listen, I'm not no preacher, I'm just a Christian. I'm just a sinner saved by grace. I'm just like everybody else."

Brown said he would update his Facebook after he got off the phone (it has since been taken down), and plans to campaign more actively in the fall, but downplays the uphill challenge he faces.

"I'm gonna campaign big time!" Brown said. "They said I was unknown—I've been in the newspaper for years under Peanuts!"

Humans Have Tripled Mercury in the Oceans

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 1:23 PM EDT

On Thursday, researchers released the first comprehensive study of mercury in the world's oceans over time according to depth. Their finding: Since the Industrial Revolution, the burning of fossil fuels and some mining activities have resulted in a more than three times increase in mercury in the upper 100 meters (about 330 feet) of the ocean. There, it builds up in carnivorous species like tuna—a food staple in the US that health experts have been concerned about for years because of its high mercury levels. Much of the 290 million moles (a unit of measure for chemical substances) of mercury in the ocean right now is concentrated in the North Atlantic.

Humans are "starting to overwhelm the ability of deep water formation to hide some of that mercury from us." 

A neurotoxin, mercury is especially dangerous for children and babies: The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that exposure to it can lead to "poor mental development, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness." In adults, mercury poising can lead to problems with blood pressure regulation, memory, vision, and sensation in fingers and toes, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And if that wasn't scary enough, it's invisible, odorless, and hiding in fish meat.

The researchers say that the increase in mercury levels is starting to overcome the natural ocean circulation patterns. Typically, the coldest, saltiest water in the world's oceans naturally sinks and brings much of the mercury along with it, offering shelter to marine life from the chemicals. But now, because of the sheer volume of the stuff, the circulation of water can no longer keep mercury out of shallower depths. According to co-author Carl Lamborg, humans are "starting to overwhelm the ability of deep water formation to hide some of that mercury from us." According to David Krebbenhoft, a geochemist working for the US Geological Survey, these shifts are directly correlated to the increase in mercury outputs over time.

The good news: If we can curb power plant mercury emissions and buy more products with reduced mercury, we can expect to see ocean mercury levels drop in the future. Says Krebbenhoft, "It's cause for optimism and should make us excited to do something about it because we may actually have an impact."

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Quote of the Day: The Bane of the Magic Asterisk

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 1:00 PM EDT

Brad DeLong on the debasement of budget policy since the Reagan era:

Ever since the start of 1981 and the miseducation of David Stockman, the bane of a sensible American fiscal policy has most often been the magic asterisk: the implicit claim that some policy that the politician dares not name or some magical Budget Fairy will fly down from above and make everything OK. When this magic asterisk is found, by my guess 90% of the time it is in budget "plans" from Republicans—but a good 10% of the time it is found in plans from Democrats (yes, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Gene Sperling, I am looking at you).

This has reached its zenith in the budget "plans" of Paul Ryan and his fellow tea partiers. I can't remember the last time I saw a budget plan from a Republican that was even remotely honest.

"Ex-Gay" Conversion Therapy Group Rebrands, Stresses "Rights of Clients"

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 12:59 PM EDT
An Exodus International billboard, before that ex-gay group shut down last summer.

As the "ex-gay therapy" movement suffers major legal and legislative blows, one of its leading proponents has undergone a major rebranding effort.

On Wednesday, in a bizarre, décolletage-heavy, news-style video, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH)—the professional organization for conversion therapists—reestablished itself as the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity (ATCSI). In what it calls a "major expansion of our mission," ATCSI claims it will continue "preserving the right of individuals to obtain the services of a therapist who honors their values, advocating for integrity and objectivity in social science research, and ensuring that competent licensed, professional assistance is available for persons who experience unwanted homosexual (same-sex) attractions."

NARTH's makeover, along with a similar rebranding effort by Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX), comes in response to growing national opposition to conversion therapy. ATCSI's new website says the group has become "increasingly involved in legal and professional efforts to defend the rights of clients to pursue change-oriented psychological care as well as the rights of licensed mental health professionals."

Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), another ex-gay therapy organization run by former NARTH Board Member (and convicted fraudster) Arthur Abba Goldberg, is currently being sued for a different kind of fraud—accepting money but failing to deliver on the conversion promised.

NARTH once encouraged clients to increase their manliness by drinking Gatorade and calling their friends "dude."

Meanwhile, California and New Jersey's bans on ex-gay therapy for minors have held up in court. Michigan may be next to pass a similar bill. Many conversion therapy groups have shut down in recent years, including Love in Action, Evergreen International, Love Won Out, and Exodus International; The latter's president issued an apologetic open letter to the LGBT community last summer. In July, nine remorseful former leaders in the ex-gay therapy movement penned a joint letter condemning ex-gay therapy as an "ineffective and harmful" practice that "reinforces internalized homophobia, anxiety, guilt, and depression."

Conversion therapy, which is discredited by the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association, and the American Counseling Association, has been shown to increase risks of suicide, depression, drug abuse, and HIV/STDs. Its damaging effects have led to the creation of "ex-ex-gay" survivor groups.

Despite this growing tide of opposition, ex-gay therapy is not a thing of the past. Proposed youth bans similar to California's and New Jersey's have failed to pass in Virginia, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Washington, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Hawaii and Rhode Island. The Republican Party of Texas even endorses the practice in its draft 2014 platform.

In a press release regarding NARTH's makeover, LGBT activist nonprofit Truth Wins Out (TWO) warns "not to be fooled" by the "cynical branding effort," calling the group's literature "anti-gay hate speech wrapped in medical language." TWO Executive Director Wayne Besen calls ATCSI "the same old swine peddling junk science to desperate and vulnerable people."

TWO's press release also points out some of NARTH's stranger recommendations: The group has encouraged clients to increase their manliness by drinking Gatorade and calling their friends "dude."

Marijuana Legalization Seems to Be Working Out....So Far

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 12:33 PM EDT

Here are a few typical headlines I've seen recently about Colorado's legalization of marijuana:

Washington Post: Since marijuana legalization, highway fatalities in Colorado are at near-historic lows

Vox: Marijuana legalization didn't stop Colorado's decade-long decline in teen pot use

HuffPo: If Legalizing Marijuana Was Supposed To Cause More Crime, It's Not Doing A Very Good Job

There's a phrase missing from all of these: "so far." I hope that pot legalization turns out great and every other state eventually follows the lead of Colorado and Washington. But honestly folks, it's early days yet. Legalization almost certainly has long-term dynamics and feedback effects that we simply won't know about for years. What happens during the first few months is all but meaningless. Even if the stories themselves are more nuanced, this ought to be reflected in the headlines too.

IBM Unveils Chip That's Maybe As Powerful As a Cockroach

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 11:37 AM EDT

IBM has announced a new chip that it says is a breakthrough in emulating the human brain:

"Power is the fundamental constraint as we move forward," says Horst Simon, deputy director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a major supercomputer user. "This chip is an indication that we are really at the threshold of a fundamental change in architecture."

....TrueNorth, IBM says, uses 5.4 billion transistors—four times more than a typical PC processor—to yield the equivalent of one million neurons and 256 million synapses. They are organized into 4,096 structures called "neurosynaptic cores," each able to store, process and transmit data to any other using a communications scheme called a crossbar.

The design is "event-driven," Mr. Modha says. That means that individual cores fire up only when they are needed, rather than running all the time. This scheme makes the chips more power efficient. Where a comparable standard microprocessor draws 50 to 100 watts per square centimeter, TrueNorth draws just 20 milliwatts, or thousandths of a watt, IBM says.

That's about as many neurons as a small insect has. You'd need something on the order of 100,000 of these chips to provide as many neurons as the typical human brain—though that's probably not really a meaningful number. If digital neurons are faster than chemical neurons, you might need fewer of them. You also don't need any of the neurons that are designed solely to keep the body physically alive. And traditional chips can pick up a lot of the load too. On the other hand, the 3-D structure of the brain provides some advantages you don't get from a 2-D chip.

In other words, who knows? Maybe you need 10,000, maybe you need a million. Maybe this whole approach will turn out to be a dead end. And we're still a long way off from developing the software to make this all work in any case.

Still: it's cool stuff. There are lots of different approaches to developing artificial intelligence, and this is certainly a plausible one. It probably won't take too long before we know whether it really holds the promise that AI researchers hope it does.