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Open War in Ukraine Is a Little Bit Closer Every Day

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 2:34 PM EDT

"Maybe it’s just me," tweets Blake Hounshell, "but open warfare between Ukraine and Russia seems like a BFD."

Yes indeed. As it happens, we're not quite at the stage of open warfare yet, but we sure seem to be getting mighty close. Remember that Russian "aid convoy" that everyone was so suspicious of? Well, it turns out to be....pretty suspicious. BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg says that upon inspection, many of the 280 trucks turned out to be "almost empty." Yesterday we received reports of a column of Russian military vehicles crossing the border into Ukraine as the aid convoy idled nearby, and that was confirmed by NATO earlier today. A little later, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that Ukraine had destroyed "the majority" of the column.

In one sense, this is nothing new. Ukraine has been saying for months that Moscow is backing pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and more recently Ukraine began an aggressive fighting to expel them. Still, this does appear to be an escalation. Between the mysterious aid convoy and the military column that may or may not have been largely destroyed by Ukrainian forces, warfare is indeed becoming a little more open every day.

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Who Should Run Against Hillary?

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 1:14 PM EDT

Andy Sabl surveys the Democratic field today and concludes that, sure enough, Hillary Clinton is the prohibitive frontrunner. Who could challenge her?

Any Democratic candidate jumping in at this point will have to have already demonstrated party loyalty, actual or likely executive skills, and the ability to win a majority of votes in both a party primary and a general election. Moreover, it would help if that candidate had a record of early and loud opposition to doing “stupid [stuff]” in the Middle East...It would help if the candidate had vast personal wealth....as well as strong and deep connections to Silicon Valley, the only serious rival to Wall Street (Clinton’s base) as a source of campaign cash.

So who could this be? Sabl is obviously describing Al Gore, and admits there's zero evidence that Gore has any intention of running. "But if he did, and if he ran as the anti-war and populist—yet impeccably mainstream—candidate that Hillary clearly is not and has no desire to be, things would suddenly get interesting."

I guess so. But that raises a question: Who would you like to see challenge Hillary? I'm not asking who you think is likely to run, just which plausible candidate you'd most like to see in the race.

I suppose my choice would be Sherrod Brown. He's a serious guy who's been in Washington for a long time. He opposed the Iraq War; he's got good populist anti-Wall Street credentials; and he's a solid labor supporter. He's a pretty good talker, and never comes across as threateningly radical. As far as I know, he doesn't have any skeletons in his closet serious enough to disqualify him. (Aside from the fact that he says he has no interest in running, of course.)

Who's your choice? Plausible candidates only. Not Noam Chomsky or Dennis Kucinich. It's surprisingly hard, isn't it? The Democratic bench is actually pretty thin these days.

Europe Agrees to Arm the Kurds

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 12:00 PM EDT

What are the odds that Iraqi Kurdistan will ever be able to secede and form its own sovereign state? That depends in large part on whether the United States and other countries support Kurdish independence, which so far they haven't. Today, however, the EU officially encouraged its members to "respond positively to the call by the Kurdish regional authorities to provide urgently military material."

Is that a step toward accepting Kurdish independence? Maybe, but only a smidge. The EU statement also said that arms shipments should be done only "with the consent of the Iraqi national authorities." And the Guardian reports that, "At the same time the EU reiterated its firm commitment to Iraq’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity."

If the new Iraqi government works out, this probably leads nowhere. But if the new government is no more competent or inclusive than Maliki's, this could end up being a tacit first step toward Kurdish secession. Wait and see.

GOP Obstruction Is Making It Harder To Catch Rapists—Mitch McConnell Would Rather Not Talk About It

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 11:47 AM EDT
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will not say if he will stop blocking a major spending bill in the Senate that contains funding to help identify and prosecute rapists—or whether he would support a separate bill to break the log jam.

As I reported last week, since June, Senate Republicans have held up a $180 billion appropriations bill that would fund several federal agencies, including the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Justice. Part of the funding allotted for the DoJ is supposed to go toward a $41 million grant to help states and localities go after rapists by funding jurisdictions to process backlogs of rape kits, the samples of DNA evidence that are taken after a sexual assault and used to identify assailants. There are over 100,000 untested kits waiting to be processed at crime labs and police departments around the country, partly because states and localities don’t have enough money to test them. The kits can go untested for decades, allowing countless rapists off the hook.

The sweeping spending bill has hit a wall in the Senate because McConnell and other Senate Republicans want Dems to let them add several unrelated amendments to the legislation. The amendment McConnell introduced would make it harder for the EPA to enact new rules on coal-fired power plants. Democrats have complained that GOPers are abusing the amendments process to hold up a bill they don’t like. "Regardless of the outcome of the amendment votes…Republicans have indicated that they are not willing to support the underlying bill," a Senate staffer told me last week.

On Tuesday, the Louisville, Ky. Courier-Journal asked McConnell if he would withdraw his amendment, which would indicate that he and fellow Republicans would be willing to vote for the underlying bill, including the $41 million in funding to process rape kit backlogs. McConnell dodged the question. His office did not respond when Mother Jones asked the same question this week.

Lawmakers may be able to add the rape kit funding into an temporary spending measure in October. However, neither McConnell's office nor Republicans on the House and Senate appropriations committees will say whether they would support doing so.

A California Hospital Charged $10,000 for a Cholesterol Test

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 10:34 AM EDT

By now, I assume we all know that hospitals charge widely varying rates for similar procedures. But it's often hard to pinpoint exactly what's going on. Sometimes it's due to the amount of regional competition. Sometimes the procedures in question vary in ways that simple coding schemes don't pick up. Some doctors are better than others. And of course, hospitals inflate their list prices by different amounts.

All that said, be prepared for your jaw to drop:

Researchers studied charges for a variety of tests at 160 to 180 California hospitals in 2011 and found a huge variation in prices. The average charge for a basic metabolic panel, which measures sodium, potassium and glucose levels, among other indicators, was $214. But hospitals charged from $35 to $7,303, depending on the facility. None of the hospitals were identified.

The biggest range involved charges for a lipid panel, a test that measures cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of fat (lipid), in the blood. The average charge was $220, but costs ranged from a minimum of $10 to a maximum of $10,169. Yes, more than $10,000 for a blood test that doctors typically order for older adults, to check their cholesterol levels.

A lipid panel! This is as standardized a procedure as you could ask for. It's fast, highly automated, identical between hospitals, and has no association with the quality of the doctor who ordered the test. You still might see the usual 2:1 or 3:1 difference in prices, but 1000:1?

So what accounts for this? The researchers have no idea. No insurance company will pay $10,000 for a lipid panel, of course, so the only point of pricing it this high is to exploit the occasional poor sap with no health insurance who happens to need his cholesterol checked. Welcome to health care in America. Best in the world, baby.

Wondering What #NMOS14 Is?

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 7:08 PM EDT
Jeremiah Parker, 4, stands in front of his mother, Shatara Parker, as they attend a protest Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.

Starting tonight at 7pm Eastern time, a National Moment of Silence event will be playing out in gatherings big and small across the country. It's headed up by a New York-based activist and social worker who writes online as Feminista Jones and talked to USA Today about the event:

After an activist posted on Twitter that there would be a vigil in downtown Manhattan for Brown, Feminista Jones reached out.

"I wonder why they always have vigils so far removed from the people who are most likely to be affected by police brutality," she wrote back to the poster. "I just know that people in the Bronx and Brooklyn will struggle getting there on Sunday trains." (The correspondence is documented in a Storify.)

Plans for the peaceful assemblies began through that platform, then moved to Facebook. It's an update to activism Jones compares to "phone banking and letter writing — just reaching 90,000 people."

"We're having a national moment of silence — one chord, one silent voice — to honor not only Mike Brown, not only Eric Garner, but all victims of police brutality, especially those who have lost their lives," she said.

The Root, the online black culture and politics mag, is using the #NMOS14 tag to post heartbreaking photos of unarmed black men shot by police over the years, from Amadou Diallo to Kimani Gray to Oscar Grant to far too many others.

To find an #NMOS14 event near you, check out the Twitter hashtag #NMOS14 and this Facebook listing of local groups. 

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The Ferguson Shooting and the Science of Race and Guns

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 2:03 PM EDT
Ferguson, Mo. residents protesting the shooting of Michael Brown retreat after police detonate tear gas cannisters.

On Saturday, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri gunned down unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Eyewitnesses say Brown was killed while trying to run away or surrender, but Ferguson police claim that Brown reached for the officer's gun. It will be a long time before all the facts are sorted out, but research suggests that such claims may be rooted in something deeper than the need to explain actions after the fact: Race may literally make people see things that are not there, whether it's a gun or a reach for a gun.

In a 2001 study, participants were shown a picture of a white face or a black face followed immediately by a picture of a weapon or a tool. They were asked to identify the object as quickly as possible. Study participants more often identified weapons correctly after they saw a black face, and more accurately identified tools after seeing an image of a white face. What's more, "they falsely claimed to see a gun more often when the face was black than when it was white," the report's author wrote. He goes on:

Race stereotypes can lead people to claim to see a weapon where there is none. Split-second decisions magnify the bias by limiting people's ability to control responses. Such a bias could have important consequences for decision making by police officers and other authorities interacting with racial minorities. The bias requires no intentional racial animus, occurring even for those who are actively trying to avoid it.

This study has been repeated by several different groups of scientists with the same results. (When participants are primed with female as opposed to male African-American faces, however, they are less likely to assume the object is a gun.)

A 2005 study by University of Colorado neuroscientists bolsters these findings. The scientists measured threat perception and response in the brains of 40 students to targets in a video game, some of whom were carrying pistols while others carried wallets or cellphones. The study authors predicted that because there is a cultural perception that African-Americans are "more threatening," participants' "shoot response" would come more naturally. Indeed that’s how it panned out. The study found that the students shot black targets with guns more quickly than white targets with guns, and took longer to decide not to shoot unarmed blacks than unarmed whites.

We may never know what was going on in the head of the officer who shot Brown—or, for that matter, in the heads of George Zimmerman or Michael Dunn, or many other killers of unarmed African-Americans in disputed situations. But studies like the above suggest that the underlying problems run deep.

Watch President Obama Deliver Remarks About the Violence In Ferguson, Missouri

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 1:44 PM EDT

 

President Obama just delivered remarks on the deteriorating situation in Ferguson, Missouri, where Wednesday night St. Louis law enforcement officials fired tear gas on peaceful demonstrators protesting the killing of Michael Brown.

Here are his remarks, transcript courtesy of the Washington Post:

I want to address something that’s been in the news over the last couple of days, and that’s the last situation in Ferguson, Missouri. I know that many Americans have been deeply disturbed by the images we’ve seen in the heartland of our country as police have clashed with people protesting, today I’d like us all to take a step back and think about how we’re going to be moving forward.

This morning, I received a thorough update on the situation from Attorney General Eric Holder, who’s been following and been in communication with his team. I’ve already tasked the Department of Justice and the FBI to independently investigate the death of Michael Brown, along with local officials on the ground. The Department of Justice is also consulting with local authorities about ways that they can maintain public safety without restricting the right of peaceful protest and while avoiding unnecessary escalation. I made clear to the attorney general that we should do what is necessary to help determine exactly what happened and to see that justice is done.

I also just spoke with Governor Jay Nixon of Missouri. I expressed my concern over the violent turn that events have taken on the ground, and underscored that now’s the time for all of us to reflect on what’s happened and to find a way to come together going forward. He is going to be traveling to Ferguson. He is a good man and a fine governor, and I’m confident that working together, he’s going to be able to communicate his desire to make sure that justice is done and his desire to make sure that public safety is maintained in an appropriate way.

Of course, it’s important to remember how this started. We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances. He was 18 years old, and his family will never hold Michael in their arms again. And when something like this happens, the local authorities, including the police, have a responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death and how they are protecting the people in their communities. There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.

Put simply, we all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority. I know that emotions are raw right now in Ferguson and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened. There are going to be different accounts of how this tragedy occurred. There are going to be differences in terms of what needs to happen going forward. That’s part of our democracy. But let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family. We are united in common values, and that includes belief in equality under the law, basic respect for public order and the right to peaceful public protest, a reverence for the dignity of every single man, woman and child among us, and the need for accountability when it comes to our government.

So now is the time for healing. Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson. Now is the time for an open and transparent process to see that justice is done. And I’ve asked that the attorney general and the U.S. attorney on the scene continue to work with local officials to move that process forward. They will be reporting to me in the coming days about what’s being done to make sure that happens.

Meet the First Woman to Win the "Nobel Prize of Mathematics"

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 1:29 PM EDT

On Wednesday, Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman in 78 years to be awarded the prestigious Fields Medal, considered the highest honor in mathematics. She was selected for "stunning advances in the theory of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces."

The Fields Medal is awarded every four years by the International Mathematical Union to outstanding mathematicians under 40 who show promise of future achievement. With the announcement of Mirzakhani and this year's other awardees—Arthur Avila, Manjul Bhargava, and Martin Hairer—there now have been 54 male and 1 female medalists.

Many hope Mirzakhani's Fields medal is a sign of change to come. "I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians," she said in a press release. Christiane Rousseau, vice president of the International Mathematics Union, told the Guardian this is "an extraordinary moment" and "a celebration for women," comparable to Marie Curie's barrier-breaking Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry in the early 20th century.

And as Canadian math professor Izabella Laba wrote: "Mirzakhani's selection does exactly nothing to convince me that women are capable of doing mathematical research at the same level as men. I have never had any doubt about that in the first place…What I take from it instead is that we as a society, men and women alike, are becoming better at encouraging and nurturing mathematical talent in women, and more capable of recognizing excellence in women's work."

Mirzakhani's accomplishment is all the more groundbreaking in light of the well-documented disadvantages and biases women face in math and science. According to the National Academy of Sciences, there are no significant biological differences that could explain women's low representation in STEM academic faculty and leadership positions (although that doesn't stop prominent people from making claims otherwise.) Instead, NAS says we can thank bias and academia's "outmoded institutional structures."

For example, in a 2008 Yale study, professors were asked to rate fictional applicants for a lab manager position. When given an application with a male name at the top, professors rated the candidate more competent and hirable than when given an otherwise identical form with a female name. This bias was found in both male and female faculty members.

And that's not all women in STEM fields have to contend with: A July report found that a full 64 percent of women in various scientific fields were sexually harassed while doing fieldwork.

These disadvantages—along with a history of men getting the credit for discoveries and inventions made by women—help explain why only 9 to 16 percent of tenure-track positions in math-intensive fields at the top 100 US universities are held by women. According to the American Mathematical Society, the share of women earning Ph.D.s in math has remained stagnant for decades:

(Additional AMS data used in the above chart found here.)

Mirzakhani, who grew up in Iran before earning her Ph.D. at Harvard and becoming a professor at Stanford, told the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2008 that she did not initially realize her strength in math: "I don't think that everyone should become a mathematician, but I do believe that many students don't give mathematics a real chance. I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold."

White House Tightens Up Arms Shipments to Israel

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 1:24 PM EDT

The Obama administration has tightened up the process for providing arms to Israel:

White House and State Department officials who were leading U.S. efforts to rein in Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip were caught off guard last month when they learned that the Israeli military had been quietly securing supplies of ammunition from the Pentagon without their approval.

Since then the Obama administration has tightened its control on arms transfers to Israel. But Israeli and U.S. officials say that the adroit bureaucratic maneuvering made it plain how little influence the White House and State Department have with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu —and that both sides know it.

....U.S. officials said Mr. Obama had a particularly combative phone call on Wednesday with Mr. Netanyahu, who they say has pushed the administration aside but wants it to provide Israel with security assurances in exchange for signing onto a long-term deal.

....While Israeli officials have privately told their U.S. counterparts the poor state of relations isn't in Israel's interest long term, they also said they believed Mr. Netanyahu wasn't too worried about the tensions. The reason is that he can rely on the firmness of Israeli support in Congress, even if he doesn't have the White House's full approval for his policies. The prime minister thinks he can simply wait out the current administration, they say.

Well, I'd say the prime minister is probably right. It's not as if Obama has actually done much of substance to put pressure on Israel despite endless provocations from Netanyahu, but it's a very good bet that the next president will do even less. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is the heavy favorite, and she's made it crystal clear that her support for Netanyahu is complete and total. On the Republican side, it doesn't really matter who the nominee is. As long as it's not Rand Paul, Netanyahu can expect unquestioning fealty.

And in the meantime, he can count on the US Congress not really caring that he publicly treats the US president like an errant child. I keep wondering if one day he'll go too far even for Congress, but I've mostly given up. As near as I can tell, there's almost literally nothing he could do that would cause so much as a grumble.