Kevin Drum

Washington State Is So Screwed

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 9:50 AM EDT
Drought areas in Washington State, apple kingdom of the US.

California's been getting all the attention, but it isn't the only agriculture-centric western state dealing with brutal drought. Washington, a major producer of wheat and wine grapes and the source of nearly 70 percent of US apples grown for fresh consumption, also endured an usually warm and snow-bereft winter.

The state's Department of Ecology has declared "drought emergencies" in 24 of the state's 62 watersheds, an area comprising 44 percent of the state. Here's more from the agency's advisory:

Snowpack statewide has declined to 24 percent of normal, worse than when the last statewide drought was declared in 2005. Snowpack is like a frozen reservoir for river basins, in a typical year accumulating over the winter and slowly melting through the spring and summer providing a water supply for rivers and streams. This year run-off from snowmelt for the period April through September is projected to be the lowest on record in the past 64 years.

The drought regions include apple-heavy areas like Yakima Valley and the Okanogan region. Given that warmer winters—and thus less snow—are consistent with the predictions of climate change models, the Washington drought delivers yet more reason to consider expanding fruit and vegetable production somewhere far from the west coast. That's an idea I've called de-Californication (see here and here). But we'll need a new term to encompass the northwest. De-westernization? Doesn't have quite the same ring.

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Does Walmart Have Plumbing Problems?

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 1:40 AM EDT

No, really. Did five Walmart stores have to shut down and abruptly lay off all their workers within hours because they suddenly discovered massive plumbing problems? Michael Hiltzik is skeptical.

Tales From City of Hope #3: The Stop Sign For Dwarves

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 10:14 PM EDT

This is the stop sign at the end of the road that runs outside my apartment in Parsons Village. It is about three feet high.

There are no other stop signs on the corner. As far as I can tell, there are (currently) no obstructions that prevent building a normal height sign. All the other traffic signs in the vicinity are normal height.

So what's the deal? Did it replace a normal height sign that trams and maintenance carts that kept ignoring? Is it some kind of "fun" sign for the kiddies? Did someone write the specs in metric, and 3 meters became 3 feet somehow? Any other ideas?

New Document Cache Shows the Real Roots of ISIS Are as Much Secular as Religious

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 4:28 PM EDT

Spiegel has quite a fascinating report this week about the origins and growth of ISIS. It's a great counterpoint to Graeme Wood's Atlantic piece from February that focused on the Islamic and theological roots of ISIS and the territorial ambitions of its self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But it turns out that this is far from the whole story. According to Christopher Reuter, a recently discovered cache of documents shows that the founding architect of ISIS was actually Haji Bakr, the pseudonym of Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein's air defense force. Bakr, who lost his job and his power in 2003 when Paul Bremer made the decision to disband the Iraqi army, was the real mastermind behind ISIS. In dozens of detailed pages written in 2012, he laid out an organizational plan for the kind of pervasive, brutally efficient spy state he knew best:

It seemed as if George Orwell had been the model for this spawn of paranoid surveillance. But it was much simpler than that. Bakr was merely modifying what he had learned in the past: Saddam Hussein's omnipresent security apparatus, in which no one, not even generals in the intelligence service, could be certain they weren't being spied on.

....There is a simple reason why there is no mention in Bakr's writings of prophecies relating to the establishment of an Islamic State allegedly ordained by God: He believed that fanatical religious convictions alone were not enough to achieve victory. But he did believe that the faith of others could be exploited. In 2010, Bakr and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir and later "caliph," the official leader of the Islamic State. They reasoned that Baghdadi, an educated cleric, would give the group a religious face.

So the roots of ISIS are purely pragmatic: Bakr wanted to build an organization that could retake Iraq, and he calculated that this could best be done by combining the secular mechanisms of Saddam Hussein with the religious fanaticism of an Al Qaeda. The whole piece is well worth a read.

Scott Walker May Have Just Scored 2016's Biggest Sugar Daddies

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 3:53 PM EDT

Charles and David Koch have already made it clear that they plan to do everything in their power to prevent Hillary Clinton (or, in case she stumbles, any other Democrat) from winning the presidency. The moguls hope to garner $889 million for the 2016 election from their networks, much of it bound to be channeled through their favorite Dark Money organizations. At one single summit in late January they managed to raise $249 million from friends and allies.

And now, it looks like the Koch brothers may have landed on their standardbearer for all that spending. As the New York Times reported:

On Monday, at a fund-raising event in Manhattan for the New York State Republican Party, David Koch told donors that he and his brother, who oversee one of the biggest private political organizations in the country, believed that Mr. Walker would be the Republican nominee.

"When the primaries are over and Scott Walker gets the nomination," Mr. Koch told the crowd, the billionaire brothers would support him, according to a spokeswoman. The remark drew laughter and applause from the audience of fellow donors and Republican activists, who had come to hear Mr. Walker speak earlier at the event, held at the Union League Club.

If the Kochs do decide to back Scott Walker, according to the Times, the money would come from them personally, rather than their network of affiliated groups. But with a combined net worth of over $85 billion, Charles and David could set up a vehicle that would outspend nearly anyone while barely tapping into their bank accounts. Seeing the brothers get behind Walker isn't terribly surprising. The pair invested heavily in his initial gubernatorial campaign and have aided him in his subsequent elections.

Not so fast, though, Politico's Mike Allen cautioned this morning. Despite David Koch's remarks, he provided Politico a statement disavowing any endorsement. As Allen wrote, the brothers say they are undecided and still plan to hold "auditions" at their summer donor conference. In addition to Walker, the lineup of people under consideration reportedly includes Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and, most surprisingly, Jeb Bush.

Whoever ends up gaining the Kochs' support would have unparalleled fundraising might, and would have to be considered a favorite for the Republican nomination. And their ascent would be the latest example of the power of the ultrarich in the age of the super PAC: Winning broad support from small donors doesn't matter when the affections of two individuals willing to spend astronomically could upend the entire campaign.

Tales From City of Hope #2: Chemo Has Started

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 2:10 PM EDT

It is 10:43 am PDT on April 21, 2015. It is Day -2 (Day 0 is Thursday, when the actual stem cell transfusion takes place) and my final round of chemotherapy has officially started. Oddly enough, it only lasts about half an hour. The rest of my 8-hour stay in the hospital today is taken up with prep and about 4-6 hours of IV fluids.

Right now I am manically chewing on ice chips. Apparently they have discovered that this constricts the blood flow to the mouth and therefore reduces the amount of Melphalan that makes it into your mouth and gums. This is pretty effective at minimizing mouth sores, so I'm sucking on ice chips for all I'm worth. The photographic evidence, along with all the usual machines that go ping, is on the right.

UPDATE: Keeping up the ice chip routine gets old pretty quick. But worth it if it keeps the mouth sores at bay.

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Chart of the Day: Obamacare Is Popular!

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 12:22 PM EDT

Guess what? Obamacare's popularity has been rising slowly but steadily for the past two years, and in April it hit a milestone. According to Kaiser, it is now more popular than unpopular. Not by much, but at least it's making progress.

Tired of Remembering Passwords? Try Swallowing Them Instead.

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 9:25 AM EDT

Chances are you're bad at passwords. Most of us are. A recent statistic offered up by Jonathan LeBlanc, the global head of developer advocacy at PayPal, suggests that nearly 10 percent of people have a password consisting of 123456, 12345678, or, simply, "password."

LeBlanc has some bold thoughts on improving this state of affairs. As he told the Wall Street Journal last week, "embeddable, injectable, and ingestible devices" are the next step companies will use to identify consumers for "mobile payments and other sensitive online interactions."

From the Journal:

While there are more advanced methods to increase login security, like location verification, identifying people by their habits like the way they type in their passwords, fingerprints and other biometric identifiers, these can lead to false negative results, where valid users can't log in to their online services, and false positives, where invalid users can log in.

Mr. Leblanc pointed to more accurate methods of identity verification, like thin silicon chips which can be embedded into the skin. The wireless chips can contain ECG sensors that monitor the heart’s unique electrical activity, and communicate the data via wireless antennae to "wearable computer tattoos."

Ingestible capsules that can detect glucose levels and other unique internal features can use a person's body as a way to identify them and beam that data out.

To be fair, LeBlanc told the paper that these specific technologies aren't necessarily things that PayPal is planning, but he's been raising the possibility in a presentation he's been giving, and has said the online dealbroker is "definitely looking at the identity field" as a means of allowing users a more secure way to identify themselves.

You don't have to be a "mark of the beast" person or a conspiracy theorist to have concerns. Indeed, what could possibly go wrong with a little implanted device that reads your vein patterns or your heart's unique activity or blood glucose levels just so you can seamlessly buy that cup of Starbucks? Wouldn't an insurance company love to use that information to decide that you had one too many donuts—so it won't be covering that bypass surgery after all?

As the Wall Street Journal cautiously notes, "Mr. Leblanc admits that there's still a ways to go before cultural norms catch up with ingestible and injectable ID devices."

Tales From City of Hope #1: The Buzzcut Has Landed

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 7:24 PM EDT

Well, I'm here at City of Hope. On Tuesday at 7 am the final round of chemotherapy begins.

I'm staying in a little studio apartment in Parsons Village, which is on the grounds of the City of Hope campus. The picture on the right provides a glimpse of it. Also, as you can see, it provides a glimpse of the new me. As of yesterday I still had quite a bit of hair left, but it was falling out and I was shedding around the house like a Persian cat from hell. So I figured it was time to just shave it off. It's all coming out eventually anyway.

So what do I remind you of? Kiefer Sutherland in Stand By Me? One of the drones from Apple's 1984 commercial? Y'all can decide in comments.

I visited my sister and my mother yesterday, and I'm happy to report that Hilbert and Hopper are in fine fettle. I set up my sister with Skype on her iPad, so now she can call at night and show me the little furballs in real time. Technology FTW.

And don't forget our Spring fundraiser! I'm still hoping you guys contribute generously to the cause. Remember what they say: Every dollar you give helps one of my hairs grow back.

Donate by credit card here.

Donate by PayPal here.

We Didn't Learn Anything From Deepwater Horizon—And We're Going to Pay For It

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 3:13 PM EDT
Oil stains a beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama, following the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April 2010.

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, an event that triggered the nation's worst-ever oil spill. The well leaked for three months and dumped over 200 million gallons of oil into the sea. The explosion itself killed eleven men; the resulting pollution killed a stupefying amount of wildlife, including 800,000 some birds. And despite billions paid out by BP in fines and restoration costs, the economic impact of the disaster remains wide-reaching and ongoing.

But possibly even more outrageous than the spill itself is how little has been done by government to prevent a similar disaster. The oil and gas industry has stayed active in Washington, and managed to fend off serious efforts to curb drilling: Congress has passed zero new laws—not one—to restrict offshore drilling or force it to be safer. The Obama administration has approved over 1,500 offshore drilling permits since the spill. And back in January the administration announced a plan to open new areas in the Atlantic and Arctic for offshore drilling. As my colleague Tim Murphy noted today, Louisiana's oversight of the oil industry is rife with ludicrous conflicts of interest that raise serious doubts about the state's ability to make drilling safer.

In other words, the wounds from BP are scarcely healed, but we're pushing deeper and deeper into offshore drilling.

In fact, well construction in the Gulf is literally pushing into deeper water, where the risks of a spill are even greater. From an AP investigation pegged to the anniversary:

A review of offshore well data by the AP shows the average ocean depth of all wells started since 2010 has increased to 1,757 feet, 40 percent deeper than the average well drilled in the five years before that...

Drillers are exploring a "golden zone" of oil and natural gas that lies roughly 20,000 feet beneath the sea floor, through a 10,000-foot thick layer of prehistoric salt...

Technology now allows engineers to see the huge reservoirs beneath the previously opaque salt, but the layer is still harder to see through than rock. And it's prone to hiding pockets of oil and gas that raise the potential for a blowout.

Drilling in the Gulf makes up less than one-fifth of US crude oil production, and an even smaller share of total oil production if you count unconventional oil from fracking. So it wouldn't be a crippling blow to our energy supply to consider putting the brakes on offshore drilling—if not forever, at least until we feel secure that we've done enough to prevent another Deepwater Horizon.

Meanwhile, our expansion into deeper and riskier drilling is happening even though there are still an average of two offshore drilling accidents every day.