Like rednecks at a demolition derby, novelists keep showing up at the World Series of Poker. To be sure, other writers (notably James McManus) have won far more prize money playing high-stakes hold 'em, but none can match the self-deprecating charm of Colson Whitehead, a recently divorced New Yorker who figures that being "half dead inside" gives him the perfect poker face. With just six weeks to train, he juggles bus trips to Atlantic City with picking up his daughter from school. He finds something oddly reassuring about sharing tables with a hoodied "Robotron" and a grizzled "Methy Mike." The Noble Hustle, part love letter, part dark confessional, captures perfectly the mix of neurosis and narrative that makes gambling so appealing.
This review originally appeared in our May/June 2014 issue of Mother Jones.
US Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), playing a guitar
Two years ago, California Rep. Jared Huffman, who had previously served as a state assemblyman and an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, was elected to represent a district stretching from Marin County all the way to the Oregon border. It includes the Emerald Triangle, the three-county region that produces most of America's domestically grown marijuana. Huffman's people got in touch after seeing my recent story, "The Landscape-Scarring, Energy-Sucking, Wildlife-Killing Reality of Pot Farming." The congressman wanted to discuss, among other things, how he proposed to deal with the devastation that results from trespass grows on public lands.
Mother Jones: What's it like being the highest-elected official from the nation's epicenter of marijuana cultivation?
"When I…saw what people were doing to our streams and our fisheries and our watersheds, I was outraged."
Jared Huffman: I tell people that I represent the district with a third of the California coast, the biggest trees in the world, some of the best wine grapes in the world, and about 60 percent of the marijuana produced in America.
MJ: In fact, marijuana is the primary industry in your district. How do you approach that?
JH: It makes it that much more important that we find our way to a coherent marijuana policy, and that's what I try to work on. Right now, we are talking about one of the most urgent pieces, which is to discourage these trespass grows that are causing so much environmental damage on public and private lands.
MJ: Is it safe to say that marijuana farming is now the biggest environmental issue in your district?
JH: It is right at the top, number one. It has some competition: We have climate change and lots of other things, but this is creating some of the most acute effects, with consequences that could include extinction of species. When I learned about these trespass grows and saw what people were doing to our streams and our fisheries and our watersheds, I was outraged.
MJ: You're the sponsor of a bill called the PLANT Act, which would crack down on some of the most destructive pot gardens.
JH: The objective is to set stronger penalties where trespass grows are found. The illegal water diversions, the rampant use of toxic chemicals, the cutting down of trees, the destruction of wildlife—when these things are present in a trespass grow, we want there to be very, very stiff penalties.
MJ: But the people who tend to get busted at these grows are usually the low-level guys, often undocumented Latin American immigrants. The hard part is to catch their employers, the guys with the connections and the money. How is this bill going to change that?
JH: We have to begin to send a message that this is going to be taken seriously. The message to date has been that you can get away with this and there really is no consequence.
MJ: What's your personal stance on pot?
"I don't use it. I don't want any kids anywhere to use it; if I ever find one of my kids using it, they are in big trouble."
JH: I am not by any stretch an enthusiast or fan of marijuana. I don't use it. I don't want any kids anywhere to use it; if I ever find one of my kids using it, they are in big trouble. But I just think we have to face reality. This criminalization policy has been a failure by absolutely any measure. And we've got to learn the lessons of [alcohol] prohibition, find better ways to manage this substance. My hope is that we can deal with this the way we have dealt with tobacco: It has never been criminalized, but we have done a great job of reducing tobacco use, and we haven't had to lock anyone up for selling or using it.
MJ: How would the environmental problems associated with cannabis change if it were legalized?
JH: I think it would change overnight. You don't see people trekking back into the forest to grow soybeans.
MJ: But in 2010, all three counties in the Emerald Triangle voted against Proposition 19, the state ballot measure that would have made pot legal for recreational use. Growers feared that it would cause prices to drop and hurt their bottom lines. So how would ending prohibition benefit your constituents?
JH: It's going to be a mixed bag for some people. Those who have derived their livelihood from the high prices of marijuana—it being an illegal substance—are going to have to adjust to that. The feedback I'm getting is that the days of romanticizing the mom-and-pop pot grower are gone. That the influx of cartels and violent crime and the out-of-control nature—especially of the trespass growing—has changed things. All of it has taken us to a tipping point. Even in the Emerald Triangle, I now hear widespread calls for legalization. Many people who used to oppose legalization are now seeing it differently.
MJ: How often to do you hear from marijuana growers?
JH: I don't really hear from growers as an organized community.
MJ: There's the Emerald Growers Association, but I gather that most growers aren't very politically active.
JH: There was a time when they seemed like they might be able to organize themselves, when it looked like medical cannabis might be suitable to local ordinances and professional associations, but the incoherence of our marijuana policy has really frustrated that.
MJ: In your view, when is pot finally going to be legalized on the federal level?
The internet is not pleased that Condoleezza Rice will be joining the board of the filesharing service Dropbox. A lot of the concern has to do with the fact that she'll be helping Dropbox navigate "international expansion and privacy" issues. As Ars Technica notes, the former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State isn't exactly the kind of person you'd trust to defend your data from Uncle Sam: In 2003, she authorized NSA wiretaps of members of the United Nations Security Council at the behest of George W. Bush, and later defended them. Of course, to be fair, maybe having an insider like Rice onboard will allow Dropbox to push back against would-be government intrusions. Still, the news is likely to give a boost to Dropbox competitors that now market their cloud services, convincingly or not, as "NSA-proof."
Remember the backlash against the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH)? Many commercial dairies now market their milk as free of this synthetic hormone, but that label may not tell you everything you need to know. Thanks to the way it is produced nowadays, milk from a commercial dairy is likely to contain much higher levels of natural sex hormones than you'd find in milk from a traditional (pre-industrial) dairy herd. And that could pose an rbGH-type problem. Some research suggests that elevated levels of these hormones may affect childhood development and raise a person's cancer risk.
"The milk we drink today is quite unlike the milk our ancestors were drinking," Harvard researcher Ganmaa Davaasambuu, an expert on milk-related illnesses, said during a 2006 talk at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. It "may not be nature's perfect food."
In America and Japan, commercial dairy cows are kept pregnant so they can be milked 10 months a year.
In the early 2000s, Davaasambuu began investigating why the rate of prostate cancer in Japan, while much lower than that of the United States, had increased 25-fold over the past 50 years. She and a colleague, the Japanese doctor Akio Sato, examined 36 years of dietary data in Japan and found that the incidence of, and mortality from, prostate cancer correlated most closely with the consumption of milk. Dairy products weren't widely available in Japan until after WWII, when it imported American cows and dairy techniques, and a new law, enacted in 1954, mandated that schoolchildren drink 200 milliliters of milk at every school lunch.
In a follow-up study, Davaasambu found that milk consumption strongly correlated with the rates of breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers in 40 countries. Part of the problem, she believed, was that milk contains high levels of sex hormones such as estrogen. It's well known that estrogens can induce prostate cancer in rats, and some epidemiological studies (but not others) have associated higher blood levels of estrogens in humans with prostate cancer risk. Estrogen imbalances have also been linked to breast cancer, and milk may be a delivery vehicle for the hormone. A 2004 study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that rats fed a diet of milk developed more and larger mammary tumors than those fed a diet of artificial (non-dairy) milk.
If milk does increase our risk of developing certain cancers, Davaasambuu wondered, then why aren't those cancers more common in traditional cow herding societies? Searching for answers, Sato, her Japanes colleague, took his team to Mongolia, where breast and prostate cancer rates are low. They discovered that whole milk from Japanese Holsteins contains far more estrogen and progesterone (67 percent and 650 percent, respectively) than whole milk from Mongolian cows. If Davaasambuu's theory is correct, the difference in hormone levels could help explain the difference in cancer rates between the two populations.
In one study, the researchers concluded that children's sexual maturation could be affected "by ordinary intake of cow milk."
The reason that milk produced in America and Japan has more sex hormones than Mongolian milk is simple. The free-range cows kept by Mongolian nomads get pregnant naturally and are milked for five or six months after they give birth. In Japan and the United States, the typical dairy cow is milked for 10 months a year, which is only possible because she is impregnated by artificial insemination while still secreting milk from her previous pregnancy. Milk from pregnant cows contains far higher hormone levels than milk from nonpregnant ones—five times the estrogen during the first two months of pregnancy, according to one study, and a whopping 33 times as much estrogen as the cow gets closer to term.
As it turns out, the difference in hormone levels between Mongolian and American milk may indeed be significant enough to affect cancer rates. For example, a 2007 study published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology found that rats fed commercial milk developed mammary tumors more often than those fed traditional milk. Other studies suggest a possible link between milk hormones and ovarian and uterine cancers: Davasaambuu found that rats fed on commercial milk had uteruses that were significantly heavier than those of rats on a dairy-free diet. A similar study published in 2010 in the journal Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine showed that a diet of traditional milk also affected rat uteruses, but not as much as a diet of commercial milk, which resulted in uteruses about 25 percent heavier on average.
At a 2006 symposium on milk, hormones, and human health in Boston, Davasaambuu and Sato went so far as to suggest that dairy companies add a new category of premium milk to their offerings: Milk produced exclusively from non-pregnant cows.
Of course, as Davasaambuu acknowledges, the science is far from settled. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Dairy Science found that feeding commercial milk to rats had no effect on uterine weights, for example. More animal and human tests must be conducted before scientists can draw firm conclusions, she says.
Health researchers are also interested in how hormones in commercial milk might affect development. In research published in 2007, Davasaambuu found that the blood-hormone levels of Mongolian third graders jumped after a month of being fed commercial American milk. A 2010 Japanese study saw similar results in children and adults—men's testosterone levels decreased after they began drinking commercial milk. "Sexual maturation of prepubertal children could be affected by the ordinary intake of cow milk," the researchers concluded.
"Milk is a very complex food; there are a lot of good things and also not very good things."
Despite avid public interest in Davasaambuu's milk research—"People are emailing me on almost a daily basis," she told me—her lab and others have conducted few new studies in recent years. "Milk is a very complex food; there are a lot of good things and also not very good things," which can make it hard to study, she noted. For instance, research suggests that other milk components, including calcium (in excess) and a hormone called insulin-like growth factor can also cause health problems.
Davasaambuu wanted to further compare the health effects of Mongolian and American milk, but in 2008 the National Institutes of Health denied her Harvard lab's funding application, arguing that the dairy systems and human populations in the two countries were too different to merit comparison. Since then, she has cobbled together private funding for another study of 350 Mongolian schoolchildren, but hasn't yet published the results. Mongolian authorities resisted the study, fearing their kids were being used as guinea pigs.
There are certainly downsides to living in a traditional society such as Mongolia, whose infant mortality rate, for example, is almost four times that of the United States. And the average Mongolian cow produces just 1.3 gallons of milk per day, compared with 9 gallons from the average American Holstein. Mongolian children drink one-third less dairy than their American counterparts. But judging from Mongolia's low cancer rates, at least, its habit of drinking judicious amounts of traditionally produced free-range milk might be just what the doctor ordered.
A news truck shared by two local television stations.
Everybody knows that most local TV newscasts kind of suck. On television, if it bleeds it leads, and if it's cheesy and trite it wins the night. Local news is a reliable source for late-night comedians—and The Simpsons has been lampooning it forever. Yet despite all of the genre's shortcomings, local TV news still manages to reach 9 in 10 American adults, 46 percent of whom watch it "often." It may come as a surprise to you internet junkies, but broadcast television still serves as Americans' main source of news and information. Which is why it matters that hundreds of local TV news stations have been swept up in a massive new wave of media consolidation: It means that you, the viewer, are being fed an even more repetitive diet of dreck.
In terms of dollar value, more than 75 percent of the nearly 300 full-power local TV stations purchased last year were acquired by just three media giants. The largest, Sinclair Broadcasting, will reach almost 40 percent of the population if its latest purchases are approved by federal regulators. Sinclair's CEO has said he wants to keep snapping up stations until the company's market saturation hits 90 percent. (And that's not a typo.)
Now here's where things really get sketchy: Media conglomerates such as Sinclair have bought up multiple news stations in the same regions—in nearly half of America's 210 television markets, one company owns or manages at least two local stations, and a lot of these stations now run very similar or even completely identical newscasts, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. One in four local stations relies entirely on shared content. (See chart at right.)
On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission finally took steps to curb the practice. The commission's rules have long prohibited companies from owning more than one of the four top-rated stations in a given market. But there was no rule preventing a single company from managing more than one station per market. Companies exploited this loophole by controlling stations through "joint sales agreements"—essentially shell companies formed just to hold the broadcast license. "Removal of the loophole helps ensure competition, localism, and diversity in local broadcast markets by preventing a practice that previously resulted in consolidation in excess of what is permitted under the Commission's rules," the FCC said in a press release.
You can bet on plenty of pushback from the industry. (More on that below.) As it stands, some local stations simply share office space or vans or helicopters, but others take the overlap much further. To offer one example, CBS and NBC affiliates in Syracuse, New York, use separate anchor teams but run nearly identical stories produced by a shared group of reporters. In some markets, partner stations run virtually identical newscasts, albeit at different times. And then there are stations like the CBS and NBC affiliates in Honolulu, which don't even bother staggering the times: They run identical newscasts simultaneously.
A news program simulcast by two Honolulu stations. Pew Research Center
The media conglomerates also share plenty of local content between markets, which is why you'll see a story on your local station about some awful crime you didn't need to know about that took place far away—or some schmaltzy puff piece. Conan O'Brien has had much fun with this sort of thing:
Proponents of the joint sales arrangements argue that they enable small-market stations to cobble together better newscasts than they could afford to deliver on their own. Yet media watchdogs say it's all just a scheme to line the pockets of big station owners at the expense of viewers. "You have these viewing choices across local stations, but you don't really have alternatives if they are presenting the same thing," media researcher Danilo Yanich of the University of Delaware told Pew. "That's what's wrong with it."
The top conglomerates are certainly raking it in: The stock value of Nexstar Broadcasting Group, which owns or services dual stations in 37 of its 56 markets, more than tripled last year. The value of Sinclair's stock more than doubled. Gannett's stock price jumped 34 percent the day that it announced that it was spending $2.2 billion to buy 17 TV news stations owned by Dallas-based Belo Corp. In addition to shaving operating costs, consolidation enables the increasingly powerful owners to negotiate much higher retransmission fees from cable providers.
Monday's FCC ruling is far from the last word on the matter. Media conglomerates can apply for waivers if "strict compliance with the rule is inconsistent with the public interest." (Historically, corporate media lawyers have been pretty adept at arguing that what's in the industry's interest is also in the public interest.) And the FCC hasn't cracked down on the overall size of local TV news conglomerates or regulated "shared service agreements," which allow stations with different owners to pool resources—including reporting teams.
Craig Aaron, CEO of the media watchdog group Free Press, nevertheless views Monday's ruling as an indication that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who was appointed late last year, will do more than his predecessors to stand up to Big Media. The vote signals that "Wheeler is willing to break with the past," Aaron said in a statement. "It's time for conglomerates to start playing by the rules."