A copy of Contingencies—the official magazine of the American Academy of Actuaries—came in the mail on Monday. I don't know why—I'm not an actuary; I'm not even in a celebrity death pool. But there's some interesting stuff in there. AAA president Mary D. Miller, in a column titled "It Takes an Actuary," boasts that "our world will be more vital than ever" in the era of drones and Big Data, as people find more and more innovative ways to die; the puzzle columnist is retiring.
With the legalization movement racking up victory after victory, the writer, Hank George, seeks to correct a misunderstanding among his actuarial colleagues—that marijuana "conferred the same relative mortality risk as cigarette smoking." To the contrary, he writes, "recreational marijuana users enjoy better physical fitness and get more exercise than nonusers" and "have even been shown to have higher IQs." He concludes: "The tide is turning—life underwriters would be wise to be at the front end of this curve, and not stubbornly digging in their heels to the detriment of their products."
For now, at least, life insurers are still holding the line on pot smoke as a vice on par with cigarettes. But it's a testament to how far the legalization movement has grown beyond its hippie roots that even the actuaries are starting to fall in line.
In 1999, three weeks after retiring from the US Senate, Arkansas Democrat Dale Bumpers flew back to the nation's capital to save his friend of 25 years, President Bill Clinton, from impeachment. Delivering the closing argument for the defense during Clinton's Senate trial, he testified to Clinton's character. "In all of those years, and all those hundreds of times we've been together, both in public and in private," Bumpers said, "I have never one time seen the president conduct himself in a way that did not reflect the highest credit on him, his family, his state, and his beloved nation." His speech was hailed by the press—and by Clinton—as a key ingredient in the president's ultimate acquittal.
But Bumpers, who is 89, cast the Clintons in a far different light in his diary, portions of which are included in his personal papers at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The collection was opened to the public last year. Writing in his journal during the 1980s, as Bill and Hillary Clinton were on the rise in Arkansas, Bumpers was critical of their character and political future, dismissing them as "manic ambitious" and "manic obsessed" and alleging that Bill Clinton's gubernatorial campaign had resorted to "dirty tricks."
Congress' next target: the often-vitriolic online movement known as Gamergate. On Tuesday Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), backed by the National Organization for Women and the Human Rights Campaign, asked her House colleagues to join her in demanding tighter enforcement of cyber-stalking and online harassment laws.
The Violence Against Women Act gives the federal government the authority to prosecute individuals who send violent threats over the internet, but actual convictions are hard to come by—the Department of Justice has prosecuted just 10 people for cyberstalking between 2010 and 2013. (In a long reported piece for Pacific Standard last year, the writer Amanda Hess detailed the near-impossibility of getting any level of law enforcement to investigate online threats.) "If we step up prosecuting these cases and enforce the federal laws that are already on the books, cyber-stalking—and the severity and quantity of threats that are made— we hope will be reduced," Clark tells Mother Jones.
The Massachusetts Democrat, who replaced now-Sen. Ed Markey in a 2013 special election, began looking for ways to take on internet harassment after discovering last fall that Brianna Wu, a video game developer who has become a target of so-called "GamerGate" trolls, lived in her district. Wu has received more than three dozen death threats over the last five months—including one, posted to YouTube, in which a knife-wielding man bragged about getting in a car crash on the way to Wu's house to kill her. Clark got in touch with Wu, and then with the FBI. (Wu had committed the grave sin of suggesting that tech could be a more hospitable place for women.)
In many cases, Clark found that social media networks and private sites were ambivalent about addressing the threats delivered via their platforms too. "When Brianna Wu had to pull out of a gaming conference called PAX East just last month*, the folks who were running the site for that said that a bomb threat did not violate their user policy," Clark says. Her proposal wouldn't have any effect on how private companies police their users, although she hopes companies—and trolls— will take harassment more seriously once law enforcement does. "What we're hoping to do is change the culture around accepting these threats of death, of dismemberment, of great physical harm, as mere hoaxes, and really start to think of them in the violence they’re perpetrating and the economic harm that they're doing," she adds.
As Clark sees it, cracking down on harassment isn't just about public safety and peace-of-mind—it's about dollars and cents. "We are hearing from women that they are losing wages, they are losing opportunities, speaking engagements, they are incurring legal fees, and having to hire online protective services at their own cost," she says. "Now that so much of our commerce is done online and a presence on social media is required for many professions, we really see this as an economic toll for women as well as a personal one."
Right on cue, Clark herself became a magnet for abuse after publishing an op-ed on the subject on Wednesday. (Angry Twitter users told the congresswoman to drink bleach and expressed their desire to attack her, among other things.) But as a member of Congress, she knows she can get an audience with law enforcement if she ever feels truly threatened. "We're really hoping that that is going to be available for anybody who is using the internet," she says.
In August of 2012, a salt cavern maintained by the mining company Texas Brine collapsed, creating a sinkhole outside the town of Bayou Corne, Louisiana, and prompting a mandatory evacuation order that has yet to be lifted. Two and a half years later, the sinkhole has grown to 31 acres, Texas Brine has reached a $48.6 million settlement with displaced homeowners, and the company is considering bulldozing much of the town and converting it into "green space."
But it's not just Bayou Corne evacuees who are looking for a new place to live—the neighborhood near the sinkhole is still home to 38 feral cats, who risk losing their suburban habitat if the properties return to nature because of the sinkhole.
The New Orleans Times Picayunehas the full story on the kittens of Bayou Corne, and the efforts of one of the few remaining residents, Teleca Donachricha, to find them a home:
Some of the residents had been feeding different groups of them, but those residents are all gone now. One woman had been trying to drive the hour from Baton Rouge every other day to feed one group of the cats, but Donachricha knew that wasn't going to last long. She said if the woman could provide food, she would feed the cats for her, and she has.
Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said he couldn't say when demolition will occur. The company donated $1,000 to a nonprofit Donachricha was working with to get some of the cats spayed and neutered. All but three of the 38 cats are now spayed or neutered -- one of the remaining ones is a newer arrival that was recently dumped there, and the other two she hasn't been able to catch.
"We support her efforts," Cranch said. "Hopefully she'll be successful in finding homes for these animals."
Former state Sen. Wendy Davis, Battleground Texas' pick in the 2014 governor's race.
Battleground Texas, the effort by Obama vets to turn the nation's biggest red state blue, got off to a rough start last fall when Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis lost by 21 points. But now, as the organization looks to rebuild toward its long-term goal of mobilizing the state's long-dormant Democratic base, its leaders are doing a public dissection of what went wrong—and what to do differently next time.
In a feature published by Texas Monthly in late February, Robert Draper broke down the organization's financial struggles and turf wars, but also the difficulties Battleground faced with the field of battle of itself. The newcomers, Draper explained, had no idea just how hard it would be enroll new voters while complying with the state's Byzantine rules:
For a group like Battleground to register Texans to vote, they themselves must be Texas residents, must be eligible to vote and—in a wrinkle that is unique to Texas—must be deputized by each county where they're registering. In some of the state's 254 counties, going through the requisite voter registration training course can be done online; in others, certification is offered only once a month, at the county courthouse during work hours. But as the Battleground team came to learn, the complications only begin once a deputy registrar is certified. If a Dallas County-certified volunteer registers someone who says they live in that county when in fact they live just across the border in Tarrant County, then the deputy registrar has committed a misdemeanor. If the volunteer turns in the completed registration forms more than five days after they've been collected, that’s also a misdemeanor.
"When we first heard about these laws," recalled [executive director Jenn] Brown, "I said, 'There's no way this is the law—this is unbelievable.'"
The organization has released a 36-page report documenting the findings of its voter-protection program. There's plenty to chew over, some of it anecdotal, some of it not. In Texas' five largest counties—the urban, majority-minority areas heavily targeted by Democrats—provisional ballots were rejected more than four times as often as the national average. (Only one in four provisional votes was accepted.) That's significant because a variety of factors on the most recent Election Day—like the debut of a voter ID requirement that affected as many as 600,000 eligible voters, and a breakdown of the state's voter registration portal—made it much more likely that citizens who showed up at the polls had to fill out provisional ballots.
The report highlights another inconsistency in the state's voter law—what happens when you move:
Unfortunately, although more than one in 10 Americans move annually, Texas law requires voters to completely re-register after moving between counties within the state. If a voter fails to do so, her ability to vote is dependent upon a seemingly irrelevant factor—whether that voter casts a ballot during Early Voting or on Election Day. If a voter has moved to a new county and the voter rolls have not been updated, she is only permitted to vote a so-called limited ballot for statewide offices, and can only do so during Early Voting or by mail. On Election Day, by contrast, that same voter cannot vote at all. We received more than a hundred reports involving voters who had recently moved within Texas, yet whose address had not been updated on the voter rolls.
This isn't Battleground's attempt to explain away that 21-point stomping, and there's plenty of debate on that in the Texas Monthly piece. But it's a revealing look at what's on the organizers' minds as they retool for 2016 and beyond.