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Tales From City of Hope #12: I Am Bursting With White Blood Cells

| Mon May 4, 2015 12:12 PM EDT

Yesterday's white blood count was 0.2. Today's is 1.1. That's super duper exponential. Go, little stem cells, go!

Surely this deserves a bit of bonus catblogging. Of course it does.

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America's Big Trade Deals and the Case of the 4 Fishy Phone Calls

| Mon May 4, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from David Dayen, a veteran blogger and currently a regular contributor to Salon and The Fiscal Times, among other publications.

I was planning on commandeering Kevin's site to finally shape this place up and do some dogblogging, but management was, shall we say, unreceptive. So let's use this space to do what all great blogging is known for: pointless speculation!

I did a story for The New Republic looking back at the 1993 CNN debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot, showing how Gore's messages on selling NAFTA mirror Barack Obama's messages on selling the Trans-Pacific Partnership today. Both men claim that their progressive trade agreements differ from the raw deals of the past; that opponents were isolationist Luddites who want to return to some unrealistic pre-globalized world; and that this new deal would create a benchmark for global trade, which some Asian power (Japan or China, depending on the era) would take control of were their plan defeated.

But the debate itself is amazing for several reasons, not the least of which being that a sitting Vice President had to go on Larry King and take phone calls. Everyone remembers Perot saying "Can I finish" incessantly, so much so that it became a Dana Carvey tag line.  And maybe you remember Gore pulling out a picture of Smoot and Hawley and giving it to Perot as a present ("You can put it on your wall"). But come with me through this Internet rabbit hole and look at something else.

Ross Perot gets asked four questions from the phone lines. I have no knowledge about how they were screened. But these don't sound like regular people to me; they sound like plants. You can listen yourself:

43:45 The caller is from "Washington, DC." And he says, and I quote, "How can the US expect to compete on a long-term basis in an increasingly interdependent economic world, while Europe and the PacRim nations unite on their own respective trade alliance?" Who in the world talks like that? It reads like it came out of a Brookings Institution paper.

54:30 A expat caller from Zagreb, Croatia (!) asks Perot for specific answers on what he would do as an alternative to NAFTA. This happens to be a question Gore asked repeatedly throughout the debate.

1:01:35 This call comes from McLean, Virginia, the Washington suburb populated mostly by lobbyists. The caller coincidentally has statistics at the ready on electronic exports to Mexico ("nearly tripled" over the past five years, "worth about $6 billion), and demands that Perot agree that removing tariffs on these products will produce "high-tech, good-paying jobs" in America.

1:06:35 This is perhaps the weirdest call. An American woman "who has been living in Mexico City for many years" calls in, following up on Gore's claim that the Japanese would "take over" a free trade agreement with Mexico if NAFTA is defeated. "There are thousands of Japanese here. They are waiting. They are lurking! What are you people doing? Why-" At this point she gets cut off, but Gore repeats the question and adds a line the caller never said: "Why don't you wake up?"

This is weird. The questions not only sound way too hyper-informed and scripted, they dovetail with every talking point Gore used in the debate, from how passing NAFTA was critical to setting a benchmark for trade with the world, to how NAFTA would create jobs at home through rising exports to Mexico, to how Japan loomed to take advantage of any potential failure, to how Perot was just carping from the sidelines without his own plan.

It's a strong accusation to suggest these questions were planted, and honestly I have no idea. However, I did find an article from 1994 in some left-wing rag called Mother Jones, detailing a host of dirty tricks the Clinton Administration engaged in to blunt the influence of Ross Perot:

Last September 2, the day Perot was to appear on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," a White House adviser got on the horn to L.A. After chatting with a "Tonight Show" writer, he faxed some questions to Leno […]

(Perot co-author) Pat Choate claims the administration sent people to UWS rallies to "take notes" and "heckle" Perot. He also accuses the administration of manipulating the press: "Journalists are getting anti-Perot stuff in the mail," he says. "Most of it has no return address." (Several reporters who cover Perot say they have no knowledge of this, and the White House denies both charges.) […]

Last April 22, Perot appeared before the Senate Banking Committee to testify on NAFTA. The White House didn't like him testifying, and it liked even less the idea of C-Span televising his appearance. So, Choate claims, a White House aide called Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who called Brian Lamb, the chairman of C-Span. Some sort of deal was struck, and Perot's testimony never graced the airwaves.

Because Mother Jones is a responsible publication, the author added that the rumor about C-SPAN could be false, but that it showed how the Clinton White House seized on Perot's natural paranoia to undermine him in the trade debate. Throwing in suspicious-sounding questions on CNN could serve the same purpose.

We're 22 years on from this event, and investigating the provenance of these fishy phone calls would be somewhat irrelevant. Four phone calls were not the reason NAFTA passed; there's no "NAFTA-ghazi" conspiracy theory to be had. But I nevertheless find it fascinating. Has anyone ever studied this? Does it just sound odd to my modern ears, or is there more there? When Kevin Drum ends blog posts with a series of questions, is it a clever device or does he genuinely want to ask his audience for answers?

John Oliver Perfectly Describes the "Woman-Battering Human Landfill" That Is Floyd Mayweather

| Mon May 4, 2015 11:01 AM EDT

While issuing a takedown of Bud Light's awful new #UpForWhatever tagline last night, which included a clip of a woman calling the campaign a tad "rapey," John Oliver snuck in quite the perfect description of another awful subject, Floyd Mayweather.

"That's true, but it would be great if you could use a slightly more serious word than 'rapey'," Oliver said. "It's somewhat diminishing—It's like saying Floyd Mayweather is a smidge assaulty. It's technically correct but it'd be more appropriate to say he's a woman-battering, human landfill. That'd be more on the money."

Watch below:

 

 

Let John Oliver Explain How Standardized Testing Makes Kids Anxious and Vomit Under Pressure

| Mon May 4, 2015 9:31 AM EDT

Every year, students around the country are subjected to an insane amount of mandatory, standardized testing. So much so, the average number of tests a student completes by the time they graduate high school is a staggering 113, according to the latest "Last Week Tonight." As host John Oliver noted on Sunday, all the stressful bubble-filling is taking an inevitable toll—with teachers reporting their students throwing up under the pressure so often, official testing guidelines specifically outline how to deal with kids vomiting on their test booklets.

"Something is wrong with our system when we just assume a certain number of students will vomit," Oliver said. "Standardized tests are supposed to be an assessment of skills, not a rap battle on '8 Mile' Road."

Watch below as Oliver explains how our education system arrived at this extreme point:

 

Re-live the Kingbees' Rockabilly Revival

| Mon May 4, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The Kingbees
self-titled
Omnivore

The rise of punk and new wave back in the late '70s and early '80s was accompanied by a mini-rockabilly revival, the most notable commercial success being Brian Setzer's Stray Cats. Another eminently satisfying act was Los Angeles' Kingbees, a spunky trio fronted by Jamie James, a spirited dude seemingly possessed by the ghost of Buddy Holly. There's nothing profound on the expanded edition of this crisp 1980 debut album—just a bunch of snappy originals, including the semi-hit "My Mistake" and deft covers of Don Gibson ("Sweet Sweet Girl to Me"), Eddie Cochran ("Somethin' Else") and Buddy himself ("Not Fade Away"). But if you need a quick pick-me-up, check out "Shake-Bop" or "Ting-a-Ling." They'll put a spring in your step, guaranteed.

Tales From City of Hope #11: We Have Liftoff

| Sun May 3, 2015 1:53 PM EDT

Yesterday's white blood count went from just under 0.1 to just over 0.1. Let's call it 0.05 growth. Today's count is 0.2. That's growth of 0.1.

And that, my friends, is exponential growth. Sure, we could use another data point or three. And some more significant digits. And if we're being picky, a coefficient or two. But screw that. To this Caltech1 dropout, it looks like exponential growth has kicked in. Booyah!

In more visually exciting news, I know you all want to see my shiner, don't you? I can feel the bloodlust all the way from my hospital bed. So here it is, you ghouls. As usual with these things, it looks a lot worse than it feels. In fact, I can barely feel it all. But it's clear evidence that, yes, the bathroom really is the most dangerous room in the house.

1Did you know that the proper short form for California Institute of Technology is Caltech, not CalTech? They've been trying for decades to get the rest of the world to go along, but with sadly limited success.

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"Hell Is Empty and All the Devils Are Here."

| Sat May 2, 2015 5:25 PM EDT

Here is a thing.

Here is another thing:

Floyd Mayweather is a serial batterer of women.

Have a nice day.

Tales From City of Hope #10: Rebound Is Here!

| Sat May 2, 2015 1:19 PM EDT

Yesterday my white blood count was <0.1. How much less? No telling, but my doctor called it an "honorary" 0.1.

But! Today my count is 0.1. Not much difference, you say, but it doesn't matter. It's higher than yesterday, and that means my transplanted stem cells are busily engrafting themselves and morphing into various blood products. Progress will be slow at first, but Friday was officially my bottom. Within a few days, my counts should start taking off much more rapidly. Huzzah.

In less good news, I slipped in the bathroom last night and got a pulled neck muscle and a black eye for my trouble. All I need now is a swastika tattoo and I'll have the whole skinhead look down cold.

How Humans Can Keep Superintelligent Robots From Murdering Us All

| Sat May 2, 2015 6:30 AM EDT
Ultron, an artificially intelligent robot

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today, we're honored to present a post from Bill Gardner, a health services researcher in Ottawa, Ontario, and a blogger at The Incidental Economist.

This weekend, you, I, and about 100 million other people will see Avengers: Age of Ultron. The story is that Tony Stark builds Ultron, an artificially intelligent robot, to protect Earth. But Ultron decides that the best way to fulfill his mission is to exterminate humanity. Violence ensues.

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that sometime in the future a machine will achieve "general intelligence," that is, the ability to solve problems in virtually all domains of interest—including artificial intelligence.

You will likely dismiss the premise of the story. But in a book I highly recommend, Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that sometime in the future a machine will achieve "general intelligence," that is, the ability to solve problems in virtually all domains of interest. Because one such domain is research in artificial intelligence, the machine would be able to rapidly improve itself.

The abilities of such a machine would quickly transcend our abilities. The difference, Bostrom believes, would not be like that between Einstein and a cognitively disabled person. The difference would be like that between Einstein and a beetle. When this happens, machines can and likely would displace humans as the dominant life form. Humans may be trapped in a dystopia, if they survive at all.

Competent people—Elon Musk, Bill Gates—take this risk seriously. Stephen Hawking and physics Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek worry that we are not thinking hard enough about the future of artificial intelligence.

So, facing possible futures of incalculable benefits and risks, the experts are surely doing everything possible to ensure the best outcome, right? Wrong. If a superior alien civilization sent us a text message saying, "We'll arrive in a few decades," would we just reply, "OK, call us when you get here—we'll leave the lights on"? Probably not—but this is more or less what is happening with AI…little serious research is devoted to these issues…All of us…should ask ourselves what can we do now to improve the chances of reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks.

There are also competent people who dismiss these concerns. University of California-Berkeley philosopher John Searle argues that intelligence requires qualities that computers lack, including consciousness and motivation. This doesn't mean that we are safe from artificially intelligent machines. Perhaps in the future killer drones will hunt all humans, not just Al Qaeda. But Searle claims that if this happens, it won't be because the drones reflected on their goals and decided that they needed to kill us. It will be because human beings have programmed drones to kill us.

Searle has made this argument for years, but has never offered a reason why it will always be impossible to engineer machines with autonomy and general intelligence. If it's not impossible, we need to look for possible paths of human evolution in which we safely benefit from the enormous potential of artificial intelligence.

What can we do? I'm a wild optimist. In my lifetime I have seen an extraordinary expansion of human capabilities for creation and community. Perhaps there is a future in which individual and collective human intelligence can grow rapidly enough that we keep our place as free beings. Perhaps humans can acquire cognitive superpowers.

But the greatest challenge of the future will not be the engineering of this commonwealth, but rather its governance. So we have to think big, think long-term, and live in hope. We need to cooperate as a species and steer our technological development so that we do not create machines that displace us. At the same time, we need to protect ourselves from the expanding surveillance of our current governments (such as China's Great Firewall or the NSA). I doubt we can achieve this enhanced community unless we also find a way to make sure the superpowers of enhanced cognition are available to everyone. Maybe the only alternative to dystopia will be utopia.

If Black People Lived As Long As White People, Election Results Would Be Very Different

| Fri May 1, 2015 6:15 PM EDT
Protesters near Boston Police headquarters on April 29.

With the mortality rate for black Americans about 18 percent higher than it is for white Americans, premature black deaths have affected the results of US elections, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Oxford.

The study, published in Social Science & Medicine and highlighted on Friday by the UK-based New Scientist, shows how the outcomes of elections between 1970 and 2004—including the presidential race between John Kerry and George W. Bush—might have been affected if there hadn't been such a disparity in the death rate. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8.5 million black people died during that 35-year period. But if the mortality rates had been comparable, an additional 2.7 million black people would have been alive, and of those, an estimated 1 million would have cast votes in the 2004 election. Bush likely still would have won that race. But some state-level races might have turned out differently: The results would have been reversed in an estimated seven US Senate elections and 11 gubernatorial elections during the 35-year period, the researchers found, assuming that the hypothetical additional voters had cast their ballots in line with actual black voters, who tend to overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.

And that's before even getting to incarceration. Additional elections potentially would have turned out differently if voting-age black Americans who were previously convicted of felonies had been able to cast a ballot. As New Scientist explains:

Accounting for people disenfranchised by felony convictions would have likely reversed three other senate seats. In at least one state, Missouri, accounting for just excess deaths or felony disenfranchisement would not have been sufficient to reverse the senate election – but both sources of lost votes taken together would have.

While everyone's attention right now is on racial injustice in the context of policing, one of the study's authors, Arline Geronimus, noted that most premature black deaths were linked to chronic health conditions that afflict black people more than white people. "If you're losing a voting population, you're losing the support for the policies that would help that population," she told New Scientist. "As long as there's this huge inequality in health and mortality, there's a diminished voice to speak out against the problem."