2013 - %3, April

Apple Announces Mediocre Results

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 5:17 PM EDT

Apple has just announced increased revenues for its fiscal second quarter ($43.6 billion vs. $39.2 billion last year) but considerably lower earnings ($9.5 billion vs. $11.6 billion last year). More dramatically, their gross margins have plummeted from 47.4 percent to 37.5 percent. Channel inventory of iPads was up by over a million units. Mac sales declined 2 percent.

And the future looks to be even worse. Apple is forecasting that revenues will be flat or slightly down next quarter and gross margins will continue to decline a bit to 36-37 percent. CEO Tim Cook calls this "frustrating." To assuage shareholders, Cook announced that Apple would increase its share repurchase program to $60 billion and would raise its dividend by 15 percent. All told, its total "capital return program" has been doubled to $100 billion by 2015.

Bottom line: Apple is a bit adrift; competition is squeezing margins; and they have no good ideas about what to do with their cash hoard. Cook, in a rather pro forma tone of voice, insisted that Apple has lots of great ideas coming soon, but it's hard to know what those might be. Apple TV? Anything else?

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FBI: Tsarnaevs Acted Alone

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 4:42 PM EDT

Here's the latest on the Tsarnaev brothers:

Accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has told FBI investigators that he and his brother were operating alone and did not receive assistance from outside terrorist groups, officials said Tuesday.

....Investigators separately have tentatively concluded that his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who died early Friday morning after a shootout with police, did not meet with Islamist militants during his six-month visit to Russia last year, according a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official.

Experts say the brothers increasingly appear to have been self-radicalized “lone wolf” operators who worked independently, using bomb recipes gathered from websites.

I'm not really sure what this means, and obviously Dzhokhar might be lying. But apparently the current state-of-the-art thinking among interrogators is that the Tsarnaevs were motivated by "extremist Islamic beliefs"—specifically by "the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan"—but acted on their own.

There sure is something odd about that six-month trip to Russia, though. The story we've been told is that the Russians warned the FBI back in 2010 that Tamerlan might be connected with Islamic radicals. The FBI checks it out and finds nothing. Then Tamerlan goes to Russia in 2012. So what happened then? Did the Russians track him while he was there? If so, did they pass anything further along to the FBI? If not, why not? They're the ones who were supposedly convinced that Tamerlan was up to no good. So what happened?

Facebook Shoots Down Giveaways of Assault Weapons

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 4:21 PM EDT

The months since the Newtown massacre have seen an explosion of gun and ammo giveaways on Facebook. For some gun enthusiasts, scoring a free AR-15 assault weapon has been as easy as clicking a "like" button on the Facebook page of a firearms marketer such as 556 Tactical, Pittsburgh Tactical, or AR15News.com. Since December, the number of gun and ammo giveaways on the social networking site has increased seven-fold, according to research by the media startup Vocativ:

Facebook has allowed companies to give away guns as sweepstakes prizes since 2011. However, a Facebook spokesperson told Vocativ that the sweepstakes in question are technically ads, and therefore still violate a Facebook policy banning "the promotion and sale of weapons." As of yesterday, the Facebook pages of the three major firearms marketers had been taken down, though Facebook apparently still allows assault weapons giveaways as long as they aren't used as tools for selling guns.

Chart of the Day: Twitter Crashes the Stock Market

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 3:01 PM EDT

Here's what happened at 1:09 pm today when the Associated Press's Twitter feed was hacked and reported: "Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is Injured." Matt Yglesias sees a moneymaking opportunity.

Rand Paul Agrees Tsarnaev Is No 'Enemy Combatant'

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 2:42 PM EDT

It hasn't made as many headlines as his marathon filibuster over drones, but Monday Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told Fox Business host Neil Cavuto Monday that he supports trying Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in court rather than holding him as an "enemy combatant." 

Here's the transcript of their exchange (emphasis added):

PAUL: Well, you know, I want to congratulate law enforcement for getting and capturing these terrorists, first of all. But, what we do with them, you know. I think we can still preserve the Bill of Rights. I see no reason why our Constitution is not strong enough to convict this young man with a jury trial, with the Bill of Rights, we do it to horrible people all of the time, rapists and murderers. They get lawyers, they get trials with juries. And we seem to be able to do a pretty good job of justice. So I think we can do it through our court system.

CAVUTO: All right, so the whole, enemy combatant thing is a moot point for you. The fact is that an American citizen will be served American justice. And will get -- he will get, if guilty, his just deserts.

PAUL: You know, when I talk to our young soldiers, and my wife and I have been working, we're trying to build houses for some of these wounded veterans, who've really sacrificed their bodies literally, they tell me they are fighting for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and I believe them. And I know that that's what they represent, I think they are disheartened to think, oh, we're going to just tell people, oh, no jury trial any more. So I think it is something worth standing up for. 

Law enforcement has yet to turn up any evidence of an operational connection between the Tsarnaev brothers Al Qaeda or its affiliates. Without such evidence, holding Tsarnaev as an "enemy combatant" is probably illegal. Paul's support for the Obama administration's decision to try Dzhokhar in criminal court without holding him in military detention first has not received much attention. That may be because Paul also suggested that immigration from Chechnya should be restricted in the wake of the marathon attacks.

The Tsarnaev brothers are of Chechen descent. But they emigrated to the US from Dagestan, not Chechnya. Tamerlan was 15 and Dzhokhar was eight. Presumably they hadn't yet begun planning to bomb the Boston Marathon. 

Here's What Lindsey Graham Really Thinks About How We Should Handle Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 2:27 PM EDT

Sen. Lindsey Graham thinks the Boston bombing suspect should be held as an enemy combatant. Dave Weigel isn't convinced:

The 2001 authorization of force made official a war between the United States and terrorist organizations/state sponsors who could be tied to the 9/11 attacks. Yaser Esam Hamdi was an American citizen caught on the battlefield of Afghanistan, by the Northern Alliance. How do you stretch that case far enough to cover Tsarnaev?

Well, here's Graham last night on Greta Van Susteren's show making the case:

GRAHAM: I don't want to hold him for more than 30 days, but within 30 days he can petition a judge and say, hey, I'm not an enemy combatant....To hold him as an enemy combatant they'd have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that you're tied to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or affiliated groups. Chechnyan Islamic groups are affiliated with al-Qaeda under our laws.

VAN SUSTEREN: So is it enough that he visited Chechnya for six months for you to conclude that there's a threshold met that he's part of a group?

GRAHAM: I think so. If I were president of the United States who makes this decision, I would say, this is clearly a mass terrorist attack. [Runs down evidence against the older Tsarnaev brother] ....All that would allow me as president to say that I want to find out more in the national security legal system, not the criminal justice legal system.

In a statement a few days ago, Graham and a few other senators made the same point he made last night: "any future trial" would be held in a civilian court, but Tsarnaev should be questioned by intelligence analysts in the meantime: "The questioning of an enemy combatant for national security purposes has no limit on time or scope. In a case like this it could take weeks to prepare the questions that are needed to be asked and months before intelligence gathering is completed."

The emphasis here is a little different than it was on Van Susteren's show, where she repeatedly mentioned the 30-day limit on questioning. So would Tsarnaev be held for 30 days or would he be held indefinitely? Technically the former, but Graham sure seems to think that indefinitely is a lot more likely, and he's OK with that.

It's all moot now, since President Obama has made the decision to keep Tsarnaev in the criminal justice system. As for Graham, he might not want to try Tsarnaev in front of a military commission, but I get the pretty strong impression that he'd be just fine with tossing Tsarnaev in a brig somewhere and keeping him there forever without any trial at all. Adam Serwer has more here.

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Study: Siri Doesn't Make Texting While Driving Any Safer

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 2:11 PM EDT

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, a time when safety and transportation experts beg, plead and cajole Americans to put down their phones while driving, lest they become a murderer behind the wheel. It's a thankless job, as American drivers suffer from some serious delusions about their abilities to pilot a car safely while texting their girlfriends, shopping on eBay, or dialing in to Rush Limbaugh. Despite the fact that a quarter of all motor vehicle crashes today involve cellphone use, Americans still think it's only other drivers who are the problem. More than 90 percent of drivers think other drivers texting or using cellphones behind the wheel are a threat to their personal safety, yet two in three of them do it anyway, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Elected officials have been reluctant to address the problem, passing legislation that reinforces drivers' delusions—like the law here in DC that allows people to drive and talk on the phone so long as they use a hands-free device, even though there's no evidence that talking on a Bluetooth is any safer than just holding up the old phone. (Spend some time in DC cabs to get a sense of how well this law is working out.)

Phone companies have been trying to come up with technical solutions that might head off further attempts by lawmakers to curb cellphone use while driving. The latest of these has been the suggestion that Siri can help. The idea is that simply talking to your phone to send a text rather than punching in the message would somehow allow people to keep their eyes on the road and drive safely while texting. As it turns out, the notion that an app will save lives is as faulty as the promise that the Bluetooth would.

A new study out from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute this month found that:

  • Driver response time was terrible regardless of whether the driver was manually texting or using Siri.
  • Texting drivers of any sort took twice as long to react to roadway hazards than when they were off the phone.
  • Texting drivers spent a lot of time not looking at the road, regardless of whether they were using a voice-to-text app.
  • Manual texting was actually quicker than using a voice app, but driving performance was equally bad in both cases.

The new study also found a new form of distracted driving delusions: Drivers felt less safe when they were texting, but they felt safer using a voice app than texting manually, even though their performance on the road was equally dangerous. 

Moral of the story: When you get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, just put down the damn phone! And just as a chilling reminder of why this is important, watch this video:

Max Baucus Votes Against Gun Control—And Then Retires

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 1:55 PM EDT
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) cast a critical vote against President Obama's gun control agenda—then he retired.

Last Wednesday, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) was one of four Democrats to vote against the Manchin–Toomey amendment to extend background checks to private gun sales. His vote helped kill the bill. On Tuesday, Baucus announced he would be retiring from the Senate at the end of next year.

Baucus' vote made some sense at the time, considering that Montana has more gun businesses per capita than any other state (it's not even close). But now that he's officially a lame-duck, the decision is a bit more curious. It's possible that Baucus really does think extending background checks are a stupid idea and stood on principle. It's also possible that Baucus was simply being loyal to his allies in the firearms industry (He has a lifetime A+ rating from the National Rifle Association). But given the intense lobbying effort from President Obama—and the fact that the senator's former chief of staff and campaign manager, Jim Messina, was leading the effort by Organizing for Action, the president's re-purposed campaign organization, to build support for the background check measure—you can understand why the most common reaction on the left to Baucus' retirement was "good riddance."

The background checks vote is just one of many reasons why liberals won't miss Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman whose office came to embody the term "revolving door." Twenty-eight (28!) former Baucus staffers are currently employed as tax lobbyists. The senior counsel who drafted the health care legislation that would become the Affordable Care Act came back to Baucus' offices after several years at the health care giant Wellpoint. (The Onion perhaps best summarized the liberal Baucus-hate here.)

That said, Baucus did have some redeeming qualities. Here are three interesting things I discovered while reporting on former-Rep. Denny Rehberg, the man he beat in his 1996 re-election fight:

  1. A River Runs Throught It was filmed on Baucus' ranch.
  2. Twice—in 1978 and in 1996—Baucus walked the length of the state (820 miles) from East to West.
  3. When Rehberg decided to run for Congress in 1999, Baucus' brother, John, signed a contract to care for Rehberg's 600 cashmere goats.

Baucus' most talked-about potential replacement is former two-term Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who had hinted at a run earlier this year. Here's a video of Schweitzer vetoing a piece of legislation with a cattle brand:

Richie Havens' Passion for Peace, Justice, and Damn Fine Music

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 1:51 PM EDT

Richie Havens, 1941-2013.

On Monday, celebrated folk singer Richie Havens died of a heart attack at his Jersey City home at the age of 72. The Brooklyn-born musician was famous for his distinctive, husky baritone, and was a skilled and tough guitar player who could turn strummed rhythms into rhapsodies. He recorded and performed some of the best acoustic covers of the '60s and '70s, including renditions of Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" and (my personal favorite) George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun."

Havens dabbled in cinema, including acting alongside comic giant Richard Pryor in 1977's Greased Lightning, a film about Wendell Scott, the first African-American to get a NASCAR racing license. Quentin Tarantino used his signature song "Freedom" in a pivotal shootout sequence in Django Unchained. Havens toured tirelessly for nearly five decades. But since history has a nasty habit of reducing notable lives into single episodes, Havens will forever be remembered as the man who opened Woodstock '69 with a mesmerizing three-hour set.

Through all this, he maintained his passion for liberal politics, environmental action, and education. Though he wasn't the most fiercely political or ideological of his generation of entertainers, his dedication and interest were impressive nonetheless. In 1976, Havens cofounded the North Wind Undersea Institute, an oceanographic children's museum in the Bronx that reportedly "has a history of rescuing marine animals." He also formed the Natural Guard, an international organization created to promote hands-on activities that teach children about ecology and the environment. Here he is talking about it in the early '90s:

"I'm not in show business; I'm in the communications business," Havens told the Denver Post. "That's what it's about for me." You could feel this in virtually everything he recorded or sang on stage, most evidently in "Handsome Johnny," a song he cowrote that became a civil rights and anti-Vietnam War anthem. In 1978, his song "Shalom, Salam Alaikum," written after watching Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, was a huge hit in Israel. And on a lesser note, Havens performed at Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration in 1993.

To the very end, he was a gentle soul pushing for peace, justice, and damn fine music.

I'll leave you with footage of the Transcendent Nation Foundation interviewing Havens in 2008 about "how to save the world":

Quote of the Day: What Do White House Tours and Furloughed Air Traffic Controllers Have in Common?

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 12:58 PM EDT

From White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, explaining why only certain sequestration cuts seem to get the attention of Republican members of Congress:

What do [White House] tours and flight delays have in common? They affect members directly.

Well, that's true enough. But I imagine that's not really why they've highlighted these things. They've highlighted them because they affect middle-class constituents and therefore have a lot of political traction. Most of the other domestic sequestration cuts affect the poor and the working class, and Republicans just don't care very much about them. The poor and the working class don't vote much for Republicans, after all.

The most amusing part of all this, I think, are the endless laments that if Obama really wanted to, he could find something else to cut. Republicans can get away with saying this because the federal budget is pretty big, so it seems reasonable that there just has to be someplace to make cuts that wouldn't cause any pain. Waste and fraud, right? Cut the fat, not the bone. And yet, every time someone actually dives into the numbers, it turns out there really isn't much choice after all. All that money really is being spent on stuff that matters. "Consulting" sure sounds like something the FAA ought to be able to cut, but only until you find out that the consulting in question is for outsourced telecommunication and weather radar assistance. Can't cut that!