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Housekeeping Note

| Mon Oct. 20, 2014 8:00 AM EDT

No blogging today, I'm afraid. I've been having lower back problems for several months, and on Friday night it got a lot worse. Saturday morning I couldn't get out of bed, and had to be transported to the ER. It turns out that I had a compression fracture of one of my lumbar bones. I've been in the hospital ever since.

I can walk again, but I'm pretty much bedbound for a while. Beyond that, further tests will tell us what's going on here. Without either oversharing or being coy, there's a chance this could turn out to be pretty serious. We'll know more by the end of the week. In the meantime, blogging will obviously be pretty limited.

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Numero Group Releases a Stellar Retrospective

| Mon Oct. 20, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Unwound
No Energy
Numero Group

Part three of Numero Group's stellar Unwound retrospective picks up with the 1995 album The Future of What, followed by 1996's Repetition, and includes eight singles sides and some previously unreleased recordings. What's most immediately striking about these 33 tracks is how little interest the Olympia, Washington, trio has in repeating itself. While Justin Trosper (vocals, guitar), Vern Rumsey (bass) and Sara Lund (drums) still draw on deep roots in punk and hard rock, they often seem to be navigating uncharted territory. The songs are dark and jagged, more likely to generate brooding unease than provide easy catharsis. Check out either version of the tortured eight-minute epic "Swan" for an unpredictable, genre-defying experience that's thoroughly fascinating.

Sallie Ford, the Exhilarating Provocateur

| Mon Oct. 20, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Sallie Ford
Slap Back
Vanguard

sallie ford

Raucous, profane, and unapologetic, Sallie Ford relishes playing the provocateur. On the exhilarating Slap Back, the Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter debuts her new all-female backing band, sounding like the early, badass Elvis Costello who fronted the Attractions. Buoyed by waves of punky garage rock, Ford addresses urgent issues like romance and lust in her usual blunt language ("Give Me Your Lovin'"), while illuminating her own struggles ("So Damn Low") and pausing for moments of surprising tenderness, observing, "Loves may come and lovers may go. But I'm here for the long haul, I hope you know" in "Hey Girl." For all the catchy tunes and tough grooves, Ford's greatest asset is her rowdy charisma.

Why Did Top Scientific Journals Reject This Dr. Bronner's Ad?

| Mon Oct. 20, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, presides over a company with famously wacky product labels. Sample sentence, from the 18-in-1 Hemp PEPPERMINT soap bottle: "Each swallow works hard to be perfect pilot-provider-teacher-lover-mate, no half-true hate!" But Bronner himself, grandson of the founder (the one with the elaborate prose style), has emerged as a serious, though fun-loving, activist, particularly around pesticides and genetically modified crops, as Josh Harkinson's recent Mother Jones profile shows.

But apparently, Bronner's writing on GMOs is too hot for the advertising pages of the English-speaking world's two most renowned science journals, Science and Nature—even though a slew of magazines, including Scientific American, The New Yorker, Harper's, The Nation, Harvard, and, yes, Mother Jones, accepted the Bronner ad. It consists of a short essay, known in publishing as an advertorial, that's nothing like the wild-eyed rants on his company's soap bottles. Bronner's ad (PDF) focuses on how GMO crops have led to a net increase in pesticide use in the United States, citing an analysis by Ramon Seidler, a retired senior staff scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Bronner wrote his essay in response to Michael Specter's recent New Yorker takedown of anti-GMO crusader Vandana Shiva. He first published his critique on Huffington Post, and then decided to publish it as an ad in a variety of high-profile magazines, because he felt that The New Yorker is highly influential among liberal elites, and he wanted to get his dissenting view out, he told me.

"We're concerned about backlash from our members and potentially getting into a battle with the GMO industry," wrote an ad sales manager for Science in an email.

Science was close to accepting it, emails shared with me by Bronner show—an ad sales manager for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which published the magazine, emailed on September 15 that she would send over paper work "in a bit," adding that "[a]fter you sign it, I can take your credit card info by phone and submit to accounting." The price: $9,911.00. But hours later, she wrote back, squashing the deal:

Sorry to say there has [been] a reversal opinion. This has gone up the ladder quite far and our CEO along with the board have come back saying that we cannot accept the ad. We're concerned about backlash from our members and potentially getting into a battle with the GMO industry.

Something quite similar happened at Nature, a UK-based publication with ad sales operations in the United States. On September 16, an ad sales rep told the Bronner team via email that "I will have an IO [insert order—the contract for an advertisement] for you once I get the thumbs up from Editorial (usually takes them a day or two)." Once that's signed, he added, "I can call and get your credit card information over the phone, [and] then we are all good."

But a few days later, instead of closing the deal, the rep asked if Bronner would consider placing the ad in a smaller, related journal called Nature Biotechnology. Bronner declined, and asked again to place it in Nature. The ad rep replied, "We have to do a detailed process for all ad approvals, especially if the ad is not within specs (our terms and conditions). We have passed on the ad for Nature, that's why the emails about seeking out other options [i.e., Nature Biotechnology] for you." End of discussion—the sales rep offered no explanation, and soon stopped returning calls or emails. Nor did he return my email and call seeking comment.

As for Science, I talked to Laurie Faraday, the journal's East regional ad-sales manager, who worked with Bronner's team on the failed ad deal. She explained that the editorial side weighs in on decisions over advertorial-style ads. Science's management found it "a little bit controversial," and worried that "if we allowed that kind of a piece to be printed in Science, then maybe we'd be subject to the GMO world coming after us."  

I asked if the magazine had rejected advertorials on similar grounds in the past. She replied that a couple of years ago, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ran ads in Science alleging cruelty to animals in labs. "It kind of got past us at first," Faraday said, "but after the campaign ran, I was told by the publisher we would not accept them any further." She added: "Ironically, it's not that anyone in the organization disagreed with what it [the ad] said. It's just that we had to consider that the opposite side of the coin might want to start a war in our magazine."

Stan Schmidt, an ad rep for Scientific American, which accepted the ad, told me that his magazine has a broader policy on advertorials—it accepts them unless they contain offensive or "wild-eyed" material, and the Bronner ad easily passed the test, he said.

"I'm concerned how lame and weak the leading scientific publications in the world are being here, although I appreciate Science's upfront explanation," Bronner said. "Science and Nature magazines, like the scientific enterprise in general, are not above the fray."

NBA Player Kisses Sideline Reporter, Calls Her the Wrong Name

| Sun Oct. 19, 2014 12:56 PM EDT

Before Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers took the court Friday to play the Dallas Mavericks, Allie Clifton, a Fox News Ohio reporter, tried to interview him about his game strategy.

After haphazardly answering one of her questions, Thompson calls her "Tina," winks at the camera, and then kisses her on the cheek before running away.

Here's video of the incident:

Contrary to some of the sports media's reporting, kissing a reporter on air while she is working is not "an unexpected gift" or "harmless, and nothing more than an awkward one-sided exchange." It's downright uncomfortable and belittling, even if Clifton maintained utter professionalism throughout. As Kelly Dwyer at Yahoo Sports put it: "This isn't cute or funny or meme-worthy…Just because you're working with someone of the opposite sex, it doesn't mean a sly innuendo, pat on the rear, or kiss on national television is in any way appropriate."

EPA: Those Bee-Killing Pesticides? They're Actually Pretty Useless

| Sat Oct. 18, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Was it all for nought? Note: bumblebees, pictured here, have also been shown to be harmed by neonics.

So, there's this widely used class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, marketed by chemical giants Bayer and Syngenta, that have emerged as a prime suspect in honeybee collapse, and may also be harming birds and water-borne critters. But at least they provide benefits to farmers, right?

Well, not soybean farmers, according to a blunt economic assessment released Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency (PDF). Conclusion: "There are no clear or consistent economic benefits of neonicotinoid seed treatments in soybeans."

Wait, what?

The report goes on: "This analysis provides evidence that US soybean growers derive limited to no benefit from neonicotinoid seed treatments in most instances."

Hmmm. But at least they're better for farmers than no pesticide at all?

Nope: "Published data indicate that most usage of neonicotinoid seed treatments does not protect soybean yield any better than doing no pest control."

Ouch.

One poll found that 45 percent of respondents reported finding non-treated seeds "difficult to obtain" or "not available."

The EPA notes that in recent years, US farmers have been planting on average 76 million acres of soybeans each season. Of those acres, an average 31 percent are planted in seeds treated with neonics—that is, farmers buy treated seeds, which suffuse the soybean plants with the chemical as they grow. So that's about 24 million acres of neonic-treated seeds—an area equal in size to the state of Indiana. Why would farmers pay up for a seed treatment that doesn't do them any good, yet may be doing considerable harm to pollinators and birds? The EPA report has insights: "data from researchers and extension experts ... indicate that some growers currently have some difficulty obtaining untreated seed." The report points to one small poll that found 45 percent of respondents reported finding non-treated seeds "difficult to obtain" or "not available."

Another reason may be marketing. Syngenta, for example, promotes its "CruiserMaxx" seed treatment for soybeans, which combines a neonic insecticide with two different fungicides. The pitch: "Promotes better emergence, faster speed to canopy, improved vigor and higher yield potential.
Protects against damaging chewing and sucking insect pests. ... Increases yield even under low insect pressure."

Only one US crop is planted more abundantly than soybeans: corn, which typically covers around 90 million acres. According to Purdue entomologist Christian Krupke, "virtually all" of it is from neonic-treated seeds. That's a land mass just 10 percent smaller than California. You have to wonder what bang those farmers are getting for their buck. I have a query into the EPA to see whether it has plans to conduct a similar assessment for corn. Meanwhile, this March 2014 Center for Food Safety research report, which was reviewed by Krupke and Jonathan Lundgren, a research entomologist at the US Department of Agriculture, found that the bee-killing pesticides offer at best limited benefits to corn farmers, too.

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Would Joe Biden Put His Son In Prison For Doing Coke?

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 6:19 PM EDT

So the son of our Vice President was booted from the military for doing coke. This must be an awkward situation for Joe Biden, given his role in cracking down on drug use over the last few decades. Joe Biden created the position of “drug czar,” a key step in the drug war. As the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986, he played a major role in passing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. He was the main sponsor of the RAVE Act in 2003, meant to crack down on MDMA use, which would have held club owners liable for providing “paraphernalia” like glowsticks and water. He still vocally opposes marijuana legalization.

To be clear: Hunter Biden wasn’t caught with actual cocaine. He just failed a drug test. But what if he'd happened to be found with a little bag in his pocket? Would Joe Biden would find it fair for him to serve 87 months, which is the average federal sentence for drug possession?

Of course, were Hunter Biden to be caught with powder cocaine, he would likely fare better than someone caught with crack. To his credit, Joe Biden himself has pushed for reducing the longstanding sentencing disparity between crack and regular cocaine, but possession of 28 grams of crack still triggers a five-year minimum sentence. It takes 500 grams of regular cocaine to trigger the same sentence. That’s an 18-to-one difference. (African Americans make up 83 percent of people convicted for crack offenses, even though the number of white crack users is 40 percent greater than that of black users, according to a National Institute on Drug Abuse study).

America has more prisoners than any other country—a quarter of all people behind bars in the entire world are in US prisons or jails. Nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving sentences for drugs. Many of them won't have a chance to "regret" their mistakes and move on, as Hunter Biden has said he will.

Now Congressional Republicans Are Digging Through Scientists' Grant Proposals

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 5:22 PM EDT
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has led an unprecedented investigation into the scientific operations of the National Science Foundation.

When scientists across the country need money for research projects, one place they often turn is the National Science Foundation. The NSF is an independent federal agency with an annual budget of about $7 billion, which it doles out to fund about a quarter of all federally supported science research.

Of course, the agency doesn't just give money away to anyone who asks. Proposals have to survive a rigorous review process that includes close scrutiny by a panel of top scientists in the relevant field. Competition is fierce: Of the 49,000 proposals submitted in 2013, only a fifth were ultimately funded. So as far as most scientists are concerned, an NSF grant is about the highest mark of scientific legitimacy a research project can get.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) apparently disagrees. Over the last 18 months, Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has launched an aggressive campaign against what he sees as misguided money management at NSF that fritters funds away on frivolous research. Research on ridiculous things like, you know, climate change.

Smith's committee is responsible for setting the NSF's budget. But in the last year, the Congressman has gone to unprecedented lengths to scrutinize the agency's scientific operations. His staffers are sifting through the archives of NSF grant proposal materials, which are normally kept strictly confidential to preserve scientific objectivity. They're looking for projects to highlight as evidence that NSF is wasting money on research that, from their view, aren't in the "national interest."

A great recent story in Science lays out Smith's strategy:

Four times this past summer, in a spare room on the top floor of the headquarters of the National Science Foundation (NSF) outside of Washington, D.C., two congressional staffers spent hours poring over material relating to 20 research projects that NSF has funded over the past decade…

The peculiar exercise is part of a long-running and bitter battle that is pitting Smith and many of his panel's Republican members against [Rep. Eddie Bernice] Johnson [the committee's ranking Democrat] and the panel's Democrats, NSF's leadership, and the academic research community…

Smith, however, argues he is simply taking seriously Congress's oversight responsibility. And he promises to stay the course: "Our efforts will continue until NSF agrees to only award grants that are in the national interest," he wrote in a 2 October e-mail to ScienceInsider.

The tally of projects under scrutiny by Smith's team has now grown to 47 (a listing of them is linked to in the Science story above). On one hand, that's a lot. The confidentiality of the NSF review process is a long-established, sacred scientific practice that protects research from bias and makes sure only the cream rises to the top. So any cracks in that firewall, and certainly any whiff of political interference, are of great concern to the scientific community.

On the other hand, the 47 grants represent only a tiny fraction of the NSF's total operation; together, they amount to about $26 million, or 0.37 percent of NSF's budget. Which raises the questions of why Smith would (a) throw himself into an investigation of spending that, all things considered, is barely a drop in the federal bucket and (b) pick these specific projects to focus on. A spokesperson from Smith's committee—who provided a statement on behalf of Smith's office (the same statement quoted by Science above)—did not respond to these questions.

Many of the studies at issue involve social sciences (a study of caste systems in Ethiopia, for example, and one about rural sanitation in India) that fall outside the core areas of engineering, mathematics, computer science, and biology that Smith, in a press release this spring, singled out as "the primary drivers of our economic future."

But some of the biggest-ticket items up for public dissection focus on climate change. They include a $3 million grant awarded in 2008 to study how federal agencies can better communicate climate science to the public and a $5.6 million award to a Columbia University team to carry out public education work on the impacts of climate change at the poles. You know, totally frivolous questions that have nothing to do with the "national interest" on things like rising sea levels, epic releases of methane, US military engagement in the Arctic, new areas for offshore oil drilling, and 35,000 stranded walruses. Definitely not stuff you need to worry about, or have our top scientists investigate and explain.

The letters over the past few months between Smith and NSF director France Córdova, an astrophysicist and former president of Purdue University, are a great new entry in the annals of government scientists explaining Science 101 to Republican Congressmen.

"NSF's investment in meritorious research projects enables new and transformative discoveries within and among those fields and disciplines, resulting in the expansion of our scientific knowledge and understanding," she wrote to him on May 19.

In other words, basic science shouldn't be judged by how closely it hews to a predetermined, profitable advance. The Large Hadron Collider probably isn't ever going to do much for the US economy, but that doesn't mean it's not in the "national interest" for us to understand the basic physics of the universe. Sometimes, even research on the mechanics of corkscrew-shaped duck penises can be a worthy investment of taxpayer dollars.

The Head of the Federal Reserve Just Gave a Rousing Speech on Inequality

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 2:59 PM EDT

On Friday, Janet Yellen presented a thorough speech outlining the inherent problems income inequality presents to the American ideology, proving once again she is committed to using her role as Federal Reserve chair to tackle widening income inequality rates.

"The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me," Yellen told the Federal Reserve of Boston. "The past several decades have seen the most sustained rise in inequality since the 19th century after more than 40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression."

“I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity," she added.

The speech, titled "Perspectives on Inequality and Opportunity from the Survey of Consumer Finances," follows several notable instances in which Yellen has indicated she would be actively working towards reducing wealth inequality–a more pointed approach that distances her from her predecessors, former chairs Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke. In Friday's speech, Yellen also echoed Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) calls to fix the burden of rising higher education costs.

As continued evidence has shown, income inequality rates have soared over the last few decades, with the average income of the one percent rising more than 175 percent since 1980, while the bottom 90 percent hardly moved.

 
 

 

While Yellen's speech on Friday made no mention of any specific policy changes the Federal Reserve may take on to combat inequality rates, it did signal a significant shift in how the Federal Reserve views inequality as a serious hindrance to the country's economic health. To read Yellen's speech in its entirety, click here.

Friday Cat Blogging - 17 October 2014

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 2:15 PM EDT

I don't know about you, but I could stand to have catblogging a little earlier than usual this week. What you see here is one of the many cat TVs now installed in our home. This is the dining room TV. There are also cat TVs in the kitchen and the study. The kitchen TV apparently has most of its good shows at night, and it's not clear what those shows are about. But they are extremely entrancing.

The dining room TV, by contrast, is sort of our workhorse cat TV. They both love it all day long. Needless to say, this is something new for both Hopper and Hilbert, since they spent the first ten months of their lives in a shelter, where cat TV mostly just starred other cats. Who knew there were so many other channels to choose from?