Blogs

Book Review: Faster, Higher, Stronger

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 6:30 AM EDT

Faster, Higher, Stronger

By Mark McClusky

HUDSON STREET PRESS

Speed-skating super-suits, motion-tracking cameras, the 10,000-hour rule—it's all covered in Mark McClusky's engrossing look into how athletes use science to avoid injury, train smarter, and shatter rec­ords. McClusky, the editor of Wired.com and a former Sports Illustrated reporter, digs into vaguely familiar terms like VO2 max and the oxygen deficit to suss out what separates champs from near-misses while introducing a roster of entertaining characters: a Soviet hammer-throw guru, a Wall Street analyst turned cycling star, and even a British physiologist pursuing hyperfitness back in the 1920s. The book has useful lessons for weekend warriors, but ultimately, McClusky writes, "the greatest athletes are born, and then made."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

These Maps of California's Water Shortage Are Terrifying

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Just how bad is California's water shortage? Really, really bad, according to these new maps, which represent groundwater withdrawals in California during the first three years of the state's ongoing and epochal drought:

Images by J.T. Reager, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, from "The Global Groundwater Crisis," Nature Climate Change, November 2014, by James S. Famiglietti

The maps come from a new paper in Nature Climate Change by NASA water scientist James Famiglietti. "California's Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins have lost roughly 15 cubic kilometers of total water per year since 2011," he writes. That's "more water than all 38 million Californians use for domestic and municipal supplies annually—over half of which is due to groundwater pumping in the Central Valley."

Famiglietti uses satellite data to measure how much water people are sucking out of the globe's aquifers, and summarized his research in his new paper.

More than 2 billion people rely on water pumped from aquifers as their primary water source, Famiglietti writes. Known as groundwater (as opposed to surface water, the stuff that settles in lakes and flows in streams and rivers), it's also the source of at least half the irrigation water we rely on to grow our food. When drought hits, of course, farmers rely on groundwater even more, because less rain and snow means less water flowing above ground.

The lesson Famiglietti draws from satellite data is chilling: "Groundwater is being pumped at far greater rates than it can be naturally replenished, so that many of the largest aquifers on most continents are being mined, their precious contents never to be returned."

The Central Valley boasts some of the globe's fastest-depleting aquifers—but by no means the fastest overall. Indeed, it has a rival here in the United States. The below graphic represents depletion rates at some of the globe's largest aquifers, nearly all of which Famiglietti notes, "underlie the world's great agricultural regions and are primarily responsible for their high productivity."

The navy-blue line represents the Ogallala aquifer—a magnificent water resource now being sucked dry to grow corn in the US high plains. Note that it has quietly dropped nearly as much as the Central Valley's aquifers (yellow line) over the past decade. The plunging light-blue line represents the falling water table in Punjab, India's breadbasket and the main site of that irrigation-intensive agricultural "miracle" known as the Green Revolution, which industrialized the region's farm fields starting in the 1960s. The light-green line represents China's key growing region, the north plain. Its relatively gentle fall may look comforting, but the water table there has been dropping steadily for years.

All of this is happening with very little forethought or regulation. Unlike underground oil, underground water draws very little research on how much is actually there. We know we're siphoning it away faster than it can be replaced, but we have little idea of how long we can keep doing so, Famiglietti writes. He adds, though, that if current trends hold, "groundwater supplies in some major aquifers will be depleted in a matter of decades." As for regulation, it's minimal across the globe. In most places, he writes, there's a "veritable groundwater 'free for all': property owners who can afford to drill wells generally have unlimited access to groundwater."

And the more we pump, the worse things get. As water tables drop, wells have to go deeper into the earth, increasing pumping costs. What's left tends to be high in salts, which inhibit crop yields and can eventually cause soil to lose productivity altogether. Eventually, "inequity issues arise because only the relatively wealthy can bear the expense of digging deeper wells, paying greater energy costs to pump groundwater from increased depths and treating the lower-quality water that is often found deeper within aquifers," Famiglietti writes—a situation already playing out in California's Central Valley, where some low-income residents have seen their wells go dry. In a reporting trip to the southern part of the Central Valley this past summer, I saw salt-caked groves with wan, suffering almond trees—the result of irrigation with salty water pumped from deep in the aquifer.

All of this is taking place in a scenario of rapid climate change and steady population growth—so we can expect steeper droughts and more demand for water. Famiglietti's piece ends with a set of recommendations for bringing the situation under control: Essentially, let's carefully measure the globe's groundwater and treat it like a precious resource, not a delicious milkshake to casually suck down to the dregs. In the meantime, Famiglietti warns, "further declines in groundwater availability may well trigger more civil uprising and international violent conflict in the already water-stressed regions of the world, and new conflict in others."

Most Latinos Don't Hold Obama's Immigration Delay Against Him

| Wed Oct. 29, 2014 10:28 PM EDT

This is just raw data, and I suppose you can take it two ways, but here's what a new Pew poll says about supposed Latino outrage over President Obama's decision to delay executive action on immigration until after the election. Basically, the whole thing was overblown. It turns out that only about 9 percent of Latinos are angry about the delay. David Lauter summarizes the rest of the survey:

The Pew survey showed that Latino support for Democrats has receded on a couple of key measures, including party identification and a question about which party better represents their interests. But the decline was modest, noticeable mostly by contrast with very high levels of support achieved in 2012, when Obama won reelection.

....Asked which party “has more concern for Latinos,” half named the Democrats and 10% said Republicans, with just over one-third saying they saw no difference. On that question, too, the Democrats’ standing has dropped from a high point reached during Obama’s reelection, but only to the level that prevailed during most of his first term. The Republican standing has not changed significantly.

Roughly speaking, Latino support for Democrats has dropped a bit from the sky-high levels of the 2012 campaign, when Republicans featured a presidential candidate who pandered to his tea-party base by refusing to support immigration reform and chattering instead about "self-deportation." But Latino support has only dropped to about the same levels it had before then. In other words, not much has changed.

Obama made a mistake when he hinted that he might take immigration action before the election. That was politically inept, and sure enough, it sparked a revolt among Democratic Senate candidates running in red states. When Obama was forced to backtrack, it was a temporary embarrassment—but that's all it was. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that most Latinos understand politics just as well as everyone else, and don't really hold Obama's actions against him. They know perfectly well why Obama did what he did, and they know perfectly well that Obama will probably keep his promise after the election.

Film Review: Life Itself

| Wed Oct. 29, 2014 6:31 PM EDT

Life Itself

KARTEMQUIN FILMS

There's a scene early in Life Itself when a hospitalized Roger Ebert, missing his lower jaw after multiple surgeries for thyroid cancer, needs his throat suctioned. The camera holds steady as Ebert winces through the procedure, but then an email box pops up on the screen. "great stuff!!!!!" types Ebert, no longer able to speak. "I'm happy we got a great thing that nobody ever sees: suction." Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) blends an intimate end-of-life story with Ebert's wide-ranging biography: precocious college newspaper editor, recovering drunk, screenwriter of the schlocky Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, friend and critic of Hollywood's biggest names. But for all of Ebert's exploits, it's the private moments James captures, like his increasingly brief email responses as cancer slowly wins out, that endure.

Book Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman

| Wed Oct. 29, 2014 6:24 PM EDT

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

By Jill Lepore

Alfred A. Knopf

If Wonder Woman's status as a feminist icon was ever in question, Jill Lepore's deeply researched tribute puts that to rest. Lepore, a New Yorker staffer and Harvard historian, delivers a trove of private documents belonging to the character's creator, William Moulton Marston. Her discoveries shed light not just on Marston's notable life—Harvard scholar, failed lawyer, co-inventor of the polygraph—but on the rich history of women's rights and how it plays out in his colorful panels.

Attack Ad Accuses Democratic Governor of Wanting to Set a Mass Murderer Free

| Wed Oct. 29, 2014 5:11 PM EDT

A man's life literally hangs in the balance in this year's governor's race in Colorado. As I explained earlier this month, Republican candidate Bob Beauprez has singled out a death row inmate by name and promised to ensure that he will be killed. "When I'm governor, Nathan Dunlap will be executed," Beauprez has said.

Dunlap was convicted and sentenced to death in 1996 for murdering four of his Chuck E. Cheese coworkers. But when his execution date neared last year, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper issued a stay, though he refrained from offering permanent reprieve. Hickenlooper backed capital punishment in his 2010 campaign, but has since become an opponent, citing studies demonstrating the death penalty is not an effective deterrent, the cost of executions, and evidence showing it is inconsistently applied. The governor has also expressed qualms about Dunlap's mental illness and regrets jurors expressed about the case after sentencing.

The Republican Governors Association has joined Beauprez's cause in criticizing Hickenlooper for keeping Dunlap alive. The RGA recruited the father of one of Dunlap's victims to star in an ad and call Hickenlooper a "coward" who should be voted out of office. "There's not a day that goes by, I don't think about her," Dennis O’Connor says, looking right at the camera. "You thought you got your day in court and your justice, and I feel most of us were robbed of that."

Here's the ad, which the RGA has reportedly backed with $2 million worth of airtime:

Hickenlooper's campaign has called foul, saying the ad should be pulled for airing false information. At one point the ad suggests that Hickenlooper might "set him free." While Hickenlooper has said he would consider making the temporary reprieve permanent if he loses the race, that would just keep Dunlap off death row and reduce his sentence to life in prison. Hickenlooper isn't about to set Dunlap free to roam the streets of Denver.

The Denver Post, which is cited as the source for the RGA's disputed claim, published an editorial on Tuesday calling the ad's claims "preposterous" and misleading. As the editorial board wrote, "The article in question says no such thing about the possible release of Dunlap, no doubt because freedom for Dunlap is unthinkable."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

After Supreme Court Decision, Patent Trolls Getting Cold Feet?

| Wed Oct. 29, 2014 2:13 PM EDT

A few months ago, in Alice v. CLS Bank, the Supreme Court struck a modest blow against patent trolls. The court ruled that merely programming a computer to carry out a well-known process isn't enough to qualify for a patent. There has to be more to it.

So how has that affected the patent troll business? Joff Wild reports on a new analysis of third-quarter patent litigation activity:

According to the research, which covers the third quarter of this year (June to September), there was a 23% drop in the number of suits filed compared to the second quarter, and a 27% year-on-year reduction.

The findings come just weeks after data released by Lex Machina showed that there had been a 40% fall in patent suits in September 2014 as compared to the same month in the previous year....The data shows that [the decline] can be almost completely explained by a drop-off in NPE suits in the high-tech sector. Litigation initiated by operating companies fell by just 19 quarter on quarter, but actions launched by NPEs dropped by 301, from 885 in Q2 to 554 — a fall of 35%.

An NPE is a "non-practicing entity"—that is, a company that doesn't actually make use of a patent in a product of its own, but has merely purchased it for the purpose of strong-arming payments out of other users. In other words, a patent troll. So what these numbers show is that generic patent litigation fell a bit in Q3, but that patent troll litigation fell by a lot.

It's too early to jump to conclusions about this, but it seems reasonable that this decline is at least partly related to Alice. This is good news, though Alex Tabarrok sensibly warns that before long there will probably be an uptick in patent suits as people learn the new system. So hold off on the cheering.

Still, we'll take good news where we can get it, and this is a step in the right direction. It will be even better if Alice is a sign that the Supreme Court plans to rein in the federal circuit court that handles patents, which in recent years seems to have been far more friendly toward software patents than the Supreme Court ever intended. Stay tuned.

In NSA Bills, the Devil Is in the Details

| Wed Oct. 29, 2014 11:35 AM EDT

Sen. Patrick Leahy says that his USA FREEDOM bill will stop the NSA's bulk collection of phone data. H.L. Pohlman says it's not quite that easy:

In Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-28) issued in January 2014, the Obama administration defined “bulk collection” as the acquisition “of large quantities of signals intelligence data which . . . is acquired without the use of discriminants (e.g., specific identifiers, selection terms, etc.).” Thus, as long as the government uses a “discriminant,” a selection term, no matter how broad that term might be, the government is not engaged in a “bulk collection” program.

....The USA FREEDOM Act does not guarantee, then, that the government’s database of telephone metadata will be smaller than it is now. It all depends on the generality of the selection terms that the government will use to obtain metadata from the telephone companies. And we don’t know what those terms will be.

This is a longstanding issue that's been brought up by lots of people lots of times. It's not some minor subtlety. If the government decides to look for "all calls from the 213 area code," that's not necessarily bulk collection even though it would amass millions of records. It would be up to a judge to decide.

If and when we get close to Congress actually considering bills to rein in the NSA—about which I'm only modestly optimistic in the first place—this is going to be a key thing to keep an eye on. As the ACLU and the EFF and others keep reminding us, reining in the NSA isn't a simple matter of "ending" their bulk collection program. The devil is truly in the details, and tiny changes in wording can literally mean the difference between something that works and something that's useless. Or maybe even worse than useless. As Pohlman points out, if you choose the right words, the NSA could end up having a freer hand than they do today. This is something to pay close attention to.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 29, 2014

Wed Oct. 29, 2014 9:57 AM EDT

US Marines and sailors board a flight out of Afghanistan as all personnel withdraw from the region. (US Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. John Jackson)

Benjamin Netanyahu, "Chickenshit"

| Wed Oct. 29, 2014 1:10 AM EDT

Jeffrey Goldberg has an, um, unique new perspective on the steadily deteriorating relationship between President Obama and Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu:

Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and “Aspergery.”....But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a “chickenshit.” I thought I appreciated the implication of this description, but it turns out I didn’t have a full understanding.

....“The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” the official said, expanding the definition of what a chickenshit Israeli prime minister looks like. “The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states.”

....I ran this notion by another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly. This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal.

....Another manifestation of his chicken-shittedness, in the view of Obama administration officials, is his near-pathological desire for career-preservation. Netanyahu’s government has in recent days gone out of its way to a) let the world know that it will quicken the pace of apartment-building in disputed areas of East Jerusalem; and b) let everyone know of its contempt for the Obama administration and its understanding of the Middle East.

Netanyahu has always been a petty, small-minded pol, endlessly maneuvering to hold together his fragile and equally small-minded band of parochial coalition partners. As one of Goldberg's sources puts it, "The only thing he's interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He's not Rabin, he's not Sharon, he's certainly no Begin. He's got no guts."

Goldberg believes that the American-Israeli relationship is finally at a crossroads, largely driven by the personal loathing Obama and Netanyahu have for each other. We've heard this before, of course, so take it with a grain of salt. Still, Netanyahu's open contempt for Obama, along with his obvious unwillingness to show even a pretense of interest in a peace process, might really be taking things to a breaking point. The whole thing is worth a read.