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Wondering What Happens in the Cockpit of a Crashing Plane? Read This Story.

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 1:52 PM EDT
The black box recovered from flight Germanwings 9525.

An international airliner falls out of the sky, seemingly for no reason. A cryptic recording from the cockpit voice recorder. The crash of Germanwings flight 9525 on Tuesday has, at least in the early going, left investigators with a lot of puzzling questions. It's also drawn obvious parallels to an earlier incident—the 1999 crash of EgyptAir 990 off the coast of Massachusetts.

That crash, which killed 217 people, was ultimately chalked up to "manipulation of the airplane controls," according to the National Transporation Safety Board. But that euphemism left a lot unsaid. In a masterful piece in the Atlantic in 2001, reporter William Langewiesche sought to piece together the mystery of what actually happened:

I remember first hearing about the accident early in the morning after the airplane went down. It was October 31, 1999, Halloween morning. I was in my office when a fellow pilot, a former flying companion, phoned with the news: It was EgyptAir Flight 990, a giant twin-engine Boeing 767 on the way from New York to Cairo, with 217 people aboard. It had taken off from Kennedy Airport in the middle of the night, climbed to 33,000 feet, and flown normally for half an hour before mysteriously plummeting into the Atlantic Ocean sixty miles south of Nantucket. Rumor had it that the crew had said nothing to air-traffic control, that the flight had simply dropped off the New York radar screens. Soon afterward an outbound Air France flight had swung over the area, and had reported no fires in sight—only a dim and empty ocean far below. It was remotely possible that Flight 990 was still in the air somewhere, diverting toward a safe landing. But sometime around daybreak a Merchant Marine training ship spotted debris floating on the waves—aluminum scraps, cushions and clothing, some human remains. The midshipmen on board gagged from the stench of jet fuel—a planeload of unburned kerosene rising from shattered tanks on the ocean floor, about 250 feet below. By the time rescue ships and helicopters arrived, it was obvious that there would be no survivors. I remember reacting to the news with regret for the dead, followed by a thought for the complexity of the investigation that now lay ahead. This accident had the markings of a tough case. The problem was not so much the scale of the carnage—a terrible consequence of the 767's size—but, rather, the still-sketchy profile of the upset that preceded it, this bewildering fall out of the sky on a calm night, without explanation, during an utterly uncritical phase of the flight.

Read the entire piece here.

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Eventually, Two Billionaires Will Duke It Out For President Every Four Years

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 12:20 PM EDT

This is from yesterday, but I really can't pass it up. Matea Gold and Tom Hamburger write in the Washington Post that presidential candidates are no longer much interested in "bundlers" who can raise a paltry million dollars or so for their campaigns. Terry Neese, a successful bundler for George W. Bush, is their poster child:

This year, no potential White House contender has called — not even Bush’s brother, Jeb. As of early Wednesday, the only contacts she had received were e-mails from staffers for two other likely candidates; both went to her spam folder.

“They are only going to people who are multi-multimillionaires and billionaires and raising big money first,” said Neese, who founded a successful employment agency. “Most of the people I talk to are kind of rolling their eyes and saying, ‘You know, we just don’t count anymore.’ ”

....In the words of one veteran GOP fundraiser, traditional bundlers have been sent down to the “minor leagues,” while mega-donors are “the major league players.”

The old-school fundraisers have been temporarily displaced in the early money chase because of the rise of super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations. This year, White House hopefuls are rushing to raise money for the groups before they declare their candidacies and have to keep their distance.

So does this matter? Does it matter whether candidates get contributions from a thousand millionaires vs. a hundred billionaires? Are their political views really very different?

In a way, I suppose not. Rich is rich. One difference, though, might be in the way specific industries get treated. If you take a ton of money from Sheldon Adelson or the Koch Brothers, you're more likely to oppose internet gambling and specific energy-related regulations than you might be if you were simply taking money from a whole bunch of different gambling and energy millionaires.

On a broader note, though, it has the potential to alienate the electorate even more. Things are bad enough already, but when it becomes clear that presidential candidates are practically being bought and sold by a literal handful of the ultra-rich, how hard is to remain uncynical about politics? Pretty hard.

In the end, maybe this doesn't matter so much. Big money is big money, and most people are already convinced that big money controls things in Washington DC. Still, as bad as things are, they can always get worse. Eventually, perhaps each successful candidate will be fully funded by a single billionaire willing to take a flyer with pocket money to see if they can get their guy elected. This is not a healthy world we're building.

Middle East War Suddenly Getting a Lot More Warlike

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 11:17 AM EDT

I'm a little behind on the news right now, but it sure looks like things are getting a whole lot hotter in the Middle East. Here are a few headlines:

Saudi Jets Strike Yemen in Bid to Halt Houthis

Tikrit airstrikes draw U.S. into battle between militants and Iraqi forces

Obama Says He Will Delay Withdrawal of U.S. Troops from Afghanistan

Iran-backed rebels loot Yemen files about U.S. spy operations

U.S. Role in Middle East Revamped Amid Chaos

That last headline comes from the Wall Street Journal, and seems to sum things up pretty well. The story includes this:

[Kenneth] Pollack, the former CIA analyst, said the military campaign in Yemen is unlikely to have a positive effect on the country’s fractured dynamics.

“The idea that this is going to produce some kind of a peaceful settlement is ridiculous,” Mr. Pollack said. “The more likely outcome is it just prolongs the stalemate.” The Persian Gulf countries could consider the use of ground troops to make progress, which should be a concern for the U.S., he said.

What could go wrong?

The Real Reason to Worry About GMOs

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

In a recent column, the New York Times' Mark Bittman makes an important point about the controversy around genetically modified foods. "[T]o date there's little credible evidence that any food grown with genetic engineering techniques is dangerous to human health," he writes. Yet the way the technology has been used—mainly, to engineer crops that can withstand herbicides—is deeply problematic, he argues.

Here's why I think Bittman's point is crucial. The below chart, from the pro-biotech International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, gives a snapshot of what types of GMO crops farmers were planting as of 2012. In more recent reports, the ISAAA doesn't break out its data in the same way, but it's a fair assumption that things are roughly similar three years later, given that no GMO blockbusters have entered the market since.

Chart: The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications,

If you add up all the herbicide-tolerant crops on the list, you find that about 69 percent of global GM acres are planted with crops engineered to withstand herbicides. But that's an undercount, because the GM products listed as "stacked traits" are engineered to repel insects (the Bt trait) and to withstand herbicides. Adding those acres in, the grand total comes to something like 84 percent of global biotech acres devoted to crops that can flourish when doused with weed killers—chemicals that are sold by the very same companies that sell the GMO seeds.

More than four-fifths of global biotech acres devoted to crops that can flourish when doused with weed killers.

As Bittman points out, almost all of the herbicide-tolerant crops on the market to date have been engineered to resist a single herbicide, glyphosate. And weeds have evolved to resist that herbicide, forcing farmers to apply heavier doses and or added older, more toxic chemicals to the mix.

Rather than reconsider the wisdom of committing tens of millions of acres to crops developed to resist a single herbicide, the industry plans to double down: Monsanto and rival Dow will both be marketing crops next year engineered to withstand both glyphosate and more-toxic herbicides—even though scientists like Penn State University's David Mortensen are convinced that the new products are "likely to increase the severity of resistant weeds" and "facilitate a significant increase in herbicide use."

Meanwhile, unhappily, the World Health Organization has recently decreed glyphosate, sold by Monsanto under the Roundup brand name, a "probable carcinogen"—a designation Monsanto is vigorously trying to get rescinded.

So, given that 20 years after GM crops first appeared on farm fields, something like four-fifths of global biotech acres are still devoted to herbicide-tolerant crops, Bittman's unease about how the technology has been deployed seems warranted. It's true that genetically altered apples and potatoes that don't brown as rapidly when they're sliced will soon hit the market. They may prove to be a benign development. But it's doubtful that they'll spread over enough acres to rival herbicide-tolerant crops anytime soon. And humanity has thrived for millennia despite the scourge of fast-browning apples and potatoes. The same isn't true for ever-increasing deluges of toxic herbicides.

"Everything Could Be Taken Away From Me": Watch This Woman Bravely Fight an Anti-Transgender Bill

| Wed Mar. 25, 2015 7:37 PM EDT

As Florida lawmakers continue to consider a bill aiming to make it a criminal act for transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, we'd like to direct your attention to Cindy Sullivan, who spoke out against the bill in incredibly brave and emotional testimony earlier this month.

"I see this bill as effecting not just my business but my partner's business," Sullivan said. "If I go to use the restroom, everybody in that restroom has the ability to sue me and my family, affect my child, affect my reputation. Everything could be taken away from me."

"You could put me in jail for being me!"

As her tears well, Sullivan repeatedly looks behind her shoulder, as the bill's sponsor, state representative Frank Artiles watches on.

House Bill 583 has already been approved by two subcommittees and is expected to be reviewed by the house judiciary committee later this week. In Kentucky and Texas, lawmakers are attempting to pass similar anti-transgender legislation. All three states have the support and financial backing of the Alliance Defending Freedom, an influential conservative group.

Sullivan, who began her testimony noting she too was a Republican, slammed the bill as "government intrusion at its worst."

"I'm a throw-away piece of trash, in this country of freedom, and liberty, and respect."

 

Ted Cruz Expected to Headline Event With a Man Who Compared Muslims to Nazis

| Wed Mar. 25, 2015 2:36 PM EDT
Robert Spencer and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who announced his candidacy for President on Monday via Twitter, is expected to speak at the Young America's Foundation's "New England Freedom Conference" in Nashua, New Hampshire on Friday.

Also on the lineup is Robert Spencer, the co-founder of Stop Islamization of America and director of the Jihad Watch blog. He is notorious for his attacks on Islam. "It's absurd" to think that "Islam is a religion of peace that's been hijacked by … extremists," he said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. He has compared Muslims to Nazis and demanded that Muslims take a loyalty test before being appointed to public office in America. He has told reporters that Islam is here to take over America, and that President Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim. His book opens with the rallying cry of the Crusades, "God wills it!" and he calls for a second crusade against Islam.

The conference, to be hosted at the Radisson in southeast New Hampshire, bills itself as a conservative gathering on "why big government policies are a big problem" and "ways to effectively push back against leftist, big government threats to your freedoms." It's hosted by the Young America's Foundation, which has previously been linked to extremists. Young Americans for Freedom, which merged with the Young America's Foundation in 2011, hosted an event in 2007 in which Nick Griffin— who was the chairman of the British National Party, a white supremacist group, and a Holocaust denier—spoke. Two board members of Young America's Foundation, Ron Robinson and James B. Taylor, also ran a political action committee that donated thousands of dollars to a white nationalist organization, the Charles Martel Society.

The Council on American Islamic Relations criticized Cruz for agreeing to speak at a conference that is providing a platform to Spencer. "If Senator Cruz believes that he can campaign for president while sharing center stage with a professional hate monger like Robert Spencer, I seriously doubt his ability to win the US minority vote or unite the country as president," said CAIR Government Affairs Manager Robert McCaw.

"Senator Cruz has been invited to speak to Young America's Foundation," says Rick Tyler, a spokesperson for Cruz's campaign. "He intends to keep that commitment."

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Should Your State Be Able to Ignore the Nation's Most Important Pollution Law?

| Wed Mar. 25, 2015 1:20 PM EDT

Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed a bold solution for any state that doesn't like President Barack Obama's flagship plan to slash carbon emissions: Just ignore it. The new rule, issued under the Clean Air Act, aims to reduce the nation's carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030. It would require every state to devise a plan to cut the carbon intensity (pollution per unit of energy) of its power sector. By simply ignoring the mandate, McConnell reasoned, states could delay taking steps like shuttering or retrofitting coal-fired power plants until the rules get killed by the Supreme Court (even though the chances of that happening are pretty remote).

Last week, McConnell justified his unusual suggestion that state regulators deliberately ignore federal law by arguing that the rules themselves are illegal. And yesterday, he took his campaign to a new level by introducing—on behalf of GOP co-sponsors Rob Portman (Ohio), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), and Orrin Hatch (Utah)—an amendment to the Senate's massive budget bill. It would allow any state to opt out of the rule if that state's governor or legislature decides that complying would raise electric bills, would impact electricity reliability, or would result in any one of a litany of other hypothetical problems. The amendment could get a vote later this week.

Meanwhile, over in the House, Reps. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) have introduced a bill along essentially the same lines, which is set to to be debated by the Energy and Power Subcommittee, which Whitfield chairs, next month.

Republicans are pitching these proposals as necessary steps to protect Americans from the power-hungry, climate-crazed Obama administration. But if passed, they might do more to protect the interests of coal companies. In fact, the Portman amendment introduced by McConnell explicitly allows states to opt out if the rules would "impair investments in existing electric generating capacity"—in other words, if they require the early retirement of any power plants. The apparent justification is that in order to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency, states will have to quickly implement sweeping changes to their power system that could leave residents with expensive, unreliable power.

In reality, many energy economists (not to mention utility companies themselves) have found that the range of options states have to comply with the EPA—such as mandating better energy efficiency and building more renewable energy—are more than enough to keep the lights on and bills stable, while simultaneously burning less coal. (Meanwhile, regardless of any new EPA rules, coal is already on a precipitous and probably irreversible decline thanks largely to the recent glut of cheap natural gas.) 

Both bills also work on the assumption that the rules grossly overstep the EPA's authority by extending beyond coal-fired smokestacks to the whole power system. That question is likely to be at the heart of the inevitable court battles over the rule. But as leading environmental lawyer Richard Revesz testified to a House committee this month, wide-reaching plans like this have been successfully implemented under the Clean Air Act for other pollutants like sulfur and mercury throughout the legislation's 40-year history. 

In any case, giving states the option to opt out of federal air quality rules essentially undermines the entire premise of the Clean Air Act, probably the most powerful piece of environmental legislation ever passed. As Natural Resources Defense Council policy chief David Doniger put it yesterday: "These bills would force us back to the dark days half a century ago when powerful polluters had a free hand to poison our air, because states were unwilling or unable to protect their citizens."

Neil DeGrasse Tyson Blasts Florida's Alleged Ban on Discussing Climate Change

| Wed Mar. 25, 2015 11:38 AM EDT

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has now weighed in on Florida's alleged ban on using the words "climate change" and "global warming" in government communications. The astrophysicist-turned-TV-star told a Sarasota, Fla., crowd on Monday that he was astonished by the report, adding he thought "as a nation we were better than this."

"Now we have a time where people are cherry picking science," Tyson said, according to the Herald Tribune of Sarasota. "The science is not political. That's like repealing gravity because you gained 10 pounds last week."

Earlier this month, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting published an explosive story alleging that Scott's administration had instituted an unwritten policy forbidding government employees from using "climate change," "global warming," and "sea level rise" in official communications. The governor has since denied the report, but several environmental groups have called for a probe into the alleged ban.

In his remarks Monday, Tyson said that while it may be easy to shame politicians for their climate change denial, it's ultimately the voters who are responsible.

"Debating facts takes time away from the conversation," Tyson said, according to the Bradenton Herald. "We should be talking about what we are going to do about this. I don't blame the politicians for a damn thing because we vote for the politician. I blame the electorate."

This isn't the first time Tyson has scolded voters for electing science-denying politicians. In a January interview with the Boston Globe, he said he used to get "bent out of shape" about elected officials like snowball-wielding Senator James Inhofe publicly claiming climate change is a hoax. But his views have since evolved.

"The real challenge to the educator is not beating politicians over the head, or lobbying them, or writing letters," he said. "It's improving the educational system that shapes the people who elect such representatives in the first place."

The People Who Pick Your Organic Strawberries Have Had It With Rat-Infested Camps

| Wed Mar. 25, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

When most of us think of Mexican food, we visualize tacos, burritos, and chiles rellenos. But we should probably add cucumbers, squash, melons, and berries to the list—more or less the whole supermarket produce aisle, in fact. The United States imports more than a quarter of the fresh fruit and nearly a third of the vegetables we consume. And a huge portion of that foreign-grown bounty—69 percent of vegetables and 37 percent of fruit—comes from our neighbor to the south.

Mexican farmers whose work supplies US supermarkets and restaurants often endure subpar housing, inadequate sanitation, poverty wages, and labor arrangements that approach slavery.

Not surprisingly, as I've shown before, labor conditions on Mexico's large export-oriented farms tend to be dismal: subpar housing, inadequate sanitation, poverty wages, and often, labor arrangements that approach slavery. But this week, workers in Baja California, a major ag-producing state just south of California, are standing up. Here's the Los Angeles Times: "Thousands of laborers in the San Quintín Valley 200 miles south of San Diego went on strike Tuesday, leaving the fields and greenhouses full of produce that is now on the verge of rotting."

In addition to the work stoppage, striking workers shut down 55 miles of the Trans-Peninsular Highway, a key thoroughfare for moving goods from Baja California to points north, the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada (in Spanish) reported after the strike started on March 17.

The blockade has been lifted, at least temporarily. But the "road remains hard to traverse as rogue groups stop and, at times, attack truck drivers," the LA Times reports. And the strike itself continues. The uprising is starting to affect US supply chains. An executive for the organic-produce titan Del Cabo Produce, which grows vegetables south of the San Quintín Valley but needs to traverse it to reach its US customers, told the Times that the clash is "creating a lot of logistical problems…We're having to cut orders." And "Costco reported that organic strawberries are in short supply because about 80% of the production this time of year comes from Baja California," the Times added. The US trade publication Produce News downplayed the strike's impact, calling it "minor."

Meanwhile, the strike's organizers plan to launch a campaign to get US consumers to boycott products grown in the region, mainly tomatoes, cucumbers, and strawberries, inspired by the successful '70s-era actions of the California-based United Farm Workers, headed by Cesar Chavez, La Jornada reported Tuesday. And current UFW president Arturo Rodriguez has issued a statement of solidarity with the San Quintín strikers.

Such cross-border organizing is critical, because the people who work on Mexico's export-focused farms tend to be from the same places as the people who work on the vast California and Florida operations that supply the bulk of our domestically grown produce: the largely indigenous states of southern Mexico. And the final market for the crops they tend and harvest is also the same: US supermarkets and restaurants.

In a stunning four-part series last year, LA Times reporter Richard Marosi documented the harsh conditions that prevail on the Mexican farms that churn out our food. He found:

  • Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
  • Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
  • Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It's common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
  • Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences, and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
  • Major US companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

As for their counterparts to the north, migrant-reliant US farms tend to treat workers harshly as well, as the excellent 2014 documentary Food Chains demonstrates. The trailer, below, is a good crash course on what it's like to be at the bottom of the US food system. In honor of National Farm Worker Awareness Week, the producers are making it available for $0.99 on iTunes. And here's an interview with the film's director, Sanjay Rawal, by Mother Jones' Maddie Oatman.

Robot-Building 6-Year-Old Girls Talking Tech With Obama Is the Best Thing You'll See All Week

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 7:56 PM EDT

On Monday, President Obama made his annual rounds at the White House Science Fair. The event is a breeding ground for adorable interactions with kid-nerds (See 2012's marshmallow-shooting air cannon), but his chat yesterday with five cape-wearing Girl Scouts from Oklahoma was especially magical.

The 6-year-olds from Tulsa's Girl Scout Troup 411 were the youngest inventors selected to present at this year's fair. Inspired by conversations with a librarian and one of the girls' grandmas, they built a mechanical Lego contraption that can turn pages, to help patients with mobility issues read books.

The group of first graders and kindergartners explain to Obama that the device is a "prototype" that they came up with in a "brainstorming session." One of the girls asks Obama if he's ever had his own brainstorming session.

"I have had a couple brainstorming sessions," replies an amused Obama. "But I didn't come up with anything this good!"

Another girls asks what he came up with:

"I mean, I came up with things like, you know, health care. It turned out ok, but it started off with some prototypes," the president says.

And then they all go in for a group hug. GOLD.

Suzanne Dodson, the coach of the Lego team and the mom of one of the scouts, told Tulsa World that she's glad the girls are getting such positive attention for their project: "It really is a problem with girls, when they get to middle school, they lose confidence in their own ability to succeed in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)" she said. "Having this experience at young age really gives them a confidence boost."