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Friday Cat Blogging - 27 March 2015

| Fri Mar. 27, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

Today I get to spend six hours in a chair getting Cytoxan pumped into my body. So this is it. No more tests or consults. This is the first actual step in the second stage of my chemotherapy. Following this infusion, I will spend a week injecting myself with a drug that (a) stimulates white blood cell production and (b) will apparently make me feel like I have the flu. Next, I spend a week in LA sitting in a chair several hours a day while they extract stem cells from my body. Then a week of rest and then the stem cell transplant itself, which will put me out of commission for a minimum of three weeks.

So no blogging today. Next week is iffy. Probably nothing much the week after that either. Then maybe some blogging during my rest week. And then I'll go offline probably completely for a month or so. It all depends on just how quickly I recover from the transplant. We'll see.

In the meantime, here are Hopper and Hilbert, hale and hearty as ever. Have a nice weekend, everyone.

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Harry Reid Announces His Retirement

| Fri Mar. 27, 2015 8:21 AM EDT

Update, 12:26 p.m.: Shortly after announcing his retirement, Reid endorsed Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to replace him. "I think Schumer should be able to succeed me,” he told the Washington Post in an interview at his DC residence. 

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced on Friday he will not be seeking reelection when his term comes to an end next year. He announced his retirement in a YouTube video:

The decision to retire, the 75-year-old senator from Nevada said, "has absolutely nothing to do" with the injury he sustained back in January from an exercising accident or his new role as minority leader following the Democrats' loss during the midterm elections. In an interview with the New York Times he explained, "I want to be able to go out at the top of my game. I don’t want to be a 42-year-old trying to become a designated hitter."

In the video, Reid continues with a message to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, "Don't be too elated. I'm going to be here for 22 more months, and you know what I'm going to be doing? The same thing I've done since I first came to the Senate. We have to make sure the Democrats take control of the Senate again."

 

Democrats Should Pass the Doc Fix Bill

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 5:07 PM EDT

A bill to permanently reform the ridiculous annual charade over the Medicare "doc fix" passed the House today:

The House overwhelmingly approved sweeping changes to the Medicare system on Thursday, in the most significant bipartisan policy legislation to pass through that chamber since the Republicans regained a majority in 2011.

The measure, which would establish a new formula for paying doctors and end a problem that has bedeviled the nation’s health care system for more than a decade, has already been blessed by President Obama, and awaits a vote in the Senate. The bill would also increase premiums for some higher income beneficiaries and extend a popular health insurance program for children.

But of course there's a problem:

Senate Democrats have been resistant to provisions in the bill that preserve restrictions on the use of federal money for abortion services and extend a children’s health program for only two years, but they are expected to eventually work with Senate Republicans to pass the measure.

This is similar to the problem with the bipartisan human trafficking bill, which Senate Democrats filibustered last week because of a provision that none of its funds could be used to pay for abortions.

I suppose this will get me a lot of flack for being a sellout, but I think Dems should approve both bills. Yes, the abortion provisions are annoying, and go slightly beyond similar language that's been in appropriations bills for decades. But slightly is the operative word here. Like it or not, Republicans long ago won the battle over using federal funds for abortions. Minor affirmations of this policy simply don't amount to much aside from giving Republicans some red meat for their base.

This is mostly symbolic, not substantive. Let's pass the bills.

This Lawmaker Publicly Discussed Her Rape and Abortion. And Some Dude Laughed.

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 4:42 PM EDT

While speaking out against a proposed bill in Ohio that aims to ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, Rep. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) revealed on Wednesday she had been raped during her time in the military and chose to have an abortion.

"You don't respect my reason, my rape, my abortion, and I guarantee you there are other women who should stand up with me and be courageous enough to speak that voice," Fedor said before the state senate. "What you're doing is so fundamentally inhuman, unconstitutional, and I've sat here too long."

Her testimony comes just weeks after an Arizona lawmaker shared details about her own abortion, which she had after being sexually assaulted by a male relative when she was a young girl. In a later editorial for Cosmopolitan, Rep. Victoria Steele said that while she was glad to have spoken out and share her story during the legislative debate, she resented the fact that "women have to tell their deepest, darkest traumas in public" in order for lawmakers to grasp how dangerous such anti-abortion bills were to women and their health.

In Fedor's case, not only did she feel she had to share her trauma with her colleagues, at one point she was forced to pause and address the fact a man appeared to be laughing at her while she spoke.

"I see people laughing and I don't appreciate that," she said. "And it happens to be a man who is laughing. But this is serious business right now and I'm speaking for all the women in the state of Ohio who didn't get the opportunity to be in front of that committee and make this statement."

Ohio's House Bill 69 eventually passed with a 55-40 vote. The legislation now goes to the senate, and if passed, will make it a fifth-degree felony and result in up to $2,500 and possible jail time for doctors who perform the abortions.

More Welfare = More Entrepreneurs? Maybe!

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 2:09 PM EDT

Walter Frick writes in the Atlantic about recent research which suggests that a strong social safety net increases entrepreneurship. For example, one researcher found that expansion of the food stamp program led to a higher chance that eligible households would start new businesses:

Interestingly, most of these new entrepreneurs didn’t actually enroll in the food stamp program. It seems that expanding the availability of food stamps increased business formation by making it less risky for entrepreneurs to strike out on their own. Simply knowing that they could fall back on food stamps if their venture failed was enough to make them more likely to take risks.

The same is true of other programs. For example, the Children’s Health Insurance Program:

By comparing the rate of entrepreneurship of those who just barely qualified for CHIP to those whose incomes just barely exceeded the cutoff, he was able to estimate the program’s impact on new business creation. The rate of incorporated business ownership for those eligible households just below the cutoff was 31 percent greater than for similarly situated families that could not rely on CHIP to care for their children if they needed it.

The same is true of recent immigrants to the United States. Contrary to claims by the right that welfare keeps immigrants from living up to their historic role as entrepreneurs, CHIP eligibility increased those households’ chances of owning an incorporated business by 28 percent.

The mechanism in each case is the same: publicly funded insurance lowers the risk of starting a business, since entrepreneurs needn’t fear financial ruin. (This same logic explains why more forgiving bankruptcy laws are associated with more entrepreneurship.)

Personally, I'd tentatively file this under the category of news that's a little too good to be true. After all, I'm a liberal. I want to believe this! And I haven't noticed that European rates of entrepreneurship are especially great, despite the fact that their safety net is much stronger than ours.

Still, what's true in America might be different from what's true in Europe. Different cultures etc. So it's worth reading the whole piece, which is generally pretty nuanced in its claims. At the very least, though, it certainly suggests that a strong safety net doesn't hurt entrepreneurship.

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."