Blogs

Marijuana Legalization Seems to Be Working Out....So Far

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 12:33 PM EDT

Here are a few typical headlines I've seen recently about Colorado's legalization of marijuana:

Washington Post: Since marijuana legalization, highway fatalities in Colorado are at near-historic lows

Vox: Marijuana legalization didn't stop Colorado's decade-long decline in teen pot use

HuffPo: If Legalizing Marijuana Was Supposed To Cause More Crime, It's Not Doing A Very Good Job

There's a phrase missing from all of these: "so far." I hope that pot legalization turns out great and every other state eventually follows the lead of Colorado and Washington. But honestly folks, it's early days yet. Legalization almost certainly has long-term dynamics and feedback effects that we simply won't know about for years. What happens during the first few months is all but meaningless. Even if the stories themselves are more nuanced, this ought to be reflected in the headlines too.

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IBM Unveils Chip That's Maybe As Powerful As a Cockroach

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 11:37 AM EDT

IBM has announced a new chip that it says is a breakthrough in emulating the human brain:

"Power is the fundamental constraint as we move forward," says Horst Simon, deputy director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a major supercomputer user. "This chip is an indication that we are really at the threshold of a fundamental change in architecture."

....TrueNorth, IBM says, uses 5.4 billion transistors—four times more than a typical PC processor—to yield the equivalent of one million neurons and 256 million synapses. They are organized into 4,096 structures called "neurosynaptic cores," each able to store, process and transmit data to any other using a communications scheme called a crossbar.

The design is "event-driven," Mr. Modha says. That means that individual cores fire up only when they are needed, rather than running all the time. This scheme makes the chips more power efficient. Where a comparable standard microprocessor draws 50 to 100 watts per square centimeter, TrueNorth draws just 20 milliwatts, or thousandths of a watt, IBM says.

That's about as many neurons as a small insect has. You'd need something on the order of 100,000 of these chips to provide as many neurons as the typical human brain—though that's probably not really a meaningful number. If digital neurons are faster than chemical neurons, you might need fewer of them. You also don't need any of the neurons that are designed solely to keep the body physically alive. And traditional chips can pick up a lot of the load too. On the other hand, the 3-D structure of the brain provides some advantages you don't get from a 2-D chip.

In other words, who knows? Maybe you need 10,000, maybe you need a million. Maybe this whole approach will turn out to be a dead end. And we're still a long way off from developing the software to make this all work in any case.

Still: it's cool stuff. There are lots of different approaches to developing artificial intelligence, and this is certainly a plausible one. It probably won't take too long before we know whether it really holds the promise that AI researchers hope it does.

Anti-Abortion Tea Party Congressman Who Asked Mistress to Get Abortion Could Win Primary

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 11:11 AM EDT
Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.)

Voters in Tennessee’s fourth congressional district sent a clear message to future Republican candidates on Thursday: If you pressure your mistress to get an abortion, you might (eventually) lose your job for it you can get away with basically anything.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, who pressured a woman—one of two patients he admitted having affairs with—to get an abortion in the 1990s, appears to have narrowly avoided becoming the fourth Republican incumbent to lose a primary this year. With 100 percent of precincts reporting on Thursday, he led state Sen. Jim Tracy by 35 votes—34,787 to 34,752. (The results are not official and a recount is possible, although the state has no law mandating one in such circumstances.) The abortion revelation emerged after DesJarlais' 2012 primary, when the only thing standing between him and reelection in the deeply Republican district was a token Democratic candidate in the general election.

But after his reelection, the dominoes continued to fall. Divorce transcripts released two weeks after the race revealed that he and his first wife had decided to abort two pregnancies. That proved a problem for the congressman, who is adamantly pro-life: Per his website, "Congressman DesJarlais believes that all life should be cherished and protected. He has received a 100% score by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), the oldest and the largest national pro-life organization in the United States."

This year, the congressman faced a serious challenge from Tracy, who entered the race almost immediately after DesJarlais returned to Washington. As Jason Linkins notes, Tracy didn't make DesJarlais's past a focal point until July, although when he did, he went all in. Per the Chattanooga Times Free-Press:

The front of the mailer depicts wooden toy letter blocks spelling "baby," and goes on to say, "Abortions. Affairs. Abuse of Power. We can't trust DesJarlais to Fight for Our Values."

DesJarlais spokesman Robert Jameson called the piece "just the sort of disgusting gutter politics we'd expected from [U.S. House Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi and her allies in Washington."

Having an affair with your patient is pretty creepy, and attempting to deny reproductive rights to women after privately advocating for women to get abortions is kind of a weird thing to put on your resumé. On the other hand, DesJarlais did produce this ad once, in which two good ol' boys play checkers while talking about how awesome he is:

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 8, 2014

Fri Aug. 8, 2014 10:49 AM EDT

Canadian, British and Dutch military paratroopers board a US Army helicopter during Leapfest XXXI, an airborne parachute competition sponsored by the Rhode Island National Guard. (DoD photo by Sgt. Austin Berner, US Army)

Obama's Intervention in Iraq Is All About the Kurds

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 10:48 AM EDT

Why did President Obama decide to re-engage militarily in Iraq? Was it to prevent the genocide of the Yazidi religious minority trapped on Mt. Sinjar? Partly, perhaps, but Max Fischer writes that the real motivation was to protect Iraq's northern Kurds:

If you are a member of ISIS, here is how you might hear Obama's message: Stay away from Iraqi Kurdistan, and the rest of northern Iraq is yours to keep. Based on Obama's words and actions so far, you would not be so wrong.

....Invading Iraq's Kurdish region, it turned out, was Obama's red line for ISIS. There are a few reasons why. The Kurdish region is far stabler, politically, than the rest of Iraq. (Kurds are ethnically distinct from the rest of Iraq, which is largely ethnic Arab; most Kurds are Sunni Muslims.) The Kurdish region, which has been semi-autonomous since the United States invaded in 2003 and has grown more autonomous from Baghdad ever since, also happens to be a much more reliable US ally than is the central Iraqi government. It has a reasonably competent government and military, unlike the central Iraqi government, which is volatile, unstable, deeply corrupt, and increasingly authoritarian.

....On a background briefing call with White House officials late on Thursday, the emphasis on defending Erbil came through loud and clear: the US is clearly designing its intervention around protecting the Kurdish region; any effect for the rest of Iraq is secondary, and was premised on Iraq's government first fulfilling some political commitments.

The effect, though, is to imply that the US will not intervene against ISIS if they remain on the correct side of the red line — effectively giving them the US go-ahead to continue terrorizing the vast territory in northern Iraq they've already seized.

In the Middle East, red lines don't always work so well. This one will obviously depend to a large degree on how competent the Kurdish militias turn out to be, and whether they can repel the ISIS troops with nothing more than a modest amount of aerial support from the US. Given the small size of the ISIS forces, and the reputation of the Kurdish Peshmerga, this certainly ought to be feasible. If even the Kurds are having trouble against ISIS, however, this suggests that ISIS is considerably stronger than anyone thought. Stay tuned.

President Richard Nixon Announced His Resignation 40 Years Ago

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Richard Nixon departing the White House after resigning. Oliver F. Atkins/White House/Wikimedia

Forty years ago today President Richard Nixon finally announced his resignation on national television, effective 12 p.m. August 9, 1974.

Good riddance.

CBS

Bonus photo: Nixon's last meal in the White House, as President:

A picture of the last meal Nixon ate as President prior to him leaving the White House. White House Photo Office/National Archives

 

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Read the Emails in the Hilarious Monsanto/Mo Rocca/Condé Nast Meltdown (UPDATED)

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 8:55 PM EDT

Last week, Gawker uncovered a hapless tie-up between genetically modified seed/pesticide giant Monsanto and Condé Nast Media—publisher of The New Yorker, Bon Appetit, GQ, Self, Details, and other magazines—to produce "an exciting video series" on the "topics of food, food chains and sustainability."

Marion Nestle was offered $5,000 to participate for a single afternoon.

Since then, I've learned that Condé Nast's Strategic Partnerships division dangled cash before several high-profile food politics writers, in an unsuccessful attempt to convince them to participate.  

Marion Nestle, author of the classic book Food Politics and a professor at New York University, told me she was offered $5,000 to participate for a single afternoon. Nestle almost accepted, because at first she didn't know Monsanto was involved—the initial email she received only referred to the company in attachments that she didn't open, she said.

"It wasn't until we were at the end of the discussion about how much time I would allow (they wanted a full day) that they mentioned the honorarium," she wrote in an email. "I was so shocked at the amount that I had sense enough to ask who was paying for it. Monsanto. End of discussion."

James McWillams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and a pundit on food issues whose work appears in The Atlantic and other publications, got offered even more, in a conversation with a Conde Nast rep on Aug. 6. "They were not evasive or misleading" about Monsanto's involvement, he told me, "just not immediately forthcoming…within a question or two it was clear that this was a PR project."

He wouldn't tell me on the record how much they dangled, but described it as "more money than I've ever been paid to talk" and "considerably north" of Nestle's offer. He declined.

Apparently, the infamous gender gap in pay lives on, even in the market for corporate flackery. I would have thought that snagging Nestle, a longtime industry critic, would be worth much more than bagging McWilliams, who has written favorably about GMOs. Nestle, who is quoted frequently in major media articles on food topics, also arguably has a considerably higher public profile than does McWilliams.

Then there's Anna Lappé, author of the book Diet for a Hot Planet and prominent critic of the agrichemical industry. She forwarded me an August 4 email a representative of her Small Planet Foundation received from someone identified as "Senior Director, Strategic Alliances, the Condé Nast Media Group." The email, printed below, invited Lappé to participate in an "exciting video series being promoted on our brand websites (i.e: Self, Epicurious, Bon Appetit, GQ & Details) and living on a custom YouTube channel," centered on "food, food chains and sustainability." It didn't mention Monsanto, but added that "[c]ompensation will be provided, along with travel two/from the shoot location." It contained no mention of Monsanto, or specifics on the compensation offer.

Coincidentally, Lappé was already wise to the Monsanto/Condé Nast tie-up. Back in June, she had been forwarded an email about a forthcoming web-based TV show sponsored by Monsanto and produced by Condé Nast, in search of experts to appear as talking heads. Lappé wrote critically about the project in an Al Jazeera America column published August 1, just days before the Condé Nast rep approached her. "I guess they didn't read the column," Lappé says.

She replied to the Condé Nast proposition on August 7, complaining that "it was misleading to approach me about participating without divulging the series is being funded by Monsanto." She never heard back.

That same day, Gawker came out with its post, which contained a leaked email from another Condé Nast employee to unnamed charity group, which contains similar language to the one Lappé received. "We are contacting you to see if there might be a person at [charity group] who could speak to one or two of the episode subject," the email states. (The email also names documentary film maker Lori Silverbush as someone Condé Nast hoped would be part of the panel. Silverbush's husband, the famed New York City chef Tom Colicchio, later tweeted, "Lori declined the Monsanto 'opportunity' when it was first offered, for reasons you can imagine.")

The series' host, the email continued, would be Mo Rocca, a famed comedian and correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning. Lappé, McWilliams, and Nestle were also informed that Rocca would appear as the show's host. "When I looked up Mo Rocca, he sounded like fun," Nestle told me.

Soon after the Gawker item appeared, Rocca wrote a note to the publication denying his involvement. "Yes, I was pitched that project but before I gave my answer a letter went out suggesting I was signed on," he wrote. "That's not the case. I'm not involved with it."

I've reached out to Condé Nast for comment, and will update this post if the company gets back.

UPDATE: Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and the most high-profile US food-politics writer, was also invited to participate in the project, he informed me Friday. In a July 22 email to Pollan's lecture agent, a Condé Nast rep talked up an "exciting video series being promoted on our brand websites," centered on "food, food chains and sustainability," but didn't mention Mo Rocca or compensation. Nor did the email mention Monsanto—as with the case of Nestle, the company's name only appeared in an attachment. Pollan's agent "declined before money was mentioned," he said.

Here's the email Lappé's associate got from Condé Nast:

And here's Lappé's response:

 

Quote of the Day: Wall Street Judge Left With "Nothing But Sour Grapes"

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 5:37 PM EDT

A few years ago, federal district judge Jed Rakoff refused to approve an SEC settlement with Citigroup over charges that they had deliberately offloaded toxic mortgage securities into a special fund so that they could make money by betting against their own customers. Rakoff objected partly because he thought the SEC's proposed fine was too small—"pocket change," he called it—but mostly because there was no public reckoning of what Citigroup had done. Not only weren't they required to admit wrongdoing, they weren't required even to admit the bare facts of what they had done.

Sadly for Rakoff—and for the public—an appeals court overruled him, basically saying that the SEC had full discretion to reach any settlement it desired, and the judge's only real role was to make sure it wasn't tainted by collusion or corruption. Earlier this week, Rakoff backed off:

They who must be obeyed have spoken, and this Court's duty is to faithfully fulfill their mandate.

....Nonetheless, this Court fears that, as a result of the Court of Appeal's decision, the settlements reached by governmental regulatory bodies and enforced by the judiciary's contempt powers will in practice be subject to no meaningful oversight whatsoever. But it would be a dereliction of duty for this Court to seek to evade the dictates of the Court of Appeals. That Court has now fixed the menu, leaving this Court with nothing but sour grapes.

Quite so, and the SEC's long tradition of issuing wrist slaps to big Wall Street firms—and withholding all the details of their corruption from the public—is now safe once again. Apparently that kind of thing is only for the little people.

Of course, Congress could intervene, giving the SEC more manpower and demanding more accountability, but that's not going to happen either. After all, sometimes people say mean things about Wall Street firms. Surely that's punishment enough?

Via Michael Hiltzik, who has more at the link.

Montana Democrat Ends Senate Campaign Over Plagiarism

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 5:13 PM EDT

Republicans' path to taking over the Senate just got a little bit easier. Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) announced on Thursday he would end his Senate campaign after the New York Times reported last month that he had plagiarized portions of his 2007 Army War College thesis. Walsh, a former lieutenant governor and adjutant general of the state national guard, was appointed to the seat vacated by Ambassador to China Max Baucus but struggled to generate much enthusiasm among voters. Montana Democrats have until August 20 to find a new nominee. But whoever wins the Democratic nod will have a tough row to hoe against GOP Rep. (and creationism advocate) Steve Daines, who held a 16-point lead in a CBS/New York Times poll taken lost month.

Don't plagiarize, kids.

Wildfires Cause Nearly a Fifth of Manmade Carbon Emissions

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 4:27 PM EDT
A helicopter drops water on a wildfire in Oregon

Wildfires are raging around the western United States: As of yesterday, more than 10,000 firefighters were battling 20 fires in Oregon and California. Another fire in Washington state recently grew to cover more than 8,000 acres. While the immediate consequences of the blazes are obvious—scorched earth, destroyed homes, millions of dollars in damages—the longer-term consequences for the climate have, until now, been poorly understood.

In a study published at the end of July in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University engineer, says the burning of biomass like trees, plants, and grass—either by accident or deliberately (often to create room for agriculture)—creates 18 percent of all human-caused carbon emissions. Worse yet, that pollution kills people: Around the world, Jacobson writes, biomass burning may account for 5-10 percent of all air pollution deaths worldwide, or about 250,000 people annually.

Lightning strikes and lava flows can burn down forests just as effectively as campfires, cigarettes, and slash and burn agriculture. But worldwide, Jacobson notes, the proportion of wildfires that are caused by nature could be as low as 3.6 percent. The rest are started by humans.

Possibly the worst news of all: Wildfires are part of a vicious circle. Emissions from fires cause climate change, which leads to drier conditions—which make it easier for humans and nature to start fires and for those fires to spread.