Blogs

How Many People Really, Truly Believe That Abortion Is Murder?

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 11:03 AM EDT

Do anti-abortion activists really think abortion is murder? Or is their opposition merely an expression of their broad discomfort with modern sexual and gender mores? Ed Kilgore concedes that the belief in abortion as murder is often sincere, but if that's the case, how do you explain Rep. Steve DesJarlais (R-TN)?

DesJarlais is a big antichoice, "pro-family" pol first elected (like so many other mistakes) in 2010. During his 2012 re-election campaign, evidence began leaking out through various outlets that he had a history of alleged spousal abuse, serial adultery, sexual relationships with patients and at least three occasions of encouraging a woman to have an abortion (twice his soon-to-be-former wife, once a patient). Much of these toxic allegations seem to have been confirmed when DesJarlais' divorce papers from his first wife were opened just after his 2012 re-election.

In dealing with this evidence, DesJarlais has allowed as how he made some mistakes in a "difficult period of his life," blah blah blah, and has denied pushing a lover to have an abortion (though not pushing his then-wife to have two of them). So without even the drama of a public confession and act of contrition, he's back to trying to pass laws telling other people how to live their sex lives.

I do not understand how anyone who actually thinks of abortion as a homicidal act can vote for someone—a medical professional no less—who admits to having encouraged it with no apparent great remorse. That it seems to have occurred as part of a pattern of systemic disregard for personal and professional ethical standards doesn't help.

I guess I don't share Kilgore's befuddlement, since I've never really believed that much of anyone really, truly thinks that abortion is murder. If you look at actions, rather than words, it just doesn't add up. Lots of people oppose abortion, but with very few exceptions, they very plainly don't react to it the same way they react to a genuine murder. Their emotional response gives the game away, even if they've convinced themselves otherwise intellectually.

DesJarlais is a good example. If he had encouraged the murder of two children—real murder, of kids who were a year or two old—he wouldn't merely be having a tough primary. Regardless of whether he had managed to avoid conviction for his acts, he wouldn't even be able to run for office, let alone be even odds to win. He'd be a pariah. That's how people react to actual killing. But it's not how they react to encouraging abortion. As long as DesJarlais is otherwise on the right side of the culture wars, it'll be shrugged off as unfortunate but not disqualifying.

So don't tell me that all the conservative Christians in DesJarlais' district believe that abortion is murder. They may say they believe it. They may even sincerely think they believe it. But they don't.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

A Picture of Your Leg Hair Can Give Away Your Identity

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 10:39 AM EDT

It's hard to forget Tom Cruise replacing his eyeballs in Minority Report. But in the future, that might not be enough to keep him hidden from the law.

A few days ago, scientists at MIT announced they can listen in on conversations by videotaping a potato chip bag sitting next to the speakers. They could even identify who was talking.

From your veins to your walk, sophisticated computer algorithms keep getting better at identifying you based on things there’s no way to password protect. This research, called “soft biometrics,” is making it into ATMs, courtrooms, and even passports. Here are five creepy ways scientists can figure out who you are.

 

Your Potato Chips

You might not see the objects around you vibrate when you talk, but cameras do. And those vibrations carry enough information to identify your voice, or even eavesdrop on your conversation.

With a regular digital camera pointed at a chip bag, a potted plant, or a glass of water, MIT researchers could tell how many people were in a room, as well as the gender of each speaker. If they knew enough about a speaker's voice, they could even pick them out of the crowd. Give the scientists a high speed camera, and they can turn the vibrations into a high-tech wiretap.

 

Your Body Hair

Roblan/Shutterstock

Your beach photos may give more away than you think. Chinese computer scientists have written a program that can take a low-resolution picture of a leg and identify it based on patterns in androgenic hair, which is hair you grow after puberty. It always grows in the same pattern, like a furry fingerprint. Other androgenic hair includes chest and pubic hair, beards, and even the coarse hair on your arms.

The scientists tested extremely grainy photos, between 25 to 6.25 dots of "ink" per inch—for reference, inkjet printers generally print between 300 and 700 d.p.i. So it might be possible to ID someone in a Facebook photo that doesn't show a face, or even a video screencap.

 

Your Veins

The pattern of blood vessels near the surface of your skin stays largely the same throughout your life. In Japan, many ATMs have you scan your palm before taking out cash, and several Swedish stores let you pay with your veins.

The technology isn't only good for commercial purposes, though. Someday soon, you might be identified in a courtroom by a color photo that shows only a patch of skin.

 

Your Ears

A few years ago, the internet lit up with news that airports might start snapping candids of all our ears as we walk through security. While ears still haven't taken the TSA by storm, there's certainly the technology to do it.

From birth on, our ears stay about the same shape, even as they get proportionally bigger. That gives ear shots a leg up over facial recognition, which will probably never be able to identify adults from childhood pictures.


The Way You Walk

Gait analysis is already in common use for forensics. Even in low-res security footage, everything from the way your head bobs to the length of your stride makes you unique. The Guinness Book of World Records lists the first courtroom use of this kind of biomechanics as 2000, when a jury convicted a burglar based on a grainy security video that showed the criminal's distinct walk.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 7, 2014

Thu Aug. 7, 2014 9:15 AM EDT

A US Marines special operations officer graduating from Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command's Individual Training Course. (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Thomas Provost)

50 Years Ago Today: Congress Authorizes Vietnam War Under Bullshit Pretense

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Captain John J. Herrick, USN, Commander Destroyer Division 192 (at left) and Commander Herbert L. Ogier, USN, Commanding Officer of USS Maddox on 13 August 1964. They were in charge of the ship during her engagement with three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats on 2 August 1964. Photographed by PH3 White. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center
 

After just nine hours of deliberation, both houses of Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution today in 1964. The bill authorizing the United States to officially go to war with Vietnam was signed by President Lyndon Johnson three days later. Of course, the United States had been increasingly involved in Vietnam at least since 1955, when then-President Eisenhower deployed the Military Assistance Advisory group to help train the South Vietnamese Army.

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in a post-midnight press briefing, August 4, 1964 in the Pentagon points out action in Gulf of Tonkin in August 4 attacks by North Viet Nam PT boats against U.S. destroyers on patrol. McNamara called the attacks unprovoked and deliberate, in view of the previous attack on Aug. 2. Bob Schutz/AP
 

The supposed August 4th attack on the USS Maddox was used to legitimize the growing U.S. presence in Vietnam and to give the President authority to use the military in the effort to combat Communist North Vietnam. Even Johnson questioned the legitimacy of the Gulf of Tonkin. A year after the incident, Johnson said to then Press Secretary Bill Moyers, "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there."

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs "Gulf of Tonkin" resolution. Cecil Stoughton/White House Photograph Office/National Archives

 

Obama's 5 Most Atrocious Dinner Guests at the US-Africa Leaders Summit

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 7:33 PM EDT
President Obama talks with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz at the US-Africa summit.

As the historic US-Africa Leaders Summit winds down in Washington, headlines have been dominated by concerns over ebolacompetition with China, and what food was served at the mega-dinner the White House hosted for attendees. (Papaya flavored with Madagascar vanilla, anyone?) What garnered less attention, however, was the parade of autocrats from the continent that descended on DC for the event.

Congress Needs Its Own Dormitory

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 6:12 PM EDT

Paul Waldman is exasperated with the latest fad among members of Congress: sleeping in your office to demonstrate to your constituents just how much you really, truly hate the Sodom that is modern Washington DC. It started after the Gingrich revolution of 1994, and has now become so popular among the tea party set that even the womenfolk are getting into the act. "It was never my goal to come to DC and be comfortable," says South Dakota's Kristi Noem. Waldman is unamused:

Oh, spare me. If you're doing it because you don't want to get too settled in Washington, then I assume you won't be running for re-election, right? I thought so.

I'll grant that as far as affectations go, this one certainly takes commitment. But how exactly is sleeping in your office supposed to keep you connected with the real America? What's going to make you more "out of touch," getting an apartment so you can have a good night's sleep when you're doing the people's business, or literally never leaving Capitol Hill? Is signing a one-year lease on a studio going to suddenly make you change your views on deficit spending or tax cuts or the next trade deal? If it is, your constituents probably shouldn't have elected you in the first place.

Maybe Congress should just set up its own dormitory, along the lines of a youth hostel, maybe, and let our nation's representatives bunk down there. They've already got a barbershop and a gym, after all, so why not just add a few photogenically spartan cells and allow the office suites to revert to being actual offices?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Colbert Wishes Your Kid a Good Night's Sleep With This New Pro-Gun Illustrated Book

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 3:46 PM EDT
"My Parents Open Carry" Lorna Bergman, Brian G. Jeffs, Nathan R. Nephew.

I first saw this children's book going around Facebook yesterday. You know the one: it celebrates 13-year-old Brenna's Mom and Dad for "open carrying" their hand guns. At first I thought, "the illustrations and dependence on Comic Sans are so eye-bleedingly bad it must be a perfectly conceived Masters project by some NYU Tisch grad." The website promoting the book carries the kind of knee-slapping prose that must be satirical, right? "Before writing this, we looked for pro-gun children's books and couldn't find any." Couldn't find any! Ha, ha, ha. Which non-profit/government agency/university supplied the grant to fund this brilliant take-down of gun culture in America? Was it Bloomberg himself?

But then I paid my $3.95 for the PDF (you'll pick up the tab, Mother Jones), and it dawned on me: It's real. Then I thought, "Wow, this seems custom-made to be pilloried by Stephen Colbert!"

Enjoy:

Voter Fraud Literally Less Likely Than Being Hit By Lightning

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 3:10 PM EDT

Justin Levitt has been tracking allegations of voter fraud for years. "To be clear," he says, "I’m not just talking about prosecutions. I track any specific, credible allegation that someone may have pretended to be someone else at the polls, in any way that an ID law could fix." So far, he's found 31 cases representing around 200 individuals. If every one of them turns out be a genuine case of fraud, that's a fraud rate of:

Of course, Levitt might be off by an order of magnitude. Or maybe even two or three orders of magnitude. That would put the fraud rate at 0.02 percent. On the other hand, these are just allegations. If past performance holds true, nearly all of them will turn out to be clerical mistakes, which means we're back to 0.00002 percent. This compares to many thousands of voters who have been turned away from the polls for lack of ID in just the past few years.

Also worth noting: every single one of these cases involves just one or a few people. There's not a single credible case in the past 15 years of any kind of organized voter impersonation scam of the kind that might actually affect the outcome of an election. There's just no there there.

Your House Is Killing You: Couch Edition

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

Couch potatoes take heed: Sofas and beds, like so many other household items we hear about these days, might be messing with our bodies.

A study on fire retardants written by scientists at the Environmental Working Group and Duke University and published this week in Environmental Science and Technology delivered some pretty disturbing news: Of the 22 mothers and 26 children tested, 100 percent showed exposure to a fire retardant called TDCIPP, a likely carcinogen, and the average concentration in children was nearly five times that of their moms. The study measured the concentration of fire retardant "biomarkers," or compounds produced when the fire retardants are broken down, in the participants' urine. In addition to finding TDCIPP, researchers found high levels of the chemicals used to make the popular fire retardant brand, FireMaster.

The Environmental Working Group report accompanying the study explains, "People end up with fire retardants in their bodies mainly by inhaling or swallowing dust." Many flame retardants are "additives," meaning that they are added to our furniture and other products instead of binding with chemicals through chemical reactions. This makes them a lot more likely to migrate out of the products in the form of dust.

The researchers suspected that kids had higher flame retardant levels than their mothers simply because they spend more time on the floor, where dust accumulates.

The researchers suspected that kids had higher exposure levels than their mothers simply because they spend more time on the floor, where dust accumulates, and because they put their hands in their mouths more. A study from earlier this year found that kids who wash their hands five or more times a day had fire retardants on their hands at concentration levels 30 to 50 percent lower than those who washed their hands less frequently.

Here's a rundown of four of the chemicals examined in the most recent study, their associated health effects, and where they are commonly found:

TDCIPP is a common flame retardant in couches, mattresses, and other cushioned furniture. A 2012 Duke University analysis of 102 couch cushion samples found evidence of TDCIPP in more than half of the couches purchased after 2005. The scientists also found traces of the retardant in over a third of the 101 car seats, baby carriers, portable mattresses, and other baby products sampled. Animal studies have shown TDCIPP to cause tumors in multiple organs, and TDCIPP is listed in California as a carcinogen and labeled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission as a "probable carcinogen." The TDCIPP biomarker was found in 100 percent of kids and 100 percent of mothers. The children's concentrations were, on average, nearly five times larger than those of their own moms.

FireMaster components: Three of the chemicals studied are components of FireMaster 550 and FireMaster 600, two products of a fire retardant brand produced by chemical manufacturer Chemtura and commonly used in mattresses and furniture cushioning. The 2012 study by researchers at Duke found evidence of FireMaster 550 in 18 percent of couches purchased after 2005 and 17 percent of baby products. The components:

  • TPhP is the second most frequently detected fire retardant in the foam of couches purchased after 2005 (after TDCIPP). In addition to being part of FireMaster 550, it’s a common plasticizer in rubber and vinyl, used in things like shower curtains, and rubber and plastic toys. Not much is known about the health effects of TPhP, but recent studies show that TPhP could be an endocrine disruptor, associated with decreased sperm count and increased estrogenic activity. The TPhP biomarker was found in 100 percent of kids and 95 percent of mothers, with children showing concentrations nearly three times that of their mothers.
  • ip-TPhP, an isomer of TPhP, is another component of FireMaster 550. Like TPhP, little is known about the long-term health effects of ip-TPhP exposure.
  • EH-TBB is a component of FireMaster 550 and 600. When combined with flame retardant TBPH in a 2008 study, it caused developmental and reproductive damage to lab animals.  EH-TBB biomarkers were found in 70 percent of kids and 27 percent of mothers.

Amy Lamott, a representative Chemtura, acknowledged that these chemicals are in FireMaster products, but wrote, "We rigorously test our products to ensure the risk of health effects is low and the fire protection benefits are real. Our products have been approved by an EPA review process, and we review any study that might offer new information. In a real world environment, exposure levels of flame retardants are low—and the fire safety benefit outweighs any potential risk that has been found."

In 1975, California passed a law requiring the foam of all furniture sold in the state to withstand the ignition of a small flame for twelve seconds.

The recent studies on flame retardants still beg the question: why are we putting these chemicals in furniture to begin with? Back in 1975, California passed a law requiring the foam of all furniture sold in the state to withstand the ignition of a small flame for twelve seconds. One cheap and easy way for furniture manufacturers to live up to the standard was apply large amounts of fire retardants to the foam—of the 102 couch foams sampled in the 2012 study referenced above, 85 percent of them contained at least one fire retardant, and the chemicals accounted for as much as 11 percent of the weight of couch foam. Many furniture companies douse all of their foam in retardants in order to avoid making California-specific furniture, but because there are no federal labeling laws, consumers often can't tell what's in their furniture. The same 2012 study found that 60 percent of unlabeled couch foam samples contained fire retardants.

When studies started suggesting that PBDE, a class of common flame retardants, was associated with neurodevelopmental problems in children, chemical manufacturers phased out PBDE chemicals between 2004 and 2013. The Duke/EWG study released this week was the first study to test exposure levels to flame retardants that have become popular since the phase out of PBDE.

Despite all this glum news, things may be looking up. In 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown revised the flame law due to health concerns about flame retardants and the inefficacy of applying retardants to foam rather than to the surface of furniture. The new law, effective January 1st of this year, requires furniture manufacturers to meet a "smolder test" instead of the 12-second test. The flame retardants listed above aren't prohibited—they're simply not required to meet the new standards. Old furniture dispenses dust long after it's bought and it's too soon to tell how much the new law will affect chemical treatment of furniture, but for now, we can keep our (recently washed) fingers crossed.

Even Wall Street Thinks Income Inequality Could "Capsize" the Economy

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 2:35 PM EDT

There's a lot of evidence that record-high income inequality has gutted the United States' post-recession recovery. But on Tuesday, the argument was made by an unexpected source: Standard & Poor's (S&P), a Wall Street firm providing ratings and analysis on stocks and bonds, issued a report pointing out economic disparity's role in "dampening US economic growth."

Over the next decade, S&P forecasts that the economy will expand at just a 2.5 percent annual rate, a downgrade from the 2.8 percent growth it predicted just five years ago. One explanation: "At extreme levels, income inequality can harm sustained economic growth over long periods. The US is approaching that threshold."

income distribution

The gap between the richest and poorest Americans has been skyrocketing for decades, with no end in sight. How exactly does this widening wealth gap affect the economy? "Higher levels of income inequality increase political pressures, discouraging trade, investment, and hiring," the report explains. It leads extremely wealthy households to save more and consume less, while lower-income households must borrow to sustain consumption. "When these imbalances can no longer be sustained, we see a boom/bust cycle such as the one that culminated in the Great Recession."

S&P warns against drastic changes to the tax code, arguing that "heavy taxation solely to equalize wages may reduce incentives to work or hire more workers…Policymakers should take care, however, to avoid policies and practices that are either too heavy handed or foster an unchecked widening of the wealth gap. Extreme approaches on either side would stunt GDP growth."

Instead, S&P suggests focusing on education to increase national productivity. According to the report, one additional year of education in the American workforce could increase GDP by $525 billion—about a 2.4 percent boost—over the next five years.

As S&P ominously concludes the report, "A lifeboat carrying a few, surrounded by many treading water, risks capsizing."