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Three Cheers For the California Miracle!

| Mon Mar. 23, 2015 11:21 AM EDT

Oh dear. Here's some bad news for Ted Cruz on his very first day as an official presidential candidate:

For years, business lobbyists complained about what they derided as "job killer" laws that drive employers out of California. Rival state governors, notably former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, made highly publicized visits to the Golden State in hopes of poaching jobs.

But new numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tell a different story. Total jobs created in the 12 months ending Jan. 31 show California leading other states. California gained 498,000 new jobs, almost 30% more than the Lone Star State's total of 392,900 for the same period.

Them's the breaks. There's no more "Texas Miracle" for either Cruz or Rick Perry. We're in the middle of a California Miracle right now.

So how is Sodom on the Pacific pulling this off? Actually, that's pretty easy to answer. California was hit hard by the housing bubble, while Texas wasn't. So California's economy took a big hit during the recession and the slow recovery, while Texas did pretty well—aided and abetted by a rise in oil prices.

Now everything has turned around. California is rebounding strongly from the housing crisis while Texas is suffering from the global collapse in oil prices. There is, frankly, nothing very miraculous about either story. It's just the business cycle at work in a fairly normal and predictable way.

In fact, you may recall that there was never much of a Texas Miracle in the first place. It was mostly just PR bluster, as the chart on the right shows. The thick green line shows the unemployment rate in Texas compared to its neighboring states, and Texas is right smack in the middle—and it always has been. It's better than half a dozen nearby states and worse than another half dozen. It is, sad to say, entirely average. That's not something Texans are likely to take kindly to, but numbers don't lie.

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Ted Cruz Throws His Hat In General Direction of Presidential Ring

| Mon Mar. 23, 2015 10:37 AM EDT

The big news sweeping my Twitter feed last night was Ted Cruz's rather sudden decision to announce that he's running for president. Usually there's a warmup period of some kind (an "exploratory committee," etc.) but apparently Cruz decided to dispense with all that and simply throw his hat in the ring posthaste. The motivation for his sudden haste is a little mysterious at this point.

The other thing sweeping my Twitter feed was the fact that the URL tedcruz.com leads to the site on the right. Patrick Caldwell explains this and much more in his brisk overview of potential candidates and their unfortunate lack of attention to the basics of internet campaigning:

Unfortunately for the Texas Republican, long before he ran for Senate in 2012, TedCruz.com had been nabbed by an Arizona attorney who shares his name. Based on a search of the Wayback Machine, an internet archive, the Arizona Cruz's website dates back to at least early 2008, when it was a normal, if slightly Geocities-tinged, business website. "Putting All Your Real Estate Needs In 'CRUZ CONTROL,'" the attorney's tagline said at the time. But sometime within the past year he ditched his law site to instead mock the would-be-president. On a simple black background, in large font, the website screamed: "COMING SOON, Presidential Candidate, I Luv CHRISTIE!!!!!" Attorney Cruz wouldn't say anything to Mother Jones over email except to acknowledge that he has owned the domain for several years. But he deleted the section about loving Christie shortly thereafter. Given the initial message, though, it seems unlikely that the Arizona attorney will be easily persuaded to relinquish control of the domain to the senator.

That's bad luck, no? Still, at least Cruz has control of tedcruz.org. It was obviously thrown together pretty quickly, though at least it's got the basics. But why the slapdash approach? According to the New York Times this morning, Cruz was afraid of being upstaged: "By becoming the first candidate to declare himself officially in the race, Republicans briefed on his strategy said, Mr. Cruz hopes to reclaim the affection and attention of those on the party’s right wing who have begun eyeing other contenders, particularly Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin."

Cruz's official announcement, inevitably, will be done at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell's shrine to the Christian Right. I think we can expect many, many more speeches and announcements from Republican wannabes there. But Cruz will be the first! Take that, Bobby Jindal!

Let John Oliver Explain How Petty Municipal Fines Destroy the Lives of Our Most Vulnerable

| Mon Mar. 23, 2015 9:39 AM EDT

As demonstrated by the Justice Department's damning investigation into the Ferguson Police Department, police officials often rely on slapping hefty municipal fines to fund government. Such practices are rampant in towns across the country.

On the latest Last Week Tonight, John Oliver took on the issue with an in-depth report explaining how a petty traffic violation—a ticket some people can simply shrug off as a nuisance—can actually wreck the lives of society's most vulnerable citizens, and sometimes even land people in jail.

"Most Americans drive to work," he explained. "If you can't do that, you've got a problem. In New Jersey, a survey of low-income drivers who had their license suspended found that 64 percent had lost their jobs as a result, which doesn't help anyone. You need them to pay their fine but you're taking away their means of paying it. That's the most self-defeating idea since gay conversion camp!"

While Oliver says he's not advocating for minor offenses to go without punishment, people should have the "right to fuck up once in a while without completely destroying our lives."

Watch below:

 

Courtney Barnett's Debut LP Captures the Absorbing Minutiae of Everyday Life

| Mon Mar. 23, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Courtney Barnett
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Mom + Pop

Although this beguiling opus is being billed as Australian Courtney Barnett's debut LP, she previously produced an album's worth of material in the form of two EPs, a highlight being "Avant Gardener," her engagingly offhand account of an asthma attack. She follows that tune's deceptively ingenious template on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, which blends agreeably slackerish vocals, ramshackle yet catchy guitar pop, and understated songs devoted to capturing the absorbing minutiae of everyday life.

From "Elevator Operator" to "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party" to "An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY)," Barnett's characters turn the act of "just idling insignificantly" into a search for deeper meaning, often seesawing between self-loathing and self-respect. And while epiphanies prove elusive, her good-hearted, empathic portraits are unfailingly memorable.

Why Is Closed Captioning So Bad?

| Sun Mar. 22, 2015 12:24 PM EDT

Over at Marginal Revolution, commenter Jan A. asks:

Why is the (global) state of subtitling and closed captioning so bad?

a/ Subtitling and closed captioning are extremely efficient ways of learning new languages, for example for immigrants wanting to learn the language of their new country.

b/ Furthermore video is now offered on phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, televisions... but very frequently these videos cannot be played with sound on (a phone on public transport, a laptop in public places, televisions in busy places like bars or shops,...).

c/ And most importantly of all, it is crucial for the deaf and hard of hearing.

So why is it so disappointingly bad? Is it just the price (lots of manual work still, despite assistive speech-to-text technologies)? Or don’t producers care?

I use closed captioning all the time even though I'm not really hard of hearing. I just have a hard time picking out dialog when there's a lot of ambient noise in the soundtrack—which is pretty routine these days. So I have a vested interest in higher quality closed captioning. My beef, however, isn't so much with the text itself, which is usually pretty close to the dialog, but with the fact that there are multiple closed captioning standards and sometimes none of them work properly, with the captions either being way out of sync with the dialog or else only partially available. (That is, about one sentence out of three actually gets captioned.)

Given the (a) technical simplicity and low bandwidth required for proper closed captions, and (b) the rather large audience of viewers with hearing difficulties, it surprises me that these problems are so common. I don't suppose that captioning problems cost TV stations a ton of viewers, but they surely cost them a few here and there. Why is it so hard to get right?

POSTSCRIPT: Note that I'm not talking here about real-time captioning, as in live news and sports programming. I understand why it's difficult to do that well.

Bad News for Those of You Who, Like Us, Drank Cheap Wine Each and Every Night of Your 20s

Fri Mar. 20, 2015 7:09 PM EDT

Update, 3/20/15: Wine industry groups have begun to contest the lawsuit's contentions and motive. The California wine trade group, the Wine Institute, released a statement saying, "While there are no established limits in the U.S., several countries, including the European Union, have established limits of 100 parts per billion or higher for wine. California wine exports are tested by these governments and are below the established limits." A representative of The Wine Group, one of the defendants, says that the plaintiffs "decided to file a complaint based on misleading and selective information in order to defame responsible California winemakers, create unnecessary fear, and distort and deceive the public for their own financial gain."

Before you go out drinking tonight, a quick note on cheap wine: Yesterday, a class-action lawsuit was filed against 28 California wineries—including the creators of Trader Joes' Charles Shaw (a.k.a. "Two-Buck Chuck"), Sutter Home's, and Franzia, Beringer, and Cupcake—alleging that some varietals of their wines contain dangerously high levels of arsenic. According to the complaint, three independent laboratories tested the wines and found that some contained levels of arsenic "up to 500% or more than what is what is considered the maximum acceptable safe daily intake limit. Put differently, just a glass or two of these arsenic-contaminated wines a day over time could result in dangerous arsenic toxicity to the consumer."

"The lower the price of wine on a per-liter basis, the higher the amount of arsenic."

The origins of the lawsuit draw back to Kevin Hicks, a former wine distributor who started BeverageGrades, a Denver-based lab that analyzes wine. The lab tested 1,300 bottles of California wine, and found that about a quarter of them had higher levels of arsenic than the maximum limit that the Environmental Protection Agency allows in water. Hicks noticed a trend: As he told CBS, "The lower the price of wine on a per-liter basis, the higher the amount of arsenic." Trader Joe's Charles Shaw White Zinfandel came in at three times the EPA's level, while Franzia's White Grenache was five times higher. The lawsuit alleges that the contaminated wines are cheaper in part because their producers don't "implement the proper methods and processes to reduce inorganic arsenic."

A spokesperson for The Wine Group, one of the defendants, says that it's not "accurate or responsible to use the water standard as the baseline," as people drink more water than wine. But water is the only beverage with an arsenic baseline that is monitored by the US government, and the defendants stress that the chemical is toxic even in small doses, and is known to cause cancer and "contributes to a host of other debilitating/fatal diseases."

Trader Joe's told CBS that "the concerns raised in your inquiry are serious and are being treated as such. We are investigating the matter with several of our wine producing suppliers." A spokesperson for Treasury Wine Estates, another defendant, said that its "brands are fully compliant with all relevant federal and state guidelines."

Whether or not you should be worried about the allegations is up in the air, particularly as the lawsuit has yet to go before a judge or jury. But in the meantime, here's a list of wines that are included in the lawsuit. (Note: Any wines without a specific year listed mean that the grapes don't come from a single year.)

  • Acronym GR8RW Red Blend 2011
  • Almaden Heritage White Zinfandel
  • Almaden Heritage Moscato
  • Almaden Heritage White Zinfandel
  • Almaden Heritage Chardonnay
  • Almaden Mountain Burgundy
  • Almaden Mountain Rhine
  • Almaden Mountain Chablis
  • Arrow Creek Coastal Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
  • Bandit Pinot Grigio
  • Bandit Chardonnay
  • Bandit Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Bay Bridge Chardonnay
  • Beringer White Merlot 2011
  • Beringer White Zinfandel 2011
  • Beringer Red Moscato
  • Beringer Refreshingly Sweet Moscato
  • Charles Shaw White Zinfandel 2012
  • Colores del Sol Malbec 2010
  • Glen Ellen by Concannon's Glen Ellen Reserve Pinot Grigio 2012
  • Concannon Selected Vineyards Pinot Noir 2011
  • Glen Ellen by Concannon's Glen Ellen Reserve Merlot 2010
  • Cook Spumante
  • Corbett Canyon Pinot Grigio
  • Corbett Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Cupcake Malbec 2011
  • Fetzer Moscato 2010
  • Fetzer Pinot Grigio 2011
  • Fisheye Pinot Grigio 2012
  • Flipflop Pinot Grigio 2012
  • Flipflop Moscato
  • Flipflop Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Foxhorn White Zinfandel
  • Franzia Vintner Select White Grenache
  • Franzia Vintner Select White Zinfandel
  • Franzia Vintner Select White Merlot
  • Franzia Vintner Select Burgundy
  • Hawkstone Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
  • HRM Rex Goliath's Moscato
  • Korbel Sweet Rose Sparkling Wine
  • Korbel Extra Dry Sparkling Wine
  • Menage a Trois Pinot Grigio 2011
  • Menage a Trois Moscato 2010
  • Menage a Trois White Blend 2011
  • Menage a Trois Chardonnay 2011
  • Menage a Trois Rose 2011
  • Menage a Trois Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
  • Menage a Trois California Red Wine 2011
  • Mogen David Concord
  • Mogen David Blackberry Wine
  • Oak Leaf White Zinfandel
  • Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc 2011
  • R Collection by Raymond's Chardonnay 2012
  • Richards Wild Irish Rose Red Wine
  • Seaglass Sauvignon Blanc 2012
  • Simply Naked Moscato 2011
  • Smoking Loon Viognier 2011
  • Sutter Home Sauvignon Blanc 2010
  • Sutter Home Gewurztraminer 2011
  • Sutter Home Pink Moscato
  • Sutter Home Pinot Grigio 2011
  • Sutter Home Moscato
  • Sutter Home Chenin Blanc 2011
  • Sutter Home Sweet Red 2010
  • Sutter Home Riesling 2011
  • Sutter Home White Merlot 2011
  • Sutter Home Merlot 2011
  • Sutter Home White Zinfandel 2011
  • Sutter Home White Zinfandel 2012
  • Sutter Home Zinfandel 2010
  • Trapiche Malbec 2012
  • Tribuno Sweet Vermouth
  • Vendange Merlot
  • Vendange White Zinfandel
  • Wine Cube Moscato
  • Wine Cube Pink Moscato 2011
  • Wine Cube Pinot Grigio 2011
  • Wine Cube Pinot Grigio
  • Wine Cube Chardonnay 2011
  • Wine Cube Chardonnay
  • Wine Cube Red Sangria
  • Wine Cube Sauvignon Blanc 2011
  • Wine Cube Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz 2011

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"That Tree Is So Perfect For Lynching": NC State Frat Suspended Over Alleged Link to Outrageously Offensive Pledge Book

| Fri Mar. 20, 2015 3:36 PM EDT
The Court of North Carolina, North Carolina State University

Update: The Associated Press reports that North Carolina State University will temporarily ban alcohol from social events at more than 20 fraternities. The ban would not apply to historically black Greek organizations or the Multicultural Greek Council.  

Amid ire over racist activity at the Sigma Alpha Episilon chapter at Oklahoma University that led to its shut down, a pair of fraternities at North Carolina State University are under investigation this month—one for sexual assault and drug allegations, the other for its relationship to a book containing derogatory and racially charged language. 

A student who had reported she was sexually assaulted at the Alpha Tau Omega frat house said she saw at least one of the fraternity's members dealing cocaine, ecstasy and LCD at the house.

On Thursday, according to a search warrant obtained by The News & Observer, campus police seized drug paraphernalia, white powder and an orange liquid at the Alpha Tau Omega house after a student, who had also reported she was sexually assaulted at the house, said she saw at least one of the fraternity's members dealing cocaine, ecstasy and LSD at the house. No arrests or charges have been made in connection to either the drug or sexual assault inquiries.

The fraternity was suspended two days after the student filed the sexual assault complaint with campus police. Alpha Tau Omega CEO Wynn Smily told WTVD the drug paraphernalia belonged to a pledge and that he had been kicked out of the house. "It's devastating for the organization's reputation," Smiley said. "It's very unsettling and it's too bad this has all happened." He went on to accuse the alleged victim in the investigation of lying. 

"What she claims was happening in the chapter house was not happening. This woman's claims to police that she saw all kind of drug activity going on in the house, we believe that to be at best wildly exaggerated and in many cases, fabricated. Her credibility throughout this whole process has been certainly in question."

Meanwhile, the discovery of an apparent pledge book linked to the Pi Kappa Phi chapter at NC State has led to a school probe. WRAL reported that the book, found at a restaurant near campus, contained disturbing racial and sexual commentary. Some of the handwritten comments included: 

"It will be short and painful, just like when I rape you."

"If she's hot enough, she doesn't need a pulse."

"That tree is so perfect for lynching." 

The chapter has been temporarily suspended as a result of the inquiry. In a statement on the fraternity's national website, CEO Mark Timmes said it would cooperate with the school's investigation. "The written comments and quotes reported earlier this evening are offensive and unacceptable. These statements are inconsistent with the values of Pi Kappa Phi and will not be tolerated."

The investigations follow a string of behavioral misconduct at fraternities across the country. The Kappa Delta Rho fraternity at Penn State University was suspended for a year on Tuesday after a former member told police about two private Facebook pages in which members shared photos of nude and partially nude women, drug sales and hazing, according to a probable cause affidavit obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer. The pages included photos of nude and partially nude women, some of whom appeared asleep or passed out. The fraternity could face criminal charges under the state's "revenge porn" law that went into effect in September. 

After Mother Jones Report, University of Arkansas Pulls Diary Critical of the Clintons

| Fri Mar. 20, 2015 3:19 PM EDT

On Tuesday, I reported on the newly public diary of retired Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), the longtime Clinton ally, which is included in the 89-year-old's personal papers at the University of Arkansas. In entries penned during the 1980s, Bumpers was highly critical of the Clintons, dishing on the future First Couple's "obsessive" qualities and alleged "dirty tricks" by Bill Clinton's gubernatorial campaign. Bumpers, who gave the closing argument for the defense in President Clinton's impeachment trial, became a close friend and confidante of the president later in his career. But the previously unreported entries revealed a more tense relationship in the early going, as Clinton vied for political elbow room with the Democratic icon.

In response to the Mother Jones piece, the University of Arkansas library has pulled the diary from its collection at the request of Bumpers' son, Brent. Per the Arkansas Democrat–Gazette:

Brent Bumpers of Little Rock, son of the former senator, said he was "shocked" by the diary. He has questioned its origin and authenticity, saying nobody in the family had ever heard anything about Dale Bumpers keeping a dairy.

Brent Bumpers said his father, who is 89 years old, doesn't remember keeping a diary. He said Dale Bumpers always admired the Clintons and wouldn't have written the things the diary contains.

Brent Bumpers said he wants to review the diary, but he won't have the opportunity for several days.

Although Dale Bumpers hasn't personally requested that the diary be pulled, Laura Jacobs, UA associate vice chancellor for university relations, said Brent Bumpers is speaking and acting on behalf of his father regarding the Dale Bumpers Papers.

But the Bumpers diary could not have been written by anyone but Dale Bumpers. When not commenting on the various politicians he interacted with, it is filled with personal musings on his wife, Betty, and three kids; the strains of the job; can't-miss events such as the annual Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival; and the trials of a first-time candidate at an Iowa presidential cattle call—all interspersed with the thoughtful reflections of a lawmaker who was generally regarded as such.

This is the second time in the last year that the University of Arkansas has made news by restricting access to a political archive in its special collections. Last year, the university's library blocked the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet, from accessing its collections because of a dispute over publishing rights. (The library ultimately backed down.)

With Hillary Clinton and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush both running for president, reporters (and opposition researchers) will have more access to archival records than perhaps ever before. The two candidates have nearly a century of public life between them; that's a heck of a paper trail. This may not be the last time a little-noticed archive makes news.

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 March 2015

| Fri Mar. 20, 2015 2:12 PM EDT

Appearances to the contrary, I might be getting better this morning. Cross your fingers, and we'll see how things go tomorrow.

Our hummingbird babies are fully mobile! I took some pictures of them this morning, and when I carefully edged in for a slightly closer angle they took off like a shot. This was plainly not their maiden voyage. They're all grown up now. Sniff.

In other news, longtime readers will remember that I once blogged about Louis the cathedral cat after a visit to Wells Cathedral in 2008. He was very friendly. However, in one of those inevitable town-gown controversies, Louis is now being accused of attacking dogs in the nearby area. But it might just be a case of mistaken identity: "I’ve heard there is another ginger cat around at the moment," said one witness, "and it’s quite possible that it’s him attacking dogs. We don’t know for sure whether or not Louis was involved. Louis had definitely been in the shop just before the incident happened outside, but it could have been a different cat."

Today's Epic Solar Eclipse Captured In Beautiful Photos

| Fri Mar. 20, 2015 2:04 PM EDT

This morning, Europe and parts of Africa and Asia experienced a rare solar eclipse. The last time such an event of this significance took place was back in 1999. That this eclipse also happened to fall on the spring equinox was an even more of a unique phenomenon that last occurred in 1662. Despite early reports predicting that heavy clouds would block a proper glimpse, eager residents, tourists, and astronomers gathered across the continent to witness the eclipse. Here are some of the images that were captured:

Sarajevo, Bosnia Amel Emric/AP
 
Svalbard, Norway Haakon Mosvold Larsen/AP
Greenwich Observatory, London Rex Features/AP
Skopje, Macedonia Boris Grdanoski/AP

Those in the higher Arctic regions were lucky enough to experience a total solar eclipse. But residents in the Faroe Islands—previously touted as one of the more impressive locations to view the event—were reportedly disappointed by the thick clouds, according to the Guardian. Berlin, on the other hand, boasted clear skies.

And to complete the occasion, here's British Member of the European Parliament Roger Helmer, who used the event to drop in some apparent climate denial. (Helmer has previously asserted that "the relationship between global temperature and atmospheric Co2 levels is hugely open to question.")