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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 16, 2014

Thu Oct. 16, 2014 10:40 AM EDT

A US Marine participates in an advanced rope technique course in California. (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Steve H. Lopez)

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Court Strikes Down Arkansas Voter ID Law

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 10:39 AM EDT

On Wednesday, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state's restrictive voter ID law, ruling that it violated the state's constitution. The unanimous decision, which comes just days before early voting begins in the state, could impact a Senate race considered key to a Republican takeover of the Senate.

Arkansas' law, enacted in 2013 after the Republican-controlled legislature overrode the Democratic Gov. Mike Beebee's veto, would have required voters to show a government-issued photo ID at the polls. Studies have shown that photo ID laws disproportionately burden minority and poor voters, making them less likely to vote. The state Supreme Court ruled that the voter ID law imposes a voting eligibility requirement that "falls outside" those the state constitution enumerates—namely, that a voter must only be a US citizen, an Arkansas resident, at least 18 years of age, and registered to vote—and was therefore invalid.

The court's ruling could help swing in Democrats' favor the tight Senate race between Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and his opponent, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton.

After the Supreme Court gutted a section of the Voting Rights Act last year, Republican state legislatures around the country enacted a slew of harsh voting laws. Since the 2010 election, new restrictions have been enacted in 21 states. Fourteen of those were passed for the first time this year.

Arkansas was one of seven states in which opponents of restrictive voting laws filed lawsuits ahead of the 2014 midterms. Last week, the US Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin's voter ID law. A federal court last Thursday struck down a similar law in Texas—only to have its ruling reversed this week by an appeals court. The Supreme Court recently allowed North Carolina and Ohio to enforce their strict new voting laws.

Rick Scott Takes Late Lead In Southeast Division of Jackass Competition

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 1:24 AM EDT

WTF?

In one of the weirdest, and most Floridian moments in debate history, Wednesday night's gubernatorial debate was delayed because Republican Governor Rick Scott refused to take the stage with Democratic challenger Charlie Crist and his small electric fan....Rather than waiting for the governor to emerge, the debate started with just Crist onstage. "We have been told that Governor Scott will not be participating in this debate," said the moderator. The crowd booed as he explained the fan situation, and the camera cut to a shot of the offending cooling device.

"That's the ultimate pleading the fifth I have ever heard in my life," quipped Crist, annoying the moderators, who seemed intent on debating fan rules and regulations. After a few more awkward minutes, Scott emerged, and the debate proceeded, with only one more electronics dispute. When asked why he brought the fan, Christ answered, "Why not? Is there anything wrong with being comfortable? I don't think there is."

There are plenty of Republicans who I find more extreme, or more moronic, or more panderific than Rick Scott. But for sheer pigheaded dickishness, he's a hard act to beat. Jeebus.

This Is the Most Terrifying Shark Video You'll See All Week

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 7:54 PM EDT

Good evening! Here is something terrifying:

 

I have nothing to add. Just, wow, terrifying. If I lived near that beach, I would probably be scared to go back in the water.

Is this video as scary as Jaws? No. But it probably makes more sense, to be honest.

Have a super night.

(via Ryan Broderick)

Is Clean, Green Fusion Power In Our Near Future?

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 6:50 PM EDT

Fusion is the energy source of the future—and it always will be. That used to be a Unix joke, but in various forms Unix has actually become pretty widespread these days. It runs the server that hosts the web page you're reading; it's the underlying guts of Apple's Mac operating system; and Linux is—well, not really "popular" by any fair definition of the word, but no longer just a fringe OS either.

So maybe fusion is about to break through too:

Lockheed Martin Corp said on Wednesday it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready in a decade.

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed's secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.

....Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet....Lockheed said it had shown it could complete a design, build and test it in as little as a year, which should produce an operational reactor in 10 years, McGuire said.

Over at Climate Progress, Jeff Spross is containing his enthusiasm:

At this point, keeping the world under 2°C of global warming will require global greenhouse gas emissions to peak in 2020 and fall rapidly after that....So by Lockheed Martin’s own timeline, their first operational CFR won’t come online until after the peak deadline. To play any meaningful role in decarbonization — either here in America or abroad — they’d have to go from one operational CFR to mass production on a gargantuan scale effectively overnight. More traditional forms of nuclear power face versions of the same problem.

A WW2-style government mobilization might be able to pull off such a feat in the United States. But if the political will was there for such a move, the practical question is why wait for nuclear? Wind and solar are mature technologies in the here and now — as is energy efficiency, which could supply up to 40 percent of the effort to stay below 2°C all by itself.

Jeez. I get where Spross is coming from, but come on. If Lockheed Martin can actually pull this off, it would mean huge amounts of baseload power using existing grid technology. It would mean cheap power from centralized sites. It would mean not having to replace every building in the world with high-efficiency designs. It would mean not having to install wind farms on millions of acres of land. It would mean not having to spend all our political efforts on forcing people to make do with less energy.

More generally, it would mean gobs of green power at no political cost. That's huge.

The big question is whether Lockheed Martin can actually pull this off. Lots of people before them have thought they were on the right track, after all. But if they can, it's a game changer. Given the obvious difficulties of selling a green agenda to the world—and the extreme unlikelihood of making that 2020 deadline with existing technologies—I'll be rooting for Lockheed Martin to pull this off. Cynicism can be overdone.

Editors' note: Over on the Blue Marble blog Climate Desk Producer James West spoke with a thermonuclear plasma physicist who doubts the significance of this breakthrough and called Lockheed's announcement "poppycock." So there's that.

Texas College Rejects Two Nigerian Applicants Because of Ebola Panic

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 5:43 PM EDT

At least two college applicants from Nigeria received rejection letters from a Texas community college because of Ebola panic. Let's note: Nigeria has had only 20 cases of the disease since July 20. The country has been so successful in containing the outbreak, the Centers for Disease and Prevention dispatched a team to learn its methods.

Ebola has, however, killed more than 4,400 people in neighboring Liberia. Perhaps Navarro College confused Nigeria with Liberia? African countries do look and sound so similar! The story:

Kamorudeen Abidogun, a medical engineer in Richmond, Texas, told CNBC that five family relatives in Nigeria were applying to Navarro College using Abidogun's mailing address. At least two of the applications were denied.

"With sincere regret, I must report that Navarro College is not able to offer you acceptance for the Spring 2015 term. Unfortunately, Navarro College is not accepting international students from countries with confirmed Ebola cases," the letter explained.

An official has since apologized for any "incorrect information" that may have been dispersed to applicants—their rejections were actually due to a restructuring of the college's diversity priorities:

"Our focus for 2014-15 is on China and Indonesia. Other countries will be identified and recruitment efforts put in place once we launch our new honors program fall 2015."

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Should the Military Treat Ebola Patients in Africa?

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 5:42 PM EDT
US Marines arrive in Monrovia to provide support to Liberians in the fight against Ebola.

At the request of the Liberian government, American troops have set up shop in the country to help deliver aid and build treatment centers. It's all part of an effort to slow the disease's spread and, hopefully, mitigate some of the outbreak's more pernicious side effects, such as hunger.

So far, US military doctors and nurses are not actually treating patients. But three members of Congress—Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) believe they should be.  

"Our capable military medical and technical personnel have unique skills, resources, and experience working in similar environments to West Africa," the three wrote in a letter to President Obama. "They responded to the Cholera outbreak after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the aftermath of the tsunami in Indonesia. We must stop the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and protect Americans from the spread of the virus."

Pentagon officials have said that US troops will be proving logistical support and that there are no current plans for them to provide direct care. "We are not anticipating that military personnel will be treating the people," General David Rodriguez, head of the military's Africa Command, said at an October 3 press briefing. "There's no intention right now that [service members] will be interacting with patients or in areas where they would necessarily come into contact with patients."

Still, Rodriguez left open the possibility of military doctors treating patients at a later date. "That will be a decision made in the future if that ever gets to that point," he said. "But the international community has said 'Not right now. That's not what we need.'"

Ebola would certainly present a risk for any military personnel treating patients. Of the more than 4,000 people who have been infected in Liberia so far, 207 have been health care workers, according to Liberia's Ministry of Health and Social Welfare

The Marines are already warning their personnel to take precautions, even though they're not currently working with patients. "You must be aware of the risks," the Corps' top doctor says in an instructional video. "Understand what to do if you come into contact with someone suspected of having Ebola, and what to do if you become ill."

Many conservatives were outraged that Obama sent troops to help fight Ebola. Chances are, a sick service member would give new life to that debate.

Lots of People May Misunderstand Thomas Piketty, But That Doesn't Mean They're Wrong

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 4:32 PM EDT

Thomas Piketty is having another moment in the blogosphere. As you may remember, he's famous for the equation r > g, which states that the rate of return on investments is historically higher than economic growth. This means that rich people with lots of investments get richer faster than the rest of us wage slaves, and this in turn produces growing levels of income inequality.

Is Piketty right? In one of its quarterly polls of economists, the University of Chicago's Institute on Global Management asked if r > g has been the most powerful force pushing towards greater income inequality since the 1970s. Pretty much everyone said no. Take that, Piketty!

But wait. As Matt Yglesias says, this isn't evidence that Piketty is wrong. Quite the contrary: it's evidence that hardly anyone has actually read his book. You see, Piketty doesn't say that r > g has been a big driver of income inequality in recent years. He says only that he thinks it will be a big driver in the future.

This is good clean fun as a gotcha. But liberals should understand that it also exposes one of the biggest weaknesses of Piketty's argument: r > g has been true for centuries, but the rich have not gotten steadily richer over that time. Wealth concentration has stayed roughly the same. Piketty argues that this is likely to change starting around 2050 or so, but this is an inherently iffy forecast since it's several decades in the future. What's worse, he bases it mostly on a projection that economic growth (g) is shortly going to suffer an unprecedented fall. This makes his forecast even iffier. Piketty may be right, but projecting growth rates for the second half of the century isn't something he has any particular expertise in. His guess is no better than anyone else's.

Beyond that, there are also serious suggestions that Piketty has improperly measured r. What this all means is that (a) Piketty's measure of r is questionable because he seems to have conflated gross and net returns and (b) his measure of g is questionable because it's so far in the future. Other than that, r > g is great.

Making fun of misreadings of Piketty's book may be good sport, but those misreadings unwittingly raise serious questions. A proper reading suggests that—for now, anyway—r > g as a driver of income inequality should continue to be taken with a grain of salt.

Christopher Nolan Films, Ranked

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 4:04 PM EDT

Ahead of its November 5 premier, Interstellar graces the cover of this week's Entertainment Weekly. The Christopher Nolan-helmed space opera looks pretty great! But Nolan's films always look great in advance. Some of them ended up making good on the promise of their trailers, but others haven't. Nolan has made seven films that have seen wide release. (His first film, Following, I have never seen and didn't know about until ten seconds ago and is thus not included on this list.) Of those seven films, one is great, four are good but forgettable, and two are bad bad bad. Here are his films, according to me, a fan with an opinion. 

1. The Dark Knight

2. The Prestige

3. Memento

4. Insomnia

5. Batman Begins

6. The Dark Knight Rises

7. Inception

Here is the trailer for Interstellar:

The Feds Just Approved a New GMO Corn. Here's Why I'm Not Rejoicing

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 3:39 PM EDT
High-tech seeds, old-school herbicides.

In September, the US Department of Agriculture greenlighted new GMO corn and soybean products engineered to resist two kinds of herbicides, Roundup (glyphosate) and an older, more toxic one called 2,4-D (which was one of two ingredients in the powerful defoliant used in the Vietnam War called Agent Orange). And on Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency approved of a new 2,4-D formulation called Enlist, which has been designed for use on the novel seeds, in six corn/soy-heavy states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. That means starting in spring 2015, farmers in the Midwestern Corn Belt will likely be dousing their crops with 2,4-D as well as Roundup, in an effort to control the plague of weeds that have evolved to resist Roundup.

The authors predict that glyphosate (Roundup) use will hold steady at high levels—and use of other herbicides, like 2,4-D, will soar.: From Mortensen, at al, ""Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012The authors predict that glyphosate (Roundup) use will hold steady at high levels—and use of other herbicides, like 2,4-D, will soar.: From Mortensen, at al, "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012So what's the big deal? In this 2012 post, I laid out research by a team led by Pennsylvania State University crop scientist David A. Mortensen (paper abstract  here) on how the new products are at best a temporary solution to the problem of "superweeds"—they lead farmers down a path of ever-increasing reliance on agrichemicals. They argue that chances are "actually quite high" that Dow's new product will unleash a new generation of weeds resistant to both herbicides, because when farmers apply 2,4-D to weeds that are already resistant to Roundup, they'll essentially be selecting for weeds that can resist both. Their projection of how such double resistance will affect herbicide use is at the left—a boon for agrichemical sales, but not so great for the environment.