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Kobani Still Holding Out -- But Is That Good News?

| Mon Oct. 27, 2014 11:20 AM EDT

Like Mark Thompson, I've been a bit out of circulation for the past couple of weeks—enough to pay only minimal attention to Iraq, anyway—and also like Thompson, I'm a little surprised to come back and discover that Kobani is still holding out against ISIS. This is largely thanks to the US bombing campaign, and Thompson isn't sure what to think of this success:

While that’s obviously good news in the short term for the city’s 200,000 largely-Kurdish residents, it’s tougher to handicap what it means for the long-term U.S.-led effort to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.

Earlier this month, U.S. military officers were speaking of ISIS’s “momentum,” and how its string of military successes over the past year meant that quickly halting its advance would likely prove difficult if not impossible. Yet, as far as Kobani is concerned, that seems to be what is taking place.

But that raises the stakes for the U.S. and its allies. Having smothered ISIS’s momentum, an eventual ISIS victory in the battle for Kobani would be a more devastating defeat for the U.S. military than an earlier collapse of the town.

There are concerns that the focus on saving Kobani is giving ISIS free reign elsewhere in its self-declared caliphate—that the U.S., in essence, could end up winning the battle while losing the war.

“The U.S. air campaign has turned into an unfocused mess,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote Friday. “The U.S. has shifted limited air strike resources to focus on Syria and a militarily meaningless and isolated small Syrian Kurdish enclave at Kobani at the expense of supporting Iraqi forces in Anbar and intensifying the air campaign against other Islamic State targets in Syria.”

The flip side of this is the obvious one: have patience. “Here we are not three months into it and there are critics saying it’s falling apart; it’s failing; the strategy is not sound,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. “The strategy is sound and it’s working and there’s no plans to deviate it from right now.”

If we're really engaged in a years-long battle against ISIS, then a few months here or there doesn't matter much. And saving Kobani isn't just a moral good, but can also demonstrate to others that ISIS is not some magical, unstoppable force destined to overrun Iraq. It's just an ordinary group of guerrilla soldiers who can be defeated with determination and patience. Stay tuned.

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This Halloween, John Oliver Explains How the Sugar Industry Is Killing Us with Lies

| Mon Oct. 27, 2014 9:53 AM EDT

This Halloween, Americans are gearing up to spend a whopping $2.2 billion in candy supplies, according to the latest Last Week Tonight. But how much sugar do we consume on the regular? That's where it gets a bit murky, thanks to the sugar industry's sweet little lies.

In light of Big Sugar's deception tactics, John Oliver breaks it down for us: We take in nearly 75 pounds of sugar annually or as he expertly describes, "Michael Cera's weight in sugar ever year."

Gross, but it's not exactly our fault, considering a disturbing amount of our food's sugar content is hidden from us.

"Regardless of whether sugar is terrible for you or the answer to all of life's problems, shouldn't you at least get to know when it's been added to your food?" John Oliver asked. After all, sugar is a leading contributor to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Last night, Oliver presented a rather festive solution to all this in the form of circus peanuts, "the most disgusting of all the candies." Watch below:

 

 

 

 

Housekeeping Finale

| Sun Oct. 26, 2014 10:09 PM EDT

I am home and the cats are becoming re-acquainted with their long-lost daddy. Monday should bring a return to normalcy. That is all.

This "Sexy Ebola Nurse Costume" Is the Stupidest Halloween Thing Ever

| Sun Oct. 26, 2014 3:57 PM EDT

In case you haven't heard, there's an epidemic raging in West Africa that's recently crossed yet another border and is bringing entire countries to the verge of collapse. There have been more than ten thousand cases since March. The fatality rate could be as high as 85 percent. Nurses in America and doctors in West Africa are among the people who have suffered because of this thing. 

But hey, who's to say we can't have a little fun on the side? 

With five days left until Halloween, "unique costume shop" Brands on Sale is selling a "sexy" Ebola nurse costume for $59.99. (Boots sold separately.) The getup comes complete with face shield, lab coat-looking "costume dress", face mask, and eye goggles. Oh, and gloves, too! (By the way, the Liberian government reported a shortage of 2.4 million boxes of gloves over the next six months.)

Brands on Sale

Just to be be clear, Ebola is bad, bad, bad, bad.

(h/t BuzzFeed for finding this one.)

Profiles in Mainstream Media Courage

| Sun Oct. 26, 2014 3:05 PM EDT

Laura Poitras, the journalist who first worked with NSA leaker Edward Snowden and later wrote groundbreaking stories with Glenn Greenwald about the stunning growth and reach of the US surveillance state, describes her initial interaction with the mainstream media in an interview with Astra Taylor:

Q: Other journalists were afraid to work with Snowden.

A: There’s a strong culture of fear among journalists right now, because the government is cracking down on both journalists and sources....We involved [Washington Post journalist] Bart Gellman when Snowden wanted to release one document early, and Gellman used the Snowden archive to break the PRISM story about mass electronic surveillance. He was going to come with me to Hong Kong to meet Snowden, and the Post became very nervous and pulled out. They told me not to go. I felt like I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t go, so I went.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Social Networking Employs More People Than We Think

| Sun Oct. 26, 2014 12:39 PM EDT

This is a pretty amazing story from Wired reporter Adrian Chen about the army of workers who spend their days monitoring the raw feeds of social networking sites to get rid of "dick pics, thong shots, exotic objects inserted into bodies, hateful taunts, and requests for oral sex" before they show up on America's morning skim of Facebook and Twitter:

Past the guard, in a large room packed with workers manning PCs on long tables, I meet Michael Baybayan, an enthusiastic 21-year-old with a jaunty pouf of reddish-brown hair....Baybayan is part of a massive labor force that handles “content moderation”—the removal of offensive material—for US social-networking sites. As social media connects more people more intimately than ever before, companies have been confronted with the Grandma Problem: Now that grandparents routinely use services like Facebook to connect with their kids and grandkids, they are potentially exposed to the Internet’s panoply of jerks, racists, creeps, criminals, and bullies. They won’t continue to log on if they find their family photos sandwiched between a gruesome Russian highway accident and a hardcore porn video.

....So companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us. And there are legions of them—a vast, invisible pool of human labor. Hemanshu Nigam, the former chief security officer of MySpace who now runs online safety consultancy SSP Blue, estimates that the number of content moderators scrubbing the world’s social media sites, mobile apps, and cloud storage services runs to “well over 100,000”—that is, about twice the total head count of Google and nearly 14 times that of Facebook.

Given that content moderators might very well comprise as much as half the total workforce for social media sites, it’s worth pondering just what the long-term psychological toll of this work can be.

We often hear about how the new app economy is largely a jobless economy, but thanks to the general scumminess of human beings maybe that's less true than we think. Cleaning up the internet for grandma is a grueling, never-ending job that, for now anyway, can only be done by other, less scummy, human beings. Lots of them.

It's true that the "basic moderation" jobs are largely overseas and don't pay much, but second-tier moderators are mostly US-based and are paid fairly well. As you'd expect, though, most don't last long. Burnout comes pretty quickly when you spend all day exposed to a nonstop stream of torture videos, hate speech, YouTube beheadings, and the entire remaining panoply of general human degradation. That's what the rest of Chen's story is about. It's a pretty interesting read.

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Quick Treatment Update - And Thanks

| Sat Oct. 25, 2014 9:09 PM EDT

I had my first round of chemo about six hours ago, and I had no reaction at all. No nausea, no vomiting, no nothing. I ate lunch an hour afterward. Obviously this may change as things progress, but so far I seem to be tolerating the treatment regimen well. That's good news. And my back continues to slowly get stronger and less painful.

The outpouring of prayers and good wishes has been genuinely heartening. Thank you to everyone for all the comments, tweets, and emails. They truly mean a lot to me. And to Nora and Jason from Chicago: Thanks for the flowers! They're lovely.

On a related note, several people have asked if I need any financial help. As it happens, MoJo provides excellent health coverage (mine is through Kaiser), so I'm well covered on that front. Beyond that, as many of you know, my previous career has left me in very good financial shape. So I'm one of the lucky ones: All I have to do is worry about following my treatment plan and getting better. I have no money worries, and plenty of family and friends (and cats!) rooting for me and ready to take care of me when I need help.

That's the latest. And here's the best news: Depending on how things go tonight, I may be able to go home tomorrow. Hooray!

Amazon Must Be Stopped - Sort Of

| Sat Oct. 25, 2014 12:44 PM EDT

Enough of this cancer nonsense. Let's agree and disagree with Matt Yglesias today (not that I'm comparing him with cancer, mind you).

First off, the disagreement. In the current issue of the New Republic, Franklin Foer pens a righteous rant against Amazon as an evil, marauding monopoly that needs to be crushed. It warmed the cockles of my heart, since Amazon's almost Luthor-like predatory strategies against startup competitors leave me cold. That's one reason I choose not to do much business with them. But legally? I may not like the way Amazon went after Diapers.com, but let's face it: they're nothing close to a monopolist in that space. Yglesias is right that in most of their business lines they should be left alone. Walmart and Target and Google and a tsunami of aggressive startups will keep them plenty busy.

However, there's an exception: e-books. Yglesias has no sympathy for big book publishers, and he has a point. These are pretty gigantic companies in their own right, and although I suspect he gives their business practices short shrift in some important ways, there's not much question they often seem pretty antediluvian. But this goes too far:

It is undeniably true that Amazon has a very large share of the market for e-books. What is not true is that Amazon faces a lack of competition in the digital book market. Barnes & Noble — a company that knows something about books — sells e-books, and does so in partnership with a small outfit called Microsoft. Apple sells e-books and so does Google.

Amazon has a huge share of the e-book market, and pretty much everyone—including Yglesias, I think—believes that Barnes & Noble is only a few steps from the grave. Unsurprisingly, Nook funding is in free fall. Sony has exited the e-book market and Kobo isn't far behind. Even Apple, as mighty as it is, has only a tiny market share after several years of trying.

In theory, this is a great opportunity for an innovative startup. Startup costs are modest since there's no physical inventory to worry about. Publishers are eager for new entrants. Maybe a smart startup could appeal to consumers with a great new e-reader concept. Or a better recommendation engine. Who knows? There are loads of possibilities. The problem is that no startup can possibly compete with a huge incumbent that's willing to sell e-books at a loss. There's no VC on the planet willing to fund a trench war like that.

So Amazon really does have a monopoly position in this market that it sustains via predatory pricing and heavy-handed business practices—against publishers both big and small—that might make John D. Rockefeller blush. Tim Lee pinpoints a big part of the problem:

I mostly agree with my colleague Matt Yglesias's argument that Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers. But there's at least one way US law gives Amazon excessive power, to the detriment of publishers, authors, and the reading public: ill-conceived copyright regulations lock consumers into Kindle's book platform, making it hard for new e-book platforms to gain traction.

....In 1998 [music publishers] got Congress to pass the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which made it a federal crime to unscramble encrypted content without the permission of copyright holders.

....While the law was passed at the behest of content creators, it also gave a lot of power to platform owners. If you buy a movie on iTunes, you're effectively forced to continue buying Apple devices if you want to keep watching the movie. Tools to transfer copy-protected movies you've purchased from iTunes onto another platform exist, but they're illegal and, accordingly, not very user-friendly.

Amazon has taken advantage of the DMCA too. Kindle books come copy-protected so that only Amazon-approved software can read it without breaking the law. Of course, software to convert it to other formats exists, but it's illegal and accordingly isn't very convenient or user-friendly.

And that creates a huge barrier to entry.

Aside from my general distaste for Amazon, I happen to think the Kindle app is kind of sucky. The Nook app is better, so I buy my e-books via Barnes & Noble. But the Nook app has its own problems, and you may prefer Kindle. That's great! Competition! But I'm keenly aware that B&N is likely on its last legs, and then what? Amazon will have even less incentive to improve its reader, especially on less popular platforms.

I like competition. And it can't be emphasized too much that the DRM issue is driven heavily by publishers, not just by Amazon. Nor is there a simple solution. Arguments of the techno-utopian "information wants to be free" crowd aside, there are pretty self-evident reasons why authors and publishers don't want their books to be instantly available for free within a week of being published.

Nonetheless, this is a problem that begs for a solution. Partly it's driven by DMCA restrictions. Partly it's driven by those antediluvian publishers. And partly it's driven by Amazon's genuine monopoly position in the e-book market, which stifles innovation and promises to get even worse in the future.

So sure, leave Amazon alone in most of its business lines. But in e-books? Nope. They're a monopoly in every sense of the word, and they use predatory practices to stay that way. They may offer cheap books, but in the long run it's vibrant competition that truly benefits consumers. Regulating Amazon would hardly solve all our e-book problems—far from it—but it would be a start.

Olympics to Crack Down on Human Rights Abuses…After 2022

| Sat Oct. 25, 2014 6:15 AM EDT
Protests of the Beijing and Sochi Olympic Games.

Following widespread allegations of wrongdoing in both the Beijing and Sochi Olympics, human rights protections will be added to the contracts signed by future Olympic host cities. The International Olympic Committee's president presented this change to Human Rights Watch at an October 21 meeting.

The new language will contractually require host countries to "take all necessary measures to ensure that development projects necessary for the organization of the Games comply with local, regional, and national legislation, and international agreements and protocols, applicable in the host country with regard to planning, construction, protection of the environment, health, safety, and labour laws."

These changes make the human rights requirements for Olympic host cities more explicit than ever before, particularly with the mentions of health, environmental, and labor concerns. The new "international agreements and protocols" rule makes it clear that hosts will be required to abide by laws like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits forced labor, arbitrary arrest or detention, sentence without trial, and protects freedoms of assembly, religion, and opinion.

The International Olympic Committee will have more power to "put the scare in any host country that is not playing by the human rights rules."

Beijing, China and Sochi, Russia floundered on some of these protections during the 2012 and 2014 Olympic Games. The international community criticized both host countries for corruption and exploitation of migrant construction workers: Sochi contractors cheated workers out of wages, required 12-hour shifts, and confiscated passports to keep laborers from leaving. In both countries, authorities regularly forced evictions and silenced media and activists. A Russian law passed in the months leading up to the Games that criminalized gay expression garnered global outrage.

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, says the planned wording will make it easier for the IOC to take official action if a host country breaks contract—through litigation or "the thermonuclear option," termination. Even before such extreme consequences, she is optimistic the explicit wording will give the IOC more power to "put the scare in any host country that is not playing by the human rights rules."

"This is a real rebuke to Russia," she says. "The IOC wants to avoid a repeat."

Since host cities for the next three Olympic Games have already been selected and signed contracts, host countries will be held to the new clause beginning with the 2022 Winter Olympics. Worden says this is particularly timely, as two of the finalists—Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China—have repressive governments. (The third finalist is Oslo, Norway.)

The human rights clause expands on another impending addition, previewed in a September letter from the IOC to the 2022 candidate cities. That statement promised that future host city contracts will have "an express reference…to the prohibition of any form of discrimination."

Technically, host cities like Sochi and Beijing were already broadly obligated to steer clear of human rights violations and discrimination: The Olympic Charter calls for a respect for "human dignity" and bans discrimination "with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise." But, "we've clearly reached a moment when the words of the Olympic Charter are not enough," says Worden. "You have to put these guarantees in a contract and force the host country to sign it."

Worden hopes the IOC's action will be adopted by organizers of other mega-sporting events at risk of mishandling human rights, such as FIFA. Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, estimates in an ESPN documentary that, at current rates, 4,000 people will die in preparation of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Friday Cancer Blogging - 24 October 2014

| Fri Oct. 24, 2014 5:27 PM EDT

A few of you have probably cottoned onto the fact that people don't usually spend a week in the hospital for a broken bone, even a backbone. So in the long tradition of releasing bad news on Friday afternoon, here's my first-ever Friday news dump.

When I checked in to the hospital Saturday morning, the first thing they did was take a bunch of X-rays followed by a CT scan. These revealed not just a fractured L3, but a spine and pelvis dotted with lytic lesions that had badly degraded my bones. That's why a mere cough was enough to send me to the ER. It was just the straw that broke an already-weakened camel's back. Later tests showed that I also had lesions in my upper arm, my rib cage, and my skull—which means that my conservative friends are now correct when they call me soft-headed.

The obvious cause of widespread lytic lesions is multiple myeloma, a cancer of blood plasma cells, and further tests have confirmed this. (The painful bedside procedure on Tuesday was a bone marrow biopsy. Bone marrow is where the cancerous plasma cells accumulate.)

I know from experience that a lot of people, especially those who have been through this or know a family member who's been through this, will want to know all the details about the treatment I'm getting. I'll put that below the fold for those who are interested. For the rest of you, here's the short version: I'm young, I'm not displaying either anemia or kidney problems, and treatments have improved a lot over the past decade. So my short-term prognosis is pretty positive. Treatment involves two to three months of fairly mild chemotherapy, which has already started, followed by a bone marrow transplant. My oncologist thinks I have a very good chance of complete remission.

The longer-term prognosis is less positive, and depends a lot on how treatments improve over the next few years. But I figure there's not too much point in worrying about that right now. Better to stay focused on the current regimen and see how I respond to that. Wish me well.