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Tales From City of Hope #6: What Does Kevin Smell Like?

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 9:58 PM EDT

As you recall from yesterday, the DMSO preservative used to keep my stem cells fresh was alleged to cause a distinct body odor. So today, after the transfusion, I asked everyone who came into my room what I smelled like. The results are displayed on the right in chart form because Science™.

The results were disappointing. My sample size was dismally small, and 100 percent female. No single result rose to the level of significance at the 95 percent level. There wasn't even a modal response. In fact, it was worse than that. One respondent said garlic, but all four of the others said definitely not garlic. One said sweet and another said not sweet. And one person said there was no odor at all.

The best I can conclude is that there is an odor of some kind, but everyone smells something different. I should add, however, that the test conditions were suboptimal. I'm such a good stem cell producer that I only needed two bags of cells. Some people need as many as ten. This means less DMSO for me and therefore less odoriferousness. Beyond that, given the poor state of the data, your guess is as good as mine.

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The Feds Say One Schmuck Trading From His Parents' House Caused a Market Crash. Here's the Problem.

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 7:17 PM EDT

On Tuesday, the Justice Department and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a key Wall Street regulator, blasted out press releases declaring a great victory in their war on illegal manipulation of financial markets. The reason for the feds' braggadocio? They think they've caught the guy who caused May 2010's "flash crash," a market seizure that vaporized a trillion dollars in shareholder value in a matter of minutes.

Federal regulators say that Navinder Singh Sarao, a 36-year-old British futures trader whose company was reportedly based in his parents' home, illegally placed huge sell orders he never intended to complete, artificially driving down the price of a key futures contract so he could later swoop in to buy it cheaply. (This is called "spoofing" in financial jargon.) There's one big problem, though: By charging Sarao with "contributing to the market conditions that caused" the flash crash, federal regulators are changing their story about what really happened to financial markets five years ago.

Here's the background. In the days and weeks after the flash crash, the Securities and Exchange Commission, alongside other regulators, worked diligently to figure out what had happened. The flash crash was chaos: Liquidity evaporated, the same stocks traded at both a penny and at $100,000, and CNBC hosts freaked out even more than usual. (Prices eventually returned to normal, and the SEC canceled some of the weirdest trades.)

The flash crash was essentially over in five minutes. But it took regulators nearly five months to come up with a theory about what happened. And in late September 2010, when the SEC and the CFTC—the same agency now charging Sarao with causing the crash—released a joint report on what happened, they didn't mention spoofing, let alone Sarao. Instead, they blamed a large trade by a firm out of Kansas City.

It's not even clear that the feds' new explanation is correct. As Matt Levine notes over at Bloomberg View, regulators believe that Sarao continued to place massive fake sell orders in the years after the flash crash, but somehow that activity never triggered another crisis:

If regulators think that Sarao's behavior on May 6, 2010, caused the flash crash, and if they think he continued that behavior for much of the subsequent five years, and if that behavior was screamingly obvious, maybe they should have stopped him a little earlier?

Also, I mean, if his behavior on May 6, 2010, caused the flash crash, and if he continued it for much of the subsequent five years, why didn't he cause, you know, a dozen flash crashes? 

So I mean…maybe he didn't cause the flash crash?

But in some ways, it doesn't particularly matter whether regulators' new theory is correct. What matters is that it took so long for them to develop it.

As I reported in January 2013, today's financial markets move so fast that regulators can't even monitor them in real time, let alone intervene if something starts to go wrong. Sophisticated trading algorithms can buy and sell financial products faster than you can blink—all without human intervention, let alone real-time human judgment. When something does go wrong, it can take months or years to figure out what happened. "A robust and defensible analysis of even a small portion of the trading day can itself take many days," Gregg Berman, who wrote the 2010 SEC/CFTC report, told me in 2013.

Since real-time intervention by human regulators is impossible, regulators have to rely on automatic measures—fail-safes that stop trading if prices rise or fall too fast, for example. But these sorts of automatic braking systems are, by definition, designed in response to the previous crisis. "We're always fighting the last fire," Dave Lauer, a market technology expert who has worked for high-speed trading firms, said in 2013. As I wrote then:

Years of mistakes and bad decisions led to the 2008 collapse. But when the next crisis happens, it may not develop over months, weeks, or even days. It could take seconds.

More here.

Bitcoin's Problem With Women

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 5:41 PM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 through today to pitch in posts and keep the conversation going. Here's a contribution from Felix Salmon, who, after years of blogging on finance and the economy for Reuters and other outlets, is now a senior editor at Fusion.

Nathaniel Popper's new book, Digital Gold, is as close as you can get to being the definitive account of the history of Bitcoin. As its subtitle proclaims, the book tells the story of the "misfits" (the first generation of hacker-libertarians) and "millionaires" (the second generation of Silicon Valley venture capitalists) who were responsible for building Bitcoin, mining it, hyping it, and, in at least some cases, getting rich off it.

The tale is selective, of course: Not everybody involved with Bitcoin talked to Popper, and the identity of Bitcoin's inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, remains a mystery. But Popper did talk to most of the important people in the cryptocurrency crowd, and he tells me that he put real effort into trying "to find a woman who was involved in some substantive way."

The result of that search? Zero. Nothing. Zilch. Popper's book features no female principals at all: The sole role of women in the book is as wives and girlfriends.

There are nasty consequences of this. If you are a woman involved with Bitcoin, you are invariably going to get treated like an outsider. As Victoria Turk says, "it seems that the only Bitcoin community that particularly welcomes female participation is the NSFW subreddit r/GirlsGoneBitcoin," which is basically a site where women get paid in cryptocurrency to pose nude. Or look at Arianna Simpson's enraging account of what it's like to be a woman at a Bitcoin meetup:

The person who actually suggested the event to Ryan was another young woman (the only other woman at the event), a VC who was in town from San Francisco and was interested in checking it out for the first time. The aforementioned groper knew Ryan vaguely from other Bitcoin events, and greeted their arrival with a warm "Oh, nice to see you! I see you brought your girlfriend this time." When the two of them try to point out that a) they are not together and b) she was actually the one who had brought him, they are cut off with a swift "Sure, sure, I just wanted to see what the dynamic was between you two." Apparently that's code for "checking if you're ok with my hitting on her," as that's exactly what he proceeds to do.

Men make up an estimated 96 percent of the Bitcoin community, which means that if Bitcoin does end up succeeding, as its adherents think it will, and if the people who own Bitcoin see their holdings soar in value, then all of the profits will end up going to what Brett Scott calls the "crypto-patriarchy." Not many men, to be sure: As Charlie Stross says, the degree of inequality in the Bitcoin economy "is ghastly, and getting worse, to an extent that makes a sub-Saharan African kleptocracy look like a socialist utopia." But it's not many men, and effectively zero women.

Popper doesn't dwell on the almost complete absence of women in the Bitcoin story—in fact, he doesn't mention it at all in his book. And the Bitcoin elite themselves aren't doing much introspection on the topic. (We still have Bitcoin developers like the one in Simpson's article saying things like "women don't care about cryptocurrencies.") But the gender gap is a bigger problem than Bitcoiners realize. Unless and until women can be brought into the Bitcoin fold, broader adoption is simply not going to happen.

If you talk about Bitcoin with the people who use it, the language they use is always about technology and finance. Bitcoiners tend to think in terms of how things work, rather than how they're used in the real world. Buying and selling Bitcoin is still much more difficult than it should be, despite many years of development, which implies that people aren't concentrating enough on real-world ease-of-use.

In general, people buy Bitcoin for one of three reasons: because they're speculating on its future value, because they are doing something illegal, or because they have ideological reasons for doing so. But if there's ever going to be broad adoption of Bitcoin technology, it will need to be appealing to law-abiding people who neither know nor care what the blockchain is, and who have no particular beef whatsoever with fiat currencies.

That's a product design job, and frankly, it's a product design job well suited for women who aren't approaching the problem while grinding the ideological axes so widely held inside the Bitcoin community. As one woman involved with Bitcoin put it to me, "Money is a political issue for Bitcoiners. It's a human issue for everybody else."

Right now, Bitcoin is almost purpose-built for the $582 billion international remittances market, where women are half of the senders, and two-thirds of the recipients. And while there is no shortage of Bitcoin-based remittance products out there, none of them seem to be designing for real-world use cases. The developers are solving technical problems, and ignoring the much bigger and more important human problems.

Let's say you wanted to build a mobile savings app in sub-Saharan African. If you asked male Bitcoin developers to build such a thing for a target audience of young African girls, they might have talked about how to maximize the amount of money saved. But, working on the ground in South Africa, the Praekelt Foundation came from a different perspective. Apps like these aren't really about maximizing savings, so much as they're about empowerment. If you can build a product for girls that ratifies their identity and individuality and gives them self-esteem, then you're creating something much more valuable than a few dollars' worth of savings: You're keeping them in school, and you're keeping them healthy, and you're helping them to not get pregnant. That's the kind of way that cryptocurrencies could change the world. The problem is that the men in Popper's book just don't think that way.

Bitcoin boosters like venture capitalist Marc Andreessen have an interesting reaction when people criticize Bitcoin on the grounds that the community is just male nerds. Yes, they say, it is—just like the internet was, 20 years ago. In other words, far from treating the homogeneity of Bitcoin as a problem, they treat it as being auspicious. And, so far at least, there's no evidence that they're really attempting to fix the problem.

The lack of women in Bitcoin isn't just an issue of equality. It's a fundamental weakness of the currency itself. As long as the Bitcoin community is dominated by men geeking out about the blockchain, it's never going to be able to make the human connections that are required for widespread adoption. Right now, the best that anybody can hope for (and no one's holding their breath even for this) is that a handful of female geeks might be welcomed into the clique of male geeks who are working on Bitcoin-related projects.

But even if that happens, it's not even close to being sufficient. Bitcoin, at its core, is an attempt to solve big socioeconomic problems through technology. So long as it remains an overwhelmingly male domain, it's going to continue to concentrate on the economic problems, while missing the big social problems. Which means that it's going to continue going nowhere.

This Incredible Video Captures a Chilean Volcano Erupting for the First Time in Over 40 Years

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 5:21 PM EDT
 

BREAKING: Volcano Calbuco has just erupted in Chile and people have been evacuated. See updating story here: http://on.ryot.org/1bkdBMhBe sure to like our page too for any important updates: RYOT (h/t https://youtu.be/_MdUQY6xQG4)

Posted by RYOT on Wednesday, April 22, 2015

More than 4,000 people in southern Chile have been evacuated after a powerful volcano, shown above, erupted twice—first on Wednesday evening and then again several hours later, resulting in a spectacular lightning display across the night sky. This is the biggest eruption of the Calbuco volcano since 1972. No deaths or missing people have been reported so far, according to Chile's interior minister, Rodrigo Penailillo. Below are more remarkable photos of the volcano's eruption:

Tales From City of Hope #5: My Stem Cells Have Come Home to Papa

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 1:28 PM EDT

It is 9:49 am PDT on April 23, and my stem cell transfusion is complete. It took less than 20 minutes. Now the stem cells just have to graft and start multiplying, each of them eventually maturing into some kind of blood product (red blood cell, white blood cell, platelet, etc.). This will take about a month, but I'm not home free even then. It turns out that these will initially be "baby" cells, and it takes them about a year to fully learn how to do their jobs. Who knew that itty bitty cells had to attend cell training school?

The entire remainder of my visit at City of Hope is just waiting for my immune system to recover and to keep an eye out for severe side effects in case they happen. In a few days I'll be losing my appetite, but apparently this is because I'll be losing my sense of taste. In the past, I've lost my appetite due to IV painkillers in the hospital or extreme fatigue at home. In both cases food tasted normal, but I just couldn't stand the thought of eating anything.

So will this be better or worse? Presumably, food will be tasteless but not repulsive. That strikes me as no fun, but actually more tolerable than being actively repulsed by food. We'll see.

Who's Tired Of Politics?

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 12:21 PM EDT

Yesterday lifelong political junkie George Packer reluctantly confessed something: "It might not be wise for a sometime political journalist to admit this, but the 2016 campaign doesn’t seem like fun to me."

Ed Kilgore and Dylan Byers both took issue with this. In a nutshell, Kilgore thinks 2016 will be a fairly consequential election and the horse race will be fairly unpredictable, while Byers thinks the horse race will have as many twists and turns as usual. Lots of fun for everyone!

I'm a bit of an odd duck on this subject: a daily blogger and political junkie who has only a slight interest in the campaigns themselves. I have some interest, and I usually end up writing plenty of campaign posts, but it mostly seems like uninteresting kabuki to me. Candidates are so thoroughly media trained these days that you mostly know what they're going to say before they open their mouths. "Gaffes" are seldom more than slightly ambiguous extemporaneous constructions that the media plays along with either out of boredom or a desire to seem like they're not playing favorites. All the marketing minutiae of ad buys and demos and GOTV innovations is interesting in an academic sense, but it hardly seems to matter much in the face of overwhelming evidence that a few basic fundamentals decide the race months before Election Day. And the tired and almost childish obsession of the press corps with dumb adherence to narratives and personalities is enough to make any serious reader scream.

But these aren't really Packer's main beefs with presidential campaigns. This is:

The reason is the stuckness of American politics. Especially in the years after 2008, the worst tendencies of American politics only hardened, while remaining in the same place. Beneath the surface froth and churn, we are paralyzed. You can sense it as soon as you step out of the train at Union Station in Washington, the instant you click on a Politico article about a candidates’ forum in Iowa: miasma settles over your central nervous system and you start to go numb. What has happened is that the same things keep happening. The tidal wave of money keeps happening, the trivialization of coverage keeps happening, the extremism of the Republican Party keeps happening (Ted Cruz: abolish the I.R.S.; Rand Paul: the Common Core is “un-American”). The issues remain huge and urgent: inequality, global warming, immigration, poorly educated children, American decline, radical Islamism. But the language of politics stays the same, and it is a dead language. The notion that answers will come from Washington or the campaign trail is beyond far-fetched.

This is it, and it's a common complaint. Both parties are stuck in the same sound bites; neither is willing to seriously compromise; and given the structure of the US government it's vanishingly unlikely that either party can get much of anything done. Tax policy can be changed via reconciliation, and Barack Obama had a short window where he got some things done via a huge Democratic majority in the Senate. Neither party is likely to replicate that in the near future. Likewise, for all the sound and fury, the differences between mainstream Democratic and Republican foreign policy have become pretty narrow since George Bush's Iraq debacle.

As Packer says, American politics is stuck. It's paralyzed. Exhibit 1: We've just witnessed a historically unprecedented delay in confirming an Attorney General that everyone agrees is eminently qualified. Why? Because of a bit of clever Republican gameplaying over an abortion clause that was fundamentally trivial but great red meat for the base. When the Democratic base finally cottoned on to the game, they went predictably ballistic and everything stalled. It was all just dumb kabuki: gameplaying from Republicans, predictable outrage from Democrats, and all over a long accepted principle that bans federal funding of abortion. Two months of gridlock over trivial symbolism. And why not? Everyone knows there was nothing important that had any chance of getting done anyway.

So yeah: unless you're a horse race junkie by nature, it's pretty hard to get excited by the horse race when it has almost no chance of changing things except on the margins. This will change eventually, but probably no time soon.

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The American Teen Whose Death-by-Drone Obama Won't Explain

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 11:15 AM EDT

On Thursday, President Barack Obama appeared in the White House press room to reveal that a US strike in January on an Al Qaeda compound had killed two hostages held by the terrorist group, Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian, and Warren Weinstein, an American. He offered his condolences to their families for the mistake that led to their deaths.

It's remarkable that Obama spoke of this at all. The US targeted killing program is shrouded in secrecy, and the president had never before issued a statement like this about people accidentally killed by US drone strikes. (He did not use the word "drone.") One such death that stands out is that of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old American citizen who was killed in a US drone strike.

Abdulrahman was the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric turned Al Qaeda propagandist. The father was killed in a drone strike that targeted him in Yemen in September 2011. The son was killed weeks later in a separate strike in Yemen. According to his family, the attack was on a restaurant. Attorney General Eric Holder later said that this strike did not "specifically" target the young man.

The US government has never said that Abdulrahman was involved in terrorist activities. In 2012, I asked Obama during a Reddit AMA what he thought about the teen's death, and the question received hundreds of votes from Redditors, meaning the president and/or his social-media team almost certainly noticed it. Yet Obama didn't respond.

Now that he's established the precedent of explaining the killings of US citizens in targeted strikes, Obama and the administration might see fit to say what happened in the case of Abdulrahman. Was his death accidental or is there evidence he was involved with terrorists?

For more on Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, read Tom Junod's 2012 piece on his killing.

It's Not the 1 Percent Controlling Politics. It's the 0.01 Percent.

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 6:15 AM EDT

Even before presidential candidates started lining up billionaires to kick-start their campaigns, it was clear that the 2016 election could be the biggest big-money election yet. This chart from the political data shop Crowdpac illustrates where we may be headed: Between 1980 and 2012, the share of federal campaign contributions coming from the very, very biggest political spenders—the top 0.01 percent of donors—nearly tripled:

In other words, a small handful of Americans* control more than 40 percent of election contributions. Notably, between 2010 and 2012, the total share of giving by these donors jumped more than 10 percentage points. That shift is likely the direct result of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, which struck down decades of fundraising limits and kicked off the super-PAC era. And this data only includes publicly disclosed donations, not dark money, which almost certainly means that the megadonors' actual share of total political spending is even higher.

It's pretty fair to assume that most of these top donors are also sitting at the top of the income pyramid. Out of curiosity, I compared the share of campaign cash given by elite donors alongside the increasing share of income controlled by the people who make up the top 0.01 percent—the 1 percent of the 1 percent. The trend lines aren't an exact match, but they're close enough to show how top donors' political clout has increased along with top earners' growing slice of the national income. Again, note the bump around 2010 and 2011, when the Citizens United era opened just as the superwealthy were starting to recover from the recession—a rebound that has left out most Americans.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a few hundred people control 40 percent of election contributions, based on my own calculations. According to Crowdpac, the number is around 25,000.

This Is Why You Crave Sugar When You're Stressed Out

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Here's something that won't come as a surprise to anyone who has ever devoured a pint of Rocky Road after a miserable day at work: Researchers at the University of California-Davis recently found that 80 percent of people report eating more sweets when they are stressed. Their new study, published in the the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, offers a possible explanation.

Sugar, the researchers found, can diminish physiological responses normally produced in the brain and body during stressful situations. With stress levels on the rise, this could explain why more people are reaching for sweets.

The three-phase study involved 19 women, ages 18 to 40, who spent three days on a low-sugar diet at the research facility. Saliva samples and MRIs were taken and stress was induced through timed math tests. After being discharged, over the course of 12 days, the women consumed sweetened drinks three times a day. Half had beverages sweetened with the artificial sweetener aspartame, while the rest had drinks sweetened with real sucrose. This phase was followed by an additional three-day stint at the facility during which MRIs and saliva samples were taken again.

After the 12-day period, the group that had sucrose-sweetened beverages showed higher activity in the left hippocampus (an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory that is sensitive to chronic stress) and significantly reduced levels of cortisol (the hormone released in response to stress) compared to those who had artificially sweetened beverages.

While this study was one of the first to show that sugar can reduce stress responses in humans, it followed up on previous studies that found similar conclusions in animal subjects. The researchers noted the need for future research—especially on whether long-term sugar consumption has the same effect.

"The concern is psychological or emotional stress could trigger the habitual overconsumption of sugar," lead author Kevin D. Laugero told Science Daily. Not exactly great news for those of us who enjoy eating our feelings.

Tales From City of Hope #4: The Smell of Victory in the Morning

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 10:45 PM EDT

Chemotherapy is over and tomorrow is Tag Null: that is, Day Zero, when they pump my own frozen stem cells back into me. The entire process takes about 20 minutes, but I'll be in the hospital practically the entire day getting liters and liters of IV fluids. This is partly to keep me hydrated and partly just because they want to keep me under observation for a while.

But here's the interesting thing. The stem cells are kept in a preservative solution to keep them fresh, and apparently this will give me a strong body odor of some kind. But what? One nurse said I would smell like bad garlic for a day. That sounds bad. But a different nurse said I would smell like creamed corn. That seems more tolerable. Yet a third suggested it differed by nationality, and a white boy like me might smell like iodine.

But which is it? To me, of course, I will smell fresh as a new-plucked daisy. It's only other people who have to put up with my olfactory weirdness. In any case, I plan to ask everyone who comes into my room what I smell like. Spoiled tuna? A lovely cheese casserole? Bacon and eggs? Who knows?