Blogs

Weekly Flint Water Report: April 9-15

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 1:33 PM EDT

Here is this week's Flint water report. As usual, I've eliminated outlier readings above 2,000 parts per billion, since there are very few of them and they can affect the averages in misleading ways. During the week, DEQ took 905 samples. The average for the past week was 10.63.

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Will Twitter Soon Be Overrun With Silicon Trolls?

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 12:49 PM EDT

Hugh Hancock muses today about the remarkable effectiveness of efforts to turn Microsoft's (now) infamous Tay chatbot into an asshole. It didn't take much. Mostly the people who did it were just having a laugh, and Tay took it from there. It turns out that being an asshole is a pretty easy thing to emulate.

So what does this mean for the future? Not the far future, mind you, but next year. Hancock has an unnerving answer:

Everyone Can Have Their Own Twitter Mob

Right now, if you want to have someone attacked by a horde of angry strangers, you need to be a celebrity. That's a real problem on Twitter and Facebook both, with a few users in particular becoming well-known for abusing their power to send their fans after people with whom they disagree.

But remember, the Internet's about democratising power, and this is the latest frontier. With a trollbot and some planning, this power will soon be accessible to anyone.

There's a further twist, too: the bots will get better. Attacking someone on the Internet is a task eminently suited to deep learning. Give the bots a large corpus of starter insults and a win condition, and let them do what trolls do — find the most effective, most unpleasant ways to attack someone online. No matter how impervious you think you are to abuse, a swarm of learning robots can probably find your weak spot.

There are some details to be worked out, of course, like setting up all the accounts your trollbot would need. Hancock addresses that. He figures the bots will be pretty good at this stuff too.

The unnerving part of this is that although Hancock is writing in a chatty tone, this is all very plausible. And for something like Twitter, where a bot doesn't need much intelligence to fit right in, it's a pretty serious near-term possibility.

So what happens? Behind Door 1, Twitter becomes an abattoir of filth and verbal war. Only the bravest dare enter. Behind Door 2, Twitter mobs become so frequent that no one cares about them anymore. Even the most sensitive among us just shrug them off. Behind Door 3, it all becomes a tedious war between semi-intelligent trollbots and semi-intelligent trollbot filters. It's just Act II of the online production that began with email spam.

On the bright side, this might put actual trolls out of commission. How can they compete? And what will they do with all their newfound free time?

Bernie Supporters Are Mostly Disappointed in Obama

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 12:04 PM EDT

In response to my post yesterday about the tradition of truthtellers in Democratic primaries,1 a reader emails: "Offhand my guess would be that a lot of Bernie supporters think Obama proves that an outsider/rebel/truthteller can both win and end up a very successful president." Another reader tweets the same sentiment:

Hmmm. I don't think either of these is true. Obama didn't run in the truthteller tradition. He ran more in the JFK/Clinton tradition: a young guy bringing the voice of a new generation to the White House. Obama was inspiring and wildly popular, but he didn't spend his time explaining that we all had to face up to endemic corruption or tidal waves of money or demographic Armageddon. Just the opposite. He mostly sanded the rough edges off that kind of stuff. It was all hope and change and ending the partisan bickering in Washington.

As for Bernie supporters, I don't think they view Obama as a rebel or a truthteller. Bernie himself is careful not to criticize Obama, but a lot of his supporters see Obama as basically a disappointment: just another squishy centrist who made some incremental progress and called it a day. In the end, we still don't have universal health care; the banks are still running things; the Republican Party continues to obstruct; and rich people are still rich. That's the very reason we need a guy like Bernie in the Oval Office.

This is certainly my impression, anyway. Am I wrong?

1A theme that Jamelle Bouie touches on in a much longer, more nuanced piece here about the Bernie insurgency. It's well worth a read.

Who Supported the 1994 Crime Bill?

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 11:16 AM EDT

Farah Stockman reports that the generation gap between Hillary supporters and Bernie supporters extends to African-Americans too. And the 1994 crime bill is part of it:

[Caryl] Brock said she had been a social worker in charge of the removal of children from dangerous homes in the South Bronx and Spanish Harlem in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when crack tore a path of destruction through those neighborhoods....She said she was relieved when the crime bill passed. In addition to providing more money for prisons and the police, the law banned assault weapons and offered funding for drug courts and rehabilitation. “Because of the crime bill,” she said, “anybody that wanted rehabilitation, we could process them and get them a detox bed in a hospital.”

Ms. Brock’s comments underscore a sometimes overlooked reality in today’s re-examination of the crime bill: The legislation was broadly embraced by nonwhite voters, more enthusiastically even than by white voters. About 58 percent of nonwhites supported it in 1994, according to a Gallup poll, compared with 49 percent of white voters.

Mr. Clinton has seemed rattled at times as he tries to defend the measure to younger African-Americans in an era in which concerns about mistreatment by the police and mass incarceration have eclipsed the fear of crime in many black communities.

And among these younger voters, the Clintons lack the deep admiration that they enjoy from previous generations of African-Americans. In the Democratic primary contests so far, 92 percent of black voters 65 and older cast ballots for Mrs. Clinton, compared with 45 percent of black voters under age 25, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research.

Obviously everyone should vote for whoever they want. But this piece highlights one thing that continues to eat at me: judging the past by the standards of the present. The 1994 crime bill was hardly supported unanimously, and there was plenty of criticism of it at the time. It's fine to take note of that. But the plain fact is that 1994 was a different time: crime was rampant and people were scared—including black people—and most of them supported the crime bill, warts and all. Were they wrong to do so? Maybe. But you need to seriously engage with what the world was like in 1994 and what they could reasonably have known about it before you condemn them.

A world where violent crime is no longer an obsession, replaced instead by DWB and Ferguson-style police shootings, calls for different responses. No one would propose anything like the 1994 crime bill anymore. But in 1994 things looked a lot different. You need to understand that deep in your gut before you lash out at the folks who supported it.

John Oliver Shames Congress for America's Lead Contamination Crisis

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 8:42 AM EDT

Over the past year, American lawmakers have expressed outrage over the water crisis in Flint, Michigan—a "man-made disaster" that poisoned thousands of children living in the city, while state officials knew that the city's tap water was in fact unsafe to drink.

But as John Oliver noted on the latest Last Week Tonight, lead contamination extends far beyond Flint. According to a USA Today study cited on Sunday, nearly 2,000 water systems across the United States have been detected for excessive lead levels. The problem gets even worse when children ingest lead paint dust, which is present in 2.1 million homes across the country where children under the age of six live.

"There is no safe level of lead," Oliver said. "It's one of those things that are so dangerous, you shouldn't even let a little bit inside of you—much like heroin or Jeremy Piven. Even low-level exposure can lead to irreversible damage like lower IQ's, anti-social behavior, and reduced attention span."

Despite the outrage, Congress continues to deny the crucial funding needed to start removing lead from American homes.

"That's what makes it so frustrating that last year all of those men voted for a bill that would have reduced the already low funding for hot lead abatement programs by $35 million, amounting to a 32 percent cut," Oliver said. "And the truth is, if you cut funding like that, a whole lot more children might get poisoned."

While the cuts never passed, funding to correct the issue has remained flat and continues to put children at risk for lead exposure across the country.

For more on Flint, check out Mother Jones' investigation into the crisis here.

The Playful Grace of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 6:00 AM EDT

Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil
Dois Amigos, Um Seculo de Musica: Multishow Live
Nonesuch

Nonesuch Records

 

The great Brazilian singer-songwriters Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil go back a half-century together. Spearheading the Tropicalia movement, which blended traditional and modern pop music, they ran afoul of the country's authoritarian government in the '60s, leading to brief imprisonment and then exile, though both eventually came home to continue their brilliant careers. But you don't have to know ancient history (or Portuguese) to appreciate this wonderful live album, drawn from their joint 2015 tour. Performing together and separately, with just their acoustic guitars for support, Veloso and Gil epitomize playful grace and warm camaraderie on these entrancing, deftly melodic songs. Both have aged well and blend beautifully: Caetano possesses the sweeter, smoother voice, while Gilberto is a deeper, slightly raspier singer. Dois Amigos is a lovely introduction to—or triumphant reminder of—two remarkable artists.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

What's the Deal With Oldsters and Hillary, Anyway?

| Sun Apr. 17, 2016 2:52 PM EDT

It's Sunday, and that's time for some idle musing. Today's idle musing is this: why is it that us oldsters tend to favor Hillary over Bernie? Obviously we have some substantive reasons, just as Bernie supporters have theirs. But it's a funny thing. I pretty much agree with Bernie's take on money in politics. I like his attitude toward Wall Street. I have reservations about his foreign policy, but I still suspect that he'd be less interventionist and more to my liking. And yet, I still lean toward Hillary. Partly this is also substantive—she's better briefed, her proposals are more realistic, and I think she could get more done—but there's no denying that a lot of it is mood affiliation.

For some reason this got me thinking about fight scenes in movies. Bear with me here. If you watch a movie from 50 years ago, the fight scenes will mostly strike you as ridiculous. The staging is weak, the sound effects are amateurish, and the choreography is slapdash. Things improved over the next couple of decades, but then they went overboard. Fight scenes began to devour blockbuster movies, with directors all trying to one up each other. But really, a fight is a fight. After a while, there's little new you can do, and all the CGI in the world can't hide that. Anyone who saw the most recent Star Trek movie knows what I'm talking about. The final fight scene was absurd, tedious, and completely unnecessary. But JJ Abrams put it in because he figured his audience demanded it. And I suppose they did. But those of us who have been watching movies since the 60s or 70s found it boring and predictable.

Now on to politics. To me, Bernie is like one of those fight scenes: I've seen it all before. On the Democratic side, primaries have specialized in having at least one bold truthteller like Bernie in every cycle since the 1960s. Sometimes they're lefty truthtellers, sometimes they're "hard truths" truthtellers, and sometimes they're a bit of a mishmash. But the one thing they have in common is that they can afford to tell the truth—in the beginning, at least—because they're mostly running as rebels who don't really expect to win. And if you're not seriously trying to win, there's no downside to being entirely candid. Who cares if you're going to lose a few important demographics in the process?

Since 1968, we've seen at least one of these in every contested Democratic primary. Off the top of my head, the list includes Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Mo Udall, Gary Hart, Paul Simon, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, Howard Dean, and Dennis Kucinich. They all attracted a crowd of fans, some more than others, and generally speaking they were lionized by the press. None of them won except for McGovern, who went down to an epic defeat in the general election. (Probably any Democrat would have lost that year, but McGovern lost in a landslide.)

So this year I look at Bernie, and I see the same old thing: a bold truthteller who could afford not to play conventional politics because he was never really planning to win. He just wanted to get his issues on the table. The fact that he's running so close is probably as much of a surprise to him as it is to everyone else.

But this is obviously something that's far more salient to older voters than to younger ones. Bernie doesn't seem fresh and courageous to us. He seems like the same guy we've seen every four years. They all have one or two issues they care about. They want those issues on the table, and running for president is a good way to do it. They usually drop out by spring. And generally speaking, most of them probably didn't have the temperament to make good presidents.

Obviously your mileage might vary. Maybe Bernie is finally the one to do it, and I'm just too old and jaded to see it. Maybe his temperament is different, and he'd surprise us all by being a pretty good president. Maybe he'd get serious about rallying his troops to care about downballot elections, and win control of Congress. Maybe he'd really get a lot of the stuff done that he's been talking about.

I doubt it. But then again, none of the previous truthtellers has ever made it to the White House, so who knows? Maybe eight years from now we'll all be feeling the Bern.

American Independent Party Voters in California Mostly Just Screwed Up When They Registered

| Sun Apr. 17, 2016 11:36 AM EDT

I suppose I shouldn't laugh at this, but the LA Times reports today that the American Independent Party has grown to about 500 thousand members in California since it started up in 1968. Why? A survey suggests that about three-quarters of AIP members thought they were registering as lower-case independents—that is, voters with no party preference. Now that's a low-information voter.

None of this has anything to do with Bernie Sanders. As you can see, voters declaring no party preference have been on the rise for well over a decade. But it still makes a difference: if you're independent, you can vote for Bernie in the California primary. If you're AIP, you can't. So it's likely there are upwards of 400 thousand registered voters in California who may be leaning toward Bernie but won't be able to vote for him. They better re-register quick if they want to feel the Bern.

They won't, of course. Anyone who made a mistake like this isn't likely to care enough about Democratic Party politics to bother. Still, it makes you wonder if someone could siphon off, say, Republican votes by starting up the Independent Voters of the Republic Party or something. Worth a try!

Why Do We Put Up With Saudi Arabia? Maybe We Don't Have Much of a Choice.

| Sat Apr. 16, 2016 5:06 PM EDT

Responding to reports that Pakistan's intelligence service funded a deadly 2009 Taliban attack on a CIA outpost in Afghanistan, National Review's David French says we should release the secret 28 pages of the 9/11 report that describe possible Saudi involvement:

We’ve long known that our “alliance” with Saudi Arabia has put us in bed with the devil. It’s time for us to find out how evil that devil truly is.

....I recognize that the needs of war sometimes require our nation to ally itself with dangerous regimes (see World War II for the most salient example), but there is still a difference between a shaky or temporary ally and an actual enemy — a nation that is trying to undermine American interests and kill Americans. In other words, there is a line, and it is worth asking (and re-asking) if Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are on the right side.

This is one of those remarkable issues that unites far right, centrists, squishy left, and far left. We all think pretty poorly of Saudi Arabia, and we'd all like to know what's in those 28 pages. The fact that no one in the federal government wants to oblige us just adds to our conviction that these pages contain something pretty damning.

Still, this raises a difficult question, especially for conservatives: who do you want the US to ally with in the Muslim world? The basic power blocs in the Middle East are the Sunni gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and the Shiite bloc led by Iran. Obviously Iran is out. So does this mean conservatives want to dispense with allies altogether? Give lots of arms to Israel but otherwise just pull out of the Middle East altogether? Launch periodic wars against whoever happens to be the greatest perceived threat at any given time?

My loathing of Saudi Arabia is pretty boundless on all sorts of levels: religious liberty, treatment of women, encouragement of Wahhabi intolerance throughout the Muslim world, geopolitical treachery, general tribal assholishness, human rights in general, and plenty of other things I've probably forgotten. At the same time, Iran is hardly a sterling citizen. They lack some of Saudi Arabia's vices, but make up for it with others (less proselytization, more export of terrorism). And at least Saudi Arabia cooperates with us some of the time. Iran wants nothing to do with us.

This is all pretty obvious, but I guess it's why I go off on rants about Saudi Arabia only occasionally. It's easy to do for someone like me, who has no influence over anything. But if I were president, and I had to choose from a steaming pile of seriously ugly choices—with American interests, American lives, Mideast stability, and the threat of global terrorist surges all on the line? Well, I might look at everything, hold my nose, and play nice with the Saudis. I don't know. But that's apparently the choice that President Obama made, even though it's pretty clear he didn't like it much.

Everyone Knows Why Hillary Clinton Won't Release Her Goldman Sachs Speeches

| Sat Apr. 16, 2016 1:15 PM EDT

John Judis says he's worried about Hillary Clinton again:

I don't understand why she can't put the Goldman, Sachs question behind her. I initially assumed that she either didn't have transcripts or that what she said was the usual milquetoast stuff politicians offer up. But her continued refusal to provide transcripts (which I now assume must exist) suggests that there must be something damning in them.

If she gets the nomination, she'll face these questions again in the fall, and if Trump or Cruz is her opponent, these questions will detract from the attention that their past utterances about Mexican rapists or masturbation or whathaveyou.

For what it's worth, I think we all know what's in those transcripts: a bit of routine praise for the yeoman work that investment bankers do to keep the gears of the economy well oiled. Maybe something like this:

These are tough times for investment bankers. I think Goldman Sachs is the only organization with a lower approval rating than Congress [audience laughs politely between bites of prime rib]. But seriously, folks, Main Street and Wall Street need each other. Bankers aren't villains. I support higher leverage requirements and regulation of derivatives [audience stares moodily at their forks], but I've always said that we need to do it in a practical way. Some of the financial engineering that's come under such attack from the Bernie Sanders of the world [audience brightens] is just what our country needs. It helps states build roads and cities build schools. You're the villains when things go bad—and maybe sometimes you deserve to be. But other times you're the heroes America can't do without.

This is the kind of thing that people say when they give a speech. But in the hands of a political opponent, it will come out like this:

Bankers aren't villains....The financial engineering that's come under such attack from the Bernie Sanders of the world is just what our country needs. It helps states build roads and cities build schools....You're the heroes America can't do without.

Something like that, anyway. My own guess is that it's vanishingly unlikely Hillary said anything in these speeches that's truly a bombshell. Her entire life suggests the kind of caution and experience with leaks that almost certainly made these speeches dull and predictable. But the Goldman folks knew all that up front. They just wanted the cachet of having a Clinton address their dinner.

Still, when you give speeches to any industry group, you offer up some praise for the vital work they do. It's just part of the spiel. And Hillary knows perfectly well without even looking that some of that stuff is in these speeches—and it can be taken out of context and made into yet another endless and idiotic Republican meme. Remember "You didn't build that"? Sure you do.

On another note, if Hillary does release the transcripts, she's sure not going to do it now. She'll wait until she has the nomination wrapped up and then release them during the dog days of May or June. If possible, she'll do it the same day Donald Trump blows up the news cycle again. By that time, Democrats will all be circling the wagons to defend her and the entire foofarah will be dead by the time the real campaign starts in September.

As for the odds of a genuine bombshell, I'd put it at about 1 percent. I guess you never know about these things, but literally everything in Hillary's 40-year political career suggests a woman who simply doesn't traffic in bombshells. It's not in her personality, and in any case, long experience has taught her better. It's only barely conceivable that something genuinely damning is anywhere in any of those speeches.