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Obama Is Poised to Give GMO and Meat Companies Something They've Always Wanted

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

President Obama and his Senate GOP critics are locked in a long-simmering feud, but there's one topic that has them clasping hands and singing kumbaya: global free-trade deals. The erstwhile foes are joining forces to push two massive ones: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would knock down trade barriers for a group of nations including the United States, Canada, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam; and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would do the same between the US and the European Union.

"We're not trying to force anybody anywhere to eat anything, but we do think the decisions about what is safe should be made by science and not by politics," said US Trade Representative Michael Froman.

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators rolled out legislation, vigorously promoted by the White House, that would give the president broad authority to negotiate and push such trade deals through Congress, a process known as "fast track." Since it facilitates corporate-friendly trade rules, the fast-track bill is expected to enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers. But progressive Democratic senators are lining up to oppose it, setting up a battle royal pitting President Obama and his own congressional caucus—one the New York Times' Jonathan Weisman calls "sure to be one of the toughest fights of Mr. Obama's last 19 months in office."

In a post last year, I laid out why the US meat industry loves the TPP: namely, that it would open the floodgates to lucrative markets in Japan, Vietnam, and Malaysia, all of which limit imports of US meat to protect domestic farmers

Another massive agribusiness sector, the GMO seed pesticide industry, potentially stands to gain from the TTIP, because the European Union has much more restrictive regulations on rolling out novel crops than does the United States. Some member states, including France, maintain moratoriums on planting certain GM crops. Attempting to drum up support for the fast-track bill on Capitol Hill, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and US Trade Representative Michael Froman have been been promising to use the proposed treaty has a hammer to force broader acceptance in the EU. 

"Vilsack said the administration would 'continue to negotiate very hard' to prevent individual EU countries from blocking use of approved biotech products," reports Agri-Pulse's Philip Brasher, in an account of a hearing last week held by the Senate Finance Committee. As for Froman, he told the committee that "we're not trying to force anybody anywhere to eat anything, but we do think the decisions about what is safe should be made by science and not by politics."

Vilsack has also rallied the agribusiness industry to lobby Congress in favor of the fast-track bill, calling on "farmers, ranchers, agribusiness owners, and other industry groups to urge Congress to pass trade promotion authority for President Obama and to support the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement," reports the North American Meat Institute.

But what's good for the meat and biotech industries industry isn't necessarily good for the country. As the Intercept's Lee Fang reports, Obama's Office of the United States Trade Representative, which is negotiating the trade deals, is shot through with former biotech-industry flacks. The fast track bill would further curtail public debate on a treaty process that's already been notoriously secretive. I hope Democratic senators defy the president on this one.

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Does Walmart Have Plumbing Problems?

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 1:40 AM EDT

No, really. Did five Walmart stores have to shut down and abruptly lay off all their workers within hours because they suddenly discovered massive plumbing problems? Michael Hiltzik is skeptical.

Tales From City of Hope #3: The Stop Sign For Dwarves

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 10:14 PM EDT

This is the stop sign at the end of the road that runs outside my apartment in Parsons Village. It is about three feet high.

There are no other stop signs on the corner. As far as I can tell, there are (currently) no obstructions that prevent building a normal height sign. All the other traffic signs in the vicinity are normal height.

So what's the deal? Did it replace a normal height sign that trams and maintenance carts that kept ignoring? Is it some kind of "fun" sign for the kiddies? Did someone write the specs in metric, and 3 meters became 3 feet somehow? Any other ideas?

New Document Cache Shows the Real Roots of ISIS Are as Much Secular as Religious

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 4:28 PM EDT

Spiegel has quite a fascinating report this week about the origins and growth of ISIS. It's a great counterpoint to Graeme Wood's Atlantic piece from February that focused on the Islamic and theological roots of ISIS and the territorial ambitions of its self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But it turns out that this is far from the whole story. According to Christopher Reuter, a recently discovered cache of documents shows that the founding architect of ISIS was actually Haji Bakr, the pseudonym of Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein's air defense force. Bakr, who lost his job and his power in 2003 when Paul Bremer made the decision to disband the Iraqi army, was the real mastermind behind ISIS. In dozens of detailed pages written in 2012, he laid out an organizational plan for the kind of pervasive, brutally efficient spy state he knew best:

It seemed as if George Orwell had been the model for this spawn of paranoid surveillance. But it was much simpler than that. Bakr was merely modifying what he had learned in the past: Saddam Hussein's omnipresent security apparatus, in which no one, not even generals in the intelligence service, could be certain they weren't being spied on.

....There is a simple reason why there is no mention in Bakr's writings of prophecies relating to the establishment of an Islamic State allegedly ordained by God: He believed that fanatical religious convictions alone were not enough to achieve victory. But he did believe that the faith of others could be exploited. In 2010, Bakr and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir and later "caliph," the official leader of the Islamic State. They reasoned that Baghdadi, an educated cleric, would give the group a religious face.

So the roots of ISIS are purely pragmatic: Bakr wanted to build an organization that could retake Iraq, and he calculated that this could best be done by combining the secular mechanisms of Saddam Hussein with the religious fanaticism of an Al Qaeda. The whole piece is well worth a read.

Scott Walker May Have Just Scored 2016's Biggest Sugar Daddies

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 3:53 PM EDT

Charles and David Koch have already made it clear that they plan to do everything in their power to prevent Hillary Clinton (or, in case she stumbles, any other Democrat) from winning the presidency. The moguls hope to garner $889 million for the 2016 election from their networks, much of it bound to be channeled through their favorite Dark Money organizations. At one single summit in late January they managed to raise $249 million from friends and allies.

And now, it looks like the Koch brothers may have landed on their standardbearer for all that spending. As the New York Times reported:

On Monday, at a fund-raising event in Manhattan for the New York State Republican Party, David Koch told donors that he and his brother, who oversee one of the biggest private political organizations in the country, believed that Mr. Walker would be the Republican nominee.

"When the primaries are over and Scott Walker gets the nomination," Mr. Koch told the crowd, the billionaire brothers would support him, according to a spokeswoman. The remark drew laughter and applause from the audience of fellow donors and Republican activists, who had come to hear Mr. Walker speak earlier at the event, held at the Union League Club.

If the Kochs do decide to back Scott Walker, according to the Times, the money would come from them personally, rather than their network of affiliated groups. But with a combined net worth of over $85 billion, Charles and David could set up a vehicle that would outspend nearly anyone while barely tapping into their bank accounts. Seeing the brothers get behind Walker isn't terribly surprising. The pair invested heavily in his initial gubernatorial campaign and have aided him in his subsequent elections.

Not so fast, though, Politico's Mike Allen cautioned this morning. Despite David Koch's remarks, he provided Politico a statement disavowing any endorsement. As Allen wrote, the brothers say they are undecided and still plan to hold "auditions" at their summer donor conference. In addition to Walker, the lineup of people under consideration reportedly includes Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and, most surprisingly, Jeb Bush.

Whoever ends up gaining the Kochs' support would have unparalleled fundraising might, and would have to be considered a favorite for the Republican nomination. And their ascent would be the latest example of the power of the ultrarich in the age of the super PAC: Winning broad support from small donors doesn't matter when the affections of two individuals willing to spend astronomically could upend the entire campaign.

Tales From City of Hope #2: Chemo Has Started

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 2:10 PM EDT

It is 10:43 am PDT on April 21, 2015. It is Day -2 (Day 0 is Thursday, when the actual stem cell transfusion takes place) and my final round of chemotherapy has officially started. Oddly enough, it only lasts about half an hour. The rest of my 8-hour stay in the hospital today is taken up with prep and about 4-6 hours of IV fluids.

Right now I am manically chewing on ice chips. Apparently they have discovered that this constricts the blood flow to the mouth and therefore reduces the amount of Melphalan that makes it into your mouth and gums. This is pretty effective at minimizing mouth sores, so I'm sucking on ice chips for all I'm worth. The photographic evidence, along with all the usual machines that go ping, is on the right.

UPDATE: Keeping up the ice chip routine gets old pretty quick. But worth it if it keeps the mouth sores at bay.

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Chart of the Day: Obamacare Is Popular!

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 12:22 PM EDT

Guess what? Obamacare's popularity has been rising slowly but steadily for the past two years, and in April it hit a milestone. According to Kaiser, it is now more popular than unpopular. Not by much, but at least it's making progress.

Former Walker Aide Blasts Walker for Immigration Flip-Flop

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 10:54 AM EDT

Liz Mair, the GOP operative who resigned from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's campaign-in-waiting after a day on the job, is in campaign mode again—and this time, she's targeting her former boss. On Tuesday morning, Mair sent an email detailing Walker's "Olympic-quality flip-flop" on the issue of immigration.

On Monday, Breitbart reported that Walker is the only declared or likely GOP candidate so far to support rolling back legal immigration to the United States, including for highly skilled workers. In her email, Mair pointed out that, historically, Walker has hardly been an immigration hardliner: In 2013, he vocally supported expanding legal immigration, and as recently as March, he said he was in favor of giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. She suggested that Walker's back-tracking could make him an easy target for strong GOP rivals.

Mair, who served on Walker's recall campaign in 2012, resigned from the governor's PAC in March in the wake of a kerfuffle over several tweets in which she criticized Iowa and its outsized political importance. Mair told Mother Jones she did not call out Walker in service of a client. She said she is "in the camp of people who see immigration as a benefit, who believe we should be welcoming to immigrants and make legal immigration easier, and who favor comprehensive immigration reform in some form…I've also long been highly critical of flip-floppery."

Here's an excerpt from her email:

In fulfilling my professional duties as constructed today, as opposed to on March 16, I wanted to flag the below Olympic-quality flip-flop on immigration policy to you. Apologies if this seems crass to some of you, but I would not be meeting certain responsibilities if I did not shoot this email out.

Yesterday, it was reported that Scott Walker has now adopted the immigration position of Sen. Jeff Sessions and has been taking instruction from Sessions on the issue of immigration. Notably, Sessions wants to further restrict legal immigration including high-skilled immigration, a position that is at odds with the traditional GOP anti-amnesty stance taken by virtually all presidential candidates, and which also puts him at odds with conservative policy experts and economists…this new positioning seems to represent a full 180 degree turn from where Walker has been on immigration historically, which is to say in the very pro-immigration and even pro-comprehensive reform camp…

Setting aside the substance of the policy, as the 2008 election demonstrated, it is really difficult in the age of Google to execute full policy reversals without earning a reputation as an untrustworthy, "say anything to win," substance-and-guts-free politician. Even in 2012, when Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, his reputation for policy, er, flexibility was a significant negative for him and one that diminished enthusiasm for the candidate, probably adversely impacting his performance in that race.

Tired of Remembering Passwords? Try Swallowing Them Instead.

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 9:25 AM EDT

Chances are you're bad at passwords. Most of us are. A recent statistic offered up by Jonathan LeBlanc, the global head of developer advocacy at PayPal, suggests that nearly 10 percent of people have a password consisting of 123456, 12345678, or, simply, "password."

LeBlanc has some bold thoughts on improving this state of affairs. As he told the Wall Street Journal last week, "embeddable, injectable, and ingestible devices" are the next step companies will use to identify consumers for "mobile payments and other sensitive online interactions."

From the Journal:

While there are more advanced methods to increase login security, like location verification, identifying people by their habits like the way they type in their passwords, fingerprints and other biometric identifiers, these can lead to false negative results, where valid users can't log in to their online services, and false positives, where invalid users can log in.

Mr. Leblanc pointed to more accurate methods of identity verification, like thin silicon chips which can be embedded into the skin. The wireless chips can contain ECG sensors that monitor the heart’s unique electrical activity, and communicate the data via wireless antennae to "wearable computer tattoos."

Ingestible capsules that can detect glucose levels and other unique internal features can use a person's body as a way to identify them and beam that data out.

To be fair, LeBlanc told the paper that these specific technologies aren't necessarily things that PayPal is planning, but he's been raising the possibility in a presentation he's been giving, and has said the online dealbroker is "definitely looking at the identity field" as a means of allowing users a more secure way to identify themselves.

You don't have to be a "mark of the beast" person or a conspiracy theorist to have concerns. Indeed, what could possibly go wrong with a little implanted device that reads your vein patterns or your heart's unique activity or blood glucose levels just so you can seamlessly buy that cup of Starbucks? Wouldn't an insurance company love to use that information to decide that you had one too many donuts—so it won't be covering that bypass surgery after all?

As the Wall Street Journal cautiously notes, "Mr. Leblanc admits that there's still a ways to go before cultural norms catch up with ingestible and injectable ID devices."

Feminist Yelp, a Date-Rape Game, and Other Killer Apps From a Global Women's Hackathon

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 9:00 AM EDT
The winning team with male volunteers in Porto Alegre, Brazil

What if there was a platform that was kind of like Yelp, but with a feminist twist—where you could rate businesses (specifically bars, clubs, and restaurants) according to how their staff and patrons treat women? That's the idea behind a mobile app dreamed up by a group of young female coders in Brazil. The women, ages 18 through 22, came up with it in February during an international hackathon organized by the Global Fund for Women. Tentatively named Não Me Calo (I Will Not Shut Up), it was chosen this week as the hackthon's winning idea. Through the Global Fund's partnerships with the tech industry, the team will get funds and mentoring to make their app a reality over the next six months or so.

Dozens of female coders, some as young as 11, spent 24 hours on ideas to build safer physical and virtual spaces.

Não Me Calo is a simple concept: Users will identify businesses where they've encountered physical and verbal abuse or harassment from employees or patrons. The app's ranking system will call out the worst offenders and encourage app users to spend their money elsewhere. With any luck, the business owners will then take steps to alleviate the problem. "It provides a way to leverage existing technology, sort of like Foursquare and Yelp, platforms that allow you to check into public spaces in major cities, with an additional piece of information that probably isn't being collected right now," said Michaela Leslie-Rule, the Global Fund producer who coordinated the hackathon. "Our hope is that this would be available to women and girls globally."

The event, which included girls as young as 11, brought together dozens of coders in New York City; Oakland, California; Porto Alegre, Brazil; Tapei, Taiwan; and Trivandrum, India. They spent 24 hours designing and building tools to create safe physical and virtual spaces for women and girls. Here are some of the other ideas that came out of the event:

Perv Radar: Coders in Tapei designed a map-and-alerts website that would track sexual harassment incidents by location. Their Pervert Map would show exactly where run-ins have occurred, with an anonymous comment feature that would allow users to log details about the incidents, as well as markers to identify safe zones like police stations. For a walkthrough, check out this video.

Red Alert: In Oakland, coders proposed an Android app to prevent kidnappings. It would come with a discrete GPS sensor you could attach to the underside of a bracelet or a bag zipper. In threatening situations, a woman could touch the sensor for five seconds to activate "red mode," notifying preset emergency contacts and the authorities. The app would pinpoint her coordinates on a tracking map, with a history page to show her previous locations, as well as provide a list of hospitals and police stations in the area.

In India, sex ed is rare, and talking openly about sex is taboo, for girls and women especially.

Anti-Gamergate: In New York City, one team came up with a video game that puts players in the shoes of a woman in a date-rape situation on a college campus to confront tricky questions around sexual consent. (Check out this similar idea by game designer Nina Freeman.) Another team in the Big Apple created a 3-D animated game that requires players to help an avatar find its way through a maze of obstacles in the quest for reproductive health care. In India, coders proposed an online game about self-defense.

Talk It Out: Sex ed is in a sorry state in much of the United States, as this Mississippi teacher knows. But in India, it's not even part of the curriculum in most schools, and talking openly about sex is pretty much taboo. Coders in Trivandrum created a website with a chat function that lets girls ask counselors about sexually transmitted infections, harassment, and sex. Back in Oakland, a team proposed an online chat room app to facilitate conversations about bullying and other forms of abuse. Another team in Brazil thought up a social network that would link women who want to learn a specific skill with other women who can teach it to them, with the goal of broadening job opportunities.