Mojo - December 2013

Why America Isn't Ready for Amazon's Delivery Drones

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 5:55 PM EST

"It looks like science fiction, but it's real." That's how Amazon, the online retailing giant, describes its new plan to deliver blenders, spice racks, and sex toys in 30 minutes or less via drone. On Sunday, CEO Jeff Bezos announced that his company is in the process of testing these new delivery drones and aims to have them ready by the time the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to open up US airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles in 2015. But after that date, Amazon's blender-delivering drones will still face big obstacles, such as the states and cities that are hostile towards drone use; potential accidents with passenger planes; GPS and privacy concerns; and roving bands of laser-wielding package bandits. 

While many states are vying for the right to be official FAA drone test sites, others are doing their best to make their skies unwelcome to drones. Both Idaho and Texas have passed laws that restrict private citizens from using drones to take photos—and it's likely that Amazon drones will need to be equipped with cameras, according to the Washington Post. Another seven states have jumped on the drone-banning bandwagon, by stopping law enforcement (but not private companies) from using them for surveillance. There are also a number of cities and counties that are considering making their air spaces "drone-free zones." Charlottesville, VirginiaIowa City, Iowa, and St. Bonifacius, Minnesota, have banned drones for at least two years. Syracuse, New York, considered a bill in October that would have banned drones but decided to hold it until the FAA regulations shake out. And a Colorado town even considered issuing drone-hunting licenses. 

Here's a map showing which states have passed legislation restricting drone use, put together with help from the National Conference of State Legislatures and the ACLU. Many other states have introduced bills that are still under consideration, so check your own state legislature for more information: 

Currently, FAA rules prohibit drones from carrying people or property for compensation and only allow them for "important missions in the public interest" like search and rescue, patrolling the border, and firefighting. Unmanned aircraft are also prohibited from airspace over major urban areas—because of a higher likelihood of accidents with traditional aircraft, and other obstacles, such as buildings and power lines. When the FAA lifts drone restrictions in 2015, Amazon drones would likely be traveling in urban areas, given that they can only fly within 10 miles of a distribution center, many of which are located in the suburbs of major cities. But cities aren't likely to be any less dense in two years, raising the possibility of collisions. The FAA is still working on how to safely implement drones in urban areas—particularly by employing sensor technology—but it's still a legitimate concern, given that drones have already crashed into a lake, a Navy ship, and Manhattan

If Amazon can find a way to make drones work while avoiding cities or airplane flight paths, the company would still need to implement very precise GPS directions to ensure each package goes to the right place. (In many places, a foot or two can mean the difference between your front door and the sidewalk.) The Washington Post points out that technology isn't precise enough yet to let drones fly themselves, so one option would be to have pilots fly drones via computer, to avoid GPS mishaps. But that would require them all to have cameras, creating a slew of new privacy concerns: "We need rules so that we can enjoy the benefits of this technology without becoming closer to a surveillance state," says Allie Bohm, an advocacy and policy strategist for the ACLU.

Finally, there's also the prospect of thievery. All it could take is an effective drone-destroyer—a hunting rifle? laser weapon? laser pointer?—for a bandit to be watching your movies, wearing your slippers, and making smoothies in your blender. Amazon claims that by 2015, it "will be ready" to unleash delivery drones in US skies—but America probably won't be. 

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PETA's Offensive Solution to the Plan B Weight-Limit Crisis

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 4:29 PM EST

PETA to women: "Try to look more like her."

Update (12/2/2013): John Seager, the president of Population Connection, has responded to PETA's campaign in an email: "It would be unfortunate if the importance of access to and consistent use of modern contraception gets lost in some wide-ranging discussion about everything under the sun, including the many positive benefits of a vegan diet."

Last week, when Mother Jones reported that some popular emergency contraceptive pills may not work in women weighing more than 176 pounds, many reporters and commentators immediately interpreted this as bad news for women who are "fat" or "obese."

And it wasn't just Rush Limbaugh making that assumption. Annie-Rose Strasser at ThinkProgress did the yeoman's work of rounding up media coverage that said the news affected "overweight" or "obese" women and found that CNN, NPR, The Guardian, and The Examiner were all offenders.

Reporters are wrong to suggest that the limits of Plan B and similar emergency contraceptives affect only women who are overweight. The CEO of HRA Pharma, a French company that is changing the labels on its emergency contraceptive pills to warn women of weight limits, told Mother Jones that the pill's efficacy is linked to weight—not body mass index, an obesity measure. In other words, the weight limit would equally affect a tall woman whose weight is in what doctors consider a healthy range and a shorter, overweight woman. Amanda Marcotte points out at RH Reality Check that a six-foot-plus woman who weighs 176 pounds will fall far short of fitting the medical definition of "obese."

Yet on Monday, a major advocacy group seized on the notion that women who can't effectively use Plan B are simply too fat. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals launched a campaign Monday, pegged to Mother Jones's reporting, that encourages women to lose weight with vegan diets and "regain control over their reproductive lives." In a press release, PETA announced that the program, "Plan V" will promote a vegan diet as a "Plan B lifeline for overweight women."

China's Space Program Expands With Launch of First Moon Rover

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 11:03 AM EST

China will soon become the third country to ever land a spacecraft on the Moon's surface. Early Monday morning, the Chinese government launched its first lunar probe, the Chang’e-3. The spacecraft should deposit the "Jade Rabbit" rover on the moon's surface sometime in mid-December. The rover will conduct scientific experiments on the Moon's Bay of Rainbows, a field of basaltic lava.

Chang’e-3 will be the first probe to touch down on the moon—rather than bluntly impact its surface—since the Soviet Union sent a mission there in 1976. The US hasn't landed on the moon since the last Apollo mission in 1972. This latest launch is the second stage of a three-step plan for China's lunar program. They've already completed step one (orbiting the moon) and are aiming to complete step three (returning an unmanned vessel with samples from the moon) by the end of the decade.

These missions are laying the groundwork for the country's goal to land astronauts on the moon sometime around 2025. But those lunar ambitions are just one component of a broader Chinese space program. They've launched a space lab, which astronauts visited earlier this summer, and have plans for a permanent space station to rival the International Space Station (ISS), the orbiting station built by the US, EU, Russia, Japan and Canada. Not all of China's missions are so benevolent, though: in 2007 China tested a missile that can destroy satellites, a technology that has set the US military on edge.

China's advancements are a marked contrast to the US's lack of political interest in space research. NASA is still the world's preeminent authority on space exploration—the agency essentially leads the coalition in charge of the ISS and conducts the most ambitious scientific research of the solar system—but the program has diminished in stature since the heydays of the Apollo era in the early 1970s. NASA no longer can send its own astronauts to space. The agency has had to rely on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the ISS since its Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. Upon taking office, President Barack Obama canceled George W. Bush's lofty ambitions to return humans to the moon by 2020. Instead, Obama directed NASA to explore capturing an asteroid, but the proposal has been tepidly pushed by the president and stymied by congressional Republicans. NASA—an agency where 97 percent of employees were furloughed during October's government shutdown—has also warned that any grand schemes for further space exploration will just be idle talk if sequestration cuts, which took nearly $1 billion out of the agency's budget this year, continue into 2014.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 2, 2013

Mon Dec. 2, 2013 10:49 AM EST

Marines with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force, wait on a C-130 Hercules prior to taking part in night jump training over Yokota Air Base, Japan, Nov. 21, 2013. The training not only allowed the Marines to practice jumping, but it also allowed the Yokota aircrews to practice flight tactics and timed-package drops. U.S. Air Force photo by Osakabe Yasuo/Released.

The SEC Won't Force Corporations to Disclose Their Political Spending (Yet)

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 10:44 AM EST
SEC chair Mary Jo White.

In the summer of 2011, a group of law school professors filed a petition (PDF) with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the nation's leading financial regulator, asking it to force corporations to disclose their political spending. At the time, a small but growing number of corporations voluntarily revealed their political giving, but the law professors argued that corporate executives shouldn't ever be able to spend shareholders' money on campaigns and elections without telling shareholders where it was going.

Support for the corporate disclosure petition spread like brushfire. More than 600,000 comments—most of them supportive—were filed in response, a record for the SEC. When white-collar attorney Mary Jo White was confirmed as the new SEC chair in April, transparency advocates hoped she would take action on the issue.

Over the weekend, those hopes were dashed. The Washington Post reported on Saturday that White's SEC has dropped corporate disclosure from its 2014 to-do list:

Missing from the Security and Exchange Commission's list of regulatory priorities for the coming year is any plan to consider whether public companies should disclose their political spending, a setback for investor advocates who rallied behind the cause.

Last year around this time, when the SEC released its 2013 to-do list, it signaled that it might consider formally proposing a rule to require the spending disclosures. But the item slipped off the 2014 agenda released this past week without any formal explanation.

Supporters of the disclosure petition couldn't hide their disappointment at White's decision to sideline the issue:

"[White] obviously did not really recognize the significance of this," said Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability, which has pioneered the push for political spending disclosures. "She is not looking at investor protection and corporate governance broadly. You do not see those as primary drivers of her agenda."

Robert J. Jackson, one of the professors involved in crafting the petition, said he has not lost hope.

The agency's new agenda is geared toward advancing proposals that are mandated by Congress, so it is not surprising that a non-mandatory initiative has dropped off the radar screen for now, he said. The agency is not precluded from acting on a matter, even if it's not on the formal agenda, according to federal statute.

"I remain hopeful that the SEC will eventually take up this rule," said Jackson, an associate professor at Columbia Law School. "I'm hopeful that when the SEC looks at the merits, they're going to decide that a rule is necessary."

In other words, corporate disclosure isn't dead at the SEC. It's just on the back burner for 2014. Certainly nothing major will happen before the 2014 midterm elections. The 2016 presidential race? Maybe. In the meantime, you can expect ongoing pressure from the advocates who churned out those hundreds of thousands of SEC comments.

Racism Is Over, According to the RNC's Twitter Account

| Sun Dec. 1, 2013 2:00 PM EST

Sunday is the 58th anniversary of Rosa Parks' arrest. The Republican National Committee took to Twitter to celebrate the civil rights icon:

Rosa Parks tweet RNC ending racism
@GOP/Twitter

It's a weirdly phrased tweet, given that racism is still a huge problem in America, and elsewhere. For the record, the RNC's actual statement on Rosa Parks is much better and less awkward. The statement acknowledges that earlier this year, a bronze statue of Parks was unveiled in the US Capitol's National Statuary Hall (which is full of white supremacists).

But if you're looking for something that is actually terrifying and appalling, just remember that this Supreme Court seems to think that racism in America is over.

 

UPDATE: