Archive

September 26th, 2016

Scientists know climate change is a threat. Politicians need to realize it, too.

    The climate is changing in dangerous ways, and we are responsible for most of these changes. This is not a matter of conjecture or political opinion - it is the conclusion of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, based on solid evidence that mounts each year. Rising sea levels, extreme heat, increased incidence of floods and drought, ocean acidification and expansion of tropical diseases pose an unacceptable level of risk to our descendants. So do many other climate-related threats.

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What can we expect from Clinton and Trump in the debate?

    If you're a political junkie like me - or, heck, even if you aren't - you have been waiting a very long time for Monday night's presidential debate. Estimates are that 80 million to 100 million people will watch - an amazing number given the splintering of TV viewership over the past decade.

    Considering the expected audience and the perceived stakes - with polls showing Hillary Clinton narrowly ahead of Donald Trump - the amount of chatter around this first debate between the candidates is like nothing I have ever seen before. Cries of double standards, false equivalencies and real-time fact-checking are everywhere. In short, if you like spin, these past 96 hours or so have been a paradise for you.

    Here's the thing, though: There are actual details and specifics we know about both Clinton and Trump as debaters - their approaches, tendencies and weaknesses. Clinton has participated in dozens and dozens of debates over her two presidential bids, and Trump debated a handful of times in his march to the Republican nomination.

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Presidential campaign ads are losing clout

    Even during the presidential primaries it was obvious that traditional TV advertising wasn't working as well as it once did: Four Republican candidates were outspending Donald Trump but losing to him, and Bernie Sanders spent more on TV spots than Hillary Clinton. Now, with the general election campaign in full swing, the efficiency of TV ads remains in doubt.

    The poll results from hotly contested states published since Sept. 15 show Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton within one to eight percentage points of each other; each candidate is leading in some of the battlegrounds. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is a distant third with varying levels of support -- 4 percent in Ohio and 14 percent in Pennsylvania.

    Using spending data from Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, I added up up the candidates' estimated TV ad expenditures between July 1 and Sept. 15 in nine contested states. I added in shares of national TV ad spending, weighting them by the states' population. On average, one percentage point in polls cost Clinton almost $214,000 during that period. Trump paid an average of about $60,000 per percentage point, and Johnson a mere $4,000.

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Questions that Clinton and Trump should be asked

    The U.S. is still fighting a war in Afghanistan and has troops in Iraq, the Iranian nuclear deal remains controversial, the Islamic State is weakened but continues to be threatening, North Korea is launching missiles, Russia flaunts international norms and China has expansionary designs.

    It's a dangerous world. Yet in the U.S. presidential election the foreign policy debate chiefly involves insults and cliches. None of these issues will disappear by Inauguration Day; the press and public should pressure Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to better define their views over the next six weeks.

    Based on suggestions from six top national security experts, Republicans and Democrats, here are some questions that should be answered.

    Let's start with Clinton. She is more of a foreign policy hawk than President Barack Obama. She voted for the Iraq War in 2003, spearheaded the 2011 Libyan intervention and unsuccessfully tried to get the U.S. more involved in the Syrian civil war.

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Pay the critics for better online reviews

    Many online product reviews aren't especially helpful. Reviews can be manipulated, biased, or even intentionally ridiculous, so it's hard to judge their accuracy. The online review system also puts newer merchants at a disadvantage because they begin with no reviews at all. The Chinese auction site Taobao has an unusual solution to these problems: It lets merchants pay customers to leave detailed transaction feedback.

    That's a risky-sounding strategy. Certainly, if merchants were allowed to reward customers for giving glowing reviews, the feedback system would quickly become uninformative. Likewise, allowing merchants to penalize negative reviews would lead to bias, as well as fiascos. It's already so easy to buy positive reviews that mischief-makers have been able to drive traffic to a nonexistent business. But Taobao's system does not let merchants choose which customers to reward - it only lets them choose whether to reward them.

    Under Taobao's "rebate-for-feedback" mechanism, merchants can commit to pay rebates to all customers who write detailed reviews - positive or negative. (The average cash rebate amounts to about 20 cents.) Commitments are listed publicly, so potential customers can see when they are available.

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Opera is the perfect soundtrack for the Trump campaign

    He manages simultaneously to embody, and undermine, the art form.

    Earlier this year, Trump appropriated Luciano Pavarotti's iconic rendition of the "Turandot" aria "Nessun Dorma," or "none shall sleep," on the campaign trail. This wasn't entirely surprising; the final lyric is "Vincerò" -- "I will win" -- a Trumpian declaration if there ever was one. This pushed Pavarotti's family to join a list of popular musicians from Adele to R.E.M.'s Mike Mills in demanding that Trump cease playing their music at his odious campaign events. Specifically, the Pavarotti family denounced the Republican nominee's call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration as at odds with Pavarotti's work, before his death in 2007, on behalf of refugees as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

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If printing guns is legal, so is publishing plans

    Can the government block the online publication of files that let anyone make an assault rifle on a 3-D printer? In a defeat for free speech and a win for gun-control advocates, an appeals court has said yes. The court declined to suspend a State Department regulation that treats posting the files as a foreign export of munitions. Although the impulse to block the easy creation of untraceable weapons is admirable, the court got it wrong. The First Amendment can't tolerate a prohibition on publishing unclassified information -- even if the information is potentially harmful.

    Defense Distributed is a nonprofit group devoted to "promoting popular access to arms guaranteed by the United States Constitution." It wants to distribute free online the computer-aided design and text files that would enable anyone with access to a 3-D printer or a computerized mill to make the crucial component of an AR-15 rifle, the semi-automatic version of the military's M16.

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September 25th

A Trump presidency would be an ethical thicket

    As government ethics lawyers who have, respectively, counseled the most recent Republican president and the most recent Democratic one, we have watched Donald Trump's campaign with increasing concern. We have come to believe a Trump presidency would be ethically compromised for the following reasons:

    Opacity. Trump's refusal to disclose his tax returns shields critical information about his finances that is not found in the basic details he is required to provide on his candidate financial disclosure. For example, his disclosure form does not cover his tax deductions and exemptions and any loopholes he takes advantage of; each represents a policy issue on which he has a potential conflict. To take another example, how much tax is Trump paying or sheltering domestically vs. in foreign jurisdictions? That needs to be known to ascertain which nations Trump has financial ties to and where he may be susceptible to pressure. Absent this information, it is impossible to assess the potential conflicts a President Trump would face in making decisions.

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I could have been the little boy in the overdose photos

    A photo recently blazed across the Internet: an Ohio couple in a car, both passed out, having overdosed on opiates. The woman in the passenger's seat is pale and ashen. Her head is lolled over to one side, her mouth agape. She looks dead. It's a deeply disturbing image, even before you notice the child in a car seat behind her, looking right into the camera.

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Humans Have More In Common With Other Mammals Than We Admit

    Suzanne delivered her first calf in a sleet storm, with 40 mph winds. Fearful that the baby wouldn't survive overnight, I took a big risk, lifting the heifer into my arms, backing out a gate and kicking it shut.

    Many cows would have run me down. But I trusted Suzanne's sweet, obliging personality, and she trusted me. As if she'd read my mind, she ran around the barn and was waiting in a dry stall when I arrived with the calf we named Violet.

    Although calves are as playful as puppies, it's a rare cow with a sense of humor. Suzanne, however, would approach and lower her head for petting. Then she'd toss her head, fling your hand up, and shuffle her feet in a little happy dance. The winter she kept Bernie the bull company in their private two-acre pasture, she imitated his habit of eating apple slices out of our hands.

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