Everyone Loves Charts! Except For Those Who Don't.

Mother Jones - November 28, 2014 - 10:54am

This post is going to end up being insufferably nerdly, so bear with me. It comes via Justin Wolfers, who tells us about a new study showing that if you present information, it's more persuasive if it includes a chart. Since my Wikipedia entry says I'm known for "offering original statistical and graphical analysis," this is thrilling news—especially since I've never really believed that my charts have influenced anyone who didn't already believe what I was saying in the first place.

So let's go to the source. First off, I love the title of the paper:

Blinded with science: Trivial graphs and formulas increase ad persuasiveness and belief in product efficacy

Trivial graphs! Roger that. And sure enough, the researchers' first experiment suggests that if you tell people a drug reduces illness by 40 percent, they're more likely to believe it if you include a bar chart that shows one bar 40 percent lower than the other. Unfortunately, this conclusion comes via a tiny, non-random sample, and the responses are weirdly contradictory. On a scale of 1-9, the chart group rates the drug only slightly more effective than the non-chart group. But on a question that directly asks if the drug works, the chart group is far more positive. What's up with that?

But this isn't yet the truly nerdly part. I'm just picking the usual statistical nits. Next up, the researchers tried to find out if the chart group is more persuaded simply because the chart helps them remember the information better. Long story short, that's not the case. Everyone remembers the information about equally well. But wait: this group is even worse: it's a tiny, non-random sample of university freshman lab rats, who are very much not typical of the population, especially when it comes to assessing quantitative information. What's more, assuming I'm interpreting the typo-laden concluding sentence correctly, the chart group displays 79 percent retention vs. 70 percent for the non-chart group. That sure sounds like a possibly significant difference. It's only the tiny sample size that makes it worthless. But frankly, the tiny sample size probably makes this whole study worthless.

But this still isn't the truly nerdly part. Here it is, and I'm going to excerpt directly from the study:

Say what? This molecule allegedly has 29 (!) helium atoms? Come on, man. I took one look at that and just laughed. Then I looked at the chemical formula, and they got it wrong. It's got 29 hydrogen atoms. Or does it? Who knows. Now, it's true that the group for this study was recruited at a shopping mall, and I'll grant that your average mall rat isn't too likely to notice this. Still. WTF? That's at least two typos; a ridiculously small and non-random sample; and contradictory results depending on how the participants were queried.

I'm going to keep using charts because they convey a lot of information efficiently to people who like charts. Plus, I like charts. But are these charts actually persuading anyone of anything? I'm unpersuaded.

After a Year Off, the Triumphant Return of My Annual Black Friday Post

Mother Jones - November 28, 2014 - 9:00am

According to the retail industry, "Black Friday" is the day when retail profits for the year go from red to black. Are you skeptical that this is really the origin of the term? You should be. After all, the term Black ___day, in other contexts, has always signified something terrible, like a stock market crash or the start of the Blitz. Is it reasonable to think that retailers deliberately chose this phrase to memorialize their biggest day of the year?

Not really. But to get the real story, we'll have to trace its origins back in time. Here's a 1985 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

[Irwin] Greenberg, a 30-year veteran of the retail trade, says it is a Philadelphia expression. "It surely can't be a merchant's expression," he said. A spot check of retailers from across the country suggests that Greenberg might be on to something.

"I've never heard it before," laughed Carol Sanger, a spokeswoman for Federated Department Stores in Cincinnati…"I have no idea what it means," said Bill Dombrowski, director of media relations for Carter Hawley Hale Stores Inc. in Los Angeles…From the National Retail Merchants Association, the industry's trade association in New York, came this terse statement: "Black Friday is not an accepted term in the retail industry…"

Hmm. So as recently as 1985 it wasn't in common use nationwide. It was only in common use in Philadelphia. But why? If we go back to 1975, the New York Times informs us that it has something to do with the Army-Navy game. The gist of the story is that crowds used to pour into Philadelphia on the Friday after Thanksgiving to shop, they'd stay over to watch the game on Saturday, and then go home. It was the huge crowds that gave the day its bleak name.

But how old is the expression? When did it start? If we go back yet another decade we can find a Philly reference as early as 1966. An advertisement that year in the American Philatelist from a stamp shop in Philadelphia starts out: "'Black Friday' is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment to them. 'Black Friday' officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing."

But it goes back further than that. A couple of years ago I got an email from a Philadelphia reader who recalled the warnings he got from the older women at Wanamaker's department store when he worked there in 1971:

They warned me to be prepared for the hoards of obnoxious brats and their demanding parents that would alight from the banks of elevators onto the eighth floor toy department, all racing to see the latest toys on their way to visit Santa. The feeling of impending doom sticks with me to this day. The experienced old ladies that had worked there for years called it "Black Friday."

"For years." But how many years? Ben Zimmer collects some evidence that the term was already in common use by 1961 (common enough that Philly merchants were trying to change the term to "Big Friday"), and passes along an interview with Joseph Barrett, who recounted his role in popularizing the expression when he worked as a reporter in Philadelphia:

In 1959, the old Evening Bulletin assigned me to police administration, working out of City Hall. Nathan Kleger was the police reporter who covered Center City for the Bulletin. In the early 1960s, Kleger and I put together a front-page story for Thanksgiving and we appropriated the police term "Black Friday" to describe the terrible traffic conditions. Center City merchants complained loudly to Police Commissioner Albert N. Brown that drawing attention to traffic deterred customers from coming downtown. I was worried that maybe Kleger and I had made a mistake in using such a term, so I went to Chief Inspector Albert Trimmer to get him to verify it.

So all the evidence points in one direction. The term originated in Philadelphia, probably sometime in the 50s, and wasn't in common use in the rest of the country until decades later. And it did indeed refer to something unpleasant: the gigantic Army-Navy-post-Thanksgiving day crowds and traffic jams, which both retail workers and police officers dreaded. The retail industry originally loathed the term, and the whole "red to black" fairy tale was tacked on sometime in the 80s by an overcaffeinated flack trying to put lipstick on a pig that had gotten a little too embarrassing for America's shopkeepers. The first reference that I've found to this usage was in 1982, and by the early 90s it had become the official story.

And today everyone believes it, which is a pretty good demonstration of the power of corporate PR. But now you know the real story behind Black Friday.

UPDATE: And what's the future of Black Friday? Global domination! According to the redoubtable folks at eDigitalResearch, three-quarters of UK consumers have now heard of Black Friday. And they're treating it with the same respect we do. From Marketing magazine today: "Black Friday is living up to its ominous name, with police being called to supermarkets across the UK, websites crashing and at least two arrests being made for violent behaviour, as bargain-hungry shoppers vie for the best deals." Boo-yah!


"Wild's" Cheryl Strayed Becomes One With Reese Witherspoon

Mother Jones - November 28, 2014 - 5:00am

Her pack was too heavy, her boots too tight. She didn't know how to read a compass. But that didn't stop first-time backpacker Cheryl Strayed, then 26, from embarking on a soul-searching 1,100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995, from Southern California's Mojave Desert to the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon.

Yet the physical feat of the hike is not the true star of Strayed's 2012 memoir about the journey, Wild. Rather, Strayed's recovery from a near-addiction to heroine, a young divorce, and her mother's death from cancer take center stage. The story so resonated with readers, they kept it at the number one slot on the New York Times' bestseller list for seven weeks straight.

Wild also captivated Reese Witherspoon, who purchased the rights and portrays Strayed in the film version directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), out on December 3. Novelist Nick Hornby signed on to write the screenplay after reading the book and writing Strayed a tender fan letter. The film has garnered early praise, and speculation that it could lead to Oscar nominations for Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who plays Strayed's mother in the film. After Wild premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in August, the New York Times' A.O. Scott wrote: "Ms. Witherspoon is both an entirely believable modern woman, defying conventional categories and expectations, and also, for that reason, an excitingly credible feminist heroine."

I caught up with Strayed to talk about Oprah haters, backpacker backlash, and her Hollywood mind meld.

Mother Jones: The movie version of Wild opens soon. Is Reese Witherspoon the first person you would've thought of to portray you?

Cheryl Strayed: It's funny, it never occurred to me that a movie star would play me. But now that she is playing me, it's like, of course, it couldn't be anyone else! I don't know if you've seen pictures of Reese and me and Reese and my daughter Bobbi, who's named after my mother, and also plays me. There's a kind of resemblance. What's interesting is how much more perfect she's become over time. Watching the movie for me is uncanny, because they have her wearing the clothes I wore. They put her hair in a barrette the same way I put my hair in a barrette. She just became me in a way that's like, shocking.

MJ: How involved were you in the production?

CS: I was involved from the beginning. Reese was always very concerned that the film would honor my life and the book. And Nick Hornby, who wrote the script, had read Wild before he was involved, and out of the blue had written me the kindest fan letter. That just blew me away. When Jean-Marc Vallée, the director, came on board, it was just this wonderful piece of luck, because we have a similar artistic sensibility. The film was shot in Oregon and California, and I was welcome on the set. If the director had his way, I'd have been there every day. I'd give Reese tons of advice about the character and backpacking, and teaching her how to do this, that, and the other thing. The art department looked at pictures of my family and the prop people took my backpack. The gear I had on the trail—I have most of it still—they re-created for the film. I probably saw seven or eight versions, and I offered feedback, and Jean-Marc listened very seriously. [Unlike] every bad story you've ever heard about Hollywood from writers, with this everything was fun and golden.

Reese Witherspoon on the set of Wild Fox Searchlight

MJ: Were there any scenes you lobbied for or against?

CS: Let me think. I wanted to make sure that the love and respect was there that Cheryl felt for her mother, who's played by Laura Dern. I weighed in pretty strongly that, even amid some tensions between mother and daughter, there's a lot of love and tenderness. It mattered to me that they portrayed that accurately.

MJ: Your epic solo walk on the Pacific Coast Trail came more than a decade before Wild. How did you reconstruct it?

CS: I liken it to when you run into an old friend from high school and you get to talking and suddenly you're remembering things you'd thought you'd forgotten. There are different patches that open up in the brain. I also kept a journal, not just because I was on the hike, but all through my 20s and 30s. When I would meet somebody, I would write the way a fiction writer or a memoirist writes about them. And I did research, the good old-fashioned, "Let's see, what flowers were growing in that field when I might have passed by that time?" Obviously memoir is subjective truth: It is my memory, my perspective, that's the beauty. But I still wanted to be as factual as I could.

MJ: You wrote, "I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told." What had you been told about the wilderness prior to setting out?

CS: I grew up in northern Minnesota on 40 acres of wooded land 20 miles from the nearest town, and so the wilderness was home. It was not an unsafe place. I had that advantage. But there are so many representations of the wilderness being dangerous. You know, depictions of wild animals attacking people. It's like, "No, we kill those animals in far greater numbers than they kill us." So on one hand, because the wilderness was familiar to me, it really helped me be brave. But it still was scary sometimes. I had to say to myself: "Chances are, you're not going to be mauled by a bear."

MJ: The people who get rescued from wilderness areas often turn out to have been ill-prepared. Do you worry that some people might take your book too literally and set off on a three-month hike with little preparation?

CS: If you want to read anything nasty about me, just go to the backpacker websites. I mean, lots of outdoor people love Wild, but there's this kind of elitist branch where they really believe that I had no business going backpacking. I get blamed: "Oh, Cheryl Strayed, it's her fault if somebody needs to be rescued." First of all, things have gone awry in the wilderness well before Wild was ever published. [Laughs.] But I actually don't have any fear of people reading Wild and going out unprepared. Because one of the best things that ever happened to me was that I went out unprepared. And when you really think about it, all I did wrong was that I took too much stuff, which is the most common backpacker mistake. The part that I wasn't prepared for is the part you can't prepare for. You can't replicate walking 94 days through the wilderness by yourself with a really heavy pack until you do it. I had to learn how to do a lot of stuff on the trail, that's true. But I was the one who suffered the consequences.

MJ: So you'll be cool with it when your kids announce their plans to hike the Appalachian Trial alone?

CS: That would make me so happy! I would feel like I had parented them well. I would take full credit. [Laughs.

MJ: NPR did a segment on a woman who read your book only to realize that you were her half-sister. Have you met her?

CS: I knew her first name, but she doesn't have our father's last name anymore, and I don't either. [Strayed chose her new surname in her early 20s after divorcing her first husband.] When I got the email, she didn't say in the subject line, "Hey, I think we're related." It was just like, "Wild," and it seemed like just a fan email, and I sometimes will sort of skim those. She said what a lot of people say: "Oh, we have so much in common. Your life is so much like mine." And just when I was about to move on, she says, "You know, I actually think we share a father."

MJ: Way to bury the lede!

CS: Exactly! In the second or third paragraph, I'm not kidding you! I almost missed it. And I knew the moment she said my father's name. So I wrote her back, and we bonded. I haven't met her yet. She lives across the country, and we've not had occasion to get together because life is complicated. But yeah, isn't that crazy? 

MJ: Yeah! So let's talk about Oprah. As someone who had gone through an MFA program and been to writers' conferences, what was your view of Oprah's Book Club before she asked to feature you?

CS: Oh, I have always been a great fan. I guess I got kind of politicized about it when that whole Jonathan Franzen thing happened: He was picked for the club, and then in interviews said things that seemed to be disparaging. I was really offended by that. I really hate snobbery, especially in literature. And I do think it's funny: People get away with criticizing Oprah: "Her book club is low-brow," or whatever. They forget that many of Toni Morrison's books, two of Franzen's books—Faulkner is an Oprah Book Club pick! I'd say 98 percent of the criticism directed at her, what they're [really] saying is, "Well, her audience is female. So if women like it, it must not be high art." Any time you have a group that is primarily women, there's gonna be a whole bunch of snobs who step in and say, "Oh, that's beneath me." Is it such a terrible thing that a bunch of people read novels that no one would've read had it not been for her? Wild was a bestseller before she came along, but some books wouldn't have ever had the audience they got. And it was all because of Oprah. That's the first thing I said to her. I said, "Thank you so much for being such a supporter of literary fiction."

MJ: So are you feeling hungry for your next project, or do you just need a break?

CS: Both. To me, a bit of a break would be getting to write again. My life has been so outward—the book is still on the best-seller list and all that stuff. So that's been busy enough. But now with the film everything's amped up even more. I am hoping 2015 is all about me going back into the cave and writing.

MJ: What are you working on?

CS: I'm sort of working on a novel and a memoir. I don't want to talk about it too much. It's kind of a prequel.

MJ: For a time, you also had a gig as Sugar, the advice columnist for the Rumpus, the online literary magazine. Is Sugar on hiatus, or has she retired?

CS: I don't know. I really did mean for it to just be a hiatus when I took off with Wild and the book tour and all that stuff, but I've never not been busy, so I don't know what's gonna happen. I also started to reach a point where I feel like I've spoken my piece. If you read [the "Dear Sugar" collection] Tiny Beautiful Things, I so universally answer so many questions, there'd be a point where I'd start repeating myself.

MJ: If you were to seek advice from Sugar, what would you ask?

CS: "How do you say no?" It's so much easier said than done. Because I'm being asked to do so much, and my friends are saying, Cheryl, you just have to say no. I like to be generous; it's truly part of my personality, so to have to manage that in a way that keeps me sane and healthy has almost been impossible.

MJ: As Sugar, you're frank and validating without being snarky. How do you avoid the snark trap, given how the internet puts a premium on humor with an attitude?

CS: That's why I thought I'd be a failure with Sugar: I'm not funny and I'm not going to be able to be glib and all the stuff the kids like these days. I said, if I do this, I'm just going to have to be what I am, which is direct and candid and very sincere and very loving—and not hiding behind a kind of mask of cunning witticisms. Ultimately, Sugar makes you cry more than she makes you laugh. I was so afraid that people wouldn't like the column because I wasn't snarky, and it turned out that's the reason they like it so much. People really were hungry for sincerity. And not just people, but young San Francisco hipsters who read the Rumpus. People who you would think would just roll their eyes. But no. They were like, "Oh Sugar, please help me."

Walmart Is Seeing Its Biggest Black Friday Protests Ever Today

Mother Jones - November 28, 2014 - 3:19am

Black Friday is best known as the day when big-box retailers rake in money, but it has also become a time for some of their employees to demand a share of the proceeds. At Walmart, this year's Black Friday protests will be the widest-reaching ever, organizers say, with pickets and strikes planned at 1600 stores in 49 states to remind shoppers that the people serving them often can't afford to feed themselves.

"I have to depend on the government mostly," says Fatmata Jabbie, a 21-year-old single mother of two who earns $8.40 an hour working at a Walmart in Alexandria, Virginia. She makes ends meet with food stamps, subsidized housing, and Medicaid. "Walmart should pay us $15 an hour and let us work full-time hours," she says. "That would change our lives. That would change our whole path. I wouldn't be dependent on government too much. I could buy clothes for my kids to wear."

The nation's largest employer, Walmart employs 1.4 million people, or 10 percent of all retail workers, and pulls in $16 billion in annual profits. Its largest stockholders—Christy, Jim, Alice, and S. Robson Walton—are the nation's wealthiest family, collectively worth $145 billion. Yet the company is notorious for paying poverty wages and using part-time schedules to avoid offering workers benefits. Last year, a report commissioned by Congressional Democrats found that each Walmart store  costs taxpayers between 900,000 and $1.75 million per year because so many employees are forced to turn to government aid.

The group behind the Black Friday protests, the union-backed Organization for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) was founded in 2011 to pursue a new approach to improving labor conditions at the retail giant. Rather than try to overcome Walmart's union-busting tactics, OUR Walmart has focused on publicly shaming the company through a relentless PR campaign and mass demonstrations. Organizers say the approach is working: Since 2012, Walmart has instituted a new pregnancy policy and a scheduling policy that helps workers get more shifts.

Like the holiday retail season, this year's Walmart protests actually started before Black Friday. On Wednesday, Jabbie walked off her shift along with other workers who are demanding a $15 wage and full-time hours. Other Walmart workers walked off the job in California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. Here's what the strike looked like:

A strike this week at the Walmart in Alexandria, Virginia Jamie Way, OUR Walmart

"It felt great," she Jabbie me. "I feel like doing it over and over again until they get the message."

On Thanksgiving Day, 12 striking Walmart workers and community members began a 24-hour fast to protest wages so low they leave employees hungry.

Today thousands more workers will be at it again, and tweeting under the hashtag #WalmartStrikers. I'll be posting updates below.

UPDATE 3:06 a.m. EST: A protest is already underway at the Walmart store in Long Beach, California.


It's a long night people! ##WalmartStrikers pic.twitter.com/Ony9r2Lv7Y

— TR Albert (@bigtalbert13) November 28, 2014

UPDATE 11:03 a.m. EST: Walmart pickets are in full-swing around the country.


#WalmartStrikers protesting #BlackFriday in Chicago pic.twitter.com/d6o6wX3xg2

— Ric (@RicChciuk) November 28, 2014



ForRespect : RT OurWalmartDFW: #WalmartStrikers dallasaflcio ForRespect ChangeWalmart th... http://t.co/LVu9T54CLJ) pic.twitter.com/7vlg7Dnp8h

— SpokaneIWW (@SpokaneIWW) November 28, 2014



Calling on Walmart to respect their workers in Toledo #WalmartStrikers @ChangeWalmart @ForRespect pic.twitter.com/sWiuU7iVXV

— Kate Jacob (@katemjacob) November 28, 2014

UPDATE 11:07 a.m. EST: On a press call, Shomari Lewis, a worker from a Walmart in Dallas said 100 fellow employees attempted to enter the store during a picket but were denied access. "I'm 32 and I am nowhere near where my parents were at this time in their lives," he said. "I thought getting a job a the nation's largest employer would be a great way to start a career, but boy, was I wrong." He makes around $9 an hour and can't afford a car. "I can't just go out and buy food during the pay period because I don't even know how much I'll have money for. . . .I don't know how we are supposed to have families or raise them when Walmart is keeping us in poverty."

"We know that the Waltons can afford to pay us better," says Rona Hinton, a Walmart employee who participated in a sit-down strike at a Washington, DC, Walmart this morning. She gets paid $8.40 an hour for 20 to 30 hours a week, and her schedule arbitrarily shifts "all the time." This forces her to choose "between going to a doctor's appointment and missing a shift at work. It's not a choice that I want to make especially now that I am expecting a baby. . . .I don't know how I will raise a child on Walmart's pay."

At a Walmart in Los Angeles, community members and Walmart workers are continuing a 24-hour strike to protest the company's hunger wages. "The hunger I'm experiencing right now is all too familiar," says Richard Reynoso, a stocker at the store who hasn't eaten since yesterday. "Many Walmart workers experience it every day . . . [but] nobody who works for the richest company in America should ever experience that kind of thing."

There's a live band in DC, and a Santa Claus in Denver who will deliver coal to managers. In Washington State, there are protests at 64 stores—every store in the state.

In Chicago, seven Walmart workers were arrested while blocking traffic on the road on front of the store.

Here are more protest scenes from around the country:


.@johnzangas: #WalmartStrikers nearing #Walmart in NW Wash DC. #BlackFriday protests are in support of #Ferguson pic.twitter.com/rzzvSjFTQ2

— RightWingWatch Fan (@RWwatchMA) November 28, 2014



#walmartstrikers in Vista Ca! #union #BlackFriday pic.twitter.com/eIvVYJpNWG

— Palomarfacfed (@Palomarfacfed) November 28, 2014



The rhythm section from @CTUL_MN keeps us marching briskly! #WalmartStrikers #BlackFridayWOA #EndPovertyWages pic.twitter.com/2k9sompDAg

— Jess Banks (@ProfBanks) November 28, 2014



Stand with #WalmartStrikers for fair wages and hours! http://t.co/7M9nNuCfYM pic.twitter.com/guGeFcAxNo @WalmartNewsroom

— Pipa Sparkes (@PipaSparkes) November 28, 2014


Washington's Football Team Would Like You to Know That It Just Doesn't Give a Shit

Mother Jones - November 27, 2014 - 10:28pm

Here are three things the United States has:

1. An indefensible history of slaughtering Native Americans.

2. A holiday called Thanksgiving wherein we celebrate some of our earliest slaughterers, albeit not for their slaughtering.

3. A capital, Washington DC.

The football team in Washington DC has an offensive, racist name; a slur against Native Americans.

This Thanksgiving—the holiday that for many represents "hundreds of years of genocide and oppression against Native Americans"—that football team—the one with the awful racist name offensive to Native Americans—sent out the following tweet.

From our family to yours, have a very safe and Happy #Thanksgiving. #HappyThanksgiving #HTTR pic.twitter.com/TZ0fBzbEm2

— Washington Redskins (@Redskins) November 27, 2014

Dan Snyder: Just as the pilgrims intended.

This Map Shows What People Are Most Thankful For In Every State

Mother Jones - November 27, 2014 - 2:12pm

Earlier this week, Facebook's data team crunched the numbers on what users say they are most "thankful" for. The top two overall results were predictably "friends" and "family," which is heartwarming but sort of a snooze.


The state-by-state breakdown, however, is pretty interesting in a meaningless but entertaining sort of way.



Some observations:

1. To me the most disheartening is Kentucky where people are grateful for their "work family."

2. There are apparently a lot of magicians in Ohio and Alaska who "don't do it for the money."

3. Maryland is thankful for having "a sound mind" which I can only take to mean some sort of criticism of its neighboring states. "Look, look, Delaware and Virginia are dispossessed. We're just happy to be the state that keeps it all together."

4. A lot of people in Illinois are apparently trying to passive-aggressively use Facebook to get out of the dog house with their significant other.

Head on over to Facebook for the methodology and some other cool visualizations.

(via The Atlantic)

Thanksgiving Cat Blogging - 27 November 2014

Mother Jones - November 27, 2014 - 11:00am

This year we have new catblogging stars, and thus new cats dreaming about the traditional turkey clipart. In case you're curious, no, I didn't pose Hilbert. This is his natural way of sleeping.

Have a nice day, everyone, and please avoid doing any shopping. Tomorrow is early enough. Happy Thanksgiving.

I'm Pretty Thankful This Year. Here's Why.

Mother Jones - November 27, 2014 - 5:00am

You might not expect someone who was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks ago to be feeling especially thankful right now. And it's true that I'm not excited about either the cancer itself or the fairly miserable effects of the weekly chemotherapy that's treating it. Nevertheless, this episode of my life has gotten me thinking about thankfulness, and it's been on my mind for a while now. I know this is a little out of character, but allow me to share this with you in my usual bloggish way today.

The whole thing started on the evening of October 17th, when I sneezed hard and injured my back. On the morning of Saturday the 18th I couldn't move enough to get out of bed. Here's what happened next.

Marian called 911. Within ten minutes a troop of firefighters and paramedics were at our door. They hauled me downstairs on a stretcher, and ten minutes later I was in the emergency room. Over the next couple of hours I was tended to by an attentive staff of nurses and doctors. Blood was drawn, X-rays were taken, painkillers were administered. By a little after noon, a preliminary diagnosis of possible multiple myeloma had been made and I was admitted to the hospital.

The hospital was clean and efficient. My room was comfortable and private and had plenty of room for visitors. Over the course of the next few days, a rotating squadron of nurses took care of me. Biopsies were done. Medication was prescribed. A kyphoplasty was performed to stabilize my back. The myeloma diagnosis was confirmed on Thursday, and I was started on chemotherapy a few hours later. It was superb, unstinting care.

The day after I was released from the hospital, Marian and I went shopping and spent several thousand dollars on new furniture that my back could tolerate. A few days after that we got an enormous bill for the hospital stay, but it was nearly entirely paid for by insurance. The balance was something we could easily afford.

In short, everything that happened after that fateful sneeze has demonstrated just how lucky I am. I got immediate, skilled treatment. I have great health insurance. I have a good job and no money problems. I work at home and can set my own hours—and I even have a job I like so much it actually helps me weather the treatment. I work for editors who are completely understanding about what I'm going through and want only for me to recover. I have family and friends who care about me and are endlessly willing to help. And most of all, I have a wife who loves me and is always, always, always there for me.

There is nothing more I could want. I'm even thankful for the sneeze. It hurt like hell, but it's the thing that got me to the hospital in the first place. Without it, I wouldn't be recovering as I write this.

So sure: cancer sucks. But how many people who go through it have all this? Not many. Some have money problems. Some have work problems. Some are on their own. Some have lousy or nonexistent health insurance. Some get inadequate treatment. I have none of those problems. I am lucky almost beyond belief.

And one more thing: health care is suddenly a lot more real to me than ever before. Sure, I've always favored universal health care as a policy position. But now? It's all I can do to wonder why anyone, no matter how principled their beliefs, would want to deny the kind of care I've gotten to even a single person. Not grudging, bare-bones care that's an endless nightmare of stress and bill collectors. Decent, generous care that the richest country in the richest era in human history can easily afford.

Why wouldn't you want that for everyone? It beggars the imagination.

In any case, that's what I got—that and a lot more. And I am thankful for it. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

5 Key Inconsistencies in What Happened During the Michael Brown Shooting

Mother Jones - November 26, 2014 - 9:49pm

Since the St. Louis County prosecutor's office released a trove of documents and evidence reviewed by the grand jury that decided to not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, there have been numerous reports pointing out the discrepancies between Wilson's and various witness accounts of what happened on the day that Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. While the grand jury has put an end to the state's case against Wilson, questions about witness accounts could still sway the outcome of the Justice Department's ongoing investigation. The Washington Post, VoxSt. Louis Post-Dispatch, PBS, and the Wall Street Journal have reported on these different accounts in further detail, especially the differences between the testimonies of Wilson and Dorian Johnson, a friend who was with Brown when Wilson approached them. We matched those accounts up with McCulloch's statement during his announcement of the grand jury decision. Here are five key discrepancies:

1. What happened during Wilson's initial encounter with Brown and Dorian Johnson?

Prosecutor Robert McCulloch: Wilson saw Brown and Johnson in the street, slowed down and told them to get on the sidewalk, and words were exchanged.

Darren Wilson: Wilson saw Brown and Dorian Johnson walking in the middle of the road. He told Johnson and Brown to get on the sidewalk. He noticed Brown was holding Cigarillos and remembered the report about the theft.

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Dorian Johnson: Brown stole the Cigarillos from the Ferguson Market and then the two of them were walking toward their apartments as Wilson passed. Wilson told them to "Get the fuck on the sidewalk."


2. How did the situation escalate?

McCulloch: Wilson reverses his car at an angle, blocking traffic and Brown and Johnson's path. Wilson and Brown get into an altercation, with Wilson still in the car and Brown standing at the driver's window.

Wilson: After Wilson told Brown and Johnson to get on the sidewalk, he says he heard Brown respond "fuck what you have to say." He backed the car up to contain them, and asks Brown to come over to the car. He starts to get out of the car and Brown slams the door shut and says "what the fuck are you going to do about it."

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Johnson: Johnson says neither he nor Brown said a word and Wilson reversed his car unexpectedly, then opened his door and hit both him and Brown, and the door bounced back closed. Wilson then grabbed Brown by the shirt around his neck.


3. What exactly happened during Wilson and Brown's "tussle"?

McCulloch: McCulloch says witness statements were inconsistent, with some saying Brown was never in the car at all, and others saying Brown was punching Wilson, some saying they were wrestling, and another saying that it was a tug-of-war. Two shots are fired during the altercation.

Wilson: After getting the door slammed on him, Wilson told Brown to "get the fuck back," and tried to use the door to push him. Brown shut it again, and Brown then came "in my vehicle." Brown punched Wilson. Wilson had one hand on his gun and tried to fire twice. Brown reached for Wilson's gun. The gun goes off twice, and one bullet hits the door.


Johnson: Johnson says that Wilson reached his hand out of his car window and grabbed Brown's shirt by his neck. A "tug of war" ensued with Brown trying to escape Wilson's grip, but Brown's hands never entered the car. After hearing the first gun shot, Johnson noticed blood on Brown, then turned and ran away. Brown followed behind him.

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4. Did Wilson shoot at Brown and Johnson as they ran away?

McCulloch: McCulloch again says witness statements were inconsistent, with claims ranging from Wilson firing from the car, firing at Brown's back as he was running, and others saying Wilson didn't fire until Brown turned around and came back toward Wilson.

Wilson: Brown begins to run from Wilson after two shots were fired from the car. Brown runs but then turns around, and won't comply with demands to get on the ground. Wilson says he didn't open fire while Brown and Johnson ran away.


Johnson: Johnson hid behind a car, and watched as Brown ran past him and Wilson followed. Wilson opens fire while Brown is still running, at which point Brown stops and turns around. (Witness Piaget Crenshaw has told CNN Wilson shot as Brown ran away, adding that one bullet struck the building she was standing in. Another witness told investigators Wilson shot at Brown as he ran away.)


5. What was Brown doing when Wilson shot him?

McCulloch: McCulloch says witness accounts differ on whether Brown's hands were up when he was facing Brown after turning around. Some say Brown didn't move at all before Wilson shot him, others say he was in "full charge." McCulloch stressed that several witnesses' stories changed over the course of multiple interviews with authorities.

Wilson: Brown initially runs away but then turns around, and won't comply with Wilson's demands to get on the ground. Brown appears to charge toward Wilson. Brown put his hand at his waistband. Wilson opens fire.


Johnson: When Brown turned around to face Wilson, Brown's hands were up, one higher than the other. His hands were nowhere near his waist. Brown appeared to try and tell Wilson that he didn't have a gun, starting to take a step forward. Before Brown could complete his sentence, Wilson shot him several more times. (Crenshaw told CNN that after Brown turned around, he barely moved toward Wilson and that his hands were up. "They were just slowly going up, it probably didn't even have a chance to get all the way up there before he was struck.")

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PBS Newshour analyzed more than 500 pages of witness testimony and compared them to Wilson's statements. Their graphic shows 16 witnesses testified that Brown put his hands up when fired upon:

The Looming Olive Oil Apocalypse

Mother Jones - November 26, 2014 - 3:02pm

The world's most celebrated olive oil comes from sun-drenched groves of Italy. But Italy is also a hotbed of olive oil subterfuge, counterfeit, and adulteration—and has been since Roman times, as Tom Muellar showed in an eye-opening 2007 New Yorker piece (which grew into a book called Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.)  Next year, getting real olive oil from Italy is going to be even harder than usual. Here's the LA Times' Russ Parsons:

As a result of what the Italian newspaper La Repubblica is calling “The Black Year of Italian Olive Oil,” the olive harvest through much of Italy has been devastated—down 35% from last year. 

The reason is a kind of perfect storm (so to speak) of rotten weather through the nation:

When the trees were turning flowers to fruit in the spring, freezing weather suddenly turned scorching, causing the trees to drop olives. Summer was hot and humid, leading to all sorts of problems. Then in mid-September, there was a major hail storm, knocking much of the fruit that remained onto the ground.

Other major olive oil-producing nations suffered similar calamities; Parsons reports that in Spain and Mediterranean neighbors, production is also "forecast to be far below last year's." And California, that big chunk of Mediterranean-like climate on our west coast, where excellent olive oil is produced? Parsons says the epochal drought is pinching production, and he quotes Muellar to the effect that "frankly, I hear about a lot of games being played there too, with labels and quality alike." Sigh.

I find all of this distressing. I came of age as a cook in an era of olive oil hegemony. I treat it like the oil that powers my car, as something to be relied on casually, as if it appeared by magic from nowhere. (Nearly all my Tom's Kitchen columns feature it.)

Once a staple of Mediterranean polyculture—farms and households would feature olive trees in mixed groves along with a multitude of other crops—olive oil production has long since industrialized. Here is The Ecologist from 2008:

Industrial olive farms grow their olive trees, planted at high densities, in massive irrigated orchards on lowland plains. The olives are harvested by machines that clamp around the tree’s trunk and shake it until the olives fall to the ground. Oil is then extracted by industrial-scale centrifuge, often at high temperatures. In contrast, small, traditional farms are often ancient, their trees typically planted on upland terraces. The farmers manage their groves with few or no agrochemicals, less water and less machinery. Olives are picked off the ground by hand and the oil extracted by grinding the olives in a millstone and press. Demand for cheap, mass-produced oil is making it a struggle for the smaller, traditional farms to be economically viable, however.


Intensive olive farming is a major cause of one of the biggest environmental problems affecting the EU: widespread soil erosion and desertification in Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal. In 2001, the European Commission ordered an independent study into the environmental impact of olive farming across the EU. The report concluded: ‘Soil erosion is probably the most serious environmental problem associated with olive farming.

I fear that next year's olive oil crunch is a harbinger of things to come. I am officially in search of alternative cooking fats. One I've come to appreciate: lard from pasture-raised hogs. Lard's rotten nutritional reputation is the result of outdated and discredited science. And it makes food taste really good, too.

Thanksgiving Films, Ranked

Mother Jones - November 26, 2014 - 2:04pm

Ho ho ho and merry Thanksgiving! Here is a ranking of twenty Thanksgiving films. What is a "Thanksgiving film"? For the purposes of this post it is a film that is both a) on Wikipedia's list, and b) one I, Ben Dreyfuss, immediately recall seeing and have an opinion about.

1. Hannah and Her Sisters

2. Rocky

3. Scent of a Woman

4. Rocky II

5. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

6. Home for the Holidays

7. Avalon

8. The Ice Storm

9. The Morning After

10. For Your Consideration

11. Grumpy Old Men

12. Addams Family Values

13. Funny People

14. Spider-Man

15. The Object of My affection

16. The Other Sister

17. Bean

18. Son in Law

18. Tower Heist

19. Unknown

20. Jack and Jill

Disclosure: I haven't actually seen Jack and Jill but I'm pretty confident it's the worst. Also, The Last Waltz was not included in this ranking because though it is on the Wikipedia list of Thanksgiving films, it shouldn't be. Still pretty good though!

The Real Reason Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Got Booted

The Nation - November 26, 2014 - 1:53pm
Michael T. Klare

His resignation has to be seen against the growing war fever in Washington—which is now reflected in White House policy.

Will Obama Pull the Plug on Wind Energy?

Mother Jones - November 26, 2014 - 1:19pm

Yesterday President Obama threatened to veto a $440 billion package of tax breaks negotiated by a bipartisan group of legislators led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The bill, a White House spokesperson said, disproportionately benefits businesses over families. The bill excludes a child tax credit for the working poor that had been a top goal for Obama, but makes permanent a group of tax incentives for big businesses that had been provisional.

But if Obama does kill the deal, he'll also create a casualty that seems odd for a president who in recent weeks has made climate change a central issue: The tax credit for wind energy, which Reid's bill would resuscitate for a few years before phasing out in 2017.

The Production Tax Credit (PTC) provides wind energy developers a tax break of 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour of energy their turbines produce for the first ten years of operation, which industry supporters say is a important lifeline to help wind compete against heavily-subsidized fossil fuel power sources. For over a decade, wind power has been locked in a boom-and-bust cycle as the PTC expires and then is re-upped by Congress: Every time the credit stalls or looks like it might disappear, contracts dry up, manufacturers shut down production, and jobs get cut. The same could happen again soon: The PTC expired again last year, and so the fate of Reid's tax bill will be the fate of a cornerstone of America's clean energy economy.

Any project that broke ground before the PTC expiration last year still got to keep the credit, so the wind industry is still on an up cycle. So far this year, wind accounts for 22 percent of new energy capacity, second only to natural gas, according to federal data. And with or without subsidies, wind is now one of the cheapest electricity sources out there. Those are critical pieces of the puzzle if the US is to meet President Obama's new goal to reduce the nation's carbon footprint 26-28 percent by 2025.

But wind's halcyon days won't last unless the PTC is extended soon, said Daniel Shury, a market analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

"The momentum will peak next year, and then we'll start to feel the effects," Shury said. "Without the PTC extension, the main US manufacturers are going to start running out of orders by 2016."

The Reid bill throws a bone to conservative lawmakers and advocacy groups who have called the PTC a handout for an industry that should be able to support itself by now: gradually phasing out the credit by 2017. The American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, has supported such a plan, saying it would give manufacturers, developers, and other wind investors a degree of certainty about future market conditions that they don't currently have. Shurey agrees: The actual amount of the credit is far less important, he said, than a clear, consistent signal to frame contracts and investments around.

Whatever tax deal Congress ultimately passes will probably include the PTC, says Jim Marston, vice president of US energy policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. Some of the credit's biggest proponents are powerful Republicans from windy states, such as Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who said on the Senate floor last week that gutting the PTC "would cost jobs, harm our economy, the environment and our national security." But a veto could mean a long delay—and more of the uncertainty that the wind industry fears.


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