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  • Arizona's Terrible Lethal Injection Track Record

    When Arizona executed Joseph Wood last week, witnesses said he repeatedly gasped for air during an execution that dragged on for nearly two hours. Wood's lawyers have demanded, and the state has agreed to, an investigation into whether a new and largely untested combination of lethal drugs caused Wood to suffer unnecessarily.

    But it's possible that Arizona may discover that the real problem with Wood's execution wasn't the lethal pharmaceuticals, but the people administering them.

    Human error was the culprit in Oklahoma's botched execution of Clayton Lockett earlier this year. After spending more than an hour trying to find a vein, his executioners accidentally delivered the lethal drugs into his soft tissue rather than into his blood stream, causing him to writhe in pain until the procedure was halted. He died shortly thereafter of a heart attack. In Wood's case, a preliminary autopsy concluded that the IV lines were set properly, but further results won't be available for a few weeks.

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  • Science Says You Should Leave Work at 2 p.m. and Go for a Walk

    Charles Dickens, perhaps the greatest of the Victorian novelists, was a man of strict routine. Every day, Dickens would write from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. After that, he would put his work away and go out for a long walk. Sometimes he walked as far as 30 miles; sometimes, he walked into the night. "If I couldn't walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish," Dickens wrote.

    According to engineering professor Barbara Oakley, author of the new book A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), Dickens wasn't just a guy who knew how to keep himself healthy. Rather, his habits are indicative of a person who has figured out how to make his brain function at a very high level. And for this, Dickens' walks were just as important as his writing sessions. "That sort of downtime, when you're not thinking directly about what you're trying to learn, or figure out, or write about—that downtime is a time of subconscious processing that allows you [to learn] better," explains Oakley on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast.

    And structured downtime doesn't just help the world's greatest writers and thinkers do their best work; it helps all of us while we're learning and striving to achieve tasks. Or at least it would, if someone told us how important it actually is. "We spend from 12 to 16 years of our lives in formal education institutions. And yet, we're never given any kind of real formal instruction on how to learn effectively," says Oakley. "It's mindboggling, isn't it?"

    Barbara Oakley. John Meiu.

    In fact, suggests Oakley, there are some very simple techniques and insights that can make you way better at learning—insights based on modern cognitive neuroscience. The most central is indeed this idea that while you obviously have to focus your cognitive energies in order to learn something (or write something, or read something, or to memorize something), that's only part of what counts. In addition to this "focused mode"—which relies on your brain's prefrontal cortex—we also learn through a "diffuse mode," rooted in the operations of a variety of different brain regions. In fact, the brain switches back and forth between these modes regularly. (For those familiar with Daniel Kahneman's famous book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the diffuse mode would be analogous to Kahneman's "System 1," and the focused mode to "System 2.")

    What's crucial about the diffuse mode, writes Oakley in A Mind For Numbers, is that the relaxation associated with it "can allow the brain to hook up and return valuable insights." "When you're focusing, you're actually blocking your access to the diffuse mode," adds Oakley on Inquiring Minds. "And the diffuse mode, it turns out, is what you often need to be able to solve a very difficult, new problem."

    Oakley is not a neuroscientist. However, as someone who initially hated math, but then later decided to "retrain my brain" and become an engineer, she grew fascinated by the process of learning itself. "Now, as a professor, I have become interested in the inner workings of the brain," she writes in A Mind for Numbers

    Oakley's findings are bad news for those of us at two extremes of the learning and working spectrum. First, there are the extremely driven (and control-obsessed) hard-workers, who never let themselves rest, who sleep only five hours per night, and who fuel their unending labors with yet another coffee or yet another burst of chemical energy in the form of a cookie or a candy bar. In effect, these behaviors thwart the diffuse state. "Some very persistent and focused people can manage to hold that off some, because they're really focusing," says Oakley. These people are missing out on a key part of the brain's abilities.


    And then, there are the procrastinators. You know who you are: You wait until the last minute to do your work, or to study for that test, or to write that paper. Then you put on a burst of conscious attention, including maybe pulling an all-nighter, but because you're so close to your deadline, there's never any downtime at all. That's a surefire way not to produce your best work—or, not to learn. "When you procrastinate, you are leaving yourself only enough time to do superfical focused-mode learning," writes Oakley. And no diffuse mode at all.

    This helps to explain why if you memorize a lot of stuff the night before a test, even if you do well on the test, you'll find that in a few weeks, you don't remember much of anything that you memorized.

    The best approach, then, would seem to be to pace yourself. To work, and then to take a break, and to repeat that process steadily over days and weeks.

    You can also train your mind to more profitably use both states. Here's one recommendation from Oakley:

    One thing that I talk about in the book, and it's so simple that it seems almost absurd, is that simple technique known as the Pomodoro technique. And in that technique you just set a timer for 25 minutes, and focus, and then when it's done, you relax. So during that 25-minute time period, you really get rid of other extraneous, possible bothersome kinds of things like email sounds, or anything like that. But what this seems to do is it allows you to practice your ability to focus intently, and to practice your ability to let go and relax.

    Unfortunately, we're not yet at the point where the insights of modern neuroscience are being applied systematically in education, or in workplaces, to help us all achieve a higher potential. In the meantime, though, you can certainly practice them on your own.

    "I think the real key that eludes people a lot of time," says Oakley, "is the idea that it's the removing of attention that actually allows that 'ah-ha' insight to take place."

    This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a short conversation with neuroscientist Lucina Uddin, author of a recent paper finding that autistic kids have less brain flexibility, as well as a discussion of recent research suggesting that musical ability is innate and that fist-bumps are far superior to handshakes as a greeting, assuming you don't want to spread germs.

    To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.

  • Vivian Maier Goes "Eye to Eye" With Street People in a New Photo Book

    Though she worked in obscurity, the cult of street photographer Vivian Maier has exploded since her negatives were discovered in 2007, with several recent books and a documentary paying homage to her humble but acute style. The latest collection of Maier's photos takes an obvious but effective approach: photos of subjects looking directly into the camera or at Maier. Though many of Maier's portraits prove her to have been a master at getting photos when people seemed oblivious to her presence, Eye To Eye (CityFiles Press) shows that Maier didn't shy away from making contact.

    This set of portraits and engaging street scenes also shed a little more light on Maier's life. We see that in 1959 she traveled throughout Asia, then to Yemen and Egypt and on to Italy and France. Many of the overseas photos included in this book were shot in France, mostly in the Champsaur Valley of the French Alps. We see her move from New York City in the '50s to Chicago in the '60s.

    There's a noticeable progression in Maier's shooting style over the course of the 15 years or so represented by the photos in Eye to Eye. The earlier shots tend to be more direct, tightly composed, and very straightforward. By 1967 the photos get looser. It looks like she's shooting with a wider lens, allowing more background, more people, and more commentary into the frame. The later photos have a stronger voice, a greater sense of the times (protest signs, newspapers), and of Maier hitting on particularly whimsical, if not slyly critical, moments.

    This book may not be the best place to start for those interested in getting a sense of Maier's work–try Out of the Shadows or Vivian Maier: Street Photographer to start–but it's an excellent addition for those who have earlier books and want more.

    New York City, New York, 1955


    New York City, New York, 1955
    New York City, New York, about 1955
    Chicago, Illinois, 1963
    France, 1959
    France, 1959
    France, 1959
    Yemen, 1959
    Asia, 1959
    France, 1959
    France, 1959
    France, 1959

    Eye To Eye was compiled by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, authors of Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows. These photos, like those from Out of the Shadows, are from the Jeffrey Goldstein Collection.


  • Can the US and China Coexist in Africa?

    This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

    Juba, South Sudan—Is this country the first hot battlefield in a new cold war? Is the conflict tearing this new nation apart actually a proxy fight between the world's two top economic and military powers? That's the way South Sudan's Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth tells it. After "midwifing" South Sudan into existence with billions of dollars in assistance, aid, infrastructure projects, and military support, the US has watched China emerge as the major beneficiary of South Sudan's oil reserves. As a result, Makuei claims, the US and other Western powers have backed former vice president Riek Machar and his rebel forces in an effort to overthrow the country's president, Salva Kiir. China, for its part, has played a conspicuous double game. Beijing has lined up behind Kiir, even as it publicly pushes both sides to find a diplomatic solution to a simmering civil war. It is sending peacekeepers as part of the U.N. mission even as it also arms Kiir's forces with tens of millions of dollars worth of new weapons.

    While experts dismiss Makuei's scenario—"farfetched" is how one analyst puts it—there are average South Sudanese who also believe that Washington supports the rebels. The US certainly did press Kiir's government to make concessions, as his supporters are quick to remind anyone willing to listen, pushing it to release senior political figures detained as coup plotters shortly after fighting broke out in late 2013.  America, they say, cared more about a handful of elites sitting in jail than all the South Sudanese suffering in a civil war that has now claimed more than 10,000 lives, resulted in mass rapes, displaced more than 1.5 million people (around half of them children), and pushed the country to the very brink of famine. Opponents of Kiir are, however, quick to mention the significant quantities of Chinese weaponry flooding into the country. They ask why the United States hasn't put pressure on a president they no longer see as legitimate.


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  • "Speaker Cruz" Tanks John Boehner's Border Security Bill

    The House GOP fell into chaos and bickering Thursday afternoon, when House Speaker John Boehner yanked a pair of bills from the floor at the last minute. The House was supposed to have an easy final day of work before members jetted home for their five-week summer recess. But Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), starring in a cameo role as Speaker of the Tea Party, sabotaged Boehner's best-laid plans.

    The GOP leadership had originally intended to pass a limited spending measure to bolster border security and immediately scoot off, leaving the final tricky decision-making to the Senate. But the tea party wing of the House—inspired and encouraged by Cruz—revolted against Boehner and refused to go along with the spending bill. The House border-security measure would have appropriated $659 million in emergency spending, far less than the $3.7 billion that President Obama had requested. But it was still too much for many GOPers and it lacked the hardline, anti-immigration reform provisions many Republicans craved. With House Democratic leaders discouraging their members from voting for the GOP's bill, Boehner was left scrambling this week to pull together a majority, and he needed votes from the strident group of right-wingers who have been a thorn in his side since 2010. Those tea partiers don't want to give any extra money to the president. Boehner wasn't going to win their support without offering them some large barrels of carrots.

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  • Should Obama Fire His CIA Chief for Misleading the Public About the Senate Spying Scandal?

    On March 11, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, strode on to the Senate floor and made a shocking charge: the CIA had spied on committee investigators who were examining the CIA's past use of harsh interrogation techniques (a.k.a. torture). She essentially confirmed media reports that the agency had accessed computers that had been set up in a secured facility for her staffers to use—and that this high-tech break-in was related to a CIA memo that the agency had not turned over. The document was far more critical of the CIA's interrogation program than the agency's official response to the still-classified (and reportedly scorching) 6,300-page report produced by Feinstein's committee. As Feinstein described it, the CIA, looking to find out how her sleuths had obtained this particular memo, had been spying on the investigators who were paid by the taxpayers to keep a close watch on America's spies. 

    Feinstein's public statement—unprecedented in US national security history—caused an uproar. I noted that this clash between the Senate and Langley threatened a constitutional crisis. After all, if the CIA was covertly undercutting and interfering with congressional oversight, then the foundation of the national security state was at risk, for the executive branch, in theory, can only engage in clandestine activity as long as members of Congress can keep an eye on it. Yet the system of oversight appeared to have broken down.

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  • Are There Two Different Versions of Environmentalism, One "White," One "Black"?

    This story was originally published on Grist.

    Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
    The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
    We, the people, must redeem
    The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers
    The mountains and the endless plain –
    All, all the stretch of these great green states –
    And make America again!
    – Langston Hughes, 1938

    I really didn’t want to have to address this. While reading through University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor’s latest report, "The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations," and thinking about what I would write about it, I had hoped to focus on the solutions. Those solutions—confronting unconscious and subconscious bias and other subtle forms of discrimination—are the parts I had hoped environmentalists would be eager to unpack.

    I thought they’d read about the "green ceiling," where mainstream green NGOs have failed to create a workforce where even two out of 10 of their staffers are people of color, and ask themselves what could they do differently. I thought, naively, that this vast report, complete with reams of data and information on the diversity problem, would actually stir some environmentalists to challenge some of their own assumptions about their black and brown fellow citizens.

    I was wrong.

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  • We?re Not Just Reducing Demand For Electricity?We?re Destroying It

    This story was originally published on Slate.

    The Wall Street Journal had a good front-page article this week about the challenges facing the nation’s utilities. For the longest time, electricity sales and consumption went hand in hand with economic growth. In the last several years, not so much. Electricity retail sales peaked at 3.77 trillion kilowatt-hours in 2008, dropped in 2008 and 2010, recovered a bit in 2011, and fell in each of the next two years. The 2013 total of 3.69 trillion kilowatt-hours was down 2 percent from 2008.

    The culprits are many: changes in the economy (less industry, more services), higher prices and low wages pushing people to cut usage, more people and companies generating their own electricity on their rooftops, and a renewed focus on efficiency. I’d add another factor, one that the Journal underplays: Utilities are confronting the prospect of significant and widespread demand destruction.

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  • This GOP Candidate Says He's Cracking Down on Coal Pollution?but Green Groups Say That's BS

    North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis is making an unusual argument—for a Republican. In recent weeks, he's accused his Democratic opponent, Sen. Kay Hagan, of sabotaging critical environmental regulations because of her "cozy relationship" with a powerful energy company. At the same time, Tillis has trumpeted his own role in fighting for what he claims are tough new rules that will clean up the coal industry.

    But North Carolina environmentalists say he's full of it. "That's pretty bold, as a line of attack, considering the environmental record he's got," says DJ Gerken, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

    The back-and-forth is the latest skirmish in the political war over one of the worst environmental disasters in the state's history. In February, a toxic waste dump at one of Duke Energy's coal-fired power plants ruptured and belched up to 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, polluting the river with toxins like lead and arsenic. In response to the disaster, Tillis—who leads the state's GOP-controlled House of Representatives—is pushing legislation that ostensibly tightens regulation of Duke's remaining coal ash pits. But critics say the bill as written would actually leave North Carolina even more vulnerable to future spills than it already is.

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  • Leaked Memo: Top Tea Party Group Says It Forced Mitch McConnell To Oppose the Stimulus

    As he seeks another six years in office, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has touted his reputation as a true conservative and an unwavering opponent of President Barack Obama. But a newly leaked document written by one of the most prominent figures in the tea party movement claims that McConnell wasn't a strong conservative leader initially when Obama proposed his anti-recession stimulus package—and that McConnell only ended up opposing this signature Obama initiative because a leading tea party group leaned on him to do so.

    Mother Jones recently obtained a trove of emails, memos, financial records, and fundraising documents written by officials and financial backers of FreedomWorks, a national tea party group. These records contain a May 2009 memo written by FreedomWorks president and CEO Matt Kibbe and addressed to the group's board of directors. The memo presented FreedomWorks' efforts to combat the Obama administration, just as the new president was settling in and responding to the economic crisis under way. In the document, Kibbe credited FreedomWorks—which has been funded by corporations, wealthy individuals, and grassroots donors—for "fomenting the tea party movement."

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Green Facts

  • A laptop consumes five times less electricity than a desktop computer.

  • A single quart of motor oil, if disposed of improperly, can contaminate up to 2,000,000 gallons of fresh water.

  • If every U.S. household turned the thermostat down by 10 degrees for seven hours each night during the cold months, and seven hours each weekday, it would prevent nearly gas emissions.

  • Current sea ice levels are at least 47% lower than they were in 1979.

  • Bamboo absorbs 35% more carbon dioxide than equivalent stands of trees.

  • Americans throw away more than 120 million cell phones each year, which contribute 60,000 tons of waste to landfills annually.

  • Americans throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial fleet of airplanes every 3 months

  • Every week about 20 species of plants and animals become extinct.

  • Youíll save two pounds of carbon for every 20 glass bottles that you recycle.

  • A tree that provides a home with shade from the sun can reduce the energy required to run the air conditioner and save an additional 200 to 2,000 pounds of carbon over its lifetime.

  • Americans use 100 million tin and steel cans every day.

  • Less than 1% of electricity in the United States is generated from solar power.

  • Recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy used to make the material from scratch.

  • States with bottle deposit laws have 35-40% less litter by volume.

  • One recycled aluminum can will save enough energy to run a 100-watt bulb for 20 hours, a computer for 3 hours, or a TV for 2 hours.

  • Recycling 100 million cell phones can save enough energy to power 18,500 homes in the U.S. for a year.

  • Recycling for one year at Stanford University saved the equivalent of 33,913 trees and the need for 636 tons of iron ore, coal, and limestone.

  • Washing your clothes in cold or warm instead of hot water saves 500 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, and drying your clothes on a clothesline six months out of the year would save another 700 pounds.

  • It takes 6,000,000 trees to make 1 year's worth of tissues for the world.

  • Shaving 10 miles off of your weekly driving pattern can eliminate about 500 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

  • In the United States, automobiles produce over 20 percent of total carbon emissions. Walk or bike and you'll save one pound of carbon for every mile you travel.

  • A steel mill using recycled scrap reduces related water pollution, air pollution, and mining wastes by about 70%.

  • Refrigerators built in 1975 used 4 times more energy than current models.

  • American workers spend an average of 47 hours per year commuting through rush hour traffic. This adds up to 23 billion gallons of gas wasted in traffic each year.

  • You will save 100 pounds of carbon for each incandescent bulb that you replace with a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL), over the life of the bulb.

  • Nudge your thermostat up two degrees in the summer and down two degrees in the winter to prevent 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

  • You will save 300 pounds of carbon dioxide for every 10,000 miles you drive if you always keep your carís tires fully inflated.

  • The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million people die prematurely worldwide every year due to air pollution.

  • In California homes, about 10% of energy usage is related to TVs, DVRs, cable and satellite boxes, and DVD players.

  • Plastic bags and other plastic garbage thrown into the ocean kill as many as 1,000,000 sea creatures every year.

  • 82 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from burning fossil fuels.

  • Due to tiger poaching, habitat destruction, and other human-tiger conflicts, tigers now number around 3,200óa decrease in population by about 70% from 100 years ago.

  • Rainforests are being cut down at the rate of 100 acres per minute.

  • Glass can be recycled over and over again without ever wearing down.

  • An aluminum can that is thrown away instead of recycled will still be a can 500 years from now!

  • For every 38,000 bills consumers pay online instead of by mail, 5,058 pounds of greenhouse gases are avoided and two tons of trees are preserved.

  • 77% of people who commute to work by car drive alone.

  • Recycling 1 million laptop computers can save the amount of energy used by 3,657 homes in the U.S. over the course of a year.

  • Turning off the tap when brushing your teeth can save as much as 10 gallons a day per person.