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  • Book Review: Chasing the Scream

    Chasing the Scream

    By Johann Hari


    The drug war is viewed by many as a 40-year-old waste of resources. But in this beautifully written book, British journo Johann Hari shows that its roots extend as far back as the early 1900s, when young Harry Anslinger heard the shrieks of a neighbor in withdrawal; he grew up to lead the Bureau of Narcotics, the DEA's precursor, pioneering ruthless drug policies that endured for decades. Knowing his work would be scrutinized due to a past plagiarism scandal, Hari spent three years meticulously researching and footnoting the book, which puts a vivid human face on our behemoth and often abstract anti-drug efforts.

  • Book Review: The Powerhouse

    The Powerhouse

    By Steve LeVine


    Arguably no existing technology holds more potential to slow climate change and reboot the economy than the lithium-ion battery. Quartz reporter Steve LeVine chronicles the global race to develop a battery cheap and durable enough to supplant the internal-combustion engine. The field is littered with hype and people left in the dust—including LeVine, whose book, in its slow march to press, didn't get to the solid-state battery technology that's now at the cutting edge. Even so, he offers a revealing deep dive into the challenges of creating a killer app for the planet.

  • The Often Overlooked Role of Natural Gas in the Israel-Palestine Conflict
    Known oil and gas fields in the Levant Basin US Energy Information Administration/Wikimedia

    This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

    Guess what? Almost all the current wars, uprisings, and other conflicts in the Middle East are connected by a single thread, which is also a threat: these conflicts are part of an increasingly frenzied competition to find, extract, and market fossil fuels whose future consumption is guaranteed to lead to a set of cataclysmic environmental crises.

    Amid the many fossil-fueled conflicts in the region, one of them, packed with threats, large and small, has been largely overlooked, and Israel is at its epicenter. Its origins can be traced back to the early 1990s when Israeli and Palestinian leaders began sparring over rumored natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Gaza. In the ensuing decades, it has grown into a many-fronted conflict involving several armies and three navies. In the process, it has already inflicted mindboggling misery on tens of thousands of Palestinians, and it threatens to add future layers of misery to the lives of people in Syria, Lebanon, and Cyprus. Eventually, it might even immiserate Israelis.

    Resource wars are, of course, nothing new. Virtually the entire history of Western colonialism and post-World War II globalization has been animated by the effort to find and market the raw materials needed to build or maintain industrial capitalism. This includes Israel's expansion into, and appropriation of, Palestinian lands. But fossil fuels only moved to center stage in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship in the 1990s, and that initially circumscribed conflict only spread to include Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Turkey, and Russia after 2010.

    The Poisonous History of Gazan Natural Gas

    Back in 1993, when Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed the Oslo Accords that were supposed to end the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and create a sovereign state, nobody was thinking much about Gaza's coastline. As a result, Israel agreed that the newly created PA would fully control its territorial waters, even though the Israeli navy was still patrolling the area. Rumored natural gas deposits there mattered little to anyone, because prices were then so low and supplies so plentiful. No wonder that the Palestinians took their time recruiting British Gas (BG)—a major player in the global natural gas sweepstakes—to find out what was actually there. Only in 2000 did the two parties even sign a modest contract to develop those by-then confirmed fields.

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  • Ellen Pao Loses Her Gender Discrimination Lawsuit Against Silicon Valley VC Firm Kleiner Perkins

    This is a breaking news story. We'll be updating this post regularly.

    Ellen Pao's $16 million lawsuit against her former employer, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, has captivated Silicon Valley for the past month. Pao, now the interim CEO of Reddit, sued her former employer on charges of gender discrimination and retaliation. Many have called the trial Silicon Valley's version of the Anita Hill hearings, in part because it offers a rare glimpse into the challenges faced by women at the Valley's elite companies, where cases of this rank usually settle rather than go public. At 2 PM pacific today, the jury returned a verdict, voting no on all four counts of alleged gender discrimination and retaliation by Kleiner Perkins.

    But the official verdict barely lasted a half hour, thanks to an error in basic math: The judge asked each juror to list their individual verdict for the court. This revealed that on the fourth count—which alleges that Pao's termination was retaliation for raising concerns about gender discrimination and filing her lawsuit—4 of the 12 jurors, two men and two women, voted yes. The judge ruled that 8-4 was an insufficient majority—a consensus among nine jurors is needed—and asked the jurors to return to the deliberation room for further discussion. That means that there hasn't yet been an official verdict. We'll keep updating this post as news unfolds.

    Update, Friday, 7:45 p.m. EDT: After the first jury miscount, an official verdict is in and venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins has prevailed on all counts. The jury returned to the courtroom after several hours of additional deliberations to deliver the verdict. Juror 3, one of the four original "yes" votes on the retaliation count, flipped his vote. With a consensus of nine jurors or more on all counts, the case is over. Ellen Pao gave a brief statement to the press, thanking her family and friends for their support throughout the trial. "I have told my story and thousands of people have heard me," she said. "If I've helped level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it."

  • We Could Stop Global Warming With This Fix?But It's Probably a Terrible Idea
    Mount Pinatubo
    Mount Pinatubo erupting in 1991 Bullit Marquez/AP

    Back in the late 1990s, Ken Caldeira set out to disprove the "ludicrous" idea that we could reverse global warming by filling the sky with chemicals that would partially block the sun. A few years earlier, Mount Pinatubo had erupted in the Philippines, sending tiny sulfate particles—known as aerosols—into the stratosphere, where they reflected sunlight back into space and temporarily cooled the planet. Some scientists believed that an artificial version of this process could be used to cancel out the warming effect of greenhouse gases.

    "Our original goal was to show that it was a crazy idea and wouldn't work," says Caldeira, who at the time was a climate scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. But when Caldeira and a colleague ran a model to test out this geoengineering scenario, they were shocked by what they found. "Much to our surprise, it worked really well," he recalls. "Our results indicate that geoengineering schemes could markedly diminish regional and seasonal climate change from increased atmospheric CO2," they wrote in a 2000 paper.

    You might think that the volume of aerosols needed to increase the Earth's reflectivity (known as albedo) enough to halt global climate change would be enormous. But speaking to Kishore Hari on this week's Inquiring Minds podcast, Caldeira explains that "if you had just one firehose-worth of material constantly spraying into the stratosphere, that would be enough to offset all of the global warming anticipated for the rest of this century."

    So does Caldeira think it's time to start blasting aerosols into the air? Nope. "It's a funny situation that I feel like I'm in," he says. "Most of our published results show that it would actually work quite well, but personally I think it would be a crazy thing to do." He thinks there's just too much risk.

    Caldeira, now a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, recently contributed to a massive National Academy of Sciences report examining various geoengineering proposals. The report concluded that technologies to block solar radiation "should not be deployed at this time" and warned that "there is significant potential for unanticipated, unmanageable, and regrettable consequences in multiple human dimensions…including political, social, legal, economic, and ethical dimensions." As my colleague Tim McDonnell explained back when the NAS study was released:

    Albedo modification would [use] airplanes or rockets to deliver loads of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, where they would bounce sunlight back into space. But if the technology is straightforward, the consequences are anything but.

    The aerosols fall out of the air after a matter of years, so they would need to be continually replaced. And if we continued to burn fossil fuels, ever more aerosols would be needed to offset the warming from the additional CO2. [University of California-San Diego scientist Lynn] Russell said that artificially blocking sunlight would have unknown consequences for photosynthesis by plants and phytoplankton, and that high concentrations of sulfate aerosols could produce acid rain. Moreover, if we one day suddenly ceased an albedo modification program, it could cause rapid global warming as the climate adjusts to all the built-up CO2. For these reasons, the report warns that it would be "irrational and irresponsible to implement sustained albedo modification without also pursuing emissions mitigation, carbon dioxide removal, or both."

    Still, the NAS report called for further research into albedo modification, just in case we one day reach a point where we seriously consider it.

    Caldeira hopes it never comes to that. Like most other advocates of geoengineering research, he'd much rather stave off global warming by drastically cutting carbon emissions. In fact, he calls for a target of zero emissions. But he doesn't have much faith in politicians or in legislative fixes like carbon taxes or cap and trade. "The only way it's really going to happen," he says, "is if there's a change in the social norms." Caldeira envisions a world in which it's socially unacceptable for power companies to "use the sky as a waste dump."

    And if that doesn't work out?

    Caldeira points out that if we keep emitting huge amounts of CO2, temperatures are going to keep rising. That could lead to increased crop failures and possibly even "widespread famines with millions of people dying." In that type of hypothetical crisis, he says, "there's really only one way known to cool the planet on a politically relevant timescale"—aerosols. "So I think it's worth understanding it now," he adds. "At some point in the future it could make sense to do. I hope we don't get to that state, but it's possible."

    To hear the full interview with Ken Caldeira, stream below:

    Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

  • Jeremy Piven Wants You to Know That He's Not an Asshole

    Jeremy Piven wants you to know he's boring. Or, rather, he's nothing like Ari Gold, the brash, utterly tactless, yet somehow likable Hollywood agent he portrayed over eight seasons of HBO's Entourage—racking up three Emmys and a Golden Globe for best supporting actor.

    Piven grew up a long way from Tinseltown. His parents were founding members of Chicago's Playwrights Theatre Club—which spawned famed improv troupe the Second City—and the Piven Theatre Workshop, whose well-known alumni include the Cusack siblings, Aidan Quinn, Lili Taylor, and Piven himself. After earning a theater degree at Iowa's Drake University, Piven, now 49, landed a series of small comedic parts in film and television, including serial gigs on Ellen and The Larry Sanders Show. But it was Entourage, inspired by the Hollywood escapades of executive producer Mark Wahlberg, that made him famous.

    He reprises the Ari role in the Entourage movie, which hits theaters on June 5. But his main post-Entourage gig has been the Masterpiece drama Mr. Selfridge, whose third season kicks off Sunday on PBS. For his leading role as a department store visionary, Piven had to summon his anti-Ari. "Ari Gold was all bark and no bite," he told me. "Harry Selfridge is all bite and no bark."

    Mother Jones: Do you think the Entourage movie will appeal to people who've never watched the show?

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  • When Jeb Met Jeb: The Tragic True Story of a Governor and a Manatee

    It was the kind of feel-good photo op that campaigns love: A manatee nursed back to health from the brink of death and now set to be released back into the wild. And a GOP gubernatorial candidate seeking to show voters his softer side. As if in some made-for-TV movie, the manatee and the politician even shared the same name: Jeb.

    Jeb the manatee was rescued on March 23, 1998, having ventured too far north from the temperate waters of South Florida where these mammals thrive. The nine-foot-long, half-ton manatee was scarred with lesions comparable to severe frostbite injuries in humans, and he appeared to have sustained injuries from watercraft. He was quickly transported to SeaWorld Orlando to recover.

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  • NYC Building Collapse Was Probably Gas-Related

    Update: The New York Daily News reports that at least two people are missing, as firefighters continue to contain the fire. The injury toll has risen to at least 19, with four people in critical condition. 

    An apparent gas explosion caused two New York City buildings to collapse on Thursday, injuring at least a dozen people, with at least three in critical condition. 

    Fire crews first responded to calls of a building collapse at 3:17 p.m. on Second Avenue near Seventh Street in Manhattan. Less than an hour later, about 250 firefighters rushed to the scene as the fire upgraded to a seven-alarm blaze. Two other buildings were damaged in the fire, and at least one of them is at risk of collapsing. Thursday's blast comes a year after a gas explosion destroyed two buildings in East Harlem and left eight people dead. National Transportation Safety Board investigators later found a crack in the city's aging gas pipeline near one of the buildings. 

    New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a press conference with reporters that preliminary findings suggest the explosion may have been caused by plumbing and gas work. He added that Con Edison inspectors arrived at the site more than an hour before the blast to examine private gas work being done at one of the buildings, but found the work had not passed inspection. No gas leaks were reported before the explosion. A Con Edison spokesperson told the New York Times a few of the buildings on Second Avenue had been "undergoing renovations" since August. The gas and electric utility company planned to shut down gas in the area.

    We'll continue to update as we learn more. 

  • Yes There's a Bush and a Clinton, but the 2016 Elections Represent Something Scary and New

    This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

    Have you ever undertaken some task you felt less than qualified for, but knew that someone needed to do? Consider this piece my version of that, and let me put what I do understand about it in a nutshell: based on developments in our post-9/11 world, we could be watching the birth of a new American political system and way of governing for which, as yet, we have no name.

    And here's what I find strange: the evidence of this, however inchoate, is all around us and yet it's as if we can't bear to take it in or make sense of it or even say that it might be so.

    Let me make my case, however minimally, based on five areas in which at least the faint outlines of that new system seem to be emerging: political campaigns and elections; the privatization of Washington through the marriage of the corporation and the state; the de-legitimization of our traditional system of governance; the empowerment of the national security state as an untouchable fourth branch of government; and the demobilization of "we the people."

    Whatever this may add up to, it seems to be based, at least in part, on the increasing concentration of wealth and power in a new plutocratic class and in that ever-expanding national security state. Certainly, something out of the ordinary is underway, and yet its birth pangs, while widely reported, are generally categorized as aspects of an exceedingly familiar American system somewhat in disarray.

    1. 1 percent Elections

    Check out the news about the 2016 presidential election and you'll quickly feel a sense of been-there, done-that. As a start, the two names most associated with it, Bush and Clinton, couldn't be more familiar, highlighting as they do the curiously dynastic quality of recent presidential contests.  (If a Bush or Clinton should win in 2016 and again in 2020, a member of one of those families will have controlled the presidency for 28 of the last 36 years.)

    Take, for instance, "Why 2016 Is Likely to Become a Close Race," a recent piece Nate Cohn wrote for my hometown paper.  A noted election statistician, Cohn points out that, despite Hillary Clinton's historically staggering lead in Democratic primary polls (and lack of serious challengers), she could lose the general election.  He bases this on what we know about her polling popularity from the Monica Lewinsky moment of the 1990s to the present.  Cohn assures readers that Hillary will not "be a Democratic Eisenhower, a popular, senior statesperson who cruises to an easy victory."  It's the sort of comparison that offers a certain implicit reassurance about the near future.  (No, Virginia, we haven't left the world of politics in which former general and president Dwight D. Eisenhower can still be a touchstone.)

    Cohn may be right when it comes to Hillary's electability, but this is not Dwight D. Eisenhower's or even Al Gore's America. If you want a measure of that, consider this year's primaries. I mean, of course, the 2015 ones. Once upon a time, the campaign season started with candidates flocking to Iowa and New Hampshire early in the election year to establish their bona fides among party voters. These days, however, those are already late primaries.

    The early primaries, the ones that count, take place among a small group of millionaires and billionaires, a new caste flush with cash who will personally, or through complex networks of funders, pour multi-millions of dollars into the campaigns of candidates of their choice.  So the early primaries—this year mainly a Republican affair—are taking place in resort spots like Las Vegas, Rancho Mirage, California, and Sea Island, Georgia, as has been widely reported. These "contests" involve groveling politicians appearing at the beck and call of the rich and powerful, and so reflect our new 1 percent electoral system. (The main pro-Hillary super PAC, for instance, is aiming for a kitty of $500 million heading into 2016, while the Koch brothers network has already promised to drop almost $1 billion into the coming campaign season, doubling their efforts in the last presidential election year.)

    Ever since the Supreme Court opened up the ultimate floodgates with its 2010 Citizens United decision, each subsequent election has seen record-breaking amounts of money donated and spent. The 2012 presidential campaign was the first $2 billion election; campaign 2016 is expected to hit the $5 billion mark without breaking a sweat.  By comparison, according to Burton Abrams and Russell Settle in their study, "The Effect of Broadcasting on Political Campaign Spending," Republicans and Democrats spent just under $13 million combined in 1956 when Eisenhower won his second term.

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  • Could a Pilot Be Locked Out of a Cockpit in the Skies Over the United States?

    On Tuesday morning, Germanwings flight 9525, en route from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, crashed in the remote southern French Alps. All 150 passengers and crew are presumed dead. Thanks to the quick recovery of one of the plane's flight recorders, some details of the final moments of the flight are now known: one of the pilots was banging on the cockpit door, presumably locked out, while the second pilot—identified as German Andreas Lubitz—was in the cockpit breathing normally. On Thursday morning, Carsten Spohr, chief executive of Germanwings's parent company Lufthansa, told reporters, "We must presume that the plane was deliberately flown into the ground."

    Federal Aviation Administration regulations require that two people must be in the cockpit at all times in order to prevent these sorts of incidents on flights to, from, and within the United States. And the FAA requires cockpit doors to be locked at all times. If one of the two pilots leaves the cockpit, a flight attendant must take his or her place for the duration of the break. Glen Winn, an aviation instructor at the University of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times that "procedurally, something was very wrong." Pilots "don't leave a person alone in the cockpit," he continued. "They don't do it. Nobody does that."

    But there are no European regulations that require all flights to have two crew members in the cockpit at all times.* Some European airlines have adhered to the two-person policy, and some have not. German carriers are not required to keep two crew members in the cockpit. After the Germanwings crash, Easy Jet, a British carrier, and Norwegian Airlines announced they would implement the two-person rule.

    On an Airbus 320, the plane used by flight 9525, a pilot can reenter a locked cockpit door by punching in a multi-digit code on a keypad. But someone inside the cockpit can temporarily disengage the keypad, keeping the door locked and barring entry to the cockpit for five minutes.

    It's unclear whether the Germanwings pilot who was trying to return to the cockpit attempted to use the keypad. But Spohr said that each member of the flight crew knew the code and that there would be no way a pilot could forget it. He suggested that the pilot may not have tried the code for some reason, or that Lubitz disengaged the keypad or found another way to block the door.

    After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, new flight safety standards were established and cockpit doors were strengthened to resist intrusions, gunfire, and grenade blasts. So if the keypad is disabled there's little anyone can do to break in for five minutes; brute force will not open the door.

    If existing regulations and procedures are followed, a pilot of an airliner in US should not be locked out. But this tragedy certainly will prompt regulators and safety experts in the United States and abroad to review existing rules.

    Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that European regulations also require two people in the cockpit at all times.