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  • The Science Behind the World's Greatest Athletes

    At the 1964 Winter Olympics, Eero Mäntyranta won the 15 kilometer cross-country skiing competition by a whopping 40 seconds—a margin of victory that has never been equaled. That same year, he won the 30 kilometer race by a full minute. So what made this legendary Finnish skier such a success?

    According to sports journalist David Epstein, Mäntyranta became the "greatest endurance athlete" of his generation in part because of a single mutation to his erythropoietin receptor (EPOR) gene, which helps regulate the production of red blood cells. Remember Lance Armstrong's blood doping scandal? It turns out that because of his DNA, Mäntyranta had a similar advantage over his competition—but without ingesting or injecting a single cell. Mäntyranta "produced about 50 percent more oxygen-carrying red blood cells than a normal person," explains Epstein on this week's episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. "So he essentially was naturally what…Lance Armstrong was through doping technology."

    Epstein says Mäntyranta's EPOR mutation is the clearest example of a "sports gene"—a single genetic variant that has the ability to turn someone into a superior athlete. But these genes are rare. More often, says Epstein (whose recent book is also called The Sports Gene), "we're talking about networks of genes and suites of traits that make people better suited to some sports than others."

    Saying that some people are "better suited" than others sounds a lot like the idea that some of us are born more talented. But in recent years, much of the sports community has embraced the notion that achievement in athletics is attributable largely to logging 10,000 hours (or so) of dedicated training. The "10,000 hour" rule also permeates education in other domains, such as music and chess, where complex skills need to be developed. But with athletes like Mäntyranta in the competition, can this status quo idea possibly still hold true? And what, exactly, is the scientific recipe for building an elite athlete? 

    Here are a few of the key factors that Epstein lays out:

    Start with the right genes. Mäntyranta's EPOR mutation isn't the only gene variant that can make or break an athletic career. On chromosome two of the human genome, there is a gene that codes for a protein called myostatin. (Myo meaning "muscle," and statin meaning "to halt.") For most people, this gene does exactly what its name suggests—it stops the production of muscles. But in rare cases, says Epstein, "someone has a mutant version, and it basically doesn't tell their muscles to stop growing on time, and they end up being really, really muscle-bound."

    Perhaps not surprisingly, explains Epstein, the first adult determined to have this mutation was a professional sprinter. But it's been detected in young children, as well. In 1999, for instance, a bouncing baby boy with seemingly superhuman strength was born in Germany. Unlike his roly-poly peers, this baby was ripped. The muscle mass in his lower limbs was off one end of the charts, while his limited body fat was off the other end.

    When this "Superbaby" was tested for the presence of myostatin, none was detected in his blood. And other babies with similar mutations have begun to pop up, including Liam Hoekstra, who apparently could do a difficult gymnast move called the iron cross by the time he was 5 months old and could do a pull-up at eight months.

    But if one gene can have such a significant effect, what other gene variants might be combined in a person to optimize athletic performance?

    In his book, Epstein cites Alun G. Williams and Jonathan P. Folland, scientists in England who are studying 23 gene variants strongly linked to athletic endurance. The chance that any single individual currently on the planet has all 23 variants is incredibly small—less than one in a quadrillion (one thousand million million). The most any one of us can hope for is about 16 of these 23. The chance of having none of these variants, or very few of them, is also extremely small. Most of us have some but not too many. The end result? We need to train to build up endurance.

    But genetics can also make a big difference when it comes to that training. "No two people respond to the medicine of training the same way because of differences in their genes," says Epstein. "And so it's turning out that the talent of trainability—the ability to get more biological adaptation out of your one hour of training than the next guy or the next girl—is really the most important kind of talent."

    But if we can't change our genes, what can we do to become better athletes?

    Learn to to predict the future. When it comes to professional baseball, says Epstein, "keep your eye on the ball" is useless advice. That's because Major League pitches take far less than half a second to reach the plate—they're simply moving faster than the eye can track. What batters are actually keeping track of is a specific pattern of movements that the pitcher is making.

    Ted Williams
    Ted Williams in 1957, on his way to the Major League batting title. AP

    The ability to predict where the ball will go based on how the pitcher releases it is the real talent of an all-star hitter. That's why Mariano Rivera could strike out batter after batter with one pitch: a 90+ mile-per-hour cut fastball whose final destination was very difficult to predict. With just a subtle difference in how much pressure he put on the ball with two of his fingers, he could alter its course dramatically.

    That's also why no amount of trips to the batting cage will turn you into a slugger like Albert Pujols or Ted Williams. "We've only just realized that pitching machines are totally worthless for baseball practice," explains Epstein, "because they don't teach you to read body movements the way that you need to."

    Putting this idea to the test, softball pitcher Jennie Finch struck out Pujols and other Major League batters during the 2004 Pepsi All-Star Softball Game—her windup and delivery confounded their ability to predict where the pitch will go, despite the fact that she threw a bigger ball.

     

    To understand how complex skills like hitting a small projectile traveling at speeds of over 90 miles per hour are performed, consider a famous study in which chess players of different levels were given a few seconds to study a chess board. What separated the experts from the amateurs was the fact that grand masters could memorize the location of pieces on the board after looking at it for just three seconds. At first, it seemed as though they had superhuman memory skills. But when the scientists asked them to memorize the placement of pieces on a board that didn't conform to the rules of the game, they were no better than novices. In other words, what grand masters have actually developed is the ability to organize the board into meaningful units in their mind's eye—what psychologists call "chunks"—that they can then easily recall.

    Jennie Finch
    Major League Baseball players can't hit Jennie Finch's pitches. C5813/Wikimedia Commons

    We all use chunking to remember complex things: "If I gave you 20 random words right now, you'd have a lot of trouble repeating them back to me," explains Epstein. "But, if I gave you a 20-word meaningful sentence, you might be able to repeat it back to me or very closely." Why? Because "you've learned a system of grammar and groups of words and phrases that you can break down into meaningful chunks. So, you don't have to…rely on your working memory." And, adds Epstein, "it turns out sports works in a very similar way."

     

    So it's not that MLB players have superhuman reflexes; instead, over the course of many years of training, they learn to "read" a pitcher's upper body movements and predict where the ball will end up. "It's really this kind of cognitive expertise that they've learned that allows them to look as if they're reacting faster than is humanly possible," says Epstein. "They are judging the field—their version of the chess board—and seeing what's going to come in the future."

    Sample many sports in childhood—don't specialize too early. As every parent knows, elite athleticism comes at a high price in the US, with many coaches pressuring talented children to start specialized practice immediately—often to the exclusion of other sports and activities. "AAU basketball has a second graders' national championships now," notes Epstein. "This is like kids who are over-hand heaving a ball at a 10-foot rim. They've convinced parents it's like an important part of the scouting pipeline and their kids will get behind if they don't go."

    Epstein argues that this push towards specialization—which he attributes to the popularization of the 10,000 hours rule—has been a "disaster."

    "There's now a pretty strong body of evidence that we've over-specialized kids too early, and it actually makes them worse athletes," he says. What Epstein is getting at is that there seems to be a critical "sampling period" before puberty, during which many eventual professional athletes play a variety of sports. Hyper-specialization makes it harder for kids to find the sport that is best suited to their biology. As an example for parents to follow, Epstein points to two-time NBA most valuable player Steve Nash, who didn't start playing basketball until he was 12 or 13.

    Grow up in a small town. The trend towards hyper-specialization might even explain why professional athletes come disproportionately from small towns, far away from elite training programs, instead of from major metropolises. If you're from a city with a population of more than 5 million people, you're actually less likely than the average Joe to make it to the NBA. If you come from a town of 50,000 to 99,000 people, your chances are 11 times greater than average of making it to the NFL or the NBA. These towns "are vastly over-represented for producing elite athletes," says Epstein, "because they're big enough to have a team, and small enough to avoid all of the hyper-specialization that the 10,000 hours has caused."

    Take a scientist's approach to your own training. Ultimately, as scientists learn more about the biology of athletic prowess and the skills we need to excel at specific activities, what's becoming clear is that training needs to be more individualized. Given the highly variable nature of our genes, what can you do to make sure that you're using those training hours most effectively? Think like a scientist: test and retest your assumptions constantly.

    "In studies of kids who go on to become elite, whether it's in chess, sports or music," says Epstein, "they tend to more often exhibit that self-regulatory behavior where they're almost taking a scientist's view of themselves…and continually evaluating and evaluating. And they better figure out what works for them."

    This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion with skeptical pediatrician Clay Jones.

    To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher and on Swell. 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.



  • Musician Jenny Lewis on "Sipping the Kool-Aid" of Carl Sagan's Cosmos

    Jenny Lewis, the musician best-known for fronting Rilo Kiley and singing in the Postal Service, has a packed schedule at the Governors Ball Music Festival in New York City, but she never gives off the impression that she's in a rush. She homes in on every person she's introduced to with genuine enthusiasm. Lewis is tiny, with long red hair, a mega-watt smile, and a tie-dyed blazer inspired by, "Cosmos, man!"—the television show beloved by geeks that helped inspire her new solo album, The Voyager, out on July 29 (stream it here.)

    The Voyager is a frank examination of womanhood, buried under a layer of sugary alt-pop. Lewis is largely known for her songwriting, often about relationships, and this record is no different: She covers topics like late bloomers, "When I turned 16, I was furious and restless," troubled romances, "I told you I cheated and you punched through the drywall," and marriage, "I could love you forever. I could love you until all the Polaroids fade."

    Lewis's music video for the album's first single, "Just One of the Guys," is a star-studded affair, featuring her friends Anne Hathaway and Kristen Stewart all dolled up—but as men. The song is a partly a meditation on ticking clocks ("When I look at myself, all I can see/I'm just another lady without a baby.") Lewis tells me her lyrics speak for themselves and there is, "that lady pressure, as you called it, that is just biological in some ways." She adds that, "Despite hanging out with dudes for my entire life and trying to fit in, ultimately, I'm a woman, and I'm becoming more comfortable with that the older I get." She adds, "I've fought to be where I am today, and I'm absolutely a feminist."

    Lewis wrote the album, her first solo record since 2008, while struggling with a two-year bout of insomnia that she says almost took her out of the game. "I became an asshole," she jokes. While sleepless nights didn't really help her creativity, they did prompt her to watch a lot of late-night boxing and Cosmos, the television series by Carl Sagan, which became inspiration for her album. "I would watch that over and over and some that imagery really made it into the songs," she says. Which isn't to say that the title track is "a science fiction song." Instead, it's more about personal voyages. As she sings, "Nothing lasts forever when you travel time/ I've been sipping that Kool-Aid of the cosmos."

     

     



  • Paul Ryan's Anti-Poverty Plan Would Cost Billions to Implement. Will GOPers Go for That?

    When Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) laid out a new set of proposals to revamp the federal safety net during a speech on Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute, central to his vision was the idea of consolidating federal programs to create a "personalized, customized form of aid—one that recognizes both a person's needs and their strengths—both the problem and the potential."

    The plan, wrapped in caring language about giving the poor individual attention, has earned plaudits from both the right and the left for avoiding partisanship and offering up a concrete idea that policy makers will have to take seriously. Liberals have given Ryan—an Ayn Rand devotee who on the campaign trail reduced American society to one of makers versus takers and whose budgets have proposed slashing millions in spending on the poor—credit for getting out of the office and spending some time with actual poor people during his year-long "listening tour," whose genuine impact is evident in his proposal.

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  • Be a Patriot, Eat Less Beef

    As Josh Harkinson noted this week, cows are the United States' single biggest source of methane—a potent gas that has 105 times the heat-trapping ability of carbon dioxide. That's one major reason why beef's greenhouse gas footprint is far higher than that of most other sources of protein, according to an EWG study. (Though it's consumed at a fraction of the rate of beef or chicken, lamb is by far the most carbon intensive of the major meats, according to EWG, since the animal's smaller body produces meat less efficiently but still produces a lot of methane.)

    And EWG's estimate of beef's impact may actually be on the conservative side: A study released this week found the greenhouse gases associated with beef to be even higher.

    So what should you eat instead of beef? One answer: chicken, which has a carbon footprint roughly a fifth the size of beef's. Happily, earlier this week, the National Chicken Council released new research showing that Americans are eating chicken in 17 percent more meals and snacks than they did in 2012. As the chart below shows, chicken consumption has actually been rising steadily for decades. Red meat consumption, meanwhile, has steadily declined over the same period.

    The group attributes the spike in chicken consumption to consumers' perception of poultry as healthier than beef, not its smaller carbon footprint. But the environmental benefits are a great side effect, says Emily Cassidy, an analyst at the Environmental Working Group. "If every American simply switched from beef to chicken, it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 137 million metric tons of carbon a year, or as much as taking 26 million cars off the road," she says, citing a recent EWG report

    Still, even as the American appetite for beef has declined over the years, other countries are picking up the slack. Globally, beef and veal production has increased almost 20 percent between 1995 and 2012, according to the Organization for Economically Developed Countries. It's projected to increase another 11 percent by 2022, a trend that's largely driven by rising incomes in Asia (and, increasingly, in Africa).

    In the face of this environmental onslaught, says Cassidy, really measurable change could only happen if everyone ate vastly less meat—and the only way to achieve that is to change policies that favor livestock feeds like corn.

    "Essentially, cheap corn encourages meat to be a big part of our diets," she says. "If crop subsidies were reined in, meat and especially beef consumption would likely go down."



  • Will an Ethics Scandal?and Jimmy Carter's Grandson?Bring Georgia's GOP Governor Down?

    Could a Carter from Georgia once again win because of a scandal-plagued Republican? Democrat Jason Carter—grandson of former President Jimmy Carter—is challenging first-term Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal this fall, and the incumbent Republican is facing an ethics controversy that could imperil his reelection chances.

    Deal has been embroiled for years in a low-grade scandal regarding allegations that his staff smothered a state ethics investigation of his campaign finances. But the controversy has recently heated up. This spring, a former head of the state's ethics commission won a lawsuit in which she claimed that she was improperly pushed out of her job for digging into Deal's campaign. Her replacement—fearing that she might also be jettisoned from the commission—has now come forward and alleged that the governor's aides tried to interfere with the ethics commission.

    Last week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that in July 2012 Holly LaBerge, the current head of the state's ethics commission, wrote a memo outlining political intimidation by Deal's staff. In the memo, she noted that the governor's top lawyer, Ryan Teague threatened to strip her agency of its rulemaking authority in order to deep-six the investigation of Deal's 2010 gubernatorial campaign. LaBerge's memo also said that Deal's chief of staff, Chris Riley, pressured her to close the matter, which the commission eventually did. "I was mad that the governor's legal counsel thought he could call me up and threaten me and threaten my agency," LaBerge told the local Fox station.

    The FBI and the state inspector general have been reviewing the ethics commission's activities, and LaBerge's attorney said the ethics chief would want whistleblower protections for her cooperation. If she is granted protection, she might be in the position to disclose more about this episode, and Deal could face more damaging stories.

    Deal's ethics commission troubles date back to 2011. Then LaBerge's predecessor, Stacey Kalberman, and Kalberman's deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, began examining Deal's 2010 campaign spending. They suspected that Deal, who had served nine terms in Congress before running for governor, might have improperly directed campaign funds to businesses to which he had ties. Kalberman and Streicker alerted the ethics panel's five commissioners of their intention to issue subpoenas for information. The commissioners responded by slashing Kalberman's salary by $35,000, effectively forcing her out, and eliminating Streicker's job.*

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  • Another Casualty of the War on Terror: the Fifth Amendment

    This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

    You can't get more serious about protecting the people from their government than the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, specifically in its most critical clause: "No person shall be... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." In 2011, the White House ordered the drone-killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki without trial. It claimed this was a legal act it is prepared to repeat as necessary. Given the Fifth Amendment, how exactly was this justified? Thanks to a much contested, recently released but significantly redacted—about one-third of the text is missing—Justice Department white paper providing the basis for that extrajudicial killing, we finally know: the president in Post-Constitutional America is now officially judge, jury, and executioner.

    Read Peter van Buren's breakdown of the destruction of the Fourth Amendment.

    Due Process in Constitutional America

    Looking back on the violations of justice that characterized British rule in pre-Constitutional America, it is easy to see the Founders' intent in creating the Fifth Amendment. A government's ability to inflict harm on its people, whether by taking their lives, imprisoning them, or confiscating their property, was to be checked by due process.

    Due process is the only requirement of government that is stated twice in the Constitution, signaling its importance. The Fifth Amendment imposed the due process requirement on the federal government, while the Fourteenth Amendment did the same for the states. Both offer a crucial promise to the people that fair procedures will remain available to challenge government actions. The broader concept of due process goes all the way back to the thirteenth-century Magna Carta.

    Due process, as refined over the years by the Supreme Court, came to take two forms in Constitutional America. The first was procedural due process: people threatened by government actions that might potentially take away life, liberty, or possessions would have the right to defend themselves from a power that sought, whether for good reasons or bad, to deprive them of something important. American citizens were guaranteed their proverbial "day in court."

    The second type, substantive due process, was codified in 1938 to protect those rights so fundamental that they are implicit in liberty itself, even when not spelled out explicitly in the Constitution. Had the concept been in place at the time, a ready example would have been slavery. Though not specifically prohibited by the Constitution, it was on its face an affront to democracy. No court process could possibly have made slavery fair. The same held, for instance, for the "right" to an education, to have children, and so forth. Substantive due process is often invoked by supporters of same-sex unions, who assert that there is a fundamental right to marry. The meaning is crystal clear: there is an inherent, moral sense of "due process" applicable to government actions against any citizen and it cannot be done away with legally. Any law that attempts to interfere with such rights is inherently unconstitutional.

     

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  • How a Town in Maine Is Blocking an Exxon Tar-Sands Pipeline

    This story originally appeared on Grist and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Citizens trying to stop the piping of tar-sands oil through their community wore blue "Clear Skies" shirts at a city council meeting in South Portland, Maine, this week. But they might as well have been wearing boxing gloves. The small city struck a mighty blow against Canadian tar-sands extraction.

    "It's been a long fight," said resident Andy Jones after a 6-1 city council vote on Monday to approve the Clear Skies Ordinance, which will block the loading of heavy tar-sands bitumen onto tankers at the city's port.

    The measure is intended to stop ExxonMobil and partner companies from bringing Albertan tar-sands oil east through an aging pipeline network to the city's waterfront. Currently, the pipeline transports conventional oil west from Portland to Canada; the companies want to reverse its flow.

    After an intensely debated, year-and-a-half battle, the South Portland City Council on Monday sided with residents like Jones who don't want their city to end up as a new "international hub" for the export of tar-sands oil.

    city council meeting
    Proponents of the Clear Skies ordinance, wearing blue, packed a South Portland city council meeting on July 9. Dan Wood

    "The message to the tar sands industry is: 'Don't be counting your chickens yet,'" said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "There is a pattern of communities saying 'no' to the threat of tar-sands oil."
     

    A clear signal

    The ordinance could have global implications. The Canadian government expects the nation's oil industry to be producing 4 million to 6 million barrels of tar-sands bitumen a day within a few years, and it's pinning its hopes on somehow getting all that oil to coastal ports, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Washington-based pipeline safety consulting firm Accufacts Inc. Indeed, a recent report from the International Energy Agency found that the industry needs export pipelines in order for its boom to continue.

    South Portland's move is just the latest setback for plans to pipe the bitumen out to international markets. Another big hurdle is the long delay over the Keystone XL pipeline. And in Canada, pipeline plans have met with opposition from indigenous peoples (known as First Nations), who are taking the lead to stop projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway tar-sands pipeline through British Columbia.

    Now, there is a clear signal that communities along the U.S. East Coast will fight tar-sands expansion too.

    "Do not underestimate the power of a local government," said Kuprewicz.
     

    "A lot of perseverance"

    In early 2013, residents formed Protect South Portland to try to stop the Portland-Montreal Pipeline reversal. They put an initiative on the November 2013 ballot to block the project, but it lost narrowly at the polls.

    So the city council took up the cause. In December of last year, the council voted to impose a six-month moratorium on shipping tar-sands oil out through its port. Then a council-appointed committee crafted the Clear Skies Ordinance to permanently block tar-sands shipments, which is what the council officially approved this week. The law also changes zoning rules to block the construction of twin smokestacks that would be needed to burn off bitumen-thinning chemicals before the oil could be shipped out.

    Over the past few months, concerned residents met in homes and Protect South Portland grew. Meanwhile, the group Energy Citizens, backed by the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's largest trade group, ran ads that said "It's just oil. From Canada." The oil companies hired a number of lawyers and brought public relations firms on board.

    Protect South Portland spokeswoman MJ Ferrier estimates that the grassroots group was outspent by at least 6 to 1.

    So how did residents win over Big Oil? "A lot of perseverance and a lot of community engagement," Voorhees said.

    After the vote, supporters of the ordinance went to a local bar, and "we raised our glasses," Jones told Grist.
     

    Cautious celebration

    But while local activists are celebrating this week's win, they know "this is not the end," said Jones.

    South Portland Councilor Tom Blake, who's been a champion of the effort to protect the city from tar sands, said a legal challenge seems imminent, by either Portland Pipe Line Corp., a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, or by the Canadian government. Blake had this message for the oil company and Canadian officials Monday evening: "This ordinance is the will of the people," he said. "Do not spend millions of dollars and force the city of South Portland to do the same."

    But the oil interests are unlikely to heed his warning.

    Tom Hardison, vice president of Portland Pipe Line, told reporters that the city had made a rush decision and bowed to environmental "off-oil extremists." He added that the zoning changes amounted to a "job-killing ordinance" that prevents the city's port from adapting to meet the energy needs of North America.

    Matthew Manahan, attorney for Portland Pipe Line, told the city council before the vote that its ordinance is "illegal" and "would clearly be preempted by federal and state law."

    "The council is ignoring the law" and "ignoring science," the lawyer added.
     

    Air and water worries

    Like the process of extracting tar-sands oil, the process of transporting it takes a huge toll on the environment. Before the heavy, almost-solid bitumen can be sent through pipelines, it has to be thinned with a concoction of liquid natural gas and other hydrocarbons. And then before it can be loaded onto ships, that concoction has to be burned off. ExxonMobil currently holds permits to build two smokestacks on South Portland's waterfront that would do the burning.

    Ferrier, a retired psychologist and a nun, joined Protect South Portland largely out of concern for what the oil companies' plans would do to air quality in an area that has already received a "C" for ozone pollution from the American Lung Association. The proposed smokestacks would emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs). "We know there is benzene in it, a known carcinogen," said Ferrier.

    Resident Andrew Parker had similar concerns. "Tonight is about children," he said at Monday's city council meeting. "The oil company will put poison in the air, that is a fact."

    For Mayor Gerard Jalbert, who also sits on the city council and voted in support of the ordinance, it came down to concerns about water quality. The risk of water contamination in the case of a spill far outweighed the nebulous claims about job creation.

    "When I look at the economic benefit, which no seems to be able to detail, the risk seems to outweigh the benefit," Jalbert told Grist.

    The easternmost 236-mile stretch of pipeline crosses some of the most sensitive ecosystems in Maine, including the Androscoggin River, the pristine Crooked River, and Sebago Lake, which supplies drinking water for 15 percent of the state's population.

    Blake, the council member, is worried that using old pipes to transport heavy bitumen could lead to a spill like the one that happened in Mayflower, Ark., in March 2013, when an ExxonMobil pipeline built in the 1940s ruptured and spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of tar-sands oil.

    Saying "no" to tar sands is part of a bigger shift to a greener future in South Portland, Blake added. "Being a community that has been heavily dependent on petroleum, this turns a tide," the councilor said.

    He pointed to a new electric-car charging station at the city's community center and potential plans to build a solar farm on an old landfill as steps toward a sustainable future. "I think we are starting to walk the talk," Blake said.



  • Darrell Issa Investigation Benefits Ex-Aide

    Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) has accused House oversight committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) of inappropriately intervening in an ongoing Federal Trade Commission case against a company being represented by a legal group run by a former Issa staffer. Last month, Issa sent a letter to the FTC questioning testimony the agency had gathered for the case, which targets a medical testing company called LabMD. The firm allegedly exposed the personal data of almost 10,000 people. On Thursday morning, Issa's committee held a hearing that featured LabMD CEO Michael Daugherty and focused on whether the FTC has overstepped its bounds by investigating companies that experience data breaches.

    "You [are] using heavy-handed, bullying tactics to undermine due process and to inappropriately assist the defendant LabMD," Rockefeller wrote in a recent letter to Issa, which was obtained by Mother Jones. "The inappropriate timing and nature of your investigation are buttressed by the revelation that LabMD is being represented by a former member of your committee staff." Rockefeller was referring to Daniel Epstein, who from January 2009 to August 2011 served as an oversight committee counsel. Epstein now heads a nonprofit legal advocacy group called Cause of Action, which is representing LabMD in the FTC matter.

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  • Halliburton Fracking Spill Mystery: What Chemicals Polluted an Ohio Waterway?

    On the morning of June 28, a fire broke out at a Halliburton fracking site in Monroe County, Ohio. As flames engulfed the area, trucks began exploding and thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals spilled into a tributary of the Ohio River, which supplies drinking water for millions of residents. More than 70,000 fish died. Nevertheless, it took five days for the Environmental Protection Agency and its Ohio counterpart to get a full list of the chemicals polluting the waterway. "We knew there was something toxic in the water," says an environmental official who was on the scene. "But we had no way of assessing whether it was a threat to human health or how best to protect the public."

    This episode highlights a glaring gap in fracking safety standards. In Ohio, as in most other states, fracking companies are allowed to withhold some information about the chemical stew they pump into the ground to break up rocks and release trapped natural gas. The oil and gas industry and its allies at the American Legislative exchange Council (ALEC), a pro-business outfit that has played a major role in shaping fracking regulation, argue that the formulas are trade secrets that merit protection. But environmental groups say the lack of transparency makes it difficult to track fracking-related drinking water contamination and can hobble the government response to emergencies, such as the Halliburton spill in Ohio.

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  • Roxane Gay Will Make You Proud to Be a Bad Feminist

    In the age of "leaning in" and "having it all," the superwoman model for female living persists with a vengeance. Feminism is supposed to be a refuge from all that perfection-seeking, but even there, it's easy to feel bested, lured by things that are bad for women but great for entertainment: Cue your guilty dancing every time "Blurred Lines" comes on the radio.

    In her new essay collection, Bad Feminist, out August 5, author Roxane Gay wrestles with this conundrum. "When I drive to work, I listen to thuggish rap at a very loud volume, even though the lyrics are degrading to women and offend me to my core," she writes. "I am mortified by my music choices."

    Gay—literature professor, novelist, prolific Twitterer, and blogger who imparts life wisdom couched in cooking advice—is best known for her deeply personal essays about everything from politics to pop culture. Most of the writings in this collection have been published at various outlets, including at The Rumpus, where Gay is essays editor.

    Bad Feminist reads like an autobiography, segueing from elements of Gay's life—her Nebraska upbringing, her Haitian-American family, her cooking—into smart critiques of everything from reproductive rights to the Sweet Valley High and Twilight books. It's a mix of the somber and the hilarious; Gay aptly quotes both Judith Butler and the Ying Yang Twins. "I am flawed and human," Gay writes. "I am messy." And capital-F feminism could do with a little more messiness.

    I caught up with Gay a few weeks after the release of her latest novel, An Untamed State, as she prepped for back-to-back summer book tours, to discuss her survival tactics for social awkwardness, her Scrabble obsession, and why she never shows her writing to her parents.

    Mother Jones: With two books coming out just three months apart, you must be going insane.

    Roxane Gay: Yes, I am! It's a good problem to have, but it's a lot more time-consuming than I ever imagined. Never again.

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