Monthly Archives: March 2014

13 Unexpected Sources of Energy that Could Save the World

13 Unexpected Sources of Energy that Could Save the World

by Annalee Newitz

If humans are going to keep living in the style to which we’re accustomed, we need to find alternatives for fossil fuels. Partly that’s because we need to reduce pollution — and partly because those fossil fuels are going to run out. But alternative forms of energy may look a lot weirder than you think.

1. Tobacco Leaves

Most people have heard about turning corn into biofuel. But corn is actually a terrible biofuel source for a number of reasons, which is why many scientists are looking to other plants for future fuel — including tobacco. Genetically modified tobacco, that is. The main building blocks for biofuel in plants are starch and sugar, so naturally, increasing the amount of starches and sugars in a plant will improve fuel production. An agricultural engineer recently found that she could tweak a gene in tobacco to boost starch production by 700%, which translated to an increased sugar yield (a step in biofuel production) of 500%. As a bonus, this technique could be used on food crops to increase starch and sugar production.

13 Unexpected Sources of Energy that Could Save the World

2. Sugar Batteries

Current battery technology relies on toxic metals, which are difficult to mine, have limited lifespans, and create recycling and disposal issues. Sugar, on the other hand, has none of those problems. Recently, a group of bioengineers built a prototype of an “enzymatic fuel cell” that imitates the behavior of biological systems (like plants) that convert glucose to energy. The resulting battery creates more energy than a lithium-ion battery, is biodegradable, and refillable.

13 Unexpected Sources of Energy that Could Save the World

3. Jatropha curcas

This plant produces oil-rich seeds which are excellent for biodiesel, and it is able to thrive in dry, sandy lands that aren’t good for food production. That means the plant could be grown in areas that aren’t required for food crops. Unfortunately, the plant’s seeds don’t thrive as easily as the plants do in poor soil. Now, scientists are working on ways to genetically modify this crop in a number of ways make it more suitable for biodiesel production. The result could be a hardy crop that can live almost anywhere, and produce incredible amounts of fuel.

13 Unexpected Sources of Energy that Could Save the World

4. Algae Machines

Unlike Jatropha curcas, which is a plant that might one day be a source of fuel, microalgae are pretty much fuel-ready. They grow in the ocean, and thus don’t compete with food crops. Plus, they produce more starch and sugar than the blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria, which are also being explored as a source of alternative energy. The problem? It’s hard to get a giant crop of microalgae. Currently, researchers are looking at ways to genetically modify this microalgae to make it a more robust fuel source.

If that isn’t futuristic enough for you, researchers are also integrating genetic “circuits” into bacteria and algae in order to produce biofuels from photosynthesis. Essentially, they’d add new molecular machinery to bacteria and algae that don’t already have them. There are even proposals to engineer the actual light-absorbing antennae in these organisms to increase efficiency and biofuel output. This would mean genetically altering the systems that these microorganisms use to absorb light — we wouldn’t actually be adding tiny metal antennae to them, though that would be cool.

13 Unexpected Sources of Energy that Could Save the World

5. Super Yeast

Conversion of plant material to fuel isn’t always efficient, especially because that plant material is often waste left over from forestry and agriculture. However, biologist Na Wei and colleagues have discovered that they can genetically modify a form of yeast to digest the tough, fibrous xylose in plants. Normally this part of the plant goes unused, as it creates a toxic, acidic environment for the microbes that would normally break it down into those much-needed sugars. But the enhanced yeast are able to digest xylose into the chemical components that could make biofuel. This super-yeast could help us convert plant waste into valuable energy.

6. Corny Switchgrass

Switchgrass is a controversial biofuel crop. It is fast growing, produces a lot of material for fuel production, but is also invasive, taking over new lands where it is introduced. Still, it might one day prove very useful — especially if we add a few extremely useful genes to its repertoire. A group of biologists found that by genetically modifying switchgrass with a gene from corn, they could boost the amount of starch and digestibility of the switchgrass (making it easier and more productive to convert to fuel), and completely shut down the flowering of the plant, potentially preventing invasion.

13 Unexpected Sources of Energy that Could Save the World

7. Artificial Photosynthesis

Researchers at Caltech and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab are researching what they call “artificial photosynthesis.” Their goal is to produce a synthetic version of the molecular machinery that plants use to make energy from light and water. The result would be something that looks like a solar panel inside a plastic chassis — it’s made of thin membrane sheets comprised of semiconductor materials. By pumping water through the device, and bombarding it with light, we could produce liquid hydrogen or hydrocarbons. This solves the typical problem with solar energy, which is storage. Because this solar fuel would be liquid, we could use our current fuel storage infrastructure to hold and distribute it the same way we do with oil and gas.

13 Unexpected Sources of Energy that Could Save the World

8. Immortal Redox Batteries

These are often called redox flow batteries, and they are intended for use in cars and other transit vehicles. Basically they are batteries that can be recharged forever because their energy is stored in the electrolyte solution rather than in the electrodes like in a Li-ion battery. Just exchange the electrolyte solution to recharge. You can see a simple schematic for one type of redox flow battery above. These are more like fuel cells than batteries, but they run on reversible electrochemical reactions rather than consuming fuel.

13 Unexpected Sources of Energy that Could Save the World

9. Semi-Solid Sewage

Yep, we’re going to use poop. Conventional sources of biodiesels like vegetable oils must be grown and processed before they can be used, which makes them a more expensive source than sewage waste. “Sludge” is the mass of semi-solids that is separated out from water as part of the sewage treatment process. It can be used to create biofuels using a couple of different methods. One of the most popular is sludge gasification, where the sludge is dried and heated to produce a synthetic gas that can be burned. However, scientists in South Korea have created a process that heats the lipids inside the sludge to render them into biodiesel. Sludge was heated in a reactor along with methanol and carbon dioxide to convert 98% of the sludge lipids into biodiesel. This new process could lead to cheaper biodiesel due to the huge amounts of sludge processed by wastewater treatment plants, but it would require these facilities to retrofit existing structures to accommodate the biofuel production process on site.

In related poop fuel news, we can also turn used diapers into fuel as well.

10. Urine Fuel Cells

Urine-powered fuel cells are actually a type of microbial fuel cell technology, where we harvest the energy released by microorganisms as they break down their food. It turns out that human pee is a terrific source of food for those microorganism. Urine-fed microbial fuel cells are currently being developed as a potential energy source for everything from personal electronics to self-sufficient robots. In the future, it could be a way to help process the huge amounts of waste humans produce each year. Plus, it gives a new meaning to those urine-processing still suits that the Fremen wear in Dune.

11. Hydrochar and Biochar

Hydrothermal carbonization (HTC) is a process where biomass — anything from plant materials to garbage — is mixed with water and exposed to heat and pressure in a reactor. The resulting slurry is then pressed and dried to create hydrochar. When no water is used, the results are called biochar. Both are coal-like products that can be burned for energy or further processed to produce synthetic gas. The potential behind hydrochar is that it uses wet biomass. Biomass feedstocks that must be dried before they are burned or processed take extra energy to produce, but the hope is that hydrothermal carbonization can be used to take advantage of biomass waste without needing prep work. The European Union launched its “NEWAPP” project December 2013 and will run for 30 months with eight partners from four EU countries. Its goal is to study wet biomass waste streams and identify potential HTC applications.

13 Unexpected Sources of Energy that Could Save the World

12. Space-based solar power

Large-scale satellites carrying lightweight solar panels may soon be launched into space. This would allow us to overcome the effects of the atmosphere on how much sunlight that solar panels can actually absorb. Basically, in space, we’d have access to raw, naked solar energy. The generated electricity could be beamed to earth with a microwave transmitter.

13. Alligator Fat

Perhaps it’s not surprising that chemists from Louisiana came up with the idea of using alligator fat as a source of biodiesel. Alligator fat has a very high lipid content, which means it’s ideal for conversion to biodiesel. Plus, the alligator meat industry produces a ton of the fat as waste, so this would be a way to use a product that is currently being thrown away. Other kinds of fats could be used in a similar way.

The World’s Best Bounty Hunter Is 4-Foot-11. Here’s How She Hunts

The World’s Best Bounty Hunter
Is 4-Foot-11. Here’s How She Hunts

By Randall Sullivan

At 4’11” and just over 100 pounds, Michelle Gomez doesn’t look like the sort of person you’d hire to retrieve earthmoving equipment stolen by a Peruvian crime family. But in the summer of 2013, that’s exactly what she was doing.

Gomez, the proprietor of a one-woman operation in Lockhart, Texas, called Unlimited Recoveries, is one of the best skip tracers in the world. A combination bill collector, bounty hunter, and private investigator, a skip tracer finds people and things that have disappeared on purpose. Gomez specializes in “hard-to-locate recoveries”—she prefers cases others can’t solve. To track down the fleet of Caterpillar wheel loaders taken by the Peruvians, Gomez reached out to the estranged wife of the family’s patriarch, telling the woman that she was pregnant with her husband’s child. The ruse worked: Eventually the wife told Gomez that the heavy equipment was on its way to a construction site in South America.

For Gomez, 43, skip tracing is as much about stalking and capturing elusive prey as it is about getting paid. Today much of that hunting is done digitally, and Gomez has made an art of combing through cyberspace and finding the status updates, financial records, and location blips that virtually everyone leaves behind in the modern age. Gomez’s digital background stretches back to childhood, when her parents, both IBM engineers, insisted that the 10-year-old Michelle build a computer from scratch. “I even had to do my own soldering,” she remembers. The experience laid a foundation for the skills that have made her so good at finding people. “Profiling a subject is a lot like constructing a motherboard,” Gomez says. “You have to see connections that are invisible to other people by filling the spaces between with information.”

On May 22, 2013, she was tracking down the missing wheel loaders when she got a call from an executive at Alternative Collection Solutions, one of the country’s premier collection and debt recovery agencies. ACS needed help recovering a 53-foot Hatteras yacht called Morning Star, which had been taken nearly a year earlier by a man named Ryan Eugene Mullen.

Mullen, the ACS executive said, would not be an easy man to find. The executive told Gomez that Mullen was wanted by the FBI for stealing more than $2 million from federal government agencies. So far the authorities had failed to locate him, as had the three private investigators who’d already taken a crack at finding Mullen and the boat. If she could get Morning Star back, the man told Gomez, they’d pay her $10,000, plus she could keep any criminal reward money being offered for the fugitive.

As she heard the details, Gomez felt what she calls “that booting-up buzz.” Staying on the run from the FBI is no easy feat. Neither is evading three professional investigators dispatched by some of the country’s biggest debt recovery agencies. Mullen had clearly figured out something—some technique for covering his tracks or otherwise keeping ahead of his pursuers—that put him well above the average con. Gomez wanted the case.

She began with a Google search and became even more fascinated by Mullen when she read a bulletin posted on a sketchy-looking civic discussion website called City-Data.com: Ryan Eugene Mullen was said to have been born in New York City on November 11, 1977, stood 6’3″, weighed 200 pounds, and had light brown hair, pale blue eyes, and a deep voice. He wore a size 15 shoe and was an “avid runner and tanner” who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and tested at a near-genius IQ level as a teenager, Gomez read. He also possessed “violent tendencies,” having been incarcerated at a young age for beating his girlfriend and menacing a friend with a knife. And apparently he had stolen the $2 million from the government in multiple cybercrimes that put him on the FBI’s Most Wanted list in 1999. If accurate, Mullen had been a fugitive for 14 years.

How had such a man stayed in the shadows for so long? She had never seen a case quite like it. “My circuits were firing,” Gomez recalls.

Gary Blum hadn’t become one of the richest men in Louisiana’s St. Mary Parish by passing up opportunities to turn a profit. That was why, in the fall of 2012, a couple of local real estate agents suggested that Blum might like to meet Ryan Mullen, a young investor looking at local properties. Mullen, it seemed, had an annual seven-figure income, much of it from video poker machines he owned in a small casino. The stranger had tied up his impressive boat, Big Ol’ Girl, in New Iberia and promptly began to negotiate the purchase of an apartment complex, offering a $100,000 check for a deposit, which was being held in escrow by his lawyer. Mullen had next sought to buy the Arlington Plantation in St. Mary Parish, but the deal fell apart over terms. So the agents sought out Blum, suggesting that Mullen instead purchase Blum’s plantation in Franklin, Louisiana, the Alice C.

When Mullen came out to visit the plantation in November, Blum met a tall, round-shouldered fellow. Mullen had a broad and pleasant face, along with an air of privileged background, and Blum found him “personable and very interesting.” A few weeks later, the realtors showed up at the Alice C with a contract and a $50,000 check offered as a deposit.

Blum was no easy mark. At age 72, he had amassed a fortune that included the millions he made in 2008 when he sold his controlling interest in the First State Bank of the Florida Keys. Blum maintained nearly a dozen personal residences, including a sumptuous home in Key West. “I had no shortage of other places to live,” he observes, and so he signed a contract agreeing to sell the Alice C for $1 million. All that was needed to close was financing from a bank. Not long after the contract was initiated, Mullen asked Blum if he might tie up his 53-foot Hatteras yacht at the plantation’s private dock on the Bayou Teche, in the heart of Cajun country. Blum agreed and began to introduce Mullen locally as the scion of a wealthy New Orleans family who had grown up in River Ridge, a community on the banks of the Mississippi.

During one of his first visits to the Alice C, Mullen noticed Blum’s Rolls-Royce Silver Spur parked in the garage, right next to the Porsche Carrera and the Mercedes G500 the banker also kept at his Louisiana home. Mullen told Blum he himself was a Rolls-Royce collector. In fact he owned just about every model made since 1950. The claim sounded like a bit much to a wealthy friend of Blum’s, whose own car collection included a Rolls. So Blum’s friend went to the official Rolls-Royce registry, where every car made by the company is accounted for. And damned if this Mullen wasn’t listed as the owner of 14 Rollses. “Hell,” Blum says, “you find out a man really does own 14 Rolls-Royces, it’s not difficult to believe whatever else you hear about him.”

Place: Alice C PlantationLocation: Franklin,
Louisiana Connection: In november 2012, Ryan
Mullen offered to buy the property from Gary
Blum for 1 million.

After that first call from ACS, Gomez ran Mullen’s name through a pay-per-use database of public records called FindMySkip.com. Her contract with the service prohibits her from revealing much about what it provides, Gomez says, “but it’s all about SITS—shelter, income, transportation, and social contact. That’s what you need to find someone.” There were lots of hits on the Social Security number she’d been given, Gomez remembers, “but most of them were for aka names, or they were hidden behind all these placeholder companies.” There was nothing that came back to the name Ryan Eugene Mullen. “When a person is able to obscure his identity like this, we call it ‘ghosting,’” Gomez says.

An increasing number of the people she chases understand that staying out of jail in the 21st century requires the ability to minimize their digital trail, using those traces they do leave (often deliberately) to their advantage. They pay cash whenever they can and use social media only to plant false information, boasting of heading off to a surfing vacation in Hawaii, for instance, when they are really going skiing in Colorado. These are the kind of people who take for granted that they can’t have legitimate bank accounts or valid government ID. They can and do collect credit cards linked to business addresses, but those are almost always post office boxes or vacant locations, and the applications usually have at least one digit in the Social Security number or date of birth changed. Even careful criminals, though, eventually reveal their locations, Gomez says. “They get tired and slip,” she says. “Everybody needs human contact, and that’s usually what brings them to ground.”

This Mullen, though, was not slipping. What put him out in front of others, Gomez soon figured, was that his ghosting technique seemed to include creating alternate versions of himself, virtual doppelgängers that had confounded both law enforcement and collection agencies. Many were named Mullen. She found a Ryan Paul Mullen and a Reuben Ryan Mullen, for example, both linked to the provided Social Security number. There was also a Ryan Gino Mullen, who also showed up on City-Data.com, but that person was literally a dead end, having been fatally wounded in a shoot-out with NYPD officers in the aftermath of a Manhattan bank robbery.

THE PEOPLE GOMEZ CHASES UNDERSTAND THAT STAYING OUT OF JAIL IN THE 21ST CENTURY REQUIRES THE ABILITY TO MINIMIZE THEIR DIGITAL TRAIL.

Puzzled, Gomez resorted to a resource she taps only rarely: the help of friends at federal agencies, friends for whom she has done favors and who in return are willing to let her check her information against government databases. “Their databases turn up what we call ‘trace details’ that you can’t get with the databases available to ordinary citizens,” Gomez says: phone numbers, addresses, company and individual names that have in some way been associated. “I found there was almost nothing on Ryan Eugene Mullen, DOB November 11, 1977, but there was a bunch of stuff connected to a Ryan Patrick Mullen, DOB December 4, 1980,” Gomez says. “That Mullen existed mainly as the agent for companies that had cases against them involving bank fraud.” There was also a trail of lawsuits and criminal charges relating to worthless checks. She decided to concentrate on Ryan Patrick Mullen. “But it was just tentative,” Gomez says. “I mean, this was a maze.”

By May 28, Gomez had uncovered trace details going back more than a decade linking Ryan Patrick Mullen to three individuals, all in the New Orleans area: Girven and Catalina Mullen, who were apparently Ryan Mullen’s parents, and an Al Morris, who was linked to Ryan Patrick Mullen through a business address on Airline Drive. She called Morris and discovered a coarse and cagey character on the other end of the line. A former deputy sheriff, Morris was a longtime friend of Ryan’s father, Girven, better known as “Moon,” a man who had made a hardscrabble fortune as the owner of a towing company and four large junkyards. When Ryan dropped out of school, Moon put him to work running one of the junkyards. Ryan had done all right for a while, Morris said, but at some point decided that he preferred spending the business’s money instead of paying bills with it. Morris estimates that Ryan was pocketing hundreds of thousands a year, using it to entertain new acquaintances at the city’s finest restaurants and best hotels. Moon eventually figured out what was going on, Morris said, and he and Catalina cut Ryan off completely.

When Gomez read him the description she had of Mullen’s mixed ancestry—Irish, Sicilian, Dutch, German, English, Ukrainian, and Lebanese—Morris said, “Bullshit.” And Mullen damn sure was no avid runner and tanner.

Gomez described the worthless-check charges she had found, and Morris said he’d heard about them. It was his understanding, Morris told her, that Mullen possessed some kind of high tech “check-making machine.” For about the hundredth time in the past few days, Gomez recalls, she found herself asking, “Who is this guy?”

Place: Hotel MonteleoneLocation: French Quarter,
New OrleansConnection: Mullen drove a pack of
friends from St. Mary Parish to the hotel’s famed
Carousel Bar & Lounge in a Rolls-Royce limousine.

Banker Gary Blum saw no reason to be suspicious of the $50,000 check tendered as a deposit on the Alice C or of anything else involving the young Mr. Mullen. “Ryan understood real estate transactions, all the terms and technical details,” Blum explains. “He knew banking and finance too, and computer technology and high-end cars. I don’t mean he knew a little; he knew a lot. He knew more about Hatteras yachts than most of the people who sell them for a living.”

Nor were the real estate agents working the Alice C deal doubting Mullen’s bona fides, not after they received a call from inside a New Orleans bank—the caller ID showed up on their phone—confirming that Mr. Mullen was a valued customer who kept two accounts there, one containing more than $600,000 and the other more than $700,000.

The only thing out of the ordinary came when Mullen brought an appraiser up from New Orleans. Blum was startled when he read in the appraiser’s report that the Alice C had been valued at $1.55 million—“way on the high side,” Blum says. “He was only paying me $1 million, which is about what it’s worth. I saw paperwork on the deal, and he had financing for $950,000 in place, meaning that for just $50,000 out of pocket he’d own it.” The mortgage company, presumably, thought Mullen had put up $600,000. In reality, he’d gotten a million-dollar loan for a mere 5 percent down.

By then Ryan Mullen was charming the locals. He’d become a regular at Mr. Lester’s Steakhouse, located in a casino that was the hub of social life in St. Mary Parish. “Ryan was very visible,” Blum says. “At the casino I’d be with friends, who include the sheriff and the publisher of the local newspaper and a couple of judges who are part of our group. I would introduce him, and he was talkative.”

Mullen was doing most of his socializing in the company of a couple of Blum’s younger friends. “Ryan would drive us all out to Mr. Lester’s in this black Rolls-Royce limousine he had,” Blum’s friend Jason Guthrie recalls. “Not just a Rolls, a Rolls limousine that could carry eight people, easy.” Mullen and Guthrie got together for lunch almost every day. “I thought he was a real nice guy,” Guthrie says. “Kinda effeminate, but I thought he was just a rich mama’s boy kinda person.”

Mullen fixed his image in the minds of Guthrie and the others when he drove them and several young ladies into New Orleans for a night on the town. They ate at Tony Angello’s, a pricey Italian restaurant on the southern shore of Lake Pont­chartrain. “We walked in and everybody was telling him, ‘Hey there, Mr. Ryan,’” Guthrie recalls. “Tony Angello himself came right out to the table to say hello, hugged all the ladies.” After dinner they drove to the Hotel Monteleone, a Beaux Arts landmark in the heart of the French Quarter whose Carousel Bar & Lounge is fabled as a literary watering hole. When Mullen pulled up to the hotel, “he parked that Rolls-Royce limousine right in the freakin’ road,” Guthrie recalls. “He looked at the valet, and she knew exactly who he was. He said, ‘My car be all right here?’ And she goes, ‘Oh yeah, baby, you can park it anywhere you want.’”

The only disquieting moment of the evening came when one of the men began to needle Mullen, asking why he didn’t take them to the casino with the video poker machines he owned. “Ryan made a remark about the guy being nosy and then changed the subject,” Guthrie says.

Place: Bayou Belle Truck StopLocation: Breaux
Bridge, LouisianaConnection: Until at least 2009,
Mullen owned the video poker machines in the
truck stop casino.

By the end of May, Gomez had found the casino. It was located at the Bayou Belle Truck Stop in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Such casinos are roadside fixtures in Louisiana, and most are quite profitable. “Places half the size make 4 or 5 million a year,” says a New Orleans real estate broker who accompanied Mullen on a visit to the casino a few years ago (and who agreed to talk with WIRED provided we didn’t use his real name). “I can tell you that when a man picks you up in a $200,000 Rolls-Royce, brings you to a casino, walks in the front door, and everybody is saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Ryan! How are you, sir?’ then takes you into the back, cashes out the registers, and opens up a vault containing hundreds of thousands of dollars, it gets your attention,” the man—who we’ll refer to as Eddie Fortino—says.

Ryan Mullen, Gomez found, had operated the poker machines through a company called Henderson Gaming, but his license was revoked by the state police in 2009. The truck stop itself, Gomez discovered, belonged to a man named Harper. Gomez noticed that the name was also connected to Mullen in a real estate transaction that had taken place in Natchez, Mississippi.

The deal involved the purchase of a palatial riverfront home owned by Reuben “Buzz” Harper, a man well known throughout the South, including Arkansas, where he had became a county judge at a young age. In New Orleans, Harper was famed as an interior designer for the rich and famous; the Times-Picayune named him its Best-Dressed Man of 2000. Rumor has it that Mullen had apparently lived with Harper, who introduced him as “my nephew.” Fortino, who was the broker on the deal, recalls that the Natchez mansion had been appraised at $3 million, but Mullen went into contract to buy it for about half that much. The sale never went through, however, and Harper died in early 2011.

Boggled by the spiraling complexity of Mullen’s identity, Gomez called US deputy marshal Michael Sheasby, the man leading the federal chase for the fugitive. Sheasby repeated the information about Mullen stealing $2 million from the government, Gomez recalls, and said that the US Marshals Service had been looking for him for a year.

“I told Sheasby I couldn’t find any Ryan Mullen on the FBI website,” Gomez says, “but I was told that the Most Wanted list changes regularly. Sheasby said he was going to put Mullen on the Marshals’ Most Wanted list and that they would be offering a reward. Sheasby seemed mainly concerned that I call him if I located Mullen so he could make the arrest. I told him it was only a matter of when, not if, and Sheasby laughed.”

On May 28, Gomez made her first call to New Orleans private detective Curtis Stallworth, the only pursuer of Ryan Mullen known to have made face-to-face contact with him. Stallworth, a former New Orleans police officer, told Gomez he had been hired four or five years earlier to serve Mullen in a civil fraud case. It had taken a lot of months and miles to find the man, Stallworth said. He finally located Mullen at a property out on Jefferson Highway in New Orleans. “I staked the place out for hours until one day I went by real early in the morning and saw the garage door open,” the detective recalls. Inside the garage were several Rolls-Royces, says Stallworth, who caught Mullen stepping outside and served him with the papers.

Stallworth did not learn that Mullen had warrants out on him until early 2013, when he was visited by a bounty hunter who said the man was wanted by the government. Stallworth went back out to try to relocate Mullen, but the fugitive had moved on. Over the next few months, Stallworth followed Mullen’s trail all over Louisiana. He still remembers well his trip to Plaquemines Parish, where Mullen had briefly taken up residence in a huge riverfront mansion and used checks he’d somehow manufactured to pay the rent, living there for several months before the owners realized that the more than $20,000 they’d collected added up to zero. “Those people were extremely upset with him down there,” Stallworth says. “If they’d have caught him, he’d have been gator bait for sure.”

On June 18, Gomez tried a new plan of action. She phoned the previous owner of the Hatteras yacht, Dennis Kenny of Memphis, Tennessee. The sale of his yacht had been complicated, Kenny told Gomez.

Place: Alice C Plantation dockLocation: Franklin,
LouisianaConnection: Mullen lived aboard his
53-foot Hatteras yacht while it was moored at
this dock on the Bayou Teche.

The boat, built in 1984, was in good shape, but Kenny was moving on to a new phase of his life, so he offered his boat, then called the Morning Star, at a price of $115,000. A sale had been negotiated, but the deal fell apart when the buyer’s broker saw the price inexplicably changed to $182,000 on some paperwork and decided the deal was fishy. The same buyer came back with a new broker, and the purchase was successfully concluded on July 3, 2012. After a series of online searches and phone conversations, Gomez determined that the second broker on the sale had been none other than Eddie Fortino, the same man who had been the broker for the Harper property in Natchez.

On the afternoon of June 19, Gomez phoned Fortino at his office in Metairie and informed him that she knew he had aided Ryan Mullen in the scam involving Morning Star. Fortino had brokered the purchase of the yacht for the $115,000 asking price, but—in a trick reminiscent of the Alice C real estate deal—the sales documents showed that the Morning Star was bought for $182,000. That was the price United Leasing had paid to buy the boat from Mullen under the terms of a “leaseback” agreement. (It was United Leasing that had eventually enlisted ACS to track down the yacht.) Fortino insisted that he didn’t set up the financing for the boat and had only received a $10,000 broker’s fee; Mullen had pocketed the remaining $57,000 himself.

“Pretty slick,” Gomez says. “Mullen not only got a Hatteras yacht he could hide out on—without his name officially attached to it—he also picked up a nice chunk of spending money.”

After Gomez described what she had surmised about the yacht deal, “Fortino asked me, ‘How long did it take you to figure it out?’” Gomez recalls. “That’s when I knew I had him.”

Gomez pressured Fortino, going so far as to bluff him with the idea that he might get paid for helping locate Mullen. Finally, Fortino agreed, promising also to send Gomez a copy of Mullen’s passport. When it arrived, Gomez was more intrigued than ever; the name on the passport was Patrick Peter Mullen, and the date of birth was December 4, 1981. “For a moment I asked myself if that was his real name,” she says, “but then I realized, no, it’s just another of his false identities.” A call to one of her government friends produced the information that a red flag had been placed on that passport number in the US Department of Homeland Security database. Gomez also discovered that the US Secret Service was looking for Mullen.

Mullen was at that moment preparing his yacht for imminent Departure. The series of real estate deals he had organized in cajun country had collapsed.

Gomez brought along a little extra muscle when she left her Texas home in her Ford Edge SUV on June 26 and headed to New Orleans: Joe Mendez was a licensed bodyguard who carried a .40 Glock on his belt. Mullen was somewhere in the metropolitan area, Gomez believed, but it was difficult to say exactly where—especially when Fortino kept changing his story, putting the yacht somewhere near Baton Rouge, then near Lafayette. Then he stopped answering the skip tracer’s phone calls and text messages.

Gomez located Fortino’s own home on a canal in Springfield, just northwest of Lake Pontchartrain, and on the afternoon of June 30 she drove up there, arriving as he was preparing his place for a big July 4th party. She confronted him in the front yard, threatening to go to the authorities with all the information she had learned about him unless he told the truth about Mullen’s whereabouts. Fortino buckled and promised to lead Gomez to the yacht the next day.

At 8 am the following morning, July 1, Gomez and Mendez were waiting in her SUV when Fortino’s pickup pulled into a Hooters parking lot. He led the SUV on an hour-and-a-half drive across the Mississippi on Interstate 10 into Iberville Parish, where he pulled over to the side of the road, climbed out of his truck, and told Gomez she would have to continue without him. He said that both the yacht and Mullen could be found in the private slip of the Alice C Plantation in St. Mary Parish.

Mullen was at that moment preparing Big Ol’ Girl for imminent departure. The series of real estate deals he had organized in Cajun country had collapsed. The closing date on the original contract for the Alice C had come and gone and still no money had shown up. Gary Blum agreed to an extension through June 28, but the real estate brokers he’d hired, who were handling both the Alice C deal and Mullen’s apartment complex purchase in New Iberia, had discovered that the $100,000 deposit for the apartment complex didn’t exist—no lawyer was holding it in escrow as they had been told. Learning this, the broker handling the Alice C deal decided to again verify that Mullen had nearly $1.4 million in two separate accounts in a local bank. When he asked for the bank officer who’d phoned several weeks earlier, the broker was told that no one by that name worked there. And there were no customers of the bank named Ryan Mullen either.

Mullen was securing the decks of his yacht at 11:15 am when Gomez parked her SUV in the driveway of the home next to the Alice C. With Mendez right behind her, Gomez stepped through a screen of sycamore trees into the enormous backyard of the plantation and found herself within 20 feet of a large man with a broad face and a mildly curious expression, standing on the dock beside his big boat. She asked his name. “Ron Muller,” the man replied. Gomez smiled and pulled out her cell phone, while Mendez stood by, one hand on his pistol.

Ten minutes later, Mullen was in handcuffs, surrounded by four police officers, arrested on a warrant from St. Bernard Parish for issuing worthless checks and a warrant from the federal court of the Eastern District of Louisiana for failure to appear on a contempt of court charge. He was taken away along with the five animals on board the yacht: two Chihuahuas, a pair of cats, and a magnificent green parrot. As the bird was carried off in its cage, it amused the growing crowd by repeating again and again the two phrases it knew best: “Kill ’em all!” and “Where’s Mullen?”

Within two hours, the officers had released the yacht to Gomez. On board, she found identification and contracts that placed Mullen at an assortment of addresses, purchase contracts for plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi, and billing and shipping invoices for various luxury automobiles along with a zippered bag filled with keys to more than a dozen vehicles. Gomez also discovered two large locked cases bearing the labels “Mastercheck Keypad and Printer” and “Mastercheck Analogue Interface.”

From St. Mary Parish, Mullen was moved to the jail in Jefferson Parish, where he faced criminal charges. Gomez spent the night baby­sitting the yacht at the Alice C, waiting for a pilot who had been dispatched by ACS to guide the boat back to Berwick, Louisiana.

Place: Hooters parking lotLocation: Baton Rouge,
LouisianaConnection: Michelle Gomez met Eddie
Fortino here, and he finally agreed to lead her to Mullen.

As a banker, Blum knew all about the check-making machinery inside those cases, including how dangerous it could be in the hands of a criminal. “An ordinary citizen is not supposed to have that equipment,” Blum says. “It’s highly regulated, because these magnetic ink printers make checks that pass automatically through the proofing machines in banks.” Most citizens are unaware that very few checks are ever physically examined, Blum observes: “It’s all electronic. If you’ve got one of those machines that do the correct type of embossing, the checks will clear, the money will be released, and it can take months before the accounts are reconciled and somebody realizes what’s going on.”

Blum was in some ways even more impressed that Mullen had been able to arrange that call to his brokers from inside the New Orleans bank that verified the existence of two accounts containing almost $1.4 million. “I had heard about software that can manipulate the phone system where a false origin appears on caller ID,” Blum says, “but it never occurred to me that somebody I knew might be using it.”

Gomez’s job was done, but it didn’t feel that way. Her investigation had begun as the pursuit of a man on the run from the FBI for 14 years. Along the way, she not only learned that Ryan Eugene Mullen was a false name but also became convinced that the story of his exploits as a cybercriminal was one Mullen himself had invented, along with several others, to obscure his trail. “All along I assumed that part was real, because the Marshals Service is not going to put out a story like that if it isn’t true,” Gomez says. It was easy to see what Mullen had gotten out of the deception: The Marshals Service, the attorneys at United Leasing, and the assorted bill collectors, bounty hunters, and private investigators who were after him had wasted weeks and months looking for versions of Mullen that didn’t exist anywhere but online. She herself had used up most of a week confirming that Ryan Eugene Mullen was a phantom, Gomez noted, and “I wanted to know how it happened.”

The Marshals Service, attorneys, bill collectors, bounty hunters, and investigators all had wasted weeks and months looking for versions of Mullen that didn’t exist.

In some instances, she found, a single business transaction effected with a false identity had created the official record of a fictional Mullen. Ryan Eugene Mullen, though, had first appeared on City-Data.com, Gomez determined. Ryan Gino Mullen also seemed to have first appeared on the forum. The original postings, just weeks apart, appeared to have different authors, but there were clear links between the two. She assumed that Mullen himself or someone working for him had posted both bulletins to create confusion for anyone Googling him, but she wasn’t able to learn anything more about the posts.

Gomez was “trying to untangle a deep dark web,” Fortino says. “But Mullen created that web so no one can untangle it.”

The most troubling lesson she learned from Mullen, Gomez says, is how readily misleading information can migrate from a posting on an Internet forum to official status. “In a second, what’s false becomes true,” she observes. “All it takes is for one person to put it on the record.” That seems to be what happened with Mullen’s Most Wanted status. A spokeswoman from the US Marshals Service told WIRED that Deputy Sheasby knew nothing about a $2 million cybertheft by Mullen until he was told by “an investigator,” and that he’d passed on the story only because he felt obliged to make other investigators aware of everything he had heard.

The long process of sorting out Mullen’s crimes and finding all his assets had begun. (Mullen declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.) The Secret Service acknowledged that an investigation was under way, but the prosecutor on the case in Jefferson Parish, Jody Fortunato, knew nothing beyond that. The Secret Service declined to speak with WIRED about the case.

A couple of weeks into his incarceration, Mullen placed a call from jail to his friend Guthrie. He claimed he’d been beaten up shortly after arriving. Mullen described a litany of charges against him and pledged to make restitution to his victims. After this claim of contrition, though, he confided that three days before his capture he’d had a feeling something was wrong and thought then about moving the yacht to a new location. “I wish I had listened to myself,” he told Guthrie.

Gomez laughs when she hears this. “Maybe he lost track of which self he was, until I came along to remind him.”

Doctors Are About to Start Human Trials for Suspended Animation

Doctors Are About to Start Human Trials for Suspended Animation

by Adam Clark Estes

After years of sci-fi-inspired fantasies about the technique, a team of doctors in Pittsburgh are finally ready to start testing out a procedure that involves putting patients in a state of “suspended animation” while they repair their injuries. Put bluntly, they’re going to kill people and bring them back to life.

If you haven’t heard of this method before, prepare to have your mind blown. Often patients with massive trauma like a gunshot or stab wound bleed to death before doctors have the chance to fix the structural injuries. However, this so-called “emergency preservation” technique buys them extra time, because it quickly cools the body down to temperatures as low as 50-degrees Fahrenheit, stopping almost all cellular activity. “We are suspending life, but we don’t like to call it suspended animation because it sounds like science fiction,” says Samuel Tisherman who’s leading the study in Pittsburgh.

To do so, doctors replace all of the patients’ blood with a cold saline solution. In this state, the patient has no signs of life—no pulse, no brain activity, nothing. He’s clinically dead, until the doctors resuscitate his by pumping blood back into his body and bringing the body temperature back up. The patient can remain in the state of suspended animation for hours and still be brought back to life. Doctors say there would be no damage to the brain.

Suspended animation has never been tested on humans. Dr. Hasam Alam, now at Harvard Medical School, first demonstrated the technique on pigs in 2002. By 2010, Alam said that he was ready to start human trials in Boston, and even though the FDA gave the go ahead a year later, that has yet to happen.

But just imagine how many lives this could save. Peter Rhee pioneered the technique at the University of Arizona in Tuscon and speaks about it in lofty terms. “After we did [the first] experiments, the definition of ‘dead’ changed,” Rhee told The New Scientist. “Every day at work I declare people dead. They have no signs of life, no heartbeat, no brain activity. I sign a piece of paper knowing in my heart that they are not actually dead. I could, right then and there, suspend them. But I have to put them in a body bag. It’s frustrating to know there’s a solution.”

Soon, that solution could be coming to a hospital near you. The team at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh is now on call and waiting for their first candidate. They’ll perform the procedure ten times and compare the results to ten similar patients who were eligible but did not receive the treatment because the team wasn’t available. If all goes well, they’ll continue trials until they have enough data to analyze.

Pretty futuristic, right? It’s a little bit ironic that this ground-breaking new method for keeping patients alive is just a different iteration of one of the oldest preservation methods we know: pickling. “We’ve always assumed that you can’t bring back the dead,” says Rhee. “But it’s a matter of when you pickle the cells.” And now we’ve made the leap from sci-fi to horror. God bless progress.

Forget Stealing Credit Cards, Now Hackers Just Straight-Up Blackmail You

Forget Stealing Credit Cards, Now
Hackers Just Straight-Up Blackmail You


by Gerry Smith

While hackers tried to get rich by stealing millions of credit cards from Target, other cyber-criminals have quietly tried another method to make a quick buck: Asking companies to pay them to go away.

In recent weeks, two companies have publicly described their experiences with what has become a popular hacker tactic: cyber extortion. Cyber-criminals have threatened to disclose sensitive data or cripple websites unless their victims pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in ransom.

Like kidnappers and terrorists, cyber-criminals have been demanding ransoms for years. But cases of digital extortion appear to have grown more frequent in recent months and involved more high-profile victims, according to Matthew Prince, chief executive of the security firm CloudFlare.

“The brazenness of the attacks has increased and they are targeting household names,” Prince said in an interview.

Last month, an unidentified hacker threatened to cripple the website of Meetup, a social networking site with 16 million members, unless the company paid $300 in ransom.

Then on Monday, employees at Basecamp, a software development firm, also got an email from an unidentified hacker who made a similar threat unless the startup paid “a relatively low amount in Bitcoin,” according to David Heinemeier Hannson, a partner at the company.

Both companies refused to pay. In response, the hackers crashed Basecamp’s service for two hours and Meetup’s site for 24 hours.

“This is like a bunch of people blocking the front door and not letting you into your house,” Hannson wrote in a blog post. “The contents of your house are safe — you just can’t get in until they get out of the way.”

There are no statistics on how often hackers try to extort their victims because few companies ever admit it. The rare victims who do go public say they refused to pay because it would have set a dangerous precedent.

Scott Heifernan, Meetup’s co-founder, said his company “made a decision not to negotiate with criminals,” partly because paying even a paltry $300 ransom could make the company a target for further extortion demands.

“We believe this lowball amount is a trick to see if we are the kind of target who would pay,” Heifernan said in a recent blog post. “We believe if we pay, the criminals would simply demand much more.”

“It was never even on the table to pay the extortionist,” Hannson said in an email to HuffPost. “We’d just be painting an even bigger target on our back for future attacks.”

But many victims do pay, albeit quietly. More than $5 million is extorted from hacking victims each year, according to Symantec, the cybersecurity firm.

Prince said his company hears “every other day” from victims needing protection from cyber-criminals threatening to bring down their websites unless they get paid. CloudFlare’s service works like a shield, deflecting the onslaught of bogus traffic while allowing legitimate visitors to access a company’s website.

In most cyber extortion cases, victims’ websites are knocked offline for about 15 minutes. Then their site comes back online and they get an email from a hacker offering to stop the attack if the victim wires money.

Often, the hacker will pose as a “white hat” security researcher who found a bug in the victims’ software, said James Aquilina, a former federal cyber crime prosecutor.

“They’ll say, ‘Hire me for $50,000, and I’ll help you fix it,” Aquilina said.

Some cyber-criminals use special tools designed for extortion. Last year, a report by Symantec highlighted the growing use of “ransomware” that can disable both individual and corporate computers until someone pays the hacker. Only about 3 percent of victims pay the ransom, but the scheme is still profitable because hackers spread ransomware across thousands of PCs, according to Symantec.

“They’re essentially holding your data hostage,” Prince said.

Symantec knows first-hand what it’s like to face a cyber extortionist. In 2012, the company said a group of hackers linked to Anonymous began publicly releasing code for one of its antivirus products, then offered to stop if the company paid them $50,000.

Some cyber-criminals ask for more than money. In 2012, a Hungarian hacker was sentenced to 30 months in prison for stealing data from Marriott’s computers then threatening to reveal it publicly unless the hotel chain gave him a $150,000-a-year job and free flights and hotel rooms of his choice.

Aquilina, who now works at the intelligence and risk management company Stroz Friedberg, said he has advised clients in at least a dozen cyber extortion cases in the past seven years. In one recent case, he said hackers locked a doctor out of his patients’ medical records unless he paid them $50,000.

“Any victim that is perceived as being able to pay is a potential target of an extortion threat,” Aquilina said.

But he said victims should contact law enforcement instead.

“I’ve never heard of a company actually surviving a cyber extortion by paying the money,” he said. “It just delays the inevitable. It doesn’t make it go away.”

Happy Workers Are More Productive: Science Proves It

Happy Workers Are More Productive: Science Proves It

by Jessica Leber

Bummed? You’re probably getting less done today.
It would probably make sense for your boss to make sure you’re happy, instead.

Companies in all sectors have been increasingly investing in the happiness of employees, with firms like Etsy going so far as to create a Gross Happiness Index, and Google gathering metrics to optimize the length of its free lunch lines (too long, and people are annoyed; too short, they don’t get to chit-chat).

But any investor should be able to measure its return, and now a group of U.K. researchers say they’ve provided the first scientifically-controlled evidence of the link between human happiness and productivity: Happier people are about 12% more productive, the study found.

The results, to be published in the Journal of Labor Economics, are based on four different experiments that employed a variety of tactics on a total of 713 subjects at an elite British university.

In three of the experiments, the University of Warwick team conducted happiness interventions on some subjects, such as showing them a comedy film or giving them chocolate, food, and drink. The people who got the grand treatment were more efficient at a task later given to them than those who weren’t. In a fourth experiment, the researchers measured productivity first and then questioned the participants about real-life shocks in their life, such as death or illness. The people who recently experienced pain were also less productive.

Or course, it cost the researchers money to buy the food and drink and time to show the subjects comedy films. Which is to say it’s unclear–in this study or in a real-life work setting–how many resources a company should devote to increasing happiness, at least in hopes of a bottom-line benefit.

For workers, it may seem like a positive trend when employers care more about happiness and wellness, but that may not always be the case. A CVS cashier is suing her employer over its aggressive corporate wellness program, for example, claiming she was required to disclose information like her weight and sexual activity or have $600 extra deducted from her paycheck each year.

The authors of the study also suggest that their work could affect hirings and promotions. “If happiness in a workplace carries with it a return in productivity, the paper’s findings may have consequences for firms’ promotion policies and may be relevant for managers and human resources specialists,” they write. In the future, as the workforce becomes more and more quantified, will a death in the family mean you’re passed up for a raise?

 

Ostrich Races, Naked Bike Rides, and Other Weird Sports of the World

Ostrich Races, Naked Bike Rides, and Other Weird Sports of the World

By Jakob Schiller

Sol Neelman documents the wild and the wacky in competition, from live monster wrestling to Big Wheel racing and, of course, ostrich racing.

The Portland photographer has spent years traveling far and wide chronicling competition in all forms, many of them silly, some with potential. He made a book out of it called, appropriately enough, Weird Sports, and it was so successful that he’s back with a second collection, Weird Sports 2, which he’s trying to fund on Kickstarter.

“I’m pretty much a one-trick pony,” Neelman says.

That may be true, but it’s been a successful trick. WIRED Magazine first wrote about Neelman in 2011, which earned him a recurring WIRED gig chronicling the wacky games, races, and events he’d managed to find.

The latest collection includes everything from flaming tetherball to unicycle football to a zombie run. It would be hard to overstate just how weird some of these sports are. Take wife carrying, for example. Men must carry their partners through an obstacle course; the winners are rewarded with beer. (Beer plays a role in a surprising number of events Neelman covers.) Flaming tetherball and unicycle football are exactly what they sound like, and in the zombie run, racers navigate a 5K course with the undead nipping at their heels.

This is very much a passion project for Neelman, who never makes fun of his subjects. Instead, he appears to be in on the joke and wants to share it with us. He makes little or no money photographing these events and supports himself as a commercial and editorial photographer. He used the money from a large commercial shoot to fund the first Weird Sports, but now has to rely on crowdfunding to get Weird Sports 2 off the ground.

“This is the photography I really care about, even though I don’t make much money, and I just want to find ways to keep doing it,” he says.

Fortunately, Neelman lives in the capital of weird—Portland, Oregon—and can occasionally walk out his front door and find things to shoot. Last time around he photographed people playing urban golf in his hometown, and for Weird Sports 2 he photographed a naked bike ride that drew thousands of participants.

“If you’re gonna ride a bicycle, you might as well do it without any clothes, right?” he says.

From here, there’s still plenty of weird sports photograph, but Neelman says he might have to start venturing out of the country more. In Russia, for example, there’s a swim race where participants have to hold onto sex dolls. And in Japan, there’s a race where teams ride huge trees down grassy slopes. One sport he’d love to photograph that’s only been played in Thailand so far is something called Tazer Ball, which is like football with Tasers. It hasn’t officially landed in the States yet because the organizers haven’t been able to secure a permit.

“I would love to shoot weird sports forever,” Neelman says. “There’s certainly plenty out there for me to do.”

I Work As a Writer For Reality Shows — Here’s the Deal

I Work As a Writer For Reality Shows — Here’s the Deal

And believe me, they’re not glamorous. They’re also not “real.”

by Anonymous

Remember when that guy from “Storage Wars” got fired and then sued A&E, telling everyone who would listen that the show was a fake? And when that guy from “Duck Dynasty” started saying gross, racist things, and websites began outing the whole family as “yuppies in redneck drag?”

TMZ covered those scandals, inviting callers to discuss whether the shows were “real” or not — and I sat back laughing, because I write for shows like these. I could have had my 15 minutes of fame by Skype-ing in to TMZ to tell my truth, but I would rather protect my income.

What they don’t tell you about reality shows is that the people are real, but the situations are totally not. Many times, a “star” — or main character — is found, and then an entire show is built around this charismatic or weird person. There may be legit members of their entourage, or such side characters can be hired to fill out the story. Think “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” or “Millionaire Matchmaker” — people or situations are planted, in order to increase the drama. The actors know what type of events will be happening and are usually asked to improvise dialogue as they go. Voila: a train wreck that’s hard to turn away from.

And duh — of course Rick’s “buddy” experts on “Pawn Stars” are not really always available to come on down at the exact moment he calls with a client who seemingly walked in off the street to sell him something. (Yes, the show would have had to audition and choose the seller with the interesting item, arrange a shoot with them in the shop, and have the expert appraiser available just off-set).

I have a friend who is now a well-known actor, but as an up-and-comer he was hired to play a guy getting his car repossessed on a reality show. Though his job and name were different on the  show, every time this old episode airs, his friends from back home still call and write to offer condolences for his bad luck. Apparently it can be confusing to sort what’s real from what’s not.

The shows I’ve worked on are primarily competitive game-show-type formats or episodic docu-dramas. (It’s illegal to set up the outcome of a game-show, by the way — see the movie Quiz Show for more on that). I am a freelancer hired to write what are called “treatments,” which briefly summarize a production company’s show idea. They need to show these treatments to network executives in their pitch meetings.

If the treatment makes it through the first round, I am sometimes called upon to brainstorm and write up potential episodes. For example: “What if they happened to find the makings of an anarchist bomb-making lab, and then — BOOM! An explosion?”  (I actually wrote a potential episode like this and forgot about it until a year later while flipping channels in a hotel room and I saw it. “Oh wow, they used it!” I said to my husband while pointing at the TV. “I wrote that.” We laughed about it and then we fell asleep.)

At times, the production company may shoot a “sizzle” — sort of a teaser or trailer used in the pitch meeting to illustrate what the show would look like. If the network likes it, they give it the green light and a sale is made. I get a flat fee so whether it sells or not, I am usually on to the next project by the time those decisions are made.

The reality of writing for reality shows is that’s it’s a writing gig college never could have prepared me for. (All the rules of “good writing” go out the window, because Hollywood loves superlatives! And adjectives! And they really really very much love their intensifiers! And exclamation points, because we want it to be exciting!)

It’s cool that I get paid to dream up funny and interesting scenarios. My cable bill is a tax write-off, since I have to stay current and watch the competition. I am always learning a lot because I have to research subjects in-depth to help producers pitch their ideas knowledgeably.

In the last few years I have gleaned a ton of information about micro beers (and I don’t drink), butchers (though I am vegan), basketball, football, and boxing (I hate sports), crime scene cleaners (that was kind of fascinating), underwater excavators (who knew that was a business?), exotic fish and pet collectors (gross), drunk drivers (collaborating with bureaucratic law enforcement was too much for the networks to keep their interest), and the seedy world of comedy clubs, among other things.

These are all for shows that never got made, by the way. Yes, lots of money is spent on shows that never make it to the small screen. So if you think what’s out there now is bad, just imagine the ideas that get rejected before a pilot is even approved.

Am I contributing to the idiocy of our society? Maybe. We all vote with our views — or lack of. Being a hired inkslinger, I usually don’t get to share my educated feminist point of view, but it’s rewarding when I can sneak it in there, even if it’s just to say “Ahem — there aren’t any women in here.”

I rarely watch reality shows for fun — but when I do, they’re the creative kind, like “Top Chef,” “Project Runway,” or “Design on a Dime.” The formats are excruciatingly predictable but at least the people are truly talented… I’d like to think so, anyway.

Cops Use Traffic Stops To Seize Millions From Drivers

Cops Use Traffic Stops To Seize Millions
From Drivers Never Charged With A Crime

by Nick Sibilla

License, registration—and your cash.

A deputy for the Humboldt County’s Sheriff Office in rural Nevada has been accused of confiscating over $60,000 from drivers who were never charged with a crime.  These cash seizures are now the subject of two federal lawsuits and are the latest to spotlight a little-known police practice called civil forfeiture.

Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property (including cash and cars) without having to prove the owners are guilty.   Last September, Tan Nguyen was pulled over for driving three miles over the speed limit, according to a suit he filed.  Deputy Lee Dove asked to search the car but Nguyen said he declined.  Dove claimed he smelled marijuana but couldn’t find any drugs.  The deputy then searched the car and found a briefcase containing $50,000 in cash and cashier’s checks, which he promptly seized.  According to the Associated Press, Nguyen said he won that cash at a casino.

Nguyen was not arrested or charged with a crime—not even a traffic citation.  In the suit, Dove threatened to seize and tow Nguyen’s car unless he “got in his car and drove off and forgot this ever happened.”  That would have left Nguyen stranded in the Nevada desert.

Almost three months later, Ken Smith was also pulled over for speeding.  During the stop, Deputy Dove performed a warrant check and found a warrant for a Ken Smith.  On that basis, Dove detained Smith.  But according to a lawsuit filed by Smith, the Ken Smith on the warrant had a different birthday and was black.  The pulled-over Smith was white.  As the lawsuit puts it, Smith “should have been cited for speeding and let go, if there was probable cause for speeding violations.”

Instead, Smith was “unarrested” and allowed to leave with his car if he signed a waiver to surrender $13,800 in cash he had in the vehicle.  The Humboldt County Sheriff’s office also seized a .40 caliber Ruger handgun from Smith, though Smith claimed he did not waive his right to that firearm.

After their experiences, both lawsuits argue these stops and cash seizures violate the Fourth Amendment’s right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.  Americans for Forfeiture Reform has links to the two suits filed against the deputy.

The incentives behind civil forfeiture make accusations like these all too plausible.  Nevada has scant protections for property owners against forfeiture abuse, according to “Policing for Profit,” a report published by the Institute for Justice (IJ).  Police can seize property under a legal standard lower than the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard used in criminal convictions.  Owners bear the burden of proof, meaning they have to prove their innocence in court.  In addition, law enforcement agencies keep 100 percent of the forfeiture proceeds.  While they are required to keep records on forfeiture, Nevada law enforcement refused to provide IJ with such information.

Nor is Nevada an outlier.  Twenty-five other states allow police to pocket all of the proceeds from civil forfeiture.  Property owners must prove their innocence in civil forfeiture proceedings in 37 other states.

“Asset forfeiture today, the way it exists federally, as well as in many states, is an institutional corruption,”  said Judge Jim Gray, who had three decades of experience on the bench in California.  Now retired and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Gray would rather see forfeiture proceeds funneled to a specific neutral fund like education or feeding the homeless.  “None of the [forfeiture] money should go to law enforcement.  That provides them an inappropriate incentive,” he continued.

Across the country, institutional incentives have led to police misconduct.  Virginia State Police stopped Victor Luis Guzman for speeding on I-95 and seized $28,500 from him. But law enforcement didn’t ticket or charge him with any crime.  A church secretary, Guzman said he was transporting the cash for his church.  The money in question was from parishioners’ donations.  He was able to retrieve the cash only after an attorney who served in the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office during the Reagan administration took his case pro bono.

In a similar vein, police in Tenaha, Tex. stopped hundreds of predominantly African American and Hispanic drivers and seized about $3 million from them.  If drivers refused to cooperate, police would then threaten to file “baseless criminal charges,” according to the ACLU, which settled a class action lawsuit against the town in 2012.  The New Yorker reported that cops even threatened drivers, that, if they didn’t turn over their cash, their children could be taken by Child Protective Services.

Unsurprisingly, seizing cash from traffic stops can earn millions for law enforcement.  Two of the biggest moneymakers in the country were Sheriffs Bob Vogel and Bill Smith.  Vogel seized $6.5 million in cash from cars going southbound on I-95 in Volusia County, Florida.  But usually the cars that smuggled drugs went northbound.  Plus, part of the “drug courier” profile for Sheriff Vogel “was that cars obeying the speed limit were suspect—their desire to avoid being stopped made them stand out.”  The Orlando Sentinel later found that in three out of every four cases, no charges were filed.  Ninety percent of the seizures involved African Americans or Latinos.

About two hours up north on I-95 was Sheriff Smith’s forfeiture corridor in Camden County, Ga.  The sheriff seized more than $20 million over two decades, with most of the money coming from intercepting cars on the highway.  As mentioned in the video below, Smith would use these proceeds to make ridiculous purchases, including a $90,000 Dodge Viper and paying convicts to build him a “party house.”   As Kevin Drum at Mother Jones put it, “‘forfeiture corridors’ are the new speed traps.”

Cops’ desire for fast cash cannot trump the Constitution.  It’s time to end policing for profit.

9 Huge Government Conspiracies That Actually Happened

9 Huge Government Conspiracies That Actually Happened

by Christina Sterbenz

We all know the conspiracy theories — the government’s plan for 9/11, the second gunman who shot JFK, the evolution of the elite from a race of blood-drinking, shape-shifting lizards.

But the people who spread these ideas usually can’t prove them.

As the years pass, however, secrets surface. Government documents become declassified. We now have evidence of certain elaborate government schemes right here in the U.S.A.

Prohibition Research Committee

1. The U.S. Department of the Treasury poisoned alcohol during Prohibition — and people died.

The 18th Amendment, which took effect in January 1920, banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol — but not consumption. Despite the government’s efforts, alcoholism actually skyrocketed during the era.

To keep up with America’s thirst, bootleggers not only created their own alcohol but also stole industrial versions, rendered undrinkable by the inclusion of certain chemicals (namely methyl alcohol). Liquor syndicates then employed chemists to “re-nature” the alcohol once again, making it safe for consumption, according to Deborah Blum, author of “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.”

By mid-1927, however, the U.S. government added much deadlier chemicals — kerosene, chloroform, and acetone among those most well known — which made alcohol more difficult to render consumable again. Adding 10% more methyl alcohol caused the worst efforts.

Although New York City’s chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, tried to publicize the dangers, in 1926, poisonous alcohol killed 400 in the city. The next year, 700 died.

Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

A doctor administers an injection to one of the Tuskegee patients.

2. The U.S. Public Health Service lied about treating black men with syphilis for more than 40 years.

In 1932, the Public Health Service collaborated with the Tuskegee Institute to record the history of syphilis in the black male community, hoping to justify a treatment program. 

Called the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Malethe study initially included 600 black men — 399 with the disease and 201 without. While the men were told they would receive treatment, however, the researchers never provided adequate treatment for the disease. Even when penicillin became the preferred and available treatment for syphilis, researchers kept their subjects in the dark. 

Although originally planned to last only six months, the experiment continued for 40 years. Finally, in 1972, an Associated Press article prompted public outrage and a subsequent investigation. A government advisory panel deemed the study “ethically irresponsible” and research ended almost immediately.

As a result, the government settled a class-action lawsuit out of court in 1974 for $10 million and lifetime health benefits for all participants, the last of whom died in 2004.

Jonas Salk Polio Vaccine

Jonas Salk, who created the inactivated polio vaccine in 1955.

3. More than 100 million Americans received a polio vaccine contaminated with a potentially cancer-causing virus.

From 1954 to 1961, simian virus 40 (SV40) somehow showed up  in polio vaccines, according to the American Journal of Cancer. Researchers estimate 98 million people in the U.S. and even more worldwide received contaminated inoculations.

Jonas Salk, known creator of the inactivated polio vaccine, used cells from rhesus monkeys infected with SV40, according to president of the National Vaccine Information Center Barbara Fisher, who testified before the Subcommittee on Human Rights and Wellness in the U.S. House of Representatives on this matter in 2003, after researching the situation for 10 years.

The federal government changed oral vaccine stipulations in 1961 — which didn’t include Salk’s inactivated polio vaccine — specifically citing SV40. But medical professionals continued to administer tainted vaccines until 1963, according to Michael E. Horwin writing for the Albany Law Journal of Science and Technology in 2003. And even after 1961, the American Journal of Cancer found contaminated oral vaccines.

Although researchers know SV40 causes cancer in animals, opinions vary on a direct link between the virus and cancer in humans. Independent studies, however, have identified SV40 in brain and lung tumors of children and adults.

The Centers for Disease Control did post a fact sheet acknowledging the presence of SV40 in polio vaccines but has since removed it, according to Medical Daily.

photo from Gulf of Tonkin

A photo of three Vietnamese boats taken from the USS Maddox (on Aug. 2).

4. Parts of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which led to U.S. intervention in Vietnam, never happened.

After evading a torpedo attack, the USS Maddox reportedly engaged three North Vietnamese boats in the Gulf of Tonkin on both Aug. 2 and 4, 1964, according to the Pentagon Papers. Although without U.S. casualties, the events prompted Congress to pass a resolution allowing President Lyndon John to intervene in the Southeast. 

Talk of Tonkin’s status as a “false flag” for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War has permeated public discourse almost since the time of the attacks, especially after the government admitted that the second incident may have involved false radar images.

But after resisting comment for decades, the National Security Agency finally declassified documents in 2005, admitting the incident on Aug. 4 never happened at all.

Those involved didn’t necessarily intend to cover-up the incident to propagate a war. But the evidence does suggest “an active effort to make SIGINT fit the claim of what happened during the evening of 4 August in the Gulf of Tonkin,”according to NSA historian Robert J. Hanyok.

Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro speaking in Havana in 1978.

5. Military leaders reportedly planned terrorist attacks in the U.S. to drum up support for a war against Cuba.

In 1962, the joint chiefs-of-staff approved Operation Northwoods, a covert plan to create support for a war in Cuba that would oust communist leader Fidel Castro.

Declassified government documents show considerations included: host funerals for “mock-victims,” “start rumors (many),” and “blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba.” They even suggested somehow pinning John Glenn’s potential death, should his rocket explode, on communists in Cuba.

The advisors presented the plan to President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, according to investigative journalist James Bamford’s book, Body of Secrets.” We don’t know whether McNamara immediately refused, but a few days later, Kennedy told Army Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer, the plan’s poo-bah, that the U.S. would never use overt force to take Cuba.

A few months later, Lemnitzer lost his position.

“There really was a worry at the time about the military going off crazy and they did, but they never succeeded, but it wasn’t for lack of trying,” Bamford told ABC News.

Ken Kesey One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Ken Kesey, author of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” voluntarily participated in Project MKUltra.

6. The government tested the effects of LSD on unwitting U.S. and Canadian citizens.

Under the code name “MKUltra,” the U.S. government ran a human-research operation within the CIA’s Scientific Research Division. Researchers tested the effects of hypnosis, sensory deprivation, isolation, torture, and most memorably, LSD, on U.S. and Canadian citizens. Most had no idea.

To conduct these experiments, the CIA paid prisons, hospitals, and other institutions to keep quiet. The department even enticed heroin addicts to participate by offering them heroin, according to documents from a joint hearing to subcommittees of Congress, where President Kennedy spoke.

That day, he regaled Congress with “chilling testimony.” Over 30 universities became involved in various studies. Notably, many lacked oversight by medical or scientific professionals. At least one participant, Frank Olsen, died, reportedly from suicide after unknowingly ingesting LSD. 

In January 1973, then CIA Director Richard Helms ordered the destruction of all documents pertaining to MKUltra. When Congress looked into the matter, no one, not even Helms, could “remember” details. Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, more documents were located, but the full timeline remains incomplete.

The events inspired investigative journalist Jon Ronson’s best-selling book, “The Men Who Stare At Goats,” now a movie of the same title starring George Clooney.

Glomar Explorer Project Azorian

The Hughes Glomar Explorer, the recovery ship designed for Project Azorian.

7. In 1974, the CIA secretly resurfaced a sunken Soviet submarine with three nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

The CIA’s secret “Project Azorian” aimed to raise a sunken Soviet submarine from the floor of the Pacific Ocean to retrieve three nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, each carrying a one megaton nuclear warhead.

With President Nixon’s approval, CIA director Richard Helms placed all the plans in a secret file called “Jennifer,” thus keeping the information from everyone but a select number of government officials.

After a FOIA, the NSA finally published an article from the CIA’s in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence, revealing that the department succeeded in resurfacing portions of the sub, named K-129.

The CIA redacted text in these documents that prevent determining the operation’s exact level of success, but the crew of the Glomar Explorer, the recovery ship, did haul contents to Hawaii for unloading.

Reagan Iran Contra Scandal

8. The U.S. government sold weapons to Iran, violating an embargo, and used the money to support Nicaraguan militants.

In 1985, senior officials in the Reagan administration facilitated the sale of arms to Iran, then under embargo. The government, with the National Security Council’s Oliver North acting as a key player, later used the profits to fund the Contras, anti-communist rebels, in Nicaragua.

The whole situation began with seven American hostages taken by a hostile group in Lebanon with ties to Iran. Through an elaborate exchange involving Israel, the U.S. planned to sell weapons to Iran in exchange for the hostages’ freedom. The situation quickly derailed, although the Lebanese did release all but two hostages.

After a leak from an Iranian, the situation finally came to light in 1986. After repeatedly denying any involvement, the Reagan administration underwent 41 days of congressional hearings, according to Brown University’s research project on the scandal. They subpoenaed government documents as early as 1981 and forced declassification of others.

Reagan’s involvement in and even knowledge of the situation remains unclear. The hearings never labeled the sale of weapons to Iran a criminal offense, but some officials faced charges for supporting the Contras. The administration, however, refused to declassify certain documents, forcing Congress to drop them.

Nayirah C-SPAN

YouTube/guyjohn59

“Nayirah”

9. A public relations firm organized congressional testimony that propelled U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf War.

In 1990, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl identified only as “Nayirah” testified before Congress that she witnessed Iraqi soldiers pulling infants from their incubators at a hospital and tossing them to the ground to die.

A later investigation revealed that PR giant Hill & Knowlton arranged her testimony for a client, Kuwaiti-sponsored Citizens for a Free Kuwait, and furthermore that Nayirah was the daughter of Kuwait’s Ambassador to the U.S., according to The New York Times.

Tom Lantos, a representative from California who co-founded the committee that heard Nayirah, coordinated the whole thing. Perhaps not coincidentally, his committee rented space in the PR firm’s headquarters at a reduced rate. Citizens for a Free Kuwait would go on to donate money to foundations with ties to said committee sometime after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

At first, Amnesty International affirmed the girl’s testimony. But after reinvestigation, the group and other human rights organizations switched positions. They didn’t necessarily question the accuracy, just her withheld bias.

Nayirah’s testimony helped build support for the Persian Gulf War, though Congress would have likely pursued involvement without her words.

The utter collapse of human civilization will be ‘difficult to avoid,’ NASA study says

The utter collapse of human civilization will be ‘difficult to avoid,’ NASA study says

by Tristin Hopper

After running the numbers on a set of four equations representing human society, a team of NASA-funded mathematicians has come to the grim conclusion that the utter collapse of human civilization will be “difficult to avoid.”

The exact scenario may vary, but in the coming decades humanity is essentially doomed to some variant of “Elites” consuming too much, “resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society.”

That is, unless civilization is ready for one of two “major policy changes”: inequality must be “greatly reduced” or population growth must be “strictly controlled.”

The apocalyptic pronouncements, set to be published in an upcoming edition of Ecological Economics, come courtesy of a U.S. team led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei and funded in part by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The otherwise obscure report was first made public in a recent column in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper in which environment writer Nafeez Ahmed warned that it constituted a “highly credible wake-up call” and declared that its menu of suggested policy changes were “required immediately.”

In the days since, environmentalists, socialists, hard-line U.S. Republicans and even survivalists have taken up the banner of the 32-page study.

Derrick O’Keefe, the Vancouver-based former editor of Rabble.ca, wrote in a Tuesday Twitter post that “this NASA-funded study makes case that future is socialism or extinction.” At about the same time, an anonymous commenter on M4Carbine.net declared “this is why I keep buying ammo.”

The study starts by reducing human civilization into four easy-to-toggle factors: Elites, Commoners, nature and wealth. The paper explains that this was done because “ecological strain” and “economic stratification” are the only two things that consistently plague collapsing societies.

Each factor was then assigned a complex mathematical equation and gathered together in what researchers called the HANDY (Human And Nature Dynamical) model.

The model was then configured to calculate the fate of several types of societies, including the “unequal society,” a system of rich and poor that researchers dubbed the one most “closely reflecting the reality of our world today.”

In the first scenario the population of elites suddenly spikes after 750 years, causing a “scarcity of workers” that sounds the civilization’s death knell by year 1000.

The second, “full collapse” scenario has the elites and commoners irreparably eating up the Earth’s resources after 350 years, leading to a slow bleed that destroys both humans and the planet by year 500.

“It is important to note that in both of these scenarios, the Elites — due to their wealth — do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners,” reads the paper.

“We could posit that this buffer of wealth … allows Elites to continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe,” it continues, suggesting that these kind of “oblivious elites” destroyed the Mayans and the Romans.

The only two scenarios that do not kill everyone, in fact, are the ones in which birth rates are either strictly controlled or “resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.”

The non-deadly scenarios “are designed to indicate the kinds of policies needed to avoid this catastrophic outcomes,” read the study.

The study is eerily reminiscent of the 19th century writings of English scholar Thomas Malthus, who concluded that without massive controls of the birth rate (preferably through abstinence), humanity was doomed to eat itself to famine and disaster.

Two hundred years of technological advances in agriculture, however, have made many of Malthus’ predictions somewhat moot.

But this time around, simply being modern and technologically advanced will not be enough, claims the Safa Motesharrei study, pointing to the likes of the Roman Empire as evidence that “advanced, sophisticated, complex and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.”

“Every civilization we know about has collapsed: the Maya, the Romans, Chinese dynasties, the Sumerians,” Debora MacKenzie, a Belgium-based Canadian journalist who has written about societal collapse for New Scientist, told the National Post by email.

“No one has simply made all the right choices and kept going, so it seems there’s something intrinsic to civilization itself.”

Among certain archaeological circles, though, the whole concept of a society collapsing is seen to be a tad dramatic.

Brendan Burke, Chair of Greek and Roman studies at the University of Victoria, told the National Post in an email that, regardless of the recent U.S. report, he remained “skeptical of the idea of total collapse.”

“I think that the periods in history that we call a ‘dark age’, meaning a period after a great ‘collapse’, is often just a period when little is known or has been investigated,” he wrote.