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Verne Troyer, best known as Mini-Me in "Austin Powers," has died

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Celebrities and no­table fig­ures who have re­cently passed (John Salangsang/Invision/AP)


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I founded Happy Cow Milk to make a difference in dairying. I failed.

He founded an eth­i­cal dairy­ing com­pany that would al­low calves to stay with their moth­ers. Last week, Glenn Herud had to ad­mit that his en­ter­prise had failed.

I’m a third gen­er­a­tion dairy farmer. The milk busi­ness is the only busi­ness I know. Four years ago I de­cided to find a way to do dairy in a more sus­tain­able way.

I know New Zealanders want this. They want the land treated bet­ter, they want rivers treated bet­ter, and they want an­i­mals treated bet­ter. And they would like the op­tion to buy their milk in some­thing other than plas­tic bot­tles.

I founded Happy Cow Milk to make a dif­fer­ence. But last week I had to ad­mit to my­self that I failed.

I made the de­ci­sion to shut down the busi­ness and I faced the hard truth that I haven’t re­ally made any dif­fer­ence at all. So what went wrong?

In a coun­try awash with milk — with so much in­vested — you’d think a few small changes would be easy. And you’d be wrong.

Let’s say you wanted to set up a new milk brand. You would ap­proach one of the two con­tract milk proces­sors in New Zealand. You’d ask, Can you do glass bot­tles?” And they’d say, No.”

In New Zealand, we can put beer, pasta sauce and even baby food into glass bot­tles, but not milk? No.

So def­i­nitely not reusable glass bot­tles? No.

So you’d ask, what about reusable milk cans or kegs to sup­ply cafes? Again. No.

New Zealand is now very well set up for dairy, but New Zealand dairy is not set up for sus­tain­abil­ity. The farmer, the proces­sor, the re­tailer — none of them are set up for sus­tain­abil­ity.

At this point you might just de­cide that there’s no way around this and put your milk in plas­tic bot­tles. This is what most smart peo­ple would do. But I know that most of the plas­tic milk bot­tles in New Zealand are not ac­tu­ally re­cy­cled. And so I built my own milk fac­tory.

I used two ship­ping con­tain­ers and all of my sav­ings. When the MPI in­spec­tor came, I told him we would be putting our milk in reusable bot­tles and milk cans. After a heavy bar­rage of no’s, I was pleas­antly sur­prised when he said, OK, cool.”

I taught my­self ba­sic process en­gi­neer­ing and mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy. I be­came an ex­pert in the Dairy Processing Code of Practice. My reusable pack­ag­ing hit the mar­kets and cafes and the cus­tomers loved it.

Next, we needed milk. Most milk brands go to Fonterra, which is re­quired by law to sell any com­peti­tor raw milk at the same price that Fonterra pay their farm­ers. When you are choos­ing a bot­tle of milk from the su­per­mar­ket, it’s al­most all Fonterra milk — even the fancy, ex­pen­sive ones.

I wanted to change the dairy in­dus­try and I was­n’t go­ing to do it by buy­ing milk from Fonterra.

So I ap­proached Canterbury farm­ers with a propo­si­tion. I of­fered to pay a 45% pre­mium if they would change a few farm­ing prac­tices and leave the calves with their moth­ers.

I thought they could do it with a small num­ber of the herd and that would in­crease over time. I did that pitch for five years with no tak­ers.

They said leav­ing calves with their moth­ers would­n’t work. And it does­n’t. Not on a con­ven­tional dairy farm, any­way. This is be­cause cows have to walk about 2km to the cow­shed & back again — two times a day.

It’s re­ally hard to walk a herd of cows with new­born ba­bies by their side for 2km down the lane and back again. The calves go un­der fences and then the moth­ers try and fol­low them. It’s chaos. When they do get to the shed, the calves are eas­ily crushed in the crowded hold­ing yard.

Smart peo­ple would just stop there.

But I was­n’t com­fort­able with the prac­tice of re­mov­ing calves from moth­ers and send­ing four-day-old calves to be slaugh­tered. I knew that if con­sumers re­ally un­der­stood this prac­tice, they would­n’t be com­fort­able with it ei­ther. And that day would come.

So I de­vel­oped a whole new way of milk­ing cows. I built a mo­bile cow­shed. We brought the cow­shed to the cows. The cows only have to walk about 30 me­tres to get milked. Once milked, they walk off the plat­form and back to the grass and their baby.

I can’t tell you how hard it was to de­velop that cow­shed and get it ap­proved by MPI. Getting there used up the last of my cap­i­tal.

But we were sell­ing milk and adding cus­tomers and we were fast ap­proach­ing our break-even point.

We strug­gled to con­vince large re­tail­ers to stock our milk in reusable bot­tles. Supermarkets are not re­ally set up to take empty bot­tles back. The ad­min proved cum­ber­some.

Retailers also saw us as a niche” prod­uct that cus­tomers would pay more for. They at­tached a high mar­gin and sud­denly the re­tail price was very high. Demand flat­tened and the break-even point stretched out fur­ther on the hori­zon.

We needed to scale the busi­ness to make it prof­itable. But with­out a smooth path to mar­ket, we could­n’t scale.

There was al­ways an easy so­lu­tion. We could’ve de­cided to be an­other milk brand in a plas­tic bot­tle. But this was­n’t the change I en­vi­sioned.

I com­pletely re­designed my farm to give peo­ple a sus­tain­able, eth­i­cal milk source. I built my own pro­cess­ing plant to give peo­ple sus­tain­able, reusable pack­ag­ing.

It’s easy to do a farm en­vi­ron­ment plan or use a re­cy­clable bot­tle. But these are just in­cre­men­tal changes and piece­meal com­mit­ments to sus­tain­abil­ity. Now it’s clear that to go fur­ther, I would have to re­design and build my own dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work so that we can get a large enough vol­ume of milk to cus­tomers at a rea­son­able price.

I worked out a plan with the help of ad­vi­sors at KPMG and I fig­ured out how much this new net­work would cost.

But last week I hit a wall. I’m out of money. I’m tired. My kids have not had a proper dad. And I’ve been a pretty poor hus­band. I de­cided to ad­mit that this is the end of the road.

On April 5, I typed a mes­sage on Facebook to say I was clos­ing down. I set out to prove that you can do dairy dif­fer­ently in NZ. But in re­al­ity you ac­tu­ally can’t — not with­out some se­ri­ous money be­hind you. Thank you all for your sup­port.”

By the end of the day, there were hun­dred of com­ments, of­fers of sup­port, sug­ges­tions for crowd­fund­ing. Designers, writ­ers, mar­keters I’d worked with of­fered to pitch in. I was over­whelmed.

And then my fa­tal flaw emerged. The one that got me past all those early no’s and sus­tained me through four years of hard graft — my re­lent­less op­ti­mism.

So 24 hours later, I was back on Facebook, sketch­ing out ideas on how Happy Cow V.2 might work.

Change is hard. You have to climb over a lot of no’s to get there. But this story might not be quite over.

If you would like to help our cause please con­sider sign­ing up for up­dates at hap­py­cowmilk.co.nz

The Spinoff’s busi­ness sec­tion is en­abled by our friends at Kiwibank. Kiwibank backs small to medium busi­nesses, so­cial en­ter­prises and Kiwis who in­no­vate to make good things hap­pen.

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New Zealand’s War on Rats Could Change the World

The first thing that hit me about Zealandia was the noise. I was a 15-minute drive from the cen­ter of Wellington, New Zealand’s cap­i­tal city, but in­stead of the honks of horns or the bus­tle of passersby, all I could hear was bird­song. It came in every fla­vor—res­o­nant coos, high-pitched cheeps, and alien notes that seemed to come from oth­er­worldly in­stru­ments.Much of New Zealand, in­clud­ing na­tional parks that sup­pos­edly epit­o­mize the con­cept of wilder­ness, has been so de­nuded of birds that their melodies feel like a rare gift—a fleet­ing thing to make note of be­fore it dis­ap­pears. But Zealandia is a unique 225-hectare ur­ban sanc­tu­ary into which many of the na­tion’s most crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species have been re­lo­cated. There, they are thriv­ing—and singing. There, their tunes are not a scarce trea­sure, but part of the world’s back­ground hum. There, I re­al­ized how the na­tion must have sounded be­fore it was in­vaded by mam­mals.

Until the 13th cen­tury, the only land mam­mals in New Zealand were bats. In this fur­less world, lo­cal birds evolved a docile tem­pera­ment. Many of them, like the iconic kiwi and the gi­ant kakapo par­rot, lost their pow­ers of flight. Gentle and grounded, they were easy prey for the rats, dogs, cats, stoats, weasels, and pos­sums that were later in­tro­duced by hu­mans. Between them, these preda­tors de­vour more than 26 mil­lion chicks and eggs every year. They have al­ready dri­ven a quar­ter of the na­tion’s unique birds to ex­tinc­tion. Many species now per­sist only in off­shore is­lands where rats and their ilk have been suc­cess­fully erad­i­cated, or in small main­land sites like Zealandia where they are en­cir­cled by preda­tor-proof fences. The songs in those sanc­tu­ar­ies are echoes of the New Zealand that was.But per­haps, they also rep­re­sent the New Zealand that could be.“It’s crazy but it’s am­bi­tious, and I think it might be worth a shot. I think it’s our great chal­lenge.”In re­cent years, many of the coun­try’s con­ser­va­tion­ists and res­i­dents have ral­lied be­hind Predator-Free 2050, an ex­tra­or­di­nar­ily am­bi­tious plan to save the coun­try’s birds by erad­i­cat­ing its in­va­sive preda­tors. Native birds of prey will be un­harmed, but Predator-Free 2050’s re­search strat­egy, which is re­leased to­day, spells doom for rats, pos­sums, and stoats (a large weasel). They are to die, every last one of them. No coun­try, any­where in the world, has man­aged such a task in an area that big. The largest is­land ever cleared of rats, Australia’s Macquarie Island, is just 50 square miles in size. New Zealand is 2,000 times big­ger. But, the coun­try has com­mit­ted to ful­fill­ing its eco­log­i­cal moon­shot within three decades.

Beginning as a grass­roots move­ment, Predator-Free 2050 has picked up huge pub­lic sup­port and of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment back­ing. Former Minister for Conservation Maggie Barry once de­scribed the ini­tia­tive as the most im­por­tant con­ser­va­tion pro­ject in the his­tory of our coun­try.” If it works, Zealandia’s fence would be ir­rel­e­vant; the en­tire na­tion would be a song-filled sanc­tu­ary where ki­wis trun­dle un­threat­ened and kaka­pos once again boom through the night. By co­in­ci­dence, the rise of the Predator-Free 2050 con­ceit took place along­side the birth of a tool that could help make it a re­al­ity—CRISPR, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary tech­nique that al­lows sci­en­tists to edit genes with pre­ci­sion and ease. In its raw power, some con­ser­va­tion­ists see a way of achiev­ing im­pos­si­ble-sound­ing feats like ex­ter­mi­nat­ing an is­land’s rats by spread­ing genes through the wild pop­u­la­tion that make it dif­fi­cult for the an­i­mals to re­pro­duce. Think Children of Men, but for rats. Other sci­en­tists, in­clud­ing at least one gene-edit­ing pi­o­neer, see the po­ten­tial for eco­log­i­cal cat­a­stro­phe, be­gin­ning in an is­land na­tion with good in­ten­tions but even­tu­ally en­velop­ing the globe.In 2007, a re­tiree named Les Kelly re­turned to New Zealand af­ter 25 years of work­ing in Australia, and marked his home­com­ing with a four-month walk­ing tour. And dur­ing that time, he re­al­ized that some­thing had gone hor­ri­bly wrong. The birds he re­mem­bered from his youth were gone. Learning that in­tro­duced pests were re­spon­si­ble, he con­ceived a bold plan to purge them and cham­pi­oned it through a self-cre­ated lobby group called Predator-Free New Zealand. Word got around, and in 2011, a re­gion­ally fa­mous physi­cist named Paul Callaghan men­tioned the idea in a rous­ing speech at Zealandia. It can be done,” he said. It’s crazy but it’s am­bi­tious, and I think it might be worth a shot. I think it’s our great chal­lenge.”

Callaghan died a few months later, but those words, de­liv­ered by a well-liked celebrity, kept gath­er­ing mo­men­tum. They cer­tainly lit a fire in James Russell, a young ecol­o­gist who was born and raised in New Zealand. I grew up in sub­ur­ban Auckland with kakariki—these re­ally rare para­keets that my mother raised,” he tells me. Now, rats kill most of them, and it breaks my heart.” In 2015, he and three col­leagues wrote a pa­per in which they laid out the ben­e­fits of erad­i­cat­ing pests na­tion­wide, and es­ti­mated that a 50-year scheme would cost 9 bil­lion NZD ($6 bil­lion).From there, the idea be­came a move­ment. It stopped be­ing as­pi­ra­tional,” Russell says. The gov­ern­ment got on board, set­ting up a lim­ited com­pany to ad­min­is­ter an ini­tial $28 mil­lion NZD worth of funds. The pub­lic em­braced the idea, too. People who had been in­di­vid­u­ally try­ing to con­trol in­va­sive preda­tors on their own land found com­mon cause be­hind a uni­fy­ing theme.“It was pro­foundly wrong of me to even sug­gest it.”There are, of course, naysay­ers. Some ac­cuse the ini­tia­tive of eco­log­i­cal xeno­pho­bia, un­fairly per­se­cut­ing crea­tures that did­n’t hail from New Zealand but sure as hell are part of it now. But Russell notes that these dis­placed preda­tors are still wreak­ing havoc. Something is go­ing to die,” he says. Either a bird is go­ing to be killed by a rat that we brought here, or we’re go­ing to kill the rat. And I would rather hu­manely kill the rat than have the rat in­hu­manely kill a bird.”

Other skep­tics say that the task is sim­ply too huge. So far, con­ser­va­tion­ists have suc­cess­fully erad­i­cated mam­mals from 100 small is­lands, but these rep­re­sent just 10 per­cent of the off­shore area, and just 0.2 per­cent of the far larger main­land. It’s one thing to cull pests on small, wa­ter­locked pim­ples of land whose forests are al­most en­tirely owned by the gov­ern­ment. It’s quite an­other to re­peat the feat in con­tin­u­ous stretches of land, dot­ted by cities and pri­vate homes. But Russell, ever the op­ti­mist, notes that the daunt­ing as­cent ahead should­n’t dis­tract peo­ple from the path al­ready climbed. In 1963, af­ter decades of un­suc­cess­fully try­ing to save birds from in­va­sive preda­tors, the leg­endary con­ser­va­tion­ist Don Merton fi­nally di­vested a tiny is­land of its rats, by poi­son­ing them by hand. In later decades, when the Department of Conservation started drop­ping poi­soned bait by he­li­copter, larger is­lands be­came rat-free. Heavily vis­ited is­lands just off the coast of Auckland were cleared. The main­land is a much big­ger chal­lenge but one that could be tack­led grad­u­ally, by cre­at­ing large sanc­tu­ar­ies like Zealandia and slowly ex­pand­ing them. This is a 2050 as­pi­ra­tion,” says Russell. It’s not go­ing to be solved in 3 to 5 years.”“It has be­come less about tech­ni­cal fea­si­bil­ity but about cost,” he adds. We could just use the tech to­day but it would be in­fi­nitely ex­pen­sive. We need new con­trol tech­niques that would be or­ders of mag­ni­tude cheaper. And that’s when we get into ques­tions about CRISPR.”

In 2014, Kevin Esvelt, a bi­ol­o­gist at MIT, drew a Venn di­a­gram that trou­bles him to this day. In it, he and his col­leagues laid out sev­eral pos­si­ble uses for gene dri­ves—a nascent tech­nol­ogy for spread­ing de­signer genes through groups of wild an­i­mals. Typically, a given gene has a 50-50 chance of be­ing passed to the next gen­er­a­tion. But gene dri­ves turn that coin toss into a guar­an­tee, al­low­ing traits to zoom through pop­u­la­tions in just a few gen­er­a­tions. There are a few nat­ural ex­am­ples, but with CRISPR, sci­en­tists can de­lib­er­ately en­gi­neer such dri­ves. Suppose you have a pop­u­la­tion of rats, roughly half of which are brown, and the other half white. Now, imag­ine there is a gene that af­fects each rat’s color. It comes in two forms, one lead­ing to brown fur, and the other lead­ing to white fur. A male with two brown copies mates with a fe­male with two white copies, and all their off­spring in­herit one of each. Those off­spring breed them­selves, and the brown and white genes con­tinue cas­cad­ing through the gen­er­a­tions in a 50-50 split. This is the usual story of in­her­i­tance. But you can sub­vert it with CRISPR, by pro­gram­ming the brown gene to cut its coun­ter­part and re­place it with an­other copy of it­self. Now, the rats’ chil­dren are all brown-furred, as are their grand­chil­dren, and soon the whole pop­u­la­tion is brown.For­get fur. The same tech­nique could spread an an­ti­malar­ial gene through a mos­quito pop­u­la­tion, or drought-re­sis­tance through crop plants. The ap­pli­ca­tions are vast, but so are the risks. In the­ory, gene dri­ves spread so quickly and re­lent­lessly that they could rewrite an en­tire wild pop­u­la­tion, and once re­leased, they would be hard to con­tain. If the con­cept of mod­i­fy­ing the genes of or­gan­isms is al­ready dis­taste­ful to some, gene dri­ves mag­nify that dis­taste across na­tional, con­ti­nen­tal, and per­haps even global scales.

Esvelt un­der­stood that from the be­gin­ning. In an early pa­per dis­cussing gene dri­ves, he and his col­leagues dis­cussed the risks, and sug­gested sev­eral safe­guards. But they also in­cluded a pretty Venn di­a­gram that out­lined sev­eral pos­si­ble ap­pli­ca­tions, in­clud­ing us­ing gene dri­ves to con­trol in­va­sive species—like rats. That was ex­actly the kind of in­no­va­tion that New Zealand was af­ter. You could spread a gene that messes with the ro­den­t’s fer­til­ity, or that bi­ases them to­ward one sex or the other. Without need for poi­sons or traps, their pop­u­la­tion would even­tu­ally crash. Please don’t do it, says Esvelt. It was pro­foundly wrong of me to even sug­gest it, be­cause I badly mis­led many con­ser­va­tion­ists who are des­per­ately in need of hope. It was an em­bar­rass­ing mis­take.”Through math­e­mat­i­cal sim­u­la­tions con­ducted with col­leagues at Harvard, he has now shown that gene dri­ves are even more in­va­sive than he ex­pected. Even the weak­est CRISPR-based gene dri­ves would thor­oughly in­vade wild pop­u­la­tions, if just a few car­ri­ers were re­leased. They’re so pow­er­ful that Esvelt says they should­n’t be tested on a small scale. If con­ser­va­tion­ists tried to elim­i­nate rats on a re­mote is­land us­ing gene dri­ves, it would only take a few strongly swim­ming ro­dents to spread the drive to the main­land—and be­yond. You can­not sim­ply se­quester them and wall them off from the wider world,” Esvelt says. They’ll even­tu­ally spread through­out the full range of the species they tar­get. And if that species is the brown rat, you’re talk­ing about the en­tire planet.

Together with Neil Gemmell from the University of Otago, who is ad­vis­ing Predator-Free 2050, Esvelt has writ­ten an opin­ion piece ex­plic­itly ask­ing con­ser­va­tion­ists to steer clear of stan­dard gene dri­ves. We want to re­ally drive home—ha ha—that this is a tech­nol­ogy that is­n’t suit­able for the vast ma­jor­ity of po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tions that peo­ple imag­ine for it,” he says. (The only pos­si­ble ex­cep­tions, he says, are elim­i­nat­ing cer­tain dis­eases like malaria and schis­to­so­mi­a­sis, which af­fect hun­dreds of mil­lions of lives and have proven hard to con­trol.)It’s not ready yet, ei­ther. Even if gene dri­ves were given a green light to­day, Gemmell says it would take at least 2 to 3 years to de­velop car­rier an­i­mals, an­other 2 years to test those in­di­vid­u­als in a lab, and sev­eral years more to set up a small field trial. And these tech­ni­cal hur­dles pale in com­par­i­son to the po­lit­i­cal ones. Rats are ver­min to many cul­tures, but they’re also holy to some, and they’re likely to be cru­cial parts of many ecosys­tems around the world. Eradicating them is not some­thing that any sin­gle na­tion could do uni­lat­er­ally. It would have to be a global de­ci­sion—and that’s un­likely. Consider how much ef­fort it has taken to reach in­ter­na­tional agree­ments about cli­mate change—an­other cri­sis in which the ac­tions of cer­tain na­tions have dis­pro­por­tion­ately re­shaped the ecosys­tems of the en­tire world. Genetic tools have now be­come so pow­er­ful that they could trig­ger sim­i­lar changes, but faster and per­haps more ir­re­versibly.

In a global so­ci­ety, we can’t act in iso­la­tion,” says Gemmell. Some of these tools we’re think­ing about de­vel­op­ing will cross in­ter­na­tional bor­ders. New Zealand is an is­land na­tion rel­a­tively iso­lated from every­one else, but what if this was a con­ver­sa­tion hap­pen­ing in the United States about erad­i­cat­ing ro­dents? What if Canadians and Mexicans had a dif­fer­ent view? This is some­thing that should be ad­dressed.”“Māori tend to have a pre­cau­tion­ary ap­proach be­cause we’ve al­ready had many cases of wrong­do­ing for the right rea­sons.”Rus­sell agrees with a pre­cau­tion­ary ap­proach but he is­n’t ready to dis­miss gene dri­ves yet. For a start, he feels that Esvelt’s sim­u­la­tions over­es­ti­mate the risk that such dri­ves would es­tab­lish them­selves in the wild. Yes, rats are very good at trav­el­ing and col­o­niz­ing new lands, but they’re sur­pris­ingly bad at in­vad­ing places where other rats al­ready ex­ist. Rats have a strong in­cum­bent ad­van­tage,” he says. You re­ally have to in­tro­duce a lot of in­di­vid­u­als” for them to suc­cess­fully in­vade an al­ready-es­tab­lished pop­u­la­tion. Esvelt thinks that peo­ple would do ex­actly that. Gene-drive rats may not be able to swim or stow away in suf­fi­cient num­bers to oc­cupy new lands, but peo­ple could carry them. There is prece­dent for this: In 1997, farm­ers il­le­gally smug­gled a he­m­or­rhagic virus into New Zealand to con­trol rab­bit pests. They could just as eas­ily smug­gle gene-drive rats in the other di­rec­tion, to con­trol the ro­dents in their own par­tic­u­lar cor­ners of the world. New Zealand has very good biose­cu­rity but it’s mostly fo­cused on stop­ping things from get­ting in,” says Gemmell. I’m not sure we’re that good at stop­ping things from get­ting out.”

If gene dri­ves are de­ployed, it’s not un­rea­son­able to imag­ine a black mar­ket in ge­netic ro­den­ti­cide, which is ex­actly the kind of de­lib­er­ate malfea­sance that Esvelt says sci­en­tists rarely an­tic­i­pate. We don’t con­sider every­thing that will hap­pen when tech­nol­ogy gets in touch with re­al­ity,” he says. All of this as­sumes that genes dri­ves would be used to spread genes that kill or sup­press pests out­right. Instead, con­ser­va­tion­ists could use them to spread genes that are tied to par­tic­u­lar ecosys­tems. Imagine giv­ing all rats in New Zealand a peanut but­ter al­lergy, and then we feed them all peanut but­ter,” Russell says. Well sure,” Esvelt coun­ters, but then you’ve just con­verted all the rats in the world into GMOs with­out ask­ing other coun­tries.” The same prob­lem re­mains: How do you keep the mod­i­fi­ca­tion from spread­ing be­yond New Zealand?Esvelt is work­ing on a cou­ple of tricks for cor­ralling the awe­some power of gene dri­ves. In a ba­sic gene drive, a cho­sen gene has all the com­po­nents it needs to spread it­self. But you could split those com­po­nents be­tween sev­eral genes that are con­nected in a daisy chain, so that gene C is dri­ven by gene B, B is dri­ven by A, and A is dri­ven by noth­ing. If rats with these genes were re­leased into the wild, the A-carriers would ini­tially spread the B and C genes, but would even­tu­ally dis­ap­pear them­selves. After they go, B would fol­low. Ultimately, so would C. These daisy dri­ves,” as Esvelt calls them, are self-ex­haust­ing. They’re de­signed to run out of steam. If they work, they are tools that coun­tries could jus­ti­fi­ably use with­out in­volv­ing the en­tire world.

To be clear, de­spite the buzz around gene dri­ves in New Zealand’s con­ser­va­tion cir­cles, there are no con­crete plans to ac­tu­ally use them. There is cur­rently no re­search be­ing con­ducted in New Zealand to de­velop gene dri­ves for Predator-Free tar­gets, nor are there any plans for such re­search in the near fu­ture,” says Andrea Byrom, di­rec­tor of New Zealand’s Biological-Heritage National Science Challenge. Indeed, Predator-Free 2050’s re­search strat­egy men­tions only the most ex­ploratory of steps, such as se­quenc­ing the genomes of lo­cal rats, talk­ing to in­ter­na­tional ex­perts like Esvelt, and run­ning math­e­mat­i­cal sim­u­la­tions. Genuine re­search into the dri­ves them­selves would­n’t be­gin any ear­lier than 2020, and would de­pend on technological hur­dles be­ing sur­mounted, sup­port­ive pol­icy, and New Zealand/international ap­petite to pro­ceed.”The group has also funded so­cial re­search look­ing into how New Zealanders feel about us­ing ge­netic tech­nolo­gies to con­trol pests. That’s the right or­der, Byrom says: Work out what peo­ple want, and act ac­cord­ingly. The first re­sults, pub­lished this week, showed that 32 per­cent of the 8,000 peo­ple sur­veyed were com­fort­able with tech­nolo­gies like gene dri­ves, 18 per­cent felt that they should never be used, and 50 per­cent were un­de­cided or wanted strong con­trols.“Con­ser­va­tion must be some­thing that hap­pens not just in na­tional parks and the back­coun­try, but in peo­ple’s back­yards.”Much of this work has been done in con­sul­ta­tion with Māori sci­en­tists and tribal lead­ers. But the con­ver­sa­tion hap­pens in pock­ets, around net­works that sci­en­tists have,” says Maui Hudson from the University of Waikato, who stud­ies Māori re­search ethics. That’s good for work­ing out the Māori per­spec­tive on gene dri­ves, but not for ac­tu­ally en­gag­ing those com­mu­ni­ties in the de­bate about the risks. Aroha Te Pareake Mead, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist who has stud­ied in­dige­nous per­spec­tives on biotech­nol­ogy, agrees that there has­n’t yet been a ro­bust and far-rang­ing dis­cus­sion with Māori groups (iwi). The idea of a preda­tor-free New Zealand is widely en­dorsed through­out Māoridom,” she says. It fits with the con­cept of kaiti­aki or guardian­ship—the im­per­a­tive to pro­tect one’s bi­o­log­i­cal her­itage. But the means of achiev­ing that goal are more con­tentious.“We’ve had many ini­tia­tives over the years that have sought to ad­dress en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns, with un­in­tended detri­men­tal con­se­quences,” Mead says. Māori tend to have a pre­cau­tion­ary ap­proach be­cause we’ve al­ready had many cases of wrong­do­ing for the right rea­sons. Generally speak­ing, we are sus­pi­cious of any kind of ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion.”

Despite those reser­va­tions, she en­joyed meet­ing Esvelt two months ago, when he spoke about daisy dri­ves at a com­mu­nity meet­ing. I found him to be re­fresh­ing as a sci­en­tist,” she says. He was­n’t de­fen­sive and he thought that ques­tion­ing the risks was es­sen­tial. That gave the Māori who were pre­sent a lot of com­fort be­cause we’re used to a very dif­fer­ent type of ge­neti­cist who comes in, says this is the best thing since sliced bread, and if you ques­tion it, you’re ig­no­rant and you don’t know the sci­ence. We want to be given a range of tools and to make an in­formed de­ci­sion about the best one for the pur­pose.”Gene dri­ves are not the only game in town. The peo­ple be­hind Predator-Free 2050 are also work­ing on ways of up­grad­ing tried-and-tested tech­nol­ogy. The most com­monly used traps, for ex­am­ple, are sim­ple one-use de­vices that must be man­u­ally checked and re­set. But some com­pa­nies have made self-re­set­ting traps that can re­peat­edly kill dozens of rats with a gas-pow­ered pis­ton to the head, or traps that can spray 100 stoats with tox­ins be­fore need­ing to be re­set. Others are de­vel­op­ing sen­sors that will tell trap­pers when their snares have snagged an an­i­mal, so they don’t have to la­bo­ri­ously check every one. These traps are typ­i­cally baited with food, but food goes off in the field and must be fre­quently re­stocked. Ironically, it also be­comes less ef­fec­tive in well-pro­tected ar­eas where ac­tual prey are com­mon. But stoats, it turns out, are far more at­tracted to the scent of fer­rets—a fel­low species of weasel—than they are to food smells. Scientists are now try­ing to iso­late the chem­i­cals that make Eau de Ferret so en­tic­ing, to turn them into a su­per-lure.

Aerial drops of 1080 poi­son, which have freed so many is­lands from preda­tors, will al­most cer­tainly be part of any main­land cam­paign. Its use is con­tro­ver­sial: It can harm the play­ful kea par­rot, and the oc­ca­sional un­wary pet dog. But con­ser­va­tion­ists could de­ploy poi­sons more ef­fec­tively if they had bet­ter ways of de­tect­ing pests, like foot­pad sen­sors that could track a ro­den­t’s foot­falls, or cam­eras whose im­ages are au­to­mat­i­cally an­a­lyzed by ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. One team is also try­ing to de­velop more spe­cific tox­ins, by an­a­lyz­ing the genome of pos­sums to find chem­i­cals that will af­fect them alone. And Russell be­lieves that for Predator-Free 2050 to suc­ceed, it has to mar­shal the most ef­fec­tive tool around: hu­man en­thu­si­asm. Thousands of vol­un­teer groups al­ready ex­ist around the coun­try, mon­i­tor­ing for in­va­sive species and set­ting traps. That kind of fer­vor has to spread, es­pe­cially if mam­mals are to be ex­iled from cities. Any pock­ets of re­sis­tance or ap­a­thy would cre­ate strong­holds where pests could thrive. Conservation must be some­thing that hap­pens not just in na­tional parks and the back­coun­try, but in peo­ple’s back­yards,” Russell says. They not only al­low it but par­tic­i­pate in it.”Re­gard­less of the tech­nol­ogy that Predator-Free 2050 even­tu­ally set­tles on, there’s no ques­tion that such mea­sures are needed. Consider the kakapo—New Zealand’s en­dear­ing, bum­bling, gi­ant, flight­less par­rot. In the 1960s, peo­ple thought it was ex­tinct. Now, af­ter the dis­cov­ery of a sur­viv­ing pop­u­la­tion and three decades of in­tense work, the pop­u­la­tion stands at 153.

How to Raise the Rarest Kiwi

Every One Of These Endearing Parrots Will Have Its Genome Sequenced

The adults have been re­lo­cated to preda­tor-free is­lands, but in terms of large sites that would hold a de­cent pop­u­la­tion, we’ve sat­u­rated the mar­ket,” says Deidre Vercoe, a man­ager at the Kakapo Recovery pro­gram. Her team will have to start re­leas­ing the birds into places where stoats and rats are still a threat. If Predator-Free 2050 achieved its goal, they could do so with re­laxed smiles rather than grit­ted teeth. Even if Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third-largest is­land, could be stripped of preda­tors, it would be an an­swer for kakapo for many, many years,” she says.New Zealand is far from the only coun­try grap­pling with these is­sues. Over the last seven cen­turies, 60 per­cent of the ver­te­brates that have dis­ap­peared from the planet have dis­ap­peared from is­lands—and in half of those cases, in­va­sive species are the cul­prits. If Predator-Free 2050 makes the right choices, it can in­deed change the world—but not with an un­stop­pable wave of gene-drive ro­dents. Instead, it’ll show other na­tions that is­lands can be pro­tected, that in­va­sive pests can be erad­i­cated, that van­ish­ing wildlife can be saved—even at scales once thought im­pos­si­ble.“Even if we don’t get to the fin­ish line, the fact that we ran most of the marathon will be pretty damn im­pres­sive,” says Russell.


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Blind since birth, writing code at Amazon since 2013

Click for an ex­tended edi­tion of the video with au­dio de­scrip­tions

Michael Forzano loves when his team­mates ask him for help. There’s no ego in­volved — far from it. For Forzano, it’s the pure sat­is­fac­tion that he is right where he be­longs, writ­ing code at Amazon.

I do feel like I have to prove my­self a lot in life,” said Forzano, a 26-year-old soft­ware en­gi­neer on the re­tail ac­ces­si­bil­ity team. But not at Amazon. People have been so open minded here.”

Forzano has been blind since birth as the re­sult of a ge­netic con­di­tion called Norrie dis­ease. I def­i­nitely had a pretty nor­mal child­hood de­spite my blind­ness,” said Forzano. My par­ents al­ways tried to make sure I was able to do the same things that any­one else would do.”

Forzano also started los­ing his hear­ing at the age of five and uses cochlear im­plants to hear. As a teenager, he be­came in­ter­ested in au­dio games, which are au­dio-based com­puter games, and taught him­self how to pro­gram. He went on to Binghamton University, where he played sax in the pep band and earned a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in com­puter sci­ence.

Right out of col­lege, he in­ter­viewed to be­come a soft­ware en­gi­neer at Amazon. He walked in the door, re­vealed to the in­ter­view­ers that he was blind, and earned him­self a job by im­press­ing them with the code he wrote on his lap­top.

I re­mem­ber when I told my mom that I got the (job) of­fer, she started cry­ing right there on the phone,” said Forzano. At Amazon, he writes code that helps other teams make shop­ping on Amazon more ac­ces­si­ble to peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

Today, the New York na­tive lives with his guide dog, Delta, in down­town Seattle, where he rel­ishes his in­de­pen­dence.

Erik Wang, a fel­low soft­ware de­vel­oper at Amazon, said Forzano reads and writes code even faster than me. He has su­per­pow­ers to spot flaws in the code.”

Forzano said he has a good mental map of the struc­ture of the code,” which al­lows him to help col­leagues and pro­vide unique feed­back to his team.

I feel re­ally lucky to be here at Amazon, just be­ing able to live the same kind of life that any­one else would. Not let­ting my blind­ness hold me back is re­ally em­pow­er­ing.”

Forzano works on a stan­dard lap­top with screen-reader soft­ware, which trans­lates every as­pect of us­ing a com­puter into au­dio cues.

I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant for other blind peo­ple to know what I have done,” Forzano said. There are prob­a­bly a lot of blind peo­ple out there won­der­ing how far they’ll go and what they will be able to do. I def­i­nitely do all I can to make my­self avail­able, as a role model, and let the world know.”

On be­com­ing in­ter­ested in com­put­ers (transcript): So I got in­ter­ested in com­put­ers when I was in high school. I knew a com­mu­nity of blind peo­ple on­line and some of them were de­vel­op­ers, re­ally just as a hobby not as a ca­reer. But one of them in­tro­duced me to pro­gram­ming, specif­i­cally pro­gram­ming games. I was very in­ter­ested in pro­gram­ming au­dio games, which were ba­si­cally games that use sound ef­fects and are con­trolled us­ing the key­board and al­low blind peo­ple to play them. I met this per­son who was a game de­vel­oper and in­tro­duced me to pro­gram­ming, and I just took it from there and taught my­self.”

On his job in­ter­view at Amazon (transcript): I sent in my ap­pli­ca­tion. I was in­ter­viewed on cam­pus. They sent some de­vel­op­ers out to do in­ter­views, and I went in there not ex­pect­ing much. I had not told them in ad­vance that I was blind. I just brought in my lap­top and said, Hey, I’m blind. Can I use my lap­top in­stead of a white­board to write my code for the in­ter­view?’ And they were like, sure no prob­lem. So I did my thing and was ex­tended an of­fer to come to Seattle. My par­ents are re­ally proud. I re­mem­ber when I told my mom that I got the of­fer, she started cry­ing right there on the phone.”

On cod­ing (transcript): At Amazon I work on the Retail Accessibility team. We build tools that help other teams who are build­ing the fea­tures on the web­site to make sure that they are ac­ces­si­ble to cus­tomers with dis­abil­i­ties. I know that my co-work­ers of­ten ask me, Can you tell me how this works?’ Because I have a pretty good men­tal map of the struc­ture of the code and where things are and what part of the sys­tem this par­tic­u­lar com­po­nent is in, or the over­all ar­chi­tec­ture of the sys­tem. I’ve got it in my head. I can tell some­one how some­thing works, where some­thing is, whereas I feel like a lot of my cowork­ers are re­ly­ing on white-board­ing and draw­ing di­a­grams, which is pretty typ­i­cal, I would say, for peo­ple with vi­sion, be­cause they are of­ten vi­sual learn­ers, and just vi­su­ally ori­ented peo­ple. I’ve never had that, so I’ve been able to, I guess, use my brain power to do things non-vi­su­ally.”


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I was one of the first people on Facebook. I shouldn't have trusted Mark Zuckerberg

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Players Have Crowned A New Best Board Game — And It May Be Tough To Topple

If we’re liv­ing in a golden age of board games, then the web­site BoardGameGeek is the in­ter­net’s sift­ing pan. The bounty of games over­floweth — one can now sit down at a table with friends and set­tle strange and boun­ti­ful is­lands, fight Cold Wars and ter­raform Mars. BoardGameGeek helps sort through it all, a kind of ar­biter of pop­u­lar taste.

A new game now tops those rank­ings: It’s called Gloomhaven, and it’s the cur­rent BoardGameGeek No. 1, hav­ing taken over the top spot this past win­ter. The game has won scads of awards, in­clud­ing more than a hand­ful of Golden Geeks and a Scelto dai Goblin — the gob­lins’ choice. Its place atop the BoardGameGeek list ce­ments its sta­tus as a flag­ship of the cur­rent golden age.

The BoardGameGeek list is valu­able real es­tate in high-end board gam­ing, and the No. 1 spot is, of course, the prime po­si­tion — Boardwalk, if you will. Only seven games have oc­cu­pied it since the site launched in 2000. The seven No. 1s are a mot­ley bunch, in­clud­ing a civ­i­liza­tion-build­ing game set in the an­cient fer­tile cres­cent and a war game set in the 1910s. But they all have some­thing that speaks to what’s en vogue among the kind of peo­ple who go on­line to rate board games: in­ten­sive strat­egy.

But the site rec­og­nizes that its most highly rated games aren’t all for every­one. As with any other medium — books, movies, mu­sic, etc. — you can’t just pick what­ever is rated No. 1 on some chart and ex­pect it to pro­vide a great ex­pe­ri­ence for you,” said W. Eric Martin, a BoardGameGeek news ed­i­tor. You should look for games that match your in­ter­ests.”

Now it’s Gloomhaven’s turn to try to in­ter­est you. Years ago, Isaac Childres, the game’s de­signer, like many bud­ding board gamers, got his start in serious” gam­ing with Settlers of Catan, then logged on to BoardGameGeek and worked his way down its em­pir­i­cally ranked list: the strate­gic farm­ing of Agricola, the cap­i­tal­is­tic in­fra­struc­ture of Power Grid, the cas­tle build­ing of Caylus. The list, in many ways, dic­tates board-game cul­ture. It rep­re­sents an ag­gre­gated con­sen­sus of early adopters and fer­vent fa­nat­ics, which then trick­les down to the broader gam­ing pub­lic — and to fu­ture star game de­sign­ers of top-ranked games.

In Gloomhaven (which re­tails for $215), players will take on the role of a wan­der­ing mer­ce­nary with their own spe­cial set of skills and their own rea­sons for trav­el­ing to this re­mote cor­ner of the world. Players must work to­gether out of ne­ces­sity to clear out men­ac­ing dun­geons and for­got­ten ru­ins.” The game’s web­site likens it to a Choose Your Own Adventure” novel. Just don’t for­get your swords or spells. Childres at­trib­utes his game’s suc­cess, at least among the hard­core denizens of BoardGameGeek, to the way it im­proves on the ap­peal of the role­play­ing of Dungeons & Dragons, in which crawl­ing dun­geons can be­come rote. In Gloomhaven, you have spe­cial abil­i­ties that you can use over and over, and once you use them, you can watch them make cool stuff hap­pen. It’s heavy on the fun stuff, rather than the grind of rep­e­ti­tious orc slay­ing, and as the BoardGameGeek leader­board shows, gamers are ap­pre­cia­tive.

The BoardGameGeek rank­ings, sim­i­lar to movie rank­ings on IMDb, are based on user rat­ings, which run from 1 to 10. Gloomhaven (8.62 Geek Rating) ben­e­fits from rat­ings that are ex­tremely heavy on the 10s — more than half of its raters gave it that max­i­mum score. Contrast this with for­mer No. 1s such as Agricola, whose rat­ings fol­low a more ex­pected bell curve that’s cen­tered around 8, or Twilight Struggle, which is about equally weighted on 8s, 9s and 10s. Only Pandemic Legacy, the No. 1 be­fore Gloomhaven took over, is nearly as heavy on the 10-point rat­ings. Even still, Gloomhaven’s av­er­age user rat­ing (which is slightly dif­fer­ent from its Geek Rating) is a full 0.35 points higher than the sec­ond-place game, which may help it ce­ment a lengthy legacy.

Most of the older No. 1s took a while to climb there, hav­ing been re­leased years ear­lier and hav­ing slowly earned enough high rat­ings from loyal fans to rise to the top. Gloomhaven has been dif­fer­ent: It was re­leased just last year, and even then only to its Kickstarter back­ers. It is­n’t avail­able for wide pub­lic sale quite yet. So its raters so far are likely a spe­cific sub­set of the gam­ing cul­ture — peo­ple who find the con­cept so ap­peal­ing that they were will­ing to shell out cash for a game that did­n’t ex­ist yet. For the most part, peo­ple don’t rate games that they haven’t played,” Martin said.

Given Gloomhaven’s dra­mat­i­cally skewed rat­ings, are the geeks run­ning out of room atop their list? As the top Geek Rating inches closer and closer to the per­fect 10, it will be­come harder and harder to dis­lodge the No. 1. The game has its haters, of course. Very over hyped game,” one user wrote this month, rat­ing it a 3. But those who hope to see it ousted, and to see their fa­vorite to take over, may have a while, or an eter­nity, to wait. When you’re rat­ing on a 1-to-10 scale, a game can only go so high, af­ter all.

But there will al­ways be in­cre­men­tal progress, in hu­man en­deavor gen­er­ally and in board game de­sign specif­i­cally. Human ath­leti­cism al­ways seems to be in­creas­ing,” Childres said. There’s al­ways some­one who is able to reach far­ther and far­ther lim­its, for what­ever rea­son, maybe some small-scale hu­man evo­lu­tion. Board games are evolv­ing as well, stand­ing on the shoul­ders of the great games and it­er­at­ing on them.”

Read more: The Worst Board Games Ever Invented


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Go Medieval by Attaching a Book to Your Belt

Girdle books had to be small, and they had to be light. From the bot­tom edges of their bind­ings ex­tended an length of leather, usu­ally gath­ered into a knot at the end. This ex­ten­sion of the cover could be used to carry the book like a purse or could be tucked into a gir­dle or belt. To read, the owner would­n’t even have to de­tach the book; when taken up, the book would be ori­ented cor­rectly, just as if it had been pulled from a shelf.

Used from the 14th to 17th cen­turies, these books were texts that their own­ers needed to keep close at hand: prayer books used by monks and nuns, for ex­am­ple, or law books used by trav­el­ing judges. Though they were valu­able ob­jects—lux­u­ries, even—these books were meant to be con­sulted and read.

These are books that needed to be spe­cially pro­tected be­cause of a lot of use, a lot of wear. Most of them were prob­a­bly used daily,” says Margit J. Smith, au­thor of The Medieval Girdle Book. How many books do you have in your col­lec­tion that you use every day?”

Girdle books were once com­mon enough that they ap­pear more than 800 times in paint­ings and other art of the pe­riod. But to­day there are just 26 gir­dle books known in the world. In her book, a cat­a­logue of what she calls relics of an age long gone by,” Smith has mea­sured, pho­tographed, and in­ves­ti­gated the his­tory of each one.

Smith, a book­binder and re­tired li­brar­ian who was the head of cat­a­logu­ing and preser­va­tion at the University of San Diego’s Copley Library, first be­came in­ter­ested in gir­dle books 15 years ago, and she took a class in Montefiascone, Italy, to learn how to make one. In her prepa­ra­tions, she found that there was lit­tle schol­arly work—lit­tle in­for­ma­tion at all, re­ally—on these once rel­a­tively com­mon ob­jects.

The class took place in sum­mer, and usu­ally, af­ter their work was over, the group would go for a dip in the nearby lake. On one of these ex­cur­sions, Smith was ask­ing an in­struc­tor, Jim Bloxam, where to find more re­search about the books; to­gether, they de­cided to start col­lect­ing im­ages of all known me­dieval gir­dle books—just 24 at that time. After some years of work, Bloxam, a con­ser­va­tor at Cambridge University, had to drop out of the pro­ject, but Smith, who says she’s in­ter­ested in odd things”—she likes to read words back­wards and has writ­ten about the sil­ver­fish that threaten book bind­ings—con­tin­ued vis­it­ing the world’s few re­main­ing gir­dle books.

When li­braries placed these ob­jects, hun­dreds of years old, in front of her, she felt a sense of awe. Then you start look­ing into it, and you see all the de­bris from 500 years ago. There is dust and hair and fin­ger­nail pair­ings and spots of wax from can­dles and era­sures,” she says. Some of the books are so frag­ile that you have to be very care­ful, es­pe­cially when turn­ing pages. But if you start mea­sur­ing, once you get into that, you re­mem­ber what you are there to do, and you’ve over­come the ini­tial awe.” The books, while still trea­sures, be­came ob­jects to be scru­ti­nized.

The part of the book cover that dis­tin­guishes a gir­dle book of­ten looks like a Wee Willie Winkie hat, flopped on top of the book, or a Gandalf-esque beard, stretch­ing down into a neat tri­an­gle. Smith dis­cov­ered that some gir­dle books have just one ex­tended leather cover, while other have two nested cov­ers, with the outer one de­signed for car­ry­ing. But it was­n’t al­ways easy to tell which cat­e­gory a gir­dle book fit into. One of the first things Smith learned as a book­binder was how to tear a book down, to see how it worked. In mod­ern books, it’s pos­si­ble to tease back an end­pa­per and in­spect a book’s se­crets. In the case of the old, rare books, that was­n’t pos­si­ble, so Smith had to run her fin­gers along the bind­ing to feel for ridges and other hints to the book’s in­ner work­ings.

You close your eyes,” she says. As a book­binder, I have learned to trust my fin­gers more than my eyes.”

In the course of her re­search, Smith dis­cov­ered the ex­is­tence of two ad­di­tional gir­dle books. One is in Scotland, the psalter of Neal McBeath, the small­est of all the known gir­dle books. Just 2.5 inches by 1 7/8 inch, the book fit eas­ily into the palm of her hand. It did­n’t have a spine, just the leather wrap­ping, and it showed lit­tle sign of re­pair. In Vienna, she found an­other new gir­dle book, but this one re­fused to give up its se­crets. Years of re­pair work on it had con­cealed most clues about its con­struc­tion. The gir­dle cover, for in­stance, may have been a later ad­di­tion. There are un­usual bumps and pro­tru­sions un­der there,” she says. It’s sort of mys­tery. I’d like to be able to take it apart com­pletely and see what went on be­fore, be­fore the bind­ing was put on.”

Some of the books had sur­prises in­side, as well. One be­longed to a nun, Katharina Röder von Rodeck, who lived at the Frauenalb Convent near Karlsruhe, Germany. She filled the pages with her per­sonal prayers and de­vo­tions, as well as notes about her life—when she took her vows, when German peas­ants re­belled in 1525. At the be­gin­ning of the book, she dec­o­rated five pages with the coats of arms of her par­ents’ fam­i­lies, a gray owl hold­ing a red heart, a skele­ton hold­ing an hour­glass, and mo­tifs of flow­ers and vines that con­tin­ued through­out the book. It gives, writes Smith, a very cheer­ful and friendly im­pres­sion.”


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The Man Who Brought Down Lance Armstrong

Floyd Landis, a for­mer team­mate of the cy­clist’s, just won more than $1 mil­lion in a le­gal case against Armstrong. Here are his thoughts on the suit, cy­cling, and his one­time ri­val.

Floyd Landis, a for­mer team­mate of the cy­clist’s, just won more than $1 mil­lion in a le­gal case against Armstrong. Here are his thoughts on the suit, cy­cling, and his one­time ri­val.

At 5:19 p.m. on Friday, April 30, 2010, Floyd Landis hit send on what would prove the most con­se­quen­tial email of his life. Addressed to the then-CEO of USA Cycling, Steve Johnson, the email bore the sub­ject line nobody is copied on this one so it’s up to you to demon­strate your true col­ors….” It went on to de­tail, year by year, how Landis and other mem­bers of the United States Postal Service team had used il­le­gal per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs and meth­ods to dom­i­nate the sport of cy­cling and claim vic­to­ries at the sport’s pre­mier event, the Tour de France. The email, later in­cluded in Landis’s 2012 af­fi­davit for a United States Anti-Doping Agency (usada) in­ves­ti­ga­tion, clearly im­pli­cated many of his for­mer team­mates—most fa­mously, the seven-time Tour win­ner Lance Armstrong (who de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle).To hear more fea­ture sto­ries, see our full list or get the Audm iPhone app.

It would take more than two years of in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but in October 2012, us­ada con­cluded that the U. S. Postal Service team un­der Armstrong and its man­ager, Johan Bruyneel, had run the most so­phis­ti­cated, pro­fes­sion­al­ized and suc­cess­ful dop­ing pro­gram that sport has ever seen.” Armstrong’s long­time spon­sor Nike was the first to aban­don him, and the rest fol­lowed. In one day, he lost seven spon­sors and an es­ti­mated $75 mil­lion. A few days later, the International Cycling Union (UCI), which over­sees in­ter­na­tional com­pet­i­tive cy­cling, stripped him of his record seven Tour vic­to­ries. Attempting dam­age con­trol, Armstrong sat down with Oprah in 2013, in an in­ter­view that went ter­ri­bly awry; he sim­ply could not muster the ap­pro­pri­ate level of con­tri­tion. (Among other mis­steps, he made a fat joke.) Since then, he has been forced to sell his Austin man­sion and his Gulfstream jet to pay $15 mil­lion in le­gal fees, plus $21 mil­lion in set­tle­ments.But Landis had­n’t stopped with the email to Johnson. Fearing that the Teflon-like Armstrong would emerge from the ac­cu­sa­tions un­scathed, Landis had also filed a whis­tle-blower law­suit un­der the fed­eral False Claims Act, al­leg­ing that Armstrong and his team had de­frauded the gov­ern­ment by tak­ing the U.S. Postal Service spon­sor­ship money while know­ingly cheat­ing in races. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment joined that law­suit in 2013; on April 19, Armstrong set­tled for $5 mil­lion. And on the grounds of the whis­tle-blower suit, Landis will be awarded $1.1 mil­lion from that set­tle­ment. (Armstrong will also pay $1.65 mil­lion to cover Landis’s le­gal costs.)

When Landis wrote the 2010 email that turned cy­cling on its head, he was at a low point. A year af­ter his own 2006 Tour de France vic­tory, Landis had be­come the first man in the race’s 103-year his­tory to be stripped of his ti­tle be­cause of a dop­ing con­vic­tion. His days were spent in a haze: He con­sumed as much as a fifth of Jack Daniel’s and 15 dou­ble-strength painkillers daily. (He main­tains, how­ever, that he was stone-cold sober when he wrote the email.) His house was fore­closed on, his credit ru­ined. He and his wife, Amber, di­vorced. If you are a hu­man in any way and not a psy­chopath, it’s painful,” he says. My whole life was com­pletely up­side down, and I was not pre­pared for any of it.”A for­mer mil­lion­aire, Landis had spent his en­tire for­tune, and then some, on his le­gal de­fense. But he has got­ten back on his feet, start­ing a cannabis busi­ness in rural Colorado. (The irony—that a life de­stroyed by one form of dope may be re­deemed by an­other—is not lost on him.) Landis is stead­fast that his whis­tle-blower suit is about jus­tice be­ing done, rather than his own po­ten­tial wind­fall. But the money will come in handy in get­ting his new busi­ness off the ground. Landis grew up in Farmersville, Pennsylvania, in a con­ser­v­a­tive Mennonite fam­ily. Like the Amish, some Mennonites avoid mod­ern tech­nol­ogy. Though his fam­ily had elec­tric­ity, there was no ra­dio or tele­vi­sion to oc­cupy young Landis’s time. So he rode his bike.

He saved enough money to buy his first real moun­tain bike at age 15, and promptly won the first race he ever en­tered with it, wear­ing sweat­pants. In 1993, dur­ing his se­nior year of high school, Landis won the U. S. ju­nior na­tional cham­pi­onship, and his ca­reer took off. USA Cycling sent the 17-year-old to France to rep­re­sent America at the world cham­pi­onship. It was his first time on an air­plane. The trip was fairly trau­matic,” he told me. I should have taken that as a sign.”Per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs have been cen­tral to com­pet­i­tive cy­cling for as long as the sport has ex­isted. Early-20th-century rid­ers in the Tour de France took the dan­ger­ous stim­u­lant strych­nine and held ether-soaked hand­ker­chiefs to their mouth to dull the pain caused by pro­pelling a bike for thou­sands of miles.Floyd Landis at the peak of his cy­cling ca­reer (Doug Pensinger / Getty)But Landis claims never to have used per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs be­fore meet­ing Armstrong. He trained ob­ses­sively, once rid­ing his bike 24,000 miles in a sin­gle year. His first pro­fes­sional con­tract, for the Mercury team in 1999, was worth $6,000.By 2002, Armstrong had al­ready won three Tours and was look­ing to for­tify his U.S. Postal Service team to com­pete for a fourth. Landis, still a drug-free ath­lete by his own ac­count, was show­ing promise; he had re­cently placed fourth at the Tour de l’Avenir, in France. U.S. Postal signed the 26-year-old for $60,000 a year. But from his first bike ride with Armstrong, Landis said, their re­la­tion­ship was tense: The guy’s a jerk and every­body knows it, but he was sur­rounded by yes-men, and they were also ter­ri­fied of him, so they laughed at his jokes even if they did­n’t make sense.” The sup­port­ing cast of rid­ers around Armstrong were treated more like re­place­able cogs than es­sen­tial com­po­nents, eas­ily swapped out for any num­ber of other rid­ers.

Once I got to Postal it was like, Look, there are no half mea­sures here,’ and we openly dis­cussed dop­ing pretty much on every bike ride,” Landis said. He claimed in his us­ada af­fi­davit that it was Armstrong who handed him his first per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drug, a pile of 2.5 mil­ligram testos­terone patches. He then par­tic­i­pated in the pop­u­lar but il­le­gal prac­tice of con­duct­ing blood trans­fu­sions: Cyclists would draw blood in the off-sea­son, bag it, and re­in­fuse it into their body dur­ing races for a boost of oxy­gen-car­ry­ing red blood cells. By 2004, the Armstrong uni­verse had be­come so un­pleas­ant for Landis that he be­gan shop­ping around for an­other team. U.S. Postal wanted to keep him, but it was of­fer­ing far less than he could find else­where. As ne­go­ti­a­tions grew con­tentious, Landis said, the team had Armstrong call to sweet-talk him. That lasted about two min­utes, then he spent 45 min­utes telling me how much he hated me and he was go­ing to de­stroy me,” Landis said.Lan­dis’s re­sent­ment fes­tered. During the 2004 Tour de France, while still rid­ing with the U.S. Postal Service team, Landis signed for the next year with the Swiss pro­fes­sional cy­cling team Phonak. He would fin­ish the Tour help­ing Armstrong race to a sixth vic­tory in Paris, and when Armstrong re­tired af­ter his sev­enth Tour win the fol­low­ing year, amid a swarm of dop­ing al­le­ga­tions, Landis be­came a fa­vorite to win in 2006.Landis was the first Tour de France cham­pion ever to be stripped of the ti­tle be­cause of a failed drug test. Only later would Armstrong have his ti­tles re­voked.And win he did. For four days, Landis would be con­sid­ered the best cy­clist on Earth. Despite a col­lapse on Stage 16 of the Tour, which left him at a seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able time dis­ad­van­tage, Landis pulled him­self back into con­tention over the French moun­tains on Stage 17 in what re­mains pos­si­bly the most spec­tac­u­lar sin­gle-day ride in cy­cling his­tory. At the time trial two days later, he re­cap­tured the lead, and went on to win the Tour—rolling into the Champs-Élysées flanked by his Phonak team­mates—by 57 sec­onds.But a few days af­ter­ward the team man­ager called with life-chang­ing news: Landis had failed the drug test he’d taken af­ter that mag­i­cal Stage 17. Using a method that ex­am­ined the atomic makeup of the testos­terone in his urine, a French lab­o­ra­tory later found that Landis had used syn­thetic testos­terone.

At his first press con­fer­ence af­ter the re­sults were an­nounced, he at­tempted a pal­try ex­cuse, blam­ing the find­ings on his nat­u­rally high testos­terone lev­els. In sub­se­quent in­ter­views he pointed to the two beers and at least four shots of whiskey he’d con­sumed the night be­fore the stage. Armstrong—who pre­sum­ably re­al­ized that if Landis fell and flipped, he him­self could be next—phoned to en­cour­age Landis to be more force­ful in his pub­lic de­nials, Landis claims. He was prac­ticed at this and I was­n’t, so he told me I had to speak with more con­vic­tion,” Landis re­mem­bered. It was com­pletely self-serv­ing. Lance had­n’t talked to me in years be­fore that call.” Nonetheless, he dou­bled down. He mounted a pro­tracted and ex­pen­sive bat­tle to as­sert his in­no­cence, even start­ing an or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Floyd Fairness Fund, to raise money for his fight against the charges. He also pub­lished a book ti­tled Positively False, in which the au­thor Loren Mooney helped him ex­plain his mirac­u­lous Stage 17 ride and his cy­cling suc­cess much as the jour­nal­ist Sally Jenkins had done for Armstrong in his equally iron­i­cally ti­tled bi­og­ra­phy, It’s Not About the Bike. Both nar­ra­tives now read more like fic­tion. Armstrong speaks to Landis dur­ing the 2004 Tour de France. (Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty)In June of 2008, the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport up­held the two-year dop­ing ban im­posed on Landis by us­ada. Landis had ex­hausted his ap­peals. To this day, he main­tains that al­though he used per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs to cheat in races dur­ing the lat­ter part of his ca­reer, he was not on testos­terone dur­ing the 2006 Tour, and was some­how set up to take a fall or be made an ex­am­ple of. us­ada’s CEO, Travis Tygart, pub­licly urged Landis to ac­knowl­edge his mis­take and come clean. Friends aban­doned him. Under threat of crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion, he agreed to pay back the $478,354 he had raised from donors, on false pre­tenses, for his de­fense.

Since Landis’s days as a pro­fes­sional ath­lete, his fea­tures have soft­ened, from bor­der­line ema­ci­ated to pro­to­typ­i­cally American. As we en­ter a restau­rant bar in Golden, Colorado, no one rec­og­nizes him. His jeans are loose-fit­ting, and his hair is an awk­ward length that re­quires al­most con­stant at­ten­tion to keep out of his eyes. He seems happy and, quite pos­si­bly, at peace with his life. In 2016, he launched his mar­i­juana busi­ness, Floyd’s of Leadville, which spe­cial­izes in treat­ing ath­letes with cannabis-in­fused anal­gesic creams, tinc­tures, and soft­gels. After al­most a decade of us­ing opi­oids to quell the pain left in his own body from eight years of pro­fes­sional cy­cling—he had his hip re­placed in 2006—Landis dis­cov­ered that the pow­er­ful anti-in­flam­ma­tory com­po­nent of mar­i­juana, cannabid­iol, could ac­com­plish sim­i­lar re­sults with­out the hor­rific side ef­fects. Now opi­oid-free, Landis be­lieves in its po­ten­tial: This stuff has done so much for me.”I asked Landis, be­fore the set­tle­ment was an­nounced, about the prospect of the whis­tle-blower suit mak­ing him rich again af­ter his fall from grace, but he de­murred: I don’t care about the money. I don’t care if I get any­thing out of it.” Likewise, when I asked him his feel­ings about tak­ing down his old an­tag­o­nist, he said only, It was never about Lance in the first place. But I had a choice to come clean or not, and if I did, it was go­ing to be me against Lance, be­cause he was go­ing to fight.”

What he was re­ally in­ter­ested in talk­ing about is what he sees as the on­go­ing cor­rup­tion in the up­per ech­e­lons of cy­cling. Since he blew the doors off the sport’s omertà, cy­cling has os­ten­si­bly cleaned up its act. But Landis be­lieves that the speeds at which cy­clists are now rid­ing—on the same sec­tions of European roads he raced—haven’t slowed enough for that to be true, and mount­ing ev­i­dence seems to point to, if not out­right dop­ing, at least gray-area tech­niques. Take Team Sky, from Manchester, England. Team Sky looks ex­actly like what we were do­ing—ex­actly,” Landis said, re­fer­ring to its cur­rent dom­i­nance of the cy­cling world. So they were able to do that with­out drugs, but we weren’t? People haven’t evolved over the last eight years.” Sky has won five of the last six Tours, but the le­git­i­macy of its cham­pi­ons has come un­der scrutiny. A U.K. par­lia­men­tary-com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­cently con­cluded that Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 win­ner, had crossed an ethical line” by abus­ing the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) sys­tem, which al­lows an ath­lete to take banned drugs in or­der to treat med­ical con­di­tions. The com­mit­tee ac­cused him of us­ing cor­ti­cos­teroids to im­prove his power-to-weight ra­tio ahead of the race, rather than for the stated pur­pose of treat­ing asthma. (Both Wiggins and Team Sky have de­nied cross­ing any lines to en­hance per­for­mance.) Wiggins’s for­mer team­mate and suc­ces­sor, Chris Froome, who won the past three Tours, failed a drug test dur­ing his win­ning ef­fort at the 2017 Vuelta a España; he had twice the al­lowed limit of the asthma drug salbu­ta­mol in his sys­tem. (Froome has de­nied any wrong­do­ing, and an International Cycling Union in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing.)Since re­tir­ing from rac­ing, Landis has be­gun a mar­i­juana busi­ness that spe­cial­izes in treat­ing ath­letes suf­fer­ing from sports-re­lated pain. (Benjamin Rasmussen)

The Mobster Who Bought His Son a Hockey Team

In this drama with­out he­roes, Landis does­n’t think that the dis­grace he and Armstrong have un­der­gone has ul­ti­mately done much good for the sport. Taking me down and tak­ing Armstrong down did noth­ing,” he said. It was an ut­ter fail­ure be­cause the UCI and wada [the World Anti-Doping Agency] are still ly­ing to kids and mak­ing them think that they can be­come top ath­letes clean. And they know that you can’t.” (The UCI said that the TUE sys­tem was strength­ened in 2014 and is now fully safe­guarded.” wada said that it is be­com­ing more and more dif­fi­cult for ath­letes to cheat with­out get­ting caught, and that it is pos­si­ble for ath­letes to suc­ceed with­out dop­ing.)I asked Landis how he felt about be­ing con­sid­ered among the best cy­clists in his­tory. I don’t care, and I don’t even want to be on the fuck­ing list,” he said. Leave me out of it.”This ar­ti­cle ap­pears in the May 2018 print edi­tion with the head­line The Man Who Brought Down Lance Armstrong Isn’t Done With Him Yet.” It has been up­dated to re­flect the set­tle­ment of the law­suit against Armstrong.


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9 1,884 shares, 27 trendiness, 253 words and 2 minutes reading time

Electric Scooters Are Causing Havoc. This Man Is Shrugging It Off.

He left Lyft in 2014 and joined Uber as vice pres­i­dent of growth that same year. Lyft sued him for breach­ing a con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ment and fidu­ciary duty. The lit­i­ga­tion was even­tu­ally set­tled.

Of his time at Uber, which has since been ex­posed as hav­ing had a growth-at-all-costs en­vi­ron­ment, Mr. VanderZanden said: I learned some good things, and I learned some bad things.”

He left Uber in 2016 and moved to Southern California. Last year, he founded Bird to bring elec­tric scoot­ers, al­ready pop­u­lar in cities across China, to America. To date, Bird has raised $115 mil­lion from in­vestors, in­clud­ing Craft Ventures and Index Ventures. Mr. VanderZanden now has a team of more than 100 peo­ple.

He likes word­play. The scoot­ers are called Birds. He calls a group of peo­ple rid­ing on the scoot­ers a flock. The ar­eas where scoot­ers are sup­posed to be gen­er­ally kept are called nests. His mom’s name is Robin.

We might have taken the birds too far,” Mr. VanderZanden said.

Bird ini­tially rolled out its scooter-rental ser­vice in Santa Monica and now op­er­ates in seven cities. The com­pany will not dis­close how many scoot­ers are in op­er­a­tion but said it has sent out 22,500 hel­mets to rid­ers, as part of a com­pli­ance ef­fort for cities that re­quire rid­ers to use hel­mets. Bird has also hit one mil­lion rides.

Mr. VanderZanden said greater Los Angeles, in­clud­ing Santa Monica, has been es­pe­cially ex­cited about Bird and that the area has be­come a trans­porta­tion tech hub.


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10 1,366 shares, 2 trendiness, 3036 words and 26 minutes reading time

American Drugs in Egyptian Mummies

The re­cent

find­ings of co­caine, nico­tine, and hashish in Egyptian mum­mies by Balabanova

et. al. have been­crit­i­cized on

grounds that: con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of the mum­mies may have oc­curred, im­proper

tech­niques may have been used, chem­i­cal de­com­po­si­tion may have pro­duced the

com­pounds in ques­tion, re­cent mum­mies of drug users were mis­tak­enly

eval­u­ated, that no sim­i­lar cases are known of such com­pounds in long-dead

bod­ies, and es­pe­cially that pre-Columbian transoceanic voy­ages are highly

spec­u­la­tive. These crit­i­cisms are

each dis­cussed in turn.Bal­a­banova

et. al. are shown to have used and con­firmed their find­ings with ac­cepted

meth­ods.The pos­si­bil­ity of the

com­pounds be­ing byprod­ucts of de­com­po­si­tion is shown to be with­out prece­dent

and highly un­likely.The pos­si­bil­ity

that the re­searchers made eval­u­a­tions from­faked mum­mies of re­cent drug users is shown to be highly un­likely in

al­most all cases.Sev­eral ad­di­tional

cases of iden­ti­fied American drugs in mum­mies are dis­cussed.Ad­di­tion­ally, it is shown that sig­nif­i­cant

ev­i­dence ex­ists for con­tact with the Americas in pre-Columbian times.It is de­ter­mined that the orig­i­nal

find­ings are sup­ported by sub­stan­tial ev­i­dence de­spite the ini­tial

crit­i­cisms.[Please re­fer also to

In a one-page

ar­ti­cle ap­pear­ing in Naturwissenschaften, German sci­en­tist Svetla Balabanova

(1992) and two of her col­leagues re­ported find­ings of co­caine, hashish and nico­tine

in Egyptian mum­mies.The find­ings

were im­me­di­ately iden­ti­fied as im­prob­a­ble on the grounds that two of the

sub­stances were known to be de­rived only from American plants - co­caine from and nico­tine from .The sug­ges­tion that such com­pounds could

have found their way to Egypt be­fore Columbus’ dis­cov­ery of America seemed

patently im­pos­si­ble.

The study was

done as part of an on­go­ing pro­gram of in­ves­ti­gat­ing the use of hal­lu­cino­genic

sub­stances in an­cient so­ci­eties.The

au­thors them­selves were quite sur­prised by the find­ings (Discovery, 1997) but

stood y their re­sults de­spite be­ing the ma­jor fo­cus of crit­i­cism in the

fol­low­ing vol­ume of atur­wis­senschaften.Of the nine mum­mies eval­u­ated, all showed signs of co­caine and hashish

Tetrahydrocannabinol), whereas all but one sam­pled pos­i­tive for

nico­tine.It is in­ter­est­ing too that

the con­cen­tra­tions of the com­pounds sug­gest uses other than that of abuse.(For ex­am­ple, mod­ern drug ad­dicts of­ten

have con­cen­tra­tions of co­caine and nico­tine in their hair 75 and 20 times

higher re­spec­tively than that found in the mummy hair sam­ples.) It is even

pos­si­ble that the quan­ti­ties found may be high due to con­cen­tra­tion in body

tis­sues through time.


ques­tion, the study has sparked an in­ter­est in var­i­ous dis­ci­plines.As Balabanova et. al. pre­dicted,

″…the re­sults open up an en­tirely new field of re­search which un­rav­els

as­pects of past hu­man life-style far be­yond [sic] ba­sic bi­o­log­i­cal


The biggest

crit­i­cism of the find­ings of Balabanova et. al. was not nec­es­sar­ily di­rected

at the ex­trac­tion process per se, al­though this was dis­cussed.The biggest crit­i­cism was that co­caine and

nico­tine could not pos­si­bly have been used in Egypt be­fore the dis­cov­ery of

the New World, and that transat­lantic jour­neys were not known - or at least

they are highly spec­u­la­tive.It is

safe to say that the crit­i­cisms of the study would have been min­i­mal or

nonex­is­tent if the find­ings had been made of Old World drugs.Such find­ings, in fact, would not have

been at all un­usual as the use of stim­u­lants were known in Egypt.Poppy seeds and lo­tus plants have been

iden­ti­fied for just this use in man­u­scripts (the Papyrus Ebers) and in

hi­ero­glyphs (as Balabanova et. al. show).


(1993) ar­gues that, the de­tec­tion of phar­ma­co­log­i­cally ac­tive

sub­stances in mum­mi­fied ma­te­r­ial never proves their use prior to death.”

He ar­gues that such com­pounds could have been in­tro­duced as part of the mum­mi­fi­ca­tion

process.The sug­ges­tion is that

(especially) nico­tine could have been in­tro­duced around the mummy (and

sub­se­quently ab­sorbed into its tis­sue) as an in­sec­ti­cide (being used as a

preser­v­a­tive) within rel­a­tively mod­ern times.A sim­i­lar crit­i­cism was raised by Bjorn (1993) who won­dered if

nico­tine might have been ab­sorbed by the mum­mies from cig­a­rette smoke in the

mu­se­ums where the mum­mies have been pre­served.Ac­cord­ing to Schafer, the only way to show that the com­pounds

were taken into the bod­ies while they were alive would be to find dif­fer­ent

con­cen­tra­tions at dif­fer­ent dis­tances from the scalp - a pro­ce­dure not

un­der­taken by the au­thors.


in­ter­est­ing crit­i­cism of Schafer (1993) is that Balabanova et. al. might have

been the vic­tims of faked mum­mies.Ap­par­ently peo­ple (living in the not too far dis­tant past) be­lieved

that mum­mies con­tained black tar called bi­tu­men and that it could be ground

up and used to cure var­i­ous ill­nesses.In fact the very word mummy’ comes from the Persian mummia’ mean­ing

bi­tu­men (Discovery, 1997).A busi­ness

seems to have de­vel­oped wherein re­cently dead bod­ies where de­lib­er­ately aged

to ap­pear as mum­mies and that some of the per­pe­tra­tors of such deeds were

drug abusers.

The crit­i­cism

that seems most pop­u­lar is that the iden­ti­fied drugs might have been prod­ucts

of necrochemical and necro­bio­chem­i­cal processes” (Schafer, 1993;

Bjorn, 1993).One ex­pla­na­tion is that

Egyptian priests used at­ropine-al­ka­loid-con­tain­ing plants dur­ing the

mum­mi­fi­ca­tion process that sub­se­quently un­der­went changes in the mummy to

re­sem­ble the iden­ti­fied com­pounds.

Yet an­other

ar­gu­ment is that there is noth­ing in the lit­er­a­ture show­ing that any of the

three com­pounds have been iden­ti­fied in bod­ies that have been dead for some


�In the

study, sam­ples were taken from nine mum­mies that were dated from be­tween 1070

B.C. to 395 A.D.The sam­ples

in­clud­ing hair, skin and mus­cle were taken from the head and ab­domen.Bone tis­sue was also taken from the

skull.All tis­sues were pul­ver­ized

and dis­solved in NaCl so­lu­tion, ho­mog­e­nized, and cen­trifuged.A por­tion of the su­per­natant was ex­tracted

with chlo­ro­form and dried and then dis­solved in a phos­phate buffer.Sam­ples were then mea­sured by both

ra­dioim­munoas­say (Merck; Biermann) and gas chro­matog­ra­phy / mass spec­trom­e­try

(Hewlett Packard) - here­inafter GCMS. �

�This is the


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