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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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