Brett Brownell

Brett Brownell

Multimedia Producer

Brett Brownell is the Multimedia Producer at Mother Jones and has visited all 50 states. He also helped launch MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes as a video and web producer, served as new media director for the employee rights organization Workplace Fairness, and founded the annual global photography event Worldwide Moment in 2007. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-T.V. and grew up in Arlington, Texas.

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Planet Hunter: We'll Find An "Earth 2.0" Within "10 or 15 Years"

| Mon Jan. 13, 2014 7:01 AM EST
Planet Beta Pictoris b

Last week, a team of astronomers at the Gemini Planet Imager in Chile released the mysterious blue image above. That small bright dot in the lower right of the image is a planet—not a planet in our solar system like Mars or Neptune, but one 63 light-years away. It's the planet Beta Pictoris b, which orbits the star Beta Pictoris in the southern constellation Pictor. But what's most exciting about the picture is the technology used to make it, which represents a dramatic improvement in the speed and quality with which scientists will be able to look for other planets—including "Earth 2.0," a theorized planet much like our own.

The first confirmation that planets exist beyond our solar system came in 1992, when a team of astronomers monitored changes in radio waves to prove that multiple planets were orbiting a small star about 1000 light-years away. Then, in 2005, astronomers created the first actual image of a planet beyond our solar system (the date is arguable because the observation was made in 2004, but not confirmed until a year later). Since then, hundreds more planets have been discovered, and a few others have even been photographed.

So when Gizmodo reported last week that the blue image above was the "first ever image of a planet, orbiting a star," they didn't have it quite right. In fact, the image wasn't even the first time that planet had been photographed. But the GPI images are still extremely exciting: They could mark the beginning of a new era of planet-hunting, thanks to technology developed by a team of astronomers led by Bruce Macintosh of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  

Frank Marchis, who works for the SETI Institute, a nonprofit organization that seeks to explore, understand, and explain the prevalence of life in the universe, is a key member of Macintosh's planet-hunting team. I met with him in San Francisco last week to discuss the project and the search for Earth 2.0:

MJ: What exactly are we seeing in this image?

FM: Behind this image is a lot of work. This image is simply a planet orbiting around another star. So we call that an exoplanet – an extrasolar planet – because it doesn't belong to our solar system. It belongs to another planetary system. So this is the grail of modern astronomy. We're trying desperately now to image those planets because we know they exist. When you observe a planet with [the now defunct telescope] Kepler, what you've been doing is basically detecting the transit - the attenuation of [the star's] light - due to the planet passing between us and the star. Now with GPI, the Gemini Planet Imager, which is mounted at the 8 meter class telescope in Chile we're going to be able to see the planet itself.

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Will San Francisco's Plan to Charge Tech Buses $1.5 Million Satisfy Activists?

| Wed Jan. 8, 2014 2:54 PM EST
A Google bus is blockaded in San Francisco on Dec. 9, 2013.

On two separate days last month, buses carrying employees of major tech companies were blockaded by Bay Area activists. First, a bus bound for Google's headquarters was stopped at 24th & Valencia in the Mission district of San Francisco. Activists from the anti-gentrification and eviction group Heart of the City boarded the bus and held a sign in front of it which read Warning: Illegal Use of Public Infrastructure. Meanwhile, union organizer Max Alper posed as a Google employee and shouted at the protestors (his real identity was later revealed.

The bus was one of hundreds in the San Francisco Bay Area that provide an estimated 35,000 boardings per day for private companies, who use the city's MUNI bus stations as pick up and drop off points, free of charge.

A few weeks later, another round of blockades occurred throughout San Francisco and Oakland. Buses bound for Apple, in addition to buses bound for Google, were blockaded. This time signs read "Eviction Free San Francisco", "Fuck Off Google" and so on. A Google bus window in Oakland was shattered during its blockade.

The blockades exemplified the San Francisco Bay Area's rising income disparity and eviction rates, caused largely by the influx of technology companies.

So yesterday, when news broke that San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was announcing a new series of proposed regulations for these tech buses, it appeared to be a win for area activists and organizers. Among the requirements for the mayor's plan: shuttle providers would pay a daily fee based on the number of stops they make, plus they would have to yield to Muni buses and avoid steep and narrow streets.

But SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose told Mother Jones the recent blockades did not have any effect on the timing of the mayor's announcement. And in fact, he says data gathering for the new policy began as early as 2011.

Plus, activists are not likely to find comfort in the mayor's financial estimates for the pilot program. Due to California's 1996 ballot measure Proposition 218, the new proposed fees are limited to the cost of providing the new policy. So Mayor Lee expects the permit fees to generate about $1.5 million over the first 18 months, and the new fees will reportedly cost shuttle operators only $1 per day per stop. Activists were demanding the industry pay $271 for each "illegal usage of a bus zone", which they estimated would total around $1 billion in fines.

The mayor's proposal must be approved by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's board of directors, which will vote on the proposal January 21. Final plans would be approved by public hearing in late Spring.

Read the full press release here.

How Bad Is the Income Gap in Your City? The Answer in GIFs

| Mon Oct. 7, 2013 4:33 PM EDT

Artist and researcher Nickolay Lamm recently created these eye-popping 3-D images of New York City's towering levels of incoming inequality.

Lamm has now expanded his project to include other major US cities. As you'll see in the GIFs below, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami are now part of the 3-D inequality club. Using 2012 data from the mapping site ArcGIS, Lamm superimposed green blocks representing the median net worth of census block groups over photos of the cityscape. The effect clearly visualizes the drastic levels of income inequality found across the country.

San Francisco
San Francisco
San Francisco
San Francisco
Los Angeles
Los Angeles

View Nickolay's original post of these images here.

"Money for Nothing": A Film About the Fed, Funded by the Mortgage Crisis

| Fri Sep. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan in a scene from "Money for Nothing"

Hindsight may be 20/20, but luckily for filmmaker Jim Bruce, so was his foresight into the financial crisis of 2008. Prior to the collapse of the housing market, Bruce was a film editor for movies like X-Men: The Last Stand and The Incredible Hulk. But Bruce also had been reading up on financial news and recognized that many of the biggest banks were over-leveraged and at risk of failing. "I was writing an email newsletter to family and friends starting in late 2006 saying 'watch out'," he recalls. "You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to see how bad the mortgages being given out were." Bruce recognized that a small increase in foreclosures would wipe out the over-extended lenders. So while millions of Americans invested in new homes, Bruce was investing in their implosion.

"All I did was short home builders and banks," he explains. His short bets paid off big, as Countrywide tumbled and AIG collapsed, doubling his investment. Now what to do with all that money? The answer: Make a down payment on a documentary about the Federal Reserve, which Bruce believed had not been held accountable for its role in creating the financial crash that made him a bundle.

The product of Bruce's back-handed thank-you is Money for Nothing, a sometimes harsh, sometimes cautious critique of the Fed and its 100-year history. The film includes many candid interviews with current and former members of this immensely powerful financial institution, including active regional governors and current vice chair Janet Yellen (who many suspect will replace current chairman Ben Bernanke to become the first woman to lead the central bank).

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