Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson


Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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More Effective Than Waterboarding: Cookies?

| Fri May 29, 2009 12:55 PM EDT

In the week after 9/11, unleashed deep within a Yemeni prison was what might have been the most effective interrogation tool ever devised by the U.S. Government. It could be more powerful than waterboarding, sleep deprivation, naked photos, or barking dogs. It is a monster that resides within almost all of us, a shaggy, blue-haired beast with an uncontrollable urge to devour oven-baked sweets while growling, "Coooookie!"

From Time comes this account of FBI interrogator Ali Soufan's successful attempt to win over  Al-Qaeda operative Abu Jandal, who had been closer to Osama bin Laden than any other terrorist ever captured:

He had no intention of cooperating with the Americans; at their first meetings, he refused even to look at them and ranted about the evils of the West. Far from confirming al-Qaeda's involvement in 9/11, he insisted the attacks had been orchestrated by Israel's Mossad. While Abu Jandal was venting his spleen, Soufan noticed that he didn't touch any of the cookies that had been served with tea: "He was a diabetic and couldn't eat anything with sugar in it." At their next meeting, the Americans brought him some sugar-free cookies, a gesture that took the edge off Abu Jandal's angry demeanor. "We had showed him respect, and we had done this nice thing for him," Soufan recalls. "So he started talking to us instead of giving us lectures."

All hail the Cookie Monster!  Seriously, his brand of monstrousness might be the the only kind we need:

Soufan, now an international-security consultant, has emerged as a powerful critic of the George W. Bush — era interrogation techniques; he has testified against them in congressional hearings and is an expert witness in cases against detainees. He has described the techniques as "borderline torture" and "un-American." His larger argument is that methods like waterboarding are wholly unnecessary — traditional interrogation methods, a combination of guile and graft, are the best way to break down even the most stubborn subjects.

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The Top 6 Ways to Convert Poop Into Electricity

| Fri May 22, 2009 3:32 PM EDT

More than half of the 15 trillion gallons of sewage Americans flush annually is processed into sludge that gets spread on farmland, lawns, and home vegetable gardens. In theory, recycling poop is the perfect solution to the one truly unavoidable byproduct of human civilization. But sludge-based as fertilizer can contain anything that goes down the drain—from Prozac flushed down toilets to motor oil hosed from factory floors. That's why an increasing number of cities have begun to explore an alternative way to dispose of sludge: advanced poop-to-power plants. By one estimate, a single American's daily sludge output can generate enough electricity to light a 60-watt bulb for more than nine hours. Here are the six most innovative ways that human waste is being converted to watts:

Poop-Eating Bacteria
Digesters similar to brewery casks house anaerobic bacteria that eat sludge and belch out methane. This technology is the oldest, cheapest, and most proven poop-to-power method. Even so, fewer than 10 percent of the nation's 6,000 public wastewater plants have the digesters; of those, just 20 percent burn the methane gas for energy (the rest simply flare it off). Flint, Michigan, and several other cities use the methane gas to fuel fleets of city buses. The problem with anaerobic digesters is that they only reduce sludge's volume by half and capture a portion of its embedded energy.

Turd Cell Smashers
Destroying the cell walls in sludge—by heating it under pressure, zapping it with ultrasonic waves, or pulsing it with electric fields—boosts its methane production by 50 percent or more in anaerobic digesters. On the downside, researchers have found that some of these processes can unleash nasty odors and even a "chemical attack" on sewage machinery.

Geological Toilets
Last summer, Los Angeles began injecting sludge into a mile-deep well, where pressure and heat are expected to release enough methane to power 1,000 homes. The well also dissolves and sequesters carbon dioxide that the sludge would normally release, removing the equivalent exhaust of about 1,000 cars per year. "This renewable energy project is absolutely electrifying," Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the LA Times. "It will save money and make money."

Feces Ponds
As a cheaper green option, some 50 waste plants in 20 countries have installed versions of UC Berkeley professor William J. Oswald's Advanced Integrated Wastewater Pond Systems Technology--large open-air ponds that primarily rely on anaerobic digestion and photosynthesis to break down sludge and convert it into a fertilizer or animal feed of nitrogen-rich algae. The algae in turn can be used as a feedstock for biofuels. Rich Brown, an environmental scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, sees an obstacle in the ponds' huge footprint: "For rural areas it’s great," he says. "For San Francisco it wouldn’t work so well."

Sludge gasification plants are popular in Europe and especially Germany. A low-oxygen reaction transforms the solids in sludge into a carbon-rich "char" similar to BBQ briquettes. Next, the char is gasified in the presence of air to produce a syngas that can be burned for energy.

Poop Pyrotechnics
Last year, Atlanta-based EnerTech built the world's first commercial sludge "pyrolysis" plant in Southern California. Its patented SlurryCarb process converts sludge from a third of Los Angeles and Orange Counties into char pellets that replace coal at a nearby cement kiln; its ash is mixed into the cement.

One Small Poop for Man. . .
With billions in stimulus funds slated for wastewater improvements, is the time right for poop power? Such efforts, which reduce landfilling and emissions, have earned praise from some anti-sludge groups. Caroline Snyder, the founder of Citizens for Sludge-Free Land, calls it a "win-win situation."

The EPA says sludge power holds promise, but it's not ready to quit pushing sludge as a wonder fertilizer. This hasn’t deterred the sewage industry, which sees a chance to get into the renewable energy business and put a stop to the stream of health complaints and costly lawsuits. "After almost 40 years of working in biosolids," a sewage industry official wrote in a recent newsletter. "I never thought I’d say this: it is an exciting time for sludge!"

H/T to the State of Science Report: Energy and Resource Recovery from Sludge, published by the Global Water Research Coalition. Photo from Flickr user gtmcknight used under creative commons license.

A Roadmap for Canada's Tar Sands

| Mon May 18, 2009 8:54 PM EDT

With the price of oil in the bucket, environentalists have been acting as if Canada's speculative tar sands boom is all but dead. They shouldn't. A report released today by the energy consultancy IHS CERA predicts a nearly 80 percent increase in tar sands production by 2035, and that's assuming strong environmental regulation, weak growth, and low oil prices. Should things work out better for Big Oil, the tar sands will pump out five times the crude they do now and account for a staggering 37 percent of U.S. oil imports.

CERA suggests that this might not be such a bad thing. In an analysis of 11 previous studies, it found that "well-to-wheels" greenhouse gas production from the tar sands is only 5 to 15 percent higher than the average crude oil processed in the United States. Last year, I reported that a team of UC Berkeley researchers had calculated a 30 percent well-to-wheels difference. Either figure is significant when multiplied a potential tar sands output of 6.3 million barrels per day.

Factor in devastation to Canada's boreal forests, streams, and native communities, and the swap of climate security for energy security seems even more faustian. Once we exhaust the tar sands, we'll move on to liquefied coal, which emits 80 percent more greenhouse gasses than regular oil, and then oil shale, which spews twice as much. When will it all end? And more important, what will the weather look like?

Pelosi and Waterboarding: Why all the Fuss?

| Sat May 16, 2009 12:02 PM EDT

Strangely absent from the recent coverage of Pelosi's past knowledge of U.S. torture policies is any acknowledgement that this story is old news. Really old news. Way back in December, 2007, the Washington Post ran a piece headlined, "Hill Briefed on Waterboarding in 2002." It hit Pelosi with the exact same allegations that have been so breathlessly reported as of late:

In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.

 So what's new? For one, Republicans are under intense moral and political threat and see a chance divert responsibility for their misdeeds back to Democrats.

To be sure, Pelosi should have taken action against U.S. torture policies as soon as she was briefed on them. And she's now paying the price for being too politically cowardly—or opportunistic—to address this issue head-on when the Post broke the story back in 2007. But it's disingenuous for the press and Pelosi's political rivals to feign outrage over what Pelosi knew and when. What did they know and when? Assuming they read the news, why didn't they make an issue of this back in 2007?

One politician did make an issue of the Post story at the time. Cindy Sheehan, the Peace Mom, ran a quixotic campaign against Pelosi for her House seat last year, and garnered 16 percent of the vote and very little press. Key to her electoral strategy was capitalizing on liberal outrage—surprisingly tepid outrage, it turned out—over what Pelosi knew. She even called for Pelosi to be stripped of her leadership post over the news. "I was appalled and really saddened," Sheehan told me at the time. "We can't be represented by a person like this."

Seventy two percent of San Francisco voters thought otherwise.

With Sheehan's failed challenge in mind, it's hard to put credence in today's New York Times story on Pelosi's political fate, which quotes Bay Area resident Delphine Langille of San Ramon: "I'm very skeptical of what she's saying, Langille told the Times on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, "and when she goes to get re-elected, this could really damage her credibility." Yeah right. There's simply no way a Republican could ever mount a viable challenge in San Francisco, no way the Democratic establishment would ever try, and no way--as we've seen--that a third party outsider will take her down.

Politics is morally mushy business. The political climate was clearly more pro-torture back in 2002 than it is now. A braver politician might have spoken out sooner, but also might not have risen to the Speaker post. The interesting thing about San Franciscans is that they are politically sophisticated enough to entertain a race like Sheehan's while also voting for a pragmatist like Pelosi. And they can certainly distinguish between the moral clarity—or absolutism—of someone like Sheehan, and the immoral opportunism of liberal-come-lately Republicans. Let's hope the press and the rest of the nation eventually figure this out too.

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