Sister Megan Rice, the 85-year-old activist nun who two years ago humiliated government officials by penetrating and vandalizing a supposedly ultra-high-security uranium storage facility, has finally been released from prison. A federal appeals court on Friday overturned the 2013 sabotage convictions of Rice and two fellow anti-nuclear activists, Michael Walli, 66, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 59, ruling that that their actions—breaking into Tennessee's Y-12 National Security Complex and spreading blood on a uranium storage bunker—did not harm national security.
Rice's case has become the subject of intense media scrutiny, including a recent New Yorker profile by Eric Schlosser, whose latest book exposed gaping flaws in America's nuclear weapons program. The activists now await re-sentencing on a lesser charge of damaging federal property. The punishment is expected to be less than the two years they've already spent in federal prison.
Speaking with Rice over the phone this afternoon, I asked her how it feels to be free. "Not that much different, because none of us is free," she said, "and it looks like we are going to go on being un-free for as long as there is a nuclear weapon waiting."
Asked on Democracy Now this morning about her experience in federal prison, Rice gave a response worthy of Sister Jane Ingalls, a character from the Netflix prison drama Orange Is the New Black, who was clearly inspired by Rice. "They are the ones who are the wisest in this country," she said of her fellow inmates. "They know what is really happening. They are the fallout of nuclear weapons production."
Skip to the 33-minute mark to watch the interview:
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist, is an extremely long shot to defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. Does that mean his views on key political issues are too radical for America's voters? Not necessarily. Here's how his policy positions actually fare in the polls:
Sanders: Describes himself as a democratic socialist.
His fellow Americans: While only 31 percent of Americans react positively to the word "socialism," just 50 percent view "capitalism" in favorable terms, according to a recent Pew survey. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, nearly half had a positive view of "socialism," while only 47 percent viewed "capitalism" favorably.
Sanders: Famously filibustered the 2010 extension of Bush tax cuts for wealthy Americans.
His fellow Americans: In a February poll, 68 percent of likely voters said wealthy households pay too little in federal taxes.
Sanders: Introduced the Responsible Estate Tax Act last year. If passed, it would raise top estate tax rates and expand the tax to include estates worth more than $3.5 million. (It currently only applies to those worth more than $5.4 million, which covers only 0.2 percent of American estates.)
His fellow Americans: Results vary, but Kevin Drum notes that the estate tax (conservatives call it the "death tax") is generally unpopular.
Offshore tax havens
Sanders: Introduced legislation that would crack down on offshore tax havens by requiring American companies to pay the top corporate tax rate on profits held abroad.
His fellow Americans:Eighty-five percent of small business owners favor closing overseas tax loopholes entirely, while 68 percent of Americans believe "we should close tax loopholes for large corporations that ship jobs offshore."
His fellow Americans: Most Americans believe that corporations should have at least some limited right to make political donations. Even so, in a 2013 Gallup poll, half of the respondents said they would personally vote for banning all political donations from individuals and private groups and shifting to a government-funded campaign finance system. Only 44 percent would oppose such a law.
Sanders: Cosponsored the 2013 Climate Protection Act, which would tax carbon and methane emissions and rebate three-fifths of the revenue to citizens.
His fellow Americans: Sixty-four percent of Americans strongly or somewhat favor regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, factories and cars, and requiring utilities to generate more power from low-carbon sources. However, only 34 percent of Americans support a carbon tax with a $500 rebate.
Sanders: Advocates for a single-payer health care system.
His fellow Americans: A January 2015 poll found that just over 50 percent of likely voters support single-payer.
regulating wall street
Sanders: The big banks "are too powerful to be reformed," Sanders says on his website. "They must be broken up."
His fellow Americans: A recent poll by the Progressive Change Institute found that 58 percent of likely voters support "breaking up big banks like Citigroup."
Sanders: Introduced legislation this month to make public college tuition free in the United States.
His fellow Americans:Sixty-three percent of likely voters support President Obama's proposal to offer qualifying students two free years of community college. No recent polls have tested support for offering free tuition at four-year colleges and universities.
Sanders: Opposes the Trans Pacific Partnership and similar trade deals.
His fellow Americans:Sixty-two percent of voters oppose fast-track authority for the TPP trade deal, but fewer Americans oppose the agreement itself. A 2014 Pew poll put support for the TPP among Americans at 55 percent.
Pay equity for women
Sanders: Supports a federal law mandating equal pay for equal work.
His fellow Americans: Most Americans agree that women face pay discrimination, but only about one-third favor addressing the problem via legislation.
His fellow Americans: Sixty-three percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2020.
Sanders: Supports legislation allowing workers to form a union by signing pledge cards.
His fellow Americans: A Gallup poll conducted in 2009, when card check legislation was being debated in Congress, found that 53 percent of Americans "favor a new law that would make it easier for labor unions to organize workers."
Sanders: "Instead of cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and nutrition programs," Sanders writes on his website, "we should be expanding these programs."
His fellow Americans:Somepolls have found that majorities of voters want to expand Social Security. A poll conducted last year showed that even voters in red states want to expand Medicaid.
Asians are far less likely than whites to land tech leadership roles. Ascend
When people talk about the need for diversity in tech, they aren't usually talking about Asian Americans. Though they make up less than 6 percent of the overall workforce, Asians account for a whopping 17 percent of all tech-sector workers and a far higher percentage of engineers. (At Twitter, for instance, people of Asian descent hold 34 percent of the technical positions.) By focusing exclusively on the obvious need for more blacks, Latinos, and women in Silicon Valley, however, diversity advocates have missed a key point: Asian workers are far less likely than whites to end up in the leadership ranks.
White workers were 2.5 times more likely than Asian workers to end up in leadership roles, the study found.
According to a study that the nonprofit Ascend Foundation released last week, white workers are two and a half times more likely then their Asian counterparts to serve as executives at major tech companies. The study, which examined the workforce demographics at Google, HP, Intel, LinkedIn, and Yahoo, found that the "Asian effect" was nearly four times greater than gender as a glass-ceiling factor. (The authors also pointed to leadership gaps for blacks and Latinos, but dismissed those results as less statistically significant, given how few blacks and Latinos are employed by the industry overall.)
The finding for Asians is notable, among other reasons, for what it says about the case of Ellen Pao, whose unsuccessful sex discrimination case against her former employer, the VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, obsessed the technology press. Though the particulars of her case are unique, the study suggests that Pao, as an Asian American, was 40 percent as likely as a white woman and 28 percent as likely as a white man to land in a leadership role.
"Asians are generally stereotyped as being nonconfrontational or timid," says Pandora's Lisa Lee, "so they may be overlooked."
The "bamboo ceiling," as author Jane Hyun terms it, is hardly limited to technology, but its existence in a sector where Asians are thriving illustrates the intractability of the problem. Hyun blames the workers for the promotion gap, arguing that they need to take a page from Sheryl Sandberg and "lean in." But other observers, such as Lisa Lee, a senior diversity manager for Pandora, point to the need for companies to curb their preconceptions about who will make a good leader.
"Asians and Asian Americans are generally stereotyped as being nonconfrontational or timid," says Lee, the former publisher of Hyphen, a magazine about the Asian-American experience. "So they may be overlooked for leadership roles because they're not thought of as leadership material. This has nothing to do with their actual skills or abilities. Part of the solution is companies making a concerted effort to address bias in the promotion process to ensure it's more fair for everyone."
There may be additional factors at play. Mario Lugay, a program officer at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, which advocates for diversity in tech, makes the point that non-Asians are quick to lump Asians into one category, whereas Silicon Valley, for example, includes economically disadvantaged Southeast Asians and foreign-born workers from a variety of cultures. "My hope is that we strive to research and address the nuances of underrepresentation," says Lugay, who is Filipino. "That includes the diversity within the category of Asian, as well as Asian Americans."
An image distributed last night by activists in support of Berkeley's cellphone right-to-know law
The City Council of Berkeley, California last night unanimously voted to require electronics retailers to warn customers about the potential health risks associated with radio-frequency (RF) radiation emitted by cellphones, setting itself up to become the first city in the country to implement a cellphone "right to know" law.
"If you carry or use your phone in a pants or shirt pocket or tucked into a bra when the phone is ON and connected to a wireless network, you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure to RF radiation," the notice, which must be posted in stores that sell cellphones, reads in part. "This potential risk is greater for children. Refer to the instructions in your phone or user manual for information about how to use your phone safely."
The industry claims the law is unconstitutional "because it would compel wireless retailers to disseminate speech with which they disagree."
The ordinance is widely expected to face a robust court challenge from the Cellular Telephone Industries Association, the wireless industry's trade group. The law "violates the First Amendment because it would compel wireless retailers to disseminate speech with which they disagree," Gerard Keegan, CITA's senior director of state legislative affairs, said yesterday in a letter to the council members. "The forced speech is misleading and alarmist because it would cause consumers to take away the message that cell phones are dangerous and can cause breast, testicular, or other cancers."
Cellphones emit non-ionizing radiation in the form of electromagnetic fields (EMF) that can penetrate human tissues. Although ionizing radiation, the kind used in x-rays, is known to cause cancer, the National Cancer Institute says there is no evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk. The American Cancer Society calls the evidence for a cellphone-cancer link "uncertain." The federal Centers for Disease Control maintains that "we do not have the science to link health problems to cell phone use."
Some long-term epidemiological studies, however, have showncorrelations between heavy cellphone use and cancer. In 2011, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer classified radiation from cellphones as "possibly carcinogenic to humans." Although the finding was hardly earth-shattering (pickled vegetables and coffee also fall into that category), concerns about the health effects of cellphones continue to mount.
A Turkish study published earlier this year, for example, found that the closer that the source of cellphone radiation was to breast cancer cells, the greater the damage to the underlying cells. The radiation increased the number of reactive forms of oxygen (a.k.a. free radicals), which can damage cells and have been shown to contribute to cancer development.
The Berkeley vote comes a day after an open letter from 195 scientists from 39 countries raised "serious concerns regarding the ubiquitous and increasing exposure to EMF generated by electric and wireless devices." The scientists, among them researchers from the University of California-Berkeley, Columbia, and Harvard, called on government agencies to impose "sufficient guidelines to protect the general public, particularly children who are more vulnerable to the effects of EMF."
"This ordinance," says Lawrence Lessig, "is just about giving people the information they need to use their phone" as intended.
Berkeley isn't the first government to ponder a cellphone right-to-know law. According to CBS reporter Elizabeth Hinson, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have also considered requiring warnings, and legislation is awaiting a vote in Maine. In 2010, San Francisco passed a ordinance that would have required manufacturers to disclose each phone's Specific Absorption Rate (the amount of RF energy absorbed by the body), but abandoned it a year later after losing the first round of a legal challenge by CTIA.
The Berkeley law is more narrowly tailored. "This ordinance is fundamentally different from what San Francisco passed," Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who helped draft the Berkeley law, told the council at last night's meeting. He has offered to defend the measure in court pro bono. "San Francisco's ordinance was directed at trying to get people to use their cellphones less. This ordinance is just about giving people the information they need to use their phone the way it is intended."
Safety tests mandated by the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates radiation levels in communication devices, assume that users will carry cellphones at least a small distance from their bodies in holsters. Storing phones in pockets or bras may expose users to RF heating effects that exceed FCC guidelines. For this reason, the FCC requires phone companies to disclose the minimum distance from the body that users should carry their phones—yet these guidelines are typically buried deep inside phones' menus and sub-menus, or in the fine print of user manuals.
A survey conducted in April by the California Brain Tumor Association found that 70 percent of Berkeley adults did not know about the FCC's minimum distance rule. And 82 percent said they wanted more information about it. (EMF activists have compiled the published separation distances for many cellphones.)
Berkeley passed the cell phone right-to-know law. One EMF activist took a celebratory photo with an iPhone6. It was on airplane mode.
Berkeley has a long history of imposing landmark regulations on powerful industries. In 1977, it became the first American city to ban smoking in restaurants. Last fall, it imposed the nation's first tax on sugary beverages. The cellphone ordinance "is a crack in the wall of denial," says Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California-Berkeley, who testified in support of the law. "Look at what happened in 1977 with Berkeley's smoking law: Things looked pretty bleak, but that led to a national movement."
Moskowitz spoke to me in the hallway outside the council chambers, where EMF activists wearing "Right to Know" buttons were celebrating their win. Devra Davis, an epidemiologist and the author of Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, asked me to snap a photo of her with Moskowitz on her iPhone 6. She's not the kind of person who winces every time she gets a text, but she handles her phone with caution. "If I carry it on my body it's on airplane mode, like it is now, or it's off," she said. "If it's on, I put in the outer pocket of my fanny pack."
Are government officials doing enough to protect us from the potential long-term health effects of wearable devices and cellphones? Maybe not. A letter released today, signed by 195 scientists from 39 countries, calls on the United Nations, the World Health Organization (WHO), and national governments to develop stricter controls on these and other products that create electromagnetic fields (EMF).
"Based on peer-reviewed, published research, we have serious concerns regarding the ubiquitous and increasing exposure to EMF generated by electric and wireless devices," reads the letter, whose signatories have collectively published more than 2,000 peer-reviewed papers on the subject. "The various agencies setting safety standards have failed to impose sufficient guidelines to protect the general public, particularly children who are more vulnerable to the effects of EMF."
For decades, some scientists have questioned the safety of EMF, but their concerns take on a heightened significance in the age of ubiquitous wifi routers, the Internet of Things, and the advent of wearable technologies like the Apple Watch and Fitbit devices, which remain in close contact with the body for extended periods.
"This is very much like studying tobacco back in the 1950s…The industry has co-opted many researchers."
Cellphones, among the most studied emitters of electromagnetic radiation, remain the standard for judging health risks. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that "we do not have the science to link health problems to cell phone use." In a 2012 review of all available research, Timothy Moynihan, a doctor with the respected Mayo Clinic, concluded that "there's no consensus about the degree of cancer risk—if any—posed by cell phone use."
The WHO, on the other hand, classifies radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation (the type emitted by wifi routers and cellphones) as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" based on limited evidence associating cellphone use with an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer. "The conclusion means that there could be some risk," Dr. Jonathan Samet, a medical professor at the University of Southern California and chair of the WHO panel that made the determination, explained in 2011, "and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer."
Studies since then have highlighted the need for caution. Last year, French researchers found an almost three-fold increase in the incidence of brain cancer in people with more than 900 hours of lifetime cellphone use. Then, in March, Swedish researchers reported that the risk of being diagnosed with brain cancer increased by a factor of three in people who'd used cell or cordless phones for at least 25 years. Research on lab animals has caused similar concerns.
Respected medical groups are starting to pay attention. In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates radiation levels in communication devices, to adopt cellphone standards that are more protective for children, and to better disclose products' EMF levels to consumers. In December, the California Medical Association urged regulators to "reevaluate microwave radiation exposure levels associated with wireless communication devices."
"We are really all part of a large biological experiment without our informed consent."
Most of the researchers who signed today's appeal letter believe that there's now enough evidence to classify radio-frequency EMF as "probably carcinogenic" or even just plain "carcinogenic," says Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California-Berkeley, who played a central role in gathering the signatures. "All of them are clearly calling for the need for caution."
Reports about a lack of scientific consensus on the health effects of cellphones, which have appeared in Slate, Wired, the Verge, and elsewhere are somewhat misleading, Moskowitz contends. In a 2009 review for the Journal of Clinical Oncology, he parsed cellphone studies based on the funding source and quality of the science. He found that low-quality and industry-funded studies tended not to associate cellphone use with a heightened risk of tumors, while high-quality and foundation- or public-funded studies usually found the opposite result. "This is very much like studying tobacco back in the 1950s," he says. "The industry has co-opted many researchers."
In 2011, Moskowitz consulted for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors after it voted to pass the nation's first right-to-know cellphone ordinance. The law would have forced retailers to warn consumers about potentially dangerous radiation levels emitted by cell phones, but the supervisors agreed to effectively nix the law to settle a court challenge by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association; the industry's lead trade group argued that the law violated its free speech rights. (The CTIA did not return a call from Mother Jones requesting comment on today's appeal letter and the health effects of cellphones.)
On Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council will vote on a right-to-know law that was carefully worded to thwart legal challenges. Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig, who helped craft the law, has volunteered to defend it in court pro bono. "We are really all part of a large biological experiment without our informed consent," says Columbia University EMF expert Martin Blank in a video released to coincide with today's letter. "To protect ourselves, our children, and our ecosystem, we must reduce exposure by establishing more protective guidelines."