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Nick Leiber
Nick Leiber is a journalist.

The World’s Most Lethal Border Crossing

Europe is “experiencing a maritime refugee crisis of historic proportions,” the United Nations warns. Thousands of refugees escaping conflict in Africa and the Middle East are trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. More than 1,900 migrants have lost their lives in its waters so far this year, over twice the amount of people during the same period in 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration. Brad Wieners profiled the millionaire husband-and-wife team trying to save them with their own search-and-rescue operation in his April Bloomberg Business cover story “Dying at Europe’s Doorstep.”

That afternoon, and well into the night, he and Regina discussed what Pope Francis, on his first visit outside the Vatican, had described as “the globalization of indifference” to the plight of refugees at sea. “Papa Francesco said that everyone that could help, should do it, [and] with his own skills,” says Regina, who speaks English as well as her native Italian. “So we start to think, what are our capabilities? We have a good background in helping people in trouble.”

As with the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration is a perennial, intractable problem for the coastal states of Southern Europe, but it’s become a full-on humanitarian crisis in the four years since the Arab Spring. In 2014, 218,000 irregular migrants (the inelegant term of art for refugees and those traveling without documentation) tried to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). That’s more than five times the number that tried in 2010. Some are from poor nations in sub-Saharan Africa, simply seeking a better life. Most have fled civil wars and lawlessness in Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia. Last year at least 3,419 died in the attempt, making the Mediterranean the world’s most lethal border crossing.


The ship’s first rescue was on Aug. 30, 2014, about 30 nautical miles from Libya. “You had several boats, including one filled with children that was getting ready to capsize,” says Catrambone. “You had the water coming up—the boat was filling up, the children were screaming and crying, many of them didn’t know how to swim.” Before it was over, more than 100 people were in the drink, floating with the aid of MOAS’s plastic orange life jackets. Once the crew had everyone aboard, they almost ran out of infant formula. “On that day, it went from zero to 358 immediately. And it was no holds barred for the next 20 hours.”

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The ‘Quasi-Celebrity’ Gene Editing Pioneer

Jennifer Doudna. Photo by Michele Limina, Flickr

The controversial genome editing technique Crispr-Cas9 has sparked some fascinating recent deep-dives, including Backchannel’s “Editing the Software of Life, for Fame and Fortune” in June, and Wired’s July cover story “The Genesis Engine,” which inspired the Twitter hashtag #crisprfacts. Jennifer Doudna, the biochemist who helped invent the breakthrough tool, often helps anchor the coverage. Andrew Pollack profiled Doudna in May for the New York Times:

The discovery has turned Dr. Doudna (the first syllable rhymes with loud) into a celebrity of sorts, the recipient of numerous accolades and prizes. The so-called Crispr-Cas9 genome editing technique is already widely used in laboratory studies, and scientists hope it may one day help rewrite flawed genes in people, opening tremendous new possibilities for treating, even curing, diseases.

But now Dr. Doudna, 51, is battling on two fronts to control what she helped create.

While everyone welcomes Crispr-Cas9 as a strategy to treat disease, many scientists are worried that it could also be used to alter genes in human embryos, sperm or eggs in ways that can be passed from generation to generation. The prospect raises fears of a dystopian future in which scientists create an elite population of designer babies with enhanced intelligence, beauty or other traits.

Scientists in China reported last month that they had already used the technique in an attempt to change genes in human embryos, though on defective embryos and without real success.

Dr. Doudna has been organizing the scientific community to prevent this ethical line from being crossed. “The idea that you would affect evolution is a very profound thing,” she said.

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Olive Oil Trouble

Olive-oil fraud was already common in antiquity. Galen tells of unscrupulous oil merchants who mixed high-quality olive oil with cheaper substances like lard, and Apicius provides a recipe for turning cheap Spanish oil into prized oil from Istria using minced herbs and roots. The Greeks and the Romans used olive oil as food, soap, lotion, fuel for lamps and furnaces, a base for perfumes, and a cure for heart ailments, stomach aches, hair loss, and excessive perspiration. They also considered it a sacred substance; cult statues, like the effigy of Zeus at Olympia, were rubbed regularly with oil. People who bathed or exercised in Greek gymnasiums anointed their bodies as well, using oils that were scented with pressed flowers and roots. Some scholars link the central place of olive oil in Greek sports, which were performed in the nude, with the rise of bronze statuary in the sixth century B.C. “A tanned athlete, shining in the summer sun, covered with oil, would really resemble a statue of the gods,” Nigel Kennell, a specialist in ancient history at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, said. Belief in the sacred, health-giving properties of olive oil continued in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. “Christ” is from the Greek christos, meaning “the anointed one”—anointed with olive oil.

—From “Slippery Business,” Tom Mueller’s 2007 story for the New Yorker about olive oil fraud. The recent spike in olive oil prices due to a disease in Italy nicknamed “olive ebola” and drought in Spain could spur more fraud: “When prices are high and supplies reduced, there is more incentive for fraud and for criminals to get involved,” a lawyer who specializes in food told the Financial Times last month.

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A Private Prison System for Immigrants

“You build a prison, and then you’ve got to find someone to put in them,” said Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, who has seen five of the 13 Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons built in his state. “So they widen the net and find additional undocumented folks to fill them up.”

Most of the roughly 23,000 immigrants held each night in CAR prisons have committed immigration infractions — crimes that a decade ago would have resulted in little more than a bus trip back home. And now, some of the very same officials who oversaw agencies that created and fueled the system have gone on to work for the private prison companies that benefited most.

The low-security facilities are often squalid, rife with abuse, and use solitary confinement excessively, according to advocates.

—from “Shadow Prisons” by Cristina Costantini and Jorge Rivas, published in February on Fusion. The criminalization of immigration has led to a “lucrative boom in private prisons,” the Guardian reported in a June story pegged to an American Civil Liberties Union investigation of the shadow system. Earlier this month a judge allowed a federal lawsuit to proceed that alleges one of the biggest private prison companies unjustly enriched itself with the labor of immigrant detainees.

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Start Your Own Micronation

Liberland is one of Europe’s newest would-be countries. Czech politician Vit Jedlicka and two fellow libertarians founded it in mid-April, claiming about 2.7 square miles of no man’s land between Croatia and Serbia. The idea is to create a “European Singapore,” where taxes are voluntary, Jedlicka told Bloomberg Business recently. Writing for the BBC, Rose Eveleth took a look at an older self-proclaimed sovereign state, the Principality of Sealand.

Since 1967 there have been all kinds of debates over whether or not Sealand is in fact a nation. Here’s what Michael told me when I asked: “We have never asked for recognition, and we’ve never felt the need to ask for recognition. You don’t have to have recognition to be a state, you just have to fulfill the criteria of the Montevideo Convention which is population, territory, government and the capacity to enter into negotiation with other states. We can and we have done all these things. We’ve had the German ambassador visit at one point to discuss something: that was defacto recognition. We’ve had communication with the president of France many years ago, but we have never asked for recognition and we don’t feel we need it.”

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It’s Not Just About the Minimum Wage: Barbara Ehrenreich Revisits Her Book

So what is the solution to the poverty of so many of America’s working people? Ten years ago, when Nickel and Dimed first came out, I often responded with the standard liberal wish list — a higher minimum wage, universal health care, affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation, and all the other things we, uniquely among the developed nations, have neglected to do.

Today, the answer seems both more modest and more challenging: if we want to reduce poverty, we have to stop doing the things that make people poor and keep them that way. Stop underpaying people for the jobs they do. Stop treating working people as potential criminals and let them have the right to organize for better wages and working conditions.

Stop the institutional harassment of those who turn to the government for help or find themselves destitute in the streets. Maybe, as so many Americans seem to believe today, we can’t afford the kinds of public programs that would genuinely alleviate poverty — though I would argue otherwise. But at least we should decide, as a bare minimum principle, to stop kicking people when they’re down.

—From Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2011 TomDispatch essay, which was adapted from the afterword of the 10th anniversary edition of her bestselling 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. When she worked on the book, Ehrenreich took jobs as a waitress, nursing-home aide, hotel housekeeper, Wal-Mart associate, and maid with a house-cleaning service. “I did not choose these jobs because they were low-paying. I chose them because these are the entry-level jobs most readily available to women,” she explained in an article last year for The Atlantic. Concern about income inequality has encouraged cities and states to raise the minimum wage, and the push has been gaining prominence in the presidential campaign.

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The Sale of the FT and an Oral History of the News Business

The FT Group, which includes standout business newspaper the Financial Times, is being sold for $1.3 billion to Nikkei, Japan’s largest media company. Established in 1888, the FT has been lauded for its digital transition as the newspaper industry has declined. “Riptide” is an oral history project that was first launched in 2013 about what “really happened to the news business,” by John Huey, Martin Nisenholtz, Paul Sagan, and John Geddes—and it includes an interview with a former managing director about its beginnings on the web in 1995, and its decision to start out as a free website:

I have to say, I think, in the early stages, free was the only way that people knew how to do it. Just from a technical point of view, a free website is the path of least resistance. All you need is a CMS and an ad server and, hey, you’re in business. The other element within this was, I think that the leadership at the “FT,” and I think at publishers across the market as a whole, simply didn’t really understand some of the long term strategic implications of this stuff.

They understood that they needed to be involved in the Web, but I don’t think anybody had really thought through how was this going to play out, and at the time, it was a really pretty small part of the business.

They were presented with a proposition that said, “The quickest, easiest, simplest way to do this is a free website, and we’ll make the money through advertising.” That ticked the boxes, so that’s the way everybody went.

I don’t think there was a point where the whole industry sat down and decided, they compared all the models and advertising was the way to go. As I say, it simply was the path of least resistance.

The “FT,” had a reassessment on this, around about 2001, when the dot com bubble started bursting. At that point, we had noticed that there were some issues for us as an organization with the advertising model.

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Pirates on the ‘Postmodern Ocean’ Are Getting More Professional

Piracy and armed robbery at sea are on the rise, according to Deutsche Welle, which noted “the increasing professionalism of the pirates” in a recent report focused on Southeast Asia. “The Outlaw Ocean,” Ian Urbina’s ongoing New York Times series chronicling lawlessness at sea, says many merchant vessels have been hiring private security as protection. William Langewiesche captured pirates’ sophistication in his 2003 story for The Atlantic, “Anarchy at Sea,” part of his coverage that led to his 2004 book The Outlaw Sea:

The pirates involved are ambitious and well organized, and should be distinguished from the larger number of petty opportunists whose presence has always afflicted remote ports and coastlines. The new pirates have emerged on a postmodern ocean where identities have been mixed and blurred, and the rules of nationality have been subverted. Scornful of boundaries, they are organized into multi-ethnic gangs that communicate by satellite and cell phone, and are capable of cynically appraising competing jurisdictions and laws. They choose their targets patiently, and then assemble, strike, and dissipate. They have been known to carry heavy weapons, including shoulder-launched missiles, but they are not determined aggressors, and will back off from stiff resistance, regroup, and find another way. Usually they succeed with only guns and knives. Box cutters would probably serve them just as well. Their goal in general is to hijack entire ships: they kill or maroon the crews, sell the cargoes, and in the most elaborate schemes turn the hijacked vessels into “phantoms,” which pose as legitimate ships, pick up new cargoes, and disappear.

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A Commercial Surrogacy Gone Wrong in Thailand

It seems as if everyone is a victim in this story: The commissioning parents, the surrogate mother and the baby, too. Maneenuchanert disagrees. “I don’t feel sad for them,” she says. “Patidta is the only victim here, because they don’t allow her to see the baby. They see the baby as a product that comes from the supermarket. They’re only sad because their product has been damaged. And now they’re trying to intimidate her, tell her she’ll end up in prison if she doesn’t honor her contract.”

Bud Lake and Manuel Santos deny all of this. They’re getting ready to fight for Carmen the only place they can—in a Thai court. They hope to show that they’re better parents to Carmen than Kusongsaang would be, more financially and emotionally stable. Lake gives the example of a post on Kusongsaang’s Facebook page where she’s cradling a pistol. He says he’s been encouraged by the meetings he’s held with Thai Social Services who seem sympathetic. Still, Lake says all the lawyers they’ve talked to say their chances of winning in a Thai court are less than ten percent.


And the thing that gets lost here—because of the Baby Gammy case and that of the Japanese Johnny Appleseed too—is that commercial surrogacy in Thailand has worked for many people, people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to have children or afford to hire a surrogate. And it has worked for many surrogates too. Better regulation here—any regulation here—might have helped prevent both the Baby Gammy case and that of the Japanese Johnny Appleseed. But instead of regulation there’s now prohibition.

—from Michael Sullivan’s recent story “Outside the Womb,” part of the podcast series “Life of the Law.” Sullivan tells the nuanced tale of a gay couple whose surrogate mother reneged on her contract in Thailand, where the military-led government banned commercial surrogacy for international couples earlier this year. The Atlantic’s “The Hidden Costs of International Surrogacy,” by Darlena Cunha, dug into the industry last year.

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‘Playing Chicken’ in China’s Stock Market

The fact that Chinese stocks were climbing ever higher while the Chinese economy was cooling should have been an unmistakable warning of a bubble, but it caused surprisingly little concern. (Another reason to worry might have been the disparity in prices between so-called “A-shares”, which can only be purchased by investors inside China to keep the domestic market shielded from outside foreign manipulation, and stakes in the same companies available to foreign investors through the Hong Kong exchange, known as “H-Shares”. This disparity suggested Chinese investors were bidding up prices well beyond any reasonable approximation of their value.) In fact, drawn by the casino-like profits to be made in the boom, more and more small investors flocked to the thousands of brokerage houses that are now proliferating in every Chinese city in order to buy and sell while staring up at flickering electronic data boards charting the rise and fall of equity prices.


The party might have been excused if it had simply eschewed responsibility for what was happening. After all, markets have a logic of their own that makes them both rise and fall according to their own forces. But, instead of simply saying, “Not our problem”, it launched a massive socialist-style rescue campaign, thereby making the party responsible for everything that happened thereafter.

Why did the party allow itself to become stuck in this quicksand? Leaders evidently felt themselves threatened not only by the collapsing share prices, but by what they also feared would be perceived as an erosion of their own credibility. What they seem to have concluded was at stake was their ability to continue projecting an image of omnipotence – the appearance, at least, of being strong enough to continue guiding and controlling “all under heaven” (tianxia).

—In his Guardian story, “Why China’s stock market was always bound to burst,” Orville Schell explains what led to the rout, and why the government is intervening. “It is a game of chicken,” a China strategist told Bloomberg Business in a story about China’s increasingly forceful efforts to prop up the market. “For now, it seems to be working.”

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