Articles

An Asteroid Wiped Out the Dinosaurs—Will We Be Next?

asteroid_illo

The new issue of California magazine has an apocalyptic theme: “This is the End.” I chose to write about planet-killing asteroids:

… at some point, an asteroid measured better in miles than feet will come for us all. According to a 1994 study published in the scientific journal Nature, we stand a 1-in-40,000 chance of dying in a “cosmic impact.” That’s more likely than perishing in a tornado, and less likely than in an airplane crash. At least in theory, the world possesses the technology to both detect and counter this threat. But as things stand right now, the next big impact might play out much as Chelyabinsk did: a short, sharp, and entirely unexpected shock—only with casualties in the millions or even billions.

Franck Marchis, a former UC Berkeley astronomer who is now a principal investigator at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, says “It won’t happen tomorrow. But it will happen. It’s a matter of time.”

(Illustration by Andrew Archer.)

 

 

Articles
Science

Comments Off

Permalink

Bummer Beach

mtnsbeach

A few years back, the Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla bought the land surrounding Martins Beach, a lovely little cove just south of Half Moon Bay. He then closed the only access road to the beach. Trouble is, all beaches are open to the public under California law. In this month’s San Francisco magazine, I wrote about the legal battle between Khosla and a group of surfers for access to the beach.

Early on the morning of October 21, 2012, five surfers pile into a Chevy Suburban in Half Moon Bay and drive south on Highway 1. Just past the city limits, they pull off the road at the entrance to Martins Beach, a beautiful little cove frequented by generations of fishermen, beachgoers, and surfers. It’s a typical coastal morning: damp, chilly, the sky a latticework of fast-moving clouds. They shrug off their hoodies and suit up.

From the highway a single road—the only way in or out—tumbles toward the beach past hay fields, weathered bungalows, and stands of wind-sculpted cypress. The road, which runs over private property, was open to the general public for almost a century. But an automatic metal gate installed by the property’s new owner now bars the way. Signs hang from the gate: “Beach Closed, Keep Out” and “No Trespassing.”

The signs make the surfers a little nervous, sure. But they had read the California Constitution the night before, saving screenshots of the relevant portions to their smartphones just in case. Article 10, Section 4, it seems to them, is pretty clear: “Access to the navigable waters of this State shall be always attainable for the people thereof.” In other words, the public owns all of California’s 1,100-mile coastline.

Shortly after the group hops the gate, they are confronted by an older man in an SUV who yells, “The cops are on their way!” before driving off. Jonathan Bremer, the leader of this group of unlikely dissidents, shoots back sarcastically: “Good morning! Thank you for allowing us to access public lands!”

The road bends in on itself, and the beach comes into view: a natural amphitheater framed by sheer 75-foot cliffs, Mediterranean in its color palette. Jutting out of the waves is Pelican Rock, a postcard-ready formation that bisects the cove. The group paddles out. It is far from an epic day—the peaks are shifty and windblown—but at least they are making their point. Bremer, a 28-year-old vehicle engineer, grew up near the coast in Bellingham, Washington, and moved here three years ago. His manner is intense, at odds with surfer stereotypes. “I really don’t like it,” he says, “when people tell me I can’t go places that I’m legally entitled to go.”

Then, as they sit in the lineup, their boards rising and falling with the swell, the cops show up.

Articles
California
Legal

Comments Off

Permalink

H8

smith4

My Discharge piece from last year–in which I chronicle an iconic punk band’s disastrous experiment with hair metal–gets a second life as a supplement to the New Inquiry‘s latest issue, titled “H8.” I’m pleased there’s a new audience for the story, of course. The best part, though, is the new title the editors have bestowed on my piece: “Fuck You! Fuck You! Fuck You!

Articles
Metal
Music
punk
San Francisco

Comments Off

Permalink

Radio Freedom: A History of South African Underground Radio

rfLast week, The Appendix published my piece on Radio Freedom, the ANC’s revolutionary radio station during the apartheid era. I discovered that, in many ways, the station’s history parallels that of modern South Africa itself.

At seven p.m. sharp, seven nights a week, during the darkest days of apartheid, an incendiary radio broadcast beamed out from Lusaka, Zambia. It began with the clack of machine-gun fire, followed by a familiar call-and-response:

Amandla Ngawethu!

“Power to the People!”

The shooting faded in and out, waxing and waning with the chant.

Hundreds of miles and two countries to the south, people gathered in matchbox homes in Johannesburg’s industrial townships and community centers in the Cape Flats and thatched-roof huts in black homelands to hear the transmission. They hunched over shortwave radios, straining to hear through clouds of static. They listened with the lights off, making sure that nobody had followed them. Secrecy was necessary, because there were informers everywhere. Just hearing this stuff could get you eight years in prison.

Africa
Articles
Music
Politics
South Africa

Comments Off

Permalink

“But He’s Not a Politician!”

edleeMy profile of Mayor Ed Lee is the cover story in this month’s San Francisco magazine. With photography by the great Jim Hughes. I’ve never met Hughes, but he also shot my profiles of Rose Pak and Aaron Peskin. Here’s the subhed:

Mayor Ed Lee wasn’t supposed to be a polarizing political figure. Then the economy went berserk, and the old San Francisco fault lines cracked wide open.

 

Articles
Politics
San Francisco

Comments Off

Permalink

Inspector General

mag_coverFor this profile of the man who runs field operations for U.S. Customs across a huge swath of the West, I spent a few days talking with Customs agents and hanging out at the Port of Oakland, SFO, and a mail-inspection warehouse. It was totally fascinating.

The Port of Oakland is not a human-sized place.

Stacks of shipping containers stretch into the wide blue sky, monoliths of gleaming metal overhung by skyscraping cranes that methodically load crates on and off of cargo ships. Far below, semi-cabs and SUVs trundle to and fro, mice in the shadow of giants.

In one corner of the terminal, a Customs and Border Protection officer inhabits a specialized utility truck, peering into a few dozen of the 500,000 containers that pass through the California port each year.

Articles
California
crime
San Francisco

Comments Off

Permalink

Sightseeing in a Police State: a Syrian Travelogue

assad002

In the late 1990s, long before the Arab Spring and the massacres of the civil war, I traveled to Syria as a tourist. This is a memoir-ish account of what it was like to go sightseeing in a dictatorship.

At the time, Syria was terra incognita to most Americans. I knew the bare geopolitical facts: Cold War bogeyman, foe of Washington and Tel Aviv, ally of Iran and Hezbollah, but that’s about it. A few years later, I’d return to the region as a journalist, working in Egypt and then in Palestine, covering the second Intifada. In 1997, though, I was twenty-two and, in my own half-formed way, curious about the world. I chose Syria because it sounded cool and vaguely dangerous. Above all, I wanted an answer to one ethically queasy question: What did sightseeing in a dictatorship feel like?

Articles
Foreign policy
Middle East
Travel

Comments Off

Permalink

Poverty is Making Kids Sick

nbh

Or so argues Nadine Burke Harris. And the rest of the medical establishment–not to mention Hillary Clinton–is beginning to listen. In this piece for San Francisco magazine, I profiled a local doctor who is making waves across the country, helping transform the way we think of childhood illness.

Articles
California
San Francisco

Comments Off

Permalink

More on Discharge

Reaction to my Discharge piece was spirited and generally positive. I particularly enjoyed this comment thread. A sample:

“One thing that article got wrong: Metal sucked then and it sucks now. Up yours metalheads!(except Lemmy)”

I love that.

Articles
California
Metal
Music
punk

Comments Off

Permalink

Rules of the Tribe: Hardcore Punks and Hair Metal in the 1980s

discharge

My latest feature is about punk and metal specifically, but it’s also about tribal loyalties–and what happens when you violate the rules of your tribe. In 1986, the iconic English hardcore band Discharge–inspirations for Metallica and Slayer, among many others–went glam metal. The band then embarked on one of the most disastrous tours in music history. My story for The Appendix, chock full of multimedia and other cool stuff, chronicles that tour.

The chant began less than two minutes into the first song. An undercurrent at first, just a few hecklers. But it got louder with repetition, each wave building on the last. Soon the chant threatened to drown out the band itself.

“Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”

It was tough to take. But it was entirely in keeping with everything else about this disastrous tour. The angry crowd in Long Beach. The broken-down van in the Sonoran desert. Sixteen tickets sold in Portland. Now, onstage in San Francisco, the members of Discharge—the fastest, meanest, most uncompromising English hardcore punk band of the 1980s—must have wished they were somewhere, anywhere else.

The story isn’t available online yet, but I’ll post it when it is. For now, you can subscribe to The Appendix here.

Articles
Metal
Music
punk
San Francisco

Comments Off

Permalink