Monthly Archives: September 2019

Video previews: Coming April 28

April 28

“Inherent Vice” (R, 148 minutes, Warner); Joaquin Phoenix is Doc Sportello, a private eye living in the seedy environs of fictional Gordita Beach, Calif.


, in 1970 in this kaleidoscopic yet languidly compelling whodunit based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon. “Inherent Vice” roils and simmers with epochal shifts, spiritual cataclysms and eerily prescient observations of present-day realities, from long-brewing mistrust of the police to a burgeoning security state.But as a viewing experience, it’s a remarkably mellow, even soothing experience. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who has made a career of capturing Los Angeles from every angle, era and collective mood swing, “Inherent Vice” unfolds so organically and with such humanistic grace that even at its most preposterous, viewers will find themselves nodding along, sharing the buzz the filmmaker has so skillfully created. Anderson enlists the best faces in the business to give warmth, humor and pathos to characters whose antic contradictions and off-the-wall pronouncements are nearly always suffused with unspoken sorrow. Katherine Waterston delivers an impressive breakout performance as the willowy Shasta, whose pull on Doc is palpable. Josh Brolin steals every scene he’s in as the square-jawed, straight-arrow Lt. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. And Benicio Del Toro makes the most of his small part as Doc’s attorney, keeping a straight face at every bent, bizarro turn. Contains pervasive drug use, sexual content, graphic nudity, profanity and some violence. Extras include featurettes “Los Paranoias,” “Shasta Fay,” The Golden Fang” and “Everything In This Dream.”

“Paddington” (PG, 95 minutes, TWC-Dimension/Anchor Bay): Because of its adorable protagonist, laugh-out-loud gags and touching premise, this sweet little film about a cub who finds a family and home succeeds in a way most CGI/live-action hybrids do not. While the slapstick isn’t particularly original, director Paul King makes the silliness work. Based on a half-century of classic children’s books by Michael Bond, the movie is set in the present and keeps the focus in London, which is depicted as the ideal place for bears and other exiles. A marmalade-loving bear cub (voiced by Ben Whishaw) travels from “Darkest Peru” to England to find the explorer who long ago discovered the bear’s aunt and uncle. In addition to Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”) and Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins, the cast includes other comically adept actors such as Julie Walters (Harry Potter’s Molly Weasley), Peter Capaldi (the latest “Doctor Who”) and, most notably, Nicole Kidman as a greedy museum taxidermist who wants to “stuff” Paddington and put him on display. Contains mild action and rude humor. Extras include “Meet the Characters,” “When a Bear Comes to Stay” and “From Page to Screen” featurettes, and a “Shine” music video with Gwen Stefani and Pharrell. Also, on Blu-ray: “Shine” music video making-of featurette.

“The Gambler” (R, 110 minutes, Paramount): This remake of the 1974 crime drama is a sleek but trivial account of a privileged jerk hellbent on self-destruction. Mark Wahlberg plays the title character, Jim Bennett, a generally unsavory guy in Los Angeles who grew up rich. Addicted to gambling, he’s in the hole for $240,000 to two dangerous men (played by Michael K. Williams and Alvin Ing, and he has a week to pay up. Subplots involving Bennett’s supposed literary genius and a relationship with a comely student (Brie Larson) are mostly shallow. Director Rupert Wyatt fares better in the look-and-feel department and the soundtrack is full of gems, but it’s John Goodman who steals every scene. As a scary loan shark who might cough up cash to get Jim out of his pickle, Goodman elevates the material, showcasing the dark humor Wyatt was clearly going for. Contains strong language throughout and some sexuality.Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes look, deleted/extended scenes, a featurette on updating the film, location and costume design shorts and a “Dark Before Dawn: The Descent of The Gambler” featurette.

“The Wedding Ringer” (R, 101 minutes, Sony): At certain moments, the film almost succeeds as a heartfelt comedy about male friendship in which its two stars, Josh Gad and Kevin Hart, get to demonstrate that they can act. Just when you start to care a little about the soon-to-be-married schlub (Gad) and the professional he hires to pose as his best man (Hart), this tonally confused farce careens back into shock-and-bawdy territory, seemingly determined to prove it has more than earned its R rating. As scripted by “The Break-Up” co-writers Jay Lavender and Jeremy Garelick, “The Wedding Ringer” is essentially a mashup of “Wedding Crashers” and “I Love You, Man.” Contains rude and sexual content, profane language throughout, some drug use and brief graphic nudity. Extras include commentary with Garelick and Gad and a “Going to the Chapel of Love” featurette. Also, on Blu-ray: 15 deleted scenes, five outtake reels, Line-o-Rama (alternate shots of jokes on set) and Aloe Blacc’s “Can You Do This” music video.

“50 to 1” (PG-13, 111 minutes, Sony): Watching this horse-racing drama inspired by the true story of long-shot Mine That Bird’s upset victory in the 2009 Kentucky Derby is a lot like watching the original race, with about 100 minutes of pre-race television programming. As in real life, the exciting part lasts only a minute or two, and then it’s over. Opening with the bar fight where trainer Chip Woolley (Skeet Ulrich) and racing stable owner Mark Allen (Christian Kane) first meet, the movie paints its central characters as lovable reprobates and cantankerous misfits. The cadre of New Mexico cowboys responsible for Mine That Bird’s care and feeding also includes William Devane’s crusty veterinarian/co-owner Leonard “Doc” Blach, the team’s aging voice of reason. Ulrich has believable intensity and charisma that propel the film, even though for much of the movie he’s on crutches, a true-life touch after the trainer was injured in a motorcycle accident. Contains some crude language, suggestive material and a bar brawl. Extras include a making-of and a blooper reel.

Also: “Mommy” (Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winner from Canada about a widowed single mom burdened with the full-time custody of her unpredictable 15-year-old ADHD son; in French with English subtitles, Lionsgate), “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973 Robert Mitchum drama, The Criterion Collection), “The Barber” (with Scott Glenn, ARC Entertainment), “Boy Meets Girl” (LGBT coming of age film, Wolfe), “Bedlam” and “La silence de la mer” (1949, The Criterion Collection).

Television Series: “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” (three-part, six-hour PBS documentary series), “The Mentalist: Seventh and Final Season,” “Wolf Hall” (PBS miniseries with Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis), “Covert Affairs: Season Five” (USA), “Suits: Season 4” (USA), “The Jeffersons: Season Seven” (1980-81), “I Love Lucy: I Heart Mom Edition,” “Sgt. Bilko — The Phil Silvers Show: Season 2” (1956-57, five-disc set), “Scooby-Doo! and Scrappy-Doo!: Season 1,” “The Mystery of Lord Lucan” (British crime drama starring Rory Kinnear, Catherine McCormack and Michael Gambon, Acorn), “New Tricks, Season 11” (BBC mystery series, Acorn), “Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites, Season Five,” “My Little Pony Tales: The Complete Classic TV Series” (1992), “Blood of the Vine: Season 3” (France), “Look of a Killer” (Finland) and “The Legacy” (Denmark).

– – –

Washington Post staff writer Kay Coyte contributed to this report.

Why we worry about patenting the foods we eat

A 1980 Supreme Court decision that allowed patents to be granted to living things kicked off the controversy.


The basic genetic materials of the things we eat have been around, and have been tinkered with, for millennia, and the idea that a new version of one of them could earn protection that would prevent farmers from saving seed and, perhaps, give the patent holder inordinate control over our food supply has raised a number of concerns. I’m going to tackle the ones that seem to worry people most.

The first is that patents allow patent holders to restrict research, and that’s true, although many of the restrictions arise from the contract that farmers sign in order to buy the seed rather than from the patent itself. Monsanto, for example, requires buyers to sign a “Technology/Stewardship Agreement” that explicitly prohibits using the seed for research or breeding. Other companies have similar agreements.

Christopher Holman, a law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, explains that there is a de facto — not a legal — protection for basic research on patented plants. “As a practical matter, basic researchers are never sued for patent infringement,” he says. What’s basic? “Pure science that is meant to increase our scientific knowledge base,” says Holman. Given the imprecision of the definition, and the fact that the exception isn’t a legal one anyway, this strikes me as an eye-of-the-beholder situation.

Each patent and each research project is different, and I’ve come across stories of scientists who have felt stifled and of scientists who got full cooperation. Jim Myers, a professor of vegetable breeding and genetics at Oregon State University, says that patents, or patent disputes, sometimes lock up the building blocks of plants that used to be freely available to scientists. “Before patents, there was a lot of innovation that came out of trading germplasm [the genetic material of a plant]. Now, everyone has their own set of material that they do not share. . . . My sense is that we’re missing something here because of the lack of access to each other’s programs.”

Monsanto has agreements with more than 100 universities that allow academic scientists to do independent research with no oversight (although those agreements don’t cover plant breeding). That’s one reason why, despite what you might have heard, there have been hundreds of independent studies on genetically engineered organisms. Biology Fortified, an independent nonprofit organization, is cataloging GMO research and is 400 studies into a database that eventually will hold more than 1,000. The database, GENERA, shows that, of those 400, more than half report receiving no industry funding.

There’s no line in the sand that says researchers can do this but not that. Sometimes patent holders grant licenses to academic researchers, as when Cornell scientists used a process patented by Monsanto to develop a papaya resistant to the ringspot virus, and Monsanto granted the license with no charge. But those same companies protect their patents from being used in commercial applications, and sometimes it’s simply a judgment call. Eye of the beholder.

A second concern is that patenting has driven the consolidation of the seed industry, and that is also true. Phil Howard, an associate professor at Michigan State University, studies just that. “The top 10 seed companies made nearly 200 acquisitions between 1996 and 2013,” he says, “and the top three — Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta — now control just over half the industry.”

Everyone I spoke to agreed that patents were a factor, although not the only factor, underlying the shift. The large companies had the GM products and, perhaps more important, the patented techniques to insert genes into plants. (There are patents covering non-GM crops, but it’s the GM technology that’s mostly at issue.) The smaller companies had lots of different kinds of seed adapted to different conditions and purposes. The easiest way for the large companies to get their GM varieties out into the market (and thus recoup the major investment they’d made in developing them) was to buy seed companies and attach their GM traits to those seeds.

The real question, though, is whether that’s a bad thing. Specifically, does it restrict farmers’ choices and force them to buy (and pay the higher price for) GM crops when they want non-GM, or seeds with more than one GM trait when they want only one?

There’s no definitive research that can tell us the percentage of farmers who can’t get a seed they want. It does happen. It happened to Todd Leake, who grows soybeans in North Dakota. “After GM soy became available, we weren’t able to access conventional soybean seed in the Northern Plains, except for some old varieties that didn’t have good disease resistance,” he says. He adds that a program at North Dakota State University, which had bred soybeans adapted to local conditions, couldn’t compete with the big companies and stopped developing new varieties.

Among the dozen or so farmers and the corn and soy growers’ associations I’ve talked to, Leake is the exception. Although the widespread preference for GM seed ensures that there are often more GM choices than non-GM, farmers report a wide variety of both kinds, and an experience similar to that of Brian Scott, a fourth-generation farmer with 2,100 Indiana acres of corn, soy, popcorn and wheat. “I wouldn’t have trouble getting non-GMO seed,” he says, and seeds with just one GM trait, or several, are also available. One of the seed companies in his area specifically markets non-GM corn.

The story of Big Ag forcing GMOs down the throats of unsuspecting farmers, ensuring that those farmers not only pay through the nose but also can’t save seed and thus have to pay through the nose again next year, is largely fiction. And it’s a story that lots of farmers find really irritating, because it makes them out to be dupes or patsies. Roundup-Ready corn and soy, which can be sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate (used to kill weeds) and show no ill effects, are widely planted because farmers want them. And Monsanto has made piles of money because it developed plants that the vast majority of farmers wanted to buy. Had patent protection not existed, those companies might have focused almost exclusively on the one megacrop that farmers can’t save seed for regardless: Corn, a hybrid, doesn’t breed true. Patents ensure that crops like soy, for which farmers can save seed, also get attention.

That’s not a compelling argument if you don’t like Roundup-Ready crops, and there are good reasons not to like them: They’ve led to an increase in herbicide use and the emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds. But the built-in pesticide in Bt corn and soy has allowed farmers to cut back substantially on large-scale pesticide applications. And how about the DuPont yeast that makes long-chain omega-3 fats, thus allowing us to generate those fats, vital to human health, without harvesting a single fish? Improving agriculture can be an expensive proposition. Patenting means there’s a way for people and companies that invest time and money to recoup that investment.

Every year, when my husband and I buy our oyster seed (which is what the pinhead-size oysters from the hatchery are called), we pay a patent fee to get triploid oysters, which don’t reproduce. Diploid, which do, are readily available, but the advantages to us of triploid — they don’t spawn, they grow faster — vastly outweigh the cost of the patent fee. Farmers who buy patented seed make the same decisions. If the increased seed cost and, in some cases, the inability to save seed outweigh the advantages of patented seed, they buy. If not, they don’t. They’re not dupes or patsies.

And perhaps the single most important thing about patents is that they’re finite. Some of Monsanto’s patents have already expired and entered the public domain, and have enabled smaller companies to jump into the mix. Okanagan Specialty Fruits, for example, has taken advantage of the now-public technology to develop a non-browning apple. And, although DuPont has the sole right to its yeast until about 2023, from 2023 until Armageddon, anyone can make one.

Patents on life forms certainly changed the agricultural landscape. As with most complex issues, there are advantages and disadvantages to the patenting of the things we eat.

On the downside, I think concerns about control of our seed supply by just a few companies are legitimate, and I hope the Department of Justice is keeping a sharp eye out. And the profit motive certainly helps ensure that, at least initially, the widely grown commodity crops will get the most attention, perhaps at the expense of some of the more healthful things we eat.

But patenting is standard operating procedure in a capitalist world, and I don’t think food is substantially different from other industries. There will be bad decisions, there will be hamstrung scientists, but there will also be innovation. We’ve got a lot of people to feed, and we need all the innovation we can get.

Haspel farms oysters on Cape Cod and writes about food and science. On Twitter: @TamarHaspel.

Uber prospers in Belgian capital despite ban

While the authorities of Brussels have claimed that the company’s Uber Pop product is illegal under city regulations, the service remains fully up and running.


“Brussels is one of our fastest growing European cities,” Filip Nuytemans, Uber’s operations manager in the Belgian capital, said in an interview. “We are within our rights in Belgium so there is absolutely no reason for us to back off, and we have not. Growth is increasing week after week.”

A kaleidoscopic blur of events has taken place in Belgium’s capital since Uber started operations there in February, including a court ruling against the service, guerrilla tactics by licensed taxi drivers, and a clash between the city authorities and a senior official with the European Union, which has its headquarters there. Brussels authorities last week announced a fresh wave of controls against Uber.

Brussels is one of a series of flashpoints across Europe between licensed taxi operators and the San Francisco-based company, which offers a range of car travel products through its web application. Dutch police arrested four Uber drivers in Amsterdam Sunday after they were found to be using the Uber app for taxi services, while in Berlin the company is changing its business model to comply with German regulations and keep the service running.

With permits that can cost 200,000 euros ($253,000), cabbies have taken to the streets of Europe’s finest capitals. It is a battle that has seen London drivers snarl traffic in the heart of the city, and a succession of German court decisions that, in various cities, have introduced, repealed and upheld bans.

As far as the Brussels government is concerned, the legal situation is clear:

“For the moment Uber doesn’t satisfy the minimum criteria required to carry out its activities,” Marc Debont, spokesman for city Transport Minister Pascal Smet, said in an email. The “activity has been judged illegal by the Brussels judiciary.”

This interpretation is challenged by Uber, which says that the court ruling in question — a decision in April by the Brussels Commercial Court — has no practical effect, and that Uber Pop contravenes no local rules.

“There is absolutely no verdict against Uber that’s actually valid,” Nuytemans said. “We strongly believe in all our arguments as to why we are not a taxi, or within the taxi legislation.”

Uber Pop is a service with which drivers use their private cars to carry passengers and pay commissions to Uber. The company calls it “the low-cost Uber” and markets it as a ride- sharing service, with drivers seeking to earn extra money on top of their main occupations.

Like other Uber products, it works via an app downloaded onto tablets and smartphones. Drivers are vetted by the company and have to meet certain criteria before they’re allowed to use the app to find customers. There are now more than 100 Uber drivers in Brussels.

“Before coming to Belgium, we looked really closely at the legislation, and at launching our professional driver service, Uber Black. But there’s a really old piece of legislation in Brussels that prevented us from doing so,” Nuytemans said.

“At that moment, we were also promoting Uber Pop, so we looked at the legislation closely with our lawyers. We saw that that product would be in line with the law, and we decided to launch it,” he said.

This meant Brussels was the first city in the world where Uber deployed Uber Pop ahead of a professional driver service.

The court decision in April stemmed from a lawsuit filed against the web-based platform by Taxi Radio Bruxellois, a local dispatcher company, alleging that Uber was violating local rules on regulated taxi services, constituting a form of unfair competition.

“Technically, it was not a court case against us, because they sued the wrong entity,” said Nuytemans.

“There was a verdict by default because we didn’t show up, but that was addressed against the wrong company, not against the entity that is in charge of the platform,” he said. The “result was that they had to restart the case against Uber. By then it had been written in all the newspapers that Uber was banned.”

As legal limbo ensued, certain Brussels taxi drivers took matters into their own hands. They signed up as Uber customers, and requested a ride, then asked to be dropped at control points for officials working for Bruxelles Mobilite, the city’s transport ministry. This led to more than a dozen cars being impounded and subsequently released.

While the court judgment mentioned 10,000-euro fines, Uber says none have been handed out. The company expressed concern to Bruxelles Mobilite and the seizures ceased, said Nuytemans.

Uber’s presence in Brussels has received strong support from Neelie Kroes, the member of the European Commission in charge of the development of online markets. The commission, the European Union’s executive arm, has its headquarters in the city.

“Uber is popular in Brussels for a reason. Shutting down Uber won’t remove that reason, and that’s the main point,” Kroes said in an email. “Regulators should protect us, but it’s not their job to stop people feeding their families and paying their bills by giving customers something they want.”

In a rare public contretemps between the EU institutions and the Brussels city authorities, Kroes slammed the court ruling and the favorable reaction to it from Smet’s predecessor, Brigitte Grouwels, to the point of suggesting the Belgian should have her job title changed to “anti-mobility minister.”

Grouwels retorted that Kroes’s stance represented a “savage liberalism” based around “survival of the fittest,” according to news agency Belga. “The Uber system is interesting, but there are rules and they should be respected,” she said, adding that she was open to talks.

In Brussels, the taxi system is largely based around two licensed operators, with a third based at Brussels’ Zaventem airport.

“Considering the broad definition of a taxi rendering service under the applicable Brussels regulation, it seems difficult for Uber to challenge that it should not be qualified as such,” Pieter Van Den Broecke, a partner with law firm Linklaters in Brussels, said in an interview.

“From a general unfair-competition point of view, I do see there to be an issue with the operations of Uber in Brussels if other companies are complying to a much stricter regime in order to obtain a license,” Van Den Broecke said.

Brussels citizens tend to focus more on the cost, as Uber is more affordable than traditional taxis. “Taxis are far too expensive in Brussels. Even in other European capitals, taking a taxi is is more affordable than in this city,” said Brussels resident Anne-Laure Simonis. “I hardly take taxis in Brussels, but I will take an Uber since the price is reasonable.”

The Belgian Transport Union last week organized an awareness day at Brussels’ South Station to urge people to turn away from Uber, according to Belga. The company “arrogantly flouts all the rules,” the association said in a statement. “They avoid all the obligations which the real taxi industry should meet,” including on minimum wage, licensing, insurance and vehicle inspection, it said.

While insisting that Uber Pop doesn’t fall within the purview of taxi regulations, Uber has insisted that the service meets high operating standards. Nuytemans said the service is fully insured, conducts driver thorough background checks and monitors the cars’ roadworthiness under Belgian rules.

“Safety is our number one priority” Nuytemans said. “It’s probably one of the safest products out there.”

Brussels isn’t the only European city where the legal situation around Uber is in flux. In the EU’s largest economy, Germany, Uber lost court rulings in September against bans issued by authorities in Berlin and Hamburg. In Frankfurt, a court said last month that a group representing traditional taxi dispatchers had waited too long to seek a quick ruling via an urgency procedure.

In France, the authorities introduced a decree requiring car-service apps to wait 15 minutes before picking up passengers.

The current Brussels administration, which took office in July, has indicated that it will seek to adapt the relevant regulations in a way that takes into account new technologies, potentially offering a solution to the impasse.

“The ultimate aim is to update the legislation as much for the traditional taxi sector as for new technologies, so that everyone can find their place in Brussels,” said Debont at the municipal transport ministry. The new controls on Uber “are a reality, but do not necessarily involve seizing vehicles.”

Uber itself says it’s ready to talk, including discussing more regulation of its Uber Pop service. “The law is there for interpretation, but we are very confident in our argumentation,” Nuytemans said. “If you want to put more regulation around the Uber Pop as a transportation system, then we are happy to have that discussion.”

In the meantime, Uber Pop continues to attract customers despite the Magrittesque developments.

“The growth in Brussels has been massive,” Nuytemans said. “We let the demand go where it goes, and then we follow with the supply.”

_ Verlaine reported from London.

Raise the gasoline tax before it’s too late

Let’s assume for the moment that my wild-eyed speculation is correct.


Play this out and it means that at some point in the future, sales of gasoline-powered automobiles will peak and begin to fall. This has enormous ramifications for the U.S. transportation grid, and the health of the American economy — and for anyone investing in energy or transportation and all the related industries.

We now pay for the maintenance and construction of our interstate highway system, bridges and tunnels — plus many state and local roads — through the Highway Trust fund.

The fund is financed by a gasoline tax that has been stuck in a time warp. The last time the tax was increased to keep up with the cost of construction and maintenance was in 1993, to 18.4 cents a gallon. But now the trust fund is being starved of funding because the tax wasn’t indexed to inflation. Adding to the strains is weather that has gotten worse for roads because of hotter summers and colder snowier winters.

A never-ending series of emergency measures and short-term fixes have kept the Fund afloat, but now it’s just about out of money. Even the Senate’s proposed three-year agreement – which is still too little — will be a challenge to get through the House, which only is looking to extend federal highway spending to December.

Which brings us back to the rise of electric-battery vehicles. If my modest projections are right — half of all cars sold in the U.S. and Europe by 2035 will be either plug-ins or hybrid-electric — then the demand for gasoline is going to start falling. We don’t know when gasoline use will peak. Even the most skeptical observer of the auto industry knows that gasoline sales are not likely to continue rising during the next century.

Can anyone legitimately make the case that gasoline sales are not going to peak at some point within the next five decades? It isn’t even a huge stretch to imagine a plateau beginning as soon as 2025.

Which brings us back to the issue of road maintenance: If my speculation is even remotely correct, the era when we finance highway construction and maintenance with a consumption tax is coming to an end. At some point in the not-too-distant future, gasoline sales won’t even have the potential (which they have today) to fund road maintenance. The aversion to tax increases now make even the most rudimentary repairs difficult or impossible; in the future, the U.S. may not even have the option of turning to a gas tax increase because the sales base won’t be there.

The window is beginning to close on refinancing America’s debt at historically low interest rates. Make me your all-powerful benevolent king and I will float a $5 trillion, 50-year bond offering to rebuild the entire transportation infrastructure, from bridges to tunnels to highways, including technologically advanced, cleaner, smart roads. But short of that, doubling the gas tax to 37 cents and indexing it to inflation will keep the roads functional, allowing for the efficient transportation of goods around the nation.

Of all the taxes we love to hate, the gasoline tax is the most innocuous. It isn’t even a true tax, but a usage fee: the more you drive, the more goods you consume, the more you pay for the cost of the roads that make the modern U.S. economy possible.

The U.S. highway system, once the envy of the world, has become a national embarrassment. It’s long past time to change that.

– Barry Ritholtz, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management. He is a consultant at and former chief executive officer for FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm.

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The Islamice State economy: Where the poor starve and the tax man carries a whip

“It used to be paradise,” she said, describing her former life along the Euphrates River, while sitting in a metal hut in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, where she arrived in May with the help of smugglers.


The Islamic State has tried to do what al-Qaida and other jihadist groups never attempted: establish an actual state, with government institutions and a functioning economy. Although the militants have had some success at governing, millions of people under their control find food, fuel and other basics of daily life either impossible to come by or too expensive to afford.

Interviews with more than three dozen people who live in militant-controlled areas or have recently fled them suggest that the Islamic State has created a two-tiered system in which local people struggle to eat, while Islamic State occupiers have free electricity and food, even imported goods such as Red Bull energy drinks.

Those interviewed said food is easier to find in areas where fruits and vegetables are grown or where farm animals are plentiful. But with traditional supply routes closed because of fighting, even basic items such as sugar or baby formula have to be smuggled in and are prohibitively expensive.

The situation is even worse because so many people are unemployed, those interviewed said. Factories and large stores have closed because their owners fled or because smuggled raw materials are not affordable.

“I would only cook lentils and rice. That’s all we had,” said Amina Mustafa Humaidi, 40, who recently fled the Syrian city of Raqqa with her family and now lives in the Azraq camp, one of about 20,000 refugees residing in the desert about 40 miles east of Amman.

She said her husband was shot dead by Islamic State militants last year. His family gave her an electric pressure cooker after he died, but she had only an hour a day of electricity.

“When the electricity came on, my God, I used to rush to cook,” she said. “If I missed that hour, my kids couldn’t eat. We had a refrigerator but couldn’t use it.”

Sitting on her concrete floor in the refugee camp, Humaidi said her youngest son was 9 months old when the militants came to Raqqa, and suddenly she could no longer find baby formula for him.

“The Islamic State did not bring order. It brought chaos,” she said.

The new rulers also seem opposed to humanitarian assistance from the outside world. In April, photos appeared on Islamic State Web sites showing the militants burning two 18-wheeler loads of chicken from the United States bound for victims of the Syrian civil war.

— — —

Medical care and medication are also in desperately short supply, and many hospitals treat only Islamic State members or assign the best staff and equipment to them, according to people interviewed in Iraq and Syria.

Many medical professionals fled as the Islamic State fighters arrived. Now, if doctors seek permission to travel outside militant-controlled areas, they are often required to have as many as five people guarantee their return, according to several people interviewed. The implication is that if they don’t come back, the friends and family members who vouched for them will be punished or killed.

In Mosul, a city of more than a million people in northern Iraq, doctors said they are coping with shortages of everything: radiologists, anesthesia, blood.

“Whatever difficulties you imagine, we have them,” said one female Iraqi doctor who works at a Mosul hospital.

She said the hospital no longer does preventive surgery, reserving resources for only life-saving operations. The power outages mean that the hospital relies on generators, but it is often hard to find fuel for them. No power for water pumps means no running water.

“Imagine a hospital without water,” the doctor said. “It’s as if we are living in the 18th century. I am trying to leave Mosul, but I have a good house from 25 years of work. I can’t leave my house; it’s the fruit of my life. But this is not a life.”

— — —

To control the people it rules, the Islamic State has set up local governments that regulate services such as building permits and even fishing regulations. (Fishing with dynamite or electrical charges is now banned.)

In interviews, some people said government services had stopped, while others said that the Islamic State has improved them.

A cleric in the central Iraqi city of Fallujah, who was interviewed by telephone and who asked not to be identified for his safety, said that he opposed the militants but that they had established an effective government.

He said they had set up offices that issue marriage licenses and identification cards and that settle disputes. Islamic State-paid workers sweep the streets and have set up generators to power some street lights, he said.

They have established Islamic Sharia courts and a Hisbah office, a sort of religious police department.

“They observe prices; if anyone raises prices too much, they are punished,” the cleric said.

Several people interviewed said the previous Syrian and Iraqi governments were notorious for demanding bribes, while the Islamic State seems to have strict rules against its officials taking payoffs.

In Mosul, the militants posted a detailed notice about trash collection, instructing people to place their garbage in black plastic bags and to leave them outside for pickup just after evening prayers.

“Things are very well regulated,” said a businessman in Raqqa, interviewed via Skype, who grudgingly acknowledged that some of the engineers, architects and other skilled professionals who the militants have recruited from around the world have improved services.

“We no longer see garbage being thrown on the ground as it used to be before,” he said.

But others interviewed said the Islamic State militants were far more focused on fighting than on making daily life easier for ordinary people.

— — —

The Islamic State raises money from pilfered oil, plundered banks, extortion, kidnapping, selling antiquities on the black market – and from taxing local people.

Those interviewed said they used to pay between 2.5 percent and 10 percent of their income in zakat, a charitable contribution that Muslims make to support the poor. But they said the Islamic State now demands that zakat payments be made to it instead.

An activist from Raqqa who calls himself Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi said that zakat and other taxes and fees raised by the Islamic State are widely believed to be used to pay the salaries of Islamic State fighters and other foreigners who come to join the Islamic State. The foreigners pay no tax.

Humayda, the grandmother who fled from a village near Raqqa, said the militants took 10 percent of her family’s wheat crop, claiming that it was for the poor.

She said that once or twice a year, the Islamic State delivered a shipment of food to her village that everyone had to scramble for.

“I think they were trying to make us like them,” she said. “But then they whipped poor people for not paying their taxes.”

— — —

Sullivan reported from Washington, London and Jordan. Souad Mekhennet in Morocco and Berlin, Loveday Morris, Erin Cunningham and Mustafa Salim in Iraq, Karla Adam in London, and Taylor Luck in Jordan contributed to this report.

Emmett Till’s death, and history, fading in Mississippi town

“Is this it?” one of the travelers asked.


The building was barely standing, covered in thick weeds and ivy: Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, once the centerpiece of a bustling town of 400. In 1955, it was the site of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s fatal crime — whistling at a white woman.

Today, Bryant’s Grocery is derelict and forgotten, much like the town of Money. Although Till’s lynching is considered a pivotal spark of the civil rights movement, there’s little here to recall those events other than a modest historic marker erected outside Bryant’s four years ago.

Some say the grocery store should be turned into a museum, like many other places critical to the civil rights movement, or at least prevented from falling down.

“They should have preserved all of it,” said Eddie Carthan, a distant relative of Till’s mother and the former mayor of Tchula, which in the 1970s became one of the first Delta plantation towns to elect a black mayor.

Some of the region’s black elder statesmen aren’t convinced it matters much, though. The slow deterioration of Money is symptomatic of the region’s badly ailing economy. Once propped up by agriculture, towns in this section of northern Mississippi are now marked by blocks of boarded-up buildings, deeply impoverished people and stray dogs. A civil rights museum in Money wouldn’t change that, they say.

“This is one of the poorest areas in the United States of America,” said Johnny Thomas, mayor of Glendora, a nearby village. “What you see here in Money is the same thing you’ll see in almost any other place . . . in this region.”

Last weekend, on the 60th anniversary of Till’s death, a hodge-podge of distant relatives decided to pay their respects in Money, adding a visit to the moldering town to the family’s annual vigil at the boy’s gravesite in Chicago.

The visit comes at a time when the nation is wrestling with how to handle public symbols from that time and from other dark moments in the nation’s past. In recent months, several colleges have taken steps toward removing statues of Confederate generals. Following the lead of lawmakers in South Carolina, Mississippi officials are considering whether to remove Confederate imagery from the state flag.

Till’s relatives came from as close as Jackson, Mississippi, and as far away as Oakland, California. Among the oldest was Charles Kelly, 66, a second-cousin who said he had played with Till just days before he died. Among the youngest was an 11-year-old boy, whose family still lives in Mississippi, named Emmett Louis Till Marshall.

Deborah Watts, a distant relative of Till’s who co-founded the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, came from Minneapolis. She was visiting this part of Mississippi for the first time. Her daughter Teri, a public relations professional, helped coordinate the weekend, which included visits to other sites relevant to Till’s death.

First, they viewed a documentary about the lynching, one of the most recent in U.S. history. Then, they gathered at a local museum for a luncheon. Then, they marched through the black neighborhoods of Jackson, in a parade in Till’s honor. And then, they departed in vans on what one local official dubbed the “Till trail of terrors tour”: Bryant Grocery, the shed where he was killed, the river where his body was found and the courtroom where his alleged killers were declared not guilty.

“At the time of these events in 1955, the Mississippi Delta was a place where racial attitudes now considered abhorrent were the norm for a significant segment of society,” FBI investigators wrote in a 2006 report on Till’s death. ” ‘Jim Crow’ laws were a framework through which the races interacted; and ‘Negro Justice,’ an unwritten, de facto, separate legal system, served as the foundation for jurisprudence between blacks and whites.”

States across the South were locked in a bitter battle over voting rights and school desegregation. White Southerners, bombarded with calls for desegregation, felt their way of life was threatened. Poor whites, including shopkeepers who served even poorer black communities, believed racial equality would come at their expense.

In Mississippi, the unrest turned deadly. In May 1955, George W. Lee, a black minister who was among the first black residents in the state to register to vote, was shot and killed. In August, Lamar Smith, a black voting rights activist and World War II veteran, was shot and killed as he registered black voters outside a Mississippi courthouse. No one was charged in either killing.

Two weeks later, Till arrived in Mississippi from Chicago for a two-week visit with his mother’s family. After a few days, he went to Bryant’s Grocery to buy bubblegum and allegedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, the wife of Roy Bryant, the store’s owner.

According to their testimony in court, Carolyn Bryant told her husband what had happened the next day. The grocer was outraged. The following evening, he and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, abducted Till at gunpoint. The boy’s naked and mutilated body was pulled from the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River three days later.

Today, the grocery is abandoned. The funeral home where Till’s body was brought is a decaying shell. And Glendora, where Bryant and Milam allegedly acquired the metal cotton gin fan that was tied to the boy’s neck before his body was tossed into the river, is home to a few hundred people — most living in poverty.

One of the few spots that has been preserved is the courthouse in Sumner, the county seat, where Bryant and Milam were tried and acquitted. Indeed, their courtroom was recently restored to look at is did during the trial.

State Sen. David Jordan (D), who has represented these rural counties since 1993, joined the tour in Sumner. He glanced around the old-fashioned room and recalled attending the proceedings as a teenager. The most shocking thing about it, Jordan said, was seeing white reporters from out of town frequenting black businesses.

“It was the first time I had ever seen racial integration,” said Jordan, who is black and 81. “There were all of these white people staying in the black hotel. I couldn’t believe it.”

Despite that spectacle, Jordan said few locals believed Bryant and Milam would be convicted. The men claimed they had released Till after kidnapping him.

The pair were tried by a jury of 12 white men, each of whom were visited by the local Citizens’ Council, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan, to make sure they were going to vote “the right way,” according to FBI’s probe of Till’s death.

In 2005, the FBI opened a federal investigation into Till’s death, but no new charges were filed. Bryant and Milam are dead, and, while several other local men are also believed to have been involved in the killing, no one has served time for Till’s slaying.

As the sun set in a pink-and-yellow country sky, the tour group made its way toward one of the last stops of the day: Shurden Plantation in Drew, Mississippi. Here, in a dimly lit shed, historians believe Till was tortured and beaten for at least three hours before a bullet was put through his head.

“I haven’t been back in these counties in decades, not since the late ’60s,” said Kelly, who wore a T-shirt covered in photos of Till. “To come back, it’s hard. It brings back a lot of old memories that I had forgotten about what this did to our family.”

The group spent close to half an hour at the shed, looking at the walls, discolored by time, and spots on the ground where chunks of dirt were missing. FBI investigators had dug it up when the investigation was reopened, searching for signs of Till’s DNA.

“I’m so sorry, Emmett. I’m so sorry,” Deborah Watts whispered, her hands held together near her chest as tears spilled from beneath her sunglasses. “I’m so sorry.”

“He knows you are,” Teri Watts said, wrapping her arm around her mother’s shoulder.

They stood in the shed for several minutes longer, eyes focused on the wooden rafters where Till’s body had once hanged on cruel display.

“He knows we are,” the daughter said.

Our house? It’s a Honda.

But the experimental house where O’Hara, Bennett and their 9-year-old twin daughters live is designed to give researchers an opportunity to flash forward several years.


The future envisioned has residences leaving no carbon footprint because they’re nearly 100-percent composed of materials from sustainable sources and powered by the sun. Electric cars are the rule here, not the exception.

Here’s what the postmodern house — with the shed-style roof lines and lapstrake siding in this central California town — has that you won’t find in a subdivision near you:

_ The house uses reclaimed wood for all the trim and furniture, as well as reclaimed nails. Even the concrete is sustainable. The foundation and polished concrete floors contain pozzolan, which comes from volcanic ash and is used to reduce the amount of Portland cement needed. Making Portland cement requires lots of heat, and thus produces a considerable amount of carbon dioxide.

_ The house has the same type of circadian-rhythm lighting that’s used on the International Space Station. It emits blue lights in the morning and orange light in the evening. The bedroom lighting produces a warm hue to help relax the family before going to sleep.

_ This being California, the house is designed with the state’s high environmental protection and water preservation standards in mind. Runoff water goes into a bioswale on the property, avoiding sewers that eventually empty into the Sacramento River. The collected runoff is used to water plants in the yard, saving fresh water in this drought-ravaged state.

_ The house gets all its power from the sun, but remains connected to the grid. In a pinch, an electric car parked in their garage can power the house.

“We signed up for a year here and we’re really hoping they let us stay on, because we don’t think we can go back to a regular house,” says O’Hara, 49, whose 12-month stay is scheduled to end in October.

— — —

The project is being driven by an unlikely manufacturer: Honda Motor Company.

Honda’s long journey to sustainable home design started in 1946, when company founder Soichiro Honda got an idea about mounting a small engine onto a bicycle.

For years, Honda has been studying green housing at its demonstration site in Japan. The demo house in Japan uses a small engine that runs on natural gas to generate its electricity. Heat produced by the engine is captured and used to warm the house. In international markets, the system is called “micro combined heat and power.” More than 130,000 units are in place in Japan, most of them made by Honda.

Now, with the Honda Smart House in California, the company is seeking to push the sustainability movement much further. One of Honda’s requirements for that study was the subjects needed to use a vehicle on a regular basis. The project furnished O’Hara and Bennett with a fully electric four-door Honda Fit to drive. An aim of the project is to prepare for a time when sustainable houses and vehicles will be in much wider use and to study how that would affect the nation’s aging power grid.

“We already had the demo house in Japan and on this one [in Davis], we really wanted to focus on the energy management side of things, the vehicle side of things and, ‘How is it going to integrate with the house?’ ” says Michael Koenig, a mechanical engineer and project leader of the Davis house.

“The ability to manage and dispatch energy is of interest to Honda,” says Koenig. “We want to be part of the solution.”

— — —

The home is in the University of California at Davis’ West Village, which is the largest planned net-zero energy community in the United States. Housing for faculty and students is priced at or below market rates. The research-heavy community is supported by a private-public partnership that includes $7.5 million of grant money to study net-zero energy systems. The residence stands at the end of a short street without close neighbors. There is a small visitors’ center on one side of the house and a garage, accessed through an attached open corridor, on the other.

The visitors’ center provides a reminder that the house is under surveillance by not only Honda engineers looking at the energy stats from a remote location, but also by people dropping in for a look.

“We get a lot of people coming up to the door who don’t know the house isn’t open to the public, and they will come right in while we’re still in our bathrobes,” says Bennett, 45, who works in Sacramento as an actuary. “So it is kind of like living in a fishbowl.”

The family earned their stay at the home by answering a solicitation offered through the university, which is a supporter of the project along with Pacific Gas and Electric. They don’t pay rent but are charged a fee that “is way less than market rates for the area,” O’Hara says. The house is slated to remain occupied and observed for three years.

Inside, the home feels comfortably cool and spacious with high ceilings, modern design and furnishings. The appliances are all high-efficiency. The house is warmed and cooled by a radiant system under the floors. The family controls the lighting and temperature with three iPads stationed around the residence and an app on Bennett’s iPhone.

“When you open the door, the lights come on,” says O’Hara, executive director of the university’s School of Education. “There’s a lot about the house that’s very different, in a positive way. The house responds to you.”

The custom circadian lighting system automatically adjusts not only the level of illumination in the house but the color temperature of the light. Night lighting skews toward oranges and reds to make things easier to see in the dark. The house is programmed to put itself to sleep at bedtime by closing the blinds and adjusting the lighting. That sometimes conflicts with having two children living in the home, O’Hara says.

The girls, Aisling and Sabha, “have a tendency to undo what we’ve done,” she says. “If we’ve put the house to sleep later in the evening and the lights are all dim, the kids will go and press the controls and turn all the bright lights on.”

But never mind the bells and whistles. Bennett’s favorite feature is more current than futuristic. “We have a 65-inch flat screen TV set into the living room wall with the world’s best remote control,” he says.

O’Hara says she loves the lighting and the heated and cooled floors along with the basic layout and design of the house from the future. “It’s uplifting, just to be at home,” she says.

— — —

The California house gives engineers a real-time look at how the increased use of solar power can pose technological challenges to the nation’s antiquated energy infrastructure. Plug-in hybrid vehicles and fully electric vehicles affect the power grid, a system conceived in the 1800s to send power one way.

If 10,000 homes have rooftop solar collectors supply power to the grid, what happens when the sun goes behind a cloud? A massive drop-off of electricity. If 10,000 people who own electric cars come home at 6:30 p.m. and plug all of them in for a recharge, what happens? A major demand for power. Questions like these offer opportunities for project engineers to find solutions.

“As the number of grid-connected rooftop solar installations increase, it will become more and more important to have monitoring and control for two-way power flows,” says Dan T. Ton, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy, who is watching the project closely.

The house and car are way ahead of the market in another key area: While present-day electric cars at solar houses are still powered by an electric grid that depends mostly on coal, carbon is completely out of the picture of the California house. Adding a battery backup system to the house provides an extra layer of redundancy and the flexibility to store power for when the sun doesn’t shine.

The brain of the operation is the home energy-management system. What Honda calls “HEMS” is computer hardware and software designed to smarten the house and its connections by pulling power off the grid when needed, charging up the car battery, charging the house battery and sending power back to the grid when the house is producing more than it needs. The system “monitors where the energy should go and which source it should use,” says Bennett.

The energy-management system and the home’s battery stand in a glass-enclosed area in the garage. The HEMS is the size of a tall metal storage cabinet with shallow shelves. The battery resembles an oversized wine cooler, though the front is metal, not glass.

The biggest obstacle to bringing the house of the future into the present is that “regulatory policies and utility pricing structures need to catch up with the state of technology to compensate homeowners fairly for the societal and grid benefits that a home energy-management system provides,” says Honda spokesman Matt Sloustcher.

“In regions like California, with aggressive renewable energy goals, the regulatory processes are already underway,” Sloustcher says.

Scott Sowers and Marcie Geffner are freelance writers. Geffner reported from Davis, Calif.

Patent office filters out worst telework abuses in report to watchdog

What the inquiry uncovered was alarming.


Some of the 8,300 patent examiners, about half of whom work from home full time, repeatedly lied about the hours they were putting in, and many were receiving bonuses for work they didn’t do. And when supervisors had evidence of fraud and asked to have the employee’s computer records pulled, they were rebuffed by top agency officials, ensuring that few cheaters were disciplined, investigators found.

Oversight of the telework program — and of examiners based at the Alexandria, Va., headquarters — was “completely ineffective,” investigators concluded.

But when it came time last summer for the patent office to turn over the findings to its outside watchdog, the most damaging revelations had disappeared. The report sent to Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser concluded that it was impossible to know if the whistleblowers’ allegations of systemic abuses were true.

“What we hoped to see was an unfiltered response,” Zinser said.”That’s not what this was. It’s a lot less sensational. The true extent of the problem was not being conveyed to us.”

The original findings, by contrast, raise “fundamental issues” with the business model of the patent office, which oversees an essential function of U.S. commerce, said Zinser, who was quietly provided a copy of the original by a patent official.

The patent office, while relatively obscure, plays a crucial role in supporting the nation’s commerce and economic development. But the agency’s army of examiners and other officials has been falling behind, with a backlog of patent applications swelling to more than 600,000 and estimated waiting times of more than five years.

The Washington Post obtained copies of the internal report and the version provided to the inspector general, which at 16 pages is half the length of the original.

Both reports conclude that policies negotiated with the patent examiners’ union have left managers with few tools to monitor their staffs. Both acknowledge that supervisors have limited access to records that could prove suspected time fraud, resulting in negligible disciplinary action.

But the original one describes a culture of fraud that is overlooked by senior leaders, lax enforcement of the rules and the resulting frustration of many front-line supervisors. The version provided to the watchdog was far less conclusive, saying that managers who were interviewed held “inconsistent” views on whether examiners were gaming the system.

An agency spokesman, in a statement for this article, described the version sent to the inspector general as a “final, carefully considered, accurate and complete report.”

Chief communications officer Todd Elmer called the original report a “rough draft for discussion purposes” that was an “initial attempt to describe the full investigation record.”

After a review, lawyers in the agency’s Office of General Counsel and chief administrative officer Frederick Steckler decided that “many of the conclusions” in the draft were “partial and unsupported by the facts and record of the investigation,” Elmer said in the statement. He said the final report contains “a more accurate, complete reflection” of the investigation. Steckler wrote both versions of the report, Elmer said.

The agency’s telework system has served as a model for the Obama administration, which has sought to attract talent by extending similar programs to many corners of the government. In addition to the approximately 3,800 patent examiners who work full time from home, about 2,700 telework on a part-time basis.

While the examiners were under scrutiny, patent officials received a separate referral from the inspector general after whistleblowers at the agency’s appeals board complained that paralegals there were idle. That referral resulted in an investigation that Zinser’s office disclosed in July, revealing that dozens of paralegals, who also work from home, were paid full salaries during a four-year period while they surfed the Internet, did laundry and read books instead of working. The investigation found that managers gave the paralegals limited assignments as they waited for new judges to be hired to handle a backlog of appeals. But because of a hiring freeze, the judges were not brought on until last year.

The examiners, the focus of the internal probe launched in 2012, review applications and grant patents on inventions that are new and unique. They are experts in their fields, often with master’s and doctoral degrees. They tend to be near the top of the federal pay scale, with the highest taking home $148,000 a year.

The investigation grew out of complaints by four whistleblowers to the inspector general alleging systemic abuses by patent examiners. Zinser referred the matter to the patent office, which appointed an internal review team of four human resources officials, two associate general counsels and an accountant.

Their review produced a report in February 2013 that concluded, “The interviewers found that many supervisors had troubling answers to some of the questions that were asked.”

It cited several detailed cases of time and attendance abuse. In one, an examiner missed 304 hours of work in a year but was paid for the time. Despite warnings, this examiner kept cheating and was caught twice but not fired.

Another examiner claimed to have worked 266 hours for which there was no evidence she was on the job, and she received $12,533 in pay. She was never charged with time fraud because an assistant deputy commissioner refused her supervisor’s request to pull computer records, but instead she was charged with a lesser offense of not responding to a supervisor’s repeated attempts to get in touch with her. According to a patent official with knowledge of the case, the woman was never required to pay the government back.

But these examples — and others cited in the internal report — did not appear in the document supplied to Zinser. That version found “no objective evidence of any systemic abuse of reporting procedures.”

The internal investigation also unearthed another widespread problem. More than 70 percent of the 80 managers interviewed also told investigators that a “significant” number of examiners did not work for long periods, then rushed to get their reviews done at the end of each quarter.

Supervisors told the review team that the practice “negatively affects” the quality of the work. “Our quality standards are low,” one supervisor told the investigators. “We are looking for work that meets minimal requirements.”

The final, condensed version noted only that patent officials have no policy that prohibits the practice and that examiners suspected of “end-loading” may well have been working throughout the quarter. “Some examiners . . . spend long periods on search and examination because they . . . want to make their actions perfect before submitting” their patent reviews, the document says.

Investigators found that front-line supervisors feel powerless to discipline poor performers. “We had evidence that the timesheet was not accurate,” one supervisor said, “but they still said no. [It] was four, five months ago and there was a push not to pull records.”

Another manager said that an examiner had a “mouse-mover” program on his computer to make it appear he was working. The manager saw it, took a picture and showed it to a top official “and nothing happened,” the supervisor said.

In short, the internal report concluded that “USPTO management demonstrated reluctance to take decisive action when the misconduct is egregious and the evidence is compelling.” Investigators recommended “unmitigated access” to records when abuse is suspected.

The version supplied to the inspector general, though, explained that managers did not provide full access to computer records that could substantiate allegations of fraud because officials did not want to be seen as “big brother” through electronic surveillance.

Investigators found a lax system for monitoring employees who work from home — some as far away as California. Examiners do not have to log into the agency’s computer network or tell their supervisors the hours they work. They do not have to respond to a phone call from their boss the same day it comes in. The boss has no way to tell when they are at their desks.

“Controls are almost non-existent,” the review team wrote. It concluded, “Examiners can work inconsistently throughout the year, and even fail to be present at work, with little or no consequences.” The report described a “frustrated management team . . . in effect being told to look the other way.”

But the report forwarded to Zinser called the probe “inconclusive.”

Elmer, the patent office spokesman, said in his statement that the complete record of interviews with managers was submitted to the inspector general in supporting exhibits.

Zinser, however, said the agency was responsible not just for providing “raw data” but an accurate analysis.

He said he did not do his own investigation because he trusted that patent officials had the issues under control. But he said the copy of the original report he was given prompted him to launch a probe of the patent workforce’s quality control — whether its examinations are accurate. His office also is investigating time and attendance fraud at several other Commerce Department agencies.

“The fact that we received an unfiltered report has been very helpful to us,” he said. “It’s not a good message for senior management to send to the workforce: You do the work and we’ll sanitize it before it goes out.”

Researcher foresees a life span of 150

A professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the university’s Paul F.


Glenn Laboratories for the Molecular Biology of Aging, he has founded a slew of startup biotechnology companies with the lofty aim of developing drugs intended to extend the human life span. Specifically, he wants to create a pill that could simultaneously combat Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes and heart disease to ensure that people live longer, healthier lives.

Sinclair is at the forefront of research investigating a chemical called resveratrol, a compound found in such plants as grapes and cocoa, that works by activating SIRT1, a protein believed to play a role in regulating life span in animals. The research has been controversial, with some scientists saying such an anti-aging elixir has been overhyped. But Sinclair is forging ahead with his research and studying other molecules that might combat diseases associated with aging. A new study by Sinclair and colleagues in the European Heart Journal details how SIRT1 might also be involved in cardiovascular disease. Sinclair talked to The Post recently about the future of aging.

Q; When did you come to the conclusion that aging is a problem that can and should be solved?

A: When I became interested in it as a career, I was in the middle of doing my Ph.D in molecular biology and my mother contracted lung cancer. My mother survived for another 20 years.

So after that, I wanted to make a difference in medicine. I thought that tackling aging and the mechanisms that promote life would be worth figuring out. I wanted to learn why it is that some people are healthier than others and why some people live to 110 and others only to 60 or 70.

Q: Most people don’t like to think or talk about aging. How do you want to change that?

A: Well, first of all, I would love for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regard aging as a condition that’s worth treating. The reason is that aging is a decline in function. That, to me, is exactly what a disease is. Unfortunately, because aging is so common and natural, we tend to think of it as destiny or something we should accept. But over the last 300 years, we’ve been fighting diseases that cause us to suffer. Until very recently, we thought that we should only tackle one disease at a time, whereas what I would like is for the FDA and the general public to appreciate that we now have the technology to prevent multiple diseases at once.

Q: How has studying the aging process made you think differently about how you plan to age?

A: I have been testing molecules on myself, such as resveratrol. I monitor my own body reaction to that. I have done that for over a decade now. My mother, father and wife have also been taking molecules that we’ve been discovering. My brother recently went on resveratrol, too.

Q: What is the ultimate goal with your aging research?

A: The ultimate goal is to have a pill that can prevent or reverse all diseases of aging. The major diseases that I’d like to tackle are heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer. I want to reduce those diseases by 10 percent. Eventually, I’d like to reduce diseases of aging by 50 percent or more in the general population.

Q: Will things like exercise and a good diet still be important even if a pill exists to prevent age-related diseases?

A: Yes, exercise and diet will be important. Our studies show that the drugs will work even better if you’re already healthy. In an experiment we conducted with mice, a healthy diet plus resveratrol was the best combination. Resveratrol had a decent benefit when the mice were obese and sedentary. The mice that were fed a lean diet and resveratrol lived significantly longer than other treated mice as well as those that had no healthy diet and no resveratrol. So resveratrol is not an excuse to be lazy or eat whatever you want.

Q: How much exercising do you do? And what about your diet?

IA: work out in a gym each week, but more exercise would be good. I used to be on a tofu and fish diet to mimic the Okinawans, who live the longest, but with the arrival of kids that went out the window. The best thing I’ve done is to give up desserts at 40.

Q: Do you drink a lot of wine or eat a lot of grapes to get resveratrol?

A: You would need to drink hundreds of glasses of red wine a day.

Q: Is it possible to consume high enough levels of resveratrol in food for health benefits?

A: No. There is only a few milligrams of resveratrol in a glass of red wine, and the doses required are in the hundreds of milligrams. I take resveratrol as a pill with breakfast — 1,000 milligrams, a spoonful on yogurt.

Q: How old do you see yourself living?

A: I’d like to see what humanity achieves 500 years from now, but without successful pharmacological intervention I doubt I will make it past 85 with the sub-par genes I know I’ve inherited.

Q: Do you think Alzheimer’s, heart diseases or other age-related diseases can be completely eliminated?

A: We will probably still die from those diseases eventually. What we want to do is stretch out the healthy period. Ideally, the end of life would be shorter, but it would still be caused by one of those diseases, a heart attack or a stroke.

Q: What would a world in which people age better look like?

A: Children born after 2050 can expect to live to 100. People will be healthy throughout most of their lives. They’ll be 80 years old and still active; they could play tennis and hang out with their grandchildren. You see some people like that now, but we can expect the majority of people to look like that when these medicines are available. What that also means is that the people who are now living to 100 could instead live to 120 or 130. I think by the end of the century, people could live to 150 because there’s going to be a combination of research that will lead to pills we could start taking at the age of 30 to boost the body’s defenses against diseases and age. The combination of drugs and regenerative medicine has huge potential for age extension. My work is trying to keep the body healthy for as long as it can by activating the body’s defenses, and other scientists are working on technology to grow and replace organs.

Q: How soon do you think we will have an approved pill that could extend life span?

A: In the aging field, we’re starting to organize a study to see if we can expand human life span with a drug. There are at least three other molecules that we’d like to try after that. We’ve had discussions with the FDA regarding aging as a disease and if we could start a clinical trial. We’re in the beginning stages, but it looks like the FDA will approve a clinical trial for aging.

Mullin is a freelance science writer.

Oil at $40 seen possible as uncertainty reigns

Russia, the world’s largest producer, can no longer rely on the same oil revenues to rescue an economy suffering from European and U.


S. sanctions. Iran, also reeling from similar sanctions, will need to reduce subsidies that have partly insulated its growing population. Nigeria, fighting an Islamic insurgency, and Venezuela, crippled by failing political and economic policies, also rank among the biggest losers from the decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries last week to let the force of the market determine what some experts say will be the first free-fall in decades.

“This is a big shock in Caracas, it’s a shock in Tehran, it’s a shock in Abuja, (Nigeria),” Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of Englewood, Colorado-based consultant IHS and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of oil, told Bloomberg Radio. “There’s a change in psychology. There’s going to be a higher degree of uncertainty.”

A world already unsettled by Russian-inspired insurrection in Ukraine to the onslaught of Islamic State in the Middle East is about be roiled further as crude prices plunge. Global energy markets have been upended by an unprecedented North American oil boom brought on by hydraulic fracturing, the process of blasting shale rocks to release oil and gas.

Few expected the extent or speed of the U.S. oil resurgence. As wildcatters unlocked new energy supplies, some oil exporters abroad failed to invest in diversifying their economies. Coddled by years of $100 crude, governments instead spent that windfall subsidizing everything from 5 cents-per- gallon gasoline to cheap housing that kept a growing population of underemployed citizens content.

Those handouts are now at risk.

“If the governments aren’t able to spend to keep the kids off the streets they will go back to the streets, and we could start to see political disruption and upheaval,” said Paul Stevens, distinguished fellow for energy, environment and resources at Chatham House in London, a United Kingdom policy group. “The majority of members of OPEC need well over $100 a barrel to balance their budgets. If they start cutting expenditure, this is likely to cause problems.”

Without OPEC limits, oil production can continue to flow, overwhelming the market and demand, until prices no longer cover day-to-day costs at existing oil wells. Stevens said some U.S. shale producers may make money at $40 a barrel or less.

Brent crude finished last week around $70, signaling the amount of pain that may lie ahead.

To be sure, not all oil producers are suffering. The International Monetary Fund in October assessed the oil price different governments needed to balance their budgets. At one end were Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which can break even with oil at about $70 a barrel. At the other extreme: Iran needs $136, and Venezuela and Nigeria $120. Russia can manage at $101 a barrel, the IMF said.

“Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. and Qatar can live with relatively lower oil prices for a while, but this isn’t the case for Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Venezuela, Algeria and Angola,” said Marie- Claire Aoun, director of the energy center at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. “Strong demographic pressure is feeding their energy and budgetary requirements. The price of crude is paramount for their economies because they have failed to diversify.”

Brent crude is poised for the biggest annual decline since 2008 after OPEC last week rejected calls for production cuts that would address a global glut. Brent is now at its lowest since the financial crisis — when it bottomed around $36 — and has sunk by a third from the start of the year.

Like this year’s decline, oil’s crash in the 1980s was brought on by a Saudi-led decision to defend its market share, sending crude to about $12 a barrel.

“Russia in particular seems vulnerable,” said Allan von Mehren, chief analyst at Danske Banke in Copenhagen. “A big decline in the oil price in 1997-98 was one factor causing pressure that eventually led to Russian default in August 1998.”

VTB Group, Russia’s second-largest bank, OAO Gazprombank, its third-largest lender, and Russian Agricultural Bank are already seeking government aid to replenish capital after sanctions cut them off from international financial markets. Now with sputtering economic growth, they also face a rise in bad loans.

Oil and gas provide 68 percent of Russia’s exports and 50 percent of its federal budget. Russia has already lost almost $90 billion of its currency reserves this year, equal to 4.5 percent of its economy, as it tried to prevent the ruble from tumbling after Western countries imposed sanctions to punish Russian meddling in Ukraine. The ruble is down 31 percent against the dollar since June.

While the country’s economy minister and some oil executives have warned of tough times ahead, President Vladimir Putin is sanguine, suggesting falling oil won’t force him to meet Western demands that he curb his country’s interference in Ukraine.

“Winter is coming and I am sure the market will come into balance again in the first quarter or toward the middle of next year,” he said Nov. 28 in Sochi.

Even before the price tumble, Iran’s oil exports were already crumbling because of sanctions imposed over its nuclear program. Production is at a 20-year low, exports have fallen by half since early 2012 to 1 million barrels a day, and the rial has plummeted 80 percent on the black market, says the IMF.

Lower oil may increase the pain on Iran’s population, though it may be insufficient to push its leaders to accept an end to the nuclear program, which they insist is peaceful.

“The oil price decline is not a game changer for Iran,” said Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research organization, who specializes on Iran. “The Iranians were already losing so many billions of dollars because of the sanctions that the oil price decline is just icing on the cake.”

While oil’s decline wrenches oil-rich nations that squandered the profits from recent high prices, the world economy overall may benefit. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates a $20 drop in price adds 0.4 percentage point to growth of its members after two years. By knocking down inflation by 0.5 point over the same period, cheaper oil could also persuade central banks to either keep interest rates low or even add stimulus.

Energy accounts for 10 percent to 12 percent of consumer spending in European countries such as France and Germany, HSBC Holdings said.

As developed oil-importing nations benefit, some of the world’s poorest suffer. Nigeria’s authorities, which rely on oil for 75 percent of government revenue, have tightened monetary policy, devalued the naira and plan to cut public spending by 6 percent next year. Oil and gas account for 35 percent of Nigeria’s economic output and 90 percent of its exports, according to OPEC.

“The current drop in oil prices poses stark challenges for Nigeria’s external and fiscal accounts and puts heavy pressure on the exchange rate,” Oliver Masetti, an economist at Deutsche Bank, said in a report this month. “If oil prices remain at their current lows, Nigeria will face tough choices.”

Even before oil’s rout, Venezuela was teetering.

The nation is running a budget deficit of 16 percent of gross domestic product, partly because much of its declining oil production is sold domestically at subsidized prices. Oil is 95 percent of exports and 25 percent of GDP, OPEC says.

“Venezuela already qualifies for fiscal chaos,” Yergin said.

The country was paralyzed by deadly riots earlier this year after police repressed protests about spiraling inflation, shortages of consumer goods and worsening crime.

“The dire state of the economy is likely to trigger renewed social unrest, while it seems that the government is running out of hard currency,” Capital Economics, a London research firm, wrote in a Nov. 28 report.

Declining oil may force the government to take steps to avoid a default including devaluing the currency, cutting imports, raising domestic energy prices and cutting subsidies shipments to poorer countries in the region, according to Francisco Rodriguez, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“Though all these entail difficult choices, default is not an appealing alternative,” he said. “Were Venezuela to default, bondholders would almost surely move to attach the country’s refineries and oil shipments abroad.”

In an address on state television Nov. 28, President Nicolas Maduro said Venezuela would maintain social spending while pledging to form a commission to identify unnecessary spending to cut. He also said he was sending the economy minister to China to discuss development projects.

Mexico shows how an oil nation can build new industries and avoid relying on one commodity. Falling crude demand and prices in the early 1980s helped send the nation into a debt crisis.

Oil’s share of Mexico’s exports fell to 13 percent in 2013 from 38 percent in 1990, even as total exports more than quadrupled. Electronics and cars now account for a greater share of the country’s shipments. Though oil still accounts for 32 percent of government revenue, the Mexican government has based its 2015 budget on an average price of $79 a barrel.

With assistance from Kambiz Foroohar and Vonnie Quinn in New York, Nathan Crooks and Anatoly Kurmanaev in Caracas, Andre Soliani in Brasilia, Colin McClelland in Luanda, Onur Ant in Ankara, Brendan Case in Mexico City and Daniel Ten Kate in New Delhi.