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Greenhouse Effect

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Once he had the answer, Arrhenius complained to his friends that he'd "wasted over a full year" doing tedious calculations by hand about "so trifling a matter" as hypothetical CO2 concentrations in far-off eras (quoted in Crawford, 1997).
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dlanods
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Sorry doubters, Starship actually had a remarkably successful flight

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Starship launched on Saturday with all 33 Raptor engines burning nominally.

Enlarge / Starship launched on Saturday with all 33 Raptor engines burning nominally. (credit: SpaceX)

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas—Starship launches are clarifying events. Pretty quickly after liftoff you find out who understands the rocket business, and who are the casual observers bereft of a clue.

Before I had even left the launch viewing area in South Padre Island on Saturday morning headlines started to fill my news feed. The Wall Street Journal led with, “SpaceX second Starship test flight ends in another explosion.” Bloomberg was still more dour, “SpaceX Starship and Super Heavy Booster Launch and Failure.” Perhaps, after consultation with their beat reporters, editors subsequently changed these online headlines. And the stories themselves better reflected the reality. Nevertheless, much of the media coverage of the launch delivered a harsh verdict: Another failure for Elon Musk and SpaceX.

I mean, yes. The first stage of the Starship rocket, Super Heavy, did explode. And the upper stage, Starship, had a failure that caused its flight termination system—explosives on board in case a vehicle begins flying off course—to detonate. But that was to be expected on such an experimental, boundary-pushing test flight.

Leading with words like "failure" and "explosion" are kind of like putting the headline “Derek Jeter had a strikeout” on a news story about the 2001 World Series game in which he later hit a walk-off home run. Like, it’s accurate. But it’s a lazy take that completely misses the point.

Rapid rebuild of ground systems

Here’s what SpaceX actually accomplished with its second Starship launch on Saturday morning, from a narrow peninsula of land at the southern extremity of Texas.

The vehicle’s first launch, in April, caused significant damage to the launch mount and surrounding infrastructure. At SpaceX founder Elon Musk's direction, the company had attempted to determine whether it could get away with launching the massive rocket without an advanced sound suppression system to mitigate launch pad damage. Turns out, that's a no. The first Starship launch shredded the launch site by throwing chunks of concrete for miles around.

Musk and SpaceX learned their lesson and completely redesigned and rebuilt the launch pad to incorporate a sophisticated water-based sound suppression system. By August, just four months later, it had not just built the complex system, but tested it. All of these changes resulted in a far more robust launch pad, which survived Saturday's liftoff largely unscathed.

Afterward I spoke with Phillip Rench, an engineer who worked at SpaceX for five years and for a time directed the company's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Beach in South Texas. He was impressed by the speed of the rebuild and smoothness of the ground-support operations for Saturday's launch.

"The thing I think about, and which probably goes unnoticed by most, is how extremely hot and humid it is in Boca during the late summer and fall," he said. "The team that just rebuilt the orbital launch mount, water deluge, and remaining launch pad just did so in the hottest, most miserable part of the year. I remember having mild heat stress almost every day in August and September while working on the pad. I give kudos to those technicians, welders, and engineers that spent the last seven months out in the field making this happen."

Rapid revamp of the rocket

The SpaceX engineers also rapidly re-engineered the first stage of the Super Heavy booster to address issues with multiple failures of its Raptor rocket engines on the first flight. During Saturday’s launch, all 33 of these Raptor engines burned for their full duration, with nary a failure on the way to space.

Additionally, the company’s engineers gathered data on a brand-new component of the rocket called a "hot staging ring." This interstage sits atop the Super Heavy first stage and below the Starship upper stage. This new piece of hardware was intended to facilitate "hot staging," a difficult maneuver a couple of minutes into the flight at stage separation, in which the Starship upper-stage engines ignite before the Super Heavy first stage has completed its burn. This maneuver was captured with ground-tracking cameras, and it is stunning.

Remember, the first Starship launch was just under seven months ago. And in the time since then, the company—at Musk's direction, in a bid to increase the capability of Starship—implemented this radical engineering change. It is not trivial. Starship is still attached to its booster. The Starship engines, upon igniting, are blasting away at the top of this huge Super Heavy rocket that is still thrusting upward. It's kind of crazy, and it pretty much worked.

Although we don't have the details yet, the Starship upper stage successfully completed hot-staging and pulled away from Super Heavy. If you're not impressed, you should be. This is world-class engineering completed on an insanely compressed time scale.

Some things went wrong, of course

Perhaps most critically for SpaceX, on this flight, the Super Heavy booster appears to have performed a nominal flight. After Starship pulled away, the first stage had done its heavy-lifting job. If this were a normal expendable launch, the rocket would have fallen into the ocean.

But this was not a normal launch, of course. SpaceX intends for Starship to be fully reusable, and that means trying to recover both the booster and the upper stage. According to SpaceX, the Super Heavy rocket initialized its "boostback" burn, which is intended to slow the rocket down. This entails igniting a subset of the rocket’s 33 engines, similar to what happens with the Falcon 9 rocket at the top of the atmosphere. After that point, however, things went sideways. Perhaps the upper portion of the first stage was too damaged by the hot staging, as the ignition of Starship’s engines understandably singed the rocket below. It’s also possible there was an issue with tank pressures inside Super Heavy, as there was not much propellant left, and it's challenging to move the remaining fuel and oxidizer to the engines.

In any case, Super Heavy blew up spectacularly. So was this a failure? Hardly. SpaceX had just launched the largest rocket the world had ever seen, a flying skyscraper largely built with private funding. If it were almost any other rocket in the world, it would have been judged entirely as a success because first stages are disposed of. But because SpaceX took the next step, to experiment with recovery, the loss of the first stage after completing its primary mission was somehow viewed as a failure by some observers. I'm sorry to say it, but that's just dumb.

As for the vehicle’s upper stage, SpaceX reported that Starship not only survived the technically demanding hot-staging maneuver, but ignited all six of its engines and began to power its way to space. Eventually, it reached an altitude of about 150 km above the planet.

However, near the end of its burn, something went wrong. It’s possible that one or more of the Raptor engines failed. Perhaps there was a problem with the shielding around the engines to protect them from heating. In any case, Starship began flying off course, and its flight termination system activated.

Getting any data from Starship on this test flight is a pretty big win for SpaceX, and surviving staging and most of the vehicle’s propulsive burn will set the company’s engineers up well for future success. They will learn so much from this. It would not surprise me if they take enough confidence away from this flight to put Starlink satellites as a payload on Starship's third flight.

But, but, but it’s a failure compared to NASA’s rocket

One year ago NASA flew its Space Launch System rocket for the first time. After a decade of development and tens of billions of dollars, the large rocket had a flawless debut aside from some damage to the launch site. This was a great success, but NASA really had no other choice. It started building pieces of the rocket seven years before launch, and the whole ethos of the space agency is that “failure is not an option.”

SpaceX built the Starship and Super Heavy rocket that launched on Saturday over the span of a couple of months at a price somewhere between one-tenth and one-hundredth the cost of NASA's SLS rocket. Because it can build Starships rapidly and at a low cost, SpaceX has half a dozen more rockets in various stages of work, all awaiting their turn to go to space. Due to this iterative design methodology—flying to identify flaws, and rapidly incorporating those changes into new hardware—SpaceX can afford to fail. That is the whole point. By flying its vehicles, SpaceX can rapidly identify what parts of the rocket need to be changed. The alternative is, quite literally, years and years of analysis and meetings and more analysis. Iterative design is faster and cheaper—if you can afford to fail.

In some respects, on just its second flight, Starship now is as successful as NASA’s SLS rocket. Consider that the Artemis I test flight in November 2022 used a core stage, side-mounted boosters, and an upper stage known as the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, or ICPS. This core stage performed well, flying a nominal mission as it boosted the Orion spacecraft into orbit.

Although the core stage was new hardware, the upper stage ICPS was a (very, very lightly) modified version of a Delta rocket upper stage that has been flying for a quarter of a century. Put another way, the core stage of the SLS rocket, and the Super Heavy booster have now both completed one successful launch. If SpaceX had stuck an ICPS and the Orion spacecraft hardware on top of Super Heavy, it could have gone to the Moon on Saturday.

This is the power of iterative design—it's faster, cheaper, and typically better than the alternative if you can survive the popular canard of being perceived as a failure.

SpaceX has an incredible amount of work to do

I'm pretty sure that most non-space people do not really understand what Starship aspires to be. And that's OK, because there's really no precedent for this. Yes, NASA went to the Moon with the Apollo program half a century ago, and that was truly awesome. But it did so with funding that approached nearly 5 percent of the US federal budget and a workforce of about 400,000 people. Such resources are completely off the table today.

Moreover, every piece of Apollo hardware that landed astronauts on the Moon was never used again. The components of the big Saturn V rocket fell into the ocean or were jettisoned into deep space. The Apollo spacecraft splashed down into the ocean and ended up in museums.

With Starship, SpaceX is seeking to build a fully reusable launch system that is larger and more powerful than the Apollo rocket. SpaceX seeks to land hundreds of metric tons on the Moon, not 15 tons like Apollo. What SpaceX is trying to do is extremely challenging from a physics and funding standpoint, and the work is only beginning.

Beyond simply getting Starship to space, it must become an orbital vehicle, and both the booster and spacecraft must be made to reliably land. Then SpaceX must learn how to rapidly refurbish the vehicles (which seems possible, given that the company has now landed a remarkable 230 Falcon 9 rockets). The company must also demonstrate and master the challenge of transferring and storing propellant in orbit, so that Starship can be refueled for lunar and Mars missions. Starship must also show that it can light its Raptor engines reliably, on the surface of the Moon in the vacuum of space, far from ground systems on Earth.

But the first step is often the hardest step. And for SpaceX, getting Starship flying to gather that data was the critical step. Now that the company has shown the ability to launch Starship safely from South Texas, the regulatory process should ease up, allowing for a higher flight rate, yielding more data and starting to address all of those challenges cited in the previous paragraph. A high flight rate will solve a lot of ills, and with Saturday's flight SpaceX is on the cusp of doing just that.

Should we cheer for an Elon Musk company, though?

A lot of the media angst this weekend was undoubtedly driven by antipathy for SpaceX founder Elon Musk. The guy's a fraud, right? His companies are a grift, right? I can only really speak to SpaceX, but Musk is definitely not a fraud. He has his flaws, certainly. Some of his politics and public statements are deeply unsettling to many. But the dude founded SpaceX and remains the vital force impelling the company forward. He has dumb ideas. He has brilliant ideas. But mostly, he gets things done.

In the aerospace industry there are basically two types of people: checkers and doers. The checkers sit in meetings, write reports, and perform analysis. They serve an important role to be sure. Spaceflight is complicated and hard and risky, and prudence demands an extra set of eyes on work. But checkers are also the bane of progress.

Since its heady days during the Apollo program, NASA has steadily become an agency filled with checkers, rather than doers. That's part of the bureaucratization process, and today it's not a bad place for the agency to be as it manages a slew of traditional and new space contractors. However, it's a terrible place for a space company to be. Part of the magic of SpaceX is that it's filled with doers, with relatively few checkers, even after more than 20 years of existence.

That culture was created by Musk and is maintained by Musk. He is a hard-charging leader who pushes back on bureaucracy. He wants to move fast and break things. And he does break things. Those very public failures and his recent comments and actions have certainly hurt his reputation, and to some extent, that of SpaceX.

But to denigrate the prodigious rocket science on display in Texas this weekend for this reason, alone, is a mistake. The smart take is to look at it as a critical step on the path toward achieving something amazing, with the potential to unlock a future of spaceflight we have only dreamed about heretofore. The smart take is to cheer on the people out there who are actually doing.

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dlanods
99 days ago
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When the natural gas industry used the playbook from Big Tobacco

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gas burners on a stove

Enlarge (credit: Lew Robertson via Getty Images)

In 1976, beloved chef, cookbook author, and television personality Julia Child returned to WGBH-TV’s studios in Boston for a new cooking show, Julia Child & Company, following her hit series The French Chef. Viewers probably didn’t know that Child’s new and improved kitchen studio, outfitted with gas stoves, was paid for by the American Gas Association.

While this may seem like any corporate sponsorship, we now know it was a part of a calculated campaign by gas industry executives to increase the use of gas stoves across the United States. And stoves weren’t the only objective. The gas industry wanted to grow its residential market, and homes that used gas for cooking were likely also to use it for heat and hot water.

The industry’s efforts went well beyond careful product placement, according to new research from the nonprofit Climate Investigations Center, which analyzes corporate efforts to undermine climate science and slow the ongoing transition away from fossil fuels. As the center’s study and a National Public Radio investigation show, when evidence emerged in the early 1970s about the health effects of indoor nitrogen dioxide exposure from gas stove use, the American Gas Association launched a campaign designed to manufacture doubt about the existing science.

As a researcher who has studied air pollution for many years—including gas stoves’ contribution to indoor air pollution and health effects—I am not naïve about the strategies that some industries use to avoid or delay regulations. But I was surprised to learn that the multipronged strategy related to gas stoves directly mirrored tactics that the tobacco industry used to undermine and distort scientific evidence of health risks associated with smoking starting in the 1950s.

The gas industry is defending natural gas stoves, which are under fire for their health effects and their contribution to climate change.

Manufacturing controversy

The gas industry relied on Hill & Knowlton, the same public relations company that masterminded the tobacco industry’s playbook for responding to research linking smoking to lung cancer. Hill & Knowlton’s tactics included sponsoring research that would counter findings about gas stoves published in the scientific literature, emphasizing uncertainty in these findings to construct artificial controversy and engaging in aggressive public relations efforts.

For example, the gas industry obtained and reanalyzed the data from an EPA study on Long Island that showed more respiratory problems in homes with gas stoves. Their reanalysis concluded that there were no significant differences in respiratory outcomes.

The industry also funded its own health studies in the early 1970s, which confirmed large differences in nitrogen dioxide exposures but did not show significant differences in respiratory outcomes. These findings were documented in publications where industry funding was not disclosed. These conclusions were amplified in numerous meetings and conferences and ultimately influenced major governmental reports summarizing the state of the literature.

This campaign was remarkable, since the basics of how gas stoves affected indoor air pollution and respiratory health were straightforward and well-established at the time. Burning fuel, including natural gas, generates nitrogen oxides: The air in Earth’s atmosphere is about 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen, and these gases react at high temperatures.

Nitrogen dioxide is known to adversely affect respiratory health. Inhaling it causes respiratory irritation and can worsen diseases such as asthma. This is a key reason why the US Environmental Protection Agency established an outdoor air quality standard for nitrogen dioxide in 1971.

No such standards exist for indoor air, but as the EPA now acknowledges, nitrogen dioxide exposure indoors is also harmful.

How harmful is indoor exposure?

The key question is whether nitrogen dioxide exposure related to gas stoves is large enough to lead to health concerns. While levels vary across homes, scientific research shows that the simple answer is yes—especially in smaller homes and when ventilation is inadequate.

This has been known for a long time. For example, a 1998 study that I co-authored showed that the presence of gas stoves was the strongest predictor of personal exposure to nitrogen dioxide. And work dating back to the 1970s showed that indoor nitrogen dioxide levels in the presence of gas stoves could be far higher than outdoor levels. Depending on ventilation levels, concentrations could reach levels known to contribute to health risks.

Despite this evidence, the gas industry’s campaign was largely successful. Industry-funded studies successfully muddied the waters, as I have seen over the course of my research career, and stalled further federal investigations or regulations addressing gas stove safety.

This issue took on new life at the end of 2022, when researchers published a new study estimating that 12.7 percent of US cases of childhood asthma—about one case in eight—were attributable to gas stoves. The industry continues to cast doubt on gas stoves’ contribution to health effects and fund pro-gas stove media campaigns.

A concern for climate and health

Residential gas use is also controversial today because it slows the ongoing shift toward renewable energy, at a time when the impacts of climate change are becoming alarmingly clear. Some cities have already moved or are considering steps to ban gas stoves in new construction and shift toward electrifying buildings.

As communities wrestle with these questions, regulators, politicians, and consumers need accurate information about the risks of gas stoves and other products in homes. There is room for vigorous debate that considers a range of evidence, but I believe that everyone has a right to know where that evidence comes from.

The commercial interests of many industries, including alcohol, tobacco, and fossil fuels, aren’t always compatible with the public interest or human health. In my view, exposing the tactics that vested interests use to manipulate the public can make consumers and regulators savvier and help deter other industries from using their playbook.

Jonathan Levy is Professor and Chair, Department of Environmental Health, Boston University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Vagabond Shoes Longing to Stray — Exploring the Beer Bars of New York Through Years and Boroughs

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Every time I stepped into Against the Grain, I was surprised all over again by just how tiny it was. My walk-up studio on the Upper East Side felt downright palatial compared to this shoebox on Sixth Street between Avenues B and C, in the cool-vegan-restaurant-and-punk-bar-studded Alphabet City. I had been warned never to venture to this part of Downtown when I started exploring the city on my own; maybe that’s why it was one of the first places I went upon moving to New York.

Against the Grain was the annex of a bigger wine bar called Grape & Grain. The roomy, warmly lit Grape & Grain felt luxurious by comparison, and I began to see Against the Grain as a tangible expression of how craft beer was viewed—within the New York City bar-and-restaurant industry, but also more widely—next to wine. The wine bar was spacious and well-appointed, the beer bar a tiny cave next door. 

It was 2009, and beer still felt like an underdog, something you had to be in-the-know to love and appreciate. At those neighboring bars, a binary soon presented itself: I realized we could keep going to Grape & Grain, indulgently stretching out at tables, or we could pack into cramped spaces and dedicate ourselves to drinking new craft releases and revered imports while getting to know the fellow beer misfits sitting next to us. The choice was obvious.

While we were perched at the bar in the quiet of near-closing one night, Against the Grain’s bartender recommended something from Dogfish Head Brewery, with which I was then only vaguely familiar. As we enjoyed whatever it was, we chatted more; as we paid our tab, he mentioned that a Midtown bar called Rattle N Hum was going to have a Dogfish Head tap takeover that week. In about 20 minutes, I had gained so much: a new brewery to explore, a new beer bar to try, a new event to attend (a “tap takeover?”), and the pleasure of chatting with and learning from another beer geek. That conversation threw open the doors of New York City’s beer scene, leading me down a path I’d still be on 14 years later.

THE SCENE THAT BARS BUILT

New York City is used to being ahead of the curve, but in regards to craft beer, it was decidedly behind the times. Even as cities on the West Coast and in New England became destinations in the 1990s and 2000s for those seeking hyped breweries and limited-allocation IPAs, and the scenes that bloomed around them, New York remained far from what you’d call a beer town. 

That stance was in stark contrast to the city’s brewing history. Thanks to the beer-drinking Europeans who settled it, New York City was home to breweries throughout the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, until factors like expensive real estate, changing consumer preferences, and the consolidation of the beer industry virtually killed the city’s breweries by the start of the 1970s. As craft beer blossomed in the United States beginning in the 1980s, the brewpub trend did take root in New York, but almost as quickly as it rose up, it died out: Thanks to staggering operations costs, competition, and some subpar beer, most of Manhattan’s brewpubs exited stage left with the 20th century. 

Instead, there were cocktail culture and nightlife scenes—the clubs and speakeasies, the rooftop bars and lounges; the places New York’s bold-faced names, glitterati, and visitors frequented, and which never had beer at their center. Even if you did have an interest in beer in the early aughts, you couldn’t do more than sip a sample in a taproom in the state of New York before Governor Andrew Cuomo signed The Craft NY Act into effect in 2014

Those legal limitations severely constrained the city’s breweries. Brooklyn Brewery, established in 1988, was able to offer beer with a workaround: Patrons taking a brewery tour could buy tokens to redeem for pours. Sixpoint Brewery opened in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn in 2004, but only unveiled its first taproom in 2022

Otherwise, if you were in New York and wanted to find out what existed beyond macro brands before 2014, you went to beer bars. They were the primary places connoisseurs and curious drinkers could taste craft beers from across the country, or Belgian, German, and English imports. And as the scrappy hubs of a nascent scene, they were also where the city’s beer community was built. 

I was one of those curious drinkers, trekking all over the city to immerse myself in this fascinating, new-to-me world. There was research involved. Where were the bars that specialized in craft beer? How many trains would I have to take to get there? It was like a treasure hunt, with the added excitement of joining a burgeoning group of fellow geeks. 

Only after a couple years did it even occur to me to start seeking out breweries when I traveled. As I began meeting people whose entire beer journeys started and evolved in taprooms, I realized how different that was from what I experienced in New York. Sure, in other places you were drinking from the source. But you were also limited to that brewery’s beers. Even now, with New York’s brewery count hovering around 40, I often prefer to check in with beer at a bar. That the ubiquity of taprooms has presented stiff and sometimes unsurvivable competition to beer bars in recent years only enhances my nostalgia and appreciation for these spaces. 

I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER FOR BEER

One of the first places to represent New York City’s modern beer bar scene also happened to be one of the first bars I frequented. Like many beer drinkers in the 2000s, my interest was grounded more in Belgian tradition than American craft. And that’s what was on the menu at the wonderfully named Burp Castle

The bar was and remains a shrine to Belgian beer, with its church-y lighting, wooden floors creaking under carpet, and hand-painted monk murals covering the walls. To keep with its monastic ambience, quiet is mandated: When the din grows too loud, the bartenders—clad in monk’s robes until more recently—shush the crowd. It’s tongue-in-cheek, yet it effectively fosters a sense of reverence for the beer at hand, in all its tradition and history. 

When Jerry Kuziw opened Burp Castle in 1992, it became an anchor for the city’s nascent beer scene. He also owned Brewski’s next door, and the pair of bars leveraged an existing beer history on Seventh Street between Second and Third Avenues in the East Village. “In that building, the NYC Homebrewers Guild had their first meetings back in the ’80s,” says Jimmy Carbone, who would later contribute his own beer bar, the now-shuttered Jimmy’s No. 43, to the cluster. “That’s where [Brooklyn Brewery’s brewmaster] Garrett Oliver met [the brewery’s co-founder] Steve Hindy. There’s craft beer history of New York in that building, and no other real history like that noted anywhere except that block.”

In 2005, Gary Gillis took over Burp Castle and Brewski’s; the latter became Standings, a craft beer sports bar. Today, Burp Castle’s tap list remains at least 50% Belgian—expect the likes of Tripel Karmeliet, Westmalle Dubbel, and La Chouffe Blonde—with a few German, English, and American classics. And patrons still respect the quiet, even if they do need to be shushed occasionally. 

1992 also saw the opening of another seminal New York beer bar: Mugs Ale House, founded by Ed Berestecki in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Compared to the high camp of Burp Castle, Mugs was a good, old-fashioned tavern that felt like it had been there for a hundred years, with a cast of regulars as firmly rooted as the barstools on which they sat. 

In that building, the NYC Homebrewers Guild had their first meetings back in the ’80s. That’s where Garrett Oliver met Steve Hindy. There’s craft beer history of New York in that building, and no other real history like that noted anywhere except that block.
— Jimmy Carbone, Jimmy’s No. 43

As former bartender Hayley Karl recalls, many of those regulars were early beer industry members and craft beer fans. “They’d been selling craft beer since the ’90s … Places like Other Half and Threes, these ‘hot’ breweries, they’d come in and [the regulars] would say, ‘We’ll see!’ They’d seen so much.”

For me, Mugs existed in that liminal space between an explicitly craft-focused beer bar and a divey pub. “It lacked any pretension whatsoever, even though its beer list was actually quite pretentious,” says Chris O’Leary, who’s been chronicling the city’s beer scene since 2007 on his blog (and now newsletter), Brew York. If it introduced many New Yorkers to various beer firsts, Mugs was still just your corner bar, despite the a breadth of its tap list and famous events like Split Thy Skull, an annual Barleywine-and-other-big-beers festival so beloved that Karl remembers a man who flew in from England every year for it. 

How could such an understated bar have been so formative for so many? Part of that magic undoubtedly had to do with timing. (The bar closed in 2019, and has since been reopened by new owners.) It doesn’t seem possible for a bar to open now in a neighborhood like Williamsburg—which has become shorthand for gentrification—and serve craft beer without being a craft beer bar, bearded hipster stereotypes and all. For most of the original Mugs’ life, however, Williamsburg was just where real people worked and lived—and, if they had any interest in beer beyond macros, they went to Mugs.

Karl regales me with stories from what she calls the best bartending job she’s ever had, during the last three years of the bar’s run. There was the time a few regulars pulled one of their own out of a fight and into Mugs, only to realize the guy had been knifed. “It was like the HBO version of ‘Cheers.’ Where everybody knows … you got stabbed,” she quips.

DRINK BETTER ALE

I may have headed to Burp Castle for Belgian beers, but it was at the not-quite-divey, resolutely-rock-and-roll d.b.a., which opened in 1994, where I experienced Lindemans Framboise and Kriek for the first time. 

My formative bar experiences were tied to punk and metal shows, and d.b.a.’s East Village grit meant I felt comfortable heading there to drink the kind of beers for which I had to carefully budget. I grew up over those visits to the bar, not just in beer knowledge but in life. 2010 was squinting to read the overwhelming number of beer names scrawled in a tiny script on the chalkboard menu, screaming our orders over the roar. 2015 was leisurely afternoons in the backyard with close friends. 2019 was rewarding my dog and me after a trip to the vet, she with her bone and me with my beer. 

Any mystery about why d.b.a. felt special disappears when you hear tributes to its co-owner Ray Deter, tragically killed in a bike accident in 2011. Carbone calls Deter “the face of good beer in New York,” recalling how he “knew everyone,” from Trappist beer-brewing monks to early American craft brewers. How he pushed for excellence and variety in the bar’s beer offerings, from Cantillon to cask ale; believed in people’s readiness to drink them before anyone else; and sought to bring that good beer to more people with additional d.b.a. locations in Williamsburg and also New Orleans. How he influenced so many others to subsequently open their own impactful beer bars. 

Brew York’s O’Leary calls Deter “such a cool, relaxed, smart person about beer and really spirits, too.” He reminisces about visiting d.b.a.’s now-closed Williamsburg extension, as well as its New Orleans outpost. “There was live jazz going on a Sunday afternoon, and I thought, ‘This is Ray personified.’ It felt like that’s the legacy he wanted to leave.”

Deter’s legacy indeed lives on, through both d.b.a. specifically and the city’s present-day beer scene more generally. He co-hosted early episodes of the podcast Beer Sessions Radio with Carbone, who still hosts the show today, and worked with him to establish The Good Beer Seal, which recognizes independent bars dedicated to both serving and educating drinkers on domestic craft beer and/or imports. The seal was both an honor and a helpful distinguisher for consumers as beer bars proliferated throughout the aughts. 

True to his mission, Deter had built more than a good beer bar—he’d helped build a good beer community.

TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK

With d.b.a. and Burp Castle in the East Village, some wondered if another downtown beer bar was really necessary when Dave Brodrick revealed his plans for Blind Tiger Ale House in the West Village. It was 1996, and select bars around town, including ones Brodrick worked at, had begun devoting more taps to imports and domestic craft beer. But to anyone outside that small, in-the-know set, three beer bars in Lower Manhattan felt like potential overkill. 

When Blind Tiger opened, Brodrick put on beers with “gateway” reputations, including Pete’s Wicked Ale and five different Brooklyn Brewery offerings. Over time, he watched the scene flourish, as craft beer approached ubiquity at non-specialist bars and palates and consumer education subsequently matured. “The first time I put on Cantillon [not long after opening], people were like, ‘Are you insane?’ Then in the early aughts, I’d put it on and it would be gone so fast—things really began to shift.”

Brodrick is modest when it comes to Blind Tiger’s crucial role in that shift. He sees the growth of both appreciation for and access to craft beer in New York City as a sign of teamwork between the city’s beer bars and breweries. Where some beer bar owners might view breweries and their taprooms as competition, Brodrick identifies a partnership with a mutual goal: helping people understand why craft beer is great, and getting that great beer into their hands.

This kind of team effort has always been apparent at Blind Tiger. I discovered so many breweries through its tap takeovers, and the same is true for many members of the local beer scene, including executive director of the New York City Brewers Guild Ann V. Reilly, who counts “the Ghost Bottle special events Garrett Oliver would do and the every-Wednesday tap takeovers” among her favorite memories. For Brodrick, a particular brewer stands out when he looks back on the events.

The first time I put on Cantillon [not long after opening], people were like, ‘Are you insane?’ Then in the early aughts, I’d put it on and it would be gone so fast—things really began to shift.
— Dave Brodrick, Blind Tiger Ale House

“Sam Calagione is such a promoter,” he says. “When [Dogfish Head] brought out their Pumpkin Beer, he said, ‘I’m going to bring 200 gourds and we’re going to carve them out and serve the beer in those.’ Well, of course, when people finished their beers, they threw them at each other, and it was a massive food fight. It took us two days to clean. It was totally crazy, but it got people really excited. A lot of what brewers were doing to get people’s attention, it was totally different from what corporate brands were doing. Brewers would come up with unique ideas around beers they were pushing, and beer bars like us would showcase it.”

Blind Tiger fostered a palpable thrill around craft beer—its newness, its creativity, its variety, its potential—and surfed that wave right into a new era of ubiquity.

BEER FOR THE MASSES

The vibe was different at The Ginger Man, opened on 36th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, also in 1996. It was a sprawling pub, part of a micro-chain founded by Bob Precious with locations in Houston, Texas and Greenwich, Connecticut. It was ideally situated near Grand Central Station—perfect for white-collar commuters—and Madison Square Garden, and within the general vicinity of Manhattan’s tourist-dense center. “The common complaint from people who wanted to drink beer there was that the crowd sucked,” O’Leary says. “From 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. every day it was standing room only and half the people didn’t give a shit about the beer at all, the other half were beer nerds but struggled to be able to ask the bartenders questions.” 

On weekends, with much of the bar’s clientele home in the ’burbs, you could actually get a table and enjoy your Chimay Blue or Tröegs Nugget Nectar with a giant pretzel. On weeknights, though, I remember trying to focus on the book-length menu among what felt like a music festival sponsored by Brooks Brothers. Here was a bar with an overwhelming tap-and-bottle list, and instead of beer geeks, the place was packed with Knicks fans, finance bros, and lawyers with Connecticut zip codes.

Ash Croce, a Brooklyn-based writer who worked in beer bars and taprooms for seven years, bartended at The Ginger Man from August 2016 until March 2020, a little more than a year before the bar closed for good. The weekday crowd may not have noticed, but the bar took beer seriously: Croce says staff had to finish beer training, and pass a written test, to get on the schedule; most became Cicerone Certified Beer Servers. “Happy hour was our bread and butter, it was a flood of Patagonia-vested businessmen indistinguishable from each other,” she remembers. “This crowd didn’t really care about beer.” 

Outside happy hour was different, though. Friday was a “big regular day,” Croce recalls. “These were the days we had our customers whose preferences we knew. Like my regular who was loyal to authentic European Lagers and insisted American attempts were always too hoppy.” 

Croce credits a tight-knit staff for support, and was able to continue her beer education amid chaotic shifts. That kind of crowd posed a challenge for bartenders, though, and in a lower-stakes way, did the same for beer-dedicated patrons. For much of The Ginger Man’s run, its beer menu was enough of a draw for beer fans to fight the throngs. But by its last year in 2021? It was hard to imagine compromising so much on atmosphere to drink good beer. 

A GATEWAY TO SOUTH BROOKLYN

Crowds pouring into your bar with little interest in your beer programming wasn’t a problem for Bobby Gagnon. After years of working with imported beer and early craft, the Boston native moved from Los Angeles to New York, waded into the city’s beer scene, met Brodrick, and bartended at Blind Tiger before deciding to open his place, The Gate, in Park Slope in 1997.

“It was a pretty tough slog in the beginning,” he says. “This end of the neighborhood is much different now. Then, it wasn’t a high-traffic area, so people who found us were looking for us because they’d found out what we were doing.” And what The Gate was doing was helping the community of beer lovers in New York expand. “We were putting beer in people’s hands and explaining why this was the direction you should be going,” he says. 

If the early days were about education, The Gate’s focus has shifted during its 25 years of existence. Now, customers walk in “completely educated, they know styles and what they’re looking for down to hop profiles.” Gagnon adds that The Gate’s survival over the course of that evolution is a testimony to how far the beer scene in New York has come. People once figured out how to find a bar like The Gate in order to explore beer, then knew what beer they wanted and that they’d find it at The Gate. Today, even the most casual drinker might just happen into The Gate and not bat an eye at the extensive variety. 

The Gate has long felt special in the sense that it’s a welcoming, pubby hang for fellow industry folks. O’Leary cites the chili cook-offs the bar hosted over the years, the competitors representing different breweries, and connects this specific event to an overall knack The Gate has for making industry members feel at home. “There hasn’t been a time I’ve walked into The Gate and there wasn’t someone from the industry sitting at the bar, or even behind the bar,” he says. 

I can attest to being made to feel at home in this bar. I discovered The Gate at a time in my life where I needed a place that was quiet and welcoming on a weekday afternoon so I could be comfortable alone and distracted by good beer. I had just moved to Park Slope in 2018, weeks after my mom had died, and I felt completely unmoored. The Gate was a port in the storm. Nine years earlier, though, I had a comparatively more adventurous approach to finding and choosing beer destinations. 

BELGIUM BY WAY OF BROOKLYN

In 2009, I was living at home in the suburbs between graduating college and moving into Manhattan. My quest for Belgian beer had begun, and after finding Spuyten Duyvil in an issue of “Time Out New York,” I was convinced it was worth the trip into Williamsburg. It was a thrilling discovery, walking through the bar’s red door and into what I’d later recognize as the atmosphere of an old Belgian beer café—thoughtfully mixed-and-matched furniture in a compact, creaky-wood space that felt like it had been there for ages, sunlight shining in through windows like Vermeer painted it—and tasting beers that felt downright extravagant, but never frivolous, to splurge on. 

Tuned into beer since he caught an episode of Michael Jackson’s “Beer Hunter” when he was around 17, Spuyten Duyvil’s founder, Joe Carroll, arrived in Manhattan at an early inflection point for the city’s growing beer scene. By the time he opened the bar in 2003, though, the fervor had fizzled—temporarily. There were barely enough local breweries to make a dent on Spuyten Duyvil’s menu in the beginning, so most of the bar’s six taps and bottle list focused on beers from Belgium, Germany, and England, consistently stocking enough rare gems that Carroll says people from other states and countries knew to visit Spuyten Duyvil when seeking out rarities.

It truly formed how I saw and thought about the beer world back then. Not only in being exposed to different brewers, styles, and regional scenes, but also in events held, which helped connect me with other people in the industry locally.
— Niko Krommydas, beer writer

B.R. Rolya, a brewery consultant and importer who worked for the now-shuttered Shelton Brothers, remembers how exciting Spuyten Duyvil’s opening was for her homebrew club. “The idea that [Carroll] was not only focused on Belgian beers but split them into regional selections of Flanders and Wallonia was mind-blowing,” she says.

Within a few years, American craft beer had exploded, and there were more than enough local craft options to share the menu with imports. As the New York beer scene grew, so did Spuyten Duyvil’s following. It became a favorite stop for industry members visiting town, and for beer launches and events. For beer writer Niko Krommydas, like so many members of the city’s beer industry, Spuyten Duyvil played a formative role in his developing education and interest—he calls the bar “home to some of my earliest experiences with ‘good’ beer, both craft and international.” 

“It truly formed how I saw and thought about the beer world back then,” says Krommydas. “Not only in being exposed to different brewers, styles, and regional scenes, but also in events held, which helped connect me with other people in the industry locally.”

UNDERGROUND BUT ON THE RADAR

While he would never take this credit himself, Jimmy Carbone could easily be mistaken for the unofficial mayor of New York City’s beer bar scene. 

On a phone call to discuss his former bar, Jimmy’s No. 43, the conversation ends on the importance of other bars and their owners. Perhaps that’s no surprise considering that Carbone is behind foundational moves that organized the city’s beer bars into a community in the first place. There was the Good Beer Seal, as well as NYC Good Beer Month, which laid the groundwork for NYC Beer Week (later taken over by the NYC Brewers Guild). He also keeps beer bar owners and staff at the center of the local industry conversation with his Beer Sessions podcast. It can’t be forgotten, though, that from 2005 to 2015, Carbone was a beer bar owner himself.

Jimmy’s No. 43 opened below Standings, making its own mark on that stretch of East Seventh Street. Carbone came to beer bar ownership through having cooked professionally, worked with wine, and owned a restaurant, which had started to stock imports, then American craft beer. When the restaurant closed in 2005, he leveraged his beer interest, knowledge, and relationships with distributors to open Jimmy’s No. 43. Carbone was hands-on every step of the way, cooking every meal served at the bar and writing every beer list. Local beer lovers noticed, and quickly developed an affection for Carbone’s dedication and the resulting stellar tap and bottle list.

“[The bar] was haphazard and cramped and smelled kind of damp and the backroom with all the events was really small—and I loved everything about it,” O’Leary says. “It was one of those places where none of these things on their own should work but all together, it just somehow does.” I can still conjure up that smell and the bar’s dim lighting. I recall feeling older than my years as I used my cell phone light to study the menu. Maybe it all harkens back to that punk rock spirit, the beer geek’s love of being pushed into dark little caves where they’re free to fixate on every sip, because beer industry and community members couldn’t get enough of Jimmy’s. 

Indeed, Jimmy’s No. 43 was at the center of the community, often supporting local breweries before anyone else. “For five years, we did Jimmy’s Homebrew Jamboree,” says beer journalist and author Joshua M. Bernstein, who’s been running local homebrew tours for over 13 years. “People from Finback, Strong Rope, KCBC, and beyond poured at the tours and the jamboree,” he adds, emphasizing how the homebrew scene and places like Jimmy’s were the only places to embrace this good beer movement pre-taprooms. 

Jimmy’s closed in 2017, the same year as Against the Grain’s demise and that of Paloma Rocket, a pour-your-own beer bar on Clinton Street on the Lower East Side that had only been open a little over a year. 2018 saw the closing of Rattle N Hum, a sportier and beer-geekier Midtown answer to The Ginger Man that had been popular with breweries launching New York City distribution with tap takeovers and meet-and-greets. In 2019, Mugs shuttered before its eventual change in ownership.

This ever-shifting cycle of openings and closings feels emblematic of the difficulty of running a small business in New York City, where greedy landlords jacking up the rent can mean the end for a beloved neighborhood bar or restaurant. But as New York belatedly becomes a brewery-led scene, it’s hard to ignore that bars have declined as taprooms have finally begun proliferating. Where New York City’s specialty bars were, less than a decade ago, the city’s beer scene in its entirety, now they are a complement to its breweries, no longer the gravitational center.

I'M IN A NOSTALGIC STATE OF MIND

Following conversations with my fellow New York beer enthusiasts, my nostalgia surges, and I can’t help but wonder if they also got off the phone to marinate for a minute in the memories of those early days, of chasing Belgian rarities and new craft releases from borough to borough. It’s immediately clear we share many of the same affections, even while having our own journeys into the scene.

Some people couldn’t believe I wasn’t discussing Bierkraft, a now-shuttered Park Slope spot with staff that carried on to brew at some of the city’s best-known breweries, but I’d never been there. Only Dan Lamonaca, owner of Williamsburg bottle shop Beer Karma, remembered frequenting an Upper East Side bar I loved called David Copperfield’s, while owner of the East Village’s ABC Beer Co. Zach Mack was one of the few with memories of Against the Grain. Lamonaca shares some of my fondness for Spitzer’s Corner on the Lower East Side, while others I spoke with viewed it as a death knell for authenticity among beer bars because it was opened by a slick team of restaurateurs.

Plenty has changed in the nearly 13 years since I moved to New York and became a regular at the city’s beer bars. Exploring beer in the city undoubtedly looks different now, and this evolution isn’t the only lens through which I’ve been looking back at these spaces. After living here for so long, I’ve finally started to plan a new course—one that will take me to other cities to explore what it’s like to live there, and, inevitably, immerse myself in those beer scenes. Knowing now that my New York days are finite has introduced preemptive nostalgia for a moment that hasn’t even passed yet. 

For now, I drink in every last drop—not just of my beer, but of the atmosphere, the people, the music, and the conversations. It’s in doing so that I’m reminded: As much as this little New York City beer world looks different, and as many special places as we’ve lost, our beer bars are alive and well, still offering unique experiences in the way my admittedly biased heart believes creative, resourceful New Yorkers do best.

Burp Castle, The Gate, d.b.a.—these neighborhood staples still pour stellar beer alongside fellow stalwarts like George Keeley on the Upper West Side, Fourth Avenue Pub in Park Slope, and the now 14-year-old Double Windsor near Prospect Park. Bar-bottle-shop hybrids like Beer Culture, Top Hops, ABC Beer Co., Beer Karma, Covenhoven, and Beer Witch offer still more options for locals to engage with good beer, and a newer generation of beer bars with openings spanning the last decade like Gold Star Beer Counter, BierWax, Beer Street, Glorietta Baldy, Bondurants, and Hops Hill attract fresh crowds alongside people like me, who have been stalking local beer destinations since the late aughts. 

I love New York City’s breweries, but I owe the will to frequent them in the first place to the city’s beer bars. It’s a vibrant scene I’m grateful to discuss with fellow New Yorkers, recommend to travelers, and will look forward to revisiting long after I’ve left town.

Words by Courtney Iseman
Illustrations by Colette Holston


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dlanods
312 days ago
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A TikTok Ban Feels Closer Than Ever. Tech Privacy Protection Still Feels Miles Away.

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Thursday brought Congress one step closer to banning the Chinese-owned TikTok in the U.S. It also raised questions about user data and privacy regulation throughout the tech sector as a whole.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The CEO of a popular social media company walks into a congressional hearing, sits down in front of a bunch of cantankerous lawmakers, and gets treated like a political punching bag. The complaints go something like this: The platform violates user privacy. It’s addictive, psychologically damaging, and dangerous for kids. It’s both too “woke” and overflowing with hate speech. It’s vulnerable to disinformation and foreign interference. It works in ways that House members don’t understand, but they know they don’t like it all the same.

The CEO meets these grievances with vague promises of reform and an unlimited supply of I’ll get back to yous. By the time the hearing is over, it’s clear that this was primarily an exercise in political theater. The average onlooker doesn’t really believe there will be meaningful reform to how tech companies operate. And usually there isn’t.

It’s not a particularly uplifting ritual. But if you’ve paid attention to the ballooning of big tech over the past two decades, you probably know it by heart. A good congressional paddling has become a rite of passage for nearly every major U.S.-owned social network. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram have all been interrogated on Capitol Hill, scolded for being devil-may-care data vacuums, and then released back to their natural oat-milk-rich Silicon Valley habitats to keep making everyone—including the lawmakers who questioned them—more money.

On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew went to Washington, D.C., and threw a wrench into this established tradition. Because—despite being an indisputable cultural catalyst that has 150 million monthly active users in the United States—TikTok is not an American product. The video-sharing app is owned by ByteDance, the privately held Chinese internet giant that is based in Beijing.

This detail set a fire under the typical congressional step-and-repeat, inspiring an opening statement that felt unusually aggressive and dismissive: “You are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington). She underlined concerns that TikTok collects “nearly every data point imaginable,” which the Chinese Communist Party is able to use “as a tool to manipulate America.” She cast doubt that TikTok would ever embrace “American values” for “freedom, human rights, and innovation.” She ridiculed TikTok’s plan (nicknamed “Project Texas”) to store all U.S. user data on American soil as “a marketing scheme.” Finally, she arrived at a conclusion shared by our two most recent presidents, that TikTok “should be banned.” Her mind had been made up before Chew ever got a word in.

The hearing as a whole followed a similar script. More than 50 representatives lambasted Chew for virtually every big tech violation under the sun, from encroaching on user privacy to harming the mental health and well-being of teenagers. Many of the reps’ talking points sounded familiar, as if cribbed from previous hearings featuring prominent U.S. tech executives. As Ron Deibert, the director of a University of Toronto laboratory that has analyzed TikTok’s data collection practices, put it on Twitter: “Concerns with TikTok should serve as a reminder that most social media apps are unacceptably invasive-by-design, treat users as raw material for personal data surveillance, and fall short on transparency about their data sharing practices.”

Though a few Democrats in the hearing offered up comparable rationale, the rare bipartisan fervor in the room underlined a clear, unspoken truth: When our companies guzzle data, it’s tolerated. When a Chinese company does it, it’s a national security threat.

This conflict has taken center stage in the ongoing geopolitical tension between the U.S. and China. The United States has a long, if inconsistent, history of blocking Chinese business deals while citing national security and human rights concerns (the most previously notable of which involved the Chinese communications company Huawei), and gripes against TikTok in particular stretch back to 2019, when its rise in popularity stirred bipartisan grumblings about its potential national security risks. Unlike other Chinese companies doing business in the U.S., TikTok is a social media app with real cultural cache, and has the power to influence the kind of media that Americans consume daily. Not only can it surveil Americans, but it can collect information about what they like, and potentially use that to launch disinformation campaigns as well.

At the core of legislators’ concerns both then and now is China’s 2017 national intelligence law, which broadly states that companies and citizens are required to “support, assist and cooperate” with state intelligence work if asked. The implication here is that if the Chinese government ordered ByteDance to hand over hundreds of millions of Americans’ data, the company would be compelled to do so. Chinese government spokespeople have challenged this interpretation of its law, saying that intelligence work is conducted according to local laws abroad. But given the country’s authoritarian leadership, sweeping citizen surveillance, and record of human rights violations, Congress is right to question the validity of that explanation. Having the power to collect detailed data, and use that data to influence what people see and believe, is the next political frontier. And it’s hard to deny that if the Chinese government had access to all the data TikTok collects, it really could use that to its advantage on the global stage.

Since initial worries about TikTok materialized in 2019, the U.S. government and the platform have been in the throes of a public back-and-forth not unlike the kind of snappy drama that regularly occurs on the app itself. In August 2020, then-president Donald Trump signed an abrupt executive order that banned the app. (The move may or may not have been inspired by an incident earlier that year, in which a bunch of Kpop fans on TikTok claimed to sabotage attendance of one of his campaign rallies.) This kicked off negotiations to reach an agreement that would both satisfy the U.S. government’s security interests and allow the app to keep operating on United States soil. Ultimately, the ban didn’t take, and TikTok went on to pursue “Project Texas,” a partnership with Austin-based Oracle that aims to move U.S. users’ information to domestic data centers and restrict access to that data abroad.

This was the focus of Chew’s retort to questioning on Thursday. He went so far as to question the American exceptionalism at the heart of the hearing: “I don’t think ownership is the issue here,” he said late in the session. “With a lot of respect, American social companies don’t have a good track record with data privacy and user security. Just look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, for one example.”

The Biden administration has conveniently chosen to ignore this point and doubled down on its opposition to Chinese ownership. It has moved quickly in recent months to protect itself from the possibility of TikTok data breaches. In late February, the White House gave federal agencies 30 days to delete TikTok from government devices. Canada, Britain, the European Union, and New Zealand also recently called for similar measures, and India banned the app entirely in 2020. At the start of March, a House committee advanced a bill that would allow Biden to ban the app. (You’ll never guess what it’s called.) Soon after, the Biden administration said that the only way to prevent a TikTok ban would be for ByteDance to sell it to a U.S.-owned company. On Thursday, the Chinese government said it would oppose a forced sale.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. If Biden does the equivalent of saying “Fuck it forever!” and bans TikTok in the U.S., he would likely face legal challenges over free speech violations. (Just as Trump did.) The administration could nevertheless place TikTok on a blacklist that would make doing business with the company illegal. This would leave a monumental void in the social media space, one that other tech companies are frothing at the mouth to fill. It’d also leave hundreds of millions of users who’ve adapted to using TikTok as a money-making tool in a state of limbo, and it wouldn’t address the larger user privacy concerns that have long gone unchecked in the tech sector.

Thursday’s hearing managed to both intensify and conflate two separate conversations. There may very well be legitimate national security interests in preventing a Chinese company from maintaining control of TikTok. But legislators’ concerns for their constituents’ individual privacy ring hollow when the U.S. government has so far failed to pass anything resembling a comprehensive privacy law that applies to misbehaving American companies and their data brokers. Many representatives may not be willing to take the political risks necessary to confront our tech sector hypocrisy, but they’re certainly game to whip out some flashy poster boards and put on a show.

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How a giant eagle came to dominate ancient New Zealand

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The now-extinct Haast’s eagle hunting moa in New Zealand, which lacked other large predators. Today scientists are looking at the ancient history of the islands’ birds to better understand how “natural” biological invasions happen.

Enlarge / The now-extinct Haast’s eagle hunting moa in New Zealand, which lacked other large predators. Today scientists are looking at the ancient history of the islands’ birds to better understand how “natural” biological invasions happen. (credit: John Megahan/CC)

New Zealand has long been known as a place for the birds—quite literally. Before people arrived 700 years ago, the archipelago hosted an idiosyncratic ecosystem, nearly free of mammals. More than 200 bird species filled a food web all their own. Rather than cows or antelopes, there was a family of flightless birds known as moa. And in place of apex predators like tigers, New Zealand had Haast’s eagle.

Ever since a group of farm workers drained a swamp in the late 1860s and uncovered its buried bones, this eagle has captivated researchers. Julius Haast, the explorer and geologist who published the first notes on the species, described it as “a raptorial bird of enormous dimensions.” Today, biologists estimate that the eagles weighed up to 33 pounds—roughly 50 percent more than any raptor known today. But with a wingspan of only two to three meters—just beyond the range of a bald eagle—this was an oddly proportioned bird.

The shape of Haast’s eagle was one of many puzzles that scientists faced as they studied this long-extinct species, preserved in just a few skeletons, plus scattered bits and pieces. For nearly a century, there was a debate over whether such a large bird could fly; even after that feud was settled, questions remained about whether the bird was capable of killing moa, which in some cases would have been more than 15 times larger than the eagle itself. Now, new scientific techniques, combined with a clearer understanding of New Zealand’s geological history, has placed the Haast’s eagle amid a much larger ecological discussion: how species comes to “invade” new territories.

Scientists now believe that this superlative bird was one in a wave of feathered invaders that conquered New Zealand over a relatively short period. And this was not the only wave of invasions. Haast’s eagle—despite being gone for centuries—has revealed that we live in a much more connected world than we once thought, says biologist Michael Knapp of the University of Otago, who has studied the eagle. If such seemingly isolated islands have repeatedly attracted so many incoming species, he says, then “natural invasions” must be a major force in ecosystems across the world.

Digging for answers

New Zealand has always held an important place in scientists’ understanding of extinction. When Western scientists first encountered moa, the idea that species could go extinct was just a few decades old. Their skeletons soon became a hot commodity. “You could pretty much name your price,” says paleobiologist Paul Scofield, senior curator at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch. “It was really what enabled our museum.” Haast himself launched the museum and assembled its initial collection by exchanging moa fossils for various other archeological and zoological curiosities.

New Zealand retained unusual species—including, famously, the flightless kiwi. Combined with these extant oddballs, the moa fossils helped to establish the idea that New Zealand was a lost world, a place where ancient creatures, sheltered by distance from the rest of the world, managed to survive mass extinction events. Later geologists confirmed that these rocky islands had once been a part of a supercontinent they called Gondwana, but split away about 80 million years ago. In 1990, a television series described New Zealand’s islands as “Moa’s Ark,” popularizing the catchy name of the long-held model of how its bird-filled ecosystem came to be.

By the end of the 1990s, though, scientists realized that there was a period during the Oligocene, about 25 million years ago, when geologic and climatic changes might have put all of New Zealand underwater. Such a flood would have wiped out most—if not all—of the islands’ species. The theory, which became known as the “Oligocene drowning,” met resistance from some scientists, launching a heated debate over just how much land was covered.

Fortunately, new technologies were emerging to answer that question. Scientists began to extract and sequence DNA from fossils; this meant researchers could compare ancient DNA to modern genomes and create family trees of the evolutionary relationships between living and extinct species. Such “phylogenies” could roughly pinpoint when two species split apart from their common ancestor—data useful in settling the fight over New Zealand’s geological history.

In 2005, a team of scientists published a paper that compared DNA sequences extracted from two Haast’s eagle fossils to the genomes of 16 modern eagles. The scientists ascertained that the great lost bird’s closest living relatives included Australian species, as expected. The genomic data suggested that the family tree had split within the past few million years. Subsequent analysis has put the divergence time around 2.2 million years ago.

Score one for the Oligocene drowning hypothesis: The eagle appeared to have arrived after the time of the proposed submergence. But later analyses of several other New Zealand species showed divergence times on the order of tens of millions of years. Some species had persisted through the Oligocene, then.

By 2014, geological evidence had convinced most scientists: Yes, much of New Zealand had drowned, but small slivers of land—perhaps 20 percent—had remained above water. While a few of the islands’ species date far back to Gondwana, many others, including Haast’s eagle, were newer arrivals.

But the genetic analysis had revealed a new mystery—one that scientists hadn’t even thought to contemplate. Scientists had often compared the extinct bird to the wedge-tailed eagle, the largest extant raptor in Australia. It was an obvious candidate for the eagle’s closest living relative. Instead, the genes showed a closer link to the booted eagle and the little eagle, species that both weigh around 2 pounds. (The little eagle, as its name implies, is one of the smallest species of eagle alive today.)

This discovery suggested that Haast’s eagle had made a gigantic leap in size from its closest relatives: a 15-fold increase in just 2 million years. That’s a “staggering” rate of change, as Knapp put it in a recent paper. Rapid changes in size have been observed in dogs, but that’s a process driven by human selection. Knapp says he knows of no other instance where natural selection led to such substantial growth over such a short period. It is possible that all three eagles share a not-yet-known ancestral species whose size lay somewhere in the middle; its descendants could have morphed in different directions. But Knapp thinks this scenario less likely. The first wayward eagles, blown across the Tasman Sea in a day-or-two journey from Australia, would have landed in conditions that favored ever-larger birds.

Knapp notes that other raptors, perhaps owls or falcons, could have fed on the islands’ smallest birds. But there were plenty of moa running around, ranging in size from turkeys to ostriches — too big to be picked off by most raptors. “That’s huge amounts of meat that isn’t taken,” Knapp says. Such a scenario would have quickly selected for the largest eagles, who would have had the easiest time consuming such prey.

Knapp is now turning toward the smallest scales of this mystery: By comparing the genomes of various eagle species, he wants to identify precisely which genes changed to facilitate the rapid growth of Haast’s eagles. “Finding out how that works on the molecular level, that’s really the next step,” he says.

Another bird in hand

Already, though, the eagle genetics have helped to deepen our understanding of New Zealand’s ecological history. A second extinct New Zealand bird, known as Eyles’s harrier, is the largest known harrier in history. But it’s not just superlative size that makes this bird reminiscent of Haast’s eagle: The great harrier also appears to have evolved from a smaller bird. The closest living relative of Eyles’s harrier was nearly five times smaller, Knapp and colleagues reported in 2019. And the two harrier species appear to have split apart from their shared ancestor roughly 2.4 million years ago—relatively close to the divergence time of Haast’s eagle.

As Knapp was preparing to speak at a conference about this work, he became intrigued by the shared timing. So he looked for other examples of similar divergence times. “I found a lot of them,” he says. As he began to contemplate this “suspicious clustering,” as he calls it, his colleague Paul Scofield pointed out one more commonality: The recent migrants were all open-habitat species.

The two scientists, along with other colleagues, developed a hypothesis, which they published in 2019 in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution:  A wave of avian invaders arrived in New Zealand in a relatively short period, thanks to geological and climatic change that reshaped the islands’ habitat.

Around 10 million years ago, Australia began to grow arid. New Zealand, meanwhile, remained heavily forested—at least until 2.5 million years ago, when the ice ages began. Then large swaths of the islands cooled, causing glaciers to blossom atop New Zealand’s mountains and killing some forests. Suddenly, the islands featured extensive fields of grass: a brand-new habitat.

Knapp uses Haast’s eagle and Eyles’s harrier as case studies in a paper published in the 2021 Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics; these are illustrative examples of “natural invasions,” he thinks. Australian species cross the Tasman Sea quite often, but they typically struggle to compete against the islands’ existing species. But when cooler temperatures killed some forests, these new arrivals found a familiar ecological niche — one that no New Zealand species had yet evolved to fill.

This process was entirely natural, but it has implications for conservation. It’s well known that human beings can carry species across the globe—directly causing biological invasions. But the way that Haast’s eagle and Eyles’s harrier arrived suggests a more subtle role human beings can play: We too can alter habitat. We open and close ecological niches. By doing so, we can indirectly lure species into new geographies.

Much of New Zealand’s forest has been burned since the first people arrived, creating even more open habitat. Around half the islands’ bird species were wiped out after humans arrived in New Zealand — including Haast’s eagle and Eyles’s harrier—pening new niches. Now, history is repeating. Over the past several centuries, New Zealand has become home to the Australian bittern, the white-faced heron, the welcome swallow.

“The same thing that we see 2.5 million years ago is happening right now, again,” Knapp says.

The one thing that’s never mysterious about Haast’s eagle is what species wiped it out. Perhaps the eagles were hunted. Certainly, the moa were, which would be enough to doom the predator. “If you're evolving to fit a specific and very rare niche, then you have a hard time when that niche is gone,” Knapp says. One way or another, human beings take the blame.

So while you could take the recent wave of Australian immigrants as a reminder that ecosystems adapt—that life goes on as new species fill the gap—this story is also cautionary. Evolutionary history is full of strange twists and turns, but also dead ends.

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

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