Monthly Archives: May 2019

The NBA Finals are gonna give us way more Drake than we can handle

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Drake’s a Raptors fan and a Warriors fan. He’s getting all of the attention no matter what.

The world’s most meme-able man will be front and center for the entire NBA Finals, his biggest sports spotlight since becoming “God’s plant” while wielding a virtual axe behind a bush in Fortnite with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Travis Scott, and Ninja. Drake will demand camera time to embarrass himself and others with corny antics and an unwavering passion to prop up his hometown of Toronto. Whether you like it or not, he’s coming.

(Update: Drake is at Game 1 in a Dell Curry jersey, with an armband covering up his Steph Curry and Kevin Durant tattoos.)

The conference Finals were just a warm-up for basketball’s biggest celebrity superfan. There, Drake made headlines after massaging the shoulders of Raptors head coach Nick Nurse mid-game.

(Seriously, why does the franchise’s now-unofficial global ambassador gets this much free rein? LOL.)

Then he became the topic of conversation again after feuding with Mallory Edens, the daughter of Bucks owner Wes Edens, after she wore a T-shirt of Drake’s sworn enemy Pusha T to Game 5.

And in what could (and will if the Raptors get blown out) be taken completely out of context for internet jokes, Drake compared the Raptors to a college basketball team after they knocked off the Bucks for good.

There’s still so much more to come.

Why? Because this series pits Drake’s beloved Raptors against … his also-beloved Golden State Warriors.

Drake’s infamous rise as a legendary sports meme subject began with his cult following for anyone who has once dribbled a basketball. But the Warriors hold a special place in Drake’s heart: somewhere between his LeBron James and Kentucky basketball fandom, above his Conor McGregor devotion, and below his appreciation for Alabama football.

Bear with me here in this lengthy list of Drake-Warriors connections that will make you forget this guy actually (supposedly) roots for the Raptors:

  • In 2014, Drake started his friendship with Steph Curry, coining one of his most iconic rap lines, “I been Steph Curry with the shot, Been cookin’ with the sauce, chef, curry with the pot, boy,” in his summer hit “0 to 100 / The Catch up.”
  • That same year, Drake, then officially the Raptors’ global ambassador, tried to recruit free-agent-to-be Kevin Durant to Toronto at a concert. “Before we leave, I just want to show one of my brothers something,” Drake said to the crowd, according to ESPN. “You know, my brother Kevin Durant was kind enough to come to the show tonight and watch us. I just want him to see what would happen if he came to play in Toronto. Let him know what would happen.” Toronto was hit with a $25,000 tampering fine.
  • In 2015, Drake went to In-N-Out with Curry and his wife Ayesha:
  • In 2016, Drake released a song called “Summer Sixteen” in which he used Draymond Green’s name to compare his relationship with his bodyguard to Curry’s with Green.
  • A few months later, he released “Western Road Flows” where he said, “Shout out to KD, we relate, we get the same attention.”
  • In June 2016, Drake lost $60,000 to rapper French Montana after betting on his friends, the Warriors, to beat LeBron and the Cavs. (They didn’t).
  • Months later, after KD signed with the Warriors, guess who wore his jersey at a concert in the Bay Area:
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BAY AREA NIGHT ONE

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  • In 2018, we learned Drake took his friendships to another level after he got tattoos of BOTH Curry and KD’s jersey numbers on his bicep?!

  • Drake also wore DeMarcus Cousins’ high school jersey in his “In My Feelings” music video:
  • When the Raptors beat the Warriors in Toronto at the beginning of the 2018-19 season, KD gave Drake his jersey:
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KD gives Drake his jersey after dropping 51 in Toronto. (via @nbcsauthentic)

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What this leaves is endless meme potential for one of the most meme-able person ever

Drake is in the biggest win-win AND lose-lose situation in celebrity NBA history. Should the Warriors win big, that’s wonderful for him. Those are his friends! But he can’t show that in public, because he’s a Raptors fan. And if the Raptors win, he can’t showboat too much, right? Because again, the Warriors are his friends. Or, can he? Drake is going to show the peril of frontrunning live on national TV. The camera will NEVER stop rolling on him, so we won’t miss a moment.

There’s already precedent for popular artists dominating an NBA Finals scene thanks to Rihanna. In 2017, Rihanna, a mega LeBron fan, dabbed on fans before saying “King is still King, bitch.” She then Crying Jordaned herself and Instagrammed a meme video where she was Simba from the Lion King and LeBron was Mufasa. She’s set the bar sky-high for both Drake and camera operators looking to capture every legendary moment.

If there’s anyone who can live up to Rihanna’s prowess as the entertainer among entertainers in a venue they have no business entertaining in, it’s Drake. Maybe he’ll make for some of the most hilarious moments of the series. Maybe he’ll be cringeworthy throughout.

Either way, buckle up as everyone’s best friend struggles through his very public conundrum. Don’t forget to get your Photoshop ready.

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Who should REALLY be the NFL MVP favorite in 2019?

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Carson Wentz? Andrew Luck? Patrick Mahomes again? Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz makes his pick.

What we all love about the NFL is there’s always something to talk about, no matter the time of the season. It should be a dead period of news, but we have 2021 CBA negotiation discussion and now, NFL MVP talk thanks to Louis Riddick.

Earlier this week, Riddick proclaimed his 2019 NFL MVP winner to be Carson Wentz:

Fortune favors the bold and this is a bold prediction. Now, I can vibe with bold predictions, especially when we put some odds behind it. Wentz is +1600 to take home the NFL MVP award, according to odds released by FanDuel earlier this month. That would give Wentz the seventh-best odds to win this award.

While Wentz is talented (duh) and has weapons plus that outstanding Eagles offensive line, he’s proven that staying healthy is an issue. His back isn’t stable and an awkward hit to the area could put him on injured reserve again. I can’t lay my money on him, so who do I put the money on? Let’s go over it.

Patrick Mahomes +600

Mahomes is the favorite to win again after taking home the 2018 MVP award. He lit the NFL on fire last season with 50 touchdowns and more than 5,000 yards passing. Only two other quarterbacks have thrown 50 touchdown passes in a season. The first was Tom Brady in 2007 and the second was Peyton Manning in 2013. Neither followed up with the same type of production the next season (though Brady was injured in 2008).

I expect Mahomes to have a slight drop-off as well. Mahomes could be without Tyreek Hill, too. If Hill is out, Mahomes will still complete a high percent of passes, but the big yards after the catch could disappear. Secondly, teams have spent all offseason trying to figure out ways to stop Mahomes. I wouldn’t put my money on Mahomes.

Andrew Luck +900

Luck is a baller. We know this. However, he’s never put up MVP-type numbers in his career. Can he do it this season? Yes, he could. Last season, with a new offense and coming off an injury, he threw for nearly 4,600 yards, 39 touchdowns, and completed 67 percent of passes. Luck needs to add five or six touchdowns and 400 yards, and he will have the numbers.

However, I worry about the Colts’ record. The last six quarterback MVPs have guided teams who have at least played in their conference title games. Are the Colts ready for that yet? They won’t be the favorite against the Chiefs or Patriots. While Luck can play at a MVP level, I wouldn’t bet on him winning the award either.

Drew Brees +1000

Nope. It’s clear Drew Brees is finally starting to show his age — just a bit. Plus, the Saints have become a more balanced offense with their rushing attack. In 2016, Brees threw 673 times for 5,208 yards. In 2017, he was down to 536 attempts and 4,334 yards. Last season, he had only 489 attempts for 3,992 yards. His numbers are going the opposite direction.

Tom Brady +1000

There’s always value in betting on Tom Brady, or the Patriots to win anything, but I don’t think the money on Brady is wise in this situation. Brady is breaking in a rookie wide receiver, and with the emergence of a rushing attack, he won’t be tasked with carrying the entire offense.

Aaron Rodgers +1200

This is where I’m putting my money. Aaron Rodgers is primed for a monster season and you’re getting supreme value in this pick. He’s finally in a new offense and it will refresh his play. While they might be lacking in weapons with household names, this offense should provide ways for their receivers to get open. The Packers have outstanding pass-protecting tackles that will keep Rodgers upright. Their defense is greatly improved and it will lead to more victories. If the Packers win the NFC North (I think they do), Rodgers wins the MVP award.

Baker Mayfield +1500

I’ve discussed this at length. I’m at a wait and see approach with the Browns. It continues with this play.

Carson Wentz +1600

I think there’s outstanding value in this pick. Wentz is coming off injury and is undervalued. He’s still an outstanding talent at quarterback and the Eagles have reloaded on offense. Wentz’s issue is health, but at +1600 there is value on a Wentz wager.

If you’re looking for a non quarterback to win the MVP award, it’s Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott at +3400. The last running back to win the MVP was Adrian Peterson in 2012 after rushing for 2,097 yards. That is the kind of season-long performance Elliott would need to win the award. With Cowboys center Travis Fredrick back, it’s possible. Defenses will have to play the Cowboys more straight up with their pass catchers, and it should allow for fewer defenders in the box against Zeke. This would be the only bet I’d make on a non-quarterback.

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Every winning word from the Scripps National Spelling Bee shows how difficult it’s become

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From “therapy” to “koinonia.”

In 1984 the winning word at the Scripps National Spelling Bee was “luge.” Luge, like the sport, four letters — no real tricks. In 2015 you’d need to know “scherenschnitte,” a German word for scissor cuts in paper craft. Most adults could at least attempt these words, but we’re talking about kids aged 8 to 15.

The national spelling bee has been a part of this country’s DNA since 1925. Interrupted only by WWII. For years the bee was pretty normal, featuring words most of us could at least attempt. Then it changed. TV coverage changed the bee and soon kids began to boot camp for competitions. They got better, the words got harder and now you need an encyclopedic knowledge of language to compete.

“I could spell this …”

1932: Invulnerable
1933: Torsion
1934: Brethren
1935: Intelligible
1937: Promiscuous
1938: Sanitarium
1939: Canonical
1940: Therapy
1941: Initials
1942: Sacrilegious
1946: Semaphore
1948: Psychiatry
1949: Onerous
1950: Meticulously
1952: Vignette
1954: Transcept
1956: Condominium
1957: Schnappe
1959: Catamaran
1964: Sycophant
1966: Ratoon
1967: Chihuahua
1968: Abalone
1969: Interlocutory
1970: Croissant
1973: Vouchsafe
1975: Incisor
1976: Narcolepsy
1977: Cambist
1981: Sarcophagus
1983: Purim
1984: Luge
1985: Milieu
1993: Kamikaze

“I should be able to spell this, but here we are.”

1925: Gladiolus,
1926: Cerise
1927: Abrogate
1928: Albumen
1930: Albumen
1931: Foulard
1936: Eczema
1947: Chlorophyll
1965: Eczema
1971: Shalloon
1972: Macerate
1978: Deification
1982: Psoriasis
1989: Spoliator
1997: Euonym

“Now you’re making me feel dumb.”

1929: Asceticism
1951: Insouciant
1953: Soubrette
1955: Crustaceology
1958: Syllepsis
1960: Eudaemonic
1987: Staphylococci
1994: Antediluvian
2000: Demarche

“I refuse to believe any of these are real words.”

1961: Smaragdine
1962: Esquamulose
1963: Equipage
1974: Hydrophyte
1979: Maculature
1980: Elucubrate
1986: Odontalgia
1988: Elegiacal
1990: Fibranne
1991: Antipyretic
1992: Lyceum
1995: Xanthosis
1996: Vivisepulture
1998: Chiaroscurist
1999: Logorrhea
2001: Succedaneum
2002: Prospicience
2003: Pococurante
2004: Autochthonous
2005: Appoggiatura
2006: Ursprache
2007: Serrefine
2008: Guerdon
2009: Laodicean
2010: Stromuhr
2011: Cymotrichous
2012: Guetapens
2013: Knaidel
2014: Feuilleton / Stichomythia
2015: Nunatak / Scherenschnitte
2016: Feldenkrais / Gesellschaft
2017: Marocain
2018: Koinonia

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How the very real Paul Pierce curse affects the NBA Finals

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Paul Pierce will predict the NBA Finals — just not the way you or he expects

You best be paying attention to Paul Pierce if you want to know who will win the NBA Finals, because his curse knows no bounds. Pierce went on Twitter shortly after the Bucks were eliminated during the Eastern Conference Finals to give his analysis of “Puke, Bucks, puke, laugh cry, live long and prosper,” and for good reason.

When Paul Pierce says a team has a series locked up, it means doom.

Pierce’s disappointing tweet above came just eight days after Pierce called the series.

It’s probably easy to say “well, the Bucks were up 2-0 at the time and they’d won by an average of 16 points,” and you’d be right — except that this was the second time in as many months Pierce called a series early, only to see everything crumble before him.

On April 28, after the Celtics won Game 1 against the Bucks, he declared the series over, believing that Boston was going to move on.

“As a team, I don’t know where Milwaukee goes from here. […] No listen, I think it’s over.”

BUT Pierce is actually really good at picking Game 7 itself.

There are some things that Pierce has projected correctly during the playoffs. He accurately predicted the Blazers would win Game 7 against the Nuggets, and did the same by picking the Warriors to beat the Blazers, once again in the final game of the series.

When the stakes are on a single game, Pierce has been shooting 1.000. But he’s utterly incapable of correctly predicting the end of a series.

Each step of the playoffs, he’s walked his prediction ahead by one game. In the Boston vs. Milwaukee series, he called it after one game, then the Celtics lost 4-1. In the Bucks vs. Raptors series, he called it after two games, and the Raptors went on to win 4-2.

How might the Pierce curse play out in the Finals?

This leaves us at a paradox for his NBA Finals prediction. Like one of those “spot the pattern” questions on the SATs, the Pierce method tells us he will wait until the end of Game 3 to call the series. This also means it will be pushed to a Game 7, considering the Celtics lost in five and the Bucks in six.

HOWEVER, he’s also perfect at predicting Game 7s. See the problem here? Let’s break this one down:

  • The Warriors go up 3-0. Pierce says “it’s over.”
  • The Raptors will then win three straight, tying the series 3-3.
  • At this point his perfect record of picking Game 7 runs head-first into his inability to call a series.
  • If the Warriors win the series his curse is ruined, but his Game 7 calls are intact.
  • If the Raptors win the curse stays intact, but his Game 7 calls are ruined.

So, what does this all mean?

What we have here is a dialetheism: a Greek philosophical term for a paradoxical outcome that is both correct and incorrect. But I know that’s deeply unsatisfying, and doesn’t help you gamble. As a writer, I loathe anything that ends in “well, it’ll happen or it won’t” because that’s a cop out. You need hot takes and hard beliefs, so when this is all over you can mock me on the internet and make me question the nature of my existence.

There is a logical way we can solve Paul Pierce’s paradox, and that’s by group consensus. If we all agree that a curse is real even if the conclusion isn’t fully met, then we can be satisfied with the dialetheism (that fancy word for being true and untrue).

Here’s what I propose:

If Paul Pierce says the Warriors will win after three games, and the Raptors come back to even the series, then the curse is real. He took an almost certain outcome (being up 3-0) and brought the NBA Finals back to par. At this point we can be satisfied that he cursed the Warriors.

At this point it doesn’t matter who wins Game 7 and the series, and it doesn’t matter who Pierce picked. He still cursed the team, leading to the possibility of a Game 7 in the first place.

We must remain resolute in this thinking, even if Pierce were to say the curse never existed, because the Warriors ended up winning the series like he predicted. Then we can wait for 2020 and see who he curses next year.

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Darius Bazley’s bizarre path to the 2019 NBA Draft is about to be tested

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The former McDonald’s All-American skipped college to train for the draft. Will it pay off?

NBA teams might not know much about Darius Bazley yet, but they can safely say he’s the only sneaker intern in the 2019 NBA Draft class.

Last spring, Bazley shocked college basketball when he announced he would forego his commitment to Syracuse to enter the NBA G League. Bazley signed with star agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports in April, but by October, the plan changed again. Bazley would take the year off to train for the NBA draft instead. In addition to three-a-day workouts, Paul also engineered an internship for Bazley as part of an endorsement deal with New Balance.

“They gave me an opportunity to voice my opinion,” Bazley said at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “Maybe I have a shoe down the line, putting my shoe out this way versus that way, me being able to learn that also gives me the credibility that I know I have.”

During the internship, Bazley says he worked mostly with the marketing and social media teams to learn the process of rolling out a new release and creating buzz. That included everything from running a focus group at a high school near the New Balance offices to helping make decisions on fabrics and logo placement in the manufacturing process. Best of all, he got paid: the internship was part of a larger endorsement deal reportedly worth $1 million.

Marketing sneakers is of secondary concern to Bazley right now. He said he’s heard the same thing from evaluators as the combined neared.

“The biggest thing was just it was a big gap,” ‘Bazley said. “‘Can he play? He hasn’t played in a year!’”

High School Basketball: McDonalds High School All American Powerade JamfestBrian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

By taking a year off, Bazley made it difficult for NBA teams to gauge his draft stock. There just isn’t a lot of information right now on which teams can base their evaluation. That’s what made his scrimmage performance at the combine so important.

“It took me a little bit the first couple of minutes to get used to the speed and what was going on, but it felt good to just be in front of teams,” Bazley said after his first scrimmage. “They haven’t seen me play, so just for them to be able to see me play, ultimately it just felt really good.”

In two games, Bazley scored 18 points on 8-13 shooting from the field, knocked down a three and flashed the playmaking that made him so compelling as a recruit. At 6-9 with a 7-0 wingspan, Bazley held his own physically with other NBA-caliber athletes despite his slight frame.

“Making sure that I’m able to move at the weight that I’m at,” was important for Bazley during the scrimmages. “If you don’t play for a year you’ve gotta make sure you’re in shape.”

In high school, Bazley was “kind of a mysterious figure,” says Corey Evans, national basketball analyst at Rivals. “This tantalizing, long, slender wing who can shoot, handle, all that stuff.”

Bazley was last weighed officially in August, and since that time gained 12 pounds, landing at 208.4 pounds. at the combine. He stayed in shape while bulking up by doing three-minute sprints, getting time in on the exercise bike, and scrimmaging or playing pick-up when possible.

“Just making sure I’m (in) tip-top shape, that way when I do come out and play, I have the edge on my opponent and I’m not wheezing up and down the court.”

NBA teams seemed to like what they saw from Bazley in the higher-level setting of the scrimmages. ESPN analyst Jonathan Givony tweeted after the combine that Bazley helped himself as much as anyone in Chicago and looked like a first-round pick.

By reinforcing the passing ability, functional length and defensive versatility he showed coming out of high school, Bazley helped his stock. If he can continue to show teams he has a place in the modern, positionless NBA, Bazley will end up right back in the late first round where he was pegged before backing out of Syracuse.

2018 McDonald’s All American GamePhoto by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Bazley is far from the first prospect to try to break into the NBA as an American player who didn’t go to college. Last year, five-star center Mitchell Robinson decommitted from Western Kentucky and spent the year training for the draft. He was taken No. 36 overall by the Knicks and had an impressive year, being named second team All-Rookie. In the same draft, 19-year-old scoring guard Anfernee Simons entered the draft as a fifth-year high school student out Florida’s IMG Academy and was picked in the first round by Portland.

Bazley is hoping he’s next. The NBA age limit combined with a scandalous and chaotic college basketball environment has made it difficult for many prospects to find their way. While there are rumors the age limit could be ending by 2021 or 2022, Bazley’s attempt to enter the NBA after bypassing college could be a seminal test case for today’s high school players who are watching him with a close eye.


While Bazley did well for himself at the combine, it’s still tricky for any team betting that he will hold up in an NBA frontcourt today. It’s unlikely he contributes much as a rookie and will likely spend plenty of time in the G League, where he chose not to play this past season.

Still, Bazley feels like he’s a good fit for this era of modern basketball. Still only 18 years old until June, he’s hoping to find a team that is willing to develop him long-term.

“The NBA game is becoming positionless, and with me being able to defend 1-5 on the defensive end and me being able to play 1-5 on the offensive end, I think that will translate over to the (NBA) game in certain spots no matter the situation,” Bazley said.

Without the chance to show in game situations that he could lock down defensively, Evans says he worries Bazley hasn’t shown he has the desire to actually be that type of versatile defender:

“He has the length, he has the agility, now it’s does he have the innate toughness in him? The IQ? The consistent desire to bang down low the next possession but also step outside the next possession and guard more wing play?”

Bazley’s ability to step out and make NBA threes at the combine is another piece of evidence of hard work this past year. That said, the wing is one of the hardest places for young players to survive in the NBA. The role of long, quick players to switch on defense, attack in transition, make open shots and rotate well will require a serious professional adjustment. Mirroring ball-handlers on defense is a skill that stuck out from Bazley right away in the scrimmages. He knows he has a long way to go.

“You don’t want to take a chance on a guy you haven’t seen play in a year. I think I have a good skill set, but can you play is a whole different thing,” Bazley says.

Over the past year, Bazley’s put his best, New Balance-clad foot forward to prove he is different. The next month leading up to draft night will instead be about showing how he fits.

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Naked mole rat genes could hold the secret to pain relief without opioids

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Naked mole-rats feel no pain when exposed to acid or capsaicin.
Roland Gockel, MDC, CC BY-SA

Anyone with an annoying roommate story knows that a difficult living situation can change you in many ways. Now, imagine that instead of just eating all of your food in the refrigerator, that annoying roommate could actually cause genetic changes designed to make the “future you” more tolerant of their behavior. Does it sound too good to be true? Well, this is exactly what has happened in the case of some African rodent species that live in harsh conditions characterized by acidic air, stinging insects and pungent food sources.

I am a behavioral geneticist studying how genes and the environment interact to determine the risk for chronic pain. My goal is to harness that knowledge to develop novel therapies to better treat pain without the need for opioids. Opioids are a powerful tool to treat pain, particularly acute pain, but they do not precisely target a specific pain mechanism or signal. Instead, opioids primarily act to decrease the ability of cells to transmit pain messages without actually turning off the message itself.

I was struck by this work on naked mole rats because these creatures have evolved insensitivity to very specific types of painful stimuli. This occurs as a result of subtle differences in gene activity and protein structure, rather than deletions or mutations of genes.

It is becoming more widely accepted that these types of differences in gene activity may explain individual differences in human pain sensitivity and in risk for the development of chronic pain. More importantly, if pain researchers understand these processes in these rodents and translate this work into humans, it would naturally lead to innovative methods for safe and effective pain relief.

Stinky burrows drive evolution of pain tolerance

Naked mole rats, Heterocephalus glaber, are native to East Africa and live in densely populated underground burrows. Inside these burrows, the exhaled carbon dioxide levels are so high that the air becomes so acidic that it would cause a painful burning sensation in the nose, eyes and exposed skin of most mammals.

But the naked mole rat is completely insensitive to these high acid conditions, making it extremely tolerant of all that togetherness. What’s more is that these rodents are also insensitive to capsaicin, the chemical responsible for the burning pain of chili peppers.

The Georychus mole-rat is a species insensitive to pain caused by acid.
Jane Reznick, MDC, CC BY-SA

New research led by Gary Lewin, a sensory system physiologist in Berlin, Germany, reveals that naked mole rats aren’t the only African rodents that have evolved to tolerate tough living conditions. Through a comparison of nine closely related African rodent species, Lewin’s team showed that four were completely insensitive to at least one of three painful substances: acid, capsaicin or AITC, which is the active ingredient in mustard oil.

All of these stimuli cause different types of pain. The acid is the one that mimics the high carbon dioxide in the burrow. The capsaicin and mustard oil (AITC) – which cause a burning pain – are found in typical foods that the naked mole rats eat. But each cause pain through a different biochemical pathway.

Implications for the opioid crisis

The evidence points to pain insensitivity to acid, capsaicin and AITC all evolving separately in related rodent species. But in the end these adaptations help these rodents survive and thrive in their hot, dark and acidic environments. Without major alterations in structure and function of the pain-sensing pathway in their bodies, these rodents have evolved multiple ways of reducing their sensitivity to common painful stimuli they encounter daily. In short, these related species of rodents found more than one way to become uber-tolerant to their living conditions and their roommates.

In my mind, understanding the molecular changes that allow the naked mole rat and its relatives to become resistant to certain types of pain has implications far beyond the rodent roommate market. They directly point to novel therapeutic strategies that can be developed to treat pain in humans by selectively engaging or blocking processes involved in specific types of pain sensitivity.

With the dueling epidemics of chronic pain and the opioid crisis, precision medicine alternatives offer hope for those with difficult to manage pain by attacking the “cause” of the pain and offering a lower risk of side effects including misuse, abuse and addiction.

The Conversation

Erin Young receives funding from National Institutes of Health.

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Fighting malaria with fungi: biologists engineer a fungus to be deadlier to mosquitoes

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Spraying insecticide to kill mosquitoes: Mosquitoes are vectors of many devastating diseases such as malaria. Sukjanya/Shutterstock.com

Bed nets. Insecticides. Sterile and genetically modified insects. Now scientists are adding a genetically engineered toxic fungus to the arsenal of weapons to wipe out mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite.

Although insecticides and insecticide-laced bed nets, by far the two most commonly employed strategies, have effectively lowered the numbers of infections and deaths, the global malaria burden has failed to decline in the last few years. In 2017, 219 million people were infected with malaria and an estimated 435,000 died. That is because mosquitoes are evolving resistance to insecticides.

An Anopheles mosquito taking a blood meal from a human host. It is in the course of these blood meals that mosquitoes transmit malaria to humans.
CDC

The rapid evolution of resistance is a common and recurrent theme in our arms races against malaria transmitting mosquitoes, as well as against pests and pathogens in general. Over time, organisms mutate and evolve resistance to any new drug that is used to kill them. No wonder humans always end up on the losing side; that’s why a new weapon is needed. And the latest one is a killer fungus.

Fighting killers with killers

As an evolutionary biologist studying fungi, I am familiar with the ability of these organisms to cause devastating diseases in diverse plants and animals, including humans. While many fungal pathogens infect a broad range of hosts, others can attack only a select few.

This realization has led scientists to a new strategy for fighting malaria: infect and kill disease-transmitting mosquitoes using fungal pathogens that they encounter in nature. This isn’t the first time that fungi have been weaponized. In fact, this is precisely the strategy behind the highly successful biological pesticide, Green Muscle, which kills locusts and grasshoppers around the world.

Infecting mosquitoes with their natural pathogens – such as the pathogenic fungi from the genus Metarhizium – is a particularly attractive strategy because, unlike bacterial or viral pathogens, fungi can infect mosquitoes simply by coming into contact with them and don’t have to be ingested. Also, fungi are generally friendlier to the environment than traditional chemical insecticides. But does this strategy work?

Fifteen years ago, a field trial in rural Tanzania showed that it could. By hanging cotton sheets inoculated with insect-killing fungi on the ceilings of houses where mosquitoes rest, one-third of mosquitoes became infected. According to malaria transmission models, such an infection rate could reduce malaria cases by 75%.

But Metarhizium fungi, as the Tanzanian field trial showed, are not always capable of infecting their mosquito hosts. And, fungal infections typically take several days to kill mosquitoes. In the lab, fungi take an average of between seven and nine days to kill the mosquitoes, depending on the dose. Brian Lovett, a graduate student working in Ray St. Leger’s lab, and Etienne Bilgo, a post-doctoral fellow working with entomologist Abdoulaye Diabate, thought they could infect more mosquitoes and kill them faster.

How? By using fungi that had been genetically modified to produce a toxin called “Hybrid,” which specifically attacks the nervous system of arthropods, a group that includes insects and their kin, like spiders and crustaceans. Previous laboratory experiments in 2017 by the same team had already shown that these GM fungi killed mosquitoes quicker than unmodified ones.

The big question now was whether it worked in nature.

The MosquitoSphere team consists of authors on the paper and local volunteers from Soumousso, Burkina Faso. Back row (from left to right): Etienne Bilgo, Oliver Zida, Bema Ouattara; Middle row: Boureima Saré, Judicael Zida, Brian Lovett, Moussa Ouattara, MichaÏlou Sanfo and Bamory Ouattara; Front row: Yaya Ouattara and Jacques Gnambani.
Brian Lovett, CC BY-SA

GM fungi kill mosquitoes faster, crashing populations

To reduce the risks posed by field testing, Lovett and Bilgo tested their GM fungus in the “MosquitoSphere,” a large, specially designed screened-in field designed to closely match outdoor conditions in Soumousso, Burkina Faso. By setting up huts with cotton sheets that contained spores of GM toxin-producing Metarhizium fungi as well as ones with unmodified fungi as controls, Lovett and Bilgo found that 70% to 80% of mosquitoes were infected in both types of huts. But mosquitoes in huts with GM fungi died within an average of five days whereas mosquitoes in huts with unmodified fungi died after close to nine days.

The huts of MosquitoSphere in Soumousso, Burkina Faso, where the experiments with GM killer toxic fungi took place.
Brian Lovett

By examining how mosquito populations fared over time, they also discovered that GM fungi infected multiple generations of mosquitoes. In one enclosure with GM fungi, an initial population of 1,500 mosquitoes, collapsed to just 13 after a month and a half.

Promise and risks

By genetically arming an already deadly fungal pathogen with a powerful toxin, the investigators were able to dramatically reduce the mosquito “field” population in a part of the world where malaria is endemic and mosquitoes are resistant to chemical insecticides.

There is an urgent need to curb malaria transmission particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where 92% of cases and 93% of deaths occur. Together, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of the Hybrid toxin under the commercial name Versitude, and the approval of the use of unmodified Metarhizium fungi as a “biopesticide” by several African countries, may pave the way to green light the use of genetically modified Metarhizium fungi in the fight against malaria.

On the flip side, releasing fungi carrying a deadly insect toxin raises concerns about unintentional harm to “nontarget” insects. Metarhizium fungi infect only a small range of insects and experiments where nontarget insects, such as honeybees, were infected with both the GM and unmodified fungi did not affect bee survival. Even if the gene found its way into fungi that infect humans – a highly unlikely scenario – it would not have any effects on us because the toxin only works on insects.

Restricting the spread of the gene that produces the Hybrid toxin in organisms other than Metarhizium fungi is another potential concern. One safety precaution could be to add genetic switches that reduce survival of the fungus outside of the indoor environment. But there are also several inherent features of Metarhizium fungi – such as their large, non-airborne and sensitive-to-ultraviolet-light spores – that reduce the chances of dispersal.

While promising, this strategy of essentially poisoning mosquitoes with genetically engineered fungi is not guaranteed. Mosquitoes could evolve resistance to this. But with hundreds of thousands of people dying each year in this deadly game against pathogens, perhaps the only certainty is that, like our opponents, we’ll need to keep evolving our strategies too.

The Conversation

Antonis Rokas receives funding from the National Science Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Burroughs Wellcome Trust, the National Institutes of Health, the Beckman Scholars Program and the March of Dimes.

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Ancient DNA is revealing the origins of livestock herding in Africa

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Livestock, like these goats in the Rift Valley of Tanzania, are critical to household economies in East Africa. Katherine Grillo, CC BY-ND

Visitors to East Africa are often amazed by massive herds of cattle with a gorgeous array of horn, hump and coat patterns. Pastoralism – a way of life centered around herding – is a central part of many Africans’ identity. It’s also a key economic strategy that is now threatened by climate change, rising demands for meat, urban sprawl and land conflicts.

Pastoralism’s roots could hold clues to help solve these modern challenges. Studies suggest that traditional ways of managing livestock – moving around and exchanging with other herders – enabled herders to cope with environmental instability and economic change over the past several thousand years. Research is also helping scientists understand how millennia of herding – and livestock dung – have shaped East Africa’s savannas and wildlife diversity.

So how did pastoralism get started in Africa? Currently most archaeologists think wild ancestors of today’s domestic cattle, sheep and goats were first domesticated in the “Fertile Crescent” of the Middle East. Archaeological research shows herding began to appear in and spread from what is now Egypt around 8,000 years ago. By 5,000 years ago, herders were burying their dead in elaborate monumental cemeteries near a lakeshore in Kenya. Two millennia later, pastoralist settlements were present across a wide part of East Africa and by at least 2,000 years ago, livestock appear in South Africa.

Large herds of cattle graze near Lake Manyara in Tanzania, where they’ve been a key part of the economy for 3,000 years.
Mary Prendergast, CC BY-ND

Much remains unanswered: Did animals spread mostly through exchange, just like cash circulates widely while people mostly stay put? Were people moving long distances with their herds, traversing the continent generation by generation? Were there many separate migrations or few, and what happened when immigrant herders met indigenous foragers? We decided to ask these questions using ancient DNA from archaeological skeletons from across East Africa.

Piecing together the genetic history of herders

Archaeologists study ancient people’s trash – broken clay pots, abandoned jewelry, leftover meals, even feces – but we also study the people themselves. Bioarchaeologists examine human bones and teeth as indicators of health, lifestyle and identity.

Now it’s also possible to sequence ancient DNA to look at genetic ancestry. Until recently, though, Africa has been on the sidelines of the “ancient DNA revolution” for a variety of reasons. Advances in DNA sequencing have created new opportunities to study African population history.

In our new research, our team sequenced the genomes of 41 people buried at archaeological sites in Kenya and Tanzania, more than doubling the number of ancient individuals with genome-wide data from sub-Saharan Africa. We obtained radiocarbon dates from the bones of 35 of these people – important because direct dates on human remains are virtually nonexistent in East Africa. Working as a team meant forging partnerships among curators, archaeologists and geneticists, despite our different work cultures and specialized vocabularies.

The people we studied were buried with a wide variety of archaeological evidence linking them to foraging, pastoralism and, in one case, farming. These associations are not airtight – people may have shifted between foraging and herding – but we rely on cultural traditions, artifact types and food remains to try to understand how people were getting their meals.

Red dots are archaeological sites in the authors’ study. Gray dots mark selected Rift Valley sites. Prettejohn’s Gully geological survey, marked by a black star, produced the oldest ancient DNA in Kenya.
Elizabeth Sawchuk, CC BY-ND

After we grouped individuals based on the lifestyles we inferred from associated archaeological evidence, we compared their ancient genomes to those of hundreds of living people, and a few dozen ancient people from across Africa and the adjacent Middle East. We were looking for patterns of genetic relatedness.

Some of our ancient samples did not resemble other known groups. Despite major efforts to document the vast genetic variation in Africa, there’s a long way to go. There are still gaps in modern data, and no ancient data at all for much of the continent. Although we can identify groups that share genetic similarities with the ancient herders, this picture no doubt will become clearer as more data become available.

Herding expanded in stages

So far we can tell that herding spread via a complex, multi-step process. The first step involved a “ghost population” – one for which we don’t have direct genetic evidence yet. These people drew about half of their ancestry from groups who lived in either the Middle East or presumably northeastern Africa (a region for which we have no relevant aDNA) or both, and about half from Sudanese groups. As this group spread southward – likely with livestock – they interacted and genetically integrated with foragers already living in East Africa. This period of interaction lasted from perhaps around 4,500-3,500 years ago.

After this occurred, it appears that ancient herders genetically kept to themselves. Methods that let us estimate the average date of admixture – that is, gene flow between previously isolated groups – indicate integration largely stopped by around 3,500 years ago. This suggests there were social barriers that kept herders and foragers from having children together, even if they interacted in plenty of other ways. Alternatively, there may have been far fewer foragers than herders, so that gene flow among these communities didn’t have a big demographic impact.

By around 1,200 years ago, we document new arrivals of people related to recent Sudanese and – for the first time – West African groups, associated with early iron-working and farming. After this point, a social mosaic made up of farmers, herders and foragers became typical of East Africa, and remains so today.

One interesting question is how early pastoralists used their herds. For instance, were they drinking milk? Although many East Africans today carry a genetic mutation that helps them digest milk into adulthood, this may be a recent development. We were able to test eight individuals for the genetic variant responsible for lactase persistence in many East African pastoralists today. Just one man, who lived in Tanzania 2,000 years ago, carried this variant. Maybe dairying was rare, but it’s also possible people found creative culinary solutions – for example, fermented milk or yogurt – to avoid indigestion.

Cultural and biological diversity are not the same

Archaeologists have a saying that “pots are not people.” Particular artifact styles are not assumed to reflect concrete identities – just as we wouldn’t assume today that the choice of kilts versus lederhosen is determined by DNA.

Pottery is the Tupperware of the past – durable and ubiquitous on archaeological sites. But there isn’t always a link between styles and ancestral identities. We compared burials associated with two distinctive artifact traditions – Savanna Pastoral Neolithic (A) and Elmenteitan (B) – and found no genetic differences.
Steven Goldstein at the National Museum of Kenya, CC BY-NC-ND

In Kenya and Tanzania, archaeologists had previously identified two early herder cultural traditions distinguished by different pottery styles, stone tool sources, settlement patterns and burial practices. The people who created these cultures lived at roughly the same time and in the same area. Some scholars hypothesized that they spoke different languages and had different “ethnic” identities.

Our recent study found no evidence for genetic differentiation among people associated with these different cultures; in fact, we were struck by how closely related they were. Now archaeologists can ask a different question: Why did distinct cultures emerge among such closely related neighbors?

Ancient DNA is shedding new light on the history of key areas for early herding, like the East African Rift Valley.
Mary Prendergast, CC BY-ND

(Re)discovering lost places and people

Some of our most exciting findings came from unexpected places. Museum shelves are full of potentially game-changing collections that have yet to be studied or published. In a back corner of one storeroom, we found a tray containing two fragmentary human skeletons uncovered during a Rift Valley geological expedition at Prettejohn’s Gully in the 1960s. There was little contextual information, but with encouragement from curators we sampled the remains to see if we could at least determine their age.

We were shocked to learn that these 4,000-year-old burials provided the oldest DNA from Kenya, and that the man and woman buried at that site may have been some of the earliest herders in East Africa. Thanks to them, we can show that the spread of herding in Kenya involved several separate movements of ancestrally distinct groups. We have much to learn from older collections, and archaeologists don’t always need to dig to make new discoveries.

Archives are a key part of ancient DNA research, which sometimes leads to rediscovery of long-forgotten archaeological collections.
Elizabeth Sawchuk at the National Museum of Kenya, CC BY-NC-ND

Ancient DNA research doesn’t just answer questions about our shared past. It also raises new ones that must be answered by other fields. Our results don’t tell us what migration and admixture mean in social terms. What prompted people to move with livestock? What happened when people with radically different lifestyles met? What became of the foragers who were living across East Africa throughout the past, and whose descendants are few and far between today?

Ultimately, we hope that by studying pastoralism in the past – and demonstrating the resilience of this way of life – we can contribute in some way to understanding the challenges facing herders today.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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How soybeans became China’s most powerful weapon in Trump’s trade war

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Soybeans may not seem all that useful in a war. Nonetheless they’ve become China’s most important weapon in its ever-worsening trade conflict with the U.S.

China, the world’s biggest buyer of the crop, has reportedly stopped purchasing any American soybeans in retaliation for the Trump administration raising tariffs on US$250 billion of Chinese goods. This is very bad news for U.S. farmers.

While China’s targeting of soybeans may have come as something of a surprise to most Americans, to a professor of agricultural economics who studies international commodity markets for a living, this was not at all unexpected.

Even before the conclusion of the 2016 presidential race, trade analysts were already weighing the possibility that China might impose an embargo on U.S. soybean imports based on protectionist rhetoric from both candidates.

As a result, with the trade war in full swing, American soybean farmers are now among its biggest losers. Here are a few figures that show why.

Soybeans, by the numbers

Soybeans are a crucial part of the global food chain, particularly as a source of protein in the production of hogs and poultry.

The importance of China as a market for soybeans has been driven by an explosion in demand for meat as consumers switch from a diet dominated by rice to one where pork, poultry and beef play an important part. Chinese production of meat from those three animals surged 250% from 1986 to 2012 and is projected to increase another 30% by the end of the current decade. However, China is unable to produce enough animal feed itself, hence the need to import soybeans from the United States and Brazil.

In 2017, the U.S. accounted for $21.4 billion worth of global soybean exports, the second largest after its main competitor Brazil, which exported $25.7 billion.

Meanwhile, in 2017 China accounted for the lion’s share of global soybean imports at $39.6 billion, or two-thirds of the total.

Back in 2017, that was good news for American farmers, when U.S. exports made up about a third of Chinese purchases, or $13.9 billion. That made soybeans the United States’ second-most valuable export to China after airplanes.

But U.S. exports to China have fallen dramatically since China slapped a 25% tariff on Americans soybeans last April as part of its initial response to President Donald Trump’s trade war.

In the current farm marketing year, which began Sept. 1, U.S. farmers have exported just 5.9 million metric tons of soybeans to China, compared with an average of 29 million at the same point during the previous three years – or about 80% less.

That’s why the tariffs have tremendous potential to hurt farmers in my state of Ohio, where soybeans were the number one agricultural export in 2017 at $1.3 billion. China is the state’s largest export market.

And yet nationally, Ohio is just the seventh-largest exporter of soybeans, after Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana and Missouri, all of which are suffering from the tariffs.

Not only do farmers stand to lose out by giving up market share to Brazilian farmers, but soybean prices at the port of New Orleans have fallen as well and are currently $9.35 a bushel compared with $10.82 per bushel a year ago. This has hurt incomes and created a double whammy for Midwest farms.

This is of course why the Chinese chose to place a tariff on U.S. soybeans in the first place. Farmers will hurt a lot, and soybeans are produced in states where many of them voted for Donald Trump. China’s hope, presumably, is that farmers will lobby the administration to step back from further escalation of the trade war.

That seems unlikely, given the $28 billion in aid the Trump administration is offering farmers to soften the blow and the possibility of higher tariffs on an additional $325 billion worth of Chinese imports. At this point it looks like both sides are hunkering down for a prolonged trade war.

This is an updated version of an article original published on April 5, 2018.

The Conversation

Ian Sheldon does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Sharing profits and ownership with workers not only make them happier, it benefits the bottom line too

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There’s plenty to go around. Papamoon/Shutterstock.com

Near-record low unemployment has companies fumbling to find the best ways to recruit and retain workers. Our research suggests a sure-fire way to do just that: give them a real stake.

By that we simply mean sharing some of the profits and even ownership with the men and women who are fundamental to their companies’ success.

Most Americans say they want it. A recent government survey found that vast majorities of respondents across the political spectrum prefer to work for an employee-owned company than an investor- or state-controlled business.

Perhaps that’s one reason why the idea is gaining steam on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail, with several plans being floated – including ones by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren – to share more corporate control and profits with workers.

After conducting a massive, multi-year study of shared capitalism, we found that not only is it good for workers, it’s good for the bottom line too.

Profit sharing 101

U.S. businesses have a variety of ways to share their gains with workers, from offering cash profit sharing to giving them the opportunity to purchase stock at a large discount. Another recourse is the Employee Stock Ownership Plan, known as an ESOP, which allows companies to use credit to buy shares that are later distributed for free to employees.

Past research has shown the benefits for workers. A survey that has tracked 5,504 younger men and women since 1997 – when they were in high school – found that participants who worked at companies that gave employees some ownership reported higher wages and wealth and better benefits and job quality than their peers, regardless of industry or the person’s demographics.

When interviewed in 2013 – when the workers were aged 28 to 34 – their wages were a third higher and their median household wealth was about double. A followup study in 2018 showed that the employee shareowners continued to have better jobs, benefits, earnings and wealth.

And a 2018 survey by the National Center for Employee Ownership found that workers in ESOPs reported an average retirement balance of US$170,326, more than twice the national average of $80,339.

Businesses that are majority- or part-owned by employees cover a wide range of industries, such as supermarkets like Publix, clothing makers like Gore and consumer goods company Procter & Gamble. Others, such as automaker Ford and airlines Delta and Southwest, offer generous profit sharing programs.

The U.S. government’s General Social Survey reported that 38% of employees said they received a share of their comany’s profits in 2018. Although that seems like a lot, the average payout is just $2,000. And smaller businesses – which make up the majority of U.S. enterprises – are much less likely to engage in profit or equity sharing with employees.

In addition, the number of ESOPs actually has fallen in recent years to 6,660 in 2016 from 7,100 in 2010.

Best companies to work for

Our research team at Rutgers, in collaboration with the Sloan Foundation and Harvard economist Richard Freeman, wanted to delve deeper into the data on what both workers and companies gain from profit sharing and how those benefits accrue over time.

To do so, we studied the 800 companies that applied for Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For competition from 2005 to 2007. In total, these companies were responsible for 10% of all sales and employment in the U.S. at the time. About one-fifth had Employee Stock Ownership Plans or another form of profit sharing.

To get a sense of how these companies performed financially, we looked at return on equity data compiled by Standard & Poor’s. Return on equity is a common measure of financial performance that divides net income by shareholder equity.

As part of the application process, the Great Place to Work Institute conducted independent surveys of more than 230,000 employees at all the applicants over the three-year period.

After compiling the data from all these surveys, we found that companies that offered workers both equity compensation and profit sharing performed statistically better than the others on a variety of measures. For example, their workers were substantially more likely to say that their company had a collaborative management culture, that they were getting a fair share of compensation and that their company was an “excellent place to work.” They were also much more likely to say they intended to stay for a “long time.”

All of this translated into better results for the companies as well. Specifically, we found that businesses offering these benefits had a much lower voluntary turnover rate – workers were half as likely to leave – and a return on equity 12% higher than their peers.

A clear win-win

Bottom line: Sharing the fruits of a company’s success with workers makes the latter happier while helping – or at the very least not hurting – the former’s profitability. On top of all this, these kinds of shared capitalism can reduce inequality.

That’s why we believe the government could do more to encourage it by considering offering tax incentives to both large public companies and small businesses to share profits or create employee share ownership plans. An example of this is a bipartisan bill signed into law in August that lets the government make loans employees who want to buy our retiring small business owners.

If that’s not a clear win-win for all involved, we don’t know what is.

The Conversation

Joseph Blasi does not work for, consult, own shares in, sit on the board of, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment and his position as a Senior Fellow at the Aspen Institute. He is the director of the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing at Rutgers University which receives foundation and private funding for conferences and fellowships.

Douglas Kruse does not work for, consult, own shares in, sit on the board of, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment. He is the associate director of the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing at Rutgers University which receives foundation and private funding for conferences and fellowships.

Maureen Conway does not work for, consult, own shares in,or sit on the board of any company or organization that would benefit from this article. Maureen Conway is executive fellow at the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing at Rutgers University and is also the vice president of policy programs and executive director of the Economic Opportunities Program at the Aspen Institute, which receives support from a variety of philanthropic sources to support its conferences and programs.

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