Life on Mars?: The ExoMars is about to begin searching for the surest sign of life — the gas it leaves behind

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

After successfully pulling off a crucial technical maneuver, the ExoMars spacecraft is now two days away from making history.

The primary objective of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission is to determine if enough methane and other gases exist on the Martian surface to prove that life exists — or used to exist — on the Red Planet. To complete the first phase of the process for doing this, ExoMars needs to release an orbiter known as the Trace Gas Orbiter into the Martian atmosphere and safely deposit a lander called Schiaparelli on the planet’s surface. On Sunday morning, Europe’s and Russia’s two probes successfully separated from each other, a move that was necessary to successfully send each one to their intended destination. If all goes according to plan, both probes will get where they need to be on Wednesday.

“We know that there’s methane in the atmosphere, but we’re not sure how it got there,” explained Nicolas Thomas, a member of the team responsible for the orbiter, in an interview with New Scientist. “Methane has a relatively short life in the atmosphere, so the fact that it’s there suggests an active source.” This is why, when hints of methane were first detected on the planet in 2003, scientists speculated that it could be a sign of extraterrestrial life. In addition to searching for methane, the Trace Gas Orbiter will also improve maps of the planet and relay signals between Earth and other rovers on Mars’ surface. Schiaparelli, on the other hand, will provide data on temperature, humidity, winds, and pressure where it lands.

You can track ExoMars’ progress at this here. It’ll be a gas.

Turning over a new Leaf: Is Big Marijuana becoming the new Big Tobacco?

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

As the movement to legalize marijuana continues to gather steam, will consumers have to deal with a cabal of corporate giants along the lines of Big Tobacco? Is this just another excuse to ban the drug, or is there a real threat that “Big Marijuana” may rear its ugly head the near future?

Fears of a corporate-driven Big Marijuana are being stoked many anti-marijuana groups, which have begun shifting their focus from scaring people away from the drug to claiming that large companies are going to try to sell it to children. “Joe Camel normalized cigarette smoking especially for young people. The Marlboro man normalized cigarettes for an entire generation. Marijuana wants to follow suit. Normalization is the cornerstone of that,” said Kevin Sabet, a former Obama administration drug policy adviser who now run Smart Approaches to Marijuana, in an interview with MSN.

Small marijuana growers in California are highlighting a different concern about the prospect of Big Marijuana. When opposing Proposition 64, which would legalize the drug in their state, they point out that big businesses will have an easier time managing the regulatory and environmental costs of cannabis farming, making it harder for smaller marijuana farms to effectively compete.

At the same time, the tide is shifting in favor of legalization. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have already legalized marijuana in some form, and aQuinnipiac University poll in June found slightly more than half of Americans support legalizing the drug (54 percent). Although there are risks to smoking marijuana, including respiratory damage and weight gain due to increased appetite, the cultural stigma against the drug has largely dissipated in recent decades. If Big Marijuana does become a fixture in our economy, it will be because public opinion opened the door for it.

Families of Sandy Hook massacre victims can’t sue Bushmaster for making gun that killed 26 people at school

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

It shouldn’t have to be a longshot to prove in court that a company which makes semiautomatic rifles is recklessly endangering people’s lives, but it is.

On Friday, a judge in Connecticut dismissed a high-profile lawsuit against the manufacturer of the Bushmaster AR-15, which was used in the December 2012 shooting spree that took the lives of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Although most liability suits raised by gun-violence victims and their families have been thwarted by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005 (PLCAA), which protects gun manufacturers from these types of suits, the plaintiffs cited the “negligent entrustment” clause, which extends to cases “when the seller knows, or reasonably should know, the person to whom the product is supplied is likely to, and does, use the product in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical injury to the person or others.” Unfortunately for the Sandy Hook parents, Judge Barbara Bellis found that the “negligent entrustment” clause did not apply to their case.

“The present case seeks damages for harms, including the deaths of the plaintiffs’ decedents, that were caused solely by the criminal misuse of a weapon by Adam Lanza,” Judge Bellis wrote. “Accordingly, this action falls squarely within the broad immunity provided by PLCAA.”

This directly rebutted the argument made by the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Josh Koskoff. “How did a weapon used in Vietnam and the streets of Fallujah end on the floor of Vicky Soto’s first grade classroom?” he asked. “It did not get there by accident and the shooter did not use it by accident. Remington made the choice to trust the most notorious killing weapon the military has ever seen to civilians. If they didn’t choose to sell the gun to civilians, we wouldn’t have had a Sandy Hook.”

Despite or perhaps because of its lethal reputation, sales of the AR-15 have skyrocketed since the Sandy Hook shooting. It was also used in the mass shootings at Aurora, Colorado; San Berardino, California, and Orlando, Florida.

Hyperlate: Elon Musk and Tesla delay their next big product launch

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

It seems that followers of Elon Musk will have to wait another two days before his latest product unveiling.

In a tweet sent out on Sunday afternoon, Musk announced that Tesla needs until Wednesday to refine its upcoming launch. This was going to be part of a pair of product launches that Musk had promised last week, one for today and the other for Friday, October 28th. While the details of the latter launch are already public — Musk is going to unveil a residential solar roof with integrated batteries — the former has been kept secret.

According to USA Today, experts speculate that Musk will either reveal an improved version of Autopilot, the self-driving program in his Model S and X sedans; a sneak peak of the interior of the upcoming Model 3 sedan; or the announcement of a Model Y crossover vehicle. If the announcement pertained to a new version of Autopilot, Musk’s delay may be related to a recent request by Germany’s Federal Motor Transportation Authority that Tesla stop using that term. Germany’s concern is that “Autopilot” is misleading, since it allows Germans to believe the driving system is fully autonomous when that is not the case.

Musk’s product launches are closely watched, highly produced and super-hyped affairs, leading some industry analysts to compare the corporate culture at Tesla to that of Apple. Certainly Musk has built an aura around himself modeled on the cult of personality that once surrounded Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs. Musk has also garnered headlines for his audacious promises, most recently by promising to finance space travel beyond Mars by 2018.

When it comes to his latest technological development, though, Musk fans will simply have to wait a little longer to find out whether the hype was worth it.

Sick Bern: Bernie Sanders’ tweet cost Ariad Pharmaceuticals $387 million

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

With a single tweet, Sen. Bernie Sanders has cost Ariad Pharmaceuticals $387 million.

The article retweeted by Sanders was from Stat, a publication that specializes in covering health and medical news. It reported that, since the beginning of the year, Ariad has raised the price of its Iclusig chronic myeloid leukemia treatment by 27 percent. The drug now has a pre-rebate list price of $16,560 a month, or almost $199,000 a year. Even worse for Ariad’s image (to say nothing of consumers), this isn’t the first time they raised the price on that drug, having done so twice last year.

As a result of Sanders’ tweet, Ariad stock ended the day down by 14.8 percent, falling to $11.14 a share. In a statement, Ariad argued that “our pricing reflects our significant investment in R&D, our commitment to the very small, ultra orphan cancer patient populations that we serve and the associated risk with research and development.”

This isn’t the first time a Democratic presidential hopeful has hurt Big Pharma’s bottom line by criticizing unfair practices. In August, Hillary Clinton caused Mylan NV’s shares to fall by 6.2 percent within minutes of calling for them to lower their prices for EpiPens. Then in September, she drove down the Nasdaq Biotechnology Index by tweeting: “Price gouging like this in the specialty drug market is outrageous. Tomorrow I’ll lay out a plan to take it on.” It has also been reported that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has negatively impacted biotech stocks, as his perceived weaknesses as a candidate makes more likely that Clinton will be elected and implement reforms on the industry. Her plan for lowering drug costs includes allowing Medicare to negotiate them down and not allowing pharmaceutical companies to spend government grants on advertising.

Donald Trump’s media empire may actually be happening

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly approached a major media investor about setting up a Trump television network after the presidential election.

Over the past couple of months, Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump, has met with Aryeh Bourkoff, the CEO of a boutique investment bank known as LionTree, theFinancial Times reported Monday. Vanity Fair reported in June that Trump’s inner circle heard the Republican nominee mulling the idea of capitalizing on the “audience” that has grown around his campaign. Hiring former Breitbart News head as his campaign CEO Steve Bannon could, in the long run, be a first step in making a media company, especially if you consider that Trump’s other big-name advisor is former Fox CEO Roger Ailes.

The basic concept is that Trump’s media company would cater to the alt-right and other conservatives dissatisfied with more conventional right-wing media. Kushner already owns a pro-Trump newspaper, The New York Observer, in which Kushner haspublicly defended Trump in the past. Kushner has emerged as an influential adviser for the embattled Trump, and was responsible for the campaign’s attempt to seat the women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct in the Trump family box at the last presidential debate.