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A Political History of "How I Met Your Mother"

Mother Jones

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How I Met Your Mother is not, nor has it ever been, a political show. It’s about Ted Mosby, Marshall Eriksen, Lily Aldrin, Robin Scherbatsky, and Barney Stinson doing funny, touching, and crazy things in New York City. It’s about Ted finally finding The Mother of his future children. It’s about love and the long-haul pursuit of it.

But the CBS sitcom (which concludes its ninth and final season on Monday night) has, over its eight-plus years on the air, snuck in some political and social commentary ever so slyly and gently into the background—and fore. HIMYM had its major ups and downs, as any long-running network series does. Some seasons gave the strong impression that creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas (and everyone else involved, for that matter) were just phoning it in. But when the show was good, it was really, really good—a cleverly framed and intelligent look at friendship, marriage, and heartbreak.

Here’s a look at how the show was good on environmentalism, gay rights, corporate satire, and so on:

1. Barney’s bank unintentionally started a bloody revolution in a foreign country.

It was a running joke (until recently this season) that none of the main characters knew what Barney (played by Neil Patrick Harris) did for a living. He works at Goliath National Bank (theme song sung by Barney, above), and he makes a lot of money. Barney’s general outlook on life—suits, cash, sex, strippers, sex, saying “bro” a lot, more sex—and his colleagues are clearly a caricature of fratty corporate culture. But the bank also fits in nicely with the heartless-and-evil-corporation trope.

Here’s one of Barney’s bosses (during the show’s fourth season) casually updating staff on the bank’s complicity in bloodshed and political tumult overseas:

And so, while those bribes did destabilize the regime and caused the death of most of the royal family, it did lead to looser banking regulations in Rangoon. So yay us.

World leaders in credit and banking,” indeed.

2. Marshall fights for environmental justice.

The biggest part of Marshall’s (Jason Segel) persona, besides love of family and devotion to monogamy, is that he’s a lawyer who wants to save the planet. He’s a staunch environmentalist, and wants to bring about change by arguing and winning landmark court cases:

(This season, things got awkward when Marshall shared a long car ride with an oil lobbyist.)

After Marshall starting working at the Natural Resource Defense Council, the NRDC (in real life) blogged about the character and HIMYM:

In last night’s episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” Marshall Eriksen finally quit his corporate law job at the (fake) Goliath National Bank, to volunteer with the (very real) Natural Resources Defense Council. Declaring, “I need to do better things with my life,” Marshall is excited by the opportunity to work with NRDC. “I’d be saving the oceans, saving endangered species,” he says. Or, “saving chicken bones and an old boot to make hobo soup” retorts his friend Barney. Except that, as Marshall noticed in a previous episode, those chicken bones and the old boot are unfortunately floating out to sea and dirtying our oceans.

3. The show is totally down with marriage equality and gay rights.

Well, except for Barney (initially), but only because he was for so long against the very concept of marriage. The show’s writing staff used his earlier opposition to marriage as a way to highlight the absurdity of the religious right’s argument that gay marriage would harm the American family:

4. HIMYM addresses the housing and financial crisis:

Shortly after the commencement of the financial crisis in late 2007, the show aired an episode in which Marshall and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) make the idiotic decision to buy a home they can’t afford. The following is Marshall convincing Lily that 2007 was a good time to buy; the scene is peppered with future Ted (Bob Saget) narrating why Marshall is wrong:

Marshall: We should buy a place!…Baby, real estate is always a good investment.

Future Ted: It’s not.

Marshall: And the market is really hot right now.

Future Ted: It wasn’t.

Marshall: And because of my new job, we are in such a strong place financially.

Future Ted: They weren’t.

Here’s the season-three episode:

5. The series went against stereotypes and made Robin a Canadian who loves guns.

Here’s Robin (Cobie Smulders) introducing Lily to the adrenaline rush of the shooting range:

6. Remember when people accused HIMYM of racism?

“HOW I MET YOUR RACISM?” the CNN chyron read. This was referring to a recent episode (and the controversy that followed) in which the cast spoofs old kung fu movies. The show was promptly accused of insensitivity and cultural appropriation.

Here is how Bays and Thomas responded to the outrage:

Hey guys, sorry this took so long. Craig Thomas and I want to say a few words about â&#128;ª#HowIMetYourRacismâ&#128;¬. With Monday’s episode, we set out to make a silly and unabashedly immature homage to Kung Fu movies, a genre we’ve always loved. But along the way we offended people. We’re deeply sorry, and we’re grateful to everyone who spoke up to make us aware of it. We try to make a show that’s universal, that anyone can watch and enjoy. We fell short of that this week, and feel terrible about it. To everyone we offended, I hope we can regain your friendship, and end this series on a note of goodwill. Thanks.

7. The show emphasized the importance of small local news stories!

In the first season, viewers find out early on that Robin is a journalist who wants to deliver hard-hitting political news coverage. And she ends up doing so, but not before being assigned to news items she feels are of little value and far beneath her. And then the following happens on live TV, where she sees why these stories matter. (Sadly, this clarifying moment doesn’t end in the most flattering way for her.)

And finally, as fans say farewell to the series, let’s rewatch this years-old HIMYM-related clip that is wonderful, but has little to do with the politics or social issues of modern America. It’s Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segel doing a fantastic version of “The Confrontation” from Les Misérables. Just watch it. It’s truly great:

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A Political History of "How I Met Your Mother"

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Duke Energy’s coal-ash spill has utterly ruined a river

Duke Energy’s coal-ash spill has utterly ruined a river

Experts have only just started getting a handle on the environmental and health impacts of Sunday’s spill of tens of thousands of tons of toxic coal ash from a shuttered coal plant in North Carolina. But you don’t need to be an expert to see that the spill into Dan River has done a lot of damage.  The pictures, videos, and personal accounts of the spill are astonishing in their grotesqueness. The AP reports:

An Associated Press reporter canoed downstream of the spill at the Dan River Steam Station and saw gray sludge several inches deep, coating the riverbank for more than two miles. The Dan had crested overnight, leaving a distinctive gray line that contrasted with the brown bank like a dirty ring on a bathtub.

[Brian] Williams, a program manager with the Dan River Basin Association, worried that the extent of the damage might not be fully understood for years.

“How do you clean this up?” he said, shaking his head as he churned up the ash with his paddle. “Dredge the whole river bottom for miles? You can’t clean this up. It’s going to go up the food chain, from the filter feeders, to the fish, to the otters and birds and people. Everything in the ecosystem of a river is connected.”

Before the spill, Duke Energy had insisted that its coal-ash dump sites posed no environmental threats. Now the company is still trying to figure out how to plug the gaping hole in a pipeline that allowed coal residue to flood out of holding ponds and into the river. From Bloomberg:

Duke’s priority is to stop the leak, Meghan Musgrave, a spokeswoman for the largest U.S. utility owner in Charlotte, said yesterday in a telephone interview. The rate of spillage declined Feb. 4 after the pond emptied and has fluctuated since then because of rain and repairs, Musgrave said. Duke estimates that the pond contained 992,000 tons of ash and that about 10 percent has spilled, she said.

Here are two different views of the mess the spill created:

NC River Turns to Gray Sludge After Coal Ash Spill, AP
Duke Energy Battles to Halt Leak Amid Coal-Ash Regulatory Review, Bloomberg

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:

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We could detect wildfires faster by using satellites

We could detect wildfires faster by using satellites

Lou Angeli Digital

The Rim Fire, one of the biggest blazes in California’s history, came to officials’ attention only after somebody noticed a column of smoke.

At a time when satellite technology is so powerful and pervasive that you can check your gutters for leaf litter using Google Earth, why are we still relying on human eyes to detect wildfires?

That’s what a team of researchers from California and Wisconsin would like to know. Writing in the journal Remote Sensing, they describe a satellite-based system they say could detect budding wildfires.

“The most serious conditions for California are the autumnal Santa Ana winds, which are persistent, clear, and very dry,” the researchers write in their paper. “Under these conditions our proposed satellite detection and warning system might soon pay for itself in savings of lives, property, and fire-fighting costs.”

The scientists think a satellite system keeping a watchful eye for fires erupting over the Western U.S. would cost a few hundred million dollars to deploy. That might sound like a lot, but compare that to the $1 billion to $2 billion the federal government spends [PDF] fighting fires every year.

With satellites trained to detect fires smaller than 150 square feet, the scientists say firefighters could reach and snuff out fires faster, helping to save lives and reduce property damage and firefighting expenses. From a University of California at Berkeley press release:

The idea of a fire detection satellite has been floated before, but until recently, detectors have been prohibitively expensive, and the difficulty of discriminating a small burning area from other bright hotspots, such as sunlight glinting off a mirror or windshield, made the likelihood of false alarms high. Today, computers are faster, detectors cheaper and more sensitive, and analysis software far more advanced, making false alarms much less likely, according to researchers.

“Simply put, we believe we have shown that this kind of rapid, sensitive fire detection of areas bigger than 10 feet on a side is probably feasible from space, and we have evidence that the false alarm rate will not be crazy,” said [physicist Carl] Pennypacker, who has designed sensitive satellite-borne detectors for 40 years. “Our work requires further testing, which we are eager to do.”

With climate change leaving landscapes from Nevada to Australia more parched and fire-prone than ever before, now would be a good time to invest in better monitoring systems.

FUEGO — Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit — A Proposed Early-Warning Fire Detection System, Remote Sensing
Time is ripe for fire detection satellite, say Berkeley scientists, UC-Berkeley

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:

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Our Score So Far: Kids 1, Adults 0

Mother Jones

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Los Angeles has a $1 billion plan to distribute iPads to all its students, but it ran into a snag this week:

Following news that students at a Los Angeles high school had hacked district-issued iPads and were using them for personal use, district officials have halted home use of the Apple tablets until further notice.

It took exactly one week for nearly 300 students at Theodore Roosevelt High School to hack through security so they could surf the Web on their new school-issued iPads, raising new concerns about a plan to distribute the devices to all students in the district.

That’s no surprise. There are some pretty bright high school kids out there, and it was inevitable that one of them would figure out how to do this. So how did our young scholars do it?

Students began to tinker with the security lock on the tablets because “they took them home and they can’t do anything with them,” said Roosevelt senior Alfredo Garcia.

Roosevelt students matter-of-factly explained their technique Tuesday outside school. The trick, they said, was to delete their personal profile information. With the profile deleted, a student was free to surf. Soon they were sending tweets, socializing on Facebook and streaming music through Pandora, they said.

Seriously? That’s it? The geniuses at LAUSD hadn’t even tested something as simple as this? Hoo boy. I predict that this particular war between the adults and the kids is not going to end well for the adults.

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Our Score So Far: Kids 1, Adults 0

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Fracking frenzy slows as oil and gas assets plummet

Fracking frenzy slows as oil and gas assets plummet


Yes, we know this isn’t a fracking pump, but it’s way prettier.

You know that domestic oil-and-gas boom that’s been sweeping the country for the past few years, turning places like Williston, N.D., into Sin City? Well, the party’s winding down — or maybe it was never that ragin’ in the first place. Oil and gas shale assets, possibly overvalued to begin with, are plunging in price thanks to an oversaturated market and wells whose production hasn’t always lived up to expectations.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

The deal-making slump, which may last for years, threatens to slow oil and gas production growth as companies that built up debt during the rush for shale acreage can’t depend on asset sales to fund drilling programs. The decline has pushed acquisitions of North American energy assets in the first-half of the year to the lowest since 2004. …

North American oil and gas deals, including shale assets, plunged 52 percent to $26 billion in the first six months from $54 billion in the year-ago period, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. During the drilling frenzy of 2009 through 2012, energy companies spent more than $461 billion buying North American oil and gas properties, the data show.

Improvements in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) techniques in the early 2000s made drilling possible in previously inaccessible areas. As more frackable shale deposits were discovered, energy companies snapped up property. But the boom started backfiring:

As overseas buyers moved in, booming production soon led to oversupplies, and gas prices plunged to a 10-year low in 2012, forcing companies to write-down the value of some of their assets. Companies were also hurt when some fields thought to be rich in oil proved to contain less than anticipated.

Shell downgraded the value of its North American assets by $2 billion last quarter, and announced that it expects drilling here to remain unprofitable until at least next year. Companies are cutting off drilling in fields where it’s not worth it and selling off properties.

As Philip Bump pointed out in Gristmill earlier this year, what’s happening with fracking is kind of the same as what’s happening to the coal industry — but on a super compressed timeline (think 10 years, not 100). What seemed like a bonanza just four years ago is already struggling to deliver.

Claire Thompson is an editorial assistant at Grist.

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Fracking frenzy slows as oil and gas assets plummet

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Centuries worth of CO2 emissions could be stored underground, but at what cost?

Centuries worth of CO2 emissions could be stored underground, but at what cost?

Radoslaw Maciejewski / Shutterstock

We could store CO2 underground, though not in the London Underground.

We could liquefy and cram our carbon dioxide emissions into the ground for some 500 years before America’s geologic basins started to overflow with the stuff.

That’s according to a new assessment by federal scientists, who spent years scouring America for porous rocks thousands of feet beneath the ground that might be appropriate for carbon sequestration.

They studied 36 geologic basins that could be suitable and found that the best region for storing waste CO2 would be the Gulf Coast. From the Houston Chronicle:

Brenda Pierce, energy resources program coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey, … said one reason the Gulf is attractive is its relative lack of fresh groundwater, since any area with fresh groundwater was eliminated as a potential storage site. In addition, only rock layers deep enough to keep carbon dioxide under sufficient pressure to remain liquid and to prevent it from escaping were considered a good fit.

But just because the storage space is available doesn’t mean that the approach would be feasible. Or safe.

The scientists say the 36 potential underground storage spots might be able to hold roughly 3,000 metric gigatons of liquefied CO2. For context, the U.S. releases between 5 and 6 metric gigatons of CO2 every year from power plants, vehicles, and other spots where fuel is burned to produce energy.

Two-thirds of the total storage potential was found to be in the Coastal Plains region, mostly along the Gulf Coast. The dark gray spots on this map show the areas that were assessed:


But most of America’s CO2 emissions come from coal-burning power plants that are located far from the Gulf. To get the CO2 from the power plants to the Gulf, it would need to be ferried through pipelines, and that would be a costly proposition. From Platts:

[T]he study clearly shows that the basins with the highest potential for carbon storage are away from the Southeast region, Mid-Atlantic and Ohio Valley, which accounts for 65% of the US’ coal-fired capacity, according to the US Energy Information Administration. This means that despite the US storage potential, infrastructure needs — including a number of new pipelines which need to be built to connect power plants, compression stations and these basins — could make geologic sequestration costly.

De Smog Blog points to even more financial hurdles:

According to a database maintained at MIT’s Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technologies program, there are currently six large scale CCS projects underway in the United States. Five of the six projects are still in the planning phase, with one project listed as under construction. The current projected price tag of these six projects is a whopping $16.7 billion.

That’s a lot to gamble on a risky technology that continues to struggle to prove it’s even possible to deploy on a global scale. And $16.7 billion is only the opening bet. A full scale deployment of CCS technology across the entire US would likely be in the hundreds of billions. Estimates run as high as $1.5 trillion a year to deploy and operate enough carbon capture and storage worldwide to significantly reduce carbon emissions from the fossil fuels we consume.

It’s also worth remembering that carbon sequestration can trigger earthquakes. Tremblers at CCS sites could not only cause physical damage around them, but release sequestered CO2 back into the atmosphere, thereby making the whole effort futile.

And who knows what other problems might arise in the decades or centuries to come from stuffing all that liquefied CO2 into the ground.

Still, considering the massive threat posed by climate change, carbon sequestration is worth investigating. “The United States has the ability to store a lot of carbon dioxide,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “If this proves to be economically viable — and that hasn’t been answered in this study — sequestration could help.”

That said, there would be no carbon dioxide emissions to store if we switched over to renewables.

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:

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Mount Everest Climbers’ Waste Could Power Local Villages

The village of Gorak Shep. Photo: Frank Kehren

There is no plumbing on Mount Everest. When nature calls, climbers must use makeshift holes dug by sherpas, or use buckets as substitute toilets. With the ever-increasing number of climbers attempting to scale the mountain, containing all of that human waste is no small problem.

Currently, National Geographic reports, much of the excrement is carried in sealed containers on the backs of porters to the nearby village of Gorak Shep (which also lacks plumbing or sanitation facilities), where it is emptied into open pits. Up to 12 metric tons of the stuff can be hauled to Gorak Shep in a single year. But the village is running out of space for containing the mess, and last year researchers discovered that the refuse had contaminated one of the village’s two major water sources.  

Seattle climber and engineer Garry Porter witnessed the problem first hand when he attempted to scale Everest ten years ago. Since then, the image of all of that waste has stuck with him. ”I couldn’t shake the feeling that my final tribute to Nepal and the people of Everest was having my waste dumped in these open pits. It just didn’t seem right,” he told National Geographic.

Porter decided to found the Mount Everest Biogas Project as a potential fix, along with Everest guide Dan Mazur.

In biogas production, bacteria feed on organic waste (like feces) and produce several gases as a byproduct. One of these is methane, which is the primary component of natural gas and can be burned for heat and light, or converted to electricity. One cubic meter of biogas provides about two kilowatt-hours of useable energy. This is enough to power a 60-watt light bulb for more than a day, or an efficient 15-watt CFL bulb for nearly six days. A biogas reactor at Gorak Shep could address the fecal contamination problem while providing the perennially low-income community with a sustainable source of methane gas for energy, especially for cooking, Porter says.

The team plans to keep the biogas digester tanks warm (they stop working if temperatures drop below freezing) with solar panels.

In addition to getting rid of all the feces, the team hopes that the biogas project will relieve some of the pressure on Everest’s natural resources. All of those poop-producing climbers also need to eat, and cooking fuel often takes the form of native plants harvested around Everest, including an endangered species, the alpine juniper. If successful, the project will be the world’s highest elevation biogas reactor and could be introduced to other high altitude areas around the world.  

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Mount Everest Is Not Immune to Climate Change 
Conquering Everest 

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Can You Have Too Much Solar Energy?


Germany’s little-guy suppliers are destabilizing big power companies. doviende/Flickr It’s been a long, dark winter in Germany. In fact, there hasn’t been this little sun since people started tracking such things back in the early 1950s. Easter is around the corner, and the streets of Berlin are still covered in ice and snow. But spring will come, and when the snow finally melts, it will reveal the glossy black sheen of photovoltaic solar panels glinting from the North Sea to the Bavarian Alps. Solar panels line Germany’s residential rooftops and top its low-slung barns. They sprout in orderly rows along train tracks and cover hills of coal mine tailings in what used to be East Germany. Old Soviet military bases, too polluted to use for anything else, have been turned into solar installations. Twenty-two percent of Germany’s power is generated with renewables. Solar provides close to a quarter of that. The southern German state of Bavaria, population 12.5 million, has three photovoltaic panels per resident, which adds up to more installed solar capacity than in the entire United States. To keep reading, click here.

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Can You Have Too Much Solar Energy?

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Flies that eat organic live longer, make more fly babies

Flies that eat organic live longer, make more fly babies

Scientists may be split on whether organic foods are better for human health. But a new study published in PLOS ONE presents evidence that organic foods help you live longer and make more babies — if you’re a fruit fly.

T. ChapmanMaybe organic food just puts flies in the mood?

Researchers at Southern Methodist University fed fruit flies extracts of organic or conventional versions of bananas, potatoes, raisins, or soybeans from a Whole Foods in Texas. (Unlike those organic-loving rats, the flies didn’t get to choose their foods.)

“Flies were then subjected to a variety of tests designed to assess overall fly health.” The results? “Flies raised on diets made from organically grown produce had greater fertility and longevity,” according to the study.

Maybe this explains why buzzing fruit flies plague your indoor compost bin (or, for that matter, the Whole Foods sample trays)? Best break out the organic apple cider vinegar!

Susie Cagle writes and draws news for Grist. She also writes and draws tweets for



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8 Great Cleaning Shortcuts (Slideshow)

Debbie Crowe


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