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Before the Tide Rushes in the New Year: Our Top 20 News Stories of 2015

December 30, 2015

From the peculiar to the passionate, the alarming to the inspiring, 2015 never left us at a loss for words, or story ideas.

It was a year in which questions of race and justice crackled like electric charges through the national atmosphere, in which experts expressed qualms about the potential hazards of creating artificial intelligence and attempts to communicate with extraterrestrial life, and in which California’s drought led us to contemplate extreme measures—from toilet-to-tap. The University of California was forced to re-examine its policies for dealing with sexual harassment, and assumed unique international research leadership in the battle to combat global climate change. Academics at UC Berkeley played pivotal roles in virtually everything, from the public health drive for childhood vaccinations, to the debate about the discovery of prehistoric fossils, to the development of a charming Pixar flick exploring the interplay of human emotions.

In chronological order, here are our top 20 web-exclusive stories and videos of the year—the most read and viewed, the most influential, the ones that helped us define the year that was.

How Often Do Cops Kill Citizens?
Given “Scandalous” Data Gaps, Nobody Knows

white hands shooting gun

The year opened with the country still inflamed over the issue of police shootings—and a report spearheaded by Berkeley law professor and leading criminal justice expert Franklin Zimring which found that between 400 and 500 times a year, an officer kills a citizen in what police consider justifiable homicide of a felon. But there is no reliable way of knowing what that number would be if included in it was a comprehensive tally of all incidents, such as those not considered justified. He called for creating a rigorous reporting system, warning “this issue isn’t going away”—a prophecy that the events of 2015 would continue to affirm. Read more »

Marked by Measles:
Why Berkeley Expert Calls Outbreak “A Very Large Red Flag”

child with measles

As a School of Public Health emeritus professor specializing in infectious diseases, John Swartzberg knows viruses as well as other people know their lapdogs. So when he gets concerned about a bug, so should you. And in early 2015, he was pretty concerned about an outbreak of measles. So much so that he took off the (surgical) gloves against Californians who refuse to vaccinate their children—and the politicians and reporters who “accommodate” them. By year’s end, a tougher state immunization law was enacted. Read more »

Justice, Not Retribution:
“This Emphasis on Suffering Isn’t Getting Us Anywhere”

white hands in handcuffs

What do we do with kids who commit offenses? Do we expel them from school, and ultimately consign them to the juvenile justice system, which is long on juveniles but painfully short of justice? Do we warehouse them until we’re ready to kick them out on the streets, where they can apply the refined illicit skills they learned in Juvie, ultimately matriculating to prison? Well, yes. That’s just what we do. But the concept of “restorative justice” offers a different path. Read more »

Stressed-Out Students:
UC Campuses Strain to Meet Soaring Need for Counseling

students on sproul plaza berkeley

Nationwide, more students than ever say they feel anxious and depressed—at some point last year, almost a third were so depressed that they said they found it hard to function, and the problem is particularly acute at top tier schools. UC student demand for such services has surged 37 percent in the past six years. In this report, we explored the forces creating that need. Read more »

Resurrecting the Old UC Theatre:
Will This Revitalize Berkeley’s Music Scene?

uc theater empty interior

Over the years, Berkeley’s image as an arts and entertainment hub has slipped. This $5.5 million project aims to resurrect the legendary movie house as a live venue, infusing youthful energy into University Avenue. Read more »

Should Earth Try to Phone ET?
Experts Clash Over Risk of Alerting Aliens

human and alien hands touching in space

If there’s an appropriate place to apply the Precautionary Principle, beaming high-powered messages to exoplanets that could support intelligent life might seem a good place to start. What if they’re not the Steven Spielbergian kewpie doll kind of alien, but instead the frothing, oozing-chartreuse-slime-from-every-pore, face-eating variety? It all depends on your cosmic perspective. Read more »

Ready Reformer:
Former Foster Care Kid/Mom Graduates Berkeley Law

student in front of berkeley law sign

Lily Colby’s young journey through five foster homes made her early years difficult to bear. So, why was she able, against all odds, to come through it with a desire to reform the system rather than to escape from it entirely? Read more »

The Good, The Bad and the Robot:
Experts Are Trying to Make Machines Be “Moral”

robot in front of bookshelf

But how, exactly, does one impart morals to a robot? Simply program rules into its brain? Send it to obedience class? Play it old episodes of Sesame Street? We checked in with experts who offered some startling answers. Read more »

Effluent Communities:
Drought Will Mean Learning To Drink Treated Sewage

white child drinking water

It’s the kind of subject that lends itself to the lowest of low humor, because at bottom (sorry), it’s among the most serious of subjects, speaking as it does to basic survival. We were talking about water (again), of course, specifically blackwater: Sewage. And even more particularly, recycling sewage, treating it to the potable level and–gulp–drinking it again. Read more »

Emotional Truth:
Tutoring Pixar to Get Joy and Sadness Right in “Inside Out”

characters from inside out

It’s easi­er to temper emotions if you ima­gine them as the five distinct char­ac­ters—and if your in­ner feel­ings are voiced by Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling, so much the better. The film that became a big hit in the summer of 2015 animates the emotions at work in the “control panel” or our brains, and owes its scientific accuracy in part to the filmmakers’ consultation with UC Berkeley psychologists. Read more »

I Can Fry If I Want To:
Why Are Females Chided for Vocal Tics That Guys Use, Too?

woman with zipper over mouth

It seems as if every time a women opens her mouth, she runs the risk of antagonizing the vocal police. High pitch, uptalk, filler words and fry—women are warned to avoid the feminine tics that undercut their power. But here’s the catch: Men have vocal tics, too. Read more »

Sex, Drugs & Revolution:
50 Years On, Barbarians Gather to Recall The Berkeley Barb

old headline from berkeley barb

The inaugural edition of The Berkeley Barb hit streets on Friday, August 13, 1965—incendiary times. It was the first days of the Watts riots, and the conflict in Vietnam was beginning to play out in living rooms on the nightly news. That week TV viewers watched as American GIs casually torched Vietnamese villages with their flamethrowers and Zippo lighters, while in the United States, young men were taking Zippos to their draft notices. The world must have seemed to be going up in smoke, and the Barb arose to capture it. This summer, survivors from the Barb marked its half-century anniversary. Read more »

Trading in Tropes:
Video Mashup Shows What TV Writers Think of Berkeley

stills from tv shows featuring berkeley

TV Land has been slow to surrender its use of Berkeley as code for Birkenstock-wearing, bean-sprout-loving, radical feminist tree-huggers. Only a few shows are acknowledging the contemporary reality of an institution perennially ranked at or near the top of the public universities worldwide. “There are a handful of schools in the United States that have a mythic identity,” said Robert Thompson, the nation’s go-to professor for pop culture expertise. “And Berkeley is one of those.” Read more »

Doing It Like Lincoln:
These Aspiring Lawyers Kick it Old School

law students around bar board game

It’s a shortcut (of sorts) that almost nobody knows exists, but it’s possible to become a lawyer without law school. We explored the pros and cons and talked the apprentices and their lawyer-mentors—including a number of Cal alums—who are making it happen. Read more »

Ultimate Berkeley Ad for “Sustainably Karmic” Community

berkeley street view with cars

We couldn’t resist sharing when craigslist posted an online ad seeking housemates for a space that does not promote “ableism, consumerism, negativism, positivism, homophonia, slut shaming or sham slutting.” Applicants needed only forego TV, microwaves, doors, and all scented products (yes, foods included, people!)—and they must be non-speciesist in their welcoming of fellow tenant Gaia, the 8-foot-long monitor lizard. The writer of the sardonic ad for Wysdym Yrth— ‘a deliberately-founded, intentionally-minded, socially-radical, sustainably-karmic community with two (2!) currently available rooms”—was an Oakland-based writer/photographer/bike messenger. Read more »

Bones of Contention:
Cal Paleo Expert Doubts Homo Naledi is New Species

fossilized hand bones

The popular science press erupted with news that fossilized bones of a previously unknown hominid, dubbed Homo naledi, had been discovered in a cave system in South Africa. The find seemed destined for the full Nat Geo multimedia treatment, including its October magazine cover and TV specials. But while the confetti was still falling, a growing number of scientists voiced skepticism that the bones actually represented a new species—and UC Berkeley paleoanthropologist Tim White emerged the default lead spokesman for the H. naledi contrarians. Read more »

What Shapes Your Identity?
Skin Color? Your Name? What’s in Your Fridge?

what is race? no, really.Questions of race and ethnicity are hard to answer, and even risky to ask. We asked the questions anyway, and captured what people on the UC Berkeley campus had to say. Read more »

In Wake of Star Prof’s Resignation:
UC President Calls for Rethinking Sexual Harassment Policies

geoff marcy

When embattled astronomy professor Geoff Marcy eventually resigned—after a campus finding that he had been sexually harassing female students for years—UC President Janet Napolitano announced a committee to address an “urgent need to review University policies that may have inadvertently made the investigation and resolution of this case more difficult.” The case, which triggered outrage on campus and attention nationwide, is seen as a possible turning point in the way universities treat future complaints of sexually harassing professors—and what “Women in Astronomy” blog author Jessica Kirkpatrick decried as “a larger problem we have within the structures of academia: a culture of silence.” Read more »

The Selfless Quarterback:
Cancer Intercepted Joe Roth’s Career—But Not His Legacy

joe roth

A new documentary “labor of love” captured how, long after Cal Bears star Joe Roth’s seemingly charmed life was cut short, he continues to inspire those who know his story. His stoic battle against the vicious cancer that ultimately claimed his life is only one of many reasons that his number 12 was retired—making him the only Cal player ever to be so honored—and why the people who knew him are still reminding themselves to go have “A Joe Roth Day.” Read more »

How the University of California is Playing a Unique Role
In the Global Race Against Warming

iceberg and water

At the UN Climate Change Conference outside Paris, the University of California was revealed to be the sole university participant in Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a conglomerate of investors dedicated to developing low-carbon energy sources. UC will dedicate $1.25 billion to the venture over the next five years, declaring: “As a public research institution, we take the imperative to solve global climate change very seriously. Also at the conference, researchers released “Bending the Curve”—a UC study proposing 10 scalable solutions for “carbon neutrality and climate stability.” The goal: to keep the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius. Read more »

We also debuted our Perspectives series of opinionated personal essays in 2015, generating intense reader response on pieces such as David Tuller’s crusade against a chronic fatigue syndrome study (“I stopped somewhere just beyond 14,000 words because enough was enough”) and Glen Martin’s counter-intuitive take on outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion (“The fervent calls for expanding the bans on trophy hunting in Africa will work against African wildlife conservation.”)

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