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Why Is the Mob Often Tied to the Garbage Industry?

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I know I’m only about a decade late, but I recently, finally, watched the entire run of The Sopranos. Tony and his crew get their hands into plenty of different moneymaking schemes, but throughout the series one character or another (Tony, Richie Aprile, Ralph Cifaretto) is involved in solid waste management. What makes trash collection so attractive to mobsters?

The areas where criminal organizations tend to do steady business - drugs, stolen goods, gambling and protection rackets, for example - conform to the basic necessities of the wiseguy economy. They’re all easy to get into (you need significantly less startup capital to hijack a truck than to start the next Google) and exploit, and are highly profitable. The business of garbage collection satisfies those same needs, but has the added bonus of actually being legal. Mobsters can pull down serious profits from a legitimate, in-demand business, while also using it to launder dirty money from their other enterprises.

The mob really got into trash in the mid-20th century, when many cities stopped collecting commercial waste and left businesses to find private haulers.

Mobsters from New York to Chicago saw an opportunity and either started or took over (with money, intimidation or violence) hauling firms. Within a city, crews would divvy up routes, rig contract bids, and harass and extort non-mob haulers and customers in order to quash competition and keep their prices high.

Soon, gangsters, mostly from Italian- and Irish-American crime families, had monopolies on trash collection all over the Northeast and upper Midwest. The so-called “garbage mobsters” who ran these operations often falsified paperwork and tampered with waste scales, sometimes to skim profits from the business, and sometimes to hide dirty money in it. Crew bosses and members often got no-work, no-show “consulting” positions at the firms, which gave them a legit job to put on their tax return and explain their income.

Cleaning Up

Mobsters began to lose their grip on garbage in the last 20 years, as the industry became more corporatized and companies like Browning-Ferris Industries and Waste Management got big enough to step into mob-controlled territory and give them enough competition to drive them out of business. In New York, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the city government finished the job that market forces started, conducting an undercover investigation, led by NYPD detective Rick Cowan, of the mob garbage cartel, and creating the Trade Waste Commission to regulate trash haulers.

In some places, though, the mob continues to hang on to its trash routes. Late last year, the New Jersey Commission of Investigation released a report saying that, despite law enforcement’s knowledge of the situation and years of effort to block their involvement, mobsters are still prominent in the trash business because state and local government fail to put up the resources, money and manpower needed to close loopholes, enforce laws and force them out.

That same report says things aren’t much better across the Delaware, and points out that alleged Philadelphia mob boss Joe Ligambi was on the payroll of a Philadelphia trash hauler from 2003 to 2010. He received $1,000 a week and health benefits for most of that time without, it seems, actually doing any work.

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Are the Northern Lights?
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Over the centuries, many have gazed up at one of the Earth’s most fascinatingly beautiful natural wonders: the Northern Lights. In the past couple of weeks, some lucky American stargazers have gotten the chance to see them from their very own backyards—and could again this week, according to Thrillist. But what are they?

Before science was able to get a read on what exactly was happening in the night sky, ancient tribes had their own theories for what caused the jaw-dropping light show. Many early beliefs had roots in religion, such as that the light was a pathway souls traveled to reach heaven (Eskimo tribes) or that the light was an eternal battle of dead warriors (Middle-Age Europe). Early researchers were a bit more reasonable in their approximations, and most surrounded the idea of the reflection of sunlight off the ice caps. In 1619, Galileo Galilei named the lights the aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning, after concluding they were a product of sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

Today, scientists have come to the general agreement that the lights are caused by the collision of electrically charged solar particles and atoms from our atmosphere. The energy from the collisions is released as light, and the reason it happens around the poles is because that's where the Earth’s magnetic field is the strongest. In 2008, a team at UCLA concluded that “when two magnetic field lines come close together due to the storage of energy from the sun, a critical limit is reached and the magnetic field lines reconnect, causing magnetic energy to be transformed into kinetic energy and heat. Energy is released, and the plasma is accelerated, producing accelerated electrons.”

"Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA professor of Earth and Space Sciences. "Reconnection results in a slingshot acceleration of waves and plasma along magnetic field lines, lighting up the aurora underneath even before the near-Earth space has had a chance to respond. We are providing the evidence that this is happening."

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter, due to the Earth’s position in relation to the sun (shorter days means darker night skies). And by the way, it’s not just the North Pole that puts on a show—there are Southern Lights, too. There are also aurora borealis on other planets—including Mars—so rest assured that future generations born “abroad” will not miss out on this spectacular feat of nature.

Haven’t seen them yet? Traditionally, the best places to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights are in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. Maybe you'll get lucky this week and sneak a peek from your very own window. Check out Aurorasaurus for regular updates on where they are showing.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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