Sunday, December 31, 2017

Sunday Reading

Cognitive Decline — Charles P. Pierce.

On Thursday, El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago sat down with Michael Schmidt of The New York Times for what apparently was an open-ended, one-on-one interview. Since then, the electric Twitter machine–and most of the rest of the Intertoobz–has been alive with criticism of Schmidt for having not pushed back sufficiently against some of the more obvious barefaced non-facts presented by the president* in their chat. Some critics have been unkind enough to point out that Schmidt was the conveyor belt for some of the worst attacks on Hillary Rodham Clinton emanating from both the New York FBI office and the various congressional committees staffed by people in kangaroo suits. For example, Schmidt’s name was on a shabby story the Times ran on July 23, 2015 in which it was alleged that a criminal investigation into HRC’s famous use of a private email server was being discussed within the Department of Justice. It wasn’t, and the Times’ public editor at the time, the great Margaret Sullivan, later torched the story in a brutal column.

Other people were unkind enough to point out that the interview was brokered by one Christopher Ruddy, a Trump intimate and the CEO of NewsMax, and that Ruddy made his bones as a political “journalist” by peddling the fiction that Clinton White House counsel Vince Foster had been murdered, one of the more distasteful slanders that got a shameful public airing during the Clinton frenzy of the 1990s. Neither of those will concern us here. What Schmidt actually got out of this interview is a far more serious problem for the country. In my view, the interview is a clinical study of a man in severe cognitive decline, if not the early stages of outright dementia.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve seen my father and all of his siblings slide into the shadows and fog of Alzheimer’s Disease. (The president*’s father developed Alzheimer’s in his 80s.) In 1984, Ronald Reagan debated Walter Mondale in Louisville and plainly had no idea where he was. (If someone on the panel had asked him, he’d have been stumped.) Not long afterwards, I was interviewing a prominent Alzheimer’s researcher for a book I was doing, and he said, “I saw the look on his face that I see every day in my clinic.” In the transcript of this interview, I hear in the president*’s words my late aunt’s story about how we all walked home from church in the snow one Christmas morning, an event I don’t recall, but that she remembered so vividly that she told the story every time I saw her for the last three years of her life.

In this interview, the president* is only intermittently coherent. He talks in semi-sentences and is always groping for something that sounds familiar, even if it makes no sense whatsoever and even if it blatantly contradicts something he said two minutes earlier. To my ears, anyway, this is more than the president*’s well-known allergy to the truth. This is a classic coping mechanism employed when language skills are coming apart. (My father used to give a thumbs up when someone asked him a question. That was one of the strategies he used to make sense of a world that was becoming quite foreign to him.) My guess? That’s part of the reason why it’s always “the failing New York Times,” and his 2016 opponent is “Crooked Hillary.”

In addition, the president* exhibits the kind of stubbornness you see in patients when you try to relieve them of their car keys—or, as one social worker in rural North Carolina told me, their shotguns. For example, a discussion on healthcare goes completely off the rails when the president* suddenly recalls that there is a widely held opinion that he knows very little about the issues confronting the nation. So we get this.

But Michael, I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest C.P.A. I know the details of health care better than most, better than most. And if I didn’t, I couldn’t have talked all these people into doing ultimately only to be rejected.

This is more than simple grandiosity. This is someone fighting something happening to him that he is losing the capacity to understand. So is this.

We’re going to win another four years for a lot of reasons, most importantly because our country is starting to do well again and we’re being respected again. But another reason that I’m going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes. Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times, but the failed New York Times. So they basically have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, “Please, please, don’t lose Donald Trump.” O.K.

In Ronald Reagan’s second term, we ducked a bullet. I’ve always suspected he was propped up by a lot of people who a) didn’t trust vice-president George H.W. Bush, b) found it convenient to have a forgetful president when the subpoenas began to fly, and c) found it helpful to have a “detached” president when they started running their own agendas—like, say, selling missiles to mullahs. You’re seeing much the same thing with the congressional Republicans. They’re operating an ongoing smash-and-grab on all the policy wishes they’ve fondly cultivated since 1981. Having a president* who may not be all there and, as such, is susceptible to flattery because it reassures him that he actually is makes the heist that much easier.

So, no, I don’t particularly care whether Michael Schmidt was tough enough, or asked enough follow-up questions. I care about this.

I’m always moving. I’m moving in both directions. We have to get rid of chainlike immigration, we have to get rid of the chain. The chain is the last guy that killed. … [Talking with guests.] … The last guy that killed the eight people. … [Inaudible.] … So badly wounded people. … Twenty-two people came in through chain migration. Chain migration and the lottery system. They have a lottery in these countries. They take the worst people in the country, they put ‘em into the lottery, then they have a handful of bad, worse ones, and they put them out. ‘Oh, these are the people the United States. …” … We’re gonna get rid of the lottery, and by the way, the Democrats agree with me on that. On chain migration, they pretty much agree with me.

We’ve got bigger problems.

He Believed — Dan Barry in The New York Times on his father’s belief in UFO’s.

The year now ending has been so laden with tumultuous news that one astounding report in the exhausted final days of 2017 seemed almost routine: that for years, an intelligence official burrowed within the Pentagon warren was running a secret program to investigate reports of unidentified flying objects.

Beg your pardon?

That scoop, by Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean for The New York Times, was underscored by a companion article that detailed how in 2004 an oval object played a game of aeronautic hide-and-seek off Southern California with two Navy fighter jets assigned to the aircraft carrier Nimitz. The object then zipped away at a speed so otherworldly that it left one of the Navy pilots later saying he felt “pretty weirded out” — as you might if you watch the video of the encounter that the Department of Defense has made public.

In considering these reports, my mind turned to all those reasonable people who were dismissed and ridiculed over the years because they believed that something was out there. I thought in particular of believers who had died without savoring these official revelations.

Believers like my late father.

I can hear what he would have said, there at the veterans’ home, his broken vessel of a body in a wheelchair but his mind as quick and bright as a shooting star. “I’ve been saying it for years,” he’d assert, followed by a choice epithet he reserved for government officials, followed by, “I knew it.”

Then, a satisfying drag on a cigarette.

My father, Gene, finished high school at night and served three years in the Army; he did not attend college. But he had a fearsome intellect, read voraciously and developed a command of such subjects as American history, numismatics — and U.F.O. investigations. Through the 1960s and 1970s, he joined many others in monitoring reports of aerial anomalies, tracking down reams of redacted official reports and swapping theories about credible sightings and government cover-ups.

They bandied about the names of well-known U.F.O. researchers — J. Allen Hynek, Donald Keyhoe, Stanton Friedman — and read the latest newsletters from an organization called the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, or Nicap. They remained resolute, even when many others gave up the cause after an Air Force-funded report in 1969 concluded that further study of U.F.O.s was unlikely to be of much scientific value, leading to the termination of the official Air Force program investigating the subject.

To the likes of Gene Barry, the report was merely part of the cover-up.

He was no astronomer or physicist. Just a working stiff who endured the anonymous drudgery of a daily commute but then, at night, often felt connected to something larger than himself, larger than all of us. While his neighbors focused on the fortunes of the New York Jets, he was contemplating whether the “wheel in the middle of a wheel” mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel referred to a flying object of some kind. If so, just consider the implications!

In our family, the horizontal line separating earth and sky often blurred. My father’s supernaturally patient wife and four impressionable children carried small blue membership cards for a research and investigative organization called the Mutual U.F.O. Network, or Mufon. We applauded my father when he spoke at a U.F.O. symposium at a local university. At his behest, my sister Brenda even brought a blueprint for a spacecraft that he had received in the mail — mysterious packages often arrived in the mail — to Sts. Cyril and Methodius parochial school to ask her science teacher what he made of it.

The teacher handed it back without a word.

In other households of the 1960s, Barney and Betty referred only to the Rubbles of Bedrock, loyal neighbors of Fred and Wilma Flintstone. But in our home, those names might also refer to Betty and Barney Hill, a New Hampshire couple who claimed to have been abducted and examined by aliens in 1961.

Then there were the family outings. Every so often our parents would pack us into the Chevy station wagon for a nighttime drive to that rare Long Island hill with an unimpeded view of the sky, or to Wanaque, N.J., 70 miles away, where strange lights were said to have been hovering over a local reservoir.

Gradually, we children would doze off, our necks stiff from craning. My mother, the tolerant sidekick and chauffeur, would light another cigarette, while my father continued to train his cheap binoculars on the celestial infinity, confident in the certainty of the still uncertain.

Over the years, life on terra firma intruded. Career setbacks, sickness, that daily anonymous grind. My father’s unofficial cell of believers quietly disbanded — exhausted, perhaps, by government silence and the false reports caused by weather balloons, satellites and people just seeing things. Then, when my mother died in 1999, he lost the person who grounded him, the Betty to his Barney.

He died in 2008, still believing without having seen, still questioning the government, still marveling at the arrogance of those who insisted we were the only intelligent life in the universe.

A decade passed, and then came this month’s report of a secret Pentagon program with the delightful name of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. Funded by the government between 2007 and 2012, the program investigated aerial threats that included “unidentified aerial phenomena,” or U.A.P.s — which is just a less-polarizing way of saying U.F.O.s.

To hardened veterans of the U.F.O. wars, the news of the government program was less surprising than it was validating. And the video of the encounter between Navy fighter jets and an unidentified object moving at extraordinary velocity provided a helpful visual to the cause of those U.F.O. groups with long acronyms.

“Very interesting, very interesting,” said Fran Ridge, the archivist of the research accumulated by Nicap, now defunct. “But the very first thing that entered my mind was — why now? Is this a distraction? Is this something to get the people’s attention off politics?”

Mr. Ridge’s skeptical words reminded me of my father, who half-joked that he believed in a conspiracy — about everything.

“Finally, the kimono is being opened a little,” said Jan Harden, the director of Mufon. “Personally, I don’t need verification from the government. But for the mass public, it’s important to know that there is advanced technology in our skies.”

The news of the Pentagon’s program received a stunning amount of attention that included the usual dismissive commentary.

“Call me when you have a dinner invite from an alien,” the celebrated astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said on CNN, a comment that would have driven my father to distraction. Classic redirection, he would have railed, the tip of his cigarette reddening with rage.

But my father would also have nodded in agreement to what the good astrophysicist had to say about that almost playful aerial anomaly captured on government video. “It’s a flying object and we don’t know what it is,” Dr. Tyson said. “I would hope somebody’s checking it out.”

Exactly, the old man would have grunted. Been saying it for years.

74 Things — The Atlantic’s science, technology, and health reporters on amazing things we learned this year.

This past year, reporters on The Atlantic’s science, technology, and health desks worked tirelessly, writing hundreds of stories. Each of those stories is packed with facts that surprised us, delighted us, and in some cases, unsettled us. Instead of picking our favorite stories, we decided to round up a small selection of the most astonishing things we learned in 2017. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did, and we hope you’ll be back for more in 2018:

  1. The record for the longest top spin is over 51 minutes. Your fidget spinner probably won’t make it past 60 seconds.
  2. Flamingos have self-locking legs, which makes them more stable on one leg than on two.
  3. If your home furnace emits some methane pollution on the last day of 2017, it’ll almost certainly leave the atmosphere by 2030—but it could still be raising global sea levels in 2817.
  4. By analyzing enough Facebook likes, an algorithm can predict someone’s personality better than their friends and family can.
  5. There are cliff-hanging nests in northern Greenland that have been used continuously for 2,500 years by families of the largest falcons in the world. Researchers read the layers of bird poop in the nests like tree rings.
  6. Hippos can’t swim.
  7. Six-month-old babies can understand basic words like mouth and nose. They even know that concepts like mouth and nose are more related than nose and bottle.
  8. Most common eastern North American tree species have been mysteriously shifting west since 1980.
  9. In 2016, Waymo’s virtual cars logged 2.5 billion miles in simulated versions of California, Texas, and Arizona.
  10. America’s emergency 9-1-1 calling infrastructure is so old that there are some parts you can’t even replace anymore when they break.
  11. The transmitters on the Voyager spacecraft have as much power as refrigerator light bulbs, but they still ping Earth every day from billions of miles away.
  12. By one estimate, one-third of Americans currently in their early 20s will never get married.
  13. Donald Trump has a long and gif-heavy presence on the early web.
  14. Somewhere around 10,000 U.S. companies—including the majority of the Fortune 500—still assess employees based on the Myers-Briggs test.
  15. Humans have inadvertently created an artificial bubble around Earth, formed when radio communications from the ground interact with high-energy particles in space. This bubble is capable of shielding the planet from potentially dangerous space weather like solar flares.
  16. Climate-change-linked heat waves are already making tens of thousands of Americans sleep worse.
  17. China poured more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century.
  18. A lay minister and math Ph.D. was the best checkers player in the world for 40 years, spawning a computer scientist’s obsessive quest to solve the entire game to prove the man could be beaten.
  19. There is a huge waterfall in Antarctica, where the Nansen Ice Shelf meets the sea.
  20. On Facebook, Russian trolls created and promoted dual events on May 21, 2016, bringing Muslim and anti-Muslim Americans into real-world conflict at an Islamic center in Houston.
  21. Boxer crabs wield sea anemones like boxing gloves, and if they lose one of these allies, they can make another by ripping the remaining one in half and cloning it.
  22. Cocktail napkins on airplanes may be essentially useless to travelers, but to airlines they are valuable space for advertising.
  23. Scientists can figure out the storm tracks of 250-year-old winter squalls by reading a map hidden in tree rings across the Pacific Northwest.
  24. On islands, deer are occasionally spotted licking small animals, like cats and foxes—possibly because the ocean breeze makes everything salty.
  25. People complained of an “epidemic of fake news” in 1896.
  26. Languages worldwide have more words for describing warm colors than cool colors.
  27. Turkeys are twice as big as they were in 1960, and most of that change is genetic.
  28. Two Chinese organizations control over half of the global Bitcoin-mining operations—and by now, they might control more. If they collaborate (or collude), the blockchain technology that supposedly secures Bitcoin could be compromised.
  29. U.S. physicians prescribe 3,150 percent of the necessary amount of opioids.
  30. Physicists discovered a new “void” in the Great Pyramid of Giza using cosmic rays.
  31. Daily and seasonal temperature variations can trigger rockfalls, even if the temperature is always above freezing, by expanding and contracting rocks until they crack.
  32. The eight counties with the largest declines in life expectancy since 1980 are all in the state of Kentucky.
  33. The decline of sales in luxury timepieces has less to do with the rise of smartwatches and more to do with the rising cost of gold, the decline of the British pound, and a crackdown on Chinese corruption.
  34. Spider silk is self-strengthening; it can suck up chemicals from the insects it touches to make itself stronger.
  35. Intelligence doesn’t make someone more likely to change their mind. People with higher IQs are better at crafting arguments to support a position—but only if they already agree with it.
  36. Among the strangest and yet least-questioned design choices of internet services is that every service must be a global service.
  37. Steven Gundry, one of the main doctors who has contributed to Goop, believes Mercola.com, a prominent anti-vaccine site, is a site that gives “very useful health advice.”
  38. At many pumpkin- and squash-growing competitions, entries are categorized by color: Any specimen that’s at least 80 percent orange is a pumpkin, and everything else is a squash.
  39. Only 2 percent of all U.S. Google employees are black, and only 4 percent are Hispanic. In tech-oriented positions, the numbers fall to 1 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
  40. The weight of the huge amount of water Hurricane Harvey dumped on Texas pushed the earth’s crust down 2 centimeters.
  41. Russian scientists plan to re-wild the Arctic with bioengineered woolly mammoths.
  42. The NASA spacecraft orbiting Jupiter can never take the same picture of the gas planet because the clouds of its atmosphere are always moving, swirling into new shapes and patterns.
  43. During sex, male cabbage white butterflies inject females with packets of nutrients. The females chew their way into these with a literal vagina dentata, and genitals that double as a souped-up stomach.
  44. If all people want from apps is to see new stuff scroll onto the screen, it might not matter if that content is real or fake.
  45. Cardiac stents are extremely expensive and popular, and yet they don’t appear to have any definite benefits outside of acute heart attacks.
  46. Animal-tracking technology is just showing off at this point: Researchers can glue tiny barcodes to the backs of carpenter ants in a lab and scan them repeatedly to study the insects’ movements.
  47. One recommendation from a happiness expert is to build a “pride shrine,” which is a place in your house that you pass a lot where you put pictures that trigger pleasant memories, or diplomas or awards that remind you of accomplishments.
  48. Some ancient rulers, including Alexander the Great, executed a substitute king after an eclipse, as a kind of sacrificial hedge.
  49. A colon-cancer gene found in Utah can be traced back to a single Mormon pioneer couple from the 1840s.
  50. In November and December 2016, 92,635 people called the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line to ask for turkey-cooking advice. That’s an average of over 1,500 calls per day.
  51. In the United States as a whole, less than 1 percent of the land is hardscape. In cities, up to 40 percent is impervious.
  52. ​Half of murdered women are killed by their romantic partners.​
  53. Among the Agta hunter-gatherers of the Philippines, storytelling is valued more than hunting, fishing, or basically any other skill.
  54. The familiar metal tokens in the board game Monopoly didn’t originally come with the game, to save costs. Popular bracelet charms of the Great Depression were only added to the box later.
  55. Thanks to the internet, American parents are seeking out more unique names for their children, trying to keep them from fading into the noise of Google. The median boy’s name in 2015 (Luca) was given to one out of every 782 babies, whereas the median boy’s name in 1955 (Edward) was given to one out of every 100 babies.
  56. America’s five most valuable companies are all located on the Pacific Coast between Northern California and Seattle.
  57. President Kennedy secretly had Addison’s disease, a hormonal disorder, which he treated with injections of amphetamines and steroids from Max Jacobson, a doctor whose nickname was “Dr. Feelgood.”
  58. Some of the most distant stars in the Milky Way were actually “stolen” from a nearby galaxy as the two passed near each other.
  59. Hummingbirds drink in an unexpected way: Their tongues bloom open like a flower when they hit nectar, and close on the way out to grab some of the sweet liquid.
  60. New York City has genetically distinct uptown and downtown rats.
  61. The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 created one of the most detailed maps of the deep ocean ever.
  62. People who can’t find opioids are taking an over-the-counter diarrhea drug. Some are consuming as many as 400 to 500 pills a day.
  63. It used to take 10,000 pounds of pork pancreas to make one pound of insulin. (Insulin is now made by genetically engineered microbes.)
  64. Astronauts on the International Space Station can’t enjoy the yummy aromas of hot meals like we can on Earth because heat dissipates in all different directions in microgravity.
  65. “Sex addiction” isn’t recognized by the psychiatric community in any official capacity, and it’s actually a deeply problematic concept that risks absolving men of agency in sexual violence.
  66. The peculiar (and previously unidentified) laughter that was recorded for the Golden Record was—well, we won’t spoil it for you until you read the story.
  67. The oldest rocks on Earth, which are 4 billion years old, have signs of life in them, which suggests that the planet was biological from its very infancy.
  68. Fire ants form giant floating rafts during floods. But you can break up the rafts with dish soap.
  69. Until this year, no one knew about a whole elaborate system of lymphatic vessels in our brains.
  70. People are worse storytellers when their listeners don’t vocally indicate they’re paying attention by saying things like “uh-huh” and “mm-hmm.”
  71. China’s new radio telescope is large enough to hold two bowls of rice for every human being on the planet.
  72. Scientists calculated that if everyone in the United States switched from eating beef to eating beans, we could still get around halfway to President Obama’s 2020 climate goals.
  73. The reason that dentistry is a separate discipline from medicine can be traced back to an event in 1840 known as the “historic rebuff”—when two self-trained dentists asked the University of Maryland at Baltimore if they could add dental training to the curriculum at the college of medicine. The physicians said no.
  74. Naked mole rats can survive for 18 minutes without any oxygen at all.

Doonesbury –Quitting time.