Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sunday Reading

Charles P. Pierce — Sarcasm?  What sarcasm?

All votes are in, people. Donald Trump is the third Piranha Brother. There are now Doug, Dinsdale, and Donald.

In case, like all sensible Americans, you’ve been watching the Olympics and haven’t noticed what’s been up with El Caudillo de Mar-A-Lago, he spent a couple of days telling his audiences of screaming geeks that the president was “the founder of ISIS.” Then he spent yesterday saying that, when he said “founder,” he meant “founder,” dammit. Then this morning, he took to the electric Twitter machine and declared that he was only engaging in “SARCASM” and that all the dim bulbs in the dishonest press don’t get the vast sweep of his subtle wit.

For his next trick, he’s going to swallow his own head.

Just for information’s sake, as any middle-school teacher knows from long experience, this is an example of sarcasm:

“Yeah, sure, like we’re going to hand the nuclear codes to a vulgar talking yam who stiffs his subcontractors and doesn’t know enough about any major issue to throw to a cat. Yeah, we’re gonna do that. Surrrrre.”


Accusing the president of “founding” a barbaric terrorist group and then insisting you were serious?

Not sarcasm.

You know what else isn’t sarcasm? Suggesting that you intend to turn the American system of criminal justice unilaterally into a Peronist nightmare. That’s not sarcasm. The Miami Herald was there.

“Would you try to get the military commissions—the trial court there—to try U.S. citizens?” a reporter asked. “Well, I know that they want to try them in our regular court systems, and I don’t like that at all. I don’t like that at all,” he said. “I would say they could be tried there, that would be fine.”

Actually, that would not be fine. The Constitution says it would not be fine. I suspect more than a few lawyers in the Pentagon would say that it would not be fine. Actually, I suspect Alexander Hamilton, an actual Founder of something, would say that it would not be fine, because he wrote this in Federalist 28:

Independent of all other reasonings upon the subject, it is a full answer to those who require a more peremptory provision against military establishments in times of peace to say that the whole power of the proposed government is to be in the hands of the representatives of the people. This is the essential, and, after all, the only efficacious security for the rights and privileges of the people which is attainable in civil society.

Actually, I suspect that Thomas Jefferson, another actual Founder of something, would say that it would not be fine, because this is one of the particulars on which he arraigned George III in a little document you may have heard of called “The Declaration of Independence.”

(That last part, by the way, was sarcasm.)

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

So, no, I don’t think he’s being sarcastic about any of this. I think there’s only one joke out there, and it’s the one over which obvious anagram Reince Priebus presides.

Ninety Years of Fidel — Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker.

Fidel Castro is turning ninety on Saturday. It has been a long life, and a most eventful one. He was born on August 13, 1926, three years before the Great Crash and the start of the global depression. Feature films were still silent; commercial air travel was in its infancy; most people who moved around the globe did so by ship; many navies still used sailing ships. The telephone existed, but for instant global communication and news, the telegram was still the thing. Most cars still had to be started with a hand crank.

Calvin Coolidge was the President of the United States, which at the time had a population of a hundred and seventeen million—a third of its present size—and there were forty-eight states. The United States was not a superpower. The country had few paved roads, and less than ten per cent of the rural population had access to electricity. A Sharia-style ban on the consumption of alcohol, known as Prohibition, had been in force since 1920 (and would last until 1933). Cuba had been an independent republic for a mere twenty-four years. It was the last of Spain’s colonies in the New World to be relinquished, but only after intervention by American forces, in 1898, had ended decades of bloody warfare with Cuban nationalists. Cuba had then fallen under U.S. military administration; it gained its independence in 1902, but only after it had agreed to have the so-called Platt Amendment embedded in its new constitution. This provision granted the U.S. control in perpetuity over Guantánamo Bay, as well as the right to intervene in Cuba whenever it saw fit. For decades thereafter, Cuba remained a virtual American colony, a period that Fidel has always referred to as the “pseudo-republica.” The U.S. Marines intervened repeatedly, and the Presidents were of the pliant variety.

Fidel, and his younger brother Raúl, grew up in Birán, then, as now, a provincial backwater of eastern Cuba, an area dominated in those days by carpetbagging U.S. agribusinesses like United Fruit, which had swooped in and bought up most of the productive land in the halcyon days that followed the Spanish-American War. Fidel’s father, Ángel Castro, had emigrated from a godforsaken corner of Galicia, in Spain, as a teen-ager, and stayed, eventually becoming a kind of peasant overlord with a large and prosperous finca on which he harvested sugarcane with Haitian laborers that was sold to the United Fruit Company.

By the time Fidel was sent to Havana for a private Jesuit education, and from there to Havana University, to study law, he had become an ardent nationalist, a fervent admirer of the country’s nineteenth-century national-independence hero, José Martí—a poet and journalist who had joined the war against the Spaniards and died heroically when he charged the enemy on horseback in his first day on the battlefield. He was an admirer of other historic men of action as well, including Robespierre, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

By the age of twenty-one, Fidel had begun to entertain political ambitions of his own, and was becoming known to Cuban authorities as a hothead with political aspirations and a penchant for the dramatic gesture. In 1947, he joined a boat expedition with other would-be revolutionaries planning to violently unseat the neighboring Dominican Republic’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo. The expedition was intercepted by Cuban troops before it ever made it off a remote Cuban cay, but the next year, while Fidel was in Bogotá, Colombia, for an anti-imperalist youth congress, the popular Liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated, sparking massive rioting; Fidel participated. Back in Cuba, in 1949, Fidel helped organize a protest in front of the U.S. Embassy after an incident in which American sailors clambered onto a statue of José Martí in a prominent plaza in Old Havana and urinated on it; Fidel got a police beating for his troubles.

By 1953, aged twenty-seven, Fidel’s ambition was no less than the seizure of power in Cuba, which by then was in the hands of an especially corrupt dictator, Fulgencio Batista. In July, he led a full-frontal assault with several fellow-armed youngsters against the Moncada army barracks in Cuba’s second city of Santiago. It was an unmitigated disaster. A number of rebels died in the fighting, and dozens more were executed, some after being brutally tortured. Fidel survived, and when he was put on trial he defended himself with an impassioned piece of oratory that took him four hours to read out, in which he declared, “History will absolve me.” He was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but the proceedings solidified his position as a national figure.

Nearly two years into Fidel’s imprisonment, in an ill-advised act of magnanimity, Batista signed an amnesty that freed Fidel from prison. He immediately went into exile in Mexico, where, with his brother Raúl, who had recruited a young Argentine named Ernesto (Che) Guevara to their cause, he began planning for a guerrilla war against Batista. Within a year and a half, he and his followers had begun that war, and by New Year’s Day, 1959, Batista had fled, and Fidel and his rebels had won.

Then followed the big stuff of history: the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the creation of a one-party state presided over by the Cuban Communist Party; myriad attempts by the C.I.A. to kill or oust Fidel, and his remarkable ability to survive, and to stay in power; his support for guerrilla struggles in dozens of other countries; the great exodus of Cubans who fled the island, mostly to Florida, some for economic reasons and others in search of political freedom. The Soviet Union collapsed, but Fidel remained in power until 2006, when he fell ill and handed the job over to Raúl.

When Fidel came to power, Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. Today it is Barack Obama, an African-American, who visited the island last March at the invitation of Raúl, after the two leaders restored diplomatic relations, in 2014. Fidel was not part of the official visit, nor did he appear in public, but his presence was felt. Over the past decade, as Fidel has adapted to his role as Cuba’s elder statesman, he has expressed his opinions in occasional columns published in the official Communist daily, Granma. In the past year and a half, since the restoration of relations with the Americans, he has made it abundantly clear that he remains deeply skeptical of American intentions, while emphasizing that he supports his younger brother’s decisions. But, coming as it does in the twilight of his life, the fact that the Americans are back—initially in the form of a growing flood of eager tourists, but also as prospective investors—must be deeply poignant for Fidel, whose opposition to el imperialismo yanqui was the mainstay of his political career. What did Fidel think of the fact that American personalities of the likes of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West and Jerry Springer were touring Havana last spring, taking selfies and tweeting about what they did and saw and ate and drank?

In his last public appearance, at the seventh Cuban Communist Party Congress, in April, a frail-looking Fidel gave a speech in which he did not once mention the Americans. He spoke instead of his preoccupation with the challenges confronting humankind, including the risks posed by arms proliferation, global warming, and food scarcities. And Fidel reaffirmed his faith in Communism, in the future of Cuba, and the legacy that he believed Cuba’s Communists had forged. He also mentioned his looming birthday. It was a milestone, he said, that he had “never expected to reach.”

Stopping Zika Cold — Erica Langston in Mother Jones.

Mosquitoes may be small, but they pack a mean punch. Weighing in at a measly 2.5 milligrams, these buzzing arthropods are responsible for more deaths than snake bites, shark attacks, and murders combined. A whopping 725,000 people die each year from diseases transmitted by this common pest. Researchers have spent decades and millions of dollars fighting dengue, yellow fever, and chikungunya—dangerous viruses that female mosquitoes can spread in a single bite. Now—as scientists rev up efforts to tackle the worsening mosquito-borne Zika epidemic that’s rocked the Americas—some scientists are tapping into Earth’s oldest organic armies as they seek to wipe out these diseases.

In this week’s episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, journalist and author Ed Yong explores the emerging science of the microbiome—the trillions of tiny organisms that inhabit the bodies of humans and other animals. Along the way, he tells host Kishore Hari about Wolbachia—one of nature’s most successful land-based bacteria—and its potential to aid the fight against Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses. Wolbachia, says Yong, has “tremendous promise in bringing tropical diseases to heal.”

Wolbachia is extremely versatile; it can infect more than 40 percent of all arthropod species, including spiders, insects, and mites. Research has shown that female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes infected with the bacteria are unable to transmit common viruses, including Zika and dengue. And because Wolbachiapasses from a female mosquito to her offspring, it could spread easily through a wild population. That means releasing a small batch of mosquitoes infected with the bacteria could help eradicate mosquito-borne diseases in a potentially short amount of time, says Yong. For a mosquito whose global range spans six continents—and includes a large chunk of the United States, the impact on global public health could be substantial.

Despite years of research, treatments for many mosquito-borne illnesses is limited. Clinical trials for a Zika vaccine are underway, but researchers don’t expect one to be available to the public for at least 18 months. “There are no vaccines,” Yong says. “There are no good treatments for dengue. We need better ways of controlling these diseases.” Field trials of Wolbachia-carrying mosquitos have been underway in Australia since 2011, and in Brazil, Indonesia, and Vietnam since 2014. The results have shown great promise, with no ill effect on people or the environment.

Yong argues that Wolbachia is safer and more cost-effective than traditional vector control methods, such as spraying with insecticides. And unlike insecticides, bacteria are self-perpetuating. And Wolbachia doesn’t appear to affect mosquito populations, so other insects and animals that feed on these pests won’t miss a meal. “It’s not about killing mosquitos,” Yong says, “it’s about turning them into dead ends for viruses.”

Doonesbury — Meeting of minds.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Short Takes

The Democratic Convention gets underway.

DNC apologizes to Sanders for “inexcusable” e-mails.

Shooting in Ft. Myers leaves two dead.

Solar plane completes around-the-world trip.

Nineteen killed in Japanese stabbing spree.

Verizon picks up Yahoo!

The Tigers beat the Red Sox 4-2.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sunday Reading

Not The Only One — Rinku Sen points out that Donald Trump isn’t the only racist in the GOP.

Donald Trump’s latest attack on US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over the suit brought against Trump University by its former students, led Paul Ryan to distance himself from the candidate he’s endorsed. He called Trump’s statement “textbook” racism, wishing aloud that Trump would stick to the GOP’s focus on revitalizing the economy. Ryan didn’t go so far as to withdraw his support from a Trump nomination, noting that the GOP policy agenda has a far greater chance of succeeding with Trump in the White House than with Hillary Clinton. But it is that policy agenda itself that advances racism, even if it stops short of racial slurs about the people who will suffer the most from its implementation.

Ryan’s clumsy attempts to navigate around Trump only throw into relief the GOP’s broader refusal to acknowledge that racism takes many, many forms—most of them unconscious, hidden, and systemic. Trump’s overt racism actually obscures the party’s covert racism. In some cases, that covert racism may even come with good, if paternalistic, intentions of saving communities of color from the “evils” of dependence. But for the GOP—and too many Democrats, for that matter—if racist intention isn’t obvious (and sometimes, even if it is), there is no need to bring up race at all. Indeed, doing so points to the moral weakness of racial justice advocates.

New York Representative Lee Zeldin, for instance, is particularly opposed to the notion that we might develop a policy agenda that actually directs resources to the racial groups with highest need. “So being a little racist or very racist is not OK,” he said on CNN in countering attacks on Trump, “but, quite frankly, the agenda that I see and all the microtargeting to blacks and Hispanics from a policy standpoint, you know, that’s more offensive to me.” Trump surrogates like Zeldin don’t want us to consider the possibility that a supposedly universal agenda might have different impacts on different racial and ethnic groups. Rather, they want us to believe proponents of “identity politics,” as another Trump surrogate argued, are the real racists, pushing “political correctness” down the collective American throat.

This isn’t new. Resistance to the idea that “textbook” racism can be found in our political and economic systems as much as in our individual hearts and minds was also fully present in the policy debates of the 1960s. And that resistance deeply shaped the Civil Rights Act. For example, in the employment section, employers were vulnerable under the law only if a complainant could prove a “pattern or practice of resistance” to civil-rights measures—or, if you can establish a racist intent. That was written to punish only the most explicit kind of Southern racism, while leaving the subtler Northern version intact. While updates to the act gave lip service to the notion that racist impact constitutes discrimination, even if intention is not obvious, civil-rights plaintiffs still bear the burden of establishing intention if they want any recourse.

Or take voting today. Perhaps GOP leaders are sincere when they say their ongoing attack on (nonexistent) voter fraud with new voter-ID laws are not designed to suppress the votes of people of color. But they will not acknowledge evidence that the law’s impact is nonetheless voter suppression. Or take the question of equal opportunity for children. A bill adopted by the House Education and Workforce Committee this year, which Ryan has endorsed, forces 11,000 high-poverty schools out of eligibility for free-lunch programs, lowers nutritional standards, and makes it much tougher for schools to enroll kids who need help. The children who are adversely affected will be far disproportionately of color. But they aren’t named as targets, so we cannot pin down racist intention; Ryan and many others denouncing Trump this week would strongly object if someone called the bill “textbook” racism. As long as lawmakers and politicians don’t say “black” or “Mexican” or “Arab,” they are cleared of racist intention, as though the impacts of their actions don’t matter.

But they do matter, to a growing electorate of color.

The GOP (and, again, lots of Democrats, too) willfully ignore the fact that all politics are identity based. White men are simply not required to own their identities in politics because they constitute the default universal. When Zeldin calls out “microtargeting” as racist, he attempts to shut down any discussion of the racialized effects of supposedly race-neutral policies. The result is a debate in which only the most obvious, intentional brand of racism is to be condemned.

The Next Step — Frank Bruni profiles Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who could be the next rising star.

If you went into some laboratory to concoct a perfect Democratic candidate, you’d be hard pressed to improve on Pete Buttigieg, the 34-year-old second-term mayor of this Rust Belt city, where he grew up and now lives just two blocks from his parents.

Education? He has a bachelor’s from Harvard and a master’s from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

Public service? He’s a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve. For seven months in 2014, he was deployed to Afghanistan — and took an unpaid leave from work in order to go.

He regularly attends Sunday services at his Episcopal church. He runs half-marathons. His TEDx talk on urban innovation in South Bend is so polished and persuasive that by the end of it, you’ve hopped online to price real estate in the city.

And though elective office was in his sights from early on, he picked up some experience in the private sector, including two years as a consultant with McKinsey. He describes that job in politically pitch-perfect terms, as an effort to learn how money moves and how data is mined most effectively.

Two years ago, The Washington Post called him “the most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of.”

And that was before he came out. He told his constituents that he was gay in an op-ed that he wrote for the local newspaper last June, during his re-election campaign. Then he proceeded, in November, to win 80 percent of the vote — more than the first time around.

But what happens if he aims higher than this primarily Democratic city of roughly 100,000 people — which he’s almost sure to? Is there now a smudge on that résumé, or could he become yet another thrilling symbol of our country’s progress?

The breaking of barriers was the story of last week, as Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. There are more milestones to come: for women, for blacks, for Hispanics, for other minorities.

Although voters in Wisconsin elevated an openly lesbian candidate, Tammy Baldwin, to the United States Senate, and Oregon’s governor has described herself as bisexual, no openly gay, lesbian or bisexual person has ever emerged as a plausible presidential candidate.

How soon might that change? Could we look up a dozen or more years from now and see a same-sex couple in the White House?

I’d wondered in the abstract, and after a veteran Democratic strategist pointed me toward Buttigieg as one of the party’s brightest young stars, I wondered in the concrete.

He probably winced when he read that: At no point during my visit with him last week did he express such a grand political ambition or define himself in terms of his sexual orientation.

“I’m not interested in being a poster boy,” he told me. He has not, since his op-ed, spoken frequently or expansively about being gay.

He doesn’t hide it, though. His partner, Chasten Glezman, a middle-school teacher, moved in with him this year and sometimes accompanies him to public events.

One day Buttigieg popped into Glezman’s classroom with an offering from Starbucks. That night, he got an email fuming that the children had been unnecessarily exposed to certain ideas.

He wrote back “explaining how what I was doing was the same kind of thing a straight couple would do,” he told me. “I didn’t go in there to discuss L.G.B.T. issues. I went in there to bring a cup of coffee to somebody that I love.”

“But it was one of those moments,” he added, “when I realized we can’t quite go around as if it were the same.”

South Bend is Indiana’s fourth largest city and abuts the University of Notre Dame, where both of Buttigieg’s parents have taught. It was once famous for its Studebaker auto assembly plant, but that closed more than half a century ago, prompting a painful decline.

Buttigieg has worked to reverse it. His “1,000 houses in 1,000 days” campaign demolished or repaired that many abandoned homes. New construction and the dazzling River Lights public art installation, which bathes a cascading stretch of South Bend’s principal waterway in a rainbow of hues, are reinvigorating the city center. And the old Studebaker plant is at long last being renovated — into a mix of office, commercial, residential and storage space.

All of that could set Buttigieg up for a Senate or gubernatorial bid down the line. So could his sharp political antenna. He saw the future: In 2000, he won the nationwide J.F.K. Profile in Courage Essay Contest for high school students with a tribute to a certain congressman named Bernie Sanders.

“Politicians are rushing for the center, careful not to stick their necks out on issues,” he wrote, exempting Sanders and crediting him with the power “to win back the faith of a voting public weary and wary of political opportunism.”

He seems always to say just the right thing, in just the right tone. When I asked why he signed up for the Navy Reserve, he cited his experience canvassing for Barack Obama in Iowa in 2008.

“So many times, I would knock and a child would come to the door — in my eyes, a child — and we’d get to talking and this kid would be on his way to basic training,” he remembered. “It was like this whole town was emptying itself out into the military.” But very few of the people he knew from Harvard or Oxford signed up.

When I asked where the Democratic Party errs, he said that too many Democrats “are not yet comfortable working in a vocabulary of ‘freedom.’ Conservatives talk about freedom. They mean it. But they’re often negligent about the extent to which things other than government make people unfree.”

“And that is exactly why the things we talk about as Democrats matter,” he continued. “You’re not free if you have crushing medical debt. You’re not free if you’re being treated differently because of who you are. What has really affected my personal freedom more: the fact that I don’t have the freedom to pollute a certain river, or the fact that for part of my adult life, I didn’t have the freedom to marry somebody I was in love with? We’re talking about deep, personal freedom.”

HE also challenged the degree to which some Democrats “participate in the fiction that if we just turn back the clock and get rid of trade, everybody can get their manufacturing jobs back. There are a lot of people who think they lost their jobs because of globalization when they actually lost their jobs because of technology.”

The solution, he said, isn’t isolationism, protectionism and nostalgia. It’s new skills and a next generation of products and services.

Did I mention that he speaks passable Arabic? Or that he’s an accomplished musician who played piano with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra in 2013 for a special performance of “Rhapsody in Blue”?

Or that he recently won a J.F.K. New Frontier Award, given annually to a few Americans under 40 whose commitment to public service is changing the country?

The daunting scope of his distinctions may be his greatest liability. (How many accolades named after J.F.K. can one man collect?)

That and his precociousness. Before his mayoralty, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for state treasurer of Indiana. He was 28.

So he’s not the most relatable pol in the pack. The laboratory would fix that.

Or maybe he’s fixing it himself. I last saw him at South Bend’s minor league baseball park, where he was chowing down on an all-American supper of nachos smothered in strips of fatty beef and a pale yellow goo. It looked like training for the Iowa State Fair.

Give him some Tums. And keep an eye on him.

Turn on the Dark — Rebecca Boyle in The Atlantic on the disappearance of the night sky.

The Pawnee people took literally the idea that we are all star stuff. In their cosmology, which dates back at least 700 years, the first woman was born from the marriage of stars, and the first man from the union of the sun and moon. The stars themselves were sent by the creator god, Tirawa, who tasked them with holding up the sky.

The brightest stars were entrusted with Earth’s climate, which was thought to be the key to its fertility. But this arrangement made some lesser stars jealous, so they stole a sack of violent storms that belonged to the brighter stars and emptied them on the Earth, and this is how death came to the world.

Today, the clouds, wind, and rain are still the principal ways that humans experience the sky, and that experience is changing. The Pawnee lived through thunderstorms and tornadoes, but ours are likely to become more violent as climate change worsens. And our night sky is changing too. As light pollution intensifies, it’s emptying out of stars, and life on Earth is paying a price.

One-third of humanity —and 80 percent of North Americans—can’t see the bright smear of the Milky Way, our home in the cosmos. For the first time in the history of our species, entire generations of people have never seen our galaxy.

A full 99 percent of the people in North America and Europe sleep under a bright haze at night, caused by light pollution. A new dark sky atlas describes just how widespread this problem is, and gives scientists a starting point for studying the impact artificial light is having on humans and the other creatures that share this planet.

“The light that we detected is not even seen by people, because they are asleep; it is only seen by astronomers,” says Fabio Falchi of the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Thiene, Italy. “But I am convinced that light pollution is no longer a problem for astronomers. It is a global problem for everyone. All life on Earth evolved with the dark, with 12 hours of dark and 12 hours of sun. But now we are enveloping our planet in a perpetual glow. And life is affected by that.”

Falchi and Chris Elvidge, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have been studying satellite images of the Earth at night since the 1990s. Their first atlas, produced in 2001, used older satellite data that was taken around 8 p.m. local time, while the updated atlas comes courtesy of a new satellite that captured sky glow around 1 or 2 a.m. Because of these and other differences, the new atlas can’t be directly contrasted with the old one. But the scientists think light pollution is more widespread now, even as some communities are trying to bring back the night. This is partly because of LEDs.

“Awareness is rising, but not as much, I think, as the new lights,” Falchi says.

Many cities are replacing their older high-pressure sodium or metal halide street lamps with LEDs, which use less energy but shine more brightly, especially in the part of the visible-light spectrum that scatters the most. (This is the same effect that makes the sky blue.) This means cities are both getting brighter and spreading their light across greater distances. Standing in Death Valley National Park, for example, a visitor can see gumdrop-shaped domes of light hovering over Las Vegas to the east and Los Angeles to the west, both of which are hundreds of miles away.


Falchi and Elvidge say they have also sought out dark skies, but they have to travel to get them. A few years ago Falchi visited Chile’s Atacama desert, one of the driest and darkest places on the planet, where the view of the Milky Way presented him with what he called one of “the great natural wonders.”

Elvidge tries to escape the haze by visiting the mountains, an easy and obvious choice for someone in Boulder, Colorado. But sometimes he drives east instead, passing the exits for Denver and the smaller agricultural city of Greeley. After a two-hour ride, he arrives at the windswept Pawnee National Grassland.

Nobody lives out there now; the Pawnee themselves are long gone, and white farmers mostly abandoned the area after the Dust Bowl. Apart from the sandstone Pawnee Buttes, improbably rising from the plains like a pair of prairie ziggurats, the grassland’s most compelling feature is its sky. Here, you can see the same stars the Pawnee people did, centuries ago. Taking them in just as the Pawnee would have, you can wonder, as they did, where we came from.

Doonesbury — Academic festival overture.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sunday Reading

Liar, Liar — Jonathan Chait on the serial mendacity of Donald J. Trump.

Donald Trump is a wildly promiscuous liar. He also has disturbing authoritarian tendencies. Trump’s many critics have seized upon both traits as his two major disqualifications for the presidency, yet both of them frustratingly defy easy quantification. All politicians lie some, and many of them lie a lot, and most presidents also push the limits of their authority in ways that can frighten their opponents. So what is so uniquely dangerous about Trump? Perhaps the answer is that both of these qualities are, in a sense, the same thing. His contempt for objective truth is the rejection of democratic accountability, an implicit demand that his supporters place undying faith in him. Because the only measure of truth he accepts is what he claims at any given moment, the power his supporters vest in him is unlimited.

Trump lies routinely, about everything. Various journalists have tried to tally up his lies, inevitably giving up and settling for incompletesummaries. Some of these lies are merely standard, or perhaps somewhat exaggerated, versions of the way members of his party talk about policy. (The “real” unemployment rate is as high as 42 percent, or his gargantuan tax-cut plan “will be revenue-neutral.”) At times he engages in especially brazen rewriting of his own positions, such as insisting he opposed the Iraq War when he did not, or denying his past support for universal health insurance. Some of his lies are conspiracy theories that run toward the edges of respectable Republican thought (Barack Obama was actually born abroad) or even well beyond it (Ted Cruz’s father may have conspired to kill John F. Kennedy). In all these areas, Trump has merely improved upon the methods used by the professionals in his field.

Where he has broken truly unique ground is in his lies about relatively small, routine matters. As I’ve pointed out before — it’s become a small personal fixation — after Mitt Romney mocked the failure of Trump Steaks, Trump held a press conference in which he insisted Trump Steaks remained a going concern, despite the undeniable fact that the business no longer exists. (His campaign displayed store-bought steaks for the media, not even bothering to fully remove the labels of the store at which they purchased them.) The New York Times actually reported this week that Trump had displayed his steaks, without mentioning the blatant deception. Another such example is Trump’s prior habit of impersonating an imaginary p.r. representative while speaking to reporters. Obviously, the practice itself is strange enough, but the truly Trumpian touch is that he admitted to the ruse publicly, and then subsequently went back to denying it.

The normal rules of political lying hold that when the lie has been exposed, or certainly when it has been confessed, the jig is up. You have to stop lying about it and tell the truth, or at least retreat to a different lie. Trump bends the rules of the universe to his own will, at no apparent cost. His brazenness is another utterly unique characteristic. His confidence that he can make the truth whatever he wishes at any moment, and toggle back and forth between incompatible realities at will, without any cost to himself, is a display of dominance. Possibly Trump’s most important statement of the campaign was his idle boast that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue without losing any votes.

Finally, there is Trump’s habit of settling all disputes with his own peculiar form of ad hominem. He dismisses all criticisms of his statements and his record with an array of put-downs, and likewise confirms all endorsements with praise. Anybody who disagrees with Trump is ugly, short, corrupt, a loser, a habitual liar, a total joke, and so forth. People who support him are smart, beautiful, fair, esteemed, etc. But politics being as it is — and, especially, Trump’s positions being as fluid as they are — the composition of the two categories is in constant flux. One day, you are a failing, ridiculous, deranged liar, and the next day a citizen of the highest regard. Trump literally called Ben Carson a “violent criminal” and a “pathological liar,” akin to a “child molester.” When later accepting Carson’s endorsement, Trump praised his “dignity.” Once Trump mocked Rick Perry as a moron who wore glasses to look smart and who should be required to take an IQ test to participate in presidential debates. Now he is a “good guy, good governor.” This is the pattern Trump uses to dismiss all media criticism, or to amplify friendly coverage. Every reporter or publication is either pathetic and failing or fair and wonderful, and the same reporters and publications can be reclassified as one or the other as Trump sees fit.

1984 is a cliché for invoking totalitarianism, and in any case, Trump is merely an authoritarian and a bully, not a totalitarian. (A totalitarian government, like North Korea, exerts control over every aspect of its citizens’ lives; an authoritarian one, like Putin’s Russia, merely uses enough fear and violence to maintain control.) Nonetheless, the novel does capture the relationship between dictatorial authority and the power to manipulate any fact into a binary but permeable scheme:

The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia. Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford were guilty of the crimes they were charged with. He had never seen the photograph that disproved their guilt. It had never existed, he had invented it. He remembered remembering contrary things, but those were false memories, products of self-deception.

Truth and reason are weapons of the powerless against the powerful. There is no external doctrine he can be measured against, not even conservative dogma, which he embraces or discards at will and with no recognition of having done so. Trump’s version of truth is multiple truths, the only consistent element of which is Trump himself is always, by definition, correct. Trump’s mind is so difficult to grapple with because it is an authoritarian epistemology that lies outside the democratic norms that have shaped all of our collective experiences.

Magnetic Personalities — M.R. O’Connor in The New Yorker on nature’s GPS system.

Every three years, the Royal Institute of Navigation organizes a conference focussed solely on animals. This April, the event was held southwest of London, at Royal Holloway College, whose ornate Victorian-era campus has appeared in “Downton Abbey.” For several days, the world’s foremost animal-navigation researchers presented their data and findings in a small amphitheatre. Most of the talks dealt with magnetoreception—the ability to sense Earth’s weak but ever-present magnetic field—in organisms as varied as mice, salmon, pigeons, frogs, and cockroaches. This marked a change from previous years, Richard Nissen, a member of the Institute, told me, when a range of other navigation aids were part of the discussion: landmarks, olfactory cues, memory, genetics, polarized light, celestial objects. “Everyone now seems completely sold on the idea that animal navigation is based on magnetism,” Nissen said. Human-centric as it sounds, most of the conference’s attendees believe that animals possess a kind of compass.

Scientists have sought for centuries to explain how animals, particularly migratory species, find their way with awesome precision across the globe. Examples of these powers abound. Bar-tailed godwits depart from the coastal mudflats of northern Alaska in autumn and set out across the Pacific Ocean, flying for eight days and nights over featureless water before arriving in New Zealand, seven thousand miles away. If the birds misjudge their direction by even a few degrees, they can miss their target. Arctic terns travel about forty thousand miles each year, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again. And odysseys of this sort are not limited to the feathered tribes. Some leatherback turtles leave the coast of Indonesia and swim to California, more than eight thousand miles away, then return to the very beaches where they hatched. Dragonflies and monarch butterflies follow routes so long that they die along the way; their great-grandchildren complete the journey.

Although the notion of a biocompass was widely disparaged in the first half of the twentieth century, the evidence in favor of it has since become quite strong. In the early nineteen-sixties, a German graduate student named Wolfgang Wiltschko began conducting experiments with European robins, which he thought might find their way by picking up radio waves that emanated from the stars. Instead, Wiltschko discovered that if he put the robins in cages equipped with a Helmholtz coil—a device for creating a uniform magnetic field—the birds would change their orientation when he switched the direction of north. By the start of this century, seventeen other species of migratory bird, as well as honeybees, sharks, skates, rays, snails, and cave salamanders, had been shown to possess a magnetic sense. In fact, practically every animal studied by scientists today demonstrates some capacity to read the geomagnetic field. Red foxes almost always pounce on mice from the northeast. Carp floating in tubs at fish markets in Prague spontaneously align themselves in a north-south axis. So do dogs when they crouch to relieve themselves, and horses, cattle, and deer when they graze—except if they are under high-voltage power lines, which have a disruptive influence.

The only problem is that no one can seem to locate the compass. “We are still crying out for how do they do this,” Joseph Kirschvink, a geobiologist at the California Institute of Technology, said. “It’s a needle in the haystack.” Kirschvink meant this almost literally. In 1981, as a Ph.D. student at Princeton University, he proposed that magnetite, a naturally occurring oxide of iron that he had found in honeybees and homing pigeons, was the basis of the biocompass. Even a handful of magnetite crystals, he wrote at the time, could do the trick. “One equivalent of a magnetic bacteria can give a whale a compass—one cell,” he told me. “Good luck finding it.” Even in animals smaller than a whale, this is no easy task. Throughout the two-thousands, researchers pointed to the presence of iron particles in the olfactory cells of rainbow trout, the brains of mole rats, and the upper beaks of homing pigeons. But when scientists at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology, in Vienna, took a closer look, slicing and examining the beaks of hundreds of pigeons, they found that the iron-rich cells were likely the product of an immune response—nothing to do with the biocompass. The study’s lead researcher, David Keays, has since turned his focus to iron-containing neurons inside the pigeons’ ears.

The search for the biocompass has extended to even smaller scales, too. In 1978, the German biophysicist Klaus Schulten proposed that birds’ innate sense of direction was chemical in nature. According to his theory, incoming light would hit some sort of sensory mechanism, which Schulten hadn’t yet pinpointed, and induce a transfer of electrons, triggering the creation of a radical pair—two molecules, each with an extra electron. The electrons, though slightly separated, would spin in synchrony. As the bird moved through the magnetic field, the orientation of the spinning electrons would be modulated, providing the animal with feedback about its direction. For the next twenty years, it remained unclear which molecules could be responsible for such a reaction. Then, in 2000, Schulten suggested an answer—cryptochromes, a newly discovered class of proteins that respond to blue light. Cryptochromes have since been found in the retinas of monarch butterflies, fruit flies, frogs, birds, and even humans. They are the only candidate so far with the right properties to satisfy Schulten’s theory. But the weakest magnetic field that affects cryptochromes in the laboratory is still twenty times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field. Peter Hore, a chemist at Oxford University, told me that establishing cryptochromes as the biocompass will require at least another five years of research.

At the conference, the magnetite and cryptochrome researchers made up distinct camps, each one quick to point out the opposing theory’s deficiencies. One person stood alone: Xie Can, a biophysicist at Peking University. Xie spent six years developing a kind of unified model of magnetic animal navigation. Last year, he published a paper in Nature Materials describing a protein complex that he dubbed MagR, which consists of iron crystals enveloped in a double helix of cryptochrome—the two main theories rolled into one. Xie has yet to win over other researchers, some of whom believe that his findings are the result of iron oxide contaminating his lab experiments. (Keays has said that he will eat his hat if MagR is proved to be the real magnetoreceptor.) But at the end of the conference, with one mystery of animal navigation after another left unanswered, Xie told me that he felt more confident than ever of his and his colleagues’ model. “If we are right, we can explain everything,” he said. Michael Walker, a biologist at the University of Auckland, was more circumspect. If history is any indication, he said, many of the current hypotheses about how the biocompass works will turn out to be wrong.

“We Will Not Be Ignored” — Amanda Hess in the New York Times on the rising visibility of Asian-American actors.

Asian-American actors 05-29-16When Constance Wu landed the part of Jessica Huang, the Chinese-American matriarch on the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” she didn’t realize just how significant the role would turn out to be. As she developed her part, Ms. Wu heard the same dismal fact repeated over and over again: It had been 20 years since a show featuring a predominantly Asian-American cast had aired on television. ABC’s previous offering, the 1994 Margaret Cho vehicle “All-American Girl,” was canceled after one season.

“I wasn’t really conscious of it until I booked the role,” Ms. Wu said. “I was focused on the task at hand, which was paying my rent.”

The show, which was just renewed for a third season, has granted Ms. Wu a steady job and a new perspective. “It changed me,” Ms. Wu said. After doing a lot of research, she shifted her focus “from self-interest to Asian-American interests.”

In the past year, Ms. Wu and a number of other Asian-American actors have emerged as fierce advocates for their own visibility — and frank critics of their industry. The issue has crystallized in a word — “whitewashing” — that calls out Hollywood for taking Asian roles and stories and filling them with white actors.

On Facebook, Ms. Wu ticked off a list of recent films guilty of the practice and said, “I could go on, and that’s a crying shame, y’all.” On Twitter, she bit back against Hollywood producers who believe their “lead must be white” and advised the creators of lily-white content to “CARE MORE.” Another tip: “An easy way to avoid tokenism? Have more than one” character of color, she tweeted in March. “Not so hard.”

It’s never been easy for an Asian-American actor to get work in Hollywood, let alone take a stand against the people who run the place. But the recent expansion of Asian-American roles on television has paradoxically ushered in a new generation of actors with just enough star power and job security to speak more freely about Hollywood’s larger failures.

And their heightened profile, along with an imaginative, on-the-ground social media army, has managed to push the issue of Asian-American representation — long relegated to the back burner — into the current heated debate about Hollywood’s monotone vision of the world.

“The harsh reality of being an actor is that it’s hard to make a living, and that puts actors of color in a very difficult position,” said Daniel Dae Kim, who stars in “Hawaii Five-0” on CBS and is currently appearing in “The King and I” on Broadway.

Mr. Kim has wielded his Twitter account to point to dire statistics and boost Asian-American creators. Last year, he posted a cheeky tribute to “the only Asian face” he could find in the entire “Lord of the Rings” series, a woman who “appears for a glorious three seconds.”

Other actors lending their voices include Kumail Nanjiani of “Silicon Valley,” Ming-Na Wen of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and Aziz Ansari, who in his show, “Master of None,” plays an Indian-American actor trying to make his mark.

They join longtime actors and activists like BD Wong of “Gotham”; Margaret Cho, who has taken her tart comedic commentary to Twitter; and George Takei, who has leveraged his “Star Trek” fame into a social media juggernaut.

“There’s an age-old stereotypical notion that Asian-American people don’t speak up,” Mr. Wong said. But “we’re really getting into people’s faces about it.”

This past year has proved to be a particularly fraught period for Asian-American representation in movies. Last May, Sony released “Aloha,” a film set in Hawaii that was packed with white actors, including the green-eyed, blond-haired Emma Stone as a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Native Hawaiian fighter pilot named Allison Ng.

In September, it was revealed that in the planned adaptation of the Japanese manga series Death Note, the hero, a boy with dark powers named Light Yagami, would be renamed simply Light and played by the white actor Nat Wolff. In “The Martian,” released in October, the white actress Mackenzie Davis stepped into the role of the NASA employee Mindy Park, who was conceived in the novel as Korean-American.

The list goes on. In December, set photographs from the coming “Absolutely Fabulous” film showed the Scottish actress Janette Tough dressed as an over-the-top Asian character. Last month, Marvel Studios released a trailer for “Doctor Strange,” in which a character that had originated in comic books as a Tibetan monk was reimagined as a Celtic mystic played by Tilda Swinton.

And in the live-action American film adaptation of the manga series Ghost in the Shell, scheduled for next year, the lead character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, will be called Major and played by Scarlett Johansson in a black bob.

Studios say that their films are diverse. “Like other Marvel films, several characters in ‘Doctor Strange’ are significant departures from the source material, not limited by race, gender or ethnicity,” the Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said in a statement. Ms. Swinton will play a character that was originally male, and Chiwetel Ejiofor a character that was originally white. Paramount and DreamWorks, the studios behind “Ghost in the Shell,” said that the film reflects “a diverse array of cultures and countries.”

But many Asian-American actors aren’t convinced. “It’s all so plainly outlandish,” Mr. Takei said. “It’s getting to the point where it’s almost laughable.”

Doonesbury — Play safe.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Short Takes

Negotiations are going on to try to keep the Syrian ceasefire going.

Two suicide bombs in Iraq killed over thirty people.

Feds foil plot to bomb synagogue in Aventura, a suburb of Miami.

U.S. cruise ship arrives in Havana for the first time in more than fifty years.

Telescope spots three Earth-sized planets orbiting ultracool dwarf star.

The Tigers had the night off.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Making Cosmic Waves

This is amazing.

A team of scientists announced on Thursday that they had heard and recorded the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, a fleeting chirp that fulfilled the last prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

That faint rising tone, physicists say, is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago. (Listen to it here.) It completes his vision of a universe in which space and time are interwoven and dynamic, able to stretch, shrink and jiggle. And it is a ringing confirmation of the nature of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits from which not even light can escape, which were the most foreboding (and unwelcome) part of his theory.

More generally, it means that a century of innovation, testing, questioning and plain hard work after Einstein imagined it on paper, scientists have finally tapped into the deepest register of physical reality, where the weirdest and wildest implications of Einstein’s universe become manifest.

Conveyed by these gravitational waves, power 50 times greater than the output of all the stars in the universe combined vibrated a pair of L-shaped antennas in Washington State and Louisiana known as LIGO on Sept. 14.

If replicated by future experiments, that simple chirp, which rose to the note of middle C before abruptly stopping, seems destined to take its place among the great sound bites of science, ranking with Alexander Graham Bell’s “Mr. Watson — come here” and Sputnik’s first beeps from orbit.

“We are all over the moon and back,” said Gabriela González of Louisiana State University, a spokeswoman for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, short for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. “Einstein would be very happy, I think.”

Members of the LIGO group, a worldwide team of scientists, along with scientists from a European team known as the Virgo Collaboration, published a report in Physical Review Letters on Thursday with more than 1,000 authors.

“I think this will be one of the major breakthroughs in physics for a long time,” said Szabolcs Marka, a Columbia University professor who is one of the LIGO scientists.

“Everything else in astronomy is like the eye,” he said, referring to the panoply of telescopes that have given stargazers access to more and more of the electromagnetic spectrum and the ability to peer deeper and deeper into space and time. “Finally, astronomy grew ears. We never had ears before.”

From Close Encounters of the Third Kind after the aliens return people who haven’t aged after being gone thirty years:

Scientist 1: Einstein WAS right!

Team Leader: Einstein was PROBABLY one of them!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Short Takes

France and Belgium tighten security measures and restrict civil liberties in response to the Paris attacks.

Veto bait: The House voted a bill to restrict admission to Syrian and Indonesian refugees.

Mexican immigration to the U.S. is actually in the negative; more are leaving than arriving.

Protesters and city leaders plead for calm in Minneapolis in the wake of another unarmed black person killed by police.

Catch of the Day: GMO salmon is approved by the FDA.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Short Takes

Russian missiles bound for Syria landed in Iran.  Oops.

The CEO of VW of America got grilled by Congress.

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature; a first for non-fiction.

Researchers believe they found the gay gene.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter suspended for 90 days.

R.I.P. Paul Prudhomme, 75, celebrity chef who popularized Cajun cooking.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Short Takes

President Obama apologized to MSF and Afghanistan for the attack on the hospital in Kunduz.

U.S., Russian aircraft have close encounter over Syria.

Coast Guard ends the search for missing ship lost in Hurricane Joaquin.

Hillary Clinton came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Floods still endanger South Carolina coastal towns.

Nobel Prize for chemistry goes to three for DNA repair.

R.I.P. Kevin Corcoran, 66, actor known as “Moochie” in Disney films.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Short Takes

President Obama says U.S. will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees.

Senate Democrats block GOP attempt to scuttle Iran nuclear deal.

Feds and Duke Energy reach settlement of pollution from coal-fired plants.

New species of human ancestor discovered in South Africa.

Tropical Update: TS Henri heads for Newfoundland.

The Tigers lost 7-5 in Cleveland.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Phoned Home

New Horizons called and said “Made it!”

After a long day celebrating the arrival of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto and wondering about its fate while it was out of radio contact, mission controllers finally received confirmation Tuesday night that the spacecraft had performed its scientific tasks.

On schedule, at 8:52:37 p.m. Eastern time, a message from the spacecraft arrived at Mission Control here at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

“We are in lock with carrier,” said Alice Bowman, the missions operations manager. “Stand by for telemetry.”

And a few moments later, when she confirmed that data was coming down, cheers erupted on Tuesday for the second time.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Far Encounter

Today is the day that the New Horizons spacecraft will pass by Pluto.

New Horizons Trajectory 07-14-15

It’s worth noting, that when Pluto was first discovered, we had no idea what it was really like and speculations ran wild. We still don’t know a lot about it, but we’re already discovering exciting things like the chaotic shapes and orbits of its moons, there’s nitrogen at its north pole, and it’s bigger than we thought.

All seven instruments aboard New Horizons will be actively collecting data during the flyby, but we won’t hear anything from the spacecraft about its encounter until just before 9:00 p.m. ET. This is because New Horizons can’t take and send data back simultaneously. So in order to learn as much as possible about Pluto and its moons, the spacecraft will focus solely on the flyby for a period of 24 hours (tonight through tomorrow night).

“Following closest approach, on Wednesday and Thursday, July 15 and 16, there will be a series of “First Look” downlinks containing a sampling of key science data. Another batch of data will arrive in the “Early High Priority” downlinks over the subsequent weekend, July 17-20. Then there will be a hiatus of 8 weeks before New Horizons turns to systematically downlinking all its data.” – Emily Lakdawalla

Within that 24 hour period, the images New Horizons captures of Pluto will go from having a resolution of 15 km/pixel to 100 m/pixel. So get ready to hold on to your hats when those images start coming in.

It will take months for all the data to come in, so this will be a gift that keeps on giving.  And then it’s heading out, following the Voyagers into the rest of the universe.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Short Takes

U.S. airstrikes in Libya go after leader of Algerian attack.

Marriage equality comes to Mexico.

Comet lander wakes up after hibernation.

United Airlines passengers get an unscheduled stop in Canada for 20 hours.

Tropical Update: Invest 91L could head towards the Texas Gulf Coast.

The Tigers beat Cleveland 8-1.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Monday, April 6, 2015

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Whole New World

Thanks to the Hubble telescope, scientists are finding more potentially habitable planets outside of the solar system.

WASHINGTON—Calling it an unprecedented finding that fundamentally reshapes how humankind views its place in the universe, astronomers from NASA announced Wednesday the discovery of a planet that makes Earth look like absolute shit.

The space agency’s researchers told the media that the recently identified planet, HD 904790 b, wipes the floor with Earth in every possible way, pointing to the celestial body’s larger size, unblemished terrestrial surface, diverse and verdant landforms, and abundance of natural resources, all of which indicate that Earth is a festering pile of garbage in comparison.

“This is a thrilling and scientifically vital discovery that has substantially furthered our understanding of how much Earth truly sucks,” said lead researcher Lisa Shapiro, emphasizing that Earth appears to be “straight-up dogshit” when contrasted with HD 904790 b’s exceptional terrain and climate. “Just taking into account this new planet’s flawless spherical shape, not to mention its pristine atmosphere free of methane and other toxic gases, reveals that our home world is pretty fucking pathetic when it comes down to it.”

“HD 904790 b has an extensive ring system that dwarfs Saturn’s, zero tectonic plate activity, and more fresh water in just one of its massive, unpolluted oceans than we have on our entire worthless shitstain of a planet,” she continued. “God, it makes me angry just to think of how much nicer it is there.”

Can we go there now?  Please?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Short Takes

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report will be released today.

A huge fire burned down an apartment complex under construction in L.A.

Ron Klain, the Ebola czar, is done with his job.

The White House says it “does not regret” the failed raid in to rescue the hostages in Yemen.

The Mars rover found evidence of large lakes and mountains on the red planet.