Sunday, June 3, 2018

Sunday Reading

Kids These Days — In The New Yorker, Charles Bethea profiles a young inventor.

Audrey Larson’s mother is an accountant, and her father is a teacher. A grandfather, who died before she was born, was an inventor of sorts, she told me on Thursday. Audrey is also an inventor: she has been entering invention contests since the fourth grade. She’s now in ninth grade, at a public school in Wallingford, Connecticut. This weekend, she will compete in the National Invention Convention & Entrepreneurship Expo, in Dearborn, Michigan, where she’ll début her latest idea: a wall-mounted shield designed to protect students from active shooters invading their classrooms.

“I always try to address a problem I can personally connect to,” Audrey told me. She listed some of her “old inventions,” including light-bulb-equipped “glow-jamas,” which she conceived of in fourth grade (“You could turn them on when you needed to use the bathroom at night”), and an “automatic dog scratcher,” called the Scratch-O-Matic 4000, which she created in fifth grade. In sixth grade, she dreamed up an underarm I.V. fluid-warmer, called PIT, for Pre-heated I.V. Technology, which warmed I.V. fluid to body temperature using a tube-encased copper wire inserted under an arm. That one signalled the beginning of Larson’s love for acronyms, as well as inventions geared toward health and safety. In seventh grade, she created Safe Emergency Assistance Technology, or SEAT: “crutches that fold out into a chair for fatigued crutch-users.” Last year, she came up with Carbon Abatement Naturally Over Paved Environments, or CANOPE: “a canopy of plants that go over the highway, filtering out CO2 emissions from cars, naturally, using photosynthesis.”

Until recently, CANOPE was her “proudest invention.” (She’s in the process of obtaining a preliminary patent for it.) Then, a few months ago, she thought of something she liked even better: Safe KIDS, which, in her words, is “a foldable bulletproof panel designed to protect students and teachers from an active shooter.” The acronym stands for Kevlar-cellulose-nano-crystal-AR500-steel Instant Defense System.

The Larsons live about forty minutes from Sandy Hook Elementary, where, in 2012, a twenty-year-old killed twenty children and six adults using multiple semiautomatic firearms. Audrey was eight years old at the time. “I didn’t have a cell phone and I wasn’t really on the Internet. But I heard about it at school,” she told me. “My teacher didn’t want to scare the students. I remember her not being able to completely tell us we’d be O.K. And I remember feeling a weird energy in the room—of just, you know, fear amongst all of us, even though, at that age, I didn’t completely understand what was going on. I recognized the same feeling this year when more and more school shootings were happening.”

“I’ve personally never even seen somebody carry a gun,” she went on. “I know people who hunt and shoot for sport. But not everybody in my community has a gun, and I wouldn’t say they are a big part of my life.” The gun-control debate has been a constant, however. “It’s been going on my entire life and it hasn’t really gotten anywhere, and I don’t feel like Democrats or Republicans will ever come to a consensus,” she said. “I think we can’t wait around anymore. We have to do something that looks at kids’ safety before opinions on guns.”

In late January, Audrey and a group of friends “were getting emotional about the shootings,” she said. They’d been keeping track of the growing number of them around the country. “I talked to my parents about our safety. I thought, Maybe I can invent a partial solution.” After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Florida, in February, her brainstorming intensified. “Movements had started,” she said. “I wanted to look at the problem differently, in a non-political way. That’s when the idea really sprouted. I started doing drawings.” At school, people were discussing lockdown procedures, and how to improve them. “Normally, you hide in the corner away from windows and doors, where you’re least likely to be spotted,” she told me. “I didn’t think that was really effective. There had to be a better way.”

What Audrey envisioned was a virtually impenetrable, easy-to-use barrier, a half-inch thick, manufactured from Kevlar, steel, and other materials, which, she told me, “have been studied by scientists. You can get the numbers on what bullets, guns, ammo they can withstand. I chose a combination of the stronger materials.” The floor-to-ceiling panels, which create a bulletproof space once unfurled, are folded against the wall when not in use. “It doesn’t take up any space, because most schools don’t have the biggest classrooms,” Audrey said.

“The idea is that, in the event of a school shooting, if you hear shots or an alarm goes off, you’d pull it off the wall, and it locks into place, from the inside, once kids are behind it,” she explained. “The panels go from the ceiling to the floor, so there’s no place the intruder could get the gun above the panels, to hurt the students.” An electronic system is also incorporated into the design, with three functions: “It tells you when you’re properly locked inside. It sets off an alarm when other rooms have theirs locked. And it also calls 911, once activated.” She added, “Maybe it could also ultimately have a camera system or phone, so you can communicate with the outside. But the main idea is to create a safe zone in a corner of every classroom, between students and a shooter.”

Building a working prototype is cost-prohibitive for Audrey, at this point. So, after perfecting her sketches and computer-aided-design models, she fashioned a scale model using materials from “a local craft store and some 3-D-printer materials.” At this weekend’s invention convention, where her model will be on display, “we have a twenty-five-dollar limit on spending for our invention, so everyone can take part,” she noted.

How much would it ultimately cost to create Safe KIDS? Audrey wasn’t sure. “But right now the government is spending millions and billions of dollars on school safety per year and that number has significantly gone up this year,” she said. “It would be expensive to implement my invention, but eventually it would pay back into the system.” She added, “If I were to get the opportunity to patent Safe KIDS, I’d do it in a heartbeat and file it as soon as possible. After that, I’d start talking to my local and state government, and the state board of education, to see if this is actually something we can get in schools. I think it’d be well worth the money, but that’s something schools and school systems would have to determine.”

Did Audrey find it sad, or frustrating, that her ingenuity is focussed on defending herself, and her fellow-students, from people trying to kill them with guns at school? “This is just our reality now,” she said.

Big Trouble for Don Jr. — David Corn in Mother Jones.

On Saturday afternoon, the New York Times revealed a 20-page private letter that President Donald Trump’s lawyers had sent special counsel Robert Mueller in January in which they contended that it was impossible for Trump to commit obstruction of justice because he, as president, has authority over all federal investigations and the power to do whatever he wants with them. The letter is a brazen declaration of executive power, and legal experts immediately challenged its premises and assertions. The missive also raised a possible problem for Donald Trump Jr.: it suggested he had not told Congress the whole truth—and might have even misled the body—regarding the cover story he put out when it was revealed that during the campaign he, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort had met with a Russian emissary after being told she would share with them dirt on Hillary Clinton, as part of a Kremlin operation to help Trump.

At issue is the statement that Trump Jr. released, when news broke last July of that June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower between the senior Trump advisers and Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer supposedly dispatched by a Kremlin official. Trump Jr.’s first statement claimed the meeting had been about Russian adoption policy. (American adoptions of Russian children had been curtailed by Moscow in response to the implementation of the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses.) That statement did not mention that the meeting had been set up by the Trump campaign in the expectation it would receive from Moscow negative information on Clinton. And Mueller’s investigation has been looking at the elder Trump’s involvement in concocting that cover story. Earlier this year, the Times reported that Trump had supervised the writing of the statement and had insisted that it claim that the meeting only was about Russian adoptions.

The letter from Trump’s lawyers goes further than the Times’s account—and confirms an earlier Washington Post report pegging Trump as the author of the statement. It states, “the President dictated a short but accurate response to the New York Times article on behalf of his son, Donald Trump, Jr.” Dictated—that means Trump devised that misleading statement. This is the first time Trump and his lawyers have conceded that he is responsible for the statement. The Times notes that previously “Trump’s advisers have tried to muddy this point, suggesting several people were involved, so the clarity of the sentence is striking.”

The sentence is also striking in that it undercuts the veracity of Trump Jr.’s testimony to Congress.

On September 7, Trump Jr. was questioned in a private session by the Senate Judiciary Committee about the Trump Tower meeting, and he was asked about the origins of the statement he put out when the meeting was revealed. First, the statement was read to Trump Jr.:

On July 8th of this year you issued a statement about the meeting: “It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no followup. I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.”

Then Trump Jr., according to the transcript, which was recently released, was asked about the Washington Poststory noting that his father had actually drafted that statement. This exchange ensued:

Q. The Washington Post has since reported that your father was involved in drafting your July 8th statement. Isthat correct?

A. I don’t know. I never spoke to my father about it

Q. Do you know who did draft that statement?

A. Well, there were numerous statementdrafted with counsel and other people were involved and, you know, opined.

Q. To the best of your knowledge, did the President provide any edits to the statement or other input

A. He may have commented through Hope Hicks.

Q. And do you know if his comments provided through Hope Hicks were incorporated into the final statement?

A. I believe some may have been,but this was an effort through lots of people, mostly counsel.

Q. Did you ask him to provide any assistance with the statement?

A. No. She asked if I wanted to actually speak to him, and I chose not to because I didn’want to bring him into something that he had nothing to do with.

Trump Jr. certainly did not inform the committee that his father had dictated the statement. In fact, he made it seem as if Trump was marginally involved, if at all. Yet according to the letter written by Trump’s own lawyers, Trump was in charge of the statement.

Trump Jr.’s remarks to the committee conveyed an inaccurate impression and can be seen as an attempt to provide cover for his pop. They might even be considered false statements. By the way, it’s a crime to lie to Congress. 

At least one member of Congress has tagged the letter from Trump lawyers as bad news for Trump Jr. On Saturday afternoon, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), a member of the House intelligence committee, tweeted, “Donald Trump is lying or Donald Trump, Jr. lied during the House Intel investigation.”

Castro was referring to Trump Jr.’s testimony before his committee, not the Senate Judiciary Committee. This testimony has not been made public, but the tweet suggests that Trump Jr. took a similar line when he spoke to the House committee and distanced his father from the misleading statement about the Trump Tower meeting.

Now the question is will either committee, both led by Republicans, give a damn and examine whether Trump Jr. tried to stonewall them.