Sunday, April 14, 2019

Sunday Reading

John Cassidy in The New Yorker argues that the indictment of Julian Assange is a threat to journalism.

Imagine that, in the summer of 2014, the Justice Department had indicted Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, charging that, in 2010, he engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, to “facilitate Manning’s acquisition and transmission of classified information related to the national defense of the United States so that WikiLeaks could publicly disseminate the information on its website.”

How do you think the editorial page of the New York Times would have reacted? (In July, 2010, the Times joined with the Guardian and Der Spiegel to publish tens of thousands of the documents that Manning provided to WikiLeaks.) What about the editorial page of the Washington Post, which published extensive stories about the leaked material? This material included video footage from 2007 of a U.S. Army Apache gunship carrying out an attack in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Iraqi civilians who were working for Reuters.

We can’t know for sure, but it seems unlikely that the Times would have published an editorial that said, “The administration has begun well by charging Mr. Assange with an indisputable crime.” It also seems unlikely that the Post would have published an editorial that said, “Mr. Assange’s case could conclude as a victory for the rule of law, not the defeat for civil liberties of which his defenders mistakenly warn.” Both of these statements were contained in editorials that the Times and the Post, respectively, published on Thursday, after Assange was arrested, in London, and Donald Trump’s Justice Department unsealed a federal indictment that federal prosecutors filed in Northern Virginia, last year.

Of course, a great deal has happened since 2014, much of it awful. During the 2016 Presidential election, Assange and WikiLeaks repeatedly published information that was damaging to the Democratic Party and to Hillary Clinton, timing the releases for maximum political damage. Assange denied that the Russian government was the source of this information, but, last summer, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, charged twelve Russian intelligence operatives with hacking D.N.C. servers and the e-mail account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager. Mueller’s indictment said that the Russian spies “used the Guccifer 2.0 persona to release additional stolen documents through a website maintained by an organization (‘Organization 1’),” which was WikiLeaks.

Whether he knew it or not, Assange was a key participant in an outrageous Russian effort to sow division inside this country and help Donald Trump. It is understandable that the events of 2016 have heavily colored perceptions of Assange’s arrest and possible extradition to the United States. (“Once in the United States, moreover, he could become a useful source on how Russia orchestrated its attacks on the Clinton campaign,” the Times editorial noted.) But it is important to recognize that the legal charges against him have nothing to do with Russia or the 2016 election. They relate exclusively to his dealings with Manning, in 2010. As numerous media watchdogs and civil-rights groups have already pointed out, they amount to a dangerous attack on the freedom of the press and on efforts by whistle-blowers to alert the public of the actions of powerful institutions, including the U.S. government.

In explaining the charges against Assange, the indictment’s “manners and means of the conspiracy” section describes many actions that are clearly legitimate journalistic practices, such as using encrypted messages, cultivating sources, and encouraging those sources to provide more information. It cites a text exchange in which Manning told Assange, “after this upload, that’s all I really have got left,” and Assange replied, “Curious eyes never run dry in my experience.” If that’s part of a crime, the authorities might have to start building more jails to hold reporters.

The indictment, and some of the commentary it engendered, also makes much of the fact that Assange offered to try to crack a computer password for Manning. The Department of Justice claims that this action amounted to Assange engaging in a “hacking” conspiracy. Even some independent commentators have suggested that it went beyond the bounds of legitimate journalism—and the protections of the First Amendment.

But did it? On Thursday, my colleague Raffi Khatchadourian, who has written extensively about Assange, pointed out that, as of now, it looks like Assange didn’t do much, if anything, to crack the password once Manning sent the encrypted version. Khatchadourian also pointed out that federal prosecutors have known about this text exchange for many years, and yet the Obama Administration didn’t bring any charges. “As evidence of a conspiracy,” Khatchadourian writes, “the exchange is thin gruel.”

Even if Assange had succeeded in decoding the encryption, it wouldn’t have given Manning access to any classified information she couldn’t have accessed through her own account. “Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log onto the computers using a username that did not belong to her,” the indictment says. “Such a measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to identify Manning as the source of disclosures of classified information.” So the goal was to protect Manning’s identity, and Assange offered to assist. But who could argue that trying to help a source conceal his or her identity isn’t something investigative journalists do on a routine basis?

Robert Mahoney, the deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, described the indictment as “deeply troubling” because of the precedent it sets. “With this prosecution of Julian Assange, the U.S. government could set out broad legal arguments about journalists soliciting information or interacting with sources that could have chilling consequences for investigative reporting and the publication of information of public interest,” Mahoney warned.

The editorial in the Times did ultimately acknowledge “that the prosecution of Mr. Assange could become an assault on the First Amendment and whistle-blowers.” The Post’s editorial didn’t even go that far. Instead, it ended by saying Assange “is long overdue for personal accountability.” Many people would agree with that statement. But it is important not to view absolutely everything through the prism of 2016.

Putting The Picture Together — Marina Koren in The Atlantic on how the pieces came together to get the picture of the black hole.

The picture of a black hole, captured for the first time, shows a ring as radiant as gold against the darkness of space. At its center, the charcoal shadow of a void so powerful, nothing can escape its pull.

The dreamy photograph represents a tremendous technological achievement, assembled using eight radio telescopes in four continents—two each in Hawaii and Chile, and one each in Arizona, Mexico, Spain, and Antarctica—all synced together to scan the skies for several days in a row.

But the picture would not exist without technology much less sophisticated: computer disk drives.

The telescopes’ data had to go to two astronomy institutions to be processed, MIT’s Haystack Observatory in the United States and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany. An email attachment wasn’t going to work. The observatories had collected five petabytes of data. The average iPhone has 64 gigabytes of data storage. One million gigabytes are in one petabyte. It would have taken years for the data to cross the internet.

And so the data were carried on hundreds of hard disk drives, shipped to and from the observatories through plain old FedEx. Which is kind of marvelous, when you think about it. In a world where transferring information from one end of the world to another takes only a click, some things still have to be done the old-fashioned way. Humanity owes its first glimpse of one of the most mysterious objects in the universe not to something flashy and high tech, but a technology that has been around since the late 1950s, and transportation methods far older.

And to find out how it’s done, you have to talk with Don Sousa.

Sousa is a computer-support specialist at the Haystack Observatory. He’s also the shipping guy. He handled virtually every shipment for the Event Horizon Telescope, the effort to photograph a black hole.

Sousa grew up a few towns over from Haystack and has the trademark Boston-area accent to prove it. Over decades at the observatory, he has packaged equipment, put in orders, wrangled foreign customs regulations, and filled out reams of paperwork so that all kinds of hardware, from atomic clocks to disk drives, gets where it is needed. Before disk drives became widely available, he shipped reels of magnetic tape. “It’s amazing the differences from the mid-eighties, when I started, to what we do now,” Sousa says.

For the Event Horizon Telescope, Sousa packaged the disk drives in groups of eight. (“These are off-the-shelf hard drives,” he says. “You could buy them for your own personal computer if you wanted.”) The stacks were placed inside custom cases that allowed data to be recorded on all eight drives at once. Each module—eight disks, plus their custom coating—weighed about 23 pounds. Sousa shipped them in boxes labeled fragile and lined with a two-inch layer of foam, with cutouts in the middle to snuggle the modules, like precious jewelry in an antique box.

Sousa says he uses mostly FedEx and UPS. Some routes were trickier than others. Chile and Mexico had stricter rules about what could cross their borders. Sousa had to obtain a special license from the U.S. Department of Commerce to ship a particular piece of equipment to Mexico.

The toughest destination was the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica. Without a nation to decide customs law, the continent relies on shipping agencies in Christchurch, New Zealand, which dispatch cargo ships and planes to the ice. Sousa had to coordinate with the National Science Foundation, which operates the research station where the telescope is based. Shipments had to meet very detailed specifications; Haystack had to build a wooden crate to carry the modules, because plastic containers weren’t allowed. “If it gets to Christchurch and something’s wrong, your equipment just sits there,” Sousa says.

The journey to the eight observatories was fine. It was the return trip that was worrisome. There were too much data to go through the burden of making extra copies; the disks that flew out of the stations were the only ones they had. “Going out there, they’re just blank,” says Mike Titus, the researcher who operated the supercomputer that helped synthesize all the data into a single, composite image. “Coming back, they’re precious commodities.”

I asked Titus whether the team considered asking a file-sharing service like Dropbox to build them something capable of transferring all those petabytes. “Don’t tell me that Amazon Cloud and Google Cloud, they wouldn’t love to have our data and store it for us,” Titus said, laughing. But even groundbreaking scientific teams don’t have that kind of budget. “Too much data and too much money—that’s why we don’t do it that way. Nothing beats the bandwidth of a 747 filled with hard disks.”

The return of the disks from the South Pole was particularly welcome. The shipment arrived months after all the rest thanks to the Antarctic winter, which had prevented anyone from flying in. The staff at Haystack was jubilant when FedEx arrived with a truck full of cosmic goodies from the bottom of the Earth. “It’s like they thought we were expecting penguins to jump out of the box or something,” says Nancy Wolfe Kotary, the communications officer at Haystack.

Sousa understood the concern, but he wasn’t too worried himself. “I’ve shipped to every continent,” he says, and in his 32 years on the job, he hasn’t lost one package.

Well, there was one, but it wasn’t his fault, or even the fault of any shipping company. The equipment, bound for a new research station in South Africa, cleared customs in Johannesburg and was loaded onto a truck. On the road, the truck was hijacked, and its contents stolen. “To this day, we figure it’s sitting somewhere on a coffee table as a conversation piece,” Sousa says.

Sousa plans to retire in three years and enter a new phase of his life that doesn’t require checking tracking alerts every day. He doesn’t have a background in science; before joining Haystack, he worked as a police officer for the state of Massachusetts. For him, the photo is the culmination of years’ worth of effort by astronomers and shipping experts alike. But the actual shot, he says, is pretty impressive, too.

Doonesbury — That’s Headley.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

That’s Hot

As we’re taught in elementary school science class, when it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s summer in the Southern.  So while we’re going through extreme cold in the Midwest, they’re getting extreme heat in Australia.

As a polar vortex hits the U.S. Midwest, the extreme opposite is happening in Australia. The heat wave has parched landscapes, triggered damaging wildfires, pushed demand on the power grid to the brink and toppled significant records, Capital Weather Gang’s Angela Fritz wrote last week.

Temperatures soared to 116 degrees on Thursday in Adelaide, South Australia. That’s the highest temperature for any capital in Australia, according to Fritz. In the southeastern corner of the country, overnight temperatures were as high as 96 degrees — the warmest overnight lows for January anywhere in the world.

Australia’s climate has warmed by about 2 degrees since 1910, leading to more frequent heat waves and severe drought conditions, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. Eight of Australia’s top-10 warmest years on record have happened in the past 13 years.

So if the climate-change deniers are having wondering where the global warming is, they need to be aware that yes, indeed, the world is round and that there’s more to the climate than what’s happening in their own home town.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Sunday Reading

The Best Path — Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker on the way forward for Democrats.

One of the worst side effects of Trumpism is the way that it drives its opponents into reactive mode, amid an atmosphere of cooked-up chaos. Donald Trump wants to build a “great, great wall,” and last week he considered declaring a national emergency to do it, despite the fact that illegal border crossings have drastically decreased since 2000, and that many of those trying to cross these days are women and children who are not evading border guards but seeking them out, to ask for asylum. At the outset of 2019, we’re in the second week of a partial government shutdown—which Trump said could last for months or years—because congressional Democrats have had to take his fixation seriously and insist that they won’t allocate the five billion dollars that he wants for the wall. (The actual costs of a concrete barrier could climb as high as forty billion dollars, according to an analysis in M.I.T. Technology Review, and a report from the Government Accountability Office warns that the wall could “cost more than projected, take longer than planned, or not fully perform as expected.”)

Democrats are offering two compromises that would reopen government agencies and give the Department of Homeland Security $1.3 billion to improve border-security technology and other measures, including fortified fencing. Meanwhile, some sense of the psychological vagaries that Democrats have to contend with can be derived from the increasingly peculiar way that Trump talks about the wall, as though it were not a policy but a totem—for the protection of his own ego, perhaps. “The wheel, the wall, some things never get old,” he said last week, at a rambling Cabinet meeting.

Still, whatever compromise is eventually reached to reopen the government, the best path forward for the Democrats as they take over the House of Representatives—the most effective way to counter the Administration’s frantic, unmoored agenda-setting, while also motivating voters for 2020—will be to pursue ambitious ideas. These could include the once utopian-sounding Medicare for All; a Green New Deal, to combat climate change while creating jobs; a national fifteen-dollar minimum wage; and a Voting Rights Advancement Act, to revive some of the protections that the Supreme Court eradicated in 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder.

Such proposals are backed by the Party’s fired-up progressives, but not all Democrats in the House support them, and they are highly unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, let alone be signed into law by Trump. Yet they strike many people as fair and humane, if politically complicated. In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, seventy per cent of respondents were in favor of Medicare for All. Support has also grown among doctors, who were once vocal critics of any single-payer system. It’s true that support tends to drop when pollsters tell people that they may have to pay more taxes, or that the government may exert “too much control.” But opponents can also be swayed when told that the plan would reduce the role of private insurers, or guarantee “that all Americans have health insurance as a basic right.”

Even if such proposals can’t make it out of Congress this term, they can help form a blueprint for a future in which the Democrats control the White House or the Senate. And, by bringing them up now, Democrats create the occasion to hammer out what a Green New Deal might actually look like, or how a national minimum wage might affect the working poor, while forcing Republicans to explain why they reject these approaches. Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana—and a potential Presidential candidate—told the Times that it was important for Democrats to air big ideas, such as “whether guaranteed income is now right,” in part because only sweeping proposals to improve people’s lives can compete with the starkness and the simplicity of walls and bans and MAGA. In a sign that the Democratic leadership is listening, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, announced last week that she would support holding hearings on Medicare for All.

The 116th Congress is unusual in many ways. It has the largest freshman class in fifty years, the most women ever (a hundred and twenty-seven), the first Muslim and Native American women, and the first Latinas elected from Texas. It skews younger (eleven freshmen are under the age of thirty-five, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, at twenty-nine, is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress) and more progressive (the Congressional Progressive Caucus has grown from seventy-eight members to ninety-six). Its brightest lights are more likely to break protocol—by joining a sit-in at Pelosi’s office, or by dishing about the arcane workings of the Capitol on Instagram—than their predecessors were. The freshman class is hipper, over all, and more unpredictable. It’s one of the most highly educated groups of incoming House members in modern history, according to the Brookings Institution, and also the least politically experienced: only forty-one per cent have held prior office. This may mean that they will be refreshingly unwilling to get hung up on precedent, but it could also make them a fractious bunch.

There are already tensions: between the progressives with activist backgrounds and the moderates who painstakingly peeled away districts that went for Trump in 2016; between senior members who want the newbies to wait their turn and the newbies who aren’t looking for their permission. The Los Angeles Times reported that “several freshmen have asked for—some have demanded—prime slots on powerful legislative committees.” Representative Jackie Speier said of her new colleagues, “They’re going to shake this place up, and that’s kind of a good thing.” Some mutual befuddlement will be unavoidable. When Representative Rashida Tlaib, shortly after being sworn in, told a group of activists, “We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker,” Pelosi allowed that, “generationally, that would not be the language I would use.”

If all this sounds daunting, here’s a hopeful point to keep in mind about that record number of women, a hundred and six of whom are Democrats: research shows that women in Congress are more effective than their male counterparts at securing spending for their districts, which perhaps bodes well for the bipartisan project of infrastructure investment. They also sponsor and co-sponsor more legislation.

Inevitably, the House Democrats will be preoccupied with investigating Trump and with the traps that he keeps setting for them. Their challenge will be to work with the Senate to pass what positive legislation they can—while reminding Americans of how much more might be accomplished once the Trump era is over.

Brace For Impact — Marina Koren in The Atlantic on the impending collision of galaxies.  No, really.

Ah, the Milky Way, our glittering home in the cosmos. Seen in an unencumbered night sky, far from the glare of city lights, it seems magnificent and eternal in its enormity. Nothing could shift this ancient web of stars, nothing could disturb its transcendent stoicism.

Except, that is, another galaxy. Galaxies orbit millions of light-years apart, but gravity, the immutable magnet of the cosmos, can pull them together, producing spectacular collisions that reshuffle stars millions of years. According to the leading theory, the Milky Way will collide with one of its closest neighbors, Andromeda, sometime between 6 billion and 8 billion years from now.

But the Milky Way may face another galactic threat before that, from a different neighbor. A new study predicts our galaxy will collide with a galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud between 1 billion and 4 billion years from now.

This is a rather surprising change in schedule, considering that the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is close enough to be seen with the naked eye, is currently moving away from the Milky Way. What gives?

Marius Cautun, an astrophysicist at Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology, says that recent observations of the Large Magellanic Cloud have revealed that the galaxy has more mass than previously thought. Cautun and his fellow researchers decided to run computer simulations that took this new factor into account and fast-forwarded the conditions of our cosmic neighborhood. They tested multiple scenarios, making adjustments in mass, velocity, and other measures. In the end, the simulations predicted that in several hundred million years, the Large Magellanic Cloud will turn around and head straight for the center of the Milky Way.

“The collision between our galaxy and the [Large Magellanic Cloud] takes place in the majority of cases—over 93 percent,” Cautun says.The collision would be a slow showdown, unfolding over the course of billions of years. Stars from the Large Magellanic Cloud would ricochet like pinballs, dislodging some of the Milky Way’s stars from their orbits. Our galaxy as a whole would survive, but some stars may be flung right out of the Milky Way, Cautun says.Meanwhile, the sleeping, supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way would wake up. Like volcanoes, black holes alternate between peaceful dormancy and ferocious activity, depending on the surrounding conditions. Ours is in a quiet period. But the chaos of the merger would send cosmic gas swirling toward it, and cosmic gas is dinner to black holes. The resulting feast is a spectacular show. A disk of luminous, hot cosmic material swirls around the black hole at great speed, and bursts of high-energy radiation erupt from its center. Cautun says one serving of a Large Magellanic Cloud could lead our black hole to gobble up enough material to grow 10 times its current size.And what would happen to us, if there is any kind of “us”—life in some form—on Earth when this all goes down?It is possible that our sun could be among the small fraction of stars that gets lobbed from the galaxy. The jostling would disturb the orbits of our solar system’s planets, which could be perilous for any inhabitants. Even a small change in the relationship between the sun and the Earth could knock it out of the region where liquid water (and, therefore, life) can exist.If life on Earth survived, though, it would take ages for anyone to realize the planet’s position in the cosmos has shifted. Like the merger, the solar system’s ejection would occur over such a large timescale that it’d be almost meaningless to humans. “Only at the end of the collision could our descendants tell if we have been kicked out of our galaxy,” Cautun says.

The change in scenery would be remarkable. In this scenario, “our descendants will see a very different night sky, much darker than currently, with only a modest bright patch that will correspond to the Milky Way galaxy,” Cautun says. “It will be tremendously more difficult for our descendants to travel to other stars—if they haven’t yet done so by that time.”

If this imagined future scares you, consider that a collision with Andromeda would be much worse. The Milky Way would easily devour the smaller Large Magellanic Cloud and maintain its signature spiral shape, even if its insides will be all jumbled. Andromeda, on the other hand, is about the same size as the Milky Way. Astronomers expect that mashup to be destructive, and the Milky Way as we know it—the neat, shimmering band of stars—is unlikely to survive.

Cautun says that a collision between the Milky Way and the Large Magellanic Cloud would shift our galaxy’s position in space. Even still, Andromeda will still come for it, however many billions of years later.

“Ultimately, there is no escape,” he says.

[Photo: ESO/S. Brunier]

Doonesbury — Correcting the record.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sunday Reading

First Contact — Charles Q. Choi in the Washington Post looks at the possibility that there were other civilizations here on Earth long before we came along.

Reptilian menaces called Silurians evolved on Earth before humankind — at least in the “Doctor Who” rendition of the universe. But, science fiction aside, how would we know if some advanced civilization existed on our home planet millions of years before brainy humans showed up?

This is a serious question, and serious scientists are speculating about what traces these potential predecessors might have left behind. And they’re calling this possibility the Silurian hypothesis.

When it comes to the hunt for advanced extraterrestrial civilizations that might exist across the cosmos, one must reckon with the knowledge that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old. In contrast, complex life has existed on Earth’s surface for only about 400 million years, and humans have developed industrial civilizations in only the past 300 years. This raises the possibility that industrial civilizations might have been around long before human ones ever existed — not just around other stars, but even on Earth itself.

“Now, I don’t believe an industrial civilization existed on Earth before our own — I don’t think there was a dinosaur civilization or a giant tree sloth civilization,” said Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester and a co-author of a new study on the topic. “But the question of what one would look like if it did [exist] is important. How do you know there hasn’t been one? The whole point of science is to ask a question and see where it leads. That’s the essence of what makes science so exciting.”

Artifacts of human or other industrial civilizations are unlikely to be found on a planet’s surface after about 4 million years, wrote Frank and study co-author Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. For instance, they noted that urban areas currently take up less than 1 percent of Earth’s surface and that complex items, even from early human technology, are very rarely found. A machine as complex as the Antikythera mechanism — used by the ancient Greeks, it is considered the world’s first computer — remained unknown when elaborate clocks were being developed in Renaissance Europe.

One may also find it difficult to unearth fossils of any beings who might have lived in industrial civilizations, the scientists added. The fraction of life that gets fossilized is always extremely small: Of all the many dinosaurs that ever lived, for example, only a few thousand nearly complete fossil specimens have been discovered. Given that the oldest known fossils of Homo sapiens are only about 300,000 years old, there is no certainty that our species might even appear in the fossil record in the long run, they added.

Instead, the researchers suggested looking for more-subtle evidence of industrial civilizations in the geological records of Earth or other planets. The scientists focused on looking at the signs of civilization that humans might create during the Anthropocene, the geological age of today, characterized by humans’ influence on the planet.

“After a few million years, any physical reminder of your civilization may be gone, so you have to look for sedimentary anomalies, things like different chemical balances that just look wacky,” Frank said.

One sign of industrial civilization may have to do with isotopes of elements such as carbon.

For instance, humans living in industrial civilizations have burned an extraordinary amount of fossil fuels, releasing more than 500 billion tons of carbon from coal, oil and natural gas into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels ultimately derive from plant life, which preferentially absorb more of the lighter isotope carbon-12 than the heavier isotope carbon-13. When fossil fuels get burned, they alter the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 normally found in the atmosphere, ocean and soils — an effect that could later be detected in sediments as hints of an industrial civilization.

In addition, industrial civilizations have discovered ways to artificially “fix” nitrogen — that is, to break the powerful chemical bonds that hold nitrogen atoms together in pairs in the atmosphere, using the resulting single nitrogen atoms to create biologically useful molecules. The large-scale application of nitrogenous fertilizers generated via nitrogen fixing is already detectable in sediments remote from civilization, the scientists noted.

The Anthropocene is also triggering a mass extinction of a wide variety of species that is probably visible in the fossil record. Human industrial activity may also prove to be visible in the geological record in the form of long-lived synthetic molecules from plastics and other products, or radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons.

One wild idea the Silurian hypothesis raises is that the end of one civilization could sow the seeds for another. Industrial civilizations may trigger dead zones in oceans, causing the burial of organic material (from the corpses of organisms in the zones) that could, down the line, become fossil fuels that could support a new industrial civilization. “You could end up seeing these cycles in the geological record,” Frank said.

All in all, thinking about the impact that a previous civilization has on Earth “could help us think about what effects one might see on other planets, or about what is happening now on Earth,” Frank said.

 Doonesbury — Forgive me, Father…

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Short Takes

87 million: That’s the number of Facebook users who got swept by Cambridge Analytics.

Trump backs off immediate Syrian withdrawal.

National Guard at the border will not touch immigrants.

No kidding: Rubio says federal funds needed to help the Keys recover from hurricane damage.

There are dozens of black holes at the center of the Milky Way.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

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.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Short Takes

Trump looking into drug czar appointment after “60 Minutes” report.

Iraqi forces seize Kirkuk.

Wildfires kill 30 in Portugal and northern Spain.

Security flaw puts every WiFi connection at risk.

Scientists catch neutron star collision… 132 million years ago.

Fun fact: This is the 2,900th edition of Short Takes.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Sunblock

Here’s what we saw of the eclipse from the roof of the parking garage of my office in downtown Miami.

Picture by my co-worker Jeff.

We got about 78% of the sun blocked out at our latitude.  The light got a little dimmer, like the first hint of approaching evening, and we had clouds passing over at times.  While others went with the glasses and the cereal boxes for viewing, I reverted to the ancient method (learned during the eclipse of July 20, 1963) of the camera obscura: a pinhole projected on a flat surface using two (CF-free) Styrofoam plates from the cafeteria salad bar.

Picture by my co-worker Carmen.

We got to maximum obscurity at 2:58 p.m. and then went back to work.  And in true Miami form, it rained heavily an hour later.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Solar Eclipse

Here’s everything you need to know about today’s solar eclipse.

1. 1st Total Solar Eclipse in 38 Years…

…for those in contiguous United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). The last time anyone in mainland US saw a total eclipse of the Sun was on February 26, 1979. If you live in the US and miss this event, you’ll have to wait 7 more years, until April 8, 2024, to see a total solar eclipse from a location in the contiguous United States.

2. Most North Americans Will Be Able To See Totality…

…if they are willing to drive that is. The total eclipse will only be visible along the Moon’s central shadow, which at its widest will be about 115 kilometers (71.5 miles), according to some sources. Its path will span from the country’s West Coast to the East Coast. The rest of North America, as well as Central America and northern parts of South America, will experience a partial solar eclipse. NASA has estimated that a majority of the American population lives less than a 2-day drive away from the path of totality.

3. A Once-In-A-Lifetime Event

While total solar eclipses are not rare—they occur twice every 3 years on average and can be seen from some part of the Earth—a total eclipse of the Sun that can be seen from the American West Coast to the American East Coast occurs less frequently. In fact, the last time a total solar eclipse was visible from coast to coast was almost 100 years ago, on June 8, 1918!

What makes this eclipse extra special is that it is the first time since the total solar eclipse of January 11, 1880 that a total solar eclipse will occur exclusively over the continental United States—no other country will see totality, though many countries will see a partial eclipse of the Sun.

Because of these reasons, the eclipse is also being called the Great American Eclipse.

4. Parts of 14 American States Will Go Dark…

…for the 2 minutes of totality. The Yaquina Head Lighthouse in Newport, Oregon will be the first location on continental US soil to see totality. The partial phase of the eclipse will begin here at 9:04 am local time. Lincoln City, Oregon will also be one of the first locations in the country to experience totality.

Oregonians will also be the first to see totality as the Moon’s shadow moves east at an average speed of about 3600 km/h (2237 mph). After Oregon, the eclipse will move through Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina. Montana and Iowa are the only states where the path of totality will pass through unpopulated areas. People in Charleston, South Carolina will be some of the last people in the US to see totality.

Nashville, Tennessee is one of the few large cities in the United States to fall completely within the eclipse’s path of totality. Interestingly, only some parts of Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri will be able to see a total solar eclipse.

5. Totality Will Be Spectacular

If you are lucky enough to be in the path of totality, you are in for an astronomical treat, weather permitting, of course. When the eclipse begins, at 1st contact, it will appear as if the Moon is taking a bite out of the Sun. As the eclipse progresses, the sky will get darker, the temperature will drop, and if you pay attention, animals and birds will become quieter.

At 2nd contact, which is when totality begins, Baily’s Beads become visible. As the Moon completely covers the Sun’s surface, the diamond ring can be seen. You might also see pink spots called prominences near the diamond. These spots are caused by gases on the Sun’s surface.

Totality is the only time when one can see the corona, the Sun’s atmosphere. At 3rd contact, Baily’s Beads will once again become visible and a second diamond ring may appear.

6. Stars During the Daytime

As the sky turns dark, planets and stars hidden in the sky by the Sun’s bright light will reappear. Look for Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus during totality.

7. You Will Need Eye Protection

Do not look directly at the Sun, before, during or after the eclipse without any protective eyewear.

Looking at the Sun with your naked eyes is highly dangerous and can even cause blindness. The safest way to see a solar eclipse is to wear protective eclipse glasses or use a pinhole projector you can easily make yourself.

8. Part of Saros Series 145

Solar eclipses occur in cycles. The Saros cycle, one of the most studied eclipse cycles, occurs every 18 years. Two solar eclipses separated by a Saros cycle have similar features—they occur at the same lunar node, with the Moon roughly at the same distance from the Earth. The eclipses also take place at about the same time of the year and around the same time of day. Eclipses that are separated by a Saros cycle are part of a Saros series.

The August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse belongs to Saros series 145. It is the 22nd eclipse in a series of 77 eclipses. The series began with a partial solar eclipse visible from the Northern Hemisphere on January 4, 1639 and will end with a partial solar eclipse visible from the Southern Hemisphere on April 17, 3009.

The next eclipse in the series—a total solar eclipse—will take place on September 2, 2035.

And remember, let’s be careful out there: don’t look directly at the sun.

The first solar eclipse I remember was the one on July 20, 1963.  We were up in Michigan and my dad and I were painting our little Puddleduck sailboat and named it “Swallow” after the boat in the Arthur Ransome stories.  We were in the backyard and I had fashioned a pinhole projector out of two pieces of cardboard.  The sun was 78% blocked, but it didn’t seem much darker than your average twilight.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Thursday, March 2, 2017

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.”

Sarcasm.

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.