Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sunday Reading

No Gift Keeps On Giving  — Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic on the no-gifting trend.

This year, Heather Hund and her family will gather in West Texas on December 25 and solidify a new Christmas tradition, in which each relative is randomly assigned to give a gift to another family member and to a house pet. “The rules are basically a regift for the human and then $10 for the pet,” Hund told me. “And my 18-month-old son got put in [the latter] category too, so it’s small humans and small animals.”

Hund and her family downscaled their gift-giving six years ago after considering how much work Christmas shopping was. “I just remember coming home and being super stressed and last-minute trying to run out to the mall or looking online and seeing what I could get shipped in like three days,” said Hund, who’s 35 and works in tech in San Francisco.

Now, with the extra time she and her family have, they paint pottery together, cook, go on runs, and play cards. Plus, they get meaningful presents through the regifting agreement, such as the Led Zeppelin record Hund received from her dad, purchased when he was in high school. The new gifting protocol has been a joy. “The first year I thought I would be sad about it,” she said, “and I really wasn’t.”

Hund is one of the many holiday celebrants who have been questioning and revising their long-held gift-giving traditions—or, in some cases, scrapping them altogether. No single cause unites these opt-outers, but a few motivations regularly pop up: They want to resist consumerism, restore the religious focus of the holidays, and/or avoid harming the environment. Above all, they want to spend less money on things and more time with one another.

According to a recent survey from the personal-finance website Bankrate, almost half of Americans feel pressured to spend more than they’d like to on holiday gifts, with parents especially likely to feel put upon. When presented with a slew of options that might lessen their financial stress, respondents were most willing to entertain the idea of giving gifts only to their immediate family or of seeking out coupons and sales—64 percent and 57 percent, respectively, said those courses of action would be acceptable. Those surveyed rated other alternatives—giving homemade gifts, regifting, or buying things secondhand—as much less enticing. At the very bottom of the list was skipping gifts entirely, which received a tepid 13 percent approval rating.

Still, some people are trying it out. Raagini Appadurai, a 26-year-old educator and social-justice advocate living in Toronto, told me that her family—her two sisters, her parents, and herself—made a no-gifts pact this year. “When we remove material purchasing and consumption from the table, we are forced to question what we are bringing to [the holiday] instead—individually and collectively,” she said. “After our family reflection on this, the answer has been clear: Ourselves, we bring more of ourselves.” She told me that her family’s Christmas-morning plan is to gather around the tree as in years past, whether there are presents underneath it or not.

Some people also consider gift-giving a distraction from the religious significance of the holidays. Tricia and Alex Koroknay-Palicz live in Hyattsville, Maryland, with their 20-month-old daughter. They are Catholic, don’t exchange gifts with one another for Christmas, and give only small presents to their parents. “Advent is supposed to be this quiet, somber, reflective period during which you’re preparing to celebrate the incredible thing that was God sending his son to Earth,” Tricia says. “That goes very poorly with a focus on buying things and merrymaking.”

As families have reconsidered their gift-giving practices, some of them have gotten creative about what to do instead. In 2015, the Orzechowskis, a family living in Washington, D.C., started taking an annual trip together, with their relatives funding different aspects of the vacation (such as admission to a museum in the city they’re visiting) instead of buying physical gifts. And Jennifer Knepper, a 39-year-old nurse, started an “alternative-gift fair” in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she lives. The fair, which has been running for more than 10 years, offers fair-trade foodstuffs and the chance to make gift donations to charities, among other things.

Of course, giving fewer or less-expensive gifts is often not a choice, but a necessity—in the Bankrate survey, people earning less than $30,000 a year were more likely than those in any other income bracket to say that they don’t give holiday gifts. Many of the people I talked with for this article mentioned that they were fortunate to have such a choice, and explained that they amended their celebrations in response to personal reservations or discomfort they had about their gift-giving tradition, not on the recommendation of some celebrity or lifestyle guru.

In particular, many said they were rethinking their gifting in response to the pressures of consumerism around the holidays. David Tucker, a 33-year-old engineer at a software company who lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, told me that he and his wife stopped giving gifts three years ago. “It was a mixture of a lot of things,” he said, “but we both started to share a disdain for the holidays” and the marketing involved, especially after a couple financially tight years. They found themselves surrounded by stuff, and not needing any more of it.

So they started donating their annual gift budget to charity, which means that their holiday shopping now takes just a few minutes. Tucker said that this mentality has shaped his habits during the rest of the year—he and his wife now volunteer more at their local food bank. “Why should it stop there?,” he remembered thinking about his holiday donations.

A few advocacy groups encourage people to reevaluate their gift-giving in the way that Tucker and his wife have. One is Buy Nothing Christmas, a movement started by Canadian Mennonites that proudly has “no membership, no fees, no plaques, no club cards.” Its goal, as stated on its website, is to “to de-commercialize Christmas and re-design a Christian lifestyle that is richer in meaning, smaller in impact upon the earth, and greater in giving to people less-privileged.”

Another organization is New Dream, a nonprofit devoted to rethinking consumption. New Dream has been running a “Simplify the Holidays” campaign for 13 years, and five years ago launched SoKind, an online gift registry that allows people to share with their loved ones their desire for not just things, but nonmaterial gifts such as music lessons, home-cooked meals, and donations to charity. The platform is meant for any occasion (including weddings and graduations) and features almost 13,000 wish lists.

Other people have the environment in mind when thinking about what to give. Keya Chatterjee, a D.C. resident who runs a climate-focused nonprofit, and her husband only give gifts if they have been used, are made from recycled materials, or will reduce the recipient’s environmental footprint. “On the emissions-reduction side, many people have appreciated (and some have appreciated less) that I generally give people soft lighting LED light bulbs and with a note to ‘have a bright year,’” she wrote in an email. Other gifts she likes to give are solar phone chargers, library books (with a holiday note and the due date), and hot-water bottles (for warming just one’s bed instead of heating the whole house). “Needless to say, not everyone wants our gifts,” she said.

Chatterjee added that her family “heavily discourage[s] gifts to us,” though notes that it took about a decade for everyone to follow this request. Others I talked with encountered similar resistance from their relatives when expressing their gifting preferences, but for the most part, people came around and were even grateful.

Another contingent that’s thinking deeply about holiday spending is adherents of the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement, which consists of cutting spending to spartan levels to stop working well before one’s 60s. Comment threads on Reddit and the personal-finance blog Mr. Money Mustache document some savers’ attempts to reconcile their commitment to their financial plan with their desire not to be grinchy.

All of the people I talked with for this article seemed committed to their new traditions, though some parents and parents-to-be of young children were aware that their kids might not be so keen on the concept. Heather Hund said she does “really want to stick to it” as her toddler grows up, and David Tucker acknowledged that if he and his wife have children, it’d be a “huge challenge” to keep up their no-gift policy.

This year, Tricia and Alex Koroknay-Palicz will be giving their daughter some used coloring books passed down from a neighbor and perhaps a small stocking stuffer. At the age of 20 months, she hasn’t been briefed on her parents’ gifting philosophy. Later, “if she complains about other people getting lots of stuff,” Tricia says, “I think we’ll tell her, ‘Tough noodles.’”

My family stopped exchanging gifts between ourselves years ago when we were all spread out across the country and then started adding children, in-laws, grandchildren.  It got both cumbersome and guilt-ridden with the forced merriment and a rebellion against the consumerism.  I still buy gifts for a few friends, but it’s being together that really matters, and I’ll see my family after New Year’s.

One Small Step — Nicholas Schmidle of The New Yorker goes behind the scenes of Virgin Galatic’s first space mission.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mark Stucky left work early and went to his stepdaughter’s place to hang window blinds. Stucky, the lead test pilot at Virgin Galactic, was expecting to fulfill a lifelong dream—flying a rocket ship into space—the next morning, but he was trying not to make more of it than necessary. And so, after he put up the blinds, he drove home, had an early dinner, soaked in his hot tub, and was asleep by eight.

He was up before his 3 A.M. alarm, not because he was nervous—a bout of butterflies had come and gone earlier in the week—but, as he told me later, “Because I was in the zone.” He ate a cup of yogurt on his way out the door. Sometimes, before test flights, he listened to music. On Thursday, he drove in silence.

Stucky had dreamed of travelling into space since he was three years old, when he and his dad watched on TV as John Glenn orbited Earth. He applied for NASA’s astronaut program several times, and got close, but never made the cut. When, in 2009, he was hired as a test pilot by Scaled Composites, an aerospace company on contract to design, build, and test Virgin Galactic’s spaceship, he thought he might be close. But program delays and a crash, in 2014, which killed his best friend, Mike Alsbury, and left the spaceship in pieces, made Stucky wonder if he would ever get there. Now, at the age of sixty, he was about to attempt to soar two hundred and sixty-four thousand feet, or fifty miles, above the surface of Earth—beyond the boundary of what the U.S. government deems space.

It was a clear, crisp morning in Mojave, California. Nicola Pecile, who was piloting the mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, which would carry the rocket ship, SpaceShipTwo, up to its release point, spotted a comet in the southwest sky. Venus shone brightly overhead. By 7 A.M., about a thousand people, including officials with the Federal Aviation Administration and Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, had gathered on the flight line. Eleven minutes later, WhiteKnightTwo sped down the runway and took off, with Stucky and his co-pilot, the former NASA astronaut C. J. Sturckow, below, in SpaceShipTwo. George Whitesides, the C.E.O. of Virgin Galactic, said he hadn’t felt as anxious in years: “This is right up there with childbirth in terms of nervousness levels.”

As WhiteKnightTwo climbed, Stucky ran through his final checklists. He had flown five previous powered flights, burning the hybrid rocket motor for just more than thirty seconds, coasting above a hundred thousand feet, but on Thursday he planned to burn the motor for almost a minute—enough, it was hoped, to propel SpaceShipTwo to the fifty-mile boundary.

An hour after takeoff, WhiteKnightTwo, now forty thousand feet above the desert, dropped the spaceship and banked away. Then, on Stucky’s command, Sturckow fired the rocket and they were off. Once they broke the sound barrier, Stucky began trimming the horizontal stabilizers, increasing the vehicle’s pitch, until the nose was pointing nearly straight up. Twenty seconds. Thirty seconds. Forty seconds. Even though they were pushing into “unknown, uncharted territory,” the longer they burned the rocket motor, the better SpaceShipTwo seemed to perform. “She felt like a thoroughbred,” Stucky said.

After sixty seconds, Sturckow switched off the motor, letting SpaceShipTwo slice through the last remnants of atmosphere. While the sky darkened around them, sunlight filled the cockpit. Absent gravity, Stucky removed his glove and let it float around for a moment.

Back down on the flight line, Enrico Palermo, the president of the Spaceship Company, the subsidiary of Virgin Galactic that built SpaceShipTwo, stood at a lectern onstage, calling out the vehicle’s altitude:

“Two hundred and forty thousand feet.”

“Two hundred and fifty thousand feet.”

“Two-sixty.”

“Two hundred and . . .”—he paused, awaiting confirmation from mission control—“two hundred and sixty-four thousand feet.”

The crowd whooped and cheered. “Still going up,” Palermo said. “Apogee: two hundred and seventy-one thousand feet.”

Todd Ericson, one of the test pilots and Virgin Galactic’s vice-president for safety, reached over and gripped Whitesides’s hand. “We’re in space,” Ericson said.

Fifteen minutes later, Stucky and Sturckow landed, stepping out of SpaceShipTwo to enthusiastic applause. Branson, wearing a distressed-leather bomber jacket, took the stage and said, “Who enjoyed that?” The outline of a single tear streaked the side of his face—it was a moment of tremendous joy, catharsis, and relief for him, the team, and their families. Stucky’s wife, Cheryl Agin, shed tears throughout the entire flight.

Stucky and Sturckow joined Branson onstage. Stucky reached into the calf pocket of his flight suit and presented Branson with a blue-and-green stress ball, modelled on the Earth, that had just been in space. He then fished out a small, black jewelry box, which contained an engagement ring that belonged to a flight-test engineer on Stucky’s team named Brandon Parrish. Parrish called his girlfriend, Veronica McGowan, a fellow-engineer, up onto the stage with him and proposed. When she accepted, Stucky popped the cork on a champagne bottle, shook it up, and sprayed the couple. Afterward, one of Parrish’s colleagues said to him, “Way to set the bar too fucking high, bro.”

When the ceremony ended, Stucky, the pilots, and the mission-control team gathered back at the main hangar. The pilots toasted with paper cups of whiskey, and then went to Denny’s for lunch. Stucky and Agin split a hamburger, and the pilots showed one another the latest cockpit photos and read selected tweets aloud. Vice-President Mike Pence tweeted his congratulations: “the 1st crewed flight to launch from US soil in over 7 years!”

Stucky checked his watch and noted that they were due back at the hangar in fifteen minutes for more post-flight reviews. After all, SpaceShipTwo was being tested for regular and repeated missions, and not merely a one-off flight. There was flight data to plug into the models and run through the simulator, Stucky said. “You know, to see if there’s anything more we can learn.” Virgin Galactic could begin commercial service—flying customers to space—as early as late next year.

[Photo by Virgin Galactic]

Doonesbury — Final note.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Friday, July 20, 2018

One Small Step

Forty-nine years ago today the world was transfixed by two men who carefully made their way out of a spidery-looking shiny and delicate machine and set foot on another place that wasn’t Earth.

Looking back from this distance, it’s still an amazing feat, made even more so by the fact that the technology that got us there was basically one step up from a World War II rocket and computers the size of a garden shed that now dangle from a key ring.  There’s more computing power in your average smart phone today than what ran Apollo 11.  And it was all bought and paid for through government agencies.

I seriously doubt that we’ll ever mount anything so ambitious in such a short time again.  Back then we went from Echo I, a helium balloon in space, to Neil Armstrong on the Sea of Tranquility in ten years, and I’ve lived longer than the time it took to get us from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base.   What drove us to complete this amazing mission in 1969 wasn’t, as the then-recently cancelled “Star Trek” intoned, our desire “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”  It was to beat the Russians and win the propaganda war of capitalism and American spirit over Commie collectivism and scary grainy pictures of mushroom clouds from which we ducked and covered.  Yes, there was a spirit of adventure and sci-fi to it, but it was basically an ideological pecker contest, and we won.  So there.

We’ve come a long way since that July of 1969 when we set foot on the moon.  Going into space turned from adventure to lab work, and the greatest benefit from space-bound technology is that now you can listen to music bounced off a satellite without commercials.  By the time the Apollo missions ended in 1972, the launch barely warranted headlines.  Only tragedies such as Challenger and Columbia would remind us that going into space was more than just another way to get somewhere else.

Until we prove Einstein wrong and make the jump to hyperspace, we’re stuck on this rock, and chances are no one from anywhere else will come to call, so we’ve got to make the best of it.  That means taking care of ourselves, each other, and this pale blue dot adrift in the incalculably huge universe.

The speck in the brown band: That’s us.

So when Neil Armstrong proclaimed “one giant leap for mankind,” perhaps he was challenging us to realize that while exploring and seeking knowledge is in our basic nature, so is being good to where we came from and to each other.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Friday, February 9, 2018

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Thursday, January 18, 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.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Saturday, August 26, 2017

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, July 22, 2017

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Thursday, July 13, 2017