Tallest Known Cliff in the Solar System

(APOD: 2020 November 29)

‘Could you survive a jump off the tallest cliff in the Solar System? Quite possibly. Verona Rupes on Uranus’ moon Miranda is estimated to be 20 kilometers deep — ten times the depth of the Earth’s Grand Canyon. Given Miranda’s low gravity, it would take about 12 minutes for a thrill-seeking adventurer to fall from the top, reaching the bottom at the speed of a racecar — about 200 kilometers per hour. Even so, the fall might be survivable given proper airbag protection. The featured image of Verona Rupes was captured by the passing Voyager 2 robotic spacecraft in 1986. How the giant cliff was created remains unknown, but is possibly related to a large impact or tectonic surface motion….’

— Via APOD

Why Hollywood should steer clear of a Trump biopic

The story of the soon-to-be former president might be compelling, but recent political history isn’t simple entertainment

(White House downer)

‘Finally, the US presidential race is over. Which unfortunately signals the start of another race: who will be the first to get a Trump biopic out of the traps? For subject-hungry Hollywood, it is too juicy a story to resist: a tale of megalomania, scandal and surreally absurd incident, with a supporting cast of colourfully extreme characters. And Jared Kushner. It’s Succession, Idiocracy and Downfall rolled into one!

You can bet actors of every physiognomy – Oldman, Bale, Rockwell, Streep – are already thinking: “I could have a crack at Trump” Film-makers are doubtless considering the options, too. A “Where did it all go wrong?” flashback structure framed by the Four Seasons Total Landscaping fiasco could work well.

But before things progress any further, as Jon Stewart once said to Tucker Carlson, “Stop. Stop hurting America.” The rush to put first drafts of political history on screen before the ink has even dried is getting out of hand, and you have to question the value. Oliver Stone’s W, which told of the last overprivileged, underqualified Republican president, was a good arena for awards-worthy impersonations and ironic satire but I wasn’t ready to laugh, seeing as how these people had recently orchestrated and profited from the Iraq war. I still wasn’t ready to laugh a decade later with Christian Bale’s snappily satirical Dick Cheney movie Vice. We’d only just gotten over the tragedy, we weren’t ready for the farce. The same applies to Trump….’

— Via The Guardian

Right-Wing Social Media Finalizes Divorce from Reality

(Right-Wing Social Media Had to Divorce Reality – The Atlantic)

‘Fox News acknowledged Trump’s loss. Facebook and Twitter cracked down on election lies. But true believers can get their misinformation elsewhere….’

— Via The Atlantic

Modern flat-earthers have an insatiable demand for misinformation. How far these delusions spread depends on whether the responsible media will continue to moderate content as they finally started to do just before and after the election, in the face of the continuing demand for reality-defying ideas. Parler will take up the slack among those who see any moderation as censorship, amplifying the hyperpartisanship excluded from mainstream media, with its users barely exposed to counterexamples that might challenge their misconceptions. But will they stay on Parler? Niche social-media properties rarely take hold, and the Parler app is less user-friendly than the much slicker Facebook apparatus. Furthermore some of the wingnuts thrive on baiting and criticizing the opposition and thus are driven to Twitter, where they can “own the libs.” But if the divorce is finalized, some say Democracy is finished.

Pardon Me

In an item about trump’s pardon of Michael Flynn, Dave Pell commented,

‘trump also pardoned a turkey yesterday. (For a second, I thought he was just gonna pardon the white meat.)…’

— via Next Draft

GSA formally recognizes Biden’s victory

The presidential transition begins:

‘On Monday, General Services Administration (GSA) chief Emily Murphy sent a letter to President-elect Joe Biden, officially authorizing the start of the presidential transition. Murphy issued the letter of “ascertainment” after weeks of delay, and amid increasing pressure from Democrats, and bipartisan pushback from national security and public health experts to start the process. Some Republican politicians had also begun to speak out, too.

The ascertainment will provide funding for the Biden-Harris transition, and most critically, give Biden’s team the opportunity to meet with their counterparts across federal agencies to prepare for the new administration to take over in January.

“As the Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration, I have the ability under the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, as amended, to make certain post-election resources and services available to assist in the event of a presidential transition,” Murphy wrote in her letter to vice-president elect Biden.

“I take this role seriously and, because of recent developments involving legal challenges and certifications of election results, am transmitting this letter today to make those resources and services available to you,” she said.

Those “recent developments” most likely refer to Trump’s failed attempts in court to challenge the election, and battleground states, including Michigan and Georgia, officially certifying the votes for Biden’s win. In the past, most GSA administrators have made their judgments based on media projections, after which the losing candidate typically concedes. But Murphy had held off from doing so, despite Biden being declared the winner by all major US media outlets and Trump’s legal challenges largely going nowhere in court.

The GSA recognizing Biden’s victory, and the formal start if the transition process will likely quell some of the concern about Trump’s refusal to accept the election results. With Republicans backing away from their defense of the president, and the Trump’s legal avenues quickly closing, the reality Trump has tried to keep at bay for weeks is finally catching up to him. Biden will be president on January 20 — and now, at least, he can begin to properly prepare.

Murphy, in her letter Monday, defended her decision-making, saying the looked to “precedent from prior elections involving legal challenges and incomplete counts. GSA does not dictate the outcome of legal disputes and recounts, nor does it determine whether such proceedings are reasonable and justified.” Again, the one modern example of the GSA delaying a presidential transition came in 2000 because of the Florida recount.

Murphy also denied that the White House pressured her to withhold the ascertainment. “I have dedicated much of my adult life to public service, and I have always strived to do what is right. Please know that I came to my decision independently, based on the law and available facts. I was never directly or indirectly pressured by any Executive Branch official—including those who work at the White House or GSA—with regard to the substance or timing of my decision,” Murphy wrote. “To be clear, I did not receive any direction to delay my determination.”

But President Donald Trump undermined that a bit, saying in a tweet shortly after the GSA acted that “in the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.”

Though Trump said his case “STRONGLY continues”, this is one of the most direct acknowledgments from the president so far that his tenure in office is ending — even if it isn’t exactly a concession….’

— Via Vox

Op-Ed: Impeach the president again

‘If ever a presidential act qualified for impeachment, it would be openly trying to reverse an election outcome. While it sounds almost bizarre to make such a suggestion when the president’s term is over in two months, the move would have a useful byproduct: The Senate could prevent Trump from running again in 2024.

The impeachment clause of the Constitution allows the Senate to impose two possible punishments: “removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.” While two-thirds of the Senate is required for removal from office in an impeachment trial, precedents involving the impeachment of judges indicate that only a majority vote would be required to make the penalty a disqualification from future office….’

— Michael A. Cohen in The Boston Globe

75 reasons we might not have connected with extraterrestrial life yet

Physicist Stephen Webb has been collecting solutions to the Fermi paradox: 

‘Many of Webb’s collected hypotheses suggest that aliens live where we’re not looking, talk how we’re not listening or resemble something we haven’t sought out. Maybe the aliens like to send messages or signals using neutrinos, nearly massless and barely-there particles that don’t interact with normal matter much, or tachyons, hypothetical particles that fly faster than light. Maybe they use the more-conventional radio or optical transmissions but at frequencies, or in a form, astronomers haven’t sought out. Maybe a signal is sitting on data servers already, escaping notice. Maybe the extraterrestrials subtly alter the emissions of their stable stars, or the blip-blip-blip pulsations of variable stars. Maybe they put something big — a megamall, a disk of dust — in front of their sun to block some of its light, in a kind of anti-beacon. Maybe their skies are cloudy, and they consequently don’t care about astronomy or space exploration. Or — hear Webb out — perhaps they drive UFOs, meaning they are here but not in a form that scientists typically recognize, investigate, and take seriously….’

— Via Astronomy.com

…or maybe we’re simply alone. 

Why can some people smell ants?

The answer to TikTok’s latest mystery:

(Why can some people smell ants? Here’s the answer to TikTok’s latest mystery. | Popular Science)

‘A recent TikTok spurred an unusual debate across social media: Do ants smell bad?

The video that started the debate began innocently enough. The creator simply asked whether other people can smell the disgusting scent of dead ants on the sidewalk. In comments and replies, many agreed that they could, while others—a far larger number of people, it seems—had no idea that ants gave off a scent, even vehemently denying the idea. If you’re in the group that doesn’t know what ants smell like, chances are you just haven’t paid enough attention to some of your tiniest local residents.

Many common species of ants release pungent smells when they are in danger, squished, or otherwise dead, according to Clint Penick, an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University and ant researcher. The most common type of ant that people find in their homes on the East Coast and in the Midwest is called the odorous house ant, and when squished, it releases a pheromone that smells like blue cheese. This odorous chemical belongs to a group of chemical compounds called methyl ketones. It’s also produced by the Penicillium mold that grows on rotting coconuts and it’s what gives blue cheese its distinctive, pungent odor.

But that’s far from the only smelly compound ants produce. Some species, including carpenter ants, spray formic acid, a caustic chemical that smells a lot like vinegar, when they feel threatened. (Some people think that the ability to smell formic acid is genetic, like asparagus, and that might be why some people are more sensitive to this particular ant smell than others.) Citronella ants are named for the distinctive citrusy scent they often produce, and trap-jaw ants release a chocolatey smell when squished. When ants die of natural causes, they also release oleic acid, so dead ants “smell a little something like olive oil,” Penick says….’

— Via Popular Science


The Ouroboros Steak Is Meat Grown from Your Own Cells

‘What do you taste like? You can find out by eating the Ouroboros Steak, which is a project by scientists and artists in US. After you take a cheek swab to collect cells, lab technicians use expired human blood to grow cell structures from your sample, creating meat that is, genetically, you. It’s appropriately named after the ouroboros, a mythical snake that eats its own tail….’

— Via Neatorama

My Friend Steve

(APOD: 2020 November 17 – A Glowing STEVE and the Milky Way)

‘What’s creating these long glowing streaks in the sky? No one is sure. Known as Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancements (STEVEs), these luminous light-purple sky ribbons may resemble regular auroras, but recent research reveals significant differences. A STEVE’s great length and unusual colors, when measured precisely, indicate that it may be related to a subauroral ion drift (SAID), a supersonic river of hot atmospheric ions thought previously to be invisible. Some STEVEs are now also thought to be accompanied by green picket fence structures, a series of sky slats that can appear outside of the main auroral oval that does not involve much glowing nitrogen. The featured wide-angle composite image shows a STEVE in a dark sky above Childs Lake, Manitoba, Canada…’

— Via APOD

Here Is a Photo of a Single Atom

‘Atoms are really small. So small, in fact, that it’s impossible to see one with the naked eye, even with the most powerful of microscopes. At least, that used to be true.

Now, a photograph shows a single atom floating in an electric field, and it’s large enough to see without any kind of microscope….’

— By Avery Thompson via Popular Mechanics

The Boogaloo Movement Is Not What You Think

(Not What You Think?)

‘The “Boogaloo Bois” expect, even hope, that the warmer weather will bring armed confrontations with law enforcement, and will build momentum towards a new civil war in the United States.

Mostly, they’re not even hiding it. And for the last several months, their platform of choice has been Facebook. …For now, Facebook chooses to allow the Boogaloo movement to flourish on their platform.

Open source materials suggest that, for now, the apocalyptic, anti-government politics of the “Boogaloo Bois” are not monolithically racist/neo-Nazi. As we have observed, some members rail against police shootings of African Americans, and praise black nationalist self defense groups.

But the materials also demonstrate that however irony-drenched it may appear to be, this is a movement actively preparing for armed confrontation with law enforcement, and anyone else who would restrict their expansive understanding of the right to bear arms. In a divided, destabilized post-coronavirus landscape, they could well contribute to widespread violence in the streets of American cities….’

— Investigative journalists Robert Evans and Jason Wilson via bellingcat

‘He won’ — Trump admits election loss to Biden on Twitter

‘That’s it, folks. Trump admits loss… Donald Trump just tweeted “He won”, meaning Joe Biden, and the recent presidential election — followed by a bunch of garbage lies…’

— Via Boing Boing

I have to disagree with Xeni Jardin, writing on Boing Boing on the import of this. Trump’s admission of defeat is just a reflection of the narcissistic blow we knew he took whether he said so or not. (See my post below about his noticeable greying.) His clumsy and pathetic effort to avoid the mortification of admitting he is a loser may have foundered, but more significant is his persisting capacity to take down American democracy with his response to his humiliation. Nearly fifty million of his followers believe the abiding message of the remainder of his tweet that the election was rigged (regardless of his Ignorance about How to Use Capitalization). All indications are that the GOP will continue to act as if that was the case for the foreseeable future. And, to paraphrase Twain, the reports of the death of the GOP have been greatly exaggerated.

By the way, it doesn’t matter that Twitter “blocks” assertions like the above and labels his claims about election fraud “disputed.” Soon they’ll all be talking to themselves and reinforcing their rage on Parler instead, which I am optimistic will remain an echo chamber without any influence on the broader mentality. It is a good sign that the major media have — too little, too late — finally adopted the practice of cutting away from trump’s spokespeople as soon as they start to spout their blatant lies, after featuring trump’s deranged tweets for four years because of their entertainment value. With any luck they will not dignify with any attention what is said on a medium whose founding principle is that it encourages misinformation!

Best evidence of confession of defeat?

(If you noticed something different about Trump’s appearance you are not alone | Boing Boing)

‘Most presidents go through a rapid aging transformation through their years in office, most conspicuously with a graying of the hair–unless you’re a narcissist with time for golf, spray-tanning and Just For Men hair products. In Donald Trump’s most recent press garden address, his graying was hard to deny….’

— Via Boing Boing

Question is: will his hair be flaming orange again for his 2024 presidential bid? Or, for that matter, to match his orange prison jumpsuit?

Trump Is Winning. Democracy Is Losing

Being perhaps a contradiction in terms, as a gay anti-trump conservative, has at times enhanced Andrew Sullivan (writing in The Weekly Dish)’s acumen as an observer of the political landscape. He was early out of the gate warning us of the need to take trump’s potential to win in 2016 seriously and in my opinion his contempt for the man’s moral and intellectual bankruptcy in the four years since had been unerring, articulating with illuminated prose.

Since the outcome of this month’s election, his columns have breathed a written sigh of relief at trump’s eviction and Biden’s arrival as a “president for all Americans”. Today’s is a more sobering and spot-on appraisal of the continuing menace trump will represent going forward, and how his presidency will stand as the swan song of a broken America’s democracy.

“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” an anonymous ‘senior Republican official’ mused to the Washington Post this week. “No one seriously thinks the results will change. He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”

The layer upon layer of complacency, cynicism, and nihilism in that quote sums up so much about the GOP elite these past few years. They are proof that their party is a cult controlled by one man, who can get anyone in his party to say that the sky is green if he wants to. The Georgia run-offs alone ensure that no one in the party will seriously challenge the president’s derangement until, if we are lucky, after those elections are held in January — in case he turns on his own party’s candidates. So we are left for two months with an urgent crisis of legitimacy — and for years ahead, an incoming president Biden who will be deemed the beneficiary of massive fraud by a significant chunk of the country…

How to Celebrate Diwali

(How to Celebrate Diwali)

‘Diwali, a five-day-long “festival of lights” that celebrates the triumph of good over evil, began yesterday. The holiday emerged from the Hindu religion, but has become a cultural event around the world. We could all use a little celebration of triumph over evil, right now….’

— Via Lifehacker

The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse

Nicolas Ortega

‘[Historian Peter Turchin at the University of Connecticut] believes he has discovered iron laws that predict the rise and fall of societies. He has bad news…

…The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions.

His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of “megahistories,” such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari…’

— The Atlantic

Was Nazi Germany Everyone’s Fault? Is trump’s America?

‘…[H]istorian Richard J. Evans argues against the popular conception.

— Pacific Standard
(Photo: tk_five_0/Flickr)

Historical inquiries into the rise of totalitarian regimes tend to conclude that they were either no one’s fault or everyone’s. For instance, when the US invaded Iraq, ostensibly to topple Saddam, the argument was that he had no popular support and Iraqis would welcome their liberators and rise up en masse.

On the other hand, the consensus has been that Hitler’s rise required mass acquiescence and complicity from ‘good Germans’, and thus their culpability. Most opined that Hitler did not maintain power by violence but rather popular support — pointing to votes in which he received more than 90% approval — and that Nazi terror was directed almost entirely against marginal groups in the service of Aryan supremacy, which appealed to the masses.

The counterargument is that the Germans retroactively interviewd to create that impression would have been young in the ’30’s, and that Nazi propaganda was most effective with younger Germans. A revisionist view is that it is not straightforward to determine the level of public approval for a totalitarian regime. Arguably, there is evidence that Nazi violence was directed against major segments of the German population, especially the working class. In this view, the plebiscites establishing support for Hitler were not free or fair and that those who tried to vote against him were considered traitors and at times beaten by his brownshirts.

There is probably a middle ground between mass culpability and mass innocence, and the sources of political authority are not black or white.

‘People certainly knew about the Holocaust, but that didn’t mean all supported it. Some actively participated. Some were tacitly accepting. And some substantial number disapproved, but were politically neutralized by widespread Nazi terror…’

Much of this has a bearing on the specter of authoritarianism arising in trump’s America in the past four years. The events playing out now represent the greatest potential America has seen for a descent into totalitarianism. It would be hard to argue that the 70 million red staters who supported trump were intimidated by overt terror or the threat of terror. Ballot boxes have clearly not been stuffed to distort the outcomes of the vote, except in trump’s autistic deluded statements about “BIG wins” that are evident to none but himself. And trump’s “brownshirts”, by and large, have not been beating up those who try to vote against him.

But have his supporters, in some sense, been innocent culpable ‘good Germans’? And to what extent is that true of his GOP functionaries and those who have refused to stand against him? In my earlier essay “Is The Coup Happening?” I catalogued some of the disparate motivations at work in his supporters’ complicity in trump’s defiance of the need to accept he lost the election. How do we tease apart the contribution of the appeal of totalitarianism in their support?

One might suggest that terrorizing the working class is playing a role here — duping them into acting against their own interests and suffering for it without even realizing. Some of this relates to the advances in the power of subtle mind control through the mass media in modern America as contrasted with Germany of the ’30’s. I return time and time again to the arguments of Jerry Mander in his provocative 1978 book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, about halfway between the Nazis and us. One of his most powerful expositions was of the ways in which the reductionistic presentation of information on TV and the inherent passivity of the viewer create fertile grounds for our political disempowerment and authoritarian control. This may be even more true in the post-TV internet era. (Is Google making us stupid?) (Parenthetically, one of the strongest antidotes to this is — quite simply — reading.) Related to this is the explosive growth of psychological expertise in manipulative mind control in the advertising and mass marketing industries, techniques clearly exploited in the methodology of media creation trump’s will to power and fabrication of reality.

Certainly innocent susceptibility to propaganda has played a role, as has the appeal of racial purity and tribalism, as they did in Germany. That the “majority minority” US of the 2010’s is a more heterogeneous society than the Germany of the 1930’s makes the appeal to homogeneity and demonization of the outsider much less impactful, makes it easier for those of us who assert that “Black Lives Matter” to stand against, and contributes to the fact that he only garners around 50% rather than 90% support. But now, when we have to think about what degree of reconciliation and healing is desirable and possible with trump gone, we must decide how fair or unfair it is to assume that most or even many of that 70 million bear responsibility for the actions of the trump regime. Let us hope we continue to appreciate how much messier it is than that.

If this isn’t the definition of white trash, I don’t know what is

In this combination photo provided by the San Angelo, Texas police department, from left, Destiney Harbour, Christin Bradley and Dustin Smock are pictured in booking photos dated Nov. 7, 2020. Harbour, Bradley and Smock have been charged with First D

‘A 2-month-old girl who tested positive for heroin after being found unresponsive with injection marks at a West Texas home over the weekend has died, police said Thursday. San Angelo police said Brixlee Marie Lee died Tuesday at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth. Police said Thursday that officers rushed Brixlee to a San Angelo hospital Saturday after responding to a report of an unconscious infant. Hospital staff found injection marks on her extremities and head, and her urine tested positive for heroin, police said. Later that day, she was transported to Cook Children’s, where she remained on life support until she was pronounced dead.

The girl’s mother, Destiney Harbour, 21, was arrested Saturday, along with her mother, Christin Bradley, 37, and Bradley’s boyfriend, Dustin Smock, 34, police said. All three have been charged with causing serious bodily injury to a child…’

(ABC News)

(Sorry to be so unempathic…)

Why Google Maps is the Creepiest App on Your Phone

Google Maps Timeline.

It wants your search history and limits your features if you don’t share (the log out button is hidden). It wants to know your habits and knows your every move while you’re online. And it doesn’t like it when you’re offline. And it makes it seem like all of this is a favor to you. (Vice)

Lucky’s Monologue from Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’

This is a repost of an older post on FmH. I just looked at the stats for the search terms that brought people to FmH over the past 12 months, and by my count, 80 of the 1583 hits were directed to this post. Why in the world should that be the case?? Whatever. It’s worth your while.

Samuel Beckett – Lucky's Monologue | Genius

‘Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven so blue still and calm so calm with a calm which even though intermittent is better than nothing but not so fast and considering what is more that as a result of the labours left unfinished crowned by the Acacacacademy of Anthropopopometry of Essy-in-Possy of Testew and Cunard it is established beyond all doubt all other doubt than that which clings to the labours of men that as a result of the labours unfinished of Testew and Cunard it is established as hereinafter but not so fast for reasons unknown that as a result of the public works of Puncher and Wattmann it is established beyond all doubt that in view of the labours of Fartov and Belcher left unfinished for reasons unknown of Testew and Cunard left unfinished it is established what many deny that man in Possy of Testew and Cunard that man in Essy that man in short that man in brief in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation is seen to waste and pine waste and pine and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the strides of physical culture the practice of sports such as tennis football running cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding conating camogie skating tennis of all kinds dying flying sports of all sorts autumn summer winter winter tennis of all kinds hockey of all sorts penicilline and succedanea in a word I resume and concurrently simultaneously for reasons unknown to shrink and dwindle in spite of the tennis I resume flying gliding golf over nine and eighteen holes tennis of all sorts in a word for reasons unknown in Feckham Peckham Fulham Clapham namely concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown but time will tell to shrink and dwindle I resume Fulham Clapham in a word the dead loss per caput since the death of Bishop Berkeley being to the tune of one inch four ounce per caput approximately by and large more or less to the nearest decimal good measure round figures stark naked in the stockinged feet in Connemara in a word for reasons unknown no matter what matter the facts are there and considering what is more much more grave that in the light of the labours lost of Steinweg and Peterman it appears what is more much more grave that in the light the light the light of the labours lost of Steinweg and Peterman that in the plains in the mountains by the seas by the rivers running water running fire the air is the same and then the earth namely the air and then the earth in the great cold the great dark the air and the earth abode of stones in the great cold alas alas in the year of their Lord six hundred and something the air the earth the sea the earth abode of stones in the great deeps the great cold an sea on land and in the air I resume for reasons unknown in spite of the tennis the facts are there but time will tell I resume alas alas on on in short in fine on on abode of stones who can doubt it I resume but not so fast I resume the skull to shrink and waste and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the tennis on on the beard the flames the tears the stones so blue so calm alas alas on on the skull the skull the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the labours abandoned left unfinished graver still abode of stones in a word I resume alas alas abandoned unfinished the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the skull alas the stones Cunard tennis… the stones… so calm… Cunard… unfinished…’

— Genius

These Researchers Tested Positive. But the Virus Wasn’t the Cause

Coronavirus Test Kits Sent to States Are Flawed, C.D.C. Says - The New York  Times

Five geneticists working with the coronavirus’s genome at the Harvard University lab of Dr George Church (one of the founders of the Human Genome Project) and exposed to snippets of its DNA not in themselves infectious tested positive on the widely used coronavirus test made by the Broad Institute in Cambridge when they underwent routine swabs. Unfortunately, the pieces of the pathogen’s genetic materials with which they were working in the lab were the pieces of the viral genome that the coronavirus test targeted.

‘ “I guess it is probably somewhat embarrassing,” Dr. Wannier said. (Out of an abundance of caution, he, his colleagues and their close contacts still isolated or quarantined themselves.) But given the nature of his lab’s ongoing projects, he added, “something like this was bound to happen at some point.”

Contaminated positives such as these are extremely rare, health experts said. People outside the research community should not worry about their own test results being compromised by lab chemicals. Blame also should not be pinned on the test, which did its intended job of rooting out the virus’s genetic material…’

Contaminations, as opposed to true infections, have been more and more frequent given the number of researchers studying the coronavirus. When they occur, they disrupt classes and research productivity and impact emotional wellbeing.

‘The contamination events played out similarly at several institutions. The Church lab, where five people have tested positive, was among the earliest. Nine scientists in three separate research groups at the neighboring Wyss Institute were soon to follow, as well as two members of a lab at M.I.T. run by the Crispr scientist Feng Zhang. Some 50 miles south, 10 people at Brown University suffered a similar experience shortly after the campus reopened for fall term. Six more such cases have been identified at Cornell…

New York Times

Surveying their labs, researchers found that wayward bits of the DNA with which they worked had made their way onto equipment, sinks, door handles, backpacks, clothing and in some cases had hitchhiked home on the researchers contaminating family members. The Church lab has since switched to working on a different fragment of the viral genome to avoid overlap with the Broad test.

(One potential pitfall I see in this situation is that, once a positive Coronavirus test result in a researcher or researchers at a lab has been determined to be from contamination rather than infection, subsequent positive surveillance testing might be discounted or ignored and true infections missed, with potentially dire consequences.)

Is the Coup Happening?

Trump fascism 10181

I wrote before the election outcome of the need to prepare for a possible coup by trump after his election loss and the need for a rapid decisive response if he attempted to seize power illegally. Is this happening? Could a blatant powergrab by a racist and misogynistic proto-fascist demagogue be just the culmination of the willingness of high-ranking Republicans and a rabid powerbase to go along with behavior after behavior we were deluded enough to believe could not happen here? It is not so implausible. The US government has long had the capability to interfere with the democratic process in other countries, facilitating the installation of autocrats and undermining a citizenry’s faith in the governing party and the processes of peaceful transition of power. Why not here? George Washington himself warned about Americans electing a president who would refuse to step down. But did anyone anticipate a Republican Party so willing to push the bounds of democracy?

trump has not only refused to concede — the tantrum of a petulant spoiled brat we might expect of him — but has also instructed the government to decline to provide the Biden transition team with needed resources. He told federal agencies to move ahead preparing his 2021 budget. And his spineless sycophantic followers are simply talking as if his defeat has not happened. Under fire from right wing media for not bolstering the evidence-free claims of the theft of the election and after meeting with Mitch McConnell behind closed doors, “trump’s Roy Cohn” William Barr instructed the Department of trump Justice to look into serious “allegations” of supposed voter fraud. And last night came Mike Pompeo’s matter-of-fact reference to the “smooth transition to the second trump administration”. If it wasn’t so ominous, it’d merely be ludicrous. 

Over the last few days of tweeting, trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the Defense Dept.’s top policy official’s resignation was accepted. This massacre of top Pentagon officials will result in their replacement by trump loyalists and rabid conspiracy theorists, including a retired brigadier general known for calling former President Barack Obama a terrorist. The move has single-handedly swept decades of experience and stability out of the Pentagon. These actions and threats of future firing expose the national security apparatus (New York Times) to genuine instability and risk. The Washington Post and others spin this as a battle over “politicization of the military” but what does that mean? It raises the specter of plans for darker uses of a military under his grip, e.g. enforcing a declaration of martial law. After all, one of Esper’s crimes was refusing to deploy troops against American protesters on American soil, and he reportedly told the Military Times that “God help us” if his successor was “a real yes man.” Yet, there is no evidence that trump has the support of military leaders and good evidence that the Joint Chiefs despise him. Not to mention that he is held in contempt by the intelligence community and reviled by most Justice Dept functionaries. 


And there is no evidence that trump thugs have prevented the vote count from proceeding smoothly and fairly. Election officials across the country steadfastly insist they are not seeing evidence of voter fraud. trump’s lawsuits are going nowhere given that the courts so far — except maybe SCOTUS — still work on the basis of evidentiary rules rather than as instruments of partisan wish-fulfillment. trump’s sole legal win so far has been to have election observers in Philadelphia allowed to get close enough to the vote count to see that nothing was awry. Furthermore, none of the legal challenges, even if upheld, would result in changing the outcome. The unsung heroes of the election, state election officials, just kept doing their jobs counting ballots. And, as Eli Mystal points out in The Nation, courts simply do not throw out counted votes. 

The media and the world community are treating Biden as the president-elect. There is a general consensus among many segments of American society that there is no route to a trump second term. Even Fox News isn’t echoing the stolen-election rhetoric despite Jared Kushner getting Rupert Murdoch on the horn. Notable Republicans — e.g. Chris Christie, Mitt Romney, and the governor of my state, Charlie Baker —  have been among those to congratulate Biden and pledge to work with him on a smooth transition. While we have not seen a wholesale rejection of trump’s effort to delegitimize the election and others including prominent Republicans have signed onto the trump delusion hook-line-and-sinker, they are individuals only. trump has not succeeded in coopting entire institutions. Much as he may intend to continue to operate a government-in-exile from Mar a Lago (or more likely the Caymans or somewhere else without an extradition treaty with the US) based on his denial of the reality of being thrown out of office, trump cannot govern without the machinery of government. Even if I have grown over the past four years to mightily distrust my own it-can’t happen-here incredulity, it seems like an impossible stretch to think he could consolidate a power grab.  Most recently, Richard Pilger resigned Monday night as head of the Justice Department’s election crimes branch, protesting Attorney General William Barr’s encouraging federal prosecutors to pursue allegations of voting irregularities. While this could be seen as evidence of how demoralized the Justice Dept is by being so blatantly used as a partisan tool, it is also an admirable stand. Even blocking the resources for the Biden transition comes down to the bottleneck of the misguided loyalty of a single government bureaucrat at the General Services Administration, not the collusion of the entire agency. The New York Times reports on growing discomfort at the law firms representing trump in election lawsuits about undermining the electoral process. And in private, trump advisors express pessimism about the prospects for success in perverting the election results (Washington Post). Internal dissension (NPR) is an important bulwark against coups.

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So the effort is likely to be pitifully ineffectual. As if we needed evidence, consider the Four Seasons press conference debacle (Vox) last weekend! More to the point is that those supporting trump’s narrative are far from unified in their goals. Some are simply in the thrall of trump’s primitive malignant personality and trying to spare him the agony of defeat (or spare them his narcissistic rage), although even members of his family are asking him to concede. Others may legitimately want to advance what they see as his political agenda if he were to remain in power. Difficult as it may be to believe, some remain duped into believing that a trump presidency is in their self-interest and that he cares about their welfare. The deeply anti-intellectual style of a segment of the American population predicates having their reality dictated to them rather than arrived at via active inquiry and being informed. If it wasn’t so ominous, it’d merely be ludicrous. 

Some may be duped into believing that upholding the democratic principle that we can contest elections mandates that we should, poisoning a significant segment of the electorate not only against the election results but against the electoral process. Some — evangelicals, post-teapartyers, etc. — may seek to facilitate the preservation of what they see as the “movement” ideology even if they find its figurehead to be execrable or irrelevant. Tribal racists and bigots may be motivated to undermine a democratic process which reflects  empowerment, inclusion and diversity. Some simply want to sabotage a Democratic presidency at all costs on principle, or Biden personally. For some it may be due to their inability to metabolize the prospect of a powerful woman, or a woman of color, as VP. 

And some politicians feel their own future personal political aspirations depend on not alienating trump’s redhat wingnuts or risking the infantile bully’s wrath. Columnist Will Bunch theorizes that Mitch McConnell, realizing that his power hinges on the outcome of the two January Senate runoffs in Georgia, knows the Republican incumbents will lose unless he gooses up his voters with outrage based on delusion and conspiracy theory rather than leave them demoralized and disempowered by trump’s loss. And even trump’s solicitation letters to raise money for the legal challenges to the election — from people he considers exploitable chumps and contemptible losers, as I have previously written here — acknowledge that the funds will really go to pay off the deep debt his campaign has incurred. trump may also simply be trying to set the stage for another presidential run in 2024… if he is not in jail. His remaining in power is probably the only way he could hope to avoid criminal conviction and imprisonment. It is likely that efforts based on so many disparate purposes will end up being at cross-purposes.

So if this is a coup attempt, it appears to be an erratic and farcically inept one destined to fail, albeit not without an unprecedented transition nightmare. As Bunch wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer,


Watching the presidency of donald trump these last four years has been a lot like viewing a Hollywood horror flick, so you just know that right near the end of the movie — as the bruised, breathless protagonists breathe a sigh of relief over the corpse of his political career, the monster would pop back up one final time.

Trump’s refusal to accept that he lost the election will not go away when the last of the frivolous lawsuits is thrown out of court for lack of merit. Since he took office, he has always blamed “deep state” conspirators and “fake news” for his failures. Refusing to concede perpetuates the fiction that he is being forced from office precisely because he has kept the faith with his base, setting the stage for his continued dominance of the rabid right. Multiple sources have reported that trump sees the writing on the wall despite his continued refusal to concede. Reflecting a dawning realization that he leaves office in two months, he is reportedly talking privately about running in 2024. A top White House aide has reportedly said that he is only contesting the results as a form of ‘theater.” “Let me have the fight,” he is reputed to have said, even though it is not winnable. He has also allegedly started telling friends about his ambitions to start a media competitor to Fox News, which betrayed him by their honesty. 

The next stage is almost certainly going to focus on interfering with state certification of the election results and attempting to get Republican legislatures to send pro-trump delegations to the Electoral College on Dec. 14th in defiance of the popular vote. Trump would need to take at least three of the six key swing states (MI, WI, PA, AZ, NV, and GA). Democrats control most key state offices in these six states but Republicans control the state legislatures in five of the six. There is currently no clear legal authority to do so but Supreme Court Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh have offered recent support for state legislatures’ right to set election rules. Some rabid state representatives have already hinted at appointing trump electors instead of Biden’s. With enough Supreme Court Justices behind them, they just might try it, especially if the “election was stolen” meme becomes so widely accepted that Republican voters demand action forcefully enough.

…[I]f we start to see certifications being delayed by the courts, or state legislators preparing serious efforts to appoint their own electors, then an attempt to steal the election from Biden could really be taking off.

said Andrew Prokop on Vox. Keep in mind that Mitch McConnell has reaffirmed that, while trump is within his rights to pursue legal options now, state certification of results and the Electoral College will settle things legitimately.

Has trump progressed from malignant narcissism to paranoid psychosis? I continue to insist we look at whether trump’s failure to concede his loss is evidence that his mental health has deteriorated to the point where he should be removed now by the 25th amendment process, sparing us this transition torture which functions either to salve his damaged ego and/or set the stage for his 2024 candidacy. Do we have the political will and the necessary support to do so? Unless I’m missing something obvious about why not, I remain flabbergasted at the lack of consideration of this available and reasonable option.

Barring that miracle, I won’t breathe a sigh of substantial relief until the trespasser is frogmarched out of the White House at the stroke of noon on January 20th. Yes, the American people have to be ready to take to the streets in massive numbers — and Saturday’s jubilant celebrations were an indication that they can do so — but now is not yet the time.

For the moment, we should be focused on continuing to celebrate trump’s dismissal, prepare for the Biden Presidency, begin to envision how a post-Orange Menace America will look, and figure out how to devote our energies to the healing ahead. Revel and heal while you can. Even barring the extremely dubious premise that trump will find a way to remain in office, we live in a country — if you can call it one country — in which, while 76 million people elected Biden, 71 million voted for trump, and believe his false statements that the election was taken by fraud. Some are convinced of the possibility of a civil war. Richard Kreitner wrote:

The United States never resolved the first civil war. The idea of a second civil war has been around literally since within months of the end of the first one. Too many Americans do not appreciate that fact… The issues that led to the first civil war remain in many ways unresolved. There is a massive reckoning over the country’s own history that has been long postponed. Resolving such matters is rarely peaceful. There are also foreign adversaries and other forces who are interfering in the election. All the elements for the story are present right now in America.

Even without an outbreak of armed domestic conflict, we will have to contend with a sort of rolling coup or quiet civil war given the grip that trump and trumpism will likely retain on the GOP, likely paralyzing control of one house of the legislative branch, control of many statehouses and consequent dominance over redistricting, and an abiding influence in the judiciary. And, even barring the extremely dubious premise that trump could find some way to remain in office, As Ezra Klein wrote in Vox

To say that America’s institutions did not wholly fail in the Trump era is not the same thing as saying they succeeded. They did not, and in particular, the Republican Party did not. It has failed dangerously, spectacularly. It has made clear that would-be autocrats have a path to power in the United States, and if they can walk far enough down that path, an entire political party will support them, and protect them. And it has been insulated from public fury by a political system that values land over people, and that lets partisan actors set election rules and draw district lines — and despite losing the presidency, the GOP still holds the power to tilt that system further in its direction in the coming years.


Even if we dismiss the fervor of trump’s supporters as largely predicated on conspiracy theory, it looks like he has succeeded in making conspiracy theorists of the rest of us. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. 

What will President Biden’s United States look like to the rest of the world?

Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel watch Donald Trump during a ‘family photo’ at the Nato summit in Watford, England, in December 2019.

‘What is the best the world can now hope for from the United States under President Joe Biden, now that the election has been called for him? My answer: that the US will be a leading country in a post-hegemonic network of democracies.

Yes, that’s a, not the leading country. Quite a contrast to the beginning of this century, when the “hyperpower” US seemed to bestride the globe like a colossus. The downsizing has two causes: the US’s decline, and others’ rise. Even if Biden had won a landslide victory and the Democrats controlled the Senate, the United States’ power in the world would be much diminished. President Donald Trump has done untold damage to its international reputation. His disastrous record on handling Covid confirmed a widespread sense of a society with deep structural problems, from healthcare, race and infrastructure to media-fuelled hyper-polarisation and a dysfunctional political system….’

— via Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian

Trump’s presidency will end, but first a national transition nightmare

The American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein, writing in USA Today, plots the trump administration’s roadmap for wreaking havoc during the lame duck period. This is not unprecedented. Between Lincoln’s election and inauguration, James Buchanan did nothing to prevent Southern secession or the seizure of forts and armaments the Confederacy would need to fight its war of secession. And Herbert Hoover did next to nothing before FDR’s inauguration while the economy spiraled downward in the Great Depression. But, arguably, these were based on ideological leanings, rigid though they might be, rather than the utter malice and narcissism we are likely to see in our current damaged president’s actions.
  • Expect a slew of executive actions, e.g. to fire civil servants (Washington Post) or open public lands to logging, mining and development. While executive orders enacted by one administration can be reversed by their successor (Washington Post), as Trump did with many of Obama’s actions, this is a cumbersome process and is of course hampered if the Republicans continue to hold the Senate. And the damage cannot always be undone, e.g. with wilderness destruction or court-stacking.
  • The expected slew of preemptive pardons, including those for Trump himself and his family, will encourage them further to act with impunity through Jan. 19th. Ornstein points out that this could provide cover to those who help trump cover his tracks by destroying incriminating or embarrassing documents in violation of the laws intended to preserve records.
  • Expect trumps’ humiliation to precipitate a vindictive putsch of anyone considered disloyal, including intelligence professionals and public health professionals, including Fauci and Birx, who stood up to trump’s anti-science ignorance. Again, these decisions can be reversed under Biden, but not before the damage is done. (I actually hope Fauci is released soon so he can begin working on Biden’s transition team.)
  • trump certainly has the potential to deepen the damage he has done to the US’s standing on the world stage, e.g. by exacerbating tensions with both adversaries — such as Iran, China, etc.— and erstwhile allies. Of course, foreign policy decisions move slowly, and recipients of this behavior will realize they only have to wait ten weeks for relief.
  • I find most concerning the likelihood that trump will spend his remaining weeks on the road soothing himself with rally after rally of his red-hat loyalists, fomenting not only further divisiveness but the possible extremist vigilante actions in response to the “stealing” of the election.
“…unless trump shows a dramatic change in personality, we need to brace ourselves. Change is coming, thank God, but along the way, fasten seatbelts for severe turbulence,” concludes Ornstein. Given that these dangers arise from the psychologically well-known process of the exacerbation of the narcissist’s disordered personality by his humiliating defeat, I hope I am not alone in encouraging a fresh look at the 25th amendment for the swift removal of a president too debilitated to carry out his duties responsibly. This should be done with alacrity to mitigate the above mentioned potential damage. Trump may already be showing a descent into overt paranoia as evidenced by his preoccupation with the conspiracy against him. His removal from office would require decisive action by actors, including Republicans, responding to an urgent situation with a clear commitment to the wellbeing of the country superseding any remaining fear of trump’s wrath. This may well depend on whether trump’s vindictiveness will have any sway after Jan. 20th. I hope he will not retain any semblance of a role as an elder statesmen in the GOP (he is likely to be embroiled in endless court proceedings as both a civil and criminal defendant, if he does not flee to someplace without an extradition treaty with the US.) There has already begun to be a lot of rhetoric about healing the divisive wounds. I hope that Republican politicians will not feel they need to continue to court his redhat wingnuts.

Why did the universe begin?

Nobel prizewinner Roger Penrose details an astonishing origin hypothesis:

‘While many scientists hold firm that there’s no decent evidence to support the notion that anything existed before the Big Bang, new hypotheses have cracked open the door for the possibility. The UK mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, a professor emeritus at Oxford University and co-recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics, is a convert to the camp of thinkers entertaining the notion of a pre-Big Bang state. In this interview with Robert Lawrence Kuhn for the PBS series Closer to Truth, Penrose details a somewhat mind-boggling idea he’s advanced known as the ‘conformal cyclic cosmology’ hypothesis, which proposes that our Universe is just one in an infinite series….’

— via Aeon Videos

How do you know when civilization is collapsing?

‘Only complexity provides an explanation that applies in every instance of collapse. We go about our lives, addressing problems as they arise. Complexity builds and builds, usually incrementally, without anyone noticing how brittle it has all become. Then some little push arrives, and the society begins to fracture. The result is a “rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” In human terms, that means central governments disintegrating and empires fracturing into “small, petty states,” often in conflict with one another. Trade routes seize up, and cities are abandoned. Literacy falls off, technological knowledge is lost and populations decline sharply. “The world,” Tainter writes, “perceptibly shrinks, and over the horizon lies the unknown.”

A disaster — even a severe one like a deadly pandemic, mass social unrest or a rapidly changing climate — can… never be enough by itself to cause collapse. Societies evolve complexity, he argues, precisely to meet such challenges. …The last major pandemic makes the case well: The Spanish Flu killed 675,000 Americans between 1918 and 1919, but the economic hit was short-lived, and the outbreak did not slow the nation’s push for hemispheric dominance. Whether any existing society is close to collapsing depends on where it falls on the curve of diminishing returns. There’s no doubt that we’re further along that curve: The United States hardly feels like a confident empire on the rise these days. But how far along are we? …’

New York Times Magazine

The Criminal Case Against Donald Trump Is in the Works

‘Trump’s conviction would seal the greatest downfall in American politics since Richard Nixon. Unlike his associates who were sentenced to prison on federal charges, Trump would not be eligible for a presidential pardon or commutation, even from himself. And while his lawyers would file every appeal they can think of, none of it would spare Trump the indignity of imprisonment. Unlike the federal court system, which often allows prisoners to remain free during the appeals process, state courts tend to waste no time in carrying out punishment. After someone is sentenced in New York City, their next stop is Rikers Island. Once there, as Trump awaited transfer to a state prison, the man who’d treated the presidency like a piggy bank would receive yet another handout at the public expense: a toothbrush and toothpaste, bedding, a towel, and a green plastic cup….’

— via New York Magazine