March 14, 2020

Posted by orrinj at 7:45 PM


Obama's Ebola Victory Lap: "People were understandably afraid. And, if we're honest, some stoked those fears," the president said. (GEORGE E. CONDON JR. and National Journal, FEBRUARY 11, 2015, The Atlantic)

He reminded his audience that he ignored the criticism of his actions and the political advice to impose quarantines and travel bans. Even though polls showed that the country was afraid and distrustful of the reassurances coming from Washington, Obama stuck with the experts.

"Remember, there was no small amount of skepticism about our chances," he said with some understatement. "People were understandably afraid. And, if we're honest, some stoked those fears. But we believed that if we made policy based not on fear, but on sound science and good judgment, America could lead an effective global response while keeping the American people safe, and we could turn the tide of the epidemic."

On Wednesday, he could not resist recalling the bad, often-partisan advice he was getting in October over his response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and the fears of it spreading to the United States. The coverage on cable news channels was nonstop, and the partisan assault was fierce and unrelenting with elections only weeks away. There was enormous pressure to cancel flights from the affected regions and ignore the doctors who said that would be counterproductive.

"In the 21st century, we cannot build moats around our countries. There are no drawbridges to be pulled up. We shouldn't try," he said. With Dr. Kent Brantly, one of the survivors, in the audience, the president recalled how controversial it was to bring him to the United States for treatment. "Some worried about bringing the disease to our shores." But he said he sided with the experts who knew "that we had to make the decisions based not on fear, but on science."

With Republicans often branding him as a non-believer in "American Exceptionalism," Obama offered his own definition. "What makes us exceptional is when there's a big challenge and we hear somebody saying it's too hard to tackle, and we come together as a nation and prove you wrong."

Posted by orrinj at 7:33 PM


Infighting, missteps and a son-in-law hungry for results: Inside the Trump administration's troubled coronavirus response (Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey March 14, 2020, Washington Post)

President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser -- who has zero expertise in infectious diseases and little experience marshaling the full bureaucracy behind a cause -- saw the administration floundering and inserted himself at the helm, believing he could break the logjam of internal dysfunction.

Kushner rushed to help write Trump's widely panned Oval Office address to the nation. His supermodel sister-in-law's father, Kurt Kloss, an emergency room doctor, crowdsourced suggestions from his Facebook network to pass along to Kushner. And Kushner pressed tech executives to help build a testing website and retail executives to help create mobile testing sites -- but the projects were only half-baked when Trump revealed them Friday in the White House Rose Garden.

What you need to know about coronavirus

Kushner entered into a crisis management process that, despite the triumphant and self-congratulatory tone of public briefings, was as haphazard and helter-skelter as the chaotic early days of Trump's presidency -- turning into something of a family-and-friends pandemic response operation.

The administration's struggle to mitigate the coronavirus outbreak has been marked by infighting and blame-shifting, misinformation and missteps, and a slow recognition of the danger. Warring factions have wrestled for control internally and for approval from a president who has been preoccupied with the beating his image is taking.

The scramble for solutions is occurring in an overriding atmosphere of trepidation of saying something that Trump might perceive as disloyal and of fear that their fumbles could cost the president his reelection in November.

Posted by orrinj at 7:19 PM


Artificial intelligence finds new antibiotic (TIM SANDLE, 3/14/20, Digital Journal)

Technologists, working with microbiologists, have made a significant breakthrough in the hunt for new antimicrobials. By using artificial intelligence, a new candidate antibiotic has been identified.

The discovery was made using a machine-learning algorithm. This technology enabled scientists to discover a powerful new antibiotic compound.

Posted by orrinj at 10:00 AM


Why coal power is now an economic loser around the world: Four astonishing facts about coal's declining viability. (David Roberts, Mar 14, 2020, Vox)

1. It is already cheaper to build new renewables than to build new coal plants, in all major markets.

Just two years ago, in 2018, Carbon Tracker did a similar analysis and concluded that new renewable energy would undercut new coal in all major markets by 2025. "Using updated data from publicly available sources," it concludes in this year's report, "we now believe these conclusions are too conservative."

In fact, they say, new renewables are cheaper than new coal plants in all major markets ... today.

2. Over half the existing global coal fleet is more expensive to run than building new renewables.

The second threshold, Carbon Tracker finds, has been crossed by about 60 percent of the global coal fleet, which now has a higher LMRC than the LCOE of new renewable energy.

"This trend is most pronounced in the EU, which has a strong carbon price and has benefited from years of investment in renewable energy," the report says. "The US, China, and India are not far behind the EU due to excellent renewable energy resources, low capital costs, and least-cost policymaking."

In markets where this threshold has not been crossed, like Turkey and Japan, the blame generally falls on unsupportive policy and unreliable markets.

3. By 2030, it will be cheaper to build new renewables than to run existing coal -- everywhere.

This is the real mind-blower: even in laggard markets, Carbon Tracker projects that coal power will cross the second threshold by 2030 at the latest.

In other words, within ten years, virtually every coal plant in the world will be uneconomic, producing power more expensive than what could be generated by new renewables. 

Carbon emissions are just a fetish of the Right.
Posted by orrinj at 9:42 AM


The Elegant Mathematics of Social Distancing (AARIAN MARSHALL, 03.14.2020, Wired)

"We all have to make contacts with people while we live our lives, what we should aim to do is to limit them, and certainly not to add more," says William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard's Chan School of Public Health. "This may seem silly if your community is not yet reporting infections, but it is best to get used to thinking this way."

From a mathematical perspective, determining how big a crowd is safe depends on a couple of key questions: How many people in a given area are infected with the disease? And how big is the event? If you know those things, you can estimate the probability of someone getting infected at the event. An elegant "Covid-19 Event Risk Assessment Planner" by the Georgia Tech quantitative biologist Joshua Weitz makes the following calculation: If, say, 20,000 cases of infection are actively circulating the US (far more than are known so far), and you host a dinner party for 10 folks, there's a 0.061 percent chance that an attendee will be infected. But if you attend a 10,000-person hockey match, there's a 45 percent chance. Hence the suspension of the NHL season, along with the NBA, March Madness, and Major League Baseball.

Unlike in a flu epidemic, there's no underlying immunity in the population, meaning if you come in contact with the fluids of an infected person, you're likely to get sick. In light of these sorts of calculations, and the fact that the virus seems to be spreading throughout a number of American communities, "it makes sense to do things like cancel mass gatherings and schools," says Lopman.

Public health experts like social distancing for three reasons. For one, it likely "flattens the curve," or decreases the number of infections at one time, or even overall. That helps prevent overloading the health care system, with its limited number of doctors, nurses, beds, and equipment like ventilators. Also, it buys time for a vaccine to be developed, says Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the former assistant director of the Houston Health Department.

Posted by orrinj at 9:06 AM


The sick joke of Donald Trump's presidency isn't funny any more (Richard Wolffe, 13 Mar 2020, The Guardian)

For three long years the world has been treated to the sick joke of Donald Trump's presidency. Some days were more sick than others. But now the joke is over.

So is the entire facade of the Trump White House: the gold-plated veneer of power and grift will be stripped bare by a global pandemic and recession.

Of all the obituaries we'll read in the next several weeks, every one will be more meaningful than the political end of a former reality-TV star.

But make no mistake. The humanitarian crisis about to unfold will consume what's left of this president and the Republican party that surrendered its self-respect and sense of duty to flatter his ego and avoid his angry tweets.

Trump was right about one thing, and only one thing, as the coronavirus started to spread across the world. The sight of thousands of dead Americans will hurt him politically. It will also hurt many thousands of Americans in reality.

Multiple reports have detailed how Trump did not just ignore the growing pandemic; he actively sought to block his own officials' attempts to track and stop it. Why has there been such a disastrous lack of testing? Because the president didn't want to know the answer, and because his staff were too busy fighting each other to do the right thing.

"The boss has made it clear he likes to see his people fight, and he wants the news to be good," Politico reported one Trump health adviser saying. "This is the world he's made."

Sorry, dude, it's all comedy:

Posted by orrinj at 8:55 AM


Pelosi Passes Virus Response Bill, Filling Vacuum Left by Trump (Billy House, March 14, 2020, Bloomberg)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump haven't spoken in months, but the California Democrat seized the initiative to strike a deal with the White House on a broad measure aimed at helping Americans cope with the spiraling effects of the coronavirus outbreak.

After Trump didn't deliver on a promised announcement of a "major" economic stimulus package, Pelosi and House Democrats on Wednesday put out their own plan to ease some of the economic impact on workers and families. That began a series of negotiations between Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin over the course of three days and more than two dozen phone calls.

The end result was a rare bit of bipartisanship. The House, with the president's support, passed a bill early Saturday morning on a 363-40 vote to provide paid sick leave, money for food stamps, bolstered unemployment insurance and significant new funding for Medicaid. Those are all are long-held Democratic priorities, though in this version they are scaled back and temporary.

For Pelosi, it was a chance to step into a leadership vacuum and to demonstrate Americans in an election year how a Democratic-led government would function.

"We could have passed our bill yesterday," Pelosi said Friday night. "But we thought it was important to show the American people, that for the American people, that we are willing and able to work together to get a job done for them."

Donald who?
Posted by orrinj at 8:32 AM



On March 10, President Trump retweeted a post from conservative political activist Charlie Kirk, who referred to the coronavirus (COVID-19) as the "China Virus." Kirk also exclaimed in his tweet, "Now, more than ever, we need the wall...the US stands a chance if we can get control of our borders." Trump retweeted this and added the comment, "Going up fast. We need the wall more than ever!"

At first blush, this exchange might seem like the garden-variety white nationalist xenophobia characteristic of Trump or many of his influential supporters. Fox News' Tucker Carlson and GOP House Representative Kevin McCarthy, in fact, have both insisted on continuing to call the disease the "Chinese Coronavirus." But Trump's retweet, and where it originates, helps shed light not only on the Right's brazen xenophobia, but on the link between America's supposed religious heritage and fears of ethnic pollution. 

Charlie Kirk is co-founder of Liberty University's Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty. The Falkirk Center is described by Liberty's newspaper as a "modern think tank set to renew and defend God-given freedoms and Christian principles throughout American politics and culture." 

That an ambassador of Christian nationalism like Kirk would hold xenophobic attitudes should be no surprise. In Taking America Back for God, we show that such views are fundamental to the Christian nationalist framework. One of the most consistent findings in research on Christian nationalism over the past decade is that Americans who more strongly subscribe to this ideology are more likely to be staunchly anti-immigrant―especially if those immigrants are non-white and/or non-Christian.

But Kirk's repeated "China Virus" tweets, and Trump's powerful retweet, both connecting the spread of disease with the need to keep immigrants out, are a clear reminder that white Christian nationalism has always connected non-white immigrants with social and biological contamination. Immigration is framed as an issue of purity or contamination; a righteous body politic or pathological disease. 

Chinese immigrants have long been the target of such attacks. The Immigration Act of 1882 included the Chinese Exclusion Act, which all but banned immigrants from anywhere in Asia, who were perceived to be plagued with "the social and political diseases of the Old World." Asians in particular, and to a lesser extent Eastern Europeans, were deemed less worthy than immigrants from parts of Europe populated by those more likely to be "White" and "Protestant," which have often been historically been understood  to mean the same thing.

Trump's 2016 Presidential campaign, which was successful due in no small part to his appeals to white Christian nationalism, drew on similar "contamination" rhetoric to shore up support for the Mexican border wall.

Exposes?  It's not as if they hide their racism.  Donald's henchman, Steve Bannon, told them to wear it like a badge of honor.

Posted by orrinj at 8:16 AM


The End Is Near? Three Apocalyptic Novels (JACK BUTLER, March 14, 2020, National Review)

In P. D. James's Children of Men, mankind is suddenly and inexplicably stricken with universal infertility. The 2021 England in which the story takes place is a caretaker tyranny, dominated by a figure who suspends democracy and curtails liberty for the promise of an agreeable senescence for a civilization that no longer cares for its future, because it doesn't think it will have one. The youngest living humans are in their mid-20s; no children have been born since.

The lack of children has affected society in myriad ways. The youngest humans are a fearsome force, the last source of any real vigor in society, but unrestrained by any social mores. Infertile couples bury childlike dolls (and controversy rages over whether religious involvement is licit); custody battles rage over pets. Sex "divorced from procreation" has "become almost meaninglessly acrobatic"; the state sponsors pornography in a vain attempt to keep the sexual instinct alive should a miracle occur and reproduction become viable again. And most disturbing: The state sponsors "Quietus," a "mass suicide of the old" in which the elderly are "encouraged" to kill themselves. It is a public ritual whose voluntary status Theo, the novel's protagonist, discovers is a fiction, forcing him to accept the barbarity of the regime perpetrating this euthanasia.

This enervated world originated before universal infertility, however. Theo believes that he "can trace" both the present societal decline and a persistent concern for personal health "to the early 1990s: the search for alternative medicine, the perfumed oils, the massage, the stroking and anointing, the crystal-holding, the non-penetrative sex." Around the same time, "the recognized churches, particularly the Church of England, moved from the theology of sin and redemption to a less uncompromising doctrine: corporate social responsibility coupled with sentimental humanism." This analysis of the "past" in the book is actually a condemnation of the writer's present, 1992.

Though James was not Catholic, her work is steeped in the anxieties of Catholicism that were addressed, but not resolved, in the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae. This was Pope Paul VI's broadside against contemporary sexual mores and in favor of the Church's ancient teachings, one he delivered against the recommendations of the committee he assembled to assist in its drafting. Catholicism was hardly alone in dealing with these anxieties. At a disputed vote at the Lambeth Conference in 1930, the Anglican Communion ultimately resolved that "in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles." Far down the slippery slope of such attitudes, and in a twisted instance of the need to be careful what one wishes for, James's world is a spiritually and sexually hollow place, as consequence-free sex becomes an inescapable reality.

The world imagined by James in Children of Men rings truer in certain ways in our time than does either of the bombastic apocalypses of Miller or Benson. Leave aside the more obvious predictions, such as declining fertility rates and increased contraception use, the child-simulating dolls popular in low-fertility Japan, and the growing popularity of New Age spirituality (the latter also a feature of Benson's dystopia). Only James imagined a world in which institutional, established religion might linger on, but with its doctrinal integrity compromised, and its institutional strength all but vanished. Miller and Benson could imagine only that religious institutions would either be destroyed completely or maintain something of their ancient vitality. But James posited a murkier, middle ground.

She also posited hope.

Posted by orrinj at 8:04 AM


AI Is Coming for Your Most Mind-Numbing Office Tasks: Routine work, like cutting and pasting between documents, is increasingly being automated. But for now, there's little artificial intelligence involved. (WILL KNIGHT, 03.14.2020, Wired)

In 2018, the New York Foundling, a charity that offers child welfare, adoption, and mental health services, was stuck in cut-and-paste hell.

Clinicians and admin staff were spending hours transferring text between different documents and databases to meet varied legal requirements. Arik Hill, the charity's chief information officer, blames the data entry drudgery for an annual staff turnover of 42 percent at the time. "We are not a very glamorous industry," says Hill. "We are really only just moving on from paper clinical records."

Since then, the New York Foundling has automated much of this grunt work using what are known as software robots--simple programs hand-crafted to perform dull tasks. Often, the programs are built by recording and mimicking a user's keystrokes, such as copying a field of text from one database and pasting it into another, eliminating hours of repetitive-stress-inducing work.

"It was mind-blowing," says Hill, who says turnover has fallen to 17 percent.

To automate the work, the New York Foundling got help from UiPath, a so-called robotic process automation company. That project didn't require any real machine intelligence.

But in January, UiPath began upgrading its army of software bots to use powerful new artificial intelligence algorithms. It thinks this will let them take on more complex and challenging tasks, such as transcription or sorting images, across more offices. Ultimately, the company hopes software robots will gradually learn how to automate repetitive work for themselves.

In other words, if artificial intelligence is going to disrupt white-collar work, then this may be how it begins.

"When paired with robotic process automation, AI significantly expands the number and types of tasks that software robots can perform," says Tom Davenport, a professor who studies information technology and management at Babson College.

And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;

When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

Not so much, Big Fella.
Posted by orrinj at 7:56 AM


White House physician said Trump actually doesn't need to get tested for the coronavirus (The Week, 3/14/20)

Despite President Trump saying Friday he planned to get tested for the novel COVID-19 coronavirus, White House physician Sean Conley hours later said the action isn't necessary.

Trump, within the last week, had two interactions with individuals who tested positive for the virus -- he shook hands with Fabio Wajngarten, an aide to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and he also shared a table with another person at his Mar-a-Lago resort. But Conley said both instances were "low risk" because neither person was exhibiting symptoms at the time. He added that because Trump himself is without symptoms, testing or quarantine are not recommended.

Posted by orrinj at 7:50 AM


Why Trump isn't getting the payroll-tax cut he wanted for the coronavirus (Amber Phillips, March 14, 2020,. Washington Post)

Any tax break on paychecks would come out of the Social Security fund: That would risk seriously denting it or even depleting it, meaning people who depend on their Social Security check each month might not get it in a worst-case scenario. That's the primary reason Republicans oppose a cut, said a senior Republican Senate aide.

It's super expensive: Eliminating the payroll tax for both employees and employers would cost the government about $90 billion a month, aides in Congress estimated. Multiply that over the entire year and you're looking at about $1 trillion in lost government revenue. The New York Times Jim Tankersley put that in perspective: That's more than the 2008 Wall Street bailout or the 2009 stimulus bill to prop up the economy after the crash that ignited the Great Recession.

It would increase most paychecks by 7.65 percent, but that doesn't help shift workers or those who rely on tips, said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, on Wednesday. That's because most of their money doesn't come from paychecks.

It only helps people who are working now: So if you're unemployed -- or lost your job because of the coronavirus -- this wouldn't help you. And from Democrats' perspective, it could distract from the real goal they want: mandatory paid sick leave.

"If a single mom gets a notice from school her child has to stay home, her getting a payroll-tax deduction or refund isn't going to help her if she loses her job," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said Friday on MSNBC.

Here's how Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) describes the idea of a payroll-tax cut: "We don't think they should just throw money out of an airplane and hope some of it lands on the people who are affected."

Republicans aren't quite as vocal about their opposition to this, given their reluctance to upset Trump. But behind the scenes, this isn't something that they're seriously considering, no matter how much Trump tweets it or asks Congress for it in national addresses.

Posted by orrinj at 7:48 AM


Can nature really heal us? (Patrick Barkham, 14 Mar 2020, The Guardian

There is a revealing moment in Isabel Hardman's book where the author, a political journalist who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, joins a forest therapy session. The therapist encourages her to "connect" with herself and "experience nature better". Hardman wanders through the wood and finds a small hornbeam, which is twisting up towards the light, struggling to make its way in the shade of a mature oak. She is attracted to its shape, admires its bark, and draws parallels with her own life: how long it takes to heal and grow, how the scars we gather can still be beautiful "like the zig-zagging trunk of this young tree". She reaches up and snaps one of its twigs: the tree is dead.

"Serves me right for being so dreadfully whimsical," Hardman writes. "There seemed to be no neat life lesson here, nothing you'd want to write on a fridge magnet or share on social media. I'd come here hoping to connect with myself, and instead I'd been drawn to a tree that was secretly dead."

It is a valuable lesson in Hardman's The Natural Health Service, a practical and self-aware account of the relief from mental illness to be found outside. Hardman, and the many people she meets, identify respite, recovery and resilience in walking, running, cold-water swimming, gardening, "forest bathing", birdwatching, botanising, horse riding and caring for pets. The common denominator is what Hardman calls "the great outdoors", that plangent, hearty Victorian-sounding cliche. But as she shows, other species and their ecosystems can be rebellious medics. At times, the "natural" world resembles the magic mirror that undercuts Snow White's stepmother: rather than reflecting back ourselves, it is alive with its own agency, a challenge to our narcissism.

The Natural Health Service is one of a rapidly growing forest of new books that examine cures found in nature. This winter alone has brought the publication of The Wild Remedy by Emma Mitchell; Losing Eden by Lucy Jones; Rootbound by Alice Vincent; and Wintering by Katherine May. One of last year's unexpectedly prominent books - unexpected because it was rejected by publishers and crowdfunded via Unbound - was Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness. 

If you think nature is healing then it is.