May 4, 2020

Posted by orrinj at 6:04 PM


Why Scientists Think The Novel Coronavirus Developed Naturally -- Not In A Chinese Lab (Philip Kiefer, 5/04/20, 538)

Robert Garry, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Tulane University School of Medicine, said this dynamic is familiar. "Every time there's an outbreak, people say, oh, there's a lab close by." He should know: In 2014, during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, conspiracy theorists alleged his team's lab in Sierra Leone, not far from the origin of the outbreak, was a George Soros-funded bioweapons site.

According to a growing body of research, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is almost certainly a naturally occurring virus that initially circulated in bats then spilled into humans. But that hasn't stopped some from trying to find a more sinister origin. "It seems like such an extreme event that people are looking for an extraordinary explanation for it," said Stephen Goldstein, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah who studies coronaviruses. No single piece of evidence has yet confirmed the virus' origin. But according to scientists, the evidence that does exist paints a consistent picture of a wild virus, not one that sprang from a lab.

Posted by orrinj at 6:02 PM


Bush-Era Actions Have Boosted Coronavirus Response Efforts (Brian Finch Lora Ries, 5/04/20, National Interest)

The coronavirus pandemic is straining most federal and state emergency resources. But the strain--and the government's response--would have been far worse, if legislation enacted in the previous decade had not laid a solid foundation of expanded homeland security and emergency medical preparedness.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks--but that wasn't the only impetus. Another significant motivating factor was the 2001 anthrax attacks.

The latter attacks revealed serious weaknesses in America's preparedness for withstanding biological or chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This sparked several initiatives to provide surge capabilities in the event of a regional or national medical disaster. 

In creating the DHS, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 transferred a number of biodefense capabilities from other cabinet agencies into the new department. For example, it folded a number of biological, chemical, nuclear, and other WMD prevention and response operations, such as the Defense Department's National Bio-Weapons Defense Analysis Center into the Science & Technology Directorate at DHS.

It also transferred the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile (now the Strategic National Stockpile) into the new department. Clearly, responding to major medical events, including biological threats, has always been a core component of the DHS mission.

Once the new department was up and running, Congress gave it legal authorities to supercharge pandemic and WMD preparedness efforts.

Posted by orrinj at 5:57 PM


Ilhan Omar signs onto AIPAC letter siding with Trump on Iran (Bryant Harris, 5/04/20, Al-Monitor)

Posted by orrinj at 5:28 PM


Trump's Pick for Intelligence Chief Follows a Slew of QAnon Accounts (Spencer Ackerman & Will Sommer, May. 04, 2020, Daily Beast)

Ratcliffe's official, verified campaign Twitter account follows several accounts on the political fringe, including a 9/11 Truther account with just one follower besides himself and four promoting the outlandish QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that the world is run by a cabal of Democratic pedophile-cannibals -- and has been ruled a potential source of domestic terrorism by the FBI. 

The conspiracy theorists followed by Ratcliffe, whose nomination for director of national intelligence goes before the Senate intelligence committee Tuesday morning, cover a bizarre range of beliefs. They posit that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his death to help Trump to take down the Deep State. Others claim a Democratic sex dungeon exists in in a Washington pizzeria. But Ratcliffe and the QAnon promoters he follows have one thing in common: utter loyalty to Trump.

Posted by orrinj at 4:26 PM


Poll: Ernst lead evaporates in Iowa Senate race (MAX GREENWOOD, 05/04/20, The Hill)

The survey from the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling shows Ernst leading Greenfield, 43 percent to 42 percent. 

Posted by orrinj at 11:55 AM


Canada succeeded on coronavirus where America failed. Why? (Zack Beauchamp, May 4, 2020, Vox)

To explain this divergence, I spent the last week speaking with Canadian public health experts who had been following the situation in the two countries closely. These experts varied in their take on their own country's performance during the pandemic, assessments ranging from middle of the pack by global standards to one of the very best in the world.

But they all shared the same view of the difference between the United States and Canada: the Canadian policy response has been orders of magnitude better than the American equivalent.

"We have a federal government that is supporting provinces' responses," says David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. "You have a chief executive who is directly undermining the public health response."

There are a number of factors that have enabled Canada to perform at a higher level than the United States, including more consistent pre-virus funding for public health agencies and a universal health care system. But one of the most important seems to have been a difference in political leadership.

The American response has become infected by partisan politics and shot through with federal incompetence. Meanwhile, Canada's policies have been efficiently implemented with support from leaders across the political spectrum. The comparison is a case study in how a dysfunctional political system can quite literally cost lives.

Posted by orrinj at 11:52 AM



Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


What the Happiest Countries in the World Have in Common (Maura Fox, May 3, 2020, Outside)

In late March, the United Nations published the 2020 World Happiness Report, a comprehensive look at what makes the most contented countries work so well. For the seventh year in a row, the Nordic nations of Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden dominated the top ten. While rankings are based on several factors, including political rights and economic equality, these countries have a few key metrics in common: low corruption rates, universal public services, and great access to the outdoors. 

For many of these countries, not only is nature within easy reach, but it's an important part of their cultures. For the Scandinavian nations that take up six of the top-ten spots, the term friluftsliv, which literally translates to "open-air living," denotes "a philosophical lifestyle based on experiences of the freedom in nature and the spiritual connectedness with the landscape," according to "Friluftsliv: The Scandinavian Philosophy of Outdoor Life," an article in The Canadian Journal of Environmental Education. 

Sweden, which ranked seventh on the list, found that nearly one-third of all residents participate in outdoor recreation at least once a week and, in a country that strives for economic equality, nearly 50 percent of the population has access to a summer home. Denmark, ranked second, has forest schools for children to encourage learning in the outdoors at a young age, and one Danish study from 2019 found that children from greener neighborhoods were less likely to develop mental illness. The country is also home to the world's most bike-friendly city, Copenhagen (though it's not alone: many of the happiest countries have ideal cities for cyclists). And Finland, which topped the list, boasts 188,000 inland lakes and forests that cover 75 percent of the country.

Finland, Norway, and Sweden also have "freedom to roam" policies, or "everyman's rights," which allow residents and visitors alike to hike or camp nearly anywhere, including on private land. It's also part of the region's approach to work-life balance: many businesses in Scandinavian countries encourage employees to go outside each day, even implementing policies that set aside time in the workday for fresh air. The most important part of their outdoor philosophy, though, is how they embrace the cold, dark winter months, as is expressed in the popular saying of Norwegian origin that's now used throughout the region: "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes." Parents in Scandinavia are known to let their babies nap outside in freezing temperatures to help them sleep better and longer, Finns embrace harsh conditions with their sauna culture, and when the Danes and Swedes aren't skiing, sledding, or to tobogganing, they're practicing hygge, which loosely translates to being cozy.

The other countries that rounded out the top ten--Switzerland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Austria, and Luxembourg--are also well-known adventure hubs. With its iconic snowcapped peaks, Switzerland is one of Europe's most popular ski and hiking destinations. New Zealand has a system of ten Great Walks that allow even relatively inexperienced backcountry hikers to experience some of the country's most beautiful landscapes for days and weeks at a time. The Netherlands is an established haven for cyclists, with residents making more than 25 percent of their daily trips via bike. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Coronavirus lockdown: Can nature help improve our mood? (Emily Kasriel, 5/03/20, BBC News)

While the impact of experiencing nature on our physical health is less well documented, a wealth of studies have demonstrated the positive effects of the natural world on our mental health.

Even a brief nature fix - 10 minutes of wind brushing across our cheek, or the sun on our skin - can lower stress, explains Dr Mathew White, from the University of Exeter.

If we immerse ourselves in beautiful landscapes, like a rich coastline or a wild forest teeming with an array of species, we feel more intense emotions, he adds.

Connecting with nature can help us feel happier and more energised, with an increased sense of meaning and purpose, as well as making tasks seem more manageable.

Dr Gretchen C Daily from Stanford University, in the US, uses this evidence to help the World Bank and city governments around the world develop policies to integrate the natural environment into our urban landscapes.

Nature-based activities, such as gardening and farming, have been used as part of mental health treatments around the world for centuries.

GPs in London, Liverpool and Dorset have been prescribing nature experiences for patients with depression and anxiety. These include a healthy walk or planting mint to nurture and grow.

Evidence indicates you can also benefit from "bathing" yourself in nature remotely. One experiment installed large plasma displays of real-time natural scenes outside an office, resulting in people's connection to their wider social community and the natural world increasing.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


In Defense of Bread (RACHEL HOOVER, 5/04/20, Crisis)

I never understood leaven until I began to bake sourdough bread, and now a multitude of biblical analogies are laid open to my understanding. Leaven in ancient times was not a packet of Fleischmann's Active Dry Yeast; it was what we now call a sourdough starter. It was essentially a moist sludge of flour and water that had fermented long enough to produce bubbles that would cause the entire dough to rise. You can grow a sourdough starter from scratch easily, or you can get a bit of a starter from someone who has already cultivated one so that you don't have to begin from nothing. Feed your starter regularly, and you will soon have a hearty community of wild yeasts able to leaven many loaves. Each time you bake, you'll use some starter, but you'll reserve a bit of the fermented ooze and continue feeding it for next time. This is how humans have leavened bread for centuries. I have heard it said that there are women in the Holy Land today using yeast of this kind that has been passed down in an endless chain since the time of Jesus. Did St. Anne give Our Lady a bit of starter in a clay jar when she went to live with St. Joseph? Did Mary salvage some yeast from her last loaf for St. John and give it to a neighbor?

Baking bread, therefore, is inherently traditional, unless we choose to remove the tradition for the sake of speed and efficiency. What got me started on bread was the Netflix series Cooked based on Michael Pollan's book of the same name. In the book, Pollan discusses the four classical elements and how each has helped humans to transform the things around them into palatable foodstuffs. In the section on air, he discusses bread and the seemingly miraculous way that air causes dough to expand. The elasticity of gluten, a combination of two proteins found in wheat and certain other grains, allows for pockets of carbon dioxide to form as the microscopic creatures busily consume the sugars in the flour and give off the gas. The beautiful result of this unromantic activity is a lofty, mouthwatering loaf, and, as Pollan points out, the air pockets are part of what gives bread its delightful, comforting flavor, as well as its texture. Gluten-free bread is a possibility, but it is difficult to make and, honestly, never quite the same.

Pollan notes, too, that commercial yeast--the Active Dry packets--is a new invention that cuts out the slowness and unpredictability of traditional fermentation. Every sourdough starter is a little different, and even my own loaves proofed and baked in the same house with the same materials tend to turn out a little differently every time. Like Pollan, I embrace the unpredictability and learn to use sight, smell, and taste to understand what my dough is doing. But that is no way to mass-produce long, white, pre-sliced loaves to be shipped in plastic bags around the country, so commercial yeast was invented to puff up dough quickly and consistently.

The main downside of modern yeast that Pollan notes is the loss of nutritional value from removing the fermentation process, which helps to break down the wheat and make it easier to digest. We lose some important religious symbolism, too. As a child, when I heard that the Hebrews fled Egypt with their dough in their bosoms and ate unleavened bread, I imagined that somehow they just couldn't find a way to bring the powdery yeast (picture Fleischmann's again) with them, and so they ate something like a pita pocket that evening instead of a sandwich loaf. Now, I understand that unleavened bread meant haste. With no time to allow the mixture of flour and water to bubble and rise, when baked, the limp batter would produce something truly penitential.

My starter recently developed a black mold that ran too deep to simply scrape off, so I had to throw it out and begin a new one. This reminded me that St. Paul refers to leaven in the Old Testament as a symbol of sin, pointing to the instruction to throw out all the old leaven and eat unleavened bread for seven days at Passover. This symbolism seems forced unless we recall that the leaven has been sitting in a corner of one's kitchen for months, eating scoops of flour, bubbling weirdly, and perhaps smelling a bit odd and turning unpalatable colors if neglected for too many days. A fresh start--with a fresh starter--feels good once in a while and clean, like our souls after baptism, with nothing moldy or questionable to be seen. From this instruction to eat unleavened bread at Passover, stemming ultimately from that penitential meal eaten by the Hebrews as they left Egypt, we receive our tradition of consecrating only unleavened bread for the Holy Sacrifice.

On the other hand, Christ instructs His disciples to be a leaven in society--to be the quiet, patient, living thing that rises up, expands, and makes bountiful and beautiful the otherwise heavy, sludgy mass. When you are placed in the fire, expand even more with your love, and give your tormentors the odor of sanctity, the heavenly smell of baking bread when it has just reached the stage of cracking open at the top to let out some of the warm, wheaty steam. Be multiplied five thousand times, fill the hunger of your neighbor, sustain life.

Bread is good.

The Culture Wars are a rout.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


The Case for Deeply Negative Interest Rates (KENNETH ROGOFF, 5/04/20, Project Syndicate)

Now, imagine that, rather than shoring up markets solely via guarantees, the Fed could push most short-term interest rates across the economy to near or below zero. Europe and Japan already have tiptoed into negative rate territory. Suppose central banks pushed back against today's flight into government debt by going further, cutting short-term policy rates to, say, -3% or lower.

For starters, just like cuts in the good old days of positive interest rates, negative rates would lift many firms, states, and cities from default. If done correctly - and recent empirical evidence increasingly supports this - negative rates would operate similarly to normal monetary policy, boosting aggregate demand and raising employment. So, before carrying out debt-restructuring surgery on everything, wouldn't it better to try a dose of normal monetary stimulus?

Kind of a pointless discussion without reference to deflation.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Report: Russia, Turkey, Iran agree to remove Syria's Assad (Middle East Monitor,  May 4, 2020 )

The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) expects that Russia, Turkey and Iran will reach a consensus to remove the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar Al-Assad, and establish a ceasefire in exchange for forming a transitional government that includes the opposition, members of the regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The RIAC, which is known to be close to the decision-makers in the Russian government, said in a report that a Russian organisation named the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, affiliated with the security services and the office of President Vladimir Putin, has been conducting an opinion poll in Syria.

This would send a very clear political message, conveying that the Syrian people do not want Al-Assad to remain president.