Contemplations – Now
I'm incurably curious about many aspects of this journey of ours. Here are a few noteworthy items I've stumbled across that I'm making a note of so I can revisit them from time to time.
What would the American political landscape look like if we all just use this phrase: "for the love of humanity"? I'm going to make this vote based on "for the love of humanity." What would that look like, if we created policies for the love of humanity?
– LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter⩘ speaking to Don Lemon on the Silence Is Not an Option⩘ podcast, Nov 12, 2020.
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.
– Ursula K. Le Guin, in her acceptance speech⩘ for the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Nov 2014.
Fire season is not fun
In mid-October last year, during our formerly normal fire season, a fire broke out that quickly threatened our neighborhood. Over the course of the next week, we had to evacuate twice, watching from a distance as the wall of flames advanced towards the place we call home. We got lucky: both times the flames were advancing, things changed and the fire stalled. Others weren't so lucky.
This spring, we had a lot of rain, more than usual. I was relieved thinking that the ground had soaked up a lot of moisture and maybe, just maybe, fire season wouldn't be so bad this year. Then it suddenly turned unseasonably hot, everything quickly became very dry, and the skies filled with a smoky haze from all the fires burning across the West. It's only July, yet I'm already really worried about wildfires and this place we call home.
Today, I came across a piece by The Real Sarah Miller, All The Right Words On Climate Have Already Been Said⩘ , and she pretty much sums up how I'm feeling.
There's only one thing I have to say about climate change … and that's that I want it to rain, a lot, but it's not going to rain a lot, and since that's the only thing I have to say and it's not going to happen, I don't have anything to say.
She actually has a bit more to say, and it's definitely a worthwhile read.
Why I'm still wearing a mask
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels⩘
Since SARS-CoV-2 first struck in early 2020, I've been paying careful attention to its progress. On a daily basis, I monitor the John Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard⩘ and watch the excellent talks by Dr. John Campbell⩘ . In addition, I read a lot of articles by science-based experts and writers.
I've found the response to the pandemic in the U.S. to be often puzzling and even pathetic, but the past couple of months have been the most confusing so far.
While I'm fully vaccinated and live in a county that has a decent vaccination rate, I'm still puzzled by how rapidly people here have abandoned simple precautions like masking when visiting indoor places where strangers mingle (in other words, not friends, family, or acquaintances whose vaccination status you hopefully can trust). For example, beyond the staff, I'm now often the only person or one of only a few wearing a mask at our post office. Our post office facility is not well ventilated, and I think it is only respectful of the dedicated staff there to wear a mask as a small way to help protect them.
I found the CDC guidance about it being okay for fully vaccinated people to go without masks in public places, but that unvaccinated people should still wear masks to be, frankly, stupid. There is no reasonable way to enforce something like that, so there's no way to know whether someone who is unmasked is vaccinated or not. In fact, I would venture to guess that a good percentage of people who aren't vaccinated will also be choosing not to wear a mask. Unvaccinated people are more susceptible to being infected by COVID-19 and, if infected, the risk of them inadvertently spreading high viral loads of the virus is greater. That's a risk I don't want to expose myself to any more than absolutely necessary.
Because I pay careful attention to science-based news about SARS-CoV-2, it's been clear to me for more than a month now that the Delta variant was going to spread like crazy in the U.S. and had the potential to cause major havoc, as we're now beginning to see. From the beginning, it's also been clear that while the vaccinations are highly effective, especially at preventing more serious infections requiring hospitalizations and, possibly, leading to death, vaccinated people are still susceptible to infections and even serious illnesses and death. The risk is much, much smaller for fully vaccinated people, but not zero. Given what a terrible disease COVID-19 is, my personal decision has been and remains that I want to minimize my risk of catching and transmitting it, which translates to continuing to wear masks, especially when indoors around unmasked people I don't know.
Today, I came across several articles with insights I appreciate.
Susan Matthews in her article in Slate, The New COVID Panic⩘ shared this by emergency physician Jeremy Samuel Faust: "Even here in Boston where the case counts are low, I would mask in indoor settings where everyone's vaccination status is unknowable."
Science writer Katherine J. Wu, whose articles in The Atlantic I often find interesting and valuable, wrote a piece titled, 4 Reasons I'm Wearing a Mask Again⩘ , and shared this as her second reason:
2. I don't want people around me to get COVID-19. If I get infected, that affects more than just me. I worry about the strangers I encounter—many of them maskless—whose immune status I don't know. I worry about the youngest kids in my social network, who aren't yet eligible for shots, and the elderly and immunocompromised, whose defenses may be weaker than mine. I worry about the people in my community who have been structurally barred from accessing the vaccines, or who are reluctant to take the shots. My risk of getting COVID-19 is low. Theirs is very much not.
Her entire is article is well worth taking a few minutes to read. Her three other reasons are also thoughtful and, for me, entirely valid:
- I don't want to get COVID-19.
- I trust the vaccines, but I understand their limits.
- Wearing an accessory on my head doesn't feel like a huge cost to me.
Finally, Dr. Brytney Cobia shared this sobering post in her Facebook account⩘ :
I've made a LOT of progress encouraging people to get vaccinated lately!!! Do you want to know how? I'm admitting young healthy people to the hospital with very serious COVID infections. One of the last things they do before they're intubated is beg me for the vaccine. I hold their hand and tell them that I'm sorry, but it's too late. A few days later when I call time of death, I hug their family members and I tell them the best way to honor their loved one is to go get vaccinated and encourage everyone they know to do the same. They cry. And they tell me they didn't know. They thought it was a hoax. They thought it was political. They thought because they had a certain blood type or a certain skin color they wouldn't get as sick. They thought it was 'just the flu'. But they were wrong. And they wish they could go back. But they can't. So they thank me and they go get the vaccine. And I go back to my office, write their death note, and say a small prayer that this loss will save more lives.
The New COVID Panic: What vaccinated people should really know about their risk from the delta variant⩘ , by Susan Matthews, Slate, Jul 21, 2021
4 Reasons I'm Wearing a Mask Again⩘ , by Katherine J. Wu, The Atlantic, Jul 22, 2021
I hold their hand and tell them that I'm sorry, but it's too late⩘ , Facebook post by Brytney Cobia, MD, Jul 18, 2020
Waiting to be arrested
Tahir Hamut Izgil, one of the most prominent Uyghur poets as well as a filmmaker and activist, fled Xinjiang in 2017 to escape possible arrest by the Chinese authorities and is now living in exile in the U.S. His excellent article in The Atlantic describes firsthand his gut-wrenching experience of living in Xinjiang, as well as the circumstances that led him to flee with his family. Incredible read.
English translations of Tahir Hamut Izgil's poetry have been published in several magazines, including Asymptote⩘ .
One by One, My Friends Were Sent to the Camps⩘ by Tahir Hamut Izgil, The Atlantic, Jul 14, 2021. Introduction and translation by Joshua L. Freeman; illustrations by Adam Ferriss; photograph by Stephen Voss
Mass infection is not an option
Given the way the Delta variant is exponentially exploding the COVID-19 pandemic around the world, including in many communities here in the U.S., I've been puzzled by how many people have totally relaxed their mitigation strategies. So I found today's talk by Dr. John Campbell enlightening. In summary fashion, he discusses a letter that was published in The Lancet recently by 122 leading scientists and doctors arguing against the lifting of most protective restrictions that is scheduled to happen on July 19th. The reasons they listed are compelling, and speak to us here in the U.S., as well:
- First, unmitigated transmission will disproportionately affect unvaccinated children and young people who have already suffered greatly.
- Second, high rates of transmission in schools and in children will lead to significant educational disruption.
- Third, preliminary modelling data suggest the government's strategy provides fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants.
- Fourth, this strategy will have a significant impact on health services and exhausted health-care staff who have not yet recovered from previous infection waves.
- Fifth, as deprived communities are more exposed to and more at risk from COVID-19, these policies will continue to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and marginalised, deepening inequalities.
Another point that was covered in a subsequent panel discussion is that significant percentage of people who have been infected by COVID-19 go on to suffer what is being called Long COVID, defined as the chronic suffering of debilitating symptoms lasting longer than three months.
In their letter, they go on to say "we consider any strategy that tolerates high levels of infection to be both unethical and illogical." I totally agree. In the U.K., where cases are soaring due to the Delta variant, they are several weeks ahead of the U.S. in terms of when the Delta variant became prevalent, but it's increasing rapidly (exponentially) here in the U.S. as well, and we have many communities in which vaccination rates are dangerously low, so we certainly face some grim times ahead. We're seeing this already in Missouri where their hospitals once again are being stretched to the breaking point.
As much as we are all tired of the mitigations—wearing masks, social distancing, etc.—this is not the time to be relaxing our efforts. I feel this very strongly whenever I visit our post office, which is not a very well ventilated facility. Over the past few weeks, we've gone very quickly from everyone wearing masks to almost no one wearing masks. While the risk to any individual is small given the small amount of time spent there, out of respect for the postal workers, who must work in that environment all day long, I think we all should still be wearing our masks.
Certainly, the risks to those of us who are vaccinated have decreased, but the new Delta variant is so much more transmissible that I find it reckless to drop our guard at this time. Even those of us who are fully vaccinated can still become infected—even if it's less likely and even if the infection is likely to be less severe—and the risk of Long COVID appears not to be correlated with the severity of an infection.
I think it's time well invested to at least watch Dr. Campbell's summary talk and to read the letter as well. I learned a lot more by watching the panel discussion.
Big UK debate⩘ , Dr. John Campbell, Jul 10, 2021
Mass infection is not an option: we must do more to protect our young⩘ , a letter published in The Lancet on Jul 7, 2021 and signed by 122 leading scientists and doctors
Panel discussion⩘ on Citizen TV, Jul 8, 2021
It's up to all of us
Professor Heather Cox Richardson posted a good reflection⩘ about President Biden's Independence Day speech.
Biden recalled that the United States of America was based not on religion or hereditary monarchy, but on an idea: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all people are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights—among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
We have never lived up to that ideal, of course, but we have never abandoned it, either. Those principles, he said, "continue to animate us, and they remind us what, at our best, we as Americans believe: We, Americans—we believe in honesty and decency, in treating everyone with dignity and respect, giving everyone a fair shot, demonizing no one, giving hate no safe harbor, and leaving no one behind."
But, he said, democracy isn't top down. "Each day, we're reminded there's nothing guaranteed about our democracy, nothing guaranteed about our way of life," he said. "We have to fight for it, defend it, earn it…. It's up to all of us to protect the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the right to equal justice under the law; the right to vote and have that vote counted; the right … to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and know that our children and grandchildren will be safe on this planet for generations to come … the right to rise in the world as far as your God-given [talent] can take you, unlimited by barriers of privilege or power."
Letters from an American, Jul 5, 2021⩘ , Professor Heather Cox Richardson
Orion Nebula: The Hubble View
Astronomy Picture of the Day⩘
Jun 29, 2021
Generational amnesia: The memory loss that harms the planet
Interesting article about how each successive generation experiences generational amnesia. There are many effects related to this: the "kids these days" complaints (which has been expressed in writing since the Ancient Greeks); taking for granted the advances in technology, health, and social progress that previous generations worked so hard to achieve; and something known as "Shifting Baseline Syndrome," which can make it difficult to evaluate things like degrading ecosystems.
What this blindspot meant, Pauly argued in a short-but-influential paper⩘ , was that the scientists were failing to account fully for the slow creep of disappearing species, and each generation accepted the depleted ocean biodiversity they inherited as normal. He dubbed the effect "shifting baseline syndrome".
Generational amnesia: The memory loss that harms the planet⩘ , by Richard Fisher, BBC, Jun 25, 2021
The subscription service is Amazon's greatest—and most terrifying—invention
A thought-provoking article by Ellen Cushing about the social and personal costs of Amazon Prime and, by extension, Amazon itself.
"Consumerism has become a key way that people have misidentified freedom," says Jake Alimahomed-Wilson, a sociology professor at California State University at Long Beach and co-editor of The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy. "But what Amazon represents is a corporate infrastructure that is increasingly directed at getting as many consumers as possible locked into a consumerist process—an Amazon consumer for life."
I've been contemplating this for years now:
As I've learned over the years just what a ruthless and unethical company Amazon can be, how badly they treat many of their employees and contractors⩘ , and how poorly they perform at protecting their customers from third-party vendors they allow on their site that sell bad and even dangerous goods⩘ , I now try to minimize my business dealings with Amazon and all of the companies they've swallowed up. If I want something and can find it elsewhere, I buy it elsewhere, even if it costs more and takes longer to arrive. If I can't find it elsewhere, I carefully ask myself if I really need it. If I don't, I pass.
How greedy can you get? It is a travesty to be one of the richest corporations in the world headed by one of the wealthiest men in the world, and still not be willing to spend a little bit more money to ensure the safety of your customers, and still not be willing to spend a little bit more money to ensure the safety and well-being of your frontline employees. What a disgraceful company. What a disgraceful CEO.
– From my contemplation: Shun Amazon⩘ .
At the same time, I acknowledge that a colossus like Amazon isn't going to be in any way impacted by my actions. However, something Cushing shares turns this thought around entirely from a powerless action to a powerful one:
[O]ne person canceling Prime won't do much of anything to a multinational corporation's bottom line. "It's statistically insignificant to Amazon. They'll never feel it," Caine¹ told me. But, he said, "the small businesses in your neighborhood will absolutely feel the addition of a new customer. Individual choices do make a big difference to them."
Cancel Prime⩘ by Ellen Cushing, The Atlantic, Jun 22, 2021
Three Transgender Kids Share Their Stories
Excellent article. These kids are so much more mature than I remember being at their ages!
What do you wish people knew about being trans?
The main thing is that it's not a choice. It's a choice to come out, but being trans is not a choice. It wasn't like one day I woke up and felt the way the wind blew and wanted to be a girl. I ALWAYS knew I wasn't a boy. It wasn't that I wanted to be a girl; I WAS a girl. I just had to put that into words and explain that.
– Violet, she/her, age 13
Three Transgender Kids Share Their Stories⩘ by Joanna Goddard, A Cup of Jo, Jun 14, 2021
A galactic powerhouse
We live in such an astonishing, mind expanding universe, a place of infinite wonder!
NGC 3254 has a fascinating secret that it is hiding in plain sight—it is a Seyfert galaxy, meaning that it has an extraordinarily active core, known as an active galactic nucleus, which releases as much energy as the rest of the galaxy put together.
ESA/Hubble images: A Galactic Powerhouse, NGC 3254⩘
The Fundamental Question of the Pandemic Is Shifting
Another very good article by Ed Yong, who just deservedly received the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for his pandemic coverage in The Atlantic. As he has during the entire course of this challenging time, he once again has helped me make sense of the unfolding crisis, this time related to the latest CDC guidance, which I've found profoundly confusing and disorienting, especially in the face of the so-called Delta variant that is spreading so rapidly around the world including now in the U.S.
In this deep dive, he explores the public health challenges created by our national mythos of individualism, as well as how our response has ended up putting the most vulnerable among us at the greatest risk.
We understand how this will end. But who bears the risk that remains?
Ed Yong, The Fundamental Question of the Pandemic Is Shifting⩘ , The Atlantic, June 9, 2021
What America's racial reckoning can learn from Germany's atonement with the Holocaust
Excellent opinion essay by Michele L. Norris⩘ exploring how Germany has worked to look "directly at the evil" of its past, while the U.S. has not yet. She quotes Susan Neiman, a moral philosopher at Berlin's Einstein Forum: "They got right the idea that a nation has to face its criminal past in order to become whole and strong and not riven by unsaid guilt, unsaid resentment…."
I have pondered this over and over again, especially over this past year. It seems to me that the only way we can move forward towards a better future is by fully coming to terms with our past. Norris shares stories about how the Germans have been attempting this. It isn't easy and it's certainly uncomfortable, but they are courageously working on it. One example of something they do: in an act of atonement, a group of people, perhaps neighbors, come together to research and create what they call "stumbling stones," which are small plaques placed in sidewalks that memorializes one of the victims of the holocaust.
Imagine traveling through an American state and coming upon small, embedded memorials that listed key facts about the lives of the enslaved. Their names. Their fates. Their birth dates. The number of times they were sold. The ways they were separated from their families. The conditions of their toil. Imagine how that might shape the way we comprehend the peculiar institution of slavery, its legacy and its normalized trauma. Imagine if there were similar embedded memorials for Indigenous peoples, who were forced from their land, relegated to reservations far from their normal ranges and regions. Imagine stopping to fill up the tank at a roadside gas station and noticing the reflection off a gleaming brass marker that bears the names of the tribal elders who once lived where you are standing.
As President Biden said in his speech marking the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre: "We should know the good, the bad, everything. That's what great nations do: They come to terms with their dark sides. And we're a great nation."
Towards the end of her essay, Norris shares an insight that deeply touched me:
Our contributions—in blood, sweat and bondage—must be told. Our children, indeed, all of America, deserve to know what we have endured and survived to understand the depth of our fortitude, but also to understand that, despite centuries of enslavement and years of Black Codes and brutal Jim Crow segregation, our contributions are central to America's might.
Germany faced its horrible past. Can we do the same?⩘ by Michele L. Norris⩘ , The Washington Post, June 3, 2021
This virus is more likely to be a product of nature than a product of a laboratory
In a well argued article by Angela L. Rasmussen, a virologist specializing in emerging viruses at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, and Stephen A. Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah studying virus evolution, they reach the conclusion that "This virus is more likely to be a product of nature than a product of a laboratory."
While they "don't disagree about the benefits of doing … a more thorough examination of the possibility of a lab escape," they argue that our priorities should be guided by what is most likely. They discuss the most prevalent arguments being put forward right now to suggest that the source was a lab leak and show how each is unlikely. And they explain the importance of lab research:
Ironically, given the recent prominence of the lab escape theory, the questions the world wants answered about the virus—and the astonishingly fast development of the vaccines that can quash the pandemic—depend entirely on research conducted in labs like the Wuhan Institute of Virology and across the world over the past several decades.
I really appreciate their carefully reasoned and calmly argued article, which is based in science. I wish more of our current public discourse was like this.
This virus is more likely to be a product of nature than a product of a laboratory.⩘ The Washington Post, June 4, 2021.
Coping with pandemic numbers
Connie Hanzhang Jin introduces her Coronavirus, illustrated⩘ comic by saying:
Each week I check the latest deaths from COVID-19 for NPR. After a while, I didn't feel any sorrow at the numbers. I just felt numb. I wanted to understand why—and how to overcome that numbness.
She researched what she was experiencing and learned it's a phenomenon called psychic numbing. Then she talked to Paul Slovic, a research psychologist at the University of Oregon, to learn why this happens and how we can deal with it in our daily lives. From this, she produced a quite insightful and heartfelt short comic.
I have to admit that I initially stumbled on the use of the word "comic" in this context because there's absolutely nothing comical about this, but as Wikipedia⩘ explains, "Comics is a medium used to express ideas with images."
I've definitely felt the numbness she describes myself. One way I've been trying to keep those suffering from this pandemic in my heart is to update a webpage I created on a daily basis: Visualizing our massive loss⩘ . Spending a few moments each day thinking about this—and remembering that no matter how large the number, these are individuals—helps me keep myself motivated to continue being careful and caring even when I feel incredibly exhausted by the effort.
Coronavirus, illustrated: For My Job, I Check Death Tolls From COVID. Why Am I Numb To The Numbers?⩘ by Connie Hanzhang Jin, NPR, Apr 25, 2021
Why Confederate Lies Live On
The Children of Whitney⩘ , a series of sculptures by Woodrow Nash representing former slaves as they were at the time of emancipation: children.
A few years ago, Clint Smith "decided to travel around America visiting sites that are grappling—or refusing to grapple—with America's history of slavery." He visited plantations, prisons, cemeteries, museums, memorials, houses, and historical landmarks. His forthcoming book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America⩘ , is based on his experiences, including the ones this excellent article shares of his visits to the Blandford Cemetery, in Petersburg, Virginia including the Memorial Day ceremony held there; the People's Memorial Cemetery was founded in 1840 by 28 members of Petersburg's free Black community across the street from the Blandford Cemetary; and the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana.
"There's so many misconceptions about slavery," Yvonne [Director of Operations, Whitney Plantation⩘ ] said. "People don't really consider the children who were brought over, and the children who were born into this system, and the way to get people to let their guard down when they come here is being confronted with the reality of slavery—and the reality of slavery is child enslavement."
Did the white visitors, I asked her, experience the space differently from the Black visitors? She told me that the most common question she gets from white visitors is "I know slavery was bad … I don't mean it this way, but … Were there any good slave owners?"
She took a deep breath, her frustration visible. She had the look of someone professionally committed to patience but personally exhausted by the toll it takes.
"I really give a short but nuanced answer to that," she said. "Regardless of how these individuals fed the people that they owned, regardless of how they clothed them, regardless of if they never laid a hand on them, they were still sanctioning the system … You can't say, 'Hey, this person kidnapped your child, but they fed them well. They were a good person.' How absurd does that sound?"
As I've said before, only by fully knowing about and acknowledging this horrendous history can we ever hope to truly grow beyond it. The way I see it, only once there is full acknowledgment followed by sincere, deeply felt regret and apology can there be the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.
Why Confederate Lies Live On⩘ , story by Clint Smith, The Atlantic, June 2021 issue, based on his forthcoming nonfiction book How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America⩘
'I'd Never Been Involved in Anything as Secret as This'
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room, May 1, 2011. | Pete Souza/White House
The plan to kill Osama bin Laden—from the spycraft to the assault to its bizarre political backdrop—as told by the people in the room.
Very good article revealing what happened behind the scenes.
On the morning of May 1, 2011, most Americans had never heard of Abbottabad.…
'I'd Never Been Involved in Anything as Secret as This'⩘ by Garrett M. Graff with research contributed by Caroline Pahl, Politico, Apr 30, 2021
The Blue Marble
NASA Earth Observatory⩘ : View of the Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the moon. This translunar coast photograph extends from the Mediterranean Sea area to the Antarctica south polar ice cap. This is the first time the Apollo trajectory made it possible to photograph the south polar ice cap.
Toby Ord, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Oxford University and author, recently looked through some 18,000 images of the Earth taken by the 24 Apollo astronauts who journeyed far enough to see the whole Earth against the black of space, selected 50 and digitally restored them, and then posted them on his website on a page he titled Earth Restored⩘ .
I restored these images over the course of many long evenings. On warmer nights I'd open the window to the Moon and stars and the black of space. The work was often slow and painstaking. But it was also deeply uplifting: seeing the images come to life, and gazing for the first time at the beauty of some of the lost pictures of our world.
The image above is his restoration of The Blue Marble (see his website⩘ for the glorious full resolution version), about which he has this to say:
One of the most famous photographs ever taken. The crew of Apollo 17 captured this image of the Earth five hours after liftoff—29,000 km into their journey to the Moon.
This final Apollo mission had a unique trajectory. It passed almost directly between the Earth and the Sun, allowing a photograph showing a very nearly 'full Earth'. Only a tiny sliver (on the right) is still in darkness. One can trace the equator by its ring of clouds, giving the image a sense of depth.
[Astronaut] Eugene Cernan: And I suppose we're seeing as 100 percent full Earth as we'll ever see; certainly as I've ever seen.… it's about 99 percent pure. Bob, it's these kind of views that stick with you forever.
[Astronaut] Jack Schmitt: I'll tell you, if there ever was a fragile-appearing piece of blue in space, it's the Earth right now.
Date – 10:39 UTC, 7 December 1972
Lens – Zeiss Planar ƒ-2.8/80mm
Code – AS17-148-22727
Scan – LPI (not online)
I'm looking forward to listening to his book, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity⩘ , the cover of which features one of the images he digitally restored of the crescent Earth rising over the Moon:
Reflections on the guilty verdict
Like many, I felt a sense of relief when I reflected on the guilty verdicts in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. It is a small, but significant step on the long road we must travel to a more just society.
This morning, I read a thoughtful article about the reflections of five other Americans: Georgia Ferrell, who lost her innocent son to a police shooting; Reverend Otis Moss III, a pastor in Chicago; Bob Gill, a defense attorney; Ari Tulay, a university student who was arrested and held for 30 hours when peacefully protesting George Floyd's murder; and Justin Boardman, a former police officer who served for 15 years as a police officer in West Valley City, Utah.
I agree with something Boardman shares, though I think it is long, long past the time when those harder conversations should have been started:
This is an opportunity to look inside—to look inside us as a culture, as police departments and as human beings and to see opportunities for change. I am hoping it is something that will get some of those harder conversations started. It is time to have those conversations about implicit bias, about teaching history to cadets. I think that could make us a much kinder and compassionate type of police system. I also hope that the pressure to readjust our thoughts and our biases, and to learn, continues.
With a verdict, troubled reflections⩘ , The Washington Post, Apr 21, 2021
A scientist's unwavering belief in mRNA
Katalin Karikó is a hero.
I had tears in my eyes when I received my first mRNA vaccine shot, felt an initial sense of relief three weeks later when I received my second shot knowing that my protection would be building up by then, and breathed a deep breath of gratitude two weeks after that knowing my protection was peaking.
The mRNA vaccines are incredibly effective. I remember chatting a few years ago with a friend who is an ER nurse and teacher who explained to me that a flu vaccine that is only 25% effective is still a good thing by saying, simply, "A 25% chance of avoiding a potentially deadly illness is much better than a 0% chance!" The mRNA vaccines appear to be more than 90% effective at preventing the illness and well over 99% effective at preventing a more serious infection that can lead to hospitalization and, possibly, death.
More than 40 years ago, Professor Katalin Karikó began researching how mRNA might be used for strokes, cancer, influenza, and other diseases. In the mid-80s, she moved to the University of Philadelphia to continue her work. She faced incredible skepticism, was rejected time after time for grants related to her research, and was even demoted by the university because she wasn't able to secure funding. In the face of these headwinds, she maintained her conviction, stay focused, and, after decades of work, she and a few others—including Dr. Drew Weissman, Dr. Uğur Şahin, Dr. Özlem Türeci, Dr. Barney Graham, and Kizzmekia Corbett—eventually gave the world vaccines based on this new technology to help us get past this horrendous pandemic.
"Redemption! … I was grabbing the air, I got so excited I was afraid that I might die or something."
Katalin Karikó laughs as she recounts her reaction to the news that the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, which is based on research she pioneered and risked her career for, was 90 per cent effective in protecting against Covid-19.
Article: 'Redemption': How a scientist's unwavering belief in mRNA gave the world a Covid-19 vaccine ⩘ by Sarah Newey and Paul Nuki, The Telegraph, Dec 2, 2020.
Related article: How Pfizer Makes Its Covid-19 Vaccine⩘
Wikipedia: Katalin Karikó⩘
An alternate viewpoint: Millions Are Saying No to the Vaccines. What Are They Thinking?⩘ , by Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, May 3, 2021. This helped me understand why some people are deciding not to get vaccinated against COVID-19, even if I don't agree with that position.
Walking by a Mountain Stream
Walking by a Mountain Stream
Traditionally attributed to Shen Zhou (1427-1509)
Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art⩘
Occasionally, existence surprises us with a gift. I was performing an online search this evening. The second result, quite unrelated to what I was searching for, was a link to this painting. It immediately captivated me. I totally dropped what I was searching for, pausing to enjoy some time being entranced by the tranquility of this painting, which has welcomed me into a wonderful state of consciousness. View it a bit larger >
Denny Strong, 20
Neven Stanisic, 23
Rikki Olds, 25
Tralona Bartkowiak, 49
Suzanne Fountain, 59
Teri Leiker, 51
Eric Talley, 51
Kevin Mahoney, 61
Lynn Murray, 62
Jody Waters, 65
Most honey bees are very gentle
Once in awhile, I come across a story about someone who takes an entirely different and fresh attitude towards some other beings that normally evoke fear and even revulsion in many people, for example, The woman who swims with sharks⩘ or The Bear Man⩘ . These stories always blow my mind and touch my heart, reminding me how much our preconceptions can taint our experiences, and how much we can gain by approaching our life experiences with as much openness as we can muster. This video by Erika Thompson of Texas Beeworks⩘ is such a story.
"I didn't become a beekeeper because I wanted to sell honey, and I think that's what separates me from a lot of other beekeepers," she says. "Whatever way you're inspired by bees or to keep bees I think is wonderful. But in full transparency … I'd rather focus on creating more bees than having them produce more honey.
How I Lost My Mom To QAnon
Fervent belief in conspiracy theories really puzzles me, so I appreciate articles that help me gain insight into this phenomenon. The article by Albert Samaha, an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News, about his mom's journey into QAnon doesn't provide answers, but does an excellent job of contextualizing the issue. Definitely a worthwhile read.
With a fervor I knew was futile, I'd tell my mom she was missing the real conspiracy: The powerful people shaping policy to benefit their own interests, to maintain wealth and white predominance, through tax cuts and voter suppression, were commandeering her support solely by catering to her stance on the one issue she cared most about.
How I Lost My Mom To QAnon⩘ by Albert Samaha, BuzzFeed News, Mar 12, 2020
Albert Samaha's website: albertsamaha.com⩘
Related YouTube video: QAmom – My mom got sucked into the world of internet conspiracy theories⩘ by Sean Donnelly, May 24, 2021
How were the COVID-19 vaccines developed so quickly?
Jason Kottke has posted an excellent overview identifying the key reasons why it was possible to develop effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines so quickly. In his article, he discusses each of the following reasons in more detail and includes links to the source material as well as to further reading. I'm sure feeling grateful for this effort as I near the day when I'll have developed maximum immunity.
- The need was urgent.
- Funding & focus.
- Availability of volunteers & high incidence of disease.
- International & corporate collaboration.
- We knew a lot about coronaviruses from previous work.
- Scientific and technological capability.
"As Dr. Faheem Younus put it, 'We didn't cut corners; we cut the crap!'"
How Were the Covid-19 Vaccines Developed So Quickly?⩘ by Jason Kottke, Kottke.org, Mar 12, 2021
Related: Novelty Means Severity⩘ by Dylan. H. Morris, PhD, Insight, a newsletter by Zeynep Tufekci for a complex world, May 18, 2021
Incarceration in Real Numbers
The actual number of Americans jailed or imprisoned, about 2.3 million.
I really appreciate this eye-opening data visualization project by Matt Korostoff as it helped me understand the immense size of the challenge we face as a society. As you scroll down through the display of the massive numbers of people who are incarcerated, you can view related information, data, and reflections.
There is no human development goal beyond our reach. We could build a society that is more just, more peaceful, and more prosperous than any that has ever existed on the planet. Millions could be freed from cages, and millions more could be freed from the burden of crime.
Push away the cynical voice inside yourself that says this can't be done. Forget the lifetime of politicians claiming that you need to be caged; that freeing you would lead to anarchy; that your poverty is a moral failing; that your pain is deserved; that your needs cannot be met. You know in your heart it isn't true.
You know in your heart that this society could be ours. All we need to do is make it.
A better world is possible.
(a.k.a., the Joy of Painting with Bob Ross & Banksy)
This is brilliant!
Video (YouTube): Create Escape⩘ , banksyfilm, Mar 4, 2021
More info: Banksy Creates Bob Ross-Dubbed Process Video of New Work Depicting Oscar Wilde Escaping Prison⩘ , Colossal, Mar 4, 2021
The Secret Life of a Coronavirus
Wow! Fascinating essay about coronaviruses and viruses in general by Carl Zimmer, NYT science columnist and author of the upcoming Life's Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive⩘ , which I'll definitely be listening to.
So far, scientists have identified 21,000 species of phages [a type of virus that infects bacteria and other single-celled organisms] residing in our guts. More than 12,000 of them came to light in a single study published just this month.
Most of these resident viruses infect the bacteria, fungi and other single-celled organisms that live inside us. Some studies suggest that our resident viruses help keep our inner wilderness in balance, preventing any one species from getting out of control and making us sick.
The Secret Life of a Coronavirus⩘ by Carl Zimmer, New York Times, Feb 26, 2021
Bats and the Origin of Outbreaks
Fascinating and beautifully illustrated article about bats and why they are so frequently the origin hosts of disease-causing viruses that lead to zoonotic diseases spreading to humans.
Among the reasons are that they make up approximately 20% of all mammal species; have a relatively long lifespan for their size (up to more than 30 years), which makes it easier for viruses to develop as chronic infections; some bat species live in large, close-quarter colonies; and they are the only mammal capable of flight, which elevates their body temperatures, meaning that viruses that evolve in bats are less susceptible to being neutralized by human fevers.
On the other hand, they play a vital ecological role in plant pollination and biological insect control. The article doesn't talk about mosquitoes, but I know from other reading that mosquitoes are responsible for massive amounts of human disease and deaths, and bats eat a lot of mosquitoes. So it certainly seems possible that bats may help us more than they harm us.
Bats and the Origin of Outbreaks⩘ by Julia Janicki and Simon Scarr, with illustrations by Catherine Tai, Reuters Graphics, Mar 2, 2021
Related: The Batman and the Bridge Builder⩘ , 99% Invisible, Feb 23, 2021
Inside a Covid I.C.U., Through a Nurse's Eyes
This is both heartwarming and heartrending. From the description:
NYT Opinion Video producer Alexander Stockton spent several days reporting at the Valleywise Medical Center in Phoenix. Two I.C.U. nurses wore cameras to show what it's like to care for the sickest Covid patients a year into the pandemic.
If you know a nurse, figure out a way to reach out and give them a virtual hug.
Inside a Covid I.C.U., Through a Nurse's Eyes⩘ by video producer Alexander Stockton, NYT Opinion, Feb 25, 2021
A world large enough for Democracy, and too small for race prejudice, discrimination, injustice and hate
"We salute you ALL – black and white – Jews and Gentiles – who are fighting under Old Glory, the undefeated banner of a free nation, to make the world large enough for Democracy, and too small for race prejudice, discrimination, injustice and hate."
– Nannie Helen Burroughs, from a radio address to Americans in arms, 1943⩘
For more information, see The Nannie Helen Burroughs Project⩘
See also, Denied a teaching job for being ‘too Black,' she started her own school – and a movement⩘ by Jess McHugh, The Washington Post, Feb 28, 2021
Raven and the Box of daylight
To be honest, there's not much that I admire about the USPS these days, but I find this US Forever stamp design by Tlingit artist Rico Worl—who lives in Juneau, Alaska—to be one of the most beautiful stamp designs I've seen in years.
The artwork is based on a traditional Tlingit story, Raven and the Box of daylight, which concludes: "Raven brought the sun, the moon, and the stars to the universe."
Rico has this to say about his design:
The stamp depicts a moment of climax in one of his heists. Stealing the stars. Raven is trying to grab as many stars as he can, some stuck in his feathers and in his hands or in his beak. Some falling around him. Its a frazzled moment of adrenaline. Partially still in human form, as depicted as his hand still being human, as he carries the stars away. I think it depicts a moment we all have experienced, the cusp of failure and accomplishment.
The stamp will be released sometime during the summer of 2021. I'm going to need to find reasons to mail some letters.
I designed a stamp for USPS⩘ by Rico Worl, Nov 21, 2020
A fresh way of looking at our world
J. Richard Gott, an astrophysicist at Princeton, Robert Vanderbei, a mathematician at Princeton, and David Goldberg, a cosmologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia have created a new map of the Earth that they believe is the most accurate flat map of Earth yet. Although I'm showing both sides above, the two halves can be better pictured back to back. In that configuration, any point on one side can be traced to the corresponding point on the other side by simply flipping the map. What an awesome map they have created!
One thing that immediately struck me when I first viewed this map is how it helped me better understand the immensity of the Pacific ocean. For fun, I created a second version of the image that rotates the two halves to emphasize this:
Thinking more about this map, I ended up wanting to move the map around freely so that any given point on Earth was centered, making it possible to get an even better idea of the size and relationship of various landmasses and oceans. I realized that what I was hoping for was a 3D globe projected onto the 2D surface of my monitor. A quick search led me to exactly what I was hoping for: the wonderful eChalk 3D Interactive Earth Globe⩘ , which provides a variety of views to play with including Photorealistic, Terrain, Tectonic, Climate Zones, a variety of data-based views, etc.
J. Richard Gott III, David M. Goldberg, Robert J. Vanderbei, Flat Maps that improve on the Winkel Tripel⩘ , Cornell University, Feb 15, 2021
Joshua Sokol, Can This New Map Fix Our Distorted Views of the World?⩘ , New York Times, Feb 24, 20201
eChalk 3D Interactive Earth Globe⩘
The moments that could have accidentally ended humanity
Thought provoking article about risk, which discusses a couple moments when small groups of scientists made decisions that carried a small chance of ending humanity: the first nuclear explosion, which might have ignited the entire atmosphere; and the opening of the hatch of the returning first Apollo moon mission capsule, which might have brought back life-ending contaminants from the moon, while the capsule was still on the open ocean. I recall similar concerns being expressed just before the CERN Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator was first used. AI, gene editing, and advanced weaponry may carry similar risks.
Fisher discusses the vulnerable world hypothesis⩘ , which posits that "there is some level of technology at which civilization almost certainly gets destroyed unless quite extraordinary and historically unprecedented degrees of preventive policing and/or global governance are implemented."
He finishes with a brief look at the concept of the tragedy of the uncommons, our tendency to misperceive a rare catastrophic risk, which is compounded by the way our perception of risk "does not grow linearly with the severity of a catastrophe." Think back to the shock felt a year ago when the first few people began dying from COVID-19, then the first scores and then hundreds of people. Now we are seeing thousands of people in the U.S. dying every day—on some days it has been over 5,000 people in a single day— and we are on the cusp of half a million having died from this terrible scourge in just a bit more than a year's time, yet there is a sort of numbness to this frankly immensely shocking new reality.
Just this morning, I saw an article headline about how wonderful this coming summer might be if we can get the pandemic under control. While there's a certain truth to that, it masks that immense challenges we face, challenges that will be unaffected by whether or not this current pandemic fades away, for example, the now ever-present risk of ecological collapse triggered by climate change.
The moments that could have accidentally ended humanity⩘ By Richard Fisher, BBC, Feb 2021
The curious observer's guide to quantum mechanics
Ars Technica has a fascinating seven-part series exploring quantum mechanics written for non-mathematicians by Miguel F. Morales, professor of physics at the University of Washington. It's a fun way for someone like me to get a glimpse into some of the weirdness underlying our existence.
- Particle/wave duality⩘
- The particle melting pot⩘
- Rose colored glasses⩘
- Looking at the stars⩘
- Catching a wave⩘
- Two quantum spooks⩘
- The quantum century⩘
Interesting tidbit I hadn't previously known: "the ground you … are sitting on typically rises and falls by ~5cm a day due to land tides." Nothing is quite what it seems … or everything is much more than it appears at first glance. What a crazy, fascinating, wonderful existence we are surfing!
Miguel F. Morales, Exploring the Quantum World⩘ , Ars Technica, Jan - Feb 2021
About a year and a half ago, I read Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom⩘ by Catherine Clinton. I found it to be an excellent biography of an extraordinary person. I'm not much of a film person, typically preferring to pass my time listening to or reading books, so I missed the release of the film Harriet.
Recently, however, when the news that we are once again considering honoring Harriet Tubman by placing her image on our $20 bill, I did some more research, came across this film, and decided to invest some of my time in watching it.
My time invested was richly rewarded. While the film takes a few liberties with some of the actual events (see What's Fact and What's Fiction in Harriet⩘ , Slate, Oct 2019), I think what it accomplishes is far more important: making the key events of Tubman's life viscerally vivid. Cynthia Onyedinmanasu Chinasaokwu Erivo delivers an amazing performance as Harriet, the supporting roles are well played, and Kasi Lemmons' directing is strong.
I don't think I can improve upon how I described Harriet Tubman's impact in my previous book review. Just as the book does, the film provides "a vivid portrait of this amazing woman's life and work, from her strength in the face of slavery, to her courageous act of escaping from slavery, her heroic work assisting others to free themselves from their unjust bondage at great personal peril, her valiant work on behalf on the Union army to help win the Civil War, her dedication of her remaining lifetime to helping those less fortunate than herself and advancing the causes of justice and equality. She is a true American hero."
I hope we do honor her by placing her image on our $20 bill.
Finally, the stock market explained
Image by Michael Goodwin, author of Economix, economixcomix.com⩘
I really appreciate the clarity with which Goodwin explains what the #$@%! is going on with the stock market going up and up while the real economy is tanking. I hadn't previously understood the impact of stock buybacks. It'll be interesting to look back at this in a year or so.
What's Going On With the Stock Market?⩘ by Michael Goodwin
10 golden rules for tree-planting
The beautiful bark of an old Ponderosa pine in a Rocky Mountain forest
Scientists have proposed 10 golden rules for tree-planting, which they say must be a top priority for all nations this decade. The golden rules are explained more fully in the original article⩘ .
- Protect existing forests first
- Put local people at the heart of tree-planting projects
- Maximise biodiversity recovery to meet multiple goals
- Select the right area for reforestation
- Use natural forest regrowth wherever possible
- Select the right tree species that can maximise biodiversity
- Make sure the trees are resilient to adapt to a changing climate
- Plan ahead (how to source seeds or trees)
- Learn by doing
- Make it pay
Scientists address myths over large-scale tree planting⩘ by Helen Briggs, BBC, Jan 25, 2021
May this be the story that inspires us
"Together we shall write an American story of hope, not fear, of unity, not division, of light, not darkness. A story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness. May this be the story that guides us, the story that inspires us, and the story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history."
– President Joe Biden, Inaugural address, Jan 20, 2021
The power to protect the guilty
As I scan the list of the soon-to-be-ex-president's pardons this morning shortly before the inauguration, I'm reminded of an article by David Frum published nearly four years ago, shortly after the start of the outgoing administration.
As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, "The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty."
– David Frum, "How to Build an Autocracy⩘ ." The Atlantic, Mar 2017
A moment of grace
Our nation's first memorial service for the victims of COVID-19, Jan 19, 2021.
"To heal, we must remember." – President-elect Joe Biden
"For many months, we have grieved by ourselves. Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together." – Vice-president-elect Kamala Harris
Four Hours of Insurrection
For the past ten days, I've been slowing wrapping my mind around what happened on January 6th. It was shocking on that day, but the true horror of the situation has been sinking in as more news reports have come out. Today, I became fully aware of just how depraved the riot was when I listened to a Radiolab podcast episode about the insurrection, and then listened to the full podcast episode that it was based on from The Washington Post. Hearing the sounds of the mob interweaved with interviews with police, congresspeople, and reporters who were on the scene really drove it home. Here's how The Washington Post introduces its episode:
Today, we reconstruct the riot inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 – hearing from the lawmakers, journalists and law enforcement officials who were there, and answering lingering questions about how things went so wrong.
Reporters Rebecca Tan, Marissa J. Lang, Rhonda Colvin, and photojournalist Bill O'Leary were all witnesses to the violence on Jan. 6. They share their harrowing accounts of what it was like, inside and outside of the Capitol.
Reporter Peter Hermann explains how battered D.C. police made a stand against the Capitol mob.
And reporter Carol D. Leonnig chronicles the experience of outgoing Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who told her that House and Senate security officials hamstrung his efforts to call in the National Guard.
One of the most horrifying segments was the interview afterwards with officer Daniel Hodges, who a video from that day showed being crushed in a doorway by the mob, interwoven with sounds recorded of the actual incident:
As officers fell back, I would work my way to the front. And eventually I got to the very front there where you saw me in the corner next to the door. I just tried to hold them back as best I could. And eventually just the shear numbers and all of them pushing in unison wedged me in the door. [Mob shouting and Officer Hodges screaming in pain.] My arms were pinned and I couldn't really defend myself at that point, so the guy in front of me took that opportunity to rip my mask off, rip my riot baton away from me, started beating me in the head with it. [More painful screaming.] You know, I didn't want to be the one guy to start shooting because I knew that they had guns, we'd been seeing guns all day, all yesterday, and the only reason I could think of that they weren't shooting us is that they were waiting for us to shoot first. And if it became a fire fight between a couple hundred officers and a couple thousand insurrectionists, then we surely would've lost.
Later in the episode, another officer adds:
It's just … the zealotry of these people is absolutely unreal. They believe wholeheartedly in something that there is no evidence of, and they refer to themselves as patriots even while they're besieging the Capitol of the United States, and they call us traitors even while they're waving the thin blue line flag and beating us with it, literally in some cases.
At least 56 D.C. police officers were injured during the insurrection, and U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick died of the injuries he suffered when an insurrectionist clubbed him on the head with a fire extinguisher.
When I think about Trump sitting in the White House watching this unfold live on television, by all accounts enjoying it and doing nothing for hours to try to come to the aid of the United States Senators and Representatives, his own Vice President, and the police who were under siege … well, I'm left nauseated and disgusted.
Original podcast episode: Four hours of insurrection⩘ , by reporters Rebecca Tan, Marissa J. Lang, Rhonda Colvin, Peter Hermann, Carol D. Leonnig, and photojournalist Bill O'Leary, The Washington Post, Jan 15, 2021
Related article: The four-hour insurrection: How a Trump mob halted American democracy⩘ , by Marc Fisher, Meagan Flynn, Jessica Contrera and Carol D. Leonnig, The Washington Post, Jan 7, 2021
Related videos: 41 minutes of fear: A video timeline from inside the Capitol siege⩘ , by Dalton Bennett, Emma Brown, Sarah Cahlan, Joyce Sohyun Lee, Meg Kelly, Elyse Samuels, Jon Swaine, The Washington Post, Jan 16, 2021; Disturbing video shows officer crushed against door by mob storming the Capitol⩘ , by Kelsie Smith and Travis Caldwell, CNN, Jan 9, 2021
Related Radiolab podcast episode: Post Reports: Four Hours of Insurrection⩘ , Radiolab, Jan 16, 2021
Update early May, 2021:
Related PBS Frontline/ProPublica documentary: American Insurrection⩘ , featuring some amazing investigative reporting by producer and correspondent A.C. Thompson, Apr 14, 2021.
Related NPR podcast: No Compromise⩘ , very well reported by Lisa Hagen of WABE and Chris Haxel of KCUR, Sep/Oct, 2020.
Nikole Hannah Jones
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter covering racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and creator of the landmark 1619 Project.
I was deeply touched⩘ when I experienced the 1619 Project in the autumn of 2019, so I very much appreciated this Axe Files episode in which Nikole Hannah Jones shares insights into her upbringing, the experiences that led her to create the 1619 Project, as well as the denunciation of the project by a small, vocal group of historians, and the way that controversy is now influencing politics. She also addresses our current challenges and her thoughts about where we are headed and what transformational change could look like.
Update, Jun 2021: Bravo, Nikole Hannah-Jones has been granted the UNC tenure she deserves.
Update, Jul 2021: Congratulations to Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has declined the UNC offer of tenure and instead has accepted a tenured position at Howard University where she also will found the Center for Journalism and Democracy together with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Huge loss for UNC.