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ATHEISM and HUMANISM
8-4-21 Covid third wave: Florida surpasses all-time record for hospital admissions
The number of Covid patients in Florida hospitals has risen to a new high, breaking records set during previous waves before vaccines were available. US health officials say 11,515 Florida residents are currently in hospital. Many are younger and healthier than patients seen earlier in the pandemic. On Saturday, Florida set a record for most new infections in a single day. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis opposes efforts to make vaccines or masks mandatory. Across the US, one in three new cases last week were recorded in Florida or Texas. Hospital beds in Florida are quickly filling up. Some have already reached capacity, with patients placed in hallways, lobby waiting areas and makeshift overflow centres. "We have more Covid patients in our hospital with this surge than we did with the original surge," one hospital official in Tallahassee, Dr Dean Watson, told NBC News. "We have been living Covid for over a year and a half. The stress and the strain for all the providers and nursing staff is really getting to everyone." It comes as vaccine rates, which have slowed since the spring, have begun to tick up again as the highly contagious Delta variant sweeps the country. Over 70% of Americans have now received at least one vaccine jab, a milestone that President Joe Biden had hoped to hit by the 4 July Independence Day holiday. The vaccination rate in Florida roughly mirrors the national average, but is below the rates seen in many north-eastern states. About 50% of residents have been fully vaccinated, but the number is far higher among the state's large pensioner community. Officials say the vaccinated are unlikely to experience symptoms if they catch the coronavirus, although they can still spread it. The unvaccinated account for nearly all cases of sickness and death, say officials who are now referring to Covid as a "pandemic of the unvaccinated". Florida has recorded over 39,000 deaths since the coronavirus pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins University.
8-4-21 Biden urges 2 GOP governors to 'please help' fight COVID-19 spread or 'at least get out of the way'
President Biden said at a press conference Tuesday that "some states" are enacting policies "that forbid people from doing the right thing" to hinder the spread of COVID-19, adding: "I say to these governors: Please help. But if you aren't going to help, at least get out of the way of the people that are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives." When asked, Biden pointed to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), both of whom signed executive orders preventing public schools and local governments from requiring masks, vaccines, or other COVID-19 restrictions. "Their decisions are not good for their constituents," Biden said. "These two states, Florida and Texas, account for one third of all new COVID-19 cases in the entire country," and their governors "should allow businesses and universities who want to do the right thing to be able to do it." "Until now, Biden has largely sought to avoid statements that could exacerbate the partisan cast of the vaccine debate and has gone out of his way to praise Republicans who are promoting vaccinations," The Washington Post reports. "But the White House has grown increasingly frustrated with leaders who are actively seeking to block efforts to encourage or require vaccinations." Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said the governor "has been clear that we must rely on personal responsibility, not government mandates. Every Texan has a right to choose for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, or get vaccinated." Earlier Tuesday, before Biden's comments, DeSantis suggested the news media's "hysteria" and attempts "to fear-monger" were making Florida's outbreak seem worse than it actually is, noting that deaths have not risen as much as infections. DeSantis has repeatedly urged all Floridians to voluntarily get vaccinated and touts his efforts to vaccinate senior citizens. Florida ranks 24th in overall U.S. vaccinations, with 49.1 percent of the state's entire population fully inoculated. In Texas, 43.9 percent of the entire population has been fully vaccinated.
8-4-21 Missouri governor pardons couple who pointed guns at protesters
A US couple who gained nationwide notoriety after they pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters last year have been pardoned. Mark and Patricia McCloskey were filmed holding weapons outside their home in St Louis, Missouri. They were fined after pleading guilty to misdemeanour charges this year. But Missouri's Republican Governor Mike Parson has now pardoned them, something he had promised after US conservatives began to support the couple. The pair, both lawyers, appeared briefly at last year's Republican National Convention, and Mr McCloskey has announced plans to run for a US Senate seat in Missouri. "When the angry mob came to destroy my house and kill my family, I took a stand against them," he reportedly said in a recent campaign video. "I will never back down." The incident took place on 28 June 2020 amid nationwide demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd. Police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nine minutes, and has been sentenced to over 22 years in prison. Video footage of Mark McCloskey waving an assault rifle and Patricia McCloskey carrying a semi-automatic pistol quickly went viral. The two became a symbol of US divisions over the protests, with Democrats harshly criticising them and Republicans praising the lawyers. The pair were quickly charged. A complaint issued by St Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said both had displayed their semi-automatic weapons "readily capable of lethal use, in an angry or threatening manner". In June this year Mr McCloskey, 63, pleaded guilty to misdemeanour fourth-degree assault and was fined $750 (£538). His wife, 61, pleaded guilty to misdemeanour harassment and was fined $2,000. But at the start of their legal case Governor Parson had vowed to pardon them if convicted. On Tuesday his office issued a press release confirming he had stuck to his promise.
8-3-21 Missouri governor pardons St. Louis couple who waved guns at protesters
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) announced on Tuesday that last week, he pardoned Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who waved their guns at peaceful racial justice protesters walking by their home in June 2020. The McCloskeys, both personal injury attorneys, live in a gated community, and the demonstrators passed their house on the way to the home of then-Mayor Lyda Krewson. Videos and images showing Mark and Patricia McCloskey brandishing their weapons went viral, with former President Donald Trump defending them and the couple invited to speak at the Republican National Convention. In May, Mark McCloskey said he would seek the Republican nomination for one of Missouri's Senate seats. Earlier this summer, the McCloskeys pleaded guilty to misdemeanor firearm charges, and were fined and told to turn over the guns involved in the incident. Parson said during a radio interview last year and again during a later press conference that he would pardon the couple. In addition to the McCloskeys, Parson pardoned 10 other people on Friday. He did not pardon Kevin Strickland, a Kansas City man who has spent 43 years in prison for a shooting that prosecutors and two people who pleaded guilty to the crime say he didn't commit. Despite prosecutors and lawyers declaring Strickland, a Black man convicted by an all-white jury, innocent, Parson has said he's not convinced. Missouri House Democratic Minority Leader Crystal Quade said in a statement that it is "beyond disgusting that Mark and Patricia McCloskey admitted they broke the law and within weeks are rewarded with pardons, yet men like Kevin Strickland, who has spent more than 40 years in prison for crimes even prosecutors now say he didn't commit, remain behind bars with no hope of clemency."
8-3-21 Tucker Carlson joins the right-wing pilgrimage to Budapest
Tucker Carlson has become the latest and highest-profile figure on the American right to make a pilgrimage to Hungary. Fans of Carlson's top-rated prime time show on Fox News learned Monday that he would be broadcasting all week from Budapest, where he would also be delivering a speech next weekend at MCC Feszt — a conference sponsored by the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, a think tank recently granted $1.7 billion (about 1 percent of Hungary's GDP) by Prime Minister Viktor Orban in order to help foster the kind of nationalistic conservatism favored by his government. That includes kicking Central European University out of the country, banning the academic study of gender from colleges, allowing the ruling Fidesz Party to gobble up 90 percent of media in the country, and demonizing George Soros for cultural trends the prime minister's supporters dislike. Carlson is unlikely to be the last conservative to pay hommage to Orban. John O'Sullivan, a one-time Thatcherite conservative who served as an editor of National Review through most of the 1990s, has been president of the Danube Institute in Budapest since 2017, bringing in a long list of American conservatives for conferences on right-wing populism and the threat of cancel culture. In addition to a speech by Carlson, the MCC Feszt will include remarks by such prominent figures on the American right as Dennis Prager and Rod Dreher, the latter of whom has been living in Hungary and blogging effusively for The American Conservative about the Orban government for months. Dreher was joined a few months ago by Notre Dame's Patrick Deneen, author of surprise bestseller Why Liberalism Failed, for a lengthy discussion at MCC of the transnational conservative future. All of which means that Hungary looks to be for populist conservatives in the 2020s what the Soviet Union was for the international left a century ago: a foreign model of a morally and politically edifying future. That doesn't mean or imply a moral equivalence between Orban's nationalism and Soviet communism. But it does point to a similarly transactional relationship. In return for providing earnest intellectuals with hope, a government often treated as an international pariah gets to enjoy a flood of fawning coverage when those ideologically engaged writers and talkers start sharing their carefully curated experiences with the world. Time will tell if today's pilgrims turn out to be genuine prophets of the political future or just the latest band of useful idiots for a discredited and unsavory regime. (Webmasters Comment: Reminds me of the Libertarians support of the Augusto Pinochet right-wing dictatorship in Chile because it supported "Free Enterprize!" Over 3,000 were murdered by the regime and tens of thousands were tortured! And the LIBERTARIANS supported this in the name of Free Enterprize!)
8-3-21 Report: The FDA is aiming for final approval of the Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day
The Food and Drug Administration is aiming to fully approve the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by Labor Day or sooner, people familiar with the matter told The New York Times. Because of the highly contagious Delta variant, coronavirus cases are on the rise across the United States, and the hope is that a full approval will push skeptics to get inoculated. In late 2020, the FDA granted emergency authorization to the Pfizer vaccine, and the company applied for full approval on May 7. Moderna also received emergency authorization for its vaccine, and submitted its application for final approval on June 1. As part of the approval process, FDA employees will review hundreds of thousands of documents, looking at data on vaccine efficacy, immune responses, and breakthrough infections. Once a coronavirus vaccine is fully approved, it's expected that many schools and hospitals, as well as the city of San Francisco and the Department of Defense, will mandate that workers and students get vaccinated, the Times reports. As of Tuesday, 58 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
8-3-21 Covid third wave: Americans 'scared and angry' as pandemic worsens
Americans are feeling a sense of whiplash as leaders scramble to account for a surge in Covid cases and a rise in hospital admissions. The country's vaccination rate was once the envy of the world and restrictions were lifted in the spring, well ahead of many other nations. But now, with only half of the population vaccinated and the Delta variant surging, the summer of freedom feels like it's coming to a premature end. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that masks should again be worn indoors - for both the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Many Americans are now looking ahead to the colder weather and schools re-opening with more hesitancy, fear and frustration. Here's what they said. Virginia has reported 1,000 Covid cases for the second day in a row, following three months without a day over 1,000 reported cases. The state is doing better than many other US states with vaccinations - with 54.78% of the population vaccinated. According to state officials, almost all patients in hospital for Covid are unvaccinated. The number of Covid patients taken to hospital has soared after the state of Nevada reached a 15% test positivity rate. A vast majority of recent deaths have occurred in Clark County, home to tourist hotspot Las Vegas. The Nevada governor imposed a new mandate Tuesday that requires everyone to wear masks indoors, which the southern Nevada casino industry have said they support. The state has a vaccination rate of 45.71%. Louisiana has eight times more Covid cases than it did four weeks ago. On 27 July, the southern state saw the largest single day increase of people taken to hospital due to Covid since 2020 March - with 1,390 in hospital. The governor has encouraged all Louisianans to mask up indoors and get vaccinated to "protect against the Delta variant". Currently, 36.56% of the state's population is fully vaccinated.
8-3-21 Florida is now topping its worst COVID-19 infection and hospitalization numbers of the pandemic
The Florida Hospital Association reported 10,389 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Monday, the highest statewide number of the pandemic, two days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Florida had registered more than 21,000 new coronavirus infections on Friday, the state's highest one-day total. Florida's previous hospitalization record, set July 23, 2020, was 10,170, the hospital association said. The Delta variant is driving the sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases in Florida and across the U.S. Florida accounts for roughly 20 percent of new U.S. cases. About 95 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, says Mary Mayhew, chief executive of the Florida Hospital Association. And with the age of sick COVID-19 patients dropping amid the Delta surge, "we have to convince 25-year-olds, 30-year-olds that this is now life threatening for them," she told MSNBC's Morning Joe on Monday. "That is not what they saw and what we experienced last year." The average age of Floridians hospitalized with COVID-19 is now 42 years old, NBC News' Vaughn Hillyard reported Monday.
8-3-21 11 percent of unvaccinated Americans blame Trump for the new COVID-19 wave, poll finds
Americans overwhelming blame the unvaccinated for the upsurge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as the Delta variant sweeps across the U.S., an Axios/Ipsos poll released Tuesday morning found. Overall, 58 percent of respondents blamed unvaccinated adults for the new COVID-19 wave, 32 percent blamed people from other countries traveling to the U.S., and 28 percent blamed former President Donald Trump. But Axios and Ipsos also split the results apart by vaccinated and unvaccinated respondents, and things got a little strange. Nearly 80 percent of vaccinated respondents blamed the unvaccinated for the new COVID-19 wave, but so did 10 percent of unvaccinated respondents. Trump was fingered by 36 percent of vaccinated respondents but also by 11 percent of unvaccinated adults. The unvaccinated were more prone to blame foreign visitors (37 percent), the mainstream media (27 percent), Americans traveling abroad (23 percent), and President Biden (21 percent). A third of vaccinated adults blamed conservative media. "The findings expose a surreal gap between the views of the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, showing how tough getting to herd immunity could be," Axios says, but also "providing new evidence that mandates could make a difference." When unvaccinated respondents were asked what would prompt them to get the vaccine, only one in three said a requirement from their employer would work, Axios says. "But that was the highest response among a series of hypothetical incentives that also included getting a raise, bonus, or paid time off, or being required to show vaccination in order to attending sporting events or concerts or to board a plane or train." "We're dealing with a serious misinformation wall at this point that's clouding facts" for a "recalcitrant group," said Ipsos U.S. Public Affairs president Cliff Young. "The only way to get to them if you're going to get to them is hard policies, hard mandates." The Axios/Ipsos Poll surveyed a nationally representative sample of 999 adults from July 30 to Aug. 3, and the survey's margin of sampling error for the entire sample is ±3.3 percentage points. Respondents were told they could choose as many of the listed blame targets as they liked.
8-3-21 Covid vaccine inequity 'completely unacceptable and unethical'
A panel convened by the World Health Organization to look at what lessons could be learnt from the Covid pandemic has recommended that high-income countries do more to help low-income countries. Richer countries should give $19 billion to fund access to vaccines and treatments in poorer countries, and give 1 billion doses by September, The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response has said. But so far the pledges from richer countries are "not big enough", says the panel's co-chair Helen Clark, and meanwhile under-vaccinated countries with Covid outbreaks are seeing spikes in death tolls. Ms Clark, who is also the former prime minister of New Zealand, was speaking to the BBC's Karishma Vaswani on the Newsday programme.
8-3-21 CDC director Rochelle Walensky says vaccines worked in Provincetown
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky tells the BBC that the outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts, showed that vaccines helped protect people from serious illness and death amid an "immense amount of exposure". Nearly 75% of Covid cases documented in the tourist town in July were people who had been fully vaccinated - and of those, only four people required hospital treatment.
8-3-21 Wuhan: Chinese city to test entire population after virus resurfaces
Authorities in the Chinese city of Wuhan will begin testing its entire population, after a handful of positive coronavirus cases were detected there. Wuhan has recorded seven locally transmitted cases - the first local infections in more than a year. The city of 11 million people shot into the spotlight after the coronavirus was first detected there in 2019. China is currently seeing one of its biggest outbreaks in months, with 300 cases detected in 10 days. Some 15 provinces across the country have been affected, which has led to the government rolling out mass testing measures and lockdown estrictions. Authorities have attributed the spread of the virus to the highly contagious Delta variant and the domestic tourism season. The announcement in Wuhan came as China reported 90 new virus cases on Tuesday. The National Health Commission said 61 of these were locally transmitted - compared with 55 local cases a day earlier. China had been largely successful in controlling the virus within its borders. However, this new spread, which was first detected among workers at a busy airport in Nanjing, has sparked concern. Authorities have tested the 9.2 million residents of Nanjing three times and imposed lockdown on hundreds of thousands of people. But over the weekend the spotlight turned to popular tourist destination Zhangjiajie in Hunan province, where many of the latest cases have emerged. Travellers from Nanjing were thought to have visited the city recently. Health officials have zeroed in on a theatre in Zhangjiajie, and are now trying to track down about 5,000 people who attended performances and then travelled back to their home cities. "Zhangjiajie has now become the new ground zero for China's epidemic spread," Zhong Nanshan, China's leading respiratory disease expert, told reporters. The new outbreak has also reached the capital Beijing, with the city reporting several locally transmitted infections.
8-3-21 Tokyo Olympics: Chinese nationalists turn on their athletes
The pressure on Chinese athletes to perform has never been higher. Anything less than a gold is being seen as athletes being unpatriotic by furious nationalists online. The BBC's Waiyee Yip reports. China's mixed doubles table tennis team made a tearful apology at the Tokyo Olympics last week - for winning a silver medal. "I feel like I've failed the team... I'm sorry everyone," Liu Shiwen said, bowing in apology, tears welling in her eyes. Her partner, Xu Xin, added: "The whole country was looking forward to this final. I think the entire Chinese team cannot accept this result." Their finals loss against Japan in a sport they usually dominate had left many online furious. On microblogging platform Weibo, some "keyboard warriors" attacked the pair, saying they had "failed the nation". Others made unsubstantiated claims of referee bias towards Japan's Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito. As nationalist fever continues to sweep the country, racking up the Olympic medal tally has become much more than just sporting glory. For the ultra-nationalist crowd, losing an Olympic medal is akin to being "unpatriotic", experts told the BBC. "To these people, Olympic medal tables are real-time trackers of national prowess and, by extension, of national dignity," said Dr Florian Schneider, director of the Netherlands' Leiden Asia Centre. "In that context, someone who fails at a competition against foreigners has let down or even betrayed the nation." The table tennis match was an especially bitter pill to swallow because it had been a loss to Japan, with which China shares a tumultuous history. Japan's occupation of Manchuria in northern China in 1931 before a wider war began six years later, killed millions of Chinese. It is still a sore point between the two nations. To Chinese nationalists, then, the match was not just an athletic event, Dr Schneider said. "It's a stand-off between China and Japan."
8-2-21 U.S. finally hits 70 percent vaccination threshold
The United States has finally hit the 70-percent vaccination threshold, Cyrus Shahpar, the White House's COVID-19 data director, announced Monday. President Biden said earlier this year he was aiming for 70 percent of American adults to have received at least one shot of the available vaccines by July 4, but the goal was not met in time. Now, though, the latest Delta variant-fueled COVID-19 wave seems to have spurred an increase in vaccinations — not only has the U.S. reached a milestone, Shahpar notes, but the country's seven-day vaccination average is also the highest it's been in a month.While the White House is optimistic about the renewed effort, a new poll from Monmouth University shows there are still some significant gaps in terms of who's receiving the vaccine. Just over 51 percent of people who identify as Republican voters have gotten a shot, while the same can be said for only 63 percent of people under the age of 35. The Monmouth University was poll was conducted between July 21 and July 26 and among 804 American adults. The margin of error was 3.5 percentage points. Read the full results here.
8-2-21 U.S. extends border policy allowing officials to expel migrants
The Biden administration will keep invoking the public health rule Title 42 during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing the U.S. to continue turning away migrants at the border without a chance to seek asylum. Coronavirus cases are up across the U.S. because of the highly contagious Delta variant, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday said if non-citizens are allowed to come into the U.S. from Mexico or Canada, it "creates a serious danger" of further spread. While many single migrant adults and families have been turned away at the southern border, under the Biden administration, unaccompanied children are allowed to enter the U.S. The administration had been planning on lifting the public health rule this summer, and several immigration advocacy groups have been pushing for an end to it, arguing that the Trump administration imposed the rule not because officials wanted to stop the spread of COVID-19, but because they could use it to limit immigration, The New York Times reports. The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday filed a lawsuit to block enforcement of the rule. In response, the Biden administration said it has to be in place because the immigration system is overwhelmed, border facilities are already overcrowded, and there has been an increase in the number of COVID-19 infections among migrants and border officers.
8-2-21 Japan extends emergency measures as covid-19 spikes during Olympics
Tokyo is seeing a record-breaking rise in covid-19 cases as thousands of athletes and coaches fly in from around the world for the postponed 2020 Olympic games. But Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga denies any link between the event and the surging number of infections. Tokyo is currently in its fourth official state of emergency, which began on 12 July ahead of the Olympics and is now expected to last until 31 August. The measures include an alcohol ban in bars and restaurants and reduced opening hours. Okinawa is already under the same measures and Suga announced over the weekend that they would also be expanded to Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba and Osaka. Less stringent measures will also be introduced in five other prefectures: Hokkaido, Ishikawa, Hyogo, Kyoto, and Fukuoka. The Olympics were originally scheduled for 2020 but were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the Olympics are now taking place at a time when the country’s coronavirus situation is worse than it was the previous year, according to data on cases. Tokyo saw a sharp rise in covid-19 cases from the start of July and rates last week had doubled from those seen the previous week. On 2 August, the city reported 3058 new cases and the infection rate in Tokyo now stands at 88 people per 100,000. Less than a third of the Japanese population has been fully vaccinated. On 29 July, more than 10,000 new cases across Japan were reported for the first time. This record was beaten just days later when 12,340 cases were recorded on 1 August, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. “If the increase of infection does not stop, the severe symptoms cases will increase and the medical system may possibly be further under strain,” said Suga at a press conference. Meanwhile, Shigeru Omi, chair of the government’s coronavirus subcommittee, told The Japan Times that there was “barely any prospect” of curtailing the outbreak.
8-2-21 Police officer who responded to Capitol attack is 3rd to die by suicide
A third police officer who responded to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack has died by suicide, the Metropolitan Police Department said on Monday. Officer Gunther Hashida, 44, was found dead at his home on Thursday. Hashida, who is survived by his wife and three children, joined the force in May 2003 and was assigned to the Emergency Response Team within the Special Operations Department. Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman Brianna Burch told The Guardian that the agency is "grieving" and "our thoughts and prayers are with Officer Hashida's family and friends." Two other officers who responded to the Capitol attack later died by suicide: Jeffrey Smith and Howard Liebengood. Last week, several officers who were injured and suffered verbal abuse during the assault on the Capitol testified before the House Jan. 6 select committee, describing what they went through that day and how they are coping in the aftermath.
8-2-21 Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urges Congress to increase debt ceiling and 'protect the full faith and credit' of the U.S.
In a letter to congressional leaders, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Monday implored lawmakers to "protect the full faith and credit of the United States" by raising or suspending the U.S. debt ceiling, something she had previously requested be handled by Aug. 2, CNBC reports. The letter also notified leaders that the Treasury Department had begun using "extraordinary measures" — or emergency cash conservation steps — to keep from breaching the federal borrowing limit after it went back into effect over the weekend, per CNBC and The Wall Street Journal. "As I stated in my July 23 letter, the period of time that extraordinary measures may last is subject to heightened uncertainty related to the economic impact of the pandemic," wrote Yellen. "Therefore, I respectfully urge Congress to protect the full faith and credit of the United States by acting as soon as possible." The so-called "extraordinary measures" will reportedly buy the Treasury some time — but after that, Congress "will need to either raise or suspend the borrowing limit or risk the U.S. defaulting on its obligations," writes CNBC. Defaulting, which the federal government has never done, would have "disastrous effects" on the U.S. economy. Lindsey Piegza, chief economist for Stifel, told CNBC that "from a procedural standpoint," the extraordinary measures aren't "much of a concern." However, she added "the implication is a further showdown in Washington eroding the average American's confidence in a cohesive, functioning government" that simultaneously highlights "ongoing infighting among policy officials" on both sides of the aisle. Read more at CNBC.
8-2-21 America's troubling pandemic reality
It's become apparent that COVID isn't going away any time soon. Where does that leave us? What do we call this phase of the pandemic in America? Stalemate? Limbo? The new normal? It's certainly odd and even horrifying, whatever the label. Florida on Sunday set a new pandemic-era record with more than 10,000 COVID-related hospitalizations reported. A similar record was set Saturday in Springfield, Mo. Medical facilities in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Louisiana, among others, reported a spike in patient admissions. Young adults are the largest demographic group among the newly hospitalized, and the number of children being admitted is also spiking in some states. For many people, in many parts of the United States, this is a scary moment: Every one of those hospitalizations represents — at the very least — a life disrupted. On the other hand, about half the country is fully vaccinated — mostly protected from severe illness, and death, even against the Delta variant. As a result, you're not really seeing calls to shut down businesses or send everybody back to their homes for a fresh round of no-contact grocery deliveries and Zoom meetings. Some of us are wearing masks again, and maybe we're taking more time getting back to the office than we thought we might, but at the moment it doesn't look like everyday life is going to be utterly disrupted like it was in March 2020. "I don't think we're gonna see lockdowns," Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday on ABC. "I think we have enough of the percentage of people [vaccinated] in the country — not enough to crush the outbreak — but I believe enough to not allow us to get into the situation we were in last winter." Then he added: "But things are going to get worse." So things are bad and getting worse, but not lockdown bad. We could be doing better. We should be doing better: More Americans should be vaccinated by now. But we're not. And it's difficult not to contemplate the possibility that this will be our reality for a while — no longer collectively chained to the pandemic's very worst horrors, but not quite free of it either. That's not good enough, is it? We've long known that it is unlikely that COVID will be completely wiped out soon, if ever: There have been endless stories about how the illness will become endemic instead of pandemic, something more akin to seasonal health issues like the flu or cold — a problem, but relatively manageable. What the country is experiencing right now is obviously worse and more severe than that scenario. Troublingly, this is to a large degree the product of millions of individual choices to rely solely on faith, or to watch Tucker Carlson, or to avoid conflicts with friends and family, or simply to prove one's ideological bona fides. Among the vaxxed, online and in private conversations, there has been a low but unmistakable rumbling that it's time to leave the un-vaxxed to their fates. They made their choice, now let them live — or die — with it. That's understandable, even human: It's exhausting to be stuck with a terrible problem when the resolution is unquestionably there for the taking. It's tough to remain empathetic when you read story after story after story about people who refused to get the vaccine and now, because of great illness or worse, have changed their minds much too late. We're also unfortunately all too practiced at absorbing mass death into our national metabolism. Think about all the gun massacres we've seen in recent years — from Sandy Hook to Orlando to Pittsburgh to El Paso, just for starters — and how little changed in their aftermaths. It probably shouldn't be surprising that more than 600,000 deaths haven't been enough to shake up our society's us-versus-them dynamics. Cynicism is a natural response.
8-2-21 China Covid: Concerns grow as Delta outbreak spreads
A fresh Covid outbreak in China has spread to more locations, raising concerns in local media over the country's vulnerability to the highly contagious Delta variant. More than 300 cases have been detected within a span of 10 days. Local headlines have been dominated by news on the outbreak, and the country's top respiratory diseases specialist has reportedly expressed grave concern. The government has imposed fresh travel restrictions and is testing millions. It is unclear how many in China are fully vaccinated, although authorities say more than 1.6 billion doses have been administered so far. A total of 15 provinces and municipalities have now confirmed cases, of which 12 are connected to an outbreak that began in Nanjing in China's eastern Jiangsu province. Authorities have attributed the spread to the Delta variant and the domestic tourist season. Although case numbers are considerably lower than other places, it is considered the largest outbreak in months in China, a country that was largely successful in controlling the virus within its borders last year. Cases first emerged in July in Nanjing airport, among workers who had cleaned a plane that arrived from Russia. Authorities promptly tested 9.2 million residents of Nanjing and imposed lockdown on hundreds of thousands of people. But over the weekend the spotlight turned to popular tourist destination Zhangjiajie in central Hunan province, where many of the latest cases have emerged. Travellers from Nanjing were thought to have visited the city recently. Health officials have zeroed in on a theatre in Zhangjiajie, and are now trying to track down about 5,000 people who attended performances and then travelled back to their home cities. One performance alone had hosted about 2,000 people, according to reports. All attractions in Zhangjiajie have been closed and tourists are being asked to take a Covid test before leaving the city, local media reported.
8-2-21 DaBaby dropped by US music festival Lollapalooza
US music festival Lollapalooza has dropped rapper DaBaby from its Sunday line-up over comments he made about people with HIV and Aids. The Chicago festival tweeted that "Lollapalooza was founded on diversity, inclusivity, respect, and love. "With that in mind, DaBaby will no longer be performing at Grant Park tonight." The rapper has been widely condemned for homophobic and derogatory comments he made about HIV and gay men. While performing at Rolling Loud festival in Miami on 25 July, he urged the audience to "put your cell phone light up", apart from those who were HIV-positive or were gay men who had sex in car parks. He also wrongly claimed that HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases would "make you die in two or three weeks". Medication helping those with HIV to live long, healthy lives has been available for decades. Lollapalooza said rapper Young Thug would fill DaBaby's slot on Sunday night. Earlier this week, DaBaby was dropped from a benefit concert for the Working Families Party, a US political party that says it wants "freedom and equality for all". "We have to hold people accountable and live to our values, which is why there is a change in our line-up," the Working Families Party stated. DaBaby has also parted ways with online fashion retailer Boohoo, with whom he had a clothing deal. Several musicians have spoken out against the rapper's remarks, among them Sir Elton John, who founded his Aids Foundation charity in 1992. "We must break down the stigma around HIV and not spread it. As musicians, it's our job to bring people together," Sir Elton wrote on Instagram. DaBaby ultimately tweeted an apology, saying he had been "insensitive" and "anybody who done ever been effected by AIDS/HIV y'all got the right to be upset." But on his Instagram story, he doubled down on the insults by calling people with Aids "nasty" and "junkies on the street".
8-1-21 Senators release $1 trillion infrastructure bill
On Sunday night, Democratic and Republican senators unveiled their $1 trillion infrastructure bill, with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) saying it "takes our aging and outdated infrastructure in this country and modernizes it, and that's good for everybody." The White House supports the bipartisan, 2,700-page Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which funds improvements to the nation's roads, bridges, ports, and pipes. About half of the package would be new federal spending, with the rest planned investments, The Washington Post reports. Spending would be covered through several different means, including collecting unpaid taxes on cryptocurrency. The package includes $73 billion to modernize the country's energy grid; $66 billion for passenger railways; $55 billion to improve drinking water, including replacing every lead pipe in the U.S.; $65 billion to expand broadband internet access; and $7.5 billion for the first-ever national network of electric vehicle charging stations. The Senate voted last week to move ahead with debate on the infrastructure proposal, which effectively needs 60 votes to pass, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday night said a final vote on the bill could take place "in a matter of days."
8-1-21 Rep. Paul Gosar's siblings say he helped 'incite' Jan. 6 Capitol attack and must resign
The siblings of Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) have long been vocal about their opposition to his right-wing views, and in an opinion piece for NBC News published Sunday, they called on him to resign, saying his actions leading up to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot were a "betrayal" to the country. Dave Gosar, Jennifer Gosar, and Tim Gosar said they have been aware of their brothers's "unhinged behavior for years," and disagree with him on everything from his claim that COVID-19 was overblown to his support of Roy Moore's Senate run in Alabama, which came after he was accused of sexual misconduct. Now, they are focused on Gosar's role in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. In a direct message to their brother, the Gosars wrote that it seems "you are immune to shame. In addition to betraying your family and causing irreparable damage to the relationships within it, you decided to betray your country by helping incite the Jan. 6 domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol." They said he helped organize Stop the Steal rallies and "achieved the deplorable distinction of being the congressman with the most tweets devoted to election lies and instigating the riot." The siblings called it "shocking" that Gosar is "trying to gaslight everyone" by saying Ashli Babbitt, a woman shot and killed by police on Jan. 6 while trying to climb through a door that led to the House chamber, was "somehow an innocent bystander." Gosar, they added, was lying about the election on the House floor that day, and those "lies helped delay the Capitol Police from clearing the chamber, and this delay led at least in part to the officer's decision to shoot Babbitt to protect you. And now you have the gall to blame those men and women who protected you for her death." Gosar, they said, does not have "the intellect, character, or maturity" to be a congressman, and it's likely his "lifelong, insecure need for the approval of others caused you to sacrifice your common decency and integrity to satisfy Trump and his followers in order to keep your seat." If he doesn't resign or his colleagues don't step in to have him removed, Gosar's siblings concluded, he is "likely doomed to go down in history as a cautionary tale: a person who betrayed his family, his country, and even himself."
8-1-21 Israeli data suggest infected, vaccinated individuals have low chance of spreading COVID-19
Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, Israel's director of public health services, had some bad news and good news for CBS' John Dickerson on Sunday's edition of Face the Nation. Preis told Dickerson that Israel, which has served as one of the best test cases for how COVID-19 vaccinations work in the real world because it vaccinated its population early and often, has found that about 50 percent of the people testing positive for COVID-19 right now are fully immunized, though she clarified that the vaccines are still highly effective at preventing severe disease. But even though the data suggest that breakthrough infections may become more common over time (in the U.S., they make up a far lower share of new cases), there's evidence that those individuals are not spreading the virus frequently or widely. Preis explained that, excluding instances of household spread, 80 percent of vaccinated individuals who have been infected have "zero contacts" that have been confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 because of their connection. About 10 percent of those vaccinated, infected individuals have just one contact who likely caught the virus from them, while fewer than 10 percent have more than one contact who later tested positive. "Their ability to infect others is 50 percent lower than those who are not vaccinated," Preis said.
8-1-21 Anti-eviction lawmaker camps overnight on US Capitol steps
Congresswoman Cori Bush has spent a night on the steps of the US Capitol to protest against the end of a Covid-related moratorium on evictions. The House Democrat said shortly before the freeze expired at midnight Saturday that seven million people would be "at risk for evictions" over unpaid rent. The freeze was imposed 11 months ago in part to halt the spread of infections through crowding in shelters. Ms Bush, who was once homeless, wants the measure to be extended. In a tweet early on Saturday, she wrote: "Good morning. The eviction moratorium expires tonight at midnight. We could have extended it yesterday, but some Democrats went on vacation instead. "We slept at the Capitol last night to ask them to come back and do their jobs. Today's their last chance. We're still here." The Democrat-majority House of Representatives adjourned for a seven-week recess on Friday without renewing the moratorium. Extension opponents say many landlords are struggling with their mortgage repayments without regular rent money. Ms Bush, 45, said that despite managing only an hour of sleep in a chair, she was now preparing to spend another night outside the Capitol in Washington DC. On Saturday, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren and Jim McGovern, a House Republican, briefly joined Ms Bush to voice their full support for her action.
8-1-21 New Zealand Dawn Raids: Jacinda Ardern formally apologises
New Zealand's Prime Minister has formally apologised for an immigration crackdown in the 1970s against Pacific Islanders. The Dawn Raids targeted people who overstayed their visas, deporting them to their countries of origin. They disproportionately affected Pacific Islanders, despite most visa overstayers being from the UK, Australia and South Africa. Jacinda Ardern has now issued a "formal and unreserved apology". Pacific Islander communities in New Zealand still "suffer and carry the scars" from the policy, she said, adding that she hoped the apology "has brought some much-needed closure". Ms Ardern spoke at a gathering of affected families, Pacific Island dignitaries and government officials in Auckland. According to news site Stuff, Princess Mele Sui'ilikutapu of Tonga welcomed the New Zealand government's attempt to address the "inhumane and unjust" treatment of her people. She called the apology "a dawn for my community". Beginning in the early 1970s, the Dawn Raids saw government forces launch early morning operations in the homes and workplaces of people who had overstayed their visas. New Zealand had welcomed thousands of migrants from Pacific Islands after the end of World War Two, needing workers for its booming economy. By 1976, the government says there were more than 50,000 Pacific Islanders in the country. But an economic crisis in the early 1970s caused unemployment to rise. Some politicians and in the press began to attack migrants. Raids began in 1974 and continued through the decade. The policy spawned mounting criticism from religious, political and civil groups until it was eventually halted by the start of the 1980s. New Zealand's minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio, was himself a victim of the operation. Born in Samoa before moving to New Zealand, he has said that the day of the raid was "etched into my memory". "To have someone knocking on the door in the early hours, flashlight in your face, disrespecting the owner of the home, with an Alsatian dog frothing at the mouth wanting to come in... It is quite traumatising," he said when Ms Ardern announced the apology in June.
7-31-21 Cori Bush prepared to spend 2nd night outside Capitol as eviction moratorium expiration looms
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) is prepared to spend another night outside the Capitol building as she seeks to pressure Congress into action with the pandemic-related federal eviction moratorium set to expire on Saturday night, Business Insider reports. Bush slept outside the halls of Congress on Friday night after House Democrats, despite a last-minute scramble before a weeks-long recess, were unable to pass an extension on the moratorium via unanimous consent. Assuming the deadline remains in tact, millions of Americans will reportedly be at risk of eviction. There's been some finger-pointing over who's to blame for the failure, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggesting that the Biden administration alerted her about its desire for Congress to act and extend the deadline too late. "Really, we only learned about this yesterday," Pelosi told reporters on Friday, adding that there wasn't enough time to whip votes. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was even more straightforward with her criticism, calling it "unacceptable" for President Biden to wait until Thursday to release a statement on the issue. Meanwhile, no House Republicans supported the extension bid. (Webmasters Comment: Again Republicans prove they are anti-people!)
7-31-21 Florida must plan for 'hospital surge' amid new COVID-19 wave, former Trump official says
"It's too late" for Florida to mitigate its latest COVID-19 surge "meaningfully," Thomas Bossert, who served as former President Donald Trump's homeland security adviser until 2018, tweeted Saturday. The state is in "unchartered territory," he explained, noting that it just recorded the highest number of cases in a 24-hour period since the pandemic began. More significantly, though, more than 10,000 people are currently hospitalized with an infection, which accounts for 83 percent of Florida's all-time pandemic high. New York Times' data shows hospitalizations are up 123 percent in the last 14 days, the fourth highest rate in the country. Bossert warns that there's not much Florida can do to stop the spread at this point — although the data he presents doesn't provide a locality breakdown, so the analysis may not apply to every part of the state — and instead must "change gears" and plan for a "hospital surge," particularly when it comes to pediatric capacity.
7-31-21 Biden administration officials optimistic about recent rise in U.S. vaccinations
With the Delta variant fueling another coronavirus surge in the United States, the country's vaccination rate may also be trending upward again. Cyrus Shahpar, the White House's COVID-19 data director, revealed Saturday that more than 700,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered on Friday, including 473,000 first doses. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain chimed in, noting that it's the first time in a "long stretch" that the U.S. had four consecutive days of administering more than 700,000 shots. He added that "we are seeing more adults get their first shot than any time in the past 8-10 weeks," and the increase is "particularly strong" in states that have been hardest hit during the Delta wave. It's unclear if the pattern will hold or if it will prove to be a small sample size outlier, but either way it's good news. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that fully vaccinated people who contract COVID-19 tend to have similar viral loads to unvaccinated people, which suggests they can spread the virus just as easily, Axios notes that such breakthrough infections are still rare, with less than 0.1 percent of the 164 million fully vaccinated Americans having tested positive for the virus. As Brown University's Dr. Ashish Jha pointed out Saturday, if you're not infected, you can't spread.
7-31-21 New delta variant studies show the pandemic is far from over
A widespread return to COVID-19 restrictions could be on the horizon. The coronavirus’s delta variant is different from earlier strains of the virus in worrying ways, health officials are discovering. And those differences may mean a return to some of the restrictions that vaccinated people thought were in the past. The variant is not only more contagious than earlier strains, it also makes people sicker. And even vaccinated people can get infected and house similar levels of viral particles in their noses as unvaccinated people, raising concern about the vaccines’ ability to curb transmission, new data indicate. But experts caution that there’s more to infectiousness than just those viral levels in the nose.
- Vaccinated people can get infected with delta, but the vaccines are still working. Some 350 of about 470 people, nearly 75 percent, who caught the coronavirus in a large outbreak in Barnstable County, Mass., were fully vaccinated, researchers report July 30 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Public health officials linked many of those cases to packed indoor and outdoor events at places like bars and rental homes. The delta variant, which was first identified in India, was behind 120 of 133 analyzed COVID-19 cases, or 90 percent, in the outbreak.
- Vaccinated people might more readily transmit delta to others, but there’s a huge caveat to that. In that Massachusetts study, both unvaccinated and vaccinated people infected with the delta variant had similar levels of coronavirus genetic material in their noses, as measured by PCR, suggesting similar viral loads. Those elevated viral loads could mean that vaccinated people might more readily transmit delta than other coronavirus variants, despite being protected from the worst of COVID-19 themselves.
- The delta variant can actually make people sicker. Three recent studies in Canada, Singapore and Scotland indicate that the variant raises the risk of hospitalization, intensive care unit admissions and death.
- Delta is much more transmissible than previous forms of the coronavirus. An unvaccinated person infected with the ancestral version of the virus that first emerged at the end of 2019 typically transmitted the virus to two to four people on average.
- Public health measures like vaccination and masks remain crucial tools. The CDC recommended a return to masking, because it is one of the most effective tools to prevent infection.
7-31-21 The broken American health-care system is prolonging the pandemic
Americans are taught to fear going to the doctor. Turns out this makes them less likely to get vaccinated too. For a few months, the United States was in the shocking position of beating Europe at a public health effort. America secured massive supplies of the coronavirus vaccines from the start, while the janky European Union bureaucracy was far behind — and so, for awhile, we were way ahead at getting shots into arms. But now the U.S. is back where it belongs: being humiliated by European welfare states. Nearly all the richest nations in the E.U. have since passed up America at vaccination, and soon so will Finland, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Lithuania. One under-noticed reason for this is the jalopy American health-care system. A large chunk of the U.S. population has learned to fear, distrust, and avoid the medical system if at all possible. The result is a large chunk of the population that is hesitating to get vaccinated. Now, this argument must start with a caveat: The biggest obstacle to vaccination in the U.S. is surely the deranged state of the conservative movement. Everyone from Fox News' Tucker Carlson (the top-rated cable news host in the country) down to grassroots conservative Facebook moms have been pushing psychotic anti-vaccine conspiracy theories for months, so as to harm President Biden politically. That's why rural, conservative regions are the least-vaccinated parts of the country — and why thousands of conservatives who listened to Carlson are at death's door. But America's wretched health care is not far behind in terms of factors. As writer Natalie Shure points out, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that the uninsured had the largest share of unvaccinated people out of all sub-groups studied, with just 48 percent vaccinated (Republicans were just ahead at 52 percent, though that is a much larger group). To be clear, as I previously argued, it is still the case that the mass vaccination campaign is an excellent proof-of-concept for Medicare-for-all. The reason America got so many shots done so fast at first was because the government set up mass clinics all over the country and gave them away for free. One reason we're struggling now is the ruinous side effects of the status quo health-care system. In another Kaiser survey, a third of unvaccinated folks report that they haven't gotten the shot because of cost worries, and it's obvious why. A great many medical providers view the uninsured like a hungry vulture looking at a wounded puppy. Just a few examples out of thousands: one study found that the worst-behaved hospitals charged uninsured people 10 times the cost of care; corrupt providers have reportedly tried to steal people's car accident settlements, deliberately put themselves out of insurance networks so they can bilk the sick out of tens of thousands of dollars, turned ambulance services into extortion rackets, and on and on. Millions and millions of Americans have learned the hard way that going to the doctor for any reason can easily lead to shattering financial burdens. In terms of the coronavirus, in most cases this worry is a false one, as the vaccine is indeed being given out for free in most places. But not everywhere! It turns out that — despite legal requirements from the Biden administration — providers have illegally charged some individuals for the vaccine. If you thought a global pandemic would be the time for medical swindlers to stop compulsively stealing money, you would be wrong.
7-31-21 Australia Covid: Brisbane lockdown after Delta variant cases
Millions more Australians are now in lockdown as the highly contagious Delta variant continues to spread. Authorities have imposed a snap three-day lockdown in south-eastern parts of Queensland, including Australia's third largest city Brisbane, which began at 16:00 (06:00 GMT) on Saturday. It is the latest part of the country to reimpose restrictions in a bid to cut Covid infections. Fewer than 15% of Australians are fully vaccinated against the virus. Queensland officials reported six new Covid cases there, all linked to a high school student who tested positive on Thursday. Dr Jeannette Young, chief health officer in Queensland, told reporters they were tracing any contacts of those who had tested positive and said she thought there could be "an enormous number of exposure sites" in Brisbane. "If anyone has any symptoms at all, this is the time - you must come forward and get tested immediately," she said. The restrictions imposed are the strictest yet in Queensland. People are only allowed to leave home to buy essential goods or carry out essential work, to exercise or to go for medical treatment. It comes a day after authorities deployed hundreds of soldiers in Australia's largest city Sydney to enforce its Covid lockdown. Sydney's measures will stay in place until at least 28 August. The state of New South Wales recorded a further death and 210 fresh infections on Saturday, after five weeks of lockdown. Last Saturday police arrested dozens of demonstrators who protested against the restrictions. State officials have reportedly announced they are diverting their allocated vaccine doses to Sydney, sending tens of thousands of jabs to high school students around the city so that face-to-face teaching can resume. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced mounting criticism for the slow pace of Australia's vaccine rollout. On Friday he announced that once 70% of the country was fully vaccinated, lockdowns would become more targeted. Mr Morrison said he believed the country could reach that goal by the end of 2021.
7-31-21 IRS ordered to hand over Donald Trump tax returns to Congress
The US justice department has ordered the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to hand over former President Donald Trump's tax returns to Congress. The move reverses a 2019 finding that the request from the House Ways and Means Committee was "disingenuous". The decision appears to end a long legal battle over the records, and is seen as a sharp legal blow to Mr Trump. Although not required by law, every US president since 1976 - except Mr Trump - has released their tax returns. Mr Trump is yet to publicly comment on the latest developments, although he still has ways to try to fight the ruling in court. Republicans on Capitol Hill denounced the decision, describing it as politically motivated. When he was president, Mr Trump repeatedly said he was under audit by the IRS and so could not release his tax returns - although the IRS has said an audit would not stop the release of the information. The House Ways and Means Committee has previously argued that it required the Republican former president's tax returns for an investigation into whether he complied with tax law. The Trump-era justice department, however, refused to hand them over. It argued that the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives was seeking them for partisan political gain. In an opinion released on Friday, the justice department's Office of Legal Counsel determined that the committee "has invoked sufficient reasons" for requesting the tax information. "Treasury must furnish the information to the Committee," the opinion said. Among those who praised the decision was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, who said the American people "deserve to know the facts of his troubling conflicts and undermining of our security and democracy as president". In February, Mr Trump was ordered by the US Supreme Court to hand over his tax returns and other financial records to prosecutors in New York. The decision was a blow to Mr Trump, who had been in a legal battle to protect his records from a grand jury. He has continuously denied any wrongdoing and has called the investigation into his tax affairs a "witch hunt".
7-31-21 From Afghan interpreter to US homeless - the long road to the American dream
Zia Ghafoori, his pregnant wife and their three small children landed in the United States from their home in Kabul in September 2014. He held five US visas - a reward for 14 years of service as an interpreter with US Special Forces in Afghanistan. But the benefits stopped there. Upon arrival, Zia found himself homeless - sent to a shelter by a well-meaning volunteer who told him it would be a place for him and his family to start a new life. Seven years later, the memory still angers him. Speaking to the BBC from North Carolina, where he now lives, he recalled struggling to look his children in the eye, apologising for bringing them to the US. "I couldn't control my tears," he said. "After what I had done for both countries, I was asking myself 'is this what I deserve?'" But among his peers Zia, now 37, counts himself lucky to have made it to the US at all. Tens of thousands of Afghans have served as interpreters, fixers and local guides to US and allied soldiers since the start of Afghan War in 2001, when Western forces invaded to wrest control of the country from the Taliban. Decades after the beginning of what would become America's longest-running conflict, President Joe Biden has vowed to withdraw US troops by 11 September - even as the Taliban appear poised to return to power. Mr Biden promised that a mass evacuation of interpreters would begin before August, and on Friday, 200 Afghans out of an initial group of 2,500 arrived in the US to complete their visa applications and begin new lives. As many as 50,000 interpreters have worked with the US military. Since 2008, some 70,000 Afghans - interpreters and their families - have moved to the US under a special immigrant visa awarded for their service. But some 20,000 interpreters and their families are still seeking a way out. They face a clogged and complex visa process and the threat of a swift Taliban advance as the US winds down its 20-year war. The danger to interpreters - marked for their work for the Americans - is grave. An estimated 300 interpreters have died since 2009 while seeking a US visa - a process that can take years.
7-30-21 Fox News vs. Team USA
Conservatives' attacks on the "woke Olympics" are as ahistorical as they are silly. You'd think that an international athletic competition known for its heavy nationalist overtones and that the United States has historically dominated would be just the thing for the flag-waving MAGA crowd. But no, the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics has become the latest target of conservative cancel culture. As the Games began last Saturday, former President Donald Trump got the Olympics hate-race off to a flying start at a rally in Phoenix. Pointing to the U.S. women's soccer team's surprising 3-0 loss to Sweden, Trump blamed the upset on some of the American players' having taken a knee to protest racism right before the game began. That the winning Swedish players had also joined in the act did nothing to keep Trump from asserting that "wokeism makes you lose." Encouraging the Phoenix crowd to boo the team's performance,Trump claimed Americans were happy about the team's loss because it proved "woke politics" was ruining the nation. "Woke politics," Trump said, "takes the life and joy out of everything." Trump would know about taking the life and joy out of everything. Yet the former president is hardly alone in attacking the Olympics – and the American team – this year. Indeed, he's been joined by a robust chorus on the right who have made Olympic hating their sport. On Fox News, the network has taken time out from its dangerous anti-vaccination message to regularly knock Team USA. The Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren opened her Monday show with an extended rant about the "Woke-lympics." Team USA, she said, is the "largest group of whiny social justice activists the Olympics has seen in decades." While Lahren could win a gold medal in whining, it's worth pointing out that, like much of conservative logic these days, her argument doesn't hold up against the facts. Lahren and other conservative commentators contend that the U.S. athletes care more about politics than about their sports – and that this is why Team USA isn't winning. But that's just not true. While Team USA did fail to medal on the first day of the Games – something that hadn't happened since 1972 and a development that seemed to make some Fox News personalities almost giddy with the chance to America-bash – it was no indication of future performance. For one, as many have pointed out, the first day's events were in sports in which the U.S. historically hasn't exceled. More importantly, after the first day Team USA quickly raced to the front of the medal count where it will probably remain. Which makes you wonder who is really injecting politics into these Games. Definitely, some American athletes are speaking out and using their brief media spotlights to point to the issues they care about. And it's easier for them to do so this year thanks to a recent revision of the International Olympic Committee's guidelines which gives greater leeway to how competitors can "express their views." That change reflects the IOC's understanding that the Olympics have always been political events as much as they have been sporting competitions. From the 1936 Games in Hitler's Berlin to the 1968 Mexico City Games shortly after Martin Luther King's assassination to the dueling U.S.-Soviet boycotts of the 1980s, athletes and nations both have used the Games as a site of protest, propaganda, and uncritical patriotism. The very nature of the Games itself is political, of course, a showcase of nationalism and clear proof of global power imbalances set against its message of internationalism and unity. That athletes have sometimes brought their own causes to their competitions only underscores how much the Olympics matter as something far bigger than what happens on the playing field.
7-30-21 What parents with young children should know about the Delta variant
For vaccinated parents with unvaccinated young children, it might be difficult to understand, process, or navigate what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest mask guidelines and potentially "misleading" internal report shared by The Washington Post now mean for their families. Well, acording to some, the good news is parents shouldn't feel like they have to panic just yet. While the Delta variant is spreading nationwide, the risk of serious disease in children still remains "really low," notes Emily Oster, a professor at Brown University. Take the U.K., for example, which may have just surpassed its Delta-driven infection peak — even with the more-infectious variant, case rates remained relatively low in children under 12. "Thankfully, for children, the risk of severe COVID remains still very small," agreed Dr. Marcella Nuñez-Smith of the White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. Of course, Americans should try to prevent any and all infections, she added, but parents should be assured that nothing has changed "so drastically" in terms of a child's COVID-19 risk. Until kids can be vaccinated, the updated, Delta-driven mask guidelines can be used to inform parents' risk evaluation when indoors with individuals whose vaccination status is unknown. As an added precaution or measure, Oster suggests testing as a useful tool should you be concerned about your unvaccinated child. But again, since the risk to children remains "extremely low," simply vaccinating yourself is a great step to take in protecting your kids.
7-30-21 Covid-19 news: Pregnant women in England urged to get vaccinated
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Research suggests covid-19 hospital admissions among pregnant women in the UK are rising. England’s chief midwifery officer Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent is urging pregnant women to get vaccinated against covid-19, as new research indicates that covid-19 hospital admissions among pregnant women are rising and that they may face an increased risk from the delta variant of the coronavirus. “Vaccines save lives, and this is another stark reminder that the covid-19 jab can keep you, your baby and your loved ones safe and out of hospital,” said Dunkley-Bent in a statement on 30 July. An estimated one in 65 people in England had covid-19 in the week to 24 July, up from one in 75 the previous week, according to the latest results of a random swab testing survey by the Office for National Statistics. Equivalent estimates for Wales and Northern Ireland were one in 210 people and one in 170 people, respectively – both increases compared to the previous week. In Scotland, an estimated one in 110 people had the virus in the most recent week, down from one in 80 the previous week. Israel has started offering third doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine to people over the age of 60, in an effort to tackle a rise in cases of the delta coronavirus variant. “Findings show that there is a decline in the body’s immunity over time. The aim of the supplementary dose is to build it up again,” Israel’s prime minister Naftali Bennett told a news conference on 29 July. Japan is extending a state of emergency in Tokyo, which is currently hosting the Olympics amid surging coronavirus cases, and expanding it to surrounding areas as well as to the city of Osaka. The emergency measures include reduced hours at certain venues, such as restaurants and karaoke bars, and will remain in place until 31 August. China is testing all residents in the city of Nanjing for coronavirus as almost 200 people have tested positive in a new outbreak. The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 4.2 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 196.7 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher. According to Our World In Data, 2.19 billion people globally have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine.
7-30-21 3 cheers for the bipartisan infrastructure deal, from a skeptic of bipartisanship
The deal tells us where the parties can agree — and where they can't. Break out the bunting! Pop the champagne! With the bipartisan agreement to move forward with a $1 trillion bill, Infrastructure Week is finally here! Well, hopefully it is. The text of the bill hasn't yet been released, and there's still plenty of time for Republicans to bail. Meme-ready charts have already been ginned up showing how this bill is a piece of Swiss cheese compared to what the Democrats originally proposed, and that the climate-related spending in particular is a tiny fraction of what President Biden campaigned on. Nonetheless, I'm not being sarcastic. I think it's worth applauding the agreement, not merely in spite of the limits to what has been agreed across party lines, but in part because of them. I don't make a fetish of bipartisanship. There are certain things — like setting the rules for and running elections — that really do require either bipartisanship or strenuous nonpartisanship to prevent self-dealing and create broad confidence across the electorate. But in general, if you've got a majority, there's nothing wrong with trying to enact your agenda through partisan means. On the contrary: doing so leaves you plainly accountable to the voters for that agenda, which is a good thing. That's why Democrats were right to refuse to negotiate on privatizing Social Security in the Bush years. The proposal was unpopular, and it was something they fundamentally opposed, so they had no reason to enter into negotiations in the hopes of watering it down. Better to make Republicans own the issue and face the voters alone. They declined to do so, which is why Social Security was never privatized. Republicans made the same calculation regarding health-care reform in the Clinton years, with similarly sensible political logic. Nonetheless, it makes all the sense in the world to try to find consensus where it might actually exist, if only because our political system, with its many veto points, makes partisan lawmaking exceedingly difficult. And in this case, the Democrats have already made clear they're going to use reconciliation to try passing without Republican help anything left out of the bipartisan bill. The main function of the bipartisan bill, then, is to map out for the electorate just where the parties can agree, and where they can't. The result may prove very instructive come election time. For example, the GOP rejected a Democratic proposal to fund the infrastructure bill partly by putting more money into the enforcement budget at the IRS, where audits of wealthy taxpayers have plummeted. But this rejection shouldn't upset Democrats who believe cracking down on rich tax cheats is popular. On the contrary, they should be pleased to use that money in reconciliation to fund some of their other priorities, and to run ads against their Republican opponents on the issue. Similarly, the fact that the "human infrastructure" portion of the original bill that so many Republicans mocked will have to pass through reconciliation is a positive from a policy perspective. It will force Democrats to ask themselves which portions of the proposal are both genuinely popular and worth the money, since they will have no cover from the more broadly-popular idea of "infrastructure" and will have to find pay-fors for all of it. Since passing popular bills that are economically beneficial is how you get re-elected, this loss of cover is ultimately a political benefit.
7-30-21 Internal CDC document outlines how the Delta variant has upended COVID-19 messaging
An internal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document obtained by The Washington Post states that the Delta variant of the coronavirus appears to cause more serious infections and is as contagious as chickenpox. The CDC reached this conclusion after looking at new, unpublished data from outside studies and outbreak investigations, the Post reports. The research also suggests that people who are vaccinated against the coronavirus but become infected by the Delta variant are able to transmit the virus just as easily as people who are not vaccinated, and it's estimated that every week, there are 35,000 symptomatic infections among the 162 million Americans who are vaccinated. This worrying information is what triggered the CDC earlier this week to change its guidelines for vaccinated people, telling them they should wear masks indoors in COVID-19 hot spots. It's not just CDC scientists who are alarmed — in an email to the Post, Robert Wachter, chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, said when he finished reading the document, he was "significantly more concerned than when I began." The CDC wants people to get vaccinated and take preventative measures, like wearing masks, and acknowledged in the document that with the Delta variant in play, "the war has changed." It is critical that new messaging get out to the public emphasizing the importance of getting vaccinated, while also explaining that people who get the vaccine can still become infected by the virus, although it keeps them from getting severely ill. To help people better understand how Delta is changing the coronavirus game, an official told the Post that the CDC will publish the new data on Friday.
7-30-21 Covid-19: Biden tells states to offer $100 vaccine incentive as cases rise
US President Joe Biden has called for states to offer $100 (£71) to the newly vaccinated in an effort to address flagging jab rates amid virus surges. The president also issued a strict new vaccine requirement for US federal workers, the nation's largest workforce with some two million people. The order requires employees to show proof of vaccination or be subjected to mandatory testing and masking. Just under half of the US is fully vaccinated, according to official data. Speaking from the White House on Thursday, Mr Biden said that the new measures are a result of the highly contagious Delta variant's spread, made worse by a "pandemic of the unvaccinated". "People are dying and will die who don't have to die," the president said. Mr Biden added that the monetary incentive may seem unfair to already vaccinated Americans, but "we all benefit if we can get more people vaccinated". States would use money from the $1.9tn American Rescue Plan legislation to fund the incentives. Mr Biden said that the federal government will be "fully reimbursing" small or medium-sized businesses that provide workers paid time off to get vaccinated. While government workers who refuse to get vaccinated will not be fired, this move by the White House aims to set an example for other employers nationwide. But public health experts warn that weekly testing is not an effective way of stopping outbreaks. The Democratic president also addressed theories, spreading mostly in conservative circles, that the jabs are unsafe. He emphasised there "is nothing political" about the vaccines, which were developed and authorised under a Republican administration and further distributed under his. Last month, a study showed that over 99% of Covid-19 deaths have been among the unvaccinated.
7-30-21 Are America's unvaccinated changing their minds?
In the US, coronavirus infection rates are surging in every state, fuelled by the Delta variant - and a large pool of unvaccinated Americans. In Baxter County, Arkansas, the vaccination rate is only 33%. It's now one of the nation's Covid-19 hotspots. (Webmasters Comment: I know I shouldn't say this, but why don't we just let these stupid people croak!)
7-30-21 Covid-19 pandemic: Japan widens emergency over 'frightening' spike
Japan is extending a state of emergency in Tokyo and expanding it to new regions as the Olympic Games host faces a surge in Covid-19 cases. The restrictions are being imposed in areas surrounding the capital as well as in the city of Osaka. Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga warned infections were spreading at an unprecedented rate, urging the country to watch the Games from home. New cases are being fuelled by the more infectious Delta variant. "If the increase of infection does not stop, the severe symptoms cases will increase and the medical system may possibly be further under strain," Mr Suga said. Earlier, Health Minister Norihisa Tamura warned that the country had entered a new, "extremely frightening", stage of the pandemic. "I think that people cannot see ahead and, worrying how long this situation will last, they find it unbearable that they cannot return to normal daily life," Reuters quoted him as saying. Japan has had some success fighting Covid-19, keeping cases and deaths low for months, but is now seeing record cases. Daily cases nationwide topped 10,000 for the first time on Thursday, more than a third of them in the capital. Tokyo - where the Olympics are mainly taking place - has seen three straight days of record cases, even though it is already under a state of emergency. Hospitals are under increasing pressure in the city. Olympic organisers reported 27 new infections at the Games on Friday, bringing the total since the start of July to more than 200. But with strict rules in place, including a ban on spectators, organisers deny the event is driving the rise in cases. Despite this, some experts worry that holding the Olympics in such circumstances sends a confusing message to the public about the need to limit daily life. Under the state of emergency, bars and restaurants must stop serving alcohol and close early.
7-30-21 Nanjing: New virus outbreak worst since Wuhan, say Chinese state media
A Covid outbreak first discovered in the Chinese city of Nanjing has spread to five provinces and Beijing, with state media calling it the most extensive contagion after Wuhan. Almost 200 people have been infected since the virus was first detected at the city's busy airport on 20 July. All flights from Nanjing airport will be suspended until 11 August, according to local media. Officials also began city-wide testing amid criticism for their "failure". All 9.3 million of the city's residents - including those visiting - will be tested, said state-controlled Xinhua news. Posts on social media show long lines of people queuing, and authorities have reportedly urged people to wear masks, stand one metre apart and avoid talking while they wait. Officials said the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus was behind the infections, adding that cases had spread further because of how busy the airport is. Ding Jie, a health official in Nanjing, told reporters the cases were linked to cleaners who worked on a flight from Russia that arrived in the city on 10 July. The cleaners did not follow strict hygiene measures, Xinhua News reported. The airport management has been rebuked, with a senior disciplinary body of the Communist Party saying it had "problems such as lack of supervision and unprofessional management". Testing has shown that the virus has now spread to at least 13 cities including Chengdu and the capital Beijing. However, experts quoted by the Global Times said they believed the outbreak was still at an early stage and could be controlled. Local officials in Nanjing said that seven of those infected were in critical condition. The new spike in cases has led some on Chinese social media to speculate about whether the Chinese vaccines were working against the Delta variant.
7-30-21 China warns UK as carrier strike group approaches
China has warned the UK's Carrier Strike Group, led by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth not to carry out any "improper acts" as it enters the contested South China Sea. 'The People's Liberation Army Navy is at a high state of combat readiness' says the pro-government Global Times, seen as a mouthpiece for the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). China has been closely monitoring the progress eastward of the Carrier Strike Group, which is currently sailing through the South China Sea en route to Japan, while accusing Britain of "still living in its colonial days". The Royal Navy has been carrying out exercises with the Singaporean navy and Britain's Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has made no secret of the intention to conduct a so-called "Freedom of Navigation" exercise through the South China Sea. Contrary to a 2016 international court ruling, China claims much of that sea as its own and has been busy building artificial reefs and runways, some of them close to the territorial waters of neighbouring states. Both US and Royal Navy warships have recently challenged China's claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea by purposely sailing through it. So the question now is: will we see a close encounter similar to the one that took place in the Black Sea in June when the UK's HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer, was buzzed by Russian warplanes as it passed close to the disputed Crimean peninsula? "China is not looking for a direct confrontation with a major US ally in the South China Sea," says Veerle Nouwens, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Insitute (Rusi), a London think tank. "But it will certainly make its intentions clear." If the UK conducts freedom of navigation exercises through that sea, then Ms Nouwens believes we are likely to see a repeat of what happened when HMS Albion sailed through it in 2018. It was closely shadowed by a Chinese warship from just 200m away, warning it to leave, while Chinese aircraft flew low over the British vessel. (Webmasters Comment: As if we did not have enough problems with Covid-19 and runaway global warming, now we want to go rattle our rockets in the South China Sea!)
7-29-21 Biden unveils new vaccination rules for federal workers
President Biden on Thursday said that federal employees in the United States and overseas should get vaccinated against the coronavirus, and those who choose not to must wear masks at work, stay physically distanced from others, and go through weekly or twice weekly testing. The directive comes as the highly-contagious Delta coronavirus variant spreads across the country, causing the number of cases to spike. "Right now, too many people are dying or watching someone they love die and say, 'If I'd just got the vaccine,'" Biden said during an address at the White House. "This is an American tragedy. People are dying who don't have to die." Biden said he's glad that GOP leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) are now urging Americans to get vaccinated. "This is not about red states and blue states," he said. "It's literally about life and death. It's about life and death." Biden added that he knows "people talk about freedom, but I learned growing up ... with freedom comes responsibility. Your decision to be unvaccinated impacts someone else. Unvaccinated people spread the virus." Before Biden made his remarks, deputy White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters "until we have more people who are vaccinated and are curbing the spread, there needs to be proper protocols to keep Americans safe." The Treasury Department also said on Thursday that Biden is "calling on state, territorial, and local governments to provide $100 payments for every newly vaccinated American, as an extra incentive to boost vaccination rates, protect communities, and save lives." Funding for this initiative would come from the $350 billion fund set up as part of the American Rescue Plan to assist local governments, states, and territories.
7-29-21 Covid-19 news: Daily new cases in the UK rise to 31,117
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. “Important to remain cautious” as daily new coronavirus cases rise in the UK, says health minister. Daily new coronavirus cases in the UK increased for the second consecutive day to 31,117 on 29 July, up from the 27,734 new cases the previous day. These recent rises have reversed a seven-day trend of declining daily case numbers. “It could be the very first signs of increasing infections in response to the ending of restrictions on 19 July,” said Simon Clarke at the University of Reading in a statement on 28 July. However, Clarke said it is still too early to know how the trend in UK cases might progress. “It is always unwise to pin too much importance on a few days’ data.” Differences between children’s and adults’ immune responses to coronavirus infection may help explain why children usually seem to get less severely ill with covid-19. Sophie Valkenburg at the University of Hong Kong and colleagues compared the immune responses in 24 children and 45 adults who tested positive for the coronavirus. They found that the children had less activation of coronavirus-specific T-cells – immune cells that can target and destroy virus-infected cells – compared to adults. The children also had lower levels of antibodies against beta-coronaviruses, the family of viruses that includes the coronavirus that causes covid-19. The researchers conclude that reduced immune responses in children may explain why they tend to experience milder disease than adults, since overzealous immune responses can contribute to severe covid-19. The study is published in the journal Nature Communications. All civilian federal employees will need to be vaccinated against covid-19 or face regular testing and other hygiene requirements, US president Joe Biden is expected to announce on 29 July. New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced similar rules for the state on 28 July, saying that state employees would be required to show proof of vaccination or take weekly coronavirus tests starting from 6 September. California also recently announced plans to require vaccinations for state employees. Almost half of all people in the US are fully vaccinated against covid-19, however the vaccination rate has slowed in recent months and coronavirus cases in the country have been rising. Japan reported 10,699 new coronavirus cases on 29 July, the highest daily increase in the country since the pandemic began. The capital Tokyo, where the Olympics are currently taking place, reported a record increase for the city of 3865 new cases on the same day, up from 3177 on 28 July and from 1979 a week earlier. “We have never experienced the expansion of the infections of this magnitude,” Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato told journalists on 29 July. The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 4.18 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 196 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher. According to Our World In Data, 2.17 billion people globally have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine.
7-29-21 The persistent temptation of anti-Trump outrage
Many Americans have had it with Donald Trump supporters. After the opening testimony from law enforcement officers who successfully fought off pro-Trump rioters who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, they are tired of claims that last year's presidential election was stolen. As face masks become the norm again, even for the fully vaccinated across the country, they are sick — both literally and figuratively — of vaccine holdouts, many of whom live in communities that voted for Trump. The current news cycle has heightened the political polarization that characterized the last two presidential elections. For some, the frustration has reached a boiling point. A Justice Department reporter for The New York Times vented in a since-deleted tweet that combating "legitimate national security threats now entails calling a politician's supporters" — she meant Trump's — "enemies of the state." An emotional reaction to the Jan. 6 committee's first hearing, perhaps, but one must ask: What if Trump had said it? All this comes with Trump's refusal to simply ride off into the sunset, as he continues to relitigate the 2020 election, but only episodically promote the vaccines that were substantially developed under his watch. Some Trump supporters have responded to obvious media bias against the 45th president by retreating to pro-Trump outlets that either have low editorial standards or traffic in misinformation for fun and profit. But concerning COVID or the Capitol, the outcomes can be dangerous. Thus there have been demands for some Republican — any Republican — to grab Trump supporters by the lapels and yell, "Cut it out!" The problem, however, is that this is precisely what a small army of Never Trumpers on the right have done since 2015 to no obvious effect, other than their own estrangement from the GOP. "The theory that vaccine efforts will improve if John Cornyn tells his voters, 'you swim in a cesspool of lies!', seems pretty doubtful," New York Times columnist Ross Douthat tweeted earlier this month. And yet this theory persists for two reasons: It is emotionally satisfying, and nothing else this side of Tucker Carlson has worked when it comes to managing hardcore Trump supporters' radical disenchantment with the political system. But a corresponding increase in rage and despair on the other side is just as counterproductive as the worst Twitter tantrum. The country needs something more. But will we get it?
7-29-21 Netflix US cast and crew must be vaccinated to work
Netflix is set to make Covid vaccinations mandatory for key cast and crew on US TV and film productions. According to reports, the US streaming company will require that "zone A" personnel - actors and crew in close contact with them - must get the jab. Other firms such as Google have said workers must get vaccinated before returning to the office. The policy will begin at its US campuses and then be rolled out globally for its 144,000 employees. Netflix has implemented the move after new standards were recently agreed between Hollywood unions and studios that would allow companies to implement mandatory vaccination policies for key cast members and crew. However, the actor Sean Penn wants the policy extended for all members of production, not just those classed as "zone A". He recently said that he would not return to work on the drama Gaslit, which is backed by the studio NBC Universal, unless all cast and crew receive the jab. Netflix is making the move after the US Disease Control and Prevention announced earlier this week that masks will once again have to be worn indoors even by people who have been fully vaccinated. It follows a spike in Covid cases due to the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said in a blog post that "anyone coming to work on our campuses will need to be vaccinated". How the policy is implemented "will vary according to local conditions and regulations, and will not apply until vaccines are widely available in your area", he said. In addition, Google will extend the full reopening of its global campuses from 1 September to 18 October due to a spike in cases caused by the Delta variant of coronavirus. People in special circumstances can apply to work from home until the end of 2021. However, any Google employee can apply to work from home permanently if they choose, and transfer offices.
7-29-21 Covid: No quarantine for fully jabbed US and EU travellers
People who were fully vaccinated in the EU or US will not need to isolate when coming to England, Scotland and Wales from an amber list country. The change will come into force at 04:00 BST on Monday. Currently, only people who received their jabs in the UK can avoid quarantine when arriving from amber list countries, except France. The UK government said the rule change would help to reunite family and friends whose loved ones live abroad. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it would apply to people who have been fully vaccinated with a jab approved by the EU or US, with the final dose at least 14 whole days before arrival. Travellers will still need to take either a lateral flow or PCR test pre-departure and a PCR test on the second day after they arrive. Under-18s will be exempt from isolation, and some will not have to test, depending on their age. It come as a further 27,734 cases were reported in the UK, bringing to an end a seven-day run of falling case numbers. Wednesday's case figure was, however, down significantly from a week ago, when 44,104 cases were reported. Another 91 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were also reported. Tougher rules will continue to be in place for France, which is on the amber list but still requires travellers to quarantine when they return, even if they are fully vaccinated. Mr Shapps said this advice would be reviewed at "the end of next week" as part of the rolling assessment of travel rules. As part of the changes, international cruise ships will be able to depart from England from 2 August - after a 16-month pause. Scottish Transport Secretary Michael Matheson said the change to the rules would provide "a boost for the tourism sector and wider economy while ensuring public health is protected". He added that the change would be "carefully monitored by clinicians and kept under close review". The Welsh government said the move posed "clear public health risks" - but its shared open border with England made it "ineffective" to have different arrangements.
7-29-21 Remington: US gunmaker offers $33m to Sandy Hook shooting victims
The company that made a rifle used in one of the worst school shootings in the US has offered $33m (£24m) to several victims' families. The proposed settlement for the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre from Remington, America's oldest gun-maker, came as part of a bankruptcy hearing for the company. It also comes in response to a lawsuit brought by families of nine of the 26 victims. Each family would receive some $3.66m. It is subject to the approval of the Alabama judge overseeing Remington's bankruptcy case. It falls far short of what the families sought. In February, they argued in court that wrongful death settlements could total $225m, with total punitive claims possibly exceeding $1bn. A lawyer for the families said they would "consider their next steps" regarding the offer. "Since this case was filed in 2014, the families' focus has been on preventing the next Sandy Hook," lawyer Josh Koskoff said in a statement. "An important part of that goal has been showing banks and insurers that companies that sell assault weapons to civilians are fraught with financial risk." Remington, best known for its rifles and shotguns, was founded in 1816. After it emerged that a Remington semi-automatic rifle was used in the Sandy Hook killings, victims' family members filed a lawsuit against the gun-maker alleging that the military-style weapon should never have been sold to a civilian. The case has seen many twists and turns. Remington claimed it is protected by a 2005 law that prevents gun-makers from being found liable if their products are used in crimes. In 2019, the Supreme Court allowed the case against Remington to proceed. The school shooting in Connecticut shocked the US, a nation already familiar with gun crimes in schools. The perpetrator killed 20 pupils and six teachers. He had earlier shot his mother dead. As police closed in on the school, he killed himself. Despite the deaths of young children aged six and seven, no new national gun control laws were passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting.
7-29-21 China interest in Afghanistan could be 'positive', says US Blinken
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said China's possible involvement in Afghanistan could be "a positive thing". He said this was if China was looking towards a "peaceful resolution of the conflict" and a "truly representative and inclusive" government. His comments came after Taliban representatives visited China. China said it saw the Taliban playing an important role in the peace process and rebuilding of Afghanistan. "No one has an interest in a military takeover of the country by the Taliban, the restoration of an Islamic emirate," said Mr Blinken, who was asked about the talks while on a visit to India. He urged the Taliban to come to the "negotiating table... peacefully". Nine Taliban representatives had on Wednesday travelled to Tianjin for the talks. In a tweet, the Taliban spokesperson said China had "reiterated its commitment of continuation of their assistance with Afghans and said they will not interfere in Afghanistan's issues but will help to solve the problems and restoration of peace in the country." In a statement, China's foreign ministry said it would pursue a policy of "non-interference" in Afghanistan's internal affairs. "The hasty withdrawal of the United States and NATO troops from Afghanistan actually marked the failure of the U.S. policy towards Afghanistan, and the Afghan people have an important opportunity to stabilize and develop their own country," it added. Violence has increased in Afghanistan, with the Taliban taking control of large swathes of the country, as the US withdraws its troops ahead of a September deadline. The high-level meeting in China suggests the Taliban is being recognised on an international stage as a major political force.
8-4-21 Delhi rape and murder: Indians protest over Dalit girl's forced cremation
Protests are continuing for the fourth day over the alleged gang rape, murder and forced cremation of a nine-year-old girl in the Indian capital, Delhi. The girl's parents have accused a Hindu priest and three others of attacking her when she had gone to fetch drinking water from the crematorium's cooler. Her mother said the gates were shut and she was threatened when she objected to her daughter's cremation. Police have registered a case of gang rape and murder and arrested the men. The girl's parents are Dalits - formerly untouchables - who make a living by begging outside a Sufi Muslim shrine located just across from the cremation ground in Delhi's Nangal area. The girl was their only child. Her mother told me that on Sunday evening, she had sent her daughter to fetch water from the crematorium, just a few metres from their shanty. "When she didn't return for over an hour, I went searching for her. At the crematorium, I found her lying on the ground. Her lips were blue, there was blood under her nose, she had bruises on her hands and arms and her clothes were wet." She said the priest and the three men advised her not to call the police, saying "they would insist on an autopsy and steal her organs and sell them". She alleged that they shut the gates to prevent her from leaving, threatened her and even offered to bribe her. The child's father said that by the time he, along with about 150 villagers, reached the crematorium, their daughter's body was mostly burned. The villagers said they called the police and doused the pyre with water, but could only retrieve her legs - which means a post mortem exam to confirm rape would not be possible. A senior police official said that based on the information from the parents, a case of gang rape, murder and forced cremation had been registered against the accused.
8-4-21 Andrew Cuomo: Biden says governor should resign over harassment report
President Joe Biden has called on Andrew Cuomo to resign after a damning independent inquiry found the New York governor had harassed multiple women. Mr Biden's condemnation of Mr Cuomo came hours after the state's Attorney General Letitia James said the governor had violated state and federal laws. In response, Mr Cuomo denied touching anyone inappropriately and vowed to stay in office. Mr Cuomo could now be impeached, and is also facing a separate criminal probe. "I think he should resign," Mr Biden told reporters at the White House on Tuesday. "I understand that the state legislature may decide to impeach. I don't know that for a fact. I have not read all that data." The attorney general's investigation was commissioned last year after several women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against the governor. Investigators spent five months speaking to nearly 200 people, including staff members and some of those who made complaints against him. Tens of thousands of documents, texts and pictures were reviewed as part of the inquiry. "The independent investigation has concluded that Governor Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women and in doing so violated federal and state law," Ms James said. Mr Cuomo, she said, had engaged in "unwelcome and non-consensual touching and making numerous offensive comments". In one case, Mr Cuomo and his staff retaliated against a former employee who accused him of wrongdoing, according to Ms James. Other women described being groped, kissed or sitting on the governor's lap. Mr Cuomo allegedly reached under the blouse of an assistant to touch her breast, while another aide said he asked her if she was open to sex with an older man. The governor stood behind a state trooper in a lift, running his finger down her neck and saying "hey you", according to investigators. On top of the allegations of harassment, Mr Cuomo is accused of presiding over a "hostile and toxic work environment".
8-3-21 Andrew Cuomo's goons
The attorney general's report makes it clear how much the governor has relied on aides and advisers to enable his behavior. On Tuesday, New York Attorney General Tish James published a bombshell report on her office's investigation into sexual harassment allegations leveled against Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The investigators conclude "that the governor engaged in conduct constituting sexual harassment under federal and New York state law," and present evidence regarding 11 different accusers. The report is utterly devastating and should spell the end of Cuomo's political career. As I have previously written, Cuomo is not just a sexual harasser — he is also an appallingly inept and corrupt leader whose horrible policy decisions led directly to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of New Yorkers. Many top Democrats have already called for Cuomo to resign. This is good and correct. But another thing made clear in James' report that should not be lost is the large number of corrupt goons who worked in Cuomo's office, aiding and abetting his abuses. These accomplices, who are all too common in professional Democratic circles, should face accountability as well. The report goes into detail about how Cuomo created a horribly toxic culture around his office, and argues persuasively that this was a key factor in why he was able to get away with what he did for so long. The investigators write that the Executive Chamber (the governor's office) was "rife with fear and intimidation and accompanied by a consistent overlooking of inappropriate flirtations and other sexually suggestive and gender-based comments by the governor," which enabled harassment because victims rightly feared retaliation if they said anything. "Several state employees, including those outside of the Executive Chamber, told us that they believed their careers in New York state government would be over if they were to cross the governor or senior staff, including by reporting any misconduct," they write. For instance, Charlotte Bennett, a former aide and one of Cuomo's alleged victims, said the office "was controlled largely by his temper, and he was surrounded by people who enabled his behavior[.]" A woman anonymized as Executive Assistant #1, who alleges that Cuomo harassed her and groped her breast, "repeatedly testified that she felt she had to tolerate the governor's physical advances and suggestive comments because she feared the repercussions if she did not." Another woman called Trooper #1 in the report was added to the governor's security detail seemingly because Cuomo thought she was attractive, even though she didn't meet the qualification requirements at the time. This allegedly led to harassment and unwanted touching on her belly, which she hesitated to report in part because when she mentioned previous inappropriate sexual comments from the governor to the commander of the security detail, he replied the conversation "stays in truck" — which she took to mean she should not mention it again. Every other victim spoke of similar worries — and these fears of retaliation were justified. When Lindsey Boylan wrote on Twitter in December 2020 that Cuomo was an abusive boss, Cuomo's top aide Melissa DeRosa asked Alphonso David (previously the chief lawyer in Cuomo's office and now the president of the Human Rights Campaign) for dirt. David thus gave Cuomo aide Rich Azzopardi confidential legal documents regarding Boylan's time working for Cuomo. Then, when Boylan wrote a few days later that she had been sexually harassed, Azzopardi used Wite-Out to hide the names of everyone but Boylan on the documents and sent them to various reporters, arguing that they contradicted her account. Cuomo's team then drafted an op-ed smearing Boylan, though they ultimately decided against publishing it. (The investigators conclude that this behavior constituted criminal retaliation.)
8-2-21 Idaho lawmaker defends sharing identity of rape accuser on social media and in newsletter
Idaho state Rep. Priscilla Giddings (R) told the legislature's ethics committee on Monday that she doesn't think she was wrong to share an article on social media and in a newsletter to constituents that named a young woman who accused a lawmaker of rape. After the young woman, an intern at the statehouse, made the rape allegation against former state Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger (R), the ethics committee found he engaged in "conduct unbecoming" a lawmaker. Von Ehlinger, who said he had consensual sex with the intern, resigned. The allegation was made public in April, and not long after Giddings posted and shared an article from a right-wing website that included the accuser's name, photo, and details about her personal life, The Associated Press reports. The woman said after her identity was revealed, strangers started harassing her. Two dozen Democratic and Republican lawmakers filed two ethics complaints against Giddings, and the ethics committee found there was probable cause she engaged in "conduct unbecoming a representative, which is detrimental to the integrity of the House as a legislative body." During the hearing on Monday, Giddings, who is running for lieutenant governor, argued she was protected under the federal First Amendment right to free speech, and claimed the bipartisan ethics complaints were politically motivated. When asked if she thought the woman was entitled to privacy under Idaho's crime victim laws, Giddings responded, "You're way out of the park right now because there is no victim, so that doesn't apply at all." Giddings had several supporters in the audience during the hearing, including militia members and people involved with an anti-vaccination organization, AP reports. Lawmakers who signed the ethics complaint spoke on Monday, including state Rep. Brooke Green (D), who said it is up to lawmakers to ensure that sexual assault victims can have their right to privacy, and state Rep. Julie Yamamoto (R), who stated that "you can do whatever you want, you can say whatever you want, but you need to be willing to accept the consequences." On Tuesday, ethics committee members are expected to decide whether to recommend the House censure, reprimand, or expel Giddings.
8-1-21 Kris Wu: K-Pop star arrested on suspicion of rape
Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu has been arrested on suspicion of rape. Officers in Beijing said the investigation centred on online allegations that the star, 30, had "deceived young women multiple times into having sexual relations". The first accusation came early this month when a woman said he had assaulted her while she was drunk. Mr Wu, one of China's biggest celebrities, has denied all the allegations of assault. The first to accuse him was 19-year-old student Du Meizhu, who posted on social media that she had met Mr Wu when she was 17. She said she had been invited to a party at his home, where she was pressured to drink alcohol and woke up in his bed the next day. Ms Du said seven other women had told her Mr Wu had seduced them with promises of jobs and other opportunities. She said some were minors. At least 24 more women have since come forward alleging inappropriate behaviour. Mr Wu has denied plying Ms Du with alcohol, and also rejected other allegations that he had enticed girls to have sex in return for benefits, raped girls while they were unconscious, and had sex with minors. Under Chinese law, under-18s are considered minors, while the age of sexual consent is 14. "There was no 'groupie sex'! There was no 'underage'!' he wrote on his social media account after the allegations were made. "If there were this kind of thing, please everyone relax, I would put myself in jail!" His lawyers are suing Ms Du for defamation. The incident comes as awareness of gender-based violence in China has grown, sparked by the #MeToo movement in 2018, where women voiced their experiences of sexual harassment, sometimes involving high-profile figures. Mr Wu first shot to fame as a member of the K-pop boyband EXO. He left in 2014 to launch a successful solo career as a singer, actor, model and talent show judge.
8-1-21 The women fighting infertility stigma in Nigeria
Three Nigerian women discuss the the prejudice they have faced on their fertility journeys. Cassandra, Made and Omotade explain how they experienced pressure and stigma because of social taboos around infertility.
7-29-21 Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick becomes highest-ranking U.S. Catholic charged with sexual abuse
Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal who was defrocked in 2019, has been hit with sexual assault charges. McCarrick was charged Thursday with three counts of indecent assault and battery in connection with the alleged sexual assault of a 16-year-old boy in 1974 at Wellesley College, The Washington Post reports. This, the Post notes, made him the highest-ranking Catholic official in the United States to be criminally charged over alleged sexual abuse. The charges came after Pope Francis expelled McCarrick from the priesthood in 2019 after he was found guilty of sexual abuse during a Vatican trial, in what was reportedly the first time the church defrocked a U.S. cardinal. McCarrick will be arraigned on Aug. 26, according to NBC News. His attorney told NBC, "We will look forward to addressing the case in the courtroom."
SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT
8-4-21 Extreme heat in Pacific Northwest ruined crops of sweet onions, devastating small farmers
The brutal heatwave that hit the Pacific Northwest in June devastated several farms in Washington that grow sweet onions, with some seeing nearly all of their crops ruined. Scientists say the extreme heat event was due to climate change. Onions can thrive in warm weather, but when the temperature hit 120 degrees, Fernando Enriquez Sr. of Enriquez Farms in Walla Walla saw that the tops of his onions were blistered and baked. By the next day, the thousands of onions in the field that hadn't been harvested were ruined, as were most of the seeds that would have been used to plant next year's crop. "There was nothing we could save," he told The Seattle Times. His son, Fernando Enriquez Jr., said the family lost about 98 percent of their crop. Because of the pandemic, they had scaled back their operation, growing only 40 acres of onions in 2021 compared to 140 acres in 2020. The heat wave was "unprecedented," he told the Times. "I was born and raised here in the valley, my parents have been in this valley for over 50 years, and it's just never that hot at the beginning of June." Walla Walla Organics owner Sarah McClure told the Times that many of her onions were sunburned and their growth was stunted because of how hot it has been. When there is "114 degree heat for days and days," she said, it's "hard" on onions. The farmers are all concerned about what the future holds, with Enriquez Jr. saying if his farm is unable to get federal aid, his family will only be able to grow about two or three acres of onions in 2022. Read more at The Seattle Times.
8-4-21 Timber shortage due to 'unprecedented' post-lockdown demand
The price of timber has risen sharply with builders struggling to get supplies, as post-lockdown construction and DIY projects create huge demand. The Timber Trade Federation (TTF) said suppliers were "working around the clock" but are "struggling to keep up". Climate change is also increasing the pressure on supply with more wildfires and pests that kill trees. The UK imports around 80% of its timber and many are calling for the UK's forestry industry to be nurtured. The government said it was "committed to trebling tree planting rates by the end of this Parliament" and creating many more woodlands to boost the supply and demand for UK-grown timber. Sweden, which supplies almost half of the structural wood used in the UK, has recorded its lowest stock levels for 20 years. David Hopkins, chief executive of the TTF, said: "The pandemic has been the biggest factor causing the problems between supply and demand… but there are other factors at play. We've got these huge forest fires raging across North America that will take lots of timber out of production. "The fires, and now the bugs, are taking out a significant volume from the market." Graham Taylor, managing director of Pryor and Rickett Silviculture, manages around 50,000 acres of forestry across the UK. He said there was "no doubt" the world's natural forests were suffering with climate change, and that yields were dropping. "Canada is reducing its annual cut because its own natural forests are under threat from fire, pest and disease. Because it is such a big producer, when it pulls back, the rest of the world catches a cold." One of those affected is Wilf Meynell, an architect and project manager at Studio Bark, which has created a sustainable, modular, all-timber system used in many self-build projects called U-Build. He said: "Everyone's taking a hit. Our entire business is focused around timber. The price of birch ply has doubled, and the cost of our standard work has risen by 25%."
8-4-21 Climate change: Wales set to build 20,000 low-carbon social homes
Plans to build 20,000 low-carbon social homes for rent in Wales by 2026 have been set out by the Welsh government's climate change minister. The hope is to tackle both a housing shortage and the nation's greenhouse gas emissions. Housing associations say it could lead to thousands of jobs and training opportunities. But the Welsh government's opponents have said they would have gone further and built more. All the houses will meet what the government describes as "bold, new quality and environmental standards". Some could even become miniature power stations, using green technology to generate more electricity than they need. This could then be exported to the national grid to supply other homes. Spending on social housing for rent in 2021-22 is to be doubled, with ministers committing £250m to the project. Julie James, Climate Change Minister, said: "We are building at scale to address the supply and demand imbalance, homelessness, the growing second homes crisis, and the climate emergency." Bethan Proctor, policy and external affairs manager at Community Housing Cymru, said it was a "hugely significant" move. "It's really going to allow housing associations to begin to decarbonise at pace and scale and will have huge positive impacts." These could include the creation of 7,000 jobs, 3,000 training opportunities and help produce almost £2bn of economic output in Wales over the next five years, she claimed. Homelessness charity Shelter Cymru said it welcomed the shift towards building social housing as opposed to so-called "affordable homes", which remained out of reach for many. "To put it into context, we have approaching 70,000 households in Wales who are on waiting lists seeking social housing," said Shelter's chief executive Ruth Power. "We also have more than 6,000 people in temporary accommodation and under the right-to-buy policy up to 2016, we lost 139,000 social homes.
8-4-21 Keir Starmer attacks government record on green jobs
Sir Keir Starmer has urged the government to invest urgently in jobs that benefit the environment. The Labour leader wants £30bn spent to support up to 400,000 “green” jobs in manufacturing and low-carbon industries. The government says it will create thousands of green jobs as part of its overall climate strategy. But official statistics show no measurable increase in environment-based jobs in recent years. Speaking to the BBC as he begins a two-day visit to Scotland, Sir Keir blamed this on a "chasm between soundbites and action”. He and PM Boris Johnson are both in Scotland this week, showcasing their green credentials ahead of November's COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow. Criticising the government's green jobs record, Sir Keir points to its decision to scrap support for solar power and onshore wind energy, and a scheme to help householders in England insulate their homes. He said: “It’s the government’s failure to match its rhetoric with reality that’s led to this, They have used soundbites with no substance. “They have quietly been unpicking and dropping critical commitments when it comes to the climate crisis and the future economy. “It’s particularly concerning when it comes to COP 26. "Leading by example is needed, but just when we need leadership from the prime minister on the global stage, here in the UK we have a prime minister who, frankly, is missing in action." Writing for the Guardian, he said the UK should follow the example of US President Joe Biden, who has put jobs at the centre of his climate change policy. The Labour leader added that the UK government's response to the climate threat had been "small," adding it was "implausible" the UK was on track to meet its emissions targets. A government spokeswoman said ministers would follow the advice of their expert panel, the Green Jobs Taskforce, on how to seize the economic opportunities presented by the shift to a climate-friendly economy.
8-3-21 In the last 24 hours, 81 wildfires have broken out in Greece
An extreme heatwave has brought high temperatures and dry conditions to Greece, with 81 wildfires starting in the country over the last 24 hours. The biggest fire, in a forest north of Athens, entered a residential area on Tuesday. Thousands of people have left their homes, and because of the smoke and flames, there has been a partial closure of the main north-south highway through Greece. There are 500 firefighters working to put out the blaze, which is being fueled by strong winds. Officials are hoping the winds die down by Wednesday morning, giving firefighters the chance to use more water-dropping aircraft. Civil Protection Chief Nikos Hardalias said Greece is "undergoing one of the worst heatwaves of the past 40 years," with temperatures in Athens reaching 113 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday. This is putting a strain on the country's power supply, and forcing early closures at historical sites like the Acropolis. Greece isn't the only country in the region dealing with extreme heat and wildfires — there are dozens of blazes burning in Turkey, Italy, and Albania.
8-3-21 COP26 'should be hybrid event' says former climate chief Figueres
The main architect of the Paris climate agreement has said COP26 needs to be a hybrid event with some negotiations happening virtually. Christiana Figueres told BBC Scotland that some form of in-person conference would still be needed if the talks were to be a success. But she said it was unlikely 25,000 would attend as originally planned. Organisers needed to find the "sweet spot" that would allow for safe and efficient negotiations, she added. Speaking from Chicago, she admitted she did not know whether the historic Paris Agreement could have been achieved if the negotiations had been carried out virtually. Ms Figueres, who used to head the UN's climate change arm, told BBC Scotland: "Could we have done it differently? I honestly do not know. "Over the past 18 months we have actually shifted our mindset and realised that much can be done without our physical presence. So, therein lies the answer to your question. "Somewhere that is only virtual I think is going to be extremely difficult. It will probably not be possible to have 25,000 people descend on Glasgow as was originally planned. And so the big question is going to be, what is the sweet spot in between that will allow for successful and efficient negotiations?" As executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres was the woman who steered the world - against all the odds - towards an international agreement on limiting global warming. After five years at the helm, that happened in Paris in 2015 when the world's nations committed to limiting global warming to between 1.5-2C. Now an observer, and with three months to go until COP26, she told me she wanted world leaders to continue that success when they come together again in Glasgow.
8-3-21 Finance firms plan to close coal plants in Asia
Some of the world's biggest financial institutions are working on a plan to speed the closure of coal-fired power plants in Asia, the BBC has been told. The initiative was developed by UK insurer Prudential, is being driven by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and includes major banks HSBC and Citi. The ADB hopes the plan will be ready for the COP26 climate conference, which is being held in Scotland in November. The plan aims to tackle the biggest human-made source of carbon emissions. Don Kanak, the chairman of Prudential Insurance Growth Markets, who developed the initiative, told the BBC: "The world cannot possibly hit the Paris climate targets unless we accelerate the retirement and replacement of existing coal fired electricity, opening up much larger room in the near term for renewables and storage." "This is especially true in Asia where existing coal fleets are big and young and will otherwise operate for decades," he added. Under the proposal, which was first reported by the Reuters news agency, public-private partnerships will buy coal-fired plants and shut them far sooner than their usual operating lifespan. "By purchasing a coal-fired power plant with, say, 50 years of operational life ahead of it and shutting it down within 15 years we can cut up to 35 years of carbon emission," Ahmed M Saeed, ADB's Vice President for East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific said. The ADB hopes to launch a pilot programme in a developing South East Asian nation - potentially Indonesia, the Philippines or Vietnam - in time for the COP26 event in November. A key feature of the initiative is that it aims to raise the money for the purchases at well below the normal cost by giving lower than usual returns to investors. Aspects of the plan that are yet to be finalised include how coal plant owners can be convinced to sell them, what to do with the plants after they are closed, and what role if any carbon credits could play.
8-3-21 Greece’s Santorini volcano erupts more often when sea level drops
Lower sea levels over the last 360,000 years are linked with more eruptions. When sea level drops far below the present-day level, the island volcano Santorini in Greece gets ready to rumble. A comparison of the activity of the volcano, which is now partially collapsed, with sea levels over the last 360,000 years reveals that when the sea level dips more than 40 meters below the present-day level, it triggers a fit of eruptions. During times of higher sea level, the volcano is quiet, researchers report online August 2 in Nature Geoscience. Other volcanoes around the globe are probably similarly influenced by sea levels, the researchers say. Most of the world’s volcanic systems are in or near oceans. “It’s hard to see why a coastal or island volcano would not be affected by sea level,” says Iain Stewart, a geoscientist at the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan in Amman, who was not involved in the work. Accounting for these effects could make volcano hazard forecasting more accurate. Santorini consists of a ring of islands surrounding the central tip of a volcano poking out of the Aegean Sea. The entire volcano used to be above water, but a violent eruption around 1600 B.C. caused the volcano to cave in partially, forming a lagoon. That particular eruption is famous for potentially dooming the Minoan civilization and inspiring the legend of the lost city of Atlantis (SN: 2/1/12). To investigate how sea level might influence the volcano, researchers created a computer simulation of Santorini’s magma chamber, which sits about four kilometers beneath the surface of the volcano. In the simulation, when the sea level dropped at least 40 meters below the present-day level, the crust above the magma chamber splintered. “That gives an opportunity for the magma that’s stored under the volcano to move up through these fractures and make its way to the surface,” says study coauthor Christopher Satow, a physical geographer at Oxford Brookes University in England.
8-2-21 Turkey's southern resort area is now battling big wildfires as well as COVID-19
Italy is fighting wildfires in Sicily and Greece is battling fires in the west of the country, but neither country is facing the conflagrations that have swept along Turkey's southern coast since last Wednesday. At least eight people have died in Turkey due to the wildfires, including two in the town of Manavgat on Sunday, according to Health Minister Fahrettin Koca. Five other people in Manavgat and one person in Marmaris have also died in recent days. Bodrum and other vacation areas on Turkey's southwestern coast were struggling with a sharp drop in tourism from the COVID-19 pandemic before the fires broke out last week. "We closed the last tourism season down 75 percent," Aras had said in late June. "We expect a recovery from July with the start of flights from Russia and Europe." Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in June that, "God willing, we will jump-start tourism and have a tourist push." Tourism did jump dramatically in July, but so did COVID-19 cases. The damage from the wildfires and spread of the Delta variant are expected to hit Turkey's tourism sector just as it was rebounding, but the damage extends much further. "The animals are on fire," Muzeyyan Kacar, a 56-year-old farmer in the village of Kacarlar, told CNN. "Everything is going to burn. Our land, our animals, and our house." The southern coast of the northern Mediterranean has been unseasonably hot and dry, leaving the region susceptible to fires. But in Turkey at least, investigators are trying to determine if some of the raging fires were the result of arson.
8-2-21 Then and now: The burning issue of wildfires
In our monthly feature, Then and Now, we reveal some of the ways that planet Earth has been changing against the backdrop of a warming world. In recent years, the devastating impact of wildfires has been dominating headlines around the world. Although fires have long been part of natural history, scientists are voicing concern that recent fires are becoming more frequent, more intense and more widespread. In recent years, the widespread devastation of wildfires has dominated headlines around the world, as millions of acres were destroyed and thousands of people left homeless. Fires in the western US and Australia have been among the most deadly. In the first few hours of the new year in 2020, a devastating bushfire arrived in the New South Wales village of Cobargo. Within hours, the fire had ripped through the main street, leaving little but smoky, charred ruins in its wake. The destroyed village became one of the defining symbols of what is now being referred to as Australia's Black Summer, which killed at least 34 people, an estimated three billion animals, and scorched 46 million acres (186,000 square kilometres). Although wildfires have long been part of the landscape, they are becoming more frequent, more widespread, and more intense. Each summer, parts of the world are gripped by these natural infernos, with flames travelling at speeds similar to the bulls rampaging through the Spanish streets of Pamplona. At these speeds, it becomes almost impossible for firefighters to stop and control the spreading fire, and to protect homes and properties in its path. However, it is worth noting that wildfires have long been part of the natural cycle in many habitats. Without these natural fires, we would not have many of the species that thrive in these environments. There are trees that actually need fire in order to germinate and produce the forests of the future.
8-2-21 Firefighters make progress against Oregon's massive Bootleg Fire
Nearly a month after it was sparked by a lightning strike, the Bootleg Fire in Southern Oregon — the largest wildfire burning in the U.S. — is now 74 percent contained, officials said Sunday. The blaze, which has burned more than 646 square miles since it started on July 6, was 56 percent contained on Saturday. Fire spokesman Al Nash told reporters on Sunday that the results "reflects several good days of work on the ground where crews have been able to reinforce and build additional containment lines." In Northern California's Plumas National Forest, the Dixie Fire was just 32 percent contained on Sunday. The fire has destroyed 42 homes and other buildings, and scorched nearly 383 square miles. The fire has been burning since July 13, and investigators are still working to determine what caused it. Fire officials warn that because of high winds, there could be flare ups, The Associated Press reports. The National Interagency Fire Center said there are 91 large fires now burning in the United States, most out west, with almost 22,000 firefighters on the scene. Scientists say because of climate change, the western U.S. is hotter and drier, making fires more destructive.
8-2-21 Turkey's southern resort area is now battling big wildfires as well as COVID-19
Italy is fighting wildfires in Sicily and Greece is battling fires in the west of the country, but neither country is facing the conflagrations that have swept along Turkey's southern coast since last Wednesday. At least eight people have died in Turkey due to the wildfires, including two in the town of Manavgat on Sunday, according to Health Minister Fahrettin Koca. Five other people in Manavgat and one person in Marmaris have also died in recent days. Authorities say more than 100 fires have erupted in Turkey in the past six days and most of them have been contained. Russia, Ukraine, Iran, and Azerbaijan have deployed teams to help Turkish firefighters and volunteers battle the blazes, and the European Union said Sunday it has helped mobilize three fire-fighting planes to fight the fires on Turkey's coast. The wildfires prompted boat evacuations in the popular resort town of Bodrum on Sunday in conditions Mayor Ahmet Aras described as "hell." Bodrum and other vacation areas on Turkey's southwestern coast were struggling with a sharp drop in tourism from the COVID-19 pandemic before the fires broke out last week. "We closed the last tourism season down 75 percent," Aras had said in late June. "We expect a recovery from July with the start of flights from Russia and Europe." Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in June that, "God willing, we will jump-start tourism and have a tourist push." Tourism did jump dramatically in July, but so did COVID-19 cases. The damage from the wildfires and spread of the Delta variant are expected to hit Turkey's tourism sector just as it was rebounding, but the damage extends much further. "The animals are on fire," Muzeyyan Kacar, a 56-year-old farmer in the village of Kacarlar, told CNN. "Everything is going to burn. Our land, our animals, and our house." The southern coast of the northern Mediterranean has been unseasonably hot and dry, leaving the region susceptible to fires. But in Turkey at least, investigators are trying to determine if some of the raging fires were the result of arson.
8-2-21 Turkey wildfires: Eight dead as blazes sweep through tourist resorts
At least eight people have been killed in wildfires that have ripped through southern Turkey, ravaging coastal resorts and forcing tourists to flee. The blazes have been raging for six days as Turkey grapples with its worst fire crisis in a decade. On Monday Turkish authorities said more than 130 blazes had been contained as firefighting efforts continued. Elsewhere, firefighters are trying to contain wildfires in parts of Greece, Spain and Italy. Italy's national fire service said it had to deal with more than 1,500 flare-ups across the country on Sunday. In the eastern city of Pescara, at least five people were injured after a fire forced the evacuation of hundreds from beach resorts and homes. In Greece, five villages have been evacuated in the Peloponnese region, where temperatures are expected to reach up to 45C this week. Strong winds and soaring heatwave temperatures across southern Europe have fuelled the destructive fires. Experts say climate change increases both the frequency and intensity of such blazes. The worst fires have occurred along Turkey's Mediterranean and Aegean coasts - a major tourist region. Over the weekend dramatic videos showed tourists being evacuated from beach resorts by boat, with Turkish Coastguard vessels involved in rescue operations. Satellite photos showed vast burnt forests after nearly 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) were consumed by flames. Turkish media said firefighters in planes and helicopters resumed their operations in the south-western towns of Marmaris and Koycegiz on Monday. Resident Susan Dogan told the BBC she could see "smoke, flames and helicopters overhead" from her home in the village of Turunc, about 20km (12 miles) from Marmaris. The British expatriate said many residents had already left and that she had packed bags in case she needed to evacuate. Emergency rescue boats were on standby along the Marmaris shoreline to evacuate anyone should the fires spread and the town be cut off.
8-2-21 Turkey: People flee popular tourist spots to escape wildfires
Turkey is continuing to battle deadly wildfires sweeping through the country, forcing tourists to flee in boats and turning the sky red. More than 120 fires have now been brought under control, but local and international firefighters are still battling another seven blazes. A total of eight people are known to have died. Over the weekend, tourists and local residents had to be evacuated from Bodrum and Marmaris, with private boats coming to their rescue as the flames crept closer to the shoreline. Investigators are trying to establish whether some of the fires were started deliberately, amid reports that one suspected arsonist has been detained.
8-2-21 Finding answers to the world's drinking water crisis
Without a doubt, water is the most abundant resource on Earth. After all, it covers over 70% of the planet - yet despite this we are facing a looming crisis as a species. Without a doubt, Climate change, global conflict and overpopulation are just some of the factors that are devastating the water supply in many areas around the world. It means that two billion people - one-quarter of the human population - are without access to safe drinking water. As the world's population creeps ever closer to eight billion, attention is being focused on developing technologies that can help address this before it is too late. One of those offering a potential solution is Michael Mirilashvili, head of Watergen, an Israel-based firm that is using its air-to-water technology to deliver the drinking water to remote areas of the world hit by conflict or climate change. Pulling water out of thin air may sound like science fiction, but the technology is actually simpler than it seems. The Earth's atmosphere contains 13 billion tonnes of fresh water. Watergen's machines work by filtering this water vapour out of the air. He says if used correctly, Watergen's technology could spark a major shift within the water industry that could have a lasting impact on the planet. "A big advantage of using atmospheric water is that there's no need to build water transportation, so no worries about heavy metals in pipes for example or cleaning contaminated water from the ground or polluting the planet with plastic bottles." One obvious obstacle would appear to be air pollution, which has become a widespread cause for concern in some of the world's major cities. In the UK for example, research by Imperial College London found lead, which is toxic to the human body, still present in the city's air in 2021 despite it being banned in 1999. However, this may not matter. A study conducted by scientists from Israel's Tel Aviv University found that even in urban areas such as Tel Aviv, it is possible to extract drinking water to a standard set by the World Health Organization. In other words, clean water can be converted from air that is dirty or polluted.
8-2-21 Iran water: What's causing the shortages?
Protests in Iran against a range of grievances - including a severe lack of water and power blackouts - have drawn attention to the country's wider water problems. Experts have raised concerns about the situation for many years, so what's to blame for Iran's water crisis? In April, the Iranian Meteorological Organisation warned of an "unprecedented drought" and rainfall levels which were substantially below long-term averages. In the oil-producing province of Khuzestan, residents took to the streets over water shortages, and there were protests against hydroelectric power cuts in other cities. The government has responded with emergency assistance for the hardest-hit areas. Iran faces a range of environmental challenges from high temperatures, pollution, flooding and vanishing lakes. The amount of rainfall in Iran's main river basins between September 2020 and July 2021 was, in most places, substantially lower compared to the same period last year, according to data from the Ministry of Energy's website. We haven't been able to access government figures for historical trends, but researchers in the United States have gathered data using satellite imagery. This data compares rainfall up to March of this year against the 40-year average. The first three months of 2021 were all well below that average, according to the Center for Hydrometeorology at the University of California Irvine. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated about one-third of valuable wheat fields in Iran are irrigated, so no rain can be costly. Amid a very dry spell in the province, locals have been out protesting - some shouting "I am thirsty!" For a region which used to have plentiful water, the vital Karun river now often runs dry. Satellites show its water level has steadily fallen over the last year, according to data gathered by researchers at Stuttgart University. The spike in 2019 was due to severe flooding.
8-2-21 Artificial mini-reefs are helping clean Florida's waters
The artificial mini-reefs Garrett Stuart is installing along the Florida coastline are cleaning millions of gallons of water every year and giving marine life a place to call home. Stuart is a scientist and educator who has earned the nickname Captain Planet thanks to his efforts to save the environment. The mini-reefs are "universally tested and proven to filter an average of 30,000 gallons of water every single day, and an average of 300 fish and 200 crab per year that they house," Stuart told Fox 13. The mini-reefs help fight against blooms of the red tide organism karenia brevis, with Stuart saying the marine life that grows on the reefs "literally eat algae, they eat the red tide." He recently installed mini-reefs under the dock at the Pelican Alley restaurant in Nokomis, and crabs have already moved in. Pelican Alley owner Tommy Adorna told Fox 13 he will "do what I can to help with the environment. The water quality is very important because people don't want to come down and have dinner on the water if the water is disgusting."
8-2-21 China flood death toll rises sharply to over 300
The death toll from the floods in China's central Henan province last month has risen sharply to at least 302, officials have confirmed. About 50 people remain missing after the region was engulfed by severe flooding caused by heavy rainfall. Almost 13 million people were affected and nearly 9,000 homes were damaged. The majority of the deaths were reported in the city of Zhengzhou where floodwater inundated the city's subway system and vehicles were swept away. The city reported a year's rainfall within the space of three days. On Monday the mayor of Zhengzhou, Hou Hong, confirmed the death toll in a news conference, telling reporters that 39 people were found dead in underground car parks. Another 14 people were killed after water inundated Line 5 of the city's subway system, she said. Video footage posted to social media last month from inside train carriages showed people just managing to keep their heads above water. Last week, a floral tribute at the subway station was sealed off by authorities. Several dams and reservoirs in the province breached warning levels and soldiers were mobilised to divert rivers which had burst their banks. At the time, President Xi Jinping warned of "significant loss of life and damage to property".
8-1-21 Turkey: Foreign tourists evacuated as wildfires threaten resorts
Tourists have been evacuated from beaches in south-western Turkey, where raging wildfires are now threatening hotels and homes. Turkish Coastguard vessels - assisted by private boats and yachts - were deployed to bring holidaymakers to safety, according to local media. In the city of Bodrum, three five-star hotels were reportedly evacuated. The fires, which have been burning since Wednesday, have left six people dead. Two more fatalities were confirmed on Saturday. They were among the thousands of people who have been battling almost 100 separate blazes in resorts and villages on Turkey's Mediterranean and Aegean coasts - a major tourist region. Officials say all but 10 of the fires have now been brought under control. Images shared by Bodrum's mayor on Twitter show fires still burning into the early hours of Sunday morning. Local media have also shared dramatic footage showing people with their belongings fleeing the area as a fire was fast approaching the city from a forested mountain. It is unclear exactly when it was filmed. Investigators are trying to establish whether some of the fires were started deliberately, amid reports that one suspected arsonist has been detained. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday visited the town of Manavgat, were five fire-related deaths have been confirmed. Mr Erdogan vowed that the government would do everything to help hundreds of people affected by the disaster to rebuild their lives. The president has been heavily criticised for the shortage of firefighting aircraft in the country. But he said that "the main reason for these issues with planes is that the Turkish Aeronautical Association has not been able to update its fleet and technology". He added that more aircraft from Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia and Ukraine were now involved in the massive firefighting operation.
7-30-21 The fungus and bacteria tackling plastic waste
Samantha Jenkins was studying a number of types of fungus in a research project for her company, when one of the fungi made a bid for freedom. "Imagine a jar full of grain with a kind of lump of mushroom coming out of the top," says the lead biotech engineer for bio-manufacturing firm Biohm. "It didn't look particularly exciting or fascinating. But as soon as it was cracked open, it was very, very cool." The fungus had eaten its way through the plastic sponge intended to seal it in, breaking it down and assimilating it like any other food. The aim of the project was to evaluate a number of strains of fungus for use in bio-based insulation panels, but the hungry fungus has taken them in another direction. Biohm is now working to develop the strain to make it an even more efficient digester that could potentially help get rid of plastic waste. It's no secret that single-use plastic waste is a vast problem: by 2015, according to Greenpeace, the world had churned out 6.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic, of which only 9% has been recycled. The rest was burned in incinerators or dumped. Things are improving, with more than 40% of plastic packaging now recycled in the EU, and a target of 50% by 2025. But some types of plastic, such as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) which is widely used for drinks bottles, are hard to recycle by traditional means. So might biological methods be the answer? Ms Jenkins is testing their fungus on PET and polyurethane. "You put in plastic, the fungi eat the plastic, the fungi make more fungi and then from that you can make biomaterials... for food, or feed stocks for animals, or antibiotics." Others have also had some success. Scientists from the University of Edinburgh have recently used a lab-engineered version of the bacteria E. coli to transform terephthalic acid, a molecule derived from PET, into the culinary flavouring vanillin, via a series of chemical reactions. "Our study is still at a very early stage, and we need to do more to find ways to make the process more efficient and economically viable," says Dr Joanna Sadler, of the university's School of Biological Sciences. "But it's a really exciting starting point, and there's potential for this to be commercially practical in the future after further improvements to the process have been made."
7-30-21 How a Norwegian island is already living our climate change future
One year on, the people of Svalbard are still talking about July 2020. The biggest town of this Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic, Longyearbyen, is surrounded by snowy hills and is sub-zero for much of the year. But last July, temperatures spiked to more than 20°C for several days on end in a month that rarely sees a day above 10°C. This July, by contrast, has been slightly cooler than normal. “There is a general feeling that things are not like they used to be,” says Kim Holmén at the Norwegian Polar Institute’s Longyearbyen office, which sits on the edge of the town, near the sea. Climate change has made Svalbard one of the fastest-warming parts of the Arctic. Summers may be hitting unseasonable heights, but winters are warming quicker, due to changes in sea ice levels. Winter temperatures in the islands are now about 10°C warmer than three decades ago, says Holmén. Svalbard’s shifts are the most extreme example of a wider climatic change at the top of the world. In May, scientists said the Arctic is now thought to have warmed three times faster than the rest of the planet over the past half century, up on previous estimates of just over two times as fast. For parts of Earth that have warmed closer to the global average, like London and New York, Svalbard offers a window to their possible future. On 9 August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release a major report on changes in Earth’s system so far, what is driving them and what the future holds. The report is expected to show that the range of possible temperature rises as a result of doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide from pre-industrial levels, known as equilibrium climate sensitivity, has narrowed from the previous estimate of 1.5 to 4.5°C. The bottom end now looks to be at least 2.3°C. In other words, we are probably on for more warming globally than our previous best-case scenarios. And with greater warming comes more disruptive impacts, the subject of a second IPCC report due next year.
7-30-21 Turkey fires: Blazes threaten Marmaris and other coastal resorts
Thousands of firefighters are battling wildfires in villages and resorts on Turkey's Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. Four people have died and dozens have been taken to hospital. An investigation has been launched to determine if some of the fires were a result of arson. During a visit to Manavgat, Turkey's Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli, said bringing the fires under control might take time. (Webmasters Comment: The world is burning and its just begun!)
7-29-21 UK already undergoing disruptive climate change
The UK is already undergoing disruptive climate change with increased rainfall, sunshine and temperatures, according to scientists. The year 2020 was the third warmest, fifth wettest and eighth sunniest on record, scientists said in the latest UK State of the Climate report. No other year is in the top 10 on all three criteria. The experts said that, in the space of 30 years, the UK has become 0.9C warmer and 6% wetter. The report's lead author Mike Kendon, climate information scientist at the UK Met Office, told BBC News: “A lot of people think climate change is in the future – but this proves the climate is already changing here in the UK. “As it continues to warm we are going to see more and more extreme weather such as heatwaves and floods.” The report says the UK has become hotter, sunnier and rainier: 1. 2020 was the third warmest UK year since 1884; all the years in the top 10 are since 2002, 2. Last year was one of the least snowy on record; any snow mainly affected upland and northern areas, 3. Spring 2020 was the UK’s sunniest on record, and sunnier than most UK summers 4. 2020 was the UK’s fifth wettest year; six of the 10 wettest years have been since 1998. Scientists warn of worse extreme weather if global temperatures rise and politicians fail to curb carbon emissions. And in a separate report, scientists warned that greenhouse gas levels were already too high “for a manageable future for humanity“. Liz Bentley, head of the Royal Meteorological Society, said that even if governments could achieve the challenging outcome of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5C – which looks very unlikely - that would still lead to a 10% increase in the amount of water the air can hold. “In the UK,” she said, “we are likely to see temperatures of 40C. As we get 1.5C warming, that’ll be something we see on a regular basis.
SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS
8-4-21 Babylonians calculated with triangles centuries before Pythagoras
The ancient Babylonians understood key concepts in geometry, including how to make precise right-angled triangles. They used this mathematical know-how to divide up farmland – more than 1000 years before the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, with whom these ideas are associated. “They’re using a theoretical understanding of objects to do practical things,” says Daniel Mansfield at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “It’s very strange to see these objects almost 4000 years ago.” Babylonia was one of several overlapping ancient societies in Mesopotamia, a region of southwest Asia that was situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Babylonia existed in the period between 2500 and 500 BC, and the First Babylonian Empire controlled a large area between about 1900 and 1600 BC. Mansfield has been studying a broken clay tablet from this period, known as Plimpton 322. It is covered with cuneiform markings that make up a mathematical table listing “Pythagorean triples”. Each triple is the lengths of the three sides of a right-angled triangle, where each side is a whole number. The simplest example is (3, 4, 5); others include (5, 12, 13) and (8, 15, 17). The triangles’ sides are these lengths because they obey Pythagoras’s theorem: the square of the longest side is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. This classic bit of mathematics is named for the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who lived between about 570 and 495 BC – long after the Plimpton 322 tablet was made. “They [the early Babylonians] knew Pythagoras’ theorem,” says Mansfield. “The question is why?” Mansfield thinks he has found the answer. The key clue was a second clay tablet, dubbed Si.427, excavated in Iraq in 1894. Mansfield tracked it down to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.
8-3-21 A new book reveals stories of ancient life written in North America’s rocks
‘How the Mountains Grew’ steps through time, space, life and land on a geologic journey. Imagine a world where pigeon-sized dragonflies soar above spiders with half-meter-long legs, where 2-meter-long millipedes slither and 20-kilogram scorpions hunt. About 300 million years ago, such surreal creatures thrived; today, rocks hint at how these and other creatures in the deep past lived. These clues allow geologist and writer John Dvorak to vividly re-create ancient landscapes in How the Mountains Grew: A New Geological History of North America. Far from a dusty tome plodding through plate tectonics, the book teems with life as Dvorak establishes inextricable links between geology and biology. Take the oversize dragonflies and millipedes now preserved as fossils. Rocks of a similar age hold evidence of a rise in atmospheric oxygen that helps explain how these animals grew so large. The book zigzags from place to place on a chronological, continental-scale field trip. To avoid dizzying readers, Dvorak revisits certain sites that preserve multiple threads of geologic history. For instance, at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills, he describes how, about 2 billion years ago, molten rock rose and lodged itself into sedimentary rocks deposited on the seafloor of bygone oceans. Today, presidents’ faces stare out from this now-solidified magma, those ancient oceanic sediments sitting just below the visage of George Washington. The book later returns to glimpse younger seas that came and went, depositing sediments now replete with fossils. All these rocks, Dvorak explains, whisper stories of how this particular mountain grew. Dvorak also ponders Earth’s future, envisioning an ice sheet grinding down Mount Rushmore’s carefully carved profiles more than 100,000 years from now. And he considers humankind’s future, arguing that we must determine how our dependence on fossil fuels — the result of another interplay between biology and geology — will end.
8-3-21 Neanderthal markings in Spain suggest cave art, study says
Red markings on a stalagmite dome in a cave system in southern Spain were created by Neanderthals more than 60,000 years ago, a new study says. The staining was applied by a process of splattering and blowing about 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe, the research suggests. An earlier study attributing the markings to the extinct cousins of modern humans was questioned. Some experts argued the staining in the Cueva de Ardales occurred naturally. But a new study published in the journal PNAS supports the view that the red ochre pigments discovered in three caves in the Iberian Peninsula are a form of Neanderthal cave art. It states that the deposits stand out from other natural materials sampled in the caves because of their unusual colours and textures. The new analysis, which includes more detailed dating, suggests some of the markings are about 65,000 years old. The Palaeolithic artwork, it says, must have been made by Neanderthals, a "sister" species to Homo sapiens, as they were Europe's sole human inhabitants at the time. The research also revealed that the pigment was applied at different times, sometimes more than 10,000 years apart. It suggests generations of Neanderthals returned to the site over time to make symbolic markings. This study will add to mounting evidence that the intellectual capabilities of our evolutionary cousins may have been underestimated, researchers say. The authors of the PNAS study said the markings were not "art" in the narrow sense of the word, but rather the result of "graphic behaviours" intended to create visual symbols. The site in the Cueva de Ardales, located in a mountain range in the Spanish province of Málaga, was discovered in 1821 after a concealed entrance was exposed following an earthquake. In 2014, experts said that an engraving found at a separate cave in Gibraltar provided compelling evidence for Neanderthal art. The geometric pattern identified in Gibraltar, on the southern tip of Europe, was uncovered beneath undisturbed sediments that have also yielded Neanderthal tools.
8-2-21 People living in dense UK cities are more likely to feel lonely
People who live in dense urban areas, particularly those with closely packed apartments, are more likely to experience loneliness and isolation, a large-scale study of UK cities has found. People who live in dense urban areas, particularly those with closely packed apartments, are more likely to experience loneliness and isolation, a large-scale study of UK cities has found. Chris Webster at the University of Hong Kong and his colleagues analysed health data from nearly 406,000 people in 22 UK cities held by the UK Biobank and compared it with detailed data of their environment, such as their proximity to busy roads and green spaces. The team found that people’s self-reported loneliness increased by 2.8 per cent for every additional 1000 housing units within 1 kilometre of their home, while their self-reported social isolation increased by 11.4 per cent. The researchers controlled for factors including age, health and socioeconomic status, finding that the effects were more pronounced in men and retirees. Compared with their counterparts living in the lowest residential densities, men in the highest densities were 23.5 per cent more likely to report loneliness, while retirees in areas with the densest housing were 17.4 per cent more likely to do so. “Our study suggests that loneliness is not only still prevalent in 21st-century cities, but is so endemic that we can detect a regular pattern and measure it,” says Webster. The team also looked at mental health impacts by housing type and found that people living near a higher density of detached housing were less likely to experience loneliness and social isolation. A higher density of apartments, on the other hand, was linked to an increase in these factors, which the researchers suggest could be due to a lack of privacy and control, producing social stress.
7-30-21 Two groups of whales evolved massive heads for different reasons
Bowhead and right whales are among the biggest animals alive today, but a new look at how they evolved suggests that these two closely related groups ballooned in size independently, and probably for different reasons. Both are balaenids, a type of baleen whale (a classification that includes the gigantic blue whale), but they aren’t shaped like other baleens. They have stocky bodies and immense heads that can take up a third of their body length, and their mouths are the largest on the planet, equipped with great sheets of hair-like bristles called baleen that they used to filter food from the water. Equations often used to estimate the size of ancient, extinct baleen whales didn’t take into account these peculiar proportions, says Michelangelo Bisconti at the University of Turin in Italy. “Balaenids are fundamental [ecological] players that shape the energy flow in the ocean ecosystems,” says Bisconti, so understanding how they evolved is crucial for unravelling ocean prehistory. Now, he and his colleagues have analysed the proportions of living and fossil balaenid whale species, estimating and mapping changes in size and shape to different time points in their evolutionary history and ancient environmental changes. The team found that right whales (Eubalaena) expanded first – to more than 14 metres long – about 6 million years ago, possibly as a result of a new influx of stable plankton food in their environment. But bowheads (Balaena) grew large a few million years later, possibly as an adaptation to the Arctic habitat, which cooled considerably 3 million years ago. The findings show that some baleen whales may have evolved extreme sizes due to differing environmental pressures, even among closely related species.
7-30-21 A skeleton from Peru vies for the title of oldest known shark attack victim
The 6,000-year-old remains came to light after news of a 3,000-year-old victim in Japan. When news broke that the oldest known case of a person killed by a shark involved a member of Japan’s Jomon culture around 3,000 years ago, two researchers took special notice (SN: 7/23/21). Back in 1976, bioarchaeologist Robert Benfer of the University of Missouri in Columbia and Harvard University anthropological archaeologist Jeffrey Quilter had participated in an excavation of a roughly 17-year-old boy’s skeleton that bore signs of a fatal shark encounter. The boy’s left leg was missing and his right hip and right forearm bones displayed deep bite marks characteristic of those made by sharks, the scientists say. “Successful shark bites usually involve tearing off a limb, often a leg, and ingesting it,” Benfer says. An unsuccessful attempt to ward off a shark presumably resulted in the boy’s arm injuries. Radiocarbon dating indicated that the teen, whose remains were discovered at a Peruvian village site called Paloma, died around 6,000 years ago before being placed in a grave unlike any others in his community, says Benfer, who directed investigations at Paloma in 1976 and in three more field seasons that concluded in 1990. That could make the teen the oldest known shark attack victim. Quilter went on to describe the youth’s shark-related injuries in two paragraphs in a 1989 book, Life and Death at Paloma. But the results were never published in an academic journal. Quilter and Benfer e-mailed the excerpt to the Jomon researchers on July 26. “We were unaware of their claim until now, but are keen to speak to them about it in more detail,” says University of Oxford archaeologist J. Alyssa White, who led the Jomon team. Paloma lies in hills about 3.5 kilometers from Peru’s Pacific coast. Small groups intermittently lived there in round, reed huts between around 7,800 and 4,000 years ago. Paloma’s residents primarily fished, collected or dove for shellfish, and gathered edible plants.
7-30-21 Dinosaur-killing asteroid may have made Earth’s largest ripple marks
Impact created a tsunami that etched massive structures under what’s now Louisiana, study says. The asteroid impact that slew the dinosaurs may have also indirectly sculpted the largest ripple marks ever found on Earth. A series of ridgelike structures more than three stories high and spaced nearly two Eiffel Towers apart appear to be buried about 1,500 meters beneath central Louisiana. The oversized features are megaripples shaped by a massive tsunami generated by the Chicxulub asteroid impact, researchers report in the Sept. 15 Earth and Planetary Science Letters. “It’s just interesting that something that happened 66 million years ago could be so well preserved, buried 5,000 feet down in the sediments of Louisiana,” says geologist Gary Kinsland of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Ripple marks are repeating sequences of ridges typically found on sandy beaches or stream bottoms that form as wind or water flows over and moves loose sediment. But ripple marks on the beach are often centimeters in height, while the structures found by Kinsland’s team have an average height of 16 meters and are spaced about 600 meters apart. The marks’ shape, size, orientation and location suggest that they formed after the Chicxulub asteroid crashed into what is today’s Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, generating a tsunami that washed across the sediments of the Gulf of Mexico and over what is now Louisiana, which was underwater at the time (SN: 11/2/17). Despite the tsunami’s width, no one has ever found ripple marks formed by the wave before. Geologist Kaare Egedahl initially discovered the newly described ripples while searching for coal deposits. Studying at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette at the time, Egedahl had been combing through seismic reflection data – 3-D images of buried rock and soil generated by underground sound waves — provided by the Devon Energy company. Egedahl, now at the oil and gas company Cantium, found the ripples atop a layer of rock thought to have formed from debris shaken up by the Chicxulub asteroid impact. He then shared his finding with Kinsland.
7-29-21 People happily steal from groups even if they are generous one-on-one
Most people play fair in lab tests where they can share or steal small sums of money – yet in real life, unfairness and cheating is common. Now, the apparent contradiction has a new explanation. In lab experiments where people are able to take money from groups of people, they nearly always do, but the same individuals tend to be fair when dealing with just one other person. Economists have long investigated people’s behaviour through simple tests in the lab, such as the two-person “dictator game” in which one person is given a small sum of money and they choose whether to give some of it to their playing partner, who they haven’t met before. Typically, most people give some away, although they get nothing in return, suggesting we have an intrinsic sense of fairness. In real life, though, unfairness is common, ranging from office workers failing to contribute their share of communal snacks through to large-scale financial fraud. We often assume that people who cheat in such ways are a minority, or even that antisocial people are drawn to careers where they can exploit others, says Carlos Alós-Ferrer at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. To investigate, Alós-Ferrer’s team designed a new monetary test called the Big Robber game, where any unfair actions affect larger numbers of people. The researchers asked groups of 32 people to play the dictator game and two other similar games in pairs, and the results were the same as those usually seen, in that most people acted generously. Half the group were also asked if they would like to rob some of the earnings of the other half, which totalled €200, on average. They could take half the amount, a third, a tenth or none of it. The team repeated this process with 640 people in total. Of the 320 individuals given the robbery option, 98 per cent took at least some of the money and 56 per cent took half. To save on costs, the researchers didn’t let everyone actually go home with their chosen amount, but one of the 16 robbers in each group was randomly selected to receive this sum.
7-29-21 Ancient humans in Europe may have stolen food from wild hunting dogs
The earliest humans known to have lived outside Africa shared their environment with hunting dogs – and may even have stolen food from them. For many years, archaeologists have been excavating at a site near Dmanisi in Georgia, where they have found evidence that ancient humans – sometimes put in the species Homo erectus – were present about 1.8 million years ago. The Dmanisi humans provide the earliest fossil evidence yet found of hominins outside Africa. But as ancient humans moved out of Africa, it looks like they encountered prehistoric hunting dogs that were moving into Africa, because the remains of one such dog has now been unearthed at Dmanisi. Saverio Bartolini-Lucenti at the University of Florence, Italy, and his colleagues analysed the remains, which came from a young adult Eurasian hunting dog (Canis (Xenocyon) lycaonoides), an extinct species of hunting dog related to modern African hunting dogs (Lycaon pictus). “Picture an African hunting dog, but stouter with long limbs like an Irish wolfhound, but not so thin,” says Bartolini-Lucenti. This particular animal would have lived about 1.8 million years ago, making it the earliest ever found in Europe. These wild dogs are believed to have originated in Asia, spreading into and across Europe and Africa between about 1.8 and 0.8 million years ago. “Finding it in Dmanisi – which is an important site at the verge, the border of three continents (Asia, Africa and Europe) – is interesting because it is at a timeframe where we didn’t have any occurrences of this form,” says Bartolini-Lucenti. Modern African hunting dogs have adapted to consume their prey very quickly before it can be stolen by larger, stronger predators, such as lions and hyenas. The Eurasian hunting dogs may have interacted with early humans in a similar way, says Bartolini-Lucenti, with the humans scaring off the dogs to steal their prey.
7-29-21 Parents' second-hand marijuana smoke may cause colds in children
Children whose parents smoke or vape cannabis appear to get slightly more respiratory infections, such as colds and flu, than those whose parents just smoke tobacco or don’t smoke at all. The effect may come from children breathing in second-hand marijuana smoke, says Adam Johnson at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina. “It would make any [respiratory] virus more symptomatic because you have a child’s lungs being exposed to irritants.” Children who breathe in second-hand tobacco smoke are known to have more respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, which has led some countries to ban people from smoking in cars with children present. But the effects of cannabis smoke exposure are less studied, especially as people tend to smoke fewer marijuana cigarettes per day than they do tobacco cigarettes. The new study was done in Colorado, where cannabis was legalised recreationally in 2014. Johnson’s team surveyed 1500 parents of children attending a hospital’s paediatric emergency department for any reason. About 10 per cent of the caregivers smoked or vaped marijuana, while half of those used only marijuana and not tobacco. Parents were asked about various illnesses their children had had in the past year. Children whose parents smoked or vaped marijuana had an average of 1.3 viral respiratory infections in that time, while those who never smoked and those who only smoked tobacco had about 1 per year. There was no significant difference in the number of asthma exacerbations between any of the groups – this may have been because they happened at very low rates, of only about 0.2 such incidents per child on average over the year, says the team. The study doesn’t prove that cannabis smoke caused the infections, as it wasn’t a randomised trial, although the idea is plausible, says Johnson. Relying on parents’ memory of illnesses rather than medical records could also be a limitation.
7-28-21 Second COVID-19 infections are rare and likely mild, research finds
People who catch COVID-19 twice will likely have a milder bout with the disease the second time around, an analysis of U.K. government figures found. The research, conducted by the U.K.'s Office for National Statistics, indicates that viral loads are higher for people who are dealing with their first infection than those who have been reinfected. The more virus that's present in the body tends to lead to a more intense case of COVID-19. The study also found that the rate of reinfection was low overall, and the rate of reinfection with a "strong positive test," which suggests a higher viral load, was even lower. All told, the numbers hint that previous exposure to the coronavirus helps protect people from future run-ins. Read more at Bloomberg and check out the full research U.K. analysis here.
7-29-21 Waves of animals died at an ancient Spanish lake and now we know why
A bunch of large, now-extinct mammals – including European ancestors of giraffes, primitive horses and sabre-toothed deer – died 9 million years ago at a watering hole in Spain. Now, artificial intelligence and painstaking fossil analyses have helped solve the mystery of what happened to them. “I like to jokingly say we are like crime scene investigators: When, how and why did it happen?” says David Martín-Perea at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid. “The only difference is our ‘crime scenes’ are millions of years old.” Palaeontologists discovered the fossil site, dubbed Batallones-10, in 2007 near Madrid. It took 14 dig sessions to unearth all of the bones buried between 1 and 5.5 metres deep in an area around a quarter the size of a tennis court. So far, the digs have revealed the presence of 15 large mammal species comprising 68 individual animals. Most were plant-eaters. One of the most abundant and well-preserved species was an early European ancestor of giraffes called Decennatherium rex. It was first described after a near-perfect skeleton was found at Batallones-10 in 2013 (see image above). Other animals included now-extinct hipparionine horses, two of which were pregnant, a mastodon, and deer that were relatives of modern-day musk deer, which have fangs instead of horns. Rhinos, giant tortoises, a monitor lizard, sabre-toothed cats, frogs, birds and small mammals were also dug up. Researchers originally suspected the animals died over an extended period from natural causes at a watering hole. Over time, it gradually filled up with mud and dead animals, fossilising their remains. However, in 2020 Martín-Perea and his colleagues used machine learning to seek patterns in the fossils’ precise location coordinates recorded during digs. Results revealed three distinct fossil-forming layers too subtle for humans to discern.
7-29-21 If confirmed, tubes in 890-million-year-old rock may be the oldest animal fossils
If the fossils turn out to be sea sponges, they’d mark a remarkably early start to animal life. Pale, wormlike tubes in 890-million-year old rock may be ancient sea sponges, a new study concludes. If confirmed, that controversial claim would push back the origin of the earliest sponges by about 350 million years and make the tiny squiggles the oldest known fossils of animals, by far. Crucially, these fossils would imply that animals emerged in environmental conditions previously thought unworkable for animal life, geologist Elizabeth Turner reports July 28 in Nature. Early in Earth’s history, the ocean mostly lacked oxygen. It wasn’t until a large pulse of the gas to the atmosphere about 800 million to 540 million years ago, known as the Neoproterozoic Oxidation Event, brought atmospheric oxygen levels to within 10 to 50 percent of modern levels, boosting the amount of oxygen in surface ocean waters (SN: 12/11/19). “But sponges are different from other animals,” says Turner, of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada. “Some sponges in the modern world and in the rock record are known to be tolerant of comparatively low oxygen relative to modern ocean levels.” Until now, the earliest, unambiguous fossils of sponges date to about 540 million years ago to the beginning of the Cambrian Period, when an extreme burst in the evolution of animal diversity took place (SN: 7/29/13). Some other animals are known from just a bit earlier, but go too much further back in time and identities become less clear (SN: 3/9/15). Based on genetic data and their relative simplicity, sponges are generally thought to have been the earliest form of animal life. But some scientists aren’t convinced that the newly described tubes are sponge fossils. “Organisms from anywhere on the tree of life can make wiggly, little [branching and rejoining] structures,” says Jonathan Antcliffe, a paleobiologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. The fossils lack features such as mineralized skeletal parts called spicules that would identify the creatures as sponges, he says.
ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY
8-4-21 Snake-eating spiders are surprisingly common
Spiders from at least 11 different families feed on serpents many times their size. A spider’s typical dinner menu might include insects, worms or even small lizards and frogs (SN: 2/3/21). But some arachnids have more adventurous tastes — they can eat snakes up to 30 times their size. Take the Australian redback. Not including legs, a female of this species of spider is only about the size of an M&M candy. But she can take down relatively big prey such as juvenile eastern brown snakes, which are among the most venomous serpents in the world. A snake that gets trapped in a redback’s web — a messy tangle of long, sticky silk threads that dangle to the ground — is quickly set upon by the spider, which subdues the struggling victim with more sticky silk before delivering a toxic bite that eventually kills the snake. “I find it cool that tiny Australian redback spiders can kill brown snakes,” says spider biologist Martin Nyffeler of the University of Basel in Switzerland. “[It’s] very fascinating and a little frightening!” But redbacks are far from the only spiders with an appetite for snake. At least 11 different families of spiders feed on snakes, Nyffeler and herpetologist Whit Gibbons report May 11 in The Journal of Arachnology. Nyffeler and Gibbons, of the University of Georgia in Athens, searched for reports of snakes eating spiders in all sorts of places — from research journals and magazine articles to social media and YouTube videos. In all, the team analyzed 319 accounts from all over the world. Most reports came from Australia and the United States, but these spiders live on every continent except Antarctica. “I didn’t realize how common this was. I don’t think anybody did,” says evolutionary biologist Mercedes Burns of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who was not involved in the research.
8-3-21 Harvestman genome helps explain how arachnids got grasping legs
Some spider-like animals grow long legs that wrap and grasp like a monkey’s tail – and a genetic study has helped establish how they develop. Harvestmen, or daddy-long-legs, are arachnids, but they aren’t spiders: they instead belong to a closely related group called the Opiliones. They have eight extraordinarily long legs that can measure up to 28 times their body length, and they can bend the tips of them to wrap around and grasp objects. However, harvestmen – like spiders, ticks and scorpions – actually have 12 limb-like appendages in total. The four at the head end develop into short jaws or pincers, or short limbs called pedipalps, which are unique to arachnids and can often detect tastes. Fascinated by the way these appendages develop differently, Guilherme Gainett at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues teamed up with genome specialists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC to draft a sequence of the genome of a lab-raised harvestman (Phalangium opilio). After identifying three genes they thought might affect how the animal’s legs develop, they engineered dozens of harvestmen embryos with different combinations of modified ways of expressing those genes. Some of the harvestmen developed deformed legs that more closely resembled the first four appendages, says Gainett. And when the team interfered with specific genetic pathways, the legs lacked the kind of segmentation – similar to joints in vertebrates – that normally allows harvestmen to curl their legs around objects. “We’ve shown… how the combinations of these genes create a blueprint in the embryo to differentiate between what’s going to be a leg that is used for walking and what is going to be a pedipalp, which can be used to manipulate food and assess the surroundings,” says Gainett.
8-3-21 Lake Tahoe closes some areas due to plague-infected chipmunks
A few areas on the south shore of Lake Tahoe will be closed to visitors this week after some chipmunks tested positive for plague, officials in California's El Dorado County said. The plague-carrying chipmunks had no contact with people, an El Dorado County spokesman said, and the Taylor Creek Visitor Center, Kiva Beach, and their parking areas will probably be open by Friday, after the U.S. Forest Service conducts its eradication treatments. Plague, an infectious bacterial disease spread by chipmunks, squirrels, and other wild rodents, is naturally present in many parts of California, and it can spread to humans via fleas. The plague can be very serious in the rare cases it infects humans, and it can be treated with antibiotics if caught early enough. One person contracted plague in California last year, but there were no recorded cases in the five years before that. The symptoms of plague include fever, nausea, weakness, and swollen lymph nodes, El Dorado County officials say, and it can be prevented by avoiding wild rodents, keeping your pets away from them, and treating cats and dogs with flea medicine. Hundreds of miles away in Monrovia, California, at least two women contracted Typhus after coming in contact with dead rats. Like plague, Typhus has symptoms that resemble COVID-19. "First, it was exhaustion and then a fever and then a headache," Margaret Holzmann, who got a breakthrough case while cleaning a dead rat from her yard, told local news stations. "I couldn't do anything, I was just so exhausted." And like plague, Typhus is spread to humans through infected fleas. "If you see something in your yard, call someone who can dispose of it safely and don't try to do it yourself," Holzmann advised.
8-2-21 Inside the fight to stop destructive fishing in marine protected areas
Greenpeace campaigners aboard their ship, the Sea Beaver, are crowded around a screen showing a trawler sitting on the edge of the Bassurelle Sandbank, a marine protected area in the Channel between England and France. The ship is licensed for an especially destructive type of fishing that has grown rapidly in the last year. The vessel is the latest in the sights of the campaigners. They have spent the past few months off the English south coast to document and deter examples of industrial fishing in England’s 178 marine protected areas (MPAs), which are meant to relieve pressure on marine life and habitats by restricting environmentally harmful activities. “We’re doing this because the government has repeatedly failed to properly protect these MPAs,” says Chris Thorne of Greenpeace. As the Sea Beaver slowly leaves Newhaven harbour, the crew revisit their map. The outline of the trawler is hovering on the border of the MPA, which has been modified by Greenpeace’s captain with a line of skull and crossbones. Thorne’s suspicions are raised further by the trawler having apparently switched off the satellite-based automatic identification system that helps authorities monitor vessels. The crew decide to speed to its location. Fishing is legally allowed in England’s MPAs. There are no authorities to call if the target trawler is found inside Bassurelle with its nets in the water. Instead, the Sea Beaver’s crew are prepared for direct action. If their French-flagged target is found fishing in the protected area, Thorne explains that they will first call on it and ask it to stop. Failing that, the activists will buzz past their target in the rigid inflatable boat (RIB) being towed behind the Sea Beaver, repeating their request. As a last resort, they will interfere with fishing equipment, potentially using the big, bright yellow metal buoy sitting on their deck. That would put the Greenpeace crew at risk of arrest for criminal damage.
8-2-21 A hammerhead shark baby boom near Florida hints at a historic nursery
The nursery of endangered sharks would be the first known in U.S. Atlantic waters. It seems like an unlikely place for a nursery of endangered hammerhead sharks, but a recreational hot spot just off the coast of Miami may host a school of these precious babies. If confirmed, the nursery would be the first ever identified in U.S. Atlantic waters for this iconic shark species. Finding an endangered shark nursery in a vast ocean is like finding a needle in a haystack. While scientists have used satellites to track migrations of adult great hammerheads (Sphyrna mokarran), where the sharks breed and give birth and where babies grow up is still “a bit of a mystery,” says shark scientist Catherine Macdonald of the University of Miami. Macdonald investigates where and how sharks can thrive in areas that are heavily impacted by humans. One of those areas is Florida’s Biscayne Bay, a popular spot for fishing and boating that is polluted by urban runoff. There, she and colleagues regularly survey shark abundance and diversity using a catch-and-release system: Sharks that get hooked on baited lines are reeled in, documented, tagged and put back into the water. Discovering a potential hammerhead shark nursery was an accident. The team got its first inkling of something special in June 2018, when researchers caught a juvenile great hammerhead — an interesting anomaly. In a decade of surveying, the team had never captured a hammerhead in these waters, says David Shiffman, a marine biologist at Arizona State University who is based in Washington, D.C. Several months later, the team caught another young hammerhead. Over the next year and a half, “we kept catching them … every few months,” Macdonald says. So far, the team has documented nine baby great hammerheads, Macdonald, Shiffman and colleagues report July 11 in Conservation Science and Practice. Based on the sharks’ sizes — all under 200 centimeters long — they were less than 5 years old. The area where the young sharks have been found is fairly shallow and carpeted with seagrass, which probably provides protection and is rife with small fish to eat, the researchers suspect.
7-30-21 Endangered maleo bird of Indonesia bouncing back from the brink
Maleos, colourful Indonesian birds that look a bit like quirky chickens, are endangered. But an initiative to protect the species has helped boost the number of nesting birds at some sites. The maleo (Macrocephalon maleo) has a flashy black and white body with a peach-coloured breast, a strange helmet-like head crest and a reddish orange beak. It lays eggs five times the size of a chicken egg, and the young can fly almost as soon as they hatch. The eggs are collected for food on Sulawesi and a small neighbouring island – the only places in the world where the bird occurs naturally. But this is driving this charismatic bird to extinction. “Even though they have protected status, the poaching of their eggs has gone on and on,” says Marcy Summers, director of the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation. One village was particularly concerned with the loss of these birds, and approached Summers’s organisation to help conserve the maleo. “The maleo is extremely iconic. It’s like the bald eagle for Sulawesi,” she says. The organisation agreed to pay the villagers to guard the eggs, which the birds bury in sand, where they are incubated through either the warmth of the sun or through heat from nearby geothermal springs. The project worked so well that the maximum number of maleos Summers and her team saw nesting at a given time quadrupled over 15 years, despite other ongoing problems like habitat loss. Word spread, and other villages at a different communal nesting site asked to be involved in the initiative. Their maleo numbers were very low, but they have also seen increases over the five years since they began to protect the birds. The villagers erected a maleo statue to celebrate their work, with help from the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation. “This project shows it’s not just economics that motivate people, but also their pride and their love of their natural heritage,” says Summers.
7-30-21 Viruses can kill wasp larvae that grow inside infected caterpillars
A new study is a take on the adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”. When parasitic wasps come calling, some caterpillars have a surprising ally: a viral infection. Insects called parasitoid wasps lay their eggs inside young moth larvae, turning the caterpillars into unwitting, destined-to-die incubators for possibly hundreds of wasp offspring. That’s bad news for viruses trying to use the caterpillars as replication factories. For the caterpillars, viral infections can be lethal, but their chances of survival are probably higher than if wasps choose them as a living nursery. Now, a study shows how certain viruses can help caterpillars stymie parasitoid wasps. A group of proteins dubbed parasitoid killing factor, or PKF, that are found in some insect viruses are incredibly toxic to young parasitoid wasps, researchers report in the July 30 Science. The new finding shows that viruses and caterpillars can come together to fight off a common wasp enemy, says study coauthor Madoka Nakai, an insect virologist at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. A parasitoid wasp would kill a host that the virus needs to survive, so the virus fights for its home. “It’s very clever,” Nakai says. What’s more, some moth caterpillars make the wasp-killing proteins themselves, the team found. It’s possible that in the distant past, a few moths survived a viral infection and “got some presents” in the form of genetic instructions for how to make the proteins, says study coauthor Salvador Herrero, an insect pathologist and geneticist at the University of Valencia in Spain. Those insects could have then passed the ability down to offspring. In this case, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Herrero says. Previous studies had shown that viruses and insects, including moths, can swap genes with each other. The new finding is one of the latest examples of this activity, says Michael Strand, an entomologist at the University of Georgia in Athens who was not involved in the work.
7-29-21 Polar bears sometimes bludgeon walruses to death with stones or ice
It’s long been said that a piece of ice is the perfect murder weapon. Walruses, weighing as much as 1,300 kilograms with huge tusks and nearly impenetrable skulls, are almost impossible for a hungry polar bear to kill. But new research suggests that some polar bears have invented a work-around — bashing walruses on the head with a block of stone or ice. For more than 200 years, Inuit in Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic have told stories of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) using such tools to aid in killing walruses. Yet explorers, naturalists and writers often dismissed such accounts, relegating them to myth along with tales about shape-shifting bears. The persistence of these reports, including one report from an Inuk hunter in the late 1990s, coupled with photos of a male polar bear named GoGo at a Japanese zoo using tools to obtain suspended meat compelled Ian Stirling and colleagues to investigate further. “It’s been my general observation that if an experienced Inuit hunter tells you that he’s seen something, it’s worth listening to and very likely to be correct,” says Stirling, one of the world’s leading polar bear biologists. The researchers reviewed historical, secondhand observations of tool use in polar bears reported by Inuit hunters to explorers and naturalists as well as recent observations by Inuit hunters and non-Inuit researchers and documented observations of GoGo and brown bears — polar bears’ closest relatives — using tools in captivity to access food. This review suggests that tool use in wild polar bears, though infrequent, does occur in the case of hunting walruses because of their large size, the researchers report in the June Arctic. “Really, the only species you would want to bonk on the head with a piece of ice would be a walrus,” says Andrew Derocher, director of the Polar Bear Science Lab at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, who wasn’t involved with the new study. He suspects that it might just be a few polar bears that do this behavior. For example, if a mother bear figured out how to use ice or stone in this way, “it’s something her offspring would pick up on,” but not necessarily a skill polar bears across the Arctic would acquire, he says.
7-29-21 First known wild chimpanzee with albinism was killed by other chimps
For the first time, a wild chimpanzee with albinism has been spotted. The baby ape was born with bright white fur and a total lack of pigmentation. It was an unprecedented opportunity to see how the other chimpanzees treated it. “We could actually document the behaviour of chimpanzees towards this individual,” says Maël Leroux of the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Unfortunately, the male baby chimp was born into a community noted for high rates of infanticide, and was killed by adults while just weeks old. “If it had happened in a different chimp community, there might have been a fantastic opportunity to observe this individual growing up,” says Adriana Lowe, previously at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, who wasn’t involved in the study. Leroux and his colleagues were tracking the Sonso chimpanzee community in Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda. In 2018, a female dubbed UP became pregnant. On 15 July that year, she was spotted carrying a white infant. Several adult chimpanzees approached UP and the baby. They made alarm calls and so-called waa barks, which are used when they meet dangerous animals like snakes. One adult male charged at UP and hit her. She soon disappeared into dense undergrowth with the baby. Early in the morning of 19 July, Leroux and a colleague found a group of chimps hidden in a thicket and making angry and alarmed calls. They heard what sounded like a fight and an infant screaming. The baby chimp died after attacks by the group’s alpha male, HW. After the chimps abandoned the body, the researchers autopsied it and confirmed a lack of pigment in the skin and hair, along with pink eyeballs – a clear sign of albinism. Leroux says there is no reason to think the infant was killed because of its appearance, because the Sonso community is so prone to infanticide. UP’s previous baby was also killed.
7-29-21 Near-invincible tardigrades may see only in black and white
A genetic analysis hints that the critters lack the right light-sensing proteins to see color. Next time you’re looking at a rainbow, be thankful you’re not a tardigrade. While the microscopic creatures, also known as water bears, are master survivors when it comes to radiation, space or extreme temperatures (SN: 7/14/17), they may lack one way to appreciate the world they live in: the ability to see in color. Tardigrades’ close arthropod relatives can see color and ultraviolet light. But tardigrades don’t have the same light-sensing proteins, called opsins, that arthropods do. That means they might not be able to see either visible or UV light, researchers report July 13 in Genome Biology and Evolution. While working at Keio University Institute of Advanced Biosciences in Yamagata, Japan, evolutionary biologist James Fleming and colleagues cataloged which opsins tardigrades have. Then the team used genetic analysis to figure out whether these opsins were active or not in two species: Hypsibius exemplaris and Ramazzottius variornatus. Despite having active opsins, R. variornatus doesn’t have eyes — a problem for seeing things. Still, “it’s doing something with [the opsins],” says Fleming, now at the University of Oslo Natural History Museum. What exactly that is remains unknown. H. exemplaris have eyes but don’t have opsins that can respond to multiple types of light, the team found — a crucial trait to detect different colors. And tardigrade eyes are fairly simple, Fleming says, meaning that even with additional opsins their vision might resemble a black and white silent film instead of a murky 1800s photo. Many of the opsin genes also were more active when the critters were eggs than when they were adults. “Understandably, there is not a lot of ecological use for being able to see whilst you’re inside of an egg,” Fleming says. But there might be other light-sensitive processes important for the egg’s development.