Political News In Brief: January 30-February 5

And I thought Trump’s first week as president was tumultuous! This one, his second, is just as raucous, if not more so. News comes at a rapid-fire pace. I’m feeling overwhelmed. So I’ve decided to focus on news that affects our relations with people in other countries, Trump’s travel ban in particular, which continues to outrage. I keep thinking of the (apocryphal) Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”  But there are feel-good moments – and I end with an especially heart-warming one.



The Federal District Court in Seattle, led by Judge James Robart, temporarily blocked enforcement of Trump’s travel ban on Friday (Feb 3), one week after Trump signed an executive order that barred people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. – whether valid visa holders (like international students) or well-vetted refugees (like Syrian families with U.S. sponsors). 

As expected, the Justice Department quickly appealed Judge Robart’s decision. Early Sunday (Feb 5), the U.S. Ninth District Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected the Trump administration’s appeal. This rejection means that “travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — as well as vetted refugees from all nations could, for now, continue to enter the country” (“Appeals Court,” NYT).

In short, the Ninth District Court affirmed Judge Robart’s ruling, which stated that the travel ban “adversely affects the states’ residents in the areas of employment, education, business, family relations and freedom to travel,” including “the operations and missions of their public universities and other institutions of higher learning.” Indeed, it’s estimated that the travel ban affects over 23,000 students who hold visas to study in the U.S. (An article in USA Today gives a break down of foreign student enrollment country-by-country.) 

While the Trump administration lost the first two rounds, it will surely take its case to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has resumed using the same standard policies and procedures on travelers and refugees that existed prior to Trump’s executive order. And immigrant advocates are “encouraging travelers from the affected countries to get on planes as soon as possible” because of the legal battle isn’t over (“9th Circuit Court,” WP; State Dept. reverses,” WP).


Travelers Previously Blocked from Entering the U.S. Begin Arriving at Boston’s Logan Airport. News of arrivals is beginning to trickle in. Using Twitter, a reporter wrote that a woman from Iraq was the first to pass through customs. Among other first arrivals were at least two Iranians: a college student and a research scientist (“Travelers,” WP). In another article, 40 Iranians were reported to have arrived in Boston on one flight, as well as at least one Syrian women at Dulles International, who reunited with her son and his wife, both doctors (“A race,” WP). 

More stories about arrivals from the previously banned countries are surely forthcoming. Including this one, just in from NPR: “Airport officials in Cairo say a total of 33 U.S.-bound migrants from Yemen, Syria and Iraq have boarded flights on their way to the United States.”


International reaction to Trump’s travel ban was swift and varied. Many were highly critical: for example, Iran called the ban “insulting” and a “gift to extremists,” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was “against the core idea of international aid for refugees and international cooperation.” Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took the high road and “defended the importance of welcoming refugees,” saying that “those fleeing persecution, terror and war were welcome in Canada.”

Others sided with Trump: for example, Saudi Arabia said it would cooperate. Britain’s far-right leaders cheered. And Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull agreed that every nation should be able to control its own borders – but Turnbull still expects Trump to adhere to the Obama administration’s agreement to accept 1250 of the 3000 refugees Australia holds on island detention centers; Trump called this “the worst deal ever” (“World leaders react,” CNN; “worst call by far,” WP ).

Yet Trump embraces aspects of Obama’s foreign policy. Several surprising and welcome moves this week: Trump warned Israel “not to expand the construction of Jewish settlements beyond their current borders” because to do so could hamper “the goal of peace” with the Palestinians. Trump’s chosen ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, “declared that the United States would not lift sanctions against Russia until it stopped destabilizing Ukraine and pulled troops out of Crimea.” And Trump appears to have no plans to rip up Obama’s highly-successful (so far) deal with Iran to dismantle its nuclear program (“Trump embraces,” NYT).

In fact, on Friday (Feb 3), the Trump administration imposed new sanctions on Iran to punish Tehran for its “latest ballistic missile test.” The administration describe the sanctions as “the first in a series of efforts to confront Iran around the globe.” (“U.S. Imposes,” NYT).



Protest Saturday” Around the World. On Saturday (Feb 4), peaceful rallies were held in major U.S. cities and in cities around the world like Berlin, Barcelona, Jakarta, London, Manila, and Paris. They protested Trump’s policies, particularly his travel ban. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported, “Nerves are especially raw in Germany, a country where fears of war are traditionally high as a result of the devastation the Nazi regime caused during World War II.”

There was even a rally in Janesville, WI, the hometown of Paul Ryan, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (next in line for president should something befall both the president and vice president). On a cold, windy Saturday with snow falling in this relatively small city, a group of 500 to 700 protested Trump’s immigration and border security plans. And, according to the county newspaper’s GazetteXtra,  “they railed against what they believe is … Ryan’s solidarity with Trump’s stance on immigrants and border security.” One sign read: “Will swap 1 Donald Trump and 1 Paul Ryan for 20,000 refugees.”



A mosque in the small city of Victoria, TX burned to the ground during last Saturday’s wee hours (Jan 28), just hours after Trump announced his travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. Cause is unknown. But the outpouring of support has been overwhelming. As of Wednesday (Feb 1), almost a million dollars had been raised, in online contributions, for rebuilding.

And in a wonderfully heartwarming gesture, Jewish community members walked into the home of one of the mosque’s founders and gave him a key to the synagogue. The president of Temple Bnai Israel explained, “We have probably 25 to 30 Jewish people in Victoria, and they probably have 100 Muslims. We got a lot of building for a small amount of Jews” (Business Insider).


Photo Credits: A family of Syrian refugees in Jordan limboed due to Trump’s travel ban, Jane Arraf/NPR; a Virginia Iraqi family welcomes their grandmother home at Dulles International Airport, Astrid Riecken/European Pressphoto Agency; protesters in Janesville, WI against Trump’s policies and Speaker Ryan’s likely complicity, photographer Angela Major; signs by supporters of the Muslim community in Victoria, TX whose mosque burned to the ground, REUTERS / Mohammad Khursheed.

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Political News In Brief: January 23-29

My head is spinning from the onslaught of troubling news this week, President Trump’s first full week in office: from his neediness to appear the greatest to his disregard for the truth, from his first attacks on the environment to his appalling executive order that is, in effect, a Muslim ban. Below I offer my take on the week’s top stories. I’ve tried to keep it brief – but do know there were a lot of other signals that our democracy, as we know it, is in danger. 



President Trump on Friday (Jan 27) signed an executive order that immediately blocked refugees from any country and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. – including people holding legal visas and permanent residents holding green cards.The seven countries are Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen – none of which were involved in the 9/11 and San Bernardino attacks, although those attacks were cited as reasons for the ban.

By Saturday afternoon (Jan 28), the chaos that this poorly considered and abruptly implemented order created was apparent across the U.S. and the world: On arriving at U.S. airports, people from the banned countries – like international students, immigrants returning to their families, and business folk – were detained or promptly deported.

Word got out and large protests in support of immigrants and refugees erupted in airport terminals – in the U.S., as well as abroad where people from the travel-banned countries heading for the U.S. weren’t allowed to board planes. Protests continue.   

Meanwhile, lawyers are at work on behalf of the detained, deported, and those likely to be denied U.S. entry or deported despite their previously legal right to be here. As of this morning (Jan 29), several federal courts have temporarily blocked aspects of Trump’s order, allowing some of the detained to enter the country.

Expect much more media attention on this matter – it’s being covered as I write. Stay tuned. This is a very big deal!


TRUMP’S “ALTERNATIVE FACTS” (as his counselor Conway put it)

Until the entry-ban news broke, Trump’s difficulty with accepting facts that negatively affect his grandiose self-image received a lot of media attention – particularly regarding two matters: (1) the fact that no evidence exists, none at all, to support Trump’s claim that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote with 2.9 million more votes than he did only because there were 3 to 5 million illegal votes – all of which went for her; and (2) he refused to accept the fact that the crowd at Obama’s 2009 inauguration was considerably larger than his, despite the ocular evidence in the side-by-side photo above. (See this linked NPR story for more details, including on several matters that suggest Trump has a serious fact-deficiency problem).

Why does Trump’s penchant for making up facts matter? Indeed, shouldn’t we count on our President to tell us the truth? If he’ll create media squabbles about trivial matters like crowd size, what else might he lie about and what important issues could the media be covering instead? Climate change and other environmental issues, for example, should receive a lot more attention than it has in the past.



Meeting with business men on Tuesday (Jan 24), Trump promised to cut regulations by 75% and told the group that he’s something of an environmentalist and has “received many, many environmental awards.” He first made this claim in 2011; since then reporters have looked for evidence, finding none. The Washington Post did, however, give Trump an award for this claim: Four Pinocchios – in other words, “whoppers.” Apparently he’ll lie about anything.


The new administration’s disregard for the health of our planet was displayed in several other ways this week. For one thing, Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday (Jan 24) giving the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access oil pipelines the go-ahead for construction. But, as The Hill reported, these are not done deals due to lawsuits pending in Nebraska and by the Standing Rock Sioux. 

The day before that (Jan 23), ProPublica confirmed that the Trump administration had “imposed a freeze on grants and contracts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], a move that could affect a significant part of the agency’s budget allocations and even threaten to disrupt core operations ranging from toxic cleanups to water quality testing.” This freeze goes along with Trump’s executive order to institute a hiring freeze for all new federal workers. 


hidden-figures-poster-405x600Hidden Figures received three nominations for an Academy Award, including Best Picture. The film is based on a true story about 3 African American women whose talents and courage led to holding crucial NASA positions during the early years of the space race. My husband and I enjoyed the film on Wednesday. In my view, it’s a must-see!

Photo/Image Credits: Demonstrators at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, G. Morty Ortega/Getty Images; on the National Mall comparing Obama 2009, left, and Trump 2017 inauguration crowds, Reuters; four Pinocchios, Washington Post graphic; signs of protest near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times; and Hidden Figures official poster, 20th Century Fox.

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Political News In Brief: January 16-22

You may notice that my tone is different in this edition. Previously I strove for objectivity, but I couldn’t maintain it this week. Trump’s speech and the Women’s March, data on climate change and economic inequality – I couldn’t help but react. Perhaps you couldn’t either. In any case, I apologize upfront for my occasional editorial remarks.

TOP STORIES: From the Sublime to the Resisted Ridiculous


Obama’s Farewell Press Conference

On Wednesday (Jan 18), Barack Obama – with grace and good humor, as well as warnings tempered with hope – told the White House press corps that he was looking forward to some quiet time and doesn’t plan to rush right back into the political fray. However, he did make it clear that he will speak out if he believes that America’s “core values” are at stake. Among the values he mentioned are freedom of the press, voting rights, absence of systematic discrimination, protection of children of undocumented parents, and the right to protest (quick read – NPR; detailed overview – NYT).

Trump’s Inaugural Speech

On Friday (Jan 20), Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. I enjoyed watching the usual pomp surrounding the ceremony but was appalled by Trump’s inaugural speech. It was dark, filled with negative exaggerations about the state of the nation, but thankfully short, running 16 minutes. Trump spoke as if he were at one of his rallies – the same divisive rhetoric and belligerent “strongman” tone. What should have been an uplifting celebration of the peaceful transition of power felt like a funeral for American values.

Perhaps the most chilling part of Trump’s speech was his repeated use of the phrase “America First,” the name of “the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler” CNN. He put forth a warped image of America as having lost its greatness due, among other things, to “the ravages of other countries … destroying our jobs.” (Inaugural story told with photos – NPR; detailed story of the day – NYT.)

The next day (Jan 21) was much better

Turnout for Women’s Marches Greatly Exceeds Expectations


Wonderfully diverse crowds of women, men, and children – with and without pink “pussy hats” – marched. Trump’s frightening “America First” inaugural speech may have helped swell the crowds. According to crowd scientists, “The women’s march in Washington was roughly three times the size of the audience at President Trump’s inauguration” (New York Times explains how experts arrived at this estimate.)

In the U.S. alone, it’s now estimated that up to three million marchers turned out, from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco and many places in between, including our own Madison, WI with its estimated 75,000 to 100,000. Estimates for other cities include over half a million in D.C., more than 400,000 in New York City, and hundreds of thousands more in Chicago and Los Angeles. There were also large marches abroad – in Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin, Buenos Aires, and Sydney, to name a few, and even a small group in Paradise Bay, Antarctica (NYT, NPR, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

The marchers were there “to express solidarity with the aims of the original march: opposition to President Trump’s agenda, and support of women’s rights and human rights in general,” wrote NPR. Not only was it an anti-inaugural march against a new president who lost the popular vote by almost 3 million, it was also a call to mobilize a national movement for action on progressive issues like abortion rights, sexual assault, and equal pay, as well as “immigrant rights, police brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression and environmental protection” (NYT).


2016 Reported as Hottest Year on Record on same day Trump’s EPA Nominee Refuses to Attribute Global Warming to Human Activity


USA Today reported, “The planet sizzled to its third straight record warm year in 2016, and human activity is to blame, federal scientists announced Wednesday” (Jan 18). According to paleoclimatic data, it’s been 125,000 years since the last time the earth was this hot.

“No leader can afford to ignore these results,” a leading economist told USA Today. And yet if the Senate confirms Trump’s nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, the results may be ignored.Not only has he sued the EPA 14 times in an effort to block clean air and water regulations, but also during his Senate hearing on Wednesday (Jan 18), Pruitt said that it’s debatable whether humans are part of the cause – a statement “not consistent with the scientific consensus on climate change” (NYT). Nevertheless, it’s likely that Pruitt will head the EPA.

Worth noting: “Less than an hour after taking the oath of office, the White House’s webpage on climate change disappeared” (The Hill)

Richest 8 Men Hold Half the World’s Wealth

Oxfam International, which annually releases data on the world’s wealth, announced on Monday (Jan 16) that 8 super rich men have as much wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people, half the world’s population. Oxfam’s executive director, Winnie Byanyima, called this disparity “obscene.” She said that economic inequality traps “hundreds of millions in poverty” and “is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy.” Six of the men are Americans. (NPR)

BEST FEEL-GOOD MOMENTS OF THE WEEK: all those wonderful videos and photos of Women’s Marches around the globe


Photo Credits: Trumps and Obamas on White House steps, Jim Watson/AFP/Getty; Women’s March in New York City, Nicole Craine for The New York Times; Ice in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea region, Esther Horvath in The New York Times; Women’s March in Madison, WI, Amber Arnold for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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Political News In Brief: January 9-15

What a week! Russian election interference remained at the center of our national conversation. The Justice Department announced an investigation into the FBI director’s actions regarding Clinton’s emails. Congress began confirmation hearings on Trump’s cabinet nominees and geared up to repeal Obamacare. Trump talked smack about two American icons. And (ending this edition on a high note) Obama delivered his Farewell Address and later awarded Joe Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Allegations and Questions Abound about Trump’s Ties to Russia and Russia’s Influence on Our Presidential Election

This explosive and ongoing story began on Tuesday (Jan 10) when BuzzFeed dumped an unverified, classified document on the Internet called “US Presidential Election: Candidate Donald Trump’s Activities in Russia and Compromising Relationship with the Kremlin.” CNN ran with this “breaking news,” and other news agencies quickly followed – for the first time making public what they, and many others, have long been aware of but have neither confirmed nor disproved.

The document Trump received in a briefing alleges that Russia has been gathering information on Trump for five years, intel that includes a sordid sexual romp in a Moscow hotel and questionable business negotiations – info ripe for blackmail, if true. The most serious allegation is that during the campaign the Kremlin fed “Trump and his team valuable information on his opponents,” including on Hillary Clinton.

Trump strongly denounced the unproven claims on Wednesday (Jan 11), during his first press conference as President-elect. He blamed the intelligence community for the leak (which it has denied) and lambasted the media for carrying the story.

Wednesday night, according to an intriguing New York Times story on how the document came to be, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper talked with Trump and then released a statement saying that intelligence agencies don’t know if the information in the document is reliable or not – although the former British agent who uncovered it has an excellent reputation with the intelligence community.

In his news conference on Wednesday, Trump finally acknowledged what the intelligence community had been saying all along: that the Russians had hacked and made public emails belonging to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

The next day (Jan 12) in their joint statement, a Republican and Democrat announced that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence would engage in a bipartisan inquiry on Russian inference in the recent elections. They said, “we believe that it is critical to have a full understanding of the scope of Russian intelligence activities impacting the United States.” (NPR)

Justice Department to Investigate FBI Director James Comey about His Handling of the Clinton Email Case

Michael Horowitz, Inspector General of the Justice Department, announced on Thursday (Jan 12) that he would open an investigation on FBI Director Comey’s handling of the Clinton email case, including Comey’s “decision to discuss it at a news conference and to disclose 11 days before the election that he had new information that could lead him to reopen it.” (NYT)

Apparently the FBI found nothing new: three days before the election Comey closed the case. But the damage was done. In fact, Hillary Clinton and many of her supporters believe that Comey’s actions then, as well as his unprecedented announcement in July calling her use of a private email server “extremely careless,” cost her the election. Members of both parties have questioned Comey’s judgment to make statements that appear to violate the FBI’s policy never to appear partisan and never to do anything that could influence an election.


Key Cabinet Nominees Disagree with Trump

This past week the US Senate held confirmation hearings on a number of Trump’s cabinet nominees. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, nominee for Attorney General, received the most media attention because of actions, ancient and recent, that suggest he holds racist beliefs. Of great interest to me, however, is the extent to which Sessions and other nominees disagreed with Trump on statements he repeatedly made before and after the election.  

Sessions, for example, said he believes that water-boarding is illegal and that a ban on Muslims entering the country is unconstitutional; Trump has disagreed.

Former ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson, nominee for Secretary of State, called Russian president Putin an “international threat” that we must counter. He also opposes a Muslim ban and is committed to NATO; Trump has said the opposite.

General James Mattis, nominee for Secretary of Defense, said he supports the Iran nuclear agreement, “a stark contrast from Mr. Trump’s view that the Iran negotiations produced ‘one of the dumbest deals ever.’”

And like Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas, nominee for CIA director, all of these “nominees have taken strong stands against Russia” and agree with the intelligence community that Russia meddled in our presidential election.

Perhaps, as Representative Susan Collins of Maine said, “Trump wants advisers who will bring him different views.” That would be, as she says, “very healthy”; or, as the New York Times suggests, “it could lead to confused messages both to our allies and adversaries.”

Republicans Start the Process of Repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)

On Friday (Jan 13), the Republican-led Congress’ first act was to rush “approval of a budget resolution … that sets up a framework for repealing Obamacare.” The proposed budget includes cutting off funds for Planned Parenthood. At this time, Republicans haven’t arrived at an affordable replacement that would keep the popular ACA benefits (for example, coverage of preexisting conditions) and eliminate the unpopular parts (for example, the mandate to have health insurance).  (NPR)

Trump Slams American Icons in Tweets

Last Sunday night (Jan 8) at the Golden Globes, actress Meryl Streep was honored for a lifetime of notable work. During her acceptance speech she described her shock at watching a person seeking the presidency mock a disabled reporter, someone “he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back.” Never directly mentioning Trump, she said, “It sank its hooks in my heart.” The next day Trump tweeted that Streep was “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and a “Hillary flunky who lost big.” (NYT)

Then on Friday (Jan 13) in an interview for NBC’s Meet the Press, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon, said that “he did not regard Trump to be ‘a legitimate president’ because of allegations that high-level Russian operatives interfered in the election on Trump’s behalf.” Early the next morning Trump tweeted that Lewis is “falsely complaining about the election results” while his district “is in horrible shape and falling apart.” Trump, as he sometimes does in retaliatory lobs, ended his two-part tweet with “Sad!” Many have come to Lewis’ defense since then. (Washington Post).


Obama Delivered His Farewell Speech to a Rapturous Crowd

On Tuesday night (Jan 10) in Chicago where his political career began, President Obama delivered his farewell address, speaking, as the New York Times says, “to a rapturous crowd that recalled the excitement of his path-breaking campaign in 2008.” He offered a message of hope, a warning against giving in to fear, and a call for individual action. Early in his speech he listed several of his administration’s accomplishments:

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high

As I watched his speech live on TV, like so many others I was deeply moved. He ended his address by asking us to believe – “Yes, we can!” 

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.

I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.

 Obama Farewell Address full video and text 

Obama Bestows the United States’ Highest Civilian Honor on Biden

In a surprise move on Thursday (Jan 12), President Obama awarded Vice President Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling Biden “my brother” and saying, “He’s as good a man as God ever created.” Biden, deeply moved, told Obama, “This honor is not only well beyond what I deserve, but it’s a reflection of the extent and generosity of your spirit. I don’t deserve this but I know it came from the President’s heart.” (CNN)


Whew! That’s a lot of news for one week – and yet there was so much more I could have mentioned. If you spot any factual errors, please let me know. Thanks!

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Political News In Brief: January 2-8

I’m a political news wonk who’s worried about the prevalence of low-information Americans. I understand that working people, especially families with children, haven’t the time to delve into the news. But now, as a retired educator, I have the time not only to read the news (instead of just grabbing sound bites off the TV or radio) but also to provide a kind of national news digest for those with busy lives. That’s one of my goals for this blog: to sum up, as I see it, the major political stories of the week as often as I can. At this time my primary news sources are the New York Times (NYT) and National Public Radio (NPR). Here’s my first edition.  


Heads of Intelligence Agencies Meet with Senators and then Trump shortly before releasing their report on the Russian Hacking to the Public 

“A united front of top intelligence officials and senators from both parties on Thursday [Jan 5] forcefully reaffirmed the conclusion that the Russian government used hacking and leaks to try to influence the presidential election, directly rebuffing President-elect Donald J. Trump’s repeated questioning of Russia’s role” (NYT).

On Friday (Jan 6), top intelligence officials provided Trump with a two-hour briefing, concluding that “President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia directed a vast cyberattack aimed at denying Hillary Clinton the presidency and installing Donald J. Trump in the Oval Office.”

Shortly after Trump’s briefing, these officials released their intelligence report to the public in what the NYT called “a virtually unheard-of, real-time revelation by the American intelligence agencies that undermined the legitimacy of the president who is about to direct them.”

According to the report (as summarized by CNN), Putin’s motives for hacking and leaking embarrassing Democratic emails included undermining Americans’ faith in the democratic process and “discrediting Secretary Clinton because [Putin] has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime.”

While the election itself is legitimate – for example, no evidence exists that voting machines were hacked – the intelligence community is confident that there was Russian interference during the campaign.


Republicans’ Rocky Ethical Start to 2017

In a secret meeting on Monday night (Jan 3), House Republicans voted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).  Under their proposal, the OCE would no longer serve as an independent ethics watchdog. Instead, the foxes (U.S. representatives themselves) would watch the hen house. One reason given for the change was “to prevent the office from pursuing investigations that might result in criminal charges” against House members. When the news got out, public outrage arose. And by the time the new congress was sworn in on Tuesday (Jan 4), House Republicans had abandoned the proposal. An independent OCE remains, at least for this session of Congress. (Full NYT story here)

In a related ethics story, NPR reported (Jan. 7), “The Office of Government Ethics is raising alarm over the pace of [Senate] confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees, saying Saturday that they have yet to receive required financial disclosures for some picks set to come before Congress next week.”

“Make America Sick Again”

With the Republicans set to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA, popularly known as Obamacare), the new Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, in a parody of Trump’s campaign slogan, declared on Wednesday (Jan 4) that the Republicans were on a path to “Make America Sick Again.” Meanwhile, Vice President-Elect Mike Pence said that Trump’s first order of business would be to begin the repeal of the ACA through “a series of Executive Orders,” the very kinds of action Obama was repeatedly criticized for using. (Full NPR story here)

“Michelle Obama’s Emotional Farewell” 

This past Friday (Jan. 6) on TV, I watched Michelle Obama give her last speech as First Lady. NPR described her talk as “a passionate pep talk to the nation’s young people.” “That’s my final message to young people as first lady,” she said. “Lead by example with hope, never fear. And know that I will be with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life.” I was overcome with emotion and, along with school counselors standing behind her, cried.

Engaged Motion: One Key (of many) to Creativity and even Genius

treadmillFor Christmas I gave myself a manual treadmill. I try to use it daily for a strenuous, indoor workout I much need during northern Wisconsin’s long icy winters. But it’s noisy. I knew it would be, so I ordered a stand for my laptop and a headset to go with it. Now while treading I listen to archived radio programs that I probably wouldn’t have listened to otherwise.

A few days ago, for example, I listened to “Seeking Sites of Global Genius” on NPR’s On Point (1/22/16), which featured Eric Weiner talking about his recent book The Geography of Genius (book’s animated trailer here). Weiner argues that much more than natural talent and hard work go into the making of a genius like Plato, Michelangelo, or Steve Jobs. Geniuses, he says, are grown and appear in “genius clusters,” like in ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, and today’s Silicon Valley. But why? geography-of-genius-eric-weiner-263x409

During his NPR talk, Weiner discusses a number of factors that nurture genius, especially mentors, social mingling, and diversity, as well as hardship, immigration, or even a traumatic event early in life (for Plato, think the execution of his mentor Socrates and Athens’ agora). So it seems that having a perspective different from one’s peers, along with sharing ideas with others, contributes to the flourishing of creativity. Consider Apple’s slogan: “Think different.”

About halfway through the program, Weiner briefly mentioned that walking is also associated with creative genius (research backs this up). By then treading had exhausted me, and I took a break at my desktop. Scrolling through the NPR homepage, I found and read a heartwarming article, “Young Artists Find Home and Healing at Pittsburgh Art House” (1/24/15). It then occurred to me that not just walking but many kinds of engaged physical activities are likely to prompt creative thinking. 


Arriving at the notion of engaged motion pleased me, as did connecting the NPR article to the Weiner talk. But more than that, I became intrigued by the Art House founder, Vanessa German, an amazing visual and performance artist who, in my view, is a genius of engaged motion. (See an example of her performance poetry here).

Art House began on German’s front porch, which is next to a bus stop in Pittsburgh’s impoverished, frequently violent Homewood, a neighborhood where kids play “gang” in the alleys. When her sculptures grew too large for the basement studio, she worked on her porch. People would stop to watch. Adults commented on how weird or even scary the fetish-like objects seemed to them (examples of her sculptures here). But kids, she tells us in this 2015 TEDxPittsburghStatePrison talk, “weren’t looking at what I was making; they were watching me do the making.”

SEAsia carved birds
A gift to me from friends

Kids were engaged in the process, the doing, and wanted to help. German told them, “You cannot help me, but you can do your own thing.” She gathered old brushes, paint, cardboard, and materials from a demolished house up the street and set the kids to doing their own art. Soon her porch and front yard were filled with kids. And eventually the young artists got their own place (photos of Art House in the NPR article).           

At the Art House housewarming, German said, “I experience such joy and a sense of deep rightness and completeness when I’m making things…. Like when I’m deciding how I’m going to engineer some sculpture to stand so it looks like it’s defying gravity, and I’m using my brain, and I’m moving around, and I feel like giving myself a high-five – why wouldn’t kids feel that too!?” (NPR).

CandleCurl sculpture Jan15
My candle curl “sculpture”

In my view, German is a genius of engaged motion. But clearly Homewood is not, in Weiner’s terms, a “genius cluster.” Nevertheless, German has found just the right place to grow and nurture her own genius – and to help others grow theirs. On her Love Front Porch website, she says, “I know that art makes a difference, that it can heal, inspire, change anger into love. Art is love. Love is power.”


“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”                                                                                                      ~Musical genius Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart


Image Credits

The Geography of Genius cover comes from Eric Weiner’s homepage and Vanessa German’s publicity photo from a TEDxCambridge site. I took the other three photos with my iPhone: the treadmill setup in my loft; the wood-carved birds, a gift from close friends who traveled to Bali and parts of Southeast Asia; and my candle curl “sculpture,” which continues to grow atop one of my book cases.   

Three Fun Reads by and about Gamers

Most nights I read in bed until my eyes get so heavy that a good night’s sleep is all but assured. More often than not I read plot-driven books, like mysteries, or something on the not-so-serious side. It’s a time to thoroughly relax and let the cares of the day and concerns for tomorrow slip away.

Looking in the books section of my Kindle Fire, I see that five of my 2015 reads were narratives by and about video game players, which is not surprising since I’m an avid World of Warcraft (WoW) player. None were fan fiction, but all involved, in various degrees, MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). Below are my three favorites.

#3 Max Wirestone’s The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss (2015)515iEPS2paL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Wirestone’s unusual whodunit is an engaging, at times hilarious romp with an accidental amateur detective, Dahlia. She’s an unhappy millennial, unemployed, broke, and recently betrayed by her now ex-boyfriend. The one bright spot is her kinky yet often annoying friend Charisse, who has taken her in. Then out of the blue a rich young man attending one of Charisse’s themed parties offers her a well-paid, really strange job – to recover his stolen virtual weapon, the Bejeweled Spear of Infinite Piercing, in a game called Zoth, a fictional MMORPG similar to WoW.

Like most detective stories, there’s a murder, and the murder weapon is a real-life replica of the Bejeweled Spear. At this point, along with finding the stolen virtual weapon, Dahlia’s job becomes planning an in-game funeral for the victim’s guildmates to attend. These tasks aren’t all that easy since she’s not really a Zoth gamer, having only dabbled in it with her ex-boyfriend.

The story weaves Dahlia’s experiences in Zoth and the real world seamlessly. In the process we meet a bevy of characters in-game and out, many of whom are guild members. A new love interest emerges, there’s a flirtation with a police detective, her apartment mate Charisse is unpredictably weird, and of course she, in her bumbling way, eventually exposes the murderer.   

It’s a fun, fast read that includes send-ups of WoW (you needn’t be a player to enjoy the humor). For example, her low-level fairy character, armed with only a harp, has to cross the Field of Ghosts to meet a suspect. Along the way she dies numerous times – “skewered, drowned…poisoned and killed by an evil doppelganger of myself with my own damned harp.” Dahlia tells us, “I know its unbecoming for a gamer girl to do this, but I /sat down on the ground and decided to /cry…. It sounded a little like the noise you get when you poke the Pillsbury Doughboy” (77). (Slashed words are commands for a character to act in such a way.)

In Amazon’s review blurbs, Library Journal characterizes this book as “geek chic.” That seems about right to me.

#2 Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011)


Cline’s dystopian sci-fi novel was the Metagame Book Club’s summer 2015 selection, which is why I read (and enjoyed) it. Set in the year 2044, Earth is an over-populated environmental disaster. Abject poverty is the norm, at least for our protagonist, teen Wade Watts who lives with 14 other people in one of the many skyscraper-high stacks of trailers “on the shores of I-40 just west of Oklahoma City” (21).

Fortunately, he (and most everyone) has a temporary escape – free access to OASIS, a computer-generated virtual reality that far outshines today’s Internet and 3-D video games. And he has an unusual passion for 1980s pop culture, downloading anything, from TV shows like Family Ties to arcade games like Donkey Kong. This passion serves him well as he, along with his avatar “Parzival,” dives into the quest for the holy grail of virtual objects, keys to a vast fortune left by the deceased creator of OASIS.

The novel’s major villain is the head of the world’s largest Internet service provider; if his people find the keys first, then, as Wade says, “the OASIS would cease to be the open-source utopia” and “become a corporate-run dystopia, an overpriced theme park for the wealthy elite” (32). Thus much is at stake; Wade or someone like him needs to find the keys first.

Millions of questers are competing for the keys, including the corporate goons. Several of the questers become Wade’s friends (two in China), and an interesting, even heart-warming tension emerges among these allies who are also competitors – only one of them can succeed. This New York Times bestseller is a compelling, wonderfully-told adventure, for gamers and non-gamers alike.

#1 Felicia Day’s You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): A Memoir (2015)


Here Felicia Day, actor and celebrated geek, tells her life story with disarming honesty and a quirky sense of humor. Confession: I hadn’t heard of Day until a World of Warcraft guildmate recommended her memoir (oops! there go my geek credentials, once again). Soon I downloaded it expecting to read about a gamer’s life. Sure, there’s a lot of that and so much more.

Day, along with her brother Ryon, grew up homeschooled in a “partial-hippie family” with one school rule, “to read. Constantly. All day, every day. Whatever we wanted” unless it had “nudity or Stephen King on the cover…” (1.loc 343). She was socially isolated from peers (mostly), which allowed her, as she says, “to be okay with liking things no one else liked,” such as dragon lore, film noir, and cosine equation graphs (1.loc 424). Her mom played video games. Soon she and her brother were avid gamers too.

On discovering the MMORPG Ultima and its companion bulletin board, she quickly bonded online with other kids who loved the same geeky movies and books. It became the “first environment where I could express my enthusiasms freely to my peers” (2.loc 579). And so began her life-long (so far) passion for the Internet and all its wonders. Somewhat later, after college and rounds of auditions and acting in commercials, she became addicted to World of Warcraft.

Day tells us about her excitement on being immersed in WoW, a new world, a virtual world populated with lots of other players and chat rooms – and especially on having the opportunity to play with her brother in his guild. Her character, a rogue gnome, became, she tells us, “an emotional projection of myself. A creature/person who was more powerful, more organized and living in a world where there were exact parameters to becoming successful” (5.loc 1405).

After about six months of casual play, Day began spending more and more time in the game, where she “was very popular,” a hard working and seemingly indispensable guildmate. She felt needed and accomplished. Addictive feelings, indeed. So things got out of control: “I ate, slept, and lived World of Warcraft” (5.loc 1503).

Day doesn’t blame “that beautiful, repetitive world” for her addiction. Instead, she says, “My life was unhappy, and I covered the hurt with a subscription-based Band-Aid. I just couldn’t find a good reason NOT to play so much.” But she did break the addiction – by redirecting her creative energy toward other things she loved: writing, acting, and the Internet. She took the things she “learned during those dragon-hunting months…to create a web show called The Guild” (5.loc 1516), which is available on the web and on Netflix.

Her stories about the making of The Guild (2007-2012) and its actors, fandom, and enormous popularity begin about halfway through this charming book. I think you’ll enjoy it, whether you’re a gamer or not.


Janis Joplin and Me

Lazarus and I rolled into San Francisco squeezed in the backseat of an Alfa Romeo convertible. It was the last leg of our week-long adventure hitchhiking across the country. The driver and his girlfriend offered us a place to crash, a townhouse in the Haight-Ashbury district that served as both a small commune and a psychedelic poster company. And – talk about luck! – they gave us tickets to Winterland’s Halloween BallTrip or Freak

The ball, called “Trip or Freak,” was that night, Halloween 1967. The performers were the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin. It’s Joplin’s performance that remains the most vivid memory of my hippy sojourn in SF.

What struck me at first was her outfit – especially the bikini-like top with two halves of a coconut shell covering her breasts, which seemed rather risqué to my college-girl eyes. And she was in constant motion. As she dove deeper into the first song, her sexually-charged energy increased. I stopped dancing and, mesmerized, just watched – and listened hard. The soulful way she belted out a song blew me away. I’d never seen or heard anything like that.Janis Joplin at Monterey Pop Festival

I completely agree with David Walsh, who wrote in his review of the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, “anyone who saw Janis Joplin in person, especially in a more intimate space, is not likely to forget it…. I have never from that time to this seen a performer as generous and as giving—and as vulnerable. One almost inevitably fell in love with her.”

Although offering a feminist analysis would not have occurred to me at the time, in retrospect I also agree with Lorraine Ali, who wrote in her Los Angeles Times film review, “The reaction of audiences, who were floored and almost blindsided by the sheer passion of Joplin, illustrates what a true anomaly she was in a rock world populated almost entirely of men. Joplin didn’t wave the flag of feminism, she embodied it.”janis film poster

Walsh and Ali were writing about Amy Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue (trailer). This film, the first full-length documentary about Joplin, was released Friday (12/4/15) in major metropolitan areas nationwide. None of the listed theater locations are near me; so I may have to wait until PBS’ American Masters airs it, which, according to the film’s official site, will be in early 2016.

After that amazing first night in SF, I continued to live and work at the psychedelic poster commune. My hitchhiking buddy, a chemistry graduate student named Steve who changed his name to Lazarus after his first LSD trip, soon journeyed on; I never saw him again. Eventually I grew disillusioned with the scene, flew home, and in January resumed my role as a college sophomore – forever changed: more self-assured and with a greater appreciation for the kindness of strangers. All round, it was an excellent adventure.


Image Credits:

“Trip or Freak” poster designed by Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse and Rick Griffin. For details about the poster’s creation, see this discussion by PosterCentral’s Pete Howard. 

Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the 1997 Monterey Pop Festival (found on Pinterest without attribution).

Janis: Little Girl Blue poster (Jigsaw Productions). 

Recommended Youtube videos:

Amazing Joplin performance of “Ball and Chain’’ at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (Youtube) 

Another amazing Joplin performance, “Piece of My Heart” live in Germany 1968, with audience participation

Joplin’s Greatest Hits, all audio exceptwith a photo and table of contents

Documentarian Ondi Timoner interviews director Amy Berg about her new film Janis: Little Girl Blue

Postscript to “NASA, China, and The Martian”

So I researched, wrote, pruned, revised, and went through that process again, finally clicking “publish.”  “Yay! my third post on this site is up,” I told my computer, then I bounded downstairs for a late lunch.

It’s hard for me to let something go that I’ve worked on (and off) over several days. After lunch I decided to see what other people on WordPress had recently written about The Martian. Bingo! I immediately found Stephanie Platter’s succinct, well-illustrated review. She recommended Mika McKennon’s highly informative post, “Science of The Martian: the Good, the Bad, and the Fascinating,” which I now recommend to you – but perhaps only if you’ve already scene the film (**spoiler alert**).

As I was reading McKennon’s piece (loved the images), I had one of those why-didn’t-I-see-that-before moments. Would that have changed anything in my previous post? Probably not, since NASA-China space relations (rather, lack of) isn’t of concern in her post. But, like Platter, she recommended a site that I really like and also recommend to you, NASA’s “Nine Real NASA Technologies in ‘The Martian,’” which includes super-cool sliding images that show how each of four technologies were portrayed in the film and how NASA does or visualizes something similar.


3-D View of Mars NASA on the Commons
3-D View of Mars                                                                                      NASA on the Commons

NASA, China, and The Martian

20th Century Fox poster
20th Century Fox poster

Retired astronaut Clayton C. Anderson clearly enjoyed Ridley Scott’s The Martian (as well as Andy Weir’s book on which it’s based). He favorably nods to the usual things found in film reviews, like acting and cinematography. But for him “the highlight was the film’s refreshing and inspiring depiction of NASA, ” in particular “the collaborative efforts of all the teams,” the kind of teamwork he experienced during his 30 years with the space program.

Although it’s been over a week since I saw The Martian, I keep thinking about it. I loved this real-science sci-fi film. Part of my admiration is similar to Anderson’s – the depiction of NASA employees. You see, I’m tangentially connected to the space program through my stepfather, a retired “rocket scientist,” as he likes to say, whose long aerospace career spanned from working on the Air Force’s Titan IIIC rocket booster to NASA’s Hubble Telescope.

The scenes that thrilled me the most were those involving the China National Space Agency (CNSA), as well as the montage showing excited masses of Chinese and Americans simultaneously watching  the giant screen, live-streamed conclusion to the joint NASA-CNSA rescue mission. Like Anderson, “I reveled in the scenes of international cooperation…. A science fiction survival and rescue story in which one the US’s current adversaries plays a key role in the mission’s success? What a tantalizing and hopeful vision for the future!”

One of the film's locations. Panoramic view (four images stitched together) of main valley of Wadi Rum, Jordan by Daniel Case - CC BY-SA license - link here
One of the film’s locations. Panoramic view (four images stitched together) of main valley of Wadi Rum, Jordan by Daniel Case – CC BY-SA license – link here

The Martian is indeed an optimistic film. While its conclusion is predictable – yes, NASA will rescue the title character, stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) – the plot flows, punctuated with satisfying  moments of high intensity. And it has an abundance of heroes, from large figures like Watney and Mars spacecraft Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) to smaller ones like Mindy Parks (Mackenzie Davis), a young  engineer who spots tell-tell changes in photos of Mars, and Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), a young nerdy astrodynamicist who devises a risky plan for quickly sending help to Watney.

The surprising hero is the CNSA. Without China’s help, which involves sacrificing part of its own space plans, NASA could not have succeeded in rescuing a living Watney. The science in the film is, for the most part, plausible (e.g., see Inside Science), but the political situation surrounding the decision to accept China as a rescue-mission partner is not – at least not for now. Like Anderson, however, I hope that long before the 2030s,when The Martian takes place, such a collaboration is possible.  

Mars' "Juventae Chasma (11337951926)" by European Space Agency - Juventae Chasma. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here
Mars, Juventae Chasma (11337951926)” by European Space Agency – Juventae Chasma. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here

The current snag is an item in the 2011 NASA  Appropriations Bill, which remains in effect: NASA and the Office of Science and Technology shall not “participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company” (SpacePolicyOnline.com). Fortunately, the ban does not apply to the State Department, which reported that the US and China held their first Civil Space Dialogue in Beijing on 28 September and that another meeting will be held in Washington, DC, in 2016 (for a thoughtful discussion on this meeting and related issues, see China-US Focus).

The Civil Space Dialogue is one of several recent indications that the door may soon widen for US-China space cooperation. A strong indication is summarized in this 12 October Reuters’ headline: “NASA chief says ban on Chinese partnerships is temporary.” It’s a practical matter, NASA chief Charles Bolden argues: If we don’t cooperate with China, which has launched people into orbit and is developing its own space station, “we will find ourselves on the outside looking in, because everybody … who has any hope of a human spaceflight program … will go to whoever will fly their people.”

Mars, "Perspective view of craters within the Hellas Basin (14934509246)" by European Space Agency - Perspective view of craters within the Hellas Basin. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here
Mars, “Perspective view of craters within the Hellas Basin (14934509246)” by European Space Agency. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here

For its part, China stands “ready to work together with people from all over the world,” according to Zhou Lini, a Chinese presenter at this past September’s International Astronautical Congress (Spacenews). China, in fact, has signed initial agreements with the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos for cooperative use of its Tiangong Space Station, scheduled for launch around 2020 (Space.com 10/14/15). Note that the ESA and Roscosmos (along with the Japanese and Canadian space agencies) are NASA partners on the International Space Station (ISS).

Also China recently signed an agreement with a commercial Houston-based company to send a DNA experiment to the ISS, which will become the first instance of the ISS hosting a Chinese payload. As Joan Johnson-Freese points out, the legislative ban against any kind of NASA-China collaboration (supposedly a ban to prompt China to change its policies on human rights and the like) “hasn’t worked and in some cases has been overtly counterproductive to U.S. interests,” especially “[g]iven that the rest of the world is working with China in space.” She hopes this experiment will be a “positive step forward” toward a better relationship with China and for our own diplomatic and scientific goals (Space.com 8/21/15). So do I.

At the end of The Martian we’re shown American astronaut Rick Martinez (Michael Peña) launching into space beside a Chinese astronaut, presumably on a joint US-China mission. Delightful! Hopeful.

Mars rover simulation: Out of this world. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Creative Commons) – link to my source
Mars rover simulation: Out of this world. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Creative Commons) – link to my source

Note: I highly recommend reading Eric Betz’s “Behind the Science of The Martian”  in Astronomy online. The article focuses on some of the science that went into the making the film – and includes great images too.