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03 Feb 17:18

Bethesda Bike Assaulter Gets Probation

by Andrew Beaujon
Anthony Brennan III was sentenced to three years’ probation Tuesday for three counts of misdemeanor assault. He aggressively confronted three teens last June on the Capital Crescent Trail in an incident that went viral after a video showed him ripping posters from a teen’s hands. Brennan, 61, apologized after he was arrested and lost his […]
03 Feb 00:45

B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant is picking up a worrisome new mutation

by Beth Mole
Cartoon representation of coronaviruses.

Enlarge (credit: CDC.gov)

As the world races to get vaccines into arms, one of the most concerning coronavirus variants appears to be getting a little more concerning.

Researchers in the UK have detected at least 15 cases of B.1.1.7 variants carrying an additional mutation: E484K, a mutation already seen in other concerning variants and one that may make current vaccines less effective at preventing infection. The B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, is already known to spread more easily among people than earlier strains of the pandemic coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. And according to some preliminary evidence, it may cause more severe disease.

So far, B.1.1.7 variants carrying E484K appear rare. On Monday, Public Health England reported in a technical briefing that it had detected E484K in just 11 B.1.1.7 variants among more than 200,000 viruses examined. For now, it’s unclear if the augmented mutants will take off and become dominant in the population or fizzle out. It’s also not entirely clear what the addition of E484K means for B.1.1.7 in people. Preliminary laboratory experiments suggest the mutation alone, and its presence in B.1.1.7 specifically, may help the virus evade immune responses. But more studies and clinical data are necessary to understand the full effect of the new addition.

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03 Feb 00:43

Jeff Bezos is stepping down as Amazon’s CEO

by Theodore Schleifer
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
David Ryder/Getty Images

Andy Jassy, currently the head of Amazon Web Services, will take over as CEO in the fall.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is stepping down as CEO of the company he founded a quarter of a century ago, a monumental change atop one of America’s most iconic and powerful companies.

Amazon made the announcement on Tuesday that its CEO — who has led the company since he founded it — would become its executive chair, and that day-to-day operations beginning later this year would be overseen by the head of Amazon Web Services, Andy Jassy.

Bezos, until recently the world’s richest man, said he would remain involved in Amazon leadership but would now have more time to pursue his other passions outside of the company.

“In the Exec Chair role, I intend to focus my energies and attention on new products and early initiatives,” Bezos said in a letter to employees on Tuesday afternoon. “As Exec Chair I will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives but also have the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions. I’ve never had more energy, and this isn’t about retiring. I’m super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have.”

Bezos founded Amazon in 1994 as an online bookstore, but over two decades would expand it into America’s foremost digital retailer, turning the scrappy company into a tech giant that makes Hollywood blockbusters, has created its own apparel, and powers corporate America with its Amazon Web Services (AWS). Amazon now is America’s second-largest private employer, has a market cap of over $1 trillion, and has become mired in antitrust scrutiny and questions about its market dominance.

Alongside the company’s rise, Bezos himself became one of America’s most prominent CEOs and an icon of sorts for a data-obsessed management style, which is memorialized in a series of leadership principles he called the Amazon Way. And in the runup to becoming the world’s richest man, Bezos developed a public profile that went far beyond his Amazon activities: He went on to buy the Washington Post; he poured his fortune into Blue Origin, a private spacecraft company; and he even was the target of a hack believed to be perpetrated by the government of Saudi Arabia.

Amazon has long dominated online shopping, but over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, it became an essential way for many Americans to shop. In 2020, Amazon shattered records when it came to sales and profits, and its stock continued its five-year soar as investors bet on Bezos’s vision for the future — an especially attractive one given the newfound reliance on services like Amazon Prime.

The company’s success amid the economic calamity has also brought new scrutiny of the Seattle giant. Amazon has been dogged by concerns from activists about how it treats its workers, and that scrutiny intensified at the start of the pandemic as its employees kept fulfilling orders in its warehouses. Meanwhile, its growing market power has made it a target in Washington, where some legislators want to break the company up entirely.

Those are now Jassy’s problems.

Jassy joined Amazon in 1997 and once worked as Bezos’s technical adviser, a chief of staff role that is highly coveted inside Amazon, where it is known colloquially as the “shadow position.” In 2003, Jassy and a team of Amazon employees created Amazon Web Services, now the company’s most profitable division, which would usher in a new era for internet companies that could now lease computing power and data storage space rather than have to set up their own computer server farms. Amazon Web Services recorded $45 billion in revenue in 2020 and $13.5 billion in operating profits.

For years, Amazon insiders and former executives speculated whether it would be Jassy or longtime Amazon consumer chief Jeff Wilke to succeed Bezos should he step down from the CEO role. Wilke announced his retirement from Amazon last summer, which hinted that either Bezos would stay put as chief executive for a long time or that Wilke would not be his successor. We now have the answer.

03 Feb 00:40

Fox News has barely covered McConnell’s scathing statement about Marjorie Taylor Greene

by Aaron Rupar
Senate Holds Confirmation Votes For DHS And Transportation Secretaries
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the US Capitol on February 2, 2021. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Fox News loves a good “Democrats in disarray” story — but not so much when it comes to Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell released a statement Monday evening describing the conspiracy theories embraced by first-term, QAnon-supporting Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) as “cancer for the Republican Party and our country.” But Fox News viewers might’ve had a hard time learning about this remarkable bit of Republican infighting because it got very little play on the conservative network.

“Loony lies and conspiracy theories are cancer for the Republican Party and our country,” McConnell said in the statement, which doesn’t mention Greene by name but leaves no doubt to whom he’s referring. “Somebody who’s suggested that perhaps no airplane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, that horrifying school shootings were pre-staged, and that the Clintons crashed JFK Jr.’s airplane is not living in reality.”

Fox News loves covering Democratic disarray but didn’t so much as mention McConnell’s statement until the 10 o’clock hour Tuesday morning. It was brought up on Maria Bartiromo’s show on Fox Business, Fox News’s sister network, but even then Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), who was on for an interview, used it as a cudgel to attack Democrats for alleged hypocrisy.

On the occasions Fox News has brought up Greene, hosts go to pains to avoid detailing the unhinged conspiracy theories she’s embraced, which range from Democrats’ involvement in a Satanic pedophilia cult to the notion that space lasers controlled by Jews are responsible for forest fires in California.

Asked for comment by Vox about its lack of coverage of McConnell’s statement, a Fox News spokesperson pointed to a mention of it during an America’s Newsroom interview with Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) that aired just after 10 am ET on Tuesday. But Greene’s beliefs weren’t detailed, and Scalise quickly pivoted to bashing President Joe Biden.

For context, consider that by the time Fox News finally got around to mentioning McConnell’s statement on Tuesday morning, it had already been referenced more than 20 times on CNN. And there’s good reason for that — the McConnell/Greene rift represents a major GOP fault line as the party tries to establish an identity in a post-President Trump world.

But, as Lis Power of Media Matters for America put it on Twitter, Fox News might be afraid of offending its viewers.

House Republicans are under pressure to do something about Greene

McConnell’s statement comes on the heels of House Republican leadership seating Greene, who has repeatedly expressed her view that school shootings are staged, on the House Committee on Education and Labor, a decision House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described as “absolutely appalling.”

But if Republican leadership hoped people had forgotten about Greene’s embrace of QAnon and other conspiracy theories by the time they announced her placement on the committee last week, those hopes were quickly dashed.

On January 26, CNN detailed how Greene’s Facebook account had endorsed the executions of prominent Democrats in 2018 and 2019. The next day, a video showing Greene harassing a school shooting survivor on the streets of Washington, DC, went viral. The days that followed brought renewed attention to Greene’s embrace of conspiracy theories ranging from Jewish space lasers to the one McConnell mentioned about the Clintons’ alleged responsibility for JFK Jr.’s death.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy responded to the explosion of scandals around Greene by vowing to meet with her this week. If he doesn’t take action, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer plans to deliver an ultimatum to McCarthy, informing him that “Republicans have 72 hours to strip Greene of her committee assignments or Democrats will bring the issue to the House floor,” CNN reported.

Greene is unapologetic. On Monday evening, she responded to McConnell’s statement with a tweet in which she suggested the minority leader is “the real cancer for the Republican Party.”

Meanwhile, other Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), contorted themselves trying to defend Greene.

“Are these postings accurate? I want to hear from her before I judge what to do about her. I want to know what the facts are. If these are not accurate postings, [if] they’ve been manipulated, I’d like to know that,” Graham told reporters Tuesday, even though many of the “postings” in question consist of Greene filming herself spouting conspiracy theories.

Graham, who was recently harassed by QAnon supporters in an airport, seems to have misgivings about denouncing a significant chunk of the GOP base in the same manner as McConnell.

Fox News seems to be straining to keep its coverage of Greene to a minimum. But the disparate responses from Republicans to the circus of scandals surrounding the congresswoman encapsulates the GOP’s struggle to deal with the culture of conspiracy theories it fostered during the Trump era.

03 Feb 00:37

What Myanmar’s coup could mean for the Rohingya and other persecuted minorities

by Jen Kirby
An adult and two children walk along a paved road.
Rohingya refugees are relocated to the flood-prone island Bhashan Char in Chittagong, Bangladesh, on January 30, 2021. | Rehman Asad/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The takeover is terrible for Myanmar. It may be worse for the country’s most vulnerable.

The Myanmar military overthrew its civilian government in a coup on Monday, ending the facade of democratic rule and creating an even more uncertain future for human rights in the country — especially the persecuted Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.

The aftermath of the coup is still unfolding, but human rights advocates and experts told me they are increasingly fearful of what might happen to anyone who challenges the regime.

“The options available to the Burmese people are very, very limited because I don’t think there’s much influence inside the country,” Mabrur Ahmed, founder and director of Restless Beings, a UK-based human rights group, told me. (Burma is the country’s former name; the military junta changed it to Myanmar in 1989, but many, especially those in the pro-democracy movement, still use the older name.) There is not much people can do besides protest, Ahmed said — though any protests, he added, would likely be met with violence from the military.

The plight of the Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minorities in the Buddhist-majority country may be even more precarious amid this political turmoil.

Many of Myanmar’s minority groups remained seriously marginalized by the government throughout the country’s stilted move toward democracy, which began more than a decade ago. Isolated politically and economically, Myanmar’s military leaders drafted a new constitution in 2008 that took some powers away from the military, though it still retained veto power. In 2015, Myanmar’s pro-democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi and the party she led won in a landslide election, and Suu Kyi became the “state counselor,” a de facto civilian leader, the following year.

But ethnic and religious minorities, including the Rohingya, were largely excluded from the 2015 vote. Ahead of the November elections that preceded this coup, many minority groups — about 1.5 million voters — were again disqualified from participating at all.

The state has also continued to engage in outright violence against some groups, most notably the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in Rakhine State. More than 750,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since 2017, when the military escalated a brutal campaign against the group, burning villages and committing murder and gang rapes with what a United Nations human rights report termed “genocidal intent.”

The military has targeted ethnic and religious minorities in other places, as well, including in Kachin and Shan states. An independent fact-finding report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council and published in 2019 found that “Myanmar’s ethnic groups have a common — but not identical — experience of marginalization, discrimination and brutality at the hands of the Myanmar armed forces, the Tatmadaw.”

Maung Zarni, a Burmese activist and the co-founder and general secretary of Forsea, an advocacy group that campaigns for democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia, said he thinks the human rights situation may worsen in the coup’s aftermath.

“The different minority communities, they’re in between a rock and a hard place,” Zarni told me. “If they just lie back and take it, they lose. Then if they try to be proactive and try to activate any human rights mechanisms outside of Burma, the army will single them out in an increase of repression.”

And that army is now fully in charge of the government. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, head of the Tatmadaw, has been credibly accused of genocide and war crimes. The US sanctioned Hlaing in 2019 for human rights abuses against the Rohingya.

“The military is responsible for genocide against the Rohingya and other severe human rights abuses against other ethnic minorities, including the Rakhine, Kachin, [and] Shan,” Daniel P. Sullivan, a senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International who focuses on Myanmar, told me. “The idea of them now being in control just feeds the impunity that they’ve been able to enjoy for so long.”

Human rights did not improve during Suu Kyi’s leadership

Atrocities against the Rohingya and others happened during Myanmar’s flirtation with democracy, during the tenure of Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi was Myanmar’s champion for democracy, the famous daughter of the man who helped win the country’s independence. For her activism, the military placed her under house arrest in the late 1980s until 2010. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her pro-democracy efforts, and as the country took steps toward democratization, she became its de facto civilian leader in 2015.

Those steps were tentative, however, and incomplete. Once in her role, Suu Kyi deferred to the military, which still retained significant power under the new arrangement. As the crackdown against the Rohingya intensified, she received international criticism for her silence. She has referred to evidence of atrocities as “fake news” and framed the crackdown as operations against terrorism. In 2019, she defended Myanmar against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.

Suu Kyi was — and is — extraordinarily popular within Myanmar, but her refusal to condemn specifically the treatment of the Rohingya showed the fault lines in Myanmar’s democratic experiment.

About 30 percent of Myanmar’s population are ethnic minorities — some 130 groups, according to the Washington Post. Some of these groups have armed wings, and Myanmar has some of the world’s longest-running civil wars, which began after the country gained independence in 1948.

“That is the level of discontent and fear on the part of ethnic groups, and they don’t trust the military. They also feel Suu Kyi is colonialistic,” Zarni said. “Sui Kyi and the military — they differ only in degrees, not in kind, in terms of their perspective or sentiments toward non-Burmese Buddhist minorities.”

The military has now detained Suu Kyi and the party’s civilian leadership as part of its takeover. Some critics say it makes no difference, particularly for Rohingya. It was bad before and will remain so.

“For us, the civilian government and the military regime are the same, so for us nothing will change,” Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, told me. “They can’t do more than what they are doing now.”

Experts and human rights activists said the coup, in a way, revealed how hollow Myanmar’s democratization really was. As Zarni put it, “The coup has killed the biggest lie.”

“Even though Myanmar always had the veneer of democracy, it was never a new democracy in any sense,” Azeem Ibrahim, director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, DC, and author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, told me. “The military still held all the cards. They had, essentially, power without any accountability whatsoever.”

There are legitimate concerns the situation may worsen and that an unaccountable military may be even more emboldened after the coup.

“A moment like this, where the perpetrators of those atrocities has taken as a power grab, really raises the concerns and the risks of further atrocities happening to groups like, particularly, the Rohingya,” Sullivan of Refugees International said.

Even a nominal civilian government served as, if not a check on, then it at least sometimes slowed down the worst of the military’s impulses. The motions of democracy — setting up committees, having to get approval for measures — took time. Now, even that is gone.

“What I can say,” Ahmed, the human rights activist, told me, “is that any sort of pebbles that might have been on the path have now been removed.”

Activists see the coup as an opportunity to hold Myanmar accountable

Sullivan said his group has urged the Biden administration to designate what’s happening to the Rohingya a “genocide.” Biden’s state department is reviewing the designation, which advocates believe will help rally international pressure to the Rohingya’s cause.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has already officially declared the takeover in Myanmar a coup. “The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy,” Biden said in a statement Monday. “The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action.”

The State Department said Tuesday that the administration will review reimposing economic sanctions on Myanmar that had been removed in 2016 as Myanmar moved toward democratization.

“We will take action against those responsible, including through a careful review of our current sanctions posture, as it relates to Burma’s military leaders and companies associated with them,” a State Department official told reporters on a conference call Tuesday, using the country’s former name. “Most importantly, we will continue to stand with the people of Burma.”

Experts and advocates said the military coup gives the new Biden administration and international partners an opportunity to put renewed pressure on Myanmar, especially when it comes to its human rights abuses and atrocities against the Rohingya.

Countries condemned the violence against the Rohingya, and the United States used tools like targeted sanctions to punish individual figures within Myanmar’s military. But experts told me that some governments were reluctant to push too hard because they feared too much pressure might upset Myanmar’s fragile, if imperfect, democracy.

“All of that has now been uprooted,” Ibrahim said of the coup. “It was very clear who’s running the show. There is no more facade, or veneer, of democracy.

The United Nations Security Council met Tuesday to discuss the political situation in Myanmar. Some humanitarian groups had called on the Security Council to impose sanctions, including on members of the military, or a global arms embargo. But the Security Council failed to even agree on a statement to condemn the coup.

“The military coup has been conducted by the same military who were accused of committing genocide or crimes against humanity,” Wai Wai Nu, founder of the Women’s Peace Network, which advocates for human rights in Myanmar, told me. “This impunity that has been given to this military must end. The world must hold accountable the military, not only for the coup, but especially for the crimes of genocide.”

But some advocates warned that too much international pressure on Myanmar, especially if linked to the Rohingya, might create the unintended consequence of angering the Myanmarese military and provoking a backlash — one they might take out on the Rohingya.

“I’m just echoing the voices of the Rohingya that I know and I’ve spoken to do, who fear they are going to be number one, front and center, of the Burma military showing its power,” Ahmed said. He said his Rohingya contacts did not want to speak after the coup because they are fearful and don’t know what is going to come next.

All of this has made Myanmar’s future look grim, for its minorities and for any democratic future. “The entire country is going to suffer for years,” Nay San Lwin said. “We don’t know how long.”

02 Feb 20:45

Nine Things the New Amazon Building Looks Like

by Ellen O'Brien
Amazon unveiled its plans for its newest headquarters in Arlington—a sustainable, greenery-infused campus called PenPlace. Designed by the architecture firm NBBJ, the site will include a tower inspired by the natural world, an amphitheater with open green space, and a large community gathering area. The urban tower will feature two walkable paths of terrain on […]
02 Feb 20:43

Tesla bows to pressure from NHTSA, issues recall for Models S and X

by Jonathan M. Gitlin
A wall of bricks with the Tesla logo superimposed on top

Enlarge / 135,000 Teslas will brick their infotainment screens within 3 or 4 years due to a design defect. NHTSA has persuaded the automaker to fix the problem through a voluntary recall. (credit: Getty Images/Jonathan Gitlin)

It's official: Tesla has to recall almost 135,000 Models S and X electric vehicles due to a design defect that bricks the EVs' infotainment screens within four years of driving. The recall affects Model S sedans built between 2012 and 2018 as well as Model X SUVs built between 2016 and 2018, and owners should be notified by the automaker in the month of March.

The issue, which we first covered back in November 2020, has been well-known to the Tesla owners community for some time now. The problem is caused by an 8GB eMMC NAND flash memory chip, fitted to the Media Control Unit of the brand's Nvidia Tegra 3-powered infotainment systems. Logs are written to the flash memory every time the car is in use, which soon reaches its lifetime number of write cycles; once this limit has been reached, the touchscreen dies, taking out the legally mandated backup camera and defrost/defogging controls, as well as exterior turn signal lighting. (The problem does not affect more recent Models S or X that use Intel's Apollo Lake processor; those models also use a 64GB eMMC.)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began a preliminary investigation into the matter in June 2020, then upgraded that to an engineering analysis in November 2020. In mid-January 2021, the regulator concluded that the loss of these functions rose to the level of being safety defects and asked Tesla to recall the vehicles. In late January, the automaker pushed back, "explaining its view that the eMMC wear condition neither constitutes a defect nor presents an unreasonable risk to safety."

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02 Feb 19:11

Federal Court Tosses Constitutional Challenge Of FOSTA Brought By The Only Person The Feds Have Used FOSTA Against

by Tim Cushing

Another constitutional challenge to FOSTA has failed, at least for the time being. The bill no one in law enforcement thought would actually help combat sex trafficking became law in early 2018. Since then, it has had zero effect on sex trafficking. And the impetus for its creation -- the prosecution of Backpage execs -- proceeded right along without the law in place.

FOSTA's constitutionality has been challenged before. Last summer, the DC Court of Appeals revived a challenge after the plaintiffs were shot down at the district level. The Appeals Court said the law was littered with broad language that could be construed to target legal actions and behavior. It particularly had a problem with the terms "promote" and "facilitate" when used in conjunction with the law's sex trafficking language.

Andrews has established an Article III injury-in-fact because she has alleged “an intention to engage in a course of conduct arguably affected with a constitutional interest, but proscribed by a statute, and there exists a credible threat of prosecution thereunder.” Her alleged conduct is “arguably affected with a constitutional interest,” because Andrews’ intended future conduct involves speech. Andrews operates a website that allows sex workers to share information. Her conduct is “arguably proscribed” by FOSTA because it is a crime to own, manage, or operate an “interactive computer service[]” with the intent to “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person,” 18 U.S.C. § 2421A(a). FOSTA does not define “promote” or “facilitate,” nor does it specify what constitutes “prostitution,” a term undefined by federal law. Nor are these terms limited by a string of adjacent verbs (such as advertises, distributes, or solicits) that would convey “a transactional connotation” that might narrow the statute’s reach.

Not narrow enough, said the Appeals Court. Unfortunately, a federal court in Texas has come to the opposite conclusion about the same terms. (via Eric Goldman)

Its decision says the terms "promote" and "facilitate" are narrow enough to limit collateral damage to free speech and other protected activity. This challenge was filed by Wilhan Martono -- the operator of CityXGuide, someone the DOJ finally used FOSTA against more than two years after it was signed into law.

The Texas court says the language is narrow, targeting only the facilitation of the prostituting of someone else. It does not target prostitution in general. That being said, sex workers who moved to CityXGuide after the shutdown of Backpage were nonetheless collateral damage, even if the law is supposedly in place to punish sex trafficking, not consensual sex work.

Here's the court's rationale for its Constitutional call:

In this case, "promotes" and "facilitates" are not two terms of many in a list. However, these two terms do not stand alone and without context. FOSTA specifically criminalizes owning, managing, or operating a computer service with the intent to promote the prostitution of another person or the intent to facilitate the prostitution of another person.

Most importantly, FOSTA connects both promotion and facilitation to the prostitution of another person. FOSTA does not obviously criminalize speech promoting prostitution generally. Instead, it prohibits an individual from committing certain acts with the intent to promote the prostitution of another person or the intent to facilitate the prostitution of another person. In this context the word "facilitates" is most clearly read as referring to conduct that aids or assists in the prostitution of another person. Thus, the use of the word "facilitates" in FOSTA does not appear substantially to restrict protected speech relative to the scope of the law's plainly legitimate application.

Then the court goes further, equating the hosting of ads for sex work with the act of pimping.

FOSTA explicitly prohibits individuals from performing certain acts with the intent to promote prostitution of another person. It does not prohibit promoting prostitution more generally. In this context, "promotes" can most reasonably be interpreted as "to pander" or "pimp" as the Government suggests.

Even the government didn't argue Martono was engaged in the act of pimping. There are no charges related to that. Instead, his prosecution rests on FOSTA and the "facilitate/promote" language that Martono (unsuccessfully) challenged.

On more logical footing, the court finds the terms "jurisdiction" and "prostitution" adequately defined. But it still says the broad terms that turn hosting into pimping don't threaten protected speech or other legal activities. And since Martono's indictment hinges on FOSTA, the indictment is also good and legal.

The Court holds here that FOSTA is neither unconstitutionally vague nor overbroad. Further, the Court determines that the indictment against Martono was sufficient. Because FOSTA is not unconstitutionally vague or overbroad and the indictment against Martono is sufficient, the Court denies Martono's motion to dismiss.

Martono is sure to appeal this. But he'll be doing it in a circuit that tends to sympathize with law enforcement and isn't exactly known as the bastion of free speech. If it's taken up by the Fifth Circuit, perhaps the Appeals Court will find the DC Appeals Court's reasoning persuasive. Until then, FOSTA is still technically Constitutional. And it will continue to never be used to round up actual sex traffickers.

02 Feb 19:10

The Return of the Regulators

by by Jesse Eisinger

by Jesse Eisinger

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

This story is copublished with the New York Times.

During the first week and a half of the Biden administration, Americans have been treated to an unusual sight in Washington: regulators who believe in regulation. Donald Trump seemed to scour the earth for candidates who would produce the most liberal tears, appointing former lobbyists, financiers, ideologues and corporate titans.

President Joe Biden’s appointees and nominees, by contrast, do not adamantly oppose the mission of the agencies they aspire to lead. More than that: Some of his early choices are among the most aggressive financial and corporate regulators of recent years.

Key financial regulatory positions remain unfilled, and progressives oppose some leading candidates. Still, the left is experiencing a once-inconceivable feeling: It’s … not unhappy?

“In 2008, the progressive voter candidate turned out to be extremely disappointing. This cycle, the candidate of restoration has been pretty good for progressives,” said Jeff Hauser, a Washington activist and founder of the Revolving Door Project who specializes in the workings of the federal bureaucracy.

Biden, he said, has absorbed the lesson that “not enforcing the law is no less political than actually implementing the law.”

Personnel is policy, goes the cliché. But it’s only a start. Persuading Biden, an avowed lifelong moderate, to reverse decades of corporate-friendly stances, even among Democratic administrations, will require more than a few aggressive appointments.

For an early indication of how the Biden administration differs even from its Democratic predecessors, look to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, an obscure but powerful federal entity nested within the Office of Management and Budget charged with vetting federal rules. It’s the regulators’ regulator.

One of President Barack Obama’s OIRA chiefs, his friend and former University of Chicago Law School colleague Cass Sunstein, championed the use of cost-benefit analyses for new regulations — each new rule had to be “worth” how much would be spent to establish it. That rankled progressives, who contended Sunstein effectively blocked regulations by overemphasizing their costs and undervaluing their benefits. (Sunstein disputed the characterization.) That, in turn, helped corporations, which used the office as an appeals court.

Then came the Trump administration, which campaigned on a promise to slash what it viewed as “job killing” edicts. Over the past four years, OIRA played a significant role in helping to carry out initiatives such as Trump’s executive order requiring agencies to eliminate two existing regulations for each one they created.

After becoming president, Biden moved quickly, overhauling OIRA and instructing it to rethink how it approaches cost-benefit analyses, earning accolades from progressives. Now the mandate is to evaluate rules in a way that “fully accounts for regulatory benefits that are difficult or impossible to quantify.” Such words are the stuff of drinking songs in the halls of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The enforcers at the SEC will also be toasting Biden’s nomination of Gary Gensler, widely seen as an energetic financial overseer when he headed the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under Obama, to lead the once-storied securities agency.

Rohit Chopra, the president’s choice for the top job at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, sits on the Federal Trade Commission. At the intellectual vanguard of his party’s stances on consumer fraud and antitrust issues, he has called for serious punishment of companies like Facebook that he views as having abused their competitive position.

Even the new Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, has generated tempered optimism. Although she did pull down millions in speaking fees from banks and other corporations, she is a late convert to the cause of aggressive financial regulation. As head of the San Francisco Fed more than a decade ago, she sided with Wells Fargo on a question of whether banks were stable enough to resume paying dividends after the financial crisis and bank bailouts. But by the end of her subsequent tenure as Federal Reserve chair, the Fed cracked down on Wells Fargo, leveling the harshest penalties against a big bank in generations.

This slate represents a noteworthy break from even the most recent Democratic administrations: In the view of advocates for a vigorous financial regulatory state, both Obama and President Bill Clinton operated from a defensive crouch, sheepish about active government and enamored of corporate self-regulation.

Clinton, governing at the height of worship of the former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan and his laissez-faire vision, had to please Wall Street and the bond market. He famously put his vice president in charge of “reinventing government,” an effort that celebrated reducing federal jobs and viewing corporations as the “customers” of the agencies.

Progressives have reevaluated his record, arguing that Wall Street deregulation, spurred by a Republican Congress, cheered by the Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers wing of the Democratic Party and accelerated by the George W. Bush administration, helped create the mess Obama was forced to clean up.

Obama, whose policies were more moderate than his lofty campaign rhetoric, sought to reassure the establishment and reconcile with the Clinton wing. He oozed reasonableness, assuring bankers that he was all that stood between them and the pitchforks.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and the SEC chair, Mary Jo White, his marquee financial markets regulators, were veteran establishment figures. Geithner famously scoffed at the cries for “Old Testament” justice after the calamity of 2008. White’s career has swung between government jobs regulating big corporations and employment at a white-shoe law firm representing them. She frequently had to recuse herself from enforcement cases to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Today, many liberals view the Obama administration as having broadly betrayed its promises in two ways. It failed both to help people get back on their feet quickly enough after the financial crisis and to hold the powerful accountable for causing it. A debate still rages about whether Obama could have gotten Congress to agree to more stimulus spending; his own advisers, like Rahm Emanuel and Summers, were pushing against going too big. And Obama’s housing policy did little to help desperate soon-to-be home losers. Unlike Biden, Obama did not speedily purge recalcitrant Bush holdovers like the housing regulator Edward DeMarco, who thwarted mortgage relief.

Biden has entered office with a shift in political power. He needs to placate progressives and the Warren-Sanders wing, while many centrist elites of both parties — after four years of seeing Trump up close — have realized they have no common cause with the right. Early on, his appointments reflect a decade of dashed illusions among the Democratic governing coalition, about its turn away from New Deal Keynesianism, its embrace of a neoliberal project to make government “more efficient” (read: smaller), about the beneficence of the internet and Big Tech, the stability of the financial system, the gig economy, about the Republican Party itself.

The president faces many dire challenges, but in one way, he has it easier than Obama did. He aspires to give people money (yes, it’s popular) to fight the ravages of a silent, faceless killer. Obama had to confront an enemy from inside the house: human bankers whose reckless behavior and frauds caved in the global financial system, products of the same elite schools and rarefied social milieus as Obama’s inner circle.

In his inaugural speech, Biden mentioned six crises: COVID-19, climate change, inequality, racism, America’s standing in the world and the assault on truth and democracy. But he did not mention, or even perhaps grasp, another: the crisis of elite impunity.

Gensler and Chopra have shown they understand it. When Gensler took his position as chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in the Obama administration, observers were skeptical — he had, after all, been a partner at Goldman Sachs. But he turned out to fit one model of what makes a good regulator: the industry refugee, capable of deftly explaining financial regulatory overhaul and dismantling falling-sky claims from the banks for lawmakers.

One observer recalls seeing Gensler at a hearing on what would become the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, sitting behind Blanche Lincoln, a Democratic senator from Arkansas, counseling her on regulatory details much like a staff member — not the chairman of an agency — typically would. He wasn’t fooled by Wall Street’s attempt to circumvent the new rules on derivatives, the financial sidebets that exacerbated the 2008 crisis. With relatively few employees and only a small budget at his disposal, he worked to strengthen the rules.

Gensler grasped that speed matters. “Much of Wall Street’s game is to drag things out so that it doesn’t go into effect or isn’t in effect for very long” before a new administration comes in, said Graham Steele, a former Capitol Hill aide who is the director of the Corporations and Society Initiative at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Chopra also has industry-refugee status. He worked at McKinsey, the global management consulting firm, but escaped its clutches to join the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. There, he carved out a reputation for tormenting predatory student loan companies and for-profit colleges. During the Trump administration, he found common ground with Republicans skeptical of corporate power, particularly that of the tech behemoths. He has also unleashed withering dissents of weak enforcement actions and has been unafraid to go it alone.

It’s too early to know how far Biden will go. Financial regulation is unlikely to be a White House priority, with the administration’s regulatory focus more on the environment and civil rights. Moreover, regulation won’t work without tight enforcement, which means criminal charges when necessary even — especially — for the most powerful malefactors of great wealth.

White-collar criminal enforcement earned its place on the endangered species list during the Obama-Biden administration, which prosecuted only one top banker in the wake of the global financial crisis. The threat to the rule of law — that the powerful have impunity — had been building for years. The white-collar prosecution crisis went beyond the aftermath of 2008 and Wall Street to encompass all of corporate America.

If anything, I underestimated the problem during my time reporting on the crisis. The Trump ascendancy revealed that a Hobbesian state of nature existed for whole swaths of the economy: campaign finance, political lobbying, taxation and commercial real estate. A world in which white-collar misdeeds, tax evasion, bribery and securities fraud were adequately policed would have rendered “President Donald Trump” an impossibility.

If Biden genuinely seeks to begin piercing this shroud of elite protection, he’ll need a consensus among enforcers that this merits prioritizing. His early prosecutorial appointments, however, do not show signs of worshipping a harsh Old Testament god. The main task for Merrick Garland, the nominee for attorney general, will be the restoration of the Department of Justice, after Bill Barr brought the columns down. Garland merely has to display independence and fealty to equal justice under the law and it will be an improvement.

But his appointment says little about where white-collar enforcement will go. Will the Biden Justice Department take on corporations and white-collar criminals? Will it investigate wrongdoing from Trump administration officials, or seek unity by trying to flush the past four years of corruption down the memory hole? Key appointments to come — such as the head of the criminal division at the Justice Department, as well as U.S. attorney appointments in key offices like the Southern District of New York — will tell us more.

One sign that worries advocates of a stronger crackdown on the anti-competition threat to our economy: He’s reportedly backing a corporate lawyer who worked for Facebook to head the Justice Department’s antitrust division. Other nominees have caused consternation among those who favor strong financial regulation, including various appointees from the powerful money manager BlackRock. And progressives appear poised to lose a fight over who will head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates the nation’s biggest banks.

After four years of unwinding regulations under Trump, it won’t take much to feel as if the government is snapping back into action under Biden. But in truth, it will take much more than that — in staffing, philosophy and funding — to rebuild the regulatory state.

02 Feb 19:10

Professional Assholes Equate Consequences With 'Cancel Culture' To Obscure That They're Finally Being Held Accountable

by Mike Masnick

You may recall, last summer, there was a big dustup regarding a letter published in Harper's Magazine about cancel culture (though it didn't use that term). I pointed out the irony of a bunch of very famous writers whining about being silenced and even took a shot at what a much better letter could have said. Harper's even asked me to pen a response to the letter which it published (though, it only gave me a limited amount of space, and complained about some of what I originally submitted, which I -- at least -- found amusingly ironic).

Since then these debates have continued to flare up, as people keep screaming "cancel culture" in many situations where it simply does not apply. There are some who argue that there is no such thing as "cancel culture," which possibly takes things too far. I do think what can be said is that there are some cases where someone loses their job for questionable reasons, often having to do with a bunch of people online overreacting. And it's reasonable to point out those cases and to highlight the unfair response. However, the focus on "cancel culture" and the willingness to expand that phrase to cover just about any consequences is very much being abused by the powerful to try to shield themselves from consequences.

Two recent pieces help drive this home. The always insightful and brilliant Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post has an excellent piece about how being held accountable is not "cancel culture." This article drove home a key point for me: even if there are cases of cancel culture, the people who are whining most loudly about it are really trying to use those few legitimate stories of overreaction as a whitewash shield to argue that they should never be held accountable for their own behavior or assholish behavior.

As Sullivan points out, most of what people are complaining about as "cancel culture" is really people exercising their 1st Amendment rights to call out bad behavior and ridiculous arguments. And that's a good thing. We should want bad behavior and ridiculous arguments to be called out. And, yes, we should recognize that sometimes people overreact. And sometimes there's more nuance and the bad behavior maybe isn't bad, or the ridiculous arguments aren't so ridiculous. But often they are. And that's where people speaking out and debating these things makes sense. As Sullivan notes, having people push back on nonsense is a good thing. It's called responsibility:

It would help if journalists pushed back more effectively. CNN’s Pamela Brown gave a master class in her devastating interview with Madison Cawthorn, a Republican congressman from North Carolina. By the end, he had no defense left for his election denialism.

But, even if that sort of pushback becomes the norm, news organizations should be wary of handing these charlatans a megaphone.

You can call that cancel culture if you want. I call it responsibility.

The good news is that, in America, we get to argue about it.

The other piece comes from Will Wilkinson, who was recently let go from a job he had at the Niskanen Center, after a very disingenuous Trumpist online troll took what was an obvious joke from Wilkinson and pretended it was not a joke, trying to whip up faux outrage and comparing it to outrage that was more legitimate (I'm not going to get into the specifics, because it's really stupid). Unfortunately, the Niskanen Center (whose work I often appreciate) decided to get away from the controversy and let Wilkinson go. And then some people turned up a tweet he had made from last year suggesting that cancel culture isn't real. This resulted in a bunch of "well, what do you think now?" kind of takes.

Except, Will then responded and pointed out that what he experienced is not cancel culture, and rightly notes how the phrase is not just meaningless, but it collapses any of the important nuances and arguments into a mindless slogan (which is what allows dishonest brokers and assholes to hide behind it):

In my experience, tendentious question-begging is the point. Slogans like “cancel culture” and “political correctness” are used again and again to short-circuit debate, avoid the underlying substantive controversy, and shift the entire burden of justification onto advocates of the rival position. The person who believes that the transgression is serious enough to merit severe consequences isn’t given a fair chance to make her case for this position. Instead, she’s forced to earn the right to make the case by acquitting herself of the implicit charge that she is a petty tyrant policing mind-crimes in the name of stultifying ideological conformity. Good-faith discussion of the gravity of racist jokes never gets off the ground.

That’s why “cancel culture” tends to strike me as more of an evasive maneuver than a coherent idea with determinate content.

And that's exactly right. The phrase rarely seems to be used by those who actually are a victim of true overreaction. Even when unfair, they seem to recognize the nuances and uniqueness of their own scenario. Instead, those who scream about cancel culture the loudest seem to be the very type of people who are most afraid of any consequences for being an asshole.

Let's put it this way. Bad judgment doesn't call into question good judgment. The prevalence of unjust and unmerited censure, sanction, and ostracism should not suggest to us that censure, sanction and ostracism, as such, need a hard second look. The problem is the imposition of undeserved or disproportionate penalties. Penalizing people for flouting rules, norms or the terms of agreements is no more worrying than rewarding those who faithfully hew to them. Without the distribution of approbation and disapprobation, without a functioning economy of esteem, human civilization would crumble to dust and blow away.

People should get what they deserve. Duh. But what do people deserve? We’re never ever ever going to agree about that. We will always disagree about the bounds of acceptable speech and behavior. Even when we can manage to agree that somebody's crossed what we agree is the line, we may nevertheless differ sharply about the gravity of the transgression and the price they ought to pay for it. Pluralism is hard. But we should steer into these disagreements, the real ones, and not evade them by fighting over the application of a dumb catchy term somebody made up six months ago to shut down constructive debate about whether the social opprobrium they’re trying to shield themselves and their friends from is deserved.

Exactly that.

02 Feb 19:09

Intermediate Guide to Fountain Pen Inks: Sheen, Shading, Shimmer, and More

by Connie
Intermediate Guide to Fountain Pen Inks

There are many reasons to use a fountain pen. Whether you love the look of a certain pen or enjoy the feeling of a nib gliding across paper, a fountain pen can be much more personal than other kinds of writing instruments. There’s one more part to the equation that makes fountain pens so alluring though: fountain pen inks. There are hundreds of fountain pen inks that come in a rainbow of colors, and some have neat effects that simply don’t show up in other writing instruments. In this guide, we’ll take an in-depth look at the characteristics that make fountain pen inks so interesting: sheen, shading, and shimmer. In addition, we’ll discuss the different kinds of waterproof inks.

02 Feb 19:08

What it would really take to reopen American schools

by Anna North
Small desks spaced 6 feet apart in a classroom, with colorful arrow stickers on the floor.
A first-grade classroom at Shiloh Hills Elementary School in Spring Township, Pennsylvania, on August 21, 2020, when teachers and administrators were preparing to reopen. | Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Reopening schools is a huge controversy. It doesn’t have to be.

What do we need to open schools safely?

It’s a question on millions of Americans’ minds as the Covid-19 pandemic lurches into its 11th month, with many children still learning at home, many parents beyond burned out, and some of them forced to quit their jobs to take care of kids.

It’s also a question with seemingly limitless answers, as states, school districts, and teachers unions have been left to negotiate safety among themselves — with, until recently, little guidance from the federal government.

In Arizona, for example, many school districts are open for in-person instruction, even as the state posts one of the highest test positivity rates in the country, at close to 15 percent. In Fairfax County, Virginia, meanwhile, some parents were outraged after a teachers union implied in a now-deleted tweet that schools shouldn’t reopen until students are vaccinated — which probably won’t be until 2022. (The union now says the tweet referenced a “best-case scenario,” not a demand.)

The issue has taken on more urgency because President Joe Biden has promised to get students back into schools in his first 100 days. And a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week said that schools could open safely with certain precautions in place, but it has already been criticized by some for focusing on a relatively narrow group of schools and for failing to take into account the spread of new and concerning virus variants.

The controversy around schools is heated, with parents mad at teachers and unions, teachers mad at public officials, and students in some places staring down the possibility of remote education continuing into the fall.

Yet despite all this chaos, public health experts and many teachers actually agree on the core precautions necessary to open schools: universal masking, keeping students in stable cohorts, proper ventilation, and regular testing of students, teachers, and staff.

“Today in most of the United States, if you could have those other things available, it would be for the most part safe to open schools even without teachers being vaccinated,” Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and the director for the Center for Digital Health at Brown University, told Vox.

Teacher and staff vaccinations remain an important piece of the puzzle, but public health experts and teachers unions alike say that with the right precautions and testing, schools could open as the vaccine rollout continues. “Widespread, regular testing remains critical to school reopening, and combined with the right steps and federal support — even before the new vaccines are widely available — the nation’s more than 98,000 public schools could be open soon,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a January op-ed with Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Testing and mask-wearing are relatively simple public health measures that experts have been stressing since nearly the beginning of the pandemic, so why does school reopening remain such a thorny problem? A big part of the answer is money. A lot of school districts in America just don’t have the resources to do what’s necessary to keep Covid-19 under control. And any new funding is on hold as Democrats and Republicans in Congress negotiate the latest relief package.

Overall, the right path is “neither about opening up all schools right now nor about keeping them closed until everybody’s vaccinated,” Ranney said. There’s a middle ground where many schools can operate now with relative safety, but that middle ground “depends on funding and political will.”

The school reopening process has been rife with mistrust and controversy

In the spring of 2020, schools in all 50 states shut down to help stop the spread of Covid-19. And, as in so many areas of American life, reopening has been a complete mess.

The Trump administration never developed a nationwide reopening strategy for schools. Instead, President Trump spent the summer issuing all-caps demands for schools to open. “May cut off funding if not open,” he warned in a July tweet (he did not in fact have the authority to do this).

As a result, states and individual school districts were largely left to their own devices when it came to developing reopening plans. Some districts chose to reopen schools with few precautions, even in the face of surging levels of the virus — for example, a Georgia high school came in for criticism when a student’s viral photos showed its hallways packed, with some students not wearing masks. Many large, urban school districts, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC, remained completely or almost completely remote. And many districts in the country have been somewhere in the middle, open on a hybrid model, or toggling between hybrid and fully remote as cases in the area wax and wane.

Confusing all this decision-making is the fact that children are less likely than adults to become severely ill from Covid-19, and appear less likely to spread the virus. That means schools — especially for younger students — could, in theory, be safer to reopen than other venues like bars or restaurants. But teachers and staff in schools are still at risk; the American Federation of Teachers knows of at least 530 school employees who died of Covid-19 in 2020, according to the New York Times. And while it’s not clear how many of them contracted the virus at work, many say their districts are not enforcing the protocols, like masking and ventilation, necessary to keep them safe.

Biden has promised a new approach, and has already signed a slate of executive actions aimed at getting schools better guidance and more personal protective equipment. In January, the CDC — which is trying to rebuild public trust under the Biden administration — released a report stating that schools could open safely with the proper precautions in place. “As many schools have reopened for in-person instruction in some parts of the US as well as internationally, school-related cases of COVID-19 have been reported, but there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” the report’s authors stated. And, they said, “Accumulating data now suggest a path forward to maintain or return primarily or fully to in-person instructional delivery.”

Meanwhile, teachers and some public health experts have noted that the January CDC report was based, in part, on data from rural school districts in Wisconsin, where the student population was majority white. The same may not apply to larger, more crowded schools, especially in majority Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities that have been disproportionately hard hit by Covid. “When I looked at the demographics, and the population, and the school size” in the Wisconsin study, “that stuff makes a huge difference,” Sarah Mulhern Gross, a high school English teacher in New Jersey, told Vox.

Overall, reopening debates in many places have devolved into a battle of parents versus teachers. In Fairfax County, for example, the local teachers union came under fire for tweeting that a safe return to schools would include 14 days without community spread, and staff and student vaccinations. Since vaccines have not yet been tested in young children, those conditions are unlikely to be met for many months, if not years. The tweet touched off a firestorm of parent complaints, with one father writing in a Washington Post op-ed that either schools should open or teachers should give up their priority for vaccinations.

But Kimberly Adams, president of the union, told Vox that the tweet, which also tagged the president and vice president, was “a best-case scenario to tell the new administration our hopes and dreams.” Teachers in Fairfax County are currently being vaccinated, and the district plans to have students back in school buildings by early March. “We know full well that there’s not a student vaccine at this time,” Adams said.

Still, the controversy over the tweet was emblematic of a larger adversarial mood in the country, in which the fight over schools pits frustrated parents against worried teachers, with local and state leaders lacking the resources, and sometimes the will, to broker a peace. In fact, however, there is an emerging consensus on what would make schools safe — or at least safer — to reopen. And it’s not as impossible as it might seem to reconcile the concerns of teachers with the needs of parents and kids.

Four basic precautions could make schools much safer

For any school that wants to reopen — or stay open safely — for in-person learning, the process starts with four basic precautions:

  • Universal masking — “without that, in the United States right now it’s very challenging to say that it’s safe” to bring people back to school buildings, Ranney said.
  • Grouping students and teachers into stable cohorts so that if one person gets the virus, only a limited number of others are exposed.
  • Proper ventilation — anything from “being able to open windows to having better HEPA filters for the HVAC unit,” Ranney said.
  • Some level of asymptomatic testing for staff and students to spot cases and prevent outbreaks.

The last is crucial. “Testing is an early warning system, particularly for a virus that transmits asymptomatically,” Shah and Weingarten write in their op-ed. “Even after effective and safe vaccines become more widely available, regular testing is going to be needed to avoid outbreaks and protect children, and their families, because children do not yet have a vaccine approved for use.”

With these four precautions in place, many experts believe it would be safe to open schools even if teachers and staff are not yet fully vaccinated. Still, teachers and staff should be vaccinated as soon as possible, many say, to give them added protection. “In so many states, teachers are getting a lot of thank-yous from state governments but are not being prioritized for vaccinations,” Gross said.

The emergence of new virus variants may complicate the picture somewhat, Ranney said. Schools are currently closed in Britain, where the B.1.1.7 variant is dominant, and there’s little data yet on how that variant or others affects transmission within schools. But the new variants don’t fundamentally change the precautions needed, experts say.

“The same intervention strategies apply to the new variants,” Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist and professor at George Mason University, told Vox, “but because we’re seeing more transmissibility, this means that we need to be even more vigilant.” In particular, the new variants make testing even more crucial in order to identify cases in schools and communities and shut down if necessary, Ranney said.

For now, though, Ranney and others believe many schools around the US could open if they had the money for masks, ventilation, testing, and keeping kids in somewhat stable groups. The trouble is, many don’t.

“I’ve always said, since the start of this, schools can be safe,” Gross said. “The problem is it requires a pretty big investment, and we’re not seeing that in a lot of places.”

Districts that are able to enact precautions have seen positive results. For example, researchers at Duke and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill worked with a group of North Carolina districts in the fall to enact precautions including student and staff masking, social distancing, and contact tracing of any Covid-19 cases. The researchers then studied 11 districts that were open for in-person learning, with a total of more than 90,000 students and staff — 55 percent of students were white, 21 percent were Black, 15 percent were Latinx, and 2 percent were Asian American. Over a nine-week period, the researchers found just 32 cases of in-school transmission, and no cases of a child transmitting the virus to an adult.

But not all school districts around the country have close relationships with public health experts, or the resources to enact their recommendations. And the districts with the least money for mitigation efforts also often serve majority Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities who have been hit the hardest by the virus. “Schools that have the fewest resources and that are least able to keep their kids and their staff safe are also the schools that serve primarily minority students,” Ranney noted.

Biden’s Covid-19 stimulus proposal, released in January, could help. It includes $130 billion specifically for reopening schools, along with $350 billion for state, local, and territorial governments that could also be used to help schools. But the plan still needs to be approved by Congress — and Senate Republicans are pushing a significantly smaller package, one that includes no money for state and local governments. Importantly, no money is coming until Congress passes something.

Even with money, schools will still need guidance from the federal government, something that was sorely lacking under Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Districts need a playbook “informed by the very best of public health,” Ranney said. “The school systems that have done the best job of reopening have had medical or public health professionals on their reopening committees.” Biden has directed the Department of Health and Human Services to develop new guidance for schools on masking, testing, and cleaning, so more help on the information front, at least, could be coming soon.

There is another complicating factor, too: community spread. At a certain point, experts say, case rates in a community can become too high for schools to operate safely — or simply so high that it’s impossible to keep schools open because students and staff are constantly in quarantine. For schools to open, spread in a community should be below what the CDC considers “high incidence,” or 50 cases of the virus per 100,000 people over a 28-day period, Tara C. Smith, an epidemiology professor at Kent State University, told Vox in an email. Authorities “should also factor in local conditions in hospitals, especially ICUs — can they handle additional cases that may be related to a return to schools?”

Because of these considerations, the CDC report recommended that communities take actions to reduce overall spread — in particular, restricting indoor dining — to help schools operate safely. Experts say families may need to be vigilant about out-of-school socializing as well. “If you have the world’s safest school but all the kids are going and socializing without masks after school, you’re still going to have a lot of virus,” Ranney said.

But those trade-offs may not yet have been internalized in communities around the country — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, recently announced that restaurants in New York City would reopen for indoor dining in mid-February, despite high levels of coronavirus transmission in the region.

Overall, the situation in American schools is solvable. But it will require two things that have been in short supply throughout the pandemic — federal aid, and a willingness to keep businesses closed if necessary. It remains to be seen whether a new administration will change that, but one thing is for certain: Everyone involved is eager for change.

As Gross put it, “we would like to be in school.”

02 Feb 17:52

Rest in Pieces, Dave Thomas Circle

by Jane Recker
In a long overdue measure of basic civic responsibility, the DC Government announced last night they will be seizing the New York Ave Wendy’s by eminent domain, and have proposed a plan to amend the stain on our town that is Dave Thomas Circle. Formally known as the intersection of New York Ave, Florida Ave, […]
02 Feb 16:13

“I thought I was going to die”: AOC’s harrowing account of the Capitol Hill attack

by Zack Beauchamp
US-POLITICS-HEARING-COVID
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) during a House Financial Services Committee hearing on December 2, 2020. | Greg Nash/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

AOC’s Instagram live post on the insurrection shows why we can’t just move on.

On Monday night, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) discussed her experience during the Capitol Hill attack in a lengthy Instagram livestream. It is one of the most harrowing accounts of the insurrection that has been made public to date — and a testament to just how devastating the event was to our democracy.

At 1:01 pm on January 6, Ocasio-Cortez remembers trying to decide what she wanted to eat for lunch. All of a sudden, she started hearing a series of loud bangs on the doors leading into her office. She runs over to an aide she refers to as “G” — her legislative director, Geraldo Bonilla-Chavez — who tells her to “run and hide.”

She takes shelter behind her bathroom door — just before the pro-Trump attackers break into her office and make it clear they were coming for her. “I just hear these yells of ‘WHERE IS SHE? WHERE IS SHE?’” Ocasio-Cortez recalls.

“This was the moment where I thought everything was over,” she says. “I thought I was going to die.”

In those few seconds, she contemplated death. “I felt that if this was the journey my life was taking, I felt that things were going to be okay — and that I had fulfilled my purpose,” she said, apologizing to the viewers for the tears that had welled up.

Soon afterward, she said, Bonilla-Chavez tells her to come out: A Capitol Police officer was in the office to secure it. But she said something about the officer seemed off to her: He had no partner and hadn’t identified himself. He yelled at her and didn’t give them a specific location to take shelter.

“He was looking at me with a tremendous amount of anger and hostility. Things weren’t adding up,” she said. She recalls Bonilla-Chavez saying, “I didn’t know if he was there to help us or hurt us.”

Ocasio-Cortez ended up sheltering in the offices of Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), another prominent progressive, for hours. (Parts of her account have been corroborated both by her staff and other representatives, including Porter.)

The fear for her life, and sustained level of insecurity, left Ocasio-Cortez traumatized. In her feed, she compares it to her experience as a sexual assault survivor, something she’s never disclosed before.

“I’m a survivor of sexual assault. And I haven’t told many people that in my life,” she said. “But when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other.”

AOC and the need for high-level consequences

It was entirely reasonable for Ocasio-Cortez to fear for her life: She’s been relentlessly demonized by Republican officials and conservative media, turned into Public Enemy No. 1 for the right. This is a crowd of people that chanted “Hang Mike Pence”; if they were willing to threaten a Republican incumbent so directly, who knows what they would have done if they had reached Ocasio-Cortez?

Her account also shows why Congress cannot — and absolutely should not — just move on.

It’s not just a matter of personal trauma for public officials (although that does matter). It’s that the mob brought the fear of violent death to the forefront of American politics. They were angry with the workings of our democracy and, based on fictitious grievances stoked at the highest level of the Republican Party, tried to overturn it. They wanted people like Ocasio-Cortez to fear for their lives; that was the point.

And in some cases, it worked. In mid-January, Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) said the threat of violent reprisal was a major reason more House Republicans weren’t voting to impeach Trump in the wake of the attack on the Capitol.

“The majority of them are paralyzed with fear,” Crow said on MSNBC. “I had a lot of conversations with my Republican colleagues last night, and a couple of them broke down in tears — saying that they are afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment.”

The Capitol insurrection struck at the heart of democratic practice in America: the idea that politics should be determined by the will of the people and their chosen representatives rather than fear of violent reprisal. And while the insurrectionists themselves are being arrested, the leaders who stoked the mob by indulging their fantasies about a fake election — from former President Donald Trump to Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) — have suffered few serious consequences.

“After they told that lie, after they saw people lose their life on the steps of the Capitol — afterwards, not even an ‘I’m sorry,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “What they are saying is ‘given the chance, I would endanger my colleagues again for political gain.”

That, she correctly points out, should be intolerable in a democracy.

“Accountability is not about revenge, it’s not about getting back at people,” she says. “It’s about creating safety. And we are not safe with people who hold positions of power who are willing to endanger the lives of others if they think it will score them a political point.”

02 Feb 12:20

Flash is dead—but South Africa didn’t get the memo

by Jim Salter
Why convert Flash upload forms to Javascript when you could just contract a couple of Russian dudes to build a custom browser with deprecated, unsafe plugins?

Enlarge / Why convert Flash upload forms to Javascript when you could just contract a couple of Russian dudes to build a custom browser with deprecated, unsafe plugins? (credit: Aurich Lawson)

The South African Revenue Service ran into a big problem this month: Adobe Flash stopped working on January 12, 2021, and the agency (still) hadn't migrated all of its e-filing forms from Flash to HTML and JavaScript. So to "fix" the issue, SARS decided to release its own, custom browser with a working Flash plugin pre-installed and enabled.

Adobe announced a timeline for the final death of Flash more than three years ago, with the elderly plugin slated to leave support in December 2020 and be actively blocked from functioning as of January 12, 2021. As of today, the majority of SARS' online filing system has been migrated to HTML5—but there are still a few languishing holdouts with no HTML5 version in sight. SARS' new "browser" is a stopgap that allows South African taxpayers and traders access to the remaining forms in the meantime.

Behold:

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

02 Feb 01:33

Exclusive: Pressley, Warren, and Lee reintroduce bill to fight racism in public health

by Fabiola Cineas
Rep. Ayanna Pressley speaks to reporters in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston on November 10, 2020. | Pat Greenhouse/Boston Globe via Getty Images

The legislation calls for an anti-racism center at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The coronavirus pandemic has made the everyday realities of structural racism abundantly clear: A year into the pandemic, statistics show that Black and Latino people are three times more likely than white people to contract Covid-19 and two times more likely to succumb to the illness altogether. The impact of the virus extends to jobs, mental health, housing, and education, too — setting people of color further back.

Meanwhile, new data shows that Black and brown communities aren’t being reached by mass vaccination efforts, with white Americans having greater access to the vaccine.

To tackle these glaring disparities — and the harmful health effects of decades of systemic racism more broadly — Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Barbara Lee are reintroducing a bill in Congress on Monday. Their Anti-Racism in Public Health Act of 2021 would make sure the US government understands just how badly people of color’s health has been harmed by two ongoing crises: the coronavirus pandemic and the disproportionate rate of violence that law enforcement officials inflict on Black and brown people.

Right now, the three lawmakers say, the federal government doesn’t even have the information it needs to adequately confront the racial disparities in health outcomes. When the coronavirus pandemic surged last spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not readily release information by race until the public demanded it. According to Pressley, the government failed to “adequately collect race and ethnicity data on COVID-19 testing, hospitalization, and deaths.” One of the bill’s key goals is to expand research about the virus’s impact by race — and ultimately shape health policy that is anti-racist.

The other is to tackle another threat to the lives of Black and brown Americans — police violence, the sixth-leading cause of death for young Black men. By examining police use of force through a public health lens, the bill brings new urgency to the matter outside of criminal justice reform.

To address both crises, the bill would establish two programs within the CDC: a “National Center for Anti-Racism,” and a law enforcement violence prevention program within the center’s National Center for Injury Prevention. It might seem like two separate fixes made for two separate bills, but the lawmakers see them as the most pressing systemic racism issues the US faces. The legislation is co-sponsored by more than three dozen lawmakers including Sens. Tina Smith and Ed Markey and Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Eleanor Holmes Norton.

“Structural racism is a public health crisis that continues to ravage Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, deny us access to quality health care, and exacerbate the longstanding racial disparities in health outcomes,” Pressley said in a statement. “To confront and dismantle the racist systems and practices that create these inequities, we need robust, comprehensive research on the public health impacts of structural racism and policy solutions to bring an end to these disparities once and for all.”

Goal 1: Embedding anti-racism into the government’s Covid-19 response

In the early stages of the pandemic, the government failed to disaggregate data on infections and deaths by race. Over time, more information about certain groups became available from states, but information about American Indian and Alaska Native populations remained scarce. Now, as information about vaccine distributions becomes available, data disaggregated by race is only trickling in.

According to a January study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 17 states were publicly reporting vaccination data by race and ethnicity. And based on that information, the report found that “the share of vaccinations among Black people is smaller than their share of cases in all 16 reporting states and smaller than their share of deaths in 15 states.”

For example, preliminary data shows Black people only account for 15 percent of vaccinations in Mississippi, although they represent 38 percent of cases and 42 percent of deaths. In comparison, the share of vaccinations among white people is larger than their share of cases in 13 of the 16 states for which data is available and larger than their share of deaths in nine of these states. In Maryland, 65 percent of vaccinations have gone to white people, but they make up 39 percent of cases and 50 percent of deaths in the state.

A center for anti-racism at the CDC, which the bill proposes to create, would first counter the lack of health information disaggregated by race by calling for research and data that considers the impact of systemic racism. This means the center would make it so that race is not an afterthought when it comes to health interventions, but a leading factor that shapes policy decisions in housing, education, food, and other determinants of health. At the same time, the center would declare racism a public health crisis, sending the message that racism is an urgent threat to the well-being of the world.

The act also specifically calls for the CDC to create at least three regional centers that focus on anti-racism and educate the public on the harms of structural racism and colorblind health interventions, like vaccine distribution plans that don’t take race and ethnicity into account. Ultimately, the bill’s authors say, the center’s study of racism should inform the training that CDC staff members receive and the steps the organization takes to develop policies that are anti-racist.

“It’s clear that COVID-19 has exacerbated decades of disparities in health outcomes for Black and Brown people,” Warren said. A bill that creates “anti-racist federal health policy that studies and addresses these deep disparities in health outcomes at their roots is how we start treating health disparities like the public health crises they are.”

Goal 2: Treating police violence and brutality as public health issues

The bill also regards policing in America as a public health issue, to be treated through health policies that foster equity. “Due to structural racism in the United States, Black men are up to three and a half times as likely to be killed by police as white men, and 1 in every 1,000 Black men will die as a result of police violence,” the bill states.

The bill seeks to establish an office within the CDC that would conduct public health research into police violence to determine both the health impacts and how to best develop public health policies that eliminate deaths, injury, and trauma at the hands of the law enforcement. Similar to the anti-racism program, this center would prioritize data collection to give the federal government a strong understanding of how police presence, interactions, violence, and brutality impact health. The ultimate goal would be to “disrupt processes in policing that preserve and reinforce racism and racial disparities in public health,” the bill states. The bill also suggests that the center study “alternatives to law enforcement response as a method of reducing police violence.”

While 2020 exposed the fault lines in America’s health care system, it also laid bare the innumerable problems with policing. The police killings of Black Americans like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd only underscored the kind of fear and terror that the Black activists have been demonstrating against for decades. The advocacy group Mapping Police Violence found that police killed 1,127 people in 2020 — there were only 18 days out of the year without a police killing. Black people represented 28 percent of these killings despite representing only 13 percent of the country’s population.

Pressley, Lee, and Warren believe the legislation would enable a comprehensive approach to these issues that the country must no longer choose to ignore.

“Black, Brown, and other communities of color are dying at disproportionate rates from this pandemic. We have a moral responsibility to not only confront, but dismantle and denounce centuries of racism in our public health system,” Lee said in a statement.

02 Feb 01:32

The pandemic’s lasting effects on young medical workers

by Terry Nguyen
Three medical assistants conduct Covid-19 drive-by tests in the parking lot of UNLV Medicine in Las Vegas in April 2020. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

From lost job prospects to delayed licensing exams, many young people feel that their careers have been stymied by Covid-19.

Marisa Reynolds spent months anticipating the pandemic’s effects on her final year of medical school. Her clinical clerkship was delayed, and her research stint at the National Institutes of Health was canceled. So were parts of the fourth-year board exam Reynolds expected to take and the option to participate in an out-of-state clerkship — crucial opportunities students are typically afforded before applying for post-graduate residency programs.

“The pandemic is not something in our control, but it’s frustrating, to put it lightly, that it will have these long-term effects on our careers and lives for years to come,” said Reynolds, a Michigan State medical student seeking out internal medicine residencies. It’s a high-stakes process, and despite the logistical challenges that affected the quality of Reynolds’s and her peers’ application — such as late test scores and a shortened residency interview timeline — there is no option to try again next year.

She is also worried that the pandemic has made the process less equitable: Some students didn’t receive as many interviews as others, and there was limited time to make a strong impression on their program of choice.

“You’re basically entering a career marriage for the next however many years of your life,” she told Vox. “My internal medicine residency is about three years long, but for someone in neurosurgery, it could be seven years.”

For many young people, the pandemic has solidified their commitment to working in health care, even as it adversely impacts their career progression. The ongoing public health crisis might seem to benefit hospitals, or at the very least, job prospects for those in the medical industry. That couldn’t be further from the current reality, and young, entry-level workers are often the first to witness that.

The coronavirus has led many to reassess the risks and sacrifices that come with the job, and how consequential health care will be in a post-pandemic world. Simultaneously, people are recognizing the longstanding weaknesses and inequalities of America’s medical system. Prospective and current medical school students, too, have become concerned about issues of access and equality, in their field of study and their programs.

They’ve also had to confront the paradoxes emerging in medicine: Health care workers are more necessary than ever, but working nurses and doctors are on the verge of burnout amid the months-long third surge of infections. As of late January, more than 100,000 patients are currently hospitalized across the country with Covid-19. Hospitals, especially those in major metropolitan areas, are overcrowded and short-staffed.

Despite the deluge of patients, medical workers have had to contend with hiring freezes, layoffs, contract negotiations, and shortage of personal protective equipment. About 1.4 million health care jobs were lost in April 2020, and while employment has recovered as states opened back up, the pandemic placed enduring strain on how the US health care system operates.

Young adults in the health care industry — or those preparing to enter it — are aware they’re at the foot of the ladder. Many college graduates take on low-paying or volunteer roles in clinics and hospitals, and might not even receive priority for vaccines. (At Stanford, nearly all of its medical residents and fellows, who regularly treat Covid-19 patients, did not receive vaccine priority.) On the other hand, medical students eager for patient experience have lost out on clinical opportunities. Medical school applicants, residents, clinic assistants, and nursing graduates recognize how entry-level jobs are harder to come by across the board, and for many, the lesson of the pandemic is learning to settle for less-than-ideal positions to guarantee employment.

Briana, a former medical assistant from Phoenix, Arizona, felt that the pandemic was a sudden but necessary “reality check” for her career. Briana, who asked to not publish her last name out of privacy concerns, is immunocompromised and works for a clinic that primarily serves the Native American population in Arizona. However, her transition from a patient-facing position to a departmental role took two months, and she felt pressured to be in the office or risk losing her job.

“I felt that [my managers] didn’t really care that I had an autoimmune disorder,” Briana told Vox. “They obviously should care more about the patients, but if they don’t have any healthy employees, then they’re not going to be able to treat them.”

For Jasmine Wong, a recent graduate and working nurse in the Bay Area, risk was top-of-mind while she was interviewing for openings. “I asked during my interviews with different hospitals if there was enough PPE provided,” she said. “Navigating the job hunt during Covid was already very difficult because hospitals were on hiring freezes, and many just didn’t have a budget to train new nursing grads.”

“Hospitals were on hiring freezes, and many just didn’t have a budget to train new nursing grads”

While most job interviews were conducted over Zoom, a departure from traditional norms, Wong felt that the roles were competitive, especially for nursing positions in adult ICUs. In pre-pandemic times, cinching a job after nursing school depended on a person’s professional network — relationships at hospitals they’ve previously volunteered at. Despite Wong’s volunteer work at UCLA Medical Center, the hospital wasn’t hiring, and she eventually accepted an offer in a pediatrics ICU elsewhere.

“I feel like about 75 percent of people I know from our program have found jobs, but I don’t think people got positions they necessarily wanted,” she said. “Most of us didn’t have ICU experience, so it was difficult to compete with those who do.” Some of her peers are in non-hospital settings, and some are swabbing at local Covid-19 testing sites.

Funding from Congress has provided some relief for hospital systems across the country, but many are losing money as a result of halting elective surgeries. According to the Washington Post, monthly patient revenue has declined by tens of millions of dollars, and many were already losing money on patient care prior to the pandemic. “There is this conception that nurses are needed, but many want experienced nurses and not new graduates,” Wong said.

Meanwhile, medical school admissions officers are boasting record-level increases in applicants. They are attributing renewed national attention toward health care to the coronavirus pandemic, dubbing the phenomenon “the Fauci effect.” (The Association of American Medical Colleges did not share specific figures with Vox, but said that applications are 18 percent higher than they were at this time last year.)

Some applicants, however, say the pandemic has thrown a wrench in a time-intensive and financially draining process. They are challenging the premise that it had any significant effect on present-day admissions, and that it’s highly improbable for people to apply to medical school on short-term notice.

“I spent two years saving up money to take three months off work and to afford the application fees,” said Erica Crittendon, who received an offer from the University of Washington. She applied to 28 schools and invested thousands of dollars into the process, which she described as “one of the most grueling periods” of her life. Crittendon was simultaneously reeling from several Covid-19 losses in her family, and as a Black applicant, felt affected by the summer’s protests over police brutality.

“A person needs to be incredibly privileged to pull off a last-minute application,” she told Vox. “The pandemic narrative is just highlighting privileges that are detrimental to medicine and health equity.”

Rachel Lutz, a University of Oregon graduate who is awaiting an offer, said that her MCAT exam was rescheduled and canceled several times between March and August, which delayed her application. Schools weren’t consistent about dropping the MCAT exam requirement, which meant most applicants needed to still take the exam to apply to a range of programs.

Lutz’s clinical opportunities were canceled, and she moved in with her parents to save money. “Applying was very stressful and upsetting at times, but I was privileged in that I didn’t have to seriously consider not going through with it,” she told me. “I don’t think taking another gap year would outweigh future earnings for me, but I know people had to make that tough decision.”

Some say the circumstances of the pandemic — and the lack of leniency from admissions officers and schools — have excluded hundreds of prospective applicants. According to the advocacy group Students for Ethical Admissions, only those with significant amounts of financial privilege and economic support can manage to apply amid the many changes in the process.

“There are many students who are now lost to the application process,” a spokesperson for SEA told Vox. “That’s a loss of diversity, of competent and capable individuals, just because the application process was so woefully mismanaged.” The Association of American Medical Colleges published a response addressing applicants’ concerns in July, but students felt that the acknowledgment changed little about the process. “The pipeline in medicine is already very leaky,” said the SEA spokesperson. “It’s disappointing that this year, the academic medicine community seems to have shrugged its shoulders.”

The applicants and health care workers who spoke with Vox firmly believe that medicine is their vocation. Yet, the coronavirus has stymied their pursuits at almost every level, from delaying licensing exams and required tests to eliminating opportunities for key clinical work that would aid their job search. The pandemic’s lasting effects on their careers and livelihoods won’t easily be forgotten.

02 Feb 01:19

Trump’s environmental legacy suffers two major court losses

by Anya van Wagtendonk
Amid rolling, verdant hills clothed in smog, sit two wide smoke stacks, positioned just to the right of thin metal towers and thinner smokestacks spewing fumes. A tangle of black wires run horizontally across the photo’s foreground.
California’s Otay Mesa Energy Center, a natural gas-fired power plant. | Bing Guan/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Courts struck down Trump-era rules on ozone and what data can be used to make policy.

Former President Donald Trump’s environmental agenda suffered two significant losses in court this week, as federal judges struck down rules that would have made regulating pollution more difficult.

On Wednesday, a federal judge blocked a rule passed in the final days of the Trump administration that would have limited the use of so-called “secret science,” a term used by conservatives to refer to data kept confidential due to patient privacy concerns, in the regulation of pollutants by the Environmental Protection Agency.

And on Friday, a panel of three judges in Washington, DC’s circuit court abolished rules that loosened the EPA’s implementation of ozone standards under the Clean Air Act, as the panel found that the Trump-era policy “contravene[s] the statute’s unambiguous language,” and “rests on an unreasonable interpretation of the statute.”

The first case hinged on the timing of the rule change — it was put in place on January 6 under former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, himself a former coal lobbyist. Wheeler argued that the rule would increase transparency by ensuring public health policy was grounded in data reviewable by all.

But critics of the rule said that it would limit the power of agencies like the EPA to protect public health, as much of the agency’s science relies on work that includes confidential patient data that cannot legally be made publicly available.

For example, a landmark Harvard study from 1993, which found direct links between exposure to pollutants and mortality rates, has for years formed the basis of the EPA’s regulation of fine particulate matter. But because that study used anonymized health data, the Trump rule would have barred it, and any similar studies, from being used to create regulations.

On Wednesday, US District Judge Brian Morris, an Obama appointee in Montana, sided with the rule’s critics, saying that the Trump administration’s decision to pass the rule two weeks before Trump left office was “capricious.”

He ordered that the rule’s implementation be delayed until February 5 so that President Joe Biden’s administration can assess whether to go forward with the rule or not.

In the Friday case, three judges on the United States Court of Appeals for Washington, DC — Judges Harry Edwards, David Tatel, and Gregory Katsas, appointed by former Presidents Carter, Clinton and Trump respectively — found that parts of rules relaxing ozone regulations were not lawful.

The rules, adopted in 2015 and 2018, allowed polluters and officials flexibility in meeting ozone regulations under the federal Clean Air Act. One key rule change gave polluters leeway in the production of compounds that serve as precursors to ozone, which can be toxic. This rule allowed polluters to swap the emission of a given ozone precursor with another known ozone precursor. Two other rules allowed states flexibility in meeting ozone requirements, and a fourth gave areas that failed to meet ozone mitigation thresholds cover from consequences if they showed that they’d had a plan to meet those targets.

Environmental groups that brought challenges to each of these provisions, which included the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, called those changes “loopholes.”

Biden has pledged to undo Trump’s environmental policy

The Trump administration rolled back nearly 100 environmental protections in just four years. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to reverse many of these actions, and has spent part of his first days in office doing so, using executive orders.

As Vox’s Ella Nilsen reported:

On Wednesday, Biden signed a set of executive actions meant to begin making this plan a reality. In them, he directed his administration to take a “whole-of-government approach” to combat climate change, which includes — among other initiatives — ordering federal agencies to purchase electricity that is pollution-free, as well as zero emission vehicles, and directing the US Department of Interior to pause entering into new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore.

These new orders come on top of Biden’s day one executive actions to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and directing his agencies to reverse a number of former President Trump’s actions slashing environmental regulations and emissions standards.

Biden has signaled that climate policy will be a centerpiece of his economic agenda, too.

“Biden’s economic agenda is his climate agenda; his climate agenda is his economic agenda,” Sam Ricketts — co-founder of the climate policy group Evergreen, and a senior fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress think tank — told Nilsen.

In the short term, this means finding ways to create new jobs, according to the president. And that focus was on display in one of the executive orders he signed Wednesday, which, among other initiatives, directed his administration to investigate ways to convert fossil fuel hubs into communities centered on renewable energy.

02 Feb 01:14

Covid-19 vaccines are great — but you still need to wear a mask for now

by Umair Irfan
A health care worker giving a masked person a shot in the arm.
Hundreds of thousands of Texans will likely get their first doses of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine starting this week at sites like this one in Robstown, Texas. | Eddie Seal/Bloomberg/Getty Images

What we know and don’t know about how Covid-19 vaccines slow the spread of the virus.

After months of exhausting isolation, widespread economic pain, and an extraordinary toll on human life and health, several Covid-19 vaccines are here.

Surely, this means we can stop wearing a face mask?

Eventually.

As with so much else in this pandemic, there isn’t an easy answer for exactly when we can start to relax. But, clearly, the rapid rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, like the ones developed by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, is our best path out of the crisis.

“We have every reason to believe that these are among some of the very best vaccines that we have ever tested,” said Aaron Richterman, a fellow researching infectious diseases at the University of Pennsylvania.

Though clinical trials give us confidence that the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines block close to 95 percent of cases of the disease — thereby preventing the most severe outcomes of Covid-19 — there are still some uncertainties. Key among them is how well vaccines work to block transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. Vaccines serve not only to protect individuals but also, after a certain threshold of vaccination, the population as a whole. That threshold is herd immunity — where even people who haven’t been vaccinated or infected before are protected because so many of the people around them are immune.

Transmission also has important practical consequences for the risks that arise as vaccinated individuals interact with everyone else, whether that’s in public parks, schools, households, or health care facilities. Early evidence points toward vaccines reducing transmission of Covid-19, but by exactly how much remains unclear.

A recent pre-print paper (not yet peer-reviewed) found that the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine reduces viral loads, a key marker that shapes how readily the virus can spread, four-fold between 12 and 28 days after the first dose. It’s a promising result, but it’s based on less than 1,200 patients and needs more validation.

And that’s stirred up a fierce debate lately around how cautious we should be when talking about the power of the vaccines.

The question, given what scientists know and don’t know, is what message should people get about Covid-19 vaccines and how should they behave when they get them?

It’s a difficult needle to thread, to convey both optimism and caution, and there’s disagreement among scientists and experts over what should be the selling point of vaccines in the current moment. If you’re thinking about how your life might change after you get your shots, here’s what to consider.

What we know about Covid-19 vaccines and transmission

The main problem is that while the Covid-19 vaccines now available are amazingly effective at protecting recipients, it’s not clear how much they can prevent them from spreading the virus to other people. And because of that uncertainty, along with the current levels of spread of the disease, public health guidance still calls for the immunized to maintain social distance and wear face masks.

In the meantime, research is underway to figure out how much vaccinated people can transmit the virus. During phase 3 clinical trials, the main thing researchers are looking for is how well vaccines prevent disease — that is, people getting infected and showing detectable symptoms like fever, coughing, shortness of breath, and a loss of taste or smell.

However, asymptomatic transmission has emerged as a major driver of Covid-19. Getting a handle on how much asymptomatic transmission can occur even with a vaccine requires mass testing to detect the virus, since there are no other outward signs of infection. For clinical trials with thousands of participants, testing is a tedious, time-consuming endeavor, and there aren’t many robust findings yet.

That said, there is emerging evidence that Covid-19 vaccines do slow transmission.

 Mario Tama/Getty Images
People with appointments stand in line to receive the Covid-19 vaccine in East Los Angeles. California has announced an updated vaccine delivery plan after facing mounting criticism over a slow vaccine rollout.

Moderna, for example, screened its trial participants for SARS-CoV-2 between the first and second doses of its vaccine, finding that two-thirds fewer people in the vaccine group tested positive for the virus compared to the placebo, according to the company’s briefing to the Food and Drug Administration in December. It suggests that some asymptomatic infections start to be prevented after the first dose.

During the clinical trials for the Covid-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, which has not been approved in the US, researchers tested participants more frequently. An early analysis showed that the vaccine may be 59 percent effective at stopping asymptomatic infection.

There are other signs indicating the vaccines can reduce spread. Changes in immune system markers, like antibodies, in people who are vaccinated comport with what scientists expect in a situation that prevents the virus from setting up shop in people’s airways.

Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco, said the focus on transmission in the context of Covid-19 vaccines can be misleading when comparing them to other vaccines. Part of what’s skewing the picture is that we have more information about Covid-19 transmission dynamics than other respiratory infections. “We never do mass testing for any respiratory virus unless you don’t feel well,” Gandhi said.

There are lessons we can draw from other vaccines, too. Researchers say it’s highly unlikely that a vaccine with a high efficacy against disease wouldn’t also make a significant dent in transmission. In fact, there are vaccines that are given mainly to prevent transmission more so than the disease, like the rubella vaccine, according to Paul Sax, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

For the most part, the evidence is pointing toward Covid-19 vaccines reducing transmission of the virus

With Covid-19 vaccines, the fact that they prevent the most severe outcomes — even if they don’t prevent every instance of disease — can reduce transmission by itself. People with milder symptoms are less likely to cough and spread the virus through the air to others. “Even if it shifts it from symptomatic Covid to asymptomatic Covid, that still is a win for transmission, because asymptomatic people are less likely to transmit it because they don’t have as much virus for as long,” Sax said.

On the other hand, there are other vaccines that can prevent disease but have a much weaker effect on transmission, like the pertussis, or whooping cough, vaccine.

For the most part, the evidence is pointing toward Covid-19 vaccines reducing transmission of the virus. The critical question is by just how much, since that will shape the point where herd immunity occurs. “The exact amount that it reduces asymptomatic transmission is going to have consequences,” Richterman said. The answer will likely emerge in the coming months as researchers gather more data from clinical trials as well as among vaccine recipients in the general population.

What message do we send in the moment?

So scientists generally agree: The vaccines are essential for ending the pandemic, though they will take weeks or months to blunt the spread of Covid-19 across the population. Until that time, it’s necessary to keep up mask-wearing and social distancing in public.

But it’s not as though one day the country will cross a line going from unsafe to safe; rather, there will be a decline in risk over time. “I think the better way to frame it is, the vaccine is going to make every single activity the person does safer,” Richterman said. And while scientists can measure risk and come up with tactics to reduce it, they can’t determine how much risk is tolerable. That’s a value judgment people have to make as individuals.

Vaccines are certainly a major risk-reducer, arguably the largest when it comes to Covid-19. The risk of infection and transmission doesn’t drop to zero with a pair of shots, but when combined with other measures, like wearing face masks, they become a firewall against transmission. Right now, though, in the context of uncontrolled spread of Covid-19, even a reduced risk of transmission could still lead to problematic levels of new infection.

And there’s still a long way to go. Even though upward of one-third of the US population may have already been exposed to the virus, we don’t fully know who has had it because there are so many asymptomatic cases, and because of gaps in testing. It’s also not clear how long immunity lasts after infection and how well it will hold up against new SARS-CoV-2 variants, although early evidence shows immunity does last at least a few months and that prior infections offer some degree of shielding against newer versions of the virus. So the transmission aspect of the pandemic is going to remain a major issue for some time.

“My biggest concern right now in the short term is getting people to make sure they’re not easing up on the precautions they need to take, given the current situation and the lack of vaccine availability,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University.

People standing in line to get vaccinated. Bing Guan/Bloomberg/Getty Images
California and other large states are loosening Covid-19 restrictions; however, it’s still not clear how long immunity lasts after being vaccinated and how it will hold up against new SARS-CoV-2 variants.

One of the most delicate times in the pandemic will be the period between its worst throes and widespread immunity. That’s when there will be large groups of people who are vaccinated, as well as those who are not vaccinated, interacting in the same public spaces but with very different risk exposures.

Though some groups have broached the idea of using vaccine passports to identify the immune, there is no easy way to tell whether someone is protected just by looking at them, so across-the-board pandemic restrictions will likely have to remain in place. That may prove frustrating for people who survived the pandemic and went through the trouble of getting immunized but still can’t relax.

The message to those vaccinated people in this twilight period of the pandemic must be that they are duty-bound to keep up precautions like wearing masks in order to protect others, as an act of social solidarity.

But what’s the best way to frame this? Are we in the home stretch of the pandemic, or are we still mired in the worst phase? Should health officials emphasize how vaccines will return everyone to normal or highlight the unknowns and counsel caution? Should the vaccinated be scolded if they start to hang out with friends and travel?

Rasmussen noted that with the uncertainties around the Covid-19 vaccines, as impressive as they are, there is a fear of overpromising and underdelivering. The final results could reveal that vaccines may not block transmission as much as hoped, so if they’re overhyped, trust in public health officials could erode and lead to more vaccine hesitancy.

On the other hand, as groups of people get vaccinated, they might be able to relax around each other as their collective risk declines. Members of a household, neighbors, or people living in long-term care facilities may be able to share the company of others who are also immune.

But even vaccines, masks, and social distancing together won’t stop spread due to reckless behavior, just as airbags, seatbelts, and crumple zones don’t mean that it’s safe to drive inebriated over the speed limit. Vaccines are not a license to resume crowded indoor gatherings, since the overall vaccination rate is still low and the spread of the virus is still high.

“You can potentially get together with your parents that you haven’t seen in a long time if all of you have been vaccinated,” Rasmussen said. “What you should not do is get together with a bunch of your vaccinated friends and go hit the bars.”

Gandhi agreed that precautions will be necessary in many circumstances for people who receive vaccines.

“My risk tolerance is I will wear a mask around those who are unvaccinated,” Gandhi said. “I think many doctors will take off their mask around vaccinated people. And only vaccinated people.”

However, she argued that the messaging emphasis should be on how vaccines will speed up the return to a world outside the pandemic. Belaboring the blank spaces in our understanding of them when there is so much good news could also create hesitancy and undermine progress. Without a sense of progress and an achievable goal, it may get harder to keep up precautions until there is widespread immunity.

“It’s very helpful to tell the public that someday the masks will come off,” Gandhi said. “You can say it will be longer [to get to the end of the pandemic], and it will be, but please keep giving people hope.”

How can we tell we’ve crossed the finish line?

The main benchmark for ending the pandemic — and the goalposts of a vaccination campaign — should be to reduce fatality rates. “We should go all-in for mortality. The first thing we should see is a substantial, substantial reduction in mortality in the population,” said Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health. “Even if we don’t find out that there is reduction in transmission, if enough people are protected and mortality goes down drastically ... even if it’s just individual effects, that’s a good way of returning to normal.”

 Ethan Miller/Getty Images
The Southern Nevada Health District is operating a pop-up clinic for people age 70 and older to get the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Such a scenario would downgrade Covid-19 from a lethal public health threat to a moderate concern, and perhaps even a nuisance. Until there is a dramatic decline in fatality rates, however, face masks and social distancing will still be a part of everyone’s life, including those who are vaccinated.

After that, measures of transmission, such as the fraction of Covid-19 tests that yield positive results, could be used as an indicator of how much spread is still occurring.

The US may have to contend with sporadic outbreaks and even vaccine boosters, as immunity declines and new variants of the virus emerge. But widespread immunization creates a scenario where many of the most onerous burdens of the pandemic can be lifted.

Given the pace of progress in vaccinations, that could happen later this year.

“If there are no crazy variants, we can be in a situation where, in fall, things are more normal,” Omer said. “Maybe not fully normal, but better.”

02 Feb 00:54

The EU-AstraZeneca vaccine fight, explained

by Jen Kirby
People line up to receive the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine outside a closed department store in Folkestone, UK, on January 27. | Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The European Union’s vaccination program has struggled, and now the bloc is taking actions that could hamper global vaccine efforts.

A spat between the European Union and the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca is threatening to hamper global vaccine efforts, and is raising tensions on the continent as European countries struggle to vaccinate their populations amid the threat of new, more virulent strains of the coronavirus.

The EU purchased 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which the company made in partnership with Oxford University, in advance of it being approved by EU regulators. But last week, AstraZeneca abruptly announced that due to production issues it would only be able to deliver about 31 million doses to the EU, or about 40 percent of the roughly 80 million doses promised in the first quarter.

That, of course, angered EU leaders, who are desperately trying to inoculate their populations.

Reuters reported Friday that the company agreed to throw in another 8 million more doses — but the EU says that’s not good enough and is demanding AstraZeneca do more, including utilizing its plants in the United Kingdom to make up the shortfall.

AstraZeneca says it can’t do that, and that its contract with the EU (a heavily redacted version of which was published Friday) requires only that it make the “best effort” to deliver the vaccines to Europe. The problem is that the EU and AstraZeneca disagree on what “best effort” actually means.

And now the fight is threatening to spill over, with alarming implications for the global vaccination effort.

On Friday, the European Union approved the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. But it also took the dramatic step of putting export controls on all coronavirus vaccines.

The final regulation is expected to be published Saturday, but it will require vaccine makers to notify the EU when exporting coronavirus vaccines to most countries outside the European Union; more than 90 countries are exempt, but not the United States or the United Kingdom. Individual EU member-states will then have to authorize those exports, and can block them if they believe companies exporting the vaccines aren’t making good on their own delivery deals with the EU.

It’s not an outright ban on vaccine exports, and they are only expected to last until March, but experts and observers worry it sets a troubling precedent.

There are now several vaccines available, and more promising candidates on the way. But the EU-AstraZeneca feud is the latest sign that global cooperation and solidarity on vaccine allocation is failing, said Rebecca Weintraub, faculty director of the Global Health Delivery Project at Harvard University.

“This is vaccine nationalism 101,” she said.

The EU was slower to sign a deal with AstraZeneca than the US and UK. That delay may be causing problems now.

The European Union, on behalf of its 27 member-states, made deals with vaccine makers, betting on a bunch of potential candidates and buying up doses in advance. In total, the EU purchased 2.3 billion vaccine doses from a handful of companies.

But, initially, richer EU members like Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands began to negotiate deals with vaccine makers themselves, including with AstraZeneca. “That caused a lot of friction in Europe,” Christian Odendahl, chief economist at the Center for European Reform, told me. “If you’re integrated both politically and economically, you don’t want to be vaccinated and your neighboring country to not be vaccinated.”

The bloc needed to ensure that smaller, less wealthy member-states without big purchasing power would also be able to get vaccines. The solution? Have the European Union itself take over the vaccine buying process for all of the member-states.

But that also turned the whole thing into “a very bureaucratically cumbersome process,” said Paulette Kurzer, an expert on European politics and public health at the University of Arizona. The EU had to consult with the individual governments and balance all their interests. Other issues, like liability protection and the cost of vaccines, also slowed discussions.

The European Union did finally strike those deals, with AstraZeneca and other vaccine makers, but it was later in signing a contract with AstraZeneca than were others, including the United Kingdom.

Fast forward to December, when the United Kingdom became the first country in the world to authorize a vaccine (the Pfizer-BioNTech one) for emergency use. The US soon followed, but EU approval didn’t come until toward the end of December.

Already a few weeks behind some of its counterparts, the European Union’s vaccine campaign has stayed sluggish compared to places like Israel and the United Kingdom.

A shortage of doses has meant EU countries have had to scale back the pace of inoculation; Madrid, Spain, for example, is halting its vaccination program this week. Germany’s health minister has said shortages may persist through July.

New doses from AstraZeneca would ease some of this pressure. But then came the bad news, when AstraZeneca indicated it would fall short of its initial commitment.

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot, in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica, said that the company was working “24/7” to fix the “glitches” in its European production.

“But the UK contract was signed three months before the European vaccine deal,” Soriot said. “So with the UK we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced. As for Europe, we are three months behind in fixing those glitches.”

The EU, though, has insisted that under the terms of the contract, AstraZeneca must use its manufacturing facilities in Britain to supply the EU with its share of doses. But AstraZeneca says it must first fulfill its obligations to the United Kingdom before it can supply Europe or anywhere else. Right now, it’s delivering about 2 million doses per week to the UK.

On Friday, AstraZeneca released its purchase agreement with the EU to try to help clear up the confusion. But that didn’t do much to resolve the dispute.

European Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen said Friday it’s “crystal clear” that the contract says AstraZeneca has to use British factories to supply the EU since its EU production is stalled.

AstraZeneca, again, is saying that according to the contract, it has to make its “best reasonable effort” to fulfill the dosage orders, and it says that is what it is doing.

So the stalemate between the EU and AstraZeneca remains.

In some ways, the details of the contract are beside the point. The European Union — which is facing a lot of pressure from its member-states — is desperate to deliver these vaccines to its citizens. And, as completely expected, the global demand for a vaccine is vastly outstripping the supply and the pace at which companies can produce them.

The European public is frustrated with the vaccine rollout. They see other countries getting vaccinated faster. Individual member-states are in charge of vaccination rollout and distribution in their own borders, so blaming the EU for botching up the procurement process is a good way to deflect some of the blame coming from their citizens.

And AstraZeneca — with additional factories located so tantalizingly close in former EU member-state the United Kingdom — is a useful target for the EU to transfer that blame one step further.

The EU is using its power to try to get vaccines, at whatever cost. This is the exactly the type of vaccine nationalism the world feared would happen.

The EU’s threat to block vaccine exports could directly hurt the UK, which relies on a plant in Belgium for its Pfizer vaccine doses. But other countries, like Canada, have raised concerns over whether their supplies could be affected, too.

The biggest fear is that this could be the first domino to fall, as other countries feel they need to act in their own interest, and maybe block exports, or withhold raw materials — whatever leverage they can use to try to muscle vaccine doses for their populations.

“Our supply chains are global,” Julie Swann, an expert in health systems and supply chains at North Carolina State University, told me. “While the manufacturing of a supply chain may be in one part of the world, the raw materials or consumables or assembly may be in a different location. This path is potentially dangerous to push as a main strategy.”

Experts said the world could see a reprise of the early days of the pandemic, when some 80 countries or customs territories banned or put restrictions on the export of supplies.

“This could reignite the ‘beggar-thy-neighbor’ policies that characterized the early days of the pandemic with regard to personal protective equipment, ventilators and other medical supplies,” Thomas Bollyky, senior fellow for global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations, said.

The EU may perceive this decision to be in its self-interest. But if other countries follow suit, it could backfire — on the EU, and the rest of the world. Because it will almost certainly prolong the pandemic.

“It’s making more and more clear, the huge chasm between what people are saying and what they’re doing,” Krishna Udayakumar, director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, told me. The EU, in particular, he said, was seen as a leader in global health equity. It’s given a lot of support to Covax, the multilateral effort to help poor countries get vaccinated. And yet, everyone is still looking out for themselves.

“At the the end of the day,” he said, the EU is “doing whatever they can to get access to vaccines as quickly for their own population as possible.”

02 Feb 00:49

We’re getting a Wakanda spinoff series from Ryan Coogler on Disney+

by Jennifer Ouellette
Promotional image for Black Panther.

Enlarge / We'll be getting more Wakanda-centric stories thanks to a new development deal between Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and The Walt Disney Company. (credit: Marvel/Disney)

Following on the success of The Mandalorian and WandaVision on Disney+, The Walt Disney Company has tapped Black Panther director Ryan Coogler to develop an as-yet-untitled new series for the streaming service focusing on the fictional nation of Wakanda. Deadline Hollywood reports that the planned series is part of an exclusive five-year deal between Coogler's Proximity Media production company and the Mouse House to develop the new TV series and includes shows for other divisions of the company.

"Ryan Coogler is a singular storyteller whose vision and range have made him one of the standout filmmakers of his generation," said Bob Iger, executive chairman of The Walt Disney Company, in a statement. "With Black Panther, Ryan brought a groundbreaking story and iconic characters to life in a real, meaningful and memorable way, creating a watershed cultural moment. We're thrilled to strengthen our relationship and look forward to telling more great stories with Ryan and his team."

Coogler earned praise for his films Fruitvale Station and Creed before helming Black Panther. The latter film grossed a whopping $1.3 billion worldwide—the highest-grossing film by a Black director and the ninth-highest-grossing film of all time—and became the first MCU movie to win multiple Oscars (Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design). It was nominated for Best Picture, although it didn't win.

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02 Feb 00:43

New study: A zero-emissions US is now pretty cheap

by John Timmer
Image of a wind farm.

Enlarge (credit: Picture Alliance / Getty Images)

In many areas of the United States, installing a wind or solar farm is now cheaper than simply buying fuel for an existing fossil fuel-based generator. And that's dramatically changing the electricity market in the US and requiring a lot of people to update prior predictions. That has motivated a group of researchers to take a new look at the costs and challenges of getting the entire US to carbon neutrality.

By building a model of the energy market for the entire US, the researchers explored what it will take to get the country to the point where its energy use has no net emissions in 2050—and they even looked at a scenario where emissions are negative. They found that, as you'd expect, the costs drop dramatically—to less than 1 percent of the GDP, even before counting the costs avoided by preventing the worst impacts of climate change. And, as an added bonus, we would pay less for our power.

But the modeling also suggests that this end result will have some rather unusual features; we'll need carbon capture, but it won't be attached to power plants, for one example.

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02 Feb 00:43

Why kids matter in the quest to stamp out COVID-19

by WIRED
Masked school children work at desks separated by clear barriers.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

Last December, when Caleb Chung, a 12-year-old in Durham, North Carolina, first heard from his dad that he might be eligible for a local clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine, his reaction was a little muted. He was “interested,” he tells me over Zoom. Not excited, exactly, not jumping for joy at the thought of joining the rarefied ranks of the immune. Interested. He had heard about side effects, for one thing, while watching the news with his parents. But mostly he just wasn’t sure what to make of the idea.

So Caleb and his dad, a pediatrician who works with adolescents, started talking. They covered the science of creating vaccines and testing them and how trials had helped bring vaccines to vulnerable people in the past. Plus, Caleb missed seeing his friends indoors, and seventh-grade Zoom school was slow. Getting shots to more people would bring a quicker end to the tedium. So he signed up. In late December, he got his first shot of what was either the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or a placebo. Then, three weeks later, he received his second. Both times, he kept a daily log of how he was feeling, recording a slight fever and soreness in his arm on day two. He took it in stride. “I hope this means I got the vaccine,” he says.

At the moment, two COVID-19 vaccines have been greenlit for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration, but both are only available to people older than Caleb. The Moderna vaccine is authorized for people over 18, while Pfizer’s is allowed for people as young as 16 because people that age were included earlier in its trials. But that could be changing. Last week, Pfizer officials announced they had finished enrolling more than 2,200 people in an expanded vaccine trial that includes kids as young as 12, and Moderna is currently in the process of signing up teens. That likely sets the stage for the companies to include teens in their requests for FDA approval, expected later this spring.

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02 Feb 00:36

Lawmakers take aim at insidious digital “dark patterns”

by WIRED
Pixilated image of pointing finger mouse icon.

Enlarge (credit: Lobanovgo | Getty Images)

In 2010, British designer Harry Brignull coined a handy new term for an everyday annoyance: dark patterns, meaning digital interfaces that subtly manipulate people. It became a term of art used by privacy campaigners and researchers. Now, more than a decade later, the coinage is gaining new, legal, heft.

Dark patterns come in many forms and can trick a person out of time or money or into forfeiting personal data. A common example is the digital obstacle course that springs up when you try to nix an online account or subscription, such as for streaming TV, asking you repeatedly if you really want to cancel. A 2019 Princeton survey of dark patterns in e-commerce listed 15 types of dark patterns, including hurdles to canceling subscriptions and countdown timers to rush consumers into hasty decisions.

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02 Feb 00:23

Age generations in the U.S. Senate, over time

by Nathan Yau

With this straightforward unit chart, wcd.fyi shows which generation each Senate member belonged to, from 1947 through 2021. Each rectangle represents a senator, and each column represents a cohort.

As time moves on, the generations inevitably shift. In 2021, we have the first Millennial senator in Jon Ossoff from Georgia.

Tags: age, generations, government, Senate

01 Feb 22:04

Like Me

by Reza
31 Jan 01:49

Microsoft Patent: Chatbots Made From The Online Habits Of Dead People

by Timothy Geigner

Every once in a while, you come across some story about chatbots. These tend to range from fun stories about how someone makes a chatbot to make some interaction more efficient to some large company making a chatbot that turns out to be horrifically racist thanks to its interactions with the general public. Good times all around, in other words.

But a recent patent granted to Microsoft is a whole different thing.

The patent describes creating a bot based on the “images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages”, and more personal information.

“The specific person [who the chat bot represents] may correspond to a past or present entity (or a version thereof), such as a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, a celebrity, a fictional character, a historical figure, a random entity etc”, it goes on to say.

“The specific person may also correspond to oneself (e.g., the user creating/training the chat bot,” Microsoft also describes – implying that living users could train a digital replacement in the event of their death.

I'll go ahead and wait while you finish shivering in revulsion. Done? Cool, because we aren't done yet. The patent also lays out how the use of a deceased person's image could be used to create a 3D model of the dearly departed, allowing for the construction of not just a "chatbot", but one that uses images of a person to make the interaction with others more... personable. And, well, if all of this sounds like something that would have appeared in famed creepy-show Black Mirror, good instincts, because it already did.

The idea that you would be able, in the future, to speak to a simulation of someone who has passed on is not new. It is famously the plot of the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back”, where a young woman uses a service to scrape data from her deceased partner to create a chatbot – and eventually a robot.

Most will point out that Black Mirror episodes tend to serve as warnings, not how-tos. But let's all take a breath here. The concept of being able to build some simulacrum for long lost family members or historical figures is no doubt interesting. And, assuming everyone involved understands the limitations for what this technology actually can do and is, the tech itself isn't particularly harmful.

But what we do need to pay very close attention to are the implications for privacy and transparency should anyone seek to opt into this. Otherwise, you can imagine a world where grandma, having died 2 years ago, suddenly reaches out to you on the internet and wants a quick chat. And that, I feel confident, nobody wants.

30 Jan 00:03

Do This If You Lose Your Child in Public

by Meghan Moravcik Walbert

Every parent has been there (and if you haven’t yet, give it time): Your focus shifts for just a moment. You’re at the store, trying to pick out the right birthday card for your sister. Or you’re digging money out of your wallet to pay for the corn dog at the fair. Your back is only turned for literal seconds, but…

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29 Jan 19:48

Cori Bush Is Switching Offices to Get Away From Marjorie Taylor Greene

by Daniella Byck
How contentious are things getting over at the US Congress? Representative Cori Bush tweeted Friday that she has been forced to switch offices in order to distance herself from QAnon-sympathetic representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Bush wrote that Greene and her staff “berated” the Missouri congresswoman while not wearing masks, and that the office move is […]
29 Jan 19:36

When the U.S. could be vaccinated

by Nathan Yau

For Reuters, Feilding Cage, Chris Canipe and Prasanta Dutta made an interactive that lets you adjust dose rate and state in a simulation to get an estimate for when we might reach herd immunity.

As with any simulation, there are assumptions and simplifications. In this case, the dose rate stays uniform and total population is used, even though there are no vaccines available to children yet. But it’s something.

My main takeaway is that we’re gonna have to be patient (still).

Just speaking to the chart, I like the sketch-ish dashed lines and gradient to show herd immunity ranges. They communicate that things are still uncertain.

Tags: coronavirus, Reuters, vaccine