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22 Feb 12:40

The Beach Boys sell the rights to their intellectual propertyThe Beach Boys sell the rights to their...

The Beach Boys sell the rights to their intellectual property

The Beach Boys sell the rights to their intellectual property

22 Feb 12:40

Maryland police reform would repeal officer job protectionsMaryland police reform would repeal...

Maryland police reform would repeal officer job protections

Maryland police reform would repeal officer job protections | WTOP

22 Feb 12:39

Wind turbines can handle the cold just fine. Just look at Iowa.

by Lili Pike
Wind turbines thriving in the Iowa winter in 2020. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Some Republicans want you to think wind turbines caused the Texas blackout. Here’s why they’re wrong.

As the energy crisis in Texas deepened this week, leaving millions without power, heat, and even running water, conservative commentators and politicians persistently peddled a myth that wind turbines are to blame.

“It seems pretty clear that a reckless reliance on windmills is the cause of this disaster,” Tucker Carlson said Monday on Fox News. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also used wind power as a scapegoat for the crisis when he appeared on Fox Tuesday night, but he later walked back his comments.

Let’s get the facts straight. Every type of power plant — whether powered by coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar, or wind sources — in Texas was impacted by the ice and freezing temperatures that arrived with Winter Storm Uri over the weekend. But it was natural gas — the state’s top source of electricity — that failed most significantly as wellheads and power plants froze over. Wind turbines, meanwhile, were responsible for 13 percent of the total lost electricity output, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s nonprofit grid operator.

But there is nothing innate about wind power — or natural gas — that caused these power plants to fail. It’s merely a matter of preparation, Hui Hu, a professor of aerospace engineering at Iowa State University who studies wind turbines, told Vox.

Places reliant on wind energy that are no strangers to cold and ice — from Sweden to Iowa — are proof that the freezing of turbines in Texas was not inevitable. The difference: Unlike in Texas, those turbines were weatherized to operate in the cold.

Does this mean that, as wind power contributes a greater and greater share of electricity in states like Texas, all wind turbines have to be storm-proofed to avoid a future mass blackout like this week’s? This is ultimately a risk calculation that lawmakers and scientists will have to make going forward, but the scale of the damage from this blackout suggests the upfront investment would be worthwhile.

So, how exactly do cold veterans like Iowa keep their turbines turning, and what can we learn from them?

Why only some ice is problematic for wind turbines

To understand how to winterize wind turbines, we first need to take a slightly deeper dive into why ice caused some turbines to fail in Texas.

The answer has to do with the specific intersection of temperature and humidity. At Iowa State, Hu and his research team pinpointed these factors through a decade of research to figure out why some ice impacts wind turbines and what can be done to stop it.

Hu oversees experiments at what he proudly tells Vox is the largest wind tunnel at any US university. Originally set up to test de-icing methods for airplanes, Hu’s lab converted the tunnel to blow icy wind at wind turbine blades when Iowa started to go big on wind power a decade ago. These experiments have given us a lot of information about how to keep wind turbines moving in the winter.

The researchers identified one kind of ice — wet “glaze” ice — that is particularly of concern. This ice creates a cottage cheese-like texture on turbine blades, which slows down airflow. In a field experiment, researchers found that during a 30-hour period when blades iced over, power production dropped by up to 80 percent.

Even worse, this ice can cause turbines to become severely unbalanced and vibrate, potentially even breaking under the stress. So if turbines aren’t winterized, operators will shut them down before they reach that point, Hu explained.

It was exactly this wet ice that formed on turbine blades in Texas when Arctic air met Gulf humidity, Hu said. Meanwhile, in Iowa, the temperatures are usually so low and the air so dry that smooth “rime” ice forms over turbine blades, which doesn’t affect the turbines as much. You can see the difference in the photo from one of Hu’s team’s experiments below.

 Iowa State University
The difference between dry “rime” ice and wet “glaze” ice — the latter is what impacted Texas’s turbines.

Low temperatures alone can also cause some turbine components to malfunction without proper protective technologies. But Hu pointed out that the higher density of cold air actually boosts wind power generation in the winter.

How some of the coldest regions keep their turbines turning

So, how do wind farms respond to these different types of ice, to keep their turbines from shutting down as they did in Texas?

In wetter places like Scandinavia and Scotland, some turbines are filled with hot air while others have a special coating to prevent ice from forming. These winter-ready turbines cost about 5 percent more than regular turbines, and the heating process uses up some of their energy output, Stefan Skarp, who oversees wind power for Swedish utility Skellefteå Kraft, told Bloomberg News. Hu’s team is working on more energy-efficient technologies that could be cheaper.

Because Iowa is blessed with drier ice, wind farms there haven’t had to invest in such elaborate measures while reaching the highest share of wind electricity generation in the country: 42 percent in 2019.

Midwestern utility company MidAmerican Energy Company has shown that wind energy is highly reliable, even in harsh Iowa conditions. In 2020, 80 percent of the utility’s electricity was generated by renewable energy — the majority of which comes from its 3,300 wind turbines, said Geoff Greenwood, a spokesperson for MidAmerican Energy.

“This year it’s been cold, but our wind fleet continues to generate clean energy for our customers,” he said. All that’s needed is a few extra measures in the turbine design to make sure certain components don’t freeze up.

Some Iowa wind operators use flashier action movie techniques to keep their turbines going. Helicopters and drones swoop over turbines dropping hot water or de-icing chemicals. But this is typically just a one-off measure if bad ice hits, Hu said.

Should Texas winterize all of its turbines?

Given that winterizing turbines costs more, should Texas wind developers take a cue from Sweden and pay that price upfront to help avoid future disasters?

Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of energy systems engineering at Princeton University, argued in a New York Times op-ed on Wednesday that electricity systems need to be ready for future risks. “Preparing for extreme events is like buying [a] home or health insurance: it costs you every year and you hope you’ll never use it. But when a crisis strikes, paying the premiums can look like the perfect decision in hindsight.”

After this crisis comes to an end, “Texans will have to determine just how much insurance is worth taking out,” he added.

This doesn’t just apply to one type of power generation. “Because wind is the new kid on the block, it’s getting a lot of attention,” said Kerri Johannsen, energy program director at the Iowa Environmental Council. But all grids have to consider whether their systems can weather the extremes brought by climate change.

Oversight is increasing to ensure grids are up to the challenge. The Texas Tribune reported that the North American Electric Reliability Corporation is working on establishing mandatory requirements for power plants to prepare for winter extremes. Even though Texas operates its own grid, it would also be subject to these rules.

Texas has ignored previous guidance. In 2011, after a storm caused a severe blackout, ERCOT developed winterization guidelines, but they weren’t enforced. Now, facing the consequences, Gov. Abbott has called for these winterization measures to be required and for the state legislature to fund the necessary upgrades.

As the old saying goes, “You should never let a crisis go to waste.” After all the havoc that the grid failures have wreaked this week, it's critical that these calls for action don’t just fade away as they did after 2011. Texans should know wind itself isn’t the problem; it’s a question of how much insurance state leaders are willing to purchase to prevent another disaster of this magnitude.

22 Feb 12:35

What it’s like to die from Covid-19

by Katherine Harmon Courage
Healthcare workers prepare to prone a patient in the Covid-19 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) in Mission Hills, California. | Ariana Drehsler/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy”: Doctors describe what their sickest coronavirus patients endure.

We’ve reached half a million deaths from the coronavirus in the US. But most of these deaths — and the grueling medical ordeals leading up to them — have remained largely hidden from view. The majority of terminally ill Covid-19 patients typically spend their last days or weeks isolated in ICUs to keep the virus from spreading.

“Most of what I’m seeing is behind closed curtains, and the general public isn’t seeing this side of it,” says Todd Rice, a critical care and pulmonology specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Even “families are only seeing a little bit of it,” he says. As a result, most of us have been “protected and sheltered from seeing the worst of this disease.”

So what have these 500,000 people endured as the infection took over and their bodies failed? The terrible details have been strikingly absent from most of our personal and national discussions about the virus. But if we have been thus far (perhaps somewhat willfully) blind to the excruciating ways Covid-19 takes lives, this milestone is an opportunity to open our eyes.

 Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
A woman holds her husband’s hand as a nurse holds a phone displaying a mariachi band playing “La mano de Dios,” his favorite song, at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California.

Four physicians, who collectively have cared for more than 100 dying Covid-19 patients over the past 11 months, shared with Vox what their patients have gone through physically and mentally as the virus killed them. Their experiences reveal the isolating and invasive realities of what it is typically like for someone to die from Covid-19.

Lungs “full of bees” and a “sense of impending doom”

The torture of Covid-19 can begin long before someone is sick enough to be admitted to a hospital intensive care unit.

Since the coronavirus attacks the lungs, it hampers the intake of oxygen. People with worsening Covid-19 typically show up in the emergency room because they are having trouble breathing.

As their lungs deteriorate further, they have a harder and harder time getting enough oxygen with each breath, meaning they need to breathe faster and faster — up from an average of about 14 times per minute to 30 or 40. Such gasping can bring about a very real sense of panic.

Imagine trying to breathe through a very narrow straw, says Jess Mandel, chief of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at UC San Diego Health. “You can do that for 15 to 20 seconds, but try doing it for two hours.” Or for days or weeks.

Patients struggling through low oxygen levels like this have told Kenneth Remy, an assistant professor of critical care medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, that it feels like a band across their chest or that their lungs are on fire. Or like a thousand bees stinging them inside their chest. Others might have thick secretions in their lungs that make it feel like they are trying to breathe through muck. Many people say it feels like they’re being smothered.

The ordeal is so taxing that many wish for death. “You hear the patients say, ‘I just want to die because this is so excruciating,’” Remy says. “That’s what this virus does.”

“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy”

Others feel that death is coming no matter what they do. Rice notes that is much more so for his Covid-19 patients than others he has treated. There seems to be something about Covid-19, he says, “that makes people prone to having a feeling of, ‘I really believe I’m going to die.’”

Meilinh Thi, who specializes in critical care and pulmonology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, has witnessed the same thing. “A lot of patients, regardless of age, have this sense of impending doom,” Thi says. Many have told her outright they felt like they were going to die. Eerily, “Everyone who has told me that has passed away,” she says.


The agony of being critically ill with Covid-19 isn’t just borne by the body but also by the mind. “It doesn’t only put your lungs on fire or give you a horrible headache or make you feel miserable or make you breathe really fast,” Remy says. “It also wreaks havoc on your mental state.”

For one, from the time anyone with Covid-19 is admitted to the hospital, they are essentially cut off from almost everything that is familiar. Most Covid-19 deaths have occurred in hospitals, but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that some are also dying in long-term care facilities (about 10 percent) or at home (about 6 percent).

 Mario Tama/Getty Images
Chaplain Kevin Deegan prays with a Covid-19 patient, as she speaks with family members remotely, at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Los Angeles.

“A lot of patients have told me how isolating and how lonely it is,” Thi says. And many get depressed. It is also incredibly scary to reach that point of illness with a disease that we know has already killed so many people, she and others point out.

All of these challenges have a cumulative effect. “If you can understand being in the hospital for two, three weeks, continuously breathing that fast, not having good interactions with your family because they can’t come and visit you — it’s extremely anxiety-provoking. It’s scary,” Remy says.

Being in the ICU for any reason also vastly increases a person’s risk for delirium, a state of confusion that can result in agitation, fear, and anger. Medications used to sedate people or relieve pain (both common in Covid-19 treatment) are part of the reason for this risk, as are the constant monitoring and physical disturbances — and subsequent sleep disruption.

Being a Covid-19 patient increases this likelihood of disorientation even more. Some estimates put the rate of delirium among adult ICU Covid-19 patients at about 65 percent.

One reason for this extra risk is that the only people patients see are covered in head-to-toe PPE, often with only their eye area visible behind a shield or goggles, rendering them even more anonymous and unfamiliar. (ICU nurses have described working alongside the same people for decades and now not recognizing them due to all the protective gear.) “That for sure increases the risk of delirium,” Thi says.

As a Covid-19 patient, “You’re just devoid of human contact to a large degree,” Mandel says.

And that is no small thing. With loved ones relegated to video calls, personal connection through in-person visits — typically a mainstay during an intensive hospital stay — is gone.

“If your mom or dad or spouse was in the hospital and was very sick, you would be at their bedside holding their hand,” Remy says. With fatal Covid-19, your last meaningful contact with family, before your final hours, might be as you get admitted into the ER, days or weeks before.

Doctors often have to use many invasive procedures to try to save lives

Anyone unwell enough to be in the ICU for any reason will be hooked up to lots of machines. But people with severe Covid-19 face a particularly grueling and invasive experience.

When people can no longer breathe for themselves and still aren’t getting enough oxygen from external sources (like short nose tubes or a BiPap machine, like those some people wear for sleep apnea), the next step is usually putting them on a ventilator.

To do this, patients are put on IV-based sedation and pain medication so they can tolerate the procedure. A tube is inserted into the mouth and down the airway so the machine can pump air into the lungs. The tube can remain there for days or weeks, during which time that person will remain heavily sedated and unable to talk. (This sedation can also mask other problems that arise during their illness, such as major strokes.)

“The technology we have is very powerful in terms of keeping people alive but less powerful at turning things around”

Those who have survived the ordeal often don’t even remember the day leading up to being put on ventilation, Thi says. “They say they really just lost that portion of their life.”

The ventilator itself is not without risks. For example, if the machine is set to deliver too much air, it can cause additional lung damage. And the breathing tube only tends to be safe to keep in place for about two to three weeks, Thi notes. After that, it can start to deteriorate. At that point, doctors might surgically insert a tube into the patient’s neck — a procedure known as a tracheostomy — to connect them to the ventilator.

For some, even mechanical ventilation can’t get them enough oxygen. These patients often get put on “heart-lung” machines, which pump blood out of the body, through a machine that oxygenates it, and back in. (These are also sometimes used for people who have suffered a heart attack, and are known to have numerous side effects, such as increased risk for strokes as well as for agitation and delirium.) This process requires two large catheters (long tubes) inserted into a major artery or vein, so the machine can effectively pump enough blood in and out of the body.

Flipping people onto their stomachs has also helped get more air into their systems. During this practice, called proning, the sick individual is typically put on a medication to paralyze them so they cannot move. (Medical staff also turn incapacitated patients in bed every couple of hours “to make sure their skin doesn’t break down,” Thi says.)

 Ariana Drehsler/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Health care workers prone a patient in the Covid-19 intensive care unit overflow area at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, California.

A significant proportion of people — somewhere between about 1 in 5 and 1 in 3 — who get very sick with Covid-19 also end up with kidney failure. To prevent this from killing them, they’re put on dialysis machines, which take blood out of the body and filter it before returning it to the body. This procedure can cause nausea, cramping, and chronic itching. Anyone getting dialysis will need two additional large catheters put into another major blood vessel.

But these aren’t all of the tubes critically ill Covid-19 patients need. They also have a central venous catheter to administer medication. This long tube usually gets inserted into a major vein in the clavicle or groin, then is pushed through the vein until it reaches the heart, where it will stay until that person recovers or dies. Another catheter, sometimes put in near the groin, will take the person’s blood for analysis.

Other catheters will be inserted into the urethra to drain urine (which is monitored closely) and the rectum to frequently evacuate their feces (which is especially important because Covid-19 often causes diarrhea). Additional IVs, such as for hydration and medications, will poke patients in smaller vessels as well. People this ill with Covid-19 will also have a tube put into their mouth or nose and down into their stomach, to deliver a nutritious slurry to prevent malnutrition.

On top of all of these tubes and needles, a number of other beeping and humming devices monitor a person’s vitals. Leads attached to the chest track heart function, and a pulse oximeter on the finger keeps tabs on oxygen saturation. A standard cuff monitors blood pressure, but people often get an additional catheter into yet another vessel to measure blood pressure from within that artery.

All of these incredibly invasive interventions have a goal of sustaining the body simply so that it can try to fight off the virus and heal. “The technology we have is very powerful in terms of keeping people alive but less powerful at turning things around,” Mandel says. “It’s always a race.”

But even all of these procedures — alongside treatments like dexamethasone and remdesivir — are not enough to save everyone with Covid-19. Some people decline to go through some or all of this, or at least to endure it indefinitely, but that does not guarantee a lack of suffering. And for those most unlucky 1.8 percent of people confirmed to have Covid-19 in the US, death will then be imminent.

The end

Once someone is sick enough with Covid-19 that they need a ventilator, their chance of survival is somewhere between 40 and 60 percent, notes Remy. “You flip a coin, and you may be one of those people who die,” he says.

Remy recalls one particularly difficult week during the fall surge when he cared for a number of people in their 40s and 50s who ultimately died. Most of them were obese but otherwise healthy when they caught Covid-19 by not wearing a mask.

“One of the[se] patients specifically told me before I put the breathing tube in, ‘Let everyone know that this is real, my lungs are on fire. It’s like there’s bees stinging me. I can’t breathe. Please let them know to wear a mask ... because I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.’”

Right after that patient died, Remy made a precautionary video that he posted on Twitter.

If a patient’s breathing deteriorates slowly, hospitals can often arrange a way for them to talk with family members before they get intubated. Because after the tube goes in, they might not be conscious or able to talk again before they die. Regardless, the last person they have conscious contact with is typically a member of the medical staff before they are heavily sedated to receive the ventilator tube. In essence, “It could be anybody,” Rice says.

Despite the strict isolation for Covid-19 patients, “We try to make sure patients don’t die alone,” Thi says. For those who quickly nosedive, there often isn’t time to bring in family. Those people die surrounded by medical staff, either receiving CPR or, if they had do not resuscitate orders, with staff standing by.

For those who fall toward death, family — in full PPE — are now typically allowed in (which wasn’t usually the case at the beginning of the pandemic). At that point, “We would proceed with comfort measures only,” Thi says. In this scenario, the dying person will be on heavy medication as the ventilator tube is removed. Even still, once it gets taken out, people often gasp or cough as the body fights for air before they die.

 Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images
Funeral home transporter Reggie Elliott prepares a body at Maryland Cremation Services in Millersville, Maryland.

Despite the palliative care and the possibility for family to now be present for a person’s actual death, doctors describe Covid-19 as a uniquely terrible way to die. “Covid is just so different,” Thi says. “I don’t think anything could be comparable to it. ... I don’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

Remy agrees. After having cared for patients dying from infectious diseases all over the world, he says, “I don’t know a disease that wreaks such havoc on the body and on the mind.” Which is perhaps why his dying patient was pleading with him so desperately just before being intubated to tell people to wear their masks and take the virus seriously.

Because otherwise, it will continue to take thousands of lives this way each day in the US until we can get vaccines to almost everyone.

Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance science journalist and author of Cultured and and Octopus! Find her on Twitter at @KHCourage.

22 Feb 12:19

Study blames Earth’s magnetic field flip for climate change, extinctions

by John Timmer
Image of a large tree

Enlarge / The massive trunk of a kauri tree can remain intact for tens of thousands of years. (credit: W. Bulach / Wikimedia)

The Earth's magnetic field helps protect life from energetic particles that would otherwise arrive from space. Mars now lacks a strong magnetic field, and the conditions on its surface are considered so damaging to life that any microbes that might inhabit the planet are thought to be safely beneath the surface. On Earth, the magnetic field ensures that life can flourish on the surface.

Except that's not always true. The Earth's magnetic field varies, with the poles moving and sometimes swapping places and the field sometimes weakening or effectively vanishing. Yet a look at these events has revealed nothing especially interesting—no obvious connections to extinctions, no major ecological upsets.

A paper published yesterday in Science provides an impressively precise dating for a past magnetic field flip by using rings of trees that have been dead for tens of thousands of years. And it shows the flip was associated with changes in climate. But the paper then goes on to attempt to tie the flip to everything from a minor extinction event to the explosion of cave art by our ancestors. In the end, the work is a mix of solid science, provocative hypothesizing, and unconstrained speculation.

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21 Feb 09:25

How Oregon's Top Wildlife Official Got Sued Over His State's Hunting App

by Joe Mullin

What if you could get a patent on a new government program? Then, you could ask for the government to pay you royalties just for running that program. Nice work, if you can get it.

Oregon resident Iiley Thompson is the named inventor on U.S. Patent No. 10,257,651, “Mobile electronic device for identifying and recording an animal harvest.” Shortly after his patent issued in 2019, Thompson’s lawyers sent a letter to the Oregon Department of Justice, suggesting that the Oregon government take a license to his patent.1

Thompson claims that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s MyODFW app, which allows hunters and anglers to complete their licensing paperwork on a mobile device, infringes his patent.

Claim 1 describes:

  • Entering animal harvest data (i.e. how many fish of a certain type you caught) into a computer

  • Uploading the harvest data, together with location data, to a second computer (operated by someone else)

  • Checking the data against the maximum allowed by the user’s license

In other words, Thompson patented following state laws, and filing the appropriate paperwork, but you know, connected to a powerful computer network. Claim 2 describes the same system, but specifies a mobile device as the first computer and a server as the second.

On January 22, Thompson filed a lawsuit claiming that MyODFW infringes his patent. But he didn’t sue the state or any of its departments—he sued Curt Melcher, the Director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, personally.

Making it Personal

Because of a legal concept called sovereign immunity, you generally can’t sue a state government, or any of its departments, for patent infringement. When I saw the Thompson v. Melcher case as I was going through this year’s first patent lawsuits, it struck me as a possible attempt to do an end-run on sovereign immunity.

I ran this hypothesis by Joshua Landau, patent counsel at Computer Communications & Industry Association, who agreed that it did look like a way to put legal pressure on a state when you can’t sue the state. He pointed me to a 1908 Supreme Court case called Ex parte Young, which suggests just this method to get around sovereign immunity. Plaintiffs can sue a state official who they believe is in violation of a federal law. In this case, because Thompson is barred from arguing that the State of Oregon is violating his patent, he’s saying Melcher personally has contributed to the infringement of his patent.

The Ex parte Young route doesn’t provide a way to get damages, only an injunction, and indeed Thompson doesn’t ask for damages in his lawsuit. If Thompson’s extremely broad claims are valid, in my view, that would basically mean shutting down the MyODFW app.

"It certainly looks like an attempt to put pressure on the state, both through legal expenditures, and by threatening to enjoin a service they provide," Landau said. "Suing an individual official is a plausible strategy to try to get around state sovereign immunity in some cases, but there are significant open questions."

Among those questions would be whether or not Melcher has a significant enough connection to the allegedly infringing app. Melcher is a longtime public servant who has served as ODFW’s director since 2015.

Patenting A Government Service Is Pretty Bad

Regardless of who is being sued, Thompson’s patent on e-tagging wildlife is very problematic in and of itself. Most government services aren’t really “inventions.” So there really shouldn’t be patents on collecting benefits, or getting a certain type of state-granted license, or reporting your taxes. And because of the Alice v. CLS Bank Supreme Court case, similar “do it on a computer”-style patents should be banned, as well. We shouldn’t be seeing patents that cover “requesting benefits plus a powerful computer network” or “sending your paperwork to the government oh but on a smartphone.”

But we do see them all the time, because it’s a broken system. Patent examiners have, on average, 19 hours to prove applicants like Iiley Thompson should not get a patent.2 Applicants get an unlimited number of do-overs, as long as they can keep paying for them.

Thompson’s patent application was filed in 2015. At that date, it was utterly predictable that government services like hunting licenses would continue to move online, as they already had been for many years.

And it wasn’t just predictable in a general sense—it was specifically predictable that Oregon regulators would move their hunting licenses to smartphones. They were already moving other ODFW services to smartphones, and were being as public about it as possible. By late 2014, about a year before Thompson filed his patent application, the Department linked smartphones to its hunting map. This was reported in The Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper. By mid-2015, ODFW had come out with a fishing-specific app, which was reported in the Klamath Falls Herald and News.

So it’s hardly shocking that in March 2016, ODFW got started thinking about how they could improve their licensing process. The timeline for Oregon’s creation of electronic licensing is laid out in this ODFW PowerPoint.

Notably, Thompson never actually created his own app, at least not one that’s ever been made publicly available. As his complaint states, “Thompson has never offered nor sold, and has never authorized nor licensed any other to offer or sell, a system or method covered by the claims of the ‘651 patent.”

Thompson runs a footwear business in a town just south of Portland, and has an extensive resume of work in that industry, including stints at Adidas and Nike. I asked Thompson to talk about his case to get his side of it, but he declined an interview. I also emailed the public information office at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, but didn’t hear back.

1 Patent demand letters frequently do not make explicit “demands,” but rather couch the language in terms of making an “offer” to license or buy a patent. But, it’s generally understood to be a demand for payment. It puts the recipient officially on notice, which can have other effects, like increasing damages. More examples of demand letters are at

2 Frakes, Michael and Wasserman, Melissa F., The Failed Promise of User Fees: Empirical Evidence from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (December 2014). Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Vol. 11, Issue 4, pp. 602-636, 2014. For something free and more readable, see this 2014 piece in The Washington Post, “Inside the stressed-out, time-crunched patent examiner workforce.”

Originally posted to the Letters Patent blog.

20 Feb 00:53

Perseverance Microphones

If the first audio they downlink is from the descent, we probably won't be able to hear anything over the sound of the rover screaming.
20 Feb 00:53

Pfizer vaccine doesn’t need ultra-cold storage after all, company says

by Beth Mole
A picture taken on January 15, 2021 shows a pharmacist holding with gloved hands a vial of the undiluted Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19.

Enlarge / A picture taken on January 15, 2021 shows a pharmacist holding with gloved hands a vial of the undiluted Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19. (credit: Getty | JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER)

In a bit of good news, Pfizer and BioNTech announced today that their highly effective COVID-19 vaccine does not require ultra-cold storage conditions after all and can be kept stable at standard freezer temperatures for two weeks.

The companies have submitted data to the US Food and Drug Administration demonstrating the warmer stability in a bid for regulatory approval to relax storage requirements and labeling for the vaccine.

If the FDA greenlights the change, the warmer storage conditions could dramatically ease vaccine distribution, allowing doses to be sent to non-specialized vaccine administration sites. The change would also make it much easier to distribute the vaccine to low-income countries.

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19 Feb 19:37

A Fun Activity

by Reza
19 Feb 19:37

It took a year, but Gwyneth Paltrow figured out how to exploit the pandemic

by Beth Mole
It took a year, but Gwyneth Paltrow figured out how to exploit the pandemic


Gwyneth Paltrow is at it again. Here's the scene for the perfect grift for our times:

Tens of millions of people around the country have fallen ill with COVID-19. Nearly half a million have died. Given chronic testing shortages, millions more have likely been infected and never diagnosed. Some of those infected will develop long-term effects, suffering lingering symptoms for weeks to months—or maybe longer.

Sometimes the symptoms appear to be direct extensions of the illness, such as lingering shortness of breath, cough, and/or chest pain. Other times, the symptoms may be more nondescript, such as fatigue and trouble concentrating, aka “brain fog.”

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19 Feb 19:35

Simulation for different immunity scenarios

by Nathan Yau

As vaccinations roll out, we work towards herd immunity, there are various challenges to consider along the way. Thomas Wilburn and Richard Harris, reporting for NPR, used simulations to imagine three scenarios: a more infectious variant of the coronavirus, high initial immunity, and low initial immunity.

Since it’s a simulation it of course doesn’t consider every real-life detail of immunity and viral spread, but the animations and the hexagon grids provide a good overhead view.

Tags: coronavirus, herd, immunity, NPR, simulation

19 Feb 19:34

North Dakota's New Anti-230 Bill Would Let Nazis Sue You For Reporting Their Content To Twitter

by Mike Masnick

Earlier this month, we wrote about how various Republicans in state legislatures were introducing blatantly unconstitutional bills that tried to do away with Section 230 and which all attempted to block the ability of websites to do any content moderation. Many of the bills were nearly identical (and may have come from Chris Sevier, the profoundly troubled individual, who somehow keeps convincing state legislators to introduce blatantly unconstitutional bills that attack speech online). One of the bills we mentioned was from North Dakota. Lawyer Akiva Cohen points out that the North Dakota bill has been updated... and (incredibly) made even more blatantly unconstitutional.

Most notably, the new amendment from Rep. Tom Kading, would not only gut Section 230, but would stop any website from doing any moderation of any user for their viewpoints. Any viewpoints. Anywhere (even off platform). And then... it adds in a private cause of action, saying that would allow a user to sue any website for moderation:

That says:

A user residing in, doing business in, sharing expression in, or receiving expression in this state may bring a civil action in any court of this state against a social media platform or interactive computer service for violation of this chapter against the user, and upon finding the defendant has violated or is violating the user's rights under this chapter, the court shall award:

  1. Declaratory relief;
  2. Injunctive relief;
  3. Treble damages or, at the plaintiff's option, statutory damages of up to fifty thousand dollars; and
  4. Costs and reasonable attorney's fees.

That's already bad, but it gets worse, because it also creates a private cause of action against anyone "aiding and abetting" the moderation:

That one says:

A user residing in, doing business in, sharing expression in, or receiving expression in this state may bring a civil action in any court of this state against any person who aids or abets a violation of this chapter against the user, and upon finding the defendant has violated or is violating the user's rights under this chapter, the court shall award:

  1. Declaratory relief;
  2. Injunctive relief;
  3. Treble damages or, at the plaintiff's option, statutory damages of up to fifty thousand dollars; and
  4. Costs and reasonable attorney's fees.

In other words, if you report a Nazi to Twitter, the Nazi can sue you for $50,000. Plus attorney's fees. What the actual fuck are they doing up there in North Dakota? And has it eaten their brains?

The only saving grace of this disastrously unconstitutional bill is that it moots itself. That's because it also has a clause that says that it "does not subject a social media platform or interactive computer service to any remedy or cause of action from which the social media platform or interactive computer service is protected by federal law."

So, um... Section 230 is federal law and it protects against literally everything in this bill. In other words, the only thing this bill serves as is a weird poison pill that if Section 230 is repealed or otherwise modified, then it might allow anyone in North Dakota to sue users for reporting their content to a social media platform.

Jerry Lambe, over at Law & Crime, reached out to Rep. Kading to ask about this bill and Kading's response is so ridiculous that it calls into question how this guy got elected.

“Social media may still censor within the constraints of Section 230. For example censorship of obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable content is completely appropriate under the bill,” he said in an email to Law&Crime. “If the neo-Nazi was censored for such, then the bill would not apply. Though section 230 gives broad protection, it does not protect against censorship outside the scope noted or prohibit regulation if consistent with the section. The bill does not affect any reporting actions.”

As Ari Cohn points out, this is both incoherent and suggests that Kading has no clue about how Section 230 or the 1st Amendment actually work. The 1st Amendment is what gives websites the right to remove whatever content they want. Section 230 just helps them get out of lawsuits over those removals faster. On top of that, the list that Kading mentions from "obscene" to "otherwise objectionable" is only in Section (c)(2) of the law, which almost never shows up in court cases. Courts have made it clear that Section (c)(1), which has no such limitations, is what enables cases to be dismissed regarding moderation choices.

You'd think that maybe someone like Kading would have bothered to learn some of this before (1) introducing a bill or (2) responding to a reporter's question about the bill. But apparently, that's not the kind of state elected official Tom Kading is.

North Dakota citizens: stop electing censorial, ignorant legislators who want to attack the 1st Amendment.

19 Feb 17:42

New Hack Lets Attackers Bypass MasterCard PIN by Using Them As Visa CardNew Hack Lets Attackers...

New Hack Lets Attackers Bypass MasterCard PIN by Using Them As Visa Card

New Hack Lets Attackers Bypass MasterCard PIN by Using Them As Visa Card

19 Feb 17:42

UK Supreme Court says Uber drivers are not independent contractors

by Timothy B. Lee
UK Supreme Court says Uber drivers are not independent contractors

Enlarge (credit: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom has ruled that Uber drivers are legally workers, not self-employed contractors as Uber has argued in courts around the world. The ruling means that drivers in Britain and Northern Ireland are eligible for additional benefits and protections, including a minimum wage.

Uber claims that it merely acts as a technology provider and broker between independent drivers and their customers—much as eBay facilitates sales between buyers and sellers. In Uber's view, this means that it doesn't owe its drivers benefits like unemployment insurance, doesn't need to reimburse drivers for their costs, and isn't bound by minimum wage and overtime rules. Uber emphasizes that its drivers are free to decide when, where, and how much they work.

But critics point out that Uber exerts a lot more control over its drivers—and over the driver-passenger relationship—than a conventional platform like eBay or Airbnb. Uber sets fares, collects payments from customers, deducts its own fee, and remits the remainder to the driver. It requires drivers to accept a large majority of the rides they are offered. It handles customer complaints and kicks drivers off the platform if their average rating falls too low.

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19 Feb 13:47

Trump Hotel Employees Reveal What It Was Really Like Catering to the Right Wing Elite

by Jessica Sidman
  Everyone knew Table 72 belonged to the President. The round booth in the middle of the Trump Hotel’s mezzanine was impossible to miss. It didn’t matter how many Congress members were clamoring for a reservation at the steakhouse or whether some tourist tried to slip a manager some cash (which they definitely did). No […]
19 Feb 12:31

Tech groups sue Maryland to block new digital-ad tax from going into effect

by Kate Cox
Tech groups sue Maryland to block new digital-ad tax from going into effect

Enlarge (credit: G Fiume | Getty )

A group of business organizations led by the US Chamber of Commerce is suing the state of Maryland, seeking to block the implementation of the state's brand-new, first-of-its-kind tax on digital-advertising revenue.

Maryland's tax bill is "deeply flawed" and "illegal in myriad ways," the suit (PDF) alleges, claiming that act will "harm Marylanders and small businesses and reduce the overall quality of Internet content."

"This is a case of legislative overreach, punishing an industry that supports over one hundred thousand jobs in Maryland and contributes tens of billions of dollars to its economy each year," the Internet Association, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement about the suit. "Internet services and companies are proud to play a role in creating opportunities for Maryland’s small businesses and citizens."

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19 Feb 12:30

Peloton Seeks To Invalidate 'Spinning' Trademark Held By Trademark Bully

by Timothy Geigner

Back in 2010, we discussed that the at-the-time "spin class" craze in the fitness world was encountering the fact that one company, Mad Dogg Athletics, held a trademark on the term "spinning" for use in the fitness industry. Mad Dogg had taken to going around the world and threatening anyone else using the term with trademark infringement as a result. And, to be clear, they had a lot of targets for these threats, which factored into the argument that term was now generic and hadn't been properly enforced as a trademark for years.

Since 2010, the spin class craze has morphed out of the brick and mortar gym and into home fitness, with the current fad being app-driven home stationary spin bikes. The leader in that field is, of course, Peloton. Mad Dogg sued Peloton for trademark infringement last year over patents it holds for core features of its bikes. In what may be something of a clap back in that dispute, however, Peloton has now petitioned to have Mad Dogg's "spinning" trademark canceled entirely.

Peloton claimed that rival fitness company Mad Dogg Athletics is “abusively enforcing” its trademark rights of ‘Spinning’ and ‘Spin’ across the indoor biking industry in a petition filed to the US Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (USPTO) yesterday.

The petition argued that the terms are generic and that Mad Dogg’s lawyers have been ceaseless in their campaign to chase down infringers. It also cites John Baudhuin, co-founder of Mad Dogg, admitting to spending “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year” on litigation.

This is Peloton calling out the game, which is very useful. Rather than focusing primarily on the business of selling spin bikes, Mad Dogg instead seems to be focused on policing its trademark. The argument that the term "spinning" has become generic is only bolstered by the high volume of victims of Mad Dogg's bullying. In addition, it would be interesting to see Mad Dogg attempt to come up with any evidence that the wider public currently associates the term with its products, because that feels like it would be a stretch to say the least.

Peloton's petition calls out the extremes to which Mad Dogg has gone in its bullying.

“Enough is enough. It is time to put a stop to Mad Dogg’s tactic of profiting by threatening competitors, marketplaces and even journalists with enforcement of generic trademarks.”

Imagine the instant good the USPTO could do simply by invalidating a trademark for what has become a generic term in the fitness industry.

19 Feb 12:02

Why We Can’t Make Vaccine Doses Any Faster

by by Isaac Arnsdorf and Ryan Gabrielson

by Isaac Arnsdorf and Ryan Gabrielson

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

President Joe Biden has ordered enough vaccines to immunize every American against COVID-19, and his administration says it’s using the full force of the federal government to get the doses by July. There’s a reason he can’t promise them sooner.

Vaccine supply chains are extremely specialized and sensitive, relying on expensive machinery, highly trained staff and finicky ingredients. Manufacturers have run into intermittent shortages of key materials, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office; the combination of surging demand and workforce disruptions from the pandemic has caused delays of four to 12 weeks for items that used to ship within a week, much like what happened when consumers were sent scrambling for household staples like flour, chicken wings and toilet paper.

People often question why the administration can’t use the mighty Defense Production Act — which empowers the government to demand critical supplies before anyone else — to turbocharge production. But that law has its limits. Each time a manufacturer adds new equipment or a new raw materials supplier, they are required to run extensive tests to ensure the hardware or ingredients consistently work as intended, then submit data to the Food and Drug Administration. Adding capacity “doesn’t happen in a blink of an eye,” said Jennifer Pancorbo, director of industry programs and research at North Carolina State University’s Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center. “It takes a good chunk of weeks.”

And adding supplies at any one point only helps if production can be expanded up and down the entire chain. “Thousands of components may be needed,” said Gerald W. Parker, director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at Texas A&M University’s Scowcroft Institute for International Affairs and a former senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services office for preparedness and response. “You can’t just turn on the Defense Production Act and make it happen.”

The U.S. doesn’t have spare facilities waiting around to manufacture vaccines, or other kinds of factories that could be converted the way General Motors began producing ventilators last year. The GAO said the Army Corps of Engineers is helping to expand existing vaccine facilities, but it can’t be done overnight.

Building new capacity would take two to three months, at which point the new production lines would still face weeks of testing to ensure they were able to make the vaccine doses correctly before the companies could start delivering more shots.

“It’s not like making shoes,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with ProPublica. “And the reason I use that somewhat tongue-in-cheek analogy is that people say, ‘Ah, you know what we should do? We should get the DPA to build another factory in a week and start making mRNA.’ Well, by the time a new factory can get geared up to make the mRNA vaccine exactly according to the very, very strict guidelines and requirements of the FDA ... we already will have in our hands the 600 million doses between Moderna and Pfizer that we contracted for. It would almost be too late.”

Fauci added that the DPA works best for “facilitating something rather than building something from scratch.”

The Trump administration deployed the Defense Production Act last year to give vaccine manufacturers priority in accessing crucial production supplies before anyone else could buy them. And the Biden administration used it to help Pfizer obtain specialized needles that can squeeze a sixth dose from the company’s vials, as well as for two critical manufacturing components: filling pumps and tangential flow filtration units. The pumps help supply the lipid nanoparticles that hold and protect the mRNA — the vaccines’ active ingredient, so to speak — and also fill vials with finished vaccine. The filtration units remove unneeded solutions and other materials used in the manufacturing process.

These highly precise pieces of equipment are not typically available on demand, said Matthew Johnson, senior director of product management at Duke University’s Human Vaccine Institute, who works on developing mRNA vaccines, but not for COVID-19. “Right now, there is so much growth in biopharmaceuticals, plus the pinch of the pandemic,” he said. “Many equipment suppliers are sold out of production, and even products scheduled to be made, in some cases, sold out for a year or so looking forward.”

In the meantime, the shortage of vaccines is creating widespread frustration and anxiety as eligible people struggle to get appointments and millions of others wonder how long it will be before it is their turn. As of Feb. 17, the U.S. had distributed 72.4 million doses and administered 56.3 million shots, but fewer than 16 million people have received both of the two doses that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require for full protection.

The Biden administration has said it is increasing vaccine shipments to states by 20%, to 13.5 million doses a week, and encouraged states to give out all their shots instead of holding on to some for second doses. But now that second-dose appointments are coming due, many jurisdictions are having to focus on those and stepping back from vaccinating uninoculated people. Even as the total number of vaccinations increased last week, the number of first doses fell to 6.8 million people, down from 7.8 million three weeks ago, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

At best, it will take until June for manufacturers to deliver enough doses for the roughly 266 million eligible Americans age 16 and over, according to public statements by the companies.

That includes expected deliveries of Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine, which is widely expected to win emergency authorization from the FDA shortly after a public advisory committee meeting on Feb. 26. But Johnson & Johnson has fallen behind in manufacturing. The company told the GAO it will have only 2 million doses ready to go by the time the vaccine is authorized, whereas its $1 billion contract with HHS scheduled 12 million doses by the end of February. It’s not clear what held up Johnson & Johnson’s production line; the company has benefited from first-priority purchases thanks to the DPA, according to a senior executive close to the manufacturing process. A Johnson & Johnson spokesman declined to comment on the cause of the delay, but said the company still expects to ship 100 million U.S. doses by July.

Vaccine supply won’t cover all Americans until late spring, at best

Public statements from vaccine developers Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson illustrate how many people could be covered by the available U.S. supply from now until the end of the summer.

Sources: U.S. Census 2020 Demographic Analysis estimates, company press releases and statements, news reports, GAO. Information as of Feb. 16.

Note: Chart assumes supply will increase evenly from week to week, but actual supply may vary. (Graphic: Lena V. Groeger/ProPublica)

Moderna declined to comment on “operational aspects” of its manufacturing, but “does remain confident in our ability to meet contracted quantities” of its vaccine to the U.S. and other nations, a spokesperson said in a statement. Pfizer did not respond to ProPublica’s written questions.

Ramping up production is especially challenging for Pfizer and Moderna, whose vaccines use an mRNA technology that’s never been mass-produced before. The companies started production even before they finished trials to see if the vaccines worked, another historic first. But it wasn’t as if they could instantly crank out millions of vaccines full blast, since they effectively had to invent a novel manufacturing process.

“Putting together plans 12 months ago for a Phase 1 and 2 trial, and making enough to dose a couple hundred patients, was a big deal for the raw material suppliers,” said Johnson, the product manager at Duke University’s vaccine institute. “It's just going from dosing hundreds of patients a year ago to a billion.”

Raw materials for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are also in limited supply. The manufacturing process begins by using common gut bacteria cells to grow something called “plasmids” — standalone snippets of DNA — that contain instructions to make the vaccine’s genetic material, said Pancorbo, the North Carolina State University biomanufacturing expert.

Next, specific enzymes cultivated from bacteria are added to cause a chemical reaction that assembles the strands of mRNA, Pancorbo said. Those strands are then packaged in lipid nanoparticles, microscopic bubbles of fat made using petroleum or plant oils. The fat bubbles protect the genetic material inside the human body and help deliver it to the cells.

Only a few firms specialize in making these ingredients, which have previously been sold by the kilogram, Pancorbo said. But they’re now needed by the metric ton — a thousandfold increase. Moderna and Pfizer need bulk, but also the highest possible quality.

“There are a number of organizations that make these enzymes and these nucleotides and lipids, but they might not make it in a grade that is satisfactory for human consumption,” Pancorbo said. “It might be a grade that is satisfactory for animal consumption or research. But for injection into a human? That’s a different thing.”

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine follows a slightly more traditional method of growing cells in large tanks called bioreactors. This takes time, and the slightest contamination can spoil a whole batch. Since the process deals with living things, it can be more like growing plants than making shoes. “Maximizing yield is as much of an art as it is a science, as the manufacturing process itself is dependent on biological processes,” said Parker, the former HHS official.

The vaccine developers are continuing to find tweaks that can expedite production without cutting corners. Pfizer is now delivering six doses in each vial instead of five, and Moderna has asked for permission to fill each of its bottles with 15 doses, up from 10. If regulators approve, it would take two or three months to change over production, Moderna spokesman Ray Jordan said on Feb. 13.

“It helps speed up and lighten the logistical side of getting vaccines out,” said Lawrence Ganti, president of SiO2, an Alabama company that makes glass vials for the Moderna vaccine. SiO2 expanded production with $143 million in funding from the federal government last year, and Ganti said there aren’t any hiccups at his end of the line.

Despite the possibility of sporadic bottlenecks and delays in the coming months, companies appear to have lined up their supply chains to the point that they’re comfortable with their ability to meet current production targets.

Massachusetts-based Snapdragon Chemistry received almost $700,000 from HHS' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to develop a new way of producing ribonucleoside triphosphates (NTPs), a key raw material for mRNA vaccines. Snapdragon’s technology uses a continuous production line, rather than the traditional process of making batches in big vats, so it’s easier to scale up by simply keeping production running for a longer time.

Suppliers have told Snapdragon that they have their raw materials covered for now, according to Matthew Bio, the company’s president and CEO. “They’re saying, ‘We have established suppliers to meet the demand we have for this year,’” Bio said.

Help Us Report on COVID-19 Vaccines

Mollie Simon and Caroline Chen contributed reporting.

19 Feb 11:54

Job Interview Comic

by squires

lol job interviews am i right #relateable


Twitter // Instagram //Facebook

The post Job Interview Comic appeared first on Moonbeard.

18 Feb 20:24

“Shameful and inhumane”: DeSantis threatens to withhold vaccine amid criticism

by Beth Mole
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference about the opening of a COVID-19 vaccination site at the Hard Rock Stadium on January 06, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Enlarge / Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference about the opening of a COVID-19 vaccination site at the Hard Rock Stadium on January 06, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Florida. (credit: Getty | Joe Raedle)

As large swaths of the country face snags in COVID-19 vaccine distribution due to crippling snow and ice, some communities in Florida may face snags due to political windstorms from their governor, Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis was criticized this week after the state unveiled plans to open a "pop-up" clinic near Tampa that would offer vaccine doses only to residents in affluent, mostly white, mostly Republican areas of Manatee County. The clinic will vaccinate 3,000 residents of just two ZIP codes in the county, which were reportedly hand-selected by DeSantis and County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh—instead of being selected using the Sunshine State's vaccine lottery system.

Plans for the clinic were born from a deal struck between DeSantis, Baugh, and real estate developer Rex Jensen, according to the Bradenton Herald. DeSantis reportedly reached out to Jenson, who agreed to host the clinic on his development, Lakewood Ranch. The master-planned community covers much of the two selected ZIP codes served by the clinic. The ZIP codes also overlap with Baugh's district.

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18 Feb 18:51

How Ted Cruz’s ill-fated trip to Cancun blew up from Twitter rumor to major scandal

by Aaron Rupar
Senator Ted Cruz.
The optics of Cruz’s trip to Mexico couldn’t have been worse. | Graeme Sloan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cruz forged ahead with plans to travel with his family to Mexico as his constituents struggle to survive.

An emerging political scandal over Ted Cruz’s alleged vacation plans is sweeping the internet amid fallout from Winter Storm Uri, which has left millions of Texans without electricity or running water for days now.

On Wednesday evening, political Twitter became obsessed with unconfirmed reports that the Texas senator flew to Cancun, Mexico, for a family vacation — reports that were confirmed on Thursday morning by Fox News and other outlets.

The optics of a Texas senator flying to a sunny resort as his constituents face unplowed roads, power outages, burst pipes, and food shortages isn’t great, to say the least.

A Twitter user named Juan Gomez sparked curiosity about Cruz’s whereabouts just before 9 pm ET on Wednesday when he posted a photo of a man who appeared to be Cruz waiting to board a plane at an airport above the caption, “Well Senator Cruz is flying to Cancun while millions of Texans do not have electricity.”

That unconfirmed tweet quickly went viral, and before too long, other unconfirmed photos taken by fellow travelers emerged.

Soon, internet sleuths figured out that the man who appeared to be Cruz seemed to be traveling with his wife, Heidi (circled in the picture below), and their children. Others noticed that the man was wearing the same mask and ring that Cruz has been photographed wearing at the Capitol.

Still, as people went to bed on Wednesday evening, the social media reports about Cruz remained unconfirmed. Many noted that Cruz, a prolific and combative Twitter user, had gone radio silent, and his office wasn’t responding to requests for comment — circumstantial evidence suggesting something was up, but still not enough to say for sure that the photos were legit.

A journalist named David Shuster posted a tweet claiming he had “confirmed” that Cruz and his family “flew to Cancun tonight for a few days at a resort they’ve visited before,” but when asked by other reporters to detail his source, Shuster just referred to “multiple eye witnesses.”

Nonetheless, people had jokes ...

... while others remarked on the awful optics of a US senator vacationing in Mexico while his constituents are struggling to survive.

Then on Thursday morning, Fox News’s Chad Pergram became the first reporter from a major outlet to confirm the story, citing his colleague Paul Steinhauser and a GOP source who said “the photos speak for themselves.” (Ironically, Fox News mostly ignored the story on TV, not mentioning it once Thursday morning.)

The Associated Press and ABC later confirmed the story as well, with Houston police telling ABC that Cruz’s staff requested police presence “upon the Senator’s arrival at the airport” on Wednesday.

Politico’s Jake Sherman tweeted that it appeared Cruz was on the upgrade list for a Thursday flight from Cancun to Houston, which suggested that amid the firestorm, Cruz decided to cut his trip short. (Before Fox News confirmed the story, sleuths figured out that Cruz was on the upgrade list for a Wednesday flight from Houston to Cancun.)

Skift’s Edward Russell, citing a United Airlines source, reported that Cruz was originally supposed to return to Houston from Mexico on Saturday but rebooked his flight on Thursday morning. (NBC later confirmed that reporting.) Cruz was photographed on Thursday checking in for his flight back to Texas.

Cruz’s office still hadn’t commented as Thursday morning drew to a close, though there were indications it would try to spin the scandal by claiming Cruz just flew to Mexico to accompany his family.

Indeed, early Thursday afternoon, CNN’s Betsy Klein published a statement from Cruz in which he explained he just flew to Mexico because he wanted “to be a good dad” for his daughters, who “asked to take a trip with friends” because school was “cancelled for the week” because of the natural disaster.

Just before his flight back to Texas, Cruz offered remarks to reporters from the airport in Mexico in which he reiterated the themes from his office’s statement.

But there was even more. On Thursday evening, text messages Heidi Cruz sent to a group of the Cruzes’ neighbors leaked to the liberal group American Bridge and a number of news outlets. In them, Heidi Cruz notes that her house is “FREEZING” and says, “Anyone can or want to leave for the week? We may go to Cancun there is a direct flight at 445pm and hotels w capacity. Seriously.”

The authenticity of the text messages was confirmed by the New York Times.

Upon his return to Texas, Cruz gave a press statement in which chants of “resign!” could be heard behind him ...

... and then did several TV interviews, including a softball one on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show in which Cruz continued to try to shift responsibility for his ill-conceived trip to his daughters and his desire to be a good dad.

It should be noted that while Cruz’s state is in crisis, the US Senate is in recess this week. One Dallas resident wrote to the Dallas Morning News and defended Cruz on that basis, noting that the “Senate is out, he can afford it. ... What exactly is the problem?” (Other right-wing pundits defended Cruz along similar lines.)

But there are still things Cruz could do to try to help even if the Senate isn’t in session. For instance, the Democrat he defeated to retain his Senate seat in 2018, Beto O’Rourke, said he made more than 151,000 calls to senior citizens in Texas on Wednesday alone, and solicited help to do more of the same on Thursday.

Cruz’s flight to Cancun came one day after he posted a tweet acknowledging criticism he was receiving for his tweets from 2019 mocking California when heat waves there caused power outages.

“Stay safe!” Cruz wrote.

And during a radio interview on Monday, Cruz urged constituents to do the exact opposite of what he did.

“We could see 100 people lose their lives this week in Texas,” Cruz said. “So don’t risk it. Keep your family safe and just stay home and hug your kids.”

Meanwhile, Twitter users surfaced tweets Cruz posted less than three months ago attacking a Democratic politician for traveling to Mexico during the coronavirus pandemic while telling his constituents to stay home. Cruz is not only guilty of exactly that, but his trip to Mexico — coming as it does while millions of his constituents are desperately in need of help — is perhaps even worse.

18 Feb 18:48

House Republicans propose nationwide ban on municipal broadband networks

by Jon Brodkin
A United States map overlaid with crisscrossing lines to represent a broadband network.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Paul Taylor)

House Republicans have unveiled their plan for "boosting" broadband connectivity and competition, and one of the key planks is prohibiting states and cities from building their own networks. The proposal to ban new public networks was included in the "Boosting Broadband Connectivity Agenda" announced Tuesday by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Bob Latta (R-Ohio), the top Republicans on the House Commerce Committee and Subcommittee for Communications and Technology, respectively.

Republicans call it the CONNECT Act, for "Communities Overregulating Networks Need Economic Competition Today." The bill "would promote competition by limiting government-run broadband networks throughout the country and encouraging private investment," the Commerce Committee Republicans said in their announcement, without explaining how limiting the number of broadband networks would increase competition. Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) is the lead sponsor.

The bill itself says that "a State or political subdivision thereof may not provide or offer for sale to the public, a telecommunications provider, or to a commercial provider of broadband Internet access service, retail or wholesale broadband Internet access service."

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18 Feb 14:18

Google’s older Pixel cameras are failing at an accelerating rate

by Ron Amadeo
The Pixel 2 XL.

Enlarge / The Pixel 2 XL. (credit: Ron Amadeo)

Does the Pixel camera have a hardware problem? Android Police has tracked down numerous reports of broken cameras on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3, and the Pixel-exclusive Google Camera app has been getting review-bombed with tons of 1-star reviews from users who say their cameras no longer work. Google told the site it doesn't know of any software issues, suggesting that all these people are experiencing a hardware failure.

The problems include the camera app instantly crashing when it is opened, displaying a black screen, or showing an error message that reads "Something went wrong. Close and open the camera app again." Theories about the cause of the issues are all over the place, but it seems hard to blame a software bug since both the Google camera and third-party apps are affected, and uninstalling updates and factory resets doesn't fix the problem.

The main complaint thread on the Pixel Help forums is up to almost 900 replies now. The oldest device, the Pixel 2, seems to be the most affected, but similar reports for the Pixel 3, 3a, and 4 are out there. Every Pixel camera from the Pixel 2 to the Pixel 5 has the same camera sensor (a Sony IMX363/IMX362), so it's possible that they are all affected.

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18 Feb 14:17

Facebook goes nuclear, banning all news posts in Australia

by Timothy B. Lee
A man in a suit seems concerned.

Enlarge / Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Munich Security Conference in 2020. (credit: CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images)

Facebook has gone nuclear in its long-running battle with the Australian government over news content. Australia is considering legislation that would require Facebook to pay to link to Australian news stories. In response, Facebook has announced a wide-ranging ban on users linking Australian news content.

The ban means that Facebook users in Australia can no longer make posts that link to news articles—either in the Australian media or internationally. Meanwhile, users outside of Australia can't post links to Australian news sources. The ban has already gone into effect, as I discovered when I tried to post a link to The Sydney Morning Herald on Facebook:

Facebook says that Australian news publishers will be blocked from sharing or posting content to their Facebook pages. Posts by news publishers outside of Australia won't be available to Australian users.

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18 Feb 14:16

The world’s second-most popular desktop operating system isn’t macOS anymore

by Samuel Axon
Market share chart

Enlarge (credit: Ars Technica)

For ages now, every annual report on desktop operating system market share has had the same top two contenders: Microsoft's Windows in a commanding lead at number one and Apple's macOS in distant second place. But in 2020, Chrome OS became the second-most popular OS, and Apple fell to third.

That's according to numbers from market data firm IDC and a report on IDC's data by publication GeekWire. Chrome OS had passed macOS briefly in individual quarters before, but 2020 was the first full year when Apple's OS took third place.

Despite the fact that macOS landed in third, viewing this as an example of Google beating out Apple directly might not be accurate. Rather, it's likely that Chrome OS has been primarily pulling sales and market share away from Windows at the low end of the market. Mac market share actually grew from 6.7 percent in 2019 to 7.5 percent in 2020.

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18 Feb 14:16

Latest Nintendo Direct event led by Zelda: Skyward Sword HD remaster

by Sam Machkovech
  • Coming July 16 to Nintendo Switch. [credit: Nintendo ]

It has been a while since we've seen a particularly long Nintendo Direct video presentation, and Wednesday's news-filled flurry of game announcements lived up to the company's reputation for surprises and weirdness. And in a tip of its hat to The Legend of Zelda series' 35th anniversary this year, Nintendo capped its first Direct of 2021 with the reveal of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD, coming to Nintendo Switch on July 16.

Skyward Sword was the only mainline Zelda game to launch with a serious reliance on Wii-like controls (Link's Crossbow Training notwithstanding). The 2011 game required the Wii MotionPlus add-on, as its swordplay revolved around precisely angled swipes for the sake of certain enemies and puzzles, and this remaster will let players relive that experience by assigning motion controls to both left and right Joy-Con controllers. Don't worry, Switch Lite owners: this HD re-release doesn't mandate Wii-like waggling. If you prefer, Link's sword angles and item tosses can be assigned to the controller's right analog stick instead.

Whether this control update alone will redeem the game compared to other Zelda classics will probably be a matter of taste. Skyward Sword was notorious for clinging to classic series tenets in ways that bogged down its otherwise gorgeous and accessible gameplay (a criticism that somehow escaped Ars' original review). Its successor, 2017's Breath of the Wild, famously shattered the classic Zelda template—and for the better. But in general, even a lukewarm Zelda game is still a good video game, and like other remastered Zelda games before this one, it looks like we're getting a handsome and tasteful touchup of everything—and this does particular wonders for LoZ:SS' unique "watercolor" aesthetic, which looked quite blurry on the original Wii.

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18 Feb 14:13

Rush Limbaugh’s toxic legacy

by Zack Beauchamp
Rush Limbaugh receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom during former President Donald Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address. | Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

Rush Limbaugh is dead at 70. The Republican Party he poisoned is very much alive.

Obituaries for talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who died on Wednesday at the age of 70, have frequently described him as a “conservative provocateur.” This is technically accurate but euphemistic, akin to calling Bashar al-Assad a “controversial leader.” Limbaugh’s stock in trade was bigotry and offense; his career-long defining trait was a willingness to channel the conservative id in unusually blunt and crude terms.

He repeatedly mocked the death of gay men from AIDS in the 1980s, suggested that the Clintons murdered their aide Vince Foster in the 1990s, called the NBA “the Thug Basketball Association” in 2004, and claimed that college student Sandra Fluke owed him a sex tape in return for taxpayer-subsidized birth control in 2012. He once did an impression of former Chinese President Hu Jintao that consisted mostly of saying “ching chong” over and over again; he had a guest on to sing a song titled “Barack the Magic Negro.”

These examples are not cherry-picked. Bigotry dressed up as “jokes” or “entertainment” were the stock-in-trade of Limbaugh’s show; he built and maintained a massive audience across decades not in spite of this commentary, but because of it.

“Rush built upon an already robust right-wing media and organizational infrastructure and married it to lowbrow entertainment culture, appealing to a deeply politicized audience of angry white men who did not consider themselves political,” writes David Astin Walsh, a historian of conservatism at the University of Virginia. “Limbaugh was the fountainhead for an entire generation of radical right-wing GOP politicians who owe their careers to the politics of resentment and white racial rage.”

Foremost among these leaders, of course, is former President Donald Trump.

Though Limbaugh initially supported Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the 2016 presidential primary, he came around to Trump and Trumpism — becoming one of the former president’s most influential boosters in conservative media. In return, Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom — America’s highest civilian honor — during the 2020 State of the Union speech.

It was darkly appropriate. Limbaugh had more influence on the trajectory of the American right than the vast majority of political leaders; it is not a stretch to say that Trump’s presidency may not have happened without him.

“Rush Limbaugh radically transformed the Republican Party. He elevated conservative media into a coequal branch of party politics, and pioneered a style of rhetoric, argument, and entertainment that would come to define conservative politics,” writes Nicole Hemmer, a historian of talk radio at Columbia University.

This, according to Hemmer, is very much not a good thing.

“The things we now think of as particularly Trumpian features of conservatism — the insults, the conspiracies, the blend of entertainment and politics and anger — Limbaugh had been doing it for a quarter-century before Trump showed up to the party.”

Rush Limbaugh is dead. The rest of us have to live with his baleful legacy.

Limbaugh’s startling influence over the Republican Party

Prior to Limbaugh’s emergence on the national scene in 1988, the conservative mass media as we know it today did not exist. He was the first of the major talk radio hosts. Fox News arrived eight years after Rush; online conservative outlets like Breitbart were quite literally inconceivable at the time. Limbaugh proved that the particular combination of strident right-wing politics, outrageous commentary dressed up as “humor” or “just asking questions,” and incessant attacks on the “liberal media” could be commercially viable with an extremely large audience.

Limbaugh had a singular talent as a performer: an ability to capture the hearts and minds of his supporters with few parallels. His fans called themselves “Dittoheads” because callers would frequently “ditto” each others’ praise of whatever Limbaugh had just said. The dittohead ranks grew rapidly in the late 1980s and early ’90s, and the institutional Republican Party welcomed it. In 1994, first-term House Republicans — who had just won a majority — named him an honorary member of their class.

After his death on Wednesday, leading Republicans from both the party’s insurgent right and establishment wings lined up to praise him. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) lauded him as someone who “lived the First Amendment and told hard truths that made the elite uncomfortable.” Former President George W. Bush described Limbaugh as “a friend throughout my presidency,” a “controversial” figure who nonetheless “spoke his mind as a voice for millions of Americans.”

But perhaps the most interesting conservative statement on Limbaugh’s death came from Noah Rothman, an editor at the venerable conservative magazine Commentary. Rothman, an anti-Trump Republican who has decried the party’s radical trend in recent years, nonetheless had kind words for Limbaugh as an invaluable counterweight to perceived media bias:

This has long been the conservative establishment’s approach to “provocateurs” like Limbaugh and his imitators on Fox News: Sure, they might be crazy, but they’re our crazies.

“People were willing to excuse his takes not only because of a kind of longstanding ‘gotta let people troll/free speech’ type ethic, but also because they to some extent agreed with the right-wing critique of liberal media hegemony,” Paul E. Johnson, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies conservative political rhetoric, tells me. “If you really think you’re at the margins, you have to shout to be heard, and who cares if you ruffle some feathers in the process.”

But now, the party’s leadership is under attack by the monster they created, literally: The mob that attacked Congress on January 6, whose members openly stated their intent to kill lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence, was a product of the fact-free, radical media ecosystem that Limbaugh helped build. Networks like One America News, unthinkable absent Limbaugh’s trailblazing, helped convince Republicans of Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen — the belief that directly caused the Capitol Hill riot.

Rush himself also promoted these theories, of course. And the day after the attack, he seemed to implicitly justify some of the violence in Washington.

“There’s a lot of people calling for the end of violence,” Limbaugh said. “There’s a lot of conservatives, social media, who say that any violence or aggression at all is unacceptable. Regardless of the circumstances. I’m glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual tea party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord didn’t feel that way.”

Now the whole country is suffering the consequences from a Republican base that has been radicalized in no small part by decades of Limbaugh broadcasts blasted into their ears. They’ve been taught that Democrats are mortal enemies, and the media cannot be trusted, by opportunists and bigots like Limbaugh who profit from taking the most explosive and hard-right stance imaginable.

Limbaugh is dead. His brand of poisonous politics will not be laid to rest with him.

18 Feb 14:12

Figure skating is on thin ice. Here’s how to fix it.

by Rebecca Jennings
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

The sport that peaked in the 1990s in the US could desperately use a makeover — and not just at the Olympic level.

Something strange started happening at my skating rink in Vermont as the 2000s approached the 2010s: When I’d arrive for my 6 o’clock lesson before school, the ice seemed to be emptier than the week before. The way it had always worked at our skating club was that as kids grew into teenagers, a new crop of younger skaters would take their place, learning scratch spins and waltz jumps. Suddenly, and without explanation, the crop had thinned out.

Sports fade in and out of fashion for all kinds of reasons. Rollerblading was an immensely popular form of exercise in the 1980s and ’90s before becoming a punchline for homophobic jokes and subsequently dying out — just as pro skateboarding and BMX went mainstream. Field hockey, a mostly male-dominated game in Europe, is almost exclusively played by girls in the US due to the passing of Title IX in 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in public schools and made field hockey a counterweight to boys’ football.

But something more complicated seemed to be going on with figure skating, which only a handful of years before had ranked among Americans’ favorite sports to watch on television, when Champions on Ice traveling to your town was as exciting as a Broadway show and people would actually go to a local rink in the freezing cold to watch a minor competition, even if they didn’t know any of the participants. The Winter Olympics was the highlight of it all, the best-loved sport at the games and the shared dream of seemingly everyone who has ever signed up for a skating lesson.

 Carlo Allegri/AFP/Getty Images
Michelle Kwan leads the podium in 1996, her first of what would be five World Championship titles.

Those of us who started figure skating at the height of its mania in the 1990s wouldn’t realize it until years later, but several interdependent factors had contributed to what seemed to be a sudden disinterest in the sport we had built our lives and identities around. One was a financial crash that made an already prohibitively expensive activity all but an impossibility for working-class families. Another was the fact that Michelle Kwan retired in 2006. (It sounds like I’m being facetious, but I’m not!) Watching the Olympics was a lot less fun with fewer Americans on the podium, due in part to a total rehaul of the scoring system that muddied the dramatics of a perfect 6.0 — more on this later.

Either way, it was clear that by the early 2010s, nobody in the US really seemed to care about figure skating anymore. Children would take group lessons for a few years, learning to make their way around the ice without clutching onto the boards, but never ascending to the competitive level. What was the fun if you weren’t surrounded by dozens of other starry-eyed skaters pushing each other to win an Olympic gold?

The prognosis for fixing American figure skating is bleak: In order to be competitive with the Russians, who have dominated the sport by building elite state-sponsored academies to churn out Olympic contenders, the US would have to dramatically alter the way it approaches both figure skating and youth sports in general, so that children beyond the most privileged could have a real shot.

But there is another possibility, one that would require an overhaul not only of America’s approach to youth sports but also of our ideas about what, and whom, figure skating is for — one in which the future of figure skating perhaps doesn’t center on the Olympics at all. We’ve only seen glimmers of what it could look like, and it isn’t on television: It’s on the internet.

The reason I became a figure skater in the first place was due to one big misunderstanding. When my older sister was little, my parents brought her to a department store and held up a pair of ski boots and a pair of skates and asked her which one she wanted (those were the two main options in Vermont). Thinking that figure skating would be considerably cheaper than skiing, which would involve weekly trips to the resorts and pricey lift tickets on top of lessons and camps, they not-so-subtly encouraged her to pick the skates. The joke was on my parents: Both sports are extremely expensive!

Here’s a sense of how much skating costs, for competitive-up-to-a-point skaters like me and other skaters I’ve talked to: Freestyle sessions, or ice time open to skaters who are official US Figure Skating members (as opposed to public skating), tend to cost between $15 and $25 per hour. Lessons from a professional coach vary widely but are generally between $30 and $60 per half-hour and are usually taken at least twice per week (many skaters also have multiple coaches and choreographers for different elements of skating). Skating club memberships can be around $100 to $200 per year; skates and blades, which are sold separately, can easily go for $1,000.

Add in competition fees (and travel to and from competitions), testing fees, skating dresses and costumes, and regular skate sharpening, and a reasonably competitive skater can spend up to $10,000 per year or more. Of course, many families like mine have found ways to minimize costs: securing free ice time by working at the rink, sewing our own costumes, or using hand-me-down skates, for instance. Still, if we’re talking about the highest level of competitive skaters, take those numbers and multiply everything by … a lot.

 Bettmann Archive
Dick Button practicing at the 1952 Oslo Olympic Games.

Figure skating has more or less always been this way. “The skating that turned into figure skating over a couple of centuries really does have roots among elite white European men,” explains Mary Louise Adams, a professor of kinesiology at Queen’s University and author of Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport. Evolving in the UK as a popular amusement for the aristocracy in the late 18th century, skating clubs typically excluded women, Jews, people of color, and low-income people. “The aesthetics of the sport itself developed in line with that,” Adams says.

Yet as ice rinks began to open across North America in the late 19th century, they became a fashionable place to socialize regardless of sex, race, or class, in part because skating was one of the only activities that single men and women could do together unchaperoned. By the 1920s, figure skating became the first Olympic sport to include a women’s category.

The popularity of figure skating in the 20th century would rise alongside compelling stars like Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, and Scott Hamilton. But nothing would get people to watch skating more than one of the country’s biggest scandals in sports history. “It actually brought notoriety and focus to skating,” former Olympian Lisa-Marie Allen told the Wall Street Journal of the infamous Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan affair, in which Kerrigan was struck in the knee by an attacker hired by Harding’s ex-husband. “It goes with the old saying that any publicity is good publicity.”

 Getty Images
Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding practicing at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.

It wasn’t just the knee whack heard round the world: American women dominated 1990s figure skating, sweeping the podium at the World Championships in 1991 and taking home two Olympic golds and two silvers throughout the decade (by Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski, Nancy Kerrigan, and Michelle Kwan, respectively). Everyone wanted to watch figure skating, and the entertainment industry gave it to them in the form of frequent coverage on an increasing number of cable sports channels, plus hugely popular tours featuring famous skaters who had retired from competition.

At 48.5 million viewers, the 1994 ladies short program was the highest-rated Winter Olympics event in history and the sixth-highest-rated event in TV history. Since then, ratings have slipped; only 21.4 million viewers tuned in for any of the 11 days of figure skating at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. US Figure Skating Championships’ viewership dropped from 6.8 million viewers in 1998 to 4.5 million in 2018, CNN reported.

“There was once an amateur competitive side and a pro entertainment side balancing each other out, and the professional side was the marketing arm for skating because we entertained general audiences,” Scott Hamilton told the Chicago Tribune in 2014.

That side of skating now barely exists. Champions on Ice, an exhibition featuring beloved skaters who’d retired from competition, once toured 70 cities a year; it folded in 2007. In 2001, the similar Stars on Ice held 65 shows; by 2014, it was down to 20. “We actually feel bad for these skaters now,” former Olympic champion Brian Boitano added to the Chicago Tribune. “They don’t know what it was like when skating was rock ’n’ roll.”

The first omen came at the 2002 Olympics, when a French figure skating judge was determined to have made a backdoor deal to award first place to a Russian pairs team in exchange for a high score for French ice dancers. Though fixing competition results was not unheard of, it was directly because of the 2002 Olympics that the International Skating Union (ISU) decided to revamp the scoring system to make cheating more difficult. “All of the reform proposals,” US Figure Skating (formerly the US Figure Skating Association) president Phyllis Howard said at the time, “share the objective of redeeming the reputation of figure skating.”

It didn’t. Instead, the new judging system, which was implemented in 2004, encouraged skaters to perform increasingly difficult jumps with theoretically unlimited points, and they were rewarded even if they fell or failed to complete the full rotation of a jump. Whereas the old system had two separate scores for technical elements and “presentation” and used a 6.0 scale to rank the skaters, the new International Judging System (IJS) gave skaters a base score for each element they performed, a “grade of execution” score for how well they performed it, plus a “component” score to measure skating quality — not to mention the various bonuses and deductions. It wasn’t just more confusing even for the most die-hard fans; it tended to devalue the artistry and choreography that endeared the sport to viewers and athletes. And despite its stated goal, figure skating continues to be marred by nationalistic judging biases.

 Darren Cummings/Getty Images
Ashley Wagner reacts to her short program scores at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games.

“The old six-point system was understandable and one could hear folks in a bar cheer and argue about whether someone should have had a 5.7 or 5.8,” legendary skater and analyst Dick Button told CNN. “Now a ‘personal best’ of 283.4 points is confusing. If you do a quad and fall down, you still get points for it — can you explain that to me?”

The new system has not rewarded US skaters, who train quite differently from their counterparts abroad. Russia, for instance, plucks its promising young skaters from schools and allows them to attend state-sponsored academies in which students take lessons and compete alongside each other regularly. Japan, another skating powerhouse, also has a system in which young skaters attend highly competitive camps to work with elite coaches.

“In the States, it’s too expensive to do training,” coach Rafael Arutyunyan explained to Rolling Stone in 2015. “In Russia ... you are practicing for, like, 15 to 16 years, supported by clubs you belong to. In the States, you’re on your own, you’re by yourself.” Russia now largely dominates international figure skating, boasting a deep well of teenagers who can consistently land triple axels and quad jumps, and therefore are virtually impossible to beat in competition. Olympic wins by Yuna Kim and Yuzuru Hanyu caused the sport to soar in popularity in South Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, few Americans have the financial ability to do nothing but train every day (Olympian Ashley Wagner saved up for training with a part-time job at American Eagle), and the dearth of skating stars means fewer kids have aspired to become one.

 Yegor Aleyev/TASS/Getty Images
Young skaters practice on an outdoor rink in Kazan, Russia.

Another blow to US figure skating came in 2008, when families were walloped by the Great Recession. Youth sports were among the first expenses to go — from 2008 to 2014, participation in team sports dropped from 45 percent to 38 percent and never fully recovered, according to the Associated Press. In the decade-plus since 2008, youth sports participation has risen among families earning $100,000 or more but has declined among families earning less than $25,000. As college admissions has grown more and more competitive, so too have sports travel teams, which only the richest or most devoted athletes can join, leaving the local and recreational teams with fewer opportunities to succeed.

Figure skating is different from other sports in that it falls almost entirely into the “expensive travel team” category, where competitions usually take place hours away from one’s home rink, involving transportation costs and hotel fees. As a (mostly) individual sport, it also means that parents aren’t only paying for ice time; they’re also paying for club memberships, private lessons, and costumes. It is a rare sport in which image and self-presentation are included in the scores, which means that even if skaters from low-income families have the money to pay for the basics, they may not have enough for things like elaborate dresses or expensive orthodontia.

Though US figure skating memberships have remained steady over the past two decades (they tend to peak in Olympic years), the majority of members are 12 and under. In 2013, less than 3 percent of them competed above the pre-juvenile level, which, for context, includes only single-rotation jumps and basic spins. Nationwide Google searches for skating lessons have gradually declined since their peak during the 2006 Turin Olympics.

The portrait of the average US Figure Skating member seems to be a girl whose parents sign her up for skating lessons as a winter activity but who quits by the time she reaches middle school. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; girls have more opportunities to join in other sports and activities than they did in decades prior, and skating may just not be at the top of everyone’s list. But the reasons for figure skating’s downfall are disheartening: the idea that figure skating is only for people who are wealthy, thin, and white; the lack of widespread access to ice rinks; parents’ understandable fear of investing thousands of dollars in a sport their child may not excel at or, worse, leave them with lifelong body image issues. Even if they do ascend to figure skating royalty, they must contend with life after the ice: In 2018, Sasha Cohen wrote a New York Times essay on the identity crisis issues she faced after she retired at 25. Gracie Gold opened up to the Times in 2019 about her eating disorder ahead of the 2014 Olympics and how her mental health further deteriorated years later.

Few people understand why parents might not choose figure skating for their children better than Michelle Hong. Now 27 and a professional coach, she’s made it her mission to introduce skating to a wider audience, beyond the students she works with in the Bay Area. On Instagram, she posts training tips, choreography, and Q&As to her 60,000 followers, most of whom are skaters themselves.

When she joined TikTok, however, she stumbled upon a new audience. Since posting her first video in January 2020, she’s gained nearly half a million followers, most of them people who never thought to search for figure skating videos and instead happened to see her content on their home feed. “They’re brand new, and they’re just so excited and curious about the sport,” she says. “I’m sharing information that people in the figure skating world already know, but TikTok has really emphasized how much people just want to learn.”

These are, ultimately, the exact kinds of people figure skating should want to convert into fans, even if most of them would typically be considered too old to start skating. But within the current structure of the sport, which is built almost exclusively around competition, there’s little place for teenagers and adults who want to learn to skate because they saw it on TikTok.

Hong began skating when she was 6 despite the high expense and the fact that her parents had immigrated from Cambodia as refugees. “It was a huge investment for my family,” she says. “We had three girls total, so my older sister sacrificed her own passions to allow [my sister and I] to live ours, because she would always hear about the financial burden our sport had on the family.” In order to get free ice time, Hong started coaching younger kids when she was 14.

She remembers what it was like to go through puberty as a figure skater. If she could just lose five more pounds, she’d tell herself, she could keep landing her triple jumps. But the more difficult change was when the IJS overhauled the scoring system. “It made the sport so calculated, and it made people feel like they had to utilize numbers and metrics in order to achieve skating success,” she says. Whereas her specialty was her grace and choreography as opposed to the more high-scoring jumps, the new system devalued what made Hong a skilled skater. “Artistry started to fade, and the Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen era disappeared. It discouraged people from continuing because they feel like they can’t skate if they can’t do this jump.”

I asked her whether she felt the same shift as I did in the late 2000s at her own rink, in which fewer kids seemed to be getting involved in the sport. “It was transformative. It was night and day,” she says, laughing darkly. “When I grew up competing, it was the most fun experience I could ever imagine. People would throw stuffed animals to their friends, the benches were stacked, and anytime you competed you felt like you were in the Olympics already.” In contrast, “When I take my students to competitions now ... ” she says — well, you can imagine.

But to Hong, the dream of winning at regionals, making it to sectionals, then nationals and beyond, isn’t necessarily what she wants the future of the sport to be about. “I would expect that from the US federation, because their main goal is to earn Olympic medals, but my thing is, what about the 98.5 percent of skaters who want to skate because they love to skate?” Hong says. “I’m all about nurturing that community who always wanted to be part of the sport but couldn’t because of this elitism and exclusivity.”

Mary Louise Adams, the professor of kinesiology, has a theory about how to fix skating. For the sport to survive, it must include those who are never going to go to the Olympics and even those who never aspire to. Adult and senior skaters, skaters with disabilities, skaters of color, and queer skaters have all been traditionally marginalized in the sport, but so have skaters whose skill sets and interests don’t align with whatever the current judging system rewards.

For figure skating to survive, it must include those who are never going to the Olympics

Adams uses the example of a theoretical female skater who also plays rugby and who’s a bit of a daredevil. “She might be drawn to the kinds of risk-taking activities that one might do in skating, like big, huge jumps, but maybe doesn’t want to look like the stereotypical elegant young woman figure skater,” she says. On the other end, figure skating still needs to recognize the artistic talents of skaters like Michelle Hong, which contributed to the sport’s immense popularity in decades prior. People fell in love with superstars like Michelle Kwan not only because she won competitions but because her charisma on the ice was impossible to ignore.

These days, they’re not falling in love with Olympians; they’re falling in love with, for lack of a better term, skating influencers. Elladj Baldé, the charismatic, backflipping figure skater, has become somewhat of a one-man marketing machine, sharing videos of his unique style and choreography, often in performances set to popular music or related to topical issues. Baldé has, during his career, won several high-profile competitions (and even landed a quad, a four-rotation jump that very few skaters attempt), but his mainstream success has come outside of the traditional Olympics-centric skating system. Since starting to post regularly on TikTok in December, he now has more than half a million followers.

“I have this new platform where I’m able to inspire young Black kids or Indigenous kids to pick up a pair of skates and believe that this is a space that they could be in and be successful,” Baldé says of his social media presence. “I want to send a message that you don’t have to build your entire identity around the idea of being an Olympic champion. As human beings, we’re much bigger than that.”

Unfortunately, you won’t see anything like what Baldé does in elite skating competitions, because everything about the sport discourages it. Figure skating has long suffered under a deeply conservative culture, both athletically and culturally. The backflip, for instance, has been banned since 1976 because it was reportedly considered “too showbiz.” (Surya Bonaly famously performed her legendary backflip and landed on one foot at the 1998 Olympics, but only because by the time she did it, she knew she wasn’t going to make the podium and willingly took the deduction.)

Meanwhile, queer skaters have been implicitly encouraged to remain in the closet by judges (most of whom are old and white) and institutions (ditto). During the height of figure skating’s popularity in the 1990s, male skaters like Michael Weiss, Kurt Browning, and Philippe Candeloro were often styled as overtly heterosexual hunks; when the openly gay skater Rudy Galindo was finally inducted into the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame, after having been rejected three times, his sexuality was never mentioned in the ceremony. Two-time Olympian Johnny Weir, for instance, remembers being at a skating competition when he was 16 and an agent told him he couldn’t be openly gay if he wanted a future in the sport. In March 2010, Weir alleged that Stars on Ice deemed him “not family friendly” enough to hire for its tour.

“I didn’t know who I was, besides ‘Elladj, Olympic champion’”

“Right away, my target became the Olympics,” Baldé says of the time when he realized he knew he wanted to skate seriously. “It took the playfulness away from me at a very, very young age. My entire self-worth was based on that, so it was very painful when I realized that that’s not necessarily my path.” Competition was never going to be right for Baldé, who’s more artist than technical athlete and who never fit the mold of what judges wanted to see. “That’s when I started spiraling down and questioning my entire existence. I didn’t know who I was, besides ‘Elladj, Olympic champion,’ and realized that all the reasons why I was skating were the wrong reasons — everything I did was based on external factors.”

Baldé says he’s had conversations with the precious few skaters who did become what they set out to be, who stood on the top of the Olympic podium. Even they felt like it was never enough and that they didn’t know who to be once their skating career ended. In this world, it seems, nobody really wins, even the people who go home with gold medals.

The solution is not to dismantle the competitive skating system — which has undoubtedly drawn in fans and contributed to major technical developments in figure skating (why would anyone in their right mind attempt to land a four-rotation jump if it wasn’t worth a zillion points?) — but to add to it. One ISU committee has proposed a radical reshaping of the current judging system in order to prioritize quality over difficulty, and promising young Black skaters like Starr Andrews and France’s Maé-Bérénice Méité are continuing to push boundaries with programs set to Beyoncé and James Brown. But on a much broader level, competition shouldn’t be the only worthwhile avenue for serious skaters.

 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
French skater Maé-Bérénice Méité performs her short program at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Like many skaters, it was an injury that ended my competitive career. While training for the New England regionals at age 12, I felt a stubborn shooting pain in my right shin every time I landed a jump, and so after weeks of convincing myself it was nothing, I ended up in physical therapy to treat a presumed stress fracture. The problem was that it wasn’t actually a stress fracture, which would have been bad enough: An MRA test revealed that there had been a tumor in my tibia that had grown large enough to break the bone. It was benign and otherwise harmless, but it would spell the end of my illusion that I could, against all odds and mostly theoretically, ascend to the national stage.

The idea of reaching your athletic peak in seventh grade may sound bleak — and it is — but it’s not atypical for figure skaters. While we’re still young, we’re forced to decide whether we want to continue with a sport we know we’ll never truly win or give up on a lifetime of training, which also might mean losing friends, a routine, or a sense of purpose.

The reason I chose to continue despite no longer seriously competing was simple: There was still a part of skating I loved that didn’t involve constantly launching myself into the air in the hopes that when I came down I wouldn’t break a leg or get a concussion (both of which happened). It was Theatre on Ice, and I was a member of the first children’s troupe in the US. Each year we’d have a different theme for our program, from mutinying pirates to battles between good and evil woodland sprites. We’d perform in local ice shows and a handful of regional competitions — our group even traveled to compete in Europe, where “ballet sur glace,” as it’s known there, is more popular.

 Rebecca Jennings
The author lacing up her skates before a competition.

Theatre on Ice isn’t the answer for everybody. Maybe it’s the team sport atmosphere of synchronized skating or the artistry of ice dancing — where skaters trade jumps and spins for edge quality and precision — or simply goofing off at a public rink with your friends. A comparable model could be something like dance, where the competitive sector lives alongside a massive commercial industry and its status as a performance art. Dance has also embraced and benefited from exposure on social media, where figure skating has only begun to penetrate new audiences, thanks to skaters like Hong and Baldé.

The ISU has attempted to drag the sport into modernity by allowing skaters to use music with lyrics for their programs, but it hasn’t done enough. Synchronized skating still isn’t included as an Olympic sport, and Theatre on Ice remains niche and is nonexistent at most skating clubs. The possibilities of what skating could be — expanding the idea of pairs and ice dance beyond one woman and one man, better outreach and resources for adult skaters, adding competitive categories for specific skills (imagine watching a dozen skaters attempt quads one by one, without having to judge them on costume or choreography) — are endless to an infuriating extent. There is so much that the sport could change for its own good, if only it wanted to. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISU and US Figure Skating either did not respond to requests for comment or refused an interview.

“We’re losing audiences. We’re not filling out arenas anymore. Every year the attendance is getting lower and lower and lower,” Baldé says. “If we can find a way to reformat things so that you can get audiences back in the building and be energized and be excited about figure skating, then we’ll catch the attention of the ISU.”

 Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Michelle Kwan performing her exhibition program at the 2003 World Championships.

The days of American dominance on international podiums are gone. They won’t reverse course unless the US government or US Figure Skating decides that they suddenly want to provide massive subsidies for young skaters to train as frequently and intensely as they do abroad. That seems unlikely to happen because that’s not the way youth sports work in America; to the average student-athlete, figure skating is likely just one part of an extracurricular schedule that might involve several sports, plus any number of other interests.

And that’s okay! One might argue it’s the healthier approach, where kids can learn and try different activities without molding their entire identities around a sport that may not love them back. Although I trained in a largely relaxed and welcoming skating club and accepted early on that I’d never make it to the Olympics, I still meet former skaters who struggle with the lingering effects of a lifetime spent on ice: the lasting injuries, the warped self-image, the missed experiences of normal teenagers, the broken relationship with food, the perfectionism, and the identity crisis once they stop. “The bigger skating world is just really, really rough,” Hong tells me.

It doesn’t have to be. I don’t skate seriously anymore, but I’ve watched how the pandemic has allowed people to experiment with casual hobbies (ironically, roller skating was one of the summer’s hottest quarantine fads), and the sense of community at my local rink, where adults and kids practice their skills at public skating sessions alongside parents who just wanted to take a few laps with their toddlers. I’ve seen self-taught middle-aged women and YouTube-taught teenagers bond over the difficulties of learning three-turns, and I love the ways that skating has the ability to form little pockets of people who would only ever encounter each other on the ice.

The competitive side of figure skating will in all likelihood remain rough. With the Winter Olympics (presumably) coming up next year, we’ll be sure to see another spike in interest. But I hope that the kids who beg their parents for lessons after watching the figure skating competition in 2022 will be welcomed into the sport even if they don’t look or skate like the people on the podiums. The joy of skating — of whipping through cold air, of mastering moves on four millimeters of steel that physics can barely explain, then passing those moves on to the next generation of wobbly-legged children — should be for everyone. For figure skating to survive in any meaningful way, it has to be.

18 Feb 14:04

Google Maps just made it easier for you to pay for parking and public transport

by Tyler Lee

It’s always been obvious that public property like parking machines and ticketing systems aren’t exactly what most people would consider to be clean, although it seems that it took us a pandemic for us to come up with alternative ways of performing such mundane and simple tasks.

If you use Google Maps often for navigation or for finding info on public transport, you will be pleased to learn that Google has introduced an update that will make it easier for users to pay for parking and public transportation.

With parking, Google Maps will now show a “Pay for Parking” button on the screen as you near your destination. Users will just have to enter their meter number, the time they want to park, and hit Pay (this will require the use of Google Pay). Users can also easily extend their parking duration from the app itself, as opposed to having to run to the meters to manually feed it more coins.

As for public transport, Google says that they have partnered with over 80 transit agencies around the world so that while you’re searching for your route, you’ll be presented with the option of buying your fare within Google Maps itself. This will save you time and having to switch between multiple apps.

These new features will be rolling out soon so if you don’t see it yet, don’t worry as it should eventually find its way to you.

Source: Google

The post Google Maps just made it easier for you to pay for parking and public transport first appeared on Phandroid.

17 Feb 19:19

A Fight

by Reza