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ATHEISM and HUMANISM

1-18-21 Biden inauguration: Fortified US statehouses see some small protests
Small groups of protesters - some of them armed - gathered on Sunday at statehouses in the US, where tensions are high after the deadly riots at the Capitol in Washington. Protests were held outside capitol buildings in Texas, Oregon, Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere. But many other statehouses were quiet, amid a ramping up of security across US legislatures. No clashes were reported. The FBI has warned of armed protests ahead of Wednesday's inauguration. President-elect Joe Biden will take office two weeks after pro-Trump protesters stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC on 6 January, leaving five dead, including a police officer. More than 25,000 National Guard troops are being deployed to secure Washington. In a sign of just how worried officials are about potential unrest, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told the Associated Press on Sunday that all Guard members were being vetted because of fears of an insider threat. Also on Sunday, a county official from New Mexico was arrested in Washington in connection with the riots at the US Capitol on 6 January. Couy Griffin, the founder of a group called Cowboys for Trump, had vowed to return on inauguration day with firearms to "embrace my Second Amendment". Many cities had prepared for potentially violent protests over the weekend, erecting barriers and deploying thousands of National Guard troops. Posts on pro-Trump and far-right online networks had called for armed demonstrations on Sunday in particular, but some militias told their followers not to attend, citing heavy security or claiming the planned events were police traps. Small crowds of protesters numbering in the dozens gathered in only some cities, leaving the streets surrounding many statehouses largely empty. The New York Times reported about 25 members of the Boogaloo Bois movement were among heavily-armed protesters who gathered at the statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. But the men - who are part of a loosely organised extremist group that wants to overthrow the US government - said they were there for a long-planned gun rights rally. Meanwhile in Michigan, about two dozen people - some carrying rifles - protested outside the statehouse in Lansing, as police watched on. "I am not here to be violent and I hope no one shows up to be violent," one protester told Reuters news agency.

1-18-21 Capitol riots: Are US militia groups becoming more active?
Far-right groups like those that took part in the Capitol riots are an increasing and serious threat across the US, experts say. Since Joe Biden's victory in the presidential election in November, the involvement of armed groups in demonstrations has increased significantly, according to a group that tracks political violence. The FBI has warned of armed protests in all 50 states ahead of Mr Biden's inauguration on 20 January. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) says far-right groups have taken an increasing part in demonstrations against the election result. Demonstrations are more likely to turn violent if militia members are present, the ACLED says. And these groups have not just started attending more protests - they are also ramping up training and recruitment events. There are dozens of militias across the US with varying ideologies, but generally they are anti-government. While they don't necessarily advocate violence, often they are armed and some have engaged in violent demonstrations. Many say they are acting in self-defence over fears of what they believe to be increasing federal government intrusion, with gun control a particular concern. Some states require militias to be authorised by the state government, but the second amendment of the US constitution limits the extent to which controls can be imposed on their activities. The number of militia groups declined in the US between 2017 and 2019, which militia researcher Amy Cooter says is a common pattern under Republican presidents. Despite typically being anti-government, these groups have increasingly gravitated towards President Trump. "Most of these groups see Mr Trump as the closest person to their ideal president that we have ever had," says Ms Cooter. Militia activity is widespread across most of the US.

1-18-21 Trumpism isn't going anywhere
Donald Trump is on his way out. But the Trump era isn't over yet. It doesn't feel like 2020 ever really ended, does it? Many of us looked forward to the new year as, hopefully, something really new — a clean break from all the misery the last 12 months brought, a chance to start over with something like a clean slate, an opportunity to get it right this time. So far, though, 2021 feels like more of the same, full of doomscrolling, death, and demagoguery. I suspect a similar dynamic will be at play with Donald Trump. Trump's presidency will end at noon on Wednesday. Joe Biden will take the oath of office while soon-to-be-former Vice President Mike Pence looks on. Trump himself — now all but completely discredited after inciting the Capitol insurrection — will fly home to Florida. Even though the Trump administration is at an end, we are not quite finished with the Trump era. Whether he wants to or not, Biden will open his term focused on cleaning up Trump's mess. He inherits a pandemic that is killing as many as 4,000 Americans a day, a vaccine distribution system that has so far proven frustratingly inadequate, and a teetering economy. Biden has plans to fix these problems, of course — a goal of distributing 100 million vaccine doses within the first 100 days of his presidency, plus a new round of stimulus that would send another $1,400 per person to eligible families. Biden's success as a president will depend upon whether he can implement those plans, and how successful his solutions end up being. Complicating those challenges, of course, is Trump's other mess. Sometime soon, the Senate — controlled by the Democrats, but just barely — will take up the ex-president's impeachment trial for his role in the insurrection. Congress will have to juggle that effort with the need to pass the legislation to advance Biden's agenda, and Republican infighting over Trump's legacy probably won't help matters. Lurking in the background is the possibility of more violence by Trumpist dead-enders. There are reasons to hope that the extended Trump era will be over quickly. Twitter's permanent ban of Trump from its platform, for example, is already making a huge difference: One research firm found the amount of misinformation online dropped 73 percent in the week after the president and 70,000 QAnon aficionados were shut down by the platform. Reality itself might make a difference, too: When Wednesday comes and goes and Trump is no longer president, surely some (but probably not all) of those conspiracy theorists who support him will realize they have been duped and quietly recede from activism. It's also possible that multiple civil and criminal legal issues will leave Trump too occupied to make trouble over the next few years. And if we're lucky, a successful vaccination effort will also bring down the national temperature by a degree or two. Many observers have pointed out that the QAnon conspiracy became more popular because of the COVID-19 pandemic. "We shouldn't underestimate how the imposed social isolation of the pandemic and our pivot to social media for community has fostered the spread of such conspiracies," Tablet's Yair Rosenberg points out. As people emerge from isolation — to return to their churches, their workplaces, and other communal spaces — they may find they don't have time to indulge in dark political fantasies.

1-18-21 Racism in education: How 'truth pages' helped students fight back
The killing of George Floyd was a catalyst moment for social justice movements across the world. But after the coronavirus pandemic worsened some of those movements were pushed aside. One which hasn’t is an online reckoning orchestrated by students, known as 'Truth Pages'. In the summer following George Floyd’s death, racism exposé pages began springing up across both sides of the Atlantic, primarily on Instagram, allowing Black, Asian and minority ethnic students to share their experiences online. The result was a wave of call to actions, some more successful than others, enlisting the cooperation of institutions in tackling racism and racial inequality. The BBC’s Lorna Acquah investigates the racism experienced by students in the UK and the US and how the movement snowballed.

1-18-21 Migrant caravan: Guatemala blocks thousands bound for US
A group of US-bound Central American migrants has been met with truncheons and tear gas in Guatemala, where security forces blocked their path. Thousands of people were intercepted on a road near the border with Honduras on Sunday. The government said it would not accept "illegal mass movements". An estimated 7,000 migrants, mostly from Honduras, have entered in recent days, fleeing poverty and violence. They hope to travel on to Mexico, and then the US border. Every year, tens of thousands of Central American migrants attempt this perilous journey to try and reach the US, often on foot, in groups known as "caravans". President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat, has vowed to end the strict immigration policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, a Republican. But the Biden administration, which will take office on Wednesday, has warned migrants not to make the journey, as immigration policies will not change overnight. As the migrants trekked across Guatemala towards its border with Mexico, they were slowed down by security forces near the south-eastern village of Vado Hondo. A group of soldiers and police officers blockaded a road, stopping many of them from advancing. Some people still attempted to force their way through, prompting security forces to push them back. Several people were injured. Many migrants retreated, with some waiting nearby to make a new attempt later. Others fled into nearby mountains. "Fortunately the security forces established a contingency plan... and contained this battle," said Guillermo Díaz, head of Guatemala's migration agency. A statement from the Guatemalan president's office said: "Guatemala's message is loud and clear: These types of illegal mass movements will not be accepted, that's why we are working together with the neighbouring nations to address this as a regional issue." The government later said 21 migrants who had sought medical assistance tested positive for Covid-19.

1-17-21 Biden inauguration: All 50 US states on alert for armed protests
All 50 US states and the District of Columbia (DC) are on alert for possible violent protests this weekend, ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Wednesday. National Guard troops have been sent en masse to Washington DC, to deter any repeat of last week's deadly riots. The FBI has warned of possible armed marches by pro-Trump supporters at all 50 state capitols. Meanwhile, the Biden team has set out plans to reverse key Trump policies. In the hours after Mr Biden sets foot in the White House, he will embark on a blitz of executive actions designed to signal a clean break from his predecessor's administration, according to a memo seen by US media. He will return the US to the Paris climate agreement - a global pact on cutting carbon emissions. He will repeal the controversial travel ban on a list of mostly Muslim-majority countries. He will make wearing masks mandatory on federal property and when travelling interstate. Although Mr Biden, like President Trump, will be able to use executive orders as a means of bypassing Congress on some issues, his $1.9tn (£1.4tn) stimulus plan announced earlier this week will need to be approved by lawmakers, as will a bill on immigration reform. Much of Washington DC will be locked down ahead of Wednesday's inauguration, with National Guard troops deploying in their thousands. Many streets - some miles from the Capitol, the site of deadly rioting on 6 January - have been blocked off with concrete barriers and metal fences. The National Mall, which is usually thronged with thousands of people for inaugurations, has been shut at the request of the Secret Service - the agency charged with protecting the president. The Biden team had already asked Americans to avoid travelling to the nation's capital for the inauguration because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Local officials said people should watch the event remotely. Sunday is expected to also be a particular focus for protests, after posts on pro-Trump and far-right online networks called for armed demonstrations on that day. Some militias have told their followers not to attend, however, citing heavy security or claiming the planned events are police traps.

1-17-21 Biden inauguration: Executive orders to reverse Trump policies
Details are emerging of a raft of executive orders planned by US president-elect Joe Biden as soon as he takes office this week. Mr Biden will issue decrees to reverse President Trump's travel bans and re-join the Paris climate accord on his first day, US media reports. The president-elect is also expected to focus on reuniting children separated from families at the border and issue mandates on Covid-19 and mask-wearing. He will be inaugurated on Wednesday. All 50 US states are on high alert for possible violence in the run-up to the inauguration ceremony, with National Guard troops deployed in their thousands to guard Washington DC. In the hours after Mr Biden sets foot in the White House, he will embark on a blitz of executive actions designed to signal a clean break from his predecessor's administration, according to a memo seen by US media. Among the orders planned soon after taking office are: 1. A US return to the Paris climate agreement - the global pact on cutting carbon emissions. 2. Repealing the controversial travel ban on mostly Muslim-majority countries. 3. Mandating the wearing of masks on federal property and when travelling interstate. 4. An extension to nationwide restrictions on evictions and foreclosures due to the pandemic. The executive orders are just one part of his ambitious plan for his first 10 days in office, according the memo. The President-elect is also expected to send a major new immigration bill to Congress as well as focusing on passing a $1.9tn (£1.4tn) stimulus plan to help the country's economy recover from coronavirus. Mr Biden has also said his administration will aim to deliver 100 million Covid-19 jabs in his first 100 days in office - describing the rollout so far as a "dismal failure". "President-elect Biden will take action - not just to reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration - but also to start moving our country forward," incoming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain wrote in the memo. The president-elect is taking over a country in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. Daily deaths from Covid-19 are in their thousands and almost 400,000 have lost their lives. On top of the virus raging, the country is reeling from recent political violence. The theme for Mr Biden's inauguration will be "America United" with the president-elect focusing on healing political divisions. Vice-President Mike Pence is expected to attend the ceremony, though Mr Trump has said he will not. Mr Biden will be sworn in exactly two weeks after the violent riots at the US Capitol on 6 January which aimed to thwart his election victory.

1-17-21 China looks to turn vaccine distribution into diplomacy
It is unclear whether China is poised to fully follow through on its vaccine pledges to developing countries. The hottest commodity on the planet right now is the COVID-19 vaccine. As wealthy countries such as the United States, Canada, and European nations stockpile doses — according to some estimates, enough to vaccinate their entire populations multiple times over — that leaves less wealthy countries wondering where to turn. (Webmaster's comment: It's obvious that they only want to save the white people!) That's where China has stepped in, offering priority access to Chinese-developed vaccines to countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The effort could end up being a "soft power" diplomacy tool for China, says Yangzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of global health studies at Seton Hall University's School of Diplomacy and International Relations. "Especially when you are dealing with countries where, for example, you have territorial disputes...by promising or providing the desperately needed vaccines, you expect them to soften their positions," Huang told The World. Expanding vaccine access also helps China reframe the narrative of the pandemic and improve China's image, Huang said. "By helping mitigating this gap in access between developing countries and developer countries, China actually not only mitigated that gap but portrayed itself as a benign global power," he said. In December, the Sinopharm vaccine, created by a state-run firm in China, announced a 79 percent efficacy rate and was approved for use by the government. But China has been criticized for a lack of transparency around trial results. Currently, it is unclear whether China is poised to fully follow through on its pledges. Huang says there has been a shift from emphasizing Chinese vaccines as a "global public good," as President Xi Jinping said last May, to "cooperation between China and countries in the developing world and accessing the Chinese-made vaccines," according to Huang. For example, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi finished a tour of a number of African nations last weekend without making a concrete commitment about vaccines or a timetable when nations could expect them. "That raises concerns, whether China actually overpromised," Huang said. "That is certainly not good news for successful vaccine diplomacy, because countries might feel China reneged on its promises, and they might turn to other countries like India or even Russia." But if China is seizing an opportunity to turn vaccine distribution into diplomacy, that's an opportunity seemingly missed by the United States, which has instead pursued a policy of "vaccine nationalism" under the Trump administration. As the New York Times reported last weekend, Ukraine turned to China for vaccine access after its initial attempts to obtain vaccines from "Pfizer and other Western vaccine makers" was thwarted by President Donald Trump's executive order blocking vaccine exports. "China was able to practice this vaccine diplomacy…precisely because the U.S. is not a player in this game," Huang said. "That allows countries like China or Russia to fill this void left by the United States," Huang added.

1-17-21 The pandemic windfall
Large companies and the very rich made a killing last year, while the U.S. wealth gap became wider than ever. Large companies and the very rich made a killing last year, while the U.S. wealth gap became wider than ever. Here's everything you need to know:

  1. Who has benefited? Tech giants, many major corporations, and Wall Street investors have had eye-popping gains during the pandemic, even as the COVID-19 recession has devastated major sectors of the economy. Apple's total stock value climbed to $2.29 trillion, up 133 percent since March.
  2. Who did best?: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' net worth has rocketed up $70 billion, to an estimated $182 billion, and four men have joined him in the ranks of "centibillionaires": Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose wealth increased by about 80 percent; Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who made about $20 billion; French luxury brand tycoon Bernard Arnault, whose fortune doubled to $117 billion; and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the world's richest man as of last week.
  3. Why the big payday?: Life under quarantine has been a boon for e-commerce retailers like Amazon, Target, Walmart, and Best Buy; food delivery services like DoorDash; and streaming services like Netflix. Restless consumers not spending money on restaurants and travel are splurging at Home Depot and Lowe's for home-improvement projects, and on video games for escapism.
  4. How are workers faring?: It depends on their tax bracket. White-collar job losses were mostly recovered by late summer, while millions of low-wage workers remain out of work, especially in restaurant, hotel, and other service industries.
  5. Is the wealth gap widening? Profoundly. About 84 percent of stocks owned by U.S. households are held by the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. The majority of last year's layoffs occurred at small businesses, millions of which could go under as massive COVID-19 surges force states to reimpose safety restrictions.
  6. How does the future look? For big corporations, bright. Wall Street is bullish, expecting a recovery similar to the one that followed the 2008 crisis, when large banks and private-equity firms gobbled up weakened competitors at fire-sale prices, and the top 1 percent of earners took in 95 percent of income gains made from 2009 to 2012.
  7. Not much trickle-down: When the economy cratered, several prominent CEOs vowed to look after their workers. Chuck Robbins, CEO of the software giant Cisco, said in April, "It's just silly for those of us who have the financial wherewithal to absorb this, for us to add to the problem."

1-17-21 Wilmington 1898: When white supremacists overthrew a US government
A violent mob, whipped into a frenzy by politicians, tearing apart a town to overthrow the elected government. Following state elections in 1898, white supremacists moved into the US port of Wilmington, North Carolina, then the largest city in the state. They destroyed black-owned businesses, murdered black residents, and forced the elected local government - a coalition of white and black politicians - to resign en masse. Historians have described it as the only coup in US history. Its ringleaders took power the same day as the insurrection and swiftly brought in laws to strip voting and civil rights from the state's black population. They faced no consequences. Wilmington's story has been thrust into the spotlight after a violent mob assaulted the US Capitol on 6 January, seeking to stop the certification of November's presidential election result. More than 120 years after its insurrection, the city is still grappling with its violent past. After the end of the US Civil War in 1865 - which pitted the northern Unionist states against the southern Confederacy - slavery was abolished throughout the newly-reunified country. Politicians in Washington DC passed a number of constitutional amendments granting freedom and rights to former slaves, and sent the army to enforce their policies. But many southerners resented these changes. In the decades that followed the civil war there were growing efforts to reverse many of the efforts aimed at integrating the freed black population into society. Wilmington in 1898 was a large and prosperous port, with a growing and successful black middle class. Undoubtedly, African Americans still faced daily prejudice and discrimination - banks for instance would refuse to lend to black people or would impose punishing interest rates. But in the 30 years after the civil war, African Americans in former Confederate states like North Carolina were slowly setting up businesses, buying homes, and exercising their freedom. Wilmington was even home to what was thought to be the only black daily newspaper in the country at that time, the Wilmington Daily Record. "African Americans were becoming quite successful," Yale University history professor Glenda Gilmore told the BBC. "They were going to universities, had rising literacy rates, and had rising property ownership."

1-16-21 Biden inauguration: All 50 US states on alert for armed protests
All 50 US states and the District of Columbia (DC) are on alert for possible violent protests this weekend, ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Wednesday. National Guard troops from across the country are being sent to Washington DC, to discourage any repeat of the deadly riot that unfolded on 6 January. The FBI has warned of possible armed marches by pro-Trump demonstrators at all 50 state capitols. The National Mall in DC has been shut. Barricades are lining the streets of the capital amid tightened security. The Biden team had already urged Americans to avoid travelling to the capital because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and local officials said people should watch the inauguration remotely. Sunday is expected to be a particular focus for protests, after posts on pro-Trump and far-right online networks called for armed demonstrations on 17 January, and a march in Washington DC on inauguration day itself. Some militias have told their followers not to attend, citing heavy security or claiming the planned events are police traps. It follows a week in which Donald Trump became the first US president to be impeached twice. He now faces a Senate trial, on a charge of "incitement of insurrection" linked to the storming of the US Capitol by groups of his supporters on 6 January. States across the country are taking precautionary measures, from boarding up capitol windows to refusing to grant permits for rallies. The governors of Maryland, New Mexico and Utah have all declared states of emergency ahead of possible protests. California, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin are among those activating their National Guards, and Texas will shut its state capitol from Saturday until after inauguration day. According to the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, intelligence suggested "violent extremists" could infiltrate planned protests there to "conduct criminal acts". Virginia's Governor Ralph Northam told a news conference on Thursday: "If you're planning to come here or up to Washington with ill intent in your heart, you need to turn around right now and go home. You are not welcome here, and you're not welcome in our nation's capital. And if you come here and act out, Virginia will be ready." Analysts believe states that saw especially hostile or protracted election battles are at most risk of violence. One of them, Michigan, has erected a six-foot fence around its capitol in Lansing.

1-16-21 Capitol riots: Police describe a 'medieval battle'
Police officers who were targeted by a pro-Trump mob have been speaking out about the "medieval battle" that unfolded on the steps of the Capitol and inside the halls of American democracy last week. Police faced off against rioters equipped with clubs, shields, pitchforks, firearms, and metal poles stripped from seating set up for next week's inauguration. Here's what we've learned from their interviews with US media. Michael Fanone, a 40-year-old DC plainclothes narcotics detective who was told to wear his uniform that day, rushed to the West Terrace of the Capitol where he took turns holding back the crowd, and resting to rinse his face of the the chemical irritants that that crowd was spraying on police. "We weren't battling 50 or 60 rioters in this tunnel," the MPD (Metropolitan Police Department of District of Columbia) veteran told the Washington Post. "We were battling 15,000 people. It looked like a medieval battle scene." After he was grabbed by his helmet and dragged face-first down several steps, he said the crowd started stripping gear from his vest, including spare ammo, his radio and his badge - all while chanting "USA!". "We got one! We got one!" Mr Fanone said he heard people shout, with others chanting: "Kill him with his own gun!" Some members of the crowd protected him after he started yelling that he has children, the father of four told CNN. He sustained only minor injuries but later found out in hospital that he had suffered a mild heart attack during the brawl. MPD Officer Daniel Hodges, 32, had already been on shift for several hours before the rioting began. "We were battling, you know, tooth and nail for our lives," he told ABC News. In one viral video, Mr Hodges is seen pinned in a glass doorway between officers and the crowd, as rioters strip his gas mask from his face and beat him with his own police-issued baton. One rioter tried to gouge his eyes. "That was one of the three times that day where I thought: Well, this might be it," said Mr Hodges. "This might be the end for me." As he choked on tear gas, he is seen on video gasping for air to call out for help. Enough police were eventually able to push through the melee to extract him.

1-16-21 Trump's Christian supporters and the march on the Capitol
Christian supporters of President Donald Trump were among the thousands who descended on Washington DC last week. Their presence highlights a divide in American Christianity. Before the march on the US Capitol began last Wednesday, some knelt to pray. Thousands had come to the seat of power for a "Save America" rally organised to challenge the election result. Mr Trump addressed the crowd near the White House, calling on them to march on Congress where politicians were gathered to certify President-elect Joe Biden's win. The crowd was littered with religious imagery. "Jesus 2020" campaign flags flapped in the wind alongside Trump banners and the stars and stripes of the US flag. The throng did march to Congress, a protest that led to chaos at the Capitol. At least one group carried a large wooden cross. Another blew shofars - a Jewish ritual horn some Christian evangelicals have co-opted as a battle cry. Elsewhere a white flag featured an ichthys - or "Jesus fish" - an ancient symbol of Christianity. For some Christians, seeing religious symbols alongside Confederate flags was shocking. But for others, Mr Trump is their saviour - someone who was "defending Christians from secularists" as Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, told the BBC. The day before the rally, a throng of fervent religious supporters of President Trump held a "Jericho March" in Washington. Brandishing crosses and singing Christian hymns, they marched around the Capitol re-enacting the biblical story of when the Israelites besieged the enemy city of Jericho. The imagery on display was revealing of not just the racial and political divides in America, but the religious divides as well. Exit polls suggest that in 2020, like in 2016, around four-fifths of white evangelicals - who make up a quarter of the American electorate - backed the Republican president. But the opposite is true of black Christians - around 90% intended to vote for Democrat Joe Biden, according to pre-election polling.

1-16-21 The more contagious coronavirus variant may soon be the U.S.’s dominant strain
More rigorous efforts to vaccinate, wear masks and social distance are needed to curb its spread, CDC says. A highly contagious coronavirus variant will become the dominant version of the virus in the United States in March, emphasizing the need for more rapid vaccination, a new modeling study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests. The coronavirus variant was first identified in December in the United Kingdom (SN: 12/22/20). Called B.1.1.7, it has some mutations that may help the virus better spread among people, though the variant isn’t thought to cause more severe disease. It has so far been detected in 76 COVID-19 cases across 12 U.S. states. Because experts have analyzed the genetic fingerprints of only a small percentage of the millions of coronavirus infections in the United States, however, it’s unclear how widespread B.1.1.7 might be. Experts estimate that the variant currently causes less than half a percent of U.S. COVID-19 cases. But while B.1.1.7 might be present at low levels now, it has the potential to drive a surge in U.S. cases and outpace the most prevalent viral variants currently infecting people in two months, researchers report January 15 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Because B.1.1.7 is likely more transmissible, people must be more rigorous about following public health guidelines such as wearing masks to curb its spread, health officials say. “These measures will be more effective if they are instituted sooner rather than later,” the researchers warn. In the study, the team simulated how the variant might spread in the country from January to April 2021. Assuming that the variant is 50 percent more transmissible than other viral versions already spreading in the United States and that around 10 to 30 percent of people have immunity against any form of the virus from a previous bout of COVID-19, B.1.1.7 could cause most coronavirus cases in the country by March, the researchers found.

1-16-21 Covid: UK variant could drive 'rapid growth' in US cases, CDC warns
A highly contagious coronavirus variant first detected in the UK could become the dominant strain in the US by March, health officials have said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned of "rapid growth" of the variant in coming weeks. It said such a spike could further threaten health systems already strained by a winter Covid surge. The warning came on Friday as President-elect Joe Biden unveiled an ambitious plan to ramp up vaccinations. To meet his target of inoculating 100 million Americans within his first 100 days in office, Mr Biden said his administration would take a more active role in accelerating the distribution of vaccines. He outlined a plan to set up new mass vaccination centres, hire extra health workers, and ensure the shot is available to everyone, including minority communities that have been hit hardest by the epidemic. Official data shows that, so far, 12.2 million vaccine doses of have been administered in the US - a figure Mr Biden has criticised as insufficient. More than 30 million doses have been distributed to states. In a speech on Friday, Mr Biden told Americans that "we remain in a very dark winter", admitting that "things will get worse before they get better". "This is going to be one of the most challenging operational efforts ever undertaken by our country," Mr Biden, who takes office on 20 January, said of the vaccination drive. His address came a day after he announced a $1.9tn (£1.4tn) stimulus package for the battered US economy that included a further $20bn for the vaccine roll-out. The plan will need to pass Congress. The US has recorded the highest number of confirmed coronavirus infections - 23.5 million - of any country in the world. At about 391,000, the country's coronavirus deaths account for a fifth of the global total, which passed the two-million mark on Friday. The crisis is particularly acute in the state of California, where deaths have surged by more than 1,000% since November.

1-16-21 Covid in California: The state is struggling to contain the virus
California was praised for acting swiftly to contain the coronavirus last spring. Now more than 31,000 people have died of the virus in the state. What went wrong? California was the first to issue a state-wide stay-at-home order, and experts at the time predicted the pandemic would peak here in April with fewer than 2,000 lives lost. But since November, deaths have surged by more than 1,000%. In Los Angeles alone, nearly 2,000 people died this week. Makeshift morgues have been set up across the state, ICUs are full, oxygen is being rationed and ambulance teams have been told not to transport those unlikely to survive the night because hospitals are too full. Disneyland, which has been closed since March, is now being turned into a massive vaccination centre, along with Dodger Stadium, in the hopes of controlling what's become a super surge. Why is California in such dire Covid straits? "Fatigue," says Dr Neha Nanda, of the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine. "It's multifaceted, but fatigue is a big reason why." Southern California and Los Angeles are the hardest hit regions in California and the United States right now. Local and state officials begged Californians to not make holiday plans from Thanksgiving through to New Year. But even strict mandates here often go unenforced. Many businesses have collapsed, the film industry is mostly dormant. Productions that do get the green light are often forced to shut down again due to coronavirus outbreaks on set. And most schools in California have been closed since 13 March, with children isolated at home on computers, often with their parents away at work or trying to work alongside their children on overstretched Wi-Fi. And like most places, Covid-19 has hit Los Angeles' poor the hardest. Dr Heidi Behforouz, the medical director of LA County's Housing for Health, says she thinks Los Angeles is a city accustomed to tolerating extreme inequities in a country that does the same.

1-16-21 Coronavirus: EU anger over delayed Pfizer vaccine deliveries
Several EU countries are receiving significantly fewer doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine than expected, after the US firm slowed shipments. Six nations called the situation "unacceptable" and warned it "decreases the credibility of the vaccination process". Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia urged the EU to apply pressure on Pfizer-BioNTech. Pfizer said the reduced deliveries were a temporary issue. In a statement on Friday, the drugmaker said shipments were being affected by changes to its manufacturing processes designed to boost production. "Although this will temporarily impact shipments in late January to early February, it will provide a significant increase in doses available for patients in late February and March," Pfizer said. The company said its production upgrades would also have a "short-term impact" on the delivery of vaccines to the UK. Despite this, the UK government said it still planned to hit its target of vaccinating all priority groups by mid-February - about 15 million people. The vaccine from Pfizer is not the only candidate available in the UK, with the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca jab also currently being rolled out. The EU is not wholly reliant on the Pfizer jab either, having approved a vaccine manufactured by US company Moderna for use. Still, the development is expected to slow the pace of vaccination programmes. The German health ministry called Pfizer's announcement surprising and regrettable, noting that it had committed to binding delivery dates until mid-February. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she had been assured by Pfizer's chief executive that all orders guaranteed for delivery in the first quarter of the year would arrive. Last week, Ms von der Leyen said Pfizer had agreed to supply the EU with 600 million doses this year, double its initial order. The pledge may do little to soothe European governments battling to subdue a fast-spreading Covid-19 variant first detected in the UK.

1-16-21 American individualism and our collective crisis
Our national and social identity is deeply rooted in values like freedom, equality, and order. A political scientist explores how these ideas have affected the U.S. response to the worsening pandemic. he spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. is out of control: As of January, more than 22.7 million people have been infected nationwide and some 378,000 people have died. Yet many in the U.S. still resist wearing masks in public and even deem mask orders and social distancing guidelines as affronts to their personal freedoms. For political scientists like Deborah Schildkraut of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, the U.S. response to the pandemic can be seen through the lens of American identity. For more than two decades, Schildkraut has been studying what it means to be American, a topic she explored in an article in the Annual Review of Political Science. In it, she wrote that scholars increasingly regard American identity as a social identity, "which refers to the part of a person's sense of self that derives from his or her membership in a particular group and the value or meaning that he or she attaches to such membership." According to Schildkraut, at a minimum American identity consists of two sets of norms. One involves an evolving set of beliefs that anyone can follow. These beliefs harken back to Thomas Jefferson and the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.") The other set of norms depends on attributes such as one's race and religion. Knowable Magazine spoke with Schildkraut about the sometimes contradictory attributes Americans consider to be at the core of their national identity, the evolution of these ideas, and the impact they have on the country's ability to confront the pandemic. Social psychologists have written about the need to have positive distinctiveness. We like to feel good about the things that we think are unique about us. That drives a lot of in-group and out-group thinking. We like to think good things about the groups that we belong to. It doesn't always lead to thinking bad things about the groups that we don't belong to, but it easily can. Some parts of it haven't evolved all that much. A lot of the things people think of as being uniquely American are appropriately called aspirational: the idea of individualism, equality of opportunity, self-governance, and engaged citizenship. For as long as we've been asking people how important certain things are in being American, there's not been much variation over time in those kinds of things. You see more change over time on issues that are more explicitly about race and ethnicity. There's this idea of being a nation of immigrants. It's the American creed: the idea that anybody can become American if they do and believe certain things, and that your country of origin, the language you speak, your religion, all of that is separate from becoming American. It's crucially tied to the notion of the work ethic and that the opportunities are here for the taking. Of course, we know in practice that hasn't been true.The aspiration is that race and religion don't matter. And that anybody can be a true American. We know that in reality, certainly at an unstated level, when people think of what an American is many have an ideal in mind: It's white, Christian and, honestly, male.

1-16-21 'The death of American exceptionalism'
Views from abroad on U.S. Capitol attack. American democracy had a very bad day on Jan. 6. As images of rioters ransacking Capitol Hill shot across the globe, foreign leaders were quick to comment. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the images out of Washington made her furious and sad. "A ground rule of democracy," she said, "is that after elections there are winners and losers. Both have their role to play with decency and responsibility so that democracy itself remains the winner." In France, President Emmanuel Macron offered a heartfelt defense of the American political system. "What happened today in Washington, D.C., is not America. Definitely," he said in a video message in English. "We believe in the strength of our democracies. We believe in the strength of American democracy." Reactions came from all corners of the globe, including from Turkey, Venezuela, and China. The common thread in their messages? As Josep Borrell Fontelles, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs put it, American democracy appeared under siege. "I think one of the key issues right now is potentially the death of American exceptionalism," said Zachariah Mampilly, the Austin Marxe endowed chair of international affairs at The City University of New York, and author of several books on uprisings in Africa. "The idea that the U.S. is a uniquely democratic country that would not be prone to the types of actions that we witnessed [Wednesday]." Mampilly said for a long time, the U.S. relied on the narrative of exceptionalism to promote democracy abroad. Yet, during his time working and researching in African countries, he heard a lot of skepticism about that. "Many African countries have experienced American interventionism that has long not adhered to the rhetoric of democracy that the U.S. government deploys. So, there's a sense of comeuppance right now in many parts of the world," Mampilly said. In the city of Ramallah, in the West Bank, Salem Barahmeh was watching the riots play out in Washington with "a mix of amazement and horror." What immediately stood out to him was how different the police responded Wednesday compared to what he had seen over the summer with Black Lives Matter protests. "If those protesters were not white, they would have been arrested, beaten, hurt," said Barahmeh, who runs a nongovernmental organization called the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy. And Barahmeh said he could relate. "One thing that struck me was the parallel I felt in my own life as a Palestinian in Palestine, living under a system of segregation and also one where your freedom and rights are determined by your ethnonational identity," he said. The images of policemen taking selfies with rioters were disturbing to Sandip Roy, a writer based Kolkata, India. Roy said he, too, watched in disbelief as rioters shattered windows at the Capitol and trashed lawmakers' offices. At the same time, he said, the events of Wednesday should not have been all that surprising. "What has happened is that a certain kind of bigotry and hatred and violence has been mainstreamed and normalized," Roy said. "This was always part of the body politic in America but it was just not allowed to become mainstream." President Donald Trump has considerable support in India and according to Roy, in the aftermath of Wednesday's events, some of his fans have kept silent but others have applauded the actions of the rioters in Washington. India, Roy added, has had its own share of discontent in recent months related to issues such as farmers' rights and citizenship for Muslims in the country. "Ironically, the same people [Trump's fans] are quite aghast and shocked when farmers or protesters about a citizenship bill change for Muslims come to the Indian capital or do a kind of a hunger strike or block roads to press their demands," Roy said. American democracy will make it through this troubling time, he said. But it's high time for the country to examine its self-appointed role as the policeman of the world.

1-15-21 Covid-19 news: UK bans travel from South America over new variant
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Concern grows about new coronavirus variant identified in travellers from Brazil. Travellers from countries in South America, as well as from Portugal, Cape Verde and Panama, are now banned from entering the UK amid growing concern about a new variant of the coronavirus that was first identified in people who travelled to Japan from Brazil. The ban came into force at 04:00 GMT on Friday. As with the other coronavirus variants identified in the UK and South Africa, the new variant contains mutations in the coronavirus spike protein, which the virus uses to enter human cells. Both of these new variants are highly transmissible, which has prompted concerns that the variant first found in travellers from Brazil to Japan may also spread rapidly. Pfizer will temporarily decrease deliveries to Europe of its covid-19 vaccine, developed in partnership with BioNTech, while it undergoes upgrades to increase its production capacity. “We had expected 43,875 vaccine doses from Pfizer in week 3 (next week). Now it appears that we will get 36,075 doses,” the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (FHI) told Reuters on Friday. “This temporary reduction will affect all European countries,” the FHI said, adding that it isn’t currently clear when Pfizer will return to maximum production capacity. Many European Union nations have complained that they are receiving fewer supplies than expected. China is constructing a medical isolation centre in Hebei province to help contain a new covid-19 outbreak. The centre is expected to have space for 3000 makeshift wards with a capacity for several thousand people. China reported its highest daily increase in coronavirus cases in more than 10 months on Friday, with 144 new cases. More than 28 million people are living under new lockdowns in Hebei and Heilongjiang provinces.

1-15-21 Trump's vaccine delay is getting suspicious
This was supposed to be President Trump's big moment. The COVID-19 vaccine is rolling out by the millions across the country — something that had seemed like an impossibility when the president boasted back in May that "we are very confident that we're going to have a vaccine ... by the end of the year." The media expressed skepticism at the time, hedging Trump's quote with the reminder that "vaccines often take many years to develop and distribute." Yet sure enough, by Dec. 15, Trump was proven right: Safe and effective shots were going into American arms. As of Jan. 12, over half a million people have already received their second dose. So where is Trump to celebrate the nation's success? Admittedly, the president might have other things on his mind. But his conspicuous absence at such a pivotal juncture in the fight against COVID — and in particular, his lack of a televised vaccination moment of his own — is actively undermining his own efforts. Trump, of course, beat his own case of COVID back in October, presumably leaving him with some temporary natural immunity. But because coronavirus reinfections are possible, people need to get vaccinated regardless of if they've already been sick or tested positive, the CDC has said, stressing that "experts do not know how long someone is protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19" and that "some early evidence suggests natural immunity may not last very long." Dr. Anthony Fauci echoed the suggestion, telling Good Morning America that he would urge Trump to get vaccinated as soon as he can: "Even though the president himself was infected," Fauci said, "and he has likely antibodies that likely would be protective, we're not sure how long that protection lasts." Perhaps even more importantly, were Trump to roll up his sleeve on live TV, he would be leading by example while also helping to disabuse Americans of the erroneous belief that they're in the clear if they've already had a positive COVID-19 test. The official word on why Trump has not yet been vaccinated has to do with the monoclonal antibody cocktail he received while being treated for COVID-19 in the fall. According to the CDC, you must wait 90 days after receiving the antibodies before you get the vaccine, in order to avoid any "interference." December 31 would have marked 90 days since Trump was reported to have started the treatment on Oct. 2; he walked out of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center three days later. It's unclear precisely when Trump stopped receiving the antibody cocktail, but since the treatment is given intravenously, and the drug maker said he only received a single dose, it seems that he'd be well in the clear by mid-January. Even if, for whatever reason, Trump isn't okayed for the shot just yet, he should still be able to schedule and publicize his planned vaccination date. Instead, the White House has been strangely vague about his plans, claiming last month that the president is still waiting to be cleared by his medical team — an explanation that has the familiar echo of his dubious excuse for not releasing his tax returns due to an ongoing audit. The bottom line is, it's a dangerous time for the leader of the nation weathering the world's worst outbreak to offer anything other than full-throated enthusiasm about the shot. Even taking the White House's word for it, that Trump truly can't get a vaccine for ongoing medical reasons, he's failed to show up at vaccination events to even promote getting the shot. Trump didn't appear alongside Mike Pence when his vice president got the jab last month at Walter Reed, nor has Trump hosted any mass vaccination events or visited and thanked health-care workers who are helping with the distribution. "It will be enormously damaging to public trust in the vaccine if President Trump isn't visibly enthusiastic, including getting his shot on national television," Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law who focuses on public health, warned The Associated Press last month. "It simply isn't good enough to have Vice President Pence as a proxy."

1-15-21 Joe Biden unveils $1.9tn US economic relief package
President-elect Joe Biden has unveiled a $1.9tn (£1.4tn) stimulus plan for the coronavirus-sapped US economy before he takes office next week. If passed by Congress, it would include $1tn for households, with direct payments of $1,400 to all Americans. The relief proposal includes $415bn to fight the virus and $440bn for small businesses. Mr Biden, a Democrat, has promised to beat the pandemic that has killed more than 385,000 people in the US. He campaigned last year vowing to do a better job handling the virus than outgoing President Donald Trump, a Republican. The direct payments of $1,400 would come on top of $600 payments provided in a relief bill enacted last month. Mr Biden's proposal comes as a winter surge of the coronavirus breaks records. Each day brings well over 200,000 new cases in the US and the daily death toll sometimes tops 4,000. In a primetime speech on Thursday night from his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, he said: "A crisis of deep human suffering is in plain sight and there's no time to waste." "The very health of our nation is at stake," he added. "We have to act and we have to act now." The incoming president said: "There will be stumbles, but I will always be honest with you about both the progress we're making and what setbacks we meet." Mr Biden wants to pump $20bn into vaccinating Americans, including setting up mass vaccination hubs and dispatching mobile units to remote areas. Two effective vaccines were delivered under the Trump administration, but health officials say the rollout needs to speed up. "The vaccine rollout in the United States has been a dismal failure thus far," said Mr Biden. His administration aims to deliver 100 million jabs in 100 days. So far, about 11 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). His plan also calls for $50bn to expand testing and $130bn to help most schools reopen by the spring. The plan would fund the hiring of 100,000 public health workers for contact tracing.

1-15-21 US Capitol on high alert ahead of Biden's inauguration
In the aftermath of last week's Capitol riots, Washington DC is preparing for Joe Biden's inauguration with extreme security measures - closing roads, erecting barbed wire fences and deploying 20,000 US troops. The FBI revealed that dozens of people on its watchlist came to the capital the day of the riot.

1-15-21 The worst-case scenario for America's immediate future
It's not authoritarianism. It's another civil war. ne of the most unnerving things about analyzing American politics in recent years has been the need to start thinking in terms what financial analysts call "tail risk" — the likelihood that events normally considered rare or unlikely will actually happen. Ten years ago, most pundits would have described as exceedingly small the likelihood of someone like Donald Trump — a real-estate mogul, reality-show star, and promulgator of racist conspiracy theories who had no political experience at all — being elected president. Yet it happened. Two years ago, epidemiologists would have given a range of probabilities on the question of whether a pandemic would soon kill millions around the world in the space of 10 months. Because that's exactly what's happened, those on the more alarmist side would appear to have been vindicated, with those who were more sanguine shown to be insufficiently attuned to the dangers we faced. What additional tail risks does the United States confront today? And which of them is most likely to become a reality? A lot of commentary over the past four years has focused on the question of whether or not Trump is a fascist on the verge of becoming a ruthless authoritarian. I don't think there's much doubt that Trump personally would love to be a dictator — but there's also abundant evidence that he's never been anywhere close to making himself one, mainly because he's far too ignorant, lazy, and inept to outsmart and depose America's longstanding democratic-republican institutions. But that's not the only reason why Trump was never going to be able to impose fascism on the United States: American culture is too deeply hostile to tyranny, even to a fault. We're a country born of a tax revolt, after all, and many of us regularly mistake the ordinary exercise of government power as an existential threat to individual liberty. That means any effort to impose dictatorial rule would be maximally likely to inspire an equal and opposite reaction that results in greater disorder, breakdown, and chaos. That's why the tail-end scenario that worries me most by far is the outbreak of a civil war. I've written about this before, always feeling a little skittish when I do. I worry about sounding like a hysteric, which is the opposite of what I strive to do with my writing. Critics of my talk of civil unrest usually raise one of two objections. Some say that 21st-century Americans are just too slothful and self-absorbed to fight an actual civil war. We're a nation of couch potatoes, unhealthy, overweight, hooked on painkillers, and pathologically fixated on our computers and phones. That doesn't sound like the kind of people liable to brandish weapons and risk their lives for a cause. Then there are those who say that a civil war couldn't possibly break out today because, unlike in 1861, when one entire region of the country went to war against another, our battle lines are too scrambled in the real world to make combat viable. Where would the front lines be? What territory would be fought over and conquered? Until quite recently, I was largely persuaded by the first point. Ross Douthat's recent book on decadence, which I favorably reviewed last February, helped to persuade me that nearly everyone waging digital warfare online is indulging in a fantasy, immersed in virtual-reality combat, and maybe even blowing off steam that might make a real-world conflagration less likely than it would otherwise be. But last week shattered this assumption, showing that it's far more likely that this analysis is itself a fantasy. Thousands of people traveled to the nation's capital to participate in a physical assault on Congress. This shows that there absolutely are Americans in 2021 with the means and motivation to fight for a cause. As for the second objection, I think it's an error to assume that any civil war that might arise would need to resemble the one that tore the country apart from 1861 to 1865. Or that it would look like the West's most prominent recent civil war, the one that turned the former Yugoslavia into a charnel house during the 1990s. Both of those civil wars had a strong territorial component. The first was of course a conflict between the northern and southern regions of the country over the institution of slavery. The second was sparked by the reassertion of ethnonationalist and religious attachments in a country that had suppressed or blended them for decades.

1-15-21 Trump impeachment: Republicans clash as Senate trial looms
US Republicans in Congress are deeply divided after 10 members split with their party to impeach President Donald Trump on Wednesday. Congresswoman Liz Cheney, the third ranking House Republican, is facing calls to resign her party leadership role after her vote to impeach. The lawmakers who voted against Mr Trump face threats of violence, and have increased security, they say. It comes as Mr Trump prepares to leave office and faces a trial in the Senate. The House of Representatives voted by 232 votes to 197 on Wednesday to impeach him for allegedly inciting rioters who stormed the Capitol last week. The FBI has warned of possible armed protests planned for Washington DC and all 50 US state capitals in the run-up to Democratic President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Wednesday. Ms Cheney, a Wyoming congresswoman whose father was vice-president to Republican George W Bush, faced immediate calls to resign after voting to impeach Mr Trump for inciting insurrection against the US government. "I'm not going anywhere. This is a vote of conscience," said Ms Cheney, after Mr Trump's conservative defenders in Congress called for her to quit. "It's one where there are different views in our conference. But our nation is facing an unprecedented, since the Civil War, constitutional crisis," she told reporters on Wednesday, as Trump was impeached for a historic second time. Another Republican has said he and several colleagues have purchased body armour and have been forced to change their normal routines after receiving threats of violence. "It's sad that we have to get to that point, but you know our expectation is that someone may try to kill us," Michigan Republican Peter Meijer told MSNBC on Thursday. "We don't know what's going to happen next. We weren't expecting for the Capitol to get overrun for the first time in 200 years," he said. "And so in this unprecedented environment with an unprecedented degree of fear, of divisiveness and hatred, we have to account for every scenario."

1-14-21 Trump impeachment: Republicans defend - and some attack - president
For the second time, the House of Representatives has voted to impeach the president. Unlike the previous impeachment vote, this time 10 Republicans voted yes. Most were not in favour of the action, but some critiqued the president for what he said before and after the riot at the Capitol last week.

1-14-21 Covid-19 news: Pandemic has 'calamitous impact' on England's hospitals
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Record number of people waiting for non-covid-19 NHS treatment in England. The coronavirus pandemic is having a “calamitous impact” on other medical treatment in England, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons, Neil Mortensen, has said, as data published by NHS England revealed millions of people were waiting for hospital treatment unrelated to covid-19. About 4.46 million people were waiting to start hospital treatment in England in November last year, the highest figure ever recorded. “When we eventually emerge from this crisis, we will need sustained investment to treat all those who have been waiting patiently for treatment,” said Mortensen. NHS England figures also show that 192,169 of those people had been waiting 52 weeks or more by November 2020, compared to just 1400 people the previous year. The majority of people who have had covid-19 and recovered are protected from getting it again for at least five months, according to a study of healthcare workers by Public Health England. In Public Health England’s SIREN study, 20,787 healthcare workers were regularly tested for the coronavirus between 18 June and 24 November. Those who tested positive for coronavirus antibodies at the start of the study – 6614 of the participants – had an 83 per cent lower risk of reinfection, compared to those who tested negative at the start. A World Health Organization team has arrived in Wuhan, China, where it will investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. On Thursday, China recorded its first death from covid-19 since May 2020 in Hebei province. The area is experiencing a new outbreak and tens of millions of people are under newly imposed lockdowns. UK ministers are expected to announce a ban on travel from Brazil, following the discovery of a new coronavirus variant in people who travelled from Brazil to Japan.

1-14-21 Can President Trump be removed from office or banned from politics altogether?
Donald Trump has been impeached - again. The president has become the first president in US history to be impeached twice, after being charged with "incitement of insurrection" over last week's deadly storming of Congress. The House of Representatives accused Mr Trump of encouraging violence with his false claims of election fraud. Mr Trump, a Republican, now faces trial in the upper chamber, the Senate, but not before he leaves office next Wednesday, when Democrat Joe Biden will be sworn in. So what happens now? To impeach means to bring charges in Congress that will form the basis for a trial. It's important to note this is a political process, rather than a criminal one. The US constitution states a president "shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanours". A vote was held on Wednesday in the House of Representatives. Ten of Mr Trump's Republican party joined Democrats to impeach him by 232-197. The president has been impeached once before over allegations he sought help from Ukraine to boost his chances of re-election. The Senate acquitted him of these charges. Now Mr Trump has become the first president in history to be impeached twice. Now that impeachment charges have been brought to the House and passed in a vote, the case is passed to the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is necessary to convict the president and remove him from office. It is unclear if Democrats will get those numbers in the Senate, where they only hold half of the seats. If Mr Trump is convicted by the Senate, lawmakers could hold another vote to block him from running for elected office again - which he has indicated he planned to do in 2024. This could be the biggest consequence of this impeachment. If he is convicted, a simple majority of senators would be needed to block Mr Trump from holding "any office of honour, trust or profit under the United States". This could be appealing to Republicans hoping to run for president in the future and those who want Mr Trump out of the party. However, none of this will come during Mr Trump's remaining week in office.

1-14-21 New York City is latest to cut Trump business ties
New York City said it will cut business ties with the Trump Organization, joining a growing list of corporations turning their back on the twice-impeached president. Mr Trump is facing a backlash both personally and politically following last week's riots at the US Capitol. The Trump Organization has contracts with New York City to run two skating rinks, a carousel and a golf course. The deals generate about $17m (£12.5m) a year for the company. "The city of New York will no longer have anything to do with the Trump Organization," New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday evening. In a statement, the president's son Eric Trump said the city had no right to end the contracts, and would owe the Trump Organization $30m if it did so. "This is nothing more than political discrimination and we plan to fight it vigorously," he said.Cushman & Wakefield, one of the largest commercial property firms in the US, said it would be no longer working with the Trumps. The company leases a number of the organisation's properties including Trump Tower in New York City."Cushman & Wakefield has made the decision to no longer do business with the Trump Organization," a company spokesperson said. The Professional Golf Association (PGA) was one of the first organisations to begin the flight from Mr Trump when it announced on Monday it would move the 2022 PGA Championship from the president's club in New Jersey. Two banks, Deutsche Bank and Signature Bank, said this week they would end their relationships with Mr Trump. Signature Bank said it has begun closing Mr Trump's two personal accounts, which had balances of about $5.3m (£4m). "We witnessed the President of the United States encouraging the rioters and refraining from calling in the National Guard to protect the Congress in its performance of duty," the bank said in a statement.

1-14-21 Capitol riots: Did Trump's words at rally incite violence?
Donald Trump has been impeached for inciting a mob to attack the US Capitol. So what did the president say prior to the violence? Thousands gathered at a "Save America" rally organised to challenge the election result and they listened as Mr Trump spoke to them near the White House. In a 70-minute address, he exhorted them to march on Congress where politicians had met to certify Democrat Joe Biden's win. The attack began moments after he took the applause. Those words have now played a central part in his second impeachment, which happened after a day of debate in Congress. So what did he say? Here are five key quotes, followed by some legal analysis from Professor Garrett Epps of the University of Baltimore. 'We won this election, and we won it by a landslide', 'We will stop the steal', 'We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn't happen', 'If you don't fight like hell you're not going to have a country anymore', 'Peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard', 'We are going to the Capitol' It's quite rare that somebody can be convicted of incitement. In applying that to the president's speech at the Wednesday rally, it's an agonisingly close case. It's pretty goddamn imminent because he's telling people to march to the Capitol and I will march with you. There wouldn't be any time for better counsels to prevail because you're just going to leave the Ellipse and walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. He says we have to fight and show strength, but he also said we're very peacefully and patriotically going to ask, so he's covering himself. In the end, I think it's a jury question. I'm not sure he's entitled to a dismissal of charges as a matter of law. There's some discussion that government leaders have more leeway, but I don't know how that would play out. He clearly knew there were people in that crowd who were ready to and intended to be violent, and he certainly did nothing to discourage that. He not only did nothing to discourage it, he strongly hinted it should happen.

1-14-21 Twitter boss: Trump ban is 'right' but 'dangerous'
Twitter boss Jack Dorsey has said banning US President Donald Trump was the right thing to do. However, he expressed sadness at what he described as the "extraordinary and untenable circumstances" surrounding Mr Trump's permanent suspension. He also said the ban was in part a failure of Twitter's, which hadn't done enough to foster "healthy conversation" across its platforms. Twitter has been praised and criticised for freezing Mr Trump's account. German leader Angela Merkel and Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador - neither an ally of the outgoing US president - spoke out against the tech titan's move. In a long Twitter thread, Twitter's chief said he did not celebrate or feel pride in the ban - which came after the Capitol riot last week. He reiterated that removing the president from Twitter was made after "a clear warning" to Mr Trump. "We made a decision with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter," Mr Dorsey said. He also accepted that the move would have consequences for an open and free internet. "Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation. They divide us….And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous." He also addressed criticism that just a handful of tech bosses can make decisions on who does and doesn't have a voice on the internet - and on accusations of censorship. "A company making a business decision to moderate itself is different from a government removing access, yet can feel much the same," said Mr Dorsey. The decision to remove users, posts and tweets has been criticised by some for violating First Amendment - free speech - rights. However, big tech firms generally argue that as they are private companies, and not state actors, this law does not apply when they moderate their platforms. Facebook and YouTube have taken steps to silence the president, while Amazon shut down Parler, an app widely used by his supporters. Now Snapchat has also announced that Mr Trump will be permanently banned from its platform too. (Webmaster's comment: Those who incite and promote violence should be banned from all social media!)

1-14-21 Why banning 'harmful' online speech is a slippery slope
The mob attack on Capitol Hill on January 6, instigated by President Trump in the hope of thwarting or at least delaying the certification of President-elect Joe Biden's election victory, was unquestionably one of the most shameful episodes in the political history of the United States. Ironically, the failed insurrection may well be the beginning of the end of Trumpism. But the fallout from these tragic events could also include a far less welcome development: a rush to regulate, quash, and banish a wide range of expression regarded as potentially dangerous. The swift move to permanently ban Trump (and some of his more extreme supporters) from Twitter and other social media has prompted warnings about speech suppression even from people with little sympathy for the soon-to-be-ex-president, from the American Civil Liberties Union to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. Then, Parler, a nearly unmoderated Twitter alternative favored by the right, went dead after Google and Apple dropped its app from their online stores and Amazon booted it from its web hosting service. This raised more concerns about the ability of a few mega-corporations to drastically curtail online access for undesirables. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, who believes that both Trump and Parler deserved to be de-platformed, writes that "it's dangerous to have a handful of callow young tech titans in charge of who has a megaphone and who does not." Trump's ban, it should be noted, was brought on by his barely veiled instigation of unrest in an explosive situation; arguably, too, he repeatedly violated Twitter rules with impunity prior to last week. Likewise, Parler has been a cesspit of hateful, unhinged, and violent postings that violate Amazon's terms of service. While the United States has extremely strong legal protections for speech, they cover only government censorship, not restrictions by private corporations (though, as Goldberg and others have noted, the situation becomes alarming when a few corporations can effectively cut off a speaker from mass audiences). And at least some of the speech targeted in last week's crackdown was almost certainly illegal even under American law, since it poses a clear danger of inciting imminent violence. But could the understandable backlash against extremism also fuel an already existing trend of speech- and thought-policing toward any views that run counter to progressive dogma? Already, a number of writers on the left have tried to argue in mainstream venues that the assault on Capitol Hill shows the need to curb a wide range of "bad" discourse. Vox culture critic Aja Romano blamed the Capitol Hill riot on far-right internet activity supposedly traceable to GamerGate, a 2014 videogame-community blow-up variously described as a harassment mob or a revolt against cronyism and "political correctness" in gaming journalism. It would be beside the point to revisit GamerGate, a complex and often misreported online saga (though it is worth noting that an FBI investigation linked no known GamerGate participants to criminal harassment and that plenty of its supporters were and have remained politically and socially liberal). But one of Romano's recommendations stands out: Social media platforms, she wrote, must "learn how to shut down disingenuous conversations over ethics and free speech." By what criteria social media platforms can determine which conversations on these topics are "disingenuous" remains unclear, and one may be forgiven for suspecting that they will be mainly political. Meanwhile, British writer and journalist Laurie Penny responded to the attack with a tweet urging no tolerance for "fascism":

1-13-21 Covid-19 news: UK records highest daily deaths since pandemic started
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. UK reports record 1564 deaths in a single day. The UK reported 1564 deaths from covid-19 within 28 days of a positive test on Wednesday, the highest daily increase since the pandemic began. The country also reported 47,525 new coronavirus cases. UK prime minister Boris Johnson said the government plans to open 24/7 covid-19 vaccination centres “as soon as we can”. “We have a huge network of 233 hospitals, 1000 GP surgeries, 200 pharmacies and 50 mass vaccination centres and they are going […] exceptionally fast,” he told parliament on Wednesday. “At the moment the limit is on supply.” On Tuesday, 223,726 people received a dose of covid-19 vaccine, up from 165,844 on Monday. The US recorded 4327 deaths from covid-19 on Tuesday, the country’s highest daily increase since the start of the pandemic. On the same day, US officials recommended that states broaden vaccination eligibility to people 65 or over who have chronic health conditions that make them more vulnerable to covid-19. China saw its biggest daily rise in coronavirus cases in more than five months on Tuesday. There were 115 new confirmed cases reported in the mainland on 12 January – the largest daily increase since 30 July, according to its National Health Commission. There are concerns about a new variant of the coronavirus first detected in people travelling to Japan from Brazil. Boris Johnson said he was concerned about the variant and that steps were being taken to protect the country from new infections entering from abroad. The new variant is different from the highly transmissible variants identified in the UK and South Africa. Israel’s health ministry reported that initial data suggests the vaccine developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech reduces infections by 50 per cent after 14 days. Israel has so far vaccinated almost 2 million people – about 20 per cent of the country’s population. (Webmaster's comment: China has 115 new cases, the US has 4,327 deaths!)

1-13-21 Earth’s oceans are storing record-breaking amounts of heat
Seas may have absorbed enough heat last year to boil 1.3 billion kettles of water. Pandemic-related shutdowns may have spared Earth’s atmosphere some greenhouse gas emissions last year, but the world continued to warm. Water temperature measurements from around the globe indicate that the total amount of heat stored in the upper oceans in 2020 was higher than any other year on record dating back to 1955, researchers report online January 13 in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences. Tracking ocean temperature is important because warmer water melts more ice off the edges of Greenland and Antarctica, which raises sea levels (SN: 4/30/20) and supercharges tropical storms (SN: 11/11/20). Researchers estimated the total heat energy stored in the upper 2,000 meters of Earth’s oceans using temperature data from moored sensors, drifting probes called Argo floats, underwater robots and other instruments (SN: 5/19/10). The team found that upper ocean waters contained 234 sextillion, or 1021, joules more heat energy in 2020 than the annual average from 1981 to 2010. Heat energy storage was up about 20 sextillion joules from 2019 — suggesting that in 2020, Earth’s oceans absorbed about enough heat to boil 1.3 billion kettles of water. This analysis may overestimate how much the oceans warmed last year, says study coauthor Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist with the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research who is currently based in Auckland, New Zealand. So the researchers also crunched ocean temperature data using a second, more conservative method for estimating total annual ocean heat and found that the jump from 2019 to 2020 could be as low as 1 sextillion joules. That’s still 65 million kettles brought to boil. The three other warmest years on record for the world’s oceans were 2017, 2018 and 2019. “What we’re seeing here is a variant on the movie Groundhog Day,” says study coauthor Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State. “Groundhog Day has a happy ending. This won’t if we don’t act now to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.”

1-12-21 Trump supporters planning armed protests ahead of Biden inauguration, FBI warns
The FBI has warned of possible armed protests across the US as Trump supporters and far-right groups call for demonstrations before Joe Biden is sworn in as president. There are reports of armed groups planning to gather at all 50 state capitols and in Washington DC in the run-up to his 20 January inauguration. Security will be tight for the event after a pro-Trump mob stormed Congress. House Democrats say a vote to impeach the president will happen on Wednesday. They accuse President Trump of "incitement of insurrection" and say the vote will be held unless Vice-President Mike Pence invokes constitutional powers to remove Mr Trump from office. There is no sign Mr Pence is prepared to do so. Mr Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris are expected to be sworn in at a ceremony at the Capitol. The Biden team had already urged Americans to avoid travelling to the capital because of the Covid-19 pandemic, a call that is now being repeated by local authorities. Security officials have said there will be no repeat of the breach seen on 6 January, when thousands of pro-Trump supporters were able to break into the building where members of Congress were voting to certify the election result. Five people died in the riot, which happened after Mr Trump repeated unsubstantiated claims of fraud in the November vote and encouraged his supporters to march on the Capitol. Since then, calls for Mr Trump's resignation, removal from office or impeachment have grown among Democrats and some Republicans. Mr Trump has made no public statements since he was banned from several social media platforms - including Twitter - on Friday. He became the third US president to be impeached in December 2019 over charges of breaking the law by asking Ukraine to investigate his rival in the presidential election. The Senate cleared him. Posts on pro-Trump and far-right online networks have called for protests on a number of dates, including armed demonstrations in cities across the country on 17 January and a march in Washington DC on inauguration day itself. An internal FBI bulletin, reported by ABC News and other outlets, carries a warning that one group is calling for the "storming" of state, local and federal courthouses around the country if Mr Trump is removed from office early and on inauguration day if he is not.

1-12-21 Capitol riots: Trump says his speech was totally appropriate
US President Donald Trump has said his speech before last week's deadly Capitol riot, when he urged his supporters to march on Congress, was "totally appropriate". Mr Trump dismissed as "ridiculous" efforts by Democrats in Congress to impeach him for inciting insurrection. He leaves office on 20 January, when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in. Democrats in the House of Representatives say a vote to impeach the president will happen on Wednesday. If the vote in the House is carried, Mr Trump will become the first president in US history to be impeached twice. However, the impeachment will only lead to his removal from office if a two-thirds majority votes in favour in the Senate. That would need the assent of a substantial number of Republicans and so far, few have shown any willingness to vote against a president from their own party. The House will vote first to ask Vice-President Mike Pence to invoke constitutional powers to remove Mr Trump from office - an idea Mr Pence is said to oppose. Calls for Mr Trump's resignation, removal from office or impeachment have grown among Democrats and some Republicans in the days following the riots in Congress in which five people died.

1-12-21 Pence under pressure to remove Trump immediately
The House of Representatives will vote to ask Vice-President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Donald Trump immediately. A vote to impeach the president will be held on Wednesday if Pence fails to act, as expected. Democrats charge Trump with "incitement of insurrection" over the invasion of the US Capitol last Wednesday. Dozens have been detained in connection with last week's violence, which left five people dead. The FBI is warning of armed protests in all 50 states by right-wing extremists ahead of Joe Biden's inauguration. Up to 15,000 National Guard troops will be deployed in Washington DC for the 20 January event. "We want no violence," says Trump, denying wrongdoing in his first live comments since the riot. Trump is on his way to Alamo, on the border with Mexico, to highlight work on building a wall to keep migrants out. Russian TV revels in US crisis. Reports of continuing tensions in the US in the wake of last week’s events fill the airwaves in Russia. Much of the Russian narrative mirrors Trump’s own talking points, including harsh criticism of the Democrats and the media. Pro-Kremlin TV stations generally describe the US political system as unfair and riddled with double standards. "America's political machine is getting ever more bogged down in America's own views of democracy," said an announcer on State TV’s Channel One. "The problem is that when it comes to the US, these views are quite different from when they are applied to other countries." Democrats have been criticised more harshly than Republicans, who were jointly gathered inside the Capitol in an effort to overturn Democrat Joe Biden's November victory. "The Democrats want to get rid of Trump as a political rival once and for all," said State TV's Channel One on Tuesday. "The situation in the US is looking increasingly like the start of a civil war," said pro-Kremlin Ren TV.

1-12-21 Trump impeachment move: Democrats start push to oust US president
Democrats have introduced an article of impeachment against US President Donald Trump for his role in last week's deadly invasion of the Capitol. The article filed in the House on Monday accuses Mr Trump of "incitement of insurrection". Democrats say a vote on the article will go ahead in the House on Wednesday unless Vice-President Mike Pence invokes constitutional powers to remove Mr Trump from office. Mr Pence is said to oppose the idea. "The president represents an imminent threat to our constitution, our country and the American people, and he must be removed from office immediately," Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. Calls for Mr Trump's resignation, removal from office or impeachment have grown among Democrats and some Republicans in the days following the riots in Congress in which five people died. The impeachment resolution accuses the president of encouraging his supporters to storm the Capitol building at a rally in which Mr Trump alleged, without evidence, that November's presidential election was "stolen" from him. The White House has dismissed the impeachment threat as "politically motivated", but Mr Trump has made no public statements since he was banned from several social media platforms - including Twitter - on Friday. He is due to leave office on 20 January, when Democrat Joe Biden will be sworn in as president. Mr Trump has said he will not attend Mr Biden's swearing-in ceremony. This is the second time Democrats have pursued impeachment against President Trump in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of Congress. In December 2019, the House impeached Mr Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. But the Senate acquitted him on both charges in February 2020. No US president has ever been impeached twice. However, the prospect of an impeachment conviction is unlikely because of Mr Trump's broad Republican support in the Senate.

1-12-21 Arnold Schwarzenegger: 'I know where Trump's lies lead'
The actor and former California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, compared the US Capitol riots to Nazi Germany. The actor recounted his childhood growing up in Austria following World War 2.

1-12-21 California's Disneyland to become Covid vaccination site
California's Disneyland theme park is set to become a massive Covid-19 vaccination site this week, county officials announced on Monday. The "happiest place on earth" is one of several large distribution sites opening up in the state as cases soar and hospitals near capacity. The most populous US state has lagged behind in its vaccination rate, doling out around a third of its do California ranks 42nd out of 50 states in its vaccination rate per 100,000 residents, according to Centers for Disease Control data. The Disneyland resort in Orange County will become the region's first "super" distribution site, Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do said on Monday. It will have the capacity to vaccinate thousands of people daily. The park has been closed to visitors since mid-March - unlike it's sister resort, Walt Disney World in Florida, which has been open to reduced numbers of guests since July. California Governor Gavin Newsom announced similar vaccination sites would be opening up as early as this week at Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium, Cal Expo in Sacramento and Petco Park in San Diego. "We recognise that the current strategy is not going to get us to where we need to go as quickly as we all need to go," Mr Newsom said. "That's why we're speeding up the administration not just for priority groups but opening up large sites to do so." The state's current vaccination campaign is focusing on high priority individuals, like health care workers and long-term care facility residents. The Golden State has the third highest death rate in the country. More than 22,600 people have been admitted to hospital due to the virus, and state data shows that as of Monday, just over 1,200 intensive care beds were still available statewide. "The damaging impact to our families and our local hospitals from this surge is the worst disaster our county has experienced for decades," Los Angeles County's top public health official, Barbara Ferrer told reporters on Monday.

1-12-21 Australia clamps down in response to cases of UK coronavirus variant
Authorities in Australia have responded swiftly to contain potential outbreaks of the UK variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes covid-19. On Thursday 7 January, a cleaner for a hotel quarantine facility in Brisbane tested positive for the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant, first sequenced in the UK in September, which has now reached at least 45 countries. The variant has previously been detected in returning international passengers in hotel quarantine, but this is the first time someone had unknowingly been in the Australian community while potentially infectious. The following morning, with no further positive cases, Queensland state Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced a short, citywide circuit-breaker lockdown affecting some 2 million residents. The city, where life has been normal for months, hadn’t locked down since the first wave in Australia in March. “Doing three days now could avoid doing 30 days in the future,” said Palaszczuk on Friday. The lockdown began on Friday at 6pm Brisbane time, and ended on Monday 11 January at the same time. It included a strict mask mandate for anyone leaving their homes, including while driving and exercising. Within days, contact tracers identified over 150 of the cleaner’s casual and close contacts, who have all been quarantined. The city recorded only one new case of community transmission during the lockdown period – the cleaner’s partner – but it is still too early to rule out unknown transmission. “We have to wait two weeks since the last possible exposure that index case had,” says Raina MacIntyre, an infectious diseases expert at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. The South African variant of SARS-CoV-2 has also been detected in Australia, with the first case seen in hotel quarantine on 22 December. In response to the threat posed by the two variants, on 8 January, Australia’s National Cabinet implemented tighter restrictions for returning passengers.

1-12-21 Coronavirus: Lebanon to impose round-the-clock curfew as cases spike
Lebanon will enforce an 11-day curfew, with hospitals struggling to cope with a spike in new coronavirus infections. People will be forbidden from leaving their homes from 05:00 (03:00 GMT) on Thursday, with few exemptions. They will be unable to shop in supermarkets and will need to rely on deliveries. The only airport will remain open, but the number of passengers will be cut. The authorities say that without drastic action the country's fragile health system will be overwhelmed. Compared to other countries, Lebanon had until now coped relatively well with the coronavirus.Despite a rise in the number of new cases, the government relaxed restrictions ahead of Christmas and New Year, hoping to bolster the country's crumbling economy. Bars and nightclubs were allowed to open for the first time in months. Health officials said that the easing of restrictions had now led to a dramatic spike in infections. Lebanon, which has a population of six million, has reported more than 222,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 1,629 deaths since the start of the pandemic. But in the past week alone, 30,250 people have tested positive and 117 have died, according to data collated by Johns Hopkins University. "We have seen dreadful scenes of citizens waiting in front of hospitals for a chair or a bed," President Michel Aoun said at a meeting of the Supreme Defence Council on Monday afternoon. "Radical measures must be taken so that we can mitigate the catastrophic consequences of the coronavirus outbreak," he added. Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed the spike in cases on "the stubbornness of people and their rebellion against measures taken to protect them from the threat of this pandemic". But he also admitted that "the enforcement of these measures was not equal to the level of the risk".


FEMINISM

1-17-21 Sofia Bekatorou: Olympic medalist's decision to speak out over alleged 1998 sexual assault sparks public outcry in Greece
Greek Olympic gold medalist Sofia Bekatorou's very public detailing of her alleged sexual assault in 1998 by a high-ranking Hellenic Sailing Federation (HSF) official has sparked an outcry in the Mediterranean country over the way her revelations were initially dealt with. Bekatorou did not name the person she is accusing. On Saturday, Aristides Adamopoulos -- the vice Chairman of the HSF Board -- resigned, according to the Greek sailing body. "It is expected that complaints against me made by a public figure, of great recognition and wide social impact, will gather public interest, create feelings of compassion for the complainant and disgust for the alleged 'perpetrator,'" said Adamopoulos in a statement as he called for due process. Later on Saturday, in a statement posted on the Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC) website, Adamopoulos said Bekatorou's accusation was "false and defamatory." "Nevertheless, I fully understand that due to the extensive negative publicity of the matter, it is very likely there will be damage to the status of the Hellenic Olympic Committee, which must always remain high for the good of Greek sport," said Adamopoulos. "For this reason alone and fully aware of my responsibility towards the HOC, I declare that from today and until the full clarification of this case by the authorities I will abstain from meetings of the HOC bodies which I am a member and I will generally abstain from the exercise of my duties from any position I hold." CNN does not usually identify people who say they were sexually assaulted, but Bekatorou came forward publicly with her allegations. Bekatorou said the alleged assault took place in 1998 during preparations for the Sydney Olympics, that were held two years later. One of Greece's best-known female athletes, Bekatorou won a sailing gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics and then bronze four years later at the Beijing Games. Now 43, Bekatorou said a male official performed a "lewd act" after inviting her to his hotel room to discuss preparations ahead of the Sydney Olympics. The athlete said the act was not consensual.

1-17-21 Are women let down by period trackers?
When journalist Orla Barry received a notification from her iPhone informing her that her period was due "any day in the next three weeks", she shared it on social media with wry amusement. It wasn't the first time she'd received such an unspecific notification from the app, and it prompted others to share their stories. "I got one which said my period was 56 days late," wrote one. "My notification said 'the next nine days'," said another. One man said his smartwatch had a menstruation tracker activated by default when he got it, and it kept telling him his period was "due" - despite him never having had one. These apps do face a big challenge - periods are not always renowned for their punctuality. But are they up to the job? At their most simple, women input the dates when their periods begin and end, and an app calculates when their next is due to arrive based on this information. It can also use this data to estimate when they might ovulate: this is also when they are most likely to conceive. Some offer to track additional data including basal body temperature, sleep patterns, menstrual pain and sexual activity, which can provide further clues - although there have been concerns around what else this data can be used for by the developers of the app. However, women's cycles can change from month to month based on a large number of factors including stress, age, and hormone fluctuations. It is perhaps not all that surprising that a scientific study of nearly 1,000 women carried out in 2018 found that the apps they were using were only correctly identifying when they ovulated 21% of the time. But period trackers remain very popular. They are used for a number of reasons.

1-15-21 Rajini Chandy: The 69-year-old Indian actress trolled for ‘too sexy’ photos
When Rajini Chandy posted pictures from her glamorous photoshoot on Facebook recently, she didn't anticipate they would go viral and attract vicious trolls. The photos show the 69-year-old housewife-turned-actress, who's generally seen in colourful elegant saris, dressed in a jumpsuit, long dresses, a pair of distressed jeans, and a short denim dress. In some, she's wearing a crown of fresh white flowers picked from her garden. Described as "bold and beautiful" by the local press in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where she lives, the photoshoot has raised the hackles of many in a conservative state where most women still dress modestly in saris or traditional long skirts. The photoshoot, Mrs Chandy told the BBC, was the idea of Athira Joy, a 29-year-old photographer known for her unconventional work. Ms Joy said what attracted her to the actress was how she was so different from her own mother. "Indian women," she says, "spend their lives caged in this system of marriage and raising a family. Most give up on life once they reach 60. They become nannies to their grandchildren." Her 65-year-old mother, she says, is "a typical Indian woman who suffers from all sorts of health issues that 60 plus women face". "But Rajini is different - she takes care of herself, she's fit, she's bold, she's beautiful, she's fashionable. She's 69, but in her mind, she's 29, just like me." In traditional Keralan society, Mrs Chandy has always stood out. When she returned to Kerala in 1995 after spending decades in Mumbai where her husband worked with a foreign bank, she made heads turn as she stepped out in a pair of jeans or wore lipstick. Once, she tells me, she was reprimanded for wearing a sleeveless blouse. In the past few years, she's made news for her "unconventional choices" - in 2016, at the age of 65, she debuted as an actress in the Malayalam-language comedy-drama, Oru Muthassi Gadha (A Granny's Mace).

1-12-21 Irish government to apologise over mother-and-baby homes
The Irish government is to apologise after an investigation found an "appalling level of infant mortality" in the country's mother-and-baby homes. Established in the 19th and 20th centuries, the institutions housed women and girls who became pregnant outside marriage. About 9,000 children died in the 18 institutions under investigation. The government said the report revealed the country had a "stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture". Taoiseach (Irish PM) Mícheál Martin said the report described a very dark and difficult chapter in Irish history. "As a nation we must face up to the full truth of our past," he said. The greatest number of admissions was in the 1960s and early 1970s. Many children born in the homes were adopted or taken to orphanages run by Catholic nuns. The report said "the women and children should not have been in the institutions" and that many women suffered emotional abuse. The investigators say it appears there was "little kindness" shown to the mothers and "this was particularly the case" during childbirth, which many of the women found "a traumatic experience". The Irish government will apologise for the hurt experienced by the residents of the homes. Mr Martin said "one hard truth" was that "all of society was complicit" in the scandal. "We did this to ourselves as a society - we treated women exceptionally badly; we treated children extremely badly," he said on Tuesday. "We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy and young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction. "As a society we embraced judgementalism, moral certainty, a perverse religious morality and control which was so damaging. "But what was very striking was the absence of basic kindness. Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman said the report showed that for decades a "pervasive stigmatisation of unmarried mothers and their children robbed those individuals of their agency and sometimes their future".


SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

1-15-21 2020 and 2016 tie for the hottest years on record
Last year, record-breaking heat waves struck around the world. 2020 is in a “dead heat” with 2016 for the hottest year on record, scientists with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced January 14. Based on ocean temperature data from buoys, floats and ships, as well as temperatures measured over land at weather stations around the globe, the U.S. agencies conducted independent analyses and arrived at a similar conclusion. NASA’s analysis showed 2020 to be slightly hotter, while NOAA’s showed that 2016 was still slightly ahead. But the differences in those assessments are within margins of error, “so it’s effectively a statistical tie,” said NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City at a Jan. 14 news conference. NOAA climate scientist Russell Vose, who is also based in New York City, described in the news conference the extreme warmth that occurred over land last year, including a months-long heat wave in Siberia (SN: 12/21/20). Europe and Asia recorded their hottest average temperatures on record in 2020, with South America recording its second warmest. It’s possible that 2020’s temperatures in some areas might have been even higher if not for massive wildfires. Vose noted that smoke lofted high into the stratosphere as a result of Australia’s intense fires in early 2020 may have slightly decreased temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere, though this is not yet known (SN: 12/15/20). The ocean-climate pattern known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation can boost or decrease global temperatures, depending on whether it’s in an El Niño or La Niña phase, respectively, Schmidt said (SN: 5/2/16). The El Niño phase was waning at the start of 2020, and a La Niña was starting, so the overall impact of this pattern was muted for the year. 2016, on the other hand, got a large temperature boost from El Niño. Without that, “2020 would have been by far the warmest year on record,” he said.

1-15-21 Climate change: 'Exceptionally hot' 2020 concludes warmest decade
Global meteorological agencies agree that 2020 was a scorching year but they are divided on just where it ranks in the temperature records. For Nasa, last year is in a statistical dead heat with 2016 as the warmest year. Others, including the UK Met Office, believe it is second in the rankings dating back to the 19th Century. But all the agencies reporting on Thursday agree that last 12 months are part of the warmest decade on record. Just last week, a report from the EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service indicated that 2020 was tied with 2016 as the warmest year. Thursday's reports, from five key agencies around the world, show some dissent from this view, but all agree 2020 is in the top three. Nasa says 2020 is tied with 2016, while the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) and the UK Met Office have it second. The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) has 2020 as the third warmest year. The differences between the datasets are all within the margin of error, says the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) which has consolidated the information from the agencies. Some key facts about 2020 temperatures: 1. The average global temperature across the year was around 14.9C, putting it around 1.2C above the average between 1850-1900, 2. The 10 years from 2011-2020 were the warmest decade on record. 3. The warmest six years on record have all occurred since 2015. 4. The differences between the top three, 2020, 2019 and 2016 are "indistinguishably small". Taken together they show the global temperature is now around 1.2C above the 1850-1900 average, sometimes referred to as the "pre-industrial figure". Ongoing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from human activities are the key element in driving up temperatures, say researchers. While greenhouse gases declined by around 7% globally last year in response to the coronavirus shutdowns, this wasn't enough to affect temperatures. "Because we haven't stopped doing that and, in fact, we continue to do that even with the pandemic, we're still putting our foot on the accelerator of climate change," Dr Gavin Schmidt, director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in New York, told BBC News. "We anticipate that the planet will continue to warm at the rate that it has and maybe even accelerate, unless we get those emissions down, and that's a big task."

1-15-21 ‘The New Climate War’ exposes tactics of climate change ‘inactivists’
Climate scientist Michael Mann argues outright denialism has morphed into inactivism. Sometime around the fifth century B.C., the Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in his highly quotable treatise The Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” In The New Climate War, climate scientist Michael Mann channels Sun Tzu to demystify the myriad tactics of “the enemy” — in this case, “the fossil fuel companies, right-wing plutocrats and oil-funded governments” and other forces standing in the way of large-scale action to combat climate change. “Any plan for victory requires recognizing and defeating the tactics now being used by inactivists as they continue to wage war,” he writes. Mann is a veteran of the climate wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the scientific evidence that the climate is changing due to human emissions of greenhouse gases was under attack. Now, with the effects of climate change all around us (SN: 12/21/20), we are in a new phase of those wars, he argues. Outright denial has morphed into “deception, distraction and delay.” Such tactics, he says, are direct descendants of earlier public relations battles over whether producers or consumers must bear ultimate responsibility for, say, smoking-related deaths. When it comes to the climate, Mann warns, an overemphasis on individual actions could eclipse efforts to achieve the real prize: industrial-scale emissions reductions. He pulls no punches, calling out sources of “friendly fire” from climate advocates who he says divide the climate community and play into the “enemy’s” hands. These advocates include climate purists who lambaste scientists for flying or eating meat; science communicators who push fatalistic visions of catastrophic futures; and idealistic technocrats who advocate for risky, pie-in-the-sky geoengineering ideas. All, Mann says, distract from what we can do in the here and now: regulate emissions and invest in renewable energy.

1-15-21 Government defends Cumbria coal mine green light
The government’s chief planning officer has defended its recent decision to allow a new coal mine in Cumbria. Joanna Averley told a conference the decision to approve the mine application was left to Cumbria Council, as it was only a local issue. Environmentalists have reacted with astonishment and disbelief, saying the carbon from burning coal is clearly a global concern. They warned the decision will diminish the UK’s credibility. This will be tested at the crucial climate summit being held in Glasgow later in the year. As it hosts the meeting, the UK will play a crucial role in persuading other countries to cut their emissions. Ms Averley’s comments came in a conference on planning policy arranged by the countryside charity CPRE. She was asked why, given the UK's policies on cutting carbon, the Planning Secretary Robert Jenrick had not exercised his powers to overrule Cumbria Council's approval of the mine. Ms Averley said: “The Secretary of State has to make a judgement based on whether the impacts of the scheme are more than local. “And in this case, the decision was that this was a decision for local determination, and the application was approved by the local authority… a decision for local democracy.” She said the planning department was playing its part in tackling climate change. John Sauven, from Greenpeace, told BBC News: “It’s extraordinary that anyone still believes burning coal is only a local issue and has no global impacts. “Let’s hope China doesn’t take the same view or the world will be toast. It certainly isn’t setting the global leadership on climate that the prime minister says he's aspiring to.” Paul Miner, from CPRE, said: "All coal mines should be refused planning permission, according to current government policy. So, it beggars belief why ministers have not stepped in and refused the planning application for this coal mine in Cumbria. "Not only does coal mining scar the landscape and cause pollution for countryside communities, it further fuels climate and ecological breakdown. If the UK is to host COP26 while simultaneously approving the extraction of coal, we risk becoming an international laughing stock."

1-14-21 Lush meadows of underwater seagrass are removing plastic from the sea
Underwater seagrass may be naturally trapping millions of pieces of marine plastic and removing them from the sea. Posidonia oceanica, a seagrass endemic to the Mediterranean, forms lush meadows on the sea floor in coastal waters up to 40 metres deep. When P. oceanica sheds leaves, fibres in the leaf sheaths intertwine, forming tangles known as Neptune balls. Anna Sanchez-Vidal at the University of Barcelona in Spain and her colleagues have found that these balls trap plastic items. “When there’s a storm, and these balls are ejected from the sea to land, the plastic also is ejected back to shore,” says Sanchez-Vidal. Her team estimates that these Neptune balls may trap up to 867 million plastic items in the Mediterranean Sea every year. Between 2018 and 2019, the team measured the amount of plastic collected from seagrass litter from four beaches in Mallorca, Spain, which has high levels of plastic near the shore, as well as widespread seagrass meadows. The team found plastic debris in half of the 42 loose seagrass leaf samples they took, with up to 613 plastic items per kilogram of loose leaves. Of the 198 Neptune balls of P. oceanica fibres that the team collected, 17 per cent had intertwined plastic items. The finding points to the need for better conservation of seagrass meadows, says Sanchez-Vidal. “Strict measures should be taken to protect these systems,” she says. In addition to their newly discovered role in trapping and removing plastic, seagrass meadows are also an important reservoir of carbon dioxide and sediment, and a nursery area for many marine animals. P. oceanica is found only in the Mediterranean Sea, but other related seagrass species are found in shallow waters off the coast of Australia. It is unclear whether other species are able to form Neptune balls and function similarly in removing plastic.

1-14-21 How the Earth-shaking theory of plate tectonics was born
Pure insights plus a boom in data transformed our understanding of Earth. ome great ideas shake up the world. For centuries, the outermost layer of Earth was thought to be static, rigid, locked in place. But the theory of plate tectonics has rocked this picture of the planet to its core. Plate tectonics reveals how Earth’s surface is constantly in motion, and how its features — volcanoes, earthquakes, ocean basins and mountains — are intrinsically linked to its hot interior. The planet’s familiar landscapes, we now know, are products of an eons-long cycle in which the planet constantly remakes itself. When plate tectonics emerged in the 1960s it became a unifying theory, “the first global theory ever to be generally accepted in the entire history of earth science,” writes Harvard University science historian Naomi Oreskes, in the introduction to Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth. In 1969, geophysicist J. Tuzo Wilson compared the impact of this intellectual revolution in earth science to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which had produced a similar upending of thought about the nature of the universe. Plate tectonics describes how Earth’s entire, 100-kilometer-thick outermost layer, called the lithosphere, is broken into a jigsaw puzzle of plates — slabs of rock bearing both continents and seafloor — that slide atop a hot, slowly swirling inner layer. Moving at rates between 2 and 10 centimeters each year, some plates collide, some diverge and some grind past one another. New seafloor is created at the center of the oceans and lost as plates sink back into the planet’s interior. This cycle gives rise to many of Earth’s geologic wonders, as well as its natural hazards. “It’s amazing how it tied the pieces together: seafloor spreading, magnetic stripes on the seafloor … where earthquakes form, where mountain ranges form,” says Bradford Foley, a geodynamicist at Penn State. “Pretty much everything falls into place.” With so many lines of evidence now known, the theory feels obvious, almost inevitable. But the conceptual journey from fixed landmasses to a churning, restless Earth was long and circuitous, punctuated by moments of pure insight and guided by decades of dogged data collection.

1-14-21 Marie Tharp’s groundbreaking maps brought the seafloor to the world
Her deep understanding of geology made for gorgeous and insightful views. alk the halls of an academic earth sciences department, and you’ll likely find displayed on a wall somewhere a strikingly beautiful map of the world’s ocean floors. Completed in 1977, the map represents the culmination of the unlikely, and underappreciated, career of Marie Tharp. Her three decades of work as a geologist and cartographer at Columbia University gave scientists and the public alike their first glimpse of what the seafloor looks like. In the middle of the 20th century, when many American scientists were in revolt against continental drift — the controversial idea that the continents are not fixed in place — Tharp’s groundbreaking maps helped tilt the scientific view toward acceptance and clear a path for the emerging theory of plate tectonics. Tharp was the right person in the right place at the right time to make the first detailed maps of the seafloor. Specifically, she was the right woman. Her gender meant certain professional avenues were essentially off-limits. But she was able to take advantage of doors cracked open by historical circumstances, becoming uniquely qualified to make significant contributions to both science and cartography. Without her, the maps may never have come to be. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime — a once-in-the-history-of-the-world — opportunity for anyone, but especially for a woman in the 1940s,” Tharp recalled in a 1999 perspective. “The nature of the times, the state of the science, and events large and small, logical and illogical, combined to make it all happen.” Tharp’s cartographic roots ran deep. She was born in Michigan in 1920 and as a young girl would accompany her father on field trips to survey land and make maps for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Soils, a job that kept the family on the move. “By the time I finished high school I had attended nearly two dozen schools and I had seen a lot of different landscapes,” Tharp recalled. “I guess I had map-making in my blood, though I hadn’t planned to follow in my father’s footsteps.”

1-14-21 Flint water crisis: Michigan charges ex-governor Rick Snyder
Michigan's former governor has been charged over the deadly contamination of water in the city of Flint. Officials charged Rick Snyder with misdemeanour wilful neglect of duty, punishable by up to a year in jail. Nine manslaughter charges have also been levelled against the state's former health director. Both men appeared in court on Thursday. Twelve people died after the city switched its water supply to the Flint River in 2014 in a bid to save money. An outbreak of Legionnaires' disease followed, and residents were found to have drunk water poisoned with lead. The criminal charges on Wednesday followed a new investigation into the case. Prosecutors dropped previous charges in 2019, pledging a more thorough probe. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said she will give more details at a news conference on Thursday. Ahead of the event, Mrs Nessel's office announced that the state's former health director, Nick Lyon, would face nine charges of involuntary manslaughter. If found guilty, each charge carries a sentence of 15 years in jail. He had originally been charged with two manslaughter counts, but those charges were dropped in 2019. He pleaded not guilty on Thursday. A lawyer for Mr Snyder, a Republican, said before Thursday's hearing at the Genesee County jail: "We believe there is no evidence to support any criminal charges against Governor Snyder." During his court appearance on Thursday, Mr Snyder only spoke three words - "yes, your honour" - confirming that he still lived in Michigan. He was told he could not leave the state without the court's permission. He is accused of two counts of wilful neglect of duty and was freed after paying a $10,000 (£7,300) bond. The environmental disaster attracted global attention as activists accused officials of racism. Flint is a majority-African American city, where over 40% of the residents live in poverty, and some suggested that authorities' indifference to the community led to the crisis.

1-13-21 The superconductor breakthrough that could mean an energy revolution
We’ve finally made a room-temperature superconductor, so materials that transport electricity without wasting any of it are within our grasp. THEY called it the “Woodstock of physics”. The hastily convened evening session of the American Physical Society meeting in the New York Hilton hotel on 18 March 1987 was supposed to last for just a few hours. In the event, some 1800 physicists crammed into a space made for 1100, with thousands more watching on TV screens outside. The session eventually broke up at 3.15 am, with many people lingering until beyond dawn. The news made front pages around the world. In New York, meeting participants were feted on the street. The reason for the unlikely euphoria was a sudden slew of breakthroughs in superconductivity. Superconductors are materials that can transport electrons, and therefore electrical power, entirely without resistance – unlike the lossy conducting metals that wire up our electrified society, or the semiconductors within our computers. Making a practical superconductor would presage a revolution in how we make, store and transport energy – just what we need in today’s era of accelerating climate change. More than 33 years on, that revolution is still pending. Just lately, though, there have been rumblings of renewed optimism. Theory and experiment are coming together to provide new avenues towards superconductors. Not only that, it seems that we might already have made a superconductor that works at close to room temperature – the ultimate target of this realm of physics. Until now, we have been fumbling around in the dark in our search for working superconductors. Suddenly, we are seeing glimmers of light. This has been a long time coming, even before the false dawn of 1987. It was in 1911 that Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered that mercury wire lost all electrical resistance at an extremely frosty 4.2 kelvin, or 4.2 degrees above absolute zero (-273.15°C), the lowest temperature possible. The next year, tin and lead were discovered to become superconductors, at 3.8K and 7.2K, respectively, followed by other metals, often as alloys such as niobium-tin.

1-13-21 Tropical rainforests may begin pumping out carbon dioxide by 2050
Rising temperatures over the next few decades could cause Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems – including rainforests – to go from being net carbon sinks that remove carbon from the atmosphere to carbon sources which release it. How well an ecosystem can act as a carbon sink is temperature dependent. That is because living things have an optimum range of temperatures at which they can function properly. Beyond this, things start to go wrong. Katharyn Duffy at Northern Arizona University and her colleagues constructed a temperature dependence curve for plants, a model predicting responses to temperature changes for all of the land-based vegetation on Earth. They built the model using data from FLUXNET, a global network of meteorological sensors monitoring carbon exchange of ecosystems. For plants, rising temperatures may lead to lower rates of photosynthesis. Given that plants also respire – which releases carbon dioxide – there is potential for ecosystems to gradually switch from being net stores of the greenhouse gas to net emitters. The team’s results indicate that the tipping point where these terrestrial systems turn into carbon sources could be reached in just 20 to 30 years. “All the plants on Earth are picking up about 30 per cent of all the carbon that we emit and so if that no longer happens, that can create kind of a runaway climate change rate,” says Duffy. “It’s this feedback loop where the plants are taking up less carbon, there’s more carbon in the atmosphere, there’s more warming, and so on, and so forth.” David Galbraith at the University of Leeds, UK, welcomed the research. “It’s a very useful contribution in helping us to make more refined projections for the future,” he says.

1-13-21 Here's why you should be hopeful about climate action in 2021
We have been in many last chance saloons with climate change, but there are now reasons to believe we might finally go out and take action, writes Graham Lawton. ONE temptation that is hard to resist when writing about the environment is the narrative of the last chance saloon – the cliché that the next summit or election is the final opportunity to avert climate or biodiversity crisis, and if it is lost, all is lost. I have written a few dispatches from the saloon and understand its appeal. The analogy is urgent and motivational, while the alternative is to point out that there is, in fact, another saloon over the horizon and that failure isn’t terminal. The problem is, if you overuse an analogy, it loses its power. Especially if it isn’t true. But as 2021 gets into its stride, I think we may have seen the last of the last chance saloon. I’m wary of making any firm predictions – 2020 exposed the folly of doing that – but there are increasing signs that humanity spent much of last year sat in that particular bar, drank its fill, stared at the bottom of the glass and finally decided it was time to quit. Despite the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises, there is a whiff of green optimism in the air. Much of it is emanating from the silver linings of a dismal 2020, which this time last year I predicted would be pivotal for the planet. I was right, of course, though for the wrong reasons. Back then, we were just months away from important global negotiations on climate and biodiversity. The pandemic meant both had to be postponed. They are now tentatively rescheduled for later this year – and maybe for the better. If they had happened as planned, in the middle of a business-as-usual 2020, they probably would have produced a business-as-usual outcome: warm words but little action.

1-13-21 Earth’s oceans are storing record-breaking amounts of heat
Seas may have absorbed enough heat last year to boil 1.3 billion kettles of water. Pandemic-related shutdowns may have spared Earth’s atmosphere some greenhouse gas emissions last year, but the world continued to warm. Water temperature measurements from around the globe indicate that the total amount of heat stored in the upper oceans in 2020 was higher than any other year on record dating back to 1955, researchers report online January 13 in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences. Tracking ocean temperature is important because warmer water melts more ice off the edges of Greenland and Antarctica, which raises sea levels (SN: 4/30/20) and supercharges tropical storms (SN: 11/11/20). Researchers estimated the total heat energy stored in the upper 2,000 meters of Earth’s oceans using temperature data from moored sensors, drifting probes called Argo floats, underwater robots and other instruments (SN: 5/19/10). The team found that upper ocean waters contained 234 sextillion, or 1021, joules more heat energy in 2020 than the annual average from 1981 to 2010. Heat energy storage was up about 20 sextillion joules from 2019 — suggesting that in 2020, Earth’s oceans absorbed about enough heat to boil 1.3 billion kettles of water. This analysis may overestimate how much the oceans warmed last year, says study coauthor Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist with the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research who is currently based in Auckland, New Zealand. So the researchers also crunched ocean temperature data using a second, more conservative method for estimating total annual ocean heat and found that the jump from 2019 to 2020 could be as low as 1 sextillion joules. That’s still 65 million kettles brought to boil. The three other warmest years on record for the world’s oceans were 2017, 2018 and 2019. “What we’re seeing here is a variant on the movie Groundhog Day,” says study coauthor Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State. “Groundhog Day has a happy ending. This won’t if we don’t act now to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.”

1-12-21 Climate change: US emissions in 2020 in biggest fall since WWII
US greenhouse gas emissions tumbled below their 1990 level for the first-time last year as a result of the response to the coronavirus pandemic. A preliminary assessment from research group Rhodium says that overall emissions were down over 10%, the largest fall since World War II. Transport suffered the biggest decline, with emissions down almost 15% over 2019. Energy emissions also fell sharply, due to a decline in the use of coal. The widespread impact of Covid-19 on the US saw over 20 million people infected with the virus, and to date more than 350,000 have died as a result. With stay-at-home orders in place, economic activity ground to a halt in March and April and this had significant implications for greenhouse gas emissions. In transport, the restrictions on international travel and non-essential journeys saw demand for fuel fall sharply. At the peak of restrictions demand for jet fuel was down 68% on 2019, with petrol down 40%. They have both bounced back as travel bans were eased later in the year but jet fuel demand was still 35% down in December compared to the previous year. When it comes to electricity though the picture is more complicated. Overall the demand for electricity was down just 2% but emissions fell by over 10%. "This was driven almost exclusively from the continued rapid decline of coal-fired power generation," the report says. After decades of dominance, coal in 2020 was the third largest source of power, behind natural gas and nuclear. Renewables now supply 18% of power, the report says, just behind coal with 20% of the market. Based on the preliminary set of data for the year, the authors estimate that overall US emissions fell below 1990 levels for the first time in three decades. The overall fall of 10.3% essentially dwarves the impact of the great economic recession of 2009 on the US, when emissions were down 6.3%.

1-12-21 Microplastics found across the Arctic may be fibres from laundry
Polyester fibres make up nearly three-quarters of all microplastic pollution found in the Arctic. These widespread synthetic fibres are most likely coming from textiles manufacturing and household laundry. We already knew that microplastics are present in the Arctic, but new research shines light on the source of these microplastics. Peter Ross at the University of British Columbia in Canada and his colleagues examined seawater samples from 71 locations across the Arctic taken from 3 to 8 metres below the surface. Microplastics were present in all samples except one, with a count of approximately 40 microplastic particles per cubic metre of seawater. They found that synthetic fibres made up 92 per cent of the microplastic pollution in these samples, and 73 per cent of this is polyester. Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic which are less than 5 millimetres in size. They are either deliberately manufactured to be small, such as microbeads in personal care products, or they have formed from the weathering of larger plastics, such as polyester microfibres. The polyester microfibres can often be as small as one-hundredth of a millimetre. “There is strong suspicion that laundry, clothing and textiles are playing a significant role in contaminating the world’s oceans with microfibres,” says Ross. They found that there are more microplastics in the eastern Arctic versus the western Arctic. “In the eastern Arctic, we found three times more microplastics, which supports the notion that we have more microplastics coming in from the Atlantic side, rather than the Pacific side,” says team member, Anna Posacka, also at Ocean Wise. “There is strong suspicion that laundry, clothing and textiles are playing a significant role in contaminating the world’s oceans with microfibres,” says Ross. “It has the potential to catastrophically impact at different levels of the food chain.”

1-12-21 Ocean pollutants 'have negative effect on male fertility'
Long-lived banned industrial chemicals may be threatening the fertility of male porpoises living off the UK. Polychlorinated byphenyls (PCBs) were phased out decades ago, but can build up in whales, dolphins and porpoises. Scientists say harbour porpoises exposed to PCBs had shrunken testicles, suggesting an effect on sperm count and fertility. They say that while these are preliminary findings, more must be done to clean up the oceans. PCBs have been linked with a number of threats to whales and dolphins, but research has focused on mothers and their young. A study led by scientists at the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) found high levels of PCBs were linked to smaller testicles in otherwise healthy animals. They think this could have an impact on sperm count, with obvious implications for reproductive success. "In porpoises, reduced testes weights have been associated with lower sperm counts so we think that if PCBs are reducing testes weights they may also be reducing sperm counts but we hope to do further research to confirm this," said lead researcher Rosie Williams of ZSL. Populations of harbour porpoises around the UK are believed to be stable, though the animals face threats from pollution, accidental fishing and infection. The situation is much more dire for killer whales, which are down to a handful of individuals. PCBs were used widely in industry during the last century in everything from plastics and paints to electrical equipment. A series of bans were put in place around the world from the 1970s onwards after concerns were raised about toxicity. The chemicals take a long time to break down and can linger in the environment, particularly in landfill sites where they can escape into waterways and on into the sea. PCBs can build up in the marine food chain, affecting dolphins and porpoises. One killer whale found dead off Scotland in 2016 contained among the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, ever recorded. Although levels of the chemicals are declining, they take a very long time to disappear entirely.


SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

1-15-21 We must start publishing ethnicity data for covid-19 vaccinations
The race to vaccinate as many people as possible against covid-19 is under way, but unless we track who receives the vaccine we won’t be able to ensure the benefits are spread equitably. Publishing ethnicity and other demographic data must become a priority. This will be vital for countries to ensure that those hit hardest by the pandemic don’t miss out on receiving life-saving vaccines. Detangling data to reveal patterns that may exist among subgroups of a population can be a powerful tool to address inequality. After all, you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know it’s there. Globally, breaking down covid-19 cases based on widely recorded demographic factors, such as age and sex, has been enormously helpful for our understanding of the disease. Knowing that the risk of severe disease rises with age, for instance, has helped inform government interventions. Countries in which information on race and ethnicity for cases was published early on during the pandemic, including the US, the UK and Norway, were among the first to reveal worrying trends of people from racial and ethnic minority groups being at increased risk from covid-19. Similar patterns have since been seen in other nations that have looked for them, such as Australia and Brazil. Collecting and publicising this kind of data can help drive governments to take action. Data published in the UK in April, which revealed that people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were over-represented among critically ill covid-19 patients, prompted the UK government to launch an inquiry into the issue and led Public Health England to start recording covid-19 cases and deaths by ethnicity. In June, the UK government announced £4.3 million in funding for new research aiming to “explain and mitigate” the disparity. Many other European countries have traditionally shied away from breaking down data by race or ethnicity, due to concerns over discrimination and privacy. But in September last year, the European Union committed to investigating the obstacles to collecting such data across member states by the end of 2021.

1-15-21 Dinosaur found in Argentina may be largest land animal ever
Fossils of a gigantic dinosaur are emerging from the ground in Argentina after 98 million years – and the creature may be the largest land animal that scientists have ever found. The ancient bones are from a titanosaur. At one point, this group of long-necked “sauropod” dinosaurs lived across the world. Some of the last titanosaurs lived in South America, where they evolved into giants including Patagotitan, which is sometimes claimed to be the largest land animal ever to exist. The fossils unearthed by the team, which was led by researchers at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council, belong to an animal “considered one of the largest sauropods ever found, probably exceeding Patagotitan in size”, according to the peer-reviewed paper. The team declined to comment on the discovery for this story. “It is one of the most complete colossal titanosaurs of that age, which considerably helps to understand the group’s evolution,” says Aline Ghilardi at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, who studies titanosaur parasites and wasn’t involved in this study. Excavations in the province of Neuquén in Argentina are ongoing. So far, the team has unearthed 24 vertebrae, as well as some pelvis bones. Some of the bones have been excavated, while others have only been detected. According to the paper, the researchers aren’t sure which species the bones might belong to. However, they state that there are “clear differences” between these bones and those of previously unearthed dinosaurs in the region, including Patagotitan. This suggests that the fossils could be evidence of an unknown titanosaur. Ghilardi is cautious about the claim that the dinosaur might be larger than Patagotitan, noting that several recent discoveries have been called the largest titanosaur ever found only for the statements to be revised after further analysis. “But it is undoubtedly a huge animal, among the largest ever discovered,” she says, adding that she is excited to see if ongoing excavations unearth more bones to improve the accuracy of body size estimates.

1-15-21 Could delaying a second vaccine dose lead to more dangerous coronavirus strains?
Some experts worry the strategy could spur the virus to evolve in harmful ways. Spiking COVID-19 cases, slow vaccine rollout and the emergence of more transmissible coronavirus variants in some countries have sparked debate among scientists over the best way to protect people with recently authorized vaccines. One idea involves delaying when people receive the second of two required vaccine doses, so that more people can receive the doses that are currently available. That’s happening in the United Kingdom, where researchers have raised concerns about a new coronavirus variant that appears to be more contagious than other versions. Officials there are opting to extend the time between each vaccine dose from three or four weeks to up to three months (SN: 12/22/20). In the United States, on the other hand, officials strongly recommend that states stick to the regimen that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized in December — two shots spaced three weeks apart for Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine and four weeks apart for Moderna’s. On January 12, the Trump administration announced it was no longer holding back second shots of COVID-19 vaccines, several days after President-elect Joe Biden suggested he would release all the shots. While that may speed protection for more Americans, it also raises the possibility that people might not get their second doses on time, if manufacturing problems arise. The possibility that second doses could be delayed has some experts concerned because it might lead to millions of people walking around with only partial immunity to the coronavirus, a condition that could be ripe for harmful mutations of the virus to arise. Delaying the second shot is a gamble, says Ramón Lorenzo-Redondo, a virologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, particularly without a lot of evidence suggesting how well one dose works. Officials “shouldn’t gamble [their] best tools” to fight the pandemic, he says. “We don’t want to fuel [potential viral evolution] by doing suboptimal immunization of the population.”

1-14-21 Indonesia: Archaeologists find world's oldest animal cave painting
Archaeologists have discovered the world's oldest known animal cave painting in Indonesia - a wild pig - believed to be drawn 45,500 years ago. Painted using dark red ochre pigment, the life-sized picture of the Sulawesi warty pig appears to be part of a narrative scene. The picture was found in the Leang Tedongnge cave in a remote valley on the island of Sulawesi. It provides the earliest evidence of human settlement of the region. "The people who made it were fully modern, they were just like us, they had all of the capacity and the tools to do any painting that they liked," said Maxime Aubert, the co-author of the report published in Science Advances journal. A dating specialist, Mr Aubert had identified a calcite deposit that had formed on top of the painting, and used Uranium-series isotope dating to determine that the deposit was 45,500 years old. This makes the artwork at least that old. "But it could be much older because the dating that we're using only dates the calcite on top of it," he added. The report says that the painting, which measures 136cm by 54cm (53in by 21in), depicts a pig with horn-like facial warts characteristic of adult males of the species. There are two hand prints above the back of the pig, which also appears to be facing two other pigs that are only partially preserved. Co-author Adam Brumm said: "The pig appears to be observing a fight or social interaction between two other warty pigs." To make the hand prints, the artists would have had to place their hands on a surface before spitting pigment over it, the researchers said. The team hopes to be able to extract DNA samples from the residual saliva as well. The painting may be the world's oldest art depicting a figure, but it is not the oldest human-produced art. In South Africa, a hashtag-like doodle created 73,000 years ago is believed to be the oldest known drawing.

1-14-21 One of the oldest known cave paintings has been found in Indonesia
Pig art on the island of Sulawesi dates to at least 45,500 years ago. Inside a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, scientists have found one of the oldest known artistic depictions of a real-world object or organism. It’s a painting of a warty pig, an animal still found on Sulawesi, that was rendered on the cave’s back wall at least 45,500 years ago, researchers report January 13 in Science Advances. The discovery adds to evidence that “the first modern human cave art traditions did not emerge in Ice Age Europe, as long supposed, but perhaps earlier in Asia or even in Africa, where our species evolved,” says study author Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. At least two, and possibly three, other partially preserved pig paintings appear on the cave wall near the newly dated figure. All of the painted pigs in the Sulawesi cave appear to be confronting each other in a scene of some sort, says archaeologist Iain Davidson of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia. Similarly positioned, painted animals dating to roughly 30,000 years ago or more appear in scenes in France’s Chauvet Cave, says Davidson, who did not participate in the new study. On the ceiling of a small chamber in another Sulawesi cave, the researchers found a large pig painting — like the others, executed in red or dark red and purple mineral pigments — that dates to between 32,000 and 73,400 years ago. At least two other poorly preserved paintings of unidentified animals are located on the chamber’s ceiling and wall. The team considers it likely that Homo sapiens, rather than a closely related species such as Homo floresiensis (SN: 6/8/16), painted on the Sulawesi cave walls. Like a painted hunting scene from at least 43,900 years ago previously found in a separate Sulawesi cave (SN: 12/11/19), minimum age estimates for the pig paintings are based on measures of radioactive uranium’s decay in cauliflower-like mineral growths that formed in thin layers over and underneath parts of the depictions.

1-13-21 World’s oldest painting of animals discovered in an Indonesian cave
Stunning cave paintings discovered in Indonesia include what might be the oldest known depictions of animals on the planet, dating back at least 45,000 years. The paintings of three pigs, alongside several hand stencils, were discovered in the limestone cave of Leang Tedongnge on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Even local people were unaware of the cave sites’ existence until their discovery in 2017 by Adam Brumm at Griffith University, Australia, and his team. “I was struck dumb,” says Brumm. “It’s one of the most spectacular and well-preserved figurative animal paintings known from the whole region and it just immediately blew me away.” Sulawesi is known to contain some of the world’s oldest cave art, but the new paintings may predate all other examples so far discovered on the island. Brumm and his colleagues used a technique called uranium-series dating to analyse a mineral formation that overlapped part of the image, and that must have formed after the cave art was produced. The mineral formation is at least 45,500 years old, suggesting the artwork itself could be much older. “It adds to the evidence that the first modern human cave art traditions did not arise in ice age Europe, as long assumed, but at an earlier point in the human journey,” says Brumm. Each of the three pigs is more than a metre long. The images were all painted using a red ochre pigment. They appear to be Sulawesi warty pigs (Sus celebensis), a short-legged wild boar that is endemic to the island and is characterised by its distinctive facial warts. “This species was of great importance to early hunter-gatherers in Sulawesi,” says Brumm. These pigs appear in younger cave art across the region, and archaeological digs show that they were the most commonly hunted game species on Sulawesi for thousands of years. “The frequent portrayal of these wild pigs in art offers hints at a long-term human interest in the behavioural ecology of this local species, and perhaps its spiritual values in the hunting culture,” says Brumm.

1-13-21 To improve our response to crises like covid-19 we must think smarter
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” We are just a couple of weeks into 2021 and yet that famous opening from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities has never rung truer. On the one hand, we are seeing the roll-out of effective vaccines against a disease that little more than a year ago was unknown to science – a stunning tribute to human wisdom, and to the power of a belief in science. On the other hand, we have the incredible scenes of an enraged mob rampaging through the US Capitol, the fulcrum of what until recently was considered one of the most secure democracies on Earth. Will wisdom or rage set our trajectory for the coming months and years? It is perhaps too early to say, but what is clear is that the covid-19 vaccines give us grounds for hope that some form of normality will return in 2021, despite all the questions still swirling around how exactly that can best be achieved (see “Is the UK right to delay the second dose of the covid-19 vaccines?”). What is equally clear, however, is that if and when covid-19 is contained, business as usual isn’t an option. The pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the divisions, inequalities and structural weaknesses of societies around the world, not least in established Western liberal democracies such as the US and UK. Meanwhile, global problems such as climate change haven’t gone away – 2020, we now know, was the joint hottest year on record (see “Climate change: 2020 was the joint hottest year on record”). To see how best to move on, we would perhaps be wise to ask ourselves how we got here. Human development researcher Robert J. Sternberg makes the case that at least part of the problem lies in our faulty conceptions of what it means to be smart. Prioritising and rewarding a very limited idea of intelligence has exacerbated social, economic and racial inequalities, while fostering a “me first” culture that leaves us ill-equipped for the collaborative problem-solving we need if we are to survive and thrive as a species.

1-13-21 CRISPR gene-editing urgently needs an off-switch – now we have one
Making changes to genes with CRISPR has the potential to cure diseases and feed the world, if we can learn to control it. Now it looks like viruses hold the solution. THERE is a technology that could tackle some of life’s most pressing problems, from disease to malnutrition. It could fix medical conditions such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anaemia simply by changing a bit of genetic code. It could eliminate malaria by making male mosquitoes infertile. It could wipe out pests that destroy crops. And it could modify other organisms to increase their usefulness, helping to create foods that are tastier and more nutritious. This is the promise of CRISPR, a biochemical tool at the forefront of a gene-editing revolution. Produced naturally by bacteria, CRISPR has gained rock-star status among scientists in the decade since its extraordinary potential was first recognised, and it is already starting to live up to the promise. But behind all the excitement lurk some dark questions. What if the editing goes wrong? What if it has undesired effects? What if we can’t stop it? Without a means to keep CRISPR on target and halt it in its tracks when needed, gene editing could have disastrous consequences – both for human health and for the planet. What we need is an off-switch, one that can be used at will. Researchers around the world have spent years trying to find one, largely by investigating various biochemical solutions. However, it turns out that the answer may be right under our noses. In an evolutionary face-off between CRISPR-producing bacteria and the viruses that infect them, nature has already designed anti-CRISPR. The challenge now is to harness this evolved off-switch to our own ends and usher in the golden age that gene editing promises. Viruses, such as the one that causes covid-19, don’t just pose a threat to humans – they attack all living organisms, including bacteria. In the ancient bacteria-virus rivalry, CRISPR is one of the weapons bacteria have evolved to combat bacteriophages, the name given to viruses that infect them (see “Evolutionary arms race”).

1-13-21 We’ve got intelligence all wrong – and that’s endangering our future
A narrow focus on IQ to determine success is depriving us of key decision-making smarts, as our faltering response to problems such as covid-19 and climate change shows. IMAGINE a world in which admission to the top universities – to Oxford or Cambridge, or to Harvard or Yale – were limited to people who were very tall. Very soon, tall people would conclude that it is the natural order of things for the taller to succeed and the shorter to fail. This is the world we live in. Not with taller and smaller people (although taller people often are at an advantage). But there is one measure by which, in many places, we tend to decide who has access to the best opportunities and a seat at the top decision-making tables: what we call intelligence. After all, someone blessed with intelligence has, by definition, what it takes – don’t they? We have things exactly the wrong way round. The lesson of research by myself and many others over decades is that, through historical accident, we have developed a conception of intelligence that is narrow, questionably scientific, self-serving and ultimately self-defeating. We see the consequences in the faltering response of many nations to the covid-19 pandemic, and a host of other problems such as climate change, increasing income disparities and air and water pollution. In many spheres, our ways of thinking about and nurturing intelligence haven’t brokered intelligent solutions to real-world problems. We need a better way. Fortunately, at least the starting point for this is clear. By returning to a more scientifically grounded idea of intelligence, who can have it and how we set about cultivating it in ourselves and others, we can begin to reboot our decision-making smarts and reshape our world for the better. Our conception of intelligence has come both a long way and not very far in the past century or so. Historically, intelligence has been defined simply as an ability to adapt to the environment. People who are intelligent can learn, reason, solve problems and make decisions that fit their real-life circumstances.

1-13-21 You can boost a vaccine's effect with good moods and good friends
THE UK’s race to vaccinate 13.9 million people in high-priority groups against covid-19 by 15 February is a Herculean undertaking. “Unprecedented” may have become an overused word in the pandemic, but the size and speed of the vaccine roll-out warrants it, though it may still be months before many people receive a covid-19 vaccine. The numbers tell the story. Figures released on 11 January showed that nearly 2.3 million people in the UK have had a first dose of one of the three vaccines approved by the UK regulator. On that same day, the UK government said it aims to be vaccinating at least 2 million people a week in England by the end of this month. To reach the mid-February UK target that prime minister Boris Johnson announced on 4 January, 300,000 doses need to be given a day, roughly the rate doses were administered weekly at the end of December and start of January. “This is the biggest vaccine programme ever that the UK has had to roll out. It’s definitely new territory,” says Doug Brown at the British Society for Immunology. The biggest previous vaccination effort in the UK, for the flu, normally sees around 9 million people a year vaccinated. That happens over five months starting in September, with 60,000 doses a day on average, peaking at about 150,000 a day in late October. And there are key differences between flu vaccines and covid-19 ones, says Nilay Shah at Imperial College London. The big one is that flu vaccine manufacturers, and the regulators who then do quality control on the batches of vaccines after they are made, have about five months to build up huge stocks before they are used. By contrast, covid-19 vaccine makers are still in the start-up phase. Mass production of the active ingredients inside the vaccines has been under way for months, but companies don’t start putting doses into vials until closer to regulatory approval.

1-13-21 Lying makes us mimic the body language of the people we are talking to
When telling a lie, people may imitate the body language of the person they are lying to without realising they are doing it. The discovery might eventually lead to a new form of lie detection test. “Liars often deliberately change their behaviour into a way they think truth-tellers behave, but this particular copycat behaviour is something they wouldn’t even try to manipulate because they don’t realise they’re doing it,” says Sophie van der Zee at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. “And that could make it an interesting cue for detecting deceit.” Van der Zee and her colleagues asked about 50 university students to solve a supposedly simple wooden puzzle within 5 minutes. In reality, the puzzle was far too hard to solve in the time available. Van der Zee “hid” the puzzle solutions in the room where the students could find them, which encouraged the students to cheat. She then asked the students not to tell her supervisor that she had “accidentally” left the solutions in the room because she feared professional consequences. Van der Zee and her colleagues then recorded interviews as each student told another student about the puzzle challenge – which, if they were complying with van der Zee’s request, involved lying about how they solved the puzzle. Using a wireless accelerometer (a WiTilt), van der Zee’s team recorded the head, chest and wrist movements of the students – both the ones talking about the puzzle and the ones listening. They found that when a student was telling the truth, their body movements differed from those of the person asking questions. But when they were lying, the movements of the two speakers tended to align. This may be because lying requires so much concentration, says van der Zee, so speakers might subconsciously slip into mimicking their listener’s subtlest body movements because copying requires less thinking than coming up with their own body language. This way of coping with “cognitive overload” isn’t obvious to the naked eye, but was detectable with the accelerometers.

1-13-21 Newborn megalodon sharks were larger than most adult humans
Fossilized backbone suggests that the ancient predators were about 2 meters long at birth. “Baby shark” has taken on a whole new meaning. Newborn megalodon sharks were supersized fish larger than most adult humans, a new study suggests. An analysis of the growth rates of the ancient ocean predators, which lived between about 23 million and 2.5 million years ago, estimates that the sharks started life at about 2 meters long, researchers report January 11 in Historical Biology. Otodus megalodon is right up there with Tyrannosaurus rex in the pantheon of scary extinct predators, but little is actually known about the shark’s biology (SN: 8/10/18). Its skeleton was made of difficult-to-fossilize cartilage, so what scientists do know mostly comes from fossilized teeth. For example, paleobiologist Kenshu Shimada of DePaul University in Chicago and colleagues previously used megalodon teeth, as well as those of other ancient and modern sharks, to estimate a total adult body length for the fish of at least 14 meters (SN: 10/5/20). In the new study, Shimada and colleagues had an extra, rare piece of evidence: megalodon vertebrae. Although shark skeletons are made of cartilage, the animals’ backbones can become hardened and strengthened by deposits of calcium salts, which can then be fossilized. These vertebrae also preserve annual growth bands, like the rings of a tree, showing how the fish grew. The researchers used an imaging technique called micro-computed tomography to study three well-preserved vertebrae from one shark. Those images revealed 46 growth bands, suggesting that this shark lived to the ripe old age of 46. The creature is estimated to have been about 9 meters long at its death, and the size of the bands hints that the animal grew at a rate of about 16 centimeters each year. That means that the shark would have been about 2 meters long at birth — large enough for even a newborn to be a fearsome foe in the seas, the scientists conclude.

1-13-21 Is the UK right to delay the second dose of the covid-19 vaccines?
IN A bid to vaccinate as many people as fast as possible, the UK is taking an unorthodox strategy against covid-19. The country is eking out its vaccine supply by making most people wait three months to get their second dose of the two-shot regimen. Both vaccines currently being used in the UK were intended to be given over much shorter timescales. Changing a medicine’s dosing schedule so dramatically is unprecedented, and some experts have branded it a dangerous gamble, putting lives at risk. But what does the evidence say? The UK announced its approach on 30 December as it was battling a huge surge in covid-19 cases, partly driven by a new, more transmissible variant of the virus. This was the same day that the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca was approved, and it was immediately put on a timescale of up to 12 weeks between doses. The UK government also announced that the interval between doses of the vaccine developed by firms Pfizer and BioNTech would be stretched to the same duration. By then, more than 600,000 people had already been given their first injection since the immunisation drive began on 8 December. Many scientists were shocked by the move because it deviates from the dosing schedules intended in the vaccine trials: three weeks for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and four weeks for the one from Oxford/AstraZeneca. “A trial tells you that something works, so why would you change that?” says Stephen Griffin at the University of Leeds, UK. The approach makes most sense for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine because its trial results hint that it works better with a longer wait between the doses. Some people in the trials ended up getting their second shot up to 12 weeks after the first, and the vaccine’s effectiveness at preventing symptoms was 65 per cent in this group, compared with 53 per cent in the rest.

1-12-21 UK government won’t say if it has ethnicity data for covid-19 shots
The body responsible for health in England has not revealed whether it is recording the ethnicity of people vaccinated against covid-19, despite calls from scientists for the release of more data on the ongoing roll-out of covid-19 vaccines. While it may still be too early to make conclusions from such figures, collecting and publishing them as vaccines are being rolled out could help monitor vaccine uptake across different communities and inform efforts to ensure equitable access, says Naveed Sattar at the University of Glasgow, UK. In particular, there have been reports in the UK of increased vaccine hesitancy among people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, who have also been found to be at an increased risk from covid-19. “Currently, the only publicly available data published is on the dashboard,” the Department of Health and Social Care, the UK government department that oversees health in England, said in an email to New Scientist. These figures include the number of people vaccinated so far, but there is limited information available about the demographics of those who have had a shot. A UK-wide survey by the Royal Society for Public Health last year found that only 57 per cent of respondents from BAME groups said they were likely to accept a covid-19 vaccine, compared with 76 per cent for the general population and 79 per cent for white respondents. “There’s a greater susceptibility to severe disease in these [BAME] groups and therefore there’s an even greater need to make sure that they get vaccinated,” says Sattar. “If there’s early-warning signals that there’s less uptake [among BAME groups], then that really means that something needs to be done.” Members of Independent SAGE – an independent group of scientists publishing advice on covid-19 for the UK government – have also called for the government to publish more data on its covid-19 vaccination roll-out. In addition to monitoring the numbers of people getting vaccinated, it is also important to gather other demographic information, such as age, ethnicity and deprivation, said Christina Pagel at University College London, during an Independent SAGE briefing on 8 January.

1-12-21 Covid vaccine differences? Pfizer v Oxford v Moderna
The three Covid-19 vaccines are from Pfizer-BioNTech, the University of Oxford and Astra-Zeneca and Moderna. The Pfizer, Oxford and Moderna vaccines each require two doses and you are not fully vaccinated until a week after your second shot. But there are many differences between them. BBC health correspondent Laura Foster looks at how much immunity they give, how they prevent infection and which one is better.


ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

1-15-21 Some electric eels coordinate attacks to zap their prey
The knifefishes were thought to dine alone, but in the Amazon, hundreds hunt together. One Volta’s electric eel — able to subdue small fish with an 860-volt jolt — is scary enough. Now imagine over 100 eels swirling about, unleashing coordinated electric attacks. Such a sight was assumed to be only the stuff of nightmares, at least for prey. Researchers have long thought that these eels, a type of knifefish, are solitary, nocturnal hunters that use their electric sense to find smaller fish as they sleep (SN: 12/4/14). But in a remote region of the Amazon, groups of over 100 electric eels (Electrophorus voltai) hunt together, corralling thousands of smaller fish together to concentrate, shock and devour the prey, researchers report January 14 in Ecology and Evolution. “This is hugely unexpected,” says Raimundo Nonato Mendes-Júnior, a biologist at the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation in Brasilia, Brazil who wasn’t involved in the study. “It goes to show how very, very little we know about how electric eels behave in the wild.” Group hunting is quite rare in fishes, says Carlos David de Santana, an evolutionary biologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. “I’d never even seen more than 12 electric eels together in the field,” he says. That’s why he was stunned in 2012 when his colleague Douglas Bastos, now a biologist at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil, reported seeing more than 100 eels congregating and seemingly hunting together in a small lake in northern Brazil. Two years later, de Santana’s team returned to the lake to make more detailed observations. The nearly 2-meter-long eels lethargically lay in deeper waters during much of the day, the researchers found. But at dusk and dawn, these long streaks of black come together, swirling in unison to form a writhing circle over 100 strong that herds thousands of smaller fish into shallower waters.

1-15-21 Electric eels work together to zap prey
More than 200 years after the electric eel inspired the design of the first battery, it has been discovered that they can co-ordinate their "zaps". Researchers working in the Amazon filmed eels gathering in packs to herd prey, then stunning them with a synchronised electric shock. "It was really amazing - we thought these were solitary animals," said researcher Carlos David de Santana. The discovery is published in the journal Ecology and Evolution. Douglas Bastos, from the National Centre for Amazonian research in Manaus, Brazil, filmed the behaviour - capturing the moment of the collective electric strike. Small fish, called tetras, are the target of the attack; they fly into the air and land stunned and motionless on the water. Dr de Santana, who works at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, was amazed when he saw this behaviour. "In my childhood, I visited my grandparents in the Amazon and I collected fishes in the streams. " he told BBC News. "I've spent 20 years studying electric fishes in the region, but I have never in my life seen so many adult electric eels together." As a scientist, Dr de Santana's expeditions into the murky, remote waters of the Amazon have revealed 85 new species of electric fishes. In one recent study, he and his colleagues discovered that there are actually three individual species of electric eel - for 250 years it had been believed that there was just one. It is the most powerful of these species that was the subject of this discovery - Volta's electric eel. The animal is capable of producing an 860-volt electric shock - the strongest electric discharge of any animal on Earth, and almost four times the voltage from a UK plug socket. These animals can grow 2m (6ft) in length and are more closely related to carp and catfish than eels.

1-14-21 Seabirds raise fewer chicks as the pandemic keeps tourists away
The birds were behaving strangely. Normally, the summer months would be a productive breeding season for the seabirds known as guillemots or murres living on the island of Stora Karlsö in the Baltic Sea. But, of course, 2020 wasn’t a normal year. Lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic dramatically reduced human activity around the world. And, in many cases, this “anthropause” has benefited animal species. The guillemots don’t seem to be one of them. Jonas Hentati-Sundberg at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and his colleagues say that the tourists who travel to the iconic seabird colony every summer may have been acting as unwitting “guardians” for the guillemots that live and breed there. Without tourists around, another bird flocked in: the white-tailed eagle – numbers of them jumped sevenfold. Although the eagles didn’t prey on the guillemots, analysis of CCTV footage shows that their presence caused the guillemots to “panic” and frequently flee their cliffside perches in droves. This disrupted mating and allowed other birds, like gulls and crows, to swoop in and eat unattended eggs. Other eggs fell from the steep ledges. “As a conservationist, it’s kind of heartbreaking to see these birds suffer for the first time actually in all the years I’ve been there,” says Sundberg. Compared with previous years, the guillemots successfully hatched 26 per cent fewer young than usual and had the worst breeding season ever recorded, particularly in areas the researchers visited less frequently. In one subcolony, not even one chick hatched. For Sundberg, the story of the guillemots complicates the “general notion that people are just messing up things”. “I think this illustrates that we are so deeply embedded in ecological relationships and in ecosystems, and in many, many different ways,” he says. “A much more fruitful [conservation] strategy for the future is to try and to understand what is actually our role… Because stepping back will not solve all our problems.”

1-14-21 Embryos set to be implanted in the last two northern white rhinos
The northern white rhino may be able to avoid extinction for a while longer. Fertilised eggs are set to be implanted in the two remaining rhinos this year in the hope of producing offspring. “There is still some hope left that we can save the white rhino species,” says Thomas Hildebrandt at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, who is part of an international team working to do just that. However, time is not our side, he says. The last male northern white rhino, named Sudan, died in March 2018. The only remaining northern white rhinos are two females – Najin and her daughter Fatu, both of which live in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a non-profit organisation and protected wildlife area in Kenya. In 2019, Hildebrandt and his colleagues at Ol Pejeta retrieved 10 eggs from Najin and Fatu. These were then fertilised using a technique called intracytoplasm sperm injection with sperm from Sudan. The process resulted in two viable embryos. The team now plans to implant the embryos in Najin and Fatu. This could happen in the next few months, but it may take longer, partly because of impacts from the covid-19 pandemic. The gestation period of a northern white rhino is between 16 and 18 months. “We hope to implant very soon as we are now more sure than ever that it will work,” says Hildebrandt. “In the next few months, we hope to have a major announcement.” “Insemination will take place as soon as possible in the near future, but before 2022,” says Elodie Sempere at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. White rhinos are split into two subspecies. There are northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), the last of which live in Ol Pejeta Conservancy, and southern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum simum), which live in southern Africa. Southern white rhinos are faring much better than their northern counterparts and currently number about 20,000. However, both are at risk from poaching. The northern white rhinos are under 24-hour armed guard.

1-14-21 Honey detective work raises fears for bees
DNA detective work on honey has given a rare insight into the foraging habits of honeybees. Scientists used genetic tools to discover which plants the pollinators visited in the countryside. They compared this with a study from 1952, finding big shifts in the wildflowers available to bees. In the 1950s, honeybees mainly gathered pollen and nectar from white clover. Today, there is not so much of this plant about, so they seek alternatives. These include oilseed rape and Himalayan balsam. And there are fears that honeybees and other vital pollinators are running out of food supplies as wildflowers disappear in hedgerows and fields. "We've seen these major changes in the UK landscape and the honeybees have shown us that from their honey samples," Dr Natasha de Vere, head of conservation and research at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, told BBC News. She said the agricultural systems of today didn't have enough nectar for pollinators, with much of the habitat for bees being grasslands, which are a "kind of green desert". "There's nothing that really flowers within those pastures anymore, whereas in the 1950s, those pastures would have been full of white clover and other wildflowers as well." To come up with their findings, the researchers analysed hundreds of honey samples sent in by beekeepers up and down the country, following an appeal on the BBC TV programme Gardeners' World. These were analysed by DNA barcoding, where fragments of plant DNA are identified in pollen trapped in honey. The historic study also looked at pollen grains in honey, but different plants were identified by examining the structure of pollen under the microscope. They found that white clover - the favourite source of nectar for honeybees in 1952 - is still important now but used a lot less as the plant is becoming more scarce. Instead, honeybees have switched to bramble; oilseed rape, which started to be grown from the 1960s onwards; and Himalayan balsam, an invasive plant that has been spreading rapidly across the countryside.

1-14-21 Wind farm construction creates noise that may harm squid fisheries
The noisy construction of offshore wind turbines can discourage squid from hunting, which could lead to decreased squid populations and potentially decrease profits at fisheries. Securing offshore wind turbines to the seabed involves a drilling technique called pile-driving that causes intense, continuous noise for up to three years during construction. Previous research has shown that pile-driving may damage the hearing of seals and dolphins. People in the fishing industry wanted to know how this noise might affect squid populations because planned wind farms in the north-east US are set to be built near important squid fisheries, so the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management commissioned a study. Aran Mooney at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and his colleagues tested how longfin inshore squid (Doryteuthis pealeii) respond to the noise while hunting their killifish prey (Fundulus heteroclitus). The team put individual squid in a circular tank that was 1 metre in diameter. They released a killifish in the tank then observed the unfolding action. In some cases, the researchers played recorded sounds of pile-driving for 5 minutes before releasing the fish. In other cases, they turned the noise on as soon as the squid began to show hunting behaviour. In others, they didn’t play any sounds at all. Mooney’s team found that squid didn’t catch significantly fewer fish under noise conditions. But it took them more tries to catch their prey, and they were discouraged from hunting in the first place more often. “The squid were actually less affected than we thought they were going to be,” says Mooney. Even so, he thinks the effects might be more severe in the real world. For instance, in a confined tank, it is easy for a squid to try again if it fails to catch a fish at the first attempt, but in the wild, it is less likely to get a second chance with a particular fish.

1-13-21 Rats with poisonous hairdos live surprisingly sociable private lives
It’s snuggling and togetherness when the deadly, swaggering rodents have families. Crested rats don’t just chew tree bark that’s poisonous enough to kill an elephant. The rabbit-sized rodents dribble and lick the toxic drool into their long rat fluff for a weaponized hairdo. Yet these dangerous rats, which scientists assumed were loners, turn out to have a close and cuddly family life. They even purr. Chewing on bark or other parts of East Africa’s arrow poison trees gives the rats toxic saliva to apply to specialized zones of fur. The toxins sink in to porous, easily detached hairs on the rat’s flanks. Any predator foolish enough to bite a Lophiomys imhausi gets a hairy mouthful of bitter toxins that human poachers use on arrows for hunting big game. The rats “have the personality of something poisonous,” says ecologist Sara Weinstein, who studied them during a Smithsonian fellowship at the Mpala Research Center in Kenya. “They can run quickly if they feel like it, but they don’t typically.” The rats are more likely to jog away from trouble or stand their ground, hissing, growling and grunting. Trapping crested rats took some experimenting, says ecologist Katrina Nyawira, who worked on the project with Weinstein before moving to Oxford Brookes University in England. “Sometimes we’d set traps for about two weeks and just get one individual and, trust me, that would be a win.” Researchers set traps in a weird variety of locations, from remote spots in the Kenyan savanna to behind somebody’s bedroom door, Nyawira and Weinstein realized that the common success factor was access to arrow poison trees (Acokanthera schimperi). With glossy, green leaves shaped like fat teardrops, this widespread shade tree is a cousin of the North American milkweeds that give monarch butterfly caterpillars their defensive toxins. From roots to shoots, the arrow poison tree carries potent cardenolides that can give would-be predators a heart attack.

1-13-21 Houseflies have specialised wings that make them harder to swat
Some flies have specialised hindwings to help them take off faster, making them harder to swat. They primarily use sight to escape danger, but Alexandra Yarger at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, and her team have found a new mechanism that might be helping them get away. All fly species have shortened hindwings called halteres. These don’t generate useful lift, but are used as sensory organs for balance to help stabilise the insect while in flight. A group of flies known as Calyptratae, which includes houseflies and blowflies, rhythmically move these wings when standing. “We know that they’re the only group that does this,” says Yarger. “It’s still a bit of a mystery why they do it.” Yarger and her team tested to see if this behaviour affected their take-offs. Using high-speed cameras to film the flights of over 20 fly species, they found that, overall, Calpytrate flies were roughly five times faster at taking off than other flies. The team then removed the halteres and found that both speed and stability of take-offs reduced in Calyptratae species. Yarger suggests this haltere movement increases the amount of sensory information these flies receive, but what they can sense and how it is processed remains unclear. “We think there might be a pathway from halteres to the legs that’s causing them to take off faster,” says Yarger. “It doesn’t go through any central nervous system, it’s almost like a reflex,” she says. Being able to have a speedy take-off allows this group of flies to better avoid harm. “It’s part of the reason they’re so successful, they can escape very quickly,” says team member Jessica Fox. “Transitioning from taking off to flight is a challenging thing and using halteres to help both is clearly very advantageous,” she says.

1-12-21 Mice may ‘catch’ each other’s pain — and pain relief
After an hour of mingling, healthy mice mirror a companion’s pain or morphine-induced relief. In pain and pain relief, mice may feel for each other. Research has shown that mice can “catch” the emotions of an injured or fearful fellow. When some mice are injured, other healthy mice living alongside them behave as though in pain. Now, a study suggests that not only can pain be passed along, but also pain relief is contagious too. In the last decade, researchers have done a lot of work showing that animals can pick up and share each other’s emotions, particularly fear (SN: 5/20/19), says Monique Smith, a neuroscientist at Stanford University. She and colleagues published their new findings on pain and relief in the Jan. 8 Science. Investigating these building blocks of empathy in animals can help researchers understand human empathy, Smith says, and may someday lead to treatments for disorders that affect the ability to be sensitive to the feelings and experiences of other people. “Pain isn’t just a physical experience,” Smith says. “It’s an emotional experience” as well. In experiments on pairs of mice, one mouse received an injection that caused arthritis-like inflammation in one hind paw while the other mouse was unharmed. After hanging out together for an hour, “the bystander has it worse than the mouse that got the injection,” says Jeffrey Mogil, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal who was not part of the work. Injected mice acted as though one paw is in pain, as expected, showing extra sensitivity to being prodded there with a plastic wire. Their uninjured companions also showed heightened sensitivity, and in both hind paws. Those mice act as though they’re in the same amount of pain and in more places, Mogil says. “The behavior is astounding.”

1-12-21 Brown tree snakes use their tails as lassos to climb wide trees
A never-before-seen climbing technique could inspire the creation of new serpentine robots. Snakes do a lot more than slither. Some swim, while others sidewind across sand (SN: 10/9/14). Some snakes even fly (SN: 6/29/20). But no one has ever seen a snake move the way that brown tree snakes do when they climb certain trees. By wrapping its tail around a tree or pole in a lasso-like grip and wriggling to propel itself, a brown tree snake can shimmy up structures that would otherwise be too wide to climb. Better understanding how brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis) get around could inform strategies to control their population in Guam, where the snakes are an invasive species. The reptiles are infamous for having wiped out almost all of the native forest birds on Guam and frequently cause power outages by clambering up utility poles. The discovery of brown tree snakes’ lasso climbing method, reported online January 11 in Current Biology, was somewhat serendipitous. Julie Savidge, an ecologist at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, and colleagues were investigating ways to keep these tree-climbing snakes away from Guam’s Micronesian starlings — one of only two native forest birds left on the island. One of these ways involved tests to see whether a wide pipe, or baffle, around a pole could prevent predators from reaching a starling nest box at the top. In reviewing hours of footage of the baffle to monitor how well it deterred brown tree snakes, the team saw one snake do something wholly unexpected: The snake lassoed itself around the baffle and began scooting upward. “We were in total shock,” says study coauthor Thomas Seibert, also an ecologist at Colorado State. “This isn’t something that a snake is supposed to do.” Brown tree snakes and other snakes typically climb trees that are too smooth to slither up by coiling around a trunk multiple times. A snake wraps the front of its body around the trunk and then coils its back end around the tree in another loop to get a second grip. The snake then stretches its neck up and repeats the process to inch upward. But wrapping around a tree multiple times limits the width of a tree that a snake can scale. Using a single, large, lasso-like grip allows the brown tree snake to climb wider trees — or baffles, explains study coauthor Bruce Jayne, a biologist at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio.