The Senate, in a bipartisan 66-32 vote on Monday evening, confirmed Mike Pompeo to be the next CIA director. Pompeo was in his fourth term in the House. The only Republican to vote against Pompeo was Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. The other 31 votes against Pompeo came from Democrats. As my colleague Russell Berman writes:
Pompeo’s harshest critic was Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a privacy hawk who delivered a lengthy speech criticizing the Kansas Republican’s “enthusiasm” for broad surveillance programs and what he said were Pompeo’s shifting positions on torture and on Russia’s interference in the November election. Other Democrats had said they were satisfied with Pompeo’s assertion during his confirmation hearing that he would not restart the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques in violation of the law, even if Trump ordered him to do so.
Snapchat Filter Not Responsible for Distracted Driver Claim, Judge Rules
A lawsuit claiming Snapchat was to blame for a high-speed car crash was dismissed by a Georgia court Friday, citing the social media company’s immunity under the Communication’s Decency Act. The case was brought against Snapchat in April by Wentworth and Karen Maynard, who claimed the application’s “speed filter,” which shows how fast the phone is moving at the time the photo or video is taken, caused 18-year-old Christal McGee to crash into Wentworth Maynard’s car while driving at 107 miles per hour (171 kilometer per hour), leaving Maynard with severe brain damage. McGee, who was also sued by the Maynards, claimed she was “just trying to get the car to 100 miles per hour to post it on Snapchat.” In his ruling Friday, Spalding County State Court Judge Josh Thacker said the social media company was exempt from liability under the CDA’s immunity clause, which states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Snapchat’s attorneys told the Associated Press Monday the ruling reaffirms the need for “responsible use of these technologies by the driver.”
The First Drone Strikes Under Trump Target Al-Qaeda in Yemen
The U.S. carried out several drone strikes in Yemen over the weekend targeting al-Qaeda leaders, marking the first drone strikes under the new Trump administration. The bombings hit the country’s southwestern Bayda province, and among the targets was Abu Anis al-Abi, a field commander with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. These strikes did not necessarily require Trump to sign off on them, because the Obama administration enabled the four-star commander of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel, to oversee strikes. Drone strikes increased to unprecedented levels under Obama, much to the anger of human-rights groups, which decry their use because of the risk of collateral damage. On Thursday, U.S. intelligence officials released a report saying that under Obama as many as 117 civilians died in drone bombings. These numbers, however, are often viewed as extremely low by human rights groups.
Trump Signs Executive Order Withdrawing From the TPP
President Trump signed an executive order Monday to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a longstanding campaign pledge. The TPP, a project initiated by the Obama administration, would have placed the U.S. and 11 Asia-Pacific countries in an unprecedented free-trade zone. Trump’s executive order pulls the U.S. out of that deal, an effort to refocus on putting “America first,” as the president repeated in his inauguration address Friday. The trade deal had been a tough sell for both major political parties, with former-President Obama struggling to convince even Democrats of its worth because it had been painted during the election campaign as detrimental to U.S. manufacturing. Until this election, trade deals had received mostly bipartisan support. Trump has also said he wants to renegotiation the NAFTA, which set up a free-trade zone from Mexico to Canada.
Trump Reinstates Mexico City Rule, Blocking U.S. Funding for Abortion Services Worldwide
President Trump, in one of his first acts since assuming office, reinstated Monday a policy blocking U.S. funding for health programs that provide abortions or related services overseas. Known commonly as the Mexico City policy or the “global gag rule,” the policy restricts foreign organizations receiving U.S. family-planning funding from conducting any abortion-related services, even if they are conducted with non-U.S. funds. Since it went into effect in 1984, the policy has routinely been enacted by Republican administrations and rescinded by Democratic ones. As my colleague Anna Diamond writes:
Now, the signing of the order is filled with symbolism. Always falling on or within days of the January 22nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it’s become a way for the incoming president to signal to his party and supporters an initial commitment for or against abortion rights.
A Violent California Storm Destroys an Iconic Concrete Ship
A harsh storm hit the California coast this weekend and set surf records, with wave heights reaching nearly 35 feet in some places. They were particularly violent near Santa Cruz, about 80 miles south of San Francisco, where the storm wrecked a local icon, a historic World War I concrete ship called the S.S. Palo Alto. Then-President Woodrow Wilson ordered a fleet of concrete ships built in 1917, and while other ships had been made of this material, none had ever been made so large—420 feet long. The S.S. Palo Alto was one of 24 others built at the time, and it came to rest near Santa Cruz in 1930, where it connected to a pier and became a famous icon of the beach. The ship’s hull had been crumbling for some time, and over the decades it served as a home for the area’s wildlife, like sea lions, fish, and sea birds. In the mid-2000s, a leak in the ship’s tank spilled old oil into the waters and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife spent $1.7 million to clean up the fuel. This weekend’s storm sent waves crashing against the hull and split off the stern. It’s unclear what will be done with the crumbling remains.
What was once a solid structure, is now in 2 pieces. The S.S. Palo Alto's stern has taken enough beating and gave-in to Mother nature. pic.twitter.com/ljRytxwpf7
Syrian Government, Rebels Meet for Talks in Kazakhstan
Representatives of the Syrian government and rebel groups are meeting in Astana, the Kazakh capital, for the first time in more than a year for talks on ways to end the more than five-year-long civil war. Russian, Turkish, and Iranian officials are also attending; the three countries brokered a cease-fire between the fighting factions December 30. Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, and military officials are representing the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Mohammad Alloush of the Army of Islam is leading the rebel delegation. Talks are scheduled to continue until Tuesday.
The Trump Administration's War of Words With the Media
President Trump was inaugurated in Washington, D.C., Friday. A day later, a women’s march in the city, and others across the country and the world, vowed to oppose some of the Trump administration’s policies. Photographs from both events, coupled with crowd estimates, suggested more people turned out to the march in Washington than the inauguration. Trump and his aides apparently disagreed. At an appearance Saturday before the CIA, the president railed against the media, calling it “dishonest.” Later, Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, repeated those claims, adding: “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”—a demonstrably false claim. On Sunday, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor, went on NBC’s Meet the Press, and countered the view Spicer was lying, adding “our press secretary gave alternative facts to that.” When Chuck Todd, the show’s host, asked Conway why Spicer had said something that was clearly not true, she replied: “If we're going to keep referring to the press secretary in those types of terms, I think we're going to have to rethink our relationship here.” Trump himself initially criticized Saturday’s protest march, saying on Twitter he “was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn't these people vote?” He later tweeted out a more conciliatory message:
Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don't always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views.
Colonizing the red planet is a ridiculous way to help humanity.
There’s no place like home—unless you’re Elon Musk. A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship, which may someday send humans to Mars, is, according to Musk, likely to launch soon, possibly within the coming days. But what motivates Musk? Why bother with Mars? A video clip from an interview Musk gave in 2019 seems to sum up Musk’s vision—and everything that’s wrong with it.
In the video, Musk is seen reading a passage from Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot. The book, published in 1994, was Sagan’s response to the famous image of Earth as a tiny speck of light floating in a sunbeam—a shot he’d begged NASA to have the Voyager 1 spacecraft take in 1990 as it sailed into space, 3.7 billion miles from Earth. Sagan believed that if we had a photo of ourselves from this distance, it would forever alter our perspective of our place in the cosmos.
After saying a racial slur and being exiled from radio, Morgan Wallen has become only more popular. What’s going on?
It’s no exaggeration to say that one of the biggest artists in American music right now is a disgrace. Three weeks after the 27-year-old country singer Morgan Wallen said a racial slur on camera, his second studio album, Dangerous: The Double Album, is at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. His singles have been bobbing in the country-music top 10 and the cross-genre Hot 100. Billboard’s ranking of the most popular artists in the United States had him in the top spot for five straight weeks. Thousands of people are, at this moment, streaming Wallen’s songs, buying his records, and watching his music videos—putting money in the pockets of someone who has admitted to saying one of the most noxious things imaginable.
We’ll never know for sure how contagious people are after they’re vaccinated, but we do know how they should act.
Every day, more than 1 million American deltoids are being loaded with a vaccine. The ensuing immune response has proved to be extremely effective—essentially perfect—at preventing severe cases of COVID-19. And now, with yet another highly effective vaccine on the verge of approval, that pace should further accelerate in the weeks to come.
This is creating a legion of people who no longer need to fear getting sick, and are desperate to return to “normal” life. Yet the messaging on whether they might still carry and spread the disease—and thus whether it’s really safe for them to resume their unmasked, un-distanced lives—has been oblique. Anthony Fauci said last week on CNN that “it is conceivable, maybe likely,” that vaccinated people can get infected with the coronavirus and then spread it to someone else, and that more will be known about this likelihood “in some time, as we do some follow-up studies.” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky had been no more definitive on Meet the Press a few days before, where she told the host, “We don’t have a lot of data yet to inform exactly the question that you’re asking.”
The GOP has become, in form if not in content, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of the late 1970s.
We are living in a time of bad metaphors. Everything is fascism, or socialism; Hitler’s Germany, or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Republicans, especially, want their followers to believe that America is on the verge of a dramatic time, a moment of great conflict such as 1968—or perhaps, even worse, 1860. (The drama is the point, of course. No one ever says, “We’re living through 1955.”)
Ironically, the GOP is indeed replicating another political party in another time, but not as the heroes they imagine themselves to be. The Republican Party has become, in form if not in content, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of the late 1970s.
I can already hear the howls about invidious comparisons. I do not mean that modern American Republicans are communists. Rather, I mean that the Republicans have entered their own kind of end-stage Bolshevism, as members of a party that is now exhausted by its failures, cynical about its own ideology, authoritarian by reflex, controlled as a personality cult by a failing old man, and looking for new adventures to rejuvenate its fortunes.
When the polio vaccine was declared safe and effective, the news was met with jubilant celebration. Church bells rang across the nation, and factories blew their whistles. “Polio routed!” newspaper headlines exclaimed. “An historic victory,” “monumental,” “sensational,” newscasters declared. People erupted with joy across the United States. Some danced in the streets; others wept. Kids were sent home from school to celebrate.
One might have expected the initial approval of the coronavirus vaccines to spark similar jubilation—especially after a brutal pandemic year. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism.
Side effects are just a sign that protection is kicking in as it should.
At about 2 a.m. on Thursday morning, I woke to find my husband shivering beside me. For hours, he had been tossing in bed, exhausted but unable to sleep, nursing chills, a fever, and an agonizingly sore left arm. His teeth chattered. His forehead was freckled with sweat. And as I lay next to him, cinching blanket after blanket around his arms, I felt an immense sense of relief. All this misery was a sign that the immune cells in his body had been riled up by the second shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, and were well on their way to guarding him from future disease.
Side effects are a natural part of the vaccination process, as my colleague Sarah Zhang has written. Not everyone will experience them. But the two COVID-19 vaccines cleared for emergency use in the United States, made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, already have reputations for raising the hackles of the immune system: In both companies’clinical trials, at least a third of the volunteers ended up with symptoms such as headaches and fatigue; fevers like my husband’s were less common.
The Danish series John Dillermand makes a very big deal about a very big body part.
The world of Danish children’s television is not for the prudish. Kids who turn on the tube in Denmark might be greeted by gratuitous flatulence, cursing, casual nudity, or cross-dressing puppets. One show centers on a pipe-smoking pirate who wallops ninjas and flirts with Satanism. In another, an audience of 11-to-13-year-olds asks probing questions about the bodies of adults who disrobe before them. As Christian Groes, an anthropologist at Denmark’s Roskilde University, told me, Danish children’s television is not unlike an LSD trip: “Everything is possible in that universe,” he said, loosely quoting a friend, “and people won’t complain about it.”
But people did complain when the Danes debuted a kids’ animated series in January featuring a protagonist with an absurdly long, prehensile penis.
The first way to fight a new virus would once have been opening the windows.
A few years ago, when I still had confidence in our modern ability to fight viruses, I pored over a photo essay of the 1918 flu pandemic. How quaint, I remember thinking, as I looked at people bundled up for outdoor classes and court and church. How primitive their technology, those nurses in gauze masks. How little did I know.
I felt secure, foolishly, in our 100 additional years of innovation. But it would soon become clear that our full-body hazmat suits and negative-pressure rooms and HEPA filters mattered little to Americans who couldn’t find N95 masks. In our quest for perfect solutions, we’d forgotten an extremely obvious and simple one: fresh air. A colleague joked, at one point, that things would have gone better in the pandemic if we still believed in miasma theory.
A guide to America’s awkward, semi-vaccinated months
The past 11 months have been a crash course in a million concepts that you probably wish you knew a whole lot less about. Particle filtration. Ventilation. Epidemiological variables. And, perhaps above all else, interdependence. In forming quarantine bubbles, in donning protective gear just to buy groceries, in boiling our days down to only our most essential interactions, people around the world have been shown exactly how linked their lives and health are. Now, as COVID-19 vaccines rewrite the rules of pandemic life once more, we are due for a new lesson in how each person’s well-being is inextricably tangled with others’.
This odd (and hopefully brief) chapter in which some Americans are fully vaccinated, but not enough of us to shield the wider population against the coronavirus’s spread, brings with it a whole new set of practical and ethical questions. If I’m vaccinated, can I travel freely? Can two vaccinated people from different households eat lunch together? If your parents are vaccinated but you’re not, can you see them inside? What if only one of them got both shots? What if one of them is a nurse on a COVID-19 ward?
Getting a heat pump is one of the easiest ways for homeowners to fight climate change.
If you’re like me, you know that getting rid of your car is one of the best things you can do for the climate, and also that you will never do it. This is a car-oriented country, and a car-oriented time. But in 2019, the private cars and light trucks that ordinary people drive for work and shopping and leisure were responsible for about 15 percent of U.S. fossil-fuel-energy use. Electric vehicles get a lot of press, but less than 1 percent of energy used for transportation came from electricity. Personal transportation is a large contributor to carbon emissions in America; it’s also the hardest to give up.
But trading a gasoline automobile for an electric one (or for a bus or train) isn’t the only way ordinary citizens can contribute to fossil-fuel reduction. Decarbonization has two pillars: First, generate electricity from energy that does not emit carbon—renewable sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal instead of fossil fuels. That requires legislative and regulatory change. Second, use electricity to run as much of your personal life as possible.