Footprints on the Reef

The thing we do is never just one thing.

In 2014, rising sea temperatures and a strong El Niño kickstarted the world’s worst coral bleaching event. Over the next three years, it is estimated that as much as 70 percent of the world’s reefs were damaged to some extent. In some places, entire coral ecosystems turned into white, algae-crusted wastelands, almost overnight. Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef died or was damaged.

And this incredible scourge, likely to continue given the generally upward trend of sea temperatures for the foreseeable future, is not what has scientists in the Caribbean breaking coral reef Rule Number One, and hacking the reefs to pieces in a desperate attempt to save them. These days, you dodge one environmental bullet, a few more are loaded up and ready to fly.

In a feat of uncreative naming, the new threat is known as Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. It was first described a few years ago on the reef that lines the southeast coast of Florida, but its spread has since accelerated through the Florida Keys and down into the U.S. Virgin Islands. It is estimated that around 40 percent of Caribbean coral reefs might be vulnerable. Once the disease hits, it has between a 66 and 100 percent chance of killing off that particular reef; it does so within a few weeks.

According to Reuters:

The disease prompts rapid tissue loss, appearing first as white patches that sprawl out across the coral, before eventually stripping it of color and life altogether.

The language both news reports and scientists themselves have used to characterize it is chilling. It has been “raging like an inferno” through the world’s most biodiverse marine ecosystem. The word “ravaged” comes up a lot. Marilyn Brandt, a researcher at the University of the Virgin Islands, said: “I have never seen anything that affects so many species, so quickly and so viciously—and it just continues.”

She added that most coral diseases come and go rather like the seasonal flu. “This thing is more like Ebola. It’s a killer, and we don’t know how to stop it.” Well holy shit.

Scientists are now breaking up reefs affected by—sigh—SCTLD, hoping to stop its spread. Others are working on figuring out what it actually is—what pathogen is causing it, which might help us stop it. And they’re doing this knowing that at any moment, the next coral bleaching event might render all those efforts moot.


Historically, environmentalism was couched in terms of some specific goal—Save the Whales, say. But this doesn’t really capture how the natural world works. I don’t mean to go all James Lovelock/Gaia theory on you, but it’s far too interconnected a system to think that efforts to just “save” something will work the way you want them to.

You can stop whaling, or change the shipping lanes so you’re less likely to literally run a whale over, but that ignores the slow and steady damage you’re doing to whales and probably most other marine creatures through essentially screaming into their ears at all times. All the sound our boats and drills and so on pour into the water have an enormous effect on animals. Good job, you saved the whales; maybe give them some peace and quiet for a minute?

And that’s before we get into what humans are doing to krill populations, the most important food source for baleen whales, and probably twenty other things we’ve done to ruin their lives. You could do this for almost any vulnerable target. You can ban sunscreen that isn’t reef-friendly, but how do you account for the weakened state all corals are probably now in as a result of just existing on the same fucking planet as the most destructive goddamn species since Galactus?

Back to that Reuters report, on the spot near Miami where the disease was first found:

The coral in the area were already stressed from the dredging and a recent bleaching event, so it was unsurprising they got hit with a disease, the scientists told Reuters. Like with a human body, a weakened immune system can make coral more susceptible to disease.

This is an essentially inevitable result of human activity. We are too loud, too expansive, too big and greedy and just too many to think that we’re not simply changing the water in which everything else on the planet swims. Save the whales, whatever—nothing we do is only one thing.


This is why the calls to deregulate (yes, I’m back on deregulation) whatever thing—water quality or air quality or natural gas drilling or anything else—that are based on the success of the regulations themselves are so infuriating.

“Why do we need the Endangered Species Act?” they crow, pointing to the pile of bald eagles mauling some fish in a pickup truck’s bed. “Rivers haven’t caught on fire in decades, we don’t need the Clean Water Act!”

You’re so close to getting it, pal.

There isn’t any particular regulation at play with the corals and their multitude of threats (beyond, say, the rollback of any minuscule attempt to stop burning fossil fuels and heating the oceans until we can comfortably cook some ramen in them). But it’s a good demonstration of how ill-prepared we still are to confront our own environmental effects. We don’t know what caused this particular new disease; maybe it’s a random bacteria that has been hanging around for millennia, but now it seized an opportunity because we have so degraded the corals basic existence. If someone just slowly pulled away layers from the walls of your house until there’s not much between you and the outdoors, and also bombarded you with noise and plastic bottles and sewage at all hours of the day, you might be suddenly a bit more susceptible to Coral Ebola too.

I don’t have some grand suggestion here, but weakening the law based on the very principle of environmental caution in human activity sure as shit isn’t it. The coral scientists have decided to take unprecedented steps, ripping up corals they thought they were trying to protect. “We tend to just study these events. We monitor them. We try to research what to do. We just watch it happen and assume that Mother Nature is going to be able to take the reins and everything’s going to be fine,” said one researcher in Florida. But that strategy isn’t good enough anymore.

“We can’t just watch these corals all die in front of us.”

random bits

  • This is a good feature by D.T. Max on robotic surgery. Watch out for that calling card of all start-up/move-fast-and-break-things types, the quote from a surgery robot company guy about how the real obstacle will be the “regulatory environment.” (So I have a thing. Sue me.)

  • Hey so could you do me a solid and like and share this post? Gonna keep asking until all of you do. Thanks.

notes from [gestures around]

In a nondescript corner of Serangan Island, which is vaguely attached to Bali in Indonesia, is the Turtle Conservation and Education Center. A government-supported enterprise, they rescue and rehabilitate injured sea turtles (one there had tumors on both its eyes, which, wild), and maintain a hatchery in order to juice the odds a bit in favor of some vulnerable animals. It’s a nice place.

There is a small fenced-in area filled with sand—little more than a large sandbox, really—where eggs that have been pulled from beaches (to protect from the ubiquitous beach dogs, mostly) will sit for a few weeks until hatching.

Once they do, the energetic hatchlings (all of the hatchlings are Bali’s most common species, the olive ridley), just an inch or two long, are transferred to a series of tanks to swim around and gain some strength—there’s a one-day-old tank, a two-day-old tank, and a three-day-old tank.

At that point, it’s time to release them back into the ocean. But the Center has a fun way to raise some funds: visitors, who otherwise pay nothing to wander around and ask a bunch of questions and gaze into these tanks at all the adorable turtles, can “adopt” a turtle, for 150,000 IDR—not much more than ten bucks. You get to name your turtle (ours were named Quizzo and Flagstaff, for reasons not worth going into), and you get to scoop the one you choose out of its tank in a little container, and move it to a basket in the next tank over. They are absurdly cute.

If you have the time, you can meet the Center’s experts about an hour a away at the beach (happens around 3:30 PM each day, I think), where you yourself get to release your specific little Squirt into the ocean, where it will still probably enjoy some remarkably low percentage chance of survival (but hey, better than being munched by a beach dog!). If you don’t (we didn’t), you give them an email address and they’ll send you a video within a few days of your turtle being released.

All in the name of government-sanctioned sea turtle conservation! I guess not everything is dark and awful.

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Impeachment Lab

High science crimes and misdemeanors

Dear Nancy Pelosi, Jerry Nadler, et al,

If I understand correctly, the formal articles of impeachment used to remove someone from office can include any number of relevant charges and offenses. Indeed, I can see from some extremely thorough Wikipedia research that there were two articles of impeachment for Bill Clinton, three were written up for Richard Nixon before his resignation rendered them moot, and Andrew Johnson was rewarded for his general awfulness with eleven articles of impeachment.

Given that, I have some thoughts.

Article I: For conspiracy to commit (a shitload of) murder

By the Trump administration’s own EPA’s accounting, its overhaul of regulations on coal-fired power plants designed essentially to prop up a dying industry will kill as many as 1,400 people each year by 2030. This is due to the fine particulate matter that is emitted from coal plants, causing respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and many other health problems. Along with the 1,400 murders, this article would also cover the conspiracy to give 15,000 people new upper respiratory problems and cause tens of thousands of missed school days.

This is not some unfortunate byproduct of an industrialized society. Coal is on its way out thanks to the market anyway (not to mention the urgent moral and societal demand to stop burning fossil fuels yesterday), but the regulations put in place by previous administrations were both helping to usher its demise and also helping to not kill people. This was a proactive murder decision. They knew, without any doubt, that relaxing regulations would hurt actual people, kill actual people, and they did it anyway. I am no legal expert, but can you think of a higher crime?

Article II: For conspiracy to give your kid brain damage

Years after the EPA began to try and restrict the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos thanks to its apparent potential to harm people, children in particular, the Trump admin announced it would not ban the chemical. They had ample scientific reason to make this decision.

LOL just kidding, they had NO such reason. A federal court has said the EPA has no justification for the move. Former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt rejected his own agency’s science in 2017, just kinda unilaterally deciding they would conduct further review, though everyone knew what “further review” meant in this scenario.

All this for a chemical that has been shown to cause IQ deficits and memory problems in children even at low or moderate levels of exposure. Pregnant women exposed to chlorpyrifos have children who are more likely to develop autism. And once again, the wheels had already been turning to stop this bullshit.

Article III: For conspiracy to commit… I dunno, genocide? Can we do war crimes here?

As promised during his campaign, Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017. This can’t be fully implemented until next year, but the message was clear: the U.S. will not participate in international efforts to send oil drilling experts Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck up to an asteroid on a collision course with the earth, in spite of the obviously better idea of training actual astronauts how to drill a hole.

But seriously, this decision, and the overall administration position of “fuck your climate, we’re rich” is an ongoing crime against humanity. Impeach, but then consider the Hague.

Article IV: For general, unbridled scientific stupidity

I know this is not a crime. But it should be. I mean:

Not just that. The whole Hurricane Dorian/NOAA thing. It’s just so mindbogglingly dumb, so incredibly inane and absurd and just stupid. It’s also dangerous, of course: the next time a hurricane bears down on some deep red part of the Gulf Coast or wherever, people are going to stay home instead of following NOAA’s evacuation order because the president himself has not shown up on Hannity to tell them to leave. “NOAA was wrong the last time,” they’ll think, because a sentient pile of eraser shavings they worship like it’s Huītzilōpōchtli hasn’t yet told them the storm battering their front door is real.

But seriously his science advisor is an extreme weather expert.


Do not think that because I have run out of steam on this list of impeachable scientific offenses that there are not in fact more of them. There are. All those deregulatory actions, all those reports of scientists being silenced or fired or reassigned, the purges of certain words from websites and other words from peer-reviewed research from government scientists—I’d love to hear someone try to explain why these things don’t represent clear violations of the Constitution, or of individuals’ rights.

Nancy, Jerry, don’t skimp on your list. You might even get Trump to shut up for a minute if you tell him he beat out Andrew Johnson for the biggest, the best, the most amazing articles of impeachment. We love it, don’t we folks.

random bits

  • If you want to get a more full accounting, check out the Union of Concerned Scientists report on The State of Science in the Trump Era. It’s uh, uplifting reading.

  • Bill McKibben, who wrote probably the first popular book about climate change way back in the late 1980s (The End of Nature), gave up journalism for advocacy many years ago. That doesn’t mean he still can’t write circles around most other people on climate: read his latest in the New Yorker, an excellent, sobering, and occasionally hopeful piece about pressuring the real villains—big banks—to divest from fossil fuels.

  • If you press the little heart button on this post, and/or share it on Twitter or Facebook, I will personally send you one dollar out of the Equifax settlement money you know we’re all getting. Thank you.

notes from [gestures around]

All I’ve got right now is these two tweets:

Really good gecko, right? Well:

There’s another one of those cockroaches in our bedroom right now. [Sad face emoji]

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Do the Pharma Hustle

There's money in those tumors.

You have stage III colon cancer. Bummer.

There is a chemotherapy regimen that has been proven in multiple clinical trials to be relatively effective for your type and stage of cancer. Good news! Like most chemotherapy, which is essentially designed to just kill a whole bunch of cells (it is also called “cytotoxic” after all—death to cells), it has some fairly serious side effects.

So here is the question: would you like to take this toxic regimen for three months, or for six months?

This is not a trick question. Do you want longer treatment and potentially more time for it to, you know, work, but obviously more toxicity? Or shorter treatment but less toxicity? A lot of really clever researchers have tried to answer this question; it’s still not completely clear what the answer is. That’s not a scandal in and of itself: this sort of issue is really hard to parse out sometimes. The cost-benefit analysis for a lot of drugs, and in particular those that treat cancer, is super complicated. You want to maximize benefit while minimizing harm, and, well, that’s a tough thing to do.

What makes it tougher, though, is that there’s no fucking money in giving people fewer drugs.


In 2017, I was in Madrid, covering the European Society of Medical Oncology’s annual meeting. I wrote some articles about cancer research. But one session of the conference stuck with me: they were debating the optimal length of therapy for stage III colorectal cancer, based on results of a couple of recent clinical trials.

Those trials compared three and six months of treatment, and well, it was complicated. For some patients, a certain chemotherapy regimen given for three months was “non-inferior” to six months, meaning it performed equivalently to the longer, more standard length of therapy. For certain other patients, and a certain other regimen, that non-inferiority could not be definitively established; six months would remain the standard for them.

So far this was relatively normal cancer meeting fare; but a few experts who spoke to the massive crowd said something I found particularly notable. I’m paraphrasing at this point, but essentially, they all said some version of this: “No one is going to fund a definitive study on this, so I think this is the best data we’re going to get.”

Woof! Let’s translate: “Drug companies are interested only in giving more of their extremely profitable drugs to people, not less. As a result, we cannot definitively study how to reduce side effects while still offering the most effective possible treatment.”

More specifically, the best way to answer the question would be to design a prospective, randomized trial where some people were given the longer regimen and some the shorter. This would need to be a very large trial to tease out what might be fairly small differences between the treatments. Large trials cost a lot of money.

When large trials are needed to test if some new drug might be better than existing drugs, Pfizer or Merck or whoever plops down huge chunks of money without batting an eye. If the trial works—and by the time they reach the point of funding large, expensive, phase 3 clinical trials, they’re at least relatively confident that it will work—then they have a new and enormous source of income. Given that some newer cancer drugs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per patient, it is an easy decision.

But when large trials are needed to examine how to give people less therapy, we, the general cancer-having public, are often shit out of luck.


Here are three things:

  1. Purdue Pharmaceuticals filed for bankruptcy the other day, part of an effort to manage the 2000-plus lawsuits that have been filed against it for fueling the opioid crisis. There is now abundant evidence that the Sacklers and others at the company actively worked to increase subscribing of clearly addictive and dangerous drugs in order to make a few more bucks before laundering their demonic image through I dunno a wing at the Guggenheim or whatever.

  2. According to a new Reuters report, Merck purposely misled the public about its popular hair loss drug Propecia, disguising its potential to cause sexual dysfunction and other problems in men. “[D]ocuments show that Merck knew roughly 20 years ago that sales of the drug would suffer if the public became aware of Propecia’s possible long-term effects on men’s sexual health.”

  3. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s enforcement actions—the agency’s tools to protect the public from dangerous drugs, medical devices, and foods—have dropped by one third compared to the previous administration. “Industry may well take the message from this that the cop is not on the beat as often,” said a former FDA official-turned non-profit/science watchdog type.

This has been three things.


There are really good doctors and researchers out there who would prefer their patients could take less toxic medicine but get the same result. Your doctor, the one you’ve been seeing after your stage III colon cancer diagnosis, is probably one of them! They work with what they’ve got.

In 2018, some of these really good researchers tried to definitively answer the question of three-versus-six months of chemotherapy for people with your particular brand of malignancy. They examined existing data from six trials, involving more than 12,000 patients; this can be an effective tool, but it is not that ideal option, the prospective, randomized, big-ass trial. Here’s how their study concluded:

Among patients with stage III colon cancer receiving adjuvant therapy with FOLFOX or CAPOX [these are the acronyms for the two chemotherapy regimens, containing multiple drugs each], noninferiority of 3 months of therapy, as compared with 6 months, was not confirmed in the overall population. However, in patients treated with CAPOX, 3 months of therapy was as effective as 6 months, particularly in the lower-risk subgroup. (Funded by the National Cancer Institute and others.)

You’ll be forgiven for being confused. Much like before, it seems that some people can receive a shorter duration of therapy safely and effectively; others can’t. Cancer is complicated! With every new bit of research, it can feel like it gets more complicated; it isn’t one disease, but several hundred, driven sometimes by genes and sometimes by environment and usually be some combination of the two, with a whole host of possible treatments that may or may not work based on those varying factors. These sorts of bit-of-column-A, bit-of-column-B conclusions aren’t uncommon. But look at that last bit:

(Funded by the National Cancer Institute and others.)

Curious what the “others” are? Here you go, in all its acronymical glory:

CALGB/SWOG 80702 was supported by grants (U10CA180821, U10CA180835, U10CA180882, and U10CA180888) from the National Cancer Institute; IDEA France by Institut National du Cancer and a grant (PHRC2009) from Programme Hospitalier de Recherche Clinique en Cancérologie; SCOT by a grant (EME 09/800/34) from the National Institute for Health Research, Efficacy and Mechanism Evaluation, the National Institute for Health Research, Health Technology Assessment, and a grant (C1348/A15960) from Cancer Research United Kingdom; ACHIEVE by the Japanese Foundation for Multidisciplinary Cancer Treatment; TOSCA by a grant (FARM 5RWTWZ) from L’Agenzia Italiana del Farmaco; and HORG by the HORG Foundation.

Don’t bother scanning through that for Genentech, Sanofi, or any of the other makers of the drugs involved. They’re not in there. Just public institutions like the National Cancer Institute.

Here is one more thing:

  1. The Trump administration’s most recent budget request included a cut of $900 million from the National Cancer Institute’s bottom line, representing nearly 15 percent of its total.

This has been one more thing.


random bits

  • The Global Climate Strike is coming up. Just FYI.

  • Scientists found what is essentially the biggest possible neutron star. It is more than twice as massive as the sun, but only 15 miles in diameter. Imagine taking someone of normal human height and mashing their full mass (well, twice their full mass, but close enough) down into a tiny person approximately one thousandth of an inch tall—more or less the width of a human hair.

  • Look everyone has made the same joke/comment/it’s not funny, but it is AMAZING that like three people die from vaping and everyone’s like OH SHIT BAN THEM while the CDC is still not even allowed to study gun violence.

  • Hey look, that little heart button is begging to be pressed. Don’t be rude.

notes from [gestures around]

Here are some photos of bugs I took here in Indonesia:

Also in the evenings there are lizards just sort of everywhere, and it’s great. They’re mostly geckos, and you can see them on the walls of your place, on the back-lit sign of a grocery store, wherever. No particular point here, other than that lizards are cool.

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Feed Me A Stray Loop

Physics and carbon and human behavior and good and bad visions of the apocalypse.

This summer, the Arctic burned. Hundreds of thousands of acres across the Canadian far north, Greenland, and Siberia caught fire, scarring a landscape unused to such searing violence. The flames were mostly on peatland, a waterlogged, carbon-filled landscape that, when dried out sufficiently, can burn for extended periods of time and release massive amounts of carbon in doing so. That carbon released from the soils will now hang out in the atmosphere for the next century or two, further warming the climate and helping to cause more massive Arctic peatland wildfires, which in turn release more carbon and okay you get the idea.

It doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that the world is now increasingly defined by the presence of feedback loops. The Arctic fires are one such loop, and an ugly one, but there are many others. In climate change, a negative feedback loop means that some process inherent to the warming world produces an effect that reduces subsequent impacts; there aren’t that many of those. A positive feedback loop, like in the Arctic, does the opposite, exacerbating warming in various ways. There are more of those.

Off the top of my head: The warming ocean can absorb less carbon dioxide, meaning more of it stays in the atmosphere, meaning the atmosphere warms up faster. Warmer temperatures help melt Arctic permafrost, which releases methane, which can dramatically increase temperatures, which melts more permafrost. As sea ice melts in the Arctic, the darker water underneath reflects less sunlight back into space, helping speed warming, which melts more ice.

Are you scared yet.

These are all frustrating and dangerous. But they’re also fundamentally physical in nature, understandable (though sometimes difficult to quantify precisely). We can work them into computer models and warn against their effects. Which is less than we can say about feedback loops built in to human behavior.

Some human climate feedback loops are simple. Warmer temperatures mean more air conditioning use during heat waves, which uses power and thus emits more CO2, and so on. Frustrating and scary, again, but simple and straightforward—and fixable: build enough renewable energy and you’re running the AC off the sun instead of dead dinosaurs.

Where it gets more complicated is in the overall human response to the changing climate, and how we communicate the risks. If we talk about the crisis in X terms, maybe that generates a median response we can call Y—maybe that’s fear, or hope, or determination, or panic, or something else. The specific Y then will feedback in two different ways: the physical results to the climate of whatever we end up doing about it, and some change to the original X, the way we talk about the changing climate.

For a long time, convention wisdom in climate communications circles was that “doom-saying” was a poor approach. There are a few behavioral science studies out there—small n pay-a-college-student-20-bucks sorts of things that have been cited ad infinitum like Wayne and Garth holding up their all access passes—suggesting that people react to impending apocalypse with paralysis and inaction. This is its own sort of feedback loop: play up the asteroid’s approach, people flail helplessly on the ground, asteroid gets larger in the sky, messaging can only get more apocalyptic, leading to more flailing/inaction, and so on.

I always found this line of argument a bit odd, and increasingly so every year. Here we are, decades into an era where “we know what must be done” could be inscribed on its tombstone, with shit-all to show for it. Just as a statement of plain, obvious fact, whatever messaging approach we used to get here, did not work. So maybe that assumed feedback loop wasn’t quite right: maybe, instead, promising hope led to the world’s complacency—again, the complacency that we now have decades of evidence for, not some theoretical concept.

Of course, you could argue that would eventually turn into what you could describe as a negative feedback loop: as the complacency and inaction compounded, the crisis has deepened and angled itself toward a confirmation of the direst of predictions. Stronger hurricanes, longer droughts, those fires chewing up Arctic peatland—the result, finally, in the last couple of years, has been a turn toward action. The Green New Deal, CNN’s seven-hour town hall, the rise in prominence of activists like Greta Thunberg—there has been an undeniable shift in the climate conversation, even if we might still have to wait until 2021 for anything to actually happen as a result.

Obviously, you can’t pin that shift on a failed messaging strategy. But that’s what’s so complicated about human feedback loops: we’re getting riled toward meaningful action now because we failed to do so earlier, back when the messaging took a certain form, which maybe helped lead to the general failure, which brings us to today when we stare wide-eyed at a singed Arctic.

Of course, the messaging started to shift a few years ago too. The popularity of a New York Magazine feature by David Wallace-Wells in 2017 led to a book this year, both focused on some of the worst-case scenarios unchecked climate change could bring. This was true doom-saying, not in the prophet-raving-on-the-mountainside way but more in the confront-the-actual-possibilities kind of way, and it clearly touched a nerve.

Again, causality in this realm isn’t something we can pin down with much certainty, but it certainly feels to me like the collective attention on these high-end disasters is spurring at least some of the newfound urgency in calls to action. Talk about it in X terms, and it leads to Y response, which hopefully, eventually, feeds back into the climate system itself with a new negative forcing. Hopefully.


Then, though, there is the bad way to do this sort of messaging. Like, absurdly, amazingly bad. The Jonathan Franzen way.

I didn’t really want to talk about this. I already talked about it, and everyone else already talked about it, and outside of the New Yorker’s editors I would guess we can all agree that it is insane to let someone this bad at it write about climate change in such a venue, but it got me thinking about the feedback loops again, so here we are.

Franzen’s basic premise was that there is essentially zero hope of actually staving off a climate catastrophe, and instead of spouting false hope we should instead confront that catastrophic future and, I dunno, volunteer at a zoo or something. It’s a bit muddled, and he is working from a base position that is literally just wrong—that two degrees of warming is some mythical dividing line beyond which the world unavoidably spirals out of control. The odds of avoiding two degrees are at this point quite small, especially given the general inertia built into human systems and behavior, and therefore we are one hundred percent fucked. Good, enervating stuff. Thanks, Bird Guy.

Think about the ways that approach, compared with Wallace-Wells’s approach, might spawn differing feedback loops. Both focus on the potential doom of civilization, but in the one case, by stressing the high end of scientifically valid modeling the messaging actually appears to spur action, even if it might be tinged with panic. In the other case, the Accept Thy Fate message is designed implicitly to stop action, to stop the panic and urgency. On the one hand, a potential negative feedback loop on the climate system; on the other, a positive feedback loop where the acceptance of impending suffering will breed further suffering.

The way humans respond to climate change is not a controllable experiment. We don’t get a second shot at it, and any suggestion that alternative messaging might have had some demonstrable effect on where we stand now is just a counterfactual, a rhetorical trick that anyone can wield without consequence or meaning. But there are still ways to affect the feedback loops moving forward; the Arctic is going to keep burning, but we don’t have to douse Siberia with kerosene.

random bits

  • A new study analyzed the rising rates of suicide around the country, in particular in rural areas. You’ll never guess what factors are associated with more suicides. Nah just kidding you’ll totally guess, it’s more gun shops and less health insurance coverage, obviously.

  • I’m not saying I don’t believe this report about being able to “reverse” aging using growth hormone and diabetes medications in a study involving only nine white men. Okay fuck it, yes I’m saying I don’t believe this report about being able to “reverse” aging using growth hormone and diabetes medications in a study involving only nine white men.

  • Good news, we’re learning more about the terrifying few hours after the Chicxulub asteroid struck, eventually killing off the dinosaurs. It doesn’t sound fun.

  • Definitely look at these award-winning wildlife photos.

  • Once again, I’m gonna beg for your digital approval here, and ask that you hit that little “like” button below or above this piece, if you made it this far. Tell your friends, loved ones, coworkers, bosses, underlings, baristas, and Home Depot associates to subscribe, and then tweet/facebook the shit out of this post. I will love you forever. Thank you.

notes from [gestures around]

Hello from abroad! We left the US a bit more than a week ago, with no particular return date in mind. We’re in Bali, in Indonesia, at the moment.

The town we’re in is called Lovina, on the north side of the island, and everyone here wants to take tourists out to see the dolphins. Lovina even has a dolphin statue as its pseudo-centerpiece. We’ve been offered a dolphin tour approximately 125 times. And the more times we’re offered, the less inclined we are to actually go.

I’d already read a few anecdotal reports of how distressing the dolphin-watching scene can get, with dozens of boats crowded into the same stretch of ocean until the pod is spotted, at which point all those boats maneuver around the dolphins to get a better view. Sounds like a totally healthy way to appreciate nature, right?

Then last night we talked to a bartender who, after offering to connect us to whatever dolphin boat operator he has a deal with, acknowledged that the numbers of dolphins around Lovina have dropped precipitously in recent years. Too often, we’re all just Lennie, petting that little puppy directly into the ground.

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Nuke the Science Fair

When no one can be smarter than the dumbest possible guy.

It doesn’t matter if the president actually suggested “multiple times” to senior government officials that the way to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States is to drop nuclear bombs into the middle of them. What matters is that when this story broke a few days ago, it was absurdly easy to believe that he did in fact suggest “multiple times” to senior government officials that the way to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States is to drop nuclear bombs into the middle of them. That is a thing he would do. Obviously.

This set off a familiar chain of events whereby everyone on Twitter and every possible political podcast gets to make jokes about the absurd thing followed by actual news outlets wasting time and resources tracking down experts who can speak to the feasibility of nuking hurricanes followed by the president calling the whole topic fake news and then everyone moving on to the next thing because he completely made up a phone call with Chinese officials or something. No hurricanes were nuked in the making of this dumb news cycle.

The very plausibility behind that dumb news cycle, though, is as good a marker as any for the sheer distance between this administration’s and every other administration’s treatment of science. This is not—even remotely—the first time that the federal government has floated some truly harebrained, Acme rocket launcher-ass schemes; it is the first time, though, that the president himself dreams up those schemes (or pieces them together from some collection of Fox & Friends segments like a zany offshoot of the Island of Dr. Moreau) and then puffs them out into the world like so much radioactive fallout.

Take, for example, an idea from the mid- to late-1960s known as Project ABLE. This was a scheme cooked up as the Vietnam War began to escalate, and the difficulties of fighting a fast-moving and locally knowledgeable enemy became clear. It was a bad scheme.

Project ABLE involved giant mirrors. Giant space mirrors. Giant space mirrors aimed at the jungles of Vietnam. Giant space mirrors aimed at the jungles of Vietnam in order to reflect sunlight toward said jungles and make fighting at night no different than fighting during the day. Giant. Space. Mirrors.

This is, obviously, an insane idea. But it actually made its way out of the darkest corners of the Pentagon or White House where people are willing to mutter insane ideas just in case one of them lands and they end up with some sort of fleeting imperialist glory or whatever and into an actual set of proposals, farmed out to a few large and thirsty companies like Westinghouse and Goodyear. These companies took their mission seriously and submitted a raft of technical documents demonstrating the feasibility of Project Giant Space Mirrors, at which point the concept leaked to the press and everyone was like “whoa hey this is a super dumb idea!” and it was then summarily shot down by the White House (White House science advisor to be exact; my random obsessions will get their moments in the sun) as if they hadn’t had anything to do with it to begin with. No giant space mirrors were built in the creation of this dumb news cycle.

But think about the fundamental differences between Project ABLE and Project Old Man Nukes Clouds. When Trump comes up with his latest inane idea, he births it from nothing and sends it out to dance amongst his minions, who then fall all over themselves to try and legitimize whatever the idea is until it is laundered thoroughly enough to appear on the president’s television in a form that tells him that his idea was actually great, of course it was, because it was his. From his mouth to Fox News and back again. In the past, the dumb idea was born in secret, sent out quietly to be means tested and prodded to see how both the laws of thermodynamics and the laws of public relations would react, and then quietly rescinded out of the public eye.

We have turned the government use of science into some sort of convex version of itself, an inside-out process whereby the least qualified person in literally the entire country wags the scientific dog until it pukes its guts out on the floor.


Which brings me to the White House Science Fair.

A quick recap: In April 2017, the Trump White House announced it would continue the tradition of a kids’ science fair that produced some of the most indelible images of the Obama presidency. Then they, uh, didn’t do that.

The Obama White House held the science fair six times, and it essentially acted as an official government endorsement of curiosity. The president appeared to genuinely enjoy learning things from 10-year-olds.

Leaving aside that Trump’s few interactions with children are nigh on unbearable to watch (admit it, you forgot that he has a 13-year-old son), his abdication of the science fair tradition makes perfect sense. He can never, ever, ever tolerate being anything but the smartest person in the room. Which, for obvious reasons, is something of a problem.

Trump couldn’t handle mingling with middle schoolers and asking how their projects work. He would interrupt them at every turn, and then shout across the room to Kellyanne that he was the one who invented baking soda volcanoes, in fact no one had heard that term before, but now after he said it we’re hearing it more and more.

The profound lack of curiosity, and accompanying deeply felt belief that no one could possibly be smarter than him, is not just manifested in canceling of whimsical celebrations of aspiring inventors. It plays out now in how the government actually functions, manifested most publicly in those Nuke The Storm-style kerfuffles but more insidiously across the agencies where things actually happen.

The day of Trump’s inauguration, I wrote for Gizmodo that his appointments to run the Department of Energy, of Housing and Urban Development, of Education and the Interior and the EPA, were profoundly dangerous—the bulldozers in charge of the henhouse. He picked the least qualified individuals imaginable, a sort of anti-expert designed in a lab to ruin the things they were charged with leading.

These things are of a kind. Letting Rick Perry run the DOE means that there is no Nobel-winning physicist in charge to talk down to you, only a bad-dancer oil enthusiast, just happy to still be in the mix after a couple of sad presidential runs, who will gladly follow whatever batshit instructions float across the National Mall from the White House. In that case, you can throw out ideas like nuking hurricanes or raking forest floors to your heart’s content, and who gives a shit when the so-called experts out in the world make fun of you, no one in this particular room—or the next room, or any room, you’ve made sure of that—could possibly know as much as you do. You’re bulletproof. You brilliant man. You goddamn genius.

random bits

  • A 58-square-mile raft of pumice stones is floating toward Australia at the moment, carrying coral organisms that could help replenish the Great Barrier Reef. I find this deeply poetic, as the source of the rock raft is an underwater volcanic explosion near the island of Tonga, one of the low-lying countries most vulnerable to rising seas. In other words, a drowning island just blew part of itself up in order to save another threatened piece of the planet.

  • Things that are bad this week: The G-7 for only providing $20 million to fight Amazon fires, and the DNC, for submarining the possibility of a climate debate because something-something-Joe-Biden-something-something.

  • If perchance you have made it this far, I am going to be annoying and ask that you consider smashing that little heart button below or above this post. This site gives out points or something based on likes and shares (which, there’s a button up there for that too, feel free!) which can then get more people to see it and well, more people is better. I do appreciate it, thank you to everyone reading, subscribing, sharing, liking, and so on.

Notes from [gestures around]

Getting there. My wife and I are leaving the U.S. for some indeterminate period of time on September 1; in future editions, I’ll try and include something about where we’ve been staying, still hopefully science-ish. Not sure exactly what just yet, but we’ll be in Indonesia to start, so we’ll see how this idea goes.

Find me:

davelevitan.com
@davelevitan

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