Posts made in November 2018

Flake: Mueller protection bill has votes to pass Senate

December 3, 2018

Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) said on November 30 that he believes legislation protecting Special Counsel Robert Mueller—and prevent President Donald Trump from carrying out another Nixon-style Saturday Night Massacre—could pass the Senate, if Republican leadership would agree to bring it up for a vote, The Hill reported.

“I do believe the votes are there on the floor if we can just get a vote, and that’s what I’m calling, let’s just have a vote,” Flake told CNN, asked about a measure that would protect Mueller from being fired without good cause.

The legislation—originally drafted by Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Christopher Coons (D-Delaware), Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina), and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina)— has been given the cold shoulder for months by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky).

At a press conference last week, McConnell characterized it as “A solution in search of a problem,” adding that “The president is not going to fire Robert Mueller.”

“I don’t know how we can be sanguine about what’s going on over at the Department of Justice in terms of the Mueller probe. It’s important to protect it,” Flake added on Friday. 

Flake, joined by Coons and Booker, appeared on the Senate floor twice in November, attempting to get a vote,  and has been blocked both times. Flake is pledging to oppose all of Trump’s judicial nominees until he gets a vote on the bill, rankling his colleagues who have made confirming the president’s picks their top priority.

Flake and Senator Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) are joining all 49 Democrats to oppose Thomas Farr’s district judge nomination— denying him the 50 votes needed to let Vice President Mike Pence break a tie.

“We need to protect the special counsel; it’s important. Confirming judges is important,” Flake, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, said, according to The Hill report. “I want to confirm more judges … but this has to be priority now. And you have to take a stand. I have leverage because we have a narrow majority on the Judiciary Committee, so I’m using it.”

Research contact: @jordainc

Why some words are so darn funny

November 30, 2018

Upchuck, bubby, boff, wriggly, yaps, giggle, cooch, guffaw, puffball and jiggly: These are the top ten funniest words in the English language, according to a research results just released by Canada’s University of Alberta.

“Humor is, of course, still personal,” explained U of A psychologist Chris Westbury. “Here, we get at the elements of humor that aren’t personal—things that are universally funny.”

Westbury and his collaborator, U of A computing scientist Geoff Hollis, began their work based on results of a study at England’s University of Warwick that had participants rate the whimsy of nearly 5,000 English words. Westbury and Hollis then modeled these ratings statistically.

“Our model was good at predicting which words participants would judge as funny, and to what extent,” explained Westbury.

The findings show there are two types of predictors to gauge how funny a word is: form predictors and semantic predictors.

Form predictors have nothing to do with the meaning of the word, but rather measure elements such as length, letter and sound probabilities, and how similar the word is to other words in sound and writing.

For example, the researchers found that the letter K and the sound “oo” (as in “boot”) are significantly more likely to occur in funny words than in words that aren’t funny.

Semantic predictors—taken from a computational model of language—measure how related each word is to different emotions, as well as to six categories of funny words: sex, bodily functions, insults, swear words, partying and animals.

“We started out by identifying these six categories,” said Westbury. “It turns out that the best predictor of funniness is not distance from one of those six categories, but rather average distance from all six categories. This makes sense, because lots of words that people find funny fall into more than one category, like sex and bodily functions—like boobs.”

The study, “Wriggly, Squiffy, Lummox, and Boobs: What Makes Some Words Funny?” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Research contact: chris.westbury@ualberta.ca

Patagonia donates ‘urgent $10M gift to the planet’

November 30, 2018

This holiday season, Patagonia—the environmentally aware Ventura, California–based outdoor clothing and gear retailer—is giving away the $10 million in unplanned cash that the company says, “we saw as a result of last year’s irresponsible tax cut.”

The money will go to non-profit organizations that work on issues related to climate change and the environment. 

“Instead of putting the money back into our business, we’re responding by putting $10 million back into the planet. Our home planet needs it more than we do,” CEO Rose Marcario wrote in a letter posted on the Patagonia website on November 28.

The most recent Climate Assessment report , Marcario said, puts it in stark terms: The U.S. economy could lose hundreds of billions of dollars, and the climate crisis is already affecting all of us. Mega-fires. Toxic algae blooms. Deadly heat waves and deadly hurricanes. Far too many have suffered the consequences of global warming in recent months, and the political response has so far been woefully inadequate—and the denial is just evil.”

Patagonia wants to be part of the solution.

She wrote on behalf of the company, “We recognize that our planet is in peril. We are committing all $10 million to groups protecting air, land and water and finding solutions to the climate crisis.

“Each year we fund grassroots activism through 1% for the Planet, and this $10 million will be on top of that. It will go a long way toward funding grassroots groups; including those dedicated to regenerative organic agriculture, which may be our greatest hope for reversing the damage done to our overheated planet.”

In a related press release Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, said , “Catastrophe is here, and we need all the help we can get to address the climate crisis. “

He added, “Our government continues to ignore the seriousness and causes of the climate crisis. It is pure evil. We need to double down on renewable energy solutions. We need an agriculture system that supports small family farms and ranches, not one that rewards chemical companies intent on destroying our planet and poisoning our food. And we need to protect our public lands and waters because they are all we have left.” 

Research contact:  info@onepercentfortheplanet.org

Trump aborts parley with Putin after news breaks on business dealings with Russia

November 30, 2018

Following an abrupt cancellation of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin—which had been scheduled to take place on December 1 at the G20 summit in Argentina, according to a leaked Kremlin document seen by Reuters—U.S. President Donald Trump now has an empty space on his “dance card” at 4:30 p.m. (GMT) that day.

CNN reported on Thursday that Trump attributed the cancellation to Russia’s refusal to release Ukrainian Navy ships and sailors seized during a maritime confrontation between the two nations on November 25.

But while Russia’s position on the incident has not changed since it attacked the Ukrainian ships, CNN pointed out that the president had begged off suddenly—less than one hour after his longtime former attorney and “personal fixer” Michael Cohen leveled fresh allegations in court about Trump’s business dealings with Russia.

Cohen pleaded guilty before a federal judge in New York City to lying Congress about pursuing a real estate deal on behalf of his ex-boss for another Trump Tower in Moscow during the presidential campaign.

“For his part, Trump tweeted en route to the summit,  Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting (…) in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin. I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!”

Aboard the plane, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters the President made his decision in consultation with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and National Security Adviser John Bolton. Sanders said she was not aware of any phone calls between Trump and Putin.

Earlier Thursday, Trump told reporters, “I probably will be meeting with President Putin. We haven’t terminated that meeting.

“I was thinking about it,” he said, “but we haven’t. They’d like to have it. I think it’s a very good time to have a meeting. I’m getting a full report on the plane as to what happened with respect to that,” he said at the White House as he prepared to board Marine One.

However, according to a report by the Russian news outlet Sputnik, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov insisted that the meeting was still on. “Preparation is continuing; the meeting has been agreed. We have no other information from American counterparts,” Peskov said.

Removing the meeting from his agenda at the G20 won’t necessarily preclude some type of encounter between the two leaders, who last met formally in Helsinki in July, CNN said. The summit, which officially begins on November 30, will provide several chances that will bring them into the same room for meetings and a dinner.

Research contact: @JDiamond1

When parents are gay, the kids are okay

November 29, 2018

A study conducted by researchers from the University of Amsterdam, UCLA School of Law in Los Angeles, and Columbia University in New York City has found that the children of same-sex parents are just as healthy emotionally and physically as the children of different-sex parents, CNN reports..

Dr. Nanette Gartrell of UCLA, one of the study’s authors, told CNN that the researchers intended to provide a real population-based, apples-to-apples comparison.

It is the only study to compare same-sex and different-sex parent households with stable, continuously coupled parents and their biological offspring,” Gartrell said, noting that she and her colleagues tried to compensate for the shortcomings of previous investigations—which recruited same-sex parent families and could thus establish a certain selection bias. “It’s been a goal of ours to do a nationally representative survey in which we could do this very carefully matched study,” she said

Using the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, provided by the National Center for Health Statistics at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the researchers matched 95 same-sex female parent households to 95 different-sex parent households based on the following characteristics:

  • Parents’ age,
  • Parents’ level of education,
  • Whether parents were born in the United States,
  • Whether the child was born in the United States or elsewhere
  • Family residence (urban or rural),
  • Child’s age,
  • Child’s race, and
  • Child’s gender.

The study found that there were no differences in the children when it came to their general health, their emotional difficulties, their coping behaviors, or their learning behaviors. What the study found to be more indicative predictors of these behaviors were the relationships between the parents, the parents and the child, and parenting stressors.

The study did note that lesbian parents seem to exhibit higher levels of parenting stress, which Gartell attributed to perceived homophobia. “Parents feel pressured to justify the quality of their parenting more than their heterosexual counterparts. We also suspect and feel that more study is warranted, but the cultural spotlight on same-sex parenting may be part of the stress,” she told the news outlet.

Those who oppose same-sex parenting have pointed to studies—such as one conducted at the Catholic University of America several years ago—that have found gay parents to have a negative impact on childhood outcomes, such as lower levels of income, and poorer mental and physical health

Gartell told CNN that such studies did not compensate for the fact that they were comparing children from same-sex couples who were not continuously coupled. Rather, those studies looked at children from same-sex families who experienced family upheaval such as divorce, adoption or foster care and compared them to children from stable households with different-sex parents.

The current study only looked at lesbian households, she said, because when households were finally matched and controlled for continuous relationships, there were too few male same-sex households.

Gartrell said this is by no means the final study to be done on same-sex parenting. “We still have so much to learn and find out about different types of families,” she commented.

Research contact: ngartrell@nlfs.org

Elon Musk’s Boring Company ditches plans for Sepulveda tunnel

November 29, 2018

The Boring Company—the brainchild of Tesla founder Elon Musk—has ditched its plans to build a massive, 2.7-mile subterranean tunnel under the Westside of Los Angeles.

However, the company intends to continue “play ball”—with a number of other projects in the works, including an underground tunnel called the Dugout Loop for fans going to games at Dodger Stadium.

In addition, The Boring Company still has a Test Tunnel in the works, which would run for about two miles from a parking lot at Musk’s SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, the company’s website said.

The abandoned Sepulveda tunnel—which had been intended to alleviate surface traffic on bumper-to-bumper California highways and streets—would have run from a Boring Company property on Sepulveda Boulevard to Washington Boulevard in Culver City, ABC News reported on November 27. The company came up with the idea for the project in 2017.

The company withdrew plans for the Sepulveda test tunnel this week, after several residents’ groups, led by the Brentwood Residents Coalition, brought suit against the City of Los Angeles over its plan to exempt the project from environmental reviews.

ABC local news in California (KABC) ran a statement provided by the Boring Company on November 27: “”The parties (The Boring Company, Brentwood Residents Coalition, Sunset Coalition, and Wendy-Sue Rosen) have amicably settled the matter of Brentwood Residents Coalition et al. v. City of Los Angeles (TB- The Boring Company). The Boring Company no longer seeks the development of the Sepulveda test tunnel and instead seeks to construct an operational tunnel at Dodger Stadium.”

Research contact: ama@businessinsider.com

Budgetary bluster: Trump threatens government shutdown, if Congress rejects $5B for wall

November 29, 2018

President Donald Trump is throwing his considerable weight around again: He is calling for no less than $5 billion in funding to build the border wall. He refuses to negotiate—and has gone on record saying that he is willing to instigate a partial government shutdown—as the clock ticks down to Congress’s December 7 deadline for the FY2019 budget bill.

What’s more, the president repeatedly has threatened to close the entire southern border, if he is not satisfied, tweeting on November 26, “…We will close the Border permanently if need be. Congress, fund the WALL!”

The House and the Senate still have to pass seven spending bills to fund multiple government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the State Department, Vox reported on November 28. But Trump has renewed a push for border wall funding, throwing a major wrench into these negotiations. What’s more, the president has said, if he does not get the money, the Democrats are to blame.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) had previously been optimistic about closing the year with no drama, but a veto threat over wall funding could make that tougher to do. Because these are spending bills that require 60 votes to pass, Democrats have a fair amount of leverage.

And they don’t appear to be backing down easily, Vox said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) signaled Tuesday, the news outlet said, that he would support no more than the already allocated $1.6 billion for funding the wall in the Senate version of spending legislation.

They haven’t spent a penny of the $1.3 billion they requested in last year’s budget .… We’re not negotiating in the press,” Schumer told reporters.

According to the Vox report, Democrats also are standing firm over issues related to protecting the Mueller investigation and addressing the citizenship question on the 2020 Census questionnaire—matters they would much prefer to see tackled in the bill.

Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) has characterized wall funding as the “linchpin” of current talks, telling reporters the $5 billion figure is a “red line” for Trump.

If Congress is unable to reach an agreement that gets closer to this figure, Trump said that he could—and would—veto whatever bill comes across his desk.

Research contact: Li Zhouli@vox.com

Open and shut casements: Is it healthier to sleep with the window cracked?

November 28, 2018

Do you crack the window at night, believing that a little fresh air will promote a good night’s sleep? You could be right.

One recent study—conducted jointly by the Eindhoven University of Technology and Utretch University of Applied Sciences, both in the Netherlands— tested 17 patients across five nights and found those who slept with the window open experienced a better rest. The reason? A lower level of carbon dioxide in the room.

But do the breezes and ambient sounds coming from the outside create ideal conditions for restorative rest? Douglas Kirsch, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and the medical director of Sleep Medicine at Atrium Health, recently told The Wall Street Journal, ““If you think about sleep evolutionarily, it makes sense that humans would prefer a physical environment that is cool and dark, like a cave.”

Kirsch generally recommends that people sleep in a room that is 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit and very dark. “We wake up frequently for brief periods in the night, and if there is light, we are more likely to stay up, than [to] roll over and go back to sleep,” he says.

When it comes to fresh air in the bedroom, Dr. Kirsch says that there is limited science to suggest that it improves sleep, but its impact likely depends, in part, on the external environment. A 2016 study, conducted by the Technical University of Denmark, tested how the air quality in dorm rooms impacted sleep and next-day performance. The students said that their performance was much better when the carbon dioxide was lower, thanks to an open window or the use of a fan. However, Kirsch told the journal that only the participants’ movements and their self-reported, perceived sleep quality and mental state were measured. A larger study with sensitive technical equipment would have given more quantitative results.

Indeed, Kirsch believes, if the weather is right and a bedroom window is available to open, that can be great for circulation of air, pleasant sounds of nature stirring in the morning and sunlight at dawn to align with one’s circadian rhythms.

However, in the dead of winter, in the height of summer, or in an urban setting, he says, “The draft is just not comfortable: The outdoor air will change your body temperature too much or the loud noises may disrupt sleep. Those with allergies may also be better off leaving the windows closed when the pollen count is high, especially in spring.”

He believes an alternative way to achieve a cozy sleep setting year-round is to allow for some air circulation through an open door or a fan. “There is zero scientific data that I know of, but the reason people may like fans or windows open could be the pleasant feeling of the movement of air, the cooling effect or the white noise,” Kirsch told the business news outlet.

This may explain why in certain cultures, people sleep with the bedroom window open no matter the season. “At some basic level, there is a sense of peacefulness that comes from feeling integrated with nature, which can benefit sleep,” he says. “Unless, of course, it’s freezing or there are mosquitoes or ambulance sirens to disturb you.” The comforting thought of being near nature may also explain why popular white-noise machines include settings with the sounds of birds chirping, waterfalls, and rain.

Research contact: mkasik@lcwa.com

NRA dropped $55M in income in 2017

November 28, 2018

According to tax records obtained exclusively by the Daily Beast, the National Rifle Association (NRA)—the nation’s leading gun rights organization—saw its income dip by $55 million last year, after a record-breaking 2016 in which the group and its political affiliates spent unprecedented sums to elect President Donald Trump.

As an American nonprofit organization, the NRA reported $98 million in contributions in 2017—down from nearly $125 million in 2016—according to new tax records accessed by The Daily Beast. Nearly 20% of its contributions last year came from a single anonymous donor, who gave almost $19 million to the group.

However, more noteworthy than its drop in contributions, the news outlet reported on November 27, was its decline in membership dues. The NRA took in more than $128 million in dues last year—down considerably from the $163 million it took in the year prior. That decline, more than the drop in direct contributions, appears to indicate a dwindling, if still formidable, base of public support.

Asked for comment on the decline, an NRA spokesperson pointed to reporting showing that the organization’s magazine subscriptions have shot up this year, interpreted as an indicator of an accompanying membership surge.

Nonetheless, 2017 did not see a financial windfall for the group. In all, the NRA reported just under $312 million in total income, down from nearly $367 million the year before.

That loss in funding comes at a tricky political moment for the organization, the Daily Beast said: Rarely has the NRA had so staunch an ally in the White House. But the group, which built significant political heft on the back of Obama-era threats to key gun rights priorities, also has become a lightning rod in the debate over gun control and mass shootings nationwide.

In 2017, about $27 million of the NRA’s expenditures went to its political advocacy arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. But that was down considerably from 2016, when the NRA-ILA spent more than $76 million. The exception: The NRA did pass along large sums to another key political organization, donating $775,000 (up from $110,000 in 2016) to the Republican Attorneys General Association, a coalition of states’ top law enforcement officers.

The bulk of the NRA’s contributions to RAGA last year came just weeks after the largest mass shooting in U.S. history at a Las Vegas country music concert. A month later, 24 of the 27 attorneys general who belonged to RAGA teamed up to push concealed carry legislation, a top NRA priority. Both parties insisted that the financial contributions were unrelated to the push, the Daily Beast reported.

Research contact: lachlan.markay@thedailybeast

In 2016, Manafort held secret talks with Wikileaks’ Assange in Ecuadorian embassy

November 28, 2018

President Donald Trump’s former Campaign Manager Paul Manafort held secret talks with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he had sought asylum—and visited around the time he joined Trump’s campaign, The Guardian reported on November 27.

Manafort’s March 2016 visit to Assange lasted about 40 minutes, a source told the news outlet. Just two months later, in June 2016, WikiLeaks emailed Russian intelligence (the GRU) via an intermediary—seeking DNC materials. After failed attempts, Vladimir Putin’s spies sent the Democrats’ documents in mid-July to WikiLeaks as an encrypted attachment.

What’s more, this was not Manafort’s first visit to Assange. The Guardian’s “well-placed” source said that Manafort previously had visited Assanage at the embassy in 2013 and 2015.

Indeed, The Guardian reported, Manafort’s acquaintance with Assange goes back at least five years, to late 2012 or 2013, when the American was working in Ukraine and advising its Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych.

However, it is the 2016 encounter that is especially likely to come under scrutiny by Russia investigation Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Just this week, Mueller said that Manafort had “repeatedly lied to the FBI” after he promised to cooperate with the probe in mid-September. The former campaign manager now has been referred by Mueller to the court for sentencing. Whether the secret tête-à-tête in London already has been investigated Mueller’s team is unknown.

According to The Guardian’s report, Manafort, 69, denies involvement in the hack and says the claim is “100% false”. His lawyers declined to answer the Guardian’s questions about the visits.

His defense team says he believes what he has told Mueller to be truthful and has not violated his deal.

One key question is when the Trump campaign, itself, became aware of the Kremlin’s hacking operation—and what, if anything, it did to encourage it. President Trump repeatedly has denied collusion

One person familiar with WikiLeaks said Assange was motivated to damage the Democrats campaign because he believed a future Trump administration would be less likely to seek his extradition on possible charges of espionage. This fate had hung over Assange since 2010, when he released confidential U.S. State Department cables. It contributed to his decision to take refuge in the embassy.

According to the dossier written by the former MI6 Officer Christopher Steele, The Guardian reports, Manafort was at the center of a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between the Trump campaign and Russia’s leadership. The two sides had a mutual interest in defeating Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Steele wrote, whom Putin “hated and feared.”

Research contact: @lukeharding1968