NYMHM for 18 Nov 2018

#newsyoumayhavemissed is in transit—so late. Still, we’ve been picking up the news stories you might have missed and locating the context of stories you might have read. Read up on the Pentagon audit, the flu vaccine, air quality and other issues around the California fires, and more—including a story on a previously undiscovered form of life on earth (in Canada, of course!).



1. Air quality in California—mask information

The fires in California have become a tragedy, with 71 people dead and almost 1300 people unaccounted for in the Camp Fire, most of them older; three people have been confirmed dead in the Southern California fires, with almost 100,000 acres burned. Along with countless animals, 26,000 people have lost their homes, and in Chico, those now homeless have been asked to leave the Walmart parking lot where they have been staying—and many have nowhere to go.

The long-term risks of smoke inhalation could add to the losses; on November 16 the air quality in San Francisco was the worst in the world. In Sacramento, the air quality on November 18 was the equivalent of inhaling 14 cigarettes per day. Masks and air purifiers are recommended, though there are specifications for both you should know (details are in the comments, along with an air-quality tracker).

Most at risk, of course, are people who work outdoors and who do not have the option to stay home. However, in the San Joaquin Valley, volunteers attempting to hand out masks to farmworkers were turned away by farm managers. And people of color are most at risk from wildfires, according to a study by a University of Washington graduate student: Emergency messages tend to be in English; Native American reservations are located in fire-prone areas; and lower income people are less likely to have insurance or funds to relocate.

A Canadian newspaper has a pertinent information identifying the history of disasters associated with P G & E, the utility company. While their role in these fires has not been confirmed, the writer’s speculation on the effects of deregulation is worth considering. [NY Times (1, 2, 3), Bay Area Air Quality, Vox, Chico Enterprise, the Star, PSmag]

2. Trump administration pondered handing over US resident to protect Saudi prince

NBC news reported that the Trump administration directed the Justice Department to re-examine ways to extradite the Turkish cleric and critic of the current president of Turkey, Fethullah Gulen, to Turkey, possibly in a bid to alleviate international pressure against crown prince Mohammed bin Salman over the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi. Turkey has been persistent over the years in its demands for extradition of Gulen, whom current Turkish president Recep Erdogan blames for a failed 2016 coup attempt. In previous reviews of the case against Gulen, supposed evidence supplied by Turkey was found not to meet standards for extradition and it is unclear what has changed that would warrant another look into the extradition request. Turkey has supported a sustained international outcry over the extrajudicial killing of Kashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, part of a larger row over colliding spheres of influence within the Middle East, a killing which has badly hurt the reputation of the Saudi crown prince and Saudi Arabia’s attempts to economically diversify its economy. [NBC]

3. GOP dominated state legislatures scramble to hamstring elected Democratic governors

Republican-led state legislatures in four states now face the prospect of Democratic governors as a result of the mid-term elections held this month. Taking a lead from the North Carolina playbook, they are now looking at ways to negate or circumvent the incoming Democratic governor’s power so as to preserve their agenda and legislation. In Michigan they’re feverishly working to water down an increase in minimum wage, having quickly passed legislation to do so only to prevent a voter initiative that they would be unable to alter from becoming law.

Wisconsin legislators are working to strip executive powers from the office of governor after Republican Scott Walker leaves office so that incoming Democrat Tony Evers will be limited in his ability to make appointments, set rules and strip proposed work requirements from an expanded Medicaid program within the state. Readers may recall a very similar situation in North Carolina when governor Cooper took office, requiring Cooper to fight through the courts to reinstate his powers. In these states, as far as the GOP is concerned, a delay through the courts is almost as good as a win. [AP]

4. Pentagon fails first ever audit of its finances, as expected

After almost a year and 413 million dollars spent on it, the first-ever full audit of the US military’s estimated 2.7 trillion dollars in assets has been completed and the Pentagon failed just as expected. The audit is actually 21 different audits of various departments throughout the Department of Defense; of those 21 audits, only five made a passing grade. The Pentagon claims that the simple existence of an audit at all is a win, as it had been sought for decades and never completed. The good news is it appears military payrolls are in order and no obvious fraud or large scale theft was discovered. The worst violations were in the areas of inventory control and IT security, with the latter being particularly disturbing giving the sensitive nature of military computer networks. It’s now estimated that a further 500 million dollars will be required to address the areas of concern found by the audit; the US military budget runs to 700 billion dollars annually. [Defense News]

5. For asylum-seekers, Trump’s double bind

Under Trump’s new proclamation, asylum-seekers are prohibited for applying for asylum for 90 days if they enter the U.S. illegally. They are being required to enter only at official ports of entry. However, those locations require people to wait for weeks because of lack of staffing, which the Trump administration refuses to provide.

2,500 from the so-called “Caravan” have arrived in Tijuana, where they are waiting in refugee camps to apply for entry; some residents of Tijuana have protested their arrival, insisting that Tijuana’s own poor population be addressed first.

The ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center have filed suit to block the imposition of the new rules. However, they may be reinstated by the Supreme Court, given its new configuration. [Mother Jones, NY Times, WSJ]

6. The effect of voter suppression

Vox posted an interesting piece right after the election on how voter suppression may have affected the results, noting the differential effect on poor voters, voters of color, and voters with less mobility and work flexibility.


7. Climate-change protestors block bridges

Thousands of climate-change protestors blocked five bridges in London on November 17, 85 of whom were arrested. Organized by the new Climate Change action group, Extinction Rebellion, which we reported on a couple of weeks ago, the protests are calling on the government “to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 and establish a “citizens assembly” to devise an emergency plan of action similar to that seen during the second world war.” [The Guardian]


8. Running the numbers: 1 percent rise in flu vaccination rates saves 807 lives

Last year was considered a “bad” flu season and was directly responsible for 80,000 lives lost in the United States. Currently the vaccination rate for the flu stands at about 45 percent, but if that rate could be raised to around 70 percent, the benefits of so-called “herd” immunity would be delivered, eliminating a majority of deaths and economic losses from the flu. The majority of those who die are over the age of 75, so convincing younger healthier people to get a flu shot is a tall order: this is why there have been some discussion of using monetary incentives to increase the vaccination rate. Relatively small payments have been proven in studies to substantially increase the numbers of those willing to be vaccinated and when measured against the lost of productive work hours it would more than pay for itself. [Conference (pdf), Chicago Tribune]

9. New kilogram for an ultra-precise future

The kilogram as a standard international unit of measurement had a surprisingly old-school definition: until recently, all kilograms everywhere were measured against a single cylinder of platinum-iridium alloy kept in a vault in France called the International Kilogram Prototype. It served its purpose well for decades but has been coming up short (and occasionally over) in an era where scientific measurements can be performed up to including single atoms.

To remedy this unacceptably various standard, the General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles convened and has voted unanimously after years of heated debated to define a kilogram using a strict and ultra-precise amount of electricity. In addition to the newly revised kilogram, there is also now a revamped ampere, kelvin and mole—all now referenced against universal and immutable constants in physics. [Science Daily]

10: Walk in the woods leads to discovery of an entire new category of life on earth

Dalhousie University graduate student Yana Eglit was taking a hike in Nova Scotia, Canada and on a whim collected a vial of dirt along her path. That dirt has rewritten the family tree of life on earth, giving it an entirely new main branch. In the dirt she collected, she found tiny organisms called hemimastigotes, a very rare kind of microbial life that has been known for over a hundred years but until now had never had a genetic study done to one.

It turns out that hemimastigotes are entirely unlike any animal, fungal or plant life, to the extent that one would have to go back a billion years to the very beginnings of life on earth to find a shared ancestor. This means they constitute their own mega branch of life among eukaryotes (life with cell membranes and nucleus). In an additional coup, Ms. Eglit was able to learn how to cultivate and raise one of the two kinds of hemimastigotes so as to have a stable population to further study. [CBC]