James Cameron may or may not finally start making Avatar sequels, but will definitely keep talking about making them.

The first Avatar movie (aka The White Man’s Burden 2: Tail Sex Time), which wowed audiences by showing them a flower floating in front of their faces, came out six years ago. While there’s been plenty of talk about sequels, there’s been little progress.

Cameron, appearing at CinemaCon 2016, continued talking about the Avatar sequels, and even added one. While there were previously three planned sequels—which would be released in 2018, 2020, and 2022—Cameron added a fourth sequel, Avatar 5, which will drop Christmas 2023, at the tail end of Trump’s second term.

This is, of course, wishful thinking. But Cameron insisted that progress was being made, saying that he was working with a team on designs and scripts. He added, “The pure imagination is far beyond the first film.”

September 21, 2018

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Science is helping identify soldiers lost in the Korean war.

The renewed negotiations with North Korea, as well as advances in forensic technology, mean that American soldiers who were killed in the Korean War in the early 1950s are finally being identified. On August 1st, North Korea returned what were believed to be the remains of 55 American soldiers. The military has announced that from those remains they’ve been able to confidently ascertain the relics of Army Master Sgt Charles H. McDaniel of Indiana and Army Pfc William H. Jones of North Carolina.

The task of identifying long-degraded bone and dental fragments with the names of soldiers unseen for more than half a century would be impossible without advances in technology. In a recent feature article, The Washington Post surveyed the work of the 92-member Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) team in Honolulu that is tasked with the job. One key recent development is the ability of isotope analysis to match bones with the geographical childhood homes of missing soldiers:

Bones take on the isotopic signature of the place where a person was raised. On digital maps of the United States, staff members plot the hometowns of missing service members based on the isotopic signatures shared by their early-childhood geography and their bones.

Ten years ago, this technology could differentiate the bones of a native-born soldier from those of an immigrant. Nowadays it can pinpoint a service member’s origin down to a specific area — a particular Hawaiian island, perhaps, or a corner of the Plains.

The military has files on roughly 81,000 missing soldiers going back to World War II. Astonishingly, DPAA estimates that 41 percent of these cases are solvable.

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Trump might go berserk over The New York Times’ Rod Rosenstein story.

The newspaper reported on Friday that the deputy attorney general discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the president from power and talked about wearing a wire during meetings with him in conversations last spring. A Justice Department spokesperson told the Times that Rosenstein was only joking about secretly recording Trump, while Rosenstein himself said that “inaccurate and factually incorrect” and that “there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.”

It’s hard to imagine a news story that could more effectively arouse Trump’s ire than this one. He frequently lashes out against the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt” created by his political enemies to overturn the 2016 election. The Times’ account likely will heighten Trump’s hostility and paranoia, especially after an anonymous “senior administration official” raised similar concerns in a Times op-ed earlier this month.

The story comes at a conspicuous time for the administration. Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s Supreme Court nominee, is facing an allegation of sexual assault that may imperil his confirmation by the Senate. Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller in the Russia investigation despite Trump’s implicit offer of a pardon if he kept quiet. Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, is also reportedly telling Mueller’s investigators what he knows about Russia-related matters. Democrats are increasingly set to retake the House of Representatives and perhaps even the Senate in the November midterm elections.

That raises questions about why Rosenstein’s comments are coming to light now. The Times attributes its account to contemporaneous memos written by Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy director fired in January, as well as people briefed on either Rosenstein’s conversations and the memos’ contents. It’s impossible to know whether those sources meant to give Trump a justification to oust the man who oversees the Russia investigation. But they may have done just that.

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Trump forced to do an about-face on declassifying Russia investigation documents.

On Friday morning, the president tweeted out that his request to declassify documents related to the Russia probe was being handled by the office of the Inspector General, which would review them before release. This marks a shift from the announcement earlier in the week on Monday calling for the quick release of documents that including FISA warrant surveillance applications for former aide Carter Page and text messages from former FBI officials and employees such as James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page. There was widespread concern that this use of declassification as a political weapon would also compromise intelligence sources.

To judge by the president’s tweets, this concern was shared by “key allies” including Britain:

In an interview with The Hill earlier this week, the president claimed that his push for declassify Carter Page’s FISA application resulted from him being “asked by so many people that I respect” including “the great Lou Dobbs, the great Sean Hannity, the wonderful great Jeanie Pirro.”

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Coal ash may have poisoned a source of drinking water for thousands of North Carolinians.

When Hurricane Florence was approaching the state, experts feared that excessive flooding could cause widespread spills of hog feces and coal ash into surrounding bodies of water. Those fears have now materialized.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that a dam holding back coal ash—the heavy metal-laden byproduct from burning coal—had breached at a North Carolina plant due to flooding. Duke Energy, which owns the dam, said that the product might be flowing into the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water to approximately 60,000 residents of Wilmington, North Carolina.

This is the third coal ash spill that’s been reported since Florence’s historic rainfall caused catastrophic flooding throughout the state. Duke Energy, the country’s largest electric company, has been fighting attempts to force clean-up of these ponds for years. President Donald Trump’s administration has also loosened several regulations on coal ash storage.

In addition to coal ash spills, at least 110 ponds of pig feces have either released their contents into the environment or are at “imminent risk of doing so,” The New York Times reported on Wednesday. Those spills are presenting health concerns, too. “You basically have a toxic soup for people who live in close proximity to those lagoons,” Sacoby Wilson, a professor of public health at the University of Maryland, told Vice News. “All of these contaminants that are in the hog lagoons, like salmonella, giardia, and E-coli, can get into the waterways and infect people trying to get out.”

Coal ash often contains high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and chromium, which can cause myriad health problems. North Carolinians risk coming into contact with these metals and pathogens through drinking water, but also through open wounds and mucous membranes if they wade through the ongoing floods.

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The GOP has chosen a villain more popular than Trump.

In 2018, as in every midterm since Nancy Pelosi became House Minority Leader in 2003, the Republicans plan to use the San Francisco congresswoman as their prime nemesis—a noxious public avatar of the Democratic Party that they can parade around to rally their base. Unfortunately for the GOP, Pelosi may not be as effective a bogeywoman this year: Internal Republican polls show that she’s more popular than President Donald Trump.

As Bloomberg News reports:

President Trump likes to mock Nancy Pelosi, but a private survey conducted for the Republican National Committee finds that she’s actually more popular—and beats the president when the midterm election is framed as a contest between the two.

The internal poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek, asks registered voters who they support “when the November election is framed by Trump and Pelosi.” Overall, respondents prefer Pelosi-aligned candidates over Trump-aligned candidates by 5 points, 50 percent to 45 percent. Among independents only, Pelosi still prevails by a 4-point margin.

The stereotype of Pelosi was set by the GOP as long ago as 2003, when The Los Angeles Times observed Republicans were “eager to attack Pelosi as a loopy San Francisco liberal and exploit her city’s reputation as the odd-sock drawer of America. Within days, her face—garish and twisted—showed up in an attack ad slamming the Democrat in a Louisiana House race. (He won anyway.) She surfaced as Miss America, complete with tiara, in a spoof on Rush Limbaugh’s Web site.”

The new polling shows that this image of Pelosi as an out-of-touch left-wing elitist only has traction among already committed Republicans. But for that reason, the GOP might still return to it, despite her relative popularity compared to Donald Trump. Republicans need to get their base out. Also, Pelosi still does worse than generic Democrats in polls (who lead over Republicans by 9 per cent, as against Pelosi’s lead of 5 per cent over Trump).

Nancy Pelosi isn’t really a convincing foil anymore, but she might be the best the GOP has.

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A bizarre doppelgänger theory testifies to the desperation of some Brett Kavanaugh supporters.

Amid negotiations on the rules for Senate hearings into the allegations of sexual assault leveled against the Supreme Court nominee by Christine Blasey Ford, some of his backers are starting to promote a truly strange scenario: Yes, Ford might have been the victim of an attempted rape when she was 15, but Kavanaugh wasn’t the guilty party. Rather, it was another teenage boy who looked like Kavanaugh, and, thanks to the haze of memory, has become conflated with the judge in her mind.

“Could there be a Kavanaugh doppelgänger?” Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker asked on Tuesday, noting that the possibility of a mix up or case of mistaken identity had been raised by both Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and The Wall Street Journal.

Doppelgänger theory reached its most elaborate flight in a Twitter thread posted Thursday night by Ed Whelan, a longtime Kavanaugh ally who is also president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. As summed up by Vox, Whelan’s Twitter essay “argued that based on Christine Blasey Ford’s statements of what happened that night back in 1982, the perpetrator was likely not Kavanaugh, but a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Georgetown Prep who, in Whelan’s view, looked a lot like Kavanaugh.” The main basis of Whelan’s argument, such as it is, was maps taken from the real estate website Zillow and high school yearbook photos.

Near the end of his thread, Whelan writes, “It is regrettable that private citizens are being drawn into this.” That’s a audacious statement to make given that is exactly what he himself is doing. Whelan’s attempt to play internet Sherlock Holmes and use circumstantial evidence to smear a private citizen was, in the words of CNN’s Jake Tapper, “wildly irresponsible.”

Beyond irresponsible, doppelgänger theory is also hugely implausible in any form. As The Washington Post reports:

Ford dismissed Whelan’s theory in a statement late Thursday: “I knew them both, and socialized with” them, Ford said, adding that she had once visited the other classmate in the hospital. “There is zero chance that I would confuse them.”

Yet as unlikely as it is, doppelgänger theory makes sense when you realize it satisfies a particular political need: Ford’s accusation creates a hurdle to Kavanaugh’s confirmation, but Republicans are reluctant to attack her in the manner that they (and some Democrats) went after Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas nomination in 1991. Smearing a woman who makes a serious sexual assault allegation looks bad, politically, in the era of #MeToo.

According to Post, “Kavanaugh and his allies have been privately discussing a defense that would not question whether an incident involving Ford happened, but instead would raise doubts that the attacker was Kavanaugh, according to a person familiar with the discussions.” Doppelganger theory provides exactly the defense needed: Kavanaugh’s defenders don’t have to call Ford a liar, just a confused victim. They can acknowledge that she suffered sexual assault, but also that Kavanaugh himself was not responsible for it.

Update: On Friday morning, Whelan apologized for naming the Kavanaugh classmate whom he believes, without evidence, was Blasey’s actual attacker. But he did not recant his doppelgänger theory.

September 20, 2018

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Trump is going easy on Kavanaugh’s accuser, but the GOP is not.

The president is getting credit in some circles, especially among his own staff, for the supposed restraint he’s shown toward Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in the early 1980s. As CNN reports, “White House aides who steeled themselves for what President Donald Trump would say when he finally addressed the sexual assault allegation against his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh were quietly stunned when Trump said the process should be followed and the accuser should be heard.”

Trump has cleared a very low bar by not insulting Dr. Blasey, but the fact is, he has repeatedly expressed sympathy for Kavanaugh and not even pro forma concern for Dr. Blasey. Further, Republicans have more than filled the void. On Thursday, Republican Congressman Ralph Norman joked in poor taste by asking, “Did y’all hear the latest late-breaking news on the Kavanaugh hearings? Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out that she was groped by Abraham Lincoln.”

“This has been a drive-by shooting when it comes to Kavanaugh,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham complained. “I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close.” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who will be questioning Dr. Blasey if she testifies, has clearly already made up his mind, saying that he believes Kavanaugh and suggesting that Dr. Blasey is “mistaken.” Hatch added that “clearly somebody’s mixed up.” Senate Republicans also have worked diligently to block Ford’s request for the FBI to investigate her allegations.

As The Nation notes, there has been a broader push on the right to impugn Dr. Blasey: “The White House has dismissed her as a liar; conservative commentator Tomi Lahren implied that she was an opportunist; and a Wall Street Journal editorial not only impugns her but suggests that going to therapy can result in invented memories.” It’s yet another reminder that Trump is not an anomaly within the Republican Party; he has plenty of allies to do his dirty work for him.

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Mike Pompeo ignores his own staff and doubles down on supporting Saudi Arabia’s Yemen war.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the secretary of state has sidelined humanitarian objections to America’s backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their proxy war in Yemen against Iranian-supported Houthi fighters. The war has been going on for three years, creating millions of refugees and arguably the world’s worst current humanitarian crisis. Saudi Arabia’s conduct of the war has come under increasing criticism in the United States, particularly after an August airstrike hit a bus, killing dozens of civilians, most of whom were children. A majority of the more than 16,700 civilians killed or injured in the war have been victims of the Saudi campaign. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has pushed for the Trump administration to cut support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in this war.

Documents how that State Department officials agree with this congressional push but have been vetoed by Pompeo. As the Journal notes, “Pompeo overruled concerns from most of the State Department specialists involved in the debate who were worried about the rising civilian death toll in Yemen. Those who objected included specialists in the region and in military affairs. He sided with his legislative affairs team after they argued that suspending support could undercut plans to sell more than 120,000 precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to a classified State Department memo and people familiar with the debate.”

Aside from valuing Gulf allies as markets for weapons, the Trump administration is likely motivated by more general strategic concerns. Supporting Saudi Arabia in its regional conflict with Iran has become a pillar of Trump’s foreign policy. The administration is also eager to get Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries to increase their oil production, which might be easier to achieve if the United States continues to support its regional allies in Yemen.

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Ben Carson’s HUD is a quiet scandal.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded large salaries to staffers with little experience and few academic credentials:

The raises, documented in a Washington Post analysis of HUD political hires, resulted in annual salaries between $98,000 and $155,000 for the five appointees, all of whom had worked on Donald Trump’s or Ben Carson’s presidential campaigns. Three of them did not list bachelor’s degrees on their résumés.

As the Post notes, HUD Secretary Ben Carson has no relevant experience himself. He’s a retired neurosurgeon, with no specialized skill or expertise in housing or welfare policy. In a statement, HUD assured the Post that it does have an experienced senior team, adding, “HUD employees represent a broad array of backgrounds and experiences, as different roles have unique responsibilities and require diverse skill sets.”

But under Carson’s tenure, HUD has steadily devolved into a do-nothing department. As Alec MacGillis reported for ProPublica in August, HUD is directly responsible for the housing needs of millions of low-income America. Its mission is welfare, and that makes it a target for small-government conservatives. With Carson at the helm, HUD gradually slowed or ceased many existing initiatives, especially if those initiatives pertained to protecting the rights of LGBT people. “Virtually all the top political jobs below Carson remained vacant. Carson himself was barely to be seen—he never made the walk-through of the building customary of past new secretaries,” MacGillis wrote.

HUD has also rolled back efforts to enforce fair housing policy, and in May, Carson put forward a housing proposal that would triple rents for the poorest residents in public housing.

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The NRA could be facing a financial crisis as membership plunges.

OpenSecrets, a non-profit research organization, has conducted an audit of the  National Rifle Association and found that the powerful lobbying group might be facing a budgetary squeeze as higher outlays are coming in conflict with shrinking revenue. Ironically, the organization’s problems are an byproduct of its most successful year ever, 2016. During that presidential election year, the NRA functioned as a key dark money group, funneling more than $30 million to Donald Trump’s successful bid for the presidency. 

As OpenSecrets notes, “The NRA’s massive 2016 push was part of what ultimately became a $100 million spike in the group’s outlays between 2015 and 2016. But that spending wasn’t matched with similar growth in revenue, leaving the NRA with a deficit of more than $14.8 million.”

After Trump’s election, the NRA found itself in a budgetary trap because membership started to go down, a natural result of the fact that gun owners have less to worry about with Republicans controlling all three branches of government. Revenue from members shrank to $128 million in 2017, a plunge from around $163 million in 2016. There are signs the NRA is scaling back its spending in the 2018 midterms. They’ve only spent $2.7 million this year, a sharp reduction from the $10.7 million they spent at the same point in the last midterms in 2014.

“Their current business model cannot be sustained the way it is going,” Ohio State University accounting professor Brian Mittendorf told OpenSecrets.