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Scientists admit Pliny the Elder was right about orcas and whales.

Pliny the Elder’s Natural History was left uncompleted when he died trying to rescue friends from the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. But the Roman scholar’s encyclopedic work still stands as the most impressive synthesis of scientific knowledge in the ancient era, as scientists have once again learned.

In Natural History, Pliny gives a vivid account of orcas attacking whales at the Strait of Gibraltar. Using the term “balæna” to describe an unknown species of whales, Pliny wrote:

It is said that [the whales] are not to be seen in the ocean of Gades before the winter solstice, and that at periodical seasons they retire and conceal themselves in some calm capacious bay, in which they take a delight in bringing forth. This fact, however, is known to the orca, an animal which is peculiarly hostile to the balæna, and the form of which cannot be in any way adequately described, but as an enormous mass of flesh armed with teeth. This animal attacks the balænain its places of retirement, and with its teeth tears its young, or else attacks the females which have just brought forth, and, indeed, while they are still pregnant.

For many decades, scientists were dubious about this passage since whales do not, in the modern era, use the area as a calving ground. But newly discovered whale bones lend credibility to Pliny’s account.

As LiveScience reports:

There are very few whale species that visit the Mediterranean Sea, as outlined in a 2016 report published in the journal Advances in Marine Biology, and none of those species are known to use the area as a calving ground. This fact led scientists to wonder if Pliny’s account was accurate, or if perhaps he was mistaking dolphins for whales.

That is, until researchers discovered ancient whale bones within the ruins of a fish-processing site in the ancient Roman city of Baelo Claudia, near today’s Tarifa, Spain. Pliny’s account “doesn’t match anything that can be seen there today, but it fits perfectly with the ecology if right and gray whales used to be present,” study co-author Anne Charpentier, an ecologist at the University of Montpellier, said in a statement from the University of York.

November 14, 2018

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The Trump campaign’s hoarding and self-dealing hurt the GOP in the midterms.

While many congressional Republicans had fundraising difficulties this year, President Donald Trump remained a champion at raising money. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, Mother Jones reports, much of it was spent to enrich Trump’s own businesses as well as a firm run by the head of the Trump campaign. The Trump campaign also sat on a significant chunk of money rather than helping cash-strapped Republicans running in congressional elections.

Trump started raising money almost as soon as he was inaugurated in 2017. This in itself was a break from the immediate past. Former President Barack Obama, for example, didn’t do any fundraising until 2011, a year before running for re-election. Trump quickly amassed a massive war chest in excess of $100 million.

Some of that money went to enrich the Trump Organization. Mother Jones notes that “through the end of September, his campaign paid $3.2 million to Trump’s own properties and businesses. There was money paid for rent at Trump Tower. There were hotel rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC. There were banquet room rentals at Trump country clubs in New Jersey and Florida. The Trump campaign also paid for more than $1.2 million worth of flights using Trump’s personal jets—planes the president no longer travels on, but which other family members still do.”

Other big expenditures were on lawyers ($9 million) and on ads made by the company run by head of the Trump campaign ($5 million). The Trump campaign also hoarded $35.4 million, presumably to be used in 2020.

Even though the Trump campaign did spend some money on the midterms, it is likely that overall it was a net drain for Republicans, especially since it was drawing money from the same donor base that the party as a whole relies on.

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Trump’s acting attorney general might not be able to stop the Mueller investigation.

When President Trump appointed Matt Whitaker to replace attorney general Jeff Sessions, the general assumption was that it might threaten special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. Politico reported Wednesday, however, that political and institutional push-back against Whitaker’s appointment might hamper any attempt to shut down the special counsel’s inquiry. Significantly, the Department of Justice is wavering on the issue of whether Whitaker might have to recuse himself—as Sessions did—from any decision involving the Mueller investigation.

As Politico notes, “Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec issued a statement late Tuesday signaling that Whitaker could still recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation, a shift from the department’s initial position in the immediate aftermath of Sessions’ ouster that Whitaker had no plans to step out of the way on the Russia probe.” In the statement, Kupec asserted that Whitaker “is fully committed to following all appropriate processes and procedures at the Department of Justice, including consulting with senior ethics officials on his oversight responsibilities and matters that may warrant recusal.”

Aside from the hurdle of possible Department of Justice rules, Whitaker is also facing political opposition which could box him in. On Tuesday, the state of Maryland filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Whitaker’s appointment. On this matter, Whitaker has the support of the Department of Justice, which prepared a memo supporting his appointment.

Opposition by Democrats, Politico argues, has “put Whitaker in a difficult spot, trapped between setting off a political firestorm by clipping Mueller’s wings and angering a president intent on having him do just that.”

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The midterm defeat has left Trump angry and withdrawn.

On Tuesday night The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post published complementary reports, based on interviews with White House officials, indicating that the midterm loss has had a devastating effect on President Donald Trump, leaving the president depressed and often unwilling to perform the basic ceremonial tasks of his job. According to Times, Trump has “retreated into a cocoon of bitterness and resentment.” One White House official told the newspaper Trump is “furious,” adding, “Most staffers are trying to avoid him.”

One consequence of the president’s foul mood is that he’s shirking from meetings, including with foreign dignitaries. As the Times sums up:

Publicly, Trump has been increasingly absent in recent days — except on Twitter. He has canceled travel plans and dispatched Cabinet officials and aides to events in his place — including sending Vice President Mike Pence to Asia for the annual summits there in November that past presidents nearly always attended.

Jordan’s King Abdullah was in Washington on Tuesday and met with Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, but not the president.

The Post offers a parallel account, illustrated with a striking story about a conversation with the leader of one of America’s most important allies:

As he jetted to Paris last Friday, President Trump received a congratulatory phone call aboard Air Force One. British Prime Minister Theresa May was calling to celebrate the Republican Party’s wins in the midterm elections — never mind that Democrats seized control of the House — but her appeal to the American president’s vanity was met with an ornery outburst.

Trump berated May for Britain not doing enough, in his assessment, to contain Iran. He questioned her over Brexit and complained about the trade deals he sees as unfair with European countries. May has endured Trump’s churlish temper before, but still her aides were shaken by his especially foul mood, according to U.S. and European officials briefed on the conversation.

November 13, 2018

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To what extent has Melania Trump ousted the deputy national security advisor?

On Tuesday afternoon, ABC’s John Santucci reported that office of first lady Melania Trump believed that Mira Ricardel, the deputy national security advisor, should lose her job. In a statement, Stephanie Grisham, Melanie Trump’s communication director, wrote, “It is the position of the Office of the first lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House.”

It’s highly unusual, perhaps without precedent, for a first lady to try and exert this sort of sway over a national security official.

Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg reports that Melania Trump and Ricardel quarrelled over seating arrangements in a trip the First Lady made to Africa.

Later Tuesday afternoon, Wall Street Journal White House reporter Michael C. Bender tweeted that Ricardel did indeed appear to be out of a job:

A White House official promptly denied the report:

More than most administrations, the Trump White House has been characterized by court intrigue.

As The New York Times recently reported, conflicts between Trump’s wife and his daughter sometimes take up the time of White House chief of staff, John Kelly, who is tasked with mediating between the two women.

The newspaper described one such conflict, also related to Melania Trump’s Africa trip:

The first lady’s office had asked West Wing officials to give her some space while she was in Africa so she could showcase the work she was doing, according to two people briefed on the discussion. There were widely distributed photographs of Mrs. Trump at several of the stops, including Accra, Ghana, where she was pictured cradling a small child.

But two days later, Ivanka Trump posted on her Instagram feed a video filmed by the White House team that had a final image of her with a black child during a tour of storm-struck North Carolina.

Someone in the West Wing noticed it, and flagged it for the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, who has privately described the Trump children as “playing government” and who was supposed to help manage the relationship between the two women’s offices, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

Mr. Kelly discussed the video with Ms. Trump’s staff, according to two people familiar with the talks. A White House official disputed that Mr. Kelly had such a discussion.

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As the vote count continues in Florida, the GOP is undermining faith in the system.

Florida, where the results for the senatorial and gubernatorial races remains unsettled, has become a testing ground for how much political pressure can be put upon election officials. As The Washington Post reports, election officials, particularly Broward County Election Supervisor Brenda Snipes, has been a particular target of political criticism which has now spilled over to online harassment.

“Public criticisms of Snipes grew intense last week when Gov. Rick Scott, who at first appeared to narrowly win his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, declared in a news conference from the governor’s mansion that Snipes ‘has a history of acting in absolute bad faith,’” the newspaper notes. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former governor Jeb Bush have joined in the demand that Snipes lose her post.

According to The Washington Post, outside lobbying groups are part of this active campaign:

A pro-Trump political committee says it is spending $250,000 on an ad attacking Snipes on television in southern and central Florida and online. “Legal voters in Florida are outraged, and Brenda Snipes must be removed,” says the ad by Great America PAC, which suggests blatant fraud but offers no evidence. “When we can’t trust our elections, we don’t have a democracy.”

As a result of the heated partisan rhetoric, Snipes has been doxxed on social media, with her home address made public.

Paralleling this move, a senior advisor to Rick Scott refuses to say what Scott would do if Nelson is declared the winner of the election:

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A new lawsuit takes aim at partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina.

The state Democratic Party and a group of North Carolina voters filed a lawsuit on Tuesday alleging that Republican leaders violated the state constitution by redrawing the legislative maps to entrench their own power. “Partisan gerrymandering is an existential threat to our democracy, and nowhere more so than in North Carolina,” the plaintiffs argue in their complaint.

In the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections, North Carolina Republicans captured supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature despite winning only a narrow majority of the votes. They lost ground in this year’s midterms, but retained power thanks to a favorable electoral map. “In both the state House and state Senate elections in 2018, Democratic candidates won a majority of the statewide vote, but Republicans still won a substantial majority of seats in each chamber,” the plaintiffs note. “The maps are impervious to the will of the voters.”

The plaintiffs are seeking a ruling that partisan gerrymandering violates the North Carolina’s constitution rather than the U.S. Constitution. The distinction matters: The U.S. Supreme Court typically doesn’t review a state supreme court’s interpretation of its own state constitution. The high court declined to rein in partisan gerrymandering earlier this year, and Justice Anthony Kennedy’s subsequent retirement makes it unlikely that the justices will do so anytime soon.

As I wrote earlier this year, many state constitutions are written with broader protections of rights than the federal one, so they offer liberals a valuable opportunity to pursue their legal agenda even as the federal courts turn further to the right. Unlike its federal counterpart, for example, the North Carolina Constitution includes a clause requiring that “all elections shall be free.” With a 5-2 Democratic majority on the state supreme court, North Carolina could soon join Pennsylvania in un-warping its electoral maps.

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Amazon announces its new headquarters, which will get nearly $3 billion in public money. Critics are unimpressed.

The tech retail giant has announced more details about the second headquarters spot that many localities were vying for: The so-called second headquarters will now be two new headquarters in New York City and Arlington, Virginia. Amazon will also open an operations center in Tennessee. The Virginia location will actually be a city-within-a-city called National Landing.

The renaming is only one of the many deals Amazon has struck with the localities. The Washington Post calculates that state and municipal governments are forking over $2.8 billion in incentives in order to be graced by Amazon’s expansion plans.


“New York was the most generous among the winners, promising more than $1.85 billion for Amazon to build one of its two new headquarters in Long Island City in the borough of Queens, according to the Amazon announcement,” The Washington Post notes. “Virginia appeared to have made a better deal, as it offered incentives of $819 million to place the other new headquarters in Arlington in Northern Virginia, according to the announcement.”

Virginia also seems to have agreed to other sweetheart deals, including clearing the way for the building of a helicopter landing pad and also providing advance notice about Freedom of Information Act requests affecting Amazon:

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, hailed the deal as “a new model of economic development for the 21st century.”

Fellow Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, newly elected to Congress, was less impressed:


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Trump is still smarting from his visit to France.

On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a World War I centenary speech that was widely seen as a rebuke to President Donald Trump’s America First nationalism. “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” Macron said. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.”

Trump seems to still be bristling at Macron’s rebuke, because the American commander in chief spent Tuesday morning tweeting against Macron and France:

These tweets mix some familiar Trump themes, not all of which are without merit. It is true that France, like all countries, has its share of nationalism. And France does have protectionist practices. But saying that elides the distinction that Macron was trying to draw between patriotism (a form of national pride compatible with international cooperation) and nationalism (a more selfish and chauvinistic assertion of group self-regard).

In the first tweet, Trump seems to be suggesting that France should worry more about Germany than the United States, China, or Russia. Again, there’s a glimmer of truth here. Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, famously quipped that the purpose of NATO was to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

Still, the one of the main goals of French foreign policy since the Second World War has been reconciliation with Germany under a framework of alliances, such as the European Union and NATO. Trump’s tweet is a deliberate subversion of that goal, and echoes an age-old argument made by the Russian state (that the Europeans should fear Germany more than Russia).

The French government did not seem impressed by Trump’s tweets:

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New evidence links Saudi crown prince with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

The New York Times is reporting that the Turkish government has provided the CIA with audio recordings that implicate Mohammed bin Salman in the killing of the Washington Post columnist, which the Saudi government acknowledges happened in its consulate in Istanbul in October. The recordings are of a phone conversation between Abdulaziz Mutreb, one of the fifteen men who participated in the killing, and one of Bin Salman’s aides. Mutreb is heard saying “tell your boss” the mission had been completed. Mutreb also says, “the deed was done.” The recording is not definitive, because the prince is not named, but it is very suggestive.

There are hopes that congressional pressure might push the Trump administration, which has been reluctant to punish the Saudi government over the killing, toward a stronger stance against Saudi Arabia.

But Democratic congressman Adam Schiff, who is set to soon lead the House intelligence committee, believes that the new evidence might not be enough for the Trump administration. “The Trump family and the president have built up such an overwhelming reliance on the crown prince that the relationship is now, in their view, too big to fail,” Schiff observed.

Aside from the phone call described in the latest report, it is worth noting that Mutreb himself has close ties to the prince. In an earlier article in October, the Times reported, “at least nine of 15 suspects identified by Turkish authorities worked for the Saudi security services, military or other government ministries. One of them, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, was a diplomat assigned to the Saudi Embassy in London in 2007, according to a British diplomatic roster. He traveled extensively with the crown prince, perhaps as a bodyguard.”

November 12, 2018

Like the Teddy Bear, the Trumpy Bear uses cuteness to mask something terrible.

Some television viewers were taken aback by an ad running on Fox News and other stations showing a stuffed bear coiffed like President Donald Trump. 

At the request of readers, the fact-check site Snopes.com verified that the Trumpy Bear is not a satire, but a genuine stuffed toy being as a comfort doll to Trump fans. In a statement, Fox News said the ad “was a local ad purchase with the cable operator. We do not do business with them nationally.”

Exceptional Products, the toymaker, issued a “vision statement” from V.L. Lange, the designer of Trump Bear. “In 1902 the teddy bear was born and named after President Teddy Roosevelt,” Lange said. “When President Donald Trump was elected to office as the first non-politician president, I felt it was time to name an American fearless grizzly bear after our new Commander in Chief.”

Lange’s citation of the teddy bear helps illuminate the problems with the Trumpy Bear. In a much mythologized story, the teddy bear was inspired by a hunting trip by President Theodore Roosevelt to Mississippi in 1902, when guide Holt Collier captured a bear for Roosevelt to shoot. As HuffPost chronicles:

Before the president could get there, though, the animal grabbed one of Collier’s hunting dogs. To protect his dogs and himself but also to ensure the president could take the fatal shot, Collier rounded up the bear (in part by hitting it on the skull with his gun) and tied it to a tree.

When Roosevelt finally arrived, the president refused to kill the captured animal, and according to Washington Post reporters who were also there, he told his hunting crew to “put it out of its misery.” Some sources suggest that Roosevelt knew he would receive more backlash for his love for hunting if he killed the bear in such circumstances.

The incident inspired a famous Washington Post cartoon by Clifford Berryman showing Roosevelt nobly refusing to kill the cub; it elides the fact that one of Roosevelt’s companions then killed the bear with a hunting knife. The cartoon inspired the merchants Morris and Rose Michtom to create the teddy bear, which became a bestselling toy.

Like its ancestor, the Trumpy Bear becomes more sinister if you understand its origins. The ad begins on an ominous note. “A storm is coming,” a husky voice says. “You cannot defeat the storm. I am the storm.”  

What does a storm have to do with stuffed bears? The answer is disturbing. Those words are the slogan used by QAnon conspiracy theorists, who believe Trump is a heroic figure fighting a secret network of pedophiles that control Hollywood, the Democratic Party, and the so-called Deep State. The Trump Bear is the cuddly avatar for one of the most unhinged factions of American political life.