To Make Oxygen on Mars, NASA’s Perseverance Rover Needs MOXIE – By Max G. Levy SMITHSONIANMAG.COM JULY 29, 2020

A new tool from the space agency may produce the gas, completing the next step for planning a round trip voyage

To Make Oxygen on Mars, NASA’s Perseverance Rover Needs MOXIE

A new tool from the space agency may produce the gas, completing the next step for planning a round trip voyage

An artist’s rendering of the Perseverance rover on Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Putting boots on Mars isn’t easy, but it’s a lot easier than bringing them back.

This week, NASA launches its Perseverance rover on a one-way trip to the surface of Mars. Among many other tools, the craft carries an experimental instrument that could help astronauts in the future make roundtrip voyages to the planet. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, is small, about the size of a car battery. It’s designed to demonstrate a technology that converts carbon dioxide into oxygen with a process called electrolysis. Mars’ thin atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide, but sending anything back into space requires fuel, and burning that fuel requires oxygen. NASA could ship liquid oxygen to the planet, but the volume needed takes up a good deal of space.

MOXIE could show the way to a solution. If successful, a larger-scale version of MOXIE’s oxygen production technology could then be used to launch a rocket home. “NASA definitely doesn’t want to just leave people on Mars,” says Asad Aboobaker, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Michael Hecht, an associate director at MIT in charge of MOXIE, says that since the 1990s, discussions about Mars exploration always came back to a list of four open questions. Two revolved around proving Mars is safe enough for human missions, since the planet’s bare atmosphere menaces anything on its surface with dust storms and radiation. Those questions have been resolved. The 2001 Mars Odysseymeasured radiation on and around the planet, informing how shielding for astronauts would have to be constructed. After 2007, the Phoenix lander profiled Mars’ dust and soil chemistry, and found nutrients that could support Earth’s plants. Another question asked how large vehicles could land on the planet. That concern has been tackled as four NASA rovers landed safely on the planet between 1996 and 2011. The fourth question, still unanswered, wondered how we might bring all necessary resources onto Mars.

Article continues:

On Mars, an autonomous rover and helicopter will roam free – Rebecca Heilweil Jul 30, 2020, 7:16pm EDT

Some powerful self-driving tech is on its way to the Red Planet.

An artist’s rendering of the Perseverance rover on Mars.
The Perseverance rover is the size of a small car and more technologically sophisticated than anything you’ve ever seen.

NASA’s Perseverance rover launched at 7:50 am ET on July 30, the first day of a flight that will take the fifth NASA rover to Mars. During its mission, the boxy, car-sized vehicle and its extendable arm will be charged with looking for signs of ancient life and gathering data about Mars’s geology and climate. It will even lay the groundwork for eventual human exploration of the planet.

To make all that possible, the rover carries a stunning display of technology designed especially for Perseverance’s historic mission, from pieces of a new spacesuit to an autonomous helicopter, the first aircraft ever sent to another planet. Those tools will help the rover gather data about the planet’s atmosphere, which it can then send back to NASA. There’s also an excavation system that can collect high-quality samples of Martian soil to be stashed and later analyzed by a future mission to Mars.

In the years the new rover is expected to operate, these machines will battle challenges that terrestrial technology never has to deal with, including the Red Planet’s super-thin atmosphere, limited resources, incredibly cold temperatures, and delayed communication with human overlords on Earth.

To give you an idea of how all this will happen, we’ve outlined some of the coolest features that will be on display when Perseverance finally arrives on Mars in February.

Perseverance is armed with advanced self-driving tech

Key to its mission’s success is the ability for Perseverance to self-drive. The vehicle has a computer devoted to its autonomous capabilities, and as Wired explains, it was designed and built specifically for this mission. The autonomous driving feature is essential because Mars is simply too far away for humans to give the vehicle constant, real-time instructions. So the rover needs to fend for itself.

“One of the fundamental constraints of any kind of space exploration — whether you’re going to Mars or Europa or the moon — is that you have limited bandwidth, which means a limit on the amount of information you can send back and forth,” David Wettergreen, research professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, told Recode. “During the periods of time when the robot can’t communicate, autonomy is important for it to enable it to keep doing tasks, to explore on its own, to make progress, rather than just sitting there waiting for the next time it hears from us.”

But building an autonomous vehicle for Mars is not necessarily as easy as building a self-driving car here on Earth (and that’s not easy, either). For one thing, the vehicle needs to be primarily concerned with safety, not with speed or the comfort of its passengers. After receiving basic instructions from humans about where it needs to go, Perseverance has to figure out the least-dangerous route on its own. If it crashes, the rover might render itself useless.

“Mars is not a fixed, flat, nice, paved road. Mars is really challenging terrain. There is dirt, rocks, sand, slopes, cliffs — all these things that the rover is going to have to avoid,” explained Philip Twu, robotics system engineer at NASA. “In addition to cameras, the rover is also going to need computers, algorithms, and software to be able to process all that imagery data into essentially a 3D picture that it’s then going to go ahead and use to plan.”

Fortunately for Perseverance, Mars is not a place where a self-driving rover needs to worry about crashing into another car or hitting a pedestrian.

“On Mars, there’s nothing moving around,” said Wettergreen. “They’re moving slowly, so they can take the time to build a detailed model, do a lot of analysis on that model, and then decide what to do next.”

A robotic arm will take samples of Mars that will be studied back on Earth

The vehicle is also armed with a 7-foot-long arm equipped with a drill that’s designed to collect rock and soil samples from beneath Mars’s surface. Those samples will then be stored in as many as 43 containers that the rover carries around on the planet. Once those samples are collected, they’ll be left in tubes that will sit on Mars’s surface for a future mission to pick up.

The arm alone isn’t all that impressive as a piece of space technology. Instead, its virtue is all the stuff that it comes, well, armed with.

“It’s like a Swiss Army knife of scientific instruments,” said Wettergreen. “What’s so amazing about it is all of these different functionalities and capabilities that they’ve been able to pack into such a small package.”

For instance, on the arm is a robotic claw equipped with a laser and other tools, including a camera called Watson that NASA compares to “a geologist’s hand-lens, magnifying and recording textures of rock and soil targets,” which is part of a tool — fittingly named Sherloc — that comes with special spectrometers and a laser. There’s also a tool called PIXL that can analyze incredibly tiny chemical elements and, in NASA’s words, take “super close-up pictures of rock and soil textures” to help scientists figure out whether Mars could have been home to microbial life in the past.

High-tech cameras and microphones will give the rover “senses”

Integrated into the rover are a slew of extremely high-quality cameras23 in total — that will help the vehicle survey the planet. The cameras won’t just help Perseverance get around Mars, but they’ll also take images of samples collected on the planet and record the vehicle’s arrival on the surface in full color. Meanwhile, NASA says that so-called “engineering” cameras will take on tasks like helping the vehicle avoid potentially treacherous areas, like sand dunes and trenches, while others will help the system navigate without human intervention.

A drawing of the NASA rover Perseverance detailing its multiple cameras.
There are 23 cameras aboard Perseverance.

At the same time, the rover will pick up sound data through its two microphones. Those devices will listen to the rover as it arrives and travels on the planet. There’s a special microphone that works in conjunction with a laser to study the chemistry of the planet’s geology by zapping it and recording the sound of the zapping. As NASA explains, the microphone hears the intensity of the “pop” made by the laser turning the rock into plasma, which “reveals the relative hardness of the rocks, which can tell us more about their geological context.”

A self-driving helicopter will fly on another planet. That’s a first.

Also aboard the rover is Ingenuity, which will — if all goes as planned — be the first helicopter to fly on Mars as well as the “first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet,” according to NASA. That makes Ingenuity an experiment on its own, one that has undergone extensive testing on Earth. Its mission is to demonstrate that flight on Mars, where it will conduct up to five test flights, is possible, and that flights can be conducted autonomously on the planet.

While the device is essentially a drone, it’s specially crafted for Mars, which has less gravity than Earth. This makes ascent easier, but due to the planet’s comparatively thin atmosphere, flight itself is more challenging. As The Verge reports, the blades of the helicopter can make more than 2,000 revolutions a minute, several times the speed of helicopter blades whipping around in Earth’s atmosphere. Ingenuity is incredibly light, weighing in at around 4 pounds.

But the tiny vehicle’s autonomy is not just designed to help with navigation; it’s also build to keep Ingenuity alive.

“Mars is very, very cold. It gets to about negative 130 degrees Fahrenheit at night. That’s pretty cold,” explained Twu. “So the autonomy onboard the helicopter is also involved with finding a way to keep the helicopter warm enough to survive all the Martian nights.”

If the helicopter is ultimately successful, it will help NASA make decisions about where flight could lend assistance during future missions to the planet. Similar drones could serve as scouts that survey the terrain of Mars — especially places that rovers can’t easily get to — or, as NASA says, become “full standalone science craft carrying instrument payloads.

Will we be seeing any of this tech on Earth one day? It’s hard to say right now, but Twu notes that NASA is famous for its spinoffs.

“Time and time again, we’ve seen that technology developed for NASA missions — a lot of them for space missions — end up having terrestrial applications here on Earth,” he said. “All technology development can cross-pollinate and advances in one area inevitably result in advances in other areas.”

US sheriffs rebel against state mask orders even as Covid-19 spreads – Jason Wilson @jason_a_w Published on Fri 31 Jul 2020 05.00 EDT

Growing resistance is related to far-right movement that claims sheriffs must defy laws they believe are unconstitutional

Sheriff’s deputies look on as protesters block the road to Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota.

Sheriff’s deputies look on as protesters block the road to Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota. Photograph: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Sheriffs around the country are refusing to enforce or are even actively resisting Covid-19 mask laws and lockdowns, while others have permitted or encouraged armed vigilantism in response to Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests.

Critics say both phenomena are related to a far-right “constitutional sheriffs” movement, which believes that sheriffs are the highest constitutional authority in the country, with the power – and duty – to resist state and federal governments.

When Richard K Jones, the sheriff of Butler county, Ohio, said recently that he wasn’t going to be the “mask police”, and would not be enforcing Governor Mike DeWine’s mandates for high-risk counties, he became the latest in a wave of sheriffs either refusing to enforce coronavirus-related public health rules, or encouraging people to break them in the midst of a worsening pandemic.

At least eight county sheriffs in Texas have said they will not enforce Governor Greg Abbott’s mask mandate. Tracy Murphree, the Denton county sheriff, explained to a local newspaper he believed “the constitution trumps everything”, and, “when people are told to do something that violates their civil rights, it invites chaos and protest”.

At least three sheriffs in Michigan, three in North Carolina, three in California, two in New Mexico and one in Nevada made similar announcements about state orders. At least one Tennessee sheriff has questioned the constitutionality of local government mask orders which the state has made provision for.

In North Carolina, Jimmy Thornton, the Sampson county sheriff, called Republican Governor Roy Cooper’s mask order “not only unconstitutional, but unenforceable” in a Facebook post on 24 June, adding that “my deputies will NOT enforce an executive order that I feel violates the constitutional liberties of citizens”.

In that state, earlier in the course of the pandemic, at least 10 sheriffs had said that they would not enforce the state’s lockdown restrictions.

At least two sheriffs who refused to enforce lockdown orders – in Arizona and California – subsequently contracted Covid-19.

In Washington state last month, meanwhile, at least two sheriffs have gone further than saying that they won’t enforce the law.

Rob Snaza, the Lewis county sheriff, said in a speech which became a viral video that anyone who complied with the instructions was a “sheep”. His counterpart in nearby Klickitat county, Bob Songer, called the governor, Jay Inslee, an “idiot” who was “violating the liberties and constitutional rights of the individual” by making mask-wearing compulsory.

An anti-mask protestor holds up a sign in front of the Ohio Statehouse.

An anti-mask protester holds up a sign in front of the Ohio statehouse.Photograph: Jeff Dean/AFP/Getty Images

The anti-mask stance from sheriffs follows an earlier wave of resistance to stay-at-home orders.

Adam Fortney, the sheriff of Snohomish county, Washington, wrote on Facebook in April that he would not be “enforcing an order preventing religious freedoms or constitutional rights”.

Fortney’s claim that Inslee’s orders were unconstitutional has inspired a recall effort against him.

He was one of at least 60 sheriffs nationwide who had pushed back on lockdown rules by May, according to a report by the Marshall Project, a criminal justice focussed non-profit news organization.

In turn, many of the sheriffs refusing to enforce mask orders have previously resisted states’ attempts to place further restrictions on firearms.

Songer, the Klickitat county sheriff, was lauded in conservative media in 2019 when he said he would not enforce the provisions of a ballot measure that, among other things, placed age restrictions on the purchase of assault rifles.

Aitor Narvaiza, the Elko county, Nevada, sheriff who has refused to enforce Governor Steve Sisolak’s mask order, was involved last year in an attempt to create “second amendment sanctuaries” in rural counties after state lawmakers sought to beef up background checks.

Daryle Wheeler, the sheriff of Bonner county, Idaho, has this year both accused Governor Brad Little of “suspending the constitution” with lockdown rules, and filed suit against the city of Sandpoint after it sought to ban guns at a municipal festival.

According to Cloee Cooper, a research analyst at Political Research Associates, this is not coincidental. All of these sheriffs are members of organizations associated with the constitutional sheriffs movement, or under their growing influence.

Sheriff’s deputies form a line to keep demonstrators and counter demonstrators apart during an ‘America first’ demonstration in California. Sheriffs across the US have said they won’t enforce state mask orders.

Sheriff’s deputies form a line to keep demonstrators and counter demonstrators apart during an ‘America first’ demonstration in California. Sheriffs across the US have said they won’t enforce state mask orders.Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

With its origins in ideas of “county supremacy” first pushed by far-right groups opposed to desegregation, the idea that county sheriffs have a “legal and ethical duty to refuse to enforce state and federal policies and laws they believe to be unconstitutional” has become the basis of a nationwide network, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) headed by Richard Mack.

In an email, Cooper said that her research had revealed that “Richard Mack was encouraging sheriffs to defy shelter-in-place orders and support reopen protests”. While the CSPOA was founded to resist Obama-era firearms restrictions, they had pivoted to resisting mask and lockdown orders, defining them as signs of “impending tyranny”.

She added that constitutional sheriffs had moved to deputize posses in response to Black Lives Matter protests, or had fueled false rumors about busloads of “Antifa” activists rolling into rural areas.

While constitutional sheriffs claim to act in the name of public safety, they may actually encourage disorder. One research paper suggests that the election of a constitutionalist sheriff in a county may increase the likelihood of political violence against federal officials by up to 50%.

Cooper added that “sheriffs that openly align with the Patriot movement, like constitutional sheriffs, (pave) the way for a further slide toward authoritarianism.”

Anthony Fauci Explains Why the US Still Hasn’t Beaten Covid – Steven Levy 07.29.2020 07:00 AM

Dr. Anthony Fauci’s new normal is less normal than anyone’s during this year of the coronavirus. As the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—and perhaps the most widely trusted voice on the White House Coronavirus Task Force—he has been revered and reviled, sometimes by his own boss, President Donald Trump, the sixth president he has served under. Just in the past seven days, he threw out the first pitch of the baseball season and was featured on a Topps baseball card. A vaccine that his lab helped develop went into a Phase III trial, the last stage of human clinical testing. And Trump attacked him again, retweeting a charge that the meticulously honest Fauci serially “misled the American public.”

Just another week for the scientist who has been fighting outbreaks since leading the government response on HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, and who now faces his biggest challenge in fighting both the worst pandemic of our lifetime and dealing with a president who doesn’t seem to have a coherent plan for fighting the virus. On Tuesday evening, Fauci found time to speak to WIRED about why the US has done so poorly in combating Covid-19, whether schools should open, and why no amount of abuse from Trump will make him leave his post. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Steven Levy: First, congratulations for appearing on the best-selling baseball card in history.

Anthony Fauci: Talk about living in a crazy world. If you had asked me 40 years ago, when I was a kid, if I would ever be in a situation where I would be on baseball cards, I would look at you like you’re crazy.

I’ll bet there are a lot of things happening this year that would have drawn the same reaction from you 40 years ago.

You’re absolutely right.

Major League Baseball prepared for months to start playing and hit a crisis five days in. What lessons can we take from that?

I think probably the biggest lesson is that even though we are five and a half to six months into this outbreak in the United States, we continue to learn. It’s a moving target. I think in good faith, the baseball industry—namely the management, the players, and everyone involved—tried their best to see if they could open and continue an abbreviated season with protocols that would safeguard the welfare of the players and the personnel involved. And I think they’re doing that. But obviously, to see 12 people on one team getting infected is more than a bit disconcerting. [Update: The number is now 18.] Hopefully they’ll be able to maintain the season without anymore unfortunate situations. But you never know. You’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

If baseball can’t go on, what about schools?

It’s a much more complicated situation with the schools, and I can’t give you a yes or no answer. As a broad principle, we should try as best as we possibly can to get the kids to return to school, because of the negative unintended consequences of keeping the kids out of school, like the psychological health of the children, the nutrition of kids who get breakfast or lunch at school, to working parents who may not be able to adjust their schedules. So the default position is to try.

However, while you do that, the one thing that you have to underscore—and that’s a big however—is that paramount among this has to be the safety and welfare of the children, of their teachers, and secondarily, of the families of the children. So there has to be some degree of flexibility.

There are going to be counties and towns and cities and maybe states with a reasonably low level of infection, so that you wouldn’t assume that there’d be any risk of the kids getting infected at school. There’s going to be other areas of the country with a modest degree of infection where you might have to modify schedules, have teachers wear masks, more physical separation of desks. And then there may be some areas where the degree of infection is so high—as we’re seeing now in certain places in the country—that you might want to think twice before you make that decision. So what I’m saying is: Maintain the principle to try as best as you can to open the schools, but make sure you instill in that a degree of flexibility.

Why do you think the US has done so poorly in suppressing this pandemic compared with other rich countries?

It isn’t just one single factor. Let me give you one or two that I think are important. First of all, other countries, certainly Asian countries, and certainly the European Union, when they so-called locked down—shut down, shelter in place, whatever you want to call it—they did it to about 95 percent of their countries. So they did it in full force. Some countries got hit badly, but once they locked down and turned things around, they came down to a very low baseline—down to tens or hundreds of new cases a day, not thousands. They came down and they stayed down.

Now, in the United States, when we shut down, even though it was a stress and a strain for a lot of people, we only did it to the tune of about 50 percent of the country shutting down. Our curve goes up and starts to come down. But we never came down to a reasonable baseline. We came down to about 20,000 new infections per day, and we stayed at that level for several weeks in a row. Then we started to open up—getting America “back to normal”—and started to see the cases go from 20,000 a day to 30,000, 40,000. We even hit that one point last week of 70,000 new cases a day.

So when you’re starting off with a baseline that already is very high, and then you try to open your country, and instead of listening carefully and adhering to the guidelines, some states—and I’m not going to name them—skipped over some of the checkpoints. They didn’t adhere to the guidelines, which essentially suggested a very measured, prudent way of opening step by step. In other states, the governors and mayors did it right. But in some—all you needed to do was take a look at some of the films. You see people congregating in crowds at bars with no masks on. We didn’t shut down fully, the baseline never came down to a real low level. And when we started to open up, we didn’t open up uniformly in a very strict way.

Some people have suggested that Americans can’t work together to stop a pandemic because they’re too selfish. Do you buy that?

I don’t want to be pejorative in blaming Americans. I don’t think they’re deliberately doing it. I don’t think they fully realize, and here’s why I say this: The infections taking place now, in the last few weeks, are much more disproportionately among young people. In fact, the average age of people that have gotten infected is about a decade, or a decade and a half, younger than what we saw in earlier months of the outbreak. A substantial proportion of the people who get infected—20 to 45 percent—don’t have any symptoms at all. Many of those are very young people, millennials, the people who are out there at the bars. So they look around and say, “The chance of my getting sick from this virus is much, much, much lower than an elderly person, or than somebody with an underlying condition. So I’m just gonna do what I want. If I get infected, I’ll take my chances.” The only thing about that inadvertent and maybe innocent misjudgment is that we’re starting to see that more and more young people do have serious outcomes from infection.

But what they don’t realize is that, even if they don’t get any symptoms at all, by being careless and allowing themselves to get infected, they are becoming a part of the propagation of the outbreak. They are putting other people in danger by themselves getting infected. That’s the message we have to get across: You’ve got to have some social responsibility.

It seems that there’s a hostility towards science and evidence-based thinking. How much does that worry you?

It does. Obviously, there is a bit of an anti-science trend in the United States, a pushing back on authority telling you what to do. Sometimes, in a good vein, that could be the independent spirit of the American people. That is part of our character. But on the other hand, it can work against you. And when you push back on someone telling you what to do, and you mix that with a trend of anti-authority, anti-science, then you get into trouble. Then you get into the situation we find ourselves now, where people are not acting in a way that is safeguarding their health.

Yesterday, one of the most popular posts on Facebook linked to that video of a group of doctors claiming hydroxychloroquine is a cure for Covid-19. (It’s not.) It got over 20 million views and was retweeted by the president and one of his sons. Do you think social media has hindered our response to the pandemic?

Yes. There’s good news and there’s bad news about social media. The good news is that when the information is correct, it can get widely disseminated. The bad news is that when the information is incorrect, it can really be very misleading to a lot of people. And there’s no way of checking it. There’s no editorial oversight of what goes on in social media. So anything can get up there. And yes, when that kind of stuff gets on social media it can be very damaging.

Do you think the president understands how science works?

Yeah, I believe so. I believe so.

But what goes through your mind when you hear the argument he makes that the high numbers of infections are a result of testing?

It’s not going to be helpful or productive for what I need to do in my role as a public health official, and a scientist and a physician, to try and get our arms around this outbreak and to do the kinds of things and the kind of work that we do, if I start going one-on-one and contradicting what the president said. I don’t want to go there, because that’s just not helpful. It’s going to be detrimental to my effort. So I don’t want to talk about that.

Would there ever be a point where you feel your voice would have more impact speaking from outside the government?

No. What people don’t appreciate is that a very important part of what I do is developing vaccines and therapeutics that I believe will ultimately end this. I’m a part of the Coronavirus Task Force, but that is not my main job. My main job is as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is the leading funding organization for the conduct and support of research on infectious diseases in the world. So that has nothing to do with anything that you and I are talking about right now. Because what I’m really trying to do most of the time is develop the vaccines. In fact, you might recall that yesterday, a vaccine that was developed by my group went into a Phase III trial.

How much time do you spend in that lab? What’s your role in that research?

I run the institute. I run a $6 billion institute.

When is your best guess about when the vaccine will be available to us?

Probably by the end of this year, the beginning of 2021.

Do you think there’s going to be one vaccine for everyone?

No, I think that there’s going to be multiple successful vaccine candidates. There are at least five or more that we are supporting out of the NIH, and other countries are also having a considerable effort on vaccine development. I’m hopeful that there will be more than one successful vaccine, because we need vaccines not only for the United States, we need it for the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, we’re still trying to understand all the effects of this novel virus. What’s the one thing you most want to learn about how this virus operates?

Well, I think we’re learning a lot about it. I think what we would really like to know is what are the long-term effects on people who recover from the coronavirus. Are they really totally normal after that, or do they have long-term negative consequences of having gotten infected?

This is a brand-new disease. We’ve only experienced it for a few months. We don’t really know what it means if you get really sick and recover. How are you going to be one, two, three years from now? Only time will give us the answer to that.

As the number of cases—and especially the deaths—keep rising, people must tend to get numb to it. How do you keep from regarding that as an abstraction?

I don’t get numb to this. This is a very, very serious challenge that we’re facing. I mean, I’m an infectious disease doctor, I’ve been involved with responding—as early as 40 or so years ago, 39 years ago—with HIV. And then there were the anthrax attacks. And then there’s Ebola and Zika. And then there’s pandemic flu. You know, these are the kind of things where you’ve got to keep your eye on the ball. And you have to focus on it like a laser, which is what we do.

Do you think that we’ll have learned our lesson, and that after this virus is tamed we’ll spend the billions every year it costs to prepare for the next pandemic? Or will it fade from memory?

Well, I hope not, I hope it doesn’t fade from our memory. This is a very, very important lesson that we’re going through right now. This is the most formidable pandemic outbreak that we’ve had in over a hundred years. I hope that when we recover from this—which we will, this will end, for sure—we will remember this. And that we don’t have a collective memory that disappears after 10 years or so, because we will get another challenge. There will be another outbreak. Another pandemic may not be as bad as this, or it might be worse than this. But it will happen, because emerging infections occur. They’ve occurred forever.

One more question: Are you keeping notes for a book?

Yeah, I keep notes, but right now I’m going to focus on my job rather than a book. But I definitely keep notes, I can tell you that.

I look forward to reading that book. I think you’re going to outsell Mary Trump.

[laughs] Well, maybe. Maybe not. But I’m not worried about that right now. I’m just focusing on my job.

‘Pension spiking’ is not protected by California law, top court rules – By Maura Dolan Staff Writer  SAN FRANCISCO —

Gov. Jerry Brown gestures to a chart in 2011 showing proposals to roll back public employee pension benefitsFor two decades, it was a treasured perk for some county employees across California: the ability to boost their pensions by cashing out unused vacation or sick leave, or working extra hours, at the end of their careers.

In some cases, workers received more in pension payments than they earned while working.

But with the state’s economy struggling and a pension crisis looming, then-Gov. Jerry Brown backed a sweeping reform measure in 2013 that prohibited county workers from “pension spiking.” Labor unions sued to overturn the new law.

On Thursday, in one of several closely watched pension cases, the California Supreme Court sided with the state, unanimously upholding a provision of the 2013 law that prohibited pension spiking by county workers.

In a decision written by Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, the court said the law that ended pension spiking for county employees was enacted “for the constitutionally permissible purpose of closing loopholes and preventing abuse of the pension system.”

It was the second time in less than two years that the justices weighed in on a pension issue without touching a broader question of extreme significance to workers as well as governments — the fate of the so-called California Rule, a 65-year-old legal doctrine that strongly protects public pensions for all government workers except new hires.

David E. Mastagni, who represented Alameda County employees in the case, said he was disappointed for them but glad the California Rule survived.

Thursday’s decision could be perceived as a “chipping away” of the rule, he said, but it indicated the court would limit rollbacks of pension benefits to narrow “modifications just to address perceived abuses or loopholes.”

Public pensions are calculated based on a worker’s highest year of earnings, and some public pension plans allowed spiking.

Unions and public employee groups contended that the anti-spiking provision conflicted with decades of court decisions upholding the California Rule. It made California’s public pension protections among the strongest in the country.

The rule guarantees workers the pension they would be due under the benefit package in place on the day they were hired. Pensions are considered constitutionally protected contracts.

The formula for calculating retirement income could be changed only in a way that was neutral or advantageous to the worker, according to the rule.

Some business groups and others had urged the court to use the legal challenges to Brown’s pension package as a vehicle for weakening the California Rule, which would have affected public employees across the state. The court refused, writing instead a narrow decision.

“We have no jurisprudential reason to undertake a fundamental reexamination of the rule,” the court said.

In the ruling, the court said that lawmakers “must have the authority, discretion, and flexibility” to address such issues as pension spiking.

Requiring the government to offer a benefit to offset the elimination of pension padding would “significantly undermine” the Legislature’s efforts to close loopholes, the court said.

The decision on spiking applies to 20 counties that administer their pension plans under the County Employees Retirement Law of 1937, which the 2013 law amended. L.A., Orange, San Bernardino and San Diego counties are among them. The city of Los Angeles has a separate pension system.

Most state employees can still use accumulated sick leave to buy additional service credit, said Michael Jarvis, managing labor relations consultant for the law firm of Mastagni Holstedt. The 2013 pension law did not change that. At California State University, Jarvis said, it takes 250 days of sick leave to get one additional year of service credit, raising the employee’s pension from 1.5% to 3% a year.

Timothy K. Talbot, who represented the employees of Contra Costa and Merced counties in Thursday’s case, said the ruling would be “very disappointing and devastating” to his clients because “they were relying on that benefit,” which he called “vacation cash-out.”

The benefit was part of court-approved settlements dating to the late 1990s and was used by the counties to lure people to work for them, he said.

Ted Toppin, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, a 1.6-million-member coalition of public employees and retirees, expressed relief that the decision “unequivocally” upheld the California Rule and protected “the retirement security of California public servants … working on the front lines to protect Californians during the pandemic.”

But he said the ruling did “seem to undermine the retirement security of Alameda County sheriff deputies,” one of the groups of employees who filed suit.

“Their employer and retirement system made a promise to them that the court decision now allows them to break,” Toppin said. “That is unfair and unfortunate. If public employers make a pension commitment to their workers, they should keep it.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose office argued in favor of the 2013 law, did not comment on the ruling.

In another unanimous pension decision last year, the state high court said the government could reduce pension benefits without running afoul of the California Rule.

The court in that case upheld California’s 2012 repeal of an “air time” benefitthat allowed state workers to buy credits toward retirement service.

U.S. Leadership Remains Unpopular Worldwide by Julie Ray July 27, 2020

U.S. Leadership Remains Unpopular Worldwide

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the third year of Donald Trump’s presidency, a new Gallup report shows that despite marginal gains, the image of U.S. leadership started the new decade in a weaker position globally than at most points under the past two presidents.

After tumbling to a record-low 30% during the first year of Trump’s presidency, the image of U.S. leadership was not much better in the third year of his term. The median global approval rating for U.S. leadership across 135 countries and areas edged up to 33% in 2019. This rating is slightly higher than the previous low under Trump, but it is still one percentage point lower than the previous low of 34% under former President George W. Bush in 2008.

For the second consecutive year, approval ratings of U.S. leadership increased in more countries than where they declined — helping to nudge global numbers upward. Out of the 135 countries and areas, approval ratings declined by 10 points or more in just five countries – Lebanon, Iraq, Italy, Sierra Leone and Zambia.

Ratings improved by at least this much in 12 countries or areas that span the globe, but notably, there were few free, democratic countries on the list and few long-time allies. Worldwide, approval ratings of the U.S. improved most in Turkmenistan, rising 32 points from 30% in 2018 to 62% in 2019.


U.S. Ratings Remain Mired at Record Lows in Europe, Asia

The image of U.S. leadership fared worst in Europe, where people remain as disenchanted with U.S. leadership as they were in 2017. The 24% median approval rating in 2019 was unchanged from 2018 and essentially the same as the 25% rating in 2017. However, the median 61% who disapproved of U.S. leadership was a new high.

The U.S attained majority approval in three countries or areas in Europe: Kosovo at 82%, Albania at 67% and Poland at 59%.


Ratings of U.S. leadership in Asia also remain near lows not seen since the George W. Bush administration. The median approval rating of 32% in 2019 was unchanged from the previous year, and not too different from the 30% rating in 2017.

Majorities in six Asian countries approved of U.S. leadership. This included Israel (64%), Mongolia (62%), Turkmenistan (62%), the Philippines (58%), Nepal (54%), and Myanmar (53%).


Ratings Stable in Africa, Improve in the Americas

As it has every year that Gallup has been tracking approval ratings, the image of the U.S. remained strongest worldwide in Africa. Bolstered by majority approval in 21 sub-Saharan African countries, median approval of U.S. leadership stood at 52% in 2019 — unchanged from the previous year. This rating is notably still on the lower side for ratings since 2007.

As in the past, those in North Africa do not feel the same way about U.S. leadership, and this is where the U.S. typically gets the lowest leadership ratings.


The Americas are the only region of the world where ratings of U.S. leadership improved in 2019. In 2017, they were the worst in the world at 24%, but have slowly improved since then and stood at 34% in 2019. The increase mostly came because of small increases in approval in most countries except Mexico, Nicaragua and Paraguay.

But the news wasn’t all positive. Residents in most countries in the Americas continue to be more disapproving than approving of U.S. leadership. The median disapproval rating for the U.S. is 51%.

Article continues:

%d bloggers like this: