“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe they have identified a new species of whale in the Gulf of Mexico. The Rice’s whale is a filter feeder that can grow to 42 feet. It’s also critically endangered. There are believed to be fewer than 100 of them left.
It was only in the 1990s that scientists first determined that a small whale population was living in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico year-round. Marine biologists thought they were Bryde’s (pronounced “broodus”) whales, members of a species that lives in warm waters around the world.
Patricia Rosel, a research geneticist with NOAA Fisheries, says, “The first clue we had that there might be something unique, really more unique about them came from genetic data we collected in the mid-2000s, 15 years ago.”
That genetic data suggested this was a new species. To confirm that, Rosel and her colleagues needed morphological data — information showing that the skulls of the whales in the Gulf were different from those of their close relatives. They finally got that in 2019 when a whale was stranded in southwest Florida.
Rosel says, “Through some really enormous efforts of the stranding network to respond to that dead whale … and save it and preserve it, we were finally able to look at the skull morphology and make comparisons to those other Bryde’s whales.”
The main difference that Rosel found is a group of bones at the top of the skull, which distinguishes Rice’s whales from other species. Rosel and her colleagues published their findings recently in Marine Mammal Science. The whale is named for Dale Rice, the marine mammal biologist who first identified the population in the Gulf.
Whales can be hard to study, Rosel says, especially those like Rice’s whales that don’t migrate and that spend most of their time far from coastlines. “The ocean is big,” Rosel says. “And so they’re spread out over a big area. And you only get to see them for seconds at a time generally when they come up to breathe. And then they spend a lot of the rest of their time underwater.”
Along with oil spills, ocean noise and marine traffic, one of the biggest threats to the newly named species is its small population, which makes the loss of even a single whale significant.
The UN conducted the survey through ads in popular games like Angry Birds and Words With Friends.
More than two-thirds of the world’s population believe climate change is an emergency and think four key policy areas can fix it: conservation, renewable power, climate-safe farming, and investing in green businesses and jobs.
That’s according to the results of the Peoples’ Climate Vote, a UN survey of 1.2 million people in 50 countries and 17 languages — a sample representing 56 percent of the world’s population over the age of 14.
The most significant proportion of people who felt climate change is an emergency (74 percent) came from Belize, Fiji, and Trinidad and Tobago — countries the report identifies as “Small Island Developing Nations,” or SIDS, that are particularly vulnerable to climate-change impacts like sea-level rise and drought.
People in high-income countries were close behind, with 72 percent saying climate change is an emergency. The percentages were smaller in middle-income countries (62 percent) and less-developed countries (58 percent).
Of the participants who said climate change was an emergency, 59 percent thought that everything possible should be done to solve the problem, while 20 percent approved a slower, more incremental response. Only one in 10 thought the world is currently doing enough.
How most of the world feels about climate policies
All participants were given 18 policy choices from six different areas — energy, economy, transportation, farms and food, protecting people, and nature — and were asked to choose which they’d like to see become law.
Four policies received support from 50 percent or more of respondents: Conservation of forests and land (54 percent); solar, wind, and renewable power (53 percent); climate-friendly farming techniques (52 percent); and investing more in green businesses and jobs (50 percent).
The least popular policies overall were changing to a plant-based diet (30 percent) and good and affordable insurance to better protect people from extreme storms, flooding, droughts, forest fires, and other climate impacts, with only about a third of participants backing it (32 percent).
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted her thoughts on the survey, finding it “most interesting” that just 10 percent of people thought world leaders were doing enough to solve the emergency. Recently published research indicates that Americans familiar with Thunberg are more likely to have stronger intentions on joining collective action to combat climate change.
How the survey was conducted: Angry Birds and Words With Friends
The survey was conducted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), analysts at the University of Oxford, and NGO partners using a new approach: mobile gaming. The survey is part of the Mission 1.5 campaign, which kicked off in February 2020 and seeks to educate people about climate change and get their opinion on how governments should act to address it.
From October 7 to December 4, 2020, advertisements in popular mobile games like Angry Birds and Words With Friends were replaced by the survey in 17 languages. The approach led to a much wider sample of 1.2 million respondents and more representation across all ages, genders, and levels of educational attainment than would’ve been possible through traditional polling methods.
The UN selected 50 countries broadly representing the regions where it operates: Western Europe and North America, Africa, Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean — representing 56 percent of the world’s population over the age of 14. A hefty 35 percent of the 1.2 million respondents, some 421,170 people, completed all the survey questions.
Survey questions were drawn from a game that puts players in the role of politicians who are trying to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees or less through different policy areas. Both the warming target and policy areas are from real recommendations from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and checked by experts on climate science and policy from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and NASA .
Researchers at the University of Oxford analyzed the results with a margin of error of 2 percent.
The survey could be a climate policy roadmap for world leaders
The survey results provide an invaluable asset for world leaders who will come together later this year at COP26, the UN’s annual climate change conference, to reexamine their commitments to the Paris agreement.
And just this week, the UN held a Climate Adaptation Summit focused on how countries can better prepare for the worst impacts of climate change such as sea-level rise, heat waves, and extreme storm damage.
In his remarks during the summit, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry said the US was committed to “doing everything we possibly can” to make sure that COP26 “results in ambitious climate action in which all major emitter countries raise ambitions significantly and in which we help protect those who are the most vulnerable.”
The Peoples’ Climate Vote, which represents the opinion of the majority of the world, including the most vulnerable, lets Kerry and other international leaders know which policies they feel should be used to address the climate emergency: conservation of forests and land; solar, wind, and renewable power; climate-friendly farming techniques; and investing more in green businesses and jobs.
And in the US, it appears the Biden administration is already tending to these policy concerns with a series of executive orders geared toward addressing climate change. One buried but important provision would protect 30 percent of US lands and waters by 2030, which aligns with demands for conservation policy.
And at a January 27 press briefing, when asked how the US would strengthen its commitment to the Paris agreement, Biden’s climate czar Gina McCarthy said when it comes to public land the administration would look at “carbon in our soil, to work with agriculture and others to look at how we better manage our forests so we’re not seeing the devastating forest fires that we’ve been having before.”
What teeth Biden’s executive orders on climate will have, as well as the level of input and collaboration with other world leaders on tackling the climate emergency, remains to be seen.
Gross domestic product rose 4.0% in holiday quarter, as economists expect rebound in 2021 once coronavirus pandemic is under control
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The U.S. economy shrank in 2020 for the first time since the financial crisis, but grew rapidly in the fourth quarter and is forecast to continue recovering following its worst year since the 1940s.
A strong rebound in the second half of 2020 wasn’t enough to overcome the economic shock created by the pandemic earlier in the year. Measured year-over-year, the economy contracted 3.5% last year, the largest decline since just after World War II and the first since 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis. Measured from the fourth quarter to the same quarter a year earlier the economy shrank 2.5%.
Fourth-quarter U.S. gross domestic product—the value of all goods and services produced across the economy, adjusted for seasonality and inflation—grew at a 4% annual rate, the Commerce Department said on Thursday. That joined a record 33.4% annual rate of growth in the third quarter to further reduce losses from earlier in the pandemic.
How the 2020 Economy Shrank
Reduced spending on services accounted for most of the 3.5% annual contraction while spending on goods increased.
“We still have a ways to go, but it’s positive,” Beth Ann Bovino, U.S. chief economist at S&P Global Ratings, said of U.S. growth. “It’s a slow heal,” she added, pointing to still-hurting parts of the economy such as in-person services businesses and energy production.
Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic output, slowed to a 2.5% seasonally adjusted annual rate in the holiday quarter, down from a 41% rebound in the third quarter, as consumers pulled back from shopping amid high coronavirus infection rates and business closures in some regions.
Overall spending on goods declined in the fourth quarter. And spending on durable goods—products designed to last at least three years such as furniture and washing machines—was flat, following increased spending in the prior quarter as households purchased home entertainment, fitness and office supplies as they worked from home.
Continued strength in corporate and residential housing investment, however, has helped set the economy up “for what could be a really good 2021,” said James Knightley, an economist at ING Financial Markets LLC.
He said stimulus checks from the December coronavirus-aid package, the prospect of additional government aid this year, high household savings and vaccination programs point to a continued recovery. “There’s basically a wall of money being thrown at the economy,” Mr. Knightley said.Gross domestic product, by quarterSource: Commerce DepartmentNote: Seasonally and inflation adjusted at an annualrate.trillion2015’16’17’18’19’2017.017.518.018.519.019.5$20.0
The Labor Department separately said the number of workers seeking unemployment benefits dropped last week, indicating a recent easing in the pace of layoffs, though the labor market remains mired in a winter slowdown. New jobless claims, a proxy for layoffs, dropped to 847,000in the week ended Jan. 23, down from a revised 914,000 the week before. Claims have for months remained well above the pre-pandemic peak of 695,000.
The coronavirus and related business restrictions put in place early in the pandemic upended the U.S. economy early last year, triggering business and school closures, a steep drop in demand for goods and services and record job losses.Yearly change in gross domestic productSource: Commerce DepartmentNote: Inflation adjusted%RECESSION2020: -3.5%’701930’40’50’60’80’902000’10’20-15-10-505101520
The economy rebounded in the second half of the year as it reopened, with sharp gains in employment and consumer spending over the summer that were helped by trillions of dollars in government aid.
The International Monetary Fund expects the U.S. economy to grow 5.1% this year, while economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal projected 4.3% growth, measured from the fourth quarter of the prior year.
Economists expect hiring to start slowly this year, after employers shed jobs in December. But they also expect momentum to grow later, as Covid-19 vaccines become more widely available, hospital burdens ease and consumers resume activities such as dining out, attending sporting events and taking vacations.
Other factors at play include accumulated savings from those who continued to work but reduced spending during the pandemic.
Households saved an outsize share of disposable income in 2020. The personal-saving rate—the portion of after-tax income that consumers don’t spend—was a seasonally adjusted 13.4% in the fourth quarter, compared with 7.3% a year earlier. Economists say the extra financial buffer should support greater spending once pandemic restrictions ease.
What do you think the economic recovery will look like? Join the conversation below.
A pickup in spending would in turn lead to more hiring, particularly in some of the hardest-hit sectors such as restaurants, hotels, stores and personal services.
“We expect there to be plenty of growth over the late spring and summer as the service sector of the economy ramps back up,” said Daniil Manaenkov, an economic forecaster at the University of Michigan.
Several states, including California and New York, have recently rolled back restrictions, and many southern states essentially have no restrictions, Mr. Manaenkov said. That allows for activity to grow quickly once consumers feel good about heading out, he said.
U.S. employers are poised to add more than five million jobs this year, according to economists surveyed by the Journal. That would make 2021 the best year for employment gains in records dating to 1939, topping 4.3 million jobs created in 1946 at the start of the post-World War II expansion.
Still, even record-setting hiring this year would leave the U.S. millions of jobs short of pre-pandemic employment heading into 2022.
The impact of the pandemic has been unevenly felt across the country, with some regions such as the South holding up better than others.
For Hank Saipe, who owns five self-storage facilities in Denver, Covid-19’s impact has been relatively minor. Occupancy rates are up from last year as more people are moving house and setting up home offices during the pandemic, which means he has been able to raise rental rates, too.
Regarding the pandemic more broadly, the 65-year old said he is “trying to be as strict as possible,” wearing masks and limiting travel until he gets a vaccine. It has been a year since he last visited a theater or went to the movies, and he does curbside pickup from restaurants rather than dining inside. “I’m looking forward to my daughter’s wedding in August. Hopefully, we can have it,” Mr. Saipe said.
—Eric Morath and Hannah Lang contributed to this article.
Susan Davies has spent much of the last decade working on behalf of major mergers and fending off antitrust enforcement.
January 28 2021, 6:00 a.m.
As the fight over the direction of the Biden administration’s antitrust policy intensifies, a new figure has entered the fray, scrambling the calculus: Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland. The battle so far has largely been fought out between lobbyists for Big Tech and their allies on the one hand and skeptics of monopoly power on the other.
But according to three sources familiar with the discussions, Garland is hoping to install as the head of the Department of Justice antitrust division a longtime aide who served under him during the Clinton administration and who later was the attorney charged with shepherding his ill-fated Supreme Court nomination. That lawyer, Susan Davies, however, would be a controversial pick for another professional connection of hers: Facebook. The sources for this story are unable to speak on the record for fear of angering the Biden administration, which has not authorized those involved in the discussions to speak publicly.
In 2012, Davies represented Facebook in a lawsuit brought by an advertiser, Sambreel Holdings LLC, that was effectively kicked off Facebook’s platform after the tech giant lured away all its clients and banned users from downloading it. In December, the Federal Trade Commission launched an antitrust suit against Facebook, looking to break it into its component parts and ban it from the type of anti-competitive behavior Davies defended as their counsel.
The Justice Department is also suing Google, a case filed just ahead of the Facebook prosecution. The outcome of those twin antitrust efforts will be a major hinge point not just in technology policy but in the power of the government to take on consolidated power centers that are distorting markets across industries. To have the head of the antitrust division recused from one of those cases would create an odd state of play. The rest of Davies’s client roster, meanwhile, is equally worrying to opponents of concentrated power, as she has spent most of the last decade working on behalf of major mergers, fending off antitrust enforcement, and, as her law firm bio puts it, “frequently interact[ed] with regulators and policy makers on behalf of corporate clients.” The ascension of Davies and the intervention of Garland comes at the expense of Renata Hesse, another leading candidate for the top position at the antitrust division.
Garland is a charter member of the Washington legal establishment and is looking to populate the Justice Department with lawyers who’ve beaten similar paths: from the Ivy League to a Supreme Court clerkship to corporate work to government work and back. That’s likely to produce smart and well-qualified candidates and in some areas of the Justice Department could serve the government well enough. But when it comes to antitrust enforcement, the framework in place during the Obama years proved to be insufficient to the task of slowing or reversing consolidation across sectors. Simply installing talented members of the legal establishment will lead to the same failures without a serious rethinking of antitrust policy.
Davies first worked under Garland in the Clinton administration’s Justice Department, where Garland served as a deputy assistant attorney general. Garland was nominated to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, and Davies left for a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, followed by a stretch at the corporate law firm Sidley Austin LLP, before returning to the Clinton-era DOJ as a top lawyer in the antitrust division.
From there, she became general counsel and chief intellectual property counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, where then-Sen. Joe Biden was a former chair and remained a high-ranking figure. When the Obama administration took over, Davies was put in charge of selecting and vetting federal judicial nominees, a process that resulted in a remarkable tilt toward corporate attorneys. One study found that just 4 percent of President Barack Obama’s picks came from a public interest background. In 2011, she again left for the private sector, becoming a partner at the right-leaning firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP — at one point home to Robert Bork, a conservative legal scholar and rejected Supreme Court nominee; Kenneth Starr, best-known for his role as independent counsel during Clinton’s impeachment and who has now joined Trump’s impeachment team; conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh; John Bolton, a former national security adviser for President Donald Trump; Alex Azar, Trump’s secretary of health and human services; and Trump’s Attorney General William Barr — where she defended giant companies against antitrust enforcement, shepherding some of the largest mergers of the past decade and playing a major role in the consolidation crisis that President Biden’s antitrust division will be tasked with unwinding.“Competition policy, properly understood, is more than just beefing up antitrust enforcement. It also entails policing anti-competitive conduct outside of an antitrust courtroom.”
Anti-monopoly reformers are still hoping that Jonathan Kanter, a plaintiff’s lawyer who assisted in the cases against Facebook and Google, can get a shot at the position. He’s being talked about seriously enough that Big Tech and its allies have begun working in opposition to his appointment, sources familiar with the planning but unable to speak due to the likelihood of professional reprisal said.
One dark horse may be Jon Sallet, another Obama-era antitrust division veteran who later worked as a top counsel to former Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler. Though a former telecom lobbyist, Wheeler did complete groundbreaking net neutrality regulation, and Sallet helped navigate that terrain. Afterward Sallet joined a think tank and wrote a short paper entitled “Louis Brandeis: A Man for This Season.” Brandeis is something of a patron saint for the nascent anti-monopoly movement, and in this paper, Sallet calls for decisive, Brandeisian action to take on monopoly power.
Several sources working on the nominations described Sallet as a “Janet Yellen figure” who would make almost everyone in the fight somewhat happy despite his connections to some of the disappointing antitrust policies of the past.
At any rate, Sallet doesn’t carry the baggage that someone who worked directly for Big Tech might. Hal Singer, managing director at Econ One, a litigation consulting firm, noted that Biden’s team would have to police monopoly power across the economy, and someone coming out of the tech world may be unwilling to subject a prior employer to that. “Competition policy, properly understood, is more than just beefing up antitrust enforcement. It also entails policing anti-competitive conduct outside of an antitrust courtroom,” Singer said. “President Biden’s picks must not only have expertise in the field but the experience to understand this critical distinction and the willingness to break from the past.”
Meanwhile, even as a Facebook lawyer could take over the antitrust division, one of Facebook’s biggest critics could get a major job of her own. The American Prospect and The Intercept can confirm that Columbia law professor Lina Khan, a prominent Big Tech critic who helped author a scathing House Antitrust Subcommittee report on the tech platforms, is the leading candidateto replace Rohit Chopra as a commissioner at the FTC. Chopra has been named Biden’s nominee to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Capitol Forum, a subscription-based investigative news outlet, first reported the possibility of Khan replacing Chopra.
Though Khan hasn’t held a high-ranking position in the executive branch, she’s been at the top of the field for a while. Before Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, Khan was poised to head up Clinton’s transition team for the antitrust division. She also was a legal fellow at the FTC in Chopra’s office in 2018, and before that she was a summer associate when Chopra served at the CFPB. For the past year-plus, Khan has been a primary force behind the House Antitrust Subcommittee’s investigation into Big Tech.RelatedBig Tech Critics Alarmed at Direction of Biden Antitrust Personnel
The FTC shares jurisdiction over merger policy with the antitrust division of the Justice Department; each agency takes on mergers in different sectors. The FTC also has a substantial consumer protection portfolio and can write rules under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act that would prohibit certain anti-competitive practices, like worker noncompete agreements that ban employees from taking a job with a competing firm in the same industry.
Putting Khan in this role would maintain the anti-monopoly beachhead that reformers achieved at the commission with Chopra’s ascendancy as a commissioner in 2018. Despite being in one of two Democratic slots on a majority-Republican commission, Chopra was able to use the position to articulate a different strategy at the agency and even win substantive victories, pulling forward what has for decades been a moribund enforcer of antitrust and consumer protection laws. Keeping that energy up with Khan, a visionary legal mind in the field, would cement that mindset in place. Even if Khan somehow doesn’t get the job, the other potential names, including Khan’s Columbia colleague Tim Wu (who coined the term “net neutrality”) and the Open Markets Institute’s Sally Hubbard, would carry forward the banner of strict antitrust enforcement.
There are not one but two open seats for Democrats on the FTC, however. The fear from some reformers is that the Biden administration would offset the “antitrust seat” at the FTC with a pro-business counterpart. In an effort to preempt that, some Democrats are stressing the need for a “consumer protection seat” to pair with the antitrust seat to best tackle the FTC’s dual mandate.
There are several names out there, should Biden go that route. Alvaro Bedoyaworked for former Sen. Al Franken on privacy issues; he now directs the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University. Privacy is a key issue at the FTC. Nicol Turner Lee, who covers a similar set of issues for the Brookings Institution, including algorithmic bias and racial equity, has also been mentioned.
On the flip side, a couple of the names that have been thrown out for the remaining FTC slot are more aligned with big business. For example, Travis LeBlanc, a former FCC enforcement bureau chief who’s now a corporate defense attorney with the firm Cooley LLP, could be in the running, though he also may be tapped for an FCC position.
The working assumption is that Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, the former aide to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and current FTC commissioner who was made the acting chair by the Biden administration, would continue in the chair’s role. The only reason that would change is if Terrell McSweeny, a top Biden adviser and former FTC commissioner, would want the chair. However, the rumored White House “antitrust czar” position is said to have been designed to give McSweeny a landing spot in the administration, should she decide to take it. Slaughter has already begun filling out senior staff at the agency; none of those positions require Senate confirmation.
What a recent flurry of executive orders shows about the drawbacks of executive fiat
BUILDING A PRESIDENTIAL legacy out of executive actions can be like building castles out of sand—both risk being wiped out by the changing tides. Donald Trump spent much of his presidency playing in the sand. His lasting legislative accomplishments—a conventionally Republican tax cut, chiefly, and a worthwhile, albeit modest, sentencing-reform law—are few in number and hardly embody his hard-nosed populism. The most sensational bouts of Trumpism came instead through executive fiat: the order to build a border wall with Mexico, a ban on transgender Americans serving in the military, and the steady campaign to loosen pollution controls. A new administration means new rules. President Joe Biden has already rescinded many of those actions. Given his current pace and the vigour of his appointees, he may even achieve something like total de-Trumpification of federal policy.Listen to this story
The executive orders have been coming at an extraordinary clip. The first tranche were breezy values-signalling measures on high-profile controversies. On his first day on the job, Mr Biden posed behind the Resolute desk of the Oval Office beside a stack of 17 immediate actions—undoing his predecessor’s decisions on immigration (like banning entry from several Muslim-majority countries), climate change (by leaving the Paris climate agreement) and covid-19 knownothingism (by not mandating mask-wearing on federal property). The deeper-cleaning orders, on matters that provoke comparatively little public interest and much litigation, come later.
Most Americans misunderstand the executive actions taken by the president and his various agencies—which are generally treated as having the force of law—as some sort of imperial, instantaneous process. This is incorrect. The bounds of executive power are neither nebulous nor limitless, but set by Congress. In some arenas, such as regulating pollution or immigration, Congress has delegated considerable discretion to the executive branch. That is why they are the subject of vacillation from one administration to the next. In other areas, like elementary and secondary schooling, federal authority is more circumscribed.
Some consequential changes really do require only the stroke of the presidential pen. Mr Trump had channelled money for border-wall construction through a simple proclamation of a national emergency—something that Mr Biden was able to end with little fuss. He was also easily able to cancel guidance urging prosecutors to aggressively go after those illegally immigrating across the Mexican border. But other changes, like undoing the nearly 100 environmental deregulations of the Trump era, are much more arduous.
That is because of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the most important act that Americans have never heard of. It requires a rigid process for issuing new rules. A federal agency must ordinarily release drafts of its proposed rule (grounded in the legal authority given by Congress), allow the public a period to comment and then amend it accordingly. Separate requirements mean that regulations must be accompanied by cost-benefits analyses, which can span hundreds of pages of economic and epidemiological modelling, to justify them. Courts scrutinise these administrative actions and costings when new rules are challenged—as they often are. Improper accounting or shoddy adherence to the APA are easy ways to get them thrown out in court, which requires the entire process to restart from scratch. Litigation can stretch for years. But once a rule survives judicial scrutiny, undoing or revising it later requires another go-around.
It will help Mr Biden that the Trump administration was not very adept at administrative law. A tracker by the Institute for Policy Integrity, a think-tank housed at New York University (NYU) law school, found that 80% of lawsuits against the Trump administration’s regulatory changes were successful. Under a typical administration, that number is only 30%.
Many of the failures in court were due to basic errors like not adhering to the APA’s mandatory periods for public comment, or failing to provide reasonable justifications for new rules. Attempts to deregulate still stuck in litigation at the time of the transition, like the previous administration’s effort to weaken exhaust-pipe emissions standards on cars, can be jettisoned without another lengthy rule making process. With a second term, Mr Trump might have waited out some of these legal challenges and seen his changes to regulation become more entrenched. Yet “because Trump was a one-term president, his whole regulatory output is very shaky, and little of it will survive,” says Richard Revesz of NYU.
Executive action is useful not just for wiping away the last man’s legacy but also for sketching your own. Mr Biden will not be content to simply revert to Obama-era rules circa 2016. For one, he has emphasised racial equity much more in his first executive orders than America’s first black president did (a sign of how the party’s base has migrated on these issues). Mr Biden’s economic actions may be a bit to the left as well: he ordered the minimum wage for federal contractors to be raised to $15 an hour compared with the $10.10 rate that Mr Obama ordered six years into his presidency in 2014. On environmental rules, Mr Biden will probably push for ambitious regulation of methane emissions and fuel-efficiency standards for cars, says Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser to Bill Clinton. Given that businesses have revised their stance on climate change since the Obama days, there is likely to be less resistance even to a stricter regime.
The process of de-Trumpification may instil some lessons on the limits of relying on transient executive action alone. Early efforts at mitigating the spread of covid-19 and its economic fallout by executive order—like increasing nutrition assistance for poor families by 15%, or mandating companies to manufacture personal protective equipment—can do some good. More important, notes Heather Boushey, a member of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, will be the pitch Mr Biden has made to Congress: enhanced unemployment benefits, another round of cheques and paid emergency leave. A similar delicate balance between unilateral executive action and more durable legislation will need to be struck on other priorities, chief among them climate change, if Bidenism is to prove any more lasting than Trumpism.■
The first chill of a winter storm is enough to send most people indoors, but not Nathan Myhrvold. The colder the weather, the better his chances are of capturing a microscopic photograph of a snowflake. Now, nearly two years in the making, Myhrvold has developed what he bills as the “highest resolution snowflake camera in the world.” Recently, he released a series of images taken using his creation, a prototype that captures snowflakes at a microscopic level never seen before.
Myhrvold, who holds a PhD in theoretical mathematics and physics from Princeton University and served as the Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft for 14 years, leaned on his background as a scientist to create the camera. He also tapped into his experience as a photographer, most notably as the founder of Modernist Cuisine, a food innovation lab known for its high-resolution photographs of various food stuffs published into a five-volume book of photography of the same name that focuses on the art and science of cooking. Myhrvold first got the idea to photograph snowflakes 15 years ago after meeting Kenneth Libbrecht, a California Institute of Technology professor who happened to be studying the physics of snowflakes.
“In the back of my mind, I thought I’d really like to take snowflake pictures,” Myhrvold says. “About two years ago, I thought it was a good time and decided to put together a state-of-the-art snowflake photography system…but it was a lot harder than I thought.”
Photographing snowflakes is nothing new. In the late 1880s, a Vermont farmer by the name of Wilson Bentley began shooting snowflakes at a microscopic level on his farm. Today he’s considered a pioneer for his work, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. His photography is considered the inspiration for the common wisdom that “no two snowflakes are alike.”
More than a century later, the field of snowflake photography has continued to evolve by leaps and bounds, which is evident in the high-res images that Myhrvold has produced with his own camera.
In simple terms, the system Myhrvold developed is comprised of one part microscope and one part camera, but with a number of parts that work in tandem to complete the arduous task of capturing an image of a snowflake, a subject that’s not only miniscule (most snowflakes measure less than a half-inch in diameter) but also quick to melt. In fact, a snowflake’s tendency to disintegrate was one of the biggest challenges Myhrvold had to overcome with this project. His solution: equipping his 50-pound camera system with a thermoelectric cooling system, a carbon fiber frame and LED lights, which give off less heat than standard lights. Every single part of his Frankenstein-esque device, which stands at about five feet in height off the ground when placed on a table, was built using materials that are less likely to cause melting or sublimation of the subject matter.
“Light could melt the snowflake, so I found a company in Japan that makes LED lights for industrial purposes,” he says. “My camera’s flash is one-millionth of a second and a thousand times faster than that of a typical camera flash.”
Obviously, some locales are better suited for snowflake photography than others. For example, snowflakes in the Pacific Northwest, where Myhrvold is based, aren’t nearly cold enough and either melt or sublimate (when ice turns to gas) too quickly, while on the East Coast, they’re too wet due to the humidity in the air, which can cause snowflakes to stick together. So, he ventured to an even higher latitude with perfect conditions—Timmins, a town in northeastern Ontario, Canada.
“Somewhere between negative 15 degrees and negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit is the snowflake-shooting sweet spot,” he says.
Myhrvold also had to figure out how to physically capture a snowflake. (It’s not quite as simple as hoping that the perfect snowflake just so happens to fall into your mittened hand.) He quickly learned that catching them on a glass microscope slide wouldn’t work; glass is a known insulator. But an artificial sapphire slide, made of the same crystal material as one would find in a high-end watch, had a lower thermal conductivity ratio than glass, making it the perfect material to gather specimens.
In order to get the snowflake on the sapphire slide, he first had to catch one. A piece of foam board that he painted black and clamped onto to the end of a mop handle did the trick. Once enough snowflakes fall onto the board, Myhrvold does a quick visual inspection of the specimens before deciding which one is best suited for his purposes. He then transfers it over to the sapphire slide using a small sable brush, similar to what watercolorists use when painting the finest of details.
“Only one out of every thousand snowflakes is perfect enough to photograph,” he says. “Often, they’ll stick together, so you can’t take too much time and you have to pick the best one you can quickly transfer. You really want to get them on the microscope right away.”
Once safely on the slide, he focuses his microscope to take the photograph, changing the exposure one micron at a time. (For reference, the width of a human hair measures approximately 70 microns.) On average, Myhrvold photographs each snowflake more than 100 times, or as many times as he can before the snowflake starts to melt. Using specialized computer software, Myhrvold combines multiple photographs of a single specimen to create the final photograph.
“That photo [is usually the result of] 100 photographs put together using computer software,” he says. “You have to take many photos in order to get a high enough resolution, because many photos put together allows you to have enough depth of field to see an entire snowflake very sharply.”
Kenneth G. Libbrecht, a professor of physics at CalTech who has extensively studied the physics and pattern formation of ice, and whose work was what inspired Myhrvold to pursue this project in the first place, is no stranger to the challenges of building a high-res snowflake camera. He too has created a similar device, which he uses for his own research purposes. Besides himself, he says only Myhrvold and a Canadian photographer named Don Komarechkahave accomplished the feat of photographing snowflakes at such a micro-level.
“People sometimes ask me how [my camera] works or what does it look like, and it’s very hard to answer because it’s kind of built as a garage-like project,” Libbrecht says. “There’s no blueprint; you throw it together as you go.”
Treading into this unknown territory, Libbrecht says he’s not certain what these high-res photographs will mean in the study of snowflakes. “I don’t know what one will discover with this,” he says. “When you look at pictures, you see things that you didn’t know were there. It’s more important to photograph a lot of snowflakes than just to get a high resolution photo of one, but that’s important too. It’s hard to predict what you’ll discover.”
Myhrvold adds that it’s taken a lot of “trial and error” to get his project to the point where it is now. And even now, he’s still tinkering with different elements to add to his snowflake photography system.
“[I’m] modifying it right now and adding new features,” he says. “Our problem at the moment is that now that winter has started, Canada is locked down, so I’m using this time to upgrade things.”
One possible upgrade Myhrvold mentions is someday hooking his system up to a 3-D printer, but one minor problem exists: “There’s currently no printer that could print at the resolution of a real snowflake,” he says. “But if you increased it to the size of a dinner plate, absolutely.”