A customer picks up produce near a sign supporting a ballot initiative in Washington state that would require labelling of foods containing genetically modified crops at the Central Co-op in Seattle, Washington- Jason Redmond/Reuters file
The Pew Research Centre recently polled Americans on their concerns about genetically modified foods (GMO). Predictably, given the popular consternation around GMOs, a considerable plurality said they had concerns: 49 per cent worried about the effects of GMOs on our health; the same number believed that GMOs would harm the environment.
But McKay Jenkins, a journalist who spent several years researching GMOs, says both of these concerns fundamentally miss the mark. In his new book, “Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet,” Jenkins makes the case that it’s not GMOs we should single out for criticism – it’s the industrial agricultural system that they power.
After all, Jenkins points out, genetic engineering has thus far been limited to America’s largest commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans. (According to the Department of Agriculture, 92 per cent of US corn acres are planted with GM varieties; for soybeans, it’s 94 per cent.) Both corn and soy are typically grown in vast Midwestern monocultures, doused with nitrogen fertilisers and synthetic pesticides.
They also supply the vast amounts of corn syrup, soybean oil and cheap livestock feed needed to power both the fast food and processed food industries.
I first spoke to Jenkins last month for a story on the first genetically modified apple, which recently hit stores in the Midwest. I called him up again last week to chat about the big-picture, structural problems with GMOs in more depth.
Q. Before we get too deep into this, I wanted to ask you a quick procedural question: You know, better than I do, that it’s very difficult to report on GMOs. Everyone claims to have science on their side. Everyone also has very strong feelings on how that science should be interpreted. How did you go about assessing the evidence?
A. Before I started writing this book, the journalists who I knew who had tried to write about it previously warned me that anybody who touches GMOs gets burned. People are so worked up on both sides that no matter what you say, somebody’s going to scream about it. As a journalist, you know that anytime that’s true there’s something worth looking into.
On this issue there’s a lot of stuff that is tossed around that’s confusing on both sides. And when I say “both sides,” I realise there aren’t just two sides to the GMO issue. You have industry that is trying to convince you that all GMOs are fine, and then you have anti-GMO groups that have quote-unquote science they’re reporting that’s not necessarily reliable, and you have global debates, and local debates, and debates over labeling and debates over health and debates over ecological impacts. All these different things are all going on at the same time.
I decided pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to try to get into the debate of whether eating a genetically altered tortilla chip was going cause you to get cancer or not.
That’s pretty much the only question general consumers seem to have, but that was not the question that most interested me. The screaming on both sides of that question is so loud and so shrill that I can’t hear any truth in it. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of scientists seem to have agreed that genetic engineering as such is not a cause for concern. Now even as I say that, it’s important to know there are plenty of scientists who don’t agree. But I still don’t think that’s the most important question.
Instead, I went in search of GMO scientists that had the larger question of sustainable, nutritious food in mind. I wasn’t interested in finding out what someone who works for a giant agrochemical company thought about whether GMOs could make monoculture corn better. The pro-GMO scientists I wanted to talk to were the ones who were thinking about using genetic engineering to solve, for example, nutritional deficiencies or to solve drought problems or to solve fossil fuel overdependence. People who were using technology in ways that would advance the goal of sustainable agriculture.
Q That’s actually a main criticism of the book, right – that GMOs are part of an agricultural system that is not environmentally or socially sustainable?
A. Yes. Another category of scientists I spoke to were people like Wes Jackson and his crew out at the Land Institute, who think the GMO question is at best a part of this problem, and at worse a distraction from the larger problem – that really GMOs are just the latest version of a 30- or 40-year-old industrial food system that has gone completely off rails.
By focusing so much on GMOs, you’re not paying attention to species loss or the decline in aquifers or soil depletion or greenhouse gasses or all the other problems tied up on industrial food production. And I’m sympathetic to that argument. I think GMOs have gotten a lot of attention because they elicit a visceral fear from people, but really we have a lot of other agricultural problems that predate GMOs. If you think about factory farming or fossil fuels or toxic chemicals or soil loss – those things all existed before GMOs, and GMOs just scaled them up.
Q What do you mean when you say GMOs just “scaled up” agriculture’s problems?
A. The short version is that GMO technology, along with synthetic fertilisers, has allowed industrial-scale farmers to grow a very small number of crops incredibly efficiently. These firms are not out there making GMO zucchinis and broccolis and red peppers and all that – they’re making corn and soybeans and canola oil and sugar beets. They’re making components that either go into processed food, or are used to feed processed, industrial meat.
That’s been great for the food industry, because they can provide a huge amount of calories and lots of different kinds of food products. You have something like 230 million acres of GMO corn and soybeans in the Midwest, which is then processed into the food that we eat — fast food or those processed foods that just need to be popped into the microwave that you buy in the supermarket. The average supermarket has something like 46,000 different products in it, and a good percentage of those are built out of those couple of grains, which are mostly GMO. The GMO technology has simply allowed an already industrial system to become even bigger and more efficient.
Q. I remember the first time we spoke, you said that GMOs are at heart of the obesity epidemic, that they’ve fueled this whole system that’s wrecked havoc on American health. How did you make that connection?
A. If you back these conversations up and you ask what are people eating that is making them obese, the answer is lots of soft drinks, lots of fast food, lots of processed food.
There’s no disputing that. Everyone agrees on that. And then you back that up and say, “What are those things made of?,” And the answer is always, “Well, they’re mostly made out of corn or soybeans.”
The corn is processed into high-fructose corn syrup, which goes into sodas; the corn and soybeans go into feeding the animals that become fast-food hamburgers or chicken nuggets.
To say that GMOs cause obesity is disingenuous. But it’s also true that GMOs are a central technological component of the system that is providing this kind of food in that kind of quantity.
Philip Martineau, head of physics at the De Beers Research Centre, holds a molecular model of a diamond at De Beers Technologies research laboratory in Maidenhead, England- Chris Ratcliffe/Washington Post file
At a drab office park in a Washington suburb, in an unmarked building’s windowless lab, Yarden Tsach is growing diamonds.
Not rhinestones or cubic zirconia. Diamonds. Real ones. In a matter of eight weeks, inside a gas-filled chamber, he replicates a process that usually takes billions of years in the bowels of the planet. Carbon atom by carbon atom, he creates nature’s hardest, most brilliant and – if decades of advertisements are to be believed – most romantic stone.
No outsiders get to witness this genesis, though. WD Lab Grown Diamonds, where Tsach is chief technology officer, guards its approach as zealously as its address. These are the measures a company takes when it’s a target – of fierce competitors, potential jewel thieves and a traditional industry that would very much like it to go away.
“Everything is after us,” Tsach says. He doesn’t mean it as a joke.
Until the middle of the past century, all of the world’s diamonds originated more than 1 billion years ago in the Earth’s hot, dark interior. Tremendous temperatures and pressures forced the carbon atoms there to link up in a flawless, three-dimensional lattice that would prove incredibly strong and equally effective at bending and bouncing light. The result was a crystal – a gem in the rough that, once cut and polished, would dazzle with unmatched radiance.
Yet getting those stones up to the surface has required an enormous – and sometimes bloody – effort. The environmental impact of diamond mines is so sprawling that it can be seen from space. The humanitarian cost of some gems is also staggering: Children forced to work in mines, “blood diamonds” sold to finance wars. The Kimberley Process, which certifies diamonds as “conflict free,” was established in 2003 to stem the flow of these stones into the global market. But critics have argued for tougher measures; in 2011, one of the leaders of the campaign to implement the vetting programme pulled out after concluding that it had failed.
Traditional diamond producers say only a small fraction of diamonds are suspect these days because of steps they’ve taken to ensure that mines are socially and environmentally responsible. They push back against the appeal of lab-grown stones, suggesting the man-made versions aren’t on par with those dug out of the ground. The most recent ad campaign from the Diamond Producers Association, which features hipster couples frolicking amid gorgeous nature scenes, is called “Real is Rare.”
Their argument is unspoken but clear: No one should propose to a sweetheart with a gem that was made in some drab office park.
Tsach shakes his head and holds up one of his company’s products. It catches the fluorescent light, casting rainbows on the walls.
“This was grown here next to Washington, DC, by people with health insurance and sick days and vacation days,” he says. “Is it a real diamond? … A person can make up his own mind.”
Scientists have been creating diamonds since the 1950s, mimicking the conditions deep within the Earth by heating carbon to extreme temperatures while squeezing it in a hydraulic press. But it took them several decades more to cultivate large gem-quality stones. These were still not as large or as clear as the best traditional diamonds, and most were coloured yellow or brown from the nitrogen required to stabilise the growing process. Still, the traditional diamond companies were on edge.
“Unless they can be detected,” a Belgian diamond dealer told Wired in 2003, “these stones will bankrupt the industry.”
Today, nearly a dozen companies worldwide produce diamonds that are all but indistinguishable from mined stones – good enough for any engagement ring or Valentine’s Day present. Four more companies focus solely on diamonds for use in factories and research labs. One of the latter, Element Six, is run by the famous diamond-mining company De Beers.
“The industry is as viable as it’s ever been,” said Rob Bates of the diamond trade publication JCK.
WDLG Diamond relies on a technique developed by scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science. It starts with a tiny sliver of diamond that acts as a substrate on which the new stone can grow. This ‘seed’ is placed inside an airless chamber, which is pumped full of hydrogen and methane that become a plasma, a hot, ionized gas.
The now highly charged carbon atoms from the methane are attracted to the seed at the bottom of the chamber and begin to forge the super-strong bonds that characterise a diamond. As each new atom is added, it hews to the diamond’s lattice structure, falling into place like a piece of a puzzle.
“The details are still not completely understood,” said Russell Hemley, who directed Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory in the late 1990s. “But the presence of hydrogen biases the deposition of carbon as diamond rather than graphite. That’s how you can grow a diamond outside of what’s known as its stability region”, meaning the extreme pressures and temperatures found in the Earth’s mantle.
When a stone reaches a certain size, Tsach’s team puts it in a second chamber and zaps it with a laser to excise the seed diamond and condition the new gem’s surface. What emerges from this process is small and square, about the size of a thumbnail. It’s dark from the thin film of graphite (the other form of pure carbon) produced by the laser-cutting process. It’s also distinctly unimpressive. It looks like a bit of plastic.
Then off it goes, to be cut by a commercial polisher. Tsach chooses a pattern using special software that helps him maximise the number of gems the company can get from the stone while avoiding any of its imperfections. This process is like Tetris, if Tetris pieces were worth thousands of dollars.
The last stop is the International Gemological Institute, where the gem is graded and certified. Per federal regulation, it’s also inscribed with “Laboratory grown in the USA” and a serial number to distinguish it from a mined diamond. The label is microscopically small, but growers wish they could ditch the clinical-sounding term. It’s not exactly swoon-worthy.
Sales of lab-grown stones make up about 1 per cent of the global commercial diamond market, but a 2016 report from investment firm Morgan Stanley suggested that proportion could jump to 7.5 per cent by the end of the decade. In one unlikely scenario, analysts said, lab diamonds might become so ubiquitous that the entire traditional market collapses.
After all, that market depends on sentiment and scarcity. The combination is what made De Beers’s famous “a diamond is forever” campaign so potent. It turned diamonds into the ultimate symbol of eternal love, stones that were to be treasured and never – perish the thought – resold. The genius strategy has helped to ensure diamond companies control supply.
But lab-grown jewels shatter the illusion. They can be made on demand, in a matter of weeks, and they cost an estimated 10 per cent to 40 per cent less than a gem that comes out of the ground. Technology being what it is, it’s likely they’ll get even cheaper.
So what happens then? Will a diamond be just another shiny rock?
“A diamond is an extraordinary material,” Hemley said, indignant. He noted the stone’s strength, optical qualities and resilience. “Its intrinsic properties are remarkable.”
Wearing it on your finger is just about the least interesting thing you can do with a diamond. The stones are one of nature’s best heat conductors and electrical insulators; when used in the production of semiconductors, they keep the silicon from overheating. They’re also used to make drill bits, solar panels and high-power lasers.
Someday, tiny diamond nanoparticles might even help deliver medicine to cells struck by cancer.
Lab-grown gems extend the possibilities much further – allowing scientists to explore questions about the cosmos. Hemley, who is now a professor at George Washington University, is working with WDLG Diamonds to develop better stones for instruments called diamond anvil cells. By squeezing together two diamonds – the only material capable of withstanding such pressures – scientists can simulate the conditions found inside planets. They can compress the microbes that dwell in the Earth’s crust to understand how they resist the crushing weight of the rock above them. They can model the behaviour of gases that endure the high pressure of gas planets such as Saturn and Jupiter.
And they can push materials to such extremes that they take on new properties. Just last month, Harvard physicists claimed that they’d used a diamond vise to turn hydrogen into a metal – a step towards developing a new type of superconductor.
Diamonds’ transparency is vital in these experiments. It allows researchers to send beams of light, from X-ray to infrared, through the anvil cell to probe the material inside. Reinhard Boehler, a scientist at Carnegie and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, uses neutron beams to probe elements such as carbon and hydrogen at very high pressures. The task requires diamonds that are perfect as well as large, which means they can only come from a lab. Traditional diamonds often contain flaws, and those of any significant size are far too expensive – especially because Boehler’s lab breaks so many of its anvils.
He chuckled, “Diamonds, for us, are not forever.”
The protest camp near the Dakota Access pipeline drilling site in North Dakota, where rising temperatures have led to snow melt and rising water. Many protesters are preparing to leave the camp- Joe Heim/Washington Post
CANNON BALL (ND)
The main camp here, once home to thousands of Native Americans and their allies who gathered to protest against the completion of the Dakota Access crude-oil pipeline, is quickly turning into a gooey pit of mud.
Unseasonably warm temperatures over the weekend melted giant mounds of snow, and many of the remaining 200 or so pipeline protesters – self-described ‘water protectors’ – are gathering their possessions and making plans to get off the 80-acre property, which sits in a flood zone near the Missouri River. The rising waters, and a federal eviction notice for February 22, have forced their hands.
Others say they will stay and fight the Army Corps of Engineers, which decided last week to allow completion of the 1,172-mile pipeline. After President Donald Trump cleared the way, the corps granted an easement to Energy Transfer Partners to drill under a reservoir less than a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation. The drilling began last week.
The tribe has argued in court that this short stretch of the $3.8 billion pipeline threatens their water supply, crosses sacred burial grounds and violates long-standing treaties between the Native Americans and the federal government. But the path forward for the fight is unclear; many are pinning their hopes on court challenges, including one scheduled in Washington, DC, seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the political – and actual – machinery. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has joined a motion by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe to halt the drilling.
Horses still run free in the camp. Small packs of dogs dart about, tussling in the snow, their barks drowned out by the incessant whine of a snowmobile that wends its way through the slushy mess. Everything is white, brown, grey. The only flashes of colour come from weatherworn tribal flags, banners that were jubilantly raised last summer and now, some in tatters, snap to and fro in the ever-changing wind.
In the slurry running through camp are the remains of a mostly abandoned mini-city: An unopened packet of Top Ramen, a broken shovel, a mud-soaked glove, a pacifier.
One day soon, all of this will be gone: The tepees packed away, the yurts pulled down, the abandoned tents and sleeping bags and boxes of belongings scraped up by bulldozers into waiting dumpsters and hauled off to landfills.
The question for the camp’s inhabitants and visitors and supporters is whether its dismantling becomes a catalyst for renewed Native American activism or fades into the hazy nostalgia of uprisings past.
Josh Dayrider, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, has been at the camp off and on since early last year. The 30-year-old isn’t quite ready to leave, but he knows departure is inevitable.
“We’re still in the fight,” Dayrider said. “And we’ve accomplished something amazing. We woke the world up by showing how the oil companies treat the land and the people. We’re still standing. We’re still fighting.”
Tanya Olsen stood next to her mini-camper, pulling out a mattress that had been soaked by rising waters.
“The plan is to stay until the last minute,” said Olsen, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She arrived here in November. “I was never an activist. I knew very little about pipelines. But what really caught my attention was the mistreatment of the Natives here. I thought, I’ve got to go there. I need to stand with my people.”
As she prepares to leave, Olsen says she takes solace from the impact the year-long protest has had on tribes.
“It has brought the people of all of our nations together,” she said. “It has awoken the children, the seventh generation, and it has been a learning experience for us as culture. It’s sad that they went and allowed them to drill, but this hasn’t been all for nothing.”
From across the camp, there’s a yell: “Mni Wiconi!”
Loosely translated from the Lakota language, it means “water is life,” and it has become the protesters’ rallying cry. The yell is picked up and repeated from different corners of the camp for a minute or so, echoing up to a snowy bluff overlooking the encampment where state and local police sit in a fleet of law enforcement vehicles, monitoring comings and goings. Quiet returns.
For the Standing Rock tribe and its supporters, the decision to allow completion of the pipeline without a promised environmental impact study came as one more slap in the face. Particularly upsetting to Standing Rock Chairman David Archambault II was that he had traveled to Washington on Tuesday for a White House meeting with a Trump administration official the following day; he believed he would have one more chance to plead the tribe’s case. But he arrived at Reagan National Airport to learn that final approval had been granted while he was en route.
The snub was a sharp insult to the tribe’s 8,000 members. On Friday night at the Standing Rock High School gym in Fort Yates, 25 miles down the road from the protest camp, several hundred fans from the reservation gathered to watch the home Warriors girls basketball team take on the New Salem Holsteins.
Cheers and the squeak of sneakers filled the gym, where banners hang from the rafters touting the reservation’s champion teams and athletes going back to the 1940s.
In the lobby, members of the Standing Rock high school band were holding a bake sale. Their teacher, Kim Warren, a tribal member, said she made regular visits to the main camp in the fall, believing the protest was a necessary and valuable one.
“We can’t give up, especially with this new administration,” said Warren, who has been teaching at the school for 18 years. “We can’t give up. That’s what I tell my students every day. Every struggle that they have, I tell them don’t give up, keep going.” Despite assurances from the pipeline’s owners that it is safe and is using the most advanced technology available, there is almost universal belief among Standing Rock tribal members that an accident is unavoidable and their drinking water will be contaminated.
“Pipelines break all the time,” said Charles Bailey, 46, a tribal member, as he stood outside the gym. “Everybody knows that it’s going to break at some point. At my age, I’m thinking about how is this going to affect our youth, my daughters.”
As legal options dwindle and the prospect of a completed pipeline that could begin transporting more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day in two to three months appears more likely, its opponents are taking stock.
Dallas Goldtooth has been one of the leading voices of the protest, filing regular Facebook Live feeds to share the most recent developments. An environmental activist who is an Isanti Dakota from Minnesota, he wants supporters to know that their participation has not been in vain, no matter what the outcome.
“Some feel it is all or nothing, but we cannot adopt that frame of thinking,” Goldtooth said. “We’ve seen defeat as indigenous people, but we still persist, we’re still striving. Whether we get a win here or not, we’ve pushed the boulder down the hill and it’s running. The fight never stops. It builds. It moves. It grows.”
Some activists have called for more protesters to come out to the site, but the Standing Rock tribe has discouraged that, asking that opposition be directed at the local level and at a March 10 march planned for Native American rights in Washington.
The relationship between the camp’s remaining inhabitants and the Standing Rock tribe has at times been prickly. The tribe welcomed the 200 or so Native tribes that gathered here in late summer and fall to help their cause, and it welcomed the national and international support that followed. But the ongoing protest, at times involving violent clashes with law enforcement from neighboring Morton County, has drained the tribe’s attention and resources.
One of the reservation’s leading sources of revenue, the Prairie Knights casino hotel and concert venue, has taken a financial hit as the main road between the casino and Bismarck – normally an hour’s drive – has been blocked off by state police for months, forcing patrons to make a lengthier trip.
The ongoing protest also has strained an already tense relationship with Morton County law enforcement officials, who have arrested more than 700 protesters in recent months, including members of the Standing Rock tribe. And the unrest has led to a series of bills being introduced in the North Dakota legislature that create severe penalties for protest activities, a move that Amnesty International said “would undermine the rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression.”
Joe Plouff, 67, a former Wisconsin state representative and an Army veteran from Prairie View, Wisconsin, stood outside of his tent near the entrance to the Sacred Stone camp, which sits across the frozen Cannonball River from the main camp. He’s not hopeful at this point that the pipeline can be stopped, but since arriving here in December, he says he has drawn inspiration from the movement and from the number of young people involved.
“Will they be demoralised if they lose this battle? Yes. Depressed? Yes? Hurt? Yes. But I see a lot of young people here and I think they will take it as a start,” he said. “There’s optimism because the Native Americans here have brought forward an issue that most of us have not paid attention to, and that is the safety of our water. They’ve taken a local issue and made it a national one.”
WP News Syndicate
Vehicles pass the Trump International Hotel, formerly the Old Post Office Pavilion, in Washington, DC- Andrew Harrer/Washington Post file
Sarah Squire’s wedding wasn’t meant to be a political statement. But, she says, it probably seems like one now.
Back when Squire booked the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, for her January nuptials, Donald Trump was one of a dozen candidates clamouring for the Republican nomination. The real estate tycoon was widely presumed to be a long shot for the nation’s highest office. But by the time Squire and her husband got married in the property’s presidential ballroom on January 14, Trump was six days away from being sworn in as the next president of the United States.
“That definitely wasn’t something we ever considered,” said Squire, 27, who works in business development for a law firm in Nashville. “We had no idea this would happen.”
Added her mother, Elisabeth: “As the building progressed – and as Trump was progressing, too – we were thinking, ‘Oh, boy.’ “
The reasons Squire chose the historic property on Pennsylvania Avenue, she says, were simple: It was a historic building in downtown Washington that could easily accommodate her 300 invitees.
“And we heard that it was Ivanka behind the design – not her daddy,” Elisabeth added. “She has great taste.”
While a handful of couples have already tied the knot at Trump’s hotel since it opened in September, wedding planners say many others are eschewing the property in favour of less-controversial venues around town.
Trump spent $212 million renovating the historic property, which he is renting from the General Services Administration. The hotel has been the site of frequent protests, including an incident last month when a man apparently set himself on fire outside the building. A spokeswoman for the hotel did not respond to requests for comment.
“A lot of brides are saying ‘This is very political for my guests, so I think I’ll go elsewhere,” said a local wedding planner who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the backlash following an October wedding she planned at the hotel.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place in the city that’s so polarising.”
“The fallout of this – people threatening my family, calling for boycotts of my company – has been worse than anything I could’ve imagined,” she added.
Even brides and grooms who have already gotten married at the hotel are treading carefully. One couple asked that their names not be visible in any photos of their wedding shared online. Others have begun leaving the name “Trump” off invitations, referring to the property instead by its original name, “the Old Post Office Pavilion,” according to a local florist who provides arrangements for the Trump hotel.
The reaction to the property “has been as split as the election was,” said Jennifer Stiebel, owner of district-based SoCo Events, who planned a New Year’s Eve wedding at the hotel. “Let’s put it this way: There are definitely some clients I would never recommend it to. But at the same time, when you walk into that lobby, it’s hard to deny that it is gorgeous.”
That refrain – gorgeous, beautiful, stunning – was a common one among the area’s wedding planners. And, they said, they were impressed by the hotel’s events and catering team, made up of veterans of Washington’s toniest hotels. David Anderson, the head of catering, was formerly at the Four Seasons in Georgetown. Rebecca Ventura, director of social catering sales, came from the Hay-Adams.
“It’s beautiful – there’s no way around that,” said Katie Martin, owner of Elegance & Simplicity, a Bethesda company that specialises in eco-friendly weddings. “And, obviously, it’s sitting in a great part of town.”
But, she added, her clients have yet to show any interest. Instead, they’re booking weddings at the Decatur House, a historic building around the corner from the White House, and various hotels in town.
“We’re such a divided nation right now,” Martin said. “Nobody wants their wedding to become a political event.”
The phenomenon, she says, isn’t limited to Trump’s hotel. Martin says her clients had similar reactions to the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Centre when it opened in 1998. Other couples, she said, refuse to consider the Whittemore House mansion in Dupont Circle because it is home to the Women’s National Democratic Club.
“Politics really affect our emotions,” she said. “And we live in an area that’s very politically charged.”
Sara Robertson wasn’t sure what to expect when she walked into the Trump hotel on New Year’s Eve for a last-minute photography gig. Would there be protests? Vandalism? Politically charged debates?
The wedding turned out to be an opulent celebration, complete with poi dancers and women in short, glittery outfits spinning light-up Hula Hoops in the dark. Guests danced to Top 40 hits, and a cannon blasted glitter and confetti at midnight.
“I left all politics aside when I walked in there,” said Robertson, who owns Wolfcrest Photography in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “And it seemed like everyone else did, too.”
Some, though, say they’ve faced backlash over their decisions to do business at the Trump. Aaron Broadus, band leader of BroadSound Entertainment, said other musicians questioned his intentions when he took to Facebook to write about his experience playing at the hotel.
“People started saying, ‘Oh, well I would never perform there,’ “ said Broadus, who is also a music professor at Georgetown University. “But that’s not where we stand. We’re impartial. And in the end, everything was okay. Everything was fine.”
Tara Melvin isn’t convinced. As the owner of Perfect Planning Events, she oversees about 15 weddings a year – but has no intention of planning any at the Trump.
“Honestly, I don’t ask my clients what their political views are, but I do know that integrity is important to a lot of them,” she said, adding that she was put off by some of Trump’s comments about women and people of different ethnic and religious groups.
“I would never go against a client’s wants or needs,” she added, “but this is one property I won’t voluntarily be recommending.”
When Katherine Callaway booked the hotel for her September wedding, she was sure of one thing: There would be a lot of gold.
She had yet to set foot in the building, which was still months from finishing renovations. “But when you think of Trump, of course you think gold,” said her wedding planner.
Callaway, 27, who grew up in McLean, Virginia, and is now a training manager for the National Park Service, said the Old Post Office had always been her favorite building in Washington. When she heard that it was being reopened, it immediately became her top venue choice, surpassing the St. Regis, where her parents had gotten married.
“It’s such a beautiful building,” she said. “We booked it immediately.”
Her wedding planner, for her part, said she was wary when she heard that Callaway and her fiance, Jeffrey Smeraglinolo, had signed up to host the very first wedding there. The building was under construction and wouldn’t be complete until a couple of weeks before their big day. Plus, she said, “a hotel’s soft opening is typically a disaster.”
But the staff did their best to quell her worries. Every few days, the sales team emailed her photos and sent updates on Snapchat. She watched as the scaffolding came off and made plans to decorate the venue with tall white candles, gold vases and white-and-gold tablecloths.
The night of the wedding, a few things were shuffled around – her team had to move some furniture to hide an unfinished wall panel, but nothing she says guests would have noticed. Everything went smoothly, she says, and the hotel’s catering captain even ran down the street to get her coffee from Starbucks.
“I went in thinking it would be a nightmare,” the planner said. “But walking into the reception, I was dumbfounded. It was beautiful.”
The backlash, though, was anything but. When word got out that she’d worked with the Trump hotel, people took to her Instagram account with hate-filled messages and threats, she said. They called for boycotts of her company, which resulted in her losing at least one corporate client.
“It was a complete downward spiral,” she said.
But, she added, “I would definitely do another wedding there. It would just be something I’d have to keep quiet.”
WP News Syndicate
Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory research optic is shown in this undated photo released by Caltech/MIT/Ligo Laboratory- Reuters/File
The speed limit on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (Ligo) access road is 10mph, which is preposterously slow, particularly after you’ve spent the last hour hurtling across the bayou country on elevated freeways. You have to creep towards the guard booth. The scientists and engineers don’t actually care how fast you drive; it’s the braking that’s the problem. Deceleration exerts a force on the road that can throw off exquisitely sensitive instruments nearby. This is basic physics, and it’s a headache for Ligo.
True story: A few years back, Amber Stuver, a physicist, was sitting in the Ligo control room on a quiet day, with no seismic activity, no wind. The lasers were functioning perfectly. Suddenly, everything went haywire.
“What just happened?” Stuver asked her co-workers. “FedEx guy,” someone answered.
The FedEx guy! Comes every day at 4.30 to the loading dock, impatient driver, hit the brakes too hard – and rendered deaf an instrument designed to hear gravitational waves from exploding stars and black-hole collisions billions of light-years away. The point is that Ligo is a delicate business.
One year ago, Ligo scientists gathered in Washington to announce their historic discovery of gravitational waves – ripples through the fabric of space and time, something theorised by Albert Einstein exactly a century earlier but dismayingly elusive. The waves in that initial discovery came from the unimaginably violent merger of two black holes in a distant precinct of the universe.
Now scientists at Ligo think they’re on the verge of a string of cosmic breakthroughs, but they also have a new set of concerns, and they don’t involve the FedEx guy. The question is: What’s going to happen to science in the Age of Trump?
Ligo involves, according to its own count, 1,006 scientists from 83 different institutions in 15 nations. A number of students who work on Ligo-related research are affected by the Trump administration’s travel ban, according to Ligo’s chief spokeswoman, Gabriela González, a physicist at nearby Louisiana State University.
“We are very concerned,” González said in a phone interview. “They are part of our scientific workforce, and now at this time they cannot travel abroad.” This is a new scientific field, and it will benefit dramatically from observatories being built in Italy, Japan and India. The European Space Agency is also preparing a space-based gravitational-wave detector, called LISA.
González emphasised the need for a global network of detectors. This is not a feel-good concept but a simple function of geometry. Detectors spaced far apart can triangulate the origin of a gravitational wave. This is a global project because scientists want a truly planet-sized network to sharpen their detection skills.
Because Ligo has only two detectors, both in North America, scientists have only an approximate notion of where any particular wave comes from. They can point to a general region of the sky, oblong in shape, and say it came from over that away.
“The bigger the triangle, the better the precision,” González said. “We need the network.”
Funding is another concern, though Ligo would seem better positioned than many other scientific endeavours, particularly climate-change and social-scienceresearch, which are likely targets for cuts by the Trump administration and the Republican majority in Congress. Basic science research, however, has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support.
Ligo is funded by the National Science Foundation, an independent agency of the federal government with an annual budget of about $7.5 billion. In the past two decades, NSF has spent about $1.1 billion on Ligo, which is operated by Caltech and MIT and includes a second site, the Ligo Hanford Observatory in eastern Washington.
The chairman of the House Science Committee, Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), has supported the project, according to committee spokeswoman Kristina Baum. She wrote in an email: “The chairman’s priorities include ensuring more NSF funding is directed towards the hard sciences and groundbreaking research like gravitational waves, and less funding to frivolous or marginal projects.”
Ligo certainly meets the definition of hard science. There’s only one stoplight in Livingston, a small town about an hour north of New Orleans. If you look closely, you’ll see a tiny sign, with an arrow, saying “Ligo.” It’s easy to miss next to the three billboards advertising a personal-injury attorney, a $5,000 reward for tips to Crime Stoppers, and ‘Top Dollar Paid’ for gold and guns at a pawnshop.
But if you head west a couple hundred yards, and then turn north at the Fireworks Warehouse, and drive a few miles on a winding country road, you’ll eventually reach the place where the theory of gravitational waves became a reality.
Ligo is, in some ways, an incredibly improbable enterprise because of its physical scale and esoteric scientific ambition. There is no obvious application for the knowledge gained. The cost of the project could easily have led to a kind of gravitational collapse ending in oblivion. And although it had a firm theoretical foundation – Who would bet against Einstein? – it required levels of engineering never before attempted.
The two observatories in Louisiana and Washington state had to be built in remote, seismically stable locations. The dominant feature of each facility is the pair of 2.5-mile-long beam lines, set perpendicularly. These are tubes in which laser beams pass through an almost perfect vacuum.
“We had to correct for the curvature of the Earth,” Stuver said, standing on a bridge overlooking one of the beam line tubes as it receded into the pineywoods – timber land owned primarily by Weyerhauser. “From the corner there to the end of the arm, the Earth curves down away a little bit more than four feet.”
A reporter drove a rental car the length of the arm, with Stuver serving as narrator. The beam line is encased in heavy concrete. Stuver said that so few atoms and molecules remain in the vacuum tubes that if you could gather them all up, from the entire 2.5-mile length, and compress them to normal atmospheric pressure, they’d amount to one thimbleful of air.
Hunting stands are nearby in the woods, but they pointaway from the beam lines. The scientists met with local hunting clubs, and made a simple request: Don’t shoot the observatory.
The essential concept of Ligo is that a gravitational wave, when it passes through Livingston, will stretch one arm while contracting the other that runs at a 90-degree angle. Space itself will change dimensions. Two arms normally of identical length will suddenly be slightly mismatched. This effect, however, is smaller than the width of an atom.
That’s where the lasers come in. A laser beam is split into two beams, one for each arm. The beams travel the length of the arms and bounce off mirrors at the end. They circulate hundreds of times in the arms before finally reconverging at the corner where the arms meet.
If there’s no gravitational wave rolling through town, the wavelengths of the beams will continue to line up perfectly. But if, say, a couple of black holes have collided, and the ripple of the event passes through the Earth, the shift in the laser wavelengths can reveal the signature of that distant cataclysm.
The first big run of Ligo, from 2002 to 2010, had yielded bupkis. The observatory just wasn’t sensitive enough. But the experiment got some upgrades, and suddenly the universe became audible. At precisely 4.51am CDT on the morning of September 14, 2015, the Livingston detector picked up a signal – a hum, building in intensity and ending in a chirp.
A fraction of a second later, the detector 1,865 miles away in Hanford, Wash., picked up the same signal – and in the process confirmed that gravitational waves move at the speed of light. The signal fit precisely with the theoretical models for what happens when black holes collide.
A month later, another apparent gravitational wave passed through – though scientists can’t be absolutely sure it wasn’t caused by some terrestrial noise.
“I have an 87 per cent confidence that this is a gravitational wave from an astrophysical source,” Stuver said. That sounds pretty good, but scientists don’t consider a 87 percent probability as very robust.
In December 2015, a third event happened, and that one passed the confidence test. Thus during a roughly four-month detection run, Ligo picked up two certain events and one possible event.
Ligo scientists were deliberate in announcing their discovery. First they had to make sure that someone had not programmed a fake signal in the detectors as a way of testing the instruments. Then they had to prepare a scientific paper with more than 1,000 co-authors.
Here in Livingston, life changed. Ligo had been around for years, but many locals didn’t know anything about it. They may have heard about it from schoolkids who went to the facility on field trips (there is an impressive science center with exhibits on lasers, gravity and basic physics). But at the first open house after the announcement, 1,292 people showed up to see what the fuss was about.
“For the first time in my life, I saw people standing in line for a science tour as though it was a ride at an amusement park,” Stuver said.
Until Ligo came along, information about the universe came almost exclusively from wavelengths of light in the electromagnetic spectrum. That includes optical, X-ray, gamma-ray and infrared telescopes. But gravitational waves carry information, too.
“This is like Galileo turning the telescope to the sky for the very first time,” Stuver said.
At a congressional hearing last year before the House Science Committee, Rep. Smith asked a panel of Ligo leaders, “What are the practical consequences of – or, practical applications of gravitational waves?”
Ligo scientists answered by saying that the experiment has already led to technological advances in “vibration isolation” and “laser stabilisation,” as well as precision timekeeping. This is also a training ground for scientists moving into other arenas.
But no one really sells Ligo on practical grounds. The main selling point: It’s knowledge for its own sake. Ligo probes the darkness, and reveals hidden and universal truths.
WP News Syndicate
Wilbur H. Durborough, an American correspondent from Chicago, went to Germany in 1915 to shoot film footage of World War I- Washington Post
The young German soldier has his rifle slung over his shoulder, a half-eaten sandwich in his left hand and a drinking cup in his right. As he steps to the refreshment window, a woman in a white apron leans over the counter and puts a sprig of flowers in a buttonhole of his uniform. He looks dashing in his spiked helmet and trim mustache, and she glances at him as he moves on. Then she looks up at the camera.
It is June 1915, 10 months into World War I. The place is Thorn – modern-day Torun, in northern Poland. And the soldier, whose name and fate are unknown, is headed for the front lines and the killing machine of the Great War. The moment was captured by a brash, cigar-smoking American filmmaker, Wilbur H. Durborough, and his cameraman, Irving G. Ries, who had motored to the action in a Stutz Bearcat flying an American flag, the word ‘press’ emblazoned on the car.
The scene is part of a little-known documentary about the German army – filmed by Americans – that will be part of an extended exhibit on World War I being assembled by the Library of Congress this year. April 6 marks the 100th anniversary of the US entry into World War I in 1917.
The library recently restored and digitised the silent film, which is believed to be the only existing, essentially complete American World War I feature-length documentary. It is an hour and 48 minutes long.
Forgotten for decades, Durborough’s film, called ‘On the Firing Line With the Germans’, was discovered in a wine cellar of the estate of a Chicago businessman in 1985 and was eventually turned over to the library. The footage, most of it on old nitrate film, was examined one frame at a time at the library’s audiovisual conservation center in Culpeper, Va.
It has striking scenes of youthful German soldiers before they became the enemy. Durborough captured them in camp, peeling potatoes, marching through Berlin, recuperating in hospitals, and fighting in apparent and simulated battle scenes. Many of the images are extremely clear, and the faces of the men and women extraordinary.
He also captured scenes of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto and vivid shots of Allied prisoners of war – British, Russian and French, some still wearing 1860s-style caps and uniforms. There are shots of the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.
And there are scenes of Durborough – in the Stutz with cigar and driving goggles, shaking hands with German officers, chatting with German soldiers and standing in the trenches. Indeed, Durborough, like the famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, appears in many of the shots he set up. “He just inserts himself everywhere,” said Lynanne Schweighofer, a Library of Congress preservation specialist who helped reassemble the film.
In mid-1915, the war, which lasted from 1914 to 1918, already had claimed tens of thousands of soldiers as Britain, France and Russia were locked in horrific conflict with Germany and its allies.
America was still neutral. And although the Germans held some advantage in the fighting, they felt they were losing the public relations contest, according to a study of the documentary by film scholars James W. Castellan, Ron van Dopperen and Cooper C. Graham.
Meanwhile, in 1914, Durborough, a seasoned newspaper photographer from just outside Dover, Del., had been assigned by Chicago’s Newspaper Enterprise Association, a news service, to photograph the war.
Then 32, Durborough was an ambitious go-getter who had worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chicago examiner. He had covered strikes and conventions and had met Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. He took the job but asked whether he could shoot moving pictures, too, even though he had little movie experience. The association declined to pay for filming but said he was free to make a documentary as long as it didn’t interfere with his photo assignment.
Durborough got a group of Chicago business executives to invest. They hired Ries, an experienced cameraman who spoke German, and bought the Bearcat, then one of the fastest cars on the road.
And with a green light from German authorities, who were hungry for good publicity, Durborough, Ries and the Stutz sailed for Europe in early 1915. Deep in the film center’s underground vaults, built into a hillside in Culpeper, concrete vault No. 53 holds, among other rare films, 42 reels of Wilbur Durborough’s documentary.
“This is all Durborough,” Geo. Willeman, the nitrate film vault manager, said recently as he gestured to multiple shelves. The documentary and others made on highly volatile nitrate film are protected by fire alarms, smoke detectors and fire suppression systems. The temperature is kept at 39 degrees, the humidity at 30 per cent.
In late 2014, Schweighofer and colleague Valerie Cervantes began poring over the film, guided by research done by Castellan; Graham, a retired Library of Congress film curator; and van Dopperen, who had mapped out a likely sequence of the scenes. “It had been a dream for many people to get this thing back together,” Willeman said. “Because there’s nothing else like it – an American film about the German army in World War I.”
But many scenes were repetitive or captured on film that was damaged or in poor condition.
“We would . . . see which one was the least deteriorated, had the best ability to be copied, or just the best image content,” Schweighofer said. “What survived in the best shape.”
The task was done using a hand-cranked frame viewer at a spartan “rewind bench” in a special nitrate-film workroom decorated with images of movie stars. One expert would study the scenes, while another took notes on content and condition. Once the best scenes had been selected, the film was sent to the library’s laboratory to be cleaned, repaired and stabilised. The film was then digitised.
“The thing to me was looking at the faces of the individual soldiers,” Schweighofer said. “You saw the same ones over again. You find yourself wondering what happened to them. And, if they survived this war, did they survive the next war?”
Willeman noted one scene in which German soldiers are obviously singing and enjoying themselves as they gather in front of a railroad car around a man playing an accordion.
“These guys aren’t monsters,” he said. “They’re just guys. They’re like any other army. . . . A majority of these guys, a couple years after the film, were no more. They’re gone.”
Before it was over, World War I killed more than 2 million German soldiers.
But in June 1915, everybody looks happy at the refreshment stand in Thorn, run by the Vaterländischer Frauenverein, a patriotic women’s group.
In the scene, about 20 minutes into the film, the women at the stand walk among the soldiers, who are heading for the Russian front, handing out flowers and snacks from baskets.
As the young soldier with the mustache moves along, a woman pours a drink into his cup, and another gives him a kiss on the cheek. He looks about 20, and, after the kiss, disappears from the frames.
He was one of thousands of soldiers Durborough and Ries filmed – most of them young, well-groomed and in clean uniforms, untarnished by combat they had probably not yet experienced.
It is only near the end of the film that the soldiers look grimy, tired and unshaven, in the wake of a battle, and where Durborough has extensive footage of ruined towns and refugees packed into rickety wagons on muddy roads.
And it is there that Durborough stops appearing in the film. “Suddenly he vanishes,” Willeman said. “But you could see how important this has become to him, because he just goes on and on and on and on to show what’s happened.”
Durborough and Ries got back to the US on September 30, 1915, according to Graham, Castellan and van Dopperen’s study of the film. The film was first shown in Milwaukee on November 28, 1915. It began a long run in Chicago that December. Newspaper ads described it as “The Motion Picture Scoop of the War!” Durborough often appeared at the showings and gave lectures. One promotional poster featured a portrait of the kaiser.
From Chicago, it began runs in theaters across the country. In Philadelphia in early 1916, Durborough arrived in the Stutz, driving it up and down in front of the theater where the film was showing, firing a gun to get attention. Interest in the film evaporated in 1916 and 1917 as tensions with Germany rose. The US declared war in April 1917. During the war, Durborough served as an Army public relations officer.
Afterward, he gave up filmmaking and pursued various jobs in newspapers and public relations.
He was the art director and head of photography at the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in the mid 1920s. He left the paper in 1926 and launched a series of failed business ventures, including one as a medicine salesman.
In 1931, his house outside Philadelphia went to a sheriff’s sale, according to Graham, Castellan and van Dopperen. Durborough moved to Utah, then California, and died suddenly in San Bernardino in 1946 at age 63.
Ries, for his part, stayed in the film business as a cinematographer and a special-effects expert. He was nominated, with two others, for an Academy Award for special effects in the 1956 science fiction movie “Forbidden Planet.”
He died in 1963. The Stutz wound up in storage in a barn in suburban Cleveland and was sold off at auction during the Depression.
Before he died, Durborough began outlining a novel based on his life.
“You go many places very far away,” he wrote. “You go in much danger. No harm comes to you. You will be old man. . . . You have happy life, then unhappy life, then in end happy again.”
WP News Syndicate
Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro (right) waves to attendees while accompanied by Tareck El Aissami, vice-president, before the start of his annual address at the Supreme Court in Caracas, Venezuela- Carlos Becerra/Washington Post
When Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s new vice-president, competed in student elections, his opponents said he brought in armed gangs to bully the competition. Then, they say, when he forgot to register for reelection he phoned the local political boss with a plan to rig the vote.
“I threatened to throw him in jail,” said Florencio Porras, the former governor of Merida state. “Since then, he’s declared me his enemy.” Climbing from student leader in rural Venezuela to the country’s number two power broker in just over a decade, El Aissami has made many enemies like Porras.
Facing economic collapse and anemic public support, President Nicolas Maduro has chosen as his chief deputy one of Venezuela’s most controversial and feared politicians, government critics say. El Aissami, 42, is one of a number of Venezuelans under investigation by US authorities for alleged participation in drug trafficking and money laundering rings as well as for playing a key role in helping Iran gain footholds in Latin America. A young star in the socialist party that has ruled here for nearly two decades, El Aissami is viewed by both supporters and critics as cunning and skilled.
“He’s an operator who functions very well for this new stage of the revolution,” says Rocio San Miguel, president of Control Ciudadano, a citizen watchdog. “Maduro’s dilemma is how to deal with the opposition while closing internal divisions.”
Maduro, whom the late President Hugo Chavez chose as his own successor, has been under pressure to step aside because of the country’s potential default, widespread social unrest and an emboldened opposition.
He has so far quashed – through his control of the legal system – the opposition’s attempt to hold a referendum on his removal before his term ends in about two years. Many analysts say if things continue to decline, the main risk to him is from within the military.
El Aissami’s selection addresses both concerns. Those seeking to oust Maduro probably despise El Aissami more and might hesitate to pursue their efforts. And the new vice-president is a strongman with tight control over internal security forces and little loyalty to the military. He would be less tempted to take part in a military-led coup than to resist it.
In the weeks since his accession, Maduro has granted him wide-reaching decree powers and tapped him to lead a newly formed “commando unit” against alleged coup mongers and officials suspected of treason. Among the slew of arrests since the unit’s formation is a substitute legislator from a hard-line opposition party and a retired general who, years before, broke ranks with the government.
Self-described as “radically chavista,” El Aissami first met the late president when he was a student. He openly celebrated the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US, according to three witnesses, and served as one of Chavez’s staunchest allies ever since. In his last post as governor, he regularly denounced government opponents as traitors looking to stoke unrest. A court in his Aragua state annulled the recall referendum there, charging the opposition with collecting fraudulent signatures.
Neither the office of the vice president nor the Information Ministry responded to multiple requests for an interview or comment. El Aissami has publicly denied any alleged drug ties, saying they are little more than media slander, and has offered to hand himself over to authorities if anyone could produce proof. Those close to him brush off claims of corruption and a crackdown on dissent. “He’d rather self-immolate before negotiating his principles,” said Hugo Cabezas, a former governor of Trujillo state and classmate of El Aissami’s.
The son of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, El Aissami was one of five children raised Druze in Venezuela’s Andes mountains. Tall, handsome and fit, he is married with two young children and is often surrounded by personally selected guards.
His sister, a diplomat, was Venezuela’s ambassador to the Netherlands till last year. His father, a leader of the small local Ba’athist party, sold shoes and furniture and played a supporting role in Chavez’s failed 1992 coup attempt and again, six years later, in his successful presidential bid.
Shortly after the botched attempted overthrow, El Aissami helped lead a leftist student movement at university, where he studied criminology and law and where Chavez’s brother Adan worked as professor. Charismatic and meticulous, he graduated with honors and has held tightly to the alliances he made at college throughout his political career.
“It’s very clear to him who his friends are,” said Miguel Contreras, a professor of criminology at the University of Los Andes, and tutor of El Aissami. Since his appointment as vice president, members of his student movement have been tapped for top posts of minister, governor and in the state oil giant, PDVSA.
His enemies have long accused El Aissami of having a vindictive streak: A former running mate named Nixon Moreno fled the country after breaking ranks and defeating El Aissami in student elections.
After losing his student reelection bid, El Aissami’s longtime friend, Cabezas, called him to the capital to help run a state civil registry programme, before he won a seat in congress as a representative of Merida in 2005.
Chavez named the young congressmen as vice minister and later minister of interior. Much of what El Aissami tried as interior minister was resisted by the military, says Veronica Zubillaga, a sociologist at Simon Bolivar University, who worked with El Aissami. “I think he learned and I think he got stronger,” she said of that era.
In 2012, El Aissami won the governorship of Aragua state running on a ticket filled with Chavez’s hand-picked candidates. The opposition has since labeled El Aissami “the narco of Aragua,” alleging that he has used his vast political network to help turn the country into an international hub for drugs and Middle Eastern extremists.
Those accusations stem from El Aissami’s ties to civil registry services before he became interior minister and, US investigators say, he appears to have created Venezuelan identities for Middle Eastern extremists. El Aissami, they believe, created a web of front companies to move money outside Venezuela’s borders.
“Tareck’s network is less ideological and more of a service provider,” said Joseph Humire, executive director of Center for a Secure Free Society, a Washington think tank. “It’s not so much built on an ideological affinity to anybody, but who wants to pay to play.”
Since at least 2011, Homeland Security Investigations and the Drug Enforcement Administration have been investigating El Aissami for money laundering to the Middle East, specifically Lebanon, according to two people familiar with the probe.
Some believe his appointment will help trigger a more aggressive policy toward Caracas by the new Trump administration.
“This is a clear one-finger salute to the United States,” said Roger Noriega, who served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under George W. Bush. “Certainly it creates a pretext for Trump to be much more decided in his response to Venezuela.”
In Venezuela, the consensus is that Maduro is more concerned with strengthening his position at home than his standing abroad, which is what Dimitris Pantoulas, a political consultant, means when he says, “He is Maduro’s man.”
But Pantoulas also notes, “He’s capable of anything,” which suggests that El Aissami has his own ambitions-and loyalty may have its limits.
WP News Syndicate
A man walks past packed cotton during Agrishow in Ribeirao Preto, Brazil. Although Temer has stopped the economic slide, the country’s jobless rate remains in the double digits- Paulo Whitaker/Reuters file
In a big, multiethnic country built by immigrants and slaves, a septuagenarian white male leader is riding a right-wing backlash after an era of leftist rule. His much-younger spouse is a former model. His five-letter last name starts with a ‘T’ – but it’s Temer, not Trump.
Brazilian President Michel Temer took office five months ago after the impeachment and political humiliation of the country’s first female political leader, Dilma Rousseff, ousting her left-wing Workers’ Party after 14 years in power. Temer named an all-male cabinet and quickly embraced a right-leaning, regulation-slashing agenda.
Temer, 76, is not a Brazilian version of Trump. He does not have a populist touch or a showman’s flair. He is a career politician and government insider at a time when both things are deeply unpopular in Brazil.
And yet, like the United States, Brazil is a big country whose political centre has swung abruptly to the right. The next presidential election is not until 2018, but in municipal-level contests held in October, Rousseff’s once-dominant Workers’ Party was trounced, losing 60 per cent of the city government seats it controlled.
Temer’s centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) and the more conservative Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) swept the country’s most important districts.
The results were the clearest signal yet of a “shift in mentality” in the country, according to political analyst Lucas de Aragão of the Brasilia-based consulting firm Arko.
“It’s an anti-status-quo sentiment, just like Brexit and Trump,” Aragão said, “but I don’t think it’s about ideology as much as a lack of results.”Rousseff was impeached on charges of violating budget-making rules, not for personal corruption. But she and the Workers’ Party have shouldered most of the blame for Brazil’s worst economic crisis since the 1930s and the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s history.
Temer, who is married to a 33-year-old former model, is a constitutional law expert who speaks carefully and sends out dull, dutiful tweets. His patrician bearing may be hurting him at a time when Brazilians are looking for someone who doesn’t talk like a professor. And with virtually Brazil’s entire political establishment under suspicion of shady dealings, Temer’s tight-lipped rectitude can seem like opacity.
Once in power, Temer embraced Brazil’s rightward turn, but it has not embraced him. His approval ratings hover around 14 per cent, roughly on par with Rousseff’s before her impeachment.
More than half the country sees Temer as dishonest, according to a December survey by Datafolha, Brazil’s main polling firm. His low approval ratings are a sign that he has not benefited from Brazil’s shifting political winds, even as he tries to tries to tack with them.
“He gives the impression of a very traditional politician, who is rarely seen on the streets,” said Mauro Paulino, director of Datafolha.
Much of Brazil’s political and business elite, including Temer, is under the cloud of the sprawling corruption investigation known as “Car Wash” that has uncovered $2 billion in illegal bribes over the past three years. The former speaker of Brazil’s Congress has been imprisoned, along with some of the country’s most powerful business executives.
According to leaked plea bargain testimony, a jailed former construction executive has accused Temer of soliciting nearly $3 million in illegal campaign funds. Temer has not been charged, and he has repeatedly insisted that he supports the investigation and has nothing to hide. After the Supreme Court judge overseeing the Car Wash probe died in a plane crash last month, Temer said he would wait to nominate a replacement until the judge’s colleagues – not him – could decide who would take over the case.
It may be too late for Temer to recover his credibility. With less than two years left in his term, Brazil seems to be waiting for its Trump to come along. Populist outsiders such as the new mayor of Sao Paulo, a business tycoon who starred on the Brazilian version of “Celebrity Apprentice,” are often mentioned among the early favorites for 2018.
What many Brazilians and Brazilian lawmakers have embraced is Temer’s right-leaning austerity agenda. He has won approval in Congress for a 20-year freeze on social spending and his refusal to bail out state governments that have blown their budgets. He has eased restrictions on foreign oil companies looking to drill for lucrative offshore deposits, and he is expected to present new legislation to open up Brazilian agribusiness and the airline industry to full foreign ownership.
Although Temer has stopped the economic slide, the country’s jobless rate remains in the double digits, and 2017 growth is projected to be just 1 percent.
“People are not consuming, because they’re afraid of losing their jobs,” said Paulo Sotero, the director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington.
“Temer’s job is to calm people down, take measures that are effective, and put Brazil back on a sustainable growth pattern,” Sotero said. “It’s probably too much for his government to accomplish by 2018, but he can start working on it, and he has.”
Unlike Trump, Temer is not overly concerned with his popularity, analysts say. He insists he will not be a candidate in 2018. He has his eye on his long-term legacy, and whether he will be remembered as a leader who restored stability and lifted Brazil out of the ditch.
“This is a country that changes opinion very quickly,” said Aragão, the political analyst. “Don’t forget Rousseff had the highest approval rating of any president in history” at the beginning of her first term.
Temer’s presidency has signaled a shift in priorities for Brazil, from the multiculturalism and inclusive social message of his leftist predecessors to a more singular focus on economic liberalisation. Some of those changes have fueled large street protests, and “Fora Temer” (Temer out) graffiti is a frequent sight in major cities.
Temer came under fire days after his inauguration for not appointing a single woman or Afro-Brazilian to his 23-member Cabinet. He eventually appointed women to head the attorney general’s office and the central bank, but the damage was done.
To cap it off, anger over the perceived slight to women was compounded by the fact that Temer got his job by replacing the country’s first female president, with his party driving the impeachment proceedings.
“The lack of sufficient female representation in his government feels like a huge step backwards,” said Rosiska Darcy, a feminist author and political critic. Rousseff had appointed 14 women to cabinet-level positions. “We are half of Brazil’s population,” Darcy said.
The global shift to the right poses a threat to the gains of Brazil’s feminist movement, she added, saying that Brazilians should draw inspiration from the US women’s march that followed Trump’s inauguration.
“The Americans spoke of resistance,” said Darcy. “We have to fight this wave of conservatism.”
WP News Syndicate
Nina Agabian, a re-tired director of research in global health science at the University of California, bought a 29th-floor apartment in San Francisco’s Millennium Tower in 2010. “It was supposed to be a wonderful building,” she said in January, sitting in a leather chair in the building’s vast, low-lit, owner’s-club level. “For many of us, who left our business lives to start our older years, this had become a nice, comfortable place.”
The building, which opened in 2008 and was touted as the most luxurious tower in San Francisco, became a beacon of the city’s burgeoning wealth, attracting tech millionaires, venture capitalists, and even the San Francisco 49ers retired quarterback Joe Montana.
The 58-story tower’s shine faded on May 10, 2016, when Agabian attended a homeowners association meeting and was informed that the building had sunk 16 inches into the earth and tilted over 15 inches at its tip and 2 inches at the base, according to suits filed by residents and the city of San Francisco.
“You can imagine how distressed we were to know that, for one, our lifetime investment and savings are at risk,” she said. “And we have no idea whether or not there’s a fix to it, and if there is a fix to it, what it will entail.”
The building, meanwhile, continues to sink.
As Agabian and more than 20 other residents file multiple lawsuits against the building’s developer, the city of San Francisco, and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, another, potentially more ominous development has emerged. Two people with knowledge of Millennium Partners’ liability policy say the developer is insured to cover some $100 million in damages caused by settlement or construction defects; the policy is split among several insurers. Ancillary policies held by the building’s architect, structural engineer, and general contractor are worth another $50 million to $100 million, according to one of the people. Any legal fees incurred by the policyholders could be deducted from their policies. But according to experts, fixing whatever is causing the building to tilt could cost far more than that amount.
Further adding to residents’ woes is that it’s not even clear if coverage will be available under the liability policy: It might have been voided by the flaws in the building.
“I don’t foresee a scenario where anyone writes a check under any policy,” said Sarah Sherman, the US property practice leader at JLT Specialty USA, an insurance broker in San Francisco. “There’s no way to avoid litigation at this point.”
It’s possible, in other words, that homeowners already under water on their damaged real estate investments may have to cover millions in costs to repair the building. And that’s not even the nightmare-case scenario. If the sinking remains unaddressed, the $750 million building could potentially collapse, with little clarity as to who would pay for the damage.
“Let’s say there’s an earthquake and there’s major damage, the insurer will fight like hell not to pay the claim,” Sherman said. “I would not be pleased if I was in that building.”
Surrounding the building is the $1.1 billion new Salesforce Tower, the new condominium tower 181 Fremont, and a neighbourhood bar.
While the best method of fixing the building’s tilt won’t be known until an engineering firm hired by the developer completes its investigation- and perhaps not even then- the cost is certain to be millions, and perhaps hundreds of millions, of dollars. Conservatively, “I think it’s fair to say that you’re at least in the tens of millions of dollars,” said Joe Maffei, who noted that his San-Francisco-based structural engineering firm is not associated with project. Stopping the settling would be very expensive, he explained, and then you have the added expense of actually evening out the building’s base.
Beyond their lawsuits, the residents can’t hope for recourse from the developer.
“Millennium Partners doesn’t own the building,” said PJ Johnston, a spokesman for the developer. “Even if there was an immediate and agreed upon measure to take, the building is owned by homeowners. Millennium Partners cannot just move forward with any set of measures” to fix the building, he said.
“We can’t sell, we can’t rent, we can’t move,” Agabian said. “I’d sell it in a second if I got fair market value for it.” She corrected herself: “Well, there’s not a fair market for it, because now the fair market for it is zero.”
Since the mid-19th century, the city of San Francisco has expanded its shoreline by dumping debris into its coastal marshlands and transferring sand and clay from the ocean bed onto land. Much of downtown San Francisco, including parts of Mission Street, where Millennium Tower was built, is constructed on this loose, wet soil. But the city’s proximity to two major faults-the San Andreas and the Hayward-could render that same ground unstable in an earthquake, said Keith Knudsen, the deputy director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Science Center. “The soft material tends to amplify the parts of the shaking-the earthquake’s wavelengths-which are damaging to buildings,” he said.
The engineers who designed Millennium Tower were aware that the building sat on unstable soil and constructed the 645-foot tower’s base so it would behave “dynamically” in the event of an earthquake, at least partially withstanding the shocks on the unstable ground. To achieve this effect, they chose a support known as “friction piles,” a series of rods bored into the ground that would help stabilize the building as the earth rocked. While other buildings in the area were built with similar foundations (and still others use pilings drilled all the way down to firmer bedrock), the majority of the skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco are built with steel frames. Millennium Tower, in contrast, is made of vastly heavier concrete.
A decade after the first piles were drilled, walls in the underground parking garage have begun to crack due to the shifting, marble floors in the lobby have begun to buckle, and residents have complained that the ventilation units have begun to fail, raising questions about when the tilt will stop, or if it will stop at all.
Sales for Millennium Tower started around November 2007. By 2013 the building was fully sold for a reported total of $750 million; an April 5, 2013 article in the San Francisco Business Times, which Millennium Partners posted on its website, quoted the building’s costs at $600 million.
In the same story, Richard Baumert, a partner at the company, sounded a triumphant note. “We saw it through and in the end our plan and vision for the project were validated,” he said. The building’s appeal, he continued, was “not as much about the physical structure as the residential experience.”
The article also quoted Gregg Lynn, a broker at Sotheby’s International Realty who reportedly represented about a dozen Millennium Tower buyers. “The situation we are facing is that everybody wants to buy into that building, and they are kicking themselves that they didn’t when they had the chance,” he said. “People who sell now are expecting to cash out with major profits.” The golden era for the Millennium Tower would last less than three years.
No one is quite sure why the building began to sink and tilt. It could be a flaw in the structure, which would make it Millennium Partners’ responsibility, according to the building residents, or the result of the nearby construction of a major transit station, which would make it at least partially the responsibility of the station’s builder. Possibly, it could be some combination of the two.
A class-action by 20 building residents, led by their fellow resident, patent litigator Jerry Dodson, alleges that Millennium Partners knew the building had sunk 8.3 inches into the ground by 2009, the year after it was completed.
“There’s the possibility that when they poured (the concrete base) in 2006-07, that it immediately sank,” Dodson said in an interview in his living room in the tower, which is filled with art-deco vases and sculptures and overlooks San Francisco Bay. “It’s extremely unlikely in my mind that as we began 2009 that it immediately tilted 6 inches to the northwest. What’s more likely is they poured the [slab] on unstable soil.”
Millennium Partners denies responsibility for the tilting. “At the time of its completion in 2008 and throughout its entire sales process, (Millennium Tower) had settled within predicted, safe ranges,” said Johnston, the developer’s spokesman. The developer blames TJPA for the tilt.
Dodson’s 20 homeowners, who collectively paid some $75 million for their condos, claim that the developer hid the building’s faulty structure from prospective buyers and that the city’s administrators joined in the alleged fraud by helping conceal the tower’s engineering flaws as early as February 2009 by signing mutual nondisclosure agreements. The two colluded over half a decade to keep Millennium Tower’s design defects secret to allow the city to move forward on its own construction in the neighborhood, according to Dodson’s complaint. The city and Millennium Tower deny these allegations
Another target of Dodson’s suit is the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA), which is building what it calls a “Grand Central Station of the West” next door to Millennium Tower. Part of the development, which also includes towers and below-ground rail tunnels in the soft soil, could have undermined Millennium Tower’s foundation, causing the building to tilt, according to Dodson’s complaint. If TJPA is found to be at fault, San Francisco taxpayers could be obliged to fund the tower’s repair. The TJPA has denied the allegations.
The TJPA attempted to dismiss one lawsuit Millennium Tower residents filed by claiming that the tower was still structurally secure. In a move critics attributed to the city’s desire to absolve itself of any blame surrounding the project, the San Francisco Attorney’s office subsequently sued Millennium Partners on behalf of TJPA.
Regardless of who is legally responsible, all parties have finally agreed that there is, in fact, a problem.
A report commissioned by Millennium Partners and published in 2014 by the engineering firm Simpson Gumpertz & Heger determined that the building’s support columns and foundation were experiencing “significant stress.” Nevertheless, the report concluded with a glass-half-full approach: “With the exception of the foundation,” it read, “none of the settlement-related demands on these elements are at levels that indicate impending failure.” The building’s supports might be cracking, in other words, but-as of a few years ago, at least-it was unlikely to collapse.
Recently, Millennium Partners entered private mediation with building residents, with the goal of halting environmental damage and to “stop any undue further settlement of the building,” according to the developer’s spokesman. As far as Millennium Partners is concerned, the culprit is the TJPA project next door. “We need to ensure that the damage being caused by our immediate neighbors, TJPA, is stopped,” he added.
The Oakland firm Sage Engineers has been hired by Millennium Partners to investigate the foundation, but as yet the firm hasn’t offered potential solutions. Inspiration might come from the 1998 case of the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino in Las Vegas, which sank almost 19 inches as its weight displaced water from an underlying aquifer. The solution was to drill 536 metal cylinders underneath the casino’s 43-story tower, which stabilized the edifice at the cost of between $8 million and $10 million, according to a 2000 article in the Las Vegas Sun.
WP News Syndicate
By the time the last brick is laid atop President Donald Trump’s Mexican wall, it’s a fair bet that someone more antagonistic towards the US will hold power on its southern side. Especially if that someone is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Which, thanks to Trump, looks increasingly likely.
The politician known locally as Amlo is the early frontrunner in Mexico’s 2018 presidential race. By itself, that may not mean much: Polls are unreliable, voting is a long way off, and Lopez Obrador is a two-time election loser in a country that stood aloof from Latin America’s populist turn and instead tethered its economy ever closer to the US.
But good luck selling that line to Mexicans right now. The momentum on Amlo’s side is palpable. Amid a spasm of national rage, voters are increasingly sympathetic to the cries of a radical outsider who promises to end a relationship of “subordination” to the US and rebuild the domestic economy. In other words, Trump – with his brash pledges to rewrite Nafta and stick Mexico with the bill for building the wall – has created the perfect climate for an anti-Trump south of the border.
“Winner of today’s US Mexico dust-up: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador,” Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer tweeted last week. “Hope Trump is looking forward to working with him.”
Even if it doesn’t come to that, the relationship is getting tense, as Mexico’s mainstream parties are pulled in Amlo’s direction. President Enrique Pena Nieto, who can’t run for re-election, cancelled a visit with Trump scheduled for this week. And he’s begun to stress the importance of bolstering the local economy and raising wages – even though keeping them low, to make Mexico attractive to American corporations, has effectively been government policy for decades.
Mexico’s peso is down about 10 per cent since Trump’s election win. Almost everything he’s said about the country since taking office has made investors more uneasy, and Mexicans madder. This week, for example, he’s said to have suggested the US might send troops to deal with “bad hombres down there,” a comment later downplayed as “lighthearted.”
Popular feeling is running so strong that Mexican politicians have little choice but to fall in line. Online campaigns are calling on Mexicans to vacation at home (“Adios Disneylandia… Hola Mexico”). Local governments and activists demand boycotts of US products. Many Mexicans have draped the national flag across their social media pages.
It just sounds less convincing coming from leaders who’ve made a career out of close US ties. Pena Nieto’s approval rating is 12 per cent. Jose Hernandez Solis, a 56-year-old street vendor at an Amlo rally in Mexico City on Monday, certainly wasn’t persuaded.
“The president is a boot-licker,” Solis said. “Lopez Obrador has the guts to stand up to Trump and tell it like it is.” Straight talk, of course, is exactly the reason many US voters gave for backing Trump.
At the rally, Lopez Obrador – a 63-year-old with a shock of white hair who’s recently taken to sporting sideburns – did what he usually does. He blamed “neoliberalism” for rampant inequality and violence, and vowed to protect local farmers from northern competition. “Everything depends on strengthening Mexico,” he said, “so we can confront aggression from abroad with strength.”
Such rhetoric almost won him the presidency in 2006. Lopez Obrador lost that election by less than 1 percentage point. His supporters shut down central Mexico City for weeks afterwards, claiming the vote was rigged. The standoff irritated many Mexicans, and may have contributed to Amlo’s defeat by Pena Nieto in 2012, when the margin was wider.
An Amlo presidency would be a step into the unknown for Mexico. His Morena party is only two years old; by contrast, Pena Nieto’s PRI has roots in the Mexican Revolution of a century ago, and has been in power for all but 12 years since then. An early test of the 2018 contenders may come in June this year when several states hold local elections.
There’s at least one Latin American precedent that’s encouraging for a left-leaning, nicknamed politician on the comeback trail. Luiz Inacio Da Silva finally won Brazil’s presidency for his Workers’ Party in 2002 after three failed attempts.
If Amlo can repeat Lula’s feat, it will spell trouble for Washington, according to Jose Cardenas, a former senior official at the State Department. The Brazilian toned down his populism once he took office. Lopez Obrador, according to Cardenas, bears a closer resemblance to another Latin leader who didn’t.
Amlo is a “Hugo Chavez wannabe,” Cardenas wrote in National Review. He warned of likely disputes “on everything from border security, counterterrorism, and drug-war cooperation to deportations and restricting Central American migration.”
Every item on that list is a hot-button issue for Trump. But, as seen from Mexico, they’re primarily northern problems.
South of the border, corruption and violence – especially the disappearance and killing of dozens of students two years ago, in which the police were implicated – had spread disillusion with the political establishment well before Trump’s arrival.
Lopez Obrador would add the country’s US-friendly energy and agriculture policies to the catalog of woes. He says Mexico will consume its own petrol and food on his watch, instead of importing it.
That would mean changes to Nafta, probably not the ones Trump has in mind – assuming the trade pact survives at all. Its impact on Mexico is hotly debated in any case, and both sides can cite data that backs up their arguments.
Nafta has made no inroads into Mexico’s poverty rate. It stood at 53 per cent in 2014, pretty much unchanged from two decades earlier when the trade accord went into effect, according to the World Bank. But the country has attracted billions of dollars of foreign investment in that period, turning it into the world’s seventh-largest automaker and creating thousands of jobs.
Lopez Obrador and his supporters take the glass-half-empty view.
“Nafta is a straitjacket that has kept 50 per cent of our society in poverty” said Senator Manuel Bartlett of the Labor Party. “This is not about being antagonistic to the United States, it’s about being nationalist in defence of Mexico’s interests.”
Americans north of the wall may soon get to decide for themselves which description fits Amlo best. He’s planning a speaking tour of US cities with large immigrant communities. First up, on February 12, is Los Angeles.
WP News Syndicate
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