Paradise Lost

California is experiencing its deadliest wildfire on record (Los Angeles Times).

Feather River, California (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The so-called Camp fire began on November 8 and has been burning since.  At the moment, it is only 75% contained (The Mercury News).

(Swetha Kannan / Los Angeles Times)

Fortunately, rain is finally on the way, though this may bring dangers of flooding and mudslides, especially in burned-out areas that have lost ground cover.

From Weather Underground

While this fire may have been spectacular in its destructiveness, it seems to represent a trend rather than an aberration.   There now seems to be a recurring fire season in the Pacific Northwest that is qualitatively different from fire seasons of recent past decades.  It feels as if something has changed–as if this is somehow the new normal.

Is it climate change (NYT)?  Are we not cutting down enough trees?  Are we building too close to natural burn areas?  And, anyway, what should we do about it?  How do we solve it?  Should we do more to design buildings to survive wildfires?  Should we force people who want to live in wildfire-prone areas to live in super fire-resistant homes?

Fran Collin

Maybe we could incentivize land-owners to cut down more of their trees (Santa Cruz Sentinel).  Still, it seems you can’t cut all the trees down.  And, the cost of living in California is now so outrageous that people trying to escape the economic burden of the major metropolitan regions may have few options other than to head for the hills and hope for the best.  But, where will they go when the hills are on fire?

What do you think?  I have no take on this one, at least not yet.  Do you?  Leave a comment and maybe we can figure it out.

They looking back, all th’ Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav’d over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng’d and fierie Armes:

–John Milton, Paradise Lost

By Thomas Cole – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Public Domain, Link

Lean out

On Wednesday, The New York Times reported some of the darker secrets lurking within the inner workings of the social media company Facebook (NYT).  While the article was wide-ranging, including issues such as executive tolerance of election meddling, fake news, and privacy violation (The Hill), the biggest point of contention was Facebook’s use of the opposition research (FiveThirtyEight, recode) firm, Definers Public Affairs (techcrunch).  According to the company’s website, Definers will “distill and strategically deploy public information to build and influence media narratives, move public opinion and provide powerful ammunition for your public relations and government affairs efforts.”  In other words, they provide propaganda.

One of Definers’ projects is the NTK Network, an entity that a former Definers employee described as their “in-house fake news shop” (The Verge).  The role of NTK was to invent news items that made Facebook look good and its competitors look bad.  These “news” items would often then propagate to news outlets like Breitbart (The New Yorker).  NTK, as one might imagine, denies all of this (NTK).  Facebook, it seems, also felt the need to offer a rebuttal (facebook), and announced that it had fired Definers (NYT).

While some may not find any of this particularly shocking, the recent exposure seems to have caused enough of a stir to make Facebook executives uncomfortable.  Still, my guess is the whole thing will blow over quickly and quietly.  The kind of people who would feel betrayed by Facebook are likely not keeping up with these developments.  They’re probably on Facebook.  Has Facebook somehow devolved from a benevolent company into something darker?  Or, has it always been “just another normal sleazy American company run by normal sleazy executives, engaged in normal sleazy lobbying and corporate propaganda” (Slate)?  Somehow, horribly, that idea is perversely comforting.

So, is it time to #DeleteFacebook?

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on September 5, 2018. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Birthright citizenship

United States president Donald Trump has recently stated that he wants to revoke the constitutional provision of birthright citizenship (Axios), a legal standing that grants citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil, even if their parents are not legal citizens or residents.  He plans to do this by executive order, or, failing that, by way of the Supreme Court (Vox).

Some argue that neither option is legally possible (Intelligencer).  Others argue that, not only might such a revocation be legal, but that it would comport with constitutional intent, national security interests, and international standards (relatively few (about 30) countries offer birthright citizenship (USA Today, Newsweek)).  One practice that ending birthright citizenship might curb is “birth tourism,” in which pregnant women travel to the U.S. solely for the purpose of gaining citizenship for their newborns (USA Today).

The provision for birthright citizenship is based upon the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution.  The Fourteenth Amendment begins as follows:

“1: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its  jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Trump claims that birthright citizenship is not guaranteed by the constitution (Reuters).  Others claim that it is (Time).  While the above clause seems clear enough at first read, there has actually been much debate around the meaning of the term “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” (CNN, USA Today).  In fact, ambiguity around the meaning and intent of the fourteenth amendment has engendered many congressional discussions and debates (1, 2, 3)

According to legislative attorney Margaret Mikyung Lee (4),

Citizenship by birth in the United States was not defined in the original Constitution or in the early federal statutes.  The states and courts in the United States apparently adopted the jus soli doctrine followed by traditional English common-law, under which persons born within the dominions of and with allegiance to the English sovereign are subjects of the sovereign regardless of the alienage status of their parents.

Prominent legal precedents that have influenced how courts interpret the fourteenth amendment have included Elk v. Wilkins and United States v. Wong Kim Ark.  Still, many issues of U.S. citizenship remain unresolved.  For example, what is the status of children born to U.S. citizens on foreign soil?  The answer is not always clear (5).

It’s also unclear how intent the president is on carrying though with this Constitutional amendment amendment (or whether an amendment would be required to remove the birthright citizenship provision).  It may well be that bringing the issue up at all is simply meant to rally his base.  Irrespective of any constitutional changes, raising any immigration-related issue ahead of the mid-term elections (AP) provides yet another point of political division (Politico), a strategy that has consistently served Trump better than most analysts predicted.



Today, the most prominent Trump-inspired domestic terror suspect to date was arrested in connection with a series of bombs sent to prominent targets of the president of the United States’ vitriol (Fox News, NYT, The State, New York Post, New York Post, Daily Beast, Reuters, The Hill, Independent, USA Today, The New Yorker, CBS).  It is noteworthy that all of these enemies of the president live within the United States.  The president (NBC) and others (Washington Examiner) have been quick to paint the president himself as the real victim of this terrorism.   Trump has also tried to distance himself (and his rhetoric) from the suspect, ardent Trump supporter Cesar Altieri Sayoc, claiming, “I heard he was a person that preferred me over others but I did not see that.” (CBS)  A former attorney for Sayoc has described him as intellectually limited, noting,

“I believe he has issues comprehending concepts.  He is like a little boy in a man’s body.”  (NPR)

It seems he found a hero that he could truly relate to.

cesar sayoc


Migrant caravan

There is a “migrant caravan” of over 7,000 people walking north from Honduras, a South American country racked by poverty and violence, toward the United States.  In response, the president of the United States has declared this event a “National Emergy,” and has directed the U.S. border patrol and military to change laws (twitter).  A few days ago, a second caravan left Honduras, presumably following the path of the first (Mexico News Daily).

Some point to Bartolo Fuentes, a popular migrant advocate, as the organizer of the caravan (USA Today, The Daily Beast), but he denies this.  It seems that once a critical mass began the exodus, many decided to join.  They are fleeing hunger and violence (USA Today).  According to one of the travelers:

“My daughter had to flee so she wouldn’t be killed. By chance, she witnessed the execution of a man by gunfire, she was also shot and I’m afraid that those people will kill us.”  (Mexico News Daily)

Given the upcoming U.S. election, many fake news claims have been bandied about, ranging from the sinister (terrorist are lurking among the throngs) to the silly (Democrats/liberals/George Soros are funding the venture) (BBC, Fox News, Politico).  Denis Omar Contreras, a spokesman for Pueblo Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders), disputes such claims.

“There isn’t a single terrorist here.  We are all people from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.” (Mexico News Daily)

But, why come as a large group?  Reporters point to two reasons.  The minor reason is that it makes a political statement.  But, the major reason is for safety.  Not only are the migrants fleeing violence, they are traveling through it.  According to The Guardian, eighty percent of the females who cross Mexico to get to America are raped on the way.

What is likely to become of the people that make up this caravan?  Some U.S. senators have proposed that Mexico take them in (Fox News, document).  Mexico seems to already be pulling its weight as a migrant buffer, though.  According to The New Republic, “since 2014, the United States has spent nearly $200 million expanding a deportation regime in Mexico that has expelled over 600,000 migrants, mostly to the Northern Triangle countries—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.”  Those who reach the U.S. border are not home free.  Currently, the U.S. border patrol arrests about 400,000 migrants every year.  Twenty years ago (in a better economy), the rate was over double that amount (Politico).  While those who make it to the U.S. border must, by law, be granted an opportunity to seek asylum (San Francisco Chronicle), typically only about one out of every four asylum seekers from Honduras might hope to be allowed to stay (Voice of San Diego, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse).  Still, those odds may be worth the walking lotto these folks are playing.

denied asylum

Carlos Leonidas Garcia Urbina left Honduras with just $20 in his pocket.  But, he’s optimistic.  “We are going to the promised land,” he says (TPM).



Jamal Khashoggi

Jamal Khashoggi disappeared over two weeks ago, at around 1pm on October second, inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey (Wikipedia).  Although Saudi Arabia denies any involvement in the matter (Daily Beast), the available evidence suggests that he was tortured and killed ( by a team of 15 Saudis dispatched by Saudi prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS).  The assassination team (AP), many with very close ties to MbS (Daily Sabah) allegedly included:

  • Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb
  • Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy
  • Abdulaziz Mohammed Al-Hasawi
  • Thaer Ghaleb Al-Harbi
  • Mohammed Saad Al-Zahrani
  • Meshal Saad Al-Bostani
  • Naif Hassan Al-Arefe
  • Mustafa Mohammed Al-Madani
  • Mansur Uthman Abahussein
  • Waleed Abdullah Al-Shehri
  • Turki Musharraf Al-Shehri
  • Fahad Shabib Al-Balawi
  • Saif Saad Al-Qahtani
  • Khalid Aedh Al-Taibi
  • Badir Lafi Al-Otaibi

According to the Daily Sabah, they look like this:

khashoggi hit team

This incident would be interesting enough if it were ‘only’ a political assassination of a journalist critical of the Saudi regime (although that sort of thing is fairly common in Saudi Arabia these days).  But several aspects of this assassination make it particularly noteworthy.  While known as a ‘progressive, dissident’ journalist (The New Yorker), Khashoggi was actually a major political player (Wikipedia), and one that could have presented an actual challenge to MbS (The Spectator, Voltaire Network), so the boldness of his assassination is significant.  Because of this boldness, world attention is now focused on MbS and Saudi Arabia (NYT, Time).  This negative attention has put the president of the United States, both personally and politically, in a very difficult position (AP, NYT, NYT, Vanity Fair, Observer).  It’s not that people like Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, or Mohammad bin Salman make him squeamish.  The problem is that Trump really wants to keep selling MbS fancy, expensive weapons.

He seems to me like the kind of guy it’s best to keep weapons away from.