Weekly Review — February 3, 2015, 8:00 am

Weekly Review

Islamic State militants behead a second Japanese hostage, Mitt Romney decides not to run for president, and a 29-year-old Romanian man is unable to sell his virginity in a local newspaper


Kurdish fighters expelled Islamic State militants from Kobani, Syria, after three months of fighting in which nearly 400 Kurds and 1,000 militants were killed and more than 700 U.S.-led airstrikes were carried out.[1][2] At least four gunmen claiming allegiance to the Islamic State shot and killed nine people in a luxury hotel in Tripoli, Libya; Islamic State loyalists bombed multiple security sites in Sinai, Egypt, killing at least 30 people, and in Baghdad, Islamic State fighters dropped mortar shells on two neighborhoods, killing five civilians, and detonated a car bomb at a crowded market, killing at least 20 others. In Syria, Islamic State militants beheaded a second Japanese hostage, a journalist whom the group had tried unsuccessfully to exchange for one of its members being held in Jordan. “We by Allah’s grace are the Islamic caliphate,” the killer said. “An entire army thirsty for your blood.”[3][4][5][6][7] New cases of measles were identified in Nebraska, New York, Minnesota, and Marin County, California, bringing the total number of infected patients to 102 since a Disneyland visitor spread the virus last December. President Barack Obama told parents to get their kids vaccinated, adding, “The science is, you know, pretty indisputable.” New Jersey governor Chris Christie said parents should decide whether they want to immunize their kids, and then issued a clarifying statement explaining that he meant to say, “There is no question kids should be vaccinated.”[8][9][10] The Koch brothers announced they would spend $889 million to elect Republican candidates in the 2016 election, and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced that he would not run for president. “As you no doubt heard,” Romney told an audience at Mississippi State University prior to the announcement, “I’m already rich.”[11][12][13]

The city of New York settled a 28-year-old case involving two corrupt NYPD officers who mistakenly executed Nicholas Guido, a telephone installer with the same name as a gangster they had been contracted by the mafia to kill.[14] Three Russian men were charged in New York with spying on the United States; a former CIA officer was convicted of espionage for telling a New York Times reporter about a failed U.S. plan to pass phony Russian intelligence to Iranian nuclear scientists; Argentina’s president announced she would send a bill to congress that would dissolve the nation’s intelligence service after she was accused by agents of conspiring with Iran to cover up the country’s role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center; a naturalized American scientist from Argentina was sentenced to five years in prison for passing U.S. nuclear data to an undercover FBI agent he believed was a Venezuelan government official; it was reported that a former intelligence officer in Chile was sentenced to seven years in jail and another to two years of police supervision for killing two Americans living in Chile shortly after General Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973; and an intoxicated man in the United Kingdom phoned the British surveillance agency GCHQ and obtained information about its director, which he then used to call Prime Minister David Cameron and apologize for the disruption. “I’ve just made complete monkeys out of GCHQ,” the caller told a reporter. “I’m definitely going to do it again.”[15][16][17][18][19][20]

A church in Wilsden, England, announced that it will launch a campaign against loneliness, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that depression was linked to binge-watching television, and a 29-year-old Romanian who took out an ad in his local newspaper offering to sell his virginity for €850 received no replies. “I’m no Brad Pitt but I’m not ugly either,” he said. “I didn’t even get any gay takers.”[21][22][23] In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a three-year-old boy shot his father in the buttocks and his pregnant mother in the shoulder when he mistakenly grabbed their handgun while reaching for an iPod; a teenager in Collier County, Florida, was accidentally shot in the penis by his friend while the two were playing with a gun; and Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the birth-control pill and author of the Broadway play “Phallacy,” died at 91.[24][25] The Federal Trade Commission banned a man from posting nude photographs of women online and then charging for their removal, a convicted child pornographer sued Taylor Swift for allegedly using his life story in the lyrics of her songs, and the Church of England ordained the first female bishop in the church’s 500-year existence. “In a few years’ time,” said the archbishop of York, “we shall be wondering how we ever managed without them.”[26][27][28]

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Rebirth of a Nation·

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Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Blood Money·

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Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

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When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Wrong Object·

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e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Average life span, in years, of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon:


Researchers in California succeeded in teaching genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to communicate using a new chemical “language”; the research aims at turning cells into tiny robots.

Theresa May’s Brexit proposal was rejected; Trump suggested raking to prevent forest fires; Jair Bolsonaro insulted Cuban doctors working in Brazil

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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