Your Weekend Reader for Nov. 11-12

by | Nov 11, 2023 | Weekend Reader | 0 comments

In a week that seemed to have so much bad news, it might help to step back and take the 10,000-foot view. This weekend, let’s step way, way back and take the 250-million-light-years view, courtesy of a spectacular New York Times Magazine interactive feature that shows us what the universe looks like from the viewpoint of the James Webb Space Telescope. From massive plumes of water vapor on a moon of Saturn to the discovery of ancient galaxies that already have upended conventional theories of cosmology, there’s something here to justify that overused phrase, “awe-inspiring.” Longtime Weekend Reader readers will know of my enthusiasm for the Webb telescope; this is the sort of feature that explains why.

Down here on Earth, of course, we have trouble. Let’s survey the wreckage of the week:

Mike Baker of The New York Times has a riveting story about Joseph Emerson. You’ll remember Emerson as the commercial pilot who — apparently in the midst of a mental breakdown that might have been triggered in part by hallucinogenic mushrooms he had ingested two days before — tried to shut down the fuel lines to a plane that was flying over Oregon. Baker got the first interview with Emerson, and his reporting illuminates a key point: The Federal Aviation Administration’s very strict policies grounding pilots facing depression or other mental-health issues likely are discouraging pilots from seeking the help they need.

The Associated Press has an update on the latest outrage targeting elections workers: Election offices in at least five states (including Oregon) have received threatening letters; some of the letters contained fentanyl or other substances. The fact of the matter is that election workers have been under siege since 2020 — and these are the people who are on the front lines in the battle to protect democracy. Many of them have quit, and you can’t blame them. But those who remain are standing fast against these despicable acts. They need our support — and it would help if authorities tracked down the idiots who carried out these despicable actions and threw the book at them in the most public way possible.

Meanwhile, Julia Shumway at the Oregon Capital Chronicle has a story about a new report saying that election offices throughout Oregon are understaffed and underfunded. And this comes at a time when election workers (again, folks on the front lines of democracy) are facing unprecedented levels of stress. At the risk of taking an editorial stand, perhaps the Legislature’s short session in February could find a way to funnel some additional money to county election offices as we head into what could be a critical election cycle.

Bad news for Corvallis nuclear-power startup NuScale Power: The company announced this week that it was canceling a partnership that would have delivered the first small modular nuclear reactors in the country. The project involved a partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems to deliver 12 of NuScale’s reactors to build a carbon-free power plant at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. The company said it had to pull out of the agreement because rising interest rates and inflationary pressures boosted the project’s cost by 75%, up to $9.3 billion. NuScale’s stock price tumbled by a third in the wake of the news. (By the way, the news reports I read on this said that NuScale is based in Portland, and that’s technically true, but I think the company still has more workers in Corvallis and it’s based, of course, on technology that was developed at Oregon State University.)

A few journalism notes this week:

It was kind of a rough week for poor Bryan West, who has been hired as Gannett’s reporter to cover the Taylor Swift beat. But it sounds as if West expected it. Shake it off, big guy!

While Gannett still searches for its reporter to cover the Beyonce beat, here’s Margaret Sullivan, writing in The Guardian about how the U.S. press needs to do a much better job to inform voters of the very real risks of a Donald Trump victory in 2024 — and, although this is shocking to realize, that election now is less than a year away. Polls now say that Trump leads President Joe Biden in several critical battleground states. Sullivan is the former media columnist for The Washington Post and, before that, edited The Buffalo News in the years before Lee Enterprises gutted it.

Speaking of gutting newspapers, the San Diego Union-Tribune has been snapped up by Alden Global Capital, the rapacious hedge fund that makes a practice of buying newspapers and then cutting them to the bone and beyond. (You’ll recall that Alden made a play for Lee Enterprises a few years back, but was rebuffed — although Lee then embarked on another round of cost-cutting.) In this case, the paper’s owner, the Los Angeles billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong (he also owns the Los Angeles Times) sold the Union-Tribune to Alden in what amounted to a secret deal.

And moving from journalism to misinformation, here’s a new piece from Harvard’s Nieman Lab, where Joshua Benton reports on a new paper by some heavy academic hitters into misinformation. Here’s the essence of the paper, as I understand it: Democracy relies on a shared body of accurate information that’s available to citizens. But too many partisans are subject to what’s known as “epistemic closure” — essentially, shutting themselves off from the reality-based world. Academics and other researchers are looking for ways to battle misinformation, which thus far has proven itself to be extremely hard to dislodge. (This is why your uncle on Facebook still is sending you COVID vaccine conspiracy theories.) But instead of seeking out accurate information, the paper says, misinformed partisans now are attacking these misinformation researchers. As the paper puts it: “One side of politics — mainly in the U.S. but also elsewhere — appears more threatened by research into misinformation than by the risks to democracy arising from misinformation itself.”

Here’s a story from High Country News out of California, about how business interests are using that state’s Environmental Protection Act to target projects that seek to create low-income housing. I wonder if we might see a similar backlash in Oregon as the state gets serious in its attempts to develop additional housing.

Speaking of housing, here’s a bit of good news — finally — from The Associated Press, which reports that real progress is being made in the effort to find shelter for veterans who are houseless. The flip side is that still too many veterans — the best estimate is 33,000 — remain without shelter.

Finally this week, something a little fun: Remember the album cover on “Led Zeppelin IV?” (Yes, I know the album is officially untitled, but it’s the band’s fourth album and everyone calls it “Led Zeppelin IV,” so spare me your nasty emails.) Let’s refocus on the album cover for a moment, can we? Some people assumed the image, which depicts a fellow with a large bundle of sticks strapped to his back, was a painting. It turns out it’s a Victorian-era photograph of a man named Lot Long who made thatched roofs for cottages in a rural English county. Zeppelin legend says that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page saw the photo at an antique shop and liked it — but they didn’t know who the man in the photo was. The mystery was eventually cracked by a researcher who stumbled across a copy of the photo on the internet; this fun feature from The New York Times fills in the rest of the story. And here’s this week’s sign that you’re getting old: “Led Zeppelin IV” (yes, I know) was released just over 52 years ago. I mean, that’s not even close to the age of the universe’s oldest galaxies, but still.

That’s it for this weekend. Take the time to thank a veteran this weekend and we’ll gather back here next weekend.

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