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Democrats begin wide-open campaign to pick 2020 challenger to Trump



WASHINGTON—The 2016 Democratic presidential primary: a coronation. The 2020 primary: a battle royale.

Four years after almost every possible candidate conceded the nomination to a dominant Hillary Clinton, the party is about to have an unpredictable everybody-into-the-pool scrap to be chosen as the candidate to challenge Donald Trump.

And it’s starting already.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced this week that she was launching an exploratory committee, which allows her to raise money and hire staff. Former housing secretary Julian Castro has scheduled an announcement for Jan. 12.

Over the next few months, they will be joined by a mix of the party’s who’s-who and who’s-that. The “first debate,” scheduled for June, will almost certainly have to be split into two debates to accommodate the large field.

That field will likely be the most personally diverse ever to seek the presidency, featuring multiple women and people of colour. On policy, the candidates will tend toward the unabashed liberalism now favoured by much of the party’s base — though there will be significant differences in their choices of issue emphasis, in the ways they depart from progressive orthodoxy and in how they approach President Donald Trump.

The best-known hypothetical candidates are former vice-president Joe Biden and Clinton’s main challenger, democratic socialist Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, both of whom have been unsubtly laying groundwork. Beto O’Rourke, the charismatic Texas congressman who gained national attention during his unsuccessful Senate run against Ted Cruz, is also mulling a run.

So are — deep breath now — California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg…

…among others. Former attorney general Eric Holder, wealthy environmentalist Tom Steyer, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and California Rep. Eric Swalwell have all expressed interest.

After two years of relative party unity in fighting Trump’s initiatives, members of the grassroots “resistance” will have to choose an affirmative party identity. They could go any number of ways. The list of prospects includes people known for fiery oratory and for low-key affability, for ideological rigidity and for shape-shifting, for focusing on economic injustice and on racial injustice. It includes champions and skeptics of free trade, advocates and opponents of free college tuition, billionaires and critics of the billionaire class, Washington veterans and relative newcomers.

The leaders in extremely-early opinion polls — which should be treated mostly as measures of how widely the candidates’ names are currently known — are Biden and Sanders. Both have devout fans. But as white men of age 76 and 77, they will be challenged by what seems to be a desire in much of the party base for fresh faces.

“I think the country is looking for excitement. I think they’re looking for someone who is not a part of the Washington conversation. And I think they’re looking for new ideas,” said Democratic strategist Jennifer Holdsworth. “People that most of the country has never heard of,” she said, “are ultimately going to be much closer to the top than people think.”

In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats elected a record number of women and people of colour to Congress. “I think that the Democratic electorate is hungry for either a woman or a person of colour,” said Kate Maeder, a party strategist in California.

“I think we just kind of need to clean house with the old white male guard,” said Lori Goldstein, party chair in Adams County, Colorado. “And we need to keep our younger folks invested in all of this, and I think we’ve lost a lot of them because of the old white male guard.”

The first voting is 13 months away. Mayra Rivera-Vazquez, Democratic chair in Beaufort County, South Carolina, said local party members want diverse candidates but will reserve judgment until the candidates make their pitches.

“You hear the common names, but probably there are probably going to be other names too. So we don’t know. We’ll see,” she said. We have a spectrum of all thinkers there. It’s too early to decide what type of presidential candidate the Democrats want. Let’s see when they come here: what are going to be the issues, what are they going to offer, what is the message?”

California’s move of its primary to March, from the traditional June, will require candidates to change the way they approach the early months. The nation’s most populous state has long been an afterthought because of how late it came in the process. Now, its racially diverse Democratic electorate will begin casting ballots in early voting on the same February day as the first caucuses are held in the small, heavily white state of Iowa.

Candidates will have to figure out how to establish national personas in a media environment dominated by Trump. And they will have to decide how to navigate the uncompromising mood of an increasingly left-leaning party base while also retaining their viability among the moderates who may decide the general election — and while convincing the base that they are best positioned to beat Trump.

So far, it has been full-speed ahead to the left. Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, Warren and Sanders have all endorsed the idea of a federal jobs guarantee. In 2016, Sanders’s endorsement of single-payer health care, “Medicare for All,” made him a left-wing novelty. In 2020, that position is expected to be a Democratic standard.

Sanders has already won one early victory. After furious complaints from him and his allies, the party voted this summer to sharply limit the power of “superdelegates,” the party elites who previously got to vote for whichever candidate they wanted no matter what regular voters decided.

10 potential Democratic candidates

  • Joe Biden, former vice-president

Strengths in the primary: Personal fondness of most Democrats, reputation for connecting with white working class, association with Barack Obama.

Weaknesses in the primary: Age, error-prone campaign past, past conservative votes, handling of Anita Hill hearing.

  • Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator

Strengths: Anti-Wall St. credibility, reputation for unyielding liberalism.

Weaknesses: Low approval ratings with broader public, decision to take DNA test to prove claim to Native American heritage.

  • Bernie Sanders, independent Vermont senator

Strengths: Perceived authenticity, progressive record, voter loyalty established in 2016.

Weaknesses: Age, unpopularity among some Clinton devotees, weakness with Black voters, distance from the Democratic party.

  • Sherrod Brown, Ohio senator

Strengths: Record of electoral success with white working class.

Weaknesses: Support for Trump’s trade policy, past allegation of 1980s domestic abuse (by ex-wife who now supports him).

  • Kamala Harris, California senator

Strengths: Lawyerly eloquence, varied personal background, popularity in California.

Weaknesses: Centrist decisions as a prosecutor.

  • Cory Booker, New Jersey senator

Strengths: Powerful oratory, focus on racial inequality.

Weaknesses: History of Wall St. ties, mixed results as Newark mayor.

  • Julian Castro, former housing secretary

Strengths: Service in Obama administration, Latino identity.

Weaknesses: Never elected to office higher than mayor, non-fluency in Spanish.

  • Michael Bloomberg, former New York City mayor

Strengths: Wealth, leadership on gun control.

Weaknesses: Wealth, conservative positions.

  • Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota senator

Strengths: “Minnesota nice” likability, broad appeal in Midwestern states.

Weaknesses: Low national profile, relatively conservative voting record.

  • Beto O’Rourke, Texas congressman

Strengths: Charisma, fundraising prowess, youth.

Weaknesses: Never held office higher than the House, relatively conservative voting record.

Daniel Dale is the Star’s Washington bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @ddale8

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Whale Sharks, Earth’s Largest Fish, Also Commonly Eat Plants




whale shark

(Credit: Lindsey Lu/Shutterstock)

Whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, eat significant amounts of plants and algae, scientists reveal in a surprising new study out today in the journal Ecological Monographs.

The sharks aren’t necessarily vegetarians, but they can sometimes go for weeks or month without eating, say researchers from Japan. The vegetative fare may be how the fish fill in their diets when prey is scarce.

“Whale sharks are a globally threatened but very poorly understood species,” said Alex Wyatt, a marine ecologist at the University of Tokyo in Japan, who led the new research. “Despite their massive size… we still know relatively little about them.”

A Whale of A Shark

Whale sharks are indeed massive. The polka-dotted fish can grow up to about 40 feet in length and weigh as much as 47,000 pounds, nearly as much as four African elephants, Earth’s largest land animal, combined. The sharks stick to warm, tropical waters and tend to aggregate in locations where they take can advantage of prime feeding opportunities.

Whale sharks gather in the Gulf of Mexico when fish are spawning, for example, and at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean the sharks show up in huge numbers during the annual mass spawning of red land crabs. Beyond what they eat at these yearly feasts, though, scientists know little about whale sharks’ diets.

To illuminate the mystery, Wyatt and colleagues tracked stable forms of carbon and nitrogen in the sharks’ tissues, which allowed them to track what and when they’d eaten. The team followed two populations: one group of five captive individuals that were part of the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium and a second group of eight wild sharks that had become entangled in fishing nets off the coast of Okinawa. The team took blood samples and other measurements of the wild whale sharks as they freed them from the nets. The analysis gave the researchers a picture of the sharks’ overall health, including what they ate and how long it’d been since their last meal.

Diverse Diet

In a surprise find, all of the wild sharks the researchers evaluated had recently eaten some sort of plant matter. What’s more, many of them had experienced a period of prolonged food scarcity in the recent past. The researchers suspect the sharks may fast during long migrations and rely on plants and algae for sustenance when other food is scarce.

“We were able to identify two feeding strategies (oceanic or coastal), evidence of prevalent starvation and the first direct evidence of herbivory by the species,” Wyatt said.

The sharks’ diets fell smack between a pure herbivore and a pure carnivore, the researchers report, meaning whale sharks are actually omnivores. They may not be the only ones. Research from another team recently showed captive bonnethead sharks are able to live off a mostly vegetarian diet of seagrass and squid.

“Omnivory in sharks may be more common than previously recognized,” Wyatt said.

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This Robot Dog Teaches Itself New Tricks




robot dog ANYmal

ANYmal walks like a dog and looks like a dog thanks to its extensive, computerized dog-training courses. (Credit: Hwangbo et al., Sci. Robot. 4, eaau5872 (2019))

Now that’s a headline, right? It’s got a robot dog, plays off a well-known phrase and piques curiosity. Best of all: It’s also accurate! Sort of.

According to a paper today in Science Robotics, an international team of engineers created a way for legged robots — inspired by and physically similar to quadrupedal canines — to use machine learning techniques to learn better ways to move around and adapt to a given environment. As proof, you can watch one such robot “withstanding abuse from their human creators,” as the official caption describes it.


Robot Dog Days

Now, I know what you may be thinking: This is dangerously close to that one Black Mirror episode, with the killer robot dogs. Well, as it turns out, it’s actually closer to those other Black Mirror episodes about virtual spaces.

That’s because the “training sessions,” where the dogs did all their learning, took place within a computer. “We introduce a method for training a neural network policy in simulation,” the authors write, “and transferring it to a state-of-the-art legged system, thereby leveraging fast, automated, and cost-effective data generation schemes.” The artificial intelligence — here applied to a specific dog-sized machine named the ANYmal, but the method should work on any machine — learns all its tricks in the digital world, where there are no complicated and expensive parts to engineer and replace, then shows off its abilities in the real world.

Using this technique, the researchers improve on all previous attempts to manipulate such robots, achieving a new level of control and efficiency. In particular, ANYmal can now run up to 25 percent faster than ever, and it recovers from all fall it experienced in real-world testing. (Hence the abuse, above.)

A Robot’s Best Friend

Despite the Black Mirror comparisons, this stuff is more cool and exciting than depressing and unsettling. The authors themselves point out the promise of such mobile technology: “Legged robots may one day rescue people in forests and mountains, climb stairs to carry payloads in construction sites, inspect unstructured underground tunnels, and explore other planets.”

And because the virtual training regimen — all of which took place on simple personal computers and never exceeded 11 hours — was sped up, running about 1,000 times faster than real-time, this method of learning is cheap and gets results relatively quickly.

Of course, other machines will still need their own training sessions for now, and there are other bugs to work out before the technology can achieve those lofty goals. Still, we now have a robot dog that trained themselves to improve their running form and get back up from any kind of a fall — an uplifting and inspirational message that proves just how unlike Black Mirror this really is.

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Over 60 Percent of Wild Coffee Species Are at Risk of Extinction




Coffee beans

(Credit: Ilja Generalov/Shutterstock)

For all those that rely on that cup of coffee to get you going in the morning, here’s another eye-opener: A majority of wild coffee might be going extinct.

That info is courtesy of a new study finding roughly 60 percent of wild coffee species are at risk of going extinct. We don’t drink these wild, unsavory strains often, but they could help our beloved arabica and robusta beans adapt to climate change, resist pests and ward off diseases.

The study on coffee extinction risks, which examined 124 different species, was published today in the journal Science Advances.

Brewed to Perfection

Your poison might be lattes, frappuccinos or macchiatos, but most coffee drinks have one thing in common: their beans. The famous arabica species makes up 60 percent of the world’s traded coffee, with the robusta strain trailing behind at 40 percent. People have been cultivating them for hundreds of years for their smooth, mild taste.

Recent increases in droughts and diseases, though, are putting our beloved beans at risk. But luckily, there are species of wild coffee with hardier traits that allow them to survive in tough conditions. Through interbreeding and hybridization, we could mix wild and domesticated species to create coffee that is both tasty and resilient.

To do that, though, we need to know the prevalence and growth rates of wild breeds. So Aaron P. Davis, a senior research leader at the Royal Botanic Gardens in the United Kingdom, set out to study the extinction risks for all 124 known species of coffee.

Elevated Extinction

With a team of researchers, Davis analyzed over 5,000 data points, coming mostly from species records and field observations. They looked at factors like population decline, deforestation and overall habitat quality. In all, they found that 75 species of wild coffee, or 60 percent, are at risk of extinction. They’ve grown and adapted to life in the wild for centuries, but due to deforestation, their natural habitats and populations continue to dwindle. Habitat loss ranks among the most dire threats to most of the endangered species, the researchers say.

To combat these numbers, and ensure the long-term survival of arabica and robusta, the researchers outline two necessary actions: collect wild strains for hybridization and make sure they’re growing in protected areas, like national parks and nature reserves. But in their research, they found that 45 percent of wild species aren’t being collected and 28 percent aren’t growing in protected areas.

Just because they’re warding off pests, plant diseases and adjusting to climate change, doesn’t mean that they’re immune to extinction. Many wild species are growing sparsely and in limited locations, and if we don’t stockpile and protect them, our precious brews could be at risk. And consequently, our morning-time sanity.

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