20 Dec

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Opinion: ‘Surreal’ is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year. Sounds about right


‘One day after Leonard Cohen died, Donald Trump pulled off one of the greatest upsets in American political history. That’s when 2016 went from being a bad dream to full-on waking nightmare, one that’s just gotten more and more surreal.’ Photograph: The Irving Penn Foundation

Merriam-Webster Dictionary announced Monday that its official word of the year for 2016 is “surreal”, which the dictionary defines as “marked by the intensity of a dream”.

Seems about right. This year has felt like a bad dream from the start. Just from the music perspective, David Bowie died on 10 January, just after releasing a harrowing, beautiful album very specifically about his own death. He’d had cancer and kept it secret. In April, Prince died, overdosing on the pharmaceutical opiate Fentanyl at the way-too-tender age of 57, just a month after announcing that he had signed a contract to publish his memoir in 2017. In November, Leonard Cohen would complete the trio, dying in his sleep a month after releasing his 15th album, You Want It Darker.

Sad and bewildered, and after a string of terrorist attacks, England’s devastating decision to “Brexit” the European Union, more unarmed black people shot to death by police here in the states, and the divisive, race-baiting, presidential campaign of Republican nominee Donald Trump, music lovers and pretty much any other people around the world would be forgiven for saying: “It was plenty dark enough already, Leonard, thanks.”

Trump Meltdown - Time Magazine August 22 2016

Photograph: Edel Rodriguez/Time Magazine

As it’s used in our contemporary lexicon today, the word “surreal” probably most often conjures images of surrealist art. Inspired by the dream analysis and free associative techniques of Sigmund Freud, early 20th century European painters such as Max Ernst, Andre Masson and Joan Miró took the physics-denying, time-and-space-twisting images that reside in our subconscious and developed a visual language to bring them to life on canvas. It was shocking art, and not always pretty.

Probably the most famous image of surrealism in the world, the melting clocks in Salvador Dalí’s 1931 masterpiece The Persistence of Memory, showed up this year, in a sense, in the form of a pair of stunning but ultimately ill-advised Time magazine cover. In August, to depict Trump’s seemingly self-sabotaging campaign, Time ran an Edel Rodriguez illustration of Trump’s face – mouth agape – melting like an ice-cream cone on a hot summer day.

“Meltdown” was the one-word cover line. Two months later, with Trump still trailing in the polls, just a month before election day, Time brought it back – this time an even more melted Trump, an orange-and-yellow puddle, and one added word: “Total Meltdown.”

The problem of course, is that Time magazine, and just about every other media outlet in the country, had it wrong. Trump was not melting down. In hindsight, it seems pretty clear that he was gaining momentum.

Three weeks after the second Time meltdown cover, one day after Leonard Cohen died, Donald Trump pulled off one of the greatest upsets in American political history. That’s when 2016 went from being a bad dream to full-on waking nightmare, one that’s just gotten worse and worse, and more and more surreal.

The proliferation of “fake news” propaganda around the internet was worse than many of us had thought too. The Russian government meddled in the election in support of Trump, it turned out – something out of a James Bond movie. Trump denies this, putting himself at odds with the intelligence departments of the very government he’s about to inherit command of. It’s an unprecedented mess, and a dangerous one, a truly scary one.

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  • Dictionary publisher had appealed for readers to stop rise of ‘fascism’
  • Editor: ‘Surreal is one of the words most searched after tragedy’
The art installation ‘All-Seeing Trump’, a fortune-telling machine created by a group of anonymous Brooklyn-based artists.

The art installation ‘All-Seeing Trump’, a fortune-telling machine created by a group of anonymous Brooklyn-based artists. Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Merriam-Webster has succeeded in its attempt to stop “fascism” being named its word of the year: the dictionary publisher’s word of 2016 is “surreal”.

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Word of the year 2016: for Merriam-Webster, ‘surreal’ trumps ‘fascism’>>

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No evidence that Aaron Persky displayed bias in giving six-month sentence to ex-Stanford student, which was decried as too lenient by critics, state agency said

The commission said it received thousands of complaints and petitions regarding Aaron Persky and the light sentence.

The commission said it received thousands of complaints and petitions regarding Aaron Persky and the light sentence. Photograph: Jason Doiy/AP

A California agency that oversees judicial discipline in the state says a judge committed no misconduct when he sentenced former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to six months in jail for sexually assaulting a young woman on campus.

The California commission on judicial performance ruled on Monday that there was no evidence that Santa Clara County judge Aaron Persky displayed bias in handing down a sentence decried as too lenient by critics across the country.

“The commission has concluded that there is not clear and convincing evidence of bias, abuse of authority, or other basis to conclude that Judge Persky engaged in judicial misconduct warranting discipline,” the 11-member panel concluded in its unsigned ruling.

Turner’s case exploded on social media and ignited a debate about campus rape and the criminal justice system after the victim’s 7,200-word letter that she read in the courtroom during sentencing was published online.

The commission said it received thousands of complaints and petitions regarding Persky and the sentence.

The petitions included complaints that Persky “displayed gender bias and failed to take sexual assault of women seriously”, and showed favoritism to Turner because the judge was a former Stanford athlete as well.

The 21-year-old was released from jail in September after serving three months. He will be on probation for three years in his native Ohio and is a registered sex offender.

Persky is the target of a recall campaign launched by Stanford law professor Michele Landis Dauber, who said in a statement on Monday that the recall effort would continue.

“This report simply highlights what we have been saying from the beginning,” the statement read, “which is that a petition for judicial discipline was not the correct venue to address these concerns, and the recall is the only realistic way to remove Judge Persky from office.”

“Judge Persky has a long record of failing to take violence against women seriously, and we will demonstrate that when we launch the campaign early next year,” Dauber said.

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Christine Lagarde avoids jail, keeps job after guilty verdict in negligence trial

Judges opt not to give any punishment to head of International Monetary Fund, who was given support of IMF board after the verdict

Christine Lagarde appearing in court in Paris on 12 December.

Christine Lagarde appearing in court in Paris on 12 December. Photograph: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA

Christine Lagarde has been found guilty of negligence in approving a massive payout of taxpayers’ money to controversial French businessman Bernard Tapie but avoided a jail sentence.

A French court convicted the head of the International Monetary Fund and former government minister, who had faced a €15,000 (£12,600) fine and up to a year in prison. But it decided she should not be punished and that the conviction would not constitute a criminal record. On Monday evening the IMF gave her its full support.

The verdict came as a surprise as even the public prosecutor had admitted the evidence against Lagarde was “weak” during a five-day trial last week. Jean-Claude Marin told the court Lagarde’s actions fell into the category of politics and not criminality and called for her to be acquitted.

Lagarde, who has always argued she did nothing wrong and acted “in the public interest”, was not present for the judgment. Her lawyer Patrick Maisonneuve said she had flown back to Washington DC, where the IMF is based.

Within hours of the court’s decision, the IMF’s 24-member board convened a meeting to discuss Lagarde’s future. On Monday evening the IMF’s Washington-based executive board gave Lagarde its full support.

“The executive board looks forward to continuing to work with the managing director to address the difficult challenges facing the global economy,” the board said in a statement.

The IMF’s shareholders were aware of the pending court proceedings when they appointed Lagarde to a second five-year term earlier this year and were weighing up whether she – and the IMF – had suffered lasting reputational damage. The decision not to impose any penalty despite the guilty verdict was seen by some observers as enhancing the chances of the IMF’s managing director holding on to her job.

Support for Lagarde came from the former US Treasury secretary, Larry Summers, who said it was a “sorry day for French justice”. Lagarde was the “best thing” to happen to the IMF in a long time, Summers added.

Lagarde had appeared before the Cour de Justice de la République, a special tribunal set up to judge ministers and public officials for alleged crimes committed while in office. It is made up of three professional judges and 12 politicians from the French houses of parliament.

It was only the fifth time the court had sat and its judgments cannot be appealed against.

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Lawyers for Glendon Scott Crawford argued he never intended to use weapon dubbed a ‘death ray’, which combines explosives and radioactive material

Authorities say Crawford carried out extensive research on radiation dispersal devices, and scouted potential targets including a local mosque.

Authorities say Crawford carried out extensive research on radiation dispersal devices, and scouted potential targets including a local mosque. Photograph: Skip Dickstein/AP

A self-proclaimed white supremacist convicted on charges he planned to use a “death ray” to kill Muslims and Barack Obama was sentenced on Monday to 30 years in prison, federal prosecutors in New York said.

Glendon Scott Crawford, 52, a Navy veteran and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was found guilty in August 2015 of conspiring with another man to build a radiation dispersal device, dubbed a “death ray” by tabloids.

Crawford is the first person to be convicted under a law barring attempts to acquire or use a radiological dispersal device, which combines conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive material. Congress passed the statute in 2004 to punish individuals who try to set off a so-called “dirty bomb.”

US district judge Gary Sharpe imposed the sentence at a hearing in Albany, prosecutors said in a statement. He was convicted on three counts, including conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction.

Crawford, who is from upstate New York, plans to appeal the conviction as well as his sentence, his attorney Danielle Neroni said in a statement. His lawyers argued unsuccessfully at trial that he was entrapped by the government.

Crawford’s co-conspirator, Eric Feight, pleaded guilty in connection with the case and was sentenced to eight years and one month in prison.

US prosecutors had sought life in prison for Crawford. He faced a mandatory minimum of 25 years. After his release, he will be supervised for life.

“His plot to murder people he did not know was designed to, in his oft-repeated words, ‘take his country back’ from government leaders by forcing them to change government conduct he perceived as favoring Muslims,” prosecutors wrote in a pre-sentencing court filing.

Authorities said Crawford, who worked at General Electric Co , carried out extensive research on radiation dispersal devices, learning what level of emission was required to kill humans and conducting

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Soaring Arctic temperatures ‘strongly linked’ to recent extreme weather events, say scientists at cutting edge of climate change research

Ice in Arctic ocean in Svalbard

Global warming has driven the loss of about three-quarters of the northern ice cap so far. Photograph: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace

The dramatic melting of Arctic ice is already driving extreme weather that affects hundreds of millions of people across North America, Europe and Asia, leading climate scientists have told the Guardian.

Severe “snowmageddon” winters are now strongly linked to soaring polar temperatures, say researchers, with deadly summer heatwaves and torrential floods also probably linked. The scientists now fear the Arctic meltdown has kickstarted abrupt changes in the planet’s swirling atmosphere, bringing extreme weather in heavily populated areas to the boil.

The northern ice cap has been shrinking since the 1970s, with global warming driving the loss of about three-quarters of its volume so far. But the recent heat in the Arctic has shocked scientists, with temperatures 33C above average in parts of the Russian Arctic and 20C higher in some other places.

In November, ice levels hit a record low, and we are now in “uncharted territory”, said Prof Jennifer Francis, an Arctic climate expert at Rutgers University in the US, who first became interested in the region when she sailed through it on a round-the-world trip in the 1980s.

“These rapid changes in the Arctic are affecting weather patterns where you live right now,” she said. “In the past you have had natural variations like El Niño, but they have never happened before in combination with this very warm Arctic, so it is a whole new ball game.

“It is inconceivable that this ridiculously warm Arctic would not have an impact on weather patterns in the middle latitudes further south, where so many people live.

“It’s safe to say [the hot Arctic] is going to have a big impact, but it’s hard to say exactly how big right now. But we are going to have a lot of very interesting weather – we’re not going to get around that one.”

The area covered by Arctic sea ice at least four years old has decreased from 718,000 sq miles in September 1984 to 42,000 sq miles in September 2016. Older ice tends to be less vulnerable to melting. The age of the ice is indicated by shades ranging from blue-gray for the youngest ice to white for the oldest. Credits: Nasa

The chain of events that links the melting Arctic with weather to the south begins with rising global temperatures causing more sea ice to melt. Unlike on the Antarctic continent, melting ice here exposes dark ocean beneath, which absorbs more sunlight than ice and warms further. This feedback loop is why the Arctic is heating up much faster than the rest of the planet.

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In a year almost certain to be history’s hottest, drastic environmental changes are taking a toll on food supply and even language in Arctic communities

Yupik women prepare freshly caught salmon for curing. Yupik culture is threatened as sea ice melts.

Yupik women prepare freshly caught salmon for curing. Yupik culture is threatened as sea ice melts. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The extreme warmth of 2016 has changed so much for the people of the Arctic that even their language is becoming unmoored from the conditions in which they now live.

The Yupik, an indigenous people of western Alaska, have dozens of words for the vagaries of sea ice, which is not surprising given the crucial role it plays in subsistence hunting and transportation. But researchers have noted that some of these words, such as “tagneghneq” (thick, dark, weathered ice), are becoming obsolete.

After thousands of years of use, words are vanishing as quickly as the ice they describe due to climate change. The native inhabitants are also in peril – there are 31 Alaskan towns and cities at iminent risk from the melting ice and coastal erosion. Many will have to relocate or somehow adapt.

“In December, we normally have waters covered in ice but right now we have open water out there,” said Vera Metcalf, director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission, which represents 19 native communities stretching along Alaska’s western coast. “We are so dependent upon sea ice conditions. It’s our life, our culture.”

Arctic sea ice extent slumped to a record low in November, winnowed away by the warming air, warming seas and unhelpful wind patterns. The region’s 2016 temperature has been 3.5C warmer than a century ago. In some locations the divergence from the long-term average has been an eye-watering 20C.

On 21 November, the decline on the long-term average of sea ice extent for that day was 888,000 sq miles (2.3m sq km) – an area 10 times larger than the UK, but smaller than the long-term average. “Almost every year now we look at the record of sea ice and say ‘wow’, but this year it was like ‘three times wow’,” said Tad Pfeffer, a geophysicist at the University of Colorado. “This year has been a big exaggeration on the trends we’ve already been seeing.”

These numbers have resonance for people who require dependable rhythms in the environment in order to survive. In remote Alaskan communities, the stores sell goods priced to reflect their journey – $20 for a pizza, $15 for a gallon of milk. If you can’t butcher a 1,000lb walrus because there is no sea ice to support both of you, then you might well be left hungry.

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