Blinken becomes Biden’s top diplomat after a friendship forged over decades

From CNN /By Kylie Atwood

Washington (CNN)It was February 2008 when a snowstorm suddenly overwhelmed the flight path of two American helicopters, forcing them to make an unexpected landing on a mountaintop in Afghanistan.

On board the aircrafts overlooking Taliban territory were Joe Biden and Antony Blinken, his then-top adviser on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with a few other members of the committee, according to two sources on the trip.
When the helicopters landed, soldiers accompanying them established a perimeter around the narrow mountain peak while they decided what to do next. Blinken hopped out of his helicopter to check on Biden.
The source on the trip told CNN that they “remember Tony being unbelievably calm throughout the entire thing and occasionally quite funny. He did not blame anyone for what had happened.”
“Tony just knew how to keep everything under control. He mirrors Biden in that way. They are both calm under pressure,” they said.
Blinken, the newly confirmed secretary of state, has worked with Biden for almost 20 years, and many describe him as having the closest personal relationship with the President of anybody in the Cabinet. They forged that bond in the field, on a tremendous number of foreign trips they took together when Biden was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but also through a US presidential campaign, the shared experience of personal loss and ties between their families.
 Over the years, Biden has relied on Blinken to deal with crisis scenarios in an even-keeled manner, to morph his foreign policy ideas into reality, to support his political endeavors, and to be a loyal friend.
“Tony has been a part of Joe’s evolution, learning, and changes as he has confronted challenge after challenge over decades,” said Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, who sits on the foreign relations committee and called Blinken “an irreplaceable part of Joe Biden’s inner core team.”

Expected to be privy to all major decisions


Blinken is expected to be privy to every major decision Biden makes as President, according to multiple sources who spoke with CNN. That deep level of involvement will be driven by Biden administration’s belief that foreign policy is intrinsically tied to domestic policy and the need to strengthen democracy at home, but it is also a reflection of their sturdy comfortable relationship, the sources explained.
“They will continue to nurture their relationship, and it will be wide ranging,” said an official who is planning to join Blinken’s State Department. “They will see each other a lot. And some of it may be over casual dinners at the White House.”
When Blinken began working with Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2002, the Iraq War debate was ongoing, accelerating their relationship, which may have otherwise matured at a slower pace.
“The war drums were beating,” said a source who was working on the committee at the time. “The relationship forged pretty quickly.”
Blinken worked alongside Biden when he voted in favor the Iraq War — a vote that has been repeatedly scrutinized, and one that Biden and Blinken have both said Biden regretted.
After that initial bonding experience over the most fundamental foreign policy question of war and peace, Blinken was involved in almost every foreign policy declaration or policy that Biden put forth during his time in the Senate and as vice president.
Even when Biden went against the grain — for example, in advocating for a smaller troop presence in Afghanistan when other national security officials advocated for a troop surge in the early days of the Obama administration — Blinken advocated for his views at the interagency level and fine-tuned the policy Biden was driving it forth.
“Blinken channels Biden’s passion and energy into a constructive outcome,” said the source on the Afghanistan trip.
“It was Biden’s style to absorb information and give feedback extemporaneously, in the moment, which does not lead to a crisp foreign policy paper,” said the source who worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with them. “But Blinken is skilled in communications and writing. He could do it.”
Blinken’s tight-knit relationship with Biden is what career diplomats and those close to Blinken’s inner circle expect to fuel his efficacy as America’s top diplomat.
“The challenge always with the secretary of state and the president is does the secretary of state really speak for the president? And when he says something, does the foreign government that he’s talking to believe that that is what the president actually thinks?,” former career US diplomat Lew Lukens told CNN. “When Tony Blinken travels the world, people will know what he says is what Joe Biden believes and thinks. He speaks for the President, and that is incredibly important for a secretary of state. And we didn’t always have that.”

Involvement in Biden’s political career


Blinken has not solely been a foreign policy adviser to Biden, he has also been intimately involved in aspects of Biden’s political career.
In 2008, the night Biden got home from being announced in Springfield as Barack Obama’s running mate, he had a couple staffers up from Washington to his home to plan. Blinken was one of just four, explained a source who worked with them on the campaign. After that, he went on the road with Biden as he traveled the country campaigning.
“Truthfully, almost all of the messaging and speeches day in and day out were about domestic issues, not foreign policy. But Sen. Biden wanted Tony there by his side because he knew the presidency was always shaped by foreign policy decisions, and he wanted uninterrupted time with Tony to plan. But he also wanted something else: a friend and trusted confidante,” said the source who worked with them on the 2008 campaign. “As many of us on the plane were falling asleep, you could usually see a light on up in the front two seats, and it was Sen. Biden and Tony talking late into the night.”
And there is another layer that deepens the connection: Blinken’s wife, Evan Ryan, was Biden’s deputy campaign manager when he ran for the nomination in 2008. After working on the Biden transition, Ryan is now serving in the Biden White House as the executive secretary.
The two couples have been loyal friends throughout times of hardship when they have experienced family loss, according to sources familiar with their relationship. Biden’s father died in September of 2002 when he first met Blinken, and then in 2015, Blinken’s stepfather and Biden’s son, Beau Biden, both passed away.
“President Biden is personally close to both Tony Blinken and Evan Ryan and Tony has been an incredibly loyal, capable and effective adviser, staffer and personal friend of the sort that is rare in Washington,” said Coons.






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First Lady Melania Trump: Our Path Forward

Like all of you, I have reflected on the past year and how the invisible enemy, Covid-19, swept across our beautiful country. All Nations have experienced the loss of loved ones, economic pain, and the negative impacts of isolation.

As your First Lady, it has been inspiring to witness firsthand what the people of our great Nation will do for one another, especially when we are at our most vulnerable.

With nearly every experience I have had, I found myself carrying many individual’s stories home with me in my heart.

Most recently, my heart goes out to: Air Force Veteran, Ashli Babbitt, Benjamin Philips, Kevin Greeson, Roseanne Boyland, and Capitol Police Officers, Brian Sicknick and Howard Liebengood. I pray for their families comfort and strength during this difficult time.

I am disappointed and disheartened with what happened last week. I find it shameful that surrounding these tragic events there has been salacious gossip, unwarranted personal attacks, and false misleading accusations on me – from people who are looking to be relevant and have an agenda. This time is solely about healing our country and its citizens. It should not be used for personal gain.

Our Nation must heal in a civil manner. Make no mistake about it, I absolutely condemn the violence that has occurred on our Nation’s Capitol. Violence is never acceptable.

As an American, I am proud of our freedom to express our viewpoints without persecution. It is one of the paramount ideals which America is fundamentally built on. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice to protect that right. With that in mind, I would like to call on the citizens of this country to take a moment, pause, and look at things from all perspectives.

I implore people to stop the violence, never make assumptions based on the color of a person’s skin or use differing political ideologies as a basis for aggression and viciousness. We must listen to one another, focus on what unites us, and rise above what divides us.

It is inspiring to see that so many have found a passion and enthusiasm in participating in an election, but we must not allow that passion to turn to violence. Our path forward is to come together, find our commonalities, and be the kind and strong people that I know we are.

Our country’s strength and character have revealed themselves in the communities that have been impacted by natural disasters and throughout this terrible pandemic that has affected all of us. The common thread in all of these challenging situations is American’s unwavering resolve to help one another.  Your compassion has shown the true spirit of our country.

As I said over the summer, it is these defining moments that we will look back and tell our grandchildren that through empathy, strength, and determination, we were able to restore the promise of our future. Each of you are the backbone of this country. You are the people who continue to make the United States of America what it is, and who have the incredible responsibility of preparing our future generations to leave everything better than they found it.

It has been the honor of my lifetime to serve as your First Lady. I want to thank the millions of Americans who supported my husband and me over the past 4 years and shown the incredible impact of the American spirit. I am grateful to you all for letting me serve you on platforms which are dear to me.

Most importantly, I ask for healing, grace, understanding, and peace for our great Nation.

Every day let us remember that we are one Nation under God. God bless you all and God bless the United States of America.


Melania Trump

Exclusive: Tesla hunts for design chief to create cars for China – sources


BEIJING (Reuters) – Tesla Inc is searching for a design director in China, part of efforts to open a “full-function” studio in Shanghai or Beijing and design electric cars tailored to Chinese consumer tastes, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.

The U.S. carmaker’s human resources managers, as well as several headhunters, have been trawling the industry over the past four months, the sources said.

They are looking for “bi-cultural” candidates with 20 or more years of experience who are familiar with Chinese tastes and can bridge the gaps between China and the United States, they added.

Some candidates have been interviewed by Tesla’s global design chief Franz von Holzhausen, according to the people, though it was not clear how many potential candidates had been approached by the company and recruiters.

All three sources spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity and confidential nature of the matter.

Tesla and von Holzhausen did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

China is the world’s biggest auto market, plus the largest for all-electric vehicles with sales volumes expected to reach roughly 1.5 million vehicles there this year, according to consultancy LMC Automotive. It is also Tesla’s No.2 market after the United States.

The carmaker’s plans for the design studio are not fully developed, and the sources believe Tesla will likely wait for more clarity on strained U.S.-China relations under a new U.S. president before making a final decision on the move and all its details.

The talent search, which the sources said was mainly focused within China, fits with comments from Tesla boss Elon Musk early last year.

“I think something that would be super cool would be … to create a China design and engineering centre to actually design an original car in China for worldwide consumption. I think this would be very exciting,” he said at a media event in Shanghai.


Musk’s interest in developing cars in China is part of a broader push by Tesla to boost the company’s global sales volume well past the 500,000-vehicle-a-year mark, which it came just 450 short of hitting in 2020.

All three sources said Tesla’s search for a China studio director began around September, and that there was a flurry of activity as recently as December when a number of headhunters used LinkedIn and other means to approach candidates.

One of the sources, who has knowledge of Tesla’s headhunting activities in China, said that once a design director was hired, Tesla would recruit the director’s team which would likely be around 20-strong and include designers plus modellers who help turn design renderings into clay models.

All the sources said the planned centre aimed to be a comprehensive design outfit, with one describing it as a “full-function studio”, which would not only help conceptualize the design of a car but also come up with the final shape – digital three-dimensional data – of a model.

The data could then be handed over to Tesla’s vehicle engineers, who are mostly based in northern California.

Two of the sources said Tesla’s China studio would likely also carry out research on Chinese consumer tastes, as well as work for cars expected to be produced at Tesla’s vehicle assembly plant in Shanghai, where designs are tweaked to make sure specific components fit within engineers’ specifications.

“They want to give vehicle design a lot more bias toward China; they have already done a lot here, setting up a major manufacturing site and having sold a ton of EVs, but it seems Tesla’s ready to put roots down,” said one of the sources.

This push might lead to a more independent Tesla China, added the person, who has spent more than a decade in the country working at design centres run by global automakers, among other places.

Chinese consumers bought around 145,000 Tesla vehicles last year, accounting for roughly a third of the company’s overall global volumes, LMC said.


Two of the sources said one likely “China-specific” model was a lower-cost volume generator such as a $25,000 electric car that Musk referred to at a Battery Day event in September, which he said Tesla might aim to bring to market in about three years.

Musk said Tesla was confident it would be able to hit the market with “a very compelling $25,000 electric vehicle that’s also fully autonomous”.

At that price, according to two of the sources as well as industry experts, it was likely to be a compact car, smaller than Tesla’s Model 3, which would be as affordable as some mainstream gasoline-fueled vehicles.

Compact cars are not big sellers in the United States where bigger, taller vehicles such as Ford’s F-150 pickup truck and SUVs, as well as midsize sedans, rule the road.

They account for about 10% of America’s overall vehicle market. By contrast, compacts make up 25% of sales in China, or around 5-6 million cars a year, according to consultancy LMC Automotive.

That’s why the planned $25,000 car Musk has discussed would be better suited to the China marketplace, according to the two sources and industry experts.

“A compact Tesla car would do well in China, as well as the rest of Asia and Europe,” said Yale Zhang, head of Shanghai-based consultancy Automotive Foresight. “It could potentially put a serious dent in sales of cars like Toyota’s Corolla and the Volkswagen Golf.”

Reporting by Norihiko Shirouzu; Additional reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by Pravin Char

Behind the grim numbers on Chicago gun violence in 2020


Our city will not curb gun violence and bring down the number of murders without addressing the root causes of violence, which have been made worse by COVID-19’s economic and social upheaval.

As 2020 draws to a close, Chicago has reached a grim milestone of 766 homicides, the highest number since 778 murders in 2016.

Chicago is not the only American city to experience a dramatic and sobering uptick in gun violence this year, fueled by the social and economic upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In New York City, homicides have soared 39% since last year. In Los Angeles, 30%. In St. Louis, 35%. The list goes on, adding up to a 34% increase in murders nationwide since last year, data from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice shows.

Other numbers in Chicago also are markedly higher than a year ago: 4,115 people shot. 11,280 illegal guns seized. 7,236 gun arrests.

But this is not an editorial about the grim numbers on gun violence. This is about the story behind the numbers. Which is that many, if not most, of those crimes were probably committed by someone who was desperate, depressed, unemployed, undereducated, addicted to drugs and alcohol, poorly raised — or maybe all of the above.

Let’s be clear here: Nobody’s offering excuses for those who murder or engage in other forms of violence. Those who commit violent crimes must pay a just price for the harm they have caused. Public safety must be our first priority.

Some of the increase in murders, too, likely stems from mundane reasons related to the pandemic — tempers rising between roommates who’ve been cooped up in close quarters too long during lockdowns, or an escalation of a domestic violence incident.

But over the long term — over years, decades and generations —Chicago will quell the violence only if it does far more to address the root causes of violence, made so glaringly obvious in this year of the pandemic.

An unprecedented crisis


“There’s always been an urgent need to address root causes,” as Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago Crime Lab told us. “But when you have a once-in-a-hundred-year public health and economic crisis, it highlights the need for a root cause push of a sort that nobody has seen before.”

Among young adults ages 18 to 24 — the very group most likely to become involved in gun violence — the pandemic has taken a steep toll, Ludwig pointed out.

Take mental health. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey from June found that 41% of adults reported experiencing anxiety, depression, substance abuse or other mental health issues since the pandemic.

The percentage rose to 50% or above among young adults ages 18 to 24, African Americans, Latinos, those with less than a high school diploma and essential workers. One in four young adults had considered suicide within the past 30 days.

“Who can be surprised that we have a gun violence epidemic, in the presence of a mental health epidemic like this?” Ludwig said.

Job loss, too, has been far higher among young people since COVID-19.

“I don’t think we fully appreciate the magnitude of the economic crisis we’re in the midst of right now, especially for young people,” Ludwig says.

A foundation for anti-violence work


Post-pandemic, it will take a massive effort — starting at the federal level with another major stimulus package — to knit together a social safety net that ensures adequate mental health care, quality education, jobs and other resources for every American.

America has done it before, with the New Deal that got us out of the Great Depression. We can do it again — and lay a foundation for curbing violence in the process.

Meanwhile, for all the talk of “defunding the police,” traditional crime-fighting strategies remain essential, though with a more socially responsive emphasis.

Chicago Police Supt. David Brown has vowed to make policing more effective by emphasizing community policing efforts, such as getting officers involved in food pantry giveaways, youth activities and other neighborhood projects.

We favor that approach. Good policing depends on good relationships between officers and the communities they serve. We hope to see the effort ramp up significantly post-COVID.

The same goes for anti-violence street outreach work, another vital tool that’s been hampered by the pandemic.

But as the city’s sweeping anti-violence plan makes clear, those approaches alone won’t work.

“Put simply, without addressing the root causes of disinvestment, poverty, and inequitable social policies,” the plan reads, “Chicago’s violence reduction efforts will fail.”

The proof is in the pandemic, in big cities across the country, where homicide rates are way up for one reason above all: More people are struggling, hurting, alienated and lost.

Inside Kim and Kanye’s stunning Los Angeles mansion

From CNN /By Jacopo Prisco

im Kardashian West and Kanye West have opened the doors of their California mansion to Architectural Digest magazine, which defines it as a “wildly idiosyncratic family refuge in suburban Los Angeles.”
The couple had previously shown glimpses of the home via Instagram, but they have now revealed in detail how they transformed the estate — which they bought in 2014 — into a “futuristic Belgian monastery,” as Kanye put it.

 The kitchen island, topped with Shiro Tsujimura ceramic vases. Credit: Architectural Digest
They first laid eyes on the property in 2013, but it wasn’t love at first sight: “I thought the house was perfection. Kanye was less enthusiastic. He said, ‘It’s workable’,” Kim revealed.
The project came to life with the help of Belgian designer and tastemaker Axel Vervoordt, whose seductive simplicity intrigued Kanye: “When I saw the kind of work he was doing, I thought, this man could design Batman’s house. I had to work with him,” he told AD.
The house was reportedly purchased for $20 million, but Kris Jenner, Kim Kardashian’s mother, tweeted in 2018 that its value was $60 million.

 The pool area. Credit: Architectural Digest
Following conversations that revolved around “a search for cosmic values of peace and positive energy,” as Vervoordt put it, the three embarked on a process of distillation: “We changed the house by purifying it, and we kept pushing to make it purer and purer,” the architect recalled.

 Upholstered seating by Royere and a limestone cocktail table by Vervoordt grace the living room. Credit: Architectural Digest
That meant that the proportions of the mansion’s rooms were all changed and the furnishings were reduced to a minimum. The palette is neutral, conveying a feeling of calmness. The result is distinctly, and perhaps unexpectedly, minimalistic.
Although Vervoordt did most of the work, other designers also chimed in, including Claudio Silvestrin, who designed the master bath, Vincent Van Duysen, who helped furnish the living room and the children’s bedrooms, and Peter Wirzt, who oversaw the design of the gardens.
Tables and chairs by Jean Royère and a fiberglass sculpture by Anish Kapoor can also be spotted.

 Architectural Digest
The couple are quick to point out that the pristine looking environment is kid-friendly and therefore suitable for their four children, North, Saint, Chicago and Psalm: “This house may be a case study, but our vision for it was built around the family,” Kanye said.

Julian Assange: What you need to know about the WikiLeaks founder

The Australian-born whistle-blower is facing espionage and hacking charges in the US, facing up to 175 years in prison.



On January 4, a British court blocked a United States request to extradite WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange.

The US has charged him with hacking government computers and espionage after he obtained and published hundreds of thousands of classified documents between 2010 and 2011.

District Judge Vanessa Baraister said that such a move would be “oppressive” taking into account Assange’s mental health, saying he was at risk of suicide.

Assange was arrested in April 2019 by UK police from the embassy of Ecuador in London, where he had been granted asylum since 2012.

Here is what you need to know:

Who is Julian Assange?


Assange is an Australian-born computer programmer and founder of WikiLeaks – an international, non-profit whistle-blowing organisation that was created in Iceland in 2006.

The 49-year-old, a father, is WikiLeaks’ publisher and former editor-in-chief. In 2018, Icelandic journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson took over as editor.

Assange came to prominence in mid-2010 after WikiLeaks published US military logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, and US cable leaks in November that year.

Former US military personnel Chelsea Manning sent the information to Assange.

Manning was charged and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment in 2013 for violating the Espionage Act of 1917, and other offences.

The Espionage Act was passed to deter any interference in US military operations and prevent individuals and groups from supporting enemies of the United States.

Manning’s sentence was commuted in January 2017, days before then-US President Barack Obama left office.

What did WikiLeaks reveal?


WikiLeaks shot to fame in April 2010 after the website released a 39-minute video of a US military Apache helicopter firing over and killing more than a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists.

The footage leaked by private Manning led to global outrage, reigniting a debate over the US’s occupation of Iraq and wider presence in the Middle East.

In July that year, WikiLeaks, together with several media outlets, such as the New York Times, published more than 90,000 US military documents related to the War in Afghanistan.

These included previously unreported details about civilian deaths, friendly-fire casualties, US air raids, al-Qaeda’s role in the country, and nations providing support to Afghan leaders and the Taliban.

Months later, WikiLeaks published 391,832 documents related to the Iraq War. The reports, also referred to as The Iraq War Logs, provided on the ground details as reported by US troops, dating from January 2014 to December 2019.

The leaks were the single largest in US military history, exposing huge civilian casualties.

In November 2010, WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables, in what is now better known as the Cablegate scandal.

Some 250,000 reports were released, dating back to 1996 up until February 2010. The cables provided analysis and insights from more than 270 US embassies and consulates from around the world.

What is Assange charged with?


After Assange was arrested, a grand jury in the state of Virginia charged him with one count of computer intrusion/hacking for allegedly assisting Private Manning in accessing classified documents.

In May 2019, Assange was further charged – under the US Espionage Act of 1917 – on 17 counts for soliciting, gathering and publishing US military and diplomatic documents in 2010, all provided by Manning.

Assange is the first publisher to be charged under the act.

The leaks highlighted in the indictment include the US diplomatic cables, information on Guantanamo Bay prison detainees and Iraq and Afghanistan activity reports.

What could happen to Assange?


On January 4, UK’s Old Bailey court in London denied the US government’s request to extradite Assange on mental health issues ground, saying he was a suicide risk.

“I am satisfied that the risk that Mr Assange will commit suicide is a substantial one,” Baraitser noted in her remarks.

The US government has said it will appeal the decision, with some expecting the trial to go all the way up to the UK Supreme Court.

If Assange is extradited to the US and charged under the Espionage Act, he could face up to 175 years in jail. On the less serious charge of computer intrusion, the WikiLeaks founder would receive a maximum of five years.

Extradition between the UK and the US is rare.

In 2012, a request from the US to extradite UK hacker Gary Mackinnon for hacking into US military databases was rejected. Similarly, the US refused a request from the UK earlier this year to hand over Anna Sachoolas, the wife of a US intelligence officer accused of killing a British citizen due to dangerous driving.

What happened to the sexual assault charges against him in Sweden?


The US indictment against Assange does not include any charges of rape, of which he was accused of by two Swedish women in 2010. Assange has repeatedly denied the accusations.

A Swedish court issued an international warrant for his arrest in 2010 so he could be extradited back to the nordic country. After being released on bail in the UK, Assange was granted asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in June 2012 by then-President Rafael Correa, where he resided for nearly seven years.

On November 19, 2019, all rape charges against Assange were dropped.

Why is this case important?


While supporters of the Wikileaks publisher have welcomed the UK court’s decision, many have expressed caution – noting that the case was not decided on the grounds of press freedom.

According to rights groups, Assange’s possible extradition and sentencing in the US would be a serious threat to free-speech rights and to the work of investigative journalists around the world.

Amnesty International has said the effect of Assange being convicted on investigative journalists, publishers and anyone who publishes classified government material would be “immediate and severe”.

US lawyers argue that charges against Assange could be challenged under the US’s First Amendment law, which protects the right to freedom of speech and expression.

A brief history of the Times Square New Year’s Eve ball drop

From CNN /By Jacqui Palumbo

On the last day of each year, it has become a ritual for large crowds to gather in the brightly lit chaos of New York’s Times Square to ring in new beginnings. At 11:59 p.m. a dazzling ball descends down a pole, while attendees — and millions of people tuning in from home — count down from 60. At the stroke of midnight, the crowd erupts into a cacophony of sound, often pulling their loved one in for a ceremonial kiss.

New Year's Eve has its own set of rituals: the ball drop, resolutions and sealing the new year with a kiss.New Year’s Eve has its own set of rituals: the ball drop, resolutions and sealing the new year with a kiss.

This year, however, the Times Square ball will drop to empty streets. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, no one will be allowed to gather in person, but there will be a virtual event for those wanting to watch it from home.

The Times Square Ball has had seven different designs.The Times Square Ball has had seven different designs.

This will mark the first year since 1904 that crowds will be prohibited from flocking to Times Square. Though the ball drop was canceled for two years during World War II, people still came to observe the tradition and hold a minute of silence.
Over the past century, the symbol of the New Year — the luminous ball — has evolved from a iron and wood cage adorned with light bulbs to a dazzling technicolor crystal object.
But how did this New Year’s Eve celebration start, and why do we commemorate the occasion by watching a ball descend down a pole?

Nautical inspiration


The Times Square ball began thanks to a Ukranian immigrant and metalworker, named Jacob Starr, and the former New York Times publisher, Adolph Ochs. The latter had successfully drawn crowds to the newspaper’s new skyscraper home in Times Square through pyrotechnics and fireworks to celebrate the forthcoming year, but city officials banned explosives from being used after just a few years.
In 1907, Ochs commissioned Starr, who worked for sign-making firm Strauss Signs (later known as Artkraft Strauss, which Starr served as president), to create a new visual display.
Crowds gather in Times Square to on December 31, 1938. The intersection has hosted New Year's Eve celebrations since 1904.
Crowds gather in Times Square to on December 31, 1938. The intersection has hosted New Year’s Eve celebrations since 1904.
The new concept was based on time balls, nautical devices that had gained popularity in the 19th century. As time-telling became more precise, ship navigators needed a standardized way to set their chronometers. Each day, harbors and observatories would raise and lower a metal ball at the same time to allow sailors to synchronize their instruments.
Both Ochs and the New York Times’ chief electrician, Walter Palmer, have been credited with the idea, allegedly inspired by the downtown Western Union Building, which dropped a time ball each day at noon. But Starr’s granddaughter Tama, who joined Artkraft Strauss in 1982 and now owns the business, said in a phone interview that she believes it was her grandfather who came up with the concept of the ball being lowered and lit up with the new year numerals at midnight.
One design of the New Year's Ball was an aluminum cage outfitted with lightbulbs.
One design of the New Year’s Ball was an aluminum cage outfitted with lightbulbs.
“The idea was to … have it illuminated with the brand-new electricity that had just come up to the neighborhood,” said Tama, who for many years served as foreperson at the Times Square ball drop. “And it was lowered by hand … starting at one minute to midnight, and that was the way it was done for many years.”
Though Manhattan had been partially illuminated by electricity since the early 1880s, the US National Park Service (NPS) notes that half of American homes were still lit by gas lights and candles until the 1920s. The sight of a glimmering ball lowering down from the dark skies would have seemed otherworldly.
When the ball reached the parapet with a sign displaying the numbers of the year, “the electrician would throw the switch, turning off the ball and turning on the numbers at the same time,” Tama said. “So it looked like the ball coming down transformed into the set of numbers.”
Artkraft Strauss, a sign company founded by Jacob Starr, was responsible for the ball design and its drop for nearly a century.
Artkraft Strauss, a sign company founded by Jacob Starr, was responsible for the ball design and its drop for nearly a century
All of Times Square got in on the theatrics. In the first year, waiters in nearby restaurants and hotels wore battery-powered “1908” top hats that they illuminated at the stroke of midnight.
“It looked like magic to people,” said Tama.

‘A minute outside of time’


There have been seven different Times Square balls since its first descent, from a 700-pound iron structure fitted with 25-watt light bulbs, to a lighter aluminum frame after World War II, to a “Big Apple” during the administration of the city’s former mayor Ed Koch.
During Mayor Ed Koch's administration, the ball changed to an apple as part of the "I Love New York" campaign.
During Mayor Ed Koch’s administration, the ball changed to an apple as part of the “I Love New York” campaign.
In 1995, when the ball got a glitzy update with rhinestones, strobe lights and computer controls, traditional signmakers were no longer needed — which meant that Artkraft Strauss, the company that had brought the ball to Times Square, was no longer needed either. Today’s ball is a collaboration between Waterford Crystal and Philips Lighting, using 32,256 LEDs that can be programed to display millions of colors and patterns on its surface.
Nonetheless, Tama remembers her years on the roof of One Times Square fondly. She took turns with her brother supervising and playing timekeeper. When the last minute of the year arrived, the workers lowered the ball down using a complex pulley system.
Using a series of tape markers on the pole, Tama was responsible for telling them to speed up or slow down. With every ounce of their attention focused on the task, even the team’s breathing would sync up during the 60 seconds, she said.
For the millenium, the Times Square ball got a new look, with a crystal design from Waterford Crystal and lighting from Philips.
For the millenium, the Times Square ball got a new look, with a crystal design from Waterford Crystal and lighting from Philips.
In performing this ritual year after year, Tama sees an intrinsic link between the countdown, which she calls “a minute outside of time,” and the making of New Year’s resolutions.
“When you’re concentrating really hard, time seems to slow down,” she said. “It felt like the longest minute in the world. It felt like you had time to wash your hair, call your mother, change your life. You really can change your life in one minute — you can decide to be different. You can decide to be kinder and better.”

New coronavirus variant: What do we know?

From BBC/By James Gallagher


The rapid spread of a new variant of coronavirus has been blamed for the introduction of strict tier four mixing rules for millions of people, harsher restrictions on mixing at Christmas in England, Scotland and Wales, and other countries placing the UK on a travel ban.

So how has it gone from being non-existent to the most common form of the virus in parts of England in a matter of months?

The government’s advisers on new infections now say they have “high” confidence that it is more able to transmit than other variants.

All the work is at an early stage, contains huge uncertainties and a long list of unanswered questions.

As I’ve written before, viruses mutate all the time and it’s vital to keep a laser focus on whether the virus’ behaviour is changing.

Why is this variant causing concern?


Three things are coming together that mean it is attracting attention:

  • It is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus
  • It has mutations that affect part of the virus likely to be important
  • Some of those mutations have already been shown in the lab to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells

All of these come together to build a case for a virus that can spread more easily.

However, we do not have absolute certainty. New strains can become more common simply by being in the right place at the right time – such as London, which had only tier two restrictions until recently.

But already the justification for tier four restrictions is in part to reduce the spread of the variant.

“Laboratory experiments are required, but do you want to wait weeks or months [to see the results and take action to limit the spread]? Probably not in these circumstances,” Prof Nick Loman, from the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, told me.

How much faster is it spreading?


It was first detected in September. In November around a quarter of cases in London were the new variant. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December.

You can see how the variant has come to dominate the results of testing in some centres such as the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Laboratory.

Mathematicians have been running the numbers on the spread of different variants in an attempt to calculate how much of an edge this one might have.

But teasing apart what is due to people’s behaviour and what is due to the virus is hard.

The figure mentioned by Prime Minister Boris Johnson was that the variant may be up to 70% more transmissible. He said this may be increasing the R number – which indicates if an epidemic is growing or shrinking – by 0.4.

That 70% number appeared in a presentation by Dr Erik Volz, from Imperial College London, on Friday.

During the talk he said: “It is really too early to tell… but from what we see so far it is growing very quickly, it is growing faster than [a previous variant] ever grew, but it is important to keep an eye on this.”

There is no “nailed on” figure for how much more infectious the variant may be. Scientists, whose work is not yet public, have told me figures both much higher and much lower than 70%.

But there remain questions about whether it is any more infectious at all.

“The amount of evidence in the public domain is woefully inadequate to draw strong or firm opinions on whether the virus has truly increased transmission,” said Prof Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham.

How far has it spread?


It is thought the variant either emerged in a patient in the UK or has been imported from a country with a lower ability to monitor coronavirus mutations.

The variant can be found across the UK, except Northern Ireland, but it is heavily concentrated in London, the South East and eastern England. Cases elsewhere in the country do not seem to have taken off.

Data from Nextstrain, which has been monitoring the genetic codes of the viral samples around the world, suggest cases in Denmark and Australia have come from the UK. The Netherlands has also reported cases.

A similar variant that has emerged in South Africa shares some of the same mutations, but appears to be unrelated to this one.

Has this happened before?



The virus that was first detected in Wuhan, China, is not the same one you will find in most corners of the world.

The D614G mutation emerged in Europe in February and became the globally dominant form of the virus.

Another, called A222V, spread across Europe and was linked to people’s summer holidays in Spain.


What do we know about the new mutations?


An initial analysis of the new variant has been published and identifies 17 potentially important alterations.

There have been changes to the spike protein – this is the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway to our body’s cells.

One mutation called N501Y alters the most important part of the spike, known as the “receptor-binding domain”.

This is where the spike makes first contact with the surface of our body’s cells. Any changes that make it easier for the virus to get inside are likely to give it an edge.

“It looks and smells like an important adaptation,” said Prof Loman.

The other mutation – a H69/V70 deletion, in which a small part of the spike is removed – has emerged several times before, including famously in infected mink.

Work by Prof Ravi Gupta at the University of Cambridge has suggested this mutation increases infectivity two-fold in lab experiments.

Studies by the same group suggest the deletion makes antibodies from the blood of survivors less effective at attacking the virus.

Prof Gupta told me: “It is rapidly increasing, that’s what’s worried government, we are worried, most scientists are worried.”

Where has it come from?


The variant is unusually highly mutated.

The most likely explanation is the variant has emerged in a patient with a weakened immune system that was unable to beat the virus.

Instead their body became a breeding ground for the virus to mutate.

Does it make the infection more deadly?


There is no evidence to suggest that it does, although this will need to be monitored.

However, just increasing transmission would be enough to cause problems for hospitals.

If the new variant means more people are infected more quickly, that would in turn lead to more people needing hospital treatment.

Will the vaccines work against the new variant?


Almost certainly yes, or at least for now.

All three leading vaccines develop an immune response against the existing spike, which is why the question comes up.

Vaccines train the immune system to attack several different parts of the virus, so even though part of the spike has mutated, the vaccines should still work.

“But if we let it add more mutations, then you start worrying,” said Prof Gupta.

“This virus is potentially on a pathway for vaccine escape, it has taken the first couple of steps towards that.”

Vaccine escape happens when the virus changes so it dodges the full effect of the vaccine and continues to infect people.

This may be the most concerning element of what is happening with the virus.

This variant is just the latest to show the virus is continuing to adapt as it infects more and more of us.

A presentation by Prof David Robertson, from the University of Glasgow on Friday, concluded: “The virus will probably be able to generate vaccine escape mutants.”

That would put us in a position similar to flu, where the vaccines need to be regularly updated. Fortunately the vaccines we have are very easy to tweak.

From royal splits to PR crises, Queen Elizabeth had a rough 2020. But the pandemic gave her renewed relevance.

From CNN /By Max Foster and Lauren Said-Moorhouse

London (CNN)2020 was a tumultuous year for most people, and that’s no less true for Queen Elizabeth II.

Britain’s monarch has long occupied two roles — one as the head of the state and nation, the other as the head of her own family — and over the past 12 months she has been forced to confront crises on both fronts.
Here’s a look back at one of the Queen’s most challenging years to date.

A rocky start


The new year was barely underway when Prince Harry and his wife Meghan announced to the world — and the rest of the family — they were quitting their roles as senior royals.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex said in a bombshell statement on their official Instagram account on January 8 they hoped to continue supporting the monarch but wanted to seek financial autonomy. The pair credited the Queen with providing the encouragement “particularly over the last few years” that led them to make such a dramatic announcement.
But CNN understands conversations over the couple’s future were already underway and the Queen was “disappointed” that her grandson had opted to reveal as much publicly. The monarch had explicitly told Harry to continue negotiations privately and was said to been left “upset.”
Prince Harry and Meghan depart Canada House on January 7 in London, England.

 Prince Harry and Meghan depart Canada House on January 7 in London, England
Harry and Meghan had hoped to carve out a role the establishment had never seen before, a hybrid position where they would choose which formal positions they would keep and which they would leave behind while they developed their own private income streams and independence. It’s clear they also felt unsupported and unprotected by the palace machinery against what they felt was a constant barrage of media abuse and lies.
But royal roles are in the gift of the monarch, and the Sussexes’ “half-in, half-out” model wasn’t seen as workable. The Queen was left in the uncomfortable predicament of trying to give her beloved grandson what he wanted without compromising the institution. It was perhaps the most delicate moment for the British monarchy since the aftermath of Diana‘s death in 1997.
The situation culminated in a crisis summit at her Sandringham residence where she was joined by the heir to the throne Prince Charles, his elder son Prince William and Harry. In a statement after the meeting, the Queen said Harry, Meghan and their son Archie would “always be much loved members of my family.”
“I recognize the challenges they have experienced as a result of intense scrutiny over the last two years and support their wish for a more independent life,” she said. “I want to thank them for all their dedicated work across this country, the Commonwealth and beyond, and am particularly proud of how Meghan has so quickly become one of the family.”
The terms of the split stipulated that while the pair would always remain part of the family, they would no longer use their HRH titles; they would receive financial assistance from Charles, and could supplement their income with appropriate opportunities.
Harry’s frustration over the result was evident. “It brings me great sadness that it has come to this. The decision that I have made for my wife and I to step back is not one I made lightly,” he told a charity event in London in late January.
“Our hope was to continue serving the Queen, the Commonwealth, and my military associations, but without public funding. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible.”
By the end of March, Harry and Meghan’s transition out of their royal roles was complete. The current arrangements are due to be reviewed by the Sussexes and the rest of the family in March.
It was a dramatic start to the year, but arguably left the monarchy in a stronger position. The Crown can modernize as much as it likes, but ultimately it’s built on a hierarchy, and the direct line of succession — Elizabeth, Charles and William — showed a united front.

Charles catches Covid-19


Having settled the family drama, the Queen was immediately presented with one the biggest crises she’s ever faced as head of nation — keeping everyone united as the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the country went into an uncomfortable lockdown.
As Covid-19 spread through the UK, she was prevented from doing what she does best when her busy diary of public engagements was suddenly curtailed. She made the decision to relocate from Buckingham Palace in London to form a bubble in Windsor with Prince Philip and key staff “as a sensible precaution.”
Prince Charles is seen on a monitor as he speaks during the opening of the "NHS Nightingale" field hospital, at the ExCeL London exhibition center, in London on April 3.

 Prince Charles is seen on a monitor as he speaks during the opening of the “NHS Nightingale” field hospital, at the ExCeL London exhibition center, in London on April 3.
Those words rang true days later, when Prince Charles announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus. The Prince of Wales was said to have had only mild symptoms and is otherwise in good health, but the mere fact that the 71-year-old was unwell emphasized to all how the virus did not discriminate.
William also caught Covid-19 in the spring, but only revealed it later in the year, telling an “observer” that he opted not to go public with his diagnosis because “there were important things going on and I didn’t want to worry anyone.” His decision to initially withhold news of his illness from the public sparked some criticism.

Royal resilience


As cases and deaths from the virus across the UK started to spiral in April, so too did criticism of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic. In co-ordination with Downing Street, the Queen agreed to address the nation in a televised speech.
“I am speaking to you at what I know is an increasingly challenging time. A time of disruption in the life of our country: a disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many, and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all,” the Queen said in early April.
The Queen seldom makes national addresses, save for Christmas and when a new Parliament is installed. The moment was a somber but reassuring acknowledgment of the hardships society was facing. News channels the world over — including CNN — broke in as the pre-recorded video was broadcast to the UK and the 54 nations of the Commonwealth.
In the speech, she drew on her first broadcast alongside her sister Princess Margaret in 1940 to relay that the nation and those watching would overcome the current crisis.
“We, as children, spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety. Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do,” she said, while also thanking frontline healthcare professionals.
Royal expert and historian Kate Williams said the speech sounded a note of hope that many Britons needed to hear in that moment.
“It’s so rare that she gives an address [and] the address she gave was so striking,” Williams said. “It was dark days when everyone was very isolated, [and] couldn’t go out at all … it was a quite brilliantly delivered speech.”
That optimistic sentiment — which she would echo in other 2020 speeches marking events like Easter and the 75th anniversary of VE Day — reasserted her role as a hands-on leader and set the tone for how she and her family would conduct themselves for the remainder of the year. After imploring the public to remain at home, the royal family transitioned from walkabouts to video calls, embracing a new work-from-home life like millions of other Britons.
“We all knew Brexit was coming, but Covid is what we didn’t see coming … the Queen feels it’s her job to lead by example and to hold leaders to account,” Williams said. “I don’t think it’s been easy for her not being able to have face-to-face meetings with the Prime Minister — that’s what she prefers.
“This is one of the great crises of recent British history. More people have died than in the Blitz. It is like the war. I don’t think that she thought she was going to have a quiet few years in her 90s but … a lot of what she’s seen are political crises and diplomatic conflicts and conflicts, and this is very different. It cannot be solved by getting people together around a table.”

A new normal


The Queen would not reopen the royal diary of engagements until July 17, when she knighted Captain Thomas Moore — the 100-year-old World War II veteran who had raised millions for the UK’s National Health Service. Hours earlier, she had attended a private wedding ceremony for her granddaughter Princess Beatrice. And as the spring wave finally abated, members of the royal family resumed socially distanced engagements with the public at foodbanks, hospitals and businesses hit by the pandemic.
Williams said it has always been very important to the Queen to be there for the public and it will have been hard for her that Covid has limited her movements. She says the Queen knows for monarchy to work “it needs to be seen.”
“It’s part of the contract it has with the people. It doesn’t work if you just sit in the palace,” she added. “Monarchy has had to completely reinvent in the same way that businesses have had to.”
It hasn’t been a year entirely untainted by scandal: lingering questions remain over Prince Andrew’s relationship with the late American financier Jeffrey Epstein. The Queen never said anything publicly about the matter, but she made a major statement in accepting what was billed as Andrew’s decision to step back from public duties. The move came in the wake of Andrew’s disastrous interview with the BBC in late 2019, when he denied having sex with an underage girl and said he had seen nothing suspicious when he was around Epstein, a convicted pedophile. It would have been a painful decision for both Andrew and his mother but ultimately one that again she felt was right for the institution.
The latter part of the year also saw the family face several other challenges.
In October, the Queen undertook her first public engagement since the spring lockdown — a visit to Porton Down science park in southern England with William. But she was criticized by some for not wearing a mask despite a resurgence in the virus. In response, Buckingham Palace said the Queen had chosen to forego a mask after consulting her own medics and scientists at the military research facility. Social distancing guidelines were in place at the event and everyone the British monarch met had tested negative for the virus. A month later, she appeared in a mask for the first time at a commemorative ceremony in London.
The Queen during a ceremony in Westminster Abbey to mark the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior on November 4.

 The Queen during a ceremony in Westminster Abbey to mark the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior on November 4.
The latest installment of “The Crown” brought a fresh flurry of international interest to palace gates in November. The fourth season of the Netflix drama heralded the arrival of Princess Diana, and painted Charles as a petulant prince and cruel husband. Critics said the portrayal of Charles — along with a number of other scenes — was inaccurate, and it prompted a call from one UK government official for Netflix to tack an extra disclaimer onto each episode of series.
“It’s a beautifully produced work of fiction, so as with other TV productions, Netflix should be very clear at the beginning it is just that,” Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told the UK’s Mail on Sunday. “Without this, I fear a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact.” Netflix refused to add the warning to the show.
And in December, several family members were accused of breaking coronavirus regulations. In pictures published by The Mail Online, William and his family appeared to be walking alongside his uncle Prince Edward and his family during an outing to a Christmas-themed woodland walk. The photographs seemingly contravened England virus rules, which limits outdoor gatherings to just six people.
The Queen and members of the royal family gave thanks to local volunteers and key workers for their work in helping others during the coronavirus pandemic and over Christmas at Windsor Castle on December 8.

 The Queen and members of the royal family gave thanks to local volunteers and key workers for their work in helping others during the coronavirus pandemic and over Christmas at Windsor Castle on December 8.
Like millions of Britons, the monarch sacrificed the traditional holiday festivities with her family at Sandringham. Instead, for the first time in 33 years, she remained at Windsor with 99-year-old Prince Philip.
The situation is a fitting way to end the year, according to royal historian Williams. “It’s unprecedented for them to be spending it just the two of them. Even in the war, [Christmas] was a big family time,” she said.
The Queen acknowledged what a sad and unusual festive season it would be for many in her annual Christmas speech, assuring those missing out on time with loved ones, and whose only wish was for “a simple hug or a squeeze of the hand,” that “you are not alone.”
This year has seen the world grapple with something nobody could have predicted 12 months ago. For the Queen’s part, she has reaffirmed her position as the unifier-in-chief for family, and for nation.
At a time in her life when she might be expected to step back, the Queen has shown she is still in charge, even as she delegates more duties to Charles and William. Any rumors that she plans to abdicate and handover the crown have been quashed for another year.