Monitor Daily Podcast

March 18, 2020
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Get ready for a new Tom Brady with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Today’s stories examine how to handle the virus of misinformation, the challenges of one-party rule in Oregon, a shift to a more open Saudi Arabia, the scientific wonders of a prehistoric “chicken,” and a little help for your garden.

What if Tom Brady is not who we think he is?

Today, we learned that the most successful quarterback in National Football League history is leaving the New England Patriots – with whom he won a record six Super Bowls – and joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The chatter has begun: Who will fare better, Brady or the legendary coach he is leaving behind, Bill Belichick?

For 20 years under Belichick, Brady was the image of his boss – businesslike, corporate, always hewing to the company line. But as a Buccaneer, he’ll be working with Bruce Arians, a coach who once sang an off-color impromptu gospel song about sacking quarterbacks for a television show. Who one former player described as having “crazy swag.” And who berates employees who stay at the office instead of attending their children’s piano recitals. Bill Belichick, he is not.

And that could mean a new Brady at age 43. Said Hall of Famer Steve Young on ESPN: “The Buccaneers are getting a guy that really wants to enjoy the last little bit of his career, and Bruce Arians is perfect for that. [Tom] loves football and you’ve seen him love it in a unique Patriot way – now I think you’ll see him love it in a unique Tom Brady way.”

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Combating an ‘infodemic’: When fear and false information go viral

The first pandemic of the social media era has brought a parallel set of challenges, including the rapid spread of fear and false information. Here’s how people are working to address that.


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It’s one thing to quarantine people, it’s another to contain the fear and false information that’s gone viral in the world’s first social media pandemic.

Conspiracy theories have spread faster than the virus itself. Scientific papers are being hastily released – and debunked. The Trump administration has alleged a foreign disinformation campaign to spread fear. As everyone from data scientists to pastors try to address this parallel challenge, dubbed an “infodemic” by the World Health Organization, many see an opportunity for society to come together in this crisis and emerge the stronger for it.

“Sometimes a crisis can give us a lot of fear but it can also prompt us to think deeper and to think better,” says Dr. Kristen Lee, a behavioral science expert at Northeastern University in Boston who cautions against “hype contagion.”

She advocates limiting social media consumption and finding opportunities to help others and live in a purpose-driven way. “When we’re using our skills, resources, and capacities to contribute to the betterment of society,” she says, “that really is known to elevate and protect our well-being through times of difficulty.”

Combating an ‘infodemic’: When fear and false information go viral

Brian Melley/AP
Alex Won shows the message that spread the rumor on social media, while he was eating at Han Bat Shul Lung Tang restaurant in Los Angeles on Feb. 28, 2020. Han Bat Shul Lung Tang was one of five restaurants that lost business after being named in posts on a Korean messaging app that warned a Korean Air flight attendant with the virus had dined there during a layover in Los Angeles more than a week ago. "It's fake news," the restaurant owner John Kim said, and he had proof. His restaurant was closed at the time because of a water leak, a fact confirmed by the Department of Public Health.

One thing quarantines can’t stop is the spread of false information and fear on Facebook and other popular platforms. In the world’s first social media pandemic, that presents a parallel set of challenges for citizens and leaders alike.

Many have found social media an effective tool for rapidly conveying official guidelines and recommended practices, as well as for connecting with each other and supporting the most vulnerable in society. But mixed in has been a torrent of misguided advice and inaccurate claims – including from supposedly scientific studies. This false information has amplified concerns in ways that have made it difficult to ascertain clearly the scope of the global health challenge and how best to address it. 

The director-general of the World Health Organization has called on governments, companies, and news outlets around the globe to tackle an “infodemic” of fake news, which he characterized as being as dangerous as the coronavirus itself. The U.S. State Department’s foreign propaganda-busting center has compiled a report on some 2 million tweets spreading conspiracy theories about the epidemic, concluding that at least some of the activity was due to coordinated campaigns involving fake accounts, according to The Washington Post. And amid the swirl of dire predictions, a microbiology professor in Spain has deemed this a “pandemic of fear.” 

{Editor's note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.  

Indeed, fear and false information have gone viral. Everyone from data scientists and doctors to psychologists and pastors are weighing in on how to contain this infodemic and its attendant effects. Many see an opportunity for society and individuals to come out of this crisis the stronger for it.

“Sometimes a crisis can give us a lot of fear but it can also prompt us to think deeper and to think better,” says Kristen Lee, a behavioral science professor at Northeastern University in Boston who cautions against “hype contagion.”

To avoid the sometimes paralyzing effects of fear, she advocates limiting social media consumption and finding opportunities to help others and live in a purpose-driven way. “When we’re using our skills, resources, and capacities to contribute to the betterment of society,” Dr. Lee says, “that really is known to elevate and protect our well-being through times of difficulty.”

Claudio Furlan/LaPresse/AP
People walk past a billboard reading "Andra tutto bene," which is Italian for "Everything will be alright," in Milan, Italy. Amid a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Italians are finding ways to come together virtually in solidarity. This week, children’s drawings of rainbows are appearing all over social media as well as on balconies and windows in major cities.

From “snake-oil salesmen” to Kremlin disinformation

Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington, says half-jokingly that he was “pre-designed” for this crisis, with a background in studying novel infectious diseases as well as how information spreads through networks from ant colonies to Facebook.

As he’s monitored false information online about COVID-19, he’s seen everything from anti-China conspiracy theories including the intentional development of coronavirus as a bioweapon to “snake-oil salesmen” peddling fake cures. Those cures have included special toothpaste and potions, prompting a spoof from comedian John Oliver who offered “Premium Werewolf Solution” for $49.99.

One of the challenges of combating false information is the underlying architecture of social media and the algorithms that drive it.

“What goes viral doesn’t have a lot to do with what’s true, it has to do with what’s shocking,” says Professor Bergstrom, who commends social media companies for trying to prevent misinformation from spreading on their platforms. “On the one hand, kudos to them for doing that. On the other hand, the problem exists in an ecosystem of their making.”

In addition to the often well-intentioned sharing of unverified information that turns out to be false, another threat is organized disinformation campaigns designed to distract, distort, and deceive.

When the crisis ramped up last week, there was a four- to five-day window in which official communication channels were relatively unfettered by such campaigns, says Marc Ambinder, a digital fellow at the University of Southern California studying disinformation and cybersecurity around elections. But, he adds, if the number of cases spikes, “there’s going to be more anxiety, and the purveyors of disinformation in this arms race are going to regain their footing very quickly.”

The Trump administration has alleged that a foreign disinformation campaign is underway to sow fear. This past weekend, the National Security Council tweeted, “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown.” Governors and mayors have issued similar missives. And the Pentagon has called out China for spreading “false & absurd conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19 blaming U.S. service members.”

An internal European Union document describes a “significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding COVID-19” in numerous languages designed to “exacerbate confusion, panic and fear” and thereby undermine public trust in authorities and national health care systems. Messages in Spanish, for example, “advance apocalyptic stories, blame capitalists for trying to benefit from the virus, and emphasise how well Russia and [President Vladimir] Putin are dealing with the outbreak,” according to a Financial Times report.

Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociologist at Yale who has become a prominent voice on COVID-19, complained on Twitter of having gained the unwanted attention of lots of Russian bots. “Their intent seems to be to waste my time. Their psychological tricks are incredible,” he wrote.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, which is a leader in countering disinformation, responded that attempts to disrupt, disinform, and dismay are par for the course. He tweeted back, “No need to interact. Block.”

Dealing with fear, strengthening one another

In this turgid information environment, it has been difficult for leaders to find “a healthy balance between conveying calm and being frank about troubling facts,” as former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. advised in a Washington Post op-ed last week. Imparting lessons he learned from helping to steer the nation through the 2008 economic crisis, he called fear “as big an enemy as the virus itself.”

To be sure, minimizing or ignoring information from official sources carries its own dangers, and there is disagreement about what constitutes an “appropriate” level of fear. Some say fear spurs people into necessary action. But it can also lead to poor decision-making and unnecessary worry, and negatively affect one’s health.

“After working for 45 years in the field of psychiatry, I have seen fear cause a lot of long-term consequences in people’s lives,” says Dr. Mary Moller, associate professor of nursing at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington and the 2018 American Psychiatric Nurses Association’s Psychiatric Nurse of the Year. “Ultimately, over time, it can lead to compromising your immune system.”

In addition to mental health professionals’ efforts to help people address their fears, faith leaders are also pointing seekers to spiritual sources and encouraging them to minister to their neighbors.

“There’s not only a physical toll but there’s a psychological, emotional, and spiritual toll that we need to be aware of and we need to pray through,” says Derwin Gray, lead elder-pastor of Transformation Church in Indian Land, South Carolina, citing scriptural promises of reassurance. “When we are serving other people’s needs, that’s when we tend to be the most healthy.”

Coming together to work through this crisis could be a catalyst for human progress, says virologist Anjeanette Roberts, who worked on SARS for three years and serves as a research scholar with Reasons to Believe.

“It’s the crises that have the ability to bring out the very best in us because it makes us lay aside what we tend to focus on that can divide us,” says Dr. Roberts, a public advocate of her Christian faith who is deeply concerned about the level of polarization in American society today. “We have gotten really far away from the idea of ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

Now, with a global health challenge that has neighbors leaning out their windows and singing together, younger people going grocery shopping for their older neighbors, little kids leaving drawings in every mailbox in their neighborhood, and many other examples of people helping each other, some see an opportunity not only to survive the crisis but come out stronger for it.

Pastor Gray says, “I think it’s putting us in a place of saying, ‘Wow, maybe I do need a hope and a power and a strength and a love that is beyond me.’”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

Statehouse stalemate? After three walkouts, Oregon rethinks the rules.

Oregon is so blue that Republican lawmakers have virtually no power. So they’ve walked out three times, throwing the legislature into turmoil. What is the role of a political superminority?


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Once upon a time, Oregon was a model of bipartisanship. State lawmakers agreed to overhaul health care, balance budgets, and reform public education. The two-year period was “among the most productive in Oregon’s history,” Governing Magazine wrote in 2012.

Hard to believe, perhaps, that was less than a decade ago. In the past year, Oregon Republicans have staged three walkouts, and the legislature’s 2020 session ended earlier this month after passing just three of the 258 bills introduced. 

Analysts suggest the scorched-earth tactic could deepen cynicism about the legislature at a time of slumping national confidence in democracy. The question before Oregon lawmakers and voters alike is whether they can agree to disagree yet still resolve gridlock.

Oregon’s shift to the left in recent years leaves Republicans with few options to stop legislation they oppose. At the same time, party leaders admitted to misgivings after their most recent boycott in February. Legislators have offered several proposals to untie the walkout knot.

“I do really, really, really worry people are going to use this every time they don’t get their way,” Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr., the top Republican in the Senate, told reporters. “This is not a good way to run a state.”

Statehouse stalemate? After three walkouts, Oregon rethinks the rules.

Andrew Selsky/AP/File
Lawmakers convene at the Oregon Senate in Salem on June 29, 2019, after the minority Republicans ended a walkout over a carbon-emissions bill they said would harm their rural constituents. After two walkouts that year, and one more in 2020, Democrats say they will ask voters to change quorum rules.

America’s polarized politics can feel so all-consuming that even recent episodes of unity seem as distant as the Bronze Age. Way back in 2011, Democrats and Republicans in Oregon’s House of Representatives held an equal number of seats as a new legislative session began. The 30-30 split led the parties to elect co-speakers, and over the next two years, the chamber bustled with cooperation.

The bipartisan spirit yielded an overhaul of the state’s health care system, major reforms to public education, and balanced budgets. Lawmakers agreed to redraw the state’s congressional districts for the first time in a half century. Their willingness to work together resulted in a legislative period that Governing Magazine in 2012 described as “among the most productive in Oregon’s history.”

“It was the best session,” says Kim Thatcher, a Republican who was then in her fifth term in the House. “We still had our differences, but we worked on issues that built toward common good, common goals.”

Such comity appears extinct less than a decade later. Last month, Ms. Thatcher, now a state senator, joined her Republican colleagues in both chambers in boycotting this year’s session to prevent Democrats from advancing a climate initiative to cap greenhouse gas emissions. The 35-day term ended in early March with a grand total of three bills passed out of 258 introduced – a period that surely ranks among the least productive in state history.

The walkout by Republicans marked their third in less than a year and the second intended to torpedo a climate measure. Political analysts suggest the scorched-earth tactic, while achieving its purpose, could deepen public cynicism about the legislature at a time of slumping national confidence in democracy. The exigent question before Oregon lawmakers and voters alike is whether they can agree to disagree on policies yet still resolve statehouse gridlock.

“Our political system depends on a willingness to compromise,” says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri and an expert on state legislatures. “When that disappears, nothing gets done and nobody’s happy, and ultimately, that can damage trust in the institution.”

A ploy with “enormous risk”

Oregon is one of four states that requires the presence of more than a simple majority of lawmakers to convene the legislature. The state’s constitution defines a quorum as two-thirds of House or Senate members. Democrats own a supermajority in both chambers but fall two seats shy of that threshold in each one.

The imbalance of power – a reflection of Oregon’s shift to the left in recent years – leaves Republicans with few options to stop legislation they oppose. At the same time, the decision to walk out in February foiled their own agenda, and in the session’s aftermath, party leaders admitted to misgivings about the ploy.

“I do really, really, really worry people are going to use this every time they don’t get their way,” Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr., the top Republican in the Senate, told reporters. “This is not a good way to run a state.”

Both parties have staged walkouts in Oregon since the mid-1990s, and lawmakers in Indiana and Wisconsin have resorted to similar protests in the past decade. Compared with previous boycotts in Oregon and elsewhere, this year’s action went further with its almost complete scuttling of the legislative agenda.

The bipartisan support that existed for various bills – including more funding for wildfire preparedness and a sweeping plan to improve forest management – vanished with Republican legislators who fled the state. The full cost of that all-or-nothing approach could come due at the polls this fall.

Democratic lawmakers in Indiana walked out in 2011 to stymie Republican efforts to pass a controversial labor bill and other measures. They returned more than a month later after Republicans tabled the labor proposal. But the next year lingering memories of the boycott contributed to Democrats losing nine seats in the House.

Senator Baertschiger has announced he will not seek reelection, sparing him potential backlash from voters. His fellow statehouse Republicans could face a wider reckoning in November, asserts John Farmer Jr., director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“Walking out carries enormous risk,” says Mr. Farmer, a Republican and former attorney general of New Jersey. “Because once you walk out, you not only frustrate the will of the supermajority in the legislature but the majority of the state’s constituents.”

On the other hand, he adds, there remains a chance that voters will instead punish Democrats for again pushing the climate initiative this year given the likelihood of another Republican walkout. The failed gamble deprived the majority party of a chance to pursue high-priority initiatives to ease the state’s homelessness crisis and shortage of affordable housing.

As Mr. Farmer says, “Voters could be thinking, ‘We gave you a supermajority and you still couldn’t accomplish what we wanted you to do. We’re going to throw you out.’ ”

Andrew Selsky/AP
Oregon state Sen. Lew Frederick speaks to reporters on March 5, 2020, as fellow Democratic lawmakers look on. Democratic lawmakers said representative democracy is at stake by Republicans' repeated use of walkouts to deny a quorum and freeze all legislation. Later in the day, the 2020 legislative session ended early over the impasse.

Finding a solution

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown responded to the fruitless legislative session with an executive order last week that establishes strict guidelines for reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Democratic governor’s edict contains many of the elements included in the thwarted climate bill opposed by timber, trucking, and agriculture interests, and Republican lawmakers predict industry groups will sue to block state agencies from enacting the order.

Whatever legal battles loom, after three legislative walkouts in less than a year, public support for finding a solution to avert future boycotts appears on the rise.

“There’s been some frustration at what’s gone on,” says Jim Moore, director of political outreach at the McCall Center for Civic Engagement at Pacific University near Portland. “When a session ends with only three bills passed, people notice.”

Democratic lawmakers have discussed a pair of resolutions to amend the state constitution that could untie the walkout knot. One would lower the minimum number of members needed for a quorum from two-thirds to a simple majority. If passed, the measure would go before voters, who would decide whether to bring Oregon in line with nearly every other state.

Another proposal would retain the two-thirds threshold while changing the calendar restrictions on legislative sessions.

The state constitution limits terms to 35 calendar days in even-numbered years and 160 in odd-numbered years. The “calendar days” proviso enables the minority party to, in effect, run out the session clock by staying away from the statehouse. The resolution would deter walkouts by stopping the clock on days when a quorum fails to gather.

The appeal of either proposal to voters remains unclear as fallout from the boycotts recedes behind concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. “People already have short memories,” Mr. Moore says, “and even more so now.”

In January, state Senator Thatcher, the longtime Republican legislator who has launched a campaign for secretary of state, proposed a resolution to abolish the 35-day sessions outright.

The party’s boycott ensured the measure’s demise. Nonetheless, recalling those long-ago days of 2011 and 2012, Ms. Thatcher favors a return to a time of more collaboration, less brinkmanship.

“If we’re going to keep having short sessions, they should be used only for policy tweaks, budget tweaks, emergency issues. Save the big, heavy policy debates for the longer sessions,” she says. Then another possibility occurs to her. “Or maybe voters can bring back more balance to the legislature.”

Saudi opening: How tourism is breaking down social barriers

Saudi Arabia is turning to tourism to boost its economy. But the biggest change might be how opening itself to the world is beginning to reshape a long-insulated nation.

Taylor Luck
Tour guide Minza Al-Rmothi leads a group of tourists at the diwan, a Nabataean-carved meeting place, in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 29, 2020.

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“Saudi Arabia” and “vacation” are not words that often go together for Westerners. But the conservative kingdom has spent the past three years preparing its archaeological and natural sites for tourists as part of its bid to wean the country’s economy off of oil.  

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hopes to raise tourism’s share of GDP and create up to 500,000 jobs for Saudis in the industry. But as the once-closed country launches itself as a destination, perhaps the most remarkable sights to be seen are the changes being made to society.

The epicenter of this shift to tourism is in Al Ula, a small, arid, date palm-producing oasis town in the middle of a rugged desert in western Saudi Arabia. The area is home to rock-carved tombs and dwellings made by Nabateans 2,000 years ago. The UNESCO World Heritage site was once a trade center on the spice route.

A year ago, Minza Al-Rmothi had never held a job or even spoken to a man outside her family. “I used to ask my father, ‘Who built these houses, who carved these rocks?’ and he didn’t have a real answer,” she says. “Now I am the one with the answers.”

Saudi opening: How tourism is breaking down social barriers


Standing erect and proud, Minza Al-Rmothi addresses the Western tourists clustered around her.

“Okay, everyone, any guesses what this is?” she asks, waving eagerly to the perfectly carved rectangular cave behind her. “This was a diwan, a gathering place to hear poetry, speeches, and music. Think of it like a small theater.” She laughs. “Or a home entertainment system.”

The 27-year-old tour guide’s smile is hidden behind a full-face veil. But her transformation is revealing.

One year ago, Ms. Al-Rmothi had never held a job or even spoken to a man outside her family.

“I used to ask my father, ‘Who built these houses? Who carved these rocks?’ and he didn’t have a real answer,” says Ms. Al-Rmothi. “Now I am the one with the answers.”

As the once-closed Kingdom of Saudi Arabia attempts to launch itself as a tourist destination, perhaps the most remarkable sights to be seen are the changes being made to society.

“Saudi Arabia” and “vacation” are not words that often go together for Westerners, but the kingdom has spent the past three years preparing its historical, archaeological, natural, and coastal sites for tourists in a bid to wean the country’s economy off of oil.  

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vision is to increase tourism’s current share of gross domestic product from 2% to 10% by 2030 and create from 400,000 to 500,000 jobs for Saudis in the industry.

World Heritage site

The epicenter of this shift to tourism is here in Al Ula, a small, arid, date palm-producing oasis town in the middle of a rugged rock desert in western Saudi Arabia.

The area is home to Madain Saleh – with its rock-carved tombs and dwellings made by the Nabateans of Petra fame 2,000 years ago – once a trade center on the spice route. Today, it stands as Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site.

Madain Saleh was something of a legend among travelers in the region. There were no guidebooks, brochures, or tours. The only way to get here was to obtain a highly prized work or pilgrimage visa, hire a driver, and know someone-who-knew-someone to arrange you a host in the town to show you the sites.

Now, it has all changed.

To jumpstart tourism, the palace formed a Royal Commission for Al Ula with a vast budget and special laws to stimulate decades of tourism development in a few short years.

The last two years have seen a brand-new airport, national parks and reserves, and new palm-lined luxury resorts nestled in the mountains.

Taylor Luck
Young men from Al Ula greet tourists on horseback in traditional garb at the site of the 'Elephant Rock' in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia on February 29, 2020.

The commission launched the Tantora Winter Festival, guiding international tourists and Saudi citizens to Al Ula through carefully organized tours on the sidelines of international concerts every weekend from January through March.

The greatest task was training a new generation of Saudis for careers in tourism and hospitality, overcoming centuries of conservative social norms. The commission has trained 460 local residents as tour guides, 2,270 as park rangers, 24 as chefs, and 10 as hospitality workers.

For women, an opening

Wajdan Saud, 26, says that before tourism, options were few in the conservative town of Bedouins and farmers.

“There were only three options for women in Al Ula,” she says. “You either become a teacher, a doctor, or you stay at home.”

Ms. Saud says she jumped at the chance to become a park ranger, having played hide-and-seek in the craggy rock-hewn valleys and tombs as a child.

“I always wanted to share this with the world,” Ms. Saud says, holding up a mobile app depicting outlines of Nabateans on the very rocks in front of her.

“My family at first thought I was crazy” she says. “Now I am the rock star of the family.”

Ms. Al-Rmothi faced a steeper climb.

Her family objected to her aspirations to become a guide, which would regularly place her in the company of unmarried male strangers. They were horrified when they learned the training would take her abroad; Saudi women were unable to travel abroad without a male guardian or approval until mid-2019.

Yet amid a worsening economic landscape they relented, and last fall Ms. Al-Rmothi trained in Paris; Sedona, Arizona; and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

“Before, I could not look a strange man in the eye, I could not speak in their presence!” Ms. Al-Rmothi exclaims in exuberant disbelief, her arms waving in exclamation. “My voice would go silent.”

“Now I can address anyone in the world. I don’t have fear. I have pride.”

Business opportunities

Aiding this social shift is the fact that tourism is coming at a time of massive economic changes in the kingdom that have shaken every Saudi household to its core.

Government hiring has all but frozen; subsidies, perks, and handouts to Saudi families have dried up. New taxes are being imposed. Rather than a government job and cradle-to-the-grave welfare, Saudis are suddenly expected to forge a career in the private sector.

Now no job can be written off as “socially unacceptable.”

For years, Fahd Al Bedeer and his friend Abu Khaled have hosted international travelers in their homes and acted as personal tour guides; not for money, but as a personal duty and as dictated by Bedouin custom.

They are among many who are now looking to transform their down-home hospitality into a business.

Taylor Luck
A Saudi folk troupe preforms a traditional song for visitors at Al Ula heritage village in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, on February 29, 2020.

In December, Mr. Al Bedeer, a primary school Islamic studies teacher, converted his 2.5-acre family farm and retreat into an Airbnb rental, one of the first in Al Ula.

Rather than offering an ultra-modern Western apartment, Mr. Al Bedeer decided to keep the farm house as a self-styled majlis, or rest house, common across Saudi Arabia. It has two long, cushion-filled rooms and a fireplace, a detached bathroom and kitchen outside, all positioned perfectly to look out at the farm, cliffs, and desert beyond.

“I figure that tourists traveling all the way to Saudi Arabia will want to experience something different; to live our life and relax the way we relax,” Mr. Al Bedeer says as he strolls among date palms and orange trees. “A barbecue among the palm trees surrounded by nature.”

Many here hope that international tourism can transform the town, he says.   

“Rather than us traveling abroad, this is a chance to bring people from different countries here to Saudi Arabia to break down barriers.”

Cursed grounds and coronavirus

But social customs and norms are not the only obstacles Saudi Arabia has had to clear in order bring tourism to life.

As recently as 2016, the kingdom itself discouraged the promotion of pre-Islamic archeological sites even at home, for fears of encouraging “idol worship.”

The site of Madain Saleh itself is believed by many Saudis to be Thamud, a people and town cited in the Quran that, like Sodom and Gomorrah, was destroyed by God for their decadence, idol worship, and defiance.

For many Saudis outside Al Ula, these were – and continue to be – cursed grounds.

“There is a saying by the prophet Mohammad, don’t stop by these grounds – flee from them,” says Abdullah, a Riyadh businessman. “They shouldn’t promote this site, and certainly shouldn’t be holding concerts there.”

To be sure, the full rollout of Saudi tourism – planned for October 2020 – is being delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, which led the Saudis to suspend the entry of tourists in March. But the country is using the time to build up its tourism talent and infrastructure. Last week, officials authorized the development of southern Al Ula for hotels and tourism businesses.

And the launch of the winter festival and carefully orchestrated social media campaigns by international “influencers” invited by the government has sparked interest among Saudis.

Mohammed Abdullah, 22, a recent engineering graduate, decided to visit the site for the first time with his two childhood friends.

“We had never even heard of Al Ula or knew that Madain Saleh was here and could be visited,” he says as he uploads a photo of rock paintings to his Instagram.

“My friends everywhere are asking me: Where is this amazing place? I am telling them, it’s here in Saudi.”

66-million-year-old ‘wonderchicken’ offers lesson in resilience

Birds are the only surviving dinosaurs. How did they do it? Scientists aren’t sure, but tantalizing clues could hold lessons about natural resilience that matter just as much today.

Courtesy of Daniel J. Field/University of Cambridge
Daniel J. Field of the University of Cambridge holds a three-dimensional printed version of the skull of a newly discovered fossil bird, Asteriornis. The fossil is 66.7 million years old.

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Not all dinosaurs went extinct when a 6-mile-wide asteroid slammed into Earth some 66 million years ago. Birds, a type of theropod dinosaur, survived.

Scientists don’t know why birds withstood the global catastrophe while other dinosaurs perished, but as they dig into that question, they could tease out modern lessons for resilience. 

Paleontologists have unearthed precious few bird fossils from that era, and most that they have found are just fragments. Finding them will be key to homing in on which traits made the ancestors of living birds such survivors. 

But there’s a new specimen in town that could add significant insights. In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, a team of paleontologists describe the fossil of a bird that lived 66.7 million years ago. 

Asteriornis, as the new species has been named, is a small-bodied bird with long, slender legs like a sandpiper. But its skull looks like a cross between a chicken and a duck, so researchers nicknamed it “wonderchicken.”

66-million-year-old ‘wonderchicken’ offers lesson in resilience


When Daniel Field first saw it, his shouts echoed down the hall.

“That moment was probably the most shocking moment of my life, certainly the most shocking moment of my scientific career,” he says.

The chunk of rock didn’t look like much. It was small and uninspiring, about the size of a deck of cards, says Dr. Field, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge. But fragments of birdlike bone poked out of it, and it was from the last days of the dinosaurs, so it bore further scrutiny. 

Birds are the only dinosaurs to have survived the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period some 66 million years ago. But bird bones from that era are extremely rare, so paleontologists know little about how those creatures persevered. 

Before Dr. Field and one of his students CT scanned the rock to see what else might be buried in there, they didn’t expect to find much. But when the X-ray image appeared on the screen, Dr. Field recounts, there was “this incredible, complete bird skull staring straight out of the block at us.”

The fossil offers rare clues about why birds endured the asteroid impact that wiped out their fellow dinosaurs. This tale of survival could illuminate modern lessons for resilience in the face of global catastrophe. 

“The most resilient things in the history of the world have been the plants and animals and other organisms that have survived mass extinctions, particularly the one at the end of the Cretaceous,” says Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved with the study. “That asteroid hit and everything changed in an instant. So if you want to think about resilience, looking into the fossil record to see what survived is a great place to start.”

Part chicken, part duck, all dinosaur

Dr. Field says the new fossil, described in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, looks like what you’d get if you took the front of a chicken skull and attached it to the back of a duck skull. 

Because of its chicken-like face, the researchers nicknamed this ancient bird species “wonderchicken.” They also gave it a scientific name: Asteriornis, after the Greek Titan goddess of falling stars, Asteria.

This specimen came from shallow marine limestone in Belgium, suggesting that Asteriornis was a shorebird. Its slender sandpiper-like legs corroborate that idea, says Dr. Field. 

Compared with its iconic dinosaur contemporaries, Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex, Asteriornis would’ve been a humble creature, says Dr. Field. The bird probably would’ve been quite small even among chickens and ducks alive today. “If you looked at the wonderchicken next to a T. rex 66.7 million years ago,” he says, “you might not have been able to guess which one of those things was actually built to last.”

Courtesy of Phillip Krzeminski/University of Cambridge
Asteriornis, depicted here in an artist illustration, lived around 66.7 million years ago, when mosasaurs (giant marine reptiles) swam in the oceans and Tyrannosaurus rex lived on land.

Scientists don’t actually know whether the wonderchicken species itself or even its direct ancestors survived the mass extinction. But the fossil has features that we see on birds alive today, which Dr. Field says suggests tantalizing clues about its potential ability to survive. 

Paleontologists have some ideas about what might have made the surviving birds so resilient. Perhaps bird beaks enabled those theropod dinosaurs to dig through the dust coating everything to find seeds to munch. Or maybe those birds could eat all the dead stuff lying around. Dr. Field and colleagues have also suggested that it was the ground-nesting birds that survived, because forests were devastated.

Perhaps it wasn’t so much a single trait, but a mix of traits. The ability to eat a wide range of foods, minimal body size and caloric needs, and the freedom of flight likely all contributed to a kind of flexibility that enabled them to shift with the ecosystems around them.

“Probably all of those things work together to give them a good hand of cards for surviving the extinction,” says Dr. Brusatte.

A special early bird

While Asteriornis’ resemblance to living birds could suggest that shared features promote survival, there could be another explanation, says Julia Clarke, a paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved in the study.

Traits don’t always persist because they are beneficial, she explains. Sometimes they stick around simply because they aren’t harmful enough for natural selection to weed them out.

Furthermore, Dr. Clarke says, there still aren’t enough fossil birds from that era to be able to make generalizations with any confidence. Dr. Clarke’s own research has focused extensively on one of the only other modern-like bird species known from right before the asteroid hit: Vegavis, a duck-like bird unearthed in Antarctica. 

Still, she says, “this new fossil is of key importance” precisely because there are so few complete fossils from that time. And those features that Asteriornis and Vegavis share with living birds make these species worth studying to learn about the origins of modern birds.

The question about why birds – and crocodiles, and mammals, and turtles, for that matter – survived the end-Cretaceous mass extinction could bear on our world today, says Dr. Clarke. But to understand the relevance in today’s rapidly changing climate, researchers have to figure out whether each group that survived did so for distinct reasons, or whether there is one cohesive pattern. 

Dr. Brusatte points out that small-bodied mammals were also survivors of the mass extinction, so perhaps being small and adaptable was broadly advantageous.

“The world after the asteroid was very different than the world before the asteroid,” says Dr. Brusatte. “And when catastrophe hits, sometimes very quickly, the dominant things can die out. And I think that should be a lesson for us, really.”

What’s needed “is more fossils from this point in Earth history,” Dr. Field says. “This isn’t the end of the story.”


Too early to plant? Grab a gardening book.

Gardening nurtures the soil and the spirit. These books are full of fresh insights, from pollination to the miracle qualities of vinegar.

Karen Norris/Staff

Too early to plant? Grab a gardening book.


Are the best garden vegetables – the juiciest tomatoes, the spiciest peppers, the crunchiest cucumbers – the result of what happens in the warmth of summer? Many gardeners believe that the most productive gardens have their roots in winter. That’s when they think about helpful advice they’ve gotten from gardening friends and neighbors, and from garden books they’ve read when it’s too chilly to be working outdoors. 

No matter how long you’ve been gardening, there’s always much to learn from those who also like to dig in the soil. And this results in better gardens and easier gardening. For instance, did you know that honeybees don’t pollinate your tomatoes? A book explains that while honeybees (a European import) get all the press about vanishing pollinators, you need native bees to produce tasty tomatoes. And a longtime gardening expert tells how he learned about an inexpensive pantry item to get rid of weeds more ecologically and cheaply than noxious chemicals.

“Homegrown National Park”

When Douglas Tallamy wrote “Bringing Nature Home” in 2009, people were aware of the problem of increasingly disappearing wildlife. The book became a bestseller by pointing out what many people hadn’t realized: Native animals, birds, and insects were becoming extinct because they were starving for certain native plants that are a major part of their diets but were increasingly unavailable. Instead of planting native oaks, cities were now setting out callery pears along their streets. And due to construction, milkweeds and fall-blooming asters were no longer available in fields to sustain migrating monarch butterflies. Caterpillars that wild creatures depended on for food weren’t there when they needed them. 

In “Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard,” Tallamy suggests a way that any homeowner can make a positive difference. He calls it Homegrown National Park, restoring habitat wherever we live and work, no matter how small our property may be. 

Start by halving the size of your lawn, he recommends. Then think about planting native plants instead of Asian and European shrubs and trees. Keystone trees that he says are most helpful include oaks, cherries, willows, and cottonwoods. For plants, he recommends blueberries, goldenrods, asters, and sunflowers. 

Any native plant will help – keeping in mind that you’ll want to have something blooming all three seasons – but those keystones will have the most impact. Tallamy explains his vision and answers questions from skeptics while showing that every person can help bring back beautiful monarch butterflies and other wild creatures. Ordinary people, he believes, are “nature’s best hope.”

Practical wisdom

Ciscoe Morris is a well-known gardening expert in the Pacific Northwest. Formerly head gardener at Seattle University, he likes to tell amusing tales of his gardening experiences. In “Oh, La La! Homegrown Stories, Helpful Tips, and Garden Wisdom” he entertains while he educates. While not all gardeners think of dandelions as weeds, when dandelions take over a landscape, often something must be done. Once while appearing as an expert gardener on a radio show, he was explaining his laborious method of digging out dandelions when a listener called to ask why he didn’t douse them with vinegar. 

What a revelation! Plain old white vinegar, undiluted, applied generously on a hot (78 F or warmer) sunny day. Generous dollops kill almost any weeds. Vinegar also works well on weeds growing between cracks in sidewalks. It will also kill the surrounding grass, but there’s a solution for that, he says. Wait a few days after spraying to punch holes in the affected part of the lawn with a large screwdriver. Then drop grass seed into the holes, apply organic lawn food, and keep the area moist. In three weeks, grass will be growing. 

When planting spring-flowering bulbs, most longtime gardeners know only one way to avoid squirrel damage: Plant bulbs that are poisonous to squirrels – daffodils, hyacinths, and fritillaries. But what if squirrels destroy your tulips, a favorite of theirs? Those who have well-drained soil (no clay) should plant tulips 12 inches deep, Morris says. That’s deeper than squirrels will usually dig. 

The best pollinators

Paige Embry, author of “Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them,” prefers native mason bees over honeybees, which aren’t able to pollinate her favorite crop, tomatoes. While honeybees came from Europe with the colonists, there are 4,000 kinds of bees native to the United States and Canada. 

She says that mason bees rarely sting, they’re superb pollinators, and they’re easy for novices to raise. They’re also available to work earlier in the season than honeybees are, since they pollinate when temperatures range about 54 F. Honeybees pollinate best when the temperature is above 65.

Armchair gardening

When it’s too hot or cold to go outside, it’s still fun to read about gardening. In “Everything for the Garden,” three noted historians and a curator for Historic New England share their knowledge and enthusiasm in a quartet of essays. These include a nostalgic look at garden catalogs from the 19th and 20th centuries and an exploration of early American gardens, many of which were inspired by photographs of estate gardens in Britain. In an essay about the social revolution and the rise of garden clubs in the United States (the first was started in Athens, Georgia, in 1891), the writer explains that women in Victorian times became members because they liked to read about gardening more than they actually wanted to get their hands dirty. 

Small is beautiful

If you live near Santa Barbara, California, as garden designer Isa Eaton does, you’ll find a cornucopia of delightful gardens in “Small Garden Style: A Design Guide for Outdoor Rooms and Containers.” Year-round succulent gardens probably aren’t practical for those in colder parts of the country. But Eaton offers plenty of valuable style tips for those far from California. 

When planning tabletop container gardens, she suggests choosing containers in unique shapes and finishes because they’ll be seen up close. For the best appearance, be sure to cover soil and edges of nursery containers with moss. Then make sure you can see over the top of the planter when seated. Also remember to give the plants adequate light, particularly indoors.  

When you’re not sure about selecting plants that will look right in your small garden, Eaton makes these suggestions:

• Focus on leaves over blooms.
• Think long term, with perennials, and less about showy annuals.
• Stay with one or two colors.
• Limit the types of trees to two varieties.
• Choose plants that match the available light.

Vegetables in containers 

Much of the growing advice in “Grow Fruit and Vegetables in Pots: Planting Advice & Recipes From Great Dixter” is geared toward British gardens and isn’t practical for those in the U.S. Still, it’s fascinating reading. And gardeners who are just getting started with containers can find valuable advice about the various sizes of pots to choose for different vegetables. (How much space does a mature eggplant need?) 

Aaron Bertelsen is the vegetable gardener and cook at Great Dixter, a 15th-century house museum in East Sussex, England, and site of Christopher Lloyd’s famous gardens. Lloyd wrote books such as “The Well-Tempered Garden,” and he championed unusual plants and practical methods of growing them. The gardens featured at Great Dixter have become popular among garden tourists from around the world. 

Half of the book is devoted to recipes. I loved lettuce soup, which I enjoyed because it uses ribs and outer leaves of lettuce, which I often toss away. And can you imagine making ice cream from fig leaves? Basil jelly sounds as if it will be a delightful summer project.

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Amid coronavirus, Iraq maps a new politics

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Around the world, lawmakers are trying to carry on their work during the pandemic. This is particularly true in Iraq where an attempt to establish a secular democracy in the heart of the Arab world shows new promise.

For six months Iraq’s politics has been in turmoil following grassroots protests. On Tuesday, Iraq’s president named a candidate as prime minister-designate to form a government. He is Adnan al-Zurfi, a member of parliament who once lived in Detroit and is a dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen. He is also a former governor of the Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf. During his tenure, he earned a reputation for integrity and standing up to Shiite militants. More important, Mr. Zurfi supports the protesters’ aims of inclusive rule and an end to Iranian meddling.

Iraq’s unstable government now faces the task of containing the coronavirus. Mr. Zurfi has until April 16 to persuade factions in parliament to accept him as prime minister. The virus crisis puts the country’s divisions in a new perspective. Politics must give way to clean and effective governance in order to, as Mr. Zurfi puts it, “achieve the aspirations of the Iraqis.”

Amid coronavirus, Iraq maps a new politics

Adnan Al-Zurfi, seen here in 2005 as governor of Najaf, and now prime minister-designate of Iraq.

With courage and elbow-bump caution, lawmakers around the world are trying to carry on their work during the pandemic. The machinery of government still needs the grease of politics. This is particularly true in Iraq where a 17-year attempt to establish a stable, secular parliamentary democracy in the heart of the Arab world shows new promise.

For six months Iraq’s politics has been in turmoil following grassroots protests. Young people, still camped out in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, are seeking corruption-free governance and an end to a system that divvies up power by religion and ethnicity. In addition, Iraq continues to be dragged into Iran’s maneuvers for influence in the Middle East and the United States’ response to it. In January, the U.S. assassinated Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil in retaliation for Iran’s targeting of American soldiers.

On Tuesday, Iraq’s president named a candidate as prime minister-designate to form a government in parliament. He is Adnan al-Zurfi, a member of parliament who once lived in Detroit and is a dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen. He is also a former governor of the Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf. During his tenure, he earned a reputation for integrity, delivering basic services and standing up to Shiite militants.

More important, Mr. Zurfi supports the protesters’ aims of inclusive, secular rule and an end to Iranian meddling. About 60% of Iraqis are 27 or younger. They are more globally aware than their elders. They might need a leader who has lived abroad and understands such concepts as rule of law and peaceful transfers of power.

Iraq’s unstable government now faces the task of containing the coronavirus, not to mention the effects of declining oil prices on a country highly dependent on oil exports. Mr. Zurfi has until April 16 to persuade factions in parliament to accept him as prime minister. The virus crisis puts the country’s divisions in a new perspective. Politics must give way to clean and effective governance in order to, as Mr. Zurfi puts it, “achieve the aspirations of the Iraqis.”

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Overcome fear, destroy illness

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Illness can sometimes seem frightening or inevitable. But a willingness to see ourselves and others as God’s pure, flawless, beloved children lifts fear and brings God’s healing presence to light.

Overcome fear, destroy illness

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

Illness is well known to produce fear. Less well known but, I’ve found, vitally important to understand is the reverse: that fear breeds illness.

In this regard, I’ve been encouraged by many assurances in the Bible that we need not fear. And “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, a devout student of the Bible and the discoverer of Christian Science, has helped me understand that disease has a mental cause and its cure can come through prayer. For example, in regard to fear, it states: “Fear is the fountain of sickness, and you master fear and sin through divine Mind; hence it is through divine Mind that you overcome disease” (pp. 391-392).

Christian Science, based on the teachings of Jesus, explains that divine Mind is a synonym for God, the one source and substance of all real being, intelligence, and wisdom. This divine consciousness, which is infinite and wholly good, does not include disease. The belief that life is in matter makes disease seem powerful and frightening. But when we see disease as having no place in God and look to our divine Maker for the truth about health, this results in healing.

“Resist the temptation to believe in matter as intelligent, as having sensation or power,” Science and Health instructs. It also says, “When we wake to the truth of being, all disease, pain, weakness, weariness, sorrow, sin, death, will be unknown” (pp. 218-219).

Acknowledging our real being as the spiritual, error-free image of divine Mind is like switching on a light in our thought. The darkness of fear is replaced with the light of Christ, Truth‚ and with a clearer understanding of the presence of God, Love. This understanding overcomes fear, and when fear is gone, the body responds with normalcy.

Here’s an example. One day a woman called a Christian Science practitioner. She was in tears. She described a painful heart problem and said she believed she was dying.

The practitioner sensed her great fear and quickly reassured her that she could never be outside God’s love and care. Underlying this was the spiritual fact that God sees us as the beautiful, pure idea of infinite Mind, without a single imperfection. Maladies of any type are lies about our true, spiritual nature. As the Bible assures us, “God is the strength of [our] heart” (Psalms 73:26), and “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: ... I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee” (Isaiah 41:10).

The woman said in a stronger voice, “I feel a bit better.” The practitioner suggested she study Psalms 91 and 23, and the Lord’s Prayer – all very helpful in allaying fear.

When the woman called back, she said she was greatly comforted, her body had returned to normal, and she felt healed. She told him later that she even went swimming the next day.

So how did the healing actually occur? The woman gained a new view of God and of herself as God’s spiritual, flawless, beloved child; and this understanding removed her fear.

We can each gain this new view, a sense of our innate purity, innocence, and well-being as the spiritual idea of God. As we surrender a materially based perception of our identity for a higher and holier understanding of our true nature, refuse to entertain fear, and realize the presence and power of God, we pull the props out from under the seeming power of illness, and healing occurs.

Science and Health instructs the reader to “look away from the body into Truth and Love, the Principle of all happiness, harmony, and immortality. Hold thought steadfastly to the enduring, the good, and the true, and you will bring these into your experience proportionably to their occupancy of your thoughts” (p. 261).

Over the past 150 years, many people have been healed through Christian Science. The Monitor’s sister publications contain testimonies from some of them. These include healings of dreaded diseases such as cancer, heart trouble, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, to name a few (see JSH-Online.com). A loving God never created such offenses against humanity, and does not sustain them – and every person has the right to rebel against them.

Illness has no divine law or cause supporting it. God is the only legitimate cause, and all that God made is good. Understanding this enables us to overcome dread, and so undermine and destroy illness.

Adapted from an article published in the July 2017 issue of The Christian Science Journal.


Visiting hours

Jason Redmond/Reuters
Lori Spencer and her husband, Michael Spencer, visit her mom, Judie Shape, who tested positive for coronavirus, outside her room at Care Center of Kirkland, the Seattle-area nursing home that is one of the epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak, in Kirkland, Washington, March 17, 2020.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when Harry Bruinius looks at how those who live a life of service to others – such as pastors and service providers – are navigating the call for social distancing. 

Before you go, a quick editor’s note about the Christian Science Perspective column that appeared in the March 17 issue. Due to a technical error, the audio version of this article was incomplete. We apologize for the inconvenience and are working to correct the problem.

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