Woodward, Bernstein Still Atop the News, Long After Watergate

More than 40 years after they became the world’s most famous journalism duo, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are still making news.

Bernstein was among three CNN reporters who last week broke the story of former Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s allegation that Trump knew in advance of the June 2016 meeting between representatives of his presidential campaign and Russian officials. On Tuesday, Woodward’s upcoming book, Fear: Inside the Trump White House, was No. 1 on Amazon.com, within a day of its announcement. 

The former Washington Post colleagues known for their Watergate coverage speak regularly, they say, comparing notes on the Trump era.

‘He’s a news junkie, and I’m a news junkie,” Woodward, 75, explained Tuesday during a telephone interview, adding that he includes a tribute to Bernstein in his new book’s acknowledgements.

“We keep each other posted pretty well,” Bernstein, 74, said during a separate phone interview. “Obviously, we do different things. But we also have a lifetime of understanding each other and looking at news together.” 

Successful author

Woodward, an associate editor at the Post, is among the most successful nonfiction authors of his time, with a long series of best-selling accounts of sitting presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. A new Woodward book even became a political tradition — coming out in the fall of an election year.

But after the 2012 release of The Price of Politics, Woodward stepped away from the present, publishing no works on Obama’s second term, and instead focused on Watergate-era news. The Last of the President’s Men, his work on White House aide Alexander Butterfield, the man who revealed Nixon’s taping system, came out in 2015.

A Trump book was an easy choice for Woodward, who calls the current president’s rise a “pivot point” in American history. According to his publisher, Simon & Schuster, Woodward will show the “harrowing life” of the Trump White House and the president’s decision-making process as he draws upon “hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand sources, contemporaneous meeting notes, files, documents and personal diaries.”

What is power?

The book’s title draws upon an interview Woodward and Post reporter Robert Costa had with Trump that was published in April 2016. Costa had noted that Obama defined power as “you can get what you want without having to exert violence.” Trump had a different interpretation.

His answer was, Woodward said, checking his notes, “Real power is — I don’t even want to use the word — ‘fear.’ ”

Bernstein is a political commentator for CNN whose books include A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton and the two Nixon-era classics he wrote with Woodward, All the President’s Men and The Final Days. He is currently working on a memoir about his early years of journalism, when he was starting out at the now-defunct Washington Star.

“My time at the Star was a great learning experience, and then there was the Post and Watergate. Those two experiences inform pretty much everything I do,” Bernstein said.

“Imagine,” he added, referring to himself and Woodward, “here we are, 74 and 75 years old, and we still get to do this.”

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us

Mexico Still Preparing for US Car Tariffs, Backs WTO Reform

Mexico is still preparing all options to respond to possible U.S. tariffs on car imports, Deputy Economy Minister Juan Carlos Baker said on Tuesday, despite U.S.-European talks last week that were supposed to have seen off the immediate threat.

Last week European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he had secured a “major concession” from President Donald Trump, having agreed that as long as the two sides were negotiating on trade, they would hold off on imposing further measures, including U.S. tariffs on cars and auto parts.

Baker was speaking after meeting senior trade officials from Canada, Japan, South Korea and the European Union in Geneva, which is also home to the World Trade Organization.

The countries — long term U.S. allies which are at odds with Trump over trade relations — were not coordinating their response, Baker told reporters. However, they were all determined to respond if tariffs on cars were imposed, he said, noting that the U.S. process to introduce them had not stopped.

“We take that very seriously. Until that process is fully concluded and no tariffs are imposed, we need to be serious and consider the possibility that those tariffs may be established.

We need to make clear that we are prepared to react,” he said.

Over several hours of talks at the EU mission, the five powers — all of them hit by Trump’s steel tariffs imposed in March, and concerned about his disruption of the WTO — also discussed reform of the 23-year-old trading club.

Trump is demanding a shake-up of the WTO, saying it treats the United States unfairly and gives China undue advantages.

To force the issue, he has brought the WTO’s system for settling international trade disputes to the brink of collapse by blocking the appointment of judges when the terms of others expire, a situation that diplomats and trade officials have described as hostage taking and the “asphyxiation” of the WTO.

Baker said there were several sets of reform ideas on the table for the WTO and he was encouraged. “We would not be doing this if we believed the process is doomed to fail,” he said. “We all feel the sense of urgency here. We do not necessarily have a due date … but the sooner we start the better.”

Proposals are likely to be polished in the next few months, including at meetings of the G20 major economies, an APEC forum of Pacific rim countries, and at a Canadian-hosted meeting in October. A trade ministers’ meeting in Davos in January would be an important moment to take stock of progress, he said.

“Today was only a very initial, incipient discussion but I believe it was good in terms of knowing how much running round we have ahead of us.”

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us

Trump Administration Considering Tax Break on Capital Gains

The Trump administration is studying the idea of implementing a big tax break for wealthy Americans by reducing the taxes levied on capital gains, but no decision has been made yet on whether to proceed.

Administration officials said Tuesday Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin prefers deferring to Congress. But he does have his department studying the economic impact of such a change and the legality of proceeding without congressional approval.

The change would involve taxing capital gains — profits on investments such as stocks or real estate — after taking into account inflation, which would lower the tax bite. Capital gains taxes are currently determined by subtracting the original price of an asset from the price at which it was sold and taxing the difference without adjusting for inflation.

For example, a stock purchased in 1990 for $100,000 and sold today for $300,000 would produce a $200,000 capital gain. That amount, taxed at the top capital gains rate of 23.8 percent, would result in a tax bill of $47,600. However, if the $200,000 gain was trimmed to just $103,000 by adjusting for inflation over the past 28 years, the tax bill would be $24,514.

“There has been a great deal of interest in this provision for a long time,” said a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations. “Treasury is currently evaluating the economic impact and whether it can be achieved without legislation.”

Indexing capital gains for inflation would reduce federal revenue by about $102 billion over a decade, according to the Penn-Wharton Budget Model. The Congressional Research Service has estimated that about 90 percent of the benefits would go to the top 1 percent of households.

The New York Times and the Washington Post reported Tuesday that the proposal was under active consideration by the administration. It has long been supported by Larry Kudlow, head of the president’s National Economic Council. Mnuchin, however, has signaled caution in approaching the idea.

Republicans, led by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady is leading an effort to extend and expand the $1.5 trillion tax cut President Donald Trump pushed through Congress last December.

“If it can’t get done through a legislative process, we will look at what tools at Treasury we have to do it on our own and we’ll consider that,” Mnuchin said in an interview with the Times in which he emphasized that he has not yet concluded that Treasury has the authority to act alone.

“We are studying that internally, and we are also studying the economic costs and the impact on growth,” Mnuchin told the Times.

Democrats, however, vowed to oppose the change to how capital gains are taxed.

“Once again, Republicans have exposed the true priorities of their tax scam: billions in tax breaks for the wealthiest at the expense of everyone else,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “American families are drowning under the weight of stagnant wages, higher health costs and soaring prescription drug costs, but the GOP continues to pick their pockets to give more handouts to the wealthiest 1 percent.”

In an interview in June with The Wall Street Journal, Mnuchin declined to speculate on whether Treasury has the legal authority to make the capital gains change on its own.

Democrats in the Senate have urged Mnuchin not to take the step, saying Treasury does not have the authority. They pointed to legal opinions written by the Justice and Treasury departments in 1992 finding that Congress intended the word “cost” to mean the price paid in nominal dollars — without adjusting for inflation.

Treasury acting on its own “would almost exclusively benefit the wealthiest Americans, add $100 billion to the ballooning deficit, further complicate the tax code and ignore the need for congressional” approval, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, and other Democratic panel members said in a letter to Mnuchin in May.

“The $100 billion price tag is a conservative estimate because it does not consider the abundant tax-sheltering opportunities that would arise,” the Democrats wrote. “Further, the proposal would fail American workers, investment and the larger U.S. economy.”

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us

Study: Heat Deaths to Jump in Absence of Changes

The number of people dying from heat waves is likely to rise sharply in some regions by 2080 if policymakers fail to take mitigating steps in climate and health policies, according to the results of a study released Tuesday.

Deaths caused by heat waves could increase dramatically in tropical and subtropical regions, the study found, followed closely by Australia, Europe and the United States.

Published in the journal PLOS Medicine, the study’s results suggest stricter mitigation policies should be applied to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because lower greenhouse gas emissions are linked with fewer deaths due to heat waves.

Antonio Gasparrini, an expert from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine who co-led the research, noted that several countries around the world are currently being hit by deadly heat waves and said it was “highly likely” that heat wave frequency and severity would increase under a changing climate.

“The good news is that if we mitigate greenhouse gas emissions … then the projected impact will be much reduced,” he said.

The researchers said they hoped their research, which used mathematical modeling, would help decision-makers in planning strategies for climate change.

Different scenarios

The model used different scenarios characterized by levels of greenhouse gas emissions, preparedness and adaption strategies, as well as population density to estimate the number of deaths related to heat waves in 412 communities across 20 countries from 2031 to 2080.

The results found that compared with the period 1971 to 2020 and under the extreme scenario, the Philippines would suffer 12 times more excess deaths caused by heat waves in 2031 to 2080.

Under the same scenario, Australia and the United States could face five times more excess deaths, with Britain potentially seeing four times more excess deaths from heat waves in the same period.

These predictions improved, however, when scenarios were modeled with policies implemented to fulfill the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Under the least extreme scenario, and compared with the period 1971 to 2020, the study predicted that Britain would see only around double the number of excess deaths caused by heat waves in 2031 to 2080.

The researchers note that their work had some limitations, since it could model only relatively simple assumptions of how countries may or may not adapt climate policies.

The findings “should therefore be interpreted as potential impacts under hypothetical scenarios, and not as projections of [the] future,” they said in a statement.

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us

Robotic Hand Can Juggle Cube — With Lots of Training

How long does it take a robotic hand to learn to juggle a cube?

About 100 years, give or take.

That’s how much virtual computing time it took researchers at OpenAI, the nonprofit artificial intelligence lab funded by Elon Musk and others, to train its disembodied hand. The team paid Google $3,500 to run its software on thousands of computers simultaneously, crunching the actual time to 48 hours. After training the robot in a virtual environment, the team put it to a test in the real world.

The hand, called Dactyl, learned to move itself, the team of two dozen researchers disclosed this week. Its job is simply to adjust the cube so that one of its letters — “O,” “P,” “E,” “N,” “A” or “I” — faces upward to match a random selection.

Ken Goldberg, a University of California, Berkeley robotics professor who isn’t affiliated with the project, said OpenAI’s achievement is a big deal because it demonstrates how robots trained in a virtual environment can operate in the real world. His lab is trying something similar with a robot called Dex-Net, though its hand is simpler and the objects it manipulates are more complex.

“The key is the idea that you can make so much progress in simulation,” he said. “This is a plausible path forward, when doing physical experiments is very hard.”

Dactyl’s real-world fingers are tracked by infrared dots and cameras. In training, every simulated movement that brought the cube closer to the goal gave Dactyl a small reward. Dropping the cube caused it to feel a penalty 20 times as big.

The process is called reinforcement learning. The robot software repeats the attempts millions of times in a simulated environment, trying over and over to get the highest reward. OpenAI used roughly the same algorithm it used to beat human players in a video game, Dota 2.

In real life, a team of researchers worked about a year to get the mechanical hand to this point.

Why?

For one, the hand in a simulated environment doesn’t understand friction. So even though its real fingers are rubbery, Dactyl lacks human understanding about the best grips.

Researchers injected their simulated environment with changes to gravity, hand angle and other variables so the software learns to operate in a way that is adaptable. That helped narrow the gap between real-world results and simulated ones, which were much better.

The variations helped the hand succeed putting the right letter face up more than a dozen times in a row before dropping the cube. In simulation, the hand typically succeeded 50 times in a row before the test was stopped.

OpenAI’s goal is to develop artificial general intelligence, or machines that think and learn like humans, in a way that is safe for people and widely distributed.

Musk has warned that if AI systems are developed only by for-profit companies or powerful governments, they could one day exceed human smarts and be more dangerous than nuclear war with North Korea.

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us

Draft Poster for "The Empire Strikes Back" Sells for $26,400

A rare draft poster for the “Star Wars” sequel “The Empire Strikes Back” has sold at auction for $26,400.

Heritage Auctions says a long-time pop culture collector who wished to remain anonymous made the winning bid Sunday in the Dallas auction.

 

The poster features Han Solo and Princess Leia in an embrace similar to one from a “Gone With the Wind” poster featuring Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett O’Hara while surrounded by flames.

 

Grey Smith, Heritage’s director of vintage posters, says the draft poster for the 1980 movie “The Empire Strikes Back” is unique because it shows Roger Kastel’s complete artwork in the original color palette.

 

After final revisions, the poster had a darker color scheme than the draft’s vibrant reds and oranges. It was also more streamlined with fewer characters.

 

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us