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Americans have planted so much corn that it’s changing the weather

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This story was originally published by Atlas Obscura and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Corn farmers in eastern Nebraska have long claimed weather patterns are changing, but in an unexpected way.

“It’s something I’ve talked about with my dad and granddad many times,” says fifth-generation corn farmer Brandon Hunnicutt. Along with his father and brother, the 45 year old lives in the 400-person village of Giltner and grows about 2,000 acres of corn each year. From above, the area looks like a blip of homes surrounded by an expansive grid of circular fields. Though Brandon’s grandfather is retired, he takes an active interest in the business. “Contrary to what you’d think should be happening, both him and my dad swear up and down [that] droughts used to come more often and be a lot worse,” says Hunnicutt. “Considering it’s been 30 years since we had a really bad one, I’ve started kind of taking them at their word.”

This is not the only noticeable development — University of Nebraska climatologists say the growing season has gotten 10-14 days longer since 1980. Hunnicutt now waits until the first weeks of November to pilot his 40-foot-wide, dump-truck-sized combine through the farm’s widely arching, seemingly endless rows of corn — enough to cover 800 city blocks.

Though subtle, the Hunnicutts have noticed these changes and more.

“To be successful in this business, you’ve got to pay close attention to the weather,” explains Brandon. In the past 20 years, on top of the above, he’s noted a gradual decrease in 100-degree days during the summer. “That missing digit isn’t something you overlook,” he asserts with a laugh. “High temperatures create a lot of anxiety. If they go on long enough, they’ll scorch your corn and put a hurtin’ on your bottom line!”

A 2018 report issued by climate researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims to have solved the mystery and verified farmers’ suspicions: Namely, that large-scale corn production has changed the weather.

Over the past 70 years, farmers in America’s midwestern Corn Belt have made vast leaps in production. From 1950 to 2010, annual harvests increased by more than 400 percent, jumping from 2 billion to 10 billion bushels. In addition to making the area the world’s most productive agricultural region, climate scientists at MIT say the boom has created its own weather patterns.

“We studied data from the past 30 years and found that the intensification of corn production has increased average summer rainfalls by about 35 percent and decreased [average summer] temperatures by as much as one degree Celsius,” says former MIT researcher Ross E. Alter, now a research meteorologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Alter was the lead author of a 2018 report published in the journal of the American Geophysical Union that demonstrated how land use has impacted the region’s climate more than greenhouse gas emissions. “What makes these findings so fascinating is that, while global temperatures have risen, areas like eastern Nebraska have actually cooled,” continues Alter, referring to yearly averages. “We think it’s likely heavy agriculture counteracted rising summer temperatures that might have otherwise resulted from increasing greenhouse gases.”

In other words, the human-made shift has been helpful. By increasing yields, farmers have unintentionally created weather patterns that seem to be protecting their crops and helping them grow more corn. (Of course, burning fossil fuels to plant, cultivate, harvest, process, and ship farm products has been shown to be a major contributor to rising levels of greenhouse gases.)

Though similar effects have to some degree been observed in the rice-growing regions of eastern China, the report marks the first time the effects of agriculture on regional climate change in the central U.S. have undergone comprehensive analysis. The findings document the most significant human-made regional climate shift in world history.

“On a global level, this research is important because it proves the influence of agricultural intensification is really an independent problem from greenhouse gas emissions,” explains Alter.

By comparing observed historical trends in the Corn Belt’s climate to those predicted by a variety of global simulations used by the World Climate Research Program, which coordinates climate research sponsored by various international organizations, the report showed the models were inaccurate for the region (they predicted summer temperatures would rise and rainfall would increase by just four percent). Though the WCRP models accounted for greenhouse gas emissions and other human and natural factors, they did not consider agricultural intensification.

“Our findings are a bit different from what people thought about the mechanisms of climate change,” says Alter. He believes that accurately simulating and understanding climate change at the local level will require a look at cases of agricultural intensification like Nebraska’s corn boom.

But how, specifically, has growing more corn changed the climate? Associate Nebraska State Climatologist Al Dutcher says it’s complicated.

On one hand, it has to do with what Hunnicutt and other farmers refer to as “corn sweat.” This happens when photosynthesis boosts the amount of water vapor in the air.

“When a plant’s pores, called stomata, open to allow carbon dioxide to enter, they simultaneously allow water to escape,” writes Kimberly Hickok, who covers climate change for Science Magazine and reviewed the report. Known as transpiration, the process cools the plant and surrounding air, and increases the amount of water going into the atmosphere and returning as rainfall. As Hickok notes, “the cycle may continue” as that additional rainwater evaporates back into the atmosphere and causes rainfall on other farms and towns downwind.

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Put another way: More corn means more transpiration. Which, in turn, produces slightly cooler temperatures and increased precipitation. The fact that corn is a non-native species boosts the effect.

“The predominant native vegetation in central and eastern Nebraska is grass,” explains Dutcher. Farmers have replaced the area’s vast seas of grass with more than 9 million acres of corn, which transpires at a rate 20 percent higher than indigenous grasses. “Agriculture is literally funneling moisture into the atmosphere, and all that humidity has created a kind of protective bubble against rising temperatures.”

Dutcher and Hunnicutt say growing more corn — and thus, creating more transpiration — would have been impossible without advances in farming efficiency. The introduction of high-yielding varieties, better irrigation, and soil management techniques, along with the ability to use computer sensors to closely monitor field conditions, have all contributed to soaring yields.

“One of the biggest factors is the widespread use of cover crops, crop residue management, and no-till farming methods,” writes University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources extension engineer Paul Jasa. Together, the practices have erased the need for conventional tillage, dramatically increased organic matter in the soil, reduced evaporation and runoff, and lowered summer surface temperatures. “With time, the [native clay-based] soil has become much healthier and better at retaining water,” Jasa continues. “This has made crops more resilient to traumatic weather events and, in general, much more productive.”

Hunnicutt says automated irrigation has helped boost overall production and allowed him to grow corn in pivot corners where his grandfather could not. Upward of 340 acres that formerly yielded nothing now contribute as much as 180 bushels per acre. In his tenure as a farmer, full-field yields have grown by more than 50 bushels an acre.

“I can get minute-to-minute weather predictions and tell you moisture levels anywhere in our fields just by glancing at my phone,” says Hunnicutt. “In the 1950s, my grandad was using a Farmers’ Almanac. Back then, if they thought the soil was too dry, they just dumped water on it. Now, I know exactly what my plants need and when to apply it.”

As might be expected, Alter’s report has a dark side. And that dark side has global implications.

“In terms of the Corn Belt, the degree of agricultural intensification we’ve seen in the last 30 years isn’t sustainable,” he says. “It’s projected to soon come to an end and may even decline.” And if that happens, the mitigating effect of agriculture will disappear, and global temperatures will rise even faster.

Though studies have yet to be conducted around the world, Alter says that areas that have experienced substantial agricultural intensification have likely experienced similar benefits: more rainfall and cooler average temperatures during the summers. Like Nebraska, the effects have probably masked negative changes and will eventually be overwhelmed.

“I know some of the anti-climate change folks will probably poo-poo this, but it’s something my family takes very seriously,” says Hunnicutt. “We’ve been in this business for five generations, and I hope to see my children and grandchildren carry on that tradition. We’re doing everything we can to reduce fuel consumption and increase efficiency. Our hope is these [mitigatory effects] will give us enough of a window to make adjustments and prepare for what’s coming.”

In the meantime, he hopes the world gets its act together and curbs emissions before it’s too late.

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Americans have planted so much corn that it’s changing the weather

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Los Straitjackets’ New Album Is Goofy and Sparkling

Mother Jones

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Los Straitjackets
What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets
Yep Roc

Courtesey of Yep Roc Music Group

Garbed in Mexican wrestling masks and specializing in surf guitar instrumentals, Los Straitjackets have refused to take themselves seriously since their mid-’90s debut album—at least on one level. In reality, these accomplished and tasteful players have repeatedly shown that it’s possible to invest a nostalgic, seemingly outdated style with a range of moods, from tender intimacy to rowdy exuberance. The bracing What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets is devoted entirely to songs written or co-written by the great Nick Lowe, their recent tourmate and a stellar songsmith since Britain’s pub rock days of the ’70s. Though Lowe’s probably best known for his lyrics, which can be either heartrending or smart-alecky, Los Straitjackets’ snappy versions of “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” and, of course, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding” make a strong case for him as a gifted melodist too. This sparkling set is good fun from first note to last, and hopefully the harbinger of a full-fledged collaboration.

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Los Straitjackets’ New Album Is Goofy and Sparkling

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Trump’s “skinny budget” may slash EPA funding even more than previously reported.

A self-described “anonymous environmental activist collective” spelled out “NO MORE TIGERS, NO MORE WOODS” in six-foot-high letters at the Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.

“It’s a protest piece against Trump’s administration’s handling of our environmental policies,” one of the activists told a local ABC affiliate, using a voice disguiser. “He’s been very aggressive in gutting a lot of the policies that we’ve had in place for a very long time. We felt it necessary to stand up and go take action against him.”

Plus the activists don’t like golf courses. “Tearing up the golf course felt justified in many ways,” one activist told the Washington Post. “Repurposing what was once a beautiful stretch of land into a playground for the privileged is an environmental crime in its own right.”

The Washington Post article originally called the action a “daring act of defiance.” Though accurate, the description irritated Eric Trump, the president’s second-oldest son:

The Post then changed its story to say the group “pulled off an elaborate act of vandalism.”

No comment from Tiger Woods, who has golfed with Donald Trump and said he plays pretty well for an old guy.

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Trump’s “skinny budget” may slash EPA funding even more than previously reported.

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The Disappearing Spoon – Sam Kean


The Disappearing Spoon
And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
Sam Kean

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $2.99

Publish Date: July 12, 2010

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Seller: Hachette Digital, Inc.

From New York Times bestselling author Sam Kean comes incredible stories of science, history, finance, mythology, the arts, medicine, and more, as told by the Periodic Table. Why did Gandhi hate iodine (I, 53)? How did radium (Ra, 88) nearly ruin Marie Curie’s reputation? And why is gallium (Ga, 31) the go-to element for laboratory pranksters?* The Periodic Table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it’s also a treasure trove of adventure, betrayal, and obsession. These fascinating tales follow every element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, and in the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them. THE DISAPPEARING SPOON masterfully fuses science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, and discovery–from the Big Bang through the end of time. *Though solid at room temperature, gallium is a moldable metal that melts at 84 degrees Fahrenheit. A classic science prank is to mold gallium spoons, serve them with tea, and watch guests recoil as their utensils disappear.

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The Disappearing Spoon – Sam Kean

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Are the US Dietary Guidelines on Milk Racist?

Mother Jones

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The federal government’s dietary guidelines urge adults to consume at least three cups of milk a day to guard against osteoporosis, a disease in which bones become brittle and weak. People who are lactose intolerant—a group that includes 75 percent of African Americans—”can choose low-lactose and lactose-free dairy products,” the guidelines say. But a new study has called into question this one-size-fits-all approach. It suggests that most African American adults might not need milk at all.

Read: The Scary New Science That Shows Milk Is Bad for You

Scientists have known for some time that people who live in Africa have some of the world’s lowest rates of osteoporosis. Researchers long assumed that the difference was due to Africans’ lower life expectancy (since the condition usually shows up later in life), more active lifestyles, and a lack of doctors to diagnose and treat the condition. Yet a study published in June in BoneKEy, an offshoot of the journal Nature, offers a compelling alternative explanation: Many Africans are genetically adapted to low-calcium diets.

Study author Constance Hilliard, an evolutionary historian at the University of North Texas, examined osteoporosis rates in Nigeria and Cameroon, two African countries that fall within an area known as the tsetse belt. Dairy farming is impossible in this equatorial region because of the presence of the tsetse fly, a tropical pest that transmits parasites that kill cattle. Despite a nearly complete lack of dairy consumption in the two countries, their osteoporosis rates are among the lowest in the world—just two to three cases out of every 100,000 people.

In an effort to figure out why, Hilliard looked at Kenya, a country outside the tsetse belt where milk consumption is common yet life expectancies and socioeconomic conditions remain essentially the same. Kenya’s rate of osteoporosis is dramatically higher—245 cases out of 100,000 people. That’s also much closer to levels in the United States, where the rate is 595 per 100,000 people.

So what’s going on here? One possibility is that milk consumption actually increases the risk for osteoporosis. As I mentioned in a magazine piece last year, a 2014 Swedish study found women who drank more than two and a half glasses of milk a day had a higher fracture risk than their counterparts who drank less than one glass a day. Though other studies have come to the opposite conclusion, researchers have found, on balance, that calcium intake does not significantly reduce the risk of hip fracture in women or men.

Hilliard finds a more compelling explanation in genetics. The tsetse belt is largely inhabited by the Niger-Kordofanian ethnicity (also the predominant ethnicity among African Americans), which is known to be lactose intolerant. Niger-Kordofanians make up for the lack of milk in their diets by better absorbing calcium. In the United States, studies have shown that black children and adults excrete less calcium than whites on essentially the same diets, thereby retaining more calcium in their bones. “This is why certain populations can maintain strong bones and are at low risk of osteoporosis even though they consume 200 mg of calcium day”—a fifth of what the federal government recommends, Hilliard says. It could also be why the rate of osteoporosis and related fractures in African American women is half that of Caucasian women.

“This is a very interesting paper,” says Connie Weaver, the director of the Women’s Global Health Institute at Purdue University and an expert on osteoporosis. “We know that genetics determine 60 to 80 percent of bone mass and lifestyle choices the rest. This paper offers one genetic difference that is likely more controlling of bone mass than diet or other lifestyle choices.”

Still, Weaver doesn’t think African Americans should consume less dairy. Though they may have less of a genetic disposition for osteoporosis, she argues that “there still would be a range of risk within that genotype that would be improved by adequate dairy or the nutrients provided by dairy.”

Hilliard makes no dietary recommendations—after all, she is a historian, not a nutritionist. Still, she points out that African Americans may be uniquely susceptible to some of milk’s side effects. Multiple studies have correlated high levels of dairy consumption to prostate cancer; African Americans are 2.4 times as likely to die from the disease as the population at large. Though other genetic and socioeconomic factors may explain their higher risk, some studies have pointed to dairy. The California Collaborative Prostate Cancer Study, published in 2012, found that calcium consumption was closely related to an increased risk of prostate cancer, particularly in black men who carry a genotype common in populations of African origin.

Yet the federal government’s dietary recommendations don’t account for such distinctions. And that omission, she says, amounts to something like discrimination. “What has happened is the medical community has universalized the particular biology of Caucasians,” Hilliard says. “And the medical community has yet to frame its questions in ways that investigate whether foods that have been culturally labeled as ‘good for you’ have deleterious consequences for minorities.”

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Are the US Dietary Guidelines on Milk Racist?

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5 Nature Poets to Enjoy During National Poetry Month

If you’ve ever been tempted to write a poem about your favorite landscape, the seashore or the rites of Spring, now’s the time to do it. April is National Poetry Month, so grab a pen and paper, find your favorite outdoor perch and start scribbling.

If you need inspiration, review the works of these five American poets who wrote about nature and used the natural world to help clarify daily life while exploring some of the more complicated aspects of society.

Emily DickinsonEmily Dickinson lived in Amherst, Massachusetts in the late 19th century. Famously introverted and considered an eccentric by her neighbors, she spent much of her time in her bedroom, where she wrote nearly 1,800 poems during her lifetime. Though she often touched onthemes of death and immortality, she also had a keen understanding of nature, which she may have observed from her bedroom window.

One of her most charming poems is called “A Bird Came Down the Walk”:

“A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw”

Here’s the complete poem.

She also wrote “A Light Exists in Spring.” Here’s the opening stanza:

“A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period –
When March is scarcely here…”

Here is the complete poem.

Robert Frost – This famous American poet won four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry. He took his inspiration from early 1900s rural life in New England. Though set in nature, his poems often focused on importantsocial and philosophical issues. You’ll probably know him best for “The Road Not Taken,” but don’t overlook “Mending Wall,” from whence comes the famous line, “Good fences make good neighbors.” It starts…

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast…

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows…”

Read the complete poem here.

Gary SnyderGary Snyder is an essayist, lecturer, environmental activist and yes, poet. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, he’s been described as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology” as well as a writer associated with San Francisco’s Beat Generation. He’s a master at using natural imagery to convey universal truths. You’ll find references to mountains, volcanoes, the Arctic, flora and fauna in his stanzas, and in the books for which he became well known, such as “Turtle Island.

Enjoy “Pine Tree Tops:”

“In the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
The creak of boots.
Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
What do we know.”

Mary Oliver – A winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Mary Oliver was born in the Midwest in 1945. Shebegan writing poetry and later moved to Massachusetts, which servesas her home base while she writes, teaches and leads workshops. Her poetry celebrates the natural world, beauty, silence, love and the spirit. She’s published many books, including “Wild Geese,” which contains a poem by the same name. Here’s an excerpt:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves…”

You can listen to Mary Oliver read the entire poem here.

Ralph Waldo Emerson – Philosopher, Transcendentalist, essayist and poet:Ralph Waldo Emerson was another poet born in Massachusetts, though in 1803. His most famous essay was on “Self-Reliance.” He titled his first book Nature, which expressed his belief that everything in the world is a microcosm of the universe.

Here’s an excerpt from a beautiful, moving poem simply titled, “Nature.”

“Winters know
Easily to shed the snow,
And the untaught Spring is wise
In cowslips and anemones.
Nature, hating art and pains,
Baulks and baffles plotting brains;
Casualty and Surprise
Are the apples of her eyes;
But she dearly loves the poor,
And, by marvel of her own,
Strikes the loud pretender down.”

You can see a list of more Nature poems dating back to Virgil in 37 BCE and including the Japanese poet Basho, at Poets.org.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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5 Nature Poets to Enjoy During National Poetry Month

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Trump Blasts O’Malley: "Disgusting, Little, Weak, Pathetic Baby"

Mother Jones

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Back in July, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley apologized for saying “all lives matter” to a group of Black Lives Matter activists who had interrupted one of his speeches.

“That was a mistake on my part, and I meant no disrespect,” the Democratic presidential hopeful said. “I did not mean to be insensitive in any way or communicate that I did not understand the tremendous passion, commitment, and feeling and depth of feeling that all of us should be attaching to this issue.”

Great, a well-spoken, sincere apology from a white guy who, if given the benefit of the doubt, probably just didn’t know any better. Problem solved, right?


In an interview on Fox News that is set to air Saturday night, Donald Trump blasted O’Malley’s apology.

“And then he apologized like a little baby, like a disgusting, little, weak, pathetic baby,” Trump said. “And that’s the problem with our country.”

Though many will groan at an adult hurling insults at another adult for realizing he made a mistake and attempting to correct himself, O’Malley may be loving the Trump exposure, considering he has been known to participate in some good old-fashioned trolling of the real estate tycoon himself.

Mother Jones has reached out to the O’Malley campaign, and we will update if it responds.

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Trump Blasts O’Malley: "Disgusting, Little, Weak, Pathetic Baby"

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It’s raining lampreys — time to leave this terrifying planet

It’s raining lampreys — time to leave this terrifying planet

By on 11 Jun 2015commentsShare

Hope you weren’t too excited about living on Earth, because as far as I can tell, it’s turning into a living nightmare: Lampreys are raining from the sky in Fairbanks, Alaska.

It’s not just any ol’ fray o’ fish — Arctic lampreys are jawless, slimy, blood-sucking terror monsters, which subsist by clamping to prey and sucking out their blood and body fluids. Here’s more from Quartz:

The key to this gory diet lies in its plunger-like “mouthpart,” as biologists call it, the mouth and tongue of which are lined with dozens of sharp yellow teeth. The mouthpart’s shape allows it to clamp onto fish—salmon, for instance, or sharks. It then uses its teeth and “tongue teeth” to slice and scrape its victim’s flesh until it draws its bloody meal.

Well, OK, to be fair — only four lampreys have been found in the Fairbanks area so far, but that’s more lampreys than you would ever want to meet in the wild. Trust that!

And there may be a logical explanation for all of this:

Though Alaska authorities aren’t totally sure what’s going on, they have a solid working theory. Hungry gulls are likely scooping adult lampreys—which have returned to a nearby river to spawn—and then dropping them when the squirmy fish prove too unwieldy to fly with, according to the Alaska fish and game department.

Yeah, or that’s just what the lampreys want you to think. THINK ABOUT IT.

Terrifying “vampire fish” are raining down on Alaskans

, Quartz.



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It’s raining lampreys — time to leave this terrifying planet

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Pope Francis Will Officially Recognize Palestinian Statehood

Mother Jones

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The Vatican is set to sign a new treaty to formally recognize the state of Palestine. The statement was released by a joint commission of Vatican and Palestinian officials on Wednesday, and indicated an agreement had been “concluded,” with an official signing to take place soon.

Though the Vatican has long hinted at supporting an official recognition, Wednesday’s news signals the Vatican’s first legal shift from recognizing the Palestinian Liberation Organization to the state of Palestine, according to the AP. In 2012, the Vatican applauded the United Nations’ decision to formally observe a Palestinian state.

Shortly after the statement’s release, Israel expressed disappointment in the Vatican’s decision.

“This move does not promote the peace process and distances the Palestinian leadership from returning to direct and bilateral negotiations,” the Israeli foreign ministry said, according to the AP. “Israel will study the agreement and will consider its steps accordingly.”

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Pope Francis Will Officially Recognize Palestinian Statehood

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McDonald’s Is 60 Years Old. On Its "Opening Day" It Bragged About Having Served 15 Million Burgers.

Mother Jones

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Here is a hilarious thing that I find hilarious. The first McDonald’s franchise opened its doors 60 years ago today in Des Plaines, Illinois. This is the day McDonald’s Corporation celebrates as its birthday. When you dive into Google to find the opening day menu for the McDonald’s that opened in Des Plaines, Illinois, on April 15, 1955, this is what you find:

source: kottke.com

Notice anything funny? On its opening day menu, McDonald’s bragged about having already served “over 15 million burgers.” So what’s going on? Is this just a hilariously transparent case of false advertising or something else?

It turns out something else. Though McDonald’s as we know it traces its origins to April 15, 1955, in Des Plaines, Illinois, that was actually just the first franchise. McDonald’s had actually already existed for years in California. It was founded by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald in the 1940s. The site’s official history explains:

Entrepreneur Ray Kroc pitched his vision of creating McDonald’s restaurants all over the U.S. to the brothers. In 1955, he founded McDonald’s System, Inc., a predecessor of the McDonald’s Corporation, and six years later bought the exclusive rights to the McDonald’s name. By 1958, McDonald’s had sold its 100 millionth hamburger.

So there was nothing nefarious about this claim, but it is still pretty amusing.

Correction: This post originally said Des Plaines was in Iowa. It is in Illinois. I’m dumb.

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McDonald’s Is 60 Years Old. On Its "Opening Day" It Bragged About Having Served 15 Million Burgers.

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