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Columns Tom Baxter

Strange, fantastic, important: What’s been happening while the race was being run

By Tom Baxter

The long Senate race has descended into the season of postmortems, when the losers point fingers and the winners check what’s left in the campaign account. But, dear reader, we don’t have to do either.

Our time might be better spent looking at some of the strange, fantastic or important things that have been happening, or are about to happen, that may have escaped our notice while we were focused on the runoff.

In Florida, Kent Sternon, a key ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis, committed suicide. Sternon, 50, reportedly had been suffering from health issues, and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office confirmed he was a subject in an open criminal investigation. No details on what kind of investigation. More to come, presumably.

In a letter dated Nov. 22 which surfaced the day after the runoff election (interesting timing) Interior Secretary Deb Haaland wrote Gov. Brian Kemp expressing “serious concerns” (which sounds like a warning that the feds might sue) about an Alabama firm’s application to begin mining near the Okefenokee Swamp.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter’s remarks at the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce’s annual Grits and Issues breakfast deserve a second look. He praised the bipartisan work done during the Reagan and Clinton administrations and said he wanted to work with the Biden administration on legislation. These days, when a Republican running to chair the House Budget Committee says something like that, it’s news.

Since a former president called for the abrogation of the U.S. Constitution in a tweet, the competition to “own the libs” with ever more outrageous statements has reached a fever pitch. The owner of several tech companies called for Anthony Fauci to be prosecuted, and a Georgia congresswoman said if she’d been leading the Capitol insurrection, the rioters would have been armed.

Three or four decades ago, if NASA had sent a space capsule all the way around the moon and brought it back to Earth, it would have been a huge story. It would have been even bigger if the Interior Department had announced that, at last, it had caused a fusion reaction that released more energy than it consumed. These are still major science stories. But you know what geek world is deliriously excited about today? ChatGPT.

ChatGPT is what’s called a large language model — a beta-stage app that allows you to converse with, instruct and ask questions of an artificial intelligence (AI) bot. It’s a free download, but the site is swamped. So what? Well, whatever this is, it’s the most advanced version of it ever created, and that has experts in the field of AI both excited and terrified. Elon Musk co-founded OpenAI, the company which produced ChatGPT, but he has since voiced deep reservations about AI. He tweeted that ChatGPT was “scary good,” approaching “dangerously strong AI.

Fortune magazine CEO Alan Murray was so impressed by ChatGPT, he wrote this week that it should be named the story of the year, bigger even than the invasion of Ukraine. I don’t think so. I think the story of the year is set not in the near future, but the distant past.

In 2013, two South African spelunkers squeezed their way through a deep, narrow passage into a series of chambers in the Rising Star Cave outside Johannesburg. There they discovered what turned out to be the carefully arranged bones of Homo Naledi, a creature with a brain not much larger than a chimpanzee which lived at the same time as early Homo sapiens — that is, us. Homo Naledi was recognized as a species and named by Lee Berger, Georgia’s contribution to he field of paleo anthropology. He was project director at the cave, but for years only scientists recruited for their slim build ventured through the dangerous passage.

When Berger finally did get down to one of the chambers, he looked up and saw dark soot on the ceiling. Elsewhere, a hearth and burned animal bones were found. Homo Naledi, Berger announced in an online reveal a few weeks ago, not only deposited its dead in a difficult kind of ritual, but it used fire to light its way through the cave and cooked food. Homo sapiens and its predecessors had been doing things like that for more than a million years, but that’s the truly mysterious thing about Homo Naledi. We did not evolve from Homo Naledi, even though it looks like it should have lived much earlier. For some period of hundreds of thousands of years, these human species lived beside each other. Cousins, so to speak.

Berger’s discoveries have been hailed as important, but his methods have been criticized for not following customary protocols. He probably hasn’t helped his case in that court by teasing that another blockbuster discovery is already in the pipeline. This could make a terrific movie, but we don’t know how it turns out yet.

 

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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