Worried About a Trump Coup? Take a Deep Breath: You Have More Power Than You Think


President Distraction does not want us talking about his epic pandemic failure with the number of 200,000+ dead likely to rise dramatically by year’s end, our people suffering economically, with many depending on food banks, his woeful lack of accomplishments, and the fact that next week he will face “Sleepy Joe” in debate. 

Meanwhile, Biden has shown himself to be so totally with it and knowledgeable about a vast range of topics that Trump has changed his accusation to Biden’s purported use of “performance enhancing drugs.”

Though Biden clearly doesn’t have a lock on the Presidency, it’s looking more like his lead is stable both nationwide and in a number of swing states, including some red ones. 

So Trump continues to push his fraudulent charge that mail-in ballots are fraudulent, though he and family have used them for years—as have red states—with almost no evidence of fraud (not counting Trump’s encouraging his North Carolina supporters to vote twice—just to make sure!)

And don’t be fooled by this new alleged plot involving 7 Pennsylvania ballots: he and Barr manufactured a story from an incident that the Pennsylvania officials fully explained—no fraud there either. 

Then an article in The Atlantic by Barton Gellman threw lots of people into a frenzy, and it fed well into Trump’s refusal to agree to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election.

I’m hoping to bring a measure of calm to all this frenzy.

For starters, here’s the opening of a newsletter from the sensible lawyer friend whom I’ve quoted from time to time:

“The liberal media lost its mind on Wednesday. The hysteria traces to an article in The Atlantic with the thesis that Republican-controlled legislatures will ignore the popular vote results in their states and appoint Electors who will support the popular vote loser in the Electoral College. (‘Trump would ask state legislators to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of electors directly.’) 

“Sure, that could happen. That is effectively a coup d’état. So, if you want to assume that six Republican states will ignore state laws requiring that their Electors be awarded to the winner of the popular vote, go ahead. I have no response to arguments that breezily assume the end of 244 years of democracy just because Trump ‘asks state legislatures to set aside the popular vote.’”

My friend is justifiably harsh on Gellman for depicting nightmare scenarios of armed disrupters at the polls and then saying, “Of course, this is all speculation.” 

While he acknowledges the likelihood that Trump will cheat and even the possibility that the election could be decided by the Supreme Court, he finds the idea of a coup hyperbolic nonsense.

His skepticism meshed well with a thread of tweets on Twitter (where else?) from a woman named Teri Kanefield (@Teri_Kanefield). Kanefield identifies herself as an author and lawyer (appellate defense lawyer) who does election law pro bono. I felt her responses were so reasonable and on point that I’m repeating them here. 

As the thread was long and sometimes repetitious, I’ve taken the liberty of editing, while I hope remaining true to her intent.

Kanefield essentially focuses on three issues:

Why Trump Wants This Story in the Headlines

Why The Scenario Is Highly Unlikely to Occur

Where the Dangers Lie and How We Can Address Them

Early on, she quotes the essential passage from The Atlantic article:

“The state legislatures will say, ‘All right, we’ve been given this constitutional power,’ a Trump campaign legal adviser explained to The Atlantic. ‘We don’t think the results of our own state are accurate, so here’s our slate of electors that we think properly reflect the results of our state.’

—Why Trump Wants This Story in the Headlines

“I’m pretty sure everyone knows Trump would cheat, lie, steal, and even let 200K people die if he thought it would help him win.

“There are several ways to respond to this story, but we have to begin by wondering why the ‘legal advisor’ wants us to have this information.

“First, remember that each state has rules that govern the certifying of their elections. 

“Yes, laws still matter. 

“The Trump legal advisor wants you to think they don’t. 

“Why? Because when enough people lose confidence in democracy, democracy will fail. (emphases mine)

“Trump is trying his best to get you to lose confidence in [our] democratic processes.

“He is trying to make you think he can pull this off.

“New polls came out today showing that Trump is ten points behind nationally.

[Quinnipiac national likely voter poll: Biden 52%; Trump 42%]

“The Strongman needs you to think he’s strong. He doesn’t want you talking about the polls.

“If he was winning, he’d want you talking about the polls…

“He’s a genius at manipulating the media and controlling the conversation…

–Why the Scenario Is Highly Unlikely to Occur

“Beginning with the fact that state legislatures have nothing to do with certifying elections, this isn’t plausible.

“We’re looking at an election in which Trump loses the popular vote by upwards of 7 percentage points. 

“…and multiple states give Biden the electoral college win.

“Also, from Harvard-educated lawyer @NastyOldWomyn: “In PA, the GOP controlled legislature can’t appoint its own electors without amending the PA electoral code, which Dem Gov Wolf would veto, & the GOP lacks sufficient votes to overcome his veto. Same in MI & WI.”

“The election would have to come down to a few states in which the elected officials were willing to go against the will of their voters and against their own laws.

“They’d have to break the laws (and defy their voters) for Trump.

“The courts would have to allow it.

“Another thing to remember: These states with GOP-held legislatures that the Trump advisor wants you to think will do whatever Trump wants are getting hit very hard right now from Covid.

“The Supreme Court along with multiple state legislatures would have to be willing to basically install a dictator. 

“Let’s not pretend that we are at the mercy of Trump, or that we give two hoots about whether he will ‘respect’ the results of the election.”

Where the Dangers Lie and How to Address Them

“When enough people believe the con, this amplifies and gives credence to the lies, which then creates a reality based on the lie, which helps bring about the very outcome you don’t want…

“This is not to say that very real things can’t go wrong. Polls showing a close race in Florida worry me. The fact that more than 45% of voters willingly choose Trump, despite everything we know worries me.

“The fact that so many people don’t vote worries me.

“Here’s the thing about democracy: If a majority of voters no longer want it, it will cease to exist. If a majority of voters don’t put in the work, it will cease to exist. 

“In a close election, like 2000, where the election comes down to a few thousand votes, something like this might work.”

Here Kanefield responds to her anticipated critics:

“Dear those of you who are explaining why I’m wrong and that Trump can easily steal this election (and I’m naive to doubt it) let me ask you this: Suppose you succeed in persuading lots of people of this?

“What will you accomplish?

“Of course: Trump knows he can’t win by persuading people to vote for him, so he will try to create chaos.

“What you can do: Volunteer to work on the election. 

“What Biden will do: Put together a top-notch legal team.”


So while I would vastly prefer that we not have all these uncertainties hanging over the election, I am comfortable with Kanefield’s thinking and this conclusion offered by my lawyer friend:

“But if six GOP controlled states decide that the popular vote winner will not be awarded their Electoral College votes, then those states have effectively seceded from the constitutional order. 

“We can worry about that speculative and unlikely outcome if it ever comes to pass. In the meantime, we cannot be seduced by the wave of hysteria that has enveloped the liberal media. Just because Trump says something doesn’t mean it will occur. Remember, according to Trump, the coronavirus will ‘miraculously disappear.’

“So, here’s my advice: Buck-up! We can’t go to pieces every time someone comes up with a new disaster scenario over which you have no control. You can control what you do. Make that count.”

Here’s what you can do to make what you can control count:

Make sure you’re registered—asap. Most deadlines are in early October. Donate to the campaigns if you can. Make phone calls to get out the vote. If you’re willing and able, volunteer to work at the polls. 

Check your state’s voting options and make a plan concerning how you’ll vote. Vote as early as you can. If you’re voting by mail, carefully follow the directions so your vote can’t be challenged. Don’t forget to sign your ballot! Use a drop box if one is available.

An interesting note: If Texas, which has little mail-in balloting, goes for Biden (and it is possible), Trump will have no way to win. The election will be called that evening.

If you’d like to work on a campaign but don’t know how, contact me via Contact on this blog and I’ll send you suggestions.

Knowledge is power! Action overcomes anxiety. Democracy is on the ballot. Get involved! VOTE!!

We need not only Biden for President, but a Democratic House and Senate to enact all the bills Mitch McConnell has been blocking and to counterbalance the Supreme Court, which is about to move even further to the right of mainstream America.

Now if we could only convince the media to stop obsessing about Trump and give some attention to what Biden and Harris are saying…



Continue reading “Worried About a Trump Coup? Take a Deep Breath: You Have More Power Than You Think”

Will Sports Figures Help Us Break Through the Hatred?

Doc Rivers, head coach for the LA Clippers basketball team, son of a policeman…please watch this poignant video.

We are in the midst of a very ugly, unsettling time in America. The large demonstrations against injustice have somehow become delegitimized by the relatively few incidents of looting and arson. Focus groups are showing diminished support for Black Lives Matter because of the property damage. Retiring Trump aide Kelly Anne Conway minced no words: the violence, she said, will help Donald Trump’s reelection.

I am sickened that so many white people, awakened by George Floyd’s appalling death to the horrors that Black Americans are facing, could so quickly forget when another horrific episode evoked demonstrations whose largely peaceful nature is marred by acts of arson. The fact that a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, could shoot seven bullets into the back of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, while he was getting into his car–in full view of his three young children–should be viewed by everyone as the horror that it is. And we must see justice unfold promptly and transparently.

But the compounding and equally frightening fact is that police officers who knew what one of their fellow officers had done, touching off the demonstrations, then let a young white vigilante walk away after he’d shot three people with a long gun, killing two of them.

That unconscionable evidence of injustice should lead us to a major national discussion. The fact that Fox News host Tucker Carlson said the killer had to “maintain order when no one else would” does not bode well for curbing violence in our streets. We must call it what it is: an act of domestic terrorism.

I am certainly not advocating looting and arson. I wish every demonstration was peaceful. But Martin Luther King, Jr., the beacon of non-violence, called such acts “the voice of the unheard.” People who feel they have a stake in their surroundings don’t loot or set fires. Changing that dynamic after years of neglect will take time and resources. Sure, there are opportunistic looters in the mix as well, and we know that white supremacists have been responsible for some of these acts as a way to stir things up.

In the past, when armed vigilantes showed up, the police sent them home. The fact that they were welcomed in Kenosha “to protect property” shows that we as a society have our priorities badly skewed. Property should be protected by trained authorities, not by vigilantes. And never at the price of human lives.

But instead of a major national conversation, we got the Republican National Convention. Why did it feature a white St. Louis couple who had stood armed in front of their mansion as Black Lives Matter protesters walked by? These people aren’t heroes! They’re paranoid thugs, facing charges for their reckless acts. But they’re being depicted as the only way to keep your suburban family safe if you vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

If you don’t have time to watch the video above, Rivers discusses the Republicans’ emphasis during their convention:

“They’re just spewing this fear. We’re the ones getting killed, getting shot, denied living in certain communities, getting hung…All you hear about is fear. It’s amazing….Why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back. It’s so sad. We got to do better.”

The persistent emphasis on fear is a desperation tactic being used by a racist President who hopes to win over a sliver of suburban women in battleground states. Law and order indeed! The list of crimes committed by his closest advisers and the charges looming against him and his family give the lie to that claim.

I fervently hope Americans are smarter than this.

As Biden said Thursday, this is not only happening in Trump’s America; Trump is adding to the conflagration, throwing matches on the fire. I just heard someone say that Donald Trump is the cause of the violence and hopes to be its beneficiary.

Quite true. He is dividing us and trying to scare us because he has nothing to offer us after 3-1/2 years in office but 182,000+ dead in a pandemic he doesn’t know how to control and an economy that collapsed because he doesn’t understand that you can’t expect an improved economy if you deny or hide the pandemic.

He’s still trying to deny and hide by ordering fewer tests so he can claim the virus has been defeated and persuading the once-apolitical and highly respected Centers for Disease Control to assert that asymptomatic people don’t need to be tested. (The CDC eventually backtracked.) I think of Trump assuming the “Ostrich/Scientist-Imposter/Deadly” approach to curbing the pandemic. Kamala Harris was right: he froze; he failed; he’s scared.

The Athletes Offer Hope

I believe that the sports figures who boycotted their games to protest the Kenosha police shooting are in a better position than many to clarify the stakes here. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest police violence, I felt he was demonstrating in the best nonviolent tradition. But he was alone, and he paid a hefty price: nearly four years later, he’s still not employed.

But the quiet dignity of all those athletes from basketball, baseball, soccer, and tennis resounded. “It was the silence that spoke loudest,” wrote Kurt Streeter in The New York Times.

“This is what the silence said: No more Jacob Blakes. No more George Floyds. No more Breonna Taylors…Natasha McKennas…Philando Castiles…Michael Browns..Tamir Rices…Eric Garners..Alton Sterlings.

“No more pain.”

Streeter wrote that “a new high bar of protest has been established.”

These athletes will ensure that the conversations about social justice will continue. (In the video. Doc Rivers so clearly states what most Black people are seeking from this country, how these continuing crimes against them make so many of them feel, and why they must continue the protests.)

Sports are unique in attracting people from disparate backgrounds, so I’m hopeful that the athletes’ plans for sustained action and discussion will channel the anger productively and move us forward toward significant societal improvements.

At the same time, athletes are seeking to make change by facilitating voting. LeBron James created an organization called More Than a Vote to overcome voter suppression. That organization is working with the LA Dodgers and Detroit Pistons to turn their stadium into a massive voting site. James is also encouraging young people to volunteer for training as poll watchers.

And, I just learned, to date at least 12 other professional sports teams (football, baseball, basketball, and hockey) will be opening their stadiums to facilitate “fast, safe, and socially distanced voting.” Expectations of the Election Super Centers Project, which is nonpartisan, are that the number will continue to rise, surpassing 25 and including university and college arenas as well.

The players’ boycotts and their emphasis on voting are two positive, nonviolent approaches to combating the dreadful deadly actions we’ve seen by too many police officers. We must confront as well the growth of overt white supremacy in our country. Regrettably, there appears to be some evidence that those two trends are linked. But that’s a story for another day.

This is a story of the growing numbers of sports figures who are turning their own pain into demonstrations of the ways our country must move if we are to get closer to the equity and racial justice that should be every Americans’ birthright.

It is now 57 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. How much longer must it take for us to finally get this right?


Continue reading “Will Sports Figures Help Us Break Through the Hatred?”

Policing Covid-19: Managing Risk During the Lockdown | Doctorate

Note from Annie:

In my efforts to find some positive ways to address the painful gap between the police and the people they serve, I came across this report written by my fellow blogger Matthew Richardson, whom I know as a gifted short story writer and poet. As he notes, he was asked by the Scottish Institute for Policing Research to do the following report. If you follow the links, you’ll find some very interesting concepts such as “policing by consent.” (!)

When I asked Matthew to tell me how he thinks police-community relations are now, he said: “…we have a long way to go in the UK until we are a truly representative service (there were only 11 officers self-describing as Gypsy/Traveller in 2017 in Police Scotland for example), and other BAME groups are similarly underrepresented. It is also only a short time since the Met police were described as ‘institutionally racist’ in the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, and some would argue that lessons have not been learned from incidents such as these.

I would argue that progress has been made since these days, but we still have a long, long way to go. Listening, the inclusion of BAME groups in training, and increased recruitment of individuals from these groups are certainly places to start. From my experience in the states, culturally we are miles apart. I can remember going to a big academic policing conference in 2017 where me and one other UK officer were the only ones not carrying a firearm – a totally bizarre experience for me! I’m really hopeful that my research will do its small bit in helping to improve service delivery for Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller groups in Scotland.”

Matthew Richardson

Morning folks,

I’ve been asked by the Scottish Institute for Policing Research to write a little piece about additional considerations during the Covid-19 pandemic. From engagement to explaining, to custody suites and Coronavirus legislation, I’ve tried to squeeze as much into 800 words as I could. I also discuss the impact Covid-19 has had on some of Scotland’s most vulnerable people and communities such as domestic abuse victims and Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller groups.

View original post 74 more words

The Gremlins Are Really After Me…


Esper: US Continues to deploy. Image courtesy of centcom.mil.

Earlier, you received a post from me titled “An Update on My Lost R-A-N-T, Plus Some Positive Stuff.” But all that was shown was the photo above.  (Two of you even liked it; that was very generous!)

Here’s what happened: After losing my post last week, I followed the instructions from the WP Happiness Engineer (HE, for short, which is gender-neutral).

I saved the post that was supposed to appear this morning under the above title in my Administrator, so there would be a history, HE said. I then moved it to Publish and scheduled the publication for 10:45 AM today.

But I decided to add the photo you saw there–and above–in the morning. Once I’d done that, all my text and images disappeared, just as they had last week.

They’re not in the Administrator file either. I sent out another SOS to the HEs and cancelled the publication altogether–to save myself the embarrassment of an empty post appearing.

But the Gremlins are apparently merciless. Or perhaps the subject of my rant has reached into the inner recesses of WP? Nah, I won’t allow myself to dwell on a conspiracy theory. So I went back to work. I hope this post reaches you intact.


My initial R-A-N-T was in response to the President’s actions. You’ve now probably read about those particulars in so many places that I see no need to repeat them.

I have a continuing struggle between my pursuit of lovingkindness and my reactions to current events. So I’m going to keep this R-A-N-T as brief as I can. (For me, this is brief…)

When Trump foolishly pulled the US out of the carefully crafted Iran nuclear deal—which by all accounts was working and during which no Americans were attacked—he set in motion events that now make us and many others much less safe. 

At this moment, the disastrous war that came close to erupting seems to have been averted because the Iranians—never known for their moderation—made it possible for the President to back away, at least temporarily.

But here are the things that trouble me the most:

*Iran is now a little more than two years away from making an atomic bomb, whereas we had a fifteen-year window under the peace accords.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who was instrumental in securing that treaty, said in an Op-Ed:

“The tragedy of our current plight is that diplomacy was succeeding before it was abandoned.”

I don’t see how we get Iran back to the table. 

*We will be forced out of Iraq under terms not our own, giving Iran free rein in the area and providing ISIS with an uncontested field in which to regroup.

*The President’s threats to destroy cultural sites in Iran, if carried out, would have been a war crime; even raising the issue makes us appear to the world on this point as comparable to the Taliban, ISIS, and al Qaeda, which have committed such acts in Afghanistan and Syria.

*The President’s claim during his press conference that the Iranian attack was paid for by money former President Obama “gave” them is a blatant lie.

The truth is that as part of the agreement to get Iran to sign onto the nuclear control pact, the US released Iranian assets we had been holding. It was Iran’s money—not ours.

*Most poignantly, there have long been signs that many of the Iranian people, who include a substantial educated middle class, are actually pro-American.

They have been suffering under Iran’s weak economy and harsh leadership, and there have been growing protests in the streets very recently.

But Trump’s actions have united the Iranians in a way that nothing else could. “Death to America” has replaced those hopeful signs.

And now we must demand that these questions be answered:

–Why was the decision to kill Qasem Suleimani made? Where is the proof of the claims of a plot that had to be disrupted with this assassination?

The Administration’s Congressional briefing was met with bipartisan outrage due to the confusion, lack of details, and unwillingness to answer questions.

–Who were the deciders?

There have been reports that both Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence had the President’s ear. (See John Cassidy’s New Yorker article.)

And both men have described their opposition to Iran with apparent religious zealotry, as this New Republic article describes.

–What does that tell us about the possible rationale for this decision?

If US foreign policy is being guided by people enacting their over-the-top religious convictions, is our fragile democracy even further endangered than it’s been by Trump’s disregard for law and belief that Article 2 of the Constitution allows him to do whatever he pleases?

— Why should we believe that Americans are safer as a result—as both the President and Secretary Pompeo have claimed?

–And how can our increasingly isolated country counter all the trouble spots that are sure to sprout up worldwide? 

*     *      *   *    *

Having finished my R-A-N-T,  I’m switching gears here because I’m determined to try to remain positive as the new year and new decade dawn, even as our surroundings have turned darker. So please accompany me as I discuss some really valuable forces for good that I’m involving myself in during this year.

WORLD WAR ZERO  (to combat Climate Change)

Image courtesy of Conference of the Parties 2009-2017.stat.gov.

This is an ambitious effort by a bipartisan coalition of notables to bring the urgency of climate change to the fore and seek consensus and meaningful solutions as the clock keeps ticking.

Former Secretary of State/US Senator John Kerry has brought together more than 60 founding members, who include former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter (bless his heart—the man keeps going), former Republican Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Kasich, and from the “glitterati”: Leonardo diCaprio, Ashton Kutcher, and Sting, among others.

According to The New York Times,

“The name, World War Zero, is supposed to evoke both the national security threat posed by the earth’s warming and the type of wartime mobilization that Mr. Kerry argued would be needed to stop the rise in carbon emissions before 2050.”

The hope is that this diverse group will succeed in bringing along skeptics.

In the US, they plan to hold town meetings—including in the battleground states that are central to the 2020 election.

They’ll also go to military bases, where climate change isn’t often discussed, “and to economically depressed areas that members say could benefit from clean energy jobs.”

To draw people with diverse viewpoints, the group has declined to state a position about the various approaches that might be used.

Katie Elder, who founded The Future Coalition, a network for organizations led by young people that organized climate strikes in September, supports the Green New Deal. But, she says,

“While I may be disagreeing with some of the things that other folks involved in World War Zero believe, that doesn’t mean we can’t work together. Collaboration is our key to survival.”

ALL ON THE LINE (to end gerrymandering and ensure fair elections)

Former Attorney General Eric Holder, former President Barack Obama, image courtesy of obamawhitehouse.archives.gov.

Former President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder formed this group with a sense of urgency to make our electoral map align with our electorate. One person; one vote. Not too radical, right?

Here’s how they describe their efforts:

“We’re on a mission to end gerrymandering because it contributes to the polarization and dysfunction in our political system. It’s time to end map manipulation and finally have fair districts.”

“Whether you care about providing access to affordable health care, reducing the gun violence that plagues our schools and communities, protecting voting rights, achieving equal pay, or solving the urgent threat of climate change, there is a fundamental structural barrier that prevents progress: rigged electoral maps drawn with surgical precision by politicians to preserve their party’s political power and silence the will of the people.

The efforts are focused on key states where they feel they can make a difference: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Although the organization may sound partisan, it is devoted to ending gerrymandering wherever it exists.

And with the Census in 2020 leading to redistricting in 2021, when Census data is used to draw new congressional and state legislative district maps, they issue this clarion call: 

“The time to act is now. The next decade of our nation’s politics and progress is on the line and we need you on the front lines.”

APOPO (to save lives and limbs worldwide)

HeroRAT rewarded. Commons.wikimedia.org

This organization is new to me, but it’s become dear to my heart. I’ve written about my late friend Peter, who expanded my vision in a number of ways. One of them was to appreciate the intelligence and value of rats.

Before Peter died in November, he had asked that donations be made in his memory to Apopo.org. I was very pleased to do so, especially after perusing their website.

Apopos are African giant pouched rats that are trained to detect buried landmines. These potential killer detritus of wars exist in 60 countries.

Landmines not only kill or maim civilians—47% of them children in 2017—they also interfere with the development of fertile land in vulnerable communities.

It takes nine months to train a rat, which wears a little harness as it goes sniffing into the fields. The rats are too light to set off the landmines, but they are able to discern what is a land mine and what is nonexplosive metal—and they can do so faster than metal detectors.

These rats are also trained to detect tuberculosis that has gone undiagnosed, thereby facilitating treatment and saving lives in yet another way. That’s why they’re called HeroRATS.

The website is inspiring and poignant. I had to stop myself from spending so much time gazing at the photos and reading the stories.

These three organizations are new ways to help me feel empowered to do a little good amid the gloom of our political scene and heightened international tensions. (They are in addition to political involvement and other organizations I’ve long supported.)

What are your views about any of the above? Anything you’d like to note about how you are navigating this new decade, with its dangers and possibilities?


Can I Really Get My Arms Around This Animal?


It’s time we talked about octopuses. I hear you saying: “Annie-the-English-major: Don’t you mean octopi?” That’s the first misconception we must clarify right away. All those years we’ve been talking about octopi? We’ve been wrong. Well, not everyone agrees, but here’s what the Oxford Dictionaries say:

“The standard plural in English of octopus is octopuses. However, the word octopus comes from the Greek, and the Greek plural octopodes is still occasionally used. The plural form octopi, formed according to rules for some Latin plurals, is incorrect.”

So I’m taking the strictly classical position; I dare not intermingle Greek and Latin grammar.

It’s possible, of course, that your more pressing question is: Why is it time we talked about octopuses? I shall explain.

A few months ago, I was at a dinner party where the host had made paella. I’d never eaten scungilli or squid—they simply didn’t appeal to me. But there I was, faced with a plate in which the tell-tale rings were abundant. I generously transferred them from my plate to that of a friend who was eager for this gift.

Shortly before that dinner party, I’d heard a discussion about octopuses—how incredibly intelligent and social they are—how those in aquariums form bonds with their trainers and wend their way to that side of the tank. Not squid, of course, but a relative thereof.

In fact, when a naturalist named Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus, was interviewed on WBGH Boston radio, her interviewer began his intro by saying:

“If you’re someone who likes to eat octopus, those days are over.”

He said he’d refrained from eating octopuses just since reading her book. You can disagree with that sentiment, and I’m sure many of you will, but it’s been attributed to enough people to make me think there’s a bit of mystery here.

Why all the fuss? Because these strange creatures—shape-shifting, color-changing invertebrates with 3 hearts and brains wrapped around their esophaguses—are highly intelligent beings that seem to form attractions with humans. Montgomery says her love for Athena, the octopus, began when Athena first sidled up to her in an aquarium. The intro to the interview with her described their first meeting:

“Athena, an octopus toddler living in the New England Aquarium, locked eyes with the New Hampshire native, and without hesitation, Sy plunged her hand into an ice cold marine tank to allow the curious cephalopod to taste her skin. Octopuses, it turns out, taste with their suckers, and as Athena carefully explored Montgomery’s outstretched arms with her own, the writer felt they were both seeking, and connecting, alien skin to alien skin. Or, as we discovered, brain to brain.”

Keep that last thought in mind, as we’ll return to it.

Let’s explore the intelligence aspect a little further. A 2015 article in Nature, reporting on the sequencing of the octopus genome, began:

“With its eight prehensile arms lined with suckers, camera-like eyes, elaborate repertoire of camouflage tricks and spooky intelligence, the octopus is like no other creature on Earth. Added to those distinctions is an unusually large genome…that helps to explain how a mere mollusk evolved into an otherworldly being.” 

We’re talking about real brain power here. The Nature article quotes Benny Hochner, an Israeli neurobiologist who’s been studying octopuses for decades. “It’s important for us to know the genome, because it gives us insights into how the sophisticated cognitive skills of octopuses evolved.” 

What have they learned? That the genome of an octopus is nearly as large as ours, and actually has more protein-coding genes than we do: about 33,000, while we have fewer than 25,000. And the gene groups include one (called the protocadherins) involved in the development of neurons and their interactions. 

Octopuses also have specific, highly expressed genes in certain tissues. The genes in their suckers, for example, appear comparable to those related to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and apparently give those suckers their exquisite ability to taste.images-28

This intelligence is associated with the octopuses’ roughly 500,000 neurons, of which as many as two-thirds are located in their arms, particularly their upper arms. Talk about multi-tasking!  They can be doing one thing while an arm or two move around exploring their environment. And their neurons seem to act without being attached to anything via long-range fibers, Nature observes—such as the spinal cord we vertebrates have. And…

“The genome contains systems that can allow tissues to rapidly modify proteins to change their function. Electrophysiologists had predicted that this could explain how octopuses adapt their neural-network properties to enable such extraordinary learning and memory capabilities.”

How does this intelligence manifest itself? For one thing, octopuses are veritable Houdinis. Aquarium personnel know you never turn your back on an octopus in a pail because the next time you look, he’ll be quietly walking down the hall.

They are strong enough to push open the lids of their tanks, and one reportedly took off and made his way from the aquarium back to the sea he’d once called home.  And because of their shape-shifting and lack of bones, a 100-pound octopus can squeeze through a hole the size of an orange, says Montgomery.

They seem to welcome what can only be called mental stimulation. Montgomery speaks of an “Enrichment Manual” that advises aquarium personnel to give them Mr. Potato Heads, Legos, and the like. One inventor created a series of cubes made of plexiglass containing a crab. Each of the three cubes had a different lock; the third had 2 different locks. The octopus opened them all.

They appear to be playful. Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith became fascinated by them when he was scuba diving off the coast of Australia. He has written a book  describing how octopuses have led him to explore the nature of consciousness. 

In an interview, Tentacled Alien From Under the Sea, he discusses octopuses in captivity turning out the lights in the lab by squirting water on the fixtures. And they demonstrably behave differently to people who treat them kindly than to those who aren’t as nice, perhaps even forming likes and dislikes for reasons that aren’t evident. 

The interviewer asked Godfrey-Smith whether when an octopus grabs your hand and sucks on you, is it tasting you? Godfrey-Smith responded:

“That’s what they are doing…so octopuses will reach out an arm and their suckers  will attach and touch you. All of those suckers contain a variety of sensory organs but in particular they can taste everything they touch.”

“If you’re in an aquarium and you’ve used particular soaps or deodorants, those are extremely strong stimuli when an octopus touches you and will make a big difference as to how you come across to them. This is one of several ways in which their sensory world is just completely extraordinary.”

Montgomery reported about one octopus, Truman, that sprayed a young aquarium worker in the face with water whenever she came into view—the only one who got that treatment. And when she’d been gone for months, and then returned, Truman greeted her with the same tactic—clearly remembering who she was. images-30

Montgomery has reportedly expressed her “surprise that octopuses have personalities and even consciousness—and some of the same cognitive and emotional capacities that we do and maybe a whole bunch we don’t.”

An octopus in a New Zealand aquarium takes pictures of the people who come to see him. In only three tries, he figured out how to work the camera, and he springs to action when he sees people positioned against a white backdrop, placing one of his arms into a tube and  snapping the photo.

The octopus learns in the wild that it’s kill or be killed, and it has a panoply of options when faced with a potentially dangerous situation.  Montgomery mentioned its weaponry:  Eat the predator using its sharp beak? Envelop it?  Turn colors, either to confuse it or blend into the environment?  Pour its “baggy boneless body down a little crack?” Shoot out ink to give it time to escape? 

The octopus meets up with diverse animals with different brains, she says, and outwits them all.

For additional videos, see “Octopuses keep surprising us—here are eight examples how.”

Now we come to the somewhat hypothethetical and, to me, most fascinating part. Because they are so clever, so resourceful, and so very odd, more than one scientist studying octopuses has said some variation of the following:

“This is probably the closest we’ll come to meeting an intelligent alien.“

How did it all happen? No one knows for sure, of course, but one “big idea” (in Godfrey-Smith’s phrase) is that there was a common ancestor between the octopus and vertebrates about 600 million years ago, and two individual evolutionary experiments occurred involving large neuron systems and complex brains.

If octopuses are so intelligent and always eager to escape, the question then arises: is it fair for us to keep them in aquariums? Montgomery thinks it’s fair, because most octopus species in the wild spend the preponderance of their time in tight dens, but they need things to keep them interested and to stimulate their brains. She wouldn’t, she says, think such environment suitable to dolphins, for example.

In addition, octopuses are the subject of study for soft robotics, among other things.

But to our point today, octopuses and individual humans have definitely formed bonds. Montgomery says of her experience:

“I wanted to see if I could reach across the evolutionary chasm to touch an invertebrate from 1/2 billion years ago. It changed my way of thinking about thinking. Their brains evolved from an utterly different route. They’re each individuals.”

Did Athena trust you?, she was asked of her first encounter with an octopus. “There’s no telling–with people either. Maybe she could taste that I wasn’t afraid of her. Maybe she could taste emotions—through neurotransmitters or hormones.”

“Either way, we liked each other very much.”

What do you think? If you’re an octopus connoisseur, are you rethinking your position? How eager would you be to be “hugged and kissed” by an octopus? Do you agree with Montgomery that they’re OK in captivity–or not? Do you find octopuses as fascinating as I do?

As always, I welcome your thoughts, opinions, and stories in the comment box below—as well as your feedback in the form of stars (from the one on the left for “awful” to the one on the right for “excellent”) and the “likes” from WordPress folks.  Thanks so much.