Friday, October 24, 2014

EDUCATION - University of North Carolina Bogus Classes

aka "How to Create Truly Dumb College Jocks"

"Why did no one flag UNC’s bogus classes?" PBS NewsHour 10/23/2014

Excerpt

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  For many years, the University of North Carolina has been a powerhouse in the world of college sports, enhanced by a reputation as an institution which cultivates student athletes.

But, yesterday, an independent investigator provided the most detailed look yet at academic fraud that lasted for nearly two decades and included bogus classes where students didn’t even need to show up.

Earlier this year, the HBO program Real Sports examined what was happening there.

Here’s an excerpt.

The correspondent is Bernard Goldberg.

BERNARD GOLDBERG, HBO Real Sports:  At the University of North Carolina, learning specialist Mary Willingham was baffled by what she was seeing from the athletes arriving at one of America’s most prestigious schools.

MARY WILLINGHAM:  They’re coming in with reading levels of fourth, fifth, sixth grade.  There’s even some who are reading below a fourth grade level.

BERNARD GOLDBERG:  You are saying that some kids who are admitted to the University of North Carolina, one of the best public colleges in America, with a fourth grade or even in some cases lower than a fourth grade reading level?

MARY WILLINGHAM:  That’s correct.  Makes it pretty hard to go to college, doesn’t it?

BERNARD GOLDBERG:  You would think.  And for many years, the NCAA had a rule to help ensure incoming athletes could handle college work, requiring them to score a certain level on standardized tests, like the SAT or the ACT.

But in 2003, that rule was revoked.  Colleges could now put athletes on the football field or basketball court no matter how they did on the tests.  And, soon, the term college education began to take on a whole new meaning.

Duh?  The NCAA needs to reinstate the 'level on standardized test' rule.

JOURNALISM - Reporting in Syria

"The obstacles and dangers of reporting on Syria" PBS NewsHour 10/23/2014

Excerpt

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Now to covering a horrific conflict in the world’s most dangerous country for journalists and the limitations that’s placing on what the world finds out about.

Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  Joining me now to discuss the dangers of covering Syria and how it impacts our understanding of the conflict is veteran international correspondent Deborah Amos.  She has been reporting on the Syrian civil war since its beginning in 2001 for NPR.  And John Daniszewski, the senior managing editor for international news at the Associated Press.

The PBS NewsHour is a subscriber to the AP.

Deborah, I want to start with you.  You have covered this conflict and you have covered the region for quite some time.  How difficult is it to cover Syria vs. anywhere else in the region?

DEBORAH AMOS, NPR:  Oh, it’s very, very tough.  And it has gotten tougher over time.

You are up against two problems.  One is the so-called Islamic State.  They will kill you if you cross the border and they catch you.  And then you have the Assad government that restricts visas.  Right now, there are no visas for U.S.-based correspondents, people who hold U.S. passports.

And they have an army that makes sure that you cannot come into the country.  So the problem is, you have two main groups who do not want you to be there and have it in their power to keep you out.  It is dangerous not only inside Syria now, but also on the border.

My last reporting trip, for the first time ever in my career, I wasn’t allowed to say where I was, because I was there for three-and-a-half weeks, and it was considered by my company that it was dangerous to say.  And that has now become a policy.  It is very unusual to do that.

A shroud to hide truth.

CANADA - Ottawa Shootings

"Rare shooting in Ottawa prompts questions about shooter" PBS NewsHour 10/22/2014

Excerpt

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Campbell Clark is chief political writer for The Globe and Mail newspaper.

I spoke to him a short time ago about the surprising attack in Canada’s capital.

[missing audio]

CAMPBELL CLARK, The Globe and Mail:  Half-hour, hour, we have been hearing reports about who the shooter may have been.  At least, there has been a name reported, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau.  But we don’t know too much about him yet.

In fact, a lot of it is speculation.  There is now though some suspicion that this is somebody who was probably inspired by sort of Islamist ideology and ISIL.  That’s not confirmed, and the police certainly haven’t confirmed the identity yet.

GWEN IFILL:  Well, let’s get back to what we do know about what happened today.  There is a definite connection as far as we know between what happened at the war memorial and what happened at the Parliament; is that correct?

CAMPBELL CLARK:  That’s correct, yes.

Now, there was somebody who was shot and killed at the war memorial, and then just a few minutes away at the Parliament buildings, there were shootings a few minutes later.  It’s not clear if there was one shooter, two shooters, three shooters, but it appears that the person who did the shooting at the war memorial then ran towards the Parliament buildings.

There was a shooter.  The person who was shot and killed was shot dead in the Parliament buildings, right in the main Hall of Honor, they call it in the Parliament buildings.  So, you walk in the front door of the Parliament of Canada, and just down that hall, that is where…

HEALTH - Think Ebola is Scary, There Are Others

"Ebola sounds scary, but these diseases are the real health threat" PBS NewsHour 10/22/2014

Excerpt

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  The government’s latest steps illustrate again just how much anxiety remains about the prospect of Ebola’s spread.  But as public health officials continue to emphasize, the real risk to most Americans remains small.

In fact, there are a number of other illnesses that continue to pose bigger threats.

We outlined some of those concerns online, and it attracted a great deal of public interest.  So we decided to provide that context on our broadcast as well.

Hari Sreenivasan recorded this conversation in our New York studios.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  We get more information and perspective on this now from Dr. William Schaffner.  He is an infectious disease expert joining us from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

So, first off, there were quite a few cases that we heard out just a few months ago about Enterovirus D68.  This is something that was discovered in the ’60s, but this is really first outbreak that we have had.

DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER, Vanderbilt University Medical Center:  Yes, Hari, it’s a very large outbreak.  It’s run across the entire country.

Children, many of them, have been affected.  And, of course, there are some children who had difficulty breathing and asthma attacks.  And now there’s even the question about whether this virus is capable of producing a paralytic illness.  That’s still under investigation.  But that was a big surprise that came upon us, yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  OK.

And then something that we thought was long gone, measles, we have kind of seen a reemergence of measles, almost 600 cases this year.

DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER:  Yes.  Can you imagine that?

And that’s because there’s still measles out in the world, but our parents, many of them, are withholding their children from vaccination.  And so when someone from — with measles comes into this country, it can spread among our own children, causing a whole lot of illness, illness that we thought was long gone.

And, actually, you know, before we had measles vaccine, measles caused 400 to 500 deaths of our children each year.  We’re letting down our guard a little bit there.

WAR ON ISIS - The Digital Front

aka "As Satin Spreads His Talons"

"State Department faces criticism in uphill social media war against Islamic State group" PBS NewsHour 10/22/2014

Excerpt

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Late yesterday, word came that three teenage girls from the Denver area were detained over the weekend in Germany by American authorities.  Their disappearance raised fears they were on their way to Syria to join the Islamic State group.

That’s because the militants have been luring recruits from around the world with a sophisticated Web-based media operation, a program the U.S. government is now targeting.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner has the story.

And a warning:   It contains some graphic images.

MARGARET WARNER (NewsHour):  The Islamic State group’s sweeping land grabs across Syria and Iraq this year have been matched by an online onslaught as well.  The group posts videos documenting its brutality, the killings of soldiers, journalists, aid workers and citizens, and touting its military victories.

This one yesterday showed U.S. military equipment airdropped Sunday to Kurds fighting I.S. in the Syrian town of Kobani, but captured by the jihadis.  Other postings offer idyllic visions of the so-called Islamic caliphate that the group aims to build across the Middle East.

MAN:  You have to be here to understand what I’m saying.

MARGARET WARNER:  Many are in English aimed at potential recruits well beyond the war zone.  The U.S. government views this campaign as a major threat, as the then-chief of the National Counterterrorism Center Matthew Olsen, recently made clear.

MATTHEW OLSEN, Former Director, National Counterterrorism Center:  ISIL disseminates timely and high-quality media content on multiple platforms, including on social media, all designed to secure a widespread following for the group.

HEALTH - Breakthourgh in Cell Transplants for Paralytics

"Paralyzed man walks after transplanted cells repair his spine" PBS NewsHour 10/21/2014

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  A Bulgarian man who was paralyzed from the chest down after a 2010 stabbing can now walk after a pioneering transplant in Poland.  Cells from the man’s nose were used to repair his spinal nerves in a surgery that gives thousands of paralytics new hope for movement.  Alex Thompson of Independent Television News has the report.

WALL STREET - Zombie Startups?

"When to pull the plug on a dying startup company" PBS NewsHour 10/21/2014

Excerpt

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Behind all the blockbuster success stories out of Silicon Valley, there are scores of ideas that just don’t make it.  And some die a pretty slow death.

Special correspondent Steve Goldbloom has our story.

ACTOR:  We have got a great name, we have got a great team, we have got a great logo, and we have got a great name.  Now we just need an idea.  Let’s pivot.

STEVE GOLDBLOOM (NewsHour):  HBO’s comedy “Silicon Valley” lampoons start-up culture in the Bay Area.  But for those working in the tech scene, it’s like art imitating life.  In other words, people really do talk that way.

WOMAN:  Pivot is a great one.

NITASHA TIKU, Valleywag:  Killing it, crushing it.

WOMAN:  Disrupt is the classic one.

NITASHA TIKU:  Rock stars, ninjas, Jedi.

GARY KREMEN, CapGain Solutions:  Lean in.  Bail fast.

NITASHA TIKU:  Growth hacker, which is actually just marketing.

JACOB MULLINS, Exitround:  I think it’s “The Social Network” movie that over-romanticized how easy it is for college students to become a hundred-billion-dollar company.

POLITICS - Bob Dole to Lawmakers, Get It Together

Note that Bob Dole was from the era when politicians were interested in governance, which is totally different from today's politicians who are interested only on forcing their agenda on U.S. citizens.  There is NO real bipartisanship today.

"Former GOP leader Bob Dole tells lawmakers to ‘get together’" PBS NewsHour 10/20/2014

Excerpt

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Senator Bob Dole, thank you for talking with us.

FORMER SEN. BOB DOLE, (R) Kansas:  Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  You are 91 years young.  You have led a remarkable life after those terrible injuries you suffered in World War II.  You have gone on to be a very busy man.  How are you doing today?

BOB DOLE:  Doing great.

I’m in great shape.  And I keep busy, which is important.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And you have been gone — as I understand, nine trips to Kansas this year?

BOB DOLE:  Nine trips, and we have been in 96 of the 105 counties.

We don’t have any agenda.  It’s just a thank you tour to thank the people for voting for me five times in the U.S. Senate.  Now, many in the audience aren’t old enough to have voted for me five times.  So you meet a lot of new friends.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  You have talked a lot about how Democrats and Republicans worked together to do important things.

But you have also talked about the Senate doesn’t work that way anymore.  How much do you think it has changed?  How different is it today?

BOB DOLE:  Well, it’s hard to criticize the Senate, when I was there for 28 years, but it does seem to be more confrontational, not as much bipartisanship.

I go back to the time when Ronald Reagan told me one day, he said, Bob, I’m going to send this legislation to Congress, and I want 100 percent.  And then he said with that little twinkle in his eye, well, if you can’t get me a 100, get me 70, and I will get the rest next year.

So, he believed in compromise and working together.  And I just don’t see much of that now.

TECHNOLOGY - Apple Pay and Others

Ya...  Sure...  With all the hacking of smartphones, banking sites, stores, and more lets, add another easy way to steal your money.  If you use these apps, you better not loose your phone.

"Will Apple Pay phase out the wallet?" PBS NewsHour 10/20/2014

Excerpt

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  If you happen to be one of the millions who bought a new Apple iPhone in recent weeks, or you are waiting for your upgrade to arrive, you may feel like your wallet is getting a little lighter, and not just because of the price of the phone.

In an era of electronic payments, technology is turning the wallet in your pocket digital.

Hari Sreenivasan has our conversation, recorded in our New York studios.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  Paying for something with your phone isn’t necessarily a new idea.  I have been using mine to pay for cabs for the past year.  But, today, Apple launches its mobile payment platform called Apple Pay.

And here to help us understand how the arrival of Apple into this arena changes the game is Arik Hesseldahl, a senior editor at technology news site Re/code.

So, why is it a big deal that Apple decides to do something that Google has been doing for a while?

ARIK HESSELDAHL, Re/code:  Well, partially because, with the Google experience, it has been inconsistent.  There has been a lot of resistance from the carriers.

For instance, Verizon has its own payment plans and has resisted Google’s infrastructure, Google’s plan.  And so it has been an inconsistent and an uneven experience on the Google platform.  With apple, we have a completely unified experience.

Apple has also — it’s been a lumbering giant in payments for a long time.  There are more credit card accounts associated in the iTunes infrastructure than on Amazon or PayPal.  And so it has only been a matter of time for the technology to come and the experience to show up and make it easy for consumers to use.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So besides Apple and Google, you also hear Wal-Mart and PayPal.  All these people are getting into this arena.  Why is it so important for them to control the actual transaction?  What do they get out of it?

ARIK HESSELDAHL:  There’s a lot of money.

They are multibillion-dollar businesses.  First Data is one and there are numerous other payment processors build multibillion-dollar business on essentially pennies and fractions of pennies.  There is always money to be made on the swipe of a card or in this case now the wave of a phone.

MIDDLE EAST - Borders Will Change

"Israel's Defense Minister:  Mideast Borders 'Absolutely' Will Change" by NPR Staff, NPR 10/23/2014

Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon is known for his blunt manner, and in an interview with NPR, he says a future map of the Middle East will look very different from the one that exists today.

The borders of many Arab states were drawn up by Westerners a century ago, and wars in recent years show that a number of them are doomed to break apart, according to Ya'alon, a career soldier who became Israel's defense minister last year.

"We have to distinguish between countries like Egypt, with their history.  Egypt will stay Egypt," Ya'alon, who is on a visit to Washington, tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep.

In contrast, Ya'alon says, "Libya was a new creation, a Western creation as a result of World War I.  Syria, Iraq, the same — artificial nation-states — and what we see now is a collapse of this Western idea."

Asked if Middle Eastern borders are likely to change in the coming years, Ya'alon says:  "Yes, absolutely.  It has been changed already.  Can you unify Syria?  [President] Bashar al-Assad is controlling only 25 percent of the Syrian territory.  We have to deal with it."

On another key question facing the region, Ya'alon says he is deeply skeptical of a proposed deal between the international community and Iran on its nuclear program.  He says that even if an agreement is reached, he thinks Iran is likely to break it.

"No deal is better than a bad deal," Ya'alon says.

Ya'alon spoke with Inskeep about: realignment of the Middle East post-Arab spring and the spread of ISIS; Iran nuclear negotiations; the recent war in Gaza; and Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Interview Highlights

STEVE INSKEEP:  Your government's broad skepticism about the U.S. and other nations negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program is well-known, but I wonder if you have a concern on an even deeper level.  Do you believe that any worthwhile agreement with this Iranian government can be made?

MOSHE YA'ALON:  Depends which agreement.  With our experience, agreements which are not backed by interests are not surviving.

STEVE INSKEEP:  You're saying if countries' interests do not mesh, any agreement they make is worthless.

MOSHE YA'ALON:  Yeah, because they can sign agreements and violate it.  Fatah violated the Oslo Accord on the day, the first day of the implementation, but let's leave it alone.  I have many examples.

Nevertheless, what is a mistake now is regarding the negotiations with the Iranian regime.  Let's leave alone the military nuclear project.  What about terror activities?  What about their activities to undermine moderate regimes?  This is not discussed at all.

What is discussed now the number of the centrifuges that they should have.  Why should they have the indigenous capability to enrich uranium, which is a core element in their military nuclear project?  So what we claim regarding the current negotiations is that no deal is better than a bad deal. ...

STEVE INSKEEP:  Many people around the world criticized [the recent war in Gaza] for going too far.  But I know there was also another side of the debate within Israel that your government was criticized for not going deeper into Gaza, sending more troops, taking sharper measures.  Did you go as far as you wanted to go?

MOSHE YA'ALON:  Absolutely.  We knew exactly what we wanted to achieve, and we understood that if we go too far, a part forms a dilemma of cost and benefit.  No one was going to replace us.  Neither the Egyptians, nor Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], NATO, whatever.

STEVE INSKEEP:  Meaning if you wiped out Hamas, say, or knocked them out of control, no one would take charge.

MOSHE YA'ALON:  Yes, and so probably we were stuck.  So we prefer to reach cease-fire according to our terms. ...

STEVE INSKEEP:  Israel, of course, has been criticized because Israelis have settled in the West Bank.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when visiting the United States earlier this year, cast that as a question not of national or states' rights but of individual rights.  Why shouldn't Jews have the right to live where they want to live?  Why should they be barred, he was asking, from living in different places?  That it was an individual question.  If individual Jews, Israelis, have a right to move where they like on the West Bank, should individual Palestinians, including refugees, have the right to choose to move back to Israel

MOSHE YA'ALON:  The issue of refugees is very different.  We can't allow refugees to come back ...

STEVE INSKEEP:  But could they just say, "We're individuals.  We're coming back"?

MOSHE YA'ALON:  ... Otherwise it will keep the conflict forever.  Forever.  But when we talk about the right to live, we do not deny the right of Arabs to live everywhere in the land of Israel.  They enjoy political independence.  They have their own government.  They have their own parliament, municipalities.

And if we are talking about co-existence, what is better than to live together?  Enjoying, you know, our prosperity.  That was the case even in the Gaza Strip, when the Gazans enjoyed working in the Erez industrial zone or in the settlements, for their benefit.

Their insistence to clear the area from Jews, might call it ethnic cleansing.  We don't call to do it with Arabs, we don't want to uproot or transfer Arabs, why is it so acceptable regarding the Jews?

STEVE INSKEEP:  Well, I've heard that argument.  It's compelling.  You're arguing that Israelis move across into the West Bank, they bring money with them, they build, they may improve the economy.  My question is what if a group of Palestinians, from whatever direction, whether they claim refugee status or not, simply showed up at the Tel Aviv airport, showed up at a border crossing, and said, "We want to claim that same individual right, and we're ready to move into Israel"?

MOSHE YA'ALON:  They can go.  They can go to live in Nablus, they can go to live in Ramallah.

STEVE INSKEEP:  That's in the West Bank, but what if they want to live in Israel proper?

MOSHE YA'ALON:  No.  No.  In Israel, no way.  Otherwise, we are not going to solve the conflict, we are going to keep it to the end of the days.

THE SLEEZE FILES - One New York County and Toxic Tobacco Bonds

"How One New York County Fell Into the Tobacco Debt Trap" by Cezary Podkul, ProPublica 10/23/2014

Excerpt

As they met at The Shamus, a favorite local lunch spot, on a September day a year ago, Niagara County officials considered some good news.  Thanks to low interest rates, they might be able to refinance a big chunk of Niagara's tobacco bonds – debts payable from the county's share of a massive 1998 legal settlement with Big Tobacco.

Eager to lower costs by replacing the bonds with less-expensive debt, they decided to move ahead.  As a bonus, they figured the county could raise some new money for projects like fixing up Niagara's jail.

But when details of the transaction became public last month, the biggest winner wasn't Niagara County, which received $2 million from the deal, but investors of Oppenheimer Funds, a large mutual fund manager that held deeply distressed Niagara tobacco bonds that were last in line for repayment.

Oppenheimer investors got $6.9 million for the bonds, which had been expected to default.  That's more than triple the county's take and $5.1 million more than the value Oppenheimer carried on its books, according to data from Morningstar, which tracks mutual fund holdings.

Why did the last-in-line investors get a $5.1 million windfall while the county got a mere $2 million?

The answer lies in the shifting world of tobacco bonds, where big investors are pressing governments like Niagara to bail out bets that have turned bad, owing to a drop in smoking and a parallel decline in the settlement payments that underpin the bonds.

ProPublica reported earlier how states, territories and counties have exposed themselves to $64 billion in tobacco debt by selling $3 billion in high-risk securities called capital appreciation bonds, or CABs, as part of "securitization" deals that mortgaged their annual tobacco payments for immediate cash.

The CABs are particularly toxic because no payments are required until the bonds mature, usually in 40 or 50 years.  In the meantime, they pile up huge sums of interest owed – so much that Niagara and several other counties were told last year that some of their CABs would never pay off.

Niagara is the first county to engineer a bailout.  In March, New Jersey pledged $406 million from future tobacco settlement income to rescue CABs.  Oppenheimer has sued to block a refinancing plan in Rhode Island, and New York's Chautauqua County is pursuing a $34 million deal similar to Niagara's.

Wall Street has taken to calling these deals "investor-led refinancings," a label that invites questions about who's getting the most benefit — taxpayers or bondholders.

As Niagara's case demonstrates, money for the bailouts isn't free.  It comes from new debt deals, like refinancings, or from future tobacco payments that otherwise would flow to the governments.  That means taxpayers benefit less than they otherwise might, even when some upfront cash is thrown in.

"The banker who sold this deal to Niagara should be canonized," said Sylvain Raynes, co-head of credit research firm R&R Consulting, who reviewed the transaction at ProPublica's request.  Raynes was one of six experts who questioned the size of the payout to Oppenheimer given the firm's own low valuation of the bonds.

Niagara's banker, Susan Schmelzer of the investment firm Raymond James, declined to comment.  Oppenheimer also declined to comment or answer written questions.

Deals like Niagara's also challenge a major selling point for tobacco securitizations, which in the years following the legal settlement were pitched as a type of insurance to protect taxpayers.  The idea was that governments would secure money upfront while investors took the risk of payments shrinking over time.

Bailouts flip the calculus.  "There really wasn't any kind of a risk transfer," said Edward Grebeck, a Connecticut debt consultant.  At the end of the day, he said, bondholders "are coming to the party to take money which you would think the taxpayers of Niagara County would be entitled to."

Governments have no legal obligation to cut investors' losses.  The bonds are what's called "non-recourse" debt, meaning taxpayers aren't on the hook to repay them.  Bondholders are owed money only from the settlement, which is supposed to flow in perpetuity and so far has paid out $101 billion.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

WAR ON ISIS - Tunisia Sends the Most Fighters

aka "The Evil Spreads"

"New Freedoms in Tunisia Drive Support for ISIS" by DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, New York Times 10/21/2014

Nearly four years after the Arab Spring revolt, Tunisia remains its lone success as chaos engulfs much of the region.  But that is not its only distinction:  Tunisia has sent more foreign fighters than any other country to Iraq and Syria to join the extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State.

And throughout the working-class suburbs of the capital, young men are eager to talk about why.

“Don’t you see it as a source of pride?” challenged Sufian Abbas, 31, a student sitting at a street cafe in the densely packed Ettadhamen district with a half-dozen like-minded friends.

Tunisians have approved a new Constitution by a broad consensus, and a second free election is to take place this month.  The country has the advantage of one of the Arab world’s most educated and cosmopolitan populations, numbering just 11 million, and it has some of the most alluring Mediterranean beaches.

But instead of sapping the appeal of militant extremism, the new freedom that came with the Arab Spring revolt has allowed militants to preach and recruit more openly than ever before.  At the same time, many young Tunisians say that the new freedoms and elections have done little to improve their daily lives, create jobs or rein in a brutal police force that many here still refer to as “the ruler,” or, among ultraconservative Islamists, “the tyrant.”

Although Tunisia’s steps toward democracy have enabled young people to express their dissident views, impatience and skepticism have evidently led a disgruntled minority to embrace the Islamic State’s radically theocratic alternative.  Tunisian officials say that at least 2,400 Tunisians have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the group — other studies say as many as 3,000 — while thousands more have been blocked in the attempt.

“The Islamic State is a true caliphate, a system that is fair and just, where you don’t have to follow somebody’s orders because he is rich or powerful,” said Ahmed, a young supporter of the Islamic State who, like others interviewed, did not want to give his family name for fear of the police.  “It is action, not theory, and it will topple the whole game.”

While only a minority of Tunisians have expressed support for the militants, it seemed that everyone under 30 knew someone who had traveled to fight in Syria or Iraq, or someone who had died there.  In interviews at cafes in and around Ettadhamen, dozens of young unemployed or working-class men expressed support for the extremists or saw the appeal of joining their ranks — convinced that it could offer a higher standard of living, a chance to erase arbitrary borders that have divided the Arab world for a century, or perhaps even the fulfillment of Quranic prophecies that Armageddon will begin with a battle in Syria.

“There are lots of signs that the end will be soon, according to the Quran,” said Aymen, 24, who was relaxing with friends at another cafe.

Bilal, an office worker who was at another cafe, applauded the Islamic State as the divine vehicle that would finally undo the Arab borders drawn by Britain and France at the end of World War I.  “The division of the countries is European,” said Bilal, 27.  “We want to make the region a proper Islamic state, and Syria is where it will start.”

Mourad, 28, who said he held a master’s degree in technology but could find work only in construction, called the Islamic State the only hope for “social justice,” because he said it would absorb the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies and redistribute their wealth.  “It is the only way to give the people back their true rights, by giving the natural resources back to the people,” he said.  “It is an obligation for every Muslim.”

Many insisted that friends who had joined the Islamic State had sent back reports over the Internet of their homes, salaries and even wives.  “They live better than us!” said Walid, 24.

Wissam, 22, said a friend who left four months ago had told him that he was “leading a truly nice, comfortable life” under the Islamic State.

“I said:  ‘Are there some pretty girls?  Maybe I will go there and settle down,’ ” he recalled.

Leaders of Ennahda, the mainstream Islamist party that leads the Tunisian Parliament, said they had overestimated the power of democracy alone to tame violent extremism.  Said Ferjani, an Ennahda leader who has often cited his own evolution from youthful militancy to peaceful politics, said in an interview that he now believed economic development would be just as important.  “Without social development, I don’t think the democracy could survive,” he said.

He also acknowledged that in the afterglow of the revolution, Ennahda had put too much hope in winning over young extremists and too little emphasis on security measures to control them.  The Ennahda government “did not get the mix right,” Mr. Ferjani said.  “But since then, from our end, it is zero tolerance.”

Imen Triki, a lawyer at a nonprofit that has represented more than 70 returning Tunisians, described the thinking of many young ultraconservative Islamists, known as Salafis:  “If I am going to get arrested and beaten here anyway, I might as well go where I can have an impact.”

Tunisian officials say that as many as 400 Tunisians have returned from Syria or Iraq and that many have been arrested.  Lawyers who represent them say many testify that they were tricked into going.

Ms. Triki estimated that as many as 60 percent of those who come back profess disappointment at the strife between the Islamic State and its former partner, the Nusra Front, the Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rebel group.  “They never thought there would a fight between Muslims,” she said.  “They find that they have been deceived and sold like mercenaries.”

Charfeddine Hasni, 30, an information technology worker who said he backed the Islamic State, acknowledged that friends had returned dismayed.  “They thought it would be like joining the side of the Prophet Muhammad, but they found it was divided into these small groups with a lot of transgressions they did not expect, like forcing people to fight,” he said, recalling one friend killed by his own fellows in the Nusra Front.  “But they are not a real army, so they are hard to control, and these are personal mistakes,” he added.

Unemployed college graduates — a large group in Tunisia, where education is inexpensive but jobs remain scarce — are prime candidates for jihad, their friends and Tunisian analysts say.  But there are also accounts of affluent M.B.A. students or peasants going as well.  Almost all have now gravitated from other factions to join the Islamic State, according to their friends and the statements of Tunisian officials.

Some families approve.  Chiheb Eddine Chaouachi, 24, a medical student, said that both he and his family supported the decision of his brother Bilal, 29, a Salafi theologian, to move with his wife to the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, even though the brothers’ personal lifestyles differed widely.

“Sometimes I pray, and sometimes I don’t,” Chiheb Eddine said.  “I am very social.”  But, like many Tunisians whose practices sometimes seem to contradict their piety, he nonetheless said he hoped that the Islamic State would “win.”

“Maybe when the war is over, we will all be in an Islamic state, for all practicing Muslims, under Shariah,” he said with a shrug, adding that he had asked his brother directly about the Islamic State’s beheadings and other atrocities.  “He said, ‘Don’t believe it,’ and I trust my brother.”

Indeed, in dozens of conversations with young Tunisians, almost no one, whether sympathizers or critics, believed the news reports of the Islamic State’s mass killings or beheadings.  “It is made up,” echoed Amar Msalmi, 28, a taxi driver.  “All of this is manufactured in the West.”

All dismissed the existing Arab governments as corrupt and dictatorial, and all held a dim view of Ennahda.  Most struggled to name a credible Muslim institute or scholar uncorrupted by service to some earthly power.

But some noted that a dearth of scholars could also be another sign of the coming apocalypse, along with the declaration of a new caliphate.

“We have been told in the sayings of the Prophet that this is going to happen soon,” said Ahmed, one of the young men at a cafe.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

U.S. ELECTIONS - Cynical Attempt to Suppress Voting

"Why Voter ID Laws Aren’t Really about Fraud" by Sarah Childress, PBS Frontline 10/20/2014

Voters going to the polls in Texas starting this week will have to show one of a few specific forms of photo ID under a controversial new law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court over the weekend.

The Texas law — along with 15 other voter ID laws passed since 2010 — was billed as a way to prevent people from impersonating eligible voters at the polls.

But voter ID laws don’t address what appears to be a more common source of voter fraud:  mail-in absentee ballots.

A FRONTLINE analysis of voting laws nationwide found that only six of the 31 states that require ID at the polls apply those standards to absentee voters, who are generally whiter and older than in-person voters.  And two states with strict photo ID policies for in-person voters — Rhode Island and Georgia — have recently passed bills that allow anyone to mail in a ballot.

Voter fraud generally rarely happens.  When it does, election law experts say it happens more often through mail-in ballots than people impersonating eligible voters at the polls.  An analysis by News21, a journalism project at Arizona State University, found 28 cases of voter fraud convictions since 2000.  Of those, 14 percent involved absentee ballot fraud.  Voter impersonation, the form of fraud that voter ID laws are designed to prevent, made up only 3.6 percent of those cases.  (Other types included double voting, the most common form, at 25 percent, and felons voting when they were prohibited from doing so.  But neither of those would be prevented by voter ID laws, either.)

Mark Obenshain, a Republican Virginia state senator who was the primary sponsor of his state’s voter ID law, said that lawmakers tried to balance improving security with maintaining access to the ballot for elderly and disabled people.

“There are good arguments that there are gaps with absentee ballots,” he said.  “But the issue is, how can we close that gap without unduly burdening the right to vote?”  Obenshain said that these voters might not have access to a scanner or Xerox machine to make a copy of their ID.

And, because absentee ballots must be sent to a voter’s registered address, they are still relatively secure, Obenshain said.  “It doesn’t warrant making the voters jump through unnecessary hoops.”

Who Votes Absentee?

Absentee voters tend to be older and whiter than in-person voters.  In 2012, nearly half, or 46 percent, of mail-in voters were aged 60 and older, and more than 75 percent were white, according to an analysis by Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who tracks demographic trends in voting.  Older white Americans generally are more likely to vote Republican.

African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, are less likely to use mail-in ballots. Although they make up about 13 percent of the population, only 8 percent voted by mail in 2012.

Either way, most states — nine — of the 16 that have passed stricter voter ID laws since 2010 only allow voters to mail in ballots if they have an excuse, such as an illness, disability or old age.

Who Is Impacted by Voter ID Laws?

Laws that require photo ID at the polls vary, but the strictest laws limit the forms of acceptable documentation to only a handful of cards.  For example, in Texas, voters must show one of seven forms of state or federal-issue photo ID, with a valid expiration date:  A driver’s license, a personal ID card issued by the state, a concealed handgun license, a military ID, citizenship certificate, or a passport.  The name on the ID must exactly match the one on the voter rolls.

African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to lack one of these qualifying IDs, according to several estimates.  Even when the state offers a free photo ID, these voters, who are disproportionately low-income, may not be able to procure the underlying documents, such as a birth certificate, to obtain one.

In Texas, for example, challengers to the law cited an African-American grandmother who could not afford the $25 to purchase her birth certificate to get an ID, and an elderly African-American veteran and longtime voter who was turned away at the polls in 2013 despite having three types of ID, because none qualified under the new law.

And new research from the Government Accountability Office, an independent agency that prepares reports for members of Congress, suggests that voter ID laws are having an impact at the polls.  Turnout dropped among both young people and African-Americans in Kansas and Tennessee after new voter ID requirements took effect in 2012, the study found.

Six of the 16 states that have passed voter ID laws since 2010 have a documented history of discriminating against minority voters.  All but one of those states’ laws were put in place after the Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required them to seek approval from the Justice Department for any voting-law changes.

Courts have so far blocked three ID laws.  A state judge struck down Pennsylvania’s law earlier this year, determining that it discriminated against low-income and minority voters.  Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin’s from taking effect for this election, and last week, a state court declared Arkansas’ voter ID law unconstitutional.  Lawsuits are currently pending against similar laws in North Carolina and Alabama, though they won’t be decided before the November elections.

Voter ID laws have all been sponsored by Republicans and passed overwhelmingly by Republican legislatures.  A conservative U.S. circuit judge, Richard Posner, in a recent scathing critique of these laws, calling the expressed concern about fraud a “a mere fig leaf” and that they instead “appear to be aimed at limiting voting by minorities, particularly blacks.”

“There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud,” Posner wrote, “…and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.”

Obenshain, the Virginia senator, said his law wasn’t about keeping voters from the polls.  “There’s only one class of people who are going to be discouraged from voting, and that’s fraudulent voters.”

MEXICO - Rebirth of California Border Town

"The Rebirth of Tijuana" by SAM QUINONES, New York Times 10/17/2014

IN Tijuana the other day, I met a waitress named Mari.

Mari had left her home in Acapulco to cross illegally into the United States in 1999, but was deported three years ago to Tijuana.  It had been a long time since she had seen her mother, so she went home to visit.  But down in Acapulco, wages were low, work was scarce and violence was widespread.  Then men raped her on a beach one night.

Mari fled back to Tijuana.  Her waitress job, with tips, she told me, allows her to earn far more than she could scrape together in Acapulco, or in a Monterrey factory, where she worked for a time.  And, after several years of savage drug violence, there’s peace in Tijuana now.

“This is my land of opportunity,” she said.  “There’s more work here and it pays better.”

One reason I love Tijuana is that you can have this kind of conversation here.

Tijuana is not pretty.  A city of 1.3 million people, it is chaotic, grimy, unplanned, loud, and it smells bad.  It possesses none of the colonial architecture or history of Morelia, Oaxaca City or Zacatecas, across Mexico’s interior.  On the contrary, most of its neighborhoods, stacked across alarmingly steep hills, are less than 40 years old.

But Tijuana’s beauty lies deeper, and has to do with why the town is flourishing now.

Only a few decades ago, Tijuana was a blank slate, a small coastal outpost on the California border.  It had none of the old elites, family business groups bent on preserving their power and wealth.

Instead, it was folks beaten down by Mexico who came by the millions to, and often through, Tijuana.  Desperate and possessing only their own wits and capacity for work, they brought a dynamism that Mexico had stifled but Tijuana found use for.  Those who stayed found a new world and many moved up into the middle class in a lifetime.

It helped that Tijuana is the Mexican city farthest from Mexico City.  Tijuana tolerated far less of the desiccated pomp and protocol, the reverence for title, that has suffocated so many fine ideas and sharp minds in the capital, which is the center of the country in almost every way, good and bad.  To be far from Mexico City, particularly to the north, was once considered to be virtually not Mexican at all.  Federal bureaucrats from Mexico City for years only unwillingly left the center of power.  They were paid extra to go to Tijuana.  But that distance gave Tijuana oxygen.  There’s an old saying about Mexico:  So far from God, so close to the United States.  There’s some truth to that.  But the last few decades have shown that, for poor Mexicans, the truer riff is, “Farther from Mexico City, closer to God.”

Immigrants, fleeing north for decades, have demonstrated that.  So has Tijuana, which has been Mexico’s best domestic factory at turning the poor into the middle class.

Crucially, of course, the city is face-planted up against the United States.  Early in the town’s history, in fact, it was easier to get to Tijuana from San Diego than from elsewhere in Mexico, where the winding road from Mexicali took most cars a week.  Until several decades ago, Tijuana used dollars, not pesos.

Ties to the Southern California economy created so many new chances that a poor, ambitious guy couldn’t help but find something new to do with his life.  In Tijuana, risk-taking usually paid off.  Among the first to learn that were the yeseros — the plaster-statue makers.  They learned to shape plaster into everything from bulls to Mickey Mouse, and created an industry selling them to tourists.  The misbehavior of drunk and horny Americans was also an opportunity for someone looking for an angle, and many grabbed it.

But Tijuana drew more from the United States than the dollars of debauched American tourists.  Tijuanans had the graciousness to overlook tourists’ behavior as they peered north and glimpsed a different way of doing almost everything — art, business, government, education.

Today, the city has a deeper tradition of private giving than most in Mexico, where the central government discouraged philanthropy, seeing it as competition to its own power.  Listening to San Diego public broadcasting, and drawing from the example of nonprofit arts groups there, Tijuana’s middle classes have created one of Mexico’s most vibrant opera scenes.  They did this with very little government assistance — a rarity among Mexican arts groups.  Their Opera in the Street Festival attracts close to 10,000 people every July.  It takes place a few blocks from the wall between the two countries in Colonia Libertad, a vast neighborhood where the city’s human smuggling industry first took root and many houses have that sagging-wedding-cake look.

Tijuana does have a brutal, cynical side.  Rural folks fled their destitute villages in Mexico’s interior.  But in Tijuana, they were quickly mashed into an industrial work force, living in shantytowns without basic services such as sewers or drinking water, and doing tedious production-line work assembling goods for American consumers.

IN addition, Mexico’s corrupt political culture and American tourists’ taste for the forbidden allowed a sinister underworld to develop, trafficking people and substances to gringos.  For a while, this side of Tijuana strangled the city.

By 2007, the reigning Arellano Félix family’s drug cartel was disintegrating, and a fight for control ensued.  Bodies piled up.  Evil men emerged.  One’s nickname was El Muletas — Crutches — because he left people crippled.  Another cartel member was known as El Pozolero — the Soupmaker.  His job was to dissolve the corpses of rivals in a chemical soup; he admitted to liquefying some 300 bodies when he was captured in 2009.  Tijuana was paralyzed by curfews, kidnappings of doctors and dentists, and reports of mass slaughters.  American tourists ceased coming.  Many in the middle class fled.

But the medieval bloodshed receded in 2010, and since then the town’s open and effervescent essence has revived.

Most shops selling velvet paintings and naked-lady playing cards died after the Americans stopped coming.  But the tourist drag, Avenida Revolución, is now repopulating with daring restaurants, microbreweries, boutiques and art galleries.  They are owned by hipsters using the strip’s now cheap rents, and the confident risk-taking culture that Tijuana handed down to them, to cater to the local market of middle-class young people just like them.

Ecosystems of high-tech start-ups and avant-garde artists are emerging.  So, too, is a new generation of filmmakers, using Canon 60Ds to mine the documentary raw material the city offers.

Decades after rising from the coastal desert, Tijuana finally has something like a history.  More important, it has emerged from its darkest days to return to its roots as that rare place within Mexico where poor people like Mari can find refuge and a future.

Monday, October 20, 2014

GAS PRICES - Why the Drop?

"What’s behind the sudden drop in US gas prices?" PBS NewsHour 10/18/2014

Excerpt

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  As you no doubt know, gas prices have fallen sharply in recent weeks.  According to AAA, the average price of a gallon of regular was $3.52 in late July.   Now, less three months later, it’s $3.12.

For more, we are joined now by Isaac Arnsdorf.  He is an energy and commodities reporter with Bloomberg News.

So we’ve seen it decline a lot and sometimes there’s a lag between the price of oil and the price of gas.

So are we likely to see the price of gas go lower?

ISAAC ARNSDORF, Bloomberg News:  It could continue to tick down a little bit.  We are seeing oil prices start to stabilize, significantly lower than they were this summer, but it depends sort of where oil goes from now.  If oil continues to its freefall, really, or finds a floor around $80 a barrel.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And is it likely to last?

I mean, there are so many different factors that are pushing it down.

ISAAC ARNSDORF:  Absolutely.  We’ve got very soft demand globally and expanding supply from the U.S. and really all eyes are on OPEC now to see if they cut back supply or continue to add supply and let prices continue to fall.

KENTUCKY - Coal Country

Note that is what happens when ANY area/city becomes too dependent on one industry.

"Will Promise Zone initiative lift Eastern Kentucky’s coal country out of poverty?" PBS NewsHour 10/18/2014

Excerpt

NARRATOR:  In this south central mountain country, over a third of the population has faced chronic unemployment.

MEGAN THOMPSON (NewsHour):  For as long as anyone can remember, the coal country of Eastern Kentucky has struggled. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson came through here after he declared the War on Poverty.  This is the area became the face of his campaign.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON:  We are just not willing to accept the necessity of poverty.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Back then, the poverty rate in some areas was around 60 percent.

Eastern Kentucky has made big strides in the last 50 years since Lyndon Johnson came through here.  But even still, the area continues to struggle today.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  The poverty rate in Eastern Kentucky has dropped, but in some parts still hovers around 30 percent.  Unemployment in some counties is more than 10 percent, much higher than the national average.  And the region is still dependent on coal, which has meant trouble as the industry’s gone south.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  How big is the coal industry?

TOBEY MILLER:  Everything here stems off of coal.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Like many here, Tobey Miller’s roots run deep, and they run through the coal mines.

TOBEY MILLER:  Well, my Papaw, he worked in the mines.  Used to tell me stories about when he moved here.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Miller’s papaw – his grandfather – bought the family farm in Knox County in 1941 with the money he earned from coal.  Miller’s dad worked in coal.  And straight out of high school, Miller did too, welding the heavy machinery used in the mines.  Miller’s family – his wife, two daughters and granddaughter – lived well.  He earned more than $50,000 a year.  That’s double the median household income around here.  But then a year ago, Miller was told his job was being cut.

OPINION - Shields and Gerson 10/17/2014

"Shields and Gerson on Ebola as election issue, Florida’s fan fight" PBS NewsHour 10/17/2014

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the response to Ebola in the U.S. and how it affects national politics, as well as the outlook for the midterm elections and the gubernatorial debate in Florida.

NIGERIA - Deal With the Devil

Aha... History repeats, 'Peace for our time.'

"Future of abducted Nigerian girls unclear under Boko Haram cease-fire – Part 1" PBS NewsHour 10/17/2014

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  In Nigeria, surprising news came today that a cease-fire has been reached between the government and militant group Boko Haram.

Jeffrey Brown has more.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  Word of the unexpected truce came from Nigeria’s official news agency.

WOMAN:  The federal government and the Boko Haram sect have agreed to a cease-fire deal.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Similar announcements in the past failed to bear fruit.  But this time, Nigeria’s defense chief ordered government troops to halt all action against the militants.  There was no immediate statement from Boko Haram.

It was also unclear whether a truce would mean the release of 219 schoolgirls abducted in April.  They were among about 300 girls taken from this boarding school in the northeast town of Chibok and declared slaves.  Dozens managed to escape. The fate of the others remains unknown.

Chika Oduah is a journalist reporting from Nigeria.

CHIKA ODUAH, Journalist:  What we know is that Boko Haram has promised not to attack civilians and Nigerian troops are not supposed to shoot at Boko Haram strongholds.  So, that’s what we have for now.  As far as the Chibok girls, there are no details, but we do know that talks are ongoing until at least next week.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Boko Haram has carried out a wave of bombings and suicide attacks over the past five years in a campaign to create an Islamic caliphate in northeastern Nigeria.  Tens of thousands of people have died.

That and what’s been perceived as the Nigerian government’s ineffective response has fed a deep public skepticism, as “NewsHour” special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro found on a recent trip.

Sheik Abdur Rahman is the imam of a prominent Islamic charity.

SHEIK ABDUR RAHMAN:  How can you move 300 girls, almost 300 girls, you know, in a state or in a region where you have declared a state of emergency, and nobody challenged the movement of the vehicles?

JEFFREY BROWN:  Dozens of other girls, boys and adults have also been carried away, as Yemisi Ransome-Kuti points out.  She’s a longtime activist from a prominent Nigerian family.

YEMISI RANSOME-KUTI, Nigerian Activist:  Kidnapping is going on almost on a daily basis in the north, not just girls, but boys being recruited into the Boko Haram militia system.


"What’s motivating the Boko Haram cease-fire? – Part 2" PBS NewsHour 10/17/2014

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  What’s behind the timing of the cease-fire between Nigeria and Boko Haram?  Jeffrey Brown speaks with J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council about the motivation for both sides, why the abducted schoolgirls may have become a burden to their captors and what to expect from future talks.

BOOK - Sotomayor and the U.S. Supreme Court

"‘Breaking In’ explores Sotomayor’s Supreme Court disruptions and breakthroughs" PBS NewsHour 10/17/2014

Excerpt

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  President Obama appointed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to serve on the court, in 2009.

Since then, she has brought her unique style to a normally cloistered and reserved court.

Reuters journalist Joan Biskupic takes us behind the scenes of the secretive court proceedings to reveal how Sotomayor is shaking things but in her new book, “Breaking In:  The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice.”

Gwen Ifill spoke with her earlier this week.

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Joan Biskupic, thank you for joining us.

I want to start by talking about the subtitle of your book, in which you talk about the politics of justice.  When it comes to Sonia Sotomayor, what do you mean by that?

JOAN BISKUPIC, Author, “Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice”:  No one gets to the Supreme Court by accident.

And she, from the start, once she became a federal judge on the lower court, looked forward to that, and she had built networks along the way.  And what I did in the book was sort of trace her trajectory with the rise of Latinos in America, but also through the politics of justice, how one gets on a district court, is elevated to the appeals court, and then, in 2009, is this breakthrough justice, our first Hispanic, appointed by the first African-American president.

GWEN IFILL:  And a disruptive justice in many ways.

JOAN BISKUPIC:  People who don’t realty know the Supreme Court don’t understand the rhythms, the decorum, the hierarchies that exist there.

It really struck me that here was this justice who could have shattered a lot of that.  If you follow her around, as I did, in San Juan, for example, when she was on her own book tour, you saw these throngs of people lining up to see her.

And I was so struck about how different it was in San Juan compared to where she spends most of her time, in this marble palace where everyone lines up by their role, by their hierarchies.  The court police are constantly monitoring who gets in this line, the lawyers, who gets in this line, the public, who gets in this line, the reporters.

But the people who came to see Sonia Sotomayor and who are her people, as she calls them, are all sorts and they all come together.

Friday, October 17, 2014

EDUCATION - A Journey, Homeless to High School Valedictorian to Georgetown University

"‘Terrific students can be found anywhere’:  One scholar’s path from homeless shelter to halls of Georgetown" PBS NewsHour 10/16/2014

Excerpt

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  The U.S. Department of Education recently released data that showed there were more than 1.2 million homeless students enrolled in public schools last year, the highest ever.

As the nation’s educators continue to struggle with the problem, the “NewsHour's" April Brown tells the story of one Washington, D.C., teenager who defied the odds and may well inspire other kids in similar situations.

This story is another in our American Graduate series funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

APRIL BROWN (NewsHour):  In many ways, Rashema Melson is a typical Georgetown University freshman.  She graduated top of her high school class last year and now makes it a point to come early every day, so she can sit in the front row.

But Rashema’s path toward success has not been an easy one.  Her father was killed when she was 7 months old, and she spent much of the last three years in a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter with her mother and two brothers, facts that she kept mostly secret while in high school.

RASHEMA MELSON, Georgetown University:  It was nobody’s business.  And if it was, I didn’t want to be pitied, I didn’t want to be looked down upon as if I couldn’t do it, because I’m a strong person.

CHISA PERRY, Anacostia High School:  She was always smiling, very bubbly, very friendly, always the good morning or the hello.

APRIL BROWN:  One person she eventually told was Anacostia High School teacher Chisa Perry, who was Rashema’s track and field coach.  But for a long time, Perry didn’t know.  And she says, regardless of what was happening at home, Rashema always remained upbeat and focused at school.

CHISA PERRY:  The best way to describe Rashema would be determined.  Anything she sets her mind to do, she will do it.

BERKELEY - The Birth of the Free Speech Movement

"Hearing echoes of Berkeley in student activism today" PBS NewsHour 10/16/2014

Excerpt

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour): Now, a look back at a movement some historians believe profoundly changed American culture, politics and education.

NewsHour” special correspondent Spencer Michels reports has the story.

WOMAN:  We’re going to start off by playing a little speech some of you may remember.

MARIO SAVIO, Free Speech Movement:  And I will tell you something.  The faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material.

SPENCER MICHELS (NewsHour):  The sounds of a familiar past blared over Sproul Plaza on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley.  The voice, from 1964 was that of the late Mario Savio, the most famous leader of the free speech movement, the first big on-campus student movement in the country.

MARIO SAVIO:  And you have got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, pile on the apparatus, and you have got to make it stop.

SPENCER MICHELS:  These were 20-somethings in the ’60s, civil rights activists who were protesting a university policy forbidding political activity on campus.

Now they were back to keep the past alive and relate it to the present.

JACK WEINBERG, Free Speech Movement:  The most significant student movement of our era is taking place in Hong Kong.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SPENCER MICHELS:  Graduate student Jack Weinberg sparked the rebellion 50 years ago, when he was arrested for refusing to take down an organizing table.

JACK WEINBERG:  They made the mistake of bringing a police car onto campus.  This give me five, 10 minutes to stand up, to draw a crowd, make a speech.

SPENCER MICHELS:  Weinberg spent 32 hours in the car as the crowds swelled to 6,000 and the movement was born.  The university eventually eliminated the restrictions on political activity.

SITCOMS - Creator Norman Lear's Book 'Even This I Get to Experience'

"Sitcom creator Norman Lear talks dangerous television, ‘Family’ inspirations" PBS NewsHour 10/15/2014

Excerpt

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  “In my 90-plus years, I have lived a multitude of lives,” so writes Norman Lear about a life that’s including bombing emissions over Europe in World War II, the founding of a leading political advocacy organization, and the consideration of some of the most seminal programs in television history, most famously “All in the Family.”

CARROLL O’CONNOR (actor):  What are you kicking about?  Ain’t you your wife always telling me that coloreds and whites ought to work together?

(LAUGHTER)

ROB REINER (actor):  Not to stop Puerto Ricans from moving next door!

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN:  It’s all captured in a new memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience.”

Norman Lear joins me now.

Welcome to you.

NORMAN LEAR, Author, “Even This I Get to Experience”:  Thank you.  I love being here.

JEFFREY BROWN:  You had been writing television from the ’50s on.  Were you dissatisfied with what television was doing?  Did you want to blow it up in some sense?

(LAUGHTER)

NORMAN LEAR:  No, actually, I was writing for live television.  And I said to myself, someday, soon as I can, I have got to do a situation comedy.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And when did you decide though that it had to be a different kind of situation comedy, something that was tackling something really not seen before?

NORMAN LEAR:  I don’t ever recall making such a decision.

I read about a British show called “Till Death Us Do Part” about a father and son not unlike Archie and Mike.  And I said, my God, that’s me and my dad.  I have got to write about this.

TECHNOLOGY - Searching for the ripple effects of history-making tech

This reminds me of the 1978 TV series "Connections" by James Burke.  He had the same idea, showing the surprising sequence of historical (not seeming to be reverent) events that lead to today's innovations.

"Did air conditioning play a role in Reagan’s election?  Searching for ripple effects of history-making tech" PBS NewsHour 10/15/2014

Excerpt

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Finally, an unconventional look at big ideas and how they lead to unintended and transformative consequences.

That’s the subject of a new book and PBS series that debuts tonight called “How We Got to Now.”

The host is a popular science writer, author and theorist, Steven Johnson.

Here’s a clip from an episode about what air conditioning set into motion after Willis Carrier designed the first modern system.

STEVEN JOHNSON, Author, “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World”: In 1951, Carrier’s company introduces an air conditioning unit that is miniaturized and affordable for a mass market.

And that’s when A.C. starts to go crazy. Now, just see what this does to where people are living. Tucson, Arizona, grows 400 percent in 10 years, Phoenix 300 percent, Tampa, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, population double, triple. And it’s the same story everywhere you look. Carrier’s invention is circulating people, as well as air, changing lives, changing America.

But then something even more interesting happens. You see, people moving to the hot states are older and tend to vote Republican. And the growing population in the conservative South means more Electoral College votes there. So, check out what happens to the political map of America. Between 1940 and 1980, Northern states lose an incredible 31 Electoral College votes, while Southern states gain 29.

GWEN IFILL:  Hari Sreenivasan sat down with Johnson recently in our New York studios.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  The book is called “How We Got to Now:  Six Innovations That Made the Modern World.”

Steven Johnson, why did you pick glass, cold, sound, clean, time, light?  What is it about these innovations?

U.S. DEFICIT - Declines to Lowest Level Since 2007

"Shrinking U.S. deficit shows stability amid market jitters" PBS NewsHour 10/15/2014

Excerpt

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Today was the day the Obama administration decided to draw attention to some good economic news for a change.  It announced the federal deficit has declined to $483 billion, the lowest level since 2007.  The deficit had exceeded a trillion dollars each year during the president’s first term.

But as that news was breaking, the markets embarked on another roller-coaster day, and new polls showed many Americans are skeptical that any economic recovery has trickled down to them.

That was the setting as I sat down this morning with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Budget Director Shaun Donovan.

Secretary Lew and Director Donovan, thank you both for joining us.

You have some good news for a change today, the deficit down and continuing to go down to, what, 2.8 percent?

JACK LEW, U.S. Treasury Secretary:  Correct.

GWEN IFILL:  To what do you attribute that?

JACK LEW:  Look, I think that if you look at where we were six years ago, we had an economy that was collapsing, we had unemployment, 700,000 jobs lost a month, and we had markets in chaos.

The President came into office and took tough action.  He stabilized the economy.  He put in place an economic program to create growth.  He put in a program to reform our financial markets and over a period of years worked with Congress on a bipartisan basis to put in place a balanced set of measures to reduce our deficit, starting with the Affordable Care Act, which reduced the deficit, as well as providing a guarantee of health care coverage, and then doing spending reductions and revenue increases that came by making our tax system more fair.

It’s an enormous amount of progress to have seen the deficit drop by, you know, roughly two-thirds, and to reach a point where it’s — we’re now in a 10-year period, looking ahead, of sustainable fiscal policy, which is good for the economy.  It means that the economy can not worry about crisis to crisis, and the economy can continue to grow.  That’s a very good thing.

PARDONS - Letter to the Next U.S. Attorney General

"For the Next Attorney General, a Modest Suggestion:  Fix Presidential Pardons" by Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica 10/16/2014

More than two years ago, a ProPublica series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.

Dear Possible Attorney General Nominees (You Know Who You Are),

Now that President Obama has put off nominating his new Attorney General until after the Nov. 4 elections, there's some extra time to immerse yourself in the issues you will confront during your confirmation hearing while, of course, waiting to see if you make the final cut.  Right now, you're probably scrambling through your personal records for the name, Social Security number and address of every nanny or lawn guy your family ever employed.  But as you study up on the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, the War Powers Act, the future of Guantanamo and recent history of voting rights, I'd like you encourage you to bookmark a little something for reading once you're confirmed.

If things go well, you'll have about two years as attorney general – a blink of an eye when weighed against the glacial pace at which policies and laws change in Washington.  What I'm writing to you about, amazingly, is one thing that you and President Obama can do without the support of Congress.  Attorney General seems like an incredibly powerful position but there are actually very few issues on which you, personally, can make a lasting difference.  It feels early to begin thinking about your legacy before you're confirmed, but considering how the last two years of most administrations go, now is actually an excellent moment.

Here's the details. More than two years ago, ProPublica reporters Dafna Linzer and Jennifer LaFleur revealed that white applicants were nearly four times as likely to receive a presidential pardon as were comparable African Americans.  The story appeared on the front page of The Washington Post, our publishing partner.  I know, I know, this seems improbable but LaFleur spent many months doing a statistical analysis that eliminated every other factor we could imagine that might explain this disparity.  We sent our findings and methodology to several leading experts in the field.  All agreed that race was the only factor driving the vast difference.  We published our methodology and you can read it here.  Linzer's reporting on the pardons process suggested that it was far more subjective than you might have thought. We wrote about how race creeps into decision-making even when no one is overtly biased. It's worth a look.

Given the starkness of these findings, we at ProPublica thought, naively, that your predecessor and his boss would move immediately to address this problem.  As I'm sure you're aware, a president's authority to grant pardons is one of the only unchecked powers in our constitutional system of checks and balances.  When it comes to pardons, President Obama can do whatever he wants.

We were told by several political insiders that the pardon stories did not prompt reform because of their timing.  They appeared in late 2011, just as the president was gearing up for what was expected to be a bruising campaign for a second term.  It was not considered the politically ideal moment for the nation's first African-American president to make the justice system fairer for people of color.  And so the government did what it so often does in such circumstances:  It commissioned a study to see if our findings were correct.

Since all of the data we used came from government records, we wondered why the Justice Department didn't simply hire some experts to review our conclusions.  Department officials said at the time that they preferred to start from scratch.

Moving at a leisurely pace, the government did not even issue its formal request for bidders on the work until July 2012.  The Rand Corporation won the $350,000 contract.  The plan was to use pre-sentencing reports sent to the Department's pardons office.  But it turns out that federal court procedures bar the release of the data to outsiders without an OK from each of the chief judges in the nation's 94 federal judicial districts.  You can imagine how long that will take.  Rand has asked for an additional $69,000 to complete the study.  It likely won't be done before next year, more than three years after our first story appeared.

Along the way, we did some follow-up stories that suggested the problems in the Justice Department's pardons office are deeply rooted.  Linzer revealed that the pardon attorney, Ronald L. Rogers, had misled the Bush White House about the facts of a request for presidential clemency from Clarence Aaron.  (Yes, he's African American.)  An internal investigation concluded that Rogers had fallen "substantially short of the high standards to be expected of Department of Justice employees and of the duty he owed to the President of the United States."  This year, Rogers resigned as pardon attorney.

Aaron finally received clemency late last year. As you're undoubtedly aware, the Justice Department also has announced a new initiative to use the president's powers to release federal prisoners who have served more than 10 years with good behavior for non-violent crimes.  Still, President Obama's rate of presidential pardons remains historically low.

If history is any guide, you'll be getting a tsunami of pardon requests in the last months of the administration.  It might be nice to have come up with some serious reforms by then to fix a process that is so demonstrably flawed.  There are lots of ideas about what could done, from setting up an independent pardons commission to taking the pardons office out of the Justice Department.

Good luck with the confirmation hearings.  And remember, two years can fly by a lot quicker than you'd ever imagine.  Just ask the folks at Rand.

Best Regards,

Stephen Engelberg/Editor in Chief, ProPublica

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

BOOK - 'Innovators' aka Geeks of the Digital Age

"In ‘Innovators,’ Isaacson tells story of digital revolutionaries" PBS NewsHour 10/14/2014

Excerpt

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  He’s written books about individuals who changed the game, from Benjamin Franklin to Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs.

But in his latest work, “The Innovators,” Walter Isaacson pulls together a story about the group of creative minds who brought us into the digital age, from an English countess to a California hippie.  Isaacson weaves the tale of the inventive thinkers who programmed computers and gave us the Internet.

I spoke to Walter Isaacson a few days ago.

Walter Isaacson, thank you for talking with us.

WALTER ISAACSON, Author, “The Innovators:  How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution”:   It’s great to be back with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So, congratulations on the book.

You have mainly written about one person at a time.  And you have mainly focused on history, politics.  Why science and technology and why everybody who was involved?

WALTER ISAACSON:  You know, those of us who are biographers know that we distort history sometimes, and we make it sound like it’s a gal or a guy in a garage or a garret with a singular lightbulb moment, and one person changes things.

As you know, most innovation comes from people working together, collaborating in teams.  So I wanted to show how groups of people brought together to form teams that created the digital revolution.  I also think it’s fun to understand where our technology comes from.

I mean, you and I love understanding American Revolution, but let’s also understand the digital revolution, because that makes us more comfortable with our technology.

END OF LIFE - Should You Have the Right to Decide When You Die?

QUESTION:  Is what you do with your own life (live or die) a human right?

My answer is yes.  So government at any level should not interfere with your decision on when you want to die.

"Should terminally ill patients be able to choose when they die?" PBS NewsHour 10/14/2014

Excerpt

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  How we choose to deal with the end of life and the decisions patients and families face are difficult subjects that are often hard to discuss.  But there are moments when they capture headlines and spark a national conversation.

We have recently heard from a number of voices grappling with these tough questions.

Tonight, Jeffrey Brown looks at a high-profile case in the Northwest.

BRITTANY MAYNARD:  I can’t even tell you the amount of relief that it provides me to know that I don’t have to die the way that it’s been described to me that my brain tumor would take me on its own.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  Brittany Maynard’s video has thrust the issue of end of life decisions back into the national spotlight.

The 29-year-old has terminal brain cancer, and, last spring, doctors gave her six months to live.  Instead, she’s decided to die on her own terms, November 1.

BRITTANY MAYNARD:  I hope to enjoy however many days I have left.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And her online video has been viewed more than seven million times since last week.

BRITTANY MAYNARD:  I will die upstairs in my bedroom that I share with my husband, with my mother and my husband by my side, and pass peacefully with some music that I like in the background.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Maynard and her husband moved from California to Oregon to utilize the state’s death with dignity law.  It allows her to take lethal medication prescribed by a doctor.

The Oregon law, which calls this aid in dying, has been around since 1997, and since then, more than 750 people have used it to end their lives.  All told, only Oregon, Washington and Vermont have laws allowing the practice that’s sometimes referred to as doctor-assisted suicide.

Court decisions in Montana and New Mexico have also authorized it, but those rulings have not yet been codified into law.  The nonprofit group that posted Maynard’s video, Compassion & Choices, is working to expand the option of death with dignity in more states.

Maynard’s husband and other relatives also appear on the video supporting that right.