Wednesday, July 30, 2014

AMERICA - Who Drives the Economy?

"Top-down or middle-out?  Debating the key to economic growth" PBS NewsHour 7/28/2014

Excerpt

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  We turn now to the continuing debate about how to fix this country’s economic problems.  Some say we need to reduce income inequality, while others emphasize a need to create more growth and opportunity to climb up the ladder.

Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has been running into variations on those themes throughout his recent reporting on the battle over raising the minimum wage.

Tonight, he gets a different take on that debate, what you might call top-down economics vs. middle-out.  It’s part of his ongoing reporting on Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN (NewsHour):  In Seattle this spring, a win for advocates of a $15-an-hour-minimum wage, nearly double the federal minimum, as the city council voted unanimously in June to phase in $15 over several years.

Leading the charge were socialist activists, labor unions, and one most unusual suspect, billionaire venture capitalist Nick Hanauer.



"Why capitalism has nothing to do with supply and demand" by Nick Hanauer, PBS NewsHour 7/28/2014

Excerpt

But as Hanauer has argued in a popular 2012 TED Talk, and most recently in a Politico Magazine essay, addressing income inequality, through measures like a higher minimum wage, is not simply a moral issue; it’s an economic issue because prosperity originates from having a strong middle class.

Nick Hanauer's TED Talk

Monday, July 28, 2014

OPINION - Shields and Brooks 7/25/2014

"Shields and Brooks on Obama’s handling of the border crisis, Mideast violence" PBS NewsHour 7/25/2014

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the week’s top news, including obstacles to passing an immigration bill, luring Hispanic voters, the White House’s handling of the Mideast conflict, as well as how perception of Hamas and Israel has shifted through social media.

SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN - The Creative Brain

"Connecting strength and vulnerability of the creative brain" PBS NewsHour 7/25/2014

Excerpt

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  Tonight, Judy Woodruff explores the connections between creativity and mental illness.  It’s a subject that has intrigued researchers for quite a while, and Judy recently traveled to the Midwest to interview a leading scientist in the field.

Our story was produced in partnership with The Atlantic magazine, which features this topic as its cover story this month.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  On any given day, you might find Dr. Nancy Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D, in the MRI lab at the University of Iowa Hospital Center.

DR. NANCY ANDREASEN, Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry, University of Iowa:  The principle here is that this is what we call the control test.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  It’s here where she has done groundbreaking neuroimaging research, especially on schizophrenia, linking it to physical differences in the brain itself.  It’s something she’s been interested in since she received her degree in 1960s.

DR. NANCY ANDREASEN:  I knew I was going to be interested in the brain ultimately, because I knew it was the organ that makes us human.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  But she’s also always had a parallel interest in literature, which led to an unusual field of scientific inquiry:  Why have so many great writers suffered from mental illness?

LITERATURE - 'Leaves of Grass' as Work of Art

"Letter by letter, turning Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ into a work of art" PBS NewsHour 7/25/2014

Excerpt

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  “I celebrate myself, and what I assume, you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” the famous first lines of a landmark of American literature, Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

Whitman was 36 years old when he self-published the first edition in 1855.  A trained printer, he personally hand-set some of the lines of type in the book.  Now Whitman’s work is being printed again, just as he did it in the 1800s, on movable type printing presses, the setting this time, in an old industrial building in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park, where the Arion Press is one of the country’s last fine book printers, and limited edition, handmade works are crafted from start to finish under one roof.

ANDREW HOYEM, Publisher, Arion Press:  The making of a book is a very, very complicated process.

JEFFREY BROWN:  The man who’s kept it all going for four decades is founder, publisher, and a poet himself, Andrew Hoyem.

ANDREW HOYEM:  We do what we do not to be quaint, but to use these techniques of letterpress printing, printing from metal types, because when the type is pressed into good quality paper, it creates an aesthetic effect you cannot achieve any other way.

BORDER CRISIS - Can Central America Stem Migration to U.S.

"Can political leadership in Central America reverse conditions fueling migration?" PBS NewsHour 7/25/2014

Excerpt

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  We turn now to the crisis at the U.S. border, and what’s driving the wave of migrant children to make the dangerous journey.

As we saw from President Obama’s meeting today with the leaders of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, many of the factors at play stem from violence and instability in those countries.

To help us better understand the situation in Central America, Anita Isaacs is a professor at Haverford College.  She studies U.S.-Latin America relations and regional politics.  She also recently returned from Guatemala as part of a State Department study on civil society.

So, I want to ask, even with these kind of lofty aspirations that the president laid out today, what’s the likelihood that the underlying conditions in these countries changes?

ANITA ISAACS, Rutherford College:  Yes, I mean, I think that’s a great question.

And I think that, you know, the leaders, the president — the Central American leaders came to the United States to request a compassionate response from President Obama and the U.S. Congress and the U.S. people.

And I think that, to some extent, you know, amid the sea of anti-immigrant diatribe, we have seen some compassionate responses from — both from some members of Congress, Representative Engel in particular, and from sectors of U.S. society.

I think the real challenge now is whether we are going to see the same compassionate response in Central American countries, where the conditions that are — that fuel migration speak to tremendous inequalities, tremendous poverty and tremendous violence.

SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN - Genetic Links to Schizophrenia

"Pinpointing genetic links to schizophrenia may open doors to better treatment" PBS NewsHour 7/24/2014

Excerpt

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Finally tonight, understanding the connections between human genetics and schizophrenia.

It’s part of our series on the science of the brain.  Tonight, we look at a study published this week, the largest ever of schizophrenia patients.  There are more than three million of them in the U.S.  The study found that perhaps more than 100 genes were associated with the condition.  Genetics has long been assumed to play a role.

But for the first time, researchers found genes in the immune system are among those involved.  Patients have long awaited better treatments.

Dr. Steven Hyman is the director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.  His center was involved in this study.  And I spoke with him yesterday.

Dr. Steven Hyman, welcome to the NewsHour.

First of all, tell us what it is like to have schizophrenia.  We know that something like three million Americans suffer from this.

DR. STEVEN HYMAN, Broad Institute:  That’s right.  It affects about 1 percent of people worldwide, including the United States.

And what patients experience is extremely distressing and also disabling.  There are three kinds of symptoms.  Most famously, people have what are called psychotic symptoms, hallucinations, most often hearing voices that aren’t there, delusions, which are fixed false beliefs that are not culturally appropriate.

But also less well recognized are two other symptoms which contribute to disability.  People have declines in their cognitive functions, things like memory, ability to pay attention, and ability to use their thoughts to control their emotions and behavior.

And then there’s another cluster of symptoms called deficit symptoms, where people have what is called blunted affect.  That is even something very sad might not elicit a response or something very happy.  They lose motivation.

The drugs we have today only treat the psychotic symptoms, and do that incompletely, and really don’t touch the other two sets of symptoms, leaving patients very disabled and great costs and challenges of course to families and society.

CHILDREN - Head Start for the Traumatized

"Giving traumatized kids a head start in healing" PBS NewsHour 7/24/2014

Excerpt

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Every year, thousands of children in this country are expelled from school before they reach kindergarten.  In fact, studies show that preschool children are expelled at significantly rates than those in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Special correspondent Molly Knight Raskin reports on a program in Kansas City, Missouri, that’s trying to stem this trend by looking beyond the classroom to the issues these kids face at home.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN (NewsHour):  In many ways, Desiree Kazee, is a typical 5-year-old girl.  She’s bubbly, bright and affectionate.  Her favorite color is pink.  And she enjoys drawing and dancing.

But, two years ago, when Desiree began preschool at a Head Start program near her home in Liberty, Missouri, she didn’t seem to enjoy much of anything.

RENEE SILVER, School Therapist:  She was a very angry child.  She would tantrum, she would scream, she would whine, she would complain of things bothering her that might not normally bother a child.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN:  Renee Silver is a school therapist who worked individually with Desiree.

RENEE SILVER:  She wouldn’t take no for an answer.  She would want to do things when she wanted to do them.  She did everything she could to try and gain control.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN:  In most classrooms, Desiree’s behavior would be met with harsh discipline, but in this Head Start school, the teachers don’t punish kids for acting out.  That’s because all these children, including Desiree, have experienced at least one traumatic event in their short lifetimes.

BOOK OF SLEAZE - USA Discounters Sues Soldiers Worldwide

"Thank You for Your Service:  How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide" by Paul Kiel, ProPublica 7/25/2014

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members.  But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.

This article was co-published with The Washington Post.

Army Spc. Angel Aguirre needed a washer and dryer.

Money was tight, and neither Aguirre, 21, nor his wife had much credit history as they settled into life at Fort Carson in Colorado in 2010.

That's when he saw an ad for USA Discounters, guaranteeing loan approval for service members.  In military newspapers and magazines, on the radio, and on TV, the Virginia-based company's ads shout, "NO CREDIT?  NEED CREDIT?  NO PROBLEM!"  The store was only a few miles from Fort Carson.

"We ended up getting a computer, a TV, a ring, and a washer and dryer," Aguirre said.  "The only thing I really wanted was a washer and dryer."

Aguirre later learned that USA Discounters' easy lending has a flip side.  Should customers fall behind, the company transforms into an efficient collection operation.  And this part of its business takes place not where customers bought their appliances, but in two local courthouses just a short drive from the company's Virginia Beach headquarters.

From there, USA Discounters files lawsuits against service members based anywhere in the world, no matter how much inconvenience or expense they would incur to attend a Virginia court date.  Since 2006, the company has filed more than 13,470 suits and almost always wins, records show.

"They're basically ruthless," said Army Staff Sgt. David Ray, who was sued in Virginia while based in Germany over purchases he made at a store in Georgia.

Timothy Dorsey, vice president of USA Discounters, said the company provides credit to service members who would not otherwise qualify and sues only after other attempts to resolve debts have failed.

As for the company's choice of court, he said it was "for the customer's benefit."  In Virginia, the company isn't required to use a lawyer to file suit.  USA Discounters' savings on legal fees are passed on to the customer, he said.

"This company is committed to ensuring that the men and women who serve and sacrifice for our country are always treated with the honor and respect they deserve," Dorsey said.

The federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, or SCRA, was designed to give active-duty members of the armed forces every opportunity to defend themselves against lawsuits.  But the law has a loophole; it doesn't address where plaintiffs can sue.  That's allowed USA Discounters to sue out-of-state borrowers in Virginia, where companies can file suit as long as some aspect of the business was transacted in the state.

The company routinely argues that it meets that requirement through contract clauses that state any lawsuit will take place in Virginia.  Judges have agreed.

"This looks like somebody who has really, really researched the best way to get around the entire intent of the SCRA," said John Odom, a retired Air Force judge advocate and expert on the SCRA.

Once a judge awards USA Discounters a judgment, the company can begin the process of garnishing the service member's pay.  USA Discounters seizes the pay of more active-duty military than any company in the country, according to Department of Defense payroll data obtained by ProPublica.

Consumer advocates say the strategy cheats service members who may have valid defenses.  It's "designed to obtain default judgments against consumers without giving them any real opportunity to defend themselves," said Carolyn Carter of the National Consumer Law Center.

To investigate USA Discounters' practices, ProPublica reviewed 70 of the company's contracts for service members and non-military borrowers, all of which had been filed in court.  A reporter also identified 11 recent court cases against active-duty service members to examine their treatment.

The same courts in Norfolk and Virginia Beach are favored by two similar companies headquartered in the area - Freedom Furniture and Electronics and Military Credit Services - that offer high-priced credit to military clientele.  Together with USA Discounters, the three companies have filed more than 35,000 suits since 2006.

Officials with Freedom and Military Credit Services did not respond to repeated phone calls and e-mails.

USA Discounters opened its first store in 1991 in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area, where more than 70,000 military personnel are stationed.

Many sailors start their careers at the sprawling Naval Station Norfolk, "bringing their pay and their naiveté," said Dwain Alexander, a senior civilian attorney with the Navy in Norfolk.

USA Discounters, which is privately owned, now has 31 locations, including seven free-standing jewelry stores that go by the name Fletcher's Jewelers.

While the company does not exclusively lend to service members, it has a location just a short drive from each of the country's 11 largest military bases.

The company's showrooms are packed with bedroom sets, TVs and tire rims, but that's not the main draw.  "You're not selling the furniture.  You're not selling the appliances," said one former sales employee.  "You're selling our financing program."  The former employee, and others quoted in the story, spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared USA Discounters could adversely affect future employment.

Younger soldiers such as Aguirre are drawn in by the guaranteed credit - something not offered by cheaper big-box stores.  "A lot of the time, this would be the first time they get a paycheck over $1,000," said a former store manager.

The company can confidently extend credit to such customers, former employees said, because the loans are almost always repaid through the military's allotment system.  Part of the service member's paycheck automatically goes to the company every month.

Despite the company's name, USA Discounters' items sometimes come at a substantial markup.  An iPad Mini, for example, last year sold at USA Discounters for $699 when Apple's retail price was $329.

On top of these costs, the loans typically are layered with fees for a warranty and a program that cancels the debt under certain circumstances.  The plans are optional, but are included on the vast majority of loans, former employees said.

Dorsey, the USA Discounters executive, said the company's cost of purchasing goods was higher than big-box retailers with greater buying power.  As for the add-ons, he said they are clearly disclosed as optional.  The company's typical interest rate is "less than 20 percent," he said.

The final tally on the loans can be staggering for some young service members.  In 2009, Army Pvt. Jeramie Mays, then 26, walked into the USA Discounters near Fort Bliss in Texas to buy a laptop before being deployed to Iraq.  He chose a model that typically retailed for $650.  At USA Discounters, it sold for $1,799.  On top of that came $458 in add-ons.  After another $561 in interest charges, Mays walked out owing $2,993 in payments over 23 months, according to a copy of his contract.

For Aguirre, it was only later, when he and his wife tried to get their finances under control, that he realized just how much he owed.  The total loan amount is clearly listed on all USA Discounters' contracts, but customers often don't grasp how long they'll be paying, said a financial counselor who advises soldiers and sailors.

The military generally provides credit counseling for young service members.  But for some, the allure is too great, particularly when the companies bill themselves as military friendly.  "After the horse is out of the barn, there's not a lot you can do about it," said Lynn Olavarria, the financial readiness program manager at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Aguirre said he was told by his superiors that his struggles with debt have kept him from being promoted.

Late last year, after he had fallen far behind on his loan, he got a notice in the mail.  USA Discounters was suing him in a Virginia court, more than 1,500 miles away.  When he didn't show up, the company won a judgment of $8,626.

On every active-duty service member's contract ProPublica examined, just below various disclosures, it says the buyer "is subject to the jurisdiction of the state courts of the COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA."  To receive financing, customers must agree.

Such a demand is "abusive" and is not typically found in contracts involving consumers, said Carter of the National Consumer Law Center.  The Federal Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits such suits if they are filed by a third party, such as a law firm.  Because USA Discounters uses a company employee to file its debt collection suits, the law doesn't apply.

Dorsey said if customers ask to be sued elsewhere, the company will honor their requests, despite the contract.  The clause is only included in the contracts of service members, according to ProPublica's review.

Gene Woolard, the chief judge of Virginia Beach General District Court, said under state law, the terms of a contract are binding.

If a defendant can't afford to travel to Virginia to contest a suit, "you can't do much about that," he said.  And while he's sympathetic to debtors, Woolard said, "That's not a legal defense." Norfolk Chief Judge S. Clark Daugherty declined to respond to questions.

Court records show USA Discounters has obtained judgments in 89 percent of the suits it has filed in Norfolk's and Virginia Beach's courts since 2006.

Dorsey said the high success rate is to be expected - the customers owed money they hadn't paid.  "[I]t is not surprising that they do not appear in collections proceedings in court - in any state in which we file," he said.

As for the federal law protecting active-duty service members, its requirements are easily met by USA Discounters.  If a service member can't be located, the law requires a 90-day delay.  Once that passes, the way is clear to obtain a judgment.  If a service member doesn't appear in court, an attorney is appointed to represent the defendant.  But the law does not specify what that lawyer must do.

In Virginia courts, the creditor can suggest the attorney to be appointed.  USA Discounters appears to request the same lawyer for all its cases involving service members.  In each of the 11 cases ProPublica examined, the court appointed Tariq Louka of Virginia Beach.

In response to written questions, Louka said that he represents "in the range of 300-400" service members each year.  His primary duty, he said, is to inform his clients they have a right to request a delay, which he does by mail.  "MY ONLY OBLIGATION IS TO REVIEW YOUR RESPONSE AND REQUEST AN ADDITIONAL STAY OR CONTINUANCE IF I FEEL IT IS APPROPRIATE GIVEN YOUR ANSWERS," his letters say in capital letters.

USA Discounters said that it had no business relationship with Louka or his firm.

Armed with judgments, creditors can attempt to garnish borrowers' wages or bank accounts.  As of January 2014, 230 service members were involuntarily paying USA Discounters a portion of their pay, Department of Defense data shows.  Altogether, those service members have paid more than $1.4 million to the company.

Next on the list of most active creditors were the two other local companies, Military Credit Services and Freedom, which together had seized the pay of 92 service members for a total of $289,000 as of January, according to the data.

USA Discounters also aggressively pursues funds in service members' bank accounts.  Mays, the Army private who signed the nearly $3,000 contract for a laptop, said he initially stopped payment after the computer broke in Iraq.  But other financial pressures, mainly costs associated with the care of his disabled mother, eventually made him decide to file for bankruptcy, he said.

Before he could, he was deployed to Germany and Afghanistan.

USA Discounters brought suit against him while he was in Germany.  After winning a judgment, he said, the company sought to seize both his pay and funds in his credit union account.  The action froze his account for several weeks, Mays said.

Mays, currently based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, said that for most of last January, he could not withdraw funds.  "Trying to take care of two kids and my mother and myself on nothing doesn't help," he said.  Around the same time, he finally filed for bankruptcy.  His debt with USA Discounters was discharged last March, protecting any assets from seizure.

Dorsey of USA Discounters declined to respond without written, signed waivers from customers.  Reached recently, Mays said he was in training and would not have an opportunity to provide a waiver.  Other USA Discounters' customers either had their waiver rejected as incomplete by the company or could not provide one because of personal circumstances.

In Virginia, court judgments on debts can remain in force for decades.  Court records show USA Discounters pursues debts for years, regardless of whether a service member has retired, or where he or she might live.

While in the Army, Sgt. LaShonda Bickford and her then-husband racked up an enormous debt with the company.  After they fell behind, USA Discounters won a judgment in Virginia for $15,747.  The 2011 judgment has continued to grow at the contract's interest rate of 18 percent, as Virginia law allows, and by late 2013, the debt stood at $21,291.

Every two weeks, USA Discounters gets about a quarter of her paycheck from a medical transport company, which pays Bickford about $27,000 a year.  What's left barely supports Bickford, now divorced, and her 6-year-old son.

"It's a stretch to do everything I need to do every month," she said.  Assuming the garnishment continues, Bickford has at least three more years of stretching ahead of her.  "It's hard, it really is."

OPINION - Ukraine vs Russia, A Wake Up Call

"PUTIN -- QADDAFI -- BEN LADEN label them MURDERERS" by Cliff Wilson, Cliff's Notes 7/19/2014

Because the United States agreed to negotiate and is doing so with Iran rather than use military force to stop the Iranian production of nuclear weapon; and, because the United States chose to negotiate the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons rather than respond with air strikes against Syria; Putin, the 21st century Russian Czar, has miscalculated and seen American willingness to talk rather than shoot as a sign of weakness.  Twice in the last century the rulers of Germany and then once the ruler of Japan made the same mistake.  America may take a long time to get roused in anger enough to unleash our military might but when we do dictators have learned to pay a heavy price.

Obama is trying to use 21st century multilateral methods to combat the new Stalin.  Whether he succeeds will remain to be seen.  But Putin would be well advised to ignore the Republican party propaganda in DC about Obama being weak and recognize that on this issue -- the freedom of the people of Ukraine-- Obama will remain strong.   Shooting down a plane is akin to sinking ships a hundred years ago (Lusitania) an public ire will grow not diminish.

Unfortunately too many of my liberal friends (I consider myself a liberal) are bemoaning the “lack of clear evidence of Russian involvement” some have even taken to blaming the United States for starting the Ukraine crisis (which began when Putin forced his puppet President of Ukraine, Yanukoyvich, to drop plans to integrate with the EU which led to a popular uprising in Ukraine).  Both Putin and our domestic liberal commentators say the answer is to guarantee that Ukraine will not be admitted to NATO.  Firstly, Ukraine has never applied nor indicated interest in joining NATO--they want to be in the EU.  Secondly, Ukraine in 1994 gave up their nuclear weapons as part of the Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing their territorial integrity only to have that integrity violated by a nuclear power.  Now, guarantee that Ukraine will never be admitted to NATO, should they ever apply, and we invite Putin to take more aggressive action later.

The history of the 20th century is replete with occasions when democratic nations could have stopped dictators when they first made aggressive moves.  And when the democracies didn’t act the resultant wars costs millions of lives.

It is time we accepted that not everything in foreign affairs is complex - likewise not everything is simple.  Because the Bush-Cheney administration lied our country into a war in Iraq does not mean that Obama-Biden are lying us into peace through strength.  Because the English translators of the Russian language recordings released by Ukraine used complete sentences and deleted curses doesn’t mean the recordings are fake -- those who understand and speak Russian find the actual language credible.

Russian separatists aided or directed by Russians used a Russian supplied weapon to shoot down what they thought was a Ukrainian cargo or troop plane.  They made a mistake.  They should have admitted it and pointed out that mistakes are made in wars.  Instead Putin blames Ukraine.  When a fox broke into my grandfather's chicken coop and stole two hens instead of trying to remove the danger and kill the fox, Putin would blame my grandfather for building the hen house and filling it with chickens.

Obama is Right.  This is a wake up call!  And if Europe doesn’t want to wake up then America must lead.  In the 20th century in WWI and WWII we followed.  During the Cold War we led.  Now it is time for us to lead again.  This may be our last chance to bring Russia into the world community as a peaceful partner as Gorbachev and Yeltsin tried to do.  This may indeed be our last chance to put together a world of old powers (Germany, France, United Kingdom and Russia) and the emerging powers (Brazil, India, China and South Africa).  We can lead that combination -- we must not let it become a new division with Russia leading one part.  Putin has shown the world what he is capable of doing - now America must show the world that we will not allow him to bully the other nations on this globe.

Friday, July 25, 2014

SPACE - Super-Dry Exoplanets x3 Found

An artist's impression shows a Jupiter-sized planet passing in front of its parent star.

"Hubble Finds Three, Surprisingly Dry Jupiter-Like Exoplanets" by Kukil Bora, International Business Times 7/25/2014

Astronomers, who used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to look for water vapor in the atmosphere of three exoplanets, have found that the trio, orbiting stars similar to the sun, are surprisingly dry.

Astronomers previously believed that the three exoplanets, dubbed HD 189733b, HD 209458b and WASP-12b, were ideal candidates for harboring water vapor in their atmospheres.  However, the planets, which have temperatures ranging between 1,500 degrees to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, were found to have very little water, compared to the amount predicted by standard planet-formation theories.

“Our water measurement in one of the planets, HD 209458b, is the highest-precision measurement of any chemical compound in a planet outside our solar system, and we can now say with much greater certainty than ever before that we've found water in an exoplanet,” Nikku Madhusudhan of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, England and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.  “However, the low water abundance we have found so far is quite astonishing.”

The three exoplanets, also known as “hot Jupiters” are located between 60 and 900 light-years away from Earth.  Astronomers believe that the new results, published Thursday in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, could have major implications in the search for water on potentially inhabitable Earth-sized exoplanets.

“We have to revisit planet formation and migration models of giant planets, especially ‘hot Jupiters,’ and investigate how they're formed,” Madhusudhan said.  “We should be prepared for much lower water abundances than predicted when looking at super-Earths.”

In order to determine the amount of water vapor in each of the planet's atmospheres, the astronomers used Hubble to observe the planets’ near-infrared spectrum, NASA said, adding that detecting water on transiting planets is almost impossible from the ground because of the amount of water in Earth's atmosphere, which contaminates the observation.

“There are so many things we still don't know about exoplanets, so this opens up a new chapter in understanding how planets and solar systems form,” Drake Deming of the University of Maryland, said in the statement.  “The problem is that we are assuming the water to be as abundant as in our own solar system.  What our study has shown is that water features could be a lot weaker than our expectations.”

DIABETES (EU) - Combo Drug Better at Lowering Blood Sugar

Now all I need is for the U.S. to get with it, and approve the combo.

"UPDATE 1-Novo wins EU recommendation for two-in-one diabetes drug" by Ben Hirschler, Reuters 7/25/2014

Excerpt

A Novo Nordisk drug combining its long-acting insulin degludec with its type 2 diabetes treatment Victoza has been recommended for approval in Europe, in an important boost for the Danish company.

The European Medicines Agency said on Friday it had issued a positive opinion for Xultophy, previously known as IDegLira, implying the medicine is likely to be formally approved by the European Commission within three months.

Novo said it planned to launch Xultophy in the first European markets in the first half of 2015.

Jakob Riis, executive vice president of marketing and medical affairs at Novo Nordisk, said Britain, Germany and Denmark were likely to be among the first launch markets for the product.

Clinical trial results have shown that the once-daily injection lowers blood sugar more than each medicine taken on its own, setting a new standard for sugar control in diabetic patients.

Prospects for degludec - already on sale separately in Europe under the brand name Tresiba - and the new combination with Victoza are critical for Novo, which is the world's biggest insulin maker.

Shares in Novo gained 1.6 percent on news of the favorable European decision, outperforming the European drugs sector which slid 0.3 percent by 1200 GMT.

Victoza has been a major growth driver for the group in the past few years but its sales are now rising more slowly, and Novo suffered a major setback in 2013 when U.S. regulators demanded more data on the safety of Tresiba before approving it.

With diabetes affecting 382 million people worldwide and the number of cases expected to rise to 592 million by 2035, according to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease represents a huge market for pharmaceutical companies.

Novo's main rivals in the space are Sanofi and Eli Lilly, which are also major suppliers of insulin.

Combination therapies for the growing type 2 diabetes health crisis are becoming increasingly common as patients continually require additional medicines as the disease progresses.

In addition to good blood sugar control, patients taking Xultophy also tend to lose weight.  Weight loss is a particularly beneficial effect as obesity is a leading cause of type 2 diabetes and insulin tends to cause weight gain.

MARYLAND - Facebook Gets Wanted Man

"'Can't catch me.' Wanted man arrested after taunting police on Facebook" by Jessica Durando, USA Today 7/25/2014

Police in Maryland arrested a 28-year-old man one day after cops say he taunted them on Facebook.

Roger Ray Ireland was profiled in the Anne Arundel County Police Department's "#WantedWednesday" feature on July 23 on Facebook.

Ireland, of Edgewater, Md., commented on the social media thread, "Can't catch me…"

Police said detectives located Ireland in south Baltimore on July 24, pulling him over during a traffic stop at about 1 p.m.

"Social Media is a great tool for law enforcement," said Police Chief Kevin Davis on Facebook.  "The amount of tips that we receive daily on social media shows how much ownership citizens are taking in their own communities."

He was served with an outstanding warrant for violation of probation.

NEW JERSEY - 'All In the Family' Lotto Winners

"Big family hit by Sandy to share lottery winnings" from AP, News & Record 7/25/2014

A large family that lives at the shore and suffered losses during Superstorm Sandy will share a $20 million lottery jackpot that one of the 17 siblings said will be “a great pick-me-up.”

Members of the Endreson family packed the Beachwood Community Center on Thursday for a news conference.  A lottery spokeswoman said the siblings range in age from 53 to 76.  The New Jersey Pick-6 prize will also be shared with three children of a brother who died a few years ago.

John Endreson, 69, became emotional when he described rebuilding his home after Sandy ripped through the area in October 2012.

“The hardest part was seeing other people that were devastated,” he said.  “I was able to redo my house and help my family and my brothers.  I was quite fortunate.  I just feel so lucky.  And this is just the icing on the cake.”

Another sibling described how their late mother started playing the lottery regularly years ago and would always say that all her children would get a piece of the winnings.

Faith Schiabor told how she got the news from one of her sisters who had bought the winning ticket.

“I got this frantic phone call,” she said.  “She said, ‘Are you sitting down?’  I thought someone was hurt.”

Her sister Sigrid told reporters that she bought the tickets and then forgot about them for about two weeks before going down to a supermarket to check them.  When one came back with the message, “see cashier,” she ran it through again before taking it up to the window and getting the good news.

“I started to cry,” she said.  “I called my sister to come get me.  I didn't think I was going to make it.  I said, ‘I think I won the lottery.’”

The family decided to take a lump sum payment of $14 million, which is worth about $10 million after taxes.

“It's going to help the family, it's going to help Ocean County,” Schiabor said.  “It's just a great pick-me-up for all of us.”

WESTERN U.S. - Drought Draining Underground Water

"Parched West Is Using Up Underground Water: NASA/UCI" JPL NASA News, 7/24/2014

A new study by NASA and University of California, Irvine, scientists finds more than 75 percent of the water loss in the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin since late 2004 came from underground resources.  The extent of groundwater loss may pose a greater threat to the water supply of the western United States than previously thought.

This study is the first to quantify the amount that groundwater contributes to the water needs of western states.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal water management agency, the basin has been suffering from prolonged, severe drought since 2000 and has experienced the driest 14-year period in the last hundred years.

The research team used data from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission to track changes in the mass of the Colorado River Basin, which are related to changes in water amount on and below the surface.  Monthly measurements in the change in water mass from December 2004 to November 2013 revealed the basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet (65 cubic kilometers) of freshwater.  That's almost double the volume of the nation's largest reservoir, Nevada's Lake Mead.  More than three-quarters of the total -- about 41 million acre feet (50 cubic kilometers) -- was from groundwater.

"We don't know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don't know when we're going to run out," said Stephanie Castle, a water resources specialist at the University of California, Irvine, and the study's lead author.  "This is a lot of water to lose.  We thought that the picture could be pretty bad, but this was shocking."

Water above ground in the basin's rivers and lakes is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and its losses are documented. Pumping from underground aquifers is regulated by individual states and is often not well documented.

"There's only one way to put together a very large-area study like this, and that is with satellites," said senior author Jay Famiglietti, senior water cycle scientist at JPL on leave from UC Irvine, where he is an Earth system science professor.  "There's just not enough information available from well data to put together a consistent, basin-wide picture."

Famiglietti said GRACE is like having a giant scale in the sky.  Within a given region, the change in mass due to rising or falling water reserves influences the strength of the local gravitational attraction.  By periodically measuring gravity regionally, GRACE reveals how much a region's water storage changes over time.

The Colorado River is the only major river in the southwest part of the United States.  Its basin supplies water to about 40 million people in seven states, and irrigates roughly four million acres of farmland.

"The Colorado River Basin is the water lifeline of the western United States," said Famiglietti.  "With Lake Mead at its lowest level ever, we wanted to explore whether the basin, like most other regions around the world, was relying on groundwater to make up for the limited surface-water supply.  We found a surprisingly high and long-term reliance on groundwater to bridge the gap between supply and demand."

Famiglietti noted that the rapid depletion rate will compound the problem of short supply by leading to further declines in streamflow in the Colorado River.

"Combined with declining snowpack and population growth, this will likely threaten the long-term ability of the basin to meet its water allocation commitments to the seven basin states and to Mexico," Famiglietti said.

The study has been accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which posted the manuscript online July 24. Coauthors included other scientists from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado.  The research was funded by NASA and the University of California.

For more information on NASA's GRACE satellite mission, see:  NASA Grace and University of Texas Grace

GRACE is a joint mission with the German Aerospace Center and the German Research Center for Geosciences, in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin.  JPL developed the GRACE spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

NASA monitors Earth's vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns.  NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth's interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing.  The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet.

NASA - Auditors Say Big Rocket System Unaffordable

"NASA can't afford big rocket system, auditors say" from AP, CBS News 7/24/2014

NASA doesn't have enough money to get its new, $12 billion rocket system off the ground by the end of 2017 as planned, federal auditors say.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report Wednesday saying NASA's Space Launch System is at "high risk of missing" its planned December 2017 initial test flight.  The post-space shuttle program would build the biggest rockets ever - larger than the Saturn V rockets which sent men to the moon - to send astronauts to asteroids and Mars.

"They can't meet the date with the money they have," report author Cristina Chaplain said.  She said it wasn't because the space agency had technical problems with the congressionally-required program, but that NASA didn't get enough money to carry out the massive undertaking.

The GAO report put the current shortfall at $400 million, but did say NASA was "making solid progress" on the rocket program design.

NASA's launch system officials told the GAO that there was a 90 percent chance of not hitting the launch date at this time.

This usually means NASA has to delay its test launch date, get more money or be less ambitious about what it plans to do, said former NASA associate administrator Scott Pace, space policy director at George Washington University.

NASA is working on the problems GAO highlighted, but delaying launch or diverting money from other programs would harm taxpayers, NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier wrote in the agency's response.

"Welcome to aerospace," Pace said, pointing out that large space projects often end up as much as 50 percent over budget.  He said that "is why you shouldn't believe initial cost estimates."

The space agency has been reluctant to put an overall price tag on the Space Launch System.  The GAO report says it will cost $12 billion to get to the first test launch and "potentially billions more to develop increasingly capable vehicles" that could be used for launches to asteroids and Mars.

ESCONDIDO - Rookie Police Officer Murdered

"Body of Slain Escondido Cop Found, Husband Arrested" by R. Stickney and Laura McVicker, NBC 7 News 7/24/2014

A California man is in custody, accused in the death of his wife, who was a young mother and rookie Escondido Police officer.

According to Murrietta Police, Freddy Perez-Rodas told homicide investigators overnight that he killed Officer Laura Perez and burned their home in an attempt to cover up the crime.

Hours earlier, firefighters arrived at the couple’s home on Grand Oaks Court for a house fire.  It was just before 6:30 p.m. and fire crews found no victims inside the home.  When they responded to the fire, they did find Rodas, who reported that his wife was inside.

Fire investigators responded and "it was determined to be an arson immediately," said Murrietta Police Lt. Tony Conrad.

In addition to determining it was an arson, investigators discovered it was the same address connected to a missing person, 25-year-old Laura Perez.

Less than two hours later, homicide investigators arrested Perez-Rodas who had reported the house fire.

It was during questioning overnight that investigators learned the slain Escondido officer had been shot in the chest three times, her body moved to a storage locker in Moreno Valley.

Investigators were at All-Size Storage in Moreno Valley early Thursday morning and had closed off the business until 3 p.m.

Officials said that after Perez-Rodas led investigators to his wife’s body, he was booked on charges of murder, arson and child endangerment.

The couple has a 4-year-old child who was not injured, officials said.

Investigators also said they had recovered the weapon used in the alleged crime.

Laura Perez joined the Escondido Police Department in October 2013.  The department had a flag-lowering ceremony in her honor Thursday evening, and Escondido's police chief addressed the media.

Escondido Police Chief Craig Carter described Perez as "a wonderful officer who had a bright future."

"It's never an easy thing.  We're going to be one day at a time, " Carter said. "I'm encouraging officers to remember we're here for the victim, which in this case is Laura.  For every Laura, there's hundreds out there and we need to continue to do our job."

Escondido police also will be having a press conference at 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Escondido Police Fire and Headquarters in the community room.

SAN DIEGO - In My Home Town, Comic Con 2014

"4-day Comic Con festival kicks off in San Diego" AP, Sacramento Bee 7/25/2014

Like Batman responding to a beaming Bat signal in the sky, fans are streaming to San Diego for the 45th annual Comic-Con pop culture extravaganza.

The four-day festival celebrating film, TV, video games, comic books, costumes and other popular arts kicks off with a preview Wednesday night and goes full force Thursday at the San Diego Convention Center.

More than 150,000 fans are expected to attend the sold-out event, where studios will offer exclusive previews of their latest properties.

Television is making a bigger splash than in previous years, with several shows diving into the 6,500-seat exhibition hall that's traditionally been movies' main home at the convention center.

"This is the year that we'll see as much TV (as film), especially in Hall H," said Matt Atchity, editor-in-chief of RottenTomatoes.com, which aggregates film and television reviews.

Here's a peek at some of the most anticipated presentations:

FILM:  Marvel Studios hasn't revealed any specifics about its panel, but a look at "Ant-Man" and the next "Avengers" installment seem likely.  Paramount is bringing its live-action take on "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," starring Megan Fox and Will Arnett.  Warner Bros. will feature "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" and its reboot of "Mad Max."  Fox is introducing a spate of films, including the animated "Book of Life" starring Channing Tatum.  A few others: Focus Features' animated "The Boxtrolls"; the sequel to Frank Miller's "Sin City"; Daniel Radcliffe's first Comic-Con appearance for the upcoming "Horns"; and the annual appearance by festival stalwart Kevin Smith.

TV:  "Game of Thrones" and "The Walking Dead" will each take over Comic-Con's largest hall for panels with cast members and creators.  Joel McHale and other stars of "Community" will discuss the future of the comedy after its move to Yahoo.  Guillermo del Toro plans to present his creepy new FX series, "The Strain." SyFy's "Sharknado" roars in with stars Ian Ziering and Tara Reid for a peek at the sequel.  The creators of BBC America's "Orphan Black" will be on hand with star Tatiana Maslany.  Other TV panels tempting fans: Emmy favorites "The Big Bang Theory" and "American Horror Story"; FX's "Sons of Anarchy"; and the CW's "Arrow" and "The Vampire Diaries."

GAMES:  Ubisoft is promoting the free-running adventure "Assassin's Creed: Unity" with a French Revolution-themed parkour course that will be open to wannabe assassins.  The cast and crew of the cops-and-robbers shooter "Battlefield Hardline" will be on hand for a panel, as will the creative forces behind the latest edition of the toys-meets-game franchise "Skylanders: Trap Team."  Meanwhile, Nintendo will showcase "Super Smash Bros." and other titles at its gaming lounge, while Sega will hype the cartoony "Sonic Boom" and the scifi horror "Alien: Isolation."  Other games on display: multiplayer racer "The Crew" and blocky Dark Knight romp "Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham."

OTHER FUN STUFF:  MAC Cosmetics is unveiling its new collection inspired by Marge Simpson and offering "Marge Makeovers" at its downtown San Diego store.  Crave Online is throwing a party aboard the USS Midway aircraft carrier (museum) featuring live performances by MGMT and Grimes.  Adult Swim is bringing its Fun House back to Petco Park, and introducing a "Meatwad Full Dome Experience" that includes a free T-shirt at the end.  Hello Kitty will also be at Petco Park, celebrating her 40th anniversary with free temporary tattoos.

RUSSIA - Putin's Bad-Call Threatens 'Pocketbook'

"UPDATE 2-Russian assets slide as EU sanctions threat looms large" by Alexander Winning, Reuters 7/25/2014

Russian assets slipped on Friday as investors took the view that a possible new wave of European Union sanctions over Moscow's involvement in the Ukraine crisis could cause severe damage to whole sectors of the Russian economy.

In a sign policymakers are nervous about the impact of sanctions - which are also being ratcheted up by the United States - the central bank unexpectedly raised its key interest rate by 50 basis points.

"It's clear that the key factor for market dynamics today is the expectation of EU sanctions. ...  All other information is for the moment beyond the border of what's influencing trades," said Artyom Argetkin from BCS brokerage.

The dollar-denominated RTS index was down 1.5 percent at 1248.3 points at 1200 GMT, while the ruble-based MICEX traded 1.4 percent lower at 1389.9 points.

Russian sovereign dollar bonds fell across the curve on the sanctions fears, while the ruble weakened slightly against the dollar, despite being boosted by the central bank rate decision and the end-of-month tax period.

Ambassadors of the 28-nation EU are discussing options to curb Russian access to capital markets, arms and energy technology in response to last week's downing of a Malaysian airliner in an area of eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists.

The EU is also expected to expand its list of those targeted by sanctions including asset freezes on Friday due to Moscow's perceived backing of the pro-Russian separatists fighting Ukrainian government forces.

Earlier, the United States said Russia was firing artillery across its border, targeting Ukrainian military positions, and that Moscow intends to deliver heavy weapons to separatist forces.

Russia's $1.5 billion 2043 dollar bond fell almost 2 cents while the 2030 issue fell half a cent. Russian yield spreads over U.S. Treasuries widened 7 basis points to 285 bps on the EMBI Global index.

The ruble, meanwhile, was down 0.08 percent against the dollar to trade at 35.07 but strengthened 0.08 percent versus the euro to 47.16.

"Markets-wise, the [central bank] move is marginally supportive for the ruble, even though it won't be able to stop foreign capital repatriation if bolder sanctions are approved," Dmitry Polevoy, chief economist for Russia and CIS at ING bank.

The Russian currency was 0.03 percent weaker at 40.51 against the dollar-euro basket the central bank uses to gage the rouble's nominal exchange rate.

Investors pulled $172 million from Russia-dedicated funds between July 17 and 23, the largest outflow since January, analysts at VTB Capital said in a note, citing data from Emerging Portfolio Fund Research released on Friday.

WEST AFRICA - Air Algerie Crash

"Bad weather seen as probable cause of fatal Air Algerie crash" Reuters 7/25/2014

Poor weather was the most likely cause of the crash of an Air Algerie flight in the West African state of Mali that killed 118 people on board, French officials said on Friday.

Investigators at the scene of the crash in northern Mali concluded the airliner broke apart when it hit the ground, the officials said, suggesting this meant it was unlikely to have been the victim of an attack.

"French soldiers who are on the ground have started the first investigations.  Sadly, there are no survivors," French President Francois Hollande told reporters.

A column of 100 soldiers and 30 vehicles from the French force stationed in the region arrived early on Friday morning to secure the crash site near the northern Mali town of Gossi and to recover bodies, a Defense Ministry official said.

Hollande said one of the black box flight recorders had already been recovered and would be analyzed quickly.

"The plane's debris is concentrated in a small area, but it is too early to draw conclusions," Hollande said of the wreckage of the plane carrying at least 51 French nationals that crashed near the border with Burkina Faso, from where it had taken off.

"There are theories, especially the weather, but I'm not excluding any theory."

The death toll was revised to 118 from 116 after a final passenger manifest was issued.

"They have to do everything to reassemble the bodies and bring them home so that we can mourn properly," said Alidou Ouedraogo, whose daughter was among the 27 citizens of Burkina Faso killed in the crash.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN - A Bug's Mind, What They Tell About Us

"How studying fruit flies and zebrafish might unlock secrets of the human brain" PBS NewsHour 7/23/2014

Excerpt

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Next, trying to better understand what’s happening in the brain of a fruit fly, a dragonfly, or a zebra fish, all part of a larger puzzle to learn more about how our own brains work.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien has the first in our three-part series on the science of the brain.

MILES O’BRIEN (NewsHour):  Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the Basic Research Facility scientist consider nirvana.  You might see a Nobel Prize in the making or you might be subjected to this, the fruit fly version of a scary movie, the rapidly growing shadow of a predator homing in for the kill.

GWYNETH CARD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute-Janelia Farm Research Campus:  My lab is really interested in how flies make decisions.

MILES O’BRIEN:  Neuroscientist Gwyneth Card runs a laboratory at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-Janelia Farm Research Campus near Washington, D.C.  She films fruit flies at 6,000 frames per second to better see what they do and eventually she hopes understand how their brains issue commands and their bodies turn that into lifesaving action.



Talk about ecofriendly campus:

Howard Hughes Medical Institute-Janelia Farm Research Campus

HEALTH CARE - Affordable Care Act Conflicts

"Will conflicting federal health care law rulings head to the Supreme Court?" PBS NewsHour 7/22/2014

Excerpt

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Now conflicting court rulings on the health care law.

The federal court of appeals based in Washington ruled today that the law doesn’t allow policy holders who get their insurance through the federal exchange to qualify for subsidies that would reduce the cost.  But a separate ruling, issued hours later by a federal appeals court in Richmond, said those getting policies through the federal exchanges do qualify for the subsidies.

The rulings come down to different interpretations of the same passage of the law.  Congress said if a state didn’t create its own insurance exchange, the federal government should.  But the law also reads that subsidies be provided by — quote — “an exchange established by the state.”

Just 14 states, plus the District of Columbia, created their own exchanges.  Five million enrollees now receive subsidies through the federal exchange.

So, what do these conflicting rulings mean for the future of the health care law?

For that, we turn to Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News and Tom Goldstein, founder of SCOTUSblog.com.

Let’s go back to the root of this challenge, Julie.  Why did this come up?

EDUCATION - Traditional Public Schools Under Same Roof With Charter Schools

"In Houston, traditional public school shares ideas and a roof with charter schools" PBS NewsHour 7/22/2014

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Charter schools have often been seen as a threat to traditional schools, diverting resources and students to these publicly funded but privately run institutions.  In Houston, Texas, the superintendent of one school district has invited competing charter schools to set up shop alongside a regular middle school.  Special correspondent John Merrow reports on their evolving partnership.

MIAMI - Marine Stadium Second Life

"Graffiti art gives abandoned Miami stadium a second life" PBS NewsHour 7/21/2014

Excerpt

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  It sits abandoned on a thin stretch of land called Virginia Key, overlooking a manmade basin between Miami’s South Channel and Biscayne Bay, a magnificent setting, downtown Miami in the near distance.

Today, the 6,500-seat Marine Stadium is littered with garbage, every reachable inch of it covered in graffiti, forgotten by many, but not those who remember its role as a cultural centerpiece for a rising city.  One of those is Miami’s own music star Gloria Estefan.

GLORIA ESTEFAN:  This is one of those things in the city that has history.  It’s almost 50 years old.

JEFFREY BROWN:  That’s — 50 years old is not that long, right?

GLORIA ESTEFAN:  In Miami, it is.

JEFFREY BROWN:  In fact, the stadium turned 50 years old just last December.  And Estefan has joined a grassroots effort not only to save it, but to give it renewed life.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Miami was still finding its identity as something more than a seasonal tourist destination.  When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, waves of Cubans began leaving for South Florida, seeking new lives and redefining the city’s culture.



"From painting overpasses to stadiums, a graffiti artist on his evolving art form" PBS NewsHour 7/18/2014

Excerpt

For more than 30 years, Los Angeles-based artist RISK has been creating colorful murals on everything from highway overpasses — known as “heavens” — to dilapidated buildings, walls, trains and buses.

“I like to evoke emotion with colors and not letters or imagery,” he said, “so I have to really look at the environment and see where I’m at and kind of work that into it.”

Recently that environment was South Florida, where he joined eight other graffiti artists to paint on the abandoned Miami Marine Stadium, part of an effort to raise attention and money for the stadium’s restoration.  Curated by New York-based stencil artist Logan Hicks, the project is called ART History and runs through 2014.

While reporting on the broader story of the Miami Marine Stadium, which was built in the 1960s and abandoned in the 1990s, Jeffrey Brown spoke with RISK about his project there, his body of work and the very temporary nature of his art form.

MH17 - Putin Changing Course?

"Will the MH17 disaster cause Putin to change course in Ukraine?" PBS NewsHour 7/21/2014

Excerpt

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  When the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down, the stakes in the fight for the future of Ukraine went up.  At the center of what has rapidly become a global flash point is the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Russia.  But what, if anything, can the U.S. or Russia do in the face of international grief, recrimination and derailed diplomacy?

Stephen Sestanovich was U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration.  He’s now senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.  And Eugene Rumer was the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia during the Obama administration from 2010 to 2014.  He’s now director of Russia and Eurasia Programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Stephen Sestanovich, how much — how much good can international pressure do?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH, Council on Foreign Relations:  Well, there’s no doubt that Russia faces the most appalling public relations predicament that it’s been in, in decades.  And it is going to be responding to international pressure.

No government wants to have the kind of criminal reputation that the Russians are acquiring for their handling of this.  And the result is — you already see — is a kind of backing off of some of the positions that they have taken.  They supported a U.N. Security Council resolution today.  The separatists have been urged to release the bodies.  There is that kind of minimal level of cooperation that is meant to rescue their international position right now.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

INTERNET - The Impossible to Block Tracking Device

"Meet the Online Tracking Device That is Virtually Impossible to Block" by Julia Angwin, ProPublica 7/21/2014

Update: A YouPorn.com spokesperson said that the website was "completely unaware that AddThis contained a tracking software that had the potential to jeopardize the privacy of our users." After this article was published, YouPorn removed AddThis technology from its website.

A new, extremely persistent type of online tracking is shadowing visitors to thousands of top websites, from WhiteHouse.gov to YouPorn.com.

First documented in a forthcoming paper by researchers at Princeton University and KU Leuven University in Belgium, this type of tracking, called canvas fingerprinting, works by instructing the visitor’s Web browser to draw a hidden image.  Because each computer draws the image slightly differently, the images can be used to assign each user’s device a number that uniquely identifies it.

Like other tracking tools, canvas fingerprints are used to build profiles of users based on the websites they visit — profiles that shape which ads, news articles, or other types of content are displayed to them.

But fingerprints are unusually hard to block.  They can’t be prevented by using standard Web browser privacy settings or using anti-tracking tools such as AdBlock Plus.

The researchers found canvas fingerprinting computer code, primarily written by a company called AddThis, on 5 percent of the top 100,000 websites.  Most of the code was on websites that use AddThis’ social media sharing tools.  Other fingerprinters include the German digital marketer Ligatus and the Canadian dating site Plentyoffish. (A list of all the websites on which researchers found the code is here).

Rich Harris, chief executive of AddThis, said that the company began testing canvas fingerprinting earlier this year as a possible way to replace “cookies,” the traditional way that users are tracked, via text files installed on their computers.

“We’re looking for a cookie alternative,” Harris said in an interview.

Harris said the company considered the privacy implications of canvas fingerprinting before launching the test, but decided “this is well within the rules and regulations and laws and policies that we have.”

He added that the company has only used the data collected from canvas fingerprints for internal research and development.  The company won’t use the data for ad targeting or personalization if users install the AddThis opt-out cookie on their computers, he said.

Arvind Narayanan, the computer science professor who led the Princeton research team, countered that forcing users to take AddThis at its word about how their data will be used, is “not the best privacy assurance.”

Device fingerprints rely on the fact that every computer is slightly different: Each contains different fonts, different software, different clock settings and other distinctive features. Computers automatically broadcast some of their attributes when they connect to another computer over the Internet.

Tracking companies have long sought to use those differences to uniquely identify devices for online advertising purposes, particularly as Web users are increasingly using ad-blocking software and deleting cookies.

In May 2012, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, noticed that a Web programming feature called “canvas” could allow for a new type of fingerprint — by pulling in different attributes than a typical device fingerprint.

In June, the Tor Project added a feature to its privacy-protecting Web browser to notify users when a website attempts to use the canvas feature and sends a blank canvas image.  But other Web browsers did not add notifications for canvas fingerprinting.

A year later, Russian programmer Valentin Vasilyev noticed the study and added a canvas feature to freely available fingerprint code that he had posted on the Internet.  The code was immediately popular.

But Vasilyev said that the company he was working for at the time decided against using the fingerprint technology.  “We collected several million fingerprints but we decided against using them because accuracy was 90 percent,” he said, “and many of our customers were on mobile and the fingerprinting doesn’t work well on mobile.”

Vasilyev added that he wasn’t worried about the privacy concerns of fingerprinting.  “The fingerprint itself is a number which in no way is related to a personality,” he said.

AddThis improved upon Vasilyev’s code by adding new tests and using the canvas to draw a pangram “Cwm fjordbank glyphs vext quiz” — a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once.  This allows the company to capture slight variations in how each letter is displayed.

AddThis said it rolled out the feature to a small portion of the 13 million websites on which its technology appears, but is considering ending its test soon.  “It’s not uniquely identifying enough,” Harris said.

AddThis did not notify the websites on which the code was placed because “we conduct R&D projects in live environments to get the best results from testing,” according to a spokeswoman.

She added that the company does not use any of the data it collects — whether from canvas fingerprints or traditional cookie-based tracking — from government websites including WhiteHouse.gov for ad targeting or personalization.

The company offered no such assurances about data it routinely collects from visitors to other sites, such as YouPorn.com.  YouPorn.com did not respond to inquiries from ProPublica about whether it was aware of AddThis’ test of canvas fingerprinting on its website.

Monday, July 21, 2014

WASHINGTON D.C. - Decriminalizes Marijuana

"Washington D.C. becomes latest jurisdiction to decriminalize marijuana" PBS NewsHour 7/20/2014

Excerpt

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  This week, the District of Columbia became the latest jurisdiction to decriminalize possession of marijuana.  It’s part of a growing national trend.  For the latest about all this, we’re joined by Melanie Eversley, a reporter for USA Today.

So, what’s the new rule specifically in D.C., you can’t just walk down the National Mall smoking marijuana now, right?

MELANIE EVERSLEY, USA Today:  Right, right.  Essentially, this law took effect on Thursday.  It basically decriminalizes possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.  So what that means is if you are caught with that on your person, instead of being subject to criminal penalties, what you would get is a $25 ticket, which is less than the cost of a parking ticket here in New York City.

It also changes a couple of other things.  If police smell marijuana while they’re on their beat or whatever, they can no longer search a person for it.  If they also find up to an ounce of marijuana on a person, they can no longer automatically search them, so it drastically changes things.

OPINION - Shields and Brooks 7/18/2014

"Shields and Brooks on Israel’s incursion, challenging Russia" PBS NewsHour 7/18/2014

Excerpts

SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss potential consequences of the attack on a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane over Ukraine and the ground invasion by Israel into Gaza.
----
JUDY WOODRUFF:  Does this mean, David, the idea of any sort of resolution is just so far off in the distance, you can’t even imagine it?

DAVID BROOKS:  Well, yes.

We’re in sort of a parallel universe where it’s sort of a military operation we have not seen before.  So Hamas has had no success in inflicting any damage on the Israelis, in part because of the Iron Dome missile defense system and in part just because their rockets are not that great.

But they — when the cease-fire proposal went out there, they greeted that with a barrage of missiles nonetheless, not because they hoped to inflict any damage on the Israelis, but they hoped the Israelis would inflict damage on them and kill Palestinian civilians, which is one of the reasons they have decided to tell their civilians not to flee the areas that are afflicted.

So, it’s a rare moment in military history where a party rejects a cease-fire in order to get more of their own people killed.  But that’s part of the strategy, which is a global strategy, a propaganda strategy of eliciting this European response.

I think the U.S. has done a good job, John Kerry’s done a good job of rejecting this strategy of using human shields.  Bill Clinton has said things.  But this is the strategy they’re trying to enact, and it’s just this perverse military strategy of getting your own people killed.

UKRAINE - The Shooting Down of Passenger Plane MH17 (4 parts)

"MH17 crash in war zone poses security challenges, but may be aided by more ‘eyes’" (Part-1) PBS NewsHour 7/18/2014

Excerpt

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Leaders from around the world called for an investigation into who shot down the Malaysian passenger plane.  But how can that be done in the middle of a war zone?

Hari Sreenivasan has that.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  For that, we turn to New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti, and P.J. Crowley, who served as assistant secretary of state during the first Obama administration and is now a fellow at George Washington University.

Mark, I want to start with you.

From your sources in the intelligence community, is there any certainty on whether the surface-to-air missile was from Russia or from the rebels?

MARK MAZZETTI, The New York Times:  Not total certainty on that point.

You heard President Obama say — put the blame pretty squarely on Moscow today, saying either they did it themselves or they gave it to the rebels and they were doing this by proxy.  Either way, the president said, and as intelligence officials are sort of pointing out, it’s — Russia is escalating the conflict by introducing these surface-to-air missiles.

But you raise a good point.  Exactly how this happened, exactly how the missiles got there and when they got there is still an important point to — question to answer.



"Understanding the risks of flying in unfriendly skies" (Part-2) PBS NewsHour 7/18/2014

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  For a closer look at the challenges on the ground at the site of the downed Malaysia Airlines plane in Eastern Ukraine, Judy Woodruff talks to Matt Frei of Independent Television News from Donetsk.  Science correspondent Miles O’Brien (NewsHour) joins in to discuss why the jetliner was on a flight path over a conflict zone.



"Did Russia destroy key evidence from the MH17 crash site in Ukraine?" (Part-3) PBS NewsHour 7/19/2014

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Ukraine accused Russia and pro-Russian separatists today of destroying evidence that could offer clues about the downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane that went down in Ukraine earlier this week.



"Kerry:  Evidence mounts pointing blame at pro-Russian separatists for MH17" (Part-4) PBS NewsHour 7/20/2014

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Pro-Russian separatist leader Alexander Borodai said today that critical evidence has been recovered from the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that is believed to have been shot down Thursday near the Ukrainian-Russian border.  Secretary of State John Kerry said there was overwhelming evidence that pro-Russian separatists shot down the plane.

WOMEN - 30th Anniversary of First Woman Nominated for Vice President

"How Geraldine Ferraro changed the political outlook for women" PBS NewsHour 7/17/2014

Excerpt

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  This Saturday marks the 30-year anniversary of the nomination of the first woman ever to run for vice president on a major party ticket.  She was New York Democratic Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro.

A documentary by her daughter titled “Geraldine Ferraro:  Paving the Way” tells the story of her mother’s trailblazing career and the effect she had on American politics and culture.

We begin with an excerpt from that film, inside the Democratic National Convention hall in San Francisco where Ferraro was formally nominated by her running mate, Walter Mondale, on July 19, 1984.

WALTER MONDALE, Former Presidential Candidate:  I have had many people tell me it’s the best national convention we have ever had.  People were thrilled.  The crowds were building up outside the hall to be close to what was going on.

WOMAN:  I nominate Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York to be the next vice president of the United States of America.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GERALDINE FERRARO, Former Vice Presidential Candidate:  It was as emotional as I had ever seen at a convention, thunderous, the response and emotion.  To talk about it, it was so spectacular.

WOMAN:  The floor of the convention was virtually all women, and women who had fought so hard for women’s rights.  And, oh, my God, it was such a wonderful moment.

COKIE ROBERTS, Journalist:  Standing up there all in white, looking like this tiny little figure, but looking beautiful and looking female.

CALIFORNIA - State Shuts Down Oil/Gas Injection Sites

"California Halts Injection of Fracking Waste, Warning it May Be Contaminating Aquifers" by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica 7/18/2014

State’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as California aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for oil industry.

California officials have ordered an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites and a review more than 100 others in the state's drought-wracked Central Valley out of fear that companies may have been pumping fracking fluids and other toxic waste into drinking water aquifers there.

The state's Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources on July 7 issued cease and desist orders to seven energy companies warning that they may be injecting their waste into aquifers that could be a source of drinking water, and stating that their waste disposal "poses danger to life, health, property, and natural resources."  The orders were first reported by the Bakersfield Californian, and the state has confirmed with ProPublica that its investigation is expanding to look at additional wells.

The action comes as California's agriculture industry copes with a drought crisis that has emptied reservoirs and cost the state $2.2 billion this year alone.  The lack of water has forced farmers across the state to supplement their water supply from underground aquifers, according to a study released this week by the University of California Davis.

The problem is that at least 100 of the state's aquifers were presumed to be useless for drinking and farming because the water was either of poor quality, or too deep underground to easily access.  Years ago, the state exempted them from environmental protection and allowed the oil and gas industry to intentionally pollute them.  But not all aquifers are exempted, and the system amounts to a patchwork of protected and unprotected water resources deep underground.  Now, according to the cease and desist orders issued by the state, it appears that at least seven injection wells are likely pumping waste into fresh water aquifers protected by the law, and not other aquifers sacrificed by the state long ago.

"The aquifers in question with respect to the orders that have been issued are not exempt," said Ed Wilson, a spokesperson for the California Department of Conservation in an email.

A 2012 ProPublica investigation of more than 700,000 injection wells across the country found that wells were often poorly regulated and experienced high rates of failure, outcomes that were likely polluting underground water supplies that are supposed to be protected by federal law.  That investigation also disclosed a little-known program overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that exempted more than 1,000 other drinking water aquifers from any sort of pollution protection at all, many of them in California.

Those are the aquifers at issue today.  The exempted aquifers, according to documents the state filed with the U.S. EPA in 1981 and obtained by ProPublica, were poorly defined and ambiguously outlined.  They were often identified by hand-drawn lines on a map, making it difficult to know today exactly which bodies of water were supposed to be protected, and by which aspects of the governing laws.  Those exemptions and documents were signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown, who also was governor in 1981.

State officials emphasized to ProPublica that they will now order water testing and monitoring at the injection well sites in question.  To date, they said, they have not yet found any of the more regulated aquifers to have been contaminated.

"We do not have any direct evidence any drinking water has been affected," wrote Steve Bohlen, the state oil and gas supervisor, in a statement to ProPublica.

Bohlen said his office was acting "out of an abundance of caution," and a spokesperson said that the state became aware of the problems through a review of facilities it was conducting according to California's fracking law passed late last year, which required the state to study fracking impacts and adopt regulations to address its risks, presumably including underground disposal.

California officials have long been under fire for their injection well practices, a waste disposal program that the state runs according to federal law and under a sort of license — called "primacy" — given to it by the EPA.

For one, experts say that aquifers the states and the EPA once thought would never be needed may soon become important sources of water as the climate changes and technology reduces the cost of pumping it from deep underground and treating it for consumption.  Indeed, towns in Wyoming and Texas — two states also suffering long-term droughts — are pumping, treating, then delivering drinking water to taps from aquifers which would be considered unusable under California state regulations governing the oil and gas industry.

In June 2011, the EPA conducted a review of other aspects of California's injection well program and found enforcement, testing and oversight problems so significant that the agency demanded California improve its regulations and warned that the state's authority could be revoked.

Among the issues, California and the federal government disagree about what type of water is worth protecting in the first place, with California law only protecting a fraction of the waters that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires.

The EPA's report, commissioned from outside consultants, also said that California regulators routinely failed to adequately examine the geology around an injection well to ensure that fluids pumped into it would not leak underground and contaminate drinking water aquifers.  The report found that state inspectors often allowed injection at pressures that exceeded the capabilities of the wells and thus risked cracking the surrounding rock and spreading contaminants.  Several accidents in recent years in California involved injected waste or injected steam leaking back out of abandoned wells, or blowing out of the ground and creating sinkholes, including one 2011 incident that killed an oil worker.

The exemptions and other failings, said Damon Nagami, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in an email, are "especially disturbing" in a state that has been keenly aware of severe water constraints for more than a century and is now suffering from a crippling drought.  "Our drinking water sources must be protected and preserved for the precious resources they are, not sacrificed as a garbage dump for the oil and gas industry."

Still, three years after the EPA's report, California has not yet completed its review of its underground injection program, according to state officials.  The scrutiny of the wells surrounding Bakersfield may be the start.