Wednesday, February 27, 2013

POLITICS - Embattled Confirmation of Defense Secretary Hagel

"Did Embattled Confirmation Process Weaken New Defense Secretary Hagel?" PBS Newshour 2/26/2013


JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour):   The United States Senate ended a contentious fight over a key presidential nomination today, and confirmed former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., Majority Leader:  Twelve days later, nothing, nothing has changed.  Twelve days later, Senator Hagel's exemplary record of service to his country remains untarnished.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  In short, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, Chuck Hagel should have been confirmed before the President's Day recess.  At the time, the Senate's 55 Democrats could not get the 60 votes needed to end a Republican filibuster against fellow Republican Hagel.  Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois condemned the GOP opposition today.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill., Majority Whip:  There's no question that there are some who bear some negative feelings toward Chuck Hagel because of his independence and some of his votes in the past, even his support of President Obama in the last presidential election.  But this has been taken to a level that I never expected.

AFRICA - Upcoming Presidential Election and Violence

"Memories of Violence Haunt Upcoming Presidential Election in Kenya" PBS Newshour 2/26/2013


SUMMARY:  After the disputed presidential election of December 2007, Kenya fell into chaos as neighbors from different tribal ethnic groups turned on each other in violence.  Five years later, Kenyans are worried that history may repeat itself as they prepare for new elections.  Special correspondent Kira Kay reports.

GWEN IFILL (Newshour): the East African nation of Kenya. It's a close ally of the United States in a very unstable region, a partner in the war on terror and an economic ray of hope on the continent.

Kenyans go to the polls Monday to elect a new president for the first time since 2007, and it's an election that will be watched far beyond the nation's borders.

Special correspondent Kira Kay was in Kenya recently and filed this report.

KIRA KAY:  Near Eldoret, Kenya, there is a cemetery that is small in size, but large in meaning. Mary and Haron Macharia have come to visit the grave of their daughter Joyce.

MARY MACHARIA, (through translator):  I feel weak when I remember my child. It is easier to forget when I am far away from here.

KIRA KAY:  On New Year's Day 2008, Mary, two-year-old Joyce, and hundreds of others fled to the church that once stood here, as an angry mob descended on them.

MARY MACHARIA (through translator):  They stabbed us with spears and threw stones at us. We scrambled into the church, but they lit it on fire.

KIRA KAY:  The Eldoret church burning was the worst case of the violence that spread across Kenya following disputed presidential elections in December 2007.  Neighbors of different tribal ethnicities turned on each other, and this nation of 42 million people plunged into chaos.

WOMEN - Modern Women's Movement Today

"Gloria Steinem: Women Can't 'Have It All' Until There's Equality" PBS Newshour 2/26/2013


SUMMARY:  A new PBS documentary, "MAKERS: Women Who Make America," looks at the women's movement and the groundbreaking contributions and struggles made by women today.  Judy Woodruff interviews activist Gloria Steinem about the film and about the current state of feminism and gender equality.

"Makers" Trailer

POLITICS - Sequestration, a 'Dr. Strangelove' Idea

Reminder, the FED is independent from the Administration and Congress.

"Fed Chair Bernanke Warns Lawmakers Sequester Could Slow Economic Recovery" PBS Newshour 2/26/2013


GWEN IFILL (Newshour):  The federal government moved another day closer today to $85 billion in automatic spending cuts. And as political charges and countercharges flew, Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke raised new fears about the potential economic fallout.

The Fed chairman told a Senate committee that forcing across-the-board spending cuts could slice half-a-percentage point off economic growth.

BEN BERNANKE, Federal Reserve Chairman:  I think an appropriate balance would be to introduce these cuts more gradually and to compensate with larger and more sustained cuts in the longer run to address our long-run fiscal issues.

GWEN IFILL:  Bernanke said the sequester was supposed to be a doomsday weapon designed to spur compromise.

BEN BERNANKE:   It was done to be sort of like "Dr. Strangelove," you know, the bomb that goes off.  So, obviously, if you can find a way to, you know -- in a bipartisan way to make it more effective and better prioritized, that would be a good thing.

Significant excerpt

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, Speaker of the House:  Now, the American people know the president gets more money, they're just going to spend it.  And the fact is, is that he's gotten his tax hikes. It's time to focus on the real problem here in Washington, and that is spending.

NO KIDDING!  That is what government (local, state, federal) is mandated to do with tax income, which is government's paycheck.  That is what I do with my paycheck, spend it.

SUPREME COURT - Collecting Criminal's DNA Case

"Case on Police Collecting DNA From Criminals Reaches Supreme Court" PBS Newshour 2/26/2013


SUMMARY:  A man was arrested in Maryland and police officers took a DNA sample that connected him to an unrelated crime.  The Supreme Court is now weighing whether the Fourth Amendment should protect him from that kind of search.  Ray Suarez gets analysis and context on the case from Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

MEDIA - White House Use of Social Media

"Does the White House Use Social Media to Circumvent the Press?" PBS Newshour 2/25/2013


RAY SUAREZ (Newshour): our series about the digital world's cultural impact.

NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni is here with the Daily Download team.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI (Newshour):  Ordinary citizens have more opportunities to talk directly to the president these days.

Joining us to discuss how the White House is using the Internet to work around the press are two journalists from the website Daily Download.  Lauren Ashburn is the site's editor in chief.  Howard Kurtz is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief and host of CNN's "Reliable Sources."

RELIGION - Scandal in the Catholic Church, Again

"Senior British Cardinal Resigns Over Allegations of Inappropriate Behavior" (Part-1) PBS Newshour 2/25/2013

JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour):  Now the leader of the Catholic Church in Britain assigns amid a shroud of scandal.

Ciaran Jenkins of Independent Television News has the story.

CIARAN JENKINS, Independent Television News:  Just days before the pope abdicates, the U.K.'s top Catholic cleric announces he's standing aside, too.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien leaves with immediate effect and leaves the Catholic Church once more facing difficult questions.  His resignation follows allegations in a national newspaper.  He's accused of inappropriate behavior towards four priests dating back to the 1980s, allegations he denies.

The only activity here at the cardinal's residence today is the gaggle of cameramen waiting for him to come outside.  It's hardly surprising he's keeping a low profile.  This resignation is designed to take him out of the media spotlight before the election of a new pope in just a few weeks' time.

Now, though, the U.K. will have no say in choosing Pope Benedict's successor.  It was to be one of Cardinal O'Brien's last official duties before a scheduled retirement next month, but in a statement, he said:  "The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today.  Looking back over my years of ministry, for any good I have been able to do, I thank God.  For any failures, I apologize to all whom I have offended."

He does, however, remain a cardinal.  It's understood he could still take part in the election of a new pope, and it's his choice not to do so.

In Scotland, Cardinal O'Brien is a divisive figure, though many are sad to see him go.

ALEX SALMOND, Scottish First Minister:  No one -- no one would have wished these circumstances.  Everyone will feel great sadness for what's arisen today.  But I just feel that, particularly at a time like this, that we should reflect for a minute just on the massive contribution that Keith O'Brien has made to his church and his country over almost 50 years.

CIARAN JENKINS:  Others found him difficult, not least for his uncompromising opposition to gay marriage.

COLIN MACFARLANE, Stonewall Scotland:  What we really actually hope in Scotland is that the cardinal's successor will be able to show more a little bit more Christian charity to openly gay people than the cardinal was able to do himself.

CIARAN JENKINS:  By the end of this week, the Catholic Church will have vacancies not only for pope, but for the top job in the U.K. too.

"New Allegations Arise Against Vatican Ahead of Papal Elections" (Part-2) PBS Newshour 2/25/2013


SUMMARY:  As the Catholic Church prepares to elect a new pope, new allegations have emerged of sexual and financial impropriety -- including corruption and the attempted blackmail of gay Vatican clergy -- in the Italian media.  Margaret Warner talks with the Washington Post's Jason Horowitz.

INDIA - National IDs to Greatly Improve Serving the Poor?

"India Organizes One of Largest Citizen Registration Drives Ever to Issue IDs" PBS Newshour 2/25/2013


JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour): one of the largest registration drives of all time.  It's taking place in India, where authorities are mounting an effort to give every resident an official biometric identification card and number.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro filed this story as part of our Agents for Change series.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO (Newshour):  Across India, in community centers and schools like this one in New Delhi, people line up for hours.  Patience, like application forms they seek, is often in short supply.  It seems like a big deal over a rather mundane prize: a new government-issued I.D.  But the man behind it all calls this the largest social inclusion project in history.

NANDAN NILEKANI, Retired Software Billionaire:  We still have a large number of residents of India who don't have a birth certificate or any other form of official I.D.  And in the old days, when they lived their entire life in a single village, it maybe didn't matter, but now, with the highly mobile and aspirational society, you need some kind of an I.D.

CUBA - Without Castro? U.S. Relationship

"Sen. Leahy: Time for U.S. and Cuba to Discuss Relationship, 'Realities of Today'" PBS Newshour 2/25/2013


SUMMARY:  Sen. Patrick Leahy returned from a congressional delegation to Cuba, where U.S. lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to secure the release of American Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence.  Ray Suarez talks to the senator about that trip and about President Raoul Castro's announcement he will leave office in 2018.

HEALTHCARE - Health Care's Big Price Tags

Steven Brill's statement hits the nail-on-the-head.  'Free Enterprise" formula does NOT work for health care.

"Adding Up and Breaking Down Health Care's Big Price Tags" PBS Newshour 2/25/2013


JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour):  ......a big story on the big price tags attached to medical care.

Steven Brill spent months reporting his 26,000-word cover story in the latest issue of "TIME" magazine looking at what's behind our country's high cost of health care.  What he found was startling:  a few days of lab work that costs more than a car, a trip to an emergency room for indigestion that totaled more than a semester in college, and many more examples.

In response, the American Hospital Association released a statement that claimed the system is broken and that -- quote -- "Patients may look at a hospital bill and think the prices they see only reflect the direct care they received, when in fact what's reflected are all the resources to provide the care."

Steven Brill joins me now.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

STEVEN BRILL, TIME Magazine:  Hi, Judy. How are you?


Let me just begin by, you paint a devastating picture of the American health care system, and you talk, of course, about a system that is based on private enterprise, the private marketplace in America.  I guess my question is...


JUDY WOODRUFF:  ... why isn't the private marketplace working?

STEVEN BRILL:  Because the private marketplace in other aspect of our lives implies that there's some kind of balance between the seller and the buyer.

And in medicine, in health care, there is no balance.  If you go into a shoe store and you see a pair of shoes and you say, well, maybe they're, you know, $200 dollars, I think I will buy them, and the guy behind the counter at the shoe store tells you that the shoes are $6,000 dollars, you can turn around and walk out.  In fact, you can walk out and go up the block and go to a different shoe store.  You don't have to buy the shoes.

And in health care, not only do you have to buy it, because you don't have any choice, but you don't know what the price is before you buy it.  When you read the statement from the American Hospital Association, I sort of had to chuckle, because the implication there is that if they charge, as I found, $77 dollars for a box of, you know, gauze pads, the reason they're doing that is because of all the other care in the hospital that you're getting, the room and the board, the nurses and everything.

But they charge for that, too.  There was one hospital that was charging $1.50, as you know from the cover of the magazine, for a Tylenol.  And yet they were charging $1,791 dollars for the room.  Now, you would think if you're paying $1,791 dollars for the room, they would, you know, decide to throw in the Tylenol.

"Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us" by Steven Brill, Time Magazine 2/20/2013 (includes below video)

POLITICS - Path to Sequester Crawls On

"Despite Gloomy Urgings, No Signs of Give From Congress on Sequester" PBS Newshour 2/25/2013


RAY SUAREZ (Newshour):  President Obama and congressional Republicans traded barbs today, opening the final week before the looming sequester.  But there was no outward sign of a breakthrough to prevent $85 billion dollars in automatic spending reductions.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  These cuts do not have to happen. Congress can turn them off any time with just a little bit of compromise.

RAY SUAREZ:  The president's appeal came as he met with the nation's governors at the White House amid growing indications that the sequester will indeed take effect.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  This town has to get past its obsession with focusing on the next election, instead of the next generation.  All of us are elected officials.  All of us are concerned about our politics, both in our own parties, as well as the other parties.  But at some point, we have got to do some governing.  And certainly what we can't do is keep careening from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis.

RAY SUAREZ:  To reinforce the point, the administration on Sunday spelled out how each state will be affected, from job losses for teachers to cuts in defense spending.

SYRIA - More on Saudi Arabia Funding Weapons for Rebels

"Saudis Step Up Help for Rebels in Syria With Croatian Arms" by C. J. CHIVERS and ERIC SCHMITT, New York Times 2/25/2013


Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters in Syria in a drive to break the bloody stalemate that has allowed President Bashar al-Assad to cling to power, according to American and Western officials familiar with the purchases.

The weapons began reaching rebels in December via shipments shuttled through Jordan, officials said, and have been a factor in the rebels’ small tactical gains this winter against the army and militias loyal to Mr. Assad.

The arms transfers appeared to signal a shift among several governments to a more activist approach to assisting Syria’s armed opposition, in part as an effort to counter shipments of weapons from Iran to Mr. Assad’s forces.  The weapons’ distribution has been principally to armed groups viewed as nationalist and secular, and appears to have been intended to bypass the jihadist groups whose roles in the war have alarmed Western and regional powers.

For months regional and Western capitals have held back on arming the rebels, in part out of fear that the weapons would fall into the hands of terrorists.  But officials said the decision to send in more weapons is aimed at another fear in the West about the role of jihadist groups in the opposition.  Such groups have been seen as better equipped than many nationalist fighters and potentially more influential.

The action also signals the recognition among the rebels’ Arab and Western backers that the opposition’s success in pushing Mr. Assad’s military from much of Syria’s northern countryside by the middle of last year gave way to a slow, grinding campaign in which the opposition remains outgunned and the human costs continue to climb.

Washington’s role in the shipments, if any, is not clear. Officials in Europe and the United States, including those at the Central Intelligence Agency, cited the sensitivity of the shipments and declined to comment publicly.

But one senior American official described the shipments as “a maturing of the opposition’s logistical pipeline.”  The official noted that the opposition remains fragmented and operationally incoherent, and added that the recent Saudi purchase was “not in and of itself a tipping point.”

“I remain convinced we are not near that tipping point,” the official said.

The official added that Iran, with its shipments to Syria’s government, still outstrips what Arab states have sent to the rebels.

The Iranian arms transfers have fueled worries among Sunni Arab states about losing a step to Tehran in what has become a regional contest for primacy in Syria between Sunni Arabs and the Iran-backed Assad government and Hezbollah of Lebanon.

Another American official said Iran has been making flights with weapons into Syria that are so routine that he referred to them as “a milk run.”  Several of the flights were by an Iranian Air Force Boeing jet using the name Maharaj Airlines, he said.

While Persian Gulf Arab nations have been sending military equipment and other assistance to the rebels for more than a year, the difference in the recent shipments has been partly of scale.  Officials said multiple planeloads of weapons have left Croatia since December, when many Yugoslav weapons, previously unseen in the Syrian civil war, began to appear in videos posted by rebels on YouTube.

Many of the weapons — which include a particular type of Yugoslav-made recoilless gun, as well as assault rifles, grenade launchers, machine guns, mortars and shoulder-fired rockets for use against tanks and other armored vehicles — have been extensively documented by one blogger, Eliot Higgins, who writes under the name Brown Moses and has mapped the new weapons’ spread through the conflict.

SUPREME COURT - Trouble in Homophobia-Land

Trouble in homophobia-land.  Good for Constitutional equal rights.

"Republicans Sign Brief in Support of Gay Marriage" by SHERYL GAY STOLBERG, New York Times 2/25/2013


Dozens of prominent Republicans — including top advisers to former President George W. Bush, four former governors and two members of Congress — have signed a legal brief arguing that gay people have a constitutional right to marry, a position that amounts to a direct challenge to Speaker John A. Boehner and reflects the civil war in the party since the November election.

The document will be submitted this week to the Supreme Court in support of a suit seeking to strike down Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative barring same-sex marriage, and all similar bans.  The court will hear back-to-back arguments next month in that case and another pivotal gay rights case that challenges the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act.

The Proposition 8 case already has a powerful conservative supporter:  Theodore B. Olson, the former solicitor general under Mr. Bush and one of the suit’s two lead lawyers.  The amicus, or friend-of-the-court, brief is being filed with Mr. Olson’s blessing.  It argues, as he does, that same-sex marriage promotes family values by allowing children of gay couples to grow up in two-parent homes, and that it advances conservative values of “limited government and maximizing individual freedom.”

Legal analysts said the brief had the potential to sway conservative justices as much for the prominent names attached to it as for its legal arguments.  The list of signers includes a string of Republican officials and influential thinkers — 75 as of Monday evening — who are not ordinarily associated with gay rights advocacy, including some who are speaking out for the first time and others who have changed their previous positions.

Among them are Meg Whitman, who supported Proposition 8 when she ran for California governor; Representatives Ileana Frostiness of Florida and Richard Hanna of New York; Stephen J. Hadley, a Bush national security adviser; Carlos Gutierrez, a commerce secretary to Mr. Bush; James B. Comey, a top Bush Justice Department official; David A. Stockman, President Ronald Reagan’s first budget director; and Deborah Pryce, a former member of the House Republican leadership from Ohio who is retired from Congress.

Ms. Pryce said Monday:  “Like a lot of the country, my views have evolved on this from the first day I set foot in Congress.  I think it’s just the right thing, and I think it’s on solid legal footing, too.”

Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor, who favored civil unions but opposed same-sex marriage during his 2012 presidential bid, also signed. Last week, Mr. Huntsman announced his new position in an article titled “Marriage Equality Is a Conservative Cause,” a sign that the 2016 Republican presidential candidates could be divided on the issue for the first time.

GUN CONTROL - How-To on Buying Restricted Guns

Gee... Sounds just like off-shore banking used by those who want to avoid tax laws or hide their illegal-gotten gains.  In other words, crooks.

"Trusts Offer a Legal Loophole for Buying Restricted Guns" by ERICA GOODE, New York Times 2/25/2013


A growing number of shooting enthusiasts are creating legal trusts to acquire machine guns, silencers or other items whose sale is restricted by federal law — a mechanism that bypasses the need to obtain law enforcement approval or even undergo criminal background checks.

The trusts, called gun trusts, are intended to allow the owners of the firearms to share them legally with family members and to pass them down responsibly.  They have gained in popularity, gun owners say, in part because they may offer protection from future legislation intended to prohibit the possession or sale of the firearms.

But because of a loophole in federal regulations, buying restricted firearms through a trust also exempts the trust’s members from requirements that apply to individual buyers, including being fingerprinted, obtaining the approval of a chief local law enforcement officer and undergoing a background check.

Lawyers who handle the trusts and gun owners who have used them say that a majority of customers who buy restricted firearms through trusts do not do so to avoid such requirements.  And most gun dealers continue to require background checks for the representative of the trust who picks up the firearm.  But not all do.

Christopher J. Dorner, the former Los Angeles police officer who embarked on a week-long assault on law enforcement officers this month that ended with his death on Feb. 12, said in a rambling 11,000-word manifesto that he had used a gun trust to buy silencers and a short-barreled rifle from a gun store in Nevada without a background check.

Referring to a computer program available from the personal finance software company Quicken, Mr. Dorner wrote, “I was able to use a trust account that I created on quicken will maker and a $10 notary charge at a mailbox etc. to obtain them legally.”  Mr. Dorner was not a felon and probably would have passed a background check had he received one.

Mike Campbell, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which enforces firearms regulations, said that applications filed with the A.T.F. for transfers of restricted firearms to trusts or corporations have more than doubled in the last four years, to more than 39,000 in 2012 from about 15,000 in 2008.  He said the increase was largely attributable to the growth in the number of trusts.

Mr. Campbell confirmed that under current regulations, background checks were not required for the buying of restricted firearms through trusts.  The agency, he added, was aware of the loophole and was reviewing changes to close it.

Lawyers who prepare gun trusts said requests for the documents had been increasing in recent months as proposals for gun legislation proliferated in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill.  They said some gun owners were even creating trusts for nonrestricted firearms like semiautomatic rifles and pistols, hoping to protect them against the specter of future legislation.

The cost of setting up a trust can vary from a small amount for an online form to $100 to $2,500 in lawyers’ fees, depending on location and the type of trust.

Monday, February 25, 2013

GUN CONTROL - When Gun-Nuts Write Gun Laws

"When Gun Nuts Write Gun Laws, Nuts Have Guns" by Tom Scocca, Slate Magazine 12/21/2013

So this is what Wayne LaPierre came up with, with a week to reflect on the news that a law-abiding gun owner's legally purchased rifle, in the hands of her firearm-trained son, had been used to slaughter 20 kids:  more guns, more law-abiding gun owners, more more more lead-spraying death machinery, more killing to stop the killers until all the killers have been killed.  Only when we have eliminated the threat of "gun-free school zones," the danger and horror of children going through a school day unsurrounded by the implements of death, will we all feel safe.

People who live in the world of causes and effects and verifiable truths, the world the NRA has long since abandoned, had no trouble pointing out the flaws in LaPierre's analysis—the fact, for instance, that there had been an armed deputy sheriff on duty at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.  Around the time LaPierre was speaking, someone in Pennsylvania was shooting another batch of people, including armed state troopers.

Guns kill people.  More guns kill more people.  What the NRA gets wrong—intentionally or delusionally or, in the psychologically and financially profitable zone where intention and delusion overlap—is its bedrock premise:  that gun killings are the work of Bad Guys, predators whose drive to hurt and steal and kill cannot be stopped by anything but a brave Good Guy armed with a powerful firearm and, not at all incidentally, trained through an NRA-backed firearms-training program.

And the NRA insists that these people—"the monsters and the predators," as LaPierre put it—will not be thwarted by gun control, except in the funny T-shirt both-hands-on-my-weapon sense.  The next Adam Lanza is already picking out his target, LaPierre said.

That's because the next Adam Lanza is almost certainly able to get his hands on a weapon to point at that target.  The original Adam Lanza was apparently too confused and low-functioning to navigate Connecticut's simple waiting period and buy one for himself.  But his mother, a gun enthusiast in good standing, had a stock of her own.  She reportedly had wanted to feel safe.

So Wayne LaPierre wants to talk about "evil," because evil is elemental and intractable.  Evil is part of the human condition.  You cannot legislate away evil.

Let's leave the darkest recesses of the soul for a second.  Two days before the Connecticut massacre, this happened:

This is not unknowable wickedness.  It's banal teenage rage and stupidity, amplified by a gun.  That's what everyday gun crime is—fleeting moments of thoughtless viciousness, made permanent with the wiggle of a finger.  The Jovan Belcher murder-suicide was an ugly domestic argument; Belcher's gun collection turned it lethal.  Maybe, as the gun enthusiasts argue, he might have resorted to using a knife or a club.  But that's a less likely result.  And even if it did happen, it would be less likely to be fatal.

In Australia, gun violence decreased markedly after the implementation of strict gun control measures.  In Bogota, the number of deaths by firearm is reportedly down 58 percent, after the mayor banned public possession of guns.  Take away instant, easy death-dealing, and the death rate drops.

LaPierre does not live in the realm of probabilities and harm reduction.  He lives in a sick, paranoid universe where guns substitute for law, custom, and morality.  Here he is, describing the country as he sees it, a place that teeters on the brink of collapse because of our national softness on crime:  "Add another hurricane, terrorist attack, or some other natural or manmade disaster, and you’ve got a recipe for a national nightmare of violence and victimization."

Violence and victimization.  Now is a good time to remember what really happened after Hurricane Katrina:  brutal cops and bands of racist civilians went around shooting and killing unarmed people.  Why?  Because they believed in the NRA message, that predators were waiting to attack law-abiding citizens.  And they were right about that.  They were just confused as to who the predators were.

The same confusion was apparently on George Zimmerman's mind.  Another armed citizen, looking out for danger—and finding it in a teenager walking home with a bag of Skittles.  This is what LaPierre wants to mobilize:  "millions of qualified active and retired police; active, reserve, and retired military; security professionals; certified firefighters, security professionals, rescue personnel; an extraordinary corps of patriotic, trained, qualified citizens."  With guns.  Guns, guns, guns.  Ready to use them.

And the police, too.  "With all the foreign aid the United States does, with all the money in the federal budget, can’t we afford to put a police officer in every single school?" LaPierre said.  Annie Lowrey of the New York Times quickly thumbnailed that proposal at $6.4 billion per year.

This is the most extraordinary thing about the NRA's ideology and the climate it's created.  By the time you read this, there will almost certainly be someone who has jumped to the comments to denounce gun regulations as an infringement of fundamental liberties.  It is only the presence of uncounted millions of guns, in the hands of uncounted millions of Americans—whether pointy-headed liberals recognize this as a "well-regulated militia" or not—that secures our freedom against the encroachment of a totalitarian police state.

Yet today, LaPierre got up and described the gun lobby's vision of our future:  "A police officer in every single school."  "Armed security ... building design ... access control ... information technology."  "An active national database of the mentally ill."

This is the NRA’s idea of a free country.  Kindergarteners on lockdown.  Federal monitoring of everyone's mental-health status.  Cops in every hallway.

The experts and counterexperts can and will keep arguing about the local and regional crime-rate effects under our ever-expanding concealed-carry and open-carry laws.  One trend line, though, seems obvious:  The Second Amendment and the Fourth Amendment have been moving in opposite directions.  The NRA has racked up legislative triumph after legislative triumph, extending gun rights into airports, bars, churches, and schools.  Yet rather than deferring to the armed public, the police have grown ever more militarized, ever less concerned with warrants, ever more willing to respond to disorderliness with overwhelming force.  The government is collecting your email and tracking your phone.  Drones are flying police missions in American skies.  More than 2 million people are incarcerated.

None of that came up in LaPierre's discussion today, though he had time to denounce video games and the media.  An ugly, violent, oppressive world is the world he wants.  It's the world that gun culture thrives in.  The only liberty that matters to these people is the liberty to kill.

OPINION - Shields and Brooks 2/22/2013

"Shields and Brooks on Sequester Blame Game, Immigration Reform" PBS Newshour 2/22/2013


SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks analyze the week's news with Judy Woodruff, including the impending automatic spending cuts due to hit next week and immigration reform.

"How Many People Have Been Killed by Guns Since Newtown?" Slate Magazine

IMHO:  About David Brooks' comment on "gun control limiting (not) crime."  It is NOT about limiting crime, it IS about limiting the CARNAGE of crimes involving guns.

GUN CONTROL - Gun Violence in Chicago

"Gun Violence Is Public Health Crisis in Chicago" PBS Newshour 2/22/2013


RAY SUAREZ (Newshour):  We conclude our week-long series on guns, violence and mental health concerns in the wake of the Connecticut shootings.

Tonight, we have a report from Chicago on how doctors and researchers there are trying to tackle the growing problem of gun violence as a public health issue.

Our story is part of the PBS "After Newtown" project and was filed by Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW Chicago.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, WTTW Chicago:  Not yet two months into 2013, and the death rate from gun violence in Chicago has exceeded what it was this time last year.  And last year's numbers were awful, 506 total murders in 2012, 16 percent higher than the previous year.

There was Shirley Chambers, who lost her fourth child to gun violence in January when a gunman opened fire on a van with her son inside.  There was 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton, who had just returned from President Obama's inauguration when she was gunned down just a few blocks from the president's Hyde Park home.  Her death brought the president to Chicago to talk about gun violence.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  What happened to Hadiya is not unique.  It's not unique to Chicago.  It's not unique to this country.  Too many of our children are being taken away from us.

MAN: All right, let's swing your legs over to the side here.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT:  But death tolls don't tell the whole story.

SOUTH AFRICA - Steencamp Death and Violence Against Women

"Steencamp Death Sheds Light on Violence Against Women in South Africa" PBS Newshour 2/22/2013


SUMMARY:  Although there is no current evidence of domestic abuse in the murder case against Oscar Pistorius, the death of Reeva Steencamp has shed light on a national problem in South Africa:  the high rate of violence against women.  Ray Suarez talks with journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault (former Newshour correspondent) about this disturbing trend.

DIPLOMACY - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Visit to U.S.

"China Looms as Main Concern in Meeting Between Obama, Japan's Abe" PBS Newshour 2/22/2013


MARGARET WARNER (Newshour):  For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, just two months in office, this visit to Washington was an early opportunity to emphasize Japan's alliance with the United States.

And at the White House today, he heard welcome words from President Obama.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  The U.S.-Japan alliance is the central foundation for our regional security and so much of what we do in the Pacific region.

MARGARET WARNER:  The U.S. has a robust trading relationship with Japan and some 50,000 troops stationed there since the end of World War II.  And now both nations face the challenge of dealing with a rising China, and its new leader, Xi Jinping.

But U.S. officials are growing concerned about the rising tensions between China and Japan.  The most recent flare-up has come in the East China Sea over control of some small uninhabited islands known as the Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.  They lie near critical shipping lanes, fishing grounds and gas deposits.

POLITICS - Sequestration, What's Reality and What's Hype?

"Transportation Secretary Warns Sequestration Would Disrupt Air Travel" PBS Newshour 2/22/2013


SUMMARY:  With sequestration due to take effect in a week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned that automatic spending cuts would disrupt air travel and cause a myriad of problems.  Lisa Rein of the Washington Post joins Ray Suarez to discuss about what's reality, what's hype, and the Republican response to the imposing cuts.

CYBERWAR - Cyberspace Cold War

"A New Cold War, in Cyberspace, Tests U.S. Ties to China" by DAVID E. SANGER, New York Times 2/24/2013


When the Obama administration circulated to the nation’s Internet providers last week a lengthy confidential list of computer addresses linked to a hacking group that has stolen terabytes of data from American corporations, it left out one crucial fact:  that nearly every one of the digital addresses could be traced to the neighborhood in Shanghai that is headquarters to the Chinese military’s cybercommand.

That deliberate omission underscored the heightened sensitivities inside the Obama administration over just how directly to confront China’s untested new leadership over the hacking issue, as the administration escalates demands that China halt the state-sponsored attacks that Beijing insists it is not mounting.

The issue illustrates how different the worsening cyber-cold war between the world’s two largest economies is from the more familiar superpower conflicts of past decades — in some ways less dangerous, in others more complex and pernicious.

Administration officials say they are now more willing than before to call out the Chinese directly — as Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. did last week in announcing a new strategy to combat theft of intellectual property.  But President Obama avoided mentioning China by name — or Russia or Iran, the other two countries the president worries most about — when he declared in his State of the Union address that “we know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets.”  He added:  “Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions and our air traffic control systems.”

Defining “enemies” in this case is not always an easy task.  China is not an outright foe of the United States, the way the Soviet Union once was; rather, China is both an economic competitor and a crucial supplier and customer.  The two countries traded $425 billion in goods last year, and China remains, despite many diplomatic tensions, a critical financier of American debt.  As Hillary Rodham Clinton put it to Australia’s prime minister in 2009 on her way to visit China for the first time as secretary of state, “How do you deal toughly with your banker?”

In the case of the evidence that the People’s Liberation Army is probably the force behind “Comment Crew,” the biggest of roughly 20 hacking groups that American intelligence agencies follow, the answer is that the United States is being highly circumspect.  Administration officials were perfectly happy to have Mandiant, a private security firm, issue the report tracing the cyberattacks to the door of China’s cybercommand; American officials said privately that they had no problems with Mandiant’s conclusions, but they did not want to say so on the record.

That explains why China went unmentioned as the location of the suspect servers in the warning to Internet providers.  “We were told that directly embarrassing the Chinese would backfire,” one intelligence official said.  “It would only make them more defensive, and more nationalistic.”

That view is beginning to change, though.  On the ABC News program “This Week” on Sunday, Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was asked whether he believed that the Chinese military and civilian government were behind the economic espionage.  “Beyond a shadow of a doubt,” he replied.

In the next few months, American officials say, there will be many private warnings delivered by Washington to Chinese leaders, including Xi Jinping, who will soon assume China’s presidency.  Both Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, and Mrs. Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, have trips to China in the offing.  Those private conversations are expected to make a case that the sheer size and sophistication of the attacks over the past few years threaten to erode support for China among the country’s biggest allies in Washington, the American business community.

CYBERCRIME - Social Networking Hacking

"Twitter Hackings Put Focus on Security for Brands" by TANZINA VEGA and NICOLE PERLROTH, New York Times 2/24/2013


While most Americans were winding up their holiday weekends last Monday, the phones at the Vancouver headquarters of HootSuite, a social media management company, began to ring.

Burger King’s Twitter account had just been hacked.  The company’s logo had been replaced by a McDonald’s logo, and rogue announcements began to appear.  One was that Burger King had been sold to a competitor; other posts were unprintable.

“Every time this happens, our sales phone lines light up,” said Ryan Holmes, the chief executive of HootSuite, which provides management and security tools for Twitter accounts, including the ability to prevent someone from gaining access to an account.  “For big brands, this is a huge liability,” he said, referring to the potential for being hacked.

What happened to Burger King — and, a day later, to Jeep — is every brand manager’s nightmare.  While many social media platforms began as a way for ordinary users to share vacation photos and status updates, they have now evolved into major advertising vehicles for brands, which can set up accounts free but have to pay for more sophisticated advertising products.

Burger King and Jeep, owned by Chrysler, are not alone.  Other prominent accounts have fallen victim to hacking, including those for NBC News, USA Today, Donald J. Trump, the Westboro Baptist Church and even the “hacktivist” group Anonymous.

Those episodes raised questions about the security of social media passwords and the ease of gaining access to brand-name accounts.  Logging on to Twitter is the same process for a company as for a consumer, requiring just a user name and one password.

Twitter, like Facebook, has steadily introduced a number of paid advertising options, raising the stakes for advertisers.  Brands that pay to advertise on Twitter are assigned a sales representative to help them manage their accounts, but they are not given any more layers of security than those for a typical user.

Ian Schafer, the founder and chief executive of Deep Focus, a digital advertising company that also fielded a few phone calls from clients concerned about the Burger King attack, argued that Twitter bore some responsibility.

“I think Twitter needs to step up its game in providing better security,” Mr. Schafer said.  In a memo to his staff about such attacks, he called on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest “and anyone else serious about having brands on their platform” to “invest time in better understanding how brands operate day to day.”

“It’s also time for these platforms to use their influence to shape security standards on the Web,” he wrote.

The risk for Twitter is in offending potential business partners as the company tries to build its advertising dollars, which make up the bulk of its revenue.  In 2012, the company grew more than 100 percent, earning $288.3 million in global advertising revenue, according to eMarketer.

On Wednesday, it introduced a product that would allow advertisers to create and manage ads through third parties like HootSuite, Adobe and  Advertising is estimated to account for more than 90 percent of the company’s revenue.

“This is not something we take lightly,” said Jim Prosser, a Twitter spokesman, in an interview last month.  (The company declined to comment on the Burger King hacking, saying it did not discuss specific accounts.)  Mr. Prosser said Twitter had manual and automatic controls in place to identify malicious content and fake accounts, but acknowledged that the practice was more art than science.

Mr. Prosser said Twitter had taken an active role in combating the biggest sources of malicious content.

Last year, the company sued those responsible for five of the most-used spamming tools on the site.  “With this suit, we’re going straight to the source,” it said in a statement.  “We hope the suit acts as a deterrent to other spammers, demonstrating the strength of our commitment to keep them off Twitter.”

But security experts say, and the recent hacks of Burger King, Jeep and other brands have demonstrated, that Twitter could do more.

“Twitter and other social media accounts are like catnip for script kiddies, hacktivists and serious cybercriminals alike,” said Mark Risher, chief executive at Impermium, a Silicon Valley start-up that aims to clean up social networks.  “Because of their deliberately easy access and liberal content policies, accounts on these networks prove irresistibly tempting.”

EDUCATION - New Report, Decline in 'Dropout Factories'

"New Report Highlights U.S. Graduation Gains, Decline in 'Dropout Factories'" by Mike Fritz, PBS Newshour 2/25/2013

High schools across much of the nation have made significant improvements in graduation rates in the last decade, but progress remains uneven.  That's according to a new report released Monday by a non-profit organization led by former secretary of state Colin Powell.

Overall, 78.2 percent of U.S. students graduated from high school in 2010, a 6.5 percent increase from 2001.  The findings are outlined in "Building a Grad Nation," compiled by Civic Enterprises, America's Promise Alliance, the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University.

The gains were sparked largely by Hispanic and African American students.  Hispanics saw the largest increase of high school graduates, up 10 percentage points to 71.4 percent between 2006 and 2010.  African American graduation rates climbed from 59.2 percent to 66.1 percent during that same period.

One of the report's chief authors, John Bridgeland, CEO and President of Civic Enterprises, told the NewsHour that the recent trends could eventually lead to the realization of a goal repeated by every president since George H.W. Bush:  to reach a 90 percent high school graduation rate nationwide.  In 1990, then-President Bush said the country should aim to hit that milestone by the year 2000. Bridgeland said the timeline for reaching that goal is now 2020.

"It's a ray of hope, it really is," Bridgeland said of the report's findings.

However, only two states, Wisconsin and Vermont, currently have graduation rates of 90 percent and that just 18 other states are on pace to reach the 2020 desired benchmark.

Also, despite the recent uptick in Hispanic and African American graduation rates, there remains a sizable graduation gap between white and minority students in many states.  Currently, 40 states have double digit graduation gaps between white and African American students.  In Minnesota, for example, the graduation gap between white and black students is 35 points, and 33 points between white and Hispanic students.

"The danger is people's attention will start to wander and they'll say we can move on to other issues because of the progress we have made, even though that's the exact opposite message that needs to be conveyed," said Bridgeland.

There were 20 states that had annual gains of at least one percentage point in graduation rates between 2006 and 2010.  Tennessee, Louisiana, Vermont, Alaska and California were the top performers, each increasing their graduation rates by more than two percentage points every year during that period.

But nine states either had their graduation rates remain flat or decline from 2006 to 2010.  Arkansas and Connecticut had the worst trends, with graduation rates falling by 1.35 percent and 1.68 percent respectively.

In order for the U.S. to reach the 90 percent graduation goal by 2020, those positive trends would have to continue every year and 23 states would have to "accelerate growth significantly," according to the report.

The report also examined the number of so-called "dropout factories" -- high-schools with senior classes where 60 percent or fewer of the students who started there as freshmen -- and found a net decline of 29 percent across the U.S.  That resulted in more than one million fewer students attending schools designated a dropout factories in 2011 compared to 2002.

For the man who coined the phrase "dropout factory," Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University, also a co-author of the report, the findings show vast improvements in the educational options for minority groups, especially low-income African Americans.

"One of the most shocking statistics from our research in 2002 was that almost half of African-Americans were attending high schools where graduation was not the norm," Balfanz said.  "That's now down to 25 percent... so, still not good but a really big change."

Balfanz pointed to recent reforms that have been successful in the south and some urban areas, which have helped to reverse the negative trends.  The report states that cities continue to have the largest number of dropout factories, but that number has declined -- 745 in 2011, down from 905 in 2002.

"We can see light at the end of the tunnel," Balfanz said, "but it's still a long tunnel with some potholes along the way."

"School Reform Program Targets Students at Risk of Falling Behind, Dropping Out" PBS Newshour 12/6/2012


SUMMARY:  Currently implemented in 44 U.S. schools, a data-driven dropout prevention program called Diplomas Now targets students who start to fall behind in middle school, and offers them nurturing, mentoring relationships.  Ray Suarez reports on how a Baton Rouge middle school was able to turn itself around by adopting this approach.

Friday, February 22, 2013

HEALTH - Progress in U.S. Obesity Trend?

"CDC Report Offers Glimmer of Progress on Altering U.S. Obesity Trend" PBS Newshour 2/21/2013


RAY SUAREZ (Newshour):  There may be hope yet for bringing the national epidemic of obesity under control.  At least the latest numbers on calories and fast food released today indicated possible progress.

For years, health officials have warned about Americans' growing girth.  Now research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the fight against fat may be having an effect.  Among the findings, American children consumed fewer calories in 2010 than a decade before, seven percent less for boys, four percent less for girls.  And for adults, fast food accounted for just over 11 percent of the calories consumed in 2010, down from nearly 13 percent in 2006.

The researchers acknowledge the changes are small and can't be fully explained.  But public campaigns against obesity have intensified in recent years.  Last September, for instance, New York City's Board of Health limited sugared drinks and sodas to 16 ounces or less.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the prohibition that takes effect Mar. 12th.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, I- New York City:  This is the single biggest step any city I think has ever taken to curb obesity, but certainly not the last step that lots of cities are going to take. And we believe that it will help save lives.

RAY SUAREZ:  And, today, continuing her long-running Let's Move campaign, first lady Michelle Obama , along with Big Bird of "Sesame Street," issued new public service announcements encouraging kids to get active and eat healthy.

SYRIA - Powerful Car Bombs Closer to Assad in Damascus

"Powerful Car Bomb Attack Kills More Than 50 People in Damascus" PBS Newshour 2/21/2013


LINDSEY HILSUM, Independent Television News:  At least three bombs exploded in downtown Damascus this morning, a coordinated assault designed to kill and maim.

A car which the Syrian government said was carrying five bombs exploded just outside the headquarters of President Assad's Baath Party, dozens killed, hundreds injured, devastating damage, more evidence that, even in the heart of the capital, Syrian civilians are not safe.  Survivors shown on Syrian state TV blamed Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadi wing of the rebels linked to al-Qaida.

MAN:  This is terrorism.  It's murder.  It's un-Islamic.  You're telling me it was done by al-Nusra?  I hope God never forgives them.

MAN:  We think Jabhat al-Nusra and the Wahhabi terrorists did this.

LINDSEY HILSUM:  A rebel video reveals that the last man shows up frequently on state TV, often as an eyewitness, sometimes as a soldier.  He spouts government propaganda.  The video exposing him is rebel propaganda.

MEDIA - 2013 Oscars Around the Corner

"Oscar Front-Runners and Wild Cards in a 'Good Year' for Grown-Up Movies" PBS Newshour 2/21/2013


SUMMARY:  Hollywood's biggest night is just around the corner.  This year's Academy Award-nominated films include both mainstream blockbusters and darkly-themed foreign and independent movies.  Ray Suarez talks with New York Times film critic A.O. Scott about why this a "good year for mainstream movies that grownups might want to go see."

GUN CONTROL - Concealed Firearm Laws

"Fighting Over Concealed Firearm Rules in Gun-Friendly Florida" PBS Newshour 2/21/2013


JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour):  Now to our week-long focus on guns, violence and mental health concerns in the wake of the Connecticut shootings.

Tonight, special correspondent Trimmel Gomes from Florida Public Radio WFSU-FM looks at the increase in gun ownership in that political battleground state.

His report is part of the PBS "After Newtown" series.

TRIMMEL GOMES, WFSU:  Florida is known for many things, its sandy beaches and warm weather, but the state's nickname of being the Sunshine State is getting stiff competition by some who call it the "Gunshine State."

CHARLIE STRICKLAND, Talon Range:  Florida is very pro-gun.

TRIMMEL GOMES:  Charlie Strickland is a sheriff's lieutenant and part owner of the soon-to-be-built Talon Shooting Range and Training Facility.

CHARLIE STRICKLAND:  We have a Republican governor, Republican legislature, and so we have -- we sort of lead the country in a lot of the new gun laws, Castle Doctrine, stand your ground statutes, things like that.  And, naturally, getting conceal carry permit is commonplace.

POLITICS - Rethinking Opposition to Medicaid Expansion

"Republican Governors Rethink Opposition to Medicaid Expansion" PBS Newshour 2/21/2013


SUMMARY:  At first, many Republican governors actively opposed expanding the Medicaid program and said they would not participate.  Now, some of them, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, have reconsidered.  Judy Woodruff talks to Paul Howard of the Center for Medical Progress at the Manhattan Institute and Ron Pollack of Families USA.

JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour):  And we turn to the battles playing out over the health reform law and particularly the expansion of the Medicaid program.  Many Republican governors have long insisted they wouldn't participate.

But some of those more prominent opponents are shifting their position.  Now that includes the governor of the state that first brought suit against Medicare.

MAN:  Gov. Rick Scott.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Florida's Gov. Rick Scott has been one of the most vocal critics of President Obama's health care law.

GOV. RICK SCOTT, R- Fla.:  This is going to be devastating for patients.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  But, yesterday, he reversed his decision to block the expansion of Medicaid.

OPINION - From Rachel Maddow 2/20/2013

The Rachel Maddow Show
MSNBC 2/20/2013
Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy
Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Thursday, February 21, 2013

HUMOR - Dilbert on Meteors


SCIENCE - Universe Just Keeps Trying to Kill Us

"The Universe Just Keeps Trying to Kill Us" by Ethan, Science Blogs 2/15/2013


Don’t wake me for the end of the world unless it has very good special effects.” -Roger Zelazny

It’s always the ones you least expect that get you the worst, it seems.  I went to bed last night excited that Asteroid 2012 DA14, a 200,000 ton asteroid, was going to pass within just 28,000 km (or 17,000 miles) of Earth’s surface, which would make it the closest pass of an asteroid that large that we’ve ever observed.

Image credit:  NASA / JPL Near-Earth Object Program Office

I thought that would be the best way to celebrate today, which would be Galileo‘s 449th birthday.  After all, it was Galileo who first discovered that there was no way that Earth could be at the center of all the heavens.  By looking at Jupiter through a telescope, he discovered that it had its own set of large moons that very clearly orbited their own planet, indifferent to the workings of Earth.

We now know that these moons orbit Jupiter because of Jupiter’s gravity; this is the same reason all planets, moons and solid objects move the way they do in space.  Jupiter is the second largest gravitational source in our Solar System, behind only the Sun.  And since it’s been orbiting the Sun for over four billion years, it’s had literally hundreds of millions of passes by each object in the asteroid belt.

Every solar system has an asteroid belt, and here’s why:  as you move away from the Sun (or any star), the temperature of the interplanetary space around you drops.  Near the planet Mercury, interstellar space is somewhere around 800 °F, out by Pluto, it’s nearly -400 °F.  But there’s a critical place — out beyond Mars but before Jupiter in our Solar System — where the temperature is too cold for water to exist in any state other than frozen ice.

And once you reach that point, you’re going to get little frozen chunks of ice and rock mixed together.  So every solar system has an asteroid belt. But ours also has a large planet nearby, and over billions of years and millions of passes outside this asteroid belt, Jupiter changes the orbits of these rocky objects.

And these repeated gravitational interactions of asteroids with the other planets — primarily Jupiter — changes their orbits over time.  This is important to us here on Earth for a few reasons, but nothing makes it more apparent than seeing the havoc a collision with one of these asteroids can wreak here on our world.

This is meteor crater, from an asteroid strike about 50,000 years ago, of an asteroid that was comparable in size (maybe 50 meters in diameter) to 2012 DA14, the one that just missed us today.  Asteroids of this size — 40 meters or larger in diameter — strike Earth a couple of times every 100,000 years, and could wipe out an entire London-sized city if they struck there.

One of the big problems is that we only know of about 1% of the asteroids that are that size, so we can’t even tell when most of them are coming.  It’s only the ones that we get a good view of for a long time that we can track well enough to predict when they’re going to strike us.  The hardest ones to predict are the ones that come towards us from the direction of the Sun; we literally never see those coming.

Which is why it was such a shock when this meteor appeared in the skies over Russia early this morning!

What exactly happened here?  A much smaller asteroid than the ones we aspire to track, one only maybe 2-3 meters* in diameter, entered the Earth’s atmosphere.  Asteroids this small rate a zero on the Torino scale, as they pose no serious danger to Earth, but that doesn’t mean they can’t cause destruction.

The physics of what’s going on here is amazing.  Let’s do some Q&A about this:
  • Q:  Why does it make a fireball in the sky?

    A:  The Solar System is a fast-moving place.  Most objects move in excess of 25,000 miles per hour relative to Earth, and you probably think the wind was problematic when you put your arm out of the window while driving down the highway!  At the astronomical speeds achieved by meteors, the outside of the meteor heats up tremendously, by many hundreds of degrees, and the fire you see is from a heat so hot that the meteor is disintegrating before your eyes.
  • Q:  Why does it appear to explode in mid-path?

    A:  Because it really does explode!  Think about it, you’re heating this mostly frozen ice-and-rock-ball by hundreds and hundreds of degrees.  Inside the meteor, you’ve got frozen water, frozen methane, and other weird, carbon-rich molecules.  What happens when you heat these ices up?  They melt, and eventually boil.  As this boiling causes fissures in the meteor, oxygen — common in our atmosphere but rare everywhere else — can combine with these combustible gases under very high heats.

    And that combination of things very quickly goes boom.
  • Q:  Why — like this one and the Tunguska event — do so many of these occur over Russia?

    A:  They don’t preferentially occur over Russia, if that’s what you’re asking.  Events like these — I call them super-bolides — occur on average about once every few years.  There was a comparable one, another 50-100 ton asteroid, that encountered our atmosphere and burned up over Indonesia in 2009; in reality, most of them occur over the ocean and so go unobserved and unrecorded.

    The Tunguska event was special: it’s the largest one in recorded history, and was probably just a little smaller than the asteroid that made meteor crater.  The reason these feel like they occur over Russia is simply because Russia has a huge amount of land area.
  • Q:  Why didn’t we see this one coming?

    A:  First off, it’s small.  It’s very difficult to see something that’s just two-three meters across until you get very close to it, even with the most powerful telescopes in the world.  Even the most ambitious survey proposals of asteroids that could be potentially hazardous to Earth don’t go smaller than about ten times the volume of this one.  And second off, it came from the direction of the Sun, the hardest direction to monitor.  (Because if you’re going to build an expensive telescope, the first rule is do not fry your optics, which you’ll do if you point it too close to the Sun!)

    A:  NASA doesn’t monitor all places on Earth all the time from space.  But this part of the world was actually monitored at the time, by the EU’s Meteosat program.
  • Q:  How much damage did it cause, and how did it happen?

    A:  There was some localized property damage, and probably around 1,200 injured people.  When the big “flash” (or explosion) occurs, both a sonic boom and an intense pressure wave emanate from the source.  This can do things like blow out windows (imagine the damage if one hit New York City!), damage eardrums, and — in the case of Tunguska — knock even large objects completely over.  The building above had its roof collapse from the blast.

    But this doesn’t destroy the meteor, it just breaks it up into smaller chunks.  Many of these fragments reach the surface, still traveling at speeds that are often in excess of terminal velocity and capable of causing some pretty intense damage, similar to a cannonball strike.  The ice, below, had this giant hole created in it from a meteorite fragment.

    So what you hear reports of come from a combination of the initial blast wave and the secondary falling debris.
  • Q:  How long before the big one strikes, and all of humanity dies?

    A:  Believe it or not, an event like the one that caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs is thought to occur only every few hundred million years.  These events occur at random, which means — like getting struck by lightning — there’s no way to predict it, not with our current state of knowledge.

    But we could know this, what we’d have to do is find and start tracking each one of these potential Earth-killers, or any asteroid larger than a few kilometers in size.  And we could do it with our current technology, too; all we’d have to do is invest in it.

APES & MONKEYS - Updates From the San Diego Zoo

"Orangutans Clyde and Cinta" by Tanya Howard, San Diego Zoo Blog 2/8/2013

Clyde is doing really great at the Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure in Salina, Kansas (he moved there in May 2011, see post Changes for Orangutans).  Clyde and Rusa continue to get along well.  Both animal staff and animals alike love Clyde.  He is the only male with whom female Ruse has been paired that she likes!  But who wouldn’t like Clyde?  He is the sweetest male, and all the girls like him (well, except Indah, of course).  There is not any expectation of an offspring from them, though.  Rusa has some reproductive issues that would make getting pregnant very difficult.  A baby would be a happy surprise.  The keeper there was telling me that Clyde is funny about his browse; he is turning his nose up at the Midwest varieties of trees and leaves.

After a few setbacks, Cinta is with all of the orangutans at the St. Louis Zoo (he arrived there in October 2012).  Originally, the staff was planning on introducing Cinta to the mother and daughter there, hoping for a successful pairing with the older female.  Unfortunately, the females had a different idea!  While reevaluating the situation, the staff noticed that Cinta and Robbie, their 19-year-old male, seemed compatible.  They were separate from one another but were sharing food back and forth and hanging out near one another.  Staff never planned on introducing the two males, but they decided to try and then, later on, Robbie and Cinta could together be reintroduced to the girls.

This has proven to the best of solutions.  Cinta and Robbie are now best of friends!  They hang out together and share food.  Just last week, staff put all four together with a much-improved outcome.  Now, whenever there are any problems, Robbie steps in and defends Cinta (not that Cinta needs much help—he is much faster that the girls!  Keepers are very positive about the improvements they have seen and expect things to continue to get better.  We will keep our fingers crossed for a successful pairing!

"What Might Monkeys Be Up To?" by Chia Tan, San Diego Zoo Blog 2/12/2013

February 10 marks the beginning of a new year, the Year of the Snake, according to the Chinese lunar calendar.  I cannot help but reflect on what I have done in the past year and contemplate what I wish to accomplish in this new year.

Last year, my research project focused on an investigation of wild Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys in China using camera traps.  This work was conducted in Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve (FNNR) in collaboration with the reserve’s administration.  We set up a network of over 100 camera traps to monitor, in addition to the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey, many hard-to-see wildlife species in the reserve (see post Monkeys, Leopard Cats, and Bears, Oh My!,).  Some of our unexpected captures were images of Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys moving about in the middle of the night (see article in Primates).  Although these monkeys are considered daytime active species very much like humans, our camera-trap data provided unequivocal proof that they are routinely active after dark.  What might the monkeys be up to?

Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys’ nocturnal habit, we believe, is motivated by the need to acquire as much food as possible.  In other words, the monkeys are up at night because they are hungry.  To some people, this discovery may seem like a non-discovery, but many great scientific discoveries are inherently simple, and they often start out with a simple observation, like the apple that fell on Newton’s head.  But I digress, back to the monkeys.

An important outcome of our camera-trap study, besides showing the behavioral flexibility the monkeys have to cope with living in a highly seasonal environment, is the need for researchers to rethink methodological designs that minimize observer bias.  If we habitually observe diurnal primates during the daytime we, of course, have data that only show them being active during the hours we observe them.  Camera traps, therefore, are excellent devices to augment our data collection.  And, because of the amount of photographs we have, you can count on me spending much of my time this year uncovering more secrets about the animals in Fanjingshan.

An intrinsic part of what I do as a scientist is to assist students with their professional development.  Through mentorship of students, I help foster future colleagues and, in turn, expand my network of collaborators.  This past year several of my students completed their research thesis, attained a higher degree, received scholarships, and/or launched new projects.  James Dopp is a graduate of the University of Vermont who worked with me in Fanjingshan in 2010 through 2012.  He has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to further sharpen his research skills in primate conservation in China.

Kefeng Niu, a resident biologist of FNNR, continued to benefit from my coaching.  In August, he successfully delivered a paper in English at the International Primatological Society Congress.  The Congress also provided Kefeng a chance to meet other professionals, among them, Dr. Marco Gamba, my Italian colleague from the University of Torino.  I introduced Marco and his research on primate vocal communication to Kefeng.  We later invited Marco to join us in Fanjingshan to resume our wonderful discussion about snub-nosed monkey biology with China’s renowned primate expert, Yeqin Yang (see post Saving Monkeys Takes a Team).  And the rest, as they say, is history, because when Marco left Fanjingshan, he had already signed a five-year research agreement with the reserve administration and gained a prospective PhD student, Kefeng Niu.  Mama mia!

Recently, my mentorship pool of students included a junior from High Tech High International.  Her name is Cameron Ishee, and though only 16, she is well on her way to transforming how people perceive and treat animals.  Because of Cameron’s ability to speak Chinese (Mandarin), I asked her to help me create a series of bilingual video lessons for the children in the Little Green Guards program in Guizhou (see post March of the Little Green Guards).  Each episode stars Cameron as Yi Jie Jie (or Big Sister Yi) teaching an English alphabet letter and about half a dozen animal-related words associated with the featured letter.  To make learning memorable and fun, we segue from the classroom lessons into video segments of our Zoo and Safari Park animals.  In doing so, we are achieving several objectives: introducing a world-class animal collection to underprivileged children who would otherwise never have the opportunity to travel to San Diego, and enhancing the school curriculum by teaching these children a highly valued foreign language that only children living in the more affluent urban areas of China are learning.

Our pilot episode is almost complete.  Cameron and I will continue making more episodes this year.  Just a little spoiler alert here, snake will be featured in our upcoming episode:  “S is for Snake.”

PANDAS - Updates From the San Diego Zoo

"Panda Zhen Zhen" by Megan Owen, San Diego Zoo Blog 2/14/2013

Zhen Zhen is now 5 1/2 years old, and our latest news from China indicates that she is doing very well!  The third cub of Bai Yun and Gao, we’ve just learned that she was the first female to come into estrous this year in BiFengXia, and that she bred with two males, Lu Lu and Yuan Yuan.  Zhen Zhen and her big sister, Su Lin, moved to China in September 2010 to be a part of the panda breeding program there.

While we can’t tell at this point whether or not these breeding encounters were successful (i.e., will result in a pregnancy), all reports suggest that her behavior was perfect.  We are hopeful that she’ll have cubs later this summer, and we’ll keep you posted!  Congratulations to Zhen Zhen!

"A Tree for Panda Yun Zi" by Jennifer Becerra, San Diego Zoo Blog 2/15/2013

It’s official!  We are going to start building Yun Zi’s artificial tree very soon!  We have talked to our wonderful contractors and have decided on its design and placement.  It is going to look like a large bonsai tree and will be around 15 feet (4.5 meters) tall.  We are very excited and thankful for the donations from all the panda fans that went into this!  Our Horticulture Team added a new Chinese elm tree in Yun Zi’s exhibit as well on Thursday, February 14.

We will be taking down Yun Zi’s current climbing structure to make room for the 6-foot (1.8 meter) base of the artificial tree.  The tree will take approximately four weeks to build on site (yes, it will be built in the exhibit!) as long as weather conditions are ideal (no rain).  As a keeper, I really enjoy exhibit renovations, and to help design something like this tree is amazing.  I am really excited to see how all the pandas will enjoy it and use it (as you know, we sometimes rotate the pandas into different exhibit areas).

There is a lot of preparation that is being done to Yun Zi’s exhibit currently, so please be patient with us and understand that he will have to be off exhibit during this entire process.  Gao Gao will remain on exhibit as long as he seems comfortable during the building phase of the tree (Gao Gao’s exhibit is right next to Yun Zi’s).  Yun Zi will be in the indoor bedrooms close to his keepers, and during the day he will have access to the outdoor habitat next to Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu’s north exhibit.  When you are visiting Mom and cub, look up in the trees and you might see Yun Zi!

POLITICS - Panetta Warning on Sequestration

"Defense Secretary Panetta Warns Automatic Spending Cuts Could Mean Furlough" PBS Newshour 2/20/2013


JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour):  It was the starkest statement yet on the possible effect of automatic federal budget cuts, due to begin in nine days, on Mar. 1st.  Defense Sec. Leon Panetta notified his entire civilian work force that employees could be sent home without pay.

The warning was aimed at Defense Department workers at the Pentagon and around the world.  Secretary Panetta sent them a written message, as he left for a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels.  In it, he said there are limited options for coping with the looming across-the-board cuts.  And he said: "Should sequestration occur and continue for a substantial period, DOD will be forced to place the vast majority of its civilian work force on administrative furlough."


JUDY WOODRUFF:  Within hours, top Pentagon officials were out, saying employees could lose one day of work per week for 22 weeks.

Ah, yes.  The real concern about jobs.... NOT!