Monday, December 29, 2014

ASIA - AirAsia Flight 8501

"What we know (and don’t) about the missing AirAsia jetliner" PBS NewsHour 12/28/2014


ZACHARY GREEN (NewsHour):  At Singapore’s Changi airport, friends and relatives gathered to await news about AirAsia flight 8501, which disappeared early this morning.  Among those waiting, the fiancée of a young man who had been traveling with relatives.

FIANCEE:  It was supposed to be their last vacation, before we got married.  It was to be his last vacation with his family.

ZACHARY GREEN:  The flight took off at 5:35 am local time from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city.  The scheduled flight time to Singapore was 1 hour 55 minutes.

But at 6:13 am, 38 minutes after takeoff, the pilot radioed air traffic control, asking to change course and increase altitude to avoid storm clouds.  There were reports of lightning in the area.

The flight was last seen on radar three minutes later at 6:16 am, near Belitung island in the Java Sea.

A minute later, it was gone.  According to an Indonesian transportation official, no distress signal had been sent out.

Search and rescue teams from Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia spent several hours Sunday searching for any sign of the plane, an Airbus A320.  But as night fell, officials halted the search until morning.  The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea, and India have all volunteered search and rescue teams.

TATANG KURNIADI:  I heard many rumors from people and I said the rumors are not true that the plane has been found and wreckage has been found — this is not true.

Tony Fernandes, chief executive of AirAsia, a budget carrier based in Malaysia, also cautioned against speculation.

TONY FERNANDES:  We do not know what’s happened yet, so we’ll wait for the accident investigation to really find out what’s happened.  Our concern right now is for the relatives and for the next of kin.  There is nothing more important to us for our crew’s family, and for our passengers’ families that we look after them.

ZACHARY GREEN:  AirAsia has had a clean safety record since the company began operating in Malaysia 13 years ago.  The plane that went missing had undergone maintenance just the month before.

Last march, Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared with 239 people aboard, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  It’s never been found.

In July, Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.

"Search widens for missing AirAsia flight – Part 1" PBS NewsHour 12/29/2014


SUMMARY:  An AirAsia jetliner disappeared Sunday morning off Indonesia without a trace.  So far the international search effort has been fruitless and officials have said that the plane is likely at the "bottom of the sea."  Alex Thomson of Independent Television News reports.

"Was weather to blame for AirAsia disappearance? – Part 2" PBS NewsHour 12/29/2014


SUMMARY:  Gwen Ifill interviews The Wall Street Journal’s Guarav Raghuvanshi from Singapore about the missing AirAsia jetliner, how monsoon season may factor into the disappearance and if there are similarities to Malaysia Airlines 370.

OPINION - Shields and Gerson 12/26/2014

"Shields and Gerson on cyber-attacks after Sony, Obama’s year ahead" PBS NewsHour 12/26/2014


SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson join Judy Woodruff to discuss this week’s news, including the state of race relations in America in the wake of continuing protests and the killing of two New York police officers, what the hacking of Sony Pictures means for cyber-security in the future and the balance of power between Congress and the President.

MEDICAID - A State's Choice Affects Hospitals

"How a state’s choice on Medicaid expansion affects hospitals" PBS NewsHour 12/26/2014


SUMMARY:  In negotiating the creation of the Affordable Care Act, hospitals took a big gamble, with the expectation that they would soon have millions of new Medicaid customers.  In states that expanded Medicaid, the bet paid off.  Sarah Varney of Kaiser Health News reports on financial gains made by some hospitals as more patients are able to pay their bills, and the heavy price being paid by hospitals in states that opted against expansion.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  The White House said this week that more than 6.4 million people have signed up for health insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act’s federal marketplace so far during this year’s open enrollment season.

But even more people, nine million-plus, have gotten covered by Medicaid in recent months.  And the decision by states whether or not to expand that federal-state program for the poor and those with disabilities is having a serious effect on the financial health of hospitals.

Sarah Varney from our partner, Kaiser Health News, has that story.

SARAH VARNEY, Kaiser Health News:  A steady drizzle hasn’t deterred Jason Whiten from coming to this clinic in South Seattle to see if he qualified for Apple Health, Washington’s popular Medicaid program.

ISRAEL RUBINOS, Neighborcare Health:  You don’t have any medical insurance, right?


ISRAEL RUBINOS:  No?  OK.  And how about dental?


ISRAEL RUBINOS:  No dental, no medical?



SARAH VARNEY:  Whiten, who is 34 years old, has gone without health insurance for 16 years.

ISRAEL RUBINOS:  So you got approved for the Washington Apple health program…


SARAH VARNEY:  He can come here to this Neighborcare Health clinic, instead of the (much more expensive) emergency room, to see a physician.  It’s his first insured primary care checkup since becoming an adult.

MEDIA - Cartoonist Personal Book on Aging Parents

"Readers relate to New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s personal book on aging parents" PBS NewsHour 12/26/2014


SUMMARY:  Known for her dry wit, cartoonist Roz Chast finds humor in caring for aging parents in her first graphic memoir, "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?"  Jeffrey Brown speaks with the New Yorker artist about taking on more personal subject matter and how cartooning became a tool in remembering her late parents.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  The absurdities, horrors, comedies, most of all perhaps the anxieties of everyday life, these “New Yorker” covers could only have been drawn by longtime staff cartoonist Roz Chast.

She grew up in Brooklyn in Flatbush.  Her dad was an assistant school principal and her mom a high school teacher.  Author of several books, this year, Chast tackled an uncomfortable subject, but one shared by many.  “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?:  A Memoir” is about the last few years of her parents’ lives.

It was a finalist for the National Book Awards, the first time a cartoonist has been nominated in the nonfiction category.

I talked with Chast recently at the Miami Book Fair and asked how this book came to be.

ROZ CHAST, Author, “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?”:  I think I have a habit of, in my head, taking notes on whatever, you know, whether they’re verbal or pictorial or just making a note of things as they’re happening.

And, at some point, I think it started to dawn on me that there was actually a story here that I wanted to put on paper.

ART - Conservators Light on the Irreplaceable

"Conservators shine new light on irreplaceable art" PBS NewsHour 12/26/2014


SUMMARY:  A series of paintings created by Mark Rothko for Harvard University was thought irreparably damaged by years of sun exposure and removed from view.  Thirty-five years later, the paintings have returned, thanks to art historians and curators using digital projection, which offers viewers the appearance of restoration for works too fragile to touch.  Special correspondent Jared Bowen of WGBH reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Now, an art restoration breakthrough.

An international team of art historians and curators have developed a new technique to restore works of art without ever touching them.  It’s being used for the first time on a Mark Rothko mural.

Jared Bowen from WGBH in Boston has this report.

JARED BOWEN, WGBH in Boston:  Even in 1960, it was a coup, when Harvard University landed Mark Rothko to paint a series of murals for its new penthouse dining room.  Rothko was already considered one of the country’s greatest artist, and this was to be among his biggest commissions.

NARAYAN KHANDEKAR, Senior Conservation Scientist, Harvard Art Museums:  He really wanted you to be up close and surrounded by his work so that you could feel the — feel the painting.

JARED BOWEN:  Rothko paint panels to envelop the space.  They and the studies and sketches he produced in planning them are now on view in the newly renovated Harvard Art Museum’s first special exhibition.

They were robustly read, says curator Mary Schneider Enriquez.

MARY SCHNEIDER ENRIQUEZ, Associate Curator, Harvard Art Museum:  He had been focusing on these kind of purples and crimson, as we like to say, of course, at Harvard.

The ground of crimson or purple is then set off with these extraordinary contrasts of this red that is just incredible.  As you look at any of his paintings, the play of color and contrast blending and then working against and with each other has always been essential to his work.

JARED BOWEN:  The panels were officially installed in 1964, but were in steep competition with the room’s Harvard Yard views.  The penthouse shades were rarely drawn and the light-sensitive murals suffered substantial damage.

UKRAINE-RUSSIA - Conflict Does Not Stop at Church Door

"Ukraine-Russia conflict doesn’t stop at the church door" PBS NewsHour 12/25/2014


SUMMARY:  In Ukraine, religion is another battlefront in the conflict between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine supporters.  Special correspondent Kira Kay reports on the political pressures that have divided congregations.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  We turn again now to a country which has dominated headlines for much of the last year, Ukraine.

While much has been reported about the overthrow of its former leader, new government, annexation of Crimea, the Russian incursions into the country, tonight, special correspondent Kira Kay brings us a story on the less-known battle that’s happening in the former Soviet republic over religion.

The story was produced in partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting.

KIRA KAY (special correspondent):  In the Western Ukrainian village of Butyn sits a picturesque blue church.  It has survived two World Wars and the communist and atheist Soviet Union.

Now, in 2014, with its nation gripped in war, Saint Nicholas has become another battlefront in the conflict, one of beliefs and even political influence.  It used to belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the country’s largest denomination, with a direct link to Russia’s own politically influential Orthodox Church.

But villagers in Butyn say it all began to unravel when their priest refused to pray for the protesters, who were calling for the overthrow of a pro-Russian president in Kiev’s city center a year ago.

SVETLANA EVGENIEVNA, Ukraine (through interpreter):  That was my child there.  They were students and children of other parents that were residents of our village.  That was the last straw.

KIRA KAY:  Svetlana Evgenievna and her neighbors felt they had to remove their priest.

SVETLANA EVGENIEVNA (through interpreter):  There was a gathering of the village.  There were shouts and quarrels, and we weren’t sure what to do.  One man proposed a referendum, how many for and how many against?

JOBS - Giving Ex-Convicts a Better Chance

"Banning ‘the box’ to give ex-convicts a better chance at finding a job" PBS NewsHour 12/25/2014


SUMMARY:  Many employers require job applicants to disclose any criminal history, often preventing those with a record from reentering the workforce.  But Illinois is one of a number of states working to change this, with a new law prohibiting employers from asking about convictions on initial applications.  Special correspondent Brandis Friedman of WTTW reports on the “ban the box” movement.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  Now, a move to make it easier for people who have been convicted of a crime to find employment after being released from prison.

Several states and municipalities are preventing employers from asking about criminal convictions up front.  The so-called ban the box movement would eliminate a check-box on initial job applications.

Brandis Friedman from our affiliate WTTW in Chicago has this report.

WOMAN:  How do I know I can trust you?

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN, WTTW Chicago:  It is a question any employer might ask the students in this room.  Each of them has a felony conviction and has served time in prison and each of them wants to prove to a future employer that he or she can be trusted.

Twenty-six-year-old Carl Lynch is one of the students receiving job readiness training from the Safer Foundation, a nonprofit that helps released prisoners transition back into society.

CARL LYNCH, Job Seeker:  The economy is always changing.  Jobs are always getting tougher.  And I feel like it’s just preparing me to be ready to reenter into the work force.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN:  Lynch was released from Illinois State Prison in early July after serving two years for breaking into a car with someone inside.  He says a new job will help make him the father he once was to his two children.

CARL LYNCH:  I want to feel like the provider I was before I left.  I know I never can get the time back, but it’s important just for me to be there and let them know that dad’s back.

PERU - Shielding of the World's Largest Ancient City

"Peru shields an ancient city of sand from strong storms" PBS NewsHour 12/23/2014


SUMMARY:  In northern Peru, workers are fortifying the ancient site of Chan Chan, once the largest city in the Americas and the largest adobe city on the world.  Earlier this year climatologists predicted strong El Nino weather effects in 2015, threatening rain in a desert climate that rarely gets any.  Jeffrey Brown reports on the efforts to preserve and protect Peru’s heritage from the elements.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  It looks like a giant sand castle, its walls and towers slowly being reclaimed by the earth.

This is the ancient city of Chan Chan.  Nine square miles-wide, it was once the largest in the Americas and the largest adobe city in the world.  It served as the center of political, legislative and religious life for the Chimu people, who ruled this region from the ninth century until the late 1400s, when they were conquered by the Incas.

Here, you get a hint of the splendor before and after restoration of palace ceremonial halls, all of it in one of the driest regions on the planet.

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO, Deputy Minister of Culture, Peru:  This is much more of a desert than Saudi Arabia.  There’s no rain for 15 years, and then one day, boom.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Booming, rushing, flooding.  These images from February 1998 show the impact of the weather phenomenon known as El Nino at its worst, drenching the region, destroying homes, bridges and endangering the lives of those who live nearby, as well as the thousands of archaeological sites that dot the land here, slicing through centuries-old adobe walls and smearing away paintings more than 1,000 years old.

Peru’s deputy cultural minister, Luis Jaime Castillo, was a young archaeologist when one of the most devastating El Ninos hit his country.

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO:  In ’83, when I was like in my early 20s, the El Nino happened and took everybody by surprise.  I mean, we were not prepared.  In the past, the Chimu would do lots of human sacrifices to prevent the rain from falling.  We cannot do that anymore.

JEFFREY BROWN:  No, that’s not allowed, even at the Culture Ministry.

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO:  No.  No.  Well, but we can invest some money, which we can put, unleash the archaeologists to do their work.

JEFFREY BROWN:  It can look as simple and as daunting as this, a local worker with a syringe squirting water into a crack to reinforce an adobe wall.

SPORTS - American Baseball & Cuba

"Will American baseball get more Cuban imports?" PBS NewsHour 12/23/2014


SUMMARY:  How will opening the door to normal relations with Cuba affect the world of professional baseball, a game that so many Cubans love?  Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Jim Litke of the Associated Press to understand the possible implications.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Since President Obama announced the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba, much of the discussion has naturally focused on human rights, freedom, democracy and commerce.

But opening the doors to normal relations with Cuba could also lead to some profound cultural changes, including in the world of sports, and particularly baseball, a game that so many Cubans love.

Hari Sreenivasan sat down with a baseball watcher to discuss the possibilities in our New York studios earlier this week.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  When people talk about traditional images of Cuba, one major cultural touchstone has been sports, specifically the country’s historical reservoir of baseball talent.

Baseball has long been the most popular sport on the island, and Cuban players have found their way into American baseball for more than 100 years.  Some have made a legendary name for themselves, like former Red Sox great Luis Tiant, a three-time All-Star pitcher.

Last year, there were 19 Cuban players on the rosters of Major League Baseball teams in the United States.  That’s a record.  And some estimates show more than 200 players defecting over time to play baseball in the U.S.

Cuban players have stood out in recent seasons, like Yasiel Puig, the slugger for the Los Angeles Dodgers who illegally crossed the border from Mexico to Texas in 2012, and Aroldis Chapman, an All-Star closer for the Cincinnati Reds.

Major League Baseball has long had an eye on tapping into more Cuban talent.  Now that the U.S. and Cuba are moving toward a different relationship, there are lots of questions about how it might impact the sport.

Jim Litke is the national sports correspondent for the Associated Press, joins me now.

ECONOMY - Sustained Upward Momentum?

"Can the U.S. economy sustain its surprising momentum in the new year?" PBS NewsHour 12/23/2014


SUMMARY:  The U.S. economy’s summer surge was even stronger than first estimated, expanding at an annual rate of 5 percent from July to September -- the best performance since the summer of 2003.  Judy Woodruff talks to Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS, about the impressive recent growth and whether it will last.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Let’s take a closer look now at what was behind today’s strong numbers on the economy and impressive recent growth.

For that, we turn to Nariman Behravesh.  He is the chief economist at IHS.  It’s an economic forecasting and research firm.

Nariman Behravesh, thank you very much.

So what’s behind this?  What’s driving this?

NARIMAN BEHRAVESH, IHS Global Insight:  Well, the good news is, it’s fairly broad-based.

The revision that we saw today was mostly due to two factors, consumer spending, which was revised up in large part because of re-estimates of higher spending on health care.  But that wasn’t the only thing.  Capital spending was also revised up quite considerably.  So it’s a fairly broad-based upward revision in GDP.

The good news is, as you said at the outset of the program, that there’s a lot of momentum in the U.S. economy and that is going to keep us going for a while.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Well, it seems like just yesterday we were being told that — that the economy wasn’t picking up.

So does this represent a sudden turnaround or were the fundamentals there all along?

NARIMAN BEHRAVESH:  No, the fundamentals were definitely there all along.  Let’s just look at the consumer for the moment.

If you look at things like employment growth, very strong, the strongest in over 10 years, and this is consistently throughout 2014.  Consumer finances in great shape.  Consumers’ debt levels relative to take-home pay are the lowest since 2002.

That drop, big drop in gasoline prices, it’s like an $80 billion to $100 billion tax cut for consumers.  That’s money right into their pockets.  And so all of these are good news and they’re more sort of fundamental changes.  These are not flukes.

These are sustainable changes that will keep consumer spending growth going for some time.


"De Blasio addresses criticism by NY police union – Part 1" PBS NewsHour 12/22/2014


SUMMARY:  Tensions are high in New York after a fatal shooting of two cops over the weekend.  The attack sparked accusations by the police union against Mayor Bill de Blasio, leaving him on the defensive.  Gwen Ifill reports.

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  New York City was on edge today, after the fatal shootings of a pair of police officers.  The weekend attack sparked police union accusations against the mayor and left him on the defensive.

New Yorkers stopped all day to place flowers at the site in Brooklyn where two policemen were killed on Saturday.  And the murders dominated the day for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, including at a luncheon for the city’s Police Athletic League.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO, New York:  It was an attack on our democracy, it was an attack on our values, it was an attack on every single New Yorker, and we have to see it as such.  I think it’s time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time.

GWEN IFILL:  The two officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were shot as they sat in their cruiser on Saturday.  Their killer, 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who had a history of violence and apparent mental instability, shot his girlfriend Shaneka Thompson in Baltimore, before traveling to New York, shooting the officers, and then taking his own life.

Earlier, he posted social media references to the police killings of Eric Garner on Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. On Instagram, he wrote:  “They take one of ours.  Let’s take two of theirs.”

Over the weekend, leaders of protests over the Garner and Brown cases, as well as their family members, condemned the killings of Ramos and Liu.

"New York police killings raise questions of cause and effect after weeks of protests – Part 2" PBS NewsHour 12/22/2014


SUMMARY:  The murder of two New York City police officers has ignited a volley of blame and exposes the deep rifts dividing a city in mourning.  Gwen Ifill gets two perspectives from Patrick Colligan of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association and Mark Levine of the New York City Council.

VATICAN - Pope Francis Chides Church Officials

"Pope Francis uses Christmas greeting to chide church officials for greed, gossip and getting ahead" PBS NewsHour 12/22/2014


GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Pope Francis took church leaders and Catholics around the world by surprise today when he used an annual Christmas event in Rome to sharply rebuke and audience of top church officials for their shortcomings.

The cardinals, bishops and priests of the Curia, who run the Holy See, sat mostly silent and unsmiling as the Pope delivered a scalding review of their behavior.

POPE FRANCIS, Leader of Catholic Church (through interpreter):  Let’s start with the sickness of feeling immortal, immune or, even more, indispensable and therefore of neglecting the necessary routine checkups.

GWEN IFILL:  Francis said the Vatican officials have a spiritual Alzheimer’s that makes them forget their real purpose, and he listed 15 illnesses, or sins, from vanity to gossip-mongering to materialism.

POPE FRANCIS (through interpreter):  There is also the sickness of the stony mind and spirit, of those who along the way lose their inner serenity, their vivacity and their audacity and end up hiding behind papers, becoming machines for practices, and not men of God.

GWEN IFILL:  The first non-European pope in 1,300 years has increasingly confronted the Italian-dominated Curia.  Internal power struggles were widely blamed for Pope Benedict’s decision last year to resign.

For some insight on what led to the pope’s remarks today, I am joined by Kevin Eckstrom, editor in chief at Religion News Service.

ORAL HISTORY - StoryCorps, the Great Idea

"StoryCorps gives America a microphone and the chance to tell a story" PBS NewsHour 12/22/2014


JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  The holidays are a time of the year when people get together with their loved ones and it’s often a period for reflection and intimate conversations.

Tonight, we look at a kind of unique oral history project that’s built a legacy from gathering thousands of those kinds of conversations and many more.  Its founder just won a major award for his work, which may be well known to many of our viewers.

Hari Sreenivasan recorded this conversation in our New York studio.

NARRATOR:  Time now for StoryCorps.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  For more than a decade, the StoryCorps project has been recording and archiving the stories of everyday Americans, more than 50,000 in all so far, that are as varied as a family of five becoming homeless and forced to move into a shelter.

SHERRY GILLIARD:  I remember pulling my hood over my head because I was embarrassed.  I didn’t want her to see me, you know, or a colleague says, we’re going to go volunteer and we’re going to feed the families, and it would be at my shelter.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  To an Alzheimer’s patient speaking with his wife about his losses.

ROBERT PATTERSON:  One thing that I experience with Alzheimer’s is, I live in the moment, because I can’t remember what happened yesterday.  I can’t remember what happened 10 minutes ago.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  To a mother speaking with the man who killed her son.

MARY JOHNSON:  I just hugged the man who murdered my son.  And I instantly knew all that anger and animosity, all that stuff that I had in my heart for 12 years for you, I knew it was over.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  StoryCorps’ vision comes from its creator, Dave Isay.  The idea?  Get two people together in a room or booth with a microphone, primarily friends or loved ones, and let them talk and listen to each other.

It began with a soundproof booth in Grand Central Station in New York City.  Today, the project has a van that travels around the country, as well as recording rooms in several cities.  The stories are archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., but they also are made available to the public more easily.

SLEAZE FILES - (Update) Feds Move Against Virginia-Based Lenders

"Feds Bar Companies’ Long-Distance Lawsuits Against Soldiers" by Paul Kiel, ProPublica 12/26/2014

In the latest move against companies targeting military customers, federal regulators prohibit two Virginia-based lenders from suing out-of-state debtors in Virginia courts.  The companies were featured in a ProPublica story in July.

Federal regulators reached a settlement last week with the owners of two high-priced lenders over what they alleged were illegal debt collection practices against service members.  The Virginia-based companies were featured in a ProPublica story last summer.

The action by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which enforces federal consumer laws, is the latest move by regulators and the Department of Defense to curb predatory practices by companies that target members of the armed forces around the country.

In July, ProPublica published an investigation of USA Discounters, a retailer with stores outside each of the country’s 11 largest military bases.  The story, which was also published in the Washington Post, detailed how the company courted service members by guaranteeing them credit on marked-up appliances and electronics.  If they fell behind on their payments, USA Discounters often sued them, by the thousands, in Virginia, regardless of where they had made their purchases.  After winning judgments, the company then frequently seized funds from debtors’ pay or bank accounts.

The story identified two other companies, Freedom Furniture and Electronics and Military Credit Services, which employed similar tactics.  These companies, owned by a pair of brothers, settled with regulators last week.  As part of the agreement, they are barred from using Virginia courts to sue out-of-state customers.  The companies also agreed to credit or repay customers $2.5 million and pay a penalty of $100,000.

In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman emphasized that the settlement did not include an admission that the companies had violated the law.  The statement said the firms “intend to continue to set the standard for excellence in all we do.  We are honored to meet the needs of those who serve.”

ProPublica’s article focused on USA Discounters, which has seized the pay of more active-duty military than any company in the country by a wide margin, according to Defense Department payroll data.  But the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has not brought similar charges against USA Discounters (though it did reach a settlement earlier this year over an unrelated practice).  A CFPB spokesman declined to discuss whether such charges are pending or its investigative strategies.

But the agency is under pressure to act.  After the story ran, a group of U.S. Senators sent letters to federal regulators urging them to crack down and forbid the practices.

And this fall USA Discounters announced it had changed its name to USA Living and modified its collection tactics.  It still plans to file lawsuits in Virginia against out-of-state borrowers, but now will notify them that they can elect to be sued closer to home if they default on their payments.

USA Living has also paid a Washington lobbying firm at least $100,000 to lobby Congress over “issues regarding CFPB enforcement,” according to disclosures.

A USA Living spokeswoman, in an emailed statement, said the CFPB’s settlement with Freedom and Military Credit Services had “absolutely nothing to do” with USA Living.  The company did not respond to questions about whether it had had discussions with the CFPB about a possible settlement, nor did it respond to a question about the activities of its lobbyists.

A separate action by the Defense Department announced last month will likely have a major effect on military-focused retailers like Freedom, USA Living, and others.  As ProPublica reported, service members taking out a loan from USA Discounters almost always voluntarily set up payments through the military’s allotment system.  Part of the service member’s paycheck automatically went to the company every month.

The allotment system has long been abused, consumer advocates say, and often provided lenders an easy way to trap service members in unaffordable loans.  In one letter to the Defense Department after ProPublica’s story, a group of Senators urged the Department to accelerate an already ongoing review of the system.

Last month, the Department announced that, starting Jan. 1, 2015, service members could no longer use allotments to purchase personal property.  The change “will eliminate that aspect of the allotment system most prone to abuse by unscrupulous lenders that prey on our service members,” said the Defense Department in a press release.  Now, military customers will repay loans just like any other customer would.

USA Living’s spokeswoman argued the change will not have a major impact on the company because it never required the use of allotments.  In an email, the spokeswoman for Freedom and Military Credit said allotments were “just one option” for payment, although CFPB noted many of its customers paid via allotment.

The USA Discounters story was part of ProPublica’s broader investigation this year on the use of wage and bank garnishments — by debt collectors, creditors, even hospitals — to collect debts.

THE KNUCKLE-DRAGING FILES - Turkish President Erdoğan

"Turkish President Erdoğan declares birth control ‘treason’" HÜRRİYET Daily News (Turkey) 12/22/2014

After expressing his staunch opposition against abortions, C-sections and morning-after pills, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has now tackled the contraception issue by declaring that it was “treason to the country,” in remarks that are likely to revive controversy on reproductive health.

“They betrayed this country for years by [promoting] birth control and attempting to dry up our [next] generations,” Erdoğan said.

Contraception is the latest network of treason to be discovered by the president in Turkey after declaring the Gülen movement last week to engaged in treachery.

Addressing the bride and groom at the wedding ceremony of the son of businessman Mustafa Kefeli on Dec. 21, he advised the newlyweds that using contraceptive methods was a betrayal to Turkey's ambition to make itself a flourishing nation with a growing young population.

“One [child] would be strange, two means rivalry, three means balance and four means abundance.  And God takes care of the rest,” he said, relating ostensible words of wisdom from an elderly man in the Central Anatolian district of Beypazarı.

Erdoğan – who has two sons and two daughters – has drawn the ire of feminist groups for declaring that every woman should have at least three offspring, before informing the populace last month that women were not equal to men.

Erdoğan has previously suggested limits to abortion rights, the morning-after pill and Caesarian sections.  He stood clear about slamming contraception, while criticizing women’s attempts to deter pregnancy.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

GREED FILES - Bankers, Rating Agencies, and Tobacco Bonds

"Bankers Brought Rating Agencies ‘To Their Knees’ On Tobacco Bonds" by Cezary Podkul, ProPublica 12/23/2014


Wall Street pressed S&P, Moody’s and Fitch to assign more favorable credit ratings to their deals and bragged that the raters complied.  Now many of the bonds are headed for default.

When the economy nosedived in 2008, it didn’t take long to find the crucial trigger.  Wall Street banks had peddled billions of dollars in toxic securities after packing them with subprime mortgages that were sure to default.

Behind the bankers’ actions, however, stood a less-visible part of the finance industry that also came under fire.  The big credit-rating firms – S&P, Moody’s and Fitch – routinely blessed the securities as safe investments.  Two U.S. investigations found that raters compromised their independence under pressure from banks and the lure of profits, becoming, as the government’s official inquiry panel put it, “essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction.”

Now there is evidence the raters also may have succumbed to pressure from the bankers in another area:  The sale of billions of dollars in bonds by states and municipalities looking to quickly cash in on the massive 1998 legal settlement with Big Tobacco.

A review by ProPublica of documents from 22 tobacco bond offerings sold by 15 state and local governments shows that bankers routinely bragged about having their way with the agencies that rated their products.  The claims were brazen, the documents show, with bankers saying they routinely played one firm against its competitors to win changes to rating methods, jack up a rating or agree to rate longer-term, riskier bonds.

"Bear Stearns is the ONLY firm in two years to have negotiated new rating criteria pertaining to stress tests and tobacco sector fundamentals,” the now-defunct investment bank stated in a typical 2005 pitch for a deal led by Kym S. Arnone, who today chairs the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, the industry’s self-regulator.

“Fitch reached out to UBS for input so that they would fall in line with the other ratings agencies,” UBS said after it and other financial services firms dropped Fitch from deals because of its “constraining” stress tests.  Following the conversation, “Fitch amended their stress criteria,” UBS told officials in Michigan as it readied a 2006 deal.

In 2007, JPMorgan promised to negotiate Fitch “to their knees” if Ohio hired the bank for a $5.5 billion deal that was the largest sale, or “securitization” of tobacco settlement payments.

The 140 documents, unearthed through public records requests, show that bankers from six Wall Street firms – UBS, Bear Stearns, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs – claimed they could persuade the rating agencies to make favorable changes to their criteria.

Garnering better grades for the tobacco bonds meant the bankers could sell more of them, get a leg up on their competition and win millions of dollars in fees from the governments issuing the debt.  The state and local governments were trading their annual tobacco payments for up-front cash by making the bond deals.  As ProPublica has reported in a series of stories, the bonds have proved much riskier than advertised, leading to fiscal headaches for the issuers and losses for investors.

While there are no indications that the bankers did anything illegal, their claims further undermine the argument by the raters that their opinions are only the result of independent analysis – something the firms will soon be required to attest to in writing under reforms enacted in the wake of the financial crisis.

Since the economy tumbled in 2008, the estimated $36 billion of bonds issued in the tobacco sector – like so many other corners of Wall Street – have proven to be founded on shaky assumptions.  In this case, the unraveling was caused by weaker-than-expected cigarette sales, which drive the size of the settlement payments.  The outlook is now so bleak that in September Moody’s estimated that 80 percent of the money owed on tobacco bonds it rates won’t repay on time.

The future may be even bleaker for a $3 billion sliver of the debt.  Those securities, known as capital appreciation bonds, promised balloon payoffs so large – $64 billion, all told – that they are almost certain to default.  The documents show bankers pressed rating agencies to ease criteria for evaluating those bonds as well.

ProPublica shared the tobacco bond documents with S&P, Moody’s and Fitch.  All denied changing their methodologies, also known as rating criteria, in response to demands from bankers.

In an interview, Nicolas Weill, who oversees Moody’s rating methodologies for tobacco bonds and similar securities, said, “We don’t negotiate criteria.”  Those criteria – such as stress tests that gauge how much cash is available to repay the bonds under various scenarios – are "never, ever" open to deal-by-deal changes.  He said the firm may evaluate different deal structures but only if they meet those criteria.

In a statement, Fitch said:  “With respect to every one of the examples provided to us by ProPublica, we can affirm that no banker or other outside party unduly influenced any of these ratings decisions …  We determine our ratings – they are not open to negotiation with issuers and bankers.”

S&P said in a statement:  “On the whole, the assertion that S&P’s cash-flow stress assumptions for tobacco settlement bonds were relaxed is false … credit ratings change because factors that affect credit risk change.”

ProPublica shared the documents with each of the banks.  All declined to comment except UBS, which said the bankers involved no longer work for the firm, which exited the municipal bond business amid the 2008 market turmoil.

ProPublica also shared the materials with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates rating agencies and has been working to reform the rating process since the abuses in mortgage-backed securities.  In August, the agency adopted hundreds of pages of new rules it said will help prevent “conduct and practices that were central to the financial crisis.”

The SEC also has been investigating whether S&P bent its criteria to win ratings of commercial mortgage bonds.  The regulator is now seeking to suspend S&P from that part of the business in what would be its toughest action yet against one of the big three raters, Bloomberg News reported this month.

The SEC declined to comment on the documents provided by ProPublica.

The documents give the bankers’ version of what happened, and some degree of exaggeration can be expected in any sales pitch.  Nevertheless, former rating analysts, lawyers and regulatory experts who reviewed the documents said the consistency of the bankers’ claims across multiple years, deals and states, compared with known criteria changes and ratings, suggests the banks’ influence was real.

“Banks have a right to advocate for their clients – that’s normal,” said Mayra Rodriguez-Valladares, a financial regulatory consultant who reviewed the documents at ProPublica’s request.  “What’s going on here is very different … this is the banks trying to convince rating analysts to make changes to their methodology, and that’s really crossing the line.”

HISTORY - The Real Betty Boop?


They might have drawn Betty Boop white, but her history may have been black.  The character was actually stolen from Cotton Club singer Esther Jones — known by her stage name “Baby Esther” and the baby talk she used when she sang songs like “I Wanna Be Loved By You (Boop- Boop-BeDoo).  Her act later “inspired” cartoonist Max Fleischer to create the cartoon character Betty Boop and Esther tried to win the rights back to her character until the day she died.

Monday, December 22, 2014

NEW YORK CITY - Two NYPD Officers Shot

"‘It’s wrong’:  Shock, frustration surround shootings of NYPD officers" PBS NewsHour 12/21/2014


WILLIAM BRANGHAM (NewsHour):  Mourners gathered today at the scene of last night’s killing of the two New York City police officers.  And residents last night expressed shock and anger.

WOMAN:  At the end of the day, two families is missing somebody for the holidays, and its wrong!

MAN:  What are we?  We living in Dodge City or something like that?  It doesn’t happen like this.  Who does this?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM [narration]:  Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were shot at point blank range, sitting in their patrol car Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM [narration]:  The suspect — 28 year old Ismaaiyl Brinsley — fled to a nearby subway station and shot himself fatally in the head.  Earlier yesterday, Brinsley — who had a long criminal history — shot and wounded his girlfriend in this housing complex outside Baltimore before traveling to New York.  He then posted a photo on Instagram of the gun he would later use to kill the officers, indicating the shooting would be revenge for the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown — two black men killed by white police officers this year.  He wrote “They Take 1 of Ours…  We Take 2 of Theirs.  Shoot the police”

The killing of Brown and Garner — and the decisions by grand juries not to indict the officers involved — led to nationwide demonstrations, and in New York — led to a public fallout between New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and the police union.  After the Garner grand jury decision earlier this month, De Blasio said he’d been warning his mixed race son Dontae to be wary of the quote “dangers” he might face in interactions with police.

COMMENT:  Answer to the highlighted MAN's question, ask the NRA.

OPINION - Shields and Brooks 12/19/2014

"Shields and Brooks on reconciling with Cuba, Sony censorship" PBS NewsHour 12/19/2014


SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the choice to censor a Hollywood film about the assassination of Kim Jong-un, President Obama’s move to renew U.S. ties with Cuba and early signs that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush could be a 2016 presidential candidate.

ENVIRONMENT - EPA's Coal Ash Decision

"EPA decision not to classify coal ash as hazardous angers environmentalists" PBS NewsHour 12/19/2014


JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  The past few years, and a pair of major spills into waterways and communities have brought a whole new concern about the coal industry to the forefront.  It’s about a byproduct called coal ash.

After a six-year battle, the Environmental Protection Agency has now set the first national standards for how to regulate and deal with it.  But some argue the federal government pulled its punches.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  December 22, 2008, more than a billion gallons of coal ash, a by-product of coal-burning energy production, mixed with water, burst through the banks of a containment pond in Kingston, Tennessee.

The coal ash slurry flooded homes, farmland and poured into the Emory River, prompting what would become a billion-dollar cleanup.  Earlier this year, more than 80,000 tons spilled from a Duke Energy holding pond into North Carolina’s Dan River.  According to the EPA, more than 100 such breeches, though usually smaller, happen every year.

Coal ash contains toxic contaminants like mercury, arsenic and lead, and environmental groups have long warned holding ponds are not only prone to ruptures, but also leak into groundwater.  They had pushed for coal ash to be classified as a hazardous material.  That would give regulatory authority of the substance to the EPA.

But in announcing new standards for coal ash storage and disposal today, EPA head Gina McCarthy said that power would remain with the states.

GINA MCCARTHY, Environmental Protection Agency:  This rule sets a commonsense, consistent baseline for industries and states to follow, and that communities can rely on to prevent health risks, as well as costly cleanups.

DIGITAL DIVIDE - Teens and Elders

"Teens and elders bridge generation gap and digital divide" PBS NewsHour 12/19/2014


JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Finally tonight, building bridges across the generation gap and the technology divide.

The “NewsHour's” Mary Jo Brooks has our report.



COURTNEY KERSHAW:  You work out for the day?


MARY JO BROOKS (NewsHour):  Twice a week, 24-year-old Courtney Kershaw and 89-year-old Dorothy Stone head out on errands.  On the day we visited, there was a trip to the nail salon and the grocery store.

Kershaw works for Denver-based concierge business called Capable Living, which provide services for senior citizens who live in their own home.  Fees start at $1,000 a month.  What’s unique is that the employees are all young people, so-called millennials who were born at the end of the last century.

The goal of the company is not only to provide services, but to build bridges between a generation obsessed with smartphones and selfies with one that was raised in an entirely different era.

COURTNEY KERSHAW:  Some of my favorite things were you telling me about when you were my age and how you would fill up the car for 10 cents and go driving around all day.

THAT'S A WRAP - President Obama on Cuba, North Korea, Race Relations

"Obama closes 2014 with remarks on Cuba, North Korea" PBS NewsHour 12/19/2014

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  President Obama said today that the United States would respond proportionally and at time of its choosing to the cyber-attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.  The FBI confirmed this morning that North Korea was behind the attack on the company.

Mr. Obama spoke on that and other issues at a year-end news conference.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well, all I want for Christmas is to take your questions.


JUDY WOODRUFF:  It was a year-end review dominated by the events of one week.  As the fallout continued from the Sony hacking scandal, and the studio’s decision to cancel the release of the movie about assassinating North Korea’s leader, the President weighed in.

BARACK OBAMA:  Again, I’m sympathetic that Sony as a private company was worried about liabilities and this and that and the other.  I wish they had spoken to me first.  I would’ve told them, do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Without divulging specifics, he said the U.S. will respond to the attack.

Mr. Obama also discussed his move to reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba.  He acknowledged the country’s regime still oppresses its people, but did find room for optimism.

BARACK OBAMA:  What I know deep in my bones is that if you have done the same thing for 50 years and nothing’s changed, you should try something different if you want a different outcome.  And this gives us an opportunity for a different outcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  His action on Cuba was just the latest instance of Mr. Obama’s using the power of the executive.  Last month, he acted to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation.  Both moves enraged Republicans, who will control both houses of Congress come January.

Despite their differences, and the gridlock that has gripped Washington for much of his tenure, the President said he still believes cooperation is still possible.

BARACK OBAMA:  We’re going to disagree on some things, but there are going to be areas of agreement, and we have got to be able to make that happen.  And that’s going to involve compromise every once in a while, and we saw during this lame-duck period that perhaps that spirit of compromise may be coming to the fore.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Mr. Obama took just a handful of questions, and only from women reporters, including one on race relations in America.  It comes as the nation deals with anger over grand jury decisions in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri, not to indict white police officers in the killing of two black men.

The President says the country’s made progress, but work remains.

BARACK OBAMA:  I actually think it’s been a healthy conversation that we have had.  These are not new phenomena.  The fact that they’re now surfacing, in part because people are able to film what have just been in the past stories passed on around the kitchen table allows people to, you know, make their own assessments and evaluations.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The President left tonight for his family’s Christmas vacation in Hawaii.

"How should the U.S. government respond to North Korea’s attack on Sony?" PBS NewsHour 12/19/2014


SUMMARY:  President Obama told the White House Press Corps that Sony was wrong to withdraw its film, “The Interview,” and that the U.S. would react “proportionally” to the damaging cyber-attack by North Korea.  Judy Woodruff turns to Dmitri Alperovitch of CrowdStrike and Jack Pritchard, the former U.S. special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, about options for an American response.

MEDIA - Colbert Transition to CBS Late Night Show

"Stephen Colbert leaves the pundit behind to play himself" PBS NewsHour 12/18/2014


HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  Finally tonight, there’s a finally tonight coming from late-night comic Stephen Colbert.

Jeffrey Brown looks at his run and what’s ahead.

STEPHEN COLBERT, “The Colbert Report”:  Truthiness.


JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  He gave the late night world something called truthiness.

STEPHEN COLBERT:  Now, I’m sure some of the word police, the wordinistas over at Webster’s are going to say, hey, that’s not a word.

JEFFREY BROWN:  An approximation of fact that somehow captured the moment in American journalism and culture.  He presented “The Word,” a circular monologue that began in one place, meandered through puns and sight gags, and ended back where it started.

Night after night for nine years on “The Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert did it all in character, a character named Stephen Colbert, an excitable, hyperactive, brash, but also reasonable voice of conservative bluster, clearly modeled on the cable TV and radio styles of Bill O’Reilly and others, all played for laughs and lessons.

U.S.A. - Changing Relations With Cuba

"How Obama can change U.S.-Cuba relations without Congress – Part 2" PBS NewsHour 12/18/2014


HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  Now back to the United States’ plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.

For more on what it means in practical terms and efforts to lift the economic embargo, which is still in place, I’m joined by our foreign — chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, and NewsHour political director Domenico Montanaro.

So, Margaret, let me start with you.

What can the President do on his own, without needing Congress?

MARGARET WARNER (NewsHour):  Well, first of all, as you said, he can normalize relations with Cuba, just as, for example, Nixon normalized relations with China, with whom we were still at odds.  So that’s the first thing he can do.

Secondly, I learned just this afternoon that the — establishing a U.S. Embassy, which members of Congress have vowed to not fund, it turns out the U.S. Interests Section in the old U.S. Embassy.  It has 360 people working there, including 67 Americans.

And so one senior official said to me, right now, we’re not even sure we need additional personnel.  The building is a little shabby, but they can go right ahead.  Two, he can take Cuba off the state-sponsor of terrorism list after a six-month review by the secretary of state, and notifying Congress, but they do not have to approve it.

And, three, he can use his licensing authority to ease all these travel and investment restrictions, so people will be able to use American credit cards there, more people will be able to travel, transfer more money there.

What an official said to me today, though, is, it is not open for business, that it is not open, that the economic embargo still holds, if you’re talking about big American hotel chains going down there.  That is not the case.  And so there will be a limit on that.

"American businesses eye Cuban opportunities – Part 3" PBS NewsHour 12/18/2014


SUMMARY:  As President Obama closes a door on Cold War hostilities between the U.S. and Cuba, American businesses wait in the wings for new opportunities to expand to the nation that has long been off-limits.  Hari Sreenivasan talks to Marcelo Prince of The Wall Street Journal about which industries would be most affected if the embargo was lifted.

BANKS - Wall Street Rules

"Is the 2015 spending bill a gift to big banks?" PBS NewsHour 12/18/2014


HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  Let’s turn to a story about Wall Street and banks that’s angered many.

As one of its final acts last week, Congress passed a spending bill for 2015.  Tucked into it was a provision to loosen banking regulations on hedges or bets known as derivatives or swaps.  These are financial instruments that essentially allow banks to hedge bets on things that rise and fall in value, such as mortgages, currencies and interest rates.

After the financial crisis, the Dodd-Frank Act required big banks like J.P. Morgan to move some of those derivatives, or bets, to other banking units that don’t have a federal backstop or guarantee from the government.

The idea:  No federal guarantee means no bailout.  But the provision passed last week essentially cancels it and says banks don’t have to move those swaps around anymore.

Liberals were outraged.  The most outspoken voice ahead of the Senate vote, Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN, (D) Massachusetts:  Who do you work for, Wall Street or the American people?  This fight isn’t about conservatives or liberals; it’s not about Democrats or Republicans.  It’s about money, and it’s about power right here in Washington.

This legal change could trigger more taxpayer bailouts and could ultimately threaten our entire economy.  But it will also make a lot of money for Wall Street banks.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  But others, including Republicans and some Democrats, said that fear was overstated.

COMMENT:  Boy, Los Vegas gamblers would love to have this out.  Gamble all they want with their money, but have the American taxpayer cover any losses.  Like I've said in the past, stock exchanges are the world's biggest gambling casinos.

ARE YOU KIDDING - Fukushima as Host for Tokyo 2020 Olympic Events?!

"Fukushima2020?  Disaster-stricken area hopes to host Tokyo Olympic events" News 12/21/2014

Fukushima hopes to host some of the events for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo to show the world that the worst days of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster are behind it.

"We need to set a goal so that we can show how much Fukushima has recovered," Masao Uchibori, who was elected the new governor of Fukushima Prefecture in October, said Tuesday.

"The Olympics is meant to show to the world the Tohoku region's reconstruction.  We want to cooperate as much as possible," he said, as cited by Reuters.

Uchibori made no mention of which events Fukushima Prefecture would aim to host, but football is the likely choice, on account of the schedule and large number of stadia needed for the Olympic tournament.

In September 2013, Tokyo successfully won the bid to host the 125th International Olympic Committee (IOC) session, beating out Madrid and Istanbul.  Japan last hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964 – the first Olympics ever held in Asia.  Tokyo was actually supposed to host the 1940 Summer Olympics, although Japan’s invasion of China saw the games moved to Helsinki before ultimately being canceled because of World War II.

Tokyo said the event would help the country recover from the 2011 tsunami and earthquake which sparked the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

“Japan needs hope and dreams,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said after the IOC announcement.

Just days before Tokyo won the bid, Abe told the IOC that ongoing leaks of radioactive water at Fukushima would have no impact on the country’s ability to host the 2020 Olympics.

“There have been some expressions of concern over the leak of polluted water at Fukushima, but the government will take a lead in achieving a complete resolution of this problem,” Abe told reporters at the time.  “I will explain carefully that we are doing our utmost with a firm resolve and that in 2020, seven years from now, there will be absolutely no problem.”

The president of the Japanese Olympic Committee further attempted to assuage fears by saying the radiation level in Tokyo was “the same” as in other major global capitals such as London, New York and Paris.

But Mitsuhei Murata, a former Japanese ambassador to Switzerland, said it was “immoral” to invite people to the Olympic Games in Japan, saying “the health environment cannot be secured,” the UK Independent cited him as saying at the time.

He called for the bid to be rescinded.

Later that month, Abe ordered that two Fukushima reactors which survived the 2011 disaster be permanently decommissioned.

The president of Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operated the disabled Fukushima plant, promised Abe it would finish treating contaminated water at Fukushima by March 2015.

Earlier this month, Japan’s nuclear watchdog said the radioactive water that has accumulated at the plant must be decontaminated and dumped into the ocean.

Fukushima water to be cleaned, dumped into Pacific, watchdog says

Some 400 tons of untainted groundwater are believed to be seeping into the buildings of the Fukushima plant on a daily basis.  It is then mixing with the toxic water generated in the process of cooling the crippled reactors.  TEPCO collects the radioactive groundwater and stores it at the site of the plant.  However, storing the groundwater becomes more difficult each day, as the water quantity continues to increase.

The March 11, 2011, incident at Fukushima was the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.  Despite TEPCO’s intensive cleanup operation at the site, it will likely take four decades to completely decommission the plant’s four damaged reactors.

Friday, December 19, 2014

NEW YORK - State Bans Fraking

"New York State Bans Fracking" by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica 12/17/2014

When natural gas companies first pressed into New York in 2008, state environmental regulators barely understood the process of "hydraulic fracturing."  Today, six and a half years after ProPublica first raised concerns that the drilling could threaten both the state's water supply and its residents' health, Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned the process across the state.

The ban makes New York, which holds large natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale, the largest and most significant region to bow out of the nation's energy boom because of concerns that its benefits may be outweighed by the risk.

The decision comes after a long-awaited report from the state's Health Department this week concluded that the fracking would pose health risks to New Yorkers. It also follows an exhaustive state environmental review effort that began the day after ProPublica's first story in July 2008.

Since then, New York has walked an indecisive line on drilling, while an energy boom provoked by advances in fracking technology took much of the rest of the country by storm.  Today's lower oil prices are due, in part, to an oil bonanza in North Dakota's Bakken Shale that had barely begun when New York first put a temporary halt to new drilling in the state.  Likewise, the gas drilling waves that have rippled through states from Pennsylvania and West Virginia to Michigan, North Carolina, Maryland, Texas and Wyoming had yet to run their course.

But by delaying a decision on drilling for so many years, Cuomo also allowed a clearer picture of the impacts and changes that drilling activity would bring to emerge.  That clearer picture ultimately dampened the enthusiasm for drilling in New York and validated many of the environmental and health concerns that anti-drilling groups have raised across the country.

Just across the state line from New York's Southern Tier, where the richest Marcellus gas deposits lie, Pennsylvania landowners dealt with one incident of water contamination after another.  They complained of illnesses caused by both the water and new air pollution brought by the drilling.  State regulators in Pennsylvania – once enthusiastic boosters of the process – wound up cracking down on drilling companies' messy practices and strengthening their own environmental laws as a result.

Across the country, similar stories emerged, many of them reported as part of a four-year-long investigation by ProPublica.  From Texas and Louisiana to California, drilling waste was being spilled or leaking into drinking water aquifers and high pressures caused by fracking activities were causing wells to leak.  Methane gushed from wells and pipelines.  And residents' allegations that the drilling was causing symptoms from nerve disorders to skin lesions and birth defects began to be substantiated through peer-reviewed scientific research.

The potential payoff for such risks – which the drilling industry long maintained were minimal – was that drilling would bring huge economic benefits to rural regions long desperate for new jobs and an injection of economic vigor.  That economic promise has been born out across many parts of the country, but in some instances, those who needed the financial benefits most have been denied them.

An investigation by ProPublica earlier this year found that landowners in Pennsylvania who supported drilling and signed leases with drilling companies in order to earn a share of the profits were instead being cheated out their payments, called royalties.  In fact, the stories showed, energy companies had withheld royalty payments worth billions of dollars from both landowners and the federal government across states from Texas and Wyoming to Louisiana and Colorado, substantially blunting the prosperity that could come from allowing drilling to proceed.

All of this, it now seems, must have made Cuomo's decision this week a lot easier.  But the ban also reflects the conclusion of a lengthy learning curve for New York State.

When ProPublica reporters, in a joint project with WNYC, first went to Albany to talk with the state's environment regulators, those officials couldn't answer basic questions about the process they were poised to permit:  What chemicals would be pumped underground near drinking water supplies?  Where would the waste be disposed of and did New York have facilities capable of handling it?  State officials told ProPublica then that fracking had never once caused pollution to water supplies, and said they were unaware of the hundreds of cases brought to their attention by ProPublica where such damage had indeed taken place.

On the morning of July 23, 2008, then Gov. David Paterson called for those state environment officials to go back to the drawing board in their assessment of the risks of fracking before the state issued any new permits, effectively placing a moratorium on drilling that lasted until now.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

MARS - Curiosity Rover Detects Organics!

"NASA’s Curiosity Rover detects Methane, Organics on Mars" by Tim Reyes, Universe Today 12/17/2014

On Tuesday, December 16, 2014, NASA scientists attending the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco announced the detection of organic compounds on Mars.  The announcement represents the discovery of the missing “ingredient” that is necessary for the existence – past or present – of life on Mars.

Indeed, the extraordinary claim required extraordinary evidence – the famous assertion of Dr. Carl Sagan.  The scientists, members of the Mars Science Lab – Curiosity Rover – mission, worked over a period of 20 months to sample and analyze Martian atmospheric and surface samples to arrive at their conclusions.  The announcement stems from two separate detections of organics:  1) ten-fold spikes in atmospheric Methane levels, and 2) drill samples from a rock called Cumberland which included complex organic compounds.

Methane, of the simplest organic compounds, was detected using the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM).  This is one of two compact laboratory instruments embedded inside the compact car-sized rover, Curiosity.  Very soon after landing on Mars, the scientists began to use SAM to periodically measure the chemical content of the Martian atmosphere.  Over many samples, the level of Methane was very low, ~0.9 parts per billion.  However, that suddenly changed and, as scientists stated in the press conference, it was a “wow” moment that took them aback.  Brief daily spikes in Methane levels averaging 7 parts per billion were detected.

The detection of methane at Mars has been claimed for decades, but more recently, in 2003 and 2004, independent research teams using sensitive spectrometers on Earth detected methane in the atmosphere of Mars.  One group led by Vladimir Krasnopolsky of Catholic University, and another led by Dr. Michael Mumma from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, detected broad regional and temporal levels of Methane as high as 30 parts per billion.  Those announcements met with considerable skepticism from the scientific community.  And the first atmospheric measurements by Curiosity were negative.  However, neither group backed down from their claims.

The sudden detection of ten-fold spikes in methane levels in Gale crater is not inconsistent with the earlier remote measurements from Earth.  The high seasonal concentrations were in regions that do not include Gale Crater, and it remains possible that the Curiosity measurements are of a similar nature but due to some less active process than exists at the regions identified by Dr. Mumma’s team.

The NASA scientists at AGU led by MSL project scientist Dr. John Grotzinger emphasized that they do not yet know how the methane is being generated.  The process could be biological or not.  There are abiotic chemical processes that could produce methane.  However, the MSL SAM detections were daily spikes and represent an active real on-going process on the red planet.  This alone is a very exciting aspect of the detection.

The team presented slides to describe how methane could be generated.  With the known low background levels of methane at ~ 1 part per billion, an external cosmic source, for example micro-meteoroids entering the atmosphere and releasing organics which is then reduced by sunlight to methane, could be ruled out.  The methane source must be of local origin.

The scientists illustrated two means of production.  In both instances, there is some daily – or at least periodic – activity that is releasing methane from the subsurface of Mars.  The source could be biological which is accumulated in subsurface rocks then suddenly released.  Or an abiotic chemistry, such as a reaction between the mineral olivine and water, could be the generator.

The subsurface storage mechanism of methane proposed and illustrated is called clathrate storage.  Clathrate storage involves lattice compounds that can trap molecules such as methane which can subsequently be released by physical changes in the clathrate, such as solar heating or mechanical stresses.  Through press Q&A, the NASA scientists stated that such clathrates could be preserved for millions and billions of years underground.

The second discovery of organics involved more complex compounds in surface materials.  Also since arriving at Mars, Curiosity has utilized a drilling tool to probe the interiors of rocks.  Grotzinger emphasized how material immediately at the surface of Mars has experienced the effects of radiation and the ubiquitous soil compound perchlorate reducing and destroying organics both now and over millions of years.  The detection of no organics in loose and exposed surface material had not diminished NASA scientists’ hopes of detecting organics in the rocks of Mars.

Drilling was performed on several selected rocks and it was finally a mud rock called Cumberland that revealed the presence of organic compounds more complex than simple methane.  The scientists did emphasize that what exactly these organic compounds are remains a mystery because of the confounding presence of the active chemical perchlorate which can quickly breakdown organics to simpler forms.

The detection of organics in the mud rock Cumberland required the drilling tool and also the scoop on the multifaceted robotic arm to deliver the sample into the SAM laboratory for analysis.  To detect methane, SAM has an intake valve to receive atmospheric samples.

Dr. Grotzinger described how Cumberland was chosen as a sample source.  The rock is called a mud stone which has undergone a process called digenesis – the metamorphosis of sediment to rock.  Grotzinger emphasized that fluids will move through such rock during digenesis and perchlorate can destroy organics in the process.  Such might be the case for many metamorphic rocks on the Martian surface.  The panel of scientists showed a comparison between rock samples measured by SAM.  Two in particular – from the rock “John Klein” and the Cumberland rock — were compared.  The former showed no organics as well as other rocks that were sampled; but Cumberland’s drill sample from its interior did reveal organics.
"Boston bombing suspect seen for the first time since 2013" by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, USA TODAY 12/18/2014

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has not been seen in public since he was arraigned on 30 federal charges in July 2013, when he still bore signs of the bloody standoff with police that led to his capture and the death of his older brother, Tamerlan.

On Thursday, he showed up in court for the first time.

The courtroom was packed as people strained to be the first to get a look at Tsarnaev.  Fourteen victims of the attacks sat together on one side of the galley.  Members of the media and general public occupied another 60 seats on benches.

Tsarnaev, 21, gave a small, seemingly nervous, smile to his lawyers upon entering the courtroom.  He had a scruffy beard and a mopped head of wavy, uncombed hair.  He wore a black sweater and open-necked collared shirt.

U.S. District Judge George O'Toole Jr. asked him four questions, inquiring whether he had elected to be absent in prior status conferences and whether his lawyers had kept him apprised of the proceedings.

"Yes sir," Tsarnaev said.

O'Toole also asked if he's been satisfied with his legal representation.

"Very much," Tsarnaev said.  When O'Toole asked if he would like a private meeting with him to discuss his representation, Tsarnaev declined.

Security was tight during the final pre-trial hearing before Tsarnaev's trial, which is set to begin on Jan. 5.

Tsarnaev is charged in a 30-count indictment that alleges he conspired with his late older brother, Tamerlan, to build and detonate two pressure-cooker bombs that left three dead and more than 260 injured near the crowded finish line of last year's Boston Marathon.  He's also charged in the murder of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology security officer who died during the manhunt.  Tsarnaev, who has pleaded not guilty, faces the possibility of the death penalty if he is convicted.

The beefed up police presence included a line of police vehicles at front of the courthouse entrance.  In back, a Boston Police boat with blue lights flashing kept watch in Boston Harbor.  Both sides had visible support from Boston Police Special Operations, who patrolled on foot with dogs.

Thursday's hearing is the last chance to ask the judge for new ground rules for the trial.  Tsarnaev's lawyers recently filed a new motion seeking, for the second time, to have the trial relocated out of Boston, where they fear their client will not be treated fairly.

O'Toole rejected Tsarnaev's first request in September to move the trial, ruling that Tsarnaev's lawyers had failed to show that extensive pretrial media coverage of the bombings had prejudiced the jury pool to the point that an impartial jury could not be chosen in Boston.

Tsarnaev's lawyers previously said the trial should be moved to Washington, D.C.

O'Toole also rejected a defense request that prosecutors turn over evidence about his older brother's possible participation in a 2011 triple killing in suburban Waltham.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys were expected to discuss the jury selection process with the judge during Thursday's hearing.  Both sides have submitted questions they want the judge to ask potential jurors, who will be selected from a pool of at least 1,200 people.

The trial is expected to last several months.  Seating a jury alone could take several weeks to a month.

When last seen, Tsarnaev still had visible injuries from a shootout with police several days after the April 15, 2013, bombings.  His left arm was in a cast and his face was swollen.  He appeared to have a jaw injury.

Three friends of Tsarnaev were convicted this year of hampering the investigation by removing evidence from his dorm room or lying to the FBI.

Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev were convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for removing a backpack containing fireworks and other potential evidence while authorities were still looking for the suspected bombers.  Another friend, Robel Phillipos, was convicted of lying to federal agents about being in the room.  All three are awaiting sentencing.

HISTORIC SHIFT - United States & Cuban Restore Diplomatic Ties

COMMENT:  The fall of the old USSR did not happen because we isolated them.  It came about after we started normal diplomatic ties.

"U.S. and Cuba restore diplomatic ties, swap prisoners – Part 1" PBS NewsHour 12/17/2014


JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  President Obama calls it the most significant change in U.S. policy toward Cuba in more than half-a-century.  In a stunning move today, he laid out plans for a diplomatic rapprochement with Havana.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The President appeared in the Cabinet Room of the White House to make his momentous announcement.  By executive action, he is reestablishing diplomatic ties with Cuba.  He also means to open an embassy in Havana, expand economic ties with the communist island, and ease the ban on travel for family, government business and educational purposes.

BARACK OBAMA:  I do not expect the changes I’m announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight, but I am convinced that, through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Mr. Obama finalized the deal after speaking at length with Cuban President Raul Castro yesterday.  It was the first significant discussion between presidents of the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.

Today, in his own televised address, Castro welcomed the thaw, while cautioning there is much still to be resolved.

PRESIDENT RAUL CASTRO, Cuba (through interpreter):  In recognizing that we have profound differences in the areas of national sovereignty, democracy, human rights, and foreign policy, I reaffirm our willingness to discuss all of these matters.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The renewal of relations followed a year of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials in Canada and at the Vatican.  The first concrete step was a prisoner swap that took place this morning.  The U.S. released three Cuban agents convicted in 2001 of spying on military installations.

"Is it in America’s interest to have closer Cuban connection? – Part 2" PBS NewsHour 12/17/2014


SUMMARY:  For two views on the diplomatic reconnection with Cuba, Judy Woodruff turns to Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who supports the move and traveled from Cuba with released prisoner Alan Gross, and Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state, who says President Obama is “betting” on goodwill from the Castro regime.

"How does diplomatic reconciliation affect Cuban-Americans? – Part 3" PBS NewsHour 12/17/2014


SUMMARY:  How are Cuban-Americans responding to the breakthrough in relations between the U.S. and Cuba?  Maria de los Angeles Torres of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Cuban-American activist Ana Carbonell join Judy Woodruff for a debate on the change in policy and its effect on the future of pro-democracy activism on the island.