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Analysis, background reports and updates from the PBS NewsHour putting today's news in context.

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    WASHINGTON — Health insurance companies are telling Congress that more than 80 percent of people who’ve signed up under the new health care law have gone on to pay their premiums.

    That’s in line with what individual insurers have said on earnings calls with analysts and elsewhere in recent weeks.

    Company representatives were testifying at a House hearing run by Republicans who are skeptical of the Obama administration’s claims of higher-than-expected sign-ups.

    A GOP report last week suggested the payment figure could be significantly lower — and that would undermine the administration’s claims. But Wednesday’s testimony from representatives of Aetna, Wellpoint and other insurers indicated otherwise.

    Republicans say there still are questions, and they note that the administration hasn’t released its own payments data.

    Democrats say the hearing is politically motivated.

    The post Health insurers report 80 percent of signees are paying their premiums appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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     A sculpture at Port Elizabeth’s Donkin Reserve commemorates South Africa’s first all-race election in 1994. Voters there will come out on Wednesday for the first time since the death of Nelson Mandela. Photo by Sue Hoppe/Wikimedia Commons

    A sculpture at Port Elizabeth’s Donkin Reserve commemorates South Africa’s first all-race election in 1994. Voters there will come out on Wednesday for the first time since the death of Nelson Mandela. Photo by Sue Hoppe/Wikimedia Commons

    South Africans take to the polls Wednesday for national elections, 20 years after Nelson Mandela’s historic election as president marked the end of apartheid.

    Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, has been in power ever since, and analysts are predicting another victory for the group, headed by President Jacob Zuma.

    The ANC faces strong opposition by the Democratic Alliance party, headed by anti-apartheid activist Helen Zille, as well as newcomer Economic Freedom Fighters, who hope to leverage frustration over governmental corruption and a national unemployment rate pushing 25 percent.

    Still, it will be the first election since Mandela’s death in December. Experts believe that lingering loyalty to Madiba, as he is fondly called, will motivate a large majority of South Africa’s 25 million registered voters to support the party they saw fighting white-minority rule.

    Notably, a generation of voters with no such nostalgia — young people born after apartheid’s demise — will also be eligible to cast their ballots for the first time.

    These so-called “born-frees” make up only 2.5 percent of the electorate — and are registered at far lower numbers than the rest of the population — but analysts will be watching them closely.

    “We’re generally seeing a youth that is still quite disillusioned by the current political landscape in South Africa,” said Lauren Tracey of the Institute for Security Studies. “They don’t feel as if their vote is going to make a difference.”

    They are not alone in this disenchantment. Rev. Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and close friend of Mandela, has said he will not vote for the ANC this year, citing high rates of poverty and crime across the country that have not changed much over the last two decades.

    “We dreamt about a society that would be compassionate, a society that really made people feel they mattered,” he told South Africa’s Sunday Times in April. “You can’t do that in a society where you have people who go to bed hungry, where many of our children still attend classes under trees.”

    “I’m glad that Madiba is dead,” he added. “I’m glad that most of these people are no longer alive to see this.”

    The post South Africans head to election polls, 20 years after end of apartheid appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    There's no need for the U.S. to be interfering with Cuba, says Lew Mandell. Just back from the country, he reports on their own transition to a market-based economy. Photo by Flickr user Melody Breaker

    There’s no need for the U.S. to be interfering with Cuba, says Lew Mandell. Just back from the country, he reports on their own transition to a market-based economy. Photo by Flickr user Melody Breaker

    Editor’s Note: Besides helping boomers prepare for a financially safe retirement, Making Sen$e contributor Lew Mandell has served as one of our far-flung economics correspondents, reporting from Singapore last fall on how the government uses incentives to encourage and discourage certain behavior. Mandell returns in that role now, filing his observations from his recent trip to Cuba.

    With a long interest in economies that have transitioned from a command to a market-based system, Mandell considers himself lucky to have made it to one of the last command economies traveling with the recently reinstated “person-to-person” program that allows Americans to travel to Cuba with groups approved by the U.S. Treasury Department. What he saw was an economy transitioning to a more market-based model after Raul Castro took the helm from his brother Fidel.

    Paul Solman first explored the seeds of that transition nearly 13 years ago, when he traveled to Cuba and noted that a “major makeover” was in place: “in short, it seems like capitalism is taking root,” he told the NewsHour audience in 2001 (watch his full report below). Food production was booming because of free market incentives that let farmers privately sell some of their crops. But it was more complicated than that. Every family still received a subsidized ration book from the government, and many farmers were suspicious of the “private guys.” “The state gives me everything I need– the grain, the breeding stock,” one pig farmer told Paul. “So my commitment is to them.”

    “In Cuba, then,” Paul explained, “an economics correspondent can feel whipsawed. At some moments you think Castro has saved Socialism, and right under Uncle Sam’s nose. At other times it seems clear the free market is burrowing irresistibly from within.”

    Fast forward more than a decade, and Mandell picks up on the those tensions, but sees a much more deliberate transition to a market-based economy.

    Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

    We had just returned to Miami from a U.S. government-sanctioned person-to-person trip to Cuba when we learned of our government’s latest attempt to destabilize the government of Cuba.

    Called “ZunZuneo” for the sound made by the Cuban hummingbird, the monitored and manipulated Twitter-like text message service was covertly introduced to Cuba by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

    The idea was to build up a critical mass of followers in Cuba with updates about sports, music and weather. But once the message service’s reach was wide enough, operators planned to send political messages to incite a “Cuban Spring.”

    As an economist who had the opportunity to observe, first-hand, the difficult transitions of China and Russia from state to largely market-based economies, I was astounded by the counter-productive actions of my government. On its own, Cuba was well into a carefully planned transition to a market-based economy. The only impact of additional U.S. meddling would be to set back this process.

    The failure of the 1959 Communist revolution is apparent to everyone. It is most obvious in Havana where 80 percent of housing was built before the revolution and beautiful, old buildings collapse from lack of maintenance at the rate of three per day. While the U.S. boycott of trade with Cuba certainly did not help the Cuban economy, much of its bad fortune is the result of poor government decisions, particularly its choice of bedfellows.

    Following the 1959 revolution, the Cuban economy was largely sustained by sugar subsidies from the Soviet Union. This caused the economy to become dependent on a single benefactor and a single commodity. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, Cuba was plunged into a hard landing called its “Special Period.” Without subsidy, the price of sugar dropped by half to the world price of just 6 cents per pound. This was below production costs for an agricultural system that had not invested in modern technology. Sugar fell from supplying 91.2 percent of export revenues in 1990 to 38.5 percent in 2000 to 27.1 percent in 2006. Without this hard currency, the country could no longer afford energy, 94 percent of which was imported. The country’s GDP fell by 34 percent from a very low level in the early 1990s.

    About 10 years ago, Cuba made another poor choice of bedfellows — Venezuela, which has supplied much of its energy. However, after the death of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan economy has become very unstable and knowledgeable Cubans report that Brazil is rapidly becoming Cuba’s new best friend. A leading source of export revenues is now Cuba’s medical doctors and other health professionals, some 50,000 of whom are alleged to be migrating from Venezuela to Brazil. Many Cubans complain of the diminished quality of medical care as the result of this export.

    With virtually no industry and a non-competitive agricultural sector, Cuba has become a service-based “mojito” economy, named after the sweet, mint-flavored rum drink that is popular with tourists. Tourism and health (including the export of health professionals) now account for 72 percent of GDP.

    Remittances from Cuban-Americans are the third largest source of income. To capture these remittances, the government set up “dollar stores” where Cubans can buy goods that are otherwise unavailable by converting their foreign currency to convertible pesos known as “CUCs.” Even this intermediary step will soon be eliminated as Cuba reverts to a single currency, its peso. This will make imported goods available to all Cubans, a major step toward open markets.

    Currently, the average pay for Cubans is the equivalent of just $20 U.S.D. per month. While this is somewhat mitigated by the facts that some 95 percent of Cubans own their own home (and pay no rent) and there is free medical care and education, subsidized energy and no income tax, it is still very little income. As a result, many capable, well-educated Cubans have gravitated to the tourist sector where a week’s hard-currency tips can equal their government pay for an entire year. Privately-owned restaurants called “paladares” are providing more opportunities for Cuban entrepreneurship, as are “bed-and-breakfasts,” which many enterprising Cubans have set up in their own homes.

    It is difficult to tell the extent to which the movement toward a market-driven economy is driven by dire foreign currency needs or by the switch in leadership from Fidel to Raul Castro. Regardless, private sector employees, “trabajadores cuenta propia” or TCPs can now be licensed to work in 201 different types of jobs. These include the ubiquitous “habaneras” or women dressed in colonial attire found in the tourist sectors of Havana who will pose for pictures for a few CUCs.

    State jobs have been cut by 10 percent since 2009, and in 2013 more than 200 state-owned small and medium-sized businesses were turned into private cooperatives with hundreds of additional conversions expected in 2014. Just a few weeks ago, Cuba approved a new foreign-investment law that allows Cuban expats to invest in some Cuban enterprises.

    It is apparent that the transition to a market-based economy is being done with some care to not excessively exacerbate the inequality of income and wealth. Tourism, a major source of hard currency for its practitioners, is concentrated in Havana and the beaches. In addition to further concentrating wealth in these areas, it is causing unsustainable internal migration from other places in the country.

    And the hard-dollar remittances from Cuban-Americans, so necessary to sustain the economy, are having unintended consequences. Fifty-nine percent of remittances come from just 10 percent of Cuban emigrants and this money tends to go to the most highly-educated Cubans who have relatives in the States. The value of the remittances, in comparison to state salaries, has caused many skilled workers, reportedly including cardiologists, to just stop working.

    Cuban economists feel that reform must be done carefully. As more people earn private sector salaries and business profits, taxes must be instituted in a thoughtful way. A real estate market must be developed in a manner designed to not dispossess the poor from their homes. A retirement system must be designed. Inherited rights to totally free health care and education must be reconsidered. Guidelines are being submitted for consensus and much of the labor force must be retrained for productive activities. Decentralization from central to local governments is a very important goal right now.

    Even more fundamentally, food, which is rationed and heavily subsidized, must eventually have its production privatized to encourage more production. Today, farmers’ markets allow Cubans with farms to sell what they grow to those who have the necessary pesos. There are also modern supermarkets, but only for those with hard currency.

    The eventual structure of Cuba’s economy is not likely to mirror that of the U.S. It may be closer to the economies of Western Europe and could even have similarities with that of China. Cuban economists are studying the rapid development of countries such as South Korea for clues to their own potential. Recognizing the difficulties experienced by China and Russia as they moved toward market-driven economies, they want Cuba to move deliberately to minimize the destabilizing, demoralizing impact on a large segment of their population.

    Tell me again why we want to interfere with this process!

    The post Capitalism in Cuba? It’s closer than the U.S. may think appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Riaan Manser and Vasti Geldenhuys catch a skipjack tuna as they row across the Atlantic Ocean

    Riaan Manser and Vasti Geldenhuys catch a skipjack tuna as they row across the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Riaan Manser and Vasti Geldenhuys/Facebook

    A South African duo have become the first people to row from Africa to the U.S. across the Atlantic Ocean, and all without a support team. Riaan Manser, a professional adventurer, and his partner Vasti Geldenhuys arrived in Miami around midday. The pair’s epic journey began in Agadir, Morocco, last December.

    More than 5,000 miles and many aches and pains later, they’ve spent upwards of 100 days on board their 23-foot-long rowboat, named The Spirit of Mandiba in honor of former South African president Nelson Mandela. Along the way, they used Twitter to keep people around the world informed of their progress and problems.

    The massive wave threw Manser into the ocean but he managed to cling onto a rope hanging off the side of the boat and haul himself back up. Geldenhuys was unable to help because her feet were trapped under equipment.

    Before arriving in Miami on Wednesday they had trouble on a much smaller scale —  a near run-in with the U.S. Coast Guard, who thought they might be Cuban refugees.

    Their journey isn’t finished yet: their final destination is New York City. They aim to arrive on May 23.

    The post Adventurers arrive in the U.S. after 100-day journey across the Atlantic appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    *** RSSing.com Note: Article removed by member request. ****



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    Ken Sullivan, general manager of We Willies Super Auto Wash, looks over the damage after a tornado tore through the area for the second time in three years, on April 28, 2014 in Vilonia, Arkansas. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Ken Sullivan, general manager of We Willies Super Auto Wash, looks over the damage after a tornado tore through the area for the second time in three years, on April 28, 2014 in Vilonia, Arkansas. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    VILONIA, Ark. — Surveying the residue of nature’s destructive power in the country’s midsection, President Barack Obama pledged Wednesday to residents of tornado-ravaged Arkansas communities that their government will stand with them until they finish rebuilding.

    Obama said he wanted to stop in this small city about a half-hour north of Little Rock to assure those grieving the loss of loved ones, homes and treasured possessions that they will not be forgotten.

    “I’m here to make sure that they know, that everybody who’s been affected knows the federal government’s going to be right here until we get these communities rebuilt,” Obama said after walking through a subdivision in which just six of its 56 homes had any part still standing after storms tore across the state on April 27, killing 15 people.

    “When something like this happens to a wonderful community like this one, it happens to all of us,” Obama said.

    The post Obama pledges U.S. government support in rebuilding tornado-struck Arkansas appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Close up of pellucid hawk moth or greenish hyaline hawk moth (Cephonodes hylas Linnaeus) perching on human fingers. Photo via Getty Images

    Close up of pellucid hawk moth or greenish hyaline hawk moth (Cephonodes hylas Linnaeus) perching on human fingers. Photo via Getty Images

    Quentin Wheeler’s career can be traced back to a fascination with pond scum. Now president of SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Wheeler was 8 when he first peered through a microscope and saw the single-celled organisms known as protozoa bobbing around. So intrigued was he by the critters, he began to collect his own water samples from central Ohio ponds and streams near his home, filling gallon jugs with thousands of specimens. He learned to melt an eye dropper with a bunsen burner and to draw out the glass into a long, hair-thin tube, which he then used to isolate single protozoa cells. By the time he was in middle school, he was selling these cultures to local high school biology classes.

    science-wednesdayFor the little boy, it was about finding and identifying the tiny critters. Later, his interest expanded into a professional desire to name new species — specifically, in his case, beetles — and to establish their place on the tree of life.

    The tree of life hasn’t been so healthy lately. The Earth is deep in a biodiversity crisis and losing more than 10,000 species a year. And only 2 million of an estimated 8 million existing plants and animals have been named. Naming and understanding those species is often the first step in trying to save them before they’re lost. And the problem extends beyond the species themselves, some say. We’re losing the very scientists, like Wheeler, who do the naming: taxonomists.

    Taxonomy, which originated with Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1758, is the science of discovering, describing and classifying species. It’s about understanding the origins and evolutionary history of groups and how they fit into the order of life. It’s about the Darwinian science of studying their adaptations over time. And it’s about sitting in a European museum, reading a 200-year-old paper on a red-winged blackbird — or in Wheeler’s case, a ship-timber beetle — while holding the actual specimen that the long-dead scientist once held when doing that work.

    Charles Darwin collected several species of finches on his voyage to the Galapagos Islands. This drawing came to be referred to as "Darwin's finches." Their beaks vary in shape and size, adapted to best capture the food each bird eats. Illustration taken from Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle," 1839

    Charles Darwin collected several species of finches on his voyage to the Galapagos Islands. This drawing came to be referred to as “Darwin’s finches.” Their beaks vary in shape and size, adapted to best capture the food each bird eats. Illustration taken from Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle,” 1839

    “It’s like visiting the Gettysburg battlefield,” Wheeler said. “You have a physical connection with both the specimen and the scientist across centuries. It’s a very special scientific bond that crosses generations. It’s humbling.”

    Yet a decline in classical taxonomists means we may be losing a large body of knowledge, that of the scientists who specialize in a particular group of insects or birds or plants. And a shift toward using DNA sequencing and supercomputers to order and classify the natural world represents one of taxonomy’s greatest threats, Wheeler says.

    He points to DNA barcoding, for example, a technique that relies on a standardized short segment of DNA — a sort of genetic fingerprint — to verify a species that has already been established.

    “We’re so impressed with our cleverness in having broken the genomic code,” Wheeler said, “and many think that’s surely better than supporting the taxonomists sitting around with green eyeshades writing descriptions.”

    But DNA barcoding has an important role to play in making information about organisms more accessible to the public, said Mark Stoeckle, senior research associate at Rockefeller University’s Program for the Human Environment. It is being used to create a mammoth electronic reference library of species, and it can pinpoint a species using just an egg, a seed, or even bits or pieces of an organism — the leg of an insect, for example.

    “You need DNA to do that,” Stoeckle said. “That’s not a job for taxonomists. The DNA is in all the parts. It’s in the roots, it’s in the leaves, it’s in the seeds.”

    Last summer, scientists discovered the first new carnivore species in America in 35 years, the olinguito. Photo by Mark Gurney for Smithsonian via Getty Images

    Last summer, scientists discovered the first new carnivore species in America in 35 years, the olinguito. Photo by Mark Gurney for Smithsonian via Getty Images

    Stoeckle would know. With his guidance, the scientist’s 17-year-old daughter Kate and her friend became famous for using barcoding to expose an industry of mislabeled sushi. The two girls collected fish meat from New York City supermarkets and sushi restaurants and found that a quarter of the samples collected were misidentified. White tuna was actually tilapia. Nile Perch, a freshwater fish from Africa was masquerading as red snapper, a saltwater fish from the Caribbean.

    “That’s the most powerful use of DNA barcoding,” Stoeckle said. “A filet of fish, if it’s white, you can’t take that to a taxonomist. Often the things that we want to know are in bits and pieces.”

    Later, Stoeckle used barcoding, along with a group of high school students, to test herbal teas. They found chamomile in non-chamomile tea, along with goosefoot weeds and lawn grass. Once again, barcoding had identified species from just a fragment of the original organism.

    Robert DeSalle is curator for for the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History. “(Barcoding) works because the gene chosen changes enough between species of animals and because these changes are inherited,” he said. “The barcode analogy is a good one, as one doesn’t need to know what the organism looks like to say what it is.”

    A barcode on a can of soda can’t tell you anything unless the soda is in the database to begin with, he continued. By the same token, using DNA barcoding to identify already-established species should not diminish the importance of taxonomists.

    But here’s where the conflict tends to arise.

    DNA barcoders want to also use DNA to do taxonomy, DeSalle said, and this is where classical taxonomy and barcoding sometimes clash. To continue the barcoding metaphor, this would be like scanning a barcode on a sodacan, discovering that it’s not in the database, and saying it’s a new kind of soda. In other words, using barcoding to generate a hypothesis of species existence. You’d still need classical taxonomy to verify it though, he stresses.


    As the number of taxonomists wane, the role of citizen scientists becomes more vital. Illustration from from Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle,” 1839

    Even so, Wheeler thinks this largely misses the point. Consider a Leonardo Da Vinci painting, he says. The technology exists to chip off a fleck of paint from a collection of Da Vinci masterpieces, and by analyzing chemical isotopes, identify and even order the paintings chronologically. But in doing that, you miss the big picture — the Mona Lisa itself.

    Or to put it another way, imagine studying the DNA of a giraffe and a rhinoceros, without comparing their necks or noses, and without taking the time to study the variation within and between populations of these animals for evolutionary complexities, he said. And then imagine claiming to have found a new species based on that DNA alone.

    “That is a very hollow victory in the middle of a biodiversity crisis,” he said.

    There are some who say it’s a misconception that taxonomy is in decline. In a letter published in the latest issue of the journal New Phytologist, for example, a team of scientists write that “there are more people describing species new to science than ever before,” adding later that taxonomists are defined as “any author named in the publication of a new species.” A team of UK scientists in the same journal argue that the rise in author numbers instead reflects a growing trend to better credit students, technicians and others involved in species discovery.

    What is undisputed is that comprehensive research to document the state of taxonomy is lacking.

    “I wish there were better numbers, and it is even controversial who is or is not counted as a taxonomist,” Wheeler wrote in an email.

    Stoeckle said there is “wide agreement that classical taxonomy has declined — fewer new students entering the field, fewer full-time positions, and fewer institutions devoting resources to collections.”

    “We should be shocked that we are losing this expertise,” DeSalle said. And Dennis Stevenson, vice president for botanical research at the New York Botanical Garden, says “taxonomy is considered some peculiar, old-fashioned thing that we did in the 19th century. It seems that the newer generation is less interested in that.”

    Still, Wheeler says, few are staging a full-throated defense of taxonomy. Their voices are too quiet and their influence too weak. And that means fewer academic courses that teach classical taxonomy, less perceived need for such professors, and reduced funding for taxonomy positions. It’s increasingly hard to find places that award PhD’s in taxonomy, he said. And if you do get a degree, it’s increasingly hard to find a job.

    Stevenson and DeSalle agree that today’s students need to learn both. And this is generally the norm. But it raises a question. “Does the DNA stuff get learned at the expense of taxonomic expertise?” De Salle asked. Are students missing expertise in standard anatomical education?

    As the number of taxonomists wane, the role of citizen scientists becomes more vital, Stevenson said. He points to last summer’s BioBlitz in New York City’s Central Park, when professors, students, working scientists, park officials and other naturalists donned field glasses and plunged into the park woodlands to catalog the biodiversity there. What they unearthed were nearly 200 species, including a Wilson’s Warbler bird, a red-eared slider turtle, many variations of lichen and unexpectedly, a bullhead catfish and eastern chipmunk.

    “We’re trying to get people more interested in natural history, to develop web-based tools that they can use on their iPhones when out hiking,” Stevenson said.

    Wheeler is not saying that taxonomy is going the way of the Woolly Mammoth. On the contrary. The scientists that spend whole careers searching for wild beetles and swallowtail butterflies, digging in the dirt for obscure insects and then telling their evolutionary tales – the modern version of sketching finches under candlelight – these scientists will live on. They’re too important. “I have complete faith in taxonomy. It will be reinvigorated or reinvented at some future date.”

    The immediate danger, he said, is the permanent loss of the knowledge of biodiversity. Many of the species we don’t discover, describe and classify today may not have a second chance at that in the future.

    Plus, Wheeler adds, he has a more personal investment: “I’m hoping the next kid that falls in love with pond scum can have the same opportunities I had.”

    The post Add to the endangered species list: scientists who count endangered species appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Empty railroad tank cars snake their way into a storage yard in Newark, Delaware, July 28, 2013. The cars will return to North Dakota's Bakken region to be loaded with crude oil for another trip to the refinery at Delaware City, Delaware. With a shortage of new pipeline capacity, oil producers have been using rail as an alternative, and in some cases it's the preferred mode. Photo by Curtis Tate/MCT via Getty Images

    Empty railroad tank cars snake their way into a storage yard in Newark, Delaware, July 28, 2013. The cars will return to North Dakota’s Bakken region to be loaded with crude oil for another trip to the refinery at Delaware City, Delaware. With a shortage of new pipeline capacity, oil producers have been using rail as an alternative, and in some cases it’s the preferred mode. Photo by Curtis Tate/MCT via Getty Images

    WASHINGTON — The Transportation Department issued an emergency order Wednesday requiring that railroads inform state emergency management officials about the movement of large shipments of crude oil through their states and urged shippers not to use older model tanks cars that are easily ruptured in accidents, even at slow speeds.

    The emergency order requires that each railroad operating trains containing more than 1 million gallons of crude oil — the equivalent of about 35 tank cars — from the booming Bakken region of North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada provide information on the trains’ expected movement, including frequency and county-by-county routes, to the states they traverse. The order also requires that railroads disclose the volume of oil being transported and how emergency responders can contact “at least one responsible party” at the railroad.

    Much of the oil from the region is being shipped across the U.S. and Canada in trains of 100 cars or more that accident investigators have described as “moving pipelines.” The trains traverse small towns and big cities alike. Local and state officials, fire chiefs and other emergency responders have complained that they often have no information on the contents of the freight trains moving through communities and their schedules. Nor are they able to force railroads to provide that information, they say.

    The department also issued a safety advisory urging shippers to use the most protective type of tank car in their fleets when shipping oil from the Bakken region. The order recommended that to the extent possible shippers not use older model tank cars known as DOT-111s. Accident investigators report the cars have ruptured or punctured, spilling their contents, even in accidents that occurred at speeds under 30 mph.

    The tank cars are generally owned by or leased to oil companies that ship the crude, not the railroads.

    The emergency order follows a warning two weeks ago from outgoing National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman that the department risks a “higher body count” as the result of fiery oil train accidents if it waits for new safety regulations to become final.

    The emergency order follows a warning two weeks ago from outgoing National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman that the department risks a “higher body count” as the result of fiery oil train accidents if it waits for new safety regulations to become final. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the moves at a Senate committee hearing Wednesday, saying the department was moving as fast as possible on new safety regulations for crude oil shipments. He said the department sent a proposal last week to the White House that included new tank-car standards and regulations on train speeds, and the safety classification of oil based on its volatility. He said he anticipated final regulations before the end of the year.

    Unlike the emergency order, the safety advisory on tank cars is voluntary, noted Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Pointing out that oil trains move through “every major city it in the Northwest … hitting every urban center in our state,” she pressed Foxx to move even faster on tougher tank-car standards that would have the force of law.

    The American Petroleum Institute said in a statement that oil companies hope within the next year to increase to 60 percent the share of tank cars that meet a stronger, voluntary standard agreed to by shippers and railroads in 2011. The NTSB has said cars that meet the voluntary standard still puncture and rupture in accidents, and freight railroads have recommended further improvements.

    Freight railroads will “do all they can to comply” with the emergency order on train routes and schedules, the Association of American Railroads said in a statement.

    There have been nine oil train derailments in the U.S. and Canada since March of last year, many of them resulting in intense fires and sometimes the evacuation of nearby residents, according to the NTSB. The latest was last week, when a CSX train carrying Bakken crude derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va., sending three tank cars into the James River and shooting flames and black smoke into the air. No one was injured, but the wreck prompted an evacuation of nearby buildings.

    Concern about the safe transport of crude oil was heightened after a runaway oil train derailed and then exploded last July in the small town of Lac-Megantic in Canada, just across the border from Maine. More than 60 tank cars spilled more than 1.3 million gallons of oil. Forty-seven people were killed and 30 buildings destroyed in resulting inferno.

    U.S. crude oil production is forecast to reach 8.5 million barrels a day by the end of this year, up from 5 million barrels a day in 2008. The increase is overwhelmingly due to the Bakken fracking boom. Fracking involves the fracturing of rock with pressurized liquid to free oil and natural gas unreachable through conventional drilling.

    Railroad and oil industry officials had no immediate comment on the government’s action.

    Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, contributed to this report.

    The post Emergency order requires crude oil shippers to disclose train routes appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Former IRS official Lois Lerner (C) exercises her Fifth Amendment right not to speak about the IRS targeting investigation before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during a hearing on March 5. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

    Former IRS official Lois Lerner (C) exercises her Fifth Amendment right not to speak about the IRS targeting investigation before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during a hearing on March 5. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

    The Morning Line

    Today in the Morning Line:

    • House GOP targets IRS, Benghazi
    • Benghazi: All about the base and Clinton?
    • Republicans split on fundraising off Benghazi
    • 2014 watch: Aiken waits while Tillis regrets ‘divide and conquer’ comments

    House holds Lerner in contempt: The GOP-controlled House voted mostly along party lines Wednesday to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt for refusing to testify about the agency’s improper targeting of tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status. The chamber also approved a measure calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups. This comes less than a week after House Speaker John Boehner announced the formation of a select committee to probe the Obama administration’s handling of the September 2012 terrorist attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. The moves signal the intent of congressional Republicans to make the fall campaign about more than the flawed rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans contend the steps are aimed at holding the administration accountable for its actions. “When is the administration going to tell the American people the truth? They’ve not told the truth about Benghazi, they’ve not told the truth about the I.R.S,” Boehner said Wednesday. (By the way, six Democrats in tough races voted with Republicans on Lerner: Arizona’s Ron Barber, Georgia’s John Barrow, Minnesota’s Collin Peterson, North Carolina’s Mike McIntyre, West Virginia’s Nick Rahall, and Florida’s Patrick Murphy.)

    All about the base? In the case of Benghazi, the New York Times’ Jeremy Peters notes that Democrats have accused Republicans of exploiting the attacks to damage former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s potential presidential prospects in 2016. “They have to rough her up,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. told the Times. “If Hillary announced definitively tomorrow that she had no interest in running for president, I think Benghazi would disappear,” he added. Republicans will surely point to a poll released last month by Fox News showing 60 percent of Americans believe Congress should continue to investigate the administration’s handling of the attacks in Benghazi. That poll, though, didn’t show the issue hurting Clinton; she still led Republican opponents by double digits in hypothetical 2016 match-ups. The question is how much weight the issue will carry with voters in November compared to the economy, health care and other bread-and-butter issues. But, just as Republicans charged that Democrats were merely trying to turn out their base with pushes on the minimum wage and equal pay, Democrats are pointing to politics about the IRS and Benghazi.

    Banking on Benghazi? The new chairman of the select committee tasked with looking into Benghazi, South Carolina GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy, said Wednesday that Republicans should not raise money off “the backs of four murdered Americans.” Yet the National Republican Congressional Committee sent an email to supporters asking them for a donation to become a “Benghazi Watchdog.” Speaker Boehner pledged Wednesday that the investigation would not turn into a “circus,” but the fundraising missive shows how hard it will be for Republicans to resist making political hay (and some money) out of the probe. The risk for Republicans is that the more political the investigation appears, the tougher it will become for Gowdy and the other panel members to convince the BROADER public about the legitimacy of their findings.

    2014 wrap — Aiken race: The Clay Aiken race in North Carolina’s second congressional district won’t likely be wrapped up for a week or two. Aiken is up 369 votes out of about 23,000, which is just outside the 1 percent or less margin needed for a candidate to be able to request a recount. (The candidate would have to pay for it, by the way.) According to the North Carolina Board of Elections: Absentee ballots are still out; domestic ones could trickle in until Friday; and it could be until Monday when all overseas and military ballots are received. Aiken challenger Keith Crisco would need to pick up a net of about 100 votes to get inside the 1 percent margin. County canvassing will happen Tuesday. Then Crisco has until 5 p.m. ET Wednesday to file a challenge. Certification likely wouldn’t happen for another week or so if the race isn’t dragged on longer by a recount.

    2014 wrap – Tillis regrets ‘divide and conquer’ comments: With Thom Tillis avoiding a runoff in North Carolina, the New York Times Upshot model ups Republicans’ chances of taking over the Senate to 55 percent. But Tillis is dealing with the fallout of a video Democrats unearthed of the North Carolina state House speaker saying in 2011 that Republicans need to “divide and conquer” people on government assistance. He said that some “choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government and say at some point, ‘You’re on your own. We may end up taking care of those babies, but we’re not going to take care of you.’” On MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown Wednesday, asked if he regrets the comments, he said, “I do,” but then added, “The frustration is that we have people that are abusing the system at the expense of us being able to do more for the people who desperately need the safety net. My point was to say we need to make it very clear, government exists to help those who cannot help themselves. And those who can need to do everything that they possibly can to let us free up those resources so that we can do better things for those who desperately need it.” By the way, we can report, Senate Majority PAC has booked an additional $800,000 in TV ads. This is going to be an epic spending arms race.

    2016 wrap – Hillary on guns, and unfortunately for Christie, no one likes traffic: Hillary Clinton may not be a candidate yet, but that’s not stopping her from making political points at her regular speaking engagements. She told the National Council for Behavioral Health conference on Tuesday that the country’s gun culture has gotten “way out of balance,” and in an implicit knock to states like Georgia that have recently loosened their guns laws, she said, “We’ve got to rein in” the idea that “anybody can have a gun anywhere, anytime.” … New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie headed north to campaign with the governor who once said he’d be the Chris Christie of Maine — the first time the RGA head campaigned with a candidate in public since the George Washington Bridge scandal broke. Making the rounds at Becky’s Diner, Christie encountered a friendly crowd, but the lane closures were never far away. “He’s done a nice job as governor and I think he’s a really good man,” said one Portland resident. “But I didn’t like the bridge scandal. I hate traffic.”

    Daily Presidential Trivia: On this day in 1945, President Harry Truman announced that World War II had ended in Europe. Where did the German troops officially surrender the day before? Be the first to Tweet us the correct answer using #PoliticsTrivia, and you’ll get a Morning Line shout-out. No one guessed yesterday’s trivia correctly. The answer was: 17 weddings, including one presidential wedding.


    • President Barack Obama attends fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in California on Thursday.

    • Current Director of the Office of Management and Budget Sylvia Mathews Burwell starts her two-part confirmation hearing Thursday morning to become the next Secretary of Health and Human Services.

    • Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat facing off with Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky this fall, is out with her first ad of the cycle, and it focuses on how she streamlined overseas military ballots.

    • The Washington Post’s Paul Kane goes to Georgia and finds Rep. Jack Kingston with the “surprising air of a front-runner.”

    • Florida Sen. Marco Rubio cut a Spanish language ad for Rep. Cory Gardner, who is running for Senate against Democrat Mark Udall in Colorado.

    • Inviting Mr. Obama to Arkansas creates a “win-win situation” for Sen. Mark Pryor, writes Roll Call’s David Hawkings. If government aid comes through, he’ll be able to say he “put Arkansas first,” and if it doesn’t, he can blame an unpopular president.

    • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blocked all Republican amendments to the energy bill Wednesday, in an attempt to keep a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline separate.

    • Mr. Obama can’t wait for red-state Democrats to ride out the summer before unveiling his power plant emissions limits if he wants to see them enacted before he leaves office.

    • Citizens Against Government Waste, a fiscally conservative think tank and advocacy group, reports that $2.7 billion dollars were included in the 2014 budget for pet projects.

    • Personal income tax revenues in the first quarter of this year fell by .4 percent, and states are pointing to the fiscal cliff.

    • Just two weeks ahead of Kentucky’s primary and a month before Mississippi’s, the Senate Conservatives Fund has gone silent in those states, diverting their dwindling cash to small House races and safe Senate primaries instead.

    • Flowers Foods, the maker of the Wonderbread and Nature’s Own brands, is the most Republican-leaning company, according to The Upshot’s analysis of its political contributions.

    • During a House Energy and Commerce hearing Wednesday, health care insurers testified that the Affordable Care Act did not cause a takeover of their industry.

    • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.


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    Questions or comments? Email Domenico Montanaro at dmontanaro-at-newshour-dot-org or Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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    With the help of a Labrador-Retriever mix service dog named Pele, former navy corpsman Chris Goehner is able to keep his PTSD under control. Making Sen$e profiled Goehner in 2011, who has deployed twice to Iraq.

    After three deployments to Iraq and three to Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Dennis Swols is agitated, prone to bouts of anger and unable to really talk about his time on the battlefield.

    But as Swols sits in a small office in the Robinson Health Clinic at Fort Bragg, his hand drops to the furry head beside him and his mood brightens. Settled at his feet, Lexy, a 5-year-old German shepherd, gives Swols a few moments of distraction.

    It’s her job. And, according to Swols, she’s good at it.

    “I have a hard time talking to people about my deployments and everything,” says Swols, who is with the 82nd Airborne’s 4th Brigade Combat Team. After taking part in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the march into Baghdad in 2003, he’s been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. “But having her here, I just pet Lexy. Or I’m just sitting here and we won’t talk about deployments, we’ll just (talk) about the dog. … My day is better every time I come in.”

    For 82nd Airborne psychiatrist Maj. Christine Rumayor, Lexy is a partner, a conversation starter and a living, breathing medical tool that can calm a patient and make a therapy appointment a little more enjoyable.

    A slowly evolving form of treatment, animal therapy is used in only a few other Army installations, including Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. A small number of dogs like Lexy are being used almost as co-therapists. Others routinely work as service animals and are often used for animal-assisted therapy, including in visits to patients in the hospitals.

    Lexy’s move into therapy was unexpected. Rumayor decided to put her new puppy through the training when she realized Lexy was less of a guard dog and more of a calm cuddler. So, Lexy went through about two and a half years of training before she was able to pin on her rank — she’s a lieutenant colonel — and become certified as Fort Bragg’s only therapy dog.

    As the Army struggles to address the broad swath of stress disorders and mental health problems brought on by more than a decade of war, one of the biggest hurdles is getting soldiers to put aside the bravado and seek treatment. Lexy, it turns out, is particularly good at that.

    Van Woodruff, who was a sergeant first class, went to his scheduled appointment just a few days before he was set to get his medical retirement and move out of the Army after 13 years in the service.

    “It’s hard for me to come to these appointments. I can’t really sit in the waiting room,” said Woodruff, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. “I don’t look forward to this whole process of being here. … The whole process of being here is something that’s agitative to my diagnosis.”

    But on a sunny Wednesday morning, the Alabama native is sitting in Rumayer’s office. “This is the only one I look forward to going to because of Lexy. I love dogs.”

    Rumayor, who wrote the Fort Bragg policy that allows her to use Lexy in her practice, said there was resistance at first.

    “You don’t want everybody to think they can just bring their dog to work,” she said.

    Rumayor also has seen what an asset the dog can be in getting soldiers to seek out therapy and consistently attend their appointments.

    Walking around the base, she uses Lexy as a lightning rod to attract soldiers, then draws them into conversation. On any given day, she and Lexy will wander over to the motor pool or anywhere troops might gather, to see who might be interested in having a chat.

    “Stigma is one of the huge things the military is trying super hard to overcome — behavioral health stigma being the biggest one, I think. And Lexy is probably the biggest asset I have in overcoming that stigma,” Rumayor said. “There’s nothing better than coming to an appointment where you get to have a warm fuzzy thing that you get to pet all the time. People don’t want to come in the door. When they see her coming in, it makes them want to come in the door.”

    And often the soldiers reward her.

    On her vest, Lexy sports an Army Ranger tab and a spray of other badges and patches that she got from patients. The special forces tab came from a soldier who had been injured in a roadside bomb blast, and Lexy and Rumayor visited him in the hospital.

    Navy Capt. Robert Koffman, the senior consultant for behavioral health at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, has a therapy dog of his own, named Ron. And he’s seen the broad impact the dogs can have.

    Ron, a 3-year-old golden retriever/labrador mix, holds the rank of a one-star general and his designated military occupation is a “psych tech.” He’s even trained to bring tissues to distressed patients and put his head on a person’s lap if he or she is stressed.

    Lt. Col. Matthew St. Laurent, who is the occupational therapy chief at Walter Reed, said the use of dogs to aid therapy has been endorsed by U.S. Army Medical Command and appears to be getting more support across the military. Both he and Koffman said additional research is needed to determine how and when it is best to use the animals.

    “It’s tough for anybody to go to their mental health provider,” said St. Laurent, who also runs the Therapeutic Service Dog Training Program. “But they need to see mental health providers and if you’re introduced to the mental health community by a fluffy, loving canine, you’d be more inclined to come to the clinic and pet the dog. And one thing leads to another, and you’re in the clinic.”

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    File photo of Veterans Administration Secretary Eric K. Shinseki on May 21, 2012. Creative Commons photo by the Department of Defense / Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley via flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/secdef/7245888464

    Veterans Administration Secretary Eric K. Shinseki answers questions during a press conference on May 21, 2012. Creative Commons photo by the Department of Defense / Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley via flickr.

    Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is brushing aside calls for his resignation in the wake of reports of 40 deaths because of delayed treatment at a Phoenix VA hospital.

    But in an interview with CBS News, Shinseki acknowledges the controversy, says it “makes me angry” and vows to get to the bottom of it.

    The American Legion and some in Congress have called for Shinseki’s ouster because of the uproar over the agency’s performance. Shinseki, a retired Army general, told CBS that he sent inspectors to Phoenix immediately when he learned of reports about the deaths.

    The secretary said, quote, “I take every one of these incidents and allegations seriously, and we’re going to go and investigate.”

    The White House has voiced support amid the calls for his ouster.

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    Creative commons photo by webted via flickr.

    Creative commons photo by webted via flickr.

    “In the ant’s house, the dew is a flood,” an old proverb tells us. Yet for floodplain-dwelling ants, a little dew is nothing. When a real flood arrives, some ant species are known to evacuate their nest and self-assemble into rafts that float to dry ground. Swarm behavior is common in ants: some species even build living bridges to let their kindred march atop.

    When it comes to raft building, the behavior has been observed in fire ants, but scientists at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland have discovered a peculiar design in living rafts of another species, which builds boat bottoms with its young. Using babies as flotation devices is not as much a threat to propagating ant genes as you would think.

    This species of floodplain-dwelling ant, Formica selysi, nests throughout the Pyrenees and the Alps. The queen ant lives for about 10 to 15 years and experiences a Noah’s ark–like flood an average of two or three times in her lifetime. During a flood, the worker ants collect the brood—immobile eggs, larvae and pupae into a pile, and then another three or four layers of workers climb atop them and hold onto the babies with their mandibles. The queen assumes her place in the protected middle of the raft.

    Placing the brood on the bottom, where it is most at risk of drowning, seems like a bad idea. After all, along with the queen, offspring are the most valuable members of the colony because their survival will determine its evolutionary success. “The conventional wisdom would be that the workers would put the brood in the middle of the raft with the queen,” says postdoctoral student Jessica Purcell, who led the research.

    Purcell and her colleagues mimicked flood conditions in their laboratory with F. selysi ants they collected along the Rhône River banks in Switzerland. All ants rafted in artificial flood conditions, regardless of whether or not they had a brood; those with no babies at hand built their boat base out of worker ants instead. After the flood subsided, the raft without a brood had more unresponsive worker ants and they took more time to recover, which may explain why this species recruits its buoyant youth.

    Surprisingly, the ant babies did not appear to suffer at all from their watery chores. Those that made up the raft bottom survived just as successfully as the brood control group kept on dry land. The tremendous buoyancy of ant babies, most likely the result of high fat content, prevents them from sinking when they have to carry their parents on their back. So in the ant world, offspring are not so useless: it’s the mommies and daddies who are the hangers-on.

    This article was originally published on Scientific American on May 1, 2014.

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    Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

    Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

    By Julie Rovner

    Sometimes there really are economies of scale. And the nation’s health insurance exchanges may be a case in point.

    As rocky as its rollout was, it cost the federal exchange, healthcare.gov, an average of $647 of federal tax dollars to sign up each enrollee, according to a new report. It cost an average of $1,503 — well over twice as much — to sign up each person in the 15 exchanges run by individual states and Washington, D.C.

    The report, released Wednesday, was compiled using data from federal enrollment figures and federal exchange funding for both the federal and state exchanges. It was written by Jay Angoff, a former Missouri Insurance Commissioner and one-time director of the Health and Human Services office in charge of implementing the health exchange program.

    Even California, the most efficient of the state-run exchanges, at $758 per enrollee, still spent more than the average in the federal exchange. And California was the only state-run exchange with a per-person average under $1,000.

    Hawaii, with a combination of a poorly-functioning website, a small population overall, and a small population of uninsured, brought up the rear in the study. It cost the Aloha State an average of $23,899 per enrollee covered. Washington D.C. came in next to last at $12,467 per person.

    What was not expected, said Angoff in an interview, is that the five states whose governors and/or legislatures were among the most adamant about resisting the Affordable Care Act — Florida, Texas, Georgia, Virginia, and Michigan — ended up with the lowest per-person enrollee costs. Florida’s cost per enrollee was just $76; Texas’ was $102, and Michigan’s $427.

    “The states that fought the ACA the hardest ended up with exchanges that have been very efficient,” he said.

    All of the states with very high per-enrollee costs have one thing in common — relatively small populations. Yet it took millions of dollars to set up each exchange, so the smaller states couldn’t spread the costs. “Below some size, it doesn’t make sense for a state to run its own exchange,” Angoff said.

    For example, “Hawaii got $200 million in grant funding,” he said. “For a state of a little less than 1.4 million,” it enrolled 8,592 people. At the same time, New York, with 19.7 million people, “got a little more than twice as much money” — $429 million — and enrolled 370,000 people.

    Angoff said it does make sense to let states whose exchanges are functioning well to continue, but the federal government might want to reconsider letting other states establish their own exchanges, and encourage those whose exchanges aren’t doing so well to become part of healthcare.gov.

    Oregon, for example, whose website failed somewhat spectacularly, and whose exchange is now under investigation by the FBI, according to The Oregonian, has already decided to join the federal exchange.

    Maryland, on the other hand, which has also suffered from serious problems with its exchange, has decided to retool using technology pioneered by Connecticut.

    “If a state exchange is working, great,” Angoff said. But if not, “does it make any sense to throw good money after bad?”

    Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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    Director Steven Spielberg presents President Barack Obama with an award during the Shoah Foundation Ambassadors for Humanity 20th anniversary dinner May 7, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Photo By Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

    Director Steven Spielberg presents President Barack Obama with an award during the Shoah Foundation Ambassadors for Humanity 20th anniversary dinner May 7, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Photo By Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

    President Obama was the guest of honor Wednesday at a fundraising gala celebrating the USC Shoah Foundation, which Spielberg established 20 years ago to collect video testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides. Inspired by the making of “Schindler’s List,” the video archive Spielberg created now includes more than 50,000 personal accounts and is available to schools across the globe.

    “As long as we fail to learn, our work will be urgent work,” he said of the foundation’s mission. “This institute exists because we know that the future can always be rewritten.”

    Obama accepted the foundation’s Ambassador for Humanity award at the private event at the Century Plaza Hotel. Springsteen provided musical entertainment, tucking his black tie into his white shirt to perform two songs with his acoustic guitar.

    “I think anyone who has a boss wishes it was you,” Spielberg told the stalwart rocker, who sang “Promised Land” and “Dancing in the Dark.” The filmmaker called Springsteen “this nation’s hardest working lyrical poet for our common humanity.”

    Conan O’Brien hosted the event, speaking in Yiddish and teasing the President for the traffic snarls he causes when visiting Los Angeles.

    “You left Washington six hours ago, but I left Burbank seven hours ago,” O’Brien joked.

    Liam Neeson, who played Oskar Schindler in Spielberg’s 1994 film, opened the evening.

    But it was two non-famous women who left the audience most inspired. San Diego high school teacher Michelle Sadrena Clark recited a poem about how the Shoah Foundation’s work enriches her curriculum and connects her students to history.

    “Your institute has literally changed my teaching and my life,” she said. Several of her students attended the gala, where they showed guests the multimedia projects they developed using survivor testimonies. They were also introduced to the president.

    Celina Biniaz was one of the Jews Schindler saved. At 13, she worked in his factory, cleaning the machinery with her small hands. Now a grandmother whose story is included among the Holocaust testimonies, she said, “Oskar Schindler gave me my life, but Steven Spielberg gave me my voice.”

    Obama said that genocide survivors and the families they’ve created are “the ultimate rebuke to evil and the ultimate expression of love and hope.”

    “You are an inspiration to every single one of us,” he said.

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    Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget Sylvia Mathews Burwell testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health Committee May 8, 2014. If confirmed, Burwell will succeed Kathleen Sebelius to become the next Secretary of Health and Human Services.  Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

    Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget Sylvia Mathews Burwell testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health Committee May 8, 2014. If confirmed, Burwell will succeed Kathleen Sebelius to become the next Secretary of Health and Human Services. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

    President Barack Obama’s nominee for health secretary faced pointed questioning Thursday from Republican senators over the president’s health law but also won GOP praise in her first appearance before a Senate committee.

    Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who will take over implementation of “Obamacare” if she is confirmed as Health and Human Services secretary, told senators that the law has improved the economy, held down the growth of health costs, reduced premiums and expanded coverage.

    The law “is making a positive difference,” Burwell, who now serves as Obama’s budget director, said in testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the first of two Senate committees that will hold hearings on her nomination.

    Republican senators disagreed. The top committee Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, warned her that Republicans hope to retake the Senate in November and scale back the law in numerous ways.

    “Republicans want to repair the damage Obamacare has done,” Alexander said.

    But at the same time, Alexander cited Burwell’s “reputation for competence,” and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., declared he plans to vote in favor of her nomination, calling her a “tremendous asset.”

    The exchanges pointed to a potentially smooth confirmation for Burwell even as her nomination hearings allow Republicans to focus renewed election-year attention on the unpopular health law. Burwell was unanimously confirmed by the Senate last year as budget director, and no senator has announced opposition so far to her nomination to the HHS post.

    Burwell is Obama’s choice to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who resigned last month after presiding over the passage of the health law and the disastrous rollout of the federal enrollment website. Sebelius announced her departure just as the law had begun to recover with stronger-than-expected sign-up numbers.

    Although a surge of sign-ups rescued the health law’s big enrollment launch from failure, Burwell faces significant challenges in sustaining that momentum next year. The federal HealthCare.gov website will be called on to handle more states with less money for consumer outreach.

    In advance of Thursday’s hearing, Burwell got a boost from the health insurance industry. Karen Ignagni, head of America’s Health Insurance Plans, issued a strong statement of support, calling Burwell “uniquely qualified to lead HHS during this critical time.”

    Burwell, a native of tiny Hinton, W.Va., was deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House and later served as president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program and then the Wal-Mart Foundation, before returning to the White House last year to run the budget office under Obama.

    If confirmed, she will preside over a $1 trillion bureaucracy that rivals the Pentagon in complexity.

    The Health Committee won’t actually vote on Burwell’s nomination; that task falls to the Senate Finance Committee, which has yet to schedule its hearing.

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    Photo by Ian Sane/Flickr Image has been slightly modified from the original.

    Photo by Ian Sane/Flickr (Image has been slightly modified from the original.)

    With weather forecasters reporting higher odds that El Niño will strike this year, global commodity and energy markets are on edge.

    The Climate Prediction Center, an agency that is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, announced Wednesday in their monthly report that chances for an El Niño weather system have reached 65 percent, up from a 50 percent chance in April.

    El Niño is characterized by unusually warm temperatures in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. Normal upwellings of deep, cold water stop as a result, and ocean surface temperatures can rise as much as 8 degrees warmer in certain parts of the Pacific. These warmer waters create large changes to typical atmospheric circulation, which can alter weather in regions far from the tropical Pacific.

    Sea surface temperature in the equatorial Pacific Ocean as of May 7, 2014. Image by National Centers for Environmental Prediction/NOAA

    Sea surface temperature in the equatorial Pacific Ocean as of May 7, 2014. Image by National Centers for Environmental Prediction/NOAA

    The weather pattern can trigger drought in some regions and flooding in others. Apart from potential wildfire or flood dangers, the largest effect could be hits to global crop yields. A strong El Niño pattern can wither crops in Australia, Southeast Asia, India and Africa and drown crops in the Midwest and Brazil.

    Production estimates for several crops which are already under stress will have to be revised downwards,” said Vanessa Tan, an investment analyst at Phillip Futures. Without monsoon rains that are critical for agriculture, crops in India, for example, — especially sugar, rice and wheat — could suffer and cause prices to dramatically increase.

    However, if El Niño does hit in 2014, the National Weather Service’s Jon Gottschalck predicts the effects will be minimal to the Midwest.

    “Even if we see El Niño conditions develop, some of the stronger impacts would be in the fall and winter,” Gottschalck told Farm Futures in February. “The odds of having much impact on the Midwest’s growing season are pretty low this summer.”

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    Photo by Joe Raedle/ Getty Images

    Less patients are getting hurt during hospital stays. Photo by Joe Raedle/ Getty Images

    Two major safety shortcomings in America’s hospitals — the frequency with which patients get hurt during their stays and the large number who are readmitted — have decreased as government penalties and other programs targeting them kick in.

    The Obama administration credited the new quality initiatives created by the federal health law. But some of the improvements in patient safety preceded that law. Even with the improvements, one out of eight patients is injured during their time in the hospital.

    The portion of Medicare patients who were re-hospitalized within 30 days of discharge decreased to 17.5 percent in 2013, down a full percentage point from 2012, according to a second year that readmission rates decreased noticeably after a long period of stagnation. CMS said the decline translated to 150,000 fewer readmissions over the last two years, an 8 percent reduction.

    Those decreases coincide with the onset of Medicare penalties against hospitals with higher-than-expected rates of patient returns. More than 2,000 hospitals have been fined each of the last two years under the program created by the health law. A number of hospitals have devised new ways to monitor their patients after they leave, including scheduling regular check-ups and giving impoverished patients’ free medication.

    CMS said incidents of patient harm in the hospital also decreased, by 9 percent, from 145 complications per 1,000 hospital discharges in 2010 to 132 complications per 1,000 discharges in 2012. The incidents included infections, trauma during vaginal births, reactions to medicines, falls and bedsores. A total of 28 measures were used in the estimates by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

    Maulik Joshi, the American Hospital Association’s executive in charge of research, said in a statement that “these results are encouraging and reflect the hard work of our nation’s hospitals to accelerate quality improvements that continually improve patient safety.”

    Some of the types of incidents, such as bloodstream infections in patients with catheters, began decreasing before the health law took effect. Dr. Kevin Kavanagh, chairman of the consumer advocate group Health Watch USA, said that while good, the reduction in patient safety problems “is a small change” relative to the frequency that patients are still being hurt.

    The Obama administration credited the reductions to 27 hospital collaborations set up by the government to share ways to improve patient safety, lower readmissions and track progress. In addition, the health care law created a penalty for hospital errors that goes into effect in October, when CMS also plans to add infections to its existing quality bonus and penalty program.

    Dr. Atul Grover, chief public policy officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said that while the health law’s financial incentives likely were a factor, much of the decrease “is related to many quality scorecards having some of the same measures.” Those scorecards include ones hospitals use internally as well as hospital ratings published by groups such as The Leapfrog Group, Consumer Reports, U.S. News & World Report, Healthgrades and Truven Health Analytics.

    Leah Binder, president of The Leapfrog Group, said the improvements mirrored those tracked by her group’s surveys. But she faulted the government for not reporting rates for individual hospitals to help consumers.

    “With due respect to the hard work of our CMS colleagues, their report sounds exciting, but it’s not helpful to families that want to protect themselves from getting killed by a hospital error—and that’s simply unacceptable,” she said in an email.

    The post Hospitals boost patient safety, but more work is needed appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    The cost of child care has grown so high that some parents find it more affordable to stay home with their kids. Photo by Carey Kirkella/Taxi/Getty Images.

    The cost of child care has grown so high that some parents find it more affordable to stay home with their kids than pay for a babysitter or daycare. Photo by Carey Kirkella/Taxi/Getty Images.

    First it was pink eye. Then an ear infection. Tuesday, it was the stomach flu. This is the third week in a row that Evelyn, a full-time home care coordinator in Falls Church, Virginia, has had to leave work early to care for one of her two boys.

    Ages five and eight, they leave this single mom little choice. When they’re sick or snow closes schools, as it did many times this past winter, Evelyn has to be the caretaker. A back up babysitter could run her $50 per child, per day. “For the most part,” she says, “I would just miss work because it wasn’t worth it for me.”

    In her late 20s, Evelyn is caught between needing and wanting to work full-time and needing and wanting to provide safe care for her children. That’s proving an extraordinarily difficult balance to strike as the cost of child care climbs.

    Average weekly child care expenses for working moms with kids under 15 have shot up 70 percent between 1985 and 2011, according to the Census Bureau.

    Evelyn doesn’t earn enough to pay for child care on her own, but if she leaves work to watch the kids herself, she fears her career — and possibly her earnings potential — are taking a hit.

    Whenever she’s home with one of her kids, Evelyn’s on-call phone, staffing phone and personal cell are at her side as she tries to coordinate patient and clinician schedules remotely. She credits her boss for being understanding of her situation, but she knows that heading out before 5 p.m. only makes more work for her co-workers. “I feel very lucky I can work from home sometimes,” she says. “But it doesn’t make me feel comfortable.”

    No one’s ever said anything to Evelyn, but she feels she’s not growing as an employee the way the owners of the home care agency want her to. It’s that feeling, she says, where “they know you can do it but there are certain things holding them back; they don’t want to give you more responsibility with two kids in elementary school.”

    Employees who skip work when child care arrangements fall through cost U.S. businesses $3 billion annually, according to a 2013 report from ChildCare Aware, a national organization of child care resources and referral agencies.

    Evelyn’s lucky her two boys are in school for most of the day. In three out of four regions of the United States, the cost of full-time center-based child care for two children (calculated as an infant and four-year old) is the highest household expense. Even with her kids in an after-school program at their school, child care takes about a 30 to 40 percent bite out of her budget.

    That’s why summer and spring break make Evelyn anxious. She scouts the Department of Parks and Recreation for summer camps that will keep her kids busy and supervised Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 p.m.

    “We’re talking eight full hours. Babysitters just have them sit down and watch TV,” she says. “That’s not what I want for my children.”

    But those camps can run $500 per child per week — and that’s not including meals and snacks. Everything her kids eat they have to bring from home. Public assistance is available, but not for Evelyn. She makes over $30,000 a year, so her family doesn’t qualify.

    She starts the summer camp search early, using her lunch hour to fill out applications for some of the few public scholarships available. And her kids hold her to that. “Mom, remember to send in the applications,” they’ll say.

    For her boys, though, summer isn’t about trying a new sport or getting to go where their friends go; they go where mom can afford. Basketball camp (at $300) instead of fly fishing camp (at $500) last break made her eldest miserable for the first few days.

    But Evelyn knows her family is fortunate to be where they are. Two years ago, she was a homeless working mother of two. An Arlington, Virginia-based organization called Doorways for Women and Families helped them find shelter and has since given her grant money to pay for the boys’ after-school care at the school.

    Those grants stop next year. And that’s when Evelyn will find out how much child care’s really going to cost her.

    Paul Solman speaks with three women facing high child care costs, learning that in many states, infant child care is more expensive that in-state college tuition.

    See more of Paul’s report on the rising cost of daycare on the NewsHour Thursday evening.

    The post When it’s cheaper for parents to stay home than pay for child care appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

    Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

    Orthodox Christians — in a call for peace amid high tensions — prayed in front of the regional administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine on Thursday. The building has been occupied by pro-Russian activists, who have taken control of several Ukrainian cities ahead of a planned referendum on greater autonomy for the region.

    Almost half of the Ukrainian population belongs to the Orthodox church, with a geographic split between the Ukranian-aligned and Moscow-aligned churches.

    According to the Christian Science Monitor, the Orthodox church aligned to Moscow has around 10 million believers, which can be found in central and western Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which broke away from Russia’s church in 1990 during the fall of the Soviet Union, claims 15 million followers.

    The post Orthodox Christians call for peace amid Ukraine turmoil appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Photo by Flickr user Osbornb.

    That knobby tree growth is in high demand. Photo by Flickr user Osbornb.

    The poachers with chain saws stalking the Northern California coast aren’t after you or your pets. They just want your burls.

    Burls are knobby tree growths that, when cut open, display delicate swirls resembling cream that’s just been poured into a mug of coffee. On a tree, burls indicate injury from a virus or fungus. But in the hands of a master wood craftsman, burls can become decorative sculptures, tables or wall clocks.

    Burls can be turned into furniture. Photo by Flickr user Jordan Oram.

    Burls can be turned into furniture. Photo by Flickr user Jordan Oram.

    Thieves have stolen burls from Redwood trees for decades but a spike in poaching has forced the Redwood National and State Parks to close their beloved Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway at night. At $2 to $3 a pound, the best burls (which can weigh several hundred pounds) can bring in a lot for thieves whom officials say are largely unemployed or struggling with drug addiction.

    The redwood parks are home to the tallest trees on earth. In the past 150 years, 95 percent of the original forest has been cut down, said park district interpretation supervisor Jeff Denny to the Associated Press.

    “The only remaining old growth forest in existence now is almost entirely within the Redwood national park,” Denny said.

    Though burls first indicate injury on a tree, they’re important for repopulation. Redwoods sprout clones from burls before they die which leaves these Sequoia semper vierens — Latin for “forever living” — scarred and even more vulnerable to extinction.

    The post Rise in burl poaching threatens Redwood forest appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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