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

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    WASHINGTON  — The second sign-up season under President Barack Obama’s health overhaul opened Saturday, with hopes that this time consumers will have a positive experience.

    President Obama is accompanied by Vice President Biden as he delivers a statement on the Affordable Care Act in the White House Rose Garden Tuesday.  Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

    President Obama talks about the Affordable Care Act in April at the White House in Washington D.C. Credit: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

    But the fear is that entrenched political opposition and renewed legal challenges may yet collapse the program that’s bringing health care to millions of previously uninsured Americans. The administration can’t afford another technology meltdown.

    With 7 million paying customers in new insurance markets, the Affordable Care Act has shown it is helping to reduce the number of uninsured. Insurers, not known for altruism, have stuck with the fledgling program despite ongoing technical headaches with the HealthCare.gov website. More companies are participating for 2015, a sign they see as a business opportunity.

    Obama urged consumers, whether they currently buy coverage through the insurance markets or still need to sign up for a plan, to go to the health care website and review their options. He said they could end up saving money or finding a better plan, and urged them to act fast since the enrollment period closes Feb. 15.

    “This window won’t stay open forever. You only have three months to shop for plans, so it’s worth starting right away. And it might make a big difference for your family’s bottom line,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address, which the White House released as the president visited Brisbane, Australia.

    The administration said late Friday that some HealthCare.gov functions would be turned off for several hours in the transition to the start of sign-up season. The website appeared to functioning early Saturday.

    “Obamacare” is still struggling to win hearts and minds. The latest Associated Press-GfK poll finds that, if forced to choose between repealing the law and implementing it as written, 56 percent of Americans would repeal it completely. Only 41 percent would carry it out.

    However, most don’t see the law going away. Sixty-one percent said they expect it to be implemented in its current form, or something near that.

    Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell, a management expert assigned to save what’s been a problem child of social programs, says she’s confident the sign-up season will be successful, even if it’s only half as long as last year’s: three months, through Feb. 15.

    Will the law remain on the books after Republicans gain full control of Congress in January?

    “The idea of repeal … is not something this administration will let happen,” said Burwell.

    What about the legal challenge the Supreme Court has just agreed to hear, calling into question the law’s tax credits that make premiums affordable for millions?

    “Nothing has changed,” Burwell said, adding that the tax credits “will be continuing.” At least for the time being. The Supreme Court isn’t likely to hear the case until the spring, after 2015 open enrollment is over.

    Website outages are not out of the question this year, but a full-scale meltdown seems less likely. HealthCare.gov has been revamped to handle last season’s peak loads and beyond. The federal website will serve as the online portal for coverage in 37 states, while the remaining states run their own insurance exchanges. Consumers can also apply in person or through call centers.

    The pool of potential customers is an estimated 23 million to 27 million people who don’t have access to affordable coverage on the job.

    For most newcomers, the online application has been simplified, cut to 16 computer screens from 76. Navigation is easier. Window shopping is available without first having to create an account.

    Premiums for 2015 are a wild card. Nationally, the average increase is expected to be modest. But prices can vary dramatically from state to state, even within regions of a state. Many returning customers could end up facing premium increases if they don’t shop around.

    The administration is seeking to lower expectations. Burwell said her target is a total enrollment of 9.1 million people in 2015, a 28 percent increase. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office had estimated the number would nearly double, to 13 million people enrolled next year.

    The administration is facing several new tests.

    This sign-up period will be the first time that renewal has been tried for current customers, and also overlaps for the first time with tax-filing season.

    For those already signed up, coverage will renew automatically if they do nothing, but that may not produce the best result. The returning customers could miss out on lower-premium options and get stuck with outdated and possibly incorrect subsidies. In most cases, they have until Dec. 15 to update their income information or switch insurance plans, in order to have the changes take effect on Jan. 1.

    The tax issues will emerge during next year’s filing season.

    Current customers who got tax credits this year will have to file new tax forms to prove they got the right amount. Too much subsidy and their tax refunds will be reduced. Too little, and the government will pay them.

    People who remained uninsured risk a penalty that will be deducted from their tax refunds. Millions may qualify for waivers, but getting exemptions could involve a paperwork ordeal.

    Community-based counselors helping uninsured people say interest remains strong, but they worry about this year’s abbreviated sign-up season.

    Nathalie Milias, who works with Haitian groups in Miami, said she has been feeling the demand since the summer as uninsured people approached her.

    “They see me in the store, they call,” said Milias. “The locations I go to are already calling and saying, `How many appointments do you want for Monday?’”

    The post Amid legal challenges, health law sign-up season begins appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The town of Westminster, Massachusetts — population 7,300 — is a small, quiet community about an hour west of Boston.

    When the local health board holds meetings, it usually happens here in this room, where you can get advice about things like septic tanks and mosquito control. But not on this day. This meeting Wednesday night had to be moved to the local elementary school because the town is up in arms.

    MAN: You people make me sick!

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Why so mad? That Board of Health is proposing to make Westminster the first town in the entire country to completely ban the sale of tobacco.

    ANDREA CRETE, WESTMINSTER BOARD OF HEALTH: It can be argued that the Board of Health permitting these establishments to sell these dangerous products that, when used as directed, kills 50 percent of its users, ethically goes against our public health mission.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The town’s proposal would make it illegal to sell any product containing nicotine within city limits. So no cigarettes, chewing tobacco, cigars, vaporizers. You’d still be able to smoke or use tobacco in town, just not buy it.

    ANDREA CRETE: If we can prevent children from having access and exposure to tobacco and nicotine products and reduce the chances of them smoking or using them, then we’ve essentially saved lives.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: While it’s already illegal for kids to buy tobacco, the health board says the tobacco industry makes products like these — shiny, fruit flavored cigars and tobacco products — in order to lure kids into a lifetime habit. The industry denies targeting kids.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The effort began when one of the three health board members suggested the tobacco ban, following the lead of other health boards in other Massachusetts towns that had limited where residents could smoke or what kind of tobacco products they could buy. Westminster’s volunteer board then consulted a specialist to examine the pros and cons of a total ban.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: They talked with D.J. Wilson is the tobacco control director for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a policy group that advises local towns.

    D.J. WILSON: We would never have guessed 10 years ago that there would’ve been 49-cent grape cigars available to kids, or that electronic cigarettes would’ve come in– that they existed at all, or come in cotton candy flavors. I don’t speak for the Board of Health, but I think their goals — they are tired of having different products pop up that are very kid friendly.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The biggest opponents of the proposal are the seven local stores in Westminster who’re licensed to sell tobacco. They’re almost all opposed.

    BRIAN VINCENT: Thanks everybody for coming today–

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Store owner Brian Vincent has been one of the most vocal. He owns Vincent’s Country Store on Main Street in town. It’s a medium-sized grocery store that Vincent’s dad started and ran for 18 years. He says no store in Westminster has ever been cited for selling tobacco to kids, and banning it would cost more than just tobacco sales.

    BRIAN VINCENT: Most people that buy tobacco will grab a cold drink for the road, maybe scratch tickets, a bag of chips. So it’s not just an $8 sale, it’s a $20-30 dollar sale.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Vincent points out there are several neighboring towns around Westminster full of stores that sell tobacco, so he says the ban would just drive customers — and their money — elsewhere.

    BRIAN VINCENT: We’re just going to be sending all these sales 5 minutes down the road to another town where these customers will spend money on gas out of town, food out of town, and before you know it the gas stations are going under in Westminster and other businesses.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Another concern that’s been raised is the potential impact on jobs. Most mornings at the Depot General Store, you’ll find a few regulars hanging
    out, having coffee before work.

    WOMAN: This better be a winner, because wouldn’t that be great?

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Chris Bjurling has owned this small convenience store for 22 years. Like a lot of businesses, he supports the local police and kids’ sporting teams. He also employs seven people, several of them full time.

    He’s calculated that losing the tobacco and related retail sales would cost him roughly two-thirds of the money he uses to pay those employees. And for some of them, these are crucial jobs.

    CHRIS BJURLING: It becomes very personal — these people are important to me. Lisa has been with me for 18 years. Denise has been, I’d have to ask her, but I’m gonna say 12 to 13 years. For Lisa, I am her entire income. She in fact will lose her house if–

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: –if this job doesn’t exist.

    CHRIS BJURLING: That’s right.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We’ve heard from several local businesses that if tobacco is not allowed to be sold here that’s gonna really hurt their  business here and could jeopardize local jobs. If that’s true, do you think that that economic pain is worth the public health benefit?

    D.J. WILSON: Well you know, I mean, there has been a lot of quantifying that a lot of the diseases that are caused from smoking have cost us in the state tens of millions and nationally hundreds of millions of dollars. It is a huge cost — tax burden to the American people, to the American workforce to have people on disability and having to retire earlier because they smoked for a lifetime. So, that is something that you have to weigh against the loss of profit from selling tobacco products in a retail store.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: According to the U.S. Surgeon General, tobacco-related illnesses cost an estimated 300 billion dollars a year in medical care and lost productivity, to say nothing about the lost or shortened lives.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In Westminster, while local businesses have been the main critics of this plan, it seems many local residents don’t like it either. And not just the smokers. Of the two dozen or so people we spoke with, we could find only one resident who supported the ban.

    MAN: I just praise the community that’s standing up for it and making a statement for it maybe it will become more of a norm in the future.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But that was definitely the minority position.

    WOMAN: They are leaving’ us no choice but to take our business out of town.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Even someone like Jim Patria — who smoked for 30 years, now has chronic pulmonary obstructive disease, can barely breathe even with an oxygen tube in his nose — even he’s against the ban.

    I mean you of all people you should know why the town would want to stop smoking — you have all these health conditions from it — but you still think banning it is a bad idea.

    JIM PATRIA: Yeah, yeah, I do. I don’t if I have a great explanation for my feeling but I do.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Is it that you don’t want the government telling you what you can and can’t do?

    JIM PATRIA: No. It’s not that so much. I wanna say i just don’t think it will work. I don’t think it’ll work, banning it.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Store owner Chris Bjurling said he thinks banning tobacco in town would just be the beginning:

    CHRIS BJURLING: Is it alcohol next? Or is it the candy bar? Too much sugar. And they say “Oh no, we wouldn’t even consider something like that,” but when you crusade, once accomplish one crusade, you gotta have another one. I mean, it’s in your blood now. You want more success. And they’ll go on to something else.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: At that town hall meeting Wednesday, the Board of Health got an earful.

    MAN: Whether it’s me, my children, my family, my friends, or my neighbors, is their free choice to smoke. This meeting, with all these cameras here, is a mockery of this town in front of the United States of America!

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The residents of Westminster don’t get to vote on this proposed tobacco ban. City officials don’t get to vote either. The decision will be made by the three member Board of Health. They’re supposed to decide later in December.

    MAN IN CROWD: Freedom!

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: When some of the crowd got too unruly, the board cancelled the hearing after just four speakers.

    ANDREA CRETE, WESTMINSTER BOARD OF HEALTH: All right, this hearing is closed. Thank you all for coming–

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The police escorted the chair of the Board of Health out the door and safely to her car, while someone tried to get the crowd to sing ‘God Bless America.’

    MAN: …white with foam… God bless America, my home, sweet home!

    The post Massachusetts town mulls nation’s first total tobacco ban appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    WASHINGTON — Hoping to build off recent bans in Europe and India, opponents of animal testing for cosmetics plan to make a big push for a similar prohibition in the United States. The effort could be a tough sell in a Republican-controlled Congress.

    Virginia Democrat Don Beyer is expected to take the lead on the issue when the new Congress convenes next January. He is succeeding retiring Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., who has introduced legislation that would prohibit testing cosmetic products on animals, as well as the sale of any new cosmetics if the final product or any component was developed using animal testing.

    “The United States must be a world leader and not a follower,” Beyer told supporters in a campaign email highlighting the issue. His state is home to several cosmetic companies, such as Tri Tech Laboratories of Lynchburg, a custom manufacturer of personal care products.

    Last year, the European Union banned the sale of new cosmetic products containing ingredients tested on animals, and India followed with a similar ban.

    Sara Amundson, executive director of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, called the Moran bill a “marker” to build political support, with a sustained lobbying effort to follow next year. To date, more than 140 cosmetic companies have endorsed the bill, including Paul Mitchell, the Body Shop and LUSH Fresh Handmade Cosmetics.

    The legislation might not face the most receptive environment next year, with regulation-averse Republicans running both houses of Congress, but Amundson said that proponents will cast it in a pro-business light.

    “If U.S. companies have to comply with what’s already transpiring, for example, in the EU, one would want to ensure there aren’t any trade barriers,” she said.

    Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, said if a bill is introduced next year, “we could take a look at it to get a better understanding at that time.”

    Of the 55 co-sponsors of the Moran bill, only one was a Republican – Michael Grimm of New York. The Humane Society Legislative Fund donated $5,000 to Grimm’s campaign, citing his leadership and advocacy on animal protection issues.

    “I have a puppy that I rescued from a puppy mill and I think that these are issues that are close to my heart and close to the hearts of many of my constituents back home in Staten Island and Brooklyn,” Grimm said.

    The bill would not affect animals used for biomedical research.

    The cosmetic industry trade group, the Personal Care Products Council, referred to an earlier statement by its executive vice president for government affairs, John Hurson, who said the legislation echoes the industry’s “longstanding commitment to ultimately eliminate the need to conduct animal testing” on cosmetics.

    Hurson said cosmetic companies largely stopped animal testing on finished products in the 1980s, and now only consider using them when mandated by government bodies or for safety evaluations of new ingredients when no viable alternative is available. Under federal law, manufacturers aren’t required to test cosmetics on animals to prove product safety, but the FDA says it’s consistently advised cosmetic manufacturers to employ whatever testing is appropriate and effective.

    Amundson said even though finished products aren’t tested on animals, some individual ingredients and formulations are.

    Amdunson, the Personal Care Products Council and the FDA were unable to provide an estimate of how many animals are used in cosmetic testing each year.

    This report was written by Frederic J. Frommer of the Associated Press. Follow Frommer on Twitter.

    The post Federal ban sought for animal testing on cosmetics appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    MEGAN THOMPSON: Autumn means it’s harvest time in Iowa, the heart of America’s Heartland. Farmer Jeff Jorgenson is busy harvesting soybeans. He also grows corn on about 2,000 acres in the southwest corner of the state.

    Farming is big business here in Iowa. This state is the biggest producer of corn in the country. And it’s second only to Illinois in the production of soybeans.

    For Jorgenson – whose family’s been farming for four generations – it’s all about keeping his yields as high as he can.

    JEFF JORGENSON: Yield monitor’s here.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: And one of the biggest battles he fights is against weeds.

    JEFF JORGENSON: A weed in the field’s going to take moisture, going to take sunlight, nutrients away from the plants surrounding it. And that’s why we have to keep clean fields.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: But Jorgenson says, keeping “clean” fields has been getting harder and harder. Like many farmers, he relied for years mainly on an herbicide called “Roundup” that’s manufactured by Monsanto.

    Roundup use exploded in the mid-90’s with the introduction of new genetically modified crops that dominate the market today. The crops were engineered to withstand Roundup. So farmers could just spray an entire field, and the herbicide would kill the weeds, but not the crops.

    JEFF JORGENSON: Any weed you had in the field, Roundup took care of. Roundup revolutionized weed management for farmers.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Jorgenson says it all worked great, for awhile. He no longer had to spend lots of time plowing to kill weeds. But over time, Roundup and its generic versions – all of which contain a chemical called glyphosate – stopped working so well.

    MIKE OWEN: Simple use of one herbicide recurrently in the system is going to inevitably result in weeds that evolve resistance to that herbicide.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Agronomy professor Mike Owen is a nationally-recognized weed expert at Iowa State University in Ames.

    MIKE OWEN: It is a widespread and- and is significant from an economic perspective problem across the Midwest and, dare I say, across agriculture in general.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Owen says it’s no mystery why this happened – it can all be explained by evolution. In Iowa, one of the weeds that’s evolved to be resistant is called “waterhemp.”

    JEFF JORGENSON: This is giant waterhemp, a weed we have down in southwest Iowa that’s become more tolerant. This plant, when it’s mature, will be, can get 5 to 6 feet tall, where it’s very heavy, you can have yields cut in half, 50 percent losses.

    MIKE OWEN: In Iowa, we would estimate as that about 75 percent of the fields have infestations of common waterhemp that are resistant to one or more herbicides.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: The weeds are not just a problem in Iowa. In one survey, almost 50 percent of farmers across the U.S. reported herbicide-resistant weeds in their fields. The problem is worst in the south, where some cotton fields can’t be farmed. But the threat is creeping north into the corn and soybean belts. Keep in mind, crop yields in the U.S. are booming. But Mike Owen says it’s possible they could be even higher were it not for the weeds. Owen says it’s difficult to quantify the damage. But if the weeds start having a significant impact, it could be too late.

    MIKE OWEN: We have, if you will, hidden yield losses and thus hidden profit losses on millions and millions of acres in the Midwest. It hasn’t gotten to the point, if you will, of the train wreck.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: What could happen, or what’s at stake if this doesn’t get under control?

    MIKE OWEN: Well, the train wreck. And- and that is the inability to produce crops.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Over the last four years, the issue started to get more and more attention. Congress held hearings… and the USDA recently announced new measures it’s taking to combat the problem…. A problem also acknowledged by Monsanto. And now another major manufacturer has stepped in.

    PROMOTIONAL VIDEO: Growers across the country face an increasing problem from resistant and hard-to-control weeds.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Biotech giant Dow Agrosciences recently won federal approval for new genetically modified corn and soybeans, and a new herbicide to go with them called Enlist Duo. Dow is promoting it as an answer to the herbicide-resistant weed problem.

    PROMOTIONAL VIDEO: These weeds are out of control.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: But there’s another piece to all of this. And that is, whether the herbicides used to control weeds pose health risks for farmers and the rest of us. The center for food safety, a national environmental advocacy group, recently sued the EPA, alleging the agency didn’t fully analyze the new herbicide’s potential effects on human health and the environment.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: The group cites studies that suggest a correlation between pesticides and diseases like Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Parkinson’s. Attorney Andrew Kimbrell heads the Center for Food Safety.

    ANDREW KIMBRELL: They’re bad for us, right, because it’s going to mean much more of these toxic herbicides in our food, in our groundwater, in the air.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: But in approving the product, the EPA published this document saying its scientists determined: “when used according to label directions, Enlist Duo is safe for everyone, including infants, the developing fetus, the elderly and more highly exposed groups such as agricultural workers.”

    MEGAN THOMPSON: In a statement to the NewsHour, Dow quoted the EPA analysis. And added, its new system helps farmers “as they struggle to control weeds that impact the food supply, while respecting the well being of both people and the environment.”

    The EPA approved the new product for use only in six states so far. And it imposed restrictions: 30-foot buffer zones, no aerial spraying, and no applications in windy conditions. The new product is a mix of the main ingredient in Roundup – glyphosate – and a chemical called 2,4-D – used for decades and found in many common lawn care products.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Pretty much anybody can walk into a hardware store and buy a product for use on their lawn that contains this stuff. So, if it’s so dangerous, why is it so widely available?

    ANDREW KIMBRELL: This isn’t just about 2,4-D. Enlist Duo, the product that’s been approved, is also glyphosate. What do they mean together? We know some of the health impacts separately, but what happens when they’re- when they come together and- and combine? What does that actually mean for health effects? What does it mean for toxic effects on farmers and applicators?

    MIKE OWEN: We have the model system with the EPA reviewing the safety of these herbicides and my sense is that the evidence says that the herbicides when used appropriately are safe.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: But even if they are safe, there are serious concerns that weeds could become resistant to the new herbicide, just as they did to Roundup. It’s something the EPA is requiring Dow to monitor.

    MIKE OWEN: The problem will inevitably get worse unless changes are made.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Changes like relying less on chemicals. And also going back to some of the old ways – like growing crops in the offseason to suppress weeds … and removing some weeds mechanically.

    MIKE OWEN: Growers thus far have been wanting a new, simple solution. And unfortunately, the industry has not been able to come up with, if you will, another silver bullet.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Farmer Jeff Jorgenson says he thinks the new Dow products – expected to come to market this spring – will help farmers, especially in the south. To battle his weeds, he’s been mixing other herbicides in with Roundup, something Monsanto recommends. But, Jorgenson says he knows his system will inevitably have to evolve … just like the weeds.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Are you afraid that your system might stop working?

    JEFF JORGENSON: Oh, there’s no question. It will change. There will be a time where it will not have the effect that it does now. After seeing what’s happened with Roundup, you always have the worry that whatever chemical program you’re using what will happen if it loses its effectiveness. That is always on farmers’ minds because we need to be able to control the problems that we have in fields.

    The post Field of weeds: Could agriculture crisis crop up from herbicide resistance? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Protesters gather at a Wal-Mart in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles on Black Friday on Nov. 29, 2013. According to news reports, a group of Wal-Mart employees seeking higher wages is planning protests at 1,600 stores on Black Friday this year.  Credit: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

    A group of Wal-Mart employees seeking higher wages said it is planning protests at 1,600 Wal-Mart stores nationwide on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year in the U.S., according to news reports.

    Labor group OUR Walmart said it rallied at 1,200 to 1,400 Walmart stores last year on Black Friday, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday, according to the Chicago Tribune.

    The protests are organized in an attempt to raise the average hourly rate. On average Walmart cashiers are paid $8.48 an hour, according to the Wall Street Journal.

    Employees at more than 2,100 stories nationwide have signed an online petition asking for $15 per hour and better working conditions.

    The protest announcement came after police arrested 23 people on Thursday outside a Los Angeles-area Wal-Mart protesting what they say are the company’s low wages and treatment of workers who push for better working conditions, Reuters reported.

    The post Wal-Mart workers planning protests at thousands of stores on Black Friday appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Watch the full documentary by Milwaukee Public Television here.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, tens of thousands of Jews applied for visas to anywhere.

    And among them, Paul Strnad and his wife Hedwig, nicknamed Hedy. Their best hope to save their lives was help from their cousin Alvin, thousands of miles away in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

    So on December 11, 1939, Paul wrote him this letter.

    NARRATOR: “You may imagine that we have a great interest of leaving Europe as soon as possible.”

    MARTIN FLETCHER: And Paul hoped he had an ace up his sleeve. These drawings. Eight beautiful dresses. And all accessories, down to hat pins and shoes, purses and gloves. Modern. Elegant. His wife Hedy was a seamstress — a dress designer.

    Could Alvin find a firm in Milwaukee who’d hire Hedy and sign an affidavit to grant the couple visas to the US?

    In his letter, Paul wrote:

    NARRATOR: “I hope the dress manufacturers you mentioned in your letter will like them.”

    MARTIN FLETCHER: Karen Strnad is Alvin’s granddaughter.

    KAREN STRNAD: “It was a letter that was pleading for, you know, a savior, for you know survival. And using the dresses as a tool to be able to get out of there.”

    MARTIN FLETCHER: Alvin Strnad tried to find Hedy a job and visas for them both. But too late.

    Paul was declared dead January 31, 1943. Murdered in either the Treblinka concentration camp or the Warsaw Ghetto. Hedy’s fate is unclear, but her dresses live on.

    Almost sixty years later, Karen’s parents found the letter in the basement, complete with a Nazi censor’s swastika stamp, and the colorful drawings.

    KAREN STRNAD: “The dresses represent prejudice and persecution and what was lost in the Holocaust because of it. The dresses represent love.”

    MARTIN FLETCHER: The Strnads gave the letter and dress designs to what is today the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, just another painful link to the past.

    Until one day a visitor had an idea. Why not make the dresses?

    KATHY BERNSTEIN, JEWISH MUSEUM OF MILWAUKEE: “We had a wonderful opportunity to fulfill a victim’s dream.”

    MARTIN FLETCHER: So when Kathy Bernstein, the museum’s director, met the costume director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, she didn’t hesitate.

    KATHY BERNSTEIN, JEWISH MUSEUM OF MILWAUKEE: “I said, ‘We want to create an exhibit. We want to show — to have a tangible example of what has been lost in the Holocaust, and is this something the Rep can do? Well she said ‘Absolutely.’”

    MARTIN FLETCHER: And the rest, as they say, is history.

    The Milwaukee Rep began a labor of love.

    KATHY BERNSTEIN, JEWISH MUSEUM OF MILWAUKEE: “They became filled with Hedwig’s story. And it became personal for them.”

    MARTIN FLETCHER: Then hard work paid off; a researcher found a letter from Hedy and bit by bit Hedy Strnad took shape.

    KATHY BERNSTEIN, JEWISH MUSEUM OF MILWAUKEE: “We found out she had red hair and that she smoked cigarettes, and that she had a sense of humor.”

    MARTIN FLETCHER: Today the dresses with their accessories, Hedy’s last hope for survival, are the stars of an exhibit in the Milwaukee Jewish Museum called Stitching History From the Holocaust, running through February 2015.

    KATHY BERNSTEIN, JEWISH MUSEUM OF MILWAUKEE: It’s happy but it’s haunting, too. It’s a haunting thing.”

    MARTIN FLETCHER: And inspiring too. For Karen Strnad, family history come to life, in the most personal way.

    KAREN STRNAD: “When I put the dress on it fit me perfectly. The whole thing is surreal. The torch has been passed. It was passed from Hedy’s dress designs that she created in Bohemia to her husband to my great grandfather, who started this process in terms of starting the immigration application process in the United States.”

    MARTIN FLETCHER: Among those admiring the dresses: family members who never knew their murdered relatives, didn’t know their story — and now do.

    KAREN STRNAD: “History is ongoing — what we see here is history is ongoing. This is never gonna die. And we have to keep telling the story so that history does not repeat itself.”

    The post Family history comes to life: Dress designs lost in Holocaust uncovered appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    HARI SREENIVASAN: And now to Viewers Like You — some of your feedback about our recent work.

    We heard from many of your about our report last Sunday about compensation — or the lack of it — for people like Drew Whitley, who served time for a crime he did not commit. It turns out that while 30 states do offer the wrongfully convicted some form of compensation, another 20 states don’t, including Pennsylvania, where Whitley spent 18 years in prison before being exonerated of the crime.

    Almost everyone who wrote us on Facebook expressed outrage.

    Phyland-Juan Becerra wrote: “It is ludicrous that in so many states, mine included, they are let out and left to their own devices with absolutely nothing. Shame. Shame. Shame.”

    Carole Papy added this: “We can never give them back the lost, best years of their lives, but money is better than nothing at all. A sliding scale for time served and harshness of the experience would be a start, and those 20 states that offer nothing need an overhaul and a conscience.”

    Larinda Nomikos: “What is a man’s potential worth? How can you possibly restore him? Throwing money at it seems the least/only thing you could do.”

    Several people said authorities should be held accountable for their mistakes

    From Judith Harlan: “Not possible to give back what was stolen, which is why judges and prosecutors need to be brought to justice as they know and accept daily wrongs.”

    And James lee Lucier went further: “If he was intentionally wronged, those who wronged him should spend time in prison, and he should be awarded their assets. The authorities should make a clear and lout public apology.”

    But several of you questioned whether there was any real way to make amends.

    Joshelle Grest wrote: “There’s no way to repay time!!! There’s just not!”

    And Joshua Iano summed it up this way: “We owe them a new life.”

    As always, let us know what you think of our stories on Twitter, Facebook or at newshour.pbs.org.

    You can read more about Drew Whitley’s case in a new book written by his lawyer called Victim of the System.

    The post Viewers respond to report on varied compensation for the wrongfully convicted appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Photo courtesy of Shannon Gilligan/Chooseco, LLC

    R.A Montgomery, co-author of the long-running children’s book series “Choose Your Own Adventure,” died on Nov. 9 in Vermont. He was 78. Photo courtesy of Shannon Gilligan/Chooseco, LLC

    R.A. Montgomery, co-author and publisher of the long-running children’s book series “Choose Your Own Adventure,” which allowed generations of young readers to choose from dozens of possible endings, died Nov. 9 at his home in Vermont, his wife said. He was 78.

    The cause was a “short illness,” his wife, Shannon Gilligan, told NewsHour, adding that the family wanted the exact cause of death to remain private.

    Raymond Almiran Montgomery was dedicated to experimenting with role-playing concepts that taught kids basic math, or something more complex, like cultural sensitivity. That educational mission to use fiction to explain, say, the very real 1970s energy crisis, would go on to inform a popular book series that sold more than 250 million copies across 200-plus titles since 1979.

    A couple of years after Montgomery founded Vermont Crossroads Press, he was approached by lawyer Edward Packard with the idea of making a book that allowed the reader to control his or her fate. Montgomery jumped at the opportunity to publish what he saw as role-playing games in book form, Gilligan said.

    Then known as “Adventures of You,” the first book in the series — Packard’s “The Cave of Time” — transported readers to a dimly-lit cave that could throw the reader, the curious explorer, to prehistoric times or to A.D. 3700. Shortly after, Bantam Books acquired the rights to the series and changed the title to “Choose Your Own Adventure.” The books began with the reader occupying a character — alien, millionaire, genius — before embarking on an page-turning adventure.

    The books that captivated children throughout the 80s and 90s began with a warning and all-caps emphasis: “You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story.” This phrase reminded young readers of their active participation in crafting a narrative within the book’s 42 endings. (The number of endings varied book to book.)

    While Packard’s first entry played with the conventions of time, Montgomery’s first book for the series, “Journey Under the Sea,” cast a deep sea explorer on a dangerous search for the lost underwater city of Atlantis:

    Image courtesy of Chooseco

    Image courtesy of Chooseco

    “If you decide to fight the squid with your spear gun, hoping to scare it off, turn to page 17.”

    “If you decide to signal Maray to pull you up at top speed, knowing you will get the bends, turn to page 19.”

    The tropes, which predated video games, are familiar: the reader as owner of his or her destiny, the sudden plot twists, the sense of discovery — and death. So much death.

    “The wrong decision could end in disaster — even death,” the book’s warning goes.

    “Ray himself, as a parent and as a writer, didn’t have a lot of judgments and ideas about what kids shouldn’t be allowed to hear about,” Gilligan said. “What was very exciting to children about ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ was that you could dip your toe into areas such death by explosion,” which was not typical children’s book fare then.

    The books did avoid curse words, but you could still fall off a cliff and die.

    But the ability to go back and zap an intruder with a ray gun, Gilligan said, enabled a free-for-all energy that attracted children to the books and their multiple endings. In the ‘Choose’ books, children could take control of the situation (after previously avoiding a horrible ending in the maw of a beast).

    Charlie Kochman, who was Montgomery’s editor from 1987 to 1993 on the series, said that although the death was always a popular ending in the “Choose” books, they fulfilled another teaching opportunity to reinforce moralistic choices.

    If you chose to steal a wallet in the story, for example, death awaited you. But the aim, Kochman said, wasn’t to treat the stories as morals exactly.

    “We didn’t want to hit kids over the head, we didn’t want to make these books lessons,” he said. To do so, Kochman said, would morph the story into “medicine.” So, the moralistic undercurrent was wrapped with peril, swift consequences — “It’s no use. The whirlpool has you in its grip” — and rewards, if you gave back that wallet.

    At its peak, Montgomery and Packard wrote a book a month and invited other writers to use their imagination to box the reader into a corner. When Bantam stopped publishing the series in 2000, Montgomery and Gilligan co-founded Chooseco, LLC to relaunch the series three years later.

    The “Choose” books, for all their fantastical narratives, were couched in some reality. Montgomery, an avid traveler, was inspired by the various locales he visited over the years. His first trek to Nepal led to “The Abominable Snowman” in 1982. After spending a lot of time in the Yucatán Peninsula, he wrote 1981′s “Mystery of the Maya.” Gilligan said her husband was kicked out of Yale because he spent too much time mountain climbing and skiing.

    And the adventures did not always end with a bang. On page 47 of “Journey Under the Sea,” after the reader decides to give up the expedition for Atlantis, Montgomery channels Ralph Waldo Emerson and reminds the young mind that it’s about the journey, not the destination:

    “[Scientists] have put together another expedition and want you to join it. You are tempted. Adventure into the unknown is what you like,” the ending on page 47 said.

    Gilligan said Montgomery was already planning his next trip to Costa Rica before he passed. Montgomery lived the meaning of his books, she said.

    Montgomery’s last entry in the series was “Gus vs. The Robot King,” which was published in September.

    The post Co-founder of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books is dead at 78 appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    AT&T said Friday that it will no longer use hidden, undeletable codes to track mobile users’ online behaviors for marketing purposes, according to the Associated Press.

    “It has been phased off our network,” AT&T spokeswoman Emily J. Edmonds told ProPublica.

    Known as a “supercookie” or “perma-cookie”, the serial number, which uses a special combination of letters, numbers, and characters, attaches to data sent from a user’s smartphone when he or she visits a website. The code is more robust than a typical browser cookie and cannot be removed in the same way.

    The serial number is unique and not connected to a user’s personal data. However, it can inadvertently couple with personal information, when a user enters in something like a name or phone number while visiting a website, which already has been tagged with an identification code.

    Codes were being used to map users’ online behaviors in order to better market products based on their tastes. A diagram on Verizon’s Precision Markets website illustrates how the codes work.

    Verizon, the nation’s largest wireless company with more than 120 million users according to Strategy Analytics, continues to use supercookies. In its privacy statement, it said that the codes are changed with enough frequency to safeguard a user’s privacy.  and states that the codes are changed to ensure user privacy. Wired magazine reported on Verizon’s participation in October.

    At the end of October, ProPublica reported that Twitter was using the Verizon tags to market items to users on social media.

    A petition titled “Tell Verizon, Stop Tracking Us on the Web” has over 27,000 signatures.

    The post AT&T will no longer use ‘supercookies’ to track mobile behavior appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR ANCHOR: What does Putin have in mind?

    For more, we are joined now by Kimberly Marten.  She is a Russian scholar and a professor at Barnard College and Columbia University.

    So, you know, what’s interesting is those two were just the most recent in a long list of aggressive moves that Russia has been taking.


    HARI SREENIVASAN: Just a few weeks ago, Sweden was looking for a submarine off their coast.  Now, they confirmed that there was a foreign sub.  The suspicion is certainly on the Russians.  We’ve had aggressive flights near the U.S., simulating kind of bombing runs that could work for New York, Chicago.

    What’s he doing?

    KIMBERLY MARTEN: I think part of what’s going on is that Putin is trying to take attention off of the problems that the Russian economy is facing.  The sanctions are working much better than many people predicted that they would, and they’re having real impact on the Russian oil industry, which is one of the major contributors to the Russian budget.  And the United States and the Europeans are holding together on those sanctions, much better than people thought they were going to, and now, even proposing more sanctions.

    And so, I think that what Putin needs to do is create an enemy in order to justify what’s happening to the economy, to get people to be motivated by a patriotic fervor in supporting him.  And so, what that means is that he’s trying to provoke the West, trying to provoke the United States into taking some kind of action that justifies what he’s doing.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Is it working?

    KIMBERLY MARTEN: Not so far, thank goodness.  I mean, when we hear about these new bomber patrols that are happening, Putin is now threatening that they’re going to go into the Gulf of Mexico.  I thought it was really interesting that we’ve had retired Air Force officers who have worked on this in the Cold War period saying, “Oh, it’s nothing.  We shouldn’t be worrying about this.”

    And I think that’s the right response. I think the most important thing is that the United States does stay calm and say, “Look, Russia is not really a military threat at this point.  Let’s keep things in perspective.”

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And it seems like he’s also trying to shore up his base.  There were these photos that the Russian news agency just released of allegedly a Ukrainian fighter jet blowing out, or shooting out the — shooting down the Malaysian Airlines.


    HARI SREENIVASAN: And in the public opinion polls in Russia, there’s only a very small fraction of people that actually believe that the rebels could have done it.

    KIMBERLY MARTEN: Yes.  And the photographs were very badly photoshopped.  And so, people have gone back and found earlier images that match the images that were released of supposedly having happened in this event.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: You know, when you said Russian oil companies, that also made me think the price of oil seems to go going down and down.


    HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s down to around 75 bucks.  That has to have an impact on Russia’s overall economy and what they’re able to export and sell to the rest of the world.

    KIMBERLY MARTEN: It really does.  The new estimate that came out from the United States Energy Administration just a couple of days is that probably, throughout 2015, oil prices are going to hover around $80 a barrel.  And the Russians had been planning that it would be more like $90 a barrel and that’s what their state budget was based on for 2015.

    So, they’re going to be in some difficulty managing to get the base that they need in order to have their expenses covered, especially because now that they are responsible for this area in Crimea and now that they’re responsible for the eastern parts of Ukraine.  These are impoverished territories, the ones in Eastern Ukraine have faced a lot of destruction.  The people are unemployed, and somehow, Russia is going to have to provide for them.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes, just like when we see lower gas prices, it’s something back into consumer pocketbooks here, do you think that there will be enough frustration on the parts of Russians when they see these sort of economic conditions, very dire, maybe it’s unemployment, something that affects them.  It says, “You know what, stop with all the saber-rattling.  Focus on our country.”

    KIMBERLY MARTEN: It might happen.  But keep in mind that there’s a lot history in Russia of the general population being relatively passive, of just sort of accepting what the government does, of believing that the government must have superior knowledge to what they have.

    It will be very interesting to see what happens as the winter goes by.  I think this might be a year of concern for Russia but I think it’s too early to predict that’s something is going to go wrong yet.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right.  Kimberly Marten, thanks so much for your time.

    KIMBERLY MARTEN: Thank you, Hari.

    The post Is Putin intentionally provoking the West? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    BRISBANE, Australia — The White House says the U.S. intelligence community is working to determine the authenticity of a video that purports to show that Islamic State militants have beheaded American aid worker Peter Kassig.

    National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan says that if the video is authentic, the White House would be “appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American.” She says the White House expresses its deepest condolences to Kassig’s family and friends.

    The video emerged just minutes after President Barack Obama departed Australia for the U.S. The president was in Australia for the Group of 20 economic summit.

    Kassig, 26, was captured last year while helping provide medical aid to Syrians. His friends say he converted to Islam in captivity and changed his name to Abdul-Rahman.

    The post ISIS claims to have executed American aid worker appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Watch Video

    Editor’s Note: This piece was originally broadcast on Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014.

    IVETTE FELICIANO: In rapid succession, ISIS’ recent beheadings of American journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines shocked and outraged the public, and prompted an American military response.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

    IVETTE FELICIANO: And now another British aid worker, Alan Henning, has suffered the same fate ….. a story that prompted another round of intense coverage.

    RASHID KHALIDI: I think that, you know, what bleeds, leads. And if it’s dramatic and if it’s violent it’ll be shown again and again.

    IVETTE FELICIANO: Rashid Khalidi, Professor of Modern Arab studies at Columbia University, believes the media’s focus on the brutality of the recent beheadings is exactly what ISIS was hoping for.

    RASHID KHALIDI: Showing the picture again and again creates panic. They want intervention. They want boots on the ground. They want the United States to be directly involved in fighting them.

    Because that makes them out to be the leading group in the Islamic world that’s resisting– western imperialism as they see it. So we’re at– the reaction that they’re getting on Washington is precisely in my view what they want.

    IVETTE FELICIANO: Despite the widespread coverage of the four recent ISIS beheadings, Dr. Dawn Perlmutter, an author and scholar who for years has studied ritualistic crimes and religious terrorism, says video-taped beheadings are nothing new, and that these recent events are actually just the tip of the iceberg.

    IVETTE FELICIANO: She told us just yesterday it would be safe to say there have been at least 2 dozen beheadings around the world since the start of September …. Among them, four people killed by Mexican drug cartels; 4 by an extremist group in the Sinai Peninsula and another person beheaded by Boko Haram militants who posted their own video just this past Friday. Few, if any, of those incidents even made the news in this country.

    DAWN PERLMUTTER: There’s hundreds of them. Hundreds of videos of– easily accessible online for anyone to view. I get alerts on at least four or five beheadings a day– in– in different parts of the world.

    IVETTE FELICIANO: She says the beheadings that have occurred after ISIS fighters overran villages in northern and western Iraq and in Syria, have taken violence to a level that even Al-Qaeda has chosen to distance itself from.

    DAWN PERLMUTTER: The one consistency in all of the formal beheadings of– of the different Al-Qaeda-linked groups has been that they have never– formally beheaded a woman. What differs with ISIS is that they are beheading women and children and sticking their heads on pikes.

    IVETTE FELICIANO: Why is the way you choose to kill someone, especially publicly, so important? Why beheadings of all the ways?

    DAWN PERLMUTTER: Beheading is the ultimate sign that you’re in power. It is so– I think just organic—primally of– offensive and frightening that it’s effective.

    IVETTE FELICIANO: Perlmutter believes advances in cellphone technology have led to what she calls a “beheading epidemic” over the last 10 years. Hundreds of videos have been uploaded to the web by groups such as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and those drug cartels in Mexico.

    DAWN PERLMUTTER: ISIS has– taken that technology further because now, we have Twitter. We have Instagram. It’s sort of this unbelievable new phenomenon of primal warfare combined with modern technology.

    IVETTE FELICIANO: In fact beheadings in the form of punishment for crimes goes back centuries. It was common in the Greek and Roman empires. Henry the VIII had both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard beheaded, and the French guillotine remained France’s standard method of judicial execution until 1981. Even today, beheading as a form of punishment is still allowed in several countries including Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran. Yet Saudi Arabia is the only country that actually continues to behead offenders. There were reportedly 80 public executions there last year – most of them beheadings.

    ADAM COOGLE: As far as countries like, you know, western countries, including the United States, who have expressed their horror over the executions by the Islamic State Group in Iraq and Syria, we haven’t seen the same horror over just regular beheadings that take place in Saudi Arabia, several a month on average.

    IVETTE FELICIANO: Adam Coogle is the Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Jordan We spoke to him via skype a few days ago.

    ADAM COOGLE: When you talk to Saudi officials about this they will usually tell you that their use of public beheadings is rooted in Islamic law and Islamic tradition.

    ADAM COOGLE: If Saudi Arabia were to try to reform their practices on capital punishment they would face a considerable resistance and they would be accused by the core constituency of you know basically going back on their Islamic roots.

    IVETTE FELICIANO: Some analysts say Muslim extremist groups like ISIS choose the act of beheading because they’re also aligning themselves with what they think is an authentic Islam, pointing to Qu’ranic passages they believe condone the act.

    DAWN PERLMUTTER: That’s why they have to always have this reading of offenses, identifying– having the person– confess, having the person– in front of them, kneeling. It is an execution ritual.

    RASHID KHALIDI: Therefore when you meet the unbelievers…presumably in a battle…smite at their necks.

    IVETTE FELICIANO: Yet Islamic scholars, like Professor Khalidi, dispute that the Qu’ran offers any justification for beheading. He cites the lines coming immediately after one of the two used to justify beheadings.

    RASHID KHALIDI: At length when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind the captives firmly. Therefore is the time for either generosity or ransom…

    I’ve just read Sura 47 verse 4. If you cut off their heads you’re not going to bind them, and you’re not binding them to cut off their heads you’re binding them to either be generous to them, release them, or hold them for ransom.

    So there is nothing about cutting off their heads in this passage. The people who are doing this act claiming this as justification for this practice. It is not. And it just shows that they know nothing about Islam and they don’t know how to read this properly.

    The post Before ISIS: A history of beheadings to terrify, punish appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Russia's President Vladimir Putin walks past as US President Barack Obama at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group in China Friday. Photo by Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

    Russia’s President Vladimir Putin walks past as US President Barack Obama looks for his floor marker to stand for a group photo at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group meeting in China Nov. 11. On Sunday, Obama criticized Putin for not upholding his end of the cease-fire with Ukraine at the close of the G-20 Summit in Australia. Photo by Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

    BRISBANE, Australia — President Barack Obama on Sunday bluntly accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of not living up to a cease-fire agreement in Ukraine, but offered no new plans for how the West might change his calculus.

    Obama spoke shortly after huddling with European leaders to discuss the conflict and worsening security situation. On the potential for increasing sanctions on Russia, Obama said the U.S. and European allies are always looking at more penalties but “at this point the sanctions we have in place are biting plenty good.”

    “We’re also very firm on the need to uphold core international principles,” Obama said at a press conference to wrap up a weeklong Asia-Pacific tour. “One of those principles is that you don’t invade other countries or finance proxies and support them in ways that break up a country that has mechanisms for democratic elections.”

    Despite a cease-fire agreement between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels signed in Minsk, Belarus, in September, fighting continues and key conditions haven’t been met. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fueling the rebellion with a constant flow of troops and weapons, accusations Moscow has denied.

    Obama said his interactions with Putin during summits he’s attended on his tour were typical of their interactions – “businesslike and blunt.” He said Russia will continue to experience international isolation if Moscow doesn’t take a different path. “It is not our preference to see Russia isolated the way it is,” he said.

    Putin departed Australia shortly before Obama and European leaders opened their talks. French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron were among the European leaders attending the meeting, along with leaders from Italy and Spain and EU representatives.

    The White House said the leaders in Sunday’s meeting also were expected to discuss a proposed trade agreement between the U.S. and European Union.

    The post Obama criticizes Putin for not adhering to cease-fire appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Residents of Westminster, Mass., attend and speak out at a public hearing regarding a proposal by the local board of health to ban tobacco sales in the city. (Credit: NewsHour)

    Residents of Westminster, Mass., attend and speak out at a public hearing regarding a proposal by the local board of health to ban tobacco sales in the city. (Credit: NewsHour)

    The town of Westminster, Mass., could become the first in the nation to entirely ban the sale of tobacco products, including cigarettes, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes.

    In support of the ban, Andrea Crete, the head of the town’s Board of Health said: “If we can prevent children from having access and exposure to tobacco and nicotine products and reduce the chances of them smoking or using them, then we’ve essentially saved lives.​”

    But many residents and local businesses argue the ban will hurt the local economy, cost jobs, and is an unnecessary intrusion by the government into consumer freedom. What do you think? What if a similar ban was proposed where you live?

    Take our poll and share your thoughts in the comment section below, or join the conversation on Facebook.

    You can watch NewsHour Weekend’s full report from Westminster, Mass., below.

    The post POLL: Would you support a ban on the sale of tobacco products? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    LINCOLN, Neb. — Congress is suddenly scrambling to vote on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, but the fate of the oft-delayed $5.4 billion project could still wind up in the hands of an obscure commission in Nebraska that regulates telephones, taxi cabs and grain bins.

    The Nebraska Supreme Court is expected to rule within weeks on whether the Nebraska Public Service Commission must review the pipeline before it can cross the state, one of six on the pipeline’s route. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman gave the green light in January 2013 without the panel’s involvement.

    The commission’s possible role is part of the tangled legal and political history of the pipeline and raises questions about whether it will continue to be snagged even if the Senate votes to approve it next week as expected. The House voted 252-161 Friday to move forward with the project. President Barack Obama, who has delayed a decision pending the resolution of the Nebraska issue, has not said whether he would sign the legislation.

    The proposed crude-oil pipeline, which would run 1,179 miles from the Canadian tar sands to Gulf coast refineries, has been the subject of a fierce struggle between environmentalists and energy advocates ever since Calgary-based TransCanada proposed it in 2008.

    “I don’t know if they think they can just override Nebraska,” said Randy Thompson, one of three landowners who filed suit to challenge the state’s approval process. “If we win our case, I assume TransCanada is going to have to go back to the drawing board.”

    A district court in February ruled that a law that gave Heineman the authority to approve the project ran afoul of Nebraska’s constitution.

    While there’s no way to tell how the Nebraska Supreme Court will rule on the issue, the justices tend to defer to the lower courts’ decisions, said Anthony Schutz, a University of Nebraska associate law professor.

    “The separation of powers argument is a pretty powerful argument,” Schutz said. “We’ve spent a lot of time since the early 1900s finding ways to distribute executive power, and the governor is left with a fairly limited realm of authority.”

    The high court has two justices appointed by Heineman, a Republican, and five by former Democratic Gov. Ben Nelson.

    Project supporters say the pipeline should now be ready to go forward even if TransCanada has to seek the state’s approval once again.

    “We believe the federal government has taken entirely too long to make a decision. I don’t see any issue with the Senate voting on it and the president approving it” before the Nebraska issue is resolved, said Ron Kaminski, business manager for the Labors’ Local No. 1140, an Omaha-based union that supports the project.

    Nebraska officials became supportive of the pipeline after TransCanada agreed to change the route to avoid the ecologically sensitive Sandhills region in the remote northern part of the state. In 2012, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law allowing Heineman to give the go-ahead.

    But opponents have charged that the state constitution gives that power to the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

    The elected commission regulates “common carriers” that are used to transport goods, energy and people. The panel includes four Republicans and one Democrat. The commission generally takes about seven months to approve or deny an application, said Dave Domina, an attorney for the landowners.

    The Nebraska attorney general’s office has argued that the 2012 law was constitutional.

    The resistance to the pipeline remains strongest in Nebraska on the pipeline’s route. Governments of the other states have been supportive, citing the construction jobs it would create. A majority of Nebraska residents now support the pipeline, according to independent surveys, but pipeline opponents say 115 of 515 Nebraska landowners along the proposed route have refused to sign agreements with the company.

    Even if the project wins final approval, property owners want assurance that money will be set aside for land restoration in the event of any leaks, said Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, a leading opposition group.

    Kleeb said she’s still hopeful Obama will veto legislation that approves the Keystone XL.

    “I have no option but to be optimistic,” Kleeb said. “These farmers are the reason I do this every day.”

    Dan Frost, a Denver attorney who specializes in pipelines and infrastructure projects, said regulatory agencies like Nebraska’s Public Service Commission would subject a project to a more thorough review than a governor would.

    “Generally speaking, they’re less politically charged and more technical in nature,” Frost said. “…I think they’re more inclined to look at the project’s technical merits.”

    This article was written by Grant Schulte of the Associated Press.

    The post Fate of Keystone XL may rest with obscure Nebraska panel appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig is pictured making a food delivery to refugees in Lebanon�s Bekaa Valley in this May 2013 handout photo. Islamic State militants said in a video November 16, 2014 they had beheaded U.S. hostage aid worker Kassig and warned the United States they would kill other U.S. citizens. REUTERS/Kassig Family/Handout via Reuters (LEBANON - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT) THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO ARCHIVES. NO SALES. FACES IN THE BACKGROUND OBSCURED BY SOURCE

    Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig is pictured making a food delivery to refugees in Lebanon in this May 2013 handout photo. The White House confirmed Sunday the death of Kassig at the hands of Islamic State militants. Credit: REUTERS/Kassig Family/Handout via Reuters

    ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE — The White House on Sunday confirmed the death of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig, a former soldier who tried to help wounded Syrians caught in a brutal civil war but ended up dying at the hands of Islamic State militants.

    President Barack Obama, in a statement issued as he flew back to Washington after a trip to the Asia-Pacific region, said the group “revels in the slaughter of innocents, including Muslims, and is bent only on sowing death and destruction.”

    With Kassig’s death, the Islamic State group has killed five Westerners it was holding. Britons David Haines, a former Air Force engineer, and Alan Henning, a taxi driver from northwest England, were beheaded, as was U.S. reporter James Foley and American-Israeli journalist Steven Sotloff. The group holds British photojournalist John Cantlie and a 26-year-old American woman captured last year in Syria while working for aid groups. U.S. officials have asked that the woman not be identified out of fears for her safety.

    The U.S. confirmation about Kassig came after a review of an IS video released Sunday that purported to show extremists beheading a dozen Syrian soldiers and concluded with a militant claiming to have killed the American. The video ends with the militant standing over a severed head he says belongs to Kassig.

    After his capture in eastern Syria on Oct. 1, 2013, while delivering relief supplies for the aid group he founded, Kassig had converted to Islam and took the name Abdul-Rahman Kassig.

    Obama said Kassig “was a humanitarian who worked to save the lives of Syrians injured and dispossessed” by war.

    The president said the 26-year-old Indianapolis man “was taken from us in an act of pure evil by a terrorist group that the world rightly associates with inhumanity.”

    Obama offered prayers and condolences to Kassig’s family. “We cannot begin to imagine their anguish at this painful time,” he said.

    Obama said IS “exploits the tragedy in Syria to advance their own selfish aims” and that Kassig was “so moved by the anguish and suffering” of Syrian civilians that he plunged into a relief mission.

    “These were the selfless acts of an individual who cared deeply about the plight of the Syrian people,” Obama said in his statement.

    The Islamic State group’s actions “represent no faith, least of all the Muslim faith which Abdul-Rahman adopted as his own,” Obama said. “Today we grieve together, yet we also recall that the indomitable spirit of goodness and perseverance that burned so brightly in Abdul-Rahman Kassig and which binds humanity together, ultimately is the light that will prevail over the darkness” of IS.

    The Islamic State group has beheaded and shot dead hundreds of captives – mainly Syrian and Iraqi soldiers – during its sweep across the two countries, and has celebrated its mass killings in extremely graphic videos.

    Kassig served in an Army special operations unit in Iraq and after he was medically discharged, he formed an aid organization in Turkey to help Syrian refugees.

    The post US confirms execution of American aid worker by Islamic State appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    WASHINGTON — The State Department has taken the unprecedented step of shutting down its entire unclassified email system as technicians repair possible damage from a suspected hacker attack.

    A senior department official said Sunday that “activity of concern” was detected in the system around the same time as a previously reported incident that targeted the White House computer network. That incident was made public in late October, but there was no indication then that the State Department had been affected. Since then, a number of agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service and the National Weather Service, have reported attacks.

    The official said none of the State Department’s classified systems were affected. However, the official said the department shut down its worldwide email late on Friday as part of a scheduled outage of some of its internet-linked systems to make security improvements to its main unclassified computer network. The official was not authorized to speak about the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

    The official said the department expects that all of its systems will be operating as normal in the near future, but would not discuss who might be responsible for the breach. Earlier attacks have been blamed on Russian or Chinese attackers, although their origin has never been publicly confirmed.

    The State Department is expected to address the shutdown once the security improvements have been completed on Monday or Tuesday.

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    Cecilia Frosinini, head of the restoration of “The Resurrection” wrote “One of my great loves come true,” on Twitter Sunday.

    A painting by Italian Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca, “The Resurrection”, which escaped destruction during World War Two, is getting its own revival, Reuters reported.

    Restoration of “The Resurrection”, known for its clarity, serenity and use of perspective, is now underway, after gradually becoming damaged, discolored and cracked by humidity and grime over the centuries.

    Painted in the 1460s, the fresco was first rescued from artillery fire, when a British officer refused to shell the town of Sansepolcro, where the painting is housed. 

    The restoration of the work, which includes a self-portrait of the painter as a soldier at Christ’s feet, is happening thanks in part to the philanthropy of Italian businessman Aldo Osti, who once worked near Sansepolcro. Osti, who now lives in Switzerland, supplied half of the project’s total 200,000 euro ($250,000) cost, according to Reuters.

    Austerity measures put into place following Europe’s economic crisis have had a major impact on arts funding, forcing restorers to get creative on tackling jobs like the restoration of della Francesca’s fresco.

    Cecilia Frosinini, head of the restoration team, gushed on Twitter about the two-year project on Sunday. She tweeted in Italian: “One of my great loves come true.”

    In an essay titled “The Best Picture”, originally published in 1925, English novelist Aldous Huxley wrote about his journey to Sansepolcro and discovery of “The Resurrection”. According to Reuters, it was this essay, which made British soldier Tony Clarke defy his superiors and refuse to attack Sansepolcro.

    “We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty,” Huxley wrote. “It stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.”

    The post Saved in WWII, ‘greatest picture in the world’ to be restored appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS ANCHOR: Last weekend, we reported on the sudden, unexpected release of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller, two Americans who had been detained and then sentenced to lengthy prison terms in North Korea.

    The deal that led to their release was negotiated by James Clapper, the U.S. national intelligence director.

    For more about how the deal happened that, we are joined now from Washington by Adam Entous. Earlier this week, he co-authored an article describing the secret talks that ultimately led to freedom for Bae and Miller.

    So how did this come together and why DNI Clapper?

    ADAM ENTOUS, The Wall Street Journal: Well, I mean, the North decided that it wanted a Cabinet-level emissary sent to come pick the two Americans.

    And when the Cabinet — when, you know, the national security advisers to the president looked around and tried to figure out who would — who would fit that bill, Clapper was a standout. I mean, he’s an — he is an expert on the North and has been for a long time and spent time in the south of Korea when — you know, earlier in his career.

    So it was a natural pick. And he flew in. It was kind of a very bizarre scenario, where he literally flew in, wasn’t sure he was going to be bringing them home, wasn’t even sure what — what would be on the agenda for his meetings there.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And you said that they actually had a dossier on him and had specific intel on Clapper.

    ADAM ENTOUS: Right.

    Yes. They — they knew the precise number of flights that he was on when he was based in the South, for example. He was — I think Clapper was surprised by that, that they had as much homework. And I think they were trying to impress — impress him with the amount of homework they had done.

    But what — what really struck him about visit was that the North really wanted him to be carrying some sort of broader peace overture, some — sort of breakthrough, instead of just coming to pick up the two Americans. And they were — they were very disappointed by that.

    And then he was very struck by what he saw as a generational gap between the younger generation and the older generation, the younger being more willing to deal with the West.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, walk us through the negotiation, if you could.

    ADAM ENTOUS: Well, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a negotiation.

    He — specifically, they chose Clapper because they didn’t want to give the North the impression that this was a negotiation. He was basically there to receive the two Americans.

    He — he arrives, he gets in the limousine, he is brought to, you know, a guest house where they’re putting him up. He has a — kind of a tense dinner that lasts for many hours. He describes it as — he had the best kimchi of his — of his life during that meal, but it was a — it was a tense encounter.

    He goes back to the guest house after the meal. He even isn’t sure, you know, what is going to happen. During the meal, he gives a letter from the president to his interlocutor during the meal. And that letter basically just says that he’s the envoy who was sent and that the U.S. would view the release of these two Americans as a goodwill gesture.

    He then — you know, the next day, he’s — he’s told at one point, you know, to pack his bags, that he was leaving. And he had no idea if the mission was then a failure. But it turned out that he picked up the Americans and then went — went back to the airport.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Any chance of him going back in further conversations?

    ADAM ENTOUS: Yes, I mean, there was a — there was a suggestion, which he seemed open to, for a return visit.

    And, you know, he definitely came away with a sense that there was, in addition to this — this generational gap, there was this hunger on the part of the North to try to bring the U.S. into some sort of dialogue.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So what role does China play in all this, and has North Korean behavior changed over the past few months?

    ADAM ENTOUS: Right.

    So — so, yes, I mean, I — I spoke on — last week to senior defense officials who have been tracking the North. And over the last two to three months, there’s been a noticeable lack of aggressiveness on the part of the North, which — which contrasts with — with where the North has been during previous cycles in the relationship with the United States.

    So they have noticed this toning down of the aggressiveness of the North, which U.S. officials attribute, at least in part, to the Chinese, which have been sending messages. And they have certainly told their American counterparts that they have sent these messages to the North that they need to tone down their rhetoric and tone down their aggressive posture.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Adam Entous of “The Wall Street Journal,” thanks so much for joining us.

    ADAM ENTOUS: It was a pleasure.

    The post What led to North Korea’s release of American detainees Bae and Miller? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Napoleon Bonaparte’s trademark bicorn hat sold at auction near Paris on Sunday for roughly $2.4 million, according to news reports.

    A South Korean collector, whose name was not released, paid nearly five times more than the minimum price set for the two-cornered, black felt hat that was apparently worn by the French emperor during the Battle of Marengo in 1800, the BBC reported.

    Jean-Pierre Osenat of the Osenat auction house in Fontainebleau, France said the hat, now weathered from its age, is part of a collection belonging to the Prince of Monaco, whose family is distantly related to Napoleon. Prince Albert II said the family decided to sell the items in the collection “rather than see them remain in the shadows,” the Associated Press reported.

    Napoleon wore it and others made by French hatmaker Poupard sideways, rather than with the points facing front and back, so he could easily be spotted on the battlefield, an official with the Osenat auction house told Reuters.

    Napoleon's battlefield style was depicted in the painting "Napoleon Crossing the Alps" by Jacques Louis David painting from 1801. (Credit: Getty Images

    Napoleon’s battlefield style was depicted in the painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques Louis David from 1801. Credit: Getty Images

    “He understood at that time that the symbol was powerful,” said Alexandre Giquello, who works at the auction house, told the AP. ”On the battlefields, his enemies called him ‘The Bat’ because he has that silhouette with this hat.”

    During the emperor’s 15-year reign in the early 19th century, Napoleon reportedly went through about 120 hats — 19 of which of are currently in museums around the world.

    The auction of the hat concluded a three-day sale of about 1,000 other Napoleon artifacts, including dozens of medals, decorative keys, documents, a jeweled sword, a Russian caviar spoon and a bronze eagle that once perched atop a battle flag, complete with bullet holes, the AP reported.

    The post Napoleon’s famed two-cornered hat sold at auction for $2.4 million appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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