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

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    Women place flowers at a memorial to the two New York Police Department  officers that were shot and killed nearby December 21, 2014 in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

    Women place flowers at a memorial to the two New York Police Department officers that were shot and killed nearby December 21, 2014 in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

    HONOLULU — Vice President Joe Biden plans to be among the mourners at the funeral for a New York City policemen gunned down last weekend.

    The White House says President Barack Obama has asked Biden to attend Saturday’s service for Rafael Ramos (rah-fy-EHL’ RAH’-mohs) at Christ Tabernacle Church in Glendale, New York. Biden’s wife will also attend.

    Ramos and his partner, Wenjian Liu (WEHN’-jihn LOO’), were ambushed Saturday. The gunman claimed he was retaliating for the police-involved deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. He later shot himself.

    New York’s police commissioner says Liu’s family plans to make arrangements after arriving from China.

    Obama is on vacation in Hawaii.

    The post Biden to attend funeral for slain New York police officer appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Military Working Dogs

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    GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, Margaret Warner speaks with the author of a new book about the special bond between warriors walking on four legs and those born with just two.

    MAN: He’s a good dog, been my best friend over here.

    MARGARET WARNER: For U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, man’s best friend has more than lived up to the billing. Some 2,500 dogs have accompanied soldiers and Marines there on patrol and in close combat. It’s the latest for canines over centuries of battle, from ancient Rome through World War I.

    The U.S. military first officially used dogs in World War II as scouts and enemy trackers and again in Vietnam. And when U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan faced a barrage of improvised explosive devices, the dog and handler teams proved the best detection tool of all.

    Rebecca Frankel, a senior editor at “Foreign Policy” magazine, whose “War Dog of the Week” is a signature online feature, writes about all this in a new book: “War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History and Love.”

    We met at the working dog kennels of the Quantico Marine Base outside Washington.

    That is a good dog.

    REBECCA FRANKEL, Author, “War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History and Love”: That is an experienced dog.

    MARGARET WARNER: And spoke at the National Museum of the Marine Corps nearby.

    Rebecca Frankel, thank you for joining us.

    REBECCA FRANKEL: Thank you for having me.

    MARGARET WARNER: You write early on that you thought you would be writing about dogs in military service, and instead you found yourself writing as much about people?

    REBECCA FRANKEL: I joke sometimes that you can’t really interview a dog.


    REBECCA FRANKEL: And they certainly have their own stories, but once I started to talk to their handlers and to talk to the families of handlers, it really became more about what the dog was doing or bringing forth from these people and how it changed their lives.

    MARGARET WARNER: And it is worth noting that these dogs and their handlers, as a team, have a very dangerous role to play.


    Their job is very dangerous. And I think sometimes that gets lost a little bit. A handler, as much a dog, is out in front of a patrol. You know, if there are bombs on the road, then it’s their job to find them. And it’s their job to not just keep people safe, but to make them feel as though they’re trusted, that they can walk down this road, that they’re safe to keep their eyes and ears on other things.

    And so it’s quite a responsibility for them to bear. But they’re also trained to let their dog go to protect, to physically use the dog and all of the assets that they have, from their teeth to their powerful jaws, to just the weight and force of their body, to protect them.

    MARGARET WARNER: So what makes a great war dog and what makes a great handler? What sets them apart?

    REBECCA FRANKEL: So, I think a good dog is good at smelling, is good at taking commands. And a handler is good at recognizing the talent of their dog.

    But it’s a relationship, and so they have to know each other really well. It’s about the connection between the dog and the handler. You can have a really, really talented dog, but if the handler and the dog aren’t synched up or if they’re not a solid team, then the work that they do is not going to be as solid.

    MARGARET WARNER: Now, time and again in these stories, and in these chapters, you return to the theme of trust. What are they trusting one another for?

    REBECCA FRANKEL: Well, I think that a dog that is maybe more experienced is going to know whether or not their handler is confident in what they’re doing.

    MARGARET WARNER: That’s a tough test.

    REBECCA FRANKEL: It is. The handlers will say oftentimes that the emotions run up and down the leash. So, if a handler is nervous or uncertain about what they’re doing, the dog is going to be put off by that.

    I have seen a very seasoned dog not take commands from their handler because they just were stubborn and they felt like, I know what I’m doing, and so they will just sit or plant and not really follow through.

    MARGARET WARNER: And they also feel very protective toward each other. You have one story about a young Marine named Colton Rusk and his big black Lab, Eli.

    REBECCA FRANKEL: Yes, so Colton Rusk was a handler from Texas. I think he deployed on his 20th birthday, so he was a very young man when he left. And he went with an improvised explosion detection dog, Eli, a black Lab.

    And Labs are known to be affectionate. And they were very close. And they were on a patrol. And Colton was shot by a Taliban sniper. And he sort of fell where he was standing. And the dog’s reaction was to climb on top of him, on his fallen body, and protect him.

    And in that frenzy of sort of the moment and the chaos, the dog wasn’t sure, you know, who could be trusted. So, he wouldn’t let anyone come near him. And they were able to get the dog away, and they tried to save him, but he didn’t make it.

    MARGARET WARNER: But then, at the end of the book, Eli joins the family, and he protects them again, but in a different way.

    REBECCA FRANKEL: The Marine Corps and other branches of service don’t do this very often, where they take a young dog who is in the middle of their career and let them adopt out to the family, but they did in this case.

    And the effect I think it had on their household was very profound.

    KATHY RUSK, Mother: I just wish he could talk and tell us some stories. We’re going to be able to share the love that we have for our son with something that he loved dearly.

    REBECCA FRANKEL: Kathy said when they brought Eli home that he went straight to Colton’s room.


    And so, for them, to sort of see that, I think it was a sign that they had part of their son back again. They have a younger son, Colton’s younger brother, and Eli would get in bed with him every night and stay in bed with until he fell asleep. And Kathy says that when she has tough days, that Eli will come and find her, and he just kind of sits with her, and keeps her company until she can get herself out of bed.

    MARGARET WARNER: And the dogs are as vulnerable to the emotional or psychological strain of war and repeated deployments as some humans.

    REBECCA FRANKEL: Oh, absolutely.

    They have — they call it canine PTSD or CPSTD. And I think it would be a little bit foolish to think that a dog, who are sort of sentient beings, they have emotions — or at least I believe that they do — could experience the same tension and chaos and loud sounds and having IEDs explode near them and not be affected by it.

    MARGARET WARNER: And death.

    REBECCA FRANKEL: And — yes, and death.

    MARGARET WARNER: Just outside the National Marine Corps Museum stands a monument to 25 dogs who died helping liberate Guam in World War II, and to all American military dogs slain in the decades since.

    When dogs die on the battlefield, are they always memorialized?

    REBECCA FRANKEL: They are. The handler will give a talk; they will say what the dog meant to them and what the dog did in his or her career, and then everyone in the unit or the battalion sort of commemorates them. And it’s just like any other fallen service member.

    MARGARET WARNER: And that was true in both Iraq and Afghanistan?

    REBECCA FRANKEL: In Iraq and Afghanistan, yes.

    MARGARET WARNER: How does the military look on these dogs, as a serviceman to be taken care of when they’re damaged or as a piece of equipment to be used and discarded?

    REBECCA FRANKEL: They are treated like a service member. If they deploy with handler, they come back with a handler. As one Marine said to me, we bring everybody home, and that includes the dogs.

    MARGARET WARNER: The United States is out of Iraq, winding down in Afghanistan. What is happening to all these dogs?

    REBECCA FRANKEL: A lot of these dogs getting adopted out, or they’re being transferred over to Homeland Security or to police canine units, which is wonderful.

    These are trained working dogs and they deserve a place to work.

    MARGARET WARNER: In your concluding chapter, you said, “To know war dogs is not to know war, but they can help us understand it better.”

    What did you mean?

    REBECCA FRANKEL: I meant that I think that these are stories that are important for us to hear. Sometimes, we are very distant from the military.

    And certainly the service members who have been going over to combat, they represent such a small portion of our overall population. And I think to see dogs is also — it’s — the leash is still there. So if you know the story of the war dog, then I think inevitably you know the story of the person holding the leash, which is important.

    MARGARET WARNER: Rebecca Frankel, thank you.

    REBECCA FRANKEL: Thank you.

    GWEN IFILL: Online, you can find more from Rebecca Frankel on the enduring bond between a Marine and his combat dog. That’s on our home page at PBS.org/NewsHour.


    The post Soldiers find special bond with dogs trained for war appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    So if the relations are normalized, I’m assuming one of the things that would change is a decrease in the number of stories of how players defect and get themselves across the border. I mean, some of these stories are pretty harrowing.

    JIM LITKE, Associated Press: Well, yes.

    And almost anything would be better than the status quo, quite frankly. I mean, without making it too simple, the best thing you could be if you’re a Cuban defector would be over the age of 23 with five years of professional experience, because then you wouldn’t with subject to the international draft by Major League Baseball.

    And so you’re essentially a free free agent and you’re able to negotiate your own deal. You need residence outside the U.S. There are tax problems. There are all sorts of things. And yet we have got one side trying to minimize what they pay for the talent, and then the other side, agents and the ballplayers, obviously trying to maximize that. So they will probably meet somewhere in the middle.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And so some of these free free agents have made a very pretty penny.

    JIM LITKE: There’s about three or four that just signed contracts. Puig, you mentioned, Jose Abreu, Yasmany Tomas. They’re getting six-year, seven-year deals for around $70 million.

    They’re all roughly between 24 and 27 and they’re very valuable, assuming that those indeed are their ages. There had been in the past — it was usually more with the Caribbean ballplayers, but age is always an issue.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Tell me, why is that these players are so sought after, when we have lots of players from Venezuela or the Dominican Republic?

    JIM LITKE: Well, because Major League Baseball has set up academies in both of those countries and they have begun to really, really open up the pipeline of talented ballplayers.

    Cuba has a state-sponsored system and always has because of both the national team and their Serie Nacional, their own league. And so they have had development programs going on for a long time. The problem is that really after the breakup of the Soviet Union, a lot of the funding disappeared. That’s when the defections sort of ratcheted up quite a bit and that was usually guys leaving their teams while they were traveling somewhere.

    Then the Cuban officials locked down on the ballplayers they brought with them to a lot of instances. You didn’t see a lot of ballplayers. And that began the more desperate attempts. There’s a saying there that no one walks off the island. So people got involved with agents, they got involved with drug smugglers, they got involved with all kinds of unsavory people, and the Major League Baseball people know this. They don’t always want to know the details.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Would this be different than how we treat, say, players coming from Japan or South Korea? Or would we set up academies like we have in these other countries as well?

    JIM LITKE: Well, that is one of the things that is obviously going to be under discussion. I don’t know that Cuban officials would want to completely scrap their system. I don’t know that they would want two systems side by side.

    All those things are going to be negotiated. I think, ultimately, we will see probably a Major League Baseball team there. It may be longer than — maybe outside of 10 years, but I think you will begin to see a normalizing relation in every way. And maybe ballplayers will be allowed to play winter ball in Cuba.

    It used to be, quite frankly, sort of a wintering season for a lot of the great Negro League players, because Cuba allowed black players around 1900.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, now there are some market forces at work here. Cuba obviously has no incentive to try to have all of it best players jump over to the United States right away.

    And then if you bring all those players over at the same time, you can’t sign the contracts like the one you were talking about for millions and millions of dollars because you have an increase in supply, right?

    JIM LITKE: Right.

    Well, that’s going to be the ultimate supply and demand. How many ballplayers can Cuba provide? There is a lot of people who think, quite frankly, the cupboard, the talent cupboard over there is empty right now because a lot of their great, great ballplayers have managed to get out in the last couple of years.

    The national team is not as feared as it was in international play, but it’s not just a talent question. The Cubans still allow aluminum bats. They took those out of the Olympics. It was hard to tell in many ways. But they had an older squad late on in international play in the mid-’90s and the early 2000s.

    So there’s not a real good sense right now of how much young talent is in the pipeline. But like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, I think that if there’s a more orderly process and a better governed and more resourced, better resource process, we will begin to see a lot more talent come out of that island.

    People in the U.S. don’t always know, as you mentioned in the introduction, the game goes back 100 years there. It was a rallying point when they fought a war of independence with Spain because the Cubans didn’t want to go to the bullfights. They wanted to play baseball.

    So it became a very, very important symbol in that society a long, long time ago.


    So, the United States knows that this isn’t going to happen. Major League Baseball knows this isn’t going to happen overnight. What is Major League Baseball doing now to prepare for what might happen five years or 10 years down the line?

    JIM LITKE: Well, I guarantee you they’re trying to find a way to minimize the cost.

    There’s already been talk that after 2017, I think the next collective bargaining agreement with the players, they will try to make everyone outside the U.S. subject to the same international draft. That will take away the incentive for some of the smuggling part of this.

    They will also — but if Cuban players want to leave, they are also going to probably have to agree to return some portion of their salary. That’s what they have been doing in current places like in Japan. So all of those things are yet to be worked out. I think, again, Major League Baseball will try to find a way to bring Cuban ballplayers and Cuban talent over here in larger numbers, but they will do it at a much more reasonable cost.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Jim Litke of the Associated Press, thanks so much.

    JIM LITKE: Thanks for having me.

    The post Will American baseball get more Cuban imports? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    BLOOD POOL monitor

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    GWEN IFILL: Since the early days of the AIDS crisis, much has changed, but one ban has endured. Gay and bisexual men have not been allowed to give blood, out of fear they could transmit HIV.

    Today, the FDA announces plans to end the lifetime ban, arguing that it is outdated. Instead, the prohibition would be limited to men who have had sex with men during the previous 12 months. The American Red Cross said today it backs the change to what it called an unwarranted policy, and “strongly supports the use of rational, scientifically based deferral periods that are applied fairly and consistently among blood donors who engage in similar risk activities.”

    Glenn Cohen of the Harvard Law School specializes in medical ethics and he also supports the change.

    Thank you for joining us.

    Why, Professor Cohen, lift the ban now?

    I. GLENN COHEN, Harvard Law School: Well, the ban that we had in place was really outdated. It dates back to 1983, the early days of the HIV crisis, and a few things have changed since then.

    First of all, our ability to test and test quickly and accurately for HIV, that’s dramatically improved. HIV has gone from a fatal disease to much more of a chronic disease, at least in America. And we have also had the experience of other countries. We really are an international outlier in a lifetime ban.

    Other countries have used much shorter deferral periods and we have data from those countries suggesting no adverse effects from moving to a shorter period.

    GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s what I want to ask you, actually. Why is it that other countries move more quickly and what does that data show?

    I. GLENN COHEN: So the data shows — and, again, it’s a mix — Canada is about five years, the U.K. is about 12-month ban, South Africa about six months, and the country that we think is the most progressive on this — and me and my co-authors in “The Journal of the American Medical Association” think this is the right way to go about it — is Italy.

    Italy has said, let’s not do blanket policies. Let’s do individualized risk assessments. And Italy made that move in 2001, and data published in 2013 show no appreciable increase of risk or infection rate in the Italian blood supply. So, we think this was out of date.

    FDA is a conservative institution. It’s slow-moving. And this was a long time coming.

    GWEN IFILL: And, yet, we’re not wiping out the ban or lifting the ban entirely. We’re going to this one-year kind of prohibition, moratorium.

    Why? Why only go to one year? Why not wipe it out, if it’s so safe, entirely?

    I. GLENN COHEN: So, again, I think FDA is a conservative institution. I think it wants to track what its peer countries are doing.

    My own position is that it would be much better to move to an individualized assessment, where we don’t say being gay or having sex with a man is an automatic disqualifier. We again look at your individual risk level. And I’m hopeful, though, that the FDA views this as an interim step. They’re relaxing the ban. They’re moving it a little closer to something that is reasonable.

    And they’re going to look at the data. But it’s important to realize that most sexually active gay men will have had sex with someone in the past year. What this really does is bring in men who have had sex with men once since 1977.

    The current prohibition that FDA is changing says if you have ever had sex with a man even once, you’re disqualified. And that’s about 8.5 percent of the American male population that was disqualified originally.

    GWEN IFILL: Well, but now that doesn’t sound like that adds a lot to the number of potential blood donors. Not only are you — you’re opening the potential pool to more people, but also a very narrow subset of those people.

    I. GLENN COHEN: Yes, an estimate from the Williams Institute, which looked at the demography of gay men in America and also the rate of having sex and whether they’re willing to donate, calculates this move will move liberate about 317,000 pints of blood a year.

    Getting rid of the ban altogether would bring in more like 615,000 pints of blood. So, it’s halfway there in terms of the gains. Again, my view and the view of my co-authors is that this is too conservative, but we are hopeful that FDA has moved a little bit. It took 30 years to nudge FDA to move at all.

    And we’re hoping that FDA will view this as an experiment, gather data, and then consider something a little bit more relaxed as a standard.

    GWEN IFILL: You said the FDA is very conservative. What is the timing on this rollout?

    I. GLENN COHEN: The timing of this rollout is that FDA plans, from today’s press release, to issue a rule. It will have notice and comment.

    My expectation is that, in next year, we will see the policy changed effectively and all at once and at that point the Red Cross, among others, has indicated they too will change their policies.

    GWEN IFILL: Should Americans worry at all that our blood supply will be compromised because of this relaxed rule?

    I. GLENN COHEN: I think the answer is no.

    Again, the best experience and the best data we have is looking at our neighbors and to see what’s happened with them. None of that data gives us any reason to worry. FDA is an extremely conservative institution when it comes to safety. Every pint of blood donated is already tested for HIV.

    All we’re doing now is saying you had a classification that was overbroad, that excluded many people, and now you relax that. And the good news is that this should hopefully add to the blood supply, as well as liberate things like bone marrow and the like, which also track the blood rules.

    GWEN IFILL: Professor Glenn Cohen of Harvard Law School, thank you so much.

    I. GLENN COHEN: Thank you for having me.

    The post FDA plans to end prohibition on blood donation by gay men, with conditions appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a desert that’s being overrun by rushing water.

    Jeffrey Brown looks at the effort to preserve ancient archaeological sites in Northern Peru against the destructive power of El Nino. It’s part of his ongoing series Culture at Risk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Imagine how many injections are required for this huge area. But the work is going on. After climatologists predicted a strong El Nino for this winter and spring, the government for the first time put in place a plan at a cost of $8 million, hiring around 1,000 workers.

    One wheelbarrow at a time — heavy equipment isn’t allowed here — they’re transporting sand to shore up walls, to prevent water from accumulating and breaking through. They’re also building roofs for murals and especially vulnerable areas and laying extensive drainage systems.

    Outside the site itself, riverbanks are being fortified and paths cleared for water to flow.

    FRANCISCO CHAVEZ, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute: My mother told me a story about when we lived in Northern Peru where the water was up to our knees in our house.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Peruvian-born Francisco Chavez would grow up to study El Nino patterns as an oceanographer now at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.

    We met in Lima, where he told me what is and still isn’t understood about the phenomenon.

    FRANCISCO CHAVEZ: We understand the coupling between what happens a long way away from here, like in the Western Pacific, and what happens in Peru. So, we have come a long way.

    At the same time, we’re still at the point where it’s very difficult for us to predict the timing and the magnitude of these events.

    JEFFREY BROWN: El Ninos occur on average every five years, when the typically cool surface temperatures of the equatorial Pacific Ocean warm, altering weather patterns in Peru and other parts of the world, including in the U.S.

    They have happened for centuries. The Chimu in Chan Chan certainly experienced them. The Spanish name in fact came from Peruvian fisherman, who in the northern port of Huanchaco still use traditional reed boats like this. Warmer waters tend to come around Christmas, hence the association with El Nino, the baby Jesus.

    A definitive link with climate change remains elusive, but Francisco Chavez say scientists are now seeing a new phenomenon.

    FRANCISCO CHAVEZ: What we think we can say is that the changes that we’re seeing recently are of larger amplitude in both directions. And so if that pattern continues, then, over the next 15 to 20 years, we will see a number of very large El Ninos.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Not far Chan Chan, against a dusty mountain backdrop, another dramatic site, Huaca de la Luna, the Temple of the Moon.

    Nestled at the base of Cerro Blanco, the White Mountain, this was a huge sacred complex of the Moche people, who preceded the Chimu from about 100 to 800 A.D. On an exterior wall, level upon level of elaborately sculpted and patients murals of mythic gods, humans and animals, including from the nearby ocean.

    Ricardo Morales is co-director of the site and one of Peru’s leading conservators.

    RICARDO MORALES, Huaca de la Luna (through interpreter): They’re not just pictures and decorations. They’re forms of communication that tell a story through an image.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But here, too, the faces of gods washed away is evidence of damage from previous El Ninos. And here, too, the preservation work goes on, as workers use a local species of cane to build roofs to divert the coming rains and uncover new murals and treat them with protective chemicals.

    Morales told us that modern conservators can actually learn from the ancients, who after all had themselves faced El Nino devastation. Here, it’s new technology mixed with the old.

    RICARDO MORALES (through interpreter): El Nino teaches us there are types of adobe. The brown type most resistant to rains. So we have developed a prototype, so we now have a more rain-resistant adobe that we’re using to protect the sites and that people are now using in their homes.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The Moche knew how to deal with El Nino and you’re learning from them.

    RICARDO MORALES (through interpreter): Yes.


    RICARDO MORALES (through interpreter): All these structures are knowledge. We take advantage of ancient knowledge and these improve techniques using modern construction.

    JEFFREY BROWN: On the colorful main square of the nearby city of Trujillo, another kind of construction was under way, as the Star of Bethlehem and Christmas decorations went up to celebrate El Nino himself.

    As Christmas approached, this area may be getting a break. The latest forecast have downgraded the severity of the imminent El Nino. But everyone told us there’s really no way to know for sure. All they can do is prepare and perhaps pray to the gods of old.

    From Northern Peru, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

    The post Peru shields an ancient city of sand from strong storms appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Sony Pictures logo and image of The Interview MONITOR

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    GWEN IFILL: So, when President Obama laid blame for the Sony hack squarely at North Korea’s door, some cyber-security experts were skeptical, and remain so.

    The debate continues in journals, blogs and here tonight, with two experts from cyber-security companies who have tracked breaches around the world. Marc Rogers is principal security researcher at CloudFlare, and joining us again, Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and chief technology officer at CrowdStrike.

    Dmitri Alperovitch, you came on the program last week and you made the case that the president was correct and that the FBI was correct and this was definitely, definitely North Korea. Why so certain? Remind people, why are we so certain of that?

    DMITRI ALPEROVITCH, CrowdStrike: Well, I can’t speak for the FBI or U.S. government, who are very certain on this, but I can speak for CrowdStrike, who has done independent analysis of this attack.

    And we have tracked it back to a group that has been active since 2006, primarily South Korea, military networks in South Korea, U.S. Forces Korea, the U.S. military installations, they are looking for specific information related to military planning, exercises on the peninsula, things that would be of natural concern and importance to North Korea.

    We have also seen them engage in destructive attacks just like the Sony attacks, including the use of some of the same infrastructure. Some of the I.P. addresses that were used in the attack on Sony were also used in some of the past attacks. And parts of the malware, the malicious code that was used at Sony, has been shared across some of the previous attacks.

    So we have seen them attack South Korea destructively in 2009, 2011, 2013, so we have a tremendous amount of visibility into this group.

    GWEN IFILL: Marc Rogers, that sounds pretty persuasive. What’s your problem with that?

    MARC ROGERS, CloudFlare: The biggest problem with this is, a lot of this information is based on evidence that isn’t accessible to a lot of folks.

    So if you look at the evidence that the FBI passed out in its notice, on its own, it’s largely speculative and it’s not backed up by any really solid evidence. There are hints, however, that there may be things like signals intelligence and other information that they can’t disclose for national security purposes.

    Unfortunately, without being able to access that information, there’s no way for other security experts to really validate that. My colleague Dmitri from CrowdStrike has access to channels a lot of other folks don’t have, so, to me, it’s certainly interesting to hear the stuff that he’s talking about.

    But until I see some tangible stuff myself, things more than just correlations between certain pieces of malware, I’m going to remain skeptical.

    GWEN IFILL: Let’s break it down a little bit, Dmitri Alperovitch.

    Let’s talk just about the I.P. address issue, in which the American government is making the case that we’re familiar with these I.P. addresses, that they have been used in other hacks. Is that part of the evidence you’re talking about?

    DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: Well, what they’re actually saying is something a little bit different.

    There were certainly I.P. addresses that were used in the attack directly on Sony. But what the FBI has said is that they have observed, presumably through signals intelligence, that those machines were actually contacting North Korean infrastructure on the back end.

    So, it wasn’t the North Koreans reaching out directly into Sony. They were going through proxies, but they, through their intelligence, were able to observe the connections between those proxies and the North Korean infrastructure that was used in past attacks.

    GWEN IFILL: Now, proxies, that is different from saying that North Korea itself is involved in these hacks. It’s saying somebody else was doing it on their behalf?

    DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: By proxies, I mean the machines themselves, not necessarily the people. And this is who these attacks typically occur. You don’t attack directly from a country. You go through servers in Germany or servers in Thailand, so that you can obfuscate the attribution.

    GWEN IFILL: How about that, Marc Rogers? Does that sound reasonable to you, that maybe it’s not the North Korean government as a state actor, but the North Korean government going through proxies?

    MARC ROGERS: It’s certainly plausible.

    And I have said all along you can’t rule out North Korea as being behind this, but what we need is evidence that really ties them to it. The proxies that Dmitri mentioned are fairly well known. If you look up the I.P. addresses using I.P. reputation services online, you will see that they have involved in massive online spamming campaigns and in other malware campaigns.

    They’re being used by other cyber-criminals, so it’s no surprise to see that someone else is using those, potentially even the North Koreans. But, again, it means it’s not so conclusive to me. To say that there are bad guys are in that neighborhood doesn’t tell me who the bad guys are.

    GWEN IFILL: But is this something that you would know? As you suggested, maybe the federal government, the FBI has access to information that backs this up that you wouldn’t have?

    MARC ROGERS: That’s entirely possible, but it’s very difficult to be swayed by an argument where somebody says, we have absolute proof because we have signals intelligence that tells you — tells us this is it, but we can’t you about it.

    When it comes to laying blame at a foreign government, we have to be pretty careful. I’m no fan of the North Korean regime. And, to be honest, if they are responsible, I hope this gets hung around their neck. But I think we have to make sure that we have absolute solid evidence. And I believe the evidence should be dealt with in a transparent way as possible.

    And, obviously, you don’t want the NSA to destroy any leaks or sources that they use. But, at the same time, we would give a certain amount of evidence before convicting a person of a crime. Why doesn’t a country deserve the same level of evidence?

    GWEN IFILL: Dmitri?

    DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: If I can add, one of the pieces of evidence we can’t ignore here is the statements from North Korea themselves.

    They came out in the summer, long before the movie was released, saying that the release of this movie would be an act of war.

    I think we should take them at their word. And in the past, when they have made such inflammatory statements, they have often followed up. They have sunk South Korean ships. They have massacred American servicemen back in the ’70s on the DMZ with axes. They do pretty outrageous things.

    And one of the things that is really interesting here is, when they hacked into Sony and they released a bunch of information, stolen e-mails, they also released pre-released movies like “Annie” and “Fury.”  The one movie they didn’t release was “The Interview.”

    GWEN IFILL: Well, but here’s an interesting point that Marc Rogers just made is, which is that, if you’re going to make such a serious allegation, if you’re going to lay that kind of allegation at the — right at the door of an enemy government, of a hostile government, shouldn’t there be more revealed about why we know that?

    DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: Well, I think they revealed some things. And certainly security companies like ours have revealed other information.

    My guess is that they’re biding their time, that there can come a point where they will reveal more. They don’t feel like they need to at the moment.

    GWEN IFILL: Marc Rogers, I want to ask you about a little bit another point that Dmitri Alperovitch just made, which is that some of these movies that were released online and some weren’t and the threats were made. Is it possible that the knowledge that was on display here was actually something that came internally from someone within Sony?

    MARC ROGERS: Again, you can’t rule that out either.

    If you look at the way the malware was distributed throughout the network, how many machines it took down, how they were able to set up the edge of Sony’s network to distribute Sony’s own private data later on, when they turned some of their edge servers into BitTorrent servers, a P2P file-sharing system, that required a certain level of access.

    Now, that access could have come from attackers who had been sitting in that network for many, many months. But that access could also have just as easily — perhaps even easier — have come from somebody inside it.

    And when Dmitri says that the one film that didn’t get released was this one, we don’t know that. We don’t know how many films Sony is working on. So we don’t actually know how many films didn’t get released. And, also, with respect to the messages that North Korea makes, having spent four and a bit years living in South Korea myself, I’ll tell you, North Korea makes these kinds of threats all the time.

    They’re telling us constantly that they’re going to obliterate us. If you do this, we will obliterate you. I think the number of their threats that have actually come true is actually quite the lower percentage, rather than the higher percentage.

    And that’s not to dismiss some of the atrocities that they have committed, which are absolutely terrible.

    GWEN IFILL: Well, since we’re talking about threats, we now see that this film is going to be in limited release probably later this week.

    Do we — if I were running the independent theater in Austin, Texas, that’s going to begin showing this film at midnight on Christmas Day, should I be afraid? Are they taking a risk at this point?

    DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: Well, Gwen, you can be absolutely certain that the companies that are involved in the distribution of this movie are taking this threat very seriously and working with companies like CrowdStrike to make sure that they’re doing threat assessments in advance, because a second wave of attack may very well come and they need to be prepared.

    GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Marc Rogers?

    MARC ROGERS: I think it’s — I think it’s highly unlikely that a cinema in Texas is going to face much threat from a regime or from a group of hackers.

    There is — yes, there is some stuff that these guys could do, but I think it’s unlikely. It’s not something that’s been seen before. And when those threats start saying that they’re going to create 9/11 within a cinema, I — my skepticism rating goes all the way through the roof.


    DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: And I actually agree with Marc on the physical threat. I don’t think that’s realistic. But on a cyber perspective, I think it’s quite real.


    Marc Rogers of CloudFlare and Dmitri Alperovitch of CrowdStrike, thank you both very much.


    MARC ROGERS: Thank you very much.

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    GWEN IFILL: Sony Pictures Entertainment revived plans today to release its comedy about a plot to kill North Korea’s leader. It was the latest twist in a saga that’s played out in Hollywood, Pyongyang and Washington.

    ACTRESS: You are entering into the most dangerous country on Earth.

    GWEN IFILL: Today’s announcement means “The Interview” will begin showing Christmas Day, the original release date, at potentially hundreds of independent theaters around the country.

    In a statement, the studio’s CEO, Michael Lynton, said Sony had always intended to release it: “While we hope this is only the first step of the film’s release, we are proud to make it available to the public and to have stood up to those who attempted to suppress free speech.”

    Sony yanked the film last week, after major theater chains refused to screen it, in the face of threatened violence by a hackers group. The same group had already carried out a massive hacking of Sony’s computer system.

    On Friday, President Obama and the FBI formally blamed North Korea.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will respond proportionally, and we will respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.

    GWEN IFILL: But the president today applauded Sony’s latest move. Yesterday, North Korea was hit by an Internet shutdown that continued sporadically today.

    But the State Department refused to confirm or deny any U.S. role in the outage.

    MARIE HARF, State Department: I don’t have anything new to share with you today about North Korea. The president has spoken to what our potential response is, separate and apart from what we have seen over the last 24 hours might be. And I leave it to the North Koreans to talk about if their Internet was up, if it wasn’t and why.

    GWEN IFILL: Almost all of North Korea’s Web links pass through China, but Beijing flatly denied it had any role in the cyber-attack.

    So, when President Obama laid blame for the Sony hack squarely at North Korea’s door, some cyber-security experts were skeptical, and remain so.

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    Photo by Getty Images

    Photo by Getty Images

    The Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday that it would replace its lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men that has been in effect since 1983 with a one-year deferral policy.

    Gay and bisexual men may now donate blood if they haven’t had sexual relations with other men for a year.

    The FDA said in a statement that it will “recommend a change to the blood donor deferral period for men who have sex with men from indefinite deferral to one year since the last sexual contact.”

    The agency implemented the ban in 1983, in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. The Red Cross, responding to Tuesday’s announcement, called the lifetime ban “unwarranted” and supported the FDA’s position to move to a one-year deferral. The American Medical Association had said the FDA’s ban was “discriminatory and not based on sound science.”

    Although there had been resistance to easing restrictions on gay blood donations, the FDA said the policy change came about after it had “carefully examined and considered the available scientific evidence.”

    That evidence includes the fact that tests to detect HIV have greatly improved over the decades and that screenings can detect the virus in about 10 days. Or, how Dr. Barry Zingman told Men’s Health, “It takes a week or two to diagnose HIV, not a lifetime.”

    The FDA will issue a draft guidance for the change in 2015, followed by an opportunity for public comment.

    But LGBT advocates have already spoken up, saying that while the announcement was long overdue, it represents only a modest step toward a completely non-discriminatory law.

    “Ultimately, it’s not enough,” said Ryan James Yezak, founder of the National Gay Blood Drive. “The reason people are so frustrated is that this is the announcement after 31 years, and this is all that’s being done.”

    “But I think the frustration is reactionary,” Yezak said, adding that it was important to note that the process is incredibly complicated and time-consuming.

    “When you get into it and see exactly how this process works, we’re satisfied for the moment,” he said.

    Yezak, along with other advocates, have long argued that these half measures perpetuate the stigma of the gay man as a risk to the blood supply.

    “Science supports something further, and those who have been paying attention to this for a while know that a time-based deferral should be based on risk and applied to everyone who is sexually active, not just gay and bisexual men.”

    I. Glenn Cohen, a law professor at Harvard University, who specializes in medical ethics, said to look to our Western peers for guidance.

    “I think the best evidence on this question is the experience of our peer countries and none have seen increase of infection in blood supply after changing their policies from a lifetime ban,” he said. “On the downside, most sexually active gay men have had sex with a man in the last year, so the new guidelines are still to conservative, but it’s still a step in the right direction.”

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

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

    Nariman Behravesh, thank you very much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we have also been reporting regularly for some time, probably all this year, that, even though we’re starting to see some good economic statistics out there, most people aren’t feeling it, and that that’s, in large part, due to the fact wages have been stagnant. What do you see on the pay front?

    NARIMAN BEHRAVESH: You’re absolutely right.

    Certainly, the employment recovery has been there, but the wage recovery has not — and I think that — until recently, I should say. The most recent numbers, the November numbers, for example, on wages, did show an upward movement.

    The income data that came out today suggested decent growth in terms of wages and salaries. So we may actually be seeing the beginnings of a recovery on the wage front. But, as you say, the fact that that hasn’t, until just very recently, recovered makes people feel like, what recovery?

    They’re not seeing it in any meaningful way in terms of their salaries and what they’re taking home.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there an explanation for why wages are starting to go up?

    NARIMAN BEHRAVESH: Well, there’s been a variety of explanations as to what has been going on and why that’s changing now.

    And certainly one of them is that, until very recently, there’s been a lot of slack, if you will, in the labor market, and that’s beginning to disappear, in the sense that the labor market is beginning to tighten. And that inevitably results in higher wage growth, and I think we’re in the early stages of that here in 2014, and I suspect we will see more wage growth in 2015, which is good for the economy.

    It means the consumers will have more to spend and the recovery will be sustained for a while longer.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So what is the outlook for 2015? What are you seeing?

    NARIMAN BEHRAVESH: Well, the way to say it is that the underlying growth rate of the U.S. economy right now is around 3 percent. You know, we will get quarters of 5 percent, we may get quarters a little less than that, but the average is going to come out around 3 percent, which is very solid.

    So that’s the kind of number we’re seeing for 2015. Again, quarter by quarter, it’s going to bump up and down. It will depend on the weather maybe, it will depend on some special factors, but solid 3 percent average in 2015.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And you and other folks who watch this feel confident about that?

    NARIMAN BEHRAVESH: Well, anything can happen, obviously.

    There’s the unknown unknowns, if you want to say it that way, or the — you know, the stuff that could happen that you can’t even begin to predict. But if we don’t get a bad shock, if you will, then certainly I think it’s easily going to be that 3 percent.

    And all the foundations of growth are there, especially in terms of consumer spending and capital spending. So, again, barring some horrible shock, yes, I think we’re pretty confident we will see that 3 percent.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the only other question I have, Nariman Behravesh, is, how long is this going to last?

    NARIMAN BEHRAVESH: At least a couple of years, in the sense that inflation is not a problem, and usually that leads to some, you know, aggressive tightening by the Federal Reserve, which we don’t see for the next couple of years.

    So I think 3 percent plus or minus growth through 2016, I think, is quite achievable.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Nariman Behravesh, it’s great to have good news for a change. Thank you.


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    GWEN IFILL: It turns out the summer surge of economic growth was even stronger than first thought. Revised figures today showed the best performance since 2003. The government said the economy expanded at an annual rate of 5 percent from July through September. That was even better than the 4.6 percent showing during the spring months.

    We will take a closer look at what’s behind those numbers in just a few minutes, after the news summary.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Wall Street took the economic data as a reason to keep buying. The Dow Jones industrial average closed above 18,000 for the first time, with a gain of 64 points. The S&P 500 added three to finish at 2,082. The Nasdaq fell 16 points, due to a drop in the biotechnology sector, to close at 4,765.

    GWEN IFILL: Protesters in New York plan to go ahead tonight with demonstrations against police use of force. They have rejected Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plea to suspend protests out of respect for the families of two murdered police officers. Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were killed Saturday by a gunman who later took his own life. De Blasio and his wife laid flowers today at an impromptu memorial to the policemen.

    The mayor also led a moment of silence at the exact time of the shooting, and he appealed for understanding.

    MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO, New York: We have to put divisions of the past behind us. They were left to all of us in this generation and we have to overcome them. We need to protect and respect our police, just as our police protect and respect our communities. We can strike that balance. We must.

    GWEN IFILL: New York’s police commissioner said today it’s unfortunate that protest organizers are ignoring the mayor’s call to suspend their activities.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The Obama administration is touting new enrollment numbers for the federally run health insurance site. Officials reported today that nearly 6.4 million Americans have signed up. Of those, 1.9 million are new customers. The rest were automatically re-enrolled.

    GWEN IFILL: New York Congressman Michael Grimm pleaded guilty today in a federal tax evasion case. The Staten Island Republican was accused of hiding more than $1 million in sales and wages at a health food restaurant.

    He entered a guilty plea to a single count of aiding in filing a false tax return. Last month, Grimm won reelection to a third term. He wouldn’t say today if he will resign.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: House Republicans have charged for more than a year that the Internal Revenue Service improperly targeted conservative groups for scrutiny. But an official report today from the House Oversight Committee found no evidence that the White House was involved. Committee Democrats say the report cherry-picked facts to fit a political narrative.

    GWEN IFILL: In Ukraine, Parliament moved today to abandon the country’s nonaligned status, possibly leading to eventual NATO membership. The proposal passed with an overwhelming vote of 303-9. Supporters insisted that Ukraine pivot toward the West in its confrontation with Russia.

    OLEH LYASHKO, Ukrainian Parliament Member (through interpreter): We cannot afford the luxury to have nonaligned status. We have no time and no money to waste and need urgently to build the Ukrainian army in order to defend our homeland. We need to become part of the collective system of defense, which is NATO. Ukraine’s place is in Europe. Ukraine’s place is in NATO.

    GWEN IFILL: Russia called the move counterproductive, and said it will only worsen relations between Moscow and Kiev.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s word that hundreds of Libyans have died in the fighting that’s gripped their country since last August. The United Nations warned today of a humanitarian crisis. It said at least 120,000 people have fled their homes. At the same time, a U.N. envoy said rival factions have agreed to hold new peace talks next month.

    GWEN IFILL: Amnesty International accused Islamic State fighters today of forcing hundreds of Iraqi women and girls into sexual slavery. The victims belonged to the Yazidi religious minority. They were captured in August when the militants overran the town of Sinjar near the Syrian border. Amnesty says girls as young as 10 faced torture, rape and forced marriages.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: An Islamic State ally blamed for beheading a French hiker in Algeria has been killed. The Algerian military announced today that troops ambushed and killed Abdelmalek Gouri last night after a three-month manhunt. He had been a top al-Qaida commander before forming his own group.

    GWEN IFILL: 2014 was another deadly year for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 60 reporters, photographers and others were killed, nearly a third of them in Syria. The total is down from 70 last year, but, all told, the past three years are the deadliest on record for news professionals.


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    Be honest. How many of your relatives have emailed you the C-SPAN clip of the exasperated mother calling in to berate her politically-divided pundit sons for their incessant bickering? If the answer is more than one, you might benefit from a strategy for keeping the peace with family members on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

    Our Capitol Hill correspondent Quinn Bowman asked some Washington locals to share their strategies for avoiding political arguments with loved ones during the holidays. Watch their answers in the player above. And for more detailed instructions on how to tiptoe around specific issues and topics, check out the 2014 Shields and Brooks Guide to Holiday Civility, the eleventh gift in our 12 Days of NewsHour.

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    Photo by Flickr user wiremoon.

    A retiree may want to drop Medicare Part B if he or she has the option of being covered under a new spouse’s employer group health insurance. Photo by Flickr user wiremoon.

    Editor’s Note: Journalist Philip Moeller, who writes widely on health and retirement, is here to provide the Medicare answers you need in “Ask Phil, the Medicare Maven.” Send your questions to Phil.

    Medicare rules and private insurance plans can affect people differently depending on where they live. To make sure the answers here are as accurate as possible, Phil is working with the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP). It is funded by the government but is otherwise independent and trains volunteers to provide consumer Medicare counseling in state and local offices around the country.

    Moeller is a research fellow at the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College and co-author of “How to Live to 100.” Follow him on Twitter @PhilMoeller or e-mail him at medicarephil@gmail.com.

    Elizabeth – Wash.: My husband and I married in July. I am 58 and have health insurance through my employer. He is 67 and has Medicare (A, B and D).

    My question: Is it possible for us to drop his Medicare coverage and enroll him as my spouse through my plan? Once one has signed up for Medicare, is it possible for him to go off it and then resume if after I retire? Or is signing up for Medicare a “once and for all” type decision? My employer coverage is very good so it would definitely be cheaper to sign him up on my plan, but I don’t know if it’s possible to do so at this point. Any advice you can give will be greatly appreciated.

    Phil Moeller: What a great question! It seems like most of us are going to need to work years if not decades beyond 65. Depressing as this may be, employer-provided health insurance usually costs much less than Medicare and is worth hanging onto.

    Of course, the Affordable Care Act could end up driving lots of employees onto state insurance exchanges if their employers find that a better option than continuing to provide health insurance. And employer health coverage would be threatened if Congress ever removes or materially reduces the tax deduction for premiums tied to employer-provided health insurance. But enough depressing thoughts, especially during the holiday season. Feliz Navidad!

    If someone is actively employed and their spouse can be covered under their employer group health insurance, he or she could drop Medicare Part B coverage and not have to pay the monthly Part B premium. There will be no penalty when the spouse later wants to re-enroll in Part B.

    However, dropping Part A may be a problem. The receipt of Social Security benefits automatically triggers enrollment in Part A. This doesn’t cost anything (assuming at least one spouse has worked and paid Social Security payroll taxes for 40 quarters). But, as explained in an earlier Ask Phil rant, Part A invalidates participation in a health savings account (HSA). So, if your employer coverage is through a high deductible health plan with an HSA, you will want to talk to your benefits staff about how this will affect you.

    Beyond dropping Part B, your husband also could drop Part D coverage if the drug coverage included in your employer plan is “creditable.” That’s an important code word in Medicare, meaning that the coverage provided is as good as or better than Medicare drug coverage. Your employer also should provide this information, but if the plan is as good as you say, this shouldn’t be an issue.

    And, because there is no simple answer in Medicare, one of our State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) counselors warns that your husband’s future access to a Medigap policy – Medicare supplement insurance – may be at risk if he leaves Medicare and participates in your plan.

    Medicare Beneficiaries have an Open Enrollment Period that begins when they enroll in part B and lasts for six months. During this period, they can purchase any Medigap policy available in their state. And they cannot be denied or charged more because of a pre-existing condition or health history. This guaranteed access to Medigap is, however, a one-time deal. So when your husband re-enrolls in Medicare, it’s possible his health at that time could affect the availability and price of a Medigap policy.

    When you no longer have employer-provided coverage, both you and your husband will have an eight-month window, or special enrollment period, to get Medicare. However, his window for Part D coverage will be only 63 days. Because Part D coverage should be part of an overall Medicare insurance program, he probably should consider his window for all of Medicare to be 63 days, not eight months.

    Finally, to drop Medicare coverages, SHIP notes, Social Security will require two documents to be signed and sent in showing the person has obtained employer coverage (forms CMS — 40B, and CMS – L564). Further information is available from the Washington SHIBA (Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Assistance) at 800-562-6900.

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    Photo by Getty Images.

    Photo by Getty Images.

    Sony Pictures’ controversial comedy, “The Interview” will now be available to rent or buy online beginning today, the studio announced.

    The movie is set to be released across several digital platforms, including YouTube, Google Play, Microsoft’s Xbox Video and on Sony’s website at 1 p.m. EST Wednesday. It will cost $5.99 to stream “The Interview” or $14.99 to purchase it. The public now has the option to view the movie in theaters or via video on demand on the original release date, which Sony previously had scrapped altogether.

    “It has always been Sony’s intention to have a national platform on which to release this film,” said Sony Pictures chair and CEO Michael Lynton in a statement.

    “We never stopped pursuing as wide a release as possible for ‘The Interview.’ It was essential for our studio to release this movie, especially given the assault upon our business and our employees by those who wanted to stop free speech. We chose the path of digital distribution first so as to reach as many people as possible on opening day, and we continue to seek other partners and platforms to further expand the release.”

    The plot of “The Interview,” involves the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and it has been at the center of the ongoing fallout from a cyberattack against Sony Pictures. The source of the attack, once thought to be caused by hackers in North Korea, is now being challenged by cybersecurity experts.

    Marc Rogers, principal security researcher at CloudFlare, told the NewsHour on Tuesday’s broadcast that there wasn’t enough tangible evidence to claim that North Korea was responsible for the hack.

    “[I]f you look at the evidence that the FBI passed out in its notice, on its own, it’s largely speculative and it’s not backed up by any really solid evidence,” he said.

    “There are hints, however, that there may be things like signals intelligence and other information that they can’t disclose for national security purposes. Unfortunately, without being able to access that information, there’s no way for other security experts to really validate that,” Rogers added.

    The studio’s decision to cancel the movie’s release amid mounting threats from the hackers even prompted a response from the president.

    “Sony is a corporation. It suffered significant damage. There were threats against its employees. I am sympathetic to the concerns that they faced,” President Barack Obama said. “Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake.”

    Maybe now the president will host a screening of “The Interview” — starring Seth Rogen and “James Flacco” — in the White House family theater.

    The post Sony releases ‘The Interview’ across several digital platforms appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A U.S. Border Patrol agent, seen through an opening in a fence, keeps watch on the 'border fence' near the San Ysidro port of entry along the US-Mexico border near San Diego, California. Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

    A U.S. Border Patrol agent, seen through an opening in a fence, keeps watch on the ‘border fence’ near the San Ysidro port of entry along the US-Mexico border near San Diego, California. Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

    WASHINGTON — The Homeland Security Department is experimenting with a new way to track immigrant families caught crossing the border illegally and then released into the U.S.: GPS-enabled ankle bracelets.

    Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier this month launched a program to give GPS devices to some parents caught crossing the Mexican border illegally with their children in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. They were given the devices after being released from custody with notices to report back to immigration officials, according to a confidential ICE document obtained by The Associated Press.

    In September, the Homeland Security Department confided to a group of immigrant advocates during a confidential meeting that about 70 percent of immigrants traveling as families failed to report back to ICE as ordered after they were released at the border. The AP obtained an audio recording of the meeting and interviewed participants. The ICE official on the recording was not identified.

    The high no-show rate and a lack of jail space for immigrant family members prompted the Obama administration to open a temporary family jail at the Border Patrol’s training academy in rural New Mexico and convert a men’s jail in Texas to one that could house families. Immigration advocates have been critical of the Obama administration for jailing families — mostly mothers with young children — and for poor conditions in the jails.

    The ICE official told advocates during that September meeting that the agency was looking for alternatives to jailing families and welcomed suggestions for how to get more immigrants to report back to ICE.

    ICE said this week that the pilot program, known as “RGV 250,” started Dec. 1 and will eventually track 250 “heads of household” caught traveling with their families in the Rio Grande Valley and released into the interior of the U.S. Once those immigrants arrive and report as ordered, ICE may remove the tracking device.

    The pilot program will track 250 “heads of household” caught traveling with their families in the Rio Grande Valley and released into the interior of the U.S. Once those immigrants arrive and report as ordered, ICE may remove the tracking device. The document says the GPS devices will allow ICE to track the rate of immigrants reporting back to the agency as ordered and the average length of time it takes those people to report. If the program proves successful in getting immigrants to report back to ICE, it may be expanded.

    An ICE spokeswoman, Jennifer Elzea, said immigrants are screened on a case-by-case basis to decide who should be detained or released. Those who don’t pose a threat to public safety are considered for monitoring programs such as this one, she said.

    During the 2014 budget year that ended in September, Border Patrol agents arrested more than 68,000 immigrants traveling as families along the Mexican border. More than 61,000 of those people were from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala and could not be sent home immediately. The majority of those people were released with orders to report back to ICE and enroll in a monitoring program called Alternatives to Detention, which allows the government to keep tabs on immigrants while their cases make their way through immigration court. The process can take several years.

    More than 429,000 cases are pending in federal immigration court. Thousands of those immigrants are enrolled in the ICE reporting program, which varies from reporting periodically via telephone to being outfitted with a GPS tracking device. According to the ICE document, ICE will be able to monitor about 29,000 immigrants with GPS devices in the coming year.

    The Alternatives to Detention Program is a cheaper alternative to jailing immigrants. ICE said the RGV 250 reporting program will cost about $3.50 a day per immigrant after a $19.50 enrollment fee while other reporting programs cost about $4.28 a day. ICE spends roughly $119 a day to jail an immigrant.

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    Tourists caught on by the first of six tsunami rolling towards Hat Rai Lay Beach, near Krabi in southern Thailand on December 26, 2004. The tsunami followed a 9.2-Richter submarine earthquake, which left 228,429 people dead and missing in the region.  Photo by AFP/Getty Images

    Tourists caught by the first of six tsunami rolling towards Hat Rai Lay Beach, near Krabi in southern Thailand on December 26, 2004. The tsunami followed a 9.2-Richter submarine earthquake, which left nearly 230,000 people dead and missing in the region. The New York Times later reported that everyone pictured in this photo is believed to have survived. Photo by AFP/Getty Images

    It was 3:00 p.m. on Christmas day, 2004 when Stuart Weinstein’s pager buzzed in the operations room at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. Seismic waves from an earthquake off the coast of northern Sumatra had activated a seismometer in Australia. Initial readings said magnitude 8.0.

    His colleague Barry Hirshorn, a geophysicist, rushed into the control room. His pager had gone off too. Together, they scrambled to locate the epicenter of the quake. In the Indian Ocean, it was early morning, December 26.

    “We were flying blind in the sense that we could not determine if a tsunami had been generated,” said Weinstein the center’s assistant director.

    Fifteen minutes later, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued its first bulletin. There had been an earthquake, but there was no tsunami threat to the Pacific Basin, where the center is based, it read. When an updated reading showed the magnitude at 8.5, they sent out a second bulletin. There is a possibility of a tsunami near the epicenter, this one said.

    The first bulletin sent out from the ..

    The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued its first bulletin early on Dec. 26, 2004.

    They were missing important information. With no real-time sea level data, they had no way of knowing that the violent movement of tectonic plates — specifically, the India plate sliding underneath the Burma plate – had displaced enormous amounts of water, sending out shock waves and triggering what would become a devastating tsunami.

    Some four hours later, the tsunami waves had crashed over Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, destroying buildings, uprooting trees and claiming an estimated 230,000 lives. News of the tsunami reached Weinstein, and soon after, he received an email from Harvard seismologists, upgrading the earthquake’s magnitude again to an 8.9. That was when he realized the rest of the Indian Ocean was in danger.

    “Those two pieces of information together told us that a basin-wide destructive tsunami was in progress across the Indian Ocean,” Weinstein said.

    Tsunami science was a small field in 2004, with only a hundred or so experts around the world, said Eddie Bernard, who was the director of the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory at the time. NOAA had established the tsunami warning center for the Pacific Basin, but there was no warning system for Indonesia, Thailand, the Maldives and Sri Lanka in 2004.

    “The speed of the warning wasn’t even the issue,” Bernard said. “There was nobody on the other end of the line.”


    Some 2,000 miles from Weinstein at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington, Vasily Titov was scouring through news reports and tide gauge stations for any information about the waves, furiously trying to build a model to predict the tsunami’s path and flooding potential. As the night wore on, news reports slowed as the floods knocked out communication from afflicted areas. He posted the model on the Internet as the waves raced toward Africa, flying across the Indian Ocean at a speed of 500 miles an hour.

    “It was surreal on many levels,” Titov, now the director of tsunami research at NOAA, said. “Instruments for tsunami measuring were almost nonexistent…I was frantically putting models together by hand.”

    The news had also reached Costas Synolakis, director of the University of Southern California Tsunami Research Center. He was in Greece, preparing for his wedding just four days away. Wedding planning screeched to a halt as he scrambled to coordinate survey teams to the affected areas.

    As the death tolls rose, Synolakis was inundated with photos from strangers, asking him if he could please find their loved ones in Thailand and Sri Lanka. He canceled his honeymoon.

    He had surveyed every tsunami disaster since 1992, but this was unreal. “It is the worst nightmare coming true…there was no warning. It was worse than what we thought possible,” he said.

    Back in Hawaii, seven hours after the earthquake hit, Weinstein was in contact with the U.S. embassies in East Africa, telling them to evacuate. But by the time the conference call took place, the waves were already hitting Madagascar.


    When he got home, Weinstein stared at the ceiling, contemplating what had just happened and their failure to release a warning in time. Three weeks later, the magnitude was upgraded once more — this time to a 9.2.

    “Over the hours and days that passed I remember the casualty count going from the hundreds to the thousands, to the tens of thousands, to the hundreds of thousands,” Weinstein said. “I was physically drained. I was mentally exhausted. I was emotionally drained. I was hoping I would never have to live through and visit something like this. For a long time, not a day went by that I didn’t think about what transpired that day.”

    It was the deadliest tsunami in recorded history. Thousands of miles away, the disaster shook scientists to their core. But the catastrophic loss of life changed tsunami science forever, said Harry Yeh, professor of civil engineering at Oregon State University.

    “This was the event,” he said. “It was a turning point.”

    The disaster drew global political attention and fueled investment in tsunami research. Bernard’s 2004 team at PMEL consisted of just four scientists focusing on tsunami forecasting. At the time, scientists estimated a tsunami’s strength by the magnitude of the earthquake.

    “We had no idea how much energy was in a tsunami,” Bernard said. “No one knew how energy from an earthquake got into the water column. It turns out the ‘bigger earthquake, bigger tsunami’ idea doesn’t hold up.”

    At the time, having an accurate tsunami warning system was a dream for Bernard, Synolakis and Titov. For the past ten years, PMEL had been developing buoys that would deliver information about rapid changes in sea level in real time. Unlike forecasting major storms, tsunamis require loads of data to model correctly and it is always a race against time, Titov said.

    “You have literally seconds in tsunami time. Tsunami models are simpler than atmospheric science models, but you have to run them in seconds,” he said. “You have to nail it right away otherwise it can be harmful.”

    NOAA deploys a buoy in the Pacific Ocean to send real-time sea level data to tsunami warning centers. Courtesy: NOAA

    NOAA deploys a buoy in the Pacific Ocean to send real-time sea level data to tsunami warning centers. Courtesy: NOAA

    By 2004, NOAA had deployed six DART buoys. (DART stands for Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis.) There were seven in the world, total, but only three were operational, according to NOAA.

    Today there are 60 in oceans worldwide. Each million-dollar buoy has contributed critical data to tsunami models, building on what Titov started late that Christmas night.

    “It’s not very often that you can write some equations on a piece of paper and see it saving lives,” he said.

    There have been 40 tsunamis since the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. And the difference between the tsunami warning system in 2004 and today is “night and day,” Bernard said. Real-time models run in minutes and have a 70 to 80 percent accuracy rate.

    “We are running these models — ten years ago it took hours and now they take seconds. Seconds!” Bernard said.

    By the time the Tohoku tsunami struck Japan in 2011, the system was already saving lives. In Banda Aceh in 2004, 90 percent of the people in impacted areas died, Synolakis said. In the heavily impacted areas of Japan in 2011, 10 percent of people died. And while the death toll from the Tohoku tsunami was still tragically high, the warning got more people to safety in time, Bernard said. It’s a sign of how much progress has been made in a decade, he concluded.

    “The science has progressed incredibly,” Synolakis agreed. “Not only can we issue warning but we can also estimate the flooding area. It’s entirely possible to do in real time, faster than the tsunami arrives.”

    There’s still more progress to be made. More data would further improve models, and as supercomputers advance, the models can run faster, Titov said. The warning system works well now for tsunamis that start far from coastlines. More information would improve models for tsunamis that start closer to shore, Synolakis said. And scientists still don’t know how energy from “stealth earthquakes,” which produce very little shaking, generate about 10 percent of tsunamis, Synolakis said. Another mystery to model: how the tsunami moves once it reaches land, he added.

    But the final mile is getting the word out fast enough, and to the right people, Synolakis said. Response times vary by locality. Sometimes this is a matter of education, helping the public and emergency management understand the danger with each warning. He recalls seeing people rush to the beach to watch tsunami waves as they rolled into Santa Monica, California in 2010 — something that could have been deadly.

    But it’s also a matter of communication. Cell phones and the Internet mean the warning can spread quickly, but throughout the Pacific and Indian Ocean there are villages without access to these. For example, when a tsunami hit Mentawai in October 2010, a warning flashed across television screens. But very few residents had electricity, much less a television set. That tsunami killed an estimated 400 people, according to the Jakarta Globe.

    “We still have a lot of work to do,” Synolakis said. “We can give out timely warnings. But we still have the last mile, and that’s the implementation of the warnings.”

    On the NewsHour tonight, special correspondent Kira Kay reports on Indonesia and the recovery of a community that was nearly wiped out by the 2004 tsunami.

    The post The day that changed tsunami science appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Alan Gross, alongside his wife Judy,speaks at a press conference after being released by Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014. Gross, an American contractor jailed on the communist-ruled island since 2009, was released amid signs of an imminent thaw in ties between the Cold War foes. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

    Alan Gross, alongside his wife Judy,speaks at a press conference after being released by Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014. Gross, an American contractor jailed on the communist-ruled island since 2009, was released amid signs of an imminent thaw in ties between the Cold War foes. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

    WASHINGTON — A former subcontractor freed last week after five years in a Cuban jail will receive $3.2 million from the federal government as part of a settlement with the Maryland-based company that employed him at the time of his arrest.

    Alan Gross, who was arrested in 2009, was freed Dec. 17 as the U.S. announced it would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than a half-century. He had been working there to set up Internet access without local censorship for its small Jewish community, but the Cuban government considered such work subversive and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

    The U.S. Agency for International Development said in a statement Tuesday that an agreement reached in principle last month with Development Alternatives Inc. of Bethesda, Maryland, had been made final this week. Although the statement did not specify the amount to be paid to Gross, a USAID spokesman said it was $3.2 million.

    The USAID said in the statement that the agreement would resolve claims pending before the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals for unanticipated claims under a cost-reimbursement contract, including claims related to Gross. The USAID spokesman, who was not authorized to be named and requested anonymity to discuss the terms of the agreement, said DAI had sought $7 million. DAI did not respond to an email seeking comment.

    The USAID said the settlement “avoids the cost, delay and risks of further proceedings, and does not constitute an admission of liability by either party.”

    Video by PBS NewsHour

    In November, a federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of a suit filed against the U.S. government by Gross and his wife. They had sued for negligence, arguing that the government sent him into a situation it knew was dangerous. Federal courts said the government was immune from any claim arising in a foreign country.

    The post U.S. to pay Alan Gross $3.2 million after 5 years in Cuban jail appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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  • 12/24/14--12:00: Two words: Clooney. Downton.
  • If there was never any Lord Grantham, Downton Abbey would be a very different place, according a spoof sketch created for the “Text Santa” charity event on British network ITV. There’s granny breaking the world record for ski jump, strip poker in the servant’s quarters and Lady Rose modeling a sexy silk camisole. (“This will be perfect for when I’m being flighty and spontaneous,” Lady Rose announces in her flightiest, most spontaneous voice.)

    But all this pales in comparison to selfies with Lady Grantham’s handsomer husband, George Clooney.

    Watch Downton Abbey’s holiday sketch here.

    The post Two words: Clooney. Downton. appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    US army soldiers wait for orders at the Forward Base Honaker Miracle at Watahpur District in Kunar province, Afghanistan on April 18, 2013. AFP PHOTO / MANJUNATH KIRAN

    US army soldiers wait for orders at the Forward Base Honaker Miracle at Watahpur District in Kunar province prior to a joint patrol led by the Afghan National Army (ANA) to Operating Post Rocky to conduct artillery fire training with the Kandak 6/1 of the ANA on April 18, 2013. AFP PHOTO / MANJUNATH KIRAN

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Army has prosecuted about 1,900 cases of desertion since 2001, despite tens of thousands of soldiers fleeing the service in the face of deadly combat, long and multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and strains on military families.

    The data reflects how rarely the military takes desertion cases to court. And it underscores the complexities of such cases as a top military commander reviews the investigation of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who left his Afghanistan post in 2009 and was captured and held by the Taliban for five years.

    More than 20,000 soldiers have been dropped from the rolls as deserters since 2006, Army data show. Totals for earlier years weren’t available, but likely include thousands more.

    In trial cases over the last 13 years, about half the soldiers pleaded guilty to deserting their post. Another 78 were tried and convicted of desertion.

    Desertion is relatively easy to prove, former Army lawyer Greg Rinckey said, but circumstances such as post-traumatic stress or family problems are also taken into account.

    “A lot of deserters suffered from PTSD or other mental health issues, or they were on their second or third deployment,” said Rinckey. Numbers spiked as soldiers began returning to the battlefront, sometimes for up to 15 month deployments.

    Some disappearances involved divorce issues or sick children, he said. In other cases, soldiers deserted bases in the United States. Many are of these are handled without going to court martial, with soldiers administratively punished or sometimes medically discharged.

    Soldiers who avoid deployment or leave posts in combat zones are more serious cases, particularly if the deserter is responsible for standing guard or protecting others in dangerous places.

    “Those are looked at very harshly,” said Rinckey, now a partner with the Washington law firm Tully Rinckey, “because commanders have a unit of other people who are looking at that soldier and saying, ‘I don’t want to go either,’ so obviously there has to be an example made.”

    Rinckey and other military officials say the Bergdahl case will be difficult. It’s now in the hands of Gen. Mark Milley, head of U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C.

    Even if Milley concludes Bergdahl deserted his post, he may consider mitigating circumstances while weighing whether to charge the soldier with desertion or being absent without leave (AWOL). He may also handle the matter administratively.

    Milley has broad discretion, Army spokesman Wayne Hall said. Beyond court martial, possible actions include counseling, a reprimand, forfeiture of pay, reduction in rank or involuntary separation from the military.

    Bergdahl could receive an honorable, general or other than honorable discharge. That decision can determine whether he gets as much as $300,000 in back pay and other benefits, including continued health care.

    Bergdahl deliberately walked away, an initial U.S. military investigation found in 2009 based on available evidence. Since his release, some who served with him have called him a deserter and said he should be held accountable for leaving his post. Others have said troops were put in danger, and even killed, as they searched for Bergdahl.

    The maximum punishment for desertion during a time of war is death. That outcome is highly unlikely. Only one service member, Pvt. Eddie Slovik, was executed for desertion since the Civil War. Slovik, 24, was shot by a firing squad in January 1945. His execution, approved by then-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, was kept secret by the Army until nine years later.

    Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special forces in Afghanistan in May in an exchange for five top Taliban commanders who were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

    The post Army deserters rarely face prosecution appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A CDC scientist uses a pipette to transfer the H7N9 virus into vials for sharing with partner laboratories for public health research purposes.  Photo by James Gathany via Wikimedia Commons

    A CDC scientist uses a pipette to transfer the H7N9 virus into vials for sharing with partner laboratories for public health research purposes. Photo by James Gathany via Wikimedia Commons

    Several scientists may have been exposed to the Ebola virus at a Centers for Disease Control lab in Atlanta, the Washington Post reported. The Washington Post report said that as many as 12 scientists were potentially exposed when a sample of the virus was mistakenly transferred to another lab.

    But a statement by the CDC says that only one person — not a dozen — was potentially exposed to the virus.

    From that CDC statement: “We cannot rule out possible exposure of the one laboratory technician who worked with the material in the BSL-2 laboratory,” it reads. “There was no possible exposure outside the secure laboratory at CDC and no exposure or risk to the public. The event was discovered by the laboratory scientists yesterday, December 23, and reported to leadership within an hour of the discovery.”

    That person “has been assessed” and will be monitored for 21 days.

    “I am troubled by this incident in our Ebola research laboratory in Atlanta,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in the statement. “We are monitoring the health of one technician who could possibly have been exposed, and I have directed that there be a full review of every aspect of the incident and that CDC take all necessary measures. Thousands of laboratory scientists in more than 150 labs throughout CDC have taken extraordinary steps in recent months to improve safety. No risk to staff is acceptable, and our efforts to improve lab safety are essential — the safety of our employees is our highest priority.”

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    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    GWEN IFILL: Every year, fire departments in the United States respond to more than 200 Christmas tree fires, which are often more deadly than other house fires.

    Tonight, we take a look at a program at the University of Maryland that uses Christmas tree burns to teach high school students, not only about fire safety, but about the relevance of science and math.

    The “NewsHour”‘s April Brown has this report, part of our American Graduate series, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

    APRIL BROWN: This time of year, most people would buy a Christmas tree to make the holidays more festive. But scientist Isaac Leventon has a completely different plan for this one, which hasn’t had any water for a week. It’s all in the name of science.

    ISAAC LEVENTON, Doctoral Candidate, University of Maryland: What’s really making us safe right now is, there is nothing within that tree for a good 10, 15 feet that can actually catch on fire.

    APRIL BROWN: Leventon is a graduate student at the University of Maryland in the Department of Fire Protection Engineering. His large-scale, controlled burn of this tree and two others is the finale for a fire science class he created for high school students.

    ISAAC LEVENTON: I think everyone at some point likes playing with fire, and that kind of keeps you here.

    APRIL BROWN: The 10th and 11th graders will gather data from each burn, and eventually compare the heat release rates to determine which fire is more powerful. The class is free for the dozen students who live near the College Park campus and are accepted into the eight-week program.

    ISAAC LEVENTON: That’s a really large fire. Whenever you see that amount of energy, now you know what that feels like.

    APRIL BROWN: Leventon started it two years ago, with the goal of using fire to spark and grow interest in science, technology, engineering, and math, collectively known as the STEM fields, which experts say are critical to America’s future economic competitiveness.

    But some educators have struggled to make these subjects engaging and relevant. In this class, setting fires does both.

    ISAAC LEVENTON: For a number of them, you now have to study calculus and chemistry and physics. In the one semester we have, I can’t teach them all of these things, but I can show them, here is how we can use basic chemistry to predict the temperature of any flame of our material, and then you can say, OK, maybe chemistry has an application.

    APRIL BROWN: Students like Erin Stewartson and Pablo Ruiz do not receive high school or college credit for taking the class, which makes it all the more impressive they show up every other week for several hours after school.

    ERIN STEWARTSON: My school doesn’t have an engineering program. And to do this for free, like, even if you don’t get credit, it’s still very good knowledge you can use.

    PABLO RUIZ: It’s definitely given me a more solid idea of what engineering will be like.

    APRIL BROWN: Some lessons are basic, like how a candle stays lit.

    PABLO RUIZ: You have your ignition, and then kind of melts. And then the wick absorbs the wax. And then that melted wax, it evaporates, and then that’s what’s burning is that evaporated wick. It’s called fuel vapor. And that constantly burns until you put it out.

    APRIL BROWN: Other are more complex, including one on fire tornadoes. Erin Stewartson wanted to learn more about them, so she and Leventon created one in the lab.

    ERIN STEWARTSON: So, a fire tornado is basically a normal fire plume, which is just something lit on fire, and then, when its — when an enclosure goes over it, which is like a rectangular enclosure, it creates like an angular momentum, which makes the fire spin into like a tornado, like a whirl.

    And they actually do exactly what tornadoes do. Like, they pick people up and they take trees out of places, which is pretty crazy, how it forms. And just, like, seeing it happen in the lab, that was pretty amazing too.

    APRIL BROWN: The class is structured just like a university level science course, with similar expectations and course work, like labs and tests. Here, though, the final project is presented to classmates and parents.

    STUDENT: In America, there were 365,000 catastrophic house fires reported.

    ISAAC LEVENTON: So it’s not just study something, measure something and present it, but really learn about what’s happening in the field and what are people doing and why does that matter.

    APRIL BROWN: The introduction to what college classes will be like and discussion of potential career are two reasons Pablo’s mother, Norma Ruiz, is glad her son signed up.

    NORMA RUIZ,  Pablo Ruiz’s Mother: I think there should be more of these opportunities for high school students, especially the ones interested in engineering and the sciences, so that they can get a better idea of what they want before they actually get to college, because there’s nothing better than getting to college knowing what you want.

    APRIL BROWN: Back in the lab, students continue to gather data, this time from a tree that’s been soaking in water for two weeks. It takes nearly five minutes for it to catch fire, compared to the drier tree which was almost fully consumed in less than a minute.

    ISAAC LEVENTON: It’s valuable to see how the fire is going to behave and know what that’s going to feel like. So we get that out of our tests. I wrote a number for what size fire it is. And knowing, OK, an 800-kilowatt fire, that means tree is burning 14 feet up into the ceiling, and I can feel it from 30 feet away, that’s — that’s just invaluable experience.

    APRIL BROWN: And even though Leventon is expected to get his Ph.D. very soon, the department hopes to find someone who can continue the class. A grant to fund it next year has already been approved by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers.

    I’m April Brown in College Park, Maryland, for the “PBS NewsHour.”

    The post Sparking a love for science by studying how Christmas trees burn appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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