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

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    The National Transportation Safety Board says the recall system for flawed tires is "broken," the Associated Press reported Tuesday. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

    The National Transportation Safety Board says the recall system for flawed tires is “broken,” the Associated Press reported Tuesday. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

    WASHINGTON — Only about 1 in 5 defective tires is being removed from the road through the safety recall process, a federal accident investigations board said Tuesday.

    The recall system is “broken” because manufacturers are unable to contact most tire owners to warn them, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

    Another 24 percent of recalled tires end up being taken off the road for other reasons, such as damage or normal wear and tear. But more than half — 56 percent — of recalled tires remain in use, the board said.

    The problem is that there is no requirement for most tire dealers to register the tires they sell with the manufacturer, the board said. Most dealers don’t take the time to do so, which makes it difficult for manufacturers to determine who owns the tires and to contact them.

    Independent dealers — those not owned or controlled by tire makers — sell about 92 percent of the tires sold directly to consumers, the board said.

    “Based on the work we did, that system is not working,” said Rob Molloy, head of the board’s highway safety investigations. “It is completely broken.”

    Investigators cited a crash involving a 15-passenger van in Lake City, Florida, last year. The van’s driver felt a vibration and pulled over to the side of the road, but couldn’t find any problem with the tires. Soon after he resumed driving, a tire failed, causing the van with nine passengers to careen off the road and roll over. Two people were killed and eight others injured.

    The defect was on the inside of the tire and not visible. The tire had been recalled a year and a half earlier, but hadn’t been registered with the manufacturer. The manufacturer had taken extra steps to determine who purchased the tire, but the recall notice was sent to an outdated address.

    Consumers can register their tires directly with the manufacturer, but “few people are aware that tires must be registered so that they can be recalled if they are defective,” Chris Hart, the safety board’s chairman, said at a meeting to consider the report.

    Investigators also were critical of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s tire recall website, saying consumers can easily become confused by the search process and come away believing their tires have not been recalled when in fact they were.

    The four-member board unanimously approved 11 safety recommendations, including that the traffic safety administration seek authority from Congress to require registration of new tires. Registration should include the consumer’s name, phone number, address, email address and the identification number of the car, the board said.

    The safety board investigates accidents and makes recommendations, but cannot issue safety regulations. That’s up to the traffic safety administration.

    About 500 people are killed and 19,000 injured in 33,000 tire-related accidents annually. It’s not possible to tell how many of those accidents were caused by recalled tires — as opposed to tires that hadn’t been properly maintained — because police typically don’t look for that information, investigators said.

    There were 55 safety recall campaigns involving 3.2 million tires from 2009 to 2013, the board said.

    The post NTSB says recall system for faulty tires is ‘broken’ appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    The I-35W bridge collapse site is seen from a U.S. military helicopter in Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 4, 2007. Divers searched for bodies in debris in the murky Mississippi on Saturday as President George W. Bush toured the site of this week's deadly rush-hour bridge collapse and promised quick federal help in rebuilding.         REUTERS/Larry Downing   (UNITED STATES) - RTR1SIK7

    The I-35W bridge collapse site as seen from a U.S. military helicopter in Minneapolis on August 4, 2007. Keeping U.S. roads and bridges safe requires federal funding, but lawmakers can’t agree on how to pay for the Highway Trust Fund. Photo by REUTERS/Larry Downing

    On Aug. 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, pitching cement slabs, twisted metal and cars 10 stories down into the Mississippi river. Thirteen people died in the disaster; 145 were injured.

    For 17 consecutive years, the bridge had been rated in poor condition by inspectors from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. In 2006, the agency also classified the bridge as “structurally deficient.” But it was never shut down for repairs. When it did collapse, it fell across a rail yard, severed utility lines, blocked the waterway and disrupted traffic to Saint Paul and the nearby airport. The estimated economic impact was about $17 million in 2007 and $43 million in 2008.

    The catastrophe placed a national spotlight on our crumbling infrastructure. The bridge had a design flaw: a metal plate that was critical to its structure was “undersized” — instead of being an inch thick, it was half an inch thick. When it broke, the entire bridge came down. Compounding that, an investigation by the Minnesota legislature revealed that the state’s Department of Transportation, which inspected the bridge, was underfunded and overworked. Tom Johnson, author of the report, told the New York Times in a Retro Report documentary, “We came away from our investigation that these are professionals trying to do their job, but they had some very severe restrictions about what they could do, largely because of lack of money.”

    Today, more than 60,000 bridges in the United States are considered structurally deficient… and 32 percent of U.S. major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

    Consequently, in 2008, Minnesota voted to raise its gas tax for the first time in 20 years, overcoming a veto from the governor, and embarked on an ambitious plan to renovate bridges across the state.

    Keeping bridges and roads safe across the United States, however, requires funding on a much larger scale. For a typical highway project, roughly 20 percent of funding comes from state coffers, according to the Government Accountability Office. The other 80 percent is covered by the federal government — from a transportation fund known as the Highway Trust Fund.

    What is the Highway Trust Fund?

    The Highway Trust Fund is a major source of funding for our public roads, highways, bridges, tunnels and public transit. It is levied mostly through the federal gas tax. At 18.4 cents a gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon of diesel, the gas tax brings approximately $34 billion into the fund annually. But that’s not enough to meet the country’s overwhelming infrastructure demands.

    Today, more than 60,000 bridges in the United States are considered structurally deficient, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and 32 percent of U.S. major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. In Pennsylvania, one in five bridges are deficient. And that’s troubling, because a whole lot of people use those bridges and drive those roads. According to U.S. Census data, 86 percent of U.S. workers commuted to work by automobile in 2013. Like the I-35W Bridge, which was built in 1967, about half of the U.S. interstate highway system infrastructure was built in the 1950s and 1960s, and while it was built to last, it was not built to last forever.

    To be clear, structurally deficient does not necessarily mean the bridge is unsafe — if a bridge is open then it is considered safe — but it means that the bridge “has major deterioration, cracks, or other flaws that reduce its ability to support vehicles,” according to the Federal Highway Administration.

    Why are we falling short?

    That $34 billion the federal gas tax brings in annually isn’t enough to fund all of our infrastructure needs. The federal government currently spends about $50 billion on transportation infrastructure and thus runs roughly a $16 billion annual deficit. Because the Fund cannot borrow money, it has needed regular general fund transfers in order to stay solvent.

    But even that $50 billion is seen as insufficient by transportation experts, including current Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who has said that “we need a transportation reset.” The Congressional Budget Office reports that to simply keep up with the current performance of the highway system, an additional $14 billion a year would have to be spent on transportation infrastructure.

    Experts say we are falling behind in part because the federal gas tax is not bringing in enough money. “Beginning about the time of the [Great] Recession, we no longer collect sufficient taxes,” said James Burnley, former Secretary of Transportation, who served from 1987 to 1989 under Ronald Reagan.

    We haven’t seen an increase in the gas tax in more than 20 years. The last time it was raised was in 1993 under Bill Clinton. In 1990, George H.W. Bush had raised the gas tax in part to raise money for highways and in part to reduce the deficit. The last time before that was in 1983 under Ronald Reagan.

    If the gas tax had kept up with inflation, it would be 30 cents a gallon today and pull in nearly twice the amount of revenue.

    Moreover, the gas tax is not pegged to inflation. With inflation, the value of a dollar declines over time. A dollar in 1993 is worth only 60 cents today. If the gas tax had kept up with inflation, it would be 30 cents a gallon today and pull in nearly twice the amount of revenue.

    On July 1, stepping in where Congress has not tread, state legislatures in Idaho, Georgia, Maryland, Rhode Island, Nebraska and Vermont raised their state gas taxes to repair their roads and bridges.

    Others have turned to the ballot. In 2014, for example, Texans voted on Proposition 1, which invests money raised from taxes on fracking into the highways and bridges. It passed with 81 percent of the vote. In Phoenix this August, a proposition to raise the city’s sales tax in order to pay for the roads and public transit passed with 55 percent of the vote. In 2013, 73 percent of transportation ballot measures passed, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence.

    But this state-by-state, proposition-inclined model isn’t sustainable, said Dan McNichol, transit expert and author of the book, “The Roads that Built America.” “It’s the equivalent of a bake sale…It’s piecemeal.”

    But even federal funding through the Highway Trust Fund isn’t certain. And if Congress doesn’t act, the Highway Trust Fund is set to expire…and soon.

    When will the Highway Trust fund expire?

    As a result of a stopgap bill passed in July, the Highway Trust Fund will not run out of money until late spring 2016. While the amount of money available is not a problem right now, the issue is whether Congress allows those funds to be used. Lawmakers must technically “authorize” highway fund spending — and the latest authorization runs out Oct. 29. Thus, a divided Congress has only two days left to reauthorize the Fund, or it stops operating.

    Since 2005, Congress has passed 34 short-term extensions, and it has not reauthorized the fund for more than two years at a time. To keep the fund solvent, Congress has relied on a number of stopgap measures — most notably, in 2014, using “pension smoothing,” which allowed businesses to defer putting money into employees pensions in order to report bigger profits and therefore pay higher taxes. This revenue was then funneled into the Highway Trust Fund.

    What happens if the Highway Trust Fund shuts down?

    If federal funding is disrupted, over $1.1 billion in projects is at risk, according to state transportation officials. States rely heavily on federal funding, and when the funds stop coming in, they’re often forced to stop construction, which usually violates the terms of their contracts, costing the states more.

    What do these disruptions mean? For one thing, they delay the repairs and replacement of more than 80,000 “functionally obsolete” and 60,000 “structurally deficient” bridges.

    Dan McNichol points out an additional safety issue. Work zones are dangerous for drivers and workers, and uncertain funding means that unsafe conditions meant to be temporary — confusing signs, uneven pavement, barriers and no breakdown lanes — last longer.

    Jobs are also at risk. In 2014, the White House estimated that some 700,000 jobs were on the line if the Highway Trust Fund was allowed to expire in October of that year. (Yes, we faced this same debacle last year.)

    Finally, it almost goes without saying: You’ll be sitting in traffic longer.

    So what is Congress doing about this situation?

    While it’s highly unlikely that Congress will allow the Highway Trust Fund authorization to expire, an agreement on how to fund it in the future is anything but certain.

    In July, a bipartisan trio made up of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R- Ky.), Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Senator Jim Inhofe (R- Okla.) authored a bill called the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy (DRIVE) Act to solve the Highway Trust Fund’s long-term funding problem. At the time, the fund was set to expire at the end of the month. (Yes, this also happened in July.) It passed in the Senate with a 65-34 vote, but faced opposition in the House.

    Those opposed to the bill were skeptical of the DRIVE Act’s funding sources. “This idea of a Senate bill coming together in a last minute that’s not long term, that’s not paid for, I think brings real doubt to a lot of people,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had told reporters in July.

    Among the concerns is the DRIVE Act’s proposal to sell off a portion of the federal oil reserve.

    While it’s highly unlikely that Congress will allow the Highway Trust Fund authorization to expire, an agreement on how to fund it in the future is anything but certain.

    In 1973, Arab OPEC nations cut off the sale of oil to the United States. In 1979, Iran curtailed its exports, which pushed the price of oil higher. In response, the U.S. created a stockpile of oil to prevent a financial meltdown. The DRIVE bill proposes the sale of a portion of that stockpiled oil and claims that sale would raise $9 billion for the Highway Trust Fund.

    But at today’s prices, selling that stockpiled oil would raise only half that desired revenue, former Transportation Secretary Burnley said — about $4.3 billion. Opponents to this proposition add that it’s shortsighted and will make the reserve less effective when it’s truly needed.

    The House has put together its own long-term funding bill, the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform (STRR) Act. It gained approval from the chamber’s transportation committee on Oct. 22, but the odds that Congress will pass a multi-year authorization by Oct. 29, especially without a House Speaker, said Burnley, are low.

    More likely, Congress will pass a simple straightforward extension and deal with the funding issue later. On Friday, Oct. 23, the House Republicans released a three-week extension measure to allow the House to finish work on the STRR Act and iron out the differences between the two transportation bills in conference with the Senate. On Oct. 27, the House passed the three-week measure by a voice vote.

    Wait, what’s wrong with raising the gas tax? Why isn’t that an option on the table?

    “The simplest, fastest way [to fund the Highway Trust Fund] is to raise the gas tax,” McNichol said.

    “Congress needs to raise the gas tax,” says Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

    But it’s not politically popular. “There is literally nobody who wants to do this,” Burnley said. President Obama is among those against it, and raising any tax is against current GOP creed.

    Could it be a lack of political will? McNichol thinks so. “Congress is following and not leading.”

    Others, like Richard Geddes, an associate professor in the department of policy analysis and management at Cornell University and scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, say it’s not a fair or effective tax.

    Back in the 1950s, when Eisenhower signed the gas tax law, every car had roughly the same gas mileage. Today, that’s no longer the case. Low-income motorists disproportionately use older, less fuel-efficient vehicles, Geddes explains. As a result, the tax hits the poor disproportionately.

    He lists several more reasons why the gas tax is no longer as effective: it’s not indexed to inflation, cars are more fuel-efficient due to regulations, many drivers own hybrid or electric cars, which use little or no gas, and people are driving less.

    So what are the alternatives?

    Another option would be to tax miles traveled.

    Vehicular Miles Traveled taxes, known as VMTs, are thought to be more equitable and efficient and are probably the “most reliable solution,” Burnley said. Instead of charging per gallon, VMTs charge per mile.

    But determining how many miles a person drives is tricky. Also, how would the government collect the money?

    And while a number of states like Oregon and California have begun testing this method, the federal government likely won’t follow suit until they see it successfully implemented elsewhere.

    Other proposals, including Republican presidential candidate John Kasich’s suggestion to wipe out the federal highway program altogether, have gained little support.

    Burnley, McNichol and Geddes all suggest more public-private partnerships, such as the high occupancy vehicle express lanes on the 495 Capital Beltway. They deliver results quickly, which ultimately saves money. After all, every deferred dollar of spending on maintenance
    costs four to five dollars down the road, says Geddes, referencing a study by Cornell’s Local Roads Program.

    So what’s the verdict? Are we heading towards a crisis?

    Depends on who you talk to.

    “The civil engineering projects are crumbling because of governmental breakdown. And it’s showing in the cracks in bridges.”

    Burnley says the rhetoric is worse than the reality. “I don’t think the crisis today is quite appropriate. But I think we are rapidly approaching a set of crises [if we don’t pass something].”

    But McNichol says we’re already there.

    “Our system is cracking,” he said. “The civil engineering projects are crumbling because of governmental breakdown. And it’s showing in the cracks in bridges.”

    The post The Highway Trust Fund keeps bridges from falling down, but will Congress reauthorize it? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    President Barack Obama (right) delivers remarks after meeting with Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (center) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26. Widodo cut short his visit to deal with a forest fire emergency. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

    President Barack Obama (right) delivers remarks after meeting with Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (center) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26. Widodo cut short his visit to deal with a forest fire emergency. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

    When international leaders come to the White House, a military band often plays ruffles and flourishes and their country’s national anthem. For Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, a more appropriate tune would have been The Platters’ classic, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

    The Indonesian leader’s first visit to the U.S. since his election last year was supposed to be highlighted by two big announcements: that Indonesia would upgrade its strategic partnership with the U.S. (to the same level it has had with China) and its readiness to join the next round of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that now involves the U.S. and 11 other nations.

    Instead, soon after Widodo (popularly know in his country as Jokowi) left his Monday White House meeting with President Obama, word came out that he would be cutting short his American visit to return home to deal with a massive carbon haze that has enveloped much of Southeast Asia from forest and peat bog fires in his country. From Singapore to southern Thailand, air quality levels have quadrupled internationally acceptable levels and made urban vistas resemble those of Beijing in winter.

    The fires and haze are an annual occurrence from tree clearing and palm oil production, long deplored by environmentalists and made far worse this year by an El Nino drought. Some officials have estimated the fires and haze will not be contained until the November rainy season. Murray Hiebert, a veteran journalist and analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said one effective deterrent would be an international boycott of illegal palm oil sales.

    But as Widodo goes home to personally oversee the crisis that has spilled as many emissions in a month as the United States produces each day, American officials and analysts try to look beyond the haze to see if political and economic relationships have strengthened between Jakarta and Washington.

    The president offered some hints at a Wednesday morning appearance at the Brookings Institution. The one-time store owner and mayor who vaulted past Indonesia’s governing establishment to win his office, appeared relaxed and spoke in English, though translation devices had been presented to the overflow audience.

    In his talk, Widodo stressed his economic reform proposals and his efforts to make the country more open to international investment. His power point presentation even included pictures of Jakarta’s horrendous traffic jams that result in international visitors being able to schedule at most three meetings a day, the rest of their time being spent sitting in traffic. According to trade analyst Nigel Cory, Indonesia ranks 114th on the World Bank’s ranking of ability to do business. By contrast Malaysia is 18th.

    Other analysts at the session noted that Vietnam, considered the least business-ready of the TPP nations, has far fewer restrictions on foreign business and products than Indonesia.

    On the political front, the president again stressed that China should negotiate a Code of Conduct for the maritime boundary disputes with the regional group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and deplored efforts to turn them into strategic contests. China has consistently rejected that approach and insists on dealing with nations like the Philippines and Vietnam on a one-to-one basis. Analyst Donald Emerson of the Pacific Forum has labelled Indonesia’s efforts “a naive hope.”

    Indonesia’s vast collection of islands and archipelagos comprise 33,000 miles of coastline and its eastern Economic Exclusion Zone crosses waters that China claims as its so-called 9-dash line.

    To his American audience, Widodo also stressed that for his predominantly Muslim nation of 255 million (the world’s fourth largest country), Islam is compatible both with progress and democracy. His election was the fourth since the end of military rule in 1998. But his poll ratings have slumped in the year since as he confronts a parliament controlled by opposition parties and an array of vested business interests.

    Even though Widodo’s trip to Washington during the smog crisis drew criticism at home, one analyst said he had no choice but to go ahead. He needed the photo opportunity in the White House that would symbolically place him in the same league of recent Asian visitors, the presidents of China and South Korea. Now that he has achieved that milestone, Widodo returns home to literally burning crises.

    The post An Indonesian visitor under fire appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    Resume

    Resume

    Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

    In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees—just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


    Question: Don’t you think jobs should have “resumes?”

    Assuming an interview has been scheduled, should an applicant ask for a formal, printed description of the job to retain and review before a job offer is made, or only after an offer is presented?

    Here’s what I’ve never understood. Employers insist on having my resume before an interview. But all the applicant has is a scant job posting, or sometimes only a general verbal description of the job. It seems having a formal, written job description would help the applicant, just like a resume helps an employer. The applicant could look closely at whether there’s a good match.

    Should the prospective employer be expected to provide this type of document to the applicant? If it’s not provided, should I just roll the dice?!

    Nick Corcodilos: You’re raising an excellent question. If HR needs to know all about you before an interview, doesn’t it owe you all the information about the job? (See “Now THIS is a job description!”)

    Recently a reader told me that after an employer decided to hire him, it learned that he had an advanced degree that he did not report on the resume. (He’d heard it might actually hurt his chances, so he left the degree off the resume. So it was an omission, not a falsehood.) The employer rescinded the offer because the applicant “lied!”

    What happens when an employer fails to disclose all the information about a job until after an offer is made? If it’s never happened to you, I’m sure you know someone who accepted a job, only to learn it wasn’t what they interviewed for.

    Employers don’t seem to care that the job you interview for is not the job in the ad. This is even more important when a recruiter solicits you for a job — they usually tell you very little, except that the job is “perfect” for you. Who has ever gone on a job suggested by a recruiter and found that the job was “exactly” as the recruiter described it? (Gimme a break! I’m still laughing at this idea! Check out “Roasting the job description.”)

    I think it’s prudent to ask for the formal, written job description prior to the interview, “for your records,” whether you get hired or not — especially when you’re dealing with a recruiter. They want your resume, right? What’s the difference?

    I’ll bet many HR people would decline to provide it because it’s “proprietary” or “not set in stone.” But, again – they want your resume, which is just as proprietary, and they want it to include everything.

    How are you supposed to consider the job without the formal, written job description?

    I’d love to know how employers respond to this, because they make the hiring process so irrational and one-sided that it’s actually absurd. For more about my take on how employers recruit, see “Respecting The Candidate.”)

    Don’t you think fewer interviews would wind up being a waste of time if you had the spec sheet for the job in hand first?

    Dear Readers: Do employers and recruiters give you job descriptions? Do you ask for them? Are the jobs you interview for exactly as they were represented to begin with?


    Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

    Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

    Copyright © 2015 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

    The post Ask the Headhunter: Why jobs should come with a ‘resume’ appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    Chinese-American martial arts exponent Bruce Lee (1940 - 1973), in a still from the film 'Enter The Dragon', directed by Robert Crouse for Warner Brothers, 1973. (Photo by Fotos International/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

    Bruce Lee, master of martial arts, could show police a thing or two about nunchucks. Photo by Fotos International/Archive Photos/Getty Images.


    A martial arts weapon, the nunchaku or nunchucks, renowned for knocking out Bruce Lee’s adversaries, has increasingly popularized within America’s police forces.

    Most recently, the police department of a Northern California township has equipped its 20 officers with the device, made of two hard plastic bars connected by a nylon cord.

    The Anderson Police Department says the tool offers a more versatile alternative to traditional batons with the opportunity to better protect officers and safely restrain combative individuals.

    “It gives us the ability to control a suspect instead of striking them,” Police Sgt. Casey Day, said to the Los Angeles Times.

    Starting in the 1980s, nunchucks have since been sold to more than 75 departments across 14 states, a third of which are in California.

    While some departments have found success, others have discontinued their use.

    In 1989, Los Angeles Police Department ordered 130 nunchucks to deal with a series of anti-abortion protests, whose members blocked access to abortion clinics.

    But two years later, the department abandoned its use after more than 30 protesters sued over a wide range of injuries inflicted from the officers wielding tool, including broken arms and legs, strained necks, and damaged nerves.

    “The department is concerned about the public perception of their using a tool some people feel is a tool of excessive force,” the former Deputy City Attorney said at the time.

    But the Anderson Police Department believes, with proper training, those concerns should not arise.

    Officers won’t be required to maneuver a weapon with such rapid, unexpected strikes, but if they do, Day says they must complete a 16-hour training program.

    “It’s not like we can’t use these as a control weapon. They work really good as an impact weapon, but we try to emphasis a control tool over impact.”

    The post One California police department trades batons for nunchucks appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    For the third time in 40 years, Social Security recipients will not receive a benefit increase next year, the government said Thursday. Photo by Flickr user Tetra Images

    For the third time in 40 years, Social Security recipients will not receive a benefit increase next year, the government said Thursday. Photo by Flickr user Tetra Images

    Section 831 of the House’s new budget bill would make radical changes to the way Social Security provides spousal and retirement benefits.​

    ​Let me list all the benefit cuts and other problems arising from this truly draconian bill.

    In six months, benefits now being received by spouses, divorced spouses or children on the work record of a spouse, ex-spouse or parent who has suspended his or her benefits will be eliminated until the worker restarts his/her retirement benefit. I’ve never heard of a change in Social Security law that eliminates benefits for people already collecting, but this is what’s in this bill. This will cost millions of households tens of thousands of dollars. Worse, it will induce those who have suspended their benefits in order to collect higher benefits at 70 to restart their benefits at permanently lower levels in order to maintain their family’s immediate living standards.

    We’ve been paying 12.4 percent of our income to Social Security since our first job in exchange for a variety of benefits … Now, with a couple of sentences, our government is reneging on what for many households can amount up to $50,000 in lifetime benefits.
    For those now under 62, the bill extend​s deeming, which now ends at full retirement age (age 66), through age 70. Deeming is the requirement that if a) you take your retirement benefit and are eligible to collect your spousal benefit, you are forced to take both at once and b) if you take your spousal benefit, you are forced to simultaneously take your retirement benefit.

    Since Social Security effectively only pays the larger of the two benefits, being forced to take both benefits at once means that you lose one of the two benefits.

    Under the current law, you can wait until full retirement age, take just your spousal benefit if you are eligible for it and then let your own retirement benefit grow. Being eligible requires having your spouse file for his or her retirement benefit. But if your spouse is at full retirement age or over, he or she can immediately file for and suspend his or her retirement benefit and let it grow through age 70. This strategy is called File and Suspend.

    Some view this as a loophole, but Social Security is so complex that it’s hard to say what is a loophole and what’s not. We’ve been paying 12.4 percent of our income to Social Security since our first job in exchange for a variety of benefits, including spousal and divorce(e) spousal benefits, in retirement age. Now, with a couple of sentences, our government is reneging on what for many households can amount up to $50,000 in lifetime benefits.

    But the loss in lifetime benefits can be far greater. Receiving full spousal or full divorce(e) spousal benefits between full retirement age (age 66) and age 70 helped tide millions of workers over until age 70 when they would start their own retirement benefit at a 32 percent larger (inflation-adjusted) value than at age 66. This provided them protection against excessive longevity — that is, outliving their assets and other non-Social Security means of support.

    Now more of such cash-constrained households will need to file for their retirement benefits earlier than they had hoped. Thus, they lose not only most or all of their spousal benefits (since retirement benefits generally exceed spousal benefits, and you can’t get both at once if forced to take both at once), but also the far higher benefits available by waiting until age 70 to collect.

    As a consequence, this new section 831 of the budget bill, ironically called “Protecting Social Security Benefits,” will make retirement far more precarious for millions of low- and middle-income seniors.

    The ability to collect a full divorced spousal benefit between full retirement age and age 70 has also afforded important insurance to Americans getting divorced. This too would be wiped out.

    ​Another major concern is female work incentives for married or divorced women (whose marriages lasted at least a decade) who earn much less than their husbands or ex-husbands. By waiting until 70 to collect their own retirement benefits, they had a chance that their retirement benefit would exceed their spousal benefit, which would mean that extra contributions to Social Security would lead to higher benefits. If they are now, due to cash constraints, forced to take their retirement benefit at full retirement age and if their spousal benefit exceeds their retirement benefit, they will end up getting absolutely nothing in return for each and every penny of taxes they paid to Social Security over their entire working lives. 

    ​I’m also concerned about how this bill would affect income sharing and power plays in marriages. Take the case of a wife who earned very little, because she stayed home to raise children. Assume her husband is the same age. If her working husband refuses to take his retirement benefit before age 70 — because he doesn’t want to receive permanently lower benefits — the wife will have to wait until age 70 to collect her spousal benefit. That means she’ll receive no income in her own name from Social Security until she reaches age 70.​ Indeed, if this bill is passed, the people that are going to see their Social Security checks disappear in six months are primarily women. ​

    The new bill would also do great harm to households with disabled children. Under current law, a worker can obtain child benefits for his or her disabled child once he or she reaches age 62 if he or she files for his or her retirement benefit. If his or her spouse is not working, for example, to take care of their disabled child, the spouse can collect child-in-care spousal benefits. The worker who files at 62, however, has the option to suspend his or her benefit at full retirement age and restart it at a 32 percent higher value at 70. So the loss from taking benefits early to help his or her child and spouse collect benefits on his work record is mitigated. Under the proposed new law, if the worker suspends his or her benefit at full retirement age and restarts at 70, the benefits to the disabled child and the spouse are lost for all four years.

    Finally, there is egregious inequality in the treatment of those born a few years apart. Someone who is now 70 and who has collected a full spousal benefit since 1966 and waited until this year to collect her retirement benefit will have received as much as $50,000 more from the system than someone in the same circumstances but who just turned 66.

    To summarize, the new budget ​drastically cuts Social Security benefits for many of those now collecting, drastically cuts benefits for many of those who were about to collect, exacerbates Social Security work disincentive and induces households to do exactly the wrong thing, namely take their benefits too early at the cost of permanently lower benefits. And many of these changes will particularly hurt the middle class, women and families with disabled children.

    The post Column: Proposed budget bill would have devastating effects on millions’ Social Security benefits appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    A quiet alley in Civita di Bagnoregio, a hilltop town with somewhere around seven year-round residents. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Sunrise over Civita di Bagnoregio, a hilltop town with somewhere around seven year-round residents. Photo by Frank Carlson

    There is something oddly attractive about a place slated to disappear, and at first glance, Civita di Bagnoregio is just that: a charming medieval town in central Italy that, thanks to its geology, has been slowly crumbling for thousands of years.

    The Etruscans chose the site for its high ground in the 6th century B.C., but much of that ground has since fallen away. Civita di Bagnoregio is built on what’s known as “tuff,” volcanic rock over a bed of soft clay and sand. And in a region prone to earthquakes — including a massive one in 1695 that devastated the town — that combination, plus a healthy amount of rain, have accelerated the landslides that have now robbed Civita di Bagnoregio of 20 percent of its terrain since 1705. Today there are only around seven year-round residents and many of its buildings have been lost.

    But in 2015 that’s an idea drawing tourists; since 2010, the number of people making the difficult hike up the footbridge has risen from 40,000 a year to 500,000. New restaurants, tourist shops and bed and breakfasts have opened, and locals have a reason to stick around, or in many cases, to return, giving them hope that the wonder and beauty of their town will be enough to sustain it many years into the future.

    Coupled with some massive geo-engineering efforts, that may be true. See below for a collection of photos from what locals call “il paese che muore,” or “the dying town.”

    Tourists and residents access Civita di Bagnoregio by way of a steep footbridge. But earlier this year there was a collapse near its base that now needs shoring up. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Tourists and residents access Civita di Bagnoregio by way of a steep footbridge. But earlier this year there was a collapse near its base that now needs shoring up. Photo by Frank Carlson

    No cars are allowed in Civita di Bagnoregio due to the fragile nature of the landscape, so a man on a motorcycle must suffice for a garbage truck. Photo by Frank Carlson

    No cars are allowed in Civita di Bagnoregio due to the fragile nature of the landscape, so a man on a motorcycle must suffice for a garbage truck. Photo by Frank Carlson

    A pair of doors in Civita di Bagnoregio, a small town in Central Italy that dates back 2500 years. Photo by Frank Carlson

    A pair of doors in Civita di Bagnoregio, a small town in central Italy that dates back 2,500 years. Photo by Frank Carlson

    For hundreds and even thousands of years, the town of Civita di Bagnoregio has been gradually falling apart due to landslides. Here a gate prevents tourists from descending a staircase that leads off a cliff. Photo by Frank Carlson

    For hundreds and even thousands of years, the town of Civita di Bagnoregio has been gradually falling apart due to landslides. Here, a gate prevents tourists from descending a staircase that leads off a cliff. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Some 20 percent of Civita di Bagnoregio’s land has been lost since 1705, most of it gardens and agricultural lands. But buildings have also been lost, like this one, now a mere facade. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Some 20 percent of Civita di Bagnoregio’s land has been lost since 1705, most of it gardens and agricultural lands. But buildings have also been lost, like this one, now a mere facade. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Civita di Bagnoregio, known as the “dying town,” is a small hilltop community in the Lazio province of Central Italy. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Civita di Bagnoregio, known as the “dying town,” is a small hilltop community in the Lazio province of central Italy. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Civita di Bagnoregio is surrounded by agricultural lands, including olive groves, and for centuries this served as the principal means of employment. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Civita di Bagnoregio is surrounded by agricultural lands, including olive groves, and for centuries this served as the principal means of employment. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Tourism is booming in the town of Civita di Bagnoregio, rising from 40,000 a year to 500,000 a year since 2010. This year the town of Bagnoregio began charging visitors about $1.70 to enter. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Tourism is booming in the town of Civita di Bagnoregio, rising from 40,000 a year to 500,000 a year since 2010. This year the town of Bagnoregio began charging visitors about $1.70 to enter. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Tourists arrive at the main square of Civita di Bagnoregio, where the San Donato church sits. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Tourists arrive at the main square of Civita di Bagnoregio, where the San Donato church sits. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Chef Maurizio Rocchi shows off one his family recipes, featuring bacon, egg yolk and black truffle flakes. He is one of the few year-round residents here, and has opened a new restaurant, the Alma Civita, to capitalize on the growth in tourism. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Chef Maurizio Rocchi shows off one his family recipes, featuring bacon, egg yolk and black truffle flakes. He is one of the few year-round residents here and has opened a new restaurant, the Alma Civita, to capitalize on the growth in tourism. Photo by Frank Carlson

    A worker takes a cigarette break outside the Alma Civita restaurant. Photo by Frank Carlson

    A worker takes a cigarette break outside the Alma Civita restaurant. Photo by Frank Carlson

    American architect Tony Heywood first came to Civita di Bagnoregio with his wife, Astra Zarina, in the 1960s. Zarina was also an architect and University of Washington professor who brought American students here to study, helping to popularize and restore the town. Photo by Frank Carlson

    American architect Tony Heywood first came to Civita di Bagnoregio with his wife, Astra Zarina, in the 1960s. Zarina was also an architect and University of Washington professor who brought American students here to study, helping to popularize and restore the town. Photo by Frank Carlson

    A photo of Tony Heywood and his wife, Astra Zarina, in Heywood’s home in Civita di Bagnoregio. Photo by Frank Carlson

    A photo of Tony Heywood and his wife, Astra Zarina, in Heywood’s home in Civita di Bagnoregio. Photo by Frank Carlson

    A look at the southside of Civita di Bagnoregio from the path below reveals the encroachment of landslides on the town. Photo by Frank Carlson

    A look at the southside of Civita di Bagnoregio from the path below reveals the encroachment of landslides on the town. Photo by Frank Carlson

    A cave underneath Civita di Bagnoregio houses an old chapel and may have been used as a tomb during the Etruscan era. Photo by Frank Carlson

    A cave underneath Civita di Bagnoregio houses an old chapel and may have been used as a tomb during the Etruscan era. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Sunlight fades as a woman enters Civita di Bagnorio from the footbridge as others leave for the day. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Sunlight fades as a woman enters Civita di Bagnorio from the footbridge as others leave for the day. Photo by Frank Carlson

    In the evening Civita di Bagnoregio clears out, leaving it to a few tourists who stay at bed and breakfasts and the year-round residents. Photo by Frank Carlson

    In the evening Civita di Bagnoregio clears out, leaving it to a few tourists who stay at bed and breakfasts and the year-round residents. Photo by Frank Carlson

    A building on the north side has fallen apart as the land below fell away. This portion of the town has now been stabilized using massive steel shafts that hold the hilltop together. Photo by Frank Carlson

    A building on the north side has fallen apart as the land below it fell away. This portion of the town has now been stabilized using massive steel shafts that hold the hilltop together. Photo by Frank Carlson

    At dusk tourists leave the main square, passing the San Donato church on their way out. Photo by Frank Carlson

    At dusk tourists leave the main square, passing the San Donato church on their way out. Photo by Frank Carlson

    With tourists gone, Civita di Bagnoregio’s many cats reclaim the streets. Photo by Frank Carlson

    With tourists gone, Civita di Bagnoregio’s many cats reclaim the streets. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Tourists linger in Civita di Bagnoregio as the sun goes down. Photo by Frank Carlson

    Tourists linger in Civita di Bagnoregio as the sun goes down. Photo by Frank Carlson

    The post Photos: Visit a crumbling medieval town that’s slowly falling off a cliff appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    Outgoing Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (L) enters a news conference on the two-year budget deal with the White House in Washington, October 27, 2015. A two-year budget deal negotiated by the White House and U.S. congressional leaders will be rushed to the floor of the House of Representatives on Wednesday as lawmakers try to pass controversial measures before House Speaker John Boehner retires on Friday. "We have a budget agreement," Boehner said Tuesday. " He said he wanted to clear the decks for Rep. Paul Ryan who is expected to become the next Speaker of the House. "As I made it clear a month ago when I announced that I was leaving that I wanted to do my best to clean the barn. I didn't want him to walk into a dirty barn full of you know what," Boehner said. REUTERS/Gary Cameron - RTX1TGRU

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: The gridlock in Washington seems to be easing this week. Deals are being made, votes are being cast, and the speaker of the House is trying to clear the deck for his replacement waiting in the wings.

    Political director Lisa Desjardins reports.

    REP. JOHN BOEHNER, Speaker of the House: Having listened to our members and listened to the American people, we have a budget agreement.

    LISA DESJARDINS: The outgoing speaker of the House, John Boehner, used one of his final news conferences to make the announcement.

    REP. JOHN BOEHNER: The agreement is not perfect by any means. But the alternative was a clean debt ceiling increase, without any additional support for our troops and without any entitlement reforms.

    LISA DESJARDINS: The deal would increase spending by $80 billion over the next two years, boosting both defense and domestic programs. It would also lift the federal debt ceiling through the spring of 2017.

    Within the divided House Republican Conference, the tentative agreement drew backing from Boehner supporters.

    REP. TOM COLE (R), Oklahoma: Like all these things, you wish you were negotiating with yourselves, but you’re not. So, I think it will pass. And I think it ought to pass. And, again, fair enough to be critical of it. But I think, if you’re going to do that, you have to lay out what you would do.

    REP. STEVE RUSSELL (R), Oklahoma: I’m encouraged by the fact that we’re doing something that looks like a budget with the president.

    LISA DESJARDINS: But the most conservative Republicans, members of the Freedom Caucus, who helped drive Boehner to retire, were not on board.

    REP. MO BROOKS (R), Alabama: I will not be voting for it, because, in my view, it’s financially irresponsible.

    REP. JOHN FLEMING (R), Louisiana: This is a very complex deal. This thing must have taken weeks, probably months, to negotiate, and it’s dropped on us in less than 48 hours.

    REP. THOMAS MASSIE (R), Kentucky: This is our problem with Speaker Boehner. He has been speaker of the United States, not speaker of the House of Representatives.

    LISA DESJARDINS: Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, the man likely to become speaker, said the closed-door process of getting the deal stinks, and he declined to say how he’d vote. Boehner said he agrees about the process, but he argued the deal deserves support.

    REP. JOHN BOEHNER: When you have got bipartisan agreement in a town that is not known for a lot of bipartisanship, you’re going to see bricks flying from those that don’t like the fact that there’s a bipartisan agreement.

    LISA DESJARDINS: This afternoon, Senate leaders on both sides added their support.

    SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Minority Leader: This agreement is a victory over the loudest, most extreme voices in the Republican Party. Passing it into law would be a victory for common sense and for middle class.

    SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Majority Leader: I am hopeful and optimistic that that bill will come over to the Senate, and, when it does, we will take it up.

    LISA DESJARDINS: The House could vote tomorrow, with a goal of final congressional passage by next week’s debt ceiling deadline.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Later, President Obama welcomed word of the agreement, and urged quick action.

    Lisa joins us now from Capitol Hill with the latest.

    So, Lisa, hello.

    It is not quite a done deal, but, as we heard, the Democrats are celebrating already.

    LISA DESJARDINS: Yes, Democrats are absolutely celebrating over in the Senate.

    Some of the top Senate Democrats sat down with reporters in the last two hours and said they feel like this is an incredible deal. This is a done deal in terms of this is the final offer from leaders in both the House and the Senate, Judy. But, of course, the voting matters here.

    And I have to tell you, Judy, tonight, it looks like this deal does have votes in both the House and the Senate largely because of those Democrats, as you were saying, Judy.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Lisa, what were the tradeoffs here? What was the politics? We know that both sides had to do some trading. What happened?

    LISA DESJARDINS: That’s right.

    There were immense politics involved here, of course, and it depends on who you talk to. Everyone is going to claim one thing or another. But if you take a step back, Democrats got something they wanted very much, which is a rollback of some steep spending cuts that were going to go in place for domestic non-defense programs last year.

    Republicans basically got the same thing for the defense programs that they like. The Pentagon has said it was really going to start feeling those cuts called sequester next year. Those two sides easily divided how they’d roll back those cuts. Now, that’s something that some Republicans say wasn’t fair because they have more votes, they wanted to only save defense.

    But, in the end, Democrats were able to come away with some money for some other domestic programs. Now, this bill is full of many other aspects as well. One other thing I want to point out, Judy, there are changes — some of it is paid by for changes in the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.

    For example, a requirement on large employers that would automatically enroll their employees in health care, that would be frozen here. That’s a win for Republicans. So, you really have to look through this deal. There is a lot for everyone here.

    One thing that Republicans didn’t get of course is any savings on the debt. This deal in some ways will increase the deficit, depending on how you look at it. It’s a bit of a budget gimmick, some people say.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, what about the so-called entitlement programs, Medicare, Social Security? Are they affected by this?

    LISA DESJARDINS: They are. There is some important news here.

    Some Medicare recipients were facing a very serious increase in premiums next year. That is now going to be frozen and spread out, so that those premiums will go up in later years, rather than next year. Social Security was facing perhaps the biggest crisis of any entitlement program next year. Its disability insurance was facing a cut in benefits. It was running out of money next year.

    Now that program will gain another six years of life, go through 2022 in this deal.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Lisa, is Speaker Boehner prepared to push this through even without those conservative Republicans, in other words, with the votes of Democrats in the House?

    LISA DESJARDINS: I think that’s one of the important things here. That might be the biggest important thing, that what happened here is Speaker Boehner and also Majority Leader in the Senate Mitch McConnell got together with their Democratic counterparts and decided they were going to govern, they were going to get past these crises, even if it took a combination of Democratic votes here in the House, maybe more Democratic votes than Republican votes.

    Yes, Speaker Boehner is ready to pass this basically with Democratic votes. And it’s an amazing thing to think about. One month and two days ago, Judy, we were talking about Speaker Boehner having just resigned and the House in disarray.

    But Speaker Boehner also I think saw an opportunity to get through these crises and to govern. It was basically the four leaders here, Democrat and Republican, against the House conservatives, and the leaders showing this is how they want to govern.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And on so many votes, he said he wouldn’t do it with Democrats, if that’s what it would take.

    LISA DESJARDINS: But it will take that now, and he’s doing it.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol, thank you.

    LISA DESJARDINS: My pleasure.

    The post How Congressional leaders got past the budget crisis appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    WASHINGTON — Even as President Barack Obama sent U.S. troops back to Iraq and ordered the military to stay in Afghanistan, he insisted Syria would remain off limits for American ground forces. Now the president has crossed his own red line.

    His deployment of up to 50 U.S. special operations troops into northern Syria to assist in the fight against the Islamic State is the kind of incremental move that has defined Obama’s approach to the Middle East in his second term.

    While the U.S. military footprint in the region grows, each step is taken on a small scale so as to reassure the public that Obama isn’t plunging the country into another large, open-ended conflict.

    The strategy may help ease Americans back into the realities of war, but regional experts as well as some of Obama’s political allies say his slow ramp-up may be insufficient in defeating the fast-moving militants.

    “Deploying a handful of U.S. special operations forces to Syria will not change this situation significantly,” Frederic Hof, Obama’s former Syria special adviser, said of Friday’s announcement. “It is a Band-Aid of sorts.”

    Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Obama’s home state of Hawaii, said the latest escalation “is unlikely to succeed in achieving our objective of defeating IS and instead threatens to embroil the United States in Syria’s civil war.”

    The military campaign against the Islamic State is nowhere near the size and scope of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama has repeatedly used the costly and unpopular Iraq war in particular as an example of what he’s tried to avoid in the region.

    But the significance of Friday’s announcement was more about the location of the deployment, not the number of troops. It marks the first time the U.S. has openly sent forces into Syria, expanding the geographic reach of Obama’s military efforts in the Middle East.

    For years, the president has cast the chaos in Syria as exactly the type of situation he was elected to keep the U.S. military out of. Washington has no partners in the Syrian government and few good options among opposition leaders. There is no ground force that the U.S. can quickly train.

    But the crisis has become unavoidable for Obama, particularly since the Islamic State grew out of the chaos and crossed the border into Iraq. What the president could once cast as a civil war that needed to be solved by Syrians has threatened to upend the whole region.

    Obama’s first move was to deploy a few hundred U.S. troops to Iraq to train and assist local forces in the fight against the Islamic State. It marked a return to Iraq for the U.S. military after the 2011 withdrawal, which was a fulfillment of Obama’s campaign promise to end the war he inherited from President George W. Bush.

    But over the past year, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq has expanded to about 3,300. In another escalation, the U.S. also began launching airstrikes against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.

    Despite killing as many as 12,000 militants, the bombing campaign has not significantly weakened the Islamic State’s capacity to hold territory, and the group’s ranks have been replenished by foreign fighters and others.

    Obama had hoped the strikes in Syria would be complimented by a ground force trained by Americans elsewhere in the region. But the train-and-equip program failed spectacularly and the president abandoned it earlier this fall.

    The new U.S. deployment into Syria essentially replaces that effort.

    The decision allows Obama – who has been under pressure by the Pentagon and international partners to make progress against the Islamic State – to contend he’s seeking new ways to address the crisis. The White House also argued the president wasn’t backtracking on his commitment to keep U.S. troops out of Syria because the presence was narrow in size and scope.

    But to some, the White House appears to be more concerned about being able to keep that political promise than in taking action that could have a more substantial impact in resolving the situation on the ground.

    “War has a harsh reality in that in order to have an effect you have to be present,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy flight officer and the director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security.

    The White House put no timetable on how long the American forces would stay in Syria, though Obama has previously said he expects the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to last beyond his presidency.

    The escalation of the Pentagon’s campaign against the Islamic State follows Obama’s announcement two weeks ago that he was reversing course and keeping American troops in Afghanistan beyond next year.

    That means the president who inherited two military conflicts will likely hand his successor three.

    The post With Syria deployment, Obama crosses own red line appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    A Chinese Coast Guard vessel (R) passes near the Chinese oil rig, Haiyang Shi You 981 (L) in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam June 13, 2014. Photo by Nguyen Minh/Reuters.

    A Chinese Coast Guard vessel (R) passes near the Chinese oil rig, Haiyang Shi You 981 (L) in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam June 13, 2014. Photo by Nguyen Minh/Reuters.

    WASHINGTON — Pressure on China over its claims to most of the strategic South China Sea went up a couple of notches this week. First the U.S. sent a warship, in its most direct challenge yet to Beijing’s artificial island building. Then, over Chinese objections, an international tribunal ruled it had jurisdiction in a case brought by the Philippines on maritime claims.

    Neither action appeared likely to stop China in its tracks, as it seeks to assert its control over resource-rich waters that it considers vital to its security. Beijing is expected to put a higher priority on what it sees as its strategic interests than its international reputation.

    But it could damage China’s efforts to win more respect on the global stage as it emerges as an economic and military power.

    The United States, which has had little success to date in its five-year effort to put diplomatic pressure on China over its uncompromising pursuit of claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, is hoping that makes a difference. It welcomed the tribunal decision and said it expected Beijing to abide by the final ruling next year.

    Although the tribunal was set up on the basis of a provision of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea that both the Philippines and China have ratified, China has boycotted the proceedings. On Friday its Foreign Ministry declared that the ruling on jurisdiction was “null and void” and would have no binding effect on China.

    The Philippine case, which was filed before the tribunal in The Hague in January 2013, contends that China’s massive territorial claims are invalid under the convention. The tribunal on Thursday decided it has jurisdiction in the case.

    The tribunal will also examine whether a number of Chinese-occupied reefs and shoals – including an artificial island that was skirted by a U.S. warship this week in a freedom of navigation maneuver that riled Beijing – do generate, or create a claim to, territorial waters and an economic zone. A U.S. ally, the Philippines, contends that they do not.

    “The fact that the tribunal did not reject jurisdiction on anything in the case brought by the Philippines, and could end up ruling against it on all these counts, introduces uncertainty and anxiety for China,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

    Malcolm Cook, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said that outside of China, many maritime law experts feel the Philippines has a strong case and are skeptical of the legal basis for China’s expansive claims, which it says are rooted in history. China roughly demarcates this vast area on maps with a nine-dash line.

    Despite China’s latest legal setback, both Glaser and Cook didn’t expect it to change course.

    “The Chinese navy has a very strong interest in gaining greater sea control over the South China Sea and this interest and its pursuit will likely not be affected by tribunal rulings,” Cook said.

    In all, six Asian governments have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, straddling some of the world’s busiest sea lanes and in areas with rich fishing grounds and potential undersea oil and gas fields. China’s massive construction to transform at least seven shoals and reefs into islands in the disputed Spratly Islands have ratcheted up tensions.

    Glaser said China views these waters off its east coast as vital to its security. China needs to control this area to avert any potential crisis intervention by the United States, which since World War II has been the predominant military force in the Asia-Pacific. The ruling Communist Party also needs to be seen as defending national sovereignty.

    Since announcing in 2010 that the U.S. has a national security interest in resolving disputes and maintaining peace and security in the South China Sea, Washington has failed to get Beijing to moderate its behavior. In fact, the opposite has happened. When the U.S. called for China and other claimants to halt land reclamation last year, Beijing appeared to double down, building airstrips and other facilities that could have military uses.

    Tuesday’s sail-by of Subi Reef by the USS Lassen – following long demands from Congress for action and months of debate within the Obama administration – was the toughest U.S. step to date to challenge China’s island-building.

    The guided missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles (22-kilometer) of the reef to underscore Washington’s position that the geographic alteration would not allow the previously submerged reef to generate territorial waters. Subi Reef is one of the land features under scrutiny by the tribunal.

    Lynn Kuok, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, said the combination of legal pressure and freedom of navigation operations could yet prod Beijing into conforming more to the U.N. convention, even if it does not change its official stance on its South China Sea claims.

    “As China grows in strength as a maritime power, Beijing might realize that the country’s interests are best protected by upholding rather than undermining the convention,” she said.

    The post China faces mounting pressure over strategic claims to South China Sea appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    Poseidon Water project manager Peter MacLaggen stands next to some reverse osmosis filters as work continues on the Western Hemisphere's largest seawater desalination plant in Carlsbad, California, April 14, 2015. Desalination has emerged as a newly promising technology in California in the face of a record dry spell that has forced tough new conservation measures, depleted reservoirs and raised the costs of importing fresh water from elsewhere. The biggest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, a $1 billion project under construction since 2012 on a coastal lagoon in the California city of Carlsbad, is nearly completed and due to open in November, delivering up to 50 million gallons of water a day to San Diego County. To match Feature USA-DESALINATION/CALIFORNIA REUTERS/Mike Blake - RTR4XD0D

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    MIKE TAIBBI: On the surface, San Diego doesn’t scream “water crisis.” Kids still splash in public fountains, and the lawns haven’t all been converted to sand and succulents.

    But the water story below the surface is historically grim. Four years of almost no rain, record low snowpack from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and record high temperatures are causing the worst drought since the state has kept weather records.

    PSA: “CUT BACK NOW!”

    MIKE TAIBBI: California has imposed conservation measures requiring a 25-percent reduction in water usage. Even the state’s biggest drinkers — the agricultural producers who consume 80 per cent of the state’s water — are being forced to cut back

    Now, the state’s second most populous county, San Diego County, is betting on the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere to boost its water supply.

    So this is it, this is where the magic happens?

    PETER MACLAGGAN: The desalination process that we have running behind us here is the most efficient desalination technology anywhere in North America.

    MIKE TAIBBI: Peter MacLaggan is a Senior Vice President of Poseidon Water, which will operate the plant in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego. Poseidon spent a billion dollars and took nearly three years to build it.

    PETER MACLAGGAN: This facility will create an opportunity to learn what large-scale desalination can mean to Southern California and the rest of the state, for that matter. We’ve got the largest reservoir in the world here at our doorstep.

    MIKE TAIBBI: That reservoir is the Pacific Ocean — covering a-third of the planet’s surface with saltwater. Of course, converting saltwater to freshwater is not exactly a new idea: Greek sailors did that with crude evaporation techniques back in the 4th century BC.

    Today, at least 120 countries use desalination — or “desal,” as it’s commonly called. Saudi Arabia relies on desalination for 70 percent of its water needs and Poseidon Water sees itself starting a trend in the U.S. here in San Diego, out of necessity.

    PETER MACLAGGAN: We get 85 percent of our water comes from hundreds of miles away. That water’s under intense competition, interstate competition, competition between farmers and urban settings. So in Southern California, this will not be the last desalination plant that gets built, there’ll be others that follow.

    MIKE TAIBBI: Here’s how state-of-the-art desalination process works: The plant draws saltwater through ocean intake pipes with screens to keep out marine organisms.

    Sand and chemical filters further clean the seawater, which is pushed through thousands of tubes — each with filters so fine that water can get through, but the larger salt particles cannot. It’s a technology known as “reverse osmosis.”

    This version of the process uses half as much energy as it did 20 years ago while also pumping out a higher volume of water.

    The captured salt is diluted with the cooling water from the neighboring power station, and that’s discharged back into the ocean.

    Fresh water is what remains.

    The last step: These eight high-powered pumps start shoving 50 million gallons of fresh water a day through these big pipes, up the hill and straight in to the aqueduct that serves 112,000 homes, some 300,000 people, about a tenth the population of San Diego County.

    San Diego County has committed to buying water from this plant for the next 30 years. That will increase monthly water bills for residents and businesses by about 6 percent, says Bob Yamada of the San Diego County Water Authority.

    BOB YAMADA: The cost to the average rate payer, let’s say the average residential customer, is going to be about $5 a month, in terms of their individual cost to pay for the water supply coming from this facility.

    MIKE TAIBBI: The Water Authority’s own poll of a-thousand San Diego residents last year showed overwhelming support for what it called a “diversified water strategy” to include desalination.

    And for around five dollars a month per family to remediate the effects of the drought, Carlsbad could be the bellwether. More than a dozen other desalination plants are now in the planning stages up and down the California coast.

    All of them call for the modernized “reverse osmosis” design that Poseidon is using here.

    Earlier this year, “NewsHour Weekend” visited a plant in Israel that is using the same technology that now provides nearly half that country’s drinking water.

    BOB YAMADA: We’re able to produce up to 54 million gallons a day of desalinated ocean water. That’s enough to fill an olympic-sized pool every 18 minutes.

    MIKE TAIBBI: That all sounds good, a drought-proof supply of fresh water. But critics say there are still questions about desal, and the bandwagon is filling up way to fast.

    Among those critics is Matt O’Malley of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, which filed one of several lawsuits that tried and failed to delay construction of the plant. He says the Carlsbad plant will generate greenhouse gases that could contribute to more frequent droughts.

    MATT O’MALLEY: We’re sort of sticking ourselves in this cycle. You can’t really desal yourself out of a drought, because what you’re doing is partly contributing to the exacerbation of climate change and to droughts long-term.

    MIKE TAIBBI: Even with its efficient design, the plant will burn through 840 megawatts of power per day — about the same amount of electricity used to power nearly 30-thousand homes.

    Then there are other environmental questions, such as, what are the long-term effects of dumping all that concentrated salt back in the ocean? Poseidon says that won’t hurt marine life, and it will be monitoring the salinity levels around the plant.

    PETER MACLAGGAN: All the science supports the fact that we can do this without harming the environment.

    MIKE TAIBBI: California’s Coastal Commission signed off on this project after a six-year permitting process, but has required Poseidon to implement mitigation measures, like restoring local wetlands. And the state has enacted new guidelines for future desalination plants, which include placing intake valves fully underwater to reduce risks to marine life.

    Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which uses its technology to study earth’s water supply, says there hasn’t been enough research on desal’s long-term impacts.

    JAY FAMIGLIETTI: I’m worried only because of the unknown environmental impacts. The unquantified environmental impacts. Let’s do the work. Let’s do the work and figure out what the environmental consequences are, and if they are acceptable, great. But we haven’t done that work.

    MIKE TAIBBI: The country’s going to say, ‘We can’t afford to wait.’

    JAY FAMIGLIETTI: I bet we can afford to wait, and the way we afford it is by more conservation and efficiency.

    MATT O’MALLEY: We still have communities in San Diego that are using per capita over 350 gallons a day.

    MIKE TAIBBI: Environmentalist O’Malley agrees the county should promote more water conservation, capture storm water, and recycle wastewater — including from toilet to tap.

    MATT O’MALLEY: It’s the general reduce, reuse, recycle mantra, and it applies to water as well.

    It’s hard for me to say that we should be investing all this money and the associated environmental costs when we are still using water in some places in our community at obscene rates.

    MIKE TAIBBI: But the question remains: can the drought zone afford to wait? California has struggled with drought and limited water supply throughout its whole history.

    Even with a forecast for a wet winter, thanks to El Nino, the NASA water scientist says the current water shortage numbers don’t lie.

    JAY FAMIGLIETTI: It will take about 12 trillion gallons of water in storage in our reservoirs and snowpack, in our groundwater, to get us out of the drought. That’s going to take about four years of above average precipitation, so not one El Nino, not two, but three or four above average years of precipitation.

    MIKE TAIBBI: Desalination might help make up that deficit. It provides a more expensive and energy intensive source of fresh water, but it’s also the more reliable one. Even a drought cannot dry out the Pacific.

    That’s why up the coast, in Santa Barbara, another desalination plant could be running next year. The city built one back in 1992 in the middle of a five-year drought, at the time, one of the state’s most severe.

    But then the rains came — a lot of rain — and, just four months after the plant started running, the city shut it off to save money.

    Now, Santa Barbara is spending 55 million dollars to knock down the existing pumps and filters to turn this into a modern desalination operation.

    Helene Schneider is the mayor.

    SANTA BARBARA MAYOR HELENE SCHNEIDER: This drought will end one day, there is going to be another drought in the future. We don’t want to be put in the situation of going through a panicky session of getting permits up to date or getting things moving. We want to have desal as an option when we need it.

    MIKE TAIBBI: What happens if the rains come this time, and they come in El Nino proportions, in that magnitude? Is there going to be some hand wringing, saying ‘did we screw up again here?’

    MAYOR HELENE SCHNEIDER: We’re doing the best we can with the information we have at the time we have it. And I’ve said many times, I’ve been calling Mother Nature, she’s not returning my phone calls.

    MIKE TAIBBI: Mayor Schneider knows California’s water crisis won’t be solved by desalination.

    It will at best be a partial solution — supplying an important though limited amount of the population’s water needs: about 30 percent of demand in Santa Barbara and about 10 percent in San Diego.

    But Poseidon’s Peter MacLaggan believes desalination is a game changer and “another tool in the toolbox” come rain or come shine.

    PETER MACLAGGAN: It can rain buckets all winter long, and that will be a great thing, but it’s not going to eliminate the need for this facility.

    MIKE TAIBBI: But as California considers more and more desalination options, it will have to weigh the costs and benefits of turning to this great reservoir just off its coast.

    The post Is desalination the future of drought relief in California? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    Emergency services work outside a nightclub in Bucharest, Romania October 31, 2015, following a deadly fire. Photo by Inquam/Reuters

    Emergency services work outside a nightclub in Bucharest, Romania October 31, 2015, following a deadly fire. Photo by Inquam/Reuters

    A fire in an underground nightclub in Romania on Friday night killed more than two dozen people and injured another 184 others, officials said.

    On Saturday, Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis laid flowers and lit a candle for the victims at the entrance of Bucharest’s Colectiv nightclub located in a converted factory, Reuters reported.

    At first, survivors told the Associated Press, a member of the heavy metal band Goodbye to Gravity that was giving a free concert there joked when the group’s pyrotechnic display went awry.

    Flames quickly engulfed the basement club and hundreds of young clubgoers stampeded toward the single available exit.

    Roughly 146 people remain in hospital. Some are in critical condition and being treated for burns, as well as smoke inhalation.

    The government called for three days of mourning, as well as a closer look into fire safety at area clubs.

    It is not uncommon to see indoor fireworks and shooting candles in restaurants and bars in Romania, but fire codes can be lax, the Associated Press reported.

    The post 27 dead, dozens injured after fire blazes through Romanian nightclub appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    Forty years ago, British rock band Queen released “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

    The year was 1975.

    “Jaws” had most people freaked out about going in the ocean for the good part of the summer. A walking Kool-Aid Man made his first appearance on TV. The Cincinnati Reds were baseball’s World Series champs.

    When it came to women’s fashion, jumpsuits were all the rage. And Margaret Thatcher would become the first woman to head a political party in the U.K.

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    While the explosive operatic rock ballad was quickly a hit in the band’s homeland, it took longer – more than a decade – for it to rise just shy of the top spot on U.S charts.

    A new set of fans was exposed to the track with fantastical lyrics in the 1990s, when the song was re-released in 1991 following lead singer Freddie Mercury’s death and featured in the 1992 film “Wayne’s World”.

    No one will ever know exactly what Mercury had in his head when he began working on the song – originally called “Cowboy Song” – in the 1960s.

    According to the BBC, he never explained the song’s meaning to his bandmates Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor–although Taylor hinted that he knew what it was about in a 2004 BBC Three documentary. Instead, Mercury wanted listeners to decide what it meant for themselves.

    What we do know is that the song had a lasting effect on pop culture. Here are eight things you might not have known about the epic single.

    The band’s historic  concert at the Hammersmith Odeon (now the Eventim Apollo) in 1975, when they played "Bohemian Rhapsody" live for the first time. Image courtesy of Queen Productions Ltd.

    The band’s historic concert at the Hammersmith Odeon (now the Eventim Apollo) in 1975, when they played “Bohemian Rhapsody” live for the first time. Image courtesy of Queen Productions Ltd.

    1. Those aren’t a bunch of nonsensical words being uttered, “scaramouche” actually means something.

    A scaramouche (Italian scaramuccia) was a character in 17th century Commedia dell’arte (popular improvisational comedy shows).

    Typically dressed in all-black, he was known for creating, and then worming his way out of sticky situations, often to the detriment of others. The term is usually associated with Italian actor Tiberio Fiorillo, who was well-known for his performances as a scaramouche throughout the 1600s.

    Bismillah means “in the name of Allah”. It is the phrase used at the start of the Muslim holy book the Quran. Many Muslims say it before undertaking a task and it can be used in a similar way to the Christian “Grace” in order to give thanks before a meal.

    2. Nearly everyone from the Muppets to an A Capella scientist has covered the song.

    There are tens of covers of “BoRhap”, as it’s known to some super-fans.

    A 2009 video of the Muppets performing the song garnered more than seven million views in its first week online, according to Time. It was the first web video for Jim Henson’s popular characters and has received a little more than 47 million hits to date.

    They changed some of the lines of course. Instead of “Mama, just killed a man,” Animal simply repeated the word “mama.”

    Perhaps one of the most educational covers is “Bohemian Gravity” by Tim Blais. Also known as A Capella Science, Blais has a Master’s in theoretical physics and used the melody to explain aspects of quantum mechanics.

    Maybe Queen’s Brian May, an astrophysicist himself, is a fan of the cover.

    Jonathan Groff, currently on Broadway as King George in the musical “Hamilton,” performed the song in an episode of TV’s “Glee.”

    And CollegeHumor set the song in a university fraternity house for the 2007 spoof “Brohemian Rhapsody”.

    3. A band member’s voice is missing. 

    John Deacon, the band’s bassist, didn’t sing on the single.

    But then again, he didn’t sing any lead vocals for Queen.

    Deacon wrote Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and “I Want to Break Free”.

    4. If the label EMI had its way, the song wouldn’t be exactly as it is today.

    John Reid, EMI’s manager at the time thought the song – at 5 minutes, 55 seconds – was too long, according to Universal Music.

    He requested it be cut down.

    Before edits could happen, DJ Kenny Everett played the song in its entirety on London’s Capital Radio.

    After airplay, record stores were flooded with requests for the single.

    5. Mamma Mia!

    The song by Swedish pop group Abba put an end to “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” nine-week reign of the U.K. charts at the end of January 1976.

    While “BoRhap” was Queen’s first Top Ten hit in the U.S., it only made it to No. 9 on the Billboard Top 100.

    When the song was re-released in the U.S. in 1992 to coincide with its appearance in “Wayne’s World”, it rose further, to No. 2.

    What song stood in its way to No. 1? That would be Kris Kross’s “Jump.”

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    6. A rare, blue vinyl edition of “BoRhap” could get you several thousand dollars.

    In 1978, EMI received an award from the British monarchy.

    To celebrate, label executives and bands went to a fancy dinner in London’s fashionable West End. Guests were given special, limited edition copies of Queen’s most recognizable tune on blue vinyl.

    Only 200 copies were made.

    Included with the 7-inch record were a box of matches, pen, goblet, menu cards and handkerchief, all of which could fetch the owner up to 5,000 pounds ($7,700), according to the Guardian.

    7. Filming the “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene in “Wayne’s World” took longer than filming the song’s original video.

    The original video, directed by Bruce Gowers – later of “American Idol” – took three hours to make and cost 3,500 pounds ($5,400).

    In 1992, the unforgettable car singalong in “Wayne’s World” took about 10 hours to shoot, director Penelope Spheeris told the BBC. Afterward, there were complaints from the actors of sore necks and headaches from all the headbanging.

    Mike Meyers, who played the film’s title role revealed to Vanity Fair in 2014 that the song was nearly replaced with a Guns N’ Roses track.

    8. What do Liza Minnelli and Marlene Dietrich have to do with “Bohemian Rhapsody”?

    According to the 2004 BBC Three documentary, Mercury was listening to the soundtrack for “Cabaret” that featured Minnelli, while he worked on the song’s musical composition in 1975.

    In his London home, where he did most of the work, Mercury slept in front of a piano, which doubled as his bed headboard. When he was inspiration-struck in the middle of the night, he’d sit up, and reach back behind his head to play the piano.

    A picture of Marlene Dietrich from 1932’s “Shanghai Express” provided inspiration for the “Queen II” album cover in 1974.

    Shot by Mick Rock, the photographer was tasked with resurrecting the look and feel of that dramatic image that had the band members’ faces emerging from a black background for the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video.

    Interested in listening to other hits from the Queen songbook? Check out our Spotify playlist below.

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    The post 8 things you didn’t know about ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    The remains of a Russian airliner are seen in central Sinai near the city of Arish, north Egypt, October 31, 2015. The Airbus A321, carrying 224 passengers and crew, crashed into a mountainous area of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on Saturday, killing all aboard. Photo by Retuers

    The remains of a Russian airliner are seen in central Sinai near the city of Arish, north Egypt, October 31, 2015. The Airbus A321, carrying 224 passengers and crew, crashed into a mountainous area of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on Saturday, killing all aboard. Photo by Retuers

    Russian MetroJet flight 9268 and its 224 passengers and crew lifted off from the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh shortly before 6 a.m. Saturday morning. Just 23 minutes later, the flight lost contact with ground control and plunged more than 30,000 feet before hitting the desert floor in a mountainous central area of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. No one on board survived, officials say.

    Except for three Ukrainian passengers, everyone on board was Russian, Egyptian government officials said.

    Egyptian search and rescue teams found the plane’s wreckage  — including both of the so-called black boxes, the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice data recorder, which may yield clues as to what happened during the plane’s final moments — about 40 miles south of the northern Sinai city of Arish.

    “I now see a tragic scene,” an unnamed Egyptian security officer told Reuters by telephone from the scene of the crash. “A lot of dead on the ground and many who died whilst strapped to their seats.”

    “The plane split into two, a small part on the tail end that burned and a larger part that crashed into a rock face. We have extracted at least 100 bodies and the rest are still inside,” the officer said.

    Flight 9268's flight path from takeoff in Sharm el-Sheikh to the crash site. Graphic by Lisa Overton/NewsHour Weekend

    Flight 9268’s path from takeoff in Sharm el-Sheikh to the crash site. Graphic by Lisa Overton/NewsHour Weekend

    At a news conference, Russian transportation minister Maxim Sokolov said the cause of the crash was as yet undetermined. But terrorism and engine trouble have both emerged as unconfirmed potential explanations.

    For years, Egyptian security forces have battled an Islamic insurgency in the region. That fight has intensified recently following Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s seizure of power from Islamist former president Mohammed Morsi, and the rise to prominence among the Sinai insurgency of an ISIS-affiliated militant group.

    That group, Sinai Province of the Islamic State, released a statement in which it claimed responsibility for the crash, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group. The group said that it had downed the plan as retaliation for Russia’s recent military actions in support of the Assad regime in Syria.

    Two major European carriers, Air France and Lufthansa, said Saturday that they will stop flying over the Sinai as a precautionary measure while the crash is under investigation.

    Unconfirmed news reports pointed to technical failure, not terrorism, as the possible cause of the crash.

    Russia’s state-funded RIA Novosti news agency reported that a source at the airport in Sharm el-Sheikh said the plane’s crew had complained to the airport’s technical service that the 18-year-old Airbus 321 had engine problems, and an official with Egypt’s Aviation Incidents Committee, Ayman al-Muqadem, said that the pilot requested an emergency landing before losing communication.

    Russian airlines were notorious for dismal safety records following privatization and regulatory chaos in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Although Russia’s air safety record has improved somewhat in recent years, crashes — many blamed on human error — persist. Russian airlines sell roughly one tenth as many airline tickets annually as do U.S. companies. But despite the difference in passenger volumes, Russia ranks second in the world behind the United States in terms of fatal plane crashes.

    Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered the establishment of an interdepartmental commission, headed by transportation minister Sokolov, to investigate the circumstances of the crash, according to a government press release.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a presidential decree declaring Sunday a national day of mourning.

    In honor of those killed in the crash, the decree designates that “Russian national flags will be flown at half-mast across the country. Cultural institutions and television and radio broadcasters should cancel entertaining events and programs on the day of mourning.

    The Russian government, together with local authorities, should take appropriate measures to provide assistance to the families of the victims,” according to the state-owned TASS news agency.

    The post More than 200 dead after Russian airliner crashes in Egypt’s Sinai appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    NORFOLK, Va. — Donald Trump outlined an unreleased position paper to improve veterans’ health care and other services on Saturday, as he faces continued criticism for failing to provide policy specifics.

    The Republican presidential contender previewed his plans at a campaign appearance in front of the battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia – the same place where 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney announced his vice-presidential pick.

    Trump has made a point of criticizing the way veterans in the country are treated ever since he drew criticism by questioning Sen. John McCain’s status as a war hero early in his campaign.

    Speaking in front of several thousand supporters Saturday, Trump outlined his plans for reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs, arguing that veterans should to be able to receive treatment any time they want from any doctor or facility that accepts Medicare.

    The change, he said, would help improve wait times and services by adding competition.

    Trump also said he wants to improve health services for female veterans, provide new incentives for companies to hire veterans and provide new assistance to help veterans adjust to civilian life.

    “We’re going to transform the V.A. to meet the needs of the 21st century,” Trump, who appeared to be reading his yet-to-be-released plans, said. “We’re going to make the V.A. great again.”

    Trump did not provide specifics, but said that, overall, the changes he’d propose would cost less than he system now him place.

    Trump has also released policy papers on immigration, the Second Amendment and tax reform.

    The post Trump to release plan aimed at improving veteran health care appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    A couple sits by the shore at sunset on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy in the Staten Island borough of New York City, October 29, 2013. On October 29, 2012 Hurricane Sandy, also known as Superstorm Sandy, left more then 100 people dead and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.  REUTERS/Mike Segar     (UNITED STATES - Tags: ANNIVERSARY DISASTER ENVIRONMENT) - RTX14T6M

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    STEPHEN FEE: Tina and Randy Downer built their dream house and raised their two kids in the Oakwood beach section of Staten Island. Their house was just 300 feet from the Atlantic Ocean.

    TINA DOWNER: It’s beautiful. It’s like we got to live in some kind of a nature sanctuary.

    STEPHEN FEE: The Downers knew the area was prone to flooding during storms, but the destruction of Superstorm Sandy took them by surprise.

    TINA DOWNER: I could not believe what we were seeing.

    STEPHEN FEE: Their house took on 13 feet of water. Just down the street, Joe Tirone owned a small bungalow that he rented out. After the damage from Sandy, he told a consultant for the Federal Emergency Management Agency – or FEMA – that he didn’t want to rebuild.

    JOE TIRONE: He said, ‘Well if that’s the case why don’t you have the government buy out your home?’ And I had no idea what he was talking about.

    STEPHEN FEE: For two decades, the federal government has financed the purchase of homes in severely flood prone areas all over the country, getting homeowners permanently out of harm’s way. The buyouts are administered by the states and local municipalities. When Tirone learned about this program, he presented the idea to his fellow homeowners at a community meeting.

    JOE TIRONE: I said, ‘How many people here would be interested in a buyout?’ Basically every single person raised their hand.

    STEPHEN FEE: In the three years since Sandy, nearly every one of the 180 homeowners here in Oakwood Beach has taken the voluntary buyout from the state. That included the Downers, who now feared living so close to the ocean. Three of their neighbors died during Sandy.

    TINA DOWNER: People we know died here. That hit home with a lot of people.

    STEPHEN FEE: When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo visited Oakwood Beach on the second anniversary of Sandy last year, he promised every house bought out would be demolished, and this vulnerable land would never be built on again.

    ANDREW CUOMO: We’re going to return this back to the natural pristine wetlands, so that God forbid there is another storm, this becomes an effective buffer for the rest of the communities.

    STEPHEN FEE: Homeowners were offered the pre-Sandy market value of their homes — plus as much as 15 percent more. Overall, the state is planning to spend $200 million to buyout 500 homes mostly in three Staten Island neighborhoods.

    Lisa Bova-Hiatt oversees New York State’s recovery program and says it was necessary for the state to pay above market value.

    LISA BOVA-HIATT: If you are going to get people to buy into a ‘managed retreat’ scenario, you need to give them incentive to leave. It’s not a windfall for them. Any additional money that they’ve received from insurance companies or from FEMA is deducted.

    STEPHEN FEE: Bova-Hiatt says buying and demolishing homes in these areas saves taxpayer money in the long-run.

    LISA BOVA-HIATT: We are making sure that we’re not spending money on infrastructure in areas that will repetitively need to be fixed.

    STEPHEN FEE: But aren’t there other parts of Staten Island that are just as prone to flooding where this program isn’t being offered?

    LISA BOVA-HIATT: Sure, but we have other programs. The reality is that there’s no one way to take care of a neighborhood or a borough, or in our case — a state — after a storm.

    STEPHEN FEE: Where the Downer’s house stood is now an empty plot. They now own and live in a one-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of a building elsewhere on the island. With the state buyout money, they also bought a second home out of state.

    What do you say to somebody who says ‘sounds like a lot of money.’ Was it a windfall for you?

    TINA DOWNER: No, I think that it was very fair that the state used the proper valuations on the property. It still can’t replace what we lost. The sense of community, where are roots are, our friends and neighbors. So it didn’t even matter, we lost a lot.

    The post Three years later, buyouts help Sandy-battered residents retreat to new homes appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    A breast cancer patient undergoes radiation treatment at a hospital in Tegucigalpa. Since the discovery of the x-ray in 1895, physicians have tried to figure out ways to use it in the diagnosis and treatment of a variety of illnesses, including cancer. Photo by Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: A new report from the American Cancer Society finds breast cancer is now as common among black women in the U.S. as it is among white women.

    The data published this week shows the rate of breast cancer among African-Americans had ranged from 119 to 125 out of every 100,000 women.

    But in 2012, that rate went up to 135 out of every 100,000 black women, matching the rate of white women. That number is troubling in part because breast cancer is more fatal for black women than white women: they are 42 percent more likely to die from the disease.

    Joining me now from Atlanta to discuss this report is Doctor Otis Brawley. He’s the chief medical and scientific officer of the American Cancer Society.

    So, when you look at these numbers, what I’m a little concerned about is, if that rate was able to catch up, does that mean it is on a bad trajectory and it could even get worse?

    DR. OTIS BRAWLEY, AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY: I believe it will get worse, and we need to address it now to prevent it from getting worse.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And what is it that actually caught this population up? What is it in African-American women that makes them more likely to die from a diagnosis or after a diagnosis of breast cancer than white women?

    DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: There are a couple of factors that actually increase risk for breast cancer and they are working very hard and unfortunately very effectively in the black population.

    Obesity causes breast cancer. Black women have gone from 15 percent of adult black women being obese in the 1970’s to now over 60 percent today.

    Diets that are low in fruits and vegetables cause breast cancer. And unfortunately, we have a number of people who have bad diets.

    Not breast-feeding actually increases risk for breast cancer and that is a problem as well in the black population. We don’t have enough women who are breast-feeding when they have a child.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, this is not just a case of increased diagnoses?

    DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: Yes. This is not case of they have always had it and we are now starting to find it. This is a case of, they are starting to have it in greater and greater numbers.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: What about the access part of the equation? Say, for example, for mammograms and screenings?

    DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: Yes. Well, mammograph rates between rates between blacks and whites are actually very similar, however, we do have data to show that black women and I would add to that poor white women are less likely to get high quality mammography.

    Once diagnosed with abnormality they are less likely to get high quality diagnostics.

    And very importantly, we got good data show that black women and poor white women and poor other minorities as well are less likely to get good treatment, and some of the disparity in mortality that we see amongst blacks and whites are actually due to disparities in quality of treatment.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. So what do you do about this? How do you get the cancer rate down for all women, but especially when you see this problem in communities of color?

    DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: My message is a message for all women, not just women of color and that is try to maintain an ideal body weight, try to get good exercise, try to have a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, try to decrease meat consumption, if you have a child, try to breast-feed.

    If diagnosed with breast cancer, you need to seek the highest, best quality care that we can.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Dr. Otis Brawley from the American Cancer Society, thanks so much.

    DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: My pleasure. Thank you.

    The post Breast cancer now as common among black women as white, report says appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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