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

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    Supreme Court Nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch arrives for a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 1, 2017. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

    Supreme Court Nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch arrives for a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 1, 2017. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

    NEW YORK (AP) — As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised a crusading anti-abortion Supreme Court nominee who would work to overturn the Roe v. Wade opinion that legalized abortion.

    But an Associated Press review of decisions and writings by Neil Gorsuch, the federal appeals court judge the president has just chosen to elevate to the high court, turns up no guarantees on how he might rule on the issue.

    The review of Gorsuch’s record shows he has taken positions against assisted suicide and in favor of laws that allow employers who object on religious grounds to escape paying for contraception — issues that both sides of the abortion debate have seized on to parse his judicial history.

    Abortion rights groups immediately criticized the nomination, saying Gorsuch represents a threat to women’s reproductive rights and to the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide in 1973.

    “With a clear track record of supporting an agenda that undermines abortion access and endangers women, there is no doubt that Gorsuch is a direct threat to Roe v. Wade and the promise it holds for women’s equality,” NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said in a statement.

    The president of the Family Research Council, which backed Trump, heralded the president’s nomination of Gorsuch as a win for abortion opponents in a TV appearance Tuesday.

    “He said he was going to pick pro-life judges that were strict constructionists, and that’s what we appear to have in Judge Gorsuch,” Tony Perkins said in an interview on Fox News Channel. “So, I think evangelicals are going to be very pleased.”

    Observers looking for clues on how Gorsuch might rule on specific cases may be disappointed. While the judge has made his views clear on some aspects of the law and expressed his broader judicial philosophy, he has left few tracks that would enable an easy prediction as to how he might rule on a particular case.

    The 49-year-old jurist has largely stuck to narrow legal issues while writing about subjects that others sprinkle with inflammatory rhetoric, whether they are related to abortion, reproductive rights, the death penalty or civil rights. It appears he hasn’t written an opinion directly about abortion.

    Gorsuch is on a list of experts compiled by The Federalist Society, which was founded to advance conservative ideas in the legal system. He also has contributed to the campaigns of Republican politicians who were anti-abortion.

    On the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Gorsuch ruled against the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. In 2013, he joined the majority of the circuit in ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and the owners of the Christian-owned arts and crafts chain, which objected on religious grounds to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control coverage requirement.

    Gorsuch wrote a separate opinion in that case in which he outlined what he saw as a moral dilemma facing the family that owns Hobby Lobby and a related company if they were forced to pay for certain contraceptives.

    The law requires companies to support payments for “drugs or devices that can have the effect of destroying a fertilized human egg,” Gorsuch wrote. They believe that “violates their faith, representing a degree of complicity their religion disallows.”

    The Supreme Court later ruled that employers who object on such grounds do not have to pay, but their insurance still must make contraception available, ultimately reimbursed by the federal government.

    After an anti-abortion group in 2015 released secretly recorded videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing how they sometimes provide fetal tissue to researchers — which is legal if no profit is made — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, ordered the organization stripped of public funding.

    Planned Parenthood denied any wrongdoing and challenged the governor’s move in court.

    The case ultimately made its way to the 10th Circuit, which ruled that the governor could not halt funding to the women’s health organization. When a judge requested a rehearing it was denied, but Gorsuch wrote a powerful dissent defending Herbert’s action, which he described as being prompted only by the videos and not by the governor’s longstanding opposition to abortion.

    “The panel cited the fact that the governor has long opposed abortion and, from this, inferred that he wanted to punish the group for its lawful abortion advocacy,” Gorsuch wrote in 2016. “But it is undisputed that the governor has held office since 2009 and had taken no action against (Planned Parenthood Association of Utah) until shortly after the release of the videos in 2015.”

    Gorsuch also has given some indications of his positions on euthanasia and the death penalty.

    In a 2006 book titled “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia,” he characterized assisted suicide as “essentially a right to consensual homicide.”

    He also has joined decisions upholding death sentences.

    In September 2015 Gorsuch wrote the opinion in a 2-1 decision upholding the death sentence for Scott Eizember, who had gone on a deadly crime spree in 2003.

    Eizember was sentenced to be executed for the bludgeoning death of A.J. Cantrell, 76, and to 150 years in prison in the shotgun slaying of Patsy Cantrell, 70, at their Oklahoma home.

    His attorneys argued the death sentence should be overturned because a particular juror should not have been allowed to participate. They said the juror stated during jury selection that she was in favor of the death penalty.

    Eizember’s attorneys said that raised doubts about the juror’s ability to be fair and impartial.

    But Gorsuch disagreed.

    “Scott Eizember left a Tulsa jail intent on settling a score. He was upset with his ex-girlfriend, Kathy Biggs, because she had tipped off authorities about his violation of a protective order,” he wrote.


    Burke reported from San Francisco and Weiss from Charlotte, North Carolina. Associated Press writer Gillian Flaccus and AP Researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.

    The post Gorsuch case review shows he’s no crusader on abortion appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Israa Taha and Abdelsalam Elshaikh at their 2016 wedding in Sudan. Photo courtesy of Abdelsalam Elshaikh

    Israa Taha and Abdelsalam Elshaikh at their 2016 wedding in Sudan. Photo courtesy of Abdelsalam Elshaikh

    March was supposed to be an auspicious month for Abdelsalam Elshaikh and Israa Taha, a chance for them to pursue their long-awaited career aspirations and to begin their lives together as a family.

    Elshaikh and Taha, who are married, have each dreamed of becoming physicians in the United States since growing up in Sudan. And next month, Elshaikh, who now lives in Minnesota, will find out whether he “matched” for a residency program.

    By that time, Taha was supposed to have arrived in the United States herself. The couple was also planning their delayed honeymoon: a vacation to Florida to see family, with a detour to Disney World.

    Or at least that was the plan.

    Then came President Trump’s executive order on immigration. Taha remains in Sudan.

    The plan now, she said, “is completely unknown. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

    “I did not expect the United States to go in this direction,” Elshaikh said. “I was thinking my five years of work and doing my board exams and waiting for residency, they were all for nothing. I told my wife, ‘To be with you is more important than achieving my dreams in the United States.’”

    READ MORE: U.S. research and health care rely on international workers. Here are the visas that make it happen

    Elshaikh, 32, had finished medical school in Sudan and was in the middle of his training there in 2010 when he obtained a visa to come to the United States. In the years since, he has worked as a nursing aide and cardiac monitor technician at the Mayo Clinic while completing the necessary tests and certifications so that, as a graduate of a foreign medical school, he can enter a US residency program. He became a US citizen in January 2016.

    Taha, 27, meanwhile, finished medical school in Sudan in 2013. The couple married last March and that month applied for a green card for her to join Elshaikh in the United States. Taha has already passed the first exam needed to enter a US residency program, and had intended to complete the certification process in the United States.

    The couple expected the vetting process to take between nine months and a year. After turning in a petition and tax documents and other forms and fees, they were told in December that everything was set, they said. All that was left was for Taha to do an interview with the US Embassy.

    She had been waiting for over a month for the interview to be scheduled when she and Elshaikh heard the news that Trump had suspended immigration for 90 days from seven majority-Muslim countries, including Sudan, on national security grounds. Now they’re not sure when — or if — Taha’s interview will be scheduled.

    Over the past few days, Elshaikh has considered contingency plans. He had been working toward this moment in his career for years, but living here without Taha was unimaginable. Australia. Canada. Back to Sudan. They would find somewhere to be together.

    But Taha has told him they should wait it out. Who knows what may happen after the 90-day period? Maybe she will be allowed in. And even through the uncertainty, the couple continues to hold out hope that they will be able to live together in the United States.

    “The United States is the number one place to be a good doctor,” Taha said over Skype from Khartoum. “The facilities and the hospitals, everything is very different here in Sudan. I have always dreamed of doing medicine in such a place.”

    She said she fell in love with biology as a child and never thought about any career outside of medicine. How the human body functions, and how diseases attack the body, fascinate her.

    There’s another part about medicine she enjoys: “I like helping people.”

    READ MORE: America needs to keep the door open to immigrant physicians

    She acknowledged that if the ban on people from Sudan is extended, she and her husband will have to look somewhere else to start their family. Elshaikh said they are in a state of “watchful waiting” — a term that doctors use when they monitor a patient’s health for a bit of time before choosing to give a treatment or not.

    “Hopefully March will be the good news that I match, and March will be the good news that her interview is scheduled,” he said.

    For now, though, the couple has made one concrete change of plans. Elshaikh has time off of work in March, and instead of the trip to Florida, he is planning on temporarily returning to Sudan to see Taha. They may stay in Sudan or go on a trip to Egypt, but they still hope to be able to take a dream honeymoon.

    “I promised that to her,” Elshaikh said. “I still have Florida in my mind to take her there some time.”

    This article is reproduced with permission from STAT. It was first published on Feb. 1, 2017. Find the original story here.

    The post These newlyweds dreamed of being U.S. doctors, then Trump’s immigration order happened appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Oklahoma Attorney Gen. Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in D.C. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

    Oklahoma Attorney Gen. Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in D.C. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — Republicans suspended Senate committee rules Thursday to muscle through President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency toward a confirmation vote after Democrats boycotted a meeting.

    It was the latest sign of political hostilities on Capitol Hill as Senate Democrats used parliamentary procedure to delay votes on some of Trump’s Cabinet nominees and Republicans used their slim Senate majority to advance and approve them.

    The seats reserved for the 10 Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee were empty for a second consecutive day as the scheduled meeting to discuss to nomination of Scott Pruitt was gaveled to order. Committee rules required that at least two members of the minority party be present for a vote to be held.

    The 11 Republicans voted unanimously to suspend those rules and then voted again to advance the nomination of Pruitt, the state attorney general of Oklahoma.

    Committee chairman John Barrasso accused the absent Democrats of engaging in delay and obstruction.

    “It is unprecedented for a minority to delay the nominee of incoming president to this extent,” said Barrasso, R-Wy. “Elections have consequences.”

    Despite the rhetoric from the committee’s Republicans, the Democrats appeared to have borrowed directly from their opponent’s playbook.

    In 2013, GOP members of the same committee boycotted a similar committee meeting on Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s then-nominee for EPA administrator. McCarthy was eventually approved by the Senate, serving in the post until Trump’s inauguration earlier this month.

    Barrasso has said that is not an “apples-to-apples” comparison since Obama was not then a new, first-term president building out his team.

    Democratic members of the committee said this week the boycott was necessary because Pruitt has refused to fully respond to requests for additional information.

    “For more than a month, Mr. Pruitt has not fully responded to inquiries, questions for the record, or requests for information on his record and views on clean air, clean water, and climate change,” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-MA. “Senate Democrats and the American public have a right to basic information from all of Donald Trump’s nominees, including Scott Pruitt, before taking votes on them in committee or on the Senate floor.”

    While Pruitt’s nomination has been hailed by Republicans and the fossil fuel industry, Democrats and environmental groups say his confirmation would be a disaster for the EPA.

    In his current position as Oklahoma’s state attorney general, Pruitt has frequently sued the agency he hopes to lead, including filing a multistate lawsuit opposing the Obama administration’s plan to limit planet-warming carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. Pruitt also sued over the EPA’s recent expansion of water bodies regulated under the Clean Water Act. It has been opposed by industries that would be forced to clean up polluted wastewater.

    Like Trump, the 48-year-old Republican has previously cast doubt on the extensive body of scientific evidence showing that the planet is warming and man-made carbon emissions are to blame. Pressed by Democrats in his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month, however, Pruitt said he disagreed with Trump’s earlier claims that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese to harm the economic competitiveness of the United States.

    “I do not believe climate change is a hoax,” Pruitt said.

    Democrats have also criticized Pruitt’s close ties to the oil and gas industry.

    Though Pruitt ran unopposed for a second term in 2014, campaign finance reports show he raised more than $700,000, much of it from people in the energy and utility industries. Among those who gave the maximum contribution of $5,000 to Pruitt’s campaign was Continental Resources Chairman and CEO Harold Hamm, an Oklahoma oil tycoon who has been advising Trump.

    The post GOP senators move Trump EPA pick ahead as Dems boycott vote appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks to Department of State employees upon arrival at the Department of State in Washington, U.S., February 2, 2017. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

    U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks to Department of State employees upon arrival at the Department of State in Washington, U.S., February 2, 2017. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

    WASHINGTON — Making his debut as America’s global envoy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought Thursday to reassure U.S. diplomats who are anxious after a turbulent first two weeks of President Donald Trump’s presidency. Still, he warned diplomats that unspecified changes would be coming.

    Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO, used his first appearance at the State Department to praise the members of America’s diplomatic corps as “among the finest public servants in the world.” He said he intends to pursue diplomacy based on core principles of honesty, respect and accountability.

    Yet he also noted that he was assuming the role following a “hotly contested election.”

    “Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs,” Tillerson said. “But we cannot let out personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team.”

    The incoming secretary’s remarks alluded to a “dissent cable” signed by hundreds of diplomats challenging President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees. Although the White House had warned diplomats as signatures were being collected that they should “get with the program” or resign, Tillerson adopted a notably more amicable tone.

    “No one will tolerate disrespect of anyone,” Tillerson said to hundreds of State Department employees who gathered in a lobby on their boss’ first day. “We are human beings first.”

    Tillerson said diplomats should be aware that he might make changes to “how things are traditionally done,” although he did not elaborate. Rather than move rashly, Tillerson said, he is gathering information “on what processes should be reformed.”

    “Change for the sake of change can be counterproductive, and that will never be my approach,” Tillerson said in his booming baritone voice, accented with the twang of his Texas background.

    After speaking for a few minutes, Tillerson paused for a moment of silence at a wall listing the name of fallen U.S. diplomats.

    On his first day, Tillerson planned to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. He was sworn in Wednesday evening in the Oval Office.

    For Tillerson, the diplomatic landscape looks far different than it did when Trump nominated him less than seven weeks ago. Trump has rattled diplomats with tough talk toward Mexico, Australia and Iran while stoking concerns about potentially dramatic changes of U.S. position toward Russia, Taiwan, and Israel and the Palestinian territories.

    An engineer by training who rose to the top of oil giant Exxon, Tillerson won Senate confirmation despite an effort to derail him by Democrats who criticized his close working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Several Republican senators who raised concerns about Tillerson during his hearings ultimately voted for him.

    Though he has no experience as a diplomat, Tillerson used his confirmation hearings to portray himself as a levelheaded tactician with foreign policy views well within the mainstream.

    “Some people didn’t like Rex because he actually got along with leaders of the world. I said, ‘No, that’s a good thing,'” Trump said Thursday morning at the National Prayer Breakfast, which Tillerson also attended. “I think he’s going to go down as one of the great, great secretaries.”

    The post Tillerson: Diplomats must be a team despite personal beliefs appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a memorial ceremony for late mayor of Ariel, Ron Nachman, in the Israeli settlement of Ariel in the occupied West Bank February 2, 2017. Photo by  Baz Ratner/REUTERS

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a memorial ceremony for late mayor of Ariel, Ron Nachman, in the Israeli settlement of Ariel in the occupied West Bank February 2, 2017. Photo by Baz Ratner/REUTERS

    AMONA, West Bank — Israel’s prime minister on Thursday vowed to establish the first new West Bank settlement in over two decades “as soon as possible,” promising to make up for the court-ordered demolition of an illegal settler outpost.

    Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement was his latest step to expand Israeli settlement construction in the wake of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Trump has signaled a far softer line toward the settlements, which are considered illegal by most of the international community.

    Netanyahu spoke just as Israeli security forces were completing the evacuation of Amona, where they broke into a synagogue earlier on Thursday to remove dozens of Israeli protesters who had barricaded themselves inside.

    Netanyahu’s pro-settler government had unsuccessfully tried to block the evacuation of Amona. But Israel’s Supreme Court rejected all appeals after determining the outpost was built illegally two decades ago on private Palestinian land.

    Speaking at a ceremony in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, Netanyahu expressed “great pain” over the removal of Amona.

    “We all understand the depth of the pain and therefore we will establish a new settlement on state land,” he said. “Already yesterday I formed a team that will determine the settlement location and get everything ready. And we will act so that it happens as soon as possible.”

    According to the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now, Israel has not officially broken ground on a new settlement since 1992.

    Since that time, however, it has greatly expanded its existing settlements and allowed dozens of unauthorized outposts to sprout up, in some case subsequently legalizing them. In all, some 400,000 Israelis now live in West Bank settlements, in addition to 200,000 others living in east Jerusalem.

    The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future independent state. The international community has opposed the settlements, built on occupied lands sought by the Palestinians, as obstacles to peace.

    After years of clashes with the Obama administration, Netanyahu’s nationalist coalition has welcomed Trump’s election. With Trump perceived as being sympathetic to the settlements, Netanyahu has announced plans to build over 6,000 new settlement homes since the new U.S. president was sworn in two weeks ago.

    Israeli policemen try to remove pro-settlement activists from a house during an operation by Israeli forces to evict settlers from the illegal outpost of Amona in the occupied West Bank February 1, 2017. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/REUTERS

    Israeli policemen try to remove pro-settlement activists from a house during an operation by Israeli forces to evict settlers from the illegal outpost of Amona in the occupied West Bank February 1, 2017. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/REUTERS

    The White House has not commented on the construction binge, a dramatic contrast to the harsh condemnations voiced by Barack Obama’s administration and Israel’s allies in Europe. Netanyahu and Trump are expected to discuss settlement construction, among other things, when they meet at the White House on Feb. 15.

    Britain and Germany, close Israeli allies, as well as the European Union criticized Netanyahu’s approval this week of 3,000 new settlement homes in the West Bank.

    “This spike in settlement activity undermines trust and makes a two state solution — with an Israel that is safe from terrorism and a Palestinian state that is viable and sovereign — much harder to achieve,” said Britain’s minister for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood.

    Amona has emerged as a symbol of settler defiance. On Thursday, Israeli police completed the evacuation of the wind-swept community, where hundreds of Jewish activists joined residents in resisting the pullout.

    Police began the evacuation on Wednesday, but dozens of activists remained holed up in the synagogue. Initially, police said 200 had barricaded themselves inside but later revised the number to about 100.

    On Thursday, several hundred Israeli forces surrounded the building, and officers wearing goggles and wielding plastic shields broke through the doors and sprayed water to push back defiant protesters.

    “The officers faced especially tough and violent resistance,” police said in a statement. Protesters sprayed fire extinguishers at police and threw rocks, paint bottles and wooden planks, police said.

    Slogans including “Death to Zionists” and a swastika comparing the Israeli police to Nazis were scrawled on the synagogue walls. The police later began dragging young protesters out of the building.

    Speaking to Israel Radio from inside the synagogue, the rabbi of Amona said the protesters were peacefully resisting the uprooting of the outpost. He spoke above loud noises and shouting in the background. Earlier Thursday, police removed protesters holed up in a small home nearby.

    Police said 24 officers were lightly injured throughout the evacuation, and 13 young protesters were arrested.

    Amona is the largest of about 100 unauthorized outposts erected in the West Bank without formal permission but with tacit Israeli government support. It witnessed violent clashes 11 years ago when police demolished nine homes found to have been built on private Palestinian land.

    The Supreme Court last year determined that the entire outpost was built illegally and ordered it demolished.

    The post Israeli leader vows new settlement as outpost is dismantled appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    U.S. President Donald Trump attends the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, U.S., February 2, 2017. Photo by Carlos Barria/REUTERS

    U.S. President Donald Trump attends the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, U.S., February 2, 2017. Photo by Carlos Barria/REUTERS

    WASHINGTON — Declaring that religious freedom is “under threat,” President Donald Trump vowed Thursday to repeal a rarely enforced IRS rule that says pastors who endorse candidates from the pulpit risk losing their tax-exempt status.

    “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” Trump said during remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, a high-profile event bringing together faith leaders, politicians and dignitaries.

    Trump also defended his recent executive order on immigration, decrying “generous” immigration policies and arguing that there are people who seek to enter the country “for the purpose of spreading violence or oppressing other people based upon their faith.” He also pledged to take more immigration action in the name of religious liberty.

    “In the coming days we will develop a system to help ensure that those admitted into our country fully embrace our values of religious and personal liberty and that they reject any form of oppression and discrimination,” Trump said.

    He did not detail how he might scrap the IRS rule, which he has previously pledged to do away with. The rule, named after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, has been in place since 1954, but it is very rare for a church to actually be penalized. And while some conservative Christians would like to see it abolished, others, especially the younger generation, support a clear separation of church and politics.

    Repeal does not appear to have widespread public support. Eight in 10 Americans said it was inappropriate for pastors to endorse a candidate in church in a poll released last September by Lifeway Research, a religious survey firm based in Nashville.

    For many religious conservatives, whose overwhelming support helped propel Trump to the White House, a more pressing issue they hope he will address is protection for faith-based charities, schools and ministries who object to same-sex marriage and abortion.

    The president made no mention at the prayer breakfast of other steps he may take, saying only that religious freedom is a “sacred right.”

    During his remarks, Trump also took a dig at Arnold Schwarzenegger, the new host of “The Apprentice,” the reality TV show Trump previously headlined. Trump said that since Schwarzenegger took over, the show’s ratings have been down, and he asked the audience to “pray for Arnold.” Schwarzenegger tweeted in response that he and Trump should switch jobs and Americans would sleep better.

    LGBTQ groups have been anxious that the president could use his executive powers to curb legal advances they have made.

    “We think it is entirely possible there could be an executive order that creates religious exemptions,” said James Esseks, LGBT project director for the American Civil Liberties Union. He added that the “narrative” that Trump won’t harm the LGBTQ community was “not correct.”

    Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced that the president would leave intact a 2014 executive order that protects workers for federal contractors from anti-LGBTQ discrimination, saying in a statement that Trump “continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election.”

    During a Monday news briefing, White House spokesman Sean Spicer offered no details on whether Trump could still issue an executive order affecting the LGBTQ community.

    “There is a lot of executive orders, a lot of things that the president has talked about and will continue to fulfill, but we have nothing on that front now,” Spicer said.

    Religious conservatives, who saw a series of defeats on same-sex marriage, abortion and other issues under former President Barack Obama, have been bolstered by Trump’s win. In a letter last year to Roman Catholics, Trump pledged, “I will defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions.”

    Trump’s Supreme Court pick this week was also considered a positive sign for conservatives.

    A favorite of conservatives, Neil Gorsuch serves on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he sided with Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor when they mounted religious objections to the Obama administration’s requirement that employers provide health insurance that includes contraceptives.

    The post Trump vows to repeal political limits on churches appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A student walks through the University of Texas campus in Austin. Photo by Jon Herskovitz/Reuters

    Each year, when they get to campus, more than half a million American college students have to take so-called remedial or developmental education classes to teach them basic math and English skills they should have learned in high school. And that’s not even the full story. The full story cannot be accurately told, because of problems in how states collect the data — if they collect it at all.

    Here’s what we do know:

    During the 2014 academic year, at least 569,751 students at 884 public two- and four-year colleges across 33 states were deemed not ready for some college-level work.

    “If you have nothing or little data or it’s inconsistent, how are we going to gauge whether we’re making progress?” Mary Fulton, Education Commission of the States
    The national total is likely significantly higher, however, due to inconsistencies in how the data was collected. In fact, there’s no way to know exactly how many students are placed in these courses, even though they are a financial drain on students and taxpayers and a huge stumbling block on the way to a degree.

    The Hechinger Report spent months collecting remediation rates from public institutions across the country, and learned that the data is tracked differently from state to state, making national comparisons difficult.

    Some states report information for all students, for instance, while others report information only for incoming recent high school graduates. Some report it for the fall semester only, while others include data from the entire academic year. Some states provided data only for their two-year schools; some just for their four-year schools. Some states hadn’t collected data since 2012, and some states didn’t have any remediation data available to share.

    Even in the many states that do track this data consistently, different schools may use different cutoff scores on remedial course placement tests.

    And the criteria can change at any time, as many colleges and universities try to revamp remediation classes as a way to graduate more students more efficiently. At the same time, K-12 education systems across the country are focusing more than ever on producing “college-ready” students.

    But without better data, it’s hard to tell whether any of this is working.

    “If you have nothing or little data or it’s inconsistent … how are we going to gauge whether we’re making progress?” said Mary Fulton, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States.

    In 2014, she co-authored “A Cure for Remedial Reporting Chaos,” which revealed that only 32 states reported annual statewide remedial education information and, of those, just 15 states reported remediation rates back to high schools and 13 followed remediation students to see how they did in college.

    “There was no consistency in whether states reported at all, or on a regular basis and what was included in those reports,” she said. “It’s just a lot messier than we ever anticipated.”

    One nonprofit organization, Complete College America, has made a push to solve this problem by getting states to agree to track not only remediation students’ enrollment rates, but also course completion and graduation rates for those students. Its 2012 report “Bridge to Nowhere” found that across 33 states 52 percent of entering students at two-year schools and 20 percent at four-year schools were placed in remedial classes in the fall of 2006.

    Despite the progress that organization has made, Hechinger’s investigation met with multiple obstacles to getting recent data broken down by campus. Three states — Arizona, Nebraska and New Hampshire — specifically told us they didn’t collect these numbers from their state institutions. Pennsylvania did not respond to repeated requests, while Wyoming was in the process of redoing its own analysis of the information for its technical colleges and unable to provide it publicly.

    The South Dakota university system had numbers to share, but the state’s technical institutes only tracked the number of underprepared students who eventually graduated, not the number who enrolled in remedial courses in the

    first place. Missouri declined to give a breakdown of its remediation rates by campus, citing potential errors. Instead, it broke its data into sectors, such as “moderately selective” and “open two-year.”

    569,783 students at 884 public two- and four-year higher education campuses across 33 states were deemed not ready for some college-level work.
    Similarly, Ohio only publishes statewide figures and declined to fulfill a public records request for campus-level data, explaining that, by law, it is not obligated to create data that doesn’t already exist. Both the Iowa university system and New York State would not provide the data without a public records request. Two of Iowa’s three universities required payment for it — $30 for Iowa State and $150 for the University of Iowa. (The University of Northern Iowa and New York State completed the request for no charge.)

    The problem with delayed, messy or missing remediation data isn’t just about a state’s ability to track remediation at its colleges, said Regina Deil-Amen, a professor of higher education and sociology at the University of Arizona. The problem affects high school reform as well.

    Over the last six years, every state has updated its K-12 standards, with the majority adopting the Common Core, which maps out what students need to know and be able to do in each grade in math and English in order to be ”college and career ready.”

    The standards are “supposed to be about making students competent for college-level work,” Deil-Amen said. “When you have no way of seeing how their competency pans out, it’s problematic.”

    As the Education Commission of the States 2014 report pointed out, while several states regularly produce reports that tie higher education remediation rates back to specific high schools, most states do not. So, college-readiness is usually judged by students’ pass rates on standardized tests taken in the 11th grade.

    This disconnect between the K-12 and higher education systems has long been an issue, according to José Luis Santos, vice president of higher education policy and practice at the Education Trust. If more states collected better data about students needing remedial classes in college, that would be a starting point. The next step, though, would be to make sure that high schools learn about the findings.

    “The data points are hugely important,” he said. “But it’s not until people sit down together across these systems to look at where there are failings … if they sat together and looked at that high need of remediation, there could be some true partnerships there.”

    This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

    The post Experts don’t know how many students are prepared for college. Here’s why that matters appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Volunteers listen to an orientation before taking part in the Department of Homeless Services survey count in the Brooklyn borough of New York February 9, 2015. Thousands of volunteers fanned out across New York before dawn on Tuesday to conduct the city's yearly homeless survey, trying to count the people who wander the sidewalks all night, sleep in subways for warmth or slip into the shadows to avoid being seen. Picture taken February 9, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY POVERTY) - RTR4P105

    A safety net is only useful if people can access its benefits. Our current one is fraying and letting too many people fall through the cracks, writes Kristin Seefeldt of the University of Michigan. Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

    Editor’s Note: Kristin S. Seefeldt is an assistant professor in the Schools of Social Work and Public Policy at the University of Michigan and the author of “Abandoned Families: Social Isolation in the 21st Century.” Seefeldt spent six years interviewing low-income women in the Detroit metro area who have faced underemployment and unemployment, economic and residential segregation and barriers to accessing help. Below, Seefeldt lays out the argument for fixing our social safety net and dispels beliefs that those accessing it are “dependent” on welfare.

    — Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor

    Despite President Trump’s promises to bring jobs back to the United States, some Americans will continue to be unemployed, some will lose jobs in the future, while others will earn wages too low to support their families. The social safety net, comprised of various programs such as unemployment insurance and food stamps, is intended to ensure that families are able to meet their basic needs during periods of unemployment and underemployment. At the same time, the safety net is perpetually under attack, in part due to beliefs that those who use it are “dependent” and “abusing” the system.

    READ MORE: This innovative idea can ‘unshackle’ poor people from payday loans and bad credit scores

    However, for many, in particular women working low-wage jobs, the safety net is so frayed that rather than being “dependent” on it, they struggle to even access it. In interviewing such women for my new book, “Abandoned Families: Social Isolation in the 21st Century,” I found that programs that are supposed to help during tough times could not always be counted upon. Obtaining benefits often entailed fighting with lawyers, employers and bureaucrats. Welfare caseworkers repeatedly made mistakes that caused disruptions to benefits that had been difficult to obtain in the first place. Delays in receiving benefits — or not receiving benefits at all — contributed to a great deal of hardship for these women and their families.

    However, for many, in particular women working low-wage jobs, the safety net is so frayed that rather than being “dependent” on it, they struggle to even access it.

    Consider the situations faced by Tamara and Sharon, both single mothers who lost their jobs. Tamara was injured at her job at an assisted living facility, most likely because she frequently lifted immobile patients. Since her employer did not have other work that she could do, she applied for unemployment insurance, the federal-state program that partially replaces wages of those who lose jobs through no fault of their own. Sharon also applied for unemployment insurance when she was laid her off from her accounting position. Both women were initially denied benefits, because their employers contested their filings.

    Why would an employer do this? The unemployment insurance program is funded in part by taxes paid by employers on behalf of their employees. The tax rates are determined by an employer’s “experience rating,” meaning that the more the more claims have been paid out to its former workers, the more the employer pays in taxes. Employers thus have an incentive to keep their experience rating as low as possible. One way to do that is to never lay off any workers. Another way is to fight the claims of workers who try to obtain unemployment benefits.

    READ MORE: Income is up, poverty is down, but neither are back at pre-recession levels

    Tamara eventually received her benefits, but not before having her car repossessed and having her electricity nearly turned off, because she went months without any income. Sharon’s case took more than six months to be resolved in her favor; in the meantime, she accrued large amounts of credit card debt, using her cards to pay everything from her mortgage to her groceries.

    Rhonda, a single mother of four, lost a home health care job. Her job had paid so little and her hours were so irregular that she qualified for aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps. Once she was unemployed, her benefits should have increased to account for the loss of earnings. Instead, her food stamps actually stopped. Rhonda notified her caseworker, who assured her that the mistake would be corrected, but the next month she still had no benefits. Rhonda said that she repeatedly called the welfare office, but the caseworker never returned any of her calls. Rhonda eventually got in touch with a supervisor in the welfare office, and her benefits resumed, but then stopped again the following month. Her caseworker claimed that the problem was caused by a “glitch” in the state’s computer system, and she was unable to fix it.

    A safety net is only useful if people can access its benefits. Our current one is fraying and letting too many people fall through the cracks.

    Tamara, Sharon and Rhonda’s experiences were not unique. Long waits to receive benefits were common place among the women I interviewed. Another woman I interviewed, Nichelle, once waited for more than a year to be approved for food stamps and Medicaid; welfare caseworkers lost her paperwork over and over again. While relatives fed Nichelle’s children, she often went without meals. The proportion of unemployment insurance claims that are contested has risen in the past 20 years, and some employers hire firms that specialize in fighting cases of laid off workers’ who file for unemployment insurance.

    We do not yet know the Trump administration’s plans for safety net reform, although advisers have signaled support for block granting Medicaid — that is, providing a fixed sum of money to states that does not change based on need for the program. House Speaker Paul Ryan has previously proposed a similar funding structure for SNAP. Because block grants are fixed, states may have less money to spend on programs and their administration if more people than expected apply for and use the programs, making it unlikely that we would see investments in improving staffing levels and management systems that could reduce the types of delays these women experienced.

    READ MORE: Poverty makes financial decisions harder. Behavioral economics can help

    Additionally, rhetoric about changing recipients’ behaviors — instituting time limits on receipt of assistance and other requirements to move people off of safety net programs so that they do not become “dependent” — is the dominant discourse. For the women I interviewed, dependency was not an issue; they struggled to simply obtain benefits in the first place. Reform efforts might instead target the performance of caseworkers and provide money to states to modernize computer systems so that paperwork is not “lost.” The funding structure of the unemployment insurance system also needs to be addressed, so that employers do not have an incentive to challenge the claims of the people they have laid off.

    A safety net is only useful if people can access its benefits. Our current one is fraying and letting too many people fall through the cracks.

    The post Column: We need to fix the social safety net, not shame those who need it appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A burned out portable light system is seen at UC Berkeley after a student protest turned violent during a demonstration over right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, who was forced to cancel his talk in Berkeley, California. Photo by Stephen Lam/Reuters

    A burned out portable light system is seen at UC Berkeley after a student protest turned violent during a demonstration over right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, who was forced to cancel his talk in Berkeley, California. Photo by Stephen Lam/Reuters

    The University of California’s Berkeley campus has a storied history of protests and free speech. But Wednesday night it was roiled by violence surrounding a planned appearance by the highly controversial Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos — and the show did not go on.

    Berkeley police canceled the speech by Yiannopoulos after, they said, “an apparently organized violent attack and destruction of property” forced them to evacuate Yiannopoulos to protect him and the hundreds of protesters and audience members. The Berkeley statement blamed the violence — which included fires, the throwing of Molotov cocktails and fireworks thrown at officers — on a “group of about 150 masked agitators who came onto campus and interrupted an otherwise nonviolent protest.”

    Related from Inside Higher Ed: Shooting Outside Campus Talk

    The much larger group of nonviolent protesters appeared to include many students and faculty members. But it was the outside protesters who led to the event being called off. Authorities said that those protesters set fires, threw rocks and fireworks at police officers, and “attacked” some members of the crowd, who were then rescued by police officers.

    “Campus officials said they condemn in the strongest possible terms the violence and unlawful behavior that was on display and deeply regret that those tactics will now overshadow the efforts of the majority to engage in legitimate and lawful protest against the performer’s presence and perspectives,” the university’s statement said.

    Even though Berkeley resisted calls to rescind the invitation to Yiannopoulos and set up security to permit him to speak, President Trump went on Twitter this morning to condemn the university, blame it for the violence and suggest that its federal funding be cut. He tweeted, “If UC Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — no federal funds?”

    Yiannopoulos has been stirring campus controversies for a year now — and his Breitbart connection has become more controversial, given that website’s links to Donald Trump. A Yiannopoulos appearance at the University of California, Davis, was called off amid protests — despite a strong push by the institution to enable the event to take place, even as officials criticized Yiannopoulos’s message. A man was shot and seriously wounded outside a Yiannopoulos appearance at the University of Washington last month.

    Wednesday night’s protests focused as much or more on the president and his policies, which many of the protesters derided as “fascist.”

    Like many campuses in this recent string of incidents surrounding Yiannopoulos appearances, Berkeley had ramped up its police presence and taken significant measures to guard against violence.

    Berkeley officials also issued several statements both condemning the rhetoric Yiannopoulos typically uses and rejecting calls that the university prevent him from speaking. In the statements, the university noted that the campus Republican group invited Yiannopoulos and only that group could disinvite him.

    In a message to the campus last week, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks rejected the idea that Yiannopoulos was promoting serious political debate. “In our view, Mr. Yiannopoulos is a troll and provocateur who uses odious behavior in part to ‘entertain,’ but also to deflect any serious engagement with ideas. He has been widely and rightly condemned for engaging in hate speech directed at a wide range of groups and individuals, as well as for disparaging and ridiculing individual audience members, particularly members of the LGBTQ community.”

    Related from Inside Higher Ed: Free Speech, Both Ways

    But Dirks also said that Berkeley would be wrong to bar Yiannopoulos from campus. “Consistent with the dictates of the First Amendment as uniformly and decisively interpreted by the courts, the university cannot censor or prohibit events or charge differential fees. Some have asked us whether attacks on individuals are also protected. In fact, critical statements and even the demeaning ridicule of individuals are largely protected by the Constitution; in this case, Yiannopoulos’s past words and deeds do not justify prior restraint on his freedom of expression or the cancellation of the event.”

    This week, Berkeley officials also expressed alarm over plans announced on the Breitbart website to use the Yiannopoulos appearance at Berkeley to start a campaign against campus efforts to help students who lack the documentation to remain in the United States. “There are concerns that he will be employing the strategies of using pictures and personal information of Cal students during his speech, which, as you know, is simultaneously being live-streamed, therefore making these images widely available and subsequently putting students at risk,” said a message from the university’s student affairs office.

    But journalists and others described a roving band of protesters who invaded the campus hours before the speech was to occur and rampaged.

    Twitter and other social media were filled with images of the violence.

    Inside Higher Ed is a free, daily online publication covering the fast-changing world of higher education.

    The post Trump suggests Berkeley could lose federal funds over violent protests at university appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Katie Meyler (1) (1)

    When the Ebola outbreak hit Liberia two years ago, all schools were forced to shut down to prevent further transmission of the disease. The neighborhood of Westpoint, in the capital city of Monrovia, was ground zero for Ebola and was also the area where most of Katie Meyler’s students lived.

    Meyler, an American who had moved to Liberia years earlier as a recent college graduate, turned her school into an emergency response headquarters and raised money to buy two ambulances. She also bribed her way into the quarantined Westpoint so she could provide emotional support to the families of her students.

    “Our plan was to do everything you can to keep everybody alive and then when you can’t do anything else, bring dignity in death. Singing to people, praying with people while they died.”

    And at a time when many Westerners had left the country, Meyer used social media — especially Instagram — to let people around the world know what was happening. She said she knew that by staying in Liberia, she was risking her life, but she felt it was her duty to stay.

    “I’d rather die at 30 years old, living for what I really believe from head to toe in every single way possible, than to live to be 90 years old and not really fulfill what I was born to do.”

    “I’d rather die at 30 years old, living for what I really believe… than to live to be 90 years old and not really fulfill what I was born to do.”

    For her work, she was named a “person of the year” by TIME magazine, along with other Ebola fighters. Meyler says watching so many people die has forever changed her.

    “I don’t want to get over it…. Remembering what it felt like and to see that national emergency, it motivates me and fuels me to fight to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

    Eleven years ago, Meyler packed her bags and set off for Liberia for a six-month internship with a charity.

    “I didn’t even know where Liberia was on a map. I had to Google it,” she says with a laugh.

    Her experience running a literacy program in a small, rural Liberian community was transformative. She was shocked to discover the lack of education and extreme poverty that children faced. She knew immediately that she had to stay.

    “There’s a saying that nobody chooses Liberia, that Liberia chooses you. I think part of it is, you come here and you see the amount of need the place has and the people are very warm and open and you realize you can make a big difference.”

    Meyer initially raised money for scholarships to send children to school. But she became so disenchanted with the existing school system, she decided to start her own. It’s called the More Than Me Academy, and it provides free education, meals and health care for girls in kindergarten through sixth grade.

    Meyler believes that improving the education system is the first step to preventing another such catastrophe. Last year she began working with Liberia’s minister of education to help overhaul the entire public school system. Her organization is one of seven private organizations that have taken over nearly 100 public schools in a pilot project.

    Meyler, who writes and performs poetry in her spare time, composed “Never Again” as a response to the Ebola epidemic.

    Never Again

    Thank You, Thank You my Lord

    Men in moon suits shovel corpses like their rubble
    Bodies piled high in the back of pick ups
    Crowds across the street keep their distance
    The sounds of mourning screams are constant

    People lie like dogs on the street
    Their cries for help go unanswered
    The world’s afraid to come too close

    In my rubber boots on bended knee
    The stench of death was mixed with feces
    His soft baby checks were against the dirt and dust
    There was no ma for his hand to cup
    In a bath of his own blood
    His big brown eyes looked at the world with love
    I asked him name
    He could barely speak
    Softly he tells me “I’m Charlie”
    He reached for my arm
    But I back up
    as much as I wanted to hold him
    this is an enemy that preys on love

    If only my songs
    Could hold his face
    Encircle him in a warm embrace
    The soft notes down his back they’d trace

    Thank you, thank you my Lord

    Death tolls rising like the tide
    Tension is more tangible than touch
    Bodies are being buried in mass graves

    While experts sip coffees and lattes
    Have cocktail parties and all day debates
    On the best strategizes and philosophies
    That determine the fate of these communities
    That they have never even frickin’ been to?

    So I beg you now please help!

    Boots on the ground is what we need
    We are out of water and PPE’s
    No bleach, no beds, and no IV’s
    Wages for employees??
    Hospitals transmitting more disease
    A country that lacks complete capacity

    And there was Esther
    Hairnet on her head
    In a woman’s oversized flower dress
    All the people around her sang
    With arms stretched to the sky in praise
    They were thanking God for their lives.

    This was a survivor’s party
    Except there was nothing about Esther that was happy
    She survived Ebola, but when she woke up from a coma
    She learned that her entire family didn’t.
    She was about to be released
    Except there was nobody there to get her

    In a country without adoption and with no foster care system
    Where will she go? And the world leaves her in the hands of the Liberian Government that is vividly broken as you freak out about an outbreak in
    America that will never freakin’ happen
    “For God sake get a grip”

    Sarah was stronger than any human being I’ve known
    I gave her two teddy bears and a telephone

    We stood outside the Ebola treatment unit
    I looked into her eyes
    I told her she was going to be okay.
    I lied.
    She walked down that dark hall
    And she never came back out

    “Are you sure? She seemed so strong?”
    “Sometimes they just drop dead”

    I couldn’t get the words out
    I just looked at her mother
    My lips quivered
    I dropped my head and sobbed
    She got the message
    And collapsed
    She flung her arms in the air and shook

    no place to say her last goodbyes
    no “I love you baby”, no tears to wipe
    no hand to hold throughout the night

    Sarah’s life is gone.
    The world doesn’t stop, the debates go on, the blame goes on, the fight for attention the corruption.
    This circus goes on.
    Sarah’s life is gone. Gone, gone.
    We let this go on. And now her precious life has slipped gone.

    I’m not okay and no one gets it
    No one
    These images won’t go away
    They stain my mind and keep me awake

    I think about the little girl just dead on a bench
    or Sarah’s mothers face
    I sometimes weep thinking about what an inhumane, lonely death small Charlie had

    It’s sad and dark but then I think about all of the survivors
    Like Esther. All she has lost but she has life
    I have life. And you have life.
    And we must use it to the max.

    This will never be okay until we make sure it never happens again.

    The post From the heart of the Ebola crisis, this educator and poet says ‘never again’ appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    80 tykes went to the emergency room with laundry detergent pod-related ocular burns in 2015, according to new research from Johns Hopkins University. Photo by ivannag82/via Adobe

    480 tykes went to the emergency room with laundry detergent pod-related ocular burns in 2015, according to new research from Johns Hopkins University. Photo by ivannag82/via Adobe

    If kids see something that looks like candy, better believe they’ll touch it. And this instinct has created a threat for children’s eyes, based on new research published Thursday in JAMA Ophthalmology. The report cites a nationwide spike in eye-related chemical burns due to laundry detergent pods. The ever-popular pods now account for a quarter of chemical-related eye injuries in kids aged 3 to 4.

    “I was shocked by the results,” said R. Sterling Haring, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, who led what is the first study of detergent pod-related eye injury. “You know, going from a handful in 2012 to making up 26 percent of all of the ocular chemical burns among this age group in 2015, that is ridiculous.”

    More than 17,000 children were poisoned by laundry detergent pods from 2012 to 2013. But these eye burns present a special danger due to the chemistry of liquid detergent.

    His investigation into detergent pods started in October, after Haring and his colleagues published a separate study about the overall prevalence and causes of chemical eye burns in the U.S. One might expect most of these injuries to occur among adults working industrial factories, where chemicals might splash into an unguarded eye. But to their surprise, they had found 50 percent more chemical eye burns in young children versus adults. Then, the news cycle took over and offered some extra clarity.

    “The feedback we were getting from the medical community was where the rubber hit the road,” Haring said. “Community ophthalmologists, optometrists, pediatricians and ER docs were going on the news and saying these are common occurrences — and almost invariably they mentioned laundry detergent pods.”

    For the new study, the researchers dug into the issue by turning to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), which gathers emergency room reports from approximately 100 hospitals peppered around the country. For the last 30 years, the system has served as barometer for U.S. injury prevalence. Concentrated detergent tablets and pods have existed since the 1960s, but Haring and his team focused on recent years, given the pods’ popularity jumped after Procter & Gamble released new liquid versions in 2012. Sales of the liquid detergent capsules increased by 150 percent between 2012 and 2015, according to The Wall Street Journal.

    Approximately 1,500 preschoolers (aged 3-4) visited emergency rooms in 2010 and 2011 due to chemical eye burns, with no cases due to laundry detergent pods. The year 2012 notched 12 cases, and the following year: 262. And in 2015, the last year with available NEISS data, 480 tykes went to the emergency room with laundry detergent pod-related ocular burns.

    “The study shows what the medical literature is showing,” said Sharon Lehman, chief pediatric ophthalmologist at the Nemours Children’s Clinic in Wilmington, Delaware, who wasn’t involved in the study. “There is more frequent injury with the pods, whether it be ingestion, skin injury or now eye injury…There has been criticism of the packaging because it looks like candy.”

    Upon splashing into exposed tissue, like one’s eyeballs, alkaline chemicals in liquid laundry detergent cause necrosis, wherein the tissue essentially liquefies. Photo by WIN-Initiative/Getty Images.

    Upon splashing into exposed tissue, like one’s eyeballs, alkaline chemicals in liquid laundry detergent cause necrosis, wherein the tissue essentially liquefies. Photo by WIN-Initiative/Getty Images.

    More than 17,000 children were poisoned by laundry detergent pods from 2012 to 2013. But these eye burns present a special danger due to the chemistry of liquid detergent.

    “Chemical burns are divided into two categories. Acidic burns and alkaline burns,” said Alex Levin, chief of Pediatric ophthalmology and ocular genetics at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Alkaline burns happen with substances like a detergent and insidiously, they cause tissue to die in a very severe way.”

    Upon splashing into exposed tissue, like one’s eyeballs, alkaline chemicals cause necrosis, wherein the tissue essentially liquefies. Alkaline chemicals tend to burn faster and more severely than acidic chemicals. The burns can cause significant pain if the chemicals hit the cornea — the nerve-packed clear dome that covers the colored part of your eye. Levin said alkalines “kill tissue in a way even acids don’t do” because exposure and necrosis can cut off blood circulation, making the damage hard to spot in the eye.

    “One problem is because the blood vessels are dying, the eye doesn’t look as an inflamed as you might think,” Levin said. “It can fool a person or parent into thinking a burn isn’t as bad as it is.”

    The NEISS data occurred most often when a child squirted the detergent into their eyes or burst a packet onto their hands and touched their face. One limitation of the study is the NEISS numbers come only from emergency rooms, meaning visits to community physicians and urgent care facilities aren’t counted. Also, the surveillance system doesn’t provide information on the long-term outcomes of patients, but Haring wants to conduct such a study in the future.

    All three doctors interviewed for this story had the same advice in case this accident happens to your child:

    “The first thing you do is drop what you’re doing and run cool water on that child’s eye for 20 minutes before you do anything else,” Haring said. “Before you go to the ER, before you call 911, run cool water on the eye for 20 minutes straight. That’s exactly what they’re going to do in the ER and you might as well get started right then.”

    A longer wait could mean a larger injury. Doctors can treat the burns with medical ointment or drops, Lehman said, with wounds healing within days to weeks. But the most severe injuries require surgery to replace damaged corneas or repair eye tissue.

    Prevention is also key in their opinions. Levin said manufacturers might want to try to make laundry detergent pods less attractive to children by removing bright colors, while Haring called on parents to put these things out of reach.

    “You know, I have a couple of little boys myself, and it amazes me sometimes what they’re able to get to,” Haring said. “Number one rule is, get these [pods] out of reach, out of sight. Keep them put away.”

    The post Toddler eye burns spike due to laundry detergent pods appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    EUROPA,Deutschland, Frankfurt,, Ferhat tanzt, aufgenommen am 17.01.2016 © Alina Emrich

    Hala with her four children: Sara, Farah, Helen and Mohammed. Credit: Alina Emrich

    For three years, documentary filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen followed one Syrian family: Hala, her husband Abu Ali, a commander in the Free Syrian Army, and their four young children: Sara, Farah, Helen and Mohammed. Their story — of violence, escape to safety, and adjusting to a new life in Germany — became the film “Watani: My Homeland,” nominated this year for an Oscar.

    Hala was planning to attend the award ceremony later this month, along with a Women in the World Summit for female leaders in Washington, D.C. But since President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, Mettelsiefen said that no longer seems possible, despite Hala’s visa, which is valid until 2019. And now, she’s speaking out.

    In a statement given to PBS NewsHour, Hala said she agreed to be filmed so that people could “see the truth and harsh reality” refugees face, and that she felt a duty to use her story and platform to bring attention to the people still trapped in Syria. “Being able to stand up on a world stage and address people worldwide,” as she might have at the Oscars or the Women in the World conference, “is very important in [that] mission,” she said.

    In addition to Hala, the executive order that temporarily bans travel from seven countries may also prevent the White Helmets, a Syrian volunteer rescue group that appears in another Oscar-nominated documentary, from attending the ceremony. Meanwhile, an unknown number of foreign nationals who lived and studied in the U.S. for years do not know when and if they will be able to return, and the fate of some 20,000 refugees remains in limbo.

    The State Department, which manages the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, referred questions about the order and its impact on refugees to the White House. On Wednesday, in a separate interview with the NewsHour, Vice President Mike Pence defended the executive order more generally as a “pause” so that vetting procedures could be improved.

    “President Trump has no higher priority than the safety and security of the American people,” he said, citing the example of the November 2015 terror attack in Paris, where it was initially believed that one of the attackers had a Syrian refugee passport. That passport later turned out to be fake, but intelligence officials have warned that extremists have considered exploiting refugee programs to enter the U.S.

    “It’s very sad to see one of the biggest [and] most influential countries in the world close its heart to people,” Hala said. “Refugees are humans first and foremost. They are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.”

    When the film begins, Hala’s family of six is the only one remaining in a warzone area of Aleppo — and they vow to stay. But when her husband Abu Ali gets captured by ISIS, and the violence continues to escalate around them, Hala must make the difficult decision to leave Syria for the safety of her children. As they arrive in their new home, a small town in Germany called Goslar, Hala gazes out the window and murmurs: “There isn’t a single shelled house.”

    In considering the travel ban, Mettelsiefen, who is German but has been traveling to Syria since 2011, said it is important to remember that choosing to leave home is not a decision most refugees want to make. Hala and Abu Ali wanted to stay and fight for Syria, as did their children, despite living amid constant shelling.

    “We love you, Syria,” Sara, Hala’s youngest child, says in the film as they leave Aleppo for Germany. “Forgive us.”

    In her statement, Hala said, “We don’t become refugees because it’s the easiest thing to do; we become refugees because the only other choice is death.”

    Almost 5 million Syrians — or half the country’s population — have fled the country since the conflict began in 2011. Some half a million people have died.

    But while children can more easily adapt to life in a new country, Mettelsiefen said he has found that is more difficult for parents like Hala.

    “While the older generation will physically be there, they will never be able to really leave their homeland,” he said. In her statement, Hala said in leaving Syria means she now has to live with “great sadness and great guilt.”

    At a speech in August before the United Nations, Hala warned in stark terms that Aleppo, her beloved hometown, was burning, but the world had stopped paying attention. Aleppo, which is Syria’s largest city, was once a bustling metropolis; now, it’s been largely reduced to rubble.

    “My homeland is bleeding profusely and the world is yet to tend to its wounds,” she said.

    Hala also told the UN that as the Syrian people called out for help, the world was otherwise fixated on “images of knife-wielding terrorists killing in the name of Islam.”

    “Well, not in our name. Not in my name,” she said. The crowd burst into applause.

    “She gave this unbelievable speech at the [UN] General Assembly,” said Mettelsiefen, “giving a voice and face to all these refugees… as a strong, female Muslim woman.”  

    This was important, he said, because it shows a different and  more human side to the Arab world than “the endless rows of bearded men chopping off heads” often shown in the media. Mettelsiefen believes the travel ban, which restricts immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, only further feeds that narrative.

    “To shape the future by and with hate, fear, and division is very dangerous,” he said. “I’m German, we’ve been there, and it didn’t end well.”

    Just four months after Hala’s speech, Aleppo fell to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. And the five-year-long civil war continues. In recent months, little news has gotten out of Syria, which remains the most dangerous country for journalists. But in December, the United Nations voiced concern that more than 100,000 civilians were trapped, and this week media reported cease-fire talks between the government and rebel factions were shaky.

    “Syria is still burning, its people are being suffocated,” Hala said in her statement. “Millions of men, women and children are in need of desperate help. Time is running out.”

    Watch the “Watani: My Homeland”  trailer below, or the hour-long television version, called “Children of Syria,” which premiered on FRONTLINE in April 2016, here.

    The post U.S. immigration ban ‘closes its heart’ to the people, says Syrian refugee who may not attend Oscars appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Uber CEO Travis Kalanick speaks to students during an interaction at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus in Mumbai, India, January 19, 2016. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui - RTX231O2

    Uber CEO Travis Kalanick speaks to students during an interaction at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus in Mumbai, India, January 19, 2016. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

    Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has quit President Donald Trump’s business leaders’ forum, according to an internal memo obtained by the Associated Press. Uber also provided a copy of the memo to the PBS NewsHour.

    Kalanick wrote that he’d spoken with Trump Thursday and “let him know that I would not be able to participate on his economic council. Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the President or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that.”

    The ride-sharing company has been buffeted all week by boycott campaigns that began when people perceived it as trying to break a taxi strike at New York’s JFK Airport. The strike was inspired by Trump’s executive order temporarily suspending the country’s refugee program.

    Kalanick subsequently condemned the executive order and has contributed to relief groups, but calls for a boycott have continued.

    Every executive action President Trump has taken (so far)

    The post Uber CEO quits Trump business council appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Vice-President Elect Mike Pence tour a Carrier factory in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S., December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTSU9BO

    President-elect Donald Trump and Vice-President Elect Mike Pence tour a Carrier factory in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S., December 1, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/Mike Segar

    As promised during the election campaign, on Jan. 23, President Trump signed the executive order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal with 11 other countries. Renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement is Mr. Trump’s next big step on trade policy. In his first week, his administration suggested that Mexican imports would potentially face a 20 percent tax in order to finance a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

    The president’s actions are rooted in his belief that U.S. free trade agreements have enlarged U.S. trade deficits, causing job losses and wage declines.

    What is a trade deficit?

    A trade deficit happens when a country’s imports of goods and services exceed its exports of goods and services. In other words, when a country buys more from the rest of the world than it sells, the country incurs a trade deficit. In 2016, the U.S. trade deficit was about $500 billion.

    The size of the trade deficit is primarily determined by four macroeconomic forces:

    • The difference between U.S. household and business savings on the one hand and spending by U.S. residential construction and business investment on the other hand;
    • The combined deficit of federal, state and local governments;
    • The level of economic activity in the rest of the world, particularly in countries that are close trading partners of the United States;
    • The trade-weighted exchange rate of the U.S. dollar.

    Putting these forces together, the United States incurs a trade deficit when it spends more than it earns — bearing in mind that national spending and earnings are influenced by the tempo of economic activity abroad and the foreign exchange value of the dollar. When economic activity abroad is robust, it’s easier for U.S. firms to sell goods and services to foreign buyers, but when the dollar is strong, U.S. firms find it harder to sell abroad and easier to buy foreign goods and services.

    Because the United States persistently spends more than it earns and because the dollar is historically strong thanks to its safe-haven virtues, the United States has incurred trade deficits for almost half a century. Since 2000, the annual trade deficit has averaged $535 billion.

    To finance the trade deficit, the United States must either borrow from foreign lenders or attract investment from abroad. In 2015, the United States earned $16.9 trillion by producing goods and services for domestic and foreign markets, but spent $17.4 trillion buying goods and services made at home as well as abroad. Thus, the U.S. trade deficit was $500 billion in 2015, and it was financed both by loans from abroad and foreign firms investing in the United States.

    READ MORE: Column: Trump’s border tax is not the right fix for U.S.-Mexico trade

    How do trade agreements like NAFTA and the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement fit into this story? Fundamentally, they reduce frictions that impede two-way trade, financial flows and investment between the partner countries, but they do not alter the broad macroeconomic forces just listed above. Free trade agreements might alter the size of the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with the partner country, but they make little difference to the overall size of the U.S. trade deficit with the world. If the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico, for example, grows, because NAFTA reduces border frictions between the United States and Mexico, the U.S. trade deficit with the rest of the world will shrink to the same extent.

    The table below summarizes U.S. two-way trade and the trade balance (deficit or surplus) with major trading partners in 2015. The United States runs bilateral trade deficits with China, Germany, Japan, Korea and Mexico, but it runs small trade surpluses with Canada and the United Kingdom.

    But this table provides a misleading guide for making trade policy, which should ideally seek to expand multilateral trade between all parties, not to redress bilateral imbalances. In previous work, Gary Hufbauer and Zhiyao (Lucy) Lu showed that free trade agreements have little or no impact on the size of the U.S. global trade deficit.

    U.S. trade with major trading partners in 2015 (billions of dollars)


    Country Exports of goods and services Imports of goods and services Two-way trade in goods and services Trade Balance on goods and services
    Canada                 338                 332                 669 6
    China                 165                 499                 664 -334
    Germany                   80                 157                 237 -77
    Japan                 108                 164                 272 -55
    Korea                   65                   84                 148 -19
    Mexico                 267                 325                 593 -58
    United Kingdom                 123                 111                 235 12
    U.S. Total               2,261               2,762               5,023  


    Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

    Is a trade deficit good or bad?

    While the trade deficit has become a punching bag in U.S. politics, in the realm of economics, the debate is not one-sided. When a country is growing rapidly or experiencing high inflation, economists generally believe that the benefits from a trade deficit outweigh its costs. But during a recession or when a country suffers deflation, a trade deficit probably does more harm than good.

    What are the economic costs of the trade deficit?

    • Since the trade deficit is concentrated in manufactured goods, a larger deficit translates into fewer manufacturing jobs. In 1970, 26.4 percent total U.S. non-farm employment was engaged in manufacturing; in 2016, the figure had dropped to 8.5 percent. Automation explains most of the decline, but if the United States had no trade deficit in 2016, manufacturing employees might have accounted for 10 percent of the labor force. Those who view manufacturing as superior to the service industry accordingly criticize the trade deficit.
    • The longer large trade deficits persist, the greater the extent of foreign claims on the United States, either in the form of loans that must be refinanced or repaid or assets owned by foreigners (firms, buildings or land). In 2015, the total of foreign loans and assets held in the U.S. economy was $30.6 trillion; but this was balanced by U.S. claims, representing assets and loans abroad, totaling $23.3 trillion. If net foreign claims (now $7.3 trillion) become a very high fraction of U.S. GDP (currently about 40 percent), the burden of paying interest and dividends could become a significant drain on the U.S. economy.

    READ MORE: Column: The great irony of the Mexico tariff is that Americans would pay for it too

    What are the economic benefits of the trade deficit?

    • The trade deficit provides real resources for investment in U.S. productive assets, because it is financed by foreign direct investment, loans and bonds. Research shows that foreign firms operating in the United States pay above average wages, invest more in research and development and generate spillover effects that enhance the productivity of U.S. companies. The U.S. International Trade Administration reports that foreign firms directly employ 8.5 percent of the labor force, while indirect employment and productivity effects push the total to 12 million jobs.
    • A trade deficit dampens inflationary pressures when the economy approaches full employment (less than 5 percent unemployment). Larger imports can supply goods and services to the domestic market that cool down prices.
    • Finally, a U.S. trade deficit furnishes economic stimulus to the world economy, a feature that can be helpful when world growth is lethargic — the situation today.

    What policies can the United States follow to reduce the trade deficit?

    Reducing the U.S. trade deficit with the world will require macroeconomic policies that increase the savings of households and business firms, decrease government deficits and make the dollar more competitive in foreign exchange markets. Here are a few policies that would do that:

    • A realignment of exchange rates (meaning a cheaper dollar relative to the euro, the yuan, the yen and other currencies) can improve U.S. trade deficit. Rough estimates suggest that a 10 percent drop in the foreign exchange value of the dollar would diminish the trade deficit by about $220 billion annually. In principle, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury could coordinate their policies to decrease the trade-weighted value of the dollar.
    • Border tax adjustments at a 20 percent rate — as proposed by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady — might have some of the same effect as a decrease in the foreign exchange value of the dollar. Additionally, so long as the United States runs a trade deficit, border tax adjustments would generate a positive revenue flow to the U.S. Treasury, possibly $1 trillion over 10 years, which in turn could reduce the government deficit.
    • On a smaller scale, if supported by the Trump administration, the U.S. Export-Import Bank can provide financial support for U.S. exports. Economist Caroline Freund reports that the near-cessation of Export-Import Bank lending over the past year has hurt U.S. sales abroad — not a good outcome.
    Withdrawal from Trans Pacific Partnership, renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and launching trade actions against China ensure political headlines, but they will not make much difference to the global U.S. trade deficit.

    However, President Trump’s economic agenda centers on tax cuts, infrastructure and defense, implying a larger budget deficit and considerable fiscal stimulus. This may be just what the lackluster U.S. economy needs, but it’s not a prescription for smaller trade deficits.

    Moreover, to forestall a spike of inflation, the Federal Reserve might accelerate the rise of interest rates, pushing the dollar higher. A stronger dollar and stronger domestic demand will almost certainly enlarge the trade deficit. Withdrawal from Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and launching trade actions against China ensure political headlines, but they will not make much difference to the global U.S. trade deficit. Nor will they bring more jobs and higher wages to U.S. workers.

    The post Column: Is our trade deficit a problem? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    The James T. Vaughn Corrections Center is shown during a lockdown where hostages were taken in an incident at the men's prison in Smyrna, Delaware. Photo by Doug Curran/Reuters

    The James T. Vaughn Corrections Center is shown during a lockdown where hostages were taken in an incident at the men’s prison in Smyrna, Delaware. Photo by Doug Curran/Reuters

    A guard at a Delaware prison was killed sometime during a nearly 24-hour standoff that began Wednesday between prisoners and police, authorities said today.

    On Wednesday, an officer at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center radioed for help around 10:30 a.m. from a building at the prison that housed more than 100 inmates, Delaware Police spokesman Richard Bratz said. Police responded to the initial report and four prison employees, including a female counselor, were taken hostage, as Reuters reported.

    Delaware Homeland Security Secretary Robert Coupe said inmates used “sharp instruments” to gain control of the all-male prison.

    Inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center called The News Journal, a local newspaper, twice to explain their motivation and issue demands.

    They said they had experienced abuse from corrections officers. One inmate also named President Donald Trump as a reason for his actions.

    “Everything that he did. All the things that he’s doing now. We know that the institution is going to change for the worse,” the male prisoner reportedly said.

    The inmates demanded better rehabilitation and education programs in exchange for their cooperation. Authorities, however, said they have yet to determine a motive for the takeover.

    Sgt. Richard Bratz, PIO Delaware State Police, issues a statement about the prison guards who were taken hostage by prison inmates, at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware. Photo by Doug Curran/Reuters

    Sgt. Richard Bratz, PIO Delaware State Police, issues a statement about the prison guards who were taken hostage by prison inmates, at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware. Photo by Doug Curran/Reuters

    During negotiations, two male corrections officers were released Wednesday. The counselor was rescued shortly after police gained entry into the building on Thursday. Authorities said the guards taken hostage suffered injuries, adding they weren’t life-threatening.

    The Delaware State Police entered the facility using a backhoe Thursday at 5:05 a.m. and found Sgt. Steven Floyd unresponsive. Nearly a half hour later, he was pronounced dead. Floyd worked for the prisons agency for 16 years, AP reported.

    No further details were given on Floyd’s death.

    Gov. John Carney offered his condolences to Floyd’s family, vowing that state officials “will hold accountable anyone who was responsible” for the prison takeover.

    “And we will make whatever changes are necessary to ensure nothing like it ever happens again,” the governor said in a statement.

    The post 1 guard dead after hourslong prison takeover in Delaware appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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  • 02/02/17--15:53: A ‘Bat Bot’ takes flight
  • CalTech and university of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researchers have created a robot that mimics bat flight. Credit: Credit: Ramezani, Chung, Hutchinson, Sci. Robot. 2, eaal2505 (2017)

    CalTech and university of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researchers have created a robot that mimics bat flight. Credit: Credit: Ramezani, Chung, Hutchinson, Sci. Robot. 2, eaal2505 (2017)

    Bat wings have intrigued scientists for centuries. And now, engineers have created “Bat Bot,” a small aircraft that mimics the flight patterns of the small, rodent-like flyers. Bat Bot exposes the complicated mechanics of bat flight and simultaneously provides clues into how to make better aerial drones.

    Bat Bot is a remix on an ornithopter, a machine that uses flapping wings to take flight as opposed a propeller or a balloon. You may remember Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous ornithopter designs. Such manned ornithopters were the forefront of aerodynamics research for hundreds of years. As the name suggests, ornithopters are usually based on bird wings, but Bat Bot is a whole different animal.

    “Bats are ridiculously stupid in terms of how complex they are,” said Dan Riskin, a biologist at University of Toronto Mississauga who wasn’t involved in the study. “They have a shoulder that can move in similar ways that an insect can, but then they have an elbow, and a wrist, and fingers and a thumb that controls the leading edge of the wing membrane.”

    Earlier attempts at a bat-like flying machine failed because inventors tried to replicate the entire skeletal and muscular structure. The final devices were too heavy to fly.

    So researchers at CalTech and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign simplified matters by focusing on the motions of a bat wing’s base components: the shoulder, the elbow, the wrist and the tail. Their device’s wings are formed from a single super-thin membrane made of silicone. Its bones are made of carbon fibre, and its joints are 3D-printed plastic.

    All of which lightens the load. Bat Bot weighs 3.3 ounces, roughly the same as a large lemon or one and a half tennis balls. The flexible wings aid aerodynamics too.

    “So during the down stroke, the flexible wing fills up with air,” said Seth Hutchinson, roboticist of University of Illinois during a press briefing. And at the bottom of the down stroke, flexes back into place and expels the air, which generates extra lift. So that gives us extra time – flight time.”

    At a test facility, the researchers were able to get Bat Bot to perform aerial acrobatics with style, including banking and diving. The robot’s joints are controlled by electric motors located in the robot’s ”spine,” while a built-in computer records any aberrations in flight. The machine can maintain stable flight for just under 100 feet.

    When asked about a future Bat Bot 2.0, Caltech researcher Soon-Jo Chung replied “I think perching upside down is actually very interesting maneuver that robotics researchers have not reproduced yet. So, hopefully we’ll be the first ones doing so.”

    The concept isn’t crazy. MIT researchers developed a glider that perches upright in 2010.

    Because of its lightweight and durable construction, the Bat Bot could be used in the future to monitor construction sites and disaster areas. Robot surveillance of disaster areas has grown over the past decade. Rescuers first deployed disaster drones after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. PackBot examined the Fukushima nuclear power plant after the 2011 tsunami and subsequent meltdown.

    The creators argue Bat Bot is safer to operate around people because it has soft wings rather than spinning blades.

    “I am excited about the huge potential for using bat flight anatomy and biomechanics as bio-inspiration for small, silent and highly maneuverable micro-air vehicles” said biologist Nicolai Konow of UMass Lowell, who wasn’t involved in the study.

    The post A ‘Bat Bot’ takes flight appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    NewsHour shares web small logoIn our NewsHour Shares series, we show you things that caught our eye recently on the web. What about you? Leave your suggestions in the comments below, or tweet to @NewsHour using #NewsHourShares. We might share it on air.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to a NewsHour Shares.

    In 2006, after billionaire businessman Warren Buffett announced that he was giving away much of his fortune, people started writing him letters asking for help. He turned them over to his sister, who has been responding to them ever since as part of a foundation.

    Tina Martin from PBS station WGBH in Boston has the story.

    TINA MARTIN: These letters are from people from all across the country who are desperate for help.

    NONI CAMPBELL, Letters Foundation: Somebody would say, I’m on disability and I need dentures and I don’t have any money. Could you help me with dentures?

    TINA MARTIN: Some are handwritten. Others are typed. But they all come to the Letters Foundation, run by billionaire Warren Buffet’s older sister, Doris.

    She started reading letters at the request of her brother, who was being flooded with pleas for help. Noni Campbell is a longtime friend of Doris, lovingly called Dodo. They met more than a decade ago.

    NONI CAMPBELL: She had a blue sofa in her condo up in Maine, and she would be sitting in one little corner of it, and the entire rest of the sofa was piled with letters from people, boxes and boxes.

    TINA MARTIN: All of those boxes came with Doris Buffett when she moved to Boston, but she needed help reading them; 1,200 people volunteered.

    Emily Holland was one of them.

    EMILY HOLLAND, Letters Foundation: I think we don’t want to believe how easy it is to fall into a situation that’s overwhelming or that we feel like we can’t get out of.

    TINA MARTIN: Volunteers are being trained over the next several weeks, but not everyone will read letters,

    AMY KINGMAN, Letters Foundation: We actually created a new role, which are the group — a number of people who are here training today, and those are our researchers.

    TINA MARTIN: The researchers will verify people’s identities and stories. They also make sure requests fulfill the foundation’s mission of making one-time grants to help them get back on their feet.

    Unfortunately, businesses is brisk.

    TEVIS SPEZIA, Letters Foundation: Since we have been in Boston, we have given out about 260,000 in the fiscal year of 2016. In total, we have given out about a little over 300,000 now.

    We give any sorts of grants upwards of $35,000 in a case like that that’s a handicap van, and you have to spend a little bit more to provide the vehicle, and then smaller amounts to cover some utilities and help people get back on their feet can be as small as $200, $300.

    TINA MARTIN: While the foundation operates with a strict budget, there is no budget when it comes to giving.

    TEVIS SPEZIA: If anyone has worked closely with Doris, she always speaks about how she wants her last check to bounce.

    TINA MARTIN: The Buffett family is also very hands-on. Now 89, Doris isn’t always in the office, but talks with staff daily. It’s part of her personal touch, like how people are required to make a request with old-fashioned letters.

    MIMI ROZEK, Letters Foundation: She really loves the personal connection of a handwritten letter. That’s how the program really started, too, with Warren, was people writing and sending in physical letters.

    TINA MARTIN: And Mimi Rozek, Doris’ granddaughter, promises they read every letter.

    MIMI ROZEK: It’s very humbling. And, at times, it’s a little bit stressful, just because sometimes we can’t help with all of them for various reasons, but the vast majority, we are able to help. And that’s really great.

    TINA MARTIN: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Tina Martin in Boston.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s an inspiration.

    The post How Warren Buffett’s fortune is going directly to those in need appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to another in our Brief But Spectacular series.

    In honor of Black History Month, we turn to poet Clint Smith, a doctoral student at Harvard University. He studies racial inequality in the U.S. And his first full-length collection of poems, “Counting Descent,” was published in 2016.

    CLINT SMITH, Harvard University: A letter to five of the presidents who owned slaves while they were in office.

    George Washington, when you won the revolution, how many of your soldiers did you send from a battlefield to the cotton field? How many had to trade in their rifles for plows? Can you blame the slaves who ran away to fight for the British, because at least the Redcoats were honest about their oppression?

    Thomas Jefferson, when you told Sally Hemings that you would free her children if she remained your mistress, did you think there was honor in your ultimatum? Did you think we wouldn’t be able to recognize the assault in your signature? Does raping your slave, when you disguise it as bribery, make it less of a crime?

    When you wrote the Declaration of Independence, did you ever intend for black people to have freedom over their bodies, James Madison? When you wrote to Congress that black people should count as three-fifths of a person, how long did you have to look at your slaves to figure out the math? Was it easy to chop them up? Did you think they would be happy being more than just half-human?

    James Monroe, when you proposed sending slaves back to Africa, did black bodies feel like rented tools? When you branded them, did the scar on their chest include an expiration date? When you named the country Liberia, were you trying to be ironic? Does this really count as liberation?

    Andrew Jackson, was the Trail of Tears not enough for you? Was killing Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Seminoles not enough to quench your imperialism?

    How many brown bodies do you have to bulldoze before you can call it progress, Mr. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson? When you put your hand on the Bible and swore to protect this country, let’s be honest in who you were talking about.

    When the first Independence Day fireworks set the sky aflame, don’t forget where we were watching from.

    So, when you remember Jefferson’s genius, don’t forget the slaves who built the bookshelves in his library.

    When you remember Jackson’s victories in war, don’t forget what he was fighting to preserve. When you sing that this country was founded on freedom, don’t forget the duet of shackles dragging against the ground my entire life.

    I have been taught how perfect this country was, but no one ever told me about the pages torn out of my textbooks, how black and brown bodies have been bludgeoned for three centuries and find no place in the curriculum.

    Oppression doesn’t disappear just because you decided not to teach us that chapter.

    If you only hear one side of the story, at some point, you have to question who the writer is.

    I’m a third-year graduate student at Harvard University. And I study broadly the history of racial inequality in the United States.

    I taught high school English for several years in Prince George’s County, Maryland. And part of what I always think about is how important it is to complicate history.

    The presidents and the founding fathers and all of the people we sort of raise up as false idols, we don’t wrestle with the fact that many of these were brilliant men, but they were also men with deep prejudices against people of color, against indigenous people, against women.

    The Jefferson I learned about was the intellectual founding father of this country, responsible for the conception of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And we never talked about the fact that he owned slaves.

    Only after we understand where we have come from can we understand how we need to move forward.

    My name is Clint Smith. And this is my Brief But Spectacular take on complicating the history of the United States.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can find additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, pbs.org/newshour/brief.

    The post Why we shouldn’t forget that U.S. presidents owned slaves appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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