Friday, December 19, 2014

Making energy local in Minnesota

[NOTE: Vox Verax is on indefinite hiatus. We will only be positing from time to time. — LP & TM]

From Minnesota Public Radio News:

Whether they want to be forward thinking, save money on energy or cut their greenhouse emissions, some Minnesota communities are trying different ways to generate power. In this hunt, everything from wood pellets and forest slash to sunlight and garbage are fair game.
(The article is here.)

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Oklahoma Attorney General Goes to Bat Against EPA to Benefit Gas Drilling Firm

DEC. 6, 2014

The letter to the Environmental Protection Agency from Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma carried a blunt accusation: Federal regulators were grossly overestimating the amount of air pollution caused by energy companies drilling new natural gas wells in his state.

But Mr. Pruitt left out one critical point. The three-page letter was written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s biggest oil and gas companies, and was delivered to him by Devon’s chief of lobbying.

“Outstanding!” William F. Whitsitt, who at the time directed government relations at the company, said in a note to Mr. Pruitt’s office. The attorney general’s staff had taken Devon’s draft, copied it onto state government stationery with only a few word changes, and sent it to Washington with the attorney general’s signature. “The timing of the letter is great, given our meeting this Friday with both E.P.A. and the White House.”

Mr. Whitsitt then added, “Please pass along Devon’s thanks to Attorney General Pruitt.”

(More here.)

Monday, December 01, 2014

BBC says bye-bye to 'false balance' on science stories like climate change

Staff told to stop inviting cranks onto science programmes

BBC Trust says 200 senior managers trained not to insert 'false balance' into stories when issues were non-contentious

By Sarah Knapton, Science Correspondent, The Telegraph
7:46AM BST 04 Jul 2014

BBC journalists are being sent on courses to stop them inviting so many cranks onto programmes to air ‘marginal views’

The BBC Trust on Thursday published a progress report into the corporation’s science coverage which was criticised in 2012 for giving too much air-time to critics who oppose non-contentious issues.

The report found that there was still an ‘over-rigid application of editorial guidelines on impartiality’ which sought to give the ‘other side’ of the argument, even if that viewpoint was widely dismissed.

Some 200 staff have already attended seminars and workshops and more will be invited on courses in the coming months to stop them giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion.’

“The Trust wishes to emphasise the importance of attempting to establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found and make that clear to audiences,” wrote the report authors.

(More here.)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

How close are you to a Superfund site?

By Anna Scalamogna, Jason Treat, and Xaquín G.V., National Geographic; Meg Roosevelt. Sources: EPA; GAO

Since Congress passed the Superfund law, many of the worst hazardous waste sites in the U.S. have either been cleaned up or brought under control. But hundreds more are works in progress—and 95 of them, says the EPA, may be exposing humans to dangerous levels of toxic chemicals. A depleted Superfund and shrinking appropriations from Congress have delayed cleanup at some sites.

See the interactive map hereRelated story: Wasteland »

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Wondering why North America is having unseasonably cold and snowy weather?

Growing evidence that global warming is driving crazy winters

Chris Mooney, Sydney Morning Herald
November 22, 2014

It may be the timeliest - and most troubling - idea in climate science.

Back in 2012, two researchers with a particular interest in the Arctic, Rutgers' Jennifer Francis and the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Stephen Vavrus, published a paper called "Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes." In it, they suggested that the fact that the Arctic is warming so rapidly is leading to an unexpected but profound effect on the weather where the vast majority of Americans live - a change that, if their theory is correct, may have something to do with the extreme winter weather the US has seen lately.

In their paper, Francis and Vavrus suggested that a rapidly warming Arctic should interfere with the jet stream, the river of air high above us that flows eastward around the northern hemisphere and brings with it our weather. Sometimes, the jet stream flows relatively directly from west to east; but other times, it takes long, wavy loops, as in the image above. And according to Francis and Vavrus, Arctic warming should make the jet stream more wavy and loopy on average – some have called it "drunk" - with dramatic weather consequences.

(Read more here.)

Fun with GMOs

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wounded Knee redux

[VV note: A congressional vote meant to win an election in Louisiana has repercussions in South Dakota. We side with the Lakota.]

House Vote in Favor of the Keystone XL Pipeline an Act of War

by Wica Agli, Lakota Voice
November 14, 2014

Rosebud, SD – In response to today’s vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to authorize the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the Rosebud Sioux Tribal President announced that the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu Lakota Oyate) recognizes the authorization of this pipeline as an act of war.

The Tribe has done its part to remain peaceful in its dealings with the United States in this matter, in spite of the fact that the Rosebud Sioux Tribe has yet to be properly consulted on the project, which would cross through Tribal land, and the concerns brought to the Department of Interior and to the Department of State have yet to be addressed.

“The House has now signed our death warrants and the death warrants of our children and grandchildren. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe will not allow this pipeline through our lands,” said President Scott of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “We are outraged at the lack of intergovernmental cooperation. We are a sovereign nation and we are not being treated as such. We will close our reservation borders to Keystone XL. Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people.”

(Continued here.)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Who says we can't have a balanced debate on climate change?

Thursday, November 06, 2014


After 30,240 posts, 3,800 reader comments and 1,146,100 pageviews, Vox Verax is going on hiatus and will only be posting from time to time. 

To our readers: Thanks for following us these past 8 & 1/2 years. — LP & TM

"Honest politicians, like good scientists, draw conclusions from facts. Dishonest politicians, like bad scientists, draw facts from conclusions. The same is true for the media." — Vox Verax

"If the choice is between belief and science, or between belief and fact, bet on belief. It's a sad part of human nature: Belief wins every time." — Vox Verax

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

As Power of Terror Group Declines, Once-Feared Fighters Defect

NOV. 4, 2014

BAIDOA, Somalia — Bashir was a true believer, a foot soldier who recently quit after seeing too many innocents slaughtered.

Ahmed deserted the Shabab because he wanted a real family, not just a bunch of heavily armed, sociopathic militants who called themselves a “family,” he said.

And young Nurta was a slender assassin, with a bright purple scarf and wide, seemingly innocent eyes.

“There is no life with them,” said Nurta, who like other Shabab defectors requested that her last name not be used for fear of reprisals.

Even before its leader was cut down in an American airstrike in September, the Shabab militant group in Somalia, once one of Al Qaeda’s most powerful franchises, began unraveling. In the past few months, the group has been shedding territory — and fighters.

Dozens of defectors have been staying in a drab, one-story, heavily guarded concrete-block building in Baidoa, a scruffy town in central Somalia.

The picture they paint — in their accounts, and in their mere presence at a halfway house off the battlefield — is one of the Shabab in decline, without a charismatic leader, their ranks thinning, a once powerful organization now partly defanged, though still dangerous.

(More here.)

Top British Spy Warns of Terrorists’ Use of Social Media


LONDON — One of Britain’s highest-ranking intelligence officials on Tuesday castigated the giant American companies that dominate the Internet for providing the “command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals” and challenged the companies to find a better balance between privacy and security.

The statements were made by Robert Hannigan, the newly appointed director of GCHQ, Britain’s electronic intelligence agency. They were among the most pointed in a campaign by intelligence services in Britain and the United States against pressure to rein in their digital surveillance after disclosures by the American former contractor Edward J. Snowden.

Mr. Hannigan’s statements were among the most critical of American technology firms by the head of a major intelligence agency; the accusation went beyond what United States officials have said about Apple, Google and others that are now moving toward sophisticated encryption of more and more data on phones and email systems.

(More here.)

Negativity Wins the Senate

NOV. 5, 2014

Republicans would like the country to believe that they took control of the Senate on Tuesday by advocating a strong, appealing agenda of job creation, tax reform and spending cuts. But, in reality, they did nothing of the sort.

Even the voters who supported Republican candidates would have a hard time explaining what their choices are going to do. That’s because virtually every Republican candidate campaigned on only one thing: what they called the failure of President Obama. In speech after speech, ad after ad, they relentlessly linked their Democratic opponent to the president and vowed that they would put an end to everything they say the public hates about his administration. On Tuesday morning, the Republican National Committee released a series of get-out-the-vote images showing Mr. Obama and Democratic Senate candidates next to this message: “If you’re not a voter, you can’t stop Obama.”

The most important promises that winning Republicans made were negative in nature. They will repeal health care reform. They will roll back new regulations on banks and Wall Street. They will stop the Obama administration’s plans to curb coal emissions and reform immigration and invest in education.

(More here.)

President Obama Left Fighting for His Own Relevance

NOV. 4, 2014

WASHINGTON — Two things were clear long before the votes were counted on Tuesday night: President Obama would face a Congress with more Republicans for his final two years in office, and the results would be seen as a repudiation of his leadership.

But that was not the way Mr. Obama saw it. The electoral map was stacked against him, he argued, making Democrats underdogs from the start. And his own party kept him off the trail, meaning he never really got the chance to make his case. “You’re in the Final Four,” as one aide put it, “and you’re on the bench with a walking boot and you don’t get to play.”

The Republican capture of the Senate culminated a season of discontent for the president — and may yet open a period of even deeper frustration. Sagging in the polls and unwelcome in most competitive races across the country, Mr. Obama bristled as the last campaign that would influence his presidency played out while he sat largely on the sidelines. He privately complained that it should not be a judgment on him. “He doesn’t feel repudiated,” the aide said Tuesday night.

But in a hyperactive, deeply polarized time in history, Mr. Obama now faces a daunting challenge in reasserting his relevance in a capital that will soon enough shift its attention to the battle to succeed him. If the hope-and-change phase of his presidency is long over, he wants at least to produce a period of progress and consolidation to complete his time in the White House.

(More here.)

Exit Polls: Why They So Often Mislead

NOV. 4, 2014

Did you think John Kerry was poised to win the presidency? That Scott Walker was close to losing the 2012 governor’s recall election in Wisconsin? Do you believe that the black share of the electorate in North Carolina dropped to 23 percent in 2012, from 26 percent in 2004?

If you said “yes” to any of those things, you probably have too much faith in exit polls.

Don’t get me wrong: Exit polls are an exciting piece of Election Day information. They’re just not perfect. The problem with them is that most analysts and readers treat them as if they’re infallible.

The problems begin early on election evening, when the first waves of exit polls are invariably leaked and invariably show a surprising result somewhere. You’re best off ignoring these early returns, which are unweighted — meaning the demographic mix of the respondents is not adjusted to match any expectations for the composition of the electorate. The first waves also don’t even include all of the exit poll interviews.

(More here.)

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Moscow’s War on Ethnic Minorities

NOV. 4, 2014

A pair of pudgy, hairy man’s hands draped over the back of an ornate chair; two gold rings; a gold watch on a bracelet a bit too tight for the wrist; amber cufflinks pulling together crisp white cuffs that also seem a touch tight. Everything in this picture connotes wealth and excess. To the Russian eye, the dark hair on the hands also connotes someone who is ethnically non-Russian: The hands might belong to a Jew, a Tartar, an Armenian or the representative of any number of other ethnic groups that, according to stereotype, have dark hair.

This picture of a generic Shylock appeared on Oct. 28 in, one of Russia’s oldest online publications and arguably the best-read, whose enterprising editor in chief was replaced by a Kremlin loyalist earlier this year, causing the entire staff to walk out. The picture was used to illustrate an article headlined, “Who’s Got It Good in Russia?” The subtitle promised a breakdown of Russia’s richest entrepreneurs by ethnicity. The authors of the article took a list of the country’s 200 wealthiest businesspeople compiled by Russian Forbes magazine and attempted to classify the 199 men and one woman on it by ethnicity.

The authors acknowledged they were tackling “a delicate issue” — if only because “many people do not advertise their ethnicity and don’t talk about it.” They claimed to have conducted something akin to an investigation by combing through the lists of donors and honorary members of ethnic associations. One suspects they also conducted amateur analysis of the rich people’s surnames. The result was an infographic with the 22 ethnic groups the authors identified among the 200 entrepreneurs, with some helpful statistics, including: the cumulative worth of members of a particular ethnic group on the list, the percentage of the list the group represented and the percentage of the ethnic group in the general population.

(More here.)

Behind the U.S. Withdrawal From Iraq

Negotiations were repeatedly disrupted by Obama White House staffers’ inaccurate public statements.

By James Franklin Jeffrey, WSJ
Updated Nov. 2, 2014 7:31 p.m. ET

The spectacular success in early 2014 of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq, is often blamed on the failure of the Obama administration to secure an American troop presence in Iraq beyond 2011. As the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2010-12, I believed that keeping troops there was critical. Nevertheless, our failure has roots far beyond the Obama administration.

The story begins in 2008, when the Bush administration and Iraq negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement granting U.S. troops in the country legal immunities—a sine qua non of U.S. basing everywhere—but with the caveat that they be withdrawn by the end of 2011.

By 2010 many key Americans and Iraqis thought that a U.S. military presence beyond 2011 was advisable, for security (training Iraqi forces, control of airspace, counterterrorism) and policy (continued U.S. engagement and reassurance to neighbors). The Pentagon began planning for a continued military presence, but an eight-month impasse on forming a new government after the March 2010 Iraqi elections delayed final approval in Washington.

In January 2011, once the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was formed, President Obama decided, with the concurrence of his advisers, to keep troops on. But he wasn’t yet willing to tell Prime Minister Maliki or the American people. First, Washington had to determine the size of a residual force. That dragged on, with the military pushing for a larger force, and the White House for a small presence at or below 10,000, due to costs and the president’s prior “all troops out” position. In June the president decided on the force level (eventually 5,000) and obtained Mr. Maliki’s assent to new SOFA talks.

(More here.)

The Memoirs of Basil Fawlty

When the Monty Python cast reunited in 2014, the first performance sold out in 44 seconds. John Cleese wasn’t the slightest bit excited.

By Wesley Stace, WSJ
Nov. 3, 2014 7:15 p.m. ET

With titles like their “Contractual Obligation Album” and “The Final Rip Off,” the British comedy troupe Monty Python have never been afraid to point out that the joke was on you, and it’s almost impossible to believe that Python co-founder John Cleese didn’t undertake his new memoir in a similar spirit. “Most of you don’t give a tinker’s cuss for me as a human being,” he writes in “So, Anyway . . .” “No, you are just flipping through my heart-rending story in the hope of getting a couple of good laughs, aren’t you?”

It’s a joke, right? A passive-aggressive, not very funny joke, written in the tetchy, schoolmasterly tone of Basil Fawlty, his greatest comic creation. My surmise: This is what John Cleese really thinks. For a man who’s been the source of so much hilarity, he’s not typically a barrel of laughs. When occasionally seen on talk shows, his laugh is mirthless: Everything about him reminds us that comedy is a serious business. Reading “So, Anyway . . .” one can’t help concluding that the author was able to satirize the stiff upper lip so well because no upper lip, literally, was stiffer than his own.

Mr. Cleese (his father changed it from Cheese) takes us through his childhood (a difficult mother, an affectionate father), via school and university (cutting his teeth in the early 1960s Cambridge Footlights Revues), his days working on the first British satirical TV shows (“That Was the Week the Was” and “The Frost Report”), up to the taping of the first episode of Python, as he and Michael Palin, watching from the wings, worry whether their new show will soar (as, in the show’s first sketch, the sheep who think they’re birds hope they’ll fly) or plummet (the sheep’s subsequent fate).

(More here.)

Saudi Oil-Price Cut Upends Market

Move Paves Way for Further Price Declines, Adds Pressure on U.S. Energy Producers

By Nicole Friedman, Benoît Faucon and Summer Said, WSJ
Nov. 3, 2014 8:04 p.m. ET

Oil prices tumbled to their lowest point in more than two years after Saudi Arabia unexpectedly cut prices for crude sold to the U.S., likely paving the way for further declines and adding to pressure on American energy producers.

The decision by the world’s largest oil exporter sent the Dow industrials into negative territory for the day amid concerns about the pace of global growth.

The move heightened worries over the resilience of the U.S. oil industry, which has expanded rapidly in recent years. But that growth, driven largely by new production technology used to extract oil from shale-rock formations, has never been tested by a prolonged slump in prices.

While lower crude prices generally help consumers by reducing the amount they pay for gasoline, analysts said falling energy prices will squeeze profit margins at many U.S. energy companies, particularly smaller firms or those with large debt loads.

(More here.)

Monday, November 03, 2014

Early Voting Numbers Look Good for Democrats

Nate Cohn, NYT
OCT. 31, 2014

Democratic efforts to turn out the young and nonwhite voters who sat out the 2010 midterm elections appear to be paying off in several Senate battleground states.

More than 20 percent of the nearly three million votes already tabulated in Georgia, North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa have come from people who did not vote in the last midterm election, according to an analysis of early-voting data by The Upshot.

These voters who did not participate in 2010 are far more diverse and Democratic than the voters from four years ago. On average across these states, 39 percent are registered Democrats and 30 percent are registered Republicans. By comparison, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats in these states by an average of 1 percentage point in 2010.

The turnout among black voters is particularly encouraging for Democrats, who need strong black turnout to compete in racially polarized states like Georgia and North Carolina. In those two states, black voters so far represent 30 percent of the voters who did not participate in 2010. By comparison, 24 percent of all those who voted in those states in 2010 were black.

(More here.)

In States Voting on Minimum Wage, Even Critics Sound Like Supporters

NOV. 3, 2014

In state after state, labor unions and community groups have pushed lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, but those efforts have faltered in many places where Republicans control the legislature.

Frustrated by this, workers’ advocates have bypassed the legislature and placed a minimum-wage increase on the ballot in several red states — and they are confident that voters will approve those measures on Tuesday.

In Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, binding referendums would raise the state minimum wage above the $7.25 an hour mandated by the federal government.

These measures are so overwhelmingly popular in some states, notably Alaska and Arkansas, that the opposition has hardly put up a fight.

(More here.)

Business vs. Economics

Paul Krugman, NYT
NOV. 2, 2014

TOKYO — The Bank of Japan, this country’s equivalent of the Federal Reserve, has lately been making a big effort to end deflation, which has afflicted Japan’s economy for almost two decades. At first its efforts — which involve printing a lot of money and, even more important, trying to assure investors that it will keep printing money until inflation reaches 2 percent — seemed to be going well. But more recently the economy has lost momentum, and last week the bank announced new, even more aggressive monetary measures.

I am, as you might guess, very much in favor of this move, although I worry that the policy might nonetheless fail thanks to fiscal mistakes. (More about that later.) While the bank did the right thing, however, it did so amid substantial internal dissent. In fact, the new stimulus was approved by only five of the bank board’s nine members, with those closest to business voting against. Which brings me to the subject of this column: the economic wisdom, or lack thereof, of business leaders.

Some of the people I’ve spoken to here argue that the opposition of many Japanese business leaders to the Bank of Japan’s actions shows that it’s on the wrong track. In saying this, they’re echoing a common sentiment in many countries, including America — the belief that if you want to fix an ailing economy, you should turn to people who have been successful in business, like leaders of major corporations, entrepreneurs and wealthy investors. After all, doesn’t their success with money mean that they know how the economy really works?

Actually, no. In fact, business leaders often give remarkably bad economic advice, especially in troubled times. And I think it’s important to understand why.

(More here.)

Convert to Islam Tests Boundaries of Germany’s Terror Laws

Standoff between Islamist preacher Sven Lau and German security agents shows the difficulty of drawing a clear line between opinion and sedition.

By Anton Troianovski, WSJ
Nov. 2, 2014 10:35 p.m. ET

WUPPERTAL, Germany—Fundamentalist Islamic preacher Sven Lau claims he has a simple test to separate undercover officers from passersby. He gives them the finger. If they don’t respond, he said, “they’re intelligence agents.”

German authorities have spent at least eight years monitoring Mr. Lau, a 34-year-old ex-firefighter from a Catholic family who now practices a strict form of Islam known as Salafism.

Officials say Mr. Lau is one of the most prominent Islamic preachers in Germany, with a charismatic message that lures young Germans into radical Muslim circles. The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency called Mr. Lau one of the country’s “best-known propagandists.” Authorities allege Mr. Lau inspired some of his followers to join Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq, and fear they will eventually spawn terror attacks in Germany and the West.

Mr. Lau, who has delivered sermons to hundreds of listeners at town squares across Germany, denies the allegation. Despite wiretaps and searches of his home and computers by authorities, he remains free. He denied any ties to terrorism or the extremist group Islamic State—“I’m not pro-IS,” he said—and described his past trips to Syria as humanitarian work.

(More here.)

A Flood of Late Spending on Midterm Elections, From Murky Sources

NOV. 2, 2014

A stealthy coterie of difficult-to-trace outside groups is slipping tens of millions of dollars of attacks ads and negative automated telephone calls into the final days of the midterm campaign, helping fuel an unprecedented surge of last-minute spending on Senate races.

Much of the advertising is being timed to ensure that no voter will know who is paying for it until after the election on Tuesday. Some of the groups are “super PACs” that did not exist before Labor Day but have since spent heavily on political advertising, adding to the volatility of close Senate and House races.

Others formed earlier in the year but remained dormant until recently, reporting few or no contributions in recent filings with the Federal Election Commission, only to unleash six- and seven-figure advertising campaigns as Election Day draws near. Yet more spending is coming from nonprofit organizations with bland names that have popped up in recent weeks but appear to have no life beyond being a conduit for the ads.

(More here.)

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Brittany Maynard, as promised, ends her life at 29

This photo provided by Compassion & Choices shows Brittany Maynard. A spokesman for Maynard says she has taken lethal medication prescribed by a doctor and died. Sean Crowley with the group Compassion & Choices said late Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014, that Maynard was surrounded by family Saturday when she took the medication. She was weeks shy of her 30th birthday. (AP Photo/Compassion & Choices)
By Lindsey Bever November 2 at 10:41 PM

Brittany Maynard, the terminally-ill 29-year-old who spent her final days advocating death-with-dignity laws, took lethal drugs prescribed by her physician on Saturday and died “as she intended — peacefully in her bedroom, in the arms of her loved ones,” a spokesperson said.

Maynard, who was diagnosed earlier this year with a stage 4 malignant brain tumor, said last month that she planned to die Nov. 1 with help from her doctor.

People reported that she took her life after posting a goodbye message on social media.

“Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love. Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me … but would have taken so much more,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

(More here.)

Republicans bank on fear in this election

By Rachel Maddow November 2 at 6:23 PM WashPost

Rachel Maddow hosts MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” and writes a monthly column for The Post.

I know it wasn’t planned this way, but there is a certain genius in how we snug Election Day up against Halloween on the calendar. We scare each other for fun and profit on the last day of October every year, but then in even-numbered years, we keep going. We scare each other on the first Tuesday thereafter, too, rolling right from our night of haunted houses and zombie costumes into a national election that’s being directed like the shower scene from “Psycho.”

This year, the closing argument from the Republican side is a whole bunch of ghastly fantasies: Ebola, the Islamic State, vague but nefarious aspersions about stolen elections and a whole bunch of terrifying fantasies about our border with Mexico. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) still hasn’t explained why only he knows about the “at least 10 ISIS fighters who have been caught coming across the Mexican border in Texas.” Ten fighters from the Islamic State are in custody in Texas, but only Hunter knows about it?

Once and would-be future senator Scott Brown says it’s polio that’s sneaking across the border. Polio, or maybe whooping cough. Or Ebola. Or the Islamic State! Whichever. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), another Senate candidate, says Mexican drug cartels and the Islamic State are colluding to mount a sneak attack on Arkansas. Boo!

(More here.)

U.S.-backed Syria rebels routed by fighters linked to al-Qaeda

BEIRUT — The Obama administration’s Syria strategy suffered a major setback Sunday after fighters linked to al-Qaeda routed U.S.-backed rebels from their main northern strongholds, capturing significant quantities of weaponry, triggering widespread defections and ending hopes that Washington will readily find Syrian partners in its war against the Islamic State.

Moderate rebels who had been armed and trained by the United States either surrendered or defected to the extremists as the Jabhat al-Nusra group, affiliated with al-Qaeda, swept through the towns and villages the moderates controlled in the northern province of Idlib, in what appeared to be a concerted push to vanquish the moderate Free Syrian Army, according to rebel commanders, activists and analysts.

Other moderate fighters were on the run, headed for the Turkish border as the extremists closed in, heralding a significant defeat for the rebel forces Washington had been counting on as a bulwark against the Islamic State.

(More here.)

Putin’s Friend Profits in Purge of Schoolbooks

NOV. 1, 2014

MOSCOW — The purge began in late winter. One by one, hundreds of textbooks that Russian schoolchildren had relied upon for years were deemed unsuitable for use in the country’s 43,000 schools. The reasons varied, but they shared a certain bureaucratic obstinacy.

One publisher saw all of his company’s English-language textbooks barred because he had failed to include their subtitles on the paperwork required for government approval. More than three dozen books that use a popular creative teaching style were dropped from a list of authorized titles because the publisher had submitted copies of supporting documents, rather than the originals.

Then there was the case of the colorful math textbooks published by a decorated educator, Lyudmila G. Peterson, cashiered for using characters from popular foreign children’s stories. Illustrating math problems with the likes of Snow White, Eeyore and Owl, in one expert’s decisive opinion, was “hardly designed to instill a sense of patriotism” in young Russian minds.

By the time the school year began this fall, the number of approved textbooks for Russia’s 14 million schoolchildren had been slashed by more than half. The summary winnowing by the Ministry of Education and Science upset lesson plans, threatened the livelihoods of nearly two-dozen small publishers and left principals, teachers and parents puzzled and angry.

(More here.)

Note to grandchildren: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Effects of climate change ‘irreversible,’ U.N. panel warns in report

By Joby Warrick and Chris Mooney November 2 at 5:01 AM WashPost

The Earth is locked on an “irreversible” course of climatic disruption from the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the impacts will only worsen unless nations agree to dramatic cuts in pollution, an international panel of climate scientists warned Sunday.

The planet faces a future of extreme weather, rising sea levels and melting polar ice from soaring levels of carbon dioxide and other gases, the U.N. panel said. Only an unprecedented global effort to slash emissions within a relatively short time period will prevent temperatures from crossing a threshold that scientists say could trigger far more dangerous disruptions, the panel warned.

“Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts,” concluded the report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which draws on contributions from thousands of scientists from around the world.

The report said some impacts of climate change will “continue for centuries,” even if all emissions from fossil-fuel burning were to stop. The question facing governments is whether they can act to slow warming to a pace at which humans and natural ecosystems can adapt, or risk “abrupt and irreversible changes” as the atmosphere and oceans absorb ever-greater amounts of thermal energy within a blanket of heat-trapping gases, according to scientists who contributed to the report.

(More here.)

In Torrent of Rapes in Britain, an Uncomfortable Focus on Race and Ethnicity

NOV. 1, 2014

ROCHDALE, England — Shabir Ahmed, a delivery driver for two takeout places, did not have to go looking for young girls. Runaways and rebellious teenagers would show up at the restaurants, often hungry and cold. He slipped them free drinks and chicken tikka masala. “Call me Daddy,” he would say.

But soon, Mr. Ahmed, a father of four, would demand payback. In a room above one of the restaurants, according to testimony and evidence in later legal proceedings against him, he would play a pornographic DVD and pass around shots of vodka. Then, on a floor mattress with crumpled blue sheets and kitchen smells wafting from below, he raped them, and later forced them into sex with co-workers and friends, too.

The girls were too scared of him to talk. And when they did, no one believed them. Once, a 15-year-old got so drunk and upset that she smashed a glass counter. Mr. Ahmed and his colleagues did not hesitate to call the police. After she was released, she was coerced into sex four or five times a week, sometimes with half a dozen men at a time, in apartments and taxis around Rochdale, a town in northwest England near Manchester.

The police and other agencies were alerted more than 100 times over six years to the possibility that something very wrong was happening before Mr. Ahmed, now 61, was arrested and charged as the leader of a sexual exploitation ring that involved eight men of Pakistani descent and one Afghan. In May 2012, he was given a 19-year prison sentence for raping and abetting rape in a case involving at least 47 girls, all of them white.

(More here.)

Provocateur’s Death Haunts the Dutch

OCT. 30, 2014

AMSTERDAM — Nothing marks the spot on an unremarkable street in east Amsterdam where on Nov. 2, 2004, Mohammed Bouyeri, a 26-year-old Moroccan Dutchman — saying he was acting to defend the name of Allah — shot dead, then slashed the throat of the Dutch filmmaker, television host and provocateur Theo van Gogh. Few events have been planned to mark the 10th anniversary, and many here are weary of the national soul searching the killing prompted. But the day is still seared in people’s minds.

In this tidy country of 17 million, which prides itself on tolerance, the murder opened a raw and polarizing debate. Was this a salvo in a larger war between radical Islam and the West? Or the act of one angry young man from a generation of young Dutch Muslims who feel shut out of the mainstream? What is the line between free speech and hate speech? Has self-censorship taken hold?

Ten years later, the debate is still raging. But in the cultural realm, which thrives on ambiguities, the picture is more complex. Books and at least one film have been inspired by the murder. A haunting 2005 portrait of Mr. Bouyeri by the Amsterdam artist Marlene Dumas has been prominently displayed in the Stedelijk Museum, without generating much controversy. And a new generation of Dutch Muslim actors, filmmakers, musicians, and politicians — including a coach on the local version of “The Voice,” the hip-hop artist Ali B — has been slowly claiming its place in the national conversation, far from the violence embraced by a deadly few.

(More here.)

Islamic State Recruiters Unsettle Muslims in The Hague

Ten Years After Filmmaker van Gogh’s Murder, Jihadists Are Allegedly Active in Poor Neighborhood

By Maarten van Tartwijk, WSJ
Updated Nov. 1, 2014 11:44 p.m. ET

THE HAGUE—This city is wrestling with a new generation of homegrown Muslim radicals, 10 years after a member of a local terrorist cell brutally killed Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam.

More than a quarter of the 140 Dutch jihadists who the government says have traveled to Syria to join Islamic State were recruited in The Hague, making the city the Netherlands’ most important breeding ground for the extremist group.

The heightened Islamic radicalism now has invoked memories of the Hofstad Group, a small Islamic terrorist cell that was active in The Hague in 2003 and 2004. One of the group’s members, Mohammed Bouyeri, shot and stabbed Mr. van Gogh in a street in Amsterdam on Nov. 2, 2004, in the Netherlands’ first act of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam.

The Hofstad Group was dismantled after Mr. van Gogh’s killing and several members, including Mr. Bouyeri, were sentenced to prison. But some of the group’s early followers, then deemed too young to be a threat, now form the core of a new generation of Muslim radicals in The Hague, experts say.

(More here.)

Mired in Mediocrity


WELCOME to the “new mediocre.” It’s not quite the New Look, or the New Deal, but it is the new normal.

At least according to Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who coined the term a few weeks ago.

She was referring to the global economy, of course, which she thought could use a jolt lest it “muddle along with subpar growth,” but her words, uttered during a relatively small-scale speech at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, have had an impact far beyond the school’s borders and the world of economists (though said economists were very het up about it), reaching into the Twitterverse.

Macroeconomic theory rarely seems to have much to do with the minutiae of everyday life, but in this case Ms. Lagarde’s phrase has a surprisingly resonant application. Suddenly, that free-floating malaise and lack of inspiration everyone keeps complaining about has a name.

(More here.)

Saturday, November 01, 2014

If ya can't beat 'em, disenfranchise 'em

The Enormous, Secretive Effort to Purge Thousands of Minorities From 27 States' Voter Rolls

By Ian Millhiser, ThinkProgress
01 November 14

In a story that has grown all too common as an election draws near, election officials across the country are engaged in an ambitious effort to purge voters from state voter rolls. Moreover, voters from racial minority groups are especially likely to be targeted by this purge. As Al Jazeera America reports, after examining the purge lists from 3 of the 27 states participating in the purge, the purge lists “are heavily weighted with names such as Jackson, Garcia, Patel and Kim — ones common among minorities, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic.”

White voters are not immune from the purge, although they are less likely to be caught in it than voters of color. According to Al Jazeera, “fully 1 in 7 African-Americans” in the 27 states are listed as suspect voters. The same applies to 1 in 8 Asian American voters, 1 in 8 Hispanic voters, and 1 in 11 white voters. Moreover, “officials have begun the process of removing names from the rolls — beginning with 41,637 in Virginia alone.” The purge works by asking voters targeted by it to return a postcard mailed to voters on the purge list. In practice, however, according to one direct-mail expert, “4 percent to 20 percent of any mailing goes astray,” and lower income families are more likely not to receive the card because they tend to move addresses more frequently.

The premise of the purge, which is the “pet project” of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), is that a list of almost 7 million voters are suspected of casting a ballot during the same election in two different states. Thus, to accept this list as plausible, one has to believe that a massive chunk of voters, potentially amounting to nearly 6 percent of the voters who cast a ballot in the 2012 presidential race, cast two votes in a past election. If true, this would be voter fraud on a truly epic scale.

(Continued here.)

Deceptions of the F.B.I.

OCT. 31, 2014

If your Internet service goes down and you call a technician, can you be certain that the person who arrives at your door is actually there to restore service? What if he is a law enforcement agent in disguise who has disabled the service so he can enter your home to look around for evidence of a crime?

Americans should not have to worry about scenarios like this, but F.B.I. agents used this ruse during a gambling investigation in Las Vegas in July. Most disturbing of all, the Justice Department is now defending the agents’ actions in court.

During the 2014 World Cup, the agents suspected that an illegal gambling ring was operating out of several hotel rooms at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, but they apparently did not have enough evidence to get a court-issued warrant. So they enlisted the hotel’s assistance in shutting off the Internet to those rooms, prompting the rooms’ occupants to call for help. Undercover agents disguised as repairmen appeared at the door, and the occupants let them in. While pretending to fix the service, the agents saw men watching soccer matches and looking at betting odds on their computers.

There is nothing illegal about visiting sports-betting websites, but the agents relied primarily on that evidence to get their search warrant. What they failed to tell the judge was that they had turned off the Internet service themselves.

(More here.)

Repeal of Health Law, Once Central to G.O.P., Is Side Issue in Campaigns

OCT. 31, 2014

WASHINGTON — In early October, with his poll numbers stubbornly lagging his Democratic opponent’s, Ed Gillespie did something almost no other Republican candidate has done this campaign season. Mr. Gillespie — a former lobbyist, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and now Senate candidate in Virginia — unveiled a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.

The proposal, which would use tax credits and a federally funded “high-risk pool” to cover the uninsured, opened him to criticism. It most likely would cover fewer people than President Obama’s health care law, while having fewer statutory protections and still requiring billions from the federal government.

Almost no one questioned its seriousness, but almost no one took up the cause.

Republican attacks on the health care law dominated the early months of the campaign, but now have largely receded from view. The focus instead has been more on tethering Democratic candidates to Mr. Obama with a broad-brush condemnation of his policies.

(More here.)

Turkish Leader, Using Conflicts, Cements Power

OCT. 31, 2014

ANKARA, Turkey — Sprawling over nearly 50 acres of forest land that was once the private estate of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a new presidential compound has nearly 1,000 rooms, an underground tunnel system and the latest in anti-espionage technology. It is larger than the White House, the Kremlin and Buckingham Palace.

The reported price: nearly $350 million.

Then there is a new high-tech presidential jet (estimated price, $200 million), not to mention the new presidential office in a restored Ottoman-era mansion overlooking the Bosporus, all of which have been acquired to serve the outsized ambitions of one man: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mr. Erdogan has been in power for more than a decade, an Islamist politician and prime minister who was often touted as a role model in the Muslim world for having reconciled his faith with democracy. But these days Mr. Erdogan stands for something quite different, having essentially pulled a Putin. Like Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, it does not matter which position he holds: He is his nation’s paramount leader.

(More here.)