Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Counteracting doom & gloom with a little levity

After cruising thru all the doom-and-gloom items that Tom posted below — Libya, Ukraine, ISIS, etc. — I thought it might be time to add a little levity. So here it is, written by my son Ross for the Newton Blog on RealClearScience (with help from a YouTube video):

Why It's So Hard to Swap the Toilet Paper Roll

Posted by Ross Pomeroy September 2, 2014

WILL REID WAS getting tired of asking his teenage children to change the toilet paper roll, so he did what any enlightened father would do: call them out on YouTube. His "instructional video" on toilet roll changing has amassed over 700,000 views since being posted on August 29th.

Of course, laziness isn't endemic to teenagers. Countless others willingly neglect to empty the overflowing trash bin, clean the leaning tower of dirty dishes, or replace the toilet paper roll.

Why do millions of Americans persistently put off easy chores like these? The answer is tied to motivation, or rather, a lack thereof.

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, a prolific duo of psychologists based out of Rochester University in New York are the preeminent researchers on the science of motivation. They've narrowed down the basis of human action to two main drivers: intrinsic and extrinsic. We either perform an activity out of interest or enjoyment for the activity itself -- intrinsic -- or we perform an activity to attain an external, separate outcome -- extrinsic. Intrinsic activities are inherently motivating. Extrinsic ones are not.

(Continued here.)

Putin claims Russian forces 'could conquer Ukraine capital in a fortnight'

Leak reveals Russian president told José Manuel Barroso that his forces could conquer Kiev if he ordered them to do so

Ian Traynor in Brussels
theguardian.com, Tuesday 2 September 2014 07.02 EDT

Vladimir Putin has said Russian forces could conquer the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, in a fortnight if he so ordered, the Kremlin has confirmed.

Moscow declined to deny that the president had spoken of taking Kiev in a phone conversation on Friday with José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European commission.

Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin foreign policy adviser, said on Tuesday that the Barroso leak had taken Putin's remarks out of context.

"This is incorrect, and is outside all the normal framework of diplomatic practice, if he did say it. This is simply not appropriate for a serious political figure," he said of the Barroso leak, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.

(More here.)

Seeking Facts, Justices Settle for What Briefs Tell Them

By ADAM LIPTAK, NYT
SEPT. 1, 2014

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court received more than 80 friend-of-the-court briefs in the Hobby Lobby case. Most of these filings, also called amicus briefs, were dull and repetitive recitations of familiar legal arguments.

Others stood out. They presented fresh, factual information that put the case in a broader context.

The justices are hungry for such data. Their opinions are increasingly studded with citations of facts they learned from amicus briefs.

But this is a perilous trend, said Allison Orr Larsen, a law professor at the College of William and Mary.

“The court is inundated with 11th-hour, untested, advocacy-motivated claims of factual expertise,” she wrote in an article to be published in The Virginia Law Review.

Some of the factual assertions in recent amicus briefs would not pass muster in a high school research paper. But that has not stopped the Supreme Court from relying on them. Recent opinions have cited “facts” from amicus briefs that were backed up by blog posts, emails or nothing at all.

(More here.)

2 Sides Cite Discrimination as Battle on Texas Voting Law Heads to Court

By MANNY FERNANDEZ, NYT
SEPT. 1, 2014

HOUSTON — Minority groups and Democrats in Texas have loudly opposed a state law requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification before casting their ballots. But one of the law’s biggest critics can be found not in Texas but in Washington — Eric H. Holder Jr., the United States attorney general.

On Tuesday, in a federal courtroom in Corpus Christi, Tex., Justice Department lawyers will try to persuade a judge to strike down the voter ID law, the latest skirmish in a three-year legal battle over whether the law passed by the Republican-led Legislature in 2011 discriminates against blacks and Hispanics. If Texas loses the trial — which opens Tuesday and will last about two weeks — it could again be required to seek federal approval before making changes to its voting procedures, a level of oversight it was freed from by the United States Supreme Court.

The case has taken on a bitter political undertone, with Texas alleging that the Justice Department has gone after “only Southern, Republican-led states” and suggesting that the agency ignores the concerns of white Republican voters and favors minority Democratic voters. The allegations have outraged lawyers for the Justice Department and several minority groups, voters and Democratic lawmakers who are part of the agency’s lawsuit against Texas.

(More here.)

Moscow will review military strategy in face of NATO plan for rapid-reaction force

Karoun Demirjian and Daniela Deane September 2 at 6:06 AM, WashPost

MOSCOW — A top Kremlin security official said Tuesday that Moscow would now review its military strategy in the face of expected NATO plans to establish a rapid-reaction force capable of deploying quickly to Eastern Europe.

Tuesday’s statement will almost certainly ratchet up tensions between Moscow and NATO ahead of a NATO leaders’ meeting in Wales later this week, when the alliance is expected to endorse the creation of a new military force of some 4,000 troops capable of moving on only about eight hours’ notice.

“The fact that the military infrastructure of NATO member states is getting closer to our borders, including via enlargement, will preserve its place as one of the external threats for the Russian Federation,” Mikhail Popov, deputy head of the Kremlin’s advisory security council, said in an interview with the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

He said NATO was “aggravating tensions with Russia” and cited that as a key factor in determining Moscow’s military strategy. He offered no details. The statement came one day after the Ukrainian defense minister warned of a “great war” with Russia, “the likes of which Europe has not seen since the Second World War.”

(More here.)

Libyan Militias Seize Control of Capital as Chaos Rises

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, NYT, SEPT. 1, 2014

CAIRO — The government of Libya said Monday that it had lost control of its ministries to a coalition of militias that had taken over the capital, Tripoli, in another milestone in the disintegration of the state.

“The government reiterates that these buildings and the public headquarters are not safe and inaccessible, because they are under the control of armed men,” the government said in a statement. It was issued from the eastern city of Tobruk, where the recently elected Parliament has convened in territory controlled by a renegade general who has tried to stage a coup d’état.

The statement indicated the emergence of two rival centers of government — one in Tripoli and the other in Tobruk — each all but powerless.

Over the last two months, the fractious militias that have dominated the country since the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi three years ago — variously local, tribal, regional, Islamist or criminal — have lined up into two warring factions. One side, operating under the name Libya Dawn, aligned with militias from the coastal city of Misurata and the Islamist factions in what fighters portrayed as a battle to prevent a counterrevolution. The other side was aligned with the renegade general, Khalifa Hifter, in the east and partisans from the mountain city of Zintan in the west, to fight what they called a battle against Islamist extremists.

(More here.)

Tarnishing a Reputation as Storied Warriors

By AZAM AHMED
SEPT. 1, 2014, NYT

ERBIL, Iraq — For decades, the pesh merga have enjoyed a fearsome reputation as unconquered mountain warriors, a storied band of guerrilla fighters who became the official guardians of the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq. But when fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria rolled into Kurdistan in August, the pesh merga fled the front line, just a half-hour’s drive from the territorial capital, Erbil.

Their collapse left tens of thousands of defenseless residents in ISIS’ path. And it shattered widespread hopes that the Kurdish forces might succeed in checking the militants’ advance where the Iraqi Army had failed, further calling into question fundamental assumptions about Iraq’s security.

Though the Kurdish forces have reclaimed much of the lost ground in the past two weeks, rallied by a campaign of American airstrikes, the initial losses prompted hard questions about how the pesh merga could have failed their greatest test in more than 20 years.

(More here.)

Life in an English Town Where Abuse of Young Girls Flourished

Years of Rape and ‘Utter Contempt’ in Britain

By KATRIN BENNHOLD, NYT
SEPT. 1, 2014

ROTHERHAM, England — It started on the bumper cars in the children’s arcade of the local shopping mall. Lucy was 12, and a group of teenage boys, handsome and flirtatious, treated her and her friends to free rides and ice cream after school.

Over time, older men were introduced to the girls, while the boys faded away. Soon they were getting rides in real cars, and were offered vodka and marijuana. One man in particular, a Pakistani twice her age and the leader of the group, flattered her and bought her drinks and even a mobile phone. Lucy liked him.

The rapes started gradually, once a week, then every day: by the war memorial in Clifton Park, in an alley near the bus station, in countless taxis and, once, in an apartment where she was locked naked in a room and had to service half a dozen men lined up outside.

(More here.)

Monday, September 01, 2014

NATO to Create a Rapid-Response Force for Eastern Europe, Officials Say

By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and STEVEN ERLANGER, NYT
SEPT. 1, 2014

WASHINGTON — As Ukrainian leaders warned on Monday of “a great war” with Russia, NATO leaders meeting in Wales this week were expected to endorse their most concrete response yet to increased Russian military intervention in Ukraine: establishing a rapid-reaction force capable of deploying quickly to Eastern Europe, officials of the alliance said.

The new force of some 4,000 troops, capable of moving on 48 hours’ notice, will be supported with logistics and equipment pre-positioned in Eastern European countries closer to Russia, with an upgraded schedule of military exercises and deployments that are intended to make NATO’s commitment of collective defense more credible and enhance its deterrence.

The agreement is planned as the substantive centerpiece of the NATO meeting, which will take place Thursday and Friday and will be attended by President Obama, who will also stop in Estonia before the summit meeting. His aides said the trip was intended to highlight the United States’ commitment to NATO, and the alliance’s determination to protect all 28 members from aggression — from Moscow or elsewhere.

“The summit is very important because Russia thought it can change the borders of a sovereign European country by force, and this is happening not very far from NATO’s borders,” said one of Mr. Obama’s proud Estonian hosts, Prime Minister Taavi Roivas. “The security situation has changed, and we need to rethink our plans and reinforce our allies, so we can be 101 percent sure that all member states are equally and strongly protected.”

(More here.)

Russia calls for cease-fire with rebels, but Ukraine vows to keep up the fight

By Karoun Demirjian and Annie Gowen September 1 at 12:50 PM, WashPost

MOSCOW — Russian officials pressed Ukraine on Monday to declare a cease-fire with separatists, but Ukrainians say they are locked in a war not just against the rebels but also against Russia — on behalf of Europe.

“A great war has come, the likes of which Europe has not seen since the Second World War,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said on his Facebook page Monday, adding that Ukraine must keep fighting and “show that Ukrainians are not going to give up.”

Lost territory, trapped soldiers, and increasing reports of Russian tanks and troops operating in eastern Ukraine have changed the course of events in the past few days. Newly emboldened rebel forces are bearing down on strategic targets, such as the port city of Mariupol — which the Ukrainian military maintains it can defend — and the airport in Luhansk, where troops retreated in the face of a rebel onslaught Monday.

(More here.)

In Search of a Strategy

By Steve Coll, the New Yorker

At the end of the eighth century, Harun al-Rashid, a caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, built a palace in Raqqa, on the Euphrates River, in what is now Syria. His empire stretched from modern Tunisia to Pakistan. It was an age of Islamic discovery in science, music, and art; Rashid’s court of viziers inspired stories in “One Thousand and One Nights.”

In June, the Islamic State in Iraq al-Sham (ISIS) declared Raqqa the seat of a new caliphate, presided over by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a fierce preacher who was once an American prisoner in Iraq, and is now in hiding. The city has lost its splendor. Public executions are “a common spectacle” on Fridays in El Naim Square or at the Al Sa’a roundabout, a United Nations human-rights commission reported last month. ISIS fighters mount the dead on crucifixes, “as a warning to local residents.”

ISIS emerged a decade ago as a small Iraqi affiliate of Al Qaeda, one that specialized in suicide bombings and inciting Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority against the country’s Shiite majority. The network regenerated after 2011 amidst Iraq’s growing violence and the depravities of Syria’s civil war. This year, ISIS has conquered cities, oil fields, and swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq. The movement draws its strength from Sunni Arab communities bitterly opposed to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus, led by Bashar al-Assad.

(More here.)

After Ferguson, Race Deserves More Attention, Not Less

When Whites Just Don’t Get It

Nickolas Kristof, NYT
AUG. 30, 2014

MANY white Americans say they are fed up with the coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. A plurality of whites in a recent Pew survey said that the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.

Bill O’Reilly of Fox News reflected that weariness, saying: “All you hear is grievance, grievance, grievance, money, money, money.”

Indeed, a 2011 study by scholars at Harvard and Tufts found that whites, on average, believed that anti-white racism was a bigger problem than anti-black racism.

Yes, you read that right!

So let me push back at what I see as smug white delusion. Here are a few reasons race relations deserve more attention, not less:

(More here.)

The Dawn of the Post-Clinic Abortion

By EMILY BAZELON, NYT, AUG. 28, 2014

In June 2001, under a cloud-streaked sky, Rebecca Gomperts set out from the Dutch port of Scheveningen in a rented 110-foot ship bound for Ireland. Lashed to the deck was a shipping container, freshly painted light blue and stocked with packets of mifepristone (which used to be called RU-486) and misoprostol. The pills are given to women in the first trimester to induce a miscarriage. Medical abortion, as this procedure is called, had recently become available in the Netherlands. But use of misoprostol and mifepristone to end a pregnancy was illegal in Ireland, where abortion by any means remains against the law, with few exceptions.

Gomperts is a general-practice physician and activist. She first assisted with an abortion 20 years ago on a trip to Guinea, just before she finished medical school in Amsterdam. Three years later, Gomperts went to work as a ship’s doctor on a Greenpeace vessel. Landing in Mexico, she met a girl who was raising her younger siblings because her mother had died during a botched illegal abortion. When the ship traveled to Costa Rica and Panama, women told her about hardships they suffered because they didn’t have access to the procedure. “It was not part of my medical training to talk about illegal abortion and the public-health impact it has,” Gomperts told me this summer. “In those intense discussions with women, it really hit me.”

(More here.)

Arm Ukraine or Surrender

By BEN JUDAH, NYT, AUG. 31, 2014

MOSCOW — Russia and Ukraine are now at war. At least 2,200 people have died in the conflict; thousands more may die yet. The Western powers — America, Europe, NATO — now have no good options, but they cannot do nothing. President Vladimir V. Putin has left us with two dire choices, both fraught with risk: Either we arm Ukraine, or we force Kiev to surrender and let Mr. Putin carve whatever territories he wants into a Russian-occupied zone of “frozen conflict.”

It is a stark choice, and Mr. Putin is not rational. Any rational leader would have reeled from the cost of Western sanctions. Russia’s economy is being hit hard by a credit crunch, capital flight, spiraling inflation and incipient recession. This will hurt Mr. Putin’s surging popularity at home. But none of this has deterred the smirking enigma.

Ukraine cannot win this war. Mr. Putin has made it clear that the Russian Army will annihilate Ukrainian forces if they attempt to liberate Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine’s ramshackle army cannot rout the crack troops and conscript forces of an oil-fueled giant.

The West needs to be honest with Ukraine. We talk as though this country were one of us — as if, one day, it will become a member of the European Union and the NATO alliance. That is Kiev’s wish, but the West is not giving Ukraine the means to fight this war.

(More here.)

We need to tell the truth about what Russia is doing in Ukraine

NATO must face up to the realities of Putin’s war of aggression in eastern Europe – and take material steps to support Ukraine

Wesley Clark, The Guardian, Sunday 31 August 2014 13.30 EDT

As the Ukraine crisis has intensified over the past six months, Russia has been developing a new form of warfare – inserting special forces, provoking, and slowly, deliberately escalating the conflict. Russian actions flout international law and the agreements that have assured stability in the post-cold war world. But warnings and sanctions have thus far failed. The Nato summit in Wales this week offers the best, and perhaps last, opportunity to halt aggression in Europe without major commitments of Nato forces. But to do so requires a deeper understanding of the situation and much more resolute allied action.

First, Vladimir Putin’s actions against Ukraine haven’t been “provoked”. They are part of a long-term plan to recreate a greater Russia by regaining control of Ukraine and other states in the “near abroad”. Russia is not going to admit that it has invaded because to do so might invite a stronger Nato response. But until Nato governments unambiguously label Russian actions “aggression” and “invasion”, they will have difficulty mustering support for the stronger actions that needs to be taken.

Putin is not likely to be dissuaded by stronger sanctions; while they may disrupt some elements of the Russian economy, and he would of course prefer not to face them, he also uses sanctions himself to strengthen his leverage over those sectors most engaged with the west, and to gain sympathy from his own “electorate”.

Nato must act decisively to strengthen member states that feel threatened by Putin’s actions. Its forces should be permanently stationed in the Baltics, Poland and eastern Balkans. Its rapid reaction forces should be bolstered. Additionally, more demanding military exercises should be held. Nato’s nuclear deterrent must be re-emphasised. Long overdue modernisation should be undertaken. All this requires greater resources, including budget and manpower.

(More here.)

The Medicare Miracle

Paul Krugman, NYT
AUG. 31, 2014

So, what do you think about those Medicare numbers? What, you haven’t heard about them? Well, they haven’t been front-page news. But something remarkable has been happening on the health-spending front, and it should (but probably won’t) transform a lot of our political debate.

The story so far: We’ve all seen projections of giant federal deficits over the next few decades, and there’s a whole industry devoted to issuing dire warnings about the budget and demanding cuts in Socialsecuritymedicareandmedicaid. Policy wonks have long known, however, that there’s no such program, and that health care, rather than retirement, was driving those scary projections. Why? Because, historically, health spending has grown much faster than G.D.P., and it was assumed that this trend would continue.

But a funny thing has happened: Health spending has slowed sharply, and it’s already well below projections made just a few years ago. The falloff has been especially pronounced in Medicare, which is spending $1,000 less per beneficiary than the Congressional Budget Office projected just four years ago.

(More here.)

The Politics of the ISIS Threat

Obama and the Warmongers

Charles M. Blow, NYT
AUG. 31, 2014

We seem to be drifting inexorably toward escalating our fight with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, as the Obama administration mulls whether to extend its “limited” bombing campaign into Syria.

Part of the reasoning is alarm at the speed and efficiency with which ISIS — a militant group President Obama described as “barbaric” — has made gains in northern Iraq and has been able to wash back and forth across the Syrian border. Part is because of the group’s ghastly beheading of the American journalist James Foley — which Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the C.I.A., called “ISIS’s first terrorist attack against the United States” — and threats to behead another.

But another part of the equation is the tremendous political pressure coming from the screeching of war hawks and an anxious and frightened public, weighted most heavily among Republicans and exacerbated by the right-wing media machine.

In fact, when the president tried to tamp down some of the momentum around more swift and expansive military action by indicating that he had not decided how best to move forward militarily in Syria, if at all, what Politico called an “inartful phrase” caught fire in conservative circles. When responding to questions, the president said, “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

His aide insisted that the phrase was only about how to move forward in Syria, not against ISIS as a whole, but the latter was exactly the impression conservatives moved quickly to portray.

It was a way of continuing to yoke Obama with the ill effects of a war started by his predecessor and the chaos it created in that region of the world.

In fact, if you listen to Fox News you might even believe that Obama is responsible for the creation of ISIS.

(More here.)

P.R. Firm for Putin’s Russia Now Walking a Fine Line

By RAVI SOMAIYA, NYT
AUG. 31, 2014

In 2006, executives from the public relations firm Ketchum flew to Moscow to secure an account that has since been worth tens of millions of dollars.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had hired Ketchum to provide advice on public relations before the nation hosted the Group of 8 meeting in St. Petersburg. At the time, Mr. Putin “cared a great deal about what other leaders, especially presidents, thought about him,” said Michael A. McFaul, a former United States ambassador to Russia who now teaches at Stanford.

Times have changed. The escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine has turned relations with the United States as frosty as they have been in years. Last week, President Obama said that as a result of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia, the country “is already more isolated than at any time since the Cold War.” And the United States ambassador to the United Nations called Russia’s actions in Ukraine a “threat to all of our peace and security.”

“There has been a sharp turn in how much they care anymore,” Mr. McFaul said. “They decided, O.K., we’ve had enough of these guys, let’s not worry so much about our reputation.”

(More here.)

One Judge to Decide the Future of Detroit

By MONICA DAVEY and MARY WILLIAMS WALSH, NYT
AUG. 31, 2014

DETROIT — In a trial set to open in the federal courthouse here on Tuesday, nothing short of this city’s future is at stake.

If Judge Steven W. Rhodes approves a blueprint drawn up by Detroit officials to eliminate more than $7 billion of its estimated $18 billion in debts and to invest about $1.5 billion into the city’s now dismal services, it will mark the beginning of the end of the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy. The outcome will set this troubled city’s new course for the coming decades, perhaps longer.

In deciding whether the city’s plan is equitable, feasible and in the best interest of creditors, Judge Rhodes will send significant messages beyond Detroit about the rarely tested powers and limits of municipal bankruptcy, at a time when many cities are struggling with underfunded pensions, neglected infrastructure and declining industries.

Municipal bankruptcy, known as Chapter 9, was designed to give creditors, and even judges, less power than Chapter 11 corporate bankruptcy does, but the law has never before been tested on this scale. Leaders of other cities will be watching closely, turnaround experts said, as the judge decides whether a city may shelter municipal retirees even as it imposes harsher losses on financial creditors; whether it can use bankruptcy to repudiate some capital-markets debts entirely; and whether a city in bankruptcy may avoid selling off valuable assets to raise money for its creditors, as Detroit hopes to do with its art collection.

(More here.)

Desperately Dry California Tries to Curb Private Drilling for Water

By FELICITY BARRINGER, NYT
AUG. 31, 2014

FRESNO, Calif. — The small prefab office of Arthur & Orum, a well-drilling outfit hidden in the almond trees and grapevines south of Fresno, has become a magnet for scores of California farmers in desperate need of water to sustain their crops. Looking at binders of dozens of orders for yet-to-be-drilled wells, Steve Arthur, a manager, said, “We’ve got more stacked up than we’ll do before the end of the year.”

California’s vicious, prolonged drought, which has radically curtailed most natural surface water supplies, is making farmers look deeper and deeper underground to slake their thirst. This means the drought is a short-term bonanza for firms like Arthur & Orum, which expects to gross as much as $3 million this year.

But in a drought as long and severe as the current one, over-reliance on groundwater means that land sinks, old wells go dry, and saltwater invades coastal aquifers. Aquifers are natural savings accounts, a place to go when the streams run dry. Exhaust them, and the $45 billion annual agricultural economy will take a severe hit, while small towns run dry.

(More here.)

Alaska Turns to Locally Grown Food Thanks to State Incentives

In a Tough Place to Farm, Discovering Much to Love

By KIRK JOHNSON, NYT, AUG. 31, 2014

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — The glorious taste of a late-summer tomato, fresh off the vine, is a chin-dripping wonder for many Americans. Except, as many gardeners might assume, up here.

In Fairbanks, just 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, frost can continue into June, while summer surrenders as early as mid-August. A long growing season it is not. On the federal Department of Agriculture’s plant hardiness map, a blue smear across interior Alaska shows where the brutal winters, with their 60-degree-below-zero temperatures, make it difficult for anything but the toughest plants, and people, to survive. Partly as a result, Alaska imports about 95 percent of its food, state officials say.

But advocates for local food are now pushing back against the widespread notion that eating food grown or raised in Alaska is impossible or too expensive. Boosted by a state program that is helping school districts buy local products, and food stamp incentives that are luring low-income shoppers to farmers’ markets, locavore warriors are teaching small farmers how to reach the public, and consumers how and where to buy. (In Alaska, local can also mean wild, as in moose or seal meat.)

(More here.)

U.S. and Iran Unlikely Allies in Iraq Battle

By TIM ARANGO and AZAM AHMED
AUG. 31, 2014

BAGHDAD — With American bombs raining down from the sky, Shiite militia fighters aligned with Iran battled Sunni extremists over the weekend, punching through their defenses to break the weekslong siege of Amerli, a cluster of farming villages whose Shiite residents faced possible slaughter.

The fight in northern Iraq appeared to be the first time American warplanes and militias backed by Iran had worked with a common purpose on a battlefield against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, even though the Obama administration said there was no direct coordination with the militias.

Should such military actions continue, they could signal a dramatic shift for the United States and Iran, which have long vied for control in Iraq. They could also align the interests of the Americans with their longtime sworn enemies in the Shiite militias, whose fighters killed many United States soldiers during the long occupation of Iraq.

(More here.)

More Workers Are Claiming ‘Wage Theft’

By STEVEN GREENHOUSE, NYT, AUG. 31, 2014

MIRA LOMA, Calif. — Week after week, Guadalupe Rangel worked seven days straight, sometimes 11 hours a day, unloading dining room sets, trampolines, television stands and other imports from Asia that would soon be shipped to Walmart stores.

Even though he often clocked 70 hours a week at the Schneider warehouse here, he was never paid time-and-a-half overtime, he said. And now, having joined a lawsuit involving hundreds of warehouse workers, Mr. Rangel stands to receive more than $20,000 in back pay as part of a recent $21 million legal settlement with Schneider, a national trucking company.

“Sometimes I’d work 60, even 90 days in a row,” said Mr. Rangel, a soft-spoken immigrant from Mexico. “They never paid overtime.”

The lawsuit is part of a flood of recent cases — brought in California and across the nation — that accuse employers of violating minimum wage and overtime laws, erasing work hours and wrongfully taking employees’ tips. Worker advocates call these practices “wage theft,” insisting it has become far too prevalent.

(More here.)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Russia, Ukraine Trade Captured Soldiers

Kiev Agrees to Release Paratroopers in Return for 63 of Its Fighters

By Alan Cullison And Laurence Norman, WSJ
Updated Aug. 31, 2014 11:35 a.m. ET

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine—With its forces falling back before onslaughts in eastern Ukraine, Kiev agreed to the release of Russian paratroopers captured inside its borders last week in return for 63 Ukrainians who had crossed into Russian territory to flee fighting.

The exchanges appeared to be a modest sign of a willingness to talk on the eve of cease-fire talks in Minsk, Belarus, on Monday that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said could be decisive.

Kiev has taken a hard line in previous talks as it sought to regain territory taken by Moscow-backed rebels. But after Russian troops openly intervened, reversing Kiev's gains and leaving hundreds of its soldiers surrounded, Mr. Poroshenko may be preparing to make concessions.

Moscow appeared to be hardening its demands and to be ready to press Kiev to accept outright secession of its two eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk.

(More here.)

Putin’s propoganda keeps Russians in the dark about Ukraine and more

By Editorial Board August 31 at 6:49 PM, WashPost

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, his bitter resentment at the Soviet empire’s collapse metastasized into seething Russian nationalism, has marginalized the political opposition, muzzled dissidents and intimidated independent voices in civil society. In prosecuting his widening war in Ukraine, he has also resurrected the tyranny of the Big Lie, using state-controlled media to twist the truth so grotesquely that most Russians are in the dark — or profoundly misinformed — about events in their neighbor to the west.

Most Russians get their news from state-controlled broadcast outlets, which have moved beyond mere propaganda into outlandish conspiracy theories and unhinged jingoism. The shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner in July, over territory controlled by Russian-sponsored militias in Ukraine, was spun by Kremlin’s media mouthpieces into a provocation orchestrated by the West. With few countervailing views in the mainstream media, many Russians believed the spin or had no idea what to believe.

In support of those Russian-sponsored militias in eastern Ukraine, now backed by growing ranks of Russian troops and weapons, Moscow has created a fantasy that plays on Russian victimization. By this rendering, the forces backing Ukraine’s government in Kiev are fascists and neo-Nazis, a portrayal that Mr. Putin personally advanced on Friday, when he likened the Ukrainian army’s attempts to regain its own territory to the Nazi siege of Leningrad in World War II, an appeal meant to inflame Russians’ already overheated nationalist emotions.

(More here.)

Putin’s czarist fantasies put Europe on brink of the unthinkable

Kelly McParland | August 29, 2014 | Toronto National Post

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is proving far more reckless than previously imagined in his determination to have his way in Ukraine, exhibiting a level of cynicism and contempt for international law that few could have anticipated.

Canada Thursday condemned what it calls an “invasion of eastern Ukraine” by Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation, saying the attacks will “strengthen the resolve” of NATO leaders who will meet next week to discuss the escalating crisis.

The Conservative government did not indicate what further measures it plans, but Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada Thursday called for Canada and its allies to act “immediately” by providing “real” military support and even troops on the ground to help his country defend itself in what he says has become an outright war.

“Nowadays when we see the Russians are fighting as the military are doing, we need more support. When we’re talking support nowadays, we’re talking about military support. At least we will need some military equipment,” Ukrainian Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko told the Citizen.

On Thursday the North Atlantic Treaty Organization released satellite images showing Russian combat forces engaged in Ukraine and termed the action “illegal”. NATO says at least 1,000 Russian troops are operating within Ukraine, with another 20,000 arrayed along the nearby border.

(More here.)

Israel Claims Nearly 1,000 Acres of West Bank Land Near Bethlehem

(VV note: Israel in Palestine, Russia in Ukraine: What's the difference?)

By ISABEL KERSHNER, NYT, AUG. 31, 2014

JERUSALEM — Israel on Sunday laid claim to nearly 1,000 acres of West Bank land in a Jewish settlement bloc near Bethlehem — a step that could herald significant Israeli construction in the area — defying Palestinian demands for a halt in settlement expansion and challenging world opinion.

Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes the construction of settlements in the West Bank, said that the action on Sunday might be the largest single appropriation of West Bank land in decades and that it could “dramatically change the reality” in the area.

Palestinians aspire to form a state in the lands that Israel conquered in 1967.

Israeli officials said the political directive to expedite a survey of the status of the land came after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in June while hitchhiking in that area. In July, the Israeli authorities arrested a Palestinian who was accused of being the prime mover in the kidnapping and killing of the teenagers. The timing of the land appropriation suggested that it was meant as a kind of compensation for the settlers and punishment for the Palestinians.

(More here.)

Inside the Mind of the Western Jihadist

Shiraz Maher, a British citizen who lived the experience, describes the allure of the Islamic State for young Westerners and the deadly peril it poses

By Sohrab Ahmari WSJ
Aug. 29, 2014 6:49 p.m. ET

London

On 9/11, Shiraz Maher thought to himself: "Yeah, you Americans deserve this. For meddling in the Arab world. For supporting Israel. You shall reap what you sow, and this is what you've sown for a long time."

Within days the college student would quit alcohol, dump his girlfriend and join Hizbut Tahrir, a radical Islamist group he describes as the "political wing of the global jihad movement." He quickly climbed the ranks before eventually leaving the U.K. Islamist movement and rededicating his life to countering it.

Mr. Maher is today a senior fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, King's College London, where he researches Europe's homegrown Islamist movement and profiles the droves of young Britons who are decamping for Syria and Iraq to wage jihad with ISIS, aka the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

These include Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, a wannabe rapper from a posh west-London neighborhood who recently posted a Twitter selfie of himself holding a severed head. "Chillin' with my homie," read the caption, "or what's left of him." Abdel Bary is also suspected to be the terrorist who addresses the camera before beheading American journalist James Foley in a widely circulated online video, though Mr. Maher thinks the masked figure is a different British jihadist.

(More more.)

Beijing Rules Out Open Election in Hong Kong

Decision That Candidates Must Be Prescreened Draws Ire in Pro-Democracy Camp

By Brian Spegele in Beijing and Chester Yung in Hong Kong WSJ

China's government declared Sunday that candidates for Hong Kong's top post must be prescreened, effectively barring anyone unpalatable to Beijing from running.

The decree capped months of blunt reminders from Beijing of who's in charge in the former British territory and provided a clear demarcation of how far China will allow the city's democracy experiment to proceed.

It quickly drew ire from pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong, who have argued that residents should be allowed to directly nominate candidates for the post, and have threatened a mass civil-disobedience campaign if not offered "genuine choice" in 2017 elections.

"Hong Kong people have the reason to believe they have been betrayed," said Alan Leong, a Hong Kong pro-democracy legislator. "We cannot be the boss, we cannot have genuine choice," he said.

(More here.)

Between Godliness and Godlessness

Frank Bruni, NYT
AUG. 30, 2014

ALMOST midway through Sam Harris’s new book, “Waking Up,” he paints a scene that will shock many of his fans, who know him as one of the country’s most prominent and articulate atheists.

He describes a walk in Jesus’ footsteps, and the way he was touched by it.

This happened on “an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,” Harris writes. “As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.”

Had Harris at last found God? And is “Waking Up” a stop-the-presses admission — an epiphany — that he slumbered and lumbered through the darkness for too long?

(More here.)

Race and Police Shootings: Are Blacks Targeted More?

Are Police Bigoted?

By MICHAEL WINES, NYT
AUG. 30, 2014

IF anything good has come out of this month’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., it is that the death of the black teenager shined a spotlight on the plague of shootings of black men by white police officers. And maybe now, the nation will begin to address the racism behind it.

That is the conventional wisdom, anyway, and maybe it is true. Only a fool would deny that racial bias still pervades aspects of American society. The evidence is clear that some police law-enforcement tactics — traffic stops, to cite one example — disproportionately target African-Americans. And few doubt that blacks are more likely than whites to die in police shootings; in most cities, the percentage almost certainly exceeds the African-American share of the population.

Such arguments suggest that the use of deadly force by police officers unfairly targets blacks. All that is needed are the numbers to prove it.

But those numbers do not exist. And because of that, the current national debate over the role of race in police killings is being conducted more or less in a vacuum.

(More here.)

Top Bitcoin Proponent to Plead Guilty to Federal Charge

By SYDNEY EMBER, NYT
August 30, 2014 4:40 pm

A prominent supporter of Bitcoin, Charles Shrem, says he will plead guilty on Thursday to resolve federal charges that he helped smooth the way for drug transactions on the online marketplace Silk Road. He is to plead in New York federal court to one count of aiding and abetting the operation of an unlicensed money transmitting business.

Mr. Shrem, one of the most vocal advocates of Bitcoin, was accused in January of using his company to convert dollars into Bitcoin for users of Silk Road, the now-defunct bazaar known for its wide selection of narcotics and drug paraphernalia. Federal prosecutors contended that he operated the scheme in cooperation with Robert Faiella, known as BTCKing, who was also arrested in January, in Florida.

“They want a guilty plea on their books, and that’s what they’re going to get,” Mr. Shrem said on Saturday from his parents’ home in Brooklyn. “They got a Bitcoiner.”

Mr. Shrem’s arrest at Kennedy International Airport this year stirred consternation in the Bitcoin world, which continues to grapple with the perception that the digital currency provides an anonymous way to engage in illegal activity.

(More here.)

Kochs’ Network Wrestles With Expectations for Presidential Primaries

By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE, NYT
AUG. 30, 2014

DALLAS — The network overseen by Charles G. and David H. Koch has knocked on the doors of a million voters this year, elbowed aside some of the Republican Party’s top strategists and built one of the biggest fund-raising operations in politics.

But as 3,000 activists, dozens of big donors and a gaggle of presidential aspirants gathered here for a pre-election conference held by the network’s flagship political organization, Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ political operation is confronting the anxieties of influence.

Koch-backed organizations have largely steered clear of the bitter battles this year between establishment Republicans and Tea Party conservatives, instead encouraging Republicans to emphasize economic freedom and mounting well-financed attacks on Senate Democrats. Mindful of the failure of conservative groups to unseat President Obama in 2012, they have cleaned house, retooled their data efforts and grass-roots outreach, and cautioned donors that a Republican Senate majority will not be easily attainable.

Yet the Koch network’s growing importance to Republicans — its groups are planning to raise and spend a combined $300 million by Election Day — and its expanding grass-roots footprint have put pressure on it to become more aggressive in reshaping the Republican Party as 2016 approaches.

(More here.)

Coverage for End-of-Life Talks Gaining Ground

By PAM BELLUCK, NYT
AUG. 30, 2014

DUNDEE, N.Y. — Five years after it exploded into a political conflagration over “death panels,” the issue of paying doctors to talk to patients about end-of-life care is making a comeback, and such sessions may be covered for the 50 million Americans on Medicare as early as next year.

Bypassing the political process, private insurers have begun reimbursing doctors for these “advance care planning” conversations as interest in them rises along with the number of aging Americans. People are living longer with illnesses, and many want more input into how they will spend their final days, including whether they want to die at home or in the hospital, and whether they want full-fledged life-sustaining treatment, just pain relief or something in between. Some states, including Colorado and Oregon, recently began covering the sessions for Medicaid patients.

But far more significant, Medicare may begin covering end-of-life discussions next year if it approves a recent request from the American Medical Association, the country’s largest association of physicians and medical students. One of the A.M.A.’s roles is to create billing codes for medical services, codes used by doctors, hospitals and insurers. It recently created codes for end-of-life conversations and submitted them to Medicare.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs Medicare, would not discuss whether it will agree to cover end-of-life discussions; its decision is expected this fall. But the agency often adopts A.M.A. recommendations, which are developed in meetings attended by its representatives. And the political environment is less toxic than it was when the “death panel” label was coined; although there are still opponents, there are more proponents, including Republican politicians.

(More here.)

Palestinians May Push for Deadline to End Occupation

By RICK GLADSTONE, NYT
AUG. 30, 2014

UNITED NATIONS — President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority may use the global stage of the annual General Assembly here in a few weeks to publicly demand a deadline for ending Israel’s occupation, according to his ambassador, while expecting that the Israelis — and almost certainly their American allies — will oppose that demand.

“He wants the international community to agree on a date,” the ambassador, Riyad H. Mansour, said. Mr. Mansour called the demand part of what he described as a new strategy by Mr. Abbas to unilaterally advance the goal of Palestinian independence and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after a litany of frustrations, notably the collapse of American-brokered talks with Israel this year.

Mr. Abbas also is apparently hoping that the Palestinian Authority’s role in helping to halt the 50-day war in Gaza between Israeli forces and Hamas militants, achieved last Tuesday with an Egyptian brokered cease-fire agreement, has infused his position with new vitality and leverage.

If Mr. Abbas is denied an occupation end date, Mr. Mansour said, he will use the Palestine observer state status at the United Nations, an upgrade won nearly two years ago over Israeli and American objections, to make the occupied territories even more like the independent state he has sought.

(More here.)

ISIS Displaying a Deft Command of Varied Media

SCOTT SHANE and BEN HUBBARD, NYT
AUG. 30, 2014

The extremists who have seized large parts of Syria and Iraq have riveted the world’s attention with their military prowess and unrestrained brutality. But Western intelligence services are also worried about their extraordinary command of seemingly less lethal weapons: state-of-the-art videos, ground images shot from drones and multilingual Twitter messages.

ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is using every contemporary mode of messaging to recruit fighters, intimidate enemies and promote its claim to have established a caliphate, a unified Muslim state run according to a strict interpretation of Islamic law. If its bigotry and beheadings seem to come from a distant century, its use of media is up to the moment.

A review of its prodigious output in print and online reveals a number of surprises. ISIS propaganda, for instance, has strikingly few calls for attacks on the West, even though its most notorious video, among Americans, released 12 days ago, showed the beheading of the American journalist James Foley, threatened another American hostage, and said that American attacks on ISIS “would result in the bloodshed” of Americans. This diverged from nearly all of ISIS’s varied output, which promotes its paramount goal: to secure and expand the Islamic state. Experts say that could change overnight, but for now it sharply distinguishes ISIS from Al Qaeda, which has long made attacks on the West its top priority.

(More here.)