Saturday, September 20, 2014

U.S. Hopes Face-Saving Plan Offers a Path to a Nuclear Pact With Iran


Over the years, the United States has shown considerable ingenuity in its effort to slow Iran’s production of nuclear fuel: It has used sabotage, cyberattacks and creative economic sanctions.
Now, mixing face-saving diplomacy and innovative technology, negotiators are attempting a new approach, suggesting that the Iranians call in a plumber.
The idea is to convince the Iranians to take away many of the pipes that connect their nuclear centrifuges, the giant machines that are connected together in a maze that allows uranium fuel to move from one machine to another, getting enriched along the way. That way, the Iranians could claim they have not given in to Western demands that they eliminate all but a token number of their 19,000 machines, in which Iran has invested billions of dollars and tremendous national pride.
And if the plumbing is removed, experts at America’s national nuclear laboratories have told the Obama administration, the United States and its allies could accurately claim that they have extended the time Iran would need to produce enough fuel for a bomb — and given the West time to react.

(More here.)

After Sweep, Australia Adds Security at Parliament


HONG KONG — The Australian government intensified security at the national Parliament building on Friday, a day after the police detained 15 people in an operation that the prime minister said had been prompted by signs that militant Islamists were planning “demonstration executions.”
The security sweep involved some 800 police officers simultaneously raiding homes across western Sydney. By Friday, most of the people detained had been released without being charged. Two were charged: one with conspiring to prepare a terrorist attack, who was held in custody; the other on a weapons count, who was freed on bail.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and senior Australian police officials said that the investigation into suspected supporters of the Islamic State, a group promoting a vision of an unsparing caliphate at war with those it sees as unbelievers and heretics, was far from over and that serious risks remained of some kind of attack.
“There certainly has been chatter amongst the terrorist support networks of an attack on government and government people, and Parliament House has been specifically mentioned,” Mr. Abbott said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

(More here.)

Exercising the Right to Rant

Gail Collins, NYT
Congress is gone. But not forgotten.
O.K., to be honest, they’re totally forgotten. The members of the House and Senate have been out of session for about a day and the nation has already totally wiped them from the memory bank.
Oh, America’s Legislature, we hardly knew ye.
Before decamping to go home and run for re-election, our elected representatives voted to fund the government and go to war. Pretty much ran the table on their constitutional responsibilities. Normally, that sort of thing would draw attention. “Before I came here I imagined that when war was discussed, everybody would be at their desk,” complained Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, to a rather vacant chamber.
To be fair, Congress actually just gave a vague grunt of acceptance to one part of President Obama’s strategy to combat ISIS. (It could have gone further, but you know how much these guys like leaving everything up to the president.) And it averted a government shutdown by decreeing that we will keep on spending whatever it is we’ve been spending for a couple more months.

(More here.)

To Save the Planet, Don’t Plant Trees


NEW HAVEN — AS international leaders gather in New York next week for a United Nations climate summit, they will be preoccupied with how to tackle the rising rate of carbon emissions. To mitigate the crisis, one measure they are likely to promote is reducing deforestation and planting trees.
A landmark deal to support sustainable forestry was a heralded success story of the last international climate talks, in Warsaw last year. Western nations, including the United States, Britain and Norway, handed over millions of dollars to developing countries to kick-start programs to reduce tropical deforestation. More funds are promised.
Deforestation accounts for about 20 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide. The assumption is that planting trees and avoiding further deforestation provides a convenient carbon capture and storage facility on the land.
That is the conventional wisdom. But the conventional wisdom is wrong.

(More here.)

Friday, September 19, 2014

When Medicine Is Futile

By BARRON H. LERNER, NYT, SEPT. 18, 2014

MY father would have been thrilled to read “Dying in America,” a new report by the Institute of Medicine that argues that we subject dying patients to too many treatments, denying them a peaceful death. But he would have asked what took us so long. A physician from the late 1950s to the late 1990s, my dad grew increasingly angry at how patients died in this country, too often in hospitals and connected to machines and tubes he knew would not help them.

He placed some of the blame for the situation at the feet of bioethics and patients’ rights, two movements that I, as a young physician, had fiercely advocated. Doctors, he believed, had abrogated their duties in preventing — and, if necessary, thwarting — patients from pursuing inappropriate end-of-life interventions. We should heed my father’s advice. Physicians need to reclaim some of the turf they have ceded to patients and families.

My father was an unlikely proponent of what came to be known as the “medical futility” movement in the 1990s. He was an infectious disease specialist, trained to diagnose and cure complicated infections. For much of his early career, he did just that. It was a heady time. Thanks to penicillin and other antibiotics, my dad was able to cure once-fatal infections like tuberculosis.

(More here.)

Carbon Pricing: Good for You, Good for the Planet

By Ian Parry, International Monetary Fund
Posted on September 17, 2014 by iMFdirect

The time has come to end hand wringing on climate strategy, particularly controlling carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. We need an approach that builds on national self-interest and spurs a race to the top in low-carbon energy solutions. Our findings here at the IMF—that carbon pricing is practical, raises revenue that permits tax reductions in other areas, and is often in countries’ own interests—should strike a chord at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York next week. Let me explain how.

Ever since the 1992 Earth Summit, policymakers have struggled to agree on an international regime for controlling emissions, but with limited success. Presently, only around 12 percent of global emissions are covered by pricing programs, such as taxes on the carbon content of fossil fuels or permit trading programs that put a price on emissions. Reducing CO2 emissions is widely seen as a classic “free-rider” problem. Why should an individual country suffer the cost of cutting its emissions when the benefits largely accrue to other countries and, given the long life of emissions and the gradual adjustment of the climate system, future generations?

This argument crucially ignores immediate domestic environmental benefits from reducing CO2. Fossil fuel combustion, especially coal, is a leading cause of local outdoor air pollution which, according to World Health Organization figures, is estimated to cause over 3 million premature deaths a year worldwide—through increasing the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, and so on. Taxing the carbon content of coal will increase its price, and decrease its use, leading to both fewer CO2 emissions and better public health due to cleaner air. A carbon tax would also increase motor fuel prices, which will reduce traffic congestion and accidents as people economize a bit on their use of vehicles. This again spurs domestic economic benefits, at least in countries where people are not already fully charged for these adverse effects through existing motor fuel excises. These health and other “co-benefits” from reducing fossil fuel use add to the gains in economic efficiency that start with pricing CO2 emissions.

(Continued here.)

How the NFL Fleeces Taxpayers

Taxpayers fund the stadiums, antitrust law doesn't apply to broadcast deals, the league enjoys nonprofit status, and Commissioner Roger Goodell makes $30 million a year. It's time to stop the public giveaways to America's richest sports league—and to the feudal lords who own its teams.

Gregg Easterbrook — The Atlantic — Sep 18 2013, 8:24 PM ET

Last year was a busy one for public giveaways to the National Football League. In Virginia, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell, who styles himself as a budget-slashing conservative crusader, took $4 million from taxpayers’ pockets and handed the money to the Washington Redskins, for the team to upgrade a workout facility. Hoping to avoid scrutiny, McDonnell approved the gift while the state legislature was out of session. The Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder, has a net worth estimated by Forbes at $1 billion. But even billionaires like to receive expensive gifts.

Taxpayers in Hamilton County, Ohio, which includes Cincinnati, were hit with a bill for $26 million in debt service for the stadiums where the NFL’s Bengals and Major League Baseball’s Reds play, plus another $7 million to cover the direct operating costs for the Bengals’ field. Pro-sports subsidies exceeded the $23.6 million that the county cut from health-and-human-services spending in the current two-year budget (and represent a sizable chunk of the $119 million cut from Hamilton County schools). Press materials distributed by the Bengals declare that the team gives back about $1 million annually to Ohio community groups. Sound generous? That’s about 4 percent of the public subsidy the Bengals receive annually from Ohio taxpayers.

In Minnesota, the Vikings wanted a new stadium, and were vaguely threatening to decamp to another state if they didn’t get it. The Minnesota legislature, facing a $1.1 billion budget deficit, extracted $506 million from taxpayers as a gift to the team, covering roughly half the cost of the new facility. Some legislators argued that the Vikings should reveal their finances: privately held, the team is not required to disclose operating data, despite the public subsidies it receives. In the end, the Minnesota legislature folded, giving away public money without the Vikings’ disclosing information in return. The team’s principal owner, Zygmunt Wilf, had a 2011 net worth estimated at $322 million; with the new stadium deal, the Vikings’ value rose about $200 million, by Forbes’s estimate, further enriching Wilf and his family. They will make a token annual payment of $13 million to use the stadium, keeping the lion’s share of all NFL ticket, concession, parking, and, most important, television revenues.

(More here.)

James Clapper: We underestimated the Islamic State’s ‘will to fight’

By David Ignatius Opinion writer September 18 at 8:13 PM WashPost

The United States has made the same mistake in evaluating fighters from the Islamic State that it did in Vietnam — underestimating the enemy’s will, according to James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.

Clapper’s comments came in a telephone interview Wednesday, in which he summarized the elements of a new National Intelligence Strategy released this week. Clapper also answered some broader questions about intelligence issues confronting the country.

Asked whether the intelligence community had succeeded in its goal of providing “anticipatory intelligence” about the extremist movement in Syria and Iraq that has declared itself the Islamic State, Clapper said his analysts had reported the group’s emergence and its “prowess and capability,” as well as the “deficiencies” of the Iraqi military. Then he offered a self-critique:

“What we didn’t do was predict the will to fight. That’s always a problem. We didn’t do it in Vietnam. We underestimated the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese and overestimated the will of the South Vietnamese. In this case, we underestimated ISIL [the Islamic State] and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army. . . . I didn’t see the collapse of the Iraqi security force in the north coming. I didn’t see that. It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable.”

(More here.)

What Happens When We All Live to 100?

If life-expectancy trends continue, that future may be near, transforming society in surprising and far-reaching ways. 

Gregg Easterbrook
The Atlantic, September 17, 2014

For millennia, if not for eons—anthropology continuously pushes backward the time of human origin—life expectancy was short. The few people who grew old were assumed, because of their years, to have won the favor of the gods. The typical person was fortunate to reach 40.

Beginning in the 19th century, that slowly changed. Since 1840, life expectancy at birth has risen about three months with each passing year. In 1840, life expectancy at birth in Sweden, a much-studied nation owing to its record-keeping, was 45 years for women; today it’s 83 years. The United States displays roughly the same trend. When the 20th century began, life expectancy at birth in America was 47 years; now newborns are expected to live 79 years. If about three months continue to be added with each passing year, by the middle of this century, American life expectancy at birth will be 88 years. By the end of the century, it will be 100 years.

Viewed globally, the lengthening of life spans seems independent of any single, specific event. It didn’t accelerate much as antibiotics and vaccines became common. Nor did it retreat much during wars or disease outbreaks. A graph of global life expectancy over time looks like an escalator rising smoothly. The trend holds, in most years, in individual nations rich and poor; the whole world is riding the escalator.

(More here.)

The GOP’s Latest Attempt to Fool Women Won’t Work

Sally Kohn, The Daily Beast

It sounds great—four GOP Senate candidates call for over-the-counter birth control access. But it’s all a stunt, and it won’t succeed.

Suddenly, Republicans like birth control. Or at least that’s the conclusion they would like you to draw based on a recent spate of GOP candidates announcing their support for making birth control pills available over the counter. But the truth is Republicans remain as committed as ever to restricting the reproductive freedom of poor and middle-class women while advancing the freedom of corporations.

In recent elections, Republican political candidates have of course been hurt by their own extremist stances on opposing the contraception mandate in Obamacare, restricting abortion, and generally perpetuating the war on women. The rhetoric of recent candidates like Todd Akin hasn’t exactly helped, either.

But now, a few GOPers have advanced a clever counter-narrative. Recently, four Republican candidates in tough Senate races—Cory Garner in Colorado, Ed Gillespie in Virginia, Mike McFadden in Minnesota, and Thom Tillis in North Carolina—in effect tried to declare to voters, “We support birth control so much we want women to be able to get it over-the-counter!” Sounds great. Especially coming from Republicans. If only it were true.

(More here.)

The Barbarians Within Our Gates

Arab civilization has collapsed. It won’t recover in my lifetime.

By HISHAM MELHEM
Politico.com, September 18, 2014

With his decision to use force against the violent extremists of the Islamic State, President Obama is doing more than to knowingly enter a quagmire. He is doing more than play with the fates of two half-broken countries—Iraq and Syria—whose societies were gutted long before the Americans appeared on the horizon. Obama is stepping once again—and with understandably great reluctance—into the chaos of an entire civilization that has broken down.

Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays—all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms. With the dubious exception of the antiquated monarchies and emirates of the Gulf—which for the moment are holding out against the tide of chaos—and possibly Tunisia, there is no recognizable legitimacy left in the Arab world.

(More here.)

U.S. Faces Tough Struggle on Ground to Oust ISIS

By MICHAEL R. GORDON, ERIC SCHMITT and HELENE COOPER, NYT
SEPT. 18, 2014

WASHINGTON — The American air campaign to thwart the advance of fighters from the Islamic State has been the easy part of President Obama’s strategy in Iraq and Syria. Soon begins the next and much harder phase: rolling back their gains in Mosul, Falluja and other populated areas, which will require American advisers to train and coordinate airstrikes with Iraqi forces.

Pentagon officials are more willing than their counterparts at the White House to acknowledge that this will almost certainly require American Special Operations forces on the ground to call in airstrikes and provide tactical advice to Iraqi troops. “There is no one in this building who does not know that clearing out the cities will be much harder,” a senior Defense Department official said in an interview. “That’s when the rubber is going to meet the road.”

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this week described this phase as “extraordinarily complex.”

Urban warfare in Iraq has been challenging for the United States, which had 70 troops killed in the second battle of Falluja in 2004 and fought hard to regain control of cities like Mosul, Baquba and Baghdad. So it will be even harder for the Iraqis, who have so far proved ineffective in combating the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

(More here.)

Death on a Bike

Timothy Egan, NYT
SEPT. 18, 2014

She was doing all the right things in the morning commute, traveling in the bike lane, wearing a helmet, following the rules of the road. In an instant, Sher Kung — new mother, brilliant attorney, avid cyclist — was struck and killed by a vehicle making a turn in downtown Seattle last month.

At the scene, the truck driver wept and swore he never saw her. Mourners placed a ghost bike, painted white, at the corner. In the local law office of Perkins Coie, where Ms. Kung worked, colleagues passed by the poster in her office — “It’s a girl!” — and couldn’t believe she was gone, dead at 31.

It’s still somewhat rare for a bike rider to be killed by a motor vehicle, rare enough to wonder why. In 2012, the last year for which full numbers are available, 726 cyclists lost their lives nationwide — almost two a day. It’s far safer to fly. In that same year, there were zero fatalities from commercial airplane accidents in the United States. The death of a single cyclist has a chilling effect on everyone who pedals for work, exercise or pleasure. Can’t we get it right?

Cities are changing, quickly, to accommodate the new urban commuter. It’s not quite like the transformation from horse carriages to backfiring internal combustion engines, but a revolution is underway. Uber, Lyft and other ride services make it easy not to own a car. Bike commuting is at an all-time high in many cities.

But lanes for cyclists and signage for special routes might offer little more than the illusion of safety. The designated bike corridor on the street where Ms. Kung died, Second Avenue, is known as the Lane of Death for all the accidents. She was struck down just days before a new signal system was put in place.

(More here.)

Could Fighting Global Warming Be Cheap and Free?

Errors and Emissions

Paul Krugman, NYT
SEPT. 18, 2014

This just in: Saving the planet would be cheap; it might even be free. But will anyone believe the good news?

I’ve just been reading two new reports on the economics of fighting climate change: a big study by a blue-ribbon international group, the New Climate Economy Project, and a working paper from the International Monetary Fund. Both claim that strong measures to limit carbon emissions would have hardly any negative effect on economic growth, and might actually lead to faster growth. This may sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. These are serious, careful analyses.

But you know that such assessments will be met with claims that it’s impossible to break the link between economic growth and ever-rising emissions of greenhouse gases, a position I think of as “climate despair.” The most dangerous proponents of climate despair are on the anti-environmentalist right. But they receive aid and comfort from other groups, including some on the left, who have their own reasons for getting it wrong.

Where is the new optimism about climate change and growth coming from? It has long been clear that a well-thought-out strategy of emissions control, in particular one that puts a price on carbon via either an emissions tax or a cap-and-trade scheme, would cost much less than the usual suspects want you to think. But the economics of climate protection look even better now than they did a few years ago.

(More here.)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Eight dead in attack on Ebola team in Guinea

‘Killed in cold blood’

By Abby Phillip September 18 at 6:06 PM WashPost

The bodies of eight people, including several health workers and three journalists, have been found days after they were attacked while distributing information about Ebola in a Guinean village near the city of Nzerekore, according to Reuters.

"The eight bodies were found in the village latrine," Albert Damantang Camara, a spokesman for Guinea's government, told Reuters on Thursday. "Three of them had their throats slit."

When the delegation arrived on Tuesday to do disinfection work and educate people about preventing Ebola, angry and fearful residents began throwing rocks and beating people in the group with clubs according to the Los Angeles Times, which cited Guinean radio reports. The delegation, which included one local politician, fled into the bush to escape the attackers.

One journalist who managed to escape told reporters that she could hear the people looking for her while she hid, according to the BBC.

(More here.)

Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State

By Craig Whitlock September 18 at 8:47 PM WashPost

Flashes of disagreement over how to fight the Islamic State are mounting between President Obama and U.S. military leaders, the latest sign of strain in what often has been an awkward and uneasy relationship.

Even as the administration has received congressional backing for its strategy, with the Senate voting Thursday to approve a plan to arm and train Syrian rebels, a series of military leaders have criticized the president’s approach against the Islamic State militant group.

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who served under Obama until last year, became the latest high-profile skeptic on Thursday, telling the House Intelligence Committee that a blanket prohibition on ground combat was tying the military’s hands. “Half-hearted or tentative efforts, or airstrikes alone, can backfire on us and actually strengthen our foes’ credibility,” he said. “We may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground.”

(More here.)

Kerry Claims U.S. Has Found a Moderate Syrian Rebel

[VV note: Lest some of our readers think that all we post is serious stuff, this is written thoroughly tongue-in-cheek.]

By Andy Borowitz, The New Yorker

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—In what Secretary of State John Kerry described as a significant foreign-policy coup, the U.S. claimed, on Tuesday, that it had successfully located a moderate Syrian rebel.

Though Kerry did not elaborate on how the U.S. did so, he said that locating the rebel was “the culmination of a months-long effort.”

The Secretary of State said that the Syrian had been appropriately vetted and was deemed “moderately rebellious.”

“He definitely seems to be the sort of gentleman we can work with,” Kerry said, adding that several millions of dollars would be spent arming and training the rebel in the days and weeks ahead.

(More here.)

Terrorism raids: Isis 'urging followers to behead Australians', says PM

Two charged and nine released after Sydney raids: 22-year-old accused of planning public killings

Bridie Jabour
theguardian.com, Thursday 18 September 2014 04.47 EDT

A senior member of Islamic State was urging a network in Australia to carry out public beheadings, prime minister Tony Abbott said after the largest counter-terrorism raids in the country’s history.

More than 800 police officers were involved in raids in Sydney’s north-west on Thursday morning with 15 people detained.

Two men were charged and nine people released. Under Australia’s counter-terrorism laws, those detained could be held for two weeks without charge.

One man, Omarjan Azari, 22, appeared in Sydney central court on Thursday afternoon to face charges of preparing to commit a terrorist act.

(More here.)

The NFL Has a Lower Rate of Domestic Violence Than the General Population

Posted by Ross Pomeroy September 18, 2014, Real Clear Science

This year, three National Football League players -- Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and Greg Hardy -- have either admitted to or been convicted of domestic violence. Their stories coalesced into a storm this past week with the release of a damning new video of Ray Rice punching his wife (then fiancée) and the indictment of Adrian Peterson, debatably the NFL's best running back, for child abuse.

The media onslaught of updates, analysis, and opinion on what has been called the National Football League's "worst week ever" leaves a distinct impression: the NFL is a league stocked full of criminals.

Evidence, however, doesn't bear that out.

Back in 1999, leading criminologist Alfred Blumstein teamed up with author Jeff Benedict, who has written five books focused on crime and athletics, to compare rates of criminal violence among NFL players to that of the general population. Controlling for age, they found that the annual rate of assault and domestic violence among NFL players was less than half that of the general population.

(More here.)

Think you’re healthy? You may be carrying around viruses you don’t even know about

By Abby Phillip September 17 at 9:47 AM WashPost

Even if you're otherwise healthy, you may be carrying around a handful of viruses in your body.

A new study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis sampled 102 healthy young people between ages 18 and 40 for signs of viruses in their bodies. They found plenty.

In 92 percent of the people -- an equal split between men and women -- there was at least one virus. In some cases, the researchers found 10 to 15 viruses. The findings were published in the journal BMC Biology.

Gregory Storch, a Washington University virologist and one of the study's co-authors, noted that while we're comfortable with the idea of our bodies constantly harboring bacteria, the idea of viral pathogens living in our healthy bodies isn't something that has been well studied.

"Most everyone is familiar with the idea that a normal bacterial flora exists in the body," Storch said in a statement. "Lots of people have asked whether there is a viral counterpart, and we haven’t had a clear answer. But now we know there is a normal viral flora, and it’s rich and complex."

(More here.)

FDA Panel Recommends More Study on Testosterone Drugs for 'Low-T' Use

Decision Could Have Implications for Millions of Older Men Taking Testosterone-Replacement Drugs

By Thomas M. Burton, WSJ
Sept. 17, 2014 6:48 p.m. ET

A Food and Drug Administration panel on Wednesday recommended that makers of testosterone-replacement drugs study possible increased risks of heart attack and stroke from the hot-selling products.

The outside panel of experts also voted overwhelmingly that the FDA should come up with language in the products' labels to restrict the intended uses of the drugs, which critics say are overprescribed. The decision could have implications for millions of older men taking the medicines.

At issue are drugs that are supposed to be aimed at men with low levels of testosterone for medical reasons, like genetic causes or chemotherapy. However, the medicines are widely prescribed for older men trying to boost their sex drives or low energy levels.

Among existing products are AndroGel from AbbVie Inc. and Axiron from Eli Lilly & Co. Companies that make the products say they don't condone their use for off-label purposes.

(More here.)

Russia Praises Ukraine's Autonomy Law for Rebel Areas

Ukrainian Nationalist Party supporters burn torches Wednesday outside the presidential office in Kiev to protest autonomy for rebel-held areas. European Pressphoto Agency

President Poroshenko Defends Law, Critics in Kiev Call it Unpatriotic

By Paul Sonne
Updated Sept. 17, 2014 6:49 p.m. ET

KIEV, Ukraine—Russia praised a Ukrainian law granting self-governance powers to separatist-held areas of Ukraine, a measure that faces a challenge from some politicians in Kiev who call it a giveaway to Moscow.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow on Wednesday described the new Ukrainian law—which Kiev agreed to pass during recent cease-fire negotiations—as a "step in the right direction."

The comments came as a signal to Ukraine—and the Russia-backed separatists—of Moscow's desire to keep the negotiations on track, despite continued, sporadic violence in eastern Ukraine. Formalizing control for the rebels over part of Ukraine would give Moscow a tool to rein in Kiev's European ambitions.

Moscow also warned that any Ukrainian attempts to backtrack on the legislation risked reviving the deadly conflict.

(More here.)

How Taxpayers subsidize beach dwellers

Why Americans are flocking to their sinking shores even as the risks mount

By Deborah J. Nelson, Ryan McNeill and Duff Wilson
Filed Sept. 17, 2014, 1 p.m. GMT, Reuters

Part 2: Despite laws intended to curb development where rising seas pose the greatest threat, Reuters finds that government is happy to help the nation indulge in its passion for beachfront living.

SANTA ROSA BEACH, Florida – Mike Huckabee bought a beachfront lot here in 2009, a year after his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination. A longtime friend and political ally of the former Arkansas governor bought the lot next door. They planned to build $3 million vacation villas side-by-side, each with a pool and sweeping views of Walton County’s renowned sugary sand beaches and the azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The only hitch was that their lots lay on a severely eroding beach. Under state regulations, they couldn’t build on the seaward side of the sand dune nearest to the surf. And after seven hurricanes in six years, the surviving “frontal dune” sat too close to the street to allow space behind it for the friends’ 11,000-square-foot (1,020-square-meter) compounds.

The structural engineer they had hired knew what to do. He dumped truckloads of sand farther out on the beach, shaped it into a mound, and declared the man-made hump to be the new frontal dune. When staff at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) still balked at issuing the necessary permits, the engineer asked Michael Sole, head of the agency at the time, to intercede.

“I met with Secretary Sole on Friday …” the contractor wrote to DEP staff in a March 8, 2010, email, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters. “I believe we’ve reached a consensus decision on the location of both these projects.”

(More here.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Read Slowly to Benefit Your Brain and Cut Stress

At Least 30 Minutes of Uninterrupted Reading With a Book or E-Book Helps

By Jeanne Whalen Updated Sept. 16, 2014 7:40 a.m. WSJ

Once a week, members of a Wellington, New Zealand, book club arrive at a cafe, grab a drink and shut off their cellphones. Then they sink into cozy chairs and read in silence for an hour.

The point of the club isn't to talk about literature, but to get away from pinging electronic devices and read, uninterrupted. The group calls itself the Slow Reading Club, and it is at the forefront of a movement populated by frazzled book lovers who miss old-school reading.

Slow reading advocates seek a return to the focused reading habits of years gone by, before Google, smartphones and social media started fracturing our time and attention spans. Many of its advocates say they embraced the concept after realizing they couldn't make it through a book anymore.

(More here.)

Lethal Violence in Chimps Occurs Naturally, Study Suggests

Adult male chimpanzees listening for the calls of a rival group. A new study attempts to understand why chimps kill. Credit John Mitani

By JAMES GORMAN, NYT
SEPT. 17, 2014

Are chimpanzees naturally violent to one another, or has the intrusion of humans into their environment made them aggressive?

A study published Wednesday in Nature is setting off a new round of debate on the issue.

The study’s authors argue that a review of all known cases of when chimpanzees or bonobos in Africa killed members of their own species shows that violence is a natural part of chimpanzee behavior and not a result of actions by humans that push chimpanzee aggression to lethal attacks. The researchers say their analysis supports the idea that warlike violence in chimpanzees is a natural behavior that evolved because it could provide more resources or territory to the killers, at little risk.

But critics say the data shows no such thing, largely because the measures of human impact on chimpanzees are inadequate.

(More here.)

Trying to Fix the American Way of Dying

By PAM BELLUCK, NYT
SEPT. 17, 2014

The country’s system for handling end-of-life care is largely broken and should be overhauled at almost every level, a national panel concluded in a report released on Wednesday.

The 21-member nonpartisan committee, appointed by the Institute of Medicine, the independent research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, called for sweeping change.

“The bottom line is the health care system is poorly designed to meet the needs of patients near the end of life,” said David M. Walker, a Republican and a former United States comptroller general, who was a chairman of the panel. “The current system is geared towards doing more, more, more, and that system by definition is not necessarily consistent with what patients want, and is also more costly.”

Many of the report’s recommendations could be accomplished without legislation. For example, the panel urged insurers to reimburse health care providers for conversations with patients on advance care planning. Medicare, which covers 50 million Americans and whose members account for about 80 percent of deaths each year, is considering doing just that, prompted by a recent request from the American Medical Association. Some private insurers are already covering such conversations, and many more would if Medicare did.

(More here.)

Is U.S. Policy on Fighting ISIS Already Changing?

The Slippery Slope Begins

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
SEPT. 16, 2014

A week ago, President Obama stood before the American people and promised that the expanding fight against the Islamic State — a vicious Sunni militant group known as ISIS or ISIL that is terrorizing parts of Iraq and Syria — would not mean a commitment of American ground troops. “As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission,” he said.

On Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a very different message when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I’ll recommend that to the president,” he said, citing a potential attempt to retake the strategic important Iraqi city of Mosul as an example.

There is no way to read this other than as a reversal from the firm commitment Mr. Obama made not to immerse the country in another endless ground war in the Middle East.

Even though General Dempsey’s remarks were conditional, the Obama administration has turned on a dime in record time and opened the door to deeper, more costly American involvement even before the strategy is fully sketched out. And this is happening without Congress ever giving Mr. Obama the authority to wage war.

(More here.)

U.S. Moves to Reduce Global Warming Emissions

By CORAL DAVENPORT, NYT, SEPT. 16, 2014

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Tuesday announced a series of moves aimed at cutting emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, powerful greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

The White House has secured voluntary agreements from some of the nation’s largest companies to scale down or phase out their use of HFCs, which are factory-made gases used in air conditioning and refrigeration. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Red Bull, Kroger, Honeywell and DuPont, the company that invented fluorinated refrigerants, have agreed to cut their use and replace them with climate-friendly alternatives.

Over all, the administration estimated that the agreements announced on Tuesday would reduce cumulative global consumption of HFCs by the equivalent of 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide through 2025. That is about 1.5 percent of the world’s 2010 greenhouse gas emissions, or the same as taking 15 million cars off the road for 10 years.

(More here.)

Under Pressure, Ukraine Leader to Seek Aid on U.S. Visit

By NEIL MacFARQUHAR, NYT
SEPT. 16, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine — Seeking elusive military and economic aid from the United States, President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine headed to North America on Tuesday, while also facing increasingly skeptical questions both here and abroad about the slow pace of change.

A White House meeting with President Obama and an address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday are likely to generate fresh moral support, if little else, for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

“It is a clear sign of solidarity and support from the United States,” Pavlo Klimkin, the foreign minister, said in a brief interview before leaving.

Photo opportunities alone are enough to help Mr. Poroshenko domestically, although given its raft of problems, Ukraine would like more. Winter looms with gas supplies from Russia cut off; it is unclear that limited self-rule for Russian-backed separatists regions is enough to satisfy the Kremlin; and the country is spending itself toward bankruptcy.

(More here.)

ISIS and the Arab World

Take a Deep Breath

Thomas L. Friedman, NYT
SEPT. 16, 2014

LONDON — An existential struggle is taking place in the Arab world today. But is it ours or is it theirs? Before we step up military action in Iraq and Syria, that’s the question that needs answering.

What concerns me most about President Obama’s decision to re-engage in Iraq is that it feels as if it’s being done in response to some deliberately exaggerated fears — fear engendered by YouTube videos of the beheadings of two U.S. journalists — and fear that ISIS, a.k.a., the Islamic State, is coming to a mall near you. How did we start getting so afraid again so fast? Didn’t we build a Department of Homeland Security?

I am not dismissing ISIS. Obama is right that ISIS needs to be degraded and destroyed. But when you act out of fear, you don’t think strategically and you glide over essential questions, like why is it that Shiite Iran, which helped trigger this whole Sunni rebellion in Iraq, is scoffing at even coordinating with us, and Turkey and some Arab states are setting limits on their involvement?

When I read that, I think that Nader Mousavizadeh, who co-leads the global consulting firm Macro Advisory Partners, is correct when he says: “When it comes to intervening in the Arab world’s existential struggle, we have to stop and ask ourselves why we have such a challenge getting them to help us save them.”

(More here.)

Israel’s N.S.A. Scandal

By JAMES BAMFORD, NYT, SEPT. 16, 2014

WASHINGTON — IN Moscow this summer, while reporting a story for Wired magazine, I had the rare opportunity to hang out for three days with Edward J. Snowden. It gave me a chance to get a deeper understanding of who he is and why, as a National Security Agency contractor, he took the momentous step of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents.

Among his most shocking discoveries, he told me, was the fact that the N.S.A. was routinely passing along the private communications of Americans to a large and very secretive Israeli military organization known as Unit 8200. This transfer of intercepts, he said, included the contents of the communications as well as metadata such as who was calling whom.

Typically, when such sensitive information is transferred to another country, it would first be “minimized,” meaning that names and other personally identifiable information would be removed. But when sharing with Israel, the N.S.A. evidently did not ensure that the data was modified in this way.

(More here.)

Shiite Militias Pose Challenge for U.S. in Iraq

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, NYT
SEPT. 16, 2014

BAGHDAD — Militia justice is simple, the fighters explained.

“We break into an area and kill the ones who are threatening people,” said one 18-year-old fighter with Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite militia that operates as a vigilante force around Baghdad.

Another 18-year-old fighter agreed. “We receive orders and carry out attacks immediately,” he said, insisting that their militia commanders had been given authority by Iraqi security officials. That free hand has helped make Asaib Ahl al-Haq the largest and most formidable of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that now dominate Baghdad.

Once a leading killer of American troops, the militia is spearheading the fight against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL. That means Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the United States military are now fighting on the same side, though each insists they will not work together.

(More here.)

Russia Now Applying Crimea Logic to the Baltics

By Katie Zavadski, New York Magazine

First Russia came for Ukraine, and now it may well be coming for the Baltics. Konstantin Dolgov — Russia's foreign minister on issues of human rights, democracy, and rule of law — voiced concern Saturday over the treatment of Russian citizens in the Baltic states. Consider that a warning.

According to the text of a speech published on the Russian foreign ministry's website (and evidently given at the Regional Conference of Russian Compatriots of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in Riga), the "protection of the rights and lawful interests of our compatriots abroad is one of the prioritized actions" of the foreign ministry. The speech's inflammatory language echoed the precursors of Russia's annexation of Crimea, citing concerns for the well-being and rights of Russians in the territory.

Dolgov linked alleged anti-Russian sentiment with a rise in "xenophobic and neo-Nazi sentiment" in Europe, and accused the European Union of ignoring its own human-rights abuses in favor of focusing on third parties. Then he zeroed in on the neighboring countries.

(More here.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bill Targets Pro Sports Leagues’ Tax-Exempt Status

By MARC TRACY, NYT, SEPT. 16, 2014

Amid uproar over the N.F.L.’s handling of domestic abuse cases involving some of its players, Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, has introduced a bill that would disallow major professional sports leagues, most notably the N.F.L., from claiming status as tax-exempt nonprofits.

The bill is aimed at raising $100 million over 10 years, according to Booker’s office, which would be used to pay for state domestic abuse programs across the country. It is unlikely to gain widespread support.

Under the tax code, N.F.L. teams pay taxes, but the league office, which is funded by dues from its franchises, does not. The league has enjoyed this status, which is similar to those granted to industry associations, since the 1960s.

Other prominent leagues that have a similar status, including the N.H.L. and the women’s and men’s golf and tennis associations, would also be affected.

(More here.)

U.S. General to Seek Combat Troops if Airstrikes Can’t Stop ISIS

By JEREMY W. PETERS and MARK LANDLER, NYT
SEPT. 16, 2014

WASHINGTON — Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday that he would recommend deploying United States combat forces against Islamic extremists in specific operations if the current strategy of airstrikes was not successful, offering a more expansive view of the American role in the ground war than that of President Obama.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said that while he was confident in the ability of the coalition of American, European and Middle Eastern governments to stop the Islamic State, he could not completely close the door to eventually asking Mr. Obama to commit ground troops to fight the group, known as ISIS or ISIL.

“My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” he said. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

(More here.)

What’s Behind Germany’s New Anti-Semitism

Jochen Bittner, NYT
SEPT. 16, 2014

HAMBURG, Germany — Europe is living through a new wave of anti-Semitism. The president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews calls it the worst the Continent has seen since World War II. He may well be right. Attacks on synagogues are an almost weekly occurrence, and openly anti-Semitic chants are commonplace on well-attended marches from London to Rome. And yet it is here, in Germany, where the rise in anti-Semitism is most historically painful.

On Sunday, thousands of people marched through Berlin in response, and heard both Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck denounce the resurgence in anti-Jewish hatred.

We’ve seen this before, of course. But there’s an important difference this time. The new anti-Semitism does not originate solely with the typical white-supremacist neo-Nazi; instead, the ugly truth that many in Europe don’t want to confront is that much of the anti-Jewish animus originates with European people of Muslim background.

Until recently, Germany has been unwilling to discuss this trend. Germans have always seen Muslim anti-Semitism as a less problematic version of the “original” version, and therefore a distraction from the well-known problem of anti-Jewish sentiment within a majority of society.

(More here.)