As your faithful scribe, I welcome you all to another edition of Overnight News Digest.
I am most pleased to share this platform with jlms qkw, maggiejean, wader, rfall, JLM9999 and side pocket. Additionally, I wish to recognize our alumni editors palantir, Bentliberal, Oke, Interceptor7, and ScottyUrb along with annetteboardman as our guest editor.
Neon Vincent is our editor-in-chief.
Special thanks go to Magnifico for starting this venerable series.
Lead Off Story
Legislative Prayer Scrutinized By Top U.S. Court Justices
U.S. Supreme Court justices grappled with a challenge to a New York town’s practice of starting most board meetings with a Christian prayer, hearing arguments in a case that will shape the role religion can play in civic life.
The case is the high court’s first look at legislative prayer since 1983, when a majority said lawmakers could begin sessions with prayers, or at least non-sectarian ones.
The hour-long hearing today in Washington gave no clear indication of the outcome, instead revealing conflicting impulses among the justices most likely to control the decision.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, the potential swing vote, said the New York town’s main argument -- that legislative prayer is a centuries-old tradition -- “has some force to it.” At another point, however, he asked whether the court’s acceptance of the practice was “just a historical aberration,” without any underlying legal justification.
Anger Grows Over British Spying In Berlin
First it was the US -- and now it turns out the UK might have been spying from its embassy in Berlin, too. Officials at Germany's Foreign Ministry responded Tuesday by inviting Britain's ambassador for a lecture.
Reacting to allegations that yet another close ally might be spying on its leaders from an embassy in Berlin, Germany's Foreign Ministry invited Britain's ambassador to a meeting on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the allegations. The invitation had been requested by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
During the meeting, the head of the ministry's European affairs department informed the ambassador that "eavesdropping on communications inside the offices of a diplomatic mission would violate international law," a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. The ministry did not provide addition details about the meeting.
The revelations about further alleged spying have rocked the political establishment in Berlin this week. The London-based Independent newspaper revealed Monday that British intelligence had established a "secret listening post" in the British Embassy like the one recently revealed by SPIEGEL to be in the US Embassy on the same large block. The British post, like the American one, is located near the German parliament, the Reichstag, and was disclosed in the trove of data leaked by American intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Yasser Arafat 'May Have Been Poisoned With Polonium'
The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat may have been poisoned with radioactive polonium, says a Swiss forensic report obtained by al-Jazeera.
Arafat's official medical records say he died in 2004 from a stroke resulting from a blood disorder. But his body was exhumed last year amid continuing claims he was murdered.
The Swiss report said tests on the body showed "unexpected high activity" of polonium, which "moderately" supported the poisoning theory.
Many Palestinians and others have long believed that Israel poisoned Arafat. Others allege that he had Aids or cancer. Israel has consistently denied any involvement. A spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry said the Swiss investigation was "more soap opera than science".
Administration Looks To Give Labor Unions Health Tax Relief
Weeks after denying labor's request to give union members access to health law subsidies, the Obama administration is signaling it intends to exempt some union plans from one of the law's substantial taxes.
Buried in rules issued last week is the disclosure that the administration will propose exempting "certain self-insured, self-administered plans" from the law's temporary reinsurance fee in 2015 and 2016.
Eliminating the reinsurance fee was one of several resolutions adopted at the AFL-CIO's September convention, along with giving union plans access to the health law's tax credits for lower-income members.
In September, the White House said the law disallowed health law tax credits for union members on top of their company insurance. Now the administration seems to be moving toward part — but not all — of what labor wants on the reinsurance fee.
Graceless In Defeat
Modern traditions hold that major-party candidates, after a long campaign, reach out to one another once it’s over, usually over the phone. One graciously concedes, one graciously accepts, and the campaign effectively comes to a formal end. But to appreciate the bad blood in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, note that the modern tradition is being ignored.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) congratulated McAuliffe and pledged a “seamless and smooth” transition. As of late morning Wednesday, Cuccinelli had not called McAuliffe and had no plans to do so, according to two people close to the campaign.
Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D) added while talking to reporters this afternoon, “I have not had the opportunity yet to speak to the attorney general.”
In other words, it’s not just that the candidates were busy with family and supporters last night, and didn’t find time to connect over the phone. Rather, we’re talking about a deliberate distance – Cuccinelli could have called to concede, but chose not to, and doesn’t intend to reach out.
Science and Technology
A Cosmic Discovery That Would Surprise Even Einstein
Albert Einstein had all sorts of crazy-sounding ideas—that objects should grow more massive and clocks should slow down as they approach the speed of light, for example, or that space and time are united in a single entity called “spacetime.” Some, like dark energy, were so crazy that even Einstein didn’t believe them (foolishly, as it turns out.)
But perhaps the craziest-sounding idea of all, at least for anyone without a physics degree, is that massive objects literally warp the space (OK, the spacetime) around them so that something in the relative foreground, like a star or a galaxy, can distort or even magnify something in the background—a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. Astronomers saw the first example of gravitational lensing in 1979, when they observed what appeared to be a double quasar 8.7 billion light years from Earth, but that turned out to be a single one, visually warped by an intervening galaxy. Since then, researchers have used these cosmic optical illusions as a way to map out dark matter, discover rogue planets and find distant supernovas, among other things
Now a team led by Arjen van der Wel of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany has announced what he understatedly calls a “weird and interesting discovery,” and what is more precisely described as the most distant gravitational lens ever seen. The lensing object is a galaxy some 9.4 billion light-years away—an enormous distance in a universe that burst into existence just 13.8 billion years ago.
The object being lensed—its image is split into four distinct spots of light—is obviously even more remote, although it’s so small and faint that it’s hard to assign its distance a hard number. What makes this discovery so weird, though, isn’t its distance but the nature of the thing being magnified. It’s a tiny dwarf galaxy whose weight in stars adds up to only about 100 million Suns’ worth—a piker compared with the Milky Way’s 100 billion or more. The overall color of the galaxy tells astronomers that it’s also very young—no more than 40 million years old—and forming stars at a furious rate.
Oldest Known T. Rex Relative Found In Utah
The earliest known relative of Tyrannosaurus rex has been unearthed. While working in southern Utah, paleontologists discovered fossils of a carnivorous dinosaur dating to roughly 80 million years ago. The researchers say the animal — named Lythronax argestes, or the gore king of the southwest — was an early member of the tyrannosaur family.
The approximately 8-meter-long dinosaur lived in Utah when western North America was an island, cut off from the rest of the continent by a sea. Mark Loewen of the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City and colleagues say the tyrannosaur family probably originated on this landmass. When sea levels dropped several million years later, tyrannosaurids migrated more widely across North America and into Asia, the team proposes November 6 in PLOS ONE.
Society and Culture
Why Does Sweden Have So Many Billionaires?
America is a land of billionaires, boasting five of the 10 richest people on the planet as of the most recent Forbes 500 list. Then again, we’re a large country, and in per capita terms, we lag behind several smaller states. Many of these—like world leader Monaco (No. 1 per capita, with three billionaires in a population of 35,427)—are true micro-nations, or else they’re St. Kitts and Nevis (No. 2, one billionaire, population 53,051): more of a vacation destination for the rich and less a place where people actually go to earn a fortune. But one country stands out on the list: Sweden (No. 12, 14 billionaires, population 9.56 million).
No single Swede comes close to the epic wealth of a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett. But Stefan Persson, the chairman, main shareholder, and former longtime CEO of H&M, leads a roster of Swedish billionaires who outpace the U.S. (No. 14) on a per capita basis. In part this is just a bit of a funny coincidence—it’s a fairly small country, after all—but the fact that a famously left-wing country like Sweden can be so rich in billionaires is telling and important.
That’s because a billionaire isn’t just a guy with a well-paying job. To reach that level of stratospheric riches, you probably either need to start a big, successful company or else inherit one from someone who did. And however much people care about inequality, almost every place on Earth would like to be the kind of place where successful new firms are born and raised. The good news about Sweden is that it’s exactly that kind of place. High taxes go to finance cheap health care and education, an excellent system of public transportation, and relatively generous subsidies to low-income households that keep the poverty rate and inequality low. But they haven’t stopped Swedish entrepreneurs from building giant firms like H&M, Ikea, and Tetra Pak.
This reality cuts against a recent critique of the Nordic social model from Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson, and Thierry Verdier that was popular in right-of-center circles. The authors contrasted American-style cutthroat capitalism with Nordic-style cuddly capitalism as two social systems that are compatible with high levels of GDP per capita. The cuddly Nordic system might be better for human welfare, they said, but the American system is better for the world. Their reasoning was that high levels of inequality create financial incentives for innovation; cuddlier nations don’t have those incentives. The authors test this rather schematic model empirically by showing that the U.S. files more patents per capita than any of the egalitarian Nordic countries.
Well, that's different...
Copper Thieves Knock Spokane Radio Station Off The Air
A religious radio station in Spokane, Wash., was knocked off the air Sunday morning when copper thieves pulled the wiring off its transmission tower.
The Spokane County Sheriff's Department said in a written statement Tuesday it would cost KMBI-AM several thousand dollars to rewire the tower and get back on the air.
Deputy Mike McNees was called to the KMBI studio Sunday when employees noted the monitor on one of the station's towers was out and the station was no longer broadcasting. Further investigation by the employee revealed numerous wires had been stripped from the tower.
The investigation was continuing Tuesday. KMBI also has an FM operation that was not affected by the theft.