Special thanks go to Magnifico for starting this venerable series.
Lead Off Story
Beyond Ukraine: Russia's Imperial Mess
Everything in Simferopol, the capital of the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea, has suddenly changed. Shortly after noon on Thursday of last week, Cossacks from Russia sealed off the Crimean parliament building. The Russians, who had identified themselves as tourists a short time earlier, claimed that they were there to "check identification papers." Now Russia's white, blue and red flag flies above the building.
Two men accompany us as we walk up the steps to meet with the new premier of Crimea, who has taken over the office in a Moscow-backed coup. Under his leadership and with instructions from Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Crimean lawmakers have just voted to join the Russian Federation. Their decision is to be sealed with a referendum scheduled for Sunday, March 16.
Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov, 41, a former businessman with a highly dubious reputation, tries to make a serious impression, but so far, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts to shed his reputation as an underworld figure nicknamed "Goblin." Despite the Russian flag on display in the reception room, Aksyonov insists that rumors that he was installed by the Kremlin are nothing but lies. "The people here asked me to do it," he says. But he knows that neither Kiev nor the West will accept the annexation of Crimea. "No one dictates anything to us," he insists.
The new premier speaks rapidly, as if to drown out any skepticism. "We want no violence or casualties," he says, adding that everything should proceed peacefully. "However, we are not letting the Ukrainians out of their barracks, so that they can no longer act on any criminal orders from Kiev." He says that his people are in control of all of Crimea, but NATO experts claim that at least 2,000 Russian soldiers have been brought to the peninsula by air, for a total of 20,000 troops in Crimea. Another 20,000 are supposedly standing ready nearby.
"Nonsense," says Aksyonov, still insisting that Moscow has not sent in any soldiers at all. This, despite the fact that the men in ski masks and uniforms -- which have been stripped of Russian insignia -- are grinning under their disguises. If the situation weren't so serious, it would almost be comical.
Venezuela Divisions Deepen As Protest Over Food Shortages Is Halted
Hundreds of National Guardsmen in riot gear and armoured vehicles prevented an “empty pots march” from reaching Venezuela’s food ministry on Saturday to protest against chronic food shortages. President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government, meanwhile, celebrated an Organisation of American States (OAS) declaration supporting its efforts to bring a solution to the country’s worst political violence in years, calling it a diplomatic victory. The United States, Canada and Panama were the only nations to oppose the declaration.
“The meddling minority against Venezuela in the OAS, Panama, Canada and the US, is defeated in a historic decision that respects our sovereignty,” government spokeswoman Delcy Rodriguez tweeted.
Earlier, more than 5,000 protesters banged pots, blew horns and whistles and carried banners in the capital to decry crippling inflation and shortages of basics including flour, milk and toilet paper. Similar protests were held in at least five other cities.
“There’s nothing to buy. You can only buy what the government lets enter the country because everything is imported. There’s no beef. There’s no chicken,” said Zoraida Carrillo, a 50-year-old marcher in Caracas.
The capital’s government-allied mayor had refused the marchers a permit to hold the “empty pots” rally, leading opposition leader Henrique Capriles to accuse authorities of trying to “criminalise” peaceful protests.
Fewer Than 1,000 Muslims Left In Central African Republic Capital
As the number of Muslims in Bangui, the Central African Republic capital, dwindles to an estimated 900, the head of a global alliance of churches has urged tackling the conflict from a political rather than a religious angle if the Muslim exodus is to be reversed.
``It is very unfortunate the Muslims have to flee,'' said John Nduna, general secretary of the Geneva-based Action by Churches Together, or ACT International. ``It is very sad this is happening.''
The alliance is one of the agencies providing humanitarian assistance in the country, where chaos erupted last year after the mainly Muslim rebels toppled the government.
The Seleka rebels looted, raped and killed mainly Christian civilians, prompting the formation of an equally brutal pro-Christian anti-Balaka (anti-machete) militia.
But according to the Zambian-born Nduna, the country's conflict centers on the denial of privileges.
``The citizens are not getting what they are supposed to,'' he said. ``This makes it easy to polarize the country, using religion as an excuse.''
Though the republic is rich in minerals such as gold, diamond and copper, ordinary citizens remain poor and lack medical services and education.
Heavy Barrage of Rockets From Gaza Hits Southern Israel
More than 30 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip rained down across southern Israel on Wednesday afternoon, sending thousands of Israelis scrambling into bomb shelters, in an attack that came a day after an Israeli airstrike killed three Palestinian militants in Gaza who had fired at Israeli soldiers.
It was by far the heaviest barrage since the cease-fire that ended eight days of cross-border violence between Gaza and Israel in November 2012. Just before 7 p.m., about two hours after the rocket fire began, Israel responded with artillery strikes targeting what the military described as “terror locations” in northern and southern Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel issued a statement even as the rockets were falling.“It looks like this rocket attack came in response to our interception acts yesterday, and I would like to clarify that we will not be deterred,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “We will continue to intercept and hurt those who want to hurt us. We will continue to defend ourselves sternly against the terror organizations in Gaza.”Palestinian leaders had expressed outrage over what they described as a purposeful “escalation” by the Israel military, citing the deaths of the three Gaza men Tuesday; the fatal shooting Monday morning of a Jordanian judge of Palestinian descent who the military said tried to seize a soldier’s weapon as he crossed the Allenby Bridge into the West Bank; and the killing of a teenager, Saji Darwish, 18, Monday evening near the Israeli settlement of Beit El.
Watch An Expert Teach A Smug U.S. Senator About Canadian Healthcare
A U.S. politician's I-don't-need-no-stinkin'-facts approach to health policy ran smack into some of those troublesome facts Tuesday at a Senate hearing on single-payer healthcare, as it's practiced in Canada and several other countries.
The countries in question have successful and popular government-sponsored single-payer systems, provide universal coverage and match or outdo the United States on numerous measures of medical outcomes -- for far less money than the U.S. spends. To explain this, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked seven experts to testify before his subcommittee on primary health and aging.
By far the high point of the morning was an exchange between Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Danielle Martin, a physician and health policy professor from Toronto. The exchange, in which Martin bats down the myths and misunderstandings about the Canadian system that Burr throws at her, starts at about the 1:00:15 mark.
The reference to "Premier Williams" is to Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams, whose decision to have a heart valve procedure in Miami, near where he owns a condo, rather than Canada, is widely viewed in Canada as a rich man's failure to investigate the care available to him closer to home.
[Official subcommittee hearing record is available here.]
Megachurch Thieves Net Mega Money From Joel Osteen's Church Safe
Megachurch thieves got away with Pastor Joel Osteen’s church’s mega money in cash and checks sometime between Sunday afternoon and early Monday morning. The thieves netted over $600,000 from a church that has one of the biggest congregations in the country, according to ABC News on March 11.
A church employee and an off-duty sheriff’s deputy, who provides security to the church, were the folks who reported the theft on Monday morning. Along with about $200,000 in cash and $400,000 in checks, some envelopes with credit card information were also among the heist.
The money was stolen from a safe at the Houston church and according to a church spokesperson, the money is fully insured. People were encourage to keep track of their accounts if they’ve made a contribution by check in the last week and report any suspicious activity.
This doesn’t include the people who gave online, made a bookstore purchase, or put their offering in the drop box. The church sees more than 40,000 people attend Olsten’s services each week, which is televised in almost 100 countries.
That is a lot of money, this is nothing like the "poor box" that folks would slip money into decades ago. This is also nothing like the money seen at the majority of the churches that pass their basket around each Sunday for donations. $600,000 in one week sounds like a good week of donations for sure!
Migrant Detainees At Washington State Centre Continue Protesting Conditions
They’ve waited, worrying, for months that stretched into years, trying to scrape together enough bond money to free their relatives – a husband, a father, a brother – and forestall deportation from the country they now call home.
As the US immigration and customs enforcement agency, known as Ice, reaches a milestone of 2 million undocumented migrants deported during the Obama administration’s tenure, nearly 200 people rallied outside the privately-run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, raising their signs and voices in support of those on their fifth day of hunger strike inside.
Chanting “¡Sí, se puede!” – Spanish for “Yes we can!”, popularized during President Obama’s election campaign – many protesters spoke of their disappointment that the great wave of hope that accompanied Obama’s election has crested in tough enforcement policies and failure to pass immigration reform. Within earshot of detainees, separated by a railroad track and a chain link fence, the protesters marched holding handmade slogans saying workers are not criminals and that migrants still deserve basic human rights.
Many of the detainees’ families are well established within their communities, like that of Veronica Noriega, who said her husband has been detained since September, though his initial DUI charge was dropped. “He was waiting in his truck for me to come pick him up,” Noriega said. “The police got there first.”
Science and Technology
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Switches Brains After Computer Glitch
NASA’s elderly Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter flipped into “safe mode” on Sunday after an unexpected computing glitch caused the spacecraft to switch from its main computer to its backup.
The 8-year-old satellite, which left Earth in August 2005 and entered Martian orbit on March 10, 2006, has lived well beyond its primary two-year science phase, so perhaps the occasional "brain fart" is understandable. Tasked with searching for signs that water flowed on Mars for a long period of time, it’s been sending Earth detailed information about seasonal and longer-term changes on our rust-hued neighbor. In fact, it has returned more data than all other interplanetary missions combined, according to officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, which manages the mission.
The orbiter had been forced four times before to switch to the backup computer -- most recently in November 2011. Current Red Planet explorers are typically equipped with these "backup brains" so that the spacecraft can keep running while engineers work on fixing the main computer, a design that has already come in handy for the Mars rover Curiosity.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, along with NASA’s Odyssey satellite (launched in 2001), is one of two main communication lines between Earth and NASA’s two rovers: Curiosity and its long-lived 2004 predecessor, Opportunity. No matter how much data the robotic explorers collect, they rely on the satellites' long-distance lines to send it home. So any notable problems with the orbiters are potentially worrisome.
Fortunately, Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (or MAVEN for short) is headed for the Red Planet now, scheduled to enter the Red Planet’s orbit in September. The spacecraft’s mission will be to find out how and why Mars’s once-thick atmosphere vanished -- an atmosphere that could have supported liquid water long enough for life to develop and thrive.
Acoustic Cloaking Device Hides Objects From Sound
sing little more than a few perforated sheets of plastic and a staggering amount of number crunching, Duke engineers have demonstrated the world's first three-dimensional acoustic cloak. The new device reroutes sound waves to create the impression that both the cloak and anything beneath it are not there.
The acoustic cloaking device works in all three dimensions, no matter which direction the sound is coming from or where the observer is located, and holds potential for future applications such as sonar avoidance and architectural acoustics.
The study appears online in Nature Materials."The particular trick we're performing is hiding an object from sound waves," said Steven Cummer, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke University. "By placing this cloak around an object, the sound waves behave like there is nothing more than a flat surface in their path."To achieve this new trick, Cummer and his colleagues turned to the developing field of metamaterials -- the combination of natural materials in repeating patterns to achieve unnatural properties. In the case of the new acoustic cloak, the materials manipulating the behavior of sound waves are simply plastic and air. Once constructed, the device looks like several plastic plates with a repeating pattern of holes poked through them stacked on top of one another to form a sort of pyramid.
To give the illusion that it isn't there, the cloak must alter the waves' trajectory to match what they would look like had they had reflected off a flat surface. Because the sound is not reaching the surface beneath, it is traveling a shorter distance and its speed must be slowed to compensate."The structure that we built might look really simple," said Cummer. "But I promise you that it's a lot more difficult and interesting than it looks. We put a lot of energy into calculating how sound waves would interact with it. We didn't come up with this overnight."sciencedaily
Not Just New York: Gas Leaks Are A Problem All Over The U.S
Two buildings in New York City collapsed this morning, killing two people and injuring 22, according to ongoing reports. Police are still investigating the cause for the collapses, Reuters reports, but there's some evidence pointing to a natural gas leak. Witnesses reported hearing loud bangs and explosions, plus Con Edison says it received a complaint about a gas odor in the area about 20 minutes before the disaster. The company dispatched a crew, but the buildings had crashed to the ground before it arrived.
A growing collection of evidence suggests that natural gas leaks and explosions are a problem throughout the U.S. It's a problem that gas companies know about, but aren't motivated to fix, according to an award-winning feature published in 2013 in the online magazine Matter. Left unchecked, the leaks occasionally threaten people and property. They may also contribute to global warming as much as coal, undermining natural gas' reputation as a greener choice and, well, threatening people and property, in the long run.
Matter reports:Natural gas pipeline explosions in the United States kill an average of 14 people every year, and injure an additional 50 or so. In 2010, an explosion in the Californian city of San Bruno killed eight people and destroyed almost 40 homes. An independent audit ordered by state regulators found that the local energy provider, PG&E, had spent 15 years diverting more than $100 million in funds earmarked for safety and operations into other areas, including executive bonuses.The feature follows Bob Ackley, a longtime gas-company contractor who drives around cities, finding gas leaks. Over the course of his career, he noticed that companies often wouldn't fix leaks even when he reported them. Frustrated and worried, the community-college dropout signed on to work with professors and grad students to map leaks in cities.
The following year an explosion in Allentown, Pennsylvania killed five; regulators called the safety record of UGI Utilities, the company that owned the pipeline, 'downright alarming' and fined the corporation $500,000.
Most recently, the team published a study reporting more than 5,800 leaks in Washington, D.C. The team found 12 manholes—where leaked gas tends to accumulate—had high enough concentrations of methane to cause an explosion. Four months after they gave their results to the local gas company, nine manholes remained dangerously full of methane, the main—and most dangerous—chemical in natural gas.
Society and Culture
8 Disturbing Trends That Reveal The South’s Battered Psyche
Across red-state America, especially in the Deep South, the latest statistics show that the cycle of poverty, in its many manifestations, is unchanged and holding firm. Why is this?
It’s easy to say this is how Republicans like to run states—cutting budgets, not raising the minimum wage, opposing labor unions. They let the poor and working class stew in their hardscrabble juices. Meanwhile, they distract voters by accusing liberals of waging war on the few sources of personal power in Southerners’ difficult lives: their religious beliefs and owning guns. But go back several decades when segregationist Democrats ruled; for the most part, they weren’t very different from today’s Republicans.
So what is it that perpetuates decades of poverty in the Deep South? What follows are eight bundles of statistics tracking this latest cycle of poverty. Could it be that people who historically have been treated badly, who have little money in their pockets but look to the sky and pray, expect less from others—including the public and private sector? Does that explain why red-staters cling to God, gun ownership and a “leave-me-alone” ferocity? They expect politicians to defend their values and their pride and little more?
What’s going on here isn’t entirely political, even if it is used by red-state Republicans in their personal drive for power and influence. Look at what the following statistics reveal about red-staters trapped in deep cycles of poverty. What is the thread that connects lousy governance, bad health, evangelical religion and firearms fervor?
It’s not that difficult to understand the dynamics of voters in the poorest states electing Republicans who share their religious values and love of guns—but who won’t do much else to rebalance their state economies. Old habits are hard to break. If you are used to being treated poorly, that expectation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If red-state voters demanded more from their politicians, their employers and the institutions that perpetuate poverty, the status quo would begin to unwind and start to shift. Until then, reams of statistics will keep finding that America’s poorest regions are the same red states, run by white Republicans, and filled with people who have the blues.
Right-Wing Extremism: Germany's New Islamophobia Boom
Across Germany, right-wing organizations are using anti-Islam rhetoric to further their ideas -- and finding a receptive audience. Now legal experts are debating whether it's time for a new kind of hate-crime legislation.
Stachus is one of Munich's nicest squares. It is rich in tradition and filled with pedestrians -- and perfect for Michael Stürzenberger's purposes. Hand balled into a fist, he paces back and forth and screams, "The Koran is the most dangerous book in the world." Because a couple dozen people have come to demonstrate against Stürzenberger, police officers in bullet-proof vests are watching over the area.
A decade ago, Stürzenberger, 49, was the spokesperson for the Munich office of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. But since 2012 he has been active in a splinter party called Die Freiheit ("The Freedom"), of which he was elected federal chairman three months ago. He preaches hate against Islam and compares the Koran to Hitler's "Mein Kampf." For two years now, he's been collecting signatures opposing the planned construction of an Islamic center in Munich. He has already held over one hundred anti-Islam rallies.
Growing Anti-Islam Movement
There have been plenty of movements such as Stürzenberger's in Germany in recent years. They generally begin in response to the construction of a mosque: Reluctance turns into resistance, then hate and violence. Over the last two years, there have been arson attacks against Muslim prayer houses in Berlin, Hanau and Hannover. Politically Incorrect, the most prominent German-speaking anti-Islam website, has up to 120,000 visitors per day.
Solution: American-Style Hate-Crimes Laws?
But perhaps gray areas can be eliminated. Last Tuesday, the anti-racism commission of the Council of Europe rebuked the German government for not following through on an initiative to include a provision in the penal code that "makes racist motivations an aggravating factor" in crimes. Countries like the United Kingdom and the United States are further along on this path: They have laws against so-called hate crimes largely to protect immigrants.
Ender Çetin, 37, is a victim of hate and racism. The head of Berlin's Sehitlik Mosque Association has been attacked several times in the past three years. In addition, there have been four arson attacks against the mosque, balloons filled with paint were flung against the walls, tombstones were covered in swastikas and, one time, there was a pig's head in front of the door. In April, Cetin received a letter: If he doesn't immediately leave Germany, he will be shot.
Competition Without Competition
Competition is the cornerstone of games. Football teams grind out yardage, battling over turf. Tennis players grunt and grimace at the serve. Boxers punch each other’s lights out. Keen chess grandmasters reputedly lose as much as 10 pounds during tournaments. At play we strive to win. Games thrive on struggle. Fervent Canadian hockey fans say their game demands “ice in the blood and blood on the ice.” Competition would be red in tooth and claw if rules did not tame our competitive instincts. Strife is so important to spirited contests, in fact, that we depend upon rules and referees to keep them fun, fair, orderly, ongoing, and relatively safe.
So here’s the question. Can a game proceed without struggle? Or to put it another way, is a game a game without clash?
I thought not. That is not until last week when I visited an amusement arcade with a group of colleagues and with them encountered an unusual electronic game, MindBall, imported from the peaceable kingdom of Sweden. In this game a featureless blue table holds a long Plexiglas tube with a small, white sphere that rolls on a track inside. A facilitator, costumed in a lab coat and carrying a clip board, straps electrode headbands to the challengers’ foreheads. (Signage explains that these measure neurofeedback.) He instructs contestants to “think of nothing…make your mind a blank.” Side-by side screens show the EEG tracings of, purportedly, the alpha brain-wave that indicates wakeful relaxation and the theta rhythm that shows evidence of sensory-motor processing and what neurologists call “arousal.”
Two competitors defend their ends as a magnet hooked to the EEG machine moves the ball back and forth. The aim of the game is to keep the EEG tracks low and unvarying. The screens act as a kind of scoreboard, the on-screen tracks spiking if a player fidgets or lets his mind wander. And here’s the competitive part—the ball, moved along by a magnet, will budge away from the calmest player (who’s winning) and toward the least relaxed player (who’s losing.) If the ball travels all the way to the goal circle in front of you—if you’ve been the least tranquil, that is—you’ve lost the game.
Well, that's different...
More Texas Justice:
After 37 years in prison, Jerry Hartsfield goes to court in April for a retrial of his 1977 conviction (and death sentence) for murder in Bay City, Tex. Actually, the 1977 conviction was overturned in 1983, but before Hartsfield could demand his release (he is described in court documents as illiterate with an IQ of 51), the then-governor commuted the sentence to life in prison. It was only in 2006 that a fellow inmate persuaded Hartsfield that the commutation was illusory--since there was, at that point, no “sentence” to commute. Hartsfield’s lawyers call Texas’s treatment a blatant violation of his constitutional right to a “speedy” trial, but prosecutors suggest that it is Hartsfield’s own fault that he has remained in prison the last 30 years.
Bill Moyers and Company:
The Dog Whistle Politics of Race, Part II
Bill continues his conversation with author and legal scholar Ian Haney López
about how politicians use strategic racism to win votes.
Central African Republic:
The International Red Cross And Red Crescent Movement
Condemns The Killing Of Yet Another Red Cross Worker
GENEVA, Switzerland, March 12, 2014/African Press Organization (APO)/ – The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement condemns the killing of Patrick Matede, a 36-year-old volunteer with the Central African Red Cross Society who was gunned down in Bangui on Sunday 9 March.
A first aid worker for the past five years, Patrick was one of the first to start helping people when violence erupted in the capital in early December.
On 8 March, just one day earlier, an employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was killed during an armed attack at a site where ICRC workers were staying in the northern town of Ndele.
The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which in the Central African Republic comprises the Central African Red Cross Society, the French Red Cross Society, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, is appalled by the killings and by the prevailing lack of respect for international humanitarian law.
We urgently call on those involved in the fighting to refrain from harming volunteers from the Central African Red Cross Society and other personnel affiliated with the Movement, and to allow them to carry out their life-saving work.