Special thanks go to Magnifico for starting this venerable series.
Lead Off Story
‘It Was A Terrifying Ordeal:’ Stories From Chile’s 8.2 Quake
On Tuesday night an 8.2 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Iquique in Northern Chile, causing tsunami waves that were initially predicted to hit across the entire Pacific seaboard. Residents were quick to react, with over 900,000 Chileans evacuating coastal all areas along the coast.
Those living in Iquique felt the quake the strongest.
“The earthquake started as a tremor last night somewhere between 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. We are in an apartment block on the 7th floor opposite the cathedral in central Iquique,” Matt Owens told The Santiago Times. “Shortly after it began tremor — of which there have been many of in the last week — grew rapidly into a full-blown earthquake. The building was swaying and shaking violently and anything not nailed down was crashing down around us. Luckily, the anti-seismic properties of the building saved us. Everyone opened their doors and looked at each other in terror in the hallway.”
“It was a terrifying ordeal — feeling the power of the quake and then the panic of the city. The uncertainty of whether to evacuate or not and the dread of the impending tsunami were petrifying. I didn’t sleep until about 4 a.m.,” Matt said, adding that a sense of calm returned with daylight on Wednesday morning. “The sun is up and from here it looks relatively calm out there now. Hopefully there won’t be another one.”
China Looks To Steady Stumbling Economy
China has promised to spend more on railways, housing for low-income earners and provide tax relief for small business as part of a new stimulus package to ensure the government meets its 7.5 per cent annual growth target this year.
China's State Council, or cabinet, confirmed new measures on its main website just as growth appeared to be losing steam after disappointing first-quarter economic data and moves by many analysts to slash growth forecasts for the year.
China has set a target of economic growth of about 7.5 per cent for this year, below the 7.7 per cent recorded last year and well beneath the levels of recent years.
The stimulus unveiled on Wednesday was also similar to the tools used last year when Chinese growth seemed to flag, and it suggested that government leaders weren't taking chances.
NATO General Breedlove:
Russia Could Achieve Ukraine Incursion In 3-5 Days
Russia has massed all the forces it needs on Ukraine's border if it were to decide to carry out an "incursion" into the country, and it could achieve its objective in three to five days, NATO's top military commander said on Wednesday.
Calling the situation "incredibly concerning", NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said NATO had spotted signs of movement by a very small part of the Russian force overnight but had no indication that this was part of a withdrawal to barracks.
Russia's seizure and annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region has caused the deepest crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War, leading the United States and Europe to impose sanctions on Moscow. They have said they will strengthen these if Russia moves beyond Crimea into eastern Ukraine.
NATO military chiefs are concerned that the Russian force on the Ukrainian border, which they estimate stands at 40,000 soldiers, could pose a threat to eastern and southern Ukraine.
Malaysia Police: Jet Mystery May Never Be Solved
A police investigation may never determine the reason why the Malaysia Airlines jetliner disappeared, and search planes scouring the Indian Ocean for any sign of its wreckage aren’t certain to find anything either, officials said Wednesday.
The assessment by Malaysian and Australian officials underscored the lack of knowledge authorities have about what happened on Flight 370. It also points to a scenario that becomes more likely with every passing day — that the fate of the Boeing 777 and the 239 people on board might remain a mystery forever.
The plane disappeared March 8 on a flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur after its transponders, which make the plane visible to commercial radar, were shut off. Military radar picked up the jet just under an hour later, on the other side of the Malay peninsula. Authorities say that until then its “movements were consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” but have not ruled out anything, including mechanical error.
Police are investigating the pilots and crew for any evidence suggesting they may have hijacked or sabotaged the plane. The backgrounds of the passengers, two-thirds of whom were Chinese, have been checked by local and international investigators and nothing suspicious has been found.
Supreme Court Strikes Down Cap On Overall Campaign Contributions
The supreme court has struck down limits on individual campaign contributions, ruling that federal caps on combined donations to candidates, parties and political action committees are an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.
In a landmark judgment in favour of the rights of political donors, the conservative-dominated bench ruled five to four in favour of Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, who funded 16 Republicans in 2012 but was prevented from supporting more by a $46,200 cap on overall donations.
A separate limit on how much can go to any single politician remains in place, but critics claim the ruling opens the way for wealthy individuals to buy influence on a national scale by bankrolling an unlimited number of candidates.
But in a blistering dissent, the four liberal justices on the bench accused their colleagues of “misconstru[ing] the nature of the competing constitutional interests at stake” and “understat[ing] the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions."
U.S. Looking For Way Forward In Faltering Mideast Peace Talks
The Obama administration scrambled on Wednesday to rescue faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations after what it called "unhelpful, unilateral actions" by both sides.
A surprise decision by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday to sign more than a dozen international conventions that could give Palestinians greater leverage against Israel left the United States searching for a way to keep the talks going past an April 29 deadline.
"We are disappointed by the unhelpful, unilateral actions that both parties have taken in recent days," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One, as President Barack Obama headed to Michigan.
He said Secretary of State John Kerry was "in close touch with our negotiating team, which remains on the ground in the region to continue discussions with the parties". Israeli and Palestinian negotiators planned to meet on Wednesday night with U.S. envoy Martin Indyk, sources familiar with the talks said
U.S. Regulators Warn Banks About Rise In Cyber-Attacks
A group of top U.S. regulators on Wednesday warned about the threat of rising cyber-attacks on bank websites and cash machines, urging the industry to put proper measures in place to guard against fraud.
The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) said it had seen a rise of so-called denial-of-service attacks on bank websites, which were sometimes a cover for criminals committing fraud.
The group described one recent case in which criminals stole $40 million from just 12 accounts - far exceeding the actual balance held by clients - in a sophisticated scheme known as an "Unlimited Operations" fraud.
In the "Unlimited Operations" fraud, criminals might begin an attack by installing malicious software on a bank's computers through phishing emails, and then hack into control panels to raise limits on how much a cash machine can dispense.
In the final phase, the criminals withdraw large amounts of money from a number of cash machines within four hours to two days with stolen bank cards, often on weekends because that is when there is more money in the machines.
Science and Technology
Kids Posit the Darnedest Hypotheses
I was a lowly graduate student when I judged my first high school science fair, wondering how I, a 22-year-old who couldn't sit through the first 3 minutes of a scientific seminar without becoming irreconcilably confused (12 years later, I'm up to 8 minutes), could be remotely qualified to judge someone else's research. And this wasn't just any high school science fair—it was the big, end-of-year science fair at the region's foremost magnet school for mathematics and science.And then I saw the students' projects. There's no kind way to say this: The magnet must have had its poles reversed.
Let me give you an example. This is a real, actual project at the science fair, and I'm not exaggerating any aspect of it to make today's youth seem inferior. They do a terrific job of that on their own. A brother and sister hypothesized that junk food causes bad breath. For 2 weeks, the sister ate only healthy food, and her brother ate only junk food. Every night, they'd breathe in their mother's face, and if a child had good breath, he or she would receive a smiley sticker. If a child had bad breath, she or he got a frowny sticker. At the end of the study period, the boy had more frowny stickers than the girl, so QED, junk food causes bad breath.
Oh yeah. American teenagers are definitely on their way up from 29th place worldwide in scientific literacy. Watch out, Croatia; we're coming for you.
"Now wait a minute," I hear some of you saying, hopefully not out loud because you're at work. "These are children you're talking about! Precious snowflake cupcakes! If anything, we should be learning from them!"
The Weird Way Captain Crunch Makes You Love Him
No surprise: The Brands want you to want them. What's odd are the lengths—often subliminal—they'll go to make you a repeat customer.
Researchers at Cornell's Food and Brand Lab recently studied the cereal aisle. It's already been established that boxes are placed to maximize the chances of being bought; the kid cereals are on the lower shelves, for example, while the adult cereals are higher up. The Cornell team went even more granular. They examined the mascots on each box, and measured the angle of their gazes. Go figure, this was a real thing: In 65 cereals from 10 grocery stores, kids' cereals consistently featured mascots with eyes pointing about 9.6 degrees downward, while adult cereal mascots faced at a (negligible) 0.43-degree upward angle. Like a gothic painting, the eyes of the Trix rabbit seem to be following you everywhere.
The next question, of course, was: Does that matter? The answer is: Yeah, sure, a little.
The team enlisted 65 university students and had them look at two versions of a Trix box. In one, the rabbit made eye contact; in the other, it faced too far down. The researchers then asked the participants to rate their feelings about Trix. On average, the students who looked at the eye-contact version had a 16 percent higher "connection" and 10 percent higher level of "trust" for the brand. They liked Trix more in general, too.
A little creepy, yes, although the effect was small and it's not clear how deliberately The Brands are using this effect. From now on, to stay unbiased, shop for cereal using only your sense of touch.
The Secret Formula To Feeding 900 Babies:
Scientists Uncover Milk Composition Of Naked Mole-Rat Queens
Parents normally feel the need to provide well for their kids. For humans, that number of offspring is usually in the single digits, but a naked mole-rat queen can have as many as 900 pups in a lifetime spanning up to 30 years.
Naked mole-rats live their lives entirely underground in Africa, digging tunnels in a perpetual search for plant tubers to eat. These bizarre creatures are unlike nearly every other mammal on earth in that the burdens of reproduction and milk feeding of young are placed solely on a single queen and are not shared among the females of the colony
Small rodents, like rats and mice, normally produce milk low in water but high in fat and energy. This is what Oftedal and his team expected to find, especially as naked mole-rats have large litter sizes, up to 12 pups, and a short lactation period.
“We were surprised to find naked mole-rat queens have a very dilute milk, high in water and low in energy,” Oftedal says. “This seems counter intuitive, as it means the mother has to produce a lot of milk to supply the pups with enough energy to grow. From our calculations the mother would have to produce up to 58 percent of her body weight in milk a day to meet their nutritional needs.”
Yet that is just what the naked mole-rat queens were doing, producing copious quantities of watery milk. A need for milk containing a lot of water may be explained in part by the hairless body of the naked mole-rat.
Society and Culture
The Heir, The Judge And The Homeless Mom: America's Prison Bias For The 1%
In 2009, when Robert H Richard IV, an unemployed heir to the DuPont family fortune, pled guilty to fourth-degree rape of his three-year-old daughter, a judge spared him a justifiable sentence – indeed, only put Richard on probation – because she figured this 1-percenter would "not fare well" in a prison setting.
Details of the case were kept quiet until just the other day, as Richard’s ex-wife filed a new lawsuit accusing him of also sexually abusing their son. Since then, the original verdict has been fueling some angry speculation – shock, horror - that the defendant's wealth and status may have played a role in his lenient sentencing.
Far too often, we give far too little consideration to the consequences of a prison term on the life a poor defendant. At least the public is starting to pay attention to cases like that of Shanesha Taylor, who has been charged with felony child abuse in Scottsdale, Arizona, because she left her two small children alone in a car for a little over an hour to attend a job interview. Taylor was taken straight to jail, where she languished for over a week. Her children were put in the custody of Child Protective Services, where they remain. Obviously leaving two small children unattended in a car was an ill-advised thing to do, but under the circumstances Taylor may simply have exercised the least bad option available to her.
The law enforcement officials who chose to arrest this 35-year-old mother and charge her with a felony may have had little sympathy for the homeless woman's plight, but ordinary Americans who can relate to Taylor's struggles are not willing to let this woman become yet another statistic in an unforgiving justice system.
In its devastating report, the Sentencing Project lists 10 concrete measures that would help eliminate some of the more obvious inequalities in the system, from scaling back the war on drugs to eliminating mandatory minimum sentences to abolishing the death penalty. But until we recognize that bias permeates the system at every level – however unconscious or unintended – meaningful change will elude us.
Some Innate Preferences Shape The Sound Of Words From Birth
Languages are learned, it's true, but are there also innate bases in the structure of language that precede experience? Linguists have noticed that, despite the huge variability of human languages, there are some preferences in the sound of words that can be found across languages. So they wonder whether this reflects the existence of a universal, innate biological basis of language. A SISSA study provides evidence to support to this hypothesis, demonstrating that certain preferences in the sound of words are already active in newborn infants.
Take the sound "bl": how many words starting with that sound can you think of? Blouse, blue, bland... Now try with "lb": how many can you find? None in English and Italian, and even in other languages such words either don't exist or are extremely rare. Human languages offer several examples of this kind, and this indicates that in forming words we tend to prefer certain sound combinations to others, irrespective of which language we speak. The fact that this occurs across languages has prompted linguists to hypothesize the existence of biological bases of language (inborn and universal) which precede language learning in humans. Finding evidence to support this hypothesis is, however, far from easy and the debate between the proponents of this view and those who believe that language is merely the result of learning is still open. But proof supporting the "universalist" hypothesis has now been provided by a new study conducted by a research team of the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste and just published in the journal PNAS.
David Gomez, a SISSA research scientist working under the supervision of Jacques Mehler and first author of the paper, and his co-workers decided to observe the brain activity of newborns. "In fact, if it is possible to demonstrate that these preferences are already present within days from birth, when the newborn baby is still unable to speak and presumably has very limited language knowledge, then we can infer that there is an inborn bias that prefers certain words to others," comments Gomez. "To monitor the newborns' brain activity we used a non-invasive technique, i.e., functional near-infrared spectroscopy," explains Marina Nespor, a SISSA neuroscientist who participated in the study. During the experiments the newborns would listen to words starting with normally "preferred" sounds (like "bl") and others with uncommon sounds ("lb"). "What we found was that the newborns' brains reacted in a significantly different manner to the two types of sound" continues Nespor.
The Other Threat To Pakistan
At a literature festival here not long ago, I bumped into a school friend who had recently relocated from Karachi, the southern port city where we both grew up. Karachi has all the buzz, and violence, of a megalopolis — more than 2,700 people were killed there in 2013 — and none of the greenery and historic charms of Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province. “I’m loving Lahore,” she told me. “I feel like I’ve moved to Switzerland after living in a war zone.”
The contrast is not as exaggerated as it sounds. In recent years, Punjab has suffered less than the rest of the country from the suicide attacks and bomb blasts that have killed some 49,000 people since 2001. There have been dramatic exceptions: terrorist attacks against the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team and at a major Sufi shrine in Lahore, at army headquarters in Rawalpindi, and at a five-star hotel and courts in the capital, Islamabad. Anti-India militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and anti-Shiite organizations like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are based in Punjab and draw most of their recruits from the province. But these groups mostly stage their attacks elsewhere in Pakistan to maintain benign relations with the local authorities.
And so the perception that Punjab has suffered less from violence than the rest of the country prevails, creating much resentment. For non-Punjabis, the province’s relative stability is just the latest demonstration of how Punjabi elites rally to protect their own interests at the expense of their compatriots. And such interprovincial rivalries could be as great a challenge for the country’s stability as the Taliban.
It is commonly said that Punjab is synonymous with Pakistan, and vice versa, which seems to relegate the other provinces and autonomous regions to the status of outliers. Some of Punjab’s good fortune is an accident of geography: the name means “land of five rivers,” referring to the Indus River and the tributaries that flow through the province, making it the agricultural and industrial heartland of Pakistan. But politics matters even more.
Well, that's different...
Fine Points of the Law
An Iowa administrative law judge ruled in February that it might be reasonable to accidentally damage a stubborn vending machine that ate your money -- but not by commandeering a forklift, raising the vending machine 2 feet off the concrete floor, and slamming it to the ground to dislodge the reluctant candy bar (a Twix). Consequently, Robert McKevitt, fired recently over the incident by Polaris Industries in Milford, Iowa, was deemed not entitled to worker compensation. (McKevitt admitted picking up the machine with the forklift, but said he just shook it and then set it down gently.)
Bill Moyers and Company:
Are Public Schools For Sale
Preeminent education historian and public school advocate Diane Ravitch talks to Bill this week about the private sellout of public schools.