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Executive order on immigration would ignite a political firestorm

Executive order on immigration would ignite a political firestorm

Reports are rampant that President Obama will sign an executive order as soon as this week that will allow up to 5 million undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation. Signing such an order would have explosive political consequences — it would not only reshape the near-term fights in Congress but also have a potentially profound effect on the two parties’ national coalitions heading into the 2016 election and beyond.

Republicans have made it clear that if Obama goes forward, it would be the equivalent of giving the middle finger to their incoming majority — and, by extension, the American public, which helped the GOP gain seats in the House and Senate on Nov. 4.

At a news conference held the day after the midterm elections, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the incoming Senate majority leader, compared Obama’s signing of an executive order on immigration to “waving a red flag in front of a bull.” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Obama will “burn himself” if he moves forward.

You get the idea. Republicans ain’t happy — and they are likely to get a lot less happy over the next week or so. No matter what congressional response McConnell and Boehner craft — and they are undoubtedly looking at their options — the most obvious and predictable outcome of Obama’s expected move on immigration is that any hope of bipartisanship on much of anything in the 114th Congress, set to convene in January, would probably be out of the question.

Obama knows that. And it would seem he doesn’t care. Or rather, he has made the calculation that the chances of genuine bipartisanship on virtually anything was so low in the first place that it didn’t make sense not to do what he believes is the right thing. The post-grand-bargain-collapse version of Obama is far less willing to extend his hand to Republicans — having, in his estimation, had it bitten so many times before. He views the “now the well is poisoned” point being made by Republicans as laughable.

 
Catholic Church: It Doesn't Have to Show Up in Court Because Religious Freedom

Catholic Church Argues It Doesn't Have to Show Up in Court Because Religious Freedom

By Molly Redden

And you thought Hobby Lobby was extreme.....

When Emily Herx first took time off work for in vitro fertilization treatment, her boss offered what sounded like words of support: "You are in my prayers." Soon those words took on a more sinister meaning. The Indiana grade school where Herx was teaching English was Catholic. And after church officials were alerted that Herx was undergoing IVF—making her, in the words of one monsignor, "a grave, immoral sinner"—it took them less than two weeks to fire her.

Herx filed a discrimination lawsuit in 2012. In response, St. Vincent de Paul School and the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, her former employers, countered with an argument used by a growing number of religious groups to justify firings related to IVF treatment or pregnancies outside of marriage: freedom of religion gives them the right to hire (or fire) whomever they choose. But the diocese took one big step further. It is arguing that, in this instance, its religious liberty rights protect the school from having to go to court at all.

"I've never seen this before, and I couldn't find any other cases like it," says Brian Hauss, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Center for Liberty. The group is not directly involved in the lawsuit but has filed amicus briefs supporting Herx. "What the diocese is saying is, 'We can fire anybody, and we have absolute immunity from even going to trial, as long as we think they're violating our religion. And to have civil authorities even look into what we're doing is a violation'…It's astonishing."

 
Jump Start Your Brain With These 6 Morning Habits

By John Boitnott

Exercising right after you wake up is a great idea. However, if that's not your cup of tea, there are things that will jump start your brain that take a lot less exertion.

Not everyone is a morning person. Whether you're the type of person who hits snooze seven times or you jump out of bed, ready to tackle the day, you likely find your brain needs a little warm-up time before you tackle the challenges of the day. A hefty jolt of caffeine can help, but past studies have found that once you're addicted to caffeine, all that trip to Starbucks does is prevent withdrawal symptoms.

Whether you're a morning person or not, there are things you can do to help make your mind sharper before you start your workday.

Exercise

As tempting as it might be to hit the snooze button and get 15 more minutes of sleep, it actually is much more beneficial for you to get out of bed, put on your workout clothes, and go for a brisk walk or run. Exercise increases blood flow throughout your body, including in your brain. If a morning walk isn't an option, try dancing or going through a series of stretches to loosen tight muscles and get your blood pumping.

 
Neil Young calls on fans to boycott Starbucks

Neil Young

Neil Young calls on fans to boycott Starbucks

Sean Michaels

The company denies taking a position in a battle over GM food labelling

Neil Young has called on fans to boycott Starbucks, citing the coffee chain’s alleged role in a battle over genetically modified food labelling.

Writing on his website, Young accused Starbucks of “hiding behind” an organisation called the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which, along with three other food companies, is jointly suing the state of Vermont over a new law requiring genetically modified ingredients to be labelled on food products. Although Starbucks is one of the GMA’s many member companies, the corporation is not itself part of the court proceedings.

“I used to line up and get my latte everyday, but yesterday was my last one,” Young said. “Starbucks doesn’t think you have the right to know what’s in your coffee ... [It] is supporting a lawsuit that’s aiming to block a landmark law that requires genetically modified ingredients be labelled. Amazingly, it claims that the law is an assault on corporations’ right to free speech.”

In a statement, Starbucks denied playing any part in the Vermont legal battle and contended that it has yet to take “a position on the issue of GMO labelling”. The company “is not a part of any lawsuit pertaining to GMO labelling nor have we provided funding for any campaign”, the statement continues. “Starbucks is not aligned with [GMO maker] Monsanto to stop food labelling or block Vermont state law.”

Nevertheless, Starbucks did not condemn the GMA’s move. In fact, a representative of the company said of Vermont’s Act 120: “As a company with stores and a product presence in every state, we prefer a national solution [to GMO labelling]”, rather than state-by-state rules.

 
Navy deploys Laser Gun to Middle East

Zap: The Navy officially launched the Laser Weapon System in August, the first ever laser combat weapon

Navy's first ever LASER gun that sets fire to enemy aircraft and ships is deployed to the Gulf

By Ap and Josh Gardner for MailOnline

The US military has deployed its first laser weapon ever to be used in combat.

The science fiction made real armament is seven years in the making and comes at a cost of $40 million.

Dubbed the 30-kilowatt-class Laser Weapon System, the devices was installed onto the USS Ponce in August, where the warship has been patrolling with it ever since.

Navy officials say the weapon can set fire to targets at the speed of light. Those targets include aerial drones, speed boats and swarm boats, all potential threats to warships in the Persian Gulf, where the Ponce, a floating staging base, is deployed.

Speed of light: Navy officials say the weapon can set fire to targets at the speed of light. Those targets include aerial drones, speed boats and swarm boats, all potential threats to warships in the Persian Gulf, where the Ponce, a floating staging base, is deployed

For the Navy, it's not so much about the whiz-bang technology as it is about the economics of such an armament, which costs pennies on the dollar compared with missiles and smart bombs, and the weapons can be fired continuously, unlike missiles and bombs, which eventually run out.

The laser weapon system (LaWS) prototype combines light beams from six commercial, off-the-shelf solid-state welding lasers.

Each beam has a power of 5.5 kilowats, to create a laser with a total power of round 33 kW.

The light from the six lasers is said to be incoherently combined because the individual beams are not merged into a true single beam (i.e., the individual beams are not brought in phase with each other).

 
Will the Obama coalition survive?

Will the Obama coalition survive?

Will the Obama coalition survive?

By Justin Sink and Amie Parnes

The coalition of voters that twice elected President Obama to the White House might not be there for the Democratic nominee in 2016, party strategists are warning.

Following their disastrous showing at the polls this month, many Democrats have consoled themselves with talk of how the groups that fueled Obama’s resounding victories — namely minorities and young people — will make up a bigger slice of the electorate in two years’ time.

But some fear the party is placing far too much trust in demographics, while ignoring the unique circumstances that led to Obama’s rise.

“I don’t think the Democratic Party should take anyone for granted, or should just assume that these voters are just going to back our nominee, and more importantly, going to turn out for the same level as President Obama,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell.

“They’re going to need a reason and they’re going to need a message."

 
In New Napoleonic Era, His Hats and Stockings Rise to Power

In New Napoleonic Era, His Hats and Stockings Rise to Power

Surveying the glittering collection of Napoleonic objects laid out in an auction hall near Paris, Bruno Ledoux said he had a good reason for his interest in a set of baby clothes belonging to Napoleon Bonaparte’s son.

“You see, I have a palace,” said Mr. Ledoux, who owns not just a palace, but the palace of Napoleon II, Napoleon’s son, on the outskirts of Paris.

Mr. Ledoux, one of France’s biggest Napoleon collectors and owner of the newspaper Libération, had come here on Saturday to one of the largest auctions of Napoleon memorabilia ever held, looking for items for a museum he is creating.

Hundreds of people packed the auction house on Saturday and Sunday for the event opposite the Château de Fontainebleau, where Napoleon abdicated in 1814.

Nearly 1,000 objects were for sale, including weapons, portraits, letters, the emperor’s cologne bottles, a knife used in a foiled assassination attempt and even his stockings. The pieces came from a collection belonging to Monaco’s royal family, which sold them to raise money for a palace renovation.

The star attraction was one of Napoleon’s trademark black bicorn hats, one of 19 known to exist. Although mostly worn by Napoleon’s chief veterinarian, who received it as a gift, the hat still went for 1.9 million euros, or about $2.4 million, bought by a South Korean food company, Harim. The presale estimate was €300,000 to €400,000.

Napoleon’s bejeweled hunting rifle sold for €250,000 and a gilded crib for €200,000. The auction houses Osenat and Binoche et Giquello, which ran the sale, said it took in about €10 million, including taxes.

The prices were not unusual in the market for Napoleoniana. Beginning in the early 2000s, the value of Napoleonic relics has risen relentlessly, undented by the global recession. In 2007, Osenat sold a gold-encrusted saber worn by Napoleon for a record $6.5 million.

Now, with the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo approaching, auction houses have been stoking an already heated market, and an unusually large number of objects have been appearing for sale. Last year, an engagement ring belonging to Napoleon’s wife Josephine went for $1.2 million. The couple’s marriage contract sold in June for more than $500,000. The hat’s sale on Sunday made it one of the most expensive Napoleonic objects ever sold.

The rising prices have set off a new Napoleonic war of sorts, with private collectors competing aggressively with buyers for public museums.

Legally, French museums have first rights to items deemed of particular patriotic value and possess state budgets to buy them at auction. But in the case of Napoleon, public curators know it is a battle almost lost in advance.

“It’s become very difficult to follow the prices,” said Christophe Beyeler, a representative of the Museum Service of France who was at the auction on behalf of several museums.

Napoleon rose from the chaos that followed the 1789 revolution to rule France from 1799 to 1815, minus an interlude on the island of Elba. In the process, he forged a spectacular personal myth that seems to particularly fascinate moneyed collectors. The story of his rise from obscure lieutenant to conqueror of Europe resonates with the newly rich and entrepreneurs.

“Napoleon is still the ultimate personification of the self-made man,” said Andrew Roberts, author of the best-selling biography “Napoleon: A Life.”

 
Republicans have called him a dictator. So why can’t Obama get his own way?

Barack Obama

Republicans have called him a dictator. So why can’t Obama get his own way?

He should be pushing at an open door on reforms to immigration. But his foes are pushing back.

A crowd of anti-immigration protesters in Oracle, Arizona, gathered in July to block a bus they’d heard was full of children from Central America who had crossed the border unaccompanied, and possibly illegally, and were supposed to be arriving at a local shelter. Seeing a school bus approaching, Adam Kwasman, a Republican state legislator, broke off from a rant about Lady Liberty to tweet: “Bus coming in. This is not compassion. This is the abrogation of the rule of law.” He then joined the mob of protesters. He later told a television reporter: “I was able to actually see some of the children in the bus – and the fear on their faces … This is not compassion.”

Kwasman was right about one thing. This was not compassion. But then it was not a bus full of migrants either. Kwasman, it turned out, had got his Latinos in a twist. He had, in fact, harangued a bus full of kids from the local YMCA on their way to camp. Kwasman ran for the Republican nomination in the local congressional district but was roundly defeated in the primary. That’s too bad. High on rhetoric, low on facts, utterly misguided, racially motivated, brazen, boorish, ridiculous and a little bit scary – he would have fitted right in with the Republican majorities.

When Republicans recently won the midterms, taking both the House and the Senate, they promised things would change. Less than two weeks later, however, it looks less like a new day than Groundhog Day. Already the discussion has descended into gridlock and trash talk. Hardliners are calling for President Barack Obama to be impeached; the moderates threaten to shut down government – again. The Republican House speaker, John Boehner, has put Obama on “burn notice”: “When you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself, and he’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down that path.” The path in question would lead to a modest immigration reform. According to leaks it would prevent the deportation of up to 5 million people living in the United States while giving many of them work permits and shifting the focus of the nation’s immigration agents to deportations of convicted criminals and people who recently arrived in the country without documents.

This would be a popular path. Around half the country believes undocumented immigrants should have a pathway to citizenship, while another 15% believe they should be able to stay without becoming citizens. An overwhelming majority think immigration is a serious issue and that it’s important that Congress does something about it. Obama should be pushing at an open door. The trouble is, Republicans have put all their baggage behind that door and are now blocking it with all the bodies they have. Obama should not take this personally. Republicans killed immigration reform when George W Bush proposed it in 2007. Last year Boehner couldn’t get any kind of immigration reform through his own caucus.

 
Stepford Sororities: The Pressures of USC’s Greek Life

Stepford Sororities: The Pressures of USC’s Greek Life

It’s easy to hate the members of USC’s Greek Life for perpetuating racist, sexist, and elitist traditions, but the pressures in the chapter house can be crippling.

You can see the entire party from the balcony. Skinny white girls dance on shaky tables and dough-faced white boys, the freshman pledges, hastily serve beer in the far right corner. The female attire varies: sometimes the girls are dressed in silky red and black geisha gowns, sometimes in mock Native American headdresses with fringed tank tops, and other times it’s gangsta chic—tight black dresses with bling as far as the eye can see. Some boys might sport black face while dressed as members of the marines or army.

Although USC fraternities and sororities do not keep statistics on the race, ethnic, or economic backgrounds of their members, the Greek scene is overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and, frankly, racist.

People often forget that the National Panhellenic council used to enforce racial segregation by means of strict codes and laws. Legal clauses that excluded both “Negroes and Orientals” from West Coast chapters of USC’s beloved Sigma Nu fraternity existed through the late 1950s. At the time, sisters were highly encouraged to follow “unwritten” rules to “routinely deny membership to Asian Americans, along with African Americans, Jews, and the working class,” as Edith Wen-Chu Chen writes in Brothers and Sisters: Diversity in College Fraternities and Sororities.

While these formal laws of racial separation are no longer on the books, there is a de facto segregation and promotion of less than subtle racism still prevalent in campus Greek life. I’ve walked down “the row” during rush to hear Sigma Chis yell “Hey, Mama!” as they clinked their beers together. Members of ZBT have told me, “You don’t seem black, are you one-quarter or one-half? You are just so…articulate.” I’ve held a fake smile before the “All-American” Pi Kapps, who told me, “Wow, you are just so pretty, for a black girl,” and “you are the prettiest black girl I’ve ever seen.”

 
Obama’s JFK Problem

Obama’s JFK Problem

How the battle between the president and his joint chiefs chairman over Iraq recalls the early days of Vietnam.

President Obama and his Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, seem to be engaged in a policy tug of war over troops on the ground in Iraq. After telling Congress last week that he was considering, once again, the deployment of ground combat forces to assist in the battle against ISIS, Dempsey made a surprise visit to Iraq over the weekend to further assess the evolving American military strategy—despite adamant assurances from the White House that combat forces are off the table.

The tensions between Mr. Obama and his most senior general are reminiscent of what another president, John F. Kennedy, encountered  more than 50 years ago in the early days of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Today as then, it appears the nation’s top military officials are seeking to box the president in to a commitment the White House is extremely reluctant to make.

For Kennedy, the problem of Vietnam was supposed to be resolved by his predecessor and by the partition of the country in 1954 into communist and non-communist spheres with Saigon secured by its own military forces. For Obama, the security of Iraq was supposed to be maintained by the creation of a viable army formed following his predecessor’s invasion of the country in 2003, facilitating an orderly American exit. Then as now, a prior solution to a messy geopolitical conflict did not cohere and the United States was forced to fashion a new strategy.

In both cases a vacuum of attention from American planners as well as the media preceded the eruption of crisis. In the spring of 1961, all eyes in Washington were focused on the aftermath of JFK’s disastrous foray into the Bay of Pigs. By autumn, however, the Kennedy administration was debating intervention in Vietnam amid swift gains by guerrilla forces. In spring 2014, official Washington was consumed by Vladimir Putin’s audacious power grab in Crimea. Just months later, CNN was breathlessly reporting that a marauding jihadi army controlled a 1400-mile swath of territory across Syria and Iraq and was fast approaching Baghdad.

In both instances, a cautious and skeptical president rejected recommendations to deploy combat troops to a murky conflict. In 1961 Kennedy’s military advisers proposed deploying ground forces to South Vietnam five times, to serve variously as a deterrent, a symbol of determination or a means to train Saigon’s army. That fall General Maxwell Taylor, JFK’s personal military adviser, submitted yet another recommendation calling on Kennedy to approve the first 8,000-man deployment of combat forces to South Vietnam, a proposal that was endorsed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, also supportive, chided the president for his hesitation. “I am troubled by your most natural desire to act on other items now, without taking the troop decision,” Bundy scolded, alluding to an optical preoccupation with resolve that today is being brandished by President Obama’s critics. “Whatever the reason, this has now become a sort of touchstone of our will.”

Like Obama today, Kennedy worried that the first dispatch of combat troops would ineluctably be followed by more deployments. “It’s like taking a drink,” he told his trusted aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. “The effect wears off and you have to have another.”

 
Obama turns to McConnell to secure his legacy

President Barack Obama talks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. | Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Obama turns to McConnell to secure his legacy

By Edward-Isaac Dovere and Manu Raju

A lame-duck president looks to deal with the very man who vowed to make him a one-termer.

During a break from plotting the GOP takeover of the Senate, in a campaign based largely on dissatisfaction with the president, Mitch McConnell took a phone call from Barack Obama.

Congress was about to leave for a five-week summer recess, and Obama and Senate Democrats were anxious: the president needed his people in places like Qatar, Kuwait and Algeria — something that could only happen with McConnell’s cooperation.

McConnell agreed. A dozen ambassadors were approved in July, more than half the number confirmed in the previous seven months.

Whenever there’s been outreach by the president and a desire to cooperate by McConnell — mostly over small things, but also in ending last year’s government shutdown — the president and Senate Republican leader have been able to get results.

Now, as Obama and his aides consider life with a Republican-controlled Congress, they look at the incoming majority leader as the only person on Capitol Hill who can help deliver on a second-term legacy achievement.

“A grown-up” is how one White House aide described McConnell.

It’s not as if Obama and others in the White House have forgotten their history with McConnell, but he looks better than other potential partners. The president’s relationship with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s caucus has hit the rocks. He finds House Speaker John Boehner tedious and unreliable; too many false starts and acrimonious endings have marred their relationship. House Democrats, for their part, are increasingly full of complaints about the president, but there will be so few of them come January that they’ll hardly matter.

That marks a dramatic shift from the early years of the administration, when McConnell famously vowed to make Obama a one-term president. “McConnell was dead set on jamming the president, and that defined the relationship until now,” one senior administration official said. Now, he said, “McConnell and Obama are starting from scratch.”

Nonetheless, it’s still unclear how the White House will be able to cut deals with McConnell without causing a revolt among Hill Democrats. And it’s unclear whether McConnell will be willing to cut deals that might put Boehner in hot water with conservative House Republicans.

 
Iran Nuclear Pact Faces an Array of Opposing Forces

Iran Nuclear Pact Faces an Array of Opposing Forces

When President Obama wrote last month to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urging him to overcome a decade of mistrust and negotiate a deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, it was perhaps the president’s last effort to reach a reconciliation with Iran that could remake the Middle East.

Today, Mr. Obama needs a foreign policy accomplishment more than ever, and he sees time running out on his hope of changing the calculus in a Middle East where Americans are, against his instincts, back on the ground. But the forces arrayed against a deal are formidable — not just Mr. Khamenei and the country’s hard-liners, but newly empowered Republicans, some of his fellow Democrats, and many of the United States’ closest allies.

As negotiators head back to Vienna this week for what they hope will be the final round of talks, Mr. Obama’s top national security advisers put the chance of reaching an agreement this month at 40 to 50 percent. “In the end this is a political decision for the Iranians,” Mr. Obama told a small group of recent visitors to the White House, a statement that could be true for him as well.

Yet even if a deal is struck it will be the beginning of an argument, rather than the end of one. For many of the president’s adversaries, the details of whatever deal he emerges with — how much warning the West would have if Iran raced for a bomb, for example — are almost beside the point.

“In every nation involved, this negotiation is a proxy for something bigger,” argues Robert Litwak, a Wilson Center scholar and author of “Iran’s Nuclear Chess: Calculating America’s Moves.”

“Here it is a test of Obama’s strength and strategy,” he said. “In Tehran it is a proxy for a fundamental choice: whether Iran is going to continue to view itself as a revolutionary state, or whether it’s going to be a normal country,” which so many of its young people yearn for it to become.

So far, Mr. Khamenei has avoided making that choice, intelligence assessments by the United States and its allies conclude. While he has authorized President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to negotiate with the United States and its partners, they believe that the supreme leader may decide whether to approve a deal only after his negotiators come home with the details.

That is what happened with a much smaller deal in 2009, which he killed after an agreement was reached in Vienna. And surrounding the ayatollah are hard-liners who have opposed any accord, as well as leaders of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is responsible for the military side of the nuclear program.

 
DEA raids 49ers, Seahawks and Buccaneers

Probe: The Drug Enforcement Administration began a probe into NFL teams' handling of prescription drugs with raids against three teams Sunday

DEA kicks off NFL prescription drug investigation with raids on 49ers, Seahawks and Buccaneers

By Pete D'amato for MailOnline

Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration conducted surprise inspections on medical staff of at least three NFL teams on Sunday, the agency said.

The ongoing investigation was prompted by a lawsuit brought by former players claiming that teams have mishandled prescription drugs for decades.

The San Francisco 49ers were targeted after playing away against the New York Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were checked at the Baltimore-Washington International after their game.

Agents inspected documents from medical staffs for any controlled substances brought by visiting teams, along with records that the staff could practice in the home team's state.

'Our teams cooperated with the DEA today and we have no information to indicate that irregularities were found,' NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told the Associated Press in an email.

In May, former NFL players brought a lawsuit against the league, claiming that teams and their medical staffs acted without regard for players' well-being,  

Targeted: A law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity said there were specific reasons why the three teams were investigated during this round 

In May, former NFL players brought a lawsuit against the league, claiming that teams and their medical staffs acted without regard for players' well-being.

Now with more than 1,200 players with careers going back to 1968, the plaintiffs allege that NFL staffs plied them with painkillers such as Vicodin and anti-inflammatories like Toradol to keep them playing.

The lawsuit claims that teams did this against regulations and often without players' knowledge or consent as to what drug 'cocktails' contained.

One attorney for the players described staffs dispensing prescription drugs 'like candy at Halloween.'

 
Women with More Male Friends Have More Sex

Women with More Male Friends Have More Sex

By David J. Ley, Ph.D.

Recent research finds that men who have more attractive female partners, who have more male friends (the female that is), have more sex. This might reflect sperm competition, and men trying to fight off the chances that the women could cheat. But, this might also reflect some unique aspects of the woman herself.

 
Murder Vids Help ISIS Lure More Monsters

Murder Vids Help ISIS Lure More Monsters

Brutal beheading videos attract young militants to ISIS. But the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has struggled to recruit established jihadists.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State, the al Qaeda offshoot that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria, has claimed to have beheaded yet another Western hostage, along with more than a dozen captured Syrian soldiers. In a newly-released video, a henchman for the group stands over what appears to be the severed head of Peter Kassig, a former U.S. Army Ranger turned aid worker who was kidnapped in Syria in late 2013.

From the Islamic State’s perspective, such videos serve multiple purposes. They are meant to intimidate the organization’s enemies in the West and elsewhere, show defiance in the face of opposition, and to convince other jihadists that Baghdadi’s state is the strong horse. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State’s rival, long ago determined that graphic beheading videos do more harm than good for the jihadists’ cause, as they turn off more prospective supporters than they earn. But the Islamic State has clearly come to the opposite conclusion, cornering the market on savagery.

There is no doubt that the Islamic State’s ranks have swelled over the past year. Young recruits, in particular, have been attracted to the organization’s brazen violence. But Baghdadi has had much less success in attracting the allegiance of established jihadist organizations, many of which remain openly loyal to al Qaeda.

At first blush, Baghdadi had a big day on Nov. 10. Jihadists from Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen all swore allegiance to Baghdadi in what was intended to be a show of global support for the self-appointed caliph. The Islamic State has been attempting to win the support of jihadists at the expense of al Qaeda, so the messages were widely heralded by Baghdadi’s boosters. Indeed, the group highlighted the oaths of allegiance in today's beheading video.

Baghdadi accepted the various loyalty oaths three days later in an audio message released on Nov. 13. The Islamic State leader’s speech served multiple purposes. It demonstrated that he was alive, contradicting thinly-sourced claims that he had been killed in airstrikes earlier in the month. And it gave Baghdadi the opportunity to praise his new minions, blessing them as his official representatives.

Baghdadi offered “glad tidings” as he trumpeted “the expansion of the Islamic State to new lands, to the lands of al Haramain [meaning Saudi Arabia] and Yemen, and to Egypt, Libya and Algeria.” Baghdadi accepted “the bayat (oath of allegiance) from those who gave us bayat in those lands” and pronounced “the nullification” of all other jihadist “groups therein.” He also announced the creation of “new wilayah [provinces] for the Islamic State” in all five countries, adding that the group would appoint “wali [provincial leaders] for them.” All jihadists in these areas, and indeed all Muslims, must now obey the Islamic State’s official representatives, according to Baghdadi and his supporters.

Of course, the Islamic State doesn’t really have provinces stretching from North Africa through the heart of Arabia. But how strong is Baghdadi’s network in all five countries? The short answer is: We don’t really know.

In three of the five countries—Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen—the jihadists who swore loyalty oaths to Baghdadi were anonymous. And they don’t represent any well-established terrorist organizations either.

 
Is Putin risking world peace because Russia is dying?

Is Putin risking world peace because Russia is dying?

By Charles Hoskinson

Is Putin risking world peace because Russia is dying?

Russia has been flexing its muscles a lot lately, pushing back against international sanctions over its actions in Ukraine and stirring fears that go beyond those of a new Cold War toward the specter of a nuclear conflict.

Amid a war of words over Russian support for rebel forces in eastern Ukraine who have declared their independence in defiance of a Sept. 5 ceasefire, Moscow has been testing NATO air defenses in Europe, sent a fleet to the waters off Australia in time for the G-20 summit Saturday in Brisbane, and even announced it would resume Cold War-era patrols in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Whether it's the bullying of Ukraine, whether it's the increasing Russian military aircraft flying into the airspace of Japan or European countries, whether it's the naval task group which is now in the South Pacific, Russia is being much more assertive now than it has been for a very long time," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday. 

Abbott, like many world leaders, repeated the oft-cited concern that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to "re-create the lost glories" of his nation's Soviet and imperial pasts.

But author and geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan says Russia has a bigger problem that makes Putin's actions more understandable and more dangerous to world stability: It is facing a demographic disaster.

Russia's population has been steadily declining since the end of the Cold War in 1991, a trend that is expected to continue over the long term, even though there was a slight increase in 2013. Only 143.8 million people live in the world's largest country geographically, making it also one of the most sparsely populated.

"The only country in the world that's declining faster is Ukraine," Zeihan said. "In five years, the Red Army will only have about half the number of recruits that it does now."

Zeihan, author of The Accidental Superpower, a book about how geopolitics affects the global environment, said Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union's borders because they are more defensible, and in the process gather in millions of Russians who found themselves living in newly independent countries after the communist superpower broke up.

"They're aiming for a slow die-out rather than a fast die-out," he said.

For example, 60 percent of the 2.4 million people in Crimea — which Russia captured from Ukraine and annexed in March, creating the current crisis — are ethnic Russians. Russia-speakers also predominate in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, where rebels, backed by supplies of new Russian weapons, have consolidated their control since a Nov. 2 independence vote.

 
The Great Immigration Betrayal

The Great Immigration Betrayal

IN the months since President Obama first seem poised — as he now seems poised again — to issue a sweeping executive amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants, we’ve learned two important things about how this administration approaches its constitutional obligations.

First, we now have a clear sense of the legal arguments that will be used to justify the kind of move Obama himself previously described as a betrayal of our political order. They are, as expected, lawyerly in the worst sense, persuasive only if abstracted from any sense of precedent or proportion or political normality.

Second, we now have a clearer sense of just how anti-democratically this president may be willing to proceed.

The legal issues first. The White House’s case is straightforward: It has “prosecutorial discretion” in which illegal immigrants it deports, it has precedent-grounded power to protect particular groups from deportation, and it has statutory authority to grant work permits to those protected. Therefore, there can be no legal bar to applying discretion, granting protections and issuing work permits to roughly half the illegal-immigrant population.

This argument’s logic, at once consistent and deliberately obtuse, raises one obvious question: Why stop at half? (Activists are already asking.) After all, under this theory of what counts as faithfully executing the law, all that matters is that somebody, somewhere, is being deported; anyone and everyone else can be allowed to work and stay. So the president could “temporarily” legalize 99.9 percent of illegal immigrants and direct the Border Patrol to hand out work visas to every subsequent border crosser, so long as a few thousand aliens were deported for felonies every year.

The reality is there is no agreed-upon limit to the scope of prosecutorial discretion in immigration law because no president has attempted anything remotely like what Obama is contemplating. In past cases, presidents used the powers he’s invoking to grant work permits to modest, clearly defined populations facing some obvious impediment (war, persecution, natural disaster) to returning home. None of those moves even approached this plan’s scale, none attempted to transform a major public policy debate, and none were deployed as blackmail against a Congress unwilling to work the president’s will.

And none of them had major applications outside immigration law. No defender of Obama’s proposed move has successfully explained why it wouldn’t be a model for a future president interested in unilateral rewrites of other areas of public policy (the tax code, for instance) where sweeping applications of “discretion” could achieve partisan victories by fiat. No liberal has persuasively explained how, after spending the last Republican administration complaining about presidential “signing statements,” it makes sense for the left to begin applying Cheneyite theories of executive power on domestic policy debates.

Especially debates in which the executive branch is effectively acting in direct defiance of the electoral process. This is where the administration has entered extraordinarily brazen territory, since part of its original case for taking these steps was that they supposedly serve the public will, which only yahoos and congressional Republicans oppose.

This argument was specious before; now it looks ridiculous. The election just past was not, of course, a formal referendum on the president’s proposed amnesty, but it was conducted with the promise of unilateral action in the background, and with immigration as one of the more hotly debated issues. The result was a devastating defeat for Obama and his party, and most polling on unilateral action is pretty terrible for the president.

So there is no public will at work here. There is only the will to power of this White House.

Which is why the thinking liberal’s move, if this action goes forward, will be to invoke structural forces, flaws inherent in our constitutional order, to justify Obama’s unilateralism. This won’t be a completely fallacious argument: Presidential systems like ours have a long record, especially in Latin America, of producing standoffs between executive and legislative branches, which tends to make executive power grabs more likely. In the United States this tendency has been less dangerous — our imperial presidency has grown on us gradually; the worst overreaches have often been rolled back. But we do seem to be in an era whose various forces — our open-ended post-9/11 wars, the ideological uniformity of the parties — are making a kind of creeping caudillismo more likely.

But if that evil must come, woe to the president who chooses it. And make no mistake, the president is free to choose. No immediate crisis forces his hand; no doom awaits the country if he waits. He once campaigned on constitutionalism and executive restraint; he once abjured exactly this power. There is still time for him to respect the limits of his office, the lines of authority established by the Constitution, the outcome of the last election.

Or he can choose the power grab, and the accompanying disgrace.

 
The Progressives' War on Suburbia

The Progressives' War on Suburbia

Obama and the Democrats have embraced the argument that suburbs and sprawl are bad for you. As the last election demonstrated, this is no way to get elected.

You are a political party, and you want to secure the electoral majority. But what happens, as is occurring to the Democrats, when the damned electorate that just won’t live the way—in dense cities and apartments—that  you have deemed is best for them?   

This gap between party ideology and demographic reality has led to a disconnect that not only devastated the Democrats this year, but could hurt them in the decades to come. University of Washington demographer Richard Morrill notes that the vast majority of the 153 million Americans who live in  metropolitan areas with populations of more than 500,000  live in the lower-density suburban places Democrats think they should not. Only 60 million live in core cities.      

Despite these realities, the Democratic Party under Barack Obama has increasingly allied itself with its relatively small core urban base. Simply put, the party cannot win—certainly not in off-year elections—if it doesn’t score well with suburbanites. Indeed, Democrats, as they retreat to their coastal redoubts, have become ever more aggressively anti-suburban, particularly in deep blue states such as California.  “To minimize sprawl” has become a bedrock catchphrase of the core political ideology.

As will become even more obvious in the lame duck years, the political obsessions of the Obama Democrats largely mirror those of the cities: climate change, gay marriage, feminism, amnesty for the undocumented, and racial redress. These may sometimes be worthy causes, but they don’t address basic issues that effect suburbanites, such as stagnant middle class wages, poor roads, high housing prices, or underperforming schools. None of these concerns elicit much passion among the party’s true believers.

The miscalculation is deep-rooted, and has already cost the Democrats numerous House and Senate seats and at least two governorships. Nationwide, in areas as disparate as east Texas and Maine or Colorado and Maryland, suburban voters deserted the Democrats in droves. The Democrats held on mostly to those peripheral areas that are very wealthy—such as Marin County, California or some D.C. suburban counties—or have large minority populations, particularly African-American.

This is not surprising since the policies and predilections of President Obama and his team are based on a largely exaggerated urban mythology. HUD Secretary Shaun Donahue, for example, has declared the move to the suburbs is “over.” People are, he has claimed, “moving back into central cities and inner ring suburbs.” To help foster this trend, administration policies at HUD and other agencies have been designed to fulfill Donahue’s vision of getting Americans out of their suburban homes and cars and into apartments and trains. These policy initiatives include large “smart city” grants for dense development, restrictions on new building, the promotion of high-speed rail links that would supposedly reconcentrate economic activity in the urban core. The administration’s strong support for regional governments, and its attempts to force suburbs to diversify their populations (even though they are already where minorities increasingly move) are thinly disguised efforts to promote densification and put the squeeze on suburban growth.

 
Why More Farmed Fish Are on Our Plates

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Why More Farmed Fish Are on Our Plates

By Yuka Hayashi

Tuna cultivation is beginning to take off as part of a broader revolution in aquaculture that is radically changing the world’s food supply.

Tokihiko Okada was on his boat one recent morning when his cellphone rang with an urgent order from a Tokyo department store. Its gourmet food section was running low on sashimi. Could he rustle up an extra tuna right away?

Mr. Okada, a researcher at Osaka’s Kinki University, was only too happy to oblige—and he didn’t need a fishing pole or a net. Instead, he relayed the message to a diver who plunged into a round pen with an electric harpoon and stunned an 88-pound Pacific bluefin tuna, raised from birth in captivity. It was pulled out and slaughtered immediately on the boat.

Not long ago, full farming of tuna was considered impossible. Now the business is beginning to take off, as part of a broader revolution in aquaculture that is radically changing the world’s food supply.

“We get so many orders these days that we have been catching them before we can give them enough time to grow,” said Mr. Okada, a tanned 57-year-old who is both academic and entrepreneur. “One more year in the water, and this fish would have been much fatter,” as much as 130 pounds, he added.

With a decadeslong global consumption boom depleting natural fish populations of all kinds, demand is increasingly being met by farm-grown seafood. In 2012, farmed fish accounted for a record 42.2% of global output, compared with 13.4% in 1990 and 25.7% in 2000. A full 56% of global shrimp consumption now comes from farms, mostly in Southeast Asia and China. Oysters are started in hatcheries and then seeded in ocean beds. Atlantic salmon farming, which only started in earnest in the mid-1980s, now accounts for 99% of world-wide production—so much so that it has drawn criticism for polluting local water systems and spreading diseases to wild fish.

 
How Sicko Priests Got Away With It

How Sicko Priests Got Away With It

The Vatican says it is doing everything it can to take pedophile priests out of circulation. If that’s true, why are there so many wandering around?

Father Daniel Buck was a popular priest around the suburbs of Chicago in the 1970s and early `80s. According to notes in his extensive personnel file released last week by the Chicago diocese, he was especially fond of hosting Catholic youth retreats at a vacation cabin where he was part owner. But Buck was removed from ministry in 2002, after the Chicago Archdiocese said it had confirmed four credible allegations of sexual abuse against pre-pubescent and adolescent girls dating back to the mid 70s, according to his file.

Father Buck was caught because he left a guilty trail, including an undisputedly perverted love note that a victim’s mother said she found hidden in her daughter’s bedroom (PDF) . It took nearly 20 years between the first allegation and his ultimate removal. The letter, handwritten on Snoopy stationary and signed by the priest, is included in Buck’s 914-page abuse dossier (PDF) released last week by the Chicago archdiocese:

“I loved your outfit, the way it covered (and uncovered) various delightful parts of you,” Buck allegedly wrote the girl, who was just 11 when he allegedly first lured her into a sexual relationship, according to the complaint against him. “I tried to be careful, but I couldn’t resist touching your legs and your neck … Your cute little belly button was like a magnet to me. I hope you didn’t mind me taking a peek at it every chance I got, and searching for it with my naughty fingers … I’m sorry if I embarrassed you at all, but I’m only human and I can’t resist you. I go nuts every time I realize God has given me such a beautiful, warm, caring, loving friend.”

Father Buck’s letter, which he does not deny writing, is dated June 8, 1984, and is part of a massive document dump by the Chicago Archdiocese in an apparent effort by the outgoing archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, to leave his tenure at the archdiocese with a clear conscience. It is hand-written and signed by the priest, providing what it seems could have been evidence for a slam-dunk sex abuse case against the prelate. She was a minor; he was 39 and, by his own apparent handwritten confession, had touched her intimately with his “naughty fingers” on more than one occasion over the course of four years—which is against the law.

But Buck was never arrested and he never went to jail. In part, because neither the recipient of his love note nor any of his other victims ever pressed criminal charges against him in the secular court. Neither did the archdiocese, even when it put Buck on watch shortly after the girl’s mother complained in 1984. His dossier includes an internal memo dated several weeks after the letter was discovered that says: “parents upset about a priest 39 keeping company with a girl… showed a letter … sick….” He was removed in 2002 when the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was adopted by all dioceses of the American Catholic church.

Today, Buck is on a pension, apparently living at the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House in suburban Chicago, which is the last known address for him and a handful of the other priests listed in the Chicago cache of offenders. When he was removed from ministry, he was ordered to a life of prayer, but the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House, as a place of penance, is no hardship post; it is a nature preserve with 900 acres of forest and water, according to its website.

If Buck and priests like him had been teachers, doctors or plumbers, it wouldn’t have mattered if the victims had the courage to cooperate with police; the letter could easily have been enough to convict, according to victims’ rights groups who say clergy get special treatment in the eyes of the law. In other words, if he weren’t a priest, he could well be in jail today....

 
Dan Balz: The coming clash over immigration

The coming clash over immigration

Dan Balz

Obama’s promise to move forward on reforms is based on past history of trying to work with Republicans.

The scars from six years of political conflict between President Obama and Republican congressional leaders have quickly washed away all those gauzy comments about cooperation that were offered in the aftermath of the midterm elections. Today, Washington is bracing for a major collision over immigration, with each side calculating the risks and rewards of their actions.

Obama has insisted that he will take executive action by the end of the year to protect millions of illegal immigrants from the threat of deportation. Republicans are just as insistent that he will pay a big price if he goes ahead with what they regard as executive amnesty. GOP elected officials are now talking about shutting down the government or using other short-term budgetary measures to retaliate.

Obama’s determination to move ahead in the face of a substantial election defeat for his party is more than just a red flag to Republicans. Even some Democrats are nervous about how unilateral action on such a contentious issue will shape the opening stages of the relationship between the White House and a Congress that will be fully controlled by the Republicans and how badly the fallout from his moves could hurt the president and the party’s congressional wing.

Obama clearly sees it differently. He sees a clock ticking on his presidency, with little time left to burnish what he hopes will eventually be seen as a tenure that accomplished big things, from health care to climate change to immigration.

He and his advisers also see little prospect for legislative action on major issues, post-election comments notwithstanding, which suggests they believe there is more to be gained than lost by moving forward. White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri put it this way on Friday: “The principle for us is you can’t let that [GOP opposition] hold you back on solving other problems. You can’t tie up your whole agenda to how Congress is going to react.”

That conclusion is just the latest reminder that while elections may have consequences, they don’t necessarily change behavior. At the White House, the experience of the past six years — how elections have or have not changed working relationships with Republicans — has heavily influenced their assessment of this moment.

 
For Anxious Seniors, Applications Multiply

Alexa Verola, a senior at Mahwah High School in northern New Jersey, is applying to 29 colleges.

Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

For Anxious Seniors, Applications Multiply

By ARIEL KAMINER

The escalation in the number of colleges on students’ lists is driven by several factors, but perhaps the strongest is fear.

Six college applications once seemed like a lot. Submitting eight was a mark of great ambition. For a growing number of increasingly anxious high school seniors, figures like that now sound like just a starting point.

Alexa Verola, a senior at Mahwah High School in northern New Jersey, drew up a list of some colleges where she would be happy majoring in anthropology and added more that would be good for photography or sound design: 18 in all. Then she applied to every last one of them.

Eighteen is a lot, but good colleges are so hard to get into these days, Ms. Verola reasoned, and there will always be students with better board scores or higher grades. So after those 18 applications were in — most of them way ahead of schedule — she looked over the list and decided to add 11 more.

“My guidance counselor thought it was a little too much,” she said. “She was worried about me getting too stressed out about it. There are a lot of high school students who are really stressed out.”

With college application season upon them, a lot of stressed-out high school students appear to be following the same path Ms. Verola did: Faced with an increasingly competitive landscape, they have begun applying to more colleges than anyone would previously have thought possible.

For members of the class of 2015 who are looking at more competitive colleges, their overtaxed counselors say, 10 applications is now commonplace; 20 is taking on a familiar ring; even 30 is not beyond imagining. And why stop there?

Brandon Kosatka, director of student services at the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., recently worked with a student who wanted a spot in a music conservatory program. To find it, she applied to 56 colleges. A spokeswoman for Naviance, an online tool that many high school students and their counselors use to keep track of applications, said one current user’s “colleges I’m applying to” tab already included 60 institutions. Last year the record was 86, she said.

A number of factors have contributed to this rapid escalation.

One is the growing popularity of the Common Application, a standardized form that more than 500 colleges now honor, making the process of applying to multiple institutions far easier. Another is the tough economy, which drives students to look ever farther afield for a college that can meet their financial aid needs.

But perhaps the most pressing factor has been plain old fear.

 
Three years into drought, Californians adapt to a drier way of life

Three years into drought, Californians adapt to a drier way of life

By Daniel Wood

California residents are letting their cars go dirty and converting their green lawns into drought-tolerant landscapes. The changed behavior has resulted in some improved water-saving statistics.

Californians are finally turning their concern about the drought into changed behavior.

“I think people are just taking it more seriously,” says John Moore, an insurance salesman from Sherman Oaks. “I see the sign on the highway, ‘Serious drought: [help] save water,’ and so I turn off the water when I’m shaving. I read about farmers fallowing their fields, and something in me just says, ‘Take a shorter shower.’ ”

The stakes have been high. California is the producer of half of America’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Moreover, an already-costly wildfire situation has been getting worse, with the dry conditions sparking more fires and extending the fire season to year-round.

And so the drought has been the biggest story in California in 2014. In January, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and urged people to reduce their water use by 20 percent.

Later that month, California officials announced they were cutting off the flow of water from the northern part of the state to the south for the first time in the 54-year history of the State Water Project. That meant SWP customers – primarily in water districts that serve about 25 million people total and irrigate about 750,000 acres of farmland – would have to rely on other sources for their water.

To meet the challenges, statewide water forums have been held, with the major players – including farmers, environmentalists, and city officials – gathered uncomfortably in the same room. Smaller meetings have been held as well. And the conversation has reached Washington, where each chamber of Congress has passed its own version of legislation.

 
What's Wrong With the Science of "Interstellar"?

What's Wrong With the Science of "Interstellar"?

By David Corn

Astrobiologist David Grinspoon schools Hollywood.

In the new sci-fi epic Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway don astronaut suits, leave an Earth that has been so poisoned it can no longer produce food to support the human race, and zip through a wormhole in search of new planets where homo sapiens might be able start over—while Jessica Chastain works on a mathematical formula that will allow our species to defy gravity. The big-budget blockbuster is a familiar gotta-save-humanity cinematic romp, chock-full of dramatic chills and special effects thrills. But Interstellar, directed by Batman movie-maker Chris Nolan, also attempts to attain a certain gravitas by taking seriously the science invoked within the film. After all, Kip Thorne, one of the world's leading theoretical physicists and experts on relativity, was an executive producer and consultant for the movie. And Neil DeGrasse Tyson has praised the flick for featuring scientific principles "as no other feature film has shown." But one of our planet's top astrobiologists has a somewhat different view.

I took David Grinspoon, who holds the chair of astrobiology at the Library of Congress, to the Washington, DC, premiere of Interstellar—a posh event held at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and attended by pundits, scientists, and aerospace firm officials and lobbyists. Afterward, he and I recorded an episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast focused on the science and themes of this grand film.

Grinspoon, a 2006 winner of the Carl Sagan Medal, advises NASA on planetary exploration and is involved with the Venus Express spacecraft and the Curiosity Rover on Mars. He is a widely-recognized expert on the possibility of life beyond Earth. He runs a funky website and is working on a book about the anthropocene—the somewhat controversial notion that the Earth is in a geologic epoch being shaped by human activity. And a few years ago, he attended a meeting of scientists called together by the makers of Interstellar—back when Steven Spielberg was slated to direct the film—to kick around the scientific ideas presented in the movie. That is, Grinspoon was the perfect date for this movie.

So, I asked him, what was it like to be present at creation? Grinspoon recalled:

There was a meeting of the minds that a bunch of us were invited to…on the Caltech campus. It was really fun. They had some astronomers, astrobiologists, psychologists…They presented the very basic premise of the film and asked us to brainstorm on some of the themes, and they recorded the whole thing. Spielberg showed up, and he brought his dad…It was a very wide-ranging discussion…What I remember of the treatment that we saw at that time…it had some of the same themes of getting to other planets and using black holes. But that was kind of it. It didn't have the plot yet...If memory serves me, the original story actually had [theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen] Hawking as a character in the film, who was going to be sent into orbit. Experiencing weightlessness is something that helped him with his disability…I don't know how much of this I'm conflating now. It's been a few years. But I think there was even a love interest.

 
Will Your Genes Keep You Happy & Healthy to 110?

Will Your Genes Keep You Happy & Healthy to 110?

By Howard S. Friedman, Ph.D.

Can research on the genes of the very old thrivers and survivors discover secrets to help us all live a happy and healthy life? A new study of supercentenarians has just been published.

Genes are important to long life but not nearly as important as you might think. Only about a quarter to a third of the variation in longevity is accounted for by genes, and even that is likely an overestimate of direct biological effects. 

 
Isolated Putin goes home early from G20 summit

Isolated Putin goes home early from G20 summit

Patrick Wintour and Ben Doherty in Brisbane

Russian president says he’s leaving early to get some sleep after long meetings in which he refused to give ground

Vladimir Putin quit the G20 summit in Brisbane early saying he needed to get back to work in Moscow on Monday after enduring hours of browbeating by a succession of Western leaders urging him to drop his support for secessionists in eastern Ukraine.

With the European Union poised this week to extend the list of people subject to asset freezes, the Russian president individually met five European leaders including the British prime minister, David Cameron, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, where he refused to give ground.

Putin instead accused the Kiev government of a mistaken economic blockade against the cities in eastern Ukraine that have declared independence in votes organised in the past month. He said that action was short-sighted pointing out that Russia continued to pay the salaries and pensions of Chechenya throughout its battle for independence.

Justifying his early departure Putin said: “It will take nine hours to fly to Vladivostok and another eight hours to get Moscow. I need four hours sleep before I get back to work on Monday. We have completed our business.”

In an interview with German TV he also accused the west of switching off their brains by imposing sanctions that could backfire.

Putin said: “Do they want to bankrupt our banks? In that case they will bankrupt Ukraine. Have they thought about what they are doing at all or not? Or has politics blinded them? As we know eyes constitute a peripheral part of brain. Was something switched off in their brains?”

The Russian leader also complained he had not been consulted by the EU about the recognition of Ukraine.

However, British officials insisted behind Putin’s bluster, that they detected a new flexibility about the Ukraine orientating towards the EU so long as this did not extend to Nato assets being placed on Ukrainian soil.

Putin spent as long as eight hours on the margins of the summit holding separate talks with Western leaders including a marathon session with Merkel that did not wrap up until 2am. The Merkel negotiations preceded a meeting on Saturday between EU leaders and the US president, Barack Obama, which was called to discuss next steps in Ukraine and world trade.

 
Pimco’s Obscene Payouts

Pimco’s Obscene Payouts

By Annie Lowrey

This morning, Barry Ritholtz of Bloomberg View reported a few holy-crap numbers: The Pacific Investment Management Company — the bond giant better known as Pimco — paid its former chief investment officer, Bill Gross, a $290 million bonus last year. Its former chief executive officer, Mohamed El-Erian, got $230 million. 

Those numbers are, needless to say, very, very, very big, even in the heady world of finance. They place the two comfortably in the top 0.01 percent of earners. (The income threshold to join that small club is a piker’s $10.3 million, as of 2012.) And, as Bloomberg notes, those paydays hugely beat those of many of El-Erian and Gross’s peers. Last year, Larry Fink of BlackRock made about $23 million, as did Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs. The head of Allianz, Pimco’s corporate parent, made just $9 million.

There are generally a few explanations for such outsize earnings. First is the superstar effect. You’re J.K. Rowling, Brad Pitt, Shakira, Lebron James, Taylor Swift, Bill Clinton, or America’s top neurosurgeon. You’re so good, and people love you so much, that you command a market premium — often vastly more than your near-peers do. You’re 10 percent better, but you get paid 100 percent more. Or you’re 100 percent better and get paid a million percent more.

The second explanation is that you’re lucky. You shot the moon. You’re the head of a company that just got bought by General Electric or Google. You’re the holder of a patent that a big pharmaceutical company wants. Your firm just went public and its share price went pop. Your hedge fund bet it all on a counterintuitive investment, and the bet panned out. Your payday was unusual, singular, and likely irreproducible.

The third is that you have a racket going or are in a less than ideally competitive market. You have a monopoly on the extraction of a natural resource or over a patent. Your industry produces excess profits thanks to government regulations or collusion among your supposed competitors. Consumers, for whatever reason, do not have sufficient insight into what you are really up to.

The question is which of those three categories Pimco and its executives fit in. I’m sure that people on Wall Street would love to tell you that they fit cleanly into slot number one: They’re just so good that they are worth that much! But that explanation is belied at least in part by Pimco’s own returns: The firm trailed 65 percent of its peers in 2013 after beating 90 percent of them in 2012, Bloomberg found. Its main fund actually lost money last year.

 
Bette Midler, 68, on youth, the glass ceiling and her 30-year marriage

Bette Midler

Bette Midler, 68, on youth, the glass ceiling and her 30-year marriage

Ruth Huntman

To the day he died, my father thought showbusiness a waste of time and that I should have been a teacher or a nurse’

I’m incapable of doing anything other than entertaining. I can barely add and I’ve never been able to do my own taxes. It’s a good thing I’ve been blessed with this fantastic will to go forward, even when I hit the skids.

Fame and money was partly what drove me to leave Hawaii for New York to become a singer when I was 19. When you are poor – and we were really poor – it’s human nature to want to better yourself.

Youth is the best driving force for anyone who’s creative. I was fearless when I was young. When you get older doubt sets in. But they’re not going to throw you out past 60 if you keep on being creative. They haven’t so far

Charm is something a lot of today’s young artists could do with. Maybe I’ll start a charm school, like they had at Motown. They don’t see it takes more than looking cute and not falling over in high heels.

 
Bill Cosby silent in face of questions about sexual assault allegations

bill cosby

Bill Cosby silent in face of questions about sexual assault allegations

Lauren Gambino

Bill Cosby has refused to respond to questions about sexual assault allegations which resurfaced this week. The actor and comedian, who starred in a much-loved eponymous 1980s sitcom, was asked about the allegations on Saturday, in an interview with National Public Radio.

The resurgence of sexual assault allegations against him came after an attempt to prompt a social-media meme backfired. Cosby, 77, has recently returned to standup.

Cosby and his wife, Camille, appeared on NPR to speak about their donation of more than 60 pieces of art to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, in Washington DC. At the end of the interview, presenter Scott Simon asked Cosby to respond to the growing furore over claims of sexual assault.

The actor said nothing. Simon said: “You’re shaking your head no.”

Simon tried again: “There are people who love you who might like to hear from you about this. I want to give you the chance.”

When no response was offered, Simon wrapped up the roughly four-and-a-half-minute interview.

On Monday, Cosby’s Twitter account asked fans to create internet memes using photos of him. The exercise quickly blew up, when people responded with references to allegations of sexual assault made by a number of women.

On Thursday, the Washington Post published an editorial by Barbara Bowman, who accused Cosby of drugging and raping her on multiple occasions during a period in the mid-1980s when he was mentoring her as a young actress. During those years, Cosby was starring in The Cosby Show as Cliff Huxtable, a loveable but silly family patriarch. It was the most watched show on television.

On Friday, Bowman told CNN she went to a lawyer in 1989 to discuss legal action against Cosby but “he laughed me right out of the office”. Bowman said she “just gave up”, but added that when another woman took legal action against Cosby years later, she decided to lend her support.

“I believe her because it happened to me,” she said.

 
How Berkeley took on the might of Big Soda and won

Sara Soka

How Berkeley took on the might of Big Soda and won

Andrew Gumbel

Californian city known for its liberal causes defeated powerful opposition over its campaign

In Berkeley, America’s unofficial capital of progressive politics, they’re calling it the battle against Big Soda.

A coalition of public health advocates, educators, environmentalists and local politicians believes that the time has come to push back against the great foaming tide of Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other sugar-clogged fizzy drinks that have contributed to an epidemic of childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

It’s a nationwide movement, inspired by Michelle Obama’s campaigns to get underprivileged children to eat fresh food and by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, who tried and failed to ban supersized sodas within the five boroughs.

However, in Berkeley – home to the University of California’s flagship campus, birthplace of the 1960s counterculture and crucible of the organic food movement – the campaigners have just notched up their first clear victory. Almost lost in the Republican sweep in this month’s midterm elections was a referendum in Berkeley in which a proposed tax of one cent for every ounce of soda won 75% voter approval.

That may seem unsurprising in a small city with an affluent, well-educated, liberal electorate where soda is widely dismissed as cheap and nasty. But 31 other cities have tried to pass a similar tax in the past – including the neighbouring city of Richmond and Berkeley’s big brother across the bay, San Francisco – and 31 times the initiative has been defeated by a beverage industry willing to sink more than $100m into opposition campaigning.

The American Beverage Association spent $2.4m – $30 per eligible voter – in Berkeley on TV ads, fliers and “push polls”, in which voters were ostensibly asked about their preferences but in fact made to think about whether the tax wasn’t a restriction on personal freedom imposed by unaccountable bureaucrats.

In the past, similar strategies have been sufficient to turn just enough voters, especially those at the lower end of the income scale, who tend to be the biggest soda drinkers– Coke being significantly cheaper than, say, organic carrot juice. Berkeley, however, had a particularly determined local coalition and enjoyed support from Bloomberg’s private foundation, which pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into TV ads aired during the World Series, the climax of the baseball season, which happened to be won by the San Francisco Giants.

The campaigners hope that Berkeley will now set the national standard – as it has in the past with restricting smoking in bars and restaurants and creating city pavements with easy access for wheelchairs. “We fully expect other communities to take on the soda industry and succeed,” the campaign’s co-chair, Vicki Alexander, said on election night.

 
Go to Commercial: Viewer Backlash Over a Mixed Race Family

Go to Commercial: Viewer Backlash Over a Mixed Race Family

By Kyle D. Killian, Ph.D.

Why audiences had no problem with Cream Cheese commercials, and were up in arms about a certain Cheerios ad.

Back in 2013, Cheerios had an advertisement that featured a black man, a white woman, and a biracial daughter. The black man and white woman were not seen together in the same room in the commercial, and yet, the outrage over being forced to see the mere suggestion of a multiracial family was so intense that Cheerios had to disable comments on YouTube due to flurry of racist comments. In contrast, quite a few brands over the past several years have produced commercials that feature black women with white men, but these have not caused near the stir of the Cheerios ad. Did you see the Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercial where a white man and black woman make out on the elevator going up to their apartment, and touch and kiss as they prepare (and consume, with quite a bit of gusto) dinner together?  What a good-looking, and happily cavorting, couple they made. And it didn’t seem to upset anybody. We see a rising number of commercials, and television shows, with black women-white men couples. So, why does seeing a black man with a white woman raise such rancor, but not the other combination?

 
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