Browsing articles from "February, 2017"

Ross Confirmed As Commerce Secretary

Feb 28, 2017   //   by Administrator   //   News from US  //  Comments Off on Ross Confirmed As Commerce Secretary

Wilbur Ross arriving for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee in January. Ross was confirmed by the U.S. Senate Monday night.

T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Wilbur Ross arriving for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee in January. Ross was confirmed by the U.S. Senate Monday night.

T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross was confirmed as President Trump’s secretary of commerce Monday night by a vote of 72 to 27 in the U.S. Senate.

Ross will divest from the private equity firm he founded, WL Ross Co., as part of his ethics agreement upon entering government service. He will retain other financial interests but has pledged not to take any action as commerce secretary that would benefit a company in which he holds a stake.

Ross, 79, was a registered Democrat for much of his adult life but was an early supporter of Trump’s candidacy. In a June 2016 interview with CNBC, Ross said:

“…I think we need a more radical, new approach to government… middle class and lower middle class America has not really benefited by the last 10 to 15 years of economic activity…”

As commerce secretary Ross will play a key role in shaping administration policy on trade. He has pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, the giant trade pact with the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Ross’ confirmation process was, compared to many other Trump Cabinet nominations, relatively smooth. He was not significantly challenged at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee. In the full Senate, nineteen Democrats and one independent joined Republicans to confirm him.

Ross has an estimated net worth of $2.9 billion. According to NPR’s Marilyn Geewax:

“He made his fortune by restructuring ‘distressed’ companies using borrowed money. He may be best-known for his 2002 efforts to roll together several American steel companies into International Steel Group. He cut costs and employees, and then in 2005, sold the business to Mittal Steel, headquartered in The Netherlands.”

Some left-wing advocacy groups criticized Ross as a “vulture capitalist” and opposed his nomination. But he received the support of the United Steelworkers union, which credits Ross with saving thousands of U.S. jobs in the steel industry.

For Construction Projects, ‘Buying American’ Means Higher Costs

Feb 28, 2017   //   by Administrator   //   News from US  //  Comments Off on For Construction Projects, ‘Buying American’ Means Higher Costs

There are hints that the Trump administration might require all federally-funded construction projects to be done not only with steel and concrete made in the U.S. but also with American-made equipment, like this Caterpillar backhoe.

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There are hints that the Trump administration might require all federally-funded construction projects to be done not only with steel and concrete made in the U.S. but also with American-made equipment, like this Caterpillar backhoe.

David Schaper/NPR

When he addresses a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, President Trump is expected to outline some of his plans for rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

And he will likely reiterate his commitment to “buy American and hire American,” as he repeated often during the campaign and since taking office last month.

But what exactly does that mean for state departments of transportation and the contractors who build transportation projects?

“I think for the most part that means business as usual,” says Jim Tymon, chief operating officer for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, or AASHTO.

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“There are already requirements in federal law that require state DOTs and local transit agencies to buy American products as they construct infrastructure projects around the country,” he says.

Those requirements, actually called “buy America” in federal law, were first put in place in the late 1970s after the collapse of the steel industry. They were gradually expanded to include almost all federal grant-funded transportation projects.

“For the folks building highways and bridges in this country, it really is the default to use locally and American-made products because they’re locally available and sometimes cheaper to use,” Tymon says.

And it’s evident in the massive reconstruction of the Jane Byrne Circle Interchange near downtown Chicago.

It’s one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the country, as three major expressways carrying about 400,000 vehicles a day all converge there.

The Illinois Department of Transportation is in the midst of a six year, $600 million construction project aimed at reducing chronic congestion and lengthy delays.

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Just one recently completed fly-over ramp, from the northbound Dan Ryan Expressway, I-90/94, to the westbound Eisenhower Expressway, I-290, contains 6,900 cubic yards of concrete, 4.8 million pounds of structural steel and 2.5 million pounds of steel rebar. And all of those materials were made in the U.S., with much it coming from the steel mills of Gary, Ind., about 25 miles away.

But preserving American steel industry jobs comes at a cost.

“Economics is always about trade-offs,” says Jeff Davis, senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, a non-partisan policy think tank in Washington, D.C., who has written extensively about “buy America” rules.

“Domestic-made steel usually out of the mill will cost 70, 80 percent more than Chinese steel out of the mill,” Davis says.

Davis says the cost of shipping Chinese steel over the Pacific Ocean mitigates that cost difference a little bit, but he says Americans should know that buying homemade products will usually increase the price, sometimes significantly. And Davis adds that this administration seems willing to pay that higher price.

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“Clearly, President Trump has decided that preserving steel-working jobs is a worthwhile endeavor and is probably worth less efficient procurement of highway and bridge projects,” Davis says.

States can get waivers from the federal government’s “buy America” and other such requirements if complying increases the costs significantly, if a certain material or product is difficult to get, or if it may create significant construction delays.

And some industry groups want those waivers to remain, in case of any unforeseen circumstances.

“Our concern is that someone would take an extreme interpretation of those rules, and the cost of complying with an extreme interpretation would far outweigh the economic benefit of ‘buy America’,” says Rich Juliano of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

For example, Juliano says contractors often need to purchase extra parts or materials on the fly, such as “very small components, literally nuts and bolts and tie-wires.” Those are things that may cost just pennies a piece.

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“If you’re requiring a contractor to document the origin of nuts and bolts or tie-wire or something like that, all the way back to when they were first produced, that could be difficult to do,” Juliano says.

It’s not clear if the Trump administration will expand requirements for buying American-made products to such small parts, but the president is already going beyond existing mandates in other ways. He’s requiring American steel in the construction of the privately-owned Dakota Access Pipeline.

And Vice President Mike Pence in St. Louis last week hinted buy America requirements could be expanded even further.

“We’re gonna rebuild America with American workers and American tools,” he said during a speech to workers at the Fabick Cat company in Fenton, Mo.

Could that mean private contractors on government projects would be required to use American-made backhoes, graders and dump trucks? Even American-made hammers, screw-drivers and wrenches? A White House spokesperson would not clarify, saying in an emailed statement, “we are currently considering many options and it would be premature to speak about specifics.”

Juliano worries about how that might play out.

“It might be that, you know, costs of these projects would increase a great deal because of that,” he says.

Nonetheless, this is one of the rare instances in which President Trump’s agenda may have bipartisan support. A number of congressional Democrats are already backing legislation to expand “buy America” requirements.

Do You Really Have That Disease?

Feb 28, 2017   //   by Administrator   //   World News  //  Comments Off on Do You Really Have That Disease?

Bayes' Theorem takes into account conditional probability when providing you with the chances that something is true.

Bayes' Theorem takes into account conditional probability when providing you with the chances that something is true.

You’re sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for the result of a test. The test will tell you if you have a disease you really don’t want to have.

As you wait, it seems as if the whole world is poised like a pencil balancing on its tip. In a moment, the doctor will come through that door and, based on the test, your world will fall one way or another.

Or will it?

I hope you never face a moment like this or, if you have faced one, it’s now far behind you. But as scary as these moments can be, they also illustrate a more subtle way of thinking about a field most people (including me) aren’t very good at thinking about: statistics.

As part of my sabbatical season, I’ve been teaching myself probability and statistics (I’m training for work I want to do in Network Theory). Statistics has never been a field that’s come easily to me. But the deeper I dig into it, the more I’m falling in love with its ideas. Today, I want use the example of the doctor and the test to introduce something remarkable in statistics that’s been affecting us all. It’s called Bayes’ Theorem. And because of its use in Big Data and all those algorithms ruling our world, it’s worth taking a moment to consider.

So let’s get back to the doc’s office. Let’s say she comes in and tells you the test was positive. She also tells you the test is 80 percent accurate.

Does that mean there’s 80 percent probability that you have the disease?

While that might seem to be the intuitive conclusion, it doesn’t tell the whole story. But to tell the whole story, you’ll need a subtler kind of statistical reasoning. That’s where Bayes’ Theorem comes in.

The usual way of thinking about statistics is what’s called the frequentist interpretation. Simple frequentist reasoning goes like this: Let’s say there are 1,000 people living in small town and 10 of them have an illness. If I pick a citizen at random, what is the probability they have the illness? A simple frequentist calculation says the probability would be 1 percent (i.e. 10/1000 = 0.01).

The Bayesian interpretation of statistics looks at things much differently. It doesn’t just see probabilities as an expression of how frequently something happens. Instead Bayesian’s take statistical inference as a way of stating our confidence about unknown states of the world based on knowledge of the world we already have. With each new piece of knowledge we can update how confident we are about something being true or not true. In that way, the Bayesian view often focuses on what’s called conditional probability. What is the probability of this happening if I already know that has happened? (It’s actually much richer than this but I’m simplifying here for brevity.)

To see how it all works, let’s go back to our test. We already know the test was 80 percent accurate. But now we also want to consider the times when the test comes back positive even though you don’t have the disease. These are known as false positives. Let’s assume there is a 9.6 percent probability of the test coming back with a false positive. Finally, we should also ask: What’s the raw probability of getting the disease? Is it rare or common? Let’s say it’s pretty rare, like in our small town example, with the probability of a random person having the disease being just 1 percent.

The power of the Bayes perspective is the way it quickly works with all this information rather than just looking at the positive test result. It considers how rare the disease is and the possibility of false positives, too. In this way the famous Bayes’ Theorem (whose equation and explanations can be found here) allows you to quickly get the all important conditional probability you’re really interested in. And what do we mean conditional probability? We mean the probability that you actually have the disease given that the test came back positive. That’s the real question you want to answer.

Remember, if you had only considered the test, you’d think the probability you have the disease was 80 percent. With Bayes’ Theorem, however, it turns out that, in fact, you really only have about an 8 percent chance of having the disease. There is a big difference between 80 percent and 8 percent — and that difference comes because of the facts that disease is actually rare and there is a non-zero rate of false positives. By considering these other pieces of information in a clear and quick way, Bayes’ Theorem upends our usual intuitive statistical sensibilities.

What our little parable of the doctor’s visit and test really tells us is the enormous power of the Bayesian perspective. Even though its been known for sometime (Thomas Bayes lived in the 18th century), its study and use has been growing like wildfire over the last few decades. In particular, the world of Big Data is powered by statistical reasoning — and much of that reasoning is powered by Bayes. So whether it’s a spam filter or the language recognition going into your conversations with Siri, you’ve already met Bayes a lot of times.

Well, probably.

(*Please note the example in this post DOES NOT tell you to ignore any test you get but to get it done again or have other tests to confirm the initial result. Please! Talk with your doctor).

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described “evangelist of science.” You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4

Takata Pleads Guilty In Air Bag Scheme, Will Pay $1 Billion In Penalties

Feb 28, 2017   //   by Administrator   //   World News  //  Comments Off on Takata Pleads Guilty In Air Bag Scheme, Will Pay $1 Billion In Penalties

Takata Corp.’s chief financial officer Yoichiro Nomura leaves federal court in Detroit on Monday. Japanese auto parts maker Takata Corp. pleaded guilty to fraud and agreed to pay $1 billion in penalties for concealing an air bag defect.

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Takata Corp.’s chief financial officer Yoichiro Nomura leaves federal court in Detroit on Monday. Japanese auto parts maker Takata Corp. pleaded guilty to fraud and agreed to pay $1 billion in penalties for concealing an air bag defect.

Paul Sancya/AP

Japanese auto parts maker Takata Corp. has pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud, and agreed to pay $1 billion for concealing a defect in millions of its air bag inflators.

The decision played out in a federal courtroom in Detroit on Monday, following a deal with the U.S. Justice Department.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

“Takata’s finance chief, Yoichiro Nomura, entered the guilty plea on the company’s behalf during court proceedings.

“He said actions of certain employees were ‘deeply inappropriate.’ “

At least 11 deaths have been linked to the defective air bags.

“For over a decade, Takata lied to its customers about the safety and reliability of its ammonium nitrate-based airbag inflators,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco said in a statement.

NPR’s Sonari Glinton reported for our Newscast unit:

“The defects caused the airbags to inflate with too much force and send metal shards into the cabin of the car.

“The penalties include $850 million in restitution to the car companies and $125 million for victims.

“With $25 million for the actual criminal penalty.”

The Associated Press reports:

“Takata’s fine to the government could have been as much as $1.5 billion, but the judge in the case said such a sum probably would put the company out of business.

“While Takata’s destruction ‘would probably be a fair outcome,’ it wouldn’t help victims get paid, U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh said in accepting the deal negotiated with the U.S. Justice Department.

“Takata’s penalty is small compared with the one imposed on Volkswagen, which must buy back cars and pay up to $21 billion over its emissions-cheating scandal. Steeh said he would pick a person to administer the restitution funds this week. Kenneth Feinberg, who handled the General Motors ignition switch and BP Oil spill compensation funds, is being considered.”

U.S. automakers already have begun the process of recalling tens of millions of vehicles.

Navy Secretary Nominee Withdraws From Consideration

Feb 27, 2017   //   by Administrator   //   News from US  //  Comments Off on Navy Secretary Nominee Withdraws From Consideration

President Donald Trump’s nominee to be secretary of the Navy, Philip Bilden, withdrew from consideration Sunday.

In a statement, Bilden said he supports Trump’s agenda:

“However, after an extensive review process, I have determined that I will not be able to satisfy the Office of Government Ethics requirements without undue disruption and materially adverse divestment of my family’s private financial interests.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis said in a statement:

“This was a personal decision driven by privacy concerns and significant challenges he faced in separating himself from his business interests. While I am disappointed, I understand and respect his decision, and know that he will continue to support our nation in other ways.”

Trump nominated Bilden on January 25. In a statement announcing Bilden’s nomination, the White House said:

“After 25 years, Mr. Bilden recently retired as a co-founding member and Senior Advisor of HarbourVest Partners, LLC, a leading global private equity investment management firm with institutional assets under management currently in excess of $42 billion.”

Bilden had spent the past two decades living in Hong Kong.

Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Army, Vincent Viola, also withdrew from consideration because of his financial interests.

‘People’s Court’ Judge Joseph Wapner Dies At 97

Feb 27, 2017   //   by Administrator   //   News from US  //  Comments Off on ‘People’s Court’ Judge Joseph Wapner Dies At 97

Joseph Wapner, star of the television show The People's Court on Oct. 22, 1986.

Joseph Wapner, star of the television show The People's Court on Oct. 22, 1986.

Retired Los Angeles Judge Joseph Wapner presided over The People’s Court from 1981 to 1993 — deciding real small-claims cases.

Son David Wapner told The Associated Press that his father died at home in his sleep after being hospitalized a week ago with breathing problems, and had been under home hospice care.

Wapner auditioned for The People’s Court shortly after retiring in 1979 from Los Angeles courts, where he had been a judge for more than 20 years.

At one time he was presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, the largest court in the United States.

The Associated Press interviewed Wapner in 1986:

” ‘Everything on the show is real,” Wapner said. “There’s no script, no rehearsal, no retakes. Everything from beginning to end is like a real courtroom, and I personally consider each case as a trial.

” ‘Sometimes I don’t even deliberate,’ he added. ‘I just decide from the bench, it’s so obvious. The beautiful part is that I have carte blanche.’ “

Before a case was accepted for the show, the plaintiff and defendant had to sign a binding arbitration agreement; the show paid for the settlements.

Wapner was born on Nov. 15, 1919.

The New York Times reports:

“Joseph Albert Wapner graduated in 1937 from Hollywood High School, where he briefly dated the future film actress Lana Turner, and in 1941 from the University of Southern California, where he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.

“During World War II, he served with the Army in the Pacific and was wounded by sniper fire on Cebu Island in the Philippines, leaving him with shrapnel in his left foot. He won the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his bravery and was honorably discharged in 1945.

“After earning his law degree from the University of Southern California in 1948, Judge Wapner worked in private practice as a lawyer for nearly a decade, until Gov. Edmund G. Brown of California appointed him to a judgeship in Los Angeles municipal court in 1959. Two years later, Judge Wapner was elected presiding judge of the city’s vast Superior Court system, in which he supervised some 200 fellow judges.”

Judge Wapner was joined on the show by real-life bailiff Rusty Burrell and host Doug Llewellyn.

At the time, The People’s Court was one of the biggest hits for syndicated reality TV shows.

A poll conducted by The Washington Post in 1989 found that while two-thirds of those surveyed could not name any of the nine justices on the United States Supreme Court, 54 percent could identify Judge Wapner as the judge of The People’s Court.

A Shocking Ending Caps A Big Oscar Night For ‘Moonlight’

Feb 27, 2017   //   by Administrator   //   World News  //  Comments Off on A Shocking Ending Caps A Big Oscar Night For ‘Moonlight’

Barry Jenkins accepts the Academy Award for Best Picture for Moonlight.

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Barry Jenkins accepts the Academy Award for Best Picture for Moonlight.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Pop Culture Happy Hour

Well, excuse me while I throw away my first draft, won’t you?

For quite a while, Sunday night’s Oscars seemed fairly tame. La La Land, the retro musical with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, came into the Oscars as a favorite, having tied the nomination record with a total of 14. It took a while for it to get going, as the early awards were spread out across a variety of nominees. But indeed, by the time they prepared to announce best picture, La La Land had gone on a late run and nabbed six awards: for production design, cinematography, best original score, best original song (“City Of Stars”), best actress (Stone), and best director. Its path to best picture seemed clear.

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Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty took the stage to announce best picture and Beatty looked at the card and paused. And then he paused more. He handed it to Dunaway, and she read the card: “La La Land.” The producers and cast of the heavily favored film took the stage, and several of them spoke. But then, with the throng still on stage, producer Justin Horowitz – who had already given his heartfelt thanks – returned to the microphone and announced that there had been a mistake. In fact, best picture had not been won by La La Land, but by Moonlight, a beautiful, moving, and very inexpensive independent coming-of-age drama. Beatty, still on stage and trying to explain while surrounded by shocked producers and actors, blamed it on confusion with the card from the previous award: Emma Stone, in La La Land. But either way, The Moonlight producers stepped up and took an award that many in the room and many watching at home were already irate that they hadn’t won.

It hadn’t been all that unexpected an evening until then. The Oscar telecast hadn’t begun with a cornball movie-themed musical number, but with Justin Timberlake performing “Can’t Stop The Feeling,” his nominated song from the animated movie Trolls. After guiding an auditorium full of celebrities through some very awkward dancing, Timberlake yielded the stage to first-time host Jimmy Kimmel.

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Kimmel’s monologue was about average for such things, laced with politics as you might expect (Kimmel thanked President Donald Trump and said, “Remember when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?”) but also heavy on the kinds of jokes that would be B-minus jokes on an average late-night monologue (for instance, his quip that if Amazon won an Oscar for Manchester By The Sea, it would be delivered “in two to five business days”).

Once the awards got underway, though, they started to go in interesting directions in a hurry. Mahershala Ali won best supporting actor for his performance in Moonlight – a win that few would have imagined last year at this time. Ali gave a very emotional speech and offered a shout-out to his wife, who had a baby four days ago. Ali was also the night’s first first, as it were – specifically, the first Muslim actor, as far as anyone seems to know, to win an Oscar.

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There were other milestones: Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician Taraji P. Henson played in Hidden Figures, joined the actresses from the film on stage to present the award for best documentary feature to Ezra Edelman for O.J. Made In America, the ESPN TV miniseries (which also played in theaters and at film festivals with an eye on Oscar qualifications). In winning, it became the longest “film” to ever win an Academy Award, given that it was produced as a 467-minute, multipart (and totally brilliant) TV miniseries.

Viola Davis won best supporting actress for Fences – and with an Emmy, an Oscar and a Tony, she’s only a Grammy away from precious EGOT status. (Narrate that audiobook, Viola Davis!) She saluted the writer of Fences, both play and screenplay, recognizing “August Wilson, who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.”

The Oscars for original screenplay and adapted screenplay went, respectively, to the scripts for Manchester By The Sea and Moonlight. Manchester also won best actor for Casey Affleck.

Politics, which had been a big question mark hanging over the ceremony ahead of time, showed up in a few ways. Absence, in at least one case, spoke as plainly as presence. Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi won best foreign language film for The Salesman, but he was not present (as he had announced he wouldn’t be). In a statement read on his behalf by Iranian engineer and space traveler Anousheh Ansari, Farhadi said that he wasn’t present out of respect for Iranians and those from the other six countries included in the travel ban issued in late January.

On a much lighter note, Kimmel tweeted directly at Trump at one point, asking him “u up?” and adding “#merylsayshi” in a nod to Trump’s displeased reaction to Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes. And sometimes, even silent statements emerged: there were red-carpet pins showing support for the ACLU, GLAAD, and Planned Parenthood.

As for Kimmel himself, he remains utterly convinced that everyone wants him to play his late-night hits – even on the Oscars. Thus, you get Mean Tweets, and you get endless riffs on his supposed feud with Matt Damon. You get a weird stunt – in this case, a bit in which Kimmel brought in a bunch of tourists from a bus who didn’t know they were being surprised with a visit to the ceremony. There didn’t seem to be much of an exit strategy for the bit, so once they brought the tourists in – perhaps getting less squealing and more confused milling than they expected – it was tough to put any kind of a button on it, so it kind of went on and on until it petered out.

It really wasn’t a terribly surprising Oscar night – right up until the unimaginable happened and someone had to give back a best picture trophy that he already held in his hand.

Headstones Vandalized At Jewish Cemetery In Philadelphia

Feb 27, 2017   //   by Administrator   //   World News  //  Comments Off on Headstones Vandalized At Jewish Cemetery In Philadelphia

Melanie Steinhardt comforts Becca Richman at the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. Police say more than 100 tombstones were vandalized a week after a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was also desecrated.


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Melanie Steinhardt comforts Becca Richman at the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. Police say more than 100 tombstones were vandalized a week after a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was also desecrated.


Philadelphia police say more than 100 headstones have been damaged at a Jewish cemetery in the northeastern part of the city. The vandalism occurred less than a week after a similar episode in a Jewish cemetery near St. Louis, where more than 150 graves were targeted.

Local police arrived at Mt. Carmel Cemetery Sunday morning after getting a call from a man reporting that the headstones of three of his relatives had been damaged. WHYY’s Bobby Allyn spoke with Shawn Zevit, a Philadelphia rabbi who described the vandalism as “a hateful act, an attempt to create fear and to tarnish the memory of those who have died and attack their dignity.”

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney says authorities are doing all they can to find the perpetrators. “My heart breaks for the families who found their loved ones’ headstones toppled,” he said in a statement. “Hate is not permissible in Philadelphia.”

The Anti-Defamation League is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the vandalism.

Last week, President Donald Trump addressed recent anti-Semitic hate crimes, including a spate of bomb threats targeting Jewish community centers, calling the attacks “horrible and painful.” Trump had previously faced criticism for failing to mention Jews in a statement commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Doctor Takes Death Education To High School Classrooms

Feb 26, 2017   //   by Administrator   //   News from US  //  Comments Off on Doctor Takes Death Education To High School Classrooms


Obviously, in our line of work, we value people who can lead difficult conversations. And one of the most difficult has to be talking about death. But that’s become Dr. Jessica Zitter’s life work. She’s a clinical and palliative care specialist at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif. Working in intensive care, Dr. Zitter was often confronted with the sick and dying, and she began to notice that when patients died, everybody involved – family, friends, the patients themselves – were often woefully unprepared.

So Dr. Zitter decided to try to open up the conversation about death and dying to make it easier to talk about. She’s written about her experiences in the ICU for The New York Times and The Atlantic, and now she’s taking the subject into high school classrooms. Last month, she made her first presentation about death to a group of ninth-graders in Oakland, and she’s been invited back. So we wanted to ask her how these presentations are going. So she was kind enough to talk to us from Phoenix where she’s attending a conference. Dr. Zitter, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JESSICA ZITTER: Such a pleasure.

MARTIN: When you say that you find that people were kind of woefully unprepared, what do you mean by that? I mean, is it that patients didn’t really understand what was coming or that family members are in denial? What do you mean by that?

ZITTER: For me as an ICU physician, one of the biggest things I’m concerned about is that so many people tend to come into the ICU and get attached to machinery because they’ve really started to deteriorate – their physiologic function is dropping fast. And they’re on these machines which are keeping them alive, but we’d never had – they had never had any conversations about whether or not it would be OK to stay that way in perpetuity, or at least until their bodies died on those machines.

MARTIN: How was it decided that this is a good conversation to take into the classroom?

ZITTER: Well, I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long, long time. But I taught sex ed to my kids’ school several years ago, and there was no one else to do it. But I really felt that I wanted to be the one to do it so that I could really do it honestly and not sort of talk about it in euphemistic ways.

And as I’ve sort of built my career in helping people try to die better, I’ve also realized that this is no different a taboo. Why are we not talking to our children – our ninth-graders, our tenth-graders – about this idea of preparing for death, about learning about all of our preferences so we have this openness within families so that, you know, all of the high school students and 20-year-olds who I see at the bedsides of grandparents who are dying have some sense of who this person was that can be helpful to me as I’m trying to make decisions about whether or not the patient wants us to continue these life-prolonging machines.

MARTIN: You know, there’s always this question with – when you’re talking to kids about sensitive subjects, about what they want to talk about versus what some parents want them to know about.


MARTIN: And so, you know, I’m dying to know what some of the kids’ questions were and how you handled things that have become politicized, like physician-assisted suicide and things of that sort.

ZITTER: We didn’t talk at all about physician-assisted suicide. I think that’s a – or physician-assisted death – that’s something that’s way off of the level of what I want to be talking about. I just want to give them basic understandings of this phenomenon. The kids, in the beginning, when we ask them – well, what did you think when you heard we were coming in to talk to you about death and dying? And couple of kids kind of said – well, gee, it seemed kind of silly to me. You know, what’s the big deal? You live, and then you just die. And what’s there really to talk about?

And so I think when they started to hear little bit more about the period of dying and how dying isn’t just a moment – it can be a protracted period of time, and they started to understand that – they did start to ask different questions about how they would be able to live. You know – would I be able to live at home on that machine? – and how do you want to be kept clean? And they just started asking questions that were really, honestly about living, not so much about dying.

MARTIN: Dr. Zitter, I see your point here. But could it be that your efforts might be better spent on the people who are really more likely to face this, like, for example, midlife people who are taking care of kids and probably taking care of seniors?

ZITTER: I don’t think people really want to talk about this as an optional thing. If they have to – if they have a sick one in the hospital, they’ll come to it at that point. But by then, honestly, it’s kind of a little bit too late because there hasn’t been much preparation.

I really believe that if people start to have this opened up and into their lives at a time when it’s really not as threatening, hopefully, for these children – that’s not really a personal thing – but they’ve started to hear these terms and started to understand the landscape of what can happen – the good, the bad and the control that they can have, then I think that they’re going to be using that much more productively and much more upstream. And that’s the kind of thing that I think really starts to make change in our culture.

MARTIN: That’s Dr. Jessica Zitter. She’s an intensive care physician in Oakland, Calif. Her new book is “Extreme Measures: Finding A Better Path To The End Of Life.” And she recently began teaching death education to high school students. We reached her in Phoenix, where she’s attending a conference, and she was nice enough to step out for a few minutes to talk to us.

Dr. Zitter, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ZITTER: Thank you so much for having me.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

‘The Americans’ Showrunners On Writing Cold War-Era Drama Amid New Russian Relations

Feb 26, 2017   //   by Administrator   //   News from US  //  Comments Off on ‘The Americans’ Showrunners On Writing Cold War-Era Drama Amid New Russian Relations


We’re going to finish up the show today by talking again about the U.S.’s complicated history with Russia. President Trump’s warm words for Russian President Vladimir Putin are giving a lot of Americans whiplash not just because of allegations that Russians tried to interfere in U.S. elections to help him, but also because many remember when the Russians were considered dangerous adversaries. We thought it would be interesting to get perspective from people who are living in both of those worlds at the same time, in a way.

Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are the co-showrunners of “The Americans.” It’s a critical favorite on the FX Network starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. They play Elizabeth and Philip, Russian spies working under deep cover in the Washington, D.C. area but also trying to raise two children in a, quote unquote, “normal” American family.


HOLLY TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) You’re spies?

KERI RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) We serve our country. We wanted to tell you this for such a long time.

TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) But you didn’t.

MATTHEW RHYS: (As Philip Jennings) No. No, you’re right. We didn’t.

MARTIN: I also wanted to mention that “The Americans” creator Joe Weisberg worked as a case officer at the CIA in the early 1990s in the agency’s Soviet Eastern-European division. And with the show about to begin its fifth season on the air, we thought we’d begin our conversation by talking about what it’s like to write a drama about the Cold War and then see current U.S.-Russia relations in the news every week. This is executive producer Joel Fields answering.

JOEL FIELDS: In terms of the process of writing the show, it is strange. We, on the one hand, write the show very much in a bubble. And it’s very much about the early ’80s. And we don’t let outside events impact the show. But for viewers, of course, it’ll be a different experience watching it. And for us, the themes of the show are very much about the nature of being an enemy and the nature of having an enemy and how human it is to make up enemies. And it’s sad to be in the middle of this show, frankly, and realize that we’ve come full circle in five seasons of making the show.

JOE WEISBERG: I find it extremely odd. For me, it’s sort of how is this all happening again? When we started this show, the Soviet Union was gone. We were not in any kind of serious conflict with Russia. And it seemed like a good time to tell a story about those old bygone days. And how in a few short years Russia has turned into an enemy again makes very little sense.

MARTIN: Mr. Weisberg, do you mind if I ask you – you were in the CIA for a few years in the ’90s. This was after the Berlin Wall fell. I was covering the White House at the time, so I kind of remember the complicated feelings that a lot of people had. On the one hand, this is something that they said – a day that they always hoped would come. On the other hand, there was a lot of fear about the chaos they knew it would bring, right?


MARTIN: And I was wondering what the intelligence community thought about Russia at that time.

WEISBERG: I remember two very specific things. And I was there from ’90 to ’94, so the wall had fallen but the Soviet Union had not collapsed when I was first there. And there was a question about what the CIA should be doing. Should it be trying to hasten the fall of the Soviet Union? Should it be trying to attack and sort of destroy the KGB now that it was in a lot of trouble? And there was kind of a divide, as I remember it.

I mean, by the way, I was a pretty low-level guy, so this is very anecdotal about sort of things I picked up and heard. I remember one guy saying, this is our chance to destroy the KGB when it’s at their weakest. And I remember asking myself if the CIA really had that kind of capability that could – it could suddenly just do things to destroy the KGB.

But the other thing that I remember that was – that was interesting was that as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, there was an immediate sense in the CIA – and I’m sure it was throughout the intelligence community – of what do we do now? And there was this kind of casting about and memos flying all over the place and people trying to almost come up with a new mission.

MARTIN: You know, so these days, as we said earlier, there’s this political divide over how people think about Russia. I mean, President Trump has been openly supportive of the Russian leader. On the other hand, mainly Democrats, but not just Democrats point to evidence of Russia’s tampering with U.S. elections as having helped hand Trump the White House. And, you know, there’s this interesting thing going on in public opinion.

There was a poll in September of 2016 conducted by The Economist and YouGov which showed that 37 percent of Republicans viewed Vladimir Putin favorably at that time, up from 10 percent of Republicans just two years earlier. And as – I was wondering what the two of you think about that. Mr. Weisberg, you want to start and then I’ll hear from Joel?

WEISBERG: Well, I think that Americans as a whole tend not to look at the Russian side from their perspective at all. So let’s just look at the issue with the elections. I certainly don’t think that Russia should have interfered with our elections. I wish they hadn’t done it. I don’t think any country should do that. But I think it’s not that hard to understand.

I think that we have been the leader in imposing economic sanctions on their country, which have been devastating to their economy. It’s not that surprising that the country under the sanctions might try to do something to get the guy elected who’s going to end the sanctions.

And not only that, but I am fairly confident that if there were some sort of an analogous situation, most of our population would support doing the same thing in that situation. So I just think it’s important to sort of take a step back and try to see the other perspective on these things.

FIELDS: I would have a different analysis than Joe of all of that. Although I appreciate the thoughtful analysis there, I see things differently. But what I mostly see for us in writing “The Americans” is I feel very grateful that the show is set in the early ’80s and that we’re able to write something that is about the emotional and political truth and drama of living through that time and let people take away from it what they will allegorically about this time. And one thing that’s great about writing in the past is it forces you, either consciously or subconsciously or both, to remember that things are going to look very different in the future.

MARTIN: Joe, I wanted to ask you, since I think you raised this topic – what do you think is the benefit of thinking about the other point of view?

WEISBERG: I think the best thing it does is it really opens you up to the world and opens you up to seeing other points of view. And ultimately, what that does is open you up to seeing yourself. And I don’t mean that so much personally as collectively or as a nation. So if you can understand other people, if you can understand Philip and Elizabeth, if you can stop seeing them as the enemy but see them as people like you, then you can start to understand their country, all the people there in the government and the things they did. And you can stop seeing them as just these crazy people doing these terrible things who are always wrong and you’re always right.

And then you start examining yourself and see that you, like them, are complex. You’re complicated. You and your country do right things. You do wrong things. And you can sort of get off your pedestal, stop being so self-righteous, and you would start to behave a little more reasonably and responsibly in the world.

MARTIN: Mr. Fields, what about you?

FIELDS: I think we’re definitely trying to save the world, yes.


MARTIN: OK. Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are the showrunners of “The Americans.” Season five premieres on March 7 on the FX network. And they were kind enough to join us from their writing room really in the middle of actual writing. So thank you so much for joining us. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WEISBERG: Our pleasure, thank you.

FIELDS: Thanks, Michel, anything to get away from writing.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.



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