Nation & World News

Obama’s Budget Would Undo Broad, Automatic Cuts Made In 2013

By Christopher Dean Hopkins on January 29th, 2015 | Last updated: January 29, 2015 at 8:03 am

When President Obama meets with House Democrats tonight during their retreat in Philadelphia, officials say he’ll lay out the details of his budget proposal, which will include reversal of large cuts to federal spending instituted in 2013, reports NPR’s Mara Liasson.

Those spending cuts, known as the sequester, hit both the defense and domestic budgets and were the result of an uncomfortable congressional agreement in 2011 that triggered across-the-board cuts if a “supercommittee,” or a panel of bi-partisan leaders, could not agree on a way to cut the budget by $1.5 trillion over a decade. Talks on budget cuts fell apart and the automatic spending reductions began to the tune of $85 billion in 2013.

The president officially will release his fiscal 2016 budget to the public on Monday; White House officials say it also will include boosted spending on education, infrastructure and the military, offset by closing tax loopholes used by the wealthy.

Congressional Republicans are unlikely to accept those proposals, Mara reports.

Responding to Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this month, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said her party would support tax reform, “to lower rates — and create jobs, not pay for more government spending.” She also said the Republican caucus would pursue a balanced budget.

A White House official said Obama hopes to work with Republicans to build on 2013’s bipartisan budget agreement.

“The president believes we should end the era of manufactured crises and mindless austerity,” the statement read.

The stuffed-full “cromnibus” spending bill was passed by a lame-duck Senate in December and funds the government through the end of the fiscal year in September.

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ISIS Hostage Said To Announce New Deadline For Prisoner’s Release

By Bill Chappell on January 28th, 2015 | Last updated: January 28, 2015 at 11:03 pm

In an update to a complicated situation, a Japanese hostage held by the violent extremist group ISIS has reportedly been forced to record a message setting a Thursday deadline for Jordan to release an Iraqi prisoner. If not, the message says, the group will kill a Jordanian pilot it’s holding.

The new demand and deadline was reported Wednesday, the day ISIS’s original 24-hour deadline for the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, Iraqi prisoner held in Jordan, was to expire.

Earlier today, a spokesman for Jordan’s government said his country is willing to release Rishawi — “if the Jordanian pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, is released unharmed,” as we reported.

Hours later, reports emerged that ISIS had sent a new message, along with a new deadline. According to the SITE Intelligence Group, the message came in the form of a video posted by Twitter accounts linked to ISIS, with audio that was attributed to Kenji Goto Jogo, a freelance journalist whom ISIS has been holding prisoner.

SITE quotes the message:

“I’m Kenji Goto Jogo. This is a voice message I’ve been told to send to you. If Sajida al-Rishawi is not ready for exchange for my life at the Turkish border by Thursday sunset, 29th of January, Mosul time, the Jordanian pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasibah will be killed immediately.”

It’s far from clear how the situation might resolve itself. As the AP noted earlier today, Jordan’s statement about the possible trade of an Iraqi prisoner in exchange for the return of its pilot did not mention Goto.

Over the weekend, ISIS released a video that purportedly showed that another Japanese hostage, Haruna Yakawa, had been beheaded.

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The Next Air Force One Will Be A Boeing 747-8

By Sam Sanders on January 28th, 2015 | Last updated: January 29, 2015 at 12:03 am

The Air Force has picked a new Air Force One, the Boeing 747-8, and it wasn’t even a close race. In a statement announcing the pick, the Air Force said the decision was made “through a Determinations and Findings document, which “authorizes the commercial aircraft purchase by other than full and open competition.”

Even though there wasn’t a bidding war for the choice of plane, the Air Force did say that the decision came down to the Boeing 747-8, which is made in Washington state, and the Airbus A380, which is made in Toulouse, France. The Air Force said those two planes were the only four-engine, wide-body aircraft that could meet the needs of the Air Force One mission.

The current Air Force One is a customized Boeing 747-200B series. The Air Force designation for the plane is VC-25A.

The Air Force did point out, though, that Wednesday’s announcement does not mean that the new Air Force One decision is a done deal:

” ‘This decision is not a contract award to procure 747-8 aircraft,’ said Col. Amy McCain, the Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization (PAR) program manager. ‘We still need to finalize the overall acquisition strategy and conduct risk-reduction activities with Boeing to inform the engineering and manufacturing development contract negotiations that will define the capabilities and cost.’ ”

Reuters reports the decision may have been rushed by Boeing’s recent announcement that it “would slow production of the four-engine 747-8 aircraft to 1.3 a month from 1.5 a month because of declining orders.”

The White House Air Force One website has more details on just what Air Force One planes can do:

“Capable of refueling midair, Air Force One has unlimited range and can carry the President wherever he needs to travel. The onboard electronics are hardened to protect against an electromagnetic pulse, and Air Force One is equipped with advanced secure communications equipment, allowing the aircraft to function as a mobile command center in the event of an attack on the United States.”

The White House says the current Air Force One plane has more than 4,000 square feet of floor space, a medical suite that can be used as an operating room, and two food preparation galleys that can feed 100 people at a time.

Air Force One planes are expected to have a 30-year life.

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Rare Fox Takes A Walk In The Park, And Yosemite Staff Cheer

By Bill Chappell on January 28th, 2015 | Last updated: January 29, 2015 at 9:03 am

It’s been nearly 100 years since a sighting of a Sierra Nevada red fox was documented in Yosemite National Park, according to park staff. But a remote motion-sensitive camera recently took photos of one of the rare animals as it padded across the snow.

“The Sierra Nevada red fox of California is one of the rarest mammals in North America,” reports Ed Joyce of Capital Public Radio, “likely consisting of fewer than 50 individuals.”

Now researchers believe they’ve seen one of the foxes twice since the start of December.

The photogenic animal was spotted by a camera that’s part of Yosemite’s effort to learn more about rare carnivores that live in the park. The picture was taken in an area of the backcountry in the park’s northern region.

“We are thrilled to hear about the sighting of the Sierra Nevada red fox, one of the most rare and elusive animals in the Sierra Nevada,” said Don Neubacher, Yosemite National Park superintendent, in a news release.

The park’s statement adds, “The Yosemite carnivore crew will continue to survey for Sierra Nevada red fox using remote cameras in hopes of detecting additional individuals.”

In addition, “hair snare stations” will be set up that could give researchers samples to help them determine whether any foxes in the park are closely related to a small population of Sierra Nevada red foxes that have been spotted in the Sonora Pass, outside the park.

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AG Nominee Lynch Says She Differs From Obama On Marijuana

By Bill Chappell on January 28th, 2015 | Last updated: January 28, 2015 at 8:03 pm

During her first day of confirmation hearings for attorney general, nominee Loretta Lynch gave answers that seemed in line with President Obama. But then she was asked about marijuana, and whether she supports legalizing it.

“Senator, I do not,” Lynch told Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., when he asked if she supported making pot legal.

The moment stood in contrast to other exchanges between Lynch and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as she defended Obama’s right to take executive action on immigration rules and aligned herself with the president’s view on U.S. interrogation programs, saying, “Waterboarding is torture.”

Sessions asked Lynch about marijuana during the afternoon portion of her hearing. And he noted that the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency also disagrees with the idea of legalizing marijuana.

The senator then read aloud a quote from President Obama from last January, in which he told The New Yorker, “I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

When Sessions asked Lynch if she agreed with that assessment, she said, “Well senator, I certainly don’t hold that view, and don’t agree with that view of marijuana as a substance. I certainly think that the president was speaking from his personal experience and personal opinion – neither of which I am able to share.”

She added, “Not only do I not support legalization of marijuana – it is not the position of the Department of Justice currently, to support the legalization, nor would it be the position should I become confirmed as attorney general.”

As The Hill reports, “Obama said in a YouTube interview last week that the federal government is ‘not going to spend a lot of resources’ enforcing marijuana laws.”

Today, Lynch also fielded questions about a range of issues, from America’s large prison population and the use of veterans’ courts to stalker apps and the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. Her confirmation hearing will resume Thursday.

As NPR’s Ailsa Chang reported this morning, “Republicans expect to go hard at Lynch about the constitutionality of the president’s executive action on immigration. They’ll also press her about political decision-making at the IRS, and ask her about the limits of prosecutorial discretion.”

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Charles Townes, Laser Inventor, Black Hole Discoverer, Dies At 99

By Geoff Brumfiel on January 28th, 2015 | Last updated: January 29, 2015 at 8:03 am

Charles Townes, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his part in the invention of the laser died Tuesday at 99.

Townes is best remembered for thinking up the basic principles of the laser while sitting on a park bench. Later in life he helped advise the U.S. government and helped uncover the secrets of our Milky Way galaxy.

Through it all, he maintained a deep religious faith. “He really was one of these rare people who could be a deeply thinking research scientist and yet, at the same time, be a deeply devout Christian,” says Reinhard Genzel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany.

Townes was born in 1915 in Greenville, South Carolina. He finished college at age 19. But often his smarts weren’t the first thing that people noticed.

“He was a Southern gentleman. He was just a very nice person,” says Elsa Garmire, a physicist at Dartmouth who studied under Townes when he was teaching at MIT in the 1960s. “At the same time, he was very dedicated and single-minded about what he did.”

It was that single-mindedness that led Townes to come up with the idea for a laser, a device that sends out a bright beam of carefully synchronized light particles.

Townes wanted to use laser light as a precision tool for his research on molecules. He spent a long time thinking about similar devices that didn’t quite work. Finally, the basic concept for a laser came to him in the spring of 1951, as he sat on a park bench in Washington D.C.

“Suddenly I had the idea. Well that was a revelation,” he told NPR’s Morning Edition during a 2005 interview.

At the time, he was doing fundamental research at Columbia University. But his former employers (at the research wing of AT&T known as Bell Labs) were also interested in his idea and asked him to consult. They wanted to use lasers for communication.

Fast-forward more than half a century, and the entire Internet uses lasers to send information over fiber optic cables. DVDs and Blu-ray discs also use lasers, as do doctors (for fixing eyes, among other things), engineers (for cutting material), and workers in many other professions.

Townes’ discovery won him scientific accolades, but it also made him highly influential in government. He gave advice on NASA’s Apollo program in the 1960s and ’70s, and he helped found a secret group of Cold War scientists (a collective known as JASON) that gave frank advice to the Pentagon on everything from Soviet submarines to spy satellites. Townes was a strong advocate of arms control, and supported an international ban on nuclear testing.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964 for his discovery of the principals behind the laser. Townes shared his prize with Nicolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov, who independently developed the same idea while working in the Soviet Union.

Shortly after that, Townes got out of lasers.

“He said, well, a lot of people were working on it and he wanted to go where he could make major contributions,” says Garmire.

Townes became an astronomer at the University of California at Berkley. That’s about the time Genzel met him.

“He was such a wonderful person, always optimistic, and always curious,” Genzel says.

Townes and Genzel studied stars and galaxies for years. In 1985 they discovered the black hole that lives at the center of our Milky Way.

Through all these scientific adventures, Townes maintained a deep faith in the existence of God. He saw his faith as intertwined with his science.

“Consider what religion is,” he told NPR in 2005. “Religion is an attempt to understand the purpose and meaning of our universe. What is science? It’s an attempt to understand how our universe works. Well, if there’s a purpose and meaning, that must have something to do with how it works, so those two must be related.”

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Back From The Dead: A Cat Returns Home 5 Days After His Burial

By Krishnadev Calamur on January 28th, 2015 | Last updated: January 28, 2015 at 7:03 pm

We wrote about dogs today and so, in the interest of bipartisanship, this story is about cats – one cat in particular: Bart.

Bart’s owner, Ellis Hutson, 52, of Tampa, Fla., said he found the 1 ½-year-old feline last week in the middle of the street. The cat was lifeless and lying in a pool of blood after apparently being struck by a car.

“I couldn’t stand to bury the cat,” Hutson told the Tampa Bay Times. And so he asked his neighbor to dig a shallow grave for the cat near where he was found.

Five days later, Bart was back, having apparently used up one of his nine lives. He had a broken jaw, open wounds on his face and a ruptured eye. But he was alive.

“It was unbelievable,” Hutson told the newspaper. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Hutson first reached out to local veterinary clinics, but he was unable to afford their fees. He then turned to the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. Vets there says they expect Bart to recover – though he will lose his eye.

“Bart came through his surgery very well and is resting comfortably in our care,” the Humane Society said today. “He will be able to go home in 5-7 days once he is able to eat on his own. Full recovery will take about six weeks. He is a brave boy!”

Once he recovers, Bart will go home to Hutson.

“The guy genuinely, believe me, cares about this cat,” Sherry Silk, Humane Society’s executive director told Tampa Bay Times. “He’s a well-meaning guy.”

Hutson’s neighbor, Dusty Albritton, who found Bart after his burial, called it “God’s miracle.”

“I saw him with my own eyes,” he told ABC News. “I know he was dead. He was cold and stiff.”

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Ad Fumble: GoDaddy Pulls Super Bowl Puppy Commercial Amid Outrage

By Krishnadev Calamur on January 28th, 2015 | Last updated: January 28, 2015 at 8:03 pm

The Web hosting company GoDaddy has pulled its latest Super Bowl ad, which featured a lost puppy, following a social media backlash.

In the ad, the lost puppy returns home only to find that his owners have sold him using a website made with GoDaddy.

You can watch the video below:

The ad, titled Journey Home, is an apparent parody of this year’s Budweiser ad that features the unlikely friendship between a Lab puppy and a Clydesdale.

But not everyone found the ad funny. Animal-rights groups such as SPCA said the ad promoted puppy mills. And the commercial, which was released today, prompted outrage on social media. Here is a sample:

The company quickly backtracked in a blog post, titled “We’re Listening, Message Received.” GoDaddy said it “underestimated the emotional response” to the ad and would pull it from the Super Bowl.

And, the statement added: “Finally, rest assured, Buddy came to us from a reputable and loving breeder in California. He’s now part of the GoDaddy family as our Chief Companion Officer and he lives permanently with one of our longtime employees.”

And while we’re on the topic of Super Bowl ads and dogs. Here’s this year’s Budweiser ad, Lost Dog.

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Supreme Court Tells Oklahoma To Put Off Executions, Citing Drug Dispute

By Bill Chappell on January 28th, 2015 | Last updated: January 28, 2015 at 5:03 pm

The execution of three inmates has been put on hold, as the Supreme Court intervenes in a case that involves the controversy over the drugs states use to put people to death. The justices cited the sedative midazolam, which has been used in three executions that did not go smoothly.

The Supreme Court’s stay is likely to hold until April, when it will hear arguments from three inmates who say that Oklahoma’s execution protocol violates the U.S. Constitution.

The court’s order did not elaborate on the reasons or debate behind the move:

“Respondents’ application for stays of execution of sentences of death presented to Justice Sotomayor and by her referred to the Court is granted and it is hereby ordered that petitioners’ executions using midazolam are stayed pending final disposition of this case.”

As we reported earlier this month when Oklahoma executed an inmate, states with capital punishment laws have been scrambling to find alternatives to the lethal injection drugs they once used:

“A shortage of the traditional drug, sodium thiopental, forced Oklahoma to begin using pentobarbital in 2010. At the time, a prisoner’s attorney argued that pentobarbital, which has been used to euthanize animals, was unsafe and not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The Oklahoman reports, ‘The Corrections Department was forced to use the sedative midazolam on [Clayton] Lockett. Midazolam also was used in two recent problematic executions, one in Ohio and another in Arizona.’ ”

In its analysis of Wednesday’s order, SCOTUSblog says it reflects “the division among the Justices about lethal-drug executions,” noting that while the court allowed the recent Oklahoma execution, “a few days later, there were at least four votes to grant review of the three remaining inmates’ challenge to the same protocol Oklahoma had used in the one inmate’s execution.”

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Live, From Iceland: It’s A Hamburger

By Bill Chappell on January 28th, 2015 | Last updated: January 28, 2015 at 5:03 pm

They call it “The last McDonald’s hamburger in Iceland.” Purchased more than five years ago, it has been displayed in the Na­tional Mu­seum of Ice­land. Now a webcam has been devoted to the hamburger (with a side of fries), among the last sold by the American company in the country.

The McDonald’s hamburger is on display at the Bus Hostel Reykjavik.

In its glass display case, the burger could be seen as a mute commentary, delivered at the nexus of modern food ways and a global economy.

Or, it could just be an experiment to see what a McDonald’s hamburger looks like when it gets old.

Icelandic news site MBL tells us, “The only no­table dif­fer­ence from a new burger is that the meat patty is a lit­tle lighter in color.”

The meal was purchased nearly 2,000 days ago by Hjor­tur Smara­son, when Iceland’s economy was suffering a severe financial crisis.

As Smara­son tells MBL, the burger has survived several moves — and the disdain of a Danish specialist who wanted to throw it out, saying it couldn’t be preserved.

“I think he was wrong be­cause this ham­burger pre­serves it­self,” Smara­son says.

If you were hoping to see a a hamburger in decay, the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum made a time lapse video last year (see below). And BuzzFeed kept seven fast-food hamburgers under glass for 30 days to compare how they aged.

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