Nation & World News

How NASA’s New Spaceships Stack Up

By Geoff Brumfiel on September 19th, 2014 | Last updated: September 19, 2014 at 9:38 am

Earlier this week NASA announced that two private companies will build spaceships to take astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA hopes that both models will eventually be used by space tourists to get into orbit. Which got us wondering, which one would we rather fly in?

The first capsule is built by the sexy California start up Space-X. Known as “Dragon“, it was unveiled by SpaceX founder Elon Musk earlier this summer at a promotional event that could have been for a new smart phone.

The second capsule goes by the more prosaic CST-100, and it’s built by the Ford of space companies: Boeing. The CST-100 is based on the design for the Apollo command module that took astronauts to the moon.

But honestly, the spaceships look a lot alike.

“Both of them are offering sort of the same thing. It’s a capsule, that can carry seven people, it’s launched on a commercial rocket, it takes off from Florida, and it goes to the International Space Station,” says Keith Cowing, who runs the blog NASAWatch.

Both are largely flown by computer. They have launch abort systems that can propel the capsule far from the rocket in an emergency. And initially, both will use parachutes to land (though the Dragon will eventually fire retrorockets to hover back to Earth’s surface).

Former astronaut Clay Anderson has flown the space shuttle, and the Russian Soyuz. So I asked him how to choose spaceship: “It’s when you get down to the quote unquote ‘creature comforts’, those are the things that will stand out to me,” he says.

For example, music could help kill time on the waiting on the pad, he jokes.

More seriously, Anderson says the displays may be the biggest difference. The control panels on the old space shuttle were a nightmare to read. In the era of tablet computers, he wants spaceships to be more user-friendly.

“Touch screens, nice bright colors. Reds indicate emergencies, yellows indicate cautions, greens indicate A-OKs, that sort of thing,” he says.

Boeing and SpaceX both have new displays standard on every model. But Keith Cowing says there is a difference in the way they look.

The Boeing one does harken back to Apollo,” he says. “The SpaceX one, I’ve been in there, and it’s got a sci-fi vibe to it.”

SpaceX does look sleeker, and it’d be his first choice. But honestly? He’d fly in either one, if it meant going to space.

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In Scotland History Is Made… But At A Golf Club

By Eyder Peralta on September 18th, 2014 | Last updated: September 18, 2014 at 8:38 pm

Yes, history is unfolding in Scotland this evening.

But another bit of history was made in the region earlier today, when the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews announced that its members had voted overwhelmingly to allow women to become members.

In a statement, the club’s secretary Peter Dawson said 85 percent of members voted in the affirmative. He added:

“This is a very important and positive day in the history of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. The R&A has served the sport of golf well for 260 years and I am confident that the club will continue to do so in future with the support of all its members, both women and men.”

As Doug Tribou reported for NPR, the club set the modern standard for golf, when it trimmed its local course from 22 holes to 18 holes.

Doug reported that women were allowed on the course, but they were not allowed inside the club house, not even as guests.

The vote to allow women came as St. Andrews was getting ready to host the 2015 British Open.

The New York Times reports the club had been under international pressure to open up its ranks to women. The Times reports:

“Scrutiny of all-male clubs everywhere has increased since the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, which hosts the Masters, accepted two women as members in 2012: Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, and Darla Moore, a South Carolina businesswoman.

“In an odd twist of timing, the decision was announced on the same day that Scots flocked to the polls to vote on whether to secede from the United Kingdom.”

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Senate Approves Measure To Arm And Train Syrian Rebels

By Eyder Peralta on September 18th, 2014 | Last updated: September 18, 2014 at 7:38 pm

The Senate joined the House on Thursday in rare bipartisanship by approving a measure to train and equip members of the Syrian opposition.

The Senate passed the measure 78 to 22; the House passed its version with a 273-to-156 vote on Wednesday. The bill now heads to the White House for President Obama’s signature.

The measure is part of the United States new military offensive against the so-called Islamic State. In his prime-time speech to the country earlier this month, President Obama called on Congress to approve this training mission.

Reuters reports that the legislation “also temporarily keeps the government running in the fiscal year that starts on Oct. 1.”

Update at 7:04 p.m. ET. ‘Americans Are United’:

Shortly after the vote, President Obama delivered remarks from the White House.

He said he was pleased that a majority of both chambers and both parties “have voted to support a key element of our strategy.”

He added: “I believe that we’re strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together.”

Obama said that this new authority will make moderate rebels in Syria stronger and it will weaken the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL.

This bipartisan vote, Obama said, “shows the world Americans are united in fighting ISIL.”

The president also reiterated that American troops in Iraq will have no combat role. He added that France had agreed to join the U.S. in its bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq.

Update at 6:44 p.m. ET. President Obama To Speak:

President Obama is scheduled to make a statement at 7 p.m. ET. We’ll update this post with his comments.

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Court Says Navy Investigators Illegally Scan Civilian Computers

By Martin Kaste on September 18th, 2014 | Last updated: September 18, 2014 at 6:38 pm

An appeals court ruling has offered a rare glimpse at the extent to which military police investigations reach into civilians’ computers. Apparently, they scan civilian computers quite often — and to a degree that a 9th Circuit appeals court has now found violates the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act.

Some background: Posse Comitatus bars the military from enforcing state laws. But each military branch is still allowed to police — and investigate — its members off-base. The Navy has the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and one of its units based in Georgia spends its time looking for Navy personnel who trade in child porn online. One of those searches caught a civilian, Washington state resident Michael Dreyer. When NCIS saw that he wasn’t in the military, its investigators passed the information on to civilian law enforcement, which led to Dreyer’s arrest and prosecution.

And that’s the problem, says the court. Military police aren’t supposed to be making cases against civilians.

The problem is how they caught him. We’re not talking about NSA-level espionage; this is more basic. NCIS is using software that scans file-sharing services such as Gnutella for illicit images. Civilian law enforcement agencies use the same kind of software, without the court’s objection. If you open your computer up to file-sharing, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the “shared” portion of your hard drive will be scanned by law enforcement — repeatedly.

The NCIS agent who caught Dreyer testified that he used the software to target file-sharers with IP addresses in the state of Washington, because it has Navy installations. But since there’s no way to narrow that kind of search to Washington residents who are in the military, he was effectively searching the whole state.

The court likened that to having military police stop cars in downtown Seattle on the “off chance” that a drunken driver was in the military.

Dreyer’s appellate attorney, Erik Levin, says the appeals court recognized that an important American legal principle was at stake.

“Part of the fabric of our culture is a deep-seated suspicion of the military engaging in civilian affairs,” says Levin. “What [NCIS] did here is really unprecedented.”

The decision to throw out Dreyer’s 18-year sentence was not unanimous. One member of the three-judge panel, Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, agreed that the NCIS has violated the Posse Comitatus Act, but he disagreed with what he called “the majority’s misbegotten remedy for that violation.”

“This case provides no justification for setting a convicted child pornographer free,” O’Scannlain wrote.

This case may seem like a one-off situation, but it’s not. Members of the U.S. military live online just as much — or more — than the rest of us, and military police are there watching them. Levin says the Georgia NCIS agent admitted that his unit routinely searches computers across whole geographic areas, and he knows of at least one other case of a civilian who was prosecuted after being caught by a military search.

As more civilians are caught in these military police investigations, Posse Comitatus is likely to come up again.

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Live Blog: Scotland Votes On Its Independence

By Eyder Peralta on September 18th, 2014 | Last updated: September 19, 2014 at 1:39 am

The polls have closed and the counting has begun on a referendum that could have historic implications for the United Kingdom. The referendum asked the Scots if they should dissolve its union from England and become an independent country.

We’ll be live blogging, as the returns begin to be counted. NPR’s Ari Shapiro and producer Rich Preston are in Edinburgh, so expect to see their dispatches.

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New Islamic State Video Purports To Show Kidnapped British Journalist

By Krishnadev Calamur on September 18th, 2014 | Last updated: September 18, 2014 at 4:39 pm

The group that calls itself the Islamic State has released a new video that purports to show a British man who says he is a journalist and a hostage of the militants.

The man in the video is dressed in orange, sits behind a desk and identifies himself as John Cantile.

NPR has not independently verified the authenticity of the video, but previous such messages from the Islamic State have featured American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines. All three were later shown in videos being killed by a member of the group.

In today’s video, titled Lend Me Your Ears, the man, who looks like Cantile, asks why he has been abandoned by his government, and says that the U.S. and its allies, by their operations against the Islamic State, are entering an unwinnable war.

“After two disastrous and hugely unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, why is it that our governments appear so keen to get involved in yet another unwinnable conflict?” the man in the video says.

The BBC has a profile of a journalist named John Cantile who was kidnapped in Syria in late 2012. That was the second time Cantile was kidnapped. Earlier that year, he was captured in Syria, blindfolded and handcuffed for a week before escaping with help from the Free Syrian Army. In the profile, the BBC says Cantile “cannot be described as either inexperienced or as someone who did not know what he was doing in a dangerous environment.

“For 20 years he has specialised in writing and filming news features that others would rather not do. His portfolio is stacked full of highly readable adventure features, ranging from extreme sports, to off-road motorcycling.

“But aside from the fun stuff, Mr Cantlie is a very experienced journalist who has reported from some of the most dangerous places in the world – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia.”

No members of the Sunni extremist group appear in today’s video.

“Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘He’s only doing this because he’s a prisoner. He’s got a gun to his head and he’s being forced to do this.’ Right?” the man in the video asks. “Well, it’s true. I am a prisoner. That I cannot deny. But seeing that I’ve been abandoned by my government and my fate now lies in the hands of the Islamic State, I have nothing to lose. Maybe I will live and maybe I will die but I want to take this opportunity to convey some facts that you can verify. Facts that if you contemplate, might help preserving lives.”

The man in the video notes that hostages from other countries have been freed by the group – an apparent reference to the fact that while the U.S. and U.K. do not pay ransom for their hostages, other countries do.

The man in the video also says that he will use “the next few programs” to explain the “truth behind the systems and motivations” of the Islamic State.

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Killing Comes Naturally To Chimps, Scientists Say

By Scott Neuman on September 18th, 2014 | Last updated: September 18, 2014 at 1:39 pm

For years, there have been two main theories about why chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary cousins, sometimes kill each other. One theory blames human encroachment on the chimpanzees’ native habit in Africa. Another says that (male) chimps kill in the normal course of competition with rival groups.

A new study published in Nature appears to support the second theory. In short, it found that the numerical makeup of chimpanzee communities is roughly proportional to the “chimp murder rate.”

“Variation in killing rates was unrelated to measures of human impacts,” the authors, Michael L. Wilson, Christophe Boesch, et al., write in the abstract. “Our results are compatible with previously proposed adaptive explanations for killing by chimpanzees, whereas the human impact hypothesis is not supported.”

To be sure, the knowledge that chimps will occasionally carry out organized killings on groups of rivals is nothing new. As early as the mid-1970s, researchers in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park observed gangs of a half dozen or more male chimpanzees conducting lethal raids in neighboring territories.

As The New York Times wrote in 1988: “For some time after the pioneering studies of Jane Goodall and others, it was thought that chimps were generally peaceful, playful, sophisticated and easygoing. … Then, from Ms. Goodall’s own work, and in particular from her associate Richard Wrangham, it became evident that chimpanzee males engaged in active killing of other chimps and other primates.”

Still, the question of how common the behavior was and why exactly it occurred remained open to debate.

In an article in 2011 published in Psychology Today, University of Notre Dame professor Darcia Narvaez summed up the argument for human impact. She noted that in the first 14 years that Goodall and Wrangham observed chimps at Gombe, “aggression patterns were no different from other primates (peaceful and unaggressive).”

Then, the behavior suddenly changed: “With hindsight, it turned out that human feeding of the chimpanzees, with its restrictions and control, deeply affected the behavior and culture of the chimpanzees, such as keeping large groups of animals near the feeding site, which promoted increased fighting among the males,” Narvaez wrote in Psychology Today, citing The Egalitarians: Human and Chimpanzee, a 1991 book by Margaret Power.

In a rebuttal to Narvaez published soon after in Psychology Today, Kevin D. Hunt, an anthropology professor at Indiana University who had Goodall colleague Wrangham as his doctoral co-supervisor, concludes:

“[There] is irrefutable evidence that the threat of lethal violence has exerted a strong evolutionary force on chimpanzee nature, and its effects are visible on a minute-to-minute basis in chimpanzee society. It is the origin of the very unusual social bonding among male chimpanzees — they must hang together to protect against extra-group murderers.”

As bleak as this sounds, Wrangham — although he adheres to the chimps-as-natural-born-killers theory in the book Demonic Males — finds cause for optimism when it comes to the ability of humans to change their own violent tendencies.

In observing bonobos (the closely related but less-violent cousins of chimpanzees), Wrangham observed peaceful communities based on a power-sharing arrangement between males and females. Chimps, by contrast, live in patriarchal groups where dominant males run roughshod over compliant females.

The reason for the difference, he concludes, is sex selection. Female chimps select aggressive males as mates; female bonobos don’t.

“The example of the bonobos reminds us that females and males can be equally important players in a society,” Wrangham is quoted in Harvard Magazine as saying. “And by giving us a model in which female action works in suppressing the excesses of male aggression, the bonobos show us that in democracies like our own, women’s voices should be heard more than they are.”

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Ukrainian President Thanks Congress For Supporting Freedom

By Scott Neuman on September 18th, 2014 | Last updated: September 18, 2014 at 1:39 pm

Updated at 10:30 a.m. ET

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addressed a joint meeting of Congress today, thanking lawmakers for their support of Kiev in its fight against Russian-backed separatists.

Freedom, Poroshenko said, is “at the core of Ukrainian existence.

“We have an unbreakable will to live free,” he said, saying his nation was “at the center of the most heroic story of the last decade.”

Calling Russia’s annexation of Crimea a “most cynical act of treachery,” Poroshenko thanked lawmakers for standing by his government.

“More of you were with us over the last winter. I thank you for this solidarity,” he said to loud applause.

Poroshenko is in the United States to lobby the White House and Congress for increased aid in his country’s fight against the insurgency in its eastern provinces.

However, The Washington Post notes: “Amid concerns about Ukraine’s commitment to anti-corruption efforts and Western caution about escalating a military conflict with Russia, it remained far from clear that Ukraine’s leader would leave Washington with a substantial new pledge of support.”

Poroshenko also plans to meet with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and House Speaker John Boehner.

The Associated Press writes:

“White House officials made clear that Poroshenko’s visit — his first to the U.S. since being elected this summer — was aimed in part at sending a message to Russia about the West’s backing for the embattled former Soviet republic.

” ‘The picture of President Poroshenko sitting in the Oval Office will be worth at least a thousand words — both in English and Russian,’ White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.”

Last week, Boehner said of the Ukrainian leader’s plan to visit: “Having President Poroshenko address Congress is another signal of our steadfast commitment to the aspirations of his people.”

His visit follows a similar stop in the Canadian capital on Wednesday, where the Ukrainian president was met with cheers and standing ovations in a speech before Parliament.

“To be frank with you, I feel very much at home with you here today in a country that is very close to Ukraine,” Poroshenko told members of Parliament in Ottawa. “Canada is a friend, indeed.”

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Islamic State Seizes Villages; Australia Says It Foiled Beheading Plot

By Scott Neuman on September 18th, 2014 | Last updated: September 18, 2014 at 12:38 pm

Islamic State fighters backed by tanks have seized 16 Kurdish villages in northern Syria over the past 24 hours in what is being described as a major advance for the extremist group, according to a human rights watchdog group.

The Associated Press quotes the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as saying there were casualties on both sides and that the takeover has prompted fears that the Islamist rebels “will commit massacres against civilians.”

The report comes hours after House lawmakers, in a rare display of bipartisanship, voted to authorize a White House plan to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to enlist in the fight against the self-described Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The vote came after President Obama reiterated his pledge not to wade into another ground war in Iraq.

The Senate is expected to vote today on the authorization measure, part of a stopgap spending bill to keep government operations going through the rest of the year.

Meanwhile, Australian authorities say they’ve arrested 15 people linked to the Islamic State group and foiled a plot to conduct a “random” public beheading in the country.

The Sydney Morning Herald calls it the largest counterterrorism operation in Australia’s history, involving arrests across Sydney and Brisbane today.

According to the Herald: “police will allege that the suspects were planning to snatch and behead a random member of the public, then drape them in the flag of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL.”

The newspaper quotes Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott as saying that a senior member of the Islamic State, who is himself Australian, had urged supporters to conduct “demonstration killings” in the country.

“So this is not just suspicion, this is intent,” the Herald quotes Abbott as saying.

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Scotland’s Historic Decision: Should It Stay Or Should It Go?

By Scott Neuman on September 18th, 2014 | Last updated: September 18, 2014 at 11:38 am

Scots decide today whether to end 300 years of union with Great Britain and go it alone as they cast ballots in a historic referendum that is sure to have a lasting impact no matter the outcome.

Public opinion polls in recent days have suggested that Scotland is evenly split on the question and that the vote could be extremely close. The options are to vote “yes” or “no” to the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

The results are expected on Friday.

The BBC says:

“With 4,285,323 people — 97% of the electorate — registered to vote, a historically high turnout is expected.

“Votes will be cast at 2,608 polling places across the country until 22:00 on Thursday. The result is expected early on Friday morning.”

As NPR’s Ari Shapiro reports from Edinburgh, British Prime Minister David Cameron made one final emotional appeal to keep the United Kingdom intact.

Speaking in Aberdeen, Cameron warned that a vote for independence would precipitate a “painful divorce.” In the past he said that a decision by Scots to leave the union would leave him heartbroken.

Acknowledging the unpopularity of his conservative government among more liberal-minded Scots, Cameron said bluntly: “If you don’t like me — I won’t be here forever. But if you leave the U.K., that will be forever.”

(The Two-Way’s Krishnadev Calamur has a look here at some of the headlines from U.K. newspapers about the referendum.)

President Obama also weighed in on the referendum just 24 hours before the voting began, saying he’d like to see the United Kingdom remain “strong, robust and united.” Former President Bill Clinton also urged a “no” vote.

Alex Salmond, the leader of the campaign for independence, cast his ballot in his home village of Aberdeenshire.

“I got a fantastic night’s sleep. Obviously there’s a great deal of anticipation, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it’s a day that everybody will remember,” he said.

“We’re in the hands of the people of Scotland, and there’s no safer place to be than in the hands of the Scottish people,” Salmond said.

Leighton Andrews, the public services minister for Wales, told the BBC last week that he believed that “radical” constitutional change was in store for the U.K. as a direct result of the vote.

“I think it will have major implications for the U.K. regardless of the result of the referendum,” he said.

The outcome of the vote is also being closely watched in other independence-minded regions of the world, from Quebec to Catalonia and Kashmir.

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