Nation & World News

Tonight, Look For A Rare (But Not Quite Blue) Moon

By Scott Neuman on July 31st, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 1:03 pm

Updated at 11 a.m. ET

Get ready for a very rare event tonight — a blue moon.

But don’t expect to see a new hue. A blue moon, at least according to the modern definition of the term, has nothing to do with color. It simply means a second full moon in the same calendar month.

As NASA explains in the video above: “Most blue moons appear pale gray and white, just like the moon you’ve seen on any other night.”

And that doesn’t happen very often (the last time was in August 2012, and the next time will be January 2018), so “once in a blue moon” is a phrase still worthy of a rare occurrence.

This month, there was a full moon on July 1, and tonight, the last day of July, there’s another. (Technically, the full moon occurred at 6:43 a.m. ET on Friday, about 20 minutes after it set for the U.S. East Coast, but it can still be seen again when the moon rises at 8:23 p.m. ET for Washington, D.C., residents.)

But the meaning of a “blue moon” has changed over time. It originally meant, according to folklore, something more ludicrous than rare. According to a 2012 Sky & Telescope magazine article: “[The] very earliest uses of the term were remarkably like saying the Moon is made of green cheese. Both were obvious absurdities, about which there could be no doubt. ‘He would argue the Moon was blue’ was taken by the average person of the 16th century as we take ‘He’d argue that black is white.’ ”

But a secondary definition — the one about two full moons in a month — popped up (as an error, it turned out) in a 1946 issue of Sky & Telescope. Years later, in 1980, the mistake was amplified by the public radio program StarDate, and later, by the board game Trivial Pursuit. It stuck.

Philip Hiscock, a folklorist at Memorial University in Newfoundland, and Texas astronomer Donald W. Olson “helped the magazine sort all this out and admit the mistake back in 1999. The error led to the widely accepted definition of blue moon today: the second full moon in a given month. A blue moon occurs roughly once every 2.7 years,” according to Space.com.

Even so, “on rare occasions, the moon can turn [the color] blue,” according to the NASA video. It says: “A truly blue moon usually requires a volcanic eruption. Back in 1883, for example, people saw blue moons almost every night after the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa exploded with a force of a 100-megaton nuclear bomb.”

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Beijing Awarded The 2022 Winter Olympic Games

By Eyder Peralta on July 31st, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 11:03 am

Updated at 10 a.m. ET

The International Olympic Committee has awarded Beijing the 2022 Winter Games.

With the selection, the Chinese city will become the first to host both winter and summer games. Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Games.

With a vote of 44 to 40, Beijing beat out Almaty, the biggest city in Kazakhstan.

In a press release, the IOC said: “Beijing aims to use the Games to accelerate the development of a new sport, culture and tourism area, and to encourage interest in winter sports in a region that is home to more than 300 million people in northern China.”

The bidding process for these Olympic Games was not without controversy.

As NPR’s Tom Goldman told Morning Edition, Munich and Stockholm dropped out of the bidding process because they were afraid of the costs.

Eventually, Tom says, the IOC went with the safe choice. Almaty is, of course, lesser known, but it offered real snow.

Beijing will have to rely on man-made snow, and some of the mountain venues in Beijing are 100 miles away. But, Tom adds, it will save on some costs by reusing some of the same venues it built for the 2008 games: The so-called Bird’s Nest Stadium, for example, will be used for the opening and closing ceremonies, and the Water Cube will become the Ice Cube.

NPR’s Anthony Kuhn was recently in a village near the city of Zhangjiakou, some 120 miles northwest of Beijing, where most of the downhill events will take place.

“I’m walking down the main street of the village that is supposed to be a transport hub, after they construct a high-speed railroad from Beijing,” Anthony says. “Right now, there’s not much to look at though, it’s just a main street, with simple, low-slung farm houses on either side. Most people just sit around by the side of the road, when they’re not in the fields farming their cabbages.”

He notes that the planned train is expected to cut the three-hour drive from Beijing down to 45 minutes.

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New York Court: Chimps Are Still Property, Not People

By Lucy Perkins on July 30th, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 9:03 am

What has thumbs and no habeas corpus entitlement? Chimpanzees. A Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled Thursday that chimps are still viewed as property, not people, under the law.

The lawsuit was filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project, a group that wanted two research chimps — named Hercules and Leo — out of confinement.

NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang reports “the animal rights group was trying to get them released to a sanctuary by arguing that the chimps have complex cognitive abilities and should be considered legal ‘persons.’ In the ruling, Justice Barbara Jaffe acknowledges that similarities between chimpanzees and humans ‘inspire the empathy for a beloved pet.’ ”

The judge wrote that someday they may get legal rights, but that courts don’t embrace change quickly. The chimps are held by Stony Brook University.

As we reported previously, this isn’t the first time that the Nonhuman Rights Project has presented its case in court — Justice Jaffe heard arguments in May.

Science provided the legal background:

“The case began as a salvo of lawsuits filed by NhRP in December of 2013. The group claimed that four New York chimpanzees — Hercules and Leo at Stony Brook, and two others on private property — were too cognitively and emotionally complex to be held in captivity and should be relocated to an established chimpanzee sanctuary. NhRP petitioned three lower court judges with a writ of habeas corpus, which is traditionally used to prevent people from being unlawfully imprisoned. By granting the writ, the judges would have implicitly acknowledged that chimpanzees were legal people too — a first step in freeing them.”

You can read more about the chimpanzees here.

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Chinese Dissident Artist Ai Weiwei Restricted To 20-Day U.K. Visa

By Lucy Perkins on July 30th, 2015 | Last updated: July 30, 2015 at 7:03 pm

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei says he was denied a six-month visa to the U.K. because British officials said he didn’t list a criminal conviction on his application.

Ai applied for the six-month business visa, but was instead restricted to a 20-day travel visa from Sept. 9-29.

In a post on his Instagram account, Ai says he has never been charged with or convicted of a crime. But, he continues, the British immigration office cites a criminal conviction in China that is “a matter of public record,” which Ai says refers to his “secret detention by the Chinese authorities in 2011.”

As we reported, Ai was detained by authorities in 2011 as he was trying to fly to Hong Kong. Authorities took his passport, kept him in custody for 81 days and eventually fined him $2.4 million for tax evasion.

The Instagram post says Ai talked with immigration staff by phone but couldn’t convince them he had not committed a crime. He posted the letter from the U.K.’s immigration office to his Instagram on Thursday:

The 20-day visa will allow Ai to attend the opening of his upcoming art show at the Royal Academy of the Arts on Sept. 19 in London. But it might mean he can’t supervise the installation of what the BBC calls his “landmark solo exhibition.”

The academy’s artistic director, Tim Marlow, said in a statement that the art institution is concerned about Ai’s limited visa: “We hope for a speedy resolution to this situation and we continue to look forward to welcoming Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy for his first major institutional exhibition in the UK this September.”

Ai made his visa request after Chinese authorities returned his passport to him without explanation last week.

According to the U.K. immigration office letter, any future applications that Ai submits “must be completed as accurately as possible” — if not, any visa application might be refused and a 10-year ban could be applied.

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U.S. Authorities Can’t Find Hunter Who Killed ‘Cecil The Lion’

By Scott Neuman on July 30th, 2015 | Last updated: July 30, 2015 at 8:03 pm

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it is investigating Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer, a hunting enthusiast who has been identified as the person who illegally poached Zimbabwe’s famous “Cecil the Lion.”

But officials are asking the public for help in locating Palmer, who has apparently gone into hiding after his identity was made public and social media lit up with scorn and vitriol.

“I’m sure he knows” that the government is looking for him, Ed Grace, chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was quoted as saying in The Washington Post. “We’ve made repeated attempts to try and get in contact with him.”

Meanwhile, partly in response to the incident, the United Nations unanimously adopted its first-ever resolution to combat illicit trafficking in wildlife. According to The Associated Press, the resolution, sponsored by Gabon and Germany, was approved by consensus, but is not legally binding.

The White House also said Thursday that it will review a public petition to extradite Palmer to Zimbabwe over the illegal hunt after the petition surpassed a 100,000 signature threshold. Administration spokesman Josh Earnest said it was up to the Department of Justice to decide on extradition requests from Zimbabwe.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Palmer said he believed “everything about this trip was legal and properly handled and conducted.”

The bow-and-arrow hunter said he “had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt.”

“I have not been contacted by authorities in Zimbabwe or in the U.S. about this situation, but will assist them in any inquiries they may have,” he said.

The Star Tribune reports:

“Zimbabwe game officials said Tuesday that two of Palmer’s guides are facing charges in the incident and that they ‘are looking for Palmer.’

“Palmer, 55, who pleaded guilty to a license violation after shooting a black bear in Wisconsin in 2008, said he has not been contacted by any authorities in Zimbabwe or the U.S., but added that he will cooperate with investigators. The public-relations firm that worked with Palmer on the statement said he was in the Twin Cities on Tuesday.”

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Experts: Flight MH370 Debris Could Have Reached Western Indian Ocean

By Scott Neuman on July 30th, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 9:03 am

An expert in ocean circulation tells NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel that it is “highly likely” that currents in the Indian Ocean could have carried debris from the presumed crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 off Australia’s west coast to Reunion Island near Madagascar.

“I think it is very likely that it’s from Flight 370,” says Arnold L. Gordon of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “I think that once that’s confirmed, one could use model output to work your way back to where it came from, where it was in March 2014,” at the time the plane disappeared after taking off from Kuala Lumpur for what was to have been a flight to Beijing.

Even so, Gordon says that the uncertainties in the models and the chaos inherent in ocean eddies isn’t likely to define the crash site any more precisely than has already been worked out by search teams.

His remarks follow the discovery of a barnacle-encrusted piece of aircraft debris on the French island off the southeast coast of Africa. The wreckage appears to be a piece of a wing from a commercial airliner, possibly a Boeing 777 like MH370, which disappeared on March 8, 2014, with 239 people aboard — seemingly without a trace.

“The debris from the crash would follow kind of an arc — first to the northwest, then west, then down to the southwest in the western Indian Ocean,” Gordon says.

“Just south of there is what we call the ‘garbage patch,’ there’s a lot of floating plastic debris there,” he says, noting that “almost all the subtropical oceans have such a garbage patch.”

“If it’s following the edge of this garbage patch … the circulation brings it very close to Reunion,” Gordon says. “And all you need is a little wind in that area that create waves that slowly nudge the floating debris to the beach.”

He says his rough calculation based on the mean velocity of the current could place floating debris from west of Australia on the beach in Reunion in eight or nine months, “if it went in a smooth streamline, and you can easily double that when you add the chaotic field of the eddies. So, I think the timing of it generally makes very good sense.”

Gordon’s assessment largely concurs with that of at least two other experts.

The Wall Street Journal quotes David Griffin, a physical oceanographer at Australia’s national science agency, as saying that while “debris goes many places” in the ocean, the seasonal cycle would have taken most of the wreckage north and west, “possibly right across the Indian [Ocean] by now.”

Robin Beaman, a marine geologist at Australia’s James Cook University, is quoted by The Associated Press as saying there is precedent for large objects traveling across the vast Indian Ocean. Beaman notes that after a man fell overboard from his boat off Western Australia last year, the boat was found eight months later west of Madagascar.

“I don’t think we should rule anything out, that’s for sure,” Beaman said. “The Indian Ocean is a big ocean, but the fact that a boat can go that distance and still be recoverable on the other side of the ocean … the possibilities are there.”

Although they vary somewhat by season, here’s a near-real time view of currents in the Indian Ocean.

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Md. Governor Orders Closure Of ‘Deplorable’ Baltimore City Jail

By Bill Chappell on July 30th, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 12:03 pm

Gov. Larry Hogan says he has ordered the immediate closure of the Baltimore City Detention Center, which a federal probe revealed in 2013 as being riddled with corruption, from smuggling to sex between inmates and guards.

Update at 3:15 p.m. ET: Inmates Were Running Jail, Hogan Says

Saying that the Baltimore facility is the only city prison in the entire country that’s run by a state government, Hogan says it is time for a change.

“For years, the Black Guerilla gang maintained a stronghold over this facility,” the governor said. He added, “Inmates were literally running this prison.”

Hogan said that jail employees either stood by or enabled the criminal enterprise, which he said ranks as “one of the biggest failures in leadership in the history of Maryland.”

Calling the jail a disgrace, Hogan said the idea that the dozens of criminal indictments related to the jail were a kind of victory was “phony political spin on a prison culture created by an utter failure” of leadership.

Hogan said the “deplorable facility” will be shut down immediately, adding that he can’t understand why it has taken so long to close the expensive jail. The jail’s inmates will be transferred to other facilities, he said.

David Fathi, who directs the ACLU’s National Prison Project, says, “We are relieved that Baltimore detainees will no longer be forced to live in the Men’s Detention Center, a building that should have been condemned decades ago.”

Fathi added that “dangerous physical conditions and shockingly deficient medical and mental health care” exist in many jail facilities that remain open.

Our original post continues:

The investigation that was unveiled in the spring of 2013 resulted in the indictment of “25 people — including 13 women working as corrections officers” — on racketeering and drug charges, as the Two-Way reported. In total, 44 defendants faced charges in the case.

“The Civil War era jail was taken over by the state in 1991,” The Baltimore Sun reports, adding that the jail ” — which has 1,092 male inmates, including 145 awaiting trial — is part of a larger complex of corrections facilities just east of downtown Baltimore.”

In addition to running a lucrative smuggling operation that centered on cellphones, drugs and other contraband, federal prosecutors said that “one of the prisoners, a gang leader named Tavon White, fathered children with four female corrections officers,” as NPR’s Scott Simon said in 2013. “Two of them even have his name tattooed on their bodies.”

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Scientists Urge Ban On Salamander Imports To U.S. To Keep Fungus At Bay

By Jessie Rack on July 30th, 2015 | Last updated: July 30, 2015 at 4:03 pm

Scientists are calling for an immediate ban on live salamander imports in the U.S. to try to prevent the spread of a fungal disease that could potentially devastate wild North American salamanders.

Almost half of the world’s known salamander species live in North America, and many are already threatened or endangered. Salamanders may be inconspicuous, but they’re important to the ecosystem — they eat disease-carrying insects, are a key link between the aquatic and terrestrial food webs, and may even aid the global carbon cycle. Some species produce antimicrobial compounds, and others are being studied to learn how humans might someday regrow limbs.

They’re also in danger from the chytrid fungus. When the Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis fungus, or Bd, was discovered in 1998 in parts of Australia and Central America, scientists could only watch as species after species of frogs and salamanders disappeared in what has become a worldwide die-off. Vance Vredenburg, a biologist at San Francisco State University, has seen firsthand what chytrid can do to amphibians. He calls it “absolute decimation.”

Two years ago, researchers identified a second type of chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal, that researchers think infects only salamanders. This new fungus was discovered in wild European salamanders. Scientists think it came from Asia and spread to wild salamanders through the international pet trade. So far, Bsal has not yet been found in the Americas.

In a report published Thursday in the journal Science, Vredenburg and his colleagues identified areas in North America that they think are most vulnerable to the Bsal fungus. They did so by layering maps of the number of wild salamander species in North America on top of projected best habitat for the fungus. The group determined that salamanders in the southeastern U.S., the western U.S., and the highlands of central Mexico are most at risk.

Then researchers identified the top five U.S. ports for salamander imports and calculated the number of salamanders brought in for the pet trade. In the past five years, nearly 800,000 salamanders entered the country through one of these ports — 91 percent were relatives of either fire-bellied newts or Vietnamese salamanders, thought to be the main carriers of Bsal.

“What we found is the picture could be bad,” Vredenburg says. “The areas that have some of the highest trade numbers in some cases overlapped with what our models predicted would have the most vulnerable species.”

Something has to happen, and fast, Vredenburg’s group concluded. Their report urges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ban live salamander imports until scientists have a better understanding of the fungus and the danger it poses to native salamanders.

Karen Lips, an amphibian biologist at the University of Maryland who has studied chytrid extensively, says that while there’s a lot of uncertainty about the Bsal fungus and its carriers, the study is a step in the right direction. “It really shows the high risk to our native amphibians,” she says. “Hopefully, this will help stimulate action.”

But when it comes to policy, Lips says, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s choices are limited. The Lacey Act was established in 1900 and is now used to control the introduction of invasive species and prevent illegal trade in wildlife. However, there’s no provision for wildlife diseases.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service has been very interested in chytrid and amphibian diseases for many years,” Lips says. “But there’s a problem. Under the Lacey Act, they don’t have the legal authority to do much.”

Scientists aren’t the only ones pushing for action. Priya Nanjappa of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies says that last year her group asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to create a temporary emergency rule that would place all salamanders — or at least those most at risk — under the protection of the Lacey Act.

This spring, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it would consider that request.

Meanwhile, Nanjappa, who is AFWA’s amphibian, reptile and invasive species coordinator, is in charge of developing a nationwide response plan in case Bsal is found in the U.S. before imports are controlled.

Unlike with the original chytrid fungus — which was widespread when it was discovered — scientists think they’ve identified Bsal in time to do something about it. “This time we got it right,” Vredenburg says.

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Obama Orders Development Of Supercomputer To Rival China’s ‘Milky Way’

By Scott Neuman on July 30th, 2015 | Last updated: July 30, 2015 at 2:03 pm

President Obama has ordered the development of a supercomputer that is some 20 times faster than the world’s current record-holder and is expected to go online by 2025.

A machine at China’s National University of Defense Technology in Guangzhou, called Tianhe-2 (Milky Way-2) is thought to currently be the fastest supercomputer in existence — variously reported as doing either 34 or 55 petaflops (1 petaflop is equivalent to 1 quadrillion floating-point operations per second).

The executive order, issued by Obama on Wednesday, would set up a body known as the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI) to research and build what is hoped to become the first machine to hit 1 exaflop, equivalent to 1,000 petaflops.

The White House says in a blog post that the new initiative “will draw on the strengths of departments and agencies to move the Federal government into a position that sharpens, develops, and streamlines a wide range of new 21st century applications. It is designed to advance core technologies to solve difficult computational problems and foster increased use of the new capabilities in the public and private sectors.”

Industry Tap, an engineering and trade publication, says a so-called “exascale” computer could be used to solve “some of today’s great challenges, like more accurately modeling the Himalaya watershed, understanding how hurricanes form, determining how genes work on the molecular level and understanding how brain synapses work, [all of which] will require vastly more computing power than is currently available.”

But Industry Tap notes that such a machine would require 200 megawatts of power (compared with 3 megawatts for the current-generation machines). That means “a power plant would be required to run it.”

The president’s executive order is just the latest salvo in something of an international supercomputer arms race that has broken out in recent years, with the U.S. (IBM, Cray), China and Japan (Fujitsu) trading places in the Top 500 list of fastest machines. The first machine to do a full petaflop, the IBM Roadrunner, was unveiled in 2009 and was shut down as “obsolete” just five years later.

Earlier this year, the U.S. government banned Intel from selling its lightning-fast Xeon Phi chip to China. The Xeon was used to construct Tianhe-2, and China reportedly wanted to use the chips to upgrade it to 100 petaflops.

A 100-petaflop machine is being developed in the U.S. and is expected to be ready by 2017, and a 300-petaflop machine could “possibly” be ready in the same year, according to Computer World.

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Justice Dept. Hires Compliance Expert In Fight Against Corporate Crime

By Carrie Johnson on July 30th, 2015 | Last updated: July 30, 2015 at 1:04 pm

Justice Department lawyers who prosecute errant corporations and executives are bringing in a new member to the team — a full-time expert in compliance programs.

Andrew Weissmann, who leads the Fraud Section in the criminal division at the Justice Department, said the new hire is all part of a plan to reduce corporate crime.

“We are seeking to assure that companies have tough but realistic compliance programs that detect and deter individual wrongdoing by executives,” Weissmann said. “Importantly, our compliance counsel will be instrumental in ferreting out whether a corporate compliance program is truly effective or a mere paper tiger.”

Officials have settled on a candidate, whom they declined to name while that person undergoes a requisite background check. Sometime in the next six to eight weeks, the compliance hire will join other subject-matter experts — such as accountants and forensic specialists — who work alongside prosecutors in the criminal division at the Justice Department. The new expert will play a big role in determining whether businesses targeted for prosecution have engaged in systemic misconduct or whether the criminal activity is limited to a few bad apples, Weissmann said.

That’s an important question for prosecutors and judges, since it can lead to larger monetary penalties, fines and even the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee a business’ operations. Recently, those issues were at the forefront of Justice Department decisions to void earlier settlements with UBS over allegations of new wrongdoing in foreign currency trades.

“We’re federal prosecutors, but part of what we have to do in our jobs is assess compliance programs,” Weissmann said. “That’s not our bread and butter.”

He said the arrival of a lawyer with a substantial background will give the department greater credibility in negotiations with business.

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