U.S. Approves Export Of Boeing And Airbus Planes To Iran

An Iran Air Boeing 747 passenger plane sits on the tarmac of the domestic Mehrabad airport in the Iranian capital Tehran in 2013. Behrouz Mehri /AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Behrouz Mehri /AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Treasury Department has granted permission to Boeing and Airbus to export commercial planes to Iran, a Treasury spokesperson told NPR. The government has approved a deal — not yet finalized — for Boeing to sell IranAir 80 commercial passenger aircraft.

Thumbs-up from the Treasury is a major step forward on a key portion of last year’s deal between Iran and six world powers including the U.S., in which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for relief from decades-long sanctions. That relief officially started in January, as we reported.

“These licenses contain strict conditions to ensure that the planes will be used exclusively for commercial passenger use and cannot be resold or transferred to a designated entity,” the Treasury spokesperson said.

Boeing and Iran reached a $20 billion provisional agreement in late June for 80 aircraft, as NPR’s Jackie Northam reported.

Since then, the Treasury has “spent months scrutinizing the deal to see what technology will be used on the planes, and whether anyone remaining on a U.S. sanctions list is involved in the deal,” Jackie said.

She added that this marks the first time that Boeing has sold planes to Iran since its 1979 revolution. Jackie reports, “There is ferocious competition between Boeing and Airbus, and a good chance Boeing would be locked out of the Iranian market for decades if it didn’t get this approval.”

The new aircraft are a major step toward modernizing and expanding “the country’s elderly fleet, held together by smuggled or improvised parts after years of sanctions,” as Reuters reported.

The Treasury also granted Boeing’s competitor Airbus a license to sell 17 aircraft to IranAir, as Jackie reported. “Even though Airbus is based in Europe, it needs U.S. approval because its planes contain sophisticated technological equipment made in America. That includes the computers and navigational equipment.”

Both companies received the green light to sell a mix of wide-body and single aisle jets, Jackie said.

She has reported that this deal is seen as an important test case for doing business with Iran, including big questions on financing:

“Commercial aircraft are one of the very few products U.S. companies are allowed to sell to Iran. Even so, a deal has to be done without using American dollars or the U.S. financial system. This creates a problem even for international companies wanting to sell to Iran because most foreign banks have partnerships with American banks.

“[Former Treasury official Elizabeth] Rosenberg says that’s why all eyes are on Boeing to see if it can find innovative ways to pick through this financial minefield.”

The deals are also likely to “test conservative opposition” to the nuclear agreement in both the U.S. and Iran, as Reuters reported. In the U.S., many Republican lawmakers are against selling Iran planes, as are some conservatives in Iran.

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U.N. Pledges To Fight Antibiotic Resistance In Historic Agreement

Chickens at a poultry farm in Hefei, eastern China. Antibiotics are often used to keep them healthy in densely packed quarters. STR/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption STR/AFP/Getty Images

Historical. A possible turning point.

These are the words health researchers are using to describe a declaration passed Wednesday by the U.N. General Assembly aiming to slow down the spread of superbugs — bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics.

“I think the declaration will have very strong implications,” says the World Health Organization’s Dr. Keiji Fukada. “What it will convey is that there’s recognition that we have a big problem and there’s a commitment to do something about it.”

Every year, more than 2 million Americans get sick with antibiotic-resistant infections, and tens of thousands die as a result, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common diseases, like urinary tract infections and pneumonia, are becoming harder and harder to treat. And new superbugs are cropping up — even here in the U.S. — that are resistant to last-resort drugs.

Doctors have been warning about this problem for decades. But in the past year or so, another group of researchers has started taking interest in superbugs: economists. And they quickly realized the problem goes way beyond health.

“Antibiotic resistance has immense economic consequences and immense implications for food,” Fukada says.

A recent report from the U.K. government found that antibiotic-resistant bacteria could cost the world $100 trillion by 2050 if nothing is done about it. The World Bank predicts drug-resistant infections could damage the economy as much as — or even more than — the 2008 financial crisis. And annual global GDP could drop by 1 to 4 percent, the agency says.

On top of that, farmers around the world have come to rely on antibiotics to raise animals. The drugs make pigs, cows and chickens grow fatter more quickly — and keeps them healthy in densely packed quarters.

“If we lose that ability we begin to perhaps lose the ability to have adequate food supplies in the world,” Fukada says.

And that’s why world leaders are now getting involved. The U.N.’s declaration requires countries to come up with a two-year a plan to protect the potency of antibiotics. Countries need to create ways to monitor the use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, start curbing that use and begin developing new antibiotics that work.

After two years, the U.N.’s secretary-general will assess each country’s plan and check to make sure each is making progress.

“I think this is the first realistic chance, in our lifetime, to turn this around,” Fukada says.

And there’s precedent for this optimism.

Back in 2001, the U.N. made a similar declaration about the HIV pandemic. And that declaration had a big impact on curbing the spread of HIV around the world, says Ramanan Laxminarayan, who directs the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in Washington, D.C.

The declaration made countries take responsibility for the HIV burden,” he says. People were willing to start talking about and change their attitudes on stigma. And last but not least, the declaration made sure that lots of money went towards both treatment and prevention.”

He says there are a few weaknesses in the U.N.’s new plan on antibiotic-resistant bacteria. For example, there are no hardcore targets for reducing antibiotic use by a certain amount in two years.

But he thinks the declaration could have the same impact on fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria as the previous one had on fighting HIV. Since 2004, there has been a 45 percent drop in AIDS-related deaths in countries supported by global HIV campaigns.

“Am I optimistic? I certainly am,” he says. “In fact, we don’t have a choice. We have to do better than we’re doing right now because tens of thousands of people are now dying around the world, particularly newborns. And this is surely getting worse year by year.”

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Anti-Defamation League Steps Up Efforts To Combat Anti-Semitism Online

A disturbing feature of this election cycle has been the growth in anti-Semitic hate speech online.

Jewish journalists, in particular, have received insults, slurs and threats over Twitter and other social media.

The Anti-Defamation League announced this week it is hiring a representative in Silicon Valley to work with tech companies to help fight anti-Semitic abuse online.

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tells NPR’s Ari Shapiro the amount of “vitriol and hatred” during this presidential election has been “staggering.” Greenblatt says tech companies need to step up their efforts in combating online hate speech.

“The ADL for years has worked with technology companies to deal with hate, but the fact of the matter is they need to do more,” Greenblatt says. “The racists used to hand out their materials in paper bags on a street corner — today, they hand out their hate on Facebook.

“And they were, you know, burning crosses 50 years ago — today, they’re burning up Twitter. So these companies have a responsibility to keep these platforms safe for all of their users, even as they respect free speech.”


Interview Highlights

On recent examples of anti-Semitic speech online

So two examples that really caught our attention this year were when Julia Ioffe, a freelancer who was writing for GQ and did a piece on Melania Trump, after it was published, she was viciously attacked, harassed online, and that actually shifted also offline.

And she was targeted by white supremacists in a coordinated campaign that was really quite merciless. It included not only anti-Semitism but death threats and all forms of harassment.

Jonathan Weisman, who is the deputy political director for The New York Times, had tweeted a piece that was done by Bob Kagan about the election and that for whatever reason, prompted a number of these extremists to target him with similar harassment and hate that continued apace.

On how tech companies respond to policies that may limit speech

Earlier this year, we worked with Google and Apple to take down extensions and apps that were made available in their online stores that facilitated identifying Jewish journalists. It was called this echo symbol. … And this was being used by white supremacists to identify people they thought, public figures, [who] were Jewish.

On the Trump campaign’s failure to disavow white supremacist groups

We’ve been on the record and engaged with the Trump campaign because we were concerned about the use of these tropes and sharing these symbols. They’re deeply problematic.

Now with that said, we think it’s really important, particularly down this home stretch, that everyone running for public office, explicitly, firmly, not only disavows but makes it clear [to] the American people that racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance have no place in the public square.

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Episode 555: Why Is The Milk In The Back Of The Store?

Planet Money wants to know: Why is the milk in the back of the store? (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Note: This episode originally aired in July 2014.

Milk is often in the very back corner of the grocery store, as far as humanly possible from the entrance. It’s a strange location for milk, because it’s one the most popular items.

A common explanation for this is that by forcing customers to walk through the whole store, they will pass more products and end up buying more. But is that really why the milk is in the back? Can you really have a business model intentionally built around inconveniencing your customers?

Today on the show, two big theories to answer this little question: Why is the milk in the back of the store? The theories reflect very different world views. To try to discover which is right, we host a friendly debate between a food writer, Michael Pollan, and an economist Russ Roberts.

Music: “Strange Brew” and “The King.” Find us: Twitter/Facebook

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North Korea Accidentally Reveals It Only Has 28 Websites

North Korean students work at computer terminals inside a computer lab at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea in January 2013. David Guttenfelder/AP hide caption

toggle caption David Guttenfelder/AP

On Monday afternoon, a security engineer named Matt Bryant stumbled upon a part of the Internet that is usually hidden from most of the world: a list of websites available to people with Internet access in North Korea.

The total number of sites was just 28.

Bryant’s list includes every site ending in .kp, which is the country code associated with North Korea.

About 149.9 million websites end in country codes, such .de for Germany or .cn for China. More than 10 million sites end in .cn, according to the most recent report by the domain name registry Verisign.

But it appears the North Korean Internet is not a very big place.

When he discovered the list, Bryant was working for a project run by GitHub, which organizes engineers like him to continuously query different parts of the Internet and post the results, as a kind of tick-tock of how the Internet looks around the globe. On Tuesday, GitHub posted the list of 28 North Korean websites.

From there, the list made its way to the popular forum site Reddit, and people began exploring the sites and discussing what they found.

By Wednesday, the tech blog Motherboard reported many of the websites were down, possibly because of the spike in traffic.

Most of the sites are banal; a mix of propaganda, news and education. NPR accessed a handful of sites and saw what appear to be Korean language websites on the following topics:

One site, friend.com.kp, appeared to some on Reddit to be a social media site. Another, cooks.org.kp, appeared to have recipes for Korean dishes, also according to Reddit. NPR could not access either site on Wednesday.

“Now we have a complete list of domain names for the country and it’s surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) very small,” Bryant told Motherboard in an email.

The vast majority of North Koreans do not have any internet access at all. Speaking last year in South Korea, Secretary of State John Kerry said its neighbor to the north had the “lowest rate of access in the world and the most rigid and centralized control.”

But the Internet may not be the only network available to those who do have access to connected computers north of the DMZ. According to the blog North Korea Tech, the country has an intranet called Kwangmyong, reportedly connected by fiber optic cables, available only within the country’s borders.

The blog, run by journalist Martyn Williams of IDG News, has reported that Kwangmyong connects libraries and universities in North Korea, citing Facebook posts by people inside North Korea and posters about the intranet seen by foreign journalists reporting from the country. Because the intranet is physically connected only within the country’s borders, the blog says it is impossible for the rest of the world to hack into, or for people connected to Kwangmyong to overcome its censorship.

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Massive Power Outage Reported In Puerto Rico

A major power outage has been reported on the island of Puerto Rico.

In a statement, the the island’s power company, Autoridad de Energia Eléctrica, said the outage is affecting customers throughout the island.

The Puerto Rican paper El Nuevo Dia reports that 1.5 million customers are without power due to the “complete collapse of the system.” The paper reports the outage was caused by a fire at a substation.

Puerto Rican firefighters later tweeted that the fire at the Aguirre power plant has been “controlled.”

@BomberosELAPR controlan incendio en planta Aguirre. pic.twitter.com/9J9uIbuDkv

— Bomberos Puerto Rico (@BomberosELAPR) September 21, 2016

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Fed Keeps Benchmark Interest Rate, But Still Expects Increase

Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen told reporters Wednesday that although the Fed is holding its benchmark interest rate steady, she still expect it to raise the rate this year. Alex Brandon/AP hide caption

toggle caption Alex Brandon/AP

Janet Yellen and her colleagues at the Federal Reserve didn’t surprise anyone when they announced today they were not raising their benchmark interest rate. Fed policymakers decided to keep the federal funds rate in a range between 1/4 and 1/2 percent. That’s where it’s been since last December when the Fed lifted the rate a quarter of a point from near zero. That’s where it had been left for 7 years as the central bank tried to support growth coming out of the Great Recession.

Since lots of consumer and business rates are linked to the Federal Funds rate, holding steady means car loans, many variable rate mortgage loans, the prime rate for business lenders — all those rates won’t go up either.

But even those who expected no move from the Fed today wondered how the Fed would justify standing pat. After all back in December the Fed had signaled it was likely to raise rates a quarter of a point 4 times in 2017. So far there have been no rate hikes … NONE!

That’s despite signs that economic growth is improving and job growth has rebounded, averaging 180,000 a month recently. There’s also evidence that threats to U.S. growth from global instability have eased. Yellen even said the case for a rate increase has “strengthened.” So why is the Fed waiting?

Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s answer at today’s post-meeting news conference was that there’s no inflation threat so there’s no hurry; and she said, if the Fed holds off raising rates maybe EVEN MORE people will find work.

Yellen defended that view by pointing out that despite the robust job growth in recent months, a number of measures in the labor market haven’t improved. For instance the unemployment rate has remained a 4.9 percent for the past 3 months, and that’s up from 4.7 percent in May. Also, Yellen points to data showing there are still lots of people with part-time jobs who would prefer full-time work.

Yellen says that makes her believe that people who’ve been discouraged are returning to the labor force because robust job growth has convinced them, “Hey, maybe I’ve finally got a shot at getting a job.” As they move back in the labor market and start looking for work they’re counted as unemployed. And Yellen thinks that’s kept the unemployment rate at 4.9 percent despite robust job growth.

Three of her colleagues on the Fed dissented to the decision to hold rates steady. Yellen threw them a bone saying she expected the Fed WILL still raise rates once this year. That’s most likely to come when the policymaking Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meets in December. They do have a meeting in November just before the presidential election, but a rate hike seems highly unlikely because it might be seen as affecting the vote. That said, Yellen defended the Fed’s independence again today saying its decisions are made without political considerations.

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We Really Do Get A Little More Santa-Like, Physically, During The Holidays

All that holiday grubbing really does pack on the pounds. How much? Researchers tracked the weights of 3,000 people in Germany, Japan and the U.S. and found a weight spike after every major holiday. Peter Dazeley/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

The holidays on the horizon promise golden opportunities to shamelessly stuff your face. But munch carefully: All that grub comes at a cost. Researchers averaged the daily weights of 3,000 people in Germany, Japan and the U.S. for a year and saw a spike in weight gain following every major holiday.

In the United States and Germany, people weighed the most at the beginning of January, following Christmas and the New Year. In Japan, people still had experienced a significant gain in weight from December to January, but their highest weights were after the Golden Week, three consecutive holidays that take place the first week of May. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a sharp gain in the weights of Americans after Thanksgiving, but not among the Japanese or Germans.

That seems to suggest that people really are becoming heavier because of the holidays, and not merely for other reasons — like less exercise during the winter months, says Elina Helander, a post-doctoral research scientist at Tampere University in Finland who worked on the new research, which she and her colleagues share in a letter to the editor in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine.

Prior to this study, she says, “there wasn’t much knowledge around how people’s weights behave around the holidays. There’s really this type of holiday [weight] gain you can see from this data that isn’t because of [other effects].”

Then those panicked New Year’s resolutions appeared to kick in: People in the study started to lose the turkey/candy/beer weight, according to the data. There’s a precipitous drop in weight for all the populations right in the beginning of January, Helander says: “People [might be] motivated to do something. All the fitness centers are full of people in January.” At the end of the one- year study, participants were roughly back to where they started, gaining and losing at most two pounds on average.

The changes in weight the study attributes to holidays is actually petty small, Brooke Bailer, a clinical psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania Center For Weight and Eating Disorders who did not work on the study, points out. “The maximum weight gain is all less than 2 pounds. The United States is 1.3 and Japan is 1.1 pounds,” she says. That might not be enough to tell everyone not to enjoy the Christmas goose.

But it’s also not nothing, says Diana Thomas, a mathematician at the United States Military Academy who studies obesity and was not involved with the study. In a back-of-the-envelope calculation, Thomas says she looked at how much people would need to eat in December to get that rise in weight over the winter. “That would be about a 600 calorie increase per day for the Germans. That’s three extra donuts per day. For Americans, it’s two extra donuts per day. 1 extra donut for the Japanese above and beyond what you’re normally eating.”

The study does show that the weight gain is temporary on average, but that might not be true for everybody. Thomas says it’s difficult for people who are already overweight or obese to lose extra pounds. “We’ve shown it’s very, very difficult to exercise it off, for everybody. Losing weight is rough,” Thomas says. And she’s also found that when people do shed the pounds from overeating, they aren’t losing the same types of body weight equally. “You see a decrease back to the previous weight, but more of it was retained as fat.”

In Helander’s study, all of the participants already had scales to weigh themselves, too. That makes them different from people in the general population who don’t own scales or see their weights every day, says Bailer. “The act of weighing may have influenced their weight loss after all these small weight gains,” she says. People who don’t bother standing on a scale every day might not be as motivated to hit the gym after New Years’.

Still, showing that holidays really are fattening people up is useful. “These spikes tell us that we should view these holidays a little differently,” Thomas says. “And it gives you an opportunity where you can see weight gain and where it happens.” That means you might be able to prevent people from gaining the weight in the first place.

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How A 'Sixth Sense' Helps Simone Biles Fly, And The Rest Of Us Walk

Simone Biles flies through the air while performing on the balance beam at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Dmitri Lovetsky/AP hide caption

toggle caption Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

A rare genetic disorder is helping scientists understand our mysterious ability to sense where we are in space, known as proprioception.

This “sixth sense” is what dancers and gymnasts rely on to tell them the exact position of their body and limbs at every moment. It also tells them how much force each muscle is exerting.

“The most beautiful demonstration of proprioception in action is Simone Biles when she is spinning and somersaulting through the air,” says Carsten Bonnemann, a pediatrician and geneticist at the National institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Scientists have known about proprioception for more than a century. But they didn’t realize how much people depend on it until they got a chance to study two young patients with a rare genetic disorder that leaves them completely lacking this sense.

The results of that study were published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

One of the participants in the study was a 10-year-old girl named Damiana, who lives in San Diego.

She’s “a happy and bubbly” kid who has no problems with senses like taste, hearing, sight and smell, Bonnemann says. But Damiana was born with a genetic mutation that left her with a limited sense of touch and no proprioception, he says.

When Damiana was younger, her condition baffled doctors, says her mother, Diana Sawyer.

“She was very late at doing everything,” Sawyer says. Her daughter didn’t start crawling until she was about 18 months old. And she still can walk only a few steps on her own.

Damiana was born with some abnormalities in her feet and hips, Sawyer says. And her spine was curved. But those problems didn’t explain why her daughter had so much trouble with precise movements, like fastening a button.

Damiana’s condition might have remained a mystery if Bonnemann hadn’t seen her a few years ago while holding a clinic in San Diego.

He was puzzled by her symptoms and ordered a state-of-the-art genetic analysis. It turned up a mutation in a gene called PIEZO2, which allows certain cells to detect mechanical pressure.

Unfortunately, “I didn’t know what PIEZO2 was, really,” Bonnemann says.

Then one day Bonnemann heard about a colleague at the National Institutes of Health who knew a lot about PIEZO2. “It turns out he’s in the same building, just a floor down,” Bonnemann says. “So I sent him an email saying, ‘Can you help me?’ “

The colleague was Alex Chesler from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Chesler read the email from Bonnemann, “and 30 seconds later I was up in his office,” he says.

Chesler had spent years studying PIEZO2 in mice. But he’d never had a good way to study its function in people.

So last year, Bonnemann, Chesler and a team of researchers invited Damiana and another patient with a similar PIEZO2 mutation to the NIH.

The visit was a revelation. Trying to understand proprioception from mouse experiments had been a bit like trying to understand Beethoven by reading sheet music, Chesler says. “But when I talked to the patients it was like going to the symphony,” he says.

The researchers were able to show that the PIEZO2 gene is involved in certain kinds of touch sensation as well as proprioception. And they learned a lot about what proprioception makes possible by studying what the patients were unable to do.

“They’ve never run, they’ve never jumped,” Chesler says, “because those kind of actions really require precise control over your limbs in space.”

The scientists also discovered that both patients had found ways to compensate for their lack of body awareness — mostly by closely watching their own limbs as they move.

For example, the older patient, who is in college, has even learned to walk pretty well — as long as she can see what’s she’s doing.

“If you take away her vision, she literally crumples to the ground,” he says. “And the same is true for reaching. When she reaches for an object under visual control she is actually quite precise doing that. If we cover her eyes, she gets completely off target.”

Of course, gymnasts like Simone Biles also rely on vision during a routine, Bonnemann says. But it’s the extra information from their “sixth sense” that makes a gold-medal performance possible.

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