Palestinians Eye Israeli Settlements With Unease, Hoping For Foreign Support

Jad Isaac surveys the Har Homa settlement from his office window. Isaac, director of a Palestinian organization for sustainable development, is encouraged by Secretary of State John Kerry’s impassioned defense of the U.N. Security Council’s condemnation of the Israeli government’s construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Daniel Estrin/NPR hide caption

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Daniel Estrin/NPR

From his office in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, Jad Isaac has a close-up view of the big debate that has erupted over Israeli settlements.

He’s director of The Applied Research Institute Jerusalem, a Palestinian organization for sustainable development, and outside his window is a hill covered in rows of homes: the Jewish settlement of Har Homa.

Isaac listened keenly to what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in his recent speech following the U.S. decision to not veto a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning settlements built on land Israel captured in 1967.

Kerry defended the move, saying the West Bank and east Jerusalem are up for negotiation and settlements jeopardize the chances for peace. Israeli leaders were exasperated by his speech. Isaac was encouraged.

“Frankly, I was very happy hearing it,” said Isaac.

In his address, Kerry argued that continued Israeli settlement construction would make it impossible for Palestinians to ever have a sovereign state. Isaac said he sees this possibility unfolding before his eyes every day, out his window.

Har Homa, an Israeli settlement on land captured in 1967, is now home to nearly 20,000 Israelis. While Israel considers it a part of Jerusalem, it looks close enough to be a part of Bethlehem. Isaac pointed out construction cranes where new areas are being built.

“You can see it is not done haphazardly,” Isaac said. “The intention is to form a wall of settlements, to totally segregate Jerusalem from Bethlehem.”

In other words, it would stand between Bethlehem and the city Palestinians claim as their future capital.

President-elect Donald Trump is expected to be supportive of Jewish settlements. Isaac hopes other world powers will get involved to restart peace talks.

“The United States cannot be the only broker for the negotiations,” Isaac said, “and we want a well-defined timeline.”

In recent days, Palestinian officials have indicated they wish to bypass the Trump administration and have the international community lead peace talks.

In January, some 70 countries are expected to meet in Paris to discuss the fate of Israel-Palestinian peace talks. They may use the recent U.N. resolution, which deems Israeli settlements illegal, to help define the terms of the talks.

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Israel rejects the notion that settlements are at the root of the conflict. It blames Palestinian violence and Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. In addition, Israel stresses Jewish ties to east Jerusalem and the West Bank, going back to the Bible.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said he supports the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But some Palestinians think it’s already too late to create a Palestinian state.

“It’s too complicated now, with the facts on the ground, with the Israeli settlements within the West Bank,” said Palestinian travel agent Rana Salman. “Geographically it doesn’t make any sense.”

She lives around corner from Isaac’s institute, and also has a front row seat overlooking the Har Homa settlement.

She cites Israeli roads, checkpoints and buildings throughout the West Bank, and doesn’t believe Israel and the Palestinians can be separated. Instead, she’d like Israelis and Palestinians to live together in one state — regardless of what that state would be called.

“I don’t care now about the name. More about having human rights for everyone, equal rights, and living in dignity for everyone,” Salman said.

John Kerry spoke about this in his speech, too.

“If the choice is one state,” Kerry said, “Israel can either be Jewish or democratic. It cannot be both.”

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Blasts In Baghdad Kill At Least 24 At A Busy Market

A crowded market in central Baghdad became the site of a double bombing Saturday morning. The Islamic State is thought to be responsible. Karim Kadim/AP hide caption

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Karim Kadim/AP

A pair of bombings hit a crowded market in Baghdad on Saturday morning. Security officials say the first blast went off at around 8 a.m. local time; as people gathered to help the wounded, a man detonated a suicide vest.

At least 24 people were killed and more than 50 others were wounded in the Iraqi capital. The Associated Press reports that the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack.

NPR’s Alice Fordham reports:

“It is a reminder that although ISIS is under pressure from security forces in the city of Mosul, the group still has the capacity to cause havoc. More than two years after they declared a caliphate, ISIS still controls Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria and recently retook the historic Syrian city of Palmyra.”

Although most people in Baghdad are Muslim, Fordham says Christmas and New Year’s Eve are still considered a popular part of the holiday season. Many people would have been celebrating on Saturday night.

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Fresh Air Weekend: Our Critics Pick The Best Film, TV, Music And Books Of 2016

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance in the musical, La La Land, critic David Edelstein’s pick for the best film of the year. Summit Entertainment hide caption

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Summit Entertainment

Fresh Air Weekend highlights some of the best interviews and reviews from past weeks, and new program elements specially paced for weekends. Our weekend show emphasizes interviews with writers, filmmakers, actors and musicians, and often includes excerpts from live in-studio concerts. This week:

In ‘An Excellent Year’ For Film, Critic David Edelstein Shares His 12 Favorites: Edelstein estimates that he saw 400 films in 2016 — more than enough to fill “a couple of 10-best lists.” He talks about a dozen of them with Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.

‘A Lot Going On’: Critic David Bianculli Picks The Best TV Of 2016: Fresh Air‘s TV critic says that mini-series and anthology shows are expanding the types of stories that can be told on the small screen — and the benefits to the viewers “are huge.”

A Critic’s Year-End ‘Ghost File’: Books, Movies And TV Shows He Didn’t Review: Every year, Fresh Air critic John Powers is haunted by all the terrific things he didn’t get a chance to talk about on air. As 2016 winds down, he “un-haunts” himself with these six recommendations.

Ken Tucker’s Top 10 Favorite Albums Of 2016: Fresh Air‘s rock critic presents his playlist for 2016. It includes big pop stars, beloved cult stars and a couple of not-yet-stars.

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Remembering The Jazz Greats Who Died In 2016: Critic Kevin Whitehead remembers the jazz notables who died this year, including vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, singer/pianist Mose Allison, pianist Paul Bley and trumpeter Paul Smoker.

You can listen to the original interviews here:

In ‘An Excellent Year’ For Film, Critic David Edelstein Shares His 12 Favorites

‘A Lot Going On’: Critic David Bianculli Picks The Best TV Of 2016

A Critic’s Year-End ‘Ghost File’: Books, Movies And TV Shows He Didn’t Review

Ken Tucker’s Top 10 Favorite Albums Of 2016

Remembering The Jazz Greats Who Died In 2016

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Millions Saw These 8 YouTube Videos In 2016. Did You?

Who’s the YouTube star of 2016?

Adele singing carpool karaoke and the Japanese comic who made the viral Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen video were among the top 10 videos of the year.

But there was lots of competition around the world.

This month, YouTube Rewind released its list of the top 10 most popular YouTube videos in nearly 40 countries and regions, based on how many people viewed and shared them. Here’s a sampling from some of the places we cover in our blog.

Nigeria: The 6-year-old wisecracker

YouTube

With nearly 6.7 million views, Nigeria’s top video of the year features a comedic faceoff between six-year-old Emanuella Samuel and a gang of bullies nearly twice her size. “You’re not afraid of me right?” she shouts (even though she is clearly afraid of them). The video, titled “I’ll Beat You,” is also ranked among the top 10 most popular videos in South Africa and Uganda.

Senegal: Doing the sabar

YouTube

Last year, a new dance — the na goore — brought out the moves in Senegal. This year, something old is new again: sabar, a traditional Senegalese dance set to energetic drumbeats and characterized by “high-knee lifts and springing jumps,” as a New York Times dance critic put it. Abandoned during the French colonization of the 1800s, sabar re-emerged between the 1960s and 1980s under the country’s first president in the post-colonial period as a point of national pride. The video has picked up close to 1.4 million YouTube views.

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India: Dad dares son to tell the truth

YouTube

It’s the old game “Truth or Dare” played between a dad and his son — part of an infomercial from India’s first furniture rental company in an attempt to woo millennial shoppers. The 10-minute ad garnered 1.5 million views in just four days and is among the top 10 most popular videos in the country, with more than 6 million views. Dad starts off with innocent questions “What is the capital of Nagaland” and then goes in for the kill: “You have alcohol bottles hidden in your flat?”

South Africa: Trevor Noah hits home

YouTube

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Trevor Noah’s skewering of South African president Jacob Zuma was the top video of 2016 in The Daily Show host’s home country. Zuma has been facing calls to resign after having been accused of corruption and political mismanagement. In the clip, Noah pokes fun at Zuma’s use of $15 million in state funds to “renovate his house” — including the installation of a pool, which Zuma said was actually a “fire pool” whose water would be used to put out any fires. And then there’s his inability to read aloud the numeral “769,870.”

Middle East: How do you say ‘owl’ in Arabic?

YouTube

A video of a Kuwait-based talk show that ponders the future of the Arabic language has racked up 9.1 million views. The host asks some kids to name different animals. They know the English words “giraffe,” “crocodile” and “owl” but go blank when asked to say the names in Arabic. And it’s not just a joke: The National, a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, reports that experts are increasingly concerned about young Arabs speaking a hybrid language — usually Arabic laced with English — to sound more sophisticated and modern.

Uganda: Obsessed with chess

YouTube

The trailer for Disney’s Queen of Katwe — a movie based on a true story about a young chess champion rising out of the slums — was the fourth most-watched video in the East African country, with 1.8 million views. As NPR previously reported, this is possibly the first Disney movie to be set in the Africa with all black actors.

Mexico: Rants from a vlogger

YouTube

One of the top videos of 2016 from Mexico come from the second most subscribed YouTuber in the world. A native Chilean who likes to rant, he’s known mainly by his stage name HolaSoyGerman — Spanish for “hello, I am German,” which is his first name, pronounced Herman. He has over 30 million subscribers and 2.9 billion views. His most popular video this year, in which he enthusiastically spews out a string of thoughts on food, has reached 24 million viewers. He dramatizes, for example, his frustration of opening a bag of chips only to find filled mostly with air.

Indonesia: A pen-pineapple-apple-pen homage

YouTube

The original Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen video didn’t break Indonesia’s top 10 list, but the song itself clearly struck a chord. The third-most popular video in that country, with 8.3 million views, is a version of the song by comedian Andre Taulany on an Indonesian talk show. The bit is just one of many imitations of the viral but head-scratching routine, showing that sometimes all it takes is a catchy beat and a silly dance to bring the world together.

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By Returning To Farming's Roots, He Found His American Dream

David

Dan Charles/NPR

Eighteen years ago, on New Year’s Eve, David Fisher visited an old farm in western Massachusetts, near the small town of Conway. No one was farming there at the time, and that’s what had drawn Fisher to the place. He was scouting for farmland.

“I remember walking out [to the fallow fields] at some point,” Fisher recalls. “And in the moonlight – it was all snowy – it was like a blank canvas.”

On that blank canvas, Fisher’s mind painted a picture of what could be there alongside the South River. He could see horses tilling the land – no tractors, no big machinery and vegetable fields, and children running around.

This is David Fisher’s American Dream. It may not be the conventional American Dream of upward economic mobility. But dreams like his have a long tradition in this country. Think of the Puritans and the Shakers and the Amish. These American dreams are the uncompromising pursuit of a difficult ideal.

The scene that David Fisher imagined, on the New Year’s Eve almost two decades ago, has turned into reality. It’s called Natural Roots Farm.

bridge

Dan Charles/NPR

To get to the farm, you have to leave the motorized world behind. Cross the South River on a swinging footbridge, and there in front of you are seven acres of growing vegetables, neatly laid out in rows.

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It’s early in the fall, on this day; the hillside beyond the fields is glowing with red and yellow leaves. It’s idyllic, almost magical.

Anna Maclay is out checking on the fields.

“I came originally as an apprentice in 2002,” she tells me. “Totally fell in love with the land. I just thought, ‘I want to live here!”

family

Dan Charles/NPR

Her wish came true in a way she hadn’t expected. She and David Fisher fell in love and got married. They now have two school-age children: Leora and Gabriel.

It’s a harvest day on the farm and David and Anna have some help. They’re joined by Emmet Van Driesche, who lives nearby on his own farm, and two apprentices, Kyle Farr and Calixta Killander, who are living and working on the farm for a year. Together, they’ll need to fill a wagon with spinach, beets, broccoli and a host of other vegetables and herbs.

About two hundred customers have bought shares in the farm’s harvest. Among them is Maggie Potter. She arrives with her children to pick up her produce. “It’s not only having the vegetables – the nourishment for our own bodies. It’s creating community, making friends along the way,” she says.

CSA customers

Dan Charles/NPR

If this all sounds like a vision of peace and contentment, take a closer look. Watch David Fisher at work. While the apprentices stick together in the fields, chatting as they work, Fisher works by himself, cutting greens off just above the soil, hacking out heads of broccoli. He moves quickly, with purpose in every step, almost never stopping, from daybreak until dusk. And when you talk with him, it becomes even clearer: He’s a very driven man. He’s driven, in fact, by a kind of desperation. And to understand it, you need to know his life story.

David Fisher grew up in the suburbs north of New York City, in the village of Pleasantville, in Westchester County. He spent summers at a rustic camp in the Adirondacks. “You could only get there by boat, you couldn’t drive there,” Fisher says. “No electricity, bathe in the lake, live all summer in a tent.”

Then, at the end of every summer, he’d get on a train back to Grand Central Station and it would hit him. “Noise, steel and concrete and lights everywhere,” he recalls. It was an overwhelming sensory experience, and for young David, it wasn’t a pleasant one.

When he was 15, that end-of-summer paradigm shift was more than he could take. He was overtaken by despair over the environmental fate of the earth. “I was like – this is craziness. The whole thing. Civilization as I’m seeing it is absurd. The way that humans are living on, consuming, destroying the earth is absurd,” he says. “The only thing I could see to do was pack up and flee.”

He determined to drop out of high school; his parents forced him to get a diploma, graduating early. Then, Fisher got as far as he possibly could from houses and highways and smokestacks. He hung out in the west, skiing and backpacking, immersing himself in nature to “soothe his soul,” as he puts it. He loved it, but he still knew, in the back of his mind, that it was just an escape. It wasn’t an enduring path out of his despair about the world.

One day, when Fisher was 20 years old, he was back on the East Coast, visiting a friend at Hampshire College, here in western Massachusetts, and he wandered into the college’s small organic farm. It was another overwhelming sensory experience, but the opposite of Grand Central Station: “Autumn leaves raining down, and the lush fields of vegetables and cover crops. Open the barn door, and the tables are lined with this abundance of earthy, healthy, vital produce. And I was like, ‘Wow!'”

He felt like he was seeing, for the first time, a way to live immersed in the natural world, and also be productive. To make a living.

young woman in the field

Dan Charles/NPR

He started learning to farm, from other farmers. And then he found this land near the town of Conway.

You can call this farm utopian, if utopia is the kind of place where you work extra hard and live very frugally so that you can grow food in a way that’s more in harmony with nature.

For instance: Half of the land on this farm is always devoted to “cover crops” that don’t produce any food that customers will buy. The purpose of these crops is simply to protect and nourish the soil.

His most defining choice, though, is to rely on horses as the primary source of power on the farm.

horses

Dan Charles/NPR

Two of them, Pat and Lady, pull a wagon full of vegetables from the fields across the river and up a hill to a small barn beside the road where families come to pick up their produce. Kyle Farr, one of the apprentices, holds the reins and directs the horses with cryptic words and sucking sounds.

David Fisher is committed to horses partly because it makes the farm more self-sufficient. “It’s so direct,” he says. He doesn’t have to rely on fossil fuels. “The fuel is there in the grass. The power is right there, in the form of these live animals.” Also, he says, horses force you to work at a more natural rhythm.

But there’s a cost, in the form of time. Horses need care and feeding every day, whether they’re pulling a wagon that day or not.

Fisher learned this past year that two former apprentices at Natural Roots Farm who had learned to work with horses here and then adopted this method on their own farms, recently went back to farming with tractors.

vegetables for sale

Dan Charles/NPR

It bothers him. But he’s not giving up. Because for him, working with horses is one small answer to the despair that led him here. “The environmental crisis is heavy. It’s a heavy, heavy situation. And to find any hope of effecting some sort of change, or examples [of change] is critical to my emotional, psychological well-being,” he says.

Over breakfast that day, I ask David, “Are you a perfectionist?” He starts to deny it, but Anna cuts in. “Yes!” she says.

He and Anna both tell me that David’s driving ambition to build a better farm — constantly working, always starting some new project — has led to conflict between them. “This is the long-standing disagreement,” Anna says softly. “I always think that we need to take on less, you know?”

brussel sprouts

Dan Charles/NPR

They’ve managed to keep this farm afloat for almost two decades now, but “it’s still a serious struggle to make the economics of it work out,” David says. And apart from worries about money, they have to manage the logistics of a complicated life — 200 families depending on a steady supply of produce from their farm, children in school and playing soccer, and their car parked on the other side of the river, a quarter-mile walk from their rustic home.

“There’s not a lot that’s easy about living this way,” she says. “But most of it feels pretty right. And I guess that’s turned out to be more important, for me.”

Those are the words they often use, talking about their choices. This small, alternative American Dream, for them, just feels right.

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Thanks To Russia, 2016 Isn't Really Going To End For Obama And Trump

President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for the media before a bilateral meeting at United Nations headquarters on Sept. 28, 2015. Andrew Harnik/AP hide caption

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Andrew Harnik/AP

In the Washington of 2016, even when the policy can be bipartisan, the politics cannot. And in that sense, this year shows little sign of ending on Dec. 31.

When President Obama moved to sanction Russia over its alleged interference in the U.S. election just concluded, some Republicans who had long called for similar or more severe measures could scarcely bring themselves to approve.

House Speaker Paul Ryan called the Obama measures “appropriate” but also “overdue” and “a prime example of this administration’s ineffective foreign policy that has left America weaker in the eyes of the world.”

Other GOP leaders sounded much the same theme.

“[We have] been urging President Obama for years to take strong action to deter Russia’s worldwide aggression, including its cyber-hacking operations,” wrote Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

“Now with just a few weeks left in office, the president has suddenly decided that some stronger measures are indeed warranted.”

Appearing on CNN, frequent Obama critic Trent Franks, R-Ariz., called for “much tougher” actions and said three times that Obama had “finally found his tongue.”

Meanwhile, at Mar-a-Lago and on Fox News, various spokesmen for President-elect Trump said Obama’s real target was not the Russians at all but the man poised to take over the White House in less than three weeks.

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They spoke of Obama trying to “tie Trump’s hands” or “box him in,” meaning the president-elect would be forced either to keep the sanctions or be at odds with Republicans who want to be tougher still on Moscow.

Throughout 2016, Trump has repeatedly called not for sanctions but for closer ties with Russia, including cooperation in the fight against ISIS. Russia has battled ISIS in Syria on behalf of that country’s embattled dictator, Bashar Assad, bombing the besieged rebel-held city of Aleppo that fell to Assad’s forces this week.

During the campaign, Trump even urged Russia to “find” missing emails from the private server of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. He has exchanged public encomiums with Russian President Vladimir Putin on several occasions and added his doubts about the current U.S. levels of support for NATO — Putin’s longtime nemesis. There have also been suggestions that Trump’s extensive business dealings with various Russians are the reason he refuses to release his tax returns.

All those issues have been disquieting to some Republicans for many months. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., prominent senior members of the Armed Services Committee, have accepted the assessment of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies regarding the role of Russia in the hacking of various Democratic committees last year.

That includes the FBI and CIA consensus that the Russian goal was not just to discredit American democracy but to defeat Clinton and elect Trump. They say the great majority of their Senate colleagues agree with them, and McCain has slated an Armed Services hearing on cyberthreats for Jan. 5.

But the politicizing of the Russian actions — the idea that they helped Trump win — has also made the issue difficult for Republican leaders. It has allowed Trump supporters to push back on the intelligence agencies and say the entire issue is designed to undermine Trump’s legitimacy.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has so far resisted calls for a select committee to look into the Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. He has said it is enough for Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., to look into it as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Typically, Republican leaders and spokesmen say there is no evidence that the actual voting or tallying on Nov. 8 was compromised, and that is true. But it is also a red herring, as interference in those functions has not been alleged and is not the focus of the U.S. intelligence agencies’ concern.

For his part, Trump has shown little interest in delving into what happened. He has cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence reports to date and suggested “no one really knows what happened.” He also has suggested that computers make it very difficult to know who is using them. This week, Trump said it was time to “get on with our lives and do more important things.”

However, at week’s end he did agree to have an intelligence briefing on the subject next week. The president-elect has not wanted the daily intelligence briefings available to him in recent weeks, preferring that they be given to the men he has chosen as his vice president (Mike Pence) and national security adviser (Mike Flynn), with Trump taking them only occasionally.

The irony of this controversy arising at the eleventh hour of the Obama presidency can scarcely be overstated, and it defines the dilemma facing both the outgoing president and the incoming party in control.

Obama appears to have been reluctant to retaliate against the Russian hacking before the election for fear of seeming to interfere with the election himself. The Republicans, meanwhile, have for years called for greater confrontation with the Russians, with Obama usually resisting.

Obama did join with NATO in punishing the Russians with economic sanctions over the annexation of Crimea. Those sanctions may have been painful, coming as they did alongside falling prices for oil — the commodity that keeps the Russian economy afloat.

On other occasions, despite Russian provocations through surrogates in Syria and elsewhere, Obama did not make overt moves to force Russia’s hand. That includes occasions when Russia was believed to be hacking critical computer systems in neighboring Ukraine, Estonia and Poland.

But this week, following a chorus of confirmation from the U.S. intelligence community regarding the Russian role in computer hacking in the political campaign, Obama acted. He imposed a set of mostly diplomatic actions such as sanctioning some Russian officials, closing two diplomatic compounds and expelling 35 Russian diplomats.

There may have been more damaging measures taken covertly, and some Russophobes in Washington held out hope for that. But the visible portion of the program scarcely amounted to major retribution. And Putin saw fit to diminish the Obama sanctions further by declining to respond.

Although his government has steadfastly denied any interference in the U.S. election, Putin rejected his own foreign minister’s recommended package of tit-for-tat responses. (He even sent an invitation for U.S. diplomats to send their children to a holiday party in Moscow.)

That allowed Putin to appear for the moment to be “the bigger man,” even as he spurned Obama and kept up what has looked like a public bromance with Trump, who tweeted: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”

Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016

At the moment it may seem that the overall Russia question amounts to the first crisis facing the Trump presidency. Whether forced by this campaign interference issue or not, Trump must grasp the nettle of a relationship Mitt Romney once called the greatest threat to U.S. security in the world.

To be sure, Trump needs to dispel doubts about his ability to stand up to Putin, who has bullied and cajoled his way to center stage in recent world affairs. But Trump also seems determined to turn the page on past U.S. commitments, from free trade philosophy to funding of NATO and the United Nations.

And if his Twitter account is any guide, Trump shows little concern about the conundrum others perceive to be facing him.

Above all, Trump has shown himself determined to play by his own rules. A year ago, many were confident that would not work for him in the world of presidential politics. We are about to find out whether it works for him in the Oval Office.

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From Psychedelics To Alzheimer's, 2016 Was A Good Year For Brain Science

The year in brain research.

Image by Catherine MacBride/Getty Images

With a president-elect who has publicly supported the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism, suggested that climate change is a hoax dreamed up by the Chinese, and appointed to his Cabinet a retired neurosurgeon who doesn’t buy the theory of evolution, things might look grim for science.

Yet watching Patti Smith sing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” live streamed from the Nobel Prize ceremony in early December to a room full of physicists, chemists and physicians — watching her twice choke up, each time stopping the song altogether, only to push on through all seven wordy minutes of one of Bob Dylan’s most beloved songs — left me optimistic.

Taking nothing away from the very real anxieties about future funding and support for science, neuroscience in particular has had plenty of promising leads that could help fulfill Alfred Nobel’s mission to better humanity. In the spirit of optimism, and with input from the Society for Neuroscience, here are a few of the noteworthy neuroscientific achievements of 2016.

One of the more fascinating fields of neuroscience of late entails mapping the crosstalk between our biomes, brains and immune systems.

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In July, a group from the University of Virginia published a study in Nature showing that the immune system, in addition to protecting us from a daily barrage of potentially infectious microbes, can also influence social behavior. The researchers had previously shown that a type of white blood cells called T cells influence learning behavior in mice by communicating with the brain. Now they’ve shown that blocking T cell access to the brain influences rodent social preferences.

It appears that interferon, an immune system factor released from T cells, is at least partly responsible for the findings. A single injection of interferon into the mice’s cerebrospinal fluid, the clear, protective fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord, was enough to restore social behaviors. Lead author Jonathan Kipnis from the University of Virginia speculates that there might be an evolutionary linkage here — one protecting us from the increased pathogen exposure that comes with socializing. He also says the findings could help improve our understanding and treatment of brain disorders.

Of course these findings were in rodents, but earlier work by Kipnis suggests that the brain and immune system communicate in similar ways in humans.

Major advances were also made this year in joining human with machine.

In October 2015, Hanneke de Bruijne, a 58-year-old Dutch woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease, received a brain implant that would allow her to communicate simply by thinking.

Eighty percent of patients suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, as the condition is also known, ultimately have trouble communicating because of muscle paralysis. At its extreme, this paralysis results in a tragic state called locked-in syndrome, in which patients remain fully aware but can’t express themselves; they become locked inside their own bodies.

The new therapy, which comes on the heels of similar work out of East Tennessee State University, was developed by a team from the University Medical Center Utrecht in collaboration with Medtronic. It consists of four electrodes implanted over the motor region of the brain that connect to a wireless transmitter implanted in the chest. After 28 weeks of training, the device was able to recognize brain activity patterns that occur with thinking about typing a particular letter. Though de Bruijne’s muscles still can’t move, this brain-computer interface can now translate her brain waves — or her “thoughts” — into text.

Among the biggest neuroscience drug advances of the year was the Food and Drug Administration’s Dec. 23 approval of Biogen’s Spinraza, or nusinersen, the first treatment for spinal muscular atrophy.

Spinal muscular atrophy is the No. 1 genetic cause of death in infants. Those affected by the devastating disorder carry a gene mutation that renders them unable to produce a protein essential to survival of neurons in the spinal cord. Gradually stripped of their abilities to walk, eat and breathe, most children struck with the disease don’t make it past 2 years old.

Spinraza is a gene therapy that boosts the production of the essential protein. Despite possible side effects, which include bleeding complications, kidney toxicity and infection, the drug appears to work so well that two recent clinical trials were stopped early, as it was deemed unethical to withhold treatment from babies assigned to placebo groups. As with many other drugs for rare diseases, the price of Spinraza is expected to be high to help recoup research costs — perhaps as high as $250,000 per year.

The Alzheimer’s disease community also received welcome news this year. After hundreds of failed trials of potential treatments over the past couple of decades, the experimental drug aducanumab, also produced by Biogen, was found in early trials to slow the cognitive decline that comes with Alzheimer’s.

And then there was the ongoing resurgence of psychedelic medicine.

It’s been pretty well established that the hallucinogenic anesthetic ketamine may be an effective antidepressant. Now we have some potentially groundbreaking findings for psilocybin, the active compound in “magic mushrooms.” Two clinical trials found that just a single high dose of the drug is effective at treating symptoms of both depression and anxiety in late-stage-cancer patients.

Scientists are unsure just how psilocybin works to relieve mental duress. But one theory holds that it disrupts self-focused thought and fixation — common in those suffering from depression — allowing selfless cognition and experience to occur. In both trials the intensity of the patients’ “mystical experiences” correlated with the decrease in symptoms.

Both research groups strongly caution against recreational use or self-medicating with magic mushrooms, but the findings have many experts and institutions reconsidering the half-century of negative counterculture stigma surrounding psilocybin.

The list of neuroscientific advances from the past 12 months goes on: The Human Connectome Project gave us the most complete map of the cerebral cortex to date; a Canadian group revealed in part how fear memories are formed; scientists at Mount Sinai charted the neurocircuitry behind social aggression.

Still, the field of neuroscience remains, at best, in adolescence.

As British novelist Matt Haig wrote in The Telegraph in 2015, “Neuroscience is a baby science. … We know more about the moons of Jupiter than what is inside of our skulls.”

As the year’s abundant advances attest, there is plenty of room left for discoveries in the coming year and beyond — and plenty of creative, eager researchers to make them.


Bret Stetka is a writer based in New York and an editorial director at Medscape. His work has appeared in Wired, Scientific American and on The Atlantic.com. He graduated from University of Virginia School of Medicine in 2005. He’s also on Twitter: @BretStetka

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U.S. Officials Say Russia Hacked A Vermont Utility

A Vermont utility company says it found Russian malware on one of it’s computers. The discovery came after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security alerted utilities to the code associated with Grizzly Steppe, the name for what the Obama administration has called a Russian hacking operation.

Burlington Electric, the municipally-owned utility in Vermont’s largest city, issued a statement saying the malware was detected in a single laptop not connected to the company’s grid system. “We took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alerted federal officials of this finding. Our team is working with federal officials to trace this malware and prevent any other attempts to infiltrate utility systems. We have briefed state officials and will support the investigation fully,” the statement said.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin lashed out at the Russian government, saying in a statement, “Vermonters and all Americans should be both alarmed and outraged that one of the world’s leading thugs, Vladimir Putin, has been attempting to hack our electric grid, which we rely upon to support our quality-of-life, economy, health, and safety.”

Vermont Public Radio reported on the hacking incident, quoting the state’s Public Service Commissioner as saying the hack never threatened the power grid.

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Episode 745: The Rest Of The Story, 2016 Edition

Every year at Planet Money, we take a cue from radio legend Paul Harvey and bring you "The Rest of the Story."

Quoctrung Bui/NPR

Every year at Planet Money, we take a cue from radio legend Paul Harvey and bring you “The Rest of the Story.” It’s a show where we check in on some of the episodes that we’ve done in the past year, and tell you what’s changed.

It turns out that 2016 is a hard year to wrap up. A lot of the big economic stories that we covered this year still don’t have endings. Puerto Rico is still crushed under massive debt. Venezuela is still collapsing. The United Kingdom hasn’t yet pulled the trigger on Brexit. And, of course, Donald Trump won’t take office for another few weeks.

But, there are some episodes from 2016 that we want to revisit. We talk with Senator Elizabeth Warren about the fallout from our investigations into Wells Fargo. We learn that the store of the future arrived sooner than anyone expected. We hear about ISIS’s new tax scheme. And finally, we check in with the man who sold us our Planet Money oil—and find out that he just bought a steak dinner with the profits.

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In case you missed them, here are the original stories featured in today’s episode:

Music: Shake ‘Em Loose, Move Your Feet, and (You Give Me) Nothing In Between. Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

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Simon & Schuster Will Publish Book By Breitbart Editor, Despite Criticism

Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative columnist and Internet personality, confirmed that he has a book deal with Simon & Schuster, saying on his Facebook page: “They said banning me from Twitter would finish me off. Just as I predicted, the opposite has happened.” Drew Angerer/Getty Images hide caption

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Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The AP reported Friday that Simon & Schuster planned to move forward with publication of a book by Milo Yiannopoulos, in spite of harsh criticism. The forthcoming book, called Dangerous, is said to be about free speech.

Yiannopoulos, who writes for Breitbart News, became widely known over the summer after he was permanently banned from Twitter for “participating in or inciting targeted abuse of individuals.”

As NPR reported at the time, Yiannopoulos had launched a campaign against Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones, calling on other users to help him harass her on Twitter. [Editor’s note: The linked site contains offensive material.]

“People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter,” Twitter said in a statement emailed to NPR. “But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”

Several Simon & Schuster authors expressed their outrage on Twitter at the news that they would be sharing a publisher with Yiannopoulos.

I’m looking at my @simonschuster contract, and unfortunately there’s no clause for “what if we decide to publish a white nationalist”

— Danielle Henderson (@knottyyarn) December 29, 2016

I’ve been with S&S for 10 years. I think of myself as a company gal. What else can I say but that I’m disappointed and embarrassed.

— Jenny Han (@jennyhan) December 29, 2016

The irony of all this is that @SimonKIDS and @simonteen — books for “kids” — have nobly amplified the very marginalized voices Milo mocks 🤔

— Tim Federle (@TimFederle) December 29, 2016

In a post on the author’s Facebook page, Milo Yiannopolous wrote:

“They said banning me from Twitter would finish me off. Just as I predicted, the opposite has happened. Every line of attack the forces of political correctness try on me fails pathetically. I’m more powerful, more influential, and more fabulous than ever before and this book is the moment Milo goes mainstream. Social justice warriors should be scared — very scared.”

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In a statement to the AP, Simon & Schuster said Friday that it does not condone discrimination or hate speech and that readers should “withhold judgment until they have had a chance to read the actual contents of the book.”

The book, which is available for preorder, had climbed to No. 1 on Amazon’s Best Sellers list as of Friday.

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