Moon Or Space Dumpling? You Decide

Over 700 million miles away, a tiny space dumpling orbits Saturn.

Images of Pan were taken by the NASA spacecraft Cassini on Tuesday.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

At least, that’s the food item that came to my mind after checking out the new images of Saturn’s moon Pan. Since the images were snapped by NASA spacecraft Cassini on Tuesday and released Thursday, others have suggested the moon looks like a classic Italian ravioli, a flaky empanada, and even a walnut. I think it could also pass as a pierogi or maybe even a gyoza.

Some even wrote songs about the petite moon because of its strikingly ravioli-esque appearance.

Fantastico! #Saturn‘s moon #Pan resembles a space ravioli in these raw images taken by @CassiniSaturn on Mar 7, 2017

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) March 9, 2017

These are the closest images ever taken of the moon — Cassini flew by just 15,268 miles from Pan to capture its appearance. The moon has a radius of less than 9 miles.

Pan gets its delicious shape from something called an equatorial ridge, a feature it shares with two other moons of Saturn called Atlas and Iapetus. As Cassini imaging lead Carolyn Porco writes on Twitter, that ridge very likely grows as moons orbit inside Saturn’s rings. The ring material builds up around the moons’ equators, turning them into dumplings.

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Afghans Who Worked With U.S. Forces Told They Can No Longer Apply For Special Visas

Former U.S. Army interpreter Qismat Amin arrived in the U.S. from Afghanistan on Feb. 8. Amin waited nearly four years for his special immigrant visa, living in hiding after receiving death threats from the Taliban for helping American troops.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

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Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

The State Department is running out of visas for Afghans who are in danger because they worked with the U.S. government in Afghanistan.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department announced Thursday that it expected to run out of visas for Afghans who assisted the U.S. mission by June 1, and that, “No further interviews for Afghan principal applicants … will be scheduled after March 1, 2017.”

NPR’s Quil Lawrence reported, “The Special Immigrant Visa program was designed to reward Iraqis and Afghans who help U.S. forces at war, but it’s been plagued by a lengthy vetting process and changing politics in Washington.”

The special visas also apply to spouses and children of people who worked as translators, drivers and other staff for the U.S. military and other agencies.

A State Department official told NPR in an email on Thursday that more than 15,000 Afghans are currently “at some stage of the [special visa] application process,” and that as of March 5, only 1,437 visas remain to be given out.

Last fall, military leaders, refugee advocates and some members of Congress warned that the program would run out of visas by the end of the year, and the Obama administration requested that Congress approve 4,000 more.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of adding that many visas under the program would be $446 million over the next decade.

Allowing SIV program to lapse sends message to Afghan allies that the US has abandoned them. Congress must fix this

— Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (@SenatorShaheen) March 9, 2017

In December, Congress approved 1,500 new special immigrant visas for Afghans.

At the time, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said in a statement that “It is no exaggeration to say that this is a matter of life and death as Afghans who served the U.S. mission continue to be systematically hunted down by the Taliban. The number of visas needed for those in danger far surpasses what’s provided in this bill.”

Shaheen, a Democrat, has partnered with Sen. John McCain, a Republican, to push for the program to continue, and both have condemned what they see as a shortsighted policy of limiting visas, making it more difficult for the U.S. government to convince local allies to work with them.

Marine veteran Zach Iscol told Lawrence “It’s not just a quid pro quo, ‘Hey you help me out I’ll help you get to America.’ It’s taking care of those who took care of us when we were in their country.”

Last month the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan asked Congress to send more troops to Afghanistan, where American soldiers have been assisting Afghan security forces since the U.S. formally ended its combat mission in 2014, and are increasingly drawn into battle there.

There currently 8,400 U.S. service members deployed to Afghanistan.

Last year, nine former Iraqi translators sued the federal government over delays in the program. Some had been waiting five years or more to get an answer about their visa applications.

Mac McEachin of the International Refugee Assistance Project, which has helped Afghans apply through the special visa programs in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said in a statement that he believes allowing the program to lapse could affect U.S. operations outside the two countries.

“This news deals our ground efforts an especially harsh blow, as it comes on the heels of the announcement that troops from the 82nd Airborne will be deployed to Syria,” he wrote. “Now that the world has seen how we turn our backs on our Afghan allies, there is almost no chance that local allies in Syria will be inclined to work with us.”

The collapse of the U.S. special visa program is part of a larger closing of U.S. borders to people fleeing war and political violence.

Last week, President Trump signed a new executive order banning travel from six predominantly Muslim countries, and slashing the total number of refugees who can be offered asylum in the U.S. from 110,000 to 50,000.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, Afghans make up the second largest group of refugees in the world right now, after Syrians. About 2.7 million Afghan people and 4.9 million Syrian people have fled their homes and are considered refugees.

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Italian Band Soviet Soviet Denied Entry To The U.S., Jailed And Then Deported

The band Soviet Soviet.

Courtesy of the artist

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Courtesy of the artist

This afternoon, the Italian trio Soviet Soviet posted a lengthy statement on Facebook explaining why they would not be keeping their U.S. tour dates this week and next: they had been deported.

The band, who are based in the city of Pesaro, landed in Seattle on Wednesday afternoon. They were traveling under ESTA (also known as the Visa Waiver Program), which allows citizens of nearly 40 countries to travel to the United States without having to obtain a visa.

According to the group, its three members were carrying a letter from its American record label explaining that the musicians were scheduled to perform a number of “promotional,” non-paid performances in the U.S., including a live performance at Member Station KEXP, as well as a showcase at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas.

The band says that its three musicians were questioned for several hours, and “agents” (presumably U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers) denied them entry into the country. From the airport, the band says, the three were taken to a jail and held overnight before being escorted to a plane and sent back to Italy. The trio says that they were treated “like criminals.”

In its statement, Soviet Soviet says that the agents’ refusal to permit the band’s entry seems to have stemmed from the fact that the agents believed that the group needed work visas to enter the U.S., because two of the venues at which Soviet Soviet was slated to perform were going to charge audiences entry fees — even though the band says that its musicians were not going to earn any money while in the U.S.

This afternoon, KEXP published a short statement about the situation, saying:

“Yesterday, Thursday, March 9th, Italian trio Soviet Soviet were scheduled to perform live on The Morning Show on KEXP. Their sophomore album Endless was released on felte Records back in December, and with its dark, anthemic, post-punk sound, quickly became a favorite on the KEXP airwaves. Unfortunately, the in-studio — as well as their scheduled performances at Kremwerk, SXSW, and venues along the west coast — had to be canceled … KEXP sincerely hopes we’ll be able to reschedule a session with the band in the near future.”

It remains to be seen if other musicians will face similar circumstances as they arrive at U.S. border points of entry in the coming days. This period is a particular pressure point as SXSW gets underway on March 13; nearly 600 foreign acts showcased there during the 2016 edition of the festival. Just a week ago, the festival’s organizers faced intense scrutiny over their contractual statements regarding international artists coming into the U.S. to play in Austin, which led to an official apology and a promise to revise SXSW’s language going forward.

On Tuesday, a prominent immigration attorney named Brian Taylor Goldstein, whose practice is centered around working with artists seeking to tour the U.S., published a lengthy article advising international musicians about the current — and shifting — challenges regarding immigration policy under the Trump administration. Goldstein wrote:

“Given that the new Order specifically requires heightened vetting and screening of those “who seek to enter the United States on a fraudulent basis”, there is going to be even more scrutiny and less forgiveness than ever before with regard to artists attempting to enter the US on visitor visas (B-1/B-2) or through the Visa Waiver Program (“ESTA”). We are already receiving reports of artists being held and detained for hours upon entering the US to determine whether or not they are performing. Even artists entering as visitors for the purpose of attending a conference or “performing a showcase” are being pulled aside and, in many cases, being refused entry. Artists entering with B- 1/B-2 visas or through the Visa Waiver Program (ESTA) are being pulled aside the moment they say that they are “entertainers”, “performers”, or “artists” … In short, an Immigration Officer has the unfettered authority and discretion to deny entry to any artist from any nationality for any reason. To what extent this authority will be exercised remains to be seen.”


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Falling Stars: Negative Yelp Reviews Target Trump Restaurants, Hotels

The Trump Grill at Trump Tower in New York City on Dec. 15, 2016. Now that Donald Trump is president, online reviews of his hotels, restaurants and other properties have become much more politicized.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

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Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

After purportedly stopping in at Mar-a-Lago, President Trump’s Palm Beach resort, not long ago, a visitor went straight to Google’s online review site to complain about the restaurant ambience.

“Very loud and distracting dinner atmosphere,” the visitor noted. “I just wanted a quiet peaceful meal, but White House staff and diplomats at the next table kept shouting out classified information.”

People who dislike Trump politically have found a new way of venting their fury and in the process perhaps hitting him in his wallet: They can leave a lousy review on sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor and Google.

Of course there are also plenty of pro-Trump reviews from Trump fans. But since Trump’s nomination at the Republican convention last summer, negative reviews on Yelp and Google have begun outpacing positive reviews by a factor of six to four, says Signpost, a marketing software company.

Some of the reviews are funny, others just nasty.

“Not a pleasant experience,” noted one person about the Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York. “I felt like I was going to be groped the whole time.”

“The person who runs these hotels is a giant racist which is pretty ironic for someone who is Orange-American. Would not recommend,” said another.

It’s not just that some of the reviews are snarky. More and more users have also been giving Trump’s U.S. hotels and restaurants one-star ratings, Signpost says.

“In February, in particular, we saw a spike in one-star reviews. There were about 160 one-star reviews written for Trump properties in the month of February alone,” noted Stuart Wall, Signpost’s founder and CEO.

For the Trump Organization, which didn’t return requests for comment for this story, that’s a potential cause for concern.

People who don’t even read reviews nevertheless may rely heavily on ratings systems to choose hotels and restaurants, research suggests. In fact, many people shopping for hotels begin by looking at the highest-ranked properties, which puts those further down the list at a disadvantage.

Harvard Business School professor Michael Luca studied the impact of a Yelp ratings downgrade on restaurants in Seattle between January 2003 and October 2009.

“For independent restaurants, Yelp ratings matter a lot,” he concluded. “A one-star increase maps to about a five- to-nine percent increase in sales.” He cautions that the impact is not as strong for chain restaurants and for well-known brand names, which certainly includes Trump.

For its part, Yelp tries to protect the integrity of its content by using humans to weed out politically tinged reviews.

For example, a banner is now posted on the page for Trump SoHo New York warning, “This business is being monitored by Yelp’s support team for content related to media reports.”

The site also uses software that “takes a whole number of factors into account as to whether we should trust or rely on that content, based on how much we know about that user,” says Vincent Sollitto, Yelp senior vice president.

But not all review sites use such software and even if they do, no program can screen out all politically motivated content.

Still, all is hardly lost for the Trump Organization, Luca says.

He notes that the company has talked about building more properties in the U.S. and abroad, and recently doubled the Mar-a-Lago initiation fee. That suggests that, for Trump, the benefits of being president still outweigh the disadvantages.

“It seems that at least Trump thinks that the benefits of the brand-building of being president [have] a bigger effect than any negative effect that might be coming through an influx of negative reviews,” he says.

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Trump To Nominate Dr. Scott Gottlieb To Head Food And Drug Administration

Scott Gottlieb, FDA deputy commissioner for policy, speaks to reporters at the Reuters Health summit in New York in 2005.

Chip East/Reuters

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Chip East/Reuters

Dr. Scott Gottlieb is expected to become President Trump’s choice to lead the Food and Drug Administration.

Gottlieb is a political conservative and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he has focused his research on the FDA and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

An internist and hospitalist, Gottlieb has played leading roles in various government health agencies, including as deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs at the FDA during the George W. Bush administration. Before that, he was a senior policy advisor at CMS working on the implementation of Medicare’s then-new drug coverage for seniors.

Gottlieb is a prolific writer on health care issues, particularly the pharmaceutical industry. He is seen as a strong supporter of that industry and has championed deregulation.

“I think Scott is absolutely qualified,” lawyer John Taylor of Greenleaf Health tells STAT. “He has good professional credentials and personal integrity, and a track record that shows the ability to make difficult decisions.”

While Trump has promised at various times to make fairly radical changes at the FDA, Gottlieb is a seen as a conventional choice for commissioner by a Republican president.

Earlier in the year, odds were favoring the nomination of Jim O’Neill, an associate of Silicon Valley entrepreneur and billionaire Peter Thiel, a close Trump adviser. O’Neill created waves when he called for drugs to be approved as soon as they had been judged to be safe, but before they’re proved to be effective, as required under current law.

Should Gottlieb be approved by the Senate, one early target he may aim for is so-called off-label promotion of prescription drugs. The Obama administration issued tighter restrictions on how companies could market drugs for conditions not mentioned on drug labels — signifying the lack of FDA approval for that cause. Gottlieb has been highly critical of the Obama rules.

Gottlieb has many possible financial conflicts that could feature prominently in his confirmation hearings. He serves on advisory boards for several major pharmaceutical companies.

“Gottlieb is entangled in an unprecedented web of Big Pharma ties,” says Dr. Michael Carome, the director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, a pro-consumer advocacy group. “He has spent most of his career dedicated to promoting the financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry and the U.S. Senate must reject him.”

According to the ProPublica website Dollars for Docs, Gottlieb received more than $400,000 between August 2013 and December 2015 in promotional talks, research, consulting and travel while practicing at Stamford Hospital in Connecticut.

As FDA commissioner, Gottlieb would oversee an agency that has regulatory power over a quarter of the US economy, including not just pharmaceuticals, but medical devices, food safety, cosmetics and other areas of human and animal health.

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Public Defenders Hard To Come By In Louisiana

Frederick Bell of Larose, La., says he’s received no guidance from a public defender on how to fight drug charges from October. Bell is part of a class action lawsuit against Louisiana’s public defender board that charges the public defense system is unconstitutional.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

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Debbie Elliott/NPR

In Louisiana, people arrested for serious crimes who can’t afford a lawyer often are put on a waiting list for representation. A new lawsuit says the situation is unconstitutional.

Frederick Bell is one of the plaintiffs in the class action suit. Bell lives “down the bayou” as locals say — in LaFourche Parish, defined by its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. He does cement work in the oilfield industry, but things are on hold as he awaits trial on a drug charge from last October. Officers say they found drugs in his car during a traffic stop. Bell says he saw the public defender the day after he was arrested, in jail, for about 5 minutes.

“That was really just to tell me what I was charged with and how much my bond was,” Bell says.

They didn’t speak again until a court appearance a month later. He says when his name was called, the lawyer told him what prosecutors were offering in exchange for a guilty plea.

“I hadn’t spoken with anybody about what went down for them to even give me a plea deal,” he says.

He declined the offer, and his trial was set for April. But just a few weeks out, he still has not discussed his case with a public defender.

“I wish my attorney would at least get in touch with me or let me know what’s going on,” Bell says. “If they do have evidence or if they don’t? But no word.”

Bell and 12 others are suing the governor and the state public defender board in a class action brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The lawsuit claims Louisiana’s indigent defense system violates both the federal and state constitutions, which affirm the right to legal counsel for poor defendants.

Bell is out on bond, but other plaintiffs have been in jail for months with little or no contact with a lawyer. Bell says he’s getting no guidance on how to fight his charges.

“To me it’s like you got a noose around your neck standing on a 3-legged stool trying to balance yourself cause you don’t know what’s going on,” Bell says.

How Louisiana pays for public defense

Public defenders say they’re performing a balancing act themselves. They handle more than 80 percent of criminal cases in Louisiana.

“I’m the only full-time employee with the public defenders’ office,” explains Rhonda Covington, the public defender for East and West Feliciana — two mostly rural parishes.

Covington says she’s got 265 open cases. Seven of them are felony life without parole situations, and she also handles juvenile delinquencies, family services and misdemeanors. “Everything from doing 60 in a 55 to first-degree murder, so it’s a wide expanse,” she says. “And I clean the office.”

Two part-time paralegals and two part-time contract attorneys help with the load. But there’s nothing in the budget for other resources lawyers typically use.

“I’ve got people who are homeless but I don’t have a social worker to help me,” she says. “I have murder cases that I’m doing my own investigation on because I can’t afford an investigator. I need experts. Can’t get those.”

Rhonda Covington is the only full-time employee at the public defender’s office for East and West Feliciana parishes in Louisiana.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

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Debbie Elliott/NPR

Chronic underfunding for indigent defense has been an issue in Louisiana for decades. But it reached a crisis level last year when the public defender in New Orleans stopped taking new felony cases. People accused of serious crimes were put on a waiting list for a lawyer.

When NPR reported on it at the time, public defenders in 12 districts said they couldn’t keep up with caseloads. Now 33 of the state’s 44 judicial districts are in that position, and Louisiana’s chief justice has declared an emergency shortfall in public defense funding.

“Public defense is not popular,” Covington says. “So politicians do not like it.”

Covington says her budget is a fraction of what prosecutors get.

“People think that criminals have more rights than victims. You hear that a lot,” she says. “This is giving rights to people who are accused. They haven’t been convicted of anything. They’re innocent until proven guilty. That’s the American system.”

At issue is the way Louisiana pays for public defense. While the state provides some money, the system depends primarily on traffic tickets and local court costs, which vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and have nothing to do with the demand for court-appointed lawyers.

Louisiana Administrative Commissioner Jay Dardenne says there’s no question that there are longstanding challenges funding the system. But he says it’s not that the state doesn’t want to provide indigent defense as a matter of policy.

“We have evidenced a recognition of the state’s obligation to provide a portion of the funding in that we have not reduced their funding at a time when we’ve reduced everything else in state government,” Dardenne says.

He says with the state facing a nearly billion dollar budget shortfall this fiscal year and next, it’s about priorities.

“They’re competing for state dollars with a lot of other needs that the state has at a time when we’re going through a very tumultuous budget experience,” he says.

‘Running a mill’

Critics say that’s no excuse.

“The Constitution doesn’t accept a budget deficit as a reason not to comply with the Constitution,” says Lisa Graybill with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the lawsuit.

“When you don’t have adequate defense, when you don’t have a zealous defense, you really are just running a mill for processing people into prison,” Graybill says.

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, and also one of the highest rates of exonerations. But it’s not alone when it comes to a chronic shortage of public defenders. Similar lawsuits have been filed at least six other states.

Earlier this year, a Louisiana federal judge threw out a lawsuit brought by the ACLU when the New Orleans office stopped taking new felony clients. But his ruling said it was clear Louisiana is “failing miserably at upholding its obligations” to provide lawyers for defendants who can’t afford private counsel.

The crisis has judges looking for ways to keep their courts moving.

“I started with A’s on that with attorneys in the phone book,” says Lafayette Judge Patrick Michot. He turned to the private bar, recruiting pro bono lawyers by phone to help defendants who would otherwise be in limbo.

“They can’t afford a lawyer and nothing is happening with their case and the cases are just piling up and they’re not going to trial and these people are giving up their time to come to court,” Michot says.

Now it’s up to a state judge to consider whether Louisiana is living up to its constitutional obligation to provide for indigent defense.

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This Moon Of Saturn May Be Tiny, But It Sure Looks Like A Mouthful

That’s no ravioli! Pan, one of Saturn’s moons, bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain stuffed pasta.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Oh sure, the Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, capturing breathtaking images of the beringed gas giant and illuminating a once-obscure pocket of our solar system for the sake of scientific inquiry.

But — you’re surely asking — what good is all that if the craft hasn’t taken any quality photographs of space ravioli?

Well, on Thursday, Cassini finally sent back what armchair astronomers are saying is the world’s definitive depiction of space ravioli — or, depending on whom you ask, a space walnut … or a space empanada.

Or, if you insist on getting technical: The image sent back Thursday depicts Saturn’s tiny moon Pan, a distinctively ridged satellite that’s so close to the planet, it completes a full orbit roughly every 14 hours. The moon, which has a diameter of just about 20 miles, follows in the footsteps of its ancient Greek namesake by acting as a shepherd to the material that makes up Saturn’s rings, clearing an empty space in their midst known as the Encke Gap.

Our closest looks ever at Saturn’s tiny moon Pan:

— CassiniSaturn (@CassiniSaturn) March 9, 2017

Still, whatever its other qualities, Pan’s curious shape is tough to ignore because it bears more than a passing resemblance to a sight you may find much closer to home — or rather, in your home on your dinner table.

As researchers posited in Science magazine in 2007, Pan and another of Saturn’s moons earned their equatorial ridges from the accumulation of ring particles, picked up over time as the moons orbit.

The authors put it this way: “We propose that Pan and Atlas ridges are kilometers-thick ‘ring-particle piles’ formed after the satellites themselves and after the flattening of the rings but before the complete depletion of ring material from their surroundings.”

It’s safe to say the images released Thursday are some of the clearest we’ve ever seen of Pan.

Pan, as framed by two of Saturn’s rings. Scientists believe the moon’s path clears a big channel between the rings.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

“I saw this picture, and I thought, that’s an artist’s conception,” Carolyn C. Porco, leader of Cassini’s imaging team and visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, tells the New York Times. “Then I realized it was real.”

And it might very well be among the last images sent by Cassini, a robotic spacecraft spearheaded jointly by NASA, the European Space Agency and Italy’s space agency.

After more than a decade circling Saturn, the craft has just a few months left before it commences what NASA calls the Grand Finale, a “daring set of orbits” that will end with Cassini plunging past Saturn to collect information on the planet’s gravitational fields, atmosphere and ring mass.

Yet above and beyond the incalculable value it has offered scientists, Cassini’s recent flyby has also offered journalists a humbler — though no less joyous — kind of gift: the chance to make a whole lot of pasta jokes.

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