Australia’s Chris the sheep, the world’s woolliest, dies

Chris the woolly sheep is seen in this undated picture from social media obtained by Reuters on October 22, 2019. RSPCA ACT /via REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) – An Australian sheep who made headlines in 2015 for the record-breaking weight of his fleece has died, according to the carers of the Merino named Chris.

The animal, believed to be aged about 10, was found dead on Tuesday morning by his minders, having died of old age, said Kate Luke, co-founder and vice president of the Canberra-based Little Oak Sanctuary, a charity that shelters over 180 farm animals.

“We are heartbroken at the loss of this sweet, wise, friendly soul. Chris is known as the world record holder for having grown the heaviest fleece on record,” the sanctuary said in a Facebook post.

“He was so much more than this, so very much more, and we will remember him for all that he was – someone, not something.”

In 2015, Chris the sheep was discovered on the northern outskirts of Australian capital Canberra, struggling to walk under the weight of his wool, which had not be shorn in more than five years. [reut.rs/2p63Dee]

The 40.2 kilos of wool removed from Chris in 2015 – worth about $413.6 at current prices – made him the unofficial carrier of the world’s heaviest fleece, dethroning New Zealand sheep Big Ben, who was found carrying nearly 29 kilograms of wool in 2014.

Reporting by Paulina Duran in Sydney; Editing by Sam Holmes

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In Canadian Vote, Trudeau’s Liberals On Top, But Lose Absolute Majority

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on during a meeting in Mexico City earlier this month.

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Canada’s Liberals appear to have won the most seats in Parliament — a result likely to hand Justin Trudeau a second term as prime minister despite a series of scandals that have rocked his government.

With all but a handful of the 338 seats called as of 2:45 a.m. ET, Trudeau’s Liberal Party had secured 156 seats — a loss of at least 30 seats — compared to 122 for its main rival, the Conservatives. The regional Bloc Québécois won 32. The New Democrats, who stand to the left of the Liberals and are seen as likely coalition partners for Trudeau – won 24 seats.

Without a majority, the Liberals, who came into the race with a majority of 177 seats, will have to form a minority government, seeking support from one or more smaller rivals to govern.

Despite the loss of an absolute majority, Trudeau’s acceptance speech sounded as though the outcome was a mandate.

“You did it, my friends. Congratulations,” Trudeau told supporters in Montreal early Tuesday.

“To those who did not vote for us, know that we will work every single day for you. We will govern for everyone,” he said.

Even so it was clear, as Jonathan Rose, a political science professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, told Reuters, that the Liberals “are going to need another party, that’s for sure.”

The election pitted Trudeau against Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, seen as a less flashy and no-nonsense opponent.

In his concession speech, Scheer warned: “Mr. Trudeau, when your government falls, Conservatives will be ready, and we will win.”

During the campaign, the Conservatives pushed tax cuts and rejected substantive action on climate change. Although they fell short of enough seats to form a government, they did manage to rout Liberal members of parliament in such places as Saskatchewan and Alberta, where the party won 70 percent of the vote, according to the CBC.

Trudeau, who swept to power in 2015 with a comfortable margin, brought a youthful style and liberal brand of politics into office. His friendship with former President Barack Obama, who endorsed him in Monday’s election, is well known, as is his increasingly strained relationship with President Trump.

Among other things, Trudeau introduced Canada’s first-ever gender-balanced Cabinet and has worked toward reconciliation with the country’s indigenous communities.

Last month, Trudeau, 47, acknowledged multiple occasions when he wore blackface and brownface as recently as 2001. The incidents, for which he has apologized and expressed regret, have called his judgement and his progressive credentials into question. In 2018, a 20-year-old accusation surfaced that he had groped a female journalist.

Trudeau has also taken heat for his decision to approve the building of the Rocky Mountain oil pipeline and has twice been found guilty of violating the country’s ethics laws.

During the campaign, Scheer pounced on the scandal, calling Trudeau a phony for not being able to remember how many times he had worn blackface and calling him “unfit” for office.

But Scheer faced issues of his own, among them his dual U.S.-Canada citizenship. Earlier this year, he began the process of renouncing his U.S. citizenship, but the appearance of divided loyalties did not sit well with some voters.

In the few weeks leading up to the election, Trudeau and Scheer seemed to be in a dead heat.

Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto, told The Associated Press late Monday that he expected Scheer to resign following the vote.

“He’s gone,” Bothwell said. “He ran a really dirty campaign. There is nothing to be proud of on his side. He had the opportunity and blew it.”

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The NPR Student Podcast Challenge Is Back!

Podcast Challenge

Delphine Lee/NPR

OK, teachers, you asked for it: It’s time once again to turn your classrooms into studios and your lessons into podcasts. That’s right, the NPR Student Podcast Challenge is back.

It’s a chance for your students to compete with young people all over the country for our grand prize: your students’ story appearing on NPR’s Morning Edition or All Things Considered.

Last school year, we received nearly 6,000 entries from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with more than 25,000 students participating.

The contest was a big success — we heard from so many teachers about how much fun they had and how their students got fired up by the project.

And from all the great entries, our judges picked two amazing winners: Eighth-graders from Bronx Prep Middle School in New York City talked about something they’d felt they couldn’t talk about before: their periods. And high school students in rural Tennessee told the dramatic story about the time, more than a century ago, when their community became famous for hanging an elephant.

The winners, and even the finalists and honorable mentions, got a lot of attention — from local news stories all the way up to national coverage in places like the Today show on NBC.

Students reported on all kinds of topics from a wide range of viewpoints and backgrounds: high school students at an adult learning center in Washington, incarcerated students in Milwaukee and a student in Louisville, Ky., who talked about what it’s like to be transgender. There were podcasts about Tater Tots, pickles, ice carving and Pokémon; climate change, vaping and opioid addiction.

I am so proud of my student, Will Mears, who is featured on this NPR broadcast! I hope you will take a listen! Congrats Will! #FCHS104 @FCHSWildcats @FchsServices
Students Around The U.S. Open Up About Their Lives In NPR Podcast Challenge https://t.co/OEqTbpaMWM

— Adam Hofer (@MrHofer30) May 14, 2019

This year’s contest will follow the same basic parameters: Beginning in January, teachers or qualified educators can submit student entries in two basic categories: grades 5-8 and grades 9-12. Entries can be as short as 3 minutes and as long as 12 minutes.

(We’re still finalizing and updating the rules for this year — we’ll post them soon. As before, we’ll have guidance on who can enter, how to submit your entry and updated information about our no-music policy and other key rules.)

My seniors didn’t make it to the top 2, but the learning that happened as a result of this challenge was more deep & more real than anything I have done in my 10 years in the classroom. I’m so grateful for this challenge & for the students who were willing to take the risk! https://t.co/5q1q8udTdS

— Erica Shaw (@history_shaw) May 1, 2019

In Year Two (we’re calling it SPC2), our goal is to build in more support for teachers and students, based on feedback from teachers and the lessons we drew from listening to all those podcasts. We’ll have more training materials and advice on audio reporting, writing, and sound editing and production.

As we said last year, it doesn’t take a lot of fancy equipment to make a great-sounding podcast, and our two grand prize winners — from Bronx Prep Middle School in New York and Elizabethton High School in Elizabethton, Tenn. — showed that.

In fact, you can produce high-quality work with just a smartphone, a laptop computer and easily available editing software. And we’ll have lots of tips and materials for how to make your work sound great.

Proud of the crew of our “Bay 11” podcast (Sophia, Anna, Hayden and Brenden) for receiving Honorable Mention in the NPR Student Podcast Challenge for their story about a human trafficking victim. @LearnOnTheHill @officialSPS pic.twitter.com/GiEbj00uSN

— HTVBuzz (@HTVBuzz) May 10, 2019

So, whether your topic is skunks vs. hedgehogs or bathroom passes or climate change or something completely different, we’re looking forward to hearing them early next year.

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Trump’s Former VA Secretary Describes ‘Toxic’ Washington Culture In New Book

Then-Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks at a news conference on March 7, 2018.

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By some measures, David Shulkin had a fairly typical experience for members of the Trump administration. He learned he was nominated to become secretary of veterans affairs while watching TV — and found out he was fired on Twitter.

In between, he was praised by the president but stabbed in the back by others in the administration, including his own security detail; had to deal with outside advisers who had the president’s ear; and was victimized, in his view, by the news media, all the while wrestling, with some degree of success, with an entrenched and resistant-to-change bureaucracy.

So it comes as no surprise that after having spent 15 months as VA secretary, Shulkin describes the environment in Washington as “toxic, chaotic and subversive” in his new memoir of his service, It Shouldn’t Be This Hard to Serve Your Country.

Shulkin’s story is by turns disturbing and frustrating. As part of the line of succession to the president, Shulkin had to travel with security agents. But as he was being forced out of his post, he says those very agents — part of what could be considered a deep state of political appointees within the VA, which Shulkin labels “the politicals” — leaked his schedule, putting his safety at risk.

His story is frustrating, in part, because this is the Department of Veterans Affairs, the government department set up to serve those “great veterans” the president often lauds yet who are often afterthoughts in the bureaucratic turf battles Shulkin describes.

Shulkin was undersecretary of the VA in the Obama administration. He was preparing to leave the agency, “tying up loose ends” after Trump’s election, when he got an unexpected phone call, from Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen. “I need you to speak to someone right away,” Cohen told Shulkin. That someone was Ike Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Comics — and a Trump confidant. Perlmutter summoned Shulkin to Palm Beach, Fla., and the next day he met with him, and another doctor at Mar-a-Lago. Perlmutter, an Israeli who immigrated to the U.S. after the Six-Day War in 1967, told Shulkin that he was unhappy with the current situation at the VA and that Trump had asked him to help fix the agency. After a 90-minute chat, Shulkin flew back to Washington, curious about what that was all about, only to be summoned to meet with the president-elect two days later at Trump Tower.

He writes that he found Trump at his desk, “covered with copies of Time magazine with his picture on the cover as Person of the Year.”

Shulkin describes what happened next: “As we shook hands, Trump announced to his staff in the room, ‘He’s a good-looking guy.’ He then quickly repeated, ‘He’s a good-looking guy, isn’t he?’ “

Trump proceeded to ask Shulkin, a former hospital administrator, which hospital he thought was the best in New York, who Shulkin believed was the best candidate for the VA post and what he would do if he were in charge of the VA. Shulkin also looked on as Trump mediated a dispute between Kellyanne Conway and Jared Kushner over whether a news release should be issued announcing Kushner’s role in the administration.

Shulkin says he felt as if he had stepped into a Saturday Night Live sketch and says he left the meeting having “no idea of what had just happened.”

On Jan. 11, 2017, Shulkin found out — while watching a news conference on TV of Trump making the announcement — that “the new head secretary of the VA” would be him.

Shulkin was confirmed by the Senate 100-0, the only member of Trump’s Cabinet to win unanimous confirmation. “Maybe bipartisanship wasn’t totally dead,” he writes. Cynics might want to inject a hearty “ha” at this point. But if Shulkin, a physician by training, was naive about the ways of Washington, he was also determined.

He writes that he heard from the president’s friend, whom he simply calls Ike, several times a day, once suggesting they show up at VA facilities without notice “to see what was really going on.” Shulkin explained that as a private citizen, it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to be part of an unplanned inspection in a hospital.

More worrisome were the political appointees the administration placed within the VA. Among them was Darin Selnick, a former adviser to Concerned Veterans of America, a lobbying group funded by the Koch brothers — and a former Marine named Jake Leinenkugel, whose only previous administrative experience, Shulkin writes, was running his family’s Wisconsin brewing company, but who had no experience in health care or human services.

While these “politicals” would eventually work to oust Shulkin, he writes he actually had a good relationship with the president himself. “Both privately and in public forums, the president often referred to me as the ‘100-0 man’ and ‘my David.’ “

At the VA, Shulkin worked on a number of fronts to streamline and modernize the vast agency, which has nearly 380,000 employees providing services to 9 million eligible veterans.

He took on everything from making it easier to hire nurses and fire incompetent staff to updating the VA’s antiquated IT systems — as well as the medically and politically important need to reduce patient waiting times, which was a problem at many VA facilities.

But perhaps his biggest task was to renew and reform the Veterans Choice Act, which allows veterans not near a VA site to seek care with private physicians. The act was first approved during the Obama administration. But it was up for renewal under President Trump.

And this is where Shulkin, already under suspicion by “the politicals” as a holdover from the Obama administration, incurred his strongest opposition.

Conservative elements, led by the Koch-backed CVA, Shulkin writes, wanted to privatize the VA and saw the renewal of the Veterans Choice Act as a step toward accomplishing that goal. While Shulkin and many in Congress, including Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, backed a gradual expansion of the use of private doctors by veterans, the CVA wanted a far broader and more expensive expansion. Shulkin writes of a meeting with Trump on the issue and the president asking him, “What does Pete Hegseth think of this choice thing?”

Hegseth, a Fox News commentator and former director of the CVA, was immediately summoned on the phone, much to Shulkin’s surprise.

“Pete, what do you think of this choice stuff?” Shulkin reports Trump asking. After Hegseth says the Isakson bill doesn’t go far enough, Trump, surprisingly, agrees with Shulkin, telling Hegseth, “I have the secretary here with me, and he says we can’t do this all now, because it would cost us over $50 billion. So, Pete, we have to take our time.”

Trump’s support of the less extensive expansion of Veterans Choice was a victory for Shulkin — but this was also the last time he met with Trump.

While this fight had been going on, Shulkin had also been engaged in another battle, this one over a trip he and his wife had taken to Europe in which he mixed some official meetings with sightseeing and taking in a Wimbledon tennis match. Details of the trip were leaked to The Washington Post.

Coming at around the same time as other Cabinet secretaries were under fire for using private jets (which Shulkin did not do) and extravagantly decorating their offices at taxpayers’ expense, it fit the building narrative that the Trump administration, rather than draining the swamp as had been promised, was actually expanding it.

In his book, Shulkin spends a great deal of time relitigating the issue and a subsequent inspector general’s report, which found a “misuse of VA resources.”

Astonishingly, Shulkin says the VA’s press office refused to offer any response to the inspector general’s report on his behalf, so he posted his own statement of defense on the agency’s website, which the White House quickly told him to take down.

There was a call for his resignation from at least one member of Congress — and soon the inevitable leaks from unidentified White House aides that the president had lost confidence in Shulkin. This was not true, then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told him.

Until it was.

On March 28, 2018, just after 5 p.m., Shulkin discovered his fate, when Trump tweeted that he intended to nominate his personal physician, Adm. Ronny Jackson, “as the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs,” adding, “I am thankful for Dr. David Shulkin’s service to our country and to our GREAT veterans!”

And that was it. His office email and phone were cut off, and he handed over his government electronics to a driver that night. “I turned away empty-handed and heartbroken,” Shulkin writes.

Shulkin’s account is not without its score-settling.

He says journalists “allowed themselves to be played as if they were the administration’s own hatchet men and women” and writes that the inspector general’s investigation “had been a red herring to distract from the bigger picture of the Koch brothers’ and the political’s game plan, Choice and the overarching desire to eventually privatize the VA.”

While Shulkin may have some legitimate grievances, at times the score-settling threatens to overshadow the other key messages of Shulkin’s book: the importance of attracting talented people to serve in the government, the difficulty in doing so when they are treated as he says he was and, most of all, the crucial need to do better by the nation’s veterans.

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Former Cambridge Analytica Director Says She Saw Company Techniques ‘As Savvy’

By my count, Brittany Kaiser mentions the TV show Mad Men four times in her new memoir Targeted. But her story tracks closer to that of another big TV show — Breaking Bad.

In it, she tells us she was driven by worry for her family after they took a couple big blows financially and medically (so, also, financially), and that she felt it necessary to make larger and larger moral concessions when money was involved. But, also like Breaking Bad, by the end of it you get the sense that she’s more concerned with her own legacy than reckoning with any wrongdoing of her own part.

But let’s back up. Brittany Kaiser is a former director at Cambridge Analytica — the now defunct one-stop shop for election swaying that got major attention for how it used its massive pool of data on us, the American voters. This is the second Cambridge Analytica memoir to come out this month — the first being from the more well-known Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie. Kaiser’s at a bit of a disadvantage coming out second, considering that in the earlier one Wylie positions her as an eager and ambitious Cambridge Analytica employee who jumped ship at the last possible second. Kaiser gets in her own digs at Wylie here, too, though — all of which is: 1. Fun, if you, like me, love petty beefs, but 2. A bit disheartening all around.

That being said, where Wylie’s book focused more on the data-collection aspect of things (he says he was existentially enamored by the predictive ability of data), Kaiser’s job at Cambridge Analytica involved more direct pitching to potential clients. Which means it offers a more practical and understandable review of what exactly was on the menu. A lot’s been said about Cambridge Analytica and its various misdeeds (Kaiser was at the center of the Netflix documentary The Great Hack), but what Targeted offers that other Cambridge Analytica look-backs don’t is a more in-the-room account of what exactly, she alleges, was in the Powerpoint pitch deck.

There’s a scene early on where Kaiser learns the sales pitch. It’s a training run, and the pretend issue at hand is a ballot initiative on gun rights. She’s pitching to her boss, Alexander Nix, and she goes through the data points she has on possible voters, how they’re grouped into categories, and what messaging might speak to them best. She writes:

“‘The ‘Extroverted and Disagreeable’ voter needs a message that is all about her ability to assert her rights,’ I said. ‘This type of voter likes to be heard. On any topic,’ I said. ‘She knows what’s best for her. She has a strong internal locus of control and hates to be told what to do, especially by the government.’

The woman on the slide was wielding a handgun, a fierce expression on her face. The text below read, ‘Don’t Question My Right to Own a Gun, and I Won’t Question Your Stupidity Not To.’

This was my pièce de résistance.”

We can talk all day about disinformation campaigns and bots and foreign influence on social media, but until we break down specifically how and why certain imagery appeals to us, we won’t ever be prepared to adequately handle weaponized memery already in use.

Where the book is less concrete is when it comes to Kaiser’s own reckoning with how dangerous Cambridge Analytica actually was. Unlike the Wylie book, Kaiser cops to being swept up in the romance of it all: Hopping from country to country, going to fancy rich-people parties like DAVOS, courting world leaders. But unlike Wylie, when it comes to the question of How Did We Get Here? she doesn’t seem to be blowing her whistle at CA but, rather, at the ecosystem at large. After the first Guardian piece about Cambridge Analytica using Facebook data obtained non-consensually, she writes:

“We knew this all too well, so what was the problem? When Facebook users decided to use an app on Facebook, they clicked a box displaying the app’s ‘terms of service.’ Hardly any of them bothered to read that they were agreeing to provide 570 data points on themselves and 570 data points of each of their friends. There was nothing illegal about the transaction for the individual who consented: the terms of agreement were spelled out in black and white for the few who cared to attempt to read the ‘legalese.’ Still in a rush to get to the quiz or game the app was providing, users skipped over reading the document and gave their data. The problem lay in the fact that they were also giving away their friends’ data, friends who had not legally consented.”

There’s a victim-blamey tone here coming from someone who knows all too well the obfuscating language of terms of service, and it sidesteps the issue that it was Cambridge Analytica using this ethically suspect data. “It had never crossed my mind as something malevolent,” she later writes about Cambridge Analytica’s techniques. “I had seen it as savvy.” It’s unclear where on that spectrum she sees the company today.

Kaiser’s and Wylie’s books do have one thing in common, and that’s the presence of their boss Alexander Nix. I’d mentioned in my review of Wylie’s book that we might not even be reading it — or know much of anything about Cambridge Analytica — had Nix been nicer to Wylie or, at least, not outright abusive. And the same is true of Kaiser’s book. I get the feeling that if, as she suggests, Nix hadn’t loved shorting her on her earned commissions, or hadn’t undermined her confidence every step of the way, there would be even less of a chance she would have gone public.

Which brings us to the bigger question of why she went public at all. In the supposed redemptive passages of the book, she tries to be seen as a certain type of whistleblower (she mentions the name Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, a lot in this section). And yet, even by her own account, she didn’t choose to come public until after the first wave of Cambridge Analytica stories were published, and her name was already out there in the press. And for as much as she criticizes Facebook, in the book she mentions she was in talks with them to join their cryptocurrency team.

Kaiser is something of an advocate for data and privacy rights these days. But if that’s to be her legacy over her work with Cambridge Analytica, it’s going to take a lot more than this book tp gether there.

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Committee Backs Suspension of Broward Sheriff Over 2018 High School Shootings

Former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel appears before the state Senate Rules Committee concerning his dismissal by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday in Tallahassee, Fla.

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A state Senate committee in Florida is recommending the full Senate uphold the governor’s suspension of former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Israel shortly after taking office in January, fulfilling a promise made during the election campaign.

DeSantis charged Israel with incompetence and dereliction of duty for actions before and after the mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Under Florida’s constitution, the suspension must be reviewed by the state Senate.

In Tallahassee Monday, the Senate Rules committee heard nearly 12 hours of testimony from lawyers representing the governor and Israel, and also from family members of the shooting victims.

The hearing led off with the testimony of an attorney appointed by the Senate as a special master. Dudley Goodlette conducted a two-day hearing during the summer in which he heard from Israel and lawyers representing DeSantis. Goodlette surprised many when he recommended that Israel be reinstated as sheriff. At the hearing, the special master said while he found many failures by sheriffs’ deputies on the day of the shooting, the governor and his lawyers didn’t present evidence of institutional problems that could be attributed to Israel. He told senators, “They had a burden of moving forward and proving something and … I didn’t see any documentation of that.”

A lawyer for DeSantis, George Levesque, told senators they shouldn’t consider the hearing and the process of removing Israel, a Democrat and an elected official, as subject to the rules of a judicial proceeding. “It is a political decision,” Levesque said. The special master’s report, he reminded senators, isn’t binding.

Levesque’s statement laid out in stark terms the stakes for Republican senators, who may be reluctant to cross DeSantis. It drew sharp comments, not only from Democrats but also from Republican Tom Lee, a senator known for his independent streak. “You’re basically saying if I wanted to go obtain a quid pro quo for my vote in voting for or against Sheriff Israel,” Lee said, “that would be completely appropriate.” Lee’s comments drew a quick rebuke from committee chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto who said, “That is not how we operate here in the Florida Senate.”

Israel’s lawyer, Ben Kuehne, insisted that senators should only rely on evidence and facts submitted in the special master’s report. Kuehne said, “It cannot be a purely political decision as the governor has advised.” He raised a number of objections to documents and arguments submitted by the governor’s lawyers, even seeking, unsuccessfully to have Levesque removed from the case.

Israel has already announced his plans to run again for sheriff in 2020.

Among the most compelling voices at the hearing were the relatives of those who died or were wounded in the Parkland shooting. Dozens of family members and their supporters made the long trip from Broward County to Tallahassee. Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed, asked senators not to be swayed by the special master’s contention that DeSantis hadn’t made a strong case for Israel’s removal. “Everyone wishes maybe the governor’s office had done more,” Guttenberg said. “But we all know the facts. We all know the failure. I’m living proof of it.”

A number of people supporting Israel’s reinstatement also made the trip from Broward County. Sandra Jackson of Deerfield Beach asked senators to remember it was the shooter, not Israel, who was to blame for the deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “Don’t let a small community make this decision for this whole Broward County.”

Senators acknowledged that the decision to remove a sheriff for the actions of a deputy may break new legal ground in Florida, setting a precedent that some were uneasy with. But in the end, the committee voted 9-8 along party lines to uphold Israel’s removal from office. On Wednesday, the full Senate is scheduled to vote and is expected to confirm the committee decision.

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A Push To Have Cars Say ‘No’ To Drunk Drivers

The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety Program, funded largely by the federal government, seeks to develop devices that will automatically detect when a driver is intoxicated with a blood-alcohol concentration over the legal limit.

Courtesy of Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety Program


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Courtesy of Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety Program

As cars become smarter and safer, some members of Congress want to require them to be built to prevent drunk driving.

Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rick Scott, R-Fla., introduced legislation last week that would make it mandatory for all new cars and trucks to come loaded with passive, virtually unnoticeable, alcohol detection systems by 2024.

The Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone Act of 2019, called the RIDE Act, would also allocate $10 million to continue government-funded research into new breath and touch-based sensors designed to monitor a driver’s blood alcohol level in real-time, without having the driver do anything. The measure would set aside another $25 million to install and test the technology in government-owned fleets.

The bill follows a similar effort in the House by Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan.

Udall said he’s been haunted by the pain and havoc drunk driving accidents wreak on families for decades. “When you meet with families, and when you see the devastation that this causes, it’s something that really moves you,” he said in an interview.

During the 1990s, when Udall was New Mexico’s attorney general, he agonized over how to reduce the state’s drunk driving related crashes, which at the time were the highest in the country per capita.

“We kept trying to wonder, how do we get out of this?” he recalled.

The answer, at least in part, was technology. New Mexico became one of the first states to require convicted drunk drivers to use a breathalyzer to start a car.

But in a world where driverless cars are being tested, Udall said he’s become exasperated by the lack of innovation and buy-in from the auto industry. He is urging auto manufacturers to partner and fellow lawmakers to commit to a five-year plan to develop less cumbersome and more consumer friendly devices.

Helen Witty, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, also noted the auto industry’s reluctance to mandated safety improvements.

“I don’t think the industry wanted to put in airbags or seat belts,” Witty said. “Think about how those … were a fight to get through.”

But now, she said, several companies have cameras that warn drivers if they appear impaired or have taken their eyes off the road. Those types of advances have given Witty hope that automakers will be persuaded by consumers, who want more safety features.

But she is impatient for that to happen. In 2000, Witty’s 16-year-old daughter was killed by another teen who’d had too many tequila shots and was driving 65 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone. According to Witty, the young driver, who was drunk and high on marijuana, “lost control of her car and spun off the road onto the bike path” where her daughter was rollerblading.

“And so my daughter, Helen Marie, looked up and saw the car coming toward her and there was nothing she could do at all but die,” Witty said.

It’s a tragic story that Witty has been telling for years to educate the public. She’s hopes the message will help spare other families the pain of her own.

“Not only did her life end, the life that we had as a family ended. … We had to figure out how to live again,” she added.

Drunk driving fatalities have declined significantly since the 1980s. But according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration they still account for about a third of all traffic deaths. In 2017, more than 10,800 people were killed in drunk driving incidents.

Since 2008, the federal government has spent $50 million on a project between NHTSA and an automaker group called Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety to develop the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety.

The endeavor is overseen by Robert Strassburger, who represents the automakers. He expects a breathalyzer-type product to be ready for licensing by next year. While the ultimate goal of the project is aimed at creating something that detects alcohol without the driver doing anything, Strassburger said, they’re not there yet. After more than a decade of work, researchers have managed to develop a more streamlined version of a breathalyzer — a small device built into the driver-side door that the driver blows into.

However, the device is can’t detect a precise blood alcohol level yet. Instead, it can only determine the presence of alcohol, Strassburger said.

So it can’t tell the difference between someone who’s had one glass of wine and someone who’s had four shots of whiskey. Still, Strassburger said, there’s already a market for the device, including trucking companies with a zero-tolerance policy for their drivers or parents with underage children.

Strassburger says there’s plenty of momentum to make vehicles with technology that keeps dangerous drivers off the road.

The question is how that will happen and when.

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The Placebo Effect Works And You Can Catch It From Your Doctor

pills and the placebo effect

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If there’s one thing you do want to catch from a trip to your doctor, it’s her optimism.

A new study, published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior, finds that patients can pick up on subtle facial cues from doctors that reveal the doctor’s belief in how effective a treatment will be. And that can have a real impact on the patient’s treatment outcome.

Scientists have known since at least the 1930s that a doctor’s expectations and personal characteristics can significantly influence a patient’s symptom relief. Within research contexts, avoiding these placebo effects is one reason for double blind studies — to keep experimenters from accidentally biasing their results by telegraphing to test subjects what they expect the results of a study to be.

The new study both demonstrates that the placebo effect is transmitted from doctor to patient, and shows how it might work. Researchers randomly assigned undergraduate students to play the role of a patient or a doctor. The “patients” were given a controlled heat stimulus to the forearm, after receiving one of two types of cream from the “doctor.”

Students in the doctor group had previously been conditioned to believe that one of the creams was pain reliever. But in reality both of the two creams that they administered were an identical petroleum jelly-based placebo. And yet, when the doctor actors believed that the cream was a real medication — the researchers even gave the pseudo-medication a name, “thermedol” — the patient actors reported experiencing significantly lower amounts of pain.

As well-documented as the placebo effect is, to see it play out so cleanly surprised the study’s authors themselves. “We did several more studies to convince ourselves it wasn’t just a fluke,” says the study’s primary author, Luke Chang of Dartmouth University. “I’m impressed at how robust the effect seems to be.”

Once they were confident their study was demonstrating the placebo effect at work, the researchers were able to ask the question they were most interested in: How do patients learn what their doctors expect to happen as a result of treatment?

The study used head-mounted GoPro cameras to collect video of study subjects, and fed the footage to a computer model that analyzed the intensity and type of facial expressions, known as facial action units, that correlated facial behaviors like lip-curling, nose wrinkling, and brow-lowering with the experience of pain.

The model found that during the administering of the pain stimulus, the doctor group showed measurably less pain expression in their faces when they believed that the patient actors had been given a cream that provided actual pain relief. When that happened, the patient group appeared to experience less pain too. Students in that group showed less pained facial expressions and had less pain by other measures as well. In trials where the doctor group believed the cream was effective, patients reported that they found the doctors more empathetic.

Chang says that the paper is evidence that subtle, nonverbal factors “can have a large impact on the experience of pain,” and he hopes his study inspires more research on the mechanisms that lead to pain relief besides medications.

Psychologist Harald Walach of Poznan Medical University in Poland, who was not involved in the study but wrote an accompanying commentary about it, says that he finds the parallel experience of the doctors and patients in the treatment and placebo groups “intriguing.”

“A lot of self-healing is triggered by expectations more so than medications,” he says. “A lot of what is happening in therapeutic processes is the communication of expectation and hope being instilled in the patient, and not necessarily the treatment as such.”

“That realization is a little bit painful to doctors,” he says.

One specific area that Chang wants to see more study in is the interpersonal expectancy effect — a well-documented phenomenon where expectations influence outcomes. He references a 1964 study that found that rodents completed a maze measurably faster when experimenters believed those rats were bred to be more intelligent. In cases like this, he says, “we know something is happening, but we don’t know why.”

Lauren Atlas, investigator in neuroscience and pain at the National Institutes of Health who was not involved in the study, says the research could have lessons for people working in pain research. “We’ll benefit a lot from more study of interpersonal factors and how they shape pain,” she says. For example, she says that whether or not doctors and patients are a good fit for one another can have a considerable influence on treatment outcome.

Walach says he’s glad to see that the placebo effect is beginning to be taken seriously. “It used to be considered as a smirky field.” The word “placebo” was used in a derogatory way, he says, “but it’s starting to be understood that these effects are very powerful, and that we can use them to the benefit of people.”

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White House Factions Fight Over Trump’s Next Homeland Security Secretary

Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli speaks about immigration policy at the White House on Aug. 12. Immigration hardliners are pushing for him to be the next secretary of homeland security.

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Immigration hardliners inside and outside the White House are fighting to keep Ken Cuccinelli and Mark Morgan in the running for the top job at the Department of Homeland Security after their candidacies hit a snag.

White House staff have told President Trump that Cuccinelli and Morgan — both viewed as tough on immigration issues — are ineligible to become acting DHS secretary because of technicalities in federal vacancy laws, according to two people familiar with the conversations. Cuccinelli is the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Morgan is the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Sean Doocey, the White House director of presidential personnel, told Trump that he had to pick from a small group of eligible individuals — including Chad Wolf, a top DHS official nominated as the department’s undersecretary.

“It’s more of giving the boss bad advice,” a White House official not authorized to discuss the matter told NPR. “This is the last thing we need.”

Trump announced two weeks ago that Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan was leaving his post, the latest turnover at the top of the department responsible for protecting U.S. borders.

At the time, Trump said he would announce McAleenan’s replacement the following week. That set off a wave of jockeying as various factions inside the White House pushed for candidates who support their agendas.

Cuccinelli is favored by hardliners in part because of his efforts to make it harder for immigrants to obtain legal permanent residency by denying green cards to those who use or are likely to use government benefits, including Medicaid and food stamps. Morgan has been on the front lines of recent efforts to curtail immigration on the border.

Advocates for more immigration restrictions who work inside and outside the White House argue that picking someone like Wolf would continue a pattern of installing DHS leaders who do not support the president’s tough immigration agenda. The news was first reported by Politico.

Wolf served as chief of staff to then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen who was ousted when Trump said he wanted to pursue “a tougher direction” on immigration. Wolf also worked as a lobbyist on H-1B employment visas, another program that Trump has opposed.

Trump has made tough immigration policy a forefront of his presidency. He wants to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico. He imposed a ban on travel on people from several majority-Muslim countries. He has targeted “sanctuary cities” that protect immigrants who are in the country illegally. And he began prosecuting people who cross the border illegally under what’s known as a “zero tolerance” policy.

“This is going to be a vital part of his reelection effort,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group close to the administration that advocates for immigration restrictions. “To pick an appointee that is tone deaf to that priority is politically short-sighted and not savvy.”

Trump has often said he prefers to fill Cabinet positions with acting secretaries rather than sending his candidates through the Senate confirmation process, explaining it gives him greater flexibility.

This will be Trump’s fifth DHS secretary, largely because his relationship soured as border numbers fluctuated. The White House official said it’s time to install someone who is philosophically aligned with the president on his signature issue.

“It’s got to be someone on board with the program,” the White House official said.

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