Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire launch $100m star voyage.

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Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire launch $100m star voyage. 

In an unprecedented boost for interstellar travel, the Silicon Valley philanthropist Yuri Milner and the world’s most famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking have announced $100m (£70m) for research into a 20-year voyage to the nearest stars, at one fifth of the speed of light.

Breakthrough Starshot – the third Breakthrough initiative in the past four years – will test the knowhow and technologies necessary to send a featherweight robot spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri star system, at a distance of 4.37 light years: that is, 40,000,000,000,000 kilometres or 25 trillion miles.

A 100 billion-watt laser-powered light beam would accelerate a “nanocraft” – something weighing little more than a sheet of paper and driven by a sail not much bigger than a child’s kite, fashioned from fabric only a few hundred atoms in thickness – to the three nearest stars at 60,000km a second.

Milner, a Russian-born billionaire investor who began as a physicist, was one of the founders of the Breakthrough prizes, the biggest in science, announced in 2012 and awarded for fundamental research in physics, life sciences and mathematics. Last year, he and Professor Stephen Hawking of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge announced another $100m Breakthrough Listen initiative to step up the search for extraterrestrial life beyond the solar system. The project has just released its first data from stars within 16 light years of Earth. The entrepreneur describes science as his “hobby.”

Today’s announcement comes on the 55th anniversary of the first orbit of the planet by the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Milner, who was born in Moscow in 1961, was named after the cosmonaut.

“The human story is one of great leaps,” he said. “Today we are preparing for the next great leap – to the stars.” And Professor Hawking said: “Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever. Sooner or later we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Near-lightspeed flight by a spacecraft would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. The gamble is that it could be possible within 15 years, with accelerating advances in microelectronics, nanotechnology and laser engineering. The research programme will be led by Pete Worden, until last year the head of the Nasa Ames research centre. Milner, Hawking and the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, already a partner in the fundamental science initiative, comprise the board, which will advised by a committee of distinguished engineers and scientists. This committee has already identified 20 formidable challenges to be overcome before any possible takeoff for the stars.

The project’s begetters argue that they have Moore’s Law working for them: the memory and processing power available on a computer chip doubles every 18 months or so. New advances in nanoscience mean that fabrics with unique properties can be made to order. And advances in laser technology mean that huge power can be generated at relatively low costs.

At the heart of the project will be the starchip and lightsail. The great hurdle in all space missions is the cost of launch and the weight of fuel. The headlong miniaturisation of microelectronics means that it might be possible to pack the entire control system, the sensors, camera, navigation equipment, photon thrusters, transmitter and power supply onto a tiny silicon wafer, and mount it on an ultra-thin sail weighing only grams, that would respond to the pressure of light.

“We hope to have good answers to the key challenges in about 10 years. At that time we hope to have assembled a coalition of high net-worth individuals to fund the full-scale project and begin work on what will likely be a 10 year or more construction effort,” Worden told the Guardian. “The key challenge is that the final interstellar system is affordable – by that we mean its final cost is comparable to other large scientific endeavours such as the Cern accelerator.”

He added: “We would welcome participation by governments, national and international organisations and space agencies. Indeed, we have already discussed our plans with several space agencies around the world.”

Researchers worked out more than 50 years ago that sunlight could power a space mission, and by 1989 had calculated that solar radiation alone could slowly accelerate a spaceship with vast lightweight sails – and no fuel to carry – to 100kms a second: faster than any spacecraft so far. Even at that matchless speed a journey to the nearest star would take thousands of years.

But falling costs and increasing processing power mean that spacecraft could become ever smaller and lighter: they could be launched by the thousand from a mothership and then driven by the proposed Light Beamer, a billion-watt laser array, mounted somewhere high and dry such as the Atacama desert in Chile.

This could multiply the radiation pressure, and accelerate the space sailors to a significant fraction of light speed. This would reduce such a journey to the timescale of one human generation: some of the scientists caught up in the beginning of the project could expect to see results within a working lifetime.

“We take inspiration from Vostok, Voyager and the other great missions,” said Worden. “It’s time to open the era of interstellar flight but we need to keep our feet on the ground to achieve this.”

The research funded by the Breakthrough Starshot initiative will be entirely in the public domain. Nobody pretends that any of it will be easy. Avi Loeb, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, who heads the advisory board, said that to power the spacecraft, researchers have to work out how to link lasers into one massive array. Since the range of focus of a big laser on a small target would be no more than a million kilometers, the fragile spacecraft must reach terminal speed in just two minutes, and survive an acceleration of 60,000 times the force of gravity.

The night sky
The night sky. Photograph: Babek Tafreshi/SSPL via Getty Images

He believes that starship could record images and data as it nears the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, the nearest to Earth. The big challenge would be to transmit the information across a distance of more than four light years to a receiving station on a planet already far away and long ago. The laser array – the Light Beamer – would double as a telescope system to receive the signal back from the receding nanocraft.

“Just imagine reversing the direction of time,” he said. “Instead of an electromagnetic wave coming out of the system, it can receive a wave.”

Speaking at the project’s launch on Tuesday, Hawking said transcending our limits was what made humans unique. “Gravity pins us to the ground but I just flew to America. I lost my voice but I can still speak thanks to my voice synthesiser. How do we transcend these limits? With our minds and our machines.

“The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars. But now we can transcend it, with light beams, light sails, and the lightest spacecraft ever built we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation. Today we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos, because we are human and our nature is to fly.”

Freeman Dyson, the American physicist and writer, said that in the quest to find life elsewhere, humans should focus not just on planets, but on asteroids, comets and even the dust clouds that hang in interstellar space. “All kinds of small places are much better for life, and the huge advantage is that it’s easier to get off one object and move to another,” he said. “You can hop into space, fly over to your neighbour’s, have a cup of tea, and come back again, which is hard to do when you are on a planet.”


Newsroom pressure is letting fake stories on to the web. (even from reputable media)

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Newsroom pressure is letting fake stories on to the web. (even from reputable media)

t started with a post on social media. Or, to be more exact, a series of posts about a visit to McDonald’s to buy a milkshake. Within hours, Josh Raby’s gripping account on Twitter was international news, covered by respected outlets on both sides of the Atlantic.

“This guy’s story about trying to buy a McDonald’s milkshake turned into a bit of a mission and the internet can’t get enough of it,” read the headline on Indy100, the Independent’s sister title. The New York Daily News said he’d been “tortured”. Except, as McDonald’s pointed out – and Raby himself later admitted – the story was embellished to entertain his Twitter followers, although he says he based it on real events.

Raby’s was the latest thinly sourced story that, on closer inspection, turned out not to be as billed. The phenomenon is largely a product of the increasing pressure in newsrooms that have had their resources slashed, then been recalibrated to care more about traffic figures.

And, beyond professional journalists, there is also a “whole cottage industry of people who put out fake news”, says Brooke Binkowski, an editor at debunking website Snopes. “They profit from it quite a lot in advertising when people start sharing the stories. They are often protected because they call themselves ‘satire’ or say in tiny fine print that they are for entertainment purposes only.”

Facebook, a source of a lot of traffic from many online titles, has recognised the role it plays in driving the market, and in January 2015 promised to tweak its algorithm to demote fake news articles in users’ feeds.

Binkowski says that, during her career, she has seen a shift towards less editorial oversight in newsrooms. “Clickbait is king, so newsrooms will uncritically print some of the worst stuff out there, which lends legitimacy to – in a word – bullshit. Not all newsrooms are like this, but a lot of them are.”

The Guardian has heard numerous accounts from journalists about the pressures in UK newsrooms that lead to dodgy stories being reported uncritically, but none would go on record. One person working for a UK news publication claims the industry is now “like the wild west”. The source, who asked not to be named for fear of recriminations from her employer, says: “You have an editor breathing down your neck and you have to meet your targets.”

Asked what the driving factor was, she said: “It is a combination. There are some very young and excited journalists out there. If you do a story and it goes viral, it is very exciting. But big bosses are trying to meet targets. There are some young journalists on the market who are inexperienced and who will not do those checks.

“So much news that is reported online happens online. There is no need to get out and doorstep someone. You just sit at your desk and do it and, because it is so immediate, you are going to take that risk. Editors will say, ‘The BBC got that six seconds before we did.’”

Another journalist, who asked not to be named for similar reasons, says: “There is definitely a pressure to churn out stories, including dubious ones, in order to get clicks, because they equal money. At my former employer in particular, the pressure was on due to the limited resources. That made the environment quite horrible to work in.”

In a February 2015 report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, Craig Silverman wrote: “Journalists have always sought out emerging (and often unverified) news. They have always followed on the reports of other news organisations. But today the bar for what is worth giving attention seems to be much lower.

“Within minutes or hours, a claim can morph from a lone tweet or badly sourced report to a story repeated by dozens of news websites, generating tens of thousands of shares. Once a certain critical mass is reached, repetition has a powerful effect on belief. The rumour becomes true for readers simply by virtue of its ubiquity.” Silverman points out examples where titles – including the Guardian – reported false rumours, which had to be corrected later.

And, despite the direction that some newsrooms seem to be heading in, a critical eye is becoming more, not less crucial, according to the New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan. “Reporters and editors have to be more careful than ever before. As hoaxers get more sophisticated and more numerous, it’s extremely important to be sceptical and to use every verification method available before publication.”

Yet those working in newsrooms talk of dubious stories being tolerated because, in the words of one, some senior editors think “a click is a click, regardless of the merit of a story”. And, if the story does turn out to be false, it’s simply a chance for another bite at the cherry.

In September 2015, the Brisbane Times was one of many titles to report the story of Natalie Amyot, a French tourist who had posted a video on YouTube saying she was seeking help to find a man with whom she’d had a one-night stand after discovering that she was pregnant. The same title reported the following day that it had been a set-up.

In June 2014, Huffington Post and Mail Online were among those to report that three-year-old Victoria Wilcher, who had suffered facial scarring, had been kicked out of a KFC because she was frightening customers. Later, both the Mail and Huffington Post were among those reporting KFC’s announcement that two investigations had found no evidence to support the claims. And, in November last year, the Independent and the BBC were among titles to pick up the story of a Vietnamese-Australian man calling himself Phuc Dat Bich, who complained he had been banned by Facebook because of his name. He would give no interviews. Months later, Indy100 – then named i100 – and the BBC were among those reporting that he had made it all up to “fool the media”.

Verification and fact-checking are regularly falling prey to the pressure to bring in the numbers, and if the only result of being caught out is another chance to bring in the clicks, that looks unlikely to change.


Measles Detected in California School With High Number of Unvaccinated Children.

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Measles Detected in California School With High Number of Unvaccinated Children.

California public health officials are working to stop a possible measles outbreak after a student tested positive for measles at a school with a high number of unvaccinated students.

The Nevada County Public Health Department said the unnamed student attended the Yuba River Charter School and showed symptoms when the student attended school earlier this month. The agency did not identify the grade of the student. Nevada county is in the Sierra Nevada mountains, about an hour north of Sacramento and near the border with Nevada.

Dr. Karen Smith, the director and State Public Health Officer at the California Department of Public Health, said the child showed measles symptoms after traveling overseas. The child has recovered from the illness, but health officials said they are concerned that other unvaccinated children may have been exposed.

“As the state’s public health officer, it’s concerning to receive a report of a child with measles because it’s a disease that can easily be prevented,” Smith said. “Immunization is the best way to protect against measles. Two doses of the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella vaccine are approximately 97 percent effective at preventing disease in exposed persons.”

Measles is one of the most infectious viruses on the planet. Unprotected people exposed to the virus have a 90 percent chance of being infected. The virus is airborne and an unprotected person can be infected if they simply enter the same room an infected person was in hours earlier.

The Yuba Charter School has a low rate of vaccine compliance and is classified as “most vulnerable” to outbreaks, according to data from the California Department of Public Health. The overall vaccination rate for the school’s kindergartners is just 42.6 percent, according to the California Department of Public Health. Only staff and students who are up to date on their vaccines are currently allowed to come to school, according to the school’s website.

The California Department of Health collects data on vaccination rates for three cohorts — day care, kindergarten and 7th grade.

About 44 percent of kindergartners at the school are up-to-date on their MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) shots, according to the California Department of Public Health. To create an effective “herd immunity” that can help stop outbreaks, health officials advise having at least 95 percent of people vaccinated.

Symptoms of measles include diarrhea, ear infection and pneumonia. Rare severe complications occur more often among children under five, those with compromised immune systems, and adults over the age of 20 are at higher risk for severe complications such as encephalitis or death.



Woman sues airline after being moved at the request of an ultra-Orthodox Jew passenger.

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Woman sues airline after being moved at the request of an ultra-Orthodox Jew passenger.

A retired lawyer who fled the Nazis as a child is suing the Israeli national airline El Al for alleged discrimination after being asked to move on a plane when an ultra-Orthodox Jew objected to sitting next to her.

Renee Rabinowitz, 81, is being supported by the Israel Religious Action Center, which has campaigned against ultra-Orthodox efforts to enforce the segregation of men and women and to have images of women removed from public hoardings.

Almost 7,500 emails have been sent by members of the public to El Al objecting to requests made to women passengers to change seats.

Rabinowitz, a Jew who attends synagogue and keeps a kosher home, told the Guardian: “The man had no other reason to complain than my gender – and that’s unlawful discrimination. It’s no different than if a person of another religion had said: ‘I don’t want to sit next to a Jew.’ And I don’t believe El Al would move a person in those circumstance.”

On 2 December last year, Rabinowitz settled into her business class seat on an El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv following a visit to the US to see family. Her seat was one of a pair separated by a screen.

Shortly before the plane doors closed, a passenger who had been allocated the window seat next to Rabinowitz boarded. The middle-aged man, who was wearing ultra-Orthodox garb, called a flight attendant and spoke to him in Hebrew.

Rabinowitz said the flight attendant then offered Rabinowitz what he described as a better seat, one of the central row of three nearer the first class cabin. “I didn’t understand. It wasn’t a better seat,” she said.

She said she initially declined to move, but the flight attendant pressed her further and as the plane was close to taking off, she felt she had no alternative. Using her walking stick, Rabinowitz followed him to the front of the business class section.“I asked the flight attendant point blank if the man sitting next to me had asked me to be moved, and unabashedly he said yes. I then went back to the man and said: ‘I’m an 81-year-old woman, what’s your problem?’

“He started to tell me it was forbidden by the Torah. I interrupted him to say the Torah says nothing about a man sitting next to a woman. He conceded I was right, but said there was a general principle that a person should not put himself in a dangerous situation.

“I had to do some quick thinking. He was wrong, but we had an 11-hour flight ahead of us. It’s not so pleasant to be sitting with a person who would rather you weren’t there. So I decided to move.”

After the plane landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, as Rabinowitz waited on board for wheelchair assistance, the captain emerged from the cockpit. She told him what had happened, and said she felt insulted for being asked to move simply because of her gender. “He said it was not up to the staff, but was company policy,” said Rabinowitz.

Back home in Jerusalem, Rabinowitz attended a public meeting at which Anat Hoffman, IRAC’s executive director, spoke about the organisation’s successful campaign to end gender segregation on Israel’s public buses at the demand of the ultra-Orthodox. Since IRAC won a court case on the issue, buses carry prominent notices informing passengers they may sit where they wish.

“Anat said they wanted to launch a similar action in the air. Afterwards I told her what had happened to me,” said Rabinowitz.

Hoffman said: “We kept hearing from women, both Israelis and tourists, that they had been asked to move seats on planes. We were looking for a good case to take up, and then Renee walked in. She’s 81, and a Holocaust survivor – and she was humiliated by Israel’s national airline.”

Rabinowitz and IRAC are seeking 50,000 shekels (£9,200) in damages and wants EL Al to publish clear staff guidelines “concerning their obligation to act in an egalitarian manner, including emphasising to the company’s aircrews that they must defend women’s rights to sit in their allocated seat, and clarifying to flight attendants that they may not acquiesce to requests by passengers wishing to change places purely for reasons of gender”.

IRAC is awaiting El Al’s formal statement of defence, which must be submitted within 30 days of the lawsuit being filed. But in a letter to Rabinowitz’s lawyer, the company insisted there was no gender discrimination on El Al flights.

It said it had investigated the incident, and found that the flight attendant had dealt with Rabinowitz politely and sensitively, making it clear that Rabinowitz was not obliged to move. As a gesture of goodwill, El Al offered Rabinowitz a $200 (£140) voucher towards her next flight. “The money is not the important issue here, it’s the principle,” said Rabinowitz.

Since she and her late husband, a rabbi, moved to Israel from the US in 2000, she said she has regularly taken El Al flights to visit members of her family.

“I’m not generally a crusader. This just happened and it was very disturbing and very demeaning,” she said.

Hoffman described El Al’s acquiescence to demands to move women passengers as “one more way that ultra-Orthodox extremists get away with demands that have nothing to do with Judaism. Humiliating women can in no way qualify as a religious act. It is simply not acceptable.”

In a statement, El Al said it maintained “the highest levels of equal treatment and respect for all passengers. Our employees in the air, on the ground, in Israel and around the globe do all possible to listen to and provide solutions to the concerns or requests from our customers whatever they might be, including seating requests on the airplane.”


Parents in this religious sect are refusing medical help for their children in the name of Christ.

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Parents in this religious sect are refusing medical help for their children in the name of Christ. 

Mariah Walton’s voice is quiet – her lungs have been wrecked by her illness, and her respirator doesn’t help. But her tone is resolute.

“Yes, I would like to see my parents prosecuted.”
“They deserve it.” She pauses. “And it might stop others.”

Mariah is 20 but she’s frail and permanently disabled. She has pulmonary hypertension and when she’s not bedridden, she has to carry an oxygen tank that allows her to breathe. At times, she has had screws in her bones to anchor her breathing device. She may soon have no option for a cure except a heart and lung transplant – an extremely risky procedure.

All this could have been prevented in her infancy by closing a small congenital hole in her heart. It could even have been successfully treated in later years, before irreversible damage was done. But Mariah’s parents were fundamentalist Mormons who went off the grid in northern Idaho in the 1990s and refused to take their children to doctors, believing that illnesses could be healed through faith and the power of prayer.

As she grew sicker and sicker, Mariah’s parents would pray over her and use alternative medicine. Until she finally left home two years ago, she did not have a social security number or a birth certificate.

Had they been in neighboring Oregon, her parents could have been booked for medical neglect. In Mariah’s case, as in scores of others of instances of preventible death among children in Idaho since the 1970s, laws exempt dogmatic faith healers from prosecution, and she and her sister recently took part in a panel discussion with lawmakers at the state capitol about the issue. Idaho is one of only six states that offer a faith-based shield for felony crimes such as manslaughter.

Some of those enjoying legal protection are fringe Mormon families like Mariah’s, many of whom live in the state’s north. But a large number of children have died in southern Idaho, near Boise, in families belonging to a reclusive, Pentecostal faith-healing sect called the Followers of Christ. The Followers of Christ’s cemetery is full of graves marking the deaths of children who lived a day, a week, a month.

In Canyon County, just west of the capital, the sect’s Peaceful Valley cemetery is full of graves marking the deaths of children who lived a day, a week, a month. Last year, a taskforce set up by Idaho governor Butch Otter estimated that the child mortality rate for the Followers of Christ between 2002 and 2011 was 10 times that of Idaho as a whole.

The shield laws that prevent prosecutions in Idaho are an artifact of the Nixon administration. High-profile child abuse cases in the 1960s led pediatricians and activists to push for laws that combatted it. In order to help states fund such programs, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (Capta), which Richard Nixon signed in 1974.

But there was a fateful catch due to the influence of Nixon advisers John Erlichman and J R Haldeman, both lifelong Christian Scientists.

Boston College history professor Alan Rogers explains how the men – later jailed for their role in the Watergate scandal – were themselves members of a faith-healing sect, and acted to prevent their co-religionists being charged with crimes of neglect.
Which issue do you want US election candidates to discuss?
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“Because Erlichman and Haldeman were Christian Scientists, they had inserted into the law a provision that said those who believe that prayer is the only way to cure illness are exempted from this law,” he said.

They also ensure that states had to pass similar exemptions in order to access Capta funds. The federal requirement was later relaxed, but the resultant state laws have had to be painstakingly repealed one by one.

Some states, such as Oregon, held on longer until high-profile deaths in the Followers of Christ church in Oregon City attracted the attention of local media; over time the state reversed course.

As a result, several Followers of Christ members in Oregon have been successfully prosecuted. In 2010, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley were convicted of criminally negligent homicide after the death of their toddler, Neal, who died from a congenital bladder blockage. In 2011, Timothy and Rebecca Wyland were convicted of criminal mistreatment and the court ordered that their daughter Aylana be medically treated for the growth that had been threatening to blind her. Later that year, Dale and Shannon Hickman were convicted of second-degree manslaughter two years after their newborn son died of a simple infection.

Next door, Idaho presents a polar opposition to Oregon. Republicans, who enjoy an effective permanent majority in the state house, are surprisingly reluctant to even consider reform. Last year, the governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk recommended change: “Religious freedoms must be protected; but vulnerable children must also be appropriately protected from unnecessary harm and death.” Democratic legislator John Gannon proposed a repeal bill which he “never thought would really be that controversial”.

The chairman of the senate health and welfare committee, Lee Heider, refused to even grant it a hearing, effectively killing it.

Brian Hoyt, who lives in Boise, grew up in the Followers of Christ church.

Hoyt is a fit 43, and lives in a well-scrubbed suburban neighborhood. He runs a successful window cleaning business that started with a squeegee mop and a bucket after his teenage escape from home left him with no cash and few educational opportunities. When I visited him, his house was being renovated – what was once a “barebones bachelor pad” now accommodates his partner and step-children. Slowly, Hoyt has developed the capacity for family life, after a life in the sect left him “unable to relate to families” for a long time. “I didn’t understand the concept,” he said.

He lost his faith around the age of five, when a baby died in his arms in the course of a failed healing. While elders prayed, Hoyt was in charge of removing its mucus with a suction device. He was told that the child died because of his own lack of faith. Something snapped, and he remembers thinking: “How can this possibly be God’s work?” His apostasy set up lifelong conflicts with his parents and church elders.

In just one incident, when he was 12, Hoyt broke his ankle during a wrestling tryout. “I ended up shattering two bones in my foot,” he said. His parents approached the situation with the usual Followers remedies – rubbing the injury with “rancid olive oil” and having him swig on Kosher wine.

Intermittently, they would have him attempt to walk. Each time, “my body would just go into shock and I would pass out”.

“I would wake up to my step-dad, my uncles and the other elders of the church kicking me and beating me, calling me a fag, because I didn’t have enough faith to let God come in and heal me, while my mom and my aunts were sitting there watching. And that’s called faith healing.”

He had so much time off with the untreated fracture that his school demanded a medical certificate to cover the absence. Forced to take him to a doctor, his mother spent most of the consultation accusing the doctor of being a pedophile.

He was given a cast and medication but immediately upon returning home, the medication was flushed down the toilet, leaving him with no pain relief. His second walking cast was cut off by male relatives at home with a circular saw.

Other people who have left the group, such as Linda Martin, told similar tales of coercion, failed healing using only rancid olive oil, and a high level of infant mortality, isolation and secrecy. Violence, she said, was “the reason I left home. My childhood and Brian’s were very similar.” Deaths from untreated illness are attributed to “God’s will. Their lives are dominated by God’s will.”

Martin and Hoyt have both lobbied to change the laws, with Martin in particular devoting years of patient research to documenting deaths and other church activities. Hoyt has faced harassment online and at his home, and church members have even tried to undermine his business.

So far, their testimonies of abuse have not convinced Idaho’s Republican legislators. Senator Heider, for one, describes the Followers of Christ as “very nice people”.
Linda Martin, who left the Followers of Christ.

Child advocate and author Janet Heimlich, who has campaigned against exemptions around the country, says that Heider told her before the legislative session began that “he would carry the bill” and helped with the production of a draft, but by the time the session began in October he indicated that no bill would be passed or even heard.

Heider’s repeated response to these claims was a welter of contradictions and bluster.

After telling the Guardian that no bill was lodged (John Gannon confirmed that he did, as was reported in local media in February) and that he had been told by the attorney general and the Canyon County prosecuting attorney that the laws did not need to change (both men deny saying this), Heider took refuge in the US constitution.

“Republicans didn’t feel the need to change the laws. We believe in the first amendment to the constitution. I don’t think that states have a right to interfere in religions.”

When pressed on the fact that children are dying unnecessarily as a result of exemptions, Heider makes an odd comparison.

“Are we going to stop Methodists from reading the New Testament? Are we going to stop Catholics receiving the sacraments? That’s what these people believe in. They spoke to me and pointed to a tremendous number of examples where Christ healed people in the New Testament.”

Heider blamed outsiders for stirring the pot on this issue, even challenging the Guardian’s right to take an interest in the story, asking “what difference does it make to you?” and adding “is the United States coming in and trying to change Idaho’s laws?” He confirmed that he attended a Followers of Christ service last year – a rare privilege for an outsider from a group that refuses to speak to reporters.

But if we take Heider at his word concerning the reasons for his opposition, his view of the constitution is simply mistaken.

Alan Rogers, the Boston College history professor, points to a string of US supreme court decisions that distinguish between freedom of belief and freedom of practice, which affirm the former and limit the latter where it causes harm. These stretch back as far as Reynolds v United States in 1878, which forbade Mormon polygamy, and include Prince v Massachusetts, which affirmed the federal government’s ability to secure the welfare of children even when it conflicts with religious belief.

Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow at Political Research Associates, has long researched the connection between religion and conservatism. He points out that “almost all American politicians are cowards when it comes to religion”.

Religious liberty is a powerful idea, and a great achievement in the history of western civilization, but “it’s also used as a tool by the rich and the powerful, and by politicians who want to look the other way”.

There’s also the fact that conservatives have been mobilizing religious liberty in recent years, first as a reason to kill same-sex marriage at the state level, and now to limit the scope of the supreme court’s decision that it cannot be outlawed by states.
A taskforce set up by the Idaho governor estimated that the child mortality rate for the Followers of Christ between 2002 and 2011 was 10 times that of Idaho as a whole.

According to coroners’ reports, in Canyon County alone just in the past decade at least 10 children in the Followers of Christ church have died. These include 15-year-old Arrian Granden, who died in 2012 after contracting food poisoning. She vomited so much that her esophagus ruptured. Untreated, she bled to death.

The other deaths are mostly infants who died during at-home births or soon after from treatable complications, simple infections or pneumonia.

In one Canyon County report on the death of an infant called Asher Sevy, we see the difficulty that the shield laws create for local authorities.

When Sevy died in 2006, a Canyon County coroner’s deputy attended by two sherriff’s deputies asked to take the body away for an autopsy. According to the coroner’s account, the family “were very much against this for any reason”, and informed the deputy that she “was not going with me or anyone else” and removal would have to be done “forcefully”.

After a liaison with the county’s chief deputy and the prosecutor’s office, the assembled county officials decided to leave “rather than escalate a problem that could be worse than it was now”. The conclusion? “The cause [of death] will go down as undetermined.”

Autopsies are at the coroner’s discretion, and the deputy, Bill Kirby, did write that at the time there was “no evidence of a crime”. The incident is unsettling, though.

Canyon County coroner Vicki DeGeus-Morriss, who has been in office since 1991, refused to speak directly with the Guardian. However Joe Decker, a county spokesman, insisted that the coroner and other officials had been successful in building a better relationship with the Followers.

“Back when Vicki first took office, the Followers rarely, if ever, reported a death. And when they did, they would often be uncooperative with both the Coroner and law enforcement when they arrived on scene,” Decker said. Now, they “have a relationship in which every single death is reported and autopsies are almost always performed”.

For the outsider, there may still be something unsatisfying about this – a lingering impression that exemptions from child abuse prosecutions have led Followers to form the impression that the law can be negotiated with.

Nevertheless, local officials can’t make laws, only enforce them. The frustration at the local effects of shield laws was perhaps evident in the support that Canyon County prosecutor Brian Taylor gave to efforts to change the laws.

Campaigners such as Mariah Walton, Janet Heimlich, Linda Martin and Brian Hoyt are determined not to let this matter rest in the next legislative session.

A new “Let Them Live” campaign, involving a television ad campaign featuring Mariah, is being coordinated by Bruce Wingate at Protect Idaho Kids. Resources are limited, but all are confident that improved public awareness will build pressure on legislators.

Gannon, the Democratic legislator, says for his part that his bill will be back next year. “It’s not going to go away,” he says. “Dead children don’t care about the first amendment.”


Astroturfing: How To Spot Fake Grassroots Messages Funded By Corporations.

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Astroturfing: How To Spot Fake Grassroots Messages Funded By Corporations.

So you think you’re informed?  Done your due diligence? “What if the reality you found was false? A carefully constructed narrative by unseen special interests designed to manipulate your opinion? A Truman Show-esque alternate reality all around you?” asked veteran investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson in this eye-opening talk.  “Special interests have plenty of money to discover new ways to spin us while cloaking their role.  These astroturf messages are now more important that the traditional methods of lobbying Congress.”

Attkisson shows how astroturf, or fake grassroots movements funded by political, corporate, or other special interests very effectively manipulate and distort media messages.   She shows you how to spot these fake messages, including those fake messengers who quickly pop up on social media pages, like Kindred’s Facebook page, to make disparaging remarks about people who question mainstream media and cultural accepted mythologies.  Attkisson gives you the basics of astroturfing, how to spot it and how to find real sources of reliable information, usually from alternative media outlets. (You’re on one now.  Please support our nonprofit work below.)

Sharyl Attkisson is an investigative journalist based in Washington D.C. She is currently writing a book entitled Stonewalled (Harper Collins), which addresses the unseen influences of corporations and special interests on the information and images the public receives every day in the news and elsewhere. For twenty years (through March 2014), Attkisson was a correspondent for CBS News. In 2013, she received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for her reporting on “The Business of Congress,” which included an undercover investigation into fundraising by Republican freshmen. She also received Emmy nominations in 2013 for Benghazi: Dying for Security and Green Energy Going Red. Additionally, Attkisson received a 2013 Daytime Emmy Award as part of the CBS Sunday Morning team’s entry for Outstanding Morning Program for her report: “Washington Lobbying: K-Street Behind Closed Doors.” In September 2012, Attkisson also received an Emmy for Oustanding Investigative Journalism for the “Gunwalker: Fast and Furious” story. She received the RTNDA Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting for the same story. Attkisson received an Investigative Emmy Award in 2009 for her exclusive investigations into TARP and the bank bailout. She received an Investigative Emmy Award in 2002 for her series of exclusive reports about mismanagement at the Red Cross.


Conspiracy craze: why 12 million Americans believe alien lizards rule earth.

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Conspiracy craze: why 12 million Americans believe alien lizards rule earth.

According to a Public Policy Polling survey, around 12 million people in the US believe that interstellar lizards in people suits rule our country. We imported that particular belief from across the pond, where professional conspiracy theorist David Icke has long maintained that the Queen of England is a blood-drinking, shape-shifting alien.

Conspiracy theories in general are not necessary bad, according to psychologists who study them. “If we were all completely trusting, it would not be good for survival,” explains Rob Brotherton, an academic psychologist and author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. “Sometimes people really don’t have our best interests in mind.”

But when people leap from thinking their boss is trying to undermine them to believing their boss might be a secret lizard person, they probably cross from what psychologists refer to as “prudent paranoia” into illogical territory.

And there are a lot of illogical ideas to pick from. Around 66 million Americans believe that aliens landed at Roswell, New Mexico; around 22 million people believe that the government faked the moon landing; and around 160 million believe that there is a conspiracy surrounding the assassination of former US president John F Kennedy.

David Icke, Green Party, conspiracy theories
David Icke is a well-known political commentator and proponent of the theory that human civilization descended from reptilians in the constellation Draco. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

While aliens and fake moon landings probably trigger eyerolls in many of us, defining what constitutes a conspiracy theory is difficult, Brotherton says. The government, for example, does sometimes conspire to do the unspeakable, such as the infamous 1930s Tuskegee study, initiated by the US government to examine untreated syphilis in African-American men. Researchers blocked research participants from receiving penicillin or exiting the experiment to get treatment. The study continued until a media report made it public. In this case, believing that the government was conspiring to keep people sick would have been completely accurate.

There are characteristics that help differentiate a conspiracy theory from prudent paranoia, Brotherton says. Conspiracy theories tend to depend on conspirators who are unduly evil, he explains, with genocide or world domination as a motive. Conspiracy theories also tend to assign an usually high level of competency to the conspirators, Brotherton adds, pointing out that when the government really does “shady stuff” it often isn’t able to keep it secret.

Chances are, we all know someone who believes some version of a conspiracy theory, which is why psychologists have been trying to understand what makes someone jump from logically questioning the world to looking for signs of lizard teeth in public figures. Research has shown that feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty are associated with a tendency to believe in conspiracies, says Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the UK. Or as Joseph E Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and author of American Conspiracy Theories, puts it, “conspiracies are for losers”.

“I don’t mean it in the pejorative sense, but people who are out of power use conspiracy theories to strategically alert their side to danger, to close ranks, to salve their wounds,” Uscinski explains. “Think any election, the morning after, half the country says the election was rigged and the other half is happy.”

Believing in a conspiracy theory is one strategy people use to regain a sense of control, even if the conspiracy theory is unrelated to what caused the lack of control in a person’s life, Brotherton says. Conspiracy theories are a way for someone to understand what is going on in the world and try to restore some sense of control in his or her life, he explains.

Studies also find a relationship between a certain type of open mindedness and a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. People who believe in these also believe in New Age dogmas, urban legends and all sorts of slightly unorthodox ideas, Brotherton explains. Unsurprisingly, a tendency to be suspicious and not to trust people or institutions is also positively correlated with how likely someone is to believe in a conspiracy theory.

Anti-swine flu vaccination protestProtesters march to the Scottish Parliament in an “anti-swine flu vaccination protest” along the Royal Mile Edinburgh
Anti-swine flu vaccination protest
Protesters march to the Scottish Parliament in an “anti-swine flu vaccination protest” along the Royal Mile Edinburgh Photograph: David Cheskin/PA

The most widely appealing conspiracy theories are the ones that allow a person to insert their own villain of choice, Uscinski says. For example, conspiracy theories around the assassination of JFK are so popular in part because they allow believers to blame the coverup on whichever power they most fear: the US government and associated agencies like the CIA or the former Soviet Union and Cuba.

Most conspiracy theories come and go, Uscinski says, and it is hard to get more than 25% of the population to believe in a particular one. There is a natural ceiling to the number of people who will buy into any one particular conspiracy theory, says Uscinski, who points to those that emerged after the death of US supreme court Justice Antonin Scalia – which were a “flash in the pan” and quickly disappeared as people moved on to the “next thing”.

But once someone believes a conspiracy theory, dissuading him or her of it is an uphill battle. That’s because belief in a conspiracy is not based on facts and logic, Brotherton explains. Something as straightforward, for example, as pointing out the lack of evidence for a conspiracy theory would only reinforce the belief that the evidence for it was suppressed. Getting someone to let go of a favorite conspiracy theory is like convincing a Republican to become a Democrat and vice versa, Uscinski says.

“We like to believe we objectively scrutinize information and come to reasonable beliefs,” Brotherton says, but in reality we have “all kinds of biases built into our brains”.

He cites a study in which researchers recruited a group of people who believed in JFK assassination conspiracy theories and a group who doubted the theories. Both groups were given a packet of purposefully ambiguous information.

man fatigues ranch camping
Jerry DeLemus, of Rochester, New Hampshire, sits at a camp on the ranch of Cliven Bundy, whose folowers have perpetuated multiple government conspiracy theories Photograph: Ken Ritter/AP

“If everyone was rational, the information would moderate their beliefs,” Brotherton explains, and those who were sure of a conspiracy would start to doubt it, while those who were sure there was no conspiracy would also question their stance. “The opposite happened: people picked and chose the information they wanted to believe and everyone became more sure of their initial beliefs.”

While most conspiracies tend to gain traction in a very small number of people, when someone acts on a conspiracy, it can become dangerous very quickly. Cliven Bundy’s followers have tended to believe in everything from the government secretly microchipping millennials to the United Nations running the Bureau of Land Management. People who believe that the mass shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, was faked have harassed the families of children that were killed.
Douglas and her colleague Dan Jolley, have studied the social consequences to contemporary conspiracy theories. They have examined the impact of believing in government conspiracy theories, in climate change conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. The findings were troublesome, says

In one experiment, researchers took two groups of participants and gave one group an article about anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, such as the idea that pharmaceutical companies fake the safety and efficacy data for inoculations because the shots make so much money. The other group did not read the article. All the participants were then asked to think about being a parent of a three-year-old and asked if they would vaccinate the child against a fictional disease. The participants who had read the anti-vaccine conspiracy literature showed they were less likely to intend to have the child inoculated.

While, as Uscinski points out, there is a ceiling for the number of people who will buy into a particular conspiracy theory, the anti-vaccination movement is one example of how a small number of people can make a wild conspiracy theory go viral.


Saudi Arabia: Gang Rape Victim Sentenced to 200 Lashes & Six Months in Jail.

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Saudi Arabia: Gang Rape Victim Sentenced to 200 Lashes & Six Months in Jail. 

Saudi Arabia defended a controversial verdict sentencing a 19-year-old gang rape victim to 200 lashes and six months in jail. The Shi’ite Muslim woman had initially been sentenced to 90 lashes after being convicted of violating Saudi Arabia’s rigid Islamic Sharia law on segregation of the sexes.

The decision handed down by the Saudi General Court more than doubled her sentence last week. The court also roughly doubled the prison sentences for the seven men convicted of raping her, Saudi media said.

The upholding of a decision to punish the victim triggered international outcry.

Canada said it would complain to Saudi authorities about the sentence, described as “barbaric”’ by Jose Verger, the Canadian minister responsible for the status of women.

The New York based Human Rights Watch said the verdict “not only sends victims of sexual violence the message that they should not press charges, but in effect offers protection and impunity to the perpetrators.”

While not directly criticizing the Saudi Arabia’s judiciary, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “I think when you look at the crime and the fact that now the victim is punished, I think that causes a fair degree of surprise and astonishment. It is within the power of the Saudi government to take a look at the verdict and change it.”

However, the Saudi judiciary stood by its decision. “The Ministry of Justice welcomes constructive criticism, away from emotions,” it said in a statement.

The statement also said that the “charges were proven” against the woman for having been in a car with a strange male, and repeated criticism of her lawyer for talking “defiantly” about the judicial system, saying “it has shown ignorance.”

The woman’s lawyer, Abdul Rahman al-Lahem, reached out to the media. The court has since banned him from further defending the woman, confiscating his license and summoning him to a disciplinary hearing later this month.

The justice ministry implied the victim’s sentence was increased because she had spoken out to the press. “For whoever has an objection on verdicts issued, the system allows to appeal without resorting to the media,” said the statement carried on the official Saudi Press Agency.

The rape took place in 2006. The victim said it occurred as she tried to retrieve her picture from a male high school student she used to know.

While in a car with the student, two men got into the vehicle and drove them to a secluded area. She said she was raped there by seven men, three of whom also attacked her friend.

The case was referred back to the General Court by an appeals court last summer, after the woman’s lawyer contested the initial verdict, saying it was too lenient for the rapists and unjust for the victim.

Editorial Footnote:  It was just brought to my attention that the male friend of the female in this occurrence was also raped and he received the same punishment as she did.


Bangladesh Minister says secular bloggers “should control their writings”

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Bangladesh Minister says secular bloggers “should control their writings”

Bangladeshi secular bloggers should “control” their writings, the country’s home minister said on Sunday even as he asserted that home-grown militants and not the Bangladeshi branch of al Qaida are responsible for the grisly murder of a 26-year-old secular blogger.

Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan’s statement came days after Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladeshi division of al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, claimed responsibility for the killing of blogger Nazimuddin Samad last week.

Samad’s death marks the sixth time a Bangladeshi writer of atheist material has been killed in 14 months.

Khan said the issue is not freedom of expression but tolerance of other religions.

“The bloggers, they should control their writing,” he told CNN.

“Our country is a secular state … I want to say that people should be careful not to hurt anyone by writing anything — hurt any religion, any people’s beliefs, any religious leaders,” Khan said.

He said that home-grown militants and not the Bangladeshi branch of al Qaida are responsible for Samad’s murder.

Khan said authorities are investigating two to three people in connection with the attack, but have not arrested them because officials are still trying to confirm their involvement.

Bangladeshi authorities have previously denied that foreign terror groups such as al Qaida or ISIS have taken root in the majority-Muslim country.

Instead, they have often claimed homegrown extremists are responsible for such attacks.

Samad, a graduate student, was on his way home from evening classes on Wednesday when three to four people circled him.

“First the attackers hacked Samad with machetes, then shot him,” Dhaka Senior Assistant Police Commissioner Nurul Amin had said.

Police said the attackers then fled the scene on motorcycles. No arrests have been made.

In its statement claiming responsibility, al Qaida accused Samad of being an “enemy of Allah.” It listed three of Samad’s posts on Facebook going back to 2013 as examples of his insults against Islam.

The group has effectively declared war against atheist writers who dare to challenge al Qaida’s strict interpretation of Islam.

It has also threatened to target judges, lawyers, engineers and doctors “who don’t allow others to follow the rulings of the Islamic Shariah.”
 The Bangladeshi government has vowed to bring killers to justice.
But members of the besieged “free-thinker” intellectual community in Bangladesh say they do not trust the police, because in recent years authorities prosecuted several writers for “insulting religion” in their published work, the report said.


California now allows women to get birth control pills without a doctor’s prescription.

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California now allows women to get birth control pills without a doctor’s prescription.

Officials announced Friday that girls and women in California can now drop by their neighborhood pharmacy and pick up birth control pills without a prescription from a doctor. It’s not technically over-the-counter, but you can get them by talking to a pharmacist and filling out a questionnaire.

The new option is intended to increase access to birth control and reduce unintended pregnancies. State legislators originally passed the law in 2013 but it was held up in regulatory discussions until Friday.

California becomes the third state after Oregon and Washington to allow women to obtain more types of birth control directly from a pharmacist.

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What kinds of birth control can I get? The law covers self-administered hormonal birth control, which means pills, patches, injections and vaginal rings. Anything a doctor would have to insert, such as arm implants and intrauterine devices, or IUDs, you can’t get from a pharmacist.

Do I have to be a certain age? No, there’s no age minimum.

What will happen when I visit the pharmacy? A pharmacist will take your blood pressure and then ask you to fill out a questionnaire to make sure birth control is safe for you. Then you can ask for a certain kind of birth control, or the pharmacist can recommend one.

Once you’ve selected a type, the pharmacist will explain how the medicine you’ve selected works, how to take it and what side effects you might experience. You will also be reminded of the importance of health screenings, such as for cervical cancer, and warned that birth control doesn’t protect against sexually-transmitted diseases. Then the pharmacist will give you the medicine along with a birth control fact sheet.

How much does it cost? If your insurance plan pays for your birth control, it should still be covered. It’s unclear whether pharmacists will charge for screening patients and dispensing the birth control, but they could.

Can I go pick some up today? Most pharmacy chains said they weren’t quite ready to roll out the law on Day One. The best way to find out if your local pharmacy will be participating is to give them a call.

Which other states allow pharmacists to provide hormonal birth control? Women in Washington state as well as in Washington, D.C., have long been able to obtain birth control without a doctor’s prescription. Oregon began allowing pharmacists to dispense hormonal birth control directly to patients earlier this year, though the state’s law only applies to females over the age of 17. Several other states, including Hawaii and Tennessee, proposed legislation similar to California’s earlier this year.

Why can’t California make birth control pills fully over-the-counter? Only the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can decide if a medicine can be available over-the-counter. The most state legislators can do to increase access to birth control is to allow medical providers other than doctors, such as pharmacists, to furnish the medication.

Federal legislation has recently been proposed that would make hormonal birth control truly over-the-counter.