Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mysterious crop circles appear in Washington wheat field 

SIGNS:  Is this a joke or are we being visited? I love that the farmer finds it amusing.

Crop circles in a wheat field owned by Greg and Cindy Geib near Wilbur, Wash., on July 30.
A set of crop circles appeared in an eastern Washington wheat field last week, much to the amusement of the field’s owners.
The crop circles were first spotted July 24, when friends of the Geibs noticed the flattened wheat about five miles north of the town of Wilbur, Wash. The field is 10 miles south of the Grand Coulee dam, which the Bureau of Reclamation says is the largest hydropower producer in the U.S.“You can’t do anything other than laugh about it,” Cindy Geib, who owns the field along with her husband, Greg,told the Associated Press. “You just kind of roll with the theory it’s aliens and you’re special because aliens chose your spot.”
Greg, a fifth-generation wheat farmer, is set to begin harvest next week, and he said some of the crop will be lost, but there hasn’t been much harm done. Rather, it’s more of an inconvenience when he comes to that particular section of wheat.The circles resemble a four-leaf clover. Cindy said they remind her of Mickey Mouse ears. The design knocked down about an acre of their wheat.
“You just kind of brush it off, you don’t think too much about it,” Greg told NBC affiliate KHQ in Spokane, Wash. “There’s not really a whole lot that can be done about it.”
These aren’t the first crop circles that have appeared in Lincoln County. Every year or so, a new set has appeared in one of the wheat fields, KHQ reported.
Lynne Brougher, a public affairs officer for the Grand Coulee dam, hadn’t heard about the latest crop circles but said the previous one was no cause for alarm.
“It seemed to be highly unusual,” Brougher told the Associated Press. “As I recall from a couple of years ago, there was no good explanation of how they got there.”
Cindy said those responsible for the crop circles near her home remain a mystery.
“We’re trying to figure out how they got there without breaking any of the wheat," she said. "It’s hard to walk through the crunchy wheat and not knock it down. They had to be fairly young in my estimation because it’s a long ways out, and they had to pack a lot of stuff out there to smash it down.”
Both Cindy and Greg said their family is choosing to remain lighthearted about the crop circles and all of the attention they're bringing.
“I think it would be kind of cool if it really were aliens,” Cindy said. “I think it’d be pretty cool.”

ACLU wins appeal against Arizona's 'most extreme and dangerous of abortion bans'

A law in Arizona that the ACLU is calling "the most extreme and dangerous of abortion bans" was blocked from taking effect on Thursday after an emergency appeals request.
"We're thrilled with the decision," Rikelman said. "It's really great news for women in Arizona. We're very excited that women will still be able to get the health care that they need."The law, which the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Wednesday, will likely be on hold through at least October, when all briefs on the case will be filed, said Julie Rikelman, litigation director for the Center for Reproductive Rights. A final decision is likely to be made in November or December, she said.Arizona was set to become the ninth state to forbid doctors from aborting a fetus 20 weeks into a pregnancy. But unlike elsewhere in the country, Arizona would start the 20-week count after a pregnant woman's last menstrual period, or about 18 weeks into a pregnancy -- which is typically before medical problems can be detected in fetuses in prenatal exams, according to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.
Under the ban, signed into law in April by Gov. Jan Brewer, R-Ariz., physicians could have their licenses revoked and face jail time if they violate its terms. Exceptions are life-threatening situations or medical emergencies for the mother, which Arizona law defines as a "serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function."
Those exceptions were not enough for The Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union, who filed an emergency appeal Monday night after a preliminary injunction they filed in federal court in Phoenix was dismissed.
"This is by far the narrowest health exception in any abortion law in the country," Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney at the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, said. "It would force a physician who was caring for a woman with a high-risk pregnancy to wait until her condition has deteriorated to the point that it poses an immediate threat of death or major medical damage before offering her the care she needs."
It would also affect expectant mothers who receive disconcerting diagnoses about their fetuses: news that their child won't survive after birth, or will only survive for a short period of time in excruciating pain.
"For a lot of these women, that diagnosis can't be made until after 20 weeks," Kolbi-Molinas said. "This certainly is the most extreme and dangerous of abortion bans that we've seen in some time."
Arizona's late-term ban is the latest in a string of anti-abortion measures being implemented across the country. Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Louisiana, and Nebraska have passed similar restrictions in recent years; North Carolina enacted its own ban, with different specifications to its law, decades ago, said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager with the Guttmacher Institute, a rights organization based in New York.
A 'tidal wave of abortion restrictions' across the U.S.
Nash said there's been "a tidal wave of abortion restrictions" passed recently: Prior to 2011, the most restrictions ever to be passed in a year on the state level was 34, in 2005. But in 2011, a record 92 abortion restrictions were passed, followed by 39 so far in 2012, she said.
"It's a fetal pain law, and it's one of many that have passed in the last few years. We're very pleased," Jeanne Monahan, director of the Center for Human Dignity at the D.C.-based Family Research Council, said. "This is a law that has to do with the fact that a developing baby can feel pain at a certain time in development and so because of that, abortions are not legal after that period in its development."Anti-abortion groups are pleased with their recent success in enacting restrictions, particularly the bans on late-term abortions.

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Millions of women will no longer have to pay for birth control pills, Pap smears or mammograms and they will also have the right to breast feeding supplies and domestic violence screening. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.
Monahan lauded other recent anti-abortion wins on the state level -- parental consent and informed consent among them. 
"Anything that can make abortion more rare, I think most people will agree upon," she said, citing a Gallup poll from May, which found the percentage of Americans who call themselves "pro-choice" is at a record low of 41 percent.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, the increase in these laws is due to a shift in political makeup: state governments becoming more conservative over the past decade, particularly since the midterm elections.
"When the November 2010 elections came about, state legislatures and some governorships moved substantially to the more conservative end," Nash said. "You really had this welcoming environment to adopt abortion restrictions."
In Arizona, the change has been dramatic.
"If we look to 2000, Arizona was classified as a pro-choice state, supportive of abortion rights. For many years, the legislature was fairly hostile to abortion, but there was a governor in place who would veto abortion restrictions," Nash said. "When Gov. [Janet] Napolitano left for the federal government in 2009, Jan Brewer took over."
The state has passed at least a dozen abortion restrictions in the three years since Brewer became governor, Nash said.
Kolbi-Molinas, the ACLU lawyer, said the Arizona ban could put women in a position where they feel pressure to get an abortion when they might not otherwise.
"One of the perverse effects of this law, if it does go into effect, is there are some women who have high-risk pregnancies ... and they may not be able to carry to term, but they really want to try as long as they can," she said. "They would feel pressured to get an abortion before 20 weeks because they wouldn't know if they'd be able to protect their health afterwards."
"Another thing worth noting is the majority of women who have abortions are already mothers," she said. "If you think about the way this law is putting women at risk if there's something wrong with their health, it's essentially denying them the abortion they might need to return home to their family."Up to 90 percent of abortions occur within the first trimester, she added, making the number of women who would even consider getting abortions after 20 weeks only a tiny sliver for Arizona to have to worry about.
Despite the dozens of restrictions placed on abortion in recent years, anti-abortion advocates aren't gloating.
"In January, we're going to be marking the 40-year anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and approximately 54 million abortions have occurred since that decision in 1973," Monahan, of the Family Research Council, said. "I don't think it's a moment of victory. It's a somber moment in our country on a lot of levels."

Romney's crucial VP pick

Mitt Romney will be pleased to be back on American soil after a foreign jaunt which probably couldn't have gone much worse.
He annoyed the British with criticisms of the Olympics, upset the Palestinians by claiming Israel's economic superiority was a cultural thing and then a close aide urged reporters to show more respect at a Polish War memorial by swearing at them.
It led one magazine to describe the Republican nominee's first foreign trip as a "horn-honking, floppy-shoed clown show".
While it may contribute to the image of someone who is not ready to lead, the consequences of the last few days will count for little when the election comes around in just under 100 days. Few people will make their decision on whom to back on the missteps of July.
Now Romney needs to turn his attention to building momentum to the Republican Party convention in Tampa at the end of the month, and a key step will be nominating a vice-presidential candidate.
Power and influence
John Adams was one of America's founding fathers. He helped draft the constitution and then was elected first-ever vice president. However, he thought little of the post, writing: "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived."
Yet vice presidents do carry power and influence. And as Lyndon Johnston famously established, the holder of the office may be just one heartbeat away from the top job, and as Gerald Ford found out, one scandal away from taking over in the Oval office.
This will be Romney's most important decision before the election. Former vice president Dick Cheney criticised John McCain's selection of four years ago when he named the relatively inexperienced Alaska governor, Sarah Palin.
While it shook up the campaign and energised the Republican base, it was a decision widely regarded as a serious political mistake, even if Governor Palin still disagrees. Cheney argues the most significant attribute must be "Can this person be president?".
Anita McBride is a former staffer in the George W Bush White House and now lectures at the American University in Washington. She told me: "You’re looking for an extremely competent and qualified individual, man or woman, who has experience as an executive, perhaps it's in Congress, perhaps running a state, is comfortable around you, shares your beliefs, will be willing to do anything to help you win, and that will be someone that has areas of expertise that you don't have or can supplement what you have."
The current favourite for the job is Ohio Senator Rob Portman. He's smart, highly regarded and has conservative credentials that appeal to the core of the party. He was George W’s budget director during the financial crisis, and that may be a strike against him.
Bland and uninspiring
Bland and uninspiring are some of the criticisms aimed at former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, another front-runner. His rise from humble beginnings may appeal to independent voters.
He ran his own presidential bid but dropped out early with a sideswipe at Romney on the healthcare issue. Now he's one of the candidate's biggest supporters.
Most commentators believe the race for the VP slot is now between those two, although other names such Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal or Florida Senator Marco Rubio continue to be thrown around in the mix. And there are wild cards like New Mexico Governor, Susana Martinez, Kelly Ayotte, as senator from New Hampshire and even Mike Huckabee, a former candidate and now TV pundit.
Many names are floated during the vetting process to keep people interested and to find out if there is anything negative around which may disqualify them from the post.
Ed Rogers, a veteran Republican pollster, says the vetting process has to be comprehensive because: "A day lost by explaining your VP nominee, something the VP did in their background, or something the VP said that is off-message is a wasted day, and it costs the campaign, rather than helps the campaign".
Romney is careful and particular and so is considering all his options very carefully. He says he wants someone consistent and substantial. And while he would like his choice to shine, he'd want it to illuminate how smart Romney's choice was rather than overshadow the top name on the ticket.

Colleges freeze, reduce tuition as public balks at further price hikes

University of the South
At a time when students and families are fed with up with rising college costs, University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., cut tuition 10 percent last year and is promising to keep costs unchanged for entering freshmen for the next four years.
As an undergraduate at the University of California–Irvine, Christopher Campbell was almost forced to drop out by repeated double-digit increases in tuition — some in the middle of the academic year — to compensate for massive state budget cuts.
Now he’s pushing an amendment to the California constitution that would ban public universities from raising tuition for students after they’ve enrolled.Campbell ultimately made it through and is starting law school at UCI this fall. But he watched classmates driven out of college by the unpredictable mid-year price hikes.
“Students and families are fed up,” Campbell says. “And that’s only going to get worse. As more and more students have to deal with these problems, it’s just going to keep building until the problem is fixed.”
“Enough is enough,” says Anne Mariucci, a member of theArizona Board of Regents, which for the first time in 20 years has frozen in-state tuition at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University after increases over the last five years of 84 and 96 percent, respectively.After three decades of tuition hikes that have outpaced inflation and increases in family income, students, families, legislators and governing boards are demanding a halt.
Some private universities, too, have agreed to stop raising their tuition, or even cut it, after being alarmed to discover their enrollments starting to slip.
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“The pushback is beginning,” says John McCardell Jr., president of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., which last year cut tuition 10 percent and this year is promising to keep the cost unchanged for entering freshmen for four years.
Sewanee, as the university is known, was losing students to the University of Tennessee, the University of Georgia and other cheaper public institutions, McCardell says, and the size of the entering class was beginning to slide.
“Price probably has more than nothing to do with that,” he says. Students and their families “are voting with their feet.”
Or with their votes. The Arizona regents were reportedly being pressed to get a handle on tuition by the governor and legislators. They, in turn, were hearing from increasingly angry constituents. “About time,” read the headline on an editorial in the ASU State Press, the student newspaper, when the tuition freeze was finally proposed. “As prices continue to go up, you have people saying, you can’t keep doing that,” says Rick Myers, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents.
The 10-campus University of California system also froze undergraduate tuition for this fall after the governor and legislature there made doing so a condition of a $125 million budget increase — though there’s a hitch: Tuition will increase more than 20 percent in the middle of the year if voters fail to approve a tax increase in November to raise $8.5 billion for public education and other services, a quid pro quo that some critics say is blackmail.
Texas legislators have long pushed for a tuition freeze at that state’s public universities. When Gov. Rick Perry added his voice to the chorus this year, his appointees on the board of regents agreed — over university officials’ objections — to forgo a planned 5 percent increase over two years at the flagship University of Texas–Austin, where tuition now will be unchanged. Tuition also will be frozen at the Arlington campus. “It isn’t in the interest of most Texans for universities to be continually raising their tuition rates,” Perry was quoted as saying.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick also announced that he opposed a 5 percent tuition increase at University of Massachusetts campuses, though the system’s board of trustees imposed it anyway.
The only exception is the University of Massachusetts School of Law, which will hold tuition level. So will the law schools at the University of New Hampshire. Last year, the University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law froze its tuition. Not coincidentally, the number of law-school applicants plummeted by more than 15 percent for the academic year that begins this fall — on top of declines of 10 percent in each of the previous two years — according to the Law School Admission Council. The number of students taking the Law School Admission Test this year suggests the trend will continue. Meanwhile, one third of law-school graduates in 2010 did not have jobs nine months later, and starting pay for those who did was down 13 percent. Phoebe Haddon, dean of the University of Maryland’s law school, cited “the impact of the economic downturn on the legal employment market” as one of her reasons for freezing tuition.
In his 25 years as a higher-education administrator, “I was reared to believe that what you charge is a reflection of your position in the marketplace,” McCardell says. “And I was reared to believe that no matter what happens, the American people will pay the sticker price. But all that changed fundamentally in 2008,” at the start of the economic downturn.Equating price with prestige 
Colleges and universities have long been reluctant to lower or cap their prices, McCardell says, because — as with new cars and fine wines — they believe students and their families equate price with prestige. That, he says, is why elite private colleges all magically end up within a few hundred dollars of one another each year.
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Supply and demand have not traditionally affected the price of higher education. That’s because supply largely remained unchanged, while demand was ever-rising. But the number of high-school graduates, which peaked in 2009, is starting to decline. Enrollment fell at more than 40 percent of colleges and universities last year, according to the credit-rating firm Moody’s. At least 375 institutions still had space available for this fall when the admissions period was over, the largest number in a decade, the National Association for College Admission Counseling reports. The percentage of accepted students who actually enroll is also falling.  A recent analysis of public and private nonprofit colleges by Bain & Company found that one third were on an “unsustainable financial path.”
Colleges that are especially feeling the squeeze are those with small enrollments and endowments — and those are also the kinds of private colleges and universities that are maintaining their tuition levels to remain competitive.
Private Oklahoma City University, for instance, competes with more than 25 public institutions — most of them cheaper — in a state of fewer than four million. “Access to higher education is broad here,” says Susan Barber, provost at the university, which froze tuition this year. “We had discussions that we hoped this would help retention of students and in our recruitment efforts. It wasn’t completely an altruistic decision.”
Other schools that have frozen their tuition this fall include Burlington College in Vermont, which has about 200 undergraduates; Ancilla College, a Catholic, two-year liberal-arts college in Indiana with about 530 students; the 730-student Tabor College, a Mennonite school in Kansas; liberal-arts Urbana University in Ohio, which has 1,270 students; Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, which has 1,300 undergraduates; and Pacific Union College, a Seventh-Day Adventist college in California with an enrollment of 1,530.
“The question is, how much can you charge for your product? And that is a reflection of the laws of supply and demand and your sense of your own position in the marketplace,” McCardell says. “Why are people shopping at Costco and Sam’s Club? That’s a terrible analogy, but I can get a really good box of cherries at Costco for a whole lot less than I can get them at the Piggly Wiggly.”
Slashing prices
This fall, a few private colleges and universities — trying to compete with cheaper public institutions — are offering Costco-style markdowns. In New Jersey, for instance, private Seton Hall is matching the price of public Rutgers University for freshmen with top grades and SAT scores. That comes to about a 60 percent discount. Cabrini College, near Philadelphia, cut its tuition 12.5 percent and promised not to raise it above $30,000 through at least 2015.
If students and their families are straying from expensive institutions, a few schools that are freezing or reducing what they charge seem to be winning them back. At Sewanee, applications have risen 17 percent, and the number of entering freshmen is up more than 12 percent. Oklahoma City University has 30 more freshmen enrolled this fall than last, and the number of students dropping out is down. Lincoln College, a private two-year college in Illinois, lowered its tuition 24 percent and the University of Charleston in West Virginia 22 percent, both in response to declining enrollments. William Peace University, a women’s college with 700 students in North Carolina, slashed tuition nearly 8 percent to attract men as it becomes co-educational, and to increase its enrollment by 50 percent. And Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, is responding to a big drop in applications to its school of education by giving 50 percent discounts to incoming freshmen.
Back in California, Christopher Campbell is juggling law school and his referendum campaign to keep tuition flat for students who enroll at the state’s public universities.
“Whoever I tell,” he says, “is always, ‘Yeah, hey, let’s put this through.’ ”
This story, "Colleges freeze, reduce tuition as public balks at further price hikes," was produced byThe Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Editorial: About time

Rising tuition has become commonplace in higher education and each academic year comes with a slightly greater increase than the last. ASU In-state costs went from roughly $5,400 during the 2008-09 academic year to more than $8,500 this year. Thankfully, for in-state undergraduates, the end of the increases is in sight.
ASU President Michael Crow submitted a proposal to the Arizona Board of Regents Friday that requested a 0 percent tuition increase for in-state undergraduates, while out-of-state undergraduates and all graduate students face a 3 percent increase.
For perspective, freshmen in-state tuition increased about 18 percent from 2010 to 2011.
Crow released a video statement Friday explaining the reasoning behind his proposal. State budget reductions have been the main culprit for the increases, and the 2012 budget cut $207 million from all three state universities. Gov. Jan Brewer has proposed returning $30.3 million to state universities in her 2013 fiscal budget. If approved, Crow’s tuition proposal would be a step in the right direction, but still leaves many students struggling to come up with the money.
House Bill 2675 recently made it through the House Appropriations Committee, bringing students closer to paying $2,000 of their tuition out-of-pocket. This bill leaves many students concerned, particularly those on need-based scholarships.
ASU seems committed to doing its best to help students, and the tuition freeze is a nice start, but this is far from a solution to higher education’s ever-increasing cost.
Students are scared.
“It does call on all of us to understand that this is a very modest increase,” Crow said in the video.
He went on to say tuition cost should be predictable going forward, but after the dramatic increases from just one year ago, students should be wary of taking comfort.
We want no increase, and we want it over an extended period of time.
The extra $3,000 for in-state tuition since 2008 doesn’t show up in the classrooms. Classes aren’t smaller, books aren’t cheaper and the average 2012 senior is paying 35 percent more for the same level of education he or she received as a freshman.
What is encouraging, though, is Michael Crow’s execution of his long-term plans for the University. There might still be trepidation from students about the cost of schooling, but it appears Crow has the cost on his mind. Plus, if the goal is to one day have 100,000 students at ASU, the education has to be affordable.

Every hour so far in 2012, the five largest oil corporations have recorded a $14,400,000 profit. And every hour, they received more than $270,000 in federal tax breaks. That adds up to $2.4 billion in subsidies every year for the five largest oil corporations — Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips — all ranked as the top 9 companies in the world.
Even though BP posted an unexpected second-quarter loss, these five companies are on track to meet last year’s record profits. Put these numbers into context, and they are not so “disappointing“: Big Oil profits more in one minute than what 96 percent of American households earn in one year. Even so, Mitt Romney and House Republicans want to double what the five companies receive in federal tax breaks to $12.8 million per day, even though the three publicly owned U.S. companies paid an average tax rate of under 17 percent.
The graphic below illustrates where Big Oil directs these profits and its pollution over the course of a day:

Obama authorizes secret US support for Syrian rebels

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A large military convoy was passing by the town and as the troops moved past, the rebels opened fire. Now the city is paying for it, bodies lining the streets. On Wednesday, President Obama signed an order that allows mostly clandestine forces to support the rebels in Syria. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
White House and intelligence officials declined to comment on a Reuters report about the aid.
A U.S. official also said that while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the U.S., is providing non-lethal aid and communications to the rebels, the presidential finding provides more intelligence resources than had been previously known.
The administration has been under constant criticism for months from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others who say the administration should be arming the rebels.
Obama's order, approved earlier this year, broadly permits the CIA and other U.S. agencies to provide support that could help the rebels oust Assad, Reuters reported.Related: Saudis mum on aid center for Syrian rebels
This and other developments signal a shift toward growing, albeit still circumscribed, support for Assad's armed opponents -- a shift that intensified following last month's failure of the U.N. Security Council to agree on tougher sanctions against the Damascus government, Reuters reported.
UN: Syria using fighter jets against rebels with tanks
The White House is for now apparently stopping short of giving the rebels lethal weapons, even as some U.S. allies do that, Reuters said.

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For days the Syrian troops' weapons have given them the upper hand during key battles in Aleppo, but the rebels – now armed with powerful shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles -- are preparing for a different kind of fight. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
But U.S. and European officials have said that there have been noticeable improvements in the coherence and effectiveness of Syrian rebel groups in the past few weeks. That represents a significant change in assessments of the rebels by Western officials, who previously characterized Assad's opponents as a disorganized, almost chaotic, rabble, Reuters reported.
Precisely when Obama signed the secret intelligence authorization, an action not previously reported, could not be determined, Reuters said.
The full extent of clandestine support that agencies like the CIA might be providing also is unclear, Reuters said.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined comment to Reuters.
A U.S. government source acknowledged that under provisions of the presidential finding, the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.
Last week, Reuters reported that, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey had established a secret base near the Syrian border to help direct vital military and communications support to Assad's opponents.
This "nerve center" is in Adana, a city in southern Turkey about 60 miles from the Syrian border, which is also home to Incirlik, a U.S. air base where U.S. military and intelligence agencies maintain a substantial presence.
This article includes reporting by NBC News' Andrea Mitchell and Reuters.