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July 4 2015 11:33 AM

Uber Shuts Down Ridesharing in France After Protests From Taxi Drivers

Several days after sometimes-volatile protests by taxi drivers who say Uber's service is not competing on a level playing field, the Los Angeles Times reports that Uber suspended the use of its ridesharing app in France on Friday.

The executive in charge of the company's operations in France said the decision to shut down UberPop while it waits for a court ruling was made partly in "the spirit of peace" but added that Uber had been unable to protect some of its drivers from suffering injuries during the protests. From the Times:

The cheap ride-share business, called UberPop in France, connects passengers with unregistered drivers, a move that has been met with anger from taxi drivers who must buy an expensive license that can cost up to $270,000 and who say the competition is destroying their livelihood. Other Uber services using professional drivers were not affected by the decision, the company said.
Although ordered closed by French authorities, UberPop initially said it would not stop operating as it awaited a decision by the country's top court.
On Friday, [Uber France chief Thibaud] Simphal backtracked from that hard-line stance and suggested that the company would suspend its services until the court makes its ruling on the law that handles taxi competition, expected in September.
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Reuters notes that Uber has faced increasing scrutiny and restriction in recent months from authorities in European countries, including Italy and Germany, and that the company's flouting of the law in France had resulted in two of its executives being taken into custody.

The arrival of Uber in France has evidently brought political attention to one grievance that originates not with the people who drive taxis for a living, but from the people who pay to ride in them. Reuters adds that Prime Minister Manuel Valls, responding Friday to the announcement that UberPop was shutting down, admitted that France's licensed taxis often gave both locals and foreign visitors lousy service.

"Taxis need to reform too," Valls said, "to contribute to our country's attractiveness."

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July 4 2015 9:17 AM

Mitt Romney Hosts Fourth of July Sleepover with Chris Christie, Marco Rubio

On Saturday morning, GOP primary rivals Chris Christie and Marco Rubio woke up under the same roof as they prepared to march in the same Fourth of July parade. And when they made their way downstairs for breakfast, they were likely greeted by a man who, in 2012, walked the same route in the final months of his own presidential campaign.

The Washington Post reports that Christie and Rubio joined Mitt Romney for a sleepover Friday night at Romney's Wolfeboro, New Hampshire vacation home. Both Christie and Rubio are set to appear Saturday in the local parade, one of the better-known Fourth of July celebrations in the early primary state and a perennial event for the Romneys.

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The Post's anonymous tipster, described as a Romney aide, said the former Massachusetts governor and his wife had "opened their home to their friends and look forward to celebrating America’s birthday." Just friends, mind you, not prospective endorsees: Time notes that Romney pledged at his "E2 Summit" in Utah last month, attended by Christie and Rubio, along with other would-be presidents, that he doesn't plan to pick sides in the 2016 GOP primary.

Gov. Christie told a New Jersey reporter Friday that he, his wife, and two of his four children would be crashing with the Romneys and predicted there would be "a little politics discussed tonight with Mitt and Ann." The Romneys, he said, had reached out to invite them after Christie signed on to march in the parade. 

Rubio's campaign declined to comment to the Associated Press about his Wolfeboro plans, but Rubio advisor Jim Merrill—also a veteran of Romney's 2008 and 2012 campaigns—tweeted a photo of the Florida senator and his wife with Mitt on Friday evening.

There's no word whether the candidates will declare the stay at the Romneys' six-bedroom lake house as an in-kind campaign donation on their next round of disclosure forms, or whether the extra guest house was used to put up Gov. Christie's protective detail, whose taxpayer-funded travel expenses have become a sore spot for voters back home. Eighty-two percent of New Jersey voters in a recent poll said Christie's campaign should be paying the extra costs of taking New Jersey state police officers and vehicles to his many out-of-state campaign events, which reportedly cost the state upwards of $185,000 in the first three months of 2015. Christie has so far refused, saying Wednesday that "we’re going to continue to conduct this in the same way I’ve always conducted it," with the state footing the bill.

July 3 2015 4:43 PM

Greek Expatriates Lobbying Friends Back Home, Flying In Ahead of Referendum Vote  

For some Greek expatriates, too invested in the country's upcoming referendum to just make phone calls and tweet to influence friends back home, this weekend will be taken up with travel. Reuters takes note of the subset of Greeks overseas making the journey to participate in the too-close-to-call election Sunday:

One airline put on extra flights and ticket prices have risen for expatriates who want to have a say in whether Greece accepts a cash-for-reform deal from international creditors or rejects it, potentially leading to a euro zone exit.
Konstantinos Dimitriou, a management consultant who lives in Singapore, is catching a plane early on Saturday and making the 19-hour journey back to Athens to vote 'Yes' to accept a deal.
"All the opportunities I got in my life to grow came in part from Greece's relationship with Europe, not just my Greek passport," he said.
He said the best man from his wedding was also flying back from New York to vote, as were two friends from Dublin and a former business partner from Sweden.
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The return of Greeks living abroad for the nationwide referendum might bring to mind the wave of Irish citizens that made it home to vote on their country's marriage equality referendum in May. While the result of the marriage vote might have been a source of pride for many Irish people, the Greeks are faced with a bleaker set of possible outcomes: securing continued international support under harsh austerity measures or a total default on debts and possibly a rocky exit from the euro zone.

On Friday, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras urged citizens to choose an anti-austerity "No" vote as a way to "live in dignity in Europe" in the face of "those who terrorize you." The Greek media, meanwhile, could be attempting to boost public perception of growing support for the pro-Europe "Yes" side, according to the Los Angeles Times:

[N]early all the mainstream press and television stations in Greece have skewed their coverage or are openly in favor of the "yes" campaign, throwing in doubt just how fair Sunday's election will be. The snap referendum has already come under criticism for being called with too little notice by the left-wing Greek government—which is urging a "no" vote—to allow for proper campaigning and educating of voters.
"There is no doubt that the coverage is overwhelmingly biased," said Nikolas Leontopoulos, an independent journalist who has investigated Greece's power structure. The line between reporting and advocacy "has totally been blurred," he said.
On Thursday, for example, the privately owned Antenna network's evening newscast aired a montage of despairing retirees lining up at a bank to claim their pensions, which then cut to images of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his outspoken finance minister. Large red letters spelled out the word "shame" in Greek as ominous music played in the background.

The Times notes that one of the country's top broadcasters showed only "Yes" rallies in its news coverage, despite the fact that there were sizeable demonstrations on both sides, a bias likely attributable to the pro-bailout bent of the large business interests that control many Greek media outlets.

July 3 2015 1:33 PM

In Scott Walker's Wisconsin, Obama Urges Crowd to Flee to Democrat-Run Paradise In Minnesota

President Obama took advantage of a stop in La Crosse, Wisconsin on Thursday to get in on the fun of the 2016 presidential derby, telling an enthusiastic university crowd he's lost track of how many Republicans are running but that it's probably enough for "an actual Hunger Games. That is an interesting bunch."

Obama also stoked a regional rivalry while questioning the economic credentials and policy agenda of the "bus full" of contenders for the Republican presidential nominaton, particularly the state's conservative governor and as-yet undeclared candidate, Scott Walker.

We've seen what happens when top-down economics meets the real world. We've got proof right here in Wisconsin. There was a statewide fair-pay law that was repealed. The right to organize and bargain collectively was attacked. Per-student education funding was cut. Your minimum wage has been stuck in place. Meanwhile, corporations and the most fortunate few have been on the receiving end of hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax cuts over the past four years...
What happens when we try middle-class economics? Just across the river, it's a pretty interesting experiment. In Minnesota, they asked the top two percent to pay a little bit more. They invested in things that help everybody succeed, like all-day kindergarten and financial aid for college students. They took action to raise their minium wage and they passed an equal pay law. They protected workers' rights. They expanded Medicaid to cover more people.
Now, according to Republican theory, all those steps would've been bad for the economy, but Minnesota's unemployment rate is lower than Wisconsin's. Minnesota's median income is around $9,000 higher.
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Obama went on to quote an editorial in their hometown paper, the La Crosse Tribune, declaring that Minnesota "is winning this border battle." The divergence in economic fortunes of the two states has been noted for the past few years, as Democratic majorities in both chambers of Minnesota's legislature have steadily implemented progressive reforms in cooperation with a Democratic governor.

Republicans, Obama said, are like your "Uncle Harry" who says outlandish things at Thanksgiving. "You say, 'Uncle Harry, that makes no sense at all.' You still love him. He's still a member of your family, right? But you've got to correct him. You don't want to put him in charge of stuff."

The president hastily added that "if there's an Uncle Harry out here, I wasn't talking about you."

July 3 2015 9:16 AM

Boko Haram Raids Kill More Than 100 in "Reclaimed" Region of Nigeria

Terror group Boko Haram shot and killed more than 100 people this week in attacks on Nigerian towns that had been "recaptured this year from Boko Haram by a multinational army," the Associated Press reports. Some of the raids targeted mosques during services marking the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The attack Wednesday night on the town of Kukawa came the day after the Islamic extremist group attacked a village 35 kilometers (22 miles) away and killed another 48 men and boys, according to witnesses who counted the dead.
The people of Kukawa were in several mosques, praying ahead of breaking their daylong fast, when the extremists attacked. They killed 97 people, mainly men, said self-defense spokesman Abbas Gava and a senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to give information to reporters.
Gava said his group's fighters in Kukawa said some militants also broke into people's homes, killing women and children as they prepared the evening meal.
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The deadly attacks took place in the northeastern state of Borno, which was the site of Boko Haram's brazen kidnapping of more than 200 girls from a school in the town of Chibok in 2014. The incident focused attention on extremist violence in the region, with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls spreading around the world on Twitter and months of harrowing reports that the girls had been forced into "marriages" with members of Boko Haram, which opposes Western influence in Muslim countries and has aligned itself with ISIS.

A Nigerian military official told CNN that President Muhammadu Buhari's government had carried out airstrikes against Boko Haram after this week's attacks, and the defense ministry announced on Thursday that a businessman involved in the Chibok kidnapping had been arrested. Former president Goodluck Jonathan lost his re-election campaign this year amid accusations of a weak response to the Boko Haram threat. Shortly after his loss to Buhari, the Nigerian government announced that it had rescued the kidnapped girls

July 3 2015 3:43 AM

Study Finds Fourth of July Fireworks Are Breathtaking in More Ways Than One

Fourth of July is a boon for daredevils. Even ignoring the widespread drought in the West, it’s the No. 1 firefighting day of the year. Last year, more than 10,000 people were admitted to the hospital for fireworks-related injuries—with intoxicated underage boys a major accident-prone demographic.

Turns out, all those backyard pyromaniacs are contributing to a big health risk for those of us sitting back in the lawn chairs, too.

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A new study shows Fourth of July fireworks extravaganzas release huge amounts of pollution into the air. If the weather conditions are right, it’s enough to cause a health risk.

“I don’t think people in general see fireworks as a source of air pollution,” said the study’s lead author, Dian Seidel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Air Resources Laboratory in College Park, Maryland. But think about it: “You’ve got these explosives going off in the atmosphere, which, essentially, I think is a source of emissions.”

Seidel and her colleagues at NOAA conducted a statistical evaluation of 315 air-quality-monitoring sites nationwide between 1999 and 2013, and they found a consistent spike in toxic levels of fine particulate matter to unhealthy levels at 10 sites, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Seattle. Even nationally averaged, fine particulate matter pollution more than doubles on July 4th.

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There’s a big spike from fireworks-caused air pollution on July 4th, which leads to a doubling of fine particulate matter even when averaged over the entire country for multiple years.

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They aren’t the first researchers to link fireworks and pollution: In 2013, meteorologist Cliff Mass chronicled troubling fireworks-related pollution spikes in the Seattle area and noted that due to particularly stagnant atmospheric conditions, one monitoring station in Tacoma, Washington briefly rose “close to Beijing levels.”

Could one day actually make a difference in Fourth of July revelers’ health? Maybe. A 2011 study of fine particulate pollution spikes in Italy—exactly the kind studied by Seidel and Mass—was linked to an uptick in hospital admission for heart attacks. Exposure to high levels of fine particulate pollution can result in decreased lung function even in healthy people, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Obama administration has proposed an updated rule on ground-level ozone, based on new science, that would clamp down on emissions from cars, power plants, and factories. Recently, there’s been pushback from the now billion-dollar-per-year pyrotechnics industry, which is likely overstating the proposed rule's potential impact on fireworks—which are typically not subject to Clean Air Act standards.

Current air pollution regulations typically allow for brief spikes like the ones Seidel’s team found, although a few state and local air quality agencies, like those in Las Vegas, Nevada and Lincoln, Nebraska, have issued pre-emptive advisories in the past warning of the dangers of breathing in too much fireworks smoke. Both cities did so again this year.

But most municipalities don’t officially consider fireworks an air pollution danger. A 2007 rule by the EPA classified fireworks displays into the category of “exceptional events,” one that is “not reasonably controllable or preventable.” Slate contacted the EPA for comment on the new study, and received the following statement:

Fireworks are sources of fine particle pollution, and past air quality monitoring has shown spikes of particle pollution levels in some communities as a result of large-scale fireworks displays. These spikes can be above the level of EPA's 24-hour health standard.

EPA recognizes the importance of fireworks on the Fourth of July and other significant holidays, and EPA's regulations allow states to request that related PM spikes not be counted in determining whether an area has violated the standard. Short-term exposure to fine particle pollution (hours to days) can pose health concerns, especially for groups of people more sensitive to PM2.5 pollution. So we caution those people to enjoy fireworks from a distance, and from upwind, to reduce their exposure. 

So basically, as long as you aren’t downwind of the fireworks on Saturday night, you should probably be OK?

July 2 2015 11:41 PM

More Than 70 Percent of Republicans Don’t Believe in Man-Made Global Warming

Is the sky blue? Is the Earth round? Is the world getting warmer because of people? Facts shouldn’t change based on what side of the political aisle you sit on, and yet … here’s some depressing news: Just 27 percent of Republicans believe the Earth is warming due to human activity compared to 71 percent of Democrats, according to a new report released by the Pew Research Center on Wednesday.

Keep in mind that the majority of Americans agree that global warming is serious and real. The controversy hinges on who should take the blame—with many Republicans remaining skeptical that the answer is humans. Even the U.S. Senate, which voted this year that climate change was not a hoax (gold star for you, U.S. Senate!), can’t agree on the root cause of the phenomenon.

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The Pew report is just the latest piece of evidence reflecting the trend of political polarization in America: In the past two decades, we’ve drifted farther and farther apart based on political party. Though the science behind climate and energy issues hasn’t budged, our attitudes toward them continue to diverge.

For the report, Pew surveyed 2,002 adults in 2014 to determine the influence that key factors such as political ideology, age, race, and gender had on their political beliefs. Global warming proved one of the issues most sharply divided across party lines, along with other climate and energy issues including offshore drilling, fracking, and nuclear power. In fact, on these issues, party identification was more likely to determine a respondent’s stance than even their level of education or scientific knowledge.

Still, one would hope that more science education would coincide with greater support for science-based stances in general. And that was true to a point. Respondents with a greater understanding of science proved less afraid of scientific advancements and futuristic-sounding technologies: They were more likely to support using animals in scientific research, approve of expanding nuclear power, and consider genetically modified foods safe to eat. They were “especially likely” to approve using bioengineered organs for human transplant.

Fortunately, politics was not the only factor at play. When it came to other science-based issues—such as the safety of eating GMO foods, space travel, animal research, and biomedicine—respondents were far less likely to have their views determined solely by their political leanings. Unsurprisingly, in the case of evolution, religion played a central role in determining people’s stances. Interestingly, though, those same respondents didn’t necessarily use religion to determine their stances on other scientific topics.

The Pew report did reveal one surprising correlation between political parties about government spending and scientific research: The majority of both parties—83 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans—said government investment in scientific research paid off in the long run. Gold star for you, America!

July 2 2015 9:11 PM

Urbanization in Sardine-Packed Beijing Has Quadrupled the Size of Its Environmental Impact

With Beijing’s dense population and smoggy skies, it stands to reason that the Connecticut-sized city would be radiating an outsized environmental impact. But until now, we weren’t clear on just how bad it was.

Researchers from NASA and Stanford University recently estimated that the area directly affected by Beijing's urbanization has quadrupled in size from 2000 to 2009. So while the area we call Beijing has remained roughly the same size, its environmental influence has grown far larger. These findings, published this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, draw on new computer models and data from NASA’s QuikScat satellite.

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From 2000 to 2014, Beijing’s population grew from around 11 million to 21 million—today packing as many people into one city as there are in all of Australia (or North Korea or Syria). Strangely, the study didn’t measure the effect of more greenhouse gas emissions released by these additional residents and their vehicles. Instead, it only measured the growth of physical infrastructure—for instance, new roads and buildings.

The changes in the city’s physical infrastructure had massive, compounding effects on its weather and climate. New roads, for instance, reduce the ground’s albedo, its ability to reflect light and heat away from the city, and buildings prevented air from circulating freely. Those effects have resulted in higher temperatures and lower wind speeds. Researchers found that winter temperatures had increased in the city by 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit, while wind speeds were reduced by about 2 to 7 miles per hour, making the city air even more stagnant, according to the American Geophysical Union.

While Beijing is hardly the only major city dealing with these issues, the sardine-packed capital of China has become the poster child for out-of-control urbanization. Recently, its government has taken steps to curb its pollution and greenhouse gases, vowing to clean up more than 1,000 festering landfills and promote hybrid and electric vehicles. Unfortunately, neither will have much of an impact on the changes being wrought by the immense growth of its sheer physical infrastructure.

July 2 2015 4:53 PM

Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb Announces Presidential Run, Fails to Clarify He’s a Democrat

On Thursday afternoon, as half of D.C. was attempting to slip away early for the holiday weekend, former Virginia senator Jim Webb announced his run for president. Rather than appear in a YouTube video or march into his old high school to break the news, he posted a letter on webb2016.com that tops out at more than 2,000 words but has one curious omission: Webb never comes out and says that he is seeking the nomination of the Democratic party.

Webb did serve in the Senate from 2007 to 2013 as a Democrat and has some traditionally liberal positions on LGBT rights and abortion access, and the Vietnam veteran and former Secretary of the Navy has opposed recent military interventions overseas. Web stresses in Thursday's letter that as commander-in-chief he would not have advocated for the use of force in Iraq or Libya. 

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Webb's views on some other issues, though, including gun control and immigration reform, keep him decidedly in the party's moderate wing.

Assuming Webb is diving into the 2016 fray on the Democratic side, he's the fifth to enter a field that remains dominated by Hillary Clinton and her unexpectedly credible challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Webb's lengthy announcement tacitly acknowledges that he poses no threat to Clinton in fundraising but uses his disadvantage to paint himself as a back-to-basics populist fighting big money and partisan division in politics:

I understand the odds, particularly in today’s political climate where fair debate is so often drowned out by huge sums of money. I know that more than one candidate in this process intends to raise at least a billion dollars–some estimates run as high as two billion dollars–in direct and indirect financial support. Highly paid political consultants are working to shape the "messaging" of every major candidate.
But our country needs a fresh approach to solving the problems that confront us and too often unnecessarily divide us. We need to shake the hold of these shadow elites on our political process. Our elected officials need to get back to the basics of good governance and to remember that their principal obligations are to protect our national interests abroad and to ensure a level playing field here at home, especially for those who otherwise have no voice in the corridors of power. And at the same time our fellow Americans need proven, experienced leadership that can be trusted to move us forward from a new President’s first days in office.
I believe I can offer both.

Webb has some catching up to do on the campaign trail–both Clinton and Sanders have been making the rounds in the early primary states for weeks–though he did appear alongside his fellow long-shot candidate Martin O'Malley at a Polk County Democratic Party dinner in Iowa back in April.

It's not clear what Webb's ultimate goal is, assuming he is realistic about his chances of getting onto the Democratic ticket. He could be angling to be Hillary's VP pick as a moderate whose military service could help her win over less-liberal swing voters, or hoping to bring attention to the veterans' issues he cares about, especially PTSD treatment. Webb's never seemed like an enthusiastic participant in D.C. politics, having left the Senate after only one term. There might be a hint of Ainsley Hayes-style urge to serve America at work, with one clue in the custom URL extension Webb chose for his Facebook page: "IHeardMyCountryCalling."

July 2 2015 4:23 PM

After Online Criticism, Sister of Charleston Shooter Cancels Wedding Fundraiser

Twenty-seven-year-old Amber Roof was due to be married last month. She planned to wed Michael Tyo, a U.S. Army Reserve recruiter, at the Mitchell House and Gardens in Lexington, South Carolina. But the wedding was called off, because days prior to the event, her brother—21-year-old Dylann Roof—allegedly opened fire on a black church in Charleston and killed nine people, in what has since been nationally condemned as a hate crime. Dylann Roof, who was arrested shortly after the shooting, currently faces charges for nine counts of murder.

According to FBI sources, Amber Roof played a critical role in her brother’s arrest: She called the authorities and alerted them of his identity as soon as she saw him appear in surveillance photos on the news. As the country reeled from the shooting in the days afterward, though, the Roof family was bombarded with questions and threats. Roof made the decision to cancel her wedding reportedly out of concern for her family’s safety and a desire to mourn those who had been killed.

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Last weekend, Roof started a page on Go Fund Me, a public fund-raising website similar to Kickstarter, with the intent of raising money to cover non-refundable wedding costs. “We know money cannot replace the wedding we lost and our perfect day. However, it will help us to create new memories and a new start with our new family,” she wrote on the page. But after being up for four days, the fundraiser—which had raised $1,545 toward a $5,000 goal—was abruptly taken down from the site Thursday. Spokespeople from the Go Fund Me Site say the page was removed by Roof herself.

It’s unclear why she chose to end the fundraiser, but the page did draw a mix of sympathy and criticism. Some people left messages on the page expressing their sorrow, and others, elsewhere online, attacked Roof for behaving inappropriately. “Nobody blames you for what your brother did… [but] right now it’s much too soon,” one person wrote in an open letter. “This is peak white privilege,” another article accused. Reactions to the Go Fund Me campaign on Twitter were largely negative.

Roof had promised that most of the money raised would go toward covering lost wedding costs and paying bills, and that 10 percent of the funds would be donated to Emanuel AME Church, the site of the shooting. Some have praised her decision to offer donations, while others called it weak and unsubstantial.

“June 21 was supposed to be the happiest day of our lives,” Roof wrote on the now-deleted page. “It is the day every girl dreams of, it was the day we dreamed of… Our day was the exact opposite. Our wedding day was full of sorrow, pain, and shame, tainted by the actions of one man.” 

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