Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

July 21 2014 5:20 PM

Florida Jury Awards Woman $23.6 Billion in Tobacco Case and That's Not a Typo

A Florida jury has awarded Cynthia Robinson, the widow of a smoker, a brain-staggering $23.6 billion in punitive damages in her case against R.J. Reynolds, which makes the Kool brand that her husband preferred. Michael Johnson Sr. is said to have begun smoking at age 13. From the New York Times:

The four-week trial ended Wednesday. The jury deliberated for 18 hours over two days, first awarding $17 million in compensatory damages and then emerging at 10 p.m. Friday with a $23.6 billion punitive judgment.
“When they first read the verdict, I know I heard ‘million,’ and I got so excited,” Ms. Robinson said in a phone interview Saturday. “Then the attorney informed me that was a ‘B’ — billion. It was just unbelievable.”

The tobacco company will, not surprisingly, appeal. A 2002 judgment of $28 billion against Phillip Morris USA in a Los Angeles case was reduced on appeal to $28 million in 2011.

Said Robinson to the Times, of her husband:

“He really did smoke a lot.”

I suppose he did. I suppose he did.

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July 21 2014 4:03 PM

The World's Oceans Were Hotter in June Than at Any Other Time Since Humans Started Keeping Track

More not-great news on the global warming front, via Climate Central:

This June represents a significant milestone for the world’s oceans. Not only was it the hottest June for oceans since record keeping began in 1880, but it was the most anomalously warm ocean temperature for any month. That means temperatures were more freakishly above average this past June than at any other time in the period of record. The previous record was a four-way tie with May 2014 being the most recent month.
This June’s temperature record also represents a global mark for the warmest the oceans have ever been. The record heat happened to hit in June, when oceans are at their warmest, giving temperatures a further boost.

Specifically, the average "global sea surface temperature" in June was 62.65 degrees Fahrenheit. The oceans are going to be pretty comfortable to swim in for a few decades until they boil over and we all die.

July 21 2014 3:02 PM

Dutch Enraged Over Treatment of Citizens' Bodies at MH17 Site

One hundred ninety-three of the 298 individuals onboard downed flight MH17 were from the Netherlands, and the country's government is outraged about the way victims' bodies have been treated: Some were reportedly left in the sun for three days, and none of the remains have been repatriated yet.

In recent hours the bodies were reported to have left the rebel-held town of Torez in a refrigerated train. A Dutch military transport plane will be waiting to convey the deceased back to Holland should the train eventually arrive at its ostensible destination, the Ukrainian-government-controlled eastern city of Kharkiv.

Chief Dutch investigator Peter Van Vliet said that the storage of the bodies is “of good quality,” though the AP wrote that the "the smell of decay was overwhelming" at the train station and that the train’s refrigeration was affected by a power outage overnight, when the bodies were apparently already on board.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to use his influence with Ukrainian rebels to allow investigators full access to the crash site; in a statement earlier today, President Obama also made a similar demand after accusing “Russian-backed separatists” of blocking a transparent investigation.

July 21 2014 12:54 PM

Los Angeles Native Who Joined IDF After Birthright Israel Trip Killed in Gaza

The Associated Press reports this morning on the story of two Americans, 24-year-old Max Steinberg of California and 21-year-old Nissim Sean Carmeli of Texas, who were killed on Sunday in Gaza while fighting with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Carmeli had lived in Israel for four years and had reportedly finished high school there before joining the military. Steinberg, a 2008 graduate of El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, California (just down the road from the celebrity hotspot Calabasas), had never been to the country before 2012. He first visited through the Birthright program that funds free 10-day trips to Israel for young Jewish people living abroad:

When he returned, he made an announcement to his parents that he was planning to return and join the IDF, Steinberg said. He made good on that promise less than six months later, making the move in December.
"He went back," Steinberg said. "He was completely dedicated and committed to serving the country of Israel. He was focused, he was clear in what the mission was, and he was dedicated to the work he needed to be doing."

At least 425 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have been killed so far during the explosion of violence that has followed the murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank.

July 20 2014 1:57 PM

Rebels Say They’ve Found MH17 Black Box, Begin Loading Bodies Onto Refrigerated Trains

As negotiations continue on international access to the MH17 crash site in eastern Ukraine, the separatist rebels controlling the area, who have been accused of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines plane, say they have recovered the aircraft’s black boxes and will hand them over to the International Civil Aviation Organization. "Some items, presumably the black boxes, were found, and they have been delivered to Donetsk and they are under our control," Aleksander Borodai, prime minister of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic, said in a news conference.

Meanwhile, confusion at the crash site continued on Sunday, as Agence France Presse reports, “it was immediately not clear Sunday if the rebels and the Ukrainian government were working together or at odds with each other on recovering the bodies – and from their comments, many officials didn’t appear to know either.” The rebel’s management of the crash site and the restricted, disjointed effort to investigate the scene has been a source of contention and frustration. The separatists have been criticized for their handling of the hundreds of bodies at the scene and Sunday’s efforts were similarly scrutinized as the remains of some 196 people were “loaded on to refrigerated rail wagons, to be taken to an unknown destination,” the BBC reports. "The bodies will go nowhere until experts arrive," Borodai said.

"The indiscipline and chaos of the last two days have been replaced by the robust presence of former riot policemen who now form a cordon around the central area of the crash site,” the BBC correspondent in region writes. “There is still no sign of the fully fledged independent investigation which is being demanded by the international community.” “Borodai said he was expecting a team of 12 Malaysian experts and that he was disappointed at how long they had taken to arrive,” the Associated Press reports. “He insisted that rebels had not interfered with the crash investigation, despite reports to the contrary by international monitors and journalists at the crash site.”

July 20 2014 12:55 PM

John Kerry Appears to Criticize Israel’s Gaza Offensive During Hot Mic Moment

During Secretary of State John Kerry’s tour of the Sunday morning talk show circuit Kerry was caught on a hot mic discussing the conflict in Gaza with an aide on the phone before going on air on “Fox News Sunday.” Once on air during the interview, the show’s host, Chris Wallace, played the clip of the phone conversation where Kerry comments on Israel’s ongoing offensive in Gaza, saying: "It's a hell of a pinpoint operation. It's a hell of a pinpoint operation.” 

Kerry’s remark appears to be sarcastic and, the Washington Post points out, “an apparent reference to Israel's insistence that its incursion into the region would be limited.” "It's escalating significantly and it just underscores the need for a ceasefire," the aide responded before Kerry finishes the conversation saying: "We've got to get over there. I think we ought to go tonight” calling it "crazy" to be "sitting around." After playing the clip Wallace followed up, asking: "When you said it's a hell of a pinpoint operation are you upset that the Israelis are going too far?"

July 20 2014 11:55 AM

Two-Hour Gaza Truce Falls Apart Shortly After It Begins as Fighting Resumes

A two-hour so-called humanitarian truce in Gaza fell apart not long after it began on Sunday. The mutually agreed to temporary ceasefire to allow for the evacuation of the wounded began at 1:30 p.m. local time, but the BBC reports the brief respite from the fighting didn’t even last an hour before shots were again being fired. Both sides blamed the other for reneging on the deal. “Israel's military said its forces were shot at shortly after the two-hour truce, facilitated by the Red Cross, had begun at 1:30 pm, and that it had resumed combat operations,” Reuters reports.

The ceasefire targeted Gaza's Shejaiya neighborhood, which was bombarded by Israeli forces overnight, killing at least 40 and wounding 400 others, according to Agence France Presse. “The intensity of the bombardment prevented emergency services from accessing the neighbourhood and dead bodies lay in the streets as thousands fled in terror,” AFP reports.

Here’s more on the state of Shejaiya from the BBC’s correspondent on the ground:

When we arrived at the edge of the neighbourhood, Palestinians were still fleeing in their hundreds: carrying nothing but their children, some pausing to vent their anger in front of cameras. They spoke of bodies lying in the street and the wreckage of buildings, including a mosque. After a night of ferocious bombardment, they seem traumatised and stunned. For three days, Israel had warned them to leave their homes, but Shejaiya is home to 80,000 people. Most stayed put, not expecting the ferocity of last night's bombardment.

The Israeli offensive, now in its twelfth day, “has killed at least 360 Palestinians and wounded some 3,000,” according to NPR.  “At least eight Israelis have been killed in the latest fighting.”

July 20 2014 10:36 AM

U.S. HIV Infection Rate Falls By a Third in a Decade

A new study shows that the rate of HIV infections diagnosed in the U.S. declined by a third over the last decade. The Journal of the American Medical Association study found 24 people out of 100,000 had HIV in 2002 and by 2011 that number had fallen to 16 people for every 100,000. During that period a total of 493,372 were diagnosed with HIV. Within the context of the overall decline “declines were also seen in the rates for men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, heterosexuals, injection drug users and most age groups,” the BBC reports. The only groups to see diagnoses increase were gay and bisexual men. The World Health Organization estimates more than one million Americans have HIV and 18 percent of them are unaware that they have it.

Another positive sign is the decline of HIV in the U.S. comes as testing has increased. “Although experts say reasons for the US decline in infections are unknown, it is in line with a global downturn in the Aids epidemic,” according to the BBC. “Last week, the United Nations said that there were 2.1 million new HIV infections worldwide in 2013, down 38% from 2001.”

July 19 2014 1:43 PM

World’s Second Richest Man Thinks You Should Only Be Working Three Days a Week

You’re working too much. Everyone in the world has certainly had that thought before. Somewhat shockingly, a billionaire 1-percenter actually agrees with you. Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, the world’s second richest person, thinks you should be working far less—try three days a week. There is, of course, a tradeoff; with people living longer you’re also going to have to work until later in life, Slim says. “People are going to have to work for more years, until they are 70 or 75, and just work three days a week – perhaps 11 hours a day,” Slim says.

Here’s more on Slim’s idea for a “radical overhaul” of our working lives from the Financial Times:

“With three work days a week, we would have more time to relax; for quality of life. Having four days [off] would be very important to generate new entertainment activities and other ways of being occupied.”
The 74-year-old self-made magnate believes that such a move would generate a healthier and more productive labour force, while tackling financial challenges linked to longevity. He is putting his money where his mouth is. In his Telmex fixed-line phone company in Mexico, where workers on a collective labour contract who joined the company in their late teens are eligible to retire before they are 50, he has instituted a voluntary scheme allowing such workers to keep working, on full pay, but for only four days a week.

July 19 2014 1:05 PM

400,000 People Sign Petition to #FreeArturo the “Sad” Polar Bear From Argentina Zoo

The Internet of good intentions has found a new cause to rally around. This time the cause is, in fact, a polar bear named Arturo. Arturo is a resident at the Mendoza Zoo in Argentina and therein lies the problem. Activists described “deplorable conditions,” the polar bear lives. “The bear, 29, has been seen pacing in his pen and showing behavior some have likened to depression,” according to the BBC, which has led to Arturo being nicknamed “the world’s saddest animal.”

Arturo’s plight has been ricocheting around the Internet after a Change.org petition sprung up requesting the polar bear be moved to a zoo in Canada “where a natural habitat and a better life is awaiting him.” More than 430,000 people have signed on to the petition spawning a #FreeArturo hashtag on Twitter. Newt has even joined the cause.

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