Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

July 18 2014 4:29 PM

Rebel Leader Suggests Some MH17 Victims Were Killed Before Plane Took Off

Igor Girkin, identified by the Associated Press as a "top pro-Russia rebel commander," is promoting a conspiracy theory about the crash of MH17:

The pro-rebel website Russkaya Vesna on Friday quoted Igor Girkin as saying he was told by people at the crash site that "a significant number of the bodies weren't fresh," adding that he was told they were drained of blood and reeked of decomposition.

Girkin, who also goes by the name Igor Strelkov, says "a large amount of blood serum and medications were found in the wreckage."

The veracity of Girkin's assertions depend, of course, on how much stock you put in secondhand accounts of forensic conclusions drawn by untrained Russian nationalists who have spent less than a day studying the widely scattered wreckage of an airplane that has just fallen 30,000 feet.

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July 18 2014 3:53 PM

The United States Executes a Tiny Percentage of the People it Sends to Death Row

On the heels of a California judge's ruling that the state's death penalty is unconstitutional because its death sentences are so rarely and arbitrarily carried out, the New York Times' Upshot site looks at the large disparity nationwide between the number of convicts sent to death row and the number that are actually executed.

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New York Times

With over 3,000 individuals on death row and the country executing about 50 prisoners a year, it would take around 60 years just to close all current death penalty cases. Many convicts die of natural causes before their sentences are carried out—and Times writer Justin Wolfers, an economist, points to a study that suggests life inside prison might actually be safer than life outside it for the demographic of (ostensibly) violent and unhealthy individuals who end up on death row. Wolfers calls the slow rate of executions a "political equilibrium" for a citizenry that supports executions in theory but is made uncomfortable by actually seeing them carried out—and by his estimate, if we actually captured and executed everyone who committed a crime hypothetically punishable by death, there would be around seven executions in the United States every day.

July 18 2014 1:18 PM

Obama: American Citizen Died in MH17 Crash

President Obama announced in his remarks on the MH17 crash in the Ukraine that one American citizen, Quinn Lucas Schansman, was killed in the crash. (Read a transcript of Obama's press conference here.) State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Schansman had dual citizenship:

July 18 2014 12:21 PM

Republican Aide Arrested With Unlicensed Handgun in Congressional Building

An aide to Republican Pennsylvania representative Tom Marino was arrested this morning after trying to bring a handgun through security into a House office building, Roll Call reports:

Ryan Shucard, the Pennsylvania Republican’s press secretary, was arrested around 9:15 a.m., according to Capitol Police spokeswoman Lt. Kimberly Schneider.
Shucard entered the southeast door of Cannon with the weapon. The Smith & Wesson 9mm and magazine were found during the search required for entry into the building, according to Schneider. People entering Cannon, including those with staff identification badges, like Shucard, are required to step through metal detectors and place bags on the belt of an X-Ray machine.

It's not clear whether the magazine in Shucard's possession was loaded. He is charged with carrying a pistol without a license, which is a felony. Guns in Washington D.C. must be registered with the police and cannot be carried in public in most situations.

In 2012 the National Rifle Association gave Rep. Marino an "A" grade for his positions on gun control.

July 18 2014 11:33 AM

Gawker Reporter Tries to Eat TGI Friday's Appetizers for 14 Hours

Last Monday TGI Friday's announced an "Endless Appetizer" special—infinite servings of whatever app you choose, for $10. Gawker writer/hero Caity Weaver subsequently attempted to eat mozzarella sticks for 14 hours at a TGI Friday's in Brooklyn; her boss promised her a week off if she could stick it out (haha) for the entire span of the restaurant's 11 a.m.-1 a.m. service schedule.

Her first plate arrives at 11:34 a.m.:

The mozzarella sticks are golden, dense, and huge. Each one is greater than the width of two of my index fingers. As a frequent and enthusiastic consumer of mozzarella sticks, I estimate that these are about twice the standard size...
They taste like goddamn garbage.

1:35 p.m.:

For the first time, I heave.

4:11 p.m.:

Goddammit.

Does she make it all 14 hours and earn the vacation? How many sticks does she eat? Does she spew? You'll have to read the piece to find out! We are truly living in a heyday of cheese journalism.

July 18 2014 10:30 AM

Ukrainian Government and Rebels Both Say They Have MH17's Black Box, Deny Shooting Plane Down

Egregiously conflicting claims about downed flight MH17 coming out of the Ukraine this morning. Per the New York Times, an advisor to the Ukrainian regional government in the area of the crash says that the national government's Emergency Services Ministry has recovered the planes' black-box voice and data recorders. But the pro-Russian leader of local rebels, Aleksandr Borodai, says his group in fact has the black boxes and will give them to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an alliance of European governments. Borodai's reasoning:

He also said he had no intention of tampering with the black boxes because he said they would prove that the separatists were not guilty of shooting down the plane. “It is very much in our interests to have the most serious and dispassionate review of this issue by all international experts,” he said. “We will allow any international experts to the place of downing of the plane.”

The Ukrainian government also denies culpability in the crash, and released what it claims are intercepted calls between rebels discussing a missile attack on the plane:

The audio's veracity hasn't been confirmed by any outside group, but the United States appears to believe that the missile that brought the plane down was fired from rebel-controlled territory:

The Russian government also denies shooting down MH17, which crashed near the Russia-Ukraine border.

July 17 2014 9:01 PM

Malaysia Airlines Confirms Nationalities of Some Passengers From Downed Flight

Malaysia Airlines has confirmed some, but not all of the passengers’ nationalities on the downed flight. Here’s an updated list that shows more than half of the people aboard were from the Netherlands, where the flight originated, and includes three infants. There is no confirmation of whether there were any Americans on the flight as of yet, but there remain 41 passengers of unverified origin. Here’s the full list from Malaysia Airlines:

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July 17 2014 8:12 PM

Pro-Russia Rebels' Deleted Social Media Posts Suggest Responsibility for Downing Plane

Social media being what it is—fickle and easily manipulatable—this is certainly not definitive proof of who is responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine on Thursday, but now deleted social media posts by pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine posted in the immediate aftermath of the incident suggest the “rebels thought they had shot down a Ukrainian army plane before realizing in horror that it was in fact a packed Malaysian airliner,” Agence France Presse reports.

Here’s a sampling of the incriminating posts via AFP:

The VK social networking page of Igor Strelkov -- "defence minister" of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic -- first announced: "We just downed an An-26 near (the town of) Torez." "And here is a video confirming that a 'bird fell'," said the post.
'We have seized missiles.' The VK post was soon removed -- but not before its screen grab was captured... The comments attributed to Strelkov did not identify what missile was used to down the craft at what Kiev said was an altitude of 10,000 metres (33,000 feet). But a message on the official Twitter account of the Donetsk People's Republic had announced hours earlier that insurgents had seized a series of Russian-made Buk systems capable of soaring to that height."@dnrpress: self-propelled Buk surface-to-air missile systems have been seized by the DNR from (Ukrainian) surface-to-air missile regiment A1402," said the post. That tweet was later deleted as well.
The strongly pro-Kiev Ukrainska Pravda news site later posted an audio recording of what it claimed were the intercepted field communications between rebels and a Russian agent discussing the downing. "We just downed a plane," a rebel the recording identifies as Bes (Demon) tells an alleged Russian military intelligency officer. Another recording shows one alleged fighter reporting from the site of the plane's remains that it was "100 percent certain this is a civilian aircraft." He spits out a Russian expletive when asked whether there were a lot of passengers on board.

July 17 2014 7:05 PM

Putin Blames Ukraine for Putting Itself in a Situation Where People Want to Shoot Planes

The U.S. may have confirmed that the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane that crashed into the ground in eastern Ukraine on Thursday was shot down, however, who did the shooting, and with what, are questions that still need to be answered. Whether it was actually the Russian-made Buk missile-launcher system that was, in fact, used by separatist rebels is still a matter of conjecture. We’ll surely know more soon. Until then, Vladimir Putin says he knows who’s responsible—Ukraine.

Here’s more on Putin’s responsibility theory via the Associated Press:

A Kremlin statement early Friday said Putin opened a meeting with his economic advisers by calling for a moment of silence over the crash. "This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine. And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy."

July 17 2014 6:15 PM

The New Yorker Humanizes Teachers Involved in Atlanta Cheating Scandal

The New Yorker recently published a fascinating and empathetic essay by Rachel Aviv exploring the evolution of the adult cheating scandal at Atlanta Public Schools through the lens of one middle school. The story paints a portrait of how the pressure to meet unreal expectations on standardized tests drove teachers to cheat in order to save their jobs and prevent their school from shutting down.

Aviv’s piece takes us back to the sobering details of a 2011 report released by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which showed that 44 of 56 investigated public schools cheated on the 2009 Criteria-Reference Competency Tests. As Slate’s Dana Goldstein put it then, according to the report, educators had facilitated cheating “often with the tacit knowledge and even approval of high-level administrators.”

Under former superintendent Beverly Hall’s watch, the district became a data-driven environment infested by a culture of fear and intimidation and placing emphasis on meeting numerical goals at any cost. Here’s how the essay captures it:

According to [Parks Middle School principal Christopher] Waller, the district became increasingly “corporate,” with every school focused on the “bottom line.” He [Waller] wrote teachers’ targets in marker on the floor of the entryway to their classrooms, in view of the students. He instructed the teachers, “I need those numbers,” and, “You need to teach to the test. Do what you’ve got to do.” “Data” and “accountability” had become almost magic words: if administrators repeated them enough, it seemed they believed that scores should rise, even if there hadn’t been significant enhancements in instruction.

Teachers at Parks Middle like Aviv’s protagonist, Damany Lewis, were forced to recalibrate their moral compasses to justify changing test answers on student papers or giving them test questions in advance.* What is most interesting about the story is seeing how the public middle schools are set up to fail from the get-go because of cheating much earlier in the system—at elementary schools. Rumors of the elementary schools’ cheating tactics even inspired the strategies that Parks Middle adopted to meet its annual goals under No Child Left Behind. Aviv argues in the piece that NCLB was a naively “utopian” piece of legislation because it uses similar criteria to assess all public schools without considering variables such as poverty and insecurity.

Commenting on the issue back in 2011, Goldstein pointed out that the Atlanta incident isn’t an isolated one, and foreshadowed that the "shenanigans" would continue in the future if the government keeps creating policies where test scores take precedence over children’s knowledge.

Aviv’s piece, however, raises concerns about superintendent Hall's full participation in the scandal. Hall, who won National Superintendent of the Year in 2009, had disregarded an initial investigation in early 2006 that Parks Middle was cheating. Her trial, which has been delayed until August this year on account of her bad health, will look to determine the extent of her complicity in the matter.

Here's a recap of the 2011 scandal from the Associated Press:

*Correction, July 18: This piece originally misspelled Damany Lewis' name as Danny Lewis.

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