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March 5 2015 7:28 PM

Harrison Ford Injured Piloting Plane During Crash Landing on Golf Course

Actor Harrison Ford was injured when a plane he was piloting crashed into a golf course near Los Angeles on Thursday. “The actor, who was conscious and breathing when rescue crews reached him, was stabilized and taken to a hospital, where he was in fair to moderate condition,” authorities told NBC News.

Ford was reportedly flying solo in a vintage World War II training plane when it crashed shortly after taking off from the Santa Monica Airport.

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The story was first reported by TMZ.

Ford's son, Ben, Tweeted that his Dad is doing fine:

*This post has been updated.

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March 5 2015 6:03 PM

Is Scott Walker Losing His Ability to Enrage the Left?

MADISON, Wisconsin—Walker Derangement Syndrome is dead. A few hours ago, unions and their supporters held one last protest before the passage of right-to-work legislation in Wisconsin, and it was a staid affair. This is not normal. People who don’t like Scott Walker typically aren’t calm about it.

Walker is a strong contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination largely because upward of 100,000 protesters descended on the state capitol in 2011 when he oversaw the passage of legislation that dramatically curbed the power of public-sector unions. Walker’s ability to draw rage from the left transcends space, time, and state lines—during his speech at CPAC last week, he shouted down a heckler and drew raucous applause from the conservative attendees.

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Today’s event was comparatively sedate. Instead of thousands of protesters, I’d estimate there were hundreds. And though a few signs were eyebrow-raising (when I tried to take a picture of one that said “May 1933 Hitler abolishes unions … ” the sign-bearer’s friend stepped in front of it, asked if I was press, and then said, “No”), the event on the whole was calm, low-key, and resigned. No madness. No obscenity. Nothing diagnosable.

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Photo by Betsy Woodruff

Rabbi Renee Bauer gave an invocation that touched on the Old Testament story of Esther, who helped save the Jewish people from mass murder. But the mood outside the Capitol didn’t feel life-or-death at all (though one protester’s sign did say “WISCONSIN REPUBLICANS THE NEW EBOLA OF USA POLITICS”). Wisconsin state AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt led the crowd in chants of “Solidarity! Unity! Togetherness!” between speakers, and the demonstrators filtered back into the capitol to a Dropkick Murphys song after everyone was done talking about low fast-food wages and the importance of organizing.

“Our plan is to have them go in, bear witness, listen to the debate, and have them understand which side this legislature’s really on,” said Neuenfeldt afterward.

“It’s about coming together collectively as we always do, to figure out how we move forward,” he added.

Shannon Maier, a county worker and AFSCME member who spoke to the group, told me afterward that the rally turnout would have been bigger if the vote hadn’t been in the middle of a workday.

“This stuff happens during the week,” she said. “It’s never when it’s convenient for the working families of America.”

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Photo by Betsy Woodruff

Others proffered different explanations.

“At this point they know this bill’s going to pass, there’s not going to be any recalls, and it’s kind of like—they’re kind of out of gas,” said Collin Roth, the managing editor of Right Wisconsin.

Walker can’t be happy about today’s calm.

“Walker is able to promote policies, sign bills, come up with legislation that just drives the left crazy and makes them make irrational decisions that cross the lines of political decency,” said Matt Batzel, the national executive director of the conservative group American Majority. “And it backfires on them. In some ways, this explains why Walker’s been so successful in Wisconsin: He gets such an outrageous reaction from the left.”

The right has become quite adept at capitalizing on that outrage. Roth explained that the new conservative infrastructure in Wisconsin—including Right Wisconsin, Media Trackers, and the MacIver Institute (the “free market voice for Wisconsin”)—learned during the 2011 protests how to push countervailing media narratives about Walker’s foes.

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Photo by Betsy Woodruff

Roth cited a story that broke a few weeks ago about protesters showing up at the Wauwatosa home of Walker’s parents. Walker’s sons, Matt and Alex, both tweeted that news out. “That gets hyped by talk radio, we at Right Wisconsin reported on that, other groups pushed that out, and all of a sudden Walker was on Megyn Kelly the next night talking about it,” Roth said. “None of us orchestrated anything, but we’ve gotten really good at seeing an opportunity and running with it.”

“Boom, narrative done,” he added.

The protests today didn’t give Walker’s allies much opportunity for boom narrative done.

“It’s kind of been a fait accompli,” Roth said. “We all know how it ends this time.”

March 5 2015 5:51 PM

D.C. Kids Defy Cops, Congress to Take Forbidden Sled Rides on Capitol Hill

Before the snow started falling in Washington, D.C., Thursday morning, Capitol Police said that sled-toting children would be escorted off the hill outside the home of Congress if they tried to defy a sledding ban that was put in place after 9/11 but not enforced consistently until this winter. The rebellious youth would not be denied, though, and with a snow day declared and a healthy layer of fresh white powder on the ground, a mitten-clad mob of them marched on the seat of power with their parents and their brightly colored plastic shields and slid all over the authority of the federal government.

The afternoon sled-in, promoted by D.C. blog Popville, was observed by several local media outlets. The cameras might have made the Capitol Police a little reluctant to haul the little lawbreakers off to the clink, and plastic met snow without anyone being arrested. Officers are reportedly sympathetic to the sledders, and inside the Capitol, no one wants to admit to being the "congressional grump" alleged to have insisted on this year's crackdown. One officer dispatched to enforce the rule a couple of weeks ago cited a complaint from "the head of the appropriations committee," according to one of the illicit sledders, but the relevant members of both chambers were quick to deny involvement when contacted by Roll Call. 

March 5 2015 5:25 PM

Saudi King Honors Muslim Scholar Who Says Bush Did 9/11, Jews Run America

When Saudi Arabia's long-ruling King Abdullah died in January, both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were quick to eulogize him within the context of the U.S.'s allegedly excellent relationship with the country he ruled. Obama's statement referred to "the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond," and America's diplomatic partnership with the Oil-Rich Gulf State™ goes back more than half a century. But that relationship has always been characterized by hypocrisy, as the two states—one a secular democracy whose leading public figure is Miley Cyrus, the other a religiously strict monarchy—could hardly stand for more dissimilar values. And that awkwardness was underlined spectacularly this weekend by Abdullah's successor, King Salman, when he awarded the "2015 King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam" to an Indian Muslim public figure named Zakir Naik, who believes George W. Bush helped plan 9/11 and that "Jews" run America.

Here's Naik on Jews:

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And here's a transcript of his Loose Change-derived statements about how and why George W. Bush and the White House used explosives and military planes to destroy the World Trade Center. An excerpt:

The way the plane took a turn – and I've personally spoken to senior pilots, who have flown big Boeings and Airbuses for several years – they say it's impossible to take such a turn. Imagine if just a new person of a few hundred hours takes a turn... What the experts say is that it has to be a military plane.

Though his remarks on the subject are documented on YouTube, Naik told the New York Times he had been "misquoted."

The White House and State Department don't appear to have made any comment on Naik's award.

March 5 2015 5:21 PM

El Niño Has Arrived, and It Could Produce the Warmest Year on Record

Prepare to brush up on your Chris Farley impressions. After months and months of teasing forecasters, El Niño has officially arrived, and it’s set to boost global warming to new record levels.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate scientists reported the switch to official El Niño status in their latest technical bulletin on Thursday, and outlined their decision process in a blog post.

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Here’s what you need to know:

What is El Niño, anyway?

El Niño is one of the Earth’s most powerful climate signals, with the ability to shift weather patterns worldwide. It typically happens only two or three times in a decade, and its most important feature is its predictability. Once in place, El Niños normally linger for months, giving affected regions time to prepare for impacts.

Technically, for an official El Niño episode, NOAA requires five consecutive three-month periods of abnormal warming of the so-called Nino3.4 region of the mid-tropical Pacific, about halfway between Indonesia and Peru. It usually takes a self-reinforcing link-up between the ocean and the atmosphere to achieve this, and it finally appears the atmosphere is playing its part.

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National Weather Service

Is there anything special about this El Niño?

El Niño transfers huge amounts of heat from the oceans to the atmosphere, and there are hints that this El Niño, combined with the already very warm global oceans, could bring about a new phase in global warming. An associated slow-moving indicator of Pacific Ocean temperatures, called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, reached record levels in December and January. A persistently strong PDO is associated with cold winters in the East and drought in California—we’ve had both in abundance this year. Should the PDO stay strong, it’ll essentially join forces with El Niño and increase the odds that 2015 will rank as the warmest year on record globally. Last fall I wrote that a PDO signal like we’re currently seeing could kick off a surge of global warming over the next five to 10 years.

What does El Niño mean for me?

The 2015 El Niño could bring a litany of weather effects across the world, though NOAA cautions that it’s still pretty weak at this point so not much will immediately change.

In the United States, typical springtime impacts of El Niño point toward wetter than normal conditions in California, the Southeast, and the East Coast. El Niño years are also associated with heavy snowfall in the Northeast, which we’ve for sure had already.

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NOAA

“This El Nino is likely too late and too weak to provide much relief for drought-stricken California,” NOAA’s Mike Halpert, one of the agency’s official El Niño forecasters, said in a statement. Florida, on the other hand, has the strongest signal for short-term impacts—the next few months will likely be very rainy in the Sunshine State.

Why now?

In a video briefing, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society’s Tony Barnston, who helped make the decision official, explained that the slow build-up of warm water in the Pacific over the last several months has made it “a very unusual time to give an advisory for an El Niño.” El Niños usually start in mid-summer, not in early spring. This year’s sluggish onset may be because this year’s El Niño isn’t happening in the typical way.

Close followers of the thermodynamics of the tropical Pacific (you know who you are) will note that borderline El Niño conditions have been around unofficially way back to last June. Finally, in February, the trade winds began to weaken across a vast stretch of the Pacific, causing an accumulation of subsurface heating. Forecasters now believe that the ocean and atmosphere have joined forces in such a way that further warming and shifts in global weather patterns are likely—and that was the key to declaring an official start to El Niño on Thursday.

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National Weather Service

Steve Zebiak, a Columbia University climate scientist who helped issue the first successful prediction of El Niño in 1985, says he’s never seen anything like the run-up to the current El Niño.

“There definitely are some questions here,” Zebiak told me in a phone interview. For awhile, Zebiak says that the run-up to this El Niño was looking like that first successfully predicted event. In the last few months, though, things have changed. “Now we’re in a situation where I can’t think of a good analog for this entire past 12 months over many decades,” Zebiak said. He thinks climate change may be shifting where El Niño forms—now closer to the central Pacific rather than near South America. The impacts of this shift aren’t yet fully understood, but this year will provide a great chance for further study.

What’s next?

Typical El Niños last only for six or eight months, but we could be in for a long one this time, spanning parts of two years or more. By later this year, if forecasts hold, global temperatures should soar to new records, according to Zebiak. A consensus of dynamic climate models now show a strengthening of El Niño through late summer, though the reliability of the forecast models—which change throughout the year—is typically at its lowest right about now.

Still, Zebiak says that if this El Niño advances across the Pacific as is currently predicted, 2015 would likely be the warmest year ever measured globally.

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National Weather Service

March 5 2015 5:10 PM

Can al-Qaida’s Syrian Branch Rebrand?

The complex and ever shifting alliances of the ISIS war are about to get even more complicated. Reuters reports that the Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaida affiliate in the Syrian civil war, is considering cutting ties with the international terror network. The group’s leaders are reportedly mulling the move at the urging of Qatar, one of the leading sponsors of the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad.

Qatar has been an important supporter of the anti-Assad opposition since the earliest days of the uprising and has been far less hesitant than other governments about helping anti-Assad groups with jihadist ties. Since ISIS became an international concern, Qatar has been under pressure from the U.S. and others to be a bit more choosy about whom it does business with—which is why it is hoping to convince Nusra to break from al-Qaida. Qatar evidently believes Nusra can be an effective fighting force against both ISIS and Assad, but will suffer from a lack of outside funding as long as it’s tagged as an al-Qaida affiliate.

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Qatar’s relationship with Nusra is a little murky. Government officials have had some contact with the group, and some wealthy Qataris have been allowed to fundraise for Nusra with tacit government support. But the Qatari government clearly feels that if Nusra were to drop its al-Qaida affiliation, Qatar could be a more open and generous sponsor.

Nusra, established in late 2011, was once affiliated with ISIS—then known as al-Qaida in Iraq—but the two have been at odds since a jurisdiction fight in 2013, which led ISIS to dissolve its ties with the international al-Qaida network.  

Since then the two groups have been at war. ISIS has generally been doing a lot better, though Nusra has made some recent territorial gains against government forces as well as other rebel groups in northwest Syria. Nusra has more allies than ISIS among other Syrian rebel groups. It’s more focused on fighting against Assad and is somewhat less brutal in the areas it controls. (This is an admittedly low bar.) The Qatari hope is that a rebranded Nusra could join with other rebel groups to form a new non-Assad, non-ISIS front in northern Syria.

But from a U.S. perspective, it’s not clear that Nusra gains are better than ISIS gains. In fact, some U.S. security officials have suggested that the al-Qaida chapter, which now includes some hardened longtime fighters from Pakistan and Afghanistan in its ranks, poses more of a direct threat to U.S. interests than ISIS. The U.S. actually began bombing Nusra positions about the same time it launched its air assault against ISIS. (Nusra positions were hit by an explosion on Thursday, though the U.S. says it wasn't involved.)

Even if Qatar’s new-look Nusra cuts ties with al-Qaida, its core ideology is unlikely to change—these guys joined al-Qaida in the first place for a reason. If they start to make headway against ISIS while the U.S.-vetted “moderate” rebels are still being trained, Obama is going to have yet another “enemy of my enemy” conundrum on his hands. 

March 5 2015 3:30 PM

Michael Brown Family Will File Civil Suit Despite Darren Wilson-Friendly Federal Report

The Associated Press reports that the family of Michael Brown, who was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, will file a wrongful-death lawsuit against Wilson and the city of Ferguson. The announcement comes soon after the release of a federal Department of Justice report that cataloged extensive evidence of racially biased behavior by Ferguson police officers and municipal employees—but specifically found that Wilson's account of his encounter with Brown was "credible." The DOJ will not attempt to prosecute Wilson in federal court for violating Brown's civil rights, and a St. Louis County grand jury chose in November not to indict the officer at the local level.

BuzzFeed's Joel Anderson discussed the feds' characterization of Brown's shooting in a piece on Wednesday, writing that authorities found more support for Wilson's account than for the testimony of Brown's friend Dorian Johnson, whose told the media soon after the incident that Brown died while trying to surrender after Wilson initiated a confrontation.

Ultimately federal authorities found Wilson’s account more believable than Johnson’s. They challenged Wilson on a few things, including about why he stopped Brown and his decision to use deadly force in the SUV, among other things. “Wilson responded to those challenges in a credible manner, offering reasonable explanations to the questions posed,” the report said. “Federal prosecutors found Wilson’s account to be credible.”
Of the 40 witnesses listed in the report, the Justice Department divided them into three groups based on “the nature and credibility of their accounts to a jury.” At least seven provided consistent and “corroborative” statements suggesting Wilson acted in self-defense.
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Said Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday: "Michael Brown's death, though a tragedy, did not involve prosecutable conduct on the part of Officer Wilson."

Brown's representatives did not go into detail about their plans for the suit, saying only at a press conference Thursday that it would be filed "soon."

March 5 2015 1:58 PM

More Than 300,000 Chickens Killed in South Carolina Farm Attacks After Plant Closing

Some 325,000 chickens have been killed in two weeks during attacks on six South Carolina farms—a spree that authorities suspect is related to layoffs at an area chicken-processing plant run by the Colorado company Pilgrim's Pride. Randy Garrett, the sheriff of Clarendon County, told Reuters that the chickens were killed when temperature systems at farms that raise animals for Pilgrim's were sabotaged:

Vandals bypassed alarms systems and raised or lowered temperature in the chicken houses, killing them, Garrett said. "Depending on the age of the birds, they knew whether to jack the heat up or jack the heat off," Garrett said.
Young birds need more heat, and older ones need less, he said. "They had all that knowledge of the farms and how many weeks growth the chickens were," Garrett said.
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The State spoke to an employee at a farm that lost approximately 200,000 birds:

When he walked into one of the chicken houses, he said it was like a sheet of white – almost like snow – that wasn’t moving. The ventilation was shut off and the temperature inside of the house was turned up to 115 degrees.

Pilgrim's Pride is the nation's largest poultry producer and recently laid off 60 employees from a plant in the city of Sumter, Reuters says.

March 5 2015 12:34 PM

New York’s LaGuardia Airport Shut Down After Plane Nearly Skids Off Runway Into Water

New York's LaGuardia airport will be closed until at least 7 p.m. after a Delta airplane carrying a reported 149 individuals skidded off a runway in stormy winter weather; no serious injuries have been reported.

The plane was landing on the airport's runway 13—which, as you can see in this image, is adjacent to the water of the East River and Flushing Bay—and slid up a safety berm and through a fence before coming to a stop.

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Passengers on flight 1086, which was arriving from Atlanta, left the plane via inflated emergency slide. New York's JFK airport, and the nearby Newark airport in New Jersey, are (for now) still open.

Twenty-seven individuals were killed in 1992 when a plane taking off from La Guardia during a snowstorm slid off a runway into Flushing Bay; two died in 1989 in a simiar situation, and 65 died in 1959 when a flight arriving at the airport from Chicago crashed into water before reaching a runway.*

*Correction, March 5, 2015: This post originally misstated that 19 people were killed in the 1992 LaGuardia crash.

March 5 2015 11:48 AM

Liberia Down to Zero Active Ebola Cases

With the release of a 58-year-old teacher named Beatrice Yardolo from a treatment center, Liberia now has no known cases of Ebola, the Associated Press reports. If no further cases are reported in the next 42 days, the country will be declared "Ebola-free" per World Health Organization guidelines; unfortunately, neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone are still suffering from heavy infection rates.

The WHO on Wednesday reported 132 new Ebola cases last week, an increase from the 99 cases reported the previous week. The agency said the spread of Ebola remains "widespread" in Sierra Leone and noted that cases have jumped both there and in Guinea.
Nine new cases were reported in a 24-hour period, according to an update from the Sierra Leone government on Tuesday.
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More than 9,000 people have died thus far during the West African disease outbreak, including more than 4,000 in Liberia.

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