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Sunday, March 16, 2014

3 Militants Killed in Yemen Explosion

3 Militants Killed in Yemen Explosion


3 Militants Killed in Yemen Explosion

Posted: 16 Mar 2014 11:03 AM PDT

(SANAA, Yemen) — Security officials in Yemen say three alleged al-Qaeda operatives have accidentally blown themselves up while outfitting a car with explosives in preparation for an operation in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa.

Tribesmen from the area and security officials identified the three, one Saudi and two Yemenis, as al-Qaeda members. The group is known to be active in the province’s Habban region, where the explosion took place Sunday.

The U.S considers Yemen’s al-Qaeda branch, also called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to be the network’s most dangerous offshoot. The group seized much of the south after Yemen’s 2011 uprisings. A U.S.-backed military offensive later drove militants out of cities and towns, but they continue to stage attacks.

Student Loan Forms Are Still a Nightmare

Posted: 16 Mar 2014 10:41 AM PDT

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren went to Charlestown High School in Boston recently with one message for students gathered in the gymnasium to hear her speak. It was about getting ahead—but not simply by studying hard or avoiding trouble. If they planned to go to college, the senator was there to tell the students, it was essential that they fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

"Is the form complicated? Yes," Warren said during the January visit. But, she said, "If you don’t fill out the form, how much money do you get? None."

Minutes later, Warren witnessed for herself how hard that was. She paced from station to station in a community room at the school—88 percent of whose students are low-income, 94 percent nonwhite, and more than half non-native English-speaking—where a dozen seniors were huddled around their computer screens struggling with the lengthy form, which is required to qualify for a piece of $159 billion a year in federal, state, and institutional grants and loans for college.

“What’s the problem here?” she asked. “Are you a U.S. citizen? You need your Social Security number to fill out the FAFSA.” Another hand shot up. “I don't know what the Selective Service is,” the student said. “Are you registered with the draft?” Warren responded. “That’s what that means.”

On her way out, Warren gave the kids a thumbs-up and told them to "hang in there."

They'll need to. In spite of at least eight years of promise after promise from politicians that they would make the FAFSA easier, the form remains a barrier to college for many students. The first significant reform took six years to finally make its way to students, who are seeing it for the first time now, as they face deadlines this spring to complete and submit the crucial questionnaire.

It's unclear whether these changes will have an impact on the estimated 2.3 million students a year the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators says would qualify for aid but don't fill out the FAFSA. About 45 percent of high school seniors don't complete the form, according to the Education Department. The White House has announced a push to increase those numbers, not by making more improvements to the FAFSA, but by imploring students to finish it and recruiting mentors to help them.

"All you have to do to access that aid is fill out this one little form," First Lady Michelle Obama told a group of high school students in Virginia. "It's so simple."

In fact, there are still 100 questions on the FAFSA's six pages, many of which have several parts and ask for sensitive financial data beyond what's required even on a tax return. Some are straightforward, but many are so convoluted they require their own separate sections of instructions.

Take, for example, Question 45, which has 10 parts. It requires that students list any "untaxed income not reported in items 45a through 45h, such as workers' compensation, disability, etc. Also include the untaxed portions of health savings accounts from IRS Form 1040—line 25. Don't include extended foster care benefits, student aid, earned income credit, additional child tax credit, welfare payments, untaxed Social Security benefits, Supplemental Security Income, Workforce Investment Act educational benefits, on-base military housing or a military housing allowance, combat pay, benefits from flexible spending arrangements (e.g. cafeteria plans), foreign income exclusion or credit for federal tax on special fuels."

And that's just Part I.

"Imagine you're a 17-year-old from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background," said Tom Allison, policy and research manager at Young Invincibles, an advocacy group that represents the interests of 18- to 34-year-olds. "You’re a first-generation college student. You don’t have a parent that’s familiar with this form, which is over 100 questions long and asks for a lot of financial and tax information. You're setting this kid up to fail."

Bills introduced in Congress have tried but failed to streamline this process, beginning with the “College Aid Made EZ Act” in 2008. In the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, White House officials urged Congress to cut the FAFSA down to two pages by using only adjusted gross income and the number of tax exemptions to determine aid eligibility. That didn't happen either.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and John McCain advocated for simplifying the FAFSA, though Obama went a step further, proposing to eliminate the form altogether and replace it with a box on federal tax forms that families could check to indicate their interest in financial aid. Once he was in office, Obama's Council of Economic Advisers recommended removing questions about savings and assets beyond what the Internal Revenue Service requires for taxes, saying the "entire financial aid process hinders postsecondary educational attainment for low-income students from the very start." And five years later, when the Obama administration unveiled a push to help those students get college degrees, a key piece of the plan was to provide FAFSA completion assistance because the form is so difficult.

But change has been unremittingly slow.

The persistent complexity is partly because the financial-aid formula itself is so confusing, said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

"With the FAFSA, it’s better to own your home," for example, said Nassirian, who advocates simplifying the form. "Better than that is to own a farm, and better than that is to own a small business with fewer than 99 employees."

There is again some hope that Congress, which determines the financial-aid eligibility formula, may this year whittle down the FAFSA with the scheduled reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act. In hearings, education experts have been pushing for a form that asks about just two things: family size and income. But there's another complication that worries student advocates—even the ones who agree the FAFSA needs to be simplified. States and colleges use the form to determine their financial-aid awards, too. If the FAFSA is slimmed down, students could wind up having to fill out two or three forms instead of just one.

“It really is a double-edged sword," said Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network. "Potentially every state and every college could decide they need their own form. If we really want to solve this problem, everybody has to buy into a simplified federal form."

FAFSA defenders argue that the recent improvements have made it easier. But there is still much room for improvement, according to a new report from the College Board.

In 2008, lawmakers permitted the Department of Education to let users simply link to their own tax information from the IRS on the form's online version, rather than having to re-enter it from scratch. That change has just taken effect—six years later, thanks to the red tape involved in having the two federal agencies talk to each other.

The department also has incorporated something called skip logic, which lets students bypass questions that don't apply to them. These reforms have cut the average completion time from two hours to about 23 minutes, according to department officials, though they made that estimate based on focus groups and not an actual accounting of how long people stay logged in online.

Cook is skeptical.

"Did the DOE split hairs here?" she asked. "You might be able to fill out the form in 23 minutes once you have all the information gathered, but that probably doesn’t include the prep time the FAFSA takes before you even sit down in front of your computer."

This year's changes have provided little help to Kristyn Hughes's students, she says. Hughes is a guidance counselor at Charlestown High, many of whose students are in foster care and have to document the lack of parent involvement. Others have to convince skeptical guardians to share financial information they don't want to give.

For others, the problem is with timing. The earlier you file, the better, meaning families have to finish their taxes well before the April 15 deadline that they're due to the IRS.

"It puts a lot on kids who are unfamiliar with the process," Hughes said, noting that these experiences aren't unique to Charlestown. "They think, why bother, and it's sad because the people who need it the most are the most discouraged by the form."

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Founder of Anti-Gay Kansas Church in Care Facility

Posted: 16 Mar 2014 09:52 AM PDT

(TOPEKA, Kan.) — The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., who founded a Kansas church that’s widely known for its protests at military funerals and anti-gay sentiments, is in a care facility.

Westboro Baptist Church spokesman Steve Drain said Sunday that Phelps is being cared for in a Shawnee County facility. Drain wouldn’t identify the facility but says Phelps is 84 and “having some health problems.”

Members of the Westboro church, based in Topeka, frequently protest at funerals of soldiers with signs containing messages like “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Thank God for 9/11,” claiming the deaths are God’s punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.

Republicans Knock Obama on Russia, as Crimea Vote Gets Underway

Posted: 16 Mar 2014 09:36 AM PDT

Republicans fiercely criticized President Barack Obama’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine on Sunday, urging the White House to take a firm stand against Russia’s intervention just as the Crimea region of Ukraine was voting on a referendum to split from the country.

“Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CNN’s State of the Union, calling for “fundamental reassessment” of the U.S. relationship with Moscow.

“It’s kleptocracy, it’s corruption, it’s a nation that’s really only dependent upon oil and gas for their economy,” McCain said.

The comments came as voting was underway in Crimea, with the strongly ethnic-Russian peninsula voting on whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, despite repeated threats by the U.S. and the European Union that the vote will not be recognized as legitimate and that it will lead to further sanctions. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Russia of consequences. But Republicans said Sunday that’s not enough, with some pointing to Kerry’s comments that the U.S. isn’t seeking to “threaten” President Vladimir Putin.

"Our administration is creating an air of permissiveness," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said on Fox News Sunday. “We do need to show long-term resolve. The comment that Secretary Kerry made is not helpful and again it shows a wishy washiness.”

Republicans said Russia’s recalcitrance requires a strong hand.

“No more reset buttons, no more ‘Tell Vladimir I’ll be more flexible.’ Treat him for what he is,” McCain said. “That does not mean the re-ignition of the Cold War. But it does mean treating him in the way that we understand an individual who believes in restoring the old Russian empire."

White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, reiterated the American position that the vote is not legitimate, and that sanctions would follow with the U.S. "supporting the new Ukrainian government in whatever way possible."

"The United States is not going to recognize the results of that referendum," Pfeiffer said.

Nigeria: Attacks on Christians Kill at Least 100

Posted: 16 Mar 2014 08:59 AM PDT

(KANO, Nigeria) — Officials say Fulani Muslim herders attacked three Christian villages and killed more than 100 civilians. Hundreds of thatched-roof huts were set ablaze.

Thousands have been killed in recent years in competition for land and water between mainly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and Christian farmers across Nigeria’s Middle Belt. More than 100 people were killed in similar attacks in neighboring Katsina state last week.

Chenshyi village chief Nuhu Moses said Sunday that gunmen killed more than 50 people including the pastor’s wife and children. He said the entire village in the southern part of Kaduna state was destroyed.

Local government acting chairman Daniel Anyip said about 100 people were killed in attacks on three villages Friday night.

The Southern Kaduna Indigenes Progressive Forum blamed the government for failing to take action.

Nissan Sees Electric Car Sales Boom

Posted: 16 Mar 2014 08:45 AM PDT

The market for electric cars is shifting into high gear. Or at least that’s what the automaker Nissan says.

The Japanese electric car maker said Saturday it may be able to sell more gas-free vehicles than it initially projected, as more and more countries embrace fossil fuel alternatives, the Wall Street Journal reports. Nissan has sold more than 100,000 units of its electric Leaf worldwide since its launch in 2010. Nissan will begin selling the Leaf in South Korea in the second half of this year and expects to sell 1.5 million unites of electric vehicles by 2020 as the company looks to emerging markets.

Despite having to overcome challenges like shorter range than gas-engine cars, relatively high prices, and a minimal refueling infrastructure, tougher emissions standards worldwide will help spurt the growth of the electric car market, Nissan says.

[WSJ]

Paris Restricts Car Usage to Combat Smog

Posted: 16 Mar 2014 08:19 AM PDT

France will restrict auto use in Paris beginning Monday in an effort to reduce dangerous pollution levels in the country’s capital.

Paris’ high number of private car drivers and France’s diesel subsidies make the city more susceptible to high levels of smog than other European capitals, and a recent week of a warm, sunny weather has made the air quality worse, Reuters reports. Paris has 147 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter of air, compared with 81 in Berlin and 79.7 in London.

The plan being introduced Monday calls for drivers to only use their cars on alternate days according to odd or even numbers on their license plates, to encourage commuters to cycle and use electric car-sharing programs introduced last week. Political opponents called the plan tough to enforce and politically motivated ahead of municipal elections at the end of the month, while proponents said it would improve public safety.

[Reuters]

White House Urges Putin to Back Down in Crimea

Posted: 16 Mar 2014 07:56 AM PDT

(WASHINGTON) — The White House says that if Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t back down in Crimea, he will face penalties from the West that will hurt the Russian economy and diminish Moscow’s influence in the world.

White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer also says supporting the new Ukrainian government “in every way possible” is at the top of the Obama’s administration’s priority list.

But action on $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine is on hold because Congress is on a break now.

Pfeiffer tells NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Putin has a choice: “Is he going to continue to further isolate himself, further hurt his economy, further diminish Russian influence in the world, or is he going to do the right thing?”

China’s E-Commerce King Alibaba to Go Public in U.S.

Posted: 16 Mar 2014 07:42 AM PDT

China’s online commerce giant Alibaba Group announced early Sunday morning it plans to begin the process of an initial public offering in the United States.

Alibaba said in a statement it wants to become “a more global company and enhance the company's transparency.” The company could raise more than $15 billion in its IPO, more than Facebook raised in its public debut, and analysts estimate Alibaba has a value of at least $140 billion, Reuters reports. The e-commerce kingpin has a unique model that’s part eBay, part Google and part PayPal, and its platforms handle more goods than eBay and Amazon combined.

The Hangzhou, China-based company employs more than 20,000 and is currently in talks with Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs Group, J.P. Morgan, and Morgan Stanley for lead underwriting roles.

[Reuters]

David Brenner, ‘Tonight Show’ Favorite, Dies at 78

Posted: 16 Mar 2014 07:27 AM PDT

David Brenner, the famed stand-up comedian who was a favorite on Johnny Caron’s Tonight Show, died Saturday. He was 78 years old and at his home in Manhattan, the New York Times reports.

Brenner frequently appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson as one of the shows most popular guests, performing more than 150 times. He gained attention through his anecdotes about daily life, but as his career went on, his comedy increasingly focused on current events.

Born in Philadelphia, Brenner graduated from Temple with a communications degree. He began as a writer of television documentaries and started in comedy in the early 1970s, landing his own late-night syndicated talk show, Nightlife, in 1986.

“In David's final request he asked that one hundred dollars in small bills be placed in his left sock ‘just in case tipping is recommended where I'm going,’” his family said in a statement.

[NYT]

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