Saturday, April 12, 2014

That Moment When You Must Have a Word With Jenny McCarthy

That Moment When You Must Have a Word With Jenny McCarthy

That Moment When You Must Have a Word With Jenny McCarthy

Posted: 12 Apr 2014 11:08 AM PDT

Dear Jenny:

Look, it’s clear we haven’t always gotten along, and it was never likely we would. You believe vaccines cause autism, that they are related to OCD, ADHD and other physical and behavioral ills, that they are overprescribed, teeming with toxins, poorly regulated and that the only reason we keep forcing them into the sweet, pristine immune systems of children is because doctors, big pharma and who-knows what-all sinister forces want it that way. I live on Earth.

Yes, I have often called you out by name, never favorably, and you’ve always left me alone—until today at least, when you name-checked me in a jaw-droppngly disingenuous piece you wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, trying to launder your long, deeply troubling, anti-vaccine history. You quote yourself from earlier interviews in which you said:

"People have the misconception that we want to eliminate vaccines," I told Time Magazine science editor Jeffrey Kluger in 2009. "Please understand that we are not an anti-vaccine group. We are demanding safe vaccines. We want to reduce the schedule and reduce the toxins."

That’s absolutely true, you did say those things. But let’s take a look at some of the other things you said in that same interview, such as the way you responded when I asked you about the outbreaks of polio that have occurred in Africa, Asia and American Amish communities when vaccines are not administered:

I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their f*cking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s sh*t. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.

Then there was your answer when I asked you if you didn’t believe (like the overwhelming majority of doctors, research institutions and medical journals everywhere on the planet) that the rise in the incidence of autism has nothing to do with vaccines and is just a result of better recognition of autism symptoms, a widening of the diagnostic criteria for the condition and, as often happens, some overdiagnosing too:

All you have to do is find a schoolteacher or principal and ask them that question. They would say they’ve never seen so much ADHD, autism, OCD as in the past. I think we’re overdiagnosing it by maybe 1%. Now you look around and there are five shadows — kids with disabilities — in every class.

And about that line in which you claimed not to be anti-vaccine. Let’s take a look at the entire quote:

People have the misconception that we want to eliminate vaccines. Please understand that we are not an antivaccine group. We are demanding safe vaccines. We want to reduce the schedule and reduce the toxins. If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the f*cking measles.

Yes, and if you ask people whether they’d prefer witches to be burned at the stake or their community to be demonically possessed, they’ll stand in line for the witch burnings too. But they don’t have to make that choice because witchcraft is make-believe, as is your anti-vaccine nonsense.

Jenny, as outbreaks of measles, mumps and whooping cough continue to appear in the U.S.—most the result of parents refusing to vaccinate their children because of the scare stories passed around by anti-vaxxers like you—it’s just too late to play cute with the things you’ve said. You are either floridly, loudly, uninformedly antivaccine or you are the most grievously misunderstood celebrity of the modern era. Science almost always prefers the simple answer, because that’s the one that’s usually correct. Your quote trail is far too long—and you have been far too wrong—for the truth not to be obvious.




Outkast’s Entire Coachella Set Posted to YouTube

Posted: 12 Apr 2014 10:54 AM PDT

Hootie hoo! Outkast’s entire one-and-a-half hour set at Coachella is available on YouTube.

Andre 3000 and Big Boi reunited for the first time in eight years to headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Friday, returning to the old hits and hitting their major albums all the way back to the 1990s’ ATLiens and Aquemini.

Old-school hip-hop heads also rejoiced at the less well-known favorites like “Rosa Park,” “Skew it on the Bar-B” and the famous horn riff on “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.” There was something at the massive LA music festival for the greener Outkast fans, too, as the duo rocked it on “Ms. Jackson” and “The Way You Move.”

The pair had to cut the set short at 1:00 a.m., eliciting boos from the crowd and apologies from Andre, but the abrupt finish wasn’t enough to kill the buzz after the exuberant “Hey Ya.”

9 Countries That Hate America Most

Posted: 12 Apr 2014 10:45 AM PDT

International approval of U.S. leadership improved last year, rising from of 41% in 2012 to 46% in 2013. This ended a downward trend in U.S. approval ratings, which had consistently declined since 2009.

While people around the world tended to have positive opinions of U.S. leadership, residents of some countries had a negative impression of the United States. In five nations, more than two-thirds of those surveyed disapproved of the current administration, according to the latest U.S.-Global Leadership Project, a partnership between Meridian International Center and Gallup.

Last year represented a major improvement for U.S. leadership, Ambassador Stuart Holliday, president and CEO of Meridian International Center, told 24/7 Wall St. There were several reasons for this, including a wind-down of America's role in armed conflicts abroad. As a result, "The view that we are the major shapers of the world and our image as being the world's policeman are fading," Holliday said. An ongoing return to normalcy in the global economy, in which the United States plays an outsized role, has also helped, he added.

The United States has long-running political tensions with many nations that disapprove of the U.S. leadership. Among these is Iran, which has not had diplomatic relations with the U.S. since 1980, and whose nuclear ambitions and human rights violations are points of contention for the United States. In Pakistan, the U.S. has launched attacks against terrorists and insurgents inside the country. Most notable was the 2011 raid and killing of Osama bin Laden, which led to heightened tensions between the two nations.

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Another potential reason for high disapproval of U.S. leadership is the relationship with Israel. The U.S. State Department notes America was the first country to recognize Israel in 1948, and that "Israel has become, and remains, America's most reliable partner in the Middle East." Countries with long-running disputes with Israel — such as Lebanon and the Palestinian territories — also disapprove of U.S. leadership.

Ambassador Holliday noted the situation in the Middle East is also influenced by a lack of clarity over U.S. policy goals and, to some extent, perceptions of the U.S. government's support of Israel. This is driven in large part by a 24/7 news cycle that chronicles every twist and turn of the peace process, Holliday added.

Several of the countries that dislike American leadership the most have also undergone recent political upheavals. Mass demonstrations in Tunisia, for example, set the tone in 2011 for what came to be known as the Arab Spring. There has also been considerable political upheaval in Egypt following the forced resignation and trial of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Mubarak was long considered a stable ally of the United States.

However, while it may be easy to conclude disapproval of U.S. leadership is largely limited to the Middle East and North Africa, this is not always the case. Most notably, in Slovenia, 57% of residents disapproved of U.S. leadership — despite the fact that the country is both a major ally in NATO and a member of the European Union.

But what Slovenia has in common with a number of other countries that disapprove of American leadership is the citizens' negative opinion of their country's government. In 2012, less than one-quarter of Slovenians had confidence in their own government, and a similar number lacked faith in their judicial system, lower than in the vast majority of the countries in the same region. Similarly, less than one-third of Pakistan and Iraq residents had confidence in their governments.

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America's strong economy may also provoke resentment among residents of these countries. According to Jon Clifton, Managing Director of the Gallup World Poll, residents of many of these countries experience hardship and do not enjoy the kind of broad economic benefits seen in more developed countries. As a result, residents equate "U.S. leadership and the leadership of whatever the current economic order represents for them."

GDP per capita in four of the nine countries that hate America the most was less than $10,000 last year. By contrast, U.S. gross domestic product totaled more than $50,000 per capita in 2013.

Limited access to basic needs may also add to the misery of the citizens in many countries that disapprove of the United States the most. Just 31% of Iraqis were satisfied with the quality of their drinking water in 2012, less than any of the 16 other peer countries in the Middle East and North Africa. In Slovenia, only 24% of residents said they were satisfied with the availability of good, affordable housing. This was less than in all but one other OECD nation.

To determine the countries that hate America most, 24/7 Wall St. relied on data from The U.S.-Global Leadership Project, a partnership between Gallup and the Meridian International Center. Gallup also provided data from a number of other indices it produced through polling in 2012. Additional economic information and estimates, including unemployment data, came from the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) 2013 World Economic Outlook. IMF figures on GDP per capita are given at purchasing-power-parity in order to show real differences in wealth. Data on life expectancy was provided by The World Bank.

These are the countries that hate America most.

5. Iraq
> Disapproval rating: 67.0%
> GDP per capita: $7,132 (79th lowest)
> Unemployment: N/A
> Life expectancy: 69 years (57th lowest)

The United States and Iraq have a long history of conflict. The Gulf War in 1991 was followed by the Iraq War, which began in 2003 and lasted until U.S. forces left Iraq in December 2011. Although the war has ended, the U.S. State Department warned that traveling to the country is extremely dangerous because of civil unrest and threat of kidnappings and terrorist attacks. The long-running presence of the U.S. military and the years of conflict, during which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including civilians, died have likely contributed to negative opinions of Americans. The new government has struggled since the war began. Many citizens disapprove of the regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was elected to office in 2010 under a free election overseen by the United States. As of 2012, however, Iraqis were less likely to express confidence in their national government, military or judicial system than citizens of peer nations, and just 30% believed their country had fair elections — lower than in any country in the region.

4. Yemen
> Disapproval rating: 69.0%
> GDP per capita: $2,348 (38th lowest)
> Unemployment: N/A
> Life expectancy: 63 years (38th lowest)

More than 100 Yemeni citizens have been detained at Guantanamo Bay over the years. The United States also has been concerned over terrorist activity in Yemen. It is therefore no surprise that the two countries have a strained relationship and that nearly 70% of survey respondents disapproved of U.S. leadership. Also, just 9% of Yemenite respondents approved of U.S. leadership, less than in any other country reviewed by Gallup. The country suffers from a very poor economy, with GDP per capita at just $2,348 last year, among the very lowest in the world. According to the World Bank, more than half of the country's population lived in poverty as of 2012. U.S. citizens are currently under advisory from the U.S. State Department to avoid traveling to Yemen due to the extremely high security threat level.

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3. Lebanon
> Disapproval rating: 71.0%
> GDP per capita: $15,832 (66th highest)
> Unemployment: N/A
> Life expectancy: 80 years (tied for 23rd highest)

Like many countries that disapprove of U.S. leadership, Lebanon has a long history of conflict with Israel. Hezbollah, a militant group and political party deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union, has operated out of Lebanon for several decades. In February, Israeli forces bombed a Hezbollah convoy on the Syrian-Lebanese border. Hezbollah subsequently claimed responsibility for the roadside bombing of an Israeli patrol along the Lebanese-Israeli border in retaliation. The country is also strapped with debt. Its gross debt was nearly 143% of its GDP last year, the third highest in the world. According to a recent AP report, the country's debt problem is compounded by corruption and a government unwilling to act. In 2012, 85% of residents stated that corruption was widespread, the most of any comparable country.

2. Pakistan
> Disapproval rating: 73.0%
> GDP per capita: $3,144 (48th lowest)
> Unemployment: 6.7% (47th lowest)
> Life expectancy: 66 (46th lowest)

While 73% of Pakistani respondents still disapproved of U.S. leadership in 2013, this was a six percentage points improvement over 2012. Relations with Pakistan have been tense since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda. Shortly after the attacks, the U.S. made Pakistan the base of its operations in its hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the war on Afghanistan's then-leadership, the Taliban. In 2009, a survey revealed that 59% of the Pakistani people viewed the United States as a bully and as a bigger threat than al-Qaeda. Further exacerbating the country's negative view of the U.S. may be Pakistan's struggling economy and poor governance. Just one in 10 Pakistanis said they lived comfortably on their incomes in 2012, according to Gallup, and only 23% of Pakistanis expressed confidence in their government.

1. Palestinian territories
> Disapproval rating: 80.0%
> GDP per capita: N/A
> Unemployment: N/A
> Life expectancy: 73 years (95th highest)

Four of five Palestinians disapproved of American leadership, by far the worst perception of the United States globally. One explanation for the country's hostility toward the United States is Palestine's conflict with Israel. Hamas, the organization that has effectively governed the Gaza Strip territory since 2007, is considered by the United States and European Union to be a terrorist organization. Possibly emphasizing the deep divides in the Palestinian territories, just 18% of respondents told Gallup the place they lived was a good place for racial and ethnic minorities in 2012, less than all but one other country in the region.

Read the rest of the list on 24/7 Wall St.

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10 Quick Ways to Lose All Your Friends

Posted: 12 Apr 2014 10:33 AM PDT

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at

Want to win friends and influence people? Here are 10 things that ensure you won’t:

1. You thoughtlessly waste other peoples’ time. Every time you’re late to an appointment or meeting says your time is more important. Every time you wait until the grocery clerk finishes ringing you up to search for your debit card says you couldn’t care less if others have to wait unnecessarily. Every time you take three minutes to fill your oversize water bottle while a line stacks up behind you says you’re in your own little world–and your world is the only world that matters.

Small, irritating things, but basically no big deal? Wrong. People who don’t notice the small ways they inconvenience others tend to be oblivious when they do it in a major way.

How you treat people when it doesn’t really matter–especially when you’re a leader–says everything about you. Act like the people around you have more urgent needs than yours and you will never go wrong–and you will definitely be liked.

2. You ignore people outside your “level.” There’s an older guy at the gym that easily weighs 350 pounds and understandably struggles on the aerobic and weight equipment. Hats off; he’s in there trying.

Yet nobody talks to him. Or even seems to notice him. It’s like he’s invisible. Why? He doesn’t fit in.

We all do it. When we visit a company, we talk to the people we’re supposed to talk to. When we attend a civic event, we talk to the people we’re supposed to talk to. We breeze right by the technicians and talk to the guy who booked us to speak, even though the techs are the ones who make us look and sound good onstage.

Here’s an easy rule of thumb: Nod whenever you make eye contact. Or smile. Or (gasp!) even say hi. Just act like people exist.

We’ll automatically like you for it–and remember you as someone who engages even when there’s nothing in it for you.

3. You ask for too much. A guy you don’t know asks you for a favor; a big, time-consuming favor. You politely decline. He asks again. You decline again. Then he whips out the Need Card. “But it’s really important to me. You have to. I really need [it].”

Maybe you do, in fact, really need [it]. But your needs are your problem. The world doesn’t owe you anything. You aren’t entitled to advice or mentoring or success. The only thing you’re entitled to is what you earn.

People tend to help people who first help themselves. People tend to help people who first help them. And people definitely befriend people who look out for other people first, because we all want more of those people in our lives.

4. You ignore people in genuine need. At the same time, some people aren’t in a position to help themselves. They need a hand: a few dollars, some decent food, a warm coat.

Though I don’t necessarily believe in karma, I do believe good things always come back to you, in the form of feeling good about yourself.

And that’s reason enough to help people who find themselves on the downside of advantage.

5. You ask a question so you can talk. A guy at lunch asks, “Hey, do you think social-media marketing is effective?”

“Well,” you answer, “I think under the right circumstances…”

“Wrong,” he interrupts. “I’ve never seen an ROI. I’ve never seen a bump in direct sales. Plus ‘awareness’ is not a measurable or even an important goal…” and he drones on while you desperately try to escape.

Don’t shoehorn in your opinions under false pretenses. Only ask a question if you genuinely want to know the answer. And when you do speak again, ask a follow-up question that helps you better understand the other person’s point of view.

People like people who are genuinely interested in them–not in themselves.

6. You pull a “Do you know who I am?” OK, so maybe they don’t take it to the Reese Witherspoon level, but many people whip out some form of the “I’m Too Important forThis” card.

Maybe the line is too long. Or the service isn’t sufficiently “personal.” Or they aren’t shown their “deserved” level of respect.

Say you really are somebody. People always like you better when you don’t act like you know you’re somebody–or that you think it entitles you to different treatment.

7. You don’t dial it back. An unusual personality is a lot of fun–until it isn’t. Yet when the going gets tough or a situation gets stressful, some people just can’t stop “expressing their individuality.”

Look. We know you’re funny. We know you’re quirky. We know you march to the beat of your own drum. Still, there’s a time to play and a time to be serious, a time to be irreverent and a time to conform, a time to challenge and a time to back off.

Knowing when the situation requires you to stop justifying your words or actions with an unspoken “Hey, that’s just me being me” can often be the difference between being likeable and being an ass.

8. You mistake self-deprecation for permission. You know how it’s OK when you make fun of certain things about yourself, but not for other people to make fun of you for those same things? Like receding hairlines. Weight. A struggling business or career. Your spouse and kids.

It’s OK when you poke a little gentle fun at yourself, but the last thing you want to hear are bald or money or “Do you want fries with that?” jokes. (Bottom line: I can say I’m fat. Youcan’t.)

Sometimes self-deprecation is genuine, but it’s often a mask for insecurity. Never assume people who make fun of themselves give you permission to poke the same fun at them.

Only tease when you know it will be taken in the right spirit. Otherwise, if you feel the need to be funny, make fun of yourself.

9. You humblebrag. Humblebragging is a form of bragging that tries to cover the brag with a veneer of humility so you can brag without appearing to brag. (Key word is “appearing,” because it’s still easy to tell humblebraggers are quite tickled with themselves.)

For example, here’s a tweeted humblebrag from actor Stephen Fry: “Oh dear. Don’t know what to do at the airport. Huge crowd, but I’ll miss my plane if I stop and do photos… oh dear don’t want to disappoint.”

Your employees don’t want to hear how stressed you are about your upcoming TED Talk. They don’t want to hear how hard it is to maintain two homes. Before you brag–humbly or not, business or personal–think about your audience. A gal who is a size 14 doesn’t want to hear you complain that normally you’re a size 2, but you’re a size 4 in Prada because its sizes run small.

Or better yet, don’t brag. Just be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Let others brag for you.

If you’ve done cool things, don’t worry–they will.

10. You push your opinions. You know things. Cool things. Great things.

Awesome. But only share them in the right settings. If you’re a mentor, share away. If you’re a coach or a leader, share away. If you’re the guy who just started a paleo diet, don’t tell us all what to order.

Unless we ask. What’s right for you may not be right for others; shoot, it might not even turn out to be right for you.

Like most things in life, offering helpful advice is all about picking your spots–just like winning friends and influencing people.

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Here’s How Shady Tax Preparers Plan to Steal Your Money

Posted: 12 Apr 2014 10:24 AM PDT

Every tax season, Elmer Kilian takes out a wooden homemade shingle that says E.H. KILIAN'S TAXES and puts it out in front of his house in rural Wisconsin. The 82-year-old Korean War veteran has prepared locals' taxes on his dining room table for the last thirty years, helping around 100 people in the town of Eagle file to the IRS, from the local grocer to the neighbor down the street. He charges $40 for a basic filing and a little extra for the frills.

Kilian is one of more than 600,000 paid tax preparers who are virtually unregulated by the IRS. Many are as scrupulous as Kilian is, but fraud among fly-by-night, seasonal tax preparers who open up shop in vacant storefronts and trailers costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year. "It's not just one or two bad apples. It's pervasive," says Chi Chi Wu, an attorney for the National Consumer Law Center. "And these problems persist."

Fraud has prompted the IRS to seek to regulate tax preparers like Kilian by requiring education courses and examinations, an effort to protect taxpayers as well as the IRS' own tax income. At a Senate Finance Committee hearing this week, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen urged Congress to give the IRS the right to regulate tax preparers, saying that regulation “will translate into improved overall tax compliance.”

Many lawmakers agree. At the hearing, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon said that an "absence of meaningful oversight of much of the tax preparer industry is harming too many citizens who can least afford it."

Tax preparers say they can't afford to be carefully regulated and that burdensome regulations will force them to close their businesses. "Licensing regulations are protectionist and anti-competitive," Dan Alban, an attorney for the Institute for Justice says. “The high costs of complying with licensing regulations would drive out tens of thousands of preparers.”

Of the nearly 150 million taxpayers in the United States, around 79 million use paid preparers. There are three larger commercial chains (H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt and Liberty Tax Service), some smaller chains, and thousands of independent preparers and seasonal pop-up shops. Around 42 million Americans use third-party preparers pay their taxes through unregulated preparers, who can file taxes without education or certification.

Seasonal tax preparers set up shop in used car dealerships and empty storefronts and often commit a wide array of improprieties, from overcharging customers to inventing child dependents, church donations, and falsifying income—increasing taxpayers' refunds, and their own cut on the deal.

In 2011, Adama Laine needed some help paying his taxes. An immigrant from the Ivory Coast and nursing assistant at the VA hospital in Seattle, Laine contacted a fellow French-speaker to help him file. The tax preparer promised him a $9,000-refund, Laine says, and charged him a fee of 10% of his refund. But the tax preparer faked his children's college education for a tax credit, inflating Laine's refund by $5,500. In 2013, Laine, who is a single father, was shocked to receive a notice that he owed the IRS thousands of dollars, as well as interest and penalties.

Laine returned to the tax preparer who had cheated him, only to find the preparer escaped culpability by signing Laine's tax forms "self-prepared"—making Laine ultimately responsible, even though he hadn’t filled out the forms. "What am I supposed to do? I have a lot of bills on my head I need to pay. I'm a single dad with three kids. I can't just pay six grand right now," Laine says. "I didn't mean to cheat."

It's impossible to measure exactly how many tax preparers are committing fraud, but a U.S. Government Accountability Office study published Tuesday showed that undercover site visits to 19 tax preparers in the 2014 tax season yielded only two correct tax refund amounts. In other words, fully 17 out of 19 filed their taxes incorrectly and inflated tax refunds by amounts up to nearly $4,000.

Similar results were discovered by advocacy groups who have conducted several rounds of undercover testing of tax preparers since 2008. Four out of nine undercover testers were encouraged to engage in tax fraud in a 2011 test, and a 2008 test of 17 paid tax preparers yielded a 25-percent fraud rate.

Federal investigations have succeeded in toppling a litany of high-profile cheating tax preparers.

Instant Tax Services, based in Dayton, Ohio, was the fourth-largest tax-preparation firm in the country when it was officially shut down by the Justice Department in 2013. The company ran about 150 franchises and prepared 100,000 tax returns each. It was responsible for defrauding customers and charging hidden, exorbitant fees on a mass scale. According to a federal court, the tax harm caused by Instant Tax Service franchisees in five cities in a single tax-filing season was between $10 million and $25 million. A lengthy investigation barred the company from practicing.

In addition to Instant Tax Services, Mo' Money Taxes of Memphis, franchises of the popular Jackson Hewitt tax service, and many individual businesses accused of encouraging fraudulent tax returns and charging taxpayers deceptive fees have been barred from tax preparation after prosecutions by the Department of Justice.

But while punitive enforcement has been successful, attempts by the IRS to regulate tax preparers in order to prevent fraud before it happens has come up short. Beginning in the 2011 filing season, the IRS required paid tax preparers to obtain ID numbers, and launched a tax return competency test in November 2011. Tax preparers were also required to take education courses. A Federal court halted the program last year in the case Loving v. Internal Revenue Service, arguing the IRS doesn’t have the authority to regulate tax preparers.

Supporters of the ruling said regulation would run legitimate seasonal tax preparers like Mr. Kilian of rural Wisconsin out of business.

Alban, who was one of the attorneys on the case who argued the IRS had overstepped its bounds, says that not only would expensive mandatory courses be prohibitive for legitimate mom-and-pop tax shops, but they'd be ineffective. "You can't do anything about fraud until after it happens," Alban says. "Some folks might actually prefer a less scrupulous preparer. There's not a lot you can do about that upfront."

Kilian says the ruling is a victory for him. If he has to take classes and a test, he says he'll be forced to raise his fees by 200 percent and likely go out of business. "If somehow it ends up being required that we go to school and pass the test, I believe I'll retire out of preparing taxes because I couldn't end up making any money on it," Kilian adds.

For now, legislators are focusing on simplifying the tax code, an initiative both the regulators and the anti-regulators support as a means to reduce ways cheaters can find loopholes. "The complexity of the tax code creates an environment where confusion and errors flourish," Senator Wyden said this week. "Congress isn't blameless on this issue, and that's one reason why it's time to rewrite the code to make filing easier."


Syrian Government, Opposition Trade Claims and Blame of Poison Gas Attack

Posted: 12 Apr 2014 09:38 AM PDT

Government media and rebel forces in Syria blamed one another on Saturday for what they called a poison gas attack in a central village the day before that reportedly injured scores of people.

Dozens of people in the village of Kfar Zeita in the province of Hama were reported hurt, according to the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which documents abuses in the conflict and favors the opposition, also reported that people suffered breathing problems and suffocation after air raid attacks that left heavy smoke in the air.

State-run Syrian television blamed an al-Qaeda-affiliated group for using chlorine gas in the village, which it claimed left more than 100 injured and two people dead, the Associated Press reports. An attack could not be immediately and independently confirmed.

In a video posted online by opposition activists and corroborated by the AP, men and children are seen packed into a hospital room in Kfar Zeita, many of them breathing through oxygen masks. Six children in the video are seen crowded on one bed, seemingly having difficulty breathing.

A chemical attack last August that killed hundreds of people was largely blamed on the Syrian government, but President Bashar Assad claimed rebels staged the killings.


Tampa’s Ryan Malone Arrested for Cocaine Possession

Posted: 12 Apr 2014 09:11 AM PDT

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Malone was arrested early Saturday morning and charged with cocaine possession and driving under the influence.

The 34-year-old N.H.L. left wing was arrested by Tampa police at 5:40 a.m. local time Saturday and is being held on $2,500 bond, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

“We are aware of the situation concerning Ryan Malone this morning,” Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman said in a statement. “Ryan will not travel with the team to Washington today, but beyond that we cannot comment further at this time.”

Malone has scored just five goals and racked up 15 points in 57 games played this season, an underwhelming performance compared to previous years. He was recently demoted to the Lightning’s fourth line and has a year left in his contract with the team.

Malone has also had seven traffic violations since June and an April 30 court date for driving with a suspended license.

[Tampa Bay Times]

Interview: Sid Meier’s Civilization Beyond Earth Might Be the Alpha Centauri Sequel You’ve Been Waiting For

Posted: 12 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

I’ll spare you prolix paragraphs of sentimental Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri gushing and say just this: I loved it, you loved it, who didn’t love it? It’s probably the apotheosis of the Civilization franchise, design-wise, and that’s including everything since (with plenty of warm fuzzies for Civilization IV). Alpha Centauris creative lead Brian Reynolds was a gameplay genius, as most who remember Civilization II and Rise of Nations would probably attest.

But Alpha Centauri didn’t sell well by Civilization standards, and so — perhaps because of that, perhaps for other reasons — it’s sat untouched for nearly a decade-and-a-half, without a sequel or even wishful public musing about one.

Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, which Firaxis is announcing at PAX East today, may finally bring an end to Firaxis’ hard-sci-fi, turn-based, planet-bound 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) drought. But it’s not Alpha Centauri 2 — just wipe any such notion from your brain. Alpha Centauri belongs to Electronic Arts, not Firaxis.

And so the design team at Firaxis had to come up with something fresh. Something with overt links back to the core Civilization franchise (thus the inclusion of “Civilization” in the title this time). Something that could, in theory and given roughly 15 years of design advances and lessons learned, be the superior sci-fi game.

Given Alpha Centauri‘s pedigree and harder-core player demographic, you might argue Firaxis’ challenge lies in turning a radically reimagined riff on Civilization V — a game praised by mainstream critics, but sharply criticized by core players — into something that can somehow appeal to both demographics. Or at least that’s my hope, having posed some of those questions (and concerns) to Beyond Earth gameplay designer Anton Strenger, Sid Meier’s Civilization series senior producer Dennis Shirk and associate producer Pete Murray.

Here’s what they told me.

Let’s get the elephant out of the room: Beyond Earth sounds a lot like an Alpha Centauri sequel on paper, but it’s not called that. How do the two relate?

Anton Strenger: Beyond Earth is a new entry in the Civilization franchise, and we’re definitely inspired by Alpha Centauri, but this is a different game and it’s meant to stand on its own. So what we’re really trying to do here is take a lot of the lessons we’ve learned from all the other Firaxis games and the knowledge that we have and apply it to a new setting, a setting free from historical context, where we can invent our own alien planet, and where there can be a lot of new interesting things that happen.

But I’m glad you mentioned Alpha Centauri, because it’s certainly something that’s on our minds here. It’s been an inspiration to me personally. It was the first 4Xgame I played, actually, back when I was in middle school. I learned over my friend’s shoulder and didn’t know what was going on, but it was really awesome and I wanted to learn more. So that ended up being my first Firaxis game. When I started at Firaxis three years ago it was very much on my mind.

We’re not making a sequel to Alpha Centauri, but we’re making a new entry in the Civilization series in that same kind of mold, in a science fiction setting with a lot of new opportunities that we get to invent ourselves.

Dennis Shirk: We wanted to ask ourselves what would happen after the spaceship [at the end of the Civilization games] launched, if we had a completely empty canvas, and what we could do with that if we weren’t confined by history.

Sure, but the lens through which core 4X gamers are going to view something like Beyond Earth is inexorably going to be Alpha Centauri, which had that same “What happens after the spaceship launches?” premise back in 1999.

DS: Sure, and I agree that no matter what, there’s going to be comparisons and assumptions made that this is going to be like another Alpha Centauri. But I think this is going to be a completely new take, and that’s going to be evident from the first time people are playing it. As Anton said before, there’s always going to be inspiration from a game like that. It’s in our DNA here at the studio just from having created it and Alien Crossfire [Alpha Centauri's official expansion].

But the experience itself, we want that to be a completely fresh take on what this would be like in space. We built it on top of the Civilization V engine, so we put a new renderer over the top and everything we needed to make it look spectacular and breathe new life into the series. But we wanted a regular Civilization V player — our core audience that we have for that game — to be able to pick this up and run with it.

That said, you’re not going to see an abundance of similarities between Beyond Earth and Civilization V. I mean, obviously you’re in space and colonizing a planet, but the gameplay systems we’ve introduced are all new, from the tech web to affinities to the way that the upgrade system works. We’ve diverged significantly from the original title.

AS: A great example is the tech web. In Civilization V or Alpha Centauri, even though the Alpha Centauri tech tree was a little more hidden from the player, you basically start at one point and you advance to another point, and it branches along the way, and in Alpha Centauri you could focus on exploring or discovering. In Civilization V you can focus on the naval track up top or the military track on bottom, but you’re kind of going in one direction the whole time.

Something that’s really different about Beyond Earth that makes it stand on its own — and not just compared to Alpha Centauri but as a 4X game in general — is the technology web. You’re starting in the middle of this vast spiderweb of cool technological threads taken from all the brainstorming we did by reading futurists writers and science fiction. So you’re going to see things like nanotechnology, things like genetics, things like xenobiology and all these different threads that take you in different directions on the web. You’re not advancing on this predefined track so much as exploring this technology space. The choices that you make in the tech web will lead you into one of three different affinities, and each affinity is like a post-human identity.


You have harmony, which strives for connection with the planet and its alien lifeforms. You have supremacy, which strives for connection with technology and cybernetics and kind of rejects the natural world. And you have purity, which is a rejection of both of those and instead looks back to old earth, the culture and the glory there, and tries to recreate it on the planet. All the different decisions that you make form your identity as you play the game, and I think that really sets it apart.

Is this as unique and singular an entry in Firaxis’ catalog as a game like Civilization V, or is it meant more as an extension of Civilization V, like a standalone expansion?

DS: What we wanted to do when we set out was make the core mechanics familiar enough so that existing fans could pick it up and recognize how to play the game. So it’s a 4X game, we still support one unit per tile hex, your cities are going to be building things, you’re going to be researching things, all of that foundational stuff. But the systems that we’ve built on top of that are robust and large compared to what we have in a typical Civilization V expansion. We wanted this to be completely set apart, a unique and distinct game that stands on its own.

The Colonization remake that used the Civilization IV engine still felt like it was built on Civilization IV‘s systems. Beyond Earth, by comparison, is an absolutely distinct experience. We can’t wait until we’re able to have people playing it because what the designers have done so far is amazing. I never expected it to go as far as it did — what the art team’s managed to accomplish, what the design team’s managed to accomplish to make this an completely unique experience.

AS: Yeah, everything from the aesthetics to the mechanics to the fictional story, it feels like its own game.

DS: But again, just to repeat, what I think is the great balance of the whole thing is that if you’ve just finished a game of Civilization V and you fire up Beyond Earth, those core tenets are going to embrace you like a warm blanket and you’re just going to be able to start playing.

Civilization V was broadly well-received, but there were a few who didn’t agree, who took issue with the A.I. and in so many words said it couldn’t play the game Firaxis designed — that it couldn’t cohere to basic, hex-based, wargame principles. Civilization V lead designer Jon Shafer was himself self-critical of the A.I. in a postmortem. What would you say to skeptics with regard to the A.I. in Beyond Earth?

DS: I read the same article that Jon Shafer put together on the A.I., and he was right about some of those things. There were shortcomings that started to come out, especially when you’re talking about a game with a million-plus fans. The great thing about our publisher is that they let us continue to improve the game well after release, through the expansions, through multiple balance patches and adding additional content. That’s one thing [Civilization V designer] Ed Beach really focused on in the core Civilization V engine: getting the A.I. up to where it could competently play the game and thrill players.

And I think in Brave New World [the final Civilization V expansion], when we finally closed out the series, the A.I. was in an amazing place. Ed took it a very great distance to where we all thought it was a really good experience. A lot of that strategic framework we brought forward into Beyond Earth, and then we handed it off to a brand new A.I. team.


AS: Beyond Earth‘s A.I. programmer, his name is Brian Whooley, has been with us from the very beginning. Will Miller and David McDonough, our lead designers, have worked with him on their previous project [Haunted Hollow for iOS] very closely. Me and Will and Dave share an office, and right across the hall is Brian Whooley, and we meet multiple times a week. He’s following in close step with all the design features that come on line, to make sure the A.I.’s up to par, that it’s winning the game in all the different ways and stuff like that. So the A.I.’s definitely been a focus for us, and we expect we’ll be in a good place at launch.

I think it was Soren Johnson who told me — this was years ago when he was working on Civilization III and I was putting together a feature about A.I. — that it’s easy to create an A.I. that can win, say by cheating, but it’s incredibly hard to create one that can win while cohering to the same strategic principles the player has to, much less employ those principles shrewdly.

Pete Murray: Sid actually gave an interesting talk at GDC a few years ago where he said players often experience the A.I. as cheating if it’s doing very well. So given that our ultimate goal is to create an exciting experience for players rather than an A.I. that can crush the player at every turn, we’re trying to create the best experience for as many people as possible.

AS: My attitude as a designer, and I think you’ll find that Will and Dave have similar attitudes, is that the A.I. — except on the higher difficulty levels — isn’t supposed to be a mathematically perfect, optimal opponent. It’s more like an actor on the stage of the game that the player’s playing. Having it be fun and visible in the right ways is really important to us, and something we think about all the time during development. I think when we’re implementing the A.I., we don’t often make the A.I. cheat. We try to make sure that it’s fair, but in the end it’s about serving the player experience, and that’s our number one goal.

It sounds like the startup process where you’re assembling a spacecraft and picking its cargo is going to distinguish itself from prior Civilization games’ world type and leader selection process.

AS: That’s correct, though when you say “spacecraft,” it’s nothing like you’d see in FTL. What we mean is there’s this phase of the game that happens before turn zero which we call the loadout process. The fictional framework that we’re using for Beyond Earth is that Earth in the near future decides to send expeditions into space to colonize alien worlds because there’s a kind of desperate situation on Earth and they’re looking elsewhere to continue the future of humanity.

In Civilization V or Alpha Centauri, you’d pick a faction or civilization and you’d get this prepackaged bag of benefits. So you’d get this bonus, you get this unit instead of that unit, you get this building instead of that one, and it’s all kind of together, which is cool, especially in a historical context, because you can say “Oh yeah, there’s that civilization I recognize from history, there’s that thing they do I read about in a history book.”

What Beyond Earth does instead is it takes Sid’s philosophy of a game as a series of interesting decisions and folds it into the gameplay itself. So you’re not just picking your faction and the bonus it comes with, you’re also picking the parameters of your expedition, leaving old Earth and going to the new planet. And so in addition to picking the nation that sponsors your expedition, you’re picking the type of spacecraft and the type of cargo it’s carrying.

So you could bring extra weapons to get off to an early military start, or you could bring extra construction equipment to help buff up your city with an extra building. You’re also deciding what types of colonists you want to bring with to form your first colony. They might be more intellectual, and you’d have scientific bonuses starting on turn one. Or they might be more cultural, focused on culture and refinement and development, in which case you’d be focusing on the culture part of the game out of the gate.

Each of these options you can choose differently every time. Whereas in Civilization V you might play as Montezuma every time, and other than the map being different, your core identity as the player would be the same, here you get to choose four things every time you start a game, and your A.I. opponents do as well.

Diplomacy’s arguably one of the weaker spots in the Civilization games, framed with fairly limited options and based more on obfuscation and mystery and a sense of algorithmic capriciousness. How does diplomacy work in Beyond Earth?

PM: We’re still building on where we were at the end of Civilization V, so I think the level of diplomacy that’s going on is going to feel very familiar to a Civilization V player. To some extent, playing a boardgame with a human opponent, they can be capricious too, so some of it’s about keeping that aspect of it. We do the best we can for the audience that we’re trying to reach.


AS: We’re definitely adding new diplomatic vectors, like the orbital layer, so your A.I. opponents aren’t going to be very happy if you launch a satellite over their lands. So diplomacy in Beyond Earth is going to be very responsive to all of the new gameplay systems. But at the same time, we’re trying to appeal to Civilization V players, since they’re our core audience, and we want diplomacy to be familiar and transparent. I think transparency’s a really big deal to make an A.I. feel fair.

Another thing, in the early game, is that one of the things we’re adding is the alien faction, so when you’re on the planet to start with, the other A.I. players are not as important as they are in a game of Civilization V. In Civilization V, you might explore beyond your borders with your scout unit, and on turn 15 you see “Oh, there’s Montezuma next to me. Okay, this gives me an impression of how the game’s going to play out.”

Whereas in our game, your first step is conquering the wilderness and really establishing a base of operations on this hostile alien planet. And the first part of that, before diplomacy really comes online, is interacting with the aliens and either attacking and purging them, or leaving them alone and hoping they don’t bother you.

DS: Before we wrap up, I just want to build on that a little bit. One of the great things about the experience in the early game of Beyond Earth is the fact that it’s you versus the environment. You’re alone on this planet, and the other players aren’t even there. Eventually, like by turn 20, the first one might land and they’ll introduce themselves and you’ll see a capital appear on the other side of the planet. But it’s you and you alone, and you have to decide how you’re going to help your colonists survive in those early days. It’s kind of crazy.

AS: Yeah, you’re disconnected at first, which is really interesting. It creates some really unique situations compared to a game of Civilization V.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

The Docu-Series Years of Living Dangerously Tries to Close the Climate Gap

Posted: 12 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

There’s a fascinating moment during the first episode of Showtime’s new climate change documentary, Years of Living Dangerously. The actor Don Cheadle, in one of three concurrent segments in the premiere, had visited the impoverished Texas town of Plainview, which was hit hard by a recent drought—one the show links in part to climate change. But Plainview is a conservative and religious town, and virtually no one Cheadle speaks to thinks that global warming is real, let alone that it has anything to do with the drought. That’s not surprising—there is a huge and growing partisan difference on climate change, with a recent Gallup poll showing a 38 point difference between Democrats and Republicans on the issue.

Afterwards Cheadle sat down with the Texas Tech climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe and her husband Andrew Farley. Hayhoe obviously believes in climate change—she’s authored dozens of peer-reviewed papers on the subject—but unusually, she’s also an evangelical Christian, as is Farley. He’s also a confirmed Republican, but he tells Cheadle that while his wife has convinced him that climate change is real, the politics still get in the way. And then Cheadle says this:

I guess that's really what it is is that if you accept climate change, then I have to vote for Obama…. Or if I say it's not real then I can stay with my political affiliation and I can stay with the church and everything is all good because really what most people want to do is I think avoid conflict.

As Andrew Revkin points out over at Dot Earth, Cheadle has essentially stumbled onto what’s known as cultural cognition theory, the product of work by the Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan. Ezra Klein on his new site Vox has a great explanation of cultural cognition theory, but what it essentially means is that we all belong to tribes that might be defined by our political or cultural leanings, and that we’ll do almost anything to avoid conflict with those tribes—even “subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values,” as Kahan puts it. Cheadle is right—when it comes to climate change, identity trumps facts.

That fact helps explain the enormous scale of the challenge that Years of Living Dangerously faces. A documentary series that will air on Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern for the next nine weeks—opposite Mad Men, which just seems unfair—Years uses celebrities like Cheadle and reporters like Tom Friedman to tell the story of how climate change is impacting the world today. And that story is heavy on disaster, as the trailer shows:

I had a chance to watch the first episode on Wednesday night in New York at the Ford Foundation, which helped finance the series. For the most part it’s a strong work of documentary journalism, with richly shot and compelling stories. The premiere features Cheadle in Texas, Friedman in Syria—where drought has helped drive the civil war—and Harrison Ford journeying to the rapidly deforesting jungles of Indonesia.

If Friedman’s segment suffers from the sheer horror of Syria—it can be difficult to focus on the diffuse threat of climate change when there’s an ongoing civil war that has killed over 150,000 people—Ford (and his producers) ably demonstrates the massive environmental and social damage left by deforestation in the world’s fourth-most populous country. The scene when Ford helicopters across a rainforest that suddenly turns to stumps and char will stay with viewers.

While there are always nits to pick—Friedman doesn’t mention the role that overpopulation has played in stressing Syria—I was impressed by the relatively measured way the series took on the tricky science of attributing disasters to global warming, at least in the first episode.

But Years isn’t just a work of TV journalism, a super-sized series of 60 Minutes-like pieces about climate change. As James Cameron, the series’ executive producer, told Reuters, the aim is to convince people that global warming is an existential threat that demands major action:

The devastation to the planet that we’ll be experiencing in the next century is really, I think, pretty unfathomable for most people, and I think that what the series can do is to bring it home and make it real, make it real in people terms.

For a large chunk of the U.S.—most of the Democratic party—that message has already hit home. But as long as the partisan gap on climate keeps growing, the kind of broad national action that would make a difference will never happen. I suspect that’s why the series’ producers send Cheadle to Plainview in the first episode, immediately addressing—in a respectful way—the cultural roots of climate skepticism. But can Years shake that skepticism?

In a New York Times column, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute argue that the terrifying imagery of the series will actually turn people off:

A frequently cited 2009 study in the journal Science Communication summed up the scholarly consensus. "Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people's attention and concern," the researchers wrote, "they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial." In a controlled laboratory experiment published in Psychological Science in 2010, researchers were able to use "dire messages" about global warming to increase skepticism about the problem.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus are right that a large body of research has shown that catastrophic imagery can actually backfire, almost as if audience remembers respond to the horror by sticking their fingers in their ears. (Full disclosure: I’ve participated in a few panels at Breakthrough Institute conferences in the past.) You can see that when Cheadle asks people in Plainview about the drought, and they respond, essentially, that such catastrophes are natural. That’s cultural cognition again—in Plainview, it’s far more socially disruptive to say that the drought could be connected to rising carbon emissions than it is to say that the disaster is simply an act of God. Perversely, as the destruction ramps up—wait until the series gets to Hurricane Sandy—those responses only seem to harden.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that a messaging strategy based primarily around solutions would have better luck dislodging that skepticism. It looks like Years will address responses to global warming in episodes to come—some of the future segments include Jessica Alba on how corporations are cutting carbon emissions and Olivia Munn on Jay Inslee, Washington state’s climate warrior of a governor. But every indication is that disaster will be the dominant note in the series.

I can’t blame Years’ producers for that—scenes of biblical floods and collapsing glaciers make for far more compelling TV than wonky discussions about the pros and cons of nuclear power. And we do live in a dangerous world—thanks to the intersection of population growth, an increasingly interconnected global economy and yes, warming. I hope that as Years unfolds, it finds time to report on the need to adapt to those dangers. We need to do what we can to slow the pace of global warming, but we also need to build a more resilient society, one that can absorb the superstorms and megadroughts of the future, bending without breaking.

The reality is that no one really knows how to close the partisan gap on climate change—and if Kahan’s cultural cognition theory is correct, it might just be impossible. By pitching some of its segments directly at the sort of people who feel that accepting climate change means abandoning some of their core beliefs, Years is at least taking that challenge seriously. And when this series is over, that effort may be more lasting than all the imagery of storms and wildfires and chaos that will fill the screen for the next nine weeks.

How to Watch Next Week’s Total Lunar Eclipse

Posted: 12 Apr 2014 08:16 AM PDT

You can watch the first total lunar eclipse visible throughout North America in more than three years early next week — if you’re willing to stay up late.

The total eclipse will peak at about 3 a.m. EDT on the night of April 14-15 and will be visible through the United States, NPR reports. The U.S. Naval Observatory’s page has a handy link that allows you to input your city and figure out exactly when you’ll see the eclipse.

Expect to see the moon dimly lit in a deep orange or red glow for over an hour, rather than completely blacked out. From the moon’s perspective, the Earth completely hides the sun for an hour and eighteen minutes.

Next week’s eclipse will be the first of its kind since December 2010.



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