Dozens of people are dead in heavy fighting around the Syrian rebel-held city of Qusair where troops loyal to President Bashar Assad are making a strong push.
News reports say as many as 50 people are dead.
NPR's Jonathan Blakley, who is in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, is reporting on the fighting for our Newscast Unit:
"Qusair is a strategically important town that lies between the city of Homs, where the Syrian uprising began two years ago, and the Lebanese border. The area has been under siege for weeks.
"If the government regains control of Qusair, it would also control an important route from the coast to the capital, Damascus.
"Opposition activists say the city has been bombarded by heavy shelling since early Sunday and residents have been forced into shelters.
"Syrian State TV says its troops have made their way into Qusair's city center, but opposition groups deny it."
The New York Times is reporting that Assad's forces are being backed by fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. The Times reports that the battle "has brought Hezbollah's role in Syria to the forefront as the war becomes a regional conflict, pitting Shiite-led Iran, the main backer of ... Assad and Hezbollah, against the Sunni Muslim states and their Western allies that support the uprising."
The fighting comes ahead of a U.S.-Russian brokered peace conference slated for next month. But as Eyder reported, Assad "essentially dismissed" to bring the civil war to a political solution.
"Believing that a political conference will stop terrorism on the ground is unreal," Assad said in an exclusive interview with the Argentine newspaper El Clarin.
You're out navigating the jammed sidewalks of Kenya's capital city when you suddenly realize you're in desperate need of a toilet. You crane your neck over the crowds, vainly seeking a McDonalds, a Starbucks — no such luck. What next?
There could be an app for that. Twendeloo, which is Swahili for "Let's Go to the Loo," would allow you to use your phone to locate the nearest public restroom in Nairobi's business district, then give it a rating for cleanliness.
Twendeloo is still only an idea in the mind of its developer, Andrew Moro, one of the young Kenyans competing in a "mobile apps garage showcase" this weekend in Nairobi for prizes and seed money from Samsung.
College students fresh off their exams and recent university graduates crammed the top floor of a downtown tech hub for the competition, organized by the women technologist collective known as Akirachix and built around the theme "Solutions for the Next Billion Mobile Users." Africa has more than 600 million mobile phone users (approximately 11 percent of the global total). As that number increases, there is expected to be increasing demand for apps developed by and for Africans.
Eric Wasambo, a child of farmers, took a five-hour bus ride from Kisumu to pitch an app to help subsistence farmers select the best seeds for their soil and climate and thus lift themselves more quickly out of poverty.
Another would-be developer ventured into thorny Kenyan politics with his app JuaKatibaYako: Know Your Constitution.
"People complain that our constitution is written in language that's hard to understand," explained Eric Wesonga to the four judges and a crowd of 20-somethings tweeting the event. His app would allow Kenyans to use their phones to search the text of the country's constitution annotated with links decoding the juridical jargon.
During a break between pitches, I sat next to a man huddled over his laptop making last-minute tweaks to his PowerPoint slides. Boniface Muganda, an unemployed computer science graduate from the University of Nairobi, said he had the day before won first place in a Google-sponsored hackathon to create an Android app for an order-and-delivery service for Nairobi restaurants. Now, he was hoping to win a prize in this Samsung competition as well with an app "to help Kenyans find cheap and affordable housing for rent or purchase."
The mic was temporarily handed over to Samsung's East Africa mobile division business leader Manoj Changarampatt.
"I'm still waiting for the next big breakthrough," he said. "And I urge you all to get your ideas to market as soon as possible."
The students listened patiently to the Samsung rep whose up-vote could help them do just that.
President Obama, on Sunday, delivered a rare, very personal commencement address at Morehouse College, the historically black, all-male insitution that is the alma mater of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It was a short speech, but Obama did not shy away the subject of race and responsibility. We've embedded video of the address above, but here are two excerpts you should read. They are taken from his prepared remarks:
On Personal Responsibility:
"We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you've learned over the last four years is that there's no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there's a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: 'excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.' We've got no time for excuses - not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven't. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that's still out there. It's just that in today's hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven't earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured - and overcame.
"You now hail from a lineage and legacy of immeasurably strong men - men who bore tremendous burdens and still laid the stones for the path on which we now walk. You wear the mantle of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, Ralph Bunche and Langston Hughes, George Washington Carver and Ralph Abernathy, Thurgood Marshall and yes, Dr. King. These men were many things to many people. They knew full well the role that racism played in their lives. But when it came to their own accomplishments and sense of purpose, they had no time for excuses."
"I was raised by a heroic single mother and wonderful grandparents who made incredible sacrifices for me. And I know there are moms and grandparents here today who did the same thing for all of you. But I still wish I had a father who was not only present, but involved. And so my whole life, I've tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father wasn't for my mother and me. I've tried to be a better husband, a better father, and a better man.
"It's hard work that demands your constant attention, and frequent sacrifice. And Michelle will be the first to tell you that I'm not perfect. Even now, I'm still learning how to be the best husband and father I can be. Because success in everything else is unfulfilling if we fail at family. I know that when I'm on my deathbed someday, I won't be thinking about any particular legislation I passed, or policy I promoted; I won't be thinking about the speech I gave, or the Nobel Prize I received. I'll be thinking about a walk I took with my daughters. A lazy afternoon with my wife. Whether I did right by all of them.
"Be a good role model and set a good example for that young brother coming up. If you know someone who isn't on point, go back and bring that brother along. The brothers who have been left behind - who haven't had the same opportunities we have - they need to hear from us. We've got to be in the barbershops with them, at church with them, spending time and energy and presence helping pull them up, exposing them to new opportunities, and supporting their dreams. We have to teach them what it means to be a man - to serve your city like Maynard Jackson; to shape the culture like Spike Lee. Chester Davenport was one of the first people to integrate the University of Georgia law school. When he got there, no one would sit next to him in class. But Chester didn't mind. Later on, he said, 'It was the thing for me to do. Someone needed to be the first.' Today, Chester is here celebrating his 50th reunion. If you've had role models, fathers, brothers like that - thank them today. If you haven't, commit yourself to being that man for someone else."
Rhode Island is home to beautiful beaches, top-notch universities and a thriving arts scene. Beneath the surface, however, the state faces challenges similar to other parts of the country: shrinking revenues, lost jobs and general economic malaise.
In Rhode Island, the issue has come to a head around the future of the once-iconic Industrial Trust Tower, or as it is known more affectionately, the Superman building — named for its resemblance to the building the Man of Steel leaped "in a single bound" in the original 1950s TV series. The building is empty for the first time in 85 years, and casts a shadow over a city struggling to reinvent its economy.
A company called High Rock Development took ownership of the Providence landmark on May 1, and presented a controversial proposal to turn the office building into luxury apartments.
In its proposal to the legislature, High Rock asked for $39 million of unspecified assistance from the state, and $10 million to $15 million in tax breaks from the city of Providence. So, for a grand total of up to $54 million, Providence will get a couple hundred high-end apartments.
Everyone has an opinion about the future of the tallest, most prominent and instantly recognizable property in town.
"They should turn it into something that's going to help get more jobs out there for the people, that's about it," says Wendy Bolereo, a Providence resident.
Others like the idea of the apartments or condos, but don't see how the city and state can provide the assistance considering their economic situation.
Learning From Past Mistakes
The dark cavernous main hall of the Superman building is deserted. As recently as a month ago, residents could cash checks in the bank here. Pens still sit in slots where tellers used to be.
"It's a bit eerie, and kind of sad," says High Rock spokesman Bill Fischer.
Fischer says his company respects Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and for the city's emotional attachment to the 1927 Art Deco skyscraper, and that he wants them to be a partner in the building's future.
"But it has to be viewed from a unique perspective," Fischer says. "Because the alternative is we flood the market with class B office space, or we mothball it for a while, and that's not some political or retaliatory tactic, it's a sound real estate tactic."
Fischer says adding more residents to the downtown area would serve the city better than more office space because of the increased spending and tax revenue.
"We're talking about annual spending, just in sales tax alone from those residents, totaling $26 million," he says. "So there's real economic impact if they are willing to make the investment and willing to think long term."
For this particular investment, there's more at stake than just money, however. Rhode Island is still burned from a previous debacle that attracted national attention.
In 2010, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling asked the state for a $75 million loan to start a video game company in Providence, after Massachusetts had turned him down for the funding. He promised the state hundreds of jobs.
Rhode Island hoped a successful tech company would draw more businesses to the state, so they gave Schilling almost everything he asked for. Schilling was a local sports hero, but not experienced with tech startups. Last year, his company, 38 Studios, went bankrupt; Rhode Island was left with the bill.
Len Lardaro, an economist at the University of Rhode Island, says he wasn't surprised when 38 Studios declared bankruptcy. He worries that the state is in for a second round of defaulted loans if it rashly supports redevelopment of the Superman building.
"Well, let's see how badly run the city and state are," Lardaro says. "If they [the developers] get major concessions of the magnitude they're looking for, then Rhode Island will have earned its lagging status."
Lardaro says the key thing to learn from the handling of the Superman building is not to get too tied to the past.
"You've got to always look at the best possible use going forward, not looking back," he says, "and you don't do that by being nostalgic with your money."
A Measured Approach
Ladaro might not need to worry too much, since this time around state and city representatives have been openly critical of High Rock's proposal. Taveras, the Providence mayor, seems determined not to let his city make the same mistake twice.
"If you are asking for governmental support, you certainly need to look at all possibilities," Taveras says. "Certainly, I will as mayor."
The Superman building is hard to ignore from his ornate city hall office, with its direct view of the imposing tower from every window. But Taveras is hesitant to endorse High Rock's proposal until he has more information.
"We will figure out what we can do ... to be helpful and also the market will dictate some things as well," he says. "But I believe it will be a symbol of renewal and I look forward to that."
In the meantime, Taveras, and Rhode Island, have bigger issues to address. At 9.1 percent, the state has the highest unemployment in New England and the sixth highest unemployment in the country.
The movie Pitch Perfect has plans for a sequel in 2015; NBC's reality show The Sing-Off is coming back for its fourth season after being cancelled, and Pentatonix has millions of hits on YouTube for making awesome videos like "The Evolution of Music."
The days of doo-wops and barbershop may be over, but a cappella is officially cool again, thanks to Deke Sharon.
Sharon, the founder of the Contemporary A Cappella Society, has been singing and arranging music for almost three decades. He is the vocal producer of both The Sing-Off and Pitch Perfect, and sings with his own group, The House Jacks.
Sharon talks to Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about how he got involved in a cappella and the genre's popularity.
On how he got involved in a cappella:
"Well, it is easy to say I was the kid in the back of the class making funny noises like Robin Williams, but I was actually the kid sitting in the front row, snotty and sucking up to the teacher. So, all of these sounds were developed slowly over time. I think all people who sing a cappella sing along with the radio, but they don't sing the melody, they sing the harmony and then they start singing the guitar part, and they start making up drum sounds. And before you know it, it's, I mean, there's no turning back."
On how a cappella changed to its current form:
"Back 100 years ago, barbershop was just guys getting together singing current pop music. Fifty years ago, doo-wop, the street corner thing, they were just singing current pop tunes. So what we're doing now is no different. The real difference is that we're able to use our voices in a number of new ways that are able to fill out the sound, and really replicate the strong pounding rhythms and the full sonic spectrum, replicating instruments sometimes.
Back in the day when the Whiffenpoofs were started at Yale, collegiate a cappella was four-part singing. Now, if you've got 14 different guys, you're going to have 14 different parts sometimes. And you can really replicate a current pop song, which is electrifying for an audience."
On teaching the actresses in Pitch Perfect a cappella:
"Jason Moore, the fantastic director of this movie, set aside a month of 'a cappella boot camp,' he called it. And so I got together on that first day, we had one singer, Kelley Jakle, who was in two seasons of The Sing-Off as our kind of ringer, and then nine actresses, most of whom had maybe had a little bit of, 'Oh, I sang in chorus in middle school.' Let me tell you that first day I went home and I didn't sleep too much. I thought, 'Can we do this? Is this going to be possible?' But they really stepped up. ... And we just put them all on a crash course and they really rose to the occasion."