China has been building up its military strength for some time now, and pushing ever farther from its coastline and into international waters. The real concern now is for miscalculation — particularly with Japan — that ends up in gunfire.
Just six months ago, the Pentagon released its annual report on China's military. Its defense budget was growing. The country was building more stealthy aircraft and submarines. It even bought an aircraft carrier from the Ukraine.
Pentagon official David Helvey highlighted particular areas of concern.
"In recent years, China has begun to demonstrate a more routine and capable presence in both the South and East China seas, which has increased regional anxieties over China's intentions," he said in May.
In fact, the East China Sea is exactly where regional anxieties have increased. China wants all aircraft to check in when they fly through its new, unilaterally declared air identification zone. The zone encompasses an island chain claimed by China but purchased last year by the Japanese government.
David Finkelstein, a China expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, a Pentagon think tank, says the situation has been escalating slowly over the past year.
"We started seeing a lot of activity with their respective coast guards, civilian paramilitary vessels and aircraft playing cat-and-mouse out there," he says.
Both the U.S. and Japanese military aircraft are ignoring the new identification zone. Some fear a repeat of an incident in the spring of 2001. That's when a Chinese fighter jet slammed into a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft it was tailing in the skies above the South China Sea, inside what China called its Exclusive Economic Zone. No one was killed, and China detained the American crew.
The situation now — involving the disputed islands — could lead to a far more dangerous situation, says Finkelstein and others. That's because it involves one of China's most visceral subjects: Japan.
There are a variety of reasons why China and Japan cannot get along well, says Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution.
One of those reasons is Japan's brutal occupation of China during World War II that included the use of chemical and biological weapons. Japan has long been criticized for glossing over its recent past.
"Japanese never can acknowledge the atrocities, and the terrible things they conducted in World War II, so there is a very strong anti-Japanese sentiment," Li says.
Add to that China's other main issue: sovereignty over territory it considers its own.
Anything that has to do with sovereignty, says Finkelstein, is "an open, visceral open wound in China's body."
"So No. 1, this is an issue about sovereignty ... about sovereignty with Japan and those wounds still have not healed," he says.
Doug Paal served as an unofficial representative to Taiwan under President George W. Bush. Now he's with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says a key question is this: What will China do if Japanese aircraft violate that new zone?
"They have a long list of possible behaviors, from attempting to shoot down, from intercepting aircraft," he says. "We need to have conversations about what their intentions are."
That's in the short term. In the long term, by 2020 the Pentagon says, China has another goal: being able to fight and win two regional conflicts, including one in the East China Sea.
One thing that's clear about the relaunch of the troubled HealthCare.gov website is that it can accommodate more people.
Federal officials said more than 1 million users logged in on Monday, and nearly that many on Tuesday.
But less attention has been paid to some other upgrades that are also making the site easier for people to use. That's too bad, says Nancy Metcalf, senior editor of Consumer Reports, who has been chronicling the rollout of the health exchanges. She says some of them are pretty impressive.
Of course, the most noticeable improvement to the site is that "the thing actually works," Metcalf says. "I've heard from consumers who couldn't get through before and they have now."
It's not yet clear whether everyone can get from the beginning to the end of the process without any glitches, she adds, "but I think we're on the right track. And it's certainly time for people to shop anyway, because they only have until the 23rd to get a plan."
That is, if they want insurance to begin Jan. 1.
One of the biggest improvements is in what's known as the website's window shopping function. That's where you can look at plans available in your area without having to create an account first. It had one before, but it wasn't very helpful. Among other things, it provided prices only for people ages 27 to 50.
"It would be like being able to browse for cars and just being able to look at a picture of a car," Metcalf says.
The new shopping function is, well, functional. There's a button on the home page where you provide your age and ZIP code, and it gives you a list of plans and actual prices. Those are not the prices you'll pay if you're eligible for a government subsidy. Those might be lower. And, as they say, there's more.
"You can click through to the plan's website to see their provider directory and their list of preferred drugs; really useful for consumers, and something even some of the better state exchanges don't even have yet," she said. "So it's night and day."
The website also has another new function that will come as a relief to a lot of people who have suffered through repeated problems until now — an actual reset button. Although on the website it's called "remove."
"That could be an option for some individuals who would simply prefer to start over in the process now that it is running much more smoothly," Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday. "Essentially they can click a 'remove' button in order to get rid of their old application and something they may have been having a problem with, and then they would be able to go and create a new application."
Individuals, perhaps, like Meredith Portman of Daphne, Ala. She's a freelance writer who has been trying to get signed up since October. After several false starts she managed to create an account and fill out an application, but she got a letter back that stopped her cold.
It told her to "send the marketplace proof of your yearly income for 2014," she says.
But as a freelance writer, Portman says, she barely knows what she's going to make this year, much less next year. And documenting it? She says she can't begin to imagine how she'd do that.
"So I called them up, and they said, 'Well, we'll have somebody get back in touch with you.' And I think that was Nov. 1."
Portman eventually got a call back over Thanksgiving, but didn't hear her cellphone ring, and the person didn't leave a direct number to return the call. Now she's worried about running out of time to get things straightened out.
"On Jan. 1, my current insurance doubles. And it took them a month to get back to me," Portman says. "I'm hoping it will not take another month or I will be in a bad situation."
Whether or not Portman decides to exercise the reset option, Metcalf says she should definitely take advantage of one other new feature on the home page of the HealthCare.gov website — a "find local help" button. It's designed to help people find a live person who can help them sort through problems.
"Make use of those people," Metcalf says. "They've had a lot of experience by now with the vagaries of this website."
Because while HealthCare.gov is clearly better, it's also clearly not all fixed yet.
A teen's relationship — or lack of good relationship — with parents, pals, or teachers may have a lot to do with why most kids aren't getting the 9 to 10 hours of sleep that doctors recommend. The hormonal disruptions of puberty likely also play a role.
That's the word from David Maume, a sociologist and sleep researcher at the University of Cincinnati. Maume recently analyzed federal health data from a survey of 974 teenagers who were questioned first when they were 12 years old — and then again, at age 15. His findings appear in the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Teens who had very warm relationships with their parents - who said they felt supported, for example, and could talk to their folks — tended to sleep better, Maume found. "Whereas, families going through distressful times — divorce or remarriage — that tended to disrupt teen sleep," he says.
Having problems or feeling unsafe at school also disturbed sleep, though students who said they had good relationships with teachers tended to sleep better.
Teens who reported having strong friendships with peers who shared similar academic goals, or were involved in sports or other school activities also got a better night's sleep.
Kids, it turns out, aren't so different from adults in this way. "If we're happy and content," Maume says, "we're much more likely to sleep better than if we're distressed and anxious and worried."
Of course, teens are often more drawn to their computers and social networking than adults are. But Maume found that when parents were strict not only about bedtime, but also about limiting technology, the kids slept better.
"It's a finding that seems obvious," Maume says. "But perhaps we need reminding that parents really do matter when it comes to health habits of their teenagers."
The national data suggest that, on average, kids lose about an hour and a half of sleep a night between the ages of 12 and 15 — dropping from about 9 hours per night to a little less than 8.
Nudging that number back up to the recommended 9 or 10 nightly hours seems impossible to Stacy Simera, an Ohio mental health therapist who is also mother to 14-year-old Graig.
"As a mom, my role is to set the right environment for my son," Simera says. "He does not have caffeine. He does not have TV in the bedroom, [and] no cellphone or iPad in his room when he's supposed to be asleep."
Graig's good about all that, Simera says. But even if he hits the sack at 9 p.m., she'll often hear him tossing and turning until after 11.
Dr. Shalini Paruthi, who heads the pediatric sleep and research center at St. Louis University, blames the shifting hormones of puberty for throwing a wrench into the internal clock of many teens.
"They're not as sleepy as early as they used to be," Paruthi says. "So, in grade school they were easily going to sleep and getting sleepy at 8:30, [but] now they're getting sleepy at 9:30 — and for some kids it goes much further."
As with many hormonal changes, some people are more affected than others. But whatever the cause, statistics suggest that kids who don't get the ideal 9 or 10 hours of total shut-eye each night are at higher risk for things like poor academic performance, colds, flu, depression and — among teens old enough to drive - more accidents on the road.
Having trouble wrapping your head around southern Europe's staggering unemployment problem?
Look no further than a single IKEA furniture store on Spain's Mediterranean coast.
The Swedish retailer plans to open a new megastore next summer near Valencia. On Monday, IKEA's Spanish website started taking applications for 400 jobs at the new store.
The company wasn't prepared for what came next.
Within 48 hours, more than 20,000 people applied online for those 400 jobs. The volume crashed IKEA's computer servers in Spain.
"We had an avalanche of applicants!" IKEA spokesman Rodrigo Sanchez told NPR in a phone interview. "With that quantity, our servers just didn't have the capacity. They collapsed. After 48 hours, we had to temporarily close the job application process. We're working on a solution, to re-open the job page as soon as possible."
That initial volume alone gives applicants a one-in-50 chance of landing the job — three times more difficult than getting into Harvard last year.
And that's factoring in only the applicants in the first 48 hours, who managed to apply online before IKEA's servers crashed. Once IKEA gets its servers back up and running, the job application window will still stay open until Dec. 31, allowing potentially tens of thousands more job seekers to file applications, Sanchez said.
"I feel lucky to have a job. IKEA is a great company. In this case we have 20,000 initial people who want to work with us," he said. "But we know we're in this situation at least in part because of the state of the Spanish economy."
Spain's unemployment rate is 26 percent, and more than double that for youth in their 20s. Greece, Italy and Portugal also suffer from painfully high unemployment — and economists predict they will continue to do so even after they emerge from recession.
The Spanish economy posted 0.1 percent growth in the third quarter of this year, marking the official halt of recession. Exports are up, and parliament has passed critical labor reforms.
Spain's jobless rate actually dropped 1 percent this year. But that's little consolation for those IKEA job seekers. It could be years before their odds improve.
A new report says the Justice Department regularly coerces defendants in federal drug cases to plead guilty by threatening them with steep prison sentences or stacking charges to increase their time behind bars.
And for the first time, the study by Human Rights Watch finds that defendants who take their fate to a judge or jury face prison sentences on average 11 years longer than those who plead guilty.
In all, a whopping 97 percent of defendants plead guilty — no surprise, says author Jamie Fellner, given the enormous and essentially unchecked power that federal prosecutors wield.
"As long as there are mandatory minimums, prosecutors dictate the sentences by the charges they bring," Fellner told NPR in an interview.
The issue matters because about half of the people in costly and overcrowded U.S. prisons got there after being charged with and convicted of drug offenses. Even though many of those inmates worked on the ground floor of drug operations, they still serve long prison sentences because of 5- and 10-year mandatory terms that Congress breathed into life during the heart of the crack cocaine scare in the 1980s. Prosecutors have the option of adding more charges based on a person's prior offenses, including low-level drug possession cases.
Fellner's interviews with prosecutors, judges and public defenders and her review of sentencing data uncovered dozens of cases where defendants got sent to prison for nearly a half century for first-time drug offenses.
In one such case, the Human Rights Watch report said, Mary Beth Looney of refused a plea deal that would have sent her to prison for 17 years for dealing methamphetamines and having guns in her house. Prosecutors added more charges against her. Ultimately, after trial and conviction, she was sentenced to more than 45 years behind bars. As a federal appeals court noted, mandatory minimum sentences left the trial judge with little discretion but to impose "effectively a life sentence" on the 53-year-old Texas woman who had no prior convictions.
For others with a history of small-time drug possession raps, the ability of the Justice Department to stack on those old histories adds up, too. One judge wrote that he was dismayed by the life sentence that prosecutors tried to impose on a defendant for carrying such a small amount of drugs over the course of his criminal history that the substance "would rattle around in a matchbox." But too often, Fellner wrote, judges find their hands are tied by the mandatory sentencing system.
"To have a judge and a jury relegated to essentially museum pieces, it's not healthy," Fellner said. "It doesn't lead to trust in the results. When you have innocent people tempted and also maybe pleading guilty just to avoid the possibility of a really long sentence, that doesn't give you a whole lot of faith in the integrity of the system."
The Justice Department had no immediate comment on the Human Rights Watch study.
In August, Attorney General Eric Holder told federal prosecutors not to hit low-level drug offenders with charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences, part of an effort to reduce U.S. incarceration levels and to reorient the criminal justice system toward violent criminals and to become more "smart" on crime. Human Rights Watch says it's too early to say how prosecutors around the country will interpret that broad guidance. There's no apparent remedy if prosecutors refuse to follow the directive. And Fellner said she already has found some cases where the Justice Department appeared to do just that.
Fellner said Congress needs to restore discretion to federal judges, by getting rid of mandatory minimums or giving judges more power to depart from sentencing guidelines based on the facts in an individual case. The Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will consider some of these options when the Senate returns from recess next week. Fellner said Holder, in the meantime, should bar prosecutors from threatening longer sentences because defendants in drug cases refuse to plead guilty.