The U.S. and Britain are suspending all non-lethal aid to Syria's rebels because of infighting among the various factions opposed to President Bashar Assad.
The U.S. decision was reported by The Associated Press, which cited an unnamed U.S. Embassy official in Ankara, the Turkish capital. Humaniatrian aid won't be affected, the official said. The British decision was reported by Reuters, which quoted an unnamed British Embassy official in the city.
The AP reports:
"The decision comes days after fighters from the Islamic Front, an umbrella group of six major rebel groups, seized bases and warehouses belonging to the mainstream Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebel group at the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Syria and Turkey."
The Islamic Front says its goal is to set up an Islamic state in Syria.
As NPR's Deborah Amos reported in September, "moderate rebel groups in Syria are becoming less influential in comparison to more radical Islamist factions."
"The civilian, secular democracy folks have been sidelined," David Kilcullen, the CEO of Caerus, a Virginia-based strategy firm, told Deb. "That is just a fact of life and I do think it's tragic. Today, you are looking at a polarized resistance, a larger number at the extremes."
But the FSA called the U.S. and British decisions mistaken.
"We hope our friends will rethink and wait for a few days when things will be clearer," FSA spokesman Louay Meqdad said, according to Reuters.
In the past, the two countries have offered body armour, food, money and radios to the rebels..
Reuters quoted the U.S. Embassy spokesman as saying the situation was being investigated "to inventory the status of U.S. equipment and supplies provided to the SMC." The British official expressed similar views.
But in London, Prime Minister David Cameron emphasized the need to work with moderate members of the Syrian opposition.
"We must not allow this argument to develop that the only opposition in Syria is an extremist opposition," he told lawmakers.
The opposition infighting comes amid gains by Assad's regime in the fighting that has gripped the country. And as Deb reported last month:
"The regime is unlikely to retake all rebel-held areas, says [military analyst Jeffrey] White. But recent gains show the momentum has shifted. Is the Syrian army stronger, or the rebels weaker? Analysts say it's a bit of both. Mainstream rebel groups backed by the West and Saudi Arabia have been weakened by in-fighting, challenged by radical Islamist brigades, some of them tied to al-Qaida."
The nearly three year civil war has killed more than 100,000 people, and created a massive refugee crisis that has affected Syria's neighbors.
Resolved: That blocks are the best toys ever.
Every year around holiday time, lists of gift possibilities for children pop up here and there. Recently Barnes & Noble published its Best Toys of the Season round-up and the Goddard School system unveiled its Top 10 Preschooler-Approved Toy List for 2013.
One toy that these two lists — and nearly all good-toy rosters year after year - have in common is some variation on an age-old favorite: the block. Amid all the Furby Booms, Nerf blasters and LeapPad kiddie tablets, the block abides - solid, stalwart, dependable.
Better than dolls or balls - too much gender baggage. Better than puzzles and yo-yos — too hard for tots or too easy for teens. Better than toy guns or video games - enough said.
From basic, straightforward unit blocks (introduced in America by educator Caroline Pratt a century ago this year) and the geometry-inspired Froebel blocks (created for some of the earliest kindergarteners) to up-to-the-nanosecond smart blocks called ATOMS (supported by a Kickstarter campaign and introduced just last month), blocks are a constant in our lives.
Because. Well, blocks are the best toys ever.
All shapes and sizes. Small children can build big things with oversize toddler baby blocks or colorful things with Hot Colors CitiBlocs. As their hands become more dexterous, kids can use more complicated blocks like Erector sets, Tinker Toys and Legos, all of which were inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998 — the Hall's first year.
Blocks are durable. Young people can stack 'em, whack 'em, kick 'em, lick 'em, chomp 'em, stomp 'em and pound 'em into the ground. Most blocks can withstand the punishment.
Creativity. Blocks can teach us all kinds of things in the arts and the sciences. Writing in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 17th century philosopher John Locke suggested putting letters of the alphabet on cubes so that children would learn to build words and read by playing games. A recent study in the journal Child Development, according to World Science, shows that playing with blocks may help young people "develop math and spatial skills, which support later learning in science, technology and engineering."
Tomorrow: The Future Of Blocks
The Protojournalist is an experiment in reporting. Abstract. Concrete. @NPRtpj
Three brothers in Minnesota are betting that robots could compete with machines on the farm, too: the huge, and often inefficient, fertilizer applicators made by John Deere and the like. The brothers' Rowbot, in comparison, is so small it can move between rows of crops and fertilize plants one at a time.
"We joked about it being the Roomba of the cornfield," says one of the brothers, Kent Cavender-Bares, referring to the autonomous vacuum cleaner.
The motivation for creating a fertilizer robot is simple: Many farmers overuse fertilizer, and that's costly and bad for the environment. But farmers don't have many tools to help them cut back.
When crops require more nutrients, huge fertilizer applicators, weighing as much as 2,500 pounds, spray the cornfield at the height of growing season. But much of that fertilizer evaporates or washes away into groundwater or surface runoff because it never reaches the plants' roots.
The Rowbot, which is 2-feet wide and 7-feet long, is designed to apply nitrogen fertilizer with a lot more precision. Inside it are real-time sensors that are studying the plants and making find-tuned adjustments to how much fertilizer is applied to each plant, says Cavender-Bares.
The hope is that the Rowbot would in the long run save farmers money on fertilizer, he says, but it could also prevent the kind of pollution of waterways that's rampant in the Midwest.
So far the Bares brothers have demonstrated Rowbot in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. Dave Boehnke owns a farm in Iowa and he's one of people who've tested the Rowbot on his property. He says the little guy could help potentially solve a big problem for him.
"There's always a shortage of manpower," he told The Salt, "So this would be able to spread out our workload getting a key nutrient on [the crops]."
And the smaller machines like the Rowbot, he says, have another added bonus: They're less likely to compact the soil.
"The bigger the machines get, the heavier the machines get," he says. "Soil's really not designed to be smashed with a several ton machine." And those big machines can damage crops, too.
But not everyone's so sure the Rowbot's method of fertilizing in the middle of the growing season is the best way to maximize crop yield.
"There are pros and cons to every method or timing of application," says Fabián Fernández, a nutrient management specialist at the University of Minnesota. "In some of the research that we have done recently, we've seen that applying nitrogen pre-planting actually produces better yields than during the growing season."
The brothers say they're going to keep testing the Rowbot on corn, and once they've nailed it down, they'll move on to other crops like soybean.
And when it does roll out, it'll be a service — likely in the form of a fleet of 20 Rowbots roving all over a field. The brothers say it should cost around the same as other custom fertilizer application systems. Think of it as a high-tech lawn service for fields.
The pilot of an Asiana Airlines passenger jet that crashed in July at San Francisco International Airport has told investigators he was "very concerned" about trying to land there, The Associated Press writes.
Three people were killed and more than 150 others were injured when the plane approached at too slow a speed and too low an altitude. Its tail struck a seawall. The collision sent the jet twisting and twirling down the runway.
The pilot was nervous because the airport's automatic warning systems had been disengaged due to construction. That meant the crew was making a "visual approach." The 46-year-old pilot had never landed a Boeing 777 at San Francisco. He was joined in the cockpit, though, by an instructor.
The National Transportation Safety Board is holding an all-day hearing about the crash and the results, so far, of its investigation. The hearing is being webcast here. We'll watch for other news and update.
Federal workers have reason to be nervous. The budget agreement announced Tuesday — if it passes — would raise revenue by making employees contribute more toward their pensions.
It's part of a trend. Governments at all levels have been cutting back on pension benefits in recent years, in an attempt to fix funding problems caused by the recession and years of fiscal mismanagement.
In many cases, states and localities have made benefits less generous. But that has, for the most part, only affected newly-hired workers.
Last week, Illinois changed its pension law, taking away cost-of-living increases for current workers and retirees. The law passed in tandem with a ruling by a federal bankruptcy judge that Detroit could cut benefits promised to already-retired city employees.
That ruling will be appealed. Until now, pensions that had already been earned had been considered sacrosanct under both federal and many state laws.
"We'll see this unrolling and unspooling, in my view, all the way to the Supreme Court," says Frank Shafroth, director of the Center for State and Local Government Leadership at George Mason University.
Even as the legal playing field remains uncertain, the inability of many governments to keep their pension promises will lead to more political battles, including a California ballot measure next year that would allow cities to cut retirement benefits.
"Any kind of changes will be difficult for our employees," says San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who is spearheading the measure, "but it's much better to ask our employees to adjust their future expectations, rather than risk seeing their accrued benefits slashed, as has happened in bankrupt cities."
Because pensions are covered both by a federal retirement law known as ERISA and many state constitutions, government workers have viewed the size of their promised pension payments as inviolable.
At least, they felt certain until now. Some states and municipalities have had a terrible track record in terms of making needed annual payments into their pension funds, but workers have always been convinced that governments would be legally required to make good on the retirement benefits they had already earned.
"The bitter irony for public workers is that, in some places like Illinois and New Jersey, the unions actually sued the employers because they weren't putting the money away," says Steve Kreisberg, head of collective bargaining for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union known as AFSCME.
They didn't get much sympathy for their complaints that pension plans were often underfunded by billions of dollars.
"The state judges would say, 'You are entitled to the benefit, but you're not necessarily entitled to have the benefit prefunded,'" Kreisberg says. "'Come back when you lose the benefit.'"
Now that some governments have concluded that they don't have the money to pay, it may be too late.
Not Putting Enough Away
That's why numerous states and localities have changed their retirement plans. Traditionally, most government workers — who are often not eligible for Social Security — have received pensions. Upon retirement, they would get a fixed amount each month, based on formulas that took into account their salary levels and amount of time on the job.
Now, many governments are putting employees — at least newcomers — into plans that resemble 401(k) accounts. These are savings plans for retirement that do not guarantee a set income.
Most private companies have long since shifted workers into such plans. They haven't always been a raging success, though. The problem is that people often don't save enough.
Fidelity Investments recently announced that average balances had hit record highs, thanks to the rising stock market. But overall, the average amount people who are about to retire have saved is about $120,000.
That's a good chunk of change, but won't stretch far enough to cover retirements of 15 to 20 years.
"You've got potentially a whole generation coming down the road that's going to live much longer than other generations, and they're going to be desperately poor," Shafroth says.
Advantages Of Change
Since they are coming to the game later than private companies, governments have been able to learn from mistakes in designing new plans, says J.P. Aubry, associate state and local finance director with the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
Employees in some plans can be auto-enrolled and have their contributions automatically increase as they earn more. Even if they don't put in much themselves, they can receive fixed amounts from their employers.
"If you correct those issues and you put in enough money, 401(k)s can provide as much money as pensions," Aubry says.
They also offer more flexibility and portability to workers who aren't going to stay in their jobs for years. An earlier generation of government employees often stayed in place for decades, but today's younger workers will often slide into new positions before becoming fully vested in traditional pension plans.
Looking For New Solutions
Because of the decision in Detroit and other factors — including political pressures — government workers can no longer take it for granted that their promised pensions will be waiting for them, says Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers.
It's harder, at least politically, to justify guaranteed retirement incomes for former government employees when so few workers in the private sector enjoy the same certainty, he says.
And now government workers have learned that their benefits will not necessarily be given blanket protection by the courts.
"Nothing's guaranteed and they have to be worried about the solvency of their pension programs as we go forward," Pattison says.
Governments, as employers, are going to need more flexibility, argues Kim Rueben, a state and local finance expert at the Urban Institute.
"Historically, with whatever pension program you were in from the first day you started work, you got whatever benefit increases that were put into place, and not any of the cuts that were put into place," she says. "That assumption is a little strange."
Many governments traditionally have done a bad job of taking pension costs seriously. When times were good, they could afford to increase retirement benefits. When times were bad, they sometimes increased pension benefits in lieu of giving raises, because those costs seemed so far off.
All that is changing. The bill has come due. The fighting about who has to bear the cost of underfunded pension plans is only intensifying.
Government workers and governments themselves, as adversarial as they might be about who ultimately pays, should recognize that their fortunes are inextricably tied together, says James Spiotto, a municipal bankruptcy attorney in Chicago.
If retirement benefits are cut too much, that undermines the ability of government workers to pay their rent and otherwise contribute to the economic well-being of their cities or states. But if other programs are cut too much to pay for pensions, that would harm jurisdictions as well.
"If you don't reinvest in the municipality, if you don't stimulate the economy, you're not going to have the revenue to meet those pension promises," Spiotto says.