On Thursday, Twitter introduced — and later in the day, withdrew — a change to its "blocking" policy.
Thursday afternoon, the microblogging site started allowing users who had been blocked to continue to follow, respond to or re-tweet posts from people who had blocked them.
User response came swiftly. Many were outraged that the change allowed stalkers and abusers open access to their posts.
After seeing the Twitter cognoscenti light up over the issue, Zerlina Maxwell, a feminist freelance writer, started an online petition on Change.org calling on Twitter to restore its old blocking policy. It garnered more than 1,000 signatures within a couple of hours.
Maxwell says she's no stranger to harassment and abuse. In March, she appeared with Fox News' Sean Hannity on a debate about the use of guns to prevent rape.
"I don't, honestly, want you telling me that if I had a gun I wouldn't have been raped, because that's still putting it on me," she told Hannity.
Maxwell says that 5-minute segment elicited hundreds of racist, sexist and threatening Twitter messages that continue to this day.
"I block people probably about 10 times a day," she says.
Jennifer Pozner, executive director of a group called Women in Media & News, says she found out about Twitter's brief change to its blocking policy "sometime in the short window when Twitter lost their mind and temporarily regained it."
Some days she blocks as many as 200 users from contacting her via Twitter, she says, because they send her threatening tweets — "viscous names I'm not allowed to say on NPR's air, many of which threaten rape, some of which threaten murder," she says.
The old system was not perfect. Determined harassers could create new Twitter names — or "handles," as they're known — to get around a block.
Still, Pozner says, the imperfections of the old system are preferable to no protections at all, and she was relieved Twitter responded to the public outcry within hours. But she says it also shows the company's tone-deafness, especially to its female and cyberbullied users.
"Twitter has known for a very long time that women often face extreme harassment, abuse, violent threats and the like," she says. "Instead of responding in a way that would protect their female users' safety — as well as any user's safety — they instead made an incomprehensible move to make harassers' lives easier."
Twitter rescinded the policy in the evening, and went back to making tweets invisible to blocked users.
The company declined to comment to NPR. But in a statement announcing the reversal of its policy, it wrote it never intended to make its users feel unsafe, and that it is trying to strike a balance between openness and safety.
Twitter said reverting to its old approach is not ideal. Some users may want to block users, but others fear the retaliation — on or offline — that comes from users who've been blocked.
"Moving forward, we will continue to explore features designed to protect users from abuse and prevent retaliation," the company said.
If you think grains of rice or kernels of corn are free gifts of nature, think again. Seed companies — and the FBI — take a very different attitude, and walking off with the wrong seeds can land you in very serious trouble indeed.
In two apparently unrelated cases this week, federal prosecutors arrested citizens of China and charged them with stealing seeds that American companies consider valuable intellectual property.
One case involves corn in Iowa; the other, genetically engineered rice in Kansas. Court documents filed in each case (corn here, rice here) offer an entertaining mixture of Midwestern farming, alleged corporate espionage, and a whiff of international intrigue.
The corn caper began with a curious confrontation more than two years ago, when a field manager for DuPont Pioneer, a leading seed company, found a Chinese man on his knees in a corn field near Tama, Iowa. This wasn't just any corn field. Pioneer was using this one to grow what's called an "inbred line" of corn. Inbred lines are the parents of the hybrid corn that seed companies sell to farmers, and they're probably the most tightly guarded secrets in the business.
The Chinese man, looking red-faced and nervous, made a quick getaway, but not before the Pioneer employee got the license plate number of his rental car. The car had been rented to a man named Mo Hailong. The FBI says Mo, a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. who lives in Florida, works for a Chinese seed company called Kings Nower Seed.
That encounter eventually led to a full-scale FBI investigation in which the bureau monitored Mo's mail and followed him (and several colleagues) as he traveled the Midwest, collecting seeds from fields. The FBI even installed a listening device in a rental car that some of Mo's colleagues used. It captured a rather sad conversation in which two Chinese men complained to each other about their assignment, which they considered pointless and risky. "These are actually very serious offenses," said one. The other responded: "They could treat us as spies!"
Last year, the FBI seized samples of seeds from several Chinese men involved in the operation. Several samples, according to court documents, were inbred lines of corn. This week, Mo Hailong was arrested and charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets.
In an intriguing side note, the FBI says that it is continuing to investigate "several potential 'insiders' at U.S.-based seed companies" who may have provided Mo Hailong and his alleged co-conspirators information on where the companies were growing their most valuable seeds.
The second case, involving genetically engineered rice, appears to be a much less sophisticated case of alleged theft. Weiqiang Zhang, a Chinese employee of of a company that court documents call "Company A," is charged with stealing some samples of the company's genetically engineered rice, and providing these seeds to scientists in China. Our colleague Bryan Thompson at Kansas Public Radio identified "Company A" as Ventria Bioscience, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Ventria's work has sometimes provoked controversy in the United States. The company inserts new genes into rice, allowing the rice plant to produce proteins that can be useful in treating diseases. But the conventional rice industry doesn't want Ventria's rice growing anywhere close to fields of rice intended for food. Ventria does grow some rice near a facility in Junction City, Kansas, and this is where Zhang worked.
It's unclear whether anyone in China actually asked Zhang to acquire such seeds. It appears, from a letter quoted in one court document, that Zhang was trying to land a job with a research institute in China, and hoped that his access to Ventria's technology might open doors back home.
When Senate Democrats voted last month to limit the minority party's ability to filibuster most presidential nominees, inside-the-Beltway hand-wringing commenced.
The Senate would never be the same without a 60-vote threshold on controversial matters! Just wait and see the dysfunction! The retribution!
Gregory Koger, historian and preeminent expert on the filibuster, was not among the doomsayers.
He told us that he saw the so-called "nuclear option" as a natural reaction by a frustrated Senate majority. And that it would not have much effect on a badly divided chamber already hobbled by a filibuster-by-threat culture.
After this past week in the Senate — late-night sessions marked by bickering, and blame-gaming as Democrats held majority-rule votes for long-delayed presidential nominees — we wondered what Koger thought now of the filibuster change.
Here's what the author of Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate had to say:
NPR: How much of what is happening now do you attribute to the change that no longer requires a 60-vote supermajority to end a filibuster?
Koger: The Republicans would say that a lot of what they're doing is a reaction to the change — deliberately dragging out debate as an expression of dismay at how the Democrats changed the rules of the Senate without Republican consent. What we're really seeing is the Democrats challenging the Republicans' underlying ability to drag out the nominations process.
NPR: Has it been worth it for Democrats?
Koger: One of the changes is that it's now worthwhile for Democrats to go through this exercise because they know they can win. Before, the Democrats didn't have the 60 votes necessary to win debates on the nominations, and didn't want to go through this exercise and lose. Certainly it's worth it to the president and the Senate Democrats to approve these nominees — in particular, those that will give them a working majority on the D.C. Circuit court, which is essential to them.
NPR: There was a détente of sorts today (Friday), and agreement to move scheduled weekend votes to Monday. There also seemed to be increased optimism that the Senate would approve a budget deal, already passed in the House. Does that mean that Republicans have decided they've made their point? What happens next week when they all come back?
Koger: The reason the Senate stopped having filibusters-by-attrition is that, for the majority, it's very costly to waste time in the chamber. This has been a bit of a demonstration of that idea. Republicans have been exercising their prerogative to claim a certain amount of time after each successful cloture (test) vote, dragging out debate. The majority has said, "Fine, but you have to talk all night." Once they actually live that out for a few days, they realize it is disruptive — they're not getting as much sleep as they want. They're not able to fund-raise. If they had to legislate 10 hours a day, their lives would be ruined. And losing a weekend? For Democrats in tough races back home, for (Senate Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell who is facing a primary challenge? That would be very costly.
NPR: What do you think Republicans learned this week?
Koger: The minority doesn't have as much power as they thought they did. Any actions they take, there's a rebound. The minority has to pay costs, too, and that brings about détente.
NPR: What happens when the Senate returns next week?
Koger: The legislation that comes up next week will be interesting — it will be interesting to see how open a process there might be on the defense authorization bill. Right now, you can't offer any amendment unless (Majority Leader) Harry Reid gives permission. It will be an interesting thing to watch if you want to know what a post-nuclear Senate is going to look like.
With its colorful box-style buildings with big windows, Castlemont High in Oakland, Calif., looks like any other school. But inside, teacher Demetria Huntsman and Joseph Hopkins, 16, are deconstructing a shooting that happened out front just 30 minutes before.
"We just, like, heard gun shots," Joseph explains. "We just ... turned around and started running. That's the closest I've ever came to almost, like, actually getting shot."
Saturday marks the first anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. The 26 lives lost that day sparked a national debate on gun violence. A year later, the issue still looms large in many communities, including those where shootings are a daily occurrence.
In Castlemont, homicide is the leading cause of death for young people. And according to the Oakland Police Department, there was an average of three shootings a day between March and October within 1.5 miles of Castlemont High, including one last April when bullets came through the front door.
Today, Huntsman, Joseph and several other students are gathered at Castlemont High as part of the after-school group Youth ALIVE!, one of many violence prevention programs serving the neighborhood.
"If I can wake up one day, walk outside, with the possibility of being shot at any point in time, that's kind of nerve racking, every day to do," says Trevor Watson, 14, one of the youngest members of the group. "You can be at the most safest place that you think and then some type of violence busts out."
'A Wake-Up Call'
In spite of the violence, kids this reporter talked to say Castlemont High is one of the few places they feel safe, in part because of programs designed to help students cope with regular shootings — maybe even prevent them.
"It's up to adults and professionals to help [kids] understand and process it and respond to it appropriately, so it can be a tool for learning and growth," says Alex Briscoe, director of Alameda County Health Care Services.
The life expectancy for residents in this area, he explains, is 10 years shorter than that of people living in upscale Oakland Hills just over a mile away. "We can tell you how long you're going to live by what zip code you live in," Briscoe says.
Across the street from Castlemont High, about 20 kids ranging from toddlers to teens run, climb and squeal at a playground on a chilly Saturday morning as three security guards in bright yellow shirts look on.
The group, East Oakland Community Playdate, has been meeting here once a month for the last several years. Parents who participate know the neighborhood has its problems with violence. In April, there was a shooting near the playground and the families had to take cover.
Paolo, 6, was among them. His mother, Stephanie Pepitone, the organizer of the playgroup, says that she's dedicated to the neighborhood and wants to stay. But the shooting was still a wake-up call for her family, she says.
"In the same way that we teach all our children about fire safety — to 'stop, drop and roll' — it was the first time that we realized we had to do the same kind of safety training with our son, in terms of what happens when you hear gunshots," Pepitone says.
'It Doesn't Even Affect Me Anymore'
Sitting on the steps in front of his apartment, Trevor Watson says the popping sounds of gunfire sometimes keep him up at night — but that he tries to ignore it. "I see stuff like that so often it doesn't even affect me anymore," he says.
But that stoic facade drops when a kid walks into the courtyard. He's holding something under his shirt. Watson's booming voice drops to a whisper. The kid has a gun, he says.
Watson explains he glimpsed the tell-tale handle of a gun when the kid was adjusting his clothing. He says the kid lives in the house directly across from him.
Even if you want to, you can't afford to ignore guns here. Just two hours after this reporter left, seven men were shot just blocks from Watson's house. No arrests have been made.
NPR recently produced a number of stories to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.
We received comments from many of you, including some personal remembrances of that historic moment, theories about what happened on that landmark day in 1963 and compliments (as well as critiques) of our special coverage.
For one Curious Listener, "Kennedy's Assassination" raised a different sort of question - is that widely-used phrase grammatically correct?
From Sallie, in New Jersey:
I thoroughly enjoyed all of your stories about President Kennedy and the historical significance of this past week. I was, however, curious about some of the reporting you did on "Kennedy's assassination." I was always taught - and have in turn taught - that one should never use the possessive case of a noun to indicate the object of an action. One should use an "of" phrase instead. Is it then correct to say "the assassination of Kennedy"? I know that grammar is fluid, and perhaps there has been a change of which I am unaware. Again, I did enjoy the stories. I was just curious.
Sallie, we must say that we applaud your love of impeccable grammar! We can see all of the English majors out there smiling, too.
Here's what we found:
Thank you for contacting NPR.
We appreciate you taking the time to share your concerns. We reached out to several experienced copy editors to double-check this and they all agreed that "Kennedy's assassination" is an acceptable usage. It is possible that a grammar rule similar to what you are describing may have been taught in the past by some, however it does not appear to be a widely favored or observed convention. We also took a look at coverage of the recent Kennedy assassination anniversary by other major news organizations and all of them appear to have used the phrase "Kennedy's assassination" in their reporting.
Thank you for listening to NPR, and for your continued support of public broadcasting.
NPR Audience and Community Relations
For added fun, here are a few words from the man himself:
For all the grammar enthusiasts reading this, here's an excellent piece about the Oxford Comma from NPR's Monkey See blog by Linda Holmes. Have a funny story about grammar gone wrong? Leave us a comment below.
Send your questions about the inner workings of NPR, something you heard during a program, or anything else NPR-related to NPR Services. Your question and the answer might even end up on the This is NPR blog.