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Circle of 6 was born out of the 2011 "Apps Against Abuse" challenge, a partnership between the Office of the Vice President, Department of Health and Human Services and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. (Kainaz Amaria/NPR)

Enlisting Smartphones In The Campaign For Campus Safety

Jul 31, 2014

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Technology - and particularly smartphones - could reshape safety efforts on college campuses. At least that's the hope of some developers.

Several new apps offer quick ways for college students facing unsafe or uncomfortable situations to reach out to their peers, connect with resources on campus and in their communities, or notify law enforcement.

These apps for the most part target sexual assault and rape, amid growing national concern about the prevalence of incidents and criticism of the ways colleges and universities are handling them.

Apps like Circle of 6, born out of a recent White House technology challenge, are now in use on campuses across the country.

You might think: Why does a student who feels unsafe need an app? You can't walk around a campus without seeing one of those blue-light call buttons.

The problem is that hardly anyone uses those, says Nancy Schwartzman, the creator of Circle of 6. What college students do use, she says, is a cell phone.

"Most young people first report sexual assault to a friend or a peer, not to the police or a blue safety light," Schwartzman says. "And they're always on their phone."

Who's In Your Circle?

Circle of 6 was born out of the 2011 "Apps Against Abuse" challenge, a partnership between the Office of the Vice President, the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Here's how it works: A student who downloads the app picks six trusted friends to join a "circle." Then, if faced with an unsafe or dangerous situation, they can send a text to those friends with just two clicks.

They can quickly choose from among several pre-written messages. For example, "Call me and pretend you need me. I need an interruption." The texts even get more specific, like "Come and get me. I need help getting home safely. Call when you're close." That text automatically includes the sender's GPS location.

Circle of 6 allows students to access their personal networks - but also gives them the ability to tap into broader networks, like national hotlines and emergency numbers.

And it was created by sexual assault survivors.

"I know what I would have wanted," Schwartzman says. "I don't want to have to search through my phone and find out who's around. I've already had this conversation with six people I trust."

What's On The Market?

While Circle of 6 was one of the earliest apps to target campus sexual assault, many others have flooded app stores.

Some, like Here For You are being created by colleges. That app, from Loyola University in Chicago, provides students with resources if they're a victim of assault, as well as information on how to help a friend.

Created by a survivor of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, LiveSafe allows students to track crimes on campus. Users can report incidents, view a map and a list of reported activity, broadcast their location to family or friends for safety, or call or send a message to 911 or campus police. Students can also submit photos or audio to go along with a report.

LiveSafe also allows anonymous reporting - something its founders say might make college students more apt to report bullying, rape or sexual assault.

Then there's Kitestring, which doesn't specifically say it's targeting colleges, but has a similar bent. You provide the app with emergency contact numbers in the setup phase, then let it know when you're going out alone — say, on a run or walking home from the library — and how long it will take you to reach your destination. At that time, the app texts you to check in. If you don't respond, it alerts your emergency contacts.

Of course, none of these are perfect solutions.

They all depend on having a charged cell phone and enough signal to get a message out. Many are limited by phone platform. And, in the case of Kitestring, it's targeting students who are traveling alone. Statistics show that most rapes and assaults are perpetrated by acquaintances, not the stranger jumping out of the bushes as is often suggested in popular culture.

But they do provide students with a tangible tool that they previously lacked and proponents say they can be part of a comprehensive approach by colleges to curb instances of rape and assault.

"It's not a magic bullet. Prevention programming that's well done and smart and provocative and continuous is desperately needed," Schwartzman says.

Does It Work?

So students have smartphone apps in their hands, but do they actually help prevent assaults?

That's only part of the point, Schwartzman says. The other potential benefit for these tools, she says, is that they can help students get information about resources when an assault does happen.

Circle of 6 seeks to "put all the information that can help enhance safety in one place that's easy to find," Schwartzman says. Otherwise, she adds, "it's very confusing. Every campus is different."

She envisions Circle of 6 not as some kind of silver bullet, but part of a suite of options for students. And she means all students. Not just those who are assaulted, but their friends and classmates, too.

While these apps are first and foremost tools for students, colleges might also be able to learn something. At least that's the hope at Williams College in Massachusetts.

Williams is bringing Circle of 6 to its campus for a two-year pilot program, says Meg Bossong, the college's director of sexual assault prevention and response. The goal is to get real-time data that can inform future bystander education programming on campus.

So what does that mean, exactly? In a lot of ways, bystander intervention is just common sense. For example, if you're at a bar and see an intoxicated woman being harassed or groped by a man, the bystander should step in, intervene, and get the target out of the situation.

Circle of 6 and other apps are adding a technical aspect here. Instead of seeing bad behavior up close, student "bystanders" are responding to a text.

The pilot program at Williams will give students access to a customized version of the app. Instead of national hotlines and resources, they'll have the option to connect with resources locally or right on campus.

In return, Circle of 6 will provide Williams with data, Bossong explains, that the school will use to see not just how many students are using the app, but how they're using it.

"I think we're at a point where we need more data about how to best deploy bystander work on our campus," Bossong adds. "It's not just about the specific bystander skills, it's building a culture that is less accepting and less tolerant of sexual violence."

Thinking Outside The Phone

One campus safety tool that's still in the works isn't pocket-sized or smartphone based.

Callisto is an online reporting system for survivors of sexual assault that's still in development. The mission, according to Jessica Ladd, one of the creators, is to make it more empowering to report a sexual assault.

Ladd herself is a sexual assault survivor, and says her own reporting experience was less than empowering.

"It was confusing to know where to go, I wasn't even sure why I was doing it," she says. "It took me almost two years to report it. For many survivors it can take a long period of time. You don't always record what happened to you right after."

With Callisto, she says, survivors will go online, fill out a form documenting their assault and, respond to questions similar to those a law enforcement or campus official would ask. The site would then provide them with reporting options.

At that point, they could choose to file a report, or save it for later. They would also have a third option: to have their report submitted automatically if another person reports sexual violence at the hands of the same assailant.

"A lot of people who do report right now often do it because they heard through the rumor mill somehow or from a college administrator that their assailants have assaulted someone else," Ladd says.

While Callisto is still in development — it was presented at the recent White House Data Jam — Ladd says her goal is to launch a pilot in March.

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An Ukrainian army soldier stands guard next to the cars of the OSCE mission in Ukraine at a check-point in the village of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine on Thursday. (AP)

Dutch, Australian Experts Reach MH17 Debris Field In Ukraine

by Eyder Peralta
Jul 31, 2014

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The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has some good news this morning:

Remember, experts from Australia and The Netherlands have been trying to get to the debris field of the downed Malaysia Airlines jet in eastern Ukraine for a week. Every time they attempted a trip, they were thwarted by heavy fighting.

Speaking to CNN, OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said that for the first time senior experts were at the scene of the tragedy to begin their investigation.

Bociurkiw said he was standing at the perimeter of the field and he could still smell the stench of the remains.

It was three weeks ago that the U.S. says Ukrainian rebels fired a missile that downed a Malaysia Airlines 777 carrying 298 passengers. Some of the remains of the dead have already been flown out of Ukraine, but some still languished in that open field.

The team, Bociurkiw said, is prepared to recover those remains.

"We will finally give those remains proper care and dignity," Bociurkiw said.

Giving experts access to the site became an international affair. Earlier this month, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on a resolution that called for unrestricted access to the scene for investigators.

It was just a few days ago that Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the separatists who control that area of Ukraine. He said by continuing their fighting and keeping experts away from the debris field, they "displayed an appalling disregard for human decency."

Bociurkiw told CNN he was confident that the Dutch and Australian experts would now have continued access to the site.

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George H.W. Bush (left) congratulates his son George W. Bush as the two former presidents attend last year's dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. (AP)

Book News: George W. Bush Coming Out With Biography Of His Father

by Annalisa Quinn
Jul 31, 2014

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The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • Former President George W. Bush plans to take a break from painting to publish a biography of his father, former President George H. W. Bush. The book, which will be published by Crown on Nov. 11, "covers the entire scope of the elder President Bush's life and career, including his service in the Pacific during World War II, his pioneering work in the Texas oil business, and his political rise as a Congressman, U.S. Representative to China and the United Nations, CIA Director, Vice President, and President," according to a press release. The Associated Press reports that Bush wrote the book himself, though he "had assistance with research."
  • A novel by Oscar Hijuelos, the first Latino author to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, will be published posthumously. Hijuelos died last year. The New York Times describes the novel, Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise, as "an intensively researched 859-page historical novel about the friendship between Mark Twain and the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley." The book will come out from Grand Central Publishing in fall 2015.
  • Michelle Huneven writes about the shock of discovering you've been used as inspiration for a character in a story: "The laws of literature, like the laws of gossip, usually demand exaggeration, decontextualization, a heightened or minimalized reality, and a lot more shape and order and impact than everyday life. 'You've been fictionalized' actually means, 'You've been exaggerated!' (Or downplayed!) You've been snipped and shaped and built on, face-lifted, aged and/or repainted for maximum artistic impact."
  • Stephen Marche considers the inevitability of literary failure: "Three hundred thousand books are published in the United States every year. A few hundred, at most, could be called financial or creative successes. The majority of books by successful writers are failures. The majority of writers are failures. And then there are the would-be writers, those who have failed to be writers in the first place, a category which, if you believe what people tell you at parties, constitutes the bulk of the species."
  • Nathan Filer on the hyperbole of blurbs on book jackets: "Nothing can be interesting; it must be fascinating. Good isn't good enough; it must be great."
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Yelena Akhtiorskaya ( )

This 'Suitcase' Is Packed With Sharp, Funny, Tragic Tales

Jul 31, 2014

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At some point in the past decade, the word "Brooklyn" became cultural shorthand for a certain type of young, nouveau riche hipster. The borough has a history that goes back centuries, and a huge, notably diverse population, but to many Americans, it's now mainly associated with fixie-riding arrivistes sipping artisanal espresso drinks while they work on their painfully autobiographical novels about escaping suburbia.

Like any other geographical stereotype, it's wildly reductionist, and not just because a lot of hipsters have moved on to kombucha. There's obviously a lot more to Brooklyn than skinny jeans and indie rock bands, though you wouldn't necessarily know it from today's dominant cultural conversation. That's one of the reasons why Panic in a Suitcase, the excellent debut novel from New York-based author Yelena Akhtiorskaya, is such a breath of fresh air.

Panic in a Suitcase is set chiefly in Brighton Beach, the neighborhood known for decades as home to immigrants from the Soviet Union. The novel follows the Nasmertov family, recently arrived from Odessa, Ukraine, as they adjust to life in a new country, 5,000 miles away from the city they called home for generations.

It's not as much of an adjustment as you might think, though. When the family is visited by Pasha, a troubled poet and his family's lone holdout (he can't bring himself to leave Odessa), he observes that Brighton Beach isn't too different from his hometown: "His fellow countrymen hadn't ventured bravely into a new land, they'd borrowed a tiny nook at the very rear of someone else's crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they'd gone through so many hurdles to escape."

The first part of Panic in a Suitcase centers on Pasha, whose family has brought him to visit in the hopes that he'll decide to join them in Brooklyn. Pasha is stubborn to a fault, terrified of any kind of confrontation, and even as a child exhibited a "catastrophic intolerance for the idiocy of others." His mother, Esther, and sister, Marina, treat him with a mix of affection and exasperation — they can't abide his seeming lack of interest in his career, his surroundings, and even his own son, whom he barely acknowledges.

Jumping forwards 15 years, the second part of the novel focuses on Pasha's niece Frida, a precocious but aimless girl who doesn't initially seem interested at all in her homeland. (Asked, as a child, if she likes living in America, Frida is nonplussed: "Here — as opposed to where? If there had been a somewhere else, Frida was currently engaged in an immense struggle to extract every last trace of it from her DNA.") Years later, she returns to Ukraine for her cousin's wedding, and finds herself just as adrift as she was in the States.

Pasha and Frida don't have too much in common except for a tendency toward caprice and a nagging sense of anomie. But Panic in a Suitcase is less a novel about them than it is about the Nasmertov family as a whole — Akhtiorskaya treats the clan almost as a single character, functioning as a whole, even as its constituent parts are in a constant war with themselves.

And it works, because of Akhtiorskaya's patient, understated prose. She's a deeply perceptive writer, and her observations about the family's experience as immigrants to America are sharp and sometimes heartbreaking. On the family's habit of literally counting the days since they moved to the States, she writes, "It'd seemed that if not counted, the days might either not pass or sneak by in clusters, two or more at a time. One thing a Soviet upbringing taught you was to pay attention."

And as sad as the novel is in parts, it's leavened by Akhtiorskaya's dry, brilliant sense of humor. She tackles both normal and comic moments with a straight face, which makes them even funnier — at one point, she gives the somewhat snobby Pasha credit for gamely making conversation with "a woman among whose wisdoms was that a Virgo and a Cancer should never mix except for in the bedroom and who saw logic in wearing a crucifix, a kabbalah bracelet, and a bindi simultaneously."

Panic in a Suitcase isn't just remarkable as a literary debut, but also as a uniquely American work of fiction. It's a testament to how diverse and unexpected the Brooklyn literary scene can be, but more than that, it's a testament to Akhtiorskaya's wit, generosity, and immense talent as a young American author.

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Argentina's Economy Minister Axel Kicillof speaks during a press conference at the Argentina Consulate in New York on Wednesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Argentina's Default: 5 Headlines That Tell The Story

by Eyder Peralta
Jul 31, 2014

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Yesterday in New York, representatives from Argentina and some of its creditors emerged from negotiations to announce that they had failed.

As NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, this meant that the country had fallen into default for second time in more than 12 years. The repercussions of the default are unpredictable, but it could mean that the country is shut out of the international debt markets, perhaps pushing interest rates and inflation higher.

With that here are five headlines that tell the story of Argentina's default:

— "S&P Cuts Argentina To 'Selective Default' Rating" (Barron's):

Even before Argentina technically missed its first payment to bond holders, the credit ratings agency Standard & Poor's issued a rating that means the country had defaulted on "some of its foreign currency obligations."

A glimmer of good news in S&P's move: it didn't dive the rating of the country's currency further into junk status because "the potential disruptions to interest payments on Argentina's external debt are not likely to further erode its ability to service its debt issued in its local currency and under its local law."

It's important to note that this all started with an order from a U.S. court. Back in 2001, Argentina also defaulted on some of its debt. Out of that mess, some bond holders accepted a restructuring agreement, in which Argentina agreed to pay back a portion of what it owed them. A U.S. court, however, ruled that Argentina could not pay those bond holders without concurrently paying other bond holders who did not come to an agreement with the country in 2001.

"In Hedge Fund, Argentina Finds Relentless Foe" (New York Times):

Speaking of the so called "holdouts," the New York Times talks about the hedge fund of Paul E. Singer, which has a staff of 300, but has "managed to force Argentina, a nation of 41 million people, into a position where it now has to contemplate a humbling surrender."

The piece is worth a read. Here's a bit from it:

"As a hedge fund, Elliott's pursuit of Argentina is motivated by a desire to make money. Having bought its Argentine bonds for well below their original value, the firm stands to make a killing if Argentina pays the bonds in full. Legal filings indicate that the face value of its Argentine government bonds was around $170 million, but the firm most likely acquired many of them for much less than that. Elliott and other investors are now seeking more than $1.5 billion, which includes years of unpaid interest.

"Still, there is also something of a crusade about the battle that reveals the worldview of Mr. Singer, who is 69. A Republican donor with libertarian leanings, he has spoken out when he thinks that governments and companies have damaged the rights of creditors.

"'He doesn't get into fights for the sake of fighting. He believes deeply in the rule of law and that free markets and free societies depend on enforcing it,' said a fellow hedge fund manager, Daniel S. Loeb."

— What Are the Ripple Effects if Argentina Defaults? (Bloomberg):

So does this accomplish the less liberal fiscal world that Singer may be looking for? Here's a good round table from Bloomberg addressing the issue:

— World Weighs Fallout of Argentine Bond Case on Other Indebted Nations (Wall Street Journal):

The Journal captures the big fear some observers have:

"The International Monetary Fund and others are warning that the legal rulings that forced Buenos Aires' hand could imperil future debt restructurings. Already, they say, the case is driving bond issuers to rewrite their contracts to ensure that a small group of creditors wouldn't be able to hold bond deals hostage.

— Argentina Is Already Unwelcome In The Debt Markets (The Guardian):

The Guardian's Heidi Moore tells us why she thinks that's overblown:

"Absolutely nothing is riding on an Argentina's default. The entire conflict is composed of absurdities.

"Here's one: Argentina's president, Cristina Kirchner, maintains that Argentina can't afford to pay the hedge funds. But it pays for the rest of us to be skeptical of that claim: if Argentina can pay some of its bondholders, it can pay all of them. The country owes the holdouts roughly only $1.5bn, a fraction of the $23bn it will pay its other bondholders in a single payment.

"Here's another: Argentina's fight with hedge funds sets no precedents for any other countries. The US will feel no impact, beyond a few investors losing some completely manageable amounts of money on their own. Argentina's mulishness centers around a relatively paltry set of 13-year-old, $1.5bn bonds that were badly negotiated and haven't been imitated by any other country since.

"And another insanity: Argentina is already unwelcome in the debt markets - avoiding your creditors will do that - so a default wouldn't make it any worse. Argentina has been so financially isolated for so long that it has nearly no global weight to throw around."

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