субота, 05. октобар 2013.

Goodbye, government: shutdown affects science, the environment, and health

The US government is headed for a shutdown as of this writing, after members of Congress were unable to reach a compromise on the federal budget. They have until midnight tonight to pass a new funding bill in time for the start of fiscal year 2014. If they can’t make it in time, about 800,000 civilian workers, about 40 percent of the entire US federal government’s civilian workforce, will be required not to work. Many of them will be furloughed without pay. It’s unclear just how long the great shutdown of 2013 would last, but if history is any indication, it could be a while. The US government has closed its doors 17 times throughout history, and the last time was also the longest — back in 1995, Congressional Republicans and the Clinton administration managed to keep the government dark for 21 days. The impending shutdown this year is also largely the result of party politics, with the Republican-led House trying to defund the healthcare reform law backed by the President (nicknamed "Obamacare"), which goes into effect tomorrow. largely the result of party politics But looking beyond the questions of the moment and the political fight that’s holding America’s finances hostage, it’s already clear that the most severe consequences of the shutdown will be felt by those government agencies specializing in science, technology, health, and the environment. Here’s a rundown of what to expect: NASA The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will see over 90 percent of its civilian workforce be immediately furloughed, 17,701 out of 18,250 total employees, according to the shutdown plan the agency filed last week. As President Obama put it in an emergency address last night, "NASA will shut down almost entirely, but Mission Control will remain open to support the astronauts serving on the Space Station." "NASA will shut down almost entirely." NASA notes that there’s a crew of six astronauts aboard the station now that it can’t abandon, and that operating the ISS requires ground controllers on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, who send about 1,000 commands to the station every day. If the shutdown drags on, NASA also points out that employees will be needed to help launch crew and cargo to the station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and to return crew from orbit. The next mission to carry crew to the station is scheduled for November 6th. In Florida, NASA’s historic Kennedy Space Center is likely to see most of its 2,085 civilian employees and another 4,384 private contractors asked to stay home. Not surprisingly, government officials are worried about the effects of an extended shutdown on the economy, especially coming on the heels of the closure of the space shuttle program in 2011, in which thousands of jobs were shed. "suddenly the shutdown of NASA starts affecting the whole community." "A good chunk of the population work out at Kennedy Space Center," says Don Walker, communications director of the Brevard County, Florida, government. "If they don’t get paid, or aren’t working, they’re not going to be going out to restaurants or the movies, and suddenly the shutdown of NASA starts affecting the whole community." He continues: "We barely kept our head above water just long enough to get through the end of the space shuttle program, this could be a double whammy." Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) The EPA, by its own count, has about 16,200 people on the payroll. But only 1,069 or about 6.5 percent, of those are staying on — either because they're doing vital work or because another fund is paying their bills, according to the agency’s shutdown plan. The former category is essentially a reminder of all the things we depend on the government to do. Would you like someone to keep managing the sites where toxic waste is being cleaned up (so-called "Superfunds")? The EPA has you covered. As the shutdown plan explains: "For example, if ceasing the operation of an acid mine drainage treatment plan would cause a release to a stream that provided drinking water to a community, the agency would consider that situation to pose an imminent threat." "the agency would consider that situation to pose an imminent threat." Not all Superfund work is dependent on the bill being debated, which also helps employees stay at work. Like other agencies, the EPA is taaking employees with maintaining important facilities: some people will stay behind to stop lab animals from dying and make sure long-running tests can keep going. A skeleton crew will still be around should an environmental disaster occur, and attorneys and law enforcement will be able to prosecute cases and enforce rules. This still doesn't mean business will be going on as usual. If your work is absolutely necessary, you can still only show up for the time it takes to complete it: if you have to spend an hour a day managing something, you'll spend that hour and not a minute more. So when EPA head Gina McCarthy said a few days ago that a furlough would mean that her agency "effectively shuts down," she wasn’t exaggerating. Health and Human Services (HHS) The US Department of Health and Human Services is a sprawling agency that includes everything from the Food and Drug Administration to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the National Institutes of Health. And yet, about half of the organization’s 78,686 staff members — some 40,512 employees — would be asked to stay home during the shutdown, according its shutdown plan. The HHS says that most of the agencies to keep staff will be those with a "substantial direct service component," such as health care clinics, child support and foster care, services for the elderly and those with disabilities, and yes, care for lab animals. "significantly reduced capacity to respond to outbreak investigations." But what’s being paused for the shutdown should give Americans pause: the seasonal flu vaccine program, for example, won’t run during the shutdown. And let’s hope there’s no deadly disease outbreak of disease while the government is down, as the CDC will have "a significantly reduced capacity to respond to outbreak investigations," and won’t be able to provide updating disease treatment information. Perhaps most worrisome of all HHS notes that "the preparation to respond to H7N9 influenza or MERS incident" — two lethal, emergent diseases — "could be delayed." CDC will maintain its 24/7 emergency hotline, though. The Food and Drug Administration will also continue to "handle emergencies, high-risk recalls, civil and criminal investigations," but will stop food and drug inspections, as well as cease the "majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making." Ironically, one HHS program at the center of the shutdown conflict in Washington — the health insurance exchanges set up under the health care reform bill — will go ahead as planned on October 1st, the first day of the shutdown itself. However long the shutdown lasts, the government’s science, technology and health arms will be taking the biggest hits. It follows that the people who depend on them will be out of luck, too.

New hope for Do Not Track as California enacts ad disclosure law

California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed into law a bill requiring companies to disclose whether they abide by Do Not Track provisions, a move that could build momentum for privacy protections that have stalled at the national level. On Friday, Brown signed AB 370, which requires internet companies that collect personally identifiable information to declare how they respond to Do Not Track requests. The idea is to pressure advertising networks like Google's AdSense and Facebook's FBX to be more transparent about how they track users' activity around the web. Brown's signature comes as Do Not Track's future has been called into question at the national level. Earlier this month, a key online advertising industry group pulled out of discussions to create a national Do Not Track standard. The Digital Advertising Alliance, a trade group represents advertisers, said discussions with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) had "reached the end of [their] useful life." It was the latest in a series of setbacks that has seen the W3C miss multiple deadlines to craft a final proposal for the Federal Trade Commission and Congress to review. Websites are free to ignore Do Not Track requests Discussions with advertisers over the issue began in 2011. That's when Mozilla added a feature to Firefox letting users state that they did not want websites like Google, Facebook, and Twitter tracking their activity across the web so as to better target them for advertising. Microsoft, Apple, and Google later build similar features into their own browsers. But as San Francisco Chronicle columnist James Temple notes, websites are free to ignore Do Not Track requests — and have no obligation to even let users know they are being ignored. AB 370 tries to change that by requiring companies to disclose in their privacy policies whether they honor Do Not Track requests. The idea is that to avoid being shamed, companies will begin stating officially that they will support Do Not Track. Officially, the law applies only to California — but because companies would be loath to craft state-by-state privacy policies, privacy advocates believe AB 370 will effectively become national law. And as Temple points out, if companies say they honor Do Not Track and then fail to do so, they are liable for punishment by the FTC. If the bill is incremental, it's also a sign of how quickly Do Not Track has become a mainstream idea in policy circles. And if companies begin changing their privacy policies as a result of California's move, Do Not Track may finally become a standard with teeth.

US government shuts down after Congress fails to agree on budget

The US government shut down at midnight, after House Republicans refused to budge on their effort to link the passage of the 2014 federal budget to a delay in the implementation of health care reform. When they wake up this morning, 800,000 workers — about 40 percent of the government's civilian work force — will be temporarily out of a job, while 1 million federal employees will be asked to work without pay. They actually did it. A group of Republicans in the House just forced a government shutdown over Obamacare instead of passing a real budget. — Barack Obama (@BarackObama) October 1, 2013 Attempts at last-minute dealmaking in the House and the Senate failed to produce a compromise. House Republicans are seeking to link the continued funding of government with a delay in the requirement that individuals purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare. President Barack Obama has balked at Republican demands. "One faction in one branch of government doesn't get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election," Obama said at a briefing today. Senate Democrats chose to shut down the govt rather than discuss the failures of #ObamaCare http://t.co/et83H7BbO1 #FairnessForAll — Speaker John Boehner (@SpeakerBoehner) October 1, 2013 As the reality of the shut down settles in, house Republicans and Democrats continue to blame one another for the failure to reach an agreement. Just before midnight, the Office of Management and Budget instructed federal agencies to begin shutting down. The programs that will be hardest hit by the closures include science, health, and the environment. The seasonal flu vaccine program will come to a halt while a compromise is reached, as will inspections by the Food and Drug Administration. One area that won't be affected by the shut down is military. Despite continued bickering, Republicans and Democrats alike agreed upon legislation that will see "ongoing military operations" continue. In a recorded video message to the armed forces, President Obama reassured military personnel that "Congress has passed, and I am signing into law, legislation to make sure you get your paychecks on time. And we'll continue working to address any impact this shutdown has on you and your families."

When it comes to online rape threats, Chvrches singer won't just 'deal with it'

Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry is familiar with sexism. She holds a four-year law degree and a master's in journalism; her dissertation was on how women are portrayed in the media. In her music career so far, she's found herself turning down opportunities that could have objectified her, emphasizing her femininity over her talent. But it appears that the internet has objectified her anyhow. Today, she penned an editorial in The Guardian about the rape threats she receives on the band's Facebook page, and how she came to the conclusion that no person should have to "just deal with" that kind of abuse: My current favourites from the latter category include: "This isn't rape culture. You'll know rape culture when I'm raping you, bitch" "I have your address and I will come round to your house and give u anal and you will love it you twat lol" "Act like a slut, getting treated like a sluy [sic]" "It's just one of those things you'll need to learn to deal with. If you're easily offended, then maybe the music industry isn't for you" But why should women "deal" with this? I am incredibly lucky to be doing the job I am doing at the moment – and painfully aware of the fact that I would not be able to make music for a living without people on the internet caring about our band. But does that mean that I need to accept that it's OK for people to make comments like this, because that's how women in my position are spoken to? It's certainly not news to anyone that women would be objectified in this way, particularly on the internet. And the fallout can be far worse. Objectified individuals can be only a home address from being raped in real life, or living in such fear that they flee their home. When those people speak out, things can often get worse. But that's really Mayberry's point, after all. She's in a band, true, but like other affected individuals before her, she's simply sharing her story and encouraging others to reject the status quo — to actively throw away the idea that making violent, sexist comments online should be deemed normal.

Obamacare's online health insurance exchanges open up as government shuts down

The federal government may be shut down, but one of the key provisions of health care reform is going into effect as scheduled. The Health Insurance Marketplace, which will bring health care to millions of previously uninsured Americans, is now live. Individuals can begin applying for coverage under the exchanges, with benefits beginning as soon as January 1st. Under the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, individuals are required to carry health insurance, and the exchanges help make that possible. Republicans in the House of Representatives have tried to link the passage of the 2014 budget to a delay in the requirement to purchase health insurance, leading to the standoff that resulted in tonight's shutdown.

One ruling doesn't make Airbnb sublets legal, warns New York state senator

Following Airbnb's victory in overturning a fine last week, New York state senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) has issued a public statement warning New Yorkers that the decision is an "exception that proves the rule." Krueger notes that the situation in question was unique in that there was a permanent resident still living at the apartment while an Airbnb customer stayed in one of its vacant rooms. Such situations were "never the focus of the New York law against illegal hotels," says Krueger. "The vast majority of Airbnb's business in NYC... remains unambiguously illegal." "Airbnb may have scored a PR victory with the success of this appeal, but that's all it is," the senator continues. "The vast majority of Airbnb's business in New York City — short-term rentals of apartments in residential buildings without any permanent residents present — remains unambiguously illegal." Krueger adds that by assisting "this one cherry-picked case," Airbnb presents itself as responsible and sympathetic, when in fact the company, and others like it, are putting NYC residents at risk of eviction. "Illegal short-term rentals in multi-family residential buildings impose dangers and burdens on neighbors, building owners, and visitors alike, and they further exacerbate New York City's housing crisis." "Some may call that 'paradigm-breaking' or 'disruptive,' but ultimately, it's just irresponsible and greedy." Krueger's comments make it clear that, despite last week's ruling, Airbnb won't have an easy ride moving forward. Airbnb knows the illegality of many of its members' listings, Krueger argues, but continues to put them in the "line of fire" by "recruiting them to feed its business model and participate in what is essentially a black market." She closes the fiercely worded statement saying that "some may call [Airbnb's business model] 'paradigm-breaking' or 'disruptive,' but ultimately, it's just irresponsible and greedy."

Google Drive makeover puts the focus on your work, not the interface

Google Drive just got a visual refresh that includes a toolbar tweak and shrunken headers. The changes are reflected across all of Drive's apps. The most obvious of the new additions is the inclusion of a colorful icon in the top left corner of the screen that'll take you back to your Google Drive menu. That functionality was present in earlier versions of the software, but was bafflingly hidden unless users moused over it. Drive's toolbars — previously unnecessarily large — have been trimmed to a more manageable size. As before, users can shrink these headers further with an icon in the top right, making for a nearly full-screen app.