10 Things You Need to Know Today: December 31, 2013

Three prisoners are freed from Guantanamo, Russia boosts counter-terrorism security, and more
Russia has ramped up security in the wake of the Volgograd attacks.
Russia has ramped up security in the wake of the Volgograd attacks. (REUTERS/Sergei Karpov)

1. U.S. releases last of Uighur detainees from Guantanamo
The Defense Department on Tuesday announced that it had freed three ethnic Uighur detainees who had been captured in 2001 and held at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were transferred to Slovakia. The three were the last of 22 Uighurs, a minority Muslim group that hails from China, who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo despite the fact that the U.S. had determined they had no ties to al Qaeda or the Taliban. [New York Times]
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2. Ten states slated for drone testing
The Federal Aviation Administration has identified 10 states where drones can be tested, in a bid to integrate them into American airspace. New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Oregon were among the states chosen to host the tests, which are expected to begin in six months to determine safety standards for these aircraft. [New York Times]
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3. Train derailment causes explosions in North Dakota
A train carrying crude oil and grain derailed in eastern North Dakota, setting off a series of high-powered explosions. Investigators are still examining what caused several cars of the mile-long train to jump the track, but it appears as though another train struck the freighter. Thick black smoke from the accident could be seen for miles. [USA Today]
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4. Russia increases security in wake of bombings
After two bombings in the central Russian city of Volgograd, President Vladimir Putin ordered law enforcement officials to step up security across the country. The twin attacks have sparked fears Russia may be vulnerable to terrorism in advance of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. [Reuters]
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5. U.S. population growth slows
Population growth in the United States slowed to .71 percent in 2013, according to the Census Bureau. That’s the lowest rate since 1937, amounting to just 2.2 million new people in a 12-month period. Slower immigration is partly to blame for the decline. On Jan. 1, 2014, the Census Bureau estimates the total U.S. population will be 317,297,938. [USA Today]
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6. Robin Roberts comes out
After a difficult few years battling a host of health issues, Good Morning America star Robin Roberts thanked her family and friends for their support in a Facebook post that included a shout-out to her longtime girlfriend Amber Laign. This was the first time Roberts had publicly acknowledged that she’s gay. Introduced by mutual friends, the pair has been together for a decade. [CNN]
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7. Cholesterol levels linked to Alzheimer’s
New research suggests that having high levels of “good” cholesterol and low levels of “bad” cholesterol isn’t just good for your heart; it may also help ward off Alzheimer’s disease. The study found a link between unhealthy levels of cholesterol and amyloid protein deposits in the brain that are associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s. Researchers are hoping the findings could lead to earlier interventions to keep patients from developing the degenerative brain disease. [NBC]
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8. ESPN hires Tim Tebow
Tim Tebow says he’s still pursuing his football dreams, but that hasn’t stopped him from inking a deal with ESPN as an analyst for college football games. He will appear on SEC Nation, a Saturday morning pregame show, which will launch on Aug. 28. Tebow, who will make his debut Jan. 6 during the BCS title game, will also appear on SportsCenter and ESPN Radio. [Sports Illustrated]
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9. Life support deadline extended for Jahi McMath
The teenager declared brain-dead after a tonsillectomy can remain on life support until Jan. 7, a judge has ordered. The family of Jahi McMath has been trying to transfer her to a long-term care facility, but the hospital has refused to perform the necessary procedure to insert a feeding tube, saying it can’t ethically operate on a dead body. A judge had ruled that McMath could be taken off life support on Monday, but the deadline was extended to give McMath’s loved ones more time to find a place that would take her. [Fox]
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10. Soil pollution threatens Chinese agriculture
Chinese officials have announced that roughly eight million acres of farmland, a mass roughly the size of Maryland, should not be planted with crops because of pollution. Industrial toxins have contaminated the soil, leading many to fear that the food chain is being compromised. The government has conducted widespread soil tests in recent years, but has so far refused to reveal the results. [New York Times]

Pregnant Nurse In Fear Of Miscarriage Fired For Refusing Flu Vaccine

A woman who lives just over the border in Pennsylvania is drawing national attention for her beliefs.

When the pregnant nurse refused a flu shot, she was fired.

For the past five years, 29-year-old Dreonna Breton came to her nursing job at Lancaster General Hospital in Lancaster, Pa.

This fall, the hospital required her to get a flu shot.

“It’s frustrating to me to be forced to do something that you’re not comfortable with,” Breton said.

The mother of a 19-month-old son, she has another baby on the way.

But, in the past year, she’s had two miscarriages and is now worried about complications.

“The known risks are low. I understand that. But there are still risks,” Breton said.

She offered to wear a mask, but refused the vaccine, and that wasn’t good enough.

She was told, “You didn’t provide a medical reason. Therefore, we are terminating you unless you get the flu vaccine,” Breton said.

Her views are counter to those of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which recommends the vaccine for pregnant women, saying: “Flu vaccination is an essential element of prenatal care.  No study to date has shown an adverse consequence of flu vaccine in pregnant women or their offspring.”

A researcher at Vanderbilt agrees.

“Not only does the flu shot offer some protection to the pregnant woman, but there’s a bonus. The pregnant woman can pass some of that protection into her newborn baby,” the researcher said.

For nearly 20 years, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention have encouraged health care workers to get the vaccine.

But since only 72 percent do so, hospitals are beginning to make a vaccination a requirement.

A statement from hospital reads: “Like our requirements for TB skin testing and MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination as a condition of employment, mandatory flu immunization protects our patients, employees, and community from getting this potentially serious infection.”

“I’m not worried. I’m not worried because I know I did the right thing for me,” Breton said.

Breton says she has no intentions of taking legal action.  She simply wants the company to reconsider its policy for vaccines for pregnant employees

City Enacts Highest-In-Nation $15 Minimum Wage

As talk builds on Capitol Hill over hiking the federal minimum wage, one city in Washington state is poised to set the highest rate in the nation.

On Jan. 1, an estimated 1,600 hotel and transportation workers in SeaTac, Wash., will see their pay jump to $15 an hour, a 60 percent increase from the state’s $9.32 minimum wage.

While many workers look forward to the higher pay, employers are looking for ways to absorb the big increase in labor costs. Some plan on eliminating jobs.

“We’re going to be looking at making some serious cuts,” said Cedarbrook Lodge General Manager Scott Ostrander. “We’re going to be looking at reducing employee hours, reducing benefits and eliminating some positions.”

That’s in the short term. Eventually, those jobs and more are expected to return as the Cedarbrook Lodge looks to build an addition to the hotel. The plan is to increase revenue to offset the higher labor costs.

But not every employer is being so ambitious. One has told a trade group it is going to close one of its two restaurants, eliminating 200 jobs.

The plan has also caused Han Kim — who runs Hotel Concepts, a company that owns and manages 11 hotels in Washington state — to shelve plans to build a hotel in SeaTac. The company already has three hotels in SeaTac, and Kim and a business partner were looking to build a fourth on land they own.

“Uncertainty is bad for business, and right now we’re right in that area so we’re just putting everything on hold,” Kim said.

Opponents of the $15 minimum wage did score a legal victory late last week when a King County, Wash., judge ruled that it does not apply to any of the workers at the SeaTac airport. Superior Court Judge Andrea Darvas ruled only the Port of Seattle can set wage and other work rules at the airport. That eliminates 4,700 workers from the successful ballot initiative.

Backers of the $15 minimum wage vow to appeal the ruling up the state Supreme Court. One of the biggest supporters is Kshama Sawant, a socialist who also won her election to the Seattle City Council. She plans on making Seattle the next city to have a $15 minimum wage.

“There may be a few jobs lost here and there, but the fact is, if we don’t fight for this, then the race to the bottom will continue,” Sawant said.

Sawant is skeptical that the higher minimum wage will lead to mass layoffs. But the American Car Rental Association estimates 5 percent of low-wage jobs will be cut; and another 5-10 percent of those workers will be replaced by more experienced workers.

New Gun Laws in New York Result In 1,146 Additional Felony Charges This Year

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Laws that create criminals out of thin air are the worst kind of laws. Such is the case with recently passed gun laws in New York City.

According to a CBS New York report, there were 1,146 additional felony arrests created in 2013 due to changes in the states gun laws. From the report,

Nearly a year after passage of New York state’s new gun law, dealer sales of popular AR-15 semi-automatic rifles have ended in New York and arrest data show more than 1,000 gun possession charges in New York City were boosted from misdemeanors to felonies because of the changes.

Meanwhile, 59 people have been charged statewide with misdemeanors for possessing large-capacity magazines or having more than seven bullets loaded in a magazine, both outlawed by the law passed last January in the aftermath of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn.

It should also be noted that those more than 1,000 misdemeanors turned felonies would most likely not have even been breaking the law in most states which allow people to possess firearms without any sort of registration and freely transport firearms in their homes and, in many cases, cars and businesses.

Of course, the proponents of the new gun laws are singing the praises of the new law and their new laws and the arrests they’ve generated. Also from CBS,

“The numbers are indisputable. The SAFE Act has enabled the state to better protect New Yorkers,” said Melissa DeRosa, spokeswoman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He pushed the legislation shortly after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 first-graders and six educators dead. Police said the 20-year-old gunman used a semi-automatic rifle and 30-round magazines.

DeRosa failed to mention how arresting people for simply possessing a firearm and were not actively committing a crime makes anyone safer, but what do you expect from Cuomo’s spokeswoman?

2013: The year of ________

Defining the year in a word or two is an impossible endeavor. Critics tried anyway.
Barbara Walters found Miley to be one of the most interesting things about 2013.
Barbara Walters found Miley to be one of the most interesting things about 2013. (Facebook/Miley Cyrus)

Like every year since years were invented, it’s impossible to perfectly define the last 12 months of human existence in a convenient word or two. That didn’t stop writers from trying.

So here, in no particular order, is a short and mostly nonsensical list of a few of the ways we have already tried to proclaim 2013 the year of… something.

2013 is…

And last but not least…

NSA Can Activate Your Microphone and Camera on Your iPhone

Leaked documents now show what we all suspected: the NSA can turn your iPhone’s microphone and camera on and off without you knowing.

According to Der Spiegel’s website:

“The NSA’s ANT division develops implants for mobile phones and SIM cards. One of these is a spyware implant called “DROPOUTJEEP” — designed for the first generation of iPhones — which was still in development in 2008, shortly after the iPhone’s launch. This spyware was to make it possible to remotely download or upload files to a mobile phone. It would also, according to the catalog, allow the NSA to divert text messages, browse the user’s address book, intercept voicemails, activate the phone’s microphone and camera at will, determine the current cell site and the user’s current location, “etc.” ANT’s technicians also develop modified mobile phones, for use in special cases that look like normal, standard devices, but transmit various pieces of information to the NSA — that can be swapped undetected with a target’s own mobile phone or passed to informants and agents. In 2008, ANT had models from Eastcom and Samsung on offer, and it has likely developed additional models since.”

See leaked document below:

S3222_DROPOUTJEEP

As we reported previously, ANT specialists at the NSA’s department for Tailored Access Operations can remotely access, monitor, and manipulate data in electronics around the world.

According to the report, the NSA intercepts shipments that are ordered online and spyware is manually installed on their target’s iPhone.

The NSA claims a 100 percent success rate when it comes to implanting iOS devices with spyware, reports The Daily Dot.

Journalist and security researcher Jacob Appelbaum asks important questions in the video below.

Is Apple helping the NSA?

Mayor’s Step Son Shot and Killed by Homeowner When He Attempted Christmas Eve Burglary

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The step son of Cedar Hill, TX mayor Rob Franke, was shot and killed by a homeowner when he attempted to burglarize the home on Christmas Eve.

The suspect, identified as 31-year-old Joshua Slaven.

Slaven tried to enter the home through a bedroom window.

The homeowner armed himself and opened fire, hitting and killing Slaven.

According to ValleyCentral.com,

Chris Knox, an attorney for the homeowner, told The Dallas Morning News the intruder entered the Cedar Hill home through a bedroom window just before midnight Tuesday. Knox says the homeowner’s deadly actions were justified and “completely protected under Texas law.”

Slaven had been arrested over an incident at his home less than a month ago.

Texas continues to lead all other states for the highest number of documented defensive gun uses.

2013 – Lowest Number of Law Enforcement Deaths by Firearms Since 1887 – Yes, 1887

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We keep hearing from the anti-gunners about how gun crime is getting out of control and law enforcement officers are outgunned out on the streets. Of course, nearly all of the FBI’s crime numbers show a 20+ year low in homicide and violent crime, but why let facts get in the way?

Now we have another fact to disprove their point that “gun crime” is out of control. In 2013, the fewest number law enforcement officers since 1887 were killed by firearms.

According to the report by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund,

Firearms-related fatalities reached a 126-year low in 2013 with 33 officers shot and killed, the lowest since 1887 when 27 officers were shot and killed. After increasing dramatically in 2010 and 2011, firearms- related fatalities decreased in 2013 for the second year.

Thirty-three officers died in firearms-related incidents compared to 49 in 2012, representing a 33 percent decrease.

Handguns were the leading type of firearm used in fatal shootings of law enforcement officers in 2013. Of the 33 officer fatalities, 58 percent were shot and killed with a handgun.

As the report also points out, most shooting deaths were committed by suspects armed with handguns. This further disproves the fact that officers are regularly facing suspects armed with semi-automatic rifles which are most often the target of gun ban legislation.

Traffic related fatalities were the leading cause of death among law enforcement officers in 2013.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the officers who died in the line of duty in 2013 as well as their friends, families and colleagues.

33 Fascinating Things We Learned About Ourselves From Polls This Year

Chances are, you think the country is on the wrong track and are worried about terrorist attacks. And there’s a 1-in-10 shot you look at your phone during sex.
Apparently, we Americans consider this relaxing.
Apparently, we Americans consider this relaxing. (Elsa/Getty Images)

How are we feeling?
Pretty glum. In November, 70 percent of Americans said the country was “on the wrong track,” the highest number in two years (ABC/The Washington Post), and 42 percent expect the economy to get worse in the next 12 months (NBC/The Wall Street Journal). 54 percent say they’ve felt little or no economic improvement since the 2008 financial crisis (ABC/The Washington Post), and 29 percent think the economy will never fully recover (Rutgers University). That sense of pessimism extends overseas. 70 percent say the U.S. is losing respect internationally, and 53 percent believe America plays a less important role in the world than a decade ago. 52 percent say the U.S. should mind its own business and try to stay out of other nations’ affairs (Pew Research Center).

Who do we blame for America’s problems?
Politicians. 59 percent of voters disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the economy, and60 percent don’t like how he’s dealt with health care (Quinnipiac). Even young Americans are souring on the president, with 54 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds saying they’re unhappy with his performance (Harvard University). Voters aren’t frustrated with Obama alone — only 9 percentapprove of the way Congress is doing its job, the lowest number in 39 years (Gallup), and 60 percent would like to replace every single senator and representative (NBC/The Wall Street Journal). To get better politicians, though, we may need better voters. 55 percent say most Americans are guided by their emotions, not facts, when they vote (Rasmussen).

How has society changed?
We’re more open-minded. A record 63 percent say it is “morally acceptable” for unmarried people to have sex, 59 percent have no moral objections to gay relationships, and for the first time a majority of Americans — 58 percent — favor legalizing marijuana (Gallup). But we’re troubled by technology’s effect on the nation. 59 percent say the internet and social media are making Americans ruder (Weber Shandwick), and 69 percent think we’re too distracted by our gadgets (Harris Interactive). Evidence suggests they’re right. 49 percent of adults and 43 percent of teenagers admit to texting while driving even though they know it’s unsafe (AT&T/USA Today). 33 percent of smartphone owners say they’ve used their device during a dinner date. 9 percent admit to looking at their phones during sex (Jumio/Harris Interactive).

How do we relax?
We watch a lot of sports. Pro football is by far America’s favorite sport, with 48 percent of sports fans saying they closely follow events on the gridiron, compared with 11 percent who are devoted to pro basketball and 7 percent to Major League Baseball (Public Religion Research Institute). 84 percent of football fans say their viewing pleasure hasn’t been affected by growing scientific evidence that hard hits can leave players permanently brain damaged (HBO/Marist).

What are we scared of?
A lot. 66 percent worry about a terrorist attack on their community (Reuters/Ipsos), and 55 percent fear that a mass shooting might happen in their area (ABC News/The Washington Post). For many, Washington is what keeps them up nights. 53 percent think the government threatens their personal rights and freedoms (Pew Research Center), while 36 percent of Americans, including 62 percent of Republicans, suspect the Obama administration is secretly plotting to seize everyone’s guns (Public Policy Polling). Despite our fear of the feds, 56 percent approve of drone aircraft being used to kill suspected foreign terrorists on U.S. soil (Fox News). But there are limits to the powers we’re prepared to grant flying robots. An overwhelming 72 percent oppose using drones to monitor motorists and issue speeding tickets (Monmouth University).