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  • Earth Doesn't Have Be Doomed Like Atlantis ? We Can Change Course

    This story originally appeared in Slate and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    When it comes to confronting global climate change, we don't have much experience to draw on. As world leaders prepare to meet in Paris starting on November 30 to hash out a binding international agreement to limit greenhouse gases, it appears that we are in new and frightening territory, without the past as a reliable guide.

    History, however, can offer some important lessons. Archaeologists in recent years have discovered that dramatic weather events helped lay the foundations for our very civilization. Climate calamities, in fact, may have sparked the urban revolution that continues to alter the planet.

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  • You Say You Hate Black Friday. Maybe You're Just Lying to Yourself.

    Over the past five years, Black Friday has migrated steadily into Thanksgiving, with each new year bringing fresh examples of big box stores flinging their doors open on Turkey Day. But this year the trend hit the skids. Though Walmart and the other usual suspects will still open on Thanksgiving Day, many big retailers—Costco, Nordstrom, Marshalls, and Home Depot, for example—are holding the line. Outdoor superstore REI went even further, announcing that it will be closed not only on Thanksgiving, but all the way through Black Friday.

    Are consumers finally starting to get fed up with the holiday shopping hype? And what motivates some stores to close on Thanksgiving even as others rake in the cash? To find out, I called up Curt Munk, a veteran consultant for big-box retailers and head of strategy for the renowned brand agency FCB Red.

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  • Obama: We Got This. Enjoy Thanksgiving.

    Heading into the long holiday weekend, President Barack Obama assured the country Wednesday afternoon that there is no imminent threat of a terrorist attack and urged Americans to enjoy the Thanksgiving festivities.

    "Right now, we know of no specific and credible intelligence indicating a plot on the homeland," Obama said in a speech in the White House, following his meetings with French President François Hollande. Further, he promised that "in the event of a specific, credible threat, the public will be informed."

    Nearly two weeks after the ISIS attack on Paris on November 13, Obama stressed that the US military and intelligence community are doing everything they can to prevent an attack in the United States. National security and intelligence professionals "are working overtime," the president said. "They are constantly working to protect all of us."

    So, Obama concluded, "Americans should go about their usual Thanksgiving weekend activities"—and "Happy Thanksgiving, everybody."

  • Marco Rubio Is Using a Convicted Felon to Help Him Win Florida

    Earlier this month, when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) named his top campaign representatives across Florida, he tapped a conservative activist named Clyde Fabretti as one of the leaders of his presidential effort in Orange County, a key district that includes Orlando. But Fabretti, the co-founder of the West Orlando Tea Party, has a sketchy background that might not reflect well on Rubio's campaign: He is a convicted white-collar criminal with a history of questionable business dealings and associations with fraudsters. Most recently, Fabretti's name surfaced in an ongoing lawsuit by investors in a tea-party-related media startup who claim he played a role in a company that allegedly defrauded them. And records show that the 67-year-old activist may have committed voter fraud by registering to vote and casting ballots in Florida elections when his criminal record rendered him ineligible to do so.

    In 1997, Fabretti pleaded guilty to a single federal felony count of conspiracy to commit income tax evasion, bank fraud, mail fraud, and failing to file tax returns. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison and three years of probation. He was also ordered to pay more than $200,000 in restitution.

    According to the federal indictment, Fabretti used his then-wife Susan, who worked for him, to execute an elaborate scheme to defraud First Union Corporation, the banking giant that eventually merged with Wachovia and later Wells Fargo. Prosecutors charged that in 1990 Fabretti provided his wife with false documents inflating her income and assets, which she then used to obtain a loan to buy a five-bedroom, eight-bathroom mansion in Oakton, Virginia.

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  • To Protest Walmart on Black Friday, Organizers Are Seeking Food for Underpaid Workers

    The people who organized the largest-ever Black Friday demonstrations against Walmart last year are leaving their protest signs at home this year. Instead, they're launching a campaign to support 1,000 food drives around the country to help struggling Walmart workers.

    Making Change at Walmart's "Give Back Friday" campaign kicked off on Tuesday with the launch of a national TV ad campaign urging people "to help feed underpaid workers" and to "help us tell Walmart that in America no hard-working family should go hungry."

    Some Walmart stores have implicitly acknowledged that their "associates" don't make enough money to feed themselves. In 2013, a Walmart store in Ohio held a Thanksgiving food drive "for associates in need"—although well intentioned, the drive became a publicity nightmare for the retail giant after photos of the food collection bin went viral.

    Walmart raised its wages this year, but an entry-level associate still makes just $9 an hour—less than $16,000 a year based on Walmart's full-time status of 34 hours a week. (The federal poverty level is $24,250 for a family of four and $11,770 for an individual.) A 2013 report by congressional Democrats found that the company's wages and benefits are sufficiently low that many employees turn to the government for help, costing taxpayers between $900,000 and $1.75 million per store.

    "This holiday season, we have set the goal of feeding 100,000 Walmart workers and families," the union-backed group Making Change at Walmart said in a press release. "It is unconscionable that people working for one of the richest companies in this country should have to starve."

  • It's Cheaper for Airlines to Cut Emissions Than You Think

    This story originally appeared in Wired and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Fuel economy is hardwired into the airline industry's DNA. After all, fuel costs money, and using less of the stuff is an easy way to beef up the bottom line. Well...maybe not easy, but certainly worth doing. Saving fuel, by reducing carbon emissions, can help save the planet. And those cuts could come at little to no cost to the companies themselves.

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  • America?s Addiction to Prescription Pills Is Way Deadlier Than You Thought

    A troubling poll published Tuesday shows the extent of America's addiction to prescription painkillers. More than half of Americans now report a personal connection to painkiller abuse, 16 percent know someone who has died from an overdose, and 9 percent have seen a family member or close friend die.

    "It shows that the issue affects a large share [of people], over half the population," says Bianca DiJulio, associate director for public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which conducted the survey. "And half say that it should be a top priority for their lawmakers."

    Researchers spoke by phone this month with more than 1,300 people aged 18 years and older across the United States, who were selected to match the demographic makeup of the country. White Americans were the most likely to report personal experience with the abuse of prescription painkillers, which include opioids such as Vicodin and OxyContin and benzodiazepines such as Xanax. Sixty-three percent of white respondents, 44 percent of black respondents, and 37 percent of Hispanics said they had either personally abused painkillers or knew someone who had taken painkillers without a prescription, been addicted to painkillers, or died of an overdose.

    Overall, 56 percent of respondents reported a personal connection to painkiller abuse, with young and middle-aged Americans more likely to report familiarity with painkiller abuse than Americans aged 65 and older.

    Kaiser Family Foundation

    The United States is caught in "a prescription painkiller overdose epidemic," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 2 million Americans abused prescription painkillers in 2013, with 44 people dying from an overdose each day.

    Drug overdoses, including deaths from prescription drug use, were the leading cause of accidental death in the United States in 2013. Among the respondents, "half thought the leading cause of accidental deaths was car accidents," DiJulio says.

    The issue, along with rampant heroin addiction, has reached such proportions that President Barack Obama last month announced steps to increase training for doctors who prescribe painkillers and expand access to treatment for drug addicts.

    But Kaiser’s survey shows that, even as many Americans agree the government should act, there is no agreement as to how. Republicans in the survey were significantly more likely to say state governments should be in charge of responding to the epidemic, while Democrats saw this as the responsibility of the federal government.

    Kaiser Family Foundation


  • Cop Who Shot Black Teen in ?Fetal Position? Finally Charged With Murder

    The day before Chicago authorities plan to release a violent video showing the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the Chicago police officer who allegedly shot him 16 times in October 2014 will face first-degree murder charges, according to the Chicago Tribune.

    Jason Van Dyke, 37, is the first Chicago police officer to be charged with first-degree murder in nearly 35 years, according to the Tribune. Van Dyke appeared in court Tuesday to hear the charges and is scheduled to have a bond hearing Tuesday afternoon. The city of Chicago said it would release a recording of the shooting from a police car dashboard camera, which showed Van Dyke "jumping out of his squad car and within seconds unloading 16 rounds into 17-year-old McDonald," lawyers for McDonald's family told the Tribune. They added that "after the first few shots knocked McDonald to the ground, Van Dyke fired another volley that struck the teen repeatedly as his body lay in almost a fetal position on the ground."

    The police narrative of the events has been at odds with what was recorded on the video. The police have said that after responding to a report of someone trying to break into cars, they found McDonald in the street, puncturing the tires of a car with a knife. When ordered to drop the knife, the police say McDonald turned and walked away. The responding officers didn't have a Taser and called requested backup, but they followed McDonald. A second police car arrived and the two cars tried to box McDonald in. Police say he punctured one of the police cars' tires with a knife and damaged a windshield. When police got out of the car, according to initial police claims, McDonald lunged at them with a knife and Van Dyke shot him.

    But the video reportedly shows McDonald walking away when Van Dyke opens fire, and an autopsy showed that several of the bullets hit McDonald in the back. In April, the city of Chicago gave the McDonald family a $5 million settlement before they filed suit, according to the Tribune, but the city prevented the video from going public until the investigation into Van Dyke concluded. In response to a public records lawsuit filed by freelance journalist Brandon Smith, a judge last week ordered the city to release the video.

    The graphic nature of the video has city leaders preparing for protests. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called Van Dyke's actions "hideous," and asked the city's religious and political leaders to urge peaceful protests. But several leaders told the Tribune that Emanuel and the city have handled the situation poorly and that people in the community feel betrayed and angry. 

    "There is a group that is not listening to him and not listening to us either, but nevertheless we are hoping these protests and demonstrations will be peaceful," the Rev. Ira Acree, a pastor at the Greater St. John Bible Church in Chicago, told the Tribune. "But we know they are coming, because if there was no protest that would mean we've become immune to this madness."

  • Discovery Channel Is Finally Breaking Up With Bad Science

    John Hoffman is the new boss of documentaries at the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and the Science Channel, and he wants you to know big changes are coming to the networks sometimes criticized for favoring overcooked "docu-tainment" over scientifically accurate programming.

    "I am the change," he told me in his first extended interview since taking the job in January. We met at Discovery HQ in Manhattan, his corner office view only obscured by the five Emmys lining his windowsill.

    Documentary programming at the Discovery Channel—along with Animal Planet and Science Channel—is experiencing a "dramatic shift," Hoffman said. "I'm also part of a group decision, throughout the company, to bring a lot more science. To elevate the scientists in the films."

    Part of the reason I've been invited by Discovery's PR exec to interview Hoffman, I suspect, is to meet the cleanup guy. I've reported extensively about animal mistreatment behind the scenes of the Animal Planet show Call of the Wildman: A drugged endangered zebra is just one of the problems currently being investigated by the US Department of Agriculture.

    Animal Planet has also aired two documentary-style programs purporting to present evidence that mermaids are real, as well as a similar program about Bigfoot. Asked in 2012 if fake science dented the brand, Animal Planet's chief at the time, Majorie Kaplan, said "I don't think so, or I wouldn't put it on... The audience voted with their remotes."

    In 2014, Discovery's "Shark Week" aired Megalodon, a film that claimed the largest predatory shark that ever lived was still alive. (It's not.) Infuriating wildlife advocates, last year's Eaten Alive promised to show a man being swallowed whole by an anaconda. (He wasn't.) Oh, and don't forget 2012's zombie "documentary," either.

    By contrast, Hoffman is regarded as documentary aristocracy: a 17-year veteran of HBO with a record of meticulous science documentaries like The Alzheimer's Project and The Weight of the Nation, on which he partnered with leading research and advocacy groups to present definitive pictures of Alzheimer's disease and obesity, respectively. He's won a Peabody Award and two duPont-Columbia awards.

    Along with Hoffman comes a new Discovery documentary unit of five staff members, and a big budget (though he wouldn't tell me exactly how big). It's "a demonstration of Discovery's commitment to documentaries as a really important part of the schedule," Hoffman said.

    From left: Discovery's documentary boss, John Hoffman, its president and CEO, David Zaslav, "Racing Extinction" director Louie Psihoyos, and Group president Rich Ross at a screening in Manhattan Amy Sussman/AP Images for Discovery Communications, Inc.

    To reflect that investment, Hoffman said 2016's roster will be brimming with new scientific TV programs about planet Earth—films about the "ways that we're compromising the environment, and ways that we will hopefully save it"—marking a new direction for the network. He called climate change "the most important story of our time."

    That sentiment didn't always rule at Discovery. Just three years ago, the lavish and popular seven-hour series Frozen Planet, a co-production with the BBC that aired on Discovery, was widely criticized for shortchanging climate science and being skittish about the politics of the climate debate. The series producer for the BBC, Vanessa Berlowitz, told the New York Times at the time that she didn't include scientific theories behind climate change because it "would have undermined the strength of an objective documentary."

    With Hoffman's entrance, that may soon change. As his first big act on the job, Hoffman acquired Racing Extinction, a film from the Academy Award-winning director of The Cove, Louie Psihoyos. The film launches simultaneously on December 2 on Discovery channels around the world—in 220 countries and territories. At the heart of this gorgeously shot nature documentary about the next mass extinction is a precise and unflinching explanation of climate change and its devastating effects on the planet (along with some thrilling undercover stings of illegal animal traders). "Humans have become the asteroid," the film notes grimly.

    "Pretty pictures only go so far," said Hoffman's boss, Rich Ross, the new president of Discovery, Animal Planet, and Science Channel, when I met him after watching the film. At the same time, "activism without focus loses its power." The film is designed to coincide with the early days of the high-stakes UN climate summit, which begins on November 30 in Paris, where leaders will attempt to forge a new global deal to limit greenhouse gases.

    Launching alongside the film is an environmental advocacy campaign, #StartWith1Thing, which asks people to say one thing they'll change in their lives to save the planet, and then pass it on. (Hoffman's own pledge is to power-down all his devices overnight.) It's "a film which is actually a movement," said Fisher Stevens, a producer of the film, at an industry screening.

    The film is also pulling in star power to push its message. One of the pitchmen, in attendance for the Manhattan screening, is actor Paul Rudd. "There are so many things competing for our eyeballs, and most of them aren't as thought-provoking as this, or affecting in such an obvious, palpable and tangible way," Rudd told me. "The more people who see it the better."

    But the film's message is not simply about activism, says Hoffman. It's a statement to the film and media industries at large that Discovery is back in the game of producing powerful scientific films: "Racing Extinction sends a big message to a lot of people about how we're now doing business— not only to our viewers, but to the opinion makers in this country, to the entertainment community, to the directors that we want to come in our doors and bring us ideas."

    Hoffman said he knows nothing of the Animal Planet scandals I uncovered. ("I literally have no idea what that show is. What's the show?") But he said his good name in the industry is on the line. Hoffman is not simply an executive, he said. He's a filmmaker. "I bring that credibility into this job, and I need to maintain that credibility." Ratings, he said, aren't the be-all and end-all of his job. The other metrics are that a project "gets good press, gets good buzz, it gets good reviews, and five, it gets awards."

    I pushed him more: "But how do you prevent that stuff from happening?"

    In the only even remotely testy moment in our interview, Hoffman said, "Do you think for a second I am going to risk my reputation and that I'm going to do something that is a troubled documentary? That I associate the brand with either controversy, or scandal, or whatever? It's career suicide."

    "I don't want 'devil horns, I want 'halo' associated with my name," he said. " That's what I was schooled in. That is why I was hired."

    Racing Extinction airs globally on December 2.

  • Inside Anonymous' Messy Cyberwar Against ISIS

    The Saturday morning following the deadly terrorists attacks in Paris, the hacktivist network Anonymous declared war on ISIS. In a widely distributed video, a figure in a Guy Fawkes mask announced Operation Paris, or #OpParis, and promised the Islamist group that "Anonymous from all over the world will hunt you down."

    So far, Anonymous' much-hyped digital war has generated lots of headlines but not much in the way of impressive results. It's been mostly focused on identifying ISIS-affiliated websites, Twitter accounts, and internet addresses and reporting them to Twitter and other webmasters in an effort to get them shut down. Shortly after OpParis launched, Anonymous claimed to have helped get 5,500 ISIS Twitter accounts taken down, a number that ballooned to 20,000 by last Friday. An unnamed Twitter spokesperson told the Daily Dot that Anonymous's claims are "wildly inaccurate."

    "In terms of effectiveness, I think all they can do is make a small dent," says Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist and the author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. "Since they started, ISIS's online presence hasn't really shrunk or grown. It doesn't really matter if there is a small dent. ISIS, unlike Al Qaeda, has been really savvy with online propaganda." Last week, ISIS posted a message on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, calling the hacktivists "idiots" and offered an online security guide for their sympathizers. Noting that Anonymous had only gone after Twitter accounts, the message joked, "What they gonna hack?"

    And "Anons" themselves are riven by questions about whether OpParis can really deliver its promised punch. Anonymous' recent efforts to dox Ku Klux Klan members also fingered people with no ties to the hate group. And the anti-ISIS campaign has already faced similar verification problems, exposing people who have no connection to the militant group, prompting a hacker known as the Jester to pen a blog post critiquing Anonymous' efforts as "a comedy of errors." OpParis responded in a Tweet that has since been deleted:

    In an open letter, an Anon called Discordian writes that Operation Paris "has nothing to do with stopping ISIS…It's about stroking the ego of Anonymous in a desperate attempt to be relevant." Discordian goes on: "How exactly do they plan to stop an international terrorist organization that has been able to plot attacks regardless of the mass-spying by governments around the globe? Taking down their communications may disrupt valuable intelligence that can be used to track down these terrorists."

    Concern that Anonymous is potentially hindering rather than helping official counterterrorism efforts is one of the motivations behind Ghost Security Group, a collection of self-described ex-military personnel and computer security experts that splintered from Anonymous. Ghost Security Group, formerly GhostSec, now rejects the Anonymous model, in which anyone taking up the group's banner may act in its name, regardless of experience or intentions. "I've seen innocent Muslim sites being attacked, mistaken for being an ISIS site," as a result of Anonymous' activity, says a Ghost Security Group member who asks to be called DigitaShadow.

    "Their intentions are good, but the way they operate—decentralized, everybody does what they want and they all have different ideas, it makes it difficult. The government doesn't want to work with Anonymous," says DigitaShadow. Unlike Anonymous, Ghost Security Group says it cooperates with American officials so it does not get in the way of active terrorism investigations. In the wake of the Paris attacks, Ghost Security Group has been collecting Telegram channels and identifying social-media accounts and sending them to US authorities, says DigitaShadow.

    According to DigitaShadow, Ghost Security Group members in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East monitor social media and infiltrate online forums and Telegram channels to uncover intelligence on ISIS's recruitment as well as specific threats. He says Arabic speakers vet Ghost Security Group's targets to avoid mistakes. Through a combination of reporting ISIS-linked social-media accounts and distributed denial of service attacks, Ghost Security Group claims to have taken down 149 ISIS-affiliated websites, 110,000 social-media feeds, and 6,000 videos since January. (Anonymous members who still fly the GhostSec flag dispute these numbers, saying that at least half of these actions occurred when the entire group was still affiliated with Anonymous.)

    Ghost Security Group sends its findings on to Michael S. Smith II, an intermediary who says he passes the information onto US counterterrorism officials. Smith, co-founder of the security firm Kronos Advisory, tells me that his relationship with Ghost Security Group dates back to July, when the group forwarded him details about a potential terror plot in Tunisia. Ghost Security Group had uncovered information indicating that ISIS was planning to target tourists at a beach resort where an ISIS-linked militant armed with an AK-47 had gunned down 38 people just weeks earlier. It was the kind of attack, says Smith, that "would have looked like what happened in Paris, or similar to what occurred in Mumbai."

    Smith says he took that information and handed it to federal officials. Days later, more than a dozen suspects were arrested by Tunisian police. "I received explicit feedback from the officials whom I passed the information on to that the information was indeed utilized to help with that interdiction activity," Smith says. While Ghost Security Group's efforts speak to a more professional and effective organization, no government officials have publicly acknowledged the group's efforts. And Smith would not name any of the officials he has ties to.

    Some Anons take issue with the idea of assisting Western governments, even to combat a common enemy. "It seems rather foolish to me to be aiding our mortal enemies, who lock up and even torture Anons—in a fight against an evil that they themselves actually created," said a hacker called X in an interview with Tech Insider. "If the USA and Europe were willing to release our Anon POW's, and agree to stop attacking us in exchange for our rather ample assistance against ISIS, well that might be different."

    This discomfort with hacktivists building ties to officialdom has prompted some Anonymous members to scrutinize Ghost Security Group's relationship with the US government. One of them is @blackplans, who tells me via direct message on Twitter that he has been under the Anonymous banner for "more than a few years." He believes that the people behind Ghost Security Group are either taking government money or have been forced to work with the feds.

    As evidence of this theory, @blackplans cites a 2014 Joint Cyber Bulletin from the California State Threat Assessment Center and two other security agencies that describes DigitaShadow as an Anonymous-affiliated "malicious cyber actor" who targeted law enforcement and government websites, and doxed two government officials. "For him to now claim he works with the feds seems mighty odd," says @blackplans. Ghost Security Group, in a statement sent via Twitter, says, "We receive funding from our supporters only. We are not funded by any government agency whatsoever."

    Yet @blackplans also has little trust in those behind Operation Paris or Operation ISIS, which began in January in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings. On Twitter, he highlighted Operation ISIS's call for financial contributions. "See here's the kind of thing that makes me want to avoid , & . Who is behind the curtain?" he wrote. In a direct message, he noted, "Any time money and shady motives have ever touched an Anonymous op or grouping, they are permanently damaged or tainted by that association."

    A lack of accountability has long been one of the main criticisms of Anonymous, which raises the question of just how effective online vigilantes can be in fighting an enemy like ISIS. For now, the hacker war on ISIS seems to be generating more self-aggrandizing PR than actual damage.

    This article has been updated.