12-7-19 How robocalls became America's most prevalent crime
Today, half of all phone calls are automated scams. Is there any way to stop this incessant bombardment? Here's everything you need to know:
- Why so many robocalls? Automated telephone calls might be America's most prevalent form of lawbreaking, with more than 180 million such calls every day. A 2009 law that banned unsolicited, prerecorded telemarketing has failed to stem the explosion of calls seeking to steal information or scare people into scams.
- How do robocallers work? Two inventions are behind the robocall scourge. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) dialing — the technology used by apps like Skype — lets scammers place millions of calls a day, costing just $0.006 per minute if a call is answered. The other breakthrough is "neighborhood spoofing," which disguises robocalls to appear on caller ID with the same area code as the number being dialed, instead of an 800 number or distant area cod
- What are common scams? Many Americans have been called by a fake Social Security Administration representative, who claims that the recipient's Social Security number is compromised, asks for the number, and then uses it to commit identity theft.
- Does anyone fall for them? Only a small number of people do, but a lousy yield is still highly profitable. For all the millions of New Yorkers who hung up on the Social Security scam this year, by October, 523 suckers had lost $5.8 million, police said.
- Are robocalls policed? The FTC blocked more than a billion illegal robocalls in June, but meaningful enforcement can still seem hopeless. Robocallers now place calls from a huge volume of numbers to avoid detection.
- Can robocalls be stopped? Adding your number to the federal Do Not Call registry is moderately effective for avoiding traditional telemarketers but useless for escaping fraudulent robocalls.
- The king of the robocall: Adrian Abramovich lived in one of Miami's gated oceanside communities in a house filled with art and posters from Scarface and Goodfellas. The house doubled as the office from which Abramovich, an Argentine immigrant, allegedly made 96,758,223 illegal robocalls over three months in 2016.
12-7-19 North America’s first English settlers were unlucky scientists
The first English people to settle permanently in the Americas included early scientists, known as “chymists”, who battled hunger and disease in an ill-fated bid to find gold. In the early 17th century, the English were eager to explore and exploit North America. It had been just over 100 years since Columbus’s first transatlantic voyages, and during that time, the Spanish had removed large quantities of gold and silver from South and Central America. The English failed to find gold – but while this has previously been put down to a lack of skill, it turns out geology was to blame. A team led by Umberto Veronesi at University College London and Marcos Martino´n-Torres at the University of Cambridge has just completed an analysis of 400-year-old scientific equipment unearthed at Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. The team studied fragments that came from crucibles – vessels in which rock samples can be heated and melted to analyse their chemistry and reveal valuable metals and minerals – and examined the residues stuck to the interior walls. It found a number of different chemicals, suggesting that the Jamestown chymists analysed a variety of rocks and experimented with different chemical additives in an effort to work out how to extract the maximum amount of gold or silver. The crucible residues also suggest the settlers might have succeeded in making brass – a useful copper and tin alloy. But there were no rich mineral deposits near Jamestown, and the small quantities of precious metals and alloys the chymists did recover failed to impress their financial backers in England. They were accused of idleness and incompetence – a label that stuck even into the 20th century, says David Givens, director of archaeology at the Jamestown Rediscovery project.
12-6-19 Was Trump chosen by God?
Was President Trump chosen by God to lead our nation? asked Jay Parini. In a recent interview with Fox News, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said he believes—and told Trump personally—that the president is “the chosen one,” sent to achieve the Lord’s will. This belief has spread like “a strange virus” among other evangelical Trump supporters. They contend that God often uses imperfect men to achieve his aims, such as the biblical King David, an adulterer. As a practicing Christian and son of a Baptist minister, I nonetheless find Trump to be an odd choice to further Jesus Christ’s message of love, forgiveness, and selflessness. Jesus asked us “to curb our anger, not even to hold a grudge.” He insisted that “one cannot serve two masters, God and money,” and that “we should treat others as we wish ourselves to be treated.” Does this sound like Trump? He embodies rage, vengeance, greed, dishonesty, and cruelty. Proclaiming Trump as “the chosen one,” moreover, implies that all world leaders are chosen by God, including Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Ayatollah Khamenei. True Christians know that our world is “a deep mystery,” and that only the arrogant think they know “what the Divine has in mind.”
12-6-19 Health care is eating the economy
It’s conventional wisdom that middle-income Americans are feeling squeezed, but most explanations pass over the most important reason, said Robert Samuelson: health-care costs. Many of the Democratic presidential candidates’ policies—such as Medicare for All, free college tuition, subsidies for child care—come with good intentions, but they don’t address the elephant in the room. Our uncontrolled medical spending is crowding out almost everything else. In the early 1960s, “health spending was about 2 percent of federal outlays.” Now it is one-third. Health-care spending makes up 18 percent, or almost one-fifth, of our entire economy. “Imagine what we could do if U.S. health spending had been held to, say, 12 percent of GDP. We’d have $1.2 trillion to spend on other things.” Ironically, much of the Democrats’ rhetoric about how health care is “right” turns out to be “self-defeating and ultimately undesirable.” It makes almost any effort to curb spending subject to attack as “cruel or immoral.” If the government can’t cut health spending, it reduces “spending on other programs, raises taxes, or bloats deficits.” These effects are felt keenly by middle-income and poor Americans, because medical costs consume more of their incomes. And if we can’t stabilize those costs, “expect the squeeze to continue indefinitely.”
12-6-19 How Europe pays for its welfare state
Some Democratic presidential candidates “insist that America could afford a European-style welfare state if only it taxed the rich more heavily,” said The Wall Street Journal. But a close look at Europe’s taxation policies shows that countries have “learned the hard way that the rich aren’t rich enough to pay for their entitlements,” and balance their budgets by heavily dunning the middle class. Germany, for example, imposes a 42 percent rate on married households earning $124,000, whereas in the U.S., such a couple pays 22 percent. Sweden’s top rate of 55 percent kicks in with individual earnings as low as $47,000, and in the U.K., taxpayers earning just $64,000 pay a 40 percent rate. Governments also slap workers with hefty payroll taxes they call “social insurance contributions” that are far higher than America’s Social Security and Medicare deductions, and impose a Value Added Tax of 21 percent on all consumer purchases, regardless of a buyer’s income. As a result, Europe’s tax system takes more than half of most people’s wages and is far less progressive than the U.S.’s. Beware politicians who claim they can finance free college, day care, and health care for all by taxing billionaires. “The middle class will pay, because that’s where the real money is.” (Webmaster's comment: But it works so well. People are better off and happier in Europeon Welfare States than people in the United States.)
12-6-19 U.S. refugee admissions flatline
The U.S. admitted zero refugees in October, the first time that’s happened in nearly three decades, The Washington Post reported last week. The Trump administration effectively halted admissions while it delayed approving a refugee ceiling for the 2020 fiscal year. In the meantime, hundreds of flights to the U.S. were canceled for approved refugees, some of whom saw their eligibility expire as the moratorium dragged on. The new refugee ceiling will allow 18,000 admissions this year, an all-time low. In addition to refugees, other legal immigrants face new hurdles. During Trump’s first two years in office, denials of H1Bs—the most common visa for skilled workers and a frequent target of immigration hard-liners—more than doubled, as did wait times for citizenship.
12-6-19 Ignoring the fears of ethnic minorities
Germany’s ethnic minorities are quietly seething, said Ferda Ataman. Just a few weeks after a neo-Nazi tried to shoot up a synagogue on Yom Kippur and ended up killing two passersby, the main theme in the media is that many Germans feel political correctness is threatening their freedom of speech—specifically, their right to use racist terms. Hate crimes rose 20 percent from 2017 to 2018, and in the east, voters are throwing their support behind far-right, xenophobic parties who want to expel anyone who isn’t an ethnic German. In response, pundits reach out to these white voters to try to understand what’s driving them to embrace extremists, but they don’t ask minorities—including Asian-Germans, Turkish-Germans, Afro-Germans—how we feel about this scary trend. They lump us together as outsiders, when many of us are third-generation Germans. Germany is our native land, where our grandparents worked, paid taxes, died, and yet many of us have a “Plan B” for fleeing if it all comes crashing down. It’s not fair: We don’t want to leave. Minority Germans are model citizens, well-behaved and not prone to marching in the streets, but make no mistake: “They are angry. I am angry.” And we will make our anger known at the ballot box.
12-6-19 Let us love one another?
The Christmas Parade in Troy, Tenn., has been canceled, after the inclusion of a “Love Everybody” float. Float creator Dwight Tittle, 47, said he was inspired by the Bible’s exhortation “Let us love one another.” But since his float includes an LGBT rainbow, threats and complaints led to the town canceling the parade due to “scheduling conflicts.”
12-6-19 Trump's food stamp cuts are cruel politics and bad economics
The move will hurt hundreds of thousands of Americans and hamstring a critical recession response mechanism. On Wednesday, the Trump administration made a unilateral policy change to cut back the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as food stamps, with the result being that hundreds of thousands of Americans who previously received the benefits will now be ineligible. In the grand scheme, this isn't that surprising: The Republican Party has tried again and again to cut SNAP and the rest of the anti-poverty safety net — most recently under the guidance of former Republican Speaker of the House and "serious wonk" Paul Ryan. What is noteworthy is that President Trump was supposed to herald a different kind of Republican Party: more skeptical of elites, more sympathetic to the hard-working "forgotten" people. That GOP efforts to strip struggling Americans of aid have continued or even increased in intensity under Trump simply throws the destructiveness of this obsession into particularly sharp relief. Let's begin with the basic policy and economics. SNAP is one of the country's most important safety net programs, providing aid to roughly 40 million people per month in 2018, and considerably more in the depths of the last recession. Under current law, able-bodied adults without children or other dependents are already limited to receiving SNAP benefits for three months every three years, though they can receive them for longer if they are either working or in training programs. More important for our purposes here, states are also able to get waivers from the federal work requirements to allow those specific recipients to stay on the program longer when unemployment is higher. The amount of waivers issued jumped after the 2008 crisis, but is now back to its pre-crisis norm.
12-6-19 West Virginia prison staff suspended over Nazi salute
Several US prison employees have been suspended after a photo emerged showing training class participants giving what appears to be a Nazi salute. The image shows employees at the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation making the gesture below a sign that reads "Hail Byrd!", referring to a class instructor. State Governor Jim Justice has called for the employees to be fired. Officials have also informed faith and community leaders about the photo. It shows around 30 blurred faces and appears to have been recently shot for the state's "Basic Training Class #18". The photo does not include names of the employees and the location is not known. The class reportedly took place from 21 October to 27 November. The text referred to a class leader, the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety said. "I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class #18 in the strongest possible terms," Governor Jim Justice told The Washington Post. "I have directed Secretary Jeff Sandy of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety to continue actively investigating this incident, and I have ordered the termination of all those that are found to be involved in this conduct." In a letter to employees at the facility, Mr Sandy said that several people had already been suspended. "It is distasteful, hurtful, disturbing, highly insensitive and completely inappropriate," he said. "It betrays the professionalism I have seen time and time again displayed and practiced by our brave correctional employees." The department had informed faith leaders and community leaders of the photo, Mr Sandy added. "We have asked for their help to address it effectively, including with recommended changes or additions to our training programs," he wrote.
12-6-19 Wedding planning websites curb promotion of US plantation venues
Four major US wedding planning websites will restrict the promotion of venues that idealise former slave plantations. Pinterest, the Knot Worldwide and Brides said they would limit plantation advertisements, in some cases removing adjectives that romanticise the venues such as "charming" or "elegant". Planning platform Zola has removed all the listed plantations from its site. The changes follow calls from civil rights group Color of Change to bar the promotion of plantations outright. "The decision to glorify plantations as nostalgic sites of celebration is not a compassionate one for the black women and justice-minded people who use your site," the organisation wrote in a letter to Zola executives, according to BuzzFeed News, which first reported the changes. "In fact, 'classic,' 'elegant,' and 'glamorous,' are just a few of the tags that your site uses to describe the places where many of your readers' ancestors were tortured and stripped of their most fundamental rights," Color of Change wrote. These plantations - scattered across the American South - remain, for many, a painful reminder of the country's legacy of slavery and racism. At the height of slavery, the National Humanities Center estimates that there were over 46,000 plantations stretching across the southern states. But they have also become a popular choice for weddings. A simple web search for "plantation weddings" will call up venues in Louisiana, South Carolina and Virginia promising "beautiful backdrops" featuring "columned mansions" and "moss-covered oaks". An enduring source of controversy, the modern use of slavery plantations has been the source of heightened debate in recent years. A post on Reddit in September asking if it was reasonable to skip a best friend's wedding because it was held on a plantation received over 1,000 comments on both sides of the argument.
12-6-19 What happens when governments crack down on scientists just doing their jobs?
Human rights take a back seat when state leaders try to control the narrative. On a sunny day in March 2016, Turkish forensic physician Sebnem Korur Fincanci drove into Cizre, a town in southeastern Turkey. The government had just lifted a 79-day curfew meant to help the Turkish military rout out members of the separatist PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Turkey has long fought to keep insurgents from creating a separate Kurdish country, and has designated the PKK as a terrorist organization. Like most people outside of Cizre, Fincanci had no idea what had transpired during the lockdown. She arrived to a devastated city. The air, she says, smelled of burnt flesh. Houses were riddled with bullet holes, the furniture inside burned or bashed with sledgehammers. Residents led her to three bombed-out buildings. Fincanci entered one and saw within the basement rubble a jawbone and a pair of eyeglasses. She could immediately tell that the jawbone was a child’s. Fincanci had not brought her forensic tools. She had assumed that this visit was preliminary, a time to talk with Cizre residents about their medical needs. So, she snapped pictures of the bone, the glasses and the surrounding debris with her cell phone. Residents later confirmed that the building had been home to a young family. A few days later, Fincanci wrote a report and posted it on the website of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, a volunteer organization she helped found in 1990. She also sent the report to Turkey’s internal affairs office. Fincanci wrote that the military had committed atrocities against innocent civilians. She demanded a full investigation. Instead, in June 2016, the government charged her with spreading terrorist propaganda. “I was arrested and sent to prison,” Fincanci says.
12-5-19 William Barr is shockingly clear about his authoritarianism
William Barr, the top federal law enforcement officer in the United States, is fast becoming the nation's chief advocate for an authoritarian vision of American government. First came his October 11 speech at the University of Notre Dame in which the attorney general embraced a deeply anachronistic vision of religion in American public life. It was a story of a morally upstanding Republican majority upholding biblically based Judeo-Christian piety and righteousness against an aggressive minority faction of liberals and progressives who use positions of cultural and political power to impose an agenda of moral relativism on the nation. As Ross Douthat, a religious conservative himself, pointed out in a critical column on the speech, this construal of the American scene distorted reality in multiple ways. What Douthat didn't say is that, by seeking to convince religious conservatives that they have the American majority on their side and that it's crucially important for the future of American democracy that this side prevail in its battle against godless relativists, Barr was providing a justification for using all the powers of the federal government to bring about that outcome. Five weeks later came Barr's even more alarming speech to the conservative legal group The Federalist Society. Here he described the presidency (and because of that, American self-government itself) as under siege by Congress and the courts. The greatest achievement of the American constitutional framers, he claimed, was the creation of a strong, independent, and unitary executive. And yet the liberals and progressives in charge of these other branches of government do everything in their power to hobble and weaken the presidency, which should, and will, do everything it can to reaffirm its distinctive powers and prerogatives.
12-5-19 50 years ago, income inequality was severe in the U.S. It still is
Over the last half century, the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the United States has persisted. The share of the total national income going to the poorest 20 percent of the [United States] has increased very little in the past 20 years … only from 5.1 to 5.4 percent … between 1947 and 1967. The proportion of the low-earning group that is nonwhite has remained at about 21 percent, which is more than twice the proportion of nonwhite families in the country as a whole. And census figures reveal that a greater proportion of the bottom fifth … reside in the South. There’s still a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots in the United States. In 2018, the lowest-earning fifth of the population earned only about 3 percent of the nation’s total income, while the highest-earning fifth raked in about 52 percent. Income disparities between racial groups have also endured, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In 2018, the average income was about $87,200 for Asian American households, $70,600 for white households, $51,500 for Hispanic households and $41,400 for black households. Poverty rates follow a similar trend: about 10.1 percent of Asian, 8 percent of white, 17.6 percent of Hispanic and 20.8 percent of black households fell below the poverty line, in which a household’s income isn’t enough to meet the family’s basic needs. America’s poorer populations are still concentrated in the South. In 2018, residents of the Northeast, West and Midwest earned an average $70,100, $69,500 and $64,100, respectively. Those in the South earned a substantially lower $57,300. Southern communities also suffer higher poverty rates — about 13.6 percent in 2018, compared with 10.3, 11.2 and 10.4 percent in the Northeast, West and Midwest, respectively. And those regional contrasts could become more severe with climate change (SN: 6/29/17).
12-4-19 Altruism 2.0: How to use science to make charitable acts go further
Effective altruists use evidence and reason to maximise the impact of their kindness. Joshua Howgego follows their lead to see if it can help him do good better. THE Athena Hotel in Blackpool, UK, looks like any ordinary seaside guest house. Behind the net curtains, it is anything but. The guests, who typically stay for months, have been selected because they share a common mission, one so important that they can’t waste precious time cooking, doing laundry or holding down a normal job. They have come to Blackpool to save the world. This is the world’s first hotel for “effective altruists”, people who take an evidence-based approach to helping others. It was purchased in 2018 with the proceeds of a cryptocurrency investment to allow data-driven philanthropists to dedicate themselves to improving and saving as many lives as possible. And yes, Blackpool was chosen for a reason. The 17-room hotel was a bargain at £130,000, freeing up the proprietor’s cash to subsidise the various projects being pursued. When I first read about this place, I felt a twinge of guilt. Like many of us, I like to think I am a good person. I spend a few evenings a month volunteering with a charity that helps people with debt problems. I give money to my church. And I buy the occasional sandwich for homeless people. Learning about the hotel made me wonder if I could do good better. Investigating how turned out to be a discombobulating experience. My principles were challenged in ways I never expected, and I ended up pondering some bizarre questions, not least how to think about the future of humanity. One thing is for sure: doing good is more complicated than you might think.The origins of effective altruism can be traced to a thought experiment devised in the 1970s by philosopher Peter Singer. Imagine you walk past a shallow pond and see a child drowning. Should you wade in and save the infant, even though it means getting your clothes muddy? Most people will answer yes in a split second. But if we do it in this case, Singer argued, why wouldn’t we do the same for people dying of malaria or from unsafe drinking water or any other of the easily preventable poverty-related conditions that persist in parts of the developing world?
12-4-19 Science's fake news problem: How funding pressures drive bad research
CLAIMS of “fake news” within the UK Houses of Parliament are nothing new. This time, however, the charge has been laid not at the door of politicians, but of scientists. And it was scientists themselves making the claims. They came at a meeting I attended last week where the British Neuroscience Association (BNA) launched a fightback against bad science with its “Credibility in Neuroscience” campaign. The problem isn’t just that some findings turn out to be wrong. It is, after all, the point of science to be constantly questioning, testing and refining hypotheses. The BNA campaign claims that the entire structural edifice of academia now encourages mistakes to be made. This starts with well-meaning efforts by managers and funders to judge researchers’ productivity. That is done by gauging how many papers they write and the prestige of the journals that publish them, as quantified by their “impact factor” – basically, an average of how often the papers they publish are cited by other papers. Researchers’ publication records increasingly govern every aspect of their career success, including pay rises, future jobs and funding for new projects. In this “publish or perish” culture, it is in their interests to produce a blizzard of papers that are groundbreaking and flashy, so as to get published in high-impact journals. With an eye to maintaining their impact factor, journals are incentivised to publish such papers, rather than ones that, for example, describe attempts to replicate others’ work. The resulting system is the antithesis of how good science should be done, namely by tackling questions in a thoughtful and systematic way and by testing and retesting any unexpected result in different labs and circumstances. Prime evidence of how bad things have become is the replication crisis in psychology, where doubts have been raised over classic findings such as priming, the idea that behaviour can be changed by subtle, unconscious cues. In psychiatry, a review published this year called into question two decades of work on a link between depression and a gene affecting the brain chemical serotonin. “It wasn’t just that people said it mattered and it didn’t, it’s that we built whole castles in the air on it mattering,” said psychologist Dorothy Bishop of the University of Oxford at the BNA event.
12-4-19 France anti-Semitism: Jewish graves defaced with Nazi swastikas
More than 100 graves at a Jewish cemetery in France have been defaced with Nazi swastikas in the latest in a wave of anti-Semitic attacks. Vandals spray-painted the gravestones in the eastern town of Westhoffen, near Strasbourg, days after another incident in a nearby village. In response, President Emmanuel Macron said France would fight anti-Semitism "until our dead can sleep in peace". France is home to a Jewish community of about 550,000 - the biggest in Europe. "Jews are and make France," Mr Macron said in a tweet on Tuesday evening. "Those who attack them, even in their graves, are not worthy of the idea we have of France," he said. France's north-eastern Alsace region, on the border with Germany, has been marked by a series of anti-Semitic acts in recent months. Chief Rabbi Haïm Korsia said he was "outraged and horrified to learn of the desecration of yet another cemetery in Alsace". As well as swastikas, the number 14 was used, a slogan linked to a white supremacist slogan. The prefect of the Bas-Rhin region, Jean-Luc Marx, visited the site to express his support for the Jewish community. The Westhoffen cemetery houses about 700 graves, including those of several relations of former Prime Minister Léon Blum, France's first Jewish leader before and shortly after World War Two. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, on a visit to the cemetery on Wednesday, said the attack was "an expression of pure hatred" and announced the creation of police taskforce against hate. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe expressed "revolt and disgust at the anti-Semitic inscriptions in two communes of Bas-Rhin", adding: "The perpetrators of these acts must be found and punished." Last week, anti-Semitic tags were daubed on the walls of the town hall in Rohr, not far from Westhoffen. Jewish officials said one of the slogans in the attack on Rohr appeared to refer to the Jewish cemetery at Westhoffen. Another town hall was attacked in the Bas-Rhin area in April, while in February, Nazi symbols and anti-Semitic slogans were spray-painted on more than 90 graves in the Alsace village of Quatzenheim. (Webmaster's comment: The Nazis are back! Death camps will soon follow!)
12-3-19 'English Only': The movement to limit Spanish speaking in US
There are an estimated 41 million Spanish speakers in the US and that number is increasing. Yet there is also a small but vocal movement to restrict the spread of Spanish. "This is a country where we speak English. It's English. You have to speak English!" Donald Trump often said during his 2016 US presidential campaign. The then presidential candidate made this point to cater to his supporters but he also used it as a strategy against some of his adversaries in the race for Republican Party nomination. One particular target was rival and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who sometimes expressed himself in Spanish. Mr Trump's tough approach to immigration paid off among sectors of the electorate that somehow share his opinion that "in the States United you have to speak English". However, Mr Trump's demand has no legal basis: the US has no official language. Videos on social networks show people criticising others for speaking Spanish in public places. The message of these videos is clear. If you are in this country, you have to speak its language. Those viral attacks generally do not occur against tourists who speak Dutch, French or Italian, for example. They are usually directed against people who speak Spanish and who, because of their work or simply because of their physical appearance, are classified as immigrants. "These reactions against people who speak Spanish are probably not new," Heidi Beirich, a researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), tells BBC Mundo. "But Donald Trump unleashed feelings that were not expressed publicly so often before." The SPLC monitors hate groups in the US, which they define as any organisation that - based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities - has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.
12-3-19 Malaysian minister criticises 'obscene, half naked' tattoo show in Kuala Lumpur
A Malaysian minister has called a tattoo exhibition "obscene" and ordered an investigation after pictures of half-naked men and women went viral. The minister for tourism, arts and culture said that while a permit was issued, there was no green light for any form of nudity at the event. Mohammadin Ketapi said the show "was not Malaysian culture...the majority of Malaysians are Muslim". Recently, there has been more debate about Islamic conservatism in Malaysia. The Tattoo Malaysia Expo drew participants from some 35 countries and was held over the weekend in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The show has taken place since 2015, but only this year drew criticism from the government, which announced "firm action" against the organisers. "It is impossible for the ministry to approve of any programme that contains obscenity such as this," Mr Ketapi said in a statement. Pictures showed heavily-tattooed participants in semi-nude poses. Malaysian media blurred some of the images. Mr Ketapi said: "We will wait for the full investigation report and will not hesitate to take legal action if they are found to have been in violation of set conditions." Around 60% of Malaysia's 32 million people are Muslim, and critics say the country has been moving towards more religious conservatism. A religious court this year sentenced five men to jail, caning and fines for attempting gay sex. In 2018, two women were caned for lesbian sex in the conservative state of Terengganu.
12-3-19 Louis van Amstel says teacher 'bullied his son for having two dads'
A substitute teacher has been sacked from a school in Utah after allegedly berating the adopted son of Dancing With The Stars professional Louis van Amstel for having gay parents. Mr van Amstel accused the teacher of bullying his 11-year-old, who he is in the process of adopting. The teacher asked the class what they were thankful of for Thanksgiving. The boy said he was thankful for "being adopted by his two dads", according to Mr van Amstel. In response, the teacher allegedly said "that's nothing to be thankful for" and gave the class a lecture about homosexuality, Mr van Amstel said. The teacher has been fired by Kelly Services, the subcontracting company that hired her. Mr van Amstel, 47, vented his anger over the incident at a school in Cedar Hills, south of Salt Lake City, in a series of social media posts. The teacher, according to Mr van Amstel, told the boy that "two men living together is a sin". "The substitute teacher was giving her very clear opinion that two men is wrong, homosexuality is wrong," Mr van Amstel said. Three girls asked the teacher to stop, but when she did not, they complained to the principal, Mr van Amstel said. As the teacher was escorted from the school, she "continued to argue her point", school officials told Mr van Amstel. A spokesman for the Utah school district said "appropriate action has been taken". In a statement, Kelly Services said: "We are concerned about any reports of inappropriate behaviour and take these matters very seriously. "We conducted an investigation and made the decision to end the employee's relationship with Kelly Services."
12-3-19 Pisa rankings: Why Estonian pupils shine in global tests
Estonia is Europe's newest education powerhouse. It outperforms the major European economies, including the UK, in influential global education tests. These Pisa tests measure the ability of 15-year-olds to apply their skills and knowledge to real-life problem-solving in reading, maths and science. The OECD has run the tests since 2000, and most middle and higher income countries take part. The latest results are published on Tuesday. In the Pisa results published in 2016, Estonia came third in science while the UK was ranked 15th, and in reading Estonia was ranked sixth - far above the UK's 22nd place. UK spending on education is relatively high compared to the average across larger economies, but the same is not true of this small Baltic state. Estonia has made high quality early years education a priority. It's drop-off time at Kelmikula kindergarten in the capital, Tallinn. Mums Kristin Talvik and Elvira Uustalu both have six-year-old children in the oldest group. That means they'll start compulsory schooling next year at the age of seven, so parents rely on kindergarten to get them ready. "It's very important because learning will be so fast. He'll need to ask teachers questions, raise his hand, be brave" says Kristin. "The most important thing is that he is socially ready." Almost every child in Estonia comes to Kindergarten from the age of three, or even earlier. Parents have to make a contribution, but it is capped as a proportion of the minimum wage. So, for these Tallinn mums Kristin and Elvira, that means up to €80 (£70, $90) a month per child.
12-2-19 Amazon pulls Auschwitz-themed Christmas ornaments
Amazon has withdrawn a range of "Christmas ornaments" displaying images of a former concentration camp that sellers had posted on its website. The move followed a tweet from Poland's Auschwitz Memorial calling on the retailer to remove the "disturbing and disrespectful" merchandise. It included Christmas tree decorations, a bottle opener and a mouse-pad. All displayed scenes from the Nazi death camp where mass killing was conducted in World War Two. The Christmas merchandise featured images from Auschwitz including the railway line leading to its infamous gates, the barbed wire fences and the buildings where it housed victims - mainly Jews. The memorial and museum later posted an update to say the items had been removed and thanked social media users for their "activity and response" after the post attracted thousands of retweets. But later Auschwitz Memorial posted again to say "sadly, it's not over yet". It said it had found a "disturbing online product" from another seller - a computer mouse-pad bearing the image of a freight train used for deporting people to the concentration camps. Amazon said the "products in question have been removed". "All sellers must follow our selling guidelines and those who do not will be subject to action, including potential removal of their account," the company added. (Webmaster's comment: The Neo-Nazis are everywhere, even in our Christmas items.)
12-1-19 Cambodia's first gay dance company
Prumsodun Ok is a choreographer and founder of Cambodia's first gay dance company. He performs Khmer dance, an ancient dance form with roots in Buddhism, Hinduism and animist practices in the region. Khmer dance used to be performed by both men and women, but over the last few centuries has become associated mainly with female dancers. Prumsodun wants to revive male Khmer dancing - as well as use it as an expression of LGBT identity in Cambodia.