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Every so often, storytellers land on the same idea at the same time in a way that rattles the zeitgeist like an earthquake.

That's how it felt, sifting through the well-crafted, emotionally exhausting scenes that fill HBO's version of The Normal Heart. Created as a searing, tragic look at the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York City, this TV movie joins the Oscar-winning film Dallas Buyer's Club and Peabody-winning documentary How to Survive a Plague as a trio of excellent works documenting this country's shameful first reaction to the spread of a mysterious disease that ravaged marginalized communities across America.

When I asked How to Survive a Plague director David France why right now felt like a good time to peel back 30 years of history, he talked about time.

Specifically, he said the storytellers who lived through those times needed some distance before they could handle talking about what they experienced; when the director first tried to talk with activists for his film, many of them still couldn't speak easily. Even France, an openly gay journalist who covered the emerging AIDS crisis before it had a name, admitted he initially had trouble pushing himself to relive the days when too many friends died too soon and the world didn't seem to care.

One look at HBO's The Normal Heart shows why. The story centers on Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a writer and gay activist with a reputation for heated passion and baldfaced commentary; a not-so-thinly veiled version of the gay author and activist who created the play and wrote this film's screenplay, Larry Kramer.

We meet Weeks in 1981 as the goofy, undersexed man out during a wild weekend at Fire Island, the Long Island area vacation destination for gay men. He's already drawn ire for writing that the promiscuity of gay men makes love impossible; we see Weeks wander through the unbridled hedonism of the Island like a tourist too scared to jump into a cold stream.

Ironically, that reserve may have saved his life. Cute-as-a-button Glee alum Jonathan Groff plays the first among Weeks' friends to get sick; within months, cases are piling up at the offices of Dr. Emma Brookner, seemingly the only physician in New York who takes this epidemic seriously.

Played with a decided lack of glamour by Julia Roberts, Brookner is passionate and blunt as Weeks, unable to use her legs after a childhood bout with polio. But the pair's efforts to rally support in the gay community initially falls on deaf ears, as men who seem to define their political identity by their promiscuity resist any suggestion that they should stop having sex.

"If having sex can kill you, doesn't anyone with half a brain stop f—-ing?" Roberts-as-Brookner barks in exasperation. Apparently, she's not familiar with smokers, who keep puffing even though they absolutely know what they're doing will shorten their lives.

The movie becomes a sorrowful documentation of all the horrors packed into the first three years of the AIDS crisis. Brookner and Weeks tour a gruesome hospital ward, where uncertainty over how the disease is transmitted leads workers to shun patients as they lay dying.

City officials turn a blind eye even as emergency rooms refuse to treat people with full blown AIDS, amid rumors that Mayor Ed Koch is a closeted gay man. News reports initially call it "gay cancer" then GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency); the sense that the world isn't concerned with a disease killing gay men and intravenous drug users is palpable.

The film enlists a cast of beloved, well-known actors keep the audience engaged through such wrenching scenes, including Ruffalo, Roberts, Matt Bomer (White Collar), Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory), Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) and B.D. Wong (Law & Order: SVU). Director Ryan Murphy, who deserves a cheer just for bringing Kramer's play to the small screen after many others failed, scores in every casting choice.

Bomer reportedly lost 40 pounds to play Felix Turner, the closeted New York Times reporter who falls for Weeks and eventually contracts AIDS. And Ruffalo's rumpled charm is key in making a likable figure of Weeks, a cantankerous agitator who seemed to anger everyone in his quest to end the deadly silence surrounding this epidemic. Just like Kramer.

It is hard to remember, at a time when HIV-positive celebrities like Magic Johnson have lived nearly 25 years, that there was a long period of widespread disagreement over how AIDS was transmitted and how to treat it. And in an age where a kid falling down a skateboard ramp can become national news, it's also hard to imagine how an emerging disease could kill over 1,000 Americans and get little attention from journalists, lawmakers or public health institutions.

That is the greatest value of movies like The Normal Heart, which takes us back to a time before gay weddings were featured on popular sitcoms and cable news conflicts made the politics of confrontation commonplace.

In the film, Weeks' insistence on passionate, public anger earns enemies among some gay activists, who feared exposure and political pressure.

But if there is any criticism of The Normal Heart that resonates, it's that the story stops before events proved that the Weeks/Kramer style of activism actually works.

As David France's How to Survive a Plague documents, New York's gay activists eventually helped push public officials and pharmaceutical companies to provide effective treatments to AIDS. They educated themselves about the disease enough to serve as consultants to drug makers and public policy types

But none of those victories are shown in The Normal Heart, which ends in 1984. Weeks is awkwardly attending another event where gay men are pairing up – a gay dance at Yale University — alone and an outsider. He's been kicked out of the Gay Men's Health Crisis group he helped found and the deaths keep piling up.

As the struggle to legalize gay marriage continues and some complain of a "gay agenda" in public life, films like The Normal Heart have arrived to remind us when the fight for gay rights was even more directly a matter of life and death.

And perhaps only now, as we pat ourselves on the back for the mainstreaming of gay life and culture in today's America, are we ready to look back with open eyes on a time when our lack of acceptance killed far too many people.

Judged by that timetable, looks like The Normal Heart has arrived just in time.

The Normal Heart airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

The time has come for us all to take a long, step-back look at this thing we call the Tea Party.

The results from Republican primaries in a dozen states so far this year strongly suggest that the party, such as it was, is over.

It may not have made sense to use the term "party" at any time in this movement's brief history. This year, that fact has become increasingly obvious.

The Tea Party was not so much an organized force in itself as an outburst that others tried to harness. The name was shorthand for an energy that suddenly coursed through the conservative community in the first months of the Obama presidency.

The sources of that energy were and are highly diverse. The effects were undeniable in down-ballot races in most of the country in 2010 and 2012. But the energy never really assumed the form of a conventional political party, and it did not build the machinery that could produce reliable candidates and campaigns.

Yet the handle of "Tea Party" remains irresistible for admakers, activists, journalists and a boundless world of commentators in the social media space.

That is why it surprises a lot of people to see this Tea Party suddenly looking so impotent, even as President Obama and his party look increasingly vulnerable. One would think the most anti-Obama elements of the right would be on the march.

Yet Republican incumbents and other candidates backed by the party's business and political elites have won the nominations for November nearly everywhere anyone was noticing. Where insurgents arose with a clear claim to being Tea Party favorites, they have lost. In many cases, they have flat-lined weeks before the primary.

There are consensus explanations for this. Most important: incumbents caught in the cross-hairs have been far better prepared and funded than they were in 2010 and 2012. They have adjusted their behavior in office — especially in the U.S. Senate — and their behavior back home as well. They have raised huge early money and taken the fight to their challengers.

As a result, the challengers often saw their support decline as the primary neared. Some of their wounds were self-inflicted, the kind of controversies that engulfed their predecessors of 2010 and 2012 only after their nominations were secured.

Moreover, the formal campaign structures of the GOP have mobilized against the various independent groups that have been driving what we have loosely labeled the Tea Party – including FreedomWorks, Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and Americans for Limited Government.

All have trophies on the wall from backing anti-Establishment or populist campaigns around the country. But they have yet to back a winner this year at the statewide level, with the exception of Ben Sasse in Nebraska, whose win was a split decision (some Tea Party affiliates backed his main opponent).

The upshot, at least at this stage of the primary season, is the full reinstatement of the Old Guard in every region. There could still be a stunner in Mississippi or elsewhere this summer but the opportunities are dwindling fast.

So is the Tea Party finished? Yes, if you insist on calling it the Tea Party. Because that phrase implies the phenomenon is some sort of organized unit in the usual sense. And the Tea Party never really was one.

Better to think of it as an expression of frustration on the part of conservative activists and true believers who blamed the GOP hierarchy for Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress. These often angry populists thought the2008 GOP candidate and campaign had lacked the fire and fervor they themselves still felt for the cause.

And they feared the Republicans in Congress would lie down and let the Obama regime do whatever it wanted.

The Tea Party pushback organized early in 2009, first around taxes ("Taxed Enough Already?") and then around the new health care law – derisively dubbed Obamacare.

In 2010 and 2012 the loose-knit band beneath the Tea Party banner disrupted the Republican nominating process around the country. Most notably, it derailed Republican incumbents or party-anointed candidates for the U.S. Senate in Alaska, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Texas, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Florida and Delaware. All 10 seats had been (or were expected to go) Republican, but the Tea Party nominees wound up winning only four.

Yet even when it was strongest, the Tea Party movement never coalesced as a political organization. By comparison, Ross Perot's quixotic bid for the White House in 1992 had more characteristics of actual party organization, and so too did the fading echoes of it in the United We Stand movement and the Reform Party that followed.

The Tea Party has always been a label in search of something to stick to. It has never had even a symbolic national leader or a central committee — or even a national meeting. Some of the organizations that use Tea Party in their name raise far more money than they convey to any candidates, seeming to exist primarily to raise money so that they can exist.

The senators who represent the movement at its most successful — Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz – differ profoundly on such issues as immigration, foreign intervention, voting rights and fiscal policy.

At this point, the phrase Tea Party has nearly lost all meaning. It can still be used as a catch-all descriptor for any candidate, commentator or activist who wishes to be further to the right than some real or imagined opponent.

And unless a dramatic reversal of fortune comes soon, it will soon have one other connotation: futility.

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

NASA has put out a free, fascinating e-book exploring the possibility of human/extraterrestrial communication. The 300-page book, which has chapters written by more than a dozen different scholars, looks to archeology and anthropology for clues in how to decode extraterrestrial messages, should they ever arrive. In his introduction to the volume, editor Douglas A. Vakoch explains, "Like archaeologists who reconstruct temporally distant civilizations from fragmentary evidence, SETI [search for extra-terrestrial intelligence] researchers will be expected to reconstruct distant civilizations separated from us by vast expanses of space as well as time. And like anthropologists, who attempt to understand other cultures despite differences in language and social customs, as we attempt to decode and interpret extraterrestrial messages, we will be required to comprehend the mindset of a species that is radically Other."

The fight between Amazon and Hachette has escalated as Amazon has removed the option to preorder a number of the publisher's big books, Sarah Weinman of Publishers Lunch reports [subscription required]. Titles affected by the freeze include J.K. Rowling's new Robert Galbraith novel. Earlier this month, in what looks like an attempt to put pressure on the publisher during a contract dispute, Amazon delayed shipping on a number of titles and placed banner ads over others, suggesting "similar items at a lower price." Amazon did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

Hassan Blasim's short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated into English by Jonathan Wright, has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, an award for fiction in translation that gives 5,000 (about $8,420) to both author and translator. Judge Boyd Tonkin said in a press release, "A decade after the Western invasion and occupation of Iraq, that country's writers are exploring the brutal and chaotic aftermath of war and tyranny with ever-growing confidence. ... The 14 stories of The Iraqi Christ, often surreal in style but always rooted in heart-breaking truth, depict this pitiless era with deep compassion, pitch-black humour and a visionary yearning for another, better life. Jonathan Wright's translation from the Arabic captures all of their passion, their desperation and their soaring imaginative energy. The Iraqi Christ is not only the first Arabic book to win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but a classic work of post-war witness, mourning and revolt."

In The New Yorker, John P. Henderson explains why he writes under a pseudonym: "John Wray isn't so different from poor, nebbishy John P. Henderson from Buffalo, New York. He's just slightly better company — at least when the work is going well. When it isn't, needless to say, he's insufferable; but that's when I remind myself, with a physical rush of relief, that John Wray doesn't actually exist."

A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., explores the tumultuous, passionate, artistic relationship between the two artists.

"In many ways, [it] is a romance of two like minds who admired one another greatly; and who I believe completely relied on one another for artistic and emotional help," Oliveira says. "Their relationship is a sort of an elevated, intellectual love affair that tied them to one another for the rest of their lives after they met."

They left behind no diaries, no letters. National Gallery curator Kimberly A. Jones says it was a passionate but platonic aesthetic attraction. "There's no indication that there was anything romantic between the two of them," Jones says.

So what was the relationship between this American in Paris, and a Frenchman, 10 years her senior, who was known and respected in artistic circles?

"It was all about the art, and that kind of laser focus and 100 percent dedication to the art that they really shared," Jones says.

They met in 1877. At 33, Cassatt was studying painting in Paris. At 43, Degas' work was on view around town. "Even before she actually met him she recounts how she had seen one of his pastels in a storefront window and she pressed her nose up against it and was just dazzled by what he was able to do," Jones says. "She knew his art and was thinking this is the direction I should be going in. So he really did change her path."

Oliveira — who did a tremendous amount of research for her novel — says before the Degas dazzle, Cassatt had been trying to master a more traditional approach.

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If the judicial nomination of Michael Boggs gets derailed, at least one of Georgia's senators says it won't unravel a deal the two senators entered with the White House to select seven nominees for the federal bench in Georgia.

"The deal was we agreed on seven nominees for seven judicial appointments and asked for all of them to get a hearing at the same time, and that was the deal," said Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. "Everybody lived up to what they said."

Boggs, a Georgia state judge who's been nominated to fill a district court seat, has drawn strong pushback from Democrats in both chambers of Congress, as well as from the civil rights community. During his tenure in Georgia's House of Representatives more than 10 years ago, Boggs supported keeping the Confederate emblem on the old state flag, called for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and voted for legislation to restrict abortion – including one provision to force doctors to publicly disclose how many abortions they perform.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has come out forcefully against Boggs, even saying that he might not allow Boggs a floor vote if his nomination makes it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Then House Democrat John Lewis of Georgia – a civil rights icon – added fuel to the fire this week when he released a written statement saying that Boggs' record is "in direct opposition to everything I have stood for during my career."

Boggs' nomination was the result of an agreement between the White House and Georgia's two Republican senators, Isakson and Saxby Chambliss. Under the "blue slip" tradition, prospective judicial nominees must receive the approval of home state senators before the Senate Judiciary Committee will process the nomination. That custom forces the White House to negotiate with home state senators as to whom it will nominate for the federal bench.

White House spokesperson Eric Schultz says Isakson and Chambliss specifically recommended Boggs.

"In the case of Georgia, we have been trying to fill these judicial vacancies for more than three years, but two of the President's nominees were blocked for nearly 11 months and returned at the end of 2011," said Schultz in an email. "Our choice is clear: do we work with Republican senators to find a compromise or should we leave the seats vacant? Four of these vacancies are judicial emergencies, and we believe it would be grossly irresponsible for the president to leave these seats vacant."

If Boggs, whose confirmation hearing was last week, doesn't make it out of committee – or if Senate leaders deny him a floor vote – Isakson said, as far as he's concerned, he won't object to the advancement of the other six Georgia nominations. The deal did not mandate that all seven nominees be treated as one inseparable package.

"We agreed to sign blue slips on all seven, if they'd agree on all seven to get a hearing. So everybody's getting an equal opportunity to get a vote and that's all we asked for," said Isakson.

The mustache and mullet make the man. Or so the man hopes.

In Jim Micke's Cold in July, Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) is a small town Texas entrepreneur in 1989, his days spent running a little frame shop on the main strip in town, evenings at home with his wife and slightly annoying little boy. This is a time and place where men are expected to be men, and if you're lacking in the rugged masculinity department, some creative hairstyling and some wispy lip fuzz may be your attempt at a solution. If that fails, having a gun in the bedside drawer can't hurt either.

But actually it can, as one burglar discovers early in the film when Dane catches him snooping, only to quite accidentally shoot the intruder dead in his living room. Suddenly, with an unintended slip of his finger, he's the town's newest and unlikeliest celebrity, admired and congratulated for taking matters into his own shaky hands. But despite what Dane's mailman might believe, killing a man doesn't make you more of one yourself.

On the one hand, the movies hardly need yet more examinations of perceptions of masculinity. On the other, one as well-crafted and constantly surprising as Mickle's adaptation of Joe Lansdale's pulpy crime novel is hard to argue against.

Mickle continues to establish himself as one of the most talented young genre filmmakers working today, an expert at taking stories about vampires, cannibals, and murderers, infusing them with generous helpings of evocative atmosphere, and then diving into the more meaningful subtext just below the lurid, blood-soaked surface. In Lansdale's novel he finds a perfect opportunity to take a break from the horror settings of his last two films, 2010's Stake Land and last year's We Are What We Are, to try his hand at a noir piece that, thanks to Lansdale's thoroughly unpredictable plotting, swings from vengeance thriller to three-way buddy movie to father-and-son morality tale with biblical overtones.

The vengeance comes in when the burglar is identified as the son of Ben Russell, a recently released convict played with grim menace by Sam Shepard. He begins to terrorize Dale and his family with a psychotic verve that suggests a less flamboyant (and therefore even more frightening) version of Cape Fear's Max Cady. But something's not quite right about any of this, and Dane starts to realize that maybe he and Russell have been falsely set up as enemies. The two join up with Russell's old Korean War buddy, a good-old-boy private eye named Jim Bob (Don Johnson, perfectly embodying the character's down-home charisma).

This odd trio – two-thirds grizzled war vets, one-third inept (but determined) shopkeeper – winds up accidentally happening upon some truly disturbing truths, leading to a final act that finds Mickle channeling pleasingly trashy '80s influences. This is a director not shy about explicitly calling out his inspirations: at one point the characters have a meeting at a drive-in screening of Night of the Living Dead, and much of the film lies atop a score from Jeff Grace that self-consciously hearkens back to the synth scores that used to be John Carpenter's calling card.

That final act may find the director having a little too much fun with the genre elements. What's set his past two features apart, particularly the excellent We Are What We Are – an allegory on religious fundamentalism wrapped up in cannibalistic horror – is how well he blends pulp with purpose. Cold in July touches on questions of fathers, sons, and what's passed from one to the other – for good and ill. But at some point, the mechanics of the plot and the pure fun of watching Hall, Shepard, and Johnson playing off one another end up eclipsing those ideas.

That's plenty satisfying on its own, though: a well-executed crime thriller doesn't need many layers to justify its pleasures.

The world of health care, like any, is full of haves and have-nots.

It's not hard to the haves at Sherwin-Williams' corporate headquarters in downtown Cleveland where some 2,500 employees have access to an in-house health and wellness center.

The huge paint company offers comprehensive health coverage to its employees and encourages them to take a break from work for an exercise class, a workout on the elliptical trainer or a run on the treadmill.

Like many other large employers, Sherwin-Williams serves as its own health insurer. Because the company pays for employees' health claims, it has a strong incentive to keep workers healthy. Sherwin-Williams is betting it will be better off bearing those costs directly rather than paying premiums to an insurance company.

"The key is to have healthy, engaged, productive, present employees," says Martha Lanning, the company's director of health and wellness plans.

Sherwin-Williams and its employees aren't likely to use the individual Obamacare marketplaces, but they will help bear part of the cost.

Lanning says it takes time and money for companies like Sherwin-Williams to sorting through the legal and administrative issues surrounding the Affordable Care Act. There are direct costs, too. "We also have to pay that transitional reinsurance fee that totals for us, with some other aspects of the Affordable Care Act, about $4 million in 2014," she says.

The government collects $63 from large self-insured employers and insurance companies for every person covered by a plan — both employees and their dependents. All told, these fees are expected to amount to $25 billion over three years.

The money goes into a fund to reimburse health insurance companies for some extra costs involved in providing coverage to high-risk people on the Obamacare exchanges.

You might think of it as a subsidy from big business for making insurance coverage available to everyone without regard to pre-existing conditions.

The fee will be reduced next year and is set to disappear completely by 2016. Mark Hall, a professor of law and public health at Wake Forest University, says it's a sensible solution to a temporary problem.

"The great feature of the Affordable Care Act is it now makes everyone qualify for coverage, but that means the first people to sign up or to show up are going to be the folks who need it the most," Hall says. "So we expect, particularly at the outset, that there is going to be a heavy load on the insurance pool of high-cost people."

But Helen Darling, who heads the Washington, D.C.-based National Business Group on Health, fears the fee won't go away as planned.

"Once something is in law and somebody's got an idea about a new tax, you're always nervous that that's going to become a way to finance something else and something that is supposed to go away and be sunsetted wouldn't be because they needed the money," Darling says.

For Sherwin-Williams with $10 billion in sales last year, the added cost appears modest, at most.

In fact, human resource executives at companies nationwide said as much in a recent national survey by Mercer, the consulting company. The survey concluded found 55 percent of executives felt the Affordable Care Act was having no effect on business operations and performance apart from benefits.

And to the extent there is a financial burden, employers are shifting some of it to employees. Mercer also found that most large employers are requiring workers to pay part of the ACA fees.

Sherwin-Williams, for its part, is committed to providing insurance to its employees, says Lanning. "It's going to be the differentiating factor for businesses moving forward," she says.

After all, she adds, the key to an engaged and productive workforce is its health.

This story is part of a reporting partnership among NPR, WCPN and Kaiser Health News.

Thailand has a beloved king. The country has had one of the more prosperous economies in Asia. It's a magnet for Western tourists. It's history is largely peaceful. By most measures, Thailand has been very successful, particularly in recent decades.

So why has the country now had a dozen coups, plus many more attempted coups, since it ended centuries of absolute monarchy and became a constitutional monarchy in 1932?

The country is so coup-prone that Wednesday's military takeover marked the second time in eight years the armed forces have ousted a leader from the same family.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was deposed Wednesday, suffered the same fate as her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in 2006. Both were considered political outsiders and viewed by suspicion by the Thai establishment, including the military.

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Some 2,000 new trains that were meant to help France expand its regional rail network are instead causing headaches and embarrassment, as officials have been forced to explain why the trains aren't compatible with hundreds of station platforms. The new trains are just a few centimeters too wide to fit.

The country's rail operators say they're spending millions of dollars to modify platforms to accommodate the new trains, which cost more than $20 billion. A French newspaper reported on the mix-up Tuesday, saying the platforms were too narrow for the trains to pass through.

The story emerged in Le Canard Enchan, a satirical newspaper that blends humor with investigative pieces. As The Wall Street Journal has reported, the paper is both profitable and only minimally available on the Internet.

The train platform episode is a black eye for a French rail system that's often cited as a success, with fast trains serving a wide network. But officials say there was a disconnect between RFF, France's rail operator, and SNCF, the company that runs its trains, and now some 1,300 platforms must be modified.

France 24 explains:

"The mix-up arose when the RFF transmitted faulty dimensions for its train platforms to the SNCF, which was in charge of ordering trains as part of a broad modernization effort, the Canard Enchan reported."


The Supreme Court on Wednesday put off the execution of Russell Bucklew, a Missouri inmate who has maintained that his rare congenital medical condition would make the lethal injection procedure excessively painful.

Bucklew had been scheduled to be put to death at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday for a 1996 murder, but Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito stayed the execution late Tuesday, hours before it was to take place. He would have been the first person to be put to death since a botched execution in Oklahoma last month.

On Wednesday, the justices said that a lower federal court needs to re-examine the case.

NBC News says:

"Bucklew — who murdered a man in front of his kids, kidnapped and raped his ex-girlfriend, and shot at a cop — contends a rare illness would make a lethal injection excruciating, in violation of the Constitution.

"Bucklew suffers from a medical condition called cavernous hemangioma — which creates large masses in his head and neck.

"He argued that the tumors could prevent the drug from circulating properly, prolonging his death and causing excruciating pain in violation of the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment."

Brothers Charles and David Koch are the subject of the new book Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty. The author, Daniel Schulman, describes the Kochs as having pumped hundreds of millions into remaking the American political landscape, trying to bring their libertarian views into the mainstream.

In addition to backing individual candidates who reflect their views, the Koch brothers have played key roles in the Libertarian Party and in the formation of the Tea Party. Their father, who founded Koch Industries, was also a founding member of the far right group the John Birch Society.

Koch Industries is now the second largest private corporation in the U.S., with $115 billion in annual revenue and a presence in 60 countries. Charles and David are tied in sixth place on the list of the wealthiest men on the planet.

Daniel Schulman is a senior editor in the Washington bureau of Mother Jones, and a founding member of the magazine's investigative journalism team. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about how the Kochs have contributed to today's political landscape.

The world, as you've no doubt noticed, has its problems. But some folks seem to be dealing with them pretty well, according to poll results released Wednesday. Countries in Latin America dominated the top of Gallup's "positive experience index," while Syria set an all-time low.

"At least seven in 10 adults worldwide report experiencing lots of enjoyment, laughing or smiling a lot, feeling well-rested, and being treated with respect," Gallup reports, "while a slight majority (51 percent) report that they learned or did something interesting the day before."

Paraguay sat atop the list for the third year in a row, with 87 percent of people who participated in the poll saying they felt positive emotions about their lives. Denmark was the highest-rated nation outside of Latin America, in eighth place.

The U.S. was in 19th place, tied with several other countries such as Argentina and the Netherlands.

By contrast, Syria's results reflect the toll of a brutally destructive civil war. The country was more than 15 points lower than any other nation in the poll.

"Fewer than one in three Syrians report feeling well-rested (31 percent), feeling enjoyment (31 percent), or learning or doing something interesting (25 percent) the day before," Gallup says.

Globally, the poll found slightly more people had good things to say about their lives in 2013 than in the previous seven years.

Nigerians are asking themselves how far their government should go to bring almost 300 abducted schoolgirls back to their families.

The militants of Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping last month, have offered to swap the girls for some prisoners held by the government.

That offer was immediately rejected by the Nigerian government, but relatives of the girls say that firepower alone wont save them. They want the government to reconsider.

The hashtag "Bring back our girls" has more than 4 million tweets. At a daily vigil in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, activists and relatives have added two important words to their chant: "and alive."

After the rally, Peter Iliya, a local pharmacist says that two of his nieces were abducted, driven off by militants into the forest. One niece, named Mundi, age 18, managed to escape off the truck.

"The vehicle was moving and it passed under a fairly big tree," Iliya says. "She clung onto the branch and she hung there until the vehicle zoomed off and she jumped down."

She hung in the tree while trucks full of her classmates passed beneath her. Then she jumped down and walked back through the dark forest to her village. But Iliya's other niece was not so bold or so lucky. She disappeared with the others.

The government says it has dispatched 20,000 soldiers to rescue the girls. Iliya has very mixed feelings about that firepower.

"Because I will tell you, categorically, that no military action will bring back these girls," he says. "If you go on a military action, you are losing all the girls, absolutely. These people, they are erratic people. They are drug addicts. They should be handled with the utmost caution. And I think if I am to say, if I were to advise the government, negotiation is the way out."

He wants the government to negotiate. The U.S. offered to send hostage negotiators, but Nigeria refused.

Aliyu Gebi, an elected member of parliament, says it's because of the word "terrorist."

"Government will not negotiate with terrorists," Gebi says. "It is enshrined in the anti-terrorist act, just like your government will not negotiate with terrorists! And if you're branded a terrorist, tough luck for you. Nobody will negotiate well with you!"

Gebi represents Bauchi state, in northeast Nigeria. Like Borno state, home of the abducted girls, Bauchi is also frequently attacked by Boko Haram.

Boko Haram's purported leader, Abubakar Shekau, has said in a Youtube video that he would trade the girls for prisoners held by the government.

Chinedu Nwagu, a Nigerian security analyst who now works in police reform, is skeptical.

"Give us back your people we'll give you your girls — the state could weigh the cost of that. After that, then what next?" Nwagu says. "Negotiation is not a solution. It's not a long-term, permanent fix to the problem."

But Nwagu says in this particular case, the Nigerian army doesn't have the capacity to make a surgical strike and rescue the girls alive. He says the prisoners that Boko Haram wants to trade the girls for are not even clearly militants. They were rounded up in brutal and arbitrary military operations — mass sweeps highly criticized by human rights groups.

Also not clear is whether Nigeria's holding onto those so-called militants is preventing war or fueling it.

"How long can we hold out like this?" Nwagu says. "What are we willing to concede in this situation? And if we don't concede anything, how much damage does that do to our psyche and our well-being as a people.

Government officials have told NPR that some inside government are trying to open a dialogue.

Chinedu says he hasn't heard about any secret talks, and he doesn't want to know if there are. He just wants to hear one day soon that some prisoners have been released, and some girls have been returned to their families, alive.

If you're drinking a cup of coffee right now, treasure it. The global supply of coffee beans may soon shrink because of problems in coffee-growing areas of Brazil and Central America.

With supply threatened and demand strong, prices are taking flight. Wholesale coffee prices are up more than 60 percent since January — from $1.25 per pound of bulk Coffea arabica beans to $1.85 this week.

The biggest market-moving force is a drought in Brazil, the world's biggest coffee producer.

Coffee Week


What some called the Super Tuesday of the 2014 mid-term election cycle, with six states holding nominating contests, began with a big win for the Republican establishment.

In Kentucky, Sen. Mitch McConnell's smack down of Tea Party-backed businessman Matt Bevin in the GOP primary was an emphatic victory for the five-term senator who made this bold prediction about Tea Party-backed Senate challengers earlier this year: "We're going to crush them everywhere."

In defeating Bevin 60 percent to 36 percent, McConnell's clear-cut win suggested he might have a unified Republican party with him in his race against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes who, as expected, also won her primary.

Recent polls have placed McConnell and Grimes in a statistical tie in a contest likely to be the most expensive Senate race in the 2014 election cycle. As this was being written, McConnell had a nearly 30-percentage point lead on Bevin. That suggested the Senate's Republican leader might not have a mostly unified party behind him come November.

McConnell's victory was, to some extent, a kind of delayed revenge for the Senate minority leader. In 2010, his preferred candidate for an open Senate seat lost to Sen. Rand Paul, the Tea Party favorite that year. Four years later, not only did McConnell beat aTea Party-backed challenger, he did it with Paul's support.

Polls in Georgia, like in Kentucky, closed at 7 pm but results weren't yet available in a race there that pit several Republicans against each other for the nomination to an open Senate seat. The Republicans would be facing Democratic primary winner Michelle Nunn, the daughter of a popular former senator from the state.

As in Kentucky, the Republican race found establishment Republicans, confronting candidates with Tea Party backing.

David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General and cousin of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, and Rep. Jack Kingston, chair of a House Appropriations subcommittee represented the establishment. Going into primary day, the likeliest outcome seemed that they would face off against each other in a July runoff as the two top vote getters.

The GOP's Tea Party wing was represented by three candidates: Rep. Paul Broun, who attracted national attention for his infamous comment that evolution and the Big Bang were "lies straight from the pit of hell;" Rep. Phil Gingrey, a medical doctor, and Karen Handel, the former senior vice president for public policy at Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

The four other states with primaries were Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Idaho and Oregon.

Pennsylvania's primary to decide the Democratic nominee for governor resulted with businessman Tom Wolf winning going away as expected. At the time of this writing, he had more than 50 percent of the primary vote while the woman who at one time was thought to be the likeliest to win the nomination, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, was far behind in second place.

In Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican Rep. Tom Cotton were expected to easily win their parties' Senate nominations.

In Idaho, eight-term congressman Rep. Mike Simpson faced a challenge from Tea Party-backed Bryan Smith who drew early support from the Club for Growth but found that backing waning as the Chamber of Commerce and other establishment groups rallied behind the incumbent.

Oregon's Republican primary featured Dr. Monica Wehby who faced a Tea Party-backed challenger, Jason Conger, a state representative. Both wanted to be the party's choice to run against first-term Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley.

Wehby was thought to be the likely winner of the Republican primary though her candidacy was rocked by allegations that she had stalked an ex-boyfriend and that her ex-husband had complained of her post-divorce behavior as well.

The impact of that late-breaking controversy on the race could be minimal since many of the ballots in Oregon were already mailed in when that information became public.

It's been obvious ever since 2010 that Republicans and conservatives were spending a lot more slamming the Affordable Care Act than the Obama administration and Democrats were spending to defend it.

But 15 to 1?

Yes. That's the ratio calculated by Kantar Media's campaign media analysis group – CMAG to political junkies. Kantar estimates that national advertising against the ACA cost $418 million, compared to $27 million for ads supporting the law. Kantar calls the anti-ACA spending "unprecedented [and] largely unanswered."

Even in general election-focused ads this year, 76 percent of Republican ads airing from January through April attacked the health care law. In Senate campaigns in New Hampshire and North Carolina and in 13 House races, Kantar found that every GOP broadcast ad brought up the anti-ACA messages.

Kantar's Elizabeth Wilner, a co-author of the analysis, said, "Positive ads about the ACA are still so rare that whenever one appears, it gets a national news story."

This massively lopsided spending is also a complete reversal from 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama's campaign aired one contrast ad on health-care policy 24,000 times. Kantar says that's a record for the past 10 years – at least. But in 2012, the Obama re-election campaign ran just one ad on the ACA.

Yet in 2013, when millions of Americans had to sign up for coverage, industry spending spotlighted the differences of magnitude between American politics and American commerce. In just six months, insurance companies ran ads costing an estimated $381 million, not far behind what the law's critics spent over four years. The industry ads were neutral, neither attacking nor defending the law – "Switzerland," as Wilner put it.

Overall, she said, three factors — Republican intensity against the law, the new federal role and insurers' new activity selling insurance to consumers – came together to produce "a confluence of political and product advertising never seen before."

How hard can it be for school cafeterias to swap white bread for whole-grain tortillas, cut sodium and nudge kids to put more fruit and vegetables on their trays?

Tougher then you might imagine, according to some schools.

From the Waterford school district in Wisconsin, to the Voorheesville school district in New York, to Arlington Heights in Illinois, schools have complained that the healthy school lunch standards that became law in 2012 are just too challenging. They say they need more time to figure out how to limit calories and fat and get more veggies on every plate.

And some lawmakers agree.

Congressional Republicans in charge of funding the school lunch program are proposing a waiver that would give schools a one-year reprieve from the standards if they are operating at a net loss.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food administrators and is supported by food service manufacturers, wants the waiver. The SNA estimates that about one million fewer students participated in the school lunch program last year - in part due to the new federal requirements.

"A temporary waiver would ease the burden on school meal programs, preventing more schools from dropping out of the National School Lunch Program altogether," SNA President Leah Schmidt writes in a release supporting the waiver.

In addition, the SNA is asking Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to relax some new regulations — such as the requirement that students must take a fruit or vegetable as part of a meal.

"Forcing students to take a food they don't want on their tray has led to increased program costs, plate waste, and a decline in student participation," the SNA writes in a statement.

The SNA says it's asking for more flexibility, but some consumer health advocates are critical of the proposed changes. Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says "really they are asking Congress to significantly roll back standards."

"By allowing school districts to opt out of school nutrition standards, House Republicans are opening up the floodgates to let all the old junk food back into schools, while crowding out the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that have been gaining ground in the program," Wootan adds.

House Agriculture Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, Republican of Alabama, disagrees. "I continually hear from my schools in Alabama about the challenges and costs they are facing and their desperation for flexibility and relief so that they can operate a [school meal] program serving healthy foods the kids will eat," he said in opening remarks at a hearing Tuesday.

USDA has said in the past that it doesn't have the authority to grant a waiver on the standards, but today announced it could grant schools more flexibility on one of them - the requirement to increase the amount of whole grains in pasta products.

Currently, half of all products served must be "whole grain-rich." USDA defines whole grain-rich as products made of at least 50 percent whole grain. By the start of the next school year, the law says schools must use only products that are whole grain-rich.

But this year, USDA heard feedback from some schools suggesting that certain whole grain-rich pastas were falling apart. "Some of the available products, such as lasagna and elbow noodles, degraded easily during preparation and service and were difficult to use in larger-scale cooking operations," a press release from the department says.

So the USDA is offering a two year extension for schools that can "demonstrate significant challenges in serving whole-grain rich pastas" to continue serving "traditional enriched pasta products" for up to two more years to as the food industry develops better whole-grain pasta products for schools.

Despite the challenges, 90 percent of schools are meeting the nutrition standards established in 2012, USDA says.

The Alliance For A Healthier Generation, a group focused on ending childhood obesity, points to several success stories at schools around the country — like the eight new veggie-based soups on offer at Dover High School in Delaware.

"As we soon close out the school year, we should be celebrating — not rolling back — the great progress that schools have made toward implementing the USDA's school nutrition standards" Howell Wechsler of the Alliance says in a statement.

A normally routine House Rules Committee meeting Tuesday could showcase the ongoing battle over immigration reform within the Republican Party.

California Republican Congressman Jeff Denham wants immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children — often referred to as "dreamers," after a legislative acronym — to be able earn permanent residency status by serving in the military.

He's wanted this, in fact, since last summer when he first filed his ENLIST Act. So far, it's gone nowhere in the House, and now he wants to attach it to this year's Defense authorization bill — even though House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has already indicated he opposes that plan.

"The ENLIST Act provides an avenue for those who want to perform the ultimate act of patriotism – serving their county – to earn legal status. As a veteran, I can think of no better way to demonstrate your commitment to our nation," Denham said in a statement Monday.

The House Rules Committee meets Tuesday afternoon to decide which amendments will be permitted a floor vote when the defense bill is debated this week.

Denham represents a Central California district with a large Latino population. Cantor and many other Republicans are under pressure from their Tea Party wing to oppose any changes to immigration laws that permit undocumented immigrants to gain legal status.


If the prices of a margarita or guacamole have been too high for you lately, blame it on a key ingredient of the Mexican treats — the lime. Prices for limes, imported almost exclusively from Mexico, hit record highs this year, and demand remains high. But now the price is dropping and farmers couldn't be happier.

You can see it firsthand at the outdoor wholesale lime market in Apatzingan, Michoacan. Dozens of buyers stand in the dirt parking lot waiting for beat up pick up trucks full of limes to roll in. The men rush to the backs of the trucks, filled high with crates of limes. Here the round fruit is known as green gold.

Lime buyer Geraldo Fernandez scrambles up the back of the crates and peers over the top. In Spanish he says, "the trucks barely stop and the limes are sold...they're selling like hotcakes."

While Mexico's other lime producing states were hit hard by bad weather and a fungal outbreak earlier this year, as we've reported, the orchards in Michocan have been flourishing, netting record profits for the state's farmers.

But with every boom comes the bust. And prices are falling fast.

Better weather and a bountiful spring crop in the state of Veracruz have supplies back to normal.

Fernandez thumbs through another box of limes. He tells the driver he'll give him 80 pesos — about six bucks for the whole 40 pound box. He says just a month or two ago he was paying these guys as much as 35 dollars a box.

Prices in the U.S. are dropping, too. Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture said consumers paid on average 30 cents a lime, compared to 90 a few months ago.

But Michoacan farmers aren't complaining about the precipitous price drop. Most are still enjoying their record profits. But the biggest boon to them is that for the first time in a decade, many say they are no longer at the mercy of Mexico's ruthless drug cartels.

i i

Just who's to blame for the childhood obesity epidemic? Over the years, the finger has been pointed at parents, video games, Happy Meals and the hamburgers in the school cafeteria.

A new documentary, Fed Up, alleges it all boils down to simple substance most of us consume every day: sugar. The pushers of "the new tobacco," according to the film, are the food industry and our own government.

With a mix of dramatic music, scary soundbites and powerful images of kids injecting insulin into their chubby tummies, Fed Up argues the children are not to blame. For the rising number of overweight and obese kids, the mantra of "eat less, move more" is an impossible goal. They simply can't circumvent the onslaught of marketing that has made them into junk-food junkies, the film says.

"What if our whole approach to this epidemic has been dead wrong?" the film's narrator, TV journalist Katie Couric, says in the film's opening.

Hoping to do for childhood obesity what An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change, Fed Up takes on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign and Big Food: Coca Cola, Nestle, Kraft, and Kellogg, to name a few. Laurie David, who produced the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, is executive producer along with Couric; Stephanie Soechtig is the director.

The film sometimes resorts to hyperbole to describe the obesity epidemic and its related health costs, but the message is backed up with sobering statistics and policies that got us here.

The Salt

Why We Got Fatter During The Fat-Free Food Boom

Learning is something people, like other animals, do whenever our eyes are open. Education, though, is uniquely human, and right now it's at an unusual point of flux.

By some accounts, education is a $7 trillion dollar global industry ripe for disruption. Others see it as almost a sacred pursuit — a means of nurturing developing minds while preserving tradition. Around the world, education means equal rights and opportunity. People risk their lives for it every day.

No matter what you think you know about education, what's clear right now is that the old blueprints are out the window. The economy isn't creating jobs the way it once did. Technology has forever altered how we communicate and has challenged the meaning of knowledge itself. The cost of college has risen more than any other good or service in the U.S. economy since 1978. There's increasing evidence that qualities like creativity, communication, collaboration and persistence matter most, yet our school system remains pegged to standardized tests that just take in reading and math.

Education has to become something more than regurgitating the past. But what?

That's what we'll be exploring at NPR Ed. Our mission: cover learning and education, online and on the air, from preschool through the workplace and beyond.

The stakes are high, and so are our ambitions. "If you look at the ramifications of good education coverage, it has to be one of the most important things that journalism takes on," says Claudio Sanchez, veteran NPR education reporter and a senior member of our team. "I think our measure of success should be whether we take the time to really put together pieces that speak to the average American, not the ivory tower."

“ "If you look at the ramifications of good education coverage, it has to be one of the most important things that journalism takes on."


In 2008, Nathan Deuel and his wife packed up their things and moved to Saudi Arabia. That country, famous for being largely closed to westerners, was newly open to handful of journalists. The couple moved to Riyadh. A year later, in 2009, their daughter was born.

Then came the Arab Spring. In the midst of political convulsions, and with an infant, the family decided to stay in the Middle East, even when Deuel's wife, foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers, became NPR's Baghdad Bureau chief. As the region erupted in revolution, Deuel moved with their young daughter to Istanbul, then to Beirut.

Nathan Deuel's memoir of his time in the Middle East is titled Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years In The Middle East. He spoke with the host of Weekend All Things Considered, Arun Rath.

Paleontologists in Argentina say they have unearthed the fossils of the biggest dinosaur ever to walk the planet.

The bones are believed to be from a new species of the aptly named titanosaur, a massive herbivore from the late Cretaceous period, officials from the Museo Paleontologico Egidio Feruglio told BBC News.

The titanosaur was a sauropod, like the apatosaurus or brachiosaurus, that roamed the forests of Patagonia 95 million years ago.

"Given the size of these bones, which surpass any of the previously known giant animals, the new dinosaur is the largest animal known that walked on Earth," the researchers told BBC News.

Based on the size of the largest thigh bones, the scientists calculated that the titanosaur weighed around 170,000 pounds and measured 130 feet long and 65 feet tall.

"It's like two trucks with a trailer each, one in front of the other, and the weight of 14 elephants together," said Jose Luis Carballido, a dinosaur specialist at the museum, CNN reported.

The Two-Way wondered what else on earth compares to that gargantuan size. Imagine a professional basketball court: Not even three-quarters of the beast's length would fit, with the remaining 40 feet hanging out in the seats behind the basket.

According to the museum's estimates, the creature weighed some 5,000 pounds more than a Boeing 737's maximum takeoff weight, and would have stretched a half-foot longer than the airplane.

The jumbo titanosaurus would have been about as tall as the Great Sphinx at Giza, something like the height of a seven-story building.

The blue whale has the new sauropod beat, however. Though the ocean mammal is shorter by about 30 feet, the largest are estimated to weigh as much as 320,000 pounds. To be fair, the blue whale never has to support its bulk on land.

The site of the discovery in Argentina holds the remains of seven dinosaurs, about 150 bones total, after an accidental discovery by a farmer in 2011 in the desert near La Flecha, near Trelew, Patagonia, said The Telegraph.

The size of the previous holder of the title of world's largest dinosaur, the Argentinosaurus, was calculated from just a few bones, as opposed to the treasure trove just revealed, the BBC explains.

"Originally thought to weigh in at 100 tonnes, [Argentinosaurus] was later revised down to about 70 tonnes - just under the 77 tonnes that this new sauropod is thought to have weighed," the BBC reports.

The new titanosaur still needs a name, one befitting its monumental dimensions.

"It will be named describing its magnificence and in honour to both the region and the farm owners who alerted us about the discovery," the researchers told the BBC.

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