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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
February
16
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

“Fake news” – the actual spreading of false information, not the glib insult – got some real attention this week.

One technologist’s dark new take puts us all on course for an “infocalypse.” He sees a system already optimized to reward polarizing misinformation being greased by “a slew of slick, easy-to-use, and eventually seamless technological tools for … falsifying reality.” Dystopian terms have sprung up around this vision: “reality apathy,” “human puppets.”

Then there was an Arizona Senate candidate’s warm embrace of an endorsement by a legit-sounding publication that’s really just an anonymous blog.

More sensitive was the examination of the alarming school-shooting numbers widely shared after the Parkland, Fla., event. This insidious form of gun violence has affected a huge number of people. But, a Washington Post piece maintained, that number “needs no exaggeration.” Should a suicide in the parking lot of a long-shuttered school, for example, count as a school shooting?

Confronting questionable or misleading content, whatever its intent, presents a staggering challenge worldwide. But the importance of information scrutiny keeps dawning as the stakes rise.

This week the director of national intelligence told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that his department expects “Russia to continue using propaganda, social media ... and other means of influence to try to ... exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.” Today – not to bury the lede, as journalists say – the FBI indicted 13 Russians on election-meddling charges.

Facebook, at the center of that storm in 2016, keeps saying that it’s taking steps to skew feeds toward “trusted sources.” Has a pivot to precision finally begun?

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this intro misstated the political position of the blog endorsing the Arizona candidate.)

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Now to our five stories for your Friday.

1. Behind a corporate stirring on dubious social media content

Let’s stay with the "good information" theme. A US consumer-goods giant has threatened to pull its ad spending from social media firms that don't do more to weed out offensive content. This piece explores the shift that represents – away from a faith in algorithms and toward a more nuanced view of corporate responsibility.

 

The 30 Sec. ReadThis week, a tug of war over online values became more public. The consumer-goods giant Unilever called out the realm of social media as “little better than a swamp,” and threatened to pull ads from platforms whose algorithms promote objectionable content such as hate speech. Media experts say it’s not that Unilever is just trying to be a good global citizen. Yes, the company might win some fans for its stand, but corporate reputations and profits can suffer when ads run next to offensive content masquerading as news or entertainment. Either way, Unilever's move symbolizes rising pressure on the dominant conduits for online ads, Facebook and Google, to adjust their practices. (That’s some context behind a recent algorithm change at Facebook and Google’s announcement, counterintuitively, of a new ad-blocking feature.) Whenever there’s a rise of corporate social responsibility, says communications expert Victor Pickard, it’s usually because of “public pressure, commercial imperatives, and the threat of government regulation.”

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1. Behind a corporate stirring on dubious social media content

Since their ascendance in the 2000s, Google and Facebook have emerged as rule-setters for how businesses and people interact online. The titans of search and social media have largely defined how ads and other corporate content would appear, where they would flow, and the metrics of online advertising success.

That’s starting to change. Companies are seeing that digital marketing can bring increasing opportunities but also reputational risks. Corporations have begun pushing back, often quietly.

On Monday, one top advertiser, Unilever, went public with its criticism, calling social media “little better than a swamp”  and threatening to pull ads from platforms that leave children unprotected, create social division, or “promote anger or hate.” That comes a year after Procter & Gamble adjusted its own ad strategy, voicing similar concerns.

This pressure from the business world parallels the broader push for reform that has emerged since news reports and other investigations have unearthed examples of fake news, extremist material, and graphic content used to manipulate public discourse and sway elections. It’s a complex dynamic, a kind of three-way tug of war among the digital platforms, corporate advertisers, and the media.

The battle is mostly about revenues. But it also involves a clash of ideals.

Gradually, the ideals of techno-optimism – the faith that algorithms can replace human judgment and that society benefits the more information flows – are giving way to a more nuanced view that some information is better than other information and that some of it is not only repugnant, but downright dangerous to social cohesion.

“They’re cognizant of the problems,” says Jason Kint, chief executive of Digital Content Next, a trade group that represents many big entertainment and news organizations. “The technology, it appears, is actually allowing bad actors to amplify misinformation and garbage while at the same time squeezing out the economics of the companies that are actually accountable to consumer trust.”

Trust is a key driver for corporations pushing the social and search platforms to change.

“Fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate, toxic content directed at children – parts of the internet we have ended up with is a million miles from where we thought it would take us,” said Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer, in a speech Monday to internet advertisers. “This is a deep and systematic issue – an issue of trust that fundamentally threatens to undermine the relationship between consumers and brands.” 

That risk of lost trust with customers threatens mainstream corporations, and the result is pressure on Google and Facebook to make big changes. Americans’ trust in social media and search engines has fallen 11 percentage points since last year, according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer. By contrast, Americans’ trust in traditional and online media rose 5 percentage points.

A woman stands behind a machine that is part of a toothpaste manufacturing line at the Unilever factory in Lagos, Nigeria, on Jan. 18, 2018. Unilever is among the companies voicing concern about how their ads may appear next to offensive content unless web platforms like Facebook and Google adjust their algorithms.
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Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

How election heightened awareness

Change is likely to prove difficult for the digital platforms, for several reasons. First, it’s technically challenging to track down who’s really behind each post, as Facebook discovered when it investigated Russian use of its platform during the 2016 elections. Fortunately for them, the digital platforms don’t necessarily have to ban borderline offenders and confront charges of censorship, media specialists say. Platforms like Facebook may just need to ensure that that objectionable material doesn’t get promoted by the platforms’ algorithms.

That’s a technical issue, because the algorithms have until recently been geared to making money, not policing content. In 2016, for example, when Kellogg’s and Warby Parker were embarrassed by reports that their online ads were showing up on Breitbart, both companies said they had not intended to advertise on the controversial nationalist publication's site. They pointed instead to “retargeting ads,” the technology that allows a company’s ads to follow users to subsequent websites after they have clicked on the company's website.

It was the digital platforms’ lack of transparency about where ads are placed and who sees them that prompted Procter & Gamble’s public criticism last year. Consumer brands are extremely sensitive about the values that their brands are connected with.

“You want to be next to fitting content; it’s really important in media effectiveness,” says Angeline Scheinbaum, a consumer psychology expert at the University of Texas and editor of a new book, “The Dark Side of Social Media: A Consumer Psychology Perspective.” “Now more automated media buying has resulted in advertisers being horrified about where their ad is ending up.”

Fine-tuning algorithms, with profits at stake

The second and bigger difficulty is that changing their practices will likely cause Google and Facebook to lose ad revenue, after several years of huge profits by setting their own rules.

Although a Facebook executive commended Unilever's stand, and said the company would work to meet advertiser expectations, the social media giant faces financial pressures of its own. 

Already, Facebook has seen a decline of 50 million hours in network use because of the company’s new push to increase the quality of interactions rather than the quantity, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Translation: more posts about friends, fewer viral cat videos and fake news posts. Also worrying to Facebook: research firm EMarketer forecasts 2 million users under 25 will quit the social network this year.

On Thursday, Google unveiled an ad blocker for its Chrome web browser, a counterintuitive move from a company that makes the bulk of its money from targeted advertising. The initiative came from a Google-inspired collaboration with advertising and publishing executives aimed at removing online ads that people find most annoying. But in targeting a dozen ad formats, the move will affect revenues most heavily at companies other than Google, and some members of the coalition grumbled that the search giant had dominated the process, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Furthermore, Facebook reportedly successfully lobbied that it should be exempt from the new ad-blocking, and a pop-up ad maker got a partial exemption as well.

The two giants are not hurting financially. EMarketer expects Google and Facebook will capture two-thirds of US digital advertising this year.

'A murky grey area'

Many observers are cautiously optimistic that the three-way tug of war will be resolved.

“Until now, most sites and publishers have focused on cleaning up the illegal content, such as hate speech or pirated content,” Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, writes in an email. “But there is a lot more content that is in a murky grey area. And here is where sites may decide the content should remain – lest removing it drive away users – but that they allow advertisers to distinguish what types of content they are willing to advertise near.”

The replacement of techno-optimist ideals with corporate values may not be the ultimate answer, however, if the history of previous media disruptions is any guide.

The rise of mass media more than a century ago unleashed yellow journalism. And the advent of television led to the rigging of network game shows in the 1950s.

“There is a recurring pattern of new media becoming overly commercialized and socially irresponsible,” Victor Pickard, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, writes in an email. “Corporations and advertisers rein in these commercial excesses only when it becomes absolutely necessary, and usually to prevent a loss in profit. So more often it is public pressure, commercial imperatives, and the threat of government regulation that incentivizes corporate social responsibility.”

That public discourse will be needed again, Michelle Amazeen, a mass communications professor at Boston University, writes in an email. “What is profitable isn't always what's best for society… There [are] too many conflicting interests to leave it to corporations to regulate social media.”

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2. How post-ISIS scramble in Syria raises risk of wider war

You may have a sense that the Syria conflict is winding down. It can also sometimes seem poised to escalate, as big powers jockey for a lasting foothold. What's holding that in check? As this piece explains, even the winners have a lot to lose.

Senior officers from the Iranian military visited a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria, last October.
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Syrian Central Military Media/AP
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAs the danger of Islamic State (ISIS) fades from Syria, analysts say outside powers are probing each other to establish new rules of the game. It is a high-stakes effort that risks sparking an even wider war. “This is the most dangerous phase of the Syrian conflict, because now geo-strategic regional and global powers are positioning themselves for the post-ISIS phase … and everyone is willing to push the envelope,” says Fawaz Gerges at the London School of Economics. The flashpoints were obvious this past week, between Israel and Iran, Russia and the US, and Turkey and pro-regime forces. Yet the results nevertheless indicate that, despite probing military actions and reactions, no side is eager for full-blown war. After Israel downed an Iranian drone, and Syria downed an Israeli jet, de-escalation efforts were swift, including a phone call between the Israeli and Russian leaders. If Russia wants a relatively stable Syria, notes another analyst, “it can’t allow a war to be ignited over the southern border, because that would lay Syria to waste, if not a large area of the Middle East.”

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2. How post-ISIS scramble in Syria raises risk of wider war

On three different Syrian front lines, the violent events of recent days signal that the long-running conflict has reached a critical moment of evolution, as key players jockey to establish new red lines and maximize gains after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State.

First to grab headlines was the launching last weekend of an Iranian drone from western Syria into Israel for the first time. Israel shot it down, then lost one of its own F-16 jet fighters – the first such loss in decades – to a Syrian anti-aircraft missile after striking the drone’s home base.

The Israeli Air Force retaliated for the downed jet, targeting eight Syrian and four Iranian positions inside Syria, and claiming to destroy half of Syria’s air-defense capacity.

Second to grab headlines were reports that emerged this week about the death of scores of Russian “mercenaries” that had attacked a position of US advisers and their militia allies in the oil-rich eastern Syrian region of Deir Ezzor on Feb. 7 and 8. They were met by a three-hour US military barrage, in the most lethal US-Russia incident since the cold war.

The third event, with fewer fireworks, saw the Turkish military advance up to positions in northern Syria, eyeball to eyeball with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, which have themselves been shelling anti-regime rebels in the northern Idlib enclave.

As the danger of ISIS fades from Syria, the array of players that have helped destroy the country during seven years of war are probing each other to establish new rules of the game, analysts say, in high-stakes efforts that risk sparking an even wider war.

“This is the most dangerous phase of the Syrian conflict, because now geo-strategic regional and global powers are positioning themselves for the post-ISIS phase,” says Fawaz Gerges, a Mideast scholar at the London School of Economics.

“There is a fierce rivalry, everyone is willing to push the envelope, to escalate, and this is why the fear – not only of a clash between the regional powers, but a major blunder by Russia or the US – [is that this] could really escalate conflict to a different level,” says Mr. Gerges, author of “ISIS: A History.”

Israeli security officers at the wreckage of an F-16 that crashed in northern Israel on Feb. 10, 2018. As Syrian troops and their allies push toward final victory, clashes over new front lines and red lines threaten an even broader confrontation.
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Rami Slush/AP

Flashpoints are obvious, as the evolving post-ISIS conflict brings foes Israel and Iran and Iran’s allies Hezbollah closer to each other along Syria’s southwest border.

Likewise, the US has indicated that it intends to keep a military presence in the broad swaths of northeastern territory controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that it backs, despite the stated intention of Damascus – supported by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah – to reclaim every inch of Syrian territory.

The results of the recent violence nevertheless indicate that, despite the probing military actions and reactions, no side is yet eager for a full-blown war.

Swift de-escalation

Downing the Israeli F-16, for example, “appears to have been part of a pre-planned ‘bait and trap’ operation” by Mr. Assad and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, wrote Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, in an analysis this week.

“The use of the comparatively disposable Iranian drone as bait to lure in an Israeli response was met with an unusually large wave of at least 24 surface-to-air missiles,” wrote Mr. Lister.

“The Iranians are raising the stakes of the bet,” Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, the former director of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, was quoted as saying in the Jerusalem Post.

“Since the Iranians were facing Israeli efforts to prevent them from having what they want, they are now trying to do things they haven’t before,” said Mr. Kuperwasser, also a former head of the army’s Intelligence, Research and Assessment division.

And yet, after the initial strikes, de-escalation efforts were swift: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone; and Iran denied it launched a drone at all, with one Tehran official saying the claims were “too ridiculous to be addressed.”

The Israeli military released cockpit footage of a batwing drone – similar to knock-offs of the American RQ-170 stealth drone that Iran captured in late 2011 and claims to have reverse-engineered – being tracked and then obliterated by a missile. It also released footage it claimed to be of the launch vehicle being destroyed inside Syria, and photographs of the burnt wreckage of the drone on Israeli soil.

Russia’s and Iran’s interests both converge and diverge in Syria, says Gerges. Iran’s presence has been key to Russia’s success, but Russia has a different agenda. “Russia does not really want Iran to have a dominant position,” he says. “Russia suspects that Iran wants to basically divert the crisis into a greater crisis, not only with Israel but with the Gulf countries.”

Russia as mediator

Absent an effective diplomatic process to mediate and enforce mutually agreed parameters of peace, the new back-and-forth on the Iran-Israel front in Syria is defining a de facto level of mutual deterrence, like the one that came to be between Hezbollah and Israel after their devastating 33-day war in 2006.

“To the extent it is Iran and Israel doing this, that is probing, yes. But it’s the only way to make the red lines clear, because that is what happened after 2006, too. There wasn’t any negotiation,” says Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East and North Africa program director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Russia is in the best position to play mediator, because of its relatively good relations with all players – Assad’s allies, as well as Israel – and its military presence since 2015 that proved decisive for pro-regime forces, says Mr. Hiltermann. It also likely wants a relatively stable Syria, so it can reduce its military footprint.

“If that’s what [Russia] wants, then it can’t allow a war to be ignited over the southern border, because that would lay Syria to waste, if not a large area of the Middle East,” says Hiltermann. “The will [to mediate] might be there … but I’m not sure they have the capacity – they just haven’t actually played that role.”

Russian attempts to bring even Syria’s domestic players together for a peace conference in Sochi failed at the end of January, when, despite strong cajoling from Moscow, the most important Syrian opposition grouping and Kurdish groups boycotted the event.

Farkhanur Gavrilova, mother of Ruslan Gavrilov, who is reported to have been killed in Syria, speaking to the Associated Press in the village of Kedrovoye, Russia, Feb. 15, 2018. Gavrilova’s son was one of seven men in this village of 2,300 who are believed to have joined a private military company called Wagner. The company reportedly was involved in an attack on US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria on Feb. 7 and suffered devastating losses in a US counterstrike.
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Nataliya Vasilyeva/AP

And Russia has other problems in Syria, where its nationals were reportedly embroiled in fighting last week. Several hundred pro-regime fighters – many reportedly Russians or nationals of former Soviet Republics like Ukraine – were targeted by a host of US aircraft as they tried to overrun a base near Al Tabiyeh, east of Deir Ezzor.

US military officials said they communicated with Russia “before, during and after” the strikes. A Kremlin spokesman distanced Russia from the battle, saying it only deals with servicemen, and adding: “We don’t have data about other Russians who could be in Syria.”

US not leaving yet

Still, Bloomberg reported that “scores of Russian mercenaries” linked to a private Russian military contractor, Wagner, were being treated this week in Defense Ministry hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg, citing two people in contact with them. Russian media reports suggest that “Assad may have hired Wagner to recapture and guard Syrian energy assets in return for lucrative oil concessions,” Bloomberg reported.

“Americans have taken dangerous unilateral steps” in backing the SDF, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week, without directly mentioning the episode. “Those steps look increasingly as part of efforts to create a quasi-state on a large part of Syrian territory from the eastern bank of the Euphrates [River] all the way to the border with Iraq.”

That Russian reaction coincides with clear signals from Washington in recent months that US advisers don’t plan to leave Syria, despite the winding down of anti-ISIS operations.

“The reason Russia is very angry is that Putin had thought he has most of the cards … that he could really translate his military dominance into political currency,” says Gerges of LSE. “The Sochi conference has shown very clearly that Russia could not deliver.”

But if Russia could this week at least help manage de-escalation between Israel and Iran, “the Americans were nowhere to be seen,” notes Gerges.

“It tells you a great deal about the weak hand the US has,” he adds. That’s why the US decided to stay in north and eastern Syria, “not because of resources, not because they love the Kurds, but because they are very concerned about not allowing Russia and Iran to have the ultimate say, in either the post-ISIS phase or the New Syria.”

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3. In GMO debate, Uganda seeks to strike a balance

How do regulators manage the risks and promises of emerging technology? On the highly contentious issue of genetically modified crops, Uganda is looking for a way forward that tempers fears with practical legislation.

A research scientist stands outside a 'confined field' trial at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories in Kampala, Uganda.
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Christopher Bendana
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAfter publicly supporting a bill that would have legalized genetically modified crops, Uganda’s president is now calling for additional measures to address anti-GMO activists’ concerns. The president’s combined concern and hope illustrate the spectrum of thinking swirling around GMOs in Uganda and around the world. They also suggest that the two viewpoints may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. In his eyes, at least, there are ways to introduce GM crops to help alleviate the impact of drought while taking steps to preserve the integrity of native ecosystems. President Yoweri Museveni asked legislators to consider instituting a mandatory minimum distance between GM and non-GM fields, or restricting GM crops to greenhouses. As an ultimate hedge, he called on the country’s National Agricultural Research Organization and Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industries, and Fisheries to establish a “Noah’s Ark” to preserve indigenous plants and animals. While scientists see this latest hurdle in the process as a stumbling block, activists have expressed gratitude that the president has elevated their concerns to a level that legislators cannot ignore.

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3. In GMO debate, Uganda seeks to strike a balance

Scientists in Uganda had hoped it was the dawn of a new era in food security for a drought-prone region.

In October, Uganda’s legislature moved to lift a ban on genetically modified crops, a move that stoked both hopes and fears in a fiercely divided populace. Where proponents saw opportunity to lift a region out of a cycle of drought and crop failure, critics cautioned that the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the local environment could spell devastation for native flora and fauna.

Heeding those concerns, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni refused to sign the bill when it arrived on his desk in December. Now, he has asked Parliament to work with the nation’s scientists to find a way to balance researchers’ hopes with anti-GMO activists’ concerns.

In the past Mr. Museveni has supported the technology and had previously urged legislators to pass the bill as quickly as possible. But in a letter to the speaker of Parliament, he expressed concerns about what might befall indigenous species like long-horned Ankole cattle and native crops like millet if the country began planting genetically modified crops.

The president’s combined concern and hope illustrate the spectrum of thinking swirling around GMOs in Uganda and around the world. However, they also suggest that the two viewpoints may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. In his eyes, at least, there are ways to open the door for GM crops to help alleviate the impact of drought on the region while taking steps to preserve the integrity of native ecosystems.

While scientists see this latest hurdle in the process as a stumbling block, activists have expressed gratitude that the president has elevated their concerns to a level that legislators cannot ignore.

“The president raised the issues we have been raising over time,” says Agnes Kirabo, the executive director of Uganda Food Rights Alliance and one of the country’s fiercest anti-GMO activists. “It makes me proud to see the fountain of honor reiterating our concern,” she says.

As in other parts of the world, anti-GMO advocates have raised myriad concerns, from worries that new strains designed to be grown with pesticides and fertilizers could lead to indiscriminate application of questionable chemicals to fears that international corporations will be the true winners of the introduction of GM crops at the expense of the Ugandan farmer.

Much of the current discussion revolves around the possibility of pollen from GM crops inadvertently cross-pollinating with wild and traditionally bred agricultural crops.

In light of that possibility, Museveni asked legislators to consider instituting a mandatory minimum distance between GM and non-GM fields, or restricting GM crops to greenhouses. As an ultimate hedge, he called on the country’s National Agricultural Research Organization and Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industries, and Fisheries to establish a “Noah’s Ark” to preserve indigenous plants and animals.

Ms. Kirabo applauds those suggestions but wishes that the president had pushed harder.

“What budget percentage is allotted to gene banks in Uganda to help in conservation of our biodiversity? Can the scientists give the country confidence?” she asks.

She says she hopes the legislators will consider enacting a strict liability law to hold scientists accountable for any spillover effects from GM research. She argues that scientists are highly rewarded for their innovation through existing legislation and should also be held accountable for their mistakes.

The Parliamentary Committee of Science and Technology, which has been charged with revising the bill to address the president’s concerns, plans to recommend the establishment of a centralized national gene bank, committee chairman Robert Ssekitoleko tells the Monitor. Currently there are several mini-gene banks scattered among several government and institutional research centers.

To biotechnology advocates, the president’s concerns are being excessively amplified by fear. In most cases, scientists have considered and are taking steps to address these concerns, says Clet Masiga, director of the Tropical Institute of Development Innovations.

“In our view, if he had consulted the scientists, there would not have been any issues,” he says.

In his eyes, the potential that GM crops able to withstand disease and drought hold for Uganda and the broader region far outweigh the risks.

Ugandan farmer Richard Opio and his wife sort through their most recent harvest of 'super beans' that are being promoted to feed the hunger-prone African continent, in Nwoya, Uganda on Nov. 1, 2017. As hunger and climate change threaten parts of Africa, two bean 'gene banks' on the continent are pursuing 'super' beans that are bred to resist drought conditions.
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Rodney Muhumuza/AP

Ugandan farmers are accustomed to dealing with dry seasons but in recent years these periods have stretched in into longer more concentrated droughts. In 2016, drought-related crop failures plunged 1.3 million Ugandans into food crisis. Climate models suggest that these kind of droughts will become more frequent.

The effects of crop failures in Uganda reverberate throughout the region. Uganda exports grain to Kenya and South Sudan and is a significant contributor to the World Food Programme, which feeds refugees from South Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda. These nations are likely to feel the effects of Uganda’s GM research, whether it be a success or failure.

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4. Glitter and gold? US nordic women hunt medals as a team.

There have been many absorbing stories this week of individual Olympic athletes. The writer of this next piece – herself once ranked fourth among women nordic skiers in the US – was also once a training partner of Kikkan Randall, the veteran member of the current US team. Who better to provide a portrait of this tightknit group of contenders?

 

The 30 Sec. ReadHow do you create a team that is greater than the sum of its parts? Ask cross-country skier Kikkan Randall, who had the audacious goal of winning an Olympic medal – even when she was finishing dead last in the World Cup. Never mind that her coaches had never raced at that level. Or that Norwegian skiers had a team budget 14 times as big as that of the Americans, who do their own dishes at training camps. She showed it was possible, and instilled that belief in a new generation of skiers who have won more than 80 World Cup medals and even a World Championships title. In Pyeongchang, South Korea, her teammate Jessie Diggins has come heartbreakingly close to winning the team’s first Olympic medal. But this Saturday’s relay would be an especially appropriate victory. For the key to these ladies’ unprecedented results is a team culture that celebrates individual success as a collective success. “I knew from the beginning that building a team was the most important thing we could do to ski fast,” says women’s head coach Matt Whitcomb.

Team USA’s path to global recognition: training and team-building

Over the past decade, the women’s cross-country ski team has built a name for itself – not just for speed, but camaraderie. That pays off on the course, too.
SOURCE: International Ski Federation
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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4. Glitter and gold? US nordic women hunt medals as a team.

Not so long ago, the idea of Americans winning an Olympic medal in Nordic skiing was about as heretical as the thought of a Norwegian team winning the Super Bowl.

After all, it had only been done once, by Bill Koch in 1976. And it had never been done by an American woman. But a few girls from Alaska to Vermont were convinced it was possible – even when they were finishing dead last on the World Cup.

Never mind that their coaches had never raced at that level, let alone won any medals. Or that by the time the word “ski” was invented in English, Scandinavians had a 5,800-year head start on perfecting the art of gliding across snow. Or that Norwegian skiers were national celebrities with a team budget 14 times bigger than that of the Americans, who still do their own dishes at training camps and are virtually unknown at home.

Undaunted, these girls painted their cheeks with glitter; pulled on red, blue, and white striped knee-socks; and shattered the European glass ceiling of cross-country skiing – capturing gold, silver, and bronze medals at World Championships, and winning more than 80 medals at World Cups. Now they’re gunning for an Olympic medal, and their best shot is in the next two events: the 4x5 km relay on Saturday, and the team sprint next Wednesday.

“It would be pretty special to be able to do it in the relay,” says Kikkan Randall, America’s most decorated female cross-country skier.

It would also be fitting. For the key to these ladies’ unprecedented results is a team culture that has been more than a decade in the making. They value each other as much for being good listeners as racing fast, and celebrate individual success as a collective success – because each woman is recognized for her role creating a team environment that empowers every one to fulfill her potential. The US men’s team has also played a key role as supportive peers and “brothers” – with little trace of the jock culture that often dominates in sports.

Even for those baffled by the world of spandex, ski wax, and skiers who prefer going uphill, such team-building transcends those mysteries. It is as applicable to managing an office as building a world-class ski team.

“I would be lying to say that we aren’t some of the most competitive girls in the world, but we learned that it’s not helpful to build yourself up by pushing/putting others down,” says Holly Brooks, a member of the 2012 US women’s team that won America’s first World Cup relay medal. She has since left the team and started her own business in Anchorage, Alaska. “Instead, one of the best tactics is to band together, build each other up, and collaborate. I think that tactic can be extrapolated into any avenue in life.”

Jessica Diggins, of the United States, third from right, competes during the women's cross-country skiing sprint classic at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Feb. 13, 2018.
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Matthias Schrader/AP

Raising the bar

Randall has been very close – devastatingly close – to winning an Olympic medal before. In the 2014 Games, she was a heavy favorite in the sprint competition.

That in itself was an accomplishment. It would be hard to overstate just how outclassed Americans were when Randall’s career began.

In her first individual World Cup, she had finished last – nearly five minutes behind the winner. At the 2006 Olympics, her relay team came in 14th out of 17 nations.

But Randall persisted and won a World Cup medal the following season – the first for US women in modern racing.

Working with coach Erik Flora at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, she created a nucleus of hard-working women who were chosen more for their motivation than their results. Among them was Sadie Bjornsen, who had nearly quit skiing after missing the 2010 Olympics, but under Flora’s tutelage has since medaled at World Championships.

Flora’s formula was simple, based on a year he spent training with one of Norway’s premier ski clubs: Get a core group of committed athletes together, and train hard. Really hard.

At the time, Norwegians were logging around 900 hours a year, but Americans were averaging 500 to 600 hours.  

He gradually raised that bar – and Randall demonstrated the results.

By the time she arrived in Sochi, she had won gold with teammate Jessie Diggins at the 2013 World Championships and was weeks away from clinching her third sprint World Cup title – a season-long contest and the most prestigious award in ski racing, because it requires consistency over a five-month period.

So when Randall missed qualifying for the Olympic sprint semi-finals by .05 seconds, the entire stadium fell silent. She and the team also had a disappointing 9th-place showing in the relay, an event in which they had won two World Cup medals.

But that night as team member Bjornsen was walking back from dinner she ran into Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, a Finnish skier who had joined the Americans for a training camp in Alaska two years prior. In an isolated cabin on the edge of a glacier, Saarinen had participated in their team-building activities – from making meals and doing dishes together to creating dance routines.

So when, on the eve of the Olympic relay, Saarinen felt that her team’s spirits needed lifting up, she took a page out of the Americans’ book and brought her team together to sing karaoke and play rally car games late into the night. The next day, they staged an incredible come-from-behind performance to take Olympic silver.

“The only reason we won a medal today is because of the lessons I learned from you in Alaska two summers ago,” Saarinen told Bjornsen, according to a new book, “World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross Country Ski Team,” by Peggy Shinn.

The Swedes have also noticed.

“The American girls have always looked happy, positive, full of life – different from many other skiers and athletes in other disciplines,” says Ole Morten Iversen, a Norwegian who started coaching the Swedish women two years ago and found the team dynamic needed improving. “We want to be as good as the American girls regarding the team spirit.”

The most obvious manifestation of that team spirit is Diggins’ tradition of painting her teammates’ cheeks with glitter and flags – a tradition that has spread to other teams, including the Swedes.

“The glitter, for me, is this promise to honor the little girl that just wants to go super-speed – it’s this reminder that I do this because I love it,” says Diggins, the self-appointed team cheerleader who in 2016 became the first American woman to win a World Cup distance race. Now the strongest skier on the team, she has come within seconds of medaling at these Games in each of the first three races. “For me it feels like … a privilege to help change the culture of skiing to Yes We Can.”

Jessica Diggins of USA and Kikkan Randall of USA celebrate after finishing second and third respectively at the FIS Nordic Ski World Championships in Finland in Feb. 2017.
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Lehtikuva/Markku Ulander/Reuters

Just as tough as racing

But what looks great from far away is not always as smooth as it seems.

In the fall of 2016, head women’s coach Matt Whitcomb had to confront a sobering realization. After prioritizing team-building above all else, he and the girls had unconsciously “popped it into neutral,” and it was showing – in jealousy, lack of communication, and a general flatness.

So he called a meeting.

“For a team that is basically known first as being a team, before we’re known for being fast, this is the worst we’ve done in a long time,” he told them, acknowledging his part in letting things slip. “Is there anybody in the room who would disagree with that?”

That prompted a cathartic confession session that left everyone – including Whitcomb – in tears.

“We are eight really, really competitive girls living together for five months in a hotel room. … That’s not always pretty or perfect,” says Bjornsen. “You work just as hard at being a teammate as you do at racing. …and Matt plays a huge role in that.” 

After that meeting, Whitcomb reinstated an old rule to promote camaraderie: no cellphones at lunch and dinner. He has also helped the girls look ahead to potential challenges. And coming into these Olympics, with six girls who have skied on a medal-winning relay team, one of the biggest challenges they’ve discussed is how to deal with not being named to that potentially historic relay on Saturday.

“You don’t get to actually go home with a medal if you’re not one of the four,” says Liz Stephen, who has skied in every medal-winning relay and is a pillar of the team.

“But it’s been a goal the whole time, through all these relay medals – whoever is not on the team, this is a team medal. And I can be sure that I have had a role – and whoever is on that team – we’ve had a role in creating the team that it is today.”

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5. Whose nature? Colorado leads push to democratize the outdoors.

Does spending time in nature have to be a privilege? One state is leading the way in ensuring that minority and low-income children don’t get left inside.

Francisco Varga, an urban ranger with Environmental Learning for Kids, helps a young girl learn about marine life at Barr Lake State Park. ELK is one of the organizations in the GoWild Northeast Metro Coalition funded by a $2.7 million Great Outdoors Colorado grant to serve Commerce City, northeast Aurora, and Denver’s Montbello and Northeast Park Hill neighborhoods.
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Courtesy of GoWild
 

The 30 Sec. ReadIn theory, Colorado’s state and national parks and other public lands are available to all residents. But in reality, many of the state’s low-income and minority children grow up feeling as if nature is not a place for them. It’s a phenomenon that is pervasive throughout the United States. But Colorado has become a leader in a movement to democratize the outdoors. “All children deserve nature and the outdoors. It’s a right, like clean air or clean water,” says Lise Aangeenbrug, who helped develop a $29 million program designed to help disadvantaged children find their place in the natural world. She and others insist that opening the door outside for all children will pay off. A growing body of research suggests that bridging the nature deficit can in turn help close academic gaps while improving both physical and mental health. What’s more, there’s a calming and healing aspect to being outside – whether in a backcountry wilderness or urban green space a few blocks away – that is increasingly important.

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5. Whose nature? Colorado leads push to democratize the outdoors.

For Amadeo Franco, a high school junior who lives in Denver’s Cole neighborhood, the chance to escape the city and spend days and weeks exploring the mountains and parks in Colorado and Utah has been a godsend.

Spending time in nature “is the only time I feel at peace in any sense of the phrase,” says Amadeo, who has been a regular participant in cityWILD, a free program that gets Denver kids out hiking, camping, rafting, and rock climbing, since he was in sixth grade. “I’ve developed friends who are now like my family,” he adds.

In theory, public spaces belong to everyone. But in reality, many low-income and minority children grow up feeling like nature is not a place for them. Colorado is on the forefront of a movement to lift barriers to nature and to help all children experience the peace that comes from spending time outdoors.

CityWILD has been actively working in Denver for 20 years, but it’s also a participant in a groundbreaking new effort taking place in 15 communities in Colorado. The goal is to increase access and connection to nature for under-served children and their families in a meaningful way: preschool to high school, backyard to backcountry.

“All children deserve nature and the outdoors. It’s a right, like clean air or clean water,” says Lise Aangeenbrug, who helped develop the $29 million Inspire program when she was director of Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), a lottery-funded organization that has provided most of the funding. She cites numerous studies that link a connection with nature to physical and mental health, academics, civic engagement, and quality of life. “And if you’re from an organization that cares about conservation, you have to care about this. These kids are tomorrow’s voters, and conservation is only as permanent as tomorrow’s vote.”

The nature deficit

While Colorado’s program is perhaps the largest and most ambitious program to tackle the growing disconnect between children and nature, the issue of “nature deficit disorder” – a term that grew out of Richard Louv’s seminal 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods” – has been getting increased attention around the country. Last year, the state of Washington allocated $1.5 million for “No Child Left Inside” grants. And in 2016, Oregon voters approved a measure that dedicates $22 million in lottery funds each year to enable every fifth- and sixth-grader in the state to attend a week of immersive outdoor learning.

For some time, there’s been a growing recognition – bolstered by numerous studies – that spending time outdoors and in nature is important, and is losing out to electronic devices and organized activities for children from all walks of life, says Sarah Milligan-Toffler, director of the Children & Nature Network. But she says that it’s been harder to raise awareness about the systemic issues and barriers that create that disconnect, especially for many low-income and minority communities.

“If you’re going to have a conversation about this as important to all children, then you also have to talk about, are all children starting from same starting point,” says Ms. Milligan-Toffler.

In Colorado, that equity piece has been central to the Inspire program, though a broader, statewide “Generation Wild” campaign that GOCO launched last year also hopes to encourage families all over the state to get outside. Ms. Aangeenbrug says that when she first broached this idea, she encountered skepticism. Colorado, after all, has an abundance of public lands, state and national parks, and green space where people can hike, fish, camp, and get outside. But a series of surveys and discussions in communities around the state revealed that wasn’t the case for everyone.

In Lamar, a small town in southeast Colorado, a state park is just 30 minutes away, but none of the students surveyed had ever been to it. Talking to students and families in urban, rural, and suburban communities, GOCO staff identified numerous barriers to getting outside, ranging from lack of time, knowledge, or the right gear, to simply not feeling welcome or not feeling like the outdoors were for people like them.

GOCO asked communities to submit proposals, with only a few requirements: they had to involve a trusted local partner; they had to involve youth leadership; and they had to include outdoor spaces close to home that were safe to access. The emphasis was to be on collaboration and development of meaningful connections to nature for families, young kids, and older kids, with programming both close to home and farther away. Beyond that, communities were encouraged to talk to and listen to the needs of residents, and come up with whatever model fit best. GOCO then provided an initial round of planning grants to help those communities further refine their ideas.

“For the longest time, it’s been dictated to certain communities what’s best for them,” says Jackie Miller, GOCO’s director of youth initiatives. “We wanted to authentically understand where the barriers are and come up with community-identified solutions.”

Leadville, Colo., was one of the first six communities to win funding. The highest incorporated city in the United States at over 10,000 feet, Leadville is surrounded by majestic 14,000-foot peaks, mountain lakes, and wilderness.

“Theoretically, there’s this rich environment where everyone has access, but the reality is that’s not the case,” says Beth Helmke, the director of Get Outdoors Leadville!, noting that Leadville’s student population is about 70 percent Latino and 60 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. The GOCO grant allowed the town to create a web of programming that includes summer camps, a gear library, adventure days at a nearby ski area, and outdoor and hands-on learning through the local schools. They’ve partnered with Colorado Mountain College to create internships and dual-credit courses for high schoolers and expose them to possible career paths. And they have worked to make sure that information – from interpreter signs at recreation areas to paperwork for getting a fishing license – is available in Spanish as well as English.

“Creating the space to have honest conversations around this really brought to light some of those intangible barriers,” says Ms. Helmke.

A young boy learns how to mountain bike during Get Outdoors Leadville! Rockies Rock camp. GOL! received a $3 million grant from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) for Rockies Rock and other outdoor places, programming, and pathways to careers in the outdoors as part of GOCO’s Inspire initiative.
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Courtesy of GOL!

'Pushed out of the outdoors'

In Denver, cityWILD has been involved in two of the Inspire communities, leading the programming for middle- and high-school aged kids with after-school clubs and nature excursions that range from short hiking or snow-shoeing excursions to week-long trips to the mountains of Colorado and Utah, complete with rock climbing and river rafting. They’ve also partnered with a local group that takes teenagers out to local ski areas and teaches them skiing and snowboarding.

“My favorite thing to do is rafting and camping,” says Shia Brooks, a tall, enthusiastic senior who also helps run the after-school club cityWILD hosts, and who says she now has been certified as both a rafting and rock climbing guide.

On this chilly winter afternoon, Shia and others in the program are gathered in cityWILD’s big, warehouse-like space in the Cole neighborhood to build camp stoves out of soda cans – part of a month-long focus on “fuel” as it relates to the mind, body, and spirit. But they’re also eagerly talking about the upcoming camping trip they’ll be taking to the Arkansas River Valley in March.

Jes Ward, cityWILD’s executive director, says the work is important when it comes to building the next generation of environmental stewards – but that it’s also critical from an equity standpoint.

Many of the kids she works with, Ms. Ward notes, feel like “they’ve been pushed out of the outdoors.”

And she and others insist that opening the door outside for all children will pay off down the line. A growing body of research suggests that bridging the nature deficit can in turn help close academic gaps while improving both physical and mental health. What’s more, there’s a calming and healing aspect to being outside – whether in a backcountry wilderness or urban green space a few blocks away – that is increasingly important.

“The technology we have on the one hand is amazing, but it’s also very hard to disconnect from that and it creates a lot of tension and anxiety,” says Milligan-Toffler. “Time spent in natural spaces, away from those devices, creates an opportunity for us all to restore and be more human. One of the things we’re learning is that our senses are actually being dulled through lack of time spent in the natural world, and no parent wants their child to be less alive.”

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The Monitor's View

After large-scale killings, aid groups find new ways to comfort

 

The 30 Sec. ReadCharitable giving was up last year in the United States, especially to faith-based and international aid groups. One reason may be a trend toward healing individuals in a community after large-scale violence. The latest example is the care offered to Parkland, Fla., after the Feb. 14 shooting at the local high school. Churches and other groups from afar have sent people to assist the families of victims and the community at large. Similar assistance was offered after other mass shootings, such as those at a Las Vegas concert and in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The simple act of caring can itself bring healing. In former conflict zones, aid groups find similar work. In Iraq, humanitarian organizations are helping civilians recover after three years of killings by Islamic State. “Iraq and its people have survived great horror and pain,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at a conference this week in Kuwait that sought to raise money for rebuilding Iraq. People who are witnesses to mass violence need the comfort of caring individuals as much as the rebuilding of their homes and businesses.

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After large-scale killings, aid groups find new ways to comfort

Charitable giving in the United States went up 4 percent last year, a nice jump after near-zero growth the year before, according to the Blackbaud Institute. The causes include a better economy, big hurricanes, and the ease of online giving. But also of note is that giving was even higher to faith-based and international aid groups.

One reason may be a new trend in giving: With more places suffering mass killing of innocent people, whether in Iraqi cities or in American schools, charities seek to heal individuals and communities of the trauma from such large-scale violence.

Like the aftermath of a natural disaster, individuals hit by mass killing must deal with fear, loss, and sadness. Humanitarian aid in the form of emotional and spiritual support is as necessary as physical relief and restoration. The violence has disrupted families and other relationships. To bring hope and reduce anxiety, the bonds of community must be restored. The simple act of caring can itself bring healing.

The latest example is the care offered to Parkland, Fla., after the Feb. 14 shooting at the local high school. Churches and other groups from afar have sent people to assist the families of victims and the community at large. For many of the visiting Christians, their prayers have led them to acts of love. Similar assistance was offered after other mass shootings in the US, such as that at a Las Vegas concert; in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas; and in a nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

Humanitarian organizations are also active in former conflict zones where violence against civilians was widespread. A good example is the work in Iraqi cities newly liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS) and that group’s almost daily killings of civilians over three years.

An estimated 5.5 million Iraqis are now receiving post-conflict assistance. “Iraq and its people have survived great horror and pain,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at a conference this week in Kuwait that sought to raise money for rebuilding Iraq.

The social fabric of Iraqi cities such as Mosul must be restored, especially among ethnic and religious groups, in order to avoid yet another rise of a terrorist group like ISIS. Some in those groups gave support to ISIS.

“Iraq must come to terms with simmering, unresolved grievances and deep societal wounds that, left unaddressed, could generate another round of extremism and sectarian violence,” states Nancy Lindborg, president of the United States Institute of Peace. That body supports the work of grassroot groups trying to reconcile Sunni and Shiite Muslims, ethnic Kurds, and religious minorities such as Christians and Yazidis.

At the donors’ conference for Iraq, both private groups and governments pledged $30 billion toward the reconstruction of the country. Some of the money will be used to help Iraqis recover from the trauma of violence. They will need the comfort of caring individuals as much as the rebuilding of their homes and businesses.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

The irrepressibility of life

 

Today’s column explores how an understanding of God as indestructible, eternal Life itself brings renewal.

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The irrepressibility of life

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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The devastation seemed total. Nothing but the black outlines of charred trees was visible for miles. A couple of months earlier, a wildfire had scorched acres of wilderness. But upon closer look, there was a tiny sprig of green oak leaves coming straight out of what looked like the completely lifeless remains of a huge oak tree. I’ve been greatly inspired by this idea of unquenchable life, right where life seemed absent.

The evidences of renewal we see in nature, such as this glorious new growth in the charred landscape, point to the divine reality of inextinguishable life. From my study of Christian Science, I’ve come to know God as eternal Life itself, and also to understand more clearly that the universe is truly spiritual, created by God, therefore animated and sustained by this self-existent, divine Life.

God’s creation flows out from this Life, and includes all it needs to sustain itself, as a passage from the Bible indicates: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so” (Genesis 1:11). Because its source is God, true, spiritual creation is indestructible, ever-renewing. When our prayers for restoration affirm this spiritual fact, we can trust in their effectiveness. As the “seed is in itself,” so the rejuvenating nature of Life can be seen and experienced.

This became evident to me a couple of years ago when my horse, Omar, had a serious accident at a large horse show. The show veterinarian was called and suspected a crushed vertebra, which meant Omar’s show career was over. He recommended further X-rays to determine how to proceed with the horse’s care.

As I prayed – something I usually do when facing a challenge of any kind – I saw more clearly that Omar’s purpose and life were actually spiritual, and therefore indestructible, irrepressible, unstoppable. They could not be cut short. In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy explains, “We must look deep into realism instead of accepting only the outward sense of things” (p. 129). My prayers affirmed that God’s wonderful, spiritual universe, complete and eternal, is the reality, and is always discernible because it’s all good. It is the exuberant expression of divine Life, which is an ongoing and uninterruptible unfolding. We can expect to see evidences of this spiritual fact, as in the green sprig emerging from the charred remains of the oak tree.

Four days later Omar was thoroughly examined by a local veterinarian. Much to the vet’s surprise, given what had happened at the show, there was no indication of any injury. Omar continued to compete and excel with no trace of the problem.

We can let the divine facts of the irrepressibility of eternal Life and its creation shine into and imbue our everyday experience with hope, confidence, and joy. This can bring rejuvenation, restoration, and renewal where it’s needed. We can rejoice that life truly is and always will be self-existent, inextinguishable!

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Power slide

Natalie Geisenberger of Germany competes in the women's singles luge event at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Feb. 13. By Feb. 16, Germany led the gold-medal count with 9, and Norway led in medals overall with 19. For a full gallery of Olympics images, click on the blue button below.
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Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( February 20th, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Thanks for being here. We won’t publish a full issue on Monday because of the US holiday (watch for something else from us that day). We’ll resume on Tuesday with a full rack of stories. Among them: Can a positive, less punitive approach to absenteeism help students and families get a handle on absences? We’ll report on efforts in Albuquerque, N.M., to answer that question with a “yes.” 

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