ICYMI: Top 10 stories, easily explained

September 20, 2013

1. Navy Yard shooting leaves 13 dead, plenty of questions
A gunman identified as Aaron Alexis, a U.S. Navy Reserves veteran with a history of mental illness, opened fire at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, killing 12 people and injuring another dozen before being killed in one of several gun battles with police. The incident—the worst attack at a U.S. military installation since U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan fatally shot 13 people at Ford Hood, Texas, in 2009—prompted a review of security measures at the Navy Yard and renewed the national debate over gun control just five months after the Senate defeated a gun-buyer background check bill.

2. To taper or….oh, not to? OK
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke shocked, well, everyone by announcing that the central bank is not yet ready to scale back a quantitative easing program put in place back in 2008. The decision came just four months after Bernanke outlined a QE-reduction plan—known as “tapering”—that included trimming the bank’s $85-billion-a-month bond-buying by the end of the year and ending it by mid-2014 (by which time the bank anticipated unemployment falling to 7 percent). Bernanke’s announcement prompted criticism of the Fed’s communication strategy, and suggested the bank may have shot itself in the foot by outlining tapering in the spring, opening the door to reactionary economic conditions that made said tapering nonviable. The move also leaves Bernanke’s successor—increasingly likely to be Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen—without a useful QE roadmap.

3.  A Whale of a fail 
Onetime Wall Street darling JPMorgan Chase & Co. will pay $920 million to four regulators in two countries to settle liabilities from its $6.2 billion “London Whale” trading loss. The settlement(s) are notable for JPM’s rare admission of wrongdoing—though whose wrongdoing was left unanswered—but don’t mean the end of the bank’s Whale woes. JPMorgan still faces criminal probes into the scandal (plus probes related to energy trading, mortgage securities and bribery in China). Nor has the bank yet squared its Whale liabilities with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. But JPM swears it’s learned its lesson: CEO Jamie Dimon sent a morale-boosting memo to the bank’s employees on Tuesday, touting measures to prevent future Whales that include increased transparency, better reporting and a bunch of new compliance officers.

4. Weapons of mass discussion
A week after the U.S. and Russia brokered a deal to put Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arms stockpiles under international control, the fate of said compromise is still TBD. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China—have spent the week discussing a draft resolution, and Secretary of State John Kerry called on the U.N. to act when its General Assembly meets in New York next week. But there are still many details to be hashed out, including how much the plan would cost (Assad says $1 billion) and whether it could realistically be accomplished by the middle of next year. Nor is there consensus on culpability: A U.N. report issued Monday confirmed the use of chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack in Syria, but stopped short of blaming the Assad regime. Russia called the report preconceived and Assad maintains that any use of sarin gas came from the rebels.

 5. Déjà vu all over again
The White House and Congress are staring down an exceedingly familiar deadlock over funding necessary to keep the government running. The House of Representatives passed a bill Friday to fund federal agencies from October 1 to December 15, while also defunding Obamacare, despite admonitions from Democrats that they would kill the GOP-led initiative. (The vote marks the 42nd time House Republicans have tried to kill or significantly derail the health care initiative.) The Senate is expected to debate the bill next week but in the meantime, neither side is being particularly communicative. And time is running out: A budget deal is necessary by September 30 to avoid a federal government shutdown, and a separate agreement must be reached by mid-October to prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its national debt.

6. When it rains, it pours
Mexican resort town Acapulco is still grappling with food shortages, looting, electricity outages and flooded streets after a series of storms devastated the city, killing nearly 100 people and stranding about 40,000 visitors. Torrential rains were spawned by two tropical storms, Ingrid and Manuel, which converged on Mexico from the Gulf and the Pacific over the weekend, triggering the flash floods. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. National Hurricane Center warned that an area of low pressure over the southern Gulf of Mexico has a 60 percent chance of becoming a tropical cyclone, which could dump even more main on the beleaguered region. Meanwhile, Colorado is dealing with the after-effects of massive flooding that killed an estimated 10 people and has left another 140 still unaccounted for.

7.  I always feel like, somebody’s watchin’ me
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is not happy about revelations that the National Security Agency’s wide-reaching surveillance efforts—outlined by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in a slow drip of document porn—included spying on her personal communications and those of other Brazilians. Rousseff was mad enough to put the kibosh on a planned October meeting with President Barack Obama, despite a 20-minute phone call between the two meant to ease tensions. The meeting was expected to cover deals on oil exploration and biofuels technology, and Brazil’s potential purchase of fighter jets from Boeing.

8. The handshake heard round the world
When the U.N. General Assembly meets next week, all eyes will be on new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who may get together with Obama in the first U.S./Iranian presidential tête-à-tête since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. More likely is that the two will at least shake hands and exchange a few pleasantries. Obama is hoping to encourage Iran to make concessions in talks over its nuclear program, and Rouhani—most recently in an opinion piece in the Washington Post—has called for world leaders to “respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage in constructive dialogue.” An Obama/Rouhani greeting would be far from the leaders’ first interaction—they’re practically pen pals.

9. Drop everything—there’s a new iPhone
Die-hard Apple fans lined up on Friday for the release of two new iPhones: the 5C, a cheaper, colorful plastic model; and the 5S, a pricier option equipped with a fingerprint scanner that can unlock the phone with just a touch. Pre-orders of the phones were not “overwhelming,” a source at  U.S. wireless carrier told Reuters, but the 5S fingerprint reader received early plaudits from a handful of gadget reviewers. Meanwhile, a micro venture capital firm joined forces with a group of security researchers to offer $13,000 in cash, plus booze, Bitcoin currency, books and other goodies to the first hacker who could crack the fingerprint scanner.

10. Giant cruise ship rises from the sea via science
Giglio Island residents are likely to be seeing the Costa Concordia outside their windows for the next six months, but at least it’s upright. The 114,500-ton ship—which capsized in a 2012 accident that killed 32 people and resulted in criminal charges against captain Francesco Schettino—was raised from its 20-month resting place on the precarious ledge of an underwater rock shelf. The 19-hour operation is only the start of what is expected to be the most expensive maritime wreck recovery effort ever, and will end with the Concordia being towed away for scrap.

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