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Biden Signs Bill to Help Veterans Who Were Exposed to Toxic Burn Pits

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WASHINGTON — President Biden on Wednesday signed into law a bill that expands medical benefits for veterans who were exposed to toxins from burning pits of trash on military bases, ending a yearslong quest for support by veterans and their families.

The issue is deeply personal for the president, who has long speculated that his son Beau developed brain cancer because of exposure to burn pits when he served in Iraq as a member of the Delaware National Guard. Before signing the legislation, Mr. Biden described the lingering effects of the exposures.

“Toxic smoke, thick with poisons, spreading through the air and into the lungs of our troops,” he said. “When they came home, many of the fittest and best warriors that we sent to war were not the same. Headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer. My son, Beau, was one of them.”

In a ceremony packed with veterans and their families in the East Room of the White House, Mr. Biden called the new law progress toward fulfilling “a sacred obligation” to those who defended the nation and their families. The law passed despite a last-minute delay by Republican senators, who blocked its passage but backed down after an intense backlash.

“This is the most significant law our nation has ever passed to help millions of veterans who are exposed to toxic substances during their military services,” Mr. Biden said, adding a few minutes later: “This law is long overdue. We finally got it done, together.”

The legislation addresses the effects that some veterans have suffered after sleeping and working in proximity to large fires on military bases where trash — including tires, jet fuel, chemicals and other equipment — was burned, creating large clouds of smoke. Research suggests that toxins in the smoke may be responsible for a series of ailments suffered by veterans, including cancer, bronchial asthma, allergic rhinitis, sleep apnea, bronchitis and sinusitis.

The new law, known as the PACT Act, makes it easier for veterans who believe they were exposed to toxins during their service to apply for medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The law creates a $280 billion stream of federal funding, making it one of the largest expansions of veterans benefits in American history.

In his remarks, Mr. Biden praised the many years of work by family members and activists, singling out Jon Stewart, the comedian, for his impassioned and sometimes angry demands that politicians pass the bill.

“What you’ve done, Jon, matters, and you know it does,” Mr. Biden said to Mr. Stewart, who was in the room for the signing ceremony. “You should know. It really, really matters. You refused to let anybody forget. Refused to let them forget, and we owe you big, man.”

Mr. Stewart, who has been lobbying for the bill for years, was particularly vocal last month, when Republican senators abruptly refused to support the measure, citing concerns that it was structured in a way that could create a costly new entitlement. The legislation had passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House, and the Republican senators who objected had voiced their firm support only weeks earlier.

Appearing on CNN after the Republicans blocked the bill, Mr. Stewart was livid, helping to spur an intense reaction that led to the bill’s final passage days later.

“I’m used to lies. I’m used to hypocrisy. I’m used to their cowardice,” Mr. Stewart told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “The Lead” program. “I’m not used to the cruelty, the casual cruelty.”

In his remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Biden did not mention the Republican obstruction. Instead, he focused on the bipartisan nature of the agreement, citing its passage as evidence that he has made good on his promise to bridge ideological divides in the nation’s capital to get things done.

“I don’t want to hear the press tell me Democrats, Republicans can’t work together,” he said. “We got it done, and we got it done together.”

Danielle Robinson, the wife of Sgt. Heath Robinson, who died of lung cancer after serving in Iraq, spent years helping to lead the fight for the new veterans benefits. The legislation was named after her husband.

In her own remarks at the White House, Ms. Robinson described how her husband developed cancer a decade after returning from combat. She thanked Mr. Biden and the other activists for pushing lawmakers to pass legislation that will make it easier to receive medical treatment and benefits after similar exposures.

“So many veterans are still battling burn pit illnesses today,” she said. “Too many have succumbed to those illnesses as well. And I’m honored to be with the father of another military family that understands the ultimate sacrifice like we do — our commander in chief, President Joe Biden.”

Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015.

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Margaret Atwood Offers Her Vision of Utopia

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Margaret Atwood is one of the world’s foremost writers of dystopian literature, having imagined such worst-case horrors as a theocracy that forces fertile women to bear children for the rich (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) and a bioengineered virus capable of eradicating humankind (“Oryx and Crake”).

But she is also a profound optimist and pragmatist. Despite real-life calamities like the worsening climate crisis and social inequality, Ms. Atwood often dreams of better futures. Shortly before she turned 83 last month, she taught an eight-week course, “Practical Utopias,” on Disco, an online learning platform in Canada.

About 190 students from 40 countries imagined how to rebuild society after a cataclysmic event — say, a pandemic or rising sea levels. Proposals for “real, better living plans that could actually work” (and “not sci-fi epics or fantasies,” the syllabus stated) included amphibious houses built on stilts, high-end cuisine from food waste, and lowering the voting age to 14 to bolster democracy.

Ms. Atwood, who taught the class from her home office in Toronto, surprised students by submitting her own vision for a post-apocalyptic community, called Virgule (“after the French word for comma, indicating a pause for breath,” she said).

In the interview below, which was conducted over Zoom and email, and has been edited, the professor of Utopia gave more details on Virgule and on her class.

Where is Virgule?

Virgule is situated in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, Canada, where my grandfather, a country doctor in the early part of the 20th century, once had an apple farm. So I know what you can grow there and I know about the weather. Blizzards in the winter, with a lot of snow, though it doesn’t get ultracold.

How many people would live there?

Virgule is a planned community for 20 families. I moved into a planned community when I was 8, though the contractor had vanished with what remained of the money and my dad had to finish the inside of the house himself.

What types of homes would be built there?

I chose Dome Homes, made by inflating giant balloons and spraying the outside with a liquid compound that hardens, because they are cheap to build and also fast; and because they provide superior insulation, making them cheap to heat. Although earlier ones used concrete and polystyrene, they can now benefit from a new carbon neutral-to-negative kind of cement made from algae.

What would Virgulians eat?

Virgulians don’t eat meat, but they will have a flock of sheep or goats, for the milk and cheese, and a flock of free-range hens. Cooking would be mostly by induction, keeping costs low. Virgulians will have allotment gardens for basic vegetables and fruit, which will have geothermically heated greenhouses. They will have access to fish and shellfish from the Bay of Fundy — locally fished, as large commercial fishing will be limited and marine parks will increase fish populations.

What would people wear?

I have high hopes for clothing exchanges, making garments over and Japanese artistic mending — also for mushroom leather and algae fabrics. Hemp is very durable and so is linen; a plus is that you can eat the seeds of both.

Tell us more about mushroom leather.

Mushrooms are of great interest to a lot of people right now because, as it turns out, you can make building blocks out of them, you can make coffins out of them, you can make packaging out of them, you can make clothing out of them, you can make shoes out of them. An interesting book is called “Entangled Life” by Merlin Sheldrake.

How about basic needs like sanitation and health care?

Just as former villages housed their preachers, Virgule will house a plumber and an electrician, who will be worshiped like gods. This is a figure of speech, but it’s not such a joke if you think about it. Virgule will also have a doctor and a nurse practitioner. Everyone will take a first-aid course and, starting at the public school level, everyone will learn conflict resolution, anger management and elementary carpenter skills.

What happens if someone gets sick?

For more serious conditions, major surgical operations and the like, a trip to a larger metropolis will be necessary. Old folks, when able, will reside in their own Granny Domes within the community. Corpse disposal will be via a respectful composting process.

What kind of government do you envision?

Virgule is a community, so I expect they will vote. To prevent tyrants, the community is divided in two. Each half rules for a year. So they will have to enact laws while they are the rulers that will benefit them when they are the rules. Is this looking like the Quakers, or possibly the Oneida Community? Sort of.

How will gender roles be treated?

Gender preferences will be respected, but not fetishized. Will there be marriages? Open question, but I expect so, in one form or another.

The class featured diverse guest speakers including Dave Eggers and the Canadian senator Yvonne Boyer.

I’m very much not the sage on the stage who knows everything. When you have a mix of people who have been out in the world and know different stuff that is out in the world, you come into learning with a different slant. I’m a person with the same questions everyone else has, so everybody is learning from everybody else. It’s not a one-way street. It’s about a 17-way street.

And the students came from different backgrounds.

One of the most amazing things about the group we gathered is that their ages are all the way from 18 to 80. You wouldn’t find that in an ordinary academic institution. But that is actually the way our species worked for a long time — young people learning from older people, and from other kids. I learned from our fellows and participants because they actually know more than me.

Anything you wish the class had covered in more detail?

Nobody really wanted to delve into prisons and law enforcement. Why? Those are unpleasant topics. We like to think that in our practical utopia, things will go so well that criminality will be beside the point. But if the Disco team decides to do the program again, we might request a bit more planning around that because there would be transgressions of some kind, or we wouldn’t be human.

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Is Your Fireplace Ready for Winter?

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If you’re lucky enough to have a wood-burning fireplace, cold weather comes with a silver lining: an excuse to build a roaring fire.

“Fire becomes this really amazing focal point for a room, whether it’s traditional or modern,” said the New York-based interior designer Thom Filicia. “There’s just something poetic, sexy and inviting about gathering around a fireplace.”

But before you build that first fire, make sure you’re ready. That means not just decorating the mantel — which, of course, steals attention during the holidays — but choosing the right tools and accessories to ensure that your fireplace looks good and works well. We asked Mr. Filicia and other designers for advice.

Not all fireplaces are attractive. In older homes, some have beaten-up mantels and damaged surrounds; in newer homes, they may not have much personality. In either case, a simple change — or a few tweaks — can give a fireplace a new look without tearing everything out.

While you could remove your mantel and replace it with a new one, it’s not always necessary. Never underestimate the power of paint. When Mona Hajj, an interior designer based in Baltimore, Md., was working on a home in Washington, D.C., her clients found the wood mantel in their dining room “so dark and depressing,” she said, that they asked her to scrap it.

But she could see that it was a quality piece, and when she coated the mantel and the surrounding walls in off-white paint, it transformed the look from forbidding to fresh. “It just softened that area,” Ms. Hajj said.

Mr. Filicia used a similar approach while renovating an old colonial-style home in Greenwich, Conn. Instead of white, though, he painted the mantel a dark aubergine and coated the room’s walls and trim in the same color, so nothing stood out. “You simplify it by doing everything in this one beautiful, rich color,” he said. “It turns all of the architecture into texture.”

Changing the surround rather than the mantel can also give your fireplace a new personality. When Amanda Jesse and Whitney Parris-Lamb, the founders of the Brooklyn-based interior design firm Jesse Parris-Lamb, renovated a brownstone in Park Slope, they encountered tired fireplaces that had surrounds of damaged subway tile within attractive original mantels. Rather than replacing the damaged tile with something similar, they chose more distinctive, contemporary tile: a blue-and-white checkerboard pattern from Balineum for one fireplace and a russet-colored floral pattern from Neisha Crosland for another.

“Changing out the fireplace surround is a nice way to update it while still respecting the history of the house,” Ms. Parris-Lamb said.

A pair of andirons or a fireplace grate is critical to help get air under logs and keep them from rolling out onto the hearth. But choosing the right ones is not only about functionality.

“It’s the jewelry. It adds a little character,” said Victoria Hagan, the New York-based interior designer. “I love searching for special and unusual andirons.”

Sometimes it’s the first purchase she makes when furnishing homes for clients, she said, “because it’s the focal point” — not just of the fireplace, but of the room.

Ms. Hagan favors vintage andirons and coordinates them with the period and style of each home, from curly wrought-iron pieces for a casual, colonial-style home to weighty brass ones topped by heavy ball finials in a formal space.

Others opt for more playful designs. When Gary McBournie and Bill Richards, the married partners of the Boston-based interior design firm Gary McBournie Inc., were accessorizing a fireplace on Nantucket, Mass., they chose anchor-shaped andirons.

“An anchor is about as cute as we get,” Mr. Richards said, adding that they like the contemporary andirons made by John Lyle, who crafts models with anchors, fish, stars, human figures and other sculptural elements, as well as more traditional English designs from Jamb.

You could buy a set of matching fireplace tools with a stand that sits on the hearth, but Ms. Hajj and Ms. Hagan prefer a more minimalist approach: They limit the number of tools — often using a single poker or a pair of fireplace tongs — and simply lean the tools against the mantel when they’re not in use.

“I don’t typically like tools in a stand,” said Ms. Hagan, who considers it too formal. “I like them casually placed at the fireplace.”

She buys tools with the longest handles she can find because they tend to be more elegant and are easy to use from a safe distance.

An ash shovel is also helpful for cleaning up after the fire has gone out, but it doesn’t have to be stored near the mantel, so it needn’t match the other tools. “I actually find the shovels awkward,” Ms. Hagan said. “Personally, I prefer a dustpan.”

If your fireplace doesn’t have built-in doors or metal-mesh curtains, a fire screen that will prevent sizzling logs from spewing burning embers into the room is essential. There’s a wide range of designs available — from flat-panel models that nearly disappear when in use, to folding ones with multiple panels and those that curve out into the room, which often look more traditional and provide easier access to the fire.

Whichever style you choose, the most important thing is to use one that matches the size of the firebox opening. If it’s too small, it won’t do its job; if it’s too big, it will look awkward.

“We see a lot of fire screens that are too small or too big, and it looks kind of like the fireplaces are wearing the wrong size clothes,” Ms. Parris-Lamb said. She and Ms. Jesse often order screens in custom sizes from Wm. H. Jackson Co. or Etsy vendors.

Most fire screens are made with a metal mesh, but glass models are becoming more popular. They offer a clear view of the fire, and can block some of the heat — which may be desirable or not, depending on the room.

That was Mr. Filicia’s goal when he designed one dining room with a fireplace. “We chose a glass fireplace screen that almost perfectly fits in the space, so it deflects a lot of the heat,” he said. “It makes it so that when you’re sitting at the dining table, you’re not overwhelmed by the fire. That was really important.”

To keep the fire going, you’ll need logs at the ready — and somewhere to store them. Many manufacturers make special metal racks and leather slings for holding a few logs by the hearth, but almost any large-scale, good-looking container will do.

Mr. McBournie and Mr. Richards usually search out big, sturdy baskets woven from natural materials. “Typically, we’ll have a large basket that can hold at least a day-and-a-half’s worth of firewood,” Mr. Richards said.

Ms. Hajj uses a big Moroccan copper urn in her own family room and has bought similar copper buckets for clients’ homes. “I always try to get these big buckets,” she said.

A bonus: The buckets capture dirt and wood shavings that fall off the logs, keeping the mess off the floor.

“There is a sort of primal interest in fire. It’s an attraction,” Mr. Richards said. “That means people are going to want to sit by it.”

To create the coziest spot in the house, Ms. Hajj likes to put a big, comfortable chair or chaise longue right next to the fireplace.

Ms. Hagan has designed rooms with upholstered stools that sit directly in front of the hearth, a couple of feet from the flames. “It’s a nice place to sit,” she said. “It’s very cozy during the winter.” And in the summer, the stools can easily be moved elsewhere.

In a Brooklyn rowhouse, Jesse Parris-Lamb placed thick, tasseled floor cushions near the fireplace. “It’s nice to have some kind of ottoman, stool or floor cushion close to the fire, so you can cozy up,” she said.

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I’m Having an Operation to Lose Weight. Do I Have to Tell People?

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The exploitation you’re describing is obviously wrong, even if the inequitable circumstances that prompt the wrongdoing are also morally wrong. But these are cases in which authorities have already reviewed the evidence and decided that an applicant is eligible for permanent residency; it isn’t apparent why they should revisit their determinations on the word of a third party who has no independent access to the facts.

The self-petitioning provision you refer to has a compelling rationale. Noncitizens who are victims of domestic violence or cruelty can be particularly vulnerable: They may not know English or be familiar with American laws, and they may fear deportation if they seek help. But the authorities are well aware that the system can be abused. While these petitions have substantially increased in the past several years, so has the number flagged as potentially fraudulent. The Government Accountability Office, which conducts audits and evaluations for Congress, has asked the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to develop an anti-fraud strategy, and the agency has undertaken to do so. The objective is to try to protect victims of abuse without encouraging wrongful claims against the innocent — no easy thing to calibrate. The mills of bureaucracy grind slowly, but they do grind.

What you can do, though, is to make sure that your correspondents seek assistance from law enforcement if they are being assaulted. Nothing prohibits the authorities from investigating if the victims themselves are able to report evidence of their mistreatment.

I wrote a book and self-published it through Amazon, which lets the author mask that fact by listing a faux publisher on the title page. My first question is whether using the identification of a faux publisher is ethical. My second one concerns the following incident. In a local bookstore I inquired about leaving some copies of my book on consignment. The owner agreed. As I was leaving, he asked who my publisher was. Knowing that some bookstores don’t like to sell self-published books, I named my faux publisher. Was my answer ethical? Name Withheld

Vast numbers of self-published books appear each year, often ornamented with the names of fanciful presses. The practice isn’t really troubling. Had you chosen a vanity publisher instead, they would have decorated your book with a grand name that, while referring to an actual commercial enterprise, would have been no more or less misleading. We can easily imagine invented names that would be deliberately deceptive: Random Home, Farrah Strauss. But you’re not appropriating the cachet of an existing publishing house.

As for your exchange with the bookstore owner: Had he typed your putative publisher into a search engine (as I’ve just done), he would have immediately seen that it wasn’t a real entity. Anyway, self-published authors are going to be the ones consigning books on their own account. That you hoped to mislead him, though, puts you in the wrong. He may not see a big distinction between Kindle Direct Publishing, vanity presses and publishing outfits so obscure they have never appeared on his inventory lists. But even if he wasn’t seriously misled, he would have reason to wonder about your honesty. A personal inventory might be in order.


Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to ethicists@nytimes.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

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