Dennis Anderson can claim victory. The AP story says: “Gov. Mark Dayton used his line-item veto Thursday to strike two controversial provisions from the bill that uses state sales-tax money for grants to environmental and arts programs. In deleting over $9 million from the $496 million Legacy Fund bill, Dayton acknowledged that he was forced to renege on a compromise he made with Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and House Speaker Paul Thissen in the final days of session. But he said that was necessary because of an earlier promise made during his gubernatorial run to supporters of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, the state panel comprised mostly of citizens that reviews some applications for the Legacy Fund and makes grant recommendations. Dayton excised $6.3 million for Twin Cities parks and $3 million to tribes and local governments to deal with aquatic invasive species.”
The body of a second child has been recovered from that landslide in Lilydale Wednesday. The MPR story by Elizabeth Dunbar and Tim Nelson says: “The boy who had been missing at the site of a landslide at Lilydale Park in St. Paul has been found dead, authorities said Thursday. ‘We were able to locate the location of where the young child was and then we've extricated him from the pit,’ St. Paul Assistant Fire Chief Jim Smith said during a news briefing. Crews resumed their search at about 9:30 a.m. in the area where one other child died and two others were injured. Family members identified the boy whose body was recovered Thursday as 10-year-old Mohamed Fofana. The boy's uncle, Mohamed Bah, fought back tears as he talked to reporters before authorities announced they had found him.”
Three locks on the Mississippi have been closed to fun boating because of heavy water flow. WCCO-TV and the AP say: “The closures affect the Upper and Lower St. Anthony Falls locks in downtown Minneapolis, and Lock and Dam 1 near Minnehaha Park between Minneapolis and St. Paul. For safety, the Corps closes these locks to recreational boaters when river flows exceed 30,000 cubic feet per second, and it closes them to commercial traffic at 40,000 cubic feet per second. The Corps says it expects the closures could last around five days.”
MPR’s Paul Huttner talked about climate change and killer tornadoes this morning: “[T]he killer tornado that hit Oklahoma has no clear link to global warming, according to the chief meteorologist for MPR News. ‘To be honest, we still don't know the triggering mechanism’ for tornadoes, Paul Huttner said on Thursday's edition of Climate Cast. And concerning the relationship between tornadoes and climate change generally, he said, ‘we don't know a lot, and the trends don't seem to show much. There's really no clear connection between an increase in the most violent tornadoes, these EF4 and EF5 monsters that we saw in Moore, and climate change. If you look at the trends from 1950 on, or even back before that, you don't see a real uptick in these most violent tornadoes.’ Even though social media were quick to see a link, ‘It's one of those things we can't connect the dots on,’ he said. ‘There doesn't seem to be any conclusive evidence that it's changing.' "
A Duluth restaurateur’s saga with UMD has ended ... sort of. Jana Hollingsworth of the News Tribune says: “After years of contention including accusations and countercharges of sexual harassment, the University of Minnesota Duluth has terminated wellness director Rod Raymond, according to statements from the university and Raymond’s lawyer released Wednesday. Well-known as a Duluth entrepreneur and restaurateur outside of his employment at UMD, Raymond since October 2011 had been on unpaid leave from the university by his own request … . Records state that UMD agreed to pay a student and her attorney $30,000 in April 2012 after the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found probable cause that she was sexually harassed in 2009 by Raymond. The records also state that UMD discriminated against the student when Raymond allegedly retaliated against her after she reported the claimed harassment. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights found no probable cause to investigate separate charges by Raymond that UMD sexually discriminated against him. The department dismissed his complaint in August.” That’s tough PR.
Certain to infuriate the Big Gummint types … Esme Murphy of WCCO-TV says: “[A] WCCO investigation found soaring salaries are actually going to state employees who work as staff members. Even taking out workers at the state judicial branch, MnSCU and the U of M, there are nearly 700 state employees making more than $100,000. … There are 107 state workers who make more than the $118,000 that Gov. Dayton pulls in each year. And 698 state workers earn more than $100,000. There is actually a state law that says state employees can’t make more than the Governor, but the law allows for a lot of exceptions, and many exceptions allow staff members to make a lot more than their bosses. Gov. Mark Dayton’s own chief of staff, Tina Smith, makes $124,000 — more than he does.” And what would be the compensation for an upper-middle-level exec at your average big insurance company?
Working to save cheap sugar … . Brett Neely of MPR reports: “The U.S. Senate defeated an amendment to the farm bill that would have ended government protections for the domestic sugar industry, including Minnesota sugar beet growers. Those protections include import restrictions on foreign sugar and price supports for domestic growers. Backed by the candy industry and food processors, supporters of the amendment argued that ending the sugar program would lower the cost of sugar for American consumers. But both of Minnesota's Democratic Senators voted against the amendment. Sen. Al Franken said ending the program wouldn't lower costs, and would cost the country jobs.” How many jobs go into one 48-ounce Slurpee?
More Public Policy Polling … . Rachel Stassen-Berger of the Strib reports: “According to a new Public Policy Polling poll, completed just before the legislative session concluded on Monday, 49 percent of Minnesotans give [Gov. Dayton] high approval rating and 47 percent give him failing marks. Those numbers are significantly down from January, when 53 percent of Minnesotans approved of the job he was doing and 39 percent did not. Despite Minnesotans' mixed feelings about the governor, they still favor him over potential Republican challengers. He has double digit leads in head to head match ups against 2010 opponent Tom Emmer and Republican candidates Scott Honour and Jeff Johnson. He has similar leads over Republicans Julie Rosen, David Hann, Dave Thompson and Kurt Zellers, all of whom have said they are considering a run. … The poll included 38 percent Democrats; 27 percent Republicans and 35 percent independents but more people in the poll — 38 percent — described themselves as conservative than liberal — 32 percent.”
The latest on Congressman John Kline’s student loan bill … Kevin Diaz of the Strib says: “With student loan rates set to double in five weeks, the U.S. House passed a bill Thursday by U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., to replace the current fixed rates with floating rates tied to government borrowing costs. But the largely party-line 221-198 vote does not avert the crisis for an estimated 7 million students who get federal student loans to meet the challenges of rising college costs and diminishing employment prospects. Under a White House veto threat, Kline’s bill sets the stage for a high-stakes standoff with the Democratic-led Senate to meet a July 1 deadline, with tens of thousands of students looking on from Minnesota, which ranks third nationally in overall student debt.”
Today’s Google doodle comes from a Sparta, Wis., kid. The AP reports: “A Wisconsin teen is the winner of Doodle 4 Google's national contest with her art called ‘Coming Home.’ Google says millions of votes were cast on 130,000 submissions in its annual contest to design the logo on Google's home page. Sabrina Brady is a senior at Sparta High School. Brady says she created the art in honor of the day her Dad returned home from Iraq after 18 months of military service. … Brady wins a $30,000 college scholarship, a Chromebook computer and a $50,000 technology grant for her school.” Nice going …
Vance Worley got knocked around for eight runs while failing to make it out of the fourth inning against the Braves Wednesday, and immediately after the game, the Twins demoted him to Triple-A. Worley went from Opening Day starter to minor-leaguer in two months by starting 10 games with a 7.21 ERA and allowing 43 total runs in 48.2 innings.
When a pitcher struggles that much, it's often because of terrible control, but Worley walked just 1.5 batters per start. Instead he struggled because hitters simply teed off on his 89-mile-per-hour fastball and sub-par off-speed stuff, clubbing Worley for an MLB-high .381 batting average and .574 slugging percentage.
To put that in some context, the last MLB player to hit .381 or higher and slug .574 or higher in a season was George Brett in 1980. And before that, it was Ted Williams in 1957.
In other words, Worley turned every hitter he faced into a Hall of Famer.OAS_AD("Middle");
No one expected Worley to be a top-of-the-rotation starter when the Twins acquired him from the Phillies along with prospect Trevor May for Ben Revere, and he got the Opening Day nod by default. But with a 3.50 ERA in 278 innings through age 24, he certainly seemed capable of slotting into the middle of the rotation for several years. And that may still prove true if Worley can get back on track at Triple-A, but his ability to generate swinging strikes is in doubt.
Worley averaged 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings for the Phillies, which was above average for NL starters, but a huge percentage of them came on called third strikes. Striking hitters out looking is definitely a skill, but it's awful tough to sustain at the degree to which Worley relied on it. And sure enough, this year batters swung at Worley's strikes nearly 20 percent more often and he's the only MLB starter with a swinging strike rate below 4.5 percent.
If you can't get hitters to swing and miss at pitches and they stop taking pitches in the strike zone enough to rack up called third strikes ... well, what happens is your strikeout rate drops from 7.7 per nine innings to 4.6 per nine innings and everyone looks like a Brett/Williams clone.
There was also some bad luck mixed in, including a batting average on balls in play above .400, but however you slice it, Worley pitched terribly and raised worrisome questions. Of course, he's hardly alone.
Worley's demotion came just two days after the Twins shipped Pedro Hernandez back to Triple-A for posting a 6.67 ERA with a grand total of 10 strikeouts in six starts, and for all of the front office's talk of improved starting pitching being the focus of the offseason, the rotation has somehow managed to be even worse than last year's mess. Take a look at how the 2012 and 2013 rotations compare:YEAR IP/G ERA SO/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% OAVG 2012 5.4 5.40 5.5 2.9 1.4 45.3 .287 2013 5.2 5.69 4.2 2.2 1.3 45.4 .330
Last season, Twins starters averaged 5.4 innings per start with a 5.40 ERA. This season, Twins starters have averaged 5.2 innings per start with a 5.69 ERA. And not only are they giving up more runs in fewer innings, the already abysmal strikeout rate is down from 5.5 to 4.2 per nine innings and the opponents' batting average is up from .287 to .330.
And even the rotation's supposed strength, inducing ground balls, hasn't led to an actual increase in ground balls. Numbers that hideous usually mean things can't help but improve, but then again that seemed likely to be true after last year's debacle and yet here we are.
More than a quarter of the way through the season, Twins starters have recorded 16 outs per game while allowing nearly six runs per nine innings and opponents have hit .330 off them. I'd hate to see how unspeakably bad the rotation would be if improving it hadn't been the supposed focus of the offseason.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed a Rep. John Kline-sponsored bill to tie student loan interest rates to market rates on Thursday.
All but four Democrats opposed the bill, which would tie interest rates on federal student loans to the government's cost of borrowing, plus a couple of points. The final vote was 221-198, and the Minnesota delegation voted along party lines.
The bill is similar to a plan proposed by President Obama, insofar as both tie interest rates to the market, but the GOP and White House remain apart on what the rates should actually be. The White House threatened to veto the bill on Wednesday.
Interest rates on federal subsidized student loans will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1 absent congressional action. Lawmakers currently set the rates; Republicans have argued the rates should be market-based.
Congressional Democrats, including Senate leadership, prefer to extend the current interest rates for two years and reform them during a 2015 debate on overall federal higher-education policy. They argue Kline's bill would make college more expensive for student borrowers.
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com.
WASHINGTON — MPR's Brett Neely gets the following from U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee:
Six of Minnesota's eight U.S. house seats are among the dwindling number of potentially competitive seats in the 2014 midterm elections, according to Oregon U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, who heads the House Republicans' campaign organization.
"This is a much smaller battlefield than we've seen in the past," said Walden at a briefing for reporters on Wednesday afternoon.
This isn't to say that 75 percent of Minnesota's House seats will face competitive races next year. Walden's assessment is more a reflection that Minnesota has become a rare state where four districts (the 1st, the 2nd, the 3rd and the 8th) have a fairly even split between Democratic and Republican voters.
Indeed, if one goes off numbers alone — as Walden appears to be doing — you could easily say half of Minnesota's eight congressional districts should be competitive (if you go by the Cook Partisan Voter Index, for example). Walden adds to that list the 7th, which should be a solid Republican district if it were not represented by Blue Dog Democrat Collin Peterson, and the 6th, Michele Bachmann's.
Of course, candidates often matter more than numbers — very few expect Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen to face much competition next year, even though his 3rd District narrowly went for President Obama in 2012. And Republicans have shifted their attention away from Tim Walz recently, barring the emergence of a top-notch candidate to run against him. So while the numbers say a lot of Minnesota's seats could be competitive, in reality it doesn't seem likely.
National Democrats want to challenge Bachmann and John Kline; Republicans have focused heavily on Peterson, at least so far. This all could change between now and Election Day, of course, but don't expect six barn-burner U.S. House races next November.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gov. Mark Dayton has vetoed more than $9 million in funding in the Legacy Bill, saying he made contradictory promises to citizens during his campaign and to legislators during the session, and that he's honoring the pledge to citizens.
The money is $6.3 million for metro parks and $3 million for fighting invasive species.
Neither appropriation had been approved by the Lessard-Sams Council, the citizen group charged with making recommendations on outdoors projects to be funded by Legacy sales tax revenues.
Former Viking Coach Bud Grant and other outdoors advocates had urged the governor to make those deletions.
Wrote the governor in his veto letter (PDF):
"This decision is extremely difficult for me. I attach great importance to keeping my word. Unfortunately, in this instance, I have given contradictory assurances to legislators during the past few days and to thousands of Minnesotans during the past few years. I have decided that I must honor my promise to those citizens.
...In my thirteen legislative sessions, I have rarely seen the acrimony and distrust, which this dispute has caused between legislators and concerned citizens. The bitterness is not about the merits of the two projects I am vetoing, but rather the way in which they were added and other significant changes were proposed to the House bill."
Dayton said he'd hoped that there would be agreement with a legislative compromise on the issue, but there wasn't. He notes that metro parks and the fight against invasive species both received other funding during the session. But, he said:
"Nevertheless, my line-item vetoes do not reflect a lack of support for the two projects; rather they underscore my conviction that the House Legacy Committee must work with its citizen councils, not against them. I will ask the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to reconsider these two projects when it assembles its next funding recommendations."
And he made this admonition:
I believe it is imperative that the leadership of the House Legacy Committee repair its relations with the Lessard-Sams Council and the many sportsmen, sportswomen, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, hunters, anglers, and everyone else committed to the enhancement of our state's priceless outdoor heritage. Otherwise, I have serious doubts that a Legacy Bill can be enacted in future legislative sessions.
MnDOT plans a groundbreaking for the new St. Croix bridge on Tuesday in Stillwater.
The $676 million crossing, already under construction in Oak Park Heights, will connect with Hwy. 36.
The groundbreaking will be at 2:30 p.m. in Stillwater's Lowell Park, in sight of the aging lift bridge that will be replaced by the new bridge.
Construction of the bridge was delayed by environmental concerns, but a concerted effort by an unlikely coalition that included Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Gov. Mark Dayton provided the political push to make it happen.
The bridge is expected to open in 2016.
...but it's never too far away for Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg.
In his National Journal "Off to the Races" column, Cook notes that Pres. Obama's approval ratings have suffered no damage and are even slightly higher since the outbreak of the triple "scandals." He warns Republicans that, as happened with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, they may be so blinded by their hatred of the incumbent Democratic president, and so deafened by the right-wing noise machine, that they fail to notice that, outside of those who already dislike Obama, the scandals don't seem to be tarnishing his popularity much.
Rothenberg, on the other hand, in his column for Roll Call, is focusing on the midterm Senate elections, not Obama's approval rating. He sees an opportunity for Republicans to take over the majority. They would need six pickups. But (as Rothenberg's colleague Nathan Gonzales noted previously, the Repubs could pick up six just by taking Senate races in states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012.
Rothenberg, who rates and constantly updates his ratings for every Senate race, has just upgraded the Repub chances in six states with Dem incumbent senators who are either retiring or facing very tough challenges in 2014, all in states that Romney carried.
He doesn't go into much detail about how the season of scandals affects particular races, but says:
"Given the different natures of midterm electorates, the new political narrative increases the risk for Democratic candidates in red states, where Democrats must win independent and, in many cases, Republican voters to be successful."
I take him to be saying that, although the triple play may not cause many Democrats to turn against their Dem incumbents, if the scandals gin up Repub enthusiasm nationally, in a midterm election with lower turnout, it could tip the races against Dem incumbents in red states.
Earth Journal writer Ron Meador is posting daily this week from the Namekagon River in Wisconsin.
The photo above is included not as a sentimental sunset-on-the-trail shot but as a bulletin of the best news to reach our Namekagon River paddle group since we launched last Sunday:OAS_AD("Middle");
Four days of rainy, windy and increasingly cold weather are about to end. You can see it in the sky. And though the overnite forecast for Wednesday into Thursday is, as I write, for lows in the middle 30s there is still great happiness over what likely lies beyond — dry weather and sunshine.
You have to be prepared on an outdoors trip for cold or wind or rain. Any two of those at a time is fine by me. But the combination of all three has been steadily wearing on our procession of 75 canoeists and kayakers, and yesterday the strain was particularly plain: You could hear it in our voices, see it in our fatigue and peculiar dress.
People are paddling in so many layers of long underwear, outerwear, rainwear and paddle wear that they seem have gained 50 pounds overnight, or to have been inflated with a tire pump.
Getting in and out of boats is more cumbersome when dressed this way, but there isn't always a choice: Some are out of dry clothes, having run through everything they brought for a week on the water, and are opting for as many layers as they can stand at one time.Photo by Sallie AndersonPeople are paddling in so many layers of long underwear, outerwear, rainwear and paddle wear that they seem have gained 50 pounds overnight, or to have been inflated with a tire pump.
At least two in the group just ran out of gas for paddling yesterday. I saw one of them go by as cargo behind the center thwart of a canoe, bundled up and draped with a reflective space blanket for good measure. The canoe was trailed by a kayaker towing a second, empty kayak behind.
If that was a sobering sight, though, the surprise appearance of a sauna at our destination more than made up for it.
Smoke was already curling from the chimney as we pitched our tent at the Log Cabin Inn, and the delicate question of what and how much to wear in a group of recent acquaintances was settled quickly: People came in covered with full-body layers of wet gear and peeled away the outer ones as the material dried and their bodies warmed.Toughest day so far
Yesterday may have been the toughest paddle so far for most people if you factor everything together. There was no dam or significant drop to shoot, as on each of the earlier days, and the tightest turns and whitest water might have been down a bit from Tuesday's top challenges.
But Tuesday's route was also about half flowages and other slow water, and Wednesday's had none. The water ranged from fast and smooth to fast and very rough. It wasn't work the whole way, not quite, but you had to pay attention every minute, and if some miscalculation put you where you didn't want to be, or caused you to miss a landing, recovery was real work.
On Saturday, the river at Danbury was flowing at about 2,000 cubic feet per second; this morning the rate is about 3,600 (median for the Namekagon over all seasons is 1,430).
Saturday's river height was 2.5 feet; today's is a little over 4. Water temperature: about 60 F then, about 50 F now.
For me, a whitewater novice, yesterday's conditions offered a full menu of opportunities to practice new ideas, including the notion a of paddling as few strokes as possible — steering with slight leans and weight shifts while letting the water take me where it would (as long as that was further downstream and front end first).
On the other hand, every slight distraction seemed to result in a change of course directly toward some obstacle, and a fresh need for fancy paddlework. And few things are as distracting as being a little too damp and a little too chilled, which I was all day long.
I've probably had some mild hypothermia on other paddle trips and it scares me, deeply. Especially in conditions where getting out of the boat means getting into the wind, which makes things worse.Conditions' effects on paddlers
The sauna's warmth took conversation to a deeper level about the day, the trip, the river.
Lydia, a graduate student and new kayaker who has been who has been consistently nonchalant along the river, allowed that the river had put a little fear into her, making her remember that she's never been all that crazy about being on or in the water and has never learned to swim that well.
Mary, a nurse closer to my age, confided that a few capsizes had put some tight, full-body anxiety into her about getting on the water again, which she knew was groundless but couldn't talk herself out of.
She had come to the sauna from the campground's coin-operated showers, where her last layer of dry clothing, placed carefully out of splash range, had gotten soaked anyway by a fault in the plumbing, reducing her to tears.
Andre has recovered his vision, sort of, having found a pair of prescription sunglasses as he shook debris out his kayak hatches.
Many of us saw the porcupine up a tree that he was first to spot — a delightful, unexpected encounter. Others' wildlife intelligence from yesterday: Jerry and Dolores saw a black bear cub that seemed to be shadowing a couple of picnickers near Bing Bend Landing. Cherie saw an otters' slide on the riverbank but, alas, no otters. A few people saw a mink, probably, running along the bank with a fish in its jaws.
Many in our group are picking up litter along the way, and Sallie grabbed an ancient Miller can with a good-sized snail attached.Seeking hot meal, early turn-in
Last night's presentation on hand-building canoes, with example boats and experts from the canoe museum in Cable, was postponed for lack of enthusiasm. The judgment was that most paddlers would prefer to tidy up, walk up the highway from our Trego campground for a hot meal prepared by others, and turn in early.
Good call. Earlier in the day, a few of us approached the landing where a program on North Woods search and rescue was on order and decided to keep moving. The subject is interesting to me, and I imagine to others as well, but I'd been on the water for half a day and a dozen miles already, and hadn't felt warm since morning, when I got back into chilly, clammy neoprene. Best to keep moving.
And now it's time to get moving on today. The rain has stopped and the sun is up, though so is the wind. Temps may reach 60 or better today and tomorrow, our last day on the river.
It may get down to 30 tonight at Howell Landing, the first place we'll be tenting without any chance of going indoors for a hot shower or restaurant meal. If it stays dry, that won't matter.
Next: From Trego to Howell Landing.
With the 2013 legislative session gaveled to a close, Capitol Report host Julie Bartkey sat down with Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, Senate Minority Leader David Hann and Dr. Larry Jacobs of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs to get their final assessments on the legislature's accomplishments. Predictably, while Bakk was upbeat about advances made in education and other areas, Hann criticized what he saw as a session of, "overtaxing, overspending, overreaching." For his part, Jacobs seems to have a positive view of the amount accomplished this session, an effect of having a governor and both houses of the legislature controlled by one party. All three interviews are embedded below.
The first analysis of the complete U.S. death records for the 2009-2010 H1N1 influenza pandemic was published Wednesday. It confirms what was widely observed at the time: The pandemic was deadliest for people under the age of 65.
In fact, among people over the age of 65, the flu-related death rate actually declined during the pandemic.
The University of California, Irvine, researchers who authored the study say the most likely reason older people were protected from H1N1 was because their generation had been exposed to related influenza viruses that were in circulation between 1918 and 1957. That earlier exposure gave them immunity.
Usually, of course, it’s the elderly who must be most concerned about coming down with the flu. During normal influenza seasons, they are at greatest risk of dying from the illness.
The study’s authors also note that the mortality rates of other influenza pandemics of the past century — 1918-1919, 1957, and 1968-1969 — also skewed younger than seasonal influenza.
They recommend that vaccination efforts target younger people during future pandemics.Study details
For the study, the UC-Irvine researchers used the National Center for Health Statistics’ final mortality data for the 2009-2010 H1N1 pandemic, which were released last August.
According to the data, 53,692 Americans died of complications of pneumonia and flu in 2009, and 50,003 died from those illnesses the following year. That made those combined illnesses the eighth leading cause of death in the United States in 2009 and the ninth leading cause in 2010.
Given that some 20 percent of Americans became infected with H1N1, this particular pandemic’s death rate was relatively mild. The UC Irvine researchers estimate that during the pandemic there were 2,634 “excess” flu-related deaths — ones above those that would be expected in a normal flu season.
But a further analysis revealed that those deaths had occurred disproportionally among younger adults. Among people aged 25 to 64, the excess death rate was 1.325 per 100,000. Among those aged 65 and older, the excess death rate was 0.228 per 100,000.
In addition, for reasons unknown, the H1N1 death rates was higher for women under the age of 55 than for men.
“One of the biggest challenges of pandemic preparedness is rapid formulation and manufacture of a strain-specific vaccine,” the study’s authors conclude. “Our analysis suggests that younger ages (25-54) should be prioritized in the event of a pandemic. … The mortality data for the 2009 pandemic do not provide the last word, but do suggest that age-targeted vaccination is a strategy well worth considering.”China's 'bird flu'
Interestingly, the current H7N9 “bird flu” that has so far struck at least 131 people in China (36 fatally) appears to have an age-distribution that is more similar to seasonal flu than to a pandemic, according to a study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. But, write the study’s authors, that finding may be because “retired persons have more opportunities to shop in live-animal markets and are therefore more likely to be exposed to live poultry.”
So far, almost every person in China who has contracted H7N9 was in direct contact with poultry before becoming ill. That may change, of course, as the virus mutates.
The UC-Irvine study was published online in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, where it can be read in full. The New England Journal of Medicine study is also available in full on that journal’s website.
Two partners in a top law firm, a drag queen and a documentarian walk into a bar ...
OK, so the late, iconic performer can be there in spirit only, but the other characters hope you will join them for a film premiere and reception being billed as “A Divine Sunday.”
Yes, that Divine. The actor also known as Harris Glenn Milstead, the star of “Mondo Trasho, “Pink Flamingoes,” “Polyester” and — who can forget? — “Hairspray.”Jeffrey Schwarz
For $50, attendees will gain admission to the Minnesota premiere of the newly released biopic “I Am Divine,” a chance to mingle with its director, Jeffrey Schwarz, over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at Pracna on Main between screenings, and to see another of his acclaimed films, “Vito,” a portrait of Vito Russo, whose presence at the Stonewall riots propelled him to prominence as an early gay-rights advocate.Proceeds to Trevor Project
All proceeds will go to the LGBT youth crisis and suicide intervention effort the Trevor Project. The benefit is part of the Out Twin Cities Film Festival, taking place May 29-June 2 at the St. Anthony Main Theatre; the Divine Sunday is, of course the last day of the festival.OAS_AD("Middle");
So where do the aforementioned lawyers come in? In addition to being partners at Lindquist & Vennum, Stan Duran and Chris Cuneo are huge fans of the director John Waters, the filmmaker who propelled Divine to iconic status.
Some time ago the two were attempting to get Waters and Divine inducted into the hall of fame at Towson High School, Duran’s alma mater. Waters didn’t go to the Maryland school for long enough to qualify, but they got Divine in.Outcasts both, the went to stardom together
In the process, the two Minnesotans interviewed all kinds of people about how Milstead became Divine, and learned that he was bullied relentlessly by students and faculty alike as a student in the early 1960s. Outcasts both, Milstead and Waters bonded and went on to stardom together.
At the time, most drag queens tried to be as “pretty” and realistic as possible. Overweight and outrageous, Milstead’s Divine became a camp pioneer. The films he made with Waters were every bit as over the top as his alter ego, but frequently with a serious point about outsider culture.Stan Duran
The young Milstead’s story touched a nerve for Duran, who has a gay son. When he and Cuneo learned that Schwarz was making a film about Divine’s life, they pitched in and helped bring the project to fruition. Schwarz put them in touch with the organizers of the Out Twin Cities Film Festival and Lindquist & Vennum got on board as a sponsor.
Duran and Cuneo wanted to take things a step further, though. Their firm has a long track record of pro bono work involving diversity, and they were all too aware of the lack of resources for struggling LGBT youth. Despite a wave of teen suicides, the Trevor Project had no local sponsor.A new layer of urgency
“We wanted to help carry the banner here and help give them some promotion and raise awareness,” said Duran. “The timing seemed optimal given the new law.”
The new law being a long-sought, comprehensive statewide harassment and bullying prevention program that was widely expected to be approved during the legislative session that ended Monday. It faced a late groundswell of opposition from religious conservatives, including the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who linked it to the legalization of gay marriage. The bill died an ideological death in the state Senate late Sunday night, leaving Minnesota with one of the nation’s weakest anti-bullying laws at precisely 37 words long. And so the Divine Sunday acquired an additional layer of urgency, as the Trevor Project could help fill some of the resulting gap.
Tickets are available via a website created to promote the event that includes a trailer of “I Am Divine,” which had its world premiere at South by Southwest, information about the other Schwarz film to be screened and a number of resources for those interested in the Trevor Project, the film festival or the filmmaker.
“Vito” will be shown first, at 4:00 p.m., followed by a private reception with Schwarz. “I Am Divine” starts at 7:30. Directions can also be found online.
Members of the Minneapolis City Council got scolded by a member of the Charter Commission as they prepared to change some of the rules on how ranked-choice voting will be administered in this fall’s election.
“I would submit that 13 declared candidates for office, in an election year, five months prior to an election, have no business changing election laws,” said Devin Rice of the Charter Commission.OAS_AD("Middle");
He also was critical of an earlier council decision to reduce funds available for voter education, given the incidence of voter error in the 2009 election.
That was the last time — and the first time — Minneapolis voters selected office holders by ranking their top three choices (PDF).
Errors in using ranked-choice voting showed up on 6.5 percent of ballots cast, Rice said.
“There is no question that the data that was published, and still resides on your website, identifies a dramatic increase in error in low-income, high-minority precincts than in white, affluent precincts,” he said.Three ‘enhancements’ under review
• Determining voter intent when a ballot has been wrongly marked.
• Reporting results on Election Night.
• And implementing a new rule that would require write-in candidates to register with the city elections clerk.
The study of 2009 ranked-choice voting — by Hamline University professor David Schultz and then-Hamline student Kristi Rendahl — found that the biggest complaint about the process was the lengthy delay in knowing who the winners were on Election Night.
The study also noted that the low turnout (21 percent) might have made it a bad year to evaluate the new voting system.
“We had almost 10 percent of the ballots in that election that were incorrectly completed,” said Schultz. Of the 45,968 ballots cast in 2009, 1,888 were spoiled and 2,958 contained voter errors specific to ranked-choice voting.
“The worst-case scenario you get is you go into this election where it could be very close — a 3 or 4 or 5 percent error could be enough to affect the outcome,” said Schultz, looking at a mayoral race with seven candidates. “It could be the recipe for litigation.”Complaints about slow counting
One problem that could be solved in this year’s elections is the ability to report winners in some of the races on Election Night.
In 2009, some candidates had to wait weeks for the ballots to be hand-counted.
City Council President Barb Johnson, for example, knew she had 47 percent of the vote on Election Night but waited three weeks to be declared the winner.
This year, the new Maximum Possible Threshold will determine the number of votes a candidate needs to be declared a winner, based on first-choice votes cast. That number will be based on ballots cast.
The old system — and the one currently used by St. Paul — based the threshold on votes (rather than ballots) cast (PDF) — which requires a complete counting and slows the reporting of winners.
In 2009, for example, even though Mayor R.T. Rybak had 73 percent of ballots cast, he could not be declared the winner until all of the ranked votes were counted.
“We should be able to process and declare winners where there are definitive winners,” said City Clerk Casey Carl, addressing the concern by some council members that vote counting would come to a halt once a candidate had reached the Maximum Possible Threshold and be declared the winner.
“We can certainly go back and find statistical data that completes the calculations for each candidate,” he said.
“The first goal of this change was to declare as many races as possible on Election Night,” said Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy. “That will make people happy.”
In 2009, if a voter ranked too many candidates for an office — a situation called an “over-vote” — the ballot would have been rejected by the voting machine and the voter given a chance to recast the ballot.New voting machines
This year, with new voting machines from Hennepin County, the ballot also would be rejected, but the voter could turn down the option to vote again.
In that case, assume the voter selected two first-choice candidates, those selections would be voided and the second-choice candidate would become the first choice. But over-voting is the only error the machines will reject.
This year, a voter who votes for the same candidate for all three choices, called repeat candidate voting, will give that candidate one first-choice vote but will not have the second and third choices counted.
This voting practice will not be detected by the voting machines and the voter will not have a chance to correct or change his or her ballot. This is unchanged from 2009.
Another practice, called skipped ranking, also will not be detected by the voting machines, so voters will not be have a chance to correct their ballot. In skipped ranking, for example, the voter could make a first choice but leave the second choice blank and then fill in a third choice. The first choice would be counted, but the third choice would move up to second choice in the counting.
In 2009, a skipped-ranking voter who made only a third-place choice in a contest would not have the vote counted at all. In 2013, such a voter would have that third choice counted as a first choice.
“It’s about voter education,” said Terra Cole, executive director for the Heritage Park Neighborhood Association in the 5th Ward, which had the highest number of voter errors in the 2009 election. “We tend to have a lot of folks who are voting for the first time or moving from other places. It’s a transient neighborhood.”
She used the example of explaining ranked-choice voting to her mother, who has a Ph.D., by equating the process to filling out your meal preference for a party or a conference: Do you want the beef, the chicken or the vegetable?
“When we educate our community of color about how to vote, it’s very easy,” said Cole, adding that potential voters in her community expect to rank more than three candidates because there will be more than three candidates in some races.
“There is no evidence that more rankings have imposed any greater difficulty,” said Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota, a leading advocate for ranked-choice voting.
She told council members that in 2009, Portland, Ore., found that half of the voters ranked more than three candidates. “The easy instruction is to rank as far as you can and stop ranking.”
Council members expressed interest in expanding the rankings for the 2013 election to as many as five or six choices but decided to study the possibility until Thursday’s Committee of the Whole meeting.
New rule proposed for write-ins
The final change approved by the Committee would require write-in candidates to register with the city elections clerk at least seven days before the election if they want their votes counted and recorded.
In 2009, 3,221 write-in votes were cast, and each had to be hand-counted.
The registration requirement will still allow voters to cast their ballot for Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, but there will be no count beyond the total number of write-in votes for non-registered write-ins.
It’s estimated that this change would cut the time required to count write-ins by 60 to 75 percent.
The changes, approved by the Committee, and the possibility of expanding the choices beyond the current three, will be discussed Thursday session, with a vote expected at Friday’s City Council meeting.
The 2013 Minnesota legislative brought some gains for people with disabilities and their families, but some key initiatives were stalled, says The ARC Minnesota, a disability advocacy organization.
"The final health and human services bill that passed the Minnesota House and Senate contains many reforms and innovations that we applaud and strongly support," said Steve Larson, The Arc Minnesota’s senior policy director. "These measures will allow persons with disabilities to live and thrive in their communities and are cost-effective."
Tom Webb at the Pioneer Press reported that the Minnesota is reaching the end of an era when it comes to sales tax collection for online purchases. It was a good run, but it’s coming to an end July 1st, when the “Save Best Buy and Target from Amazon” bill becomes law.
I decided to look at my own exposure under this change to get a feel for how many meals my daughter is going to need to miss so I can maintain my Amazon habit. The state tax rate is 6.875%. How does that translate?
I looked up my recent purchases on Amazon. It turns out that I’ve spent $5,068 in the past 6 months on 180 transactions. When Carly says that it feels like an Amazon box arrives at our house every day, she’s actually understating the situation.
$5,068 * 6.875% = $348.42
Will I change my buying behavior over less than $1 per day? Am I going to start driving to Target to buy what I buy on Amazon today? No. Here’s why:
2. Price competitiveness. The last hardware purchase I made on Amazon was for a kitchen faucet. Home Depot sells it for $349 with free shipping. Amazon sells the same faucet for $61.78 cheaper and ships it twice as fast for free. And, which site do you think provided better customer reviews to decide whether it was a faucet worth purchasing?
Best Buy doesn’t carry my favorite earbuds in their stores, but they do offer them online for 30% more than Amazon. Best buy takes 6-9 days to ship them (with no option to ship them faster) while Amazon ships in 2 days for free.
Richfield-based Best Buy has been particularly hurt by competition from online rivals, and this has led to layoffs and store closings. On Tuesday, CEO Hubert Joly noted that 50 percent of the U.S. population will soon live in states where Amazon’s no-sales-tax advantage will disappear.
This is a real-world example of sales tax not being the problem. Best Buy doesn’t carry what I’d like to buy, so they kick me out to a 3rd party site to buy what I want for 30% more than Amazon charges. I suppose this allows Best Buy to maintain the margins they’re aiming for while losing the sale.
Seriously, check this out:
Best Buy and Amazon are both selling the same product from Accessory Genie. Amazon charges $6 less and delivers in two days. Best Buy charges $6 more and delivers in 6-9 days. Even with sales tax, Amazon crushes Best Buy by $4.62 and 4-7 days on this product, and people can throw some Mac & Cheese into their shopping cart before checking out. Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly’s sale tax comments may temper a few frustrated shareholders but haven’t swayed this informed consumer.
3. Long tail. It turns out that I buy quite a few things on Amazon that aren’t stocked by big parking lot stores. For example, a 1lb bag of chamomile tea from Croatia.
Maybe I’m an outlier, but based on my purchase behavior I don’t think this new sales tax does much to level the playing field against a company that sells a ton of tax exempt products, has lower prices, faster free shipping, and a far larger inventory than our local big parking lot stores.
As I see it, this may increase my costs by around $10/month, but the benefits of shopping Amazon over big parking lot stores are still obvious to me.
If Target or Best buy borrowed the Byerly’s online model, that might interest me. Byerly’s has online ordering with online payment and drive-up pickup. As in, you never have to enter the store. Just drive up and they’ll load your car up with what you purchased. That’s convenient. In fact, it’s more convenient than postal packaging. Moms with a carload of kids would love this. Under the status quo, Amazon will continue to chip away at Target and Best Buy with or without sales taxes.
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It is easy to become disheartened, disenfranchised and cynical about our gridlocked political system. I was among those who believed Congress’ partisan culture was impossible to change until I learned of No Labels, a movement to change the culture and rules in Washington.
No Labels is exactly what its name implies; my desire for our country to move forward is unrelated to whether I am a Republican, Democrat or independent. Elected officials should represent the people and not their political party. I believe a shift from "I win, you lose," to "let's work together” is necessary. Disagreements need not prevent discussion and, perhaps, compromise.
No Labels is the means to make this a reality. We are a group of more than 3,000 Minnesotans who want our congressional representatives to “Stop Fighting and Start Fixing.” More than 500,000 citizens nationwide have joined No Labels with a desire to change Washington. We approached many of our congressional representatives, and sadly several did not respond to our requests for a meeting. I am very pleased that both Sens. Klobuchar and Franken met with us, discussed our vision, listened to our suggestions, and shared their efforts and frustrations.
We asked each of them to join the "Problem Solvers Caucus." This caucus, created in part by No Labels, currently brings 69 senators and representatives together – including Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan (District 8) – to discuss their vision, their goals, and work toward common-sense solutions to our nation’s challenges.
Though neither senator has yet committed to becoming a Problem Solver, we look forward to continuing the dialogue and eventually having them join the caucus. Thank you to both Klobuchar and Franken, and their staffs, for making us feel it is possible to get our country back on track. How refreshing to feel that I have a voice again.
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The bottom line: Experience matters.
Survival in the face of a powerful tornado is never assured, but among residents of the town of Moore, at the historical epicenter of Oklahoma twisters and the site of the state’s first recorded major tornado in the early 19th century, the sense is they’re getting better at it.
On Wednesday officials in Moore exuded a sense of relief as the casualty toll from Monday’s EF5 monster seemed to be cemented at 24, even though 2,500 homes were destroyed.
By comparison, in 1999, a time when the population density in the South Oklahoma City area was lower, an EF5 tornado destroyed 1,800 homes yet killed 40 people.
The damage total, meanwhile, crept toward $2 billion, according to the state's insurance commissioner.
Moore's role as a big tornado bull's eye has turned the Oklahoma City suburb into a unique place, a kind of laboratory of human survivability, residents say.
"We're definitely getting better at surviving," says Moore resident Stephen Hall, who could style himself as a kind of tornado-escape Houdini given four brushes with twisters.
More heads-up warnings, less cries of wolf in the form of overused tornado sirens, more accurate storm tracks, and public awareness, caution, and action have certainly improved casualty rates from big tornadoes, perhaps especially in Moore, where many of those who rebuilt after 1999 installed storm shelters.
But in the end, what appears ironically to have saved the most people in the May 20 tornado in Moore was ignoring the government's main piece of advice: Don't try to outrun an oncoming tornado.
Indeed, most people in the tract house neighborhood off Telephone Road, near the epicenter of destruction, simply left. Some drove out of the strike zone, others went to fast-food restaurants, whose walk-in coolers are nearly bombproof and bolted to the earth.
"Yeah, people just leave, that's what I do," says Todd Smith, whose home was barely grazed by the May 20 tornado. "You watch the track, you listen to the warnings, and you make the call and go. That's why everybody buys tornado insurance, so you can go back, pick up the pieces, and rebuild."
"Telling people to run out of the house and get in the car and drive away is not something the government does, but if you listen to [Oklahoma City TV meteorologists], they tell you to get the hell out of there," says Thomas Grazulis, a tornado historian in St. Johnsbury, Vt. "Seventeen minutes is plenty of time to get long way from the path of a tornado."
Local forecasters, adds Mr. Grazulis, have the experience "of knowing who got away and who didn't, and what worked in real time."
Still, to brave a tornado by car requires a sense of perspective and experience, both of which most Tornado Alley natives have in spades. Mr. Hall, for one, has lived through four tornadoes after 42 years in Oklahoma. Those four literally brushed past his life, two coming within yards of his house, and another one that chased his bumper on I-35.
Yet tornado familiarity, in the case of Moore, hasn't bred complacency. Some 100 people were quickly rescued from rubble and buried storm shelters after the storm blew through, with helmeted urban rescue teams on all-terrain vehicles dispatched almost as soon as the wedge twister dissipated northeast of town.
Tornadoes do strike the same place twice, and in the case of Moore it may be as much a function of suburban growth making a larger human target for the runaway wind locomotives, suggests Grazulis.
And it's not that Oklahomans are blasé about the risks, he adds. Instead, they have perspective earned by tornado experience.
"They love it and they're going to rebuild, and they're gritty," he says. "They also have a belief that a tornado is once in a lifetime, which it probably is. It's really, really unique to have a town hit twice by a major tornado. There was nothing much for 100 years and then all of a sudden these two. It's random, but crazy things happen."
They’re an upstart political movement intent on “taking back” the country from an out-of-touch political elite accused of ignoring opposition to immigration and threats to what they consider the nation’s Christian heritage.
The insurgents, many of them self-styled libertarians, have marched from one electoral success to another and are pushing the country’s dominant right-wing party even further to the right.
On one side of the Atlantic, that scenario might feel familiar to anyone who witnessed the rise of the Tea Party. Yet in this case it is Britain’s Conservative Party leadership, not Republicans, who are feeling the heat. The rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which a poll on Tuesday put just two percentage points behind the Conservative Party itself, is on the rise and transforming British politics.
The record high of 22 percent for the UKIP comes after the most important chapter in its transition from the political fringes to the mainstream, when it won more than 140 seats in the English county councils earlier this month, snatching many from the Conservatives and beating the centrist Liberal Democrats into fourth place nationally.
Although UKIP was established to campaign for a British withdrawal from the European Union, it is evolving into a magnet for discontent about a range of issues including immigration and moves by the government to legalize gay marriage and is establishing itself as the foremost port of call for voters seeking to give a black eye to Westminster's three largest parties.
"An exit from the EU is the start of the journey, the key in the door," says Ray Finch, the leader of a crop of new UKIP councillors who ousted Conservatives from the county council of Hampshire, a southern coast county that has traditionally been regarded as a heartland of Prime Minister David Cameron's party. "What we generally are looking towards as a party is to reduce the power of the state and the size of the state, get it out of people's lives as much as possible so that they can live without being continually harassed, spied upon, and continually taxed."From protest to power
Few commentators expect UKIP to pick up large numbers of seats, if any, at the next election in 2015, primarily due to the way the mechanics of Britain's electoral system mitigate against parties whose support is spread out. Many also still view support for UKIP as a mid-term protest vote while opponents seize on what they regard as the “false promise” of its manifesto – which combines large-scale tax cuts with promises of investments in healthcare, education, and infrastructure along with dramatically increased spending on defense.
Nevertheless, its dramatic rise as a political force has rattled Conservative MPs, increasing the ranks pushing for Cameron to take a hardline position on future membership of the EU. This week saw the latest rebellion by MPs from his own party, who attempted to interfere with the legislative passage of the gay marriage plans, a central plank of Cameron's attempts to transform the party's image, but which are opposed by many activists, MPs, and even some Tory cabinet ministers.
Further pressure was heaped on his leadership when the Conservative Party's co-chairman, who is also a member of Cameron's inner circle, was forced to fend off allegations that he had dismissed his party's activists as “swivel-eyed loons” during a conversation with journalists.
"Loongate," which fed a Tory rebel narrative seeking to depict the Cameron leadership as a metropolitan elite divorced from the needs and instincts of the grassroots, has been seized on by UKIP's own leader Nigel Farage, a gregarious former stockbroker seemingly seldom photographed without a cigarette and a pint in his hand.
In a bid to woo disenchanted Conservatives, he took out a full-page ad in the right-leaning Daily Telegraph on Monday in which he accused Britain's political class of being "completely out of touch with the thoughts of ordinary people."
"Only an administration run by a bunch of college kids, none of whom have ever had a proper job in their lives, could so arrogantly write off their own supporters," wrote Farage, describing the loon comment as "the ultimate insult."Labour inroads, too
It's not just the Tories who are being damaged by UKIP. Last week the party won a council by-election in a northern English area regarded as a stronghold of the Labour Party. Statistics also show that UKIP has tended to draw support from blue-collar workers and voters on low incomes – all groups that are the traditional bedrock for the left-of-center opposition party.
Some analysts caution against reading too much into the UKIP by-election win in Labour's northern heartland.
“I would say they are less of a threat to Labour in the north than they are to the Conservatives the south," says Brendan Evans, professor of Politics at the University of Huddersfield. "The evidence suggests that, north and south, they take more votes from the Conservative Party. It’s true that they will eat into the Labour vote in the north because it is in many ways a protest vote, a vote of rejecting the political establishment and the way the current political agenda is going.... But I think that they are a bigger threat to Conservatives nationwide in that while UKIP probably won’t win parliamentary seats in the next general election they will deprive votes from the Conservatives and hand, in effect, seats over to Labour.”
It’s a nightmare scenario for senior Conservative Party strategists seeking centrist voters, and one which might draw sympathy from Republication counterparts who have long looked over their shoulders at the Tea Party.
For their part, UKIP activists don’t seem to be entirely unhappy with the US parallels.
“We come from slightly different cultures but we do understand particularly Ron Paul, who Nigel met recently and they got on famously together,” says Mr. Finch, the UKIP county councilor in Hampshire. “We do believe as the Tea Party believes that people should be left, as far as is practicable, left to make the best of their own lives.”
Nor, like many Tea Partiers, does he believe that the movement is a temporary phenomenon.
“We are here to stay. The time for the Conservatives to have changed direction was 20 years ago when UKIP was formed. We see ourselves as a radical party. The Conservative Party is and have been for many years a part of the state, the EU, and big business, which are all linked together.”
A federal appeals court in Denver is set to hear argument on Thursday in a lawsuit charging that the Obama administration’s requirement that employers provide contraceptive services in all mandated health plans violates religious liberty.
The full 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled an hour-long argument session to allow lawyers for the family-owned Hobby Lobby Stores to argue their case that the contraception mandate violates sincerely held religious beliefs of the company owners.
The owners, the Green family, are evangelical Christians. The company already provides their 13,000 employees with health-care coverage, but it does not include certain kinds of birth control methods that are offensive to the Green’s religious beliefs. They particularly object to the provision of the so-called morning after pill, which they believe can be abortion-inducing.
The case is one of 59 lawsuits challenging the contraception mandate that are pending across the county, and one of a handful to reach the appellate level. Legal analysts expect potential future appeals to arrive at the US Supreme Court later this year.
Specifically at issue is whether the courts should issue a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of President Obama’s health-care reform law pending a full airing of the underlying religious liberty issue.
Appeals courts have split on the question, with three granting an injunction and three others refusing to block the new law.
The legal dispute is developing into a major confrontation pitting the scope of an individual’s ability to practice religious freedom against the Obama administration’s power to order employers to facilitate reproductive freedom for their female employees.
Government lawyers defend the health-care regulations, saying that they do not violate theReligious Freedom Restoration Act or constitutional guarantees of freedom to follow one’s religion without government interference.
In briefs to the appeals court, they said the decision whether to use certain government-required health-care services was a decision to be made by the employee, not the employer.
Government lawyers also argued that any burden of providing contraceptive services is a burden to the company, not to its owners. They said that profit-making companies like Hobby Lobby Stores do not enjoy religious liberty protections under the First Amendment.
Those protections cover nonprofit religious organizations, government lawyers said, not for-profit, secular companies.
“[The company owners] cannot circumvent this distinction by asserting that the contraceptive-coverage requirement is a substantial burden on the [owners’] personal exercise of religion,” the government’s brief to the appeals court said.
“The mandate does not compel the [owners] as individuals to do anything,” the brief said. The lawyers said that it is Hobby Lobby that is the employer and Hobby Lobby that sponsors the group health plan.
Any subsequent decision to purchase a contraceptive service belongs to the employee, the government said, and any resulting clash with the owners’ religious beliefs is only a “slight burden” of religious practice, the brief said.
Lawyers for the Green family disagree.
“This case asks whether religious business owners forfeit their faith as a cost of doing business,” lawyers with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty wrote in their brief on behalf of the Green family and Hobby Lobby Stores.
They said the contraception mandate would force the Green family and their company to offer insurance that “entangles them and their business in the practice of abortion.”
If the family refuses to comply, they and their company will face substantial financial penalties.
“When government threatens to ruin a family’s business unless they renounce their faith, the pressure placed on them is unmistakable,” the Becket Fund lawyers wrote.
“By any means of law and common sense, the Greens and Hobby Lobby are severely burdened by the government’s draconian regulation, and they may seek redress under our Constitution and laws,” the lawyers said.
Hobby Lobby is an arts and crafts retail company with more than 500 stores in 40 states. The Green family also owns Mardel, Inc., which runs 35 Christian-themed book stores employing 372 workers. The bookstore business is also a plaintiff in the suit.
The case is Hobby Lobby Stores v. Sebelius (12-6294).
In opposition-controlled Aleppo, once the economic heart of Syria, few businesses have survived the war, which has reduced entire neighborhoods to rubble amid fighting, scud missile attacks, airstrikes, and artillery bombardment.
Most of the factories here that survived are unable to resume operations because they lack enough electricity to run the machines, the supplies to make their goods are no longer available or too expensive, or the owners don’t want to risk reinvesting when everything could be destroyed again without warning.
And yet in the middle of all this destruction, at least one factory survives. On the lower level of a multi-story building, young men and some children work diligently at embroidering baby blankets with images of Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty. The survival of an off-brand embroidery factory manufacturing knockoff images of famous cartoon characters is both a testament to the randomness of war and a small ray of hope that Aleppo’s economy, now as ruined as the city itself, might be able to rebuild.
The battle between government forces and the opposition remains undecided in Aleppo, with government forces controlling about a third of the city, according to rebel estimates.
The owner of the embroidery factory lives in the area still under government control, so he’s entrusted his senior foreman, Abu Abdu with running the entire factory. The two men still communicate by phone during the brief moments when Aleppo has cell service.
When fighting broke out in Aleppo last summer, the factory closed for about two months, but then reopened. Since then the factory has survived with only a couple minor scares.
“This building has been hit with two mortar rounds, but they didn’t damage the factory,” says Mr. Abdu. “The lights went out and our machines stopped, but that was it.”
To keep the factory up and running, they’ve had to switch to all generator power and fire half the staff. Before the war, the factory ran 24 hours a day, divided into two shifts. Now it’s just one daytime crew.
Above all else, the factory has been kept afloat because the majority of its clients are Iraqi. They have continued to buy, and the route between the two countries has stayed open.
“It would be hard if I had only Syrian clients. I do have some in Homs and Damascus, but it’s hard to communicate and they buy about 50 percent less than they did before the revolution started,” says Abdu.
A handful of other factories and workshops have managed to reopen throughout Aleppo, but businesses like Abdu’s remain a rare exception. Stories like Abu Aysa’s are much more common.
Before the revolution started, he ran a successful kitchen utensil factory that earned about $2 million in annual profits and employed 20 people – or supported 20 families, as Mr. Aysa likes to say. In the first days of clashes, government jets bombed all the factories in his area. Aysa says he was lucky – he'd closed the factory shortly before fighting broke out, so none of his employees were there at the time, and his factory was only partially damaged. About a dozen of his neighbors’ plants were completely destroyed.
Although his factory has not been reopened, he still tried to help a number of his employees, giving them money from time to time – while he still had it. Now he’s spent his entire savings and lives of capital meant for his factory.
“I will not try to reopen my factory until this war finishes, if I am still alive by then,” he says.
Several of Aysa’s steel suppliers have agreed to lend him the money necessary to rebuild once there is enough security to resume work. Still, with the Syrian pound having lost more than 30 percent of its value against the dollar since the revolution began, he says it will be hard to afford the material he needs from international suppliers.
“Even if I wanted to work right now, I couldn’t because the Syrian pound has fallen so much and other currencies have gotten stronger,” he says.
For those who’ve managed to continue working in some capacity, the war has significantly stunted the development of their businesses. Jets severely damaged Abu Ahmad’s two bird cage-making factories, but he managed to salvage enough equipment to continue making cages in his home.
Given the limitations of his at-home factory, production has dropped from about 1,000 bird cages per day to just 150. He’s also had to start using lower quality materials and raise prices, which makes him worry that he may lose his remaining clients in Libya and Iraq. If fighting were to end tomorrow, it would take him at least five years, but probably longer, to rebuild his business, he says.
“When the war ends, I can’t afford to restore all my factories. I can only restore part of it and rebuild the rest gradually,” he says. “Before the revolution I wanted to make a new production line and push into European markets. Now I’m not going to make it into any new markets.”
At the embroidery factory, machines are still pumping out dozens of Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty blankets simultaneously, 12 hours a day, but Abdu says it’s still a struggle to keep the generators running, find spare parts for the machines, and buy thread for the embroidery work.
But fighting between government and opposition forces in Aleppo is less fierce than it has been for months, so he remains guardedly optimistic. “Now it is better than last summer and I hope it will continue to get better," he says.
When two French ministers last month launched a new program to respond to the challenges of population aging, they gave it an English name: “Silver Economy.” But that didn’t strike a chord with their boss.
The day after, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault issued a memo reminding all members of the cabinet ofPresident François Hollande that French has been the language in use by administration and justice officials here since 1539.
"I invite you to ensure respect of the rules overseeing the use of our language in society because, whatever the area it is about – consumption, education, business, science, culture, broadcasting – our social fabric is weakened if these rules are not strictly followed,” Mr. Ayrault wrote.
But now the government is proposing a bill that would allow some classes to be taught in a foreign language, chiefly English, at public universities – reigniting the country's frequent, ongoing debate about the proper use of its constitutionally enshrined native tongue, as critics say the new measure would undermine the French language's place as a defining element of France's national identity and cultural stature.
The French government has hailed the measure as a way to attract more foreign students and scholars to France and points that hundreds of college programs are already being taught in English.
Supporters – including two Nobel Prize winners – of the measure say it would not only make France more attractive for talented students and scholars who don’t speak French, but also help French students prepare to work in an English-speaking environment.
“It is a good thing that we convey the message to students around the world that they can come study in France and that they won’t have to deal with a language barrier [in class] on top of that,” says Antoine Petit, the associate general director of Inria, a research institute for computer science and applied mathematics.
Yet the bill, which went to Parliament today, has met strong opposition from both politicians across the political spectrum and prominent scholars.
Christian Lequesne, the director of the Paris-based Center for International Studies and Research, says the French far-left and the conservative right see the bill as a vehicle for American and British influence in France.
“Politicians can’t help seeing a domination of the Anglo-Saxon world [through this bill],” says Mr. Lequesne, who supports the measure.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Front in a May 17 news release demanded that Mr. Hollande withdraw the bill in the name of “national interest.”
“France will not be stronger by giving up its assets and it national genius, by pouring itself in the mold of an Anglo-Saxon-style globalization,” Ms. Le Pen said in the news release. “The French language, present on the five continents, is obviously among the strengths of our country.”
The French Academy, an institution established in 1635 to oversee the use of French, has also recommended that the portion of the bill that would allow classes to be taught in foreign languages in college be withdrawn.
“The French Academy, faithful to its vocation of guardian of the language and its evolution, wishes to draw attention on the dangers of a measure that seems to be of technical nature, when in reality it favors the marginalization of our language,” read part of a statement issued on March 22.
Opposition to the bill even comes from within the ranks of the Socialist Party in power.
Pouria Amirshahi, a Socialist lawmaker in the lower chamber of Parliament, says there is no point for French universities in trying to attract foreign students from India and other developing countries who can’t speak any French or don’t intend to learn it.
“There are hundreds of thousands of Indians who can speak French or who are willing to speak French,” Mr. Amirshahi says. “So the one that only speaks English, he doesn’t come here.... And if he comes, he has to learn” French.
Amirshahi, who speaks English and other languages, says the government should improve how French schools teach foreign languages rather than require college students to take classes taught in English.
About 220 million people speak French across the world, with Europe and sub-Saharan Africabeing the two areas with the highest concentration of French speakers, according to the International Organization of La Francophonie.
But Lequesne of the Center for International Studies and Research says that contrary to politicians opposing the bill, young French scholars usually feel comfortable speaking and writing in English.
Mr. Petit says he thinks this controversy also is the expression of France’s passion for arguments.
“We are really good in France at ending up arguing, fighting, debating about tiny issues,” he says. “And I think we love it.”