Up for the fight … The AP says: “A lawsuit contesting a new, Internet-based system for voter registration should be dismissed because plaintiffs lack standing to sue, attorneys for Secretary of State Mark Ritchie argued Wednesday. New documents filed in the case say those behind the lawsuit are seeking an extraordinary remedy and can't show they've been injured. Four Minnesota Republican legislators and two advocacy groups filed the lawsuit last month.” So you mean … “outrage” isn’t the same as “injury”?
Postponed because of … smoke. The AP story about last night’s Timberwolves game in Mexico City says: “The game between the San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves was postponed Wednesday night because of smoky conditions inside the Mexico City arena. The game will be made up in Minnesota at a later date. The arena was evacuated about 45 minutes before the scheduled 9:30 p.m. EST tipoff when a generator malfunction outside the arena sent smoke pouring into the building, according to NBA spokeswoman Sharon Lima. About 15 minutes after the scheduled start, the Spurs bus pulled away from the building. The Timberwolves bus followed soon after. While the teams were warming up for their regular-season matchup, lights went out in parts of the arena and smoke began coming out of vents in the upper deck. The court quickly became cloudy.”
The “it’s failing” meme is going to need some tweaking … Catharine Richert and Elizabeth Stawicki of MPR report: “The number of people who are in the final stages of applying for health insurance through the state's new online insurance marketplace, has more than doubled since the beginning of November, according to figures released [Wednesday] by MNsure. Roughly 24,600 people are in the process of paying for a plan. That's up from nearly 11,000 in early November. Minnesota residents have created more than 50,000 accounts on MNsure, which are necessary to apply for coverage. … The latest report indicates that slightly more than half the people enrolling in qualified health plans are age 50 or younger. Males represent 45 percent of enrollees, females 55 percent. Here's how the numbers break down: Under 21: 12.7 percent; 21-30: 10.1 percent; 31-40: 12.8 percent; 41-50: 15 percent; 51-60: 26.6 percent and 61+: 22.8 percent.”
The next phase of the Minnesota Orchestra saga … Here's Doug Grow's MinnPost report. Graydon Royce’s Strib story says: “The Minnesota Orchestral Association claims that it has complied with the terms of the city lease that governs the operation of Orchestra Hall. The status of the concert hall has become a contentious issue in the bitter, protracted labor dispute between the association and its musicians. Several independent sources have called on the city to find the association in breach and to retake control of the hall, which Minneapolis owns by virtue of sponsoring a $14 million state bonding request for a recently completed renovation.The city requires the association to report each December on whether it has operated the facility as a ‘performing arts center.’ Statements issued Wednesday indicate how difficult it would be for the city to take the hall back from the Orchestral Association.”
He’ll make it official today. Emily Cahn at Roll Call says: “GOP state Sen. Torrey Westrom will announce Thursday that he will challenge longtime Rep. Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., in the 7th District. Westrom, the first legally blind person elected to the Minnesota Legislature, will make the announcement Thursday morning in the northwestern part of the state, according to a news release from the campaign. Westrom is the first Republican to announce a bid against Peterson. Republicans have made the 12-term Democrat a top target in 2014. Peterson, 69, is one of nine Democrats who represents a district that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried in 2012. Romney won the district with a 10-point margin in 2012, while Peterson defeated his Republican opponent by 26 points.” Devin Henry's MinnPost coverage is here.
The Strib gets a piece of the Shannon Gibney story with Maura Lerner writing: “A Minneapolis college professor has ignited a debate about talking about race on campus after going public with a dispute with her employer, the Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Shannon Gibney, who is black, has said that she was reprimanded for offending two white students during a classroom discussion about racism. Gibney, 38, says that she has been investigated three times by the college for incidents involving alleged racial discrimination. The first time followed a 2008 confrontation with ‘an angry white male student’ about the nature of racism, she wrote. The latest incident occurred in October. Gibney, who teaches English, has declined requests to discuss her case with the Star Tribune.”
Still not catching a break … Our Favorite Congresswoman’s life continues to be interesting. Kevin Diaz of the Strib says: “FBI agents have searched the home of former Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, once a top official in U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign, his lawyer said Wednesday. The search, conducted two weeks ago, appeared to focus on communications between various campaign operatives and Sorenson, who abruptly quit as Bachmann’s Iowa campaign chairman in the closing days of the Iowa Republican caucus campaign and threw his support behind Ron Paul. ‘It was a very thorough federal criminal search warrant’, said Des Moines attorney Ted Sporer, who represents Sorenson. ‘It’s pretty obvious they are looking for communications with a presidential campaign or third parties working for a presidential campaign’.” Do the words “Michele Bachmann” and “presidential campaign” still make you laugh?
Minnesota men are … 39th. For City Pages, Aaron Rupar writes: “Minnesotans have the 39th 'largest' penises out of the 50 states in 'Murica, according to a study put together by Condomania, an online business which bills itself as the country's first condom store. Looking for something a little larger? Travel northwest to NoDak. According to the study, NoDakians are packing the largest units in the land. No wonder it's so damn sexy up there. As you might have already inferred, Condomania put together the list by looking at the condom sizes purchased from each state.” Naturally, the comments get good fast. Like this one … “I'm from Cleveland and our penises are so big, at birth we are forced to install airplane warning lights on them.”
As for the, uh, “nip” in the air today … Paul Douglas says: “One of the coldest blobs of Yukon chill in a decade is about to drain out of the frozen wastelands of western Canada. By Friday daytime ‘highs’ struggle to top 0F; temperatures may hold below zero Saturday in spite of a bright, pleading sun. This will be one of the coldest outbreaks of the winter — and no, it doesn't necessarily mean the entire winter will be Nanook. … Historically winter temperatures bottom out in mid-January, so this is coming a good 5 weeks ahead of schedule, which is unusual, but not unprecedented. Twin Cities temperatures may hold below zero much of Friday and Saturday, more subzero weather Monday night, again Tuesday PM into Wednesday morning.”
On Sept. 13, Rep. Rick Nolan joined 14 Democrats and 230 Republicans (one abstained) to vote yes on H.R. 761, the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013. The bill is strategic and critical for the multinational mining companies seeking to mine on U.S. public lands.
The Obama administration, in a Statement of Administrative Policy, strongly opposed the bill as undermining and removing environmental safeguards for almost all types of hardrock mines on federal lands. According to the statement, "The legislation also undermines existing law safeguarding the multiple uses of public lands by placing mining interests above all other uses. This change has the potential to threaten hunting, fishing, recreation, and other activities that create jobs and sustain local economies across the country."
H.R. 761 is the 2013 version of H.R. 4402, which was passed by the House in 2012. Prior to being elected, Nolan opposed H.R. 4402 because, "The fact is that the bill guts many environmental health and safety provisions for workers, for the community, for the environment." Once elected, Nolan reversed his position and supported H.R. 761. Nolan was quoted in the Mesabi Daily News as saying, "... I'm comfortable voting for it. ... it's a start in streamlining and standardizing the permit process."
In a response letter to constituents who had asked him to oppose the bill, Nolan stated, "We need look no further than the long-delayed projects at Essar, Minntac, KeeTac, and Mesabi Nugget to see that the permitting process as it exists is broken." Unfortunately, what is broken is Nolan's source of information on mine permitting.
Essar Steel is permitted, and construction has begun. The project has undergone several delays while the India-based company seeks additional financing. The Essar project has been subsidized by $65.9 million in state grants for construction of a railroad spur, electric lines, natural gas connections, road re-routing to assist in the project's development ("A Monumental Day for Minnesota Steel," Grand Rapids Herald Review, Sept. 10, 2008), and a $6.7 million loan from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) ("Essar Steel Minnesota gets another loan extension," Duluth News Tribune, Dec. 14, 2012) – quite the opposite of regulatory delay.Corps waits for mitigation plan
Minntac is proposing to expand its open-pit mine outside its current permit-to-mine boundary. This would impact 67 acres of wetlands and 4,000 linear feet of a stream, requiring an individual Section 404 Clean Water Act permit. The Army Corps of Engineers is waiting for an appropriate mitigation plan to be developed to compensate for the loss of valuable wetland and water resources. According to page 43 of the Environmental Assessment Worksheet [PDF] dated Aug. 1, 2012, approximately 45,000 linear feet (8.5 miles) of stream has already been removed as a result of past mining activity; stream loss has a cumulative effect on fish populations.
Meanwhile, Minntac is operating its plant and tailings basin on a wastewater discharge permit that was issued in 1987, despite the Clean Water Act requirement that permits be reviewed and renewed with necessary updates every five years. As a result, Minntac's plant has no discharge limits for pollutants such as sulfates that are present in high levels. Proposed mine expansion would increase the height of tailings, with the potential for increased leaching into the watershed. Mr. Nolan is correct in saying that "the permitting system as it exists is broken," thus allowing Minntac's discharges into our waters.
KeeTac’s proposed expansion would significantly increase its mercury emissions, contrary to firmly established state and federal policy, and would continue and extend the plant’s discharge of sulfate at above the limit set by Minnesota law to protect wild rice. KeeTac is not in compliance with current regulations. The problem stems not from the permitting process but from the company’s failure to put forth a proposal that actually protects the environment in accord with legal standards.
The Mesabi Nugget plant was legislatively exempted from a full-scale environmental review in 2004, has never been able to meet water-quality standards, and was given a variance for its initial permit. Variances essentially rewrite the water-quality standards governing a water body, setting them at a level that a discharging plant can meet rather than the level that protects aquatic life or other uses. But even with the variance, Mesabi Nugget has been cited for violations of its permit. Environmental review for an expanded operation is on hold because the company needs to figure out how it is going to meet the laws that Nolan assures us will protect our water.Mine would require public-land exchange
H.R. 761 would benefit PolyMet, whose proposed copper-nickel mine requires a public-land exchange in order to strip mine on protected federal lands. While taconite mine expansion continues to erode away the forests and wetlands of northeast Minnesota, proposed copper-nickel mining underlies what is now Superior National Forest. H.R. 761 would be a giveaway of public lands across the United States to multinational mining corporations, who would sell the metals on the global market, thus "undermining" any strategic and critical U.S. needs.
In his strategy to promote mining, Nolan states in the same constituent letter mentioned above, "I now urge my Republican colleagues in the House to reach across the aisle and engage the House, the Senate, and the White House, so together we can write a bill that's good for mining. ..." In response, Sens. Klobuchar and Franken have co-sponsored a companion bill, S. 1600, "The Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2013." The bill directs the Secretary of the Interior to establish a list of 20 minerals critical to the American economy (U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Oct. 29, 2013). The bill orders federal agencies to avoid duplicating regulatory actions, prevent unnecessary paperwork and minimize “unnecessary delays” in mining projects, including exploration.
The political push to facilitate environmental permitting is continuing even after early October press releases confirmed that ERM (the company hired by PolyMet to develop a workable mine plan, concluded that PolyMet's proposed mine would require at least 500 years of water treatment. (Duluth News Tribune, "PolyMet study: Water from mine site would need 500 years of treatment," Oct. 5, 2013).Supplemental draft EIS due Friday
PolyMet's supplemental draft Environmental Impact Statement will be released for public comment on Friday. The length of the comment period will be announced at that time. Because sulfide mining has never been done previously in Minnesota, and because copper-nickel mineralization occurs in the headwaters of both Lake Superior and the Rainy River, environmental groups are requesting 180 days as extended review time. Public hearings are likely to held in late January in Aurora-Hoyt Lakes, Duluth, and the Twin Cities.
In 1939, Frank Capro directed a film entitled "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." The storyline centers around a rookie who is appointed to a vacancy in the U.S. Congress, and promptly collides with political corruption, but stands his ground. Those representing northeast Minnesota would do well to spend some time digging up this movie and reflecting on our democratic process rather than steamrolling the process in order to let mining companies dig up and pollute the watersheds of the Lake Superior region.
Elanne Palcich, a retired elementary school teacher, lives in Chisholm, Minn.WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The average debt for four-year college graduates in the US is creeping up to the $30,000 mark, and in some states has already surpassed it.
Among the class of 2012, 71 percent graduated with debt – and of those, the average burden carried forward was $29,400, estimates the Project on Student Debt at The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), a nonprofit group with offices in Washington, D.C., and Oakland, Calif. That’s up from 68 percent indebted in 2008, with the average debt rising about 6 percent a year.
The report comes at a time when college affordability is high on many people’s agendas. President Obama has proposed a college rating system to highlight affordability and value, and discussions are under way in Congress and among higher education institutions about how to rein in costs and the growing reliance on student loans.
“Despite discouraging headlines, a college degree remains the best route to finding a job in this tight market. But students and families need to know that debt levels can vary widely from college to college,” TICAS president Lauren Asher said in a statement Wednesday.
One sign of the continued value of college: The unemployment rate for those with only a high school degree in 2012 was more than double the unemployment of those with a college degree (17.9 percent versus 7.7 percent).
But the burden of loans is too high, many economic and education policy advocates say. “Student loans used to be a symbol of ‘good debt’ … but that’s not necessarily the case anymore, and it’s having a significant impact on broader economic activity,” such as graduates’ ability to buy cars and houses, says Zakiya Smith, a strategy director at the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation and a former education adviser in the Obama administration.
About 20 percent of student debt is now through private loans, a portion that leaders of The Project on Student Debt would like to see reduced. “If you need to borrow to get through school, federal student loans are the safest way to borrow,” Ms. Asher said.
The report includes state-level comparisons based on voluntary reporting by a large portion of public institutions and private, nonprofit colleges. It also lists highest-debt and lowest-debt colleges.
While estimates for the debt of students graduating from for-profit institutions were included in the national figures above, not enough of those schools reported voluntarily to be included in the more detailed analyses. (Using other data sets, the report estimates that for-profit graduates borrow 43 percent more than graduates from the other types of colleges.)
Average debt at the individual college level ranged from $4,450 to $49,450. Many of the high-debt public colleges listed in the report enroll a large portion of low-income students.
The list of low-debt institutions includes several “work” colleges (Berea College and College of the Ozarks), several schools with high endowments, one Ivy League institution that promises to meet all student need through grants and work on campus (Princeton University), and several schools that serve many low-income students.
One way to reduce debt would be to increase the maximum federal Pell grants for low- and moderate-income students, which is currently $5,645 a year. The report recommends doubling that.
The report also includes less costly recommendations, such as allowing students to apply earlier for financial aid and improving tools to provide better consumer information. For instance, most colleges are required to post online “net price calculators” to help prospective students estimate true costs of attendance, but many are hard to use and compare with other schools.
The federal Department of Education should also collect better data on student debt and outcomes after college, the report urges. “The success of the president's proposal to rate colleges based on access, affordability, value, and student outcomes will depend on the quality of the data used in the ratings, underscoring the urgency of gathering better information," TICAS research director Debbie Cochrane said in a statement.
On Wednesday the Department of Education announced a new Financial Aid Toolkit that gives guidance counselors and other student advisers an easier way to search college aid resources.
Education Department officials have also been seeking input from parents, students, and college leaders about how to implement the president’s college ratings plan. This week, the department is putting out a formal request for experts and researchers to weigh in.
This fall, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee has been holding hearings to examine financial aid, college accountability, and other issues as Congress moves toward reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.
Sens. Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut and Brian Schatz (D) of Hawaii announced recently that they plan to propose a bill that would give incentives to colleges to innovate with an aim of lowering costs, would create an accountability commission to set standards for higher education institutions that receive federal aid, and would establish rewards for colleges that perform particularly well against those standards.
“We need college administrators to wake up every day thinking about how they’re going to bring down the cost of college for students,” Senator Murphy said in a statement.
More information on the TICAS report, including an interactive map, is available here.
Iran's sales pitch for the Geneva nuclear deal got a lively reception on Tuesday at a packed Tehran University auditorium, where the country's lead negotiator defended the accord and called for unity among sniping political factions.
Cheers erupted repeatedly as Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif laid out the case for an agreement that halts Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work for six months in exchange for modest sanctions relief, while a comprehensive final deal is negotiated.
“Those that are afraid of negotiations…that see themselves as too small, they think they are too weak. They don’t believe in the power of the people,” Mr. Zarif told the crowd of hundreds jammed into the university hall, while others watched a TV feed in another another auditorium. “Foreign policy should not be a battleground of factions, it should be a field of unity.”
Iranians breathed a sigh of relief when the landmark accord was reached Nov. 24 between Iran and six world powers. While many welcomed the promise of a gradual easing of sanctions and tension with the West, hardliners remained unconvinced – one reason why Zarif was speaking directly to an Iranian audience.
The deal halts Iran's most sensitive nuclear work for six months in exchange for modest relief of sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy. It’s a temporary agreement meant to pave the way for a much broader, final deal that will limit Iran's nuclear program so that it can only ever be used for peaceful purposes.
During the two-hour forum, Zarif took on the role of salesman-in-chief, in a political arena where the risks are high, as hard-line critics circle to attack.
“We should believe in ourselves,” Zarif told the students, stating that the surprise election of centrist President Hassan Rouhani was an “epic” that “created national power” and a new fearlessness at the negotiating table.
The crowd was largely supportive of Zarif, booing and shouting down hard-line students who accused Zarif of giving away too much, sacrificing Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium, and selling out a prized nuclear program for cash.
Zarif quieted those who booed, and said their criticism reflected the doubt of skeptics– many of them hardliners mistrustful of the West, and opposed to Rouhani. He said those skeptics had incomplete information and had fallen for Washington’s spin on the deal. Both the US and Iran declared victory in the aftermath of the deal, in large measure to convince their own domestic doubters.
Zarif held his head in his hands in exasperation when asked to explain, for example: If Iran had now stopped its uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity and did away with its stockpile of the stuff, what cards were left to make the final agreement? What about the White House's insistence that enrichment is not part of this deal, while Zarif said the text clearly showed that it was?
Stopping 20 percent enrichment and rolling back the stockpile was a top priority for the six world powers negotiating for Iran, because the material is a few technical steps from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent enrichment. Iran says it rejects nuclear weapons, and that its program is only for peaceful purposes like producing electricity and medical isotopes.Taking questioners to task
While welcoming the criticism, Zarif took the questioners to task, saying they should not listen to US statements aimed at a domestic audience and its ally Israel. He said critics should read the deal itself, which describes a future, negotiated level of uranium enrichment.
Zarif also spoke of recent years when he was essentially in political exile, as an arch-conservative held office in Tehran and criticized Zarif’s service to the previous reformist administration.
"For eight years – eight years – I heard all kinds of lies, things against me, mocking, and did not speak a word," Zarif said. "I expected our friends to give us eight weeks of time [before criticizing again]…without us even going to the negotiating table, they had already said that we had lost."
Zarif reminded the students that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had referred to negotiators as “sons of the revolution” who should not be called “compromisers,” and that he had guided the talks at every stage.
Iran had not retreated from its red lines in any way, Zarif said, and steps could be reversed within 24 hours – just as Washington has made clear that the modest sanctions relief agreed with Iran was reversible at any time.
“I will stand up to the Western side, but I need your help,” he said.Hardliners lack numbers
Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii who is currently in Tehran, says hardliners don’t have significant support for their arguments.
“But if the negotiating team can’t deliver, maybe on sanctions, then [the hard-line] argument will become more powerful: that this is an unbalanced deal, and the other side is not willing or is unable to deliver,” Ms. Farhi says. “The election showed that they don’t have the numbers, though they have a loud voice.”
Some students were quick to contrast the stalemate in nuclear talks under Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with the pace of negotiations under the new administration.
“This is the new way, we need a new atmosphere,” said Kevan, a law student. He noted that Rouhani and Zarif both had degrees from Western universities, and therefore “know the West” and know how to deal with the US superpower.
“If a person like Zarif goes to a high level in my government, it means change,” said Kevan, who like several students interviewed asked that only his first name be used. “Now is it very important for the good behavior of the [Americans]. Zarif has many pressures on him.”
KYIV, Ukraine — Opposition leaders continued trading accusations and demands with the authorities Wednesday as protesters hunkered down for another night amid uncertainty and political turmoil in this post-Soviet capital.
The leaders of the country’s three main opposition parties told reporters in an occupied trade union building off central Independence Square that they believe security forces would provoke violence in order to discredit the protesters.
“This will be a precedent with which they will say that this is not a peaceful protest, but an aggressive one,” said boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, head of the UDAR Party.
A violent police assault against peaceful protesters — most of them students — on the square last weekend stirred fresh anger among demonstrators and opposition leaders, who have intensified their calls to fire the government and hold snap elections.
Rage over police abuses has fueled the massive public protests against the government’s refusal to sign key political and trade agreements with the EU last month.
After parliament — which is controlled by President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions — failed to approve a no-confidence vote in the government on Tuesday, opposition politicians said they would call for round-the-clock blockades of key government buildings if the president fails to fire the cabinet.
Leading officials remain equally entrenched, casting the protests as acts of civil disobedience on the fringes of legality.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov warned on Wednesday that “all those who are guilty of illegal acts will answer for them.”
“Everybody must realize that the country's constitution and laws are in force — no one is allowed to violate them,” Reuters reported him as saying.
In a meeting late Wednesday with Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council ofEurope, Azarov expressed regret over the excessive use of force but suggested the police had been baited.
“There were not students on the square — there were well-prepared provocateurs,” he said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Jagland, who flew to Kyiv on Wednesday to meet with both the authorities and opposition leaders, said he would try to mediate a compromise.
“But I have also seen that too many are focusing on how to aggravate the situation,” the AP reported him as saying.
The crisis has also attracted the attention of Ukraine’s first three presidents, who in a joint statement expressed their support for the anti-government protests, the largest since the Orange Revolution in 2004.
But they also warned of further turmoil.
“The crisis is deepening and we see risks of losing control over the situation,” the statement read.
More from GlobalPost: Hollande goes Rambo
Meanwhile, protesters prepared for another frigid evening in central Kyiv, where organizers have turned Independence Square into a revolutionary squat.
Bonfires billowed smoke into the night sky as rows of Ukrainian flags fluttered above the crowd. Demonstrators huddled around disused fountains, sipping hot beverages and shuffling clothes, food and wood into the barricaded square.
At the other end, a steady rotation of speakers worked the crowd of thousands from a large stage, occasionally leading them in chants decrying Yanukovych and his government.
The mood is largely festive, seemingly far removed from the political bickering that has marked the ongoing crisis, however, many appear determined to hunker down for the long haul.
Warming his hands over a trashcan fire, 46-year-old Yuriy Olkiv says he’ll stay “for as long as it takes.”
“If you want to change things and achieve your goal,” said the lanky, bespectacled private businessman from western Ukraine, “then it’s worth standing here and not letting go.”
MEXICO CITY — Police are scouring central Mexico for highly radioactive material stolen this week on the outskirts of the crowded capital.
Unidentified armed men stole a truck transporting the load of cobalt-60, stored in a safe container the size of a car battery, at a highway truck stop shortly after midnight on Monday.
“Evidently they were after the truck,” Mardonio Jimenez, a senior official with Mexico’s National Commission for Nuclear Safety and Safeguards, said of the armed thieves. “So far we haven’t had any success in the search for them. Of course, it’s a worrisome situation.”
The Mexican nuclear agency reported the theft to the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which issued an alert Wednesday.
“At the time the truck was stolen, the source was properly shielded. However, the source could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged,” the IAEA said in a statement.
The cobalt, which Jimenez described as “highly radioactive,” was encased in a machine used for cancer radiation therapy. A private trucking company was transferring it from a government hospital in Tijuana, on the California border, to a disposal facility for radioactive material near Mexico City.
GlobalPost explainer: What is cobalt-60?
The driver was catching a nap when he and an assistant were assaulted, the authorities said.
Though potentially lethal to those directly exposed to it for even a few minutes, the cobalt first would have to be removed from its protective casing, Jimenez said, a process he described as “difficult.”
“The risk exists, but we see it as very low,” Jimenez told GlobalPost.
Still, the theft comes three decades after cobalt-60 sold as scrap by clueless cancer clinic workers in the border city of Ciudad Juarez contaminated thousands of tons of steel used for construction in northern Mexico and the southern United States.
That December 1983 incident was discovered months later when sensors detected some of the radioactive steel being used in construction at the US research facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Metal made from the scrapped cobalt later was found in chairs and table legs, and some 17,000 buildings across Mexico, half of which were torn down. More than 15,000 tons of the contaminated steel remains buried at a site in the northern Mexico desert.
Officials have since armed US border crossing stations with sensors to detect radioactive materials.
A similar incident occurred in Brazil in 1987, in which a substance similar to cobalt-60 was collected for scrap from a closed cancer clinic, and handled by unaware residents. More than 80 houses were found to be contaminated by the material, cesium-137, dozens of people suffered radiation burns and four eventually died.
In addition to this week’s search for the stolen truck, Mexican officials have alerted as scrap yards in Mexico City and a half dozen nearby states to be on the lookout for the radiation therapy device or the cobalt’s container.
Cobalt-60 is listed among materials that can be used in constructing a so-called dirty bomb, in which radioactive material can be dispersed through a detonation of conventional explosives.
But experts say while such a bomb is relatively easy to make, it’s not highly lethal.
Although the country suffers criminal violence and a few armed revolutionary cells, Mexican officials say whoever stole the cobalt-armed machinery and truck weren’t after bomb making material.
“We think these were common thieves. The danger is they have no idea what they are dealing with,” Miguel Garcia, assistant secretary of civil protection in Hidalgo, the state where the cobalt was stolen, said in a telephone interview.
“This material is dangerous for anyone directly handling it or nearby. But this isn’t Chernobyl or Fukushima or anything like that,” Garcia said, referring to famous nuclear reactor meltdowns in Ukraine in 1986 and Japan two years ago.
“There isn’t a wider threat,” he said. “This shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.”
When Ecuadorean student Zulema Constante was kidnapped in broad daylight, her father looked on. "Everything's all right, my child. Don't worry," he called to her as she was wrestled screaming into a waiting car.
Ms. Constante knew immediately what was happening and where she was going – to a clandestine clinic to be forcibly "cured" of her homosexuality. Ultimately escaping with the help of her girlfriend earlier this year, Constante's case launched a new drive by the Ecuadorean government to close down unregulated clinics across the country in which patients are physically and psychologically abused in the name of treating drug addiction, alcoholism, homosexuality, and other behaviors deemed socially undesirable.
More than 500 people have been rescued this year from more than 20 clinics where they suffered torture and degrading treatment, the Ecuadorean government announced last month. Its action against abusive facilities is an important step for human rights in a continent still bound by conservative beliefs about addiction and sexuality, observers say. But such institutions will likely never be eradicated while government-provided services remain sorely lacking.
"Across Latin America people are being detained and abused in the name of treatment," says Daniel Wolfe, director of the Open Society Foundation's International Harm Reduction Program. "Ecuador is really the first country to have taken this affirmative action, and has framed it very clearly in the language of human rights."
Electric shocks and beatings are among the documented "treatments," and two people died at clinics last year. Dozens of people in Ecuador are being prosecuted for crimes including kidnapping and torture.
"We are talking here about a mafia, a network that operates on a national level, violating human rights in every province," said Ecuador's openly gay health minister, Carina Vance, last month in announcing the latest results in the country's renewed push to shutter clandestine clinics. “We have lesbians who have reported what the clinics called ‘sex therapy,’ but which consists of being raped by men."
It's not an issue limited to Ecuador. A report earlier this year on Guatemalan clinics documented drug-addicted inmates captured off the street by "hunting groups" and being deliberately trampled on and locked up in small cages.
In Peru, 27 people died at a clinic last year after starting a fire in an attempt to escape. In Brazil, schemes in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo to round up homeless people and forcibly treat them for crack addictions have been criticized as thinly-veiled forms of social cleansing.
Many abusive clinics are run by religious organizations, Mr. Wolfe says, and, often in cases of alcohol and drug use, arise in response to a lack of state treatment for addiction.
"Many people in these centers are put there by family members who are at their wits end and haven't been offered any good options," says Wolfe. "When it comes to addiction no one knows what to do and so they default to what is available."'Everything they asked me'
Constante's fellow inmates at a facility ten hours away from Guayaquil in a remote jungle region were female drug addicts – she was the only lesbian. The women were forced to follow a strict daily routine of constant praying and menial tasks, including cleaning toilets with their hands and eating food infested with maggots, Constante reported after her escape.
"They didn't let us sleep and played with our minds all day, every day," says Constante, who had told her family two months before her kidnap that she was gay. "They told me that I was bad, going against nature, that I was hurting my family, being manipulated by my girlfriend," she says.
She saw people that resisted direction being beaten, so "did everything they asked me, everything I could to survive until I could escape or someone saved me."
Thanks to her girlfriend launching a public campaign drawing attention to her disappearance, Constante's family arranged for her to take a trip away from the clinic in order to prove claims she had gone missing were a lie. During the journey back home she escaped.
Silvia Buendia, a lawyer and gay rights activist in Ecuador who helped in the rescue operation, has praised Ecuadorean authorities for shutting down the clinic in which Constante was held, and taking legal action against those who ran it.
Efforts to close down unregulated clinics began in 2011 following public outrage over the case of Paula Zirrit, a woman who during two years at a different clandestine facility was raped and locked in pitch-black, heated rooms.
Constante's escape and subsequent media campaign sparked a new, more widespread government crackdown earlier this year, says Ms. Buendia, "but every time one clinic is closed, a new one opens a week later."
"People must be educated to understand that homosexuality is not an illness" and that drug addicts are not sinners, she says.
President Rafael Correa has taken steps to improve the lives of Ecuador's most vulnerable populations by spending heavily on welfare, housing, and education, and under his leadership the country has introduced trailblazing pro-gay legislation including the introduction of hate crimes to the penal code.
But while many of his policies are highly progressive, Mr. Correa has declared himself "very conservative when it comes to moral issues," and said that gay marriage and adoption are immoral. Gay rights activists say he has not done enough.
"He's basically said to us ‘I've done as much as I can do for you, don't ask me for any more,’” says Buendia. "But I think eventually he will come around, as the gay rights movement strengthens day by day. Ecuador is on the right path."
A well known beauty company is taking the company to court for infringing its trademark. A group of high-profile parliamentarians are urging shoppers to boycott the Internet colossus, following revelations that Amazon dodges much of the hefty corporation tax that weighs on other retailers. With Amazon-bashing becoming a national pastime, newspapers are quick to cover its workers striking in Germany and its battles with the book trade in France.
Perhaps most damaging for Amazon's image, however, is a BBC investigative documentary that has revealed the tough and joyless working conditions that lie behind the easy, one-stop click-and-buy shopping culture Amazon has pioneered.
So will Christmas shoppers take note of all they are hearing and look for other places to buy presents this year?
Not a chance, say experts on consumer behavior.
“This won't affect Amazon's sales,” says Giana Eckhardt, a professor of marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London and a coauthor of The Myth of the Ethical Consumer. “This is likely to have started a public debate and some people will express outrage. But people will go on ordering from Amazon because Amazon is cheap and efficient.”Undercover exposé
In the BBC documentary, an undercover reporter armed with a hidden camera was put through his paces as a “picker” in a vast Amazon warehouse in Swansea, Wales, collecting customers' orders. He was directed by a handset that gave him a set number of seconds in which to collect items from shelves and tracked his performance.
The reporter, a fit young man in his early twenties, was expected to walk as many as 11 miles in a 10-hour shift, and find an item every 33 seconds. Meeting his targets – to avoid the sack – sometimes required running.
His exhaustion was obvious as he panted to the camera: “I've never done a job like this before … the pressure is unbelievable.”
An expert on stress at work, Professor Michael Marmot, told the BBC that this type of work led to an “increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.”
However, compared to working conditions at factories in emerging markets that produce much of Amazon's inventory, UK-based employees are fortunate, not least because they earn a wage that is regulated by the government.
In a statement issued in response to the program, Amazon said “We strongly refute the charge that Amazon exploits its employees in any way. The safety of our associates is our number one priority, and we adhere to all regulations and employment law.”
But even if it this was not the case, Brits would be unlikely to close their Amazon accounts, says Iain Davies, a marketing expert at Bath University. It takes a lot more than a run of bad – even shocking – publicity to make consumers change their behavior, he says, despite the growth of ethical consumerism.Ethical shopping boom
Ethical consumerism – a vague term that covers a range of shopping choices from buying meat that has been farmed humanely to washing up liquid that does not harm wildlife – shows healthy growth, according to a report from the Co-operative Group.
The total British market for ethical consumer goods and services rose to £47.2 billion ($77.2 billion) in 2011, it said in its yearly report published in January, up from 46.8 billion ($76.6 billion) in 2010 and £35.5 billion ($58.1 billion) in 2008.
The average household now spends £989 ($1,600) a year on ethical goods and services, up from £291 ($480) in 2000.
But this does not mean that Britain is a nation of shoppers propelled by conscience, says Dr. Davies, who used to work for the fair-trade movement, which labels products for which producers have been paid a better price.
Most ethical retail sales are of food and household items. This is partly due to rising concerns about the origins of food following a series of scandals, including the discovery of horse meat in supermarket meals.
But it is also due to the success of products marketed as “fair-trade,” which are now a familiar sight in most supermarkets.
“The way you sell fair trade is by convincing supermarkets to stock it, not by convincing buyers to buy it”, says Davies. In time, he says, consumers come to perceive products labelled “fair-trade” as higher status than other items, “though they often don't know what they are buying when they are buying fair trade.”
Edible products are easier to market as ethical, say experts, because consumers mind more about the quality of what they consume than, say, what they wear.Coffee, not clothing
The collapse of a clothing factory in Bangladesh in April that killed 1,130 people got extensive news coverage in Britain. The disaster highlighted working conditions in factories with the cheap labor that allows clothing brands in Britain and other wealth countries to sell cheap and make fat profits. But it did not shift the needle on consumer behavior.
“Look how Primark [one of the companies to produce clothing in the factory] had its highest profits this last quarter,” says Professor Eckhardt. “People may feel very strongly about something but it has little effect on their purchasing behavior.”
What is needed to change consumers' behavior, she says, is some kind of big push, either from campaigners, in the case of fair trade; or supermarkets, who have made fairly traded or ethically farmed produce fashionable; or from government, in the case of recycling.
Most Britons now recycle much of their household waste after local government introduced bins and collections. “It's embarrassing not to recycle – when that sort of social pressure comes into play it can be very powerful,” says Eckhardt.
Sometimes, boycotting a product carries its own ethical risks. The Clean Clothes Campaign, which works to improve conditions in the global garment industry, does not endorse boycotts because it does not want to deprive poorly paid workers of their jobs.
For shoppers, in the end, economy and convenience trump other concerns.
Philippa Foster Back, director of the Institute for Business Ethics, says that when it was revealed last year that Starbucks was paying little corporation tax in Britain, the Costa chain of coffee shops won more customers. “Here, of course, there was an option to go elsewhere for coffee on the high street,” she says.
Amazon, as yet, has no such competition.
Sandra Martin, a housewife, says watching the Amazon documentary made her feel “a bit sad.”
“I thought about shopping around when I sat down at the computer to get through my Christmas list,” she says. “But I just couldn't face it.”
On a cold, blustery Sunday evening, a coffee shop in a residential neighborhood in Seoul is teeming with families. In South Korea, Sundays are typically a day for busy families to spend time together before the start of another week. Not so Noh Jae-moon, a middle-aged father who sits by himself nursing a lemonade.
He is one of South Korea’s so-called “goose fathers,” men who stay behind to work while their elementary or high school age children, accompanied by their mothers, go abroad to study in an English-speaking country. Noh's wife and children are in California, where they have lived for the past three years.
Many South Korean families send their children overseas where they can develop fluency in English and avoid the harsh competition of the school system. The kids come back with marketable skills, but the years of separation take a heavy toll on the dads who stay behind. The term “goose father” comes from the fact that like a goose, the father flies in just once a year to see his wife and children abroad.
“It’s a bit sad to sit and eat by myself, but I manage,” Noh says, stirring his icy drink as a pair of toddlers giggle at the next table.
According to statistics from the South Korean government, each year an estimated 20,000 families are separated when kids go abroad to study, usually at private schools. The fathers don’t always stay behind, and are no precise statistics on the total number of goose fathers. An academic study published in 2012 by Suwon University professor Cha Eun-jeong estimated the combined number at 500,000 out of a total population of 48 million.
The phenomenon started in the 1990s, fueled by demand for children to learn English and escape the stress of the South Korean's education system, where children spend all day in school, then spend their evenings at private academies, preparing for standardized tests. By contrast, English-speaking countries like the US, New Zealand, and Canada are attractive because they take a more relaxed approach and encourage students' creativity compared to schools in Korea that tend to focus on rote learning and memorization.
Prof. Cha found that around 70 percent of 151 goose fathers interviewed had experienced depression and 77 percent had health problems due to a lack of nutrition. In Korean families, mothers generally handle the cooking and if left alone, some men are incapable of making dinner. Alcohol abuse is also believed to be common among goose fathers.
To deal with the stress of being alone for the first time in his life, Noh has turned to hobbies such as cooking and exercise. Most evenings after clocking off at his job at an international shipping company he exercises at a health club then returns home where he prepares his meals and calls his family in California.
“The only good part is being alone like this has given me the opportunity to spend time learning and doing things I otherwise wouldn't have had time to do,” says Noh.
In addition to loneliness, goose fathers have to deal with the financial pressure of supporting both two households. Education fees for Noh’s two kids and their living expenses in the US add up to 60 million Korean won per year (about $56,500), which he says he can just barely manage.
Limited coffers also mean less frequent reunions. Noh says he visits his family in California twice a year, a cheaper option than a return trip for three people.Less socializing
Financial constraints can further isolate fathers who can’t afford to go out and enjoy themselves. “Fathers who in the past had enough money to enjoy their own hobbies have to cut down on expenses, which means they socialize less and spend more time alone,” says Um Myung-yong, a professor of social welfare at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.
Korean fathers are generally proud and not prone to outward shows of emotion. It is rare for a father to openly acknowledge weakness or ask for help coping with the emotional burden of separation, which means that most goose fathers lack support or companionship.
Experts have argued for public programs to support goose fathers with counseling and a community center they can visit if they feel lonely. “I’d like to see local governments take the lead in making new programs for goose fathers....Usually, fathers shun such programs because of their pride but I think it’s worth a try,” says Cha.
Families hope that the sacrifices made to send the children abroad will be worth it when the kids return from abroad fluent in English, an ability that is in demand with employers in South Korea.
Noh says he's not sure when, or if, his wife and kids will return to Korea, as they may opt to continue studying there and seek jobs after graduation. He says he wants to give them the freedom to choose. In the meantime, he will keep slogging away so that he can support them. “But still I miss the happiness that only spending time with family can provide,” Noh says.
WASHINGTON — Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom will announce his challenge to Rep. Collin Peterson on Thursday.
Westrom, an attorney and 16-year veteran of the State Capitol, will kick off his campaign with events in Moorhead and North Elbow Lake. He's been considering a run for a while: He told the St. Cloud Times last month that he would announce his intentions before the end of the year, saying he's heard a lot of complaints about President Obama's health care law.
Peterson, a moderate Democrat in his 12th term, has won re-election easily for several cycles despite the 7th District's Republican tendencies. He won 60 percent of the vote there last year even while Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the district with 53.6 percent. National Republicans have long looked to target Peterson's seat, but Republican candidates — most recently businessman Lee Byberg, who ran in 2012 and 2010 — have come up well short.
Peterson, 69, is the ranking Democrat — and former chairman — on the House Agriculture Committee. He hasn't formally announced he'll seek re-election next year, but House Democratic leadership, including Nancy Pelosi, recently held a fundraiser to boost his campaign.
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com.
We’re 45th! In the Strib, Rachel Stassen-Berger writes: “Minnesota, a state known for clean politics, ranks among the worst for financial disclosure from the judiciary, according to the Center for Public Integrity. ‘Minnesota is at the back of the pack for financial disclosure requirements, ranking 45th in the country along with Iowa,’ the Center found in a nationwide study of disclosure required of supreme court justices. ‘It has a self-policing system for enforcing the disclosure rules, in which Supreme Court justices would be asked to rule on a complaint about themselves. And the state currently does not require judges to report gifts, investments such as stocks or any financial debts on the one-page form.’ The Center gave Minnesota an ‘F,’ for its judicial disclosure requirements.”
Of course we’re counting … The Northland News Center up in Duluth reports: “The Minnesota State Patrol says they have responded to 175 car crashes across the state since midnight Wednesday due to the winter weather that continues to pile on snow. Deputies have also responded to 192 vehicle spin outs and one jackknifed semi between midnight and 11am Wednesday.”
And it is still pounding Duluth and the North Shore. In the News Tribune, John Myers says: “The storm that wouldn’t end is far from over. The National Weather Service in Duluth this afternoon is forecasting snow to fall at an inch or more per hour in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin into this evening, adding another 8 to 12 inches of additional snow by the time the storm moves out of the region early Thursday. The highest snowfall will occur along the Interstate 35 corridor through the Twin Ports and up the North Shore. Three-day storm snowfall totals generally ranged from 8 to 20 inches across the region by noon today, with 10 to nearly 20 inches common in Duluth. The Weather Service says final storm totals will range from 12 to near 40 inches by Thursday. But one report north of Two Harbors was at 39 inches by 1 p.m. with no end to the snow in sight.”
The Rochester Post-Bulletin chips in, saying: “ ‘We don't get three-day snowfalls very often, every few years. Even for the North Shore and Duluth, for a storm to hit 30 inches, that's pretty unusual,’ said Carol Christenson, National Weather Service meteorologist in Duluth. ‘For us to even forecast snow totals like this, it goes against the averages.’ Kelly Fleissner, who leads Duluth's snowplowing efforts for more than 400 miles of city streets, said city crews worked 16-hour shifts during the height of the storm Monday night and Tuesday. He said they will be out in full force again today. ‘We had so much snow that we had to stay on the main roads all night into Tuesday morning. So we were late getting into the residential streets. I know it's been tough for people just to get out of their neighborhoods. But please, be patient,’ Fleissner said.”
Yeah … brace yourself. Richard Meryhew of the Strib reports: “In a heads-up to parish priests and administrators, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis Wednesday sent an e-mail to all clergy and church trustees preparing them for the disclosure of its list of clergy who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. The e-mail, from Vicar General Charles Lachowitzer, did not identify how many priests would be on the list, which the archdiocese has said it plans to release Thursday. Lachowitzer, however, wrote that the archdiocese has mailed notices to 92 parishes where at least one priest on the list had been assigned at one point during his career.”
We’re so proud … . The AP says: “A cast of Minnesota beer enthusiasts has a frosty ambition: To stage the largest snowball fight ever. The group started to nurture the state's craft brewing industry announced the goal Wednesday and hopes to achieve it during the Beer Dabbler Winter Carnival on Jan. 25 at the state fairgrounds. It would mean topping a Guinness World Record set this January in Seattle, when more than 5,800 people engaged in a snowball fight. The Minnesota team wants a minimum of 7,000.”
If you drink milk … Tamara Keith of MPR says: “The leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees are meeting Wednesday as they continue to try to work out the differences between their respective farm bills. If they fail, the country faces what's being called the ‘dairy cliff’ — with milk prices potentially shooting up to about $7 a gallon sometime after the first of the year. Here's why: The nation's farm policy would be legally required to revert back to what's called permanent law. In the case of dairy, that would be the 1949 farm bill. And if House and Senate negotiators fail to reconcile their farm bills, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warns, ‘I'm going to be put in a position where I have to invoke and implement permanent law. And I will do my job because that's what I swore an oath to do.' "
Be the first on your block to order … the Prince comic book. Says the hype: “Bluewater Productions will be releasing a new comic book about the life of the music icon Prince. Fame Prince is released this week the comic book will be available in print and digital. Prince Rogers Nelson, a musician from Minneapolis, started a musical revolution … challenging even the ‘King of Pop,’ Michael Jackson, for chart supremacy during the 1980’s. The book chronicles his meteoric rise to dominance in the pop/funk music scene. Michael L. Frizell writes the 32-page comic book with art by Ernesto Lovera. The comic book will feature two collectible covers by famed artist Iordan Terziiski and Ernesto Lovera. Writing Fame: ‘Prince was like reliving my teenage years. For me, the music scene wasn’t defined by Michael Jackson, despite his success with Thriller. The 80’s, and music in general for me, were defined by Prince. He takes chances in his music, doesn’t sell out as an artist in order to make money, and still ends up on top. To this day, his music speaks to me. I hope I was able to bring some of his power to the comic page through my script,’ says writer Michael Frizell.”
A forum scheduled for Wednesday night in Little Falls on "Tolerance and the Fear of Islam" has been postponed because of the heavy snowfall.
Officials said the event, to be held at the Franciscan Center in Little Falls, will be rescheduled. It was set up in response to a speech this summer by Brigitte Gabriel, who spoke of "the rise of global Islamic terrorism."
In setting up the forum, Ellen Longfellow, civil rights attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said:
"Many individuals in the community have never met a Muslim in person and that allows fear to grow. This event seeks to promote a positive discussion around tolerance, respect and community."
The Trust for Public Land said today that they've completed a deal to purchase 13 acres in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood for use as a park and urban demonstration farm.
St. Paul officials have long said that Frogtown, an old designation for the area around University Avenue and the Thomas-Dale neighborhood, hasn't had enough park space.
TPL said it paid $2.2 million for the vacant land, which had been appraised at a much higher price. Said the group:
The Wilder Foundation agreed to sell the property at a substantial discount to further its charitable mission and serve the Frogtown neighborhood. Wilder is a non-profit community organization that had owned this property since 1969.
Planning for the park and urban farm has been brewing for years. The TPL announcement today brought praise from city officials.
"I am thrilled that we are adding a natural area in this historic neighborhood, said Mayor Chris Coleman. "For far too long, Frogtown has gone without enough parkland. Today’s announcement is truly a celebration for one of Saint Paul's iconic neighborhoods."
Dai Thao, who was elected to represent the area last month, said:
"Too often we see roadblocks for these types of initiatives, but having all of these partners coming together to address a community need, is exactly the type of progress we need for Frogtown and the City of St. Paul."
The Trust for Public Land is a national, nonprofit land-conservation organization that conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens and other natural places, ensuring livable communities for generations to come. Established in 1972, The Trust for Public Land has protected more than 90,000 acres of important lands for conservation in Minnesota.
Officials said money for the deal came from state lottery funds, through the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, as recommended by the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources; the City of St. Paul and many individuals and foundations.
In addition to funding for purchasing the land, The Trust for Public Land is also raising funds for initial improvements at the park, community engagement and capacity-building for Frogtown Farm, the nonprofit that will lease a portion of the land to operate a demonstration farm.
The Minnesota Orchestral Association has filed a report with the city of Minneapolis that can best be described as artistic.
The report is required in the MOA's lease arrangement with the city to operate Orchestra Hall. Under terms of that lease, the MOA is required to show how the facility is being used — and will be used — to promote the arts in Minneapolis.
Given that the entertainment centerpiece of the Hall, the Minnesota Orchestra, has been locked out for 14 months, there has been curiosity about how the MOA would file the report.
But the MOA seemed to have no problem. The report to the city consists of a letter from Michael Henson [PDF], the MOA’s chief executive officer, and a letter from a lawyer, explaining that the MOA didn’t really have to file a report at all [PDF].
The report, and accompanying letter, were filled with legalese, finger-pointing and vague promises of bringing any number of concerts to Orchestra Hall even if the lockout continues.
The city, under the terms of the lease, now has 45 days to ponder the MOA report.
If it finds that the MOA is fulfilling both its financial and artistic obligations, the state will be notified of city approval. (The state is involved because $14 million in public bonds were for renovation of the Hall. The money was channeled from the state to the city, which owns the Hall.)
If the city decides the MOA is not fulfilling lease agreements, a legal mess would follow.
First would come “cure” time, in which the MOA would have time to resolve any problems. If that failed, the city would need to get state permission to sell its lease with the MOA or find a new operator for the building.
All of this suggests that it would be difficult for the musicians to re-organize under a different management structure and end up with a lease to Orchestra Hall.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who once upon a time tried to bring the MOA and the musicians together, issued a statement that was more like a dance in regard to all that is happening around the Hall, if not in the Hall.
“Orchestra Hall is a gem of a building and it’s in everyone’s interest to see it live up to its potential as one of the premier concert halls in the country,’’ the mayor said in the statement. “The city will take the next few weeks to do our due diligence, however, our end goal is the same as it’s been all along: We want the Minnesota Orchestra back home making music. No one likes the other long-term options, and none of them are simple. It’s time for Minnesotans to start enjoying the music at Orchestra Hall again.’’
But agreement never has seemed so far away.
In his letter, Henson talks about a schedule of events assuming that agreement with the musicians can’t be reached.
“MOA’s primary goal for the past many months has been to reach a contract settlement with the musicians that allows us to present the already-programmed 2013-14 season. ... But as negotiations have continued and a mutual settlement has not been forthcoming, MOA has begun to create a new series of concerts designed to keep music alive in Orchestra Hall.’’
What isn’t clear is just who would walk onto the Orchestra Hall stage as long as the musicians are locked out.
Musicians say they have the support of virtually ever entertainment union in the land and that no union entertainer or orchestra will perform at the Hall until there is a settlement.
Henson is vague in his “report” about the groups that might perform in Orchestra Hall.
In the letter to the city, he writes: “MOA is in discussions for a prominent music group to perform a five-concert series during F2014. It is also making arrangements for the Hall to be available for performances by other music groups, including professional, community and school orchestras and youth groups.’’
But in the side letter, attorney John Herman writes that even bringing in school choirs might prove difficult.
“Actions by musicians and other third parties have also interfered with MOA’s efforts to present arts programming in the Hall,’’ Herman wrote.
(It should be noted that orchestra musicians would be unlikely to picket a high school orchestra if it opted to play at Orchestra Hall.)
It appears to be Herman’s contention that the MOA isn’t obligated to fulfill lease obligations because of clauses in the lease regarding “unavoidable delays.”
The lease says that “strikes and other similar labor troubles’’ are unavoidable delays. Henson argues that there is really no difference between a strike and a lockout.
“Although the term 'lockout' is not specifically used in the Lease, strikes and lockouts are parallel rights of parties to a labor negotiation and are undoubtedly ‘similar labor troubles,’ ’’ Henson wrote.
While Henson seems to be talking about bringing high school orchestras to the renovated Hall, orchestra musicians next week are going to unveil their plans for the future “with or without the MOA.’’
More and more, there are indications that the orchestra musicians are at least taking steps toward creating a new management structure.
Musicians have not only played a sold-out series of concerts at various venues but they also say they have formed a 501-3C, which has raised more than $300,000 since August.
A state Senate committee will hold a hearing next week to look at student safety after recent high-profile incidents at the University of Minnesota.
The state Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee will hold a hearing Dec. 10 "to provide a public forum to hear from public safety officials," said the announcement from committee chair Sen. Terri Bonoff's office.
"We know that numerous law enforcement agencies are working in tandem to ensure the safety of our students and communities on and around Metro area campuses," Bonoff said in a statement. "This hearing is an opportunity for all of them to come together and share their efforts with the public."
Students have begun an online petition asking for more police presence after reports in the past few weeks of an attempted robbery on the U of M campus, a sexual assault and an attempted kidnapping near campus. University police have increased patrols following 17 reported robberies in the area since Aug. 1.
The state Senate hearing is designed, Bonoff's office said, to "bring everyone working on the issue of public safety together to hear about the various precautionary measures and programs in the Metro area. Out of this hearing, the Senate committee hopes to learn best practices in crime prevention, if there are any obstacles or barriers facing law enforcement agencies efforts in dealing with crime on and around campuses, and lastly, if there is anything that's needed to aid in these efforts."
The Dec. 10 hearing, billed as a "Higher Education Metro Campus Safety Update," will be at 9 a.m. in Room 15 at the Capitol.
Moms today may feel that they’re always on the go with never a moment’s rest, but a new study suggests that they are, on average, much more sedentary than moms were 50 years ago.
Specifically, the study found that today’s moms are spending less time in such daily-life physical activities as cooking, cleaning and doing laundry and more time watching television, using a computer or driving.
Yes, yes. That does sound like a highly sexist indictment of women. And, indeed, another study published earlier this year by the same group of University of South Carolina researchers received criticism when it reported that women in 2010 spent 25 percent more time in front of a television or computer screen than engaged in “household management.”
But those same researchers (and others) have made similar observations about men. Plenty of research suggests that today’s men also spend much more time being sedentary — on and off the job — than did men of earlier generations. In fact, the authors of this new study say that preliminary results of other research they have conducted shows that men have increased their screen-based media use much more than women in recent decades.
And no one is saying women are sloths. They still tend to do most of the daily chores around the house. On an average day in the U.S., nearly half of women do housework compared to less than 20 percent of men.Two groups of mothers
The new study, published Monday in the medical journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, was done in part to answer criticisms of the authors’ earlier research. For the study, the University of South Carolina researchers examined 45-year (1965-2010) trends in the physical activity behavior of two groups of mothers: those with children aged five years or less and those with children aged six to 18.
Physical activity was defined as time spent engaged in childcare, housework and meal preparation/cleanup, as well as in sports and exercise activities.
The women were also divided into those with who were employed full time outside the home and those who were not. Full-time employment was defined as at least 21 hours of paid work per week for 1965-1990 and more than 35 hours per week in the years thereafter.
The data for the study came from the American Heritage Time Use Study, which consists of time-diary entries collected over five decades.Significant trends
After crunching the data, the researchers found that physical activity among mothers with young children declined by an average of almost 14 hours per week (two hours per day) over the 45-year period of the study, from 44 hours per week in 1965 to less than 30 hours in 2010.
The decline in physical activity was slightly less for mothers with older children: an average of 11 fewer hours per week (from 32 hours in 1965 to 21 hours in 2010).
The data also revealed that mothers who were not employed outside the home had about twice the decline in physical activity as their employeed peers.
This decline in physical activity meant, said the researchers, that today’s mothers are expending far fewer calories per day than did their 1965 predecessors: an average of 225 fewer calories per day (1,573 fewer per week) for the mothers of young children and an average of 177 fewer calories per day (1,238 fewer per week) for the mothers of older children.
Coupled with this decrease in physical activity was a dramatic increase in sedentary behavior.
“Both non-employed women and employed women increased their sedentary behavior,” says lead author and epidemiologist Edward Archer in a video released with the study. “They doubled the amount of time they were watching television and sitting in front of a computer.”
During the 45-year period of the study, the mothers of young children increased their overall sedentary behaviors by an average of about six hours a week, from 17 to almost 23 hours. The mothers of older children increased their sedentary behaviors by an average of seven hours per week, from 18 to 25 hours.A public-health concern
This study has several limitations, of course. Most notably, it relies on data that is self-reported (the diaries), which can be highly unreliable.
Still, Archer and his colleagues believe the study’s findings — the reallocation of time from active to sedentary behaviors by America’s moms — “has obvious and significant health consequences for both the current and future generations.”
Inactivity, he points out, has been implicated in the epidemic-like rise in recent decades of obesity and of many chronic illnesses, including type 2 diabetes.
“The hand that rocks the cradle rules the health of the next generation,” he says. “If we are to improve our future for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our children, then both men and women — and especially women who plan on becoming pregnant — need to become more physically active. Because it’s the activity that allows us to remain healthy.”
Note: This study, like the previous one published by Archer and his colleagues, was funded in part by the Coca-Cola Company. That connection has received some very legitimate (in my opinion) criticism. For, as Kelly Brownell, (now) dean of Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, told ABC News earlier this year, "It makes no sense for Coca-Cola to be funding studies on causes of obesity because they are one of the causes of obesity. It would be like taking money from the tobacco industry to find other causes of lung cancer. It really makes no sense at all."
Got an idea for making the city of Minneapolis better?
Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges wants to hear them, and says her transition team will evaluate all the submissions.
She made the request to her Facebook friends this morning:
Hi there, Facebook friends! Please go to the link below and submit ideas you have for the transition or for Minneapolis. I'd like to hear what you're thinking about!
And her page for online idea submissions says:
Have an idea for Mayor-elect Hodges' transition team? Want to make a suggestion for Minneapolis' future? Submit your thoughts on this page!
We really appreciate your willingness to share your hopes and dreams for our city. Your submission will be reviewed within several days by a member of Mayor-elect Hodges' staff, though you may not be contacted regarding your idea due to the volume of submissions.
We value your input and look forward to hearing from you.
Some early suggestions posted to her Facebook page include: safety around schools and affordable housing.
Hodges was elected from a field of 35 candidates last month to replace Mayor R.T. Rybak, who is stepping down after three terms. She takes office Jan. 2.
Combining a love for classic arcade games — first kindled by a Donkey Kong machine at the PDQ Market in Burnsville — with electronics skills learned in the military, Shakopee resident Dan Shelffo builds multi-arcade games. The machines repurpose old video game cabinets, but allow enthusiasts to play more than one game.
(Note: if the video doesn't appear below, try watching the original version on vimeo.)
Politicians and officials need to come together to fix the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, like they did after the last major Medicare expansion in the mid-2000s.
That’s the view of a former Bush administration expert who worked on Medicare’s rocky rollout of the prescription drug benefit.
Larry Kocot, now an expert at the Brookings Institution, acknowledged the early problems with both the Medicare Part D benefit and the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges.
But, he said, past lawmakers came together to fix the problems, which seems much less likely now, given the climate in Washington.
“We’re going to need for us to come together as a country in a bipartisan way to solve some of the problems for what will be a foundational benefit in the future – all politics aside,” Kocot said during a talk Tuesday at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
“I really do believe this will succeed,” he said, “but we’re going to go through a little bit more of a rough patch before we see that sun through the clouds.”
Kocot offered a frank but optimistic assessment of the strengths and failings of both major public program expansions.
The Affordable Care Act goes into full effect on Jan. 1. The added Medicare benefit, passed in 2003 under then-President George W. Bush, was implemented in late 2005.
After Part D’s rocky start-up, though, professor Larry Jacobs, who moderated the discussion, said he remembers Democrats jumping in to make the law work. He credited that in part to liberals supporting expanded government programs.
“When Medicare Part D faced early troubles, many blue states came to its rescue,” according to a mid-November Politifact analysis comparing the two programs.
"The New York Times reported in 2006 that 'about 20 states, including California, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and all of New England, have announced that they will help low-income people by paying drug claims that should have been paid by the federal Medicare program.'"
“It was hard to see partisanship in this,” Jacobs said. “It had kind of shifted from a partisan matter into a lot of Democrats saying … “How can we get this to work better?”
“I’ve never seen it this bad in Washington in terms of the partisanship,” Kocot said, agreeing with Jacob’s point. “It’s just a whole different environment.”
Under the Affordable Care Act rollout, Kocot said, President Barack Obama’s administration has focused too much on looking at the success of a website — Healthcare.gov — and not enough on enrolling consumers.
“This is a lot more than a website,” he said. “This is an enrollment process for millions of people, with robust subsidies and a lot of money involved.”
During the Medicare prescription drug benefit expansion, he said, navigators, brokers and pharmacists were much more involved in helping consumers. He said there was also a significant number of alternatives to enrolling online, such as going through the insurance companies.
At least one of the web portals for Medicare Part D arrived much later than expected, and there were IT troubles similar to the current ones.
But, that’s to be expected with massive public program expansions, Kocot said.
“These are things that happen in every rollout,” he said. “People do get missed, they get dropped. The systems don’t work the way they’re intended.”
But, he said, some problems won’t even be known until Jan. 1, when coverage is supposed to start for those who purchase insurance through the health exchanges or sign up for public programs.
For example, some consumers may not get the coverage they signed up for if the government is unable to transfer accurate information to the insurance carriers, he said.
Minnesota’s health insurance exchange officials, who also provided an update on the marketplace at Tuesday’s event, assured Minnesotans they would receive the coverage they’ve chosen beginning on Jan. 1.
Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, who is also a MNsure board member, said that all public program enrollees would be covered on that date.
“I know if someone went on MNsure and they did everything they needed to do to apply, and they’re eligible for a public program, we’ll make sure they have coverage one way or the other on Jan. 1,” she said.
A few years ago, my friend Kurt and I were discussing a plumbing or hardware issue of one kind or another, and he made an off-hand reference to checking for something at a local “city desk.”
I asked why the local newspaper would have plumbing supplies.
No, no, no, Kurt said. Not that sort of city desk. He meant the city desk you find at lumberyards, small manufacturers, and electrical and plumbing supply houses. It’s like the will-call window, he said, the place where you order or pick up your stuff.
“City desk” was a phrase I’d never heard before — or not in the context of lumberyards and plumbing suppliers, anyway. The definition of “city desk” that I knew about was the one you find in the dictionary, which is “the newspaper department that handles local news.” That’s a somewhat antiquated term in journalism these days – the city desk now handles news for the “metro section” – but it’s still one that you hear in a newspaper context once in a while. Even in the largest dictionaries, like the OED, it’s the only given definition for the term.
After my conversation with Kurt, though, I’d start seeing the phrase all over the Twin Cities. Mostly, it’d turn up on what James Lileks has called “ghost signs,” those faded advertisements hand-painted on the sides of commercial brick buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that remain long after the associated businesses have disappeared: former warehouses, small manufacturers, building supply companies. But I’d also see it in small letters on signs for currently existing companies and around warehouses, usually on a non-public door or the bottom of a sign, in industrial parks.MinnPost photo by Andy SturdevantCity desks mostly appear on "ghost signs."
And of course, in the phonebook. It’s all over the phonebooks. City desks are listed at Drywall Supplies Co. in St. Michael and Advance Shoring in St. Paul. There’s one at each location of the Pipeline Supply Company in Hopkins, Ham Lake, Grand Rapids, Monticello and Oakdale. There’s another at the Dakota Supply Group. Western Steel and Plumbing of Bismarck and Minot both have city desks. Viking Electric Supply of Minneapolis has at least three city desk employees. Says Border State Enterprises of Fargo on its website: “No matter where we serve our customers, our City Desks and Will Call locations are always staffed with employee-owners willing to go the extra mile.”
It’s a phrase that’s out there, but seems only to be used by people in the know. For example, on one unreasonably crabby online review, a guy said this of a local supplier: “Their voice response system listed a bunch of names and one extension called ‘City Desk.’ ” He then adds, with a touch of irritated bewilderment: “I don't know what that means.”
I began to wonder if this was a regionalism. It’s easy to find references to city desks in the Twin Cities, Greater Minnesota, and in the Dakotas. Look beyond that, though, and anything you might find in reference to city desks elsewhere in the rest of the U.S. has to do with journalism. No references to non-newspaper city desks anywhere in the New York Times, from 1858 to present. A look through the Yellow Pages in New York City, Houston, and Seattle don’t turn up anything approaching a city desk as a supplier will-call counter. Same with web searches: city desks in industrial suppliers and warehouses all over the western Great Lakes and northern Great Plains, but not much anywhere else.
To test this theory, I called large plumbing supply warehouses on opposite sides of the country: one in Portland, Maine, and another in Portland, Ore. I asked if I could be connected to the city desk. Both of the people that picked up the phone said almost the exact thing: “City … what?” Then a baffled pause. Then: “Uh, this is a plumbing-supply place.”
I told the person in Maine I thought the “city desk” was what the will-call counter was called. “Uh-huh,” she said skeptically, clearly believing I was a misinformed rube. “Yeah, we don’t sell to the public.” I realize this isn’t a very scientific approach, but it seemed to confirm my suspicions.
To find out, I talked to a few plumbers, electricians, and city desk employees around the Twin Cities, and visited a few city desks to find out if this is in fact a regionalism, or an industry-wide term.
Erik Nelson, master plumber at Erik Nelson Plumbing in south Minneapolis, isn’t so sure about the regionally specific aspect: “I started my plumbing career in San Francisco, California, and the term ‘city desk’ is used there, too. It is also used in Rochester, New York. So maybe it's national.”
Nelson makes a distinction, describing the city desk as a public pickup desk, versus one meant only for contractors: “The city desk is the counter you go to for parts and common fixtures. Some supply houses might have showrooms with upscale fixtures and things like carpet. The city desk is usually very separate from these areas.
“It's not a hard and fast rule, but if a place has a city desk, you probably don't belong there or aren't really welcome there unless you are a licensed member of the given trade.” Maybe the best information of all: “Another common characteristic of a good city desk is the presence of popcorn, doughnuts, hot dogs and coffee.”MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant"People ask for what they want, and you get it for them."
Ethan Rakow, at Gopher Plumbing Supply in St. Paul, confirms the ambiguity of the phrase. “I tell people I work at the city desk at a warehouse, and they say, ‘What is that?’ I tell them it’s like a bartender’s job. People ask for what they want, and you get it for them. People come in for onesie, twosie stuff, or some contractors come in with a few pages worth.” Gopher Plumbing Supply’s city desk sells to both the public and to contractors.
“I’ve never figured it out,” says Brian Hill at Air Engineering and Supply in Seward, when asked about the term’s origins. He jokes that they used to call it “the sitting desk,” then goes to check with some of the older employees in the back to see if they know anything about the term’s origins. He comes out a moment later and shakes his head. “Nope, none of them know, either."MinnPost photo by Andy SturdevantAir Engineering and Supply has been in the location since the early 1950s, and Hill says the term "city desk" is probably a holdover from that time and before.
“I imagine it’s because that’s just the way it was,” he says. “We did it because grandma said to do it, and she did it because her grandma said that’s the way to do it.” Air Engineering and Supply has been in the location since the early 1950s, and Hill says it’s probably a holdover from that time and before. Out front, the door is labeled “City desk / Will call,” as if it’s an Upper Midwestern-to-Standard American English translation.
I asked Ethan at Gopher Supply where he thought the term came from, and he said this: “It might have referred to any retail originally, where anyone could come in and pick up what they needed, and maybe it just became a contractor sort of thing over time.”Courtesy of Hennepin County LibraryA Minneapolis Morning Tribune advertisement from 1919 refers to a city desk.
The historic record seems to confirm Ethan’s theory. The phrase starts showing up in advertisements in the Minneapolis newspapers around 1907, in relation to hardware stores and dry-goods houses, seemingly as a synonym for customer-service desk. Perhaps it did pick up more specificity over time. The term still turns up occasionally in the local papers, primarily in obituaries for men and women who’d worked at the city desk at various local warehouses and suppliers.
I can’t definitively confirm that “city desk” is a bona fide a regionalism, but if it is, it seems to me at least as interesting as our region’s much-ballyhooed “duck duck gray duck” or “bubbler” variations. Next time you need a spigot or compressor, call up your local supplier and ask for the city desk with pride. They’ll know what you mean.