as a weekly practice I listen to npr and do a little sketch on one of the stories. take a look, you can click on the illustration to make it bigger!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Belt Tightening Leads To Artistic Expansion

Tough times can often be a springboard for creativity; when no one's job is safe, no one's house is secure and no one knows exactly what to do about it, artists get to work. "That kind of stress often results [in] the need to scream, and art is a way of screaming," says Miles Orvell, an English and American studies professor at Temple University. "Difficult times like the one we are experiencing today can really bring out a kind of expressive culture in an interesting way."

This was certainly true in the 1930s during the Great Depression, when artists, actors, writers and filmmakers — some funded by the government — combined curiosity with creativity to find and tell the stories of people affected by the era's economic hardship. Books like James Agee's and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and John Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath depicted life in the Depression in stark terms. And director Frank Capra educated the public about the plight of the needy in his 1936 film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which tells the story of a man who unexpectedly inherits millions and decides to give it away after he is confronted by a desperate farmer.

Orvell says that novels and films helped the middle class understand what was happening to those who had lost everything. And these days, even as we are just beginning to adjust to a new reality, there are already some films that provide insight into how this economic free fall is changing lives. "I think that very good filmmakers, like novelists or other artists, have an ability to see a little bit ahead, or to notice things that are happening in the world before they come to the surface," says A. O. Scott, the film critic for The New York Times.

The themes of poverty, unemployment and economic distress play a strong role in movies like Frozen River. And, Scott adds, you can't help but think about the collapse of the U.S. auto industry as you watch Clint Eastwood's Grand Torino. But the film that gets closest to the raw fear of what can happen when a person's life begins to unravel economically is Wendy And Lucy, the story of a young woman who has set out for Alaska to find work and gets stuck along the way with no money, no car, no home and no job.

Wendy And Lucy "just traces this one young woman's experience," says Scott. "By following that story, [the film] intuited some of the other stuff that was going on. ... And maybe [these films] were the canaries in the coal mine." Being laid off seems to be an almost universal fear these days. And perhaps no one has tapped in to the psychology of layoffs better than author Joshua Ferris in his novel Then We Came To The End. It's a funny and often poignant look at what happens to a group of workers in an advertising agency who live in constant fear of losing their jobs (read an excerpt). Written after the dot com bust it could as easily be set in an office today. But Ferris says he really had no idea what was coming.

Today's downturn has "materialized in a way that is far more pervasive and far more frightening than anything I experienced in the working world and anything I could have imagined when I was writing Then We Came To The End," he says.

Fear, anger, sorrow — a whole welter of emotions takes hold of the workers in Ferris' novel as they watch their colleagues leave the work place for the last time. As fearful as these characters are of losing the economic security their jobs ensure, Ferris says there is something else that is lost when jobs disappear. "The characters lose something that they never knew they had, which was a community," he says. "And I think that's the most ... human aspect of what is lost." But books and films that dwell on the downside of the economy may not be exactly what the public wants right now. During the dark days of the depression, says Scott, audiences flocked to the movies to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance the night away. These days, the public can't seem to get enough of Slumdog Millionaire's rags-to-riches story.

Slumdog Millionaire "says the world is terrible, there's poverty and want and cruelty, but it can also be OK — some kind of happy ending is possible," says Scott. "When you are sitting in the theater, you feel the relief this movie offers."

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Deskercise: Staying Jazzed And Focused At School

Students at Mitchell Elementary School in Charleston, S.C., don't just write their multiplication tables. They jump them. Innovations like this are part of the burgeoning movement to promote more action-based learning. Some studies suggest that incorporating physical movement into the classroom improves student focus and attention.

"Jumping rope is very rhythmic," says Dave Spurlock. And the movement seems to help kids with the rote task of memorization. Spurlock directs physical education for the Charleston County school system and has recently been trained by a program called PE4Life. The program is trying to overhaul physical education classes to focus on fitness and wellness rather than old-style sports competitions. Using physical activity in the classroom is new in Charleston, but in other cities — Naperville, Ill.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Titusville, Penn. — schools have documented academic improvements linked to these new movement and fitness initiatives.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

For Mardi Gras, Bailout Floats

Listener Barbara Baldwin of New Orleans went down to the parades this Mardi Gras, and bumped right into the economy.
Go to http://www.npr.org/blogs/globalpoolofmoney/slides/mg3/publish_to_web/index.html
to share her curbside view.

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

10 Reasons Why We Love Making Lists

Why is it that everywhere you turn there's a list for this or that? On Facebook, friends recently began posting 25 Random Things About Me — which bloggers have been doing for years. Now some people are lambasting the listiness while others are shortening it to a more manageable 3 Random Things (3 Places I Have Lived or 3 TV Shows I Watch). Other Facebook and MySpace lists abound: 6 Great Books. 8 Favorite Songs. 7 Reasons to Hate … Whatev.

David Letterman's Top 10 List has become a bona fide art form. And there's a list of Top 5 Musicians on Twitter floating around. Everyday parlance is littered with lists: laundry, grocery, honey-do. When Dick Cheney was asked by then-presidential candidate George W. Bush to find him a suitable running mate, Cheney did what all pols would do: He drew up a short list. (And then he wound up as the VP pick.) "Enough organization, enough lists and we think we can control the uncontrollable," observed a character on the TV show House. By now you would think there are enough lists. But still we keep jotting things down in an orderly fashion.

Why do we love lists? Let us count the ways:

1. Lists bring order to chaos. "People are attracted to lists because we live in an era of overstimulation, especially in terms of information," says David Wallechinsky, a co-author of the fabulous Book of Lists, first published in 1977 and followed by subsequent editions. "And lists help us in organizing what is otherwise overwhelming."

2. Lists help us remember things — at the hardware store, for the vacation trip, Christmas presents. The One Planet Education Network, or OPEN, is a global online education content provider that counts Harvard and Columbia universities as clients. OPEN also swears by lists. "Checklists help you remember what you have done and what you have to do," the curriculum reminds the students.

3. Most lists are finite. They don't usually go on and on. And if they do, you can skip to the bottom of the list. The Internet Movie Database, for instance, lists its "bottom 100 movies as voted by users." The winner — er, loser — is Zaat, a 1975 sci-fi fiasco.

4. Lists can be meaningful. The Steven Spielberg classic Schindler's List is based on the true story of a German businessman who used a list of names to save more than 1,000 Jews from the concentration camps. It is ranked eighth on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of 100 top American films of the past 100 years.

5. Lists can be as long or as short as necessary. Jamie Frater, a New Zealand opera singer, maintains a list-keeping site called The List Universe. Recent posts include "20 Great Quotes from Ronald Reagan" and "Top 10 Codes You Aren't Meant to Know." A list, Frater says, should be "as long as is necessary. Some lists need be only a few lines an item, others a few paragraphs. I seldom write more than one paragraph, but occasionally the need arises to do so." Frater adds, "This question is a bit like asking an artist: 'When is the painting finished?' It is when it is."

6. Making lists can help make you famous. Notable list makers include Thomas Jefferson, Peter Mark Roget, Martha Stewart and Benjamin Franklin. "A methodical and wry man," wrote Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson in Time magazine, "Franklin loved making lists. He made lists of rules for his tradesmen's club, of synonyms for being drunk, of maxims for matrimonial happiness and of reasons to choose an older woman as a mistress. Most famously, as a young man, he made a list of personal virtues that he determined should define his life."

7. The word "list" can be tracked back to William Shakespeare, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Hamlet, the Bard refers to "a list of landlesse resolutes."

8. Lists relieve stress and focus the mind. "Lists," sociologist Scott Schaffer told The Oregonian newspaper, "really get to the heart of what it is we need to do to get through another day on this planet."

9. Lists can force people to say revealing things. In his 25 Random Things roster, former California Gov. Jerry Brown reveals that his favorite cereal is ... Flax Plus Multibran.

10. Lists can keep us from procrastinating. We put this one off until the end. Making a list enables us to get our heads around really big tasks — and helps us tackle the work one aspect at a time. But a list is only useful if it reveals a truth, solves a problem or leads to action. Making a list, for instance, does not necessarily help procrastinators. As DePaul University psychologist Joseph Ferrari told Psychology Today in 2008, people don't put off work they must do because they lack list-making skills. And, in turn, making a list does not get the job done.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, February 23, 2009

Caution: Walking And Cell Phones Don't Mix

You've probably seen them on the street: cell-phone chatting, music-loving pedestrians who sometimes act as if talking into a mouthpiece or slipping on a pair of headphones raises an impenetrable shield. But preoccupied pedestrians, especially those listening at high volume, risk more than hearing impairment. Their absorption can create a loss of "situation awareness" similar to that of distracted drivers. Inattention can have serious — even deadly — consequences on roads and railroad tracks.

Lisa Carolyn Moran, 20, a University of North Carolina exchange student from Scotland, was listening to an iPod while jogging when she stepped into the path of a bus in Chapel Hill last May. Joshua Phillips White, 16, was wearing earphones and walking on a train track in Cramerton, N.C., last November when a freight train hit him from behind, killing him; police said he apparently didn't hear the locomotive approaching. Alan Eaton-Chandler, 17, was killed under the same circumstances just last Tuesday when he was hit by an Amtrak train in Comstock Township, Mich. And Vicky Baker, 39, was talking on her cell phone when she was struck and killed by a train in Albertville, Ala., in December.

Listening on the run creates "a public health issue, and it's one that, frankly, is incredibly easy to overlook," says Brian Fligor, who directs the diagnostic audiology program at Children's Hospital Boston and teaches at Harvard Medical School. If pedestrians' ears are "occupied by some sound, whether it's another person's voice or a podcast," Fligor says, "it may isolate them from sounds they may need to hear, such as the train whistle, the ambulance siren, the car horn, the bike messenger's bell."

Emergency rooms around the country report treating pedestrians injured while texting or otherwise tuned in to phones and MP3 players, says Nicholas Jouriles, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. He's also a professor at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, in practice there and at Akron General Medical Center. "I've taken care of patients who've been hit [by a vehicle] or walked off a curb," he says.

NPR found at least 11 cases in 2008 alone in which pedestrians' use of portable electronics may have played a role in their deaths, based on news accounts and on information from the emergency physicians group. Most of those deaths involved trains. But while pedestrians' use of portable electronics has been linked to some injuries and deaths around the country, the scope of the problem is unclear. Aside from random news reports, there's little systematic documentation.

Concern over pedestrian use of portable electronics is significant enough to have prompted public safety campaigns in San Francisco and Texas and legislative efforts in at least two other states. Last year, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency introduced a multimedia campaign in the wake of "some tragic accidents," spokesman Murray Bond says. A series of outdoor ads, radio and television spots aim to remind people that "headsets and handheld devices could be a distraction." One sign shows a headset-wearing woman crossing the street while texting — oblivious to the approaching transit vehicle. It asks, "Do you want Beethoven to be the last thing you hear?"

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Jobless Rolls Swell To More Than 6.5 Million

The number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits spiked at a record of more than 6.5 million in the second week of February, but first-time requests for assistance remained steady. Initial claims for state unemployment insurance benefits were a seasonally adjusted 627,000 in the week ended Feb. 14. That was the same as the upwardly revised number for the previous week, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

Although the figure was unchanged, it hovered near the 631,000 claims filed three weeks ago. That was the highest weekly tally since October 1982, although the work force was much smaller in that era. It was also more than the 620,000 claims most economists had expected. The number of people remaining on the benefits rolls after drawing an initial week of aid surged 170,000 to 4.9 million in the week ended Feb. 7, the most recent week for which the data are available. That was the highest reading on records dating back to 1967.

The Walt Disney Co. said Thursday it was laying off an unspecified number of workers amid falling revenue. On Wednesday, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. said it will cut nearly 5,000 jobs. General Motors Corp. has said it will cut 47,000 jobs globally by the end of the year and Chrysler is set to cut 3,000 more jobs.

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

In Paris, Culinary Education Starts In Day Care

It's no accident that the French cook and eat some of the best food in the world. Table traditions and knowledge of food and eating are cultivated from the very youngest age. In Paris, hot meals are prepared on the premises of each of the city's 270 public day care facilities. Nothing is mass produced, ingredients are more often fresh than frozen, and the chefs try to use organic products when they can. And the cost of the food is not exorbitant — only about $2 per meal per child.

At La Margeride day care, delicious smells waft out of the kitchen. By 9 a.m., the preparation of lunch is well under way. Chefs Elizabeth Morel and Martine Belaud have been happily working together for the past 14 years. A giant pot of apples and clementines simmers away on the stovetop, and cauliflower au gratin bakes in the oven. While Morel cuts up garlic and onions to season the braised lamb in fresh rosemary, Belot peels tomato skins to fashion decorative roses for the pasta-salad appetizer. Morel says it's worth decorating dishes for 2-year-olds.

"It builds their appetites, and they love when we decorate. Presentation is very important. Before tasting, you look. So when you see something nice, you want to eat it," she says. The savory lamb is a big hit at La Margeride. Most of the kids eat nearly everything, and even if they don't, their delight in discovering the meal is obvious. While the food is delicious, the meal is clearly about more than what's on the plate. The tots are encouraged to use their silverware and are reminded to say please and thank you, and to sit up straight in their chairs. Sandra Merle, a dietician for the Paris day care system, says it's important to start young to lay the foundations for a lifetime of healthy eating.

"These lunches help children develop the potential to enjoy a proper sit-down meal with an appetizer, main plate, cheese and a dessert while taking their time in a convivial atmosphere," she says.

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Baseball's Alex Rodriguez Admits Steroid Use

Alex Rodriguez admitted Monday that he used performance-enhancing drugs from 2001-03, saying he did so because of the pressures of being baseball's highest-paid player. "When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me and I needed to perform, and perform at a high level every day," the New York Yankees star said in an interview with ESPN that was broadcast Monday shortly after it was recorded.

His admission came two days after Sports Illustrated reported he tested positive for steroids in 2003, one of 104 players who tested positive during baseball's survey testing, which wasn't subject to discipline and was supposed to remain anonymous. "And I did take a banned substance and, you know, for that I'm very sorry and deeply regretful. And although it was the culture back then and Major League Baseball overall was very — I just feel that — You know, I'm just sorry. I'm sorry for that time. I'm sorry to fans. I'm sorry for my fans in Texas. It wasn't until then that I ever thought about substance of any kind, and since then I've proved to myself and to everyone that I don't need any of that."

The 33-year-old All-Star third baseman was regarded by many in baseball as the most likely to break Bonds' record of 762 home runs. He's already 12th on the career list with 553 homers, 209 behind Bonds. Rodriguez hit 52, 57 and 47 homers in his three seasons with the Rangers, winning the first of three American League MVP awards during his final season with Texas, where he received a $252 million, 10-year contract in December 2000.

"Back then it was a different culture. It was very loose. I was young. I was stupid," Rodriguez said. "I was naive, and I wanted to prove to everyone that, you know, I was worth, you know — and being one of the greatest players of all time." He joined Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte among All-Star players who have confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs. Many other players have denied any use.

Barry Bonds, a seven-time MVP, is to go on trial next month on charges he lied when he told a grand jury in 2003 that he never knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs. Roger Clemens, a seven-time AL Cy Young Award winner, is under investigation by a federal grand jury that is trying to determine whether he lied when he told a congressional committee last year that he never used steroids and human growth hormone.

In his 2008 book, Vindicated: Big Names, Big Liars, and The Battle to Save Baseball, Jose Canseco claimed he introduced Rodriguez to a steroids dealer. Canseco, who has admitted using steroids, subsequently said he had no knowledge of any drug use by Rodriguez. "They are looking in the wrong places," Canseco said in a text message to The Associated Press. "This is a 25-year cover-up. The true criminals are Gene Orza, [union head] Donald Fehr and [commissioner] Bud [Selig]. Investigate them, and you will have all the answers."

SI said that Orza, the union's chief operating officer, tipped off three players in September 2004 that they would be tested. Orza has repeatedly denied that he tipped off players, saying he merely reminded them late in the season that if they had not yet been tested, baseball's drug agreement required them to be tested by the end of the regular season. Orza, who has been widely criticized by media since the SI report, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that he doesn't care what the media say. "I know the facts," Orza wrote.

Rodriguez said Orza told him in August or September 2004 about the list of names that had been seized by federal investigators. "He said there's a government list. There's 104 players in it. You might or might not have tested positive," Rodriguez said. SI.com reported that Rodriguez tested positive for Primobolan and testosterone.

"It was such a loosey-goosey era. I'm guilty for a lot of things. I'm guilty for being negligent, naive, not asking all the right questions," Rodriguez said. "And to be quite honest, I don't know exactly what substance I was guilty of using."

Monday's ESPN interview directly contradicted a December 2007 interview with CBS's 60 Minutes, when Rodriguez said "No" when asked whether he had ever used steroids, human growth hormone or any other performance-enhancing substance. On Friday, Rodriguez is still expected to attend an event at the University of Miami, which is renaming its baseball field in his honor. He gave $3.9 million to the school in 2003, the largest gift ever to the Hurricanes' baseball program and money that provided much of the resources needed for renovating the existing on-campus stadium. In return, the baseball complex will be called Mark Light Field at Alex Rodriguez Park. Despite the scandal, the facility will continue to bear Rodriguez's name, a university official said Monday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitive nature.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, February 9, 2009

Stimulus Bill Gives 'Shovel-Ready' Projects Priority

As President Obama urges Congress to pass the $700 billion-plus stimulus package, one of his favorite selling points is the thousands of projects nationwide that he calls "shovel ready" — meaning planning is complete, approvals are secured and people could be put to work right away once funding is in place.

There is no formal definition for shovel ready. The Federal Highway Administration says it doesn't use the phrase. Its preferred term is "ready to go," according to acting administrator Jeff Paniati. That means a state has already done the preliminary work for that project, he says. "They've addressed all the environmental requirements as required," Paniati says. "They've done the necessary public outreach. In many cases, the design work is already completed … and that they're on an approved state list."

One example of a shovel-ready project is the Gallows Road-Lee Highway intersection in the notoriously traffic-clogged suburbs of Northern Virginia outside Washington, D.C. The state wants to widen the roads and has done some of the preliminary work, but the project is on hold because Virginia doesn't have the final $32 million needed to complete it.

The stimulus bill states that for a project to be considered shovel-ready, it must be ready to begin in 90 days. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has a list of almost 19,000 such projects, adding up to almost $150 billion. In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle has set up an office to review projects in his state that are ready to go. "My job as the governor is to make sure that that happens — that we are ready to go and that we can get people to work promptly," Doyle says. He says there are about 7,000 transportation industry workers in Wisconsin without jobs. But Doyle's to-do list goes beyond fixing roads and bridges. The governor hopes to use some of the stimulus money to make repairs in the state's university system.

"These are things like putting a new roof on here, adding an addition, improving the science labs — things that do not require great designing and engineering but just work that can get done right away," he says. "And we have campuses all over the state, so it's a way that we can get people to work all over the state quite quickly."

The priority on shovel-ready projects means much of the infrastructure funding in the stimulus will be spent on the decidedly unglamorous work of fixing roofs, widening roads and repairing bridges. Critics say this would do little to address the nation's serious long-term infrastructure needs. And some analysts caution that speed should not be the only consideration in determining which projects are funded. "We do need expeditious attention to this, but we need to make sure that these investments are made wisely and that we don't have to sacrifice speed in order to get smart investments," says Robert Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution.

Puentes argues that environmental and energy concerns should not be sacrificed in the name of quick action, and that metropolitan areas should be given priority. "We do need to go back and make sure we don't lose sight of the broad objectives for infrastructure that not only advances the economy but also adheres to the goals of energy independence, environmental sustainability, social inclusion — it sounds like a lot to lay on this, but we can do it and get a three-for-one return on our investment," he says.

While states and cities have long wish lists of shovel-ready projects they'd like to begin work on, far fewer will actually be funded. The House-passed stimulus included some $30 billion for road and bridge repairs; the Senate version included a bit more. But that's less than one-third of what cities say they'd like to dig their shovels into.

-excerpt from NPR

Friday, February 6, 2009

U.S. Jobless Rate Rises To 7.6 Percent In January

More Americans lost jobs in January than in any month in the past 34 years, adding to the nation's strained unemployment rolls as the Obama administration tries to pull the economy out of a tailspin. The Labor Department said employers slashed 598,000 jobs in January, the deepest cut in payrolls since December 1974, pushing the unemployment rate up to 7.6 percent. The latest figures, which follow a revised 577,000 losses for December, were even worse than economists had forecast. The consensus had predicted a 7.5 percent rate.

On Thursday, the Labor Department reported that the number of new weekly jobless claims had hit the highest level since 1982. The manufacturing sector bled 207,000 jobs after cutting 162,000 in December. Construction industries cut 111,000 jobs in January after shedding 86,000 in December. Retail businesses cut an additional 45,000 positions after reducing 82,700 in December. The economy has lost 3.6 million jobs since the start of the recession in December 2007.

"These numbers certainly tell the tale. They tell us this is a very severe recession," Hugh Johnson, chief economist at Johnson-Illington Advisors, told NPR. Johnson said it was "clearly a much bigger job loss" than economists had been predicting. The latest grim news came on the same day that President Obama named his Economic Recovery Advisory Board, which will be charged in part with finding a way to address the millions of people who are out of work.

The president is also pushing ahead with his more than $900 billion economic recovery package, which has run into trouble in Congress among Republicans and some Democrats. "If there is anyone, anywhere, who doubts the need for wise counsel and bold and immediate action, consider the devastating news we just received this morning," Obama said, referring to the unemployment figures. "I am sure that ... members of the Senate are reading these same numbers this morning," he said. "I hope they share my sense of urgency and draw the same, unmistakable conclusion: The situation could not be more serious."

"It is inexcusable and irresponsible to get bogged down in distraction and delay while millions of Americans are being put out of work. It is time for Congress to act. It is time to pass an economic recovery and reinvestment plan to get our economy moving again," he said. Obama has tapped former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to lead the Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Others on the 15-member board include former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William Donaldson, TIAA-CREF President and CEO Roger Ferguson and Harvard University economy professor Martin Feldstein.

Obama friend and campaign finance chairwoman Penny Pritzker also is on the board, as is Caterpillar Inc. Chairman and CEO Jim Owens and General Electric Co. CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt. Two labor officials — Anna Burger of Service Employees International Union and Richard L. Trumka of the AFL-CIO — were named to the board.

- excerpt from NPR

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Looking For Political Messages In Tehran Prayers

If one is looking for clues to whether Iran wants to deal with the United States over issues like its nuclear program, one place to start is at Friday prayers in Tehran. Thousands gather in rows beneath a metal roof at Tehran University. It's hard to overstate the power of seeing every man in unison put his forehead to the ground.

What do these prayers have to do with Iran's nuclear program?

In Iran, Friday prayers often start with a spiritual lesson and end with current events. This was true last Friday, when the sermon was delivered by Iran's former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. He had a bearing that commanded attention. He had to wait for his supporters to stop chanting.Rafsanjani was dressed in modest grays and browns but with a hint of elegance. He began with a religious lesson. Later, he spoke of Iran's nuclear program and directly addressed the United States.

"You are claiming that if Iran wants to end its isolation, Iran has to suspend its nuclear activities or remain in isolation," he said. "If you are talking about changes, we expect that you will first change your policies toward us. We want you to take the first step and make a fair, rational, logical proposal for resolving the nuclear issue with Iran." Do that, Rafsanjani said, and then Iran can help the U.S. resolve the instability in the region. The former president's remarks set off speculation.

He remains a high official, with access to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A Tehran journalist, Said Laylaz, saw much meaning in that call for the U.S. to make a "fair" proposal. "And when, for example, somebody like Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani says something about the U.S. and negotiation, he's a representative of Mr. Khamenei," he said. One diplomat, though, noted Rafsanjani's demand that the U.S. change its policies. And other analysts ask if Rafsanjani really speaks for Iran's supreme leader at all.

In his sermon, Rafsanjani spoke of the Islamic rule that Muslims must pray while facing Mecca. He observed that if Muslims miss the target a little bit — aiming a little to the right or the left — it's OK; their prayers will still be accepted.It leaves the question as to whether this famously pragmatic cleric is making a subtle suggestion. A suggestion that it's OK for Iran to be flexible in talks with the United States. Or maybe it's just Rafsanjani's musings on the nature of Islam. The former president never made it clear. He stepped down from the pulpit and took his place before the other worshipers — turning his face toward Mecca to pray.

- excerpt from NPR