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!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rain Forest Residents, Texaco Face Off In Ecuador

A judge is preparing to render a decision in a long-running, multibillion-dollar lawsuit filed by residents of Ecuador's Amazonian rain forest against Texaco for fouling their land. In the lawsuit, filed in 1993, the plaintiffs charge that, throughout the 1970s and '80s, the American oil company so polluted a swath of northern Ecuador that hundreds died of cancer. The defendant, Chevron Corp. — which bought Texaco in 2001 — denies the accusations.

But a court-appointed expert agrees with many of the plaintiffs' charges and has assessed damages at $27 billion. Now, a judge in the small town of Lago Agrio, says he hopes to have a decision before the end of the year. Plaintiffs: A Legacy Of Pollution

Donald Moncayo, an activist who works with the poor farmers and Indian plaintiffs in the case, takes visitors on what he calls "toxic tours."

After tramping through the jungle, Moncayo reaches a huge pool of oily sludge and sticks a long pole into the muck. He says this is a legacy of Texaco's quarter-century in Ecuador: pollution that affects tens of thousands of people who bathe and drink from rain forest waterways. He says mud and other waste produced by drilling and production were dumped in the pit, and the toxins here and in hundreds of similar unlined pits leaked into the ground. A court-appointed geologist, Richard Cabrera, and his 14-member scientific team found barium, lead and other heavy metals in those pits. Chevron disputes Cabrera's findings. The company wants his report thrown out, saying he is biased toward the plaintiffs. All this happened in what was once virgin Amazonian jungle, the world's greatest biosphere and an area that still contains huge oil reserves.

The plaintiffs say Texaco, in 18 years of full-scale production, also dumped wastewater into rivers and that pipeline breaks spilled 17 million gallons of oil. Pablo Fajardo, a 36-year-old lawyer, leads the plaintiffs' team. He grew up poor in the area; this is his first legal case. Fajardo says his side has proved there was damage, that Chevron was responsible and that the company should pay.

Defendants: Texaco Acted Legally

Locally, the case has been called the trial of the century, and some of the hearings have been held in the jungle. Chevron does not dispute that pollution exists. But Chevron lawyer Diego Larrea says it's Petroecuador — the state oil company, which still drills oil in the area — that is responsible for the pollution. Larrea says Texaco adhered to Ecuadorian law. He also says Ecuador's government released the company of legal responsibility after a three-year cleanup a decade ago. In the current trial, the plaintiffs charge that Texaco's cleanup was a fraud, and the current government of Ecuador agrees.

The original suit was filed against Texaco in 1993 in a New York court. But Chevron argued that the case be moved to Ecuador, saying Ecuadorian courts were impartial and professional. In 2003, the trial was moved to a ramshackle court in Lago Agrio, a nondescript, dusty town near Colombia's lawless frontier. The judge in the case, Juan Nunez, says he feels the pressure on his conscience. And he says he has to carefully consider the arguments both sides have offered — arguments laid out in 145,000 pages of evidence. Texaco came to Ecuador in 1964. When it left nearly 30 years later, it had extracted 1.5 billion barrels and built Ecuador's oil industry from scratch.

The infrastructure is everywhere. Pipelines run alongside major roads. Pumping stations are located in clearings, carved out of the jungle. And then there are pools of sludge. The government says Petroecuador is not blameless. It, too, dumped wastewater intro waterways. But the state oil company's past practices do not absolve Texaco, the government says. Texaco was the primary operator for years and the pollution left behind is close to where people live and where children go to school, the government claims.

Health Problems Abound Among Locals

Wilmo Moreta, a schoolteacher in the town of Shushufindi, says he suffered skin rashes and other ailments when Texaco operated in the area. He says he drank water from the Napo river, bathed in it and used its water for cooking. He now blames oil pollution for his problems.

Cabrera's team, though, goes further, linking 1,401 cancer deaths to oil production and laying most of the blame for the pollution on Texaco. Chevron has countered Cabrera, the court-appointed geologist, by releasing a battery of studies that show cancer rates in the area are no higher than in other regions of Ecuador.

Chevron Disputes Report Findings

James Craig, a Chevron spokesman, says that the Cabrera report is "flawed in many ways." "In our view, it's a fraudulent report that we've asked the court to toss out a number of times," he says. Craig also says the methods Texaco's subsidiary, TexPet, used in Ecuador were common in the United States — and still are. Craig says that includes the use of unlined pits to hold sludge. "To suggest that somehow TexPet was using obsolete technology or substandard methods at the time is a complete falsehood," he says. States such as Texas permit unlined pits, but only for temporary use. In such instances, the waste must be disposed of eventually, often by re-injection back into the ground.

Case Wends Its Way Toward Resolution

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa squarely sides with the plaintiffs. He says Texaco left behind a mess. His government is also prosecuting two Chevron attorneys and seven former government officials who signed off on the cleanup in 1998. Correa says that pools operated by Texaco remain open, with little having been cleaned up. Craig, the Chevron spokesman, says Correa's comments show the company can't get a fair hearing — even though it was Chevron that originally petitioned to have the case transferred from the U.S. to Ecuador.

"Unfortunately, the case has deteriorated into a judicial farce, with the media circus put on by the plaintiffs on a regular basis, with the political pressure brought to bear on the court, with the government and political interference in this case," he says. Indeed, Chevron is already talking about a possible appeal should it lose the case. Meanwhile, in the jungle, residents wonder who will clean up the mess — or compensate them for their health problems.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Challenge: Constant Current From Fickle Winds

Like lots of other farmers and ranchers in the northern Plains, Joel Keierleber has been flirting with wind power developers for years. He knows his grassy slopes near Winner, S.D., have world-class wind, but there's always the same hitch: There aren't enough transmission lines to carry the electricity from rural areas like his to the big cities where the electricity is needed. If the country is going to meet President Obama's ambitious green energy goals, the transmission system has to link up the places that offer the best chance of producing lots of clean energy, such as the sunny Southwest and the windy Plains.

Keierleber's property is considered Class 6, or "outstanding," for a wind farm, but it's bone-chilling for people. Even on an early spring day, it feels like it's in the low teens. In the winter, with the wind chill, it can be 80 degrees below zero. "Your face will be numb before you get 10 steps," Keierleber says. "And if it hits you just right, you won't be able to breathe for a little bit. It will take your breath away." Because of all the wind, Keierleber has to feed his cattle more, and his neighbor can't keep siding on his house.

"That's why you want to see wind towers. Then you'll at least see some good out of it," he adds. In Keierleber's large kitchen, he unfolds a map that shows lots of properties near Winner that have been optioned by one wind developer or another. He says one reason ranchers here are so eager is that this place has never been good for farming. He only makes a profit three years out of five.

The latest wind developer to come courting is Scott Conant, from a small Wisconsin company called Prelude Wind Farms. As recently as last fall, Conant had never heard of Winner, but after about 18 trips, he's learned the contour of the land, the speed and consistency of the wind, and the desire of local residents to host wind farms. "I think that there's no doubt this area could be a 1,000-tower project, and maybe more. The whole package is right here," Conant says.

The Wind's There, But The Power Lines Aren't

Well almost. The only thing it lacks, Conant adds, is transmission lines.

One evening last month, Conant and another wind developer joined a couple hundred farmers and ranchers at Winner Middle School to hear a pitch from a transmission company called ITC Holdings Corp.

For more than a decade, wind developers have been salivating over windy places like this, but balked at building turbines without transmission lines. And utilities wouldn't string the lines without the wind farms. ITC wants to break that impasse, with a $12 billion transmission project.

"Who comes first, the generation or the line? That's been the problem that's probably plagued the transmission industry for the last 30 years. And that's why no transmission has been built," says Joe Dudak, a vice president of ITC, which is based in Novi, Mich. "We think you build it first, and you're there the same time the wind energy is there."

ITC's project would carry 12,000 megawatts of electricity from the northern Plains to Chicago and points east. That's enough electricity to power about 4.5 million homes. Dudak says the current grid is not up to the job of bringing green power to millions of homes and businesses — it's a patchwork of transmission lines strung decades ago by utilities — mostly connecting big polluting power plants to local customers.

"There is no superhighway system, and there's not enough room right now. The system is terribly constrained right now," he says.

Dudak hopes that concerns about climate change and new laws that mandate clean power will translate into a green light. "It's possible we can be breaking ground in two years," he says.

Jumping Hurdles To Wind Development

ITC already passed its first hurdle with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but it still needs lots of money and federal and state approvals to build its piece of a transmission superhighway, which it calls the green power express.

ITC is also awaiting an analysis from the Midwestern Independent Transmission System Operator, which is like an air traffic control tower for the electric grid in 13 states.

At the Midwest ISO's control room in Carmel, Ind., talk of a major increase in wind power sends chills down the spine of Rob Benbow, a grid manager. Before dawn on a spring morning, Benbow and a few dozen grid operators are shouting electricity jargon at each other in front of a massive curved screen that's 20 feet high and 150 feet long.

As people in the Midwest wake up and turn on coffee makers and hair dryers, the operators make sure enough power is being generated to match the surge in demand. A warning signal alerts them that a power plant has unexpectedly turned off. This time, it is someone else's problem. But Benbow worries that when wind power makes up a significant portion of his grid's electricity, managing it will cause him frequent problems.

Unpredictable Wind Makes Power Management Tough

"My biggest fear is if you see 20 percent wind on your system, and then it comes off at a time period where you don't have resources to replace it — that's going to, could, result in a blackout situation," he says.

Wind power is not predictable. That morning, the wind is steadily producing about 3,000 megawatts — about 5 percent of the total power being used in the region. But Benbow says he's seen wind power become increasingly variable as more wind farms come on line. And grid operators can't order wind plants to produce like they can other power plants.

"If the wind is not blowing, you just don't have that resource available," he says. And when the wind is blowing, it can be hard to make wind turbines shut down. "A lot of these plants are not manned — if we need to turn them off, we have to send a person out to actually do that," he says.

Lots of other things about wind frustrate the Benbows of the world — wind blows hardest at night when electricity demand is lowest, there currently aren't ways to store wind for later use, and you can't count on it on hot summer days when you need it most. "You can put all that wind in, but I still need to have all this other generation that I need to have available — all my coal, nuclear, all the gas — for my peak load day," Benbow adds. So when Benbow thinks about the new wind turbines and new transmission lines carrying their energy toward his control room, he sees more than clean energy. He also sees a lot of headaches coming his way.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tips For Preventing Swine Flu

As it investigates recent incidents of swine influenza in humans, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is stressing prevention.

The agency has posted several Web pages dealing with swine flu, including a list of what you can do to forestall this — or any — infectious disease.

The CDC recommends taking these everyday precautions:

• Avoid contact with people if you, or they, are sick.

• Stay at home — from work, school or other public activities — when you are ill.

• Shield others from your coughs and sneezes by using a tissue.

• Wash your hands often.

• Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose or mouth.

• Maintain healthful habits — get ample sleep and exercise, drink fluids, eat well.

Currently, there's no vaccine for humans that prevents swine flu, though scientists are working on one. But there is a vaccine for some forms of swine flu in pigs.

Which suggests one more precaution particular to this outbreak: Avoid unnecessary contact with live pigs. (It's safe to eat pork, but not pet a pig.) But that alone may not roadblock the spread of swine flu this time around. In pigs, this virus causes a respiratory illness that's highly contagious, but usually not fatal.

As seen with bird flu, people coming into contact with infected animals occasionally become sick themselves — but the virus usually stops there. Rarely have humans infected other humans with bird flu — or swine flu. With the current swine flu outbreak, the swine flu virus has transformed, appearing to increase its ability to spread between humans.

"We've seen swine influenza in humans over the past several years, and in most cases, it's come from direct pig contact. This seems to be different," Arnold Monto, a flu researcher with the University of Michigan, told the Associated Press. "I think we need to be careful and not apprehensive, but certainly paying attention to new developments as they proceed."

At this point, the CDC and other government organizations are focusing on getting the message out to individuals about how to respond to the threat of influenza. Public health officials are monitoring the various cases and conducting epidemiological research on the virus.

"If the outbreak turns into a full blown epidemic," says Andrew Pekosz, an associate professor at the Bloomberg School of Health at Johns Hopkins University, "the government will have the right to place limitations on travel and gatherings of groups of individuals." Schools may be closed or sporting events canceled, Pekosz says, and officials will implement quarantine procedures for hotspots of cases and begin distribution of antiviral drugs.

All these steps, Pekosz says, are necessary "to limit the epidemic and slow virus spread."

Jeanne Matthews, an assistant professor at the Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies, says health officials are "so dependent on whether it appears that community containment might halt person to person contact. This is a new strain. I don't think we know enough about this flu to have a sense of when that should be."

-excerpt for NPR

Monday, April 27, 2009

GM To Cut 21,000 Jobs, Scrap Pontiac

General Motors Corp. said it will cut 21,000 U.S. factory jobs by next year, phase out its storied Pontiac brand and ask the government to take stock in exchange for half GM's government debt as part of a major restructuring effort that would leave current shareholders holding just 1 percent of the company. The struggling automaker said it will offer 225 shares of common stock for every $1,000 in notes held by bondholders as part of a debt-for-equity swap that aims to retire most of GM's $27 billion in unsecured debt.

The announcements came in a filing Monday with the Securities and Exchange Commission. GM is living on $15.4 billion in government loans and faces a June 1 deadline to restructure and get more government money. If the restructuring doesn't satisfy the government, the company could go into bankruptcy protection. GM said in a news release that it will ask the government to take 50 percent of its common stock in exchange for canceling half the government loans to the company as of June 1. In addition, GM is offering the United Auto Workers stock for at least 50 percent of the $20 billion the company must pay into a union run trust that will take over retiree health care expenses starting next year.

Chief Executive Officer Fritz Henderson said the objective of the bond exchange is to reduce GM's $27 billion of outstanding debt by about $24 billion. The company estimates that after the exchange, bondholders would own 10 percent of the company. All the stock offerings mean that current common stockholders would own only 1 percent of the company under the deals, GM said. In a statement, the president's auto industry task force called the announcement "an important step in GM's effort to restructure its company.

"We will continue to work with GM's management as it refines and finalizes this plan and with all of GM's stakeholders to help GM restructure consistent with the President's commitment to a strong, vibrant American auto industry. "The Administration has made no final decision regarding the treatment of its current loan to GM or with respect to any future investments in the company," the task force said. GM said it would speed up six additional factory closings that were announced in February, although it did not identify them in its news release. Additional salaried jobs cuts also are coming, beyond the 3,400 in the U.S. completed last week. Including previously announced plant closures, the restructuring will leave GM with 34 factories at the end of next year, down from 47 at the end of 2008.

The company also said it plans to thin its dealership ranks by 42 percent from 2008 to 2010, cutting them from 6,246 to 3,605. "The Viability Plan reflects the direction of President Obama and the U.S. Treasury that GM should go further and faster on our restructuring," Henderson said in a statement. "This stronger, leaner business model will enable GM to keep doing what it does best — provide great new cars, trucks and crossovers to our customers, and continue to develop new advanced propulsion technologies that are vital for our country's economy and environment."

The new plan lowers GM's break-even point in North America to an annual U.S. sales volume of 10 million vehicles, the company said. That's slightly more than the current sales rate, and most economists expect an uptick in the second half of the year. "This lower break-even point better positions GM to generate positive cash flow and earn an adequate return on capital over the course of a normal business cycle, a requirement set forth by the U.S. Treasury," the statement said.

The company said it would phase out its storied Pontiac brand no later than next year, and the futures of its Hummer, Saturn and Saab brands will be resolved by the end of this year by either selling them or phasing them out. Henderson said in a news conference that the company was spread too thin to make Pontiac work. "We didn't think we had the resources to get this done from a product perspective," or marketing, he said Monday at a news conference. He said the decision was very tough for many at GM because of the brand's heritage.

Henderson said GM wants to develop a plan that doesn't have to be repeated. "We only want to do this once," he told reporters.

-excerpt from NPR

Friday, April 24, 2009

Few Uninsured Willing To Pay Full Cost For Coverage

Some people can't buy health insurance because they have a pre-existing medical condition. But for most of the nation's 47 million uninsured, cost is the big obstacle — especially if they don't work for a company that pays part of the premium. And even if they could find an affordable health plan, many are not used to building that cost into their monthly budget. Potential sticker shock is emerging as a key issue in the nation's debate over whether everybody should be covered.

A new national poll, conducted by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, shows that what most uninsured people are willing to pay is a long way from what insurance really costs. Two out of three uninsured Americans say they'd be willing to pay no more than $100 a month for coverage. But, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average individual health plan costs about $400 a month, and a family policy costs more than $1,000.

Ann Notzelman, 48, of Flemington, N.J., knows she can't get health insurance for $100 a month. But she says that's all she can afford on an annual income of less than $20,000. "Right now, I'm in between jobs," Notzelman says. "And that's mainly why I can't afford to dish out the money that they'd want, you know? Because the cheapest plan I think I've seen was somewhere like in the $300 range." Notzelman worries about her lack of coverage every day.

"Actually, I'm a little concerned with a lump that I have," she says. "I know, it's not good — because my mother had breast cancer — so that's why I'm a little concerned, you know?" Notzelman represents a big part of the problem Washington policymakers are grappling with when it comes to the uninsured. There's little doubt low-income people like her would need substantial subsidies under any plan for universal coverage.

But a more difficult issue is whether middle-class Americans will need subsidies to buy coverage if their companies don't pay a chunk of the premium. Massachusetts has experience with that problem. It's the first state to require nearly everybody to have health insurance. Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, says Massachusetts is the first real-world test of how Americans respond when they are told they must buy health insurance. "Literally, we didn't know whether people in Massachusetts would say 'Hell no, I won't go' or go to New Hampshire or Rhode Island, or they would participate in the program," Altman says.

So far it seems to be working. If you make up to $33,000 a year, Massachusetts subsidizes your coverage. People who make more than that have to pay out of their own pockets. Only about 15 percent of the uninsured — about 75,000 people — have asked to be exempted. "What we've seen over the years is that people really want health insurance," Altman says. "They will struggle and stretch the family budget to get it and hang onto it." But the new poll finds some uninsured people who make good money say they can't afford health insurance on their own. James Brancatelli is one of the 29 percent of uninsured people who told pollsters he would be willing to pay more — but only $200 a month, tops.

"I haven't had insurance for the past four years," Brancatelli said as he made his rounds in Tucson, Ariz., delivering pharmaceuticals. He's self-employed. "Unfortunately, if I want health care, I have to purchase it myself," he says. "And unfortunately, for me and my wife, it is about $400 a month." He and his wife, Kimberly, have put off having a baby because of the cost. "We've looked into that," he says. "And to have a child, it'll roughly cost us about $30,000 without having insurance. So it's crazy." He says a hospital told them the charge for the labor and delivery room alone would be $7,000.

Massachusetts has tried to come up with affordable plans for people with middle-class incomes. When Brancatelli's information was entered into a government Web site to see what he could buy if he lived there, there were 19 plans in the Boston area for people like him. The cheapest one, which has deductibles and co-payments but prescription drug coverage, would cost the Brancatellis $615 a month. "That still would probably be out of my price range," he says.

The Brancatellis make $80,000 a year. Their fixed expenses total $3,500 a month. After gas, food and other expenses, he says, there's not much left. Under Massachusetts' rules, the Brancatellis would be expected to pay 10 percent of their income for health insurance. That's about $670 a month. "If there were some subsidy for that, we would have no problem with that, you know?" he says. "But since we don't have that, we just can't afford to put out $8,000 to $10,000 a year for health coverage." MIT health economist Jonathan Gruber, who sits on the board of the new Massachusetts health insurance agency, says if everybody's going to be covered, some people will have to get used to the idea of paying more than they think they can.

"To my mind, the biggest gain from national health insurance is not necessarily in terms of improving health," Gruber says. "There's just a huge benefit in not having to go to bed at night worried about whether you're going to wake up with cancer and therefore go bankrupt." Gruber says the nation needs to create a "culture of health insurance," as Massachusetts has begun to do, where people think it's as much a part of the budget as car payments and utility bills.

-excerot from NPR

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Carved Success: Sam Maloof's Handmade Life

Sam Maloof was born in Chino, Calif., to immigrants from Douma, a lovely Mediterranean village in the mountains of what was then Syria and is now Lebanon. To woodworkers, 93-year-old Maloof is an icon. He has won a MacArthur "genius grant," and he's credited with helping to launch the California modern arts movement. His elegantly minimalist furniture has been exhibited at the Smithsonian and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Right now, though, Maloof is shuffling around his shop, frustrated. Just released from of the hospital, he's under strict doctors' orders to not pick up a tool.

Maloof taught himself how to woodwork after serving in World War II and marrying his wife, Alfreda. "She bought a little tract house for $4,200, which now is probably worth about $400,000," Maloof chuckles. "It didn't have a lot of furniture in it. Plywood floors, no carpeting or anything. And so I put rugs down, and then I found a lot of scrap wood, and I made furniture out of it for the house." Back then, no one designed furniture specifically for tract houses. Maloof was onto something new that fit California's evolving design aesthetic. At a moment when most Americans were enthralled with mass market, factory-manufactured goods, Maloof was turning away, toward the handmade. He became friends with potters and people who made stained glass. They were a community, then a movement. Maloof says making things by hand is part of his family legacy.

"My mother did beautiful lacework, just beautiful lacework — and they peddled it," he reminisced. "That's how they started. They were peddlers." Eventually, Maloof's parents opened a department store in Chino. They were the town's only Arab family. He says their ethnicity was never a problem, partly because of his mother's warmth and charisma — he remembers her giving away vegetables from the family garden during the Depression — but also because no one knew how to class them racially or ethnically. As he remembers it, they got along with everyone.

Today, Maloof's home is a state-designated historic landmark, nestled in the green-gray foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles. The hand-built redwood building is open Thursdays and Saturdays for public tours. Maloof built his house room by room as he earned money for materials. It glows like an ember — its pink and orange walls lit through golden glass. And it's warm with wood, from the buttery swirl of bird's-eye maple to the dark chocolate of burnished walnut. The house boasts a world-class collection of Pueblo pottery, tribal masks, antique carousel horses, wood prints, oil paintings, kachina dolls — all jostling for space with Maloof's spare, sculptural furniture. "That would look great in my house," says visitor Janet Jensen, eying a handsome Tasmanian eucalyptus burl table. Maloof carved it, as he does all his furniture, freehand with a band saw. It can be terrifying to watch.

Jeremy Adamson curated a Maloof retrospective at the Smithsonian, and he's written a book about the artist. He says Maloof's instincts come from decades of experience, but also from a deep, almost spiritual connection between material and man. "All the parts come together in a very rational way, but they meet each other in such joyful connection," he says. "There seems to be a pleasure that the leg fits the chair. They're happy to be together. It's as if they really have grown together." When Maloof was still struggling to support his family, he turned down several lucrative offers to mass-produce his furniture — on principle. The black sheep of the family who never went to college now has three honorary degrees.

Maloof has said that when making furniture, start with the legs: They're like values, principles, beliefs. Choosing the arms is like choosing friends. And the seat keeps you upright, steady and looking ahead to your goals and your future. Those sound like ideas a woodworker could have learned from two young immigrants who came from Douma more than a hundred years ago.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Harman 'Outraged' Over Alleged Wiretapping

This week, Congressional Quarterly and later The New York Times reported that the National Security Agency had recorded a telephone conversation between Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) and someone who was seeking Harman's support for leniency for two pro-Israel lobbyists accused of espionage. According to the reports, the caller offered political help to Harman in her hopes of becoming chair of the House Intelligence Committee and asked that she call the Justice Department on behalf of the two lobbyists. Stephen Rosen and Keith Weissman of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, are awaiting trial. Late Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that federal prosecutors were considering dropping the charges against Rosen and Weissman.

Harman, then the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, denies asking the Justice Department or anyone else for favorable treatment of the two men. She has called for the release of all transcripts of her phone calls. A transcript of her conversation with NPR's Robert Siegel follows. Robert Siegel: First, do you remember the phone call in question? Who is the other party and is that a fair description of what was discussed?

Rep. Jane Harman: We don't know if there was a phone call. These are three unnamed sources, former and present national security officials, who are allegedly selectively leaking information about a phone call or phone calls that may or may not have taken place. I have to say I am outraged that I may have been wiretapped by my government in 2005 or 2006 while I was ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. First I learned of this was in an e-mail to my office after-hours Thursday night by the reporter who published this in CQ —

Jeff Stein?

— asking for me to comment.

Yes, but the reports — I don't know how partial they are, but they are based on people who have seen transcripts of wiretaps. And they're very detailed. One, The New York Times reports today that in a call, the caller offered to get Haim Saban, a big political donor and a supporter of Israel, to tell Nancy Pelosi that he wouldn't donate money if you didn't get the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee.

[Harman chuckles.]

Any conversation like that, ever?

Well, how do we know? That's why I have written —

Well, do you remember? Do you remember —

— this morning to Attorney General [Eric] Holder asking him to release any transcripts of any interceptions of my conversations without any redactions — that means don't cross anything out — to me and my intention is to make them public, and then we'll see what I may or may not have said four years ago in conversations with an advocacy group like AIPAC or any other groups about the chairmanship of the intelligence committee or anything else. It's totally proper for members of Congress to talk to advocacy groups and our constituents; that's part of our job.

But are you saying that you really don't have any recollection at all of a phone conversation like this?

I'm saying that, No. 1, I don't know that there was a phone conversation. If there was and it was intercepted, let's read exactly what I said to whom. We don't know who that was either.

But, by the way, in The New York Times article today, which is a pretty big piece, there is a quote from someone named David Szady, who was the FBI's former top counterintelligence official. And he says, quote, "In all my dealings with her" — that would be me — "she was always professional and never tried to intervene or get in the way of any investigation," unquote.

But here are some quotations attributed to the transcript of the wiretap of your conversation that CQ reported. At the end, you say to the caller, "This conversation doesn't exist." But that's after you're quoted as saying that you "would waddle into the matter" — that is, of Rosen and Weissman —if you "think it would make a difference." Can you recall saying that, or is that a fair conversation to have with someone?

No. I can't recall with any specificity a conversation I may have had four years ago. That is why I have asked Attorney General Holder to release any transcripts that he has that involve wiretaps of me. And, by the way, there's a question about whether they were legal, and there's another question about whether other members of Congress, who also talk regularly to advocacy groups and constituency groups, might have been picked up and may be wiretapped even now or maybe I'm even wiretapped now. I can't tell you with any specificity what the government did, since the first news I had about any of this was last Thursday night.

But, indeed, if what happened was, initially, your phone wasn't tapped [and that] the person you were talking with was being tapped — and if that was an investigation of a foreign agent, is it realistic to think that anybody is going to release a completely unredacted transcript of that conversation?

Well, let's find out. I mean, the person I was talking to was an American citizen. I know something about the law and wiretaps. There are two ways you do it. One is you get a FISA warrant, which has to start with a foreign suspected terrorist, a non-American foreigner. If this was FISA, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, that would have had to happen.

But if you know that it was an American citizen —

If it was Article III, FBI wiretap, that's different. But I don't know what this was. And I don't know why this was done. And I don't know who the sources are who are claiming that this happened are and I think —

But you are saying that you know it was an American citizen. So that would suggest that you know that there was a —

Well, I know that anyone I would have talked to about, you know, the AIPAC prosecution would have been an American citizen. I didn't talk to some foreigner about it.

You never spoke to an Israeli? You never spoke to an Israeli about this.

Well, I speak to Israelis from time to time. I just came back from a second trip to Israel in this calendar year. I've been to the Middle East region as a member of Congress 22 times and was in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Israel and Turkey just a week ago.

But here's the problem, Robert — and I'm going to try and get this across again. These are selective leaks. They are quoting — allegedly quoting me — maybe out of context based on transcripts that these people say they've seen. I didn't even know there were transcripts. Apparently some people in the government, some people in Congress knew about this; but I didn't know a thing about this. And it seems to me very troubling and an abuse of power that members of Congress are wiretapped and may be some part of some kind of investigation. But I was never told. This was four years ago. I have never been told in any way by the Justice Department that I was being investigated for anything. So let me just —

But if you were being investigated, you wouldn't actually expect them to tell everybody they're investigating that they're being wiretapped?

Well, I think they would tell people if you're the subject of an investigation. I think they're required to do that or in some way importantly involved in an investigation. And I was told absolutely nothing. And maybe there are other members of Congress who are having this same problem. But more important than members of Congress who have bully pulpits are citizens.

And on that note, I've run out of our time. So I'm sorry. Rep. Harman, thanks a lot for talking with us. We appreciate it.

Thank you, Robert.

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

L.A.'s Safer City Initiative Homes In On Skid Row

Los Angeles' Skid Row is home to thousands of people with no permanent place to call home. The sidewalks used to be lined with tents and makeshift shelters at every hour of the day. It's been a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes. But late in 2006, the city of Los Angeles decided to crack down on crime and bring some order to the teeming streets. The program designed to do that is known as the Safer City Initiative. It has its critics. They say it's not just targeting criminals — it's also criminalizing homelessness.

One night a month, L.A. City Council member Jan Perry leads a walk around Skid Row. It's in her district, and she wants to monitor the changes that have taken place in the two and a half years since Safer City began. She says the area used to be like "Dante's 'Inferno.' Now it's like a neighborhood." She believes that the Safer City Initiative proves the city is showing Skid Row respect, "and that certain behaviors that have been tolerated in the past will no longer be tolerated." The change in Skid Row is apparent not only to city officials, but to veterans of the streets. And no one is more veteran than Benny Joseph. "I been on the street 30 years," he says. "On the street!"

Benny Joseph was riding a bicycle — and carrying a cane — as he paused for a breather in Gladys Park, a place once notorious as a drug market and shooting gallery. He says it's a lot better now. "Oh, this was a goofed-up park," he says. "I'm telling you, this was a crazy park. I seen people get damn near beat to death. And no one called no police. They'd just leave him there. If he was dead, they'd find him in the morning."

There's still a lot on Skid Row that is — to use Benny Joseph's term — goofed up. Skid Row was once such a wide open drug market, buyers and sellers would come here from all over the city. Rival gangs didn't even bother fighting for territory. There was plenty of business to go around. Walking the streets with Los Angeles Police Department Officer Deon Joseph (no relation to Benny), it seems like there still is. Outside of San Julian Park, he points to an older African-American man in a wheelchair. He says he's called One Leg. "He sells weed over here," says Officer Joseph, as he walks over to him. "Are you selling weed on my block, man? " the police officer asks him. One Leg says no, he's just smoking. But the officer says, "if you're selling weed, I need you to leave." And One Leg is gone in a flash.

Deon Joseph gives the impression of a guy who gets what he wants. He's a barrel-chested black man with a shaved head and muscular arms nearly bursting the sleeves of his uniform. He cuts quite a figure. Visibility, he says, is all part of police work.

"The only tool we have is to stay visible and stay out here and deter them with my visibility," he explains. "Me standing on this block, it's the safest block in the United States of America." The police are more visible than ever on Skid Row. The Safer City Initiative added 50 cops to this 1-square-mile area. But it's not their increased presence that's the source of the controversy over Safer City; it's encounters like the one between Officer Joseph and a man lounging on the sidewalk in front of the Chicken House restaurant. The officer approaches the man and tells him he's not allowed to sit there, and politely urges him to get up. The man moves on without an argument.

He probably knows that sitting on the sidewalk during the day is not allowed on Skid Row anymore. The police give out tickets for that. Joseph is ready with an explanation of how something that seems so innocuous can bring down the neighborhood.

"If we let one person sit on the sidewalk, then it's going to be two, three, four, five," the policeman says. And the problem with that, he says, is that "a lot of people are drug addicts, they're going to start smoking [crack]. And the drug dealers are going to come ... and say, 'Oh, cool, anybody want more?' Then the gangs are going to say, 'We can make money off of this.' " All from just one person sitting on the sidewalk.

So when the Safer City Initiative started, the police began handing out tickets on Skid Row for sitting on the sidewalk, jaywalking, littering and drinking in public. According to a study at UCLA, police officers wrote about a thousand tickets a month during the first year of the program. LAPD records indicate that they're writing fewer of them now. Still, even a single ticket would be one too many for Casey Horan. She's the executive director of Lamp, a Skid Row organization that works with the mentally ill.

"They're targeting people who are on the street," she complains. "It's the whole premise of this Safer City Initiative to invest enormous police resources into very, very petty things, which are really a consequence of someone's illness or a consequence of having to survive on the streets." That seems to be the case for 31-year-old Jason Diamond. He's a former crack addict who lived on the streets for the better part of 10 years. He says he's definitely gotten his share of attention from the police.

"I have probably right now maybe between 10 or 15 tickets" for littering, jaywalking and drinking in public, Diamond says.
Diamond now lives at Lamp, where he's being treated for major depression and mood disorders, among other problems. When he gets tickets, he explains, he just can't keep track of the court dates.

"Or if you enter a plea of guilty, they want you to pay money," he says. "And I'm homeless. I don't have the money. So what happens is you fail to appear in court, it turns into a warrant for your arrest. So the next time you get stopped, they can take you to jail right there and then." Diamond guesses he's been in the downtown jail known as Twin Towers 25 or 30 times, just for tickets. And he says that's pretty common. "When I go there ... I know more people there than I see on a daily basis walking around here, 'cause it's all people from downtown and it's all people there mostly on petty stuff."

City officials resent it when the Safer City Initiative is portrayed as just a law enforcement program. There's more to it, they say, from trimming Skid Row trees to prosecuting hospitals that dump indigent patients there. Ask Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa about Safer City, and the first thing he wants to talk about is housing. "In the three and a half years I've been mayor, we've constructed 796 units of permanent supportive housing for the homeless," he boasts. "We provided more housing for the homeless than in the 12 years before that." Actually, the city has funded those units. Most are not complete, and many have not even been started. The law enforcement component, however, has been going full tilt for two and half years. And that's a good thing, says the mayor.

"No community in Los Angeles would accept the level of violence and crime that this area of the city has had to withstand over the decades," Villaraigosa says. "We all have a right to a safe neighborhood." Crime is, in fact, down significantly on Skid Row, as it is across the city. The population on Skid Row's streets is down as well. Earlier this month, the LAPD counted fewer than 600 people bedding down for the night, a third as many as there were two years ago. That might seem to be a good thing. Only no one is exactly sure where the rest of those people have gone. Maybe they're still homeless in another part of the city with fewer cops.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, April 20, 2009

Thumbs To The News: Public Turns To Twitter

Twitter, for the uninitiated, is a social media Web site that began with the idea that people could stay connected by "tweeting" each other short answers to one simple question: "What are you doing?" And while it may have been a bit frivolous at first, Twitter is increasingly being used by companies as a marketing tool, and for many, it's become a source for news.

How we get news and who reports it is changing dramatically. Breaking stories sometimes appear on Wikipedia and Twitter before they are reported by mainstream news organizations. Hanson Hosein, for example, gets much of his breaking news from tweets — the Twitter messages of 140 characters or less that dance across his computer screen. "I know if something really crazy happens in the world or something really interesting happens in my world — which is technology and communication — someone is going to pick it up pretty quickly and let us all know about it," he says.

Hosein, a digital media expert at the University of Washington, follows about 250 people on Twitter and receives everything they post on Twitter's Web site. The Silicon Valley startup doesn't have any reporters or photographers; rather, anyone and everyone who sees or hears just about anything can post it online. Sometimes it's nonsense; sometimes it's breathtaking. Hosein says that while many New York City reporters were in their offices on the afternoon of Jan. 15, 2009, many Manhattan residents and ferryboat passengers witnessed a US Airways plane land in the Hudson River.

"There were people there with their cell phones who could report on this," Hosein says. "Not necessarily professional journalists, but they're there, and that makes all the difference." Hosein says that within minutes of the plane going down, an eyewitness snapped a photo. "So that's the million-dollar shot — that's the money shot," Hosein says. "He's on the ferry, and he shot that. There's a plane in the Hudson, and I'm on a ferry going to pick up people. Crazy."

That and other Twitter messages were forwarded around the globe within minutes. They were picked up by traditional journalists who used that information as a starting point for their own reporting. Similarly, traditional reporters sometimes take cues and get breaking news from Wikipedia, the free, online encyclopedia. Just about anyone can write and edit it, which explains, for example, how John Updike's death could be noted on the author's wiki page even before NPR could confirm that he had died.

Trusting News From Social Media

The big question: Can you trust the news you get from social media? Maybe not, says Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, a training center for journalists. "You know, just because a person says it, and says it online or says it on a Twitter page, does not make it true — not even close," Tompkins says.

Professional reporters, says Tompkins, have an obligation to verify information before they publish or broadcast it. But the widespread use of cell phones, computers and digital cameras has turned that tradition on its head. For non-journalists, he says, it's often "report first, verify later — if at all." "The enemy of truth is speed, and in our business in journalism, we are always fighting that friction, aren't we? The Web, very often, has very little concern for truth and verification — let's get it out there, and then we'll sort it out," he says. The challenge is to figure out what's true and what's not to be believed.

-excerpt from NPR

Friday, April 17, 2009

Despite Promises, Elderly Evicted From Housing

A state official in New Jersey has reviewed the cases of scores of elderly people who were kicked out of assisted living facilities — simply because they could no longer pay at the highest rates. In a new report, Ron Chen, the state's public advocate, concludes that state regulations in New Jersey and around the country fail to protect elderly residents. At a press conference in Trenton, Chen, surrounded by family members of people who had been residents of assisted living facilities, called for tougher regulation of the assisted living industry. "Our statutes and regulations that govern the assisted living industry are not strong enough," he said, "and we need to reform them to better protect our parents and our grandparents."

Chen recommended that all assisted living facilities in New Jersey be required to set aside at least 10 percent of their beds for residents who rely on Medicaid, the state insurance program for the poor and uninsured. And he called for tougher rules to force facilities to clearly state their policies on the cost of care. The recommendations were in response to a finding that, in New Jersey, dozens of residents of assisted living facilities run by Assisted Living Concepts had been forced out of facilities when their money ran out, even though they had been given oral promises that they would be able to use Medicaid funds.

Assisted living has emerged as a popular alternative to a nursing home because residents get their own private apartment and can leave cooking, cleaning and minor health care to staff. But assisted living is expensive and, in most cases, it's not covered by insurance. John Myers, 93, and his wife, Mae, 88, went through about $180,000 of their savings in three years at an Assisted Living Concepts facility in Burlington, N.J. But late last year, John Myers lost a lot of his money in the stock market. The family asked about going on Medicaid; that would have meant they would pay about 20 percent less, according to Chen's report. Instead, they were evicted. The couple's daughter, Pam Paulin, was stunned.

"Right before Christmas?" she says. "You send out a notice that you're going to evict my parents?" She says they had chosen the facility — which they loved living in — after they had been promised they could stay even if they outlived their savings. Between the time her parents moved in, in November 2005, and when they were evicted, there were new owners of the facility. In its facilities across the country, Assisted Living Concepts changed the commitment to residents who had gone through their savings.

The original owners of Assisted Living Concepts, which was one of the country's first assisted living companies, had made a point of serving middle-class elderly at a time when other companies sought out wealthier people who could pay higher fees. The company's efforts in the past two years to evict poorer residents has been criticized, privately, by others in the assisted living industry. Assisted Living Concepts did not respond to a request for an interview. In the past, they've said there are limits on how many Medicaid patients they can take and still provide good care. That's not good enough for Chen, New Jersey's public advocate. He says the company made a promise to state regulators when it built its facilities that it would serve people with moderate incomes or who had gone through their life savings paying fees at the facilities. Chen started hearing complaints from residents and last year opened an investigation. Chen's office contacted hundreds of families who had loved ones in one of the company's eight facilities in the state.

In the report released Thursday, Chen found that dozens of elderly people were promised they could stay at the company's facilities in New Jersey — and then got kicked out. "This is also by definition a vulnerable population," says Chen. "Elderly citizens living usually on fixed incomes, or no incomes, who can be ripe for exploitation if there's not some type of regulation." Any change will come too late for Paulin and her parents. Shortly after the eviction notice came, her father, who had been in good health before, was hospitalized. "I think this was a lot of stress for him," she says. "I just think that this really wore him down." Myers died in February. His wife, who depended upon him for care, also had a steep decline in health. She left the assisted living facility and now lives in a nursing home.

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Huge Burger Brings Fame, Bellyaches To Ballpark

Here's an unlikely economic indicator: Last week, the West Michigan Whitecaps minor league baseball team sold more than 100 mega-sized burgers on opening night. It's made with five patties plus chili, American cheese, nacho cheese, tortilla chips, salsa, lettuce, tomato and sour cream — all piled on an 8-inch bun. The mammoth meal weighs more than 4 pounds. And, even in this era of scaling back, plenty of people took on the burger by themselves.

Recession Connection

This monster of a burger is called the Fifth Third burger. It has five 1/3-pound patties of beef. But it also takes its name from Fifth Third Ballpark, which is named after Fifth Third Bank, based in Cincinnati. Fifth Third Bank has had some severe financial losses because of the downturn in the housing market. It bet big on houses in Michigan and in Florida, where there have been a lot of foreclosures. And Fifth Third has received $3.4 billion from the federal government to stay afloat. So, the Fifth Third burger could also be called the bailout burger.

A Mouthful

"It hurts, it hurts," says Ray Boze after he finished an entire Fifth Third burger on his own.

It's the caloric equivalent of nine Big Macs.

Boze started eating before the first pitch, and he didn't finish that last excruciating bite until the ninth inning.

"But I'm glad I did it. And I'll never do it again, ever," he says.

Boze was one of more than a dozen people who ate the entire burger on opening night.

The burger has become the star of the West Michigan Whitecaps operation.

"It's been a whirlwind for us, for media," says Mickey Graham, the head of marketing for the Whitecaps. "For an organization like us that has to scratch and claw to get our name out there, it's been crazy to get all this international attention."

An Oddball Menu

Graham says the Whitecaps have a history of offering some oddball menu items at their concession stands, including giant turkey legs and fried Twinkies. The massive Fifth Third burger comes at a time when Americans are being told it's time to scale back to smaller vehicles, smaller mortgage payments, smaller meals and smaller expectations. This is a burger that's so big, it has to be served in a pizza box with an open top. And people love it. "You turn on the news and everything, and some people don't like what they're hearing, but some people still want to talk about fun things that are happening in life," says Graham. "And, so, I think that's one of the reasons this has caught on."

A Family Meal

The Fifth Third burger isn't just about excessive consumption: The Whitecaps are marketing the burger as a family meal. It comes sliced into four pieces. For $20, it's a relatively cheap dinner at the ballpark. Marnie Joostberns bought a burger to share with her nephews Noah and Nate Junker. "This was Nate's big thing. They talked about this in current events class — the Fifth Third burger," Joostberns says. So you can see the Fifth Third burger as a symbol of American excess, or you can see it as just a fun time at the ballpark. But it's certainly uniquely American. And the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression can't stop that.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why Protest Big Government With Tea On Tax Day?

On April 15, the deadline for filing taxes, conservatives are planning Tax Day Tea Parties around the country. Inspired by the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the rallies are designed as protests against the use of taxpayer money for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the stimulus package and other government spending. But some historians and beverage makers say it doesn't make sense for java-loving Americans to rally around tea. Tea party protests began in early 2009. In February, CNBC market analyst Rick Santelli raised the idea of a "Chicago Tea Party" to protest a federal initiative to refinance mortgages.

On the Internet, Facebook pages and Web sites such as TaxDayTeaParty.com and MillionTeaBags.com have attempted to attract disgruntled taxpayers. But some Americans do not believe the movement is a true grass-roots effort. "The tea parties don't represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They're AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects," economist Paul Krugman wrote in Monday's New York Times.

The turnout on Wednesday may give a better sense of how widespread the movement's support is. For now, YouTube provides a sense of atmospherics. People who have turned up for similar gatherings carry signs that say: Silent Majority No More! No Taxation Without Deliberation, and Stimulate Business, Not Gov't. In Cincinnati, people threw tea bags into a garbage can. At the end of a video on the official Tax Day Tea Party Web site, a young girl wears a T-shirt that reads: Obama, Get Your Hands Out of My Piggy Bank. Fox News is among the idea's biggest cheerleaders. Sean Hannity plans to host a show from Atlanta's protest. Newt Gingrich, Joe the Plumber and others will also be participating in the nationwide event. Jon Stewart of Comedy Central has mocked both the concept and the Fox News host Glenn Beck, one of its most vigorous proponents.

But there are others who are merely puzzled by the connection between tea and protesting these days. Here, then, are five arguments against the Tax Day Tea Party:

1) The politics are wrongheaded. The irony is that the idea springs from the original tea party in Boston against Great Britain. It was not a protest against big government. It was a protest against England's refusal to allow the United States to govern itself at all. Now that the U.S. has sovereignty and is able to govern itself, a tea party protest is pretzelish in its logic. "The people who were involved in the Boston Tea Party were protesting because they had no representation. These people have representation," says Benjamin Woods Labaree, a retired historian in Amesbury, Mass., and author of The Boston Tea Party. The contemporary protest, he says, "is totally irrelevant. There is no connection."

2) Tea is an affordable drink. In these economic times, when pennies are being pinched and thrift is cool again, tea is one of the cheapest drinks on the market, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A. Overall, imported teas represented a $7 billion industry in 2008, up from $4.2 billion in 1997. Fancy teas are feeling the effect of the global downturn, but everyday, working-class teas – which cost about 3 cents a serving — are rather impervious to bad times, says Joseph P. Simrany, president of the Tea Association. "Overall, we're not seeing much of blip." For years, the U.S. imported about 180 million pounds of tea a year. Last year that skyrocketed to 257 million pounds.

3) In the U.S., tea is nonpolitical. "We can't get involved in politics," Simrany says. "Tea is as neutral as Switzerland."

4) Tea is a drink of serenity, not anger. Julee Rosanoff, one of the owners of the Perennial Tea Room in downtown Seattle, says, "Tea is a calming drink. When people sit down to have a cup of tea, they are not in a hurry. It's relaxing and constructive for discussion."

5) Tea is not really an American drink. Coffee is more associated with the American way of life, and any railing against American activities should involve java. If you have to protest, Rosanoff says, coffee is a better drink to toss overboard: "It's a waste of good tea to throw it in the harbor."

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Obama Eases Limits On Cuba Travel, Remittances

President Obama ordered his administration to lift some restrictions on family travel and money transfers to Cuba and allow U.S. telecommunications companies to provide more cellular and satellite service, the White House said Monday. The decision does not lift the decades-old trade embargo with Cuba, but it does fulfill an Obama campaign promise to ease restrictions that have prevented Cuban-Americans from visiting their relatives. As a candidate and as president, Obama has said that he believes greater openness with Cuba will hasten democratic change in the communist island nation.

"The president would like to see greater freedom for the Cuban people. There are actions that he can and has taken today to open up the flow of information to provide some important steps to help that," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. But Gibbs said that the Castro regime must do more. "There are some steps that the Cuban government can and must take," he said. Under Obama's plan, Americans would be able to make unlimited trips to visit relatives in Cuba and provide unrestricted financial aid to family members there. The administration will also begin issuing licenses for companies to provide cellular telephone and television services to the island, and it will allow Cuban-Americans to pay for relatives on the island to get services, officials said. Families in the U.S. will also be able to send more gifts to Cuba, such as clothing, personal hygiene items, seeds, fishing gear and other articles.

Contacts Restricted In Bush Administration

Such contacts were limited under tight restrictions put in place by the George W. Bush administration in its effort to isolate the regime in Havana. Obama has said there are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban-Americans. "It's time to let [Cuban-Americans'] money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime," he said in a speech in Miami last year.
The policy change does not extend to Cuban government officials and Communist Party members. Sending money to them is still prohibited. On hand for the announcement was Dan Restrepo, a special assistant to the president and a senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council.

Restrepo said the president's directive will support the desire of the Cuban people to determine their own future. "It's very important to help open up space, so the Cuban people can work on the kind of grass-roots democracy that is necessary to move Cuba to a better future," he said. Restrepo also said that air service between the U.S. and Havana may have to be expanded if demand for flights grows following the easing of travel restrictions.

Announcement Timed To Obama's Trip

The announcement comes as the president prepares to leave Thursday for the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. He also plans to visit Mexico during the trip. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has vowed to use the gathering as a platform to call for the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba to be lifted. Throughout much of Latin America, the 49-year-old embargo is viewed as a sign of U.S. heavy-handedness in the region. The Obama administration is hoping Monday's announcement will enable the president to focus on a broader range of issues — from climate change to the global financial crisis — when he meets with leaders of countries in the Western Hemisphere.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, April 13, 2009

An Author Asks: 'Can Poetry Save The Earth?'

In his new book, Can Poetry Save the Earth?, Stanford professor John Felstiner presents poetry from dozens of English and American writers who have spoken passionately to — and for — the natural world.

We issued Felstiner a challenge: Pick just one poem that could save the world, if everyone were to read it. He chose "The Well Rising" — and couldn't help but pick some runners-up; two are featured below.

'The Well Rising'

by William Stafford

The well rising without sound,
the spring on a hillside,
the plowshare brimming through the deep ground
everywhere in the field —

The sharp swallows in their swerve
flaring and hesitating
hunting for the final curve
coming closer and closer —

The swallow heart from wing beat to wing beat
counseling decision, decision:
thunderous examples. I place my feet
with care in such a world.

'Anacostia River'

by El'Jay Johnson, age 8

Just imagine
Waking up one day,
Looking out your window starting to say...
No bad smells
No smoke
No noise
No trash
No junk
No muddy waters.

Just imagine
No dead birds because of
No dead trees because of
No dead people because of
No place to play because of

Be happy!
Be safe!
And just imagine a kid
Living by the Anacostia River.

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Fat Could Help You Lose Weight — Someday

We all know there's good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. It turns out there's good and bad fat, too. The good fat is medically known as "brown adipose tissue." It's good because it burns calories. The more familiar fat — known as white fat, although it's actually yellowish — stores up calories and stubbornly accumulates around waistlines, thighs and bottoms. Scientists have known about brown fat for decades. Small mammals and human infants have deposits of it around their shoulder blades. It generates heat and helps maintain the body's core temperature. But until now, conventional wisdom held that brown fat dwindles with age and becomes physiologically unimportant.

Three studies in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine overturn that dogma. More importantly, they point to the possibility of a whole new way to help people lose weight and keep it off. "Up to now, the vast majority of interventions have been targeted toward energy intake — meaning reduction of food intake," says Francesco Celi of the National Institutes of Health. "This is a new tack, a new development." Scientists are beginning to work on ways to increase people's stores of brown fat and to turn up its metabolism to make it burn calories faster. The idea is to rev up the body's "good" fat to help it burn off the "bad" fat. It wouldn't take much, says Dr. Aaron Cypess of Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, an author of one of the new studies. "We calculate that if you had three ounces' worth [of brown fat], that would be enough, if maximally stimulated, to burn up 400 to 500 calories per day," Cypess says. "A little bit could go a very long way."

By looking at high-tech imaging scans of nearly 1,800 people, Cypess and his colleagues discovered that almost all adults have small deposits of brown fat around their collarbones and in their necks. Women have twice as much on average as men. But even so, most women have only about a half-ounce of brown fat. The new studies, which also come from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands and centers in Finland and Sweden, provide some other new insights about brown fat:

— People have less of it as they age.

— Obese people have less than lean people.

— It's activated by spending even a little time in a chilly room.

The Dutch team studied brown fat activity in 24 healthy young men — 10 of them lean and the others overweight. Study subjects spent two hours in a mildly chilly room — 61 degrees Fahrenheit. Then they underwent PET scans and CT scans to measure the location and metabolic activity of brown fat deposits. Brown fat showed up as "hot spots" in the scans of 23 out of the 24 volunteers. The one with no detectable brown fat was the most obese. Researchers don't know yet whether people become obese in part because they lack brown fat, or whether their brown fat stores go away after they become obese. The Scandinavian researchers found that exposure to chilly temperatures caused a 15-fold increase in the metabolic rate of brown fat in their healthy adult volunteers. They figure that if a way could be found to activate the typical person's stores of brown fat, it would burn off at least 9 pounds of regular (white) fat a year. Researchers speculate that brown fat could be activated by a drug targeted at particular parts of brown fat's metabolic pathways. Some candidate targets are already known. Cypess, the Boston researcher, says it's also possible that doctors could remove a small amount of a person's brown fat, amplify it in the test tube, and transplant it back. A drug might be necessary to increase its metabolic rate, too. The result: your own internal calorie-burning furnace.

Or it might not take a drug at all. Maybe just turning down the thermostat or, for those who live in cool climates, spending more time outdoors could help.

"What we need to find out is how many more calories you burn if you sit at home at 60 degrees Fahrenheit versus 72 versus 80," Cypess says. "That may be a very simple way — and a green way — to lose weight and help your health."

But the researchers caution that it might not be that simple. Spending more time in a chilly environment might just make people eat more.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Working Families Party Rallies Against MTA Hikes

The Working Families party is getting into the fight against subway fare hikes - the first formal political response to the stalemate in Albany on an MTA bailout package. WNYC's Andrea Bernstein has more.

The Working Families Party was a major player in the democratic takeover of the State Senate last November, providing thousands of foot soldiers and hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates. Now the party is launching a campaign against Senators who oppose the MTA bailout package. The party has created a website and what it's calling "an edgy mock-up" of the familiar orange-and blue MTA service change posters. "Service changes: all day, every day," the poster says across the top, and below that, in letters mimicking subway lines, WTF, which is also an abbreviation for a vulgarism. Party chair Dan Cantor wouldn't say if the party would challenge democrats in a primary next year , but a source familiar with the campaign says that was a possibility if the fare hikes go through.

-excerpt from WNYC

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Micro-Hotels Offer NYC Visitors Cheap, Chic Digs

It's not uncommon for visitors to New York City to spend $300 a night for a hotel room in the heart of the action, Manhattan. The cheapest hotel room not at the center of things would typically cost you about $129 a night. But now there is The Pod. The micro-hotel looks like a luxurious boutique hotel. It has a cafe with designer decor, a terrace and a concierge, and it is right in the center of midtown.

David Bernstein, the Pod's managing director, says the building used to be a single-room occupancy hotel. The Pod's owners could have chosen to knock down walls and make bigger rooms, he says. "Instead, we decided to leave the room sizes as they were and create a niche for younger travelers; less expensive rooms, a little hip, a little fun." Even with the downturn, he says, occupancy ranges between 85 and 90 percent. The rooms are tiny, with bunk beds, an iPod docking station, a light and a small TV above each bed. If you want to read or watch TV when your friend is sleeping, you can do that. The bathroom is down the hall. The room goes for $89 a night in most seasons — less than $45 a piece if you bunk with a friend. You can join a chat room before you arrive, meet other guests online and, perhaps, plan to go to a Yankees game together.

"The room is comfortable," says Ingrid Roseborough, a Pod guest who was visiting from Iowa. "And like everything so far, I feel like all my needs are taken care of." Those needs include getting advice on where she can get her eyebrows done: In response to Roseborough's inquiry, Pod concierge Kara Klueber whips out not one, but three different business cards. If $89 a night is still too high for your hotel budget, you can have a remarkably different experience at The Jane in Greenwich Village. The 5-by-7 rooms, former digs for sailors, offer the same level of technology as the accommodations at the Pod — including flat-screen TVs and iPod docking stations.

But the atmosphere at The Jane, housed in a building more than a century old, is straight out of Jules Verne: old-fashioned bellhops, huge keys, a backward clock, moose heads on the wall — and long-term tenants, 60 of them, who pay less than $700 a month. "I call it the hotel at the end of the world," says Samuel Gaedke, who has lived at The Jane for four years. "If you want to disappear off the face of the Earth for a little while, it is a good place to come to." The Jane's single hotel rooms are $75 a night.

Sean McPherson, one of the owners of the hotel, has said he drew inspiration for the decor from the films Darjeeling Limited and The Royal Tenenbaums. He calls the rooms micro-chic. "They're very small," he says. "They're the size of a train cabin." McPherson says the hotel harkens back to the New York of the 1980s: grittier, more exotic, more adventurous — "a place for travelers with more dash than cash," he says. There is some obvious tension between the longtime tenants, who fear they may be pushed out of the hotel, and the hotel management, which insists that these tenants will remain part of the mix of guests. McPherson says that once upon a time, sailors rented rooms at The Jane for 25 cents a night. Adjusted for inflation, he says, they are returning to the same basic concept.

- excerpt from NPR

Monday, April 6, 2009

Willpower: A Game Of Strategy

Mike Harmon cannot tell you how he lost his willpower, but he is certain that it is gone. On a recent Thursday night, sitting in a grungy recliner at the Stop Smoking Hypnosis Clinic of Baltimore County, the middle-aged man shrugs his shoulders. "I don't have it anymore," he says. "It's gone." Neecy Riley, a woman sitting next to him, also could not locate her willpower. "I need something beyond me," she said. "My willpower isn't doing it." Riley went on to say that she knew that willpower came from "within," then stopped. She wasn't sure exactly where "within" the willpower was. Another woman in the group, however, seemed pretty clear on this point. "The pit of the stomach," she said with certainty.

The Marshmallow Tests

Willpower is a very familiar phrase, but what is it really and where does it come from? What happens in the mind when you resist your impulses in the face of temptation? One person who has looked at this question in detail is a psychology professor at Columbia University named Walter Mischel. Mischel, who is sometimes referred to as the grandfather of self-regulation research, designed a series of very famous experiments in the 1960s now popularly known as the marshmallow tests.

To do the experiments, he put hundreds of 4-year-olds in a room, one by one, with a marshmallow or cookie on the table in front of each. He told them he was going to leave the room and that the child could either eat the treat immediately or, if they could wait until he got back, and have two instead. Some of these kids could hardly last a minute. Others waited as long as 20. And Mischel believes you can learn much of what you need to know about the process of exerting willpower from the strategies employed by these children.

The Good News About Distraction

Watch Mischel's video of the children in the marshmallow studies and you will see a familiar set of behaviors. There is kicking of tables, there is singing of songs, there is counting of numbers and twirling of hair and many other variations on this theme. What the children are doing, says Mischel, is distracting themselves. Distraction, says Mischel, is actually a perfectly respectable away of exerting willpower. You simply shift your attention away whenever temptation crops up.

Think Cold, Think Cognitive

The second strategy used by the mind to resist an impulse, says Mischel, is a little more complicated. It involves not distracting yourself, but actively changing the way that you think about the object of desire. "The pre-wired way that a 4-year-old thinks about a marshmallow if she allows herself to think about it," says Mischel, "is how yummy and chewy they're going to taste." People tend to focus on the immediate pleasure of the experience. They will think of the temptation, Mischel likes to say, in a "hot" or emotional way that makes it hard to resist. The same can be said of an adult smoker or alcoholic. But if you do want to resist, says Mischel, what you need to do is think about the object you desire in a cold or cognitive way.

So, for example, to help the children resist the treat, before leaving the room Mischel told the kids to imagine the treat in front of them differently. "I told them to think about those marshmallows as if they were just cotton puffs, or clouds. Those instructions to the 4-year-old had a dramatic effect on her ability to wait for the thing that she couldn't wait for before." And the dynamic is identical in adults, he says. By refocusing thinking on, for example, the long-term consequences of giving in, it becomes easier to resist an impulse. Of course willpower is not all there is to resisting temptation. Motivation plays a role, as does physical addiction, and whether or not the object of desire can be avoided or not. And obviously, consistently using these strategies is one of those things easier said than done. Which is why the Stop Smoking Hypnosis Clinic of Baltimore County will always have paying customers.

-excerpt from NPR

Friday, April 3, 2009

Malawi court rejects Madonna adoption request

In a surprise move, a judge on Friday rejected Madonna's request to adopt a second child from Malawi and said it would set a dangerous precedent to bend rules requiring that prospective parents live here for some period. The country's child welfare minister had come out Thursday in support of the pop superstar's application to adopt 3-year-old Chifundo "Mercy" James.

But in a lengthy ruling Friday, Judge Esme Chombo sided with critics who have said exceptions should not be made for the star who has set up a major development project for this impoverished, AIDS-stricken southern African country. Madonna can appeal Friday's decision to Malawi's Supreme Court. There was no immediate comment from Madonna or her spokeswoman in New York.

Chombo said other foreigners had adopted children from Malawi, but the only case in which residency rules had been waived was to allow Madonna to take David Banda out of the country in 2006 before that adoption was finalized in 2008. "It is necessary that we look beyond the petitioner ... and consider the consequences of opening the doors too wide," the judge said. "By removing the very safeguard that is supposed to protect our children, the courts ... could actually facilitate trafficking of children by some unscrupulous individuals."

The judge made clear she was not questioning Madonna's intentions, and even praised the "noble" work Madonna's charity has done to feed, educate and provide medical care for some of the more than 1 million orphans in this impoverished, AIDS-stricken country. The judge said it was "my prayer" that the girl whom Madonna wants to adopt would benefit from such programs but said Mercy was now receiving "suitable" care in an orphanage. Chombo said that contrasted with David's situation in 2006, when an orphanage was preparing to return the boy to his father, who had said he was struggling to care for him.

Madonna's efforts to adopt had drawn criticism from some activists, who said the little girl would be best off with relatives. Other residents credited her with giving the girl opportunities not widely available in the impoverished nation. In court papers made public Friday, Madonna said Chifundo's grandmother was unable to care for her. "I am able and willing to securely provide for Chifundo James and make her a permanent and established member of my family," Madonna said in the affidavit. "To deny Chifundo James the opportunity to be adopted by me could expose her to hardship and emotional trauma which is otherwise avoidable."

The girl's mother, according to the affidavit, died at age 14 not long after her baby was born Jan. 22, 2006. There was no mention of the father in the affidavit. The mother's brother is listed as having consented to the adoption. Malawi's child welfare minister had endorsed Madonna's adoption application. "We have close to 2 million orphans in Malawi who need help," Women and Child Welfare Development Minister Anna Kachikho told The Associated Press. "We can't look after all of them as a country. If people like Madonna adopt even one such orphan, it's one mouth less we have to feed."

Orphans usually are taken in by their extended families in Africa, but AIDS and other diseases have taken a toll on those who might have traditionally provided support. In villages across the continent, frail elderly grandmothers do their best to care for children, but many end up in orphanages or on the streets. Malawi, with a population of 12 million, is among the poorest countries in the world, with rampant disease and hunger, aggravated by periodic droughts and crop failure.

The U.N. says 1 million Malawian children have lost one or both parents, about half of them to AIDS, and estimates 18 million African children will have lost a parent to AIDS by 2010. But critics accused Madonna of using her fame and money to fast-track the adoption process, but the singer said she had followed standard procedures. She faced similar allegations in 2006 when she brought home David, who is now 3. A coalition of non-governmental organizations called the Human Rights Consultative Committee had criticized Madonna's adoption attempts, saying that adoption should be the last resort and that children need to be taken care of by their own family.

"Mercy James is a child who has her extended close family members alive and we urge Madonna to assist the child from right here," the coalition said earlier this week. Madonna first traveled to Malawi in 2006 while filming a documentary on the devastating poverty and AIDS crisis. On this trip, she has been accompanied by her three children: 3-year-old David, 12-year-old daughter Lourdes and 8-year-old son Rocco. The four have visited an orphanage where David once lived and David also saw his biological father for the first time since he left Malawi in 2006. Madonna and Lourdes also visited a village in Malawi this week and looked over plans to build a new school there. The singer has several charity projects in Malawi.

-excerpt from NPR/AP

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Sound Of Superman

We all know what Superman looks like. Big yellow S, red cape, lots of blue spandex. But what does Superman sound like? DC Comics has taken some of their biggest characters — Wonder Woman, Superman, and Green Lantern — and turned their comics into audiobooks with a company called Graphic Audio. I went to the New York Comic Convention to find out what fans thought of the audio books. But most of them had never heard of them. It’s fair to say audiobooks haven’t exactly swept the industry.

So how do you get Superman’s iconic look – cape, curl, and all – into audio? “I had to put the curl in my voice,” says Scott Brick. He’s narrated hundreds of audio books and won two Audies – the audiobook version of the Oscars. And he’s done the voice of Superman. Twice! To voice Superman, Brick says he would envision the comic’s artwork and use techniques from the Golden Age of radio.

“I can start off way far back on the microphone, and come gradually in if it’s a scene in which I’m supposed to enter,” says Brick. “Similarly I can go back on the microphone if I’m leaving. I can shout things if I’m, Superman’s shouting over a crowd. And you know, it may not convey the entire imagery, but it’s enough.” One of the biggest tricks Brick had to pull was turning Clark Kent into Superman – without a costume change. For Brick, it was all in the voice.

“If you’re doing Clark Kent and he’s very, you know, ‘golly gee whiz, you know, I’m here in Smallville’ and then suddenly,” Brick says, taking a pause. “’This looks like a job for Superman!’ You can feel it go from, literally, from the top of your head down into your larynx.” Even for an old pro like Brick, doing Superman still gave him a thrill.

“With something like Superman, it’s just, it’s permission to fly.” Voice actors like Brick might be ‘flying’ more in the future. At New York’s Comic-Con, everybody was talking about motion comics. Those are online comics that use classic comic book art, but are semi-animated and voiced by actors. Paul Levitz is the president of DC comics. He says he doesn’t know if motion comics will take off with fans.

“We’ll see whether it becomes a sustainable, distinct form or whether people say, ‘eh, that’s halfway between a comic book and an animation, I’d rather stay at either end of the spectrum and not in the middle,” says Levitz. But whether motion comics fly or flop, Levitz thinks sound will play an important role in comics. He reminded me that the Superman radio show once made a lasting contribution to the classic storyline.

As the story goes, Levitz says, “Bud Collyer, the voice of Superman, wanted a vacation. So the writers scratched their heads and came up with the idea that there would be this magic rock that Superman could be exposed to. And it could de-power him. They were able to use a voice stand-in to just lie there for a week and go “uuuhh.” And so kryptonite was born.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fargo businesses reopen as swollen river subsides

Businesses reopened and commuter traffic returned Wednesday as the bloated Red River fell below the sandbags and the top of the permanent floodwalls protecting Fargo, feeding optimism the city had escaped a disastrous flood. Under a cloudy but mostly dry sky, roads reopened, people returned to work and officials began scaling back their flood response. Officials said schools would reopen Monday. "Our word for the day is restore and recharge," Mayor Dennis Walaker said.

Traffic was bustling during the morning rush hour, a far cry from last week when the city was virtually shut down. "I had to fight traffic to get to work today," city commissioner Tim Mahoney said. Fargo also began looking ahead to the enormous effort of removing the roughly 3 million sandbags stacked atop the floodwalls. There was no immediate indication when that will begin, but Walaker wants residents to be aggressive when the time comes.

"We don't want them sitting in their living room watching the National Guard doing this," he said. "We can't do that. People don't understand how many bags are out there." Fargo also wants to work with state and federal officials to come up with a long-term flood plan. "It's something that we want to get done as quickly as possible," the mayor said. Less than two inches of snow was forecast, giving residents a break from the storm that blew about 10 inches of blinding snow through the city Monday and Tuesday and whipped up blizzard conditions elsewhere across the northern Plains.

City officials had said they would breathe easier when the river fell to 36 or 37 feet or lower, and early Wednesday, it was down to 37.37 feet. The river is still far above flood stage, but it's below the top of the floodwalls, which are topped with 5 feet of sandbags that residents, volunteers and National Guard members had stacked. Officials caution that the city isn't safe just yet. Forecasters say the river could rise again when more snow melts. But even future crests aren't expected to approach the levels feared during the past weekend, when the river reached a record 40.82 feet early Saturday. Freezing weather has limited the amount of snow and ice that would normally melt and flow into the waterway, the National Weather Service said.

Across the river in Moorhead, Minn., and much of surrounding Clay County, officials were going from flood-emergency to flood-recovery mode Wednesday. "We're gearing our efforts down and FEMA's here to do its thing," said Detective Jason Hicks with the Clay County Sheriff's Office. "We still have a lot of work to do. Everyone's tapped out." Some Moorhead residents have returned to flood-damaged homes, including Roger Degerman. Although a dike protected his house, about 200 yards from the river, water came up through the sewers and flooded his basement, swamping his family room and the day-care center his wife runs.

On Wednesday, Degerman hauled out water-logged couches, toys and carpeting and dumped them on his front lawn. He estimated the damage at between $25,000 and $30,000, well above the $10,000 coverage in his flood insurance policy. "You go through every emotion. You're speechless, you say things you shouldn't say, you laugh, you cry. Then you're grateful," Degerman said. "We lost the basement. The neighbors across the street lost their home. The reality of all this will not sink in for awhile." Moorhead officials lifted another evacuation recommendation, covering the southernmost part of town, leading only a small area on the north side under an evacuation recommendation. And as the high water in the Red River flows north, the Minnesota Army National Guard is beginning to shift personnel with it to other towns facing the flood threat.

excerpt from NPR/AP