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Updated: 36 min 15 sec ago

Net neutrality rules face legal challenges

Thu, 2015-02-05 02:00

The Federal Communications Commission is considering new rules to regulate the Internet. The proposal by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler would reclassify Internet service providers (ISPs) as telecommunications services, as opposed to information services.

That seemingly small change would allow the FCC to regulate ISPs and enforce so-called net-neutrality rules.

The FCC is honing in on three areas of oversight: the blocking of access to any content, the 'throttling' of Internet traffic (slowing it down for reasons other than what may be technically necessary to maintain a network's operations), and paid prioritization (in which providers may favor some Internet traffic over others by creating 'fast lanes' for websites and services that can pay for them).

The FCC is proposing banning all of those practices.

"The day before the rules, and the day after: they're probably going to look pretty similar," at least for consumers, says Doug Drake, a telecom policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

For Internet providers, though, the adoption of the new rules could lead to a lot of uncertainty as lawsuits are sure to follow, Drake says. And he says they could lead to a number of unintended consequences as reclassifiying ISPs as telecommunications companies throws into question othe contracts that were agreed to on the premise that they are information companies.

"Companies like AT&T and Verizon have already stated very explicitly that they're going to sue," says Kevin Werbach, a former FCC counsel in the Clinton administration who is now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

One of the key legal arguments to expect in the months to come, according to Werbach, is that the FCC previously said a company can either be a telecommunications service or an information service, but not both. ISPs may argue that they are elements of both and that the FCC must prove that they are not information companies before it can reclassify them, says Werbach.

"It's very unlikely that the legal issues will be resolved in less than a year or two," Werbach says.

And the lawsuits may not just challenge the new rules themselves. They could challenge how those rules are implemented, says David Farber, a former chief technologist at the FCC.

"Special interest groups will come and say: you can't not do this because it's in the rules," says Farber, referring to the discretion senior FCC officials say they have in deciding which elements of a law that now applies to telecommunications companies it will impose on Internet service providers.

Lobbying and lawsuits may force the FCC to impose new restrictions it hadn't planned on, says Farber, who opposes the new classification proposal.

We find the defendant, :-(

Thu, 2015-02-05 01:30
80 million

How many customers are in the database for Anthem Inc., the country's second-largest health insurer. In what is being reported as the largest data-breach of a health insurer to date, tens of millions of records have been hacked from the company — the exact number is currently being investigated. The WSJ has more on what steps Anthem is taking, including offering a credit-monitoring service to customers.

7 days

How many days of paid sick leave would be granted under the Healthy Families Act, legislation being pushed for by the Obama Administration. The change could have a big impact on the lives of restaurant and retail workers; statistically, just 24 percent and 47 percent of them get paid sick days, respectively.

25 million

How many Apple TV set-top boxes the tech giant has sold in the product's lifetime, without a substantial upgrade in years. Now Re/Code is reporting that Apple is in talks with producers to start its own web-TV service, ostensibly to compete with Netflix, HBO Go, Dish's new Sling and others. It would be a big step for Apple, which has been rumored to be prepping some kind of "smart TV" for years.

3 1/2 hours

The amount of time it took jurors to convict Ross Ulbricht, "digital kingpin" behind Silk Road, the online market for drugs and illicit goods. As reported by the New York Times, Ulbricht could face life in prison. The trial included moments of digital intrigue, including when a debate broke out about an emoticon in a text read aloud to the jury.

4,160,080

About how many commuters there are in Los Angeles County, Marketplace's home base. Most leave home between 7 and 9 a.m. A cool new interactive graphic from the blog Flowing Data shows how average commute times compare in counties around the country.

$2.25 per square foot

The rent in SubTropolis, a massive underground industrial park in Kansas City, about half the rent topside. Bloomberg has a profile and gorgeous photos of the space, built into an abandoned mine. About a thousand people work in the subterranean digs. The owners are trying to figure out what to do with the millions of square feet they have yet to develop.

We find the defendent, :-(

Thu, 2015-02-05 01:30
80 million

That's how many customers are in the database for Anthem Inc., the country's second-largest health insurer. In what is being reported as the largest data-breach of a health insurer to date, tens of millions of records have been hacked from the company — the exact number is currently being investigated. The WSJ has more on what steps Anthem is taking, including offering a credit-monitoring service to customers.

7 days

That's how many days of paid sick leave would be granted under the Healthy Families Act, legislation being pushed for by the Obama Administration. The change could have a big impact on the lives of restaurant and retail workers; statistically, just 24 percent and 47 percent of them get paid sick days, respectively.

25 million

That's how many Apple TV set-top boxes the tech giant has sold in the product's lifetime, without a substantial upgrade in years. Now Re/Code is reporting that Apple is in talks with producers to start its own web-TV service, ostensibly to Netflix, HBO Go, Dish's new Sling and others. It would be a big step for Apple, which has been rumored to be prepping some kind of "smart TV" for years.

3 1/2 hours

That's the little amount of time it took jurors to reach a verdict in the case against Ross Ulbricht, alleged mastermind behind the online market known as Silk Road. As reported by the NY Times, Ulbricht could now face a life sentence in prison. The trial included moments of digital intrigue, including when a debate broke out about the use of an emoticon in a text read aloud to the jury.

4,160,080

That's about how many commuters are in Los Angeles county, Marketplace's homebase, and most of them leave between 7 and 9 a.m. A cool new interactive graphic from the blog Flowing Data shows how average commute times compare in counties around the country.

$2.25 per square foot

That's the rent in SubTropolis, a massive underground industrial park in Kansas City, about half of rent topside. Bloomberg has a profile and gorgeous photos of the space, which has been built into an abandoned mine. About a thousand people work down there, and its owners are trying to figure out what to do with the millions of square feet they haven't developed yet.

One man's mission to get 'comprised of' off Wikipedia

Wed, 2015-02-04 13:07

I guess everyone has their pet peeves.

Medium profiled the Wikipedia editor "Giraffedata" on Tuesday. The prolific wiki-contributor — real name Bryan Henderson — has made over 47,000 edits, almost always to remove the common but erroneous phrase "comprised of."

For example: "The monthly jobs report is comprised of two surveys" should read: "The monthly jobs report consists of two surveys."

Henderson has the editing process down to a science, and most take seconds. Fellow editors and Wikipedia higher-ups have praised Giraffedata's commitment to his noble task.

Insurers often take sting out of high price of drugs

Wed, 2015-02-04 12:05

California-based bio-pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences released strong quarterly earnings Tuesday – revenues more than doubled from a year earlier and profits beat analysts’ estimates. Then, on Wednesday, the company’s stock fell more than 8 percent on the Nasdaq exchange.

The stock decline is pegged to Gilead’s telling investors that the company will offer deeper discounts in 2015 than it did last year on its most successful new drugs – Sovaldi and Harvoni – that are highly effective treatments for hepatitis C. The list price for an eight-to-12-week course of treatment with either drug ranges from $84,000 to well over $100,000.

Discounts being negotiated by health insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers will double to 46 percent in 2015, according to the company, while discounts for Medicaid and Veterans Administration programs are expected to be above 50 percent.

These new drugs are very costly to research and test, and have an astronomical list price, says Dr. Kavita Patel, who treats patients with hepatitis  C and researches drug pricing at the Brookings Institution. But “what is advertised as the ‘sticker price’ is not what anybody really pays if you have private health insurance,” she says.

Large insurers are likely to get the best deals on these drugs and pass at least some of the savings on to their customers, she says. Many patients in those plans will only pay up to a specific limit for the drugs, and then their health plan – whether private or government-run – will pick up the rest, according to Patel. Some patients may still face very high drug costs, or hurdles other than cost, to get the drugs – including multiple screenings, approvals and delays from their health plans, she says.

Health economist Gail Wilensky, a senior fellow at Project HOPE and an administrator of Medicare and Medicaid in the early 1990s, says the market is working properly in this case to allow prices for specialty drugs to fluctuate as competitors bring new hepatitis C drugs to market. Gilead and other pharmaceutical companies try to recoup as much of their development costs as they can in the window of time before they face serious competition from rival drugs, she says.

Gilead is facing that competition. And she says charges of overpricing in this case may be unjustified. Wilensky says she believes Gilead initially set its pricing so high not only to recoup drug development costs for hepatitis C and other research, but also because successful treatment with Sovaldi and Harvoni can dramatically decrease the long-term cost of hepatitis treatment and drugs, since in many cases it cures what has been until now a devastating chronic condition.

Why Staples may be allowed to buy Office Depot

Wed, 2015-02-04 11:03

On Wednesday, Staples announced it had entered into an agreement to purchase Office Depot for $6.3 billion in cash and stock. The merger came after a concerted effort by activist hedge fund Starboard Value. But it also came nearly two decades after a previous attempt to combine the two companies. That effort was foiled by antitrust issues, but this time the outcome may be different. 

In the 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission decided that a merger between Office Depot and Staples would result in higher prices for consumers, according to Michael Keeley, an antitrust lawyer with Axinn Veltrop & Harkrider.

The rise of big-box stores and online retailers like Amazon have since changed the competitive landscape, says Robert Salomon, an associate professor of management and organizations at NYU's Stern School of Business.

Chris Christopher, an economist in charge of consumer markets at IHS Global Insight, says office supply and stationary retailer sales have been declining since 2008, and are expected to contract from $17.1 billion in 2014 to $15.9 billion in 2015 — a decline of 7 percent.

Keeley expects that Staples and Office Depot will argue that the changed competitive environment means a merger no longer allows them to control prices, but is simply about survival in a declining market. But FTC approval is never certain.

A brief history of Staples trying to buy Office Depot

Wed, 2015-02-04 11:03

On Wednesday, Staples announced it had entered into an agreement to purchase Office Depot for $6.3 billion in cash and stock. The merger came after a concerted effort by activist hedge fund Starboard Value. But it also came nearly two decades after a previous attempt to combine the two companies. That effort was foiled by antitrust issues, but this time the outcome may be different. 

Michael Keeley, an antitrust lawyer at Axinn Veltrop & Harkrider, says back in the 1990s, the FTC found Office Depot and Staples were setting their prices based on each other, and found a merger would result in higher prices for consumers. 

Robert Salomon, associate professor of management and organizations at NYU's Stern School of Business, says the years since have changed the competitive landscape, with the rise of big box stores and online retailers like Amazon. 

Chris Christopher, economist in charge of consumer markets at IHS Global Insight, says office supply and stationary retailer sales have been declining since 2008, and are expected to contract from $17.1 billion in 2014 to $15.9 billion in 2015 — a decline of 7 percent.

Keeley expects the companies to argue that the changed competitive environment means a merger no longer allows them to control prices, but is simply about survival in a declining market. But FTC approval is never certain.

Pent-up demand happily collides with new car models

Wed, 2015-02-04 11:00

Sales of new cars and trucks got off to a brisk start in January.  Low gas prices coupled with a resurgent U.S. economy are driving sales, particularly of high-end SUVs and pickup trucks. The world’s best-selling carmaker, Toyota, raised its fiscal-year forecast to a record high Wednesday, thanks to a weaker yen and strong U.S. sales.

The domestic auto market has been surging for some time. Nearly every carmaker selling in the U.S. has seen good things happen to its bottom line, partly because of operating changes made during the recession.

“The recession allowed the Detroit makers to catch up to in a lot of critical ways to their import competition, particularly the Japanese,” says Paul Eisenstein, publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com. "They were able to shed a lot of debt, they were able to drive down costs, labor costs in particular. They squeezed their suppliers, they got rid of unnecessary plants."

Pent-up demand from buyers also became a factor as many automakers rolled out a bevy of refreshed models, particularly in the high-profit, SUV and light truck markets.

"They have product in the market that they don't have to incentivize people to buy,” says Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research. Carmakers aren’t slashing sticker prices like they used to. But Dziczek says pressure to keep manufacturing costs low couldn’t be higher.

Per-car costs are much lower now because of wage and benefit concessions by the United Automobile Workers.  But the Detroit Three will negotiate a new four-year contract later this year. And this time labor wants a bigger share.

"Workers are going to be looking for base wage increases and more money, and companies are going to be looking for cost containment and cost constraint," Dziczek says.

Wage concessions have been key to a hiring surge at Ford.  On Wednesday, the company announced plans to add another 1,550 entry-level workers to help meet demand for its new F-150 trucks.

'Fresh Off the Boat' star Constance Wu on Asians and TV

Wed, 2015-02-04 10:42

Tonight a new network show premieres that is by all accounts your typical family comedy. It features young, attractive parents raising kids in a new city. But there is one big difference that makes the show stand out. The family at its center is Asian.

More than 20 years ago Margaret Cho’s show “All American Girl” debuted on ABC, and now the network is trying again with “Fresh Off the Boat,” a loose adaptation of celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s best-selling memoir of the same name. It tells the story of Huang’s childhood in Orlando, Florida, after his family moves from Washington D.C. Constance Wu plays young Eddie’s mother, an immigrant from Taiwan.  

Wu says landing the role was a breath of fresh air for her:

“Usually I’ll be auditioning for the third lead and there will be Latina actresses, Indian actresses, African American actresses because it will be like, ‘let’s check off this box. We have our lead white girl and we need an ethnic slot.’ And I've actually been told ‘we've decided the guy’s best friend is going to be Asian so we needed the girl’s best friend to be black because we couldn't have two Asians. They want to check off their boxes, which in its own way is a kind of perverted gesture.”

Wu says she’s hoping “Fresh Off the Boat” along with ABC’s other minority-led shows “Black-ish” and “Cristela” signify changing tides industrywide:

“All the networks have always been willing to have ethnic people as the third or fourth lead or the best friend to the white person. But to actually let a black family or an Asian family carry a show, that’s something where there hasn't really been a precedent set in terms of a real financial gain. I think it’s good that they’re trying that, and I think it’s also necessary because the landscape of TV is changing.”

“Fresh Off the Boat” has faced some early criticism for stereotyping, and Eddie Huang recently wrote a piece for Vulture criticizing the show for being an "Asian sitcom for white people."  But Huang concludes by saying the show is still a positive step forward. Wu agrees:

“I’m really glad it’s happening, and it’s long overdue. There’s a lot of controversy in the Asian community about the fact that, for example, Scarlett Johansson recently was cast in the lead part for “Ghost in the Shell,” which is supposed to be an Asian female lead. And people are like, ‘Well, there is no Asian actor or actress who can carry that.’ And I understand from an investor’s viewpoint that if I want a return on my investment and I have Scarlett Johansson as my lead, I’ll probably get a bigger box office success than a no-name actor. That’s why I think our show, even if it’s not perfect, is important to the Asian community because if we do make money it’ll hopefully start the ball rolling in terms of finding that Asians can carry a show or a movie and be a box office draw, which will encourage investors to take that risk as well."

Starring in the first Asian-American sitcom in decades

Wed, 2015-02-04 10:42

Tonight a new network show premiere’s that is by all accounts your typical family comedy. It features young, attractive parents raising kids in a new city. But there is one big difference that makes the show stand out. The family at its center is Asian.

It was 20 years ago that Margaret Cho’s show “All American Girl” debuted on ABC, now the network is trying again with “Fresh Off the Boat,” a loose adaptation of celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s best-selling memoir of the same name.The show tells the story of Huang’s childhood in Orlando, Florida after his family moves from Washington DC. Constance Wu plays young Eddie’s mother, an immigrant from Taiwan.  

Wu says landing the role was a breath of fresh air for her:

“Usually I’ll be auditioning for the third lead and there will be Latina actresses, Indian actresses, African American actresses because it will be like, ‘let’s check off this box. We have our lead white girl and we need an ethnic slot.’ And I've actually been told ‘we've decided the guy’s best friend is going to be Asian so we needed the girl’s best friend to be black because we couldn't have two Asians. They want to check off their boxes, which in its own way is a kind of perverted gesture.”

Wu says she’s hoping “Fresh Off the Boat” along with ABC’s other minority-led shows “Black-ish” and “Cristela” signify changing tides industry wide:

“All the networks have always been willing to have ethnic people as the third or fourth lead or the best friend to the white person. But to actually let a black family or an Asian family carry a show, that’s something where there hasn't really been a precedent set in terms of a real financial gain. I think it’s good that they’re trying that and I think it’s also necessary because the landscape of TV is changing.”

“Fresh Off the Boat” has faced some early criticism for stereotyping, and Eddie Huang recently wrote a piece for Vulture criticizing the show for being an "Asian sitcom for white people."  But Huang concludes by saying the show is still a positive step forward. Wu says she agrees:

“I’m really glad it’s happening and it’s long overdue. There’s a lot of controversy in the Asian community about the fact that for example Scarlett Johansson recently was cast in the lead part for “Ghost in the Shell,” which is supposed to be an Asian female lead. And people are like, ‘well, there is no Asian actor or actress who can carry that.’ And I understand from an investor’s viewpoint that if I want a return on my investment and I have Scarlett Johansson as my lead, I’ll probably get a bigger box office success than a no name actor. That’s why I think our show, even if it’s not perfect, is important to the Asian community because if we do make money it’ll hopefully start the ball rolling in terms of finding that Asians can carry a show or a movie and be a box office draw which will encourage investors to take that risk as well."

Starring in TV's first Asian sitcom in 20 years

Wed, 2015-02-04 10:42

Tonight a new network show premiere’s that is by all accounts your typical family comedy. It features young, attractive parents raising kids in a new city. But there is one big difference that makes the show stand out. The family at its center is Asian.

It was 20 years ago that Margaret Cho’s show “All American Girl” debuted on ABC, now the network is trying again with “Fresh Off the Boat,” a loose adaptation of celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s best-selling memoir of the same name.The show tells the story of Huang’s childhood in Orlando, Florida after his family moves from Washington DC. Constance Wu plays young Eddie’s mother, an immigrant from Taiwan.  

Wu says landing the role was a breath of fresh air for her:

“Usually I’ll be auditioning for the third lead and there will be Latina actresses, Indian actresses, African American actresses because it will be like, ‘let’s check off this box. We have our lead white girl and we need an ethnic slot.’ And I've actually been told ‘we've decided the guy’s best friend is going to be Asian so we needed the girl’s best friend to be black because we couldn't have two Asians. They want to check off their boxes, which in its own way is a kind of perverted gesture.”

Wu says she’s hoping “Fresh Off the Boat” along with ABC’s other minority-led shows “Black-ish” and “Cristela” signify changing tides industry wide:

“All the networks have always been willing to have ethnic people as the third or fourth lead or the best friend to the white person. But to actually let a black family or an Asian family carry a show, that’s something where there hasn't really been a precedent set in terms of a real financial gain. I think it’s good that they’re trying that and I think it’s also necessary because the landscape of TV is changing.”

“Fresh Off the Boat” has faced some early criticism for stereotyping, and Eddie Huang recently wrote a piece for Vulture criticizing the show for being an "Asian sitcom for white people."  But Huang concludes by saying the show is still a positive step forward. Wu says she agrees:

“I’m really glad it’s happening and it’s long overdue. There’s a lot of controversy in the Asian community about the fact that for example Scarlett Johansson recently was cast in the lead part for “Ghost in the Shell,” which is supposed to be an Asian female lead. And people are like, ‘well, there is no Asian actor or actress who can carry that.’ And I understand from an investor’s viewpoint that if I want a return on my investment and I have Scarlett Johansson as my lead, I’ll probably get a bigger box office success than a no name actor. That’s why I think our show, even if it’s not perfect, is important to the Asian community because if we do make money it’ll hopefully start the ball rolling in terms of finding that Asians can carry a show or a movie and be a box office draw which will encourage investors to take that risk as well."

Quiz: When higher education runs in the family

Wed, 2015-02-04 09:00

Compared to other nations, American adults are less likely to be more educated than their parents, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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PODCAST: Increasing military spending

Wed, 2015-02-04 03:00

First up, more on steady improvement for the job market. Plus, the Senate Armed Services Committee holds its nomination hearing Wednesday for the President’s nominee for defense secretary, Ashton Carter. One item for discussion maybe the President’s proposed 4.5 percent increase in military spending. What would that extra money be spent on and will both parties go for it? Also, this is a heavy earnings week for companies that invest in real estate. REIT's, they're called - Real Estate Investment trusts for long. One of the biggest - American Capital Mortgage Investment reports after the bell on Wednesday. Shares in these companies did explosively well in 2014, but this year's not looking quite so good.

Waukesha fights for a share of Lake Michigan's water

Wed, 2015-02-04 02:00

My hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin, used to be famous for its refreshing, clear spring water. In the late 19th century, people flocked to Waukesha to drink water at mineral springs and hang out at fancy summer resorts and mud baths. But those good water days are past. The water from the city's deepest wells is tainted with radium and salts, so it is looking to ditch those underground wells and permanently get its drinking water from Lake Michigan, 15 miles to the east. That proposal is neither cheap, nor without controversy.

Waukesha’s deep well water exceeds federal limits for radium in drinking water. Radium occurs naturally, but lifetime exposure is a cancer risk. And the deeper you go in the sandstone aquifer underneath the region, the more radium. 

Waukesha is abiding by a consent order to fix the problem. It's taken temporary steps to address the issue, including using radium filters and blending water from deep wells with radium-free water from shallow wells. But the city says that's not a sustainable solution. It wants to build a pipeline to tap Lake Michigan. Some other radium-challenged communities, including Green Bay, have done just that. 

“Really, it’s a no-brainer of a decision,” says Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility. “The Great Lakes is the best, most reliable and only reasonable alternative for the city of Waukesha.”

Certainly it’s the simplest and most direct solution. But Waukesha would be the first city outside the Great Lakes basin to apply for Great Lakes water under a restrictive law called the Great Lakes Compact, signed in 2008. The compact was enacted, in part, out of fears that drought-prone cities in the Southwest might someday make a bid for Great Lakes water. So the compact’s framers made it difficult for cities beyond the Great Lakes basin to use water from the lakes, even cities as nearby as Waukesha.

“We have had some unbelievable policy and big programs designed to move water great distances, and now we’re starting to see there are problems with that,” says Peter McAvoy, counsel for the Great Lakes Compact Implementation Coalition, a watchdog group.

Under the compact, Waukesha has to prove it can’t find a reasonable alternative to Lake Michigan closer to home. All eight Great Lakes states, from Minnesota to New York, have to sign off on Waukesha’s diversion request. Two Canadian provinces, Quebec and Ontario, are allowed to comment. 

Eric Ebersberger, chief of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ water-use section, says the burden of proof is heavy.“The administration here has been very clear that this should be very difficult,” Ebersberger says. “It should be difficult to prove up an application for a diversion.”

The city has already imposed water conservation measures. It would build a second pipeline to return the water to the lake after it's treated. The amount of water it's asking for is relatively trivial, but the state has asked the city for thousands of pages of documentation since Waukesha applied five years ago. 

Not surprisingly, politics has also delayed the process. At first Waukesha wanted to buy the water from Milwaukee, but the two cities couldn't strike a deal. Peter Annin, author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars,” says underlying tension between Milwaukee and Waukesha counties played a role.

“The citizens of Milwaukee say, if you want to use Lake Michigan water, move to our great city and use it. We don’t want to see it leaving town and contributing to sprawl in the suburbs," Annin says.

Waukesha has since struck a deal to buy Lake Michigan water from Oak Creek, a Milwaukee suburb. But the city’s plans have ignited debate about what it means for a city to keep its water consumption within set limits. There's a persistence suspicion that Waukesha is designing its water plan to support continued economic growth, because its application asks for more water than the city currently uses and anticipates the need to supply water to areas outside of current borders. 

“Their own studies show that they’re talking about industrial and business growth,” says McAvoy of the watchdog group. “Is that reasonable? Will that come at the expense of other communities in the Great Lakes?”

Waukesha officials say the compact isn't in place to limit growth. But it does require water applicants to account for future growth.  And the city doesn't want to underestimate, its officials say, especially in the middle of an economic recovery. Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly says there isn't that much more land available for development anyway. "Development that happens in Waukesha is not a zero-sum game, where we take it away from Milwaukee," he says.

Some environmental groups have urged the city to consider  drilling more shallow wells, along with stricter water conservation and higher water rates. They have also urged the city to consider riverbank inducement wells or a wastewater recycling plant. The city has ruled out many alternatives as either too short-term, environmentally problematic or too expensive.  

They also point out that levels in the deep aquifer have rebounded modestly in the last decade, a change that probably won't solve the city's problem but may complicate its diversion request.

Doug Cherkauer, a hydrogeologist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, says Waukesha's solution is "easy and direct" – so he understands why Waukesha chose it. “But the ultimate solution in the case of Waukesha and nationally is to treat our wastewater to the point that it’s not contaminated anymore," he says. "That’s technologically possible now. It’s not cheap.”

However Waukesha ends up fixing its water problem won’t be cheap. Duchniak, the utility manager, expects water rates to double, if not triple, in the future. Paul Vrakas, 87, a former mayor, says city leaders in the 1970s and 1980s thought water was “a bottomless pit.” Now he thinks otherwise. 

“We’ve lived in our country with these important things that we need in our lives being very cheap,” Vrakas says. “Well, we’re going to have to spend more money on that important stuff than on an extra pair of jeans, do you know what I’m saying?”

 

In prison, a cellphone is a dangerous weapon

Wed, 2015-02-04 02:00

When you think of all the things that prisoners aren’t allowed to have on them, cellphones might not top the list. They do for prison officials.

“Prison officials see this as the most dangerous form of contraband,” says Kevin Roose, senior editor at Fusion, whose ongoing three-part story explored how prisoners use technology.

U.S. prisons, says Roose, are spending millions of dollars to keep cellphones out of prisons, mostly because the phones have been used to harass victims and coordinate crimes from behind bars.  

Now prisons are trying out something called a “managed access system.” It acts like a cell tower, and intercepts data and calls from the person using the phone before they reach the carrier. If you are not authorized to send or receive calls or texts, you’re blocked from doing so. Managed access systems can cost up to $1 million, but many correctional systems think they have a better chance at blocking the phones than keeping them out of inmates' hands.

Phones are usually smuggled in by guards who, according to Roose, charge prisoners “hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece.” Soon, an “underground economy” crops up: an inmate who has a phone starts renting it out to others.

Not everyone in prison is using cellphones for the same purpose. In some cases, Roose found, people just wanted to find a way to “stave off the loneliness.” Like one man who makes six-second videos for Vine and has a couple of hundred followers. 

Protecting the waters of Lake Michigan

Wed, 2015-02-04 02:00

I grew up near Lake Michigan, one of the biggest lakes on the planet. My hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin, about 15 miles west of Milwaukee, is making a bid to tap the lake for its permanent drinking supply. Long story short: over the decades, Waukesha and nearby towns have withdrawn so much water from the region's deep aquifer, they’re now pulling up older water contaminated radium and salts.

But Waukesha can’t take one teaspoon out of Lake Michigan unless all eight of the Great Lakes states say it’s okay. Those are the rules under an agreement known as the Great Lakes Compact. The agreement didn’t get much press when George W. Bush signed it into law in 2008. The financial crisis dominated headlines then. But Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, says it was a big shift in the way we manage water.

“There was this idea in the early part of the last century that we can ship water to wherever the people are,” Annin says.

The Compact rejects that idea. Annin compares the Compact to a “legal water fence surrounding the Great Lakes basin.” He says it sends the message that “we’re going to keep the water inside the basin and if you want to use it, great. Come, enjoy it here, live here, build your factory here but the idea that we’re going to build canals and pipelines to take the water to wherever the people are has passed.”

Great Lakes policymakers and environmentalists say they have good reason to be protective. Over the decades, there have been a number of schemes to divert water to places far outside the Great Lakes basin. One that really caused alarm occurred in 1998. A Canadian entrepreneur proposed to ship Lake Superior water in bulk to Asia. By 2007, when then-presidential hopeful Bill Richardson of New Mexico hinted at transferring Great Lakes water to the Southwest, any doubts about the need for the regional agreement got shoved aside. Jodi Habush Sinykin, counsel for Midwest Environmental Advocates, pushed for the legislation.

“The Great Lakes community encompasses vital economies, over 40 million people, unique ecosystems and it is a public trust,” says says.

Waukesha lies just outside the Great Lakes basin. But it can ask for Lake Michigan water under one of the Compact’s few exceptions. The city has to prove it can’t find a reasonable alternative in its own backyard, among other demands. Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources is expected to hold hearings on the request this spring. 

Peter McAvoy, adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, on Lake Michigan:

Photo credit: Jeffrey Phelps

Coke's got milk. Premium milk.

Wed, 2015-02-04 02:00

Coca-Cola’s newest product is hitting grocery shelves now. It’s what the dairy company Fairlife, the maker of the new product, calls “premium milk.”

“Fairlife is real authentic milk from the farm, from natural cows,” says Steve Jones, CEO of Fairlife. The company is emphatic about it being real because the milk is broken down and reassembled to make a a lower sugar, higher protein, lactose-free milk.

Milk and innovation haven’t exactly gone together in the past. John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, says this could be a win for Coke and Pepsi.

“Getting into beverages that provide protein is a good idea and something that I think we’re going to see both companies do over time,” he says.

Click the media player above to hear more.

 

The President's defense budget 'hike'

Wed, 2015-02-04 02:00

President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2016 budget proposes an increase in funding for the Department of Defense. But defense spending these days is about more than just the Pentagon's budget.

Click the media player above to hear more.

In prison, a cell phone is a dangerous weapon

Wed, 2015-02-04 02:00

When you think of all the things that prisoners aren’t allowed to have on them, cell phones might not top the list. But, for prison officials, they do.

“Prison officials see this as the most dangerous form of contraband,” says Kevin Roose, senior editor at Fusion, whose ongoing three-part story explored how prisoners use technology.

U.S. Prisons, says Roose, are spending millions of dollars to keep cell phones out of prisons.

Mostly because they have been used in the past to harass victims or even coordinate crimes from behind bars.  

Now, prisons are trying out something called a “managed access system.” It acts like a cell tower, and intercepts data and calls from the person using the phone before they reach the carrier. If you are not one of the people authorised to be sending or receiving calls or texts, you’re blocked from doing so. Managed access systems can cost up to $1 million, but many correctional systems think they have a better chance blocking the phones than keeping them out of the hands of inmates.

Why? Because the phones are usually smuggled in by the guards themselves, who, according to Roose, charge prisoners “hundreds or thousands of dollars a piece.” Soon, an “underground economy” crops up: an inmate who has a phone starts renting it out to others.

But not everyone is using cell phones for the same purpose. In some cases, Roose found, people just wanted to find a way to “stave off the loneliness.” Like one man who makes 6 second videos for Vine. He even has a couple of hundred followers. 

Defending the Great Lakes' water from outsiders

Wed, 2015-02-04 02:00

My hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin, used to be famous for its refreshing, clear spring water. Back in the late 19th century, people flocked to Waukesha to drink water at mineral springs and hang out at fancy summer resorts and mud baths. But those good water days are past. Now, the city’s making headlines because the drinking water from its deepest wells are tainted with radium. The city is looking to ditch those underground wells and permanently get its drinking water from Lake Michigan, 15 miles to the east. But that proposal is neither cheap, nor without controversy.

The water from Waukesha’s deep wells draw water that’s over three times the federal limit for radium. Radium occurs naturally, but lifetime exposure is a cancer risk. And the deeper you go in the sandstone aquifer underneath the region, the more radium in the water.

Waukesha is under a consent order to fix the problem. Since the mid-2000’s, it’s been diluting its bad water with radium-free water from shallow wells. But it still doesn’t meet federal requirements on hot summer days. So the city is proposing what it sees as the best long-term solution, a pipeline to Lake Michigan.

“Really, it’s a no brainer of a decision,” says Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility. “The Great Lakes is the best, most reliable and only reasonable alternative for the city of Waukesha.”

Certainly it’s the least complicated solution for the city. But the Great Lakes Compact, which governs water diversions from the five Great Lakes, doesn’t care about simple and direct. The compact was enacted, in part, out of fears that drought-prone cities in the Southwest might someday get desperate enough to make a bid for Great Lakes water. So the compact’s framers made it difficult for cities beyond the Great Lakes basin to divert water from the lakes, even cities as close as Waukesha. 

“We have had some unbelievable policy and big programs designed to move water great distances, and now we’re starting to see there are problems with that,” says Peter McAvoy, counsel for the Great Lakes Compact Implementation Coalition, a watchdog group.

Under the compact, Waukesha will have to prove it can’t find a reasonable alternative to Lake Michigan closer to home, among other demands. All eight of the Great Lakes states, from Minnesota to New York, have to sign off on Waukesha’s diversion request. Even Quebec and Ontario get to comment.

Waukesha’s request and the response to it will set a precedent under the compact. It’s the first time a city outside the Great Lakes basin has asked to divert water from one of the  lakes. Eric Ebersberger, chief of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ water use section, says the burden of proof will be heavy.

“The administration here has been very clear that this should be very difficult,” Ebersberger says. “It should be difficult to prove up an application for a diversion.”

Under the rules of the compact, Waukesha would be required to treat and return the water it takes from the lake, and the amount of water the city is asking for is relatively trivial. But the state has asked the city for thousands of pages of documentation since it first applied five years ago. Not surprisingly, politics has delayed the process, too. Initial talks with Milwaukee to supply the water fell apart.

Peter Annin, author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars,” says it boils down to this: “The citizens of Milwaukee say, if you want to use Lake Michigan water, move to our great city and use it. We don’t want to see it leaving town and contributing to sprawl in the suburbs.”

Waukesha has since struck a deal to buy Lake Michigan water from Oak Creek, a Milwaukee suburb. But the city’s plans have raised regional debate about what it means for a city to live within its water supply. The suspicion that Waukesha is leveraging its water plan for economic growth persists, because the city's application asks for more water than it currently uses and anticipates supplying water to areas currently outside its borders. 

Peter McAvoy says that will raise red flags with the states deciding Waukesha’s water fate. “Their own studies show that they’re talking about industrial and business growth,” McAvoy says. “Is that reasonable? Will that come at the expense of other communities in the Great Lakes?”

Here's Peter McAvoy talking about the importance of Lake Michigan:

Just how much growth and what kind the compact allows water applicants isn’t clear. Waukesha officials insist the growth they anticipate is modest and follows regional planning guidelines. They don’t want to underestimate future water needs, especially in the middle of an economic recovery. If they did, they’d have to go back and ask for more, starting the long application process all over again.

“Development that happens in Waukesha is not a zero sum game where we take it away from Milwaukee,” insists Waukesha mayor Shawn Reilly.

If Waukesha loses its bid for Lake Michigan water, it’ll have to come up with more local alternatives. Skeptics of the city’s Lake Michigan bid have urged Waukesha to look at  options like drilling more shallow wells, along with stricter water conservation and higher water rates. They’ve also urged the city to consider riverbank inducement wells or even a wastewater recycling plant. 

Water levels in the deep aquifer have rebounded some since 2000, a factor that could weaken the city’s argument for Great Lakes water. But the city insists the deep aquifer isn’t sustainable and has rejected other, more local solutions as either too short-term, environmentally problematic, or too pricey.

Doug Cherkauer, a hydrogeologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says he understands why Waukesha chose Lake Michigan to solve its water crisis.

“It’s cheaper, easier and more direct,” he says. “But the ultimate solution in the case of Waukesha and nationally is to treat our wastewater to the point that it’s not contaminated anymore. That’s technologically possible now. It’s not cheap.”

Whatever Waukesha ends up doing to fix its water problem won’t be cheap. Utility head Dan Duchniak expects water rates to double, if not triple in the future. Paul Vrakas, 87, a former mayor, says back in the 70’s and 80’s, city leaders thought water was “a bottomless pit.” Now he thinks otherwise.

“We’ve lived in our country with these important things that we need in our lives being very cheap,” Vrakas says. “Well, we’re going to have to spend more money on that important stuff than on an extra pair of jeans, do you know what I’m saying?”

 

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