Tag Archives: iraq

NEWS DAY | Hot enough? / English only in Lino Lakes / More WikiLeaks

Hot enough for you? For the first time in three years, Xcel Energy switched on its hot-weather energy-saver program, reports the Pioneer Press. Today’s 90-degree temps meant “cycling on and off the central air conditioners for hundreds of thousands of Minnesota customers in order to ease the peak demand on its electricity load” between 2 and 6 p.m. Continue reading

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NEWS DAY | 27,000 abandoned wells in Gulf / Spy stories and assassinations / more

Shots were fired at the home where family members gathered to grieve for 16-year-old Andrew Titus, who was killed Sunday night. He was with a group of people, walking to a party about 8:30 p.m., when he was shot in the head. The Star Tribune reported: Continue reading

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War Report – Pakistan, Iraq

Pakistan Two bombs, remotely controlled and coordinated to detonate at the same time, killed at least 49 people and wounded at least 100 more in a market in the eastern town of Lahore on Monday. Most of the victims were women and children. Continue reading

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World/National news – Black women and breast cancer, Iraq elections, Pakistan bomb, Iran protests

Black women and breast cancer Black women would be disproportionately affected by changes in mammogram practices, report the TC Daily Planet and NPR.  The TC Daily Planet reports:

According to the National Cancer Institute’s Snapshot of Breast Cancer, the incidence of breast cancer is highest in whites, but African Americans have higher mortality rates. In fact, African Americans have higher mortality rates from breast cancer than any other racial or ethnic group, and the gap is widening.

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NEWS DAY | The flu or the weather? / God’s bank closed / Under the radar and off the web / more

SH-Med-syringe-082204-4The flu or the weather? Everybody’s talking about them, and nobody seems able to do much about the course that either will take. This week’s forecast: rising flu saturation throughout the state, with a continuing shortage of flu shots.

Crookston schools closed Wednesday, as 15 percent of the districts 1,270 students were out with the flu, according to Minnesota 2020. Some 210 schools across the state reported flu outbreaks October 4-10, according to the Minnesota Department of Health’s most recent figures, up 72 percent over the preceding week. The MN 2020 article has more recent reports from a dozen schools across the state.

A 54-year-old Waseca hospital administrator died Saturday night, after an H1N1 diagnosis, reports MPR. It’s not yet clear whether H1N1 was the cause of death. The Minnesota Department of Health has confirmed 10 deaths due to H1N1 and others are under investigation.

The Star Tribune reports that H1N1 is keeping lawyers busy. That doesn’t sound like a logical connection, but the story is that employment lawyers are getting queries from businesses about what kind of workplace rules they can establish — Can they require vaccination? Do they have to pay people who are sick but have no sick days? And so on.

President Obama declared  a national state of emergency Saturday, in regard to the H1N1 flu. According to the Washington Post, the declaration will allow greater flexibility for hospitals to respond:

The president granted Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius the power to lift some federal regulations for medical providers, including allowing hospitals to set up off-site facilities to increase the number of available beds and protect patients who are not infected.

Oh, and that weather forecast? WCCO says rain possible by Wednesday, staying through Friday, with temps above freezing until Saturday.

God’s bank closed, others on watch list
Riverview Community Bank failed Friday, becoming the fifth Minnesota bank and the 106th U.S. bank to be closed this year. MPR reports that the bank’s owner had claimed divine backing:

When Riverview opened in March 2003, co-founder Chuck Ripka told the Pioneer Press that God told him to get the bank going.

“He said, ‘Chuck, if you do all the things I told you to do, I promise you I will take care of the bottom line,”‘ Ripka said in 2004.

The bank was cited by the FDIC in June for “unsafe and unsound” banking practices, according to the Minnesota Independent. Former MN secretary of state Mary Kiffmeyer was on the bank’s board of directors.

According to MPR, bank regulators from the MN Department of Commerce said in October that 71 of the state’s banks, some 22 percent of the total, are on a watch list. That’s up from 65 on the watch list in the spring. Riverview’s two branches were set to reopen on Saturday as branches of Stillwater-based Central Bank.

The City Miracles blog wrote about the bank in 2004:

One of the key indicators of the success of the Elk River prototype, and a component of the detonation process, has been Riverview Community Bank. This bank, founded in March, 2003, has accumulated $100 million in deposits in 28 months, making it one of the fasted growing start-up banks in the history of the State of Minnesota. During this period 100 people have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord during banking hours. Additionally, 70 people have been healed when they received prayer at the bank. The New York Times wrote a ten-page article about this bank in their Sunday Magazine published on October 31, 2004.

Under the radar and off the web
In a print-edition-only article Sunday, the Star Tribune reported the latest on a fraudulent currency investment program promoted by Twin Cities money managers that swindled investors across the United States, Europe and Latin America. According to the Strib, “complaints have flowed into federal authorities” since at least last November. In July, nine people from Ohio filed suit in Minneapolis federal court, and since then the feds have been investigating through the SEC and a grand jury. At that time, the Star Tribune reported:

Two Ohio families and their pastor filed a federal lawsuit in Minneapolis this week accusing some “confusingly intertwined” Twin Cities investment advisers and a dozen business entities of fraud, misrepresentation and other breaches in the handling of their life savings.

The eight plaintiffs claimed Trevor Cook, 37, of Burnsville and Gerald Durand, 58, of Lakeville persuaded them to invest nearly $5 million in a currency arbitrage program that guaranteed instant liquidity and promised annual returns of 10.5 to 12 percent

According to several sources, the Department of Justice simply does not have enough experienced staff members to keep up with complex financial fraud cases. Maybe they should hire the Strib’s Dan Browning, who has reported extensively on the story, following the money trail from Minnesota to California to Panama. Browning’s reporting is a textbook example of the need for full-time, salaried investigative reporters. Few if any free-lancers or bloggers could afford to devote as much investigative and reporting time to this story that he has done, and that time is needed to produce comprehensive coverage of a real public menace.

The October 25 article says that Jerry Watkins used his “Your Money matters” radio show to recruit investors for Oxford Global Advisors, and that the firm was also promoted by Minneapolis money manager Trevor Cook, Burnsville radio talk show host Pat Kiley (“Follow the Money”), and associates at “a number of Twin Cities business entities that have Oxford, Universal Brokerage or the initials UB in their names.” The investments were also promoted on the Worldwide Christian Radio shortwave network. Watkins continued to promote the schemes and take people’s money, even while awaiting sentencing in Minneapolis on “an unrelated scheme that had bilked $20 million from investors,” which was run by Forest Lake preacher Neulan Midkiff.

Christopher Bebel, a former SEC attorney and federal prosecutor, said:

“I’d have to say that this case is especially appallling because it’s an affinity fraud in the sense that it focuses on investors who have their guard down because of the trusting environment–the Christian radio network that was utilized.”

National/International news

Zimbabwe Some 50 government soldiers were sent to search and ransack the offices of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, headed by Prime Minister Mogan Tsvangirai. AP notes:

The raid signals the fragility of Zimbabwe’s unity government and undoubtedly will worsen the already bitter relationship between President Robert Mugabe and the prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Mr. Mugabe was forced into a power-sharing government with Mr. Tsvangirai, a longtime opposition leader, after disputed elections. Mr. Tsvangirai withdrew from the coalition government on Oct. 16.

War Reports

Afghanistan Fopurteen U.S. soldiers and civilians were killed in two helicopter crashes, reports NPR. In the south, two helicopters collided. In the west, the helicopter had left an area of heavy fighting, but U.S. officials said it was not shot down. Two other U.S. troops died on Sunday, bringing the total number for October to 46 so far. August was the worst month for U.S. combat deaths, with 51.

Run-off elecdtions scheduled for November 8 have been agreed to by both President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah. But now, reports BBC, Abdullah Abdullah is demanding the removal of the head of the election commission. That commission presided over and tried to deny the massive fraud in the August 20 elections.

Iraq car bombs kill more than 150 Two car bombs in Baghdad killed at least 155 people on Sunday, and wounded at least 500 more, reports BBC. The bombs “hit the ministry of justice and a provincial government office near the heavily fortified Green Zone” during the morning rush hour, in the deadliest attack since April 2007. Analysts fear a ramping up of violence will continue as the January elections approach.

Pakistan army claims gains After a week of the offensive in South Waziristan, the Pakistan army says it has captured Kotkai. The New York Times explains:

The town, Kotkai, most of whose 5,000 residents had already fled, is the home of the new leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, and one of the most feared Taliban commanders, Qari Hussain.

As fighting continued in South Waziristan, NPR reported that violence still wracks the rest of the country, with Friday bombings killing 24 people, including 17 who were on their way to a wedding. The army claims a total death toll during the South Waziristan offensive of 23 soldiers and 163 militants. Because access to the area is restricted, no independent verification is possible.

According to McClatchey news service, one of Friday’s car bombs exploded outside a suspected nuclear weapons facility, the airbase at Kamra.

Al Qaida has made clear its ambitions to get hold of a nuclear bomb or knowledge of nuclear technology. Several other sites associated with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have been hit previously.

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NEWS DAY | St. Paul school board contest heats up / A sheriff who’s been around / Bloody news from the war fronts / more

ballot box graphicSt. Paul school board contest heats up The teachers’ union refusal to endorse three incumbents and the revelation that Republican candidate John Krenik’s employment as a teacher in the St. Paul Public Schools was terminated last year make the school board race look a lot more interesting.

CLARIFICATION: In an email asking for a correction, John Krenik says he wasn’t fired: “After a settlement was reached I resigned/retired, I was NOT fired.”

The Star Tribune reported that Krenik “said in June 2007 that he heard from an administrator that he would be recommended for termination.” According to the Star Tribune, he accepted a $12,000 settlement last year, in return for quitting his job as a special education teacher at Murray Junior High School and promising “not seek or accept work as a teacher with [the] district at any time in the future.”

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NEWS DAY | War at home / MNDOT lowers hiring goals / Somali president visits / Seifert wins straw poll / War reports

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The war at home claims another life Pamela Taschuk, a 48-year-old juvenile probation officer and social worker, died Thursday, another casualty of the war at home. According to AP, Allen Taschuk dropped their 16-year-old son off at a gas station and then went to find and klll Pamela. Then he killed himself.

Pamela Taschuk was afraid of her husband, and had gotten a no contact order to keep him away after she filed for divorce last month.

AP: Since 1995, police were called to the Taschuk home 48 times – 22 domestic-related. Allen Taschuk was arrested three times, the most recent Aug. 26.

Pamela Taschuk told police that she feared for her life. The no contact order did not protect her.

Less than a month ago, North St. Paul police officer Richard Crittenden responded to a call for help from another woman with a violent partner. Like Pamela Taschuk, she had obtained a no contact order, in which the court told her partner to stay away from her.

MPR: Stacey Terry, his wife, had filed three orders for protection against him over the past nine years.

Like Allen Taschuk, Devon Dockery violated the no contact order. When Officer Crittenden answered the call for help on September 7, Dockery shot and killed him.

In 1994, the Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). According to MS Magazine, VAWA “changed the way the judicial system handles cases of intimate partner violence and increased the availability of public resources for victims.”

Pamela Taschuk is one of more than 200 women killed in domestic violence in Minnesota since 2000. The tools we use to address domestic violence may have improved with VAWA and subsequent state legislation, but those tools are not good enough.

The Star Tribune reports that St. Paul is about to launch a new initiative, called the Blueprint to assess when higher bail should be set for defendants in domestic violence cases.

“In the really lethal cases, our arrest or prosecution of them is not a deterrent to stopping their stalking or battery. It does deter them when they’re locked up,” [Comdr Steven Frazer, head of the Family and Sexual Violence Unit at the St. Paul Police Department], said. “We’re not making an argument on whether he’s coming back to court next week. We’re making an argument on whether he’s a threat to the people he’s been in contact with that warrants some other level of review.” …
According to most recent statistics, Frazer said, 54 percent of women killed in domestic situations had told police they believed they were going to be killed.

The Blueprint might have made a difference for Pam Taschuk. Her husband was released on $5,000 bail a month before he killed her.

The Blueprint might have made a difference for Officer Richard Crittenden. Dockery had been arrested more than once on charges related to domestic violence. He was arrested on August 26 on charges of violating the order of protection.

Here’s another suggestion — use technology to enforce the no contact orders. Both parties can wear an electronic ankle bracelet, and if they come in close proximity to one another, an alarm would sound in the police station. (Hat tip to Ron Salzberger for this suggestion.)  For some people, the knowledge that the police would be alerted might be a deterrent.

Of course, higher bail and stricter monitoring won’t solve all the problems. Rebecca McLane, program manager for the St. Paul Domestic Abuse Intervention Program, told the Star Tribune that a shift in society’s attitudes is needed.

Part of that, she said, would involve prioritizing. “If we could have anything in the world that we wanted, it would be more shelters, more advocates, more cops on the streets, and more close monitoring of these dangerous offenders,” said McLane, who added that the metro’s dozen battered-women’s shelters are nearly always full.

MNDOT moves the goalpost After years of failing to meet its own goal for contracting with women and minority-owned firms, the MN Department of Transportation has finally figured it out: rather than increasing hiring/contracting efforts, they will cut the goal. MPR reports:

For nearly the entire decade, companies awarded MNDOT contracts have fallen short, sometimes far short, of meeting hiring goals for women and minority subcontractors. …

A MnDOT consultant several years ago concluded contractors can attain the 15 percent goal since there are nearly 400 certified women and minority-owned construction companies. …

[Bernie Arseneau, director of the agency’s policy, safety and strategic initiatives division] said MnDOT’s goal for next year is 9 percent.

Hiring minority and women construction workers is the other half of the MNDOT challenge, and, reports MPR, “Every year for the past several years, the number of women and minority construction workers has stayed the same or declined.”

After months of protests led by the HIRE MN coalition, MNDOT has also found a way to address that problem, by hiring a consultant and agreeing to talk about the problem. For the first time, MNDOT also agreed to meet with HIRE MN representatives.

Sounds a lot like the MNDOT position back in March, as reported by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder:

“For the first time, we are bringing all of the stakeholders together:
contractors, unions, minority groups, advocates, community groups, big contractors, DBEs, women, businesses, Mn/DOT, federal highway [officials]…so that we can grow the DBEs in such a way that serves the community needs, the contractors’ needs, and ultimately the needs of the citizens of Minnesota.

“We are fully and wholly committed to this transformational change,” said Arseneau.

Except that now the goalpost is lower.

Somali president visits The president of Somalia, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, visited the Twin Cities this weekend, meeting with community members, parents of Minnesota Somali youth who have gone to fight with militias, Minnesota politicians, and the Books for Africa project. On Sunday, he spoke to an overflow crowd at Northrup Auditorium. Minnesota is home to an estimated 70,000 Somalis, the largest population in the United States.

The Star Tribune reported that the president gave Somali families “assurances from Somalia’s leader that he would publicly denounce Al-Shabab.” Since Al-Shabab is the leading group fighting to overthrow his government, that seems like a safe bet. The Strib also reported that the president promised to find out who was recruiting the young men and to work for their return home.

Seifert wins GOP straw poll State Representative Marty Seifert came in first, with 37 percent of the vote, trailed by state Rep. Tom Emmer with 23 percent and former state auditor Pat Anderson (14 percent) and state Sen. David Hann (12 percent.)

About 1,200 delegates to the MN Republican convention voted in a straw poll Saturday, reports the Pioneer Press, which also cautioned that, “off-year straw polls are unreliable crystal balls” for predicting the eventual nominee.

Seifert, however, had a more optimistic assessment of the straw poll’s implications. “Republicans want to bet on a winner,” Seifert said. “They don’t want to bet on the horse heading to the glue factory.

The Pioneer Press reported that other candidates had less reason for optimism:

State Rep. Paul Kohls finished fifth with 5 percent of the vote. Trailing far behind were former state Rep. Bill Haas, Sen. Mike Jungbauer, businessman Phil Herwig and frequent candidate Leslie Davis.

Delegates also voted separately for their second choice for governor, and Hann (18 percent) came out first in that poll, followed by Emmer and Anderson.

War Reports

Afghanistan Eight U.S. troops were killed in a Taliban attack in the Nuristan province near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, reports NPR. Five or six Afghan fighters were also killed in the attack, and the Taliban fighters captured 15 Afghan police, including the chief and deputy chief.

Nearly 300 militant fighters flooded the lower, Afghan outpost then swept around it to reach the American station on higher ground from both directions, said Mohammad Qasim Jangulbagh, the provincial police chief. The U.S. military statement said the Americans and Afghans repelled the attack by tribal fighters and “inflicted heavy enemy casualties.”

Jamaludin Badar, governor of Nuristan province, complained about lack of security and lack of coordination between Afghan and allied forces. The U.S. forces plan to withdraw from the region.

Pakistan Five people in a U.N. food agency office were killed by a suicide bomber in an upscale area of Islamabad on Monday, according to NPR. The New York Times report on the bombing said about 80 people work in offices “equipped with video surveillance cameras, motion detectors and explosives detection devices.” The U.N. immediately ordered a temporary closure of all offices in Pakistan.

The bombing came a day after Hakimullah Mehsud, the new Taliban leader, appeared at a press conference. BBC reports:

Hakimullah Mehsud said his group would avenge the killing of former Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud by striking back at Pakistan and the US.

He said he would retaliate against recent efforts on the part of the US and Pakistani security forces to target senior Taliban figures.

Because of security fears, the press conference was attended only by five journalists who are members of Mehsud’s clan.
Iraq The government arrestred about 150 suspected Sunni militants in the Mosul area, according to BBC. The militants allegedly have ties to either al-Qaeda or the now-outlawed Baath political party formerly headed by Saddam Hussein.

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NEWS DAY | Hard choices in recession: Wielding budget scalpel or ax at HCMC / Closing schools in Anoka-Hennepin / Women’s health and childbearing

<a href=A scalpel or an ax at HCMC Poison control? 24/7 psych emergency services? Burn unit beds? These are among the possible cuts at Hennepin County Medical Center, according to the Business Journal, as HCMC faces next year’s budget of $550 million, down from the current $600 million. The budget cuts are caused in large part by Governor Pawlenty’s line item veto of the state’s General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) health insurance program serving the poor. While HCMC officials say that no final decisions have been made, they are considering targets that include medical care for people who are not residents of Hennepin County and a variety of other areas: Continue reading

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NEWS DAY | Overloading MinnesotaCare / Subverting health care reform / Atrazine warning / Afghan election, U.S. deaths

Overloading MinnesotaCare The failing economy has dumped thousands of people into MinnesotaCare as they lose other heatlh care insurance. The system has been so overloaded, reports the Star Tribune that some applications are taking two or three months for processing. Since approval is not retroactive, that means people are left without any insurance coverage during processing.

The crush of applicants has doubled the time required to process applications, to eight weeks, and phone lines are often jammed because the agency that manages the program now answers the phone only between 12:30 and 4 p.m. so workers can spend more time on the paperwork backlog.

MinnesotaCare is available only to people who are MN residents, are uninsured and cannot get health insurance through their employer with at least half the premium paid by the employer. In addition, the appicant must meet income and asset restrictions.

A Minnesota 2020 commentator tells the story of her return from Australia to Minnesota and the obstacles she and her husband faced in trying to get health insurance — any health insurance. “We wanted to sign up for a basic plan we could extend on a monthly basis until we could find employment with health insurance benefits,” she explains. “When all twelve providers responded with a resounding ‘No!’ I realized we would need to find a more permanent health care plan.”

Subverting reform Health insurance companies will get a big pay-off under health care “reform” proposals that offer subsidies to help people “afford” insurance. The Los Angeles Times reports on the sweet deal that Big Insurance struck (hat tip to Eric Black at MinnPost). According to the LA Times, insurance companies are “poised to reap a financial windfall” under the leading plans, all of which “would guarantee insurers tens of millions of new customers — many of whom would get government subsidies to help pay the companies’ premiums.”

Health insurance companies both financed and urged employees to participate in this summer’s vitriolic attacks on the “public option,” which would establish a lower-cost alternative to their high-profit plans. (See previous posts for references to high and rising profit margins for health insurance companies (UnitedHealth profits up 155%), and the 30% administrative cost of private health insurance versus 4% administrative cost for Medicare.)

But wait — there’s more, reports the L.A. Times:

In May, the Senate Finance Committee discussed requiring that insurers reimburse at least 76% of policyholders’ medical costs under their most affordable plans. Now the committee is considering setting that rate as low as 65%, meaning insurers would be required to cover just about two-thirds of patients’ healthcare bills. … Most group health plans cover 80% to 90% or more of a policyholder’s medical bills, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. …

“They have beaten us six ways to Sunday,” said Gerald Shea of the AFL-CIO. “Any time we want to make a small change to provide cost relief, they find a way to make it more profitable.”

Atrazine warning A new National Resources Defense Council report finds that federal and state monitoring and reporting of atrazine levels in surface water and ground water are inadequate, and that atrazine levels frequently exceed federal safety standards. According to NRDC, short-term, high-level exposure to excess atrazine levels is dangerous, but federal standards are based on a yearly average rather than the high levels that occur in early summer after atrazine is applied to fields. Moreover:

Because the monitoring program was not designed to account for the timing of runoff in response to weather events or application, the EPA’s watershed monitoring program probably underestimates peak exposures.

According to MPR:

Paul Wotzka is a hydrologist who has studied water quality in southeastern Minnesota for years. He says animal tests show atrazine in small amounts can cause birth defects.

“If you were pregnant mother, drinking water in June and you had these high spikes of atrazine in your water, you would want to know about them,” he said.

Wotzka says private wells are rarely tested, and public drinking water supplies are only tested once a year.

The NRDC recommends banning atrazine, and says other methods for weed control are already available. Atrazine has already been banned in European Union countries.

Only one Minnesota watershed, the North Fork Whitewater River watershed near Rochester, was monitored. EPA monitoring in 2005-2006 showed an average atrazine concentration of 0.47 ppb and a maximum concentration of 15 ppb in this watershed. The maximum allowable concentration under EPA guidelines is 3 ppb as a yearly average, although NRDC warns that:

The adverse reproductive effects of atrazine have been seen in amphibians, mammals, and humans-even at low levels of exposure. Concentrations as low as 0.1 ppb have been shown to alter the development of sex characteristics in male frogs. When exposure coincides with the development of the brain and reproductive organs, that timing may be even more critical than the dose.

War Reports

Afghanistan As the war drags on, more voices question whether the U.S. should be in Afghanistan at all. Bob Herbert criticized the war in his column, noting the reluctance of Afghan troops to fight, and the war dragging on year after year after nine bloody years.

If we had a draft — or merely the threat of a draft — we would not be in Iraq or Afghanistan. But we don’t have a draft so it’s safe for most of the nation to be mindless about waging war. Other people’s children are going to the slaughter. …

Well, if this war, now approaching its ninth year, is so fundamental, we should all be pitching in. We shouldn’t be leaving the entire monumental burden to a tiny portion of the population, sending them into combat again, and again, and again, and again …

The deaths of four more U.S. service members yesterday raised the death toll for foreign soldiers to 295 since January, according to the New York Times, making this the deadliest year to date. Twelve foreign soldiers died in the first year of the war (2001) with the numbers rising steadily to 294 in 2008, a number now surpassed. The number of U.S. deaths already stands at 172 this year, up from last year’s high of 155.

Early results of Afghan elections were released today, with 10% of the votes counted, showing President Hamid Karzai with about 40% of the vote and challenger Abdullah Abdullah with about 40%, with the remaining 20% split among the other 29 candidates. On Monday, a cabinet minister said that President Hamid Karzai had won 68 percent of the vote, a figure so large as to cast doubt on the entire election, according to the Washington Post. The Post said Karzai was expected to win a bare majority, and that Abdullah had been expected to win 25%. Election monitors report widespread fraud.

“In Baraki Barak District, only about 500 people were able to vote out of 43,000 registered voters. In Harwar District, nobody at all was able to vote out of 15,000 registered voters. Yet the ballot boxes from these places came to Kabul full,” alleged Faizullah Mojadedi, a legislator from Taliban-plagued Logar province. “The fact that people were afraid to vote became a big excuse for those who wanted to take advantage of it.”

The final results will not be in until all the votes are counted, some time in September.

Iraq At least 11 people were killed and more wounded in two bus bombings yesterday near the usually quiet southern town of Kut, reports Reuters.

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NEWS DAY | Tornado touchdown in Minneapolis / UCB up / All the children are above average / Whole Foods, meet Jess Durant and Will Allen

Tornado touchdown in Minneapolis “I heard a loud noise, it got louder and louder, I heard the roof coming up, it was the most weirdest sound I ever heard in my life. My heart was beating so fast, I realized it was a tornado, I dived as fast as I could into my bathtub,” Shane Gillespie told MPR, after Wednesday afternoon’s brief tornado touchdowns in south Minneapolis and downtown. The tornadoes triggered sirens (but not until after the touchdowns), emergency plan activation (“We are locking the doors to the store now. Everyone go to the dress section – that’s the safe zone.”), a mayoral press conference, and frenzied media coverage.

Unemployment claims up-again For a second week, the U.S. Department of Labor reported, “unexpected” increases in unemployment claims, with seasonally adjusted initial claims rising to 576,000 from last week’s 561,000. These are new claims: the total number of workers receiving unemployment benefits and emergency extended benefits is 9.18 million, according to the Star Tribune. Millions more do not qualify for unemployment benefits, or remain out of work even after exhausting the extended benefit period.

Where all the children are above average Or at least our Minnesota children are above average on the ACT tests. Or at least above average (best performance in the nation!) on the ACT tests taken by students in states where more than half the students take ACT tests. Our kids score 1.3 percent higher than second-place Iowa students and 1.8 percent higher than third-place Wisconsin students and a whopping 2.7 percent higher than the national average.

So what does it all mean? Perhaps that the ACT PR folks know how to time news releases for maximum ink and column inches in a slow news month. They got a nice headline in the PiPress, Minnesota retains top spot in ACT scores; Wisconsin ranks third, a more skeptical and nuanced read from Bob Collins at MPR, and a lengthier analysis at the Star Tribune, which pointed out that overall numbers of ACT test-takers are up this year because Illinois, Colorado, Michigan, Kentucky and Wyoming require 100% of their grads to take the test.

The ACT has pages and pages of data that can be sliced and diced six ways from Sunday. (So does the SAT, though it does not have 2009 information posted yet.)

Two items stand out as real news:

• According to ACT, more students–by a slight margin–seem prepared to succeed in college in the crucial areas of English, math, reading and science than in previous years, but more than 75% nationally and 68% in Minnesota are unprepared in at least one of these areas. (Of course, a skeptic might ask whether ACT can really judge, for example, college preparedness in science with a 35-minute, 40-question test.) The report that scores continue to rise even as more students take the test indicates that educational outcomes are improving.

• The ACT and SAT tests are locked in a neck-and-neck battle for the lucrative testing market. According to the Strib, “The number of ACT test-takers is on par with the number reported by the rival SAT exam last year, and the exam appears on track to surpass the SAT in popularity.”

SAT scores come out next week, and it’s a safe bet that they also will show Minnesota’s children above average. But above average overall is not good enough when a serious achievement gap leaves students of color struggling below the average. We know how to fix that. Geoffrey Canada described the practices and investments needed for success to a Minneapolis Foundation’s Minnesota Meeting earlier this year — practices and investments that have proven effective in the Harlem Children’s Zone that he founded. As Wilder Foundation Executive Director of Research Paul Mattesich observed in his blog:

Through our Twin Cities Compass initiative, we have documented the poor mathematics proficiency of our region’s high school students and the gap in skills that begins early in elementary school for our fastest growing group of students – students of color. If we want to preserve jobs and preserve our quality of life, we need to make some changes.

Harlem Children’s Zone demonstrates that low achievement, even for children from the poorest economic and community circumstances, does not have to occur; also, it can be reversed with sustained effort.

Whole Foods, meet Jess Durant and Will Allen Jess Durant tells her personal story in MinnPost to show why and how Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s rejection of health care reform is just plain wrong. Her thoughtful, persuasive analysis of why we need health care reform should be broadcast far and wide, and it’s going in my files, so I can send it to the naysayers among my family and email friends.

Will Allen also brought a message about health to the Twin Cities this week, advocating urban farms and vermiculture. Allen came to town to kick off the Urban Farm Project at Little Earth, reports the Daily Planet, with a message that combines work for healthy food and against racism. MPR also has a report on Allen’s visit and message.

World/National News

UnitedHealth organizes Astroturf The Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo that UnitedHealth sent a letter to employees urging them to get active in opposing health care reform:

[A] source who’s insured by UHG–and who also obtained the letter–called the hotline on Tuesday and says the company directed him to an events list hosted by the right wing America’s Independent Party, and suggested he attend an anti-health care reform tea party sponsored by religious fundamentalist Dave Daubenmire, scheduled for today outside the office of Blue Dog Rep. Zack Space (D-OH).

Daily Kos says, “A representative of UnitedHealth Group’s Corporate Communications office said they would call back with a reaction to the story. They didn’t.”

MinnPost reports that UnitedHealth officials are denying that they told people to get involved in tea parties.

War Reports

Iraq A wave of bombings and explosions in Baghdad killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 400 others. NPR reported:

It was the deadliest day in the capital since U.S. troops largely withdrew from cities on June 30 and a major challenge to Iraqi control of Baghdad. A steady escalation of attacks this month has sparked fears of a resurgence of violence ahead of next year’s national elections.

The deadliest of the attacks hit near the Foreign Ministry, killing at least 59 people and wounding 250. Officials said the toll may climb as rescue workers dig through rubble and debris.

Hiring mercenary assassins? The New York Times reports on connections between the CIA and Blackwater (which has now changed its name to Xe Services):

The Central Intelligence Agency in 2004 hired outside contractors from the private security contractor Blackwater USA as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top operatives of Al Qaeda, according to current and former government officials.

Current CIA director Leon Panetta insisted on briefing Congress on the program, which has since been canceled – or so we are told.

Afghanistan Today is the day for Afghan elections. The Taliban threatens violence, the Afghan government tells the media not to report violence … and President Hamid Kharzai is expected to win an easy victory over the 41 opposition candidates.

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