January 2012 Archives

State Representatives Phyllis Kahn and Joe Mullery proposed a bill Wednesday that would lower the current legal drinking age of 21 to 18 and allow children as young as 16 to drink in public establishments under parental supervision, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

Kahn, who represents the University of Minnesota, presented this bill as a counter-measure to problems with binge-drinking at the university. She has presented it many times before in the past, only to have it fail each time. The primary reason for the bill's repeated failure is the National Minimum Drinking Act of 1984, which set the minimum drinking age at 21 and threatens the withdrawal of 10% of federal funds for highway maintenance, the Minnesota Daily reported.

Kahn said that her proposal does not extend to off-site liquor sales, so that it should not have any effect on the number of drunk driving fatalities, the Minnesota Daily reported.

Codecademy Goes Open Source

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Codecademy, the hit JavaScript training website, is releasing a platform that will allow experts who know various programming languages to create and display tutorials of their own, Mashable reported.

Codecademy.com was founded last August, and just hit the 1 million user mark last January. There were only a few complaints about the website -- one being the lack of courses being offered in JavaScript and the other being the lack of courses in Python and Ruby, TechCrunch reported.

These complaints are being addressed with the release of the "Creators" tool, which will allow verified experts to easily create courses of their own that either expand on the lessons already offered in the crash course or provide entirely new lessons. Two thousand programming teachers have already signed up for the beta release of the software, Venture Beat reported.

Jason Kincaid of TechCrunch said that "Creators" was a smart move for the company of six employees, who have had trouble keeping up with the explosive demand.

Analysis: Leads

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"Large payouts to the state's retiring higher education employees are under the microscope at the Capitol."

This was the lead used by Minnesota Daily reporter Kevin Burbach in his article on the current legislative investigation into the MnSCU sick leave payouts.

The lead reveals the "what", the "who", and the "where" when it tells us that large payouts are being given to state education employees and that the capitol is suspicious. However, even those details it gave were pretty general, and each point received more elaboration in the paragraphs that followed.

By "payouts", Burbach was talking about payment given to MnSCU employees in exchange for their unused sick leave or days. By "large", he meant $57 million in sick leave and $38 million in vacation time over the last ten years. When he said "the state's higher education employees", he was talking specifically about those in the MnSCU system, not other public school systems, like the University of Minnesota. He also neglected to mention in the lead exactly who had the employees "under the microscope", so to speak. The reader has to continue to the next sentence to discover that the investigators are a subcommittee led by Sen. Mike Parry.

In all, I found this lead to be a decent hard-news style lead. Most of the details listed in the above paragraph would have seemed out of place when thrown into the first sentence of the story, so Burbach was right to leave that out. There was one area, however, where I think that a little bit of elaboration might have helped this lead pack more of a punch. Near the end of the lead, Burbach writes that the employees are "under the microscope at the Capitol". This is a rather vague expression that tells the audience almost nothing about what is actually happening. Not only that, but in this case it is more important for the audience to know who is investigating the issue than where it is being investigated. Using a more active phrase with more specific verbs, such as "a legislative subcommittee is investigating . . .", could really help this lead become a stronger example of a straightforward hard-news lead.

University of Minnesota professor Peter Sorensen has proposed a plan to bring a research center to campus that will research an invasive species, the Minnesota Daily reported.

Sorensen, of the university's Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation program, went before the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Council to ask the Legislature to increase the current funds spent on fighting invasive species to $5.5 million, reported Minnesota Public Radio. He expressed concern for the state Minnesota's water wildlife due to the introduction of a number of invasive species.

Invasive species are species introduced to an area outside of their original habitat who oftentimes threaten the local wildlife. For Minnesota, this issue is extremely important, as the introduction of Asian carp, snakeheads, and zebra mussels have been competing against -- and defeating -- our prized natural wildlife, reported the Star Tribune.

Sorenson told Minnesota Public Radio that he was confident that he will be able to do something about the Asian carp, should he get the funding. In fact, the university is already researching the use of audio barriers to deter carp, since their hearing is over 50 times more sensitive than that of other fish.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have agreed to put a prostitution case on hold at a hearing Thursday while its defendant, Richard Beasley, prepares to go on trial for the "Craigslist killings".

Beasley, 52, was already facing charges for running a secret prostitution ring while pretending to provide a home for recovering addicts. Now his face is all over the news for being the prime suspect in three murders. The prosecution alleges that he lured the victims to his house with a Craigslist advertisement offering employment on a ranch, USA Today reported. Once there, he allegedly shot the men who responded to the advertisement and, with the help of a teenage accomplice, buried them in shallow graves. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

The prosecution is asking for Beasley's accomplice, 16-year-old Brogan Rafferty, to be tried for the murders as an adult as well, though the indictment still considers Beasley the "principal offender", CNN reported.

Because of the publicity this case has been receiving, Beasley voiced concerns about the fairness of the proceedings. He told the Arkon Beacon Journal, Judge, I got reporters crawling on the floor to take my picture in here. How can we get an impartial jury?" Beasley said.

iPhone 5 to Come This Summer?

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While Apple may pride itself on keeping its new devices secret until the time of release, an employee of the iPhone production plant Foxconn is a bit more forthcoming in information.

Production is about to begin on the iPhone 5 which, given Apple's normal habits, is most likely due for a summer release, the Washington Post reported.

Two prototypes for the phone design are laid out in the Foxconn factory, and both are quite different from current iPhone designs. Both have a screen of at least 4" wide (the current screen is 3.5") and both samples are symmetrical in thickness, going against previous rumors of a teardrop design, reported 9to5Mac.

The launch of a new model less than a year after the release of the iPhone 4S may put a major hold on sales, but it is likely that Apple is anxious to release a phone with 4G capabilities to keep up with their Windows and Android competitors. Some even go so far as to argue that the iPhone 5 could be called the iPhone 4G, Digital Trends reported.

Dotcom is Refused Bail

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A New Zealand judge denied bail to the founder of Megaupload, Kim Dotcom, whose extradition is being sought by the United States.

Kim Dotcom, formerly known as Kim Schmitz, is being held until at least Feb. 22, when an extradition hearing is to be held, said CNN. The judge stated that Dotcom was a flight risk with a criminal record, but Dotcom said that he was innocent and he just wanted to stay in New Zealand with his pregnant wife and children.

Dotcom, along with three of his colleagues, was arrested Thursday for his part in operating the website Megaupload. The website had been shut down by the FBI earlier that day, and connected to more than $500 million dollars in harm to copyright owners in the U.S. If convicted, Dotcom and his colleagues could face many years in prison, VentureBeat reported.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends digital rights and free speech online, raised concerns about the United States's actions. In a statement to USAToday, the organization said, "If the United States can seize a Dutch citizen in New Zealand over a copyright claim, what's next?"

MnSCU Payouts Under Scrutiny

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The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system is under scrutiny for last year's huge payouts to retiring employees.

In the past, the state paid roughly $14 million a year to retiring employees as compensation for unused sick and vacation days. In 2011, that figure was surpassed before June 30, a Pioneer Press report revealed last November.

The Minnesota Subcommittee on Employee Relations investigated the increase in spending last Thursday, starting with testimony from Laura King, MnSCU's vice president for finance. King claimed that the payouts are an effort to save money in the long run, as they entice older workers to retire of their own free will instead of laying younger workers off. She also pointed out that the MnSCU system generally pays its employees "at or below the national and state averages", and that to keep drawing talent to this market the system has to augment its low salaries with bonuses like this, reports Minnesota Public Radio.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, expressed concern that these payouts make the incomes of MnSCU employees unclear. The fact that these payouts are deposited into a tax-free health care savings account makes tracking the money even more difficult, The Minnesota Daily reports.

No further reports or hearings are scheduled at the moment, but Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, the head of the subcommittee, says that he intends to gather more information and discuss the matter further.

To see King's exact testimony for the subcommittee, click here. For a complete database of separation payments made to Minnesota state employees, click here.

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