Monthly Archives: May 2011

Cliff Mass proposes compromise with KUOW; board backs decision to can him

In an effort to try to regain his Friday spot providing weather news on Steve Scher’s “Weekday” public-affairs program, Cliff Mass has proposed a compromise. “I sent KUOW an email proposing a compromise that many of you suggested: a weather-only segment and their establishment of other periods allowing discussion of other issues,” Mass wrote on his blog.

If you’re eagerly awaiting the return of the city’s most erudite deliverer of bad-weather news, expect a long wait, at least in regards to returning to his volunteer post on 94.9-FM. Despite more than 2,000 fans on a Facebook protest page (Put Cliff Mass Back on KUOW) and more than 4,000 online-petition signatures, the board of KUOW is standing behind the decision to ditch Mass for not talking strictly about weather, but instead at times offering opinions about matters such as education.

The board of KUOW today issued the following announcement on its web site:

The KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio Board of Directors is aware that many listeners are upset by the removal of Cliff Mass from our programming. We support our program director’s decision, which was not made lightly or in disregard of the interests of our listeners.

Feedback is always welcome and considered. We have received many messages in email or online. We’ve read and considered these messages and appreciate the time it took to send these messages. And we respect the views expressed.

Ultimately this decision is the responsibility of KUOW’s program director and we support his decision. If a guest like Dr. Mass is invited to discuss a specific topic on air in a specific segment, he is expected to inform our listeners on that topic and work within the guidance of our staff. He chose not to do that, despite several requests. We appreciate Dr. Mass’s contributions to KUOW over the years and wish he had chosen to stay on to do our weekend weather segment.

Thank you for providing us with your input and thanks for listening.

Sincerely,
Allan Steinman
Chair
KUOW/PSPR Board of Directors

Is that the final word? Don’t count on it, at least in terms of the issue dying. Tonight, Cliff Mass wrote an update to fans on the Facebook protest page:

“Over the weekend I emailed Steve and KUOW asking them whether we could find some compromise. I asked them to get back to me during the next few days. So far no word. Between the online petition and facebook pages, over 7000 have requested that the weather segment be reestablished. It is hard to see how KUOW can claim to be responsive to its listeners if such a large number are ignored. The great irony here is that KUOW claims to give great emphasis to airing both sides of issues, but when that issue is KUOW, a differing voice is silenced. .. cliff”

UPDATE: That KUOW board letter (above) makes it sound like “I decided to quit (not true) and that it was also the decision of the program manager, Jeff Hansen,” Mass wrote on his blog. “Just gets stranger and stranger.

“I think I was the only regular they had down there that was not allowed to speak on a variety of topics. Even stranger, I have talked to a number of other radio stations and NONE of them have said anything about constraining my speech. In fact, one news director laughed and said he WANTED me to talk about education topics–it would lend interest to the program. Why is KUOW different? Why is speech most constrained on a public radio station owned by the University of Washington?”

Job Training for Homeless and ‘At Risk’ Youth: Growing Food in the City

Not to be left out of the urban farm movement, teens and youth are taking a chance. They’re taking it to – well, like tomatoes that have finally found the sun. Seattle Youth Garden Works is a green jobs training farm-to-market program designed specifically for homeless and at risk youth. Martha Baskin takes us there in part three of a four part series on the burgeoning quest to grow food in the city.

 

A dozen 16- to 21-year-olds straddle stools around a lab table. The subject is tomatoes, the kind they’ve been growing from seed in a project with Seattle Youth Garden Works. First you learn how to grow the tomatoes, then how to sell them. And to do that, you need to know everything there is to know about tomatoes so you can beat out the competition at farmers’ markets.

“First question. Name a striped red, green and yellow tomato? Yell it out,” says Robert Servine, farm manager at Seattle Youth Garden Works.

Tigarilla is the answer. Mariah scores a point. Two points if she shoots a ball in an improvised hoop.

Servine asks another question: “A descriptive word meaning that a plant will go on producing fruit until something kills it.”

Many voices call the answer, “indeterminate.” There’s no telling how many tomatoes this plant will produce.  

Seattle Youth Garden Works is a green jobs training farm-to-market program specifically designed for homeless and at-risk youth. A project of Seattle Tilth, the land they’re growing food on is donated by The Center for Urban Horticulture.

Out in the field, Autumn Rainey prepares a bed for salad starts.

“Yeah, it’s a youth program.” Rainey says. “We have underprivileged youth here learning about job skills and jobs training. So it’s not just you know we work in the garden but we also learn how to write a resume, how to present ourselves and how to sell.”

Young workers at the Seattle Youth Garden Works.

Rainey says she’ll work with the program as long as they’ll continue to hire her.

“Teaches me where my food comes from and in a way to act on that, change that,” Rainey says.

For many it’s their first exposure to urban farming and to understanding the food system.  Program Manager Sharon Lerman says the youth are very interested in learning how to grow food.

“And what all goes into producing good healthy food and getting that into their communities,” she says.

Some will use the skills in growing and marketing urban food as stepping stones to something else.

Given high unemployment for youth aged 16 to 24 – 22% in 2010 and 38% for those without a high-school diploma – the chance for a paid internship is not something to pass up.

Tyrone’s outside detail for the day is removing invasive blackberries so more crops can be planted. He saw the job in the “hot jobs” section at the Youth Resource Center. He says he wasn’t exactly sure what the job would be, but he loves to be outside and he’s grown a garden before. He thought it would be easy.

“Unfortunately it turned out to be a little bit harder, a whole lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” Tyrone says.

It’s a lot more delicate, he says. “You actually have to space your seeds out a little bit more. You have to pay attention and really know what you’re doing because any site mess-up can mess up a whole crop and a whole bed and time wasted.”

Workers taking a break at the garden.

Robert Servine instructs the crew in the delicate art of transplanting starts. They need to be planted just so.

“So you get one plant separated with as much of a root ball as possible,” he says. “You have to dig a little bit deeper and then pat it down real quick and move onto the next one. Perfect.”

The goal is to grow and sell as many as possible in order to earn revenue for the program. There’s laughter and teasing. On a rainy day, kneeling in mud is not everyone’s idea of a good time.

But at the first farmers’ market of the season, professional marketing is on full display. Autumn Rainey asks potential customers if they know what “hardening off” means.

“No. All of these tomatoes you’ll want to harden off so you’ll keep them inside in the nighttime and you’ll put them outside during the day and it’s just, like, introduce our babies to the real world. All these hairs on the tomato are potential roots,” Rainey says.

She’s talking about Oregon Spring, selected for their ability to grow well in the Northwest. Rainey recommends pruning tomatoes.

“It will make sure you get more fruit because there’s less energy going to all these branches if you prune some branches off,” Rainey tells the customer. “Thanks, that was very useful, I learned a lot,” the customer says. But will they buy?

“Yeah, I think we’ll go with the ones that are a little bit bigger than the cherry tomatoes,” the customer says. “I think we’ll go with those.”  

At the beginning of the season these youth gardeners are already smooth talkers. But here’s a burning question: Will the ability to sell tomatoes translate to jobs outside farmers’ markets?

“Are you kidding? That’s a fabulous skill,” says Marlena Sessions. “I think we all find salespersonship in all of our jobs.” Marlena Sessions is CEO of the Seattle King County Workforce Development Council.

“So, yes, interacting with people, maintaining eye contact, being able to sell a product is a great skill,” she says.

 

Green Acre Radio is brought to you with support from the Human Links Foundation. Engineering is by CJ Lazenby. From the studios of Jack Straw Productions and KBCS. Seattle Youth Garden Works photos by the University of Washington.

E-mails Show Drug Company Used Third-Party Medical Groups to Influence Regulators

Brand-name drug manufacturers have long used controversial tactics to keep their generic competitors off the market, but a new report by the Senate Finance Committee sheds light on how one firm leveraged hidden financial ties with reputable medical groups to undermine its generic rivals.

Facing what it called “an imminent threat” to its brand-name blood thinner, Lovenox, pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis launched an advocacy campaign to influence the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to delay generic competitors, according to the report. It did so by contacting medical societies and researchers, urging them to write in to the FDA—or in one case, to write an advertorial for The Wall Street Journal—to raise safety concerns about generics.

The medical groups—the Society of Hospital Medicine and the North American Thrombrosis Forum—each received more than $2.3 million from Sanofi between 2007 and 2010. A Duke University researcher who wrote the FDA received more than $260,000.  None of the letters mentioned financial ties to Sanofi. (The Journal first reported on the two groups’ letters to the FDA last year, sparking the Senate investigation.)

ProPublica has reported on the ways that drug and device makers have sought to influence professional medical societies and health advocacy groups through millions in donations and advertising revenue at conferences. And while we’ve repeatedly raised questions about how the corporate cash influences these groups, there are limits to what reporters can expose about all that happens behind the scenes.

But Senate investigators have subpoena power, and they’ve produced a report  drawing on Sanofi documents and e-mails between the drugmaker and these supposedly independent medical groups. It’s worth reading in full. Here’s some of the e-mail correspondence between Sanofi and the CEO of the Society of Hospital Medicine after the drug company encouraged the group to contact the FDA. From the report, emphasis ours:

SHM has no history of making similar comments to the FDA or any government agency of this kind. While the Ec [Executive Committee] might be supportive they may feel this is not something that SHM has the expertise or knowledge to say much about. . . . That being said when something is important to any of our partners (like Sanofi) that we have a long term relationship with we want to give any issue that is important to our partner careful consideration.

The Society of Hospital Medicine did end up sending a letter to the FDA. The group’s CEO sent Sanofi a draft of the letter and he even asked for the name and address of the intended recipient at the FDA.

A senior manager at Sanofi, in an internal e-mail, later listed the letter as a “key accomplishment” for Sanofi’s public relations team.

E-mails also show Sanofi representatives worrying about keeping the appearance of these groups’ independence for fear that Sanofi’s involvement—if reported—could tarnish the groups’ credibility.

After the North American Thrombrosis Forum wrote an advertorial for Lovenox that ran in the Journal, a public relations firm hired by Sanofi e-mailed the piece to some reporters. That set off some alarm bells for one Sanofi spokeswoman, who worried that Sanofi’s involvement might be too obvious: “I’m a little concerned about how this activity by an agency of ours can be perceived by the media, in terms of any s-a [Sanofi-Aventis] involvement in this activity,” she wrote. (A reporter inquiring about the adasked about the financial ties between Sanofi and the NATF. She was told to ask the NATF.)

The Society of Hospital Medicine told the Journal that the group has new transparency policies, and “if we were writing the FDA now, we would be very clear about our relationship with any partner, including financial support.” The North American Thrombrosis Forum told the Journal that Sanofi’s funding was not intended “to shape public policy.”

As for the Duke University doctor, Dr. Victor Tapson, the Project on Government Oversight posted one of his letters [PDF] to the FDA. Worth noting, as POGO did, that it’s on Duke University letterhead. Tapson told the Journal that parts of the Senate report were “very incorrect,” but didn’t explain further. (Read our story on med schools and their policies on doctors receiving payments from pharmaceutical companies. Here’s Duke’s policy.)

As for Sanofi, it maintains that the comments from the experts “brought legitimate and important patient safety facts and considerations to the attention of the FDA,” the Journal reported.

The FDA approved the first generic version of Lovenox in July of last year.

Keeping generics off the market costs consumers and the government billions in potential savings every year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The agency has strongly opposed the industry practice known as “pay for delay,” whereby drug companies intent on protecting their monopoly on a particular drug pay off generics companies to get them to drop their patent challenges.

Drug companies have argued that the practice of reaching these settlements doesn’t prevent competition once the patents expire—something happening for several major brand-name drugs over the next few years. The FTC, however, has said the practice costs consumers and the government more than $3 billion annually.

Federal Government Launches Early Learning Race to the Top. WA Poised to Compete…

The federal government made a big move to help early education this week, announcing a $500 million Race to the Top competition for early learning programs, and Washington state appears ready to enter the contest.

The U.S. Education and Health and Human Services departments unveiled a plan to have states compete for grants by proposing comprehensive and integrated early learning plans with high quality standards. The agencies also want proposals to focus on getting more low-income children into good child care, preschool and pre-kindergarten classrooms.

Read the full story

Foreclosure contractors face new scrutiny from states

While federal and state officials investigating flawed foreclosures [1] have largely focused on holding the banks accountable and bringing relief to wronged homeowners, officials in a few states have begun targeting the more obscure middlemen of the foreclosure scandal.

Prosecutors in California and Illinois have sent subpoenas [2] to Lender Processing Services, one of the largest firms that processed mortgage documents for the banks. (Read more about LPS in our guide to who’s who of the foreclosure scandal [3].)

As we’ve noted [4], the firm—which helps handle more than half of all U.S. mortgages [5]—has been accused of using the same “robo-signing [6]” practices as the major banks, such as signing and notarizing documents that appeared inaccurate or invalid. Bank employees have testified under oath that they relied on LPS to vet the information [7] in foreclosure documents.

LPS has had its share of legal troubles over its mortgage processing. Michigan’s attorney general announced an investigation last month [8] into potentially fraudulent mortgage documents processed by an LPS subsidiary. (LPS has said that it discontinued [9] the practices used by the subsidiary.) Along with the big banks, the firm recently received an order from federal regulators to correct problems with its processing of mortgage documents. (Read that consent order [10].)

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan also sent a subpoena to Nationwide Title Clearing, another firm contracted to provide mortgage services to banks. As we’ve noted [11], Nationwide Title Clearing employees have testified to robo-signing thousands of mortgage documents—known as assignments—that establish the ownership of a mortgage loan and are key to establishing who has the right to foreclose on a homeowner.

Nationwide Title Clearing said in a statement that its procedures have been “thoroughly audited and examined for accuracy [12]” and that it would cooperate with any investigation. LPS declined to comment.

The latest actions on foreclosure problems as an attempted comprehensive settlement by all 50 state attorneys general has hit a few roadblocks. As we noted in our cheat sheet on bank investigations [1], the negotiations have been hampered by disagreement with the banks over the size of penalties as well as some disagreement among the attorneys general—at least eight of whom have opposed any settlement that would require banks to cut borrowers’ mortgage debt.

Bloomberg reports that Bank of America has also received independent scrutiny [13] from the attorneys general of Utah and Connecticut accusing the firm of invalid foreclosures [14] and insufficient loan modifications [15]. Utah warned that it would sue [14].

In HBO’s ‘Too Big to Fail,’ the Heroes Are Really Zeroes

HBO’s “Too Big To Fail”—I just caught up with it; thank you, HBO On Demand—is extraordinarily revealing about the financial crisis. Only its revelations are almost entirely inadvertent.

The movie is set up in the Hollywood conventional way: A gang of misfits, each with a special expertise, is brought together for an impossible mission. There’s Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, steely eyed at the moment of truth. There’s New York Federal Reserve head Timothy Geithner, the athlete (he doesn’t just jog, but also plays what appears to be squash). And then there’s Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, the professor with a heart of gold and secret knowledge of the Great Depression.

Ostensibly it’s a story of their success against all odds. Michael Kinsley, reviewing the movie in the New York Times, labeled Hank Paulson [1] the “hero” of the account.

Except that the movie actually depicts something entirely different: failure upon failure. “Too Big To Fail” The Movie isn’t the story of how the Three Musketeers saved the global economy. It’s a story of how the three didn’t see the financial crisis coming; hadn’t prepared for it; made mistake after mistake as it was cresting; and then, in their moment of triumph, made their most colossal blunder of all.

That, it turns out (whether or not “Too Big To Fail” knows it), is the true story of the financial crisis.

How much did Curtis Hanson and the writers mean for that to be the story? Throughout, the characters drop hints about their missteps, but the plot unfolds like a financial “Die Hard,” with our intrepid heroes battling fiendishly powerful forces toward a happy ending. (Full disclosure in this era of transparency: I write a regular column [2] for DealBook, the New York Times section edited by Andrew Ross Sorkin, the reporter upon whose book [3] the movie was based.)

Early on, Paulson complains to his staff that they have been behind on everything as the crisis began to emerge. And that’s true! The crisis actually started in the late summer of 2007 [4]. Paulson’s first effort, late that year, was to get a bunch of banks to assemble a giant off-balance-sheet concoction [5] that would save each individual bank’s off-balance-sheet monstrosity. It was a complete flop.

In the movie, as bankers and government officials frantically try to save Lehman, Chris Flowers, the private equity investor and banking impresario, is depicted as informing Paulson and Geithner that AIG is teetering on the edge. In their fumbled response, he immediately grasps the truth. “They’re not on top of it,” he tells a confederate.

And they weren’t. In real life, AIG had been struggling since the middle of 2007. Paulson and Geithner [6] of course had some inkling of the problems [7] at the world’s largest insurer. But they didn’t prepare for it.

In the movie, the chief executive of General Electric, Jeff Immelt, places a terrified call to Paulson [8] saying that GE can’t borrow. GE is standing in for every Real American manufacturing company. We are reminded it makes light bulbs and washing machines. Paulson is shocked that such a stalwart could be having trouble borrowing.

The reality, of course, is that GE was more a finance company than a manufacturer and was teetering because it financed those operations with billions of short-term borrowing. It is also true that Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner had no inkling of GE’s troubles until the very last moment and therefore had no plan to deal with it.

Plans are, in the movie, almost nonexistent. The team of heroes races from crisis to crisis, as Bond goes from chase scene to babe, eventually stumbling on the evil SPECTRE [9] plot to take over the world. Intentionally or not, the movie is echoing real life.

Despite warning signs [10], Paulson, Geithner and Bernanke had no evident plans throughout the last half of 2007 and the first eight months of 2008. Not for how to resolve Lehman after Bear Stearns’ collapse, not for AIG, not for recapitalizing the banking system.

Indeed, they asked Congress for $700 billion to implement the Troubled Asset Relief Plan [11] to buy toxic assets from the banks, and then, without any further discussion, abandoned that idea and injected capital into the banks. Many economists [12] and financial experts had been urging them to do just that, but when they finally hit on that as a solution, it was so poorly thought out that they gave the money to the banks on overly generous terms.

This moment is depicted at the end of the movie, and because it is both a triumph in the conventional narrative sense, but also a major mistake by our heroes, it is the  point at which the movie is most cognitively dissonant. Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner have finally come to their solution: Put capital in the banks. They gather outside the boardroom where they are going to confront the CEOs.

For purposes of dramatic tension, we have to see their nervousness that the deal won’t go through. The Treasury secretary and the two most powerful central bankers in the country are about rescue these CEOs and their institutions from their own recklessness, yet they cower in fear of rejection.

Of course, this rings true because the government drove awful bargains. In the aftermath of the greatest credit bubble in history, it protected creditors at almost every turn. The government gave the banks money but didn’t get voting rights and didn’t prevent the banks from using the money to pay dividends or bonuses. They wrote what was essentially a blank check. In real life, Warren Buffett got much better terms [13] when he invested in Goldman Sachs.

What is the audience to make of these scenes? Paulson, our supposed hero, insists that if the government puts any restrictions on the money, “They won’t take it!”

It’s left to the hapless PR woman, played by Cynthia Nixon (who has, moments earlier, had the crisis explained to her in words of one syllable for the sake of her, and the audience’s, simple minds), to wonder why, if the government is saving these institutions, it couldn’t impose any limits on how the money be used.

The banks do take the money, of course. They have no choice by the conventions of Hollywood. Nor did they in real life, something that the Three Musketeers never fully appreciated.

After the scene, the Big Three gather in a room, relieved, and Bernanke asks, “They will lend the money out, won’t they?” The director, Curtis Hanson, focuses in on Paulson, who gazes out the window, as if contemplating the question for the first time. He insists they will. But an unmistakable moment of doubt passes across his face.

Fade to the postscript. There we learn that, whoops, the banks didn’t lend it out after all. Instead, they got bigger, banker bonuses recovered, and Wall Street is getting bottle service at velvet-roped clubs all over again. The world was saved from ruin, but the banks quickly went back to business as usual and even felt self-righteous about it.

PATH celebrates 34 years of life-saving gizmos

Seattle-based PATH today celebrated 34 years of finding creative ways to use science and technology to save millions of lives, mostly children, and one achievement this year that was unusually ground-breaking.

A vaccine made only for poor people.

That sounds simple enough, but it isn’t. Vaccines have to be made by the drug industry and industry needs to make money. In central Africa, a particular strain of meningitis has for generations killed, maimed and terrified communities from Senegal to Ethiopia.

Developing a vaccine against this bacteria was long possible, but the drug industry saw no market for it. This disease was too geographically specific and the people (or the governments) too poor to be able to afford a “designer” vaccine.

Read the full story

Detlef Schrempf Foundation Gala & Auction

Cliff Mass: Memorial Weekend forecast

Update (Sunday): Monday, things should go downhill a bit as a weather system moves towards and south of us. Subtract 5 degrees from Sunday perhaps.

***

Since I can’t provide the weekend forecast on KUOW   today, I thought I would do it here on the blog.

The bottom line. We are in a cool, cloudy pattern, but with no big storms. Relatively cool and lots of clouds, with the best weather expected on Sunday.

OK, lets get into the details. Today we have cool, unstable air over us with lots of showers…Quite a few showers moving through, some with moderate rain. As the surface warms the air will become more unstable…with more showers. Highs only in the upper 50s. Sorry….you will need a jacket and umbrella today.

 

FULL STORY…

Did the week-long World Health Assembly accomplish anything?

At the close of the week-long meeting of the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization, it’s worth asking what was accomplished in Geneva to advance global health.

The WHO, which is supposed to set priorities and establish guidelines for the international community’s many efforts aimed at improving health or fighting disease, received the most attention for delaying a decision on whether or not to recommend finally destroying all remaining samples of smallpox virus.

As the Associated Press reported:

After two days of heated debate, the 193-nation World Health Assembly agreed by consensus to a compromise that calls for another review in 2014.

It’s a debate that’s been going on since 1986, following the 1980 eradication of this deadly and terrifying disease. The U.S. and Russia, which hold the remaining known smallpox stockpiles, opposed destruction in favor of continuing research. Most other countries wanted the scourge totally removed from the planet.

Read the full article