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Thursday, April 24, 2014


Original Story: WashingtonPost.com

Their lives swirl in technology, but the nation’s high school students spend little time studying the computer science that is the basis of it all. Few are taught to write lines of code, and few take classes that delve into the workings of the Internet or explain how to create an app.

In a world that went digital long ago, computer science is not a staple of U.S. education, and some schools do not even offer a course on the subject, including 10 of 27 high schools in Virginia’s Fairfax County and six of 25 in Maryland’s Montgomery County.

“It’s shocking how little there is,” said Rebecca Dovi, who has taught computer science for 17 years in Virginia schools and is an advocate for more courses statewide. Even when schools offer classes, she said, there are relatively few of them. “You might have one person teaching it in a school of 1,400 kids.”

Though computer science can lead to high-paying technology jobs and boost skills for a variety of fields, many students get little exposure to the subject in class. Across the Washington region’s school systems, fewer than one in 10 high school students took computer science this academic year, according to district data.

But, slowly, that might be starting to change. Spurred in part by national initiatives, some local districts are urging more students to take computer science courses and trying to address a glaring gender and racial disparity. By next school year, school leaders expect more computer science courses in Montgomery high schools, more enrollment in courses in Virginia’s Loudoun County and more schools offering classes in the District.

And Charles County, Md., with 26,500 students, has committed to bring such learning into every grade starting in the fall, in partnership with the nonprofit Code.org, which works to increase access to computer science in schools.

“We really believe the skills they will get from coding will help them in whatever career they choose,” said Charles County Superintendent Kimberly Hill, who pointed out that such learning requires logic and “habits of the mind” that have broader uses.

Computer science is not just for math whizzes and budding techies, she said.

“Typically it’s male. Typically it’s white male,” Hill said, adding that it begs the questions: “Where are all the girls? Where are all the African American and Hispanic kids?”

Under the county’s new plan, she said, the thinking is, “You can learn how to code, like you can learn how to read and learn how to write.”

Among the reasons many schools do not have computer science: It is not a priority core subject, and computer science teachers can be hard to find, with some drawn to higher-paying tech jobs. While an increasing number of states allow the courses to count as a math or science credit, they are usually not a requirement and are sometimes viewed by students as boring or intimidating.

Many parents mistake the computers they see in schools — and the seeming ease with which teenagers manage their devices — as a signs of computer science understanding.

“These skills are as fundamental as algebra,” said Marie desJardins, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who is leading a project to train 100 computer science teachers in Maryland and the District over a three-year period.

During the next decade, about 70 percent of new jobs in science, technology, engineering and math fields will be for computing professionals, desJardins said.

“There is not a field right now that computer science doesn’t contribute to or support,” said Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association. Still, she said, “most kids don’t have a chance to get introduced to this content in high school, and the kids that are least likely to have these opportunities are in high-poverty, high-minority schools.”

Hoping to reach more students, especially girls and minorities, Montgomery’s school leaders also have signed on with Code.org. Ten county high schools are slated to offer more-engaging courses that go beyond programming, with inquiry-based learning and topics such as the Internet and human-computer interaction.

“As a school system and a nation, we’re stuck in a box where computer science is not what we teach kids; it’s just something that you learn maybe later,” said Pat Yongpradit, a former Montgomery teacher who is director of education at Code.org.

Code.org has brought widespread attention to the learning gap, first with a video early last year that went viral — “What Most Schools Don’t Teach” — and then in December with a week-long “Hour of Code” campaign that drew in millions of people worldwide. The organization has partnered with an increasing number of school systems nationally — 32 as of this month — providing professional development for teachers and new curricular materials.

In Rockville, David Silversmith needed no convincing. One recent morning at Thomas S. Wootton High School, the 17-year-old senior was puzzling over a line of code for a computer-based game of Connect Four. Silversmith has no plans to become a computer scientist but decided the class was important.

“I think whatever profession you do nowadays,” the Maryland teen said, “it will definitely help.”

In D.C. public schools, new courses were offered this school year at six high schools and another four high schools will get computer science classes in the fall.

“The kids like these classes, they’re showing up for them, they’re engaged,” said Anthony Priest, a D.C. schools program manager. The District’s H.D. Woodson High School made computer science a requirement for all ninth-graders.

There are smaller efforts to expand computer science, too. In Fairfax County, teacher Dan Tra jazzed up a programming course with lots of app development, worked hard to market it, and got about 130 students to take the class at Falls Church High School this year. More than 40 percent of the students were female.
Falls Church now has a Robotics Club and a Girls in Technology Club. More than 20 students entered a hack-athon in late March, some winning honors.

“In our school, there’s a thirst for it,” Tra said.

Computer science courses are poorly tracked nationally and often misunderstood, experts say. Many people confuse courses about using computer software with true computer science, which is about creating and ­problem-solving with computers.

The most reliable figures about computer science’s reach into high schools come from the Advanced Placement (AP) exam. In Fairfax County, which has nearly 52,000 high school students, 740 students took the most recent AP exam in computer science. In Montgomery, with more than 45,000 high school students, 521 took the most recent AP exam. There were a little more than 600 exam-takers combined for public school systems in the District, Prince George’s County in Maryland, and Alexandria and Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia.

Barbara Ericson, a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech who studies AP computer science results, said Maryland, Virginia and the District made the top-10 list for computer science participation per capita in 2013. Nationally, 29,555 students took the exam.

Still, Ericson said, it remains a course of the few: More than 270,000 students took the most popular AP calculus exam last year, and nearly 200,000 took biology exams. In 2013, girls accounted for 18.6 percent of computer science exam-takers, Hispanic students 8.1 percent and black students 3.7 percent.

Locally, there are signs of both the problem and new interest.

T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, for example, lost its computer science teacher and was unable to find another who was certified, so the seven students now in the course take it online, officials said.

In Loudoun, enrollment is on the rise and a Microsoft program called Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, or TEALS, has brought professionals into classrooms. All 13 Loudoun high schools offer computer science and AP computer science.

Dan Kasun, a Microsoft executive involved in the program, said the collaboration inspires teachers, who in turn get their students excited. About 1,075 students are expected to take classes next year in Loudoun, up from 845 this year.

“People are realizing these are the skill sets that are going to lead to 21st-century jobs,” Kasun said.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Original Story: ConstructionWeekOnline.com

InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) is to team up with Muscat Golf Course Project to deliver a five-star hotel near Muscat International Airport.

The project is scheduled to commence towards the end of 2014 with a completion date scheduled for the end of 2016, according to a statement released by IHG.

InterContinental Hotel & Golf Clubhouse will have a built-up area of 50,000m² and feature 270 guest rooms.

The project will also include leisure facilities with two tennis courts and three outdoor swimming pools and spa facilities with “hammam”, gymnasium and treatment rooms, two full service speciality restaurants and one all-day dining restaurant, ballroom and fully equipped meeting facilities and enhanced business services.

Muscat Hills Golf Course is located between the mountains and the sea and comprises an 18-hole PGA-certified green golf course.  The hotel may be reviewing a Miniature Golf Course Design to expand customer satisfaction.

IHG manages a number of hotels in Oman including InterContinental Muscat, Crowne Plaza Muscat, Crowne Plaza Sohar, Crowne Plaza Salalah, Crowne Plaza in Duqm and Holiday Inn in Muscat.


Original Story: USAToday.com

Breaking news such as the massive data breach at Experian or Target now seems common. Leaving aside the victims of actual fraud, I hear constantly from people who've had to swap out every debit and credit card, or whose cards were unilaterally replaced by their bank. This causes all sorts of problems.

Sometimes it makes you long for the days of cash. While cash is not practical for everything, there are very compelling reasons to consider it or other alternatives instead of those debit cards.

Of course, you also have to watch where you get your cash, too. Criminals are good at installing near-invisible skimmers on ATMs. These steal your card information and then a miniature camera over the keypad steals your PIN. It's everything a thief needs to drain your account.

Avoid out of the way ATMs in isolated areas. When you can, use ATMs in a restricted-access foyer. You should also hold your hand over the keypad when you enter your PIN. This blocks a camera from seeing what you're doing.

CREDIT OR DEBIT: What's best for consumers?

Now that you know how to safely get cash, here's where you should use it.


ATMs aren't the only places criminals can install card skimmers. Gas stations are a favorite target for thieves. Last year, four men were arrested for allegedly stealing $2.1 million using skimmers at gas stations in the south. The skimmers were installed in the pumps and were even equipped with Bluetooth — which allowed the thieves to come by and extract the collected numbers and PINs wirelessly!

To keep the odds in your favor, use cash. If nothing else, use a credit card at a gas pump. It's not widely appreciated that consumer responsibility for debit-card charges are different than they are for credit cards. Credit-card charges are easier to contest, and you're only liable for up to $50 of fraudulent purchases.

With a debit card, you have to report a fraudulent purchase within a few business days for the $50 liability limit to kick in.


Restaurants, too, can be a source of trouble. Some unscrupulous servers bring handheld card skimmers to work to swipe your card info. Even low-tech thieves can just write down the card numbers.

To make matters worse, many restaurants use older computer systems for processing cards. These are easy for hackers to install card-swipe software, as in the Target hack. The price paid can be quite high; Subway got hit in 2011 by Romanian hackers, who got away with $10 million from 150 restaurants.

One of the lesser noted aspects about the coming end to Microsoft's XP operating system is that many restaurants and ATMs still use the XP infrastructure.


Restaurants and gas stations make juicy targets: a steady steam of customers, some not from the area. The same goes for stores.

For small purchases cash is the way to go. Use cash at the grocery store or while buying clothes. For larger purchases, use a credit card instead of a debit card. Again, you have less liability than you do with a debit card.

Bonus tip: Some people use cash at stores to avoid the store tracking what they buy. However, stores can still track your purchase history if you still swipe a loyalty card.


OK, you can't use cash online. But please, use a credit card, not a debit card. The fraud protections are better and a hacker can't overdraft your bank account with a credit card. You don't need to be fighting overdraft fees on top of everything else.

You can also check with your bank to see if it offers one-time credit card numbers for online buying. Since each number only works once, it won't do a hacker any good to steal it.

Of course, one drawback to using a credit card is the interest payments if you don't pay on time. This site can show you the real cost of using a credit card.

Finally, I know this is a lot of work, particularly when it seems that everyone is busy and overworked; but remember as well to check your bank statements, and credit reports, regularly for suspicious activity.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Building activity strong in Fort Smith region, up 50.9% in first quarter

Original Story:  TheCityWire.com

The value of building permits in Fort Smith, Greenwood and Van Buren were a combined $24.913 million in March, up 203.96% compared to $8.196 million in March 2013.

For the first three months of 2013, permits for the three cities totaled $41.787 million, up 50.9% compared to the $27.691 million during the same period in 2013.

The city of Fort Smith issued 191 permits during the month of March, nearly even with the same month last year, but the permit values totaled $20.410 million last month, up 197.7% compared to $6.856 million during the same period last year.

The primary driver of Fort Smith's higher totals was the $13.3 million building permit issued for the new Mill Creek Wastewater Pump Station, located at 210 Navy Road. A Tulsa Construction Lawyer is familiar with these types of permits.

Another large project pushing totals higher is an expansion at Darby Junior High, valued at $1.674 million, as well as a $1.1 million permit issued for a new immigration office at 4624 Kelley Highway. The Kelley Highway site is the former home of what is now known as KNWA-TV and its now shuttered Fort Smith newsroom. The station consolidated newsroom operations to its Fayetteville newsroom in 2006 when Oklahoma City-based Griffin Communications sold the station to Irving, Texas-based Nexstar Broadcasting, leaving the former television station mostly unoccupied since that time.

In addition to the three large commercial projects, the city of Fort Smith issued 120 residential building permits worth $1.641 million, a drop from March 2013 when the city issued 125 permits worth $2.525 million.

A total of six permits were issued for the city of Greenwood in March, totaling $373,676. That represents a 43.66% decrease from the same period in 2013, which saw $663,300 in permits. A Boston Construction Lawyer said it often takes many permits to complete a build.

The city of Van Buren saw an increase of 510.75% from $676,000 in March 2013 to $4.129 million last month. The higher values in the city last month was largely due to construction of the city's new police headquarters, which is being constructed at the former Sherman's Grocery site. The new police station has an estimated value of $3.567 million.

Other construction in the city was relatively minor, with a spattering of permits issued across various categories, including four permits worth $89,000 for residential remodels, the second largest category after commercial construction.

2013 RECAP
Combined values in the three cities during 2013 were $203.037 million, compared to $157.32 million during 2012. The 2013 value is above the $201.079 million in 2011.

Fort Smith closed 2013 with the largest share of valuations, logging $177.687 million (a one-year increase of about 30.24% from $136.428 million in 2012), while Van Buren was the next largest with $17.067 million (a one-year increase of 38.96% from $12.282 million in 2012). Greenwood posted an additional $8.283 million, the only city to show a decrease from the previous year's total of $8.609 million (a decrease of 3.79%).  A San Francisco Construction Lawyer is not surprised by these stats.

The gains in the Fort Smith market were largely from industrial construction projects at Chaffee Crossing, the construction of Mercy's new orthopedic hospital along Phoenix Avenue and various municipal construction projects across the city.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

EM Orr admits missteps on road to Detroit bankruptcy

Story originally appeared on DetroitNews.com.

Detroit— Kevyn Orr had a quick comeback recently when a disgruntled banker abruptly approached him at a New York City restaurant.

“We’re going to punish you,” Orr said the man told him, referring to Detroit’s increasingly hard line on banks and bondholders in its historic bankruptcy. A Tulsa Bankruptcy Lawyer is watching the case closely.

But the high-profile Washington, D.C., bankruptcy attorney responded with a story about life in the city he was tapped to run as emergency manager one year ago Friday.

Orr, 55, told the banker standing over his table about a little girl he saw on Seven Mile one evening in November, waiting for a bus ride home from school that would likely take her to a blighted neighborhood with broken streetlights.

“None of us would let our children live that way — and that is the life of the children in this city,” Orr, a father of two, recalled telling the speechless banker, whom he declined to identify.

In a wide-ranging interview this week with The Detroit News, Orr said the conversation speaks to the enormity of the task before him: fixing the finances of a city mired in poverty, crime, blight and a dwindling populace that can’t pay its bills while juggling demands from creditors that they be paid in full.

But Orr acknowledged for the first time that he miscalculated the willingness of Detroit’s creditors to take enormous losses for the good of the city’s future.

“How can you drive through the city and not see the needs?” Orr asked. “I’m still surprised. ... I should probably have been a little bit more skeptical about the ability of the stakeholders to see things the way I see things. Their prism is different than my prism.”

After 12 months at the helm during one the most tumultuous periods in Detroit’s 208-year history, Orr acknowledges he didn’t move fast enough last spring to tackle city services, such as outsourcing trash pickup to private firms.

Orr says he spent too much time analyzing the city’s finances — which teams of consultants had already done for then-Mayor Dave Bing — during the lead-up to his decision to take the city into bankruptcy in July.

“Looking back on it, I probably should have accepted what I was reading with more confidence,” said Orr, who is working for Gov. Rick Snyder under an appointment that will presumably end in September.
Dealing with opposition

After a year of living in the Book Cadillac hotel and flying home to see his family in Maryland on weekends, Orr is poised to deliver major changes to the way city government works — or doesn’t — for the 700,000 citizens of Michigan’s largest city.

Orr’s plan to shed billions of dollars in debt asks U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to approve what was once unthinkable in municipal bankruptcy: Reduce monthly pension checks to retirees and walk away from hundreds of millions of dollars owed on general obligation bonds that were used, in part, to mask annual budget deficits.

“We are going to receive violent opposition to our plan at a confirmation hearing by the creditor corps,” Orr said of opposition from bond insurers.

Orr’s proposed cures for city government — including a $1.5 billion, 10-year reinvestment plan — remain largely tied up in his bankruptcy reorganization plan that goes on trial this summer.

James Spiotto, a Chicago bankruptcy attorney and municipal financial adviser, said Orr made a misstep last summer by pushing the city’s pension funds and bondholders to accept as little as 10 cents for every dollar owed before he sought to generate support for fixing city services.

Orr wants to cut debt to free up cash to tear down abandoned homes, upgrade archaic city computer systems and buy trucks and equipment for police, fire and emergency services. But he should have focused on that before laying out devastating options for creditors, Spiotto said.

“I think he used more of a corporate bankruptcy approach than a municipal bankruptcy approach, where you need to bring buy-in,” Spiotto said. “Generally from past experiences, you start with a recovery plan and try to get buy-in. It’s sometimes a far better way than announcing a plan and telling people, ‘you’re going to get 10 cents on the dollar.’”

Orr admits he wrongly assumed the city’s creditors would be much more willing to reach agreements.

But he remains optimistic city retirees will accept a $815 million rescue package of state and private pledges to limit the reductions in future pensions for some 23,000 retirees and 10,000 current workers.

In exchange for settling now, police and firefighters would get a 4 percent cut in their monthly pensions and non-uniform general employees would get a 26 percent reduction — with no cost-of-living increases for at least a decade.

The deal on the table for retirees is far better than the 20 cents on the dollar Orr was offering the city’s pension funds last June. Orr said that’s a result of political, legal and judicial pressures the city faced to find a way to avoid a protracted court battle over pensions.

“We got pressure from a lot of fronts … and we listened to it,” Orr said.

'Public enemy No. 1'

Orr’s strategy for fast-tracking Detroit’s bankruptcy has faced setbacks in recent months. He acknowledges he’s a “little bit off schedule,” largely due to “push back” from the judge. Rhodes has twice rejected early settlements Orr hatched with two banks.

In a message that appeared aimed at Orr, Rhodes ruled from the bench Jan. 16 that he would not “perpetuate hasty and imprudent financial decision-making.”

“It just seems to me like this has not been a fun exercise for Kevyn Orr, and Judge Rhodes has not followed what people would have scripted to have been the playbook for this case,” said David Tawil, a New York hedge fund manager and former bankruptcy attorney who studied under Rhodes at the University of Michigan.

The city recently cut a third deal with UBS AG and Bank of America to settle a troubled pension debt for $85 million — about $145 million less than Orr originally agreed to last summer. Rhodes will consider the new deal at an April 3 hearing.

But the latest settlement came after Rhodes encouraged the city to bring him a lawsuit challenging the legality of the complex interest rate swaps debt. Orr said he made a legal calculation to settle the debt and avoid an expensive courtroom battle with the banks, while freeing up access to $15 million in monthly casino tax revenues that the banks have a lien on. The tax implications of the municipal bankruptcy is also being followed closely by a Tulsa Tax Lawyer.

But Orr’s preference to settle the debt continues to baffle some financial experts and inflames community activists who say it shows he’s more friendly with the banks than he publicly portrays.

“What’s hard to reconcile for a city that doesn’t have any money is that plaintiffs with good legal cases don’t typically write eight-figure checks to settle,” said Patrick O’Keefe, a Bloomfield Hills financial consultant.

Jerome Goldberg, an attorney representing a single city retiree, David Sole, said “it’s still an outrage” that Orr has declined to confront the banks in court.

“If you’re really serious about bringing the city back, let’s go after those who hurt the city,” Goldberg said.

But based on the vitriol being lobbed at him from Wall Street and the random banker in New York, Orr says “I don’t feel like a friend of the banks in any fashion.”

“Apparently I guess I’m on the walls of bathrooms or public enemy No. 1 over there (on Wall Street),” Orr said. “I’ve developed some callus at this point to criticism. But I’m still a little frustrated with folks who don’t realize the needs of the city.”

High-end restaurant adds Obamacare surcharge to every order

Story originally appeared on ajc.com.

At Republique restaurant in Los Angeles, you can order trendy sounding dishes such as Butternut Squash Agnolotti and Duck Liver Mousse with Pickled Asian Pear.

Diners at the high-end eatery, about 6 miles west of downtown Los Angeles, likely expect to pay a bit more for the funky fare, but what's been surprising many customers is a 3 percent surcharge added to every bill to cover employee health care costs under the Health Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Social media and restaurant review sites have been abuzz with the story since it was reported by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez on Tuesday.

The Times talked to Republique co-owners Bill Chait and Walter Manzke, who is also the chef. They said they knew the charge would drive some customers away, but thought it was necessary to keep all 80 employees at full time.

Under the Affordable Care Act, companies with 50 or more full-time employees will have to provide health insurance to their workers. The owners opted for the surcharge instead of cutting back staff or creating several part-time jobs to get around the law.

According to TV station KTLA, many people voiced complaints about the policy on Yelp.

“We spent $150 for two of us and you want me to pay an extra 3 percent. Because I can afford to eat here then I should be able to afford that fee? Absurd,” one customer wrote.

The restaurant issued a statement to KTLA regarding the surcharge.

“It directly benefits all the staff, kitchen and front of the house. Moreover, it enables us to make all of our staff full time and to provide them with insurance instead of excluding them as they would be if they were part-time employees.”