Illinois Public Media News
Airline passengers are putting up with a new and often unwelcome level of security screenings, but a University of Illinois professor who studies aviation security said those searches may not be useful.
Thanksgiving-weekend travelers at the nation's largest airports reported few slowdowns or other problems with "backscanner" machines that give screeners revealing images of passengers. Those who turned down the scans are subject to intensive pat-downs.
Professor Sheldon Jacobson said he believes federal officials pay too much attention to searching for banned items, and that the high-level searches should not be the first line of defense against terrorists.
"The question is, is this an effective use of a very powerful technology? In our own research, we don't believe it is," Jacobson said. "We believe that using it for secondary screening is far more appropriate and will actually facilitate a far more secure system, which is very counter-intuitive in some sense."
Jacobson says more effective security should focus on a passenger's intent. He said the Transportation Security Administration needs to further its research on ways of filtering out passengers based on background checks and looking for behavioral red flags at the airport.
Residents and businesses in Urbana who found themselves without phone service last week should have it restored by now.
A spokeswoman for AT&T said crews finished repairs on an underground cable over the weekend. Brooke Vane said they were sending tech personnel around to each phone and telecom customer to re-start their service. An employee at the Urbana School District confirmed that their phone service was restored around midday Monday.
Vane stated that they received around 300 complaints about the disruption caused when a construction crew accidentally cut the cable at the U of I campus, but she did not know the full number of customers who were affected. She said anyone still experiencing problems should call the AT&T customer service and repair number --- 1-888-611-4466.
Champaign County's METCAD 911 staff says a disruption to service this morning was the result of a cut cable on the University of Illinois campus.
A construction crew accidentally cut the cable at Illinois Street and Matthews Avenue, by the U of I's Noyes Lab, about 8-30 a.m.. METCAD says the worst of the problems were over in an hour, when some of its staff went to Rantoul's Police station to help anyone not getting through to the dispatch facility. Anyone in the county who's unable to use 9-1-1, should call 333-8911. Greg Abbott, METCAD's deputy director of technology, says if callers don't get a ring right away, they should use the alternate number.
So far, he says only a small part of Urbana was impacted. Abbott says it's a good thing the AT & T line was cut at a time when phone traffic is slow. "Usually once everybody gets to their offices or to school in the morning our call volume drops off until around noon," said Abbott. "So if it had to happen, that was probably a good time for it to occur."
The cut line has also affected phone lines to businesses in the area. Customers at the Urbana Schnuck's weren't able to use debit cards for purchases on Thursday. Abbott says the cut line impacted some banks and cell phone towers as well. A-T & T spokeswoman Brooke Vane there's been extensive damage to several cables and the company expects complete restoration to take several days. She says crews will be working around the clock. Vaine says splicing pairs of cables together at the same time is a tedious process.
Following Verizon Wireless' announcement in October that it would refund customers $53 million in unnecessary charges, the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) has come out with a report assessing Illinois' wireless industry.
The study found that cell phone users could save around $360 a year by identifying billing errors, cutting down on the number of available minutes, and not paying extra for cell phone insurance or roadside assistance.
Bryan McDaniel, a senior policy analyst with CUB, said high wireless rates are costing Champaign residents more than $13 million a year. Across the state he said it is much higher at just under a billion dollars. McDaniel said trimming cell phone bills could help the state's sluggish economy, as businesses struggle to stay afloat.
"If we didn't give that $13 million to the cell phone companies, and instead to local businesses and mom and pop shops, that'd be a good thing for our economy," McDaniel said. "Unfortunately every month, we're throwing away money to these cell phone companies when we don't need to be."
According to the report, the wireless industry should start providing more flexible plans, so that people are not deadlocked into paying extra for features that they do not want.
"Allow people to have 150 minute plans," McDaniel said. "I can't tell you the number of seniors I've talked to who just want a simple 100 minute plan that they can't get anymore."
McDaniel added that consumers also have a responsibility to trim their cell phone rates. He explained that they can visit Cellphone Saver, a free online service that allows users to upload an online copy of their wireless bills - AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular. Within a few seconds, the website spits out an analysis showing consumers how to cut their costs. The study used the web service to track data from August 2009 though July 2010.
(Photo courtesy of Major Clanger/flickr)
Months after a federal government U-turn in the long-running FutureGen clean-coal project, six Illinois locations have expressed interest in hosting a carbon dioxide storage site that could mean more than 1,000 short-term jobs and a few dozen permanent ones.
The bidders behind one of those locations, though, said Tuesday that their interest is laced with a heavy dose of skepticism after watching what appeared to be politics almost derail the project and then make radical changes in it.
The six locations that submitted bids before Monday's deadline are the city of Quincy; Christian County; the city of Tuscola along with Douglas County; Morgan County; Pike County; and the city of Vandalia along with Fayette County, FutureGen Alliance spokesman Lawrence Pacheco told the Associated Press on Tuesday. The alliance is made up of coal companies and other firms working with the federal government on the project.
"Our team of scientific and engineering experts has already begun review of those proposals, and we look forward to making an announcement on the final site in early 2011,'' FutureGen CEO Ken Humphreys said.
Until earlier this year the plan called for building a new power plant in Mattoon, Ill. and storing the carbon dioxide it produced just outside town. But the Department of Energy decided instead to use $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funding to refit an existing coal-burning Ameren plant in Meredosia, Ill., with different technology and pipe the carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, to another location for underground storage. That site would also become home to an education center to train people to build carbon dioxide pipelines.
The department said that, with delays in the FutureGen project, other projects had already bypassed the technology it had hoped to use in Mattoon.
The project had already been shelved once by the administration of President George W. Bush, only to be revived under President Barack Obama.
Many people in Mattoon tired of what they saw as politics holding up and changing the project, and the town withdrew.
Tuscola was among the four finalists, along with Mattoon, for the original project, and already had in hand much of the environmental and geological testing needed to bid to store the project's carbon dioxide, said Brian Moody, executive director of Tuscola Economic Development Inc. The area is interested, he said, but needs to know more from the Department of Energy about its plans.
"There's definitely a level of cynicism that we all have,'' he said. "It's obvious with the project, once it's gotten out of the site selection process and has been in the political realm, that's where it's had some problems."
"While we're generally supportive of the concept, we still need to know a lot more,'' Moody said. "In order to do that, we need to keep our name in the game."
Looking at the potential jobs, officials in Vandalia aren't nearly as skeptical, Mayor Rick Gottman said.
Unemployment in the area was 10.2 percent in September, the most recent month for which the Illinois Department of Employment Security has data.
Over the past few years, one major employer, Orgill Inc., moved a distribution center and about 140 jobs out of state, Gottman said. Another, Graham Packaging, has reduced its work force from about 800 to roughly 200.
"We're in a high unemployment area right now,'' he said. "We're looking at ways to create jobs.
Officials from Dynergy Inc. have raised concerns about the Vermilion Power Station's long-term stability.
The Houston-based company owns four power plants in Illinois, in addition to the Vermilion plant located near Oakwood. Dynergy spokesman David Byford said because of challenging market conditions coupled with the cost of transporting coal that is trucked to the plant, his company is looking at 'options' for the 54-year-old power station.
"For the short term, it's business as usual for the plant," Byford said.
Byford would not go into detail about what options the company's pursuing.
Dynegy may soon merge with the Blackstone Group for about $4.7 billion, which would include the assumption of Dynegy's debt. Dynegy Shareholders are scheduled to vote on the merger next week in Houston.
Organizers of Champaign County's quarterly Residential Electronics Collection say they've kept over 220 tons of old computers, microwaves, cell phones, VCR and DVD players, printers, mp3 players, keyboards and other equipment from going to landfills this year. And they hope to collect several more tons at their final collection of the year, set for the morning of Saturday, November 6th.
Susan Monte of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission says a contractor specializing in the recycling of high-tech electronic gear makes sure everything they collect gets re-used.
"They select certain of the functioning items, such as newer model desktop or laptop computers", explains Monte. "They sort those out, and they select those to be refurbished and re-marketed. And the majority of stuff collected, the nonworking electronics waste is dismantled and separated into basic commodities for marketing."
Monte says each event typically attracts about a thousand vehicles, and is organized so that motorists can drive up and drop off their electronics gear, as safely and efficiently as possible.
Monte says the collection event is safe in another way. She says their recycling contractor destroys any data left on old computers --- whether the computers are slated to be refurbished, or just torn down to their basic materials.
"Data wiping software is used on items to be refurbished", says Monte. "And on other electronic waste, hard drives and data storage devices are shredded - physically shredded. That takes care of the data security."
Saturday's Residential Electronics Collection runs from 8 AM to Noon at the News-Gazette Distribution Center,3203 Apollo Drive in Champaign. There's no charge to drop off old electronics gear. Monte says to keep the traffic flowing, motorists should enter from Olympian Drive, east of North Market Street.
The land that was to be the site of a futuristic clean-coal burning power plant has been returned to the community of Mattoon.
The area that was to have hosted FutureGen was given back Thursday by the FutureGen Alliance. Mattoon dropped out of plans for FutureGen once they were reconfigured by the Department of Energy. This announcement allows the community to market the 440 acres to other businesses.
Coles Together President Angela Griffin said four companies that are not being disclosed have already toured the land. She said the goal is lure something similar to FutureGen. It is estimated that tens of millions of dollars was spent to survey, engineer, and analyze the area.
Griffin said that money will not be recouped, but is not a total loss.
"The work that was done is still valid and good," Griffin said. "And so we're able to use that - the completed surveys and the completed engineering. And that all has value. I don't think anybody will be able to recover costs for dollars that were spent to characterize the site in any way."
Griffin also said putting a dollar figure on the amount spent would be difficult, since so many entities paid for the work, including the state, city, the FutureGen Alliance, and the Southern Illinois University Clean Coal Review Board. She said this news should provide some relief for Mattoon residents, and remind them they will be kept apprised of any plans for the land.
"I think (Thursdays) news is going to put a lot of relief in the hearts of people who gave one way or another to the FutureGen effort," Griffin said. "The site did return to the community. We do control it now, and we'll able to determine what goes in there, and the community doesn't have to worry that something will happen there that they're opposed to."
An informational meeting regarding the future of the site is planned for Monday morning at 9 at Pagliacci's Restaurant in Mattoon. Meanwhile, the FutureGen Alliance reported that nine communities met Wednesday's deadline to be part of what's called FutureGen 2.0. The host city to be selected early next year will store carbon emissions, working with a power plant in the western Illinois community of Meredosia.
A computerized alert system is reminding voters this election year to choose a candidate for each of Illinois' constitutional offices, which include governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general.
The technology aimed at catching ballot errors stems from a 2007 law that took effect during the February 2 primary election. If a voter forgets or chooses not to vote for a candidate, they are notified to make that vote if they choose.
The alerts are only used during election years when constitutional office holders are on the ballot. Sixty seven counties in the state use the ballot alerts at polling places, but not every county uses them in the same way.
For example, in Champaign County, voters get an on-screen notification when they do not fill out a response for one of the state's six constitutional offices. However, in Macon County, voters are alerted when they skip any ballot measure. Macon County Clerk Steve Bean said election laws should apply to every item on the ballot.
"The most concern of most clerks is this is a law that affects six offices selected in the state of Illinois," Bean said. "It doesn't care about any of the others."
County Champaign Clerk Mark Shelden, whose county restricts the alerts to constitutional offices only, filed a lawsuit in November 2009 against the Illinois State Board of Elections. He claimed that the alerts violated voters' rights to privacy. However, Shelden later dropped the lawsuit because of budgetary reasons.
"If the legislature doesn't act in the spring," Shelden explained. "I definitely think the lawsuit needs to be brought back."
While the technology alerts people of a missed vote, it does not discard ballots.\
(Photo by Tom Rogers/WILL)
A supercomputer in China last week took over the title of world's fastest, outpacing a supercomputer in the United States. However, a new supercomputer under development at the University of Illinois is still projected to be even faster.
The Tianhe-1A supercomputer in the Chinese city of Tianjin is reported to have a peak computing capacity of around 2.5 petaflops --- a petaflop equals one quadrillion calculations per second. Still, the Blue Waters supercomputer at the U of I is expected to have a peak capacity of 10 petaflops when completed, and there are other differences.
Thom Dunning of the University's National Center for Supercomputing Applications said the Chinese supercomputer uses two types of processors: a central processing unit (CPU) and a graphics processing unit (GPU). Dunning said Blue Waters will be based on CPU's only. He said Blue Waters will be designed to take on a much broader range of science and engineering problems, compared to Tianhe 1A.
"It is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison because you're comparing a very general purpose supercomputer with a very specialized purpose supercomputer." Dunning said. "But even given that comparison, Blue Waters is going to outperform the new Chinese supercomputer, even on those applications for which the Chinese supercomputer is well-suited."
The U of I is working with IBM on Blue Waters, which will use the company's new POWER7 microprocessors. Meanwhile, new Chinese-designed interconnect or network technology is a notable feature of Tianhe 1A. Blue Waters is set to start operation next fall, and be at full capacity in 2012.
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