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Couple shows Halloween spirit with changing yard displays
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A Hastings couple enjoys showing off their Halloween spirit through constantly changing yard decorations featuring a dozen skeletons.

Halloween is the favorite time of year for Bo Bienkowski and Amanda Cargile of 906 Brentwood Ave. For two years, the couple has spent the month of October creating various scenes with their skeleton crew.

The skeletons may be rowing a coffin as if it were a boat piloted by pirates. They could be cheerleaders stacked in a pyramid during a routine. They could be having trouble while doing some yard work and one ends up underneath the lawn mower, or find themselves in any number of other wacky situations through the season.

Ideas for some of the scenes come from posts Cargile has seen on social media. Other times, she just looks over her growing stash of supplies and comes up with her own theme.

“We try to do something different every day,” she said. “We wait to do it at night so nobody knows what it is till morning.”

Bienkowski said the concepts are all Cargile’s inspiration but he is more than willing to help her set up the scenes.

“It can be challenging, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I enjoy being able to support her and her enthusiasm for it.”

For the last scene of the year, the skeletons were celebrating a pair of birthdays — those of Bienkowski and Cargile.

Cargile’s birthday is Halloween and her partner’s birthday is the day before, giving them the perfect reason to celebrate the holiday to its fullest.

Originally from Devine, Texas, Cargile said Halloween long has been important for her family.

“Growing up, Halloween was an Olympic sport in my family,” she said. “It was always really fun. We would go trick-or-treating and tell people it was my birthday. It’s an excuse to dress up on my birthday.”

Since moving to Nebraska, she said, the skeleton yard scenes have been a way for her to stay connected using her Instagram account, @mandar_jean. Her account also is available for friends or anyone wanting to keep up with the skeletons’ story.

Cargile said they keep Halloween decorations up throughout the year.

“It makes me think of home and think of family,” she said. “It’s one way I can stay connected with my family.”

For Bienkowski, Halloween has been an important holiday, largely due to his birthday being the day before.

He usually celebrated the day or week around the holiday, but said that has expanded since meeting Cargile.

“We turned it into a month-long celebration,” he said. “It’s a time of the year we look forward to.”

Planning for the festivities basically continue year-round, Bienkowski said, as they gather ideas and supplies to use the following year.

Right now, their skeleton crew consists of eight that are 3 feet tall and four closer to 6 feet. Their goal is to acquire a 12-foot-tall skeleton to add to the collection, but they have had trouble locating one at local stores.

Along with the bodies, they have collected a variety of costumes for them to use.

Some of those costumes are actually hand-me-downs from the couple’s 2-year-old Corgi, Potato.

“It turns out medium-size dog costumes are actually the perfect size,” Cargile said.

Of course, the constant changes aren’t without challenges. In Nebraska the weather can play a role in the decorations, such as wind carrying off pieces of the décor or knocking over signs. Rain or snow can cause problems for the decorating couple.

Squirrels also are a factor in the process as the hungry critters enjoy feasting on props at times.

“They’ve really became a living part of the scene,” Bienkowski said. “The gourds are as big as the squirrel and they still try to walk off with it.”

And the efforts don’t go unappreciated.

Katie Dart, a neighbor across the street, said she’s been impressed with the variety of scenes being played out in the yard. She enjoys the season and has her house decorated like many in the area, but said Cargile’s creations bring it to a new level.

“My kids absolutely love it,” she said. “It brings a lot of life to the neighborhood.”

People, homes vanish due to 2020 census' new privacy method
A statistical method used by the U.S. Census Bureau for the first time in 2020 to protect confidentiality has made people and occupied homes vanish, at least on paper, when they actually exist in the real world
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The three-bedroom colonial-style house where Jessica Stephenson has lived in Milwaukee for the last six years bustles with activity on any given weekday, filled with the chattering of children in the day care center she runs out of her home.

The U.S. Census Bureau says no one lives there.

“They should come and see it for themselves,” Stephenson said.

From her majority-Black neighborhood in Wisconsin to a community of Hasidic Jews in New York’s Catskill Mountains to a park outside Tampa, Florida, a method used by the Census Bureau for the first time to protect confidentiality in the 2020 census has made people and occupied homes vanish — at least on paper — when they actually exist in the real world.

It’s not a magic trick but rather a new statistical method the bureau is using called differential privacy, which involves the intentional addition of errors to data to obscure the identity of any given participant.

Bureau officials say it’s necessary to protect privacy in a time of increasingly sophisticated data mining, as technological innovations magnify the threat of people being “re-identified” through the use of powerful computers to match census information with other public databases. By law, census answers are supposed to be confidential.

But some city officials and demographers think it veers too far from reality — and could cause errors in the data used for drawing political districts and distributing federal funds.

At least one analysis suggests that differential privacy could penalize minority communities by undercounting areas that are racially and ethnically mixed. Harvard University researchers found that the method made it more difficult to create political districts of equal population and could result in fewer majority-minority districts.

The Census Bureau, for its part, argues that the data is every bit as good as in past censuses and that the low-level inaccuracies don’t present a large-scale problem.

What’s certain is that the method can produce weird, contradictory and false results at the smallest geographic levels, such as neighborhood blocks.

For example, the official 2020 census results say 54 people live in Stephenson’s census block in midtown Milwaukee, but also that there are no occupied homes. In reality almost two dozen houses occupy the car-lined streets, some dating back more than a century. Forty-eight of the residents living in the block are Black, according to the census, though it’s difficult to know for sure, given the whimsy of differential privacy.

In another case, the census lists no people living in the Flatwoods Conservation Park outside Tampa, even though it says there is a home occupied by people. According to Hillsborough County spokesman Todd Pratt, two county employees live there while maintaining security for the park.

And in an enclave of Hasidic Jews located in Kiamesha Lake, New York, 81 people are recorded as residents, but the census officially says there are no occupied homes. Sullivan County property records show almost a dozen homes whose residents have ties to the Vizhnitzer Hasidic community.

The unreliable data has created headaches for city managers and planners of small communities who worry that it may not be valid for decision-making. Eric Guthrie, a senior demographer at the Minnesota State Demographic Center, said he has been contacted by a half-dozen city managers from around the state who were concerned about potential impacts to state and federal funding.

“I explain to them there’s not a method for correcting it, that it’s not an error in the traditional sense,” Guthrie said. “The bug is there by design.”

The scale of the changes become clearer when viewed through a broader lens. For Florida, the nation’s third most populous state with more than 21 million residents, the 2020 census listed 15,000 neighborhood blocks as having a total of 200,000 residents but no occupied homes. On the flip side, 1,200 of the state’s 484,000 blocks were listed as having occupied homes but no population, according to Rich Doty, geographic information system coordinator and research demographer at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

“We expected these anomalies, as we were warned about this by the Census Bureau and other states,” Doty said. “We just didn’t expect this many.”

Ahead of the release of census data used for drawing congressional and legislative districts in August, acting Census Bureau director Ron Jarmin warned that its application could produce some “fuzzy” figures at the neighborhood block level and urged data users to combine blocks to get accurate results. But the bureau also says that despite the implementation of differential privacy, the quality of the 2020 data isn’t any worse than previous censuses based on measurements of data quality.

That claim is hard to evaluate since the raw data without the application of differential privacy is not being made public, said Stefan Rayer, a University of Florida demographer.

“We have to take their word for it,” Rayer said.

Using test data, the Harvard researchers found that differential privacy was more likely to undercount mixed-race and mixed-partisan precincts, “yielding unpredictable racial and partisan biases,” because it prioritizes the accuracy of the population count for the largest racial group in a given area.

“Our findings underscore the difficulty of balancing accuracy and respondent privacy in the Census,” they said in a report.

The Census Bureau disagrees, and so far the courts have found no reason to stop it.

Differential privacy was unsuccessfully challenged by the state of Alabama earlier this year. In a declaration for that lawsuit, the Census Bureau’s chief scientist, John Abowd, called the data “extremely accurate” and said the use of differential privacy showed no bias regarding racial or ethnic minorities.

“Redistricters can remain confident in the accuracy of the population counts and demographic characteristics of the voting districts they draw, despite the noise in the individual building blocks,” Abowd said.

Not everyone believes the technique is the right way to protect confidentiality.

Two University of Minnesota researchers wrote in a recent paper that a Census Bureau experiment failed to show genuine threats to confidentiality and that any risks of re-identification were similar to random guessing of households’ characteristics.

One of them, demographer Steven Ruggles, said during a presentation this month that the Census Bureau’s fear of re-identification and the resulting justification for using differential privacy could undermine confidence in the census data.

“It should not justify the degradation of the statistical infrastructure of our country,” Ruggles said. “The whole thing is likely to backfire.”

New framework bolsters Biden's hand as climate summit begins
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden heads to a United Nations climate conference Monday energized by a new legislative framework that, if enacted, would be the largest action ever taken by the United States to address climate change.

The $555 billion plan for climate spending is the centerpiece of a sweeping domestic policy package Biden and congressional Democrats presented Thursday, hours before the president traveled to Europe for another summit ahead of the climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland.

Biden called the plan “the most significant investment to deal with the climate crisis that ever happened, beyond any other advanced nation in the world.”

While far from certain to pass in a closely divided Congress, the new framework reassured nervous Democrats and environmental leaders that a president who has made climate action a key focus of his administration will not arrive in Glasgow empty-handed.

The plan did not give Biden everything he wanted, but supporters still believe that, if enacted, it would set the United States on a path to meet Biden’s goal to cut carbon pollution in half by 2030.

“It’s a real signal to the world that the U.S. is back and demonstrating leadership on climate change,’’ said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of the League of Conservation Voters.

Biden’s plan includes more than $300 billion in tax incentives for renewable energy such as wind and solar power, as well as investments to boost nuclear power, sharply increase the number of electric vehicles and spur production of batteries and other advanced materials.

The plan also would spend at least $100 billion to address extreme weather such as wildfires, hurricanes and droughts, address “legacy pollution” in hard-hit areas and establish a Civilian Climate Corps, a New Deal-style program to create thousands of jobs building trails, restoring streams and helping prevent catastrophic wildfires.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Sunday called the level of investment in clean energy “amazing” and said it demonstrated the importance of “having America lead in this as we go into” the climate summit.

But a proposal to reward power companies that move from fossil fuels to clean energy and penalize those that do not was dropped following opposition from coal-state Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. And the fate of a proposed fee on methane leaks during oil and gas production also was uncertain, though liberal Democrats were hopeful it will be included.

A recent analysis by the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm, found that passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill and the larger climate and domestic policy package, combined with regulations by key federal agencies and state actions, could cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 45% to 51% below 2005 levels in 2030.

“We actually do think the U.S. can still put the target within reach, but it’s going to require a lot of sustained follow-up action by the executive branch and states after Congress is done to get the rest of the way there,’’ said John Larsen, an energy systems expert and co-author of the study.

He called Biden’s goal, set at a virtual climate meeting at the White House in April, “ambitious” but said it’s “better to aim high and push as hard as you can when the science is telling you that’s literally what’s required.’’

The climate target is a key requirement of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which Biden rejoined on his first day in office. It’s also an important marker as Biden moves toward his ultimate goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Biden also has announced a plan to double financial aid to poorer nations to $11.4 billion by 2024 so those countries can switch to cleaner energy and cope with global warming’s worsening impact. The plan puts rich nations close to their long-promised but unrealized goal of $100 billion a year in climate help for developing nations.

Biden is “leaning into climate more than any previous president, and it looks like he is prepared to continue to make this a top priority for his entire first term, which would be the first time an American president has done something like that,’’ said Larsen, who worked in the Energy Department under President Barack Obama. He cited Biden’s moves to rejoin the Paris agreement, kill the Keystone XL oil pipeline and pause oil and gas leasing on federal land, among other actions.

Even without signed legislation, Biden’s framework shows U.S. leadership on climate, experts said. The U.S. can now tell China and other major polluters: “We set an ambitious goal. We’ve taken the first meaningful steps toward meeting that goal. What are you going to do?’’ Larsen said.

Still, there is pressure on Biden and Congress to pass the infrastructure bill and the larger domestic policy package during the two-week climate summit or soon after.

“I do think that if the U.S. is not able, before the end of (the climate summit), to demonstrate that it has some policies in place, there’s no way around it, the credibility will take a blow,’’ said Nat Keohane, president of the independent Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

While failure to adopt legislation would not be fatal if Congress passes a bill later in November or December, the clock is ticking, Keohane said. “This is the moment to get as much as can be achieved through Congress now,’’ he said, “because everything else is going to need to be done by regulation” that could be undone by a future Republican president.

Even as he moves to curb carbon emissions, Biden is feeling pressure from Republicans who unanimously oppose his climate and energy proposals and blame him for a sharp increase in energy prices, including a $1-per gallon increase in gasoline prices since January.

“Because of Joe Biden’s radical anti-energy agenda, people in every corner of this country are paying higher prices for energy,” hurting struggling families, older adults and those on a fixed income, said Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Energy prices have surged in recent months as the economy reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns. Crude oil prices have climbed more than 60% this year amid strong demand and snarled supply chains, prompting Biden to pressure Saudi Arabia and other exporters to ramp up oil production following cuts during the pandemic.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said there was no contradiction between Biden’s climate goals and the request for more imported oil.

“This is not a light switch. We’re not flipping off all use of fossil fuels in our economy overnight,’’ Sullivan told reporters as he headed to Europe with the president. “We still have need for those fossil fuels during the transition period to make sure that our economy is working, jobs are being created, working families have their homes heated at night and so forth.’’

Officials “have to at once pay attention to energy supply today and work towards a net-zero future,” he said.

Granholm, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said Biden is considering releasing some oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to bring prices down, but has not made a final decision.

“Let me just say ... that these rising fuel prices in fossil fuels tell us why we’ve got to double down on diversifying our fuel supply to go for clean,’’ she said.

Dozens of cases dismissed after drugs stolen from evidence
At least 66 criminal cases have been dismissed a month after authorities announced that more than $1.2 million worth of drugs had been stolen from a Nebraska State Patrol evidence room, and more dismissals are likely
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Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN — At least 66 criminal cases have been dismissed a month after authorities announced that more than $1.2 million worth of drugs had been stolen from a Nebraska State Patrol evidence room, and more dismissals are likely.

Deputy Lancaster County Attorney Bruce Prenda said his office has closed 66 cases, and it is still reviewing 43 more. Similar reviews are happening in 13 other counties served by the State Patrol evidence locker where the thefts were discovered.

“Our office has dismissed several cases related to this issue, and we’ll continue to review cases and make decisions, as we are required to do,” Prenda told the Lincoln Journal Star.

Prenda declined to say how much of the stolen evidence was linked to active cases and how much of it was scheduled to be destroyed.

A former State Patrol evidence technician, Anna Idigima, and her boyfriend, George Weaver Jr., have been indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute the drugs. Both of them have pleaded not guilty. Authorities said more than 150 pounds of marijuana, 10 pounds of fentanyl and 3 pounds of meth disappeared from the State Patrol evidence facility in Lincoln over the summer.

The Nebraska State Patrol says it is reviewing its evidence handling and storage procedures.

Lincoln Police are investigating whether the overdose deaths of nine people and one unborn child over the summer are linked to the stolen drugs.

Lincoln defense attorney Candice Wooster, who had one of her cases dismissed, said she would like to know more about how prosecutors are deciding which cases to dismiss, although she trusts Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon to make appropriate decisions.

“I think it is just important to figure out how or why the decision is being made,” Wooster said.

But Prenda said state law limits what prosecutors can say about cases that are dismissed because they are supposed to reply to any inquiry about those cases as if there is no record of them. Courts are also required to automatically seal cases that end in acquittal or are dropped by prosecutors.

That law was intended to ensure that prospective employers couldn’t hold dismissed cases against people, but the law makes it difficult to track which cases have been dismissed because of missing evidence.