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In Chesterfield, Kuster targets broadband's 'digital divide'

CHESTERFIELD — If there’s one thing U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster wants 2020 presidential candidates to notice while campaigning in the Monadnock Region, it’s the strength — or lack thereof — of their Internet connection.

“I’m hoping the presidential candidates will say, ‘Can you hear me now?’ ” Kuster chuckled at the outset of a sitdown with service providers and local leaders at Chesterfield’s town offices late Wednesday morning.

The Hopkinton Democrat wanted to let the nine stakeholders around the square conference-room table know what kind of funding for high-speed Internet is coming down the pike from Congress, but she also spent much of the hour listening to the obstacles they’ve encountered trying to reach some of the roughly 20 million Americans without broadband access.

“It is funny that way about this issue, because for the longest time, I think people just felt as though private enterprise would take care of this,” Kuster said of expanding high-speed Internet in rural areas. “And it took them an entire generation to wake up and say, ‘Ugh, I’m on the end of a dirt road in a town of 3,000 people. Maybe private enterprise isn’t going to get this done.’ “

The central reason why more Granite Staters and people in the farther-flung areas of the Monadnock Region don’t have broadband barely required a reminder at the meeting: Sparsely populated communities are too costly for telecommunications companies to provide high-speed Internet to at a profit.

While the call for public-private partnerships in covering the “last mile” of Internet access has been made for more than a decade, several of those in the room described state Sen. Jay V. Kahn’s Senate Bill 170 as “a game changer.”

Rob Koester, the vice president of consumer products at Consolidated Communications, described how Kahn’s bill — which Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law in May — allows individual cities and towns to borrow money and partner with companies like his to bring fiber-optic cables to homes lacking high-speed Internet.

In Chesterfield, Koester’s team has been working with the town on the first project in the state taking advantage of the law after voters approved a $1.8 million bond at town meeting in March. Consolidated Communications covers the costs up front, and then $10 user fees for the new service cover the interest, according to Koester, who added that the rate could even go down slightly over the 20-year loan period.

In Dublin, where around 80 percent of residents remain without broadband, Consolidated Communications secured a similar bond arrangement at Monday’s board of selectmen’s meeting, according to Carole Monroe, a Dublin resident who sits on the town’s broadband committee.

Those on the industry side like Koester and Monroe, who works for ValleyNet, told Kuster how some federal funding for broadband expansion, particularly USDA grants, can be disincentivizing to their businesses because of the department’s requirement that all cables laid out by the telecommunications provider be open to use by competitors.

Kuster directed them to other options, such as the Northern Border Regional Commission, and assured the room she would tell her colleagues about the hangup over competition.

The commission includes counties near the Canadian border in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and is based off of the Appalachian Regional Commission in providing grants and other opportunities for rural communities.

Kuster touted the addition of Cheshire County to the approved list as an asset going forward for towns looking to expand broadband.

Later Wednesday afternoon, Kuster and her staff held a federal grant-writing workshop at the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship in Keene.

Cheshire County Assistant Administrator Rod Bouchard told Kuster at the Chesterfield session how smaller towns need a “road map” for the bonding process, particularly if they are short on resources to create maps of who has coverage already.

Crucially, Bouchard described how there is no recourse for towns when service providers do not provide them with coverage maps, forcing them to rely on the widely decried Federal Communications Commission maps.

Since telecom companies are already sitting on detailed maps, according to Koester, Kuster asked why not let towns have access to them within a defined time frame with legal actions available if they remain under seal.

While the congresswoman said afterward that she is optimistic broadband access is a reliably bipartisan issue, she raised concerns about the economic landscape in the United States as more dense communities move onto 5G while others struggle with little more than dial-up.

“What I worry about in the world is that people — particularly young people growing up and living in rural communities — will not have the same access to opportunity,” Kuster said, “and that we will end up with a digital divide of the haves and have nots.”

Want to live longer? Try getting a dog.

Some tips for living a long, healthy life: Eat right. Get plenty of sleep and exercise. And get a dog.

That last item comes courtesy of a new study published in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, which reviews several decades’ worth of evidence on the relationship between dog ownership and mortality.

The authors undertook the review in an effort to reconcile differences in previously published literature on the topic, some of which showed a benefit to dog ownership, others which did not.

After reviewing 10 studies that included data on 3.8 million participants, the authors determine that “dog ownership was associated with a 24 percent risk reduction for all-cause mortality as compared to non-ownership.” The data showed even greater benefits among those who’d experienced cardiovascular issues, such as a heart attack and stroke.

“Dog ownership,” the authors conclude, “is associated with lower risk of death over the long term, which is possibly driven by a reduction in cardiovascular mortality.”

So what exactly is it about owning a dog that would make people live longer?

In an accompanying editorial, cardiologist Dhruv Kazi of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center outlined some of the findings. For starters, there are well-documented mental health benefits to owning a pooch: “Dogs offer companionship, reduce anxiety and loneliness, increase self-esteem, and improve overall mood,” Kazi writes. The 2018 General Social Survey, for instance, found that dog owners were happier than cat owners.

Then there are the physical benefits. “Several studies have shown that acquiring a dog perforce increases physical exercise (as anyone who has unsuccessfully tried to sleep past the time of a dog’s routine morning walk can attest),” Kazi writes. People who own dogs tend to spend more time outdoors, which is known to be beneficial to health. Simply petting a dog — especially a familiar one — lowers a person’s blood pressure.

It’s plausible that such physical and mental health benefits are the pathway by which dog ownership makes a person live longer. One drawback in the literature, however, is that there haven’t been any randomized controlled trials looking at dog ownership and mortality. Researchers haven’t done many studies, for instance, that direct one group of people to purchase a dog, and another group to remain petless, and track their health over a period of time. Those types of studies are considered the gold standard of evidence, what you’d need to be able to say definitively that owning a dog causes people to live longer.

You’d want to do this to rule out confounding factors. “Pet owners tend to be younger, wealthier, better educated, and more likely to be married, all of which improve cardiovascular outcomes,” Kazi writes. It may be the case that being healthier and wealthier causes people to be more likely to acquire a dog.

Still, Kazi writes, the balance of the evidence to date convinces him that “the association between dog ownership and improved survival is real, and is likely at least partially causal.” One of the larger studies included in the review controlled for a variety of socio-economic and demographic factors and found that the longevity effect of dog ownership remained.

There also have been several randomized controlled studies on pet ownership in general, showing direct benefits of owning an animal. In one, a group of cardiac patients who had been randomly instructed to acquire a dog or a cat showed a diminished blood pressure response to stressful situations. In another, researchers randomly assigned nursing home residents in Korea pet crickets and directed them to care for the insects for eight weeks. After that time, the cricket-caring group showed significant improvements on measures of depression and cognitive ability, relative to the control group.

“The most salient benefits of dog ownership on cardiovascular outcomes,” Kazi writes, “are likely mediated through large and sustained improvements in mental health, including lower rates of depression, decreased loneliness, and increased self-esteem.”

Though the current study didn’t examine the effects of cat ownership on mortality, at least one previous paper has explored the connection and found that cat ownership, too, is linked to a decrease in fatal cardiovascular events.

That suggests that if you’re really serious about living a long life, you should get a dog and a cat to cover all your bases.

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff 

From left, Christina Major of Dusty Dog Farm and Cooper’s Crossroad in Keene; Robin Christopherson of MCVP Crisis and Prevention Center; and Meredith Cherry of Grass Valley, Calif., pose with Cherry’s horse, Apollo, Wednesday. Cherry is crossing through all 48 states in the Continental U.S. to raise awareness about domestic violence, and she passed through the Monadnock Region this week. Her stay began in Walpole, at the home of Carol Worcester. 

US taking custody of British men linked to Islamic State killings of American hostages

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military is taking custody of several dozen high-value Islamic State detainees, including two British men accused of involvement in the militant group’s summary executions of American and other Western hostages. The action is designed to prevent their escape or release from camps in Syria, where they have been guarded by Kurdish forces now under threat from Turkey’s incursion, according to U.S. officials.

The British men are accused of involvement in the beheading of Americans James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig, as well as other Western hostages. Foley, a New Hampshire journalist who was 40 when he was killed, had ties to Keene. His mother, Diane, is from the city and graduated from Keene High School.

The move, a rare instance in which the United States has taken direct responsibility for Islamic State prisoners in Iraq and Syria, comes as U.S. officials scramble to ensure that Ankara’s unfolding military operation does not permit the Islamic State to regain strength.

The roughly 40 individuals being taken into U.S. custody, all considered important Islamic State figures, had been held in a constellation of small prisons in northeastern Syria run by Syrian Kurdish forces who have been the Pentagon’s primary partner against the Islamic State in Syria. The Kurds are now pulling guards from those facilities to confront the unfolding Turkish assault.

The British pair — part of a group of four British militants dubbed the “Beatles” by their hostages — were being detained with the goal of putting them on trial in the United States, said a senior U.S. official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. That official said the two men — Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh — had been taken to Iraq; other officials said recent administration discussions about the fate of those prisoners had examined the possibility of bringing them to Iraq. It was not clear whether that had occurred or whether they had been taken somewhere else.

“We are taking some of the most dangerous ISIS fighters out,” President Donald Trump said at the White House on Wednesday, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “We are taking them out and putting them in different locations, where it’s secure. ... We have a certain number of ISIS fighters that are particularly bad, and we wanted to make sure that nothing happened with them in respect to getting out.”

A criminal prosecution in the United States rests on the ability to obtain evidence from British authorities — a matter being litigated in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. In recent days, Attorney General William Barr asked Trump to make securing the detention of the two men a “priority” so they could be eventually prosecuted in the United States, and the president “immediately agreed,” according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The Turkish attack on Kurdish forces raised concerns about the ability of the Kurds to maintain control over thousands of Islamic State detainees and tens of thousands of women and children housed in separate camps, some of whom are militant supporters.

“This is like a victory for the ISIS fighters. I just think it’s appalling,” said Diane Foley, James Foley’s mother. “It’s an abdication of our responsibility to ensure safety for our own citizens and allies.”Officials have said the U.S. military had orders not to intervene if the Kurds abandoned detention facilities to press all of their troops into the fight with Turkey. That position appears to be changing now as the military takes custody of a small portion of those detainees, suggesting the Pentagon is revising its plans amid a fast-moving situation.

“We now face the very real prospect of 10,000 ISIS prisoners rejoining the battlefield,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D.-N.H., said in a statement Wednesday.

Mohammed Emwazi, the man who killed Foley, Sotloff, Kassig and other hostages in 2014, was killed in a drone strike the following year. A fourth American, Kayla Mueller, was killed while being held hostage by the Islamic State, but the exact cause of her death was not confirmed.

Kotey and Elsheikh had been in custody of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Their potential transfer to the United States for trial has been delayed by Elsheikh’s mother, Maha Elgizouli, who has challenged the British government’s decision not to prosecute her son in Britain. She also has sued the British government to block any evidence-sharing with U.S. prosecutors without legal assurance that her son will not be executed.

“Mrs. Elgizouli is solely concerned to protect her son from the death penalty,” attorney Edward Fitzgerald said in a July hearing before the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. “She recognizes that they should face justice. ... But she submits that they should face justice in this country.”

British authorities for years have said they would prefer to see the two charged in the United States.

Prosecutors in the United States would seek to convict Kotey and Elsheikh as conspirators in hostage-taking resulting in death, a charge that carries a potential death sentence, according to U.S. officials.

In an interview this summer, Kotey and Elsheikh denied involvement in any murders, saying they only facilitated ransom negotiations. Both men agreed to speak to The Washington Post, and Kurdish security officials facilitated separate interviews at a facility in Rmeilan, Syria.

Their role, both said, was to ask prisoners for contact information and personal details for “proof of life.” Kotey recalled having prisoners hold up signs urging their governments and families to “be quick or they will be kill me.”

At one point, Kotey said, a Syrian prisoner was shot in the back of the head in front of the European prisoners, who were made to hold signs saying they wanted to avoid a similar fate.

The British and American hostages were not included in that video, he said, because their governments were not negotiating.

“They were not pampered,” Elsheikh said. “The treatment had to be harsh to keep them in the state of mind” of compliance. “The prisoners had to be kept always under pressure.”

He said the harsh treatment included headlocks, punches and stress positions. But he denied any involvement in mock executions or waterboarding.

Kotey said he saw Emwazi, better known as “Jihadi John,” beat prisoners and threaten to waterboard them “as if he had previously” done so. He said Emwazi saw the killing of journalists and aid workers as warranted because they had “come to interfere in our internal affairs.”

Kotey and Elsheikh say they were no longer working with Emwazi when the killing of hostages began. But they say they were among a very small group of Islamic State members who knew Emwazi’s true identity, first reported in The Post in early 2015.

A decision is expected in the coming weeks from the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom on whether the British government’s offer to share evidence on Elsheikh and Kotey, absent a promise from the United States that the men will not face the death penalty, violates British law.

Toby Cadman, a British lawyer representing Diane Foley, said he also worries that moving the prisoners around could create new opportunities for the defendants’ families to delay a prosecution.

“The last thing anyone wants is for the process to be ... fudged in order to get them before a court that they can then challenge,” he said. “You want these people lawfully handed over.”

A fourth “Beatle,” Aine Davis, was convicted in Turkey of membership in a terrorist organization and sentenced to seven years in prison.

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Keene State's new global food pantry gives Owls a taste of home

As Ana Carolina Costa walked into the Office of Multicultural Student Support and Success at Keene State College Tuesday afternoon, the excitement was obvious on her face.

The junior transfer student and her friends beelined it to the corner of the room, where a couple of wooden crates were stacked with goodies from around the world, such as Goya sofrito, fresh plantains and Pocky biscuit sticks, to name a few.

“This alone has been like everything to me,” Costa said as she cracked open a can of Guaraná Antarctica, a soft drink from Brazil, where her family is from. “It just feels like a piece of home right here.”

The soda was one of about 100 items dropped off Tuesday at the new international food pantry on campus, which is supported by a fledgling local nonprofit organization called The Daily Good. According to founders Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace of Keene, their goal is for the pantry to be a welcoming gesture for students of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Wallace and Neil Wallace are local authors who’ve written several books together, such as “Blood Brother,” which chronicles the story of Keene civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels, and “First Generation,” which highlights “trailblazing” immigrants and refugees in the U.S., according to their websites.

The couple said they began delivering international foods to the campus last month as The Daily Good’s first initiative.

“The books we’ve been writing are really about activists, about people in social justice,” Wallace said. “We’ve been writing that, and we felt like that was a strong contribution, but then we said, what are we doing personally to make people feel more welcome in this community?”

For Neil Wallace, a Toronto native who grew up in a Ukrainian-Yugoslavian household, food seemed like a natural conduit for fostering those connections. Her family faced discrimination when she was growing up, she said, which made it necessary to assimilate by leaving behind their traditional cultural foods.

But today, “we know better,” she said.

“It’s not a stereotype to say that food and breaking bread with people breaks barriers, and there’s just so much positive emotional connection around food,” she said. “And I think it’s a wonderful way to show people that we honor your food choices.”

Kya Roumimper, coordinator of multicultural student support and success and equity education at Keene State, said the college has become much more diverse over the past 10 years, and students are already responding positively to the new pantry.

The percentage of students of color on campus has risen from about 3 percent in 2009 to about 9 percent in 2018, growing from fewer than 200 students to more than 320 even as the college’s total enrollment has dropped, according to data in the Keene State Factbook. And Roumimper said Keene State enrolls both full-time traditional and exchange students from a wide range of countries, such as Guatemala, Thailand, Jamaica, Brazil and Somalia.

“When you’re coming into college, this being a really huge transition for a lot of students in a new space, and a lot of them are first [generation] or they’re coming from different, more diverse places, it’s already a bit of a culture shock,” Roumimper said. “And to have a place where they can come in and grab food that reminds them of home, that’s free and that’s restocked every month, is incredible.”

Wallace and Neil Wallace said they have mostly been able to fill student requests from local grocery stores, though in some cases they’ve had to ask stores to order particular items. They’ve also kept an eye out for some of the most sought-after foods outside of Keene, browsing international markets when they’ve traveled to other states.

“Students don’t have cars, and they don’t have time to travel 50, 60, 100 miles to get the foods that say ‘home.’ ... We want them to focus on their studies,” Neil Wallace said. “And this is a way to let them know that we hear you, we see you, we value you, and we’re so thrilled that you’re in our community.”

The couple is interested in expanding the project beyond the campus in the future, they said, and also hope to broadly focus on literacy, inclusion and hunger through The Daily Good.

They said they’ve been pleased with the response so far. And according to Roumimper, the pantry has also led students to gather for informal community nights, getting together to cook traditional recipes such as tostones, a dish made with plantains that’s common in Latin and Caribbean cultures.

“That’s the sort of community building that happens naturally when they can find a place or find something that reminds them of home and makes them comfortable,” she said.