Bankruptcy judge gives Sears another chance, OKs $5.2B plan
By ANNE D’INNOCENZIO
AP Retail Writer
Friday, February 8
NEW YORK (AP) — A bankruptcy judge on Thursday blessed a $5.2 billion plan by Sears chairman and biggest shareholder to keep the iconic business going.
The approval means roughly 425 stores and 45,000 jobs will be preserved.
Eddie Lampert’s bid through an affiliate of his ESL hedge fund overcame opposition from a group of unsecured creditors, including mall owners and suppliers, that tried to block the sale and pushed hard for the company’s liquidation.
In delivering his decision, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain for the Southern District of New York rejected the group’s claims that the sale process was unfair and flawed, that it shut out any others who could have been interested in buying the business and that Sears had more value to its creditors if it died than if it lived.
But the ghost of Toys R Us loomed large in the Sears bankruptcy case. The toy retailer was forced into liquidation last year just months after it tried to reorganize under bankruptcy court, wiping out 30,000 jobs.
During the hearing, which started on Monday, Drain focused on the specter of jobs and put the lawyers representing the creditors’ group on the defense. Lawyers for Sears and ESL argued that the sale offered the best alternative and also played up the need to save jobs.
Drain is expected to enter his order on Friday, making it official.
Even with this latest reprieve, Sears’ long-term survival remains an open question. Kunal Kamlani, president of ESL, shared his vision this week of building a network of smaller stores that highlights mattresses and major appliances, but the details are still lacking.
In fact, William Transier, an independent board member of Sears since October, acknowledged during the hearing that Sears could shutter an average of three stores per month and sell $600 million in real estate over the next three years. And the company still faces cutthroat competition from Amazon, Target and Walmart. This while its stores look old and drab.
“Major hurdles to its long-term business remain,” wrote Moody’s department store analyst Christina Boni, in a note published Thursday. “Scale, which is critical to competing in retail today, will be lacking and its core customer proposition still remains in question.”
Lampert, who merged Sears and Kmart in 2005, steered Sears into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October. The company’s corporate parent, which also owns Kmart, had 687 stores and 68,000 employees at the time of the filing. At its peak in 2012, its stores numbered 4,000.
Sears was hard hit during the recession and was unable in its aftermath to keep up with shifting consumer trends and strong rivals. It hasn’t had a profitable year since 2010 and has suffered 11 straight years of declining sales.
Lampert’s original plan was rejected by a subcommittee of the Sears board. ESL sweetened the bid several times before the subcommittee gave it the OK. Lampert also tried to get release from litigation claims as part of the deal to buy the company. But the subcommittee of the Sears board overseeing the auction pushed back, and Lampert and ESL can be sued for certain past deals prior to the bankruptcy. The committee of unsecured creditors has maintained there’s value in those litigation claims.
The group, who rank at the bottom of the list to be paid, filed objections to the sale, alleging falsified financial projections, excessive buybacks, and a spinoff of brands that stripped the business of key assets.
“The tortured story of Sears reads like a Shakespearean tragedy,” the group said. “Lampert and ESL managed Sears as if it were a private portfolio company that existed solely to provide the greatest returns on their investment, recklessly disregarding the damage to Sears, its employees and its creditors.”
Lampert personally owns 31 percent of the Sears’ outstanding stock, and his hedge fund has an 18.5 percent stake, according to FactSet. He stepped down as CEO in October after serving in that role since 2013.
Under Lampert’s watch, the Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based retailer has survived in part by spinning off stores and selling well-known brands like Craftsman tools. He has also lent some of his own money.
Lampert has been criticized for not investing in his stores. Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat and potential presidential candidate, has attacked him and questioned his commitment to Sears workers.
“I am concerned that under your leadership, Sears may continue to struggle and employees will continue to face uncertainty and anxiety over their future employment, and ongoing risks to their benefits and economic security,” Warren wrote in a letter to Lampert made available to The Associated Press by a worker advocacy group.
One of the lawyers for Lampert’s hedge fund testified earlier this week that the 56-year-old billionaire has been portrayed as a cross between J.Gould, the late railroad tycoon, and Barney Fife, a fictional character in the popular TV show “The Andy Griffin Show.”
Drain, the bankruptcy judge, acknowledged that Lampert had been subject to “verbal abuse.”
“He is a wealthy individual and a big boy,” Drain said. “And I guess he can take it.”
But he urged Lampert, who wasn’t in the courtroom, to have constant communications with the company and its employees.
Lampert “has an opportunity to not be a cartoon character …. He should do that,” Drain said.
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How your genes could affect the quality of your marriage
February 8, 2019
Author: Richard Mattson, Associate Professor & Director of Graduate Studies in Psychology, Binghamton University, State University of New York
Disclosure statement: Richard Mattson received funding from SUNY Collaborative Fund to conduct this reesarch.
Partners: Binghamton University, State University of New York provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
How important is it to consider a romantic partner’s genetic profile before getting married?
It is logical to think that genetic factors may underlie many traits already used by matching sites – like personality and empathy – which many assume could promote initial chemistry and long-term potential in specific couples. So it is perhaps not surprising that there are now websites that combine genetic testing and matchmaking.
But does matching intimate partners on the basis of specific genes have any scientific foundation? Studies have shown that genetically identical twins, raised separately, rate the overall quality of their marriages similarly, suggesting some enduring genetic contribution to marital life. However, the specific genes that are relevant to marriage, and why, remain a mystery.
As such, predicting marital compatibility on the basis of specific combinations of genetic profiles rests on tenuous scientific footing. Currently, researchers are just beginning to identify the genes that may be associated with marital bliss and through what processes.
Why study the effects of genes on marriage?
As a scientist and clinical psychologist, I have a longstanding interest in identifying the factors that contribute to a happy marriage, such as how couples manage conflict. My interest in exploring genetic determinants, however, developed more recently.
Genes are segments of DNA that encode a particular trait. A gene can take on various forms called alleles, and the combination of the two alleles inherited from both parents represent one’s genotype. Differences in genotype correspond to observable differences within that trait across individuals.
Though genes underlie individual differences in a broad range of characteristics believed to be relevant to marriage, I am specifically interested in the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene. Oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “love” hormone, appears to play a significant role in emotional attachment. For example, oxytocin floods a new mother at the birth of a child and it spikes during sex. Therefore, I reasoned that the gene that regulates oxytocin, OXTR, might be a good one to study in the context of marriage, as it is frequently implicated in how we become attached to other humans. Moreover, OXTR has been associated with a range of phenomena linked to human social behavior, including trust and sociability.
Of greatest interest to me is that the OXTR gene has been linked with physiological responses to social support and traits believed to be critical to support processes, like empathy. Considered alongside findings that the quality of social support is a major determinant of overall marital quality, the evidence implied that variations on the OXTR gene could be tethered to later marital quality by influencing how partners support each other. To test this hypothesis, I pulled together a multidisciplinary team of scientists including psychologists with additional expertise in marital research, a geneticist and a neuroendocrinologist specializing in oxytocin.
Together our team recruited 79 different-sex married couples to participate in our study. We then asked each partner to identify an important personal problem – unrelated to the marriage – to discuss with their spouse for 10 minutes.
These discussions were recorded and later coded according to how each partner solicited and provided “positive” support by scoring elements like problem-solving and active listening. Couples responded separately to several questionnaires including a measure of perceived quality of the support they received during the interaction. Each person also provided saliva samples that our team analyzed to determine which two alleles of the OXTR gene each person carried.
Genetic variation and marital quality
Based on prior evidence, we focused our attention on two specific locations on the OXTR gene: rs1042778 and rs4686302. As expected, higher quality social support was associated with marital quality. Also, genetic variation at each OXTR site for both husbands and wives was linked with how partners behaved during the support discussions.
However, individuals did not appear more or less satisfied with the support they received based on differences in the positive skills their partners used during the interaction.
Rather, we found that husbands with two copies of the T allele at a specific location on OXTR (rs1042778) perceived that their partners provided lower quality support. This was regardless of whether his partner’s support skills were strong or weak.
To us, this implied that husbands with the TT genotype had greater difficulty interpreting their respective wife’s behavior as supportive. This is consistent with other findings implicating this same genotype in social-cognitive deficits, as well as autism.
Notably, the husband and wife in couples also reported being less satisfied with their marriage overall, when compared to those with different combinations of alleles. This suggests that couples in which the husband carries two copies of the T allele were worse off, in part, because these men had trouble perceiving their wife’s behavior as supportive – a notion that our statistical analysis ultimately supported.
Do we have the evidence necessary to start screening potential husbands for specific combinations of genes that seem harmful to marriage?
I would not recommend doing so for a few reasons. Foremost is that genes can influence a broad range of characteristics, which may be detrimental to a marriage in some respects but beneficial in others. Although we found that having two copies of the T allele seems to be a liability in the context of social support, exploratory analyses revealed that this combination appeared to also confer some positive influence on the marriage. The exact mechanism remains unclear, but we speculate that being less sensitive to social nuance may be protective in other areas of marriage by, for example, blunting hostile exchanges during disagreements.
More to the point, assuming that a single gene can make or break a marriage underestimates the complexity of genetics and marriage. It is possible that certain genes may be more or less detrimental depending on the rest of a partner’s genetic profile. However, there is currently no published data on which to rest any type of proposed match. So, ruling out prospective husbands on the basis of variations within or across genes doesn’t make much sense.
Nevertheless, there are still practical implications to our current findings. Researchers have shown that social support from intimate partners can buffer the deleterious effects of stress on mental and physical health. To the extent that particular genotypes impair an individual’s ability to feel supported, that person may be more susceptible to the effects of stress. Thus, screening men for the TT genotype on OXTR could assist in identifying those at risk for stress-related problems. In addition, future research may highlight how to tailor the delivery of social support in ways that can benefit these individuals.
There are also several other potentially relevant locations on OXTR, as well as other genes that may be relevant to relationships. Our study provides a template for approaching the study of marital genetics.
School shooters usually show these signs of distress long before they open fire, our database shows
February 8, 2019
Jillian Peterson, Professor of Criminal Justice, Hamline University
James Densley, Associate Professor, Metropolitan State University
Disclosure statement: Jillian Peterson receives funding from the National Institute of Justice. James Densley receives funding from the National Institute of Justice.
Two years before he lined his schoolmates up against a classroom wall and executed them one by one, the student, who would become the gunman, tried to show his English teacher something important.
He had quietly slid up his sleeves to reveal the cut marks running down his arms. The teacher panicked. A novice educator at the time, she had never been coached or trained in what to do in these situations, what to say or how to help. So she passed the student off to another teacher, who then filed a form with the principal’s office. She felt fairly certain nothing else came of it.
“He was asking for help,” the teacher said in reflecting on the encounter during a recent interview. “If I’d had some training to help him, a five-step sheet to follow, say this, say that, maybe I could have made a difference?”
The story is one of dozens that we have collected over the past two years in our effort toward studying the life histories of mass shooters. It typifies what we believe is one of the biggest challenges that schools face when it comes to averting school shootings – and that is recognizing and acting upon warning signs that school shooters almost always give well before they open fire.
We are both criminologists who study aggression and violence. One of us focuses on mental illness among offenders. The other has an extensive background in group violence.
Together, we have built a database of the 160 mass public shootings that have taken place in the United States since 1966 for a project funded by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. For mass public shootings, we use the common definition of an event in which four or more victims are killed with a gun in a public place.
Protective measures fall short
The goal of our project is to use data to look for patterns in the lives of mass shooters. The purpose is to develop a better understanding of mass shooters and why they did what they did, in order to prevent future tragedies.
Valentine’s Day marks one year since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, where 14 students and three staff members lost their lives. This year is also the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado.
Thirteen people lay down to symbolize those killed in the Columbine school shooting on the 10th anniversary of the Columbine attack, at the Capitol in Denver, Colorado in 2009. Chris Schneider/AP
For two decades, therefore, school leaders, law enforcement officials and policymakers have experimented with ways to stop mass shootings. They have run lockdown drills, produced training videos, armed teachers, hired school resource officers and spent billions of dollars on more secure buildings.
Although gun violence in schools has decreased since the 1990s, our research found that mass school shootings have not decreased over time. There have been six in the last 20 years – Columbine, Red Lake, West Nickel Mines, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Santa Fe – plus 39 attempts in which a shooter came to school heavily armed and fired indiscriminately at numerous people, according to our reanalysis of The Washington Post’s school shooting database. That’s a steady average rate of about 2.4 mass school shootings per year.
2018 was the worst year on record for gun violence in U.S. schools, with 97 incidents and 56 deaths, compared to previous highs of 40 in 1993 and 38 in 2012, the year of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
Patterns emerge among shooters
Our initial analysis of the school shooting data found some noteworthy patterns. All of the K-12 school shooters or would-be school shooters were male, between the ages of 12 and 17. The majority were white and nearly all – 91 percent – were students or former students at the targeted school.
While each story was different, all mass school shooters since 1966 had a large number of risk factors for violence. Forty-five percent had witnessed or experienced childhood trauma, 77 percent had mental health concerns, as evidenced in a prior diagnosis, previous counseling or hospitalization, or medication use, and 75 percent had an interest in past shootings, as evidenced in their writing, social media posts or other activities.
The majority of mass school shooters – 87 percent – showed signs of a crisis, as exhibited in their behavior, before the shooting. Seventy-eight percent revealed their plans ahead of time, often on social media. As juveniles, they also used guns that they stole from parents, caregivers and other significant adults in their lives.
Our analysis found that about 80 percent of mass school shooters were suicidal, based on records we have gathered thus far. This includes the Parkland shooter. Almost all of them die at the scene of the shooting, often by their own hand. Our analysis shows that 52 percent of mass school shooters killed themselves, while 15 percent were killed by police and 30 percent were apprehended. It’s unclear how the remaining 3 percent were killed, our analysis shows.
These findings make it clearer why current strategies are inadequate. If the shooter is most likely a student in the school, lockdown drills only show potential perpetrators the school’s planned response, which can be used to increase casualties.
Punishing explicit threats of violence with suspension, expulsion or criminal charges is ineffective with a suicidal student. These methods only increase the risk for violence and worsen grievances with the school. Likewise, when a would-be shooter already desires to die, the death penalty – President Trump’s proposed response to mass shootings – is no deterrent.
These findings suggest the need for a new approach to mass violence prevention in schools – one that goes beyond running, hiding and fighting, and that does not traumatize students with routine lockdown drills that cause anxiety or hand young people a script for this form of violence.
Instead, our data show that threats of school violence should be seen as a plea for help. These threats are a critical moment for a student to be connected with long-term, high-quality resources, such as mental health treatment, social services or substance use treatment. The Parkland’s shooter involvement with services was sporadic before he was expelled from school.
These threats of school violence are also an occasion to remind parents to keep guns secure to lessen the chances that they will be able to carry out their attacks.
Further, all school personnel – teachers, administrators and staff members – should be able to recognize signs of a student in crisis. They also need to be trained in crisis intervention, de-escalation, suicide prevention, and be educated on how to connect students to needed help.
School shootings are rare events that mobilize people to take action. In our view, our research suggests it is time to shift the focus from protection to prevention and from physical security to mental well-being.
Our Big Microplastic Survey is helping people do something about plastic pollution
February 7, 2019
Author: David Jones, PhD Candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Portsmouth
Disclosure statement: David Jones is founder and CEO of Just One Ocean.
Partners: University of Portsmouth provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.
Plastic pollution has become pervasive, pernicious and persistent. In 2016, global plastic production was around 335m tonnes and it continues to be released into our rivers and oceans on a catastrophic scale, despite recently becoming one of the world’s most publicised and well documented environmental issues.
The so called “Blue Planet” effect, which emerged after David Attenborough’s TV show highlighted the issue of plastic pollution in the UK, has seen the introduction of small but significant changes in behaviour and legislation. Awareness campaigns and the growth of numerous grassroots organisations, particularly on a local scale, are making significant contributions to resolving some of the issues.
But much of this activity is based around macroplastics, larger pieces of pollution that we know more about and that more easily attract public action through activities such as beach cleaning. A major part of the plastic problem is microplastics, tiny pieces less than 5mm in width whose impact on the environment is much less well understood and that are harder for the public to do something about. With that in mind, I’ve launched a citizen science project that aims to harness the public’s concerns about microplastics in order to gather the data that scientists need.
There have been piecemeal attempts to resolve some of the microplastic issues, such as the bans on microbeads in cosmetics introduced in a number of countries. But the key challenges highlighted by a 2015 report on microplastics from the GESAMP group of international scientists – increasing scientific knowledge, adapting our behaviour and changing public perception – still exist.
There are probably two reasons for this. First, the problem is vast and complex, and there are only a small, albeit growing, number of scientists looking into it. Second is the fact that ocean microplastics are harder to see than other forms of pollution and so the problem is more easily ignored.
Getting people to stop using plastic drinking straws is one thing. But getting them to think or do something about the potential impact of tiny pieces of plastic that hide in the sand on beaches around the world is much more difficult. If we want to meet the objectives of the GESAMP report, we can only do it with with public engagement and participation.
Citizen science potentially provides a win-win opportunity to meet those challenges. In early 2018, my colleagues and I at the University of Portsmouth along with the conservation charity I founded, Just One Ocean, developed a citizen scientist microplastic research programme. The aim was to gather data to help evaluate the environmental impacts of visible microplastics (between 1mm and 5mm in width) on the coastal environment. For each location studied, we wanted to know how many microplastics there were, how they were spread and what other characteristics they had.
Citizen science is growing but still viewed with some scepticism by many professional scientists. So citizen projects need to be carefully planned and carried out to ensure data is reliably accurate and consistent, and isn’t prejudiced by the biases of participants. Projects also need to be able to attract volunteers and consider issues of time, effort, cost and accessibility for volunteers. With these in mind we made the task simple, short and easy. Volunteers are provided with clear written information backed up by video guidance, while images of the data they collect provides a verification process.
In trials undertaken on the south coast of the UK with nearly 100 volunteers, this method captured substantial amounts of scientific data that was consistent and accurate enough to prove citizen science could be used to study microplastics. The pilot also improved the knowledge and skills of the participants and encouraged the local community to take ownership of the problem.
Though we are still improving the programme, the success of the trials was enough for us to launch “The Big Microplastic Survey” as a global research project – and since July 2018 we’ve signed up participants from 42 countries. As well as individuals, this has included universities in India, Australia and South Africa, environmental agencies in remote locations such as St Helena, the Falklands and Ascension Island, and small scientific communities in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Volunteers are able to undertake a simple microplastic survey in around 30 minutes using the sort of equipment you will find in most households. They take samples of sand from a specified area and use a density separation process with sea water to remove the microplastics. They then record the data, take a photograph of the microplastics and send us the results.
We haven’t set an end date for the project and, in the longer term, our ambition is to enable volunteers to upload data in real time onto a geographic database that will be made freely available for researchers. We hope it will not only increase our scientific understanding of the problem, but also engage with hundreds of people.
The challenges we face from plastic pollution are significant, but so are the potential contributions that ordinary people all over the world can make – a situation that scientists should embrace. There is a lot of interest in microplastics and people want to be involved, but up until now they did not know how to be. This project provides them with the opportunity they might have been waiting for.