Tillerson Says He Would Meet With North Koreans, Even Without Denuclearization Talks

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the U.S. would negotiate with North Korea without demanding that the country first agree to nuclear disarmament. This marks a significant change in a approach for Tillerson, who has spent much of this year working on the pressure campaign to cut off financial resources for the North Korean nuclear program.

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Are $40 Toll Roads The Future?

Cars on Interstate 66 are warned of road conditions in March 2014 in Fairfax County, Va. The state’s Department of Transportation recently started using dynamic pricing on the toll road, where prices vary based on congestion.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

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Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

How much would you pay to avoid traffic jams on your daily commute? $10? $20? How about $40?

That’s how much a tollway in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., charged for a short time last week. Outraged commuters call it highway robbery.

But transportation officials say the high-priced toll is less about money and more about changing commuter behavior and reducing congestion, and commuters all across the country might soon see more tolls in the future.

The 10-mile stretch of Interstate 66 from the Northern Virginia suburbs into the District of Columbia is like no other road in the country. It was built in the early 1980’s for carpools and buses to use during rush hour. Over the years, officials have opened it up to hybrids and a few other exemptions, and in recent years, scofflaw single drivers violating the HOV-only law helped choke the road with gridlock.

So Virginia’s Department of Transportation is trying something controversial: ending free rides for hybrids, expanding the restricted hours and allowing solo drivers on for a price. And oh, what a high price it is.

When merging onto I-66 inside the beltway one recent morning from the Leesburg Pike in Falls Church, Uber driver Alfred Hewton looks up at the sign showing the price of the toll.

“Eleven dollars [to] Washington, D.C., $11.”

That’s $11 to drive just 10 miles, so Hewton is relieved that for him today, it’s free.

“If we have two or more people, we don’t have to pay. If you’re driving by yourself, it will cost you that much.”

Actually, it can cost quite a bit more for solo commuters because under dynamic pricing, the cost varies, changing every six minutes based on demand and to keep traffic flowing at a minimum of 45 miles an hour. Last Monday, the toll topped $34 for a short period of time, and on Tuesday the toll hit $40.

That’s enough to make any driver spit out their coffee.

“I think it’s outrageous. It’s actually an abuse of power, as far as I’m concerned,” says Alan Bechara, who lives in suburban Chantilly, Va.

“Why do we need to pay $40 for a public road, to use a public road? We funded this road, we paid for it,” he adds. “I’m a Virginia resident for 38 years, I can assure you my tax dollars funded this road.”

Mary Jaber says she understands the need for a modest toll.

“You know, maybe $5, I mean, just something more reasonable,” Jaber says. But a daily commute of $40-plus is extraordinary, it’s extreme.”

Transportation officials say that’s actually the whole idea.

“What the toll is saying is, ‘we don’t want you to use it.’ I personally wouldn’t pay that toll,” says Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne.

“We are definitely trying to change behavior because we have limited resources,” Layne adds. “We don’t have the money nor the political will to continue to build highways.”

Layne says heavily congested areas such as Washington, D.C., and its suburbs cannot build their way out of gridlock. So the idea behind opening up the I-66 carpool lanes to solo drivers for a high price is to actually convince more people to carpool, to take public transportation, or to commute during off-peak hours when there is no charge.

And those who want to, he says, can spend the money to avoid congestion.

“This is a choice. No one is forced to pay this toll. And as a matter of fact, if you put someone else in your car, you never have to pay anything.”

Layne says the high prices of $34.50 last Monday and $40 on Tuesday were only charged for six minutes each, and no more than 28 drivers paid that $40 toll. Morning tolls averaged $10.25 over the first four days and the round trip toll price averaged $12 to $17 over the first week. Before the toll lanes opened, officials had predicted round trip tolls would average $17 a day.

Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Prince William, holds a sign as he talks to the media at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., on Feb. 10, 2016, after the governor announced an agreement on an expansion plan for Interstate 66 in northern Virginia. Marshall opposed a plan to put tolls on I-66.

Steve Helber/AP

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Steve Helber/AP

And because this wasn’t even a legal option for solo drivers before last week, Layne says there’s only been a little spillover effect clogging other roads with drivers trying to avoid the high tolls, though some drivers complain about more congestion at entry points where commuters are trying to decide whether or not to get on and pay.

While the peak prices are among the nation’s highest tolls ever charged, some see them as a sign of things to come.

“You definitely are going to see much more tolling both for general purposes, and you’re going to see tolling like the price managed lanes on I-66 to alleviate congestion,” says Pat Jones, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which represents toll facility owners and operators. He says there are already 40 toll facilities in 11 states, including California, Texas and Washington, using dynamic pricing, and many more under consideration across the country. Most tollways with dynamic pricing don’t have a cap or a maximum price, but they sometimes have a minimum price and averages. On Southern California’s I-91, in Orange and Riverside counties, the tolls can reach as high as $25.05.

“I think in fact we are underpaying, we’ve under-priced the highway system and evidence of that is the congestion that we see in our urban areas,” Jones says.

But many Northern Virginia commuters are not convinced, especially those who say carpooling and public transportation are not realistic options for them.

Mary Jaber doesn’t use I-66 and believes “it’s a very unjust system. I think there are a lot of people… that are not going to use it as a reflection of obviously cost and budgeting.”

Urd Milbury, who commutes to and from her job at the Norweigan embassy hasn’t taken I-66 yet “and I probably won’t because of the prices. It could be extremely expensive at times, which is probably exactly when I want to go to work.”

She agrees with those who call the high toll prices outrageous and Milbury thinks it will be a hardship for some families.

“You’ve got the cost of your car, you’ve got the gas, you’ve got two rounds of tolls,” she says. “It’s not sustainable.”

Meghan Jackson says she and her family “dance around” using the I-66 tollway, taking alternate routes or the Metro subway trains into the city. “I’m not sure if this fix will really reduce traffic in any way and I’m not really sure if its really of service to those of us living in Northern Virginia who have to get into the city.”

But with the federal highway trust fund failing to keep up with needs, and with very little new transportation funding likely coming from Washington anytime soon, tolls increasingly are becoming a go-to source for transportation funding. So commuters trying to avoid traffic jams may need to keep one hand on the wheel, and the other on their wallet.

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U.S. Secretary Of State Wants To Start Talks With North Korea With No Conditions

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a think-tank audience on Tuesday the U.S. shouldn’t require North Korea to promise to give up its nuclear weapons as a condition of holding talks between the two countries.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Susan Walsh/AP

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday the U.S. would be willing to enter negotiations with North Korea without requiring that it agree beforehand to give up its nuclear weapons program. The willingness to engage in talks without that understanding is a significant change in the U.S. approach.

“It’s not realistic to say we are only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program,” Tillerson said in an address to the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “They have too much invested in it, and [President Trump] is very realistic about that as well.”

Tillerson said the U.S. is ready to talk whenever North Korea is. “We are ready to have the first meeting without precondition. Let’s just meet. We can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table if that’s what you are excited about,” Tillerson said.

“It’s really about how do you begin the process of engagement. Because we are dealing with a North Korean leader that no one has ever engaged with. He’s clearly not like his father,” said Tillerson, “And we don’t know what it will be like to engage with him.”

It will also be tough to talk, Tillerson says, if North Korea continues to fire off missiles or test nuclear devices.

The idea of talks about talks is something Suzanne Dimaggio supports. She’s a senior fellow at a think tank called New America and has been part of so-called track two diplomacy with North Korea. She says the Trump administration has been sending mixed signals with the president once tweeting that Tillerson is wasting his time.

“Clearly there’s a need for this adminsitration to speak with one voice and stop this contradictory signalling,” she says. “It is high time to move from a dithering approach and have a real strategy and empower our diplomats to carry that strategy out.”

Tillerson plans to go later this week to the United Nations for a high-level Security Council meeting on North Korea. A top U.N. diplomat and former state department official, Jeffrey Feltman, is just back from Pyongyang, and the U.N. says he’s calling for open channels to reduce the risks of conflict.

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How To Survive Playing To An Empty Room And Other Advice For A Band's First Tour

Kam Franklin (left) is lead singer of The Suffers, a band from Houston that started touring three years ago. Amber Daniel is lead singer and bassist of Blame the Youth from North Carolina. They’re preparing for their first tour.

Courtesy of Jay Bee Zay and Allison Slade

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Courtesy of Jay Bee Zay and Allison Slade

When you’re facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who has already been through it. All Things Consideredis connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they’re letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

North Carolina band Blame the Youth has been playing together in and around Charlotte for three years.

Now, they’re at a point where they’re trying to decide just how serious they are.

Are you about to undergo a major life change, like start your own business or deploy overseas in the military? Or have you gone through one already? All Things Considered invites you to share your experience, either to ask questions or pass on your own lessons learned. Email us at nprcrowdsource@npr.org, with “Been There” in the subject line.

Amber Daniel and her bandmates still have their day jobs. Amber is an elementary school music teacher who teaches private lessons on the side, and being on tour full-time would be a big change.

“We’re getting to the point where it’s like, so you gonna do it? You ready, you ready?” she says. “Speaking for myself, yeah.”

But Amber still has some concerns about hitting the road.

Three years ago, the Houston band The Suffers were in the same place — wondering if they should go on the road, and how to do it.

Kam Franklin, the band’s lead singer, says The Suffers’ decision started with a big discussion among the bandmates about quitting their jobs and taking a chance, which everyone decided to follow through on.

“There will always be something to come back to,” says Kam. “But you can’t go back to these opportunities when they’re right in front of you. “

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity


Advice from Kam Franklin

On deciding to tour full-time

We had a conversation and we were like, alright, we know we’re doing this, but we don’t know what’s gonna happen after. And like where was gonna be the stopping point for us to know that, OK, this is when we need to go back to our old lives. And you know, is everybody down to quit their jobs.

On dealing with your bandmates on the road

Over-communicate your needs and your frustrations to your band and to your team early on. Passive aggression will ruin your band. It will ruin your business. And I know it seems really silly but saying things like, you know, I need to stop for tampons, or I need to go to a bra store because my back is hurting because this bra is old and I’ve played too many shows in it. At a certain point you guys are gonna be it to each other. It’ll be beyond family, beyond a romantic relationship and you have to learn how to not only respect one another’s space but how to respect yourself by over-communicating when it’s necessary.

On playing to an empty room

We have never, thankfully, played to zero people. But we have definitely played to a room that probably had a dozen people in it, including the people who were working there. But at the end of the day you have to take on this mentality of, “Who cares?” Because at the end of the day, is this what you want to do with your life? So look at that show as a practice for the major stage.

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Giant Prehistoric Penguins Once Swam Off The Coast Of New Zealand

An illustration comparing the giant penguin to an average person. Kumimanu biceae weighed about 220 pounds and was a bit shorter than 6 feet in height. It swam around off the coast of New Zealand between 55 and 60 million years ago.

Gerald Mayr

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Gerald Mayr

An international team of scientists have announced the discovery of a previously unknown species of prehistoric penguin.

The bird waddled around off the east coast of New Zealand between 55 and 60 million years ago. And it was a giant as far as penguins go. The researchers estimate that it probably weighed about 220 pounds and was around 5 feet 10 inches tall.

“That’s about as tall as a medium-sized man,” says Gerald Mayr, a paleontologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Franfurt, Germany, and the lead author of the new study published today in Nature Communications. “This particular specimen is one of the largest known fossil penguins.”

The largest living penguin, on the other hand, the Emperor penguin, is a good bit shorter — around 4 feet.

The scientists have named the new species Kumimanu biceae, which means ‘monster bird’ in the Maori language. (Kumi is the name of a monster in Maori mythology and manu means bird.)

The new finding is really cool, says Julia Clarke, a paleontologist at the University of Texas, Austin, who wasn’t involved in the study. “I mean, what’s not cool about a human-sized penguin?” she says.

While giant penguins may seem odd to us, they were pretty common millions of years ago. “We have had evidence of giant penguins, but they’ve all been younger than the new discovery,” says Clarke.

Take for example, Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi, which was similar in size to the newly discovered species. It lived in Antarctica between 33 to 45 million years ago. Then there wasIcadyptes salasi, which was almost 5 feet tall and lived in what is now Peru about 36 million years ago.

What this new species shows is that penguins evolved to be big very early in their evolution, says Ewan Fordyce, a paleontologist at the University of Otago, New Zealand, who wasn’t involved in the new study.

“It’s a few million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs,” says Fordyce. With the giant reptiles gone, it may have opened “new ecological opportunities” to birds like penguins, allowing them to break through “a glass ceiling of evolutionary size,” he says.

The oceans may also have allowed penguins to get so big.

“Giant penguins were occupying the seas about 20 million years before whales entered the oceans,” she says. No whales, no seals, no marine mammals.

And scientists think that large marine mammals — whales, walruses, seals — are why giant penguins eventually became extinct, leaving us with the smaller, cuter birds we all adore.

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Astronomers Want To Know: Does This Interstellar Visitor Have A Message For Us?

An artist’s illustration of ‘Oumuamua, a cigar-shaped interstellar object discovered in October. Now, astronomers want to know if this interloper might harbor life.


ESO/M. Kornmesser
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ESO/M. Kornmesser

It’s time to find out what, if anything, our “mysterious interloper” has to say.

That, at any rate, is the guiding idea for a team of astronomers, who announced Monday they plan to check out an interstellar object for signs of life. Beginning Wednesday, the group Breakthrough Listen will closely scan the asteroid ‘Oumuamua, a recently spotted space rock that hails from outside our solar system.

The skinny object is the first of its kind that scientists have observed. And since it has already whipped around our sun and embarked on its long return to parts unknown, researchers working with the international organization want to seize their limited opportunity to find out if it really is just a naturally occurring phenomenon — and not something more.

“Researchers working on long-distance space transportation have previously suggested that a cigar or needle shape is the most likely architecture for an interstellar spacecraft, since this would minimize friction and damage from interstellar gas and dust,” the group said in its announcement.

“While a natural origin is more likely, there is currently no consensus on what that origin might have been, and Breakthrough Listen is well positioned to explore the possibility that ‘Oumuamua could be an artifact.”

An illustration of our interstellar visitor’s path through the solar system, provided by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy.

Brooks Bays/SOEST Publication Services/UH Institute for Astronomy

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Brooks Bays/SOEST Publication Services/UH Institute for Astronomy

“The possibility that this object is, in fact, an artificial object — that it is a spaceship, essentially — is a remote possibility,” Andrew Siemion, a member of the initiative and director of Berkeley’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center, told The Washington Post on Monday.

“We don’t want to be sensational in any way, and we are very realistic about the chances this is artificial,” Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire financing the project, told the Scientific American, “but because this is a unique situation we think mankind can afford 10 hours of observing time using the best equipment on the planet to check a low-probability hypothesis.”

And they’ll be checking on that hypothesis by scanning the object for possible artificial transmitters through a radio telescope at West Virginia’s Green Bank Observatory.

Time will be of the essence, however.

“We might have, for moderately large telescopes, another handful of days, maybe a couple of weeks,” Karen Meech, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, which discovered the object, told NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce in October. “So we don’t have much time to study it.”

Meech acknowledged to the Post that ‘Oumuamua’s characteristics are “entirely consistent with being a natural object” — but, she added, “this is the sort of opportunity that one would hate to miss, even if the chances are extremely low for success.”

‘Oumuamua, whose name means “scout” or “messenger” in Hawaiian, might yet have a revelatory message for us — and if so, Breakthrough Listen hopes to be there to hear it.

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Watch Margo Price Sing From A Balcony At NPR Music's 10th Anniversary Concert

Credit: NPR

Margo Price sings classic country songs that manage to enchant, even as they disillusion. Her steadfast voice and songwriting conjure a powerful sense of nostalgia — she emerged in 2016 with Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, an album that didn’t so much callback to ’70s country as it did flawlessly reanimate it. But if her musical signifiers are comfortably familiar, her lyrics stand in stark opposition to that feeling. They don’t live in a soft-focus past, but are eyes-wide-open to modern America — from songs like “Pay Gap” to “All American Made,” Margo Price brings a fresh urgency to a well-worn form.

Standing on the 9:30 Club balcony with a scratched old acoustic guitar, she appeared as a kind of troubadour. She paraphrased Sam Cooke — “A voice should not be judged on whether it’s beautiful or not, it should be judged on [whether it] can convince you that [it is] telling the truth.” Price’s project could easily settle for nostalgia. But her voice and the songs she sings carry the good of tradition, along with a clear, contemporary ring of truth.

SET LIST

  • “Tennessee Song”
  • “Pay Gap”
  • “All American Made”

CREDITS

Director: Colin Marshall; Producers: Colin Marshall, Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey; Technical Director: Josh Rogosin; Live Mix Engineer: Shawn “Gus” Vitale; Supervising Producer: Mito Habe-Evans; Managing Producers: Bob Boilen, Jacob Ganz, Jessica Goldstein, Abby O’Neill; Creative Director and Producer: Peter Glantz; Concert Videographers: Bronson Arcuri, Kara Frame, Nickolai Hammar, Morgan Noelle Smith, Maia Stern, Niki Walker; Production Assistant: CJ Riculan; Editor: Annabel Edwards; Special Thanks: The 9:30 Club; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann, Keith Jenkins.

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An Asteroid Gets Its Close-Up As Gemenids Light Up The Sky

A photographer looks at the night sky to see the annual Geminid meteor shower in northern Italy in December 2015. This year’s shower coincides with a close-range visit by its parent asteroid.

Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

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Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

This week, the skywatchers will experience a flashy double feature: The Gemenid meteor shower — one of the year’s best — will coincide with an unusually close encounter by an asteroid.

That asteroid? It’s called 3200 Phaethon, discovered by a NASA satellite in 1983. With a diameter of about three miles, it’s the third-largest near-Earth asteroid classified by the space agency as “Potentially Hazardous.”

On Saturday, Phaethon will come within 0.069 astronomical units — about 6.4 million miles — of Earth. That’s when NASA plans to take detailed radar images of the asteroid at its Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the Mojave Desert and at the Areceibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

NASA says this encounter with Phaethon is the Earth’s closest since 1974, and the closest it will be until 2093.

And that flyby means good gazing for amateur astronomers, too.

“Hold onto your eyepiece!” says Sky and Telescope, noting that Phaethon will be so bright that asteroid buffs can track it through a 3-inch telescope. “This thing will be scooting along at up 15 [degrees] per day or 38″ a minute … fast enough to cross the field of view like a slow-moving satellite.”

Meanwhile on the meteor shower front, the Gemenids are known for the brightness of the individual meteors and their frequency: as many as 120 per hour, according to Space.com.

Most meteor showers occur as Earth passes through the debris trail and orbit of a comet. But December’s Gemenids are different, because Earth is passing through the debris of an asteroid: Phaethon.

The first recorded observation of the Gemenid shower was on a riverboat in the Mississippi River in 1933, Sapce.com says. And the show has only gotten better since then, as Jupiter’s gravity has pulled the particles closer to Earth.

While wee hours of the morning are generally the best time to watch for meteors, Sky and Telescope‘s Bob King says the Gemenids offer “an evening matinee”:

“You can spot a modest number of meteors visible starting as early as 9 p.m. because the radiant already stands some 30 high in the eastern sky. True, a fair number of shower members are cut off by the horizon at that time, but more of us are likely to go out and share it with our children in the evening as opposed to waking before dawn. Since Geminids travel at moderate to slow speeds and approach us from a low angle at that hour, they can produce brilliant and long-lasting fireballs.”

King adds an important note about that 120-meteors-per-hour rate:

“That’s the zenithal hourly rate, or ZHR, an idealized number based on observing under a pristine, moonless sky with the radiant at the zenith. Depending on the time you observe and local light pollution, counts will vary. At my observing site, which is handicapped by minor to moderate skyglow, I cut the rate in half to keep expectations realistic. A meteor a minute is certainly nothing to complain about.”

This year’s arrival of the Gemenids and Phaethon is especially welcome because last year a “supermoon” washed out the meteor shower.

How to best observe the historic show?

Grab a blanket, find a dark place, and let your eyes adjust. Then join your fellow Earthlings in taking it all in.

Was a chilly -4C last night on St Annes beach looking for the Gemenid meteor shower pic.twitter.com/opD5mXfwwE

— Daniel Martino (@DanJMartino) December 12, 2017

@Tim_O_Brien we saw 2 shooting stars this morning after the sun had started to rise, they took us by surprise! I presume they were from the Gemenid meteor shower. They were bright white and looked amazing against the blue sky.

— Helen (@N0ZOMI) December 12, 2017

Just stepped outside to smoke a cigarette and saw two meteors. Reminded me of when I asked my mother to stay with me at my old house. I’d come in from work and she’d have coffee made and we’d sit outside and watch the meteor showers. I miss those times. #Gemenid

— Steven Busby (@stevieb39la) December 12, 2017

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