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Money laundering evident at collapsed Surfside condo building

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When Champlain Towers South ascended from the beachfront 40 years ago in the quaint Miami suburb of Surfside, the new condominium gleamed with promise.

It was the first swanky high-rise condo in the tiny town, and it solidified the neighborhood as a gathering place for the rich and famous such as Frank Sinatra, who hung out down the road. For its residents – from millionaire cocaine smugglers to family vacationers – it was all about landing their little slice of paradise.   

But even before developers sold off the 136 condominiums to their first owners, the construction had been botched and the building had been set on a course to rot from the foundation up, a USA TODAY investigation shows.   

USA TODAY set out to compile a complete accounting of the forces at work on the building that collapsed June 24, killing 98 people. Reporters pored over thousands of pages of documents, including deeds, inspection records and homeowner association minutes. They interviewed dozens of people, including money laundering and engineering experts and residents who called the building home from its birth in 1981 to its deadly end in 2021.   

The reporting reveals for the first time that early condo sales exhibit telltale signs of a money laundering scheme. Experts said cutting corners on construction often accompanied money laundering. At Champlain South, engineers noted an incorrectly designed pool deck and improperly constructed support columns. Money laundering might have meant that some early buyers weren’t living in the condo building or concerned with its long-term maintenance.   

"The era we’re talking about is when Miami suddenly came out of the ashes. So how do you rush to fulfill the demand? You cut corners. You attached roofs with paper clips. You bribe the inspectors," said Jorge Valdes, who was not involved in Champlain South but helped build dozens of homes, apartment complexes and high-rises in the Miami region as a chief money launderer for the Medellin Cartel. 

The reporting reveals that troubling evidence of the building’s decay emerged earlier and was ignored longer than previously known. Residents noted flooding in the garage in 1981, the year the tower opened.  By 1996, they were making repairs to the concrete in the garage ceiling. In 2016, as construction rumbled on a new condo next door, a Champlain South resident was shaken off a treadmill.   

Homeowner association records and interviews with residents show that these problems were addressed in isolation, a series of seemingly small problems that no one connected until 2018, when an engineering report laid out construction errors that investigators are examining to determine if they contributed to the collapse.  

Even when engineers finally alerted residents to design flaws that were causing chronic water intrusion and growing damage to concrete, the arguments and delays over needed repairs did not focus on safety but about the cost and inconvenience of fixing the problems. During the building’s final years, homeowners voted to delay a repair of "deep" concrete deterioration near the pool, so they could keep it open through the summer, a 2020 engineering document shows. It was the first part of the building that caved, witnesses said.  

As building maintenance was deferred and problems continued to crop up, the condo’s luxury designs and high-end finishes became dingy and dilapidated. People looking for top-tier beachfront living in Surfside went to the newer places next door.   

A USA TODAY analysis of 40 years of real estate sales in Surfside tracked the rise and fall of Champlain’s fortunes, from one of the most expensive in the region to a tarnished bargain.  

Champlain South’s biggest sale in 2021 came in May when a couple paid $2.8 million for a four-bedroom penthouse in the 40-year-old building. By contrast, a three-bedroom at the 2-year-old Eighty Seven Park condos next door sold for $9 million, more than three times as much

To understand how the building declined and fell from its inception, "timing is key," said Nicholas Griffin, who wrote a book exploring cocaine, the race riots and refugee crisis in Miami in 1980.

“This is all going on at exactly the time they are putting together the Surfside deal,” Griffin said. “So you can imagine how far down the bottom of the list honest inspections of potential building disasters would be.”   

 He paused.

“Seeds were planted that took 40 years to grow and then collapse.”  

The plot of land where Champlain South once stood grabbed developers’ attention in the earliest days of America’s beachfront condominium boom.  

For most of the 1970s, the entire block that became Champlain South was a fenced-off pit, about 12 feet deep. Developers had bought the 3-star Coronado Hotel, demolished it and announced a 12-story condo to take its place.   

But that project never came to be. Developers couldn’t resolve a fight with Miami-Dade County over sewer system upgrades, according to a Miami Herald article in 1973. Instead, a shack sprouted in the pit, where kids “smoked pot and hung out,” said Ray Lovado, 54, who grew up two blocks from the site.    

The property sold in 1978 and again in 1979, eventually landing in the hands of developer Nathan Reiber and his partner Nathan Goldlist and associates.   

They revived big plans for the spot – plans that made Surfside leaders’ eyes sparkle.    

“It was going to be money in the coffers to keep the tax burden low for the residents,” said Mitchell Kinzer, who was the mayor of Surfside at the time Champlain South was built. Champlain South and its nearly identical twin, Champlain North, ballooned the tax rolls by a reported $35 million in 1982, generating more than enough to cover plans for 5% pay hikes for town employees.   

Reiber faced tax trouble in Canada. His lawyer, Stanley Levine, had been indicted for attempting to bribe an official in Florida on an earlier project; and one building contractor hired to work on the Champlain South project was forced to surrender his license after numerous infractions. The architect’s license had been suspended in Florida after sign structures he designed collapsed during Hurricane Betsy in 1965.  

Reiber, Levine and others who led the building’s development have since died. Attempts to reach their relatives were unsuccessful. 

Thousands of pages of deed and mortgage documents reveal that within 24 months of opening, at least 62 sales exceeding $9.5 million showed classic signs of money laundering. 

To use money from drug sales, cartels have to make sure the cash can’t be tracked back to its illegal source. Purchasing real estate with drug money through an anonymous corporation can do that because proceeds from sales or rentals become a plausibly legitimate source of money that can be safely banked or spent. Mortgage repayments also create a legitimate revenue stream.  

That’s why concealed buyer identities, all-cash sales, hidden sources of private loan money, overpaying for condos and rapid repayment of loans are all considered red flags for money laundering.  

Not all such transactions are illegal. In 1981, money laundering was not a crime. That changed in 1986 with the Money Laundering Control Act, which prohibits engaging in financial transactions using money from certain crimes.  

At Champlain South and North, red flags were commonplace.  Buyers purchased units through shell companies in countries such as Panama and the Netherlands Antilles, both notorious for laundering drug money through anonymous corporations. One buyer was headquartered at the same address as more than 200 other offshore companies, according to the Panama Papers.  Multiple sales involved all cash and overpayments.    

"Shell companies, cash deals, fast sales, strange buyers, tax haven companies as owners, hidden beneficial ownership, all the bells and whistles of suspicious transactions that compliance officers today would recognize in a New York minute,” said Ken Rijock, a Miami financial crime consultant and former banking attorney who laundered money for Colombian cocaine cartels in the 1980s.  

Records show a fund controlled by Reiber’s attorney loaned millions to people buying condos from Reiber and his partner.  

If they took part in money laundering in the sales, experts said, the developers were probably cutting corners on construction and anywhere else they could boost profits. 

“You wanted to put up real estate as quickly as possible because the money was flowing,” said Valdes, the former Medellin money launderer. “We could buy any building inspector at any given moment. There were no stringent codes. There were no money laundering laws.” 

Levine used a trust account with an unidentified source of money to shell out more than $3 million in high-interest loans to early buyers at Champlain South in its first two years and at least $1.4 million to Champlain North, a red flag for money laundering schemes, said Charles Intriago, one of the nation's most trusted chroniclers of the war on money laundering in Miami during the 1980s.    

“If the main players of a building are engaged in corrupt activities, they are more than likely to be involved in corruption in every single phase of it. That includes from the time the person buys it, to the construction, to the completion and the sales of it. There's going to be a temptation to cut corners, and Miami was – and is – fertile ground for this,” the former federal prosecutor said. “That Surfside tower is no exception.”    

Levine’s loan terms could be back-breaking. Interest rates frequently topped even the average 16% charged by banks in 1981. Twelve-month paybacks for six-figure loans were not unusual at Champlain South. But the loans were popular: Even Reiber’s Champlain business partner, Goldlist, borrowed $150,000, records show. 

Another sign of money laundering: At its start, Champlain South commanded top-of-the market prices for condominiums even though condos with more amenities sold for less.    

For instance, in 1980, Triton Tower condominiums advertised everything Champlain offered – and then some: a restaurant and two pools. It was in Miami Beach, a better-known address with more cachet.    

There, the asking price for a penthouse was $121,000; $137,000 for a luxury two-bedroom. At Champlain, a penthouse in 1981 sold for $216,800.     

Despite the inflated price tags, early buyers flocked in from Brooklyn, Denver, New Jersey and Canada, where Reiber and Goldlist had business and personal ties.   

When Marely Fuquen overpaid for her fifth-floor, two-bedroom in 1982, she didn’t just join the ranks of offshore and foreign buyers paying cash for condos. She put the Cali, Colombia, cocaine cartel into the heart of Champlain South.    

The mother of four was the mistress of Jose Santacruz Londono, the cartel’s lead money laundering overseer.   

Working from a network of Panamanian banks and corporate shell companies, his Luxembourg-based financial wizards moved money from street drug sales in the USA to Panamanian banks, and from there, to European and Colombian accounts and corporations. 

Fuquen told others she feared for her children if something should happen to her. And something did. 

In 1989, Fuquen disappeared. DEA agents investigating the drug kingpin suspected Santacruz ordered her murder. 

Assessment checks on her Champlain South condo kept arriving until three months after authorities arrested Santacruz’s European money laundering team and froze millions of dollars of his personal fortune. Federal prosecutors filed to seize the Champlain condo unit, part of a broader seizure of cartel assets. 

“When you’re dealing with dirty money, it seeps into the sales. Something’s gotta give, so the prices are inflated. It increases the cost of the unit,” Intriago said. “They gotta make that money back somehow, and it's easy to disguise. Who the hell is gonna know?” 

Rebecca Posner was one of the first to move into Champlain South. Her father bought the condo in 1981, she said, so she would have a place to spend time with her children when they took breaks from their boarding schools in the North.    

Posner liked the condo. She liked her neighbors, “all very friendly,” she recalled. She had only one complaint: From Day One, every time it rained, the garage flooded.     

“We always had to take the cars out,” Posner said.  

From garage floor to penthouse ceiling, construction choices and certain deviations from blueprints made the condos more appealing and, in some cases, more vulnerable.   

Near the pool deck, added decorative planters layered on thousands of extra pounds of weight. A hot tub was not on structural drawings; a filled hot tub can weigh 6,000 pounds.     

The area was already vulnerable. The pool deck had been designed as a flat surface, a “major error” identified decades later in 2018 in a report by the condo board’s engineering consultant. With no slope, water did not drain away but pooled below-ground, compromising the concrete structure.    

Beneath the ground floor, a switch in parking garage design eliminated certain support structures. One garage column used 80% of its support capacity to hold up concrete slabs above it, said Abi Aghayere, a professor of structural engineering at Drexel University. Only 20% was left to handle any other weight, including people, furniture and appliances. 

The New York Times and the Miami Herald reported on certain errors and changes in concrete columns and slabs. Aghayere conducted an independent analysis. 

There were too many steel reinforcing rods – rebar – inside some columns, the engineer said, which can weaken those supports by leaving too little room for concrete. Although building codes at the time required a minimum 1.5 inches of concrete covering for slabs, Aghayere found plans called for less than an inch of the protective covering. 

"Providing lower than the required concrete cover to the rebar in the garage slab – especially given that the slab had no waterproofing membrane and was frequently exposed to seawater infiltration – could have led to corrosion," Aghayere said.

That would create a vicious cycle: As the steel support rods inside concrete corrode, they expand, he said, cracks would form. Cracks create openings for more seawater to corrode still more rebar and weaken more concrete. Ultimately, Aghayere said, it undermines the strength of the slab, risking "a sudden rupture" and collapse. 

There’s no explanation, and in some cases no known records, of changes and crucial components. The entire penthouse was an add-on to original plans, in effect creating a 13th floor. Documents show gaps in specifications on types of columns to be used and how much steel support they required. 

However, marketing photos show a slender rectangular column on the sweeping penthouse balcony where blueprints for other floors in that same area called for stronger square columns. Rectangular columns are weaker, but provide a better view, a selling feature for the penthouse.     

The exterior penthouse balcony columns were exposed to corrosive salt air and rain. Construction codes required a 2-inch-thick concrete covering for those and any other exterior columns. Aghayere said he found no plans for coating in a search of city-supplied blueprints and building records.  

No one apparently noticed at the time.

“You can imagine a municipal government as small as Surfside, not having many layers of safeguards,” Intriago said. “Not doing inspections in this region of Florida is as common as you having breakfast in the morning.” 

For millionaire drug smuggler Pedro “Peggy” Rosello, Champlain South offered an under-the-radar refuge where cocaine dealing, Ferraris and indoor hot tub parties abounded.  

He arrived there in 1988, at the peak of the drug war in Miami. Cash flowed in, he said, and the luxury condo on Collins Avenue was a hub where kingpins partied hard, out of sight of undercover cops. 

From the outside, he said, the building was beguiling. The inside: discreet.  

“All the attention was still on South Beach, so I could walk into an elevator knowing nobody would catch on to me,” Rosello, told USA TODAY from his prison cell. He’s serving a sentence for a cocaine conviction at a federal prison in Miami until February 2022. 

In 1991, Rosello, a “cocaine cowboy,” said he was weeks away from buying the fifth-floor, two-bedroom condo he was renting under an alias in Champlain South. Those plans changed when authorities indicted him for his role in Miami’s biggest cocaine ring. 

“Who knows? If I would have bought it, my son, ‘little Peter,’ could have been the one living there at the time of the collapse,” he said. “But at the end, the building fell, just like our once cocaine empire.” 

By 1996, according to permits for the work, contractors were making major repairs to the concrete in the garage ceiling, the underbelly of the improperly designed pool deck. Fifteen years after the building opened, concrete at its base was already falling apart. 

No one knew it at the time, but Champlain South was sinking at a rate of about 2 millimeters a year in the 1990s, according to a study of historical satellite data in 2020 by Shimon Wdowinski, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University. USA TODAY first reported on the study hours after the building collapsed. 

Cracked walls or shifting foundations can be clues that sinking has affected the stability of a structure, experts said. Residents of the building might have noticed changes. 

“Had there been changes in the building? Cracks in the walls, in the floor? Floors not being level, things rolling off tables?” Matthys Levy, author of “Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail,” told USA TODAY in June. “That would indicate the building was shifting.” 

In 2001 and 2015, a Champlain resident filed lawsuits against the same concrete contractors the condo board hired for repairs in 1996, alleging that cracks in the building’s outer skin had allowed water to penetrate into their units. 

Champlain Towers South was sliding in desirability, relative to the surrounding buildings. Champlain South had topped the market when it opened, but by 1996, a USA TODAY analysis of real estate sales shows, the median sales price of a Champlain North or South condo was $105 per square foot, compared with $129 for other Collins Avenue condos in Surfside and Miami Beach. 

By 2001, the gap had widened: $143 per square foot at Champlain North and South compared with $193 per square foot at other beachfront condos in the area. 

Regardless of price, Champlain condos offered the two most important South Florida selling points: They were on the sand. Windows framed ocean views.  

Although lower prices may have reflected the building’s age, they also bought owners more space, said Peter Zalewski, a South Florida condo consultant.  

“It might not have been the building they wanted,” he said. “But pound for pound,” a lower cost and proximity to sand and surf made Champlain desirable: “It’s square footage versus price.”  

In 2001, Steve Rosenthal jumped at buying a two-bedroom unit with a view of the bay.  

“It was a bargain. It was the place to buy – well, until it wasn’t,” said Rosenthal, who for almost 20 years witnessed puddles appear in the parking garage during the full moon and high tide, as well as cracks snaking across balcony floors.  

“They would appear, you would complain, and nothing was ever done. They would grow, and it was the same pattern,” he said, echoing another resident on the 11th floor, who complained to the condo board in 2019 that a piece of concrete fell from the balcony above his. 

Balconies are a perennial weak link. Nationwide, before the Champlain collapse, all but two of 26 injuries involving a condo structural failure from 2015 to 2021 involved balconies. 

“People would come to my house with a stick and poke the balcony ceiling, but no work was ever done,” Rosenthal said. 

For a brief time while Rosenthal was seeing cracks spread, Florida law required deeper inspections that might have caught larger problems at Champlain South. But in 2010, Florida's Legislature killed the 2008 law that called for condominium associations to inspect and assess maintenance needs every five years. 

It was 2018 before engineers examined the building’s structure and only then because Miami-Dade County takes the rare step of requiring an inspection as a building turns 40.  

By then, time was running out. 

It took being tossed off a treadmill for Rosenthal to become a believer.  

By 2016, the sharp jolts and shakes roiling the lower levels of Champlain South were the talk of the building. For residents who lived above the third floor, the vibrations from the construction of a high-rise next door sounded like a myth. Rosenthal had felt nothing in his seventh-floor unit.  

Then, running in the first-floor gym, Rosenthal said, “I felt it for myself. The banging literally shook the gym.” His feet slipped off the treadmill, but he clutched a handle to avoid falling. “I had to hold on tight to the tread.” 

The construction of Eighty Seven Park – a taller, plusher condo complex than Champlain Towers South – brought more than complaints of shaking. It brought incessant noise. Unabating dust. Styrofoam bits floating in the communal pool. The 18-story building broke ground in 2016 on the lot immediately south of its aging neighbor, a few yards across the city line in Miami Beach. 

Construction vibrations are a common enough problem that builders take detailed photos of neighboring buildings, experts said, so they can compare them afterward to determine whether their activities might have caused cracks, settling or other damage. 

Champlain South should have been inspected before the start of Eighty Seven Park and after its completion, Aghayere said. Those pre- and post-construction surveys should have noted any existing cracks and any that formed during construction.  

A 2016 aerial photo of 87 Park construction next door to Champlain Towers South.

Florida Department of Transportation

“The construction vibrations should have been monitored during the construction using a seismograph to verify that they were not excessive,” he said. 

Developers declined to provide the vibration documents and surveys to USA TODAY.   

Seven of the 33 lawsuits filed by the families of victims of the collapse list Eighty Seven Park’s developers as defendants, saying they didn’t take precautions to protect Champlain South during construction. 

Miami Beach code compliance officers were called out to the construction site 94 times over the five years of the condo project, USA TODAY found. Records show about 62% of those were noise complaints; among the others were Champlain South residents concerned that the vibrations were damaging the decaying building. As a result, the contractor and development firm paid the town $26,500 in fines.  

No matter how many times Champlain South residents complained, nothing was done to address concerns at their building, records show. Emails between residents, the condo association and the town of Surfside document that.  

Board member Mara Chouela wrote an email to then-Surfside building official Ross Prieto in January 2019 with concerns about the building’s structural integrity.   

“We are concerned that the construction next to Surfside is too close,” she wrote. Workers were “digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building.”  

She attached two photos of construction equipment over the pool deck wall and asked if someone from Surfside could come check on the situation.  

Prieto responded 28 minutes later: “There is nothing for me to check.” 

USA TODAY reached out to Chouela and 26 other former Champlain South board members who served as far back as 1997 through a combination of calls, emails and handwritten letters. Chouela hung up on a reporter. Others either did not respond or would not talk for this story.  

Jay Miller, who purchased his third-floor unit in 2018, took a chance on the older Champlain South. 

“Unlike a lot of new buildings, it had very large rooms, it had very spacious hallways and apartments, so it just needed to be refreshed,” Miller told USA TODAY. “But apparently, there were underlying structural problems that nobody had raised a major alarm about.” 

The retired journalism professor noted that it wasn’t until he had moved in that he spotted red flags such as paint peeling off the ceiling and regular flooding.  

“The garage was a total disaster,” he said. “Sometimes when there was a lot of water in the basement, you literally had to wade through the water to get to your car. When I first moved in, it was bad, but it wasn't awful, but after that, it kept deteriorating.”  

Condo owners, many living on fixed incomes, are known for furious opposition to even small repair assessments, and Champlain South was no exception. Board members repeatedly emphasized the need to keep costs under control.  

One wrote in 2016, “My main concern is to oversee future projects and ensure money can be saved … and that we can make necessary upgrades without having to dig into each other’s pocket.”  

Champlain board members and activists were not uneducated: The treasurer was a CPA. Board candidates and activists included a construction company president, a chemical engineer, a residential property manager, a real estate specialist and a former bank executive.   Setting aside a bit more than $151,000 a year for repairs from 2018 to 2020, Champlain South board members may have thought their $706,000 in reserve money was ample.    

It was a fraction of the more than $15 million needed by 2021 to fix safety hazards such as cracking concrete. Eric M. Glazer, a Florida condominium law attorney, said, “The reality is that condo buildings with even $700,000 are few and far between. Some have zero dollars in their reserve accounts.”  

Surfside’s building age, and how that could affect repairs and costs, mattered to some. Before Miller bought his condo, a title company asked Surfside town officials whether the condo’s 40-year electrical and structural certification had been completed. The town said no. The sale went through.  

Four months later, in October 2018, a Morabito Consultants engineering report detailed a litany of concerns to the board. Among them: Rebar, the iron rods strengthening concrete, were exposed and deteriorating in the parking garage area. Concrete was cracking in columns, beams and walls. Previous concrete repairs were failing.   

Consultants emphasized the original design flaw underpinning the pool deck area.  There was an urgent need to rip up the concrete slab in the pool deck, they wrote, so that a waterproofing “membrane” could be installed; not doing so would cause the concrete’s deterioration to “expand exponentially.”   

When Prieto, Surfside’s lead building official, received the Morabito report, he took no action, the same way he responded to concerns about Eighty Seven Park, records show. Instead, he told condo residents their building was “in very good shape.” 

In the months after the Morabito report, condo board minutes reflect almost none of the alarming language of the findings.  

Board members reassured worried residents that they were in the process of selecting a contractor for concrete restoration. That was in August 2019.   

Almost a year later, an engineer who had been asked to walk around the building looking for needed repairs reported to the condominium manager that he had “Knocked some concrete edges off patios that looked emanate(sic) of falling.” In July 2020, a contract for concrete restoration and waterproofing work had still not been finalized. However, the board had stepped up other repair efforts.   

Almost 19 months after Morabito Consultants catalogued “abundant” cracking in concrete columns, beams and walls of the parking garage, the board voted to approve a contract with the engineering firm to oversee the repair work.  

They needed millions. “We should have started saving at least five years ago,” a condo board slideshow on finances concluded.  

As the board played catch up, Champlain South neared its final hour. 

In the early morning of June 24, the floors rumbled. The walls shook. Windows shattered.  

Was it an earthquake? A bomb? Rosenthal had no clue. As picture frames crashed to the floor, the 72-year-old moved fast, pushed by an adrenaline rush of fear. 

He grabbed a duffle bag and shoved what he thought he would need for a few days: two pair of shorts, two shirts and six pairs of socks and underwear. His favorite "Sunday funday” shoes –  bright blue loafers with shiny gold toes – made it in there, too. 

He thought he would escape the crumbling building down the stairwell, but rescuers on a cherry picker had to pluck him from his balcony. 

“I opened my door in the dark that night,” he said, “only to see the sky beneath my feet.”    

Contributing: Romina Ruiz-Goiriena, USA TODAY, and Wendy Rhodes, Palm Beach Post

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Buried Treasure: Weeds, Seeds, and Zombies

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A tall seeding thistle plant in the foreground of a golden field of barley

The Beal Seed Experiment

The Beal Seed Experiment at Michigan State University is one of the longest running science experiments in the world. Frank Telewski is a professor of plant biology and only the seventh person to serve as the experiment's lead scientist since it began in 1879. Here's the paper he co-published after the last bottle was uncovered, back in 2000. Frank's since appointed three younger colleagues as successor caretakers, handing down the secret map of the location where the bottles are buried to plant scientists David Lowry, Lars Brudvig, and Marjorie Weber. Marjorie, whom we also interviewed for this episode, was the lucky one who uncovered this year’s bottle. Mark your calendars now for 2041, when the next bottle will be unearthed...

Two pairs of hands, one pale and the other encased in white work gloves, hold two yellow measuring tapes criss-crossed over grassy ground.
Marjorie Weber, Assistant Professor, Department of Plant Biology and Frank Telewski, Curator, W. J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum, triangulate the location of the Beal Bottles.
Overhead shot of a man with dark hair, wearing a black jacket and work gloves, shoveling dirt out of a 3 foot diameter hole under the glow of green lights. It's night and very dark outside.
Lars A. Brudvig. Associate Professor, digs for the Beal Bottle.
A man's hand holds a small, dirt-encrusted glass bottle with a narrow neck over a hole dug into the ground.
David Lowry holds the Beal Bottle.
Two pairs of hands, one pale and slightly dusty, the other wearing white work gloves, hold a glass bottle with a narrow neck that appears to be filled with sand.
Frank Telewski and Margaret Fleming, Research Associate, Plant Biology Lab, hold the bottle containing seeds buried by William J. Beal over 140 years ago.
A close-up of pale, masculine hands carefully scooping seeds and sand out of a narrow-necked glass bottle with a silver instrument. The glass bottle is being held over a tray of soil.
Frank Telewski removes seeds from the Beal Bottle in the growth chamber.
Two tiny, bright green seedlings with just a handful of leaves each are sprouting up out of some pale brown soil.
Seedlings of verbascum blattaria, a weed commonly called moth mullein, germinated from the 140 year old Beal Seed experiment.

Photos by Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University

Richard Mabey and Weeds

Richard Mabey is one of Britain’s most prolific and admired nature writers, with more than forty books to his name. He is the author of Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants, a deeply enjoyable meander through the awe-inspiring ingenuity of weeds, and our doomed yet eternal battle to control them.

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'Car Talk' Ends Its Radio Run. Here's What Ray Magliozzi Hopes You'll Remember | WBUR News

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Lord of the Rings: Two Towers’ two tower question, definitively answered


ThereThere is a mystery at the heart of the second installment of The Lord of the Rings, from Peter Jackson’s 2002 adaptation all the way back to Tolkien’s 1954 original. The Two Towers has plagued many a reader who missed the one line of the books that gives the answer, and many a movie watcher who has thought to themselves: “Wait... is there even a second tower in this movie?”

The mystery, of course, is: Which towers are the two towers?

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.

In another setting, perhaps, this would be an easy thing to figure out, but the geography of Middle-earth nearly bristles with spires of one kind or another, from Saruman’s tower at Isengard; to the steeples of Minas Tirith, capital city of Gondor; to Barad-dûr, the perch of the Eye of Sauron — and all of them play large roles in The Lord of the Rings.

But it’s a valid question, one that even J.R.R. Tolkien waffled on for the majority of the time he was writing The Fellowship of the Ring. And it came back to plague Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh when it came time for them to convert The Lord of the Rings into three movies.

When you really get down to it, The Two Towers just isn’t a very good name for the middle installment of The Lord of the Rings. But then, it was never supposed to have a name at all.

One book to rule them all

Tolkien envisioned The Lord of the Rings as a single book told in six named sections, not a trilogy. But his publishers were wary of the high price of paper in post-war England and thought that readers would balk at the sight of a thousand-page tome, so they mandated that it be split into three parts with two sections each.

This meant that Tolkien had to come up with names for the three parts. The second book in the trilogy, containing sections III and IV of the 6-section epic, proved to be a challenge. Section III followed linearly from Section II, covering about a week of the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf, Merry, and Pippin in Rohan. Section IV leapt back in time a week to pick up with Frodo and Sam and then continued for over two weeks of time. At no point did these these two sections intersect.

Eventually Tolkien settled on The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, so that the titles of all three books could be included in the first printing of The Fellowship to entice the satisfied reader. According to his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, he initially wrote to his publisher Allen & Unwin that the towers the title referred to should be left ambiguous.

Then, he wrote that he was attempting to decide on specific towers, but was waffling between three different options. Perhaps the events of the book were best represented by Orthanc and Barad-dûr, the strongholds of Saruman and Sauron respectively, as the major antagonistic forces of The Lord of the Rings? Or, perhaps it was Minas Tirith and Barad-dûr, representing the last refuge of the forces of good, and the fortress of the highest evil? Or, perhaps it was Orthanc — the location of the final conflict of Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf, Pippin, and Merry’s Two Towers adventures, where Gandalf strips Saruman of his wizardly powers — and the tower of Cirith Ungol — the location of the cliffhanger climax of Sam and Frodo’s Two Towers arc, where Frodo is captured alive by orcs and Sam is left to bear the One Ring to Mount Doom alone.

I wish I could tell you it was any of these, but unfortunately, a month after that, Tolkien settled on none of those combos.

Which towers are the Two Towers?

As he was finishing The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien decided that the two towers of The Two Towers would be ... Orthanc and Minas Morgul.

Minas Morgul? Are you kidding me, professor?

Odds are that right now you are thinking “If it’s not Saruman’s tower, or Sauron’s tower, or the tower that Frodo gets captured in, then what the fuck is Minas Morgul?” Minas Morgul — formerly a Gondorian city, hence the “Minas,” as in Minas Tirith — is the fortress of the Witch-king of Angmar, leader of the Nazgul. It appears in just one scene in Tolkien’s The Two Towers, in which Sam and Frodo cower as the Witch-King leads his armies out of a spooky castle, bound for Minas Tirith and the Battle of Pelennor Fields. That’s it!

And here’s the fun part: Minas Morgul doesn’t appear in the movie The Two Towers at all, because of the particular pickle that the book’s non-novelistic structure presented to Boyens, Jackson, and Walsh. If you follow the timeline of the overlapping events of The Lord of the Rings’ plotlines, by the time Frodo and Sam sight Minas Morgul, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the rest of the crew have run across Rohan twice, healed Theoden, defended Helm’s Deep, sacked Isengard, broken Saruman’s staff, walked the Paths of the Dead, and Gandalf and Pippin have reached Minas Tirith.

By the time the Battle of Helm’s Deep happens, the moment that Boyens, Jackson, and Walsh chose to button the end of their Two Towers, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum have yet to even met Faramir yet. To avoid packing a lot more content into The Two Towers than was really feasible, the trio fudged Sam and Frodo’s timeline a bit, created a narrative arc for them to overcome, and left a lot of Sam and Frodo’s book plot for 2003’s The Return of the King.

Creative demands of the adaptation meant that Minas Morgul only appeared in Return of the King, as a sickly green castle that fires a giant eldritch laser into the sky before spewing forth the armies of Mordor. So on top of the monumental task of translating Tolkien’s work to screen, Jackson and his team had to come up with their own two towers for The Two Towers, which is helpfully explained, by Galadriel, in the trailer for the movie!

But even though trailers for The Two Towers explicitly enumerated its namesake spires as Barad-dûr and Orthanc, the American psyche was already grappling with the legacy of another two towers. And through no fault of their own, the mainstream success of The Fellowship of the Ring invited some comparison-making for its much anticipated sequel.

Oh no, is this about 9/11?

It sure is!

Months in advance of The Two Towers’ December 2002 release, a man named Kevin Klerck used the now-defunct to create the petition “Rename ‘The Two Towers’ to Something Less Offensive.” His manifesto read, in part:

Peter Jackson has decided to tastelessly name the sequel [to The Fellowship of the Rings] The Two Towers. The title is clearly meant to refer to the attacks on the World Trade Center. In this post-Sept. 11 world, it is unforgivable that this should be allowed to happen.

Unlike many of the post-9/11 reactions to the Lord of the Rings movies, Klerck was not serious, but the petition still attracted thousands of signatures and enough news coverage that I was able to corroborate my hazy 20-year-old memories of it with a quick Google search. Other search results indicate that Klerk’s work may not have been the only one of its kind; though I can’t say whether other petitions or efforts were sincere or likewise satirical.

Regardless, it speaks to the core problem with The Two Towers as a title: It’s very hard to know what the hell it means. It’s an idea Tolkien produced under editorial mandate and then — like a surprisingly large number of things in The Lord of the Rings — worked backwards to find a solution that made more sense to him than anyone else.

There are many diehard fans of the books who, 20 years on, still seethe at how Faramir had to get turned into a bad guy for the movie version of The Two Towers, in order for Sam and Frodo to have something to do while their buddies were off at the much more dramatic Battle of Helm’s Deep. But as a fellow pedantic book fan, I think we should all rally behind a new take on the film.

Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers actually improves on Tolkien’s, because it at least knows which two towers it’s about. Minas Morgul my ass.

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21 days ago
Boston, MA
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‘Reversing Gears’: China Increasingly Rejects English, and the World

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As a student at Peking University law school in 1978, Li Keqiang kept both pockets of his jacket stuffed with handwritten paper slips. An English word was written on one side, a former classmate recalled, and the matching Chinese version was written on the other.

Mr. Li, now China’s premier, was part of China’s English-learning craze. A magazine called Learning English sold half a million subscriptions that year. In 1982, about 10 million Chinese households — almost equivalent to Chinese TV ownership at the time — watched “Follow Me,” a BBC English-learning program with lines like: “What’s your name?” “My name is Jane.”

It’s hard to exaggerate the role English has played in changing China’s social, cultural, economic and political landscape. English is almost synonymous with China’s reform and opening-up policies, which transformed an impoverished and hermetic nation into the world’s second-biggest economy.

That’s why it came as a shock to many when the education authorities in Shanghai, the most cosmopolitan city in the country, last month forbade local elementary schools to hold final exams on the English language.

Broadly, the Chinese authorities are easing the workloads of schoolchildren, amid an effort to ease the burdens on families and parents. Still, many Chinese people with an interest in English can’t help but see Shanghai’s decision as pushback against the language and against Western influence in general — and another step away from openness to the world.

Many call the phenomenon “reversing gears,” or China’s Great Leap Backward, an allusion to the disastrous industrialization campaign of the late 1950s, which resulted in the worst man-made famine in human history.

Last year, China’s education authority barred primary and junior high schools from using overseas textbooks. A government adviser recommended this year that the country’s annual college entrance examination stop testing English. New restrictions this summer on for-profit, after-school tutoring chains affected companies that have taught English for years.

Original English and translated books are discouraged at universities, too, especially in the more sensitive subjects, such as journalism and constitutional studies, according to professors who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Three of them complained that the quality of some government-authorized textbooks suffered because some authors were chosen for their seniority and party loyalty instead of their academic qualifications.

The president of prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing came under fire this summer after sending each new student a Chinese-language copy of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” He wrote in a letter that he wanted the students to learn courage and perseverance. Some social media users questioned why he would choose the work of an American author or why he didn’t encourage the students to study for China’s rise.

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In some cases, Communist Party orthodoxy is replacing foreign texts. Elementary schools in Shanghai may not be conducting English tests, but a new textbook on “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” will be required reading in the city’s elementary, middle and high schools starting this month. Each student is required to take a weekly class for a semester.

The Communist Party is intensifying ideological control and nationalistic propaganda, an effort that could turn the clock back to the 1950s and 1960s, when the country was closed off to much of the world and political campaigns overrode economic growth. A nationalistic essay widely spread last week by Chinese official media cited “the barbaric and ferocious attacks that the U.S. has started to launch against China.”

Even just a few years ago, the Chinese government still emphasized learning a foreign language. “China’s foreign language education can’t be weakened. Instead, it should be strengthened,” wrote the Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, in 2019. The article said nearly 200 million Chinese students took foreign-language classes in 2018, from elementary schools all the way to universities. The vast majority of them were learning English.

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For a long time, the ability to read and speak English was considered a key to well-paying jobs, study-abroad opportunities and better access to information.

When Mr. Li studied law in Beijing in the late 1970s, the country had just emerged from the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. He and his classmates wanted to learn Western laws, but most of the books were in English, said Tao Jingzhou, Mr. Li’s college classmate and a lawyer in Beijing now. Their professors encouraged them to learn English and translate some original works into Chinese.

Mr. Li became part of a group that translated the book “The Due Process of Law,” by Lord Denning, the British jurist.

In 1980s and 1990s, young Chinese in many cities congregated at “English corners” to speak a foreign tongue to one another. Some brave ones, including the future Alibaba founder Jack Ma, struck up conversations with the few English-speaking foreign visitors to improve their conversational skills.

As the internet developed, a generation of Chinese learned English from TV series like “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory.”

Some businesspeople struck gold by teaching English or offering instruction on how to take tests in the language. New Oriental Education and Technology, a company based in Beijing, became such a cultural phenomenon that it inspired a blockbuster film, “American Dreams in China.” The hero taught English the way many in China learned it, such as memorizing the word “ambulance” as the Chinese for “I can’t die.” (“An bu neng si.”)

China’s top leaders used to pride themselves on their English. Former President Jiang Zemin recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in his 2000 interview with “60 Minutes” and told aggressive Hong Kong journalists that their questions were “too simple, sometimes naïve.” As recently as 2013, Premier Li delivered a speech partly in English in Hong Kong.

English lost some of its sheen after the 2008 financial crisis. Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader, doesn’t appear to speak it.

Now, English has become one of the signs of suspicious foreign influence, a fear nurtured by nationalist propaganda that has only worsened in tone since the outbreak of the coronavirus. As a result, China’s links to the outside world are being severed one by one.

China’s border control authority said in August that, as part of pandemic control procedures, it would suspend issuing and renewing passports except for urgent and necessary occasions. Middle-class Chinese citizens with expired passports wonder whether they will be able to travel abroad even after the pandemic.

Some residents in the eastern city of Hangzhou who received phone calls from abroad immediately got calls from the local police, who asked whether the calls were scams. Scholars and journalists who participated in an exchange program sponsored by the Japanese Foreign Ministry were called traitors and urged to apologize in early summer.

For Chinese people trying to keep their connections abroad, it may feel like the end of an era. Share prices of New Oriental, the education giant, tanked in July after the Beijing government announced crackdowns on after-school tutoring services. The Shanghai government’s announcement drew praise online from some nationalistic quarters.

But as long as China doesn’t shut its door to the outside world, English will still be viewed by many as crucial toward unlocking success. After the Shanghai announcement, an online survey with about 40,000 responses found that about 85 percent of respondents agreed that students should continue to learn English no matter what.

Covid-19 and tensions between the two countries have hurt the flow of Chinese students into American universities. Still, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said it had issued 85,000 student visas since May.

A lawyer in Shanghai with a nationalistic bent wrote on his verified Weibo account that he would like his daughter to learn English well because English would be helpful for China’s economic growth.

“When could Chinese stop learning English?” he asked, then answered his own question: When China becomes a leader in the most advanced technologies and the world needs to follow it.

“Then,” he wrote, foreigners “can come to learn Chinese.”

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34 days ago
Boston, MA
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This map shows where the mayoral candidates got their support - The Boston Globe

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City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George have emerged as the two candidates who will vie in a Nov. 2 final election to make history in two ways, becoming the first woman and, at the same time, the first person of color to occupy the Boston’ mayor’s office.

Where did they get their support in Tuesday’s preliminary? And where did the three other major candidates who fell short - Acting Mayor Kim Janey, City Councilor Andrea Campbell, and former city economic development chief John Barros - get their votes?

The dot density map below shows votes garnered by each of the five major candidates down to the precinct level. Voting data released by the city doesn’t include specific addresses so dots are placed randomly in the precinct in which the votes were cast.

Zoom in to get a closer look. You can also filter by candidate or by neighborhood.

John Hancock can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Hancock_JohnD. Martin Finucane can be reached at

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35 days ago
Boston, MA
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