Efforts begin to salvage WTO deal
GENEVA: As efforts begin to salvage a deal from the wreckage of last month's global trade talks, experts say the first task is to untangle the confusion around a farm safeguard that became a stumbling block.
The World Trade Organization's director general, Pascal Lamy, said the talks, now in their seventh year, were near agreement on 90 percent of the agenda, especially in the core areas of agriculture and industrial goods. For many WTO members, it would be frustrating to discard that progress because of a dispute about a technical but important measure to help poor farmers withstand a flood of imports.
"Almost everything was right for a conclusion when we had this impasse between the United States and India," the president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said Thursday in Beijing. "If we don't get back to the talks, and if we don't clinch a deal in the coming months, it will take four or five years more, and that would be a huge loss for everyone."
A senior U.S. trade official, Warren Maruyama, said Wednesday that the differences between the United States and big emerging countries like India and China were too complex to be resolved quickly. He said there was no point bringing ministers back together until such issues like the safeguard had been sorted out. But trade diplomats point to several factors suggesting that the negotiations, part of the so-called Doha round of talks, could be resumed soon even if a final deal must wait until after the U.S. elections:
The U.S. trade representative, Susan Schwab, emphasized after the talks collapsed that U.S. offers remained on the table.
Western investors discover Romania's underused rice paddies
VLADENI, Romania: Romania's Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu loved the Italian specialty risotto, but he probably would have hated to see Romania's rice farms being taken over by Italian and other Western companies.
As the world price of rice has risen - tripling this year and leading to scarcity worries and export curbs by big producers in Asia - European farmers have begun to expand eastward.
In particular, they are buying up rice paddies in Romania, many of which were abandoned after the overthrow of Ceausescu and the end of Communism in Romania in 1989. This gives Romania, an impoverished Balkan state with water-rich lowlands, a hot climate and rich soil, the chance to become a top European rice producer in coming years.
"Western expertise gives rice a new future in Romania," said Ion Dragusin, 63, who headed rice farming in Vladeni under Ceausescu.
Rice has never been a popular food in Romania, where wheat and corn are major crops. But Ceausescu was known to like risotto, and, according to a cook who prepared food for him at a hunting lodge in the Carpathian Mountains, he often enjoyed a bowl of rice pudding.
In the 1970s, following the example of China and North Korea, Ceausescu forced thousands of newly landless peasants and convicts to work vast paddies around the village of Vladeni in eastern Romania, part of a grand plan to make Romania self-sufficient.
Now, the rice days are returning.
"Romania has a great potential," said Jean-Pierre Brun, president of the London Rice Brokers Association. "You need flat land, an easy source of water, which is the Danube, and warm weather. With all these available, Romania has very good conditions to produce rice."
Rice also has potential, on a smaller scale, in Bulgaria, Ukraine and Hungary, Brun said.
The Danube River has 20 times the water reserves of the Po Basin, which supplies Italy's paddies. That gives Romania a competitive advantage over Italy, the top European rice producer, and No.2 Spain.
"We will produce at lower costs," Angelo Dario Scotti, chief executive of Riso Scotti, the first Western company to get a foothold in Romania.
Since 2003, Riso Scotti, which is based in Italy, has invested tens of millions of euros to buy 7,000 hectares, or 17,300 acres, of fragmented plots in Romania and to build a processing plant in Vladeni.
"We knew lots of abandoned land was available and the climate was perfect," said Ugo Perruca, a Riso Scotti executive. "We aim to stop buying at 10,000 hectares by next year but the rest will be grabbed by Italian, French and local investors. We are in the process of convincing farmers to come to Romania."
A handful of Italian and Spanish farmers have begun to exploit smaller acreage near the Danube port of Braila, in eastern Romania, and in western Romania. Their rice is processed at the Vladeni plant. Land prices have soared to €1,000, or $1,530, a hectare from €200 five years ago, but they are still six times lower than in Italy.
Most of the world's rice is grown and consumed in Asia. The European Union produces around 2.2 million tons of rice a year on 500,000 hectares of land, and imports an additional one million tons. Perruca said Romania would produce 40,000 tons of rice this year, and estimated Romania's rice-growing land at 40,000 to 50,000 hectares in the next five years.
With the planned doubling of capacity at the Vladeni plant in the next five years, Romania could become an exporter of more than 100,000 tons a year, cutting EU imports by 10 percent.
According to the Agriculture Ministry, Romania has 15 million hectares of arable land, of which around 3 million to 5 million are unused.
But the cost of modern farming methods and the fragmentation of ownership that occurred when nationalized land was privatized after the fall of communism means it will take time for Romanian farmers to embrace rice.
The ministry is encouraging small holders to consolidate production.
Riso Scotti spent up to €1,500 a hectare to improve the quality of land, rebuild and expand a vast network of canals and revive pumping equipment inherited from the Communist era.
Without cash, owners of tiny patches of muddy soil will struggle to irrigate their land and are eager to sell, Dragusin said. Modern rice cultivation, using specially designed harvesters, employs only a handful of workers compared with the thousands of peasants working in Ceausescu's rice fields.
"I remember seeding and harvesting by hand with the sickle," Dragusin said. "Walking barefoot through wet fields was very hard," he said. "Yields were large, but losses were huge. Those times are gone."
U.S. environmental agency won't ease requirements for ethanol in gas
WASHINGTON: The Environmental Protection Agency rejected on Thursday a request to cut the quota for the use of ethanol in cars, concluding, for the time being, that the goal of reducing the U.S.'s reliance on oil trumps any effect on food prices from making fuel from corn.
The EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, said that the mandate was "strengthening our nation's energy security and supporting American farming communities," and that it was not causing "severe harm to the economy or the environment."
The effect of the decision on fuel and food markets is hard to determine. Recently, high energy prices have led to even more ethanol production than the quota required. On the other hand, rising corn prices made some ethanol operations unprofitable, especially as oil prices started to fall.
So ending the quota might not have reduced the use of ethanol, but it might decline even with the quotas remaining in place. Still, the debate is fraught with symbolism — as a sign of unease over government intervention in the energy and food markets, with all the unintended consequences that ensue. The decision is an indication that Washington is unwilling to retreat from a policy that is very popular among grain farmers, if not among ranchers.
Companies that use corn to fatten livestock and poultry, along with others in the food business, had called for lifting the requirements, saying that their costs were rising as millions of pounds of corn were diverted from feeding livestock to fueling cars. Farmers argued that the jump in corn prices was driven not so much by the demand for ethanol as by growing demand for grain-fed meat around the world, and their own higher costs for diesel fuel.
Governor Rick Perry of Texas, a leading cattle state as well as a bastion of the oil business, made the request in late April, and the EPA said it received 15,000 comments during its three-month-long review.
The rules that the EPA reconsidered on Thursday set a floor for ethanol use, not a ceiling, and not even the floor was firm, because under the rules, the EPA could issue a waiver if the requirement became "onerous."
Renewable fuel use in 2004 was 3.5 billion gallons, according to the EPA — mostly ethanol, which is a form of alcohol, but including some biodiesel, which contains oil from crops. The goal for this year had been 5.4 billion gallons but in December, with the price of oil soaring, Congress raised the renewables quota to 9 billion gallons for this year, and laid out a schedule of annual increases that would bring it to 11.1 billion gallons in 2009. In 2022, the quota would be 36 billion gallons.
The agency has not completed an analysis of the effect of the mandate as the quota rises.
That target requires not only more ethanol but new cars and new filling station equipment, because nationally, gasoline consumption of fuel for cars, vans, sport utility vehicles and motorcycles is only in the range of 140 billion gallons, and ordinary cars can burn ethanol in blends with gasoline no higher than 10 percent. But ethanol is part of the auto industry's long-term strategy; General Motors plans that by 2012, half the vehicles it builds will be able to accept blends of up to 85 percent ethanol.
The long-term hope, backed up with generous government incentives, is to make motor fuel from "cellulosic," or non-food, sources. Private companies are feverishly pursuing technologies for using wood chips, wheat straw, waste plastic and even municipal garbage to make ethanol and other liquid vehicle fuels. But none of these is commercial at the moment.
Monsanto to sell its dairy hormone business
NEW YORK: After struggling to gain consumer acceptance, Monsanto has announced that it will try to sell its business of producing an artificial growth hormone for dairy cows.
The company, which made the announcement on Wednesday, will focus instead on its thriving business of selling genetically modified seeds and developing ways to improve crops.
The decision comes as more U.S. retailers, saying they are responding to consumer demand, are selling dairy products from cows not treated with the artificial hormone.
Monsanto, the leader in agricultural biotechnology, said the decision was not related to the retail trend and that business for the artificial hormone, sold under the brand name Posilac, remained brisk. Monsanto, which is based in St. Louis, Missouri, and is the only commercial manufacturer of the hormone, declined to provide sales numbers.
Selling Posilac "will allow Monsanto to focus on the growth of its core seeds and traits business while ensuring that loyal dairy farmers continue to receive the value of Posilac in their operations," Carl Casale, Monsanto's executive vice president for strategy and operations, said.
The growth hormone, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1993, was one of the first applications of genetic engineering used in food production. When the artificial hormone, which is made in genetically modified bacteria, is injected into cows, it increases milk production by about a gallon, or four liters, a day. A 2007 survey by the Department of Agriculture said 17 percent of the dairy cows in the United States were receiving it.
Despite the government's approval, many advocacy groups have long maintained that Posilac is bad for the health of cows. Some even claim it could pose a cancer risk in people, though little scientific evidence has emerged to support that view. Their concerns have been fueled by the refusal of many countries, including Canada and members of the European Union, to permit the use of the hormone.
"I think they saw the handwriting on the wall and gave up," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington. "It's a major victory for consumers."
Kimbrell said the original idea of marketing a growth hormone for milk production was flawed because milk is so emblematic of childhood. Fear of the effects of the artificial hormone was one of the primary drivers behind the growth of the organic dairy industry, he said.
But Elena Gonser, a dairy farmer in Everson, Washington, contended that consumers had been misled by misinformation. She added that Posilac, which is also known as bovine somatotropin or BST, was safe and effective.
"I believe it's just catering to ignorance to tell people it's BST-free, and it's better for you," said Gonser, who along with her husband runs a farm that has 70 cows.
But she added: "I'm not surprised to find they want to step back from it. It's gotten a bad rap for so long."
Monsanto will continue to sell and market the product until a buyer is found, said Christie Chavis, who leads commercial development and strategy for the company's animal agriculture business unit. Posilac is sold in 20 countries.
Chavis said the artificial hormone was safe and also good for the environment, saying that it takes fewer cows and less resources to produce the same volume of milk.
Nestle and Sara Lee profits lifted by price increases
CHICAGO: Nestle , the world's largest food company, reported a first-half profit at the top of analysts expectations, aided by price increases that offset rising commodity costs.
A similar strategy also helped U.S. foodmaker Sara Lee post a higher-than-expected profit on Thursday as it raised prices to offset soaring costs for items such as wheat and energy. Sara Lee also forecast profit for the current fiscal year that is higher than some analysts' estimates.
But investors are concerned that, as price increases for well-known brands such as Nescafe coffee are pushed through to the supermarket shelf, more consumers will look to lower- priced items. Reliance on price increases has already pressured the volume of products sold by some companies.
"We believe it would be premature to call this a turning point for the company," JPMorgan analyst Terry Bivens wrote in a note to clients on Sara Lee.
"Going forward, the company will face competitive pressures, pricing elasticity and tougher comps. All of these factors may blunt its volume growth."
Sara Lee shares fell 3.7 percent on the New York Stock Exchange, adding to a nearly 10 percent drop to date in 2008. Nestle shares rose 0.1 percent on the Swiss stock market after trading lower earlier and are down 9.3 percent for the year.
Sales volume growth in the first half of the year at Nestle slowed to 3.5 percent from the first-quarter's rate of 4.5 percent.
European foodmakers such as Nestle and Unilever have seen their stocks pressured because of concerns that price increases had gone too far. In contrast, U.S. food companies have in general seen their shares rise in recent weeks as a similar strategy, and cost cuts, succeeded in offsetting commodity costs.
U.S. food companies also have been aggressively increasing spending on advertising to boost sales.
But Nestle's marketing and administration spending as a percent of sales declined in the first half of the year.
"Marketing spending was down 120 basis points -- a bigger decline than Unilever's 70 basis points fall, which sent its shares down 10 percent, and this may well be taken negatively for Nestle as some investors may take the view that marketing is being used to make the margin numbers," RBS analyst Julian Hardwick said.
Nestle said net profit rose to 5.2 billion Swiss francs (2.51 billion pounds) in the first six months of 2008, slightly ahead of average analyst expectations of 5.05 billion Swiss francs and at the top of a 4.88 billion to 5.21 billion range.
Underlying sales, which exclude currency effects and acquisitions, rose 8.9 percent, in line with forecasts. But pricing accounted for a higher-than-expected 5.4 percentage points.
The maker of Buitoni pasta, Nespresso coffee and Friskies cat food gave a slightly more upbeat forecast, expecting underlying growth in 2008 at least at the 2007 level of 7.4 percent, after previously saying it would "approach" that figure.
Nestle repeated it expects improved earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) margins in 2008.
Unlike Nestle, Sara Lee benefited from a weak dollar, as did other U.S. foodmakers with operations outside the United States. Nestle profits were depressed by the strong Swiss franc.
The maker of Sara Lee bread, Ball Park hot dogs and Jimmy Dean sausage posted a fiscal fourth-quarter loss of $695 million, or 98 cents a share, as a result of previously disclosed charges reflecting the reduced value of some bakery operations.
Before one-time items, it earned 28 cents a share, compared with the average analyst estimate of 25 cents a share. Sales from continuing operations rose 12 percent to $3.51 billion.
For fiscal 2009, the company forecast earnings of 90 cents to 98 cents a share, excluding a contingency payment from the 1999 sale of is tobacco business, or $1.12 to $1.20 a share including the payment.
Analysts on average forecast $1.03 a share, according to Reuters Estimates, although some include the tobacco payment and some do not. Sara lee said the average estimate of analysts that do not include the payment was 92 cents a share.
German townsfolk wonder: Is it possible to be too green?
MARBURG, Germany: This fairy-tale town is stuck in the middle of a utopian struggle over renewable energy. The town council's decision to require solar-heating panels has thrown Marburg into a vehement debate over the boundaries of ecological good citizenship and led opponents to charge that their genteel town has turned into a "green dictatorship."
The town council took the significant step in June of moving from merely encouraging citizens to install solar panels to making them an obligation. The ordinance, the first of its kind in Germany, would require solar panels not only on new buildings, which fewer people oppose, but also on existing homes that undergo renovations or get new heating systems or roof repairs.
To give the regulation teeth, a fine of €1,000, about $1,500, awaits those who do not comply.
Critics howled that the rule constituted an attack on the rights of property owners. The regional government in Giessen stepped in and warned that it would overturn the rule.
City officials in Marburg said, in turn, that they would take their case either to administrative court or all the way to the Hessian state capital, Wiesbaden, where they would try to get the state building code changed to protect their ordinance from officials in Giessen.
In the middle of this political chess match sit homeowners like Götz Schönherr.
From his deck, Schönherr can see the town's famous hilltop Gothic castle as well as two of its three power-generating windmills. On his roof, a solar panel glints in the sunlight. He uses the solar energy to heat his water, allowing him to turn off his boiler for roughly six months a year, a boon for his pocketbook but a decision he said he made for the sake of the environment.
And yet Schönherr opposes the new ordinance.
Schönherr had hoped to reinsulate his home, but to do so, and satisfy the solar regulation, he would have to install a larger solar panel. It would have cost him close to $8,000.
"That leads, in my case, and I would think in other cases as well, that people say, 'Well, let's just not reinsulate the roof,"' Schönherr said. "So it's absolutely counterproductive."
Officials in Giessen agree. "We have no problem with the use of solar energy," said Manfred Kersten, press spokesman for the regional government in Giessen, "but this was a poorly constructed ordinance."
Germany is one of the world's top champions of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy. Thanks to hefty federal subsidies, the country is by far the largest market for photovoltaic systems, which convert sunlight into electricity.
Marburg, a historic university town where the Brothers Grimm once studied, is a model of enlightened energy production and consumption.
In addition to the windmills and solar installations, the town's utility company buys hydroelectric power from Austria, is transitioning its fleet of buses and other vehicles to natural gas and even lights footpaths with solar-powered lamps.
As a result, the Marburg dispute sometimes feels like an argument between the enlightened environmentalists and the really enlightened environmentalists.
"Marburg is already a leader when it comes to the use of solar energy, but up until now they've always tried to convince people rather than forcing them," said Hermann Uchtmann, the opposition politician behind the "green dictatorship" charge who leads a local citizens political group, the Marburger Bürgerliste.
Like Schönherr, who is also a member of the group, Uchtmann hardly fits the predictable mold of the Luddite opponent of renewable energy.
He is a chemist at the local university who once built a solar-powered desalinization plant for the town's sister city of Sfax, Tunisia.
"It's unfortunate that they decided to compel people, because I think you breed opponents that way rather than friends of solar energy," Uchtmann said. He said he found the demands too invasive for existing homes, especially in the case of older citizens who might not live long enough to justify the upfront costs of installing the solar systems.
"I'm right up against the border myself," said Uchtmann, who is 64. But he said he could support a solar-heating requirement for new buildings.
Because the town of 80,000 has a level population and relatively few new homes are built here, restricting the measure to new construction would not go far enough for the politicians behind it.
"We have a serious energy problem with the older homes," Marburg's deputy mayor, Franz Kahle, said in an interview at the historic town hall on the city's colorful market square. To make a real leap forward, he said, a dramatic step was necessary.
"Before, solar installations were the exception, and their absence was the rule," Kahle said. "We want to get to the point where the opposite is the case." He pointed out that building codes constantly dictated what property owners could and could not do with their homes and said the solar regulation already offered exceptions for cases of hardship or alternatives for those living in the shadiest spots.
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GREEN TRAVELER ECO RENTALS
Taking it easy can be easy on the planet
When Mitch Thomson began searching on the Internet for a vacation rental this summer, he never imagined his stay at Kaweah Cottage, a two-bedroom retreat in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, would end up changing his family's lifestyle.
"It was a work of serendipity," said Thomson, who was not specifically looking for a green home, though he happened to be taking a green building class at the time. "We wanted a week of peace and quiet and hiking with the kids, so I Googled 'Sequoia Cabins,' and then this house popped up that looked fantastic with close proximity to a river. In fact, you can hear the river from the house."
Thomson, his wife, Cheryl, and their two daughters and a son (ages 14, 11 and 8) ended up spending four days hiking in the mountains, swimming in the nearby ancient rock holes, and practicing what he called "off-the-grid living."
"We all unplugged," he explained. At night instead of watching television (there was no TV, only a video monitor with a DVD and VHS player) or surfing the Web (there was Wi-Fi but no computer), they played the board games provided at the house and sat under the stars talking as a family. "Since the trip we have decided to spend one week each month not using electronic devices," said Thomson, who lives in Orange County, California "It will be our attempt to relive the vibe from Kaweah."
Kaweah Cottage (www.KaweahCottage.com), with its American clay interior walls, formaldehyde-free plywood, dual-pane glazing and sustainably harvested wood, is just one of a growing number of green homes around the world now available for vacation rentals. Just as Kaweah Cottage is situated on a hillside near the Kaweah River with views of the Sierra peaks, most eco homes are built into breathtakingly natural settings, so guests can enjoy both an indoor and outdoor green experience. Kaweah Cottage even has an organic garden where guests can pick fresh arugula, squash and tomatoes.
James and Kathleen Seligman, with their now grown daughter, have lived on the property for the past 20 years in a house about 150 feet from Kaweah Cottage (a yurt stands in between). The couple built the cottage in 2006 as a two-bedroom overflow for family and friends but then decided to rent it out to offset some of the costs.
Dana Mayer, the owner with her husband, Stephen Carroll, of two eco-friendly vacation homes (one in Sedona, Arizona, and one in St. Augustine, Florida) and the founder of Ecoluxurylodging.com, a Web site that bills its properties as "healthy alternatives to big box condos and hotel gift shops," said clients get a "bigger space with a smaller footprint" when they rent a green home. Yet she does not want to market her properties only to what she calls "devotees" — hard-core green activists. "That's like preaching to the choir," said Mayer, a Florida resident.
"I offer a great place at the right price and the value added is that it is also eco-friendly," she said, adding that she will have another green rental available in 2009 — in Norway.
To educate her guests, Mayer stocks her houses with a library of green books, videos and resource information, just in case they did not sufficiently check out her Web site, which explains that both properties are solar powered, furnished with organic and natural materials, landscaped with local plants and completely hypoallergenic. In addition, all appliances and fixtures are designed to reduce energy, waste and water use.
Linda Moss, the author of "Organic Places to Stay in the U.K.," in 1999 founded a Web site, www.organicholidays.co.uk, with links to green rental homes and small inns in nearly 60 countries from Bali to Bulgaria. She said she has seen a huge increase in her Web traffic this past year. "I think people are becoming nostalgic in this crazy age of technology," she said, "searching for life as it used to be — more simple, more thoughtful about the way we treat the land we live on and more sensitive about the food we eat."
One simple but stunning property on her Web site is Ravens Havens in Paradise Valley, British Columbia (www.ravenshavens.com), a 40-minute drive from Whistler in what is called the Sea to Sky Corridor, an area that includes two historic routes, the Pemberton Trail and the Gold Rush Heritage Trail. The two-bedroom cabin with salvaged hardwood floors and hand-hewn timbers has both modern amenities and rustic features: a gas oven as well as a woodstove, a shower and a claw-foot tub.
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High-speed trains are often the fastest way to travel, door to door, between city centers in Europe, beating the airlines on journeys of up to 550 kilometers.
Eurostar, linking London to Paris in 2 hours, 15 minutes, and to Brussels in 1 hour, 51 minutes, has captured more than 70 percent of the market from airlines.
But when it comes to booking tickets, the train can be a pain. Things we take for granted at airline Web sites - such as options for flights on either side of the date, or time, we wish to travel; multisector connections, often with several carriers; electronic tickets and the ability to print out your own boarding card - are light years ahead of rail. Yes, you can book rail tickets online, but don't expect to be offered seat selection, and in most cases tickets are sent by snail mail or must be retrieved at the station.
Booking cross-border rail travel in Europe is frustrating because the national rail operators' timetables do not match up, so you might have to wait for an hour or more to catch the next train. And standards of seating and service vary.
I was brought down to earth the other day when Madame was grounded with deep-vein thrombosis, which meant that we had to cancel our EasyJet flight to Switzerland, and go by train: Eurostar from St. Pancras in London to Paris, a transfer from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon, then the TGV to Lausanne. My wife, a nimble navigator in cyberspace, reported that Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) could only book us tickets as far as Paris. After futile attempts to book the onward TGV on Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch), she said she lost confidence when confirming and paying, and finally called a local travel agent.
Eurostar provides through bookings to about 68 cities in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany; and from several British regional cities to the Continent (but not to Lausanne). One can book online or at the Eurostar call center, 44-8705 186 186.
Railteam (www.railteam.eu) is an alliance of Europe's seven high-speed rail operators: Eurostar (Britain, France and Belgium), Deutsche Bahn (Germany), SNCF (France), NS Hispeded (Netherlands), OBB (Austria), SBB (Switzerland), SNCB (Belgium), Thalys (a partnership between French, German and Dutch railways), and TGV Lyria (connecting France and Switzerland).
It aims to offer seamless high-speed train travel across borders, with improved synchronization of timetables, better connection times, and more consistent pricing. Should you miss a connection because of a late-running train, Railteam will ensure a seat on the next train. Travelers should be able to book tickets online across networks by the end of 2009.
Meanwhile, travelers can book high-speed trains and other rail journeys at national rail sites or at Rail Europe, a subsidiary of French Railways (www.sncf-voyages.com).
"We can book 99 percent of rail travel, including Eurostar and overnight trains, like Elipsos between Barcelona, Paris and Milan and Madrid; and Artesia from Paris to Milan and Turin," said Jo Wilcox, marketing manager for Rail Europe. "Enter your departure city and destination on our site, and we will give you prices for each segment of the journey, allowing you to mix and match classes and fares with different carriers."
Rail Europe operates more than 20 booking sites, including www.raileurope.com (United States); www.raileurope.co.uk (Britain); and www.tgv-europe.com (Continental Europe). It has call centers in the United States, (1-800) 462 2577, Canada, (1-800) 361 7245 and Britain, (0844) 848 5848.
"The Man in Seat 61: A Guide to Taking the Train Through Europe" by a railway enthusiast, Mark Smith, is an invaluable guide to planning train journeys from London to 39 countries. It is packed with practical tips on inter-city travel within Europe: advice on routes, timetables and connections; the best ways to buy tickets online or by phone; advice on the best deals and how to buy rail passes; and crucially, how to change trains in cities like Brussels and Paris.
There are sections on traveling in sleeping cars or couchettes ("A second class sleeper is far better than a first class couchette; and a second class couchette is streets ahead of a first class seat.") for journeys of up to 1,280 kilometers, or 800 miles; and scenic routes, such as the Glacier Express from Zermatt to St. Moritz in Switzerland and the classic Rhine Valley in Germany.
SEATTLE: Here on the West Coast, we sort our garbage - or else. We rummage through our food scraps, just ahead of the worms. We take our little canvas bags to the grocery store lest we get caught with the embarrassment of a dreaded paper-or-plastic denouement, and the scorn of neighbors.
If we smoke cigarettes, we do it in the alley - huddled with the other losers. We've banned junk food from our school vending machines and soon - in 32 square miles of Los Angeles where a moratorium on new fast food restaurants will be in place - it will be treated like tobacco: the cheeseburger as death-wich.
We do this because we're so-o-o-o virtuous, and our self-regard is tied to the size of our curbside proclamations. Mostly, we do it for others - the poor, the fat, the ill-informed. Of course, we would never smoke, or get caught finger-licking the extra-crispy runoff from KFC, or tossing a foil wrap in the trash.
Nearly every week brings news of another act of forced high-mindedness. Last week it was San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom with a plan to start inspecting people's garbage, on the lookout to find someone who may have let a banana peel slip into the trash. Before that it was Seattle, which will soon charge people 20 cents a bag in the grocery checkout line.
It's not just us Left Coasters. New York has begun enforcing an ordinance that requires fast-food chains to post the caloric content of food on menus - in type as big as the menu item itself. How enticing: a fistful of calories on a bed of cholesterol, to go. Chicago, that city of deep-dish pizza and tailgate brats, has just been named the most meddlesome and restrictive in the country by the libertarian magazine Reason. Red states are more restrictive on sex and liquor; blue state prohibitionists tend to aim at garbage and tobacco. But as Reason noted, "Chicago gets moral prudery and public health fanaticism - the worst of both worlds."
Seattle was only number two. We'll show them in my fair city, once we have to start sorting our food scraps next year. And, playing catch-up, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels tried to ban lap dancers from moving within four feet of their customers, unleashing police with tape measures. The voters, mercifully, turned him down.
In Portland, Oregon, which has somehow escaped excess civic nosiness, strip clubs proliferate in family-friendly neighborhoods, as commonplace as a burger hut. What's more, you can drink and gamble in the clubs. The city is said to have more strip clubs per capita than any other in the country - including Las Vegas - in part because of Oregon's liberal free speech provisions in the state constitution. And yet, the city, has low crime, uber-fit citizens, and it's clean. They do it all by example, not mayoral fiat.
At a time when so many people are losing homes and jobs, and making tough decisions about whether to fill a gas tank or pay health insurance, city governments should avoid counting calories and dispatching garbage police.
Government should empower us - to use the word so favored by activists. Make sure our food is safe. When products kill, make companies pay. Show us the way to a cleaner garbage stream. Lead by example.
But then, leave us alone. These dictates and fines and inspectors - they only undermine larger efforts and encourage ridicule. Conservative talk radio on the West Coast would have to go silent without the fodder of strong-armed earnestness from city halls in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle this summer.
San Francisco already has one of the highest recycling rates in the country. Do they really need city inspectors out poking through the trash can? Besides, if you make a fruit forbidden, it only becomes more enticing. After Oakland schools banned junk food from vending machines, I went there to have a look at lunch hour. Lo and behold, students walked more than half-a-mile - a sprint, almost - to make it to the nearest mini-mart for their sugar highs and empty calories. At least the ban encouraged exercise.
If blades of grass or apple cores find their way into my garbage, I'm in trouble. But, ever thoughtful, Seattle officials have given me a way out. It's now legal for city residents to own pygmy goats, which - we are told - can be used to process yard waste in an eco-friendly way.
Oil rises on pipeline fire in Turkey
NEW YORK: Oil rose on Thursday on expectations a one million barrel per day pipeline that was attacked by Kurdish separatists in Turkey could remain shut for up to two weeks.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which pumps the more than 1 percent of world supply from fields in the Azeri sector of the Caspian Sea to the Turkish Mediterranean coast, was still ablaze after the Tuesday night explosion.
U.S. crude settled up $1.44 at $120.02, rebounding from three-month lows after concerns about faltering demand in the United States and Europe helped push oil off a July 11 record of $147.27.
London Brent crude settled 86 cents higher at
"The loss of supply from Azerbaijan only adds to a new layer of worry to a market that has found ways to operate with multiple layers of worry, already," said Peter Beutel, president of trading consultants Cameron Hanover.
Further support has come from ongoing supply disruptions from OPEC member Nigeria from militant attacks and escalating tension between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear program.
A top U.N. nuclear watchdog official began talks in Iran aimed at improving cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency over the program, which Iran insists is peaceful.
Diplomats in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, said the visit was a fresh effort to extract Iranian clarifications about intelligence reports suggesting it illicitly tried to design atomic bombs.
In Nigeria, Royal Dutch Shell said repairs continued on a pipeline sabotaged last week.
Data from the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration on Wednesday showed a much steeper than expected build in crude stocks, the latest sign soaring fuel costs and an ailing economy have reduced oil demand.
Crude oil inventories rose by 1.7 million barrels in the week to August 1, beating expectations of a 300,000-barrel build. Distillate stocks, including heating oil and diesel, rose by 2.8 million barrels, also above forecasts.
Gasoline stocks fell by 4.4 million barrels, much steeper than the 1.2 million barrel draw analysts had predicted.
High oil prices spur demand for low energy electronics
SEOUL: These days when customers walk into electronics stores, the first question they ask is how much electricity the fridge, washing machine or laptop computer they are contemplating buying consumes.
"Energy savings were not exactly a hot topic among customers last year," said Kim Dong-han at South Korean electronics retailer Hi-Mart. "But this year, nine out of ten people ask point blank whether a product will help them save money."
With oil at around $145 a barrel and electricity costs jumping, consumers are becoming preoccupied with keeping down their power bills. Electronics makers that develop energy efficient product lines and market them effectively to customers may get an edge in a gloomy global economy, firms say.
"Going green is not only eco-friendly but crucial for business," said Kim Jik-soo, a spokesman at LG Electronics Inc . "This goes beyond just products, extending throughout the development and manufacturing process."
From washing machines that use steam instead of hot water, to fridges that use low energy compressors, to low power computer screens, electronics firms are furiously developing energy efficient products and heavily promoting lines already on the market that use less electricity than competitors' brands.
"My electricity bill more than doubles in the summer as we turn on the air conditioner," said Park Yu-jin, 32, a housewife in Seoul with two kids.
"I also have to do lots of laundry for the kids. The bill now easily tops 170,000 won (86 pounds) a month."
Homemakers such as Park are increasingly buying front-load washing machines, which use gravity to move water instead of agitators as in top loaders.
And now, newfangled washers from LG Electronics Inc and Whirlpool Corp offer an option to use steam instead of hot water, cutting water and power use by more than 70 percent compared with some top-load models.
"We will gradually shift to front loaders and the steam technology will become more mainstream," said LG spokesman Kim.
LG expects four out of ten frontload washers it sells in North America to use steam technology by the end of this year, compared with two out of ten currently.
Their biggest appliance plant in South Korea makes mostly front loaders, while recently built plants such as one in Russia have stopped manufacturing top loaders altogether.
USING LESS POWER
Among refrigerators, which consume 30 percent of overall power in a typical home, traditional compressors are giving way to linear compressors that use up to 40 percent less power and make less noise.
In the computing industry, power-saving has long been a key priority as bigger and hungrier gadgets challenge battery life.
PC makers from Apple Inc to the Lenovo Group are replacing screens lit by conventional cold cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) with light emitting diode (LED) displays.
"LED saves up to 40 percent of the power used in traditional backlights," said Jeff Kim, an analyst at Hyundai Securities. "Next year they will be commonly found in notebook screens, and will be increasingly used in TV panels from 2010."
Market researcher DisplaySearch expects LED-backlit displays to account for 50 percent of notebook panels in 2010, up from 12 percent this year. By 2015, all laptop displays will use LEDs, generating sales of $6 billion.
LED is also set to claim traditional incandescent lamps in buildings and on streets. Samsung Electro-Mechanics Co recently replaced lighting in the South Korean parliament building with new LED products and reported LED consumed just one sixth the power of incandescent bulbs.
HIGHER PRICE TAG
But too often, these energy-efficient products carry a hefty price premium to reflect the cost of developing new technologies, which in turn hampers faster adoption.
For instance, Whirlpool's washing machines with steam feature are sold at $1,300-$1,500, compared with a traditional machine priced at $700.
Still, makers argue that the lifetime savings from green products could amount to the price of the appliance itself.
"You could buy another 32-inch LCD TV within 3 years with the money saved on electricity from our 52-inch power-saving TV," said LG's Kim, referring to a new TV model with a sensor that adjusts brightness to match surrounding light levels.
Sometimes a little incentive helps.
Japanese electronics retailer Bic Camera Inc is running a campaign in which buyers of eco-friendly products get extra credit points that can be used for future purchases.
"That's a little nudge to help people buy products that are more efficient, even if they are slightly more expensive," said Naoko Ito, a Bic Camera spokeswoman. "Consumer interest is high."
A U.S. survey by Forrester Research last year found that green consumers, who agree to pay extra for electronics that use less energy or come from an environmentally friendly maker, are more brand-loyal than average consumers.
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Carla, not Nicolas, Sarkozy to meet Dalai Lama
PARIS: President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who will attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics despite domestic criticism, announced on Thursday that he would not meet the Dalai Lama later this month in France.
Instead, his office said, Sarkozy's wife, Carla, would meet with the exiled Tibetan leader, taking part in a religious ceremony to open a Buddhist temple in southern France on Aug. 22. Sarkozy's political party, however, said that the French president would meet the Dalai Lama before the end of the year.
France is the current president of the European Union, and Sarkozy is representing Europe in Beijing as well. In the name of the European Union, he has already sent a list of human-rights activists and prisoners of concern to the Chinese authorities, and he will have separate meetings on Friday with President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
After the Chinese crackdown on Tibetan protests earlier this year, Sarkozy threatened to boycott the opening ceremony of the games, but decided to go after representatives of China and the Dalai Lama held formal, if inconclusive, talks. Other members of the European Union wanted him to attend as well, his office said.
France bristled when the Chinese ambassador to Paris warned last month of "serious consequences" for Chinese-French relations if Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama here. Sarkozy's office, in a carefully worded statement, suggested that it was the Dalai Lama who decided the time was not right for a meeting this month.
Sarkozy's son files suit over anti-Semitic graffiti
PARIS: French President Nicolas Sarkozy's son Jean Sarkozy has taken legal action over anti-Semitic graffiti in the Paris suburb where he is a local councillor, the website of the daily Le Parisien said on Thursday.
The website said Jean Sarkozy had seen the words "Sarkozy, thieving jews" sprayed on the wall of a court building in Neuilly-sur-Seine and had filed a complaint with local police. It said the same tag was sprayed in three other locations.
No comment was immediately available from Sarkozy's office.
A spinning globe stops here
The hilltop district of Cours Julien was what people expected from Marseille, France's Janus-faced second city. By day, it was the city's belly, dominated by a vibrant food market that sprawls from a central square. But by night, local gangs scrapped, and drug deals were done.
Today, it is among the most dynamic neighborhoods in France, safe, prolifically diverse and a lot of fun. You'll find the spoils of decades of immigration to France's southern gateway — a showcase of the fashions of the Maghreb of North Africa, the cuisines of the Middle East and the music of southwest Africa. But it is perhaps Cours Julien's newest immigrants who have sealed its status as the alternative heart of the city: the so-called bobos, or France's bohemian bourgeoisie.
On hot days, a proliferation of terraces unfold onto the Cours Julien main square. At La Baleine qui dit Vagues (59, cours Julien; 33-491-48-95-60, www.labaleinequiditvagues.org), students and grandmothers sip coffees side by side as the district's colorful cast of characters emerges. A busker dances around, guitar in hand, singing in smooth French patois. Amateur jugglers practice their routines, as punks gyrate with diabolo sticks. And when school lets out, scores of children dangle from the cypress and olive trees.
Bobos, meanwhile, graze the clothing racks at Madame Zaza of Marseille (73, cours Julien; 33-491-59-28-48; www.zazaofmarseille.com), a fashionable boutique where the florid and flowing dresses suggest the swaying colors of North Africa (from 45 euros, or about $73 at $1.62 to the euro).
East of the square, dozens of cafes, secondhand stores and boutiques are blanketed in a burst of graffiti. Among the trendiest is Be Myself (22, rue Bussy l'Indien; 33-491-88-01-35-53; www.be-myself.net), a tiny boutique where the designer, Marie-Christine Roura, hand paints sensual faces and loopy graphics onto T-shirts (29 euros).
In the evening, Cours Julien takes its place among the city's coolest night spots, as young and old alike are drawn to the thick, aromatic waft of grilled meat that drifts from restaurants. Picking a cuisine is like spinning a globe and prodding a finger at it.
Luckily, one of the most popular is also among the cheapest. Almost lost in a cluster of wine bars and terraces is La Pause (7, rue de Trois Mages; 33-06-21-39-34-92), a venerated shawarma café, where diners balance glasses of wine on parked cars as obsessively seasoned meat is diced on a hot plate, scooped on a grilled galette and served with red cabbage, mint and parsley (4 euros).
Afterward, the party moves back to the main square, where lines form early outside L'Espace Julien (39, cours Julien; 33-491-24-34-10; www.espace-julien.com), a timeworn club and concert spot where the live music is as likely to be French indie as it is Senegalese rap or even Balkan ska.
It feels a million miles away from postcard Haussmannian boulevards of Paris or the dazzle of Cannes. But, in many ways, it feels more French.
Pakistani coalition increases pressure on Musharraf
ISLAMABAD: Impeachment threat implicit in united call for confidence vote
Pakistan's usually fractious coalition government moved decisively for the first time on Thursday to impeach President Pervez Musharraf, who has been an important U.S. ally in the campaign against terror but who has largely been pushed to the sidelines since his party lost elections in February.
"It has become imperative to move for impeachment against General Musharraf," said Asif Ali Zardari, head of the Pakistan People's Party, sitting beside Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, at a noisy news conference.
The leaders of the two main parties in the coalition - who have barely been on speaking terms in recent weeks - announced their impeachment strategy at a news conference in Islamabad.
25 militants killed in Pakistan
KHAR, Pakistan: At least 25 pro-Taliban militants and two Pakistani soldiers were killed in fierce clashes in a tribal region along the Afghan border, government officials said on Thursday.
The clashes erupted late on Wednesday when militants intercepted a security vehicle in the Loi Sum area in Bajaur, a known sanctuary for al Qaeda and the Taliban militants.
"We have reports of 25 militants. Two paramilitary soldiers were also killed and three wounded," a senior government official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The fighting continued overnight as army helicopter gunships pounded militant hideouts in the mountainous region.
Separately militants ambushed a security vehicle with a remote-controlled bomb early on Thursday near Khar, the main town of Bajaur, killing two soldiers, officials said citing an intelligence report.
The security situation across the northwest has deteriorated in recent weeks amid mounting pressure by Western allies on Pakistan to stop militants making cross-border attacks on their troops in Afghanistan.
Violence had subsided in Pakistan's northwest after a new coalition government took office following elections in February and opened talks with the militants through tribal elders.
But the lull seems to be over and militants have stepped up their activities after their top leader Baitullah Mehsud suspended talks in June.
500: Deadly U.S. milestone in Afghan war
Not long after Staff Sergeant Matthew D. Blaskowski was killed by a sniper's bullet last Sept. 23 in eastern Afghanistan, his mother received an e-mail message with a link to a video on the Internet. A television reporter happened to have been filming a story at Blaskowski's small mountain outpost when it came under fire and the sergeant was shot.
Since then, Blaskowski's parents, Cheryl and Terry Blaskowski of Cheboygan, Michigan, have watched their 27-year-old son die over and over. Blaskowski has taken breaks from work to watch it on her computer, sometimes several times a day, studying her son's last movements.
"Anything to be closer," she said. "To see what could have been different, how it — " the bullet — "happened to find him."
For months, the Blaskowskis felt alone in watching their son die in an isolated and nearly forgotten war. And then, in June, the war in Afghanistan roared back into public view when American deaths from hostilities exceeded those in Iraq. In the face of an expanding threat from the Taliban, the conflict is becoming deadlier and much more violent for American troops, who three weeks ago reached their highest deployment levels ever, at 36,000.
June was the second deadliest month for the military in Afghanistan since the war began, with 23 American deaths from hostilities, compared with 22 in Iraq. July was less deadly, with 20 deaths, compared with six in Iraq. On July 22, nearly seven years after the conflict began on Oct. 7, 2001, the United States lost its 500th soldier in the Afghanistan war.
(The Pentagon says that 563 American service members have died in Operation Enduring Freedom, the umbrella term for the global American-led antiterror campaign that has the Afghanistan war at its center and includes deployments in the Philippines and Africa. Of those deaths, according to an analysis by The New York Times, 510 have occurred in Afghanistan or are directly linked to the war there.)
Now, a war that had long been overshadowed by the one in Iraq is back in public view, at the forefront of both news media attention and the presidential campaign. The use of the Afghanistan war for political purposes disheartens the Blaskowskis, they say, but has at least one positive aspect.
"The good thing about the heightened awareness now is that at least some of these soldiers' names are getting out there," Blaskowski said recently. "If anything good is coming out of that media attention, it's that people see that they are truly human. It's not just numbers. It's actually brothers and sons and fathers. They're human."
The numbers, as impersonal as they may be, are quickly mounting, and more families each week are joining the Blaskowskis in their grief.
During the first three years of the war, about two-thirds of all American casualties came under so-called nonhostile conditions — illnesses, vehicle crashes and accidental discharges of weapons, for example.
But that pattern flipped in 2005. Since then, about 70 percent of American casualties in Afghanistan have occurred under hostile conditions, like small-arms fire, rocket attacks and, increasingly, improvised mines and bombs.
In 2007, 111 American service members were killed, the highest annual toll so far in the war. So far this year, 91 Americans have died, a rate faster than last year. At least 78 of those deaths have come in combat; by comparison, 50 were killed during the same period last year.
Though Afghan security forces have suffered the vast majority of fatalities in the war, exact numbers are hard to come by. The Defense Ministry said that nearly 600 Afghan soldiers were killed from March 2005 to March 2008, the only period for which it provided statistics. The Afghan Interior Ministry, which began recording police deaths in March 2007, said 1,119 police officers were killed from March 2007 to March 2008.
Late last month, the military released data showing that insurgent activity had soared, with attacks in eastern border regions up nearly 40 percent from last year.
"Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan," the Atlantic Council of the United States, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to fostering ties between North America and Europe, warned in a report in January. "Unless this reality is understood and action is taken promptly, the future of Afghanistan is bleak."
The report was actually one of the more positive assessments among a deluge of critical reports on the war's progress issued this year by international study groups.
Such dark warnings, along with years of low interest in the conflict among many Americans and even political candidates, have led the families and friends of fallen American service members to wonder whether they perished for a winning cause, a losing one or, worse, a meaningless one.
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My Guantánamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me.
By Mahvish Rukhsana Khan. Illustrated. 302 pages. $25.95. PublicAffairs
In 2005, while a law student at the University of Miami, Mahvish Rukhsana Khan decided to volunteer as an interpreter for Afghan detainees at Guantánamo Bay. The American daughter of Afghan immigrants (her parents are Johns Hopkins-educated physicians), Khan thought it unfair that the detainees could not understand their lawyers, who did not speak Pashto, and although she didn't know whether they were guilty, she believed they were entitled to prove their innocence.
But after more than three dozen visits to the Guantánamo prison camp, Khan writes, "I came to believe that many, perhaps even most" of the detainees were "innocent men who'd been swept up by mistake." A number of the men she met insisted they had been sold to the United States by bounty hunters, after the American military dropped leaflets across Afghanistan promising up to $25,000, or nearly 100 times the annual per capita income, to anyone who would turn in members of the Taliban or Al Qaeda.
I began "My Guantánamo Diary" wondering whether Khan was too credulous, especially after she conceded that "it may appear to some readers that I gave ample, and perhaps naïve, credence to the prisoners' points of view." But by the end, I was more or less persuaded by her conclusion that most of the Afghans she met were not guilty of crimes against the United States, and for a simple reason: the military ultimately released most of them.
Once you know the endings to Khan's stories, they read like the gripping narratives of the wrongly accused. There is Ali Shah Mousovi, a pediatrician who says he returned to Afghanistan in 2003, following years of exile in Iran, to open a medical clinic and rebuild his country. Soon after his return, American soldiers broke down his door, accused him of associating with the Taliban and took him to the Bagram Air Base. There, he says, he was blindfolded, hooded, gagged and repeatedly kicked in the head by American soldiers, who spat on him, cursed him and paraded him naked.
Flown to Guantánamo, he had to wait a year and a half for a hearing, where he was told the evidence against him was classified and was denied the right to call witnesses in his defense. He believed he had been sold by bounty-hunting political opponents, and as a Shiite Muslim was viewed by the Taliban as an infidel. "It's still not clear to me what I am being charged with," he told his silent judges. Finally, after three years of numbing boredom and petty humiliations at Guantánamo prison, Mousovi was released and returned to a tearful reunion with his family in Iran.
There is Haji Nusrat Khan, a detainee around 80 years old, who hobbles on a walker after having suffered a stroke. In Afghanistan in 2003, he went to the American authorities to complain about the arrest of his son; days later, Nusrat himself was arrested, beaten at the Bagram Air Base and sent to Guantánamo - turned in, he said, by a bounty hunter. Accused, like his son, of harboring a cache of weapons, he claimed that he and his son were supporters of the American-backed Karzai government, which had paid them to guard arms seized from the Soviets. In an intrepid and suspenseful chapter, Khan travels to Afghanistan to visit the family of another detainee and to bring back a home video of his family; later, when she returns to Guantánamo and shows Nusrat's son a similar home video of his children, he weeps. Nusrat was released in 2006.
Other Afghan detainees who languished for years at Guantánamo before being freed include a goatherd who was turned over to the Americans by his cousin after they quarreled and two poetry-writing members of the Pakistani opposition, who were turned in by their political rivals and repeatedly questioned at Guantánamo about a joke they had told involving Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
Khan captures the bizarre culture of Guantánamo, where lawyers struggle to represent their clients - and to bring them chai lattes from the Starbucks on the base - in the face of military officials who try to obstruct her and the lawyers at every turn. Like Khan, many of the lawyers came to believe that their clients were innocent men who had been swept up by mistake. Khan says she has "made every effort to verify" the prisoners' accounts, but her sources are sparse and most of them seem to be news media reports. She does not address the possibility that the subset of prisoners she met - Afghans seized in Pakistan and sold by bounty hunters - were more likely to be innocent than other detainees.
Nevertheless, her gut-wrenching first-person accounts of detainee abuse by American soldiers at the Bagram Air Base are consistent with the findings of a recent report by the inspector general of the Justice Department on detainee interrogations in Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Iraq. F.B.I. officials observed detainees being subjected to sexual humiliation, body cavity searches and other indignities similar to the abuses that Khan reports.
The fact that many of the prisoners Khan describes appear to have been innocent of the vague accusations against them, were imprisoned for years without formal charges or fair hearings and were eventually released by the United States without apology or compensation makes the abuse they suffered during years of imprisonment all the more outrageous. By giving us the perspective of the detainees, "My Guantánamo Diary" provides a valuable account of what we can now recognize as one of the most shameful episodes in the war on terror. It is hard to read this book without a growing sense of embarrassment and indignation.
Fingerprint test tells much more than identity
With a new analytical technique, a fingerprint can reveal much more than the identity of a person. It can also identify what the person has been touching — drugs, explosives or poisons, for example.
Writing in the Friday issue of the journal Science, R. Graham Cooks, a professor of chemistry at Purdue University, and his colleagues describe how a laboratory technique known as mass spectrometry could find a wider application in crime investigations.
The equipment to perform such tests is already commercially available, although expensive. Smaller, cheaper, portable versions are probably only a couple of years away.
In mass spectrometry, an electrical charge is added to a molecule, which is then accelerated by an electric field. The molecule enters a magnetic field, causing its trajectory to bend. The amount of bending tells the molecule's mass-to-electric charge ratio. That is usually enough information to deduce what molecule it is.
In Cooks' method, a tiny spray of electrically charged liquid – either water or water and alcohol – is sprayed on a tiny bit of the fingerprint. The droplets dissolve compounds in the fingerprints and splashes them off the surface into the analyzer. The liquid evaporates, and the electrical charge is transferred to the fingerprint molecules, which are then identified through mass spectrometry.
"It's just that simple," Cooks said. The researchers call the technique desorption electrospray ionization, or Desi, for short.
In the experiments described in the Science paper, solutions containing tiny amounts of various chemicals including cocaine and the explosive RDX were applied to the fingertips of volunteers. The volunteers touched surfaces like glass, paper and plastic. The researchers then analyzed the fingerprints.
Because the spatial resolution is on the order of the width of a human hair, the Desi technique did not just detect the presence of, for instance, cocaine on the surface, but literally showed a pattern of cocaine in the shape of the fingerprint, leaving no doubt who had left the cocaine behind.
Prosolia, Inc., a small company in Indianapolis, has licensed the Desi technology from Purdue and is already selling such analyzers as add-ons to large laboratory mass spectrometers, which cost several hundred thousand dollars each.
Prosolia has so far sold "40 or so" of its analyzers, said Peter Kissinger, the company's chairman and chief executive. The most sophisticated version that would be needed for the fingerprint analysis went on sale only this year.
The fingerprint work "is a nice, quick dramatic indication of what the possibilities are," Kissinger said.
However, fingerprints are not its main focus for Prosolia or Cooks. "This is really just an offshoot of a project that is really aimed at trying to develop a methodology ultimately to be used in surgery." Cooks said.
If a Desi analyzer can be miniaturized and automated into a surgical tool, a surgeon could, for example, quickly test for the presence of molecules associated with cancer. "That's the long-term aim of this work," Cooks said.
In unpublished research, the researchers have tested the method with bladder tumors in dogs.
Prosolia is collaborating with Griffin Analytical Technologies, a subsidiary of ICx collaboraties, on a Desi analyzer that works with a portable mass spectrometer. That product is probably a year or two away from mark, Kissinger said.
As it becomes cheaper and more widely available, the Desi technology has potential ethical implications, Cooks said. Instead of drug tests, a company could surreptitiously check for illegal drug use of its employees by analyzing computer keyboards after the employees have gone home, for instance.
"It's just one more test," Cooks said, "and it can reveal a whole lot of detail."
Australia police reopen 7,000 cases after DNA error
CANBERRA: Australian police will re-examine 7,000 crimes solved through DNA evidence after a mistake forced detectives to free a suspect wrongly accused of murder.
Police in the southern city of Melbourne withdrew charges against Russell John Gesah, accused in July of the 1984 murders of a 35-year-old mother and her nine-year-old daughter.
"It's obviously an embarrassment and we would rather not be in this position," Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Simon Overland was quoted as saying in Australian media on Thursday.
DNA is supposed to be the most accurate method of proving guilt through evidence samples taken at crime scenes, with the likelihood of matching genetic markers among people said to be around one in 7 billion or greater.
Police last month said a DNA sample taken from the murder scene, where Margaret Tapp was strangled and her daughter Seana raped and later killed, matched Gesah after comparison with 400,000 other DNA profiles on a national database.
Gesah was arrested and faced court, but a later check found the DNA evidence used against him was taken elsewhere and mistakenly tested with samples from the Tapp murder scene.
Overland said every crime solved by DNA in the state since the testing technology was introduced 20 years ago would now be reviewed to check no other bungles had occurred.
"We need to refine our processes and our practices, and that is now happening as a result of this case," he said.
Victorian Law Institute spokesman Michael Brett Young said Gesah had been wrongfully painted as a villain because of police mistakes, possibly damaging public faith in the legal system at a time when corruption scandals were already undermining authorities.
"Really he's been convicted in the court of public opinion due to the actions of the police and the media," Young said on Thursday.
Criminal lawyers said the mistake would almost guarantee future challenges to the accuracy of police DNA evidence.
Bin Laden's former driver sentenced to 66 months
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba: Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the convicted former driver for Osama bin Laden, was sentenced Thursday to 66 months in prison by the military panel that had convicted him of a war crime Wednesday.
The unexpectedly short sentence was far less than military prosecutors had sought. Through more than five years of legal proceedings against Hamdan, prosecutors had pursued a life sentence, and earlier in the day, faced with Hamdan's acquittal on the most serious charge against him, prosecutors recommended a sentence of at least 30 years and said life might be appropriate.
After little more than an hour of deliberations on the sentence, the panel of six senior military officers returned to the windowless tribunal room with their sentence on the single war crimes charge for which they convicted him Wednesday, providing material support to a terrorist organization.
Hamdan's lawyers had recommended 45 months, or less than four years, as a reasonable sentence.
After the president of the panel, the most senior officer, read the sentence, Hamdan rose at the defense table, collected himself for a moment and spoke. Referring to an apology he had made to victims of terrorism Thursday morning in the same room, he began: "I would like to apologize one more time to all the members. And I would like to thank you for what you have done for me."
The military judge, Captain Keith Allred of the navy, had already said that he planned to give Hamdan credit for 61 months he had been held, meaning that Hamdan could complete his criminal sentence in five months. After that his future is unclear, because the administration of President George W. Bush says that it can hold detainees here until the end of the war on terror.
After Allred explained the sentence to Hamdan, he said he was not certain of Hamdan's fate after the end of the criminal sentence, in January. "After that, I don't know what happens," said Allred, who had developed a warm relationship with Hamdan during months of pre-trial hearings.
In the courtroom after the military panel members filed out, Hamdan, who was captured in the middle of the Afghan war on Nov. 24, 2001, hugged the former American military lawyer, Charles Swift, who has represented him here for four years and helped take his case to the Untied States Supreme Court.
Hamdan, looking worn after a two-week trial, spoke in the makeshift courtroom here, saying his ties to bin Laden were "a work relationship only" and claiming that he had been troubled by the bombing of the American destroyer Cole in 2000 that killed 17 sailors.
He said he had once had a relationship of mutual respect with bin Laden but that after the Cole bombing, his views about his boss "changed a lot." He said he needed money and had returned to work with bin Laden because he felt he had few options.
But a prosecutor, John Murphy, ridiculed the idea that a man would work for a killer instead of seeking other employment. He argued that there was no place for mercy, urging the panel to impose a sentence of no less than 30 years and possibly life, the maximum.
"Your sentence," Murphy said, "should say the United States will hunt you down and give you a harsh but appropriate sentence if you provide material support for terrorism." He argued for justice for the victims of Qaeda terror attacks.
A defense lawyer, Charles Swift, reminded the panel members that Hamdan had cooperated with interrogators, providing information about places in Afghanistan linked to bin Laden.
He said a long sentence would discourage other potential sources of information about terror organizations from working with American forces. "The reward for cooperation is life?" Swift asked. "Does that help us in this struggle?"
Swift, who has represented Hamdan through years of legal battles, did not offer a proposed sentence. But he noted that the only detainee who has been sentenced by a military commission here, Hicks, received a sentence of nine months. Hicks pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism last year and is now free.
Swift suggested that if the panel determined that Hamdan were five times more culpable than Hicks, the sentence would be 45 months, less than four years.
Swift, a former navy lawyer, argued that a sentence in proportion to Hamdan's participation as a driver would help make meaningful some future verdict against the planners of the 2001 terror attacks.
"At some point," he said, "we will bring the people who conspired, the people who brought those buildings down, and that's going to be a great day."
Swift said that a sentence that is modest by comparison to a potential sentence against the Sept. 11 plotters would help give that eventual sentence its proper significance. "And it will be all the more meaningful because we got the guys who did it, not the driver."
Bin Laden's driver guilty as ordered
Now that was a real nail-biter. The court designed by the White House and its congressional enablers to guarantee convictions of detainees in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba - using evidence obtained by torture and secret evidence as desired - has held its first trial. It produced ... a guilty verdict.
The military commission of six senior officers found Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who worked as one of Osama bin Laden's drivers until 2001, guilty of one count of providing material support for terrorism.
The rules of justice on Guantánamo are so stacked against defendants that the only surprise was that Hamdan was actually acquitted on the more serious count of conspiring (it was unclear with whom) to kill Americans during the invasion of Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001.
The charge on which Hamdan was convicted seemed logical since he did work as bin Laden's driver. But it was still an odd prosecution.
Drivers of even the most heinous people are generally not charged with war crimes. It is impossible, in any case, to judge the evidence against Hamdan because of the deeply flawed nature of this trial - the blueprint for which was the Military Commissions Act of 2006, one of the worst bits of lawmaking in American history.
At these trials, hearsay and secret documents are admissible. Hamdan's defense was actually required to began its case in a secret session. The witness was a camp psychologist, presumably called to back Hamdan's account of being abused by his interrogators.
Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor in Guantánamo, put the trial in a disturbing light. He testified that he was informed by his superiors that only guilty verdicts would be tolerated. He also said that he was told to bring high-profile cases quickly to help Republicans score a pre-election public relations coup.
Davis gave up his position on Oct. 4, 2007. That, he wrote in The Los Angeles Times in December, was "the day I concluded that full, fair and open trials were not possible under the current system."
In his article, Davis described a highly politicized system in which people who were supposed to be neutral decision-makers were allied with the prosecutors. According to Davis, Defense Secretary Robert Gates pushed out a fair-minded "convening authority" - the official who decides which cases go to trial, which charges will be heard and who serves on the jury.
That straight-shooting administrator was replaced by Susan Crawford who, Davis said, assessed evidence before charges were filed, directed the prosecution's preparation and even drafted charges. This "intermingling" of "convening authority and prosecutor roles," Davis argued, "perpetuates the perception of a rigged process."
Davis said the final straw for him was when he was placed under the command of William Haynes, the Defense Department's general counsel. Davis had instructed prosecutors not to offer evidence obtained through the torture technique known as waterboarding. Haynes helped draft the orders permitting acts, like waterboarding, that violate American laws and the Geneva Conventions.
We are not arguing that the United States should condone terrorism or those who support it, or that the guilty should not be punished severely. But in a democracy, trials must be governed by fair rules, and judges must be guided by the law and the evidence, not pressure from the government. The military commission system, which falls far short of these standards, is a stain on the United States.
HIV TRANSMISSIONA tragedy, not a crime
Edwin Cameron is a justice of South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal. Michaela Clayton is director of the AIDS and Rights Alliance of Southern Africa, Windhoek, Namibia. Scott Burris is law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.
A few months ago in Dallas, Texas, Willie Campbell was convicted of assault with a "deadly weapon" against police officers who were arresting him for being drunk and disorderly. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.Too bad, you may say, but so what? Well, Campbell has HIV, and the "deadly weapon" was saliva, which he spat into the officers' faces. But saliva has never been shown to transmit HIV, so the "deadly weapon" Campbell wielded was no more lethal than a toy pistol - and it wasn't even loaded.His sentence also reflected his criminal record, but there is no denying that Willie Campbell was punished not just for what he did, but for the virus he carried.He is not alone. Across the world, people with HIV are going to prison even when they have not transmitted the virus and never intended to.Bermuda recently jailed a man with HIV for 10 years for having unprotected sex with his girlfriend, even though she has tested negative. A Swiss man was sent to jail this year for infecting his girlfriend, even though he thought he was HIV-negative.
In Africa - which has about two-thirds of the world's HIV cases - a U.S.-financed "model" statute that broadly criminalizes transmission and exposure has been adopted by 11 countries, and others may do the same. The law requires those who know they have HIV to inform "any sexual contact" in advance - without defining "sexual contact." (Does the definition, for example, include kissing?)Sierra Leone's version of the law expressly brings a pregnant mother within its terms. She can be jailed if she does not "take all reasonable measures and precautions to prevent the transmission of HIV" to her unborn baby.
So what is behind the drive to deal with HIV through criminal laws? It aims to stem the rising tide of infections, to protect those vulnerable to becoming infected - especially women, who often fall prey to careless or unscrupulous men - and to encourage disclosure by those who know they have the virus.Good intentions, but bad policy. Studies and more than two decades of experience show that making exposure and accidental transmission into crimes does not change sexual behavior or stem the spread of HIV.Criminalization is a misguided substitute for measures that really protect those at risk of contracting HIV: effective prevention, protection against discrimination, efforts to reduce the stigma associated with AIDS, greater access to testing, and, most important, treatment for those who are dying of the disease.Far from protecting women, criminalization endangers them. In Africa, most people who know their HIV status are female because most testing occurs at natal health-care sites. The result is that most of those who will be prosecuted because they know - or ought to know - their HIV status will be women.The material circumstances in which many women find themselves - especially in Africa - make it difficult for them to negotiate safer sex, or to discuss HIV at all. These circumstances include social subordination, economic dependence and traditional systems of property and inheritance that make them dependent on men. Criminalization will make them more vulnerable to HIV, not less.Moreover, criminalization is often unfairly and selectively enforced. Prosecutions and laws single out already vulnerable groups - like prostitutes, men who have sex with men and, in European countries, black males.Criminalization also places blame on one person instead of putting responsibility on two. Realistically, the risk of getting HIV (or any sexually transmitted infection) must now be seen as an inescapable facet of having sex. We cannot pretend that the risk is introduced into an otherwise safe encounter by the person who knows or should know he or she has HIV. The practical responsibility for safer sex practices rests on everyone.These laws are difficult and degrading to apply. Where sex is between two consenting adults, the apparatus of proof and the necessary methodology of prosecution degrade the parties and debase the law. What is more, the legal concepts of negligence and even recklessness are incoherent in the realm of sexual behavior. We know that the "reasonable person" often has unprotected sex with partners of unknown sexual history in spite of the known risks - that's why we have an HIV epidemic, and that's why interventions to reduce unsafe sex are so important.Criminalization increases stigma and may well deter testing. Why would a woman in Sierra Leone want to have an HIV test that will, if positive, put her at risk of a seven-year jail sentence if she becomes pregnant, or the next time she has sex? The laws put diagnosis, treatment, help and support further out of her reach.
2 killed in Russian resort blast
MOSCOW: An explosion killed at least two people Thursday on a beach close to the resort town of Sochi, where Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics, the local police said.
The police said that "an unidentified explosive device" detonated in the village of Loo, 24 kilometers, or 15 miles, from Sochi, in a region on the Black Sea popular for its palm-lined beaches and snowy mountains. The blast occurred about 10 a.m. when few were out walking the beaches, a police statement said.
A 22-year-old woman from Kiev and 31-year-old man from nearby Rostov-on-Don were killed, and at least four others were wounded, the police said.
It was unclear who might be behind the explosion, which occurred at the height of the summer tourist season when hundreds of Russians flock to Sochi's resorts and sanatoriums famous since Soviet days. It is a favored vacation spot for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, an avid skier.
The police have offered an $85,000 reward for information that would help solve the crime, a police spokesman told the Interfax news agency. President Dmitri Medvedev ordered his representative to the Southern Federal District to personally oversee the investigation, the Kremlin's Web site reported.
The Kremlin has staked its reputation on the success of the Winter Games in Sochi, and plans to spend more than $10 billion renovating the city's dilapidated infrastructure.
Security, however, has been a major concern. Sochi is about 25 kilometers from Abkhazia, a separatist enclave in the former Soviet republic of Georgia that has seen a spike in violence recently. A bombing at a café in Abkhazia killed four people last month.
Any major conflagration in the region could spill over the border and threaten the Games.
10 killed in South Ossetia clashes
TBILISI, Georgia: The capital of the separatist South Ossetia region came under heavy fire early Friday, just hours after Georgia's president declared a cease-fire following days of sporadic fighting.
South Ossetia's leader accused Georgia of treachery, but the Georgian government said its troops were responding to rebel attacks, news reports said.
The new violence after a week of clashes escalated fears that the confrontation could escalate into an all-out war that might engulf much of the Caucasus region and perhaps draw in Russia, which has close ties with the separatists.
"The assault is coming from all directions" around Tskhinvali, the South Ossetia capital, said a brief statement on the separatist government's Web site.
A statement from South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity said his forces were in combat with Georgian troops on the outskirts of the city. "There is a bitter fight going on and significant damage is inflicted on the enemy," he said.
Georgia's government issued a statement saying the fighting started when separatists "began intensive firing on Georgian villages" near Tskhinvali, the Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies reported. The statement said the military "was forced to take adequate measures."
In a report from Tskhinvali, Interfax quoted Vladimir Ivanov, an official in a Russian peacekeeping force, as saying the fire included salvos by truck-launched Grad rockets.
Interfax quoted the president of North Ossetia, a Russian area bordering South Ossetia, as saying hundreds of volunteers were heading to join the fight "and we can't stop them." As many as 1,000 volunteers from Abkhazia, another Georgian breakaway region with close ties to Russia, planned to go to South Ossetia, Interfax quoted Abkhazian President Sergei Bagapsh as saying.
Hours before the new fighting, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili had announced a unilateral cease-fire in a television broadcast during which he urged South Ossetian leaders to enter talks on resolving the conflict.
He also proposed that Russia could become a guarantor of wide-ranging autonomy for South Ossetia, if the region remains under Georgian control.
South Ossetia agreed to hold fire until a meeting Friday between its deputy prime minister and Georgia's top envoy for separatist issues, Russian news agencies said, citing the head of the peacekeeping force in the region, Marat Kulakhmetov.
Heavy shelling overnight Wednesday in South Ossetia killed at least one person and wounded 22, officials said Thursday. It was some of the most severe fighting reported since Aug. 1, when six people were reported killed in firing around Tskhinvali.
Most of South Ossetia, which is roughly 1.5 times the size of Luxembourg, has been under the control of a separatist government since a war there ended in 1992. Georgian troops hold several parts of the region.
LETTER FROM INDIA
Everything in India is changing but treatment of the poor
MUMBAI: Here in the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, the doyen of this city's hotels, what you think of the new India may depend on whether you are the person having soap squeezed onto your hands or the person squeezing the soap.
In every men's washroom at the Taj is a helper. As you approach the sink, he salutes you. Before you can turn on the tap, he does it for you. Before you can apply soap, he presses the dispenser. Before you can get a towel, he dangles one. As you leave, he salutes you again and mutters: "Right, sir. O.K., sir. Thank you, sir."
Step outside, and you see sedans reeking of new affluence. Sleeping inside are drivers, many of them asleep because they work 20-hour shifts, waking up at 6 a.m. to catch a train, taking the boss to and from work, then to his dinner, then to drinks, then dropping him home at 1 a.m. and taking a taxi back to the tenements.
At 1 a.m. back in the boss's apartment building, the hallways are often covered with bodies. They belong to servants and sweepers who work inside by day but sleep outside by night, who clean the toilets but would not dare use them. They learn to sleep on cold tile, with tenants stepping over them when returning from Champagne-soaked evenings out.
India is changing so fast that it is starting to look like someplace else. Skyscrapers are sprouting. Towns are ballooning. The young date, drink, smoke freely. But many of the people who are making the new India new - from the stockbrokers to the bedecked socialites - are responsible for preserving a certain gloomy element of the Indian past: a tendency to treat the hired help like chattel, to taunt and humiliate and condescend to them, to behave as though some humans were born to serve and others to be served.
"Indians are perhaps the world's most undemocratic people, living in the world's largest and most plural democracy," as Sudhir Kakar and Katharina Kakar, two well-known scholars of Indian culture, put it in a recent book, "The Indians: Portrait of a People."
It is understandable that, in flush times, Indians would rather talk about something else.
But if a movie director in Mumbai has his way, before long they will be talking about servants. In an attempt to expose India's employer-servant relations in the way "Uncle Tom's Cabin" exposed American slavery, Raja Menon has made a provocative new film depicting India from a servant's-eye view.
The movie, "Barah Aana," which translates roughly as "shortchanged," is currently being judged by festival juries in Toronto and Venice.
It tells the story of three migrants to Mumbai from the ailing villages of northern India. They work as a chauffeur, a waiter and a security guard, sending most of their earnings home.
They are heroes to their villages; but in Mumbai, they are invisible men, enduring the callousness that comes with being an accessory to other people's boom times.
In one scene, a wealthy homemaker, plump and accessorized by Louis Vuitton, zips through the city in the back of her black SUV, pattering on her phone. Suddenly, her chauffeur slams on the brakes, jostling the woman and interrupting her conversation.
"That beggar child came in front of my car," she explains indignantly to her friend in English after resuming her call. "That idiotic driver just put the brake."
In another scene, a security guard discovers that his son is ill and, without a $150 treatment, will die. Yadav goes around in his building asking for loans from tenants who often drop $40 on pizza.
The tenants, glued to televisions, treat him like a puppy to be shooed away.
That night, as he sits with friends filling himself with drink, he contemplates what it would mean to bury a son. "Why is it," he wails, "that people can only feel their own pain, not others'?"
The director's answer is that India has something deeper than a poverty problem.
It has, in his view, a "dehumanization" problem. In an interview, he described India's employers and servants as living as "two different species."
The movie's first half chronicles India's small humiliations with a chilling realism. The second half prophesies an outbreak of violent revolts in a country whose elite has long comforted itself with the thought that the poor will stoically accept their lots.
Menon's belief is that such stoicism is drying up in an age when the rich are more visibly rich and the left-behind are ever more aware of their deprivation.
The poor were long told that their poverty was deserved, he said. But now they see wealth everywhere, and they are starting to believe that poverty is circumstantial and can be reversed.
"That's when the dam bursts," he said, "the moment the person feels, 'It's not true that this is my place."'
Such a moment seemed to occur one recent evening. The movie was screened before an audience of young, middle-class Indians, representatives of the country's new prosperity.
But one of them, Mitesh Thakkar, a 30-year-old marketing manager, arrived with a taxi driver he often employs, and he injected diversity into the screening by inviting the driver in to watch the film.
Thakkar reacted as one might when one's social class has been indicted. The film was good but "one-sided," he said: "Maybe there are 70 percent of the people who treat them bad, but there are 30 percent who treat them good."
But for the taxi driver, Javed Ali, the movie was an instant classic.
"This story is the truth," he said. "Whatever was in my mind, the movie showed."
Ali is a 20-year-old migrant worker, and he knew the film's humiliations up close. Sometimes people take his taxi and refuse to pay; sometimes they are drunk and mistreat him; sometimes they scream at him and say, "You're no good."
After the screening, some audience members, including Thakkar and Ali, went out for dinner. (Perhaps it was the film's influence: To dine with a taxi driver in India is to cross a rarely traversed line.)
The other diners wanted to know what Ali, the only working-class man at the table, thought of the film. Ali answered, rather casually, that he saw where the characters were coming from, that he understood their hunger, after so many years of humiliation, for revenge.
"He said the part where the driver kidnaps his female boss - that he did the right thing," Thakkar said later, recalling Ali's comments. "Even though he got caught, she needed that kidnapping."
On that evening, at that unusually populated table, with prosperous and poor side by side, India's parallel realities fleetingly, ominously collided.
Shoppers, on your marks ...
There should be a medal for this.
It was obvious that the fashion quotient at the Olympic Games, already a five-ring circus of designer logos, had been raised when Polo Ralph Lauren was named to replace Roots, the Canadian sportswear company of floppy beret fame, as the official outfitter of the American team this year — beginning with the "Chariots of Fire"-inspired ensembles for the opening ceremonies on Friday.
Now Gucci is selling limited-edition watches marked 8-8-2008, with interlocking G's in place of the 0's; Puma is pushing a handbag shaped like a gold medal; and Lane Crawford, the Hong Kong luxury store, has recruited designers like Stella McCartney, Stefano Pilati and Christopher Bailey to design clothes inspired by specific sports.
But in terms of dedication and endurance, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, the owners of the designer store Opening Ceremony (so named after their love of the events), are attempting this weekend to set a record that a Speedo LZR swimsuit couldn't break. They plan to keep their store, in SoHo, New York, open for a 72-hour Olympics shopping marathon.
"From the very beginning, one of the things we've talked about was that we would love a store that was open at one or two in the morning," Leon said. "Sometimes you feel like going out, but you don't want to go to a bar."
Going to a store that specializes in pricey, directional clothes might not be the wisest alternative, particularly if one is coming from a bar at 4 a.m. But Opening Ceremony is planning to entice night owls with taco and ice cream giveaways and a roster of events that include a 6 a.m. Scrabble match on Saturday and a 1 a.m. table tennis tournament, hosted by the jewelry designer Philip Crangi, on Sunday.
Leon is also planning to broadcast the actual Games in the store. Of course, he is also selling something. For instance, the store has exclusive Nike items, like $250 gold and silver versions of the Air Max 1, plus a bunch of tchotchkes — key chains, coin purses and pocket turbo fans — as souvenirs. A more permanent memory will also be available on Saturday at 9 a.m., when the New York tattoo artist Scott Campbell will offer Olympics designs.
"Luckily," Leon said, "the person giving the tattoos will have had sleep."
India tries to reach the 'unbanked' with cellphone signals
NEW DELHI: It can scale mountains in a single bound and wend its way down the most wretched roads. It is the mighty cellphone signal - and the latest hope for bringing financial services to the world's masses who do not have access to banks.
Grameen Solutions, an affiliate of the Grameen Bank that was created by the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, this week teamed with Obopay, a mobile payment company based in California, to provide banking to a billion poor people using cellphones.
"Today, it's difficult to reach these people," Aditya Menon, Obopay's executive director for India, said at a news conference in the Indian financial capital of Mumbai. "If you solve that problem, you are enabling them to enter the economy."
The joint venture plans to introduce pilot programs in India and Bangladesh in October and aims to reach a billion people globally by 2018, in large part by keeping costs ultra low - possibly through the help of charitable foundations.
Obopay, whose partners include Verizon Wireless, Citigroup, the BlackBerry maker Research In Motion and AT&T, is already active in the United States, where customers who want to send money pay 10 cents for every transaction. After opening an Obopay account, you can transfer money between bank accounts, credit cards and phones via text messages.
Kristof: An olive branch from the Dalai Lama
When the Olympics open on Friday, the Dalai Lama won't be there. Each side put out feelers about his attendance and was tantalized by the idea, but in the end the mutual distrust was too great to overcome.
Tibet is one of the major shadows over the Olympics and over China's rise as a great power, sullying its international image and triggering unrest that is likely to worsen in coming years. Yet that doesn't have to be.
In June, I sat down for a private meeting with the Dalai Lama, and we talked at length about what kind of a deal he and China might be willing to accept. He was far more flexible and pragmatic about a resolution of the Tibet question than public statements had led me to believe. But he also wonders if his engagement policy with China is getting anywhere: If the stalemate continues, he may just give up on Beijing.
I have continued the discussion with Tibetan officials since then (just as I have had similar discussions with Chinese officials), and China's perception of the Dalai Lama as sticking rigidly to old positions is mistaken. The Dalai Lama recognizes that time is running out, and he is signaling a willingness to deal - comparable to the way President Richard Nixon sent signals to Beijing that he was ready to rethink the China-U.S. relationship before his visit to China in 1972.
One signal is this: For the first time, the Dalai Lama is willing to state that he can accept the Socialist system in Tibet under Communist Party rule. This is something that Beijing has always demanded, and, after long discussion, the Dalai Lama has agreed to do so.
The main thing is to preserve our culture, to preserve the character of Tibet," the Dalai Lama told me. "That is what is most important, not politics."
That is a significant concession, and China must now reciprocate. The present track of talks between the Communist Party's United Front Work Department and the Dalai Lama's representatives will never get anywhere. The only hope is for Beijing to pluck Tibetan affairs from the United Front officials and hold direct talks between the Dalai Lama and either President Hu Jintao or Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, negotiating until a deal is reached.
In one sign that Chinese leaders are also thinking creatively about new approaches, Beijing secretly raised the idea of the Dalai Lama visiting China and participating in a memorial service for those who died in May's Sichuan earthquake. That was bold; the Dalai Lama has not entered China since 1959. Both sides should now aim for a visit to mark the earthquake's six-month anniversary in November, followed by serious negotiations.
Bank executives' report tries to dissect financial meltdown
A group of Wall Street executives released a report on Wednesday that outlined how the industry failed to foresee the financial meltdown of the last year and what companies can do to improve risk management.
The 172-page report, written by chief risk officers and senior executives at banks like Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Citigroup, also provides suggestions about technical issues at the same time as it offers a bit of a mea culpa.
"Virtually everybody was frankly slow in recognizing that we were on the cusp of a really draconian crisis," said E. Gerald Corrigan, a managing director at Goldman Sachs and a chairman of the Counterparty Risk Management Policy Group III , which released the report.
Wall Street failed to anticipate how wide-reaching problems with mortgage bonds would spread into seemingly distant corners of the financial markets, the report said. Awash in easy money, banks doled out credit without sufficiently charging for the risk. Wall Street also created complex structures that masked connections between asset classes as well as compensation incentives that pushed traders to take risky steps for short-term gain. The industry's failings have now translated into pain for the broader economy, the report said.
In many ways, the report acknowledged shortcomings that have already been raised by Wall Street's critics.
Australian banks struggle to raise capital
SYDNEY: Australian banks are facing funding hurdles as the global credit crisis enters its second year, eroding their profitability and forcing them to find ever more exotic, and expensive, ways to raise capital.
Australian banks are among the world's most profitable, but more drastic steps to raise money, like rights issues, could cause further pain for their shareholders, who have already lost a third of their investment in bank stocks so far this year.
The country's big four banks need to raise at least 100 billion Australian dollars, or $93 billion, this year, according to company and market estimates, and have been hunting high and low for lenders.
They managed to raise about two-thirds of that in the first half, largely by selling costly senior debt to foreign investors in Europe, the United States and Japan.
They also tapped Australian retail investors through listed hybrid securities with characteristics of both equity and debt, and by starting dividend reinvestment plans.
For the first time, the banks went in June to the country's own sovereign wealth fund, quietly borrowing money from a pot set aside to cover civil servant pensions.
But analysts fear those wells may be running dry as investors have little more appetite for Australian debt, especially after shock announcements by two major banks in recent weeks that credit losses were rising. That leaves lenders with a shrinking number of options.
It's no Boo-Boo: Bandages as fashion accessories
WHEN Nicholas James Brown prepares to go out for cocktails at the Tribeca Grand or to a clambake in the Hamptons, he sticks on a few boldly patterned Band-Aids by the Brazilian fashion designer Alexandre Herchcovitch.
To Brown, 24, who works at Esquire magazine in New York, the colorful strips are an important accessory, and he's careful to coordinate them with his Kris Van Assche sweater or his Balenciaga bag. He generally wears one on his left hand or arm and balances it out with two or three on his right leg.
He doesn't put them on his face because, he said, "I don't want people thinking, 'What happened?' " And if anyone does ask what he's done to himself to need all of those bandages?
"I'll lie and say, 'I have a cut,' " he said.
For most everyone over the age of 5, it's unfathomable to use a bandage purely as body art. But since the adhesive strip has been upgraded by designers like Herchcovitch or studded with Swarovski crystals, some adults have begun to view it as they would a bracelet or spray tan, as adornment.
"Even if you don't have a cut, bandages are a great way to make a statement that doesn't break the bank," said Chris Bick, an owner of FredFlare.com, which sells lip-shaped bandages. "It's kind of like a temporary tattoo that gets you sympathy."
An alternate title for the book might be "Idiots." Vanderbilt, who writes regularly about design and technology, cites a finding that 12.7 percent of the traffic slowdown after a crash has nothing to do with wreckage blocking lanes; it's caused by gawkers. Rubberneckers attend to the spectacle so avidly that they themselves then get into accidents, slamming into the car in front of them when it brakes to get a better look or dig out a cellphoneto take a picture. (This happens often enough for traffic types to have coined a word for it: "digi-necking.") Exasperated highway professionals have actually tried erecting anti-rubbernecking screens around the scenes of accidents, but the vehicle toting the screen typically gets caught in the traffic jam it's meant to prevent.
Moreover, Vanderbilt adds, "there is the interest in the screen itself." Drivers will slow down to look at anything: "Something as simple as a couch dumped in a roadside ditch can send minor shudders of curiosity through the traffic flow." "Traffic" is jammed with these delicious you've-got-to-be-kidding moments.
Even without home furnishings to distract us, we rarely seem to get anywhere fast at any time of day. One reason, Vanderbilt reports, is that people are driving to do things they once did at home or down the block. "It is not just that American households have more cars," he writes, "it is that they are finding new places to take them." They're going someplace to eat. They're driving to Whole Foods because they don't like the produce at their neighborhood supermarket. They're going out to get coffee. (So much of Starbucks's revenue now comes from drive-through lanes that the company will put stores across the street from each other, sparing drivers "the agony of having to make a left turn during rush hour.") And they're parking. Or trying to. In a study of one 15-block area near U.C.L.A., cars were logging, on an average day, 3,600 miles in pursuit of a place to park. It's not only the number of parkers on the roads that slows things down. It's the way they drive, crawling along, sitting and waiting and engaging in other irritating examples of what one expert calls "parking foreplay." The answer? Sorry: more expensive street parking to encourage the circling hordes to use pay lots.
Traffic does not yield to simple, appealing solutions. Adding lanes or roads is a short-lived fix. Widen one highway, and drivers from another will defect. Soon that road is worse than it was before. The most effective, least popular solution - aside from the currently effective, unpopular solution of $5-a-gallon gasoline - is congestion pricing: charging extra to use roads during rush hours. For unknown reasons, Americans will accept a surcharge for peak-travel-time hotel rooms and airfares but not for roads.
If it's any consolation, traffic has always been bad. Vanderbilt begins with a short (I longed for more!) section on the history of traffic congestion. By studying chariot "rutways" and "wear patterns on curbstones," archaeologists have determined that the citizens of Pompeii had to contend with construction detours and one-way streets. Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, "the chariot traffic grew so intense that Caesar ... declared a daytime ban on carts and chariots, 'except to transport construction materials for the temples of the gods or for other great public works or to take away demolition materials."'
I was less surprised by all that than by the existence of so many traffic professionals. Given the seeming anarchy of traffic, there are a surprising variety of experts employed to manage it. Vanderbilt has interviewed them all, from traffic "vision specialists" (who have, of late, taken to making road signs in "incident pink") to "one of the world's leading authorities on queues." (One of!) The author is an impressively energetic researcher, even, at one point, tracking down the person who programs the Hebrew calendar into about 75 signal lights in Los Angeles. This is done to enable Sabbath-observant Jews to cross the street without pushing a button and violating the ban on operating machinery. (In New York it isn't necessary, as most crossing buttons long ago stopped working.) Vanderbilt spends much time deconstructing crashes - a problem even before there were cars. "In the New York of 1867," he writes, "horses were killing an average of four pedestrians a week (a bit higher than today's rate of traffic fatalities)." Nowadays, the cause of collisions, or one of them, is people believing they're better drivers than they are. We base our judgment on the number of crashes we've been in, rather than on the number of accidents we narrowly avoid, which, if we're being honest (or we're being me), happen just about every time we drive. Compounding this vehicular hubris is the fact that most of the driving we do appears to be safer than it is. Driving rarely commands 100 percent of our attention, and so we feel comfortable multitasking: talking on the phone, unfolding a map, taking in the Barca-Lounger on the road's shoulder. Vanderbilt cites a statistic that nearly 80 percent of crashes involve drivers not paying attention for up to three seconds. Thus the places that seem the most dangerous - narrow roads, hairpin turns - are rarely where people mess up. "Most crashes," Vanderbilt writes, "happen on dry roads, on clear, sunny days, to sober drivers." For this reason, roads that could be straight are often constructed with curves - simply to keep drivers on the ball.
This basic truth - feeling safe kills - lies beneath many of the book's insights. Americans think roundabouts are more dangerous than intersections with traffic lights. Roundabouts require you to adjust your speed, to merge, in short, to pay attention. At an intersection, we simply watch the light. And so we may not notice the red-light runner coming at us or the pedestrian stepping off the curb. A study that followed 24 intersections that had been converted from signals or stop signs to roundabouts showed an almost 90 percent drop in fatal crashes after the change.
For similar reasons, S.U.V.'s are more dangerous than cars. Not just because they're slower to stop and harder to maneuver, but because - by conferring a sense of safety - they invite careless behavior. "The safer cars get," Vanderbilt says, "the more risks drivers choose to take." (S.U.V. drivers are more likely to not bother with their seat belts, to talk on cellphones, and to not wear seat belts while talking on cellphones.) So it goes for much of the driving universe. More people are killed while crossing in crosswalks than while jaywalking. Drivers pass bicyclists more closely on a road with bike lanes than on one without.
My solution to America's vehicular woes would be to make this good book required reading for anyone applying for a driver's license. Though you could then be sure that some percentage of car crashes in America would be caused by people trying to skim "Traffic" while stuck in a bottleneck on their way to the D.M.V.
At least 38 people have died, including 16 since the start of June, said Charles Briggs, an anthropologist at Berkeley, and Clara Mantini-Briggs, a medical researcher there. They are a husband-and-wife team known for their research on a cholera outbreak that killed 500 people in Venezuela in the early 1990s.
Preliminary studies of the latest outbreak indicate that it may be a type of infectious rabies transmitted by bites from bats, the researchers said. The symptoms, which last three to six weeks, include partial paralysis, convulsions and an extreme fear of water, they said, and those who die become rigid just before death. The disease is believed to be fatal in most cases.
"The authorities must investigate this outbreak with extreme urgency," said Mantini-Briggs, a Venezuelan public health expert who has advised President Hugo Chávez's government on policies to combat dengue fever. "Fear about the disease has intensified among the Warao while a preventative response is needed now."
The disease is found in the swampy Delta Amacuro, near the border with Guyana. The state is inhabited largely by Warao Indians, a nomadic indigenous group said to number more than 20,000.
Warao leaders, accompanied by the researchers, took photos and written testimonies documenting the disease to the Health Ministry here on Wednesday for a meeting with government epidemiologists. But they were kept waiting for several hours.
"We traveled by bus 16 hours to Caracas to make the authorities aware of the situation with the hope of getting some response," said Norvelis Gómez, a Warao paramedic who was one of four community leaders in the group. "And we are met with disrespect on every level, as if the deaths of indigenous people are not even worth noting."
Framing their concerns within the polarizing world of Venezuelan politics, in which criticism of the government is often considered tantamount to betrayal, the Warao leaders and the Berkeley researchers emphasized that they all supported Chávez's policies and that their intent was not to smear his government.
"All we request is for authorities to respond to this disease as they would if it occurred in a rich district of Caracas," said Enrique Moraleda, a Warao leader in Chávez's United Socialist Party who was part of the group.
The group was allowed to meet with the government epidemiologists on Wednesday evening, and members said officials promised them that the disease would be investigated as soon as possible.
Drug use brings doubt to Olympic performances
On an overcast afternoon in Mexico City in October 1968, a skinny U.S. long jumper named Bob Beamon took 19 strides down a runway, hit the takeoff board perfectly and lifted off at what seemed like an impossible trajectory. He flew so far that he exceeded the range of the optical sighting system that measured the jumps, so officials in sport jackets and ties had to scurry into the sand pit with a tape measure.
Beamon, who was 22, thought at first that he might have broken the world record by a couple of inches. The length of his jump, when first announced as 8.90 meters, did not fully register with him. When it was translated to him as 29 feet-2½ - nearly 2 feet farther than anyone had ever jumped - he crumpled to the ground in shock. Fellow jumpers helped him up, and he began high-stepping around the pit as the crowd roared. A competitor, the defending gold medalist Lynn Davies of Britain, congratulated Beamon and told him, with a sense of awe, "You have destroyed this event."
Now, for a moment, imagine some equivalent of Beamon's "leap of the century" in Beijing. Let's say that the world record in the men's 100 meters - recently lowered two-hundredths of a second, to 9.72 seconds, by Usain Bolt of Jamaica - is smashed by a full tenth of a second. Or that the Australian swimmer Libby Trickett's new world record of 52.88 seconds in the women's 100-meter freestyle falls to 51 seconds flat. Or that Beamon's old record, finally broken 23 years later by Michael Powell - by two inches - is exceeded by a full foot.
What would be our reaction? Skepticism, disbelief, perhaps disgust. To break any record in such a Beamonesque manner would seem like an act of self-incrimination, and any rival who spoke of an event being "destroyed" would certainly mean it as an accusation.
Such is the legacy of decades of documented doping in Olympic sport and of a particularly downbeat four years since the previous Games. From Marion Jones, Floyd Landis, Barry Bonds, Balco and Roger Clemens to spying in the National Football League and charges of game fixing in the National Basketball Association and Italian soccer, elite sport has been awash in accusations of cheating and lying.
Even the site of this year's Games contributes to a feeling of impending taint. Factories in China have long been the source of much of the raw material for steroids. The food industry is so poorly regulated that a food contractor for the U.S. Olympic Committee speculated (without evidence) that athletes eating Chinese chicken could test positive for banned performance enhancers.
Sports and cynicism do not go well together. We watch to be uplifted, to witness some transcendent moment that we can believe and fully embrace.
The Games are especially poisoned by doubts over the integrity of the competition because their whole point is upward progression, the breaking of barriers. Citius, altius, fortius. Swifter, higher, stronger. If everyone is playing by an agreed-upon set of rules, that is. Certain assumptions can safely be made about the drug scene in Beijing: some dopers will be unmasked, shamed and sent home. Some will go undetected. Some "clean" athletes will fall short of their goals and believe they've been cheated.
All will compete, mostly invisibly, in a game within a game: the cat-and-mouse contest between the drug detectors and the chemist-coach-athlete cartel that seeks to get away with using banned substances. The Beijing organizing committee has announced that it will administer a record 4,500 tests (urine and blood samples), up from 3,700 in Athens. In scary-sounding language - intentionally so, no doubt - a Chinese sports official said that vehicles transporting samples through Beijing's streets would be accompanied by armed guards before making deliveries at a new $10 million laboratory, also heavily guarded.
Certain national sports federations have tended to breed doping offenders, suggesting they are either the most determined dopers or the least clever. The entire Bulgarian weightlifting team of eight men and three women tested positive in June for a banned steroid and was disqualified from Beijing. Bulgarian lifters also tested positive in the run-up to the 2004 Games in Athens. Several had to return medals after testing positive at the 1988 and 2000 Games.
The Chinese swim association announced in late June that one of its top competitors had failed a drug test and would be banned for life - adding to an extensive history of doping by Chinese swimmers.
The outspoken former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, (WADA), Dick Pound, once told me that even when Olympic athletes tested positive, it "added luster to the Olympic brand" because it proved the International Olympic Committee was serious about policing the use of banned drugs. He had a point. Compared with just about any other sporting body worldwide, the IOC is more rigorous. But that does not mean it's winning the game within the game. In fact, it may be falling farther behind.
I asked Anthony Butch, the director at the Olympic Analytical Laboratory at the University of California at Los Angeles, who he thinks is winning. "It's impossible to answer," said Butch. "The reason we know we are making strides is we are catching more people, but to catch them, you have to know what they're abusing. It's possible there is something out there that everyone is taking that's not on the radar screens of the doping labs. We are always behind. It is easier to take these things and get away with it than it is to figure out ways to catch them."
The "designer steroid" that was peddled out of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, or Balco - a previously unknown compound - was discovered only after an informant gave a syringe full of it to authorities. That the informant, the track coach Trevor Graham, has since been convicted for making false statements to drug investigators pretty much sums up the "Maltese Falcon" atmosphere of top-level sprinting.
Even tests for some of the most commonly used enhancers may be less effective than authorities would like athletes to believe. Synthetic erythropoietin, known as EPO, which artificially boosts red-blood-cell production, is the drug of choice for endurance athletes. A study published in June by a respected laboratory in Denmark indicated that it can probably be used with impunity, because the methods to detect it are inadequate.
And while WADA has a new, better, more standardized test for human-growth hormone that allows it to screen many more athletes at the Olympics, the test is still not thought to be able to detect use much beyond the previous 24 to 48 hours.
As the Olympics fill the world's television screens, I suspect I won't be the only viewer who makes choices influenced by calculations about the integrity of the contests. I'll watch some of the "minor" sports - kayaking, fencing, handball - because they seem closer to some ideal of pure competition.
I don't naïvely assume they're clean, but I don't know for sure they're not. I'm looking forward to seeing Sheila Taormina, a remarkable 39-year-old American who won a gold medal as a swimmer in 1996, competed as a triathlete in 2000 and 2004 and now will take part in the modern pentathlon - the very cool combo of shooting, swimming, fencing, riding and running.
I'm curious to see if the U.S. men's basketball team can break its international losing streak. In the current climate, this competition involving NBA multimillionaires seems oddly straightforward and respectable.
I won't go out of my way to watch much athletics - even the 100-meter races. It's not a moral judgment; I'm just not interested in what I think may be a contest among chemists. Two men who set world records since 2002 have had their times expunged after positive drug tests, and numerous other top male sprinters have also been implicated. The world-record holder in the women's 100 meters is the late Florence Griffith-Joyner, whose sudden changes in physique and out-of-nowhere, near-half-second improvement at the 1988 Games in Seoul remain sources of suspicion.
What's lost when drugs permeate sport is simple: authenticity and believability. For the price of a ticket, or even the investment of our time in front of the television, we don't want to have to wonder what has taken place in the shadows to influence the competition - or which athlete whose remarkable human achievement we have rejoiced in might soon be stripped of gold and marched before a grand jury.
It sort of ruins the whole thing.
But as he waited for a train that would take him back to his hometown north of the capital, Li, 50, could not help but feel wistful.
"The Olympics have finally come to China, and I won't even be here," he said, lounging on a woven plastic sack stuffed with his possessions. He glanced up at the "Participate in the Olympics, Enjoy the Fun" banner above his head and shrugged.
Like thousands of others who packed the city's main train station Thursday, Li has been forced to leave town by a lack of work and an unwritten government policy encouraging migrant workers to clear out until the dignitaries and journalists have gone home.
As the city readied itself for the pageantry and the fireworks of Friday night's opening ceremony, Beijing's main train station was packed with truck drivers, food vendors and factory workers whose jobs had been sacrificed to the Olympics juggernaut. The atmosphere was a mix of expectation and boredom, but also disappointment and regret.
The nurses, who are expected to learn Japanese and requalify as they work, are seen as an important test case as Japan struggles with the world's fastest growing elderly population and a workforce that is forecast to shrink, potentially devastating the economy.
"Japan is the first developed country to face this kind of population crisis," said Hidenori Sakanaka, a former immigration bureau chief in the capital of Tokyo who now heads a think tank.
With more than a quarter of Japanese expected to be aged over 65 by 2015, the country faces serious economic consequences, including labour shortages that could weigh on
The tiny woman had a master key and a rolling trash bin as large as she was. Morning is a polite time of day - e-mails are still civil, phones are unlit, demands are self-imposed. I myself do not like hours before 8 a.m. - a love of first light is not in my melatonin - but it is a necessary part of life's current schedule. Neither she nor I had set it. We shared it with tacit compatibility, though.
Sometimes I came to work earlier than usual, but no matter when I unlocked the hall door, she was already working. The earlier the hour, the tinier she looked. I once read that we are taller in the morning and shorter at night, after the day has had a compressing effect, but she appeared to operate on a reverse schedule.
Occasionally communication was necessary, not only with me, but with the entire office. She preferred the written form, which a bilingual coworker would translate onto paper. Signs would appear, taped to the paper towel dispensers, with polite professional requests: Please do not dump coffee grounds into this sink for hand washings. Her name was signed at the bottom, in tall letters out of proportion to her actual height. It was a rare reminder of her person. Her job was made more difficult by the dumpers of thoughtless coffee grounds in the wrong places.
At Christmas, the staff took up a collection and gave her a gift certificate. The office is full of thoughtful people, and though she was invisible, she was not ignored.
One morning I was arranging charts in my office when she rolled into the alcove with her bin and master key. She rapped on the door for my wastebasket. She was singing. Why, I asked.
"My girl. Her birthday," she said. It was the first piece of personal information I had ever heard about her.
"Today?" She nodded.
"How old is she?" I asked.
"Thirty-two year," she said, beaming.
With her long black braid she did not look old enough for this stage of motherhood. Without thinking, I asked the next question.
"Well, how old are you?" I said.
"Forty-five," she said.
We had worked together for years in a setting where the point is to ask questions. Histories are taken here in detail; personal development, traumas, strengths, precipitating circumstances, emotional states of being, and of course, the roads by which one leads to another. That's the job, with medications thrown in.
But sometimes we are too busy doing it.
Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist
Go to the source
Your editorial "The other enemy in Afghanistan" (Aug. 6) rightly argued that the opium cultivation and trafficking problem in Afghanistan is bad and getting worse. The problem has global implications because the abundance of opium drives down the world price of heroin.
Worse than that, the opium trade has become the financial lifeblood of many of the enemies NATO is trying to defeat in Afghanistan.
The editorial criticizes Thomas Schweich, formerly of the U.S. State Department, for his proposal to spray the crops out of existence. That solution would wreck the Afghan economy and destroy any popularity the Western troops may have with the local population. It could also have terrible ecological and medical consequences.
The editorial is right to reject aerial spraying, but the counter-proposals are laughable. How could a country that is tribal, impoverished and Medieval simply build "a criminal justice system that can prosecute major drug traffickers"? Moreover, how do you expect to get farmers to "shift from poppies to food crops" when they need much less water for poppies and the returns are several times that of food?
These ivory tower ideas would be fine in a civilized place like New York, but they have no prospect of doing any good in a poor and broken place like Afghanistan. These proposals are really more of the same failed approach the West now takes, and that prompt radical but terrible ideas like Schweich's.
The most realistic solution to the Afghan opium trade is for the Western powers to buy the opium at the source. The opium could then be destroyed, stockpiled or refined into medicine. By buying the opium, coalition forces would gain the loyalty of the farmers; eliminate the major source of the enemy's income; and stifle most of the world's supply of heroin. This is one problem that the rich West actually can, and should, get out of by spending money.
Z. Andretti, Rome
Britain's hurting military
Regarding the article "U.K. on the defensive over Basra mistakes" (Aug. 7): The British government does not respect the country's armed forces. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the defense minister, Desmond Browne, are running down the military forces by overextending them around the world. It's shameful.
The worst part of the problem has been the political interference in military affairs; the Basra case described in the article is a classic example. This has done more damage to morale than our enemies have done.
Sadly, it's not only Labour. The Tory Party has been at best ineffective in exposing this disgraceful state of affairs. Poor equipment, housing and medical care are the result of penny-pinching by the bloated bureaucracy at the Ministry of Defense.
Thank God for the media.
Rodney G. James Brasschaat, Belgium
The consulate in Jerusalem said the diplomats were attacked while touring the area in an armoured car. None were injured.
A Palestinian security official in the city said one of the settlers kicked the car after trying to open one of its doors.
Tension often runs high in Hebron, home to 180,000 Palestinians and around 650 Jewish settlers who live in fortified enclaves guarded by Israeli troops.
Diplomats regularly visit the flashpoint city to assess security conditions and the role of settlers.
Tours by the group, led by former Israeli soldiers, are often attacked by some settlers who see them as siding with the Palestinians.
The British consulate said Israeli police intervened after the attack and an investigation was under way.
The Israeli government had no immediate comment.
But construction stopped abruptly last month when financing dried up because of the credit crunch. Now the abandoned site stands as a stark symbol of the collapse of Britain's building boom and how the credit market turmoil in the United States has seeped across the Atlantic. It also suggests what lies ahead for a few other European economies where property booms gave now debt-ridden consumers a false sense of wealth and security.
In recent weeks, Britons have come to an uncomfortable realization: After 17 years of uninterrupted growth, their economy is moving closer to recession and may well already be in one. Home prices are dropping, sapping consumer confidence, and even though repossessions, bankruptcies and unemployment are still at relative lows, they have started to creep up during the last three months.
Just Thursday, figures released by HBOS, the largest mortgage lender in Britain, showed the housing market slump was gathering pace. The average price of a property fell 8.8 percent in the 12 months through July, the biggest drop since the company started to track prices in 1983.
But the Bank of England is caught in a bind. It is unable to lower interest rates to keep the economy growing because, at the same time, inflation looms. It left lending rates unchanged at its meeting on Thursday.