Monday, 15 September 2008

A Place in the Auvergne, Sunday, 14th September 2008


Drank the whole liter? Check again

Remember the supersize phenomenon, when U.S. fast-food restaurants offered huge portions of soda and fries?
The reverse is now happening in supermarkets and other food retailers. In industry lingo, it's called short-sizing.
Aiming to offset increased ingredient and transportation costs, some U.S. food manufacturers are reducing the size of packages. The price, of course, usually stays the same.
Some companies possibly cut back on the quantity of product in a package in the hope that consumers wouldn't notice or care. Judging by rants on various blogs, though, many consumers have noticed, and they do care.
Others have acknowledged that they have downsized products, but that has not stopped consumers from venting outrage.

"We've been buying gasoline by the gallon for decades," wrote a consumer named Thomas, complaining about smaller ice cream cartons in an online posting of the Ice Cream Journal, a blog run by Turkey Hill Dairy. "Prices go up and they go down but we still buy it, still complain about it but we know it's a gallon."
"We all know prices go up," he added. "It just seems sneaky to lower the contents."
Ice cream once was sold in half-gallon containers, or 1.9 liters, but many companies shifted several years ago to 1.75 quarts, or about 1.7 liters.
Now, with milk and egg prices soaring, many ice cream makers are selling 1.5-quart containers — without lowering the price.
"I can understand why you may not be pleased with us right now," said Timothy Kahn, chief executive of Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, in a letter to consumers who had complained about smaller package sizes. "Our carton is smaller and no one wants less for the same money."
But Kahn said in the letter that it didn't make sense to raise prices to have a carton of ice cream cost $7 or $8.
Cereal boxes are becoming smaller, too, including those for Cheerios from General Mills and Apple Jacks and Froot Loops from Kellogg's.
Frito-Lay has cut the size of Doritos, while jars of Hellmann's mayonnaise and Skippy peanut butter have also shrunk recently, according to a database of new products maintained by Mintel, a market research firm.
Consumer Reports magazine says that the package sizes have been reduced for products including Hershey's Special Dark chocolate bar, Iams cat food, Tropicana orange juice, Dial soap and Nabisco Chips Ahoy cookies.
The magazine surveyed consumers in July and found that 75 percent had noticed that packages were smaller and that 71 percent said they believed that the main reason for the change was to hide price increases from consumers.
Lynn Dornblaser, a new-product expert at Mintel, said she recently conducted an informal survey involving 100 products at the supermarket and found that about 10 percent had been downsized in the last 12 to 18 months.
"It's a surprise when you go to buy something and it's considerably smaller and they don't tell you why," she said, noting that downsizing has occurred in previous economic downturns. What has made this cycle different, she said, is that consumers are more willing to challenge the downsizing, particularly on the Internet.
"It's about getting on Facebook, or a blog or on the company's blog," she said. "Consumers are standing up, and the ones who don't like it are being very vocal."
Of course, food companies are in the business of making money, and they have been hit by higher costs for transportation and ingredients, particularly for items like eggs, milk and flour.
Mitchell Corwin, an analyst at Morningstar, said that most packaged-food companies have fared quite well despite the price increases and package reductions. He said that there had been slight decreases in sales volumes during the last year, which is to be expected when prices rise.
"It's been passed on pretty successfully," he said.
In an Aug. 15 posting on the Ice Cream Journal blog, Quintin Frey, president of Turkey Hill Dairy, said that reducing the carton size was the best option among several bad choices. The others included using less expensive ingredients, increasing the price or moving the company's manufacturing out of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to a place where production costs are less.
"The overwhelming majority in our focus groups told us that keeping the price the same and decreasing the size of the package was the best answer, even if no one was really happy about it (including myself)," he wrote.
Most food companies have already raised prices at least once in the last year or so and are reluctant to do so again, especially when consumers are suffering. There are certain price barriers for products that manufacturers don't want to cross.


Sugar company poised to profit as Florida buys its rival

In June, Governor Charlie Crist announced that Florida would buy U.S. Sugar, one of the two big sugar enterprises in the state.
He billed the purchase as a "jump-start" in the environmental restoration of the Everglades - a national park encompassing 4,000 square miles, or 10,360 square kilometers, of marshes and sawgrass prairies in southern Florida - which cane growers are accused of polluting with fertilizer runoff.
But in the end, the $1.7 billion buyout, scheduled to be completed in early 2009, may also prove to be a financial boon to the state's remaining sugar superpower, Florida Crystals.
One of the country's wealthiest families, the Fanjuls of Palm Beach, controls Florida Crystals and today touches virtually every aspect of the sugar trade in the United States.
If you buy Domino Sugar, you're buying from the Fanjuls. Ditto C&H Sugar. U.S. national retailers prefer dealing with coast-to-coast vendors, so anyone buying a bag of sugar at Wal-Mart or Safeway is patronizing the Fanjuls.

A pill or a granola bar probably contains special, high-end sugars that Florida Crystals produces for the pharmaceutical and packaged-food industries.
Sugar imported into the United States from Mexico and the Dominican Republic also stands a good chance of coming from Fanjul companies.
Now, some people in Florida are saying that if the state completes its takeover of U.S. Sugar, the opportunities that the deal presents may be a capstone to the life's work of the family patriarch, Alfonso Fanjul Jr.
"This is going to be a really good deal for the Fanjuls," said Dexter Lehtinen, a former federal prosecutor whose 1988 lawsuit against the state led to a settlement instituting tough clean water standards. "The state embarked on a nonachievable goal, and now, in desperation to wrap up some package, they're going to have to give access to Florida Crystals on favorable terms."
Others, like makers of candy and cereal, say the Fanjuls already control too much of the sugar trade. They want cheap sugar and say the Fanjuls have long charmed Congress into legislating price supports that keep it expensive.
Free-trade advocates also complain, saying that a private business has used the shelter of the federal sugar program, created in the Depression to nurture struggling farmers, to increase its corporate hammerlock.
"These people have been absolutely extorting consumers for decades, and the only reason they're existing in the first place is, they were able to get sweet deals from governments that were propping them up," said Sallie James, a trade policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, referring to Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar.
But Florida Crystals executives scoff at the notion that their company has weaved together a profitable and all-powerful sugar monopoly.
"Anyone who thinks this isn't one of the most competitive, fiercely won industries just doesn't know," said Brian O'Malley, chief executive of Domino Foods, a marketing concern in which Florida Crystals has a major stake.
Whether or not the Fanjuls have crafted a monopoly, they have certainly re-created a very lucrative business dynasty.
Fidel Castro chased the Fanjuls from Cuba in 1959, ending five generations of the family's controversial rule in the sugar industry there. Starting with cash moved out of Cuba and worn-out milling equipment bought second-hand in Louisiana, the Fanjuls spent recent decades buying refineries and related businesses.
When Crist announced the sugar buyout in June, he called the deal "as monumental as the creation of the nation's first national park."
Environmentalists were overjoyed, and the proposal made national headlines. Plans to restore the Everglades have been floated, fought over and delayed for years, often amid lobbying by the sugar companies.
Millions had been spent, reservoirs dug, water moved this way and that, but the Everglades continued to grow sickly, largely because of what analysts say is rampant overdevelopment and the loss of regular flooding that wetlands need.
Then, in one grand gesture, Crist offered a buyout that the state said would knock out a major obstacle preventing reclamation of the Everglades.
"I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, the people of Florida and the people of America - as well as our planet - than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration," he said when he announced the deal.
The "missing link" was an expanse of sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee and north of the Everglades National Park. For eons, Lake Okeechobee served as the Everglades' giant wellspring, until Washington diked the lake and drained lands around it after devastating hurricanes in 1928 and 1947.
The array of earthen bulwarks and pumping stations crisscrossing that territory cut off the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee, denying the marshlands their source of freshwater floods.

To make environmental matters worse, the cane planters who moved onto the newly dry land used fertilizer that leached phosphorus into what little water still made it from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades, further degrading the marshlands.
The Crist plan initially promised to send fresh water streaming into the Everglades through a wide, shallow expanse called a flow way. To do that, the state offered $1.75 billion for the land and assets of U.S. Sugar, giving the company six years to end its operations.
But the state needs only about 24,000 acres, or 9,700 hectares, of U.S. Sugar's farmland to create a flow way, according to David Reiner, a spokesman for the environmentalist group Friends of the Everglades. He said the flow way approach was abandoned as unworkable in the 1990s, and people were surprised when Crist revived it.
For its part, the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency in charge of the Everglades restoration, recently said the flow way might require 100,000 acres.
To that end, Florida is buying all of U.S. Sugar's land - 187,000 acres - as well as a new cane-grinding mill, a large refinery and a 200-mile railroad that carries cane to the mill.
Still, taking title to U.S. Sugar's acres will not by itself enable the state to build the flow way. The state would still need an additional 40,000 acres now standing in the way - land owned by a Fanjul company, Okeelanta Corp., and home to cane fields, a grinding mill, a sugar refinery and a cane-fueled power plant.
Much of the land that U.S. Sugar owns around Lake Okeechobee is more desirable than Fanjul-owned land nearby because it's richer in sediment favorable for growing cane. Many in the sugar trade expect and even hope that the Fanjuls will use the U.S. Sugar buyout as an opportunity to expand their holdings in southern Florida, trading some of their land for U.S. Sugar's in a swap orchestrated by the state.
"If they're trying to drive a bargain, more power to them," said Ardis Hammock, a local cane planter whose family has been selling cane to U.S. Sugar since the 1930s. "It would bring some stability."
Gaston Cantens, a spokesman for Florida Crystals, said the Fanjuls did nothing to help engineer Crist's buyout of U.S. Sugar. On the contrary, he said, the family knew nothing about the deal until just a few days before it was announced. Nonetheless, Cantens said, the Fanjuls have let negotiators know that if the state ends up with more land than it needs, Florida Crystals is ready to take the excess and the new mill off its hands - but only on terms that make sense financially.
For now, Cantens said, the Fanjuls are like everyone else in Florida: They are waiting to see exactly what sort of restoration the state has in mind.


Food banks finding aid in bounty of backyard
BERKELEY, California: Natasha Boissier did not expect an epiphany while pushing her baby's stroller exhaustedly around the neighborhood. But eyeing her neighbors' yards, Boissier began noticing the abundance of fruit trees - and how much of their succulent bounty wound up on the ground.
"There was all this fruit going to waste," she said of the apples, pears and plums in her midst. "It seemed like such a natural way to deal with hunger."
Thus was born North Berkeley Harvest, part of a small but expanding movement of backyard urban gleaners - they might be called fruit philanthropists - who voluntarily harvest surplus fruit and then donate it to food banks, centers for the elderly and other nonprofit organizations.
A renewed emphasis on locally grown organic foods, along with higher food prices and increased demand at food banks, has inspired a new generation of community harvesters like Boissier, a 40-year-old social worker, to search for solutions in their backyards.
"Farmers' markets are great for those who can afford to spend $2 on a peach," said Aviva Furman, 54, whose year-old Community Harvest of Southwest Seattle also offers fruit canning and pruning classes. "But a huge percentage of Americans can't afford the two cups of fruit a day recommended by the government."
The concept of gleaning, or collecting a portion of crops on farmers' fields for the needy, before or after harvesting, goes back to ancient cultures. But it has more recently been taken up by people like Joni Diserens, a 43-year-old program manager for Hewlett-Packard and founder of Village Harvest in the Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco. Diserens uses sophisticated databases and remote telephone answering systems to track the group's 700 or so volunteers, 40 receiving organizations, 1,000 fruit-inundated homeowners and, on a recent Tuesday, 780 sticky pounds, or about 355 kilograms, of French prunes.
They rescue people like Diane Leone, an artist whose property south of San Jose, California, contains some 40 unpicked fruit trees, from bees, squirrels, the occasional wild boar and other creatures that gorge on fallen fruit.
"You feel like you're actually doing something," Diana Foss, 44, a former astronomer who is now a stay-at-home mother, said as she was sorting plums and prunes recently in Leone's back yard. "You pick a piece of fruit and know that someone's going to eat it."
The group's car pools fan out to places like the Community Services Agency in nearby Mountain View, which operates a food pantry that serves a large Russian, Hispanic and Asian population. "Their speed is astonishing," said Laura Schuster, the nutrition programs director. "They'll call and say, 'Hey, we're hitting an orchard in San Jose.' Then they walk in with 1,000 pounds of plums."
Schuster added: "We always worry about nutrition. When we get the fresh fruit, we worry less."
Over the last decade, organizations like America's Second Harvest, a nonprofit agency that distributes food to 197 food banks around the country, have introduced more fresh produce to respond to high rates of poverty and obesity and a lack of access to nutritional food in low-income neighborhoods. About 18 million pounds of fresh produce was distributed nationally 10 years ago, said Rick Bella, the director of food purchasing. This year, that has grown to 150 million pounds, 30 percent of it donated by corporations and individual farmers.
But affordability continues to be an issue, Bella said, which is where the fruit philanthropists come in. "It's a shame to say, but a package of Twinkies per pound costs a lot less than a pound of fresh apples," he said. "Backyard gleaners make a difference."
Amy Grey, a graphic designer and mother of two in Moscow, Idaho, became a harvester after inadvertently growing 200 heads of lettuce in her backyard. "I didn't know you weren't supposed to plant the whole packet of seeds," Grey said. "We have friends," she added, "but we don't have that many friends."
A local food bank was so receptive that Grey and several volunteers joined with a local environmental group before striking out on their own. Her 50 or so gleaners picked 10,000 pounds of fruit last year, including more than 2,000 pounds of cherries, despite June snows.
"It's different than dropping off cans," Grey said. "It's really about tying the community together."
Backyard harvests gleaned for the common good echo the Victory Gardens of World War II, when mandatory food rationing resulted in citizen gardens, said Amy Bentley, an associate professor of food studies at New York University and the author of "Eating for Victory." During the war, Bentley said, the private yard became "a place of civic obligation."
Frederick Kirschenmann, a fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and president of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, said that with increased food costs, "we are seeing changing attitudes about our food system."
"People are becoming more engaged," Kirschenmann said, "whether growing their own food or being part of community efforts."
A survey this year by the National Gardening Association predicted a 10 percent increase in the number of people growing vegetables at home. "Sticker shock is prompting many folks to grow, if not a produce department in their backyards, then at least a salad bar," said Bruce Butterfield, the group's research director.
For the St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance in Phoenix, the abundance means a brigade of citrus volunteers from January through March, picking 1.4 million pounds of oranges and grapefruit in the towns of Sun City and Surprise. The fruit reaches thousands of people, including those at domestic violence shelters in Tempe and those on the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon.
In Los Angeles, three "social activist" artists who call themselves Fallen Fruit have mapped neighborhood fruit trees and sponsored public "fruit jams," said David Burns, a founder.
"The L.A. we experience is mostly mediated through windshields and cellphones," Burns said. "So it was surprising to find out how many fruit trees hang over alleys, sidewalks and parking medians in neglected corners of the city."
Boissier, who grew up on Park Avenue in Manhattan, drives through the Berkeley hills in a Toyota hybrid loaded with apples and ladders, helping homeowners unable to keep up the pie-baking pace and relieving them of the guilt of waste.
In the bustling kitchen of the Bay Area Rescue Mission in nearby Richmond, California, a shelter serving more than 800 people a day, the apples are transformed into pancake toppings, apple butter, cider and cobblers.
Roy Hunderson, homeless for four years, prepares meals in the kitchen. "The fresher the fruit, the better it is," Hunderson said. "If I had a backyard with fruit going, I'd bring it here, too."


From Palin, lessons on the role of the frontier in the American psyche
By Katherine Roberts
Sunday, September 14, 2008
As Americans get to know Sarah Palin, they're taking a crash course on life in the Last Frontier. There is her sport of moose hunting, for example.
Shooting the prey turns out to be the easy part. The hard part is figuring out where to do the deed, according to the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation: "When choosing an area to hunt and a means of transportation, remember that you will have about 400 to 700 pounds of meat and up to 65 pounds of antlers to transport from the kill-site to home. That's why many seasoned Alaskan moose hunters say, 'Never kill a moose more than a mile from a vehicle of some sort.' "
No wonder, then, that Palin has been photographed driving a tank-like ATV As for the field-dressing, it's no joke to brave the blowflies while carving up a half-ton animal.
A few weeks ago a national conversation about such arcana would have seemed unlikely. But that was before the emergence of a candidate who has divided the country in unexpected ways — not simply because of her record and her views, but also because Governor Palin comes from a place in the West that embodies deep-seated ideas and myths and contradictions about the role of the frontier in the American psyche. In some sense, Palin has become a metaphor for Alaska itself, and as grand a landscape as Alaska is, the current discussion is less about a geographical location than about a state of mind, or states of mind.
"The West was another name for opportunity," Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in 1893, in his famous essay that declared an end to the frontier, which in his definition meant the end of free land. More than a century later, the dreams and myths about the West persist. So do fantasies and outright misperceptions. Some originated in the East, with its vision of the frontier as being at once a majestic playground and a site of commercial depredation, of strip mines and strip malls. ("The East," Turner wrote, "has always feared the result of an unregulated advance of the frontier, and has tried to check and guide it.")
Other simplifications flourish in the West, with its self-regarding belief in an untamed wilderness brought to heel by fiercely independent souls.
The truth has always been more ambiguous, not least because of the region's tangled relationship with the federal government, which had cleared the land of Indians and offered the handout of the Homestead Act in 1862, itself adopted after some 70 years of debate about the rightful disposition of public lands.
In the 20th century, accounts of the West often centered on this paradox. The inhabitants boasted of their autonomy, even as the government did the dirty work, took the risks and offered sweet deals to settlers, so they could expand the borders of the United States. Without this help, as many writers have noted, the waves of Western pioneers wouldn't have had the luxury of hating Washington bureaucrats.
This attitude, of wanting it both ways, was neatly summed up a half-century ago by the historian Bernard DeVoto as: "Get out and give us more money." The novelist Wallace Stegner was just as unsparing when he observed, in 1986: "Westerners who would like to return to the old days of free grab, people of the kind described as having made America great by their initiative and energy in committing mass trespass on the minerals, grass, timber and water of the Public Domain, complain that no Western state is master in its own house."
Competing ideas about the West have dominated our politics for many decades now. No candidate was so synonymous with the regional ideal as Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who spoke Navajo and posed, like Governor Palin, in rugged outdoor outfits, sometimes with a rifle. "We didn't know the federal government," he said of his forebears who came to Arizona in 1860. "Everything that was done, we did it ourselves."
But, as Rick Perlstein pointed out in "Before the Storm," his history of Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, the land Goldwater's grandfather traveled "to follow a gold strike," in fact "developed as a virtual ward of the federal government," and the money for the first Goldwater general store in 1872 "came largely from contracts for provisioning army camps and delivering mail." Barry Goldwater, who was born in 1909, grew up with "a nurse, chauffeur and a live-in maid," Perlstein added.
As a politician, Goldwater excelled at playing both sides of the game. He railed against federal intrusion in the West, but was first in line to demand the billions of dollars that came to his state from Washington in the form of water projects, to cite one gargantuan example.
Today, the West is not the federal economic colony it once was. Nor is it the uncrowded rural paradise of lore. In fact, it has long been the most urbanized part of the country. This transformation has enticed a new brand of fortune-seeker, from the telecommuting migrants in mountain enclaves to the influx of people into metropolitan "boomburgs" where they are employed in the same jobs as people in the rest of the country.
It has been fully 15 years since the last Sagebrush Rebellion, the movement of boisterous anti-government types who aimed to "take back" their land from Washington, by force if necessary. It doesn't hurt that all those energy companies now drilling on federal lands pay high wages and provide many jobs.
The region's politics, never as uniform as portrayed, is more diverse today than it has been in years. There are now Democratic governors in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, not one of whom was elected by praising the federal government or calling for a Buffalo Commons. Barack Obama is mounting strong campaigns in several of these states — where Democratic presidential candidates have often struggled mightily for 30 years.
It is, to some extent, the collapsing of the old distinctions, and with it the continuing convergence of East and West, that explains the sudden fascination with Alaska now that Palin has become a national figure. The state, for all its suburban big-box resemblance to the rest of the West, remains in some ways the last true frontier — at least in the sense that it remains distant and exotic to most Americans, with its mammoth size, its severe climate, its many unpopulated miles.
Its contradictions, however, are the same ones noted by DeVoto and Stegner, only starker and more extreme. While half the land in the Western states in the lower 48 is owned by the federal government, in Alaska, it's closer to 70 percent, and only 1 percent of the state is privately owned.
Alaska's dependence on and disdain for government date back to its territory days. John McPhee captured the paradox in his book "Coming Into the Country," published in 1976: "When one adds in the existing parks, government forests and wildlife refuges and a vast federal petroleum reserve in the north, not much remains, so it is one of the ironies of Alaska that in the midst of this tremendous wilderness people consider themselves fortunate to have (anywhere at all) a 50-by-100 -foot lot they can call their own."
The most cantankerous assessment, perhaps, came from the nature writer Edward Abbey. "Alaska is not, as the state license place asserts, 'the Last Frontier,' " Abbey wrote in the 1980s. "Alaska is the final big bite on the American table, where there is never enough to go around. ... Alaska, like the rest of our public domain, has been strapped down and laid open to the lust and greed of the international corporations. ... Anchorage, Fairbanks and outposts like Barter Island, with their glass-and-aluminum office buildings, their airlift prefab fiberboard hovels for the natives and the workers, their compounds of elaborate and destructive machinery, exhibit merely the latest development in the planetary expansion of space-age sleaze — not a frontier, but a high-technology slum. For Americans, Alaska is the last pork chop."
Palin's critics have tried to tie her to all the supposed evils Abbey detailed and some new ones, too — relationships that any governor of Alaska might expect to be questioned about. If Palin stood up to the oil companies, was it so she would raise taxes for the state treasury? What about her on-and-off stand on that symbol of federal pork, the Bridge to Nowhere? While she may attack earmarks, as she did in her interview with ABC News, what funds has she sent back to Washington, given that Alaskans get $231 per person in earmarks, compared with $22 per person in Obama's Illinois?
The governor's supporters have painted her detractors as out-of-touch elitists, blind to their own insularity and entitlements and self-regard. Behind this view lurks a feeling of injustice rooted in another difference between East and West, the feeling that access to a particular kind of prestige and power is still off-limits to much of the country, to graduates of the University of Idaho, like Palin, rather than to those who went to Columbia and Harvard, where Obama got his degrees.
This in turn points to a very different though related continental rift, one whose origins are not so much regional as socioeconomic, and rooted less in competing myths about place than about class.
Turner saw all that too in 1893. "Free lands and the consciousness of working out their social destiny did more than turn the Westerner to material interests and devote him to a restless existence," he wrote. "They promoted equality among the Western settlers, and reacted as a check on the aristocratic influences of the East." Economic equality followed, and "this involved political equality."
"Not without a struggle would the Western man abandon this ideal," he concluded, "and it goes far to explain the unrest in the remote West today."
And it may also explain the uneasiness so many Easterners now feel as they are confronted, once again, with their own assumptions about the American frontier.

Luck was key to dinosaurs' survival, study suggests

You might say that the dinosaurs were extremely unlucky 65 million years ago. Things were going along swimmingly and then, poof! that nasty asteroid came along and wiped them out.
But before that, apparently, the dinosaurs led a charmed life. A study published in Science suggests the dinosaurs ruled the roost for some 135 million years not so much because they were superior to the competition, but because they were lucky.
Mike Benton of the University of Bristol in England, Stephen Brusatte, now at Columbia University, and colleagues studied dinosaurs in relation to a major competing group of reptiles, the crurotarsans, the ancestors of the crocodiles. Both groups survived an extinction about 225 million years ago, but few of the crurotarsans made it through another mass extinction at the end of the Triassic, 200 million years ago.
Scientists had long thought that the reason for this was that the dinosaurs were somehow superior — they were able to outcompete the crurotarsans when the going got tough. But the new study indicates this was not the case.
The researchers developed a database of hundreds of skeletal features of more than 60 dinosaurs and crurotarsans, as well as a new family tree of both groups, and used them to determine evolutionary patterns. They found much more disparity among crurotarsans' morphological features — a much broader array of shapes and forms.
The assumption is that the diversity or range of body forms is more or less proportional to the number of modes of life that they'd occupy," Benton said. So the finding shows that the crurotarsans were more diverse in terms of their lifestyle, diet and habitat — they filled more ecological niches and were, if anything, the more successful of the two groups in the late Triassic. "The dinosaurs didn't find a way to squeeze into the crurotarsans' role," he said.
But then at the end of the Triassic, for some unknown reason the dinosaurs survived while almost all the crurotarsans did not. "There was a certain amount of luck involved," Benton said. "One group got pretty much wiped out and another group soldiered on and took off. The dinosaurs finally got their chance."


Bomb goes off near Indonesian airport

JAKARTA: A bomb exploded Sunday near an airport built by a U.S. gold mining giant in Indonesia's Papua Province, the police said. No one was hurt and there was little damage.
The blast about a kilometer from the runway at Moses Kilangin airport came days after two mortars were detonated on a road leading to the massive mine operated by Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold.
"Whoever did this is trying to create unrest and to get international attention," the region's police chief, Major General Bagus Ekodanto, said as an anti-terrorism unit and bomb squad rushed to the scene.
Papua is home to separatist rebels who have long denounced the mine operated by PT Freeport Indonesia, a subsidiary of the New Orleans company. They see it as a symbol of Jakarta's rule over the region.
A little-known group calling itself the West Papua National Army circulated pamphlets last week demanding its closure, but the police have refused to speculate on who was behind any of the attacks.

The police chief would not say whether the bomb that exploded Sunday was related to the blasts Friday. But other officials noted that all three makeshift bombs were made out of old mortars.
Ekodanto said the blast Sunday occurred in an empty field and that no one was hurt. Part of the mortar hit a small electrical depot, creating a loud explosion, said Colonel Paulus Waterpau, a senior detective. Residents said they could hear the blast a few kilometers away.
Access to the airport was cut off and witnesses said Freeport's mine in Timika also was under heavy security.
Freeport's mining complex in Timika is one of the world's largest single producers of copper and gold, the company says on its Web site. Open-pit mining at the site began in 1990 and is expected to continue until mid-2015, it says.
The Grasberg mine has seen violent worker protests in the past, and environmental groups accuse the company of pollution and stripping the desperately poor province of its natural resources.

The politics of wind power

"The moment I read that paper," the wind entrepreneur Peter Mandelstam recalled, "I knew in my gut where my next wind project would be."
I was having lunch with Mandelstam last fall to discuss offshore wind in general and how he and his tiny company, Bluewater Wind, came to focus on Delaware as a likely place for a nascent and beleaguered offshore wind industry to establish itself. Mandelstam had been running late all morning. I knew this because I received a half-dozen messages on my cellphone from members of his staff, who relayed his oncoming approach like air-traffic controllers guiding a wayward trans-Atlantic flight into Kennedy International Airport. This was the Bluewater touch — crisp, informative, ever-helpful, a supercharged, Eagle Scout attentiveness that was part corporate style, part calculated public-relations approach. It would pay off tremendously in his company's barnstorming campaign of Delaware town meetings and radio appearances to capture what he had reason to believe would be the first offshore-wind project in U.S. history.
These features were, unsurprisingly, manifestations of Mandelstam himself, who arrived in a suit and tie, a wry smile, his wiry hair parted in the middle and tamped down like someone who had made a smooth transition from a Don Martin cartoon. Mandelstam, a 47-year-old native New Yorker who is capable of quoting Central European poets and oddball meteorological factoids with ease, had long committed himself — and the tiny company he formed in 1999 — to building utility-scale wind-power plants offshore, a decision that, to many wind-industry observers, seemed to fly in the face of common sense. Offshore marine construction was wildly, painfully expensive — like standing in a cold shower and ripping up stacks of thousand-dollar bills. The very laws for permitting and siting such projects had yet to be enacted. Indeed, the recent past was littered with failed offshore wind projects. Never mind that there were so many more opportunities in the continental United States to build land-based wind farms, which cost half as much as offshore projects. While wind-energy companies in Europe were moving offshore at great speed, neither Mandelstam nor anyone else had ever successfully built an offshore wind farm in the United States. Failed, stalled or delayed projects sounded like a catalogue of coastal shipwrecks: Long Island, Padre Island, Cape Wind. Entrepreneurs, of course, need to anticipate the next market, but when it came to offshore wind, Mandelstam seemed too far ahead of the curve to ever succeed.
Then in 2005 Willett Kempton, a University of Delaware professor in the school's College of Marine Studies, began teaching a course on offshore wind power. "In our department," Kempton recalls, "most of my colleagues were working on some aspect of the global-warming problem." Coal-fired power plants, a major contributor of carbon in the atmosphere, had recently been linked in Delaware to clusters of cancer outbreaks and to high levels of mercury in the state's fishery. One of the first things Kempton and his class did was go down the list of clean-energy options for Delaware — "It was a pretty short list," he said. Solar power was still far too expensive to be economically sustainable. And the state had no land-based wind resource to speak of. But a team of students, led by Amardeep Dhanju, became curious about measuring the winds off the coast to determine whether they might serve as a source of power. What he found was that Delaware's coastal winds were capable of producing a year-round average output of over 5,200 megawatts, or four times the average electrical consumption of the entire state. "On the wholesale electricity markets," Dhanju wrote, "this would produce just over $2 billion" in annual revenue.
It so happened that the day Dhanju's semesterlong research project was discussed, Kempton had invited several wind entrepreneurs to class. Mandelstam was the only invitee to show up in person. It was then that Mandelstam had his eureka moment. The amount of power Dhanju was describing, Mandelstam knew from Kempton, was but a small fraction of an even larger resource along what's known as the Mid-Atlantic Bight. This coastal region running from Massachusetts to North Carolina contained up to 330,000 megawatts of average electrical capacity. This was, in other words, an amount of guaranteed, bankable power that was larger, in terms of energy equivalence, than the entire mid-Atlantic coast's total energy demand — not just for electricity but for heating, for gasoline, for diesel and for natural gas. Indeed the wind off the mid-Atlantic represented a full third of the Department of Energy's estimate of the total American offshore resource of 900,000 megawatts.



Thomas L. Friedman: Making America stupid

Imagine for a minute that attending the Republican convention in St. Paul, sitting in a skybox overlooking the convention floor, were observers from Russia, Iran and Venezuela. And imagine what these observers would have been doing when Rudy Giuliani led the delegates in a chant of "drill, baby, drill!"
I'll tell you what they would have been doing: The Russian, Iranian and Venezuelan observers would have been up out of their seats, exchanging high-fives and joining in the chant louder than anyone in the hall - "Yes! Yes! Drill, America, drill!" - because an America that is focused first and foremost on drilling for oil is an America more focused on feeding its oil habit than kicking it.
Why would Republicans, the party of business, want to focus our country on breathing life into a 19th-century technology - fossil fuels - rather than giving birth to a 21st-century technology - renewable energy? As I have argued before, it reminds me of someone who, on the eve of the IT revolution - on the eve of PCs and the Internet - is pounding the table for America to make more IBM typewriters and carbon paper. "Typewriters, baby, typewriters."
Of course, we're going to need oil for many years, but instead of exalting that - with "drill, baby, drill" - why not throw all our energy into innovating a whole new industry of clean power with the mantra "invent, baby, invent"? That is what a party committed to "change" would really be doing. As they say in Texas: "If all you ever do is all you've ever done, then all you'll ever get is all you ever got."
I dwell on this issue because it is symbolic of the campaign that John McCain has decided to run. It's a campaign now built on turning everything possible into a cultural wedge issue - including even energy policy, no matter how stupid it makes the voters and no matter how much it might weaken America.

A new voice tries to reinvent the French left

MONTREUIL, France: He looks like a sprite - boyish, handsome in his black Hugo Boss T-shirt and bluejeans. He reminds some of Tintin, the eternally young comic-book hero of so many childhood adventures.
But Olivier Besancenot, 34, is the extremely adept leader of the hard French left, a beacon for disaffected young members of the Socialist Party and the remnants of the once-powerful Communists. Having already run twice for the French presidency, and an articulate presence on news and talk shows, Besancenot has higher favorability ratings in some polls than established politicians like Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party presidential candidate who lost last year to the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.
In the 2007 presidential election, Besancenot won 4.1 percent of the vote with the slogan, "Our lives are worth more than their profits." But in the year since, as the Socialist Party has squabbled over its leadership and Sarkozy has picked off a few Socialist figures for his own cabinet, the young radical has become almost mainstream - serious surveys show that more than 60 percent of the French regard him favorably.
In a representative poll last month by the firm CSA, 49 percent of respondents saw Besancenot as Sarkozy's leading opponent, behind the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, a Socialist (54 percent), but ahead of other Socialists like Martine Aubry (36 percent) and Royal (32 percent).
Besancenot is, by occupation, a letter carrier, a member of the working class who delivers the mail for the state in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, working part time. But he is also the leader of the Communist Revolutionary League, and he described himself without blushing as a revolutionary in a long interview here, in party offices above a printing factory in this racially mixed city just east of Paris, where cheap clothing stores abut shops selling North African and Middle Eastern spices and take-out food.
But given the travesties of the past, from the bureaucratic savagery of Soviet communism to the chaos of Mao, he said, "revolution needs to be reinvented, for no revolutionary experiment has ever succeeded." They have only been betrayed, either crushed by an armed elite or destroyed by "bureaucratic counterrevolution," he said, adding, "We are trying to strike that balance of taking power without being taken by power."
Capitalism is in a deep crisis, he said, "losing the leeway to buy social peace" in the huge credit crunch that began with subprime mortgages and has not finished.
"This time it's not on the periphery," but "touches the heart of the system" and so has a domino effect, he said. "This is a major turn in the evolution of the world economy."
The credit crisis is pointing up further contradictions, Besancenot said.
"We are heading straight for catastrophe from a social standpoint, the human standpoint, from war and the environment," he said. "For us, today, to be environmentalists means to understand that this model of socioeconomic development is out of breath, and if we don't change we will destroy our own planet."
Media savvy, he understands that the name of his party, affiliated with the Trotskyist Fourth International, is wrong for the modern world, having a stink of dead ideology and the last bloody century. "We asked ourselves about finding a name based on what unifies everyone," he said.
So he is attempting to gather other small, leftist parties into a new grouping: the New Anti-Capitalist Party, which is intended to provide an umbrella voting list for those unhappy with the impact of capitalism and globalization on the poor, the environment, the third and fourth worlds, and on the rights of women and gay people. The new party intends to run in the elections for the European Parliament next June.
"We aren't soldier-monks," he said. "We are the exploited, oppressed, the young and the salaried, who don't whine but want to be respected - and for that, at some point, we lift our heads through engagement."
Besancenot speaks quickly and fluently, dotting his answers with references to the philosophical canon of Marxism and post-Marxism, but he has a sense of humor, too, especially about revolutionary purity. Asked about the way human fallibility has ruined previous utopias, he said that serious change must come from below, not from a dictatorship of the proletariat, and that he believes in the protective guarantees of legal rights, decentralization of authority, local responsibilities and multiparty democracy.
The goal, he said, is "to find a political process that permits a revolutionary process to be controlled by its base - especially to not trust each other's promises."
"If we arrived tomorrow," he said, "saying that this time we have the guarantee that it won't be messed up, we should definitely not be believed, even if we were sincere - which we would be, by the way."
Born in Levallois-Perret, near Neuilly, his father a teacher and his mother a psychologist at a school, Besancenot is sensitive about his upbringing. Teased about being a son of the academic bourgeoisie, he bristled, making it clear that his father taught in a primary school in a Communist neighborhood, and that his parents were salaried employees with "a working-class background."
Then he softened. "It would be no problem, by the way," if they had been bourgeois, he said, then added, "My parents exploited no one."
He was politicized by youthful violence and racism. "We had a friend, a buddy in the neighborhood who was attacked by someone who shot at him," he said. The neighborhood mobilized, and "we young people went to be militant for SOS Racisme," a group fighting prejudice. He joined the Revolutionary Communist Youth at 14.
He studied history at the University of Paris X Nanterre, where the May 1968 student uprising began, and then earned a master's degree in contemporary history.
His goal, he said, is to try to define a new model for human society that somehow avoids a permanent ruling elite.
"Until now we've had two types of societies: we've had the bureaucratic societies in the East and we've had capitalist societies," he said. "And in both cases it's a minority of individuals that decide for the majority. We are for a model where the majority decides for itself."
And how to avoid the great failure of socialism, its inability to motivate individuals? "The only answer to motivate the individual in a different economic process would be democracy" in which there are "inalienable liberties," he said, where the communitarian spirit cannot be violated either by the wealthy or the apparatchiks.
He said he admired Che Guevara because of his "concentration on the individual" and not the collective. "We can find stimuli that aren't simply material but are also moral in the construction of another society," Besancenot said. "For Che, communism wasn't just a phenomenon of production, it was first a phenomenon of conscience."
Besancenot is regularly mocked by more traditional French figures for his earnestness and naïveté, dividing the left to the benefit of the right. He is "the dream of Sarkozy, who wishes him to be to the left what Le Pen is to the right," said Pierre Moscovici, a candidate for the Socialist leadership, referring to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front.
The contempt is returned. Besancenot calls the Socialists dupes of the system. "What they think is their biggest strength is their biggest weakness: the practice of power," he said, "implementing right-wing ideas" and sacrificing principle for minor reforms.
The French are deeply pessimistic about the future, and what may attract many to Besancenot is his rejection of certitude.
"My generation is full of doubts," he said. "For me that's not a problem; it's almost better to have doubts than certainties. We don't have a social project key-in-hand. We don't have a New Jerusalem where we can go live."


Pope calls for redefinition of church-state relations in France

LOURDES, France: Benedict XVI on Sunday renewed his call to redefine church-state relations in France and urged the Roman Catholic clergy to engage in meaningful interreligious dialogue.
Speaking to French bishops at this pilgrimage site Sunday, the pope urged initiatives that fostered "reciprocal knowledge and respect, as well as the promotion of dialogue," but said to "avoid those which lead to impasses. Good will is not enough."
In his speech to the bishops, the pope also amplified his call for a redefinition of "laïcité," the divide between church and state, that he first raised at a visit to the Élysée Palace in Paris on Friday.
"Your president has intimated that this is possible," Benedict said Sunday, referring to President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has broken French tradition - and angered his Socialist opposition - in calling for a "positive secularism."
"The social and political presuppositions of past mistrust or even hostility are gradually disappearing," the pope said. But, he added, "the church does not claim the prerogative of the state."

An estimated 50,000 people attended an open-air mass Sunday morning, where Benedict told worshipers that "the power of love is stronger than the evil that threatens us."

The 81-year-old Benedict conducted prayers and greeted the faithful. And he kept an intense schedule on his first visit to France as pope. Before leaving Paris on Saturday morning, he celebrated an open-air Mass before more than a quarter million people on the Esplanade des Invalides.

John Allen, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and a Vatican expert, said: "It has become a project of this pope to try to call Catholics back to a strong sense of their own identity, and there is no more classic marker of Catholic identity than devotion to the Virgin Mary."
Although Mass attendance is low in Europe, pilgrimage sites have risen in popularity. This year, eight million pilgrims are expected in Lourdes, up from six million a year in recent years.


Paris police hold river pilots after 2 die in Seine sinking

PARIS: Two people died after a small boat sank in central Paris, and police officers investigating the possibility of a collision detained the pilot and co-pilot of one of the large tourist boats that carry sightseers along the Seine river, officials said Sunday.
The smaller boat was carrying 12 people when it sank Saturday night in the heart of Paris near Notre Dame Cathedral. Ten of those aboard were rescued immediately, but a 6-year-old child and an adult in the bottom of the boat were trapped underwater for several minutes before divers pulled them out.
The two, who French news reports said were a boy and his father, were sent to the hospital and then died overnight, the police said.
The circumstances of the accident remained unclear. Investigators said a collision between the two boats appeared the most likely cause of the accident, according to judicial officials.
The Paris prosecutor's office opened an investigation into manslaughter and involuntary injury, said the officials, who were not authorized to be named because the investigation is under way.

The accident occurred near the Pont de l'Archeveche, a short and narrow bridge joining the Left Bank and the small island Île de la Cité. The isle is the site of Notre Dame Cathedral, where Pope Benedict XVI led a vespers service Friday night.

Lehman heads toward brink as Barclays ends talks

The fate of Lehman Brothers hung in the balance Saturday evening as Federal Reserve officials and the heads of major financial institutions concluded two days of emergency meetings with no clear plan for how rescue the stricken bank.
Several possible plans emerged from the talks, held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and led by Timothy R. Geithner, the president of the New York Fed, and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr.
One option discussed would be to have major banks and brokerage firms agree to do business with Lehman even as the 158-year-old firm, staggered by massive losses, liquidates itself. Another option — a daring rescue encouraged by nervous regulators — would be for a consortium of banks to provide financial backing for a sale of the firm.
U.S. government officials were adamant that no public money be used — a big point of contention, because many of the top Wall Street executives believe that their banks, which have each written down tens of billions of dollars in assets, do not have the capacity to lead the rescue on their own.
The overarching goal was to prevent a fire-sale liquidation of Lehman, a bank that is so big and so interconnected with others that its abrupt failure would send shock waves through the financial world. Of deep concern is what impact a Lehman failure would have on other securities firms, insurance companies and banks, notably Merrill Lynch and the American International Group, which have come under mounting pressure in the markets.


Bank of America in talks to buy Merrill Lynch

Bank of America is in advanced talks to buy Merrill Lynch for at least $38.25 billion in stock, people briefed on the negotiations said on Sunday, as a means to preserve that investment bank while Lehman Brothers looks likely to collapse.
The move suggests a desperate effort at triage on Wall Street, as Bank of America works to shore up the likely next victim of the credit crunch. A deal, valued at between $25 a share to $30 a share, could be announced as soon as Sunday night, these people said. Merrill shares closed at $17.05 on Friday.
Bank of America, the nation's second largest bank by asset size, had been mulling buying Lehman, perhaps in a consortium with other financial players. But with financial aid from the government looking unlikely, Bank of America has moved on to Merrill, these people said.
As Lehman began to totter in recent weeks, investors feared that Merrill would be the next victim of the credit squeeze. Shares in Merrill, which has already reported tens of billions of dollars in losses, have plunged more than 68 percent over the past year.


Barclays chief's predictions on Wall St. banks appear vindicated

LONDON: For many years now Robert Diamond Jr., the president of Barclays Bank, has proclaimed that the days of the stand-alone investment bank were numbered. A former top banker at Morgan Stanley, he left his old firm in 1996 to develop an investment banking business for Barclays in London.
His cocksure demeanor and his contention that the risky lending and borrowing practices of firms like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and even Merrill Lynch would eventually come back to haunt them, won him few friends in the clubby world of Wall Street's elite bankers.
But, after three days of around the clock negotiations at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York trying to find a way to absorb Lehman Brothers investment banking business into Barclays, Diamond and his team of bankers decided early Sunday afternoon that the risk was too great and walked away from a deal.
According to executives briefed on the negotiations, Barclays could not get a commitment from the U.S. government that it would guarantee Lehman's counterparty settlements - a figure that could well exceed $50 billion. According to securities law here, Barclays would have had to get approval from shareholders to offer such a guarantee itself.
A deal can always be revived, but the U.S. Treasury's hard line in not providing financial support for Lehman is an indication that the administration of President George W. Bush is adamant about leaving the future of Lehman to the markets.

That Lehman Brothers, a bank founded in 1850 and carrying one of the best names in finance, may fail extends the death spiral of the once mighty Wall Street investment bank. For Diamond the frustration of a deal not done is surely acute, but it may well be tempered by a feeling of vindication that what he has been saying since 1996 has been borne out.
Bear Stearns is no more, Lehman Brothers faces the prospect of liquidation and U.S. government officials and investors now worry that Merrill Lynch - after a 12 percent slide in its shares Friday - could be next.
That Diamond came so close to buying Lehman, adds a fresh twist to what even investment bankers themselves are saying - that the days of swagger and success of the classic Wall Street investment bank are coming to an end. In a new, more regulated financial environment that will continue to see vast sums of money transferred from Wall Street to distant locales like Dubai, Riyadh, Shanghai and Singapore, the traditional strengths of an investment bank - taking risk and raising money - have diminished.
Indeed, the interest in Lehman's asset management business as well as the widely held view that Merrill's wealth management operations and its stake in the money manager BlackRock will keep it afloat underscores today's harshest reality: that with the exception of Goldman Sachs, the investment banking operations for Wall Street carry little of the value and cachet they once had in today's risk-averse and capital-constrained markets.
And, as Diamond would have it, if an investment banking business is to thrive, it is best that it does within the more restrictive confines of a commercial bank - a view that has long been anathema to bankers accustomed to big risks and even bigger pay days. But, with Lehman threatened with liquidation and with the view growing that Merrill and even Morgan Stanley might need to find a larger partner to survive, any brave talk by bankers that they can survive on their own rings increasingly hollow.
"The relevance of the stand-alone investment bank has diminished," Diamond said during an interview in 2004 - a comment that at the time seemed ill-timed as it came just as firms like Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Lehman Brothers began their final booming ascent, propelled by leverage, risk taking and an aggressive foray into the U.S. market for mortgages. "They lend as if they had balance sheets," he said dismissively last year.

Palin administration is shrouded in loyalty and secrecy

WASILLA, Alaska: Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska lives by the maxim that all politics is local, not to mention personal.
So when there was a vacancy at the top of Alaska's Division of Agriculture, Palin appointed a high school classmate, Franci Havemeister, to the $95,000-a-year directorship. A former real estate agent, Havemeister cited her childhood love of cows as one of her qualifications for running the roughly $2 million agency.
Havemeister was one of at least five high school classmates Palin hired, often at salaries far exceeding what they had made in the private sector.
When Palin had to cut the 2007 Alaska state budget, she avoided the legion of frustrated legislators and mayors. Instead, she huddled with her budget director and her husband, Todd, an oil field worker who is not a state employee, and vetoed millions of dollars of legislative projects.
Last May, a Wasilla blogger, Sherry Whitstine, who chronicles the governor's career with an astringent eye, answered her phone to find an assistant to the governor on the line. "You should be ashamed!" Ivy Frye, the assistant, told her. "Stop blogging. Stop blogging right now."


Finding Palin in a game of smoke and mirrors

Palin is the most un-vetted national candidate since Spiro Agnew, who 40 years ago was Richard Nixon's running mate. Five years later, it was revealed that Agnew had been taking payoffs, and he was forced to resign in disgrace.
Vetting is a comprehensive process by the campaign, by opponents, by outside groups and by the press. Although the process is sometimes ugly and unfair, it's one of the virtues of a lengthy campaign.
We learned about Barack Obama's Jeremiah Wright association, about McCain's temper, about Joe Biden's plagiarism. These all are relatively small matters - and we've learned many more substantive and often positive things about these men - yet they form part of the larger tapestry of character and competence.
This is relevant for a running mate as well as presidential candidates. Five times since the beginning of the last century, vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency without an election.
Palin was selected more than two weeks ago. But with the exception of interesting interviews at the end of last week with the ABC-TV anchorman Charlie Gibson - which raised new questions - she has been shielded from inquiries.
Cleverly, the McCain campaign has predicated that the press has been unfair to her, justifying immunity from inquiry. Almost all the complaints about scurrilous stories concern leftist blogs or scandal sheets; the rationale for the press release at the convention was to equate the National Enquirer with The New York Times (of which the International Herald Tribune is the global edition), distracting from the need for more information about this would-be president.
The other gripe is that many of the questions raised are about petty matters. Well, how many cosmic measures has she dealt with? These minor issues may open a window into Palin's world and tell us more about her.
Many politicians and commentators insisted that Obama's connection with his controversial pastor was a legitimate issue, as was the question of whether he had initially joined that church for political reasons. George W. Bush paraded his faith as one rationale for his candidacy.
Likewise, then, these politicians and commentators should want to know why Palin, after two decades, left the Wasilla Assembly of God church, where the pastor and half the congregation spoke in tongues? That was in 2002, when she was running for lieutenant governor. And does she agree with the campaign of her current church, the Wasilla Bible Church, to promote a "cure" for gays and lesbians?
Her decision to have a Down syndrome child this year and pledge to be an advocate for families with special needs kids was inspiring for any family with such children. Why then did she veto a bill passed by the Alaska Legislature increasing funding for the Special Olympics?
The fact that she pulled a John Kerry on the "Bridge to Nowhere," infamous pork-barrel project - she was for it before she was against it - isn't a big deal. The attention to the fact that she continually misrepresents her original position on the bridge, which was to connect to an island where about 50 people live, is about telling the truth.
We need to know more about what Palin thinks about health care insurance, income inequality and China. Also, as we did with McCain, Obama and Biden during long periods of public vetting, we need to find out more about her actions, associations and values. That has nothing to do with ideology or a hectoring press corps.
The McCainiacs have a few legitimate grievances about the press. There have been some flimsily sourced stories about him and his campaign.
A chief target, NBC News, brought it on itself when its cable outlet, MSNBC, tapped two opinionated political journalists to anchor election coverage. They savaged Hillary Clinton first and then McCain. Belatedly, the parent company removed them from these roles last week.

A legitimate complaint for McCain. Yet his camp actually threatened to pull out of a debate because it was anchored by NBC's Tom Brokaw, who has been eminently fair and is among the most respected journalists in America. This is a cheap stunt.
The Arizona senator enjoyed years of often-admiring press coverage - and he is a captivating figure. Now, he feels like a jilted lover, associates say. O.K., while the salad days of adulation are over, the charge of a strong pro-Obama bias in America's mainstream press doesn't hold up.
With the caveat that surveys of press bias are usually flawed, it's instructive that a nonpartisan George Mason University study found that Obama's coverage on the influential evening TV news programs this summer - before the conventions - was more negative than McCain's.
Press-bashing is almost as old as political campaigning, says Stephen Hess, the foremost political scientist on the topic. It's easier now with "the lack of any definition of who and what is the media," he adds.
Still, Hess notes that while taking on journalists often works, it also hurts not only the media but the campaign and the country. That is the danger of the protect-Palin strategy.



Thomas L. Friedman: Making America stupid

A Washington Post editorial on Thursday put it well: "On a day when the Congressional Budget Office warned of looming deficits and a grim economic outlook, when the stock market faltered even in the wake of the government's rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, when President Bush discussed the road ahead in Iraq and Afghanistan, on what did the campaign of Senator John McCain spend its energy? A conference call to denounce Senator Barack Obama for using the phrase 'lipstick on a pig' and a new television ad accusing the Democrat of wanting to teach kindergartners about sex before they learn to read."
Some McCain supporters criticize Obama for not having the steel in his belly to use force in the dangerous world we live in today. Well, I know this: In order to use force, you have to have force. In order to exercise leverage, you have to have leverage.
I don't know how much steel is in Obama's belly, but I do know that the issues he is focusing on in this campaign - improving education and health care, dealing with the deficit and forging a real energy policy based on building a whole new energy infrastructure - are the only way we can put steel back into America's spine. McCain, alas, has abandoned those issues for the culture-war strategy.
Who cares how much steel John McCain has in his gut when the steel that today holds up our bridges, railroads, nuclear reactors and other infrastructure is rusting? McCain talks about how he would build dozens of nuclear power plants. Oh, really? They go for $10 billion a pop. Where is the money going to come from? From lowering taxes? From borrowing more from China? From having Sarah Palin "reform" Washington - as if she has any more clue how to do that than the first 100 names in the D.C. phonebook?



Maureen Dowd: Bering Straight talk

The really scary part of the Palin interview was how much she seemed like W. in 2000, and not just the way she pronounced nu-cue-lar. She had the same flimsy but tenacious adeptness at saying nothing, the same generalities and platitudes, the same restrained resentment at being pressed to be specific, as though specific is the province of silly eggheads, not people who clear brush at the ranch or shoot moose on the tundra.
Just as W. once could not name the General-General running Pakistan, so Palin took a position on Pakistan that McCain had derided as naïve when Obama took it.
"We must not, Charlie, blink, Charlie, because, Charlie, as I've said, Charlie, before, John McCain has said, Charlie, that - and remember here, Charlie, we're talking about John McCain, Charlie, who, Charlie, is John McCain and I won't be blinking, Charlie."



Real heroes, fake stories

John Farmer, John Azzarello and Miles Kara were staff members of the 9/11 commission.

It is one of the most stirring accounts of heroism to emerge from 9/11: A fighter pilot from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington returns from a training mission, finds out that a plane, United Airlines Flight 93, has been hijacked and is heading for Washington, then takes off without refueling and low on ammunition in pursuit.
According to "Touching History," Lynn Spencer's recent account of what "unfolded over the skies" on 9/11, the pilot, Major Billy Hutchison, took off and flew over the Pentagon, asking the civilian air traffic controllers to give him a vector from his current location along with a distance to the target.
"This method works, and Hutchison quickly spots the aircraft on his radar," writes Spencer. "He quickly comes up with a plan: He will try first to take the plane down with practice rounds fired into one of the engines, and then across the cockpit. ... If that does not sufficiently disable the aircraft, then he will use his own plane as a missile. He thinks again of his son and prays to God that his mission won't end that way."
It is hard to imagine a more thrilling, inspiring - and detailed - tale of fighter-jock heroism. There is only one problem with it: It isn't true. It is about as close to truth as the myth of the Trojan Horse or the dime-store novels about Billy the Kid.
As we pointed out in the 9/11 commission report, the radar records of the day indicate that Hutchison did not take off until more than a half-hour after United 93 had crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and a good 20 minutes after the wreckage had been located. He could not have seen United 93 on his scope, and could not have intercepted it. Like thousands of others that day, he did his duty. He was brave. But his tale isn't true.
The Billy Hutchison story is an example of a phenomenon that the 9/11 commission staff encountered frequently: heroic embellishment. If something good happened that morning, an amazing number of people took credit. Take, for instance, the decision to land all civilian aircraft. As the report notes: "This was an unprecedented order. The air traffic control system handled it with great skill, as about 4,500 ... aircraft soon landed without incident." But whose idea was it?
In the aftermath of 9/11, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta claimed that he ordered all civilian aircraft to land: "I said ... 'get the damn planes down,"' he told ABC News. Richard Clarke, the National Security Council's antiterrorism director, has written it was he who prompted the order, by saying to Jane Garvey, the Federal Aviation Administration's director, "O.K., Jane, how long will it take to get all aircraft now aloft onto the ground somewhere?"
In fact, the commission established that the order was issued by Ben Sliney, the aviation administration's national operations manager, on his own initiative, after hearing that the Pentagon had been hit.
Most of the exaggerated claims from 9/11 are harmless, springing as they do from some combination of the unreliability of witness recollection, the psychological need for consolation after a defeat, and the human love of a good story. They are, more than anything else, a commentary on human nature.
Others, however, are not harmless, not innocent, and cannot go unchallenged. In fact, they fuel distrust of the government, give rise to conspiracy theories and threaten to set back America's efforts to avoid future 9/11's.
Take, for instance, the tale of Hutchison, which is part of a larger and totally discredited story. After 9/11, military and government officials undertook an aggressive public relations effort.
In testimony before Congress and the 9/11 commission, in numerous interviews, and in an official air force history, these officials told the country that by the time United 93 turned toward Washington, President Bush had issued the shoot-down authorization, Vice President Dick Cheney had passed it on, fighters were standing by over Washington and, as the military's commander at the Northeast Air Defense Sector headquarters in Rome, New York, told ABC News of the authorization to shoot down the planes: "We of course passed it on to the pilots. United Airlines Flight 93 will not be allowed to reach Washington."
Yet the commission established that none of this happened. Once we subpoenaed the relevant tapes and other records, the story fell apart.
Contrary to the testimony of retired General Larry Arnold, who on 9/11 was the commander of continental defense for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, fighters were not scrambled that morning to meet the threat posed by United 93. In fact, the fighters were sent up in response to an unrelated and mistaken report that Arnold and others had not disclosed to the commission. Flight 93 hadn't even been hijacked when the planes were ordered scrambled, and Arnold's command found out the plane was hijacked only after it had crashed. The authorization to shoot it down came after it had crashed and was never passed on to the pilots.

No one is telling that tale anymore, but the damage was done. Because the story couldn't withstand scrutiny, the public was left free to believe anything, and to doubt everything. Many still believe that a cruise missile hit the Pentagon; that 9/11 was an "inside job" by American and Israeli intelligence; that the military actually did shoot down United 93.Worse still, by overstating the effectiveness of national command and control by the time United 93 was heading for Washington, the government obscured the central reality of that morning: that the Washington establishment talked mainly to itself, disconnected from the reality on the ground and in the air. Because bureaucrats obscured that disconnect, they didn't fix it, in terms of national security or any other complicated federal emergency response. Thus, the whole world got to see a very similar reaction in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, and residents of New Orleans struggled to survive on their rooftops while officials in Washington issued reassuring statements.T

he afterword to "Touching History" was written by Arnold, despite his having been forced to retract his testimony to the 9/11 commission. ("I was wrong," he told the panel at its final hearing. "I was wrong.") He praises the book's "corrections to the record" because they recognize the heroism of people like Hutchison and expose the "political agenda" of the commission.Yes, the commission staff looking into these events did have an agenda. Our team included a retired military officer who was badly burned in the Pentagon attack, and a former federal prosecutor whose wife lost both her brothers in the World Trade Center. We believed that telling misleading stories about what happened undermines confidence in government, spawns conspiracy theories and compromises efforts to prepare for future events. Truth, not wishful thinking, is the most enduring memorial we can leave.There were heroes on 9/11, people whose split-second decision-making saved lives. All too frequently, as in the case of many civilians and first responders in New York and the passengers and crew aboard United 93, those heroic deeds cost them their lives.America lost that day. At critical moments, our nation was undefended - something the passengers on United 93 realized when they decided to work together to bring the plane down. We should not allow such real heroism to be diminished, or the grim reality of that day to be obscured, by the self-serving agendas of would-be heroes.


Active role for Palin's husband in Alaska government

Several lawmakers have said Todd Palin was present in the governor's office when they had what they had expected to be private meetings with her and her staff. The lawmakers say Todd Palin rarely spoke and sometimes sat off to the side, perhaps working on a computer.
Other people close to the state budget process said Palin was in the room at times when his wife and aides discussed whether to veto specific items in the capital-spending budget, including money to improve the harbor in Todd Palin's hometown, Dillingham. Money for the harbor project was approved.


Palin reviews are in, and Gibson got an ...

After taking in some of Charles Gibson's interviews with the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, Paul Begala sounded ready to cast his vote.
"I thought one person on my television screen looked ready to assume the presidency," Begala, the CNN commentator, said by telephone on Friday. "It wasn't Governor Palin."
In a year in which the presidential campaign has at times become a referendum on the news media, Gibson's performance was being judged alongside that of Palin's, as she sat with a journalist for the first time since the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, named her to the ticket.
For some, it was difficult to view both journalist and subject without a partisan lens. Begala, a supporter of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, has since given money to the campaign of Senator Barack Obama, who vanquished her for the Democratic nomination. By contrast, Michelle Malkin, a conservative commentator and blogger, posted the headline "ABC News Blows It" on minutes after the first of Gibson's interviews had been shown on "World News" on Thursday.
The concerns she tallied about Gibson included: "Taking quotes out of context," "Getting basic facts wrong," and "engaging in distortionary hype."
One of Gibson's competitors, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, who had tried to get the first interview with Palin and is still seeking her for "Face the Nation," said the ABC anchor had struck the perfect balance.
"I thought he was very respectful, which I think he should have been, and treated her with dignity," Schieffer said in an interview. "But he also really bored in. When he didn't get an answer to one question, he went in from a different way. I think that is what reporters are supposed to do."
What was not in dispute was that people were watching. An estimated 9.7 million viewers saw the first part of Gibson's interview with Palin on "World News" Thursday night, nearly 25 percent more than watched Gibson's program a week earlier and two million more than watched "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" as Gibson was interviewing Palin, according to Nielsen Media Research. Often the audiences are similar in size.
Bolstered by its broadcasting of the second installment, "Nightline" on ABC was seen by more viewers than both "Late Show with David Letterman" on CBS and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" on NBC. Another installment, in which Palin chastised Congress for excessive spending and spoke of her personal opposition to embyonic stem-cell research, was shown Friday on "World News," with a one-hour episode of "20/20" based partly on the interviews scheduled for later in the evening.
As was the case when Gibson and George Stephanopoulos moderated a Democratic candidates' debate five months ago, the ABC News Web site was flooded with more than 10,000 comments in the hours after the network began showing the Palin interviews.
The questions some respondents took issue with included Gibson's reference to a recent church speech, in which he quoted Palin as saying, "Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God." In an excerpt of the speech on YouTube which ABC spliced into the interview when it was shown Palin had prefaced that comment by appearing to say she was praying that America's mission in Iraq represented God's will.
"How come no one questions Gibson's qualifications to be a journalist when he misquotes and takes out of context Palin's comments about the war and God," someone identified as "I Love Hillary" wrote on the ABC site.
"Bakar 2" wrote on the site, "Charlie Gibson I am so disappointed and ashamed of what you did to Sarah Palin last evening!" The person added, "I hope your ratings go down accordingly."
In April, Gibson and Stephanopoulos were roundly panned for bypassing the most pressing issues of the day (at least early on in their Democratic debate) in favor of queries about the absence of a flag pin in Obama's lapel and the veracity of Clinton's assertion she had come under fire while landing in Bosnia as first lady more than a decade ago.
Gibson and his producers appeared to have taken that criticism to heart this time. In a series of conversations recorded in Alaska beginning Thursday, Gibson was persistent (asking as many as four follow-up questions) as he pressed Palin about her experience, as well as her views about American policy regarding Iraq, Georgia, Iran and Israel, and global warming.
"He asked a lot of good questions," Mary Matalin, a Republican strategist and supporter of McCain, said in an interview. "I don't think, like some of my friends, that Charlie didn't do a good interview."
Given the exasperation that some have expressed toward the news media, Matalin said, "He did as good a job as anyone in that situation could do."


McCain barbs stirring outcry as distortions

Harsh advertisements and negative attacks are a staple of presidential campaigns, but Senator John McCain has drawn an avalanche of criticism this week from Democrats, independent groups and even some Republicans for regularly stretching the truth in attacking Senator Barack Obama's record and positions.
Obama has also been accused of distortions, but this week McCain has found himself under particularly heavy fire for a pair of headline-grabbing attacks. First the McCain campaign twisted Obama's words to suggest that he had compared Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, to a pig after Obama said, in questioning McCain's claim to be the change agent in the race, "You can put lipstick on a pig; it's still a pig." ( McCain once used the same expression to describe Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's health plan.)
Then he falsely claimed that Obama supported "comprehensive sex education" for kindergartners (he supported teaching them to be alert for inappropriate advances from adults).
Those attacks followed weeks in which McCain repeatedly, and incorrectly, asserted that Obama would raise taxes on the middle class, even though analysts say he would cut taxes on the middle class more than McCain would, and misrepresented Obama's positions on energy and health care.
A McCain advertisement called "Fact Check" was itself found to be "less than honest" by, a nonpartisan group. The group complained that the McCain campaign had cited its work debunking various Internet rumors about Palin and implied in the advertisement that the rumors had originated with Obama.

In an interview Friday on the NY1 cable news channel, a McCain supporter, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, called "ridiculous" the implication that Obama's "lipstick on a pig" comment was a reference to Palin, whom he also defended as coming under unfair attack.
"The last month, for sure," said Don Sipple, a Republican advertising strategist, "I think the predominance of liberty taken with truth and the facts has been more McCain than Obama."
Indeed, in recent days, McCain has been increasingly called out by news organizations, editorial boards and independent analysts like The group, which does not judge whether one candidate is more misleading than another, has cried foul on McCain more than twice as often since the start of the political conventions as it has on Obama.
A McCain spokesman, Brian Rogers, said the campaign had evidence for all its claims. "We stand fully by everything that's in our ads," Rogers said, "and everything that we've been saying we provide detailed backup for — everything. And if you and the Obama campaign want to disagree, that's your call."
McCain came into the race promoting himself as a truth teller and has long publicly deplored the kinds of negative tactics that helped sink his candidacy in the Republican primaries in 2000. But his strategy now reflects a calculation advisers made this summer — over the strenuous objections of some longtime hands who helped him build his "Straight Talk" image — to shift the campaign more toward disqualifying Obama in the eyes of voters.
"I think the McCain folks realize if they can get this thing down in the mud, drag Obama into the mud, that's where they have the best advantage to win," said Matthew Dowd, who worked with many top McCain campaign advisers when he was President George W. Bush's chief strategist in the 2004 campaign, but who has since had a falling out with the White House. "If they stay up at 10,000 feet, they don't."
For all the criticism, the offensive seems to be having an impact. It has been widely credited by strategists in both parties with rejuvenating McCain's campaign and putting Obama on the defensive since it began early this summer.
Some who have criticized McCain have accused him of blatant untruths and of failing to correct himself when errors were pointed out.
On Friday on "The View," generally friendly territory for politicians, one co-host, Joy Behar, criticized his new advertisements. "We know that those two ads are untrue," Behar said. "They are lies. And yet you, at the end of it, say, 'I approve these messages.' Do you really approve them?"
"Actually they are not lies," McCain said crisply, "and have you seen some of the ads that are running against me?"
Obama's hands have not always been clean in this regard. He was called out earlier for saying, incorrectly, that McCain supported a "hundred-year war" in Iraq after McCain said in January that he would be fine with a hypothetical 100-year American presence in Iraq, as long as Americans were not being injured or killed there.

More recently, Obama has been criticized for advertisements that have distorted McCain's record on schools financing and incorrectly accused him of not supporting loan guarantees for the auto industry — a hot topic in Michigan. He has also taken McCain's repeated comments that American economy is "fundamentally sound" out of context, leaving out the fact that McCain almost always adds at the same time that he understands that times are tough and "people are hurting."
But sensing an opening in the mounting criticism of McCain, the Obama campaign released a withering statement after McCain's appearance on "The View."
"In running the sleaziest campaign since South Carolina in 2000 and standing by completely debunked lies on national television, it's clear that John McCain would rather lose his integrity than lose an election," Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said in a statement.
At an event in Dover, New Hampshire, a voter asked Obama when he would start "fighting back." Obama, who began his own confrontational advertising campaign Friday, said, "Our ads have been pretty tough, but I just have a different philosophy that I'm going to respond with the truth."
"I'm not going to start making up lies about John McCain," Obama said.
The McCain advertisements are devised to draw the interest of bloggers and cable news producers — but not necessarily always intended for wide, actual use on television stations — to shift the terms of the debate by questioning Obama's character and qualifications.
Sipple, the Republican strategist, voiced concern that McCain's approach could backfire. "Any campaign that is taking liberty with the truth and does it in a serial manner will end up paying for it in the end," he said. "But it's very unbecoming to a political figure like John McCain whose flag was planted long ago in ground that was about 'straight talk' and integrity."
The campaign has also been selective in its portrayal of McCain's running mate, Palin. The campaign's efforts to portray her as the bane of federal earmark spending was complicated by evidence that she had sought a great deal of federal money both as governor of Alaska and as mayor of Wasilla.
Palin has often told audiences about pulling the plug on the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, an expensive federal project to build a bridge to a sparsely populated Alaskan island that became a symbol of wasteful federal spending. "I told Congress, 'Thanks but no thanks' for that Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska," she said this week in Virginia.
But her position was more like "please" before it became "no thanks." Palin supported the bridge project while running for governor, and abandoned it after it became a national scandal and Congress said the state could keep the money for other projects. As a mayor and governor, she hired lobbyists to request millions in federal spending for Alaska. In an ABC News interview on Friday with Charles Gibson, Palin largely stuck to her version of the events.
Disputed characterizations are not uncommon on the trail. At a campaign stop this week in Missouri, McCain said that Obama's plan would "force small businesses to cut jobs and reduce wages and force families into a government-run health care system where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor."
Jonathan Oberlander, who teaches health policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that Obama's plan would not force families into a government-run system. "I would say this is an inaccurate and false characterization of the Obama plan," he said. "I don't use those words lightly."

U.S. pushing through dozens of foreign weapons deals

WASHINGTON: The Bush administration is pushing through a broad array of foreign weapons deals as it seeks to re-arm Iraq and Afghanistan, contain North Korea and Iran, and solidify ties with onetime Russian allies.
From tanks, helicopters and fighter jets to missiles, remotely piloted aircraft and even warships, the Department of Defense has agreed so far this fiscal year to sell or transfer more than $32 billion in weapons and other military equipment to foreign governments, compared with $12 billion in 2005.
The trend, which started in 2006, is most pronounced in the Middle East, but it reaches into northern Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and even Canada, through dozens of deals that senior Bush administration officials say they are confident will both tighten military alliances and combat terrorism.
"This is not about being gunrunners," said Bruce Lemkin, the air force deputy under secretary who is helping coordinate many of the biggest sales. "This is about building a more secure world."
The United States is far from the only country pushing sophisticated weapons systems: It is facing intense competition from Russia and elsewhere in Europe, including continuing contests for multibillion-dollar deals to sell fighter jets to India and Brazil.
In that booming market, U.S. military contractors are working closely with the Pentagon, which acts as a broker and procures arms for foreign customers through its Foreign Military Sales program.
Less-sophisticated weapons, and services to maintain these weapons systems, are often bought directly by foreign governments. That category of direct commercial sales has seen an enormous surge as well, as measured by export licenses issued this fiscal year covering an estimated $96 billion, up from $58 billion in 2005, according to the State Department, which must approve the licenses.
About 60 countries get annual military aid from the United States, $4.5 billion a year, to help them buy these American weapons. Israel and Egypt receive more than 80 percent of that aid. The United States has also recently given Iraq and Afghanistan large amounts of weapons and other equipment and has begun to train fledgling military units at no charge; this military assistance is included in the tally of rising foreign sales. But most arms exports are paid for by the purchasers without U.S. financing.
The growing tally of international weapon deals, which started its sharp increase in 2006, is now provoking questions among some advocates of arms control and some members of Congress.
"Sure, this is a quick and easy way to cement alliances," said William Hartung, an arms control specialist at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute. "But this is getting out of hand."


Envoy offers grim review of risks facing Afghanistan

GENEVA: Ex-EU envoy presses West to step up effort
One of the most experienced Western envoys in Afghanistan delivered a depressing review Sunday of the situation there, calling it the worst since 2001 and urging concerted American and foreign action even before a new U.S. administration takes office to avoid "a very hot winter for all of us."
Francesc Vendrell, who has just stepped down as European Union envoy in Afghanistan and has eight years of experience in the country, in particular criticized the growing number of civilian deaths in attacks by U.S. and international forces. These have created "a great deal of antipathy," and helped widen the growing distance between the Afghan government and its citizens, he said at a meeting of foreign and security policy experts organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The U.S. military is currently engaged in an inquiry into an incident in Shindand District in western Afghanistan in which, villagers assert, about 90 people were killed in a missile attack on Aug. 22. American officers have given a far lower toll, saying 7 civilians were killed.
Vendrell warned that the situation was particularly dangerous among the Pashtun tribes that live mainly in southern Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan. However, he noted that the insurgency led by the Taliban had spread not only to the east, but close to Kabul, and in pockets to the hitherto relatively peaceful north and west of the country.
While only a minority of Pashtun actively support the Taliban, he added, most Pashtun "are sitting on the fence to see who is going to be the winner."
With inflation raising prices of food and fuel, deteriorating security and the failure to engage either the Taliban or regional powers such as Pakistan, Iran and India in searching for solutions, Vendrell said, Afghanistan could be facing "a very cold winter" that threatens to become "a very hot winter for all of us."
Bluntly, Vendrell traced what he called a long series of foreign mistakes in Afghanistan, and recommended action to ensure that the local Afghan authorities and foreign agencies followed up any military successes against the Taliban with concrete assistance to local citizens, to convince them that Westerners and the Kabul government can deliver security and some minimal well-being.
Vendrell, a Spanish diplomat who played a leading role in the conference in Bonn that set up the post-Taliban government, said the "first great mistake" in 2001 was to hold that conference after the United States had triumphed over the Taliban government that sheltered the Qaeda terrorists blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks. By the time the Bonn talks took place, he said, Northern Alliance warlords and their allies controlled some two-thirds of Afghanistan, making their control a "fait accompli."
In addition, too much faith was placed in President Hamid Karzai and too little was done to ensure that his government had a monopoly of force, strong police and other institutions, in part because of what Vendrell called "Secretary Rumsfeld's abhorrence for nation building," referring to Donald Rumsfeld, the chief of the Pentagon at the time.
Vendrell's audience included dozens of security and foreign policy experts, many of whom advise European governments, a smattering of U.S. military officers and some cabinet ministers, including the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. The note of alarm sounded about Afghanistan, and Pakistan, was echoed in off-the-record conversations at the conference, an annual review of global strategy by the nongovernmental International Institute for Strategic Studies.
It was a mistake by the United Nations to limit the mandate of foreign soldiers to Kabul, and for the world to get distracted by the war in Iraq, Vendrell said.
Alluding to Karzai without naming him, Vendrell added: "We thought we had found a miracle man; miracle men do not exist."
"Too much responsibility without power was invested in this person," he said.
Another person "we should not have taken at his word" was the former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, Vendrell said, citing what he called Pakistan's history of supporting extremists in Afghanistan, its quarrels over the so-called Durand Line separating the two countries and the failure of the Pakistani military and politicians to formulate clearly how they would like events to unfold in Afghanistan.
Despite his depressing review, Vendrell said it was no time to abandon Afghanistan, but indeed to redouble efforts there, both militarily and in building up civilian institutions, ensuring elections are held next year and, for the United States in particular, developing clear policies and standards to govern the detention of hundreds of Afghans it holds without trial. Such detentions create a "bad precedent" for the future Afghan authorities, he said.
"This is not the time to leave. We are not destined to fail, but we are far from succeeding," he said. "We must continue to remember the sad experience of Sept. 11, when we had walked away from Afghanistan for 13 years."



Warts and all: A new partner in Pakistan

Asif Ali Zardari, who was sworn in Tuesday as president of Pakistan, comes to the post with a shady past. The widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, he spent 11 years in jail on corruption charges involving enormous sums of money. He was even convicted once - a mistrial was later declared - on charges of murdering his wife's brother. But the wheeler-dealer previously known as Mr. 10 Percent has displayed great deftness in outmaneuvering opponents. He will need all his Machiavellian wiles to keep Pakistan from coming apart at the seams.
It was a promising sign that the one foreign head of state invited to Zardari's inauguration was President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. In part, this was Zardari's way of signaling that he means to keep the bargain Bhutto made with the Bush administration: to help the United States and the Karzai government prosecute the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
To fulfill his end of the bargain, Zardari will have to obtain the cooperation of Pakistan's army and the nearly autonomous Inter-Services Intelligence agency. He will also need funds to spend on schools, social services, infrastructure and economic development in impoverished rural areas where extremist recruiters have flourished. For this purpose, he will need a continued flow of aid from the United States, which has given Pakistan more than $10 billion since former president Pervez Musharraf signed onto the war on terror.
This war cannot be won, without what Karzai in Islamabad called a "joint struggle for peace and prosperity in the region." Karzai's remark implies that the Pakistani military and intelligence services will not stop backing the Taliban in Afghanistan until the danger of conflict with India is overcome. The Pakistani brass sees the Pashtun areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan as a source of strategic depth in their contest with India. So it was a good sign that Zardari said shortly after his swearing-in that he intends to undertake "fast-track" efforts to resolve the crucial conflict with India over Kashmir.
Both the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke last week of the need for a comprehensive strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, one that includes a greatly enhanced civilian component. If Zardari becomes an effective partner in implementing such a strategy, he will not be the first scoundrel to suddenly bloom into a statesman.


Police detain suspects after 5 blasts in New Delhi

NEW DELHI: Police officers carried out raids across New Delhi on Sunday, detaining several people believed to be connected to a series of explosions in the capital over the weekend that killed at least 21 people and wounded almost 100 others.
At least five explosions struck a park and several crowded shopping areas of New Delhi just after sundown Saturday, a busy time for weekend shopping. The Indian Mujahedin, an Islamic militant group, claimed responsibility for the bombings in an e-mail message sent to several Indian news organizations.
By Sunday the official death toll was 21, said Rajan Bhagat, a spokesman for the city police, and at least 97 others were reportedly wounded.
Media reports said that 10 people were detained in the raids Sunday, while Bhagat said that "several" people had been held.
"We have collected vital clues and we hope to crack the case soon," Bhagat said. He gave no further details on the identities of the suspects or where they had been captured.


Afghan suicide bombing kills 2 UN doctors

SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan: A suicide bomber in a vehicle attacked a convoy carrying Afghan doctors working for the United Nations in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, killing two doctors and wounding 15 other people, a police chief said.
The attack happened in the Spin Boldak district of Kandahar Province as the convoy was on its way to vaccinate people against polio, said the provincial police chief, Matiullah Khan.
Khan said that the victims worked for the UN World Health Organization and that they were traveling in clearly marked UN vehicles. Adrian Edwards, the chief UN spokesman in Afghanistan, said the organization was aware of the report but could not confirm the details.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack, but Taliban militants are known to operate in the area and regularly use suicide bombings in their campaign against Afghan and foreign troops in the country.
Meanwhile, Taliban militants ambushed a police patrol in central Afghanistan, killing at least seven officers, while U.S.-led coalition troops killed several militants in the east, officials said Sunday.

The authorities recovered the bodies of seven dead police officers after the ambush Saturday in central Ghazni Province, and another officer was missing, said Mohammad Sharif Kohistani, a provincial police official.
Lightly armed police officers bear the brunt of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. More than 900 were killed by insurgents in 2007.
Also Sunday, six children were killed and 12 were wounded when they set off a roadside bomb they had been playing with, also in Ghazni Province, south of Kabul. The district governor, Rahim Daisiwal, said the bomb had been planted by Taliban militants.


Assassination is a blow to Iraqi citizen patrols

BAGHDAD: The Sunni Arab leader of a citizen patrol group in Baghdad who had also been a proponent of reconciliation and moderation in his neighborhood was assassinated over the weekend.
The killing of Fouad Ali Hussein al-Douri, the head of a group of about 65 guards and a Sunni mosque leader in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Jihad, was the latest in a string of attacks targeting members of the so-called Awakening Councils. It could not have come at a worse time.
Administration of the Awakening program, which includes guards like the ones in Jihad and is made up of almost 100,000 mostly Sunni men countrywide on the payroll of the U.S. military, is expected to be handed over to the Shiite-led government starting Oct. 1.
About 54,000 Awakening patrol members in Baghdad will start reporting to the government on that day amid deep concerns that many might be arrested for previous links to the insurgency or denied long-promised jobs in the army and the police.
The Awakening members, whose ranks include many Sunni insurgents, were supported by the Americans to fight Qaeda-linked militants and are often cited as a crucial factor in the turnaround in the security situation. But they have long been viewed with deep suspicion by many Shiite officials in the government as nothing more than American-financed militias.

Douri's death was a double blow given his efforts to promote reconciliation and Sunni-Shiite coexistence in a section of Baghdad that has been ripped apart by sectarian killing and displacement. The U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, specifically mentioned the Jihad district in October 2007 as a place that was "critical" for preserving the security gains made in Baghdad.
Nusayef Jassim Mohammed, Douri's cousin and neighbor, said: "I blame the government first and foremost. The Awakenings are being targeted by the government, Iran and Al Qaeda elements linked to Iran and other neighboring countries."
Douri was killed when a bomb was detonated as he drove his car into the driveway of his house Saturday night after returning from a nearby mosque, family members said. The bomb appeared to have been concealed amid shrubs at the entrance of the gate.
The impact of the blast left a deep hole in front of the twisted and mangled gate.
At Douri's funeral Sunday, a simple wooden coffin bearing his body was carried out of his home by members of the citizen patrol he commanded, as women shrouded in black wailed and slapped their faces in grief.
Some of Douri's men dressed in tan uniforms with patches reading "JG", which stands for Jihad Guards, fired into the air as the funeral procession made its way through the dusty back roads of Hay al-Hussein, a section of Jihad.
"A curse on those who did this and burned his mother's heart with grief," shouted Douri's wife, who gave her name as Umm Ali.
Douri had a second wife, who was also present at the funeral, and eight children from both marriages. He was an air force colonel during the regime of Saddam Hussein, but he turned to Islamic studies after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
His wish was to make sure his men got police and army jobs when the Awakening program was transferred to the government so that he could dedicate himself to complete a mosque he started building in Jihad, said members of the citizen patrol seated on plastic chairs outside Douri's home.
"I do not think I am interested in a job in the police or army anymore. Not like before. He's gone. He was the tent that held us all together," said a Jihad Guard member who gave his name as Muhammad.
There are now about 850 citizen patrol members in Jihad and neighboring Furat, said Khaled al-Jouhi, deputy head of a neighborhood support council backed by the government tasked with promoting reconciliation and economic revival in the area. Guards get a monthly salary of $300 and guard leaders get $450 from the U.S. military.
Jouhi, a Shiite, said Douri had been a member of the council until recently and instrumental in promoting reconciliation in Jihad. He blamed extremists and Qaeda-linked militants, who he says have infiltrated the neighborhood patrols in Jihad, for the killing.
Jouhi says Douri was supposedly told four months ago to stop delivering Friday sermons at the Sunni Fakhri Shanshal mosque in Jihad because of his moderate views.
"He tried to stop divisions. He worked for the unity of Iraq," said Jouhi, who expressed alarm that violence was on the rise in Jihad again since August.
He said hundreds of displaced families have yet to be able to return to their homes. A prominent local Shiite man named Sayyed Nasir was killed in a bombing on Aug. 21 as he returned to his home in a section of Jihad

In other violence Sunday, two policemen were killed and six civilians were wounded in a car bomb next to a popular ice cream shop in Baghdad's neighborhood of Jadriya on the east bank, an Interior Ministry source said.
In an attack that is bound to fuel further tensions in areas subject to border disputes between the government and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, multiple roadside bombs hit a police convoy on the outskirts of Jalawla, about 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, north of Baghdad, killing five policemen and wounding seven, a security source in Diyala Province said.
It came one day after a similar attack in neighboring Khanaqin, also in Diyala, killed eight Kurdish peshmerga soldiers, including a local commander.


Israeli vice premier offers settlers buyout

JERUSALEM: Israel's vice premier presented a proposal on Sunday to pay thousands of Jewish settlers to leave their homes in the West Bank but said a peace deal with the Palestinians was unlikely this year or in 2009.
Haim Ramon, a top deputy to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and one of his closest confidants, said the government should offer each settler family living beyond the barrier Israel is building in the occupied territory some $300,000 (168,000 pounds) to relocate.
"Greater Israel is a thing of the past," Olmert told his cabinet, which debated Ramon's proposal for the first time. He was referring to many settlers's hopes of retaining all of the West Bank, land Palestinians want for a state of their own.
Facing possible indictment in corruption probes, Olmert has promised to resign after his Kadima party holds an election on Wednesday to replace him. He could stay on as caretaker prime minister for weeks or months until a new government is formed.
Ramon has said his "evacuation-compensation" plan could help bolster U.S.-sponsored peace talks which Washington hopes can yield at least a framework agreement by the time President George W. Bush leaves the White House in January.

But at a news briefing after the cabinet session, Ramon echoed pessimistic forecasts by Palestinians and top Western diplomats who see little chance of a breakthrough on issues such as borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
"The way things are going at the moment, I'm not optimistic there can be a deal by the end of this year or even by the end of next year," said Ramon. "It could take five or 10 years."
Although no vote was held on the compensation package, the discussion marked an attempt by Olmert to prepare "the Israeli consciousness" for territorial compromise, a spokesman for the prime minister said.
Ramon presented a survey indicating that about 18 percent, or 11,000, of the 61,000 settlers who live east of the barrier -- land Israel is likely to hand over to the Palestinians -- would agree to leave immediately in return for a buyout.
Yonaton Behar, who lives in Har Bracha settlement east of the barrier, said he did not think Ramon's plan would have much of an impact.
"Ramon is talking about 11,000 (who agree to compensation), out of a couple of hundred thousand. That's minuscule, that's nothing," said Behar, 48, who is originally from the United States.
Some 500,000 Jews live among 2.5 million Palestinians on West Bank land captured by Israel in a 1967 war, including Arab East Jerusalem.
At the cabinet session, Olmert described as "intolerable" an attack by armed settlers on Saturday on the West Bank village of Asira al-Kabaliya, an assault launched after a Palestinian stabbed and slightly wounded a boy in a nearby settlement.
"In the State of Israel, there will be no pogroms against non-Jews," Olmert said.
The word "pogrom" has particular significance in Israel, where it is used mainly to describe extensive violence against Jews in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Three Palestinians were shot and wounded in the settlers' attack, medical officials said.


Islamists threaten to shut down Mogadishu airport

MOGADISHU: Somali Islamists have threatened to stop planes using Mogadishu's main airport as part of an escalating insurgency rocking the Horn of Africa nation.
The hardline Islamist group Al Shabaab, which is fighting the Somali government and its Ethiopian military backers, said it would stop planes from landing after midnight on Tuesday.
"We banned all planes from Mogadishu after confirming that American spies, the African Union, Ethiopians and the infidel government troops use the airport," said a statement in Somali on, one of several sites used by the militants.
The sea-front airport in south Mogadishu is used for government and commercial flights. African Union (AU) peacekeepers and some visiting U.N. missions also fly there.
Aid groups tend to use other landing strips.

"We warn the Somali businessmen: Ethiopia gets revenue from Mogadishu airport. (AU mission) Amisom and Ethiopians also transport their injured and dead soldiers from this airport," said the statement that appeared at the weekend.
The African Union has 2,200 peacekeepers in Somalia, mainly based at the airport. They have done little to stem violence and the pan-African body wants to hand over to the United Nations.
The airport has suffered a string of attacks since Islamists launched an Iraq-style insurgency in 2007. Several times, shells have hit about the time President Abdullahi Yusuf has taken off.
There was no immediate response to Al Shabaab from the government. But an AU spokesman said such threats were not new.
"The airport is not for Amisom but for the Somali people," added AU spokesman Barigye Ba-Hoku. "It would hinder first of all the Somalis who need medicine, who need to leave when sick. So this threat means they don't care for the Somali people."
A local airline official, who asked not to be named, said he had received a warning from Al Shabaab.
The threat reflects the growing confidence of one of the main players in the Somali war. The group recently led an Islamist takeover of the southern port of Kismayu, giving it a strategic sea access and proximity to the Kenyan border.
Al Shabaab appears to have stepped up activities, and widened its sphere of targets, since being put on Washington's terrorist list earlier this year.
In the latest attack, suspected Islamists laid a roadside bomb and fired on a peacekeepers' convoy inspecting for mines in Mogadishu on Sunday, AU staff said. One Ugandan soldier died and two others were wounded in the melee.
There was also fighting between Islamists and AU troops at the Kilometre 4 area of Mogadishu on Sunday, locals said.
"Two of my kids are missing and what I hear is only the constant crash of mortars," resident Seinab Farah said.
Somalia's civil war has killed more than 8,000 civilians since last year -- and an unknown number of combatants.
One million people are living as internal refugees.


Petraeus to leave behind a very different Iraq

Petraeus hands control of U.S. forces in Iraq to Lieutenant-General Ray Odierno, on Tuesday. Odierno, who served as number 2 U.S. commander in Iraq for 15 months until February, will be promoted to full general on the day of the handover.

The wiry, scholarly looking Petraeus acknowledges he harboured dark thoughts at times during his command.
"Certainly you do have moments where if you are honest with yourself in something as difficult as this has been, you occasionally wonder if it will be achievable," Petraeus told Reuters in an interview in Baghdad in late July.
"But we are in a very different place now than from where we were a year, a year and a half ago."
Petraeus will still be involved in Iraq policy when he takes over next month as head of the U.S. Central Command, the headquarters that oversees operations in a swathe of countries across the Middle East and beyond, including Afghanistan.
He has spent more time in Iraq than just about any other American soldier since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
While some critics question whether the security gains in Iraq are sustainable and have been matched by enough political progress, Petraeus was pivotal in getting violence down.
Upon taking command in Iraq he moved troops off their big, fortified bases and into population centres in Baghdad where al Qaeda was wreaking havoc with car bombs and sectarian death squads were roaming the streets at will.
This meant setting up small joint combat outposts throughout Baghdad and other places where U.S. soldiers lived and fought with Iraqi troops. Petraeus also ordered a wave of aggressive operations against insurgents of all stripes.
The initial stages were costly -- during the months of April-June 2007 more than 330 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq, making it the deadliest quarter of the war.
But then troop deaths began to fall rapidly as all "surge" forces deployed, increasing numbers of Sunni Arab tribal groups joined the fight against al Qaeda and Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr imposed a ceasefire on his Mehdi Army militia.

Petraeus kept up a gruelling schedule.
He made regular visits to the battlefield to speak to troops and to seek feedback on how the war was being fought.
Arriving at a military base in volatile Diyala province last October on a trip accompanied by Reuters, Petraeus went straight into a meeting with junior officers. He wanted their views without the base commander present.
That was part of Petraeus's approach, say aides: encourage the lieutenants and captains who were in the field every day to talk freely, without their immediate superiors around. Ordinary soldiers would send him emails.
Petraeus also showed media savvy in Baghdad and Washington, never getting drawn into over-optimistic predictions about Iraq when statistics showed violence dropping sharply. Even now, he repeatedly says there will be no "victory dance" in Iraq.
Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina, said Petraeus has the highest public profile and popularity of any U.S. general in years but cautioned that could change if Iraq unravelled or he did not impress in his next job.
Petraeus would face even more difficult challenges, such as the war in Afghanistan and militancy in Pakistan, when he takes on the Central Command job, Kohn said.
"He's got an even more complex situation on his hands," Kohn said.


Sudan launches fresh attacks in Darfur-faction leader

KHARTOUM: Sudanese forces on Sunday launched fresh attacks on a base held by Darfur rebels who signed a 2006 peace deal with the government, the faction's leader said.
Minni Arcua Minnawi, leader of the Sudan Liberation Army group, said he did not know why his headquarters in the East Jabel Marra area was attacked on Saturday and Sunday.
The rebel leader, who became a presidential assistant under the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement, said he was closing his office in Sudan's presidential palace in protest.
No one was available from Sudan's armed forces to comment.
Other rebels say the fighting is the latest in a string of assaults on their positions in North Darfur over the past week.

More than 200,000 people have died since rebels from the remote western region took up arms against the government in early 2003, say international experts.
Khartoum mobilised mostly Arab militia fighters to quell the revolt and now stand accused of widespread atrocities. Khartoum puts the death count at 10,000 and says the western media exaggerates the conflict.
"They attacked us last night and they attacked us again this morning," said Minnawi. "Both times we defeated them ... I do not know why the government troops are attacking us. This is how the government of Sudan behaves."
He said the base close to the town of Tabit, about 50 km (30 miles) south west of North Darfur's capital El Fasher, was attacked by government troops and allied militias, adding it was too early to estimate casualties.
Areas controlled by Minnawi's fighters have been attacked by government troops in the past. But the leader's Khartoum-based chief of staff Mohamed Bashir Abdullah said it was the first time the army had launched a direct attack on his men.
Minnawi left Khartoum and moved to another base in Darfur three months ago, saying he would not return until the Sudanese government found the will to implement the 2006 deal.
Abdullah said he had now received orders "to close down the office at the presidential palace and deliver the keys to the palace authorities".
He said Minnawi would keep his position as a presidential assistant and remain a signatory to the Darfur Peace Agreement. The office closure was a "symbolic protest" but Sunday's attacks marked a "turning point" in the group's relationship with the government, he added.
Leaders from three other rebel groups confirmed the attacks near Tabit and reported other clashes with government forces across North Darfur on Sunday.
"Bombing has been continuing up to now," said Sherif Harir from the Sudan Liberation Army's Unity wing, saying more than a week of ground and air attacks had forced residents to flee 20 villages in the remote area.
Harir said Unity fighters had killed more than 200 soldiers and forced the government troops to retreat to El Fasher and the town of Tawila. The figures could not be verified independently.
Reports of the fighting in the region were confirmed by commanders from the SLA faction led by Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur and the insurgent United Resistance Front.
An army spokesman on Saturday said troops had entered the area to arrest armed bandits but did not mention any clashes.

Plane crash in Russia kills all 88 on board

MOSCOW: A passenger jet traveling from Moscow to the Ural Mountains city of Perm crashed as it was preparing to land early Sunday, killing all 88 people on board, officials said, citing engine failure as a possible cause.
The crash on the outskirts of Perm scorched a section of railroad track and scattered paper, clothing, life preservers and engine parts for several hundred meters. Sections of the fuselage lay on the rails.
The damage shut down part of the Trans-Siberian railroad, said Alexander Burataeva, a spokesman for the national railroad company.
Among those killed was a general who commanded troops in Chechnya.
Investigators said engine failure may have caused the crash of the Boeing 737-500, which went down at about 3:15 a.m. on the outskirts of Perm, about 1,200 kilometers, or 750 miles, east of Moscow.
Flight 821, operated by an Aeroflot subsidiary, carried 82 passengers and 6 crew members, Aeroflot said. It said among those killed were citizens of the United States, France, Turkey, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Latvia.
The plane was on its approach to land amid low cloud-cover when it crashed into an unpopulated area of the city, just a few hundred meters from residential buildings. Aeroflot officials said the plane had been circling at about 1,100 meters, or 3,600 feet, in "difficult weather conditions" when it lost contact with ground dispatchers.
An Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman, Irina Andrianova, said there was no indication of terrorism.
The most likely cause of the crash was failure of one of the plane's two engines, Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the federal prosecutors' Investigative Committee, said in televised comments.
The head of the Investigative Committee said examination of the site showed the crash "apparently was connected to technical failure and a fire in the right engine," the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
"There is much evidence for this," Alexander Bastrykin was quoted as saying.
Investigators have found the plane's flight recorders and were working to analyze them.
"I felt an explosion; it threw me off the bed," a woman in Perm who was not identified told Vesti-24 TV. "My daughter ran in from the next room crying 'What happened? Has a war begun or what?"'
"Other witnesses told me that it was burning in the air, it looked like a comet. It hit the ground opposite the next house, trailing like fireworks in the sky."
Officials said there had been no deaths on the ground.
Pavel Shevchenko, a 36-year-old Perm resident who lives little more than 250 meters from the crash site, said he was awoken by an explosion and ran outside. He said the heat from the flames had kept him from approaching the site.
He said a neighbor who witnessed the crash had told him the plane hit the ground sharply - at a 30 or 40 degree angle. He said he feared acquaintances or friends could be among the dead.
"It's awful. There's just no words to describe it. Perm is a small town, everybody knows everybody else here," Shevchenko said.
Russia and the other former Soviet republics have some of the world's worst air traffic safety records, according to the International Air Transport Association. Experts have blamed weak government controls, poor pilot training and cost-cutting among many carriers.
The Aeroflot deputy director, Lev Koshlyakov, said no problems had been reported with the 15-year-old jet when it was last inspected, at the beginning of this year.
"Aeroflot has a good reputation in the field of safety," Koshlyakov told reporters at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, where the flight had departed. The crash is "a hard blow for our reputation."
The Aeroflot director, Valery Okulov, said the company was cutting ties with Aeroflot-Nord, the subsidiary that ran the flight.
Among those reported killed was Gennady Troshev, 61, an army general who commanded troops in Chechnya. Human rights activists had accused him of tolerating rampant abuses in the republic. He was dismissed in 2002 by Vladimir Putin, who then was president, after he publicly refused to accept a transfer during a power struggle within Russia's armed forces.


Roger Cohen: Premiumize or perish

NEW YORK: Thomas Pinnau, an executive at Mars Inc., the world's number one chocolate maker, has an enviable title: Vice President/Indulgence.
Now, in these times of plunging stock prices and falling sales, you'd think Pinnau might be struggling to get people to indulge. It makes sense to drop needless pleasures when cash is short. But this is a recession in which indulgence is thriving, a phenomenon that says much about our world.
Mars, whose M&M's brand is almost as ubiquitous as Coke, has just introduced a new version of the classic candy called M&M's Premiums. They are to regular M&M's what a glass of Swarovski crystal is to a plastic mug.
Costing about double their plebeian antecedents, M&M's Premiums come in hour-glass shaped re-sealable boxes with oval windows allowing a glimpse of the gem-like candies - finished in a marbleized topcoat of turquoise blue (for the chocolate almond version) or purple (for the triple chocolate.)
In all there are five flavors - mocha, mint chocolate and raspberry almond complete the range - for these pearls of confectionery, stripped of the candy shell that have characterized M&M's since their introduction in 1941.
At a recessionary moment, when many corporations are casting around for a Vice President/Survival, I asked Pinnau, who is German, what sense it makes to introduce designer M&M's with a price tag to match.
A bundle of sense, he said. The premium chocolate segment, which more than doubled in size to a $2 billion market between 2001 and 2006, is still growing "twice as fast as mainstream." Although that year-on-year growth rate has dropped in recent months to "between 5 and 10 percent from close to 20 percent," it remains vigorous.
This is the world of "premiumization," a buzzword among global corporations at a time when the luxury market is still expected to jump more than 70 percent to $450 billion by 2012.
I'll try to explain. Wealth is not so much diminishing, although it may look that way right now in the West, as it is shifting to emergent elites in places like Russia, China, India, Dubai and Brazil. This global elite is seeking the same status symbols and brands the world over.
But nobody likes to look like everyone else or consume the same way. The result is what marketers call a "differentiation frenzy." It's particularly acute because, in a post-ideological world, who you are is defined less by what you think - if you think at all - than by what you purchase and eat.
Tell me how you shop and I'll tell you who you are, whether in Shanghai or San Francisco.
A differentiation frenzy spawns things like Tasmanian Rain water, which justifies its price tag (up to $25 for a 750-milliliter bottle in luxury hotels) because it's collected "just minutes from where the World Meteorological Organization records the world's purest air."
In similar mode, you have Renova Black, a self-styled fashionable toilet paper; jewel-studded cell phones priced at $5,000 and up; Porsche baby strollers; Evian's limited-release "Palace" water; computer mice decorated with exquisite crystal; and, of course, olive oil so virgin pure the only indecent thing about it is its price.
"You have more and more discerning customers looking for forms of individual expression," Pinnau said.
Indeed, individualization and customization are two other marketing buzzwords. You can now make an online order for regular M&M's with an image of your own face on them. This enables you to eat yourself, so to speak, an act in which narcissism and individualization merge. Yum.
I'd say premiumization is a pretty good emblem for our 21st-century world. The growth of a global elite is accompanied by a hollowing out of the middle. The base of the social pyramid remains large. Staples like rice and corn still sell; super-luxury water (whatever that may be) sells; stuff in the middle does less well. Countries like Mexico increasingly resemble two societies: enclaves of Santa Barbara surrounded by slums.
That's a world in which super-premium products, characterized by authenticity and purity (Mars practices a "bean-to-bar" quality standard), thrive even in a recession.
At the start of Fashion Week here in New York, I wandered along to an M&M's Premiums event featuring Eva Longoria Parker, a star of "Desperate Housewives," the mega-hit ABC series. A sexy green M&M character got things going - "Helloooo my darling fashionistas! Look at this year's must-have accessory, shimmering chocolate gems!" - before Eva appeared in a sequined mocha outfit and sighed in loving adoration of Premiums as photographers ooohed and aaaahed.
"I'm not really a brand person," she told me in an interview afterward, "but I thought, how cool, 67 years with no change in look, and now this! It's a bit of escape, and cheaper than a Hawaiian vacation!"
In a premiumized, Desperate-Housewives recession, things are a little different. Image trumps logic. Adapt or perish.


High-priced prostitutes sharing in India's new prosperity

NEW DELHI: Zeba, a 23-year-old model and actress, says she has found the perfect job. The money is great, she rubs shoulders with the very wealthy and her working hours are convenient.
Zeba is one of thousands of high-price call girls servicing India's nouveau riche and the throng of foreign businessmen drawn to a booming economy.
"If you have a modeling assignment, you have to work hard," Zeba said in American-accented English. She declined to give her full name, saying that she was doing so to protect her identity.
"But over here," she said, "it's just one hour. You talk to the person for half-an-hour and then the other half-an-hour in bed. You make a lot of money and it's easy."
Zeba charges 200,000 rupees, or more than $4,000, for a one-hour encounter, of which the escort agency keeps half.

Prostitution is illegal in India. Yet nongovernmental agencies estimate there are two million sex workers, most of them pushed into the trade by crushing poverty. Many are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Call girls like Zeba live in a world far removed from the infamous GB Road in New Delhi, the city's main red-light district, plying their trade in five-star hotels rather than on the streets or in brothels.
Many high-price escorts are educated women from middle-class families who consider prostitution a lucrative and even glamorous profession.
Ranjana Kumari, an advocate of women's rights and director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi, said: "Only 2 to 3 percent of India's prostitutes enter the profession willingly. These are the high-class girls, and it is them exercising their democratic rights."
Kumari added, "These high-class escorts are definitely an outcome of globalized India."
The growth of upper-class prostitution in India underscores not only the affluence among those who have the money to hire such prostitutes, but also the changing role of women in a deeply conservative society.
Even today, Indian women are expected to cover up in public and conform to strict social norms. Premarital sex is taboo and Bollywood movies tease but they generally stop short of kissing.
Yet the country's newfound economic affluence and expanding middle class has also brought an insatiable appetite for the good things in life, from designer clothes and fast cars to Champagne dinners.
"With the changes in the economy and increased consumerism, the Indian woman is under pressure to conform to a highly capitalistic image which requires a lot of money to upkeep," said Anuja Agrawal, a sociologist at the University of Delhi.
"If Indian society were to really allow their women to be free," Agrawal added, "they won't be forced to conform to such a rigid behavior."
High-priced sex workers in India charge anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 rupees for an hour, but some charge many times more.
Sameer Chamadi, who runs an escort agency in India that has branches in Dubai and London, said: "I accommodate the rich multimillionaires and business entrepreneurs. Obviously, it's a very big industry and in India it is especially fast-growing."
Chamadi added, "If the guys have money, they can have my escorts."
His business is one of many online escort agencies in India that are sprouting up on the Internet.
The police in India say they try to enforce antiprostitution laws by checking classified advertisements and the Internet for those soliciting sex. But they acknowledge that it is difficult to clamp down on expensive prostitutes and wealthy clients whose liaisons are usually arranged and conducted in private.
Chamadi and other escort agency owners insist that their call girls are worth the high price and can do anything for their clients, from conversation to bondage fetishes.
Zeba said, "It's a major, major, class difference, and with us it's not just 'slam, bang, thank you, ma'am.' You can actually sit and have a proper conversation with us."
Starting out in Mumbai as a model, Zeba, a college graduate, got her break in movies through a client who was influential in Bollywood. She said she had no regrets about her chosen profession.
"I really hate people who put on an act about not liking something when they actually do," she said. "I mean, sex is not just what men want. We women want it also."


Children in servitude, the poorest of Haiti's poor

GONAÏVES, Haiti: Thousands of desperate women pushed and shoved to get at the relief food being handed out on the outskirts of this flooded city last week. Off to the side were the restaveks, the really desperate ones.
As woman after woman hauled off a sack of rice, a bag of beans and a can of cooking oil, the restaveks, a Creole term used to describe Haiti's child laborers, dropped to their knees to pick up the bits that were inadvertently dropped in the dirt.
The hurricanes and tropical storms that have whipped across the western half of Hispaniola, the island divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in the past month have laid bare the poverty and the deep divisions in Haitian society, where there are rich, poor and downright destitute.
Nobody illustrates that last group better than the restaveks, the thousands of young Haitian children handed over by their poor parents to better-off families, most of whom are struggling themselves.
The term restaveks literally means "stay with," and that is what the children do with their hosts, working as domestic servants in exchange for a roof over their head, some leftover food and, supposedly, the ability to go to school.

In practice, though, the restaveks are easy prey for exploitation. Human rights advocates say they are beaten, sexually abused and frequently denied access to education, since many host families believe that schooling will only make them less obedient.
Unicef estimates that 300,000 Haitian children were affected by the recent storms, many of them forced to relocate to shelters or rooftops.
But young Haitians suffered significantly even before the skies darkened during Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike, and more than 300 lives were lost. The country has the highest mortality rate for children younger than 5 in the Western Hemisphere, as well as a high death rate among infants and women giving birth. Just slightly over half of school-age children are actually enrolled in school. Attendance among restaveks, of course, is much less than that.
"Many of them are treated like animals," said a United Nations official who spoke on condition of anonymity because she did not have authority to speak on the delicate issue. "They are second-class citizens, little slaves. You feed them a little and they clean your house for nothing."
Gonaïves, a city in Haiti's northwest, was no boomtown when the storms hit, having been devastated by a hurricane in 2004, from which it was still recovering. But that did not stop many poor families from taking in restaveks, the offspring of the poorest of the poor.
"Almost everybody has one," said one of the women jockeying in the relief food line.
They are children like Widna and Widnise, twin 12-year-old girls who have been in the same Gonaïves home for the past two years.
They get up at dawn to fetch water, collect wood, cook, mop and clean. They watch as their host family's two children, who are about the same age, eat breakfast and then go off to school. The twins eat nothing in the morning and stay home working.
The twins have it better than most, they say. They are hit on their palms if they are disobedient but do not receive lashings on their head, as they say many of the restaveks in nearby homes receive.
In the evening, they eat with the two other children and sleep on mats on the floor, just as those children do. They had shoes, unlike many of their contemporaries, although they lost those in the flooding.
But the girls said they did not like their situation. There is the teasing they get from other children, who tell them over and over that they will never grow up, that they will always be servant girls.
And they miss their mother, who works in the countryside as a domestic servant and visits the girls when she can. She tells them that she will bring them home as soon as she can afford to feed them.
"Our mother is too poor to take care of us," said Widna, the more talkative of the pair, adding emphatically, "We don't want to be restaveks."
What they wanted most immediately on Thursday afternoon was food. Their host family had fled its flood-damaged home, leaving the girls alone. They arrived at a school in the Praville neighborhood where United Nations relief food was being handed out but were told that only women were allowed in line.
The pint-size girls sat off to the side until they noticed that some rice and beans were being dropped amid all the confusion. The girls looked at each other and then sprang into action with some of the other restaveks, scooping up the specks of food from the ground one by one.

Damien Hirst goes for broke at Sotheby's
LONDON: Damien Hirst has a recurring nightmare. His big auction here is about to begin and the Sotheby's salesroom is overflowing with collectors and dealers. Oliver Barker, the auctioneer, opens the bidding on 223 works that Hirst has produced over the past two years. Suddenly the place goes quiet. Not a paddle is raised.
"The galleries have convinced everyone not to bid," Hirst said last month, recounting the dream while overseeing the installation of "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever," his one-artist, two-day auction that begins Monday night.
"It's risky I know," he added. "But it's too late to worry about it now."
In what some experts say has the potential to change the face of art dealing, Hirst has cut out his dealers - the Gagosian Gallery in New York and the White Cube Gallery in London - and taken his work straight to auction.
Every year or so the 43-year-old British artist likes to cause a sensation. There was the summer of 2007 when thousands of people lined up outside White Cube waiting to glimpse a human skull cast in platinum and covered with 8,601 diamonds that he claimed to have sold at its $100 million asking price. When he was pressed, however, it turned out that the buyer was actually a consortium of investors that included the artist himself; Jay Jopling, owner of White Cube; and Frank Dunphy, Hirst's business manager.
"Even if the sale bombs I'm opening a new door for artists everywhere," Hirst said. Although few artists are capable of producing enough work to hold a one-man sale, his effort could inspire others to consign even one piece to an auction house rather than to a dealer.
"If you're going to do it," Hirst added. "Do it big. It's nice not to play safe."

With the current sale, Hirst may be gambling, but he has also concentrated for months on marketing. He invited major collectors like the fashion designer Muccia Prada, the Ukranian businessman Victor Pinchuk and Christie's owner, François Pinault, to his Gloucestershire studios for a private preview of the auction.
For sale will be variations on familiar themes. There will be dead animals galore: black sheep, tiger sharks, a dove, a zebra. There will also be glass cabinets filled with everything from diamonds to cigarette butts. Paintings and works on paper decorated with his signature skulls and dots, swirls and butterflies are available in all sizes. As part of his sales pitch, Hirst said he would no longer be making any more spin or butterfly paintings, far fewer dead animals and almost no dot paintings.
Estimates range from a high of $15.8 million to $23.6 million for a calf submerged in formaldehyde to about $60,000 for a colored pencil drawing of dots. Sotheby's expects the two-day sale to total about $200 million. That figure does not include the buyer's premium, the fee buyers pay Sotheby's: 25 percent of the first $20,000, 20 percent of the next $20,000 to $500,000 and 12 percent of the rest.
Sotheby's and Hirst will not reveal the details of any financial package except to say that no guarantee has been paid to him. It is safe to say that if the sale follows his recurring dream and falls flat, the unsold work will be returned to him and Sotheby's will have to write off its expenses.
Naysayers predict he is killing his own golden cow. They point out that his market has slowed considerably: In recent London auctions, a quarter of more than 20 works on offer went unsold.


Solving the mysteries of Agatha Christie in fewer pages
PARIS: "Murder is Easy," according to the title of an Agatha Christie mystery, but her readers have never been able to cut any corners.
Christie's whodunits, which have sold two billion copies, have been adapted into films, television series, plays and even computer games. But she and her heirs have always viewed another kind of adaptation with suspicion, refusing to allow her novels to be abridged.
Until now, that is.
Thirty-two years after Christie's death, the first shortened version of one of the English writer's mysteries appeared this spring - an 88-page "Death on the Nile." It was published as part of the Penguin Readers series, which is intended for students of English as a second language and young readers.
Mathew Prichard, Christie's grandson, said that after years of rejecting requests from Pearson, the publisher based in London that owns Penguin, he and other representatives of her estate relented because they saw the potential to develop a following for Christie's works in new markets, like China and India.
Christie, who found inspiration for her writing in her many travels, might well have understood the desire to push into places far beyond the reach of even the Orient Express, he noted.
"My grandmother was paranoid that she didn't want to have her work abridged," Prichard said. "I think she was right in her lifetime, but these are now the right thing to do."
Christie and her heirs had worried that some of her more complex story lines, if reduced to Reader's Digest length, might leave readers clueless. In "Murder on the Orient Express," which is being adapted into a Penguin Reader for release next year, there are 13 suspects.
The estate insisted on keeping all the "red herrings," characters who are dangled before the reader as potential killers. That might not have happened with a typical Penguin adaptation, in which the plot, among other things, can be simplified.
"We are very careful to ensure that what emerges from the process is still an Agatha Christie," Prichard said.
That, for Prichard, included personally reviewing the draft of the condensed version of "Death on the Nile." At one critical point in the story, when several suspects gather at the scene of a shooting, he insisted that a paragraph be added. The passage had been abbreviated so much, he said, that a reader trying to keep pace with the Belgian detective Hércule Poirot would have been missing a vital clue.
Equally important to Christie's estate were the linguistic subtleties of a writer who sowed some of her works as liberally with social satire as she did with clues to crimes. So in some cases, entire passages of Christie's original writing were preserved. That was not easy within the constraints of the Penguin Readers. Because they are intended as teaching aids, there are limits on the number of different words that can be used - 2,300 in the case of the Reader for "Death on the Nile."
"If students are going to enjoy them, they can't be stopping to look up every word," said Jocelyn Potter, an editor at Blue Stone Books, which condensed "Death on the Nile" and "The Body in the Library" for Pearson.
And then there was the question of what to do about other languages. Normally they would be avoided in a Penguin Reader. But the Christie estate insisted on keeping certain French phrases from Poirot, who cracks the case, in the shortened texts.
So, in "Death on the Nile," Poirot is still permitted to describe a pair of suspects as "une qui aime et un qui se laisse aimer" - translated, in a footnote, as "a woman who loves, and a man who allows himself to be loved."
"Poirot has to be portrayed very carefully, and quite right, too," Potter said. "He's very much an English conception of a Belgian in the 1920s, which is quite difficult to convey, actually."
While Poirot's French was often left intact, his English, which can puzzle even native speakers, sometimes failed to make the cut. For example, in an adaptation of "The ABC Murders" that is set for release in 2009, the editors thought it might confuse readers when Poirot says, "If the little gray cells are not exercised, they grow the rust."
So they changed that to, "If I do not use my brain, it will stop working."
While rights to Christie's original works are held by several publishers, Pearson has been trying for years to publish adaptations, said Nahla El Geyoushi, publisher of the Penguin Readers.
Christie's books have been among the most requested by English teachers surveyed about which works they would like to see condensed into Readers or a related series, called Active Reading, El Geyoushi said.


U.K. policeman who wore bin Laden mask loses Afghan training job
LONDON: A senior British police officer who dressed up as Osama bin Laden to attend a village fair has been dismissed from his job helping to build Afghanistan's security forces.
Chief Superintendent Colin Terry of the Devon and Cornwall police department dressed up as the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, complete with turban, robes and a bin Laden face mask, to attend the local charity fete last week.
He was spotted by a photographer and reported to the Independent Police Complaints Commission by his own force. Now he has also been dismissed by the Foreign Office, which oversaw his policing contract in Afghanistan.
"Chief Superintendent Colin Terry will not be returning to the Eupol mission," a spokesman for the Foreign Office said on Sunday. Eupol is a European Union-backed police training program.
Witnesses at the family fete and colleagues on the Devon and Cornwall police force said they were shocked when Terry was revealed to be the man behind the bin Laden costume.
Terry, in turn, said he was surprised by everyone's outrage. "I am quite horrified that someone would see this negatively," he was quoted as saying in the Guardian newspaper at the time. "This is a local event that has been running for many, many years, raising money for charity." He has since apologized for an "error in judgment."


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