When I wake, a storm is hammering the windows, rushing up from the south, smashing the heaviest rain I have seen all year against the house. By 7.30 a.m the siren is sounded, people are being flooded, the ground and the ditches cannot take the water. Later I hear the valley plain is inundated, the river has burst its banks. Containers are outside the supermarket, tons of spoiled goods chucked in to them. The water washes over the lane, leaving traces of stone and debris; the beech tree is in its final days for the leaves cannot hold fast.
I very much want to speak to B.
For a week, the phone has been out. I have fiddled, unplugged, replugged, switched off, switched on. I give it one more go. It's nothing more than a slight movement of the phone socket, I have a connection and I speak to her, of beaches and pools, swimming and sand, sun and summer heat.
In the evening, the rain from the south seems spent, but not the wind. It is a malevolent dusk. At 7.30 pm the lights flicker on and off as I bathe the boys and just as I get them into my bed the power dies and we are in rich black, the wind blowing through the frame of M.'s windows, under the door and into the house. I find candles, E. cries; I put the fresh batteries into the torch - I am prepared for this - he still cries; more candles and he calms. I take a hot bath in candlelight and join the boys in bed by 8.00 pm. I am very tired.
I read R.L Stevenson's tale of he and his mule heading south west from Monastier ; his night is like this, stormy and dark; he can find neither shelter nor a guide, he is lost and sleeps in the open.
Can there be a better night of the year to read this chapter before, like he, I blow out my candles and fall asleep to the sound of the storm.
By David Barboza
Sunday, November 2, 2008
SHANGHAI: Chinese regulators said over the weekend that they had confiscated and destroyed more than 3,600 tons of animal feed tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical that has been blamed for contaminating food supplies in China and for leading to global recalls of Chinese dairy products.
In what appears to be the biggest food safety crackdown in years, the government also said Saturday that it had closed 238 illegal feed makers in a series of nationwide sweeps that involved more than 369,000 government inspectors.
The aggressive moves come amid growing worries that the Chinese animal feed industry could be contaminated by melamine, endangering the national food supply and posing a health threat to consumers.
Over the past week and a half, eggs produced in three different Chinese provinces were found to be tainted with high levels of melamine, a chemical commonly used to make plastic and fertilizer. And in September, melamine-tainted milk supplies were blamed for sickening more than 50,000 children and causing at least four deaths in China.
Regulators in the southern province of Guangdong, which is heavily populated with about 80 million people and is also a major manufacturing center near Hong Kong, said they had discovered six tons of melamine-tainted animal feed.
An official at the Agriculture Ministry said that the government would mete out harsh punishments to those who were deliberately adding melamine to animal feed.
"It is illegal for any individual or any enterprise to add melamine into feed, and we will crack down uncompromisingly on melamine," Wang Zhicai, director of the animal husbandry and livestock bureau at the Agriculture Ministry, said Saturday, according to a transcript of his news conference.
But government officials also said that China's animal feed supply was largely safe and that the quality of feed had improved in recent years. They insisted that only a small number of rogue operators had deliberately added melamine to feed, often using it as cheap filler in order to save money.
The government said something similar early last year when several animal feed makers were caught exporting melamine-tainted feed ingredients to the United States and other countries, resulting in contaminated pet food supplies that sickened and killed cats and dogs.
That case led to the largest pet-food recall in U.S. history. Melamine dealers in China said in interviews last year and as recently as Friday that it was not uncommon for animal feed operators to purchase melamine scrap, a cheaper form of melamine waste, and use it as filler.
A massive food safety campaign was announced in China late last year, with inspectors closing down thousands of substandard and illegal food and feed operators. And yet this year melamine has been found in animal feed, dairy products and eggs in China, triggering food recalls and warnings all over Asia and even in the United States.
The Chinese government has responded by firing high-ranking regulators and by arresting dozens of people suspected of intentionally adding melamine to milk supplies. The government has repeatedly promised to ensure the safety of the Chinese food supply.
But the nation's food safety woes are troubling global food companies that import from China and consumers around the world who fear that melamine may turn up in their food. Although China is not a leading dairy exporter, it is one of the biggest food exporters in the world.
Still, some food safety officials are asking consumers not to be too alarmed because although the melamine-contaminated eggs found in Hong Kong exceeded the government limit, a young child would have to consume about two dozen in a single day to become sick.
The concentrations in some of the Chinese baby milk supply, however, were far higher and caused kidney stones or renal failure in tens of thousands of children.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
HANOI: Floods triggered by torrential rains in northern and central Vietnam have killed about 49 people, state media said Sunday, 18 of them in the capital, Hanoi, which has been hit by the worst flooding in more than two decades.
More flash floods were expected in the northern and central provinces later Sunday and Monday, weather forecasters said.
"The flood situation remains very complicated," the national meteorology center said in a flood report late Sunday.
Floods on the Hoang Long, Buoi and Ca rivers in northern Vietnam remained on "very high level," the government's storm and flood control committee said in the report.
State media said at least 18 people were killed by the floods in Hanoi, believed to be the heaviest to hit the capital since 1984. Among the dead were three children on their way to school.
Vietnam Television quoted flood control officials as saying about 49 people had been killed and several remained missing in floods in the country's northern and central regions.
Many streets in central Hanoi and on the outskirts of the capital remained under water and residents were seen fishing on the streets near West Lake, the city's biggest.
"Food, especially vegetables, is running out fast and prices have gone up four or five times," said Nguyen Thu Thuy, whose home has been under water since Saturday.
Television footage on Sunday showed more than 90 percent of the capital's vegetable growing acreage was under up to one meter, or three feet, of water.
Many residents in Hanoi abandoned cars and motorcycles in the streets.
Almost 50 centimeters, or 20 inches, of rain had pounded Hanoi since Friday, halting traffic, while landslides had eroded many sections of the north-south Ho Chi Minh highway in Thua Thien-Hue Province.
Vietnam's main agricultural area, including the Central Highlands coffee belt and the Mekong Delta rice basket, has not been affected by the floods, although rain has disrupted coffee harvesting in the past week.
The harvest is due to peak in mid-November in the Central Highlands, two weeks earlier than usual, but rain could prolong the drying process and damage bean quality, traders have said.
Typhoons and floods have killed several hundred people in northern and central provinces since the start of this year. The flood and storm season ends next month in the central region, which is widely exposed to the sea.
By Peter S. Goodman
Sunday, November 2, 2008
NEWTON, Iowa: Like his uncle, his grandfather and many of their neighbors, Arie Versendaal spent decades working at the Maytag factory here, turning coils of steel into washing machines.
When the plant closed last year, taking 1,800 jobs out of this town of 16,000 people, it seemed a familiar story of American industrial decline: another company town brought to its knees by the vagaries of global trade.
Except that Versendaal has a new factory job, at a plant here that makes blades for turbines that turn wind into electricity. Across the road, in the old Maytag factory, another company is building concrete towers to support the massive turbines. Together, the two plants are expected to employ nearly 700 people by early next year.
"Life's not over," Versendaal says. "For 35 years, I pounded my body to the ground. Now, I feel like I'm doing something beneficial for mankind and the United States. We've got to get used to depending on ourselves instead of something else, and wind is free. The wind is blowing out there for anybody to use."
From the faded steel enclaves of Pennsylvania to the reeling auto towns of Michigan and Ohio, state and local governments are aggressively courting manufacturing companies that supply wind energy farms, solar electricity plants and factories that turn crops into diesel fuel.
This courtship has less to do with the loftiest aims of renewable energy proponents — curbing greenhouse gas emissions and lessening American dependence on foreign oil — and more to do with paychecks. In the face of rising unemployment, renewable energy has become a crucial source of good jobs, particularly for laid-off Rust Belt workers.
Amid a presidential election campaign dominated by economic concerns, wind turbines and solar panels seem as ubiquitous in campaign advertisements as the American flag.
No one believes that renewable energy can fully replace what has been lost on the American factory floor, where people with no college education have traditionally been able to finance middle-class lives. Many at Maytag earned $20 an hour in addition to health benefits. Versendaal now earns about $13 an hour.
Still, it's a beginning in a sector of the economy that has been marked by wrenching endings, potentially a second chance for factory workers accustomed to layoffs and diminished aspirations.
In West Branch, Iowa, a town of 2,000 people east of Iowa City, workers assemble wind turbines in a former pump factory. In northwestern Ohio, glass factories suffering because of the downturn in the auto industry are retooling to make solar energy panels.
"The green we're interested in is cash," says Norman Johnston, who started a solar cell factory called Solar Fields in Toledo, Ohio, in 2003.
The market is potentially enormous. In a report last year, the U.S. Energy Department concluded that the United States could make wind energy the source of one-fifth of its electricity by 2030, up from about 2 percent today. That would require nearly $500 billion in new construction and add more than three million jobs, the report said. Much of the growth would be around the Great Lakes, the hardest-hit region in a country that has lost four million manufacturing jobs over the last decade.
Throw in solar energy along with generating power from crops, and the continued embrace of renewable energy would create as many as five million jobs by 2030, asserts Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and an adviser to the presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama.
The unfolding financial crisis seems likely to slow the pace of development, making investment harder to secure. But renewable energy has already gathered what analysts say is unstoppable momentum. In Texas, the oil baron T. Boone Pickens is developing what would be the largest wind farm in the world. Most states now require that a significant percentage of electricity be generated from wind, solar and biofuels, effectively giving the market a government mandate.
And many analysts expect the United States to eventually embrace some form of new regulatory system aimed at curbing global warming that would force coal-fired electricity plants to pay for the pollution they emit. That could make wind, solar and other alternative fuels competitive in terms of the cost of producing electricity.
Both presidential candidates have made expanding renewable energy a policy priority. Obama, the Democratic nominee, has outlined plans to spend $150 billion over the next decade to spur private companies to invest. Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, has spoken more generally of the need for investment.
In June, more than 12,000 people and 770 exhibitors jammed a convention center in Houston for the annual American Wind Energy Association trade show. "Five years ago, we were all walking around in Birkenstocks," says John Brown, managing director of a turbine manufacturer, Entegrity Wind Systems of Boulder, Colorado, which had a booth on the show floor. "Now it's all suits. You go to a seminar, and it's getting taught by lawyers and bankers."
So it goes in Iowa. Perched on the edge of the Great Plains — the so-called Saudi Arabia of wind — the state has rapidly become a leading manufacturing center for wind power equipment.
"We are blessed with certainly some of the best wind in the world," says Governor Chet Culver of Iowa.
Maytag was born in Newton more than a century ago. Even after the company swelled into a global enterprise, its headquarters remained here, in the center of the state, 35 miles east of Des Moines.
"Newton was an island," says Ted Johnson, the president of local chapter of the United Automobile Workers, which represented the Maytaggers. "We saw autos go through hard times, other industries. But we still had meat on our barbecues."
The end began in the summer of 2005. Whirlpool, the appliance conglomerate, swallowed up Maytag. As the word spread that local jobs were doomed — Whirlpool was consolidating three factories' production into two — workers unloaded their memorabilia at Pappy's Antique Mall downtown: coffee mugs, buttons, award plaques.
"If it said Maytag on it, we bought it," says Susie Jones, the store manager. "At first, I thought the stuff had value. Then, it was out of the kindness of my heart. And now I don't have any heart left. It don't sell. People are mad at them. They ripped out our soul."
When the town needed a library, a park or a community college, Maytag lent a hand. The company was Newton's largest employer, its wages paying for tidy houses, new cars, weddings, retirement parties and funerals.
As Whirlpool made plans to shutter the factory, state and county economic development officials scrambled to attract new employers. In June 2007, the local government dispatched a team to the American Wind Energy Association show in Los Angeles. Weeks later, a company called TPI Composites arrived in Newton to have a look.
Based in Arizona, TPI makes wind turbine blades by layering strips of fiberglass into large molds, requiring a long work space. The Maytag plant was too short. So local officials showed TPI an undeveloped piece of land encircled by cornfields on the edge of town where a new plant could be built.
Although TPI was considering a site in Mexico with low labor costs, Newton had a better location. Rail lines and Interstate 80 connect it to the Great Plains, where the turbines are needed. Former Maytag employees were eager for work, and the community college was ready to teach them blade-making.
Newton won. In exchange for $6 million in tax sweeteners, TPI promised to hire 500 people by 2010. It has already hired about 225 and is on track to have a work force of 290 by mid-November.
"Getting 500 jobs in one swoop is like winning the lottery," says Mayor Chaz Allen of Newton. "We don't have to just roll over and die."
On a recent afternoon, workers inside the cavernous TPI plant gaze excitedly at a crane lifting a blade from its mold and carrying it toward a cleared area. Curved and smooth, the blade stretches as long as a wing of the largest jets. One worker hums the theme from "Jaws" as the blade slips past.
Larry Crady, a worker, takes particular pleasure in seeing the finished product overhead, a broad grin forming across his goateed face. He used to run a team that made coin-operated laundry machines at Maytag. Now he supervises a team that lays down fiberglass strips between turbine moldings. He runs his hand across the surface of the next blade for signs of unevenness.
"I like this job more than I did Maytag," Crady says. "I feel I'm doing something to improve our country, rather than just building a washing machine."
Ask him how long he spent at Maytag and Crady responds precisely: "23.6 years." Which is to say, 6.4 years short of drawing a pension whose famously generous terms compelled so many to work at the Maytag plant. "That's what everyone in Newton was waiting on," he says. "You could get that 30 and out."
But he is now optimistic about the decades ahead. "I feel solid," he says. "This is going to be the future. This company is going to grow huge."
The human resources office at TPI is overseen by Terri Rock, who used to have the same position at Maytag's corporate headquarters, where she worked for two decades. In her last years there, her job was mostly spent ending other people's jobs.
"There was a lot of heartache," she says. "This is a small town, and you'd have to let people go and then see them at the grocery store with their families. It was a real tough job at the end."
Now, Rock starts fresh careers, hiring as many as 20 people a week. She enjoys the creative spirit of a start-up. "We're not stuck with the mentality of 'this is how we've done it for the last 35 years,' " she says.
Maytag is gone in large part because of the calculus driving globalization: household appliances and so many other goods are now produced mostly where physical labor is cheaper, in countries like China and Mexico. But wind turbines and blades are huge and heavy. The TPI plant is in Iowa largely because of the costs of shipping such huge items from far away.
"These are American jobs that are hard to export," says Crugar Tuttle, general manager of the TPI plant.
And these jobs are part of a build-out that is gathering force. More than $5 billion in venture capital poured into so-called clean energy technology industries last year in North America and Europe, according to Cleantech, a trade group. In North America, that represented nearly a fifth of all venture capital, up from less than 2 percent in 2000.
"Everybody involved in the wind industry is in a massive hurry to build out capacity," Tuttle says. "It will feed into a whole local industry of people making stuff, driving trucks. Manufacturing has been in decline for decades. This is our greatest chance to turn it around. It's the biggest ray of hope that we've got."
Those rays aren't touching everyone, though. Hundreds of former Maytag workers remain without jobs, or stuck in positions paying less than half their previous wages. Outside an old union hall, some former Maytaggers share cigarettes and commiserate about the strains of starting over.
Johnson, the former local president, is jobless. At 45, he has slipped back into a world of financial hardship that he thought he had escaped. His father was a self-employed welder. His mother worked at an overalls factory.
"I grew up in southern Iowa with nothing," he says. "If somebody got a new car, everybody heard about it."
When Maytag shut down, his $1,100-a-week paycheck became a $360 unemployment check. He and his wife divorced, turning what once was a two-income household into a no-income household. He sold off his truck, his dining room furniture, his Maytag refrigerator — all in an effort to pay his mortgage. Last winter, he surrendered his house to foreclosure.
Johnson has applied for more than 220 jobs, he says, from sales positions at Lowe's to TPI. He has yet to secure an interview. His unemployment benefits ran out in May. He no longer has health insurance. He recently broke a tooth where a filling had been, but he can't afford to have it fixed.
When his teenage daughter, who lives with him, complained of headaches, he paid $1,500 out of pocket for an MRI. The doctor found a cyst on her brain. And how is she doing now? Johnson freezes at the question. He is a grown man with silver hair, a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt across a barrel chest, and calloused hands that could once bring a comfortable living. He tries to compose himself, but tears burst. "I'm sorry," he says.
He signed up for a state insurance program for low-income families so his daughter could go to a neurologist.
Although the United States is well behind Europe in manufacturing wind-power gear and solar panels, other American communities are joining Newton's push, laying the groundwork for large-scale production.
"You have to reinvest in industrial capacity," says Randy Udall, an energy consultant in Carbondale, Colorado. "You use wind to revitalize the Rust Belt. You make steel again. You bring it home. We ought to be planting wind turbines as if they were trees."
In West Branch, a Spanish company, Acciona, has converted the empty hydraulic pump factory into a plant that makes wind turbines. When the previous plant closed, it wiped out 130 jobs; Acciona has hired 120 people, many of them workers from the old factory.
Steve Jennings, 50, once made $14 an hour at the hydraulic pump factory. When he heard that a wind turbine plant was coming in a mere five miles, or eight kilometers, from his house, he was among the first to apply for a job. Now he's a team leader, earning nearly $20 an hour — more than he's ever made. Ordinary line workers make $16 an hour and up.
"It seemed like manufacturing was going away," he says. "But I think this is here to stay."
Acciona built its first turbine in Iowa last December and is on track to make 200 this year. Next year, it plans to double production.
For now, Acciona is importing most of its metal parts from Europe. But the company is seeking American suppliers, which could help catalyze increased metalwork in the United States.
"Michigan, Ohio — that's the Rust Belt," says Adrian LaTrace, the plant's general manager. "We could be purchasing these components from those states. We've got the attention of the folks in the auto industry. This thing has critical mass."
In Toledo, the declining auto industry has prompted a retooling. For more than a century, the city has been dominated by glass-making, but the problems of Detroit automakers have softened demand for car windows from its plants. Toledo has lost nearly a third of its manufacturing jobs since 2000.
Now, Toledo is harnessing its glass-making skills to carve out a niche in solar power. At the center of the trend is a huge glass maker, Pilkington, which bought a Toledo company that was born in the 19th century.
Half of Pilkington's business is in the automotive industry. In the last two years, that business is down 30 percent in North America. But the solar division, started two years ago, is growing at a 40 percent clip annually.
Nearby, the University of Toledo aims to play the same enabling role in solar power that Stanford played at the dawn of the Internet. It has 15 faculty members researching solar power. By licensing the technologies spawned in its labs, the university encourages its academics to start businesses.
One company started by a professor, Xunlight, is developing thin and flexible solar cells. It has 65 employees and expects to have as many as 150 by the middle of next year.
"It's a second opportunity," says an assembly supervisor, Matt McGilvery, one of Xunlight's early hires. McGilvery, 50, spent a decade making steel coils for $23 an hour before he was laid off. Xunlight hired him this year. His paycheck has shrunk, he says, declining to get into particulars, but his old-fashioned skills drawing plans by hand are again in demand as Xunlight designs its manufacturing equipment from scratch, and the future seems promising.
"The hope is that two years from now everything is smoking and that envelope will slide across the table," he says. "The money that people are dumping into this tells me it's a huge market."
In Newton, the tidy downtown clustered around a domed courthouse is already showing signs of new life, after the pain of Maytag's demise.
The owner of Courtyard Floral, Diane Farver, says she saw a steep drop in sales after Maytag left, particularly around holidays like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, when she used to run several vanloads a week to the washing machine plant. Times have changed since that decline. When TPI recently dispatched workers to a factory in China for training, the company ordered bouquets for the spouses left at home.
Across the street at NetWork Realty, the broker Dennis Combs says the housing market is starting to stabilize as Maytag jobs are replaced.
"We've gone from Maytag, which wasn't upgrading their antiquated plant, to something that's cutting-edge technology, something that every politician is screaming this country has to have," he says.
At Uncle Nancy's Coffee House, talk of unemployment checks and foreclosures now mixes with job leads and looming investment.
"We're seeing hope," says Allen, the mayor.
The town is hardly done. Kimberly Didier, head of the Newton Development Corporation, which helped recruit TPI, is trying to attract turbine manufacturers and providers of raw materials and parts for the wind industry.
"This is in its infancy," she says. "Automobiles, washer-dryers and other appliances have become commodities in their retirement phase. We're in the beginning of this. How our economy functions is changing. We built this whole thing around oil, and now we've got to replace that."
Sunday, November 2, 2008
By James Mackenzie
Plans for a partial privatisation of France's state-owned post office operator La Poste will not go ahead for the moment given the current market turmoil, a senior adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Sunday.
"There is no question in the situation we're in at the moment, of opening up the capital of La Poste," Henri Guaino, one of Sarkozy's inner circle of advisers, told Europe 1 radio.
A spokeswoman for La Poste declined to comment on Guaino's remarks which added another name to the list of privatisations hit by the financial crisis following German rail operator Deutsche Bahn.
La Poste said earlier this year it was studying opening its capital to private investors ahead of the liberalisation of Europe's post office sector in 2011 and has asked the government for a change of status that would allow the move to go ahead.
The distinctive blue and yellow signs of La Poste are a fixed part of the landscape of towns and villages across France and with some 280,000 employees, the partial privatisation has been an intensely sensitive issue.
The group had hoped to raise 2.5-3 billion euros (1.97 - 2.36 billion pounds) from the sale, which had been expected in 2010 but with world stock markets gyrating wildly in recent weeks, investors have had little appetite for new share issues.
But even if La Poste does not raise capital by selling shares to private investors, it still needs billions of euros to compete with rivals such as United Parcel Service or privatised German post office operator Deutsche Post .
President Nicolas Sarkozy has appointed a special commission, headed by Francois Ailleret, a former senior executive of power group EDF to study the future of the post office and it is expected to report in December.
In a separate radio interview, given after his initial comments sparked a minor media storm, Guaino insisted that the government's position was unchanged and a final decision would depend on the findings of the special commission.
"We'll see if that's opening up its capital or if there's another way of bringing in capital," Guaino told France Info.
"That decision hasn't been taken, it won't be taken tomorrow morning, it will be taken over the coming months," he said, adding that plans to change the post office's status to that of a limited company would be maintained.
With public funding ever more tightly squeezed, La Poste had been looking to private finance to expand into new sectors away from traditional mail delivery and to prepare for a revolution in European postal and logistics services expected after 2011.
The sell-off plans, heavily criticised by unions and the left-wing opposition, sparked a strike in September by tens of thousands of postal workers concerned that opening up La Poste's capital would be just the first step towards full privatisation.
Guaino's remarks, hailed as a "fantastic victory" by the French Communist Party, were also welcomed by postal union Sud-PTT, which demanded that the plans be scrapped entirely and which repeated calls for a renewed protest on Nov 22.
(Editing by Lincoln Feast and Jason Neely)
By Stephen Castle
Sunday, November 2, 2008
BRUSSELS: Once described by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France as his "Mediterranean dream," a plan to bind Europe to its southern neighbors was supported by no fewer than 43 countries at a summit meeting in a glittering Parisian palace in July.
Four months later, the Union for the Mediterranean is deadlocked over where to base its headquarters, who should attend meetings and who should get the top jobs.
On Monday in Marseilles, foreign ministers from the 27 European Union nations and their Mediterranean neighbors (plus Jordan and Mauritania) will engage in a round of horse-trading designed to find a way out of the impasse.
The meeting will be a crucial test of the credibility of plans for Europe to cooperate with southern neighbors on issues ranging from immigration and energy to the environment and transport.
Sarkozy's idea for a Mediterranean Union was always controversial and infuriated Germany because, when first proposed, it appeared to exclude the EU's northern states.
The French president compromised, renaming the initiative the Barcelona Process Union for the Mediterranean, in deference to the Barcelona Process, an EU initiative toward the Mediterranean nations that began in 1995 and has failed to deliver on expectations.
Undeterred by the challenge of doing business with a constellation of countries as diverse as Israel, Turkey and Syria, Sarkozy argued that the EU's southern states and their non-EU neighbors should "realize that their destinies are tied together."
Instead, the countries involved are sparring over the location of the body's secretariat, a decision that will bring jobs and prestige.
Tunis emerged as an early favorite, backed by France, but then Malta pitched in. Barcelona has become a strong rival, offering as a base the Palace of Pedralbes, a grand, 17th-century building whose grounds include a fountain created by Antoni Gaudí.
Meanwhile the European commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said Friday that she had proposed Brussels as a backup in case there was no agreement.
The EU has a history of arguing over such decisions: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy once stopped a plan to situate an EU food safety agency in Helsinki, complaining that the Finns did not even know what prosciutto was.
But the dispute highlights one of the fault lines in the Barcelona Process Union for the Mediterranean: ambivalence over the importance of democratic reform in southern states.
Tunis proved controversial because some felt Tunisia's human rights failings would send the wrong message about the priorities for the Union for the Mediterranean.
Álvaro de Vasconcelos, director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies, an EU-financed foreign policy research institute, said that differentiated the Barcelona Process Union for the Mediterranean from European efforts to spread its influence beyond its eastern borders.
"Most European governments," de Vasconcelos said, "still consider stability is the foremost objective when dealing with countries to the south. That is as opposed to the east, where they equate democracy with stability. This makes it more difficult to sustain the process of reform."
While that has made the site of the body a difficult decision, its workings are being dogged by another problem that afflicted the old Barcelona Process: divisions over the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
The Barcelona Process Union for the Mediterranean includes both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as their neighbors, and one issue blocking progress is whether the Arab League should have full representation (it was an observer in many meetings of the Barcelona Process).
There are also complex disputes over how to give the southern nations a stake in the process equal to the EU's. Sarkozy's idea was to have a two-year co-presidency, with one side drawn from the EU and the other from the south.
On the European side, France wants to have the job for two years, even though its rotating presidency of the EU ends Dec. 31.
Egypt is a candidate for the southern side, but given that the decision will need to be agreed on by both Israel and Syria, the choice is not straightforward. Nor are decisions on the nationality of permanent officials.
Ferrero-Waldner called for an emphasis on concrete projects that have been identified, like developing transport infrastructure and cleaning up the Mediterranean Sea.
But she acknowledged the problems that beset the Barcelona Process remain, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
"If it improves on the Barcelona Process, then so much the better," Ferrero-Waldner said, "but there are also some difficulties that won't go away from today to tomorrow."
Some see the Barcelona Process Union for the Mediterranean as an example of what they call Sarkozy's hyperactive brand of diplomacy, brimming with political energy but light on content. Others see a more optimistic scenario in which the initiative - alongside existing EU policies to cooperate with such eastern neighbors as Ukraine - creates a flexible framework allowing closer ties with those nations more interested in reform.
"The offer is more or less clear," de Vasconcelos said, "that the advanced states - like Morocco or Israel - should have access to European programs. What is on offer is a kind of political stimulus, and a differentiated structure in which southern states that would like to develop deeper relationship with EU can do so."
By Julie Bosman
Sunday, November 2, 2008
OCALA, Florida: Sarah Palin has been punk'd.
On Saturday, a pair of Canadian comedians, notorious for playing pranks on politicians and heads of state, reached Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, and pretended to be President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.
According to an audio recording, a press aide handed the phone to Palin, who enthusiastically greeted the fake Sarkozy. "It's so good to hear you, thank you for calling us," she said. "We have such great respect for you, John McCain and I. We love you!"
Speaking in an exaggerated French accent, the fake Sarkozy dropped names of Canadian non-officials, frequently interrupted her midsentence and told her he saw her as president one day.
"Maybe in eight years," Palin said.
The duo, Sébastien Trudel and Marc-Antoine Audette of CKOI, a radio station in Montreal, have pulled similar pranks on Mick Jagger, Bill Gates and Jacques Chirac.
At one point, Audette, as Sarkozy, said he shared her interest in hunting.
"Oh, very good, we should go hunting together," Palin said.
"I just love killing those animals," he said. "Taking away life, that is so fun!"
She laughed politely.
He added: "As long as we don't bring Vice President Cheney."
More laughter from Palin. "No, I'll be a careful shot," she promised.
The call ended after about six minutes, when the caller disclosed the masquerade.
"Oh, have we been pranked?" Palin asked. "What radio station is this?"
Sarkozy himself was once the victim of the same comedians, Les Justiciers Masqués, or The Masked Avengers. They kept him on the line for three minutes just moments after he was elected president of France last year, by impersonating Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada. Sarkozy hung up fast when the comedians proposed inviting him and President George W. Bush to a "dinner of fools."
The Élysée Palace had no comment Sunday on the Palin incident.
Tracey Schmitt, Palin's spokeswoman, said in a statement: "Governor Palin received a phone call on Saturday from a French Canadian talk show host claiming to be French President Nicholas Sarkozy. Governor Palin was mildly amused to learn that she had joined the ranks of heads of state, including President Sarkozy, and other celebrities in being targeted by these pranksters. C'est la vie."
Caroline Brothers contributed reporting from Paris.
Studs Terkel, ground-breaking U.S. oral historian, dies at 96
By William Grimes
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Studs Terkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose searching interviews with ordinary Americans helped establish oral history as a serious genre and who for decades was the voluble host of a popular radio show in Chicago, died Friday at his home in Chicago. He was 96.
His death was confirmed by Lois Baum, a friend and longtime colleague at WFMT radio.
In his oral histories, which he called guerrilla journalism, Terkel relied on his enthusiastic but gentle interviewing style to elicit, in rich detail, the experiences and thoughts of his fellow citizens. Over the decades, he developed a continuous narrative of great historic moments sounded by an American chorus in the native vernacular.
"Division Street: America" (1966), his first best seller and the first in a triptych of tape-recorded works, explored the urban conflicts of the 1960s. Its success led to "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression" (1970) and "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do" (1974).
"'The Good War': An Oral History of World War II," won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
In "Talking to Myself" (1977), Terkel turned the microphone on himself to produce an engaging memoir, and in "Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession" (1992) and "Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It" (1995), he reached for his ever-present tape recorder for interviews on race relations in the United States and the experience of growing old.
Although detractors derided him as a sentimental populist whose views were simplistic, Terkel was widely credited with transforming oral history into a popular literary form. In 1985, a reviewer for The Financial Times characterized Terkel's books as "completely free of sociological claptrap, armchair revisionism and academic moralizing."
The elfin, amiable Terkel was a gifted and seemingly tireless interviewer who elicited provocative insights and colorful, detailed personal histories from a broad mix of people. "The thing I'm able to do, I guess, is break down walls," he once told an interviewer. "If they think you're listening, they'll talk. It's more of a conversation than an interview."
Terkel succeeded as an interviewer in part because he believed most people had something to say worth hearing. "The average American has an indigenous intelligence, a native wit. It's only a question of piquing that intelligence."
In the late 1930s, while acting in the theater, Terkel dropped his given name, Louis, and adopted the name Studs, from another colorful Chicagoan, James T. Farrell's fictional Studs Lonigan.Jacques Piccard, 86, scientistand underwater explorer
Jacques Piccard, a scientist and underwater explorer who plunged deep beneath the ocean, died Saturday, his son's company said and The Associated Press reported. He was 86.
Piccard died at his Lake Geneva home in Switzerland, the company Solar Impulse said.
On Jan. 23, 1960, he and Lieutenant Don Walsh of the U.S. Navy took a bathyscaph into the Pacific's Mariana Trench and dove to a depth of 35,800 feet - nearly 11 kilometers, or 7 miles, below sea level.
That exploit remains the deepest dive ever carried out.
Jacques' physicist father, Auguste, was the first man to take a balloon into the stratosphere and his son, Bertrand, was the first man to fly a balloon nonstop around the world.
By Charles Duhigg and Carter Dougherty
Sunday, November 2, 2008
"People come up to me in the grocery store and say, 'How did we get suckered into this?' "
— Marc Hujik, of the Kenosha, Wisconsin, school board
On a snowy day two years ago, the school board in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, gathered to discuss a looming problem: how to plug a gaping hole in the teachers' retirement plan.
It turned to David Noack, a trusted local investment banker, who proposed that the district borrow from overseas and use the money for a complex investment that offered big profits.
"Every three months you're going to get a payment," he promised, according to a tape of the meeting. But would it be risky? "There would need to be 15 Enrons" for the district to lose money, he said.
The board and four other nearby districts ultimately invested $200 million in the deal, most of it borrowed from an Irish bank. Without realizing it, the schools were imitating hedge funds.
Half a continent away, New York subway officials were also being wooed by bankers. Officials were told that just as home buyers had embraced adjustable-rate loans, New York could save money by borrowing at lower interest rates that changed every day.
For some of the deals, the officials were encouraged to rely on the same Irish bank as the Wisconsin schools.
During the go-go investing years, school districts, transit agencies and other government entities were quick to jump into the global economy, hoping for fast gains to cover growing pension costs and budgets without raising taxes. Deals were arranged by armies of persuasive financiers who received big paydays.
But now, hundreds of cities and government agencies are facing economic turmoil. Far from being isolated examples, the Wisconsin schools and the New York transportation system are among the many players in a financial fiasco that has ricocheted globally.
The Wisconsin schools are on the brink of losing their money, confronting educators with possible budget cuts. Interest rates for New York's subways are skyrocketing and contributing to budget woes that have transportation officials considering higher fares and delaying long-planned track repairs.
And the bank at the center of the saga, named Depfa, is in trouble, threatening the stability of its parent company in Munich and forcing German officials to intervene with a multibillion-dollar bailout to stop a chain reaction that could freeze the German economic system.
"I am really worried," said Becky Velvikis, a first-grade teacher at Grewenow Elementary in Kenosha, Wisconsin, one of the districts that invested in Noack's deal. "If millions of dollars are gone, what happens to my retirement? Or the construction paper and pencils and supplies we need to teach?"
The trail through Wisconsin, New York and Europe illustrates how this financial crisis has moved around the world so fast, why it is so hard to tame, and why cities, schools and many other institutions will probably struggle for years.
"The local papers and radio shows call us idiots, and now when I go home, my kids ask me, 'Dad, did you do something wrong?' " said Shawn Yde, the director of business services in the Whitefish Bay district. "This is something I'll regret until the day I die."
Whitefish Bay's school district did not intend to become a hedge fund. It and four nearby districts were just trying to finance retirement obligations that were growing as health care costs rose.
Noack, the local representative of Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., a St. Louis, Missouri, investment bank, had been advising Wisconsin school boards for two decades, helping them borrow for new gymnasiums and classrooms. His father had taught at an area high school for 47 years. All six of his children attended Milwaukee schools.
Noack told the Whitefish Bay board that investing in the global economy carried few risks, according to the tape.
"What's the best investment? It's called a collateralized debt obligation," or a CDO, Noack said. He described it as a collection of bonds from 105 of the most reputable companies that would pay the school board a small return every quarter.
"We're being very conservative," Noack told the board, composed of lawyers, salesmen and a homemaker who lived in the affluent Milwaukee suburb.
Soon, Whitefish Bay and the four other districts borrowed $165 million from Depfa and contributed $35 million of their own money to purchase three CDO's sold by the Royal Bank of Canada, which had a relationship with Noack's company.
But Noack's explanation of a CDO was very wrong. Noack, who through his lawyer declined to comment, had attended only a two-hour training session on CDO's, he told a friend.
The schools' $200 million was actually used as collateral for a complicated form of insurance guaranteeing about $20 billion of corporate bonds. That investment — known as a synthetic CDO — committed the boards to paying off other bondholders if corporations failed to honor their debts.
If just 6 percent of the bonds insured went bad, the Wisconsin educators could lose all their money. If none of the bonds defaulted, the schools would receive about $1.8 million a year after paying off their own debt. By comparison, the CDO's offered only a modestly better return than a $35 million investment in ultra-safe Treasury bonds, which would have paid about $1.5 million a year, with virtually no risk.
The boards, as part of their deal, received thick packets of documents.
"I've never read the prospectus," said Marc Hujik, a local financial adviser and a member of the Kenosha school board who spent 13 years on Wall Street. "We had all our questions answered satisfactorily by Dave Noack, so I wasn't worried."
Wisconsin schools were not the only ones to jump into such complicated financial products. More than $1.2 trillion of CDO's have been sold to buyers of all kinds since 2005 — including many American cities and government agencies — an increase of 270 percent from the four previous years combined, according to Thomson Reuters.
"Selling these products to municipalities was pretty widespread," said Janet Tavakoli, a finance industry consultant in Chicago. "They tend to be less sophisticated. So bankers sell them products stuffed with junk."
From the Wisconsin deal, the Royal Bank of Canada received promises of payments totaling about $11.2 million, according to documents. Stifel Nicolaus made about $1.2 million. Noack's total salary was about $300,000 a year, according to someone with knowledge of his finances. And Depfa received interest on its loans.
In separate statements, the Royal Bank of Canada and Stifel Nicolaus said board members signed documents indicating they understood the investments' risks. Both companies said they were not financial advisers to the boards but merely sold them products or services. Stifel Nicolaus said its relationship with the boards ended in 2007. Noack now works for a rival firm.
"Everyone knew New York guys were making tons of money on these kinds of deals," said Hujik, of the school board. "It wasn't implausible that we could make money, too."
A Bank Goes Global
By the time Depfa financed the Wisconsin schools' investment, it had already become an emblem of the new global economy. It was founded 86 years ago as a sleepy German lender, and for most of its history had focused on its home market.
But in 2002 a new chief executive, Gerhard Bruckermann, moved Depfa to the freewheeling financial center of Dublin to take advantage of low corporate taxes. He soon pushed the company into São Paulo, Mumbai, Warsaw, Hong Kong, Dallas, New York, Tokyo and elsewhere. Depfa became one of the most profitable banks in Europe and was famous for lavish events and large paychecks. In 2006, top executives took home the equivalent of $33 million at current exchange rates.
Bruckermann was a gregarious leader who joked that he hoped to make all employees into millionaires. He divided his time between a London home and a vast farm in Spain, where he grew exotic medicinal plants. And his success fueled an arrogance, former colleagues say.
Bruckermann once told a trade publication that Depfa, unlike German banks, understood how to benefit from the global economy. "With our efforts, we are like the one-eyed man who becomes king in the land of the blind," he was quoted as saying.
Bruckermann, who left the bank earlier this year, did not respond to requests for an interview.
But as Depfa grew, other European banks began competing with the firm. So executives stretched into riskier deals — the sort that would eventually send shockwaves across Europe and the United States.
Some of Bruckermann's employees grew concerned about deals like one struck in 2005 with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York, the agency overseeing the city and suburban subways, buses and trains.
For years, municipal agencies like the transportation authority had raised money by issuing plain-vanilla bonds with fixed interest rates. But then bankers began telling officials that there was a way to get cheaper financing.
Bankers said that cities, like home buyers, could save money with adjustable-rate loans, where the payments started low and changed over time. What they did not emphasize was that such payments could eventually skyrocket. Such borrowing — known as variable-rate bonds — also carried big fees for Wall Street.
The pitches were very successful. Municipalities issued twice as many variable-rate bonds last year as they did a decade earlier.
But variable-rate bonds had a hitch: many investors would purchase them only if a bank like Depfa was hired as a buyer of last resort, ready to acquire bonds from investors who could find no other buyers. Depfa collected fees for serving that role, but expected it would rarely have to honor such pledges.
Bruckermann's salespeople traveled the world encouraging officials to sign up for variable-rate loans. And bureaucrats and politicians, including some in New York, jumped in.
By 2006 Depfa was the largest buyer of last resort in the world, standing behind $2.9 billion of bonds issued that year alone. It backed a $200 million bond issued by the New York Transportation Authority.
But as Depfa grew, it became more reliant on enormous short-term loans to finance its operations. Those loans cost less, and thus helped the bank achieve higher profits, but only when times were good. Indeed, some employees were worried about that debt.
But Bruckermann plowed ahead, and it paid off. In 2007, even as the global economy was softening, Bruckermann persuaded one of Germany's biggest lenders, Hypo Real Estate, to purchase Depfa for $7.8 billion. Bruckermann's cut was more than $150 million. He left the company to grow oranges on his Spanish estate.
The Risks Turn Bad
Last March, the delicate web tying Wisconsin, Dublin and New York became an anchor dragging everyone down.
Yde, the director of business services for the Whitefish Bay district, began receiving troubling messages indicating the district's investments were declining. Worried, he started coming into his office at dawn, before the hallways of Whitefish Bay High School filled with students.
As the sun rose, Yde searched for explanations by the light of his computer screen. He googled "CDO's." He called bankers in London and New York. Each person referred him to someone else.
Then notices arrived saying that the bonds insured by Whitefish Bay's CDO's were defaulting. It became increasingly likely that the district's money would be seized to pay off other bondholders. Most, if not all, of the $200 million would probably be lost.
As other districts received similar notices, panic grew. For some boards, interest payments on borrowed money were now larger than revenue from the investments. Officials began quietly warning that they might have to dip into school funds.
"This is going to have a tremendous financial impact," said Robert Kitchen, a member of the West Allis-West Milwaukee school board. Officials say some districts may have to cut courses like art and drama, curtail gym and classroom maintenance, or forgo replacing teachers who retire.
Problems were emerging elsewhere, as well.
Depfa's executives were realizing that their loans to the Wisconsin schools were unlikely to be repaid. Additionally, bonds all over the world were declining in value, exposing the company to the possibility they would have to make good on their pledges as a buyer of last resort. And Depfa was still borrowing billions each month to cover its short-term loans. By autumn, the short-term debt of the bank and its parent company, Hypo, totaled $81 billion.
Then, in mid-September, the American investment bank Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. Short-term lending markets froze up. Ratings agencies, including Standard & Poor's, downgraded Depfa, citing the company's difficulties borrowing at affordable rates.
That set off a crisis in Germany, where officials worried that Depfa's sudden need for cash would drag down its parent company and set off a chain reaction at other banks. The German government and private banks extended $64 billion in credit to Hypo to stop it from imploding.
"We will not allow the distress of one financial institution to endanger the entire system," Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said at the time.
That crisis spread almost immediately to the New York transportation authority.
The authority, guided by Gary Dellaverson, a rumpled, cigarillo-smoking chief financial officer, had $3.75 billion of variable-rate debt outstanding.
About $200 million of that debt was backed by Depfa. When the bank was downgraded, investors dumped those transportation bonds, because of worries they would get stuck with them if Depfa's problems worsened. Depfa was forced to buy $150 million of them, and bonds worth billions of dollars issued by other municipalities.
Then came the twist: Depfa's contracts said that if it bought back bonds, the municipalities had to pay a higher-than-average interest rate. The New York transportation authority's repayment obligation could eventually balloon by about $12 million a year on the Depfa loans alone.
On its own, that cost could be absorbed by the transportation agency. But, as the economy declined, the agency had lost hundreds of millions because tax receipts — which finance part of its budget — were falling. And its ability to renew its variable-rate bonds at low interest rates was hurt by the trouble at Depfa and other banks. The agency now faces a $900 million shortfall, according to officials. It is "fairly breathtaking," Dellaverson told the agency's finance committee. "This is not a tolerable long-term position for us to be in."
In a recent interview, Dellaverson defended New York's use of variable bonds.
"Variable-rate debt has helped MTA save millions of dollars, and we've been conservative in issuing it," he said. "But there are risks, which we work hard to mitigate. Usually it works. But what's happening today is a total lack of marketplace rationality."
In a statement, the agency said that it was exploring options to reduce the cost of the Depfa-backed bonds, that its variable-rate bonds had delivered savings even during the current turmoil and that the agency had remained within its budget on debt payments this year.
However, the agency has already announced it will raise subway and train fares next year because of various fiscal problems, and may be forced to shrink the work force and reduce some bus routes. Some analysts say fares will probably rise again in 2010.
The Depfa fallout doesn't end there. Rating agencies have downgraded the bonds of more than 75 municipal agencies backed by Depfa, including in California, Connecticut, Illinois and South Dakota. Officials in Florida, Massachusetts and Montana have cut budgets because of CDO's or similar risky bets.
And Hypo, the German company that bought Depfa, last week asked the German government for financial help for the third time. Depfa has frozen much of its business, according to Wall Street bankers, and though it continues to honor its commitments, some wonder for how long.
The Wisconsin school districts have filed suit against the Royal Bank of Canada and Stifel Nicolaus alleging misrepresentations. Board members hope they will prevail and schools and retirement plans will emerge unscathed. The companies dispute the lawsuit's claims. Noack is not named as a defendant and is cooperating with the school boards.
In Velvikis's classroom at Grewenow Elementary in Kenosha, students have recently completed a lesson in which each first grader contributed a vegetable to a common vat of "stone soup." The project — based on a children's book — teaches the benefits of working together. The schools have learned that when everyone works together, they can also all starve.
"Our funding is already so limited," Velvikis said. "We rely on parent donations for some supplies. You hear about all these millions of dollars that have been lost, and you think, that's got to come out of somewhere."
The Associated Press
Sunday, November 2, 2008
LONDON: Britain and France said Sunday that Congo needs help to maintain a fragile cease-fire between rebels and government troops, but made no offer to deploy European Union peacekeeping troops following a round of talks in the region.
In a joint statement issued on Sunday, Foreign Secretary David Miliband of Britain and his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, said any military reinforcements must first go to the 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Congo.
Miliband and Kouchner made a joint visit to the region from Friday, holding talks in Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania.
"The international community must support humanitarian delivery, strengthen the United Nations force MONUC, and help promote and enforce agreements," the men said in their joint statement, referring to the UN force by its French acronym, MONUC.
Kouchner and Miliband flew to the region following a sudden and dramatic escalation of eastern Congo's civil war in the past week which has displaced thousands of people.
"The crisis in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo commands our attention because of the history of the region, the scale of the human suffering," the statement said. "There is no excuse for turning away."
Britain's minister for Africa, Mark Malloch Brown, said on Saturday that a contingency plan to send an EU force to the Congo has been drafted in case the cease-fire fails. The plan would use UK troops, who are currently Europe's standby force.
But Miliband said that option is unlikely, saying the international priority should be to boost the UN force. Kouchner said his government was committed to humanitarian assistance, but not necessarily sending in troops.
"The immediate needs are obvious; we saw them yesterday. The cease-fire last Wednesday needs to be bolstered. The humanitarian needs for food, shelter, water and health care must be met through universal provision and secure routes for delivery. This requires local and international co-operation," the ministers said in their statement.
In their statement, the ministers said a longer term political settlement is necessary to avoid any repeat of the violence. They called on the chief of the African Union, Jakaya Kikwete, who is also Tanzania's president, to lead negotiating efforts.
"The crisis, even if averted in the short term, will return without a new, vigorous and united political effort. This was the focus of our discussion this morning with President Kikwete," the men said, following talks Sunday in Dar Es Salem, Tanzania.
They called on the Congolese government to "take proper command of its forces" and "establish channels of communication with all communities in the country and all its neighbors." Both ministers called on neighboring Rwanda to support those efforts.
"Regional states have a vital contribution to make. Promoting peace, developing humanitarian help, contributing to the political process," the ministers said.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
By Hez Holland
A United Nations aid convoy protected by U.N. peacekeepers will head into a rebel-held zone of east Congo on Monday to try to reach tens of thousands of civilians displaced by fighting, the U.N. said on Sunday.
The convoy will group staff and resources from U.N. agencies and humanitarian NGOs. It will leave Goma, capital of Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, and travel north to Rutshuru, taken by Tutsi rebels on Tuesday.
"Our priority is to restart the activities at many health centres in the area of Rutshuru and Kiwanja. We're taking health supplies, water, and sanitation," Gloria Fernandez, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Congo told reporters in Goma.
It will be the first coordinated international effort to reach at least 50,000 displaced civilians whom U.N. officials fear have left unprotected camps around Rutshuru, 70 km (45 miles) north of Goma. The refugees are thought to be roaming the bush, seeking safe shelter, food, water and care.
The recent offensive by fighters loyal to rebel General Laurent Nkunda, combined with killing and looting by renegade Congolese army troops, turned an already difficult humanitarian situation into one described as "catastrophic" by aid groups.
Fernandez called on both the forces of Nkunda and the Congolese army to let civilians move freely to areas where they felt safe and could receive help. Nkunda has announced the opening up of "humanitarian corridors" through rebel lines.
European, U.S. and U.N. envoys have criss-crossed the Great Lakes region in recent days, trying to prevent the newly resurgent Tutsi rebellion in the eastern Congolese borderlands from escalating into a rerun of Congo's 1998-2003 war.
After a weekend diplomatic shuttle that took them to Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania, the French and British foreign ministers called for more international aid to Congo's North Kivu.
A cease-fire by Nkunda appeared to be holding on Sunday, although authorities in Goma declared a night time curfew.
At Kibati, north of the provincial capital Goma, refugees among 70,000 people sheltering there said they were desperate for protection and would welcome troops from Europe to bolster the 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers already deployed in Congo.
"We want to return to our village, but only if there is security. I have not eaten for six days," said one elderly woman, Rgwasa Nyakaruhije. "We would be very happy if they sent in a European Union force."
Around her, displaced civilians huddled in groups in the muddy grass, some under umbrellas or parasols.
SECURITY IS PARAMOUNT
While appealing for more international aid and the securing of routes to deliver it, the French and British ministers, Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband, stopped short of announcing a deployment of European Union troops to Congo.
France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, had floated the proposal but encountered resistance from some member states.
Instead, the ministers recommended reinforcing the United Nations peacekeeping force in Congo, already the world's biggest but badly stretched across a nation the size of Western Europe.
Max Hadorn of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said restoring security was paramount. "It's less a question of being able to mobilise aid but rather of being able to enter different zones with security guaranteed," he said.
Aid group Oxfam said EU foreign ministers meeting in the French city of Marseille on Monday should agree to provide European troops as support for the U.N.'s peacekeeping force in eastern Congo so that aid agencies can deliver assistance.
"The European Union is well placed to rapidly provide the additional troops that the people of Congo desperately need," Oxfam said in a statement on Sunday.
An estimated one million people have been forced from their homes in North Kivu by two years of violence that has persisted despite the end of the 1998-2003 war in the vast, former Belgian colony, which is rich in copper, cobalt, gold and diamonds.
Kouchner and Miliband backed political solutions, including a regional summit that could be held next week to bring together the Congolese and Rwandan presidents, Joseph Kabila and Paul Kagame, to discuss the conflict on their borders. Both Congo and Rwanda have accused each other of backing rival rebel groups.
The two presidents have signalled they are ready to take part in talks on ending intertwined insurgencies in Congo that trace their origin back to Rwanda's 1994 genocide. (Editing by Keith Weir)
Sunday, November 2, 2008
The populist revolt against banking has begun. With trillions of dollars of taxpayers' funds being used to prop up lenders and investment banks, it was inevitable that banking executives would be forced to justify themselves to their new stakeholders. But if they thought an insurance fund manager with a lofty return-on-equity target was a tough customer, wait till they square off with John Q. Public. Bankers without articulate defenses for what they do - and why they are paid so handsomely - may find themselves out of a job.
The scrutiny is starting with compensation. The heads-I-win-tails-you-lose bonus structure that characterized big pockets of the industry in recent years never stood a chance. The New York attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, wants to know what banks are planning to pay out this year. Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is going further. He has demanded that the nine banks taking federal rescue funds, including JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs, turn over the names of employees who earned more than $500,000 a year since 2006.
To Wall Street, this all sounds like a witch hunt. But it's not all that different from what any savvy shareholder should want to know in exchange for precious capital. The truth is, not enough investors asked for such information in the past, and it was easy enough for banks to scoff at those who did, because the cash was accessible from others who would turn a blind or ignorant eye.
So a proactive approach could serve banks well in handling this heightened scrutiny. For starters, they might consider a little self-imposed belt tightening. That's what the top brass at Deutsche Bank, who collectively earned €120 million, or $153 million, in 2007, are doing. The bank's executives already have opted for no bonuses this year.
That may be a bit extreme on Wall Street. But bankers unprepared to take a cut to their bonus checks should be prepared to defend themselves. It's one thing for a government to bail out a faltering retail bank that is a custodian of voters' deposits. It's quite another for taxpayers to grow comfortable financing an interest-rate swap desk or a credit derivatives team, and the $1 trillion balance sheet behind them.
- Jeffrey Goldfarb
By Eric Sylvers
Sunday, November 2, 2008
MILAN: As the financial crisis deepened and his employer teetered on the brink of collapse, Gautam Bose, a senior vice president at the U.S. bank Wachovia, found a discreet way to ponder his future and that of the financial industry.
Bose turned to MeettheBoss, a new online social networking site for financial services executives. It was started in September - a timely introduction for a forum that helps nervous bankers connect with their peers.
"People have been playing Ping-Pong with our organization, and it was good to have a place to discuss what was going on," Bose said, referring to the travails of Wachovia, which nearly failed in September, prompting the U.S. government to engineer an emergency rescue by Citigroup. That was followed by a higher offer from another bank, Wells Fargo, which Wachovia accepted, prompting a legal struggle between the two suitors.
"The way this played out in the public made it very unpleasant, and in social circles you had become a laughing stock at a certain point," Bose said. MeettheBoss "has been a good place to switch off from the messy stuff that is in the market place while still thinking and discussing the news and trying to look to the future."
In addition to facilitating discussion groups, MeettheBoss, which is based in Bristol, England, allows members to speak by video conference and instant messaging. Interviews with industry leaders are shown on the site, which says it has attracted 25,000 active members.
MeettheBoss is not the only business-focused social network that has benefited from executives' jitters about the credit crunch and subsequent economic downturn.
At LinkedIn, which is based in Mountain View, California, the rate of membership growth has doubled since August and the company is now adding a new user every second - or more than two million a month. The number of users working in the financial services industry has increased by 50 percent in the past two months, while those in investment banking have doubled, said Cristina Hoole, the company's head of marketing in Europe.
LinkedIn has 30 million users worldwide, and it added a Spanish site a few months ago, with sites in several other languages set to go online before the end of the year.
"We say there are 300 million professionals around the world and our goal is to get 50 percent of those, so we still have a long way to go," Hoole said.
While LinkedIn is still considerably behind the mainstream networking sites MySpace and Facebook in numbers, it has found ways to earn substantial revenue from social networking, something that has proved to be elusive for many of these kinds of services.
LinkedIn, whose shareholders include the founder, Reid Hoffman, venture capital firms and other investors, has been profitable for more than two years, in contrast to many social networking firms. Hoole said the company was on target to meet its full-year revenue goal of $75 million to $100 million. In October, the company received financing of $22.7 million from new investors like Goldman Sachs, McGraw-Hill and SAP.
LinkedIn generates revenue from selling premium services, advertising and job listings, as well as from a function called Recruiter, which allows corporate users to search for potential hires.
"These kinds of site are likely to make their money from services and applications as opposed to advertising, although targeted ads will still be an important part of their income," said Jennings. "They will need to develop deeper applications for business use that can extract service fees; applications that help users in the their day to day lives, such as facilitating business meetings online between members, shared documentation storage, services to companies for internal networking, extensive mobile services."
MeettheBoss is taking a different approach, aiming for a niche audience rather than millions of users. Only top-level executives are allowed membership, the site says. The first 20,000 members were invited to join, and other applicants have been selected based on their place of employment, their title and the budget they manage. Two-thirds of applicants have been refused, and the list of members will top out at 50,000 to ensure the site does not lose its exclusivity or become too unwieldy, said Spencer Green, founder of MeettheBoss.
MeettheBoss zealously protects the identity of its members. Green says only that they are chief executives, chief information officers and other "c-level" executives at ABN Amro, Barclays, J.P. Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Wachovia and many other large financial services companies. The site, which is in English only, screens out sales people, recruiters, vendors, consultants and journalists, who actively use social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook.
For those who make it past the online doorman, membership is free. The average usage is three hours a week, with half of that coming outside of normal business hours, said Green, who is also the chairman and founder of GDS International, a publisher and event organizer based in Bristol that owns MeettheBoss.
So far, the company has invested $50 million in the site.
MeettheBoss so far has had only one advertiser, the software company CA. But GDS also hopes to take advantage of links between the Web site and its parent company, which publishes business-to-business magazines aimed at leaders in various industries.
"Obviously having such thought leaders attached to GDS International will provide the company great benefit," Green said.
"Of course, profit is a long-term goal, but we are in a comfortable position that we can work on developing the community to its utmost."
To be successful, said Bose, the Wachovia executive, MeettheBoss will have to remain exclusive. That way, he said, it will provide its members something they cannot get from larger social networks or from mainstream media.
"On the news you might have the CEO interviewed, but often he is not so connected to the situation on the ground and he can't really talk about what it might mean to work at my bank in its current situation," Bose said.
"In a forum like MeettheBoss, you get a network of people who are in charge of the system and are willing to give a more honest opinion than in a media interview where they're in broad daylight."
The Associated Press
Sunday, November 2, 2008
KABUL: Gunmen in Pakistan kidnapped the brother of the Afghan finance minister while he was walking to his mother's home after praying at a mosque, Afghan officials said Sunday.
Zia ul-Haq Ahadi was abducted in the Pakistani city of Peshawar on Friday, said Haziz Shams, a spokesman for the Afghan Finance Ministry. The kidnapped man's brother is Finance Minister Anwar ul-Haq Ahadim.
Shams said that it was not known who kidnapped Ahadi. No demands had been made, and the kidnappers have not contacted officials or the Ahadi family, he said.
Ahadi is a businessman who lives in Afghanistan and was in Peshawar to visit his mother, who is ill, said Abdul Razaq, an assistant to the finance minister.
Ahadi was walking home after Friday prayers at a neighborhood mosque when he was taken, Razaq said.
In February, Taliban gunmen kidnapped Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan on the main highway between Peshawar and the Afghan-Pakistan border. He was freed after three months in captivity.
In September, gunmen ambushed a car carrying Afghanistan's ambassador-designate to Pakistan, Abdul Kahliq Farahi. A Foreign Ministry official said Sunday that Farahi was still being held.
Kidnappings in Afghanistan have spiked in the last year because criminal groups have found them to be lucrative because of the ransoms usually paid by families and companies for hostages.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force shot and wounded five Afghan Army soldiers in eastern Kunar Province on Sunday. The troops had fired on what they thought were militant forces, a NATO statement said.
The wounded Afghan soldiers were evacuated to a medical facility, it said.
"It is with deep regret that this incident has taken place; we have initiated an investigation to determine how this happened and how to prevent any future occurrences," said Colonel John Spiszer, a U.S. commander. "We have the utmost respect for our Afghan partners and value their relationship with ISAF."
Sunday, November 2, 2008
WANA, Pakistan: A suicide bomber rammed a car into a Pakistani paramilitary checkpost in the South Waziristan region on Sunday, killing eight soldiers, the military said.
The attack near the Afghan border came two days after suspected U.S. missile strikes in the ethnic Pashtun tribal regions of South and North Waziristan killed about 20 people, including militants.
The attack was on a checkpost of the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), about 35 km (20 miles) west of Wana, the main town in the region which is a sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban militants.
"It was suicide attack. The bomber drove his explosive-laden into the FC checkpost," said military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas referring to paramilitary Frontier Corps.
"We have confirmed reports of eight deaths," he said.
Mounting violence in nuclear-armed Pakistan has raised concern about prospects for the important U.S. ally whose help is seen as vital in stabilising neighbouring Afghanistan.
The violence has also unnerved investors, compounding an economic crisis that looks set to force the country to agree to International Monetary Fund help.
Pakistani Taliban militants threatened on Saturday to carry out attacks in response to missile strikes by U.S. drone aircraft.
Frustrated by an intensifying insurgency in Afghanistan, U.S. forces have carried out about 15 missile strikes and one ground troop incursion into Pakistan since the beginning of September.
A mid-level al Qaeda leader, identified as Iraqi Abdur Rehman, who was also known as Abu Akash, was believed to be was among up to 20 people killed in a strike in North Waziristan on Friday, intelligence agency officials said.
A short time later, one person was killed and one wounded in a missile strike in Wana. A Pakistani Taliban commander, Maulvi Mohammad Nazir, was slightly hurt in that attack, an intelligence agency official said.
Pakistan, which is also battling militants on its side of the border, strongly objects to the U.S. strikes.
It says the attacks are a violation of its sovereignty and undermine efforts to isolate the militants and rally public opinion behind the unpopular campaign against militancy.
The government summoned the U.S. ambassador last Wednesday to demand that the strikes be stopped.
The United States has shrugged off Pakistani protests. It says the attacks are needed to protect U.S. troops in Afghanistan and kill Taliban and al Qaeda militants who threaten them.
(Reporting by Hafiz Wazir; Writing by Kamran Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel and Sanjeev Miglani)
The Associated Press
Sunday, November 2, 2008
DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan: General David Petraeus, who has assumed responsibility for America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, landed in Pakistan on Sunday, hours after a suicide car bomb killed eight troops and underlined the Muslim nation's critical role in the war on terror.
Petraeus, who took over as head of U.S. Central Command on Friday after 20 months as the top U.S. commander in Baghdad, was accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, the U.S. Embassy confirmed.
Wes Robertson, the acting embassy spokesman, declined to provide specifics of the Americans' stay but said they would meet with government and military officials.
Petraeus's visit, coming so soon after he took his new position, signals how important the United States considers Pakistan to succeeding in the anti-terror fight, particularly in Afghanistan, where an insurgency is raging seven years after the U.S. ousted the Taliban regime from power.
The United States has pressured Pakistan to crack down on militants that use its soil as a base from which to plan attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
But the visit also comes amid tension over alleged U.S. missile strikes on militant targets in Pakistan, one of which occurred last week in the same region the bomber struck Sunday.
The attacker rammed his vehicle at a checkpoint near the main gate of the Zalai Fort as Frontier Corps paramilitary troops gathered nearby, said Major General Athar Abbas, the Pakistan Army's top spokesman. Eight people died and four were wounded, he said.
The fort is 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, outside Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, a tribal region considered a hub for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters involved in attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
South Waziristan was the site of one of two suspected U.S. missile attacks on Friday that killed 29 people, including several suspected foreign militants, intelligence officials said.
It was not immediately clear if the suicide attack Sunday was linked to the missile strikes.
But the strikes have strained Pakistan's alliance with the United States and spurred militant calls for revenge. Pakistani troops have been frequent targets of escalating attacks by militants who want the country to end its support of the United States.
The Pakistani troops were washing their vehicles Sunday when the suicide attacker came, two intelligence officials said. They described the explosion as "large" and said it destroyed the checkpoint and damaged the front wall of the fort.
The intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media. It was not possible to immediately verify the details. South Waziristan is a dangerous, remote area where travel by foreigners and many journalists is restricted.
Under American pressure, Pakistan has deployed security forces throughout its northwest in an attempt to tamp down growing militancy.
Washington is suspected in at least 17 missile strikes in northwestern Pakistan since August, a potential indication that the United States is not satisfied with Pakistan's efforts.
Pakistan routinely protests the missile attacks as violations of its sovereignty, but the strikes have continued nonetheless.
In a statement Sunday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the suicide attack in South Waziristan, saying he "deplored the loss of innocent lives."
By Peter Baker
Sunday, November 2, 2008
WASHINGTON: Leave it to the comedian Jon Stewart to cut to the chase. Interviewing Senator Barack Obama last week as the campaign rolled toward its conclusion, the host of "The Daily Show" observed that being president today looks considerably less appealing than when Obama announced his candidacy two years ago.
"Is there a sense that you don't want this?" Stewart asked. "That you may look at the country and think, 'You know, when I thought I was going to get this, it was a relatively new car. Now look at it!"'
Obama laughed and gave an earnest answer about having an impact but did not really address the larger question. Just why would anyone want this job, anyway? What is it about the psyche of would-be presidents that makes them wake up in the morning and think it would be gratifying to take on the troubles of the world, to assume responsibility for the lives of 300 million Americans at a time when their lives are so precarious?
And particularly now, in this moment of maximum crisis. Millions are in danger of losing their homes. Hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs. The national debt is skyrocketing. The Taliban is rampaging through Afghanistan. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed shambles.
The United States is still at war in Iraq and trying to avoid it with Iran and North Korea. Russia has invaded a neighbor. And much of the world hates the United States.
"This is an unprecedented mess," said Ted Sorensen, former counselor to President John Kennedy. By many measures, no incoming president will have inherited quite such a sack of trouble in decades.
Yet neither Obama nor Senator John McCain has expressed second thoughts.
"You have to not only have a sense of confidence but a pretty big ego - you have to almost be a fanatic," Sorensen said. "You have to look at yourself and everybody else running for the office and think not only are you as good as they are but you and your ideas are better."
And that you can fix what nobody else can fix. The ambition and drive that propel politicians to high office at a time of tribulation may convince them that deep problems are simply successes waiting to happen.
"Part of self-confidence is believing you have special gifts and how selfish of you not to use them to full capacity," said Alvin Felzenberg, a University of Pennsylvania scholar and author of "The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn't)."
"It's not a job for ordinary mortals," he said. "It may have been fairer in the Middle Ages to have them walk over hot coals than what we put them through now."
Of course, this is not yet the hot-coals part of the program. For a few more hours, Obama and McCain can still enjoy the affirmation of the crowds. To see either on the campaign trail last week surrounded by fans proclaiming everlasting love was to taste the elixir of adulation that attracts politicians to the presidency even now.
"That's a pretty heavy trip," said Jerrold Post, a professor of political psychology at George Washington University in Washington. "The nature of the relationship between leaders and the people around them is very important. It's a very heady experience, and something happens when you become president."
Yet even in the best of times, the presidency can be an enormous burden. Every American soldier killed abroad, every house foreclosed on at home, every monster storm from the Gulf of Mexico to the Indian Ocean ultimately becomes his responsibility.
Increasingly, that burden has come to define the job as much as the glamour.
Parents understand that. A CNN/Opinion Research poll in 2006 found that only 41 percent of mothers and fathers would want their child to grow up to be president, compared with 58 percent who would not. And that was before things got as crazy as they are now.
Think about those before-and-after pictures of presidents leaving office.
Let's look back at how the vast majority in recent decades have left the White House. Kennedy was assassinated. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were driven from power, in one way or another. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were repudiated by the voters.
Bill Clinton departed after his most intimate personal failings were excavated for public examination. George W. Bush is leaving as the most unpopular commander in chief in the history of polling.
Perhaps the only president lately who left office reasonably intact was Ronald Reagan, who recovered from the Iran-contra scandal and found himself revered as time passed.
"The thing about Reagan is, he was not stuck on himself," said David Abshire, a special counselor to Reagan and now the president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency. "He was not an ideologue. And his sense of humor was always on himself. In dealing with him, I was never dealing with a big ego."
Ultimately, Felzenberg said, the motivation may come down to posterity. Every president sees himself on Mount Rushmore.
"Maybe you have enough gumption to think you can defy the gods and come out intact," he said.
"I guess you have an opportunity for immortality. People like me still talk about Lincoln and Jefferson as if they were still living now, and in a way they are. Every time we talk about them, we bring them back to life."
Sunday, November 2, 2008
By Gul Yousafzai
Villagers in a southwest Pakistani region hit by a powerful earthquake demanded shelter on Sunday saying they need help before a bitter winter sets in or their children could die.
The 6.4 magnitude quake struck Baluchistan, Pakistan's largest but poorest province on Wednesday, destroying or damaging thousands of mud homes and killing at least 215 people.
The epicentre was in Ziarat district, a picturesque valley framed by mountains and one of the region's main tourist spots. But night-time temperatures in the relatively high-altitude area are falling below freezing.
"We've got food, we've got relief, but we don't have tents which can save our children from the cold," said Rehmat Kakar, a 70-year-old farmer standing by the rubble of his house in Wam Khazi village.
"We want those tents urgently. Please save our children, don't let them die," said Kakar, who said that four of his seven children were killed in the quake.
The disaster struck just over three years after 73,000 people were killed by a 7.6 magnitude quake hit Pakistan's northern mountains. Last year, the worst floods on record in Baluchistan killed hundreds.
Scores of aftershocks, some nearly as strong as the original quake, have jolted the region since Wednesday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of several organisations helping with relief, appealed for $7.7 million to step up its emergency operations.
"Our priority will be to provide shelter as winter sets in," said Pascal Cuttat, head of the ICRC delegation in Islamabad.
"Because of continuing aftershocks, many people decided to sleep outdoors at altitudes of 2,000 to 2,500 metres (6,500-8,200 feet)," he said.
"GIVE US THE MONEY"
Another villager said with winter just weeks away, government aid efforts would be too slow.
"They should just give us money and let us rebuild our own houses," said Abdul Wahid.
There have been no reports of outbreaks of disease since the quake but aid officials say without proper shelter, people, especially children, will be vulnerable to common health risks.
A doctor from the paramilitary Frontier Corps helping with the relief effort said he was seeing many people, most of them children, with upper respiratory tract infections.
"We're receiving about 100 patients daily and the number may go up in coming weeks because of the cold," said the doctor, Usman Ahmed, in a clinic set up in Wam Khazi.
"Medical facilities are here but we need to do something urgently to keep people warm," he said.
The quake is one more headache for a government struggling with a balance of payments crisis and a surge of militant violence, but allies have promised help.
Saudi Arabia is giving $100 million while the United States and China had promised $1 million each for rehabilitation work.
Japan and several other countries had also promised help while the World Health Organisation said it was sending two truckloads of essential medicines and supplies.
The World Food Programme said it would provide 700 tonnes of dry food rations in initial relief supplies for an estimated 20,000 homeless.
But one aid group complained of poor coordination.
"There's duplication, like two agencies doing similar jobs in the same place," said Hafizullah Khan of the Muslim Hands international aid group.
(Writing by Kamran Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel and Sami Aboudi)
By Alice Rawsthorn
Sunday, November 2, 2008
TURIN: with an obsession for form and beauty
The first time I met Enzo Mari, he was giving a talk at the Serpentine Gallery in London. It turned out to be more of a rant, as the great Italian designer railed scornfully against his pet hates. Design - dead. Architecture - dead too. Western civilization - ditto. Spotting the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas among the audience, he denounced him as "a pornographic window dresser."
Afterward I asked Mari if there was any aspect of contemporary life that pleased him. A lengthy silence followed, until he said: "Bread and terrorism." Why terrorism? "Why not?" snorted Mari. "People think it's bad, but if they thought about it, they'd realize it isn't all bad. It changes things."
Now 76, Mari is hardly a household name, even in Italy, but he and his volcanic rages are infamous in design circles. Designers enjoy swapping (possibly apocryphal) stories of how he's hurled insults or obscenities, sometimes both, at would-be clients. Former students recall Mari's very long, very loud, unrelentingly nihilistic lectures, and his eerie ability to spot whatever was wrong with their work after the briefest of glances.
A cruel irony of Mari's career, not least as he reserves special scorn for what he calls "publicity whores" - the designers who have allowed their public images to overshadow their work - is that the extremes of his personality often threaten to dwarf his. An exhibition that opened last week at Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Turin as part of the city's World Design Capital celebrations offers a timely reminder of what a gifted designer he is, as does a book of interviews with Mari conducted by the Swiss curator and co-director of the Serpentine, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, which is to be published later this month.
"Many of Mari's works are masterpieces - rare combinations of intellectual puzzles and beautiful lines," said the British product designer Jasper Morrison. "Most designers who analyze problems to the extent that he does end up with rather dry, systemized solutions. His works are highly original and uncompromising, with a kind of poetic and heroically human touch."
All of these qualities are evident in the Turin retrospective, which features some 250 examples of Mari's work in design and art, chosen by 20 of his friends. It begins with the experimental paintings he produced in the early 1950s after leaving art school, and is dominated visually by his spectacular contribution to the 1976 Venice Art Biennale, some 44 marble pieces sculpted into seductively fluid shapes that slot together to form a giant hammer and sickle (Mari is a veteran communist) like a children's puzzle. But, whether or not he likes it, Mari's work as an artist looks like a rarefied warm-up for the beautifully resolved furniture, objects, ceramics, books and games he has designed for Danese and other manufacturers in the last 50 years.
To Mari, design is all about creating forms, or shapes. "Form is everything" comes a close second to "design is dead" in his top two sayings, and he is exceptionally good at it. Object after object in the show, whether it's a chair, table, glass, vase, teapot or paper knife is stripped down to the simplest possible shape, yet perfectly proportioned and detailed. It's a cheesy cliché to describe design as sculptural, but Mari's is. It also seems so tactile, that you long to pick up each object and use it, rather than simply looking at it.
The objective, as Mari explained to Obrist, is less about pleasing the user, than the factory workers who make his products. One of his pet theories (a typically idiosyncratic conflation of the Communist Manifesto and Arts and Crafts Movement idealism) is that designers have a responsibility to liberate workers from the drudgery of what Mari calls their "alienated labor" by creating inspiring products for them to make in "transformative work."
Laudable though this is, it seems rather quaint in a post-industrial era when the European factory workers whom Mari seeks to liberate are already an endangered species. The same can be said for his obsession with form at a time when combating environmental crisis is the overwhelming challenge in design and our perceptions of form have been transformed by the emergence of digital products like laptops and cellphones, whose appearance bears no relation to their multifarious functions.
But Mari has no truck with technology, which he sees as a potentially dangerous diversion from the manual skills that are essential to a designer. (While the snowy-haired designer was inspecting his exhibition last week, a sharpened pencil peeped up from his jacket pocket as if ready for action.) Yet other aspects of his approach to design seem strikingly contemporary.
One is Mari's refusal to discriminate between his work in art and design. (The exhibition is entitled "The Art of Design.") Another is a fascination, shared with his contemporary, the late Achille Castiglioni, for everyday objects, like tools, whose beauty is often neglected. Among the loveliest pieces in the exhibition are some scythes that Mari found and framed. He also pioneered many now-fashionable concepts in furniture design, such as multifunctionality. One of his pet rants is the failure of the original manufacturer to put his 1970 design for a sofa-cum-bed into production. The following year he designed guidelines for wooden furniture that consumers could assemble themselves and customize to suit their needs. Mari believed that they would be more appreciative of something they had made.
The only disappointment with the Turin show is that its design is rather conventional, especially compared to the ingenious exhibition concepts that Mari dreamt up for Danese in the 1960s, including one built in cardboard. His chief indulgence is the recreation of an installation originally made for a 1987 exhibition in San Marino consisting of three gravestones. One bears the symbol of a cross, another a hammer and sickle, and the third a swastika. "The cross symbolizes the promise of paradise after death and the hammer and sickle paradise in this life," explained Mari. "The swastika represents reality."
Sunday, November 2, 2008
BERLIN: Two men shouted anti-Semitic abuse at a Rabbi and eight students travelling with him in Berlin early Sunday and threw an object at their van, police said. The two men, driving a Mercedes Benz, braked in front of the Rabbi's van and then reversed back towards it while shouting anti-Semitic insults, police said in a statement.
"The 36-year-old (Rabbi) then saw the driver light up an unknown object and throw it towards his van," the police said, adding that the Rabbi could not explain what the object was.
Anti-Semitic crime has been rising in Germany, which has seen an influx of some 220,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union since 1990 after being home to just a very small Jewish community in the decades after the Holocaust.
Violent right-wing crime jumped 9 percent last year, and the Interior Ministry said last month it was up significantly again in the first half of this year.
(Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Matthew Jones)
Sunday, November 2, 2008
JERUSALEM: Israel's radical right wing could resort to armed attacks to scupper any accord under which the occupied West Bank would be ceded to the Palestinians, the official in charge of Israeli leaders' security said Sunday.
"We discern a willingness among the far right to resort to using guns in order to prevent progress in the diplomatic process," Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency, told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet.
A Shin Bet source who provided Reuters with quotes from Diskin's briefing said he stopped short of predicting settlers or their supporters would try to kill Israeli politicians.
November 4 is the anniversary of the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an ultranationalist Jew who said he carried out the killing to halt Israeli-Palestinian efforts to exchange land for peace.
In the occupied West Bank, settler violence against Palestinians and Israeli security forces has been on the increase. Olmert reiterated at the cabinet session that such attacks were "intolerable."
Settler leaders have condemned the violence but have made no secret of their community's opposition to the evacuation of settlements -- which have been ruled illegal by the World Court -- to make way for a Palestinian state.
The cabinet later decided on a series of steps to take against settler outposts in the West Bank built without government approval, including a crackdown on lawbreakers and a halting of any support for their financing or infrastructure.
Israel has in the past failed to carry out long-standing promises made to U.S. President George W. Bush to evacuate dozens of the West Bank outposts, an issue that has complicated U.S.-backed peace talks.
Olmert has said Israel would have to withdraw from almost all the territory it captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
But he is now serving in a caretaker capacity after resigning in September in a corruption scandal, and the peace deal that Israel and the Palestinians had hoped to achieve this year appears out of reach in the coming months.
Olmert remains prime minister until a new government is in place after a parliamentary election on February 10.
(Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Tim Pearce)
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, the world has shuddered at the possibility of loose nuclear weapons or radioactive material falling into the hands of terrorists. Shuddered and done too little to stop it.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned last week that there has been a "disturbingly high" number of reports of missing or illegally trafficked nuclear material. According to agency figures, there were 243 incidents between June 2007 and June of this year. Fortunately, the amounts reported missing have been small.
Some experts say that if all the material were lumped together it would not be enough for one nuclear weapon. That is no consolation in a world where so many countries are eager to build their own nuclear reactors and possibly nuclear weapons.
That means that in coming years there will be even more states with nuclear materials, more scientists with nuclear knowledge and more opportunities for terrorists to get their hands on the material for a bomb.
It is the atomic agency's job to keep tabs on civilian nuclear programs, to ensure that states do not misplace fuel or divert it to clandestine weapons programs. One way to guard against such a perilous future is to ensure that the agency is fully staffed with the best people available and has the money and support it needs.
Member states must be willing to increase their budget contributions so the agency can refurbish its testing laboratory, invest in new technology and hire additional nuclear experts. The agency must also be ready to take on new tasks, like administering a nuclear fuel bank to be the supplier of last resort for countries that choose not to get into the risky reactor fuel business. (Producing nuclear fuel is the hardest part of building a nuclear weapon.)
ElBaradei completes his term at the end of 2009. His successor must be knowledgeable, politically skilled - but less likely to give Iran the benefit of the doubt at crucial moments - and ready to help lead a global campaign to secure dangerous nuclear materials and constrain the world's nuclear appetites.
President Bush spent far too much energy trying to oust ElBaradei and far too little on arms reduction and restraining the spread of nuclear technology and know-how. Barack Obama and John McCain both say they understand the many threats out there. We hope they also see the urgency.
Where's Bush? Lying low
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg
Sunday, November 2, 2008
WASHINGTON: With Senator John McCain lagging behind in the polls and many other Republicans fighting for their political lives, the nation's top Republican - President George W. Bush - is intentionally lying low and is likely to do so until after Americans cast their ballots to pick his successor.
Bush, an ardent student of politics, knows what it feels like to be down in the polls and he is keeping a careful eye on the campaign.
Last week, he made a surprise visit to the headquarters of the Republican National Committee to offer thanks to those who have served him for the past eight years and deliver a little pep talk to lift the spirits of beleaguered McCain supporters.
"He talked about how he was never supposed to win a campaign," said one person who attended, speaking anonymously because the session was off the record. "He talked about how in '94, 2000, 2004, they always said he had no chance, and he just encouraged us, to say it's just important to keep doing what we're doing and keep working hard."
The message was not entirely surprising. What was striking is that Bush chose to deliver it in private. Presidential visits to campaign headquarters are routine business in election years.
Bush, though, has made himself increasingly scarce as Election Day approaches. His campaign season effectively ended Oct. 21 - two weeks before the election - when he attended his last political fund-raiser, a $1 million event for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. His wife, Laura, is still on the stump; on Thursday she headlined a rally in Mississippi.
With Bush's job approval ratings at historic lows, political analysts have long said that Republican candidates simply do not want to be seen with him. But now, with the election just days away, it seems that Republican candidates do not want Bush to be seen, period.
The New York Times
By Marc Lacey
Sunday, November 2, 2008
MEXICO CITY: Many of the mug shots of drug traffickers that appear in the Mexican press show surly-looking roughnecks glaring menacingly at the camera. An anti-corruption investigation unveiled last week in the Mexican capital, however, made it clear that not everybody enmeshed in the narcotics trade looked the part.
There was a gray-haired, grandfatherly type who was pushing 70, as well as an avuncular figure with a neatly styled goatee and wire-rimmed spectacles. Some of the five men who found themselves on the front pages of newspapers on their way to jail wore suits and looked more like bureaucrats than bad guys.
Among the greatest challenges in Mexico's drug war is the fact that the traffickers fit no type. Their ranks include men and women, the young and the old. And they can work anywhere: in remote drug labs, as part of roving assassination squads, even within the upper reaches of the government.
It has long been known that drug gangs have infiltrated local police forces. Now it is becoming ever more clear that the problem does not stop there. The alarming reality is that many public servants in Mexico are serving both the taxpayers and the traffickers.
The men in suits, it turns out, were both bureaucrats and bad guys, corrupt officials high up in an elite unit of the federal attorney general's office who were feeding secret information to the feared Beltrán Leyva cartel in exchange for suitcases full of cash.
Their arrest, and the firing of 35 other suspect law enforcement officials, represents the most extensive corruption case that this country, which knows corruption all too well, has ever seen. And it raises a question that is on the lips of many Mexicans: How does one know who is dirty and who is clean?
"I'm convinced that to stop the crime, we first have to get it out of our own house," President Felipe Calderón, who has made fighting trafficking a crucial part of his presidency, said Tuesday after the arrests were announced.
That house is clearly dirty. There is ample evidence that Mexicans of all walks of life are willing to join the drug gangs in exchange for cash, including the farmers who abandon traditional crops and turn to growing marijuana and the accountants who hide the narco-traffickers' profits.
There was sporadic evidence in the past that such corruption extended into high-level government offices. A Mexican general who commanded the army's anti-drug unit was arrested and convicted in 1997 after it was discovered that he was also working for a drug lord.
In 2005, a spy for a drug cartel was discovered working in the president's office and accused of feeding traffickers information on the movements of Vicente Fox, who was president at the time.
But the abundance of law enforcement officials now believed to be on the take has made Calderón's drug war all the more difficult to execute. Traffickers often know beforehand when raids are going to occur. Dealers sometimes plant their people on the teams that carry out the raids to act as saboteurs.
The traffickers' networks are not foolproof. Calderón's government did manage to capture Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, a cartel leader, in January even though the group was receiving inside information. What appears to have happened, officials say, is that the army carried out the raid without involving the attorney general's office, inadvertently keeping the corrupt officials out of the loop.
The cartel's leaders, who operate out of Sinaloa State and have been implicated in the killing of a top police commander in Mexico City, were described in local press accounts as being furious that their government moles had not informed them of the raid.
Still, the reach of the drug networks is so extensive that even winning a court conviction against a kingpin is not always enough to claim victory.
Many prison wardens and guards have shown themselves to be corrupt, allowing prominent detainees not only to operate their crime networks from their cells but also to use their illicit drug proceeds to be as comfortable as possible behind bars, paying for things like pizza and prostitutes. The cartel leaders sometimes even use their money to escape. The most notorious case was in 2001, when Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the country's most wanted drug lord, managed to slip out of a maximum security prison in a laundry cart.
The porous nature of Mexican penitentiaries has prompted Calderón to increase the number of transfers of drug lords to the U.S. prison system. The United States has already filed the paperwork to extradite one of the officials accused last week of corruption. The official, Miguel Colorado González, 68, was a top manager in the government organized-crime office known by the Spanish acronym Siedo.
Calderón is not the first president to try to root out corruption. President Ernesto Zedillo reorganized the Mexican federal police at least twice; each time traffickers quickly infiltrated the force and bought off leading officials. His successor, Fox, also tried and failed to clean up law enforcement.
Calderón's efforts have been sustained enough that the traffickers have begun a vicious counterattack; so far this year, nearly 4,000 people - including police officers, soldiers, criminals and civilians - have been killed in a wave of violence linked to organized crime.
The latest corruption scandal has prompted Calderón's attorney general to order a restructuring and purging of his office and specifically of Siedo, which was formed from another agency that was shut down after being infiltrated by drug spies.
The government has ordered more lie-detector tests for officials in delicate posts, beefed-up background checks and better salaries for underpaid police officers. But the amount of cash that the traffickers throw around - which Jorge Chabat, a security analyst, calls "enough money to buy part of the state" - makes government salaries seem laughable. Clearly, the government cannot compete peso for peso.
In some cases, finding out who has strayed from the straight and narrow could be a simple matter of following the money. Colorado González is reported to have bought four luxury vehicles in one year. His bank account was bulging.
The Associated Press
Sunday, November 2, 2008
LA PAZ: President Evo Morales of Bolivia suspended U.S. anti-drug operations over the weekend as Washington's relations with his leftist government spiraled downward.
Morales accused the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration of espionage and funding "criminal groups" trying to undermine his government.
He announced the indefinite suspension while declaring that his government had eradicated more than 5,000 hectares, or 12,300 acres, of illegally planted coca so far this year - the minimum required under a 1988 Bolivian law passed under U.S. pressure.
Coca is the raw material for cocaine, but Bolivians also chew the small, green leaf in its less-potent natural form or use it to brew a traditional tea.
Relations between Bolivia and the United States have deteriorated in recent months as Morales's government limited the drug agency's activities and expelled the U.S. ambassador over charges of spying and involvement in anti-government protests in the eastern lowlands.
"There were DEA agents who worked to conduct political espionage and to fund criminal groups so they could launch attacks on the lives of authorities, if not the president," Morales said.
The U.S. retaliated by adding Bolivia to its anti-narcotics blacklist - causing a cut in trade preferences that Bolivian business leaders estimate could cost South America's poorest country as many as 20,000 jobs.
U.S. anti-drug officials and diplomats have denied any political involvement.
"We reject the accusation that DEA or any other part of the U.S. government supported the opposition or conspired against the Bolivian government," the U.S. State Department spokesman, Karl Duckworth, said in Washington. "These accusations are false and absurd, and we deny them."
He added that the DEA "has a 35-year track record of working effectively and professionally with our Bolivian partners."
"Should U.S. cooperation be ended, more narcotics will be produced and shipped to Bolivia," Duckworth said. "The corrupting effects, violence and tragedy which will result will mainly harm Bolivia," as well as neighboring Latin American countries, Europe and West Africa, he said.
Morales's decision creates "an unfortunate situation," a DEA spokesman, Garrison Courtney, said in Washington. But he added, "We will find other ways to make sure we keep abreast of the drug-trafficking situation through there."
Two U.S. agents were pulled from the Chapare coca-growing region in September after Bolivian officials reported threats against them from coca growers in the area, a bastion of support for the president, who came to prominence as leader of a coca-growers union battling U.S. eradication campaigns.
The United Nations estimates that Bolivia's coca crop increased by 5 percent in 2007 - far below the 27 percent jump recorded in Colombia, a close U.S. ally. Cocaine seizures by Bolivian police working closely with U.S. agents also had increased dramatically during the Morales administration.
Last month, Morales denied a DEA request to fly an anti-drug plane over Bolivia, saying Bolivia does not need U.S. help to control its coca crop.
By Gardiner Harris and Abby Goodnough
Sunday, November 2, 2008
WASHINGTON: Responding to a report that a Kenyan relative of Barack Obama's was living in the United States illegally, his campaign said he had no knowledge of her immigration status and added that "any and all appropriate laws" covering her situation should be followed.
The woman, Zeituni Onyango, referred to as "Auntie Zeituni" in a passage in Obama's memoir, applied for political asylum in the United States in 2004, but a federal immigration judge rejected her request and instructed her to leave the country, said a government official with knowledge of the case who asked not to be identified because of its sensitive nature.
The disclosure came as the presidential campaign hurtled toward Election Day on Tuesday, and it left the Democratic camp answering questions about what Obama knew of her situation.
Some Democrats suggested that the timing of the disclosure could have been politically motivated, and some immigration lawyers said that for government officials to disclose information about an asylum applicant was unethical or perhaps illegal.
"People are suspicious about stories that surface in the last 72 hours of a national campaign, and I think they're going to put it in that context," David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said Saturday.
The Boston Globe reported that Mark Salter, a senior adviser to Obama's opponent, John McCain, declined to comment, saying, "It's a family matter." Neither McCain nor his running mate, Sarah Palin, had raised the issue so far on the campaign trail.
On Saturday, a police officer was stationed outside the public housing complex where Onyango lives. The officer said that she was not at home and that people who did not live there could not enter the building.
Onyango's status was first reported by The Associated Press on Friday. It said her case had led to an unusual nationwide directive from the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency requiring that any deportations before the election Tuesday be approved at least at the level of regional directors.
Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the matter had been referred to the agency's inspector general and office of professional responsibility. Nantel said she could not comment on the matter. A White House spokesman, Scott Stanzel, said the White House had no involvement in the matter.
Onyango is the half-sister of Obama's father and is part of an extensive network of paternal relatives with whom Obama has had limited contact, his aides said. Obama, who was largely raised by his mother's parents in Honolulu, first met Onyango when he traveled to Africa as an adult.
Axelrod said Obama and Onyango did not have "a real close relationship."
Onyango attended the ceremony when Obama was sworn in to the U.S. Senate in 2004, but campaign officials said he had provided no assistance in getting her a tourist visa and did not know the details of her stay. At the time of the ceremony, Onyango and another relative said in interviews that they had flown to the United States from Kenya to witness the moment.
Obama last heard from her about two years ago when she called to say she was in Boston, but he did not see her there, the campaign said.
Abby Goodnough, Eric Lipton, Michael Luo and Jeff Zeleny contributed.
By David Margolick
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Robert Jordan is a left-wing radical, or was modeled after several of them. He palled around with terrorists, or at least people whom many Americans, of his era and beyond, so thought. His specialty is blowing things up for a cause. He is at minimum a socialist, someone so eager to spread wealth around that he'd lose his life to do it.
Robert Jordan is also honorable, steadfast, selfless, determined, stoic, generous, tolerant, courageous, conscientious, forgiving, altruistic, tender, wise, loyal, independent, taciturn, disciplined, dutiful, patient, exacting, empathetic, idealistic, introspective, charismatic and handsome. No wonder the beautiful Maria falls for him the first time she sees him, and the earth moves beneath the two the first time they make love.
Robert Jordan is the hero of Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," an American fighting Franco's Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. And despite his radical roots, he's a literary sensation during this election season. Senator Barack Obama told Rolling Stone that Hemingway's novel, published in 1940, is one of the three books that most inspired him. As for Senator John McCain, few men, real or fictional, have influenced him as much as Jordan.
McCain begins his 2002 book, "Worth the Fighting For" (a phrase lifted from Jordan's dying soliloquy), with an extraordinary paean to the character, whom he first encountered at age 12. Having found two four-leaf clovers, young John pulled "For Whom the Bell Tolls" off his father's bookcase so he could press them. He and Robert have been together ever since, even in Hanoi. "I knew that if he were in the next cell to mine, he would be stoic, he would be strong, he would be tough, he wouldn't give up," McCain said in a radio interview in 2002. "And Robert would expect me to do the same thing."
America never embraced the more than 3,000 of its sons and daughters — many of them Communists and more than half of whom were killed — who fought in Spain between 1936 and 1938. Rather, they were persecuted, subpoenaed and passed over for jobs when they came home. As late as 1984, Ronald Reagan said that most Americans still believed they had fought on the wrong side. The few veterans of that fight still alive remain unapologetically to the left; McCain won't find many votes among them. "He's the very antithesis of what we stood for," said Mark Billings, a mechanic during the Spanish Civil War who now lives in El Cerrito, California (He says he is only guardedly optimistic about Obama.)
How is it, then, that the radicals' literary stand-in appeals to two mainstream presidential candidates who agree on little else? Well, take an author who was politically skeptical, commercially savvy and damned good. Throw in a movie starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. Add ignorance or amnesia, garnish with the passage of time, and you get a role model that comfortably serves two.
"Both candidates regard themselves as paladins of democracy, and would be reluctant to acknowledge that their 'hero' might have been a Communist," said Paul Preston of the London School of Economics, an authority on the Spanish Civil War. James Benet of Forestville, California, who drove ambulances in Spain, agreed: "If Robert Jordan were alive he'd be way to the left of those guys, and he'd be a lot harder for them to admire."
Hemingway never revealed on whom he based Jordan, who taught Spanish at the University of Montana before heading to Spain. Cecil Eby of the University of Michigan proposed Robert Merriman, who, like Jordan, was a Westerner and a teacher (he had studied economics in Moscow). But Merriman, who was killed in 1938, was never a guerrilla behind enemy lines, as Jordan was. Three others whom veterans speculate could have been models — Michael Jimenez, William Aalto, and Irving Goff — were, in fact, guerrillas; Goff, a New Yorker who died in 1989, actually blew up bridges, but unlike Merriman, he never met Hemingway. (He once joked that he never met Ingrid Bergman, either; if he had, he said, "I might still be there.") Large swaths of Jordan, including his "red, black, blinding" temper and his father's suicide, clearly come from Hemingway himself.
Among the Americans in what later became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, few claimed to be Jordan's prototype. Most hated the book, in which Hemingway trashed the people leading the fight for the embattled Spanish Republic, particularly the Soviets. In The Daily Worker, Mike Gold dismissed Hemingway as a rich, alcoholic voyeur, "a sportsman and a tourist." The book represented "a picture so drastically mutilated and distorted as to slander the cause for which we fought," the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade declared in an open letter to Hemingway.
And they hated Robert Jordan, mostly for what Peter Carroll, author of "The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade," called his "extreme individualism." Jordan was no ideologue. "Nobody owned his mind, nor his faculties for seeing and hearing," Hemingway wrote. When Jordan dreams of Marx, it is Groucho, not Karl; he fantasizes about taking Maria to see "A Night at the Opera" in Madrid once the fighting stops.
Allen Josephs, a Hemingway scholar at the University of West Florida, says Hemingway created Jordan as a Communist, but changed his affiliation to "anti-Fascist" after his publisher, Charles Scribner, objected. The switch fit Hemingway's own politics and, not coincidentally, made Jordan more commercially acceptable. (So too, surely, did making him a stately Westerner rather than a New York Jew, as so many of the Americans Hemingway encountered in Spain were.)
Jordan's willingness to give his life to a cause greater than himself would appeal to anyone from Senator McCain's military background, said William Braasch Watson, a Hemingway scholar and retired professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And that appeal, Watson added, would only have grown in Hanoi, where Jordan's long interior monologues — questioning himself, his character, his future — would have anticipated McCain's experiences.
Watson said he could see Jordan's appeal to Obama, too. "Like Jordan, Obama's a person with a mission and a larger vision," he said. "He, too, seems remarkably self-contained — somewhat aloof even — and he's driven to accomplish his goal."
If McCain does not win on Election Day, he may have even more reason to identify with Robert Jordan. Part of what Jordan has taught him, McCain has said, is to "accept your fate, accept your fate." But no matter who prevails come Tuesday, one winner is already clear: the much-out-of-fashion Hemingway himself. In the political-literary world, he's this year's Comeback Kid.
By Susan Saulny
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Growing up in St. Louis in the 1950s and '60s, Deddrick Battle came to believe that the political process was not for people like him — a struggling black man whose vote, he was convinced, surely would not count for much of anything. The thought became ingrained as an adult, almost like common sense.
But a month ago, at age 55, Battle registered to vote for the first time.
Senator Barack Obama was the reason.
"This is huge," Battle, a janitor, said after his overnight shift cleaning a movie theater. "This is bigger than life itself. When I was coming up, I always thought they put in who they wanted to put in. I didn't think my vote mattered. But I don't think that anymore."
Across the country, black men and women like Battle who have long been disaffected, apolitical, discouraged or just plain bored with politics say they have snapped to attention this year, according to dozens of interviews conducted in the last several days in six states. They are people like Percy Matthews of the South Side of Chicago, a 25-year-old who did vote once but whose experience was so forgettable that he cannot recall with certainty whom he cast a ballot for or even what year it was. Now an enthusiastic Democrat, he says the old days are gone.
And Shandell Wilcox, 29, who registered to vote in Jacksonville, Florida, when she was 18, then proceeded to ignore every election other than the current one. She voted for the first time on Wednesday.
Over and again, first-time and relatively new voters like Matthews and Wilcox, far past the legal voting age, said they were inspired by the singularity of the 2008 election and the power of Obama's magnetism. Many also said they were loath to miss out on their part in writing what could be a new chapter of American history — the chance to vote for a black president.
Battle, for one, remembers growing up in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis and how intimidated the adults were about voting, and that left an impression on him. The older women he knew were afraid to walk to the polls, he said, for fear of being attacked. "I didn't think it was for black people, period," he said of politics before the Civil Rights era. "We didn't have any rights, really. We were just coming into voting and everything."
Fast-forwarding to the present, he continued: "I never thought that I'd see this day. I never thought I'd see the day where an African-American was standing at the podium getting ready to be president."
The swelling ranks of the newly enthusiastic are also the result of extensive nationwide voter registration drives and new early voting procedures in many states that have made the process easier and more accessible.
David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, said the states with the largest increases in early voting had been those where the black population was proportionally the highest. In Georgia, for instance, blacks represented a quarter of all voters in the 2004 presidential election. So far this year in early voting alone, they make up 35 percent of all voters.
"I am fully expecting record black turnout," Bositis said. "It's not just a question of Obama as the first black nominee; it's also that African-Americans have suffered substantially under the Bush years and African-Americans have been the single most anti-Iraq-war group in the population."
"Obama is like the icing on the cake," he added, "but it's not just a question of Obama."
One early voter in Georgia was Armento Meredith, 43, who waited in line for two hours Thursday at the Fulton County Government Building in downtown Atlanta to vote for the first time. "It's time for a change," said Meredith, a telephone operator. "I want to see something different."
The result is likely to be a level of black participation in the electoral process that is higher than ever before. If sustained, some of those interviewed said, it might also translate into a reinvigorated sprit of democracy in some communities where it has been long dormant.
"In the black community, I see a great many people coming out who were apathetic since '84," said Bob Law, 63, an activist in New York City and former radio host who worked on the Rev. Jesse Jackson's campaign for the presidency in 1984, the first time a black candidate was a serious national contender. But in the years since, he said, blacks' enthusiasm had waned.
"People didn't vote before because they really didn't think their vote was going to make a difference," Law said. "Whenever black voters felt like there was a reason to vote, like it might mean something, they've turned out."
That is exactly how Battle, the janitor in St. Louis, feels. In the past, he said, "I felt like Democrat or Republican, it didn't matter who won."
"But my guy Obama?" he continued. "I think it's going to be a change if he wins. He's speaking my language."
For some black men and women, the sense of pride is overwhelming, as is the feeling that they are participating in what could become a touchstone moment, something that children and grandchildren will want to hear about.
"I'd feel bad forever if I didn't get out this time," said Wilcox of Jacksonville, a cafeteria worker. "I'd feel like I didn't do my part to put him in the office. How would I explain that to my little girl? 'Oh, I had something better to do?' And sure, it's partially because he's African-American. But he also says there will be change, and I believe him."
Timothy Hairston, 47, a bartender in Brooklyn who has never voted before, shared that point of view. "I wanted to be a part of a historical moment," Hairston said, "to say that I was involved in history in the making, that I was an active participant as opposed to someone on the sidelines rooting for change but not involved in the process of making change."
He added of Obama: "I think it's a testament to his campaign that he can inspire. At the end of the day, no matter what party you vote for, I think every once in a while there are inspirational moments that call for people to wake up from their deep sleep and become alive and get involved. And I think Barack at the very least is an inspirational figure."
For some, coming back to political life was a slow process that unfolded over months. Others said they were struck by something in Obama's life or what he stands for and that conversion was immediate.
Wilcox saw some of her own biography reflected in Obama's. They were both born to single mothers and raised mostly by their grandparents in modest settings. She said she felt validated, motivated and inspired all at once when she first heard Obama's life story during the primary season. "I began to think that we had a lot of life features in common," she said. "It gave me hope."
Bianca Williams, 20, a hair stylist in Brooklyn, said the campaign had changed her life. After seeing Obama in the first debate, Williams decided to go back to community college part-time. "After seeing his success, I started thinking maybe I could help my community like he did," she said. "If he could do it then I could do it. It woke me up, careerwise. It just gave me the willpower to go on."
That is true for Matthews, who works in a Chicago coffee shop. Not too long ago, he said, he lied to his mother about having voted in an election so she would stop nagging him to get out and vote. What a difference this year has made: he said he watched the party conventions and three of the four presidential and vice-presidential debates. He followed coverage of the candidates in the local papers. He voted in the primary, and he cannot wait to vote on Tuesday.
"As I'm talking now," he said, "I'm getting goose bumps."
For Darnell Harris of Cleveland, an 18-year-old private in the Marines, the legal voting age could not come fast enough. "I'm excited that the first time I get to vote, it's for Barack," he said. And echoing many others, he said that race is only part of the reason. "Obama cares about everybody, whether they're white, black, Chinese, whatever. He's not just for one little group."
For some new voters, family and peer pressure certainly played a role.
"Most of my life I didn't want to get involved with anything political," said Damien Henderson, a 26-year-old merchant seaman. "But everywhere I go lately, people are talking about Barack Obama. I could be standing in line at a grocery, and somebody's going to ask me what I think about Barack Obama."
Henderson said he started paying attention and fell for Obama's charisma. He voted on Monday for the first time, for Obama.
How did it feel to cast that first vote?
"It actually felt really good," he said.
By Frank Bruni
Sunday, November 2, 2008
On Tuesday the nation's fretful, hopeful voters will finally have their say, and none of the rigorously calibrated polls or demographically incisive analysts out there can tell us with any certainty what will happen.
Will one candidate win by millions, or lose by thousands? If there is a clear victor, will he be the first black American ever elected to the presidency, or the oldest American ever to win a first term?
We don't need to know the answers to be certain of this much: no matter the outcome, it will be the climax of one of the most extraordinary presidential elections in this nation's 232-year history, and "the first" and "the oldest" capture only some of what has made it so remarkable.
Whether judged by the milestones reached, the paradigms challenged, the passions stirred or simply the numbers — the 85 percent of Americans who believe the country is on the wrong track, or the record-demolishing $640 million fund-raising mark that Barack Obama passed by mid-October — the election of 2008 actually warrants the sorts of adjectives and phrases that are often just journalistic tics: epochal, pivotal, historic, once-in-a-lifetime.
It's been so rich with precedent and incident — and so very, very long — that we have, if anything, undervalued and even lost sight of its significance at times. In these final hours there's some sense in pausing, pulling back and taking the broad measure of a contest that's sure to affect not only this country's civic life but also its emotional and psychological landscape for some time to come.
Much of its impact boils down, yes, to race and gender, Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin, who could become the nation's first female vice president.
In this fiercely waged election, longstanding barriers were challenged and toppled, at times to the seeming surprise of the person doing the toppling.
Think back. When Obama took the stage in Iowa after his victory in the state's caucuses last January, he was not yet the favorite for the Democratic nomination, and he was a long way from becoming the general-election frontrunner.
In videotape from that night, you can see and sense an astonishment and exhilaration — in him, around him — that seem almost quaint just 10 months later.
"They said this day would never come," he tells a euphoric Iowa crowd, and not just his eyes but the whole of him twinkles, gleams. "They said our sights were set too high."
While he's talking specifically about himself and his campaign troops, it's impossible not to hear in his words a statement about all minorities in America, for whom the week-by-week, month-by-month advance of his candidacy would hold an especially powerful message.
The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates observed that as Obama's quest for the presidency caught fire, "I knew, for the first time in my life, that it would be a good year to be black."
"Consider this fact: the most famous black man in America isn't dribbling a ball or clutching a microphone," Coates continued, in a recent essay for Time magazine. "He has no prison record. He has not built a career on four-letter words."
"Words like hope, change and progress might seem like naïve campaign sloganeering in a dark age," Coates further wrote. "But think of the way those words ring for a people whose forebears marched into billy clubs and dogs, whose ancestors fled north by starlight, feeling the moss on the backs of trees."
Over the course of a campaign that was part therapy session, part consciousness-raising seminar, a few of the principal players took on meanings much, much larger than themselves. Obama and Clinton became vessels for the aspirations and frustrations of entire classes of aggrieved Americans. Their journeys encouraged the airing of hurts and the discussion of difficult issues.
In Philadelphia in March, Obama delivered a set-piece speech that sought to do nothing less than explain centuries of racial enmity and move Americans past it. In New Hampshire in January, Clinton welled with tears that became catalysts for a charged examination of the treatment of women in American life.
Was sexism more potent than racism? This was the sort of impossible question raised on television shows and in newspapers, at restaurant counters and kitchen tables, revolving around Senator Clinton in winter and spring, Governor Palin in summer and fall.
For many of Clinton's supporters she was Everywoman, called on to prove her toughness without wholly abandoning her softness, asked in the end to yield once more to an ambitious, impatient man. Come Tuesday, will these supporters be haunted anew by what might have been? And will they be haunted more by an Obama victory or an Obama defeat?
How will some younger voters react if McCain prevails? Or some older ones if Obama does? In recent weeks, the ire and ugly catcalls of some supporters of the McCain-Palin ticket have suggested a division in this election that goes well beyond tax policy or Iraq strategy.
There's more generational, cultural and stylistic difference between McCain and Obama, ages 72 and 47, than between rivals in most presidential contests over the last half-century.
Bill Clinton and the first President Bush were three years closer in age, and while Bill Clinton's victory marked the ascension of baby boomers, Obama's election would be emblematic of something more profound: that the multicultural, postracial society so often discussed in the news media but so seldom affirmed in public life was now, literally, the face of our nation. Bill Clinton was Fleetwood Mac. Obama is India.Arie.
Candidates in many past presidential contests lacked life stories as compelling as those of Obama, the son of a man from Kenya and a woman from Kansas, and McCain, who endured years of imprisonment and torture in Vietnam.
But these two weren't the only vivid characters in a campaign that, purely as narrative, proved sensational.
Who would have believed, at its start, that Mike Huckabee was going to outlast Rudy Giuliani? That John Edwards's pledges of support for his seriously ill wife were going to give way to a public apology for infidelity?
That Obama would choose a running mate who once described him, in terms of plausible aspirants to the White House, as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean?" That McCain would choose a running mate who could field-dress a moose and would take the stage at the Republican convention with a pregnant, unwed teenage daughter in tow?
Perhaps that's one reason voters paid such close attention. In any case, the 2008 election contradicted any and all claims that Americans were alienated from politics.
Although cable news was supposed to be moribund, programs devoted to politics got some of their best ratings in years. "Saturday Night Live" sailed temporarily into prime time on the winds of political parody. An average of about 34.5 million viewers a night tuned into the Republican convention, versus 22.6 million in 2004. For the Democratic convention, viewership rose to an average of 30.2 million from 20.4 million four years ago.
"We're seeing record levels of interest in the campaign," said Michael McDonald, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an associate professor at George Mason University who studies voting patterns. McDonald cited evidence like new voter registration and responses in polls that asked how interested in the election voters were.
And he extrapolated from that to predict turnout of 64 percent, which would be the highest since 1908, when, he said, 65.7 percent of those Americans eligible to vote did. He said that just under 64 percent voted in the Kennedy-Nixon election of 1960, adding that 2008 turnout could top that.
One of the most striking measures of voters' engagement has been Obama's fund-raising, built in large measure on small donations made over the Internet. The final total may well exceed $700 million. In the 2004 election, the presidential candidates combined raised $684 million before their conventions, after which President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry took public financing.
Only McCain did that this time, and as a condition has had to limit his spending between the convention and Election Day to $84 million. Obama broke an early promise to take public financing and thus evaded such limits. He spent $21 million on television advertising alone during one week in October.
If Obama wins by a wide margin on Tuesday, that victory will reflect more than strides in race relations, thirst for change and the strength of his appeal. It will also reflect the power of money, and it could usher in the end of general-election candidates participating in the public financing system.
An Obama victory could redraw the political map, patches of red becoming blue or at least purple, swaths of the South no longer conceded to Republicans from the start.
So many other assumptions have been upended already. A black man with an exotic-sounding name wasn't supposed to flourish in an overwhelmingly white state like Iowa, but Obama beat Edwards and Senator Clinton there by 8 percentage points.
Someone who failed to win Democratic primaries in New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, New York and New Jersey wouldn't seem to be on a successful path to the Democratic nomination, but Obama was.
He hasn't fit neatly into the usual paradigms, and that could manifest itself in some way in Tuesday's voting — if this election, like the 1980 race between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, will reveal some new political dynamics and yield some new political alignments.
Are we still the center-right country we've heard so much about over the last decade? Obama's success even to this point calls that into question, just as McCain's triumph in the Republican primaries raises doubts about the putative sway of religious conservatives within — and beyond — his party. The 2008 election suggests an evolving body politic, not a palsied one.
Then again it's hard to tell, because what may ultimately be most extraordinary about this election is its context. The country is facing what is widely regarded as the greatest financial crisis since the Depression, and that's not just election-season hyperbole. America is fighting wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And its claim to global leadership is being undercut by Russia, which defied the will of the West in invading Georgia last summer, and China, which staged an Olympics that was the envy of the world.
The 2008 presidential election stands out from so many before it, and will have repercussions for so many after it, because it's a decision about who can guide us through the worst of times. We're in trouble if we get it wrong. And maybe even if we get it right.
By Sarah Lyall
Sunday, November 2, 2008
LONDON: It took two years of high-level negotiations to arrange a meeting with Daniel Craig. In an era when MI6 - the agency that employs his best-known character, James Bond - blithely advertises for agents on the Internet, Craig may well be the world's most elusive pretend spy.
The long wait allowed plenty of time for disturbing rumors to marinate. For instance: He is surly and defensive, a reporter-averse utterer of combative monosyllables. Or this, from two female film publicists: He has more sexual magnetism than anyone we have ever met.
Perhaps nothing short of Craig's materializing in his snug powder-blue bathing trunks from "Casino Royale" and offering to shake the martinis himself could have realistically lived up to all that anticipation.
But there he was in normal jeans, his arm in a sling from recent shoulder surgery. He was wearing a thick cardigan that, truth be told, walked a sensitive line between doofusy and stylish. He was, of course, unfairly attractive anyway, in his craggy, lived-in, blue-eyed way, but not so much as to render anyone speechless or unable to operate a notebook.
He was polite to a fault. He stood up when his publicist's assistant brought in a cup of tea. He apologized several times for being five minutes late. He acted as if he were not sitting in a soulless conference room, which he was, and as if he had all day to chat about Bond and other interesting topics, which he didn't. (He had an hour.)
Unlike many movie stars who come to believe the myth of their superiority, Craig, 40, tends to mock his own celebrity. Now that he is too famous to go to the movies without being recognized, he said, he might be forced to install a screening room at home. Actually not. "I could stick it next to the indoor swimming pool," he said sarcastically.
Passing beneath two celebratory posters of himself as James Bond in his publicist's office here, he grimaced and muttered, "That's my Dorian Gray portrait." Asked whether he saw himself as a natural leading man, he said, "Fat chance." And then, "There's not a skin-care product in the world that would have made that happen for me."
When he was cast as Bond, filling the position most recently vacated by Pierce Brosnan, Craig did not seem like an obvious choice. He was an actor's actor known for his intensity of focus and his wide range of challenging, counterintuitive roles. He has played, among other things, a sharp-lapeled pornography baron from Manchester in the BBC mini-series "Our Friends in the North"; a professor pursued by a male stalker in "Enduring Love"; a builder sleeping with his girlfriend's sexagenarian mother in "The Mother"; a drug-dealing businessman in "Layer Cake"; a killer full of murderous range and heartbreaking tenderness in "Infamous"; and the poet Ted Hughes in "Sylvia."
"Everybody said, 'Oh, aren't you afraid you'll be typecast?"' he recalled, of taking the Bond role. "And I said, 'Of course I am,' but if it has to be this - well, that's not too bad."
Traditionalists were appalled. The British tabloids, whose writers possibly had not seen Craig in his other films, sniped that he was too short, too blond, too actory, too potentially Lazenbyesque; they spread the rumor that he didn't know how to drive a stick shift, let alone one attached to an Aston Martin.
But from the first scene in "Casino Royale" (2006), in which Bond brutally kills a man with his bare hands and then coolly shoots and kills his own corrupt boss, Craig proved to be a rare combination of plausibility, physicality and charisma. He got rave reviews, and not just from Bond's traditional fan base.
(Full disclosure: Craig's mix of emotional vulnerability and cocky insouciance discomfited to an alarming degree many of this reporter's female acquaintances. One saw "Casino Royale" five times in two months. Efforts to find a way for interested outside parties to pose as a reporter's assistant during the interview, or to dress as plants and hide on the windowsill, proved unsuccessful.)
The latest movie, "Quantum of Solace," which opens in Britain, France and Sweden on Friday and worldwide throughout the winter (see http://007.com/international/), is full of the usual Bondian big guns, big explosions, big-busted women and big, improbable, high-testosterone stunts, many of them performed by Craig. While he bulked up for "Casino" - he wanted to "look as if he could kill people just by looking at them," his personal trainer, a former Royal Navy commando, said recently - in this film he focused on building up his stamina, going for lean and mean over brawn.
(Craig was recently quoted in The Times of London as saying, "I am not an athlete, although I have always enjoyed keeping fit between bouts of minor alcoholism.")
Craig said that he had been determined to ensure that the story made logical and emotional sense. "Quantum" begins moments after "Casino" ends, with Bond, wielding an enormous firearm, on the island where he has just shot one of the men responsible for the death of Vesper Lynd, the treacherous love of his life.
Craig particularly wanted Bond to have to contend with the emotional repercussions of Vesper's death.
"It was very important that we deal with that," he said. "I just felt that you can't have a character fall in love so madly as they did in the last movie and not finish it off, understand it, get some closure. That's why the movie is called 'Quantum of Solace' - that's exactly what he's looking for."
Last fall he and the director of "Quantum of Solace," Marc Forster, set out to fill in the gaps in the script, left incomplete because of the Hollywood writers' strike. Forster said he was struck by how much Craig wanted to get the story right and ensure that his interpretation of Bond was "not just a cliché, but a character that people can connect to."
He added: "He's very shy and slightly modest and humble, and he doesn't like to be the center of attention. It's more like, 'Let's make good movies and tell a good story and do a good job."'
Along with "Quantum," Craig is appearing this fall in "Defiance" (set to open in the United States and parts of Europe in late December and January), based on the true story of the Bielskis, a trio of freedom-fighting Jewish brothers in World War II. Defying the Nazis (and the odds), they set up an unlikely community of tough, armed refugees in the punishing Belarussian forest. Craig plays Tuvia, their complicated leader - sometimes hot-headed, sometimes coolly rational; now seeking revenge, now preaching restraint.
The shoot was tough. The actors had to speak Russian in a number of scenes; they also had to live more or less in the woods, in sometimes extreme frigid conditions, for three months. Most of the cast came down with some sort of bronchial flu, Craig said, "but when we started drinking more, it seemed to get better."
The director of "Defiance," Edward Zwick, said it was interesting to watch Craig take on the role, with all its ambivalence and inner conflict, in tandem with playing the self-assured Bond.
"You see very clearly his ambition as an actor; he refuses to be just one thing," Zwick said in a telephone interview. "What you have to understand about Daniel is that he is a working actor who considers himself that. He began in the theater and did all sorts of ensemble work, and in some ways this was a territory in which he's more comfortable than in being the star who's out in front of the movie."
Craig grew up in Liverpool and spent much of his spare time watching movies, sometimes by himself, in a small cinema down the street from his house. He left home as a teenager to seek his fortune as an actor in London. He worked with the National Youth Theater, went to drama school and began being cast as romantic leads, a designation he brushes aside.
With each part, he explained, "I said to myself: 'Romantic lead - what is he? Is he an alcoholic? What's his deal? What's his problem?' For me, that has always been the way. That's what I did for Bond and what I try and do with everything."
He is determined to continue pursuing extra-Bond roles.
"I've been so fortunate to land this amazing role in a huge franchise," he said. "It's set me up in a really good way for life, and that's wonderful. But I love acting, and I genuinely think it's an important part of what life is about. I get a kick out of it, and I'm not good at sitting around."
Craig, who has a teenage daughter from an early marriage, genuinely seems more interested in talking about other topics - the books of Philip Pullman; the exciting-to-him proposition of Barack Obama being elected president; movies he likes - than he does in talking about himself.
But he mentioned his longtime American girlfriend, with whom he lives in Los Angeles and London. He wears a silver necklace inscribed with a quotation "about taking your heart wherever you go," he said when asked, sounding suddenly shy.
Recently, he said, the two drove up the American West Coast, through to the Pacific Northwest. They ducked into a small-town movie theater to see the Guillermo del Toro movie "Hellboy II: The Golden Army."
Someone approached Craig.
"Has anyone ever told you you look like Daniel Craig?" the person asked.
"No," Craig answered, and walked on.
Living in France
Blogs about France