PUY-DE-DÔME, France: The world turned, the markets dropped, panic is in the air. I suppose.
Here, in our mountain home, we are sick with flu, first me, then my wife. The weather is closed in and, with my twisted knee and news of an impending operation, so am I.
Down the mountain, in town at the hospital for my monthly treatment, I sleep so deeply two of my bottles are changed without Pascale, the nurse, stirring me.
When I wake, I have a roommate. The Auvergnat is old, frail; his stomach churns. I am English, 42-years old and we share this room. Normally I have a room to myself.
When I lived in Brussels, the day treatment ward was shining, new; sixteen reclining seats, placed four facing four. I used to take the same chair, by the window with its view of the power station. If you shared the same treatment rhythm as someone, you could see their steady improvement, more often their gradual decline. Four hours, once a month, watching the person opposite fade. And never did we speak.
In rural France they have closed the maternity ward, but the Hôpital du Jour remains open; two beds a room, a view of the church and the hills above. And people speak.
We strike up conversation and I discover that my roommate shares the family name of one of the masons working at our house, but in these parts it is a common name. Despite this, he knows the mason, his father, his mother, where he lives, how his family is related.
Monsieur Beal has had 6 operations in as many years. He used to weigh 86kg, now he weighs just 48kg. He has had a kidney removed, half his pancreas if I hear him right, more too.
When I ask if I might take his picture he stands tall, like the soldier he was. He did his military service in the elite para commandos under the command of an infamous colonel.
Monsieur Beal did 26 combat drops in Algeria, mostly intercepting rebels on the Tunisian and Moroccan borders. When not fighting, he was the colonel’s driver.
It was like that. At base we were drivers or cooks, but when we jumped we were all the same.
The colonel? He was a great man. For his 40th birthday, he gave the entire regiment leave off base and we drank so much beer, we purged our bodies of the desert through every orifice. And the colonel? He was captured at Dien Bien Phu, but he escaped, pretending to collapse, whilst crossing a single file wooden bridge, into a crocodile filled river.
Monsieur Beal likes the English. His regiment was deployed to Cyprus from Algeria. They weren't told why until a few days before the operation, but it was for the drop on the bridges over the Suez Canal, south of Port Said.
We had the easy bit, we French only had a couple of regiments to spare, everyone else was in Algeria.
Resistance was low. The enemy soldiers weren't soldiers, just men conscripted at the last minute, without shoes, without rifles. A few nests of resistance, some pill-boxes, it was over very quickly. We found piles of abandoned helmets that could fill this room. The Israelis had destroyed the Egyptian air force; it was all done before we dropped.
On sentry duty at the canal, the English guards never took out a pack of cigarettes without offering one of their fine smokes to us French - the French army gave us straw to smoke. And the English always poured us hot tea, with milk, without asking. With Egyptian honey for sugar. They were good men.
In Cyprus, he and his fellow privates had been given a tour of a British warship. As they went down the gangplank afterwards, each of them were handed a cornet of frites, not a little thing, like an ice cream, but a great big bag, hot and steaming. They were the best frites he had ever eaten, he never ate better again, not in all his life. He'll never forget those frites.
The last poilu is dead. Now it is the men of Indochina and Algeria we shall speak of.
Why is the past always more interesting to me than the present? Why is the heard more rich than the read?
26 combat drops. Suez. The colonel. The man he was, is - the colonel’s still alive.
And so is Monsieur Beal, next to me in a hospital bed in the Auvergne.
(This piece by Ian Walthew was first published in the IHT earlier this year.)
By Brad Stone
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO: Starbucks, the global coffee chain, was built by a generation of coffee drinkers who regularly rewarded themselves with a small daily luxury.
But in a sharp economic downturn, fewer people are in the mood to indulge. On Monday, the chain reported that net income had dropped 97 percent, capping a turbulent year in which the company tried to get ahead of the economic slowdown by closing stores and laying off employees.
It may be painful for Starbucks investors to remember, but the company, based in Seattle, was once associated with predictable growth and cultural relevance.
During the last two decades, Starbucks and the other premium coffee chains that emulate it seemed to peddle a product that was central to an affluent urban and suburban way of life.
But many people are now abandoning the product, if not the lifestyle that goes with it. Over the three months that ended Sept. 28, 4 percent fewer people visited Starbucks stores, and on average, the ones that did spent 3 percent less on items like mocha cappuccinos and chocolate croissants than customers in the same period a year ago.
One of Starbucks' new rivals, McDonald's, which started offering specialty coffee drinks this year, also reported earnings on Monday.
The juxtaposition was stark. Global same-store sales at McDonald's rose 8.2 percent in October alone, suggesting that at least some consumers are obsessing over their pennies and turning to less-expensive options.
"This happens in every recession," said Erik Hurst, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. "When times are uncertain and there's a chance that you might be the one losing your job, you would much rather keep some discretionary funds around in the form of savings than spend them on luxuries" like expensive coffee drinks.
Starbucks also reported flat revenue over the fourth quarter of 2007. Profit was dragged down in part by charges related to its turnaround plan that includes the termination of 1,000 employees.
Starbucks reported a modest profit of $5.4 million, or a penny a share, compared with $158.5 million, or 21 cents a share, in the period a year ago. Revenue rose 3 percent, to $2.5 billion, up slightly from $2.4 billion a year ago. The company's operating expenses rose because of higher payroll, higher rents and inventory write-downs, while operating profit margins shrank to 0.6 percent, from 10.2 percent in the year-ago period. It blamed weak traffic in its American stores, the source of 88 percent of its revenue.
Down more than 56 percent already this year, shares of Starbucks fell 2.75 percent Monday in after-hours trading, to $9.92.
In a conference call with Wall Street analysts, Starbucks executives sought to portray their company as poised for a turnaround in 2009.
They said they had identified the macroeconomic storm early and taken action - announcing 600 store closures over the summer and cutting expenses.
The company's chief executive, Howard Schultz, said Starbucks was also reacting to economic conditions by introducing new marketing programs that reward loyal customers, like a new Gold Card that costs $25 and entitles buyers to 10 percent discounts and free wireless Internet access in stores.
"In this environment, the rules of engagement no longer apply," Schultz said in the call. "We are keenly aware of the importance of value to our customers."
Schultz said that the worst might already be behind Starbucks. He said that the decline in sales remained constant over the first few weeks of November, while other retailers of premium products continued to see sales plummet.
Starbucks is now slowing the proliferation of its stores, which made it ubiquitous in many U.S. cities, but also a source of comedy to many. The company plans to end fiscal 2009 with 225 fewer company-owned stores than at the beginning of the year.
Internationally, Starbucks is planning to open about 700 new stores in the fiscal year ahead, but two-thirds of those will be licensed cafés that are run by other companies, like supermarkets and bookstores.
Many Starbucks watchers say that the company has a resiliency with its core customers that it can build on in the months and years ahead.
"Starbucks has a core group of consumers for whom the brand is central in their lives," said Michael Silverstein, a senior vice president of the Boston Consulting Group. "They go every day, often to the same shop. They have money in their budget for it. And it is one of the last things that they will never give up."
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
By Jonathon Burch
A bumper fruit harvest in Afghanistan this year has led to a surplus for domestic markets and with difficulties in exporting the goods, growers could return to harvesting opium, experts and farmers say.
Afghanistan used to produce some of the region's best fruits and nuts but insecurity led farmers to switch to opium, a crop that funds the Taliban insurgency, adding to insecurity and further boosting drug production.
While cultivation of opium, the raw ingredient for heroin, decreased this year, Afghanistan still produces some 90 percent of the world's supply of the drug.
Encouraged by international aid groups, some farmers have switched from growing opium to fruit and other products in recent years, but with little financial benefit and export problems, many could revert to more lucrative illicit crops.
"Farmers will always go for products with the highest benefit, especially with all the post-harvest problems," Mohammad Aqa, assistant representative for the U.N.'s food and agriculture organisation in Afghanistan (FAO), told Reuters.
But problems with processing, packaging and storing produce, along with poor access to international markets, means many farmers are not even able to cover their costs, said Aqa.
A fruit surplus is unlikely to meet the needs of millions of Afghans facing severe food shortages this winter as droughts in many areas of the country have hurt the staple wheat harvest.
Many farmers around the capital are feeling the strain and calling on the government to do more.
"If the government doesn't find us an export market and we don't benefit from our agricultural products and suffer financial harm like past years ... then we will have to return to poppy farming," said Safatullah Khan, a farmer on the outskirts of Kabul.
Due to the problems with exporting goods and the unregulated import of products already grown in Afghanistan, such as apples and grapes from China and Pakistan, farmers are forced to sell at very low prices, said Aqa.
A 7 kg (15 lb) bag of apples costs just $3 (1.93 pounds) in any of the capital's fruit markets.
"I agree with the farmers, they need more support. The government needs to at least limit these kind of imports ... in order to make them (farmers) competitive in the international market," said Aqa. "It's not a good time to introduce a free market in Afghanistan at the moment."
The government's export agency (EPAA) says it is aware of the problem and is working on finding a solution.
"We know that Afghan fruit production reached high levels this year, especially apples. These high levels of production have created problems and worries in society," said Rohullah Ahmadzai, spokesman for EPAA.
"I know the sharp increase in production within the market is worrying the farmers, but we will solve this issue soon," he said. He added that despite problems in exporting, $21 million worth of fruit was exported from Kandahar province alone.
(Editing by Valerie Lee)
By Andrew C. Revkin
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The new president of the Maldives, a nation of 1,200 low islands in the Indian Ocean, is planning to establish an investment fund with some of its earnings from tourism so it can buy a haven for its citizens should global warming raise sea levels at a dangerous pace, according to several news reports.
Mohamed Nasheed, a former political prisoner who was sworn in Tuesday as the country's first democratically elected president, named Sri Lanka and India as possible spots for a refuge, according to the BBC.
Nasheed's spokesman, Ibrahim Hussein Zaki, said that the new government had to take action. "Global warming and environmental issues are issues of major concern to the Maldivian people," he said on the BBC program "World Today." "We are just about three feet above sea level. So any sea level rise could have a devastating effect on the people of the Maldives and their very survival."
The Maldives, south of India, is known as a tourist destination and has received much news coverage as a place that is likely to be overwhelmed by the effects of climate change.
In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations projected that sea levels worldwide could rise up to two feet, or two-thirds of a meter, by 2100 as ice sheets eroded and warming seawater expanded. But the panel and independent climate specialists said even higher levels were possible and centuries of rising seas could follow if warming persisted.
The country was one of the founding members of the Alliance of Small Island States, which since 1992 has pressed industrialized countries to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases linked to rising temperatures.
The Maldives is particularly vulnerable to flooding because its population has surged to nearly 400,000 from 200,000 in 20 years.
Malé, the small, crowded capital, is ringed by sea walls, built with assistance from Japan. Many of the islands were submerged as the waves of the 2004 Asian tsunami surged by.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
JAKARTA: Indonesia launched a new hi-tech system Tuesday aimed at detecting a potential tsunami and providing faster alerts in a region battered by frequent earthquakes.
The sprawling archipelago of some 17,000 islands, which lies in the seismically-active "Pacific Ring of Fire," was hit by a devastating tsunami about four years ago that left an estimated 170,000 people dead or missing in Aceh province.
Since then, Indonesia has installed some warning systems, but experts have said the country's disaster preparedness is still a work in progress and large parts of the country are still not covered.
The new system, built with assistance from foreign bodies including the German Research Centre for Geosciences, will use sensors placed on the seabed and shore to relay details of seismic movements to buoys on the surface.
The information is then transmitted via satellite to a tsunami early warning centre in Indonesia.
"We are starting the world's most advanced tsunami early warning system able to issue the quickest possible warnings with a high degree of reliability," Thomas Rachel, Germany's parliamentary state secretary, said at the launch in Jakarta.
The system will be fully operational by 2010.
Since the 2004 tsunami, Indian Ocean countries have installed expensive warning systems and stage periodic evacuation drills to prepare better for another such disaster.
Indonesia's early warning system has two out of a total of 10 buoys in place and another four buoys will be installed soon to optimise the system, scientists said.
The government aims to deliver tsunami alerts within five minutes of an undersea quake, but experts have said that cannot be achieved until Indonesia has installed at least 22 buoys, 120 tide gauges with digital recordings, and 160 seismographs.
"This tsunami early warning system signifies our progress and readiness in efforts to prevent or at least reduce the effects of earthquakes and tsunamis which can happen anytime and anywhere," President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said at the launch.
(Reporting by Reuters TV)
By Kenneth Chang
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The Phoenix Mars lander is dead.
Mission managers said Monday that they had not heard from the NASA spacecraft for a week and that they thought it had probably fallen quiet for good.
"At this time, we're pretty convinced that the vehicle is no longer available for us to use," said Barry Goldstein, the project manager. "We're actually ceasing operations, declaring an end to mission operations at this point."
With the onset of winter and declining power generated by the solar panels of the lander, managers knew it would succumb soon but had hoped to squeeze out a few more weeks of weather data.
But on Oct. 27, just after the lander finished its last major experiment analyzing Martian soil, an unexpected dust storm hit. The batteries, already low from running the experiment, ran out of energy.
The spacecraft first put itself into a low-energy "safe mode," then fell silent. It revived itself on Oct. 30, but, with the dust still swirling, it was never able to fully recharge its batteries.
The last communication came Nov. 2. Goldstein said the orbiting spacecraft would continue to listen for a few more weeks on the faint chance that the lander defied their expectations.
The Phoenix craft landed in May to examine the northern arctic plains, and the $428 million mission, originally scheduled to last three months, was extended twice.
In the coming months, when sunlight disappears entirely in the northern plains, temperatures will fall to minus-150 to minus-180 degrees Celsius (minus-240 to minus-300 Fahrenheit), and the lander will become encased in carbon dioxide ice. When spring returns, NASA plans to try reviving the lander, but expectations are low.
By Andrew Pollack
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
People whose bodies make an unusually active form of a certain protein tend to have dangerously high levels of cholesterol. Those with an inactive form of the protein have low cholesterol and a low risk of heart attacks.
Needless to say, pharmaceutical companies would love to find a drug that can attach itself to the protein and block its activity. That might be difficult for this protein, which is called PCSK9.
But a powerful new approach, called RNA interference, may surmount that obstacle. Instead of mopping up a protein after it has been produced, as a conventional drug would do, RNA interference turns off the faucet, halting production of a protein by silencing the gene that contains its recipe.
In monkeys, a single injection of a drug to induce RNA interference against PCSK9 lowered levels of bad cholesterol by about 60 percent, an effect that lasted up to three weeks. Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, the biotechnology company that developed the drug, hopes to begin testing it in people next year.
The drug is a practical application of scientific discoveries that are showing that RNA, once considered a mere messenger boy for DNA, actually helps to run the show. The classic, protein-making genes are still there on the double helix, but RNA seems to play a powerful role in how genes function.
"This is potentially the biggest change in our understanding of biology since the discovery of the double helix," said John Mattick, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Queensland in Australia.
And the practical impact may be enormous.
RNA interference, or RNAi, discovered only about 10 years ago, is attracting huge interest for its seeming ability to knock out disease-causing genes. There are already at least six RNAi drugs being tested in people, for illnesses including cancer and an eye disease.
And while there are still huge challenges to surmount, that number could easily double in the coming year.
"I've never found a gene that couldn't be down-regulated by RNAi," said Tod Woolf, president of RXi Pharmaceuticals, one of the many companies that have sprung up in the last few years to pursue RNA-based medicines.
The two scientists credited with discovering the basic mechanism of RNA interference won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2006, only eight years after publishing their seminal paper. And three scientists credited with discovering the closely related micro-RNA in the 1990s won Lasker Awards for medical research this year.
RNA and DNA are strands made up of the chemical units that represent the letters of the genetic code. Each letter pairs with only one other letter, its complement. So two strands can bind to each other if their sequences are complementary.
Genes, which contain the recipes for proteins, are made of DNA. When a protein is to be made, the genetic code for that protein is transcribed from the DNA onto a single strand of RNA, called messenger RNA, which carries the recipe to the cell's protein-making machinery. Proteins then perform most functions of a cell, including activating other genes.
But scientists are now finding that a lot of DNA is transcribed into RNA without leading to protein production. Rather, the RNA itself appears to be playing a role in determining which genes are active and which proteins are produced.
Much attention has focused on micro-RNAs, which are short stretches of RNA, about 20 to 25 letters long. They interfere with messenger RNA, reducing protein production.
More than 400 micro-RNAs have been found in the human genome, and a single micro-RNA can regulate the activity of hundreds of genes, said David Bartel, a biologist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As a result, Bartel said, the activity of more than half the genes in the human genome is affected by micro-RNA.
"It's going to be very difficult to find a developmental process or a disease that isn't influenced by micro-RNAs," he said.
Indeed, scientists have found that some micro-RNAs contribute to the formation of cancer and others help block it.
Other studies have found micro-RNAs important for the proper formation and functioning of the heart and blood cells.
Scientists are also finding other types of RNA, some of which may work differently from micro-RNA. By now, there are so many types of RNA that one needs a scorecard to keep track.
Besides micro-RNA (miRNA), the new ones include small interfering RNA (siRNA), piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNA), chimeric RNA, and promoter-associated and termini- associated long and short RNAs. They join an existing stable that included messenger RNA (mRNA), transfer RNA (tRNA), and small nucleolar RNA (snoRNA), which all play roles in protein production.
Scientists do not know what all the newly discovered RNA is doing. Some of it may be just a nonfunctional byproduct of other cellular processes.
And there is still uncertainty over how big a role RNA plays. Some scientists say proteins are like a light switch, turning genes on and off, while RNA usually does fine tuning, like a dimmer.
Still, the many new discoveries are "revealing a level of regulation and complexity that I don't think the current organizational model of the genome ever envisioned," said Thomas Gingeras, professor and head of functional genomics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
Despite the remaining mysteries, researchers and companies are moving rapidly to exploit the latest findings. While micro-RNAs are getting some attention, the biggest effort is on RNA interference.
RNA interference is induced when a short snippet of double-stranded RNA called a small interfering RNA, or siRNA enters a cell. The cell treats it much like a micro-RNA it might make on its own. That results in the silencing of a gene that corresponds to the inserted RNA.
Scientists believe that RNA interference evolved as a way to fight viruses, since double-stranded RNA is rare outside viruses.
Given that the sequences of genes are now known, it is fairly straightforward to synthesize a small interfering RNA that can serve as a drug to silence a gene. Still, there has not yet been a truly convincing demonstration that such drugs will work in people.
One risk is that the small RNA snippets might silence genes beyond the intended target. And that could mean that a drug based on these snippets would have unwanted side effects.
But the biggest challenge is getting the RNA into the cells where it is needed. Double-stranded RNA is rare outside viruses, so the cell is not likely to welcome it.
"Double-stranded RNA basically to the body means one thing: a virus," said Jonas Alsenas, a biotechnology analyst at the securities firm Leerink Swann who is skeptical about RNAi drugs.
Double-stranded RNA can set off an immune response. Enzymes in the blood tear RNA apart. And even if the RNA survives a trip through the bloodstream, it can have difficulty entering the target cells.
"Most of the cell membranes are negatively charged and the RNA is negatively charged, so they won't get close to each other," said Mohammad Azab, president of Intradigm, an RNA interference company.
Still, startups like Intradigm, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, Calando Pharmaceuticals, MDRNA and Traversa Therapeutics are developing delivery methods.
Chemical changes can be made to RNA to make it more stable and to avoid setting off the immune system. And the RNA can be inserted into little globules of fat or attached to polymers to help it get through the bloodstream and enter cells.
RXi is developing an oral delivery method for treating certain immune diseases. In some cases, though, these packages can introduce their own toxicities.
Delivery problems tripped up an earlier gene-silencing technology called antisense, which uses single strands of RNA instead of double strands. But progress is now being made in antisense as well, so it may turn out that antisense drugs will compete with RNAi drugs.
Given the delivery challenges, the first RNAi drugs are for uses that do not require delivery through the bloodstream.
Alnylam is testing a drug that can be inhaled to treat a respiratory virus. Three other companies are testing drugs to treat age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness among the elderly. The drugs are injected directly into the eye.
The most advanced of the eye drugs, developed by the Miami-based Opko Health, is in the final stage of clinical trials, which would give it a shot at being the first RNAi drug to reach the market.
But some systemic delivery is now being tried. Quark Pharmaceuticals has started early human testing of a drug to prevent kidney damage. Since the kidney removes RNA from blood for excretion, much of the drug is expected to end up there anyway.
Similarly, lipids tend to end up in the liver. Since cholesterol is also processed in the liver, lipid particles will be used to deliver Alnylam's PCSK9 anticholesterol drug, as well as one it plans to test against liver cancer.
"If all we ever get to is the liver, we'll be having our hands full with human disease," said John Maraganore, chief executive of Alnylam. But he and other industry executives say they will eventually learn to deliver RNAi drugs anywhere in the body.
One shortcoming of RNA interference is that it can only turn genes off. But to treat some diseases, like those in which the body makes too little of a protein, it might be desirable to turn genes on or to increase their activity levels.
In one of the latest surprises in this field, scientists have found that RNA can do this too. They have discovered what they call RNA activation, or RNAa. The molecules that perform it are called either small activating RNAs (saRNA) or antigene RNAs (agRNA).
"We weren't looking for it," said David Corey, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who was one of those to discover the phenomenon about two years ago.
Scientists in his lab were attempting to silence genes using RNAi directed at the promoters of genes. A promoter is a region of DNA that helps activate a gene.
Instead of being silenced, the genes became more active and protein production increased. Corey said it appeared that the RNA enhanced the activity of proteins that bind to the gene promoters.
Whether RNA activation can be used for therapy remains to be seen. It does show, however, that the limits of RNA activity have yet to be understood. There is more to come.
By Jonathan Tirone and Subramaniam Sharma
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
VIENNA: The French authorities made headlines last month when they said as many as 500 sets of radioactive buttons had been installed in elevators around the country. It was not an isolated case.
Improper disposal of industrial equipment and medical scanners containing radioactive materials is letting nuclear waste trickle into scrap smelters, contaminating consumer goods and spurring the United Nations to call for increased screening.
Last year, U.S. Customs rejected 64 shipments of radioactive goods at U.S. ports, including purses, cutlery, sinks and hand tools, according to data released by the Department of Homeland Security in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. India was the largest source, followed by China.
"The world is waking up very late to this," said Paul de Bruin, radiation safety chief for Jewometaal Stainless Processing in Rotterdam, the world's biggest stainless-steel scrap yard. "There will be more of this because a lot of the scrap coming to us right now is from the 1970s and 1980s, when there were a lot of uncontrolled radioactive sources distributed to industry."
Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Energy are already financing a $60 million program to install radiation monitors at ports around the world. The Secure Freight Initiative started in October 2007 at three sites in Britain, Pakistan and Honduras.
About 800 ports worldwide handle cargo containers, according to London's Drewry Shipping Consultants.
Health officials say the levels involved generally would be dangerous only if a person was exposed over a prolonged period of time - like sleeping in a building built with contaminated steel. That is usually not the case.
On Oct. 21, France's Nuclear Safety Authority said elevator buttons assembled by Mafelec, a company based in Chimilin, France, contained radioactive metal shipped from India. Employees who handled the buttons received three times the safe dose of radiation for nonnuclear workers, according to the agency.
But after discovering that their exposure was less than previously reported, another agency, the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Security, said on Oct. 27 that the buttons "should not have any consequences on the health of the exposed personnel."
Operations at the factory are now back to normal and the company has cut ties with the "source" of the radiation, Mafelec said in a statement. "In the worst-case scenario the exposure would have been under that of a medical scan," the chief executive, Gilles Heinrich, said.
Many atomic devices were not licensed when they were first widely used by industry in the 1970s. While most countries have since tightened regulations, it is still difficult to track first-generation equipment that is now coming to the end of its useful life.
Abandoned medical scanners, food-processing devices and mining equipment containing radioactive metals like cesium-137 and cobalt-60 are often found by collectors and sold to recyclers, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, the UN's nuclear arm. De Bruin said he has found items hidden inside beer kegs and lead pipes to prevent detection.
There may be more than one million missing radioactive sources of various levels worldwide, the IAEA estimates.
"We're passing by the first era of nuclear applications, so disused material is increasing," said Vilmos Friedrich, an IAEA inspector.
Smelting such items contaminates recycled metal used to make new products and the furnaces that process the material.
The danger increases when metal prices rise, pushing scavengers to pick up and sell more material, said Martin Magold, who led a UN team that tracked radioactive metal shipments in Europe.
Prices for scrap steel quadrupled to $665 a ton in Rotterdam during the past five years. After peaking on July 3, prices dropped to $115.50 last week as the slowing global economy eroded demand.
"Because of high scrap prices, any little piece is being sold for recycling," Magold said. "Alarms will go up dramatically in coming years."
Chronic exposure to low doses of radiation can lead to cataracts, cancer and birth defects, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A study of 6,252 Taiwanese people who lived in apartments built with radioactive reinforcing steel found that 117 cancer cases were diagnosed from 1983 to 2005. The research showed a statistically significant increase in leukemia and breast cancer.
"People don't understand the risk," said Dr. Peter Chang, a professor of environmental health at Taiwan's National Medical Center who developed the study. "We have an extreme lack of education."
In 1998, equipment containing cesium-137 was smelted at a foundry in Los Barrios, Spain, operated by Acerinox, the world's largest stainless steel producer. Radiation spread over Italy and France, triggering concern that a reactor had melted down in Russia, according to an IAEA report on the incident.
While only six people were exposed to radiation, the cleanup, hazardous waste storage and interruption of business cost the company an estimated $25 million, the report said.
At the time, Acerinox had radiation detectors installed in parts of the factory and assumed the scrap it purchased had been inspected by the dealer, said Juan Garcia, a spokesman in Madrid for the company. Acerinox has since improved security by spending about 100 million, or $126 million, on "advanced contamination-detection technologies," he said.
The event also led Spain to rewrite rules governing the scrap metal industry and to create an agency that helps recyclers dispose of radioactive materials.
The IAEA may recommend that governments increase monitoring of scrap shipments at international borders and recyclers screen all material entering their plants, according to draft guidelines circulated by the agency.
Many large metal producers in the United States and Western Europe say that they already screen for nuclear material.
"All our steelworks are equipped to verify possible radioactivity contamination of the scrap shipments," Jean Lasar, a spokesman for ArcelorMittal, the world's biggest steel maker, said in an e-mail message.
Much of the contaminated scrap originates in or passes through countries with inadequate licensing regulations and detection equipment.
For example, about 1,000 radio-electronic thermal generating units were misplaced after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Abel González, a former IAEA inspector who helped retrieve such orphaned sources in Russia. The devices, used to power remote lighthouses, each contain as much radiation as was released by the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, he said.
Russia and the other former Soviet states accounted for 13 percent of the scrap exported worldwide last year, according to the World Steel Association, which represents about 180 metal companies.
At the large Indian port of Kandla, most scrap is imported in shipping containers that are unloaded at one of 12 cargo docks. None of it is screened for contamination.
"There are no means as of today to check the radioactive material in the scrap that's imported or exported," said H.C. Venkatesh, a traffic manager at Kandla Port Trust.
India plans to install scanners at Kandla and three other ports that handle about 80 percent of the nation's container traffic. They will become operational starting in April.
Over all, 123 shipments of contaminated goods have been denied entry to U.S. ports since screening began in 2003, according to the Homeland Security data. Of those, 67 originated in India, 23 came from China and 20 were from Canada. This year, a total of 32 cases had been reported through early July.
There is no guarantee materials rejected by the United States will not reappear in countries with less stringent monitoring.
"The only authority we have is that we don't let them into the U.S., so that ship was turned around and those components left the U.S.," said Dale Klein, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Where they went, we have no authority and no control."
In Rotterdam, the busiest European port, mountains rising 30 meters, or 100 feet, of disfigured metal wait to be processed by radiation monitors.
At nearby Jewometaal, De Bruin switched on a dosimeter, the modern equivalent of a Geiger counter. The device squealed as he entered the corner of a warehouse where radioactive metals are stored until they are sent to Covra, the Netherlands' state-run nuclear waste dump.
"We should accept these orphaned sources rather than making a fuss over which country is responsible and who should bear the burden," said Henry Codee, the manager of the facility.
Subramaniam Sharma reported from New Delhi
By Susan Dominus
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
NEW YORK: I once lived in rural France for half a year, in a region of southern Burgundy known to epicures for its fine cattle and wine. It was also known for being the French boondocks - we got the feeling from Parisian friends that they thought we were living somewhere vaguely akin to a suburb of Binghamton, New York.
Indeed, driving to the closest supermarket took close to half an hour, sometimes longer on the occasions when my husband and I realized, 10 minutes into the drive, that we'd forgotten our plastic bags and had to turn right around to get them.
My husband and I weren't particularly green at the time, which was seven years ago. Nor was anyone else in that rural part of France, as far as we could tell. What they were was frugal. "Everyone has porcupines in their pockets," a neighbor there once told me - in other words, it really hurt to reach for their wallets. That mattered when it came to plastic bags, because you had to pay for them at the store.
The store, E.Leclerc, was a sprawling emporium that sold household goods along with groceries - think Wal-Mart or Tesco, only with an entire aisle devoted to 23 varieties of yogurt. The store bags were plastic, but a thickish plastic, with sturdy handles. We always intended to put the empty ones back in the car for the next trip, but every once in a while, they were left behind in the pantry, and then we'd find ourselves in a bind.
The bags were maybe 30 cents each, but it wasn't just the financial hit that made us waste all that time turning around to go home. It was shame.
You'd start loading your groceries onto the conveyor belt, and then would have to explain to the clerk that you'd forgotten your bags. She would grimace. For some reason, the bags had to be paid for in a separate transaction. This was slightly more laborious for her, and checkout time at E.Leclerc was a precise, even tense, exercise in speed.
Our neighbors timed their grocery shops to the minute: by 11:45, the store was empty, with everyone at home cooking up whatever they'd just bought for lunch. So not only was the store clerk irritated, but the people in back of us were, too. Tell the clerk you need to buy bags, and you would get the same reaction that people in New York do when they announce, in some grocery store express line, that they have to pay by check. Groaning, shifting of feet, loud, deliberate sighing.
But it was not just the extra time it took that made those sighs so loaded, those groans so embarrassing. It was the knowledge that most likely, in that entire store, we were the only ones foolish enough to be shelling out $3 for bags that we had sitting around at home, empty, in some pile in the pantry. These were a frugal people, respectful of the porcupine. And we - well, we were Americans.
None of the tsk-tsking was about the landfill. It was about common sense, and the absurdity of the uselessly new. Our neighbors had 100-year-old armoires in their homes, not because they were exquisite antiques, but because someone in their family had bought them around then and they still worked just fine. One neighbor used to come by our house with what we'd call roadpear: pears, some a bit rotting, that he noticed by the side of the road on his way over. He would peel them and sauté them in butter, and we'd all be in roadpear heaven.
New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, recently announced a plan to charge a 6-cent fee for plastic bags. His critics have argued that the charge could not come at a worse time, now that people are counting every penny with care. But from a green point of view, it could not have come at a better time: even the city's more affluent shoppers, who once might have considered 6 cents per bag a bargain for the convenience, might quickly change their habits.
Much of the green movement seems to be one big push to upgrade responsibly: in other words, to shop for green makeup, green clothing, green carpeting. Charging for plastic bags may seem to be adding one more item to the shopping list, but with useless spending going far out of fashion, the opposite might be true.
If the mayor really wants to stop people from using plastic bags, he might consider requiring that the transaction take a few minutes longer. New Yorkers have gotten used to wasting money, but they'll never put up with wasting time. Especially if you're standing in front of them, wasting theirs.
By Brian Knowlton and Jackie Calmes
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
WASHINGTON: As the transition period heats up for Barack Obama and the incoming Democratic Congress, the notion of giving billions of dollars in aid to the ailing U.S. automobile industry has emerged as their most specific priority, putting them at odds with the outgoing administration.
In a drumbeat of appeals, culminating in Obama's meeting with President George W. Bush on Monday in the Oval Office, the Democratic leaders have made clear that this was a goal they wanted to achieve before Bush leaves the White House, or soon after Obama comes to power on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.
Democrats also see an opportunity to push green initiatives for the production of more fuel-efficient vehicles in exchange for providing billions to the automobile industry. In addition, the United Auto Workers Union has been a vital backer of the Democratic Party over the years and argues now that it provided decisive support for Obama during the long campaign.
The Obama team's vigorous push to help the industry - in contrast to the hands-off approach of the Bush administration - underlines the gravity of the choices facing governments around the world as they deal with the brutal impact of the global economic crisis on their own auto industries.
The White House reiterated Tuesday - a day after Bush reportedly resisted Obama's plea for additional emergency aid to the struggling industry - that it was open to any congressional proposals for accelerating existing loans to automakers.
"We're open to ideas from Congress to accelerate funds they've already appropriated in the auto loan program," said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, "as long as funding will continue to go to viable firms and with strong taxpayer protections."
But that left Bush and Obama at odds over moving beyond the $25 billion package of low-interest loans that has been approved by Congress to help automakers retool their factories.
A presidential spokeswoman denied Tuesday that Bush had said he would support the measures Obama seeks if the Democrats backed a free-trade agreement with Colombia that is languishing in Congress. Democrats want that pact to contain better protections for union workers and the environment in Colombia.
"In no way did the president suggest that there was a quid pro quo," said Dana Perino, the spokeswoman. But, she added, "he did talk about the merits of free trade."
The auto industry and its supporters in Congress, including Obama, argue that expediting the existing loan program will do little good. That aid is intended for long-term assistance specifically for retooling to manufacture new-technology, clean-energy vehicles. But the companies - particularly General Motors - need cash now just to make payrolls and pay for supplies.
At the same time, analysts said that Bush would not want to gamble that GM - an iconic, century-old American corporation with a presence in every state - would fail on his watch and add to the negative notes of his legacy.
But Democrats have indicated that they are not inclined to back the Colombia agreement.
A week after Obama's election, and more than two months before he takes office, the steadily weakening U.S. economy and the prospect of many more job losses are testing his effort to remain aloof from the country's problems.
As the auto industry reels, rarely has an issue so quickly captured the differences of two presidents.
How Obama responds to the industry's dire straits will indicate how much government intervention in the private sector he is willing to tolerate.
His actions also will offer hints of how the newcomer will approach his job under pressure, testing the limits of his conciliation toward the opposition party and his willingness to stand up to the interest groups in his own.
Aside from his differences with Bush, Obama has signaled to the automakers and the unions that his support for short-term aid now, and long-term assistance once he takes office, is contingent on their willingness to agree to transform their industry to make cleaner, more energy-efficient vehicles.
GM shares tumbled Monday, to 1946 prices, and Tuesday as analysts downgraded the stock on worries that the company would soon run out of cash and shareholders would be wiped out by any federal bailout.
Obama has been far more receptive than Bush to the idea of having the government intervene to rescue another major sector of the economy. On Friday he called automakers the "backbone of American manufacturing."
But his stance raises a question: With the country in a worsening recession, where would he draw the line as president?
Bush has drawn his line at the automakers' doors, having been forced already to shelve the free-market principles of his Republican Party to bail out the financial industry over the past two months.
But Republicans said after the meeting Monday that Bush would acquiesce in return for Congress's ratification of the Colombia free-trade pact and trade agreements with Panama and South Korea. But the White House denied such a link Tuesday.
Bush has repeatedly emphasized the importance of such trade pacts, both for their inherent economic benefits and, some say, to burnish his legacy.
"Half of our growth last year was the result of trade," he said in September. "And therefore it's in our interest to continue to open up markets, particularly in our own neighborhood."
While Obama campaigned on a promise of bipartisan government, the man he has chosen to be his chief of staff in the White House, Representative Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat of Illinois, indicated Sunday that no such deal linking auto-industry aid with free-trade pacts was likely.
"You don't link those essential needs to some other trade deal," Emanuel said on ABC.
Democrats close to Obama's transition team and to congressional leaders appeared to be willing to call Bush's bluff.
Also, economists as conservative as Martin Feldstein, an adviser to a long line of Republican presidents and candidates, have called for a program of stimulus spending of up to $300 billion.
GM, Ford and Chrysler are using up their cash at unsustainable rates, analysts say. The Center for Automotive Research, which is based in Michigan and supported by the industry, released an economic analysis on Election Day of the impact of one or all of them failing. If the Big Three were to collapse, it said, three million people would lose their jobs, counting auto workers, suppliers and the employees of a variety of businesses dependent on the companies.
The center also concluded that the cost to local, state and federal governments could be as much as $156 billion over three years in lost taxes and higher outlays for such things as unemployment and health care assistance.
Separately, some economists say the demise of even one of the automakers could tip the current recession toward a depression.
As a senator and a presidential candidate, Obama has opposed free-trade pacts, especially the Colombia agreement, mainly because of that country's reported human rights abuses against union members and their leaders.
He says he favors free trade only if trading partners agree to protections for their workers and the environment, a standard Democratic Party line since the Clinton administration. On his campaign Web site, Obama said he opposed the Colombia pact because the violence against unions in Colombia made a mockery of labor protections.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
By Tansa Musa
Ten crew members of a French oil supply vessel seized by gunmen off Cameroon last month have been released unharmed, the French government and the group which abducted them said on Tuesday.
"They were released ... we sent them back to the Bakassi territory to the Cameroonian authorities," said General A.G. Basuo, operations commander of the Niger Delta Defence and Security Council (NDDSC) which said it carried out the kidnapping.
The seven French nationals, a Tunisian and two Cameroonians were to be received by Cameroonian President Paul Biya in the capital Yaounde on Tuesday after which the French would fly home, French diplomats said.
"My commanders said they were all in good health," Basuo added, speaking by telephone. He declined to give more details.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Cameroon's Foreign Ministry had earlier announced the release of the crew.
They were crewing the vessel "Bourbon Sagitta" operated by French oil services firm Bourbon when they were seized on October 31 by militia opposed to this year's transfer of the Bakassi peninsula from Nigeria to Cameroon, neighbours in the Gulf of Guinea.
Nigeria is Africa's top oil producer, while Cameroon is a smaller exporter of crude. The Bourbon vessel was contracted by French oil major Total.
The militia groups, the NDDSC and allied Bakassi Freedom Fighters, have objected to the August 14 transfer of the Bakassi peninsula to comply with a World Court ruling. They say they are fighting for compensation for Nigerian fishermen and their families who they claim are being forced to leave the peninsula.
Another NDDSC leader, Ebi Dari, told Reuters his group had released the hostages without obtaining any concessions.
"My home country Nigeria has a good relationship with France, I don't want to do anything to break it," he said.
Dari repeated a demand that the government of Cameroon open talks with the Bakassi militants.
Basuo declined to say whether any ransom had been paid or what other conditions may have been set.
"I just ordered my commanders to release them," he said.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said the French government had paid no ransom and there was no indication that any ransom had been paid.
GULF OF GUINEA PIRACY
The NDDSC had also been demanding the release of two militia members held by Cameroon.
A separate statement from Bourbon said the 10 had received a medical examination after their release and were in good health.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement he had spoken to his Cameroonian counterpart Paul Biya and thanked him for his efforts, which he said had enabled a quick and successful end to the incident.
Kouchner also thanked Cameroonian and Nigerian authorities.
"This event underlines the urgent necessity for the international community to fight effectively against maritime piracy," the French foreign minister said.
The United Nations and Western law enforcement agencies are worried about an increase in the activities of armed pirates in the Gulf of Guinea.
The gunmen have used fast launches to raid and rob banks and ships far beyond the borders of Nigeria where Niger Delta oil militants are already fighting the government.
Dari did not rule out future attacks. "The BFF (Bakassi Freedom Fighters) can attack at any time," he said.
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/)
(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Paris and Daniel Magnowski in Dakar; writing by Pascal Fletcher and James Mackenzie; editing by Michael Roddy)
By Cate Doty
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Start-up companies around the world are looking at Africa - where 74 percent of the population lives without electricity - as a test market for new, off-the-grid lighting technologies.
Many of these efforts involve wind or solar power. But one group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is working to develop fuel cells made from the bacteria that live in soil or waste.
"You can just literally make energy from dirt," said Aviva Presser, a graduate student at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "And there's a lot of dirt in Africa."
Presser is one of the founders of Lebone Solutions, which is being financed by a $200,000 World Bank grant and private investments. Lebone's idea is a microbial fuel cell, a battery that makes a small amount of energy out of materials like manure, graphite cloth and soil, which are common to African households.
But Lebone - which means "light stick" in the Sotho language - does not just want to make the batteries and sell them to African consumers. The group hopes that eventually, as the technology becomes more refined, each household will be able to build a battery at a one-time cost of no more than $15.
"Africans are very, very creative," said Hugo Van Vuuren, a Lebone founder. "It's very entrepreneurial, just not in the way we traditionally define entrepreneurial."
Van Vuuren, who is from Pretoria, and who graduated from Harvard last year with a degree in economics, likened the simplicity of the battery to "the potato experiment that most of us did in high school class," a two-step reaction that produces a simple charge.
But the bacteria in a microbial fuel cell produce electrons while doing what they naturally are supposed to do: metabolize organic waste, like dead leaves or grass or compost, for energy. The electrons then stick to an electrode, like a piece of graphite, and the chemical reaction that follows creates a small charge sufficient to power a small lamp or cellphone.
"It can be made by people with minimal training," Presser said. "It doesn't take a massive investment."
The founders of the Lebone team were classmates at Harvard, and looking at sustainable lighting technologies for Africa was their class project. Last summer, they took the technology to Leguruki, a village in Tanzania, to see how the batteries work in households. For three hours each night, six families used batteries made of manure, graphite cloth and buckets, and a copper wire to conduct the current to a circuit board.
While in Leguruki, Van Vuuren said, the group learned as much about the people who used the batteries as the batteries themselves.
"People walk an hour or more a day to the local high schools to get their phones charged for two or three days," he said, noting that the phones were sources of light as well as communication devices. The batteries are also used to power radios, Van Vuuren said, as important a medium of communication in Africa as the cellphone.
"Ideally, they would like to have a refrigerator," Van Vuuren said. "But right now, their key need is a cellphone."
Van Vuuren and several of his fellow Lebone researchers know the challenges of Africa personally, which he credits for the group's commitment to focusing on Africa first.
"We are a group of Africans that have had the privilege of a first-rate education," he said. "There are very few people who have insights into both. We lived through it."
The group is expanding the refined prototypes into Namibia, where, over the next two years, it will examine how more easily available materials, like chicken wire, will create electricity.
Eventually, Lebone wants to create a new business model for energy distribution in Africa, helping to funnel fuel cells and other technologies tested in Africa to distributors there, rather than reducing developed technologies to meet African needs.
"If you work within those constraints, you can create something that works in the developed and developing world," Van Vuuren said. "There's no reason that people need to A: starve, or B: can't read at night."
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
DOUAUMONT, France: President Nicolas Sarkozy of France paid tribute Tuesday to hundreds of World War I soldiers who were shot for disobeying orders in a mutiny in 1917. It was a change of tone on the first Armistice Day without a living French veteran.
More than 600 French soldiers were executed by their own side during World War I, many for refusing to obey orders to continue to fight after a bloody and failed series of offensives in northeastern France in 1917.
"France will never forget its children who died for it," Sarkozy said in a speech paying tribute to the French and allied war dead that explicitly included those shot for "cowardice" or acts of mutiny.
"I think of these men of whom too much was asked, who were too exposed, who were sometimes sent to be massacred through mistakes by their commanders, of those men who, one day, no longer had the strength to fight," he said.
The 1917 mutinies, in which many regiments refused to move from their own lines, raised fears among French leaders that the army could collapse and led to harsh reprisals against those who disobeyed orders to fight.
World War I, fought out in large part on French soil from 1914 to 1918, cost 1.4 million French lives and remains firmly anchored in French memories. But there has been a growing debate here about the best way to mark the event.
At Douaumont, the governor general of Australia, Quentin Bryce; Prince Charles of Britain; and Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg laid wreaths at the foot of a huge French flag that soared over an esplanade between two large fields of white crosses.
The president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and Peter Müller, president of Germany's upper house of Parliament, were also on hand.
Armistice Day was marked for the first time without the presence of a French veteran. Lazare Ponticelli, an Italian-born immigrant who joined the Foreign Legion at 16 and who was the last French survivor of the war, died this year at 110.
Gerard Aprile, 59, once a military parachutist and a regular at Armistice Day ceremonies in France, said Ponticelli's death changed the tone of the event. "The ceremony will always be there, but without a human witness, there is an emptiness," said Aprile, who wore his military uniform.
In London, three frail British veterans in wheelchairs honored the deaths of more than 700,000 British comrades. Henry Allingham, 112; Harry Patch, 110; and Bill Stone, 108, were among those at the Cenotaph war memorial near the Houses of Parliament.
In the Belgian region of west Flanders, thousands of people stood in driving rain in the town of Ieper - better known to British soldiers by its French name, Ypres - at the annual poppy parade commemorating Armistice Day.
Flags fluttered across the Polish capital, Warsaw, on Tuesday as President Lech Kaczynski was expected to receive a host of dignitaries, including the presidents of Afghanistan, Ukraine and Georgia, at an evening gala. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was expected at an earlier event.
In his speech, delivered near the site of the Battle of Verdun rather than at the traditional site at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Sarkozy said the time had come to recognize that many of those executed had been pushed beyond endurance.
"Many of those who were executed at the time did not dishonor themselves, were not cowards, but went to the extreme limits of their strength."
His speech contained no mention of a possible posthumous pardon, but the minister in charge of veterans affairs said this year that France would consider clearing the names of many of those shot for refusing to obey orders.
In 2006, Britain posthumously pardoned 306 men shot for desertion or cowardice during World War I, many of whom were believed to be suffering from psychological trauma.
By H.D.S. Greenway
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Ninety years have passed since that gray, drizzly morning when, shortly after 5:30, Matthias Erzberger, representing a defeated Germany, signed an armistice under the glare of Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the allied commander in chief. The scene was the field marshal's private railway car on a siding in the forest of Compiegne, just north of Paris.
By Nov. 11, 1918, the German Army was in retreat, revolution had broken out on the home front, the high seas fleet had mutinied, and Germany's ally, Austria, had already left the war. While the German delegation was still attempting to negotiate, news came to Compiegne that the kaiser had abdicated and was on his way to exile in Holland. Two days later, word went out from the railway car to the armies in the field that hostilities would cease on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The war was over.
"Is this the end?" Winston Churchill would ask nine years later in the concluding paragraph of his great, multivolume account of the war. Or would the Great War be "merely a chapter in a cruel and senseless story? Will a new generation in their turn be immolated to square the black accounts of Teuton and Gaul? Will our children bleed and gasp again in devastated lands?"
Soon enough, Churchill's grim question was answered. In June 1940, Adolf Hitler, in a theatrical act of revenge, made France surrender in that same railway car in the same forest, sitting in the same chair in which Marshal Foch had sat. The car was later taken to Germany and destroyed. Only a replica remains today.
Mercifully the black accounts of Teuton and Gaul have now been settled. The rapprochement of Germany and France was, and remains, the cornerstone of the new Europe. But this did not happen until the great scourge of Soviet power, an unintended consequence of World War I, had swallowed up half the Continent.
The peace of Paris that followed World War I tried to make sense of the great collapse of empires, to create some order out of the wreckage of Austria-Hungary and the vast regions of the Ottomans in Asia Minor. The attempt to forge a union of southern Slavs in the Balkans came apart 75 years later, when the external threat from first Germany and then Russia was no more. After great pain and bloodshed, seven national entities exist within the borders of what was once Yugoslavia.
After World War II, it was the turn of the British, French and Portuguese empires to end; the anguish and great loss of life defined much of the last half of the 20th century. And then, at last, as the century was ending, what remained of the Russian empire under the Soviets died a remarkably peaceful death.
But it was in the Ottoman domains that the attempts to establish a new order most spectacularly failed, and the Middle East has scarcely seen a peaceful month since.
The British and French divided up the region in secret agreements. The French faced endless rebellions in Syria, and their attempt to create a country based on religion in Lebanon is still in doubt. The British faced similar rebellions in Iraq and in Palestine that roil the region to this day. Israel, another country based on religion, is no longer in doubt, but cannot find peace until the Palestinians find theirs. And Pakistan, the third country to be founded on religion, finds itself in crisis against religious extremists.
What President Woodrow Wilson called the "war to end all wars" did no such thing, of course. But what would have really surprised Wilson is the extent to which America has tried to take over the imperial responsibilities of Britain and France. Thirty years of trying to prop up the old order in Indochina failed spectacularly.
Today America is engaged in trying to impose its will on Iraq, which gave Britain no end of trouble, and in Afghanistan, where the British were never able to maintain order for long. America's children continue to bleed and gasp again in devastated lands - 90 years after silence fell on the Western Front.
By Alexander Watson
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War was commemorated very differently on each side of the Atlantic and across the borders of Europe. These differences are a reminder that not all "victors" experience wars in the same way, and that their citizens can have almost as much difficulty as those of the vanquished states in coping with the collective trauma of conflict.
For Americans, Veterans Day celebrates the survivors of all the nation's 20th and 21st century wars. In France and Britain, by contrast, the mood is altogether more somber. In these countries, it is the dead who, since 1919, have been the focus of the ceremonies.
Why this difference? After all, for citizens of all three countries the date marks a shared victory. In the jargon of the time, Nov. 11, 1918, was the day of their soldiers' triumph over "Prussian militarism," the vindication of a "fight for civilization" and the successful finish of a "war to end all wars."
In the years after the war, official ceremonies in the United States reflected these victorious ideals and celebrated "world peace" - it was only after World War II that the day was dedicated specifically to veterans. The touchstone of loss and suffering for Americans remained the Civil War, the world's first industrial conflict, which 50 years before World War I had taken the lives of more than 600,000 soldiers. Memorial Day (or as it was originally known, Decoration Day) was first instituted in May during the late 1860s to commemorate these fallen.
In contrast, it was only in August 1914 that the horrors and shock of modern warfare came to Europe. The Great War, as the conflict is still known in France and Britain, was a prolonged and vicious struggle demanding the commitment of nations' wealth and manpower on an unprecedented scale.
Over four years, armies millions of men strong clashed indecisively in horrendous conditions. For the first time on this scale, genuine home fronts formed, as civilians were targets of bombings and food blockades. British war losses, at more than 700,000 men, remain the heaviest in the country's history.
French and German dead were even more numerous, totaling 1.4 million and likely 2 million, respectively.
It was the need to come to terms with this immense loss of life that shaped European commemorations of Nov. 11. On the armistice's first anniversary in Britain, a two-minute silence was observed at 11 a.m., the time the fighting ended; industry was shut down, traffic halted and people across the country fell quiet to remember the nation's dead. In France, public grief was expressed more loudly, local communities gathering every armistice day to hear the names of the dead read out by a war orphan, and responding in unison, "mort pour la patrie" - "died for his country."
Cenotaphs were built to comfort the bereaved whose relatives had no known resting place - the bodies of hundreds of thousands of men had been lost on the battlefield or eviscerated by shellfire. In 1920, "Unknown Warriors" were chosen and entombed in London and Paris; Rome followed suit in 1921.
In towns and villages more modest memorials and plaques to the fallen were erected, becoming an enduring feature of Europe's landscape. At veterans' insistence, Nov. 11 was declared a national holiday in France in 1922, and Germany too introduced an official "people's day of sorrow," or Volkstrauertag, in 1925 to honor its war dead.
Today, the commemoration of Nov. 11 varies greatly across Europe.
For Poles, the holiday is not a day of mourning but rather of celebration, commemorating the rebirth of their nation in 1918 after more than a century of occupation by Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia. In Italy, the war dead are remembered on Nov. 4, "the feast of the fallen," the day in 1918 that fighting came to an end on its battlefront.
Across Central Europe though, the greater horrors of the Second World War have subsumed those of its predecessor within popular memory; in Germany, for example, commemoration of the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities now takes precedence over the losses of the last century's first conflagration.
Yet in France, where the death toll of 1914 to 1918 exceeded that of 1939 to 1945, the dead of World War I retain a strong grip on the national conscience. Across the country, local mayors lead remembrance services, the names of long-buried soldiers are read out, military bands play and citizens sing "La Marseillaise."
In Britain, where an estimated three-quarters of the population paused during the two-minute silence on the armistice's 80th anniversary and where, in 2002, a BBC poll rated the Unknown Warrior as the country's 76th greatest citizen, public memory of the war is even stronger. Visit the country (or its former dominions including Canada and New Zealand) in November and you will still see paper poppies being widely worn - a reference to the blood-red flowers that grew on the shell-torn battlefields and to John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields."
The brainchild of an American educator, Moina Michael, the poppies have been sold since 1921 to support war widows and veterans; a record 37 million were purchased in Britain in 2006. Even 90 years after the war's end, the rites and symbols of what George Kennan termed "the great seminal catastrophe" of the 20th century retain their poignancy.
Alexander Watson is a research fellow at Cambridge University and the author of "Enduring the Great War."
By Christopher Clarey
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The French, as they and we are well aware, do not lack for creativity, and some of it has been expended over the years to create sports events.
The French were the driving force behind the modern revival of the Olympics. They also played a vital role in launching the World Cup of soccer; soccer's European Cup, which is now better known as the Champions League; and the World Cup in alpine skiing. They also dreamed up the Tour de France bicycle race and the Vendée Globe yacht race.
That last event is surely the most obscure for those who don't spend much time in France, but for those who do, the Vendée Globe is a major happening: a quadrennial opportunity for Gallic sea dogs and landlubbers alike to reacquaint themselves with the iceberg-infested dangers of the southern oceans and man's (and woman's) capacity for salt-stained, sleep-starved solitude.
The concept is brutal if attractively simple. Competitors race solo around the world in 60-foot, or 18.3-meter, mono hulls without stopping. There are strict limits on outside assistance once they have left the port of Les Sables d'Olonne on the Atlantic coast in the French department of Vendée.
The first sailor to make it around the South Pole and back - a process that now takes less than three months - gets a hero's welcome and a lifetime of free lunches in a country where lunch can still be quite tasty.
Since the first edition in 1989, it has become ever more de rigueur to maintain that the Vendée Globe has become less an adventure and more of a race. Participation numbers and the quality of the competitors and their custom-built yachts back that up. There were a record 30 entries for this edition, which began Sunday with an estimated 300,000 spectators in port to bid the skippers farewell.
But it certainly felt more like an adventure than a race in the stormy first 36 hours in the Bay of Biscay, with nine of the 30 competitors being forced to turn back toward land with problems ranging from relatively minor (electrical issues) to major (a crack in the hull).
Among the early victims were former winner Michel Desjoyaux of France and Bernard Stamm of Switzerland. By Tuesday night, two competitors had withdrawn: Marc Thiercelin and Kito de Pavant, both of whose yachts had dismasted in the storm.
"I won't write a book about this Vendée Globe; it will have lasted just 28 hours," wrote De Pavant in a message from his crippled yacht.
The race rules permit any of the unfortunates who return to Les Sables d'Olonne to start the race again before the Nov. 19, but the laggards, no matter how experienced, are already at a serious disadvantage considering all the offshore sailing talent that is making headway while they make repairs.
"This is a difficult race to talk about favorites," said the Frenchman Loick Peyron, who was leading the fleet on Tuesday evening. "All you've got to do is look at the statistics to realize that for 20 years, half the competitors don't finish."
The attrition rate is actually closer to 40 percent. Of the 84 sailors who have taken part in the five previous editions, 36 have not finished. Two of those 36 lost their lives: Nigel Burgess, an Englishman who died in the opening days of the 1992 race, and Gerry Roufs, a Canadian who was declared dead after disappearing in the Antarctic in January 1997.
There have been several other close and dramatic calls, but the last two editions have been happily free of tragedy, which is another explanation for the growing number of sailors willing to take on the Everest of their sport.
There are other explanations. French sponsors have piled in, eager to ride the wave of public interest and well aware that the price tag for a competitive Vendée Globe campaign - 6 million to 12 million, or $7.7 million to $15.4 million, over several years - is still reasonable compared with the cost of other high-profile sports sponsorships.
Meanwhile, the French multi-hull racing circuit has lost momentum, leaving a talented core of competitors looking for remunerative challenges.
There are also the British, who are increasingly interested. That is largely due to the impact of Ellen MacArthur, who became a national icon by finishing second in 2001 and later set a round-the-world speed record that has since been broken but still earned her a damehood at the tender age of 28.
The French continue to dominate. They have won all five editions of the race and still represent the majority of the field with 17 skippers. But the British are now a strong second with seven participants, two of whom are women: Dee Caffari and Samantha Davies. MacArthur, who was in France for the start, is now more interested in ecological causes and running her racing team, which is represented in this event by the young Frenchman Sébastien Josse.
MacArthur's approach has been the general rule in the Vendée Globe: Win or make it big and then never risk it again. The first three men to win: Titouan Lamazou, Alain Gautier and Christophe Auguin have all sworn off the event for good, with only Gautier still involved in an administrative role.
Lamazou is now an indefatigable traveler and professional artist and photographer, who specializes in portraits of women and who had a successful exhibition at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris last year. Auguin is a rancher in Uruguay.
"You don't do this for fun," the American solo sailor Bruce Schwab once said. "This is the top of the heap. Once you've won it, there's really no point in coming back."
But the thinking has clearly evolved. There is now a class of sailors who specialize in the event despite all its risks and privations. This is the fourth Vendée for Raphael Dinelli and Thiercelin. This is the third Vendée for Dominique Wavre, Mike Golding and Roland Jourdain.
Peyron, part of France's first family of sailing, is back for another attempt after taking part in the debut race in 1989. Most tellingly, the last two winners - Desjoyaux and his former acolyte Vincent Riou - are back for more with new yachts.
"I actually did enjoy myself in 2004," said Riou in an interview before the start. "Human nature dictates that with time we block out all but the good memories.
Desjoyaux, nicknamed "the professor," for his cerebral qualities, sounds more caught up in the challenge and its inherent compromises.
"The peculiarity of single-handed racing is that you've got to handle everything seven days a week, 24 hours a day for three months," Desjoyaux said in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro. "One does everything badly. You have to accept it, but the idea is to do things the least badly possible. It's an exercise that is complex, complete and thrilling."
And, one should add, daunting as Desjoyaux himself could attest as he scrambled to fix his cutting-edge yacht Foncia back in Les Sables d'Olonne. By Tuesday morning, he was under sail again but would be well advised to hurry. This looks like quite a race as well as an adventure.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
By Jean-Paul Couret
France coach Marc Lievremont has reshuffled his pack for Saturday's test match against the Pacific Islanders in Sochaux, but stuck to the same backline that failed to record a try against Argentina last weekend.
Lievremont has brought in tighthead prop Nicolas Mas, loosehead prop Lionel Faure and flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo to replace Benoit Lecouls, Fabien Barcella and Louis Picamoles.
"Lionel Faure was in the 23 last week and it was out of the question to leave him out of the 22 and even the 15 for this game even if Barcella performed well," Lievremont told a news conference at the team's training base in Marcoussis.
The France coach explained the inclusion of Ouedraogo at the expense of Picamoles as for more "strategic reasons."
"The Pacific Islanders play a more open and more dynamic game and we felt we needed a more mobile back row," he said.
The selection of Ouedraogo means that Imanol Harinordoquy switches from flanker to number eight.
"Imanol played a very complete game in Marseille, Louis (Picamoles) had a very good first half but seemed a bit tired after the break," Lievremont said."
The French coach stuck to the backline made up of five players from Toulouse and two from Clermont that failed to score a try in the 12-6 win over Argentina.
"They didn't play very well technically but we decided to keep the cohesion and the balance of the backline because we think they complement each other," he added.
"Tactically, we think they played rather well and we know that it would be very risky to put the cart before the horse against a team made of highly skilled individuals even if they were beaten 39-13 by England last Saturday.
"We are readying ourselves for a difficult game against a very good team."
15-Maxime Medard, 14-Julien Malzieu, 13-Yannick Jauzion, 12-Benoit Baby, 11-Cedric Heymans, 10-David Skrela, 9-Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, 8-Imanol Harinordoquy, 7-Fulgence Ouedraogo, 6-Thierry Dusautoir, 5-Lionel Nallet (captain), 4-Romain Millo-Chluski, 3-Nicolas Mas, 2-Dimitri Szarzewski, 1-Lionel Faure.
Replacements: 16-Benjamin Kayser, 17-Benoit Lecouls, 18-Sebastien Chabal, 19-Louis Picamoles, 20-Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 21-Damien Traille, 22-Alexis Palisson.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
By James Mackenzie
French anti-terrorist police have arrested 10 members of a violent anarchist movement for sabotaging power cables on high speed TGV train lines, the interior ministry said Tuesday.
It said the "anarcho-autonomous" movement had been under surveillance for several months by domestic intelligence services and anti-terrorist police.
"These individuals are characterised by a total rejection of any democratic expression of political opinion and an extremely violent tone," said Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.
"The operation was made possible by the investigation into this movement conducted on my orders over the past months by the DCRI (France's domestic intelligence directorate)," she said.
Severe delays were caused at the weekend when power was cut by metal bars hooked onto overhead electric cables on TGV lines in the area around Paris.
Hundreds of police and security officials were involved in the operation leading to the arrests in the Correze region in central France, Rouen, in the north, the Meuse region in the northeast and the Paris area, the ministry said.
Television pictures showed masked police on the streets of the tiny village of Tarnac in Correze where residents said a group of suspects had lived quietly.
"Indications collected on the group allowed us to establish connections between the sites," Alliot-Marie said.
The government and management of France's national rail operator SNCF said the attacks, which posed no immediate threat to passenger safety, appear to have been coordinated acts of sabotage.
"No employee of the SNCF was among those arrested and no former employee either as far as I am aware," SNCF president Guillaume Pepy said.
Bernard Aubin, federal secretary of the CFTC Transports union issued a statement expressing "satisfaction and relief for rail workers and their company."
"If the motivation for these acts was political, those responsible chose the worst possible way to express their convictions," he said.
Alliot-Marie said she had been concerned about a resurgence in violence by some political groups.
"For the past few years, I have observed a radicalisation in the ultra-left movement," she said.
(Additional reporting by Jean-Stephane Brosse and Yves Clarisse; editing by Andrew Roche)
By Adam Liptak
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
PLEASANT GROVE CITY, Utah: Across the street from the city hall here sits a small park with about a dozen donated buildings and objects - a wishing well, a millstone from the city's first flour mill and an imposing red granite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments.
Thirty miles, or 48 kilometers, to the north, adherents of a religion called Summum gather in a wood-and-metal pyramid by Interstate 15 in Salt Lake City. Followers of Summum meditate on their Seven Aphorisms, fortified by an alcoholic sacramental nectar they produce and surrounded by mummified animals.
In 2003, the president of the Summum church wrote to the mayor here with a proposal: the church wanted to erect a monument inscribed with the Seven Aphorisms in the city park, "similar in size and nature" to the one devoted to the Ten Commandments.
The city declined, a lawsuit followed and a federal appeals court ruled that the First Amendment required the city to display the Summum monument. The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments in the case, which could produce the most important free speech decision of the term.
The justices will consider whether a public park open to some donations must accept others as well. In cases involving speeches and leaflets, the courts have generally said that public parks are public forums where the government cannot discriminate among speakers on the basis of what they propose to say. The question of how donated objects should be treated is, however, an open one.
Inside the pyramid, sitting on a comfy white couch near a mummified Doberman named Butch, Ron Temu, a Summum counselor, said the two monuments would complement each other.
"They've put a basically Judeo-Christian religious text in the park, which we think is great, because people should be exposed to it," Temu said. "But our principles should be exposed as well."
Su Menu, the church's president, agreed. "If you look at them side by side," she said of the two monuments, "they really are saying similar things."
The Third Commandment: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."
The Third Aphorism: "Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates."
Michael Daniels, the mayor here, is not the vibrating sort.
Sitting with the city attorney in a conference room in city hall, Daniels deftly drew several fine lines in explaining why the city could treat the two monuments differently.
Only donations concerning the city's history are eligible for display in the park as a matter of longstanding policy, he said, and only when donated by groups with a long association with the city. The Fraternal Order of Eagles, a national civic organization, donated the Ten Commandments monument in 1971.
The donations, Daniel went on, are transformed when the city accepts them. "Monuments on government property become government speech," he said.
Under the First Amendment, the government can generally say what it likes without giving equal time to opposing views; it has much less latitude to choose among private speakers.
Asked what the government is saying when it displays the Ten Commandments, Daniels talked about law and history. He did not mention religion.
Pressed a little, he retreated.
"The fact that we own the monument doesn't mean that what is on the monument is something we are espousing, promoting, establishing, embracing," he said. "We're looking at, does it fit with the heritage of the people of this area?"
Brian Barnard, a lawyer for the Summum church, said the city's distinctions were cooked up after the fact as a way to reject his client's monument. The local chapter of the Eagles, he added, had only been in town two years when it donated the Ten Commandments monument.
It stands in Pioneer Park, which pays tribute to the city's frontier heritage, one that is mostly Mormon. The two sides differ about how best to honor that heritage.
"We have a city that will allow one organization to put up its religious ideals and principles," Barnard said. "When the next group comes along, they won't allow it to put up its religious ideals and principles."
Last year, the federal appeals court in Denver sided with the Summum church and ordered Pleasant Grove City to erect their monument.
Although the case appears to present questions under the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion, the appeals court said the case is properly analyzed under the amendment's free-speech protections. That distinguishes it from most cases concerning the display of Nativity scenes and the like on government property.
The city, supported by more than 20 cities and states, along with the federal government, has told the Supreme Court that the upshot of affirming the appeals court decision would be to clutter up public parks across the nation with offensive nonsense.
A town accepting a 9/11 memorial would also have to display a donated tribute to Al Qaeda, the briefs said. "Accepting a Statue of Liberty," the city's brief said, should not "compel a government to accept a Statue of Tyranny."
The brief for the Summum church said the relevant dispute was much narrower. "The government," the brief said, "may not take sides in a theological debate."
Governments seeking to avoid accepting donations they do not want have several options, the Summum brief contended. They can choose to display nothing. They can speak in their own voice by creating or commissioning their own monuments. And they can adopt the messages conveyed by donated monuments as their own, but only if they do so expressly and unequivocally.
Daniels, the mayor, said the monument broadly reflects local history. Barnard, the Summum lawyer, said the Ten Commandments did not play a central role in the Mormon faith. "If they wanted to quote from the Book of Mormon," he said, "that would, at least, relate to the pioneers."
"Mormons came to Utah because of religious persecution," Barnard added. "The pioneer heritage in Utah has to be escape from persecution."
The Summum church was founded in 1975, and it contains elements of Egyptian faiths and Gnostic Christianity. "Summum," derived from the Latin, refers to the sum of all creation.
Followers of Summum believe that Moses received two sets of tablets on Mount Sinai and that the Ten Commandments were on the second set.
The aphorisms were on the first one.
"When Moses came down from the mountain the first time, he brought the principles of creation," Temu said, "But he saw the people weren't ready for them, so he threw them on the ground and destroyed them."
Summum's founder, Corky Ra, learned the aphorisms during a series of telepathic encounters with divine beings he called Summa Individuals.
Bernie Aua, the church's vice president, said the court case should not turn on how his religion is viewed. "We have this thing called the Constitution," he said. "The fact is, it's a public park. And public parks are public."
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
KATHMANDU: Thousands of people flocked to a remote jungle in southeast Nepal to see a boy, some believe is a reincarnation of Lord Buddha, who reappeared after missing for more than a year, police said on Tuesday.
Seventeen-year-old Ram Bahadur Bamjon spoke to devotees from nearby villages on Monday in the remote forest in Ratanpuri, 150 km (95 miles) southeast of Kathmandu, Prakash Sen, a police constable said.
Bamjon made international headlines in 2005 when tens of thousands of people turned up to see him sitting cross-legged under a tree in a dense forest for nearly ten months. reportedly without food and water.
Hundreds of devotees, including many from neighbouring India are trekking the five-km (mile) site to see him on Tuesday, Sen said.
"He spoke to the devotees standing near a temple in the forest," Prakash Sen said after a visit to the site.
"He had shoulder-length hair and had his body wrapped in a white cloth."
"Since many people are walking to see him, I think he has some of the qualities Lord Buddha had," he said.
Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born a prince in Lumbini, a sleepy town in Nepal's rice-growing plains about 350 km (220 miles) southwest of Kathmandu more than 2,600 years ago.
He is believed to have attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, which borders Nepal.
(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Bappa Majumdar and Sanjeev Miglani)
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
SHANGHAI: A mother missing since her son stabbed and killed six police officers in China has been held for four months in a mental hospital run by the police, her sister and a lawyer said.
"I know a lot of truth, and the reason they locked me up is just to shut me up," Wang Jinmei told her sister in her first contact with relatives since July, when she said she was taken away by police.
A Beijing lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan, filed an emergency request with the Supreme People's Court in Beijing on Monday for an investigation into Wang's case. The court will also review the death sentence on her son, Yang Jia. Human rights groups have accused China of using mental hospitals to hold dissidents.
Wang Jinrong said she and her sister could not speak openly during their Sunday meeting because they were being monitored, but she said Wang Jinmei had indicated that she believed her son had mental problems.
Yang, 28, was found to be mentally sound during his trial. A request for further psychological testing was denied at his appeal, which he lost last month.
Yang has said Shanghai police officers had beaten him during an interrogation over a stolen bicycle. The police said his July 1 stabbing spree at a Shanghai police station was an act of revenge.
The highly sensitive case has been marked by closed hearings, media bans and groups of Yang supporters shouting outside a Shanghai courthouse. Some of the most outspoken artists and intellectuals in China signed an online petition asking for an investigation into the case.
According to Wang Jinrong, her sister was forced to sign a contract to hire Yang's original lawyer, who was replaced after Yang's conviction when people criticized his apparent conflict of interest as legal adviser for the district where the police stabbings occurred.
Liu said the court should investigate not only why Wang Jinmei was put in the mental hospital, but also why someone judged to be mentally ill could sign such a contract.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
BEIJING: China has jailed four security officers involved in beating to death a man who filmed them clashing with villagers over a rubbish dump, local media reported on Tuesday.
Authorities in January arrested at least a dozen urban management officials in Tianmen, in central China's Hubei province, for their part in the death of Wei Wenhua, a local construction company manager, state media reported.
Urban management officials are employed in Chinese cities as a secondary security force to take the pressure off police, but are regularly accused of heavy-handedness in carrying out their duties, which often includes waste management and supervising street vendors.
Wei, who stopped to film a brawl using his mobile phone, was discovered and beaten by more than 20 of the officials, the Beijing News said, citing the Qianjiang People's Court in Hubei.
He died after the beating triggered a heart attack, the newspaper said, citing notes from the court.
The court sentenced the head officer involved to six years in jail, while three others were handed jail terms of between three and five years.
The court decision comes as authorities in the northeastern city of Harbin investigate six police officers for their part in a melee outside a nightclub that lead to the death of a sports university graduate.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by David Fox)
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
TZIBICHEN CENOTE, Mexico: Legend says the afterlife for ancient Mayas was a terrifying obstacle course in which the dead had to traverse rivers of blood and chambers full of sharp knives, bats and jaguars.
A Mexican archaeologist using long-forgotten testimony from the Spanish Inquisition says a series of caves he has explored may be the place where the Maya actually tried to depict this highway through hell.
The network of underground chambers, roads and temples beneath farmland and jungle on the Yucatán Peninsula suggests the Maya fashioned them to mimic the journey to the underworld, or Xibalba, described in ancient mythological texts such as the Popol Vuh.
"It was the place of fear, the place of cold, the place of danger, of the abyss," said, Guillermo de Anda, a University of Yucatán archaeologist.
Searching for the names of sacred sites mentioned by Indian heretics who were put on trial by Inquisition courts, de Anda discovered what appear to be stages of the legendary journey, recreated in a half-dozen caves south of Mérida, the capital of Yucatán State.
Archaeologists have long known that the Maya regarded caves as sacred and built structures in some.
De Anda's team introduced "an extremely important ingredient" by using historical records to locate and connect a series of sacred caves, and link them with the concept of the Mayan road to the afterworld, said Bruce Dahlin, an archaeologist at Shepherd University who has studied other Maya sites in the Yucatán.
An Associated Press reporter followed de Anda and his team into the caves, squeezing through tiny, overgrown entrances and rappelling down narrow shafts and slippery tree roots.
There, in the Stygian darkness, a scene unfolded that was eerily reminiscent of an "Indiana Jones" movie - tottering ancient temple platforms, slippery staircases and tortuous paths that skirted underground lakes littered with Mayan pottery and ancient skulls.
The group explored walled-off sacred chambers that can be entered only by crawling along a floor populated by spiders, scorpions and toads.
To find Xibalba, de Anda spent five years combing the 450-year-old records of the Inquisition trials the Spaniards held for Indian "heretics" in Mexico.
The Spanish were outraged that the Mayas continued to practice their old religion even after the conquest; they used the trials to make them reveal the places where they performed their ceremonies.
Time after time, the defendants mentioned the same places, but the recorded names changed over the centuries or were forgotten.
Armed with clues from trial records, the archaeologists asked locals for caves with similar-sounding names or coordinates that would place them nearby.
The Mayas used the sinkhole caves, known as cenotes, as places of worship and depositories for sacrificed humans. Many cenotes still contain pools that supply villages with water. The best-known is the broad, circular pool at the ruins of Chichén Itzá.
The cenotes de Anda found were drier, better hidden and farther from villages. They seem to have had a special religious significance because even as the Maya were forced to convert to Christianity, they still traveled long distances to worship there.
Among de Anda's discoveries are a broad, perfectly paved underground road stretching 100 meters, or about 330 feet; a submerged temple; walled-off stone rooms; and the "confusing crossroads" of the legends.
"There are a number of elements that make us think that this road is a representation of the journey to Xibalba," de Anda said. "We think it is no coincidence that the road which comes out of the crossroads leads to the west," the direction described as the way to the afterlife.
At the center of one of the underground lakes, de Anda's team found a collapsed and submerged altar with carvings indicating it was dedicated to the gods of death.
In some of the chambers, it is almost impossible to move without slashing one's skin on stalactites and stone formations projecting from the walls and ceilings, leading de Anda to believe they are a representation of the feared "room of knives" described in the Popol Vuh.
Bats are depicted in the ancient texts, and visitors have to duck to avoid swarms of them. There's the "chamber of roasting heat" which indeed leaves visitors soaked in sweat. Cool currents of surface air penetrating some caves feel almost frigid, just like the legend's "chambers of shaking cold."
While de Anda has not yet encountered a specific "jaguar chamber," jaguar bones have been found in at least one cave.
Subterranean "roads" interrupted by deep pools of water may signify the rivers of blood and pus.
But why go to the trouble of reproducing hell? "Perhaps it was to demonstrate power," de Anda said, or to give the living an idea of the terrors they would meet en route to paradise.
Clifford Brown, an archaeologist at Florida Atlantic University who has worked in the region, agrees that the Mayas saw the cenotes as a portal to the underworld.
"Everybody has heard of the cenote of sacrifice at Chichén Itzá, but it's less widely recognized that it was part of a generalized cenote worship that existed at many sites," Brown said.
"There are a number of sites in the lowlands where there are caves right underneath the principal temples, palaces and pyramids, which are thought to represent a religious 'access mundi,' where you have the pyramid representing the heavens, and the caves representing the underworld underneath."
By Stephen Farrell
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
BAGHDAD: Shiites walking east and Sunnis walking west met at the midpoint of a newly reopened bridge on Tuesday, seeking to reclaim a landmark that had long symbolized the divide between two Baghdad communities similar in name but polar opposites in sectarian makeup.
For three years Shiites from one, Kadhimiya, and Sunnis from the other, Adhamiya, have been unable to use the crossing, the Aimma Bridge of the Imams in northern Baghdad. It was closed after one of one of the worst disasters of the post-invasion era: in August 2005, rumors of a suicide bomber provoked a frenzied stampede in a procession of Shiite pilgrims. Nearly 1,000 people died; most were crushed, but many also drowned when they fell or jumped into the Tigris.
Tuesday's reopening, attended by senior Iraqi military commanders and American officers, was a carefully managed set piece on tarmac covered in drips of fresh red, black white and green paint the colors on the Iraqi flag. The ceremony was conducted under heavy guard, with American Humvees on the perimeter and helicopters circling overhead.
Just 24 hours earlier a synchronized triple-bombing in Adhamiya killed 28 people, according to an Interior Ministry official. The American military put the figure much lower, at five.
But on Tuesday, the only blood in sight was of sheep slaughtered in celebration as hundreds of people marched with politicians and clerics from both sides to meet in the middle.
The revival of the bridge was more than symbolic. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's government was keen to put cars and trucks back onto this major traffic artery, as part of its drive to open up the Baghdad's blocked roads, which create huge congestion for the estimated 1.3 million vehicles on the city's roads.
Iraqi armored vehicles lined the approach roads to the bridge, which run past two of the country's most famous mosques: the golden Kadhimiya shrine, burial place of the eighth-century saint Imam Musa al-Kadhim, and the ornate Abu Hanifa Mosque, burial place of the Islamic religious scholar known as Imam Adham.
Tensions between the communities run deep. Sunni Adhamiya, now walled off from other neighborhoods of overwhelmingly Shiite east Baghdad, was a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein, whereas Kadhimiya's shrine is the holiest in Baghdad for Shiites.
However, speakers on Tuesday highlighted past efforts at cross-community cooperation. Some cited Othman Ali Obaidi, an 18-year-old Sunni high school student who drowned when he dived into the Tigris in 2005 to rescue Shiite pilgrims.
Ahmed Abdel Ghafour al-Sammaraie, the head of the Sunni Endowment, an institution that oversees Sunni mosques, said that Iraqis were "united as one body" and that if any part fell ill, all the other parts "will fall sick as well."Saleh al-Haidari, his counterpart at the parallel Shiite Endowment, hailed a "glorious day." He added: "It is the day of Iraqis who proved to the whole world that we are a united people."
In Adhamiya, Muhanned Saleh, 46, said he believed the opening meant "a new and good stage of non-sectarianism."
But not all Iraqis in the two neighborhoods were convinced. Another man in Adhamiya, Nazar al-Azawi, 42, said he was not yet comfortable "because the security situation is not good and maybe the opening of the bridge will be exploited to inflame troubles again. I wish that opening had been postponed for a year, until everything is settled."
Opinions were divided even among families. In Kadhimiya, Bashra Umm Ameer, 41, said she would not use the bridge and was opposed to the reopening. "It is the connection between two different areas, one very much belonging to the Shiites and the other very much belonging to the Sunnis," she said. "If the security gets worse, the sectarian war will return.
However her daughter Shahinaz, 16, rejoiced, saying, "I have many friends in Adhamiya, and I haven't seen them for a long time."
Of the Americans present, Colonel Bill Salter, a military adviser working with Iraq's Baghdad Operations Command, said the Iraqi leaders "have been working extremely hard to balance both security and freedom of movement for the civilians, and that is a challenge." As an Iraqi band played in the background he added, "this is a great day."
By David Streitfeld
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
MOUNTAIN HOUSE, California: This town, 59 feet above sea level, is the most underwater community in America.
Because of plunging home values, almost 90 percent of homeowners here owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth, according to figures released Monday. That is the highest percentage in the country. The average homeowner in Mountain House is "underwater," as it is known, by $122,000.
A visit to the area over the last couple of days shows how the nationwide housing crisis is contributing to a broad slowdown of the American economy, as families who feel burdened by high mortgages are pulling back on their spending.
Jerry Martinez, a general contractor, and his wife, Marcie, an accounts clerk, are among the struggling owners in Mountain House. Burdened with credit card debt and a house losing value by the day, they are learning the necessity of self-denial for themselves and their three children.
No more family bowling night. No more dinners at Chili's or Applebee's. No more going to the movies.
"We make decent money, but it takes a tremendous amount to pay the mortgage," Martinez, 33, said.
First American CoreLogic, a real estate data company, has calculated that 7.6 million properties in the country were underwater as of Sept. 30, while another 2.1 million were in striking distance. That is nearly a quarter of all homes with mortgages. The 20 hardest-hit ZIP codes are all in four states: California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona.
"Most people pay very little attention to what their equity stake is if they can make the mortgage," said First American's chief economist, Mark Fleming. "They think it's a bummer if the value has gone down, but they are rooted in their house."
And yet the magnitude of the current declines has little precedent. "When my house is valued at 50 percent less than it was, does this begin to challenge the way I'm going to behave?" he said.
Mountain House, a planned community set among the fields and pastures of the Central Valley about 60 miles east of San Francisco, provides a discomfiting answer.
The cutbacks by the Martinezes and their neighbors are reflected in a modest strip of about a dozen stores in nearby Tracy. Three are empty while a fourth has only a temporary tenant. Some of those that remain say they are just hanging on.
"Before summer, things were O.K. Not now," said My Phan of Hailey Nails and Spa. "Customers say they cannot afford to do their nails." She estimated her business had fallen by half.
At Cribs, Kids and Teens, Jason Heinemann says his business is also down 50 percent. He opened the store in early 2006; last month was his worst ever. "Grandparents are big buyers of kids' furniture, but when their 401(k)'s are dropping $10,000 and $20,000 a week, they don't come in," he said.
Heinemann laid off his one employee, a contribution to an unemployment rate in San Joaquin County that has surpassed 10 percent. He dropped his advertising in the local newspaper and luxury magazines.
As Heinemann's sales sink, he is tightening his own belt. "I used to be a big spender," he said. "We're setting a budget for Christmas."
In the window of another tenant, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, a placard shows two happy homeowners holding a sign saying, "Someday we'll owe a lot less than we thought."
Someday, maybe, but not now. First American has been refining its figures on underwater mortgages, formally known as negative equity. The data company evaluated 42 million residential properties with mortgages. (Though Maine, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming were excluded because of insufficient data, none of those states have been central to the mortgage crisis.) A computer model was used to calculate current values, using comparable sales. More than 10 million homes do not have mortgages.
The figures rank the 20 ZIP codes that are furthest underwater. The 95391 ZIP code, which includes all of Mountain House and some properties outside it, has the unwelcome distinction of being first in the country.
Out of 1,856 mortgages in the ZIP code, First American calculates that nearly 90 percent are underwater. Only 209 owners owe less on their mortgages than the homes are worth.
The first homes in Mountain House were sold in 2003, just as the real estate boom began to go into overdrive. Its relative proximity to San Francisco drew many who traded a longer commuting trip for a bigger place.
The Martinezes bought their house in early 2005 for $630,000. It is now worth about $420,000. They have an interest-only mortgage, a popular loan during the boom that allows owners to forgo principal payments for a time.
But these loans eventually become unmanageable. In 2015, Martinez said, his monthly payments will be $12,000 a month. He laughed and shook his head at the absurdity of it.
They fear the future, so they stay home. They rent movies. They play board games. (But not Monopoly with its real estate theme, it reminds them too much of real life.)
"It's a vicious circle," Martinez said. The economy is faltering because he and millions of others are not spending. This killed his career in home remodeling this year, and threatens his current work as a contractor on commercial properties.
For the moment, the family is just trying to hold on. But Martinez acknowledges that it has entered his mind to turn his house back over to the bank. "By next June, if things aren't better, I'm walking," Martinez said.
Many in Mountain House have already taken that option. Banks took over 101 properties in the 95391 ZIP code in the third quarter, according to DataQuick Information Systems.
Even relatively recent arrivals are feeling a pinch.
Kenny Rogers, a data security specialist, moved into Mountain House last year, buying a foreclosed property on Prosperity Street for $380,000. But the decline in values has been so fierce that he too is underwater.
He has cut his DVD buying from 50 a month to perhaps one, and is waiting until the Christmas sales to buy a high-definition television. He does not indulge much anymore in his hobbies of scuba diving and flying. "Best to wait for a better price, or do without," Rogers, 52, said.
People deciding to do without are hurting a second mall close to Mountain House. There is a shuttered Linens 'n Things, part of a chain that went bankrupt. Another empty storefront used to be a Fashion Bug. Soccer World could not make it. Shoe Pavilion is festooned with going-out-of-business signs.
Chris and Janet Ackerson can survey this carnage from their own store with a certain equanimity. Their business, a member of the Vino 100 chain of wine outlets, is doing well.
The store opened at the beginning of the year, so long-term trends are not clear. But sales did not plunge in the last few months as they did for so many other retailers. Four more people joined the store's wine club last weekend.
"My house is underwater, so I'm not doing too much impulse shopping or any renovation. But I'm not cutting back on this," said Ray Lopez, a database administrator, as he placed a $24 petite sirah on the counter. "Life's too short."
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
LONDON: About $2.1 trillion of European company and bank debt matures in the next three years, raising "substantial refinancing risk," Standard & Poor's said Tuesday.
With new bond issues at a near standstill after the bankruptcy filing by Lehman Brothers in September, fears have risen that companies will be unable to raise money to pay off maturing bonds. That could push them into default.
"Funding pressures in Europe have escalated sharply since September as stress in the global financial system accelerated," S&P analysts said in a note. "Given the soaring cost of capital, the sizeable pipeline of debt coming due suggests substantial refinancing risk."
S&P said euro-denominated senior bank debt was being offered at spreads near 2.25 percentage points over swaps, almost 10 times wider than levels before August 2007. The financial sector makes up 72 percent of the maturing debt over the next three years that is rated by S&P, but recent government rescue packages should help mitigate those refinancing pressures, S&P said.
In the remainder of this year, $206 billion of European debt will mature, including $181 billion in the financial sector.
Within nonfinancials, capital-intensive sectors like telecommunications and utilities have around $113 billion and $79 billion worth of debt, respectively, due to mature in 2009 through to the end of 2011, S&P said. In the fourth quarter, those sectors face an additional $8.6 billion and $4.1 billion respectively of maturing debt. Other sectors with the heaviest redemption profiles include health care at $48 billion; metals, mining and steel at $32 billion; and transportation at $28 billion.Interbank lending rates fall
Interbank lending rates for dollar, euro and sterling funds fell and spreads between those rates and government lending rates narrowed on Tuesday, reflecting continued improvement in money market conditions as European central banks acted in the market again, Reuters reported from London.
London interbank offered rates, or Libor, for three-month euros were fixed lower for the 24th consecutive session, and comparable dollar and sterling rates fell for the 22nd straight trading day.
The spread also fell again between Libor and anticipated central bank policy rates measured by overnight index swap rates, or OIS, a gauge of overall financial market stress.
Sterling three-month Libor fixed at a new low since April 2004, and the Libor/OIS spread fell to its lowest in over a month.
There was no fix of overnight dollar rates at the daily Libor fixing by the British Bankers' Association because of the Veterans Day holiday in the United States.
"It looks like the combination of lower rates, more liquidity and government schemes are helping to bring Libor rates down," said Christoph Rieger, rates strategist at Dresdner Kleinwort in Frankfurt.
"But a more profound decline probably won't come before the end of the year."
Market participants are continuing to report hardly any interbank lending for periods beyond a month. This is largely because of concerns over the year-end period when financial institutions take a snapshot of their books for reporting purposes and liquidity dries up.
By Motoko Rich
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
For the U.S. book industry the question for the forthcoming Christmas holiday shopping season may be whether more people are like Francisco Clough or like Jacqueline Belliveau. Both were browsing in a Barnes & Noble in New York late last week, but Clough only looked, while Belliveau bought her second book in two days.
Dressed in a black suit and carrying a zippered leather portfolio, Clough, 36, said he had quit his job at a small brokerage firm on Wall Street six months ago. Fresh from a job interview, he flipped through a "Green Lantern" graphic novel but didn't buy it. "There were probably five books I would have bought if I were not unemployed," he said.
Belliveau, on the other hand, bought Carole Walter's "Great Cookies," just a day after purchasing Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food." An architect who was laid off recently, she has turned down invitations to travel and downgraded her gym membership. She has found another job, but Belliveau, 40, is still being careful about expenses except books. "I like to have a collection of the history of what you read," she said.
Like many businesses across the retail sector, the publishing industry has been hit by a raft of doom and gloom in the past few weeks. Leonard Riggio, chairman and largest shareholder of Barnes & Noble, said in an internal memorandum predicting a dreadful holiday shopping season, as first reported in The Wall Street Journal last week, that "never in all my years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are in."
Last week, HarperCollins, the books division of the News Corp., reported that fiscal first-quarter operating income had slid to $3 million from $36 million a year earlier, despite its publication of the Oprah Winfrey-anointed novel "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" by David Wroblewski. A week earlier Doubleday Publishing Group, a unit of Random House, laid off 16 people, a 10 percent cut in staff. At the time the company said the move did not presage further layoffs in other publishing divisions, but industry insiders said they would not be surprised to see more.
Also this month Rodale, a magazine and book publisher, laid off 14 people in its book division, a little more than 7 percent of the staff.
Long before the current financial crisis, Borders Group, struggling against online and big-box retailers, had announced it was looking at a potential sale of itself. Given current economic conditions, publishers are nervously watching to see what happens with the company.
Now, most everyone in publishing is bracing for a difficult holiday season while trying to remain optimistic about the enduring allure of books.
"A book is still this incredibly lovely, respectable gift," said Jamie Raab, publisher of Grand Central Publishing, and is "a lot cheaper than the other luxury items that people tend to buy at Christmas."
"So we could get lucky and see that it really works in our favor," she added.
Grand Central is enjoying strong sales of titles by the novelists Nelson DeMille and Nicholas Sparks, as well as of "Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World," but it also is waiting to see how Ted Turner's "Call Me Ted," for which it spent more than $5 million, will sell. Raab said the company had printed 625,000 copies and had shipped more than 500,000.
With several publishers reporting that booksellers were cutting orders for January, Raab acknowledged that she was concerned about a post-New Year's downturn. "You know to a certain extent people will be in the stores during the holidays," she said. "What will happen once there is no reason to be in the stores?"
Booksellers are trying new tactics to help ring up sales. At Book Passage, an independent bookseller in San Francisco and Corte Madera, California, Elaine Petrocelli, an owner, said she recently instituted a policy giving priority seating at book readings to those who purchase the book. Last month, she sold 160 copies at a reading by Katherine Neville, author of "The Fire," a thriller about a chess prodigy.
Still, Petrocelli said she had noticed an overall decline in foot traffic at her two stores compared with this time last year. As a result, she said, she has decided not to hire holiday-season help. Usually she hires three or four people part time.
Not surprisingly, publishers, too, are looking for ways to cut costs. Print runs are being scrutinized, and companies are trying to reduce the number of unsold copies that are returned by booksellers, a painful practice in the best of times.
Some publishers are also looking at their (famously generous) travel and entertainment budgets. Steve Ross, publisher of Collins, a division of HarperCollins, said he recently took a job candidate for a drink at a New York hotel and was shocked by the $22 price for cocktails. "I think it will be awhile before I will have the pleasure of meeting anybody there," Ross said.
For now, both publishers and agents said the penny pinching was not yet sinking seven-figure book deals. Although some might be cautious about signing a debut novelist, most publishers said they were still aggressively pursuing deals for celebrity books and others with natural best-seller prospects. Little, Brown & Co. signed a deal Last month with the comedian Tina Fey for a sum reported as more than $5 million, and Jerry Seinfeld was out with a book proposal this week that some publishers suggested could go for a high seven-figure advance.
"The paradox is we have to continue to acquire books and compete against each other in a tough marketplace," said Jonathan Burnham, publisher of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins. "We're trying to be fiscally responsible about royalty advances, and yet the big books are the books that everybody wants, so we're still in this climate of having to pay large levels of money in these auctions. You can't really step away from that."
Christy Fletcher, a literary agent in New York, said royalty advances for so-called midlist authors could come under pressure. "Something may sell for $50,000 that would have sold for $100,000 a year ago," she said.
Publishers continue to plan for blockbuster sales of marquee-brand books. Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, for example, has shipped 1.25 million copies of "You: Being Beautiful The Owner's Manual to Inner and Outer Beauty," Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz's next book in their best-selling series of advice titles, which goes on sale on Tuesday. HarperCollins has shipped more than 300,000 copies of "The Hour I First Believed," the new novel by Wally Lamb. (In March, that publisher had announced a first-print run of half a million, though these numbers tend to be exaggerated.)
One silver lining of the downturn: Because many books are not selling as well as they might have in a better economy, it does not take nearly as many copies to have bragging rights about being a best seller.
There still may be something to the theory, much circulated these days, that books can provide an escape from financial misery. When "Gone With the Wind" was published in 1936 during the Great Depression, it sold a million copies in its first year and stayed at No. 1 on best-seller lists for two straight years before it was a movie tie-in.
Then again, they didn't have the Internet or television back then. But some publishing insiders suggested that readers might be looking for a respite from the digital world.
"I think that people have not been reading for the past year because they've been checking political blogs every 20 minutes," said Larry Weissman, a literary agent. "At some point I think people are going to say, 'You know what, this is not nourishing.' I think and I hope and maybe it's just blind hope I think there is a yearning for authenticity out there, and people are going to go back to the things that really matter, and one of those things, I hope, will be reading books."
By Stephanie Clifford and Stuart Elliott
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
NEW YORK: Sasha Tsyrlin is a location scout who has spent decades finding sites to film television commercials. He used to spend his days in mansions and gated estates.
"You would go to big houses and pretend this is how the average American lived," he said.
These days, his job is significantly less glamorous. Now, advertisers want their commercials filmed in homes meant for middle-class or even blue-collar families, Tsyrlin said.
"The client always seems to have an emphasis on, 'A house is too fancy,"' he added. "They say, 'Well, we don't want the audience to think that only rich people can afford our product."'
As the U.S. economy rapidly deteriorates from flourishing to foundering, marketers are scrambling to remake their advertising so products seem affordable and sensible rather than indulgent and fabulous. For many big marketers, including automakers, retailers, consumer product companies and even financial services, a major shift in consumer psychology spells an end to the aspirational advertising that has dominated ad campaigns for a decade.
There is a sense that expensive purchases - even if consumers can afford them - have become gauche, said Stephen Hoch, professor of marketing and director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
"At times like this, you don't want to be as conspicuous," Hoch said. "It's really rude."
"Since when is overpaying a status symbol?" asks a magazine ad for the 2009 Borrego sport utility vehicle sold by Kia Motors America. Prices for the Borrego, proclaimed to be "a new kind of luxury SUV," begin at under $27,000.
A campaign from Procter & Gamble compares a product that is part of its Olay line of skin care products with more costly alternatives.
Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream, which costs less than $30, is "more effective than the department store cream costing $350," an ad asserts. "(You just don't get a chic shopping bag.)"
In the recent boom times, Hoch said, "marketers were hesitant to bring up value overtly because they were worried about it diluting the aspirational aspect of the product," he added, but now they "have to try something, because nothing else is really working."
That was a reference to economic data that included the reports last week from the nation's largest retailers for sales in October.
Almost every chain, from purveyors of haute couture to practitioners of the philosophy of piling it high and selling it cheaply, suffered percentage declines that reached double digits.
"We're starting to see people trade down, cut back on quantities, cut back on quality," said George John, marketing chairman at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.
Some brands seem to recognize their plight. The Target retail chain, for instance, is striving to play up the "Pay less" part of its longtime slogan, "Expect more. Pay less."
New television commercials look like the familiar Target spots that feature chic consumers reveling in their cool Target purchases. Now, though, there are paeans to the new reality, complete with price tags.
Watching a $13 DVD on the living room sofa is celebrated as "the new movie night" and a $59.99 bicycle is presented as "the new commute."
The trend toward frugality is sweeping along even wealthier Americans.
The well-to-do are "making lists, they're planning, they're comparison shopping, they're starting to think more strategically," said Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a research company in Stevens, Pennsylvania.
So rather than pitch seduction, the perfume Tabu Forbidden is pitching a coupon for $5 off the purchase price. The drugstore remedy Emergen-C is not only about staying "healthy year-round," it's about a $1 coupon. Reddi-wip is no longer about creamy indulgence, it's about saving 75 cents.
On the higher end, Bloomingdale's is advertising 50 percent off furs. Lord & Taylor is taking 60 percent off the price of diamonds.
Expedia is offering a $200 discount to people taking trips around Christmas.
Not all brands can play up value and thrift and expect good results, academics warned.
"Consumers are feeling very differently about their purchases, and they're feeling very differently about their economic situation, than they did months ago," said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
"The brands that will do well in this environment are your low-priced brands, brands that are very cheap and value-driven," he added. "The brands that will struggle are the brands that ask people to step up, because people are not inspired to do that right now."
That means brands hovering between cheap and luxe are "in a really tough spot," Calkins said. He and other marketing experts pointed to Coach, Macy's, Target and Whole Foods Market.
"It's easy to compete on the low end because you just focus on very aggressive pricing and selling a fairly good product," he explained. "The top will be O.K., too, because there's always people in this world with a lot of money."
"If you're in the middle, though, that's where people are going to get crunched," he added, because "that's where it gets pretty easy to trade down to the lower-end stuff."
Will this new mood on Madison Avenue become permanent? After all, ads turned austere during previous recessions, and even during the Great Depression, and subsequently bounced back.
"I don't think that'll last," said Hoch of the Wharton School. "We live in a very commercial, consumption-oriented world today, for good and bad, and I think it'll come back."
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
LONDON: Europeans will limit spending on Christmas as they brace for a tough 2009, though shoppers in eastern countries are more optimistic than those in the west, surveys by business consultancy Deloitte showed on Wednesday.
Some 40 percent of Europeans plan to limit their end-of-year spending on gifts, while half of them will budget their festive shopping this year, up from a third in 2007, Deloitte said.
Some 60 percent of those surveyed also anticipate lower purchasing power next year.
"2008 can be expected to mark a significant change in end-of-year spending in Europe," Deloitte said in a statement.
"Retailers can expect lower sales levels than in recent years."
Shoppers across Europe are cutting back following big rises in food and fuel costs and after a turmoil in financial markets sparked fears of a global recession. However, there are variations from country to country.
In Britain Deloitte said shoppers planned to spend an average of 655 pounds on gifts, socialising and food and drink this Christmas, down 7 percent on last year and the first fall for at least a decade.
But the results were heavily affected by 24 percent of respondents, mostly middle-aged homeowners facing the biggest worries about rising bills and falling house prices, who said they would cut back.
Some 57 percent of UK consumers said they planned to spend the same this Christmas as last year, while 19 percent said they would spend more.
Helped by last week's bigger than expected 1.5 percentage point cut in Bank of England's base rate, Deloitte forecast that overall sales would be broadly flat, or perhaps down slightly, in the UK.
But Tarlok Teji, head of retail at Deloitte, said conditions were likely to get tougher for UK retailers in early 2009.
"Come February onwards, consumers will close their wallets and purses and retailers cash flows will start to suffer," he said in a telephone interview.
"We would expect to see casualties ... I think there's going to be quite a shake-up," he said, adding that store groups selling goods linked to the home and mid-market clothing retailers were the most likely to suffer.
In eastern Europe consumers are more upbeat, with 66 percent saying they remain optimistic about economic prospects.
Across the continent shoppers are expected to focus Christmas shopping on bargains and promotions, which could favour supermarket groups over department stores, Deloitte said.
It also saw a trend towards "in-tertainment," with consumers spending more time at home. This could boost demand for everything from basic cooking ingredients to karaoke and computer games, it said.
Deloitte also noted a growing proportion of Europeans hoping their Christmas present would be cash.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
NEW YORK: Merrill Lynch Chief Executive John Thain said he did not expect the global economy to recover quickly from the credit crisis and that the environment more closely resembled 1929, the advent of the Great Depression, than recent slowdowns.
Speaking Tuesday at a financial services conference sponsored by his bank, Thain said credit remained constricted and asset prices generally were still falling, following the housing market collapse and a crisis of confidence.
These led to market-shaking events, including the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings , and Merrill's own decision to quickly sell itself to Bank of America for $50 billion (32 billion pounds).
"We are going to be in a very difficult economic environment for a significant period of time," Thain said. He said the U.S. economy "is contracting very rapidly," creating uncertainty "at least over the next few quarters."
Thain nevertheless said market conditions for financial services companies were improving.
As an example, he said Merrill recently issued some three-month commercial paper, which companies typically use to fund day-to-day operations, when for a time it had been able only to issue overnight paper.
Commercial paper markets had seized up following Lehman's September 15 bankruptcy, which led to a run on some money market funds that buy the short-term debt.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that things are starting to get better in financial services," Thain said.
"Although things are starting to improve, this is going to be a long process, and this is not going to get better quickly," he added. "It is not like '87, it is not like '98, it is not like 2001."
For Merrill, he said, the outlook is not all bleak as its merger combines Bank of America's strengths in retail banking, corporate lending and Treasury services with Merrill's strengths in wealth management, investment banking, and sales and trading.
"We're in a good space to weather this economic storm," he said.
The merger is expected to close by year-end. Bank of America and Merrill shareholders are scheduled to vote on the transaction on December 5.
(Reporting by Elinor Comlay and Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
TOKYO: Goldman Sachs Group has cut about 10 percent of its investment bankers in Tokyo, including one of Japan's top women bankers, as part of global efforts to cut its workforce, people familiar with the matter said.
Goldman has laid off more than 10 bankers from its mergers and capital markets teams, including Naomi Matsuoka who led Goldman's equity capital markets team, four people told Reuters.
Matsuoka is known for her role in sales of shares by the Japanese government, including stakes in Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp between 1998 and 2000 and East Japan Railway Co in 2002.
Goldman handled many of Japan's big privatisation deals, helping to boost its ranking on banking league tables.
Goldman ranks this year as No.4 investment bank in handling Japanese share sales, up from 12th position at the same time last year, data compiled by Thomson Reuters showed.
Matsuoka is one of the four managing directors who have left the bank in the latest move, the people said.
A spokeswoman for Goldman Sachs in Tokyo declined to comment.
(Reporting by Taro Fuse and Junko Fujita; Editing by Rodney Joyce)
By Simon Romero
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
CARACAS: The Nepalese Maoist smiled as he glanced around the lobby of the Hotel Alba Caracas. To his left, West African delegates to the World Meeting of Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humanity chatted in French. To his right, the Egyptian author of a book on President Hugo Chávez puffed on a cigarette.
"This has been a most enjoyable forum, allowing us to learn from the glorious heritage of socialist revolution in Latin America," said the Maoist, Chandra Prasad Gajurel, 60, a Politburo member of the Communist Party of Nepal, which put an end to that country's monarchy in elections this year.
Gajurel joined some 200 other leftist thinkers from around the world who met here for a few days in October to discuss transitions toward socialism, even as many people in advanced Western countries were losing sleep over the spreading financial crisis of global capitalism.
In hotel corridors where oilmen in business suits once hatched deals over glasses of whiskey, delegates in Birkenstock sandals and guayabera shirts discussed Marx and Antonio Gramsci, the leftist Italian writer. Such meetings have become a staple of life in Caracas, with Chávez's government flush, at least for now, with petrodollars that can be used to attract sympathetic members of the chattering classes the world over.
Officials here have organized international encounters for philosophers, women's rights advocates, the government spokesmen of nonaligned countries, poets and, in September, specialists in body painting.
Another event, the annual international book fair in Venezuela, began with fanfare here last week with the theme, "The book in the construction of Bolivarian socialism." That was a bit toned down from the fair the previous year, which had delegates pondering the question, "The United States: a possible revolution?"
Amid all the variety, few of these conferences offered as much optimism about shifting international events as the meeting for intellectuals a few weeks ago, which involved guided tours of the capital's slums for the delegates and panel discussions examining the evolving financial crisis.
"We must help the current capitalist model collapse, for on its own this will not happen," José Déniz Espinos, an economist from Madrid, told attendees. "I do not know of one system that has collapsed on its own. For this reason, we must not succumb to euphoria."
The conference, like most of the others, was held in the Alba, a luxury hotel taken over by the government last year from the Hilton chain. It is this country's equivalent to the Hotel Habana Libre in Cuba: a drab complex once associated with American power that serves as a symbol of revolutionary change.
Not far from the welcome stand in the hotel lobby, the Alba's curio shop featured souvenir statues of Chávez for 315 bolivares, about $147 at the official exchange rate (about twice the black market rate).
Those on a tighter budget could also stroll outside, where sidewalk vendors could regularly be found hawking a range of Chávez-emblazoned knickknacks for less than $10. For the more daring, there were T-shirts championing Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the Venezuelan terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, who is serving a life sentence in France.
"It is wonderful to be in Caracas," said Mostapha el-Gammal, 56, an Egyptian and author of a new book, "Chávez: Charisma, Revolution, Dialectics." "The city has some nice nature, and less traffic than in Cairo."
Revolutionary tourism notwithstanding, Gammal said a highlight of his trip was the opportunity to debate his book, which he said the Venezuelan government was planning to translate from the Arabic and publish here.
"Is Chávez a mere populist or a genuine revolutionary?" he asked, rhetorically, in an interview. "I dismiss the first idea."
And he got a call-out from Chávez himself when the president addressed the conference. "Chávez spoke my name into the microphone and told me, 'Thank you,"' said Gammal, beaming.
The Venezuelan government also earns high marks from some foreign scholars for its creation of the Miranda International Center, a policy research outfit in a high-rise across the street from the Alba, and for prizes like the Liberator Prize for Critical Thinking. Franz Hinkelammert, a German-born theologian living in Costa Rica, was the first winner of the $150,000 prize in 2006.
The conferences, the prizes, the slum tours with a government security detail: It is all too much for Chávez's doubters, people like Fernando Mires, a Chilean historian and philosopher who was here for a separate conference at the Central University of Venezuela.
On his way out of town, Mires, 65, was detained by security forces and exhaustively interrogated about his visit before he was allowed to board the plane. Mires, an outspoken critic of Chávez's, who described the incident in an article in a local newspaper, said he viewed the conference at the Alba with resignation.
"Yesterday it was Mugabe or Castro; today it's Chávez," Mires said in a telephone interview. "Many of the attendees to these events are emerging from political frustration and see a chance for their ideas in an impoverished country that has been democratized through intimidation."
Still, some in attendance at the Caracas conference seemed prepared to cast a critical gaze on their host, but maybe with a wink.
"It's admirable, but there are also so many questions to see whether this process is sustainable," Vinod Raina, a theoretical physicist from India, said of Venezuela under Chávez. "The important point is that he has taken on the mantle of crystallizing forces in opposition to the empire."
Thom Walker contributed reporting.
By Stanley B. Greenberg
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
I'm finished with the Reagan Democrats of Macomb County in suburban Detroit after making a career of spotlighting their middle-class anger and frustrations about race and Democratic politicians. Bill Clinton wrote in his autobiography that my "extensive research on the so-called Reagan Democrats and what it would take to bring them home" was the reason he hired me as his pollster for his presidential campaign.
For more than 20 years, the non-college-educated white voters in Macomb County have been considered a "national political barometer," as Ronald Brownstein of National Journal described them during the Democratic convention in August. After Ronald Reagan won the county by a 2-to-1 margin in 1984, Brownstein noted, I conducted focus groups that "found that these working-class whites interpreted Democratic calls for economic fairness as code for transfer payments to African-Americans."
So what do we think when Barack Obama, an African-American Democrat, wins Macomb County by eight points?
I conducted a survey of 750 Macomb County residents who voted Tuesday, and their responses put their votes in context. Before the Democratic convention, barely 40 percent of Macomb County voters were "comfortable" with the idea of Obama as president, far below the number who were comfortable with a nameless Democrat. But on Election Day, nearly 60 percent said they were "comfortable" with Obama.
About the same number said Obama "shares your values" and "has what it takes to be president."
Given Macomb's history, this story helps illustrate America's evolving relationship with race. These voters, like voters elsewhere, watched Obama intently and became confident he would work for all Americans and be the steady leader the times required. But focusing on the ways that Macomb County has become normal and uninteresting misses the extraordinary changes taking place next door in Oakland County - a place that played a bigger role in Obama's success and perhaps in an emerging national Democratic ascendancy.
While Macomb County is home to the white middle class that America's auto industry made possible, Oakland County is home to the affluent, business-oriented suburbanites of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, some of the richest townships in America. Just a quarter of Macomb County residents have college degrees, but more than 40 percent do in Oakland.
Oakland County has formed part of the Republican heartland in Michigan and the country. From 1972 to 1988, Democratic presidential candidates in their best years lost the county by 20 points. From Bill Clinton to John Kerry, however, Democrats began to settle for a draw.
Over the past two decades, Oakland County began to change, as an influx of teachers, lawyers and high-tech professionals began to outnumber the county's business owners and managers. Macomb has been slow to welcome racial diversity, but almost a quarter of Oakland's residents are members of various racial minorities.
These changes have produced a more tolerant and culturally liberal population, uncomfortable with today's Republican Party. When we conducted our poll of 600 voters in Oakland County on election night, they were a lot more open than voters in Macomb to gay marriage and affirmative action.
We asked those who voted for Obama why they made that choice. At the top of the list was his promise to withdraw troops from Iraq, followed by his support for tax cuts for the middle class and affordable health care for all, and the idea that he will bring people together, end the old politics and get things done.
On election day, Oakland County voters gave Obama a 57 percent to 42 percent victory over John McCain - those 15 points translated into an astonishing 96,000-vote margin. That helped form one of the most important new national changes in the electorate: Obama built up dominance in the country's growing, more diverse and well-educated suburbs.
So, good riddance, my Macomb barometer. Four years from now, I trust we will see the candidates rush from their conventions to Oakland County, to see the new America.
Stanley B. Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, is the author of the forthcoming "Dispatches From the War Room: In the Trenches With Five Extraordinary Leaders."
By Patrick Healy
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
NEW YORK: It is the most violent five minutes of theater in memory: A soldier rapes the main character of "Blasted," then sucks out his eyeballs and eats them in nearly plain sight of audiences - which, night after night for weeks, have been watching in shock.
The Soho Rep production has been unnerving theatergoers since its first preview, which sold out like every subsequent performance, and it has earned strong notices that have led to two extensions, now through Dec. 21.
No one was more disturbed by "Blasted" than its director, Sarah Benson, and the three cast members, yet they have found inventive ways to cope with the nightly torture sessions.
From the first rehearsal Benson and her cast - Reed Birney, Louis Cancelmi and Marin Ireland - made an interesting choice. Rather than dwell on the violence or dig too deeply into their characters' psyches, they concentrated on the choreography of three bodies that endure gruesome acts for an intermissionless 90 minutes.
"We really focused on where is your knee going to go, where is your leg going to go, how is it safe, by making it really, really safe, and making it this really choreographed piece," Benson said.
If actors try to make emotional connections with their roles, sometimes going to lengths like referring to themselves by their characters' names, the team of "Blasted" grappled more with conveying moments of pain and pathos while not traumatizing themselves in the process.
"Our approach actually frees you up to engage in what's happening in that moment - 'well, how do I suck his eyes out?"' said Cancelmi, who plays the soldier. "Having some neutral techniques actually allows you to go there, rather than having to stop at that moment."
"Blasted," a meditation on love, despair and isolation, set in a hotel room that is ultimately blasted apart during a civil war, was the London debut of the playwright Sarah Kane, then 23, when it had its 1995 premiere. For years Americans anticipated its arrival in New York but had to wait because Kane's estate set a high bar for a thoughtful mounting here. (Kane died a suicide in 1999.)
The violence is quietly emotional at first, as two former lovers - Ian (Birney) and Cate (Ireland) - spar uncomfortably during a night reunion at a hotel in Leeds, England. Some sort of warfare is outside; in the room, Ian brandishes a handgun with increasing frequency, and at points it becomes a prop during the tense attempts at physical intimacy between the couple.
Pain turns physical at the start of the second scene, the morning after, when Cate unfolds her body from a fetal position on the bed and wipes away blood between her legs - the result, apparently, of some sort of bite by Ian.
The appearance of the soldier - dirty and desperately hungry, with the wild eyes of a wounded, lost animal - alters both the tone and the stakes of the play. Soon a bomb blasts through the hotel, ripping the set apart. So begins the soldier's destruction of Ian, too.
"He pulled my pants down slowly at first," Birney said, "and then as he got comfortable, he pulled them down further and further and further."
Said Cancelmi, "You can't cheat that."
If the rape - and the length of time that it takes - is brutal for audiences to watch in the intimate, black-box theater of Soho Rep, the soldier's disintegration is almost as painful. Kane's stage directions are both simple and, as Cancelmi said, "heartbreaking."
"The Soldier turns Ian over with one hand," the script reads. "He holds the revolver to Ian's head with the other. He pulls down Ian's trousers, undoes his own and rapes him - eyes closed and smelling Ian's hair. The Soldier is crying his heart out."
Birney appears virtually catatonic throughout the rape, which is played with the two bodies at an angle so the audience can clearly see the two sets of eyes. Focusing on his own breathing becomes essential for Birney, whose character has conveyed a strong sense of control until that point. He did not want to portray a breakdown as much as a struggle to survive a physical horror.
"I don't remember a lot of conversations about emotional states," Birney said. "If you did the task right, it worked."
The actors described a process of flattening their own terror and relying on their physical performances - trusting, in part, that the ravaged natures of their bodies and expressions will have sufficient impact on the audience.
As successful as the extended run of "Blasted" has been here, Benson and the cast have mulled how such an intense piece of theater would be received in a commercial production, and whether it could fill a larger house than the 74 seats at Soho Rep.
The three actors say they have reached a point where they are far more sympathetic to their characters' needs, and conscious of the beauty of the play's language, than preoccupied with the emotional and corporeal dissolution.
"The play has such huge demands that you simply have to surrender to it as an actor," Birney said. "It takes enormous courage from all of us. And that's what was most interesting to me about what 'Blasted' is asking me as an actor to do - to be brave."
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
AMSTERDAM: Prosecutors demanded a life sentence Tuesday for a Hutu man accused of mass murder and other crimes during Rwanda's 1994 genocide, Dutch media reported.
Joseph Mpambara, who denies the charges, had shown "contempt for human values and shocking sadism," news agency ANP quoted the prosecutors as saying.
The 40-year-old is accused by the Dutch state of murders of women and children, rape, assault and kidnapping in 1994, when 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days by the Hutu-led government and ethnic militias.
"We blame him for the slaughter of hundreds of people who had sought refuge in a church and hospital," prosecutors' spokesman John Lucas said on TV station RTL 4.
Mpambara, who applied for asylum in the Netherlands in November 1998, is on trial under a Dutch law allowing the prosecution of suspected war criminals living in the country.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda had asked Dutch authorities in 2006 to take on Mpambara's case.
The trial is expected to be completed at the end of this month, prosecutors said.
(Writing by Gilbert Kreijger; editing by Andrew Roche)
By Farah StockmanThe Boston Globe
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
WASHINGTON: With Pakistan on the brink of bankruptcy, Husain Haqqani put on a powder blue tie and made his pitch. A quick infusion of U.S. cash, he said, would ensure that Pakistan could afford to keep up its expensive military operations near the Afghan border.
"All Pakistan is asking for is a bailout of $10 billion to fight terrorism" and get back on its feet, he told a packed audience recently at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative research organization founded after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Fleeing investors and mounting debts have become serious threats for Pakistan, along with a smoldering insurgency and a history of corruption. Haqqani, who became Pakistan's ambassador to the United States in May, is charged with an almost impossible task: trying to secure more money from the already depleted coffers of the U.S. government.
Haqqani has been an Islamic activist, a war correspondent, a savvy politician, a beloved professor, and an aide to two rival Pakistani prime ministers. As an envoy from one of Washington's most precarious allies, he is an optimist against the odds, believing that the newly elected government he represents can clean up corruption, defeat a Taliban insurgency, survive a major financial crisis, and improve relations with the United States.
"Pakistan has many security challenges," he acknowledged. "It's tough."
Haqqani, 52, came to the United States in 2002, working as a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he helped Americans make sense of the Sept. 11 attacks. He then became a professor of international relations at Boston University, where he remained until this year.
Haqqani rose to prominence in February when the party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto won the elections after her assassination. He had been her spokesman, and his wife, a member of Parliament, is now spokeswoman for the party, which is headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower.
The election, a resounding defeat for the U.S.-backed leader, Pervez Musharraf, caused a sea change in relations with the United States.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the United States had wholeheartedly backed Musharraf, paying about $125 million a month to Pakistan to support 100,000 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border. But Musharraf, who had ruled Pakistan since a military coup in 1999, became increasingly unpopular with his dictatorial moves. He also lost favor with many in the United States.
Over the summer, a House subcommittee uncovered evidence of graft in the more than $6 billion worth of U.S. military aid that went to Musharraf's government.
Haqqani faces the task of rebuilding both the Pakistani image in the United States and the American image in Pakistan, which has been tainted by the association of Musharraf with President George W. Bush.
"I'm the man in the middle," Haqqani said, adding that he is frequently criticized in Pakistan for being too close to the United States. "It will take a while before the average Pakistani starts trusting the Americans."
But Haqqani has gone about his work with great enthusiasm, touting Pakistan's prospects at public speeches across Washington. This summer, he gave gentle reminders to members of Congress that the alleged corruption took place under the previous government, said Representative John Tierney, Democrat of Massachusetts, who headed the subcommittee that investigated the graft.
Haqqani is trying to persuade the Americans to fast-track about $1 billion owed to Pakistan for its military operations from April to October, roughly half a percent of Pakistan's gross domestic product. The money has been held up by new Pentagon rules intended to improve accountability, Pakistani officials say.
The latest payment was $364.7 million in September to cover costs for military operations from last December to March, according to Lieutenant Colonel Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman. The Pentagon is reviewing claims for April, and seeking additional documentation for May, Wright said. No further claims have been filed.
Privately, some Pakistani officials warn that the money must come soon, before Pakistan's economic hardships curb the military operations. But Haqqani issues a more general plea.
"If the world is willing to put the resources into Pakistan, there is no reason why Pakistan is not willing to defeat" terrorism, he said, "and become a more predictable nation."
Haqqani will also be seeking an additional $10 billion loan from the United States when foreign ministers of countries supporting Pakistan meet Monday in Abu Dhabi. U.S. officials have made no commitments and have said the group, Friends of Democratic Pakistan, is not a donors' forum.
President-elect Barack Obama supports a plan to give Pakistan an extra $1.5 billion if it remains a democratic state. But it is unclear when, or if, that money will come through.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
By Ibrahim Shinwari
Pakistani security forces aim to recapture trucks hijacked by militants as they were taking supplies to Western forces in Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass, a government official said on Tuesday.
Most supplies, including fuel, for U.S. and other Western forces battling a Taliban insurgency in landlocked Afghanistan are trucked through neighbouring Pakistan, which is also facing growing militant violence including a wave of bomb attacks.
In the latest attack, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a stadium in the northwestern city of Peshawar shortly after the closing ceremony of an inter-provincial games, killing three people and wounding nearly a dozen, hospital officials said.
Pakistani Taliban militants hijacked 13 trucks without firing a shot as they passed through the Khyber Pass on Monday. The gunmen later posed for photographs in front of two Humvee military vehicles and some of the trucks.
Security forces had blocked the main road from Peshawar through the pass to the border at Torkham in preparation for a recovery operation, and army helicopters later attacked militants, government officials said.
"Two helicopter gunships went and hit militants' positions in the Malagori area but there's no report of casualties," said Bakhtiar Mohmand, a senior government administrator in the area.
Malagori is an area north of the Khyber Pass where militants have hideouts, he said.
"We have asked for foot soldiers and as soon as they get here, we'll launch a ground operation," he said.
The trucks were carrying two Humvees and wheat but no weapons or ammunition, another official said. The militants unloaded the trucks and abandoned them but held most of the drivers.
The Khyber region has long been notorious for smuggling and lawlessness, but until recently it was relatively free of Islamist militants.
But security has deteriorated this year and soldiers carried out a sweep in part of the Khyber region in June to push militants back from the outskirts of Peshawar.
Officials said the militants who seized the trucks were loyal to Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who is based in the Waziristan region to the southwest of Khyber.
The militants posed for photographs with a banner over one of the Humvees proclaiming their membership of Mehsud's group.
Transport operators say the government has ignored security along the road. About two dozen trucks and oil-tankers have been attacked in the past month.
Torkham, at the top of the Khyber Pass, is one of only two main crossing points on the Afghan-Pakistani border. The other is at the town of Chaman, to the southwest, from where a road runs to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
Many goods for Western forces in Afghanistan are shipped into Pakistan's Karachi port and trucked through the crossing points.
NATO and Russia signed a land transit agreement in April allowing the alliance to use Russian land to deliver non-lethal supplies to troops in Afghanistan but it was not immediately clear what volume of NATO supplies was coming that way.
This year, four U.S. helicopter engines worth more than $13 million were stolen in northwest Pakistan while being trucked from Afghanistan to Karachi port to be shipped home.
Pakistani forces have been fighting militants in the Bajaur region and in the Swat Valley, both to the northeast of Khyber, and there has been growing speculation about an offensive in the Mohmand area, to the north of Peshawar.
Security forces were searching for militants by a road on the way to Mohmand on Tuesday and hundreds of villagers were leaving in fear of fighting, police and a government official said.
"We haven't asked people to leave, they are doing it on their own, but it's good if they do so before any trouble starts," said the government official in Ghalanai, the main town in Mohmand.
(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider, Izaz Mohmand and Faris Ali; Editing by Ralph Boulton)
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
KABUL: Security constraints are hampering humanitarian operations across much of Afghanistan, where violence has spread to more areas this year, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Tuesday.
More than 4,000 people, around a third of them civilians, scores of foreign troops and around 30 aid workers have been killed this year as Afghan and foreign troops battle to contain the deepening and widening Taliban insurgency.
The violence, the bloodiest since U.S.-led troops toppled the Taliban in 2001, has prompted Western politicians to warn that Afghanistan risked sliding back into anarchy.
"The security situation in Afghanistan has worsened over the last year and a half, and the armed conflict has remained intense in 2008," the ICRC said in a statement.
"Regular fighting between armed groups and national and international forces has continued in more than half of the country ... access to remote areas remains a major problem in most parts of the country," it said.
The ICRC continued to respond to the needs of those affected by the armed conflict, but security constraints still hamper humanitarian operations "in many areas," it added.
Mountainous Afghanistan, locked in three decades of war, largely relies on foreign aid for some 90 percent of its budget and for food supplies for most of its people.
Six million of the estimated 28 million population in Afghanistan face food shortages as crops failed due to drought this year and the harsh winter approaches, parliament said.
The United Nations, the ICRC and the Afghan government have launched a programme to pre-position food before the winter and access is cut to remote areas by snow, the United Nations said.
The U.N. World Food Programme has allocated 36,000 tonnes of food for distribution and 38 percent has already been pre-positioned in some areas, it said.
(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Paul Tait)
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
KABUL: More than 100 convicted murderers, rapists and kidnappers are on death row in Afghanistan awaiting President Hamid Karzai to sign the orders for their execution, a senior judge said on Tuesday.
Crimes such as kidnapping, rape and killing have sharply increased in recent years in Afghanistan where the Taliban, ousted in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, carried out public executions for similar acts.
Five people have been executed since Saturday after Karzai approved the sentences following repeated appeals from many ordinary Afghans to mete out the punishment as enshrined in the country's constitution and ordered by Islam.
"We have 125 people who have been sentenced by various courts to the death penalty and are to be executed after Karzai's approval," said a senior Supreme Court judge who declined to be named.
An official at the presidential palace confirmed that lists of those sentenced to death by the courts have been sent to the president for him to approve their execution.
(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)
By Katherine Zoepf and Sharon Otterman
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
BAGHDAD: After a relatively quiet few weeks here, the violence in Iraq continued on Tuesday when two bombs were detonated simultaneously during the morning rush hour at a newspaper stand in western Baghdad, killing two and injuring 17, an Interior Ministry official said.
The explosions followed a synchronized triple-bombing in northern Baghdad Monday, which killed 28 people in the deadliest attack in Baghdad since June, when a car bombing killed 51.
In the attack Monday, the bombers struck a main street of a mixed Sunni and Shiite neighborhood in the Adhamiya district about 8:15 a.m., when the street was bustling with street cleaners and commuters heading to work.
Bombs planted in two parked cars exploded about five minutes apart, an Interior Ministry official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. As a crowd gathered in the chaos, a suicide bomber darted into it and detonated his explosives.
Two local hospitals reported that a total of 49 people had been brought in for treatment, some with serious injuries. The Interior Ministry said 68 had been wounded.
The American military later reported much lower casualty figures: seven killed and 37 wounded. Such discrepancies are not uncommon in the hours after a violent attack.
The bombings, along with a suicide attack in Baquba on Monday, seem to be part of an uptick in violence after relative recent calm. On Sunday, at least 12 Iraqis were killed in a spate of attacks, many of them in provinces outside of Baghdad where Iraqi-led security operations had recently taken place. On Saturday, at least 11 people were killed in attacks in Baghdad and Anbar Province.
The Associated Press counted at least 19 bombings in Baghdad this month as of Sunday, compared with 28 for all of October and 22 in September. At least 44 people were killed in Baghdad bombings from Nov. 1 to this past Sunday, compared with 95 for October and 96 in September, The AP found.
An hour after the blasts in Baghdad on Monday, shattered glass and pools of blood covered the street between two large restaurants. One sold shawarma sandwiches, a popular snack, and chunks of grilled meat were strewn across the road, along with torn-open canisters of cooking gas.
A burst sewer pipe leaked murky water, and a municipal bus was badly damaged, its white plastic seats splashed with blood.
Ganiya Kareem, 60, who had been walking with her grandson, a toddler, said she had seen "a bus turned into a lump of coal."
Hamza Abdul Kareem, 37, an army sergeant, said that until Monday his neighborhood had been "peaceful and beautiful." That morning, he said, he saw a young mother sitting in the bus with a baby in her arms, both dead.
In Medical City, a hospital in central Baghdad where many of the wounded were taken, Ahmed Abdul Kadr, 13, a day laborer, lay dazed on a bed in the ground-floor emergency room, his green cotton shorts caked with blood.
Ahmed said he had come to the capital the week before from his home in Hilla, to the south. He found work as a ditch digger and was helping to excavate a stretch of pavement when the first explosion knocked him flat.
"I was digging together with one man, but he died right there," Ahmed said. "My legs are filled with shrapnel, but I'll be all right. I'm going to go home for a while, but then I'll come to Baghdad and find another job."
Also Monday, a young female suicide bomber blew herself up at a checkpoint near Baquba, north of Baghdad, killing four and wounding 15, a local security official said. The bomber seemed to have sought to attack members of the Awakening movement, a Sunni counterinsurgency group, who were operating the checkpoint. Two of the dead and seven of the wounded were Awakening members.
Security officials in Diyala Province, of which Baquba is the capital, said that only the head and the feet of the bomber had been recovered, but that she appeared to be about 15 years old.
She was the second female suicide bomber to strike in Iraq in two days. On Sunday, a woman blew herself up at a hospital in Anbar Province, killing another woman.
In Baghdad Province, the Iraqi government has begun taking over the payment of tens of thousands of Awakening members, a group of mostly Sunni Arabs who have worked with the Americans to fight Islamic extremists. Until Oct. 1, they were paid by the United States military.
The Iraqi payouts began this week in west Baghdad, and will continue later in the month in other areas.
At a joint American and Iraqi outpost in the Jihad neighborhood, scores of Awakening guards received 354,000 dinars, the Iraqi equivalent of their old $300 monthly salary under the Americans.
Staff Colonel Ali Aboud Thamer, the Iraqi commander of Jihad and Furat districts, said he was "very happy." As he spoke, the Awakening guards, very likely including former insurgents who once fought his own men, lined up at a table piled with fresh bills, some saluting as they were handed the cash.
Also on Monday, negotiations continued between Iraq and the United States over a long-term security agreement. Iraq's spokesman said changes proposed by the United States last week were "not enough" and his government had asked Washington for revisions if it wanted the pact approved, The AP reported.
The spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, did not specify which points the Iraqis found unacceptable.
A State Department spokesman said the United States had not received an official response and had no comment.
For the American military to remain in Iraq, an agreement must be approved by Parliament before a United Nations mandate expires on Dec. 31.
Katherine Zoepf reported from New York and Sharon Otterman from New York. Anwar J. Ali contributed reporting from Baghdad.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
By Mark Heinrich
The U.N. nuclear watchdog criticised on Tuesday diplomatic disclosures that it had found uranium traces at a Syrian site under investigation, saying this was an effort to prejudge the agency's conclusions.
It was a rare open expression of irritation within the agency about news leaks, which some say risk putting a political spin on its technical findings in probes of nations suspected in the West to be illicit nuclear proliferators.
Several diplomats tracking the International Atomic Energy Agency said on Monday that particles of processed uranium turned up in some test samples IAEA inspectors took at the site. These were not enough to draw conclusions about any undeclared nuclear activity but warranted further investigation, they told Reuters.
IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming confirmed the agency was drafting a report on Syria and had put it on the agenda of the agency's November 27-28 governors meeting -- both firsts, in what diplomats said hinted inspectors had found something serious.
But she said the IAEA's evaluation of findings from a June visit to the site, which Washington says was a secret nuclear reactor almost built before it was bombed by Israel in 2007, was not finished and a public verdict was unwarranted until then.
"We regret that people are trying to prejudge the IAEA's technical assessment. We are, however, accustomed to these kinds of efforts to hype and undermine the process before every meeting of the IAEA board (of governors)," Fleming said.
The IAEA did not challenge the substance of Monday's revelations about the uranium traces.
A diplomat close to the agency said its concern was that the leaks could not reflect the full picture and that circulating highly confidential information before an official report could discourage Syrian cooperation with the IAEA.
Syria's ambassador to the IAEA did not return messages asking for comment. There was also no comment from Damascus. It has dismissed U.S. intelligence pointing to a nascent plutonium-making reactor at the site as fabricated.
Diplomats said the question was the provenance of the contamination, since intelligence from Washington and other nations contained nothing to suggest nuclear fuel was stored at the site.
The particles retrieved from some environmental swipe samples were of processed uranium -- which could include the enriched version that in large quantities would fuel power plants or bombs, not of raw uranium ore, they said.
Such traces, they said, could have been carried to the site inadvertently on scientists or workers or on equipment trucked in. Syria has one declared atomic site, a research reactor.
A remote source could resemble a finding made in a long IAEA investigation of Iran's secretive nuclear programme.
Bomb-grade uranium particles found by IAEA sleuths there were assessed to have come with used equipment obtained from Pakistan, not from any undeclared domestic production facility.
Iran says its expanding uranium enrichment programme is for electricity only, but is under IAEA scrutiny and U.N. sanctions for refusing to suspend the work and curbing IAEA access meant to verify there is no parallel military nuclear activity there.
Iran and Syria have balked at granting IAEA investigators' access to military sites. Both are adversaries of the United States and Israel and do not want to reveal possible targets.
(Editing by Elizabeth Piper)
By Meraiah Foley
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
SYDNEY: Five men accused of plotting a terrorist attack went on trial Tuesday with prosecutors alleging that the men were Islamic extremists who stockpiled weapons and explosive chemicals in a plan to wage "violent jihad" against non-Muslims.
After eight months of pretrial arguments and closed-door hearings, federal prosecutors began laying out their case against the five men, aged 24 to 43, before the New South Wales Supreme Court in western Sydney amid strict security.
Khaled Cheikho, Moustafa Cheikho, Mohamed Ali Elomar, Abdul Rakib Hasan and Mohammed Omar Jamal were arrested in November 2005 and charged with conspiring to commit acts in preparation for a terrorist act, or acts. They have pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutor Richard Maidment told the jury that the men were Islamic radicals who had obtained or sought to obtain large quantities of household and industrial chemicals that could be used to make explosives, and had also stockpiled guns and ammunition in preparation for the alleged attack, which was intended partly as retaliation for Australia's support of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Police raids on the men's homes had also uncovered a substantial cache of extremist material, Maidment said, including bombmaking instructions, graphic videos of ritual beheadings and images of the hijacked planes smashing into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
The men "possessed large quantities of literature which supported indiscriminate killing, mass murder and martyrdom in pursuit of violent jihad, and which apparently sought to provide religious justification for conduct of that nature," Maidment said, according to local media at the court.
The men, who face possible life sentences if convicted, are accused of launching the conspiracy between July 2004 and their arrests in November 2005. Specific details of the alleged plot or potential targets have not been released.
Details of the case have been shrouded in secrecy. In the months leading up to Tuesday's opening, presiding Justice Anthony Whealy issued some 65 written judgments, all but two of which one on the location of the trial and the other on the configuration of the courtroom were suppressed.
In his instructions to the jury, the judge said that although the five men were being tried together, jurors would have to weigh the "circumstantial case" presented by the prosecution to reach individual verdicts for each defendant.
He also warned the jurors not to prejudge the defendants because of their religion or appearance.
"You must take prejudice and bias out of this trial altogether," the judge said. "It's an obvious truism for me to tell you that the Muslim religion is not on trial here."
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
By Hereward Holland
Packed into squalid refugee camps or roaming in the bush, hundreds of thousands of Congolese children face hunger, disease, sexual abuse or recruitment by marauding armed factions, aid workers said on Tuesday.
Weeks of violence have forced more than 250,000 people from homes or ramshackle camps where they had taken shelter, bringing to over 1 million the number of internal refugees from years of fighting in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province.
Most are children.
"North Kivu is quite possibly the worst place to be a child. There is no question that children have been the most severely affected by the recent conflict," said George Graham, spokesman for Save the Children in the provincial capital, Goma.
Fighting between Tutsi rebels and pro-government troops and militia fighters has subsided into sporadic clashes in recent days as African leaders staged summits and leant on both sides to avert a repeat of Congo's devastating 1998-2003 regional war.
"When children flee fighting they become more vulnerable to contracting diseases, to becoming malnourished, and vulnerable to predators like sexual abuse, exploitation, violence and recruitment into armed groups," U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) spokesman Jaya Murthy told Reuters in Goma.
Sixty percent of the 1.1 million displaced are children, he said. "We estimate that there's around 2,000 to 3,000 children in armed groups and recruitment is going on right now."
"This has been a silent emergency for children for the last five years, only now it is re-exploding -- again."
Fighters on both sides have attacked, looted, raped and murdered civilians in raids the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo, known as MONUC, says include war crimes.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch quoted local sources and civilians as saying at least 50 civilians were killed last week in Kiwanja, 70 km (45 miles) north of Goma.
Nyrarukundo Rivera, 42, told Reuters she lost her children when fleeing violence in Kiwanja and hadn't seen them since.
CHOLERA ON THE RISE
At least 1,000 cholera infections have been reported since the start of October, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.
"We fear this is a direct result of the spreading insecurity," WHO spokesman Paul Garwood said. "As yet we have seen no explosion in cholera cases but the risks are very high."
At least 100,000 refugees are cut off from aid, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said. "Because of the ongoing fighting, these people have received virtually no assistance," he added.
World Food Programme spokeswoman Emilia Casella voiced concern for those cut off: "We are looking to take advantage of any lull in fighting to deliver food in 'hit and run' operation."
Renewed violence in the conflict-riven province since a January peace deal collapsed in August has spread instability to the provincial capital Goma and remote localities alike.
In Kanyabayonga, 120 km (75 miles) north of Goma, Congolese army troops fled when they heard rumours of a rebel attack.
"On their way back they looted everything from four villages on the way (north) to Lubero last night and this morning," MONUC spokesman Lt-Col Jean-Paul Dietrich said.
As violence has increased the misery of some 250,000 people displaced by fighting since September, Tutsi rebel chief General Laurent Nkunda has vowed to pursue his campaign and topple President Joseph Kabila if he doesn't accept talks.
"We are going to overthrow him," Nkunda told the British Broadcasting Corporation. "Being elected is not a white card to do what you want ... We have to liberate Congo."
Nkunda has said he may fight an African intervention force proposed at a regional summit on Friday that urged a cease-fire.
European Union members have also discussed sending troops.
The U.N. Security Council was due to meet later on Tuesday to discuss Congo and Secretary-General Ban's month-old request for 3,000 extra soldiers and police for MONUC, already the world's biggest peacekeeping force with 17,000 personnel.
"Civilians need protection now from the killing and raping," Human Rights Watch's Anneke Van Woudenberg said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Braun in Kiwanja, Laura MacInnis in Geneva, David Lewis in Kinshasa, Rebecca Harrison in Johannesburg and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; writing by Alistair Thomson; editing by Michael Roddy)
- Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The White Tiger
Balram Halwai, the narrator of Aravind Adiga's first novel, "The White Tiger," is a modern Indian hero. In a country inebriated by its newfound economic prowess, he is a successful entrepreneur, a self-made man who has risen on the back of India's much-vaunted technology industry. In a nation proudly shedding a history of poverty and underdevelopment, he represents, as he himself says, "tomorrow."
Balram's triumphal narrative, framed somewhat inexplicably as a letter to the visiting Chinese premier, unfurls over seven days and nights in Bangalore.
It's a rather more complicated story than Balram initially lets on. Before moving to Bangalore, he was a driver for the weak-willed son of a feudal landlord. One rainy day in Delhi, he crushed the skull of his employer and stole a bag containing a large amount of money, capital that financed his Bangalore taxi business. That business - ferrying technology workers to and from their jobs - depends, in turn, on keeping the police happy with the occasional bribe.
As a parable of the new India, then, Balram's tale has a distinctly macabre twist. He is not (or not only) an entrepreneur but a roguish criminal with a remarkable capacity for self-justification. Likewise, the background against which he operates is not just a resurgent economy and nation but a landscape of corruption, inequality and poverty. In some of the book's more convincing passages, Balram describes his family's life in "the Darkness," a region deep in the heartland marked by medieval hardship, where brutal landlords hold sway, children are pulled out of school into indentured servitude and elections are routinely bought and sold.
This grim world is far removed from the glossy images of Bollywood stars and technology entrepreneurs that have been displacing earlier (and equally clichéd) Indian stereotypes featuring yoga and spirituality. It is not a world that rich urban Indians like to see. Indeed, when Adiga's book recently won the Man Booker Prize, some in India lambasted it as a Western conspiracy to deny the country's economic progress.
Yet Adiga isn't impressed by such nationalistic fervor. In bare, unsentimental prose, he strips away the sheen of a self-congratulatory nation and reveals instead a country where the social compact is being stretched to the breaking point. There is much talk in this novel of revolution and insurrection: Balram even justifies his employer's murder as an act of class warfare.
"The White Tiger" is a penetrating piece of social commentary, attuned to the inequalities that persist despite India's new prosperity. It correctly identifies - and deflates - middle-class India's collective euphoria. But Adiga, a former correspondent for Time magazine who lives in Mumbai, is less successful as a novelist. His detailed descriptions of various vile aspects of Indian life are relentless - and ultimately a little monotonous.
The characters can also seem superficial. Balram's landlord boss and his wife are caricatures of the insensitive upper classes, cruel to and remote from their employees. Although Balram himself is somewhat more interesting, his credulousness and naïveté often ring false. When he visits a shopping mall, he is "conscious of a perfume in the air, of golden light, of cool, air-conditioned air, of people in T-shirts and jeans. ... I saw an elevator going up and down that seemed made of pure golden glass."
The problem with such scenes isn't simply that they're overdone. In their surfeit of emblematic detail, they reduce the characters to symbols. There is an absence of human complexity in "The White Tiger," not just in its characters but, more problematically, in its depiction of a nation that is in reality caught somewhere between Adiga's vision and the shinier version he so clearly - and fittingly - derides. Lacking this more balanced perspective, the novel feels simplistic: an effective polemic, perhaps, but an incomplete portrait of a nation and a people grappling with the ambiguities of modernity.
An autumn sketchbook
By Verlyn Klinkenborg
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
AUSTERLITZ, New York: Every now and then I feel as though I've woken up in a Rembrandt etching - a tangled thicket of pen-strokes from which a landscape emerges.
It's not just that the sky has taken on the tint of 17th-century drawing paper or that the world has lost color. It has more to do with the balance of time. Nature seems to have paused.
There is a numb overcast overhead, with little drift to it. Wood smoke slides down the roof and onto the road. The wild apples are waiting to fall.
I imagine being the human in one of Rembrandt's landscapes - that small figure standing in front of what looks like either a house or a haystack. He is resting from something, perhaps looking out from his garden at the artist working in the distance.
It took no more ink to draw that figure than it would to write out a simple equation. And yet there's no mistaking his posture or the moment he's given himself to rest, though that moment has now lasted since 1645.
That's how it felt this morning, as if time had stopped. A crow, an extremely precise ink blot, had paused in the pasture. I counted 15 immobile mourning doves resting on a power line.
The leaves that were going to fall had fallen, and the oaks were not about to relinquish theirs. I heard what sounded like a small dog barking in the distance and realized it was a flock of geese beyond the tree line. They never came into view.
Before long the breeze will stir, and rain will fall. The silent anticipation hidden in such a quiet morning will be forgotten. The cry of a red-tailed hawk will unsettle the mourning doves, and one by one those wild apples will become windfall.
And as the weather changes and the clock resumes its ticking, I will have to free myself from the artist's ink before it dries, stepping outside and walking over the hill toward the sound of distant geese.
* * *
On a still day - rain threatening - a tall stem moves in the garden. A goldfinch has landed just below the flower head and is eating the seeds while the stem sways like a pendulum.
The rain begins, and above its steady rhythm there is a clatter and a pop on the woodshed roof as a hickory-nut falls. Soon, the clouds tear apart and the sun spills through.
Maple leaves are coming down in ones and twos, and the ones and twos are beginning to add up in drifts along the pasture edges.
Most of the time, nature is simply there - when I do chores, when I walk down to the mailbox, when I look up from writing. I don't expect solace from it, nor do I theologize it with my own desires. It simply persists in sublime indifference.
And yet from time to time I find myself surprised by it, and I know that what I am really noticing is the volatility of the human world.
I have been struck before by the gap between the new news of my city life and the old news of nature. I have that feeling now. Nothing in the natural world upbraids me. It offers no commentary. It has nothing to say about financial meltdowns and dirty politics or, for that matter, personal grief.
But the other lives on this farm do remind me of how captive I have become, like all of us, to the tensions of this incredible human season.
That is the trick in nature. There is no escaping to it. It throws you back upon yourself again and again. The geese shriek when they see me coming and then drop into their bassoon tones. The chipmunks freeze on the stone wall, waiting to see what direction I will go. Remedy makes the sound that is usually called nickering but is really a slow, deep equine purring.
I am carrying the grain bucket, which is why I also am lost in my thoughts. And when I slip out of them, walking beside the horses up the hill to their grain buckets, I can feel for a moment how insubstantial those thoughts really are, before they engulf me again.
Verlyn Klinkenborg is a member of the New York Times editorial board.
By Peter Fellowes
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
My doctor surprised me some years ago in recommending against taking a PSA blood test; I was 50 at the time.
"Too many false positives," he explained, referring to the prostate specific antigen test. "And if you get a true positive, then what? Live in anxious uncertainty or incur the risk of impotence or incontinence in surgically removing a cancerous prostate that may never have proved life-threatening."
I was reminded of this conversation when a friend of ours was told in the ninth month of pregnancy that the sonogram of her baby revealed a condition that indicated a good probability of dwarfism or Downs Syndrome. In the event, the child was born healthy, but the last weeks of pregnancy were an emotional ordeal for the couple and their family, cloaking in anxiety a time of happy expectation.
A generation or two ago, a physician detecting such a statistical possibility would probably have kept the information to himself and hoped for the best. Not today, in the era of defensive medical practice and "full disclosure" norms.
We have probably passed the point where the Faustian injunction against forbidden knowledge has cultural resonance. But there is clearly a point past which information detracts from rather than contributes to our ability to adapt.
I would not want to see the spores that I know populate the faces of those I love; I prefer the blurred image. Is my satisfaction with the world improved by knowing it is 6:17 p.m. instead of a quarter past six? I doubt it.
As millions of citations are summoned by my search engine in response to a single word query, I am presented in one second with a lifetime's work to digest information about what the world has thought or possibly just mentioned about my reference; I skim the first entries. Or lose an afternoon branching down one lane to another.
As a sceptical probabilist, Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells us in his book, "The Black Swan," that he has stopped reading newspapers. Information about what's happening in the world tends to reinforce the belief that the causes of the present can be deciphered from the past and that the future is somehow predictable if we can acquire sufficient understanding.
Unfortunately, improbable black swans keep appearing overhead (read global equity market melt-down). We are shocked to find that we are helplessly exposed to factors that we did not know that we did not know. We may have grasped the known unknowns, but the unknown unknowns don't appear on our radar screen.
It is wiser, Taleb argues, to resist the complacent belief that the future can be predicted by projecting historical trends. In a world more random than we would like, we can better absorb the shocks of "outrageous fortune" in a stance of humility rather than atop a proud stack of data points.
As E.M. Forster observed in "Howards End," only the ancient Greeks had a real appreciation of the tragedy that unexpectedly can befall those who over-prepare for life.
Armed with foreknowledge and prudent calculation, Oedipus fulfils the tragedy he had planned to avert. Clearly a case of too much information.
Forster's admonition to his readers is worth pondering: "Life is indeed dangerous...but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty."
Peter Fellowes, a writer and sometime professor of English literature, lives in Paris.
By James SaftReuters
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
LONDON: Britain is entering into a painful economic experiment: what happens when house prices fall farther and faster than ever before and you cut interest rates to a 300-year low?
Counterintuitively, the size and velocity of the British housing slump may actually be the best thing it has going for it at the moment.
Seeking to rescue an economy dependent on the busted flush of finance and property speculation, the Bank of England made only a down payment last week when it cut interest rates by a full percentage point and a half to a 50-year low of 3 percent.
The bank, founded during the reign of William and Mary in 1694, has never reduced its benchmark rate below the 2 percent level, touched many times in the 19th century and again between 1939 and 1951.
But I'd add my vote to the 18 of 48 economists polled by Reuters who project rates below that historic level by the middle of next year.
The rate of deceleration in the British economy is shocking; its banking system has required state aid and may well need more while its consumers are maxed out on credit and increasingly looking for work.
Perhaps most breathtaking is the speed at which the British property market is imploding.
The Halifax benchmark index is down 15 percent in the year to October, having fallen by 2.2 percent in that month alone. By comparison, in perhaps the worst year of the extended 1990s housing downturn, British property prices fell just over 8 percent in the 12 months to December 1992.
"The housing crash really is, in real or nominal terms, bigger and faster than we've ever seen before," said Ed Stansfield, an economist at Capital Economics in London. "The sooner we get to some scenario where people think property is cheap and the risks of buying are less, the sooner the economy begins to move forward again."
House price slumps are usually extended, grinding affairs, and much the worse for the economy for being that way. Few sellers want to take the pain of selling at below what they imagine their house to be worth, and everyone thinks their place has some special merit that means it can escape a general downturn.
As a result, prices are slow to reset downward and associated economic activity - building, furniture, legal and real estate services - take a long hiatus.
In the year after prices in Britain peaked in 1989, they fell by only 2 percent, against 10 percent in the year since the July 2007 peak. The U.S. crash has also been much slower, with the S&P Case/Shiller 20 city index falling by only about 6 percent in the year after its 2006 peak.
Capital Economics, which is forecasting another 20 percent off house prices next year, estimates that a sharp two-year fall in prices would have less than half the impact on lost economic output than a more typical four-year adjustment.
One risk is that a large and rapid fall brings with it a large overshoot and that housing prices continue to fall even when they become fair value in terms of the income a house can generate or in relation to wages and interest rates. These things take on a momentum of their own.
It is also far from certain that banks will be willing or able to pass on all of the coming cuts in interest rates, given their own high cost of funding and the imperative of rebuilding their capital.
"Yes, lower rates will be useful, but the transmission mechanism will be impaired," said George Buckley, a British economist at Deutsche Bank in London.
"A fair bit has been passed through but with a lot of pressure from the government. Even then you are seeing the spread actually increasing on tracker rates for new mortgages and some products are being removed altogether."
Of real concern too is what a 35 percent to 40 percent fall in house prices might do to the capital base of British banks. A slower descent would definitely be in their interest, allowing them to manage the loan books more effectively and giving them time to rebuild capital. Insolvent banks won't just choke housing finance, they would withdraw lending from all sectors of the economy.
Strange to say, but we might almost have gotten past the point where increased bank woes lead proportionately to diminished credit provision.
Governments, in Britain especially, may simply have to increase their equity infusion into the banking system beyond the tens of billions already agreed in state-funded capital and compel banks to lend. Look for a horrible unintended consequences if that happens.
"The government have passed the point of no return; the only question is how big the check they need to write is," Stansfield said.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
By Mitch Phillips
Former captain Phil Vickery was restored to the England starting lineup to face Australia on Saturday after manager Martin Johnson made two changes from the team who beat the Pacific Islanders.
Vickery, who came off the bench in Saturday's 39-13 victory, swaps places with Matt Stevens, while Tom Palmer comes into the second row alongside captain Steve Borthwick in place of Nick Kennedy, who drops out of the squad after his try-scoring debut.
Hefty lock Simon Shaw is called up to the bench.
Vickery and Andrew Sheridan, with former hooker Mark Regan, were the starting front row when England destroyed Australia's scrum in their 2007 World Cup quarter-final in Marseille and in the Twickenham mauling they gave them two years earlier.
The two props, along with number eight Nick Easter and wing Paul Sackey, are the only survivors from the Marseille team of 13 months ago while Vickery is the only one who started the 2003 World Cup final.
"We have two very good tighthead props, Phil is very fresh and in good form while Matt can potentially make an impact off the bench," Johnson told a news conference.
"Phil is in as good a shape as I've seen him for a long time, he's also got a leadership role and it's good to have him around."
Johnson said that Palmer had performed well in England's generally disappointing two-test tour of New Zealand in June and deserved his chance.
"Nick Kennedy had a good debut and is still very much in our plans but Tom is a very good all-round lock forward," he said.
"Simon Shaw has been there and done it and we want him to go out there and do it again."
Johnson said he had enjoyed mulling over his opening game and that the whole coaching team had been given something to work with.
"You don't really know where you are until you play a game and we got exposed in a few areas," he said.
"Our game as a lot of improvement in it and we will certainly need to step up on Saturday.
"There were some good debuts and a lot of smiles last week but now they've got to back it up.
"Australia are a very smart team and they will identify any weak areas and punish you there."
Johnson, however, dismissed the suggestion that England would have it all their own way in the scrum.
"There are a lot of different players and they are much improved in that area," he said
"They did pretty well against New Zealand and they will not let anyone dominate them."
(Editing by Justin Palmer)
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
By Alan Lorimer
Winger Rory Lamont has replaced his injured brother Sean Lamont in the Scotland side to face world champions South Africa at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Sean Lamont suffered a hamstring injury in the 32-6 defeat by New Zealand on Saturday. Rory Lamont's inclusion on the left wing is the only change made by Scotland coach Frank Hadden from the team beaten by the All Blacks.
Former captain Jason White was retained in the starting lineup despite Hadden and his selectors considering bringing in Gloucester flanker Al Strokosch.
"We didn't just rubber stamp last Saturday's team. Strokosch can consider himself very unlucky," Hadden told a news conference on Tuesday.
"Jason is way ahead of Al Strokosch in terms of his understanding of the line-out."
White's physical presence was also a determining factor to face the Springboks.
"If we don't front up physically this weekend we won't get into the game," added Hadden. "I expect the game to be a big confrontation. "We've opted for amore physical pack."
Behind the scrum Hadden has maintained faith in fly half Phil Godman, despite the Edinburgh player's deficiencies in
Behind the scrum Hadden has maintained faith in fly half Phil Godman, despite the Edinburgh player's deficiencies in
kicking from hand.
South Africa take on Scotland having beaten Six Nations champions Wales in Cardiff on Saturday and having prevented the Welsh from scoring any tries.
"That's a reflection of how tough it is. Southern hemisphere teams play uncomplicated rugby. They just do it with pace and power," said Hadden.
"We created a lot of opportunities against New Zealand. We're determined to turn them into points this weekend."
Scotland: 15-Chris Paterson, 14-Thom Evans, 13-Ben Cairns, 12-Nick De Luca, 11-Rory Lamont, 10-Phil Godman, 9-Mike Blair (captain), 8-Simon Taylor, 7-John Barclay, 6-Jason White, 5-Jim Hamilton, 4-Nathan Hines, 3-Euan Murray, 2-Ross Ford, 1-Allan Jacobsen Replacements 16-Dougie Hall, 17-Alasdair Dickinson, 18-Matt Mustchin, 19-Scott Grey, 20-Rory Lawson, 21-Dan Parks, 22-Hugo Southwell
(Reporting by Alan Lorimer, editing by Justin Palmer)
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