Gloom, but not doom
Thursday, December 4, 2008
There has been a fair amount of hand-wringing since the nation's intelligence community surveyed the world of 2025: America losing dominance; China and India rising; fierce competition for water, food and energy; increased danger that terrorists will get a nuclear weapon.
That's all sobering. But the headlines from "Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World," published by the National Intelligence Council, are not the whole story.
President-elect Barack Obama is inheriting a world that is more complicated and more frightening than the one George W. Bush found in 2001. But while the trends may be apparent, the end results are not inevitable. Decisions Obama and other leaders make will matter more.
Take the assertion that the world is on a path to a multipolar system with China, India and Russia plus various businesses, tribes, religious groups - even criminal networks - vying for influence. Commentators have been predicting this dreaded multipolarity since the end of the cold war. And Vice President Dick Cheney and former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz notably vowed to do everything they could to head it off - up to ensuring that close European allies never aspired to power and influence to rival the United States.
That arrogance and bullheadedness has instead weakened this country - creating new enemies and making it harder to win cooperation on important challenges, like the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. If there is one clear lesson from the last eight years, it is that bullying other countries, and jockeying for zero-sum gains doesn't work.
It also is the new conventional wisdom that this will be the century of China or India. But both face serious economic, demographic and other challenges - including the threat of terrorism, as the Mumbai attacks so tragically demonstrated.
A relative decline in power also does not mean that the United States will not remain powerful. The U.S. can and must continue to lead. There will be a particular premium on nimble and farsighted decision-making and cooperation. Giving rising powers a bigger role could help persuade them to take more responsibility for problems like terrorism, climate change, nonproliferation and energy security.
The report suggests that Al Qaeda's indiscriminate use of violence and its failure to focus on problems like poverty and unemployment could diminish its appeal. But other extremist groups that curry favor with social programs will likely have more staying power. The next administration will have to counter their influence by promoting economic development in the Middle East as well as a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Warnings that terrorists will have an easier time acquiring nuclear, biological and advanced conventional weapons argue for serious new initiatives to control the spread of these horrifying weapons.
Obama appears to understand the challenges. So do some of the experts who are expected to be part of his administration, including Susan Rice, his choice for ambassador to the United Nations, and James Steinberg, reported to be on the short list for deputy secretary of state. As members of a group called the Phoenix Initiative, they spent several years formulating a concept of American strategic leadership for the 21st century.
Their report states that "leadership is not an entitlement; it has to be earned and sustained. Leadership that serves common goals is the best way to inspire the many different peoples of the world to make shared commitments." That is a good place to start.
Cambodia revives Pol Pot's deadly canals
By Thomas Fuller
Thursday, December 4, 2008
BARAY, Cambodia: The dry season has taken hold here, but water is everywhere. It pours out of sluice gates with the roar of an Alpine torrent. Playful children do back flips into the ubiquitous canals and then pull their friends in with them. Fishermen cast their nets for minnows, and villagers wash their Chinese-made motorcycles.
"It's never dry here," said Chan Mo, a 36-year-old rice farmer standing on top of an irrigation dike.
The Khmer Rouge canals have come back to life.
By the time the brutal government of Pol Pot was toppled three decades ago, 1.7 million Cambodians were dead from overwork, starvation and disease, and the country was a ruin. But the forced labor of millions of Cambodians left behind something useful - or that's how the current government sees it.
The leaders of the Khmer Rouge were obsessed with canals, embankments and dams. They presided over hundreds of irrigation projects to revive Cambodia's glorious but perhaps mythical past of an agrarian wonderland.
"There has never been a modern regime that placed more emphasis and resources towards developing irrigation," wrote Jeffrey Himel, a water resource engineer, in a recent study of Cambodia's irrigation system.
"The Khmer Rouge emptied all cities and towns, and put practically the entire population to work planting rice and digging irrigation dikes and canals." Some of the canals were poorly designed - "hydraulic nonsense," says Alain Goffeau, a French irrigation expert with the Asian Development Bank. But many were viable.
The Khmer Rouge built around three-quarters of Cambodia's more than 1,000 canal networks, according to a survey commissioned by the United Nations in the 1990s.
Now, across this impoverished nation of 14 million people, the canals are being rebuilt by a government hoping to take advantage of the world's increasing demand for rice.
The Asian Development Bank is helping finance the rehabilitation of a dozen canals, adding to projects financed by the Japanese and South Korean governments.
"There's a lot of possibility," Goffeau said.
For older Cambodians, the canals are a source of ambivalence. Men like Loh Thoeun, 61, now a rice farmer, think back to the baskets of dirt that he carried away, hour after hour.
He recalls the horrors of the Khmer Rouge - the laborers, hands tied behind their backs, who were "dragged away like cows" and never returned, the Muslim families who were thrown down a nearby well. The foremen of the irrigation project in Baray were killed after the canals and embankments were completed - without explanation. Loh says he once saw Pol Pot inspect the canals on what he described as a "speedboat."
All of the work was done by hand here in Baray, a two-hour drive north of the capital, Phnom Penh. No talking was allowed among laborers. The Khmer Rouge played revolutionary songs and banged hubcaps to encourage the workers. Contemporary photos show huge crowds toiling in the dust.
"The earth here is very hard, and when we dug deeper we got to the hardest part - the most compact ground," said Loh, sitting in a bamboo shelter beside his rice fields. "We had to hammer at it. It was like cutting down a tree."
For so many Cambodians the Khmer Rouge years, from 1975 to 1979, were about digging. Villagers and residents of Phnom Penh, who were forced to move to the countryside, were organized in small work units.
"I was a slave," said Ang Mongkol, now the deputy director general of the Ministry of Interior who was a law student when the Khmer Rouge came to power and was assigned to haul dirt.
Yet despite the sorrow of those years, there are only traces of remorse here about taking full advantage of the canals. Loh hopes the canals he built in slave-like conditions will help double or triple his rice output.
"I always recall the past to my children," Loh said. "I say, "We have water from this canal that was built by the people. And many of them died."
Ang is leading an experimental project that uses water from the canal to irrigate fields of hybrid rice varieties that promise to yield four times as much as the variety traditionally grown here. Because only about 20 percent of Cambodia's fields are irrigated, its rice farmers harvest on average half as much as Vietnam's and one third as much as China's.
The irrigation system in Baray, which is fed from water diverted from the nearby Chinit River, functioned for several years after the Khmer Rouge left power. But in the mid-1980s it fell into disrepair. It was only in 2005 that the government began rebuilding it. Today, the local municipality hires a maintenance crew to keep the water flowing.
Among the workers is Sim Vy, 48. As a teenager she was enlisted by the Khmer Rouge to help build the canals. She was told she was working for national glory but received only a watery gruel as recompense. Now she is paid $55 a month. "I prefer working this way," she said.
From hoof to dinner table, a new bid to cut emissions
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
Thursday, December 4, 2008
STERKSEL, the Netherlands: The cows and pigs dotting these flat green plains in the southern Netherlands create a bucolic landscape. But looked at through the lens of greenhouse gas accounting, they are living smokestacks, spewing methane emissions into the air.
That is why a group of farmers-turned-environmentalists here at a smelly but impeccably clean research farm have a new take on making a silk purse from a sow's ear: They cook manure from their 3,000 pigs to capture the methane trapped within it, and then use the gas to make electricity for the local power grid.
Rising in the fields of the environmentally conscious Netherlands, the Sterksel project is a rare example of fledgling efforts to mitigate the heavy emissions from livestock. But much more needs to be done, scientists say, as more and more people are eating more meat around the world.
What to do about farm emissions is one of the main issues being discussed this week and next, as the environment ministers from 187 nations gather in Poznan, Poland, for talks on a new treaty to combat global warming. In releasing its latest figure on emissions last month, United Nations climate officials cited agriculture and transportation as the two sectors that remained most "problematic."
"It's an area that's been largely overlooked," said Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He says people should eat less meat to control their carbon footprints. "We haven't come to grips with agricultural emissions."
The trillions of farm animals around the world generate 18 percent of the emissions that are raising global temperatures, according to United Nations estimates, more even than from cars, buses and airplanes.
But unlike other industries, like cement making and power, which are facing enormous political and regulatory pressure to get greener, large-scale farming is just beginning to come under scrutiny as policy makers, farmers and scientists cast about for solutions.
High-tech fixes include those like the project here, called "methane capture," as well as inventing feed that will make cows belch less methane, which traps heat with 25 times the efficiency of carbon dioxide. California is already working on a program to encourage systems in pig and dairy farms like the one in Sterksel.
Other proposals include everything from persuading consumers to eat less meat to slapping a "sin tax" on pork and beef. Next year, Sweden will start labeling food products so that shoppers can look at how much emission can be attributed to serving steak compared with, say, chicken or turkey.
"Of course for the environment it's better to eat beans than beef, but if you want to eat beef for New Year's, you'll know which beef is best to buy," said Claes Johansson, chief of sustainability at the Swedish agricultural group Lantmannen.
But such fledgling proposals are part of a daunting game of catch-up. In large developing countries like China, India and Brazil, consumption of red meat has risen 33 percent in the last decade. It is expected to double globally between 2000 and 2050. While the global economic downturn may slow the globe's appetite for meat momentarily, it is not likely to reverse a profound trend.
Of the more than 2,000 projects supported by the United Nations' "green" financing system intended to curb emissions, only 98 are in agriculture. There is no standardized green labeling system for meat, as there is for electric appliances and even fish.
Indeed, scientists are still trying to define the practical, low-carbon version of a slab of bacon or a hamburger. Every step of producing meat creates emissions.
Flatus and manure from animals contain not only methane, but also nitrous oxide, an even more potent warming agent. And meat requires energy for refrigeration as it moves from farm to market to home.
Producing meat in this ever-more crowded world requires creating new pastures and planting more land for imported feeds, particularly soy, instead of relying on local grazing. That has contributed to the clearing of rain forests, particularly in South America, robbing the world of crucial "carbon sinks," the vast tracts of trees and vegetation that absorb carbon dioxide.
"I'm not sure that the system we have for livestock can be sustainable," said Pachauri of the United Nations. A sober scientist, he suggests that "the most attractive" near-term solution is for everyone simply to "reduce meat consumption," a change he says would have more effect than switching to a hybrid car.
The Lancet medical journal and groups like the Food Ethics Council in Britain have supported his suggestion to eat less red meat to control global emissions, noting that Westerners eat more meat than is healthy anyway.
Producing a pound of beef creates 11 times as much greenhouse gas emission as a pound of chicken and 100 times more than a pound of carrots, according to Lantmannen, the Swedish group.
But any suggestion to eat less meat may run into resistance in a world with more carnivores and a booming global livestock industry. Meat producers have taken issue with the United Nations' estimate of livestock-related emissions, saying the figure is inflated because it includes the deforestation in the Amazon, a phenomenon that the Brazilian producers say might have occurred anyway.
United Nations scientists defend their accounting. With so much demand for meat, "you do slash rain forest," said Pierre Gerber, a senior official at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Soy cultivation has doubled in Brazil during the past decade, and more than half is used for animal feed.
Laurence Wrixon, executive director of the International Meat Secretariat, said that his members were working with the Food and Agriculture Organization to reduce emissions but that the main problem was fast-rising consumption in developing countries. "So whether you like it or not, there's going to be rising demand for meat, and our job is to make it as sustainable as possible," he said.
Estimates of emissions from agriculture as a percentage of all emissions vary widely from country to country, but they are clearly over 50 percent in big agricultural and meat-producing countries like Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.
In the United States, agriculture accounted for just 7.4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2006, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The percentage was lower because the United States produces extraordinarily high levels of emissions in other areas, like transportation and landfills, compared with other nations. The figure also did not include fuel burning and land-use changes.
Wealthy, environmentally conscious countries with large livestock sectors — the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and New Zealand — have started experimenting with solutions.
In Denmark, by law, farmers now inject manure under the soil instead of laying it on top of the fields, a process that enhances its fertilizing effect, reduces odors and also prevents emissions from escaping. By contrast, in many parts of the developing world, manure is left in open pools and lathered on fields.
Others suggest including agriculture emissions in carbon cap-and-trade systems, which currently focus on heavy industries like cement making and power generation. Farms that produce more than their pre-set limit of emissions would have to buy permits from greener colleagues to pollute.
New Zealand recently announced that it would include agriculture in its new emissions trading scheme by 2013. To that end, the government is spending tens of millions of dollars financing research and projects like breeding cows that produce less gas and inventing feed that will make cows belch less methane, said Philip Gurnsey of the Environment Ministry.
At the electricity-from-manure project here in Sterksel, the refuse from thousands of pigs is combined with local waste materials (outdated carrot juice and crumbs from a cookie factory), and pumped into warmed tanks called digesters. There, resident bacteria release the natural gas within, which is burned to generate heat and electricity.
The farm uses 25 percent of the electricity, and the rest is sold to a local power provider. The leftover mineral slurry is an ideal fertilizer that reduces the use of chemical fertilizers, whose production releases a heavy dose of carbon dioxide.
For this farm the scheme has provided a substantial payback: By reducing its emissions, it has been able to sell carbon credits on European markets. It makes money by selling electricity. It gets free fertilizer.
And, in a small country where farmers are required to have manure trucked away, it saves $190,000 annually in disposal fees. John Horrevorts, experiment coordinator, whose family has long raised swine, said that dozens of such farms had been set up in the Netherlands, though cost still makes it impractical for small piggeries. Indeed, one question that troubles green farmers is whether consumers will pay more for their sustainable meat.
"In the U.K., supermarkets are sometimes asking about green, but there's no global system yet," said Bent Claudi Lassen, chairman of the Danish Bacon and Meat Council, which supports green production. "We're worried that other countries not producing in a green way, like Brazil, could undercut us on price."
Hong Kong finds more tainted eggs
By David Barboza
Thursday, December 4, 2008
SHANGHAI: Hong Kong food safety authorities said late Tuesday that for the fourth time in less than two months they had found a batch of eggs imported from China that were contaminated with illegal levels of melamine, the industrial chemical blamed for sickening hundreds of thousands of young Chinese children, six fatally.
The Hong Kong food safety agency has been conducting random tests for melamine on a variety of foods imported from China since a global recall of Chinese dairy products earlier this fall.
The agency said the tainted eggs were imported from a company based in Jilin Province in northern China and were being sold to bakeries in Hong Kong. The agency asked that the eggs be withdrawn from the market. It said the eggs 4.7 parts per million of melamine, nearly twice the level allowable in food products sold in the U.S., Hong Kong and China.
Still, Hong Kong authorities said a child would have to eat about 13 eggs in a single day to be strongly affected.
The finding comes a day after Chinese authorities gave a raised its count of the number of affected babies, raising the death toll from four and upping those sickened from 50,000 to 300,000. The stricken babies suffered from kidney stones and other ailments.
The melamine scandal has been a huge embarrassment for Beijing, which late last year had completed a nationwide food safety crackdown that involved closing thousands of illegal food factories and conducting food safety checks on small food producers. The crackdown came after thousands of pets in the United States were sickened after eating melamine-tainted pet food produced with ingredients imported from China.
This year many of China's biggest dairies were accused of selling melamine-tainted products, leading to massive recalls and renewed calls by leaders in Beijing for an overhaul of the country's food safety standards and stricter regulatory enforcement.
In recent months, Chinese dairy goods, animal feed and eggs have all been found to have been tainted by melamine. The government has blamed dishonest farmers and food and feed dealers who are believed to be intentionally using the chemical, which is usually used to make plastics and fertilizers, to falsely raise the protein counts of diluted dairy products.
Last month, the Food and Drug Administration said that imports of a variety of Chinese products that contain milk, including candy, snacks, baker products and pet foods, would be held at the United States border until they are tested for contamination.
The melamine scandals this year have alarmed Chinese consumers, and slowed sales, severely damaging this country's once booming dairy industry. Egg sales have also plummeted, sending egg prices down and leading many farmers to abandon the poultry industry, according to farmers in northern China's Hebei province.
Hong Kong food safety officials say the latest batch of melamine tainted eggs were produced in North China and contained
Nice females also hunt
By Marlene Zuk
Thursday, December 4, 2008
What is it about sex and hunting? The recent discovery that among bonobos - those small chimpanzee relatives previously known for their active sex lives and female-dominated societies - females as well as males hunt prey, has taken the pundits aback.
According to at least some conventional primatology wisdom, the leaner, meaner chimpanzees evolved male bonding and thus an aggressive and hierarchical society through the thrill of the chase, while bonobos groomed, hugged or performed other acts not suitable for description in a family newspaper.
Some anthropologists and psychologists take this further, tracing human aggression and male violence to an early history of hunting. Locating a living animal, stalking it and killing it are thought to represent aggressive acts, and because in the hunter-gatherer society, men are supposed to have done much of the hunting, the reasoning goes that natural selection for good hunters gave us, willy-nilly, hostile men.
We humans have certainly made hunting into a masculine avocation, and we like to point to male animals as bolstering that macho stereotype. Even when women hunt, like the moose-chasing Sarah Palin, we emphasize the aftermath, not the killing. Every news item about the vice-presidential hopeful talked not about her ability to bring down that moose, but to "field dress" it. We're more comfortable when women prepare food instead of shooting it in the head. But that's our gender stereotype, not a reflection of anything inherent in the act of bringing down prey.
But hunting is a more widespread - and less glamorous - profession than it is sometimes made out to be. And it has less to do with aggression than you might think.
It's true that competition among males for access to fertile females is common among animals from butterflies to baboons, and the wrangling can be vicious. But the link between being aggressive and predatory is tenuous. We usually think of predators as animals like wolves or eagles subduing large, usually warm-blooded, prey, but why dismiss insectivores like, say, warblers or hedgehogs, from their ranks?
Some biologists refer to any food item as "prey" and talk about animals like seed-eating kangaroo rats as seed predators. Even if that is going a bit too far, why is a hawk swooping down on a rabbit seen as more aggressive than a songbird snapping its bill against the hard shell of a beetle? Hunting is getting food, not waging war.
To be sure, group hunting such as that seen in the chimpanzees and now the bonobos as well as many human societies does involve elaborate behavioral rituals. And in some cultures, hunting, because it requires bravery when the prey is itself dangerous, is used as a test of manhood. But this does not mean that predation itself is aggressive in any form.
Even if predation were aggressive, the fact remains that in virtually all animals that eat live food, males and females both hunt. In lions, of course, females even do most of the hunting; male violence is directed toward the rival males and their offspring. The role of male hunting in human evolution is the subject of hot debate among anthropologists. But except for a few kinds of animals, males do not go out and bring home the bacon (or the caterpillars) while the females stay home with the kittens, pups or chicks. Both sexes share the foraging duties. Any tendencies toward aggressive behavior that evolved out of hunting food would have to occur in both sexes.
It is undeniable that aggression, violence, dominance and war are all "gendered" in our society; that is, they all have connotations with maleness and femaleness. And I am not suggesting that human aggression is just as common in women as it is in men. But the idea that hunting somehow signals a tendency toward violence should be as much of a surprise to us as it would be to the bonobo.
Marlene Zuk is the author of "Riddled With Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are."
The surprising life of a polar archipelago
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Life on this planet always surprises us. Animals turn out to be smarter than humans expect. Biological interrelationships turn out to be more intricate and more finely tuned than we had predicted.
The latest example is a biological survey in and around the South Orkney Islands - a clutch of islands halfway between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula - that shows greater biodiversity than scientists had expected. It included familiar species, like chinstrap penguins, as well as less familiar ones, like aquatic worms and soft corals. Scientists also discovered five new species of sea mosses and minute crustaceans related to wood lice.
It is a welcome reminder that the perceived biological "poverty" of the polar regions derives from the fact that it's easier to count species on land than in the ocean. Once you look beneath the waves - the team of scientists aboard a British Antarctic Survey research vessel spent seven weeks doing so - it becomes clear how rich these regions are. The vast majority of the species recorded - 821 out of 1,224 - live on the ocean floor.
One of the more striking conclusions is that the South Orkney Islands, and other polar islands like them, may be the last regions on the globe where biodiversity has changed relatively little over the past century. This survey provides a base-line estimate of polar life before the increasing effects of climate change are felt. It is part of the Census of Marine Life, a 10-year project.
What those effects may be, and how hard we need to work against them, are also suggested in a new report from the World Wildlife Fund. It warns that 75 percent of the major penguin colonies in the Antarctic may well perish with a 2 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures.
Cruise ship stranded in Antarctic with 122 on board
Thursday, December 4, 2008
BUENOS AIRES: An Antarctic cruise ship carrying 122 passengers and crew started to take on water and leak fuel after it ran aground on Thursday, an Argentine naval official said.
Admiral Daniel Martin told local television a nearby passenger ship was on its way to the stricken Panamanian-flagged vessel, called the Ushuaia after the Tierra del Fuego port from which it sailed in Argentina on Sunday.
He said none of the boat's passengers had been injured.
"We've received information from the captain of the Ushuaia that the boat is grounded ... with a minimal amount of water coming in and some fuel loss," Martin said.
He said the ship lay some 186 miles (300 km) southwest of Argentina's Marambio military base on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Cruise travel has grown in Antarctica in recent years, with tourists paying thousands of dollars to see towering icebergs, seals, whales and penguins.
A year ago, more than 150 crew and passengers, many of them elderly, escaped unhurt in a dramatic rescue after their cruise ship hit ice off Antarctica and sank.
The ship is operated by Antarpply Expeditions, based in Ushuaia.
(Reporting by Helen Popper, Editing by Sandra Maler)
Hopes fade for aid to U.S. automakers
By David M. Herszenhorn and David Stout
Thursday, December 4, 2008
WASHINGTON: As the Senate Banking Committee opened the latest round of congressional hearings Thursday on a potential rescue package for U.S. automakers, the committee chairman, Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, suggested that it would be difficult for lawmakers to approve a financial lifeline for the Big Three.
Dodd used his initial round of questioning to emphasize that the administration of President George W. Bush or the Federal Reserve could act unilaterally to aid the auto industry.
"There are a number of ways that we could address this issue," Dodd said. "The one that has received a lot of attention is whether Congress will act. If Congress is going to act, it is going to require some significant effort of the coming days. There are alternatives to that."
Dodd then used his questioning of the first witness of the day, Gene Dodaro, the acting comptroller general of the United States, to highlight the authority that the Treasury or the Fed could use to aid the auto companies, either by tapping the $700 billion economic stabilization program approved by Congress in the autumn or the Fed using its existing powers to aid imperiled industries.
"Both of those avenues of authority are available," Dodaro said.
The Democratic congressional leadership has said it is eager to aid the industry, but there is substantial rank-and-file resistance to another corporate bailout, which opinion polls indicate is deeply unpopular with the public.
In recent days, congressional aides said it might be impossible to muster the votes for a rescue package even if the auto executives make a strong case during hearings before the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee on Friday. Congressional leaders have indicated that there is only a narrow window to approve an aid package for the automakers before Congress adjourns for the year, and that any effort to adopt legislation would likely prove futile if a protracted debate over policy or procedure were to break out.
But as the Senate banking hearing got under way, such a debate seemed unavoidable. Already some conservative House Republicans have called for letting one or more of the three companies fail and go into some sort of bankruptcy proceeding. And Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho pressed the question about bankruptcy as an option early in the hearing Thursday.
Also at the hearing, Senator Robert Bennett, Republican of Utah, raised a new idea that would call on financial firms receiving assistance under the Treasury's $700 billion program to convert any auto company debt that they hold into equity stakes, easing the cash liquidity problems of the Big Three, and potentially allowing additional infusions of government cash into the financial firms.
As the legislative debate played out, the auto chief executives were back on Capitol Hill asking for assistance. Two weeks ago, the executives - Alan Mulally of Ford, Rick Wagoner of General Motors and Robert Nardelli of Chrysler - sought $25 billion in loan guarantees but left Washington empty-handed after skeptical lawmakers refused to approve aid until they heard detailed plans on how the companies could be viable.
"It's fair to say that last month's hearings were difficult for us," Wagoner said Thursday. "But we learned a lot."
This time, the executives are seeking more money - $34 billion - and also altered their approach. Instead of telling lawmakers about the fallout to the economy if the carmakers are allowed to collapse, the executives talked about building fuel-efficient cars and long-term strategies.
"Our plan dramatically accelerates and expands the restructuring that we've been driving in North America for the past several years," Wagoner said in prepared remarks.
"It's a blueprint for creating a new General Motors," he added, "one that is lean, profitable, self-sustaining and fully committed to product excellence and technology leadership, especially in alternative combustion."
In its plan to Congress, GM said it would sharply reduce jobs, factories, brands and executive compensation in a broad effort to become more competitive with American plants operated by Toyota, Honda and other foreign auto companies.
EU adopts renewable energy proposals
Thursday, December 4, 2008
BRUSSELS: The European Union agreed Thursday on a series of measures to promote green energy after resolving a long-running battle over biofuels.
But Italy would not drop its demand to review the legislation in 2014, preventing the EU from signing off on a deal to get 20 percent of the region's energy from renewable sources by 2020.
"We have agreement on everything except the deletion of the review clause," the European Parliament's lead negotiator, Claude Turmes, said after talks that went on until the early hours.
The green energy laws are a major part of an EU package to fight climate change, which it hopes will help spur a global deal with other big polluters like China and the United States.
"Europe faces a moment of truth over the next week on the issue of climate change as to whether this package goes through and goes through with environmental integrity," said the British secretary for energy and climate change, Ed Miliband.
Until Thursday, debate over biofuels had been deadlocked, holding back other measures to promote wind farms, solar power and energy from tides.
The European Commission proposed in January that 10 percent of road transport fuel should come from renewable sources by 2020. Much of that would come from biofuels, creating a large market that is coveted by exporters like Brazil and Indonesia, along with EU farming nations.
But environmentalists say biofuels made from grains and oilseeds increase food prices and force subsistence farmers to expand agricultural land by hacking into rainforests and draining wetlands, a process known as indirect land-use change.
The stand-off over biofuels ended with an agreement that up to almost a third of the EU's 10 percent goal would be met not through biofuels but through electric cars and trains.
"The 10 percent agri-fuels target has been seriously undermined," said Turmes, the negotiator. "The future cars will be electric," he added, "and there will be a strong push to get all trains in Europe to run on green electricity."
The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, will also come forward with proposals in 2010 to limit indirect land-use change, and biofuels made from non-food sources will be promoted. Turmes said Italy's demand for a review would undermine investment security and put at risk thousands of new jobs. Environmental groups also criticized the proposal.
U.S. economic stimulus plan tied to energy savings
By John M. Broder
Thursday, December 4, 2008
WASHINGTON: President-elect Barack Obama and leaders in Congress are fashioning a plan to pour billions of dollars into a jobs program to jolt the economy and lay the groundwork for a more energy-efficient one.
The details and cost of the so-called green-jobs program are still unclear, but a senior Obama aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a work in progress, said it would probably include the weatherizing of hundreds of thousands of homes, the installation of "smart meters" to monitor and reduce home energy use, and billions of dollars in grants to state and local governments for mass transit and infrastructure projects.
The green component of the much larger stimulus plan would cost at least $15 billion a year, and perhaps considerably more, depending on how the projects were defined, aides working on the package said.
During the campaign, Obama supported a measure to address global warming by capping carbon emissions while allowing companies to buy and trade pollution permits. He said he would devote $150 billion of the revenue from the sale of those permits over 10 years to energy efficiency and alternative energy projects to wean the nation from fuels that are the main causes of the heating the atmosphere.
But the Obama adviser who discussed the green energy project said Obama would not await passage of a global warming bill before embarking on the new energy and infrastructure spending. House and Senate supporters of a climate bill said they would continue working on legislative language but did not expect quick action on a cap-and-trade law because of the economic emergency.
That means that the green-jobs program would not be financed with pollution credits bought by power generators and other carbon emitters, but instead would be added to the budget deficit.
Congressional officials working with the Obama administration said the stimulus program was also likely to involve tax breaks or direct government subsidies for a variety of clean energy projects, including solar arrays, wind farms, advanced biofuels and technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants.
The programs will be a part of a larger economic stimulus package whose outlines are faint but which is expected to cost $400 billion to $500 billion. Obama has said that his goal is to create or save 2.5 million jobs in the next two years. He has assigned to his economic and environmental advisers the task of devising a proposal that is expected to combine a shot of new federal money into existing federal and state programs and the possible creation of agencies modeled on New Deal public works programs.
"We'll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead," Obama said in a radio address last month, echoing a campaign promise with a new sense of urgency.
The political climate seems favorable to an economic stimulus plan, but large sums of new money touch off lobbying frenzies and energy projects spur debate between conservationists and those who want to more fully exploit domestic sources of oil, natural gas and coal.
Some experts said the record of government's intervention in energy markets and new technologies was not promising, citing as a spectacular example the Carter-era Synthetic Fuels Corporation, which spent more than $3 billion without producing any commercially usable amount of coal-based liquid fuel.
Ethanol and other non-oil-based fuels have also not proved their commercial value, in some cases yielding less energy than was needed to produce them, or, in ethanol's case, diverting land to corn and driving up food prices.
The plan could also face resistance from fiscal hawks. In 2004, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, almost single-handedly blocked a $100 billion energy package, saying the billions of dollars in subsidies for ethanol and other alternative fuels were little more than a special-interest boondoggle. The bill was revived a year later at half the cost, and much of the money in it has not been spent.
"Now they're talking about some large amount of money — what, $100 billion? — and spending it on windmills, job training, whatever," said David Kreutzer, who studies energy economics and climate change at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group. "But where do you get the $100 billion in the first place? Are you going to take $100 billion from some other part of the economy, are you going to tax some people to pay for it? Are you just going to print it or borrow it? The money has to come from somewhere."
The Obama team and congressional leaders say they want a plan ready shortly after Congress reconvenes in January.
Obama has said that, after stabilizing the economy and the markets, putting the nation on the path to a more energy-efficient future is his top priority. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, said this week that rebuilding infrastructure and creating green jobs was "the first order of business that we will have" when Congress reconvenes in January. Several hearings are planned even before Obama takes office on Jan. 20.
State officials say a lack of financing has stalled billions of dollars in projects. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California told Obama this week that the states were ready to break ground with $136 billion in infrastructure projects that could provide new jobs within two years.
The American Public Transportation Association, which represents local mass transit authorities, said there were $8 billion in "ready-to-go" projects that could preserve or create thousands of jobs and provide more energy-efficient transportation.
Beverly Scott, the chief executive of Atlanta's transit agency and head of the national association, told Congress in October that the projects included diesel-electric hybrid buses for Chicago; a new bus maintenance shop for Eugene, Oregon; and a set of crossover tracks to allow San Francisco's rapid transit trains to turn around more quickly and carry more riders.
The Obama aide said the residential smart meters were a relatively small project that would not create a large number of jobs, but the aide said they would be an essential building block for the electric grid of the future. The new grid — a multiyear, multibillion-dollar project — would more efficiently move electricity from its source to its destination and would reward those who saved power or used it during off-peak hours.
Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, who heads the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he was sympathetic to Obama's desire to pump up the economy and reduce energy usage. But Bingaman said he was wary of big government spending programs without sufficient oversight or expertise.
"Just buying smart meters for everybody doesn't really move the ball very far," said Bingaman, who will hold a hearing next week to gather ideas for energy-related stimulus spending. "Realistically speaking, getting money properly spent in a short period of time requires some degree of competence in the government agency doing it. The best plan is to start with existing programs that work, like weatherization, and build on those."
Nippon Oil to merge with Nippon Mining
Thursday, December 4, 2008
TOKYO: Nippon Oil, the biggest Japanese refiner, said Thursday that it was merging with Nippon Mining in an effort to cut capacity and costs as a global economic slowdown reduced demand for oil products.
The merger, expected to be completed next October, may signal the start of a long-awaited consolidation in the Japanese refining sector, which is saddled with aging plants and weak retail margins, and could presage more global deals as operators see the end of four years of record margins and prepare for contracting oil demand.
Shares in both companies jumped more than 15 percent in Tokyo after the merger was announced, before weakening later, taking their combined market value to more than $8.8 billion. Two Japanese rivals, Showa Shell - partly owned by Royal Dutch Shell - and Idemitsu Kosan rose by about 6 percent as talk of consolidation grew.
A combined Nippon Oil-Nippon Mining will cut refining capacity by about a fifth, or 400,000 barrels per day, by April 2012, the presidents of the two companies said at a news conference. The cut is the equivalent of about 8 percent of the total capacity the Japanese market.
The new company, which will also be the top Japanese copper processor, will aim to cut costs by ¥60 billion, or $645 million, by April 2013, and eventually cut more than $1 billion in annual costs.
The global slowdown has halved refining margins since spring, with Japan hit particularly hard, with its population quick to switch to more fuel-efficient cars after oil prices spiked this year.
"This could trigger consolidation and realignments among local oil refiners," a Merrill Lynch analyst, Takashi Enomoto, said in a note to clients. "And low oil refining margins in Japan, compared to global levels, may see structural correction."
Toshihiro Nikai, the Japanese minister of economy, trade and industry, said the move was ambitious and "extremely important" for Japan, which has to import all its fuel.
The combined sales at Nippon Oil and Nippon Mining are forecast at ¥13.15 trillion in the year ending in March.
The president of Nippon Oil, Shinji Nishio, said refinery capacity was being reduced to make the companies more competitive. "It's important we win in terms of cost effectiveness, at least in the Asian market," he said.
A merger would allow the companies to take advantage of scale and could lead to closing underutilized or unprofitable refineries.
Mitsunori Takahagi, the head of Nippon Mining, said: "We must take drastic measures to cut costs and implement changes if we are to win in an increasingly competitive industry."
A UBS analyst, Toshinori Ito, said the merger was positive for both companies and would be good for the industry as a whole, as it would create leadership in pricing, help eliminate excess price competition and tighten the supply-demand balance.
Japanese refiners with excess capacity in the Japanese market have turned to exports to keep plants busy, but lower oil demand in industrialized nations and a halt in Chinese fuel imports have squeezed profit out of exports.
Major refiners have been reducing crude refining plans in response to the economic slowdown. Japanese oil product sales in October tumbled to their lowest level for that month in 20 years. Nippon Oil plans to cut its crude runs by 18 percent this month from a year ago and has said it may continue to refine less until January if demand stays weak.
Nippon Oil closed up 3.4 percent at ¥331, while Nippon Mining ended 11.3 percent higher at ¥285.
The merger ratio and the new company's name will be set later, the companies said. The new business will have three units: refining and sales, oil exploration and metals.
Nigerian state pays for peace in oil fields
By Will Connors
Thursday, December 4, 2008
ESCRAVOS, Nigeria: As dusk approached and the glow from the oil rig gas flares grew stronger, the oilmen, politicians and militants arrived by boat in small groups to celebrate the opening of 911 Resort, a half-finished villa accessible only by boat at the outer edge of the creeks of the oil-rich Niger Delta.
Among the crowd at the resort - which takes its name from Operation 911, the original campaign by the Nigerian military against the militants - state ministers mingled with American oil contractors and Lebanese businessmen chatted to militants-turned-local politicians before they all sat down at long tables cluttered with bottles of wine and champagne. Hundreds of villagers watched from behind a barbed-wire fence prowled by guard dogs as comedians and musicians entertained the guests.
The scene, surreal as it was, would have been all but unimaginable two years ago, when this remote region of southern Nigeria was in the midst of a torrid stretch of kidnappings, killings and pipeline vandalism.
"The fact that I went there without security is a huge statement, but it's still on a knife's edge," said one American oil worker who attended the opening and did not want to be named because of company rules about speaking publicly.
For years the Niger Delta has been plagued by instability caused by armed militants who kidnap foreign oil workers or wealthy Nigerians for ransom, clash with the military and sabotage oil pipelines.
Oil worth billions of dollars is pumped out of Nigeria every year, and yet the average Nigerian earns less than $2 a day. The militants have claimed to be fighting on behalf of local people who get no share of the oil riches, but their actions often boiled down to profit-driven criminality.
And while other states in the region continue to be hampered by violence between militant gangs and the military, Delta State, under its governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan, has found a rare measure of peace. It has accomplished this not by fighting the militants but by drawing them into the government and making sure they are awarded valuable contracts from the oil companies, Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell, that dominate the oil business here.
"The state government has established favorable circumstances and has been very pragmatic," said a retired Nigerian general, Henry Clark, who has been following the situation in the Niger Delta and whose brother is a prominent regional leader. "The state governor is using the militants, he's buying them over. You give them positions in government and empower them, these are money-multiplying effects. The moment people see economic development, they come to your side."
While the relative peace has allowed for events like the 911 Resort opening, the means by which the peace was attained has attracted severe scrutiny from observers who feel that the local government is dealing with a ticking time bomb.
"It's not peace, it's just quiet," said Damka Pueba, of the delta-based Democracy Stakeholders Network, an advocacy group for delta residents and communities.
"I don't think it's smart because at the end of the day things are going to spill over. They need to address the real, core issues. There's nothing sustainable about what the governor is doing."
Uduaghan, a former doctor who took office in 2007, has quickly risen to national prominence for his pragmatic approach to dealing with the militants.
The most significant and controversial decision by Uduaghan was to hand out government positions to militant leaders. One newly created office in particular, the Delta State Waterways Security Committee, is led by and staffed with many former militants, or "youth activists," as they are often referred to locally.
Militants still active in the creeks quickly recognized the benefits of this approach and made concessions to the state government in return for financial assistance or contracts from oil and construction companies.
"Including activists is a necessity because one of the problems before was political exclusion, which has been resolved," said George Timinimi, a former high-level militant and now the commissioner for the Delta State Waterways Security Committee. "Development is a gradual thing. The oil companies are doing their best. It's not them alone. Once the people see that the developments are happening there will be lasting peace."
Uduaghan is troubled by the willingness of the oil companies to deal directly with the militants, setting them up as powerful figures outside the state's control. "The trend that is dangerous right now is the oil companies' awarding contracts to militants," he said in a recent speech. "People of Delta State are entitled to contracts from oil companies, and I urge the oil companies to continue to give contracts to local communities."
The governor did not say whom he had in mind, but local officials quickly pointed to a militant leader who goes by the name Tom Polo and is reputed to be the most powerful person in the region. A shadowy figure who is the object of constant speculation, Polo has placed himself and his allies in strategic positions throughout the state and is earning vast sums of money from multinational oil companies and the Nigerian government by providing security for oil pipelines running through the Niger Delta.
"Tom Polo is paid by Chevron and Shell, and by the NNPC for protection," said a Western regional analyst, referring to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. "The only way to get things done is through him."
Even if the government manages to rein in Polo - and that is far from assured - local human rights advocates remain leery of the Uduaghan approach, calling it a Band-Aid that will lead only to greater problems.
"I think it's the buying of temporary peace. They cannot continue to give militants juicy contracts and money forever," said Chris Alagoa, of the Niger Delta Peace and Security Secretariat, a community organization. "They will collaborate today, but for how long will that go on? At some point it will explode. They will come to realize they've been used and are not part of the establishment. It's like sweeping things under the carpet, where they will be left to fester."
Gunmen kidnap 3 at Nigeria oil facility
Thursday, December 4, 2008
LAGOS: Gunmen in Nigeria attacked a vessel near an offshore oil facility and kidnapped two expatriates and a Nigerian in the restive Niger Delta, a private security source said on Thursday.
The vessel Oceanic Orion was attacked at the Adanga crude oil flow station, operated by Canada's Addax Petroleum, in Akwa Ibom state in the delta, the source said.
Kidnappings are frequent in the Niger Delta, home to Nigeria's oil sector. Hundreds of foreigners have been seized in the region since early 2006, most of whom have been released unharmed.
Gunmen last week kidnapped a Scottish man working for an oil services firm, while militants have held two Britons captive for more than two months in the delta.
(Reporting by Nick Tattersall; Writing by Randy Fabi; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)
Sarkozy announces €26 billion stimulus plan for France
By Katrin Bennhold
Thursday, December 4, 2008
PARIS: President Nicolas Sarkozy of France vowed Thursday to spend some €26 billion over the next two years in an effort to soften the blow of an economic crisis that was already increasing jobless lines and risked pushing the economy into recession.
The plan, worth about 1.3 percent of the French gross domestic product, is designed to add as much as 0.8 percentage point to growth next year, officials said. It breaks with French tradition by focusing on stimulating investment, rather than consumption. It seeks to bolster companies' cash flow by bringing forward €11.4 billion, or $14.6 billion, in tax credits, tax rebates and other state debts owed to businesses, and accelerating €10.5 billion in public infrastructure investment.
In a week where temporary factory closures again made headlines, the package also set aside funds to help the country's auto and construction industries, two sectors that have been hit particularly hard by the current slump in demand.
Sarkozy, who announced the plan in the northern industrial town of Douai, near a troubled Renault plant, struck a forceful tone in explaining why, unlike many of his predecessors, he chose not to focus the package on consumers.
"Our response to the crisis is investment," he said in an address televised live. "Because it is the best way to underpin activity and to save the jobs of today. Because it is the only way to prepare the jobs of tomorrow."
But he also peppered his hourlong speech with characteristic references to state interventionism, making the proposed aid conditional on companies making the French national interest their priority.
"I will not allow a dismantling of France's industrial base," Sarkozy said. "There will be no bailout - neither in the auto sector, not elsewhere - without a counterpart. There will be no aid without the commitment not to outsource abroad." His remarks were greeted with loud cheers and applause.
Specifically addressing the country's managerial class, he warned against taking a cavalier attitude toward job cuts. "I want to tell them: they have to guard against the temptation of taking advantage of the crisis to make layoffs that are not absolutely necessary," he said.
The plan for France, the third-largest economy in Europe, follows other stimulus programs announced across Europe in recent weeks. Germany, the largest European economy; Britain, the second largest; as well as Spain and Italy have all sought to reassure consumers and business leaders that they were acting to restore economic growth and ease the crisis.
The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, called last week for member states to spend about 1.5 percent of their gross domestic product on reviving economic growth. While national governments have announced tens of billions of euros in stimulus plans, economists note that the numbers have not included much in the way of new money.
This criticism is partly valid for the French program, which counts the payment of tax rebates that would have been paid out anyway, only later.
Still, the package was broadly welcomed by economists and executives accustomed to French governments that concentrate their efforts on consumers rather than companies. Following the oil shocks in the 1970s and 1980s, Sarkozy's predecessors Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and François Mitterrand both took action in favor of consumers - one reason, analysts say, that France fell behind some of its neighbors on investment in recent decades.
Laurence Parisot, the president of the largest French employers' federation, Medef, said Thursday that she shared Sarkozy's "vision" of focusing on investment. "This crisis is a painful convulsion," she said in a statement. "But it is forcing us all to accelerate the modernization of our country."
Among the planned investment projects Sarkozy outlined are €4 billion in state spending on military, research and infrastructure projects. State-owned companies like the national railways, the Paris urban transport network and Électricité de France will step up their investment by another €4 billion.
Meanwhile, €1.8 billion was earmarked for the housing sector, including funds to renovate state-owned housing for the poor and to broaden subsidies for no-interest housing loans. Among the measures dedicated to the auto industry is a provision giving households a €1,000 rebate if they replace a vehicle more than 10 years old with a new car emitting less than 160 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, or 5.6 ounces per 0.62 mile.
Sarkozy's plan is expected to widen the French deficit to 3.9 percent of GDP next year and add €20 billion to French debt. Still, despite the stimulus package, few observers expected France to avoid recession next year, after the economy unexpectedly expanded by 0.1 percent in the third quarter. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the French economy will contract by 0.4 percent in 2009, falling into its first recession in more than 15 years.
The overall economy of the 15-member euro zone has probably already entered recession. It contracted in the third quarter and finance ministers said this week it could shrink further in the fourth quarter.
European economists are already describing 2009 as "a lost year."
Use of French terrorism law on railroad saboteurs draws criticism
By Celestine BohlenBloomberg News
Thursday, December 4, 2008
PARIS: The French police last month swooped down on the village of Tarnac with helicopters and dogs and dragged several young people out of bed.
By Nov. 15, the police had arrested nine people, including five living in a farmhouse on a hill overlooking Tarnac, and accused them of associating with "a terrorist enterprise." Their alleged crime: Causing massive train delays by draping horseshoe-shaped iron bars over 25,000-volt power lines on four separate tracks, disabling 160 trains.
The charges have reignited debate over a 1996 anti-terrorism law long criticized in France and elsewhere as overly broad. On Wednesday, the Liberation newspaper's banner headline about the case was: "Terrorists, Really?" Last week, raucous demonstrators went to a Paris courthouse to demand the release of five suspects. Three were freed Dec. 2, four were let go earlier and two remain in custody, all pending further investigation.
"To go from sabotage to terrorism is a gigantic qualitative leap," said Michel Gillabert, a 27-year-old stonecutter who heads a support group for the suspects. "We're looking at 20 years in prison for causing train delays."
The sabotage stranded about 40,000 travelers for up to six hours on Nov. 8, but no one was hurt and there was no risk of derailment, said Jean-Paul Boulet, a spokesman for Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français, or SNCF, the national rail company.
Opponents of the law claim it could become a cudgel to intimidate nonviolent protesters, especially as France teeters on the brink of recession, making the social fabric more fragile.
"There is a temptation during a time of crisis to consider any illegal manifestation of political expression to be of a terrorist nature," Gilbert Thiel, a member of France's team of anti-terrorist magistrates, said in an interview.
Under French law, magistrates decide what charges, if any, to take to trial. Thiel said a decision on whether to use the police's initial terrorist-law charges was months away.
The French terrorism law was criticized in a July report by Human Rights Watch, an organization in New York. The report said the law requires a "low standard of proof" to arrest suspects only tangentially associated with any terrorist groups.
Government officials say the suspects are dangerous. Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie described them on Nov. 11 as "ultra-leftists" who share a "total rejection of any democratic expression of political opinion, and an extremely violent tone."
The suspects are mostly graduate students from middle-class families, aged 22 to 34. One of the two suspects still in custody, Julien Coupat, 34, is being charged with "directing a terrorist group," said Isabelle Montagne, a spokeswoman for the Paris Prosecutor's office.
She said the police believed he was the anonymous author of a 2007 book entitled "The Coming Insurrection," which mixes an anarchist political philosophy with instructions on disrupting state symbols, like railroads.
The book's implicit threats prompted the police to begin monitoring Coupat's group in mid-2007, said Xavier Raufer, a professor of the Institute of Criminology in Paris.
Montagne said various objects, such as heavy cable cutters, climbing gear, screw cutters and leftist literature were found in the searches of the farmhouse at Tarnac.
The police said the nine suspects sabotaged the high-speed rail lines on the night of Nov. 7, just before the long Armistice Day weekend.
"To take on the railroads, particularly on a holiday weekend, is a sure way to impress public opinion," Guillaume Pepy, the head of SNCF, said in an interview with the French newspaper Le Parisien.
Boulet, the SNCF spokesman, said the French railroads, with two million passengers a day, had never been targeted in such a systematic way.
The last time France dealt with home-grown anarchists, they were of a more violent variety. In the 1970s and 1980s, Action Directe - the French version of the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany or the Red Brigades in Italy - carried out commando-type actions, including bank robberies and assassinations.
Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on extremist groups at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, in Paris, said the authorities' concerns about the train saboteurs was understandable.
"When a group of people goes from theorizing about violence against state institutions to taking action, that is the moment for the police to do something," Camus said. The police reaction "was designed to be dissuasive."
Thiel, the magistrate, said today's economic climate could give rise to potentially violent fringe groups. "The more tensions there are in society, and God knows we are in a period of economic and financial crisis which only makes inequalities all the more obvious, it is certain that some young people will be easily manipulated," he said.
In Tarnac, where a 160-year-old oak in the main square is named "Liberty Tree," residents are aghast at the use of the terrorism law in this case. "Guilty, not guilty, that's not the issue," said Manu, 28, a forest worker who declined to give his last name because he did not want to be associated with the case. "The problem is the word terrorism."
Fresh links to Pakistan complicate U.S. diplomacy after Mumbai attacks
By Salman Masood and Robert F. Worth
Thursday, December 4, 2008
ISLAMABAD: The Mumbai police on Thursday identified a second Pakistani terrorist as an engineer of the bloody assaults on the city last week and confirmed that they were investigating whether a Mumbai man arrested on terrorism charges had scoped out some of the high-profile targets the attackers struck, leaving more than 170 dead.
The new links to Pakistan added fresh complications to American diplomatic efforts to secure cooperation between India and Pakistan, which has questioned some of the evidence that Pakistanis were involved. On Thursday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met in Islamabad with Pakistani leaders, a day after meeting with Indian leaders, to urge that the two countries work together to find the attackers and bring them to justice.
"What I heard was a commitment that this is the course that will be taken," Rice told reporters at Chaklala Air Base after meeting with President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.
Rice's brief visit to Pakistan completed a delicate diplomatic minuet with visits to the region by the secretary of state and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who was in Pakistan on Wednesday and flew to India on Thursday for meetings.
In Mumbai, Rakesh Maria, India's joint commissioner of police, said that the second Lashkar-e-Taiba military commander who helped engineer the attacks was Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi. Maria said that the surviving attacker, 21-year-old Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, identified Lakhvi and said he helped indoctrinate all the attackers.
Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani guerrilla group that long focused on the disputed territory of Kashmir, is officially banned in Pakistan but, with a history of links to Pakistan's intelligence, has been hiding in plain sight for years. On Thursday, a spokesman for the group's leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, denied involvement in the Mumbai attacks, Pakistani news media reported.
Maria also said that it was believed that the attackers were in contact with Lakhvi on their journey from Karachi to Mumbai by sea and may have been during the attacks as well. Indian and American intelligence officials have already identified another Lashkar-e-Taiba operative, Yusuf Muzammil, as a mastermind of the attacks, and said he was in contact by satellite phone with the attackers during their journey.
Another police official, Deven Bharti, said the interrogation of Kasab, the captured gunman, was focusing on three lines of inquiry: the identities of the other nine; their training and planning; and whether they had local accomplices.
The suspected collaborator, Faheem Ahmed Ansari, was arrested on Feb. 10 in Rampur in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh a in connection with gun and grenade attack on New Year's Eve on a police camp. He was arrested with two others; all three are suspected members of Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Ansari told police interrogators in Uttar Pradesh that from fall 2007 to February 2008, he had been in Mumbai scoping out possible targets for the guerrilla group, including the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the old Victoria rail station.
The Uttar Pradesh police said that Ansari was arrested after he returned to Rampur to pick up weapons left behind from the New Year's Eve attack and take them to Mumbai for use in a later operation.
Ms Rice, during talks with Pakistani leaders, stressed that Pakistan should be seen as acting sincerely and quickly.
"Pakistan should also take the necessary steps to prevent any non-state actors from indulging in such activities against any country from its soil," Rice said, according to a statement from the Pakistani prime minister's office.
At the news conference in Chaklala, Rice said that the Indian government is concerned and determined "to find the perpetrators, bring them to justice, determined to prevent the next attack."
"I found the Pakistani leadership understanding the importance of doing so. Particularly in rooting out terrorists and rounding up whoever perpetrated this attack, from wherever it was perpetrated, whatever its sources, whatever the leads, because everybody wants to prevent further attacks," she said.
For his part, Zardari told Rice that he will take "strong action against any Pakistani elements found involved in the Mumbai attacks," according to a spokesperson for the Pakistani president.
Rice said Pakistan should be seen as acting sincerely and quickly.
Within India, sharp questions have been raised about the stunning inadequacy of Indian security forces and intelligence services. On Thursday, the Indian Air Force chief, Fali Homar Major told reporters that new intelligence reports had persuaded the authorities to declare an alert at airports. "This is based on a little warning that has been received," he said. "We are prepared as usual."
He offered no further details, but an Indian television network, NDTV, said the warning related to what it called a "9/11" plot timed to coincide with the anniversary on Dec. 6 of the destruction by Hindu militants of the Babri mosque in northern India in 1992.
News reports on Thursday said six airports, including those at New Delhi and Mumbai, were on alert, with heightened security searches for passengers and warplanes ready to take to the skies.
India seen as unequal to counterterrorism task
By Robert F. Worth
Thursday, December 4, 2008
MUMBAI: In the wake of the devastating terrorist attacks here last week, one thing has become clear: India's security forces are so spectacularly unprepared, its intelligence agencies so riven by conflict and miscommunication, that it lacks the ability to respond adequately to such attacks, much less prevent them.
This nation of 1.2 billion has only a few hundred counterterrorism officials in its intelligence bureau. Its tiny, ill-paid police force has little training, few weapons and even less ammunition. The coast guard has fewer than 100 working boats for a shoreline nearly 7,000 kilometers, or 4,300 miles, long.
In the latest revelation of India's lack of preparedness, on Wednesday, a full week after the attacks, sniffer dogs discovered a bag with a nearly 8-kilogram, or 17-pound, bomb that was left by the terrorists in the city's central train station and that was later deposited in a pile of lost bags, police officials said. The police defused the bomb on the spot and never bothered to clear the station, Victoria Terminus. It is also known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and is Mumbai's busiest train station.
Long before the attacks last week on Mumbai, which stunned the world and left 173 people dead, Indian intelligence officials and their Western counterparts had passed on various tips about the possibility of such assaults. But the Indians utterly lacked the ability to assess the significance of those tips or respond to them.
As a result, a group of just 10 attackers, according to the police, took the city by surprise on Nov. 26. They easily killed the police officers who opposed them and seized control of some of the city's best-known landmarks, as all of India watched in horror on television.
"The scale of the task before us is colossal," said Ajai Sahni, a former Indian intelligence official and the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi. "We are looking at a system which does not have the capacity to either generate adequate intelligence, or to respond to it."
Although India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has promised far-reaching reforms, earlier efforts to improve police training and effectiveness have gone nowhere.
That could leave India, a crucial American ally and one of the engines of global economic growth in the past decade, dangerously vulnerable to more terrorist strikes.
The Mumbai attacks have pushed tensions between India and Pakistan, where the gunmen are said to have been trained, to their highest level in years. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to New Delhi on Wednesday and to Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, on Thursday in an effort to calm the situation.
The violence has also fed an unprecedented and broad-based rage at the Indian government for not having done more to protect its people.
On Wednesday evening, tens of thousands in Mumbai marched near the attacked sites, chanting slogans that made their anger clear. Similar rallies were held in New Delhi and in the technology hubs of Bangalore and Hyderabad.
Many Indians were stunned to discover how easily, and thoroughly, the group of militants initially overpowered the police who tried to stop them (all but one of the militants were eventually shot and killed).
The attackers all had AK-47 rifles and pistols, and plenty of ammunition - far more firepower than any of the officers who confronted them. None of the police officers who initially encountered the terrorists had bulletproof vests, allowing the attackers to kill a number of them quickly, despite some heroic efforts at resistance.
Scenes from closed-circuit cameras, played endlessly on TV in the days after the attacks, showed police officers running from the gunmen alongside terrified civilians. In all, 20 police officers and commandos were killed.
After the assault began on the night of Nov. 26, it took hours for the Indian commando squad to arrive in Mumbai because it is based near Delhi, hundreds of miles away, and does not have its own aircraft.
Even after the commandos, who are better armed and trained than police officers are, began fighting the terrorists holed up in the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel, they lacked a floor plan, whereas the militants seemed to know the hotel's layout well.
In a sense, none of this was a surprise. India's National Security Guards force has only about 7,400 commandos, and it has often taken hours to respond to crises in the past, Sahni said. As for the city and state police forces, their equipment and training are far more meager, and they are lightly scattered across a vast population. India has 125 police officers for every 100,000 residents, one of the world's lowest ratios.
Intelligence failures also played a role in India's inability to deal properly with the Mumbai attacks. The United States warned Indian officials in mid-October of possible terrorist attacks on "touristy areas frequented by Westerners" in Mumbai, echoing other general alerts by Indian intelligence. In the past week, reports of other, far more detailed warnings have been rife in the Indian news media, though government officials have disputed them.
But the debate masks a broader problem, Sahni said: Neither the intelligence agencies nor the government has the ability to prioritize or assess those threats, or to act on them. The various wings of India's intelligence apparatus, like their American counterparts before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are famous for failing to communicate and share intelligence.
In the wake of the attacks, some police officials have become remarkably outspoken and even angry about their inability to defend the citizenry or even themselves.
"You see this old musket? It is useless," said Ankush Hotkar, a police officer, as he stood Wednesday in the cavernous hall of the main train station. He was pointing to a battered old hunting rifle in the hands of one of his fellow officers. Hotkar himself, despite his 26 years in the Mumbai police force, carried only a lathi, the wooden or Lucite pole that most police officers here carry as their only weapon. "The weapons they give us are no good, so policemen died," he said.
The Mumbai police are given scarcely any training and no opportunities to fire their weapons, Hotkar said. Starting salaries are 3,050 rupees a month, just over $60. "Maximum corruption is going on," Hotkar said wearily.
Somini Sengupta and Jeremy Kahn contributed reporting.
Pressure builds on Pakistan to rein in militants
By Jane Perlez and Somini Sengupta
Thursday, December 4, 2008
LAHORE, Pakistan: Mounting evidence of links between the Mumbai terrorist attacks and a Pakistani militant group is posing the stiffest test so far of Pakistan's new government, raising questions as to whether it can - or wants to - rein in militancy here.
President Asif Ali Zardari says his government has no concrete evidence of Pakistani involvement in the attacks, and American officials have not established a direct link to the government. But as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice landed in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on Thursday morning, pressure was building on the government to confront the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which Indian and American officials say carried out the Mumbai attacks.
Though officially banned, the group has hidden in plain sight for years. It has had a long history of ties to Pakistan's intelligence agencies. The evidence of its hand in the Mumbai attacks is accumulating from around the globe:
A former Defense Department official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that American intelligence analysts suspect that former officers of Pakistan's powerful spy agency and its army helped train the Mumbai attackers.
According to the Indian police, the one gunman who survived the terrorist attacks, Muhammad Ajmal Kasab, 21, told his interrogators that he trained during a year and half in at least four camps in Pakistan and at one met with Muhammad Hafeez Saeed, the Lashkar-e-Taiba leader.
And according to a Western official familiar with the investigation in Mumbai, another Lashkar leader, Yusuf Muzammil, whom the surviving gunman named as the plot's organizer, fielded phone calls in Lahore from the attackers.
Many of the charges against Lashkar originate from investigators in India, which has a long history of hostility with Pakistan. The United States shares an interest with India in shutting down Pakistani militant groups that pose threats to its soldiers in Afghanistan.
Today, Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose name means "army of the pure," operates openly in Lahore. Its militant wing, Western officials say, has used camps in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and Pakistan's tribal areas to change from a group once focused primarily on Kashmir into one now determined to join the ranks of a global jihad. The Mumbai attacks, which included foreigners among its targets, seemed to fit the group's evolving emphasis.
The 63-year-old Saeed lives in a large compound that includes a cream-colored mosque that faces on to a bustling commercial street. A sign outside says Center of Qadsisiyah, a triumphant reference to the place where the Arabs defeated the Persians in the seventh century.
A spokesman for Saeed, Muhammad Yahya Mujahid, denied in an interview on Wednesday that Saeed was involved in the Mumbai attacks, and described the Indian demand that he be turned over along with 19 others as "propaganda."
"India wants him because he exposes India on Kashmir and on water closure," Mujahid said, referring to Pakistani complaints about India cutting off water sources to Pakistan.
The group's public face, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, runs Islamic schools and charity works and maintains a 30-hectare, or 75-acre, campus about 24 kilometers, or 15 miles, north of Lahore, at Muridke, he said. Since the terrorist attacks on the United States of Sept. 11, 2001, he added, "the scene has changed and the relationship is not so good with the establishment."
According to Western intelligence officials, Lashkar was formed in 1989 with the assistance of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, with Saeed as its head collaborator.
How far that relationship extends today remains a topic of intense debate, Western officials said. Critics in Pakistan of the ISI maintain that the intelligence agency still protects Lashkar.
Though established as a proxy force to fight India in Kashmir, Lashkar has since turned itself into a transnational group, officials say. Today it has cells in Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas, and a few of its fighters have even turned up in Iraq, officials said.
Whether the group has come under the influence of Al Qaeda is uncertain.
"We're not saying there's a direct hand in it, but you have to think there's some learning going on, emulation going on, there are influences or contacts of some kind," a senior American official said.
India security officials say that while Lashkar remains active in Indian-administered Kashmir, violent militant activities there have fallen significantly in recent years.
Accounts from the captured gunman in Mumbai as well as those from a former Lashkar fighter who spoke with The New York Times provided glimpses of its recruitment methods and how the Mumbai attacks were planned.
According to Rakesh Maria, the chief of the crime investigation branch of the Mumbai police, the surviving gunman, Kasab, came from a village called Faridkot, in Punjab. The son of a laborer, he dropped out of school after fourth grade and moved to Lahore to join an older brother and make a living as a day laborer.
There, he told investigators, he was recruited into Lashkar.
One of the camps he attended was in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, where Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Lashkar affiliate, did relief work after a big earthquake in 2005.
There were roughly 25 people, sometimes more, in each camp, said Deven Bharti, a police commissioner in Mumbai. Whether some of them were being prepared for other attacks on other targets, in India or elsewhere, is not known. "We can't rule it out," Bharti said.
Kasab received training in handling arms, navigating the sea and survival techniques. He was shown Google Earth maps and video images of his targets. At one of the sessions, he told interrogators, Saeed, the Lashkar leader, gave a motivational speech, covering a host of pan-Islamic grievances from Palestinian territory to Iraq to Kashmir.
A GPS navigational device was found on the boat that the gunmen used to get close to Mumbai, before killing its captain and abandoning it in the Arabian Sea. The GPS device showed that they left Karachi on Nov. 23.
He had only limited information about his conspirators, Bharti said. He did not know whether there were plans to attack other targets. "He was only a foot soldier," Bharti said.
He was given an AK-47, a pistol, grenades and 5,400 rupees, about $110. The police said they were still looking into whether they had collaborators who helped them plot the attack beforehand, or during the day of the siege. The police dismissed earlier reports that they had rented rooms earlier and positioned weapons.
Bharti said that the information Kasab had provided so far had checked out, including his most recent tip: that he and a partner, Ismail Khan, had abandoned a bag with an 8-kilogram, or 17-pound, bomb at Victoria Terminus, also known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the railway station where they began their killing spree. The police recovered the bag on Wednesday.
But much remains unclear or unknown about him. A strict practice among the trainers of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the former Lashkar fighter told The New York Times, was a system of changing the names of the members every few months, so that everyone had layers of names that were discarded over time.
That system was intended to make it very difficult to identify members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, and is a likely explanation why Pakistani investigators have had little luck in finding Kasab's family in Faridkot.
The former fighter, who comes from the tribal areas of Pakistan, said he joined Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2000, stayed for eight months, then switched to another group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, for "ideological reasons."
He said that retired Pakistani Army officers impressed with Lashkar's ideology joined its ranks as volunteers. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be identified to his former associates.
According to the former fighter, some members of Lashkar moved to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, particularly the Mohmand region, close to the city of Peshawar.
The group focused on waging war against India, he said, but was also committed to wider goals, among them the creation of an Islamic state in south and central Asia.
At its start in 1989, Osama bin Laden was widely reported to have been a financial supporter. Since 2002, Lashkar trainers have worked closely with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to Seth Jones, an expert on militant groups at the RAND Corporation who has spent time in Afghanistan.
Their presence has increased in Afghanistan in the last year, Jones said. "They have had small numbers of fighters embed with local Afghan units on the ground such as the Taliban to gain combat experience and improve their tactics, techniques and procedures," he said.
Lashkar was banned under strong American pressure in 2002. Since then, Saeed disassociated himself from Lashkar, said his spokesman, Mujahid. Lashkar was now an "operational wing" to fight in Kashmir - its fighters no longer under Saeed's control.
Asked if he knew the operational commander of Lashkar, Mujahid waved his hand dismissively and said he was in Kashmir.
He also denied even knowing the name of Muzammil, the man identified by the Indian authorities as the person in charge of the Mumbai operation.
"Everyone who was interested in Kashmir, went to Kashmir," he said. "They are doing there what they have to do."
Jane Perlez reported from Lahore, and Somini Sengupta from Mumbai. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Jeremy Kahn from Mumbai.
Mumbai's elite see price of indifference
By Anand Giridharadas
Thursday, December 4, 2008
VERLA, India: Anand Sivakumaran saw Mumbai's security loopholes. He noticed hotels that checked passports upon check-in, but not bags. He noticed police officers at thronging train stations armed with bamboo sticks, but not guns. He saw soft spots for terrorists. And he did what many upright, affluent citizens of Mumbai do in such instances.
Well, not nothing. He may not have alerted anyone to it, but he used it as material. As a screenwriter in Bollywood, with movies like "Kalyug" and "Nazar" to his name, Sivakumaran, 37, tucked the loopholes into the plot line of his latest film to make it seem more believable.
Indians at all levels are asking questions after the terror attacks in Mumbai last week. But Sivakumaran, like many in the country's educated elite, is also turning the interrogation lamp on himself, asking: Was this our fault?
India's young, educated professionals can be accused of a kind of secessionism. While the poor vote in droves, they often sit elections out. They move into gated communities, sequestering themselves from the country around them; work for foreign firms in industrial parks that do not depend on the state for electricity and water; and insulate themselves from the smoggy air and potholed roads in their sleek sedans.
And then the gunmen arrived on their boats, and the government dithered and fumbled, and the educated classes began to see the price of apathy.
"The magnitude of this attack has, for the first time, shown to the present generation that indifference is cool only in college," said Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, a 31-year-old writer whose latest novel, "The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay," examines the mores of the young and prosperous. "On the streets of modern India, indifference is also called death."
Now it is indifference that is being besieged.
In the days since the attacks, thousands of young Indians have vented their outrage with the government on the Internet and via text message and signed up for various causes. Facebook communities seeking to galvanize action have attracted thousands of members. Marches have been organized. Petitions have been signed.
But the most intriguing plan may be the revival of an old, failed idea: that India be run by its brightest, not dullest, bulbs.
Strange thought, right?
In many countries, it is the affluent who vote and the poor who don't. India does the reverse. And so, in a country with an urban middle class in the tens of millions, few politicians reflect their values or even their styles of dress and speech. To watch Parliament on television is to witness a scene more evocative of a rural vegetable market than of a life in a modest office in Delhi or Mumbai.
Educated middle- and upper-class people have made some efforts over the years to penetrate the slow-moving, tea-sipping, sycophantic world of Indian politics. But with their unprofitable ideas of accountability and honesty, political parties like the Lok Paritran, founded by a group of engineers, have had limited luck. And so the rich enjoy their money and the poor enjoy their politics, and that is that.
The Mumbai attacks could - just could - interrupt that pattern. It seems that, when their own five-star hotels were struck, the elite quickly realized that, when you pay no attention to public life, you get what you pay for.
Sivakumaran, the screenwriter, in a Facebook post that ricocheted quickly among Indian Internet users, proposed a new kind of political party - "a party of professionals - engineers, doctors, architects, media people, ad guys, film makers, TV folk," he wrote.
The party, he added, would find the best minds and "put them up as candidates, raise money for them, market them, publicize them, get support at the grass-root level for them and try and get them elected."
Jaago Re! (Hindi for "Wake Up!") is a separate campaign, established in 2007, to register young urbanites to vote for leaders attentive to their issues. In the first days after the attacks, it reported a 30 percent spike in registrations in Mumbai.
Meanwhile, a campaign called Change India, based in Bangalore, sent out a mass text message urging city dwellers to behave like other Indian groups that vote in blocs and tend to be listened to by politicians.
These legions of disaffected people share a disgust for the government's handling of the Mumbai siege. They complain that it took a full night to bring commandos to the two hotels, since none were stationed in Mumbai. They complain that Indian officials maintained no floor plans of the biggest hotels. They complain that one official had the gall to say on television that "these things happen."
Some officials have resigned, and in the past that might have been enough. Middling governance has thrived in a country whose brightest minds seem not to care. Apathy is partly a consequence of the eternal Indian devotion to the family, which often comes at society's expense. A popular local refrain is that an Indian will throw garbage into the public square in order to have a pristine home.
In an earlier age of scarcity, the educated concentrated, understandably, on themselves, not on saving the world. But they continue to do so in an age of abundance, as the quest to make money overwhelms other quests. The young long to be bankers and programmers, not intelligence analysts or generals.
Sivakumaran graduated from the Indian Institutes of Technology, a group of engineering academies that are among the world's most selective. His friends, many of whom do not vote, work in various private industries. He could think of no friends from grade school or college who had entered politics or had even studied political science. But now his friends are speaking of voting regularly, of getting more involved, even of running for office themselves.
"Earlier, my only connection with politics and society was my one vote in five years, or complaining at a dinner with friends," Sivakumaran said. "It's got to be a hell of a lot more."
Pakistan's fragile state
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Pakistan's fragile state
William Pfaff asks the question "What was the message?" (Views, Dec. 4) and suggests motives for the Mumbai attacks.
I agree with his assessment that the new Pakistani government does not benefit from the attacks, so I doubt the Pakistani leaders were responsible. But the attacks have put the new civilian government on the defensive. Who benefits from that? Perhaps the Pakistani military, which has launched several coups in Pakistan's history?
If enough heat is put on the Pakistani civilian government, the military may have the perfect excuse to say, "We need to take control again."
Christian Haerle, Zurich
Thomas Friedman ("Calling All Pakistanis," Views, Dec. 3) suggests that reactions from Pakistanis to the Mumbai attacks have been insufficient.
Pakistan's leadership, media and civil society have been very vocal in expressing solidarity with India. The Pakistani government has offered full cooperation. Pakistanis from all parts of society have come forward to condemn the common enemy. After all, Pakistan has become a playing field for terrorists as well.
Fair enough? Not according to Friedman who advises Pakistanis to take to the streets as they did when a Dutch cartoonist mocked Prophet Muhammad through his caricatures.
A better comparison would be to examine Pakistani reactions in the aftermath of the country's own 9/11, when the Marriott in Islamabad was razed by suicide bombers. Precious lives were lost. Did Pakistanis take to the streets? No. Why expect otherwise for Mumbai?
Saira Yamin, Arlington, Virginia
Thomas Friedman is spot on. Regular Pakistanis can do the most to prevent more terrorist attacks like the horrific acts in Mumbai.
Indeed, it takes a village. When a would-be suicide bomber sees his own family denouncing such acts while he's contemplating them, the chances are better that he will not follow through.
The wellspring from which these misguided people emerge has to be dried up. That can only happen at the grassroots level. If not, then any number of government commandos will not be enough to contain the murder that will be unleashed.
If there is one group that is capable of quick mobilization and discipline, it is the Muslims. It is now time for them to look toward their young and stop them from going down the path of no return.
If for nothing else, this is critical for their own survival. As Friedman points out: Behavior toward perceived external enemies could at any point be directed inward as well, and at that point it may be too late.
Madhuri Pai, Singapore
Nicholas D. Kristof: Raising the world's IQ
Thursday, December 4, 2008
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan: Travelers to Africa and Asia all have their favorite forms of foreign aid to "make a difference." One of mine is a miracle substance that is cheap and actually makes people smarter.
Unfortunately, it has one appalling side effect. No, it doesn't make you sterile, but it is just about the least sexy substance in the world. Indeed, because it's so numbingly boring, few people pay attention to it or invest in it. (Or dare write about it!)
It's iodized salt.
Almost one-third of the world's people don't get enough iodine from food and water. The result in extreme cases is large goiters that swell their necks, or other obvious impairments such as dwarfism or cretinism. But far more common is mental slowness.
When a pregnant woman doesn't have enough iodine in her body, her child may suffer irreversible brain damage and could have an IQ that is 10 to 15 points lower than it would otherwise be. An educated guess is that iodine deficiency results in a needless loss of more than 1 billion IQ points around the world.
Development geeks rave about the benefits of adding iodine and other micronutrients (such as vitamin A, iron, zinc and folic acid) to diets. The Copenhagen Consensus, which brings together a panel of top global economists to find the most cost-effective solutions to the world's problems, puts micronutrients at the top of the list of foreign-aid spending priorities.
"Probably no other technology," the World Bank said of micronutrients, "offers as large an opportunity to improve lives ... at such low cost and in such a short time."
Yet the strategy hasn't been fully put in place, partly because micronutrients have zero glamour. There are no starlets embracing iodine. And guess which country has taken the lead in this area by sponsoring the Micronutrient Initiative? Hint: It's earnest and dull, just like micronutrients themselves.
Ta-da - Canada!
(Years ago, The New Republic magazine held a contest for the most boring headline ever. The benchmark was from a Times opinion column - not mine - that read "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative." Alas, that's salt iodization!)
Pakistan is typical of the challenges. Until recently, six in 10 Pakistani schoolchildren were iodine-deficient. Iodine just wasn't on anyone's mind.
"I had never heard of iodized salt," said Haji Sajjawal Khan, a 65-year-old owner of a small salt factory here, near the capital of Islamabad. Officials from the Micronutrient Initiative and other aid agencies reached out to factory owners like Khan and encouraged them to iodize salt, in part to help make Pakistanis healthier and more intelligent.
"It will prevent people's necks from being swollen and will make people smarter," Khan said. So he agreed to add an iodine drip into his salt grinder.
One of the obstacles is the rumor that iodized salt is actually a contraceptive, a dastardly plot by outsiders to keep Muslims from having babies. That conspiracy theory spread partly because the same do-good advertising agency that marketed iodized salt also marketed condoms.
Yet progress is evident. One of the attractions is that a campaign to iodize salt costs only 2 cents to 3 cents per person reached per year.
"We are spending very little, but the benefit is enormous," said Dr. Khawaja Masuood Ahmed, an official of the Micronutrient Initiative here. "We're preventing people from becoming mentally retarded."
Indeed, The Lancet, the British medical journal, reported last month that "Iodine deficiency is the most common cause of preventable mental impairment worldwide."
Occasionally in my travels I've been unnerved by coming across entire villages, in western China and elsewhere, eerily full of people with mental and physical handicaps, staggering about, unable to speak coherently. I now realize that the cause in some cases was probably iodine deficiency.
Indeed, the problem used to be widespread in the Alps. The word "cretin" is believed to come from a mountain dialect of French, apparently because iodine deficiency in the Alps produced so many cretins. The problem ended when food was brought in from elsewhere and salt was iodized.
There is talk that President-elect Barack Obama may reorganize the American aid apparatus, perhaps turning it into a Cabinet department. There are many competing good causes - I'm a huge believer in spending more on education and maternal health, in particular - but there may be no investment that gets more bang for the buck than micronutrients.
So, yes, salt iodization is boring. But if we can add 1 billion points to the global IQ, then let's lend strong American support - to a worthwhile Canadian initiative.
Losing on the battlefield of the mind
By Christopher Boucek
Thursday, December 4, 2008
GUANTÁNAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba: When you fly to Guantánamo, the United States government insists you carry your passport, as though you're going to a foreign country. It's all part of the elaborate legal fiction that the detainees on the American military base here can be outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law without really being outside U.S. territory.
Just as Guantánamo's legal and geographic isolation from the United States denies its prisoners recourse to the American judicial system, it also denies its military administrators the benefits of the most current research on how to de-radicalize prisoners and reintegrate them into society.
The problem is that the U.S. government looks at Guantánamo as the destination rather than as part of a process. The base's military authorities talk a lot about "the battlefield of the mind," but they seem to be doing more to provide the prisoners with distractions than to prepare the profoundly alienated men for whatever future awaits them. Geology classes, Game Boys and crayons may provide diversion, but they do not provide alternatives to Islamic extremism.
For instance, officials of Joint Task Force Guantánamo, the military unit that runs the detention center, state that the facility employs no outside religious guides for its prisoners, instead allowing them to choose religious authorities from their ranks.
Yet research from around the world demonstrates that one of the most successful ways to engage religious extremists is through religious debate and dialogue, challenging the underlying beliefs that support and encourage violence. In Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Iraq religious authorities are used to arguing against violence with security offenders.
When asked about this, JTF officials replied that the detainees are not interested in speaking with outside religious scholars. Yet detainees who have been repatriated to Saudi Arabia, for example, go through an intensive rehabilitation process incorporating large amounts of religious instruction and discussion. There are a number of knowledgeable scholars and imams, including former radicals with credibility and legitimacy who could be deployed in Guantánamo to work with the detainees.
There is a growing body of work on how to deal with offenders preparing to leave custody, and this research needs to be put to use in Guantánamo. But despite the refrain that Guantánamo is a battlefield of the mind, it seems we have all but given up in that fight, ceding victory to violent extremists.
According to officials here, there is an active Al Qaeda cell among the detainees that includes a religious authority. It is unclear what steps have been taken to isolate this leader from his followers, but present policies all but assure that the cell will continue its activities.
Separating or segregating prisoners is not enough. Any successful counter-radicalization effort must offer a positive in addition to the removal of a negative. Religiously motivated prisoners must be given a way to practice their faith in a way that includes being challenged on the premise that faith can be used to justify violence and terror.
Under the present system at Guantánamo, detainees are housed according to their behavior and perceived importance, from medium security to high security. Fifteen or so "High Value Detainees" are held separately in Camp 7. (The existence of this has been acknowledged, but its precise location remains secret.) Prisoners of different ethnic and national groups are mixed together.
Grouping detainees by risk may make sense for a normal prison, but it complicates successful deradicalization and preparation for repatriation at Guantánamo. If the government were to separate detainees first by their nations of origin, and then by their behavior, it could use more specific cultural factors to influence their behavior.
This could also facilitate greater participation by officials from a detainee's home country. In addition, the current arrangement reinforces the notion of a global jihad. Officials claim there about 40 different nationalities represented here, making separation difficult. But surely not impossible.
Officials should at least try to break down the social groups that radicalized these men and replace them with different forms of social reinforcement. To date, there have been no such efforts.
Though the exact number remains classified, there are probably about 250 detainees currently at Guantánamo. Under the solution President-elect Barack Obama is exploring, the United States would charge those who can be charged and repatriate others to their countries of origin, where they would be charged or rehabilitated.
That leaves those whom the government cannot or will not charge, but whose release is believed to pose serious risks. The goal is to make that number as small as possible, and, to that end, the government must conduct a thorough review of all the cases as soon as possible.
Closing Guantánamo will not be the end of all detentions of extremists. As long as the United States and its allies continue to detain individuals around the world in the struggle again Islamist violence, they will need a comprehensive and international approach on how to hold and process extremists. The ultimate goal should be to send these prisoners back to their home countries to be charged, housed and reintegrated.
Reliable figures are difficult to come by. The Saudi re-arrest rate is under 10 percent, and in Iraq, counter-radicalization and rehabilitation have been credited with drastic reductions in the number of detainees. There is always the risk that some of the men released from Guantánamo will resume violent activities, but these early indicators suggest positive results. And indefinite detention is simply not an option.
Christopher Boucek is an associate in the Carnegie Middle East Program where his research focuses on regional security challenges.
Mired in 'surge' dogma
By Gian P. Gentile
Thursday, December 4, 2008
The U.S. Army and other parts of America's defense establishment have become transfixed by the promise of counterinsurgency. Since the surge in Iraq began in February 2007, the panacea of successful counterinsurgencies has become like an all-powerful Svengali, holding hypnotic sway over the minds of many of the nation's military strategists.
The promise of counterinsurgency is to turn war into a program of social-scientific functions that will achieve victory - if performed correctly by adhering to the guidance of counterinsurgency experts. The program is simple: increase and maintain long-term American combat presence on the ground; use those combat troops to protect the local population and win their hearts and minds; and build a new nation. The program's appeal lies in its purported simplicity, perceived relative bloodlessness, and seductive ability to remove the friction from war.
The current U.S. counterinsurgency program rests on the dubious assumption that the surge in Iraq was a successful feat of arms that was the primary cause for the lowering of violence. Yet there were other reasons why violence ebbed, including the buying off of America's former Sunni insurgent enemies and a decision by the Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr to cease attacks. Without those conditions in place, levels of violence would have remained high even in the face of a few more American combat brigades on the ground.
The recent uptick in bloodshed shows that the war is not over. The notion proposed by some pundits that the surge has "won" the war is a chimera, to say the least.
But the surge and the counterinsurgency program that purportedly lowered the violence in Iraq has become the template for action in Afghanistan. Moreover, the program has become an immutable template that must be followed when America deals with insurgencies in other ungoverned parts of the world. It is in this sense that the U.S. Army has lost its ability to think creatively.
A leading expert on counterinsurgency who is an adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, David Kilcullen, has called for the U.S. counterinsurgency program, similar to Iraq, to be applied in Afghanistan.
Many army officers and Department of Defense thinkers seem to be able to think only about how to apply the perceived counterinsurgency lessons from Iraq to Afghanistan. A recent group of colonels asked the question "how should the army execute a surge in Afghanistan," instead of the more important questions of whether the army should use the surge counterinsurgency program there. A professor from a major Department of Defense university has gone so far as to call for the surge and its counterinsurgency techniques as the model for American strategy and policy throughout the entire Middle East.
These proposals may have surface appeal, but the fact is that they are nothing but a rehashing of Vietnam era approaches to counterinsurgency and nation-building using the method of clearing, holding and building.
Kilcullen, for example, speaking in a recent interview with the New Yorker writer George Packer, cited counterinsurgency experts from the Vietnam era like David Galula of France Sir Robert Thompson of Britain, who sought to counter Maoist inspired communist revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s - a world fundamentally different from ours today.
Yet influential American counterinsurgency experts have simply co-opted the counter-Maoist model. There is no originality - or at least a serious consideration for very different alternatives - in these concepts for changes in policy, strategy, and operations in Afghanistan. Galula, Thompson and other experts of the early 1960s would have argued for exactly the same thing.
Perhaps this is the right approach, but it seems to be the only approach that we are able to come up with. Proponents of this program tell us repeatedly that the "problem" in Afghanistan is essentially one of security and protection for the Afghani people. But by defining the problem in this way, strategy and operational methods are predetermined, requiring the long-term involvement of American combat forces.
There are other ways to define the problem, or center of gravity, in Afghanistan. If the "enemy" there is defined as Al Qaeda, then perhaps other policy, strategy and operational options might be considered. In this different conceptual formulation, perhaps a substantial American combat presence on the ground might not be necessary and instead the "enemy" might be dealt with by other means of military power, rather than large numbers of conventional combat forces trying to win hearts and minds.
The use of American "soft power" might be applied in innovative ways that become decoupled from military power and long-term, militarized nation building.
But because parts of the U.S. defense establishment are intellectually dominated by the proponents of the surge counterinsurgency program, we do not seem to be able to break out of this conceptual straightjacket.
But there are other experts who are beginning to expose the dogma. The best example is that of the former army chief of staff, General John A. Wickham (retired), who argues that "the time may be right for Americans to re-examine our policy to fight insurgencies." As army chief from 1983 to 1987, Wickham helped create the so-called Army Light Divisions designed to be a principle force in the conduct of small wars and insurgencies. Wickham argues that the current approach to counterinsurgency based on population security requiring very large commitments of combat troops on the ground may in fact be counterproductive.
Wickham may be right, or he may be wrong. But at least he questions the accepted dogma and considers alternatives. The counterinsurgency proponents have us transfixed on a one-way-only approach to dealing with insurgencies throughout the world.
Perhaps under the Obama administration, the army and the greater defense establishment will embrace creativity instead of dogma and at least consider other options. If not, our way ahead has already been decided for us.
Gian P. Gentile, a colonel in the U.S. Army, served in Iraq in 2003 and 2006.
Suicide bombers hit Afghan southeast
Thursday, December 4, 2008
KHOST, Afghanistan: Suicide bombers killed at least four people when they attacked two government offices in the southeastern Afghan town of Khost on Thursday, a police officer said.
One bomber targeted the department for counter-narcotics, the officer said. The second detonated explosives inside the main intelligence headquarters a few hundred metres away, Guldad said.
"The bomber had managed to get inside the intelligence department by wearing the agency's uniform," he said.
Two intelligence officers and two police officers were killed and at least nine others wounded in the attack among officials in the intelligence department.
Gunfire also erupted inside the building, an official source said. It was not clear whether foreign troops were hit in either of the attacks.
Afghan and foreign troops had cordoned off the area and at least one helicopter belonging to foreign troops was hovering overhead, residents said.
Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for the strikes, saying that three members of the Islamists group were involved and their target was the head of intelligence in Khost and his deputy, a Taliban spokesman said via a website.
A surge of violence in Afghanistan this year has marked the bloodiest period since the Taliban's removal in 2001. The violence has raised fears about Afghanistan's stability despite an increase in the number of foreign troops.
Regrouping in 2005, the al Qaeda-backed Taliban have carried out a number of high-profile attacks this year, including several in the capital, Kabul.
These included an assassination plot against President Hamid Karzai during a military parade near his palace. Officials say some members of the security forces helped the insurgents in that incident and in several other major attacks.
Separately on Thursday, authorities began a search of two prison cells where Taliban prisoners are held in the key Pul-i-Charkhi jail on the eastern outskirts of Kabul, the deputy justice minister said.
The aim of the search was to disarm prisoners possibly holding guns or knives, Mohammad Qasim Hashimzai told Reuters.
The prison has been the scene of a series of bloody riots in recent years. Thursday's search was the second this year.
In a major attack several months ago, Taliban fighters freed several hundred of their jailed comrades along with many other prisoners in the southern province of Kandahar.
A prisoner from the jail in Kabul telephoned Reuters to say that Afghan forces had opened fire during the operation and that there were some casualties among the inmates.
The sound of gunfire could be heard in the background. Hashimzai said he was not aware force had been used or if casualties had been reported.
(Writing by Sayed Salahuddin and Golnar Motevalli; Editing by Paul Tait)
Two Danish soldiers killed in Afghanistan
Thursday, December 4, 2008
COPENHAGEN: Two Danish soldiers were killed Thursday in fighting in the Helmand province of south-west Afghanistan, the Danish Army Central Command said.
The first soldier died from wounds suffered when his patrol was hit by an explosion and attacked by light-arms fire about 8 kilometres south of the town of Gereshk.
The second man was killed by a second explosion as Danish and British troops attempted to aid the first victim, the Army said.
The deaths were the first Danish casualties in Afghanistan since a soldier was killed in August after his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device.
Denmark has about 550 combat troops in Afghanistan. Fourteen have died in combat so far and three others were killed while trying to dismantle a mine.
(Reporting by Kim McLaughlin; Editing by Matthew Jones)
Obama's thoughts evolve on U.S. troops in Iraq
By Thom Shanker
Thursday, December 4, 2008
WASHINGTON: On the campaign trail, Senator Barack Obama offered a pledge that electrified and motivated his liberal base, vowing to "end the war" in Iraq.
But as he moves closer to the White House, President-elect Obama is making it clearer than ever that tens of thousands of American troops will be left behind in Iraq, even if he can make good on his campaign promise to pull all combat forces out within 16 months.
"I said that I would remove our combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, with the understanding that it might be necessary - likely to be necessary - to maintain a residual force to provide potential training, logistical support, to protect our civilians in Iraq," the Illinois Democrat said this week as he introduced his national security team.
Publicly at least, Obama has not set a firm number for that "residual force," a phrase certain to become central to the debate on the way ahead in Iraq, though one of his national security advisers, Richard Danzig, said during the campaign that it could amount to 30,000 to 55,000 troops. Nor has Obama laid out a timetable beyond 16 months for troop drawdowns or suggested when he believes a time might come for a declaration that the war is over.
In the meantime, military planners are drawing up tentative schedules aimed at meeting both Obama's goal for withdrawing combat troops, with a target of May 2010, and the Dec. 31, 2011, date for sending the rest of American troops home that is spelled out in the new agreement between the United States and the Iraqi government.
That status-of-forces agreement remains subject to change, by mutual agreement, and U.S. Army planners acknowledge privately that they are examining projections that could see the number of Americans hovering between 30,000 and 50,000 - and some say as high as 70,000 - for a substantial time even beyond 2011.
As U.S. combat forces decline in numbers and more provinces are turned over to Iraqi control, these military planners say, those security forces will remain reliant on significant numbers of Americans for training, supplies, logistics, intelligence and transportation for a long time to come.
There always was a tension, if not a bit of a contradiction, in the two parts of Obama's campaign platform to "end the war" by withdrawing all combat troops by May 2010. To be sure, Obama was careful to say that the drawdowns he was promising included only combat troops. But supporters who keyed on the language of ending the war might be forgiven if they thought that would mean bringing home all of the troops.
Planners at the Pentagon say that it is possible that Obama's goal could be accomplished at least in part by relabeling some units, so that those currently counted as combat troops could be "re-missioned," their efforts redefined as training and support for the Iraqis.
In Iraq today, there are 15 brigades defined as combat forces in this debate, with one on its way home. But the overall number of troops on the ground is more than 50 brigade equivalents, for a total of 146,000 troops, including service and support personnel.
Even now, after the departure of the five "surge" brigades that President George W. Bush sent to Iraq in January 2006, the overall number of troops in Iraq remains higher than when Bush ordered the troop increase, owing to the number of support and service personnel remaining.
At his news conference in Chicago on Monday, Obama emphasized his willingness to listen to the advice from senior officers and that of his new national security team, which includes Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the first Pentagon chief in history asked to continue serving under a newly elected president; Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and, as national security adviser, General James Jones, the retired four-star Marine officer who served as NATO's supreme commander.
Since the election, Obama has held unannounced consultations with both Gates and Mullen, described by Obama aides and Pentagon officials as having focused less on tactics and operations and more on broad, strategic views for U.S. national security. Obama telephoned Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, according to the Obama transition office.
To date, there has been no significant criticism from the anti-war left of the Democratic Party of the prospect that Obama will keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for at least several years.
At the Pentagon and the military headquarters in Iraq, the response to the statements this week from Obama and his national security team has been one of relief; the words sounded to them like he would take a measured approach on the question of troop levels.
"I believe that 16 months is the right time frame, but, as I've said consistently, I will listen to the recommendations of my commanders," Obama said at the news conference Monday. "And my No.1 priority is making sure that our troops remain safe in this transition phase, and that the Iraqi people are well served by a government that is taking on increased responsibility for its own security."
An apparent evolution of Obama's thinking can be heard in contrast to comments he made in July, when he called a news conference to lay out his Iraq policy in unambiguous terms.
"I intend to end this war," he said then. "My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war - responsibly, deliberately, but decisively." And in a news conference that month in Amman, Obama acknowledged that the American troop increase had bolstered Iraqi security but declared that he would not hesitate to overrule American commanders and redirect troops to Afghanistan.
Gates, speaking at the Pentagon on Tuesday, one day after he appeared with Obama for the announcement of the new national security team, made clear that the direction of troop levels now had been decided, with the only decisions remaining on how fast and how low.
"And so the question is, how do we do this in a responsible way?" Gates said. "And nobody wants to put at risk the gains that have been achieved, with so much sacrifice, on the part of our soldiers and the Iraqis, at this point."
Iraqi council approves security agreement
By Campbell Robertson
Thursday, December 4, 2008
BAGHDAD: Iraq's three-person presidency council on Thursday approved the security agreement that calls for the withdrawal of American forces, the last necessary step for its official adoption.
But the approval came on a day of widespread violence in Iraq, with bombings in several cities and death toll estimates that ranged as high as 22.
The approval of the security agreement, which governs the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq from Jan. 1 until the end of 2011 and an accompanying strategic framework that lays down a broad outline of U.S.-Iraqi relations, was widely expected.
Parliament approved the measures last week. A deal was made in Parliament when the Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers who backed the pact agreed to demands by Sunni lawmakers for a nonbinding resolution on political reforms and the holding of a nationwide referendum on the pact, both of which were also approved Thursday.
The approval of the council, which consists of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and two vice presidents - Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite, and Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni - had to be unanimous, or the pact would have been sent back to Parliament.
But the challenges for Iraq were underscored by the bloodshed Thursday.
Two truck bombs targeting police stations in the western city of Falluja killed 15 people and wounded more than 140, an Iraqi security official said. Reports varied, however: A U.S. military spokeswoman said early reports showed that nine Iraqi police officers and four civilians were wounded.
In the northern city of Mosul, two coalition soldiers were killed when a car bomb exploded shortly after 2:30 a.m., the U.S. military said in a statement. Nine civilians were wounded in that attack.
Near Baquba, the capital of the turbulent Diyala Province in eastern Iraq, a bomb attached to a bicycle exploded in front of a café, killing four and wounding 13, a local police official said.
Some were attributing the increase in violence to the provincial elections scheduled for the end of January, which could significantly alter the balance of power at the provincial level for the first time since 2005.
"We expect more bombs as the provincial elections get closer," said Lieutenant Colonel Ali Taei of the Baquba police force. "Al Qaeda is active and they exploit gaps in security."
Abeer Mohammed, Muhammed Hussein and Tariq Maher contributed reporting in Baghdad, as did Iraqi employees of the New York Times in Anbar and Diyala provinces.British soldier found dead
The British Ministry of Defense said Thursday that a soldier had been found dead in southern Iraq with a gunshot wound to his head. It said no enemy forces were involved.
The ministry said the body of a soldier serving with 9 Regiment Army Air Corps was discovered Thursday morning and there was no evidence suggesting anyone else was involved.
The military is investigating the death and the soldier's next of kin have been informed, the ministry said.
About 4,000 British troops are in southern Iraq, carrying out training. A major reduction in Britain's presence is planned for the first half of 2009.
Iraqi army finds 80 bodies in four mass graves
Thursday, December 4, 2008
BAGHDAD: The Iraqi army unearthed 80 decomposed bodies from four mass graves in northern Iraq's volatile Diyala province, a security source for the region said on Thursday.
The mass graves were in two Shi'ite villages close to the provincial capital of Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad, an area where Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants once ruled and carried out mass sectarian killings against Shi'ites.
The bodies were found over the last three days, and may have been buried there about a year ago, the security source said.
Iraqi security forces regularly uncover mass graves, most of them from a sectarian conflict in 2006 and 2007 that pushed Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war. Police found 30 bodies in another grave in Diyala on Saturday.
(Writing by Mohammed Abbas: Editing by Keith Weir)
A new approach, no illusions
By Volker Perthes
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Whether a peaceful resolution of the nuclear conflict with Iran is possible still hinges on three factors: an international consensus that Iran should not acquire a nuclear weapon; the willingness of the United States and the West in general to communicate to Iran and others that the conflict with the Islamic Republic is about proliferation, not about the character of the regime; and domestic politics in Iran. The latter includes the balance of forces between Islamo-nationalist ultras and pragmatists in the Iranian elite, and Iran's reading of world developments, U.S. intentions and other factors that influence Tehran's security perceptions.
It is quite clear that Iran's nuclear program is carried by an elite consensus. There is no agreement, however, about how far the program should go. Tehran seems to have made no decision yet about whether to proceed with building a nuclear bomb.
The Iranian nuclear program is not so much driven by ideology as by a mixture of ambitions and fear. Ambitions include the wish for prestige and scientific progress; fear concerns genuine feelings of insecurity - not only because Iran is virtually surrounded by U.S. troops and allies.
The election of Barack Obama and the prospect of a new administration with a new agenda have an impact on policy debates in Tehran. The Iranian elite and broader public have once again taken note that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who asserted earlier this year that America would never elect a black man as president) lacks some understanding of world affairs, whereas pragmatists like Ali Larijani, the speaker of Parliament, clearly pinned his country's hopes on an Obama victory.
More importantly, here is an incoming American president who has stated that he is prepared to talk to Iran directly and, in principle, without preconditions. He also has made clear that he wants to involve countries in the region - certainly including Iran - in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Obama has no intention to keep U.S. troops in Iraq longer than necessary.
It is no coincidence that some members of the Iranian elite have gone so far as to applaud the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, recently approved by the Iraqi Parliament. While this agreement legalizes the U.S. presence in Iraq for another period, it also shows that this presence is going to end in a foreseeable future. Even more important, the accord illustrates that foreign troops in Iraq will not be used to launch attacks on other countries in the region.
Obama's agenda on Iran is generally sound. The question now is how to proceed. With an eye both on domestic developments in Iran and the need for thoroughly prepared diplomatic moves, the "freeze-for-freeze" offer of the so-called EU 3 plus 3 (France, Germany, Britain, China, Russia and the United States) seems just the right option for the time being: It foresees that Iran refrains from installing new centrifuges while the six members of the group refrain from further Security Council action for the same period, initially for six weeks. This period can be used to calm fears on all sides and continue talks in the current format, under the leadership of the EU's minister of foreign affairs, Javier Solana, with the presence of a high-ranking U.S. official.
High-level bilateral talks between Washington and Tehran would not begin before the fall of 2009. And they should not, unless Iran responds to Obama's inauguration with a considerable confidence-building measure, such as the suspension of enrichment or improving the IAEA's access to Iranian nuclear installations.
The prospect of re-opening diplomatic relations between the two countries would boost Ahmadinejad's domestic popularity tremendously before Iran's presidential elections next summer. But there is little reason to help him win re-election, if he does not show that he wants to do business.
Parallel to the 3+3 talks, the new U.S. administration will have to rely on a low-level engagement with Iran for the first half of the coming year, concentrating on bilateral confidence-building measures such as the possible opening of a visa section in Tehran.
In addition, the two sides should focus on areas of cooperation with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no doubt that Iran needs to be involved in international efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Iranian and Western interests overlap there in many instances: Neither wants the Taliban to return to power and both want to curb drug production.
After the Iranian presidential elections, Washington and Tehran may be prepared to hold serious bilateral talks. We should not have too many illusions, though. Most probably, the West will have to realize that Iran, with or without Ahmadinejad, will not be prepared to give up its nuclear "achievement" - the 4,000 or more centrifuges that will be installed by that time.
It would be totally unrealistic for the United States and the West to insist on dismantlement of centrifuges as a condition for or the outcome of negotiations. Instead, it would be necessary to reach a package deal that includes maximum safeguards and controls of Iran's nuclear program.
It may be useful to explore issues such as improving various options of an IAEA-controlled international consortium for the production of nuclear fuel that would involve Iran and other countries in the region. Exploratory seminars with the participation of Iranian and international experts could help to prepare the negotiations.
The possible package deal also would have to refer to the cooperation of Iran on Afghanistan and Iraq, an Iranian acceptance of the content of the Arab Peace Initiative; a restoration of full U.S.-Iran diplomatic relations and the settlement of bilateral issues between the two countries, such as frozen Iranian assets in the United States.
Would Iran be prepared to accept such a deal? We don't know for certain, but probably yes. Iranians understand that if Obama tried this approach, and Iran still refused to cooperate, the legitimacy of other, more coercive options would steeply increase.
Volker Perthes is the executive chairman of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin. He is the author of a recent Report to the Trilateral Commission on "Engaging Iran and Building Peace in the Persian Gulf."
Iran cracks down on "satanic" clothes
Thursday, December 4, 2008
TEHRAN: Police have arrested 49 people this week in a northern Iranian city during a crackdown on "satanic" clothes, IRNA news agency reported on Thursday.
The measures are the latest in a country-wide campaign against Western cultural influence in the Islamic Republic, where strict dress codes are enforced.
"Police confronted rascals and thugs who appeared in public wearing satanic fashions and unsuitable clothing," Qaemshahr city police commander Mahmoud Rahmani told IRNA.
Rahmani also said that five barber shops were shut and 20 more warned for "promoting Western hairstyles."
In the past, such crackdowns have lasted a few weeks or months, but the current campaign was launched in 2007 and has not let up.
It includes measures against men sporting spiky "Western" hairstyles or women wearing tight trousers and high boots.
Women are supposed to wear clothing that covers their hair and disguises the shape of their bodies. But some, particularly in cities, wear headscarves pushed back well beyond their hairlines and sport tight-fitting outfits.
Some analysts say the authorities fear such open acts of defiance against the Islamic Republic's values could escalate if they go unchecked. This worries them when Iran is under pressure from the West over its disputed nuclear work, they say.
"Some individuals, not knowing what culture they are imitating, put on clothing that was designed by the enemies of this country," Rahmani said.
"The enemies of this country are trying to divert our youth and breed them the way they want and deprive them of a healthy life," he added.
Rahmani did not say how the offenders would be punished. Usual penalties are a warning or a fine.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has in the past suggested Iran's enemies may try to stage a "soft" or "velvet" revolution by infiltrating corrupt culture or ideas.
(Reporting by Hashem Kalantari, Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Catherine Bosley and Kevin Liffey)
EU court annuls EU's new Iran terror list move
Thursday, December 4, 2008
BRUSSELS: A European Union court on Thursday annulled a new move by the bloc to freeze the assets of an exiled Iranian opposition group in the latest in a string of legal setbacks to its blacklist of suspected terrorist groups.
The European Court of First Instance already threw out last month a 2007 move to freeze the assets of People's Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI), the group which exposed Iran's covert nuclear programme in 2002.
However the judgement had no practical consequences as it did not cover a subsequent EU decision in July of this year to put the same group on a revised blacklist.
A new ruling from the court said that decision also breached the PMOI's right of self-defence because it did not inform the group of new information on it obtained by France.
"Consequently the court annuls the funds-freezing decision," the statement said, adding that no such decision should be based on information that a country was not ready to make available to the court.
An EU spokesman said the EU Council -- the body responsible for decisions by the 27 member states about the blacklist -- would study the ruling and decide whether to appeal or not.
The PMOI has accused the European Union -- which has so far led unsuccessful efforts to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear programme -- of seeking to "appease" Tehran by keeping the PMOI blacklisted.
Iran rejects Western suspicions that its nuclear programme is aimed at producing an atom bomb.
Analysts say it is difficult to gauge what support the group has inside Iran, adding that many Iranians oppose the organisation for siding with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the 1980s war with Iran.
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)
Moroccan convicted of links to Madrid bombings
Thursday, December 4, 2008
RABAT: A Moroccan court convicted a drug trafficker Thursday of links to the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people, Moroccan state news agency MAP reported.
Hicham Ahmidan, already serving a five-year prison sentence for international drug trafficking, was charged with links to the group that carried out the attacks in the Spanish capital and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, MAP said.
Prosecutors said Ahmidan helped provide equipment used in the bombings. His lawyer Ali Ammar said he denied the charges and planned to appeal.
Ammar said some of the bomb plotters were Ahmidan's cousins but his client knew nothing of their plans and was in another country when the attacks took place.
The conviction was unlawful, Ammar said, because Ahmidan had been acquitted of similar charges.
The 10 bombs, packed into sports bags and detonated by mobile phones, tore through packed commuter trains on the morning of March 11, 2004, throwing bodies onto the tracks.
Three weeks later, seven men, including two suspected ringleaders of the bombings, blew themselves up in an apartment after police closed in on them.
Following a lengthy trial, a Spanish court last year sentenced two Moroccans and a Spaniard to 42,924 years in jail after they were convicted on multiple counts.
The high nominal sentences reflected convictinos on multiple counts but the figures are academic as Spanish law says nobody can serve more than 40 years in jail.
Another Moroccan, Abdelilah Hriz, was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison but a Moroccan judge acquitted him in May 2007 for lack of evidence.
In February, Moroccan authorities detained Ahriz again after Spanish authorities produced new evidence which they said linked him to the attacks.
A judge at the court near the Moroccan capital Rabat adjourned Ahriz's hearing Thursday until December 18, MAP said.
(Reporting by Tom Pfeiffer; editing by Michael Roddy)
By Ethan Bronner
Thursday, December 4, 2008
HEBRON, West Bank: Israeli troops forcibly evicted about 200 hard-line Jewish settlers from a contested building in this volatile biblical city Thursday, the first serious clash in what seems to a spiraling confrontation between the government and defiant settlers.
The operation, carried out by 600 soldiers and policemen with stealth and efficiency, took half an hour with just two dozen relatively light injuries. But events did not end there. Young settlers then rampaged through Palestinian fields and neighborhoods, setting olive trees ablaze and trashing houses.
Major Avital Leibovich, an Israeli Army spokeswoman, said the southern part of the West Bank was now designated as a closed military area - meaning only those who live here may enter, an effort to prevent outside settlers from causing further trouble. Within an hour of the order, huge car lines were backed up at new military roadblocks.
The contested building, which occupants had dubbed "The House of Peace," is on the road to the Cave of the Patriarchs, where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives are said to be buried, a site Muslims and Jews have fought over for centuries.
As the sun descended, the area around the building looked like a war zone. Evacuees were still being dragged about, four police per person, rocks were strewn on roads, plumes of black smoke were rising from the olive groves, and hundreds of helmeted troops in riot gear confronted a crowd of furious settlers.
The men in the crowd wore beards and sidecurls, women had long skirts and covered heads. Members of the religiously observant Jewish population in and around Hebron number several thousand among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
As Palestinians watched from rooftops and windows, some settlers shouted at the troops, calling them Nazis. A few had sewn yellow stars on their shirts, like those Jews had been obliged to wear under Hitler. On a wall near the confrontation, Hebrew graffiti declared: "There will be a war over the House of Peace."
Much is at stake for both sides in this confrontation since the government says it wants to facilitate the building of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, whereas the settlers and their backers say they will do all in their power to prevent such a state. They are focusing partly on increasing their numbers in Hebron, second only to Jerusalem in its historic and religious significance to them.
The four-story building in question was built and owned by a Palestinian who agreed to sell it. He said he had not been aware the buyers were Jews, that he had been tricked and that he had backed out of the deal. The settlers said he knew very well what he was doing but threats had made him claim otherwise.
The Israeli government ordered the settlers out. They challenged the order. Three weeks ago, the Supreme Court took the government's side and gave it 30 days to make good on the order. In the past week or two, settlers had grown more rebellious, throwing rocks at soldiers and defacing Palestinian buildings and graves. It was clearly only a matter of time before the army would step in.
The official who made the call for the evacuation Thursday was Ehud Barak, the defense minister and head of the Labor Party, who said at a news conference later that "what was tested today was the ability of the state to enforce its laws and its essence upon its citizens."
Barak had met with settler leaders Thursday morning to find a way out of the confrontation. The settlers emerged from the meeting believing there was still negotiation to be done but Barak clearly thought otherwise.
Since elections are scheduled for February and Barak is his party leader, opponents of the evacuation accused him of seeking political advantage through his decision.
"Barak sent the army and police as part of the left wing's election campaign and the blood of the casualties is on his hands," declared Arieh Eldad of the National Religious Party.
Settler leaders were indignant, saying Barak had tricked them after talking soothingly to them in the morning. They said there was nothing more scandalous in the land of Israel than for Jews to evict Jews from their homes.
In a separate development, Israel agreed Thursday for the first time in four weeks to allow journalists and foreign aid workers to enter Gaza. The area, ruled by the militant group Hamas, is under a closure led by Israel that severely limits goods and people from going in and out. But only recently did the closure include foreign journalists who had appealed to the government and Supreme Court for renewed permission to enter.
By Nicholas Wade
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Spain and Portugal have a history of fervent Catholicism, but almost a third of the population now turns out to have a non-Christian genetic heritage. About 20 percent of the current population of the Iberian Peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry, and 11 percent bear Moorish DNA signatures, a team of geneticists reports.
The genetic signatures reflect the forced conversions to Christianity in the 14th and 15th centuries after Christian armies wrested Spain back from Muslim control.
The new finding bears on two very different views of Spanish history: One holds that Spanish civilization is Catholic and all other influences are foreign, the other that Spain has been enriched by drawing from all three of its historical cultures - Catholic, Jewish and Muslim.
The genetic study, based on an analysis of Y chromosomes, was conducted by a team of biologists led by Mark Jobling of the University of Leicester in England and Francesc Calafell of the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.
The biologists developed a Y chromosome signature for Sephardic men by studying Sephardic Jewish communities in places where Jews migrated after being expelled from Spain in the years from 1492 to 1496.
They also characterized the Y chromosomes of the Arab and Berber army that invaded Spain in 711 A.D. from data on people now living in Morocco and Western Sahara.
After a period of forbearance under the Arab Umayyad dynasty, Spain entered a long period of religious intolerance, with its Muslim Berber dynasties forcing both Christians and Jews to convert to Islam, and the victorious Christians then expelling Jews and Muslims or forcing both to convert.
The genetic study, reported online Thursday in the American Journal of Human Genetics, indicates there was a high level of conversion among Jews.
Jonathan Ray, a professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University, said that a high proportion of people with Sephardic ancestry was to be expected.
"Jews formed a very large part of the urban population up until the great conversions," he said.
The genetic analysis is "very compelling," said Jane Gerber, an expert on Sephardic history at the City University of New York, and weighs against scholars who have argued that there were very few Jewish conversions to Christianity.
Ray raised the question of what the DNA evidence might mean on a personal level. "If four generations on I have no knowledge of my genetic past," Ray said, "how does that affect my understanding of my own religious association?"
The issue is one that has confronted Calafell, an author of the study. His own Y chromosome is probably of Sephardic ancestry - the test is not definitive for individuals - and his surname is from a town in Catalonia; Jews undergoing conversion often took surnames from place names.
Jews first settled in Spain during the early years of the Roman empire. Sephardic Jews bear that name because the Hebrew word for Spain is Sepharad.
By Denise Grady
Thursday, December 4, 2008
For nearly 15 years, Kim and Walt Best have been paying about $200 a year to keep nine embryos stored in a freezer at a fertility clinic at Duke University — embryos that they no longer need, because they are finished having children but that Best cannot bear to destroy, donate for research or give away to another couple.
The embryos were created by in vitro fertilization, which gave the Bests a set of twins, now 14 years old.
Although the couple, who live in Brentwood, Tennessee, have known for years that they wanted no more children, deciding what to do with the extra embryos has been a dilemma. He would have them discarded; she cannot.
"There is no easy answer," said Best, a nurse. "I can't look at my twins and not wonder sometimes what the other nine would be like. I will keep them frozen for now. I will search in my heart."
At least 400,000 embryos are frozen at clinics around the country, with more being added every day, and many people who are done having children are finding it harder than they had ever expected to decide the fate of those embryos.
A new survey of 1,020 fertility patients at nine clinics reveals more than a little discontent with the most common options offered by the clinics. The survey, in which Best took part, is being published on Thursday in the journal Fertility and Sterility.
Among patients who wanted no more children, 53 percent did not want to donate their embryos to other couples, mostly because they did not want someone else bringing up their children, or did not want their own children to worry about encountering an unknown sibling someday.
Forty-three percent did not want the embryos discarded. About 66 percent said they would be likely to donate the embryos for research, but that option was available at only four of the nine clinics in the survey. Twenty percent said they were likely to keep the embryos frozen forever.
Embryos can remain viable for a decade or more if they are frozen properly but not all of them survive when they are thawed.
Smaller numbers of patients wished for solutions that typically are not offered. Among them were holding a small ceremony during the thawing and disposal of the embryos, or having them placed in the woman's body at a time in her cycle when she would probably not become pregnant, so that they would die naturally.
The message from the survey is that patients need more information, earlier in the in vitro process, to let them know that frozen embryos may result and that deciding what to do with them in the future "may be difficult in ways you don't anticipate," said Dr. Anne Drapkin Lyerly, the first author of the study and a bioethicist and associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Duke University.
Dr. Lyerly also said discussions about the embryos should be "revisited, and not happen just at the time of embryo freezing, because people's goals and their way of thinking about embryos change as time passes and they go through infertility treatment."
Many couples are so desperate to have a child that when eggs are fertilized in the clinic, they want to create as many embryos as possible, to maximize their chances, Dr. Lyerly said. At that time, the notion that there could be too many embryos may seem unimaginable. (In Italy, fertility clinics are not allowed to create more embryos than can be implanted in the uterus at one time, specifically to avoid the ethical quandary posed by frozen embryos.)
In a previous study by Dr. Lyerly, women expressed wide-ranging views about embryos: one called them "just another laboratory specimen," but another said a freezer full of embryos was "like an orphanage."
Dr. Mark Sauer, the director of the Center for Women's Reproductive Care at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, said: "It's a huge issue. And the wife and husband may not be on the same page."
Some people pay storage fees for years and years, Dr. Sauer said. Others stop paying and disappear, leaving the clinic to decide whether to maintain the embryos free or to get rid of them.
"They would rather have you pull the trigger on the embryos," Dr. Sauer said. "It's like, 'I don't want another baby, but I don't have it in me; I have too much guilt to tell you what to do, to have them discarded.' "
A few patients have asked that extra embryos be given to them, and he cooperates, Dr. Sauer said, adding, "I don't know if they take them home and bury them."
Federal and state regulations have made it increasingly difficult for those who want to donate to other couples, requiring that donors come back to the clinic to be screened for infectious diseases, sometimes at their own expense, Sauer said.
"It's partly reflected in the attitude of the clinics," he said, explaining that he does not even suggest that people give embryos to other couples anymore, whereas 10 years ago many patients did donate.
Best said her nine embryos "have the potential to become beautiful people."
The thought of giving them up for research "conjures all sorts of horrors, from Frankenstein to the Holocaust," she said, adding that destroying them would be preferable.
Her teenage daughter favors letting another couple adopt the embryos, but, Best said, she would worry too much about "what kind of parents they were with, what kind of life they had."
Another survey participant, Lynnelle Fowler McDonald, a case manager for a nonprofit social service agency in Durham, North Carolina, has one embryo frozen at Duke, all that is left of three failed efforts at the fertility clinic.
Given the physical and emotional stress, and the expense of in vitro fertilization, McDonald said she did not know whether she and her husband could go through it again. But to get rid of that last embryo would be final; it would mean they were giving up.
"There is still, in the back of my mind, this hope," she said.
At the Genetics and IVF Institute in Fairfax, Virginia, Andrew Dorfmann, the chief embryologist, said many patients were genuinely torn about what to do with extra embryos, and that a few had asked to be present to say a prayer when their embryos were thawed and destroyed.
Jacqueline Betancourt, a marketing analyst with a software company who took part in the survey, said she and her husband donated their embryos at Duke "to science, whatever that means." It was important to them that the embryos were not just going to be discarded without any use being made of them.
Betancourt, who has two sons, said: "We didn't ask many questions. We were just comfortable with the idea that they weren't going to be destroyed. We didn't see the point in destroying something that could be useful to science, to other people, to helping other people."
Betancourt said she wished there had been more discussion about the extra embryos early in the process. If she had known more, she said, she might have considered creating fewer embryos in the first place.
By Julia Werdigier and Bettina Wassener
Thursday, December 4, 2008
LONDON: In a new wave of job cuts in European investment banking, Credit Suisse announced plans Thursday to eliminate 5,300 jobs, or 11 percent of its global work force, and Nomura, which recently acquired Lehman Brothers' European business, said it planned to cut 1,000 jobs at its London office.
In addition, the Frankfurt-based Commerzbank said it would eliminate 1,200 jobs in London, primarily at its corporate finance, fixed-income and research divisions, adding to the hundreds of thousands of jobs that financial institutions have already cut worldwide to survive the current financial crisis.
Matthew Clark, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods in London, said the cuts "signal a refocusing on simpler products and a move to adjust risk."
Banks are focusing on their more traditional businesses, including wealth management, and abandoning riskier and more capital-intensive operations as the credit crisis and the resulting economic downturn deepen. Citigroup plans to erase 52,000 jobs worldwide and some analysts expect more cuts at banks worldwide before the end of the year. The reductions also spread to fund managers and private equity firms, including Carlyle Group, which said Wednesday that it would eliminate 100 positions.
Credit Suisse said it planned to abandon certain proprietary and principal trading activities and said that the job cuts, to be made in the first half of next year, would reduce costs by 2 billion Swiss francs, or $1.7 billion. About two-thirds of the cuts will be in the investment banking division, which will increasingly focus on areas that require less capital, like the foreign exchange and rates business. Investment banking will remain a "valuable contributor to the integrated bank" but will be less volatile and risky, said the bank, which is based in Zurich.
The staff reductions, which include 650 job cuts in London that were reported earlier this week, will bring the number of employees in Credit Suisse's investment banking business back to 2005 levels, the chief executive, Brady Dougan, said during a conference call.
"These actions will better position us to weather the continuing challenging market conditions, capture opportunities that arise amid the continuing disruption and prosper when markets improve," Dougan said.
Dougan, Walter Kielholz, the bank chairman, and Paul Calello, head of its investment bank, joined other executives in forgoing their bonuses for this year after the bank lost about 3 billion francs in October and November and the investment banking unit had a "significant" pretax loss. The private banking division has bucked the trend affecting the bank's other units and attracted "solid" asset inflows, the bank said.
Credit Suisse shares initially fell on the news, but closed 10.11 percent higher in Zurich on Thursday. Shares of its rival UBS, which announced about 9,000 job cuts earlier and had to seek government help to cope with its exposure to the U.S. subprime mortgage market, closed up 5.31 percent.
When Nomura, the Japanese bank, took on about 2,500 Lehman employees in Europe in September, it said it expected to avoid job cuts. But on Thursday, it said about a fifth of its total London work force would have to leave, including some former Lehman employees. Nomura employs 26,000 people worldwide.
The job cuts in financial services centers like London are already affecting other industries, including the leisure, luxury goods and housing sectors. Luxury home prices in London are expected to decline 14 percent next year after a similar drop this year, according to the real estate adviser Savills.
London may lose as many as 62,000 financial jobs by the end of 2009 and bonuses for this year may drop by 60 percent to £3.6 billion, or $5.3 billion, the Center for Economics and Business Research said. HSBC, the biggest bank in Europe, said Monday that it would cut 500 jobs at its British banking business. Standard Chartered, a British bank that makes most of its profit in Asia, announced 200 cuts in Hong Kong.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
(Reuters) - Citigroup's top executives and Robert Rubin, a director and senior counsellor at the firm, are ready to forgo their bonuses this year as the bank reels from the effects of the financial crisis, the Financial Times reported.
Rubin, a former U.S. treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, told the board he felt the funds that would have been used for his bonus could be better spent on other employees, according to a person close to Rubin, the paper reported.
The U.S. government's rescue of the bank made it almost impossible for the company's board to award cash bonuses to other senior executives, led by Chief Executive Vikram Pandit, people close to the situation told the paper.
Citigroup could not be immediately reached for comment.
No formal decision on bonuses would be taken until January, but Citigroup's executives had to make a significant gesture to defuse criticism from politicians and regulators, people familiar with the situation told the paper.
Rising dissent among employees, many of whom face redundancy or lower bonuses, has also weighed on the company's deliberations, the paper said.
Citigroup is trying to shore up investor confidence as it sells assets and sheds 52,000 jobs after winning a government rescue that should limit potential losses on $306 billion (208 billion pounds) of troubled assets.
CEO Pandit has blamed Citigroup's problems on prior management's decision to expose the bank too heavily to U.S. real estate.
(Reporting by Pratish Narayanan in Bangalore; Editing by Erica Billingham)
By Stuart Elliott
Thursday, December 4, 2008
THE faltering economy could mean renewed interest in coupons as U.S. shoppers refocus on the cost of the products they buy — that is, if they do actually buy anything these days.
Coupons that offer cents off — or percents off — the price of things like groceries, clothing and restaurant meals are particularly popular when consumers need to stretch their dollars. So word that a recession began last December could bring an increase in the number of coupons offered by marketers, as well as redemption rates by consumers.
"Thrift is the new normal," said Lance Saunders, executive vice president and head of account planning at Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis, an agency owned by the Interpublic Group of Companies.
"There's no stigma to getting anything on discount," Saunders said. "Instead, there's a sense of pride."
Already, there are some signs of a nascent coupon chic:
¶The Lucky Brand of apparel sold by Liz Claiborne is offering coupons on a humorous holiday Web site (luckybuckoff.com). The more skillfully computer users play a game, the larger the discount they earn on coupons redeemable at stores or on the regular Lucky Web site (luckybrandjeans.com). The discount, 20 percent off for every player, can be raised to 25 or 30 percent.
"It's a tough time for all of us," said Kristin Patrick, vice president for marketing at Lucky Brand in Los Angeles. "This is about entertaining your customers and getting them engaged with the brand." The campaign was created by Lime Public Relations and Promotion in New York, part of the Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners unit of MDC Partners.
¶Procter & Gamble, the nation's largest advertiser, is producing a retail version of BrandSaver, the coupon booklets that the company inserts in Sunday newspapers 14 times a year. A temporary store named BrandSaver Live opened on Friday on West 57th Street at the Avenue of the Americas in Midtown Manhattan.
At the store, scheduled to remain open through Dec. 11, visitors can receive advance copies of the BrandSaver coupons to be distributed with Dec. 14 newspapers, along with samples and demonstrations of products like Clairol, Downy, Olay and Tide.
Coupons are "an effective trial and awareness vehicle," said Jim Leish, director for North American commercial operations at P.& G. in Cincinnati. Translated from marketer-ese, that means coupons encourage consumers to try products and raise the profiles of brand names, especially as the lower prices of store-label products at supermarkets and drugstores are luring shoppers.
¶All You magazine, published by the Time Inc. division of Time Warner and sold by Wal-Mart Stores, is offering subscribers to a new weekly e-mail newsletter, All You Deals and Meals, a sneak peek at the coupons to appear in the coming issue of the magazine.
"Our reader is a value-driven consumer," said Diane Oshin, publisher of All You, which regularly runs so many coupons in each issue that it carries a coupon index, typically next to the masthead.
"We are not an FSI," Oshin said, using the industry term for a newspaper coupon booklet, free-standing insert. But many advertisers in All You have found that the coupons give them a great return on their investment, she said.
¶Valpak Direct Marketing Systems, which distributes coupons under the Valpak brand, has been advertising on national television programs like "ABC World News."
New technologies are also helping to renew interest in coupons, especially for younger consumers. There are scores of Web sites where coupons can be obtained by clicking rather than clipping; among them are coupons.com, couponcabin.com, couponcode.com, couponmom.com, 8coupons.com, fatwallet.com and shortcuts.com. Many also deliver coupons by e-mail messages.
And coupons are increasingly available on cellphones and other mobile devices from companies like Cellfire and Outalot. Among the marketers offering mobile coupons are Arby's, Caribou Coffee and GameStop.
An advantage of coupons delivered through new technologies is that they can be customized and personalized, which could help make them more effective and efficient for the sponsors.
"Consumers are craving value, and marketers are no different," said Todd Morris, senior vice president at Catalina Marketing in St. Petersburg, Florida, which provides coupons that can be aimed at specific customers at the checkouts of more than 200 store chains, for products sold by more than 300 companies.
Morris describes such coupons as "discretionary discounting" rather than "one size fits all." For instance, shoppers who buy a tube of a certain brand of toothpaste can receive a coupon to save money on their next purchase — if they buy three tubes.
"Only when they change behavior, and buy more, more often, do they get a discount," he said.
Complete data for coupon use in 2008 will not be available until next year. In 2007, according to the Coupon Council of the Promotion Marketing Association, 89 percent of the population said they used coupons, compared with 86 percent in 2006.
"I've looked at some data that show 94 percent say they're using coupons in 2008," said Charles Brown, co-chairman of the council and vice president for marketing services at NCH Marketing Services in Deerfield, Illinois, a unit of Valassis Communications.
Last year was the first time since 1992 that redemption rates for coupons did not decline from the previous year. Brown attributed that to the problems that consumers began to have with subprime mortgages, which "made them start being more conscious about saving."
"Back in the recessions of the 1970s and the 1980s," he said, marketers saw "consumers redeem more coupons."
In recent years, less than 1 percent of all coupons issued by marketers have been redeemed by consumers. One reason for that was a decision to shorten the expiration dates of coupons, Brown said, to an average of nine weeks, from nine months in the '80s.
Another reason he cited was the proliferation of customer loyalty programs sponsored by retailers, which offer shoppers a chance to save money by using plastic cards rather than paper coupons.
By Judy Dempsey
Thursday, December 4, 2008
BERLIN: As governments across Europe struggle to find country-specific responses to the recession, the question facing Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative-led coalition is how to persuade the thrifty German to spend.
Lower taxes or rebates will not work, because Germans would most likely just deposit the money in their savings account. So the latest idea to surface is offering people a sort of state-subsidized bargain.
The plan, introduced by Karl Lauterbach, health and economics expert for the Social Democrats and an adjunct professor at Harvard University, would get a €500 voucher, or Gutschein, in the hands of every adult - on the condition that he or she buy something.
His idea has generated a huge amount of news media attention in recent days: "Here's a check!" The Frankfurter Rundschau trumpeted; "Checks for all citizens!" Bild blared.
But Merkel and Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück, a Social Democrat, are loath to open up the recently balanced public purse for more big spending, especially if it means a return to big deficits.
Lauterbach's plan would cost an enormous amount, well over €40 billion, or about $51 billion. And as someone who was raised in East Germany, where the Communist state was omnipresent, Merkel is unlikely to sign on to a system that would allow the government to tell people how to spend their money.
Many Germans seem to agree.
"This is a pathetic idea," said Kirstin Stober, 42, an accountant who has voted for the Social Democrats.
"They have the nerve to suggest giving me a €500 voucher - which is actually money from my taxes - and then they tell me how to spend it? I do not want to be told by the state how to spend my money."
The plan itself is complicated. Germans would have to fork out €200 of their own money to receive the €500 voucher.
For that privilege, they would not be allowed to put the money into a savings account or an insurance policy. Instead, they would have to use it for a major purchase or to pay for services like house repairs.
Finance Ministry officials, who say the entire project would have to be financed by raising debt, which in turn would be paid off by the taxpayer, do not want to even consider how the system would be administered.
"It would be a bureaucratic monster to administer," said Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, general secretary of the Christian Social Union, Merkel's political allies in Bavaria.
Still, even conservative leaders in the big western German states have suggested that the government allocate more beyond the €12 billion, spread over two years, it has so far announced. That money would be largely directed toward infrastructure projects.
Yet even if Merkel and Steinbrück double, or even triple that spending, the economic effect would not be felt for years.
"It takes a long time to turn around projects, what with permits, planning, etc.," said Stefan Schneider of Deutsche Bank Research.
So as politicians argue about big spending sprees to pull Germany out of recession, German households are adopting the traditional method: saving.
Indeed, the first decision that Merkel and Steinbrück made once they realized that the global financial crisis was going to hit Germany was to guarantee all personal savings accounts. It had an immediate impact.
Germans did not rush to the banks to take out their savings. Instead, they started to save more in a country where 11.5 percent of disposable income, one of the highest rates in Europe, is siphoned off to the Sparbuch, or savings book.
"The Germans, are saving, saving still and saving more," said Ralf Palm, a spokesman for Postbank, one of the country's major banks.
"The government's decision to guarantee savings was a signal to Germans that their money was safe in the banks."
It is the same with the other banks.
"We are winning new customers because we have attractive, guaranteed interest rates on savings accounts and because accounts are guaranteed," said Anke Veil, a spokeswoman for Deutsche Bank, Germany's largest.
But even as the Germans are opening new savings accounts, there are some signs that they may be willing to open their wallets as well.
Already, the big retailers are cutting prices and offering credit at zero interest to attract customers. This helped lift the consumer confidence index in November. There is other good news, too: Energy prices and inflation are falling.
Some are expecting an increase in consumer spending to help lift the economy for a brief spell over the Christmas season, at least.
"If we know are savings are safe and inflation is going down, these things matter," said Lutz Pilger, who runs his own house maintenance business. "But if the government starts telling me how to spend my money, they can think again. I do not want to pay my taxes to a paternalistic state."
By Claire Cain Miller
Thursday, December 4, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO: In a rare bright spot for the U.S. retail industry, e-commerce sites had a strong holiday weekend, with online sales from Friday through Monday up 13 percent compared with last year, according to data released Wednesday by comScore.
The Monday after Thanksgiving was the second-heaviest online spending day on record, comScore said, behind only Dec. 10, 2007. Online sales climbed to $846 million, up 15 percent from the previous year.
"It was higher than I would have anticipated, but I'm not entirely surprised, just because the level of discounting was so aggressive," said Andrew Lipsman, a senior industry analyst at comScore, which tracks a variety of Internet data.
Still, strong Web sales are unlikely to bail out the retail industry, which is contending with a recession and a sharp decline in consumers' wealth. E-commerce now accounts for only 7 percent of overall sales, according to Shop.org, the e-commerce arm of the National Retail Federation. And online sales were down 2 percent for the season so far — the first decline since the Web became a significant retail channel.
The Monday after Thanksgiving — which Shop.org calls Cyber Monday — has been a bellwether for online holiday sales. Sales growth on that day has historically fallen within two percentage points of total online sales growth for the season.
This year will be a different story, Lipsman said. ComScore has predicted that sales will be flat this season, and the firm is not changing its forecast as a result of sales Monday.
"There was evidently some pent-up demand," said Scott Silverman, executive director of Shop.org. "The consumer could have said, 'I'm going to do most of my shopping this day,' and we could see a drop-off for the rest of the season."
The online sales growth over the weekend mirrored offline sales, which the National Retail Federation said increased 18 percent over last year. Many retailers will give precise figures Thursday in their November sales reports.
Online, the virtual big-box stores, which had some of the steepest discounts, got the most visits. On Monday, eBay, Amazon, Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy were the top e-commerce sites, Nielsen Online said.
At PayPal, which is used to process almost all eBay sales, the number of transactions Monday was up 27 percent from the year before, said Jim Griffith, whom eBay calls its marketplace expert. To lure shoppers, the auction site is promoting $1 holiday "doorbusters."
The most popular product sold on eBay Monday was the Nintendo Wii game console — 3,017 were sold for an average price of $349. The Wii Fit, an add-on device for the console, was also popular, with 1,305 units sold for an average $143.
Amazon.com had strong sales of consumer electronics and toys, said Sally Fouts, a spokeswoman for the company. Deals included a Logitech universal remote control, marked down to $137.28 from $249.99, and a Canon digital camera, down to $159.94 from $299.99.
Beauty products accounted for a surprisingly large slice of sales Monday, said Sucharita Mulpuru, an e-commerce analyst at the research firm Forrester. "Cosmetics are doing really well this year, because it's those affordable luxuries," she said.
Average order values have been smaller this year, Mulpuru said: "It may not be a sweater, but it's a scarf."
One reason that shoppers finally filled their online shopping carts might be that there are five fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year than last. "People have to spend a certain amount of money during Christmas," Mulpuru said, "and that money was not spent in November, which means it has to be spent in December."
By James SaftReuters
Thursday, December 4, 2008
LONDON: Just as every society has a creation myth, banking is now busily writing a destruction myth that seeks to explain and soothe in a world torn to its foundations.
The myth, as expounded by regulators, bankers and their various service providers, is that we were hit by a perfect storm, a 1,000-year flood so unpredictable that we could not possibly be held accountable for it. An act of God, rather than the folly of man.
Or as the excellent financial blog Calculated Risk - located at http://calculatedrisk.blogspot.com/ - puts it: "Hoocoodanode?"
The implication, of course, is: Now that banks know these sorts of things can happen, banks will behave sensibly because it is in their best interest to do so. It is just that the data we put into the models covered only the boom years. Now that we are getting good data on a downturn, well, problem solved. No need for overly heavy-handed regulation; that will only stifle growth and recovery.
No need for intrusive compensation controls; this would simply drive risk-takers from banking into less regulated areas, or prompt a brain drain, in which the best minds might go into industry.
There is a pronounced unwillingness to take responsibility and to recognize that many of the factors that went into creating and sustaining the bubble were not so much unknowable as, for those in a position to do something about them at the time, either unprofitable, unpleasant or politically inconvenient to know.
Take, for example, Robert Rubin, former U.S. Treasury secretary and current board member at Citigroup.
"Nobody was prepared for this," Rubin told The Wall Street Journal. He has been paid $115 million, excluding stock options, since 1999 and was advising Citigroup when it decided to mimic its peers and take on more risk.
"What came together was not only a cyclical undervaluing of risk," Rubin said, but also "a housing bubble, and triple-A ratings were misguided."
There is simply no doubt that a number of people were raising red flags about risk, about the use of ratings, about issues around securitization, and most certainly about an emerging real estate bubble. But it proved impossible for those risks to get a proper hearing within a system that was throwing off so much life-changing money.
Rubin, when queried on his pay, answered that he could have made more elsewhere. But while everyone is free to take money that is on offer, that is different from saying that you have earned it, or that, in a system in which pensioners and taxpayers are the ultimate bag-holders, it is appropriate and should not be subject to regulation.
There is a similar argument on pay making the rounds: that since so many senior managers lost so much of their fortunes in the failure of companies like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, this demonstrates that there was not a misalignment of risks between employees, shareholders and the governments that ultimately must pick up the pieces when things go wrong.
It is very sad that so many people lost so much, but this is not even close to being an argument for continued light-touch regulation. The issue is not so much that people in banking and finance have skin in the game, but that they are far from alone in having it, and that their ultimate cost of capital is in part a function of the fact that it is and has been understood that the state will step in if things come to grief.
That argues, in my view, for stricter regulation of bank capital and of bank compensation so as to decrease the risks.
That means tying compensation more closely to risks, including the risk that things that look good today go bad in three years' time. A scheme now being implemented at UBS, under which bankers can "lose" money they "earn" based on various performance factors in subsequent years, is not a bad start.
Those who argue against more stringent regulation have one thing right: It is going to cost, and requiring banks to hold more capital will impose a ceiling on the speed at which the economy can easily grow.
One idea worth consideration is proposed by Paul Miller of FBR Capital Markets and would involve regulating assets and how they are funded, not just the institutions.
That would help to guard against the next shadow banking system and another highly leveraged and ultimately government-insured bout of speculation.
Bernanke calls for measures to stem foreclosures
Following a pattern, U.S. stocks stumble at finish line
Global credit crisis squeezes Indonesian tycoon
Nokia reduces quarterly outlook for 2nd time
China calls for U.S. moves to help avert a global recession
Indian companies hit by global slowdown
Real estate slump continues around the world
Harvard endowment loses 22%
Babcock & Brown gets lifeline
Nomura to cut up to 1,000 workers in London
A rush into refinancing as U.S. mortgage rates fall
Fortress, an investment firm under siege
Philips issues warning and further restructuring
AT&T, DuPont and Viacom announce job cuts
Autoworkers offer contract concessions to Big 3
GM is trying to ease a crushing debt load
With Saturn, GM failed a makeover
Most U.S. retailers report a dismal November
U.S. jobless rolls at 26-year peak
Starbucks to cut more costs
Firms to bargain harder in pension deals
Co-op lines up buyers for more Somerfield stores
GM pledges faster cost-cuts in return for bailout
Standard Chartered bond buyback to lift profit
Biotech bosses call for government-backed funds
Brown says doesn't want to keep RBS stake for long
Ryanair met Irish minister over Aer Lingus bid
Theo Paphitis pulls out of Woolworths talks
Credit checker Experian to cut up to 300 jobs
Credit Suisse to cut 5,300 jobs after 1.7 billion pound loss
FTSE slips as rate cut fails to inspire
GM and Chrysler considering bankruptcy to get bailout
Nomura says to cut up to 1,000 staff in London
Oil drops below $44 to lowest in nearly 4 years
By Motoko Rich
Thursday, December 4, 2008
NEW YORK: In a day of especially grim news for the book business, Random House, the world's largest publisher of consumer books, announced a sweeping reorganization aimed at trimming costs, while Simon & Schuster laid off 35 people, including the head of its children's book publishing unit.
The moves signaled just how bad sales have become in bookstores and followed the news this week that the publisher of the adult division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the house that represents authors like Philip Roth and José Saramago, had resigned, presumably to protest a temporary freeze on the acquisition of new books.
Industry insiders were already calling the day "Black Wednesday" as news trickled out about further layoffs at Houghton Mifflin; a cut of 10 percent of the staff at Thomas Nelson, the world's largest publisher of English-language Bibles; a freeze on raises at the Penguin Group unit of Pearson; and a delay of pay increases at HarperCollins, the books division of News Corp.
The news at Random House, which included the resignations of the heads of two of its largest groups, followed months of speculation about the company's future. Ever since Bertelsmann, the German media conglomerate that owns the publishing group, appointed Markus Dohle, formerly head of the company's printing unit, to head Random House in May, most people assumed he would consolidate some imprints and make staffing changes.
In a memo to staff members Wednesday, Dohle said that Irwyn Applebaum, publisher of the Bantam Dell Publishing Group, and Stephen Rubin, publisher of the Doubleday Publishing Group, had stepped down. In a separate memo, Dohle said that he was in discussions with Rubin about "creating a new role for him at Random House."
Bantam Dell publishes authors like Dean Koontz and Danielle Steel. Doubleday's authors include John Grisham and Dan Brown.
Most people in the industry were not surprised that Applebaum was resigning from Bantam, which has long been considered Random House's weak link.
Dohle did not announce any further layoffs Wednesday. But in an interview, a spokeswoman, Carol Schneider, said publishers would be reviewing their staffs. "There may be some difficult choices that they're going to have to make down the road," she said.
In a memo to the Simon & Schuster staff, Carolyn Reidy, the president and chief executive, said the 35 layoffs at the company had resulted from "an unavoidable acknowledgment of the current bookselling marketplace and what may very well be a prolonged period of economic instability." The cuts included Rick Richter, president of the Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division. Reidy said Richter had resigned to "explore other opportunities in publishing."
Simon & Schuster, publisher of authors like Stephen King and Bob Woodward, is the books division of the CBS Corp.
The shakeout in the industry comes during what publishers and booksellers have described as the worst retailing environment in memory. Recently, Leonard Riggio, chairman and largest shareholder of Barnes & Noble, predicted a dreadful holiday shopping season and wrote in an internal memorandum that "never in all my years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are in."
The deterioration in book sales appears to have come late in the year. According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales, sales for the year are actually up slightly. But several publishers said that sales in October and November had weakened drastically.
The industry was bracing for further layoffs. Last month, John Sargent, chief executive of Macmillan, whose publishing houses include Farrar, Straus and Giroux and St. Martin's Press, said in a companywide staff meeting that he could not guarantee that everyone in the room would have a job in the future. Sargent declined to comment. Macmillan is part of the Georg von Holtzbrinck publishing group.
"These kinds of times force people's hands," said Robert Gottlieb, chairman of the literary agency Trident Media. "During good times, you can better absorb a variety of lines not doing well than you can when the economy is in this kind of condition."
By Laura M. Holson
Thursday, December 4, 2008
I have been called many things in my life; never, though, an urban myth. But that is what Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC Universal, suggested when I told him I got rid of my television set last year and started watching "30 Rock" and "CSI" on my laptop instead.
"I hear about people like you," he said, a hint of skepticism in his voice. Then he hissed what sounded vaguely like an insult.
"You probably read."
Well, yes, I do. But just because I don't have a television set, doesn't mean I don't crave "Gossip Girl."
It's just that I don't have a large television in my living room and a monthly payment to make to my cable company. I don't need one: The major American networks and many other broadcasters have made it easy to find their shows free online.
Most Americans still primarily watch shows on their television sets. I'll concede that point to Wurtzel. But there is much to suggest that watching shows online is more than just passing fancy.
The Internet has proved to be an excellent promotional vehicle. NBC says 7 out of 10 viewers were spurred to watch some shows on television only after sampling them first online. At ABC, 8 percent of viewers they track - or about one out of every 12 people - watch network shows solely online.
My friend Louise uses a projector hooked up to her laptop to watch "Lost" on a white wall in her living room. My 24-year-old niece never owned a television set until I gave her mine. Now she uses it for DVDs and to watch "America's Next Top Model" online.
And it's not just for kids. A 40-something executive I know watched the last presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama on his home computer.
The funny thing is, despite not having a television set, I actually watch more network programming than I did when I had cable. The difference is I am selective about what I watch. No more flipping channels just to see what's on, the television equivalent of a one-night stand. Instead, I am in a committed relationship.
To save time, I usually stay away from the abundance of sites like Veoh.com, Joost.com, Bebo.com or AOL. Quite simply, there is little there to entice me.
Each has a similar syndicate of already-released movies and television shows and can be confusing if you are not sure what to look for. The exception is Sling.com, a new site that offers much of the same content but with a more user-friendly setup. All of these sites are available worldwide.
For American network television shows, the best places to start are their home Web sites, including abc.com, nbc.com, cbs.com and fox.com, where shows are posted usually within 24 hours of being aired on television. They can be viewed only in the United States, however.
Abc.com, in my experience, is one of the simplest to use. It was a pioneer in putting shows online, although stingy in the early days, as it didn't want to share its toys with other sites.
Abc.com also requires viewers be engaged, requiring them to click a button to continue watching the program after an ad ends. It is a deceptively smart strategy: Viewers must sit through a 30-second commercial - and click - to find out whether Mike Delfino actually died from smoke inhalation on "Desperate Housewives." It's only 30 seconds (and I can watch the countdown) that keep me in my seat.
Recently I was talking with Quincy Smith, the president of CBS Interactive, who wanted me to visit the CBS channel on YouTube. But it was so cumbersome to find that Smith had to guide me on the telephone as I sat in front of my laptop. MGM plans to offer movies there too, but the list is not comprehensive.
The one standout is hulu.com, a joint venture between NBC and Fox that, alas, is not available outside the United States. It is well organized and simple to use. (Even Smith called it "the gold standard.") It has not only new shows like "The Office," "The Simpsons," "24" and "Heroes" but also a treasure trove of classics like the original "Battlestar Galactica," "Married ... with Children" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
Viewers outside the United States waiting for the right to view programs on hulu or the network sites should not hold their breath: a complicated thicket of laws is making that next to impossible for now.
But fans of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" can watch it on comedycentral.com, and if you're lucky, you can sometimes pick up snippets that add up to a real episode of a television show on YouTube.
Of course, it wouldn't be television without a blooper or two. So many online "Gossip Girl"-hungry fans showed up to watch last season's shows that they threatened to crash cwtv.com. As a result, the CW television network banned the show online, hoping that the viewers instead would watch it on their televisions. Fans protested, though, and the show reappeared online.
Then there's iTunes, Apple's media store. It has been selling television shows for years now, and buying shows is easy to do. The problem I have with iTunes is that you have to buy the shows to watch them. And while certain series like "Lost" may require multiple viewings to fully appreciate them, do I really need to own episodes of "Two and a Half Men"?
While watching television shows online works for me, I know it is not for everyone.
Shows don't appear until the next day, a deal killer for the truly obsessed. And it is hard to find live sports events (or delayed, for that matter) online, particularly if it is a big event like the Super Bowl or the pro basketball finals. Besides, movies and sports events have more appeal when viewed on a large screen - that's what they are made for. I recently watched David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" on hulu and ached to experience it on my brother-in-law's home-theater setup in his den.
Speaking of him, I asked him recently if he would ever watch his beloved San Francisco 49ers football team, or any show, for that matter, on a magazine-size laptop. He looked at me, incredulous.
"Does anybody really do that?" he asked.
Wurtzel is probably smiling somewhere.
By Guy Trebay
Thursday, December 4, 2008
"THE world is a strange place right now," a salesman on the main floor at Bergdorf Goodman said as shoppers pawed through handbags piled on counters like discount merchandise at Century 21. "It's off its axis."
The handbags, like a lot else at the Fifth Avenue retailer, had been marked down 40 percent and are likely to go lower as seasonal sale days wear on. "Sixty percent off is the new black," as Patricia Marx wryly noted in the Dec. 8 issue of The New Yorker. Yet the discounts at Bergdorf are far from the deepest among luxury retailers around the city.
In a move that caused consternation among its high-toned competitors along Fifth Avenue, Saks slashed the bulk of its fall fashion and accessories up to 70 percent over Thanksgiving weekend — to what some termed limbo lows.
There is nothing new about retailers cutting prices at holiday time, and the discounts have been especially deep in this recessionary year. But few in the luxury goods trade can recall a time when the price-slashing started so soon or was so severe. By cutting prices radically, Saks's chief merchant, Ron Frasch, turned his chain's flagship emporium into a swank Fifth Avenue version of a discount outlet, moving merchandise in volume and spooking the competition as it struggled to hold on to a traditional mark-down sequence, and even to continue selling certain brands at full price. Frasch declined to comment on his corporate game plan. "It's not a conversation I want to get into," he said.
Even seasoned bargain hunters were startled to see Saks's wood-paneled main sales floor mobbed with consumers nosing like truffle hounds through shelves of marked-down cashmere sweaters and racks of designer clothes with prices seemingly too good to be true.
Could those columnar Valentino evening dresses in signature red really be 70 percent below the original price of $2,950?
Was one reading the $329 tag right on a cashmere men's blazer from the elite Italian woolen house Loro Piana, a jacket that typically costs $2,000 or more? What about the $129 price for a black satin skirt from Comme des Garçons? Was the tagged price a misprint? It was not.
"What I hear at every level of retail is that no one has ever experienced anything like this in their careers," said Ken Downing, the fashion director of Neiman Marcus. And, while Downing suggested that the 40 Neiman stores would not soon tumble to discount fever, much of their merchandise had already been marked down by 40 percent, a sure sign that the line on price reduction cannot be held by any single player in luxury goods.
Privately, most retailers admit to being frightened by the severity of the economic downturn and are looking not merely to save the current season but their commercial lives.
While it is true that early numbers suggest retailers across the country got a boost from Black Friday's bargain-hunting frenzy, the margins on optimism remain slim. A report released on Tuesday by MasterCard Advisors showed that sales of luxury goods fell 24.4 percent in November compared with the same month a year ago. When individual stores disclose their own figures for November sales on Thursday, they are expected to show the deep declines of early fall continuing.
On Wednesday, customers of Barneys New York received an e-mail message promoting a "designer freak-out sale." The savings of up to 50 percent encompassed goods like Christian Louboutin suede booties (marked down to $720 from $1,195) and coveted Marc Jacobs totes (reduced to $629 from $1,250). It should probably be noted that handbags and shoes are where luxury retailers turn to hear the music of cash registers going ka-ching, and so the event was a clear indication that somebody at Barneys must be freaking out.
"It's painful," Linda Fargo, the women's fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, said referring to a landscape in which carriage-trade stores are struggling not only to hold on to their profits but also their ineffable luster.
What seems inevitable is that the pain will worsen as the price reductions provoke questions among consumers of how stratospheric profits must have been when the economy was riding high. How great, really, was the surcharge to consumers for participating in fashion fantasy?
"I was in Saks last week, and there were these staggering discounts and it's not even Jan. 1," Tim Gunn, the "Project Runway" host and chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne, said Tuesday, before a discussion on "Redefining the Rules of Fashion in Today's Economy," sponsored by the textile manufacturer Dow XLA. "I was told by easily half a dozen sales associates that if I opened a Saks credit card, I'd get another 15 percent off. What I wonder is, "What are the real margins?' "
That question gives rise to another: once consumers become acquainted with slash-and-burn prices, how can designer fashion regain its mystique? Will shoppers ever again want to buy luxury goods at full price? The depth of the challenge was suggested by the incongruity this week of seeing Prada wallets, usually kept under glass at Saks, dumped into display stands that at Wal-Mart are known as "end-caps"; lizard handbags at Bergdorf Goodman jumbled on counters as if that Fifth Avenue landmark were an outlet of Loehmann's; and Ralph Lauren dress shirts at Lord & Taylor thrown together and offered at prices roughly equivalent to the cost of two McDonald's Happy Meals.
The Saks strategy may be the first sign of a radical reconfiguration of the luxury goods landscape, said Beth Buccini, an owner of Kirna Zabête, the SoHo specialty store. "The intense and early discounting will negate the power of runway shows to drive fashion in both creative and commercial terms," Buccini said. "All anyone can afford to do anymore is to sell pre-collections," she added, referring to the commercial collections designers offer during transitional periods between their statement-making, twice yearly runway shows.
"Runway clothes next year will arrive in the store in April, and we will have three weeks to sell them at full price before the department stores have put them on sale," she said. "What I'm worried about is the creativity. Everybody is paralyzed wondering what people want, what they're willing to spend, what's going to dazzle us into not being able to live without certain items." It could be, as Zac Posen remarked on Tuesday, that we are headed into a period when designers and retailers are "either stimulated and excited and challenged," or else follow thousands of other failed American businesses into oblivion.
"It's all going to be very Darwinian," Buccini said.
By Barry Bearak
Thursday, December 4, 2008
JOHANNESBURG: The Zimbabwean health minister, David Parirenyatwa, has declared the nation's cholera outbreak a national emergency and appealed for outside help, the state-controlled Herald newspaper reported on Thursday. The epidemic has claimed more than 560 lives.
The news emerged a day after riot police officers brandishing batons charged into a group of 100 doctors and nurses on Wednesday in Harare, the capital, breaking up a demonstration for better pay and working conditions in a nation suffering from both the cholera outbreak and an economy in free fall.
The health workers, many dressed in uniform, fled as the police approached. Nearby, teachers and other union members tried to join the protest but were clubbed by yet more police officers, and at least 15 were arrested.
Earlier in the day, armed men identifying themselves as the police officers took a human rights activist, Jestina Mukoko, from her home in what Amnesty International called "part of an established pattern of harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders." Mukoko, whose whereabouts are unknown, is director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, an organization that has been documenting rights abuses.
The cholera epidemic and the new crackdown on dissent come in a country already mired in desperation. The government is paralyzed by a stalemated power-sharing deal, and the official inflation rate is 231 million percent. Grocery shelves are largely barren. Most public hospitals and schools are closed.
According to the Herald, Parirenyatwa, the health minister, said many hospitals were in urgent need of drugs, food and equipment. He also cited the critical shortage of staff in hospitals adding that those remaining had "no zeal" to work, the Herald said.
By declaring an emergency, the health minister was able to appeal for outside help which, he said, "will help us reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with the current socio-economic environment by December 2009."
The newspaper quoted the minister as telling potential donors: "Our central hospitals are literally not functioning. Our staff is demotivated and we need your support to ensure that they start coming to work and our health system is revived." He listed urgent requirements as including medicines, laboratory reagents, surgical sundries, renal and laundry equipment, X-ray films and boilers, the Herald said.
Since August, cholera deaths have risen to 565, according to the United Nations. More than 12,500 people are infected, and to make matters worse, in Harare water itself has become scarce as a dysfunctional government lacks the chemicals to purify the drinking supply. Many businesses have shut because of the sanitation problems.
To add to the chaos, soldiers, angered at the meagerness of their deflated pay, on Monday rampaged through central Harare, breaking windows, looting stores and robbing the money changers who deal in foreign currency. Armed police officers had to disperse the marauding troops with tear gas.
The demonstrations on Wednesday brought yet another macabre scene of violence. The police "assaulted several women, some of them pregnant," said Lovemore Matombo, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.
The protesters, upset about restrictions that kept them from reclaiming their increasingly worthless cash, had been marching with placards. One read, "We want all our money!" Another said, "People are dying of preventable disease!"
Many onlookers were standing in long lines at banks, and they watched with a contradictory set of anxieties, afraid of being shot but reluctant to risk losing their place.
"I don't want to die now," said one observer, Mary Muzanenhamo, a mother of two boys. "I have kids to look after. I just hope this crisis will soon be over and we can start on a new chapter."
Among the protesters who were arrested were Wellington Chibebe, secretary general of the Congress of Trade Unions, and Raymond Majongwe, secretary general of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, Matombo said. All those arrested were released.
More than 50 others were arrested in demonstrations throughout the country, according to a statement by the Congress of Trade Unions, and several of those protesters remained jailed.
Earlier, some union members had presented a petition to Gideon Gono, the powerful governor of the nation's Reserve Bank. The wages of many salaried workers are paid directly into bank accounts, and Gono had promised to raise the amount people can withdraw from 500,000 Zimbabwean dollars each day, which is now a paltry 20 cents, to 100 million Zimbabwean dollars, or about $40, each week.
The health care workers had their own particular complaints. "We are forced to work without basic health institutional needs like drugs, adequate water and sanitation, safe clothing gear, medical equipment and support services," read a protest letter from the Zimbabwe Doctors' Association.
Conditions in hospitals and clinics have been steadily deteriorating. Basic medicines are absent. There is no thread for suturing or needles for injections. The health system was already in collapse when the cholera epidemic struck.
This week, Unicef announced an emergency response to the worsening conditions. So did the European Commission and the International Red Cross.
"Cholera is a disease of destitution that used to be almost unknown in Zimbabwe," Louis Michel, the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, told The Associated Press.
He was referring to a time when Zimbabwe was a breadbasket of the region. But during the past decade this nation has plunged into ruin, one reason being the confiscation of white-owned farms by the government of Robert Mugabe.
In elections last March, the 84-year-old Mugabe, who has headed the country for nearly 30 years, was outpolled by opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai. Forces loyal to the president then unleashed a campaign of violence before a runoff vote set for June. The brutality caused Tsvangirai to withdraw from the second election.
Regional leaders finally coaxed the two sides into a power-sharing deal with Mugabe's remaining as president and Tsvangirai's becoming prime minister. But though the agreement was hailed as a breakthrough, vital details have never been ironed out and the arrangement has been stymied by disputes over who will control central government ministries.
By Ben Sisario
Thursday, December 4, 2008
At the opening party for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex NYC on Tuesday night, fans and celebrities rubbed elbows while ogling an exhibition of artifacts from CBGB, the landmark Bowery club that closed in 2006.
Studying the club's tattered awning, cash register and flier-covered phone booth, Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band and Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators, a band that was one of CBGB's 1970s mainstays, nodded in approval. "O.K., we can go now," Manitoba said.
But just as CBGB is getting its due alongside John Lennon's piano and Jimi Hendrix's guitar, its ownership and legacy are being challenged by a lawsuit that has riven the family of its proprietor, Hilly Kristal, who died last year. Like the battle over the Brooke Astor estate — minus $100 million or so, but still worth plenty, thanks to the popularity of CBGB T-shirts — the case is filled with accusations of fraud and deception, and it adds a bitter coda to the story of a beloved New York institution.
In the suit, filed last year in Surrogate's Court in Manhattan but amended in a hearing last week, Kristal's 83-year-old former wife, Karen, says she is the rightful owner of the business, and that Kristal and their daughter, Lisa Kristal Burgman, 53 — who inherited the bulk of her father's estate of more than $3 million — systematically deceived her by hiding money from the sale of merchandise.
The elder Kristal received nothing in the will, and the couple's son, Dana, 49, who sides with his mother against his sister, will receive a maximum of $100,000, depending on taxes and other expenses of the estate, his lawyer said.
At the center of the case is an agreement the Kristals made before they opened CBGB in 1973. Although they had already divorced, Kristal became the sole owner of the company that operated the club because Kristal had declared bankruptcy in a previous business. She held various jobs there, and says she designed and painted the logo.
"I started CBGB," Kristal said in an interview at her lawyer's office in Midtown Manhattan. "I put up the money, spent my time in there. And then my daughter says that they get it all. And that's a lie."
Although Kristal was the public face of the club and essentially ran the business, Kristal was a fixture there for decades. She tended bar, cleaned up, checked IDs at the door and often acted as a disciplinarian, drawing a weekly salary of $100.
"We were all scared of her," said Danny Fields, a former manager of the Ramones. "She was like a witch. She was always carrying a broom."
Lisa Kristal Burgman declined to comment for this article, but in a statement lawyers for the estate called her mother's claims "specious," adding, "CBGB was, and is, synonymous with Hilly Kristal."
In court papers the estate says that Kristal voluntarily signed over ownership to her former husband in January 2005, just as CBGB was beginning to have troubles with its landlord over unpaid rent, which ultimately led to the club's closing.
Kristal said that she had no memory of signing this document, which is also signed by Kristal, but not by any lawyers or witnesses.
Kristal suffers from hydrocephalus, according to her lawyers, which can affect short-term memory, and in an interview she repeated many of the same anecdotes numerous times.
Her lawyers argue that even if Kristal did sign the document, she had been manipulated by her daughter and former husband. According to the suit, Kristal had been "crying poverty" to Kristal for years, and hid from her his establishment of CBGB Fashions, a company that handled merchandise. In March 2005 he told The New York Times that CBGB Fashions grossed about $2 million a year.
Complicating matters, shortly before he died of cancer Kristal agreed to sell CBGB's assets and trademarks for a total of $3.5 million. Their buyer, CBGB Holdings LLC, which has declined to comment, sells merchandise out of a storage space in Brooklyn, and lent much of the CBGB collection to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Last week's hearing added CBGB Holdings to the case as a third party.
When asked about the case, Michael Elkin, an intellectual-property lawyer in New York at Winston & Strawn, who is not involved in the lawsuit, said it would be up to Kristal to prove that she had been deceived and that the documents cited by the estate are invalid.
"A lot of this will turn on whether there is any corroborating documentary evidence," Elkin said, "and whether or not this 83-year-old woman can withstand a fierce cross-examination, because it's going to come at her like a bat out of hell."
Longtime members of the CBGB circle shook their heads at the ugliness of the dispute, but said that whatever happens, CBGB's symbolic place as the birthplace of punk rock would be untainted.
"It's sad, but it seems kind of inevitable," Arturo Vega, the Ramones' longtime artistic director, said of the suit. "But it shouldn't reflect what this place was about, not at all. CBGB was a beacon of freedom for young people, something to believe in."
By Michael Kimmelman
Thursday, December 4, 2008
VENICE: By Monday the city was knee-deep under water, freakish winds pushing the high tide into the streets and piazzas, the worst flood here in two decades. Water buses couldn't dock because piers were submerged. A gray haze, the familiar Venetian mood music, shrouded everything. Someone rowed a boat across St. Mark's Square.
There followed the predictable finger pointing by local politicians, who have battled for years over Moses, a $5.5 billion tidal barrier system for the lagoon that is supposed to be finished in 2010 at the earliest.
By chance a watery hero arrived in town. Over the weekend, just before the city became nearly impassable, Monteverdi's "Return of Ulysses" had a short, magical run at the ancient Malibran Theater, near the Rialto Bridge, slightly off the beaten path.
The production, a taut 90-minute reduction of the original, is devised by William Kentridge, the South African artist, with the Handspring Puppet Company and the Ricercar Consort, a small period-instrument ensemble from Belgium. The show is a decade-old affair, touring irregularly since 1998. This was its debut here, a homecoming in the city where Monteverdi staged the opera's premiere almost four centuries ago.
Meanwhile a video that Kentridge devised for the fire curtain at Venice's main opera house, La Fenice, was unveiled. Made to be seen as audiences arrive and the orchestra tunes up, it will be shown over the coming weeks before various operas.
It's a Rube Goldberg sort of concept on film, sneakily poetic. A small, related exhibition opened at the same time at Palazzetto Tito. It remains on view through mid-January.
Shrugging off the dankness and the usual travails of dealing with Italian bureaucracy, Kentridge sat the other morning in the Fenice café, waiting for the video's trial run. "Even the ground you stand on isn't stable here," he said. He was responding to a question about whether his work, which dwells frequently on concepts like uncertainty and indirection, relates to this city, of all cities. He gestured toward the rain.
In a catalogue essay for the exhibition Kentridge put the same thought this way: "Insofar as there is a central logic behind the whole project," he wrote about the Fenice curtain video - although he could have been talking about "Ulysses" too - "it is the argument of the fragility of coherence, in which the coherence and disintegration of images refers also to other fragilities and breaks."
Other fragilities and breaks. Kentridge has made various works that allude to his native country's apartheid legacy. But fragilities and breaks could mean Venice too.
Kentridge, 53, is known in the art world for charcoal drawings, which he often animates in films whose melancholy humor is dry and temperature cool. Animated, the drawings mutate, assuming one shape, then another.
A video projected onto a screen behind the singers and puppets in "Ulysses" turns a highway into a hospital corridor. Flowers sprout on vines that transform into ancient Greek lovers. Antique temples and modern high-rises crumble, then reconstitute themselves, leaving ghostly palimpsests.
Jason Goodwin, who wrote "The Bellini Card," suggests that Venice gave English two words, innuendo and incognito. It's a nice thought. Ulysses is a bit like Venice, if you think about it. He was cunning; he liked disguises. Kentridge's version of the opera, on the other hand, stresses Ulysses' vulnerability.
And like Ulysses, Venice famously broods on the heavy toll of history; it suffers the humiliation of invaders, who these days never stop arriving. Convalescent but vainglorious, like the Homeric hero, the city dreams of its own bygone splendor while facing the prospect of a watery grave.
As it happens, the Ricercar Consort musicians, a half-dozen of them, sit enthroned on a semicircular platform, like the audience in an operating theater, with a puppet Ulysses, supine on a gurney, below. He reclines there throughout the opera: Ulysses, like Venice, the suffering lion.
Adrian Kohler, who with Basil Jones directs Handspring, said one evening after a dress rehearsal that working with a new cast (the exceptional one here includes Romina Basso, a heartbreaking Penelope, and Julian Podger as Ulysses) always takes some getting used to, for the puppeteers as well as the singers, who must learn to accustom themselves not just to handling but also to looking at the puppets, rather than at the audience. By contrast, Kentridge's video for the opera, from the moment the production was conceived, instantly opened up "a whole new world of possibilities," Kohler said.
Indeed it does. The audience scans the stage, turning from the video to the musicians to the puppeteers and singers, who seem, in the delicate way they support the slender hands of the puppets, like supplicants in a painted Deposition. Their tenderness can make you weep, every element relying on the other, altered by the allusive, multimedia mix - and save for the music itself, otherwise incomplete.
One senses Kentridge's "fragility of coherence." It is the idea also animating the Fenice curtain video, which began with the artist contemplating an orchestra tuning up: chaos, cohering around the oboe's A, then disintegrating again. Kentridge contrived black tissue-paper sculptures. Bits of the paper were attached to rough wire armatures on turntables like lazy susans.
These were purposefully crude devices. Inert, they look inchoate. Kentridge's art often comes to life, as it were, only when it moves. In this case, when the turntables revolve, the bits of paper - at one point, and only one - form faces and figures. One sculpture reveals itself to be a singer; another a conductor; yet another, a horse. The figures then dissolve once the turntables shift.
In the video Kentridge slowly rotates the sculptures, declining to hide the artifice. (You see a hand operating a little crank.) Until the shapes snap into focus, viewers struggle to figure out what they are; it's impossible not to try. But, as at the hands of fate, we find meaning imposed upon us. It's not our will that matters in the end. Imagination can't suffice. Fatalist Venetians might relate to these concepts as well in Kentridge's art.
By Andréa R. Vaucher
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Fulvio Di Rosa does not agree with the recent trend of creating lavish, over-the-top projects for fractional ownership. "The cultural experience matters more than how many stars a place has," explained the Tuscan-based architect and developer, whose latest venture, Borgo di Vagli, has emerged from the ruins of a medieval hamlet near Cortona, Italy.
Buyers there pay from €60,000, or $76,200, for a one-tenth share of a one-bedroom apartment with a private outdoor area, which guarantees 21 days a year and additional time as it is available. A two-bedroom starts at €92,000.
Authenticity is the key to renovations, Di Rosa stressed, not luxury for luxury's sake. "I could not have made this into a super high-end project without compromising the land and the original architecture," he explained. Instead, he left the landscape of olive groves, fruit trees and mature oaks as pristine as possible and brought crumbling old structures back to their original forms.
Luckily, there are buyers who prefer authentic stone lintels that force you to duck rather than modern 8-foot-tall doorways. When Frances Mayes, best-selling author of "Under the Tuscan Sun," bought a ruin near Cortona a few years ago, she chose Di Rosa to restore it. And when the destination club Ultimate Escapes wanted to carve a Tuscan hideaway out of a dilapidated 17th-century farmhouse, Di Rosa was called in.
"My 12th-century mountain house was the first private residence Fulvio consented to restore," Mayes said in an e-mail interview. "It's a poem. This and all his ambitious projects - restoring whole villages - are marked by a fine aesthetic, a use of perfectly suited materials, and an attention to detail that makes his buildings works of art."
Di Rosa, originally from Turin, arrived in Tuscany a quarter century ago via a circuitous route that included eight years in Brazil working with Oscar Niemeyer.
"After working with Niemeyer, the great monster of architecture, and being responsible for a site in the middle of nowhere in Brazil, you cannot go back to an office in Turino," explained Di Rosa by phone from Tuscany. "I was looking for more challenges."
Until those came along, he spent weekends in Tuscany, where his mother was born, overseeing the restoration of a house in Lucignano that his parents had purchased.
"I went to Tuscany for one reason and discovered one thousand other reasons to be there," he recalled. "The good food, the congeniality of the people, the fantastic landscape, the cultural richness. It was a real physical attraction like you have for a woman."
As Tuscany became fetishized by Europeans and Americans, inspired by Mayes and others who romanticized their restoration projects, friends implored Di Rosa to find them ruins. In 1985, when he stumbled upon a 25,000-square-foot 17th-century farmhouse, "I started thinking in terms of co-ownership," he explained. "Subdividing a hamlet or huge farmhouse into several residences for more than one family." He divided that farmhouse, Renaiolo, into several units, each of which was sold outright.
Borgo is Di Rosa's fourth Tuscan development and his first foray into fractional ownership. "A detached vacation home with lots of land and a pool is something families are starting to feel is complicated economically," he said, especially if an owner ends up using the house only a handful of times a year.
Besides, there aren't many interesting ruins in Tuscany left to renovate. "It's a sad situation," he said. "After 25 years of doing this, I have become very experienced. But now, ruins are either extremely expensive or not very nice."
Perhaps he will develop the fractional model elsewhere, he mused. Norway. Lisbon. The Amazon. Or maybe, he will devote more energy to the Atopos Foundation, a nonprofit organization that he created with the renowned Italian futurist musician Daniele Lombardi to further awareness of contemporary music.
"It's another of my passions," Di Rosa confessed. "I was always the one listening to the weird modern music no one else would listen to."
Thursday, December 4, 2008
The editors of the Book Review have selected these titles from the list of 100 Notable Books of 2008.
DANGEROUS LAUGHTER Thirteen Stories By Steven Millhauser Alfred A. Knopf
In his first collection in five years, a master fabulist in the tradition of Poe and Nabokov invents spookily plausible parallel universes in which the deepest human emotions and yearnings are transformed into their monstrous opposites. Millhauser is especially attuned to the purgatory of adolescence. In the title story, teenagers attend sinister "laugh parties"; in another, a mysteriously afflicted girl hides in the darkness of her attic bedroom. Time and again these parables revive the possibility that "under this world there is another, waiting to be born."
A MERCY By Toni Morrison Alfred A. Knopf
The fate of a slave child abandoned by her mother animates this allusive novel — part Faulknerian puzzle, part dream-song — about orphaned women who form an eccentric household in late-17th-century America. Morrison's farmers and rum traders, masters and slaves, indentured whites and captive Native Americans live side by side, often in violent conflict, in a lawless, ripe American Eden that is both a haven and a prison — an emerging nation whose identity is rooted equally in Old World superstitions and New World appetites and fears.
NETHERLAND By Joseph O'Neill Pantheon Books
O'Neill's seductive ode to New York — a city that even in bad times stubbornly clings to its belief "in its salvific worth" — is narrated by a Dutch financier whose privileged New York existence is upended by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. When his wife departs for London with their small son, he stays behind, finding camaraderie in the unexpectedly buoyant world of immigrant cricket players, most of them West Indians and South Asians, including an entrepreneur with Gatsby-size aspirations.
2666 By Roberto Bolaño Translated by Natasha Wimmer Farrar, Straus & Giroux, cloth and paper
Bolaño, the prodigious Chilean writer who died at age 50 in 2003, has posthumously risen, like a figure in one of his own splendid creations, to the summit of modern fiction. This latest work, first published in Spanish in 2004, is a mega- and meta-detective novel with strong hints of apocalyptic foreboding. It contains five separate narratives, each pursuing a different story with a cast of beguiling characters — European literary scholars, an African-American journalist and more — whose lives converge in a Mexican border town where hundreds of young women have been brutally murdered.
UNACCUSTOMED EARTH By Jhumpa Lahiri Alfred A. Knopf
There is much cultural news in these precisely observed studies of modern-day Bengali-Americans — many of them Ivy-league strivers ensconced in prosperous suburbs who can't quite overcome the tug of traditions nurtured in Calcutta..With quiet artistry and tender sympathy, Lahiri creates an impressive range of vivid characters — young and old, male and female, self-knowing and self-deluding — in engrossing stories that replenish the classic themes of domestic realism: loneliness, estrangement and family discord.
THE DARK SIDE The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals By Jane Mayer Doubleday
Mayer's meticulously reported descent into the depths of President George W. Bush's antiterrorist policies peels away the layers of legal and bureaucratic maneuvering that gave us Guantánamo Bay, "extraordinary rendition," "enhanced" interrogation methods, "black sites," warrantless domestic surveillance and all the rest. But Mayer also describes the efforts ofunsung heroes, tucked deep inside the administration, who risked their careers in the struggle to balance the rule of law against the need to meet a threat unlike any other in the nation's history.
THE FOREVER WAR By Dexter Filkins Alfred A. Knopf
The New York Times correspondent, whose tours of duty have taken him from Afghanistan in 1998 to Iraq during the American intervention, captures a decade of armed struggle in harrowingly detailed vignettes. Whether interviewing jihadists in Kabul, accompanying marines on risky patrols in Falluja or visiting grieving families in Baghdad, Filkins makes us see, with almost hallucinogenic immediacy, the true human meaning and consequences of the "war on terror."
NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF By Julian Barnes Alfred A. Knopf
This absorbing memoir traces Barnes's progress from atheism (at age 20) to agnosticism (at 60) and examines the problem of religion not by rehashing the familiar quarrel between science and mystery, but rather by weighing the timeless questions of mortality and aging. Barnes distills his own experiences — and those of his parents and brother — in polished and wise sentences that recall the writing of Montaigne, Flaubert and the other French masters he includes in his discussion.
THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING Death and the American Civil War By Drew Gilpin Faust Alfred A. Knopf
In this powerful book, Faust, the president of Harvard, explores the legacy, or legacies, of the "harvest of death" sown and reaped by the Civil War. In the space of four years, 620,000 Americans died in uniform, roughly the same number as those lost in all the nation's combined wars from the Revolution through Korea. This doesn't include the thousands of civilians killed in epidemics, guerrilla raids and draft riots. The collective trauma created "a newly centralized nation-state," Faust writes, but it also established "sacrifice and its memorialization as the ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite."
THE WORLD IS WHAT IT IS The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul By Patrick French Alfred A. Knopf
The most surprising word in this biography is "authorized." Naipaul, the greatest of all postcolonial authors, cooperated fully with French, opening up a huge cache of private letters and diaries and supplementing the revelations they disclosed with remarkably candid interviews. It was a brave, and wise, decision. French, a first-rate biographer, has a novelist's command of story and character, and he patiently connects his subject's brilliant oeuvre with the disturbing facts of an unruly life.
By Claudia Barbieri
Thursday, December 4, 2008
PARIS: What is a group of Bangladeshi rickshaw drivers doing in London, staring impassively at their unseen observer? And what do they have in common with an ethereal young woman tentatively breaking pieces of china? For an answer, turn to Runa Islam, the Bangladeshi-born artist whose video works - "First Day of Spring," featuring the Dhaka rickshaw riders, and "Be the First to See What You See as You See It," a slow-motion study of smashing porcelain - helped propel her onto the short list for this year's Turner Prize.
Sometimes shocking and controversial, in other years more thought-provoking, the Turner Prize has become not just a barometer of the state and direction of British contemporary art but also a fixture on the social calendar.
Founded in 1984 by a group of contemporary art patrons linked to the Tate gallery, the prize is awarded to an artist under the age of 50, born or working in Britain, whose publicly exhibited work over the past year has seemed especially innovative or important. The winner is selected from a short list of four, chosen by a five-member jury; the first prize is worth £25,000, or about $37,500, and the three runners-up receive £5,000 each.
Past winners have included some of the most notorious enfants terribles of British Art - Gilbert and George in 1986; Damien Hirst in 1995; Chris Ofili, with his elephant dung paintings, in 1998; the transvestite potter Grayson Perry in 2003; Tracy Emin's unmade bed failed to win in 1999.
"In the 1990s, the Turner Prize became like the Grand National, in terms of it being a national event," said Virginia Button, curator of the prize from 1993 to 1998 and author of its regularly updated official history.
The notoriety of the prize wins envious recognition beyond sometimes insular confines of the British art world.
"The Turner Prize goes far beyond an art prize - it has become a national event with a global profile," said Gilles Fuchs, president of the Association for the International Diffusion of French Art, organizer of the Marcel Duchamp contemporary art prize, in Paris.
This year's jury, led by Stephen Deuchar, director of the Tate Britain gallery, included Suzanne Cotter, senior curator and deputy director of the Oxford-based gallery and publisher of the Modern Art Oxford; Jennifer Higgie, co-editor of Frieze magazine; Daniel Birnbaum, director of the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste, in Frankfurt; and the architect David Adjaye.
Their short-listed contenders, whose works are on exhibit at the Tate Britain gallery until Jan. 18, included, alongside Islam, two other women - Goshka Macuga, who was born in Poland, and Cathy Wilkes, who was born in Northern Ireland - and Mark Leckey, a British-born professor of film studies in Frankfurt.
Leckey, the bookmaker's favorite and eventual winner - the jury's verdict was announced on Monday - uses a mix of media in his works including film, sculpture, performance and lecture, referencing fine art, music, clubbing and pop culture. His works on show at the Tate Britain engage their audience with images of cultural icons that include Felix the Cat, Jeff Koon's steely rabbit and the Simpsons.
"There is no hierarchy in his work - anything is up for grabs," said Carolyn Kerr , one of the show's curators.
To a casual observer all four short-listed artists share some fundamental stylistic traits. They work in installation film and multimedia genres. Paint, apparently, is out.
"Art today is no longer about pretty pictures," said Marc-Olivier Wahler, director of the Palais de Tokyo, the contemporary-art museum space in Paris. "The artist is free to express whatever he wants; artworks are more often than not frustrating, troubling and make the viewer re-examine his preconceptions."
That approach is perhaps most apparent in Wilkes's work. "Give you all my money" is a collection of found objects with a centerpiece of two stripped down checkout counters surrounded by an assortment of junk: leftover food in bowls; hair clippings, burned wood and other detritus, forming an extended personal iconography echoing Emin's bed. Into this meticulously dysfunctional installation two mannequins bring an abstractedly human counterpoint; one sits on a toilet, naked except for a nurse's hat and the other leans against a counter, her head in bird cage. Both have various domestic bits and pieces hanging by strings from their skulls. The whole work seems to add up to an expression of everyday feminine drudgery.
This year's short-listed artists were not especially easy to understand, said Deuchar, the jury chairman. But, he added in a interview broadcast by the BBC, "the public is not frightened by art that requires some investigation and whose meaning is not instantly clear."
No less enigmatic, Macuga's has been likened to cultural archeology, in which she constructs histories and explores conventions of archiving, exhibition making and museum display. In her Tate installation - described as an exploration of the professional and romantic relationships between the World War I artist Paul Nash and the surrealist painter Eileen Agar and the Bauhaus architects and designers Mies Van der Rohe and Lily Reich - she uses photos and archive material from the Tate in a set of photomontages and collages surrounding a minimalist sculpture of glass and steel. Drawings of rain adorn the walls. The relationship between these elements is, indeed, not instantly clear.
Leckey's offering, "Cinema in the Round," is a video of a 40-minute performance art lecture in which the artist talks of his fascination with the life of images on screen, mixing ideas about language and film with shots of filmed objects and images, in a looping exploration of the relation between self and image.
These works are the product of "a seismic shift in the appreciation of the visual arts in Britain," said Button, the historian of the prize. "They are polythemic; they can be appreciated on many different levels." This adds to their richness and complexity, she said. "No contemporary artist would say there is one way of looking at a work," Button said.
Kerr, the curator, agreed. Artists are engaging in a multilayered exploration of their universe, she said, "a sort of collaging in every sense."
"New media are available to artists," Kerr said. "Art is no longer confined to painting and sculpture. Art is taking on a whole new language, about testing and exploring, in a sense growing up, moving on from sensationalist statements to something more thoughtful and thought-provoking."
She added: "British art is heading into a different place. The work requires more attention; it's in a more thoughtful place. It's intriguing, challenging, deeply rooted in aesthetics. We're heading to redefining what it means to be modern - post-post-modernism."
Thursday, December 4, 2008
The Book Review has selected this list from books reviewed since Dec. 2, 2007, when we published our previous Notables list.
Fiction & Poetry
AMERICAN WIFE. By Curtis Sittenfeld. (Random House, $26.) The life of this novel's heroine — a first lady who comes to realize, at the height of the Iraq war, that she has compromised her youthful ideals — is conspicuously modeled on that of Laura Bush.
ATMOSPHERIC DISTURBANCES. By Rivka Galchen. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24.) The psychiatrist-narrator of this brainy, whimsical first novel believes that his beautiful, much-younger Argentine wife has been replaced by an exact double.
BASS CATHEDRAL. By Nathaniel Mackey. (New Directions, paper, $16.95.) Mackey's fictive world is an insular one of musicians composing, playing and talking jazz in the private language of their art.
BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN. By Charles Bock. (Random House, $25.) This bravura first novel, set against a corruptly compelling Las Vegas landscape, revolves around the disappearance of a surly 12-year-old boy.
BEIJING COMA. By Ma Jian. Translated by Flora Drew. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.50.) Ma's novel, an important political statement, looks at China through the life of a dissident paralyzed at Tiananmen Square.
A BETTER ANGEL: Stories. By Chris Adrian. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23.) For Adrian — who is both a pediatrician and a divinity student — illness and a heightened spiritual state are closely related conditions.
BLACK FLIES. By Shannon Burke. (Soft Skull, paper, $14.95.) A rookie paramedic in New York City is overwhelmed by the horrors of his job in this arresting, confrontational novel, informed by Burke's five years of experience on city ambulances.
THE BLUE STAR. By Tony Earley. (Little, Brown, $23.99.) The caring, thoughtful hero of Earley's engrossing first novel, "Jim the Boy," is now 17 and confronting not only the eternal turmoil of love, but also venality and the frightening calls of duty and war.
THE BOAT. By Nam Le. (Knopf, $22.95.) In the opening story of Le's first collection, a blocked writer succumbs to the easy temptations of "ethnic lit."
BREATH. By Tim Winton. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23.) Surfing offers this darkly exhilarating novel's protagonist an escape from a drab Australian town.
DANGEROUS LAUGHTER: Thirteen Stories. By Steven Millhauser. (Knopf, $24.) In his latest collection, Millhauser advances his chosen themes — the slippery self, the power of hysterical young people — with even more confidence and power than before.
DEAR AMERICAN AIRLINES. By Jonathan Miles. (Houghton Mifflin, $22.) Miles's fine first novel takes the form of a letter from a stranded traveler, his life a compilation of regrets, who uses the time to digress on an impressive array of cultural issues, large and small.
DIARY OF A BAD YEAR. By J. M. Coetzee. (Viking, $24.95.) Coetzee follows the late career of one Señor C, who, like Coetzee himself, is a South African writer transplanted to Australia and the author of a novel titled "Waiting for the Barbarians."
DICTATION: A Quartet. By Cynthia Ozick. (Houghton Mifflin, $24.) In the title story of this expertly turned collection, Henry James and Joseph Conrad embody Ozick's polarity of art and ardor.
ELEGY: Poems. By Mary Jo Bang. (Graywolf, $20.) Grief is converted into art in this bleak, forthright collection, centered on the death of the poet's son.
THE ENGLISH MAJOR. By Jim Harrison. (Grove, $24.) A 60-year-old cherry farmer and former English teacher — an inversion of the classic Harrison hero — sets out on a trip west after being dumped by his wife.
FANON. By John Edgar Wideman. (Houghton Mifflin, $24.) Wideman's novel — raw and astringent, yet with a high literary polish — explores the life of the psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon.
THE FINDER. By Colin Harrison. (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) A New York thriller, played out against the nasty world of global capitalism.
FINE JUST THE WAY IT IS: Wyoming Stories 3 . By Annie Proulx. (Scribner, $25.) These rich, bleak stories offer an American West in which the natural elements are murderous and folks aren't much better.
THE GOOD THIEF . By Hannah Tinti. (Dial, $25.) In Tinti's first novel, set in mid-19th-century New England, a con man teaches an orphan the art of the lie.
HALF OF THE WORLD IN LIGHT: New and Selected Poems. By Juan Felipe Herrera. (University of Arizona, paper, $24.95.) Herrera, known for portrayals of Chicano life, is unpredictable and wildly inventive.
HIS ILLEGAL SELF. By Peter Carey. (Knopf, $25.) In this enthralling novel, a boy goes underground with a defiant hippie indulging her maternal urge.
HOME. By Marilynne Robinson. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) Revisiting the events of her novel "Gilead" from another perspective, Robinson has written an anguished pastoral, at once bitter and joyful.
INDIGNATION. By Philip Roth. (Houghton Mifflin, $26.) Marcus Messner is a sophomore at a small, conservative Ohio college at the time of the Korean War. The novel he narrates, like Roth's last two, is ruthlessly economical and relentlessly deathbound.
THE LAZARUS PROJECT. By Aleksandar Hemon. (Riverhead, $24.95.) This novel's despairing immigrant protagonist becomes intrigued with the real-life killing of a presumed anarchist in Chicago in 1908.
LEGEND OF A SUICIDE. By David Vann. (University of Massachusetts, $24.95.) In his first story collection, Vann leads the reader to vital places while exorcizing demons born from the suicide of his father.
LIFE CLASS. By Pat Barker. (Doubleday, $23.95.) Barker's new novel, about a group of British artists overtaken by World War I, concentrates more on the turmoil of love than on the trauma of war.
LUSH LIFE. By Richard Price. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Chandler — and Bellow, too — peeps out from Price's novel, in which an aspiring writer cum restaurant manager, mugged in the gentrifying Lower East Side of Manhattan, himself becomes a suspect.
A MERCY. By Toni Morrison. (Knopf, $23.95.) Summoning voices from the 17th century, Morrison performs her deepest excavation yet into America's history and exhumes the country's twin original sins: the importation of African slaves and the near extermination of Native Americans.
MODERN LIFE: Poems . By Matthea Harvey. (Graywolf, paper, $14.) Harvey is willing to take risks, and her reward is that richest, rarest thing, genuine poetry.
A MOST WANTED MAN . By John le Carré. (Scribner, $28.) This powerful novel, centered on a half-Russian, half-Chechen, half-crazy fugitive in Germany, swims with operatives whose desperation to avert another 9/11 provokes a slow-burning fire in every line.
MY REVOLUTIONS. By Hari Kunzru. (Dutton, $25.95.) Kunzru's third novel is an extraordinary autumnal depiction of a failed '60s radical.
NETHERLAND. By Joseph O'Neill. (Pantheon, $23.95.) In the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction yet about post-9/11 New York and London, the game of cricket provides solace to a man whose family disintegrates after the attacks.
OPAL SUNSET: Selected Poems, 1958-2008. By Clive James. (Norton, $25.95.) James, a staunch formalist, is firmly situated in the sociable, plain-spoken tradition that runs from Auden through Larkin.
THE OTHER. By David Guterson. (Knopf, $24.95.) In this novel from the author of "Snow Falling on Cedars," a schoolteacher nourishes a friendship with a privileged recluse.
OUR STORY BEGINS: New and Selected Stories. By Tobias Wolff. (Knopf, $26.95.) Some of Wolff's best work is concentrated here, revealing his gift for evoking the breadth of American experience.
THE ROAD HOME. By Rose Tremain. (Little, Brown, $24.99.) A widowed Russian emigrant, fearfully navigating the strange city of London, learns that his home village is about to be inundated.
THE SACRED BOOK OF THE WEREWOLF. By Victor Pelevin. Translated by Andrew Bromfield. (Viking, $25.95.) A supernatural call girl narrates Pelevin's satirical allegory of post-Soviet, post-9/11 Russia.
THE SCHOOL ON HEART'S CONTENT ROAD. By Carolyn Chute. (Atlantic Monthly, $24.) In Chute's first novel in nearly 10 years, disparate characters cluster around an off-the-grid communal settlement.
SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT: A New Verse Translation. By Simon Armitage. (Norton, $25.95.) One of the eerie, exuberant joys of Middle English poetry, in an alliterative rendering that captures the original's drive, dialect and landscape.
SLEEPING IT OFF IN RAPID CITY: Poems, New and Selected. By August Kleinzahler. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Kleinzahler seeks the true heart of places, whether repellent, beautiful or both at once.
TELEX FROM CUBA. By Rachel Kushner. (Scribner, $25.) In this multilayered first novel, international drifters try to bury pasts that include murder, adultery and neurotic meltdown, even as the Castro brothers gather revolutionaries in the hills.
2666. By Roberto Bolaño. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, cloth and paper, $30.) The five autonomous sections of this posthumously published novel interlock to form an astonishing whole, a supreme capstone to Bolaño's vaulting ambition.
UNACCUSTOMED EARTH. By Jhumpa Lahiri. (Knopf, $25.) In eight sensitive stories, Lahiri evokes the anxiety, excitement and transformations felt by Bengali immigrants and their American children.
THE UNFORTUNATES. By B. S. Johnson. (New Directions, $24.95.) This novel, first published in 1969, dovetails theme (the accidents of memory) with eccentric form (unbound chapters to be read in any order).
WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS? By Kate Atkinson. (Little, Brown, $24.99.) Jackson Brodie, the hero of Atkinson's previous literary thrillers, takes the case of a mother and baby who suddenly disappear.
THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK. By John Updike. (Knopf, $24.95.) In this ingenious sequel to "The Witches of Eastwick," the three title characters, old ladies now, renew their sisterhood, return to their old hometown and contrive to atone for past crimes.
YESTERDAY'S WEATHER. By Anne Enright. (Grove, $24.) Working-class Irish characters grapple with love, marriage, confusion and yearning in Enright's varied, if somewhat disenchanted, stories.
AMERICAN LION: Andrew Jackson in the White House . By Jon Meacham. (Random House, $30.) Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, discerns a democratic dignity in the seventh president's populism.
ANGLER: The Cheney Vice Presidency. By Barton Gellman. (Penguin Press, $27.95.) An engrossing portrait of Dick Cheney as a master political manipulator.
BACARDI AND THE LONG FIGHT FOR CUBA: The Biography of a Cause. By Tom Gjelten. (Viking, $27.95.) An NPR correspondent paints a vivid portrait of the anti-Castro clan behind the liquor empire.
THE BIG SORT: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. By Bill Bishop with Robert G. Cushing. (Houghton Mifflin, $25.) A journalist and a statistician see political dangers in the country's increasing tendency to separate into solipsistic blocs.
BLOOD MATTERS: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene. By Masha Gessen. (Harcourt, $25.) Hard choices followed Gessen's discovery that she carries a dangerous genetic mutation.
CAPITOL MEN: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen. By Philip Dray. (Houghton Mifflin, $30.) A collective biography of the pioneers of black political involvement.
THE CHALLENGE: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and the Fight Over Presidential Power. By Jonathan Mahler. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) An objective, thorough study of a landmark case for Guantánamo detainees.
CHAMPLAIN'S DREAM. By David Hackett Fischer. (Simon & Schuster, $40.) Fischer argues that France's North American colonial success was attributable largely to one remarkable man, Samuel de Champlain.
CHASING THE FLAME: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World. By Samantha Power. (Penguin Press, $32.95.) Vieira de Mello, who was killed in Iraq in 2003, embodied both the idealism and the limitations of the United Nations, which he served long and loyally.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE. An American Life: A Biography. By Elisabeth Bumiller. (Random House, $27.95.) A New York Times reporter casts a keen eye on Rice's tenure as a policy maker, her close ties to George Bush, and her personal and professional past.
THE DARK SIDE: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. By Jane Mayer. (Doubleday, $27.50.) A New Yorker writer recounts the emergence of the widespread use of torture as a central tool in the fight against terrorism.
DELTA BLUES: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music. By Ted Gioia. (Norton, $27.95.) Gioia's survey balances the story of the music with that of its reception.
DESCARTES' BONES: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. By Russell Shorto. (Doubleday, $26.) Shorto's smart, elegant study turns the early separation of Descartes's skull from the rest of his remains into an irresistible metaphor.
DREAMS AND SHADOWS: The Future of the Middle East. By Robin Wright. (Penguin Press, $26.95.) This fluent and intelligent book describes the struggles of people from Morocco to Iran to reform or replace long-entrenched national regimes.
THE DRUNKARD'S WALK: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. By Leonard Mlodinow. (Pantheon, $24.95.) This breezy crash course intersperses probabilistic mind-benders with profiles of theorists.
AN EXACT REPLICA OF A FIGMENT OF MY IMAGINATION: A Memoir. By Elizabeth McCracken. (Little, Brown, $19.99.) An unstinting account of the novelist's emotions after the stillbirth of her first child.
FACTORY GIRLS: From Village to City in a Changing China. By Leslie T. Chang. (Spiegel & Grau, $26.) Chang's engrossing account delves deeply into the lives of young migrant workers in southern China.
THE FOREVER WAR. By Dexter Filkins. (Knopf, $25.) Filkins, a New York Times reporter who was embedded with American troops during the attack on Falluja, has written an account of the Iraq war in the tradition of Michael Herr's "Dispatches."
FREEDOM'S BATTLE: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention. By Gary J. Bass. (Knopf, $35.) Bass's book is both a history and an argument for military interventions as a tool of international justice today.
A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books. By Alex Beam. (PublicAffairs, $24.95.) The minds behind a curious project that continues to exert a hold in some quarters.
HALLELUJAH JUNCTION: Composing an American Life. By John Adams. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Adams's wry, smart memoir stands with books by Hector Berlioz and Louis Armstrong among the most readably incisive autobiographies of major musical figures.
THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO: An American Family. By Annette Gordon-Reed. (Norton, $35.) Gordon-Reed continues her study of the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.
HOT, FLAT, AND CROWDED: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America. By Thomas L. Friedman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.95.) The Times columnist turns his attention to possible business-friendly solutions to global warming.
THE HOUSE AT SUGAR BEACH: In Search of a Lost African Childhood. By Helene Cooper. (Simon & Schuster, $25.) Cooper, a New York Times reporter who fled a warring Liberia as a child, returned to confront the ghosts of her past — and to look for a lost sister.
HOW FICTION WORKS. By James Wood. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24.) Concentrating on the art of the novel, the New Yorker critic presents a compact, erudite vade mecum with acute observations on individual passages and authors.
MORAL CLARITY: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. By Susan Neiman. (Harcourt, $27.) Neiman champions Enlightenment values with no hint of oversimplification, dogmatism or misplaced piety.
THE NIGHT OF THE GUN: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own. By David Carr. (Simon & Schuster, $26.) Carr, a New York Times culture reporter, sifts through his drug- and alcohol-addicted past.
NIXONLAND: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. By Rick Perlstein. (Scribner, $37.50.) Perlstein's compulsively readable study holds that Nixon's divisive and enduring legacy is the "notion that there are two kinds of Americans."
NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF. By Julian Barnes. (Knopf, $24.95.) With no faith in an afterlife, why should an agnostic fear death? On this simple question, Barnes hangs an elegant memoir and meditation, full of a novelist's affection for the characters who wander in and out.
NUREYEV: The Life. By Julie Kavanagh. (Pantheon, $37.50.) The son of Soviet Tatars could never get enough of anything — space, applause, money, sex — but he attracted an audience of millions to the art form he mastered.
PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. By Mark Harris. (Penguin Press, $27.95.) The best-picture nominees of 1967 were a collage of America's psyche, and more.
THE POST-AMERICAN WORLD. By Fareed Zakaria. (Norton, $25.95.) This relentlessly intelligent examination of power focuses less on American decline than on the rise of China, trailed by India.
PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. By Dan Ariely. (Harper/HarperCollins, $25.95.) Moving comfortably from the lab to broad social questions to his own life, an MIT economist pokes holes in conventional market theory.
THE RACE CARD: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse. By Richard Thompson Ford. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Ford vivisects every sacred cow in "post-racist" America.
RETRIBUTION: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45. By Max Hastings. (Knopf, $35.) In this masterly account, Hastings describes Japanese madness eliciting American ruthlessness in the Pacific Theater.
A SECULAR AGE. By Charles Taylor. (Belknap/Harvard University, $39.95.) A philosophy professor thinks our era has been too quick to dismiss religious faith.
SHAKESPEARE'S WIFE. By Germaine Greer. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.95.) With a polemicist's vision and a scholar's patience, Greer sets out to rescue Ann Hathaway from layers of biographical fantasy.
THE SUPERORGANISM: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. By Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson. (Norton, $55.) The central conceit of this astonishing study is that an insect colony is a single animal raised to a higher level.
TELL ME HOW THIS ENDS: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq. By Linda Robinson. (PublicAffairs, $27.95.) A probing, conscientious account of strategy and tactics in post-surge Iraq.
THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. By David Hajdu. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) A worthy history of the midcentury crusade against the comics industry.
THEY KNEW THEY WERE RIGHT: The Rise of the Neocons. By Jacob Heilbrunn. (Doubleday, $26.) A journalist traces the neoconservative movement from its origins at the City College of New York in the 1940s.
THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING: Death and the American Civil War. By Drew Gilpin Faust. (Knopf, $27.95.) The lasting impact of the war's immense loss of life is the subject of this extraordinary account by Harvard's president.
THE THREE OF US: A Family Story. By Julia Blackburn. (Pantheon, $26.) Searingly and unflinchingly, Blackburn describes an appalling upbringing at the hands of her catastrophically unfit parents.
THRUMPTON HALL: A Memoir of Life in My Father's House. By Miranda Seymour. (Harper/HarperCollins, $24.95.) Seymour's odd and oddly affecting book instantly catapults her father into the front rank of impossible and eccentric English parents.
TRAFFIC: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us). By Tom Vanderbilt. (Knopf, $24.95.) A surprising, enlightening look at the psychology of the human beings behind the steering wheels.
THE TRILLION DOLLAR MELTDOWN: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash. By Charles R. Morris. (PublicAffairs, $22.95.) How we got into the mess we're in, explained briefly and brilliantly.
A VOYAGE LONG AND STRANGE: Rediscovering the New World. By Tony Horwitz. (Holt, $27.50.) An accessible popular history of early America, with plenty of self-tutoring and colorful reporting.
WAKING GIANT: America in the Age of Jackson. By David S. Reynolds. (Harper/HarperCollins, $29.95.) Reynolds excels at depicting the cultural, social and intellectual currents that buffeted the nation.
WHILE THEY SLEPT: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family. By Kathryn Harrison. (Random House, $25.) Harrison's account brings moral clarity to the dark fate of the family of Jody Gilley, who was 16 when she survived a rampage by her brother in 1984.
WHITE HEAT: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. By Brenda Wineapple. (Knopf, $27.95.) The hitherto elusive Higginson was the poet's chosen reader, admirer and advocate.
THE WILD PLACES. By Robert Macfarlane. (Penguin, paper, $15.) Macfarlane's unorthodox British landscapes are furrowed with human histories and haunted by literary prophets.
THE WORLD IS WHAT IT IS: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul. By Patrick French. (Knopf, $30.) French has created a monument fully worthy of its subject, elucidating the enduring but painfully asymmetrical love triangle at the core of Naipaul's life and work.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
BELGRADE: Police searched several locations in Serbia on Thursday for its most wanted war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic but did not immediately find anything, government officials said.
Police searched his apartment in southern Belgrade, where his son Darko Mladic lives with his family, and the company where Darko's wife works, officials said.
"Police are searching several locations in Serbia in an effort to find war crimes fugitives wanted by The Hague Tribunal and to cut their financial support network," a source in the prosecutor's office said.
A security official said the raids had not immediately turned up any clues, although the source said efforts were continuing.
Reuters reporters at the scene saw two jeeps with special forces wearing balaclavas in front of the house.
The Balkan country has intensified the search in recent months to meet a key condition for progressing towards EU membership. The European Union says Serbia must extradite its two remaining fugitives.
Police have probed various firms to find helpers and cut finances to those suspected of aiding them.
Bosnian Serb wartime commander Mladic was indicted in 1995 on genocide charges for the siege of Sarajevo and for orchestrating the Srebrenica massacre. Also at large is Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic, wanted for crimes against humanity.
(Reporting Ivana Sekularac and Fedja Grulovic, Writing by Ljilja Cvekic, Editing by Adam Tanner/Elizabeth Piper)
By Sarah Kershaw
Thursday, December 4, 2008
The office joker. The mother hen. The king. The rebel. The gossip. The peacekeeper. The dude.
Anyone who has ever been part of a workplace culture can probably recognize at least one of those characters in the cubicle next door.
But workplace roles and the dynamics among colleagues can go much deeper than those somewhat superficial stereotypes, especially when people spend as much time with colleagues as they do with their families, and where the office so often mirrors the family.
A boss is not just a boss, in the view of some psychologists who study workplace roles; he can be a stand-in for a disapproving and distant father. An unpredictable, easily angered manager can be a thinly veiled rejecting mother. Colleagues competing for the boss's attention — or merit raises and bonuses — are siblings in rivalry.
The employees of a company acquired by another in a hostile merger? They can experience seething resentment toward what they feel is an unwelcome stepparent, according to psychologists working with companies to manage emotional fallout during a merger.
There is, too, the workplace spouse, a co-worker of the opposite sex who shares a kind of closeness achieved only through the intense experience of long weeks at the same office.
Given all the stress and uncertainty driven by the economic crisis, some companies, with the help of business and organizational psychologists, are plumbing the depths of these feelings and roles, trying to gauge their effects at a time when emotions are running high. A growing number of business psychologists and executive coaches are also looking at the influence of birth order and other family roles and niches on office behavior.
"Work is nothing more than an entirely complex set of relationships," said Michael Norris, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, who runs monthly leadership coaching groups and individual sessions with senior executives. "You have partners that are your equals, subordinates, superiors," Norris said. "It's parents and siblings. All of these dynamics that are exactly the same in the workplace, just the titles are different."
For example, said Laurence Stybel, a psychologist in the Boston area who specializes in organizational behavior, "Somebody who is successful at getting resources in the family environment approaches the corporate environment with a sense of confidence. Someone who was denied resources given to others approaches the corporate environment with the same concept."
The use of personality testing in the workplace to measure employees' "emotional intelligence" or, for example, how they handle conflict, has become increasingly common, said Benjamin Dattner, an organizational psychologist in New York who consults with companies on workplace issues and blogs for Psychology Today. Tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which measures how people perceive the world and make decisions, are given to millions of employees each year, Dattner said.
The idea is to help increase their effectiveness, say, by having a team of co-workers better understand their strengths and weaknesses — although the usefulness of such tests is debated.
There are also a number of character typology studies — some frivolous and some more serious — that have sought to define the roles office workers play. In one recent study that T-Mobile in Britain commissioned to gain insight into how its employees interact, a psychologist interviewed workers and came up with eight character types. When times are difficult economically, a workplace character identified as the "mother hen" — with a comforting voice of reason and empathy — may help raise the group's spirit, Honey Langcaster-James, a psychologist, concluded. The "office joker," by contrast, "may decide that wisecracking" is "no longer appropriate in such dire times."
The "dude," another character in the study, "T-Mobile Workplace Motivation Report," which is available online, is described as "laid back and relaxed," and this relaxed attitude "also means that he/she doesn't transfer pressure onto colleagues — a trait most workmates would be grateful for," the report says.
One New York company that has recently delved deeply into workplace roles and how family experiences and birth order affect relationships at the office is TAG Creative, a branding communication agency in New York that is owned by three women.
Last summer, the partners hired a team of consultants, including Dattner, who is also an adjunct professor of psychology at New York University, when they doubled their employees to 16. With twice as many personalities in the office, the three managers wanted to define more clearly their own roles. In the process, they uncovered how some of their childhood experiences and especially their birth order played out inside their sleek and small offices at 30th Street and Park Avenue.
"I sometimes have to tell myself, she is not your mother, she's your partner," said Amy Frankel, 53, the chief strategy officer, referring to her two co-owners.
Both Frankel and her partner Terry Rieser, 58, the chief operating officer, are eldest children, and for them, an important motive in starting the company in 2001 was to be their own bosses. Like many other firstborns, they said, they are dominant personalities and have trouble with authority.
The third partner, Gina Delio, 52, the chief creative officer, is the second of five children. Her two partners describe her as the peacemaker of the group, true to middle-child form.
Rieser, whom her partners described as the most direct of the three, is often asked to handle difficult conversations with clients or employees.
The women gained some of their insights about how birth order plays out in the workplace from Dattner, who has studied its impact in the workplace. He says it can provide useful insights to employees trying to navigate difficult office relationships.
Firstborns, he said, tend to be fearful of losing their position and rank, so they may be extremely anxious at a time of layoffs and downsizing. Second-born children tend to be most adventurous and open to change, he said. In fact, Dattner said that companies he had worked with found that when sending employees overseas, second-born children tended to fare better than older ones.
As the older of two daughters, Frankel said she sometimes feels competitive with Delio, which reminds her of competing with her sister for their parents' attention.
"I feel there are moments where you are sitting there and you can feel it in your body, you're having a reaction, something gets triggered," Frankel said. "It took on so much more import than it needed to."
She added, "And this is not really about Gina or Terry or what they are doing in this moment, this is reminding me of something that happened a long time ago that gets acted out there."
In the current recession, with corporate budgets shrinking, spending on psychological counseling at work is likely to be curtailed or eliminated, several business psychologists said. But other consultants said they are still receiving plenty of work from companies in crisis, particularly those facing the grim and emotional tasks of laying off employees or merging with other companies.
Heather Amber Anderson, a management consultant based in Stowe, Vermont, who speaks regularly to large groups of chief executives of small- and medium-size companies, said she has been telling these executives for the last few months that examining their own and their employees roles and behavior at work is especially important now.
"This is more critical than ever," she said she has advised. "People are watching you right now to set the emotional tenor of the organization. This is one of the most important conversations you need to have with yourself right now."
For the 50-something women who run TAG, where the employees are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, the possibility of having to lay off workers as the economic troubles squeeze their clients, feels very much like the specter of kicking their children out of the house.
"Having looked at what we may need to do to survive or how the trend in business is going, it's almost painful in that parental way," Rieser said, adding that one of the interns who worked for her called her "mother." "These are people who are dependent on you; these are people who depend on you for their livelihood."
One longtime company employee, Matthew Aldrich, who is the youngest of three brothers, feels very "taken care of" by the three partners, whom he calls "the ladies." "They look after me like a son," he said, adding that sometimes he even feels spoiled, reminding him somewhat of life in his family. "It's a nurturing role."
Thursday, December 4, 2008
By Joe Bavier
Congo and Rwanda have agreed a military plan to try to disband a Rwandan Hutu militia whose presence in eastern Congo is seen as a root cause of enduring conflict there, the Congolese Foreign Minister said on Thursday.
Alexis Thambwe Mwamba said the plan to tackle the FDLR armed group was drawn up by officers from the Great Lakes neighbours and agreed with his Rwandan counterpart Rosemary Museminali.
The two ministers met in Goma, capital of Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, where weeks of fighting have displaced a quarter of a million people.
The conflict pits Tutsi rebels led by renegade General Laurent Nkunda against the Congolese army and Rwandan Hutu fighters from the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
Nkunda cites the presence in east Congo of the FDLR, which includes perpetrators of Rwanda's 1994 genocide of Tutsis by Hutus, as the main justification for his Tutsi rebellion, which has conquered fresh territory in recent weeks.
Mwamba said the joint plan, whose details he refused to reveal, would be signed on Friday.
"The FDLR must either go back to Rwanda or become non-combatant in Congolese territory," he told reporters.
The Congolese minister said implementation of the plan could involve friendly outside forces, such as the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC) or soldiers from the southern African SADC bloc, which has offered troops to help pacify east Congo.
Nkunda has declared a cease-fire with the Congolese government army, but his Tutsi fighters are still battling the FDLR, whose existence many regional experts believe is at the heart of the persisting fighting in North Kivu.
"They (the FDLR) are actually the root cause of the insecurity that we see around," Museminali said.
United Nations peacekeepers in Congo fear that without a political settlement the violence could escalate into a repeat of the wider 1998-2003 regional war that devastated Congo.
DEMANDS FOR TALKS
Congo and Rwanda have accused each other of supporting rebels in east Congo hostile to their governments. Rwandan President Paul Kagame's Tutsi-led administration denies backing Nkunda, while Congolese President Joseph Kabila denies his army sides with the FDLR.
The neighbours were enemies in the 1998-2003 Congo war that sucked in four other African states and created a humanitarian crisis that has killed about 5.4 million people in a decade.
Congo pledged last year to disarm the FDLR by force if necessary, but Rwanda says little progress had been made.
The Goma talks are the latest of several meetings between the Congolese and Rwandan governments.
Nkunda's rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) has made territorial gains in North Kivu since late August. He wants direct talks on Congo's future with Kabila's government, which Kabila has so far refused.
A spokesman for the FDLR, Lt.-Col. Edmond Ngarambe, said talks aimed at pacifying eastern Congo must include his movement's fighters. "They have a role to play too," he said.
The FDLR is demanding a deal which would allow its fighters to return home to Rwanda and operate as a political movement.
The U.N. plans to send reinforcements to east Congo to try to pacify North Kivu, but these could take months to arrive.
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/)
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Giles Elgood)
By Elisabeth Malkin
Thursday, December 4, 2008
MEXICO CITY: The United States formally released on Wednesday the first part of a $400 million aid package to help Mexico fight drug trafficking, a sign of how much more involved the United States is becoming in Mexico's brutal drug war.
The agreement signed here makes almost $200 million available for different programs to strengthen Mexico's law enforcement agencies, treat drug addiction and upgrade the judiciary.
"It should be said: sometimes the narcotraffickers are better coordinated and integrated in their transnational activities than those that are confronting them," said United States Ambassador Antonio Garza.
The money is part of a three-year, $1.4 billion plan, called the Merida Initiative. Congress approved the first $400 million, plus an additional $65 million for Central America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic in June. The Bush administration has asked for an additional $550 million for 2009, with $450 million of that slated for Mexico.
About $136 million of this year's aid to Mexico is already in place through other agreements, including military cooperation, Garza said. The remaining amount, which includes money for helicopters and surveillance aircraft for the Mexican military, is still moving through the bureaucracy.
The list of projects announced Wednesday offered a view of the shortcomings of Mexican law enforcement, both in terms of technology and training. There is money for special X-ray equipment for containers, cargo and trucks, as well as for forensic equipment and a new police registry to ensure that police officers who are dismissed for corruption in one state are not then hired elsewhere. The money will also be used to purchase polygraph machines and computer technology to aid in tracking laundered cash.
Since President Felipe Calderon took office two years ago, he has made the crackdown on drug cartels the centerpiece of his administration, dispatching 30,000 soldiers to restore the government's authority in states where traffickers operated almost unhindered.
The campaign has brought some results, including the arrest of several cartel leaders and record seizures of drugs, arms and cash. But as the cartels have fought one another, as well as the police, the military and local officials, the death toll has increased.
The newspaper El Universal reported Wednesday that, by its count, there have already been more than 5,000 drug-related killings this year, almost double the number last year.
Over the past month, officials have made public a broad investigation of the senior ranks of federal police and prosecutors, dismissing three dozen officials. The former head of the anti-drug unit in the attorney general's office was arrested and charged with tipping off a drug cartel in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Calderon said last week that half of state and local police officers, as well as new hires to the federal preventive police, were not qualified.
By Yolanne Almanzar
Thursday, December 4, 2008
MIAMI: A first-grade boy who took a table knife to his Pembroke Pines elementary school and used it to rob a classmate of $1 in lunch money faces possible expulsion and charges of armed robbery, officials said Wednesday.
"We have seen more incidents where students are bringing items that they shouldn't bring to school," a Broward County schools spokesman, Keith Bromery, said. "We're not sure exactly why that's happening."
In the last month, an 8-year-old boy took a gun to his elementary school classroom in Fort Lauderdale, and a sophomore at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale was charged in the shooting death of a classmate in a school corridor.
In Pembroke Pines, the 7-year-old first grader approached a 6-year-old in the restroom of Pines Lakes Elementary School last week, threatened him with the knife and took his dollar, the police said. Bromery described the knife as having a rounded point, the kind that goes with a place setting.
The 6-year-old suffered a nosebleed during the encounter, but it was not clear whether the knife's blade drew the blood. His mother reported the incident to school officials on Monday, and they summoned the Pembroke Pines police, who were investigating. They will send their findings to the state attorney's office for review before any charges are filed.
"There's some difficulty in this case because you first have to determine if the child knew what he was doing," a police spokesman, David Golt, said.
If expelled, the boy would be sent to an alternative school where he would receive counseling and treatment, with the possibility of returning to Pines Lakes after an evaluation. Alternative schools, known as educational centers, are part of the Broward County school system and are for children with behavioral problems.
"We don't expel anyone to the street," Bromery said.
By Geraldine Fabrikant
Thursday, December 4, 2008
In a sign of the economic times, Harvard has sent a letter to its deans saying that the university's $36.9 billion endowment fund lost 22 percent of its value in the last four months and could decline as much as 30 percent by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
Normally Harvard reports on the endowment's performance once a year, but the letter signed by the university's president, Drew Faust, and its executive vice president, Edward Forst, cited the "current extraordinary circumstances" as the rationale for providing an interim report.
Harvard depends on its endowment for about 35 percent of its operating budget, and some of its schools rely on endowment income to cover more than 50 percent of their expenses. As a result, the letter noted that the endowment's performance would have a significant impact on budgets. The decline, about $8 billion, does not capture the full extent of losses, the letter said, because some investments are harder to value and are valued only periodically.
For example, at the end of its fiscal 2008 year, Harvard said it had 11 percent of its holdings in private equity, 9 percent in timber and agriculture, and a comparable amount in real estate. Each sector has been hard hit in the current environment, but it is difficult to quantify the decline on a daily or monthly basis. Harvard noted that its private equity and real estate investments are managed externally. Experts say that those markdowns could prompt a decline of an additional three or four percentage points.
In addition, the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index was down again in November. At the end of fiscal 2008 in June, Harvard had 12 percent in domestic stocks and a similar amount in foreign equities as well as 10 percent in emerging markets. Declines in those sectors could also have affected the endowment's results.
At the end of fiscal 2008, Harvard said it planned to increase its private equity holdings by 2 percent. Instead, because of market turmoil and problems in the private equity market, the endowment has put $1.5 billion, about 38 percent of its private equity holdings, up for sale. But as many foundations and endowments do the same, it is unclear what such sales will fetch.
Jane Mendillo, who formerly ran the Wellesley endowment, assumed the head of Harvard's endowment in July. She was appointed in March, succeeding Mohamed El-Erian, a former managing director at Pacific Investment Management Company, who stayed two years before deciding to return to Pimco as a member of its senior management team.
Private equity funds have been a particular problem for nonprofit entities. They return cash periodically and require new cash commitments to finance ventures. But while there have been few returns, demands for new commitments have continued, which has put pressure on schools to come up with cash for an array of needs, including the school budget and private equity.
In their letter, Faust and Forst said that to have the cash necessary to meet demands and minimize risk, the school would issue "a substantial amount of new taxable fixed-rate debt." Harvard also plans to convert a significant amount of short-term tax-exempt debt into bonds with longer maturities, so it can reduce its exposure to volatility and continue to finance operations and other priorities.
The letter did not discuss the impact of the decline on the school's ambitious financial aid program. In December 2007, for example, Harvard said that as part of its program to attract applicants from different income groups, it would charge students from homes with incomes of $120,000 to $180,000 about 10 percent of their family household income per year, thereby subsidizing the $45,600 annual cost of attending.
A little more than half of its undergraduates receive some form of financial aid. At the time, the school said that the new plan meant Harvard would increase financial aid spending by the university to $120 million, from $98 million, annually.
Harvard, like other schools, is expected to be hurt by declines in other revenue streams, as well as the endowment. As families of students find themselves increasingly in need of financial aid, the revenue from tuition could fall.
In addition, as the downturn puts strain on the government, federal grants and contracts for sponsored research are likely to encounter added stress.
Back to Dallas for the Bush family
The Associated Press
Thursday, December 4, 2008
WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush and the first lady Laura Bush have bought a home in an affluent, North Dallas neighborhood, where they will live after the president leaves office in January.
Laura Bush's press secretary, Sally McDonough, said Thursday that the Bushes purchased a home in the Preston Hollow area, which has some of the most expensive houses in Texas and is home to some of the state's wealthiest residents.
The Bushes previously lived in Dallas from December 1988 through January 1995, before moving to the Texas governor's mansion in Austin, Texas. The Bushes will continue to spend some time at their ranch in Crawford, Texas, a two-hour drive away, McDonough said.
The president and Laura Bush do not yet have occupancy of the house, so the White House offered no further details at this time, McDonough said. However, local property records indicate that Robert McCleskey, who has done accounting work for the Bush family, recently bought an 8,500-square-foot, or 790 square meter, house with a market value of $2.1 million on a cul-de-sac in a wealthy pocket of Dallas.
McCleskey is listed as a trustee on the property and he said the house was bought Oct. 1. He said he could not say for whom the home was purchased.
By Christopher Clarey
Thursday, December 4, 2008
SAN DIEGO, California: Already looking suspiciously like a relic of an age of excess, the massive trimaran sailboat belonging to BMW Oracle Racing was docked in San Diego harbor last week: its towering mast giving the high-rise hotels some competition.
"I'm staying on the 13th floor, and I'm not at the mast yet," said the skipper, Russell Coutts, gesturing at his hotel between bites of a sandwich. "I'm looking down from the hotel thinking, 'Wow, that's what it must look like from the top of that thing."'
That thing - dubbed "Dogzilla" by the sailing community - is the latest high-tech racing machine created at great if undisclosed expense with the America's Cup in mind. But with a long-running lawsuit continuing to generate much more drag than this trimaran's leviathan, computer-designed hulls, it is anybody's guess whether BMW Oracle's wind-powered monster will ever be used in the Cup.
Win an appeal in the New York courts sometime next year, and BMW Oracle might indeed race its trimaran against one currently being designed by Alinghi, the current defender of the Cup, in a one-on-one series adhering strictly to the rules outlined in the Cup's governing document, the Deed of Gift. In Cup parlance, that would be a Deed of Gift match, or DOG match (hence the trimaran's provocative nickname, which its crew and designers have yet to embrace).
But BMW Oracle and its owner, Larry Ellison could still decide to drop the lawsuit, which was filed last year in the belief that Alinghi had made an unseemly power grab when it picked a brand new Spanish yacht club as its official challenger and then published race rules widely viewed as one-sided.
If the lawsuit is withdrawn, Alinghi has already announced that the next Cup - scaled down for the new economic realities - will be staged in traditional monohull yachts in 2010 in Valencia, Spain. And even if BMW Oracle does not succumb to mounting peer pressure and end its legal action, it could still lose in court, which would mean that the trimaran in San Diego Harbor, 90 feet by 90 feet, or 27 meters square, with its 158-foot mast, would be reduced to a black elephant. Or would it?
"I think we'll try to set a few speed records with the boat if it doesn't get used," said Ellison, the software impresario, in a telephone interview. "We'll find something to do with it. Priority one is to get the America's Cup back on track. The reason this boat was built was for the Deed of Gift match, so if we win the America's Cup we can go back to a fair set of rules and a multichallenger event where the rules are the same for everybody. That's the primary purpose of this boat, and if we get there, however we get there, I'll be happy."
For the moment, however, happiness is an elusive emotion in Cup circles. Securing sponsorship, already a daunting challenge because of the uncertainty generated by the lawsuit, has become closer to impossible with the global economic downturn. The Cup community, which was basking in the sun and affluence in Valencia during the Cup that ended last year, is now in a much more precarious state.
Would-be challengers have scaled back their plans and payrolls radically, forcing sailors and support staff to search for other means of paying their mortgages. Alinghi, owned by Ernesto Bertarelli, has resorted to layoffs and cutbacks and is still negotiating to extend its deal with one of its primary sponsors, the Swiss bank UBS, which has been hit particularly hard by the financial crisis.
Even BMW Oracle, with its primary sponsors still on board and Ellison's billions for backup, is apparently now sparing expense. Its temporary base in San Diego was long on trimaran but short on creature comforts with the team operating out of several shipping containers in a converted, fenced-in lot in which no fewer than 20 parking spaces were occupied last week by a reserve mast laid flat on the pavement.
Though modern Cup teams traditionally prize security and secrecy, curiosity seekers in San Diego had no problem getting a close-up look at the trimaran. All they had to do was walk to the end of the terrace at Joe's Crab Shack, the restaurant that looks over the base, which is precisely what some of Alinghi's emissaries did this year when they came to spy in plain view.
What they saw, according to Coutts, should not have reassured them. The trimaran is not the largest multihull racing sailboat in the world. Banque Populaire V, launched in France earlier this year, is 40 meters long. But Coutts said it is "the fastest" and, while most big trimarans were built for offshore racing, this one was designed for inshore racing and has been clocked at speeds twice that of the wind.
"It's much lighter, more powerful with a much bigger mast, sails and so forth and much more extreme," Coutts said. "This boat is a no compromise lightweight flyer basically, so there's a huge difference."
Coutts, the New Zealander with the Dudley Do-Right jaw, is no multihull expert. He has made his name as a supreme helmsman of monohulls. He has already won the America's Cup three times, twice with Team New Zealand and once with Alinghi in 2003 before parting acrimoniously with the Swiss-based syndicate and its owner, Bertarelli.
After Coutts sat out last year's Cup, Ellison hired Coutts to run his team after BMW Oracle was eliminated early from the challenger series, known as the Vuitton Cup. Coutts's new role has only complicated matters in the legal duel with Bertarelli and Alinghi.
Ellison maintains that Bertarelli's attempts to strong-arm the Cup have been motivated by personal dislike for Coutts and competitive concern about the powerhouse team that Coutts and Ellison have assembled. But BMW Oracle has found itself increasingly isolated in recent weeks as Alinghi has pushed forward with planning for a conventional Cup in 2010, inviting would-be challengers to meet in Switzerland and work through the rules in concert.
"I can't really answer for them; I think there's a lot of them that are anxious just to get this event going and maybe regardless of the rules," Coutts said of the participating teams.
But Keith Mills, the head of the British challenger Team Origin, said on Thursday that there had been genuine and significant compromises made. He said he intended to contact Ellison and Coutts directly before the entry deadline of Dec. 15 for the prospective Cup in 2010 to provide them with details of the revised rules, called a protocol, and to urge BMW Oracle to drop its lawsuit and join the competition.
Both Coutts and Ellison said that they would not relent unless Alinghi formally commits to "fair rules" that are identical or very close in spirit to those used for last year's Cup and do not allow Alinghi to control, among other things, the selection of the majority of race officials.
"We don't trust Ernesto, and we think we have good reason not to trust him," Ellison said. "All you have to do is look at the first set of rules and realize he's been forced to make these compromises because of the lawsuit. He hasn't willingly made these, and he still has not made enough compromises."
Mills struck a different tone. "We want to give them every opportunity to be there and frankly so do all the other challengers," he said of Oracle. "But what isn't going to happen and what Russell called for is that we send the protocol to Russell for him to write a long critique for what he'd like changed. We're not going to have one team do that."
"It's not going to be exactly what they want, not going to be exactly what anybody wants. It's not exactly what Alinghi wants, but on balance is it fair? I think it's fair, and I hope Larry and Russell agree. But if they don't, they're big boys, and they can take their chances in court." Rapprochement is still hardly out of the question, but unlike Alinghi, which is still building its multihull, BMW Oracle's backup plan is already afloat and casting very long shadows across the Pacific.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
WABI SABI By Mark Reibstein. Illustrated by Ed Young. Little, Brown & Company Books for Young Readers. $16.99. (Ages 3 to 6)
In this book of ingeniously layered text — both narrative and haiku — and gorgeous collage art, a cat named Wabi Sabi sets out to discover the meaning of her name. Chosen by The Times as a Best Illustrated Children's Book of 2008.
THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 2. By M. T. Anderson. Candlewick Press. $22.99. (Ages 14 and up)
This sequel completes the story of race and revolution told in "The Pox Party." As Octavian Nothing, escaped from slavery, joins up with British forces in Boston, his story encompasses both the comic and the tragic with sweeping ambition.
SUNRISE OVER FALLUJAH By Walter Dean Myers Scholastic Press. $17.99. (Ages 12 and up)
An idealistic young soldier lands in Iraq's deadly hall of mirrors, in a kind of sequel to Myers's 1988 Vietnam novel, "Fallen Angels." In this powerful new book, laced with violence but also warmth and humor, the narrator faces humanitarian missions that turn into deadly ambushes (a detonator is concealed in a tub of flour) and bears witness to the killing of friend and enemy alike.
THE HUNGER GAMES By Suzanne Collins Scholastic Press. $17.99. (Ages 12 and up)
A brilliantly plotted tale that begins after North American society has been decimated by climate change and war. In this world, children fight to the death in ritual games — a form of both repression and entertainment in the country of Panem. When her younger sister is picked to compete, Katniss Everdeen, a skilled hunter, makes the fateful choice to take her place.
LITTLE BROTHER By Cory Doctorow Tor/Tom Doherty Associates. $17.95. (Ages 13 and up)
A near-future terrorist attack hits San Francisco, and Marcus Yallow, 17, playing hooky from high school, is detained in the crackdown that follows. The experience leads him into an ingenious program of resistance and civil rights activism in a novel that is at once an entertaining thriller, a thoughtful polemic and a practical handbook of digital-age self-defense.
ABC3D By Marion Bataille Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press. $19.95. (Ages 5 and up)
A simple but sophisticated idea animates this small, chunky pop-up book, which does wonders with the letters A through Z. In Bataille's paper engineering, B doubles as 3, C flips over to become a D, U is a perfect parabola, and so on, all in bold black, white and red. This stylish and interactive work of art can be read again and again.
TEN LITTLE FINGERS AND TEN LITTLE TOES By Mem Fox. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury Harcourt Children's Books. $16. (Ages 3 to 5)
A witty and winsome look at babies around the world that has a toe-tapping refrain: the words sound easy and familiar, as though they have been handed down to children forever. And the story ends with a pitch-perfect moment: one little baby who is "mine, all mine."
THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS By E. Lockhart Hyperion. $16.99. (Ages 12 and up)
A nominee for a National Book Award in young people's literature, E. Lockhart's latest concerns "a nice girl" who remakes herself as a "near-criminal mastermind," with pranks that upend her school's oppressive power structure (created by and for boys). It's a homage to girl power, with a protagonist who is fearless.
By Gail Collins
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Ed Rendell can't believe that he's being asked about the fact that he said that Barack Obama's nominee for head of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, has "no life."
"We're facing the greatest crisis since the Depression, and you want to talk about this?" he complained.
This is exactly the kind of comment people used to make during the bad old days in New York, when cops ticketing cars for double-parking were always told that they should be out arresting murderous drug dealers. But what better time to have a diverting discussion about a governor's misadventure with an open microphone? Really, there's not much chance that we're going to forget the big picture.
Rendell, who is governor of Pennsylvania, was chatting about Napolitano, the governor of Arizona, at a governor's meeting (where else?) while lounging in the vicinity of a live mic. (They should put lights on those things that would flash red when they're turned on.) He was explaining that Napolitano was "perfect" for homeland security "because, for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19-20 hours a day to it."
This seemed to be the summation of Napolitano's qualifications. Rendell himself has been on the list of Cabinet Mentions, and this is a good example of the way people around the world explain why another person got the prize instead: It was all about some random characteristic I happen to lack. ("Ted's perfect for the job. Because for that job, you really have to speak Estonian.") Perhaps a rather undesirable characteristic. ("For that job, you have to be able to drink those salesmen under the table and Ted's an absolute lush.")
And it sure sounded as if he was saying that single people like Napolitano exist in a state so dark and barren that the empty hours can only be filled up by guarding the nation's borders against terrorists.
You will not be surprised that Rendell - reached by phone in Pennsylvania and game as ever for conversation - feels as though he's been completely misunderstood.
"It was meant to include all workaholics," said Rendell, who is married with a grown son. "I have no life. I'll give you a perfect example." He launched into a story about coming home late at night and watching a two-hour cable TV review of the Pennsylvania budget. Which actually, if you were a governor and it was your state's budget, might be kind of fascinating.
"I have no life either," he repeated. "But I couldn't run Homeland Security because I don't have the background." It was about here, when he reached the exact opposite analysis from the one he made into the wrong microphone, that Rendell pointed out we were facing the greatest crisis since the Depression.
All this was a real blow to Bella DePaulo, the author of "Singled Out," who had recently posted on her blog, celebrating the fact that after Napolitano's nomination was announced, "I haven't found any hints of singlism" in the articles about her.
"Oh, no!" she said, when reached by telephone Wednesday morning.
DePaulo says that "singlism" - a term she coined and for which we are prepared to forgive her - is not just aimed at unmarried women. She referred to an MSNBC interview that Chris Matthews had with the presidential candidate Ralph Nader in 2004, in which Matthews demanded to know how Nader could say George W. Bush was irresponsible: "He's raised two daughters; he's had a happy marriage. Isn't he more mature in his lifestyle than you are?"
This did seem strange, since there are so many excellent reasons unrelated to marital status why Ralph Nader would make a terrible president. (The list does not, however, include "likely to let the big financial firms ruin the economy due to lack of regulation.") To be fair, Matthews also asked Nader if the fact that he did not own a car meant that he had not "had an American experience."
But it's unmarried women at the top who often wind up portrayed as vestal virgins who live only to serve their chief executive. (Condoleezza Rice's public image is so extreme that people must be wondering if she plans to immolate herself on the White House lawn during the inauguration.) Instead of being celebrated for their achievements, they wind up regarded as slightly fanatic.
And single women comprise between 43 percent and 51 percent of the adult women in the country, depending on how you count. They are universally regarded as folks with time on their hands, and thus the most likely recruits for taking care of aged parents and adjusting their schedules to accommodate their married friends.
"Employers ask you to cover for everyone else," said DePaulo.
Which actually makes them sound busier than their married peers. So perhaps single Americans have too much life. It's a wonder they have time for anything.
By Sarah Lyall
Thursday, December 4, 2008
LONDON: The European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously Thursday that Britain's policy of gathering and storing the fingerprints and DNA of all criminal suspects - even those who turn out to be innocent - is a violation of the human right to privacy.
The ruling, handed down in Strasbourg, was a severe blow to the law-enforcement policies of the Labour government, which has led Europe in aggressively collecting and retaining personal information on its citizens. Using strong language, the court declared itself "struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature" of the police's policy of holding DNA material indefinitely in its database.
Britain's DNA Database contains the profiles of more than 4.6 million people, about 860,000 of whom do not have criminal records. Privacy experts say that represents a higher proportion of its population than do similar databases in other countries.
"They're in the vanguard of doing this, is the polite way of saying it," said Dan Cooper, a partner at the law firm Covington & Burling, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of Privacy International, an advocacy group. "They have the biggest database in Europe, and possibly globally, for law-enforcement purposes."
Human-rights groups applauded the court's decision as a welcome check on the powers of the state.
"Forty percent of Britain's criminals are not on this database, but hundreds of thousands of innocent people are," said Anna Fairclough, the legal officer of Liberty, a British group that advocates for human rights. The court, she said, "has protected the privacy of British people so poorly let down by our own government."
Britain now has several months to decide how to respond to the ruling. In a statement, the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she was "disappointed" by the court's decision. "I strongly believe DNA and fingerprints play an invaluable role in fighting crime and bringing people to justice," she said.
The government argues that information on the database collected from suspects in past crimes has helped solve thousands of new cases in the past eight years, including at least 53 murders and 94 rapes.
Britain has a reputation for intruding in its citizens' private lives. It is said to have the most closed-circuit television cameras per capita in the world. A government plan to issue mandatory ID cards encoded with personal information has stirred fierce opposition.
"There have been a number of recent government initiatives which have been very worrying to privacy advocates," Cooper said. "And there have been so many massive data breaches and leaks of information that any time the government proposes something that would require collecting more data, people get very concerned."
The DNA case was brought by two Sheffield men who were arrested in separate cases in 2001, but were both ultimately cleared of committing crimes. One, identified as Mr. P., 19, was charged with armed robbery; he was later acquitted. The other, Michael Marper, now 45, was arrested and charged with harassment in 2001; the charges were eventually dropped.
In both cases, the suspects' fingerprints and DNA samples were taken by the police. Both men asked later that the samples be destroyed, but the police refused.
While most European countries allow the police to take fingerprints and DNA samples in some criminal cases, England and Wales are alone in Europe in allowing the samples to be taken as a matter of course, and in keeping them indefinitely, experts say. Scotland has separate, less sweeping, procedures.
The two men took their case to the European court after losing a series of battles in British courts, arguing that the police's decision to keep the samples violated their right to privacy as set out in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Having information on the DNA database was humiliating and stigmatizing, they said.
The court agreed, saying that Britain had "overstepped any acceptable margin of appreciation" in striking a balance between individual rights and public interests.
The current law, it said, "constitutes a disproportionate interference in the applicants' right for respect to private life and cannot be regarded as necessary in a democratic society."
Thursday, December 4, 2008
LONDON: House prices in November fell at their sharpest monthly rate since the housing market crash of the early 1990s, the nation's biggest mortgage lender Halifax said on Thursday.
House prices fell 2.6 percent on the month, the biggest decline since September 1992, when the housing market was still in deep decline as Britain was just emerging from a year-long recession. That took the three-month annual rate of decline down to 14.9 percent in November, a new low since records began in 1983, Halifax said.
The figures boosted expectations for the Bank of England to deliver another bold cut in interest rates when its monthly meeting concludes at 12 p.m., after last month's shock 1.5 percentage point reduction to 3 percent.
Most analysts reckon the central bank will slash borrowing costs by one percentage points after a raft of dismal data this week suggested the economy has taken a sharp turn for the worse.
"The very sharp fall in house prices reported by the Halifax adds extra late pressure on the Bank of England to deliver a very large interest rate cut today," said Howard Archer, economist at IHS Global Insight.
The Halifax data showed the average price of a home fell to 163,605 pounds, in November, a level not seen since July 2005 and a 18 percent fall from their peak in August 2007.
Last month, Halifax said house prices fell 2.2 percent on the month in October for an annual three-month decline of 13.7 percent.
By John F. Burns
Thursday, December 4, 2008
LONDON: The annual ceremony at which Queen Elizabeth II formally opens Parliament was overshadowed by an uproar in the House of Commons over a police raid last week in which Scotland Yard's elite counterterrorism squad searched an opposition member's parliamentary office for evidence for a possible criminal case against the member of Parliament and a civil service whistleblower.
The queen's journey Wednesday in an ermine-trimmed gown and gilded carriage to the Palace of Westminster became almost a sideshow as a packed Commons chamber, meeting after the ceremony, erupted into angry dispute over the raid last Thursday. It was the Commons' first opportunity to respond, in formal session, to what many members have described as the most threatening assault on Britain's parliamentary sovereignty in memory.
Scotland Yard is investigating Damian Green, a 52-year-old Conservative who is his party's chief immigration spokesman. Seeking evidence against Green and Christopher Galley, a 26-year-old aide to Britain's home secretary who has acknowledged passing confidential information about Home Office immigration blunders to Green, the police seized a computer and files from Green's Commons office. The 20-member squad assigned to the case arrested Green elsewhere in London, seized his cellphone and BlackBerry, and raided his London apartment as well as his office and home in Kent.
Green strongly rebutted suggestions by the police and government that his actions, and Galley's, had put Britain's security at risk. One of Galley's leaks to Green last year enabled him to challenge the government over the Home Office's failure to admit publicly that it had discovered that 5,000 illegal immigrants had somehow passed vetting for work as security guards in public buildings.
"Let me make it absolutely clear that I believe that members of Parliament are not above the law," Green said, before adding, "and that those who have the real power in this country, ministers, senior civil servants and the police, are also not beyond the law."
To cries of "Hear, hear!" from almost every corner of the Commons, he said, "An MP endangering national security would be a disgrace; an MP exposing facts about Home Office policy which ministers are hiding is doing his job in the public interest."
The central figure in the Commons crossfire was the Commons speaker, Michael Martin, a 63-year-old Labour veteran and former sheet-metal worker from Scotland who has long been an opposition target. Long before the raid, critics charged that he had abandoned the traditional neutrality of the speaker's post to become a combative and often clumsy protector of Labour's political interests. Martin's response, in a nervous statement that he delivered flush-faced, was to lay much of the blame for the raid on an assistant, Jill Pay, whom he named this year as Commons sergeant at arms, in charge of parliamentary security.
Pay, the first woman to hold the job, sat stern-faced as Martin said he regretted that she had signed a police consent form for the raid on Green's Commons office without consulting the Clerk of the Commons, who oversees the Commons staff for Martin.
Martin also took aim at Scotland Yard, saying that Robert Quick, an assistant police commissioner who leads the counterterrorism squad, had failed to tell Pay that the police had no warrant for the Commons raid and that Pay had a right to refuse.
Martin said that he had been told by Pay on the morning of the raid that the police planned to arrest a Commons member but that he was given no name or details of the case. From now on, he said, no police raids on members' offices would be permitted without a warrant and without the speaker's personal consent.
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