30 April 2009

Be careful, it could happen to you

Courtesy of The War on Guns from the sidebar, this little story of heroism on the high seas:
A British vacationer is being hailed a hero after he thwarted gun-toting pirates attacking a cruise ship— by throwing a deck chair at them. Wyn Rowlands was celebrating his 62nd birthday with a dream cruise onboard the MSC Melody near the Seychelle Islands when he spotted armed pirates in a speedboat trying to clamber on to the vessel. Quick-thinking Wyn, a retired engineer from Bangor-on-Dee, picked up a deck-chair and flung it down at the gang before raising the alarm. The ship’s captain, Ciro Pinto, was then able to out-manoeuvre the pirates to prevent them boarding the cruise ship. The MSC Melody and its 1,000 passengers and 500 crew were 600 miles off the coast of Somalia— notorious for pirate attacks— when the incident happenedon Sunday evening.
"Mr. Rowlands was on deck with his wife when he saw the pirates approaching and firing automatic weapons," a spokeswoman for the Melody told Sky News Online. "He is understandably very proud that his rapid response helped save the day."
The ship’s owner immediately praised its captain and the Welshman for their prompt action. "We’re very proud of them and that they promptly tackled the emergency," said Gianluigi Aponte. "All security measures worked perfectly and Captain Pinto followed all security protocols to guide the ship out of danger. The crew showed great professionalism and extreme clarity."
Rico says there's nothing like a pissed-off Welshman to fix things. (But he does wonder how the hell anyone gets a 'speedboat' out 600 miles without a mothership somewhere and, if there is one, why no one has spotted it via satellite and sunk it...)

Southwest is unique

Rico says if you've never flown Southwest Airlines, you need to, just for this kinda thing.

Ah, the Aussies

Rico says if you want manly men, send for the Australians, mate...

Maybe sooner rather than too late

The Kansas City Star has an article by Lesley Clark about the latest moves on Cuba:
President Barack Obama's overtures to Cuba have enlivened the debate in Congress on boosting American travel and trade to the island, but Raul Castro decried the administration's opening salvo as "achieving only the minimum." Speaking in Havana before a gathering of international ministers, the Cuban president said that "it is not Cuba that has to make gestures". He called Obama's moves two weeks ago to lift travel and gift restrictions on Cuban Americans and ease restrictions on US telecommunication firms "fine, positive, but only achieve the minimum. The embargo remains intact."
The State Department appeared unmoved by the criticism, countering that it's Cuba that needs to show some effort. "We're interested in a dialogue with Cuba, but I think the international community wants to see some steps from Havana to see, to gauge how serious the government there is," said state department spokesman Robert Wood. Regardless of Havana's reaction, Obama's moves have emboldened critics of current US policy, who already had filed legislation to allow Americans to travel to Cuba.
Next up, a contingent of farm state senators is expected soon to introduce legislation aimed at boosting agricultural trade with the island. A similar bill to ease trade and travel restrictions for US farmers and ranchers languished in the last Congress, but backers believe momentum now is on their side. "There's clearly a great deal of interest on the Hill," said Rosemarie Watkins, director of international policy for the American Farm Bureau, which considers increasing agricultural sales to Cuba "an important priority."
An aide to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said the Montana Democrat expects to introduce a bill to open trade and travel for farmers, ranchers, and families. "We can and should do more," Baucus said after the administration announced the travel and gift rollback. "We need to make it easier for America's farmers and ranchers to sell their high quality products, including Montana's world-class wheat and barley, to one of our closest markets."
Critics note the proposals are supported by many of the same longtime opponents of the existing Cuba policy, and they suggest the administration is more likely to wait for Cuba to respond to its initial overtures before endorsing further moves.
"The feeling I've been getting in Congress is, 'We've done something and now the regime has to show its good will'," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, a leading pro-embargo lobbyist. "Any media-created momentum in Cuba policy has been cut off by President Obama putting the onus on the regime."
The State Department on Wednesday reiterated support for the trade embargo in the wake of Castro's comments, with Wood noting that "we do have an embargo, and there is no plan at this point to lift that embargo. But we do want to do what we can to support the Cuban people."
Agricultural trade groups, however, argue that lifting the embargo would usher change in Cuba by boosting economic opportunity. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates US exports to Cuba reached $718 million in 2008, with corn topping the list at $198 million, followed by meat, poultry, and wheat. But the chamber complained earlier this week at a House hearing on trade with Cuba that cumbersome U.S. restrictions make it difficult for small- and medium-sized exporters to participate.
The regulations the industry wants changed include allowing Cuba to pay for goods by credit and ending a policy that requires Cuba to pay for products in advance. The chamber notes that US agricultural sales to Cuba decreased by nearly fifteen percent in the two years after the Bush administration required cash up front. The change could help the United States, which is only ninety miles from Cuba, box out Vietnam and China, competitors for products such as rice, said Kirby Jones, president of the US-Cuba Trade Association, which champions trade with Havana.
Rico says screw the corn and food, let's get the travel restrictions lifted; he and his father have some vacationing to do...

Gravely concerned? One should hope so

The New York Times has an article by Helene Cooper and Jeff Zeleny about the President and Pakistan:
President Obama said Wednesday that he was “gravely concerned” about the stability of the Pakistani government, but that he was confident Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal would not fall into the hands of Islamic militants. Speaking at a prime-time news conference on his 100th day in office, Mr. Obama called the government in Pakistan, where army forces are at war with Taliban insurgents who have been advancing on Islamabad, “very fragile”. Pakistan’s leader, President Asif Ali Zardari, is to visit Washington next week, and American officials have been pressing his government to be more aggressive in battling the insurgency. “I am more concerned that the civilian government right now is very fragile,” Mr. Obama said, because it lacks the capacity to deliver services like health care and the rule of law. “As a consequence,” he added, “it’s very difficult for them to gain the support and loyalty of their people.”
Mr. Obama also hit back at critics including former Vice President Dick Cheney, maintaining that harsh interrogation techniques used by the previous administration did not yield any information that could not have been obtained through other means. Responding to the fallout over his decision to release secret memorandums that laid out the Bush administration’s legal justification for interrogation techniques like waterboarding— which Mr. Obama called torture— the president said that none of the intelligence reports he had seen left him thinking such methods were justified or necessary. “I will do whatever is required to keep the American people safe,” Mr. Obama said. “But I am convinced that the best way to do that is to make sure we’re not taking shortcuts that undermine who we are.” He offered no shift, however, in his opposition to an independent inquiry into the Bush administration’s policies on the interrogation of terror suspects.
During the one-hour news conference, Mr. Obama struck a variety of notes, ranging from historian-in-chief to mom-in-chief, when he lectured Americans to take precautions against the swine flu. “Wash your hands when you shake hands; cover your mouth when you cough,” he said. “I know it sounds trivial, but it makes a huge difference.”
There were a few light moments, particularly when Mr. Obama was asked what has surprised, troubled, enchanted, and humbled him in the past 100 days. “Wait, let me get this all down,” he said, taking out a pen. He was surprised, he answered, by the number of critical issues that appear to be coming to a head all at the same time.
“I didn’t anticipate the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” he said. “The typical president has two or three big problems, we have seven or eight.” He said he was troubled, or at least, “sobered” by how much “political posturing and bickering takes place even when we’re in the middle of really big crises.” He called himself enchanted by American servicemen and women, and their sacrifices they make, although he allowed that “enchanted” might not be the exact characterization. By the time he got to what humbled him, he was ready to expound, going on about the how the presidency was “just part of a much broader tapestry of American life” and how “the ship of state is an ocean liner, not a speed boat.”
Often, over the course of the hour, he sought to draw distinctions between himself and his predecessor, and said that he had changed America’s relations with the world. “We have rejected the false choice between our security and our ideals,” he said. Asked about his administration’s support in several recent court cases for the Bush administration’s position that the government had a broad right to invoke national security secrets to block litigation, Mr. Obama responded that he wants to modify the so-called 'state secrets' doctrine, but had not had time to do so when the court cases came up. “I actually think that the state secret doctrine should be modified,” he said. “I think right now it’s over-broad.”
Addressing the economy, Mr. Obama said his administration had made progress but that there was much more to be done and that he ultimately wants a more stable economy less prone to boom and bust. “We cannot go back to an economy that is built on a pile of sand— on inflated home prices and maxed-out credit cards, on over-leveraged banks and outdated regulations that allowed the recklessness of a few to threaten the prosperity of us all,” Mr. Obama said in an eight-minute speech, before taking questions from reporters. He offered a new catchphrase to describe his economic program, calling for a “new foundation for growth”, that would encompass increased spending on issues like education and renewable energy.
Mr. Obama suggested that the pressures of governing at a time of economic crisis, war, and now a potential flu pandemic have led him to pay less attention to some issues of intense interest to his political base. Asked if he would keep a campaign promise to eliminate federal, state, and local restrictions on abortion, he said that while he favored abortion rights, getting rid of those restrictions were “not my highest legislative priority”. Asked about how he would use the government’s power as a major shareholder in companies like General Motors and Citigroup, he said the government should limit its involvement. “I don’t want to run auto companies. I don’t want to run banks,” Mr. Obama said. “I’ve got two wars I’ve got to run already. I’ve got more than enough to do. So the sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we’re going to be.”
The news conference in the East Room of the White House was the final act in a daylong series of events staged to mark Mr. Obama’s 100th day in office. Earlier, Mr. Obama traveled to Missouri for a town meeting in a state that he narrowly lost last year. He offered an upbeat assessment of his first three months in the White House, but implored patience as he tackles a mountain of challenges, saying he could not work miracles.
The tone of Mr. Obama’s remarks reflected an assessment from several advisers that the next chapter of his presidency is likely to be even more difficult than the first. But his job approval rating remains high, particularly given the wave of challenges on his desk, which in the last week grew even larger with the first health emergency of his administration.
Rico says he hopes there's a secret plan to drop something nuclear on the Paki arsenal if it even looks like it might fall into the hands of the militants...

Is he serious? Yes, apparently

The New York Times has an opinion column by Nicholas Kristof about (of all things) rape, entitled Is Rape Serious:
When a woman reports a rape, her body is a crime scene. She is typically asked to undress over a large sheet of white paper to collect hairs or fibers, and then her body is examined with an ultraviolet light, photographed, and thoroughly swabbed for the rapist’s DNA. It’s a grueling and invasive process that can last four to six hours and produces a 'rape kit'— which, it turns out, often sits around for months or years, unopened and untested.
Stunningly often, the rape kit isn’t tested at all because it’s not deemed a priority. If it is tested, this happens at such a lackadaisical pace that it may be a year or more before there are results (if expedited, results are technically possible in a week). So while we have breakthrough DNA technologies to find culprits and exculpate innocent suspects, we aren’t using them properly— and those who work in this field believe the reason is an underlying doubt about the seriousness of some rape cases. In short, this isn’t justice; it’s indifference.
Solomon Moore, a colleague of mine at The Times, last year wrote about a 43-year-old legal secretary who was raped repeatedly in her home in Los Angeles as her son slept in another room. The attacker forced the woman to clean herself in an attempt to destroy the evidence. Tim Marcia, the detective on the case, thought this meant that the perpetrator was a habitual offender who would strike again. Mr. Marcia rushed the rape kit to the crime lab but was told to expect a delay of more than one year. So Mr. Marcia personally drove the kit 350 miles to deliver it to the state lab in Sacramento. Even there, the backlog resulted in a four-month delay— but then it produced a “cold hit,” a match in a database of the DNA of previous offenders. Yet, in the months while the rape kit sat on a shelf, the suspect had allegedly struck twice more. Police said he broke into the homes of a pregnant woman and a seventeen-year-old girl, sexually assaulting each of them.
“The criminal justice system is still ill equipped to deal with rape and not that good at moving rape cases forward,” notes Sarah Tofte, who just wrote a devastating report for Human Rights Watch about the rape-kit backlog. The report found that in Los Angeles County, there were at last count 12,669 rape kits sitting in police storage facilities. More than 450 of these kits had sat around for more than ten years, and in many cases, the statute of limitations had expired. There are no good national figures, and one measure of the indifference is that no one even bothers to count the number of rape kits sitting around untested.
Why don’t police departments treat rape kits with urgency? One reason is probably expense— each kit can cost up to $1,500 to test— but there also seems to be a broad distaste for rape cases as murky, ambiguous, and difficult to prosecute, particularly when they involve (as they often do) alcohol or acquaintance rape. “They talk about the victims’ credibility in a way that they don’t talk about the credibility of victims of other crimes,” Ms. Tofte said.
Charlie Beck, a deputy police chief of Los Angeles, said that there was no excuse for the failure to test rape kits, but he noted that integrating a new technology into police work is complex and involves a learning curve. Since Human Rights Watch began its investigation, he said, the department had resolved to test rape kits routinely— and as a result, cold hits have doubled.
While the backlog and desultory handling of rape kits are nationwide problems, there is one shining exception: New York City has made a concerted effort over the last decade to test every kit that comes in. The result has been at least 2,000 cold hits in rape cases, and the arrest rate for reported cases of rape in New York City rose from 40 percent to 70 percent, according to Human Rights Watch.
Some Americans used to argue that it was impossible to rape an unwilling woman. Few people say that today, or say publicly that a woman “asked for it” if she wore a short skirt. But the refusal to test rape kits seems a throwback to the same antediluvian skepticism about rape as a traumatic crime. “If you’ve got stacks of physical evidence of a crime, and you’re not doing everything you can with the evidence, then you must be making a decision that this isn’t a very serious crime,” notes Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
It’s what we might expect in Afghanistan, not in the United States.
Rico says it's all the fault of the men, on every end of this problem. If someone he knew was raped (and let's hope not), he'd be standing on the chest of whoever was holding up the testing until it got done...

Not a Seymour, but a Szymin

The New York Times has an article by Randy Kennedy about the Mexican Suitcase:
When the three weathered cardboard boxes— known as the Mexican suitcase— arrived at the International Center of Photography more than a year ago, one of the first things a conservator did was bend down and sniff the film coiled inside, fearful of a telltale acrid odor, a sign of nitrate decay.
But the rolls turned out to be in remarkably good shape despite being almost untouched for 70 years. And so began a painstaking process of unfurling, scanning and trying to make sense of some 4,300 negatives taken by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour during the Spanish Civil War, groundbreaking work that was long thought to be lost but resurfaced several years ago in Mexico City.
What the center’s scholars have found among the 126 rolls over the last several months are a number of previously unknown shots by Capa, one of the founders of the Magnum photo agency and a pioneering war photographer, and by Taro, his professional partner and companion, who died in 1937 when she was struck by a tank near the front, west of Madrid. But more surprising has been the wealth of new work by Seymour, known as Chim, that was in the cases. Another of Magnum’s founders, he was known not for his battle photography but for penetrating documentation of Spanish life in the shadow of war. “This really fleshes out for the first time our picture of Chim in Spain, and the work is truly a great accomplishment,” said Brian Wallis, the chief curator for the center, which is planning a retrospective of Chim’s career to open in September 2010. Roughly a third of the negatives found in the cases have been determined to be by Chim (pronounced shim, an abbreviation of his real surname, Szymin), who was killed in 1956 while covering the Suez crisis. “We were bowled over by how much of his work was in this,” Mr. Wallis said.
While there was some initial hope, the negatives did not end up laying to rest a question that has long hovered over Capa’s career: whether he staged perhaps his most famous picture and one of the defining images of war, The Falling Soldier, which shows a Spanish Republican militiaman reeling backward at what appears to be the instant a bullet kills him near Córdoba. The boxes contained none of the series of photographs taken that fateful afternoon of 5 September 1936, though several surviving images from the sequence have been published previously, and Richard Whelan, Capa’s biographer, has made a persuasive case that the picture was not faked. A negative of the shot has never been found; it has been reproduced from two vintage prints.
What the boxes have provided, said Cynthia Young, the curator of the center’s Capa Collections, who has been most closely involved with the images, is a much deeper understanding of how Capa, Taro, and Chim worked during the relatively brief period in which they were collectively creating the archetype of the modern war photographer. The find has also fleshed out important stories from the war, like Capa’s coverage in March of 1939 of the notorious internment camps for Spanish refugees in southwestern France, a subject that is the focus of increasing historical research.
For Capa and Taro, the newly discovered negatives are providing a way to make sense of their jumbled archive of images from the Spanish Civil War, in which dates, sequences, and even attributions have remained uncertain. Much of their known work from those years was organized in nine notebooks of contact prints with little identifying information. (One of the notebooks is at the center; the others are at the French national archives in Paris.)
Because the rolls in the boxes show sequential shots from much of all three photographers’ most famous work from the war, it also allows scholars to “see how their eyes were working as they shot these stories”, Ms. Young said. “And I really think that’s the most interesting thing in this project, to see their thought process.”
The job of carefully scanning all the 35-millimeter images could not begin in earnest until several months after their arrival in New York, when Grant Romer, a conservation specialist from George Eastman House in Rochester, helped develop a special holder through which to run the negatives for digital scanning without damaging them.
Even now that the images have been brought to light, the story of how they wended their way from Capa’s Paris studio to Mexico has not become any clearer. From what Mr. Whelan, the biographer (who died in 2007), and other experts have pieced together, Capa apparently asked his darkroom manager to save his negatives in 1939, after Capa fled from Paris to New York. The boxes probably made their way to Marseille, and at some point ended up with General Francisco Aguilar Gonzalez, a Mexican diplomat stationed in the late 1930s in Marseille, where the Mexican government was helping antifascist refugees from Spain emigrate to Mexico.
The negatives also made the trip to Mexico where, after the general’s death, they came into the possession of a filmmaker in Mexico City, Benjamin Tarver, whose aunt was a close friend of the general. In the 1990s, Mr. Tarver made the existence of the negatives known, and in 2007, after fitful negotiations, he agreed to give them to the International Center of Photography, which was founded by Capa’s brother, Cornell Capa.
In addition to new images by Chim that will be exhibited at his retrospective, the center is now planning a major exhibition of much of the work from the Mexican suitcase for sometime in 2010, Mr. Wallis said, adding: “We consider this one of the most important discoveries of photographic work of the 20th century.”
Rico says he's a Seymour, and David is welcome to the family name... (And the whole 'did he get shot' issue over the famous Capa photo was long ago laid to rest; Capa got lucky, but the Spanish guy didn't.)

An almost-forgotten anniversary

Rico says there are surely many of his readers who weren't even born then, but 30 April 1975 will forever resonate with those of us who were around for the fall of Saigon.
You can read about it in his book on the subject, At All Hazards:

Truth in signage

Rico says we should get some of these for our range in Quinton...

Told ya so

Rico says he knew he'd miss the round number in the night:

Civil War for the day

The 140th of Antietam, the Sunday.

29 April 2009

Didn't like the Democrats, even then

Rico says his friend Doug (not a huge fan of the Democratic Party) sends along this gravestone from 1830:

Statistically insignificant

Rico says there's much hoohah about the 'rush' to buy gubs, but the stats don't bear it out:
Sure, the numbers are up, but not dramatically; given the increase in population, it might even be a flat curve...

A singularity

Rico says his friend Doug sends this along:
At five minutes and six seconds after four o'clock on the morning of the 8th of July of this year, the time and date will be 04:05:06 07/08/09. This will never happen again.
It will, of course, happen a year, a month, a day, an hour, a minute, and a second later, ad infinitum, at least up until 09:10:11 on 12/13/14, when it will finally run out of digits...

At least he was Mexican

The New York Times has an article by Sharon Otterman and Liz Robbins about the first one:
A Mexican toddler who came to the United States with his family to visit relatives in Texas has died in Houston of the swine flu, Texas officials said Wednesday, even as the number of confirmed cases continued to rise in the United States and Europe without additional reports of fatalities. President Obama on Wednesday recommended that schools in the United States with confirmed or suspected cases of the disease “strongly consider temporarily closing.”
“This is obviously a serious situation, serious enough to take the utmost precautions,” Mr. Obama said.
Dr. Richard Besser, the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a news conference Wednesday that there were now 91 confirmed cases in ten states, up from 66 cases in five states that were confirmed on Tuesday. More than half of the cases — 51 — were in New York, with 16 in Texas and 14 in California. Other states reporting cases were Massachusetts, Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, Indiana, Kansas, and Ohio. “These numbers are almost out of date by the time we state them,” Dr. Besser said.
Indeed, an hour later the health commissioner in New York, Dr. Richard Daines, said in a news conference that state health officials have confirmed three possible new cases in addition to the 51 recorded by the centers. Governor David Paterson noted that the three potential cases were in Orange, Cortland, and Suffolk Counties.
In the United States, there have, so far, only been five reported hospitalizations, Dr. Besser said, including that of the Mexican 22-month-old boy who died. The youth had traveled with his family on 4 April on a flight from Mexico City to Matamoros, Mexico, and then crossed the border to Brownsville in south Texas, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. He developed a fever on 8 April, and on 13 April was admitted to the hospital in Brownsville. The next day he was transferred to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, where he died on Monday.
The CDC confirmed on Wednesday that the child was “in fact infected with the swine virus,” Dr. David Persse, director of emergency medical services in Houston, said in a nationally televised news conference. That said, Dr. Persse and other officials in Houston tried to calm fears of an outbreak, noting that no other members of the boy’s family had shown symptoms of the virus. And Kathy Barton, a spokeswoman for the Houston Department of Health and Human Services, emphasized that the boy had not posed “any additional risks to the community” after his hospitalization more than two weeks ago.
As health officials in the Houston area examined samples of 250 people who had flu-like symptoms, national and international authorities said they were working to confirm additional cases and act to contain the virus from spreading.
In France, the health minister took the extraordinary step of calling for a suspension of all flights from the European Union to Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, even as a Mexican health official said that the death toll appeared to be stabilizing. More than 150 people are suspected to have died from the virus in Mexico, and at least 2,400 people are suspected to have been infected.
Mr. Obama, in his most extensive remarks to date on the spread of the swine flu, which he referred to as the H1N1 virus, spoke a day after asking Congress to provide $1.5 billion in emergency funds to fight the disease, and his comments appeared to reflect a deepening sense of the risk the still ill-understood flu might pose. By urging parents to make contingency plans in the event of school closings — simply placing children in crowded day-care centers was “not a good solution,” he noted — Mr. Obama indicated that his administration was contemplating the possibility, at least, of a serious increase in the flu’s prevalence.
Kathleen Sebelius, at her first news conference since being sworn in on Tuesday as President Obama’s secretary of health and human services, echoed the President’s concern. “Unfortunately, we’re likely to see additional deaths from this outbreak,” Ms. Sebelius said Wednesday.
France’s request to suspend all flights from the European Union to Mexico will be made at a meeting of European Union health ministers, scheduled for Thursday in Luxembourg, French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot said. The World Health Organization has argued against such travel bans, contending that they are an ineffective way to stop to spread of the disease.
Cuba and Argentina have both banned flights to Mexico, while Americans have been advised only to “avoid all nonessential travel to Mexico.”
Mexico City, one of the world’s largest cities, has taken drastic preventative steps, shutting down schools, gyms, swimming pools, restaurants, and movie theaters. Many people on the streets have donned masks in hopes of protection.
Mexico’s health secretary, Jose Cordova said late Tuesday that emergency measures to curb the disease’s spread there appeared to be working and that the death toll was “more or less stable.” The confirmed number of deaths held at 7, the health ministry said, although 159 deaths were attributed to flu-related causes. Germany confirmed three cases of the disease and Austria had one confirmed, as four European nations have now reported cases. Germany’s disease control agency, the Robert Koch-Institut, said the three include a 22-year-old woman hospitalized in Hamburg; a man in his late 30s being treated at a hospital in Regensburg, north of Munich, and a 37-year-old woman from another southern town.
Health and airport authorities in Munich said the first direct flight carrying vacationers back to Germany since the outbreak of the disease in Mexico was expected and might be quarantined if passengers showed symptoms of swine flu.
Austria’s health ministry said a 28-year-old woman who recently returned from a month-long trip to Guatemala via Mexico City and Miami has the virus but is recovering. Spain said Wednesday that the number of confirmed cases of the flu had risen to ten, including one person who had not recently visited Mexico, according to Reuters. In addition, the health ministry said authorities were observing 59 suspected cases.
One public elementary school, on the North Side of Chicago, closed for the day because of a probable case, and the school officials in Chicago said they were conducting checks on attendance data from all of the city’s schools to determine whether other closures may be needed.
Mr. Obama, in his most extensive remarks to date on the spread of the swine flu, which he referred to as the H1N1 virus, spoke a day after asking Congress to provide $1.5 billion in emergency funds to fight the disease, and his comments appeared to reflect a deepening sense of the risk the still ill-understood flu might pose.
By urging parents to make contingency plans in the event of school closings— simply placing children in crowded day-care centers was “not a good solution,” he noted— Mr. Obama indicated that his administration was contemplating the possibility, at least, of a serious increase in the flu’s prevalence.
Kathleen Sebelius, at her first news conference since being sworn in on Tuesday as President Obama’s secretary of health and human services, echoed the President’s concern. “Unfortunately, we’re likely to see additional deaths from this outbreak,” Ms. Sebelius said Wednesday.
Officials around the world seem to be girding themselves for the worst, as well. In France, the health minister took the extraordinary step of calling for a suspension of all flights from the European Union to Mexico. In London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown told Parliament that three more cases of swine flu had been confirmed in Britain, one of them a twelve-year-old girl, in addition to a Scottish couple, bringing the total to five. All three had recently travelled from Mexico, had mild symptoms and were responding to treatment, he said. A school attended by the twelve-year-old in southwest England had been temporarily closed, he added. Canada has thirteen confirmed cases, all of which are mild, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. David Butler-Jones, said Tuesday. New Zealand officials said on Wednesday that fourteen cases had been confirmed there. New Zealand has been screening all arriving air passengers, and Dr. Fran McGrath, the deputy director of public health, said that five foreign travelers were being treated under quarantine for mild cases of the flu. All five were being “kept in isolation” at an undisclosed location in Auckland.
Also on Wednesday, at least 10 countries— including China, Russia, the Ukraine, and Ecuador— banned the importation of all pork products despite a declaration from the WHO that “there is no risk of infection from this virus from consumption of well-cooked pork and pork products.”
Egypt went even further, ordering the culling of all pigs in the Arab country as a precaution against swine flu, the country’s health minister said. While most Egyptians are Muslim and do not eat pork, it is available, and is mostly consumed by the Christian minority and foreigners. “It is decided to slaughter all swine herds present in Egypt, starting from today,” Health Minister Hatem el-Gabali said in a statement published by state news agency MENA.

At least they recognized the problem

The New York Times has an article by Tim Arango about the TimeWarner/AOL debacle:
Time Warner is inching closer to an untangling of what many consider one of the worst mergers in American corporate history. In a regulatory filing Wednesday, Time Warner said it was nearing a decision to shed America Online and put an end to the travails that began with the merger in 2000 of the two companies, a deal that has resulted in the evaporation of more than $100 billion of shareholder value. “Although the company’s board of directors has not made any decision, the company currently anticipates that it would initiate a process to spin off one or more parts of the businesses of AOL to Time Warner’s stockholders, in one or a series of transactions,” the company said in the filing.
The announcement, which was not unexpected, came on the same day that the company reported first-quarter earnings, which surpassed Wall Street analysts’ expectations. The company, which in addition to AOL also owns the Warner Brothers movie studio, the cable networks TNT, TBS, CNN, and HBO and the Time Inc. publishing unit, said revenue declined seven percent to $6.9 billion, when compared with the same period last year.
Revenues from publishing, AOL and Warner Brothers all declined, while revenue at the cable networks, which have been the most durable segment of the media industry during the recession, rose to $2.8 billion, from $2.7 billion. Net income for the quarter was $661 million, or 55 cents a share, compared with $771 million and 64 cents a share in the previous period. Excluding some items, earnings were 45 cents a share. By this measure, the company beat Wall Street analysts’ expectations of 39 cents a share, according to Reuters Estimates.
At AOL, revenue decreased 23 percent, to $867 million. Subscription revenue fell 27 percent, while advertising fell 20 percent. At the magazine publishing division, which includes Sports Illustrated, Fortune, People and Time, revenue fell 23 percent, mostly because of a thirty percent decrease in advertising.
At Warner Brothers, while revenue dipped seven percent, operating income increased ten percent to $308 million, partly because of reduced marketing and advertising costs for movies. The cable networks unit continued to perform well. Its revenue grew 6 percent, to $2.8 billion, while operating income rose ten percent.
Under Jeffrey L. Bewkes, who became chief executive in December of 2007, Time Warner has become a stripped-down media conglomerate focused on producing content, rather than the delivery of it. This year the company, once the world’s largest media entity, spun off its cable division, Time Warner Cable, into a separate publicly traded company.
Rico says he wouldn't have bought AOL on a bet, and can't imagine why the smart boys at TimeWarner thought they were a good idea...

Ah, the old 'pebbles in the intake' trick

The New York Times has an article by Heather Timmons about shenanigans in India:
Anil Ambani, the billionaire chairman of Reliance ADA Group, may have narrowly escaped a fatal accident last week after a technician noticed that someone had tampered with his private helicopter while it was parked at a Mumbai airport. Pebbles and gravel had been placed in an intake to the gearbox, according to the company.
On Tuesday, however, the technician, Bharat Borge, was found dead on railroad tracks in Mumbai. He was carrying a letter that referenced the tampering investigation, according to Mr. Borge’s family and Reliance officials.
Debate raged in India on Wednesday over whether Mr. Borge had committed suicide, had been pushed or was yet another accidental victim of Mumbai’s overcrowded commuter trains, which kill an average of 10 people a day. The Mumbai police were investigating both the tampering and Mr. Borge’s death, but they said Wednesday that he had died of multiple fractures and a brain hemorrhage.
On 23 April, Mr. Borge, who was employed by Air Works, the company that maintains Mr. Ambani’s helicopter, noticed that a cap on the copter’s gearbox was ajar as he was getting it ready for a flight the next day, according to Reliance. The copter is used only by Mr. Ambani, his family, and top company executives. Mr. Ambani uses it at least three times a week to commute from his home in Mumbai to the company’s office there, to avoid the city’s notoriously bad traffic.
When Mr. Borge opened the cap, which is about ten feet off the ground, he saw that there were pebbles and gravel in the neck, and he reported it to a supervisor, Reliance said. The pebbles must have been deliberately placed there, and the act was “clearly an attempt to murder,” R.N. Joshi, a senior pilot with Reliance Transport & Travels, said in a 24 April letter addressed to the chief minister of Maharashtra, the state that includes Mumbai. Reliance Transport & Travels is part of the Reliance ADA Group. “Shortly after taking off, the pebbles would have entered into the gearbox and would have caused midair loss of power,” which could have forced the grounding or crash of the copter, Mr. Joshi said.
Reliance ADA Group said Wednesday that Mr. Ambani was now traveling to work by car.
On Wednesday, the government of Maharashtra ruled out corporate rivalry as a possible motive for the tampering. Jayant Patil, the state’s home minister, said during a televised news conference that the state had “not found any evidence that there is a corporate rivalry between two groups” to cause the incident. Mr. Borge’s family, though, claims foul play was involved. His brother Sambhaji said Wednesday during a television interview with CNN-IBN that Mr. Borge could not have committed suicide. The letter Mr. Borge was carrying, which several relatives had seen, said he had been “facing troubles” in recent days, his brother said, adding that “something fishy” had been going on.

Close enough

Rico says he always catches it late, so this time he's going early...

In case you don't remember why

Rico says my 'cousin' Kevin sent along a "remember the veterans" email, and this photo was the best of the bunch. If you know any vets, remind them of why you appreciate their service. If you don't, find one... (There's a veteran's hospital near you; take a box of candy.)

It's not just Flanders fields

Rico says we've got a poppy problem, and we're working on it, according to an article in The New York Times by Dexter Filkins:
American commanders are planning to cut off the Taliban’s main source of money, the country’s multimillion-dollar opium crop, by pouring thousands of troops into the three provinces that bankroll much of the group’s operations. The plan, to send 20,000 Marines and soldiers into Helmand, Kandahar, and Zabul Provinces this summer, promises weeks and perhaps months of heavy fighting, since American officers expect the Taliban to vigorously defend what makes up the economic engine for the insurgency. The additional troops, the centerpiece of President Obama’s effort to reverse the course of the seven-year war, will roughly double the number already in southern Afghanistan. The troops already fighting there are universally seen as overwhelmed. In many cases, the Americans will be pushing into areas where few or no troops have been before.
Through extortion and taxation, the Taliban are believed to reap as much as $300 million a year from Afghanistan’s opium trade, which now makes up ninety percent of the world’s total. That is enough, the Americans say, to sustain all of the Taliban’s military operations in southern Afghanistan for an entire year. “Opium is their financial engine,” said Brigadier General John Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “That is why we think he will fight for these areas.”
The Americans say that their main goal this summer will be to provide security for the Afghan population, and thereby isolate the insurgents. But because the opium is tilled in heavily populated areas, and because the Taliban are spread among the people, the Americans say they will have to break the group’s hold on poppy cultivation to be successful. No one here thinks that is going to be easy.
Only ten minutes inside the tiny village of Zangabad, twenty miles southwest of Kandahar, a platoon of American soldiers stepped into a poppy field in full bloom on Monday. Taliban fighters opened fire from three sides.
“From the north!” one of the soldiers yelled, spinning and firing.
“West!” another screamed, turning and firing, too.
An hour passed and a thousand bullets whipped through the air. Ammunition was running low. The Taliban were circling.
Then the gunships arrived, swooping in, their bullet casings showering the ground beneath them, their rockets streaking and destroying. Behind a barrage of artillery, the soldiers shot their way out of Zangabad and moved into the cover of the vineyards.
“When are you going drop the bomb?” Captain Chris Brawley said into his radio over the clatter of machine-gun fire. “I’m in a grape field.” The bomb came, and after a time the shooting stopped.
The firefight offered a preview of the Americans’ summer in southern Afghanistan. By all accounts, it is going to be bloody. Like the guerrillas they are, Taliban fighters often fade away when confronted by a conventional army. But in Afghanistan, as they did in Zangabad, the Taliban will probably stand and fight.
Among the ways the Taliban are believed to make money from the opium trade is by charging farmers for protection; if the Americans and British attack, the Taliban will be expected to make good on their side of that bargain. Indeed, Taliban fighters have begun to fight any efforts by the Americans or the British to move into areas where poppy grows and opium is produced. Last month, a force of British marines moved into a district called Nad Ali in Helmand Province, the center of the country’s poppy cultivation. The Taliban were waiting. In a five-day battle, the British killed 120 Taliban fighters and wounded 150. Only one British soldier was wounded.
Many of the new American soldiers will fan out along southern Afghanistan’s largely unguarded 550-mile-long border with Pakistan. Among them will be soldiers deployed in the Stryker, a relatively quick and nimble armored vehicle that can roam across the vast areas that span the frontier. All of the new troops are supposed to be in place by 20 August, in order to provide security for Afghanistan’s presidential election.
The presence of poppy and opium here has injected a huge measure of uncertainly into the war. Under NATO rules of engagement, American or other forces are prohibited from attacking targets or people related only to narcotics production. Those people are not considered combatants. But American and other forces are allowed to attack drug smugglers or facilities that are assisting the Taliban. In an interview, General Nicholson said that opium production and the Taliban are so often intertwined that the rules do not usually inhibit American operations. “We often come across a compound that has opium and IED materials side by side, and opium and explosive materials and weapons,” General Nicholson said, referring to improvised explosive devices. “It’s very common— more common than not.” But the prospect of heavy fighting in populated areas could further alienate the Afghan population. In the firefight in Zangabad, the Americans covered their exit with a barrage of twenty 155 millimeter high-explosive artillery shells— necessary to shield them from the Taliban, but also enough to inflict serious damage on people and property. A local Afghan interviewed by telephone after the firefight said that four homes had been damaged by the artillery strikes. Then there is the problem of weaning poppy farmers from poppy farming— a task that has proved intractable in many countries, like Colombia, where the American government has tried to curtail poppy production. It is by far the most lucrative crop an Afghan can farm. The opium trade now makes up nearly sixty percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, American officials say. The country’s opium traffickers typically offer incentives that no Afghan government official can: they can guarantee a farmer a minimum price for the crop, as well as taking it to market, despite the horrendous condition of most of Afghanistan’s roads.
“The people don’t like to cultivate poppy, but they are desperate,” Mohammed Ashraf Naseri, the governor of Zabul Province, told a group of visitors this month. To offer an alternative to poppy farming, the American military is setting aside $250 million for agriculture projects like irrigation improvements and wheat cultivation. General Nicholson said that a $200 million plan for infrastructure improvements, much of it for roads to help get crops to market, was also being prepared. The vision, General Nicholson said, is to try to restore the agricultural economy that flourished in Afghanistan in the 1970s. That, more than military force, will defeat the Taliban, he said. “There is a significant portion of the enemy that we believe we can peel off with incentives,” the general said. “We can hire away many of these young men.”
Even if the Americans are able to cut production, shortages could drive up prices and not make a significant dent in the Taliban’s profits. The foray into Zangabad suggested the difficulties that lie ahead. The terrain is a guerrilla’s dream. In addition to acres of shoulder-high poppy plants, rows and rows of hard-packed mud walls, used to stand up grape vines, offer ideal places for ambushes and defense.
But the trickiest thing will be winning over the Afghans themselves. The Taliban are entrenched in the villages and river valleys of southern Afghanistan. The locals, caught between the foes, seem, at best, to be waiting to see who prevails.
On their way to Zangabad, the soldiers stopped in a wheat field to talk to a local farmer. His name was Ahmetullah. The Americans spoke through a Pashto interpreter.
“I’m very happy to see you,” the farmer told the Americans.
“Really?” one of the soldiers asked.
“Yes,” the farmer said.
The interpreter sighed, and spoke in English: “He’s a liar.”
Rico says we've been spraying defoliants on Mexican poppies for years, why aren't we flying some spray choppers in Afghanistan? (Uh, because the Mexicans don't have anti-aircraft missiles. Yet.) And why does Rico keep hearing "Hey, Mister Taliban, tally me some opium" in his head?

Getting in Google's face

The New York Times has an article by Miguel Helft about the Justice Department's beef with Google:
The Justice Department has begun an inquiry into the antitrust implications of Google’s settlement with authors and publishers over its Google Book Search service, two people briefed on the matter said Tuesday.
Lawyers for the Justice Department have been in conversations in recent weeks with various groups opposed to the settlement, including the Internet Archive and Consumer Watchdog. More recently, Justice Department lawyers notified the parties to the settlement, including Google, and representatives for the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild, that they were looking into various antitrust issues related to the far-reaching agreement.
The inquiry does not necessarily mean that the department will oppose the settlement, which is subject to a court review. But it suggests that some of the concerns raised by critics, who say the settlement would unfairly give Google an exclusive license to profit from millions of books, have resonated with the Justice Department.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department was not immediately available to comment. A spokesman for Google declined to comment. Representatives for the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild could not immediately be reached. The settlement agreement stems from a class action filed in 2005 by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers against Google. The suit claimed that Google’s practice of scanning copyrighted books from libraries for use in its Book Search service was a violation of copyrights.
The settlement, announced in October, gives Google the right to display the books online and to profit from them by selling access to individual texts and selling subscriptions to its entire collection to libraries and other institutions. Revenue would be shared among Google, authors and publishers.
But critics say that Google alone would have a license that covers millions of so-called orphan books, whose authors cannot be found or whose rights holders are unknown. Some librarians fear that, with no competition, Google will be free to raise prices for access to the collection.
Separately on Tuesday, Judge Denny Chin of Federal District Court in New York, who is overseeing the settlement, postponed by four months the 5 May deadline for authors to opt out of the settlement and for other parties to oppose it or file briefs. The decision follows requests by groups of authors and their heirs, who argued that authors needed more time to review the settlement.
Google, as well as the authors and publishers, have defended the settlement, saying it will bring benefits to authors, publishers and the public. They say it will renew access to millions of out-of-print books.
If the Justice Department decides to take action against the settlement, it will not be the first time that Google has found itself in the sights of federal regulators. Last year, Google abandoned a prominent advertising partnership with Yahoo after the department threatened to go to court to block the deal. The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have wrangled over jurisdiction over the book settlement, and the Justice Department won out, according to a person familiar with the inquiry.
Rico says he's still not sure where he stands on this whole thing, but he'll defend his copyrights, that's for damned sure...

Dreaming of Anna (not)

Rico says that all of these pleadings go right in the Trash, but this one has a wistful quality that begs to be shared:

I am interested and want to talk with you. I am educated girl with a harmonious body; mine tall is 5' 6", My weight is 119 pounds, I have a blonde hair. I cheerful, with good sense of humor. But it is not so convenient to me to write to you on this email. Please write to me only to my personal email and I necessarily shall answer you and I shall send my pictures.
I shall wait your letter soon. look forward to hear from you soon, have a wonderful day !!!Anna

Rico says it was the Amish-sounding 'mine tall' that caught his eye, but the 'harmonious body' was good, too...

Civil War for the day

28 April 2009

Don't think it'll catch on here, fortunately

The New York Daily News has an article about politics in India:
Months after an Iraqi journalist became an international sensation after hurling both his shoes at President Bush, the shoe-throw has taken on a life of its own in India, the Washington Post reports. No fewer than four incidents have taken place in the past month, as the country undergoes its current round of elections.
In the latest incident, a 21-year-old student flung his footwear at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a rally in the city of Ahmedabad. The same night, at a different political gathering in Ahmedabad, a wooden sandal was tossed at prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani. Advani was also the target of another shoe-throw earlier in the election season.
"Shoe-throwing is a real expression of the frustration of the people," Anil Bairwal of National Election Watch, a watchdog group, told the Washington Post. "But you have to consider that citizens are at a loss for what to do. For too long, they have hoped that the parties would improve themselves, be progressive, put the right people in the seats, and work for the betterment of the people. But none of that has happened."
Mundatar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw both his shoes at President Bush in December, is the apparent source of the craze. New Delhi journalist Jarnail Singh kicked off the trend in India, and was flooded with gifts, cash, and even marriage proposals.
While al-Zaidi is serving a year in prison following his brush with footwear fame (down from three years at his initial sentencing), no one in India has yet been jailed. Like Bush, the former US president, the Indian leaders have all managed to dodge the footwear missiles. Throwing a shoe at someone or showing the sole of a shoe is considered a sign of disrespect throughout the Middle East and South Asia.

Rats off a sinking ship of state

The Daily News has an article by Michael McAuliff about the latest rat off the ship:
Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter shocked the political world Tuesday by jumping from the GOP to the Democratic Party— likely handing President Obama an EZ-Pass to drive his agenda on Capitol Hill. The sudden move, coming as the veteran lawmaker already faces a fierce 2010 primary challenge from the right in the Keystone State, all but gives Democrats and Obama a roadblock-free Senate, putting them on the cusp of a sixty-vote majority.
"I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans," Specter announced on his campaign Web site. "I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary," Specter he added. "I deeply regret that I will be disappointing many friends and supporters," said the 79-year-old lawmaker, who is seeking his sixth term. "I can understand their disappointment. I am also disappointed that so many in the party I have worked for more than four decades do not want me to be their candidate."
Specter was facing a tough challenge from conservative former Representative Pat Toomey, until recently the head of the anti-tax Club for Growth. But Specter didn't cite the likelihood of losing that showdown as a reason for quitting the GOP. He blamed his former party for shifting too far in the direction of people like Toomey. "Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right," Specter said, suggesting he was following the lead of other Pennsylvanians fed up with a party that's gotten too ideologically driven. "Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats," he said.
The shift give Democrats 59 votes in the Senate, and they'll hit the filibuster-proof 60 should Al Franken prevail in his disputed win over Norm Coleman in Minnesota. Democrats welcomed their newest conservative Democrat with open arms, and acknowledged it was a tough decision for him. "I know how hard he's agonized," Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy told reporters. "I believe he's going to be happy."
In fact Specter was beaming as he walked out of his office this morning, with dozens of Pennsylvanians on hand, applauding.
Rico says no loss as far as he's concerned; Specter was an evil moron, and good riddance... (But now he may have to break down and vote Republican again, just to elect Toomey and unelect Specter.)

Funny, if you measure things

Rico says he still thinks it's funny, even if you don't...

Can't keep up with all the new holidays

Rico says it's a good holiday to observe, but he missed it this year, what with his birthday and all: National Cleavage Day. Seems it's sponsored by Wonderbra (what a surprise there, huh?), and it was on 3 April. Book your calendar for next year...

If there's something you don't like...

...as Sundance would say to Butch, skip on down...

Not exactly a Rolls

The New York Times has an article by Richard Chang about a new car out of China:
While Rolls-Royce did have some news at the Shanghai auto show, it was largely overshadowed by the debut of a Chinese automaker’s interpretation of a Rolls, the Geely GE.
If and when the GE comes to market in China, it would be sold under Geely’s Englon luxury marque. By all accounts, the limo is a shameless (if slightly shorter in length) knock-off of the Rolls-Royce Phantom, and might look more at home parked on Canal Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown. From Autocar:
The 5.4 metre prototype, painted black and given pride of place on a raised plinth in the middle of Geely’s huge stand, makes obvious reference to the Rolls in the shape of its cabin, windows, and down-sloping rear deck.
However, its nose, beneath which is mounted a 3.5 litre V6, is considerably shorter than that of the Rolls.
The ‘Grecian temple’ grille is close to being a Rolls copy, though, and it is topped by a figure which seems to draw much influence from Rolls-Royce’s traditional Spirit of Ecstasy, except that the figure slopes backwards.
The GE brings back memories of the 2007 Frankfurt auto show, where Shuanghuan, another Chinese automaker, presented an SUV that was strikingly similar to the BMW X5. According to Jalopnik, though, the GE distinguishes itself from a Rolls-Royce on the inside, where there is only one “throne-like” rear seat.
Rico says this falls into the 'shameless knock-off' category, indeed... (The Chinese never had any shame if it made them money.)

Chocolate? Rico wants one

The New York Times has an article by Jim Motavalli about a car that runs on chocolate:
A team from the Warwick Innovative Manufacturing Research Center at the University of Warwick in Britain said it had built a Formula 3 car, running on thirty percent biodiesel derived from chocolate waste, with a race-spec steering wheel partly made of carrots and other root vegetables. Parts of the front wing and the mirrors are made of potato starch and flax fiber. No gingerbread or jelly beans were harmed in the making of the car.
James Meredith, who heads the project at Warwick, worked in alternative fuels (including natural gas) at Ford of Britain before his university appointment. “The car isn’t on the track yet, but the engine is running well on a dynamometer and we plan to take it out for track testing in two weeks,” he said. The goal of the project, he said, is “to show what is possible. People love motor racing, and the trick is to do it in a more environmentally responsible manner. A racing car doesn’t have to harm the planet.”
Warwick has fifteen partners in the venture, including the racing team Lola Cars. Lola supplied a 2005 chassis and considerable expertise in parts fabrication. Mr. Meredith said the F3 car (with a much-modified BMW 2-liter, 4-cylinder turbodiesel engine) should be capable of hitting 135 miles an hour, but he acknowledged it might not be competitive with the latest track cars.
Chocolate fuel? “Anything with a fat in it can be turned into diesel, and that’s what we’ve managed to do,” Mr. Meredith said. The waste chocolate is from Cadbury’s in Birmingham. The team reportedly does not sample the raw material. “It’s waste, so I assume it’s not good to eat,” Mr. Meredith said.
The steering wheel incorporates nano-scale cellulosic fibers extracted from carrot pulp left over from juicing. It comes as a red paste that can be molded and sets to become a hard polymer, Mr. Meredith said. According to the World First Racing Web site, other environmental materials going into the car include seats made with soybean oil foam and recycled polyester, plant-based lubricants, a side pod made from recycled bottles, a recycled carbon-fiber engine cover, and radiator coatings that transform ozone to oxygen.
Formula 3 rules do not allow for chocolate-derived biodiesel fuel, Mr. Meredith said, but the team is working on eligibility. “This is not a pipe dream,” said Simon Bergenroth of the Britain-based marketing firm Life Agency.
Rico says it's just this kind of out-of-the-box thinking that's gonna save the planet...

Tightening the borders

The New York Times has an article by Donald McNeil about border security (and some cool new technology) in the swine flu era:
Countries around the world began tightening their border and immigration controls Tuesday as the number of confirmed cases of swine flu continued to rise. The number of deaths believed attributable to swine flu climbed to as many as 152 on Tuesday— all of them in Mexico— as news agencies reported the number of confirmed cases of infection in the United States stood at fifty after further testing at a New York City school.
Other cases have been reported in Ohio, Kansas, Texas, and California. In addition, The Associated Press reported that preliminary tests by health officials in New Jersey had identified five “probable” cases— four people who were recently in Mexico and one who had been in California.
Spanish Health Minister Trinidad Jiménez on Tuesday said Spain had confirmed a second case of swine flu, in the eastern province of Valencia, but that the patient was recovering well. Israel’s Ministry of Health on Tuesday reported the first case in the country. Smadar Shazo, a Health Ministry spokeswoman, said the man who contracted the illness, a 26-year-old, had recently returned from Mexico. Ms. Shazo said he is in good health now and is likely to be released from the hospital on Wednesday. About 1,600 people in Mexico are now believed to have swine flu.
The World Health Organization raised its global pandemic flu alert level on Monday while recommending that borders not be closed nor travel bans imposed. But in a possible precaution to be taken by other nations, Japan said Tuesday it would no longer allow Mexican travelers to obtain a visa upon arrival.
Health officers at three Japanese airports also were being deployed Tuesday to check passengers before they disembarked from flights coming from Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Travelers suspected of having the flu would be quarantined and examined further at medical facilities, news agencies reported, citing the Japanese health minister.
At least eight other countries in Asia were checking air passengers arriving from North America, and China was tightening land border checks as well. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Russia were set to quarantine passengers suspected of having the flu. On Monday, Indonesia banned all pork products coming from Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and said it would destroy any pork products imported before the ban. International health experts said the flu cannot be transmitted from pigs or from eating properly handled pork.
Russia and South Korea each reported a suspected case of swine flu on Tuesday. Tests were ongoing, and South Korea raised its domestic alert level. Two people in Scotland— the first known victims of the virus in Britain— were said by hospital authorities on Tuesday to be recovering after contracting the flu while on honeymoon in Cancún, Mexico. But the British authorities warned against nonessential travel and suggested that British citizens in Mexico should consider leaving. In an advisory on Tuesday, the British Foreign Office said: “We are now advising against all but essential travel to Mexico. Routine consular and all visa services at the embassy in Mexico City have been suspended until further notice.” It added: “British nationals resident in or visiting Mexico may wish to consider whether they should remain in Mexico at this time.” France also advised its nationals Tuesday to avoid nonessential travel.
The increase of the WHO alert to Level Four from Level Three means that there has been sustained human-to-human transmission. The change “indicates that the likelihood of a pandemic has increased, but not that a pandemic is inevitable,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO director general.
The WHO’s emergency committee recommended abandoning efforts to contain the flu’s spread. “Because the virus is already quite widespread in different locations, containment is not a feasible option,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the deputy director general.
The WHO also recommended that vaccine makers keep making the seasonal flu vaccine instead of switching over to a new one that matches the swine flu strain, but it urged them to start the process of picking a pandemic strain, weakening it and making large batches of it, which could take six months. Dr. Fukuda emphasized that the committee thought that “a pandemic is not inevitable— the situation is fluid and will continue to evolve.”
In Mexico, state health authorities looking for the initial source of the outbreak toured a million-pig hog farm in Perote, in Veracruz State. The plant is half-owned by Smithfield Foods, an American company and the world’s largest pork producer.
Mexico’s first known swine flu case, which was later confirmed, was from Perote, according to Health Minister José Ángel Córdova. The case involved a five-year-old boy who recovered. But a spokesman for the plant said the boy was not related to a plant worker, that none of its workers were sick and that its hogs were vaccinated against flu.
American officials said their response to the epidemic was already aggressive, and the WHO’s decision to raise its pandemic alert to level four from level three would not change their plans. The WHO decision offered some official guidance to a world that, at least for the day, seemed swept by confusion that unnerved international travelers and the financial markets. European and Asian markets fell, and stock in airlines and the travel industry fell while those in pharmaceutical companies rose.
Pharmacies in New York reported runs on Tamiflu, an antiflu drug— something that public health officials badly want to avoid because the drug could eventually be needed for the truly ill. For now supplies of Tamiflu and Relenza, another antiflu drug, remain adequate, the manufacturers said, but both were increasing production and expressed anxiety that shortages could develop if governments placed huge orders.
The travel issue was the most confusing. On Monday, the European Union appeared to issue and then rescind a ban on travel to the United States, drawing a rebuke from American officials, who themselves later suggested that Americans drop all nonessential travel to Mexico.
None of the American cases have been serious, but Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he “would not rest on that fact. I expect that we will see additional cases, and I expect that the spectrum of disease will expand,” he said at a news conference.
Asked why the WHO had waited so long to raise its alert level, Dr. Fukuda said it was done on technical grounds, that there was evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission of a new virus, and movement of that virus to new areas. But he conceded that “the committee is very aware that changes have quite significant political and economic effects on countries”. The WHO has no power to enforce any policies on member states, but different countries may have their own pandemic flu plans that are triggered by changes in the alert level.
Suspected cases have appeared in Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand, but confirmation is slow because most nations’ laboratories lack the test kit the CDC is developing for the new virus. The CDC began sending out the new kits on Monday, meaning that soon some states and foreign countries would be able to make their own diagnoses— a development that could lead to a sharp increase in confirmed cases.
Confusion regarding Europe’s position on travel arose when the European Union’s health commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, was questioned on a visit to Luxembourg and said Europeans “should avoid traveling to Mexico or the United States unless it’s very urgent.” Early reports of those remarks led both Dr. Besser and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City to publicly disagree. “We don’t think there is any reason not to travel and come to New York,” the mayor said. Ms. Vassiliou’s office later denied she had issued any travel advisory and said she was only offering her personal opinion. “She didn’t want to insinuate risk where we’re not sure,” a spokesman said, adding that formal advice would be offered later.
Mayor Bloomberg confirmed that there were now 28 cases in New York, all connected to St. Francis Preparatory School in Fresh Meadows, Queens. He said there had been no suspected cases in any of the city’s intensive-care units. He acknowledged an increase in emergency-room visits, but he said his preliminary information indicated that there were more people who were worried rather than seriously ill. New York’s public health situation does not now resemble Mexico City’s, the mayor said, and the public does not need to don masks.
In Europe, a spokesman for the Stockholm-based European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said there were about 40 suspected cases beyond the confirmed case in Spain.
The United States pork industry continued trying to allay consumer concerns about their products. Many companies and hog farmers complained that the “swine flu” name was unfortunate and perhaps inaccurate because, so far, the virus appears to be spreading without any contact with pigs. “I guess everything has to have a name,” said Kyle Stephens, who raises show pigs in Amarillo, Texas. “The biggest thing we are up against is people thinking the worst, instead of checking into it more.”
Rico says he suspects the tourism industry in Mexico is gonna take a hit... (He's not going, that's for sure.)

Oops is now a military term

Rico says you'd think they might've thought about this:
A presidential plane and an F-16 fighter jet swooped low near lower Manhattan yesterday, carrying out a military training exercise and at the same time catching a photo-op to update a photograph of Air Force One with the Statue of Liberty. The two operations were combined to save money, an Obama administration official said. As the planes descended toward lower Manhattan, thousands of terrified workers fled several office buildings. The White House apologized yesterday for the confusion.

More Apple choices

InformationWeek has an article by Marin Perez about the latest permutation in the iPhone:
Apple and Verizon Wireless are in "high-level" talks about breaking AT&T's exclusivity regarding the popular iPhone. Citing people familiar with the situation said the iPhone could potentially find its way onto Verizon's networks as early as next year. The move would give Apple access to about 80 million new Verizon customers, and it would enable Verizon to stem the tide of subscribers defecting to AT&T to nab Apple's touch-screen smartphone.
AT&T reportedly has a five-year agreement to be the sole U.S. provider of Apple's touch-screen smartphone; many industry insiders say that agreement is set to expire in 2010. The mobile operator wants to extend that deal because the iPhone has been a boon for AT&T, and it has successfully poached numerous customers from Verizon, Sprint Nextel, and T-Mobile. These iPhone customers also bring in higher average revenue per user because they have to sign a long-term contract with a mobile data package.
Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin said AT&T would likely be aggressive in retaining the exclusive deal with Apple. "It looked like half of AT&T's net new subscribers last quarter were iPhone customers, and that's really significant," said Golvin. "It speaks to the power of the device, and I think they'd be willing to invest in it. Of course, there's always a point where the numbers no longer work."
There are some technological issues to overcome if a deal takes place, though, as Verizon's network uses CDMA technology and Apple has only created phones capable of using GSM technology. While changing to CDMA may not be that challenging on its own, a CDMA device essentially only has a market in the United States because the majority of carriers around the globe use GSM. It's possible the talks are about creating an iPhone that utilizes the next generation of mobile broadband. Verizon plans to roll out its 4G network based on Long Term Evolution technology next year, and the 4G technology will be the standard for the majority of carriers around the world.
There could be some philosophical differences between the two companies as well, as both like to have a lot of control over the experience of their products. Apple reportedly peddled the original iPhone to Verizon years ago, but the carrier bristled at not being able to put its stamp on the device with Verizon branding and Verizon-specific software. In contrast, AT&T has almost no interaction with iPhone customers beyond the billing. "The companies will definitely have differences, but I would have said the same about Apple and AT&T," Golvin said. "Like any deal, it's going to come down to money."
Apple has a lot more leverage than it did three years ago when it only had the ill-fated Motorola Rokr on its mobile resume. The iPhone has sold about twenty million units worldwide since its release, and its App Store has brought mobile applications to the forefront.
Rico says he doesn't care who the carrier is, as long as it works and it's cheaper...

Civil War for the day

A typical N-SSA participant's clutter.

27 April 2009

Getcher copy now

There's a new book out, Brandon's First Big Adventure. Rico says you can order a copy, and please him no end. Not just because he might make a buck on it; because he wrote it, you see, and his friend Kelley did the illustrations.
It's a sweet little story, and kids will like it. If you have a child, buy them this book. If you don't have a child, buy one anyway and give it to somebody else's kid...

Almost but not quite

Rico says it's from a post about Chinese counterfeit products by the Bayou Renaissance Man (you can find him in the sidebar), but it's splendid enough to stand on its own... (And funnier than the original.)

Great comparison

In another splendid sidebar blog, Samantha Burns zings Billy Bob Thornton (much taken with himself, alas) for a stupid comment about Canadians (not that it's not true, however):
I’m sure many of you heard about the freak show put on by Billy Boob Thornton when he was here in Canada (not) speaking with radio personality, Jian Ghomeshi (a guy who I’m sure is quite popular right about now as a result). Billy Boob screwed up pretty bad by calling all Canucks “mashed potatoes without the gravy”.
Billy Bob and rest of the Boobs ended up having to cancel the remainder of the Boxmaster’s musical performances due to the “flu”.
Yeah, right, flu my ass. You know, for a guy who didn’t mind insulting Canadians for their lack of feistiness, he sure ran out of the country with his tail between his legs once we did get feisty, eh.
Next month’s moron or simply a weasel? I don’t know, but the resemblance is uncanny.
Rico says there is an alarming resemblance...

A good Scots curse on the idiots in charge

Rico says one of the good blogs in his sidebar, written by Martin Kelly, is worth visiting now and again:
The right of people to move around the world, and the right of people-movers to profit from moving people around the world, is now considered to be a higher social good than saving human life.
Influenza pandemics tend to appear with depressing frequency. The Spanish flu outbreak of 1918-19 was followed by Chinese flu in the '50's, and Hong Kong flu in the '60's.
The world might just be due another one. We have dodged the bullet for forty years, and taking heed of the necessary precautions against infection might be a good idea.
Yet at the same time as advances in public health could have greatly minimised the likely number of casualties, political ideology and commercial imperative have developed in such a way that they are likely to be maximised. To travel to places where public health policy is not considered priority is considered to be a right. By failing to close our borders, or submit Mexicans and travellers from Mexico to quarantine, the British government is saying that it considers the right of British citizens and residents to travel to and from Mexico without impediment to be of greater importance than the lives of my wife, my elderly parents, and my young nieces and nephews. And yours.
It's good to know your place.
Rico says just replace 'British' with 'American' and you have his views on the subject... (Oh, yeah, and throw in 'the dumb fucks' where appropriate.)

Trying not to laugh is hard

Rico says you can click the post title if you really want to go there, but the invitation in the email was hysterical enough:
View Pics of Christian Singles in your Area

Mo' troops in Mosul

Rico says it seems the north of Iraq (which used to be pretty anti-Saddam in the early days) will have American troops after the date they're out of the rest of the country, according to an article by Rod Nordland in The New York Times:
The United States and Iraq will begin negotiating possible exceptions to the 30 June deadline for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraqi cities, focusing on the troubled northern city of Mosul, according to military officials. Some parts of Baghdad also will still have combat troops. Everywhere else, the withdrawal of United States combat troops from all Iraqi cities and towns is on schedule to finish by the 30 June deadline, and in many cases even earlier. But because of the level of insurgent activity in Mosul, military officials will meet Monday to decide whether to consider the city an exception to the deadline in the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, between the countries.
“Mosul is the one area where you may see US combat forces operating in the city” after 30 June, the United States military’s top spokesman in Iraq, Major General David Perkins, said in an interview.
In Baghdad, however, there are no plans to close the Camp Victory base complex, consisting of five bases housing more than 20,000 soldiers, many of them combat troops. Although Victory is only a fifteen-minute drive from the center of Baghdad and sprawls over both sides of the city’s boundary, Iraqi officials say they have agreed to consider it outside the city.
In addition, Forward Operating Base (FOB) Falcon, which can hold 5,000 combat troops, will also remain after 30 June. It is just within Baghdad’s southern city limits. Again, Iraqi officials have classified it as effectively outside Baghdad, so no exception to the agreement needs to be granted, in their view.
Combat troops with the Seventh Field Artillery Regiment will remain in the heart of Baghdad at Camp Prosperity, located near the new American Embassy compound in the Green Zone. In addition to providing a quick reaction force, guarding the embassy and noncombat troops from attack, those soldiers will also continue to support Iraqi troops who are now in nominal charge of maintaining security in the Green Zone.
The details of troop withdrawals and the transfer of facilities are negotiated by the Joint Military Operations Coordinating Committee, led by the top American commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, and the Iraqi defense minister, Abdul Qadir al-Obaidi. At its meeting on Monday, the committee will discuss a host of transfer issues, as well as whether to grant any exceptions to the 30 June deadline, and it will make recommendations to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for a final decision.
The spokesman for the Iraqi military, Major General Muhammad al-Askari, who is also the secretary to the committee’s Iraqi contingent, said also that a decision on Mosul would be made at Monday’s meeting, which he called critical. “I personally think even in Mosul there will be no American forces in the city, but that’s a decision for the Iraqi government and the Iraqi prime minister,” General Askari said. General Perkins also expressed specific concerns about Mosul, noting how important the city is to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown group that American intelligence officials say is led by foreigners.
“For al-Qaeda to win, they have to take Baghdad. To survive they have to hold on to Mosul,” he said. “Mosul is sort of their last area where they have some maybe at least passive support.” In Baghdad, whether combat troops remain in the city may well be a function of how they are defined, as well as where the city limits lie.
The Camp Victory complex includes Camps Victory, Liberty, Striker, and Slayer, plus the prison known as Camp Cropper, where so-called high-value prisoners are kept. It also includes the military side of Baghdad International Airport. General Askari said emphatically that the 30 June provision did not apply to the Camp Victory complex because it was effectively outside the city. General Askari also said having American combat troops at Camp Prosperity would not violate the terms of the agreement, because they are there for force protection and to guard the nearby embassy. “If there is a small group to stay in that camp to guard the American Embassy, that’s no problem,” he said. “The meaning of the SOFA is that their vehicles cannot go in the streets of Baghdad and interfere with our job.”
The Green Zone was handed over to Iraqi control on 1 January, when the agreement went into effect. In addition to the United States-Iraqi patrols, most of the security for the Green Zone’s many checkpoints and heavily guarded entry points is still done by the same private contractors who did it prior to 1 January. “What you’re seeing is not a change in the numbers, it’s a doctrine change,” said First Sergeant David Moore, a New Jersey National Guardsman with the Joint Area Support Group, which runs the Green Zone. “You’re still going to have fighters. Every US soldier is trained to fight.”
One of the Green Zone’s biggest bases, FOB Freedom, was handed back to Iraqi control on 1 April, at least most of it; the United States military kept the swimming pool. In addition to troops, Camp Prosperity will house many American contractors and other personnel. Next door, at Camp Union III, the military is in the process of setting up housing for several thousand soldiers, trainers, and advisers working for the Multi-National Security Transition Command, which now has its headquarters elsewhere in the Green Zone.
While those principal Baghdad bases will remain, the United States military has been rapidly erasing its footprint everywhere else in Baghdad. The so-called troop surge added 77 small bases, known as combat outposts, patrol bases, and joint security stations, spread throughout the city’s neighborhoods to get United States troops closer to the people. At the height, in 2007, there were nearly one hunded such bases. All of them will have been turned over to the Iraqis by 30 June, and many already have been, General Perkins said. He added that, in many cases, the Iraqis would choose not to use them for their own troops.
Nationwide, the American military presence is also changing quickly as 30 June approaches. A survey of northern and central Iraqi provinces by New York Times reporters confirmed that American troops had already withdrawn from all of the bases situated in the centers of major towns or cities, with the exception of Mosul.
General Perkins said that American combat forces had already been drawing down steadily in Iraq’s cities, replaced by Iraqi troops. By September 2008, the number of American troops in Iraq had dropped by about twenty percent from the peak during the so-called troop surge in 2007, he said. An additional 8,000 left by the end of January.
As of 17 April, there were 137,934 American service members in Iraq, according to Lieutenant Colonel Amy Hannah, a public affairs officer. An additional 16,000 will go by September, General Perkins said. “We don’t want to lose the gains we’ve had so far,” he said. “We don’t want to rush to failure here. This isn’t just 'we’re going home'. We’re just moving. We don’t mean you won’t have soldiers trained in combat skills in the city,” General Perkins said. Trainers and advisers can stay, under the terms of the agreement, and combat troops can re-enter on operations if invited by the Iraqis, he said. General Perkins gave the example of sending the 82nd Airborne Division to help with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “The 82nd are combat troops, but that was not a combat mission,” he said.
Rico says that, semantics aside, it does look like we're getting outta Dodge. Unlike Saigon in the 70s, the Iraqis might survive after we go, too...

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