30 September 2011

The Zulu war

Rico says his friend Kelley sent him a picture of one of their favorite pieces of history, Rorke's Drift:
Here's the climax of the movie Zulu, with the Welsh soldiers singing Men of Harlech in counterpoint to the USuthu chanting of the Zulu warriors (and then, using superior firepower, killing them all):
And here's a nice video that utilizes the wonderful voice of Richard Burton from the end of the film: 

Complex problem, simple solution

Erica Goode has an article in The New York Times about prisoners in California:
Corrections officials in Sacramento said that they would discipline inmates who participated in a renewed hunger strike to protest conditions in the state’s highest-security prisons, where some prisoners have been held in virtual isolation for decades.
More than 4,200 inmates at eight prisons have been refusing state-issued meals since Monday, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The hunger strike, the second this year, is the latest problem to face state prison officials, who are under a Supreme Court order to reduce the state’s prison population by more than thirty thousand people.
A memo was distributed to prisoners at the state’s 33 correctional institutions warning that if they took part in the hunger strike, they would be subject to disciplinary action that could include confiscation of canteen items, like food they had bought. Prisoners identified as leaders of the strike would also be removed from the general population and “placed in an administrative segregation unit”, according to the memo.
A hunger strike in July, which involved more than six thousand inmates at its peak, ended after the department agreed to consider adjustments in the way inmates are assigned to the state’s three security housing units, where they are held in tightly controlled conditions that minimize human contact.
Scott Kernan, the under secretary of operations for the department, said that, after the strike in July, the department “determined there was some validity to what the inmates’ concerns were.” The department is reviewing its procedures, he said.
But inmates recently resumed the strike, saying that the department had not yet fully addressed their demands. Those demands included modifying the practice of sending prisoners to security housing units for indefinite periods based on the judgment that they were involved in gang activities, and also abolishing the practice of “debriefing”, in which inmates are encouraged to gain release from the unit by renouncing their gang affiliations and providing information about them.
At Pelican Bay State Prison, in a remote northern part of the state, the average length of confinement for the 1,111 inmates in the security housing unit is 6.8 years, according to the department. Most inmates in the unit are confined in windowless cells, eight feet by twelve feet, for 22 hours or more a day.
Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, which provides free legal services to prisoners, said that, given the standoff between the inmates and the prison officials: “I don’t really see how this can end happily or without tragedy.”
Rico says it's simple, as usual: don't feed them. Eventually, they'll get hungry enough to eat, or die. Either way works for Rico...

Another one gone

Military.com has an article by Ahmed al-Haj about Anwar al-Awkaki:
Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born Islamic militant cleric who became a prominent figure in al-Qaeda's most active branch, using his fluent English and internet savvy to draw recruits to carry out attacks in the United States, was killed recently in the mountains of Yemen, according to American and Yemeni officials.
The Yemeni government and Defense Ministry announced al-Awlaki's death, but gave no details. A senior US official said American intelligence supports the claim that he had been killed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
Yemeni security officials and local tribal leaders said the cleric was killed in an airstrike on his convoy that they believed was carried out by the Americans. They said pilotless drones had been seen over the area in previous days.
Al-Awlaki would be the most prominent al-Qaeda figure to be killed since Osama bin Laden's death in a US raid in Pakistan in May. In July, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Yemeni-American was a priority target alongside Ayman al-ZawahriOsama bin Laden's successor as the terror network's leader.
The forty-year-old al-Awlaki had been in the crosshairs since his killing was approved by President Obama in April of 2010, making him the first American placed on the CIA "kill or capture" list. At least twice, airstrikes were called in on locations in Yemen where al-Awlaki was suspected of being, but he wasn't harmed.
Al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, was believed to be key in turning al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen into what American officials have called the most significant and immediate threat to the Untied States. The branch, led by a Yemeni militant named Nasser al-Wahishi, plotted several failed attacks on U.S. soil:- the botched Christmas of 2009 attempt to blow up an American airliner heading to Detroit, and a foiled 2010 attempt to ship explosives by cargo plane to Chicago.
Known as an eloquent preacher who spread English-language sermons on the internet calling for "holy war" against the United States, al-Awlaki's role was to inspire and, it is believed, even directly recruit militants to carry out attacks.
He was not believed to be a key operational leader, but a spokesman. His English skills gave him reach among second- and third-generation Muslims who may not speak Arabic.
Yemeni officials have said al-Awlaki had contacts with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused would-be Christmas plane bomber, who was in Yemen in 2009. They say they believe al-Awlaki met with the 23-year-old Nigerian, along with other al-Qaeda leaders, in al-Qaeda strongholds in the country in the weeks before the failed bombing.
In New York, the Pakistani-American man who pleaded guilty to the May 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt told interrogators he was "inspired" by al-Awlaki after making contact over the internet. al-Awlaki also exchanged up to twenty emails with Major Nidal Malik Hasan, killer of thirteen people in the 5 November 2009 rampage at Fort Hood. Hasan initiated the contacts, drawn by al-Awlaki's internet sermons, and approached him for religious advice.
al-Awlaki has said he didn't tell Hasan to carry out the shootings, but he later praised Hasan as a "hero" on his website for killing American soldiers who would be heading for Afghanistan or Iraq to fight Muslims. The cleric similarly said Abdulmutallab was his "student", but said he never told him to carry out the airline attack.
In a statement, the Yemeni government said al-Awlaki was "targeted and killed" five miles (eight kilometers) from the town of Khashef in the Province of al-Jawf. The town is located eighty miles east of the capital, Sana'a.
Yemen, the Arab world's most impoverished nation, has become a haven for hundreds of al-Qaeda militants. The United States has been deeply concerned that militants will take advantage of the country's political turmoil to strengthen their positions. In recent months, militants have seized control of several cities in Yemen's south.
A previous attack against al-Awlaki on 5 May, shortly after the May raid that killed Osama bin Laden, was carried out by a combination of U.S. drones and jets. The operation was run by the U.S. military's elite counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command, the same unit that got Osama bin Laden. The JSOC has worked closely with Yemeni counter-terrorism forces for years in the fight against al-Qaeda.
Top counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan says such cooperation with Yemen has improved since the political unrest there. Brennan said the Yemenis have been more willing to share information about the location of al-Qaeda targets, as a way to fight the Yemeni branch challenging them for power. Other officials say the Yemenis have also allowed the US to fly more armed drone and aircraft missions over its territory than ever previously, trying to use US military power to stay in power. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
Rico says it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy (not)...

Quote of the day

Dana Perino of Fox News recently had an interview with a Navy SEAL. After discussing all the countries he had been sent to, she asked if the SEALs had to learn several languages: "Oh, no ma'am, we don't go there to talk."

Good money after bad

Eric Dash has an article in The New York Times about golden parachutes for the unworthy:
The golden goodbye has not gone away. Just last week, Léo Apotheker was shown the door after a tumultuous eleven-month run atop Hewlett-Packard. His reward? $13.2 million in cash and stock severance, in addition to a sign-on package worth about $10 million, according to a corporate filing.
At the end of August, Robert P. Kelly was handed severance worth $17.2 million in cash and stock when he was ousted as chief executive of Bank of New York Mellon after clashing with board members and senior managers. A few days later, Carol A. Bartz took home nearly $10 million from Yahoo after being fired from the troubled search giant.
A hallmark of the gilded era of just a few short years ago, the eye-popping severance package continues to thrive in spite of the measures put in place in the wake of the financial crisis to crack down on excessive pay.
Critics have long complained about outsize compensation packages that dwarf ordinary workers’ paychecks, but they voice particular ire over pay-for-failure. Much of Wall Street and corporate America has shifted a bigger portion of pay into longer-term stock awards and established policies to claw back bonuses. And while fuller disclosure of exit packages several years ago has helped ratchet down the size of the biggest severance deals, efforts by shareholders and regulators to further restrict payouts have had less success.
“We repeatedly see companies’ assets go out the door to reward failure,” said Scott Zdrazil, the director of corporate governance for Amalgamated Bank’s $11 billion Longview Fund, a labor-affiliated investment fund that sought to tighten the restrictions on severance plans at three oil companies last year. “Investors are frustrated that boards haven’t prevented such windfalls.”
Several years ago, the Securities and Exchange Commission turned a brighter spotlight on severance deals by requiring companies to disclose the values of the contracts in regulatory filings. More recently, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms required that public companies include “say on pay” votes for shareholders to express opinions about compensation, including a separate vote for golden parachutes initiated by a merger or sale.
Yet so far, few investors have gone to battle. Only 38 of the largest three thousand companies had their executive pay plans voted down, according to Institutional Shareholder Services. Even then, the votes are non-binding.
Severance policies typically call for a lump-sum cash payment, the ability to cash out stock awards and options immediately instead of having to potentially wait for years, and sometimes even bonuses. And that’s not counting the retirement benefits and additional company stock that executives accumulate, which can increase the total value of their exit package by millions of dollars.
Some critics believe investors have become inured to the hefty payouts. In addition, the continuing financial crises in Europe and the United States have pushed compensation into the backseat on the shareholder agenda.
“People are preoccupied with the bigger issues,” said Frederick Rowe Jr., a hedge fund manager and president of Investors for Director Accountability, which has sought to curb excessive pay.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, seemed to lose its bully pulpit for compensation reform after most of the nation’s biggest financial companies repaid their government loans and Kenneth R. Feinberg, its tough-talking pay overseer, moved on to tackle other issues.
Federal Reserve officials flagged golden parachutes as a concern when they began a compensation review almost two years ago, but their inquiry was limited to large banks, not all large companies. The findings of the review are expected to be made public in the next few weeks.
Over the last year, regulators have been pressing corporate boards to draft policies denying huge severance payouts to senior executives if the firm teeters on collapse. That still leaves wiggle room for managers to score big if they merely perform poorly.
Practices such as large cash payouts and having shareholders pay the tax bill for departing executives are on the decline, especially after the uproar over the $200 million-plus exit packages of Hank McKinnell of Pfizer and Robert Nardelli of Home Depot in the last decade.
Zdrazil and other shareholder advocates say that investors have made some progress by pressuring companies to reduce the cash portion of severance packages to about two times salary from three. Now boards are under pressure to tighten the rules that speed up the ability of departing executives to cash out big chunks of stock. Only a few corporations, like Exxon Mobil, have policies where executives must forfeit their unvested stock options if they are forced out.
Some CEOs do not negotiate big payouts. Oswald Grübel, the chief executive of UBS who stepped down last week after a trader concealed more than $2.3 billion of losses, will receive $1.6 million (1.5 million Swiss francs), equivalent to the standard severance package of six months’ salary given to all senior executives at the Swiss bank.
Many chief executives continue to walk away with seven or eight-figure severance packages, according to an analysis by James F. Reda & Associates, an executive compensation consulting firm.
At Burger King, its chief executive, John Chidsey, departed in April with a severance package worth almost $20 million, despite severely underperforming McDonald’s. Michelle Miguelez, a Burger King spokeswoman, declined to comment.
The chief executive at Massey Energy was awarded a large severance contract despite presiding over a company barraged with accusations of reckless conduct and with legal claims stemming from one of the deadliest mining disasters in memory. In June, Baxter F. Phillips Jr. was awarded nearly $14 million in cash and stock severance after the company was sold to a competitor, Alpha Natural Resources. Ted Pile, a spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources, said his company was required to honor an employment contract “put in place before we acquired” Massey.
Another chief executive received severance payments after his company was accused of fraud. At Beazer Homes, Ian McCarthy was ousted as chief executive three months after the company settled with the SEC for filing misleading financial statements. McCarthy was forced to repay about $6.5 million. But what the government took away, Beazer’s board gave back. McCarthy was awarded a severance package worth about $6.3 million, and was reimbursed for up to $10,000 of legal fees associated with his termination. Beazer did not respond to a request for comment.
Perhaps the biggest reason that golden parachutes persist is that corporate boards hire superstar chief executives, rather than groom strong managers inside the company for the top job. That gives outsiders a stronger hand to demand all kinds of upfront stock awards and lucrative severance deals when they are hired. So when things do not work out, that “golden hello” turns into a “golden goodbye”.
That is what happened with Bartz, a hard-charging technology executive who was brought in to help turn around Yahoo in 2009. She was given a sign-on package worth over $47.2 million in cash and stock, and pay worth an additional $11.9 million in 2010, according to Equilar, an executive compensation research firm.
But after her plans to revive the beleaguered search giant failed to improve its results, Yahoo’s board fired Bartz this month. She walked away with a large allotment of deeply depressed stock options as well as cash severance worth about $5.2 million. The company said some of the stock was subject to future performance goals.
At Hewlett-Packard, its revolving door for chiefs has led to tens of millions in severance payouts even as thousands of employees have lost their jobs. In 2007, Carly Fiorina walked away with more than $21 million in cash-stock severance after she struggled to turn around the company. Her successor, Mark V. Hurd, left with severance of more than $12.2 million after he was forced to step down amid accusations of an improper relationship.
Now comes Apotheker’s $13.2 million severance payout when the stock price was cut in half. That is made up of $7.2 million in cash, the ability to sell $3.6 million of restricted stock and a $2.4 million bonus. HP, which paid $2.9 million to relocate Apotheker to California, will now pay to move him to Belgium or France and cover losses of up to $300,000 on the sale of his house.
On Thursday, HP released a regulatory filing showing that Meg Whitman, its new chief executive, would receive a sign-on package worth about $13.1 million, according to an analysis of the filing by Equilar. Much of the compensation comes from a stock option grant that is subject to certain performance targets. She also stands to collect severance if she leaves.
Lloyd Doggett, a Democratic representative from Texas and senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said excessive severance packages were “outrageous. The whole concept that the only way to get rid of bad management is to buy them off is fundamentally wrong” he said.
Rico says his exit packages have typically been a boot in the butt, unfortunately... (And obviously he didn't learn how to screw up the company to get the big money.)

They all say it

Rico says that, on any day he's wearing his patch, it would be any male over the age of two: "Mommy, mommy, look: a pirate!"

Losing at poker

Rico says you win some, you lose some, according to an AP article in The New York Times:
Nevada gambling regulators have revoked the license of Full Tilt Poker, a popular website that once offered gambling to thousands of players around the world, saying the site had misled officials about its financial operations.
The revocation was made by the Alderney Gambling Control Commission on the British Channel Islands. The move, according to Full Tilt, put in jeopardy a plan outlined by a lawyer for Full Tilt to repay millions of dollars in player funds that had been in limbo since the site was first shut down to Americans in April, when its executives were indicted in the United States.
Andre Wilsenach, executive director of the commission, said in a statement on its website that Full Tilt reported balances that had been seized or restrained by United States authorities as liquid funds, and gave unauthorized loans and failed to report material events.
Full Tilt said in a news release that the revocation would make it more difficult to execute a sale and repay players. A lawyer for Full Tilt based in Washington, A. Jeff Ifrah, did not return messages seeking comment.
Rico says the site has a stern notice on it now:

Moving the UN

Lisa Foderaro has an article in The New York Times about the East River Esplanade:
For at least a decade, the United Nations has coveted a playground just south of its landmark tower, where it would like to construct a new building. For just as long, city and state officials have longed to fill in the largest remaining gap in the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, from 38th to 60th Streets on the East River, but have not had the money.
Now, in a series of real-life Rubik’s Cube moves, elected officials are on the verge of signing an agreement that would create a framework for both sides to get what they want. The United Nations would take part of the Robert Moses Playground for its new building, while the city would end up with enough cash to finish an esplanade for the 32-mile Greenway and a replacement playground. In July, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation that gave the city and state governments until 10 October to agree to the terms of a deal.
If the agreement, or memorandum of understanding, is signed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the heads of the Assembly and the Senate, as required, the United Nations Development Corporation could begin a land-use review for its new tower, which could be no taller than the 505-foot Secretariat Building. It would pay the city at least $65 million for the parkland, which, in technical terms, would be “alienated”.
Once the new tower was built, the United Nations, which has been renting the United Nations Plaza buildings from the city at below-market rates, would move its offices out of those buildings or begin paying market rents. Selling those buildings would provide the rest of the money for the esplanade.
Some residents of the area, especially those in Tudor City, have blasted the plan, saying a new skyscraper, at First Avenue and 41st Street, would wall them off from the East River. But for some officials and other East Side residents, the swap could help realize their long-held dream of waterfront access.
“It is a very rare occasion where I would ever find myself supporting the alienation of open space in my district,” State Senator Liz Krueger said. “But we think mathematically this is a win. It helps New York City make good on its commitment to a green ring around Manhattan. We’re in bad economic times. I just don’t see any money appearing on the horizon for something like this.”
The city would build the northern portion of the esplanade first, with the $65 million it would receive for Robert Moses Playground. That would allow it to take advantage of existing pilings in the water, saving tens of millions of dollars in construction costs. The portion of the esplanade from 41st Street to 53rd Street would be paid for by the sale of United Nations Plaza, which could yield hundreds of millions of dollars, to be split between the city and the esplanade project.
Part of the proceeds from the sale of the playground would go toward improvements to St. Vartan Park, five blocks south of Robert Moses Playground. The agreement also secures money to stabilize Waterside Pier, a former Consolidated Edison site owned by the city, which runs from 38th Street to 41st Street. Design plans are under way for the rehabilitation of the pier, which would fill in the southernmost part of the gap and does not hinge on the United Nations’ intentions.
At a series of forums to discuss the deal, the playground, a little more than an acre, was depicted alternately as a beloved park where children learn to ride their bikes and as a desolate patch of blacktop that will not be missed. The United Nations would build on the western half, which is now used by a roller hockey association, while a dog run and basketball courts to the east would be untouched.
The memorandum has identified a site sixteen blocks to the south for a replacement park, turning Asser Levy Place, a two-block street that runs between 23rd Street and 25th Street east of First Avenue, into a playground.
Even if the memorandum is signed by 10 October, there is no guarantee that the United Nations will commit to the deal. Negotiations between elected officials have included the United Nations Development Corporation, a city-state public-benefit corporation that handles the United Nations’ real estate needs. But, while there is every expectation that the United Nations would want the playground site, the organization is not party to the memorandum.
“In the past decade, it has repeatedly expressed interest in consolidating its operations on this particular site,” said Micah Lasher, the city’s chief lobbyist in Albany.
Alternatively, the United Nations could build on its own campus. If it did so, however, it would be exempt from zoning laws and could avoid the city’s uniform land-use review procedure, which puts major building projects under a microscope.
“The UN could decide to build on their North Lawn,” Krueger said. “The community gets another large building and somebody other than Tudor City gets impacted, but there’s no funding at all for improvements to park space or a new esplanade.”
That is little consolation for residents of Tudor City, a cluster of neo-gothic apartment towers near the United Nations. A new United Nations tower would affect two buildings in particular: 2 and 5 Tudor City. “It would feel smothering,” said Muriel Gross, a retired teacher who has lived in the complex for thirty years. “We’ve had it open all these years. Who gives away playgrounds?”
There is also opposition from groups critical of the United Nations, particularly the conservative Heritage Foundation. Anti-United Nations sentiment in the Legislature helped quash a similar plan several years ago. “We’re not doing this deal for the benefit of the United Nations,” said Brian Kavanagh, a state assemblyman who represents the East Side. “We’re doing this deal, if we do it, for the benefit of our community and New Yorkers.”
Community Board 6, whose fifty members will soon hold a non-binding vote on the proposal, says that its district, from 14th Street to 59th Street, east of Lexington Avenue, has the lowest ratio of open space to office workers and residents in the city. And many there have felt more than a twinge of envy as they have watched Hudson River Park take shape across the island.
“We look at the West,” said Mark P. Thompson, the community board’s chairman, “and think, ‘Wow, we’d love to have something as wonderful as that, too.’ ”
Rico says the UN alienating land is pretty funny...

Cheating? On the SATs? Shocking.

Jenny Anderson has an article in The New York Times about arrests in the recent SAT scandal:
When Samuel Eshaghoff, a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Emory University, was arrested for allegedly accepting money to take the SAT for six Long Island high school students, testing officials said it was an isolated event. But school officials and prosecutors disagree, and a continuing investigation is focusing on other schools and students. “I do believe it’s more systemic than just Great Neck North,” said Kathleen M. Rice, the district attorney for Nassau County.
Rice brought criminal charges against Eshaghoff and misdemeanor charges against six current and former Great Neck North students who said Eshaghoff took the test for them. Five of the six said they paid him a fee of up to $2,500. Eshaghoff has pleaded not guilty. She said she was investigating two other schools and various other test takers. She said the cheating problem was widespread, a sentiment echoed by school administrators and superintendents.
“As tests have become higher-stakes tests, as the competition between kids for scholarships and college entrance has increased, the likelihood of kids looking for ways to beat the system has increased,” said Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho Public Schools on Long Island, which has 3,200 students.
School officials say the testing system has many flaws, most notably the fact that there are no consequences for cheaters. When the Educational Testing Service, the company that administers the test, detects irregularities, it simply notifies the affected students that their scores are being withdrawn.
Neither colleges nor high schools are ever alerted that cheating was suspected. Tom Ewing, an Educational Testing Service spokesman, said that confidentiality laws meant to protect minors prevented his company from disclosing that information. Of 2.25 million SATs taken every year, about 1,000 scores are withdrawn for misbehavior, 99 percent of which are for copying, he said.
Four of the students who said Eshaghoff took the test for them are in college now; the colleges have not been notified by the testing service of their statements, Rice said. The other two students are in high school. It is not known whether the school district plans to take action against them.
School officials and SAT tutors said security at the test could be improved: students could be required to take the test at their own school, and the Educational Testing Service could alert schools about test-takers coming from other districts.
Students register for the SAT online and typically take it at their own school or one nearby. Geoff Gordon, the superintendent of Port Washington schools, said he asked students in his district to take the test there to ensure better supervision. If they register elsewhere, they are asked to tell a guidance counselor. But that system is hardly airtight, he conceded: students are free to take the test at whichever site they wish. Gordon said more information from the testing service would make it easier to track students. “I like checks and balances,” he said. “If ETS would send out the list ahead of time, it would be very helpful.”
Jody Steinglass, who founded Empire Edge, a tutoring company based in Manhattan, said he took the SAT every year to keep up with changes. Steinglass, 34, said that, while proctors sometimes noticed that he was older than the typical test-taker, he had never been challenged. Requiring students to take the test at their own school is a good idea for several reasons, he said. “They will feel more comfortable being somewhere they recognize, being around kids they recognize and teachers they know,” he said. “And I believe fraud would be reduced tremendously.”
Rice, the district attorney, said Great Neck North administrators started hearing rumors about students’ cheating in February. The school compiled a list of students who took the test outside the district, then compared SAT scores with grade-point averages. Six students had B to B-minus grades and SAT scores in the 97th percentile, raising suspicion. A handwriting analysis by ETS determined that one student had taken all six tests.
The district attorney’s office believes the ruse started in November of 2009. Prosecutors say Eshaghoff took the tests using a borrowed driver’s license and five fake school ID cards, including one for a girl. She was the only one of the six not to pay Eshaghoff, and the prosecutor’s office said the two had a “romantic relationship.”
The scores for Eshaghoff ranged from 2,170 to 2,220, out of a total of 2,400. His lawyer, Matin Emouna, said the matter should have been handled by the school and not in the courts.
Several students at Great Neck North said they had heard rumors of cheating. “It sort of happens everywhere,” one student, a junior, said. “You just know.” Another junior said the charges could have an effect on other students. “Even the kids who are just straight-cut, now their grades will be taken with a grain of salt,” he said.
Rico says it would never have crossed his mind to hire someone to take the SATs for him; of course, the fact that he got a high score (not quite 2400) may have had something to do with that decision, but he's sure the Educational Testing Service people are pissed... (But nobody noticed Eshaghoff was taking it for a girl? That's clueless.)

Vintage car crashes

Rico says his friend David sends a link to this splendid video:

Not soon enough

Rico says it's the same story every time, and he grows impatient:

Car lust in India

Siddhartha Deb has an op-ed piece in The New York Times about car ownership in India:
A man, whom I shall call 'J', showed up at my friend’s apartment one evening. My friend had warned me that J was dropping in to talk about hard times: he had lost his job heading a television channel, was going through a bitter divorce, and had been reduced to living with his parents. But, in spite of all this and the oppressive Delhi heat, J looked neat and composed. He began talking about problems with his wife, and his in-laws: “The first instance,” he began, “was the Ford Ikon they wanted to give me.”
I was struck by the fact that his first point of reference was a car— and an American model that would not have been available in India fifteen years ago. It brought to mind how the car had suddenly become emblematic of a new India that hoped to model itself on the United States, especially in the individualism, speed, and the liberation promised by the open road.
Until the mid-1990s, cars had been mainly available in two models in India: the unglamorous, onion-shaped, sturdy Ambassador and the more aerodynamic Maruti 800. Both were produced by state-run companies (though the latter had a partnership with the Japanese company Suzuki). But when India began to open its markets, a wide range of cars became available, just as rising middle-class incomes and cheap consumer credit made buying such cars feasible.
In many ways, the marriage between the Indian middle class and the automobile culture has been disastrous. Roads remain awful, drivers continue to be erratic, and traffic in cities like Delhi and Bangalore is worse than ever. And yet the car has become deeply enmeshed with upward mobility, while also complicating that mobility. In the India of the Ambassador and the Maruti, the distinction was largely between those who owned cars and those who did not. In the India of Ford, Fiat, Hyundai, and Mahindra— where there is even a very cheap indigenous model called the Tata Nano— distinctions are parsed in terms of the model one owns.
J’s in-laws had borrowed money to buy the car as a wedding gift, but it was really his wife who wanted it, and J, knowing that his in-laws weren’t wealthy, had refused it, insisting that his bride travel to the wedding in his more modest Maruti Zen. His wife, unlike him, had been— he hesitated before finding the right word— aspirational.
I saw that aspiration frequently as I traveled around India. Even before I met Arindam Chaudhuri, a management guru and Bollywood film producer (who has filed a defamation suit against me in India), I knew about the car he was chauffeured around in, a lavishly appointed Bentley Continental, its shade of blue matching the color of his designer suits. Chak, an engineer I interviewed in Bangalore who had lived in the United States for two decades, drove a Ford SUV.
When I penetrated, with difficulty, into the rural headquarters of a seed dealer in Andhra Pradesh— a man whose aspirational mansion had been burned down, either by rampaging farmers or by thugs dispatched by a rival seed dealer— he turned out to be partial to a white Toyota Innova. To me, it looked like a suburban minivan but, to him and his associates, the tinted windows and cloth-covered seats were glamorous.
For the lower classes, cars give way to other modes of transport. The Assamese security guards I met in a steel factory in Andhra Pradesh showed me a battered bicycle they had found on a scrap heap, and which they had fixed up so they could ride to the bazaar for supplies. They pedaled away in the shadow of the new highway connecting Bangalore and Hyderabad, its flashing electronic signboards warning drivers not to use cellphones.
Esther, a waitress in Delhi, perfectly captured the transition between the lower and upper strata. We were taking a taxi to her apartment when she remarked, wistfully, how she would like to have a car someday. She then told me a story about her father, a retired official in the northeastern state of Manipur, and the bicycle he rode, sometimes carrying Esther’s mother on the crossbar. “But she’s fat, and one day they fell down, and my mother got so mad at him that she said she would never ride on his bicycle again,” Esther said.
It was a romantic image, one made precious by old black-and-white Hindi films where the modest but upright hero cycles around, his love perched sideways on the connecting bar. It made me think of the bicycles I see everywhere in New York, the expensive models made for lone riders, as well as the ones with child seats of varying sizes and shapes, and I wondered if the Indian upper classes, in their very race to catch up with the West, weren’t falling behind yet again. I thought of the electric cars, of businesses like Zipcar, of car pools, and of the slowly emerging consciousness, even in the United States, about the limits imposed by the environment and the economy on cars.
But perhaps there is no such thing as just a car for aspirers. J certainly seemed to think so that evening as he told us the story of his failing marriage, recounting the vacations he took his wife on and the money he gave her and her family. Now, he said, she was accusing him and his relatives of harassment. She had claimed he was incapable of fulfilling his “marital duties”, a charge he denied indignantly. “She was aspirational, you know,” he said as his story wound down. “She told me she wanted a red Pajero.”
He was referring to the Mitsubishi SUVs much loved by the power elite in India. “I told her that, in time, maybe we could have a red Pajero.” But she had been unwilling to give him that time, and so they had gone down the road that led to the lawyers and the courts. He was writing a book about his experiences. He was aspirational, too, in his way. “I have already written sixty to seventy pages,” J said, picking up his watch from the table and strapping it on. “I am thinking of calling it The Red Pajero,” he said, laughing. “Maybe I could even get Mitsubishi to sponsor the book. It could be important. I think people will relate.”
Rico says this would be funnier if it weren't so pathetic... (But the Pajero is a cute little SUV.)

Quote for the day

The real struggle of the future will be about who is capable of fulfilling the desires of a devout public. It's going to be about who is Islamist and who is more Islamist, rather than about the secularists and the Islamists. 
Azzam Tammi, a scholar of Islamic political thought.

Rico says, oh, great, just what we needed: Muslims competing to be more Islamist than Islamist...

History for the day

On 30 September 1938, British, French, German, and Italian leaders (left to right in photo) agreed at a meeting in Munich that Nazi Germany would be allowed to annex Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland.

29 September 2011

Recalibrating an admiral

Eric Schmitt has an article in The New York Times about Pakistan and Admiral Mullen:
The White House and State Department sought to temper remarks by the nation’s top military officer last week that the insurgents who attacked the American Embassy in Afghanistan this month were “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s spy agency. The comments by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were the first to directly link the spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, with an assault on the United States, and they ignited a diplomatic furor with Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders, who have denied the accusation.
Asked whether he agreed that the Haqqani network, the militant group blamed for the embassy attack, was “a veritable arm” of the ISI, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters, “It’s not language I would use.” He pivoted quickly to say the Obama administration is united in its assessment that “links” exist between the Haqqani network and the ISI, “and that Pakistan needs to take action to address that”.
Carney’s comments, echoed by State Department and other administration officials, seemed aimed at supporting Admiral Mullen’s tough comments up to a point, while giving Pakistan a small window to save face.
With American lawmakers considering legislation that would condition billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan on that country’s cooperation in fighting the Haqqani network and other terror groups associated with al-Qaeda, the administration is trying to calibrate a response that prods Pakistan to act more aggressively against the Haqqani network but does not rupture already frayed relations.
President Obama’s top national security advisers met to discuss familiar options— including unilateral strikes and a suspension of security assistance— intended to get Pakistan to fight militants more effectively. So far, the carrots and sticks have had little impact, American officials acknowledged.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the administration was completing “the final formal review” to designate the Haqqani network a terrorist organization, having already designated several of its leaders. She discussed the matter with Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, when the United Nations General Assembly met last week, Clinton said at the State Department. “We discussed the urgency, in the wake of the attack on our embassy in Kabul and on the NATO ISAF headquarters, for us to confront the threat posed by the Haqqani network,” she said, referring to the International Security Assistance Force.
Clinton, echoing private statements by American diplomats, acknowledged the strain that the attack and its links to Pakistani intelligence had caused, but she also emphasized the need for Pakistan to address what has become a threat to its own society. She added that the United States remained committed to attacking any threats, “in particular against those who have taken up safe havens inside Pakistan”, suggesting a willingness to act on its own. But she emphasized previous Pakistani efforts against al-Qaeda and other extremists. “And we’re going to continue to work with our Pakistani counterparts to try to root them out and prevent them from attacking Pakistanis, Americans, Afghanis, or anyone else,” she said in an appearance with Egypt’s foreign minister.
In remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Mullen went further than any other American official in blaming the ISI for undermining the United States-led effort in Afghanistan. However, two administration officials said he had overstated the precision of evidence linking the ISI to the recent attacks, and some Pakistan specialists said the ISI did not control the Haqqani network as tightly as the admiral had stated.
A spokesman for Admiral Mullen, Captain John Kirby, said that the admiral stood by his remarks.
Two senior military officials said that, while there was no evidence that the ISI had directed or orchestrated the attack against the United States Embassy in Kabul, there was evidence that ISI officers had urged and supported the Haqqani fighters to carry out strikes against those kinds of Western targets. Pakistani military officials have denied this.
Rico says that Mullen, as usual, spoke the truth and nobody liked it..

Busted, finally

James Barron has an article in The New York Times about a hijacker who finally got captured:
Captain William H. May noticed the man who started the trouble. The priest. Captain May and a flight attendant were standing by the cabin door that morning forty years ago as passengers began to board the DC-8 in Detroit. The flight attendant was complaining about someone on an earlier flight.
The priest stepped onto the plane, looked straight at Captain May, nodded, and headed down the aisle to his seat. “I said: ‘A priest. Maybe there’s one we can trust,’ ” Captain May recalled recently. “That’s how wrong I could be.” Captain May realized how wrong a couple of hours later, when the Miami-bound flight was cruising over Georgia. The priest pulled a gun from the hollowed-out Bible he was carrying and held the gun to a flight attendant’s head.
The gunman— no priest, but a convicted murderer in disguise who by some accounts had made extra money working as a model— was finally taken into custody in Portugal.
Captain May was among many who had crossed paths with the man the authorities identified as George Wright, 68, and who found themselves reliving a bizarre drama that had the audaciously clever framework of an Elmore Leonard novel. And those who did not remember the case found themselves looking at grainy photographs of government agents delivering one million dollars— the highest ransom of its kind at the time— in swimsuits so the hijackers would see they were not armed.
To some, the news that Wright had been apprehended was a throwback, the way catching Billy the Kid or Jesse James might have been in the days of gunslingers on horseback. Wright’s capture was a portal to an era of airplane hijackings and revolutionary groups like the Black Liberation Army that Wright had gravitated to. “It brought it back. I’ve kind of been reliving it since I heard,” Captain May said. “The priest, he was the one who was so talkative. He was kind of running the show.”
The latest chapter unfolded quietly. Wright was picked up by the police after a task force of law enforcement agencies from the United States tied a fingerprint on his Portuguese identity card to the fugitive they had been looking for since Richard M. Nixon was president.
For twenty years in Casas Novas, a village overlooking the Atlantic Ocean about thirty miles from Lisbon, Wright had gone by the name Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos. He was known as Jorge the Painter, a man who painted houses and did other odd jobs. For a while, he worked as a chef, grilling chicken. He lived with his Portuguese wife and two grown children in a white-washed house with a yellow door and garden gate with a sign by the door naming it Casa das Escadas, or House of the Stairs.
“This is a big surprise,” said his nearest neighbor, Vitor Louçada, 62, a retired mason who sometimes traded fish he had caught for Wright’s chicken.
Wright’s Portuguese identification card said he originated from Guinea-Bissau, a West African nation that won independence from Portugal in 1974. The mayor of the area, Rui Franco dos Santos, said the only hint that Wright knew about American culture came in 1997, when Wright volunteered to help set up a youth basketball team. In the end, the team turned to handball, and Franco dos Santos said Wright did not offer to coach that.
Wright appeared in court in Lisbon and asked to be released while the court reviewed the extradition request from the United States. But the judge ordered that he remain in custody, according to Laura Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.
Wright’s trail had all but dried up by 2002, when a regional task force was formed to find fugitives from New York and New Jersey. It included the United States Marshals Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and it took up Wright’s case, eventually following clues that pointed to Portugal. Wright’s fingerprints, on file in this country from when he was arrested for murder in New Jersey in 1962, matched Jorge dos Santos’ prints in a Portuguese database.
Wright had been convicted of shooting a gas station owner, Walter Patterson, a decorated World War Two veteran. Wright, who got away with $70, was eventually sentenced to fifteen to thirty years.
In August 1970, he and three other men escaped from what is now Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey. Wright ended up in Detroit in a commune-like house on Manistique Street where it appeared the residents had practiced their own brand of religion. There was a mound of dirt in the living room, and in the center, a doll that had been stabbed with a knife. There were also a Bible and what the police said were astrological signs. The house is gone and it is now an empty, overgrown lot.
In 1972, Wright, dressed as a priest, was at the center of the group that hijacked Captain May’s plane, Delta Flight 841 (photo), and demanded one million dollars, according to the FBI. The hijackers also demanded that the plane be flown to Algeria, where they were counting on asylum.
“He said, ‘You tell ’em this’ and ‘You tell ’em that,’” Captain May recalled. “I said, ‘You tell ’em,’ and I handed him the mike. He said, ‘If that money is not here by two o’clock, I’m going to start throwing a dead body out the door every minute after two o’clock.’ I really thought that was an empty threat, but you can’t be sure, and I didn’t know two of them were escaped cons in for murder. I’d have been a lot nicer if I’d known that. We had some pretty tough conversations going on. Then the FBI guy said the money’s on the way.”
The plan was to send out a trucklike vehicle with steps that could reach the cabin door, and two people, one to drive the truck, the other to carry the suitcase with the money. “They said, ‘I want these guys to come out here nude’” so it would be clear they were not carrying guns, Captain May recalled. “I said, ‘Wait a second.’ I said, ‘These guys can’t come out here nude. Be reasonable.’ ” He said the co-pilot suggested bathing suits.
They released the passengers, and the plane left for Boston and then Algiers. Four years after the hijacking, the others were arrested in Paris. But Wright remained on the loose.
Ann Patterson, the daughter of the man Wright had shot in 1962, said she “felt like a burden had been lifted.” She said her father had been a driver in the Army, and had been awarded the Bronze Star after getting his troops out when they came under heavy fire in woods in Italy. Once, Patterson said, she asked, “Daddy, why did you do that? He said: ‘Because they were my men, and I had to get them out,’ ” she recalled.
Rico says it's a classic story of the difference between a real hero and a schmuck...

Conspiracy? There's a conspiracy?

J. David Goodman has an article in The New York Times about Iran:
Al-Qaeda has a message for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran: enough with the conspiracy theories about 11 September.
The latest issue of the terror group’s English-language magazine, Inspire, lashed out at the Iranian president for indulging in the claim that the American government and not al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack. It was a claim Ahmadinejad repeated during his address to the United Nations General Assembly last week, when he suggested that the killing of Osama bin Laden was part of a dark conspiracy to conceal the real perpetrators of the 11 September 2001 attacks.
“The Iranian government has professed on the tongue of its president Ahmadinejad that it does not believe al-Qaeda was behind 9/11 but, rather, the US government,” read an article in the magazine, published under the byline Abu Suhail. “So we may ask the question: why would Iran ascribe to such a ridiculous belief that stands in the face of all logic and evidence?”
The article, which reminded some of a satirical video from The Onion on a similar subject, continues, sardonically adopting a name for America often repeated by Iranian leaders: If Iran was genuine in its animosity towards the US, it would be pleased to see another entity striking a blow at the Great Satan, but that’s not the case. For Iran, anti-Americanism is merely a game of politics. The author accuses Iran, a majority Shi'ite country, of a lack of support for the Sunni terror group because of both long-standing religious animosities and simple geopolitical jealousy: For them, al-Qaeda was a competitor for the hearts and minds of the disenfranchised Muslims around the world. al-Qaeda, an organization under fire, with no state, succeeded in what Iran couldn’t. Therefore it was necessary for the Iranians to discredit 9/11 and what better way to do so? Conspiracy theories.
Iran and the Shi’a in general do not want to give al-Qaeda credit for the greatest and biggest operation ever committed against America because this would expose their lip-service jihad against the Great Satan. The article, labeled Opinion, appeared in the magazine’s fall 2011 issue, which is dedicated to commemorating the tenth anniversary of the attacks. Needless to say, the historical view of the 11 September attacks provided by al-Qaeda differs greatly from that offered by the other commemorative magazine issues dedicated to the subject. The cover superimposes a graphical image of the World Trade Center’s twin towers— one made from dollar signs, the other from digital ones and zeros— against a cloud-filled sky. The headline reads: The Greatest Special Operation of All Time. There is an article said to be written by Osama bin Laden before his death that urges readers “do not let America’s front and its troops seem hard and become great in your eyes”.
Most of the rest of the issue is taken up with a photo essay of 11 September and the decade since, with a focus on terror attacks carried out by the group, like the deadly transit strikes in Madrid and London, as well as those thwarted at the last minute by international authorities, including the parcel bombs intercepted from Yemen and the failed Times Square bombing.
The group also includes the November 2009 attack on at Fort Hood among the major events of the decade, offering praise for Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the military psychiatrist accused of killing thirteen people in a shooting rampage. “How can there be any dispute about the virtue of what he has done?” reads a large quote attributed to the Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki and placed over a close-up photo of a black handgun.
Inspire magazine, a graphics-heavy production aimed at English-speaking Muslims, is believed to be the work primarily of Samir Khan, a Saudi-born American who moved to Yemen in 2009. His byline appears over an essay of media criticism in the latest issue. The “special issue” about 11 September is the seventh for the magazine and includes one house ad for a forthcoming interview with Adam Yahiye Gadahn, an American Islamic convert and al-Qaeda supporter, and one apparent advertisement featuring mourners yelling over the body of young boy and said to be from “Come to Jihad ad productions.”
Rico says it's a shame the US government gave up assassination as a policy...

The Vatican blasts the ruling class

Elisabetta Povoledo has an article in The New York Times about the Church:
Over the last several years, the Roman Catholic Church in Italy has largely looked the other way as reports emerged of sex and corruption scandals among the country’s political elite, many of them centered on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But a recent published account of a party at Berlusconi’s home, where one female guest was said to have performed a striptease dressed as a nun, might have been more than the church could stand. This week the church lashed out, issuing its strongest reprimands yet of Italy’s ruling class, deploring “behavior that not only goes counter to public decorum but is intrinsically sad and hollow”.
Italians “look on their public leaders with consternation, and the image of the country abroad has been dangerously weakened,” Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (photo), the head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, told his fellow bishops, calling for an “upright lifestyle”, saying that the country needed a “correction of habits and lifestyles” to help it emerge from a “culture of nothingness”.
Though Cardinal Bagnasco did not single out Berlusconi— who is in court fighting several corruption charges, and accusations of having sex with a minor, and has lately become embroiled in a scandal involving prostitutes paid to attend parties at his villas— the cardinal spoke of “licentious conduct and improper relationships that damage society”. And he blasted a governing class preoccupied with itself while Italian citizens struggled to make ends meet.
The lower house of Parliament has rejected an opposition no-confidence vote against Agriculture Minister Saverio Romano, who is under investigation in Sicily over reported ties to the Mafia.
The public reproaches are perhaps the inevitable response to a Catholic audience “that is increasingly intolerant of the ostentation of lifestyles that are shamelessly immoral,” said the Reverend Antonio Sciortino, editor in chief of the Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana.
Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a liberal Catholic group, broadened the critique, arguing that Italy’s political elite does not seem to be seriously interested in tackling the nation’s deep economic problems. “The church is observing the gradual impoverishment of Italians alongside a growing abyss between people and politics,” he said. “The church is asking for something new. It fears for Italy’s future.”
Italians are beginning to understand the fallout from the euro zone debt crisis, with the government having passed a series of austerity measures in the past two months that will trim public services and pensions, as well as result in higher taxes. However, additional pledges to cut government costs and reduce the number of elective positions in Parliament and elsewhere have yet to be enacted, further fueling public disaffection with the ruling class.
“If the government is going to ask for sacrifices, they should be the first to give an example,” said Francesco Zanotti, the president of the Italian Federation of Catholic Weeklies, an association of nearly two hundred diocesan publications. He added that editorials urging greater moral rectitude on the part of the political class had been surfacing “for some time now.”
The situation is so serious— on economic and moral levels— that the church could not help but speak out, said Marco Politi, a papal biographer and commentator for the left-leaning daily Il Fatto Quotidiano. And he noted that Cardinal Bagnasco spoke out just days after Emma Marcegaglia, the head of Italy’s business lobby, Confindustria, slammed the government for not doing enough to help shore up Italy’s faltering economy.
“These two great powers in Italian society are finally making their move,” Politi said.
Last week, Marcegaglia said that time was running out for the government. Unless it comes up with a “number of serious, weighty and unpopular measures”, she said, the government should resign. Italy is a serious country, with serious businesspeople, “but we are fed up with being an international laughingstock,” she said.
The pedophile sex scandals that have so stained the church in recent years have been largely absent in Italy, and no one has accused the church of withholding criticism because of embarrassment over the behavior of its priests. Critics like Mario Staderini, a member of the Radical Party who has been fighting to eliminate fiscal privileges for the church, say that the church has treaded lightly in past years to avoid alienating a center-right government that has continued to offer tax breaks for church-owned properties and commercial activities, while supporting Catholic schools and Vatican positions on questions like common-law marriage, living wills, and some forms of assisted fertility. All of those practices are illegal in Italy.
But Father Sciortino of Famiglia Cristiana said that the church had become disenchanted with the government more recently over its inability to deliver on a number of promises to support programs that help families.“These things haven’t happened,” he said, chiding Catholic politicians for allowing allegiance to political parties to take precedence over their religious beliefs. “They remained quiet, or worse, they justified the prime minister’s indefensible behavior,” he said.
Officially, the government has not responded to the church’s criticisms. But Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League and a crucial Berlusconi ally, said that instead of faulting the government, “bishops should say more Masses”.
Rico says a 'female guest performing a striptease dressed as a nun' is probably over the top. But "corruption charges, accusations of having sex with a minor, and a scandal involving prostitutes paid to attend parties" and "an investigation in Sicily over reported ties to the Mafia"? Worse than Nixon... And "tax breaks for church-owned properties and commercial activities"? Rico says he'd love for churches to lose their property tax exemptions; we could balance the budget immediately. (Yeah, like that'll happen.)

Don't move to Alabama

Campbell Robertson has an article in The New York Times about Alabama:
A federal judge upheld most of the sections of Alabama’s far-reaching immigration law that had been challenged by the Obama administration, including portions that had been blocked in other states. “Today Judge Blackburn upheld the majority of our law,” Governor Robert Bentley said in a brief statement he delivered outside the Capitol in Montgomery. “With those parts that were upheld, we have the strongest immigration law in the country.”
The judge did issue a preliminary injunction against several sections of the law, agreeing with the government’s case that they pre-empted federal law. She blocked a broad provision that outlawed the harboring or transporting of illegal immigrants, and another that barred illegal immigrants from enrolling in or attending public universities.
The governor, in his statement, said he believed even the sections that were temporarily enjoined would eventually be upheld, and added that the state would consider appealing if that did not happen.
For the most part, Judge Blackburn, who was appointed by the elder President George Bush, disagreed with the Justice Department’s arguments, including those that had been successful in challenges to laws in Arizona and Georgia. The judge upheld a section that requires state and local law enforcement officials to try to verify a person’s immigration status during routine traffic stops or arrests if “a reasonable suspicion” exists that the person is in the country illegally. And she ruled that a section that criminalized the “willful failure” of a person in the country illegally to carry federal immigration papers did not pre-empt federal law. In both cases, she rejected the reasoning of district and appeals courts that had blocked similar portions of Arizona’s law. Legal experts expected the Justice Department to appeal.
“The department is reviewing the decision to determine next steps,” Xochitl Hinojosa, a department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We will continue to evaluate state immigration-related laws and will not hesitate to bring suit if, in fact, a state creates its own immigration policy or enforces state laws in a manner that interferes with federal immigration law.”
The Alabama law was the latest, and broadest, of the state laws against illegal immigration, going further than one passed in Arizona. While Alabama is estimated to have a relatively small population of people who are in the country illegally, their numbers have been growing.
Acting on a pledge that they would crack down on illegal immigration, Republicans passed the bill when they won a supermajority in the state legislature in the 2010 elections. Bentley signed it into law in June.
Del Marsh, the Republican president pro tem of the Alabama senate, said, in a statement after the ruling: “Our goal has always been to make sure Alabama jobs and taxpayer-funded resources are going to legal Alabama residents, and Judge Blackburn’s ruling is a significant win for this cause.”
All summer, rallies for and against the law have been taking place throughout the state. Farmers, and even the state agriculture commissioner, have raised concerns about the law’s effect on farms, sheriffs have condemned it as too onerous for financially hurting counties, and others have worried that it could seriously hinder the state’s efforts to rebuild after last April’s devastating tornadoes.
The law’s backers argued that most of the concerns arose out of a misreading of the law that they believed, in some cases, was intentional.
The judge ruled on three suits challenging the law; one brought by the federal government, another by a group of church leaders, and another brought by civil rights groups. She dismissed the suit brought by church leaders, who had argued that the law prevented them from carrying out crucial duties of their ministry, concluding that they did not have standing to challenge one part of the law and that she had addressed the other challenge in her ruling on the federal law. Judge Blackburn agreed with the arguments of the civil rights groups on several sections or subsections of the law, but did not address many of their arguments because they overlapped with those put forth in the Justice Department’s suit.
“We’re really disappointed,” said Andre Segura of the American Civil Liberties Union, a plaintiff in one of the suits. “We already know that this is going to cause a lot of problems in Alabama.”
The civil rights groups are planning an appeal.
Among the other sections Judge Blackburn upheld is one that nullifies any contracts entered into by an illegal immigrant; another that forbids any transaction between an illegal immigrant and any division of the state, a proscription that has already led to the denial of a Montgomery man’s application for water and sewage service; and, most controversially, a section that requires elementary and secondary schools to determine the immigration status of incoming students.
The civil rights groups challenged this last section on the ground that it would unlawfully deter students from enrolling in school, even if it did not explicitly allow schools to turn students away. The judge dismissed their challenge for lack of standing, though she did not rule on the argument’s merits.
Peter J. Spiro, a law professor at Temple University, said: “This decision really gives the anti-immigration folks more of a victory than they’ve been getting in other courts. There’s a lot for them to be happy about.” Still, Professor Spiro added, “This is not the last word on the constitutionality of this statute.”
Rico says, incredulously, that the Justice Department's  spokeswoman is Xochitl Hinojosa? Nah, couldn't possibly be prejudiced in favor of illegals...

Blowing their own horn

Joseph Berger has an article in The New York Times about the shofar:
In his corner of Brooklyn, he has the status of a Louis Armstrong, though he is a young man with a different kind of horn. Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Meisner (photo, at left) is an expert on the shofar, the ram’s horn whose wailing, shivering sounds Jews will hear in synagogues across the world on Rosh Hashana, the two-day holiday that began at sundown on Wednesday. Though he no longer blows the shofar at formal services, he has taught scores of shofar blowers who do, especially in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park, where he lives.
Many people think the shofar is a relatively simple wind instrument to master; after all, it does not have anything like the range of do-re-mi notes that Armstrong could evoke from a trumpet. But Rabbi Meisner, 28, a lush-bearded father of two whose main livelihood is as a kosher supervisor for a rabbinical court, will tell you its simplicity is deceptive. It does not take many lessons to learn the shofar, he said, but it takes a good deal of practice, practice, practice to sound an elegant tekiah, shevarim, teruah, the three varieties of sounds that in various combinations are blown on Rosh Hashana and, in abbreviated form, at the close of Yom Kippur. “You can’t teach how to blow,” he said, with the seeming incongruity of a Mel Brooks-accented 2,000-Year-Old Man routine. “It’s more to take away the bad habits that detract from blowing. Most people blow with a lot of effort, a lot of power. It’s exactly the opposite. There’s a fancy word with trumpets: embouchure,” he continued. “That tells you how to hold the trumpet in the lips, not to push too tight. The sounds happens by tiny vibrations. As the Talmud says: ‘Intelligence, not work.’”
The other day, Rabbi Meisner, wearing his daily garb of a navy frock coat over a vest and white shirt buttoned at the neck, was instructing Yeedle Melber, 33, while a recent graduate, Rabbi Yechiel Lichtenstein, looked on. Melber said he wanted to be able to blow the shofar this holiday for his mother, who cannot leave the house because of recent surgery. Eventually, he said, he would also like to blow the shofar for his shtibl, a room-size house of worship. He can do an adequate long tekiah and the trio of shevarim notes, but the nine short blasts of the teruah elude him. “I fell into a trap that a lot of people do,” Melber said. “I get tense.”
“That’s the Number One killer,” Rabbi Meisner agreed.
“You have to become one with the shofar,” Melber said, echoing a mystical phrase of Rabbi Meisner’s. “You have to make peace with the shofar.”
In recent weeks, Rabbi Meisner coached more than fifty students with two or three lessons apiece; he estimates that he has taught several hundred students in recent years. The need is great because Borough Park has two hundred synagogues. But his influence will also be felt farther away: in a town outside Kiev in the Ukraine, for example, where Rabbi Lichtenstein will be jetting in to lead a congregation that does not have a rabbi.
Until now, Rabbi Meisner has not usually charged for lessons, but students typically will buy a shofar from him; he sells them out of his living room for $50 to $250 apiece.
Shofars are reminiscent of the ram that Abraham sacrificed in place of Isaac, a Torah tale read on Rosh Hashana’s second day. Shofars were blasted at Mount Sinai and in Joshua’s capture of Jericho. Thereafter, they were blown as a call to battle, or as a summons to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Believers expect the Messiah’s arrival to be announced with the sound of a shofar.
Shofars are mostly produced in Israel, Morocco, and China, and the horn can come from a ram or almost any other kosher animal— some Jews prefer the spiraling horn of a kudu antelope— but the animal need not be slaughtered in kosher fashion. After the horn is cut off the carcass, its core is removed and the horn is heated by blowtorch or in oil so it can be straightened out for the drilling of a hole that joins the slender tip with the naturally hollowed-out fatter end. The horn is sanitized with an antiseptic solution, sanded, polished, and sometimes carved with teethlike decorations. Any puncture, even if it is repaired, renders the shofar ritually unfit. For Jews, hearing the shofar is a mitzvah— a virtuous deed. In the ultra-Orthodox world, women are encouraged, though not obligated, to hear the shofar; they are also permitted to do the actual trumpeting, but only at a service for other women.
Hearing the sound of the shofar is so essential that some synagogues are architecturally designed to assure that the acoustics do not resonate with strong echoes that overwhelm the shofar’s pure sound. On this point, Judaism makes an important distinction: “If you hear the echo alone,” Rabbi Meisner said, “you don’t fulfill the mitzvah.”
Rico says (sorry, can't resist) shofar so good, but, being neither musical nor Jewish, he won't have to learn it...

Wrapping the Enterprise

Patrick McGeehan has an article in The New York Times about plans for the Enterprise:
When New York City made its pitch for one of NASA’s decommissioned space shuttles, one of its selling points was location: a glistening berth on the Hudson River, alongside the aircraft carrier that is home to the Intrepid and the Sea, Air, and Space Museum.
But, five months after the Intrepid was awarded the shuttle Enterprise, museum officials have turned their attention from the end of the newly revamped pier to a parking lot on Twelfth Avenue, across the cacophonous West Side Highway. They envision converting the lot, which is surrounded by H&H Bagels, a car wash, storage warehouses, and a strip club, into a space-themed museum that would serve as the home of the Enterprise and draw as many as one million visitors a year.
Aesthetics aside, the plan has several obstacles to clear. One problem is that the Intrepid does not own the parking lot; the New York State Department of Transportation does. Another is that the property, in Hell’s Kitchen, is zoned for manufacturing, not a museum. And perhaps the biggest hurdle is the many millions of dollars that would have to be raised to build this new home for the Enterprise, which was a prototype for the space shuttles, but never flew in space.
The tentative state of the plan highlights how much less certain the Intrepid’s proposal was than those of some other museums that lobbied for one of the shuttles. The Museum of Flight in Seattle, for example, spent eleven million dollars to build a structure that would house a shuttle, but did not get one.
Houston, home of the Johnson Space Center, was also shut out, in a decision that enraged elected officials in Texas. Representative Ted Poe, a Republican, said the Intrepid’s preference for a different location for the Enterprise might be cause to revisit NASA’s selection process.
“As far as I’m concerned, it won’t be final until it’s sitting up there on the Hudson River where it’s supposed to finally be,” he said in an interview.
A NASA spokesman, Michael Curie, said agency officials were aware of the changes in the Intrepid’s plans and did not “foresee any issues that would prevent transferring Enterprise to Intrepid in 2012”.
The museum’s president, Susan Marenoff-Zausner, said in an interview that she envisioned a museum “with the shuttle as the primary tenant”, but also with classrooms and laboratories for teaching schoolchildren and others about science and technology. “It would be a museum on that side of the highway, which we think could be a linchpin in beautifying the area,” she said.
Marenoff-Zausner said she had discussed the idea with NASA officials, but had not yet made formal requests for financial help from the state or city governments. She said it was too soon to say just how big the museum would be, how it would look, or what it would cost. But she suggested that the shuttle would be visible from outside the building and could “get more exposure on the highway” than on the pier that serves as the entryway to the floating museum.
When officials of the Intrepid museum first broached the idea of bidding for one of the shuttles, they said a transparent building would be constructed for it at the end of the pier. It was to replace a Concorde supersonic jet that has stood on Pier 86 since the pier was rebuilt three years ago.
The Concorde, on long-term loan from British Airways, is part of the Intrepid’s eclectic collection of aircraft and military memorabilia. The ship that houses the museum played a minor role in the space program, picking up astronauts after they splashed down upon returning from space. The museum’s executives used that connection in their bid for one of the decommissioned shuttles.
As NASA was winding down the shuttle program, it offered its three remaining orbiters to museums. After fielding more than twenty responses, NASA awarded the shuttle Atlantis to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Endeavour to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The third, Discovery, was awarded to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. There, it will replace the Enterprise, making the prototype available to the Intrepid.
Of all the choices NASA made, the selection of the Intrepid drew the most complaints, as critics scoffed at New York’s tenuous ties to the space program. Poe has renewed his objection, saying, “That’s like putting the Statue of Liberty in Omaha.”
But Marenoff-Zausner countered that the Intrepid’s annex would be “the only representation of NASA in the entire Northeast corridor.” She said that building a full museum would not necessarily change the schedule previously laid out by NASA.
In a report last month that concluded a review of the shuttle awards, NASA’s inspector general said the Enterprise would be moved from the Smithsonian to Kennedy International Airport in April of 2012. It would be stored in a “climate-controlled tent” inside a hangar at the airport for about two years, then ferried on a barge to the Intrepid.
Marenoff-Zausner was not prepared to say when the museum would be ready for the arrival of the Enterprise, or how it would be moved from a barge on the river and across the West Side Highway. She said the museum was preparing for fund-raising and would seek to change the zoning on the site to allow the museum. The site is part of an industrial section that was rezoned in June.
But the first order of business is to strike a deal with the owner of the parking lot, the Department of Transportation. Intrepid officials met in late July with the state commissioner of transportation, Joan McDonald, to propose the plan. The commissioner has not yet decided if the state is willing to turn over the land, a spokesman for the department said.
Rico says he might have to arrange a trip to New York, if the Enterprise ever gets there. (But a strip club? That'll do well with the few hundred thousand men who come to see the shuttle annually...)

Putin, yet again

The New York Times has an editorial about the future of Russian politics:
Russia’s next presidential election is not until March but, barring some unexpected turn of events, the winner is pretty much decided. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former president and Russia’s main power player, announced that he would run for another presidential term. President Dmitri Medvedev, the protégé that Putin installed in 2008, has agreed to lead the United Russia party slate in the December parliamentary elections and to take the lesser post of prime minister after the presidential vote. Medvedev, more liberal and Western-oriented, tried to step out of Putin’s shadow with a push for judicial and political reforms that would break the Kremlin’s iron grip. He never succeeded. Only a few months ago, he seemed eager to run again for president, but Putin proved again that he is really the one in charge.
Russia’s Constitution permits only two consecutive presidential terms. If Putin wins a six-year presidential term, he could run again in 2018 and stay in power until 2024, a truly chilling prospect.
Elections alone do not make a democracy, and Putin, a former KGB officer, has made clear his disdain for democratic rights. His Russia is a place where journalists and human rights activists are murdered with impunity, political and business opponents are thrown in jail, and media outlets are controlled by or intimidated by the government. Putin has ridden high on an oil-fueled economic boom, but production levels are leveling off, and the country needs to expand its revenue base by reducing the dependency on oil and gas, encouraging business competition, and increasing foreign investment. To be successful, that will require cracking down on corruption, strengthening the rule of law and building an independent judiciary— reforms that Medvedev talked about, but did not deliver.
The Obama administration has generally done a good job of “resetting” and managing the relationship with Moscow, working productively on Iran and Libya, concluding a new nuclear weapons agreement, and increasing Russian logistical support to American forces in Afghanistan. Those interests will continue.
That means President Obama will have to find ways to continue working with Putin. He will also have to be ready to speak out, clearly and forcefully, when Putin bullies his own citizens or his neighbors. There can be no illusions about who Putin really is.
Rico says he wishes old Vladimir well; better him than another Stalin...

Imitation: the sincerest form of flattery

Jenna Wortham and David Streitfeld have an article in The New York Times about the latest iPad imitator:
With a glossy seven-inch color touch screen and a dual-core processor, the Kindle Fire, a new mobile device introduced by Amazon, sure looks like a tablet, and one not so different from the Apple iPad. But Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, has another word for it: “I think of it as a service,” he said in an interview. “Part of the Kindle Fire is, of course, the hardware, but really, it’s the software, the content, it’s the seamless integration of those things.”
Amazon is counting on its vast online warehouse of more than eighteen million ebooks, songs, movies and television shows, as well as access to a selection of Android applications, to help it beat competitors like the iPad and the Nook from Barnes & Noble. Previous Kindles were only ebook readers with black-and-white screens.
The access to content is important as Amazon transforms its business into a digital retailer and responds to consumer demands for mobile devices, lest it wind up in a retail graveyard like Borders, a former peer. “It will appeal to a different set of customers who are magazine readers and cinema fans,” Bezos said.
The other advantage Bezos is counting on is price: the Fire will sell for $199 while the cheapest iPad sells for $499. Amazon began taking orders for the Fire on its website on 28 September; it will start shipping them on 15 November.
Bezos took the stage at a news conference held in Manhattan to show off the Kindle Fire. The tablet, which weighs less than a pound and can fit comfortably in the palm of a hand, builds on the company’s popular line of ereaders. Amazon is hoping it appeals to a broader audience that also wants to browse the Web and stream music, movies, and video from a mobile device. The Kindle Fire also has access to a virtual newsstand that includes content from magazines like Wired, Vanity Fair, and Cosmopolitan.
Amazon custom-built the Fire’s mobile web browser, called Amazon Silk, so that it loads media-rich web pages faster by shifting some of the work onto Amazon’s cloud computing engine, called EC2. “It’s truly a technical achievement,” Bezos said.
The Kindle Fire’s eight gigabytes of memory is capable of storing eighty apps and either ten movies, eight hundred songs, or six thousand books. The tablet also includes a free cloud-based storage system, meaning that no syncing with cables is necessary.
The Kindle Fire is missing some things the iPad 2 has; most notably, a camera and a microphone for video calls. The Fire can send and receive data only over Wi-Fi, not cellular networks.
The device’s $199 price tag is less than half that of many tablet computers on the market, including the HTC Flyer, which also features a seven-inch screen, but sells for $499 at Best Buy. The Kindle Fire will also compete with the Color Nook ereader, developed by Barnes & Noble, which has enjoyed healthy sales at $249.
Amazon can afford to charge less because it hopes to make up the difference by selling books, movies, and popular television shows. Customers may also be more inclined to pay $79 a year for Amazon Prime, which gives them access to Amazon’s movie streaming service and free shipping, which in turn, encourages more shopping at Amazon.com.
Because Amazon sells its family of Kindle devices through its own website, it does not need to share revenue with another retailer. And in most states, customers do not have to pay sales tax on those devices. “If you price your products in such a way that no one can compete with you, that has to be a good thing in the end,” said Scott Devitt, an analyst at Morgan Stanley.
Bezos also introduced two new touch-screen Kindles, and a slimmer monochrome-screen Kindle, that range in price from $79 to $149.
Apple has secured a strong lead in tablets, selling more than 29 million iPads in the product’s first fifteen months on the market. Bezos says that he expects shoppers will put both Kindles and iPads in their carts.
By entering the magazine-selling business, Amazon has also planted a flag in a digital marketplace that has so far been dominated by Apple. With another player, particularly one that is as large and influential with consumers as Amazon, magazine companies could suddenly find that they have a useful bargaining chip when it comes to negotiating with Apple.
The price of magazine subscriptions on the Fire are higher than what readers would pay in print. Condé Nast, publisher of magazines like GQ, Vanity Fair, and Glamour, is selling most of its publications for twenty dollars a year, nearly twice what it charges in print. Several magazines will be priced even higher, like The New Yorker, which will be sixty dollars a year on the Fire. “It helps us establish that higher price point at our new benchmark,” said Bob Sauerberg, president of Condé Nast.
Bezos is confident in the company’s strategy: “Some of the tablets that have come on the market, the reason they haven’t been successful is because they weren’t services. They were just tablets.”
Analysts say that the new family of devices will corral users into a tightly walled garden around Amazon’s content and devices and may secure a new dominance for Amazon as an online retailer and technology company. Music is streamed using Amazon’s Cloud Player, while movies and television shows are viewed through Amazon Instant Player, and ebooks rely on the Kindle app.
Owners will have access only to Android apps approved by Amazon and distributed through its Amazon Android Store. Even the Fire’s software, based on a Google Android framework, is disguised under a custom layer built by Amazon.
“From a customer point of view, its unrecognizable as Android,” said Bezos. The company chose not to work closely with Google to develop the Fire, unlike most hardware markers that build products on Android.
“The Kindle feels more locked down than the iPad,” said Ross Rubin, an analyst at the NPD Group, the market research firm.
More than most companies, Amazon thinks in terms of years and decades rather than quarters.
The original Kindle was meant to remove the retailer’s reliance on the physical book at a moment when a successful ereader appeared inevitable. Amazon decided it was better to cannibalize its own future than let a competitor do it.
With the Fire, every dollar Amazon loses on the device could be more than made up for by the data gained. The Silk browser, by virtue of being situated in the Cloud, will record every web page that users visit. That has implications for privacy and commerce.
Amazon now has what every storefront lusts for: the knowledge of what other stores your customers are shopping in and what prices they’re being offered there,” Chris Espinosa, an Apple engineer, wrote on his personal blog.
Rico says that Bezos not only imitated Apple's invention, but he imitated Steve Jobs' presentation (and Rico is not making the Bozos pun, with some reluctance):

Rico says that he did use to work for Chris Espinosa in the Macintosh publications department (then later his mother in the Apple publications department, after the Mac division was merged into the whole fruit basket) at Apple in the old days...

Casino Deposit Bonus