Some Food Additives Mimic Human Hormones

New research reveals that some common food additives behave like estrogen in the body.

A discovery that two commonly used food additives are estrogenic has led scientists to suspect that many ingredients added to the food supply may be capable of altering hormones.

More than 3,000 preservatives, flavorings, colors and other ingredients are added to food in the United States, and none of them are required to undergo testing for estrogenic activity, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

“We need to be mindful of these food additives because they could be adding to the total effect of other estrogen mimicking compounds we’re coming into contact with,” said Clair Hicks, a professor of food science at the University of Kentucky and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists, a nonprofit scientific group.

“The benefits of using these additives in food need to be weighed against the risks they present,” Hicks said.

In a study published in December, Italian researchers screened 1,500 food additives using computer-modeling software, a much faster and cheaper approach than testing lab rats.

The researchers first used modeling to identify 13 molecules that could hypothetically bind with an estrogen receptor, a group of molecules activated by the hormone. Like a clenched fist that fits into the palm of a hand, potentially estrogenic molecules will “fit” inside the receptor, indicating they could interact and alter hormones.

Then, the researchers exposed cells to the 13 food additives, which confirmed that two have estrogen-mimicking properties. Known as “xenoestrogens,” these substances have been linked to reproductive problems in animals and perhaps humans.

The first food additive, propyl gallate, is a preservative used to prevent fats and oils from spoiling that can be found in a range of foods including baked goods, shortening, dried meats, candy, fresh pork sausage, mayonnaise and dried milk.

The second additive, 4-hexyl resorcinol, is used to prevent shrimp, lobsters, and other shellfish from discoloring.

“Some caution should be issued for the use of these two additives,” said Pietro Cozzini, one of the researchers who conducted the study and a chemistry professor at the University of Parma in Italy.

He added that further tests on rats are necessary to determine whether these additives could harm humans.

Paul Foster, whose research focuses on the potential human health effects of endocrine disruptors, agreed. He said there is a big difference between adding estrogenic molecules to cells in a culture dish and actually seeing what happens when that dose is administered to an animal.

“There are a lot of compounds that give quite strong responses in a culture dish that really don’t produce any effects on lab rats,” said Foster, who is deputy director of the National Toxicology Program’s Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

The major concern, Foster said, is what happens when people are exposed to mixtures of these estrogenic compounds.

“There are examples where you can take dose levels of compounds on their own that won’t produce an effect, but when you put these compounds together, you may get something different,” he said.

However, Foster said people should keep in mind that they already ingest significant numbers of fairly potent estrogens in their diets by consuming foods like tofu and milk, so findings like these shouldn’t necessarily scare people until more research has been conducted.

“It’s clear that humans are exposed to a mixture of these estrogenic compounds,” Foster said. “But you have to try to balance out what might already be present in your diet or your lifestyle with these things that might be coming from some other sources,” such as food additives.

Systems like the one used by the Italian researchers are useful for screening potentially estrogenic additives, Foster said, adding that it’s a “good first step” towards identifying these compounds.

Of the estimated 3,000 additives used in the United States to preserve foods or improve their taste and appearance, only about 2,000 have detailed toxicological information available, according to the FDA.

“Our results are part of a bigger, more important problem, which is that there could be other additives used in foods that could have estrogenic activity,” Cozzini said.

Globally, the market for additives is expected to reach more than $33 billion by 2012. There are five main reasons that companies add compounds to food: to emulsify, to preserve, to add nutritional content, to add flavor or color and to balance alkalinity and acids.

“With some 3,000 compounds being used in food formulations there may be other additives with estrogenic properties that come to light with these types of studies,” Hicks said.

Using the traditional animal testing system, “it would be impossible to test all of the additives in a short time,” Cozzini said. “Every day we discover new molecules, and we must continue to identify new ways to study them.”

Propyl gallate is considered “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) by the FDA, a title given to food additives that don’t require approval because they have a proven track record based on either a history of use before 1958 or on published scientific evidence. Examples of other GRAS substances include salt, sugar, spices and vitamins.

The other estrogenic one, 4-hexyl resorcinol, which is used on raw shelled seafood to inhibit melanosis, or black spots, was petitioned in 1990 for GRAS status. Its status is still pending, according to Michael Herndon, an FDA press officer.

The FDA’s lack of testing for estrogenic compounds doesn’t stop at additives. In 2008, an independent advisory board said the FDA ignored critical evidence concerning another estrogenic compound, bisphenol A, a plasticizing chemical found in polycarbonate baby bottles and the linings of metal foods cans.

“What we’ve seen with the FDA’s handling of BPA is that it’s had its head in the sand,” said Renee Sharp, director of the Environmental Working Group’s California office. “If you look at its assessments, what you see is that it has consistently ignored independent science and consistently used outdated methods in its assessments.”

As concern about the cumulative impacts of these chemicals grows among the scientific community, some studies are suggesting that the effects of these compounds could extend to future generations.

For example, investigators at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences have found that adverse effects can be seen in both the granddaughters and grandsons of mice who were developmentally exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic form of estrogen that caused reproductive problems in pregnant women and their fetuses. While DES was taken off the market in 1971, there are many other compounds that have similar, estrogenic effects.

“This study is the flagship of estrogen mimickers and why we worry about them,” said Shanna Swan, director of the University of Rochester’s Center for Reproductive Epidemiology and a leading expert on reproductive effects of environmental exposures. “The fact that these chemicals can effect future generations has been a huge lesson for the science community.”

Other research has found that low doses of these chemicals can cause significant changes in those exposed to them and their developing offspring. One recent study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that when rats are exposed to low levels of BPA during lactation, their offspring had an increased chance of breast cancer.

As the evidence that synthetic estrogens may pose a health risk mounts, researchers are uncovering these compounds in new places.

Earlier this month, researchers in Germany found traces of an unknown estrogenic substance leaching into mineral water stored in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, a commonly used plastic for storing foods and beverages.

The study is the first to find that these containers are leaching synthetic estrogens.

“We already knew that BPA was leaching from polycarbonate baby bottles, so we decided to test bottles of mineral water to see if there was any estrogenic activity,” said Martin Wagner, a PhD student in aquatic toxicology at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt.

The scientists tested 20 brands of mineral water and found that 60 percent of the samples tested positive, with estrogenic activity in plastic bottles appearing twice as high as compared to activity in water from glass bottles.

In addition, the researchers found that mud snails placed inside the bottles filled with fresh water experienced reproduction rates double of control snails, which suggests that substances from the packaging, and not the water itself, caused the reproductive change.

“The results show that these leached chemicals are important enough to change reproduction in only eight weeks,” Martin said.

Further testing is needed to identify the source of the estrogenic activity, but Wagner said the study’s significance is that it shows people are exposed to more environmental endocrine disruptors than what was previously thought.

“We’re dealing with this chemical mixture, a cocktail effect, and I would say that if you look at a single compound then you might underestimate the exposure to these environmental estrogens,” he said.

Ralph Vasami, executive director of a plastics industry group, the PET Resin Association, said ongoing research on the safety of PET for the past three decades has revealed no safety issues or reasons for concern.

“PET has been proven through considerable research to be a safe packaging material for water and other food and beverage items,” he said. “The PET industry stands on its record of safety and reliability as a packaging material.”

Swan said that the studies reinforce the need for precautionary action when dealing with these types of chemicals, such as avoiding plastic products whenever possible to decrease exposure.
“If you’re taking several hits of something, even if it’s safe at a low dose, it’s going to add up,” Swan said.

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Full article: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=food-additives-mimic-hormones&sc=WR_20090331

Comforter and Comforted in an Unfolding Mystery

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I never really got to know the young woman. I met her during my third-year psychiatry rotation, when our team was consulted for concerns about depression.

Privacy rules won’t allow me to use her name (where possible, I’ve gotten consent from the others involved in this story). She was terminally ill, sick not just with the disease but with all the complications of its treatment, and confined to bed in the intensive care unit.

By the time I met her she could barely speak. Her face was a vacant yellow moon, and her sparse, colorless hair sprawled tangled and sweat-soaked across her pillow.

What I did come to know of her was through her boyfriend, Josh. They had been together since middle school and had stayed together even as the rest of her life fell apart.

When her strained relationship with her parents became impossible and they were no longer in her life, Josh remained her confidant and closest friend. When she learned she was seriously ill, she and Josh filled out the paperwork required to give him her durable power of attorney.

So it was that he sat by her bed day after day, occasionally rising from his post there to perform the rudimentary maintenance that she no longer could: wiping the tears from her eyes and clearing the caked secretions around her mouth.

In her medical chart, he is referred to not as her “boyfriend,” but as “family” or even simply as “Josh,” and his presence in her record traces much of the agonizing march of her illness.

As she takes a turn for the worse: “Josh feels that [the patient] is still fighting and would like to proceed with treatment.”

As organ systems begin failing: “Family will readdress code status tomorrow.”

And finally, as supportive medical care is withdrawn: “Josh understands that [she] is dying and states that he is struggling to imagine a future without her.”

Five months later, in the dead of winter, a 25-year-old man named David was changing a flat tire on the side of the road when he was struck by a van. He landed in the I.C.U. on a ventilator, with multiple fractures. I had landed there just several days earlier in my capacity as a medical student, and I would follow him as my patient for the next several weeks.

He soon became medically stable enough to move to a general hospital floor, but he had significant behavioral problems that required a sitter to stay with him around the clock. He routinely removed his feeding tube, refused to work with therapists, would not use a bedpan. He was frustrating and difficult to work with, and he was sabotaging his own recovery.

One morning I spoke with his nurse about his progress. His feeding tube had been in place for 30 hours straight. He had begun to cooperate in physical therapy, and he was using the bedpan without complaints.

David’s mother emerged into the hallway to confirm his improvement. It seemed to her to have a lot to do with the sitter who had been assigned to him for the past couple of days.

The sitter, she said, was extremely patient. He was supportive and enthusiastic, listening to David’s stories and sharing stories of his own. He was someone David could relate to, a perfect fit for him. I nodded, encouraged, and walked into the room.

There was David, sitting up in his hospital bed, animated and joking with his sitter. The thick, tedious air that had occupied David’s room effervesced and became light, and it happened so quickly I could not catch my breath.

His sitter was Josh.

It turned out he had taken a job with the hospital after his girlfriend’s death. His story, I realized, was a kind of love story, and in some way it evoked all of our stories, whether we are doctor or patient, comforter or comforted, healer or healed. Josh reaffirmed for me what we medical professionals know but all too easily forget: the human story is not a series of illnesses and treatments that we manage, but is an unfolding mystery — a process with which we ourselves are in ongoing communion, as both witnesses and full as participants.

There, settling into our place in the story, we can see it in its wholeness and let it make us whole. We take part in its healing as it unfolds, and we are healed by its unfolding.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/31/health/31case.html?_r=1

A Tortured Rationale for Torture

Dick Cheney’s Torture Works! tour continues to run into reporting suggesting otherwise. On Sunday, the Washington Post published an article entitled “Detainee’s Harsh Treatment Foiled No Plots.”

The headline effectively summarized the story of the interrogation of Abu Zubaida, the C.I.A.’s “first high-value captive,” taken in March 2002 and subjected to “waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods”:

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations.

The article, by reporters Peter Finn and Joby Warrick, was picked up yesterday by the Post’s White House Watch blogger Dan Froomkin, who underscored its importance:

Abu Zubaida was the alpha and omega of the Bush administration’s argument for torture.

That’s why Sunday’s front-page Washington Post story . . . is such a blow to the last remaining torture apologists. . . .

Zubaida was the first detainee to be tortured at the direct instruction of the White House. Then he was President George W. Bush’s Exhibit A in defense of the “enhanced interrogation” procedures that constituted torture. And he continues to be held up as a justification for torture by its most ardent defenders.

But as author Ron Suskind reported almost three years ago — and as The Post now confirms — almost all the key assertions the Bush administration made about Zubaida were wrong.

Zubaida wasn’t a major al Qaeda figure. He wasn’t holding back critical information. His torture didn’t produce valuable intelligence — and it certainly didn’t save lives.

All the calculations the Bush White House claims to have made in its decision to abandon long-held moral and legal strictures against abusive interrogation turn out to have been profoundly flawed, not just on a moral basis but on a coldly practical one as well.

Which is not to say that elements from the former Bush administration are not fighting back. Yesterday morning, Karl Rove pointed his 33,000-plus followers on Twitter to a post at the National Review with this tweet: “Powerful rebuttal of WaPo story . . . alleging interrogation of Zubaydah foiled no plots.”

That “powerful rebuttal” was written by Marc Thiessen, the former chief speechwriter for President Bush, who argued that the Post article was part of “the Left’s assault on the CIA program” and was “rife with errors and misinformation.”

Among the article’s points that Thiessen took issue with are these:

Abu Zubaydah disclosed to the CIA during this period was that the fact that KSM was the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks and that his code name was “Muktar” — something Zubaydah thought we already knew, but in fact we did not. Intelligence officials had been trying for months to figure out who “Muktar” was. This information provided by Zubaydah was a critical piece of the puzzle that allowed them to pursue and eventually capture KSM. This fact, in and of itself, discredits the premise of the Post story – to suggest that the capture of KSM was not information that “foiled plots” to attack America is absurd on the face of it. . . .

The Post also acknowledges that Zubaydah’s “interrogations led directly to the arrest of Jose Padilla” but dismisses Padilla as the man behind a fanciful “dirty bomb” plot and notes that Padilla was never charged in any such plot.

In addition, Thiessen said, Zubayda provided “information that helped us find and capture more of those responsible for the attacks on September the 11th, including Ramzi bin al Shibh.”

Thiessen’s rejoinder to the Post was answered by Adam Serwer, writing at the the American Prospect, who said Thiessen was repeating “already discredited claims that torture led to Zubayda disclosing valuable intelligence” and obscuring “the facts about what useful information Zubayda actually provided”:

As Jane Mayer points out in The Dark Side, Zubayda did give up Padilla and KSM’s nickname, “Mukhtar.” He did both before being tortured.

In regard Ramzi bin Al Shibh, Serwer said that:

Thiessen omits entirely the key role that an Al Jazeera journalist played in securing his capture: After interviewing bin Al Shibh and KSM in Karachi, the reporter passed on information about their location to his boss, who then passed on the information to the Emir of Qatar, who passed it on to the CIA, which led to bin Al Shibh being apprehended along with other terrorism suspects.

Serwer concludes:

The Post story is therefore accurate: torturing Zubayda produced little actionable intelligence, and none of what Thiessen claims. But as I said before, because torture cannot be defended on moral or legal terms, retroactively manufacturing successes is the only recourse.

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Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/31/a-tortured-rationale-for-torture/

Yosemite in winter

Yosemite National Park may be known for its towering granite cliffs and booming waterfalls, but when temperatures drop and snow falls, the park changes personality.

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Morning: Upper Yosemite Falls

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Morning: Rising sun casts shadow on Yosemite Valley

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Evening: Pohono Bridge over the Merced River

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Evening: Yosemite Valley, from the Wawona Tunnel

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Evening: An icy reflection

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Evening: Trees in Stoneman Meadow against a granite wall

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Evening: Setting sun lights up El Capitan

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Evening: Aspen trees in Stoneman Meadow

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Full article and photos: http://www.latimes.com/travel/la-trw-yosemite,0,5845273.special

Nudist Hotel Planned in Germany

Clothes will be strictly forbidden on the premises of Germany’s first hotel for nudists, which will open shortly in the southwestern Black Forest region.

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Nudism has always been popular in Germany.

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Investors plan to set up a hotel catering exclusively to nudists in the picturesque Black Forest town of Freudenstadt, which incidentally translates as Town of Joys.

Guests will be required to remove their clothes at the entrance and must be naked at all times while on the premises, according to the strict house rules that have already been posted on the Internet.

“We hope to open as soon as possible,” Silvia Probsthain, a member of staff at the planned Hotel Rosengarten, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “It will be the first comprehensively nudist hotel in Germany.” There are similar hotels catering for nudists in Scandinavia, Croatia and the south of France, said Probsthain.

The rules state that all guests must put towels on chairs and loungers before using them, that there be no sexual harassment and that all sexual activity in commonly accessible rooms is strictly forbidden. People who break the rules will have to put their clothes on and leave.

Freudenstadt’s tourism director Michael Krause said the contracts for the hotel hadn’t been finalized yet and that it was unclear when the project will go ahead. “I’m in two minds,” Krause told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “It’s always good if a new hotel is set up but I’d prefer a normal hotel concept.”

Nude hiking is proving increasingly popular in Germany and two villages in the central Harz mountain range plan to mark special forest hiking routes for naked ramblers. The practice is frowned on in neighboring Switzerland, however, where authorities plan to fine such behavior.

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,616379,00.html

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See also:

Deutschland bekommt ein FKK-Hotel im Schwarzwald

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Bisher nennt sich Freudenstadt noch „die heimliche Hauptstadt des Schwarzwalds“. Doch schon bald könnte daraus die heimliche Hauptstadt der Nackten werden: Mitten im idyllischen Schwarzwald eröffnet demnächst ein FKK-Hotel. Die Hausordnung des Hauses ist streng – und verpflichtet jeden Gast zum Nacktsein.

Früher war das „Hotel Rosengarten“ in Freudenstadt (Baden-Württemberg) ein Wanderhotel, jetzt öffnet es sich einer völlig neuen Zielgruppe: den Nackten. Ein Hotel ganz ohne die lästige Frage, was man denn anziehen soll. „Es ist ein völlig ungewöhnliches Konzept”, so Freudenstadts Tourismus-Direktor Michael Krause. Dennoch gibt er zu, dass ihm ein anderes Hotel lieber gewesen wäre.

In die Schmuddelecke möchte das Hotel nicht gestellt werden – und sorgt mit einer strengen Hausordnung vor. Das Hotel dürfen ausschließlich FKK-Anhänger betreten, die Nacktheit innerhalb der Hotelanlage ist Pflicht. Mit einem Swinger-Club hat das jedoch nichts zu tun: Jeder Gast muss sich so verhalten, dass niemand sexuell belästigt wird, sexuelle Handlungen in von anderen Gästen erreichbaren Räumen sind strikt untersagt.

Wer gegen die Hausordnung verstößt, muss sich wieder anziehen – und wird sofort des Hotels verwiesen.

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Full article and photo: http://www.bild.de/BILD/lifestyle/reise/2009/03/fkk-hotel-in-deutschland/im-schwarzwald-ist-nacktsein-pflicht.html##

Audio “Aphrodisiac” Spurs Rare Cheetah Birth–A First

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In a world first, a rare baby cheetah owes its life to a doctored recording of a recently discovered male call that triggers ovulation.

Kenya, a first-time cheetah mom, gave birth to the healthy female cub on February 18 at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, park officials announced earlier this month.

The cub is a direct result of research reported earlier this year describing a male vocalization called a stutter-bark.

Scientists at the park’s Conservation Research had found that male stutter-barks trigger females’ reproductive systems to start releasing eggs.

The finding was a potential boon, as cheetahs can be difficult to breed in captivity because females don’t have regular ovulation cycles.

But there was still a catch: In captivity, certain females need to mate with particular males to maintain genetic diversity among the big cats.

Vocal Competition

Traditionally, scientists have found that their “arranged marriages” for the cheetahs don’t always suit the animals’ fancies—a situation that could have been aggravated by the fact that the recorded stutter-bark was from the park’s dominant male cheetah.
If a female cheetah heard the call of the dominant—and probably more desirable—male, she might reject the male chosen for her as a good genetic match, the scientists feared.

“To compensate for this, I modified the dominant male stutter-bark call slightly using an acoustic software program,” said Matt Anderson, the lead bioacoustics researcher on the project.

The software produced a stutter-bark that sounded authentic but was totally different from the calls of any of the park’s males.

The audio manipulation not only worked, it surprised the scientists by inspiring a bit of the real thing.

“We were delighted when the stutter-barks from this ‘new’ member of the cheetah group stimulated all our males to start stutter-barking themselves,” Anderson said.

“The females heard these calls and started breeding with the males that we wanted them to breed with.”

Shortly afterward Kenya was found to be pregnant, and three months later she gave birth to a single, as-yet unnamed cub.

Since inexperienced cheetah moms often have trouble rearing a lone baby, animal care staff decided to hand-raise the newborn.

Park staff are hopeful that the success could lead to more captive cheetah births in the future.

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Full article and photo: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/03/090324-cheetah-birth.html

Coin-Size Frog Found — One of World’s Smallest

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As the smallest known frog species in the world’s second largest mountain range, this new amphibian is easy to miss.

But scientists searching the Andes mountains’ upper Cosnipata Valley in southern Peru, near Cusco, spotted the coin-size creature–a member of the Noblella genus–in the leaf litter of a cloud forest between 9,925 and 10,466 feet (3,025 and 3,190 meters).

The most distinctive character of the new species,” scientists write in the February issue of the journal Copeia, “is its diminutive size.” Females grow to 0.49 inch (12.4 millimeters) at most. Males make it to only 0.44 inch (11.1 millimeters).

What’s most surprising is that the frog lives at such high elevations, said study co-author Alessandro Catenazzi, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. In general, larger animals are found at greater heights.

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Full article and photo: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/03/photogalleries/smallest-frog-pictures/index.html

Just Another Bush

The financial crisis is ending the new president’s German honeymoon.

Is the financial crisis for Angela Merkel what the Iraq war was for Gerhard Schröder — namely, a reason to seriously strain Germany’s relationship with the U.S.? One need not answer with an unconditional “yes” to be very concerned.

Naturally, at the G-20 meeting in London this week, Europeans will celebrate and praise the new American president. There will be beautiful photo opportunities and demonstrative unity. But the dispute behind the scenes has gotten worse. Barack Obama is demanding a much greater financial commitment from Germany and Europe to revive the economy; Mrs. Merkel and the EU are refusing, and instead urging the Americans to regulate their financial markets more rigidly.

There’s no question, Mrs. Merkel has good substantive arguments on her side. Mr. Schröder had some as well when he opposed George W. Bush before and during the Iraq war. Nevertheless, Americans and the German opposition — namely, Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union — accused Mr. Schröder of dishonesty. After all, his antiwar views were also motivated by electoral strategy and were not entirely free of general anti-Americanism.

But come to think of it, isn’t Mrs. Merkel, too, campaigning this year? Her defiant self-assuredness in dealing with Washington may be as popular in Germany as Mr. Schröder’s antiwar stance was. The difference between the two chancellors is that Mrs. Merkel’s way of formulating her position is not aggressive, but subversive. When she defends her financial policies, she likes to remark with a wink that we shouldn’t forget where the crisis began. Everyone knows which country she means.

Mr. Obama speaks of a global crisis that demands global responses. For the Germans, this is indeed a global crisis — but one that must be resolved primarily by the U.S., since it originated there. Therefore, German finance companies that became entangled in dodgy speculations are seen as weak victims who were seduced, while the clever American seducers who caused the real-estate bubble must now be punished.

Now the victims are claiming the right to say “no” to new stimulus packages. And they are demanding that the U.S. never again be permitted to seduce — that it be constrained by “more transparency on the financial markets, which Germany called for long ago,” as Mrs. Merkel says.

Once, there were enormous hopes. With Barack Obama’s election, the trans-Atlantic rift that grew in the Bush years would finally be bridged. Now, in the financial crisis, this hope could prove an illusion. Many Germans believe they are being taken hostage by the U.S., and they want to vent their frustrations. They ask whether Mr. Obama’s gigantic stimulus programs are similar to the gigantic war programs of Mr. Bush. The new president seems to be reacting just as drastically to this “world crisis” as the Republicans did to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, demanding the same unconditional allegiance from allies that Mr. Bush did. Are the neo-Keynesians as mistaken today as the neoconservatives were then? Isn’t American gigantism the biggest problem?

In explaining the Americans’ motivations, Germans are reaching conclusions as unfriendly and abstruse as those in the run-up to the Iraq war (greed for oil). On March 9, the German magazine Der Spiegel published a cover story on “The Mistake of the Century — How the Failure of a Single Bank Triggered the World Crisis.” It suggested that the U.S. government purposely allowed the investment bank Lehman Brothers to fail. Why? “Germany was apparently the main goal of the speculation” of Lehman Brothers, the magazine said, “because these kinds of securities are permitted in Germany, but not in France or the United States.” And, “There is a great deal of evidence that banks targeted the funds of unwitting German retirees in trading Lehman securities.” This interpretation of events is widespread in Germany. Even the head of the Protestant church council, Bishop Wolfgang Huber, supports it.

More and more, the diffuse anger about the crisis and its consequences is erupting in social unrest; one need only look to Greece, France, Ireland, Iceland or Eastern Europe. The longer the crisis lasts, the more loudly people will point to its originator, the U.S. Mr. Obama is turning into a lightning rod for European thunder. When he travels to the old Continent for the first time as U.S. president, he most likely won’t see cheering crowds as huge as the one that greeted him last summer in front of Berlin’s Victory Column.

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Before the Iraq war, George Bush succeeded in splitting Europe into the “old” and the “new.” In the financial crisis, the Continent is unified in its opposition toward his successor, Barack Obama.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123846238840772059.html

Exquisitely Tipped Teeth Let Sea Urchin Carve a Home From Stone

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It may be prickly on the outside, but the sea urchin’s spines hide — well, if not a heart of gold, at least teeth of calcite.

The urchin’s five teeth are very strong and capable of grinding limestone, creating depressions in the rock that the sea urchin can settle in. Since limestone also consists of calcite (a form of calcium carbonate), how can the teeth grind the rock without being ground down, too?

An international team of researchers has used high-resolution X-ray analytical techniques to discover the secret. The structure and composition of the tip, particularly the orientation of the calcite crystals, is exquisitely controlled, they write in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The teeth consist of calcite crystals (including a small amount of magnesium) in the shapes of needles and plates, and a polycrystalline calcite matrix that contains a higher concentration of magnesium. Yurong Ma, Lia Addadi and Steve Weiner of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, with Pupa Gilbert of the University of Wisconsin and other colleagues, show that the magnesium levels increase toward the tip, contributing to the hardness, and that all the elements are aligned in what they call polycrystalline blocks.

The entire tooth, the researchers report, is composed of two of these blocks, which are interleaved near the tip and may create a corrugated surface that contributes to the grinding efficiency. Toolmakers might be able to learn something from the sea urchin’s approach, the researchers say.

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Full article and pĥoto: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/31/science/31oburchin.html?ref=science

Depending on Context, Bird Couples Sing in Harmony or Discord

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It takes two to duet, and one question for scientists is how these coordinated performances arise — in birds. Are they the result of cooperation, a way in which one pair signals to others that they’ve got it together? Or are they the result of conflict, evolving to avoid one partner’s song interfering with the other’s?

A study of duetting in Peruvian warbling antbirds suggests that it might be a little of both, and that context is everything. Joseph A. Tobias and Nathalie Seddon of the University of Oxford show in Current Biology that sexual conflict can cause the female of a pair that normally cooperates to “jam” the male’s song by singing over it.

The researchers exposed antbird pairs to recorded songs of other antbirds and monitored the songs the pairs produced. In one experiment, they played the songs of an intruding pair. In this case, the resident pair “both stand to lose their territory, so both should cooperate,” Dr. Tobias said. And they do. They produce a coordinated duet that in effect tells the intruders to keep away.

But when the researchers played the song of an unattached female, the pair behaved differently. “You’d expect the resident female to be highly motivated to defend her position in the partnership,” Dr. Tobias said. And that’s what occurs. The male sings its heart out, flirting with the unattached female, and the female of the pair does its best to interfere with the song by singing over it, presumably to make her mate less attractive to the other female.

“It’s clear that the male doesn’t like what she’s doing,” Dr. Tobias said. The behavior “breaks up what is otherwise a very cooperative situation into a more complicated signal,” he added.

It’s the first evidence of this kind of signal jamming among pairs, Dr. Tobias said.

And in that it leads the male to alter its song to avoid the female’s interfering notes, it shows that this kind of conflict could, over a long period, drive the evolution of coordinated song.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/31/science/31objam.html?ref=science

Near-Complete Fossil Offers Insight on Early Fish

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An illustration of a bony fish, a fossil of which was found in southern China. The finding suggests a date for the split between lobe- and ray-finned fish.

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In trying to make evolutionary sense of the bony fish (and, by extension, land vertebrates) scientists have been hampered by a lack of completeness. Most of the earliest fossils of bony fish, dating to the Silurian period more than 416 million years ago, are fragmentary — a jawbone here, a tooth there.

A new find from limestone deposits in southern China is helping to clarify the situation. In a paper in Nature, Min Zhu and colleagues at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe a well-preserved and practically complete fish fossil that is 418 million years old.

The fish, which they call Guiyu oneiros, is about a foot long. Only the tail fin is lacking from the fossil, which even shows skin scales. The fish has a jaw, which makes it the oldest near-complete jawed vertebrate ever found. The fish is lobe-finned, meaning its fins are fleshier than ray-finned fish, and counts among its few living relatives the coelacanths.

The finding also establishes a minimum date for the evolutionary divergence between lobe- and ray-finned fish. Since this lobe-finned one existed 418 million years ago, the split must have occurred sometime before.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/31/science/31obfish.html?ref=science

Single Gene Shapes the Toil of Ants’ Fighter and Forager Castes

Researchers studying the social behavior of ants have found that a single gene underlies both the aggressive behavior of the ant colony’s soldiers and the food gathering behavior of its foraging caste.

The gene is active in soldier ants, particularly in five neurons in the front of their brain, where it generates large amounts of its product, a protein known as PKG. The exact amount of the protein in the ants’ brains is critical to their behavior.

Low levels of PKG predispose both castes of ant to foraging; high levels make the soldiers fight and the foraging caste less interested in food gathering, Christophe Lucas and Marla B. Sokolowski report in the current issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The soldier and foraging castes in the species of ant under study, known as Pheidole pallidula, have their career choices settled in infancy when they start to be fed different diets. The soldiers develop large heads and jaws, and go on to guard the colony and kill invaders. The foragers, who remain small, specialize in looking for food and bringing back prey to the nest.

These specialties are quite flexible, however, because the foragers can recruit the soldiers to food gathering duties when they need extra help. When presented with a live meal worm, within a few minutes the foraging ants can induce the soldiers to help them cut the worm up and take it home.

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HELPMATES A soldier ant, left, recruited by a forager ant to help dismember a meal worm.

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On measuring the levels of the PKG protein in the brains of the soldiers that had helped with food gathering, the researchers found it was much lower than when the soldiers were on guard duty. And the PKG levels shot up in both castes when they were confronted with alien ants from a different colony.

Are the different levels of PKG a cause or effect of the ants’ changed behavior? They seem to be a cause.

It so happens there is a drug that raises PKG levels. When given a dose of the drug, both castes of ant became less interested in foraging, as tested in the meal worm experiment, and the soldiers became more aggressive in response to intruders.

The classical approach to studying how the brain works is to stick electrodes into individual neurons and record their signaling behavior. The analysis of genes and genetic networks seems to be developing as an alternative approach. The PKG gene is of particular interest because it is found throughout the animal kingdom, in fruit flies, worms, ants and people.

More than a decade ago, Dr. Sokolowski found that fruit flies have two versions of the PKG gene that endow their larvae with different food gathering behavior. Those with one version rove about in search of new sources of food. Those with the other version are less adventurous.

The new study is important because it shows how ants have developed a new use for the PKG gene, that of shaping the characteristic behavior of their different castes, said Gene Robinson, an expert on insect behavior at the University of Illinois. In fruit flies, a DNA difference in the gene changes behavior, but in ants it is a difference in the gene’s activity that makes the soldier caste fight and the foraging caste forage.

Dr. Sokolowski said she was studying the PKG gene in people who have seasonal affective disorder, a condition in which they put on too much weight in the winter and take it off in the summer, with swings of up to 50 pounds. The disorder seems to be correlated with genetic variations in the PKG gene.

Could the drugs used to manipulate PKG levels in ants prove useful in controlling obesity in people? Dr. Sokolowski said that might be possible if the drugs could be delivered just to the brain. PKG plays important roles elsewhere in the body, including the heart, so the drugs would be perilous in the general circulation.

Dr. Robinson said the PKG gene appeared to be one of great versatility, relied on by evolution for tasks relating to feeding behavior in many species. In this respect it seems similar to the FOXP2 gene, which has turned up in communication behaviors from bats to people, or to the PAX6 gene, which has been involved in all of evolution’s many approaches to vision.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/31/science/31ants.html?ref=science

The Biggest of Puzzles Brought Down to Size

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Ah, yes, $500 billion in bailout money here, a trillion in troubled asset purchases there. We taxpayers are getting so insouciant about the extraordinary figures being bandied about by the captains of finance these days, you’d think we were still the designated banker in one of those endless games of Monopoly we’re sorry we suggested to our cousin Dan but he won’t let us quit. Fine, fine, you smug little top hat with all four utilities. A trillion, a quintillion. You want that in pinks, greens, yellows or blues,

Grim though the economic spur may be, some scientists see a slim silver lining in the sudden newsiness of laughably large numbers. As long as the public is chatting openly about quantities normally expressed in scientific notation, they say, why not talk about what those numbers really mean? In fact, they shamelessly promote the benefits of quantitative and scientific reasoning generally. As they see it, anyone, no matter how post-scholastic or math allergic, can learn basic quantitative reasoning skills, and everyone would benefit from the effort — be less likely to fall for vitamin hucksters, for example, or panic when their plane hits a bumpy patch.

One excellent way to start honing such skills is with a few so-called Fermi problems, named for Enrico Fermi, the physicist who delighted in tossing out the little mental teasers to his colleagues whenever they needed a break from building the atomic bomb.

Here is how it works. You take a monster of a ponder like, What is the total volume of human blood in the world? or, If you put all the miles that Americans drive every year end to end, how far into space could you travel? and you try to estimate what the answer might be. You resist your impulse to run away or imprecate. Instead, you look for a wedge into the problem, and then you calmly, systematically, break it down into edible bits. Importantly, you are not looking for an exact figure but rather a ballpark approximation, something that would be within an order of magnitude, or a factor of 10, of the correct answer. If you got the answer 900, for example, and the real answer is 200, you’re good; if you got 9,000, or 20, you go back and try to find where you went astray.

“It’s really just critical thinking, breaking down seemingly complicated problems into simpler problems,” said John A. Adam, a professor of mathematics at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. “Once you get over the hurdle and realize that, good grief, any question can be answered to this level of precision, to the nearest power of 10, it’s quite exciting, and you start looking for things to apply it to.”

Dr. Adam and his colleague Lawrence Weinstein, a professor of physics, offer a wide and often amusing assortment of Fermi flexes in a book that just caught my eye, “Guesstimation: Solving the World’s Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin” (Princeton University Press, 2008).

So let’s say you want to make a quickie estimate of the world’s human blood supply, but you don’t know how much blood an individual human holds. The authors suggest thinking about what happens when you donate blood. You’re asked to give a pint of blood, which suggests this is a pretty safe quantity to lose. Let’s put it at 10 percent of the body’s total blood volume, bringing us up to 10 pints, or five quarts, per person. Multiply five quarts by six billion humans, and you get 30 billion quarts, or 7.5 billion gallons of blood. And just to give you a gut feel for that figure, the authors estimate what would happen if you poured all those gallons over Central Park: the square-mile incarnadine pool would be 50 feet deep.

On to the less macabre consideration of the great American road trip, vertically repurposed. How many miles does our autophilic nation compile each year? When I recently had the tires changed on my five-year-old car, the mechanic saw that my odometer read 30,000 miles and guffawed politely. Most people drive twice as much as you do, he said. O.K., 12,000 miles annually per car. And how many cars are we talking — one for every two people? That comes to 150 million cars, times 12,000 miles, bringing us to roughly, um, two trillion miles. We are embarking on a serious space junket here, way beyond our favorite plutoid Pluto, at some three billion miles from Earth. A dozen years at this rate, and we’ll make it to the nearest star.

Dr. Weinstein points out that it’s not all idle doodles. You can sully your napkin with plenty of topical estimates, too. Among his favorite examples is to consider how much cropland we would need if we decided to fuel our cars entirely with ethanol from corn. There’s one piece of knowledge you need here, he acknowledged: that there are 30,000 calorie in a gallon of gasoline. From there, you cruise. A car needs a gallon or two a day. You eat 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day. “Your car uses 10 to 20 times as much energy a day as you do,” he said. “If we’re going to fuel our cars with ethanol, we’ll need 20 times more farmland, so it could be this is a bad idea.”

Dr. Weinstein also thinks it’s a bad idea to cede all personal agency to the Internet, and to argue that, why bother guesstimating when you can look it up on Google? “I hate to tell you this, but not everything on the Web can be believed,” he said. “You need a bull sensor.” Moreover, he said, the habit of sizing up the world can have an oddly grounding effect. “It gets people out of a crisis mode of thinking,” he said.

To further enhance one’s quantitative prowess, Dr. Adam suggests translating amorphous figures into familiar terms. A million seconds, for example, is about 10 days, while a billion seconds amounts to some 32 years. And a trillion seconds ago, in circa 30,000 B.C., the last of the Neanderthals were betting the rent on a Powerball lottery, without bothering to consider the odds.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/31/science/31angi.html?_r=1

Microsoft Encarta Dies After Long Battle With Wikipedia

Microsoft delivered the coup de grâce Monday to its dying Encarta encyclopedia, acknowledging what everyone else realized long ago: it just couldn’t compete with Wikipedia, a free, collaborative project that has become the leading encyclopedia on the Web.

In January, Wikipedia got 97 percent of the visits that Web surfers in the United States made to online encyclopedias, according to the Internet ratings service Hitwise. Encarta was second, with 1.27 percent. Unlike Wikipedia, where volunteer editors quickly update popular entries, Encarta can be embarrassingly outdated. The entry for Joseph R. Biden Jr., for example, identifies him as vice president-elect and a U.S. senator.

The Encarta software will be removed from stores by June, Microsoft said, and the affiliated worldwide Web sites will be closed by the end of October. (The Japanese site will continue until the end of December.)

Without mentioning Wikipedia directly, Microsoft explained its decision on a FAQ page for Encarta. “The category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed,” it said. “People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past. As part of Microsoft’s goal to deliver the most effective and engaging resources for today’s consumer, it has made the decision to exit the Encarta business.”

On that same page, the company asked itself if other Microsoft educational software would be discontinued as well. Its answer: “We’re not making any other announcements at this time.” The bulk of the Microsoft FAQ page explains how subscribers to the Encarta service could get a refund on what they had paid.

In the mid- to late 1980s, when Encarta began as a pet project of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, it had the potential to be as unsettling to the traditional encyclopedia business as Wikipedia is today.

After being rebuffed by Encyclopedia Britannica as a partner in making material available to personal computer users as a CD-ROM, Microsoft in 1989 went to Funk & Wagnalls and decided to make “a virtue of necessity,” according to 2006 case history by Professor Shane Greenstein and Michelle Devereux for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

“Microsoft could not build its encyclopedia on the highest-quality content,” they wrote. “Instead, it invested in choice graphics and sound to bring value to its product.”

In the pre-Internet and early Internet era, Encarta was an example of Microsoft trying to enhance the experience of PC users –- a way of selling the computer experience to an unfamiliar public.

“You could very much argue that Encarta, was a me-too product, a way to add some more value to the Microsoft suite” of software that came with Windows, said Andrew Lih, author of “The Wikipedia Revolution,” a new history of Wikipedia. “Microsoft never added the resources or brainpower to be anything more than that.” (I wrote about Mr. Lih’s book and the significance of Wikipedia in Sunday’s Times.)

As the amount of information available online grew exponentially, it became quaint to purchase DVDs of factual material. While a free, text-oriented project like Wikipedia could not compete with the graphics and design of Encarta, that wasn’t important to consumers.

Still, Mr. Lih said something would be lost in the shuttering of Encarta. “Bill Gates bought Corbis, and Encarta had access to all these images that Wikipedia could never get,” he said. “Right now, that is a big weakness of Wikipedia -– the material has to be free.”

Mathias Schindler, one of the administrators of German Wikipedia, said he had already sent an e-mail to Microsoft asking the company to release the material from Encarta that it doesn’t plan to use anymore.

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Full article: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/30/microsoft-encarta-dies-after-long-battle-with-wikipedia/?hp

Composing Concertos in the Key of Rx

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REMEMBER the Mozart Effect? As propounded by the news media, the message was that listening to Mozart made children smarter. The science was full of holes, but the notion appealed, and a growing body of research has since suggested that music, classical music in particular, is somehow good for us. The field is still short on evidence, but it has started a lively conversation between scientists and other experts.

“Listening to finer music and attending concerts on a consistent basis makes your real age about four years younger,” Dr. Michael F. Roizen — the chief wellness officer of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, said recently. “Whether that’s due to stress relief or other properties, we see decreases in all-cause mortality, reflecting slower aging of arteries as well as cancer-related and environmental factors. Attending sports events like soccer or football offers none of these benefits.”

That music touches the core of our being is a discovery as old as human consciousness. Plato grappled with the powers of music in “The Laws” and other dialogues, and he was hardly the first to do so. Shakespeare in several of his most poignant scenes dramatized music’s soothing effect on troubled spirits.

Healers of many sorts try to harness music for therapeutic purposes, if only as an adjunct to crystals, perfumes and green tea. But could music ever take its place as medicine?

One expert who is betting that it will is Vera Brandes, the director of the research program in music and medicine at the Paracelsus Private Medical University in Salzburg, Austria. “I am the first musical pharmacologist,” Ms. Brandes said last fall in Vienna. In that capacity she is developing medication in the form of music, dispensed as a prescription. To market the product line, she helped found Sanoson (sanoson.at), a company that also designs custom music systems for medical facilities.

“We are preparing for the launch of our therapies in Germany and Austria in the fall of 2009,” she said, “and are anticipating the U.S. launch in 2010.”

Here is how the treatment works. Once the doctor has established a diagnosis, the patient is sent home with a listening protocol and music loaded onto a player much like an iPod. Timing is critical.

“Calming music heard at an ascending point in your circadian cycle wouldn’t calm you,” Ms. Brandes said. “It may even annoy you.” The technology — which includes special headsets and formatting as protection against piracy — is proprietary. A patent application has been filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

The music is proprietary too. To avoid the interference of personal associations, the tracks consist entirely of original material. “In our research,” Ms. Brandes said, “we have found that when people are listening to music they know, their reactions are entirely different.”

Dr. Roizen and Ms. Brandes crossed paths last August at a symposium entitled “Music and the Brain,” presented by the Cleveland Clinic and the Cleveland Orchestra during the orchestra’s residency at the Salzburg Festival. Dr. Roizen, who is an author (with Mehmet C. Oz) of “You: The Owner’s Manual” and its numerous best-selling sequels, delivered solid substance with a showman’s flair in his talk “The Beneficial Effects of Music on Your Health.” Ms. Brandes, who was working on the program for Mozart & Science 2008, an international congress in Vienna last November, was in attendance and found that she shared with Dr. Roizen a passion for quantifying health effects that many have long taken on faith.

Since Plato and Shakespeare, natural scientists, many of them musicians themselves, have been looking at music with an ever more analytical eye. In the utilitarian 20th century, Muzak built an empire (now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings) on the premise that background music in the workplace could boost productivity. Dr. Oliver Sacks, that inveterate explorer of uncharted regions of neurology, devoted his latest best-seller, “Musicophilia,” to freakish effects of music on the brain. And as anyone who owns an iPod knows, personal playlists can work small wonders on mood and well-being.

But how?

Like apothecaries of old, who distilled extracts from nature’s store of herbs and plants, Ms. Brandes and her associates analyze music of all kinds to tease out its “active ingredients,” which are then blended and balanced into medicinal compounds. Though they steer clear of gross pathologies or infectious diseases, they claim their methods have broad application in psychosomatic disorders, pain management and what Ms. Brandes calls “diseases of civilization”: anxiety, depression, insomnia and certain types of arrhythmia. The pharmacopeia stands at about 55 tracks of medicinal music, with more in the pipeline.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/arts/music/29gure.html?em

Clocks square off in China’s far west

In Xinjiang province, the Muslim Uighur minority makes a point of observing its own time, not that of local Han Chinese, who adhere to Beijing’s imposition of a single time for all of China.

The clock in the lobby of the International Hotel shows it is almost 11 p.m., too late for dinner and bad news for two hungry travelers.

Not to worry. Take an underpass to cross the wide main street of China’s westernmost city, turn down a dusty alley of crumbling ocher storefronts that opens up into a lively public square behind a mosque. Families with children are watching television at an open-air restaurant. The scent of cumin wafts from a grill where lamb sizzles on skewers. Next door, a chef makes noodles strung between his hands like a game of cat’s cradle.

Over here, it’s not quite 9 p.m.Kashgar, a city of 350,000 built around an oasis along the old Silk Road, has two time zones, two hours apart. How you set your watch depends not only on the neighborhood, but on your profession and ethnicity, religion and loyalty. People living on both sides of the time divide say there is little confusion because they have as little to do with each other as possible.

When communist China was formed in 1949, Mao Tse-tung decreed that everybody should follow a single time zone, no matter that the country is as wide as the continental United States.

But Uighurs, the dominant minority in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, balked at running their lives on Beijing time, which would have them getting up in the pitch dark and going to sleep at sunset.

“It is as ridiculous as having Los Angeles following New York time,” said Alim Seytoff, who left Xinjiang in 1996 and is now secretary-general of the Uyghur American Assn. in Washington. “That is the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government that they try to impose one time zone.”

So the Uighurs follow their own unofficial time, which is two hours earlier — in effect following the dictates of the sun rather than of Beijing, about 2,000 miles away.

The separate time zones are in fact a metaphor for the chasm between the Uighurs and Han Chinese living in uneasy proximity in Xinjiang. Since 1949, the ethnic Chinese have grown from 9% to more than 40% of the province’s population, and Uighurs accuse the Chinese government of suppressing their culture and faith. The Uighurs are a Muslim people who look more European than Chinese and use a Turkic language sprinkled with Arabic.

There is only minimal socializing between Uighurs and Chinese. Uighur men say they don’t go out at night with Chinese colleagues because they don’t share the habits of drinking and smoking. Intermarriage is rare. Few Chinese in Xinjiang bother to learn the local language and they avoid Uighur neighborhoods. ( “Don’t go eat over there at night!” a Chinese employee at the hotel warns guests. “It’s full of Muslim people.”)

Schools, government offices, post offices all use Beijing time. So do the airports and railroad stations. Some bus lines use Xinjiang time and others Beijing time.

Local people have strangely adjusted.

“Confusing? Not confusing at all! You can ask anybody how easy it is to convert between Beijing time and the local time,” insisted a Chinese woman working at the Kashgar inter-city bus station, which is running on local time until April 1 and then switching over. “We use Beijing time in every aspect of our lives. It is only our comrades, the ethnic minorities, who use their local time.”

Ali Tash, a 28-year-old tour guide, said it’s really quite simple. Pointing at empty sofas in a hotel lobby, he explained how he would set up a hypothetical meeting with a Chinese friend and a Uighur friend. “So I say to the Chinese guy, come at 4 o’clock, and to the Uighur guy, come at 2 o’clock, and then everybody will be there the same time. No problem.”

Modern time zones dividing the world into 15-degree-wide slices of longitude are a relatively recent invention, designed to stamp uniformity on the globe and make railroad travel more efficient. Until the late 19th century, the standard practice had been for each town to set its clocks to noon when the sun reached its zenith.

China is big enough to span five time zones but is the largest country in the world to insist on a single one. In contrast, Russia has eleven.

“The reason goes back to a long Chinese imperial tradition in which the emperor is in control of time because it has a cosmological significance,” said James Millward, a Xin- jiang scholar at Georgetown University.

Millward calls the Uighurs’ insistence on using their own time a “classic weapon of the weak.”

“These are the kind of things that people do in authoritarian societies. Like telling a joke with a twist, it is a way of expressing independence that is subtle enough that you don’t get into trouble,” Millward said.

Uighurs appear proud of keeping their own time. A Uighur boy of about 8 playfully grabbed the wrist of a foreign visitor in the market to look at her watch. Seeing that it was set to local time, he gave a big grin.

The Chinese government has not always been so tolerant of chronological deviation.

In 1968, Long Shujin, a hard-liner who was soon to be named Communist Party secretary for Xinjiang, issued a decree ordering Uighurs to stop using their own time, according to Gardner Bovingdon, a Xinjiang expert at Indiana University who recently completed a paper on the separate time zone.

But the Chinese government was not able to enforce the law and in 1986 published a small notice acknowledging that the unofficial time could be used.

“If they really had forced people to synchronize their workdays with Beijing, it would have produced howls of protest because people would be getting up in the pitch dark,” Bovingdon said.

Indeed, at 9 a.m. Beijing time on a Monday morning, when one might expect people to be bustling with the urgency of the week ahead, the city was still yawning itself awake. The statue of Mao looming over People’s Square in the center of town was barely visible through a shroud of morning haze. Cars on the main road had their headlights on.

Kashgar is almost due north of New Delhi and about the same latitude as New York. Its problems with timekeeping are worse in midwinter, when the sun doesn’t rise according to a Beijing-oriented clock until past 10 a.m., and during the summer solstice, when sunset is close to 11 p.m.

Unofficially, the Chinese themselves have skewed their working hours, so most schools and many businesses don’t actually open until 10 a.m. Beijing time.

Jiang Lin, a student at Kashgar Teachers College, said: “Most people are using Beijing time; only local Uighurs use Xinjiang time. But our class starts two hours later than usual time. It’s quite easy to adapt to it, just as when you are in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Still, Xinjiang time remains strictly unofficial. In the lobby of the Chinese-run International Hotel there are five clocks showing the time in Moscow, London, New York, Tokyo and Beijing. Asked why there was no clock indicating Xinjiang time, the concierge replied with irritation: “There’s no need. They know what time it is.”

Abdul Hakim, a Uighur watchmaker in the Kashgar market, said he used to stock a watch that displayed two different times, but nobody bought it.

“People use one time or the other, not both. The Chinese use Beijing time. The Uighurs use our time,” he said. “But if somebody buys a watch from me, I’ll set it however they like.”

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Full article: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-china-timezone31-2009mar31,0,5554636.story

Two toxic ideas: first the border fence, now border poison

Isn’t it enough that this country built about 700 miles of fencing along a 2,000-mile border with Mexico — the previous administration’s stunt gesture toward “border control” that ranks up there with the TSA yanking grannies out of line at the airport to show that it’s protecting us from hijackers, and discrimination suits?

That infuriating fence despoiled hundreds of square miles of precious habitat and endangered thousands of species of flora and fauna while likely doing precious little to stop illegal immigration. (Funnily enough, what’s slowed the northward flow most effectively is the crummy economy north of the border.)

Yet now this administration’s Customs and Border Protection wants to Vietnamize the border. It wants to defoliate miles and miles of brush along the banks of the Rio Grande so that no one can hide in the canebrakes.

What, has some government contractor taken out a patent on some new chemical — Agent Naranja?

More than 30 years after that fabled last helicopter left Vietnam, and this is what ranks as a big idea? The idea’s on hold at the moment, mostly, I gather, to mollify the Mexicans. Americans living along the border have already had their property despoiled; the border law passed by Congress allows the fence to be no respecter of environmental concerns or property rights, all in the name of that unassailable imperative, homeland security.

I hope that the Obama administration will come to its senses, both about poisoning the banks of a vital river and about continuing the building of this ridiculous fence. Where is the Janet Napolitano who, as governor of Arizona, famously said: Show me a 50-foot-tall fence and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder? Has Homeland Security bamboozled her out of that?

You want to patrol the border and keep the habitat poison-free at the same time? I hear there are a lot of Americans out of work. Maybe some of them would like to put on a Border Patrol uniform. Maybe others of them would like to make topiary out of those bushes. And if we still can’t persuade them to do the job, there’s a labor hiring hall right across the border.

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Full article: http://opinion.latimes.com/opinionla/2009/03/two-toxic-ideas.html

US reporters face N Korea trial

Journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling

It is thought that the women were researching North Korean refugees

Two US reporters held in North Korea earlier this month will be tried for illegal entry and “hostile acts”, the country’s state-run news agency says.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said preparations were under way for indictments and a trial.

Euna Lee and Laura Ling were detained on 17 March on North Korea’s border with China.

The move comes amid growing tension in the region ahead of North Korea’s controversial satellite launch.

The North says the launch is part of its communications programme, but the US fears this is a cover for testing long-range missile technology.

Confusion

“The illegal entry of US reporters into the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and their suspected hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their statements,” the KCNA said.

It said “a competent organ… is carrying on its investigation and, at the same time, making a preparation for indicting them at a trial on the basis of the already confirmed suspicions”.

Euna Lee, a Korean-American, and Laura Ling, a Chinese-American, work for Current TV in California.

There is still some confusion as to exactly where the reporters were arrested.

South Korean television station YTN and unnamed diplomatic sources said that North Korean guards crossed the Tumen river into Chinese territory to arrest the journalists.

Pyongyang says the reporters crossed its border illegally.

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Full article and photo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7973241.stm

Hunt for the Monster of Florence

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The body of Nadine Mauriot in 1985, one of the ‘Monster’s’ victims. Right, Francesco Narducci.

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When two writers tried to look beyond a bizarre murder investigation focused on Masonic rites and a psychic, the police turned on them. Their account is now coming to Hollywood, thanks to Tom Cruise.

The best-selling true story of how an American crime writer was sucked into the long-running and bizarre police investigation of Italy’s worst serial sex killer is to become a Hollywood film, produced by Tom Cruise.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi tells how Mr Preston, a successful writer of crime novels, travelled to Florence and moved into a beautiful old villa on the city’s outskirts.

Mr Preston’s plan was to write a murder mystery set in Florence at the time of the great flood of 1966. It was to be entitled The Christmas Madonna and feature an American art historian who rushes to the city to help dig it out of the mud. In the process he finds a clue to the whereabouts of a celebrated missing work by Masaccio, the painter who launched the Renaissance. But when he sets off in pursuit of the painting, he ends up being horribly murdered

Mr Preston realised he would need to understand the workings of Italian murder investigations if his book were to ring true, and a mutual friend put him in touch with Mr Spezi, a crime reporter who for more than 20 years had worked the cronaca nera desk (“black story” or crime beat) at La Nazione, the daily paper of Tuscany and central Italy. The two men met in a Florence café, and when Mr Preston told Mr Spezi he was living in Giogoli, “Spezi’s eyebrows shot up”.

Mr Spezi was Italy’s greatest expert on the “Monster of Florence”, the serial killer armed with a .22 Beretta pistol who preyed on courting couples in their cars in quiet lanes outside the city, killing 16 of them between 1968 and 1985 and hacking off and carrying away the women’s vaginas – a gruesome detail which Thomas Harris borrowed for his novel Hannibal. Mr Spezi had coined the term “Monster of Florence” and it transpired that Mr Preston had rented a villa overlooking the site of one of the Monster’s murders.

All thought of The Christmas Madonna was forgotten as Mr Preston became fascinated by the case. For the monster’s crimes had never been solved: one man who was convicted and jailed was later released on appeal. Like Mr Spezi, Mr Preston came to believe that the police had failed to pursue the most promising leads and the pair began some amateur police work of their own.

But in the process they drew the ire of the latest investigators, who hauled Mr Preston in for questioning and threw Mr Spezi in jail, putting him under investigation on suspicion of trying to derail a criminal investigation – and also on suspicion of being the Monster himself. Three weeks later he was released, the Supreme Court declaring his imprisonment “illegal and destitute of any foundation”. But Mr Preston was warned that he could be re-arrested if he set foot in Italy again, and left the country, never to return.

Tom Cruise was gripped by The Monster of Florence, which sold 300,000 copies in the US. When he met Mr Spezi at the Italian premiere of Valkyrie in Rome in January, he told him his character would be the star of the film. “I met Cruise with Christopher McQuarrie, his screenwriter,” said Mr Spezi. “Tom said they weren’t interested in making yet another film about a serial killer but were fascinated by the story of how two writers got caught up in the investigation and suffered the consequences.”

If the film stays true to the book, it will lift the lid on many disturbing aspects of Italy’s justice system, in particular the willingness of police and prosecutors to put their trust in bizarre sources of information – and then to punish and persecute the rare journalist like Mr Spezi who refuse to kowtow to them.

It was in 2002 that Michele Giuttari, the latest detective to head an investigation into the Monster’s killings, exhumed the body of Francesco Narducci, a doctor from Perugia who had drowned in Lake Trasimeno in 1985. Apparently acting on a lead provided by Gabriella Carlizzi, a psychic who claims to be fed information by a long-dead priest, the public prosecutor of Perugia, Giuliano Mignini, persuaded Mr Giuttari that Mr Narducci had not committed suicide but had been murdered by important Florentines because they, like Mr Narducci, were involved in Masonic rites which centred on the Monster’s murders.

There was not a scrap of evidence for this story, but this did not prevent the investigation from going ahead.

Mr Spezi made no secret of the fact that he regarded the Narducci theory as bunkum. But when he and Mr Preston began exploring the long-abandoned investigation which they believed would have led police to the true killer, Mr Mignini, who is also the prosecutor in the Meredith Kercher murder case, and who is separately fighting charges of abuse of office, came down on them hard.

Mr Preston is out of harm’s way, but the judicial persecution of Mr Spezi by Messrs Mignini and Giuttari continues apace.

“They accuse me of being the mastermind or instigator of the murder of Narducci,” Mr Spezi said wearily. “Now it’s more than an investigation, I have actually been charged with the murder; also with forming a criminal association to cover up the crime (along with 23 other people in Perugia); with obstruction of justice, with perjury, and with criminal libel against Giuttari, Gabriella Carlizzi and others. I am indicted for writing articles that ‘disturb public order”, because I criticised the investigation in Perugia regarding the murder of Meredith Kercher, and I am also accused of ‘vilifying’ prosecutor Mignini, a criminal offence.

“I have the strong impression that I will never get out of this situation and I don’t know what to do. Everything I do causes Mignini to accuse me of another crime.”

Mr Preston commented: “It seems extraordinary that even after the Italian Supreme Court ruled that Mignini’s detention of Spezi was illegal, Mignini is still persecuting him relentlessly, without any kind of check or control. Mignini himself is on trial for abuse of office – yet he continues in office as if nothing were happening. The Monster of Florence is not just a book about a horrific serial killer, and not just a book about two journalists who fall into their own story. It is a book about modern Italy itself.

“Mario and I are confident that the story we tell is the truth, at least as far as the truth can be ascertained in a strange and convoluted case such as this. But this has not stopped the Italian authorities from levelling vague charges of criminal libel against us, not because there are errors in the book, but for harassment purposes and to undermine our credibility. Our aim was to tell the truth, and we told the truth – at a far greater cost than we anticipated. As a result, I can probably never return to Italy and Mario spent three weeks in prison and may be persecuted to the end of his days. But we both stand by what we wrote.”

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Full article and photos: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/hunt-for-the-monster-of-florence-1657052.html

Posted in Law

An Englishwoman in Paris takes the International Herald Tribune into its digital future

 

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Global influence: Alison Smale, executive editor of the ‘International Herald Tribune’ at its London offices.

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Alison Smale, the most powerful British female editor overseas, tells Ian Burrell how her global paper has been made over in print and online.

Visitors to the French Open tennis championships, which starts in May at the Stade de Roland Garros in Paris, might be surprised to look up at the street sign and find they are standing in Avenue Gordon Bennett. They might be further intrigued to learn that Gordon, eccentric character that he was, deserves to be known as one of the most insightful entrepreneurs in the history of English language media.

Bennett’s story is rooted in the French capital and a posthumous new chapter is added today as the International Herald Tribune – the title which he founded as the Paris Herald in 1887 – takes on a fresh identity both in its printed form and, perhaps more importantly, online.

One of the three truly worldwide English language newspapers – along with the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal – the IHT is, as the strap beneath its masthead points out, “The Global Edition of the New York Times”. Yet it is something very distinct from the “Old Gray Lady” of Manhattan.

There is something more chic about the “Trib”. In Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1960 film Breathless, Jean Seberg plays a student who aspires to work on the New York Herald Tribune, as it was then called, selling copies on the Champs-Elysées, close to the paper’s original offices on the Rue de Berri.

Much has changed since then. The paper is now based in the affluent western suburb of Neuilly and for six years it has been owned outright by The New York Times, after it bought out its partner and great rival, TheWashington Post. Since December, the paper has been run by Alison Smale, surely be the most powerful female British journalist working outside of London.

“I like to think that we have managed to combine the global voice of the Herald Tribune with the very savvy journalism of The New York Times to create something for an elite that travels the globe,” she says. “If you want to know what’s going on in the world, we offer a clear guide through those sometimes very confusing events.”

Today, Smale, 55, presides over the IHT’s first redesign in a decade and a shift in its online position, whereby it becomes central to nytimes.com, the biggest newspaper-owned English -language website in the world. Although its current bespoke address, iht.com, will continue to exist, it will offer the same content as a new “global” offering on nytimes.com, reflecting increased interest in international news. The online change could grow awareness of the Tribune’s brand but there is a risk that going forward it will be subsumed by that of The New York Times.

The most obvious element of today’s redesign is that the key adjective “international” has been give equal prominence to the other two words in the paper’s masthead. “It partly results from a desire to have one uniform script and partly from the desire to say we are global,” explains Smale. The IHT has given up its Pointer font in favour of a variant of the Cheltenham font intended to echo, but not replicate, The New York Times.

Smale admits the IHT is suffering a “marked” downturn in advertising, though no worse than the rest of media. She is based in Neuilly but is on a visit to the IHT offices on the edge of Bloomsbury, central London. Because of the title’s origins, she says, it will always enjoy a strong following in France. “For a certain part of the French elite we are ‘indispensable’ – you will go round and people will say ‘C’est le meilleur journal du monde’ because of the cachet that comes from reading something at this level of English,” she says.

The circulation, just shy of 250,000, is split evenly between three groups; American ex-pats, nationals of other countries who want a global paper, and third country nationals (“the Norwegian living in Hong Kong”, as Smale puts it). There is little crossover between the readership of the print product and iht.com, an oddity which Smale suspects might be partly linked to the paper being often bought for plane journeys.

As former deputy foreign editor of The New York Times, she is fully aware of the talent at her disposal, notably in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “We have enormous depth in Iraq, I think The Times of London are saying that they’re the only people with a full-time correspondent in Baghdad. Well, The New York Times has about 100 people in Iraq, counting security.”

Another key partner of the IHT is Reuters, which supplies specialist commentary as well as business news. Following today’s redesign, the paper’s business coverage has been given greater prominence, including the back page, a challenge to its global competitors. The three Asian editions of the IHT (Japan, Korea, Hong Kong) are also of growing importance, with the IHT outselling The Wall Street Journal in this key market.

Though she distinguishes the IHT from the business dailies by saying “We are a general interest newspaper”, she admits sports coverage is a difficulty. “Sport is where we are at our most schizophrenic. We must cover baseball, we must cover basketball, and we must cover what is called in our paper football, which we would call American football,” she says. Association football is branded “soccer”.

Such things have hindered the IHT’s progress in Britain. “If I may venture to say this, I think our American-ness is more of an issue in Britain than in other places because we spell things the American way and that immediately leaps out to a British eye.”

Smale herself grew up in London and studied at Bristol University, where she hoped to be a journalist. An interview at the BBC helped convince her that she should pursue those ambitions overseas. “The first question was ‘Why didn’t you go to Oxford or Cambridge?’ Which was the point at which I thought ‘Perhaps I shall just leave altogether’.”

A prestigious scholarship to do a journalism masters at Stanford University in California led to a job at the UPI news wire, from where she went to Associated Press, later covering the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Her vantage point leads her to suggest that British journalism cannot match the seriousness of parts of the German press. “The Anglo Saxon approach to life and to newspapering is fundamentally different to continental journalism in general and German journalism in particular. You are expected to be more of an essayist in the German press,” says Smale, who speaks French, German and Russian.

Like her readers, and her paper’s founder, James Gordon Bennett Jr (whose strange behaviour, including an obsession with owls – which became the paper’s symbol – is said to have inspired the famous expression of amazement), she is very much a global citizen. “The paper that he founded was for rich Americans who came to summer in Paris or Europe, to discover the belle époque, to buy fine clothes and buy art,” she says of its 122-year history. Unlikely as it might seem in these dark times for media, Smale is hoping that, for the International Herald Tribune, a new belle époque is about to begin.

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Full article and photo: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/press/an-englishwoman-in-paris-takes-the-tribune-into-its-digital-future-1656860.html

Forget carrots, video games boost night vision

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The popular ‘Call of Duty’ video game is said to be one that can improve vision because it involves players targeting objects.

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Targeting virtual objects on screen helps train eyes to work in low-light, study finds.

Computer and video games that involve guns and shooting may not do much for a child’s education but they can improve eyesight, according to a study showing that a person’s night-time vision gets better after playing electronic action games.

Scientists found that games involving aiming and shooting at virtual objects on a computer screen can significantly increase people’s ability to see objects in twilight conditions, when colours fade into different shades of grey.

Until now the only recognised way of improving a person’s ability to detect small changes in shades of grey – visual “contrast” – was to improve the optics of the eye with contact lenses, spectacles or surgery.

But researchers have found that training on a video game can be just as effective, if not more so.

“Unfortunately, contrast sensitivity is one of the aspects of vision that is most easily compromised,” said Daphne Bavelier, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester in New York, who led the study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

“This problem affects thousands of people worldwide, including those with professional activities requiring excellent eyesight, and ageing populations, along with individuals who are clinically evaluated for vision problems such as amblyopia,” Professor Bavelier said. “Normally, improving contrast sensitivity means getting glasses or eye surgery, somehow changing the optics of the eye. But we have found that action video games train the brain to process the existing visual information much more efficiently. The improvements last for months after game play has stopped.”

The scientists tested the contrast sensitivity of a group of people who regularly played action video games, such as Unreal Tournament and Call of Duty, where the player has to shoot at virtual targets. They found the group’s ability to detect different shades of grey was 58 per cent better on average than people who had not played the games.

Those who were not regular game players were then put through a training regime involving hours of console gaming. When they had completed the course, their contrast sensitivity had improved by 43 per cent on average.

“People who played action video games have better vision in the sort of conditions where there is not much contrast,” said Professor Bavelier.

“It can make all the difference when driving at dusk, or in fog, in being able, for instance, to see a dog crossing the road in twilight.

“There are practical benefits for people who rely on their eyesight for their work, such as the military or commercial airline pilots.

“It shows that if you need to improve your vision, you can train your brain to get better at using the visual information you get,” she said.

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Full article and photo: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/forget-carrots-video-games-boost-night-vision-1657038.html

Reading ‘can help reduce stress’

Reading can reduce stress levels by 68 per cent, according to the University of Sussex research.

Reading can reduce stress levels by 68 per cent, according to the University of Sussex research.

Reading is the best way to relax and even six minutes can be enough to reduce the stress levels by more than two thirds, according to new research.

And it works better and faster than other methods to calm frazzled nerves such as listening to music, going for a walk or settling down with a cup of tea, research found.

Psychologists believe this is because the human mind has to concentrate on reading and the distraction of being taken into a literary world eases the tensions in muscles and the heart.

The research was carried out on a group of volunteers by consultancy Mindlab International at the University of Sussex.

Their stress levels and heart rate were increased through a range of tests and exercises before they were then tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation.

Reading worked best, reducing stress levels by 68 per cent, said cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis.

Subjects only needed to read, silently, for six minutes to slow down the heart rate and ease tension in the muscles, he found. In fact it got subjects to stress levels lower than before they started.

Listening to music reduced the levels by 61 per cent, have a cup of tea of coffee lowered them by 54 per cent and taking a walk by 42 per cent.

Playing video games brought them down by 21 per cent from their highest level but still left the volunteers with heart rates above their starting point.

Dr Lewis, who conducted the test, said: “Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation.

“This is particularly poignant in uncertain economic times when we are all craving a certain amount of escapism.

“It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.

“This is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”

The research was commissioned by Galaxy chocolate to launch a campaign to give away one million books over the next six months.

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Full article and photo: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html

Rat could be latest weapon against landmines

 

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Staff at Porfell Wildlife Park and Sanctuary have been teaching Gambian poached rat Kofi to sniff out landmines.

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Highly trained sniffer-rats could become the latest weapon against landmines after one was taught to smell out explosive devices.

Staff at Porfell Wildlife Park and Sanctuary near Liskeard, Cornwall, have been teaching Gambian poached rat Kofi to alert handlers when he detects a mine.

Kofi is too small to set off the booby-traps but his acute sense of smell can pick up the scent of the bomb casing.

Rats have been trained in Africa to hunt for land mines but Kofi is the first to undergo the program in Britain.

Handler Wendy Winstanley now plans to contact the Army and the police anti-terror unit to offer her rats’ services for use both home and abroad.

She said: “Kofi is amazing, his sniff ability is really incredible. People think of rats as vermin but they are highly intelligent creatures.  

“They have a more heightened sense of smell than dogs and because they are so much lighter they have less chance of setting off an explosive.

“Obviously we don’t have land mines in this country but I’m so happy with his development that I would be happy to send him to the Gambia if he was required.

“In this country these rats would be excellent at sniffing out bombs. If the anti-terror police wanted me to I would interested and more than happy to train them.”

The bomb sniffing training process begins when rats are five weeks old and are weaned from their mothers.

Trainers begin socialising the young rats to the sights, sounds, and textures of the world by walking them on wet grass, going for a ride in a lorry and interacting with humans.

Then the sniffer rats are taught to recognise the smell of metal land mine casings in return for a food reward.

Thirty sniffer rats are already being used in Mozambique, Africa, and have proved incredibly successful for the detection and removal of land mines.

The rodents are fitted to a leash before scrambling their way over a piece of ground, sniffing out any explosives.

A trained rat can clear 100 metres square in 30 minutes, equivalent to two days work for a manual de-miner.

The rats are about 75 cm long (30 inches) and weigh about 1.35 kilograms (3 lbs) which means they can scamper across a minefield without detonating the charges.

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Full article and photo: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/5076323/Rat-could-be-latest-weapon-against-landmines.html

Man foils bank robbery after assuming it was an April Fool

A man inadvertently foiled an attempted bank robbery after assuming it was an April Fool prank, a court has heard.

Customer Andrew Stewart was sitting down reading a newspaper in an Exeter branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland on March 31 last year when a raider burst in and demanded money.

Brian Davison, 32, put his hand inside his back pack then told cashiers: “I’ve got a gun. Seriously I’ve got a gun – hand over the ******* money”.

But as terrified cashiers prepared to hand over a bundle of notes, Mr Stewart calmly walked up to the robber and said: “It’s April the 1st isn’t it mate? It’s April Fool’s Day”.

When Davidson said to him “I’ve got a gun I will shoot you”, Andrew replied “go on then shoot me” and grabbed the bag from his hands.

He opened it in front of staff and after seeing it was empty sat down and carried on reading his paper, Exeter Crown Court heard.

Davison fled the scene but was later arrested and has now pleaded guilty to affray.

Richard Crabb, prosecuting, said: “Prior to Mr Stewart’s intervention terrified staff believed Davison was an armed robber. They were going to hand over a pre-packed bundle of marked notes.”

The court heard Davison, of Torquay, Devon, attempted to raid the bank just hours after appearing at a local court on a charge of criminal damage.

He spent 403 days in custody on remand, which was the equivalent of a 30-month sentence, so he avoided a further jail term and made the subject of a two year community order.

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Full article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/5077153/Man-foils-bank-robbery-after-assuming-it-was-an-April-Fool.html

Posted in Law

Miss Universe Visits Guantánamo Bay

The pageant winner writes on her blog that she had a lovely time visiting Guantanámo Bay last week.

Don’t ask us how or why we came across this — and the British home secretary’s husband did not bring it to our attention — but the latest entry on the blog of the reigning Miss Universe, Dayana Mendoza, has a sort of eye-catching dateline: “March 27, 2009, Guantánamo Bay.”

Miss UniverseVenezuela’s Dayana Mendoza was crowned Miss Universe in July, 2008.

 

According to the Web site of the U.S.O., which arranged the visit, the Miss Universe Organization made the decision to “deploy Crystle Stewart, Miss U.S.A. 2008, and Dayana Mendoza, Miss Universe 2008, to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to visit troops as part of a U.S.O./Armed Forces Entertainment tour.”

Ms. Mendoza, who competed as Miss Venezuela, has a blog on the pageant’s Web site, and this account of the visit appeared there last Friday, after her deployment:

This week, Guantánamo!!! It was an incredible experience.

We arrived in Gitmo on Friday and stared going around the town, everybody knew Crystle and I were coming so the first thing we did was attend a big lunch and then we visited one of the bars they have in the base. We talked about Gitmo and what is was like living there. The next days we had a wonderful time, this truly was a memorable trip! We hung out with the guys from the East Coast and they showed us the boat inside and out, how they work and what they do, we took a ride around the land and it was a loooot of fun!

We also met the Military dogs, and they did a very nice demonstration of their skills. All the guys from the Army were amazing with us.

We visited the Detainees camps and we saw the jails, where they shower, how the recreate themselves with movies, classes of art, books. It was very interesting.

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Full article: http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/30/miss-universe-visits-guantanamo/

Anything, Anywhere, Any Time

The unemployed can’t be picky anymore. Why taking a survival job could just be the best thing to happen to you.

In December 2007, the month that the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites as the start of the recession, Andrea Auger of Groton got laid off from her job as an online facilitator and administrator for Global Knowledge, a North Carolina-based company that provides corporate-training classes and operates virtual classrooms. Auger thought getting a new job would be a breeze. After all, she has great work experience, not only in e-learning, a field that seemed to be thriving, but also in multimedia production and systems engineering support. There are no gaps in her resume. She has excellent references, and she is maintaining a 3.98 grade point average in her information-technology studies at UMass-Lowell. “I wasn’t too worried, because I thought with my skill set I’d be able to find something, even if it wasn’t in the same field,” says the 51-year-old. “I was wrong. I was so wrong.”

When asked how many jobs she’s applied for, Auger says, “Holy smokes, dozens.” Though she hasn’t given up on returning to the virtual classroom — “I loved my job,” she says — at this point she just wants a paycheck. “I need the income,” says Auger, the divorced mother of a grown son. “I just lost almost half of my IRAs, and I’m the only one sustaining myself. I’ll do almost anything now.” Anything. It used to be that losing a job just required a little fine-tuning of the resume and some poking around for jobs related to the one you just lost. A new spot to land would soon emerge, hopefully with a similar salary.

But now? “Anything.” It’s a word being used more often by people who have been bought out, laid off, or outsourced. They quickly realize that this is not the time to be picky about their next job — not with the stock market plummeting and Massachusetts unemployment above 7 percent, and rising. Though no statistics are kept on the types of jobs people are seeking or on the movement of individual workers up or down the career ladder, we can safely assume Andrea Auger is not alone.

“It’s clear that the customers we’re seeing are lowering their expectations,” says Christopher Brennan, interim executive director of the Career Place in Woburn, one of 37 state-sponsored One-Stop Career Centers offering workshops, resume critiques, counseling, free use of office equipment, on-site recruitment, and job fairs. “People are getting so — I hate to use the word ‘desperate’ — but people are getting so eager for job opportunities that they’re entering training programs they never would have applied for in the past.”

Brennan also points to one woman who found something in her field, but at 70 percent of her previous pay. “She was satisfied,” he says, “because she had at least landed a job that could pay some of the bills.”

A fair number of job seekers have been out of work for months or years. But many of those who entered the ranks of the unemployed more recently were aware from the start that things had changed and that the old rules no longer applied. John Nocella, for example, wasn’t taking any chances.

From the day he first walked through the doors of the Career Place, Nocella has been willing to consider almost any position. “I won’t take entry-level,” says the 63-year-old business-to-business salesman from Stoneham. “But I am looking for other opportunities that are out there, just to make some income.” His experience with job hunting after a layoff two years ago, as well as that of many of his peers, convinced him that this was no time to be fussy. “I feel better when I’m working,” he says, “and to get there, I’m willing to adopt a broader job search.”

Although Nocella says he won’t take entry-level, if nothing changes in the next few weeks or months, he might reconsider. More and more people are willing to accept entry-level jobs, even if they’re closer to retirement age than college age. According to Roger Berkowitz, president and CEO of Legal Sea Foods, “culinary schools are overbooked now,” and the restaurant chain has seen a spike in applications, many of them from people looking to switch careers. “A lot of people have always fantasized about working in the hospitality industry,” he says, “or maybe they did it when they were in school and want to get back into it. This gives them the opportunity to pursue their earlier dream.”

Brennan sees it differently. “Some people are on their second or third layoff in a particular industry,” he says, “so they’re saying, ‘I need to move on, because it’s a dying industry.’ ” But even for those staying in the same field, taking a lower-level position isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are two primary arguments against accepting a job that is, for lack of a better word, “beneath” you: It cuts into time you could spend looking for something at your skill level, and less-skilled experience doesn’t look good on your resume. But neither argument holds during a recession, according to Paul Facella, the New York-based author of Everything I Know About Business I Learned at McDonald’s.

When asked whether there’s such a thing as a job that’s “beneath” an unemployed worker in this market, he says bluntly: “I don’t think there is. There’s no question in my mind that tolerance for that kind of switching down is much greater than it was one or two years ago. Most employers looking at resumes a couple of years from now are going to be respectful that people needed to do it to survive.”

There can be advantages to taking a survival job. It can keep you active and prevent resume gaps, it may provide unexpected networking and social opportunities, and, perhaps most important, it can actually allow you to broaden your skill set — “particularly if you’re applying at a smaller or mid-size company,” says Suzanne Bump, secretary of the state’s executive office of labor and workforce development. “Smaller companies are where the jobs are now. But also those are the companies that need people to be more entrepreneurial, and they have more tolerance for folks who can be flexible and learn.”

You may be able to master computer programs that are new to you, brush up on your collaboration skills, or apply your current expertise to a new industry you’d be willing to move up in. Brennan calls it learning to learn. “There’s not as many specialized jobs as there used to be,” he points out. “People have to be multiskilled.”

You may also be able to negotiate a decent benefits package, despite the lower pay. That’s one of the main reasons Deb Holbrook of Hopkinton is looking for work even if it means stepping down a ladder rung or two. The 47-year-old biotech research coordinator lost her job in January and says that since that time she has applied for more than 120 jobs. Holbrook says benefits at her last job covered her, her working husband, and their two children. “If you’ve got a spouse with a good-paying job, I think, unfortunately, people look at that and say, ‘She doesn’t have to work.’ It’s not true. I need to make a contribution to the household and to our retirement. It’s not fair to leave it all on my husband.” In addition, Holbrook says it’s depressing to see those unemployment checks coming in. “It can put a damper on your self-esteem,” she says, “but it is a temporary fix. If I keep moving forward, something good will happen.” She points out that those who have been out of work a very long time may need to regroup and reassess what they’re doing, perhaps while training in a different field or a different aspect of the same field.

That’s what Janice Sutcliffe, 60, did when she got laid off in November from her nine-year job as division manager of home decorating at the Fabric Place in Woburn. After searching aggressively both laterally and downward for only three months, the Lexington resident landed a job as an entry-level management trainee at A.C. Moore at 70 percent of her previous pay. She enjoys it, she says, “because it gives me a chance to evolve” and because, after thoroughly researching the arts and crafts supply company, she believes it will survive the recession and even someday expand, allowing her opportunities she never would have found at her old job.

“It’s scary out there,” she says. “But people have to find a way. They have to reinvent themselves. What you were doesn’t necessarily apply in this environment. I think you need to look at it as an adventure.”

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How to Land a Survival Job

 

Adjust your attitude To the employer, every position is important. The hiring manager wants to see that you’ll take what’s offered seriously.

Redefine Yourself Write an alternative resume. Highlight specific skills needed for the lower position you’re seeking and downplay the high-level title you had at your previous job.

Be Flexible Anticipate what the company is looking for and adapt to it rather than trying to change it.

Be Serious Show your commitment to seeing the opportunity through.

Be Easy You can work with anyone, under any circumstances. You are the definition of a team player.

Show You’re Curious Don’t be a threat to a hiring manager who might have less experience than you. Stress a willingness to learn, and ask questions like “What exactly are you looking for in your number two person?”

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/jobs/news/articles/2009/03/29/anything_anywhere_any_time/

Harvard encourages dusting off the classics

Says esoteric courses enrich learning.

When Harvard was founded nearly four centuries ago, all students read and spoke Latin. They had to: Lectures were delivered primarily in the ancient tongue, and the classics was pretty much all they could study.

Today, the number of students conversant in Cicero and Plato has dwindled, with only 42 – less than 1 percent of Harvard’s 6,640 undergraduates – choosing classics as a major. Then there’s Sanskrit and Indian studies, which has three students, and astronomy and astrophysics, with five starry-eyed souls.

Although most students may deem the undersubscribed subjects impractical, the bastion of liberal arts education has in recent years begun promoting learning for learning’s sake as a worthy and enriching pursuit. Rather than viewing a major solely as a stepping-stone to a career, the university is pushing students to broaden their interests and explore more esoteric topics.

Professors and students in those subjects insist that studying even the most obscure disciplines can lead to jobs in a variety of fields, from academia to finance.

“It’s amusing when you tell people you’re in a concentration and they say, ‘I didn’t even know we had that here,’ ” said Daniel Handlin, an astronomy and astrophysics major who wants to be an astronaut. “People can imagine the classics existing, but a lot of people just don’t even think of astronomy at all.”

To entice students to explore such subjects, Harvard has more than tripled the number of small freshman seminars taught by star professors. Among the 132 diverse classes: “The Beasts of Antiquity and their Natural History.”

Harvard has also delayed the deadline for declaring a major from the end of freshman year to the middle of sophomore year, to give students more time to sample different disciplines. And the university has begun allowing students to declare a minor, encouraging them to venture in some depth beyond their main academic interest. A minor requires four to six courses in a department.

“We recognize that we are unlikely to be a popular concentration, but we are hopeful that we will be a popular secondary field,” said Jay Harris, dean of undergraduate education and a Jewish studies professor in the Near Eastern languages and civilization department, which only has 13 majors. “The hope is we will get more people into say, the classics or Islamic studies or whatever it may be.”

Whether Harvard can sell Latin and Byzantine Greek as marketable undergraduate degrees remains to be seen. More than 700 students major – or concentrate, in Harvard parlance – in economics each year, making it the most popular field, followed by government, with nearly 500 students.

“For students, there’s an increasing need to think of one’s education as economically viable and productive and useful,” said Anne Monius, a South Asian religions professor.

That leaves students like Brian Kennedy, one of 16 majoring in folklore and mythology, having to defend his interest in Old Irish and Celtic mythology.

“The big question is, ‘What are you going to do with that?’ ” he said. He plans to go to law school.

Harvard hopes to bring more of its undergraduates back to the university’s liberal arts roots. President Drew Faust, a Civil War historian, has said that education in the humanities prepares students to challenge the status quo.

“That kind of critical thinking and questioning is something we should encourage and instill more fully than we do,” Faust said in a recent interview about the value of a liberal arts education when jobs are becoming hard to come by.

While most students think of government and economics as more practical majors, leading to careers in politics and business, said classics major Veronica Koven-Matasy, “Classics is something you just want to do for its own sake.”

Koven-Matasy, president of the Harvard Classical Club, began studying Latin in seventh grade at Boston Latin School and wants to teach. Many other classics majors, though, go on to become investment bankers, doctors, and lawyers, said Mark Schiefsky, director of undergraduate studies in classics.

The classics department, where enrollment has hovered between 40 and 50 in the last eight years, is drawing up plans to preserve, perhaps even brighten, its future. Professors agreed this month to make the language-intensive field more accessible by introducing a classical civilization focus that requires four instead of eight language courses. Princeton and Yale have already taken similar steps.

Starting next year, Harvard also plans to do away with a rigorous six-hour comprehensive classics exam for seniors majoring in the subject.

“We had such Draconian requirements that really did date from another era,” said Schiefsky, who pushed for the changes, the first overhaul of the department’s requirements in about 40 years.

At Yale, where just 17 students are majoring in classics, the department offers unusual courses like “Food and Diet in Greco-Roman Antiquity” to draw undergraduates. Princeton has introduced “turbo” language courses that cram a year of Greek and Latin into one semester. The move has attracted students who are impatient to read and translate Homer without wading through an entire year of fundamental language instruction, said Denis Feeney, chairman of the classics department there.

Princeton has also embraced a decadelong university-wide effort to encourage students to be more adventurous in their choice of majors. That has lead to growth in interest in several small departments, including classics, where the number of majors has risen from 21 to 37 over the last 10 years.

“We’re really thrilled, but we still want more students,” Feeney said. “We’re empire builders here in the classics.”

At Harvard, other small departments are considering introducing new focuses to make themselves more attractive to students. The university has discussed expanding Sanskrit and Indian studies to a more broad-based South Asian Studies. And the Near Eastern languages and civilizations department would like to beef up its offerings in the contemporary Middle East. But their ambitions may be stymied by Harvard’s budget crisis.

Meanwhile, students in less sought-after majors relish their fortune. They have easy access to professors, many opportunities for independent research, and enroll in small – and at times, private – classes.

Rachel Carpentier, the only junior majoring in Sanskrit and Indian studies, has been the sole student in her Tamil language class for the past two years.

“I basically get private tutoring three times a week,” said Carpentier, who is also majoring in music. “It’s really quite remarkable how much attention my professors are willing to pay to me.”

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2009/03/30/harvard_encourages_dusting_off_the_classics/?page=full

US Vice-President Joe Biden’s daughter Ashley filmed snorting lines of cocaine

The White House was rocked yesterday by claims that the daughter of Joe Biden, the Vice-President, was shown on video snorting cocaine.

The video purports to show Ashley Biden, 27, snorting lines of white powder at a house party in her home state of Delaware.

It surfaced days after Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, declared that the United States shared the blame for Mexico’s violent drug wars. “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” Mrs Clinton said on a trip to Mexico.

The video will embarrass Mr Biden, a teetotaller and an outspoken anti-drug crusader who coined the term “drug czar” in 1982 while campaigning for tougher action against illegal drugs.

However, the video is unlikely to undermine his position with President Obama. Mr Obama admitted in his own memoir that he had used marijuana and cocaine – but not heroin – as a youth. “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though,” he wrote in Dreams from My Father.

This month Mr Biden swore in a new US drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, whose stepson has a history of marijuana arrests.

The New York Post said that it had viewed about 90 seconds of a 43-minute video being offered for sale by an anonymous male acquaintance of Ms Biden, through a Washington lawyer.

The video showed a woman resembling the Vice-President’s daughter taking a red straw from her mouth, bending over a desk, inserting the straw into her nostril and snorting lines of white powder.

The woman then stands up and starts talking with other people in the room as a young man – identified as her boyfriend – watches from behind.

The camera, which appears not to be concealed, follows her as she moves around the room. At one point she shouts: “Shut the f*** up!”

Although the dialogue is unclear, representatives of the seller insist that that the woman speaks repeatedly about the drugs.

“At one point she pretty much complains that the line isn’t big enough,” one told the newspaper. “And she talks about her dad.”

Radaronline.com, an online gossip site, said that one of its freelance reporters had also viewed the video.

It described a man cutting up five lines of what is said to be cocaine, as the woman claimed to be Ms Biden jokes that the lines are not big enough.

The man hands her a rolled-up dollar bill and she pulls back her hair and snorts a line. After she snorts the first line, she lifts her head to wipe her nose and then snorts a second and third line.

The New York Post said that the seller originally wanted to sell the video to the media for $2 million (£1.3million), before reducing it to $400,000. Radaronline.com put the asking price at $250,000. The video was supposedly taken this year.

Thomas Dunlap, the lawyer named by both outlets, reportedly stepped aside from representing the seller yesterday.

He told The Times: “We do not represent anyone involved in that. I do not have information.”

If the allegation is true, Ms Biden, a social worker in Delaware, would not be the first relative to embarrass the White House with alcohol or drug abuse. Gerald Ford’s wife, Betty, struggled with alcoholism and addiction to painkillers and, after a family intervention, opened the famed Betty Ford Centre to addicts.

President Lyndon Johnson’s brother, Sam, admitted in his memoir to being a problem drinker. Roger Clinton, dubbed Headache by his brother’s Secret Service guards, spent a year in prison after his 1984 conviction for cocaine trafficking.

George W. Bush’s twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna, were charged with using a fake ID to buy margaritas in a Texan bar even though they were under the legal drinking age of 21.

Last month Mr Obama’s halfbrother, George, was arrested in his native Kenya for alleged possession of marijuana.

In a so-called internet town hall meeting last week, Mr Obama was inundated with questions about whether he would legalise marijuana.

His terse answer: “No, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.”

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Full article: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article5998685.ece

Surprising marriage ends in bizarre Ohio killing

40 years apart in age, James and Christine were an odd couple. Now she’s accused of murdering her husband — by exercise.

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James M. Mason knew his wife since she was born a boy. The janitor and former military man was a boarder in the child’s home and was treated like family.

Many were surprised when he married Chris nearly three years ago, not just because he knew she underwent sex-change surgery three years before, temporarily calling herself Christine Newton-John after the pop singer with the same last name. He was in his 70s, she in her 30s. He was mild-mannered; she had a domineering personality.

Then, last summer, there was another surprise: Chris Mason was accused of exercising her frail husband to death so she could inherit his retirement benefits, in an attack caught on surveillance video.

Police say she forced James Mason, who had heart disease, to do stressful activity in an indoor pool for more than two hours. He collapsed and died the next day after Chris Mason authorized his removal from life support.

She was sentenced Friday to four years in prison after pleading guilty earlier to reckless homicide.

“It’s just been a total nightmare,” said Maryanne Vallandingham, Chris Mason’s mother, who is ill with emphysema and distraught over her daughter’s fate and the death of a close son-in-law.

Although the tale of James and Chris Mason didn’t begin as a nightmare, the relationship always was considered unusual. The marriage seemed not much more than a living arrangement, said Chris Mason’s sister, Cathy Vondrasek, who learned of it only after the two were wed.

“I never knew of them to be romantic,” she said. “Jim was always like an uncle to us.”

Her sister is domineering, “although I hate to say it,” while James Mason was very gentle and laid back, Vondrasek said.

“Jim was a people pleaser,” Vondrasek said. “If you’d ask him to go to a movie he’d probably say, ‘Sure, why not?’ So my take about him is if you’d say, ‘Hey, you want to get married?’, he’d say ‘OK.’

James Mason, 73 when he died in June, first met his wife’s family in 1963 when he became a boarder at Vallandingham’s home. Four years later, his wife was born as John Leslie Vallandingham.

Chris Mason, now 41, is a former health care aide for the elderly. In 1983, a decade before her sex-change operation, she decided that she and Mason should be together, she told police. The couple were living together at the time, but didn’t marry until Aug. 18, 2006.

They lived in Middlefield, a village within a northeast Ohio area best known for its Amish community, for about four months. Chris Mason’s mother lived with them for much of that time.

Vallandingham, who was present during the attack that killed James Mason but told police she didn’t see any harsh treatment, does recall previous conflicts between the couple.

She told police she once saw her daughter flip a chair while James Mason was sitting in it, putting a hole in a wall. She said she saw James Mason standing with his nose to a wall in the corner of the living room because, he told her, his wife had ordered it.

Neighbors at times heard yelling and objects being thrown in the couple’s apartment and complained to a Geauga County social service agency that checks on the safety of the elderly, said Middlefield Police Chief Joseph Stehlik.

“They both had good days and bad days,” Vallandingham said. “Some things Chris did, well … Chris needs help,” she said, adding that her daughter once was a crack cocaine user.

“I’d rather not be painting an ugly picture,” Vallandingham said. “She did love and care for Jim in her own way, and he loved her. Jim was a very loving and caring person.”

Chris Mason told police that she didn’t intentionally kill her husband and that they were in the swimming pool at their apartment complex so he could exercise.

A security videotape shows Chris Mason pulling her husband by his arms and legs on June 2, tossing and dunking him. Sometimes he clings to the side of the pool and his wife pulls him away. She appears to block his path as he tries to get out of the water — 43 times, by the police chief’s count.

At other times James Mason gets out but goes back in. He doesn’t swim but walks slowly in the 3-foot-deep end of the pool.

James Mason, who had coronary artery disease, suffered a heart attack. An autopsy shows that his major arteries had potentially fatal blockages of about 75 percent, Geauga County Coroner Kevin Chartrand said. It was fine for James Mason to exercise, but the condition of his heart made strenuous activity a risk, Chartrand said.

Shortly before Mason collapsed in the pool, Vallandingham had told Chris Mason she was moving out.

“I love Chris with all my heart, but I can’t live with her,” she told the AP.

Troubles continued after James Mason’s death. His widow was involved in a bar fight in December and was jailed after her personal bond was revoked, said Prosecutor David Joyce. She was banned from another bar she frequently visited.

“She was getting obnoxious, and the owner told her she had to stay out of here,” said Tracy Hall, a bartender at Middlefield Tavern. “She liked to flirt with all the guys who come in here.”

She wasn’t working at the time of her husband’s death. James Mason, a retired janitor who had served in the Army and Air Force, had Veterans Affairs benefits, Social Security and possibly other retirement assets, according to the police investigation.

Police Chief Stehlik had expected a murder charge, convinced that Chris Mason knew her husband had a weak heart and that she would get VA benefits and Social Security as his widow. He said she did receive benefits of more than $860 a month from the VA and at least one retirement account.

But because there is no audio on the security video, the grand jury could not know what the couple said to each other, Joyce said. They do not appear to be arguing. He does not appear to be fighting her off. She was indicted on a charge of reckless homicide, a third-degree felony.

Vondrasek said she and Chris Mason both wept as James Mason died.

But James Mason’s half-sister, Cinda Meyer, said Chris Mason appeared to show little grief.

“She had him cremated, and she called and told me to come and pick up the ashes and do something with them,” said Meyer, of Seville in northeast Ohio. “She was pretending to be a grieving widow.”

Meyer said she arranged her brother’s funeral. Chris Mason did not attend.

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Full article: http://www.latimes.com/features/custom/oddnews/la-on-bizarre-marriage-murder21-2009mar21,0,5425689.story

Posted in Law

Banks Starting to Walk Away on Foreclosures

 

Mercy James’s rental property in South Bend, Ind., was in foreclosure, but a sheriff’s sale was canceled at the last minute.

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Mercy James thought she had lost her rental property here to foreclosure. A date for a sheriff’s sale had been set, and notices about the foreclosure process were piling up in her mailbox.

Ms. James had the tenants move out, and soon her white house at the corner of Thomas and Maple Streets fell into the hands of looters and vandals, and then, into disrepair. Dejected and broke, Ms. James said she salvaged but a lesson from her loss.

So imagine her surprise when the City of South Bend contacted her recently, demanding that she resume maintenance on the property. The sheriff’s sale had been canceled at the last minute, leaving the property title — and a world of trouble — in her name.

“I thought, ‘What kind of game is this?’ ” Ms. James, 41, said while picking at trash at the house, now so worthless the city plans to demolish it — another bill for which she will be liable.

City officials and housing advocates here and in cities as varied as Buffalo, Kansas City, Mo., and Jacksonville, Fla., say they are seeing an unsettling development: Banks are quietly declining to take possession of properties at the end of the foreclosure process, most often because the cost of the ordeal — from legal fees to maintenance — exceeds the diminishing value of the real estate.

The so-called bank walkaways rarely mean relief for the property owners, caught unaware months after the fact, and often mean additional financial burdens and bureaucratic headaches. Technically, they still owe on the mortgage, but as a practicality, rarely would a mortgage holder receive any more payments on the loan. The way mortgages are bundled and resold, it can be enormously time-consuming just trying to determine what company holds the loan on a property thought to be in foreclosure.

In Ms. James’s case, the company that was most recently servicing her loan is now defunct. Its parent company filed for bankruptcy and dissolved. And the original bank that sold her the loan said it could not find a record of it.

“It is what some of us think is the next wave of the crisis,” said Kermit Lind, a clinical professor at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and an expert on foreclosure law.

For older industrial cities like South Bend, hard times in the mortgage market began before the recent national downturn, as did the problem of bank walkaways. In the case of Ms. James, a home health care administrator, the foreclosure proceedings began in the summer of 2007, when she could not keep up with the adjustable rate on her mortgage.

In Buffalo, where officials said the problem had reached “epidemic” proportions in recent months, the city sued 37 banks last year, claiming they were responsible for the deterioration of at least 57 abandoned homes; the city chose a sampling of houses to include in the lawsuit, even though the banks had walked away from many more foreclosures. So far, five banks have settled.

In Kansas City, Rachel Foley, a lawyer who handles housing cases, said bank walkaways were “a rare occurrence two to three years ago.”

“We’re seeing them dumped more and more at the moment,” she said.

Experts suggest the bank walkaways are most visible in states where foreclosures are processed through the courts and therefore tend to be more transparent. Other states, like Indiana and New York, have court-mandated foreclosures, but roughly half of the states allow foreclosures to proceed without court intervention, making it difficult to accurately count the number of bank walkaways in recent months.

The soft housing market and the vandalism that often occurs when a house sits empty are the two main factors influencing the mortgage holders’ decisions to walk away, said Larry Rothenberg, a lawyer for Weltman, Weinberg & Reis, one of the larger creditors’ rights firms in the country.

“Oftentimes when the foreclosure starts out, it’s a viable property,” Mr. Rothenberg said, “but by the time it gets to a sheriff’s sale, it might not have enough value to justify further expense. We’ve always had cases where property was vandalized or lost value, but they were rare compared to these times.”

The problem seems most acute at the bottom of the market — houses that were inexpensive to begin with — and with investment properties, where investors and banks want speedy closure by writing off bad loans as losses. Banks and investors typically lose 40 percent to 50 percent of their investment on every foreclosure.

Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance, an industry newsletter, said some properties had become such liabilities for investors that it was not even worth holding on to them to strip valuable fixtures, like kitchen appliances, toilets and hardware.

“The whole purpose of foreclosure is to take title of the property, sell it and recoup what money you can,” Mr. Cecala said. “It’s just a sign of the times that things are so bad no one wants to take possession of the property.”

In South Bend, boarded-up houses for whom no one has stepped forward are dotting the landscape, adding a fresh layer of blight to communities that were already scarred from the area’s industrial decline.

The city is hoping to create a new type of legal mediation process that would bring together the homeowners and the mortgage holders to settle their disputes while allowing the owners to remain in the home — considered crucial to any stabilization effort.

“I’d say in the last three or four months, we’ve seen dozens of these cases,” said Chuck Leone, the South Bend city attorney. “We see it one of two ways. One is that the bank will simply dismiss the foreclosure complaint. The other is that the mortgage holder will follow through and take a judgment of foreclosure, but then not schedule the property for sheriff’s sale.”

In Ms. James’s case, it has been impossible to determine who canceled the sheriff’s sale, since her last mortgage holder went out of business. Even the city clerk’s records did not provide an answer.

“Nobody has any idea who owns what or who’s responsible,” said Judy Fox, Ms. James’s lawyer at the Notre Dame Legal Aid Clinic. “It’s a very common story.”

Mayor Stephen J. Luecke of South Bend added: “It’s just a crime the way it puts people in limbo. They first off have gone through the grief of losing their house, then they move out and find out that they still own it and have responsibility for it.”

In Jacksonville, Fla., Sylvester Kimbrough Jr. found himself caught in the limbo between foreclosure and ownership last year, 10 years into his 30-year mortgage on a $42,000 two-bedroom house.

Mr. Kimbrough, 56, a former driver for a car dealership who is now unemployed, had already moved out when he learned that the foreclosure had been stopped.

“That move really almost destroyed us,” Mr. Kimbrough said. “It was all for nothing.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/30/us/30walkaway.html?em

Posted in Law