Saturday, April 29, 2006
You really can sell anything!
A Moscow travel agent who offers virtual travel says that 20 percent of his customers now can't afford exotic vacations but want to look like they can.
For a fee, Perseus Travel supplies used tickets, boarding passes and snapshots faked to show clients in front of landmarks in their virtual destinations. The agency also writes narratives for clients on where they went, the hotels and restaurants they patronized, the sights they saw and the people they met.
"It's virtual tourism," Dimitry Popov, head of Perseus, told the Times of London. "We sell the dream -- and with that comes the social status."
Popov said that the idea came from a marketing consultant, and he thought it was a joke. But he has found that 15 to 20 customers a month are willing to pay several hundred dollars to look like they have been enjoying Carnival in Rio or New Year's in Finland.
"Status is so important here," he said. "If you say you've just come back from Brazil or China, people understand that it cost a lot and that you're an interesting and experienced person."
The original Times article tells the story of "Nastya"—
In September, she bought a two-week “virtual tour” to Peru for £275 [$500], a tenth of the real price. “I wanted to be out of touch,” she says. “And I wanted to make my colleagues think I’d been to Peru because that had been my dream for so long. I’d been telling people for the last year that I was going there. It was a status thing.”
She also hoped to impress her fiercely competitive female boss, with whom she had mutual friends in Moscow’s high-rolling social elite.
Perseus provided her with tickets, a storyline and photographs of her in Lima, the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco and the ruined citadel of Macchu Pichu.
And they gave her souvenirs, including Peruvian clothes, jewellery, posters, a carved wooden chess set and some pan-pipes. All she had to do was memorise the storyline, head to the family dacha for two weeks, and book a couple of sessions on the sunbed.
When she returned, friends and colleagues thronged to hear about her adventures. It may have been coincidence, but within a few weeks her boss gave her a pay rise of £165 [$300] a month.
Wouldn't this make the perfect gift for someone you really, really hate?
Get off your ass!
People who exercise four hours a week live an average of seven years longer than people who exercise less than two hours per week, concludes a new study based on data collected from the Østerbro Study, which has followed the lives of a group of Danes since 1976.
The findings, published in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation, are based on the exercise habits of over 5,000 people. It is the first time scientists have been able to translate the number of hours exercised into additional years.
'Most people know that their health improves and they live longer if they exercise, but what's new is that we can calculate how many years you gain by exercising,' said cardiologist Peter Schnohr to daily newspaper Politiken.
Dr. Schnohr, who led the study, said the results reconfirm that exercise prevents hardening of the arteries.
For those concerned that they were unable to exercise at a high enough level to benefit from it, Dr. Schnohr had this to say:
'A lot of people think they need to go out and run a marathon everyday to obtain the health benefits of exercise, but that's not necessary. The biggest gain comes when you get up from the sofa and start doing something.'
Why do I have a feeling that "doing something" doesn't include blogging?
Friday, April 28, 2006
Rhetorical Question of the Day
This remark wasn't carried in most of the stories about Arlen Specter's (empty) threat to cut off funding for Bush's secret domestic spying program. But it reveals the depth of the loss of constitutional government. You would think such a remark by a Conservative Republican Senator would be splashed across the front pages of the nation's newspapers.
Political Balance of the Day
Pet Shop Boys performed their new single, "I'm with Stupid" on "Top of the Pops" this evening on BBC2.
If anyone watching was wondering about the masks being worn by the dancers they were of Tony Blair, George W Bush, Bill Clinton, David Cameron (current UK Conservative leader) and Menzies Campbell (current UK Liberal Democrat leader).
Originally there were three Tony Blairs and Three George Bushs but the BBC insisted that for "political balance" the other UK political party leaders had to be shown and that there could be only one Blair and one Bush. Luckily Putin and Clinton masks were acquired from a party shop while PSB management and make-up staff made quick Cameron and Campbell masks from newspaper photographs!
—The Pet Shop Boys website (video of their new single is there)
Even the music you hear is manipulated (7/26/05)
Quote of the Day
Scots say "Stop extraditing Scots to the U.S."
I would love to know what benefits (or threats) were promised to countries that have signed one-sided extradition treaties with the U.S. The U.S. can demand extradition of the other country's citizens to stand trial in the U.S., but the other country has no such right. One such country is the United Kingdom under Tony Blair.1
Another of Blair's accomplishments was to authorize "devolved" Parliaments for Scotland and Wales, which came into existence in 1999. They're supposed to deal with regional matters and stay out of international affairs. But last week the Scottish Parliament could not contain itself. In a breathless account by Hamish MacDonell we learn that—
An influential Holyrood [Scottish Parliament] committee has sparked the most damaging split with Westminster [British Parliament] since devolution by demanding that Scotland be exempt from a major extradition treaty with the United States.
The ... Justice 2 committee of the Scottish Parliament has taken the extraordinary step of writing to the UK government to lodge a formal complaint against the provisions of the key extradition treaty signed with the US in the wake of the 11 September terror attacks.
The MSPs [Members of the Scottish Parliament] ... believe it is wrong for Scots to be taken to the US to stand trial for offences without any prima facie evidence against them and do not agree with the terms of the treaty, which allow suspects to be extradited for one offence and charged with another.
They are particularly angry that the US has the power to demand the extradition of British citizens to face trial in America but that the US government has not signed a reciprocal deal allowing the British government similar extradition rights.
The move by the Justice 2 committee is an astonishing attempt to muscle in on Westminster's territory.
One reason the MSPs feel so strongly about this issue is because a Scot, Gary Mulgrew, is currently fighting an attempt to extradite him to the United States. He is the son of Trish Godman, a Labour MSP.
Ms Godman is not a member of the Justice 2 committee and has not lobbied the committee to take this stand, but four members of the committee are fellow Labour MSPs who are aware of Mr Mulgrew's battle and Ms Godman's concerns about her son.
This has undoubtedly influenced their decision to take this stand.
The move represents the most serious rift to date between Holyrood and Westminster.
But is there any point?
[T]his is the first time that a Scottish Parliament committee has formally objected to a foreign affairs policy in this way and it has already prompted a bitter backlash at Westminster. One Scottish Labour MP said: "It's clearly unwise of MSPs to try to intervene in an area where the Scotland Act dictates that Holyrood is legally impotent.
"There are genuine concerns about this issue but MSPs are not the people whose job it is to express those concerns. This could actually undermine the authority of the [Scottish] parliament by raising false expectations that MSPs can actually do anything here.
"It could reinforce the impression that is already abroad that the Scottish Parliament is useless."
Which would put it in the same category as the British Parliament.
The Justice 2 committee of the Scottish Parliament is the latest organisation to join the campaign against the extradition treaty, which came into force in January 2004 as an anti-terrorist measure but which has resulted in 12 extraditions, none of them for terrorist offences.
The treaty ... exempts the US from producing prima facie evidence of the crime.
It has been attacked by business and human rights groups, including Liberty, which claim that the act has been used by the US against businessmen, despite assertions by the UK government that it signed the act to help to combat terrorism.
Well, if it involves businessmen, you can understand why there's opposition.
To add insult to injury, the U.S. Senate has not bothered to ratify the treaty.
Thursday, April 27, 2006
All in good fun
Lawyers for a woman who was spanked in front of her co-workers as part of what her employer said was a camaraderie-building exercise asked a jury Wednesday for at least $1.2 million for the humiliation she claimed to have suffered.
Janet Orlando, 53, quit her job at the home security company Alarm One Inc. in Fresno and sued, alleging discrimination, assault, battery and infliction of emotional distress.
Employees were paddled with rival companies' yard signs as part of a contest that pitted sales teams against each other, according to court documents. The winners poked fun at the losers, throwing pies at them, feeding them baby food, making them wear diapers and swatting their buttocks.
For god's sake, these people are in sales. They need all the motivation they can get. A situation like that would certainly motivate me—to find another line of work.
This case is being brought in California where a recent state Supreme Court ruling may be relevant, at least if you believe that sales is somehow related to the creative process.
After having been fired as a stenographer because she couldn't stenog, Amaani Lyle sued the producer of "Friends," Warner Brothers Television Productions, for sexual harassment. It turns out that comedy writers are really quite raunchy at work, and Ms. Lyle had expected something a little more sedate than "constant talk about anal sex, blow jobs, 'schlongs' and 'cunts.'"
The California Supremes settled the matter last week. According to Mike McKee,
Script writers for both television sitcoms and dramas were given the license Thursday to be as raunchy as they like during the creative process -- as long as their raw talk doesn’t single out specific people as the butt of the jokes.
.... [T]he California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that sexually coarse and vulgar language is often a necessary part of the creative process when producing a hit TV show.
.... [T]he decision ... held that crass brainstorming — complete with foul words and lewd sexual simulations — crosses the line only if it targets a person because of his or her sex or is severe enough to create a hostile work environment.
"The record here reflects a workplace where comedy writers were paid to create scripts highlighting adult-themed sexual humor and jokes, and where members of both sexes contributed and were exposed to the creative process," [Justice Baxter] wrote.
"Moreover," he continued, "there was nothing to suggest the defendants engaged in this particular behavior to make plaintiff uncomfortable or self-conscious, or to intimidate, ridicule or insult her."
In a separate concurring opinion, ... Justice Ming Chin argued the court should have gone further and ruled that the writers’ words and actions were also protected as free speech.
"Creativity is, by its nature, creative. It is unpredictable," he wrote. "Much that is not obvious can be necessary to the creative process. Accordingly, courts may not constitutionally ask whether challenged speech was necessary for its intended purpose."
Suits, such as that resolved Thursday, he continued, "present a clear and present danger to fundamental free speech rights."
When it comes to comedy, Ms. Lyle would probably have felt more comfortable as a court reporter at the U.S. Supreme Court, where the banter can be quite entertaining.
The justices took up his case with a lively and sometimes contentious discussion about the way states carry out capital punishment. The court's ruling will determine whether inmates can file last-minute civil rights challenges claiming their deaths would be cruel and unusual punishment.
"Your procedure would be prohibited if applied to dogs and cats," Justice John Paul Stevens told Florida's assistant deputy attorney general, Carolyn Snurkowski.
On the other side, Justice Antonin Scalia said the Constitution does not require painless deaths. "Hanging was not a quick and easy way to go," he told Hill's lawyer, referring to one of the country's oldest execution methods.
States gradually have stopped using hanging, firing squads, gas chambers and electric chairs. Now the federal government and every capital punishment state but one uses lethal injection because it is considered more humane. Nebraska still has the electric chair, but its use is being challenged in court.
Florida argues that it is too late for Hill to contest the plans for his death. Snurkowski said the only way Hill could file a challenge to lethal injection is if Hill were to come up with an alternative proposal. That argument angered several court members.
Justice David H. Souter asked: "Why does he have an obligation ... to tell the state how to execute people?"
"Doesn't the state have a minimal obligation on its own" to investigate whether its executions cause gratuitous pain, asked Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
Later, Kennedy reprimanded his colleagues for laughing as several justices joked about the mischief that defense lawyers could cause if forced to propose ways to execute their clients.
"This is a death case," snapped Kennedy....
Some people have no sense of humor. After all, when you're sitting around trying to decide what is the appropriate means for the government to kill people, a little laugh can ease the tension.
1The case has put Jeb Bush, Florida's Governor and brother of the National Embarrassment, in a huff. In February Bush declared he wouldn't be signing any more death warrants until Hill's case is resolved. Alex Leary and Chris Tisch wrote that
At a press briefing Wednesday afternoon, Bush paused when asked if the death penalty was on hold until the summer.
"Yeah, probably. We don't know why the Supreme Court's done what it's done, so the uncertainty probably does create a need to wait," Bush said.
Bush also said he didn't expect to sign any more death warrants until the court issues a decision.
"I don't think any are ripe anyway," he said. "Given our twisted system, it takes forever to get to the point where people exhaust their appeals. They slow 'em down. They wait."
Quote of the Day
Politics you're not supposed to personalize. But I can't not, in extreme cases, personalize people who I think are harming other people. —Democratic Congressman "Pete" Stark, recently named the most liberal Representative in Congress, as quoted by Mark Barabak
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
In at 32, Out by 50
A man imprisoned 18 years in the fatal shooting of a McDonald's restaurant manager will be freed because DNA tests show he didn't commit the crime, officials said Tuesday.
Drew Whitley, now 50, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in the 1988 slaying. But officials said the DNA tests show that hairs from the killer's mask and hat did not come from him.
The hair evidence, thought to have been lost or destroyed, was found in July in storage and submitted for DNA tests. Final results were received by prosecutors Tuesday.
Soon after the shooting, a witness identified Whitley, and at the 1989 trial a crime lab technician said 41 hairs found in the stocking mask resembled Whitley's hair. DNA testing was not available at the time.
Police also recovered a bloodstained coat, hat and shoes, and the mask was found in a parking lot near the crime scene. Blood on the shoes matched Whitley's blood type.
Whitley has always maintained his innocence, Coffey said.
Yet some states and the federal government continue to execute people.
Canadian Conservatives hide fallen soldiers
I don't know what the Canadian public could have been thinking when they put a Conservative government in power last January. Maybe it was the leakage of right-wing TV propaganda across the border from the U.S. Surely it couldn't have been that piss-ant-sized "Sponsorgate" scandal that the Liberal Party got itself into—I thought the Canadians had better sense!1 In any case they're getting what they paid for.
Beth Duff-Brown of the AP reports,
Canada's new Conservative government banned the media from showing live images of the flag-draped coffins of four Canadian soldiers when their bodies were returned Tuesday from Afghanistan, angering political opponents and some families.
The government also has stopped lowering flags to half-staff outside Parliament each time a Canadian soldier is killed, prompting Liberals to accuse Prime Minister Stephen Harper of trying to play down the growing human cost of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan.
Fifteen Canadians have been killed, including Cpl. Matthew Dinning, Bombardier Myles Mansell, Cpl. Randy Payne and Lt. William Turner, who were slain in a roadside bomb blast Saturday in southern Afghanistan in the deadliest attack against Canadian forces since they deployed to Afghanistan in 2002.
The media learned Monday that they would be barred from the evening ceremony, a decision that mirrors Bush administration policy blocking media coverage of the coffins of slain service members arriving in the United States.
Privacy—for the government
Like the Pentagon, Canadian Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor cited privacy concerns as a reason for the media ban.
"When the bodies return to Trenton, where the families receive the bodies for the first time and they come face to face with the reality that their loved ones are dead, this is for their private grief," O'Connor told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. on Tuesday. The four bodies are the first returned to Canada since the Conservative government took office.
"It is not about photo-ops and media coverage," Harper told the House of Commons, which engaged in a raucous debate. "It is about what is in the best interests of the families."
Of course what would be in the best interest of the families is that such a stunning loss be recognized by the nation. And some families are saying so—
The families of at least two soldiers said they were disturbed by the media blackout and the lack of lowered flags.The first Canadian soldiers to die since the Korean War were killed by an American. What a fucking waste!
Dinning's uncle told the CBC the family believes the government is trying to cover up the growing casualties in Afghanistan and was disturbed they were not informed of the decision to cancel what had been a public ceremony for the returning war dead.
The CBC has been broadcasting live the repatriation ceremonies for each soldier killed in Afghanistan.
Richard Leger, father of Sgt. Marc Leger, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2002, told the CBC on Tuesday that the nationally televised return of his son's coffin helped his family to heal.
Sgt. Leger was one of four Canadian soldiers killed by a U.S. pilot who mistook their live-ammunition exercise for a hostile attack. The soldiers were the first Canadians to die in combat since the Korean War.
"I think Canadians need to see this, every Canadian. It says we care about these soldiers," Leger said, as tears rolled down his face.
Amen. So why the media blackout?
Canadians - the majority of whom applauded their government for declining to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq - are increasingly concerned about the human toll in Afghanistan.
The 2,300-strong Canadian force took over control of Kandahar from U.S. troops in February.
The stench emanating from the Liberal government is strong, but working people should not allow the smell to overwhelm their critical faculties. Big business, through the corporate media, is seeking to manipulate this scandal to serve its own ends.[back]
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Healthcare costs: The deception continues
An editorial in the British medical journal The Lancet casts a skeptical eye on the universal health insurance plan recently enacted by the state of Massachusetts. It concludes—
[T]he greatest weakness of the bill is that it does little to tackle the biggest challenge facing the US health-care system and the reason why health insurance is unaffordable: cost. US health-care spending continues to spiral upwards, far outpacing inflation, and now consumes 16% of US gross domestic product, far more than is spent by other developed nations. Even the supporters of the Massachusetts reform acknowledge that their programme will run short of money in its third year. Unless some way is found to control costs, by reducing unnecessary and wasteful care, for example, and driving down the high administrative costs of private health insurance, the Massachusetts reform plan will likely collapse in a few years as other celebrated state reform initiatives have done before.
There are a number of factors that contribute to the high cost of medical care, so I was interested in which factors The Lancet had selected: (1) unnecessary and wasteful care and (2) high administrative costs of private health insurance.
(1) By pointing to "unnecessary and wasteful care" without mentioning its cause, the reader may be subtly misled into believing that the problem of high medical costs is the fault of malingerers and "overuse" of the health system by people of that ilk. The ill but uninsured individual becomes the healthcare equivalent of Ronald Reagan's mythic "welfare queen," whom he accused of abusing the public welfare system. I'll dub this bête noire of the healthcare system the "healthcare queen."1 The healthcare queen will be poor and most likely a "person of color" (though the color may actually be due to any number of diseases).
There are a number of reasons for "unnecessary and wasteful care" that have everything to do with the physicians and nothing to do with the patient—(a) physician investments in hospitals and laboratories, (b) uncertainty as to the diagnosis, thus using specialist referrals as a way of getting a second opinion, (c) substitution of tests for actual time spent listening to and examining the patient, which allows the doctor to use his time "more efficiently"—that is, to see more patients and earn more money. And then there's the malpractice bugaboo, of which there was an interesting Q&A a few months back in The New Yorker.
(2) The "high administrative cost of private health insurance" has an easy solution: End private health insurance. Any reduction put into effect by the insurers will be marginal—a lack of capitalist incentives, you know—and there really is no justification for a system of private insurance other than providing the insurers the pleasure of earning huge profits. That private insurance is somehow more efficient than government insurance is as close to a complete lie as you can come to in economics, most of which is pretty dishonest to begin with.
Now let me mention another factor in high healthcare costs that slipped the editorial mind of The Lancet: physician income.2 And it's strange that they didn't mention it because it has been discussed recently in the UK. Only last Sunday Richard Gray observed in
In the past week GPs [general practitioners] came under the spotlight with revelations that they are being paid as much as £250,000 [$450,000] a year in some parts of the country as a result of new contracts. Although only a few will pick up this much, the average family doctor is still earning more than £100,000 a year [$180,000], with GPs in Scotland able to pick up £1,500 [$3,200] for providing a single night of on-call cover.
And today Scotland on Sunday reveals that hospital consultants in Scotland can be paid in excess of £200,000 [$360,000] a year, more than half of which is accounted for by bonuses and overtime payments under their new contracts.
And these are the doctors suffering under British socialized medicine! Imagine what it's like for doctors in the U.S.
Most of our American physicians are staunch supporters of the free market and neoliberal economics, but it turns out that the free market is good for everybody but them. Don't mention to your doctor that you'd like to see more medical schools opened or more foreign doctors certified to practice in the U.S.—unless you're well on your way to recovery.
Of course, I'm not denying the original thrust of the Lancet editorial—that Massachusetts will have a hard time keeping down the costs of the program. But what does that really have to do with Massachusetts and state-mandated universal healthcare? The problem of healthcare costs must be faced by all states along with the federal government. Why single out Massachusetts?
In any case, the public should be continually reminded of the facts that NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof laid out recently—
If the U.S. had an infant mortality rate as good as Cuba's, we would save an additional 2,212 American babies a year.
Yes, Cuba's. Babies are less likely to survive in America, with a health care system that we think is the best in the world, than in impoverished and autocratic Cuba. According to the latest C.I.A. World Factbook, Cuba is one of 41 countries that have better infant mortality rates than the U.S.
Singapore has the best infant mortality rate in the world: 2.3 babies die before the age of 1 for every 1,000 live births.3 Sweden, Japan and Iceland all have a rate that is less than half of ours.
If we had a rate as good as Singapore's, we would save 18,900 babies each year....
[F]or all their ruthlessness, China's dictators have managed to drive down the infant mortality rate in Beijing to 4.6 per thousand; in contrast, New York City's rate is 6.5.
We should celebrate this freedom that we enjoy in America - by complaining about and working to address pockets of poverty and failures in our health care system. It's simply unacceptable that the average baby is less likely to survive in the U.S. than in Beijing or Havana.
First American graduate from Cuban medical school (8/26/05)
1A search of Google reveals that although the right-wingers have thought of the phrase, their usage is quite different. They are using it as an epithet for Hillary Clinton: "the socialist healthcare queen." [back]
Why is the price of U.S. health care so high? One answer is doctors' salaries: although average wages in France and the United States are similar, American doctors are paid much more than their French counterparts. Another answer is that America's health care system drives a poor bargain with the pharmaceutical industry. Above all, a large part of America's health care spending goes into paperwork. A 2003 study in The New England Journal of Medicine estimated that administrative costs took 31 cents out of every dollar the United States spent on health care, compared with only 17 cents in Canada.
3Kristoff seems to be trying to make a distinction between levels of healthcare in "autocratic" vs. "democratic" countries. But Singapore is far more autocratic than Cuba. Just don't expect to read that in the NY Times. [back]
Question of the Day
What will it take to free us of this tyrannical man who, far from being stupid, brilliantly cloaks his lust for power in the soft folds of liberal rhetoric? —MikeRoscope in a comment to "Tony Blair's authoritarian populism is indefensible and dangerous"
Monday, April 24, 2006
Quote of the Day
Don't ask me to hate all Arabs. The youths that killed my son are thugs but don't generalise. —Françoise Van Holsbeeck, mother of 17-year-old Joe Van Holsbeeck, murdered for his MP3 player by two North Africans in Brussels' Central train station at rush hour
Belgium approves adoption by gay couples
Belgium last week changed its laws to allow gay couples, married or not, to adopt children, related or not. Why, they're being treated just like heteros! The law was changed by a 34-33 vote of the Senate with 2 abstentions. It will take effect in December. This makes Belgium the fourth1 member of the European Union to support adoption by gay couples.
I wouldn't mention this except that it's practically a secret in the U.S. The Associated Press ran a brief story, but only the LA Times seems to have carried it.
Just as important, most stories failed to give a breakdown of the votes—as if politics doesn't really matter. So here it is, according to têtu.com —
The coalition of the left and the greens voted for (the change), as did the majority of the senators of the Flemish right. On the opposing side you find a coalition of the French-speaking right (even those from the government majority), joined by ex–social Christians and the two parties of the extreme right. [my translation]
On an unrelated matter—If the Iraqis ever should need a model for governing a religiously and ethnically diverse country, they might want to take a look at Belgium.
A bum wrap
Regular readers of Simply Appalling know our utter contempt for tabloids—too many pictures, not enough words. But sometimes they're our only source, as is the case today in which the European scene is epitomized by German Chancellor Angela Merkel's bottom.
I haven't been able to locate all eight, but here's a sampling—
- As she began her well-earned break figures revealed Germany's fortunes are no longer sagging - with a much improved bottom line (Der Spiegel)
- The Iron Frau has done more than cover up the cracks since taking over last year. Strikes are down and economic growth is rising. (Der Spiegel)
- The cheeky chancellor ... (The Australian)
Feel free to invent a few, if you're the sort who would sink so low.
The German tabloids are taking the photo's publication as an insult to womanhood or Germanhood or whatever, though Der Spiegel tried to diffuse the tension with a quote from a Times correspondent—
The publication shows that Merkel has arrived in the class of Caroline of Monaco. It shows she's taken seriously. The curiosity has now been satisfied.I'm sorry, Spiegel, but that ass is not in the class of Caroline of Monaco's.
Despite Der Spiegel's efforts to put this latest revelation in the best light, students of Anglo-German relations will recognize the unmistakeable signs of a fissure.