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Monday, September 29, 2008

Bizarre Morgellons remains a mystery
CDC is investigating complaints of rashes, weird hair growths and itches
By Maryn McKenna

Medical mystery, or imaginary illness?
Imagine feeling like your skin is literally crawling, being tormented by the feeling everyday, yet some say it is all in your mind.

For Emily White, it felt like the worst flu ever. It was in the spring of 2006, and White was pushing through her final term at college. Sure, she was stressed and run-down. But she just didn’t understand how her symptoms could be so intense.

White, then 22, was headed to law school, and would lie awake at night, her mind running nonstop over paying for school, keeping her friendships going, maintaining her 3.8 grade point average and living up to the law-firm job she’d snagged for the summer. She was exhausted, yet sleep was impossible.

This didn’t feel like run-of-the-mill anxiety, though. It was something physical. All over her body — throat, armpits, groin — her lymph nodes swelled up, and she ran a fever. Her face grew lumps, painful and hot, like cystic acne that refused to get better. She dragged herself to class but had trouble putting words together.

And then, within a couple of weeks, the lumps on her face sprouted…something.

At first, she thought they were hairs and tried to yank them with tweezers, but they felt “rooted in cement,” she says. Her skin had always been good; but for the first time in her life, she spackled on concealer to try to hide the bristly rash.

White’s “flu” persisted for months. Her fingers swelled, and her joints ached. She swung between nights of nerve-twanging insomnia and days when she slept so deeply she never heard her alarm. In her first semester of law school, her grade point average plunged to 1.2. During her second semester, in 2007, she went on medical leave and moved in with her parents in northern Connecticut.

At about the same time, in a suburb of Seattle, pet-salon owner Alisha Aitken, then 30, was grooming a golden retriever that she’d pampered every month for years. Suddenly, she felt a flush of heat across her body — “as though 100 bees were stinging my face,” she recalls — and ran to a sink to splash herself with cold water.

As she straightened up from the faucet, she caught her image in the mirror. A 2-inch-long filament — stiff, like a dog’s whisker — was emerging from the outer corner of her right eye and running along the skin of her cheek to her lip. When she scraped it off, it left a shallow red scar.

The next day, she broke out in a swollen, oozy rash. A week or so later, confusion set in. Cooking dinner for herself and her toddler daughter one night, she found herself staring at the stove, incapable of comprehending which was the left and which was the right burner. After a couple of months, increasingly sick and unable to focus, she sold her business.

White and Aitken have never met or spoken, but they are two of thousands of people in the United States and a handful of other countries who insist they are suffering from a bizarre new disease that doctors say does not exist. The two women could be imagining things. They could be mentally ill. They also could be, and believe they are, examples of how difficult it is to force medicine to confront something new and strange — a condition that is not in the textbooks, not in the research journals and not on the list of things that insurance companies pay for.

People who are afflicted by such lesions, fibers and bouts of cognitive haze say they hope their status in the eyes of the medical community is about to change. After two years of deliberation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta — the federal agency that fields an elite corps of disease detectives — is looking into their complaints. The investigation, which will not report its findings until next year, could explain their weird symptoms or reject them as the inventions of sick minds. White and Aitken say they are absolutely sure they are not crazy. “I’d rather have cancer,” White says. “I know how that sounds. But at least then you get sympathy. And a treatment plan.”

Real or imagined?
The syndrome is being referred to as Morgellons. The name appears in a 1674 essay that describes an outbreak of “harsh hairs…unquiet symptoms…coughs and convulsions” among French children, but whether the moniker refers to the same disease is not known. Mary Leitao, a biologist in a town near Pittsburgh, found the term in a 1935 medical journal article when she was looking for an explanation for an eruption on her 2-year-old son’s lip. She went on to found the Morgellons Research Foundation, a Web-based group of self-described patients that now has more than 12,000 members.

At the time White moved in with her parents, she’d never heard of Morgellons. Her exhaustion, body aches and brain fog had endured for so long that at one point she thought she might have mononucleosis. But mono couldn’t explain the papules that wouldn’t heal or the fibers that grew out of them. White’s doctor, she felt, dismissed her concerns but gave her antibiotics in case she had a low-grade infection. A second doctor did a blood test for various types of cancer. She saw a rheumatologist, who ruled out fibromyalgia. She also saw a dermatologist, who, she says, suggested she had a compulsion that drove her to pick her skin and recommended group therapy. White doesn’t like to discuss it, but her sister confirms that some family members don’t believe she has Morgellons, either.

To White, none of the doctors’ explanations made sense. She itched constantly and describes “painful crap” that resembled lint coming from her pores (she used a heating pad to draw it out). At that point, White says, she thought this discharge was hair or fiber from clothes and only mentioned it to her doctors in passing. More worrisome to her were the knotty lumps that had formed under her scalp. When she pressed on them, they seemed to be filled with tangles, as though her hair were growing inward instead of out; she sometimes had the sensation of hair rotating in its follicle. One night, in a fit of rage and fear, she chopped it off at the scalp. When she bathed, she says, black specks and white crystals emerged from her skin.

Desperate, White found a dermatology practice with a physician’s assistant who had heard similar stories from other patients. The physician’s assistant (who spoke to SELF but asked not to be named for fear that her office would become ground zero for Morgellons sufferers who have nowhere else to go) had started out assuming the patients had delusional parasitosis, a recognized psychiatric disorder in which people imagine they are infested with parasites. But their stories were so vivid and similar that she began to wonder whether they had something different, perhaps some kind of an infection. She did a skin biopsy to rule out discoid lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune condition that may make skin react to sunlight and form scars. Then, in July, the physician’s assistant prescribed White a psychiatric drug, pimozide, that affects the action of several brain chemicals and reduces the sensation of itching. The drug didn’t help, but something else did: She also gave White the address of the Morgellons Research Foundation Web site.

The group looked reliable to White. It has eight M.D.s and seven Ph.D.s among its board members, and its founders had published an article introducing the concept of Morgellons in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. More compelling were the accounts by self-described patients at the Web site. They told of rashes, weird hairs or fibers, itches, mysterious splinters — and of lives ruined: relatives who didn’t believe them, jobs forfeited, savings depleted by medical visits, and doctors who insisted that the illness was all in their head.

That Web site and others provided White with validation — “very nice people who helped me a lot,” she says — and hope for treatment. Many people who posted said they were being treated for Lyme disease, an illness transmitted by infected ticks. Lyme causes different symptoms from Morgellons, but some found the high doses of antibiotics they were taking had eased their Morgellons. White initially tested negative for Lyme but then tested positive for antibodies to the Lyme bacterium. Her neurologist stuck an intravenous line of antibiotics into her arm.

After five months on the drugs, her anxiety and insomnia improved, as did her swollen glands and rashes. But she was not recovered. “I have lots of Morgellons-specific symptoms that I don’t think are going to fade even with the Lyme treatment,” she says. She still has nodules on her head and the sense of tangles under her scalp, the hair twisting in the follicle. “I don’t know what medicine is powerful enough to make it stop.”

CDC is investigating
New diseases emerge more frequently than most people realize. There has been roughly one per year since the 1970s. Some have a huge impact, such as AIDS; it has killed millions, but it surfaced as a strange pneumonia in five gay men in 1981. Others arrive with barely a ripple, such as the Dandenong virus, which killed three Australian women last year after they all received organs from an unknowingly infected donor.

But deciding whether a new disease exists is a long, contentious process of doing interviews, performing physical exams, conducting lab experiments, crunching data with computers, trawling textbooks for past cases and searching for a reasonable explanation if one isn’t immediately obvious. At the end of the process, disease detectives ideally want to end up with an agent — a bacterium, a virus, a genetic trigger or a toxin — that causes the symptoms they are seeing, a set of symptoms that only one thing can cause. An official designation as a disease means that sufferers are taken seriously; tests are devised to help make a diagnosis, treatments can be researched and insurance usually ends up paying for care.

The more cryptic the cause or symptoms are, the longer the process takes and the harder it is for the medical establishment to recognize a new disease. West Nile virus was a well-known, generally mild illness in Europe, Africa and the Middle East — but when the virus crossed the Atlantic in 1999 and caused brain inflammation in 59 New Yorkers, killing seven of them, doctors didn’t immediately recognize it because the symptoms were so different. Women complained of chronic pain, stiffness and fatigue for decades before organized medicine recognized the syndrome as fibromyalgia. For years afterward, rank-and-file doctors refused to diagnose it, in part because medical research has not uncovered a definite cause. “A lot of new diseases came up in the 20th century that people scoffed at,” says Howard Markel, M.D., professor and director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor.

So far, Morgellons has two strikes against its being recognized as a distinct disease: Hundreds of conditions share many of its symptoms, and no one can imagine what would make specks and fibers emerge from intact skin. What little has been written about it in the medical literature essentially says that Morgellons is delusional parasitosis, in which disruptions in brain chemistry cause the unshakable belief that organisms are digging into and sprouting from the skin. The itching and crawling sensations, the papers say, are the effect of neurons misfiring. The rashes are the result of patients obsessively scratching. And the fibers are environmental contaminants — pet hair, clothing fluff, fragments of dead insects—that collect on their sticky, self-inflicted wounds. In other words, it’s all in the patient’s head. Nevertheless, the authors say, doctors shouldn’t scold or correct patients who claim to have contracted Morgellons. Instead, they should establish rapport, so as to get the sufferers on the right psychiatric drugs.

Patients, naturally, feel patronized. With medical opinion so uniformly against them, they made their own Morgellons community on the Internet. There are two major organizations, the Morgellons Research Foundation and the Charles E. Holman Foundation, as well as 720 videos on YouTube and 20 groups on Yahoo! where people compare symptoms and discuss such topics as trying veterinary drugs as remedies. The online presence brings sufferers individual comfort and group power: The MRF claimed the CDC began investigating the syndrome in part because it was prompted by “more than 40 members of Congress” responding to its members’ letters.

Ironically, though, the virtual Morgellons community might be undermining the validation its sufferers are seeking. Medical history abounds with accounts of people getting sick because they heard or saw it happening to someone else, a phenomenon that used to be called hysteria and now goes by the more polite psychogenic illness. It has caused outbreaks of itching, fainting and difficulty breathing, along with mass panic attacks such as several in Africa and Asia in which hundreds of men came to believe that their penis was shrinking back into their body. Timothy F. Jones, M.D., an epidemiologist with the Tennessee Department of Health, investigated a 1998 episode in which 170 high school students and staff went to emergency rooms after smelling “toxic fumes” that were never proven to exist. He says psychogenic outbreaks spread rapidly, usually among people within sight of one another, and dissipate quickly when the affected people are separated.

That is not exactly what has happened with Morgellons. Its community accumulated over several years, and most of its members have never met. Still, cybersharing may have profound suggestive power. Chat groups and social-networking sites have been accused of fostering anorexia and suicide clusters. Morgellons accounts may have influenced psychologically vulnerable people to adopt the syndrome as their own — including people who are authentically sick but mistaken about the cause, Dr. Jones says.

That sufferers are sharing information about Morgellons on the Internet could also foil the search for an explanation. Epidemiologists consider unrelated people telling the same story to different doctors to be a reliable early warning signal of a new illness, but publicity is the medical equivalent of polluting the jury pool. That means when disease detectives question patients, their responses might be influenced by what they’ve heard, making some studies impossible to do. “Say you have an outbreak of food-borne illness,” Dr. Jones says. “If you ask people to tell you their symptoms, they might say, ‘Nausea and vomiting.’ But if you read them a list of symptoms, they will say, ‘Oh, I had that, too.’ It’s not a conscious thing; it’s the power of suggestion.”

But even if patients have altered their stories in the retelling, there are so many tales that investigators are nonetheless likely to listen. “If it’s just one person saying, ‘I got this rash’ or ‘I got these fiber lesions,’ that’s one thing,” says Dr. Markel, the medical historian. “If there are thousands of them, that’s another thing. That is very compelling and at least merits a hearing.”

Is it a new disease?
The job of figuring out if Morgellons is, in fact, a distinct disease falls to Michele Pearson, M.D., the physician and epidemiologist directing the CDC study. Dr. Pearson trained in the raucous, violent emergency rooms of downtown Chicago before heading to the CDC. She says it is time for the CDC to tackle whatever the illness may be. “A number of people were calling in, not only those affected but providers, saying, ‘I’m seeing these patients; what should I do?’ and public-health professionals saying, ‘We’re getting reports to our health departments,’” she says, estimating that the CDC gets about 100 calls and e-mail messages about Morgellons each month. Dr. Pearson has spoken to a number of the Morgellons callers and met several and was moved by their plight. She says she is unwilling to prejudice her investigation by speculating on whether Morgellons is a medical problem, a psychiatric disorder or a media creation. Whatever the cause turns out to be, “the suffering these patients are experiencing is real,” she says.

Perhaps her most delicate task is to respect Morgellons patients’ pain and frustration without betraying the scientific rigor for which the CDC is internationally known. So the agency is moving cautiously. Its preliminary objectives are to understand Morgellons symptoms (the first step in sorting out how common the illness is), who is most vulnerable and what the cause might be. The study is a joint project with the northern California research division of the giant HMO Kaiser Permanente. California seems to be a Morgellons hot spot, and Kaiser uses electronic medical records — which allows investigators to search among 3.5 million patients for complaints of fibers and either skin lesions and/or itching or crawling sensations.

In May and June, investigators began inviting possible sufferers to Kaiser’s Oakland offices. Volunteers, who have taken a detailed survey about symptoms, travel history and their pets, among other things, submit to a physical exam and a neurological and psychological evaluation. This looks for evidence of the brain fog patients complain of and also pinpoints any problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression that might complicate the analysis. Finally, volunteers give blood and skin samples for a wide range of lab tests. All the data generated, hundreds of pieces of information per volunteer, will be poured into computer programs that look for patterns and anomalies. “At this point, it’s really basic information that we don’t know: Is it primarily men or women? Is it primarily the old or the young? Is it primarily people from certain racial or ethnic groups or socioeconomic backgrounds?” Dr. Pearson says. “This [research] will put a face on it.”
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Strange symptoms
For months after the episode that launched her illness, Alisha Aitken says she has struggled with swollen, cystic lumps on her face and neck that turned raw and sticky “with the slightest touch of a T-shirt.” The lesions took months to heal and left her with scars that make her reluctant to be photographed, she says. She saw several doctors who offered different diagnoses: dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis. “They didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t know what was going on either,” she says. “They did the best they could with what they had been given in medical school.”

With traditional medicine no help to her, she turned to alternative treatments, slathering her skin with molasses and zinc oxide (which did not help) and taking herbs to aid her memory and sleep. And, like White, she searched on the Internet for accounts that matched her symptoms. “Nothing fit, and then I found Morgellons and it fit to a T,” says Aitken, who now lives in Clarkston, Washington, with her daughter and longtime boyfriend.

Through the Charles Holman Foundation, Aitken found Randy Wymore, Ph.D., a medical school professor at Oklahoma State University at Tulsa who has become an unexpected champion of the Morgellons community. He was doing an Internet search on muscle fibers in the spring semester of 2005 when he stumbled onto a Web site discussing a fiber disease. Intrigued, he read for a moment, thought it seemed crazy, closed the link and went back to his other work. But the topic nagged at him, and a few days later he called up the search again.

Wymore says he assumed the people posting were unhinged and spinning wild obsessions out of dryer lint and pet hair. To satisfy his own curiosity, he e-mailed a few of those who had posted, inviting them to send him some fibers for analysis. “I was quite expecting people to say things like, ‘Well, if we try and ship them to you, they’ll disappear,’ or, ‘You can’t see them unless you have the disease, too,’” he recalls. “But 24 hours later, FedEx packages started arriving.”

He fished the samples — too small to study without a microscope — out of the packages and popped them onto a slide. “I didn’t know what to make of them,” Wymore says. Before he analyzed them, he collected fiber samples from his own life: sweater snags, threads from his jeans, dust bunnies. The samples from the patients did not look like these: tightly tangled, vividly red, blue, brownish, as well as some that were clear and smooth. He began collecting fibers everywhere he went — from his house, the medical school’s carpet, the hotel rooms his family stayed in on summer vacation, the pets at his daughter’s elementary school. Nothing he gathered looked like the Morgellons samples — but the samples, which by now had come from Texas, Washington, California, Pennsylvania and Florida, all looked similar to each other.

He and a colleague, pediatrician Rhonda Casey, M.D., then persuaded about 30 adults and children who claimed to have Morgellons to come in for interviews and physicals. They looked ill, sometimes thin and lacking in energy, and some had slurred speech. And Dr. Casey found something odd: tangled skeins of dark fibers, not stuck to the surface of rashes or popping out of pores, but buried in intact skin. Wymore asked two forensic experts at the Tulsa Police Department who had access to national fiber-identification databases to have a look at the fiber samples. They were stumped, he says. The fibers had no cuts or extrusion marks that would establish them as man-made and no internal structures such as cell walls that would make the case for natural origin. The fibers did not lose their color in any solvents or detergents. At 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, they did not burn.

“So if you’d like a hypothesis as to what might be causing Morgellons, I can’t give you one,” Wymore says. “But there is no question that Morgellons is some sort of physical pathology. It is not a psychiatric disorder. And until someone else starts researching this in a fairly significant way, I can’t just go back to my other work and say, ‘Well, good luck, all you Morgellons people. Hope they figure this out.’”

White and Aitken have been living with their strange symptoms, and with the burden of being thought insane, for almost three years. “It’s unnerving to know more about your condition than your doctor,” White says. For both of them, being doubted has become a strange status quo, weirdly familiar without ever being welcome. “I don’t hold any hope in the CDC or any doctors, really,” says Aitken, who adds she is feeling better because she reduced the stress in her life and began using a nonmainstream medical treatment involving infrared heat. “Nobody really knows what is going on.”

As for White, she had been feeling better with fewer visible fibers on her skin. But she says the sense of hair “growing down” into her scalp is more pronounced than it was before. She started working this past summer, but her confident college-girl assumption that life will go well has been irrevocably shattered, and that seems as big a loss as her health. “If I got hit by a truck tomorrow, I don’t think I would be too upset about it — not because I’m suicidal, but more that I don’t know if I want to live this way for however many years I’m going to live,” she says. “Normal is not anything I ever aspired to be, but I don’t feel like I’m ever going to feel normal again.”

Police: Severed foot was bear's paw, not child's
Alabama officials had spent two days looking for victim after dog's find
The Associated Press

RUSSELLVILLE, Ala. - Alabama authorities said a severed foot brought home by a family dog belongs to a bear — and not a child as they first thought.

Police in Russellville spent two days searching surrounding wooded areas for a small child after a family dog brought the foot to its home late Saturday.

The son of a homeowner spotted the family dog carrying something late Saturday and called his father, who then alerted police.

The structure of the bear's foot was close enough to a human's to fool an orthopedic surgeon who examined it, Police Chief Chris Hargett said. But forensic tests later found its origin.

She should have smelled the coffee first
Woman drinks pot of java, unaware bat was inside filter
The Associated Press

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - It wasn't just the caffeine that gave an Iowa woman an extra jolt after she had her morning coffee. It was also the bat she found in the filter.

The Iowa Department of Public Health says the woman reported a bat in her house but wasn't too worried about it. She turned on her automatic coffee maker before bedtime and drank her coffee the next morning.

She discovered the bat in the filter when she went to clean it that night. The woman has undergone treatment for possible rabies.

Health officials say that the bat was sent to a lab but that its brain was too cooked by the hot water to determine whether it had rabies.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Acting legend Paul Newman dies at 83
Oscar-winning screen icon, philanthropist succumbs to cancer at Conn. home
The Associated Press

Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Paul Newman stars as the coach of a minor-league hockey team in "Slap Shot" in 1977.

WESTPORT, Conn. - Paul Newman, the Academy-Award winning superstar who personified cool as the anti-hero of such films as "Hud," "Cool Hand Luke" and "The Color of Money" — and as an activist, race car driver and popcorn impresario — has died. He was 83.

Newman died Friday after a long battle with cancer at his farmhouse near Westport, publicist Jeff Sanderson said. He was surrounded by his family and close friends.

In May, Newman had dropped plans to direct a fall production of "Of Mice and Men," citing unspecified health issues.

He got his start in theater and on television during the 1950s, and went on to become one of the world's most enduring and popular film stars, a legend held in awe by his peers. He was nominated for Oscars 10 times, winning one regular award and two honorary ones, and had major roles in more than 50 motion pictures, including "Exodus," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Verdict," "The Sting" and "Absence of Malice."

Newman worked with some of the greatest directors of the past half century, from Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston to Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers. His co-stars included Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and, most famously, Robert Redford, his sidekick in "Butch Cassidy" and "The Sting."

50-year romance
He sometimes teamed with his wife and fellow Oscar winner, Joanne Woodward, with whom he had one of Hollywood's rare long-term marriages. "I have steak at home, why go out for hamburger?" Newman told Playboy magazine when asked if he was tempted to stray.

They wed in 1958, around the same time they both appeared in "The Long Hot Summer," and Newman directed her in several films, including "Rachel, Rachel" and "The Glass Menagerie."

With his strong, classically handsome face and piercing blue eyes, Newman was a heartthrob just as likely to play against his looks, becoming a favorite with critics for his convincing portrayals of rebels, tough guys and losers. "I was always a character actor," he once said. "I just looked like Little Red Riding Hood."

Newman had a soft spot for underdogs in real life, giving tens of millions to charities through his food company and setting up camps for severely ill children. Passionately opposed to the Vietnam War, and in favor of civil rights, he was so famously liberal that he ended up on President Nixon's "enemies list," one of the actor's proudest achievements, he liked to say.

Iconic roles
A screen legend by his mid-40s, he waited a long time for his first competitive Oscar, winning in 1987 for "The Color of Money," a reprise of the role of pool shark "Fast" Eddie Felson, whom Newman portrayed in the 1961 film "The Hustler."

Newman delivered a magnetic performance in "The Hustler," playing a smooth-talking, whiskey-chugging pool shark who takes on Minnesota Fats — played by Jackie Gleason — and becomes entangled with a gambler played by George C. Scott. In the sequel — directed by Scorsese — "Fast Eddie" is no longer the high-stakes hustler he once was, but rather an aging liquor salesman who takes a young pool player (Cruise) under his wing before making a comeback.

He won an honorary Oscar in 1986 "in recognition of his many and memorable compelling screen performances and for his personal integrity and dedication to his craft." In 1994, he won a third Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, for his charitable work.

His most recent academy nod was a supporting actor nomination for the 2002 film "Road to Perdition." One of Newman's nominations was as a producer; the other nine were in acting categories. (Jack Nicholson holds the record among actors for Oscar nominations, with 12; actress Meryl Streep has had 14.)

As he passed his 80th birthday, he remained in demand, winning an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the 2005 HBO drama "Empire Falls" and providing the voice of a crusty 1951 car in the 2006 Disney-Pixar hit, "Cars."

But in May 2007, he told ABC's "Good Morning America" he had given up acting, though he intended to remain active in charity projects. "I'm not able to work anymore as an actor at the level I would want to," he said. "You start to lose your memory, your confidence, your invention. So that's pretty much a closed book for me."

He received his first Oscar nomination for playing a bitter, alcoholic former star athlete in the 1958 film "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Elizabeth Taylor played his unhappy wife and Burl Ives his wealthy, domineering father in Tennessee Williams' harrowing drama, which was given an upbeat ending for the screen.

In "Cool Hand Luke," he was nominated for his gritty role as a rebellious inmate in a brutal Southern prison. The movie was one of the biggest hits of 1967 and included a tagline, delivered one time by Newman and one time by prison warden Strother Martin, that helped define the generation gap, "What we've got here is (a) failure to communicate."

Newman's hair was graying, but he was as gorgeous as ever and on the verge of his greatest popular success. In 1969, Newman teamed with Redford for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," a comic Western about two outlaws running out of time. Newman paired with Redford again in 1973 in "The Sting," a comedy about two Depression-era con men. Both were multiple Oscar winners and huge hits, irreverent, unforgettable pairings of two of the best-looking actors of their time.

Newman also turned to producing and directing. In 1968, he directed "Rachel, Rachel," a film about a lonely spinster's rebirth. The movie received four Oscar nominations, including Newman, for producer of a best motion picture, and Woodward, for best actress. The film earned Newman the best director award from the New York Film Critics.

In the 1970s, Newman, admittedly bored with acting, became fascinated with auto racing, a sport he studied when he starred in the 1969 film, “Winning.” After turning professional in 1977, Newman and his driving team made strong showings in several major races, including fifth place in Daytona in 1977 and second place in the Le Mans in 1979.

"Racing is the best way I know to get away from all the rubbish of Hollywood," he told People magazine in 1979.

Despite his love of race cars, Newman continued to make movies and continued to pile up Oscar nominations, his looks remarkably intact, his acting becoming more subtle, nothing like the mannered method performances of his early years, when he was sometimes dismissed as a Marlon Brando imitator.

"It takes a long time for an actor to develop the assurance that the trim, silver-haired Paul Newman has acquired," Pauline Kael wrote of him in the early 1980s.

In 1982, he got his Oscar fifth nomination for his portrayal of an honest businessman persecuted by an irresponsible reporter in "Absence of Malice." The following year, he got his sixth for playing a down-and-out alcoholic attorney in "The Verdict."

In 1995, he was nominated for his slyest, most understated work yet, the town curmudgeon and deadbeat in "Nobody's Fool." New York Times critic Caryn James found his acting "without cheap sentiment and self-pity," and observed, "It says everything about Mr. Newman's performance, the single best of this year and among the finest he has ever given, that you never stop to wonder how a guy as good-looking as Paul Newman ended up this way."

Newman, who shunned Hollywood life, was reluctant to give interviews and usually refused to sign autographs because he found the majesty of the act offensive, according to one friend. He also claimed that he never read reviews of his movies.

"If they're good you get a fat head and if they're bad you're depressed for three weeks," he said.

Off the screen, Newman had a taste for beer and was known for his practical jokes. He once had a Porsche installed in Redford's hallway — crushed and covered with ribbons.

"I think that my sense of humor is the only thing that keeps me sane," he told Newsweek magazine in a 1994 interview.

In 1982, Newman and his Westport neighbor, writer A.E. Hotchner, started a company to market Newman's original oil-and-vinegar dressing. Newman's Own, which began as a joke, grew into a multimillion-dollar business selling popcorn, salad dressing, spaghetti sauce and other foods. All of the company's profits are donated to charities. By 2007, the company had donated more than $175 million, according to its Web site.

Hotchner said Newman should have "everybody's admiration."

"For me it's the loss of an adventurous friendship over the past 50 years and it's the loss of a great American citizen," Hotchner told The Associated Press.

In 1988, Newman founded a camp in northeastern Connecticut for children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases. He went on to establish similar camps in several other states and in Europe.bra

He and Woodward bought an 18th century farmhouse in Westport, where they raised their three daughters, Elinor "Nell," Melissa and Clea.

Newman had two daughters, Susan and Stephanie, and a son, Scott, from a previous marriage to Jacqueline Witte.

Scott died in 1978 of an accidental overdose of alcohol and Valium. After his only son's death, Newman established the Scott Newman Foundation to finance the production of anti-drug films for children.

Bitten by acting bug
Newman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the second of two boys of Arthur S. Newman, a partner in a sporting goods store, and Theresa Fetzer Newman.

He was raised in the affluent suburb of Shaker Heights, where he was encouraged him to pursue his interest in the arts by his mother and his uncle Joseph Newman, a well-known Ohio poet and journalist.

Following World War II service in the Navy, he enrolled at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where he got a degree in English and was active in student productions.

He later studied at Yale University's School of Drama, then headed to New York to work in theater and television, his classmates at the famed Actor's Studio including Brando, James Dean and Karl Malden. His breakthrough was enabled by tragedy: Dean, scheduled to star as the disfigured boxer in a television adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's "The Battler," died in a car crash in 1955. His role was taken by Newman, then a little-known performer.

Newman started in movies the year before, in "The Silver Chalice," a costume film he so despised that he took out an ad in Variety to apologize. By 1958, he had won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for the shiftless Ben Quick in "The Long Hot Summer."

In December 1994, about a month before his 70th birthday, he told Newsweek magazine he had changed little with age.

"I'm not mellower, I'm not less angry, I'm not less self-critical, I'm not less tenacious," he said. "Maybe the best part is that your liver can't handle those beers at noon anymore," he said.

Newman is survived by his wife, five children, two grandsons and his older brother Arthur.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mine yields one of world's largest diamonds
The near-flawless white gem weighs nearly 500 carats, mining group says
By Luke Baker

Huge diamond discovered
Sept. 22: A near-flawless white diamond weighing 478 carats is the 20th largest diamond ever found.

LONDON - Miners in the southern African kingdom of Lesotho have found one of the world's largest diamonds, a near-flawless white gem weighing nearly 500 carats, mining group Gem Diamonds said on Sunday.

The diamond was discovered in the Letseng Mine on September 8, the company said in a statement. It has been analyzed by experts in Antwerp and found to weigh 478 carats, with very few inclusions and of outstanding color and clarity.

"It has the potential to yield one of the largest flawless D color round polished diamonds in history," the company said.

Letseng is one of the most productive mines in history — four of the world's 20 largest rough diamonds have been found at the mine, including the three largest found this century.

Before it is cut into gems it is hard to value the diamond, but a spokesman for Gem Diamonds said a similar weight stone with lesser-quality color and clarity had recently sold for $12 million (around 5.5 million pounds).

"Preliminary examination of this remarkable diamond indicates that it will yield a record breaking polished stone of the very best color and clarity," Clifford Elphick, the chief executive of Gem Diamonds, said in a statement.

The minister for natural resources in Lesotho, an impoverished mountain kingdom in eastern South Africa, praised the productivity of the mine, one of the highest in the world at more than 3,000 meters (10,000 feet).

"Once again Letseng has proved its ability to produce extraordinary diamonds and continues to place Lesotho at the forefront of diamond producing countries," Monyane Moleleki said in a statement.

Letseng is 70 percent owned by Gem Diamonds and 30 percent owned by the government of Lesotho.

The world's largest diamond is the Cullinan, discovered in South Africa in 1905. It weighed more than 3,100 carats before it was cut into more than one hundred separate gems, many of which are part of the British crown jewels.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

'Upside down rainbow' caused by freak weather
By Jessica Salter

Freak atmospheric conditions rarely seen outside the polar regions have been credited with causing the formation of an "upside down rainbow".

Normal rainbows are made when light penetrates raindrops and re-emerges out the other side in the same direction but the inverted types, known as circumzenithal arcs, are caused when sunlight bounces off ice crystals high in the atmosphere, sending the light rays back up.

The "smiley faces in the sky" need extremely specific conditions not usually found above Britain.

This picture was reportedly captured on camera by astronomer Dr Jacqueline Mitton near her home in Cambridge last Sunday.

She said: "I've never seen anything like it before - and I'm 60.

"The conditions have to be just right: you need the right sort of ice crystals and the sky has to be clear.

"We're not sure how big an area it was visible over, but it was certainly very impressive."

A spokesman for the Met Office confirmed the inverted rainbows are occasionally spotted in British skies.

He said: "It is convex to the sun and is formed by refraction in suitably-oriented ice crystals and may show vivid rainbow colouring, as in this case."

5 ways rude cashiers rile shoppers
By failing to pay customers common courtesy, indifferent clerks chase away business. Most of the blame lies with management, but shoppers can also be better customers.
By Karen Aho

Retail stores are often huge and complex operations, but the battle for customers is won or lost at the cash register.

Lost, mostly.

"It's about respect, whether it's the cheapest place in town or the most expensive," says Lou Carbone, the founder and CEO of Experience Engineering, a customer-service consultancy. "These companies lose customers, and they're not even sure why."

But the customers know why. Their pet peeves:

  • Not making eye contact. This is the "grab and scan," as it's called by Karen Chalmers, a mother of three who recently boycotted her area big-box store after a different small act of rudeness. "They just ignore me. It makes me feel like I'm not even a person."
  • Answering the phone. "We're ALREADY in the store!" blogger "Phil801" writes. "You've won our business already! Take care of us!" His tongue-in-cheek solution? While standing in line, program the store's number into a cell phone and call the misdirected clerk.
  • Chatting to other clerks. "It's unbelievable. You can be looking right at people who are busy talking to an associate, and they ignore you," Carbone says. "It makes you feel unimportant, insignificant. It causes you to feel insufficient. It makes you feel very small."
  • Not counting change back. When did it become the customer's responsibility to fumble through a wad -- coins balanced precariously on paper -- to ensure accuracy? "It's just another example of a disrespectful service act," says Leonard L. Berry, a distinguished professor of marketing at Texas A&M University's Mays Business School. "And then, once you get the change, not even thanking you for the purchase. That hurts more for many people." (For a refresher on the lost art of counting out change, click here.)
  • Walking past shoppers who need help. American workers today are often disengaged from their jobs, "physically there but psychologically absent," says John Todor, the author of "Addicted Customers" and a psychologist and managing partner at The Whetstone Edge, a customer-centric consultancy in California. "That's what's at the root of some of these things. . . . What it says to the customer is 'I don't matter.'"
Customers who feel bad don't come back, even if the price is right.

"We always have these antennae out there," Todor says. "If the clerk is acting like a drone, doing their job technically, then you feel like you can be rude back."

Service is not dead
If you sense that there's more rude service than there was a generation ago, you're probably right, industry consultants say. It could be a general decline in manners or a decrease in social engagement, which dulls empathy, they say.

More people indicate a desire for helpful staffers in recent years, according to surveys by Gartner, an international research firm. And the American Customer Satisfaction Index, considered a leading indicator of customer service, shows a 5.2% drop from 1994 to 2007 in customers' satisfaction with discount and department stores. It's a significant decline, said the head of the survey, University of Michigan business professor Claes Fornell.

"Many of these stores are somewhat strapped for resources, and they're cutting at the front line, and customers are not pleased about it," says Fornell, the author of "The Satisfied Customer: Winners and Losers in the Battle for Buyer Preference." "In the long-term perspective, this is probably not the best strategy."

However, Wal-Mart, with an astounding 15% drop in satisfaction since 1994, accounts for a decent chunk of that decline. In scores by industry, supermarkets and hotels have remained constant in the past 15 years. Specialty retail stores have risen 2.7%, banks 5.4% and limited-service restaurants 13%.

Good service may have taken a beating in places, but clearly shoppers don't think it's dead. So why the register rage?

Bad service starts at the top
Alain J. Roy has been advising businesses on customer service for a quarter-century and says the answer is a no-brainer. In 99% of his cases, he identifies the same problem: "the owners and the managers."

"It is so simple, and managers make it so complicated," Roy says. "They go to seminars, they buy books, they change the color of the store -- all along not showing appreciation of the employees.

"It is so simple, and managers make it so complicated," Roy says. "They go to seminars, they buy books, they change the color of the store -- all along not showing appreciation of the employees.

"I'd go in and say, 'I won't help you unless you change managers,'" Roy says.

Those that didn't oust management were back to bad service within six months.

"They did not show respect to the employees," Roy says. "In turn, the employees did the same thing to the customers." Only a small percentage of employees are able to keep a good face despite being treated poorly, he says.

The converse is also true. In the latest MSN Money customer-service poll, companies with the highest rankings spoke repeatedly of their efforts to treat employees with respect. (See "10 companies that treat you right.")

Attitude runs from the top down, Roy says, and bad service may be more prevalent in large chains that focus on profits and fail to oversee distant managers.

Service will improve
Years ago, Roy filled a cart to the brim at a Home Depot store in San Diego. Then a clerk was rude. He abandoned the cart and spent the afternoon driving to three different hardware stores, spending 15% to 20% more. "And I felt good doing it," he says. (Proving his thesis that the problem lies with on-site management, he says, he now gets excellent service at a Home Depot in Nebraska.)

Shoppers won't stand for rudeness. At every income level, shoppers will pay extra in order to feel good about where they spend their money. The exception may be during extremely tough economic times, Fornell says.

A 2007 study by The Verde Group, a Canadian consulting firm, and the Wharton School's Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania said unhelpful sales clerks were the biggest knock to a store's reputation. (See "'Not my department' costs stores dearly.")

A mere lack of eye contact was enough to turn people away for good. And more than any other aspect of a store, clerks who ignored customers prompted the most bad-mouthing -- a dangerous blow to any company.

In the long term, it's the companies that invest in customer service that thrive. (See "Happy customers, good stocks.")

If buyers cared only about price, then Wal-Mart would have decimated Target, Texas A&M's Berry says. "Even though the perception is that Wal-Mart has lower prices, Target represents a formidable competitor because Target offers better service."

In the 2007 American Customer Satisfaction Index, which takes price into account, Target scored 77 and Wal-Mart 68 on a scale of zero to 100, with 100 being best.

"We don't change the way we feel because we're in a lower income bracket," Carbone says. "Human beings are human beings."

"Of course, pay makes a difference in terms of the pool of people you can compete for, but pay isn't really the key factor here in whether you're going to have a well-mannered, well-trained, ready-to-serve staff," Berry says. "The key issue is much broader. It's about hiring the right kind of people to begin with and treating them well. Treating them like customers."

Be a good customer
In the meantime, what can shoppers do?

First, make sure the problem isn't you. Don't be a bad customer:

  • Do your part. Call ahead and check that an item is in stock rather than railing at the store's staff later. Take the advertisement for that one sale item with you. In other words, know what you want. Clerks are not omniscient.
  • Don't expect a clerk to be your mother. If you drop something, pick it up. If you move something, put it back. If you spill something, clean it up.
  • Talk to a clerk as if she were your mother. Does this need explaining? Ask, don't demand. Smile. Be respectful.
  • Get off your cell phone. Clerks may not need you to scan and bag items, but they might have a question and do require prompt payment. Plus, it's just rude.
  • Play by the rules. Don't use the express lane if you don't have an express load. Don't ask clerks to change a price for you, to accept expired coupons or to give you freebies. For more, see this post at
  • Act your age. Don't open seals without asking. Don't throw a tantrum when a clerk isn't authorized to give a rebate or can't pull an out-of-stock item out of his armpit. Try reading an item's manual at home before returning to yell at a low-wage worker.
  • Be friendly. Tell the clerks something upbeat. Let a manager know that the nice clerks are why you shop there. Mood is contagious, and positive reinforcement works.
And if smiles and respect don't do the trick:
  • Complain to management only if it's one clerk. "If it's a common occurrence, going to the manager won't solve it," Roy says. "If he doesn't have it solved yet, he or she should not be there."
  • Contact competitors. Let them know how much you'd like some competition, and good service, in your neighborhood.
  • Talk with your feet. "I don't think there's a better way to deliver a message than to not buy at a store where you're not treated well," Roy says.
  • Let headquarters know. If you care enough and think the corporate office does, too, write a letter to the CEO to say that service matters and you're defecting. Many do listen.

Alleged House Burglar Eats from Refrigerator, Makes Mess in Bathroom, Falls Asleep in Child's Bed
The Associated Press


Tracy Mullins

BILLINGS, Mont. — A man was charged with burglary after he allegedly broke into a home, ate cheese from the refrigerator, made a mess in a bathroom and fell asleep on a child's bed.

Tracy Mullins, 47, of Billings, was arraigned in District Court on Thursday by video from the county jail.

Mullins pleaded not guilty to burglary. Judge Susan Watters set bail at $5,000 after rejecting a request that he be released without bail. Public defender Richard Phillips, who made the request, said Mullins had been receiving mental-health counseling.

Court records indicate a woman awoke in her home Monday at 8:30 a.m. to the sound of snoring coming from her 2-year-old son's bedroom. Her son had slept that night with her and her husband.

The woman said she found a strange man sleeping in her son's bed. She woke her husband and left to call police from a neighbor's house. The husband confronted the man with an unloaded shotgun and held him until police arrived.

Ike Uncovers Mystery Civil War-Era Shipwreck
The Associated Press


Sept. 16: People look over the wreck of a wooden ship uncovered by Hurricane Ike on a beach on Fort Morgan Road in Fort Morgan, Ala.

FORT MORGAN, Ala. , Texas — When the waves from Hurricane Ike receded, they left behind a mystery — a ragged shipwreck that archeologists say could be a two-masted Civil War schooner that ran aground in 1862 or another ship from some 70 years later.

The wreck, about six miles from Fort Morgan, had already been partially uncovered when Hurricane Camille cleared away sand in 1969.

Researchers at the time identified it as the Monticello, a battleship that partially burned when it crashed trying to get past the U.S. Navy and into Mobile Bay during the Civil War.

After examining photos of the wreck post-Ike, Museum of Mobile marine archaeologist Shea McLean agreed it is likely the Monticello, which ran aground in 1862 after sailing from Havana, according to Navy records.

"Based on what we know of ships lost in that area and what I've seen, the Monticello is by far the most likely candidate," McLean said. "You can never be 100 percent certain unless you find the bell with 'Monticello' on it, but this definitely fits."

Other clues indicate it could be an early 20th century schooner that ran aground on the Alabama coast in 1933.

The wrecked ship is 136.9 feet long and 25 feet wide, according to Mike Bailey, site curator at Fort Morgan, who examined it this week. The Monticello was listed in shipping records as 136 feet long, McLean told the Press-Register of Mobile.

But Bailey said a 2000 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined the remains were the schooner Rachel, built at Moss Point, Miss., in 1919 and wrecked near Fort Morgan in 1933.

He said the wreckage appears to have components, such as steel cables, that would point to the Rachel rather than an 1860s schooner.

Glenn Forest, another archaeologist who examined the wreck, said a full identification would require an excavation.

"It's a valuable artifact," he said. "They need to get this thing inside before it falls apart or another storm comes along and sends it through those houses there like a bowling ball."

Meanwhile, curious beach-goers have been drawn to the remains of the wooden hull filled with rusted iron fittings. Fort Morgan was used as Union forces attacked in 1864 during the Battle of Mobile Bay.

"It's interesting, I can tell you that," said Terri Williams. "I've lived down here most of my life and I've never seen anything like this, and it's been right here."

Worker Calls Mom to Say 'Happy Birthday' While Waiting for 70-Story Scaffold Rescue
The Associated Press

NEW YORK — A window installer plucked from a scaffold that teetered about 70 stories above a Manhattan street says he called his mother while he was waiting to be rescued.

"I didn't tell her where I was. I just said 'Happy Birthday,"' Dan Sandler said.

It took firefighters about 30 minutes Thursday to rescue Sandler and fellow worker Tommy Florio from the condominium building.

"It was scary — I'm not going to lie," Florio said.

After the rescue they went to lunch, then back to work — repairing a window broken during their ordeal.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tough love on ‘Project Runway Philippines’
By Nestor Torre
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—We caught “Project Runway Philippines” on its first telecast weeks ago, and liked its stylish approximation of the original American franchise, with host Teresa Herrera ranking high among our list of the show’s plus points.

At the end of the episode, however, we were turned off when the first designer voted out was the tilt’s most mature finalist, who was decades older than the other contestants.

Senior designer

We wondered why a senior designer was included among the competition’s finalists in the first place—and then immediately given her walking papers. It didn’t make much sense, and came off as rather cruel.

There were other low points, like some people trying to sound stylish, when, in fact, they weren’t. But, we still ended up with a positive view of the tilt, because some of the finalists’ “creations” were truly promising.

That’s why, in the succeeding weeks, we would watch “Project Runway Philippines” from time to time, to see how the highly stressed finalists were faring.

Our heart went out to them as they did their darndest to beat deadlines, deal with each other’s quirks, put up with catty remarks—and avoid getting eliminated.

As we kept watching, we saw how some designers’ work improved from challenge to challenge. Some “favorites” emerged, only to end up on the “thank you- girls” heap after a few more telecasts. This made us realize how subjective some of the show’s jurors’ verdicts could be. They meant well, but their personal preferences sometimes clouded their judgment.

On the other hand, we saw that some of the jurors’ “tough love” approach was meant to psychologically prepare the finalists for working in the fashion industry after the competition. They more than implied that, even if a young designer was talented, he wouldn’t survive in the fashion trade if he were clueless and feckless.

Over and above all “practical” considerations, however, it’s the quality of the finalists’ designs—and execution—that should separate the couturiers from the costurera and the bordadora. A young designer can be tough as nails and “practical” as all heck, but if his or her creations aren’t great, what would there be to develop and showcase?


But, the nurturing and development of exceptional talent is an art in itself—and some so-called mentors practice it clumsily. It’s one thing to be “honest,” but quite another to be vicious in the disparaging comments made about a young design artist’s work. If a comment is too harsh, it could end up stunting or even killing the very talent it’s supposed to help develop.

So, we trust that the juror-mentors on “Project Runway Philippines” can cut the show’s harassed surviving finalists some slack, and remember that they are young and vulnerable. “Tough love” is fine—as long as the emphasis is on the noun, not the harsh adjective.

TV promos take a plug-uglier turn
By Nestor Torre
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—Early this year, we wrote about the “plug-ugly” practice of some TV channels of saturating their shows with seemingly endless plugs for their new programs, as well as for the movies of their sister companies. The plugs weren’t mere mentions or reminders, but long features, interviews and musical “tributes” that gobbled up huge chunks of program time, across the board.

We felt that the subjective use of TV time to boost new programs and films severely compromised viewers’ right to real entertainment, and urged erring channels to remind themselves that they were there to inform, entertain and inspire, not to boost the financial prospects of their own productions.


Alas, our entreaties appear to have fallen on deaf ears. The situation has not only not improved, but it has in fact worsened, especially with the recent release of some big movies, and the start of new teleseryes. From “plug-ugly” to “plug-uglier”? Ouch.

The wonder is that viewers appear to be taking it all quite submissively, even happily, with only a few complaints. Obviously, many of them don’t mind being subjected to production plugs from morning till night, reducing the amount of real, no-strings-attached entertainment they do get.

Perhaps it’s because some of the plugs are couched in entertainment terms, with the productions’ stars singing and dancing and chattering their way into viewers’ hearts.

We still feel, however, that viewers deserve better, less manipulative treatment than this. And the viewing public should become more aware of its right to really be informed (not only about upcoming productions), entertained and inspired, instead of constantly being sold a bill of goods.

Seen from a larger perspective, self-serving TV plugs for new shows and films also give big networks and their sister movie companies an unfair advantage over other channels and film studios. Quite a number of them have complained about this, in fact, pointing out that it makes for a playing field that is decidedly not level.

Potential viewers

Indie producers are particularly affected, since they have only a little money to promote their productions on TV, where their films’ potential viewers are.

As a result, they are overwhelmed by the extravagantly plugged competition, can’t get good screening venues, and thus end up as also-rans.

What to do about this unfair situation? Viewers simply have to get past the endless plugs, educate themselves about the current production scene, and go out of their way to support the really worthwhile shows and films, despite their slim promo budgets.

Poll: Racial views steer some away from Obama
One-third of polled white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks
The Associated Press

Chris Carlson / AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., during a news conference in Coral Gables, Fla.

WASHINGTON - Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks — many calling them "lazy," "violent" or responsible for their own troubles.

The poll, conducted with Stanford University, suggests that the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004 — about two and one-half percentage points.

Certainly, Republican John McCain has his own obstacles: He's an ally of an unpopular president and would be the nation's oldest first-term president. But Obama faces this: 40 percent of all white Americans hold at least a partly negative view toward blacks, and that includes many Democrats and independents.

'Less likely to vote for Obama'
More than a third of all white Democrats and independents — voters Obama can't win the White House without — agreed with at least one negative adjective about blacks, according to the survey, and they are significantly less likely to vote for Obama than those who don't have such views.

Such numbers are a harsh dose of reality in a campaign for the history books. Obama, the first black candidate with a serious shot at the presidency, accepted the Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, a seminal moment for a nation that enshrined slavery in its Constitution.

"There are a lot fewer bigots than there were 50 years ago, but that doesn't mean there's only a few bigots," said Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman who helped analyze the exhaustive survey.

The pollsters set out to determine why Obama is locked in a close race with McCain even as the political landscape seems to favor Democrats. President Bush's unpopularity, the Iraq war and a national sense of economic hard times cut against GOP candidates, as does that fact that Democratic voters outnumber Republicans.

Issue among Democrats
The findings suggest that Obama's problem is close to home — among his fellow Democrats, particularly non-Hispanic white voters. Just seven in 10 people who call themselves Democrats support Obama, compared to the 85 percent of self-identified Republicans who back McCain.

The survey also focused on the racial attitudes of independent voters because they are likely to decide the election.

Lots of Republicans harbor prejudices, too, but the survey found they weren't voting against Obama because of his race. Most Republicans wouldn't vote for any Democrat for president — white, black or brown.

Not all whites are prejudiced. Indeed, more whites say good things about blacks than say bad things, the poll shows. And many whites who see blacks in a negative light are still willing or even eager to vote for Obama.

On the other side of the racial question, the Illinois Democrat is drawing almost unanimous support from blacks, the poll shows, though that probably wouldn't be enough to counter the negative effect of some whites' views.

Race is not the biggest factor driving Democrats and independents away from Obama. Doubts about his competency loom even larger, the poll indicates. More than a quarter of all Democrats expressed doubt that Obama can bring about the change they want, and they are likely to vote against him because of that.

Three in 10 of those Democrats who don't trust Obama's change-making credentials say they plan to vote for McCain.

Still, the effects of whites' racial views are apparent in the polling.

Statistical models derived from the poll suggest that Obama's support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice.

But in an election without precedent, it's hard to know if such models take into account all the possible factors at play.

Unique methodology used
The AP-Yahoo poll used the unique methodology of Knowledge Networks, a Menlo Park, Calif., firm that interviews people online after randomly selecting and screening them over telephone. Numerous studies have shown that people are more likely to report embarrassing behavior and unpopular opinions when answering questions on a computer rather than talking to a stranger.

Other techniques used in the poll included recording people's responses to black or white faces flashed on a computer screen, asking participants to rate how well certain adjectives apply to blacks, measuring whether people believe blacks' troubles are their own fault, and simply asking people how much they like or dislike blacks.

"We still don't like black people," said John Clouse, 57, reflecting the sentiments of his pals gathered at a coffee shop in Somerset, Ohio.

Word association
Given a choice of several positive and negative adjectives that might describe blacks, 20 percent of all whites said the word "violent" strongly applied. Among other words, 22 percent agreed with "boastful," 29 percent "complaining," 13 percent "lazy" and 11 percent "irresponsible." When asked about positive adjectives, whites were more likely to stay on the fence than give a strongly positive assessment.

Among white Democrats, one-third cited a negative adjective and, of those, 58 percent said they planned to back Obama.

The poll sought to measure latent prejudices among whites by asking about factors contributing to the state of black America. One finding: More than a quarter of white Democrats agree that "if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites."

Those who agreed with that statement were much less likely to back Obama than those who didn't.

Among white independents, racial stereotyping is not uncommon. For example, while about 20 percent of independent voters called blacks "intelligent" or "smart," more than one third latched on the adjective "complaining" and 24 percent said blacks were "violent."

Nearly four in 10 white independents agreed that blacks would be better off if they "try harder."

The survey broke ground by incorporating images of black and white faces to measure implicit racial attitudes, or prejudices that are so deeply rooted that people may not realize they have them. That test suggested the incidence of racial prejudice is even higher, with more than half of whites revealing more negative feelings toward blacks than whites.

The Clinton factor
Researchers used mathematical modeling to sort out the relative impact of a huge swath of variables that might have an impact on people's votes — including race, ideology, party identification, the hunger for change and the sentiments of Sen. Hillary Clinton's backers.

Just 59 percent of her white Democratic supporters said they wanted Obama to be president. Nearly 17 percent of Clinton's white backers plan to vote for McCain.

Among white Democrats, Clinton supporters were nearly twice as likely as Obama backers to say at least one negative adjective described blacks well, a finding that suggests many of her supporters in the primaries — particularly whites with high school education or less — were motivated in part by racial attitudes.

The survey of 2,227 adults was conducted Aug. 27 to Sept. 5. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Riding out Ike on an island, with a lion
By Allen G. Breed,
AP National Writer

Korkie Smith looks at the devastation of her neighbor Renee Napier's house in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in Baytown, Texas, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008.
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

BOLIVAR PENINSULA, Texas - Many years from now, a small group of Hurricane Ike survivors will probably still be telling the story of how, on the night the storm flattened their island, they took sanctuary in a church — with a lion.

The full-grown lion was from a local zoo, and the owner was trying to drive to safety with the animal when he saw cars and trucks stranded in the rising floodwaters. He knew he and the lion were in trouble.

He headed for the church and was met by a group of residents who helped the lion wade inside, where they locked it in a sanctuary as the storm raged. The water crept up to their waists, and two-by-fours came floating through broken windows. But the lion was as calm as a kitten.

When daylight came, everyone was still alive.

"They worked pretty well together, actually," said the lion's owner, Michael Ray Kujawa. "When you have to swim, the lion doesn't care about eating nobody."

Amid the destruction in places like Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston, where row upon row of houses were scoured from the landscape, seemingly impossible tales of survival have begun emerge. Whether through faith or fate, luck or resourcefulness, dozens of people who stayed behind made it out alive, and have harrowing stories to prove it.

As of Tuesday, the official death toll from Ike stood at 48. Only 17 were in Texas — and many of those were people killed by fires or generator fumes after the storm had passed. However, authorities held out the possibility that some victims were washed out to sea.

Among those who made it out alive was Kathi Norton, who put on a life jacket as the storm closed in on High Island, on the Bolivar Peninsula. She and her husband, Paul, knew the dangers of staying, and put their important documents, credit cards, money and cell phones into a plastic bag, and held on tight.

All too quickly, the floodwaters rose and the house started to break apart. Through the gaps, they saw refrigerators, lawn mowers and hot tubs floating past. The deck broke away next. Then the roof started to buckle.

"The whole floor was just opened out," he said. Norton grabbed his wife and headed for an outdoor staircase, escaping in time only because a flagpole kept the house from crashing down for a few precious seconds. "I look up, the house is coming on us," he said.

For hours, they sloshed around in 4-foot waves before finding themselves perched in a tree. They finally made their way onto someone's motor home, which then started to sink. They were able to cling to rafters of a nearby structure and hang on until daybreak.

"We had to grab that staircase and float wherever it took us," the 68-year-old retiree said.

Willis Turner decided to ride it out on his wooden boat next to his house on Crystal Beach, also on Bolivar Peninsula, but it nearly capsized and he was saved by a rope his wife tossed to him. The two held on inside a home that she said "vibrated like a guitar string."

"It was like an atomic bomb going off. Right after the eye passed, whole houses came by us at 30 miles an hour — WHOLE HOUSES! — just floating right past," Turner said. "It was unreal. Unreal."

Turner and his wife awoke the next day to an island they no longer recognized. The first four rows of houses on the beach were washed into the sea. There were no more restaurants, no more gas stations, no more grocery stores. The neighborhood was gone.

In Galveston, Charlene Warner, 52, weathered the storm with her landlord and a neighbor in the apartment above her own.

"It felt like an earthquake — the rumbling and the rocking of the building," she said, smoking outside a shelter in San Antonio. "Everyone was praying."

"It was so terrible. All I could say was, 'Lord, please don't kill me. Forgive me for what I done,'" Warner said, as a tear rolled down her cheek.

After the storm, she and neighbors waited for rescue, but no one came. The water receded, leaving a layer of muck filled with snakes. But with no water, no electricity and a shrinking supply of food, Warner decided to go for help, sliding her way across the goo a block and a half to the fire station.

Firefighters took her and neighbors to a spot where they could get on an evacuation bus. She arrived at a shelter in San Antonio with her purse stuffed full of personal documents and cigarettes, and one spare outfit that she washed and drip-dried on a railing Tuesday.

"I lost everything. What you see with me is all I have," she said. "I never seen anything like that in my life. I'll never ride out another storm."

Cheryl Stanley said she and her husband, Tom, wanted to evacuate their Galveston apartment before the hurricane hit but couldn't. Their son, Casey, has cerebral palsy, and the three live on the third floor. When they tried to leave, the elevators were turned off, and they couldn't carry Casey down the stairs.

"It was horrible," Cheryl said. "The building was shaking all night."

A few hours into the storm, Casey said he didn't feel safe in the bedroom, so they moved him to the living room. About three hours later, the ceiling in his bedroom collapsed.

"Thank God, we got Casey out of there," his mother said.

After the storm passed, paramedics carried Casey downstairs. And neighbors carried the wheelchair.

At the Baptist church on Bolivar Island where the lion spent the night, Richard Jones, a shrimper, said he wasn't afraid of the beast.

"That little old fella is just as tame as a kitten," Jones said.

After the storm passed, the lion's caretakers fed it pork roast to keep it happy.

National Guardsmen dropping off food and water lined up Tuesday in the choir loft to get a glimspe of the lion, and the soldiers jumped back when the lion looked up from it perch on the altar and snarled.

Jones said he hadn't stepped foot in a church in the 40 years he has lived on this spit of land. And he wasn't ready to call his survival divine intervention.

"I drink beer and chase women, gamble, cuss," Jones said. "You can't call that religion. I'm either too good, the devil won't have me, or I'm so bad the Good Lord won't take me. That's a good toss-up."

Dogs Catch Human Yawns
Jeanna Bryner
Senior Writer,

Spying someone yawning often makes us yawn. Now, a new study shows your canine buddy can catch yawns from you, too.

The results suggest domestic dogs have the capacity for a fundamental form of empathy, the researchers say.

The phenomenon, called contagious yawning, has been found only in humans and other primates such as chimpanzees and is thought to relate to our ability to empathize with others. Past studies, however, involved yawning within one species at a time, so for instance chimps that triggered other chimps to yawn and humans prompting yawns in other humans.

Shaggy line-up

Researcher Ramiro Joly-Mascheroni, a psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London first tested the phenomenon in his dog, a Labrador. Immediately upon yawning himself, Joly-Mascheroni's dog immediately yawned. And sure enough, tests on friends' pups showed similar results.

For the new study, the furry cast included a wide range of dog breeds from a Greyhound to a Staffordshire Bull Terrier to a Dalmatian. In total 29 dogs went through two testing scenarios each lasting five minutes, one in which a human (not the owner) called the dog over and while keeping eye contact with the dog he or she would act out yawns that included the vocal portions.

In the non-yawning scenario, the human went through similar motions, except he or she didn't yawn vocally and instead just opened and closed their mouths.

During the yawn sessions, 21 dogs (or 72 percent of them) yawned, while no dogs yawned during the non-yawning scenario. That's compared with 45 percent to 65 percent found from past studies in humans and 33 percent found for chimpanzees (in chimp-to-chimp studies).

In addition to yawning, the dogs showed similar reactions to human yawns. "In the yawning condition, we found the dogs reacted pretty much in the same way," Joly-Mascheroni said. "They all acknowledged the yawn in some way either by dropping their ears or turning their heads away."

Catching the Z's

The researchers aren't sure why dogs catch the yawns from us. In fact, scientists don't yet understand contagious yawning in humans.

"There are theories that seem to think that we used to transfer this information of 'I am tired' by yawning when we didn't have language," Joly-Mascheroni told LiveScience.

In this same way, humans could be transferring sleep info to dogs. "It would be interesting to find out what other information we transfer to dogs or to any other animals that we are not aware of," he added.

In past studies, research team member Atsushi Senji, also of the University of London, has shown a possible link between empathy and contagious yawning in autistic children, the researchers said. Autism is a developmental disorder in which individuals often show impaired social interaction, problems with communication and a lack of empathy, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. This previous research showed that autistic kids don't "catch" yawns from others, Senji said.

And so the new results in dogs, published online in August in the journal Biology Letters, could mean man's best friend has the capacity for a basic level of empathy.

Police: Man who wanted picture gets 'train rash'
The Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. - Police say a man who wanted his picture taken next to a moving train suffered "train rash" but no serious injuries when he got too close to the train.

Police Sgt. Jeff Skuza said the 34-year-old man and two friends were in Fargo for a conference. He said they went around the security gates at a train crossing so he could have his picture taken.

Skuza said the man thought the picture would be better if he got closer to the train. But he stumbled and the train caught his back, ripping his shirt and pants. Skuza called it "a bad case of train rash." He also said alcohol was a factor.

Police did not release the man's name. Skuza said he was treated and released from an area hospital.


Information from: The Forum,

Man clipped by train after lighting cigarette
The Associated Press

BENTON, Ill. - A southern Illinois man will probably pay more attention the next time he lights a cigarette near railroad tracks. Authorities said 25-year-old Brandon Robles escaped serious injury early Sunday when he was clipped by a passing Union Pacific train when he stopped near the tracks for a smoke.

Workers on the train told authorities they thought they'd hit a man, launching a search that included dogs. But nobody was found.

Robles had managed to walk home, only to call emergency dispatchers hours later to report that he couldn't get out of bed. He was treated at a hospital.

Robles told investigators he'd been drinking heavily and saw the train approaching when he stopped at the tracks for a cigarette.


Information from: Benton Evening News,

Pizza man fined for delivering very fast fast food

SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian pizza delivery man gave fast food a new meaning when he was caught, and fined, for driving 53 km (33 miles) over the speed limit.

The 20-year-old man, driving on a provisional driver's license, said he was speeding because he was 20 minutes late with his delivery in the tropical northern town of Townsville.

Police clocked him driving at 131 kms (82 miles) in an 80 kph (50 mph) zone on Saturday, but waited for him to deliver his pizza before booking him.

On his return journey to the pizza shop, he was caught speeding at 133 km in the same zone.

Police sergeant Brendan White said on Tuesday the delivery man, who was not named, was fined A$1520 (US$1,226) and lost his license for 15 months.

Baggy pants ban "unconstitutional," rules US judge
The Associated Press

A US youngster wearing his pants "half-mast." A Florida judge has deemed unconstitutional a law banning baggy pants that show off the wearer's underwear, local media reported Tuesday.
(AFP/File/Tim Sloan)

MIAMI (AFP) - A Florida judge has deemed unconstitutional a law banning baggy pants that show off the wearer's underwear, local media reported Tuesday.

A 17-year-old spent a night in jail last week after police arrested him for wearing low pants in Riviera Beach, southeast Florida.

The law banning so-called "saggy pants" was approved by city voters in March after supporters of the bill collected nearly 5,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

The teen would have received a 150 dollars fine or community service, but he spent the night in jail due to a history of marijuana use, the Palm Beach Post newspaper said.

"Somebody help me," said Palm Beach Circuit Judge Paul Moyle, before giving his decision.

"We're not talking about exposure of buttocks. No! We're talking about someone who has on pants whose underwear are apparently visible to a police officer who then makes an arrest and the basis is he's then held overnight, no bond."

"Your honor, we now have the fashion police," added public defender Carol Bickerstaff, who asked the law be declared "unconstitutional."

The judge agreed with Bickerstaff immediately, reported the Post.

Laws that ban low-slung pants are on the books in several US cities, including Delcambre, Louisiana, where offenders can be fined up to 500 dollars or jailed for up to six months.

Dallas, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia are among the larger US cities considering similar measures.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

American Airlines sued for losing body
NYC man says funeral home and airline lost late wife's body for four days
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - A man who tried to send his late wife's body to their native Ecuador for burial is suing American Airlines and a funeral home, claiming the carrier misplaced his wife's remains for four days.

Miguel Olaya, 60, says he hired the DeRiso Funeral Home in Brooklyn to ship his wife's body to Guayaquil, Ecuador, on April 1, but the coffin was not aboard the plane when he went to meet it at the airport. He also claims the body was badly decomposed because it wasn't properly embalmed.

Christopher Robles, Olaya's lawyer, said the airline initially gave his client conflicting stories.

"First they didn't know where her body was. Then they said maybe it was in Miami and finally they said it was in Guatemala," the lawyer said Tuesday. "Instead of sending it on the flight to Guayaquil, American sent the body to Guatemala City."

The lawyer said Olaya could not collect his wife's remains until April 4. "The body was missing for four days," he said.

Funeral director Kathleen DeRiso said the shipping error was caused by someone at American who punched in the wrong airport code. She said they wrote GUA for Guatemala instead of GYE for Guayaquil.

"It was not our error," DeRiso said, adding that the body was properly embalmed and "there was no decomposition." She said it was the first time in her 18 years of dealing with American that such a mistake had happened.

American spokeswoman Jennifer Pemberton said her company was investigating the situation but could not comment because of the pending litigation.

Olaya's lawsuit, filed last week in state Supreme Court in Brooklyn, accuses the airline and funeral home of negligence and asks unspecified damages.

Olaya's wife, Teresa, died of pelvic cancer at age 57 on March 28.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Calling Venus, Calling Mars
How Men and Women Use Cellphones
By Elizabeth Woyke,

It's easy enough to spot a girly cell phone -- just look for bright finishes in shades of pink, purple and red. But is it possible to use a phone like a girl? Research says yes.

There are subtle but powerful differences in how men and women use technologies such as computers and Internet browsing. Men read more news; women drive e-commerce. Women typically do more semantic searches, typing in full questions rather than just keywords.

So, too, differences abound in how we use mobile phones. Men are more likely to access the mobile Internet, watch mobile TV and generally make full use of the features on their handsets, according to statistics from Nielsen Mobile. Women take more photos and send more text and multimedia messages. They also download more ringtones than men do.

Experts say women see their phones as extensions of their personalities and as communication tools and so are more interested in personalizing their handsets and keeping in touch via text. Men value their phones' ability to keep them up-to-date on news and work e-mail.

The ways they customize their phones -- with Bluetooth accessories, expanded memory and productivity software -- reflect those aims.

No surprise then that some mobile firms cater specifically to a particular gender. LimeLife, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based digital media company, latched onto the female mobile market early on.

The four-year-old firm offers a smorgasbord of female-friendly content, from shopping lists to recipes to horoscopes, packaged in mobile-sized bites and accessible via text message or the mobile Web. Its audience of 18- to 34-year-old women wants applications that are entertaining yet practical -- akin to a "mobile best friend," says Chief Executive Kristin McDonnell.

One of LimeLife's first moves was to release a series of low-key mobile games. Enthusiasm in the U.S. for mobile gaming has been tepid; small screens and impatience over download times have meant most mobile games are "casual" ones -- arcade puzzles like "Tetris," quizzes and word/number games -- which have historically appealed more to women. Moms also use mobile games to entertain their children during long car rides or waits, says AT&T spokesman Steven Schwadron.

LimeLife is now working hard on content that bridges the PC and mobile Web. For now, it will be an uphill grind: Mobile Web users are overwhelmingly male. Men constitute about 81 percent of U.S. mobile Web traffic, according to Opera, a Norwegian software company that makes a free mobile Web browser called Opera Mini.

McDonnell believes the numbers will shift. "In the beginning of any media format, a lot of content is oriented toward men," she says. "As more content is created for the female market, women become dominant and drive most of the ad dollars."

Some changes are already apparent. Most smart phones -- phones with advanced, PC-like features -- are owned by men. But the lure of affordably priced, easy-to-use handsets like the BlackBerry Pearl and Palm Centro has women closing the gap. The number of female smart phone owners in the U.S. grew 169 percent between June 2007 and June 2008, according to M:Metrics.

The increase for men during that time was 95 percent.

Apple's iPhone both appeals to and frustrates women. LimeLife's McDonnell says moms in their 40s have raved to her about how the iPhone software seems intuitive to use.

Apple offers dozens of female-oriented applications through its online App Store, including food diaries and daily horoscopes. But women have also complained about how the handset's slick touch-screen is tricky to navigate with long fingernails.

Sometimes, gender is overshadowed by generational differences. Younger women (between 18 and 34) are much more likely to use their phone's Web browser and MP3 player than older women, for instance. Trying to analyze consumers by how they use their phones can trump simpler filters. "We think of segments of individuals who share certain attitudes and needs," says Ehtisham Rabbani, vice president of product strategy and marketing at electronics giant LG. "That transcends any male/female divide."

Gender differences come into play when selecting colors (and sometimes names) for phones. Last fall, LG released a phone called Venus in bright pink. (There was also a version in black.) This year, it has introduced several phones in purple, as well as one called Shine, with a reflective cover that doubles as a mirror.

AT&T says men in recent focus groups preferred gray-colored phones, while women liked orange and green.

Occasionally, ad campaigns will appeal directly to a particular group. AT&T has used ads that featured rock band AC/DC (for the black Razr) and women from the MTV show "The Hills" (for the LG Shine).

Service -- particularly in the U.S., where most wireless subscribers are on multi-year contracts -- do show a gender skew. Women tend to prefer family plans while men will spring for pricier "unlimited" plans.

Men, thanks to their "early adopter" tendencies, are also more willing to leave a carrier in pursuit of a particular phone or service. "Manufacturers take a roundabout approach of luring away men," says Rabbani. "Women will often follow because they want to keep a family plan."

Perhaps the most gender-stratified area of the wireless industry is mobile accessories. Notes Rabbani, "For men, it's all about the Bluetooth and belt clip. I've never actually seen a woman walking around with a phone on her belt."