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Monday, December 29, 2008

Obama bristles as the bubble closes in
By Carol E. Lee

President-elect Barack Obama speaks to the media as he announces more members of his financial team for the Securities Exchange Commission, Federal Reserve Board and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2008.
(AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)

HONOLULU – The media glare, the constant security appendage and the sheer production that has become a morning jog or a hankering for an ice cream cone – it’s been closing in on Barack Obama for some time.

Now the president-elect appears increasingly conscious of the confines of his new position, bristling at the routine demands of press coverage and beginning to chafe at boundaries that are only going to get smaller.

Obama even took the unusual step Friday morning of leaving behind the pool of reporters assigned to follow him, taking his daughters to a nearby water park without them. It was a breach of longstanding protocol between presidents (or presidents-elect) and the media, that a gaggle of reporters representing television, print and wire services is with his motorcade at all times.

Then when reporters finally caught up with Obama at Koko Marina Paradise Deli and he acknowledged them for one of few times since arriving in Hawaii last Saturday, he sounded resigned.

After ordering a tuna melt on 12-grain bread, Obama approached reporters and placed his hand on the shoulder of pool reporter Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, who was scribbling away in his notebook.

“You don't really need to write all that down,” Obama said.

All presidents and would-be presidents struggle with “the bubble” – the security detail and the always-there reporters that impose barriers to any spontaneous interaction with the outside world.

But Obama seems to be struggling particularly hard, particularly early.

As rapid as Obama’s political rise has been, so too has his family’s introduction to the bubble.

Four years ago Obama was an Illinois state senator who was on his way to the U.S. Senate. Next month, he will become one of only a handful of modern presidents who has not endured a similar bubble as a governor or top U.S. official before taking office.

Already, Obama no longer gets out for an impromptu lunch or a haircut. The barber he’s gone to for 15 years now comes to him, and he mostly orders out. Soon Obama likely will be forced to give up the BlackBerry he often kept attached to his hip during the campaign.

“There's still some things we're not adjusted to," Obama said in a “60 Minutes” interview after the election. “You know, the small routines of life that keep you connected, I think some of those are being lost.”

Bill Clinton grew frustrated that he couldn’t go out any time he wanted, and once went Christmas shopping without the pool. After he became president, George W. Bush stopped sending e-mails to his daughters because he didn't want the personal notes to become public one day.

“It’s just hard to know that there’s somebody with you all the time,” said Steve Elmendorf, who was deputy campaign manager for John Kerry in 2004. “Being able to get up and go biking or go for a walk, or hold hands with your wife — everything you do is not just under the scrutiny of the press or the pool.”

For Obama, who received a Secret Service detail earlier than any presidential candidate since the practice began, the scrutiny is much more intense.

The glare on his family is shaping up to be unprecedented, both because Obama assumes the presidency amid a 24-hour, Web-dominated media age where many traditional boundaries don’t exist and because of what he represents. He’s the first African-American to be elected president. At 47, he’s a young guy – as presidents go. He also has a youthful, attractive family that is social and active.

During the first week in Hawaii, Obama has had to deal with paparazzi waiting in the distance, photographing him shirtless outside his beachfront vacation home and later while spreading his grandmother’s ashes at the Pacific coast.

And even though the pool photographers remained out of sight and without an image of these private moments, Obama seems to be tiring of the journalists who have followed him daily since the campaign.

“OK, guys, come on," Obama said last Sunday, looking toward photographers clicking away as he warmed up before a round of golf. “How many shots do you need?”

It’s been a progression. And Obama’s frustration shows in waves.

On Halloween, Obama grew testy with a Polish media crew as he took his daughter Sasha to a party at his campaign treasurer Marty Nesbitt’s Chicago home.

"All right guys. That's enough. You've got a shot. Leave us alone. Come on guys. Get back on the bus,” Obama said before breaking into a trot with Sasha still holding his hand.

The day before Thanksgiving, a sixth grader at a Chicago school asked Obama about his new life.

“You don't have a lot of privacy," Obama told some 200 children, adding that going to Walgreen's and riding a bicycle are now far more involved than before.

Those close to the Obamas have spoken to the media less and less since the election. Calls and e-mails to close friends and associates of the Obamas were not returned.

“My husband and I have been asked not to speak with the press about the Obamas,” one of them wrote in an e-mail. “They would prefer that we stay out of the papers for now.”

It seems the narrower the gap between transition and reality gets, the more private Obama has tried to become.

“You can see how he chafes at it,” Elmendorf said. “It’s hard for people who like to do outdoors things. It’s also hard for people with young kids. … You decide at 9 in the morning, I’m not going out anymore, then at 2 p.m. you decide, ‘Hey let’s get some ice cream.’”

“Normal people can do that. The president or president-elect can’t do that,” he said.

Friday was only the second time since the election that Obama has traveled without the press pool. Reporters also were left behind in Chicago once when they couldn’t gather fast enough after Obama decided to return home from his transition office.

Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt issued a statement Friday saying that because the president-elect had no further events scheduled as of 9:30 a.m., aides sent reporters back to their Waikiki Beach hotel 30 minutes away from his vacation home. But then Obama changed his mind.

“The president-elect decided to take the girls to a water park and we assembled the pool as quickly as possible,” the statement said.

Later, when paying attention to his press pool and ordering treats for his daughters and their friends at Kokonuts Shave Ice & Snacks, Obama went so far as to offer reporters some shave ice.

“Guys, here's your chance," Obama said. “No? I'm telling you, this is really good.”

“I don't think this is against policy,” he continued. “You want one, I can tell."

Reporters declined the president-elect's offer. But, perhaps in a sign of defiance, Obama made it while standing in one of his hometown spots with his BlackBerry clipped to his hip.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Dreaded Office Hugger
By Eliza Farnsworth

I'm a very meticulous, sensual being. That means no funny stuff with the male species unless it adheres to specific rules clearly delineated by me during the dating ritual. Or, I jump you after a three-chocolate martini-slurred conversation at a fine establishment.

Yet there are many ways to violate my code of conduct, and the most egregious occurs right here in my office on a daily basis. Both technically and from a legal standpoint, the guilty party is actually doing nothing wrong. He's not a groper, a chauvinist or even a deviant. The truth is that he's even worse. He's the office hugger.

The office hugger seeks any excuse to give anyone a hug. Male or female, human or inanimate object (i.e. the espresso machine or urinal), the office hugger will find a reason to embrace it. He truly believes that hugs make the world a better place. I believe that castrating my former boyfriends achieves the same purpose, and hope to explore this in detail one day, but I digress.

The office hugger responds to any display of emotion like a moth to a flame. If he hears laughter, he jets toward the source on the assumption that happy people will surely want to celebrate. Sad people are his food of choice, because they're too weak to put up a worthy level of resistance. Personally, I like his interaction with angry people the most because there's always a good chance someone will put an untimely end to his habit, or maybe even his life.

There are only so many strategies one may use to discourage the office hugger. Here are mine:

1) Obsessive itching: Whenever you find yourself in the office hugger's line of sight, scratch your entire body as if your skin is an allergen. If he confronts you, deny doing it, thereby implying that whatever you have is both embarrassing and contagious.

2) Physical damage: Always try to have an object in your hand as the office hugger approaches. When he reaches out to hug you, act surprised, whip around toward him, and then "inadvertently" take him down with said object.

3) Wrestlemania: When the office hugger approaches, charge toward him, leap onto his shoulders, wrap your legs around his neck, and bury his head in your chest in a deep embrace. This over-enthusiastic response should frighten him, although I once had a boyfriend who revelled in it, right up until the day I fractured two of his vertebrae.

4) Accessories: Give the office hugger a wristband or necklace with a bell attached to it. Whenever you hear the bell, sprint in the opposite direction.

5) Taser: Create an office pool to invest in a de-hugger taser. Keep the receipt. Taser the office hugger a few times, then return the taser and use the money to fund a hug-free celebration.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

By Alex Magno

I nearly fell off my seat last Wednesday listening to Cory Aquino declare Edsa Dos a mistake and apologizing to the president deposed as a consequence of a people’s just indignation against a regime of corruption.

That deposed president, smiling broadly while listening to the apology, was actually convicted for plunder. In an unfortunate act that could only indicate tolerance for wrongdoing, that deposed president was promptly pardoned shortly after conviction.

Perhaps history was being revised there and then to conform to the factional alignments of the moment.

Perhaps we were all being asked to forget why we were in the streets that Yuletide season of 2000 and why so much outrage brought so many to Edsa on January 2001. We were in the streets then because it had become abundantly clear that a band of thugs had overrun our government. They consumed liquor for its cost and not so much for its taste as they gambled like money was going out of style. They apportioned among themselves all the areas where power could yield profit.

We were in the streets then because the political leadership had become an embarrassment. The presidential palace had been so desecrated it functioned as a stinking karaoke joint by nightfall. And yes, we were in the streets then because critics of the powers-that-be were kidnapped and killed, their remains burned and their bones ground to conceal the dastardly deed.

We were in the streets then because corruption had become so flagrant that the future of our children was in jeopardy. We were in the streets then because, despite the obvious costs to our institutions, a government that offended our common morality had to either step down or be deposed.

And so now we are being told that was all a mistake?

Since when did it become a mistake to cry out loud against the rape of our institutions? Since when did a people, driven by moral certainty in their cause and bringing forth an upheaval as a consequence, become a case for an apology?

Sure, there is much debate over the regime that came into place as a consequence of Edsa Dos. But the popular upheaval is one thing and the consequent power arrangement another.

If there is some disappointment over the regime that came in as a consequence of Edsa Dos, it is also partly because those who cared folded their banners too early and left things to return to their usual norm. It is because the reforms we imagined while protesting in the streets ceased to be causes to be fought for after a failed presidency was successfully deposed.

Remember, too, that we were in the streets that fateful January of 2001 not because Cory told us so. We were there to revive people power.

Cory did not shape that event. She was not our leader: an aggrieved people was asserting its sovereign will by defying a government that had failed them.

True, she supported it and that was of great value to the cause. But she did not own it. Therefore she has no right to apologize for that event in a manner that fit her current prejudices.

I grabbed the sides of my seat before I could fall off it: Cory is just being her plain self. For her there are no historical meanings larger than her pet peeves. There are no large principles that cement bonds that outlast the vagaries of everyday politics, only alliances of conveniences and transient friendships.

When Cory was president, the political lines were always defined by who she likes and who she dislikes. She never went beyond the politics of personality. She did not let the logic of statesmanship overwhelm her own sympathies and antipathies.

That is her operational code. She goes by how she feels towards specific individuals. She honors debts of gratitude and feels bad if the favors she had given are not returned when she expects them to be.

That is also the operational code of the variety of elite politics that has ruled this country for generations. Cory does not only personify it; she lives it.

And so it comes so easily to her to discount the millions of ordinary citizens who, when the moment calls for it, put their lives on the line for a vision, for a moral crusade or for a cause that promises an improve future for the nation. For her, great historical events are nothing more than transactions between the leaders of elite factions.

And so it comes so easily to her that, in a moment of pleasantry, she could so easily write off the fact that tens of thousands of ordinary citizens summoned extraordinary courage to call in a presidency that had failed the nation. Edsa Dos was a milestone in the continuing journey towards ensuring the democratic accountability of governments to their citizens.

Edsa Dos, for all its faults and for all the unseemliness that came in its wake, is still an awesome Damocles’ sword hanging over the heads of abusive leaders. It is the sword of a sovereign people that may choose, in a moment of great aggravation, to call in a government and make it account for its misdeeds.

It is, excuse me, a heroic episode in our troubled political history. To apologize for it is to completely miss its democratic significance as well as its historical verity.

I played a role in Edsa Dos. I am as proud of that role as I am proud of whatever minor thing that I might have contributed to the triumph of the 1986 uprising. I will never apologize for that role, no matter the opportunistic twists and turns our everyday politics may take. I will never do a Cory.

Cory to Erap: Sorry, EDSA II a mistake
By Delon Porcalla and Jose Rodel Clapano

Pangasinan Rep. Jose de Venecia Jr. shows his biography, The Global Filipino, as he is flanked by former Presidents Corazon Aquino and Joseph Estrada at the launching of the book yesterday. BOY SANTOS

Former President Corazon Aquino yesterday apologized to former President Joseph Estrada for helping civil society oust him in January 2001, at the height of the so-called EDSA II, even if the former actor had been convicted of plunder by the Sandiganbayan.

“I am surprised, you really are a good speaker, Erap. I feel guilty,” she told the crowd during the launching of the “Global Filipino” book of former Speaker Jose De Venecia Jr., an authorized biography written by US journalist Brett Decker, at The Podium in Mandaluyong City.

“All of us make mistakes. Just forgive me,” she said.

Some of those who participated in people power II were dismayed by the apology.

Aquino, the late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, a majority of Estrada’s Cabinet members who deserted him, and civil society were instrumental in his ouster.

During his speech, Estrada recalled the time when he was “unceremoniously unseated” as president, saying a group of elite businessmen and several “power-hungry” politicians succeeded in toppling him.

Estrada was placed under house arrest in June 2001, when charges were filed at the anti-graft court. He was kept under detention at his 15-hectare resort in Tanay, Rizal.

In September 2007, the special division of the Sandiganbayan – of which two female justices have been promoted to the Supreme Court – found Estrada guilty of plunder, a conviction that was largely based on bank documents and the testimony of his estranged friend, former Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis “Chavit” Singson.

A month later, however, President Arroyo granted him pardon.

Estrada and Aquino, who had been critical of him during his incumbency, are now good friends, borne out of their common disgust of President Arroyo, who they want ousted for alleged large-scale corruption.

For his part, Estrada said that Aquino has vindicated him and her apology was the greatest Christmas gift that he received this year.

“That was the best Christmas gift that I received this year, coming from the most trusted President of the country. I feel vindicated,” Estrada said.

Why apologize?

Philippine STAR columnist Billy Esposo, in a text message to Mrs. Aquino’s son Sen. Noynoy Aquino, asked, “Other Coryistas and I who took part in EDSA 1 were stunned at Cory’s apology to Erap. What brought this about? GMA’s sins do not absolve Erap’s. We feel betrayed.”

Three former Presidents – Aquino, Fidel Ramos and Estrada – dropped by yesterday’s launching of the “Global Filipino” book of De Venecia, which was also attended by bigwigs of politics and showbiz.

Unlike Estrada, the country’s first woman President made it clear, however, that she had no intention of attending were it not for the former Speaker’s wife Gina.

Aquino said the Pangasinan congressman was “very lucky” to have a wife like Gina.

“I’m here principally because of my good friend Gina. How could I say no to Gina? You’re very lucky, Joe. I think there are many of us here because of Gina. You are very lucky to have a better half like her,” she said.

Nevertheless, Aquino told the jampacked crowd that she made herself available to thank De Venecia for finally seeing the light, for severing his ties with President Arroyo, whom the former House leader is now accusing of corruption.

“I am here because I want to show Joe my gratitude for joining us now,” she added. “Thank you Joe for coming out at last. So, I say it’s better late than never. I hope all of us would unite.”

Estrada, meantime, thanked De Venecia, who was booted out of office last February after his son Joey exposed the $329-million ZTE anomaly, for being “gentleman and statesman” enough to concede defeat in the 1998 presidential polls.

Reading the P995 book of De Venecia was a headache for Estrada.

“The title of the book itself is already very long. I had a headache reading it. But I suspect Malacañang had a bigger headache,” he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

“I would say that JDV is a man of conviction just like me. The only difference is that I was convicted (of plunder). So my advice to him is wait for your turn, if he wants to be a man of certified conviction,” Estrada said, chuckling.

The actor-turned-president likewise drew parallelisms between his and De Venecia’s checkered political careers, citing as example his ouster from power in January 2001 and De Venecia’s ouster seven years later as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

“My political career is connected with JDV, whether he likes it or not. I’m impressed with his amazing journey as a politician,” Estrada said. He also cited as examples their feats during the 1972 martial law and “today’s martial law.”

Estrada again made everybody laugh when he said De Venecia’s loss in the 1998 presidential polls was a “blessing in disguise” for him. “Had he won, he might have been the one impeached!”

“Today, I give JDV my full and absolute pardon. This is my exercise of executive privilege,” he said, urging the former Speaker to write maybe a second or third book. “I hope you will not hold back so that you can be called a man of conviction.”

Among the other VIPs who dropped by were former Vice President Teofisto Guingona and former Senate Presidents Ernesto Maceda and Franklin Drilon.

No offer made

Estrada denied yesterday that he had asked Sen. Loren Legarda to be his running mate in the 2010 presidential elections.

Estrada was reacting to a statement of Legarda that she is rejecting an Erap-Loren tandem for 2010.

“I have not even declared that I will run for president, how can I say that I will run with Loren as my running mate?” Estrada said.

Another paper had quoted Estrada as saying during the Christmas party hosted by his son, Sen. Jose Jinggoy Estrada, that he would pick Legarda as his running mate should he decide to run for president.

Estrada clarified that he only said that Legarda would make a good vice president, but he did not say that she would be his running mate.

“There is no doubt that Sen. Legarda has the qualifications to be not only a good vice president but even a good president. Who knows, if she tops the surveys and if she maintains her performance as a top senator, I might even endorse her for president in 2010. But I never said she would be my running mate,” Estrada said.

Cory apology to Erap dismays EDSA players

Former President Corazon Aquino, a global people power icon who helped unseat a dictator as well as a corrupt but hugely popular leader, has drawn mild rebuke and outright scorn – mostly from political allies – for voicing contrition for her role in ousting Joseph Estrada from the presidency in 2001.

A belated clarification from Mrs. Aquino’s son Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, that the apology was meant as a joke, helped little to silence critics. Mrs. Aquino could not be reached for comment yesterday.

For Sen. Richard Gordon, Mrs. Aquino earned the moniker “Sorry Aquino” for her surprise apology.

“I am quite disappointed. I don’t agree with the fact that you have to say sorry to him. I really feel for Cory because she is sick right now, but I think she overstated the point,” Gordon said. Mrs. Aquino has colon cancer.

Gordon said Mrs. Aquino’s apology might sow confusion, especially among the young.

He said leaders should set an example by showing resolve and dignity, and by speaking up and saying “what is wrong or what is right even if it would hurt other people.”

“I have nothing against the former president (Aquino)” but that “when we are leaders, we must be called upon to teach our people.”

“Leaders teach. Leaders must form a face for our country, what we stand for,” Gordon said.

“We must be upright and we must be able and not be afraid to say in front of other people what we think of them if they had done wrong,” he said. “I do not want to confuse the public where we must stand. We must stand for the right thing.”

He stressed that while he could still be friends with Estrada, the senator said he would never apologize to the ousted president who was convicted of plunder in 2007 or six years after his ouster in a popular revolt. Then vice president Gloria Arroyo took over from Estrada.

“I have no qualms in saying that I didn’t agree with the way he (Estrada) was handling the government. Erap did some good things and I acknowledge that. He did many good things but he also did a lot of bad things,” Gordon said.

“Mr. Estrada has committed wrongs in our country and he has already been forgiven. I’m part of those who removed him and I have no regrets about that,” he added.

As for Palawan Rep. Abraham Mitra, son of the late Speaker Ramon Mitra, Mrs. Aquino’s apology reflected a flawed attitude.

His father, a 1992 presidential candidate, was Mrs. Aquino’s ally in the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino. But it was former military chief Fidel Ramos who got anointed by then President Aquino in the 1992 elections. Ramos won the elections.

“Sana hindi tayo nagkaganito kung sumunod lang siya sa (LDP) convention (We could not have ended up like this had she followed what had been agreed upon in the LDP convention),” the senior House member said, referring to the party decision choosing Mitra as the standard-bearer.

Negros Occidental Rep. Iggy Arroyo said the apology was unnecessary. “Her apology is her own prerogative but she must realize that the Sandiganbayan already found him (Erap) guilty. Surveys also indicate that most Filipinos believe he was guilty.”

Rep. Joel Villanueva of the Citizens Battle Against Corruption said he couldn’t understand why Mrs. Aquino apologized. “I just honestly don’t understand where the apology came from, on whose behalf, and for whatever reason.”

“Maybe she’s just so disappointed with this administration, just like the overwhelming majority of our people,” he said. “Presidents serve the people. Their decisions are based on what will be good for the people and the country.”

Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) founding chairman Dante Jimenez slammed Mrs. Aquino for her apology to Estrada, saying she has “lost her nerve.”

“It’s very highly suspicious considering that she is now allying herself with a former president convicted beyond reasonable doubt (of plunder) by the Sandiganbayan,” he said in a statement.

“EDSA 2 actually is not Cory Aquino, EDSA 2 is against a corrupt president who tolerated jueteng and all those things,” he told The STAR.

“We should never be regretful of EDSA 2. I think the only problem now is the tolerance. If people will not learn from the lessons, it would be very difficult to reach that EDSA spirit, unless the people will rally and go for good governance and non-tolerance of all the bad things in government,” he stressed.

Jimenez said Mrs. Aquino “has lost the touch” and advised her to help look for the mastermind of the killing of her husband, former senator Benigno Aquino Jr.

“If she wants the truth, unahin natin ’yan (take care of that first),” he said.

“It is unfair and unjust for Cory to say sorry as if she represents all of us when we joined the EDSA 2 revolt against a corrupt president,” Jimenez said.

Softer on Cory

“Cory is entitled to her own opinion,” militant Rep. Teddy Casiño of Bayan Muna said. Left-wing groups were also instrumental in the ouster of Estrada.

But independent Rep. Edno Joson of Nueva Ecija said “at least Cory was sincere” when she apologized, unlike President Arroyo whose apology at the height of the “Hello, Garci” controversy smacked of hypocrisy.

An Waray Rep. Florencio “Bem” Noel said he fully understood Mrs. Aquino. “I respect her opinion on that. Maybe that was her human reaction during that time. Maybe that was what she felt during that time.”

Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz bewailed Mrs. Aquino’s apology to Estrada but said EDSA 2 would not have happened if people had an idea of how the Arroyo administration would turn out.

“If I knew that Mrs. Arroyo would be like this, there would not have been an EDSA 2,” Cruz said.

“Everybody or anyone who feels that they have offended a person can ask for forgiveness. That is standard. But in the case of EDSA 2, I don’t know how many thousands or millions of people were involved in that,” he said.

“If they feel that they made a mistake versus Erap, then they should apologize,” he said. “But not all feel that they have done anything wrong.”

When asked if he would apologize, he said, “No. I don’t think that I have made an error in judgment. But the human act or judgment is only good at the time it is made. You do not look back afterwards.”

Cruz, former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), said that while he disliked the womanizing, gambling and midnight Cabinet meetings of Estrada, “compared to President Arroyo, he is much better.”

The prelate is the founder of the anti-gambling civic group Krusadang Bayan Laban sa Jueteng.

He did not discount the possibility that some religious groups would follow in Aquino’s footsteps.

“That is possible – if they (religious) are truly convinced that they committed a mistake against Estrada,” he said. But he ruled out an apology from the CBCP despite the prominent role played by many prelates in Estrada’s ouster.

He said he could not recall anyway if the CBCP issued a statement supporting Estrada’s ouster. “But if the CBCP issued it and if it feels that it made an error in judgment, then it should apologize. But you cannot ask apology from other people, if they do not think that they have done anything wrong,” he pointed out.

“Personally, I feel that the mea culpa statements or a realization of the same were much too late, the event having occurred in early 2001 and we are soon entering 2009,” Speaker Prospero Nograles said in a text message to The STAR.

The Speaker was also at the book launching of former speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., where Ms. Aquino made the impromptu remarks, to the surprise of many.

“Many of those who participated in that event do not agree with Tita Cory. Perhaps it is best to respect each other’s opinion on that matter,” Nograles said.

‘Act of reconciliation’

It was an act of reconciliation that was no different from Mrs. Arroyo’s grant of pardon to Estrada, Press Secretary Jesus Dureza said of Mrs. Aquino’s apology.

He pointed out that as far as reconciliation with Estrada is concerned, President Arroyo was a step ahead of Mrs. Aquino as she granted the request for pardon of Mr. Estrada last year.

“Let us not forget that President Arroyo herself early on had made the greatest, supreme reconciliatory move by exercising the presidential prerogative of pardon on former President Erap Estrada,” Dureza said at a briefing at Malacañang yesterday.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, who is considered as one of the political advisers of Mrs. Arroyo, said that any effort made towards unification by contending political groups should be seen as something good for the country.

“I think we should all make an effort to reconcile with one another even as we are approaching the period of elections. Unity rather than division should be the order of the day,” Puno said.

“I think that the gesture of former President Aquino shows that maybe the people are the ones that are going to decide this in the future and previous differences are not going to have a very large role in the politics of the future, and I hope that will be an all pervasive thing,” Puno said.

“All politics should be geared towards unification and development of the country,” he added.

Puno said Mrs. Aquino deserves congratulations for her gesture.

Not serious

Senator Aquino stressed that his mother was not serious about making the controversial apology.

“Since (former president) Estrada was not castigating JDV (de Venecia), my mother replied in the same token. I think the context was misinterpreted. The light and humorous atmosphere (of the occasion) was not taken into consideration,” Sen. Aquino said.

“Why would her reply be serious when (Estrada was being humorous?),” the senator said.

Crib mosques anger Italian party
By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

File photo of Mario Borghezio in September 2008
The Northern League has been accused of xenophobia

Right-wing politicians have protested at the inclusion of Islamic symbols in nativity scenes in northern Italy.

Elaborate cribs with figurines enacting the nativity decorate most Catholic churches in Italy at this time of year.

A priest at a Genoa church put a mosque and minaret in his crib, while a crib at a Venice school also had a mosque.

The Genoa branch of the anti-immigrant Northern League reacted with fury. But a senior church figure said there are no firm rules on what can be included.

'Gesture of inclusivity'

At Our Lady of Divine Providence in Genoa, Father Prospero Bonanzi put a mosque and a minaret in his crib.

"The act of a fool," the local branch of the party called the priest's decision.

"The only thing he missed out was the suicide bomber ready to blow up Christ's manger," was the comment of the Northern League's European deputy Mario Borghezio.

In one Catholic school in Venice the mosque placed in the middle of a Christmas crib produced mixed reactions among pupils and teachers.

But Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Patriarch of Venice, was more cautious in his comment.

There are no rigid rules about what you can and cannot include in the nativity scene, he said.

The imam of Milan, Hamid Shari, said he thought the inclusion of the mosque was a good idea and a gesture of inclusivity.

Italians love to adapt new forms to ancient traditions and there is a new family in many of the Christmas cribs produced in Naples.

America's new President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle figure in many crib scenes being sold there.

Ireland Worker Finds Ancient Psalms in Bog
By Shawn Pogatchnik
Associated Press Writer

Photograph courtesy National Museum of Ireland

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) - Irish archaeologists Tuesday heralded the discovery of an ancient book of psalms by a construction worker who spotted something while driving the shovel of his backhoe into a bog.

The approximately 20-page book has been dated to the years 800-1000. Trinity College manuscripts expert Bernard Meehan said it was the first discovery of an Irish early medieval document in two centuries.

"This is really a miracle find," said Pat Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland, which has the book stored in refrigeration and facing years of painstaking analysis before being put on public display.

"There's two sets of odds that make this discovery really way out. First of all, it's unlikely that something this fragile could survive buried in a bog at all, and then for it to be unearthed and spotted before it was destroyed is incalculably more amazing."

He said an engineer was digging up bogland last week to create commercial potting soil somewhere in Ireland's midlands when, "just beyond the bucket of his bulldozer, he spotted something." Wallace would not specify where the book was found because a team of archaeologists is still exploring the site.

"The owner of the bog has had dealings with us in past and is very much in favor of archaeological discovery and reporting it," Wallace said.

Crucially, he said, the bog owner covered up the book with damp soil. Had it been left exposed overnight, he said, "it could have dried out and just vanished, blown away."

The book was found open to a page describing, in Latin script, Psalm 83, in which God hears complaints of other nations' attempts to wipe out the name of Israel.

Wallace said several experts spent Tuesday analyzing only that page—the number of letters on each line, lines on each page, size of page—and the book's binding and cover, which he described as "leather velum, very thick wallet in appearance."

It could take months of study, he said, just to identify the safest way to pry open the pages without damaging or destroying them. He ruled out the use of X-rays to investigate without moving the pages.

Ireland already has several other holy books from the early medieval period, including the ornately illustrated Book of Kells, which has been on display at Trinity College in Dublin since the 19th century.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Chicken lethal
By Ruel S. De Vera
Philippine Daily Inquirer

WHEN Gerry Alanguilan’s comic book series “Wasted” fired its first shot in 1994, readers were shocked and won over—often at the same time—by the black-and-white mini-comic chronicling jilted gunman Eric’s dissembling of anyone who wanders into his path. Raw, cerebral and cathartic, “Wasted” was unlike anything on the racks, and by the time its eighth and final issue came out in 1996, it had attracted a passionate following.

In its wake, Alanguilan got really busy, developing into a formidable comic book creator, doing everything from self-publishing the autobiographical “Crest Hut Butt Shop” to inking Marvel’s “Wolverine.” but “Wasted,” reprinted twice in book form, was widely recognized to be his greatest work. Until now, that is-because he has unleashed something even more original and crazier than “Wasted.”

That is “Elmer,” a four-issue limited series that began in 2006 and which concluded with the recent release of “Elmer” # 4 (Komikero Publishing, San Pablo City, 2008, 64 pages). The series depicts a bizarre, alternate Philippines where the chickens have somehow gained sentience and speech, becoming a part of society.

“Elmer” hatched with the reader following malcontent rooster Jake Gallo, who just can’t seem to catch a break, what with his being the underachieving brother of a movie star and now he discovers his sister is about to marry a human, of all things. A trip back to his childhood home leads to the discovery of a book left him by his father, the late titular Elmer. Through that book, Jake—and by extension, the reader—discovers exactly what happened when the chickens suddenly learned to think and speak in 1979.

It is a disturbing discovery. Through three issues, Jake finds out that his father and mother were in the maelstrom of the big change. Wizened Farmer Ben, ostensibly his father’s best friend, may not be all he seems. Struggling to understand his boiling resentment of humans, Jake wonders what his father experienced.

Chicken war

All that buildup comes to a chicken head in “Elmer” # 4, the plus-sized conclusion to the series. The planet has flipped upside down, as chickens and humans seem locked in a violent spiral. “This is going to get bad before it gets any better,” Farmer Ben tells Elmer. And it does get very bad, with an explosion of violence that is as visceral as it is unsurprising. Even if the reason behind the chicken evolution is not definitively explained, “Elmer” instead puts an emphasis on what happened after that worldwide event.

One can see the vestigial elements from “Wasted” achieving full form in Alanguilan’s strong, polished pencils, particularly in the ridiculously detailed avian characters, down to the wattles. Each panel teems with intelligent absurdity, especially when he depicts chickens in normal human situations as if it’s the most normal thing. The pieces of “Elmer” art by Alanguilan’s artist friends, whether highlighted in the galleries or embedded in the panels, make for great extras.

Alanguilan somehow manages to make the audacious “Elmer” tragic and funny, romantic and cynical all at the same time. “Elmer” boasts of an extraordinary story, which is, on the surface, about chickens who speak, but then transforms into a magnificent tale of what binds parents and children, of what it means to believe in the invisible and of what it means to be human in a mad world, something that can be savored in one sitting when “Elmer” is collected in a graphic novel next year. “This is our story, all of us,” Elmer writes Jake. “And it’s important not to forget.”

Fittingly, the series ends as it begins, but now seen through changed eyes, as readers will witness the enlightenment of both Jake and Elmer. This is Alanguilan’s greatest achievement, constructing a thoroughly plausible setting where fowl and man do live side-by-side, if not always in harmony. By taking the idea of “Elmer” from “silly” all the way to “sublime,” Gerry Alanguilan truly steps out from under the sizable “Wasted” shadow with this, his brave new world. It is a world where you will believe that not only can a chicken speak, but they can also live with regret and die with honor.

Available at Comic Quest, Comic Odyssey and Druid’s Keep. For more information, log on to

By Paul Proctor
December 19, 2008

There was a very strange announcement made recently in the form of a press release posted on the Dow Jones & Company’s Market Watch website dated December 12, 2008, that bears mentioning, if for no other reason, because it reads like something from a supermarket tabloid. Come to think of it, didn’t Rupert Murdoch just buy Dow Jones & Company not long ago? If you’re not aware, they also publish, among other things, the Wall Street Journal.

Anyway, whether this speaks to the decline of a once great business publication or the growing power and influence of a coming world leader, only time will tell. Either way, it is clearly another ominous sign of the desperate times in which we live.

The article in question titled, Share International Reveals Christmas Miracle, advises readers to prepare for a coming miracle that all of us will see in the sky shortly before the “emergence of Maitreya and his group, the Masters of Wisdom.”

Allow me to reiterate: This is a major business and financial news publication – not some obscure blog for Bigfoot hunters and UFO enthusiasts.

The article goes on to say:

Look now for the biggest miracle of all. In the very near future a large, bright star will appear in the sky visible to all throughout the world -- night and day.
Unbelievable? Fantasy? No, a simple fact. Around a week later, Maitreya, the World Teacher for all humanity, will begin his open emergence and -- though not yet using the name Maitreya -- will be interviewed on a major US television program.

Who is Maitreya, you ask?

The press release describes him this way:

Awaited by all faiths under different names, Maitreya is the Christ to Christians, the Imam Mahdi to Muslims, Krishna to Hindus, the Messiah to Jews, and Maitreya Buddha to Buddhists. He is the World Teacher for all, religious or not, an educator in the broadest sense.
If that doesn’t peg your spiritual discernment meter, you may want to go have it checked.

What I find fascinating is that this Maitreya fellow seems to have a strangely similar "share and save the world" agenda to that of Purpose Driven Pastor Rick Warren with his Global P.E.A.C.E. Plan and also President-elect Barack Obama with his Global Poverty Act and Universal Service Plan – men who apparently have no aversion to working with any or all of the world religions or non-religions to save the planet – which may explain, at least in part, why Warren is scheduled to lead the invocation at Obama’s upcoming inauguration.

Could this be another not-so-subtle sign of solidarity?

But what was really entertaining was seeing Warren recently proclaim the social gospel as “Marxism in Christian clothing” in the Christian Post.

Who does he think he’s kidding?

Now Obama has used so many names over the years; is it possible that “Maitreya” is just another of them? After all, during his campaign for the presidency, was he not repeatedly referred to as the Messiah?

Who knows – maybe that “bright star” will appear in the sky about a week before his swearing-in ceremony.

Or maybe he and Warren are two of Maitreya’s “Masters of Wisdom.” Or maybe they’re just a couple of flunkies that will be shoved aside when the main act arrives. Or maybe they’re all working together behind the scenes to get us into their save the world through social service mindset in preparation for the big coming out party.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Whatever the case, Mike Oppenheimer has an interesting and informative piece on this mysterious “World Teacher” titled, Maitreya the betrayer, posted on his website, Let Us Reason Ministries, along with a host of links to other related subjects that I have no hesitation recommending to my readers – especially in light of this peculiar press release.

Sure, Christmas might well come and go this year without a miraculous star compelling us all to tune in to Maitreya’s big network television debut – but still, I find it hard to believe that these guys would spend so much time and effort preparing for a non-event that would render everyone involved a laughingstock.

Getting people to take them serious after a fabulous faux pas like that might be a little tough to pull off.

But then, I guess Britney Spears did it.

At least nobody’s trying to sell us another frozen gorilla suit in a freezer.

“For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.”– Matthew 24:24

Related articles:

1. Share International Reveals Christmas Miracle
2. Maitreya the betrayer
3. Global P.E.A.C.E. Plan
4. Global Poverty Act
5. Universal Service Plan
6. Is Barack Obama The Messiah?
7. Social Gospel is 'Marxism in Christian Clothing,' says Warren
8. Christian Leaders Betray Christ For World Peace
9. Betrayal Of Christ By Christian Leaders Continues
10. Christians Partner With Pagans For A Better World
11. Rick Warren Still Doesn’t Get It

Today's Baal worshipers
By Matt Barber
© 2008

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9 NIV)
Modern-day liberals – or "progressives" as they more discreetly prefer – labor under an awkward misconception; namely, that there is anything remotely "progressive" about the fundamental canons of their blind, secular-humanist faith. In fact, today's liberalism is largely a sanitized retread of an antiquated mythology – one that significantly predates the only truly progressive movement: biblical Christianity.

While visiting the Rivermont Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, Va., a few weeks back, I heard a troubling, albeit thought-provoking, sermon. Pastor John Mabray addressed the ancient Canaanite practice of Baal worship and, though he didn't reveal it by name, connected the dots to its present-day progeny: liberalism. Baal, the half-bull, half-man god of fertility, was the focal point of pagan idolatry in Semitic Israel until God revealed His monotheistic nature to Judaism's forebears.

In his sermon, Pastor Mabray illustrated that, although they've now assumed a more contemporary flair, the fundamentals of Baal worship remain alive and well today. The principal pillars of Baalism were child sacrifice, sexual immorality (both heterosexual and homosexual) and pantheism (reverence of creation over the Creator).

Ritualistic Baal worship, in sum, looked a little like this: Adults would gather around the altar of Baal. Infants would then be burned alive as a sacrificial offering to the deity. Amid horrific screams and the stench of charred human flesh, congregants – men and women alike – would engage in bisexual orgies. The ritual of convenience was intended to produce economic prosperity by prompting Baal to bring rain for the fertility of "mother earth."

The natural consequences of such behavior – pregnancy and childbirth – and the associated financial burdens of "unplanned parenthood" were easily offset. One could either choose to engage in homosexual conduct or – with child sacrifice available on demand – could simply take part in another fertility ceremony to "terminate" the unwanted child.

Modern liberalism deviates little from its ancient predecessor. While its macabre rituals have been sanitized with flowery and euphemistic terms of art, its core tenets and practices remain eerily similar. The worship of "fertility" has been replaced with worship of "reproductive freedom" or "choice." Child sacrifice via burnt offering has been updated, ever so slightly, to become child sacrifice by way of abortion. The ritualistic promotion, practice and celebration of both heterosexual and homosexual immorality and promiscuity have been carefully whitewashed – yet wholeheartedly embraced – by the cults of radical feminism, militant "gay rights" and "comprehensive sex education." And, the pantheistic worship of "mother earth" has been substituted – in name only – for radical environmentalism.

But it's not just self-styled "progressives" or secular humanists who have adopted the fundamental pillars of Baalism. In these postmodern times, we've also been graced, regrettably, by the advent of counter-biblical "emergent Christianity" or "quasi-Christianity," as I prefer to call it.

This is merely liberalism all dolled up and gratuitously stamped "Christian." It's a way for left-wing ideologues to have their "religion" cake and eat it too. Under the guise of "social justice," its adherents often support – or at least rationalize – the same pro-homosexual, pro-abortion and radical environmental policies pushed by the modern-day Baal worshiper.

Though the "Christian left" represent what is arguably a negligible minority within larger Christianity, the liberal media have, nonetheless, embraced their cause and seized upon their popularity among elites as evidence that the so-called "Christian right" (read: biblical Christianity) is losing influence – that Christianity is, somehow, "catching up with the times."

Because emergent Christianity fails the authenticity test whenever subjected to even the most perfunctory biblical scrutiny, I suspect it will eventually go – for the most part – the way of the pet rock or the Macarena. But this does not absolve leaders within the evangelical community from a duty to call leaders of this counter-biblical revolution on their heresy. It's not a matter of right versus left; it's a matter of right versus wrong – of biblical versus non-biblical.

Nonetheless, the aforementioned pillars of postmodern Baalism – abortion, sexual relativism and radical environmentalism – will almost certainly make rapid headway over the next four to eight years, with or without help from the Christian left. The gods of liberalism have a new high priest in Barack Obama, and enjoy many devout followers in the Democratic-controlled Congress, liberal media and halls of academia.

Both Obama's social agenda and that of the 111th Congress are rife with unfettered pro-abortion, freedom-chilling, pro-homosexual and power-grabbing environmentalist objectives. The same kind of "hope, action and change," I suppose, that was swallowed up by the Baalist Canaanites of old.

So, today's liberalism is really just a very old book with a shiny new cover. A philosophy rooted in ancient pagan traditions, of which there is naught to be proud.

There's "nothing new under the sun," indeed.

Related special offers:
The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness"

"Liberalism is a Mental Disorder"

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pilgrims bring Christmas joy to Bethlehem

A nun prays in the Grotto at the Church of the Nativity, which Christians believe in the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on December 17.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AFP) - - Pilgrims are bringing Christmas joy to Bethlehem, flocking in large numbers to the traditional birthplace of Jesus where tourism had collapsed during the years of the Palestinian uprising.

"This year is the best since 2000," says Samir Hazbun, who heads the local chamber of commerce, pointing out that the West Bank city welcomed more than one million tourists this year, twice as many as in 2007.

And Christmas will bring even more cheer, he said. "All hotels in every category are full."

That represents as many as 3,000 rooms and a sharp contrast to the violent days of the uprising that started in 2000.

The city of 185,000 has put on its Christmas best to welcome the pilgrims

Garlands of flickering lights, synthetic pine trees, fake snow and other Christmas favourites give a festive, if somewhat commercial, feel to the city.

Souvenir sellers, who expect to do a booming business in icons, carved Nativity scenes, crosses, rosaries and other religious items, set up inflatable Santas and blow-up snowmen outside their stores in a city that about 20,000 Christians call home.

"The atmosphere is good; the tourists have returned massively" said George Babul, sitting outside his Bethlehem Star Store. As church bells rang out, he briefly bowed his head and made the sign of the cross.

A tour guide, giving only his first name, Mohammed, said "being a guide has become a good job again. This year, I have worked almost every day."

Crowds of pilgrims thronged the Church of Nativity, built on the site where Jesus is said to have been born in a stable because there was no room at the inn.

The boom is having a major impact on the city's tourism-driven economy and has brought unemployment down to 23 percent this year from 45 percent in 2002-2003.

Last year was the first since 2000 that saw a significant influx of tourism, and the city shows signs of optimism about the future.

The number of restaurants more than doubled in the course of this year -- jumping from 20 to 50 -- and three new hotels are under construction.

Israeli authorities say they are going all out to ease obstacles to the flow of visitors to Bethlehem during the festive season.

"We believe, when it comes to tourism, there are no borders," says Deputy Director General Raphael Ben-Hur.

But an eight-metre (25 foot) high concrete wall separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, just five kilometres (three miles) to the north.

The wall, which runs for several hundred meters (yards) along the edge of the city, is part of Israel's controversial barrier erected in the West Bank after the Palestinian uprising.

Americans less likely to roam :study
AFP - Saturday, December 20

A grandmother and grandson carry a dresser to a moving van as they move out of their apartment in April 2008 in Arvada, Colorado. Once celebrated for their ability to pack up and move around the country on a whim, Americans are increasingly opting to stay put, according to a report published by the Pew Research Center.

WASHINGTON (AFP) - - Once celebrated for their ability to pack up and move around the country on a whim, Americans are increasingly opting to stay put, according to a report published by the Pew Research Center.

Using polling data and government statistics, Pew found only 13 percent of Americans moved house between 2006-2007, the lowest rate since records began in the 1940s.

According to Thursday's report, roaming has been on the wane since the 1960s -- an era when millions followed beatnik author Jack Kerouac "On the Road."

Analysts say the slipping trend is due to an aging population. "The US population is getting older and most moves are made when people are young," Pew researchers noted.

While the annual rate of migration had stood since the 1960s at around 60 percent, that had fallen last year to its lowest level ever with the onslaught of the property crisis.

Some 38.6 million people moved between 2006-2007, the lowest number since 1982-1983, a period which also saw an economic downturn.

While a majority of Americans have moved region at least once in their lives, now nearly four in 10 have not left their home towns.

But it appears "home" is a relative concept.

While 26 percent said home is where they were born or raised, a similar number said it was where they currently reside, 18 percent said it is where they have lived the longest and four percent said it is where they went to high school.

Among naturalized Americans the majority considered the US as home, while four in six Americans born abroad also described the US as home.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mutilated Christian girl, 10, forgives attackers
'They were out of their minds, they do not know the love of Jesus'
By Chelsea Schilling
© 2008 WorldNetDaily

Namrata Nayak (photo: Asia News)

Hindu extremists may have burned a 10-year-old Christian girl's face, inflicted shrapnel wounds on 40 percent of her body and forced her family to hide in a forest and flee to a refugee camp in Orissa, India, but her plight hasn't shaken her faith and thankfulness to God this season.

"Christmas is a time to thank the baby Jesus who saved me from the fire and saved my face which was disfigured and wounded," Namrata Nayak told Asia News.

Nayak's face was severely mutilated after Hindu extremists bombed the home where she was staying on Aug. 26. They broke into the house and burned it while Nayak and her siblings hid in a small bathroom. Before exiting the home, they left a bomb in a dresser, according to the report.

While the little girl surveyed the destruction, the bomb detonated and burned her face.

The explosion also lodged shrapnel into her face, hands and back.

Nayak's mother, Sudhamani, came running out of the forest where she was hiding.

"We saw everything burned, and feared that everyone had died in the flames," Sudhamani said. "Instead, thanks to God, everyone was safe. Only that my daughter had been wounded. But Jesus took care of her. We took her to the hospital in Berhampur, still unconscious and badly hurt."

Nayak spent 45 days recovering in the hospital. Despite all her troubles, she is cheerful and giving thanks to God for healing her.

"There is so much pain and suffering, and I don't know how long the special forces will protect us," she told Asia News. "But Christmas is a time of gratitude. I am afraid that my people will still be attacked, but this is our life. If God has saved me, he can save other Christians too."

The Hindu attackers have vowed to launch another widespread assault on Christians during Christmas. The violence began after Christians were blamed for the death of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 24. They continue to be persecuted even though Maoists openly admitted to murdering Saraswati.

Hindus have offered money, food and alcohol to anyone who murders Christians and destroys their homes – especially pastors. Thousands of homes and churches have been destroyed, and Christians have been forced to flee the violence. Many have been doused with kerosene and torched after refusing to renounce their Christian faith.

Nonetheless, Nayak urges India's Christians to forgive their Hindu attackers.

"[W]e forgive the Hindu radicals who attacked us, who burned our homes," she told Asia News. "They were out of their minds, they do not know the love of Jesus. For this reason, I now want to study so that when I am older I can tell everyone how much Jesus loves us. This is my future."

Nayak said her life plan is to share the message of God's love.

"The world has seen my face destroyed by the fire, now it must come to know my smile full of love and peace," she said. "I want to dedicate my life to spreading the Gospel."

Australian pet ambulance finds a growing niche

Gareth O'Connor holds his friend's dog 'Spanky' as he sits in his pet ambulance in Sydney. Australian duo Niccole George and Gareth O'Connor have established a 24-hour ambulance service just for pets, to help desperate animal owners unable to transport their sick animals to medical help.

SYDNEY (AFP) - - When veterinary nurse Niccole George heard the sobs on the phone, she felt incapable of doing her job because the collapsed Great Dane's owner was too frail to bring the dog to her.

That was the phone call that inspired George and her partner Gareth O'Connor to start PetMedics, a 24-hour pet ambulance service for pet owners unable to get their animals to help when an emergency arises.

"I had felt so bad for her and wished there was something that I could have done," George, 24, told AFP of the Great Dane.

"So that's where it all came from. We knew there was a market for it and we knew a lot of people needed that service and it was a way we could help out."

With financial support from a non-profit organisation for young adults the couple bought a van. But they had to be more innovative when it came to equipping the vehicle with pet-sized medical tools.

O'Connor drafted in a box-making company in Melbourne to make a pet stretcher using thick tarpaulin, while George flew to the United States to pick up an oxygen chamber from an emergency veterinary conference.

Resuscitation devices were easier to acquire, as only the connections were different from those used for humans.

By the time the service, which generally charges an 85 Australian dollar (59 US) call-out fee, was ready to roll late last year, all that was needed was demand.

George and O'Connor said the round-the-clock service has been busy despite the global financial crisis, which has seen some pet owners abandon their furry friends or cut back on veterinary care as the credit crunch bites.

"In the first months, it was one or two calls a month. But in the next few months, it increased. Now we get over two calls a day," O'Connor said.

In the last six months, Australia's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) has recorded an almost 100 percent increase in the number of dogs and cats surrendered at its south-west Sydney shelter compared to the same time last year.

"We have had an increase of people stating that they are surrendering their pets as they have to make a choice between feeding and caring for their human family and their animals," shelter supervisor Karen Schlieper said.

Despite the impact of the credit crunch, the trend towards personal pet care -- reflected in the emergence of day spas and other luxury treatment for dogs in Sydney -- still points towards a change in the way Australians view their pets, said veterinarian Dr Katrina Warren.

"Pets used to be outdoor animals and dogs used to run the streets and the backyard and cats used to do what they wanted, whereas now pets are definitely a lifestyle decision," Warren said.

"They are often substitute children, they are definitely treated as part of the family. And now that they are accepted as part of the family we absolutely spoil and treat them."

George and O'Connor have witnessed the extent to which pet owners -- one in three Australian households has at least one pet -- become attached to their animal friends.

Often the ambulance is called by owners who are so upset about their sick pets they are unable to drive it to an animal hospital or even explain what is wrong with it.

"Sometimes we get there and they can barely speak, they can only point and we go and help their pet," O'Connor said.

While most of the pets George and O'Connor transport are dogs, cats and birds, the company has also received distress calls to save more usual pets such as a chicken, a goat and a turtle.

George said she believes it is the alienation that some people can feel in an urban environment that makes pets so popular.

"I think pets are for a lot of people that consistent source of affection and loyalty." she said.

Wheel in the sky wows local residents
By Nikki Buskey
Staff Writer

Sandra Ledet of Raceland sent this snapshot of the hole in the clouds she spotted Saturday from her home.

HOUMA — Some people saw Jesus. Others blamed UFOs.

Harkening to the popular Journey song, a wheel in the sky appeared over Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes early Saturday morning, a seemingly perfect hole punched though the sheet of clouds blanketing the sky.

Locals who phoned and e-mailed the Daily Comet and The Courier this weekend about the strange cloud formation did agree on one thing: “It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Raceland resident Sandra Ledet, who shared some spectacular photos with the Daily Comet.

Shawn O’Neil, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Slidell, identified the phenomenon as a hole-punch cloud.

“They don’t occur all that often, and they are usually caused when an aircraft intersects altocumulus or cirrocumulus clouds,” he said.

Altocumulus are high-altitude clouds, usually white or gray in color, that occur in sheets or patches. Cirrocumulus also are high-altitude clouds made up of supercooled liquid water droplets and ice crystals.

An airplane passing through a mixed cloud layer while ascending or descending could disrupt the delicate coexistence between the ice crystals and the supercooled liquid water droplets, causing a hole to be punched in the sky like many residents saw Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

Small-scale atmospheric movements, both up and down, caused by the jet stream, could cause a similar phenomenon.

Some seemed doubtful, when the phenomenon was explained to them, that something like a jet could cause the mystical “hole in the sky” they saw Saturday.

“My daughter called me and she said, ‘Mom, look at the sky,’ and I went back in, got my camera, and started snapping,” Ledet said. “It completely circled my house and then disappeared. It was too big, too round and too low to be caused by a jet.”

Annette Klingman of Houma said her husband called her and told her that there was a “strange thing outside,” and she should get her camera.

“I was in my pajamas, and I went outside and wondered what I was supposed to be looking for,” she said. “But then my son saw it, and it was so huge. It was awesome. It was beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

* Dozens of hole-punch-cloud photos from around the world

Friday, December 12, 2008

7 Surprising Work Habits (That Get the Job Done)
By Patrick Erwin, writer

We've all heard the conventional wisdom about good work habits. Many of us have attended time management classes, participated in workshops and have been advised to "work smarter, not harder."

Some ideas, however, appear at first glance to be unusual or even counterintuitive. But for some employees, these habits keep them productive and motivated. More importantly, these habits help them get the job done.

Here are some surprising work habits that might seem to contradict conventional wisdom, but have helped these workers achieve their goals.

1. Read a book at work
Gail Hernandez, a marketing coordinator in New Hampshire, faced a challenge. "I had to learn several software programs without attending classes," she explains.

Her solution was to press the "pause" button on her regular work so she could read the instruction materials at her desk. "I received some kidding from co-workers, but I am now able to use Illustrator and Dreamweaver," Hernandez says.

Whether it's a textbook, newspaper or white paper, it's beneficial to be informed. Learning and training are ongoing processes.

2. Take frequent breaks -- or longer ones
Many workplaces have designated break times, but several experts suggest that employees follow their instincts instead of schedules and unplug for a moment when your mind or body are on overload.

"Humans can only concentrate for 45 minutes at a time," declares Doris Jeanette, a psychologist with the Center for New Psychology in Philadelphia. Jeanette suggests that employees work for 50 minutes of the hour and use the other 10 minutes to change focus or shift gears.

Sue Painter, a marketing consultant and president of The Confident Marketer, proposes an even longer break. When things are hectic, Painter leaves the office.

"I absolutely force myself to leave for at least an hour. I gain perspective, get refreshed and go back to the office in a much calmer and more effective state of mind," Painter remarks.

3. Blow off low-priority tasks
Author and speaker Allan Bacon insists that blowing off work -- the most unimportant work -- can be beneficial.

"See if anyone notices or complains," Bacon says. Why? In addition to making your "to do" list less cluttered, Bacon believes this tactic gives you more time. "With the extra time, put more thought and effort into your top priorities."

4. Ignore e-mails and voicemail
Most of us respond to e-mails and voicemail as soon as we have a message. But Kate Rawlings, a trainer for talent acquisition firm SearchPath, recommends limited interaction with voicemail and e-mail.

"I check my e-mail twice a day, once in the morning and again at the end of the day," she says. "I'll check voicemail at lunch and at the end of the day."

Even if your responsibilities preclude you from completely ignoring e-mails, you can often minimize the distractions of a steady stream of incoming messages. Programs like Outlook allow you to turn off any pop-up messages that alert you to a new message.

5. Set aside time to clear away the cobwebs
Health economist Patti Peeples suggests that workers set aside one day every month to wrap up any unfinished projects or address incomplete tasks. "This means no e-mail and no phone for one full workday," she says.

When workers spend most of their time on high-priority projects, it's important to designate a time to clear away the cobwebs and resolve any old issues.

6. Goof off
Setting aside time to goof off at work can relieve stress, improve morale and even help with team-building efforts. Most importantly, it can recharge workers who are in the midst of a long, stressful workday.

"It makes a huge difference," saysconsultant Deborah Grayson Riegel, president of Elevated Training. "Surf the Internet, play solitaire, close your eyes. Check out, rest and repair," she suggests.

7. Lower your standards
Riegel says that many people "procrastinate because they are perfectionists. They put off getting started on projects because they want all the conditions to be perfect."

Workers need to remember that perfection isn't always possible and to do the best they can without getting bogged down in unrealistic expectations. Trista Harris, executive director of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice, has a simple suggestion: "Learn to let things be good enough."

If u cn rd this quickly, gd 4 u
Study finds text-message abbreviations are harder to read and understand
By Miral Fahmy

SYDNEY - Mobile phone text-message abbreviations and simplifications are not ruining our spelling, but they do take much longer to read and understand than conventional English, a small Australian study has shown.

University of Tasmania lecturer Nenagh Kemp asked 55 undergraduate students to compose, and then to read aloud, text messages in English and in "textese."

While students were significantly faster using textese, it took almost half the number of students twice as long to read these messages aloud than messages written in proper English.

The students also made more errors reading the textese messages compared to the ones written in English.

"It's quicker to write in textisms, but when you go on to read it, it took people longer. As skilled adult readers, we're used to reading full words and sentences, so it is harder for us to decipher," Kemp, a psychology lecturer who specializes in language use, told Reuters.

Kemp said her research showed that despite the popular belief that textese is ruining spelling, it actually does not reflect literary skills, at least in adults.

She said that an awareness of sound structure and grammar was significantly linked to the ability to decipher some textese.

"It's fine to use textese on a mobile phone, as it saves you time, but you have to make sure your reader understands it," she added. "And don't let it creep into your emails, student essays or job applications. Keep the boundaries."

Python eats chook
By The Cairns Post

PICTURES of a python killing and eating a chicken in a Cairns yard have been submitted exclusively to

Cairns PR consultant Sarah Fraser said "never in her wildest dreams" did she expect to see pythons at her Brinsmead address.

The snake entered both her family home and her chook pen.

Having recently moved from Kuranda, northwest of Cairns, where pythons are prevalant, Ms Fraser said she was shocked to see such a huge python in her house in a residential suburb.

"The photos are pretty gruesome with the snake killing and eating our chook," Ms Fraser said yesterday.

"After its first unsuccessful attempt to catch one of the chooks, the snake had a mouth full of feathers."

Ms Fraser's email submission to The Cairns Post newspaper has followed a number of similar reader contributions to the paper and the paper's website,

The most recent was a picture of a spider taking a bird in Atherton, on the tableand north of Cairns.

Rare Snowfall Hits New Orleans, Parts of Mississippi
The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — A rare snowfall blanketed south Louisiana and parts of Mississippi Thursday, closing schools, government offices and bridges, triggering crashes on major highways and leaving thousands of people without power.

Up to 8 inches of snow was reported in parts of Louisiana. Snow also covered a broad swath of Mississippi, including the Jackson area, and closed schools in more than a dozen districts.

A heavy band of snow coated windshields and grassy areas in New Orleans, where about 1 inch accumulated. Office workers stepped out of high-rises to catch a snowflake, snap pictures with cell-phone cameras and swap snow stories.

New Orleans' last snowfall, in 2004, was a dusting. The National Weather Service said the previous earliest date for measurable snowfall in New Orleans was Dec. 22, 1989.

In Louisiana, roughly 10,000 power outages were reported by Cleco Corp., one of the state's largest power providers. The company said it expected most of the outages to be restored by nightfall.

Some Thursday morning flights at Louis Armstrong International Airport outside New Orleans were delayed and canceled, but the airport said flights were back to normal by the afternoon.

In southeast Louisiana, temperatures were above freezing so accumulations were not expected to linger much beyond Thursday.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Vets fix feline's face after 'cat'-astrophe
By Russell Contreras,
Associated Press Writer

Edgar, a 4-year-old long-haired female cat, is seen with stitches running the length of her face while resting with an Elizabethan collar around her neck following surgery at the Angell Animal Medical Center, in Boston, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008. Veterinarians completed an unusual surgery to reattach the face of the cat that was slashed by a car's fan belt while she apparently tried to stay warm under the hood. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

BOSTON - Me-ouch! Veterinarians on Tuesday performed an unusual surgery to reattach the face of a cat they believe was injured by a car's fan belt, probably because she tried to stay warm under the hood.

Edgar, a 4-year-old long-haired feline, went missing from her home in Winthrop for three days last week. When she finally came home, her owner found her in her litter box _ with part of her face dangling from her head.

"When her owner saw her face, she passed out," said Elizabeth Kendrick, a surgical technician at Angell Animal Medical Center.

The owner, who asked not to be identified, recovered from the shock and rushed Edgar to an animal hospital.

Remarkably, Edgar suffered no major blood loss nor any permanent nerve damage from her accident. She just needed to have her facial skin stitched back on during an hour-long surgery, according to veterinary surgeon Michael Pavletic.

"And she should be fine after this," Pavletic said.

Besides the skin hanging from Edgar's face, Edgar seemed normal, Kendrick said.

"She was purring and sticking her head up so we could pet her," Kendrick said. "She even tried to chew at her skin. I'd never seen anything like it."

Pavletic reattached Edgar's face using about 35 stitches. She came through the surgery with no problems, though she looks as though someone punched her in the eye. "She'll need to take some medicine but I don't anticipate her having any problems," Pavletic said.

Bonnie Beaver, a professor of small animal clinical services at Texas A&M University, said such animal injuries are extremely rare since cats are usually killed instantly from car fan belts.

"She may have problems later," Beaver said, "but the cat was saying, `I may have lost this life but, by golly, I have eight more.'"

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Turning the Bible on its Head -- Newsweek Goes for Gay Marriage
By Albert Mohler

Newsweek magazine, one of the most influential news magazines in America, has decided to come out for same-sex marriage in a big way, and to do so by means of a biblical and theological argument. In its cover story for this week, "The Religious Case for Gay Marriage," Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller offers a revisionist argument for the acceptance of same-sex marriage. It is fair to say that Newsweek has gone for broke on this question.

Miller begins with a lengthy dismissal of the Bible's relevance to the question of marriage in the first place. "Let's try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does," Miller suggests. If so, she argues that readers will find a confusion of polygamy, strange marital practices, and worse.

She concludes: "Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?" She answers, "Of course not, yet the religious opponents of gay marriage would have it be so."

Now, wait just a minute. Miller's broadside attack on the biblical teachings on marriage goes to the heart of what will appear as her argument for same-sex marriage. She argues that, in the Old Testament, "examples of what social conservatives call 'the traditional family' are scarcely to be found." This is true, of course, if what you mean by 'traditional family' is the picture of America in the 1950s. The Old Testament notion of the family starts with the idea that the family is the carrier of covenant promises, and this family is defined, from the onset, as a transgenerational extended family of kin and kindred.

But, at the center of this extended family stands the institution of marriage as the most basic human model of covenantal love and commitment. And this notion of marriage, deeply rooted in its procreative purpose, is unambiguously heterosexual.

As for the New Testament, "Ozzie and Harriet are nowhere" to be found. Miller argues that both Jesus and Paul were unmarried (emphatically true) and that Jesus "preached a radical kind of family, a caring community of believers, whose bond in God superseded all blood ties." Jesus clearly did call for a commitment to the Gospel and to discipleship that transcended family commitments. Given the Jewish emphasis on family loyalty and commitment, this did represent a decisive break.

But Miller also claims that "while the Bible and Jesus say many important things about love and family, neither explicitly defines marriage as between one man and one woman." This is just patently untrue. Genesis 2:24-25 certainly reveals marriage to be, by the Creator's intention, a union of one man and one woman. To offer just one example from the teaching of Jesus, Matthew 19:1-8 makes absolutely no sense unless marriage "between one man and one woman" is understood as normative.

As for Paul, he did indeed instruct the Corinthians that the unmarried state was advantageous for the spread of the Gospel. His concern in 1 Corinthians 7 is not to elevate singleness as a lifestyle, but to encourage as many as are able to give themselves totally to an unencumbered Gospel ministry. But, in Corinth and throughout the New Testament church, the vast majority of Christians were married. Paul will himself assume this when he writes the "household codes" included in other New Testament letters.

The real issue is not marriage, Miller suggests, but opposition to homosexuality. Surprisingly, Miller argues that this prejudice against same-sex relations is really about opposition to sex between men. She cites the Anchor Bible Dictionary as stating that "nowhere in the Bible do its authors refer to sex between women." She would have done better to look to the Bible itself, where in Romans 1:26-27 Paul writes: "For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error."

Again, this passage makes absolutely no sense unless it refers very straightforwardly to same-sex relations among both men and women -- with the women mentioned first.

Miller dismisses the Levitical condemnations of homosexuality as useless because "our modern understanding of the world has surpassed its prescriptions." But she saves her most creative dismissal for the Apostle Paul. Paul, she concedes, "was tough on homosexuality." Nevertheless, she takes encouragement from the fact that "progressive scholars" have found a way to re-interpret the Pauline passages to refer only to homosexual violence and promiscuity.

In this light she cites author Neil Elliott and his book, The Arrogance of Nations. Elliott, like other "progressive scholars," suggests that the modern notion of sexual orientation is simply missing from the biblical worldview, and thus the biblical authors are not really talking about what we know as homosexuality at all. "Paul is not talking about what we call homosexuality at all," as Miller quotes Elliott.

Of course, no honest reader of the biblical text will share this simplistic and backward conclusion. Furthermore, to accept this argument is to assume that the Christian church has misunderstood the Bible from its very birth -- and that we are now dependent upon contemporary "progressive scholars" to tell us what Christians throughout the centuries have missed.

Tellingly, Miller herself seems to lose confidence in this line of argument, explaining that "Paul argued more strenuously against divorce—and at least half of the Christians in America disregard that teaching." In other words, when the argument is failing, change the subject and just declare victory. "Religious objections to gay marriage are rooted not in the Bible at all, then, but in custom and tradition," Miller simply asserts -- apparently asking her readers to forget everything they have just read.

Miller picks her sources carefully. She cites Neil Elliott but never balances his argument with credible arguments from another scholar, such as Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary [See his response to Elliott here]. Her scholarly sources are chosen so that they all offer an uncorrected affirmation of her argument. The deck is decisively stacked.

She then moves to the claim that sexual orientation is "exactly the same thing" as skin color when it comes to discrimination. As recent events have suggested, this claim is not seen as credible by many who have suffered discrimination on the basis of skin color.

As always, the bottom line is biblical authority. Lisa Miller does not mince words. "Biblical literalists will disagree," she allows, "but the Bible is a living document, powerful for more than 2,000 years because its truths speak to us even as we change through history." This argument means, of course, that we get to decide which truths are and are not binding on us as "we change through history."

"A mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we have in the past, to move beyond literalism," she asserts. "The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it's impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours."

All this comes together when Miller writes, "We cannot look to the Bible as a marriage manual, but we can read it for universal truths as we struggle toward a more just future." At this point the authority of the Bible is reduced to whatever "universal truths" we can distill from its (supposed) horrifyingly backward and oppressive texts.

Even as she attempts to make her "religious case" for gay marriage, Miller has to acknowledge that "very few Jewish or Christian denominations do officially endorse gay marriage, even in the states where it is legal." Her argument now grinds to a conclusion with her hope that this will change. But -- and this is a crucial point -- if her argument had adequate traction, she wouldn't have to make it. It is not a thin extreme of fundamentalist Christians who stand opposed to same-sex marriage -- it is the vast majority of Christian churches and denominations worldwide.

Disappointingly, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham offers an editorial note that broadens Newsweek's responsibility for this atrocity of an article and reveals even more of the agenda: "No matter what one thinks about gay rights—for, against or somewhere in between —this conservative resort to biblical authority is the worst kind of fundamentalism," Meacham writes. "Given the history of the making of the Scriptures and the millennia of critical attention scholars and others have given to the stories and injunctions that come to us in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, to argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt—it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition."

Well, that statement sets the issue clearly before us. He insists that "to argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt." No serious student of the Bible can deny the challenge of responsible biblical interpretation, but the purpose of legitimate biblical interpretation is to determine, as faithfully as possible, what the Bible actually teaches -- and then to accept, teach, apply, and obey.

The national news media are collectively embarrassed by the passage of Proposition 8 in California. Gay rights activists are publicly calling on the mainstream media to offer support for gay marriage, arguing that the media let them down in November. It appears that Newsweek intends to do its part to press for same-sex marriage. Many observers believe that the main obstacle to this agenda is a resolute opposition grounded in Christian conviction. Newsweek clearly intends to reduce that opposition

Newsweek could have offered its readers a careful and balanced review of the crucial issues related to this question. It chose another path -- and published this cover story. The magazine's readers and this controversial issue deserved better.