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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Don't Buy It Now
What to avoid on eBay—and what's still worth shopping for on the venerable auction site.
By Farhad Manjoo

EBay doesn't know what to do with itself. The company made it big by hosting online auctions, but now auctions are passé—people want to buy stuff quickly, and waiting several days to find out whether you won that Hello Kitty contact lens case can be a drag. Over the last few years, rivals like Amazon have expanded into electronics and apparel and every other retail category, and eBay has seen its growth stall. Now John Donahoe, eBay's CEO, says he'd like the site to become a kind of online Costco—a place where "the inventory is somewhat fluid, but everything they've got is a great deal."* He wants more sellers to ditch weeklong auctions in favor of fixed-price listings, and he's aiming to get people to sell commodity items like computers and electronics for deep discounts.

EBay's predicament got me thinking about my own history with the site. I used to be an eBay fiend—whenever I needed something, I'd look there first, and I'd usually get a good deal. But I gradually soured on the site. I had a few bad experiences—I bought a monitor that never arrived, for one—but it also grew to be a hassle. Every eBay purchase requires an investigation—you've got to make sure the seller is on the level, you've got to make sure his return policy is reasonable, you've got to be on the lookout for exorbitant shipping costs and other fine print. It was a headache, and I found it much easier to look for discounts on Amazon or Google's product search engine.

But eBay is still useful for certain kinds of items. Here's my hit list, the categories in which eBay still beats its rivals. Below that, I'll run through the products you should never shop for on eBay.

Used computers: If you choose wisely, a computer that's a few months to a year old will serve you just as well as a new machine—and it'll save you a bundle, too. EBay is the best place to find such deals. The site teems with computer resellers who buy old machines and fix them up, and there are also lots of ordinary people looking to get rid of their computers because they're moving on to something better.

Here's my strategy for finding a bargain on a pre-owned computer: First, pick a new machine you like. Go to Dell, Apple, or another favorite manufacturer's online store and price out the whole thing—plug in all your hardware and software requirements, calculate tax and shipping, and proceed all the way to the checkout screen. Then, just before you press "Buy," head over to eBay, click the laptop or desktop category, and select the same specs. Also, click "Used." Chances are you'll find the same machine—or maybe an even better one—for a lot less than the new one you just priced out.

Because the computer isn't new, it won't be perfect. Make sure to read the listing carefully in search of any defects—and remember that if you're OK with some slight cosmetic blemishes, you'll get an even better deal. Some sellers call their machines "refurbished" instead of "used"; these are usually old computers dressed up with new parts, and in my experience they run pretty well. Also, pay attention to what the computer is missing. Some resellers don't include original CDs or user's manuals, and if those are important to you, don't buy.

All this work pays off. Take a look at eBay's completed auctions to see how much you can save by buying used: If you bought a 15-inch Inspiron laptop with a dual-core processor from Dell, you'd pay at least $500; on eBay, similar machines have sold for less than $400. Purchased new, Lenovo's T400 Thinkpad series starts at $749, but used models can be had for less than $500.

Apple fans are also in luck. Macs have higher resale value than PCs—there's only one manufacturer and lots of potential customers—but I've noticed that Mac users tend to take good care of their machines, too, so a year-old Apple can still look brand new. You'll get an especially good deal if you're willing to buy an older model just after a new one has come out. Apple introduced a new 17-inch MacBook Pro earlier this year; it sells for $2,799. On eBay, you can find last year's 17-inch MacBook Pro going for less than $1,700.

Electronics: You can use eBay to buy new iPods, iPhones, cameras, and GPS devices in the same way you'd use it for computers. Find the new model you like first, then search for a used model on eBay—and buy it at a discount. But for gadgets, eBay is handier when you're selling. Say you've got an 8GB iPod Touch but find yourself needing more room? Unload your iPod on eBay—if it's in good condition, you'll recover three-quarters or more of what you paid for it, enough for a down payment on your new music player.

Designer and brand-name clothes: Shopping at outlet stores is a hassle. You drive miles to find the best ones, and when you finally get there you're forced to spend hours sorting through piles of last-season's styles to find something you like. eBay automates outlet shopping. Deal-hunters from all over the country go out and buy up outlet merchandise, then they put it up for sale without much markup.

To be sure, shopping for clothes online is not for everyone; I suspect unpicky men will find eBay more useful than stylish women. I know just the style and size of Banana Republic slacks that work for me. So whenever I'm in need of new pants, I head to eBay and buy that pair in a few different colors—for about half what I would have paid in the store. I do the same thing with socks and underwear, but for shirts—which can't be as uniform—I need to shop at the store.

Still, eBay has a lot to offer fashionistas. Whenever you're agonizing about putting down a month's rent for something you found in Vogue, check eBay first. Not long ago, my fiancee found a smashing Diane von Furstenberg coat at Bloomingdale's going for $800. A few weeks later, she bought it on eBay for half the price.

Now for the bad stuff—the eBay listings you should stay away from:

Computer components: EBay is great for buying whole computers; it's not as reliable for the accessories that go along with those machines, things like hard drives, printers, monitors, processors, and RAM. Sure, you can find a good deal on eBay for many of these items, and you may even find sellers who are trustworthy. But you'll be taking an unnecessary risk. These items are commodities, which means you'll find a low price wherever you look online. It's better, then, to go with stores that take pains to carefully describe the item you're buying and that have solid return policies—stores like NewEgg or Amazon.

There's one exception to this general prohibition—computer operating systems. Apple sells the Mac OS for $129, and Microsoft sells Windows Vista Home Premium for $259.95. eBay has both new and used copies—genuine, unpirated copies—of each OS for far less—you'll pay less than $85 for Mac and less than $100 for Vista.

Tickets: Sure, eBay (and its subsidiary StubHub) has tickets to just about every concert and sporting event you'd ever want to attend. And if you've got a lot of money, by all means, feed the scalpers. But for many events, I've found that Craigslist works much better. This is especially true if you're looking at the last minute. When ticket holders realize that they can't make it to tomorrow's game, Craigslist is the first place they turn to unload their seats. Many are desperate enough that they'll sell their seats for face value, sometimes less—and they're local, so it'll be easy to arrange the trade.

That's my list, but I'd love to hear yours. What do you use eBay for, and when do you avoid it? Send me an e-mail or post a note in "The Fray" to let me know. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise.) I'll post your killer eBay ideas in a future column.

'Up': More Pixar Perfection
By Mary Pols,
Special to MSN Movies

Any movie that captures the depths of human grieving, the vise grip of mortality and the heartbreak of missed opportunities is remarkable, although, usually, not all that fun. Pixar's latest, "Up," accomplishes all of the above with grace and wisdom, but what's extraordinary about the studio's 10th film -- and its first in 3-D -- is that it is also hilarious and likely to charm every member of the family.

Once again, Pixar challenges itself with a protagonist who is, at least superficially, less than bewitching. Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) is not a rat, race car or robot, but he does represent a demographic generally cast aside by our culture: the elderly. Retired balloon salesman Carl is not just an old man, he's a crotchety widower, resisting the retirement community and clinging to the home he once shared with his wife, Ellie, even as a growing city threatens to overtake his small patch of land.

The movie is a double love story. First there is the love between Carl and Ellie (as a child, she's voiced by Elie Docter, the daughter of director Pete Docter), which plays out in a wordless but lyrical and eloquent montage. It demonstrates the crushing weight of being left behind. It wrecks you. And it sets you up to wish the very best for Carl, even if he's a grump. Docter (third animator in at Pixar and director of "Monsters, Inc.") and his co-writer/director, Bob Peterson, modeled him on George Booth cartoons from the New Yorker, Walter Matthau, and Spencer Tracy, who he most physically resembles.

The second love story is the one Carl has with a boy and a dog and, more broadly, life. From the time they were children, he and Ellie planned to have great adventures, starting with following in the footsteps of explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) by visiting Paradise Falls in South America (inspired by multiple locations, including Angel Falls in Venezuela and Mount Roraima in Guyana). That never happened. But then, in a last-ditch effort to save himself from becoming an inmate in a nursing home, Carl harnesses thousands of helium balloons to his house and literally takes flight, with Paradise Falls as his goal.

He's accompanied, inadvertently, by an openhearted boy in a Wilderness Explorer uniform, Russell (Jordan Nagai). Russell looks a bit like the plump, floating people of "Wall-E," except he's determined to be useful in the world. His back-story is only hinted at, but it's clear he's the child of divorce, and a boy who misses his father almost as much as Carl misses Ellie.

There are so many important metaphors here, revolving around the aging man rising heavenward, carrying with him everything that remains of his days, that the movie nearly overwhelms you with its beauty. The strange imagery of this house, soaring above the clouds, is instantly, powerfully, right and unforgettable. As with "The Wizard of Oz," you see "Up" and can't imagine a world without it, even though none of this ever entered into your previous fantasy world.

But at Pixar, an ability to put existence -- human or otherwise -- into perspective has always gone hand-in-hand with an unbeatable sense of humor. Cue what's waiting for Carl and Russell in South America: a pack of dogs that are Pixar's most sublimely amusing creations yet. Through specially engineered collars, these dogs don't really talk, it's more like they think aloud. Dug, who looks like a squattened golden retriever, is the sweetest. Alpha, the Doberman pinscher who leads the pack, is the meanest, and, due to a technical error involving his sound box, also the funniest. I look forward to studying their every word at leisure in the coming years, when my own laughter isn't drowning out their next line.

Finally, a word must be said about Pixar's first foray into the rapidly growing trend of 3-D animation. The 3-D technology is subtle and expertly used by craftsmen and craftswomen who make it merely another tool in their artistic arsenal, rather than an opportunity to throw things at the audience (as in, say, the oafish "Monsters vs. Aliens"). That's smart thinking, given that kid-oriented movies have substantial second lives inside the world's living rooms, where 3-D glasses are not the norm. The added visual dimensionality of "Up" is a treat, but it's not essential. I suspect that won't be true of the first movie to convince me of the worth of 3-D, the visually brilliant "Coraline," which I'm not sure I could bear to see in its flattened form. "Up" is so fully realized that it can live large no matter the dimension.

Also: Read Cinemama's review of 'Up'

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why I can't stand Atheists
By Charlotte Allen

I can't stand atheists — but it's not because they don't believe in God. It's because they're crashing bores.

Other people, most recently the British cultural critic Terry Eagleton in his new book "Faith, Reason, and Revolution," take to task such superstar nonbelievers as Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion") and political journalist Christopher Hitchens ("God Is Not Great") for indulging in a philosophically primitive opposition of faith and reason that assumes that if science can't prove something, it doesn't exist.

My problem with atheists is their tiresome — and way old — insistence that they are being oppressed and their fixation with the fine points of Christianity. What, did their Sunday school teachers flog their behinds with a Bible when they were kids?

Read Dawkins, or Hitchens, or the works of fellow atheists Sam Harris ("The End of Faith") and Daniel Dennett ("Breaking the Spell"), or visit an atheist Web site or blog (there are zillions of them, bearing such titles as "God Is for Suckers," "God Is Imaginary" and "God Is Pretend"), and your eyes will glaze over as you peruse — again and again — the obsessively tiny range of topics around which atheists circle like water in a drain.

First off, there's atheist victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we don't believe in God.

Although a recent Pew Forum survey on religion found that 16 percent of Americans describe themselves as religiously
unaffiliated, only 1.6 percent call themselves atheists, with another 2.4 percent weighing in as agnostics (a group despised as wishy-washy by atheists). You or I might attribute the low numbers to atheists' failure to win converts to their unbelief, but atheists say the problem is persecution so relentless that it drives tens of millions of God-deniers into a closet of feigned faith, like gays before Stonewall.

In his online "Atheist Manifesto," Harris writes that "no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that ... God exists."

The evidence? Antique clauses in the constitutions of six — count 'em — states barring atheists from office.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled such provisions unenforceable nearly 50 years ago, but that doesn't stop atheists from bewailing that they have to hide their Godlessness from friends, relatives, employers and potential dates. One representative of the pity-poor-me school of atheism, Kathleen Goodman, writing in January for the Chronicle of Higher Education, went so far as to promote affirmative action for atheists on college campuses: specially designated, college-subsidized "safe spaces" for them to express their views.

Maybe atheists wouldn't be so unpopular if they stopped beating the drum until the hide splits on their second-favorite topic: How stupid people are who believe in God.

This is a favorite Dawkins theme. In a recent interview with Trina Hoaks, the atheist blogger for the Web site, Dawkins described religious believers as follows: "They feel uneducated, which they are; often rather stupid, which they are; inferior, which they are; and paranoid about pointy-headed intellectuals from the East Coast looking down on them, which, with some justification, they do." Thanks, Richard!

Dennett likes to call atheists "the Brights," in contrast to everybody else, who obviously aren't so bright. In a 2006 essay describing his brush with death after a heart operation, Dennett wrote these thoughts about his religious friends who told him they were praying for his recovery: "Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?" With friends like Daniel Dennett, you don't need enemies.

Then there's P.Z. Myers, biology professor at the University of Minnesota's Morris campus, whose blog, Pharyngula, is supposedly about Myers' field, evolutionary biology, but is actually about his fanatical propensity to label religious believers as "idiots," "morons," "loony" or "imbecilic" in nearly every post. The university deactivated its link to Myers' blog in July after he posted a photo of a consecrated host from a Catholic Mass that he had pierced with a rusty nail and thrown into the garbage ("I hope Jesus' tetanus shots are up to date") in an effort to prove that Catholicism is bunk — or something.

Myers' blog exemplifies atheists' frenzied fascination with Christianity and the Bible. Atheist Web site after atheist Web site insists that Jesus either didn't exist or "was a jerk" (in the words of one blogger) because he didn't eliminate smallpox or world poverty. At the American Atheists Web site, a writer complains that God "set up" Adam and Eve, knowing in advance that they would eat the forbidden fruit. A blogger on A Is for Atheist has been going through the Bible chapter by chapter and verse by verse in order to prove its "insanity" (he or she had gotten up to the Book of Joshua when I last looked).

Another topic that atheists beat like the hammer on the anvil in the old Anacin commercials is Darwinism versus creationism. Maybe Darwin-o-mania stems from the fact that this year marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth in 1809, but haven't atheists heard that many religious people (including the late Pope John Paul II) don't have a problem with evolution but, rather, regard it as God's way of letting his living creation unfold? Furthermore, even if human nature as we know it is a matter of lucky adaptations, how exactly does that disprove the existence of God?

And then there's the question of why atheists are so intent on trying to prove that God not only doesn't exist but is evil to boot. Dawkins, writing in "The God Delusion," accuses the deity of being a "petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak" as well as a "misogynistic, homophobic, racist ... bully." If there is no God — and you'd be way beyond stupid to think differently — why does it matter whether he's good or evil?

The problem with atheists — and what makes them such excruciating snoozes — is that few of them are interested in making serious metaphysical or epistemological arguments against God's existence, or in taking on the serious arguments that theologians have made attempting to reconcile, say, God's omniscience with free will or God's goodness with human suffering. Atheists seem to assume that the whole idea of God is a ridiculous absurdity, the "flying spaghetti monster" of atheists' typically lame jokes. They think that lobbing a few Gaza-style rockets accusing God of failing to create a world more to their liking ("If there's a God, why aren't I rich?" "If there's a God, why didn't he give me two heads so I could sleep with one head while I get some work done with the other?") will suffice to knock down the entire edifice of belief.

What primarily seems to motivate atheists isn't rationalism but anger — anger that the world isn't perfect, that someone forced them to go to church as children, that the Bible contains apparent contradictions, that human beings can be hypocrites and commit crimes in the name of faith. The vitriol is extraordinary. Hitchens thinks that "religion spoils everything." Dawkins contends that raising one's offspring in one's religion constitutes child abuse. Harris argues that it "may be ethical to kill people" on the basis of their beliefs. The perennial atheist litigant Michael Newdow sued (unsuccessfully) to bar President Barack Obama from uttering the words "so help me God" when he took his oath of office.

What atheists don't seem to realize is that even for believers, faith is never easy in this world of injustice, pain and delusion. Even for believers, God exists just beyond the scrim of the senses. So, atheists, how about losing the tired sarcasm and boring self-pity and engaging believers seriously?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In decaying downtown, Johannesburg repairs forgotten organ

People walk past an organ built in 1916 at the Johannesburg City Hall. The gold-trimmed, three-storey organ in Johannesburg's City Hall was once rated among the world's best, but like the rest of downtown it has fallen into an almost unusable state of disrepair.

JOHANNESBURG(AFP) - - The gold-trimmed, three-storey organ in Johannesburg's City Hall was once rated among the world's best, but like the rest of downtown it has fallen into an almost unusable state of disrepair.

Now experts are painstakingly examining its thousands of pipes at the start of a multimillion-dollar restoration project that aims to turn the hall back into a cultural landmark, as part of the city's broader effort to revive downtown Johannesburg.

"It is one of the most beautiful organs I have seen, look at the wonderful woodwork," said Austrian organ builder and renovator Wendelin Eberle. "It's really a piece of art."

The organ was built in 1916 by famed British makers Norman and Beard, 30 years after the gold rush that spawned Africa's wealthiest city, one of just three of its kind in the world.

Designed to accompany a choir or orchestra, the organ transformed the colonial hall's West Wing into a cultural magnet for the rising city.

Over time, City Hall also suffered wounds from South Africa's violent history. The site of some of the earliest protest marches against apartheid in the 1950s, the building was the target of a bomb attack at its main entrance in 1988.

When democracy arrived in 1994, the hall became a voter education centre for the elections that brought Nelson Mandela as president.

As South Africa's crime rate soared to global highs over the last two decades, many business left their downtown towers for fresher northern suburbs, leaving the city centres to sidewalk vendors hawking their wares outside crumbling buildings.

City Hall remains in use as the provincial legislature, but the organ hasn't been touched in six years, and Eberle said a 1974 modernisation that sought to update its neo-baroque sound may have done more harm than good.

"The arrangements were changed and things were mixed up," he said.

Petty vandalism has also scarred the organ, like the rest of downtown. Some of the pipes have been stolen, while others were damaged by rats, Eberle said.

Faced with the pressing needs to fight still-crushing levels of poverty, unemployment and crime, South Africa's government has trimmed much of its cultural spending, but the Austrian embassy is financing Eberle's study to determine how to repair the organ.

"Cultural heritage preservation is worthwhile because it's your history," said Austrian ambassador Otto Ditz. "The organ is the king of all instruments -- it can accompany the orchestra, but can be soft enough assist a vocalist."

The city is trying to turn the hall into a tourist attraction and a venue for cultural activities. Johannesburg has already seen some success in using theatres and music venues as anchors to revive downtown neighbourhoods

If the organ is fully restored, the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra could make its home there, its conductor Michael Hankison said.

"Many choirs in the townships can't afford instruments, let alone hire an orchestra. The organ will be a lovely asset to them," he said.

A proper restoration will take about three years and likely cost millions of dollars, Eberle said.

The organ has thousands of pipes that are just millimetres wide, while the largest is at least 50 centimetres (20 inches) wide and 10 metres (33 feet) long. Just repairing and installing those would take six months, he said.

Eberle, who has travelled the world to build and repair organs, said Johannesburg's is a forgotten treasure.

"The organ is like an orchestra, it also has different voices," he said.

"There had been so much damage by people who didn't know what they were doing and tampered with the organ. As a result the instrument has been lost."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Neb. boy, 6, takes wheel after dad passes out
The Associated Press

In this May 20, 2009 photo Tustin Mains, 6, is seen, in North Platte, Neb. Police say Tustin Mains, grabbed the wheel of his family's pickup truck May 17, 2009, when his father passed out from low blood sugar, keeping the vehicle from crashing until an officer could bring it to a halt. The kindergartner steered the truck several blocks, even turning around when he entered a neighborhood he didn't recognize, until he was spotted by police.
(AP Photo/The North Platte Telegraph, Mark Young)

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. – A 6-year-old boy grabbed the wheel of his family's pickup truck when his father passed out from low blood sugar, keeping the vehicle from crashing until an officer could bring it to a halt, police said.

Tustin Mains was in the back seat with his 3-year-old brother Sunday when his father, Phillip Mains, slumped over at the wheel, the boy told police. The family had been driving home from a restaurant.

"I remember getting up to about the mall — that was about 6:45," Mains told The North Platte Telegraph. "The next thing I remember was waking up to the officer and paramedics, and it was 8:15."

Tustin leapt into his father's lap so he could steer and see out the windshield. Mains' foot had slipped off the accelerator, but even at idle the Chevrolet Avalanche was going an estimated 10-15 mph, police said.

The kindergartner steered the truck several blocks, even turning around when he entered a neighborhood he didn't recognize, until he was spotted by police.

North Platte officer Roger Freeze ran up to the moving pickup, reached through an open window and rammed the gearshift into park.

Police Chief Martin Gutschenritter praised his officer and young Tustin.

"I will be issuing him a departmental citation for his quick, professional action on this case. That is also a very special young man. He was able to take quick action when his dad was incapacitated, and we are very proud of him, too," Gutschenritter said.

When he saw his dad "fall asleep," Tustin said, he got scared, then got another fright when officer Freeze appeared at the truck's window.

But when Freeze abruptly stopped the pickup?

"I was just happy," Tustin said.

Information from: The North Platte Telegraph,

Alaska cracks down on man who feeds wild bears
By Mary Pemberton,
Associated Press Writer

This undated photo released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shows Charlie Vandergaw with a brown bear at his property near Alexander Creek, Alaska. The 70-year-old retired science teacher who has been feeding bears at his property in the Susitna River valley about fifty miles northwest of Anchorage, Alaska, for 20 years was charged with 20 counts of illegally feeding game in May, 2009.
(AP Photo/Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Charlie Vandergaw is crazy about bears.

That's obvious in a documentary made last year by a British filmmaker at Vandergaw's remote Alaska cabin and featured in the recent Animal Planet series "Stranger Among Bears." The videos show him scratching the belly of one black bear as if it was the family dog, feeding a cookie to a large black bear sitting under a tree, and feeding dog kibble to a cub from his outstretched hand.

Vandergaw has been coexisting with bears this way for the last 20 years, and he wants to be left alone.

That is not likely to happen now that the state is using a beefed-up law to prosecute Vandergaw for feeding bears. Game officials consider feeding bears a danger to humans, especially if others duplicate the behavior.

Not everyone thinks the state needs to be going after a 70-year-old retired teacher and wrestling coach.

Even if Vandergaw ends up being killed by the bears he loves, that's the Alaska way, said John Frost, who has been friends with Vandergaw for years. He recalled that when he came to Alaska in 1973 he saw a T-shirt that said "Alaska land of the individual and other endangered species."

"Yet here we are as a state going to crush this kind, gentle little guy," Frost said.

The bears at Vandergaw's cabin about 50 miles northwest of Anchorage are more than bold, said Sean Farley, a research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who helped troopers serve a search warrant on Farley's cabin last year.

During the search, bears had be scared off with "cracker shots" that make a loud noise when fired.

If bears were that bold in an Anchorage park or campground, Farley said, he would recommend they be shot right away.

He also noted what happened to filmmaker Richard Terry at Vandergaw's cabin: "He got whacked and dragged across the yard by one of the bears during filming. Charlie has been nipped and slapped around."

The state last week charged Vandergaw with 20 counts of illegally feeding game — a charge that could put him in jail for a year and fine him $10,000.

The law was recently changed to include stiffer fines and jail time, and Frost says it was specifically changed to go after his friend, Vandergaw. Farley denies that Vandergaw was the motivation behind the stiffer penalties.

There was no comment from Vandergaw. No one answered the door at his Anchorage home Wednesday and he hasn't responded to messages. The state has seized the plane that he normally would use to reach the cabin, Bear Haven, which isn't accessible by road. According to charging documents, the plane was used to transport dog food to the cabin.

Vandergaw's lawyer, Kevin T. Fitzgerald, said in a statement that he found the state charges "curious as to both timing and substance." He said Vandergaw stopped feeding bears last year.

The documentary describes how Vandergaw once hunted bears but quit after an encounter with a bear 20 years ago, shortly after he retired in 1985. A black bear appeared on his yard and crawled up to him on its belly. According to the Animal Planet Web site, Vandergaw reciprocated, and the encounter started "a long-lasting love affair" with bears.

Farley said there is a psychological component to Vandergaw's behavior with the bears. "They are associating with Charlie only because of the food. That association is fulfilling some psychological need for Charlie," he said.

Many Alaskans think Vandergaw is just plain crazy and lucky not to be "Treadwelled," a term used by some unsympathetic Alaskans referring to Timothy Treadwell, a self-described "bear protector" who had a similarly chummy relationship with bears. He and his girlfriend were eaten by grizzlies in Katmai National Park in 2003.

On one of the videos, Vandergaw says: "I think basically what I do is my business as long as I'm not hurting anyone."

But Farley said Vandergaw was profiting from Bear Haven and had drawn two friends into his enterprise. They also were charged.

According to charging documents, Firecracker Films in London paid Vandergaw and co-defendant Carla Garrod nearly $79,000.

"Charlie hasn't just been quietly feeding them. He has been profiting from it," Farley said.

Charging documents say a search of the home of Garrod — a real estate appraiser who also owns a photo business called C&C Bear Imagery — found receipts for thousands of pounds of dog food and hundreds of pounds of cookies.

Also charged was another Vandergaw friend, Terry Cartee. Documents say Cartee delivered 2,800 pounds of dog food to Vandergaw.

"It is unfortunate that the state of Alaska has taken this action now after turning a blind eye toward Mr. Vandergaw and his activities in the Susitna River valley for many years," Brent Cole, Garrod's lawyer, said in a statement. "This is an unfortunate occurrence which should make all citizens of Alaska pause and contemplate the unbridled power of the state of Alaska."

On the Net:
"Stranger Among Bears" video:

No such thing as "deleted" on the Internet
By Christopher Null
The Working Guy

It's always fun to write about research that you can actually try out for yourself.

Try this: Take a photo and upload it to Facebook, then after a day or so, note what the URL to the picture is (the actual photo, not the page on which the photo resides), and then delete it. Come back a month later and see if the link works. Chances are: It will.

Facebook isn't alone here. Researchers at Cambridge University (so you know this is legit, people!) have found that nearly half of the social networking sites don't immediately delete pictures when a user requests they be removed. In general, photo-centric websites like Flickr were found to be better at quickly removing deleted photos upon request.

Why do "deleted" photos stick around so long? The problem relates to the way data is stored on large websites: While your personal computer only keeps one copy of a file, large-scale services like Facebook rely on what are called content delivery networks to manage data and distribution. It's a complex system wherein data is copied to multiple intermediate devices, usually to speed up access to files when millions of people are trying to access the service simultaneously. (Yahoo! Tech is served by dozens of servers, for example.) But because changes aren't reflected across the CDN immediately, ghost copies of files tend to linger for days or weeks.

In the case of Facebook, the company says data may hang around until the URL in question is reused, which is usually "after a short period of time." Though obviously that time can vary considerably.

Of course, once a photo escapes from the walled garden of a social network like Facebook, the chances of deleting it permanently fall even further. Google's caching system is remarkably efficient at archiving copies of web content, long after it's removed from the web. Anyone who's ever used Google Image Search can likely tell you a story about clicking on a thumbnail image, only to find that the image has been deleted from the website in question -- yet the thumbnail remains on Google for months. And then there are services like the Wayback Machine, which copy entire websites for posterity, archiving data and pictures forever.

The lesson: Those drunken party photos you don't want people to see? Simply don't upload them to the web, ever, because trying to delete them after you sober up is a tough proposition.

* How to delete permanently internet files.

Windows' Secret Record of Your Internet Tracks
By Christopher Null
The Working Guy

Reader Carl Snyder writes: I am told that when we search the web, a history is kept deep in the bowels of our PC. Yet I empty my temp folder and cache regularly. By doing this, am I not getting rid of my history, or is there still a trace? I hate spyware and adware and I swear these gremlins are in my PC, because my PC gets real slow at times. Thanks for your hard work!

The short answer is that if you upgrade to the latest version of either major web browser (IE7 or Firefox 2), you regularly delete your browsing history or private data, and you regularly run anti-spyware and antivirus tools, you're safe.

What you've probably heard relates to older web browsers, namely IE6's use of a file called "index.dat." While you could delete your browsing history, cookies, and temporary internet files in IE6, even after doing so, the browser would leave behind traces of your browsing history in the form of a hidden file called index.dat. This file is notoriously difficult to track down and delete. And, yes, Firefox 1.x used files (cache files) to keep track of where you went, though these were much easier to delete than with IE. There wasn't anything malicious about all of this, it was just an easier way for your browser to figure out where you were going when you typed in a URL.

The good news is that with IE7, index.dat files were discarded, so you can now clear your private information and comfortably know that it has indeed been deleted. In Firefox, click Tools > Clear Private Data to do this. In IE7, click Tools > Delete Browsing History.

If you ever had IE6 (or earlier) or an older version of Firefox on you PC, then you need to delete any index.dat files that might be lingering on your computer. I tried out Index Dat Spy, which lets you locate any of these lingering index.dat files and then choose to delete them as you see fit. (Many index.dat files will turn out to be empty.) It's the only free software I've found that lets you delete these files. (There are many paid alternatives available, too.)

Bear in mind that your browsing history and temporary internet files are not the cause of spyware and adware but are simply records of where you've been on the internet. A privacy risk? Yes. A computer security issue? Not really.

She pulled her husband from jaws of a shark
Though he outweighs her by 50 pounds, his ‘angel’ hauled him into boat
By Mike Celiac contributor

When the shark clamped its jaws on his forearm and wouldn’t let go, Luis Hernandez knew it was going to take a miracle for him to escape with his life.

Fortunately for the 48-year-old South Florida man, his wife, who was sitting in their anchored boat, was up to the task. Although she is only 5-foot-2 and 108 pounds, petite Marlene Hernandez somehow managed to haul up the boat’s anchor, start the engine, race to her stricken husband and hoist his 160-pound body, mangled, useless arm and all, into their boat.

“She’s my angel,” Luis told Meredith Vieira Friday from Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where he is recovering from the injuries he suffered on May 6 during a romantic getaway to the Bahamas. As his wife sat beside him smiling and blushing, he added, “She saved me and I love her so much before and even more now. I’m so happy to have her as a wife. I’m the happiest man on earth right now.”
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Out of nowhere
Mind you, Luis is no amateur when it comes to the water and sharks. A resident of the coastal Florida town of Deerfield Beach, he’s been snorkeling and spearfishing for most of his 48 years.

On the day of the attack, he and his wife had a hankering for seafood, but couldn’t find a fish market near where they were staying on their Bahamas vacation. So they went to the docks and rented a boat, snorkeling gear and a speargun.

While Marlene stayed in the boat, Luis patrolled shallow water over a reef and quickly speared a good-sized grouper. A 7-foot bull shark, which locals would later tell them was a known denizen of the reef, apparently smelled the blood and came by to investigate.

Luis Hernandez was grabbed by a bull shark like this one. They are known for their unpredictable behavior.

Bull sharks are not normally aggressive, but they are often unpredictable, sometimes attacking without warning. Luis took a moment to look at the shark, which was not threatening him at first. When it came close, he poked it with his speargun and it swam away. Not wanting to risk a closer encounter, he started swimming back to the boat, which was about 40 meters away.

That’s when the shark returned with ill intent.

“He came out of nowhere and attacked me. I didn’t see it coming,” Luis told Vieira. “He grabbed my arm. I fought with him for, I’m going to say, about 30 seconds. He was pressing my arm so hard, and I punched him in the face repeatedly and I screamed for help to my wife on the boat. In the end, I opened his jaw with my other hand, and that’s when I could get loose.”

As he fought, Luis told NBC News, “I was talking to him: ‘Don’t kill me. Let me live, please.’ I said a couple of curse words, too.”

To the rescue
Marlene heard her husband yelling for help and saw a commotion in the water, but didn’t immediately grasp the situation.

“It took me probably 30 seconds to one minute to realize what was happening,” she told Vieira.

But once Marlene realized a shark was attacking her husband, she rushed to the rescue. She still doesn’t know where she found the strength to pull Luis, who outweighs her by 50 pounds, from the water, as well as the presence of mind to fashion a tourniquet from a towel to stop the bleeding from his mauled arm.

“I don’t know where it came [from],” Marlene told Vieira. “It was something that I can’t explain. It just happened, and I just did it and I don’t know how.”

“It’s amazing she had the strength to get me out of the water. I was trying — reaching the boat with my arm all hanging. I said, ‘This is it. How am I going to get into the boat?’ I don’t know how she managed it,” Luis said.

But in an earlier interview with NBC News, he offered an explanation: “God came from heaven and gave her strength.”

The extent of Luis Hernandez’s arm injuries was apparent when he and his wife Marlene spoke to TODAY from Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

Marlene held her stricken husband in her lap and called for help on a radio as she raced some four miles to shore, and help. Luis was treated in a local clinic before being airlifted to Jackson Memorial, where he has undergone five surgeries and expects to undergo several more as his surgeon, Dr. Roberto Miki, rebuilds his forearm.

Joining the Hernandezes in the hospital interview, Miki told Vieira that the shark only narrowly missed severing an artery in Luis’ elbow.

“He was probably about an inch away from losing his arm and losing his life,” Miki told Vieira. “An inch more and he probably would not have made it out of the water.”

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Afterlife of George W. Bush
By Bill Minutaglio
Published May 16, 2009
From the magazine issue dated May 25, 2009

Tony Gutierrez / AP
The Simple Life: Bush on the way to his Dallas home

Patrick Bibb, a 19-year-old from Dallas, glanced at his cell phone. He was in the middle of his economics class at Texas Christian University on a February morning. His caller ID read withheld. He decided not to answer. When class ended, he checked his messages and found that George W. Bush had been trying to reach him.

The sophomore listened to the voice mail. He heard the former president of the United States thank him at least four times. Bush was happy that the teenager had been selling welcome home george & laura signs for $20 to people all over Bush's neighborhood in Texas. "I hope this message is sufficient" to show appreciation, Bibb heard Bush say. Bibb dutifully listened, hung up and went to his other classes.

Bibb, a budding entrepreneur, had decided to make and sell the signs after he learned that the former president would be moving close to his parents' house. The placards went up all around the exclusive Preston Hollow neighborhood in North Dallas, which is studded with homes worth $5 million to $20 million. Bibb used some of the profits to pay his tuition and decided to donate the rest to a nearby elementary school.

He settled into accounting class. His phone rang again. Bibb decided to pick up. "Excuse me, I need to go to talk to the president," Bibb wisecracked to a pal as he left the room. It was Bush again.

He began thanking Bibb, repeatedly, for making the signs. Bibb listened patiently. He didn't mean to be rude, but he finally said: "I'm really sorry, Mr. President. I'm in the middle of class." He needed to get off the phone. Bush replied: "No problem, that's where you're supposed to be."

Weeks later, the undergraduate was still wondering about his chat with the man who, only a short time ago, was arguably the most powerful man on the planet. "I had just wanted him to know that people still cared about him, despite the public-opinion polls," says Bibb.

Bibb's not the only one. Molly Vilbig, who lives nearby, believes Bush had gotten word that her grandson had once tried, at the tender age of 6, to donate $1 to the first Bush for President campaign. That's why, Vilbig suspects, the ex-president called and invited the 14-year-old to come over. Under the watchful eye of Secret Service agents, the boy walked to Bush's home. The two settled into chairs in the backyard. "Ask me anything you want," Bush said to the boy, according to the grandmother.

They spent 90 minutes together. And when the teenager went home, he told his grandmother all about it. She was Republican, as were many of the folks in the neighborhood. In the following days, she saw her grandson getting chummy with the Secret Service agents on the street. One day she called Jake to dinner. He came in, a little upset. "I was just about to learn Laura Bush's Secret Service code name," she heard her grandson say.

Bush has always been friendly. And maybe, after years of being cordoned off by security, his face time with others carefully choreographed and his days scheduled to the hilt, it's refreshing to him just to have the chance for a spontaneous chat with a neighbor. But Bush's choice of conversational companions may speak to something deeper. He lived in a bubble during much of his time in Washington; having left office with a disapproval rating of 73 percent, he might be forgiven for being a bit hesitant about what awaits him on the outside. He's declined to give a major interview since leaving office (he and his aides declined to cooperate with this story). So Bush seems to be easing into life back home in Texas, reaching out quietly to reconnect with old friends, stalwart supporters—and the occasional teenage fanboy, who may or may not yet be fully aware of the harsh public judgments, even in Republican circles, of the guy who just moved in next door.

"He is in home territory for sure, no question about it. And that's where he wants to be," says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. "He doesn't enjoy naysayers and critics and opposition. Never has. And right now, he needs that nurturing cocoon that he is in. He is not calling people who didn't support him. He is calling people who supported him, those 14-year-olds."

"But we will see how serious he wants to get in being a participant in the debate over his legacy, beyond writing his side of the story," Buchanan continues. "He may decide, forget it. Or he may decide to become his own version of the Jimmy Carter model. Or he might just stay on the lecture circuit and make money. He has all those options."

And he's exploring them, to be sure. Bush made his first foray into the lucrative post presidency speaking circuit last month, cracking up an audience of Calgary oilmen for a reported $400 a ticket. He's got more talks ahead, including one with former president Bill Clinton in late May. He's busy writing a book and aggressively raising money for a $300 million library, museum and think tank on the campus of Southern Methodist University. And he's trying to find his place in Texas, a land where he once was king.

When Bush flew home from Washington Jan. 20, he made a very safe bet. He landed in Midland. His friends are among the most prominent figures in the small, affluent west Texas town. It's where he was raised, where the family name carried serious weight. It's where Laura Bush, whose approval ratings were nearly twice her husband's when they left Washington, comes from. "They turned out 30,000 people here," says his longtime Texas accountant, Bob McCleskey. "And that's without giving out food and beer. Most people in Texas, by and large, hold him in high regard because he made a decision and stuck with it."

Those Texas friends say Bush seems remarkably unchanged by his eight years in Washington. "Every time I talk to him or have been around him, he has been very upbeat," says his buddy Nolan Ryan, the baseball legend Bush has described as his "hero."

Ryan helped orchestrate one of the rare public appearances Bush has made since leaving office. In April, Ryan, now the president of the Texas Rangers, invited Bush, once a limited partner in the team, to throw out the first pitch of the season. "He was well received," says Ryan. "It was a very positive day."

Ryan knows a little about stepping off the mound. Leave office, Ryan says, and "you're just another citizen of the United States."

When Bush last lived here full time, he was a media darling with sky-high approval ratings. Karl Rove had conducted a "front-porch campaign," inspired by the candidacy of William McKinley. Governor Bush waited for national GOP leaders to come to him at the stately white-columned governor's mansion in Austin. Republican rainmakers trooped up the steps and threw their support to Bush's presidential campaign.

Today, the mansion is in ruins—almost torched to the ground last June by an arsonist who still hasn't been caught. And the Bush brand, once spoken of in the halls of the legislature with awe, is now a little like Lord Voldemort's. "It is the name that shall not be spoken," says Texas political consultant Bill Miller, who has worked with both Democrats and Republicans. "The emotional response from people is almost always negative, never positive. It's a different time and a different deal."

Earlier this year a state lawmaker from Waco, which is close to Bush's ranch, proposed a bill praising the ex-president as a man who "lived each day with the safety and prosperity of his fellow citizens foremost in his mind; he took a principled stand on a wide range of issues of great importance to every American, and his tireless efforts will not soon be forgotten." Further, the measure held that Bush should be lauded for his "new antiterrorism tools."

It was similar to the thousands of salutes handed out every year without a whisper of opposition. But this one met with intense resistance by one Ft. Worth state representative, who said it seemed like Bush was being congratulated for "his waterboarding and other torture techniques." The original proposal was withdrawn, rewritten and resubmitted. At the last hearing on the bill in late April, no witnesses showed up to defend it or attack it. It now sits in limbo—a little like the person it was written for.

Only a little more than a month after leaving Washington, Bush dropped in to see students at Pershing Elementary near his new house in Dallas, according to a local blogger. He asked the grade-schoolers if they knew who he was. One student shouted: "George Washington!"

He quickly answered: "George Washington Bush."

Texas today is different from the heady place it was when Bush left. Unemployment is rising, and deepening recessions are predicted for some urban areas. And though it is still firmly a Republican state, the GOP holds just a two-seat lead in the Texas House. Obama secured 44 percent of the vote in Texas, improving on the 38 percent Kerry won when he ran against Bush in 2004. Navigating the changed terrain is tricky business for Bush and his handlers—one that involves carefully picking his spots.

There has been resistance to the policy institute, or think tank, he's seeking to establish at Southern Methodist University. Critics see it as a place designed to burnish the Bush legacy, glossing over problems—and wounding the school's academic independence in the process. Defenders say it will be a forward-looking organization devoted to examining 21st-century global concerns.

A state district judge ordered Bush to give up to a six-hour deposition in a civil lawsuit claiming that SMU officials broke the law when they acquired and tore down a condominium complex to make room for his center. Bush's lawyers say they will appeal, and legal observers say it is highly unusual for sitting or former presidents to be compelled to testify in litigation.

Meanwhile, Bush has talked to a political-science class at SMU, worked out at the school's training facilities and met with old hands to plot strategy for his presidential center. "It seems that former president Bush is always on campus," says student-body president-elect Patrick Kobler. "Though I may not agree with every policy he put forth, I believe that he led from the heart, meaning he looked beyond what was considered popular and instead did what he thought was right."

He has set up an office in North Dallas, where, friends say, he is deeply enmeshed in his memoirs. The book will revolve around key decisions of his presidency—and of his life before Washington, such as when, at 40, he stopped drinking. "I know he is working on his book," says billionaire Tom Hicks, his longtime friend. "I get the sense that he has the confidence that history will judge him a lot better than The New York Times or the current media does."

Hicks, who made Bush a wealthy man by buying the Rangers from his ownership group, helped the Bushes get settled in their spot on Daria Place—right next door to his estate. Another Texas billionaire, Harold Simmons, a major player in the world's titanium supply, is nearby; Simmons helped bankroll the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry. The men who helped give Bush the platform, the money and the political muscle to win his various campaigns are within easy walking distance of his new front porch.

Fred Meyer, former chairman of the Texas GOP, was on hand at Ellington Airport in Houston when Bush's father came home. "And there were not a lot of us there," Meyer says, contrasting the reception with the "gang" present for 43's return. An ailing economy had dampened enthusiasm for the father. But 41's approval ratings had rebounded to 56 percent by the time he jetted to Houston, and he was buoyed by the many friends he'd made over the course of a long career. Larry Temple, formerly special counsel to Lyndon Johnson, says the vibe surrounding 43's return is different. "I see people reliving [George W.] Bush's presidency. There is a lingering dissatisfaction. It may be the war, it may be the residual effects of the economy," he says.

"Presidents don't get a full and fair hearing until everyone who was alive when they were alive is dead and so are they," says UT's Buchanan. It will take time.

The waiting must be hard on Bush, a man still bristling with a jangly, kinetic energy at 62. One day in Dallas, according to a local blog, he visited Pershing Elementary and a parent asked him to consider coming to work at the school's haunted-house carnival.

"I'd make a good ghost," Bush replied.

With Anne Belli Perez

Queen's Trinity Cross medal scrapped... because it's 'too Christian'
By Mail Foreign Service

A medal personally established by the Queen is being withdrawn after it was deemed offensive to Muslims and Hindus.

The honour - known as The Trinity Cross of the Order of Trinity - has been ruled unlawful and too Christian.

It has been awarded to 62 distinguished residents of the former colony of Trinidad and Tobago over more than 40 years, including cricketers Brian Lara and Garfield Sobers, novelist V.S. Naipaul and many diplomats and politicians.

Caribbean storm: The old Trinity Cross (left) is replaced with the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, which has removed any Christian symbols

But groups representing the Caribbean islands' Muslim and Hindu communities - which account for around a third of their 1.3million-strong population - had argued that the words 'Trinity' and 'Cross' were 'overtly Christian'. They also said the use of a cross insignia was offensive.

Five British law lords, all members of the Privy Council, have ruled that the honour breached the right to equality and the right to freedom of conscience and belief.

The Council is an obscure body made up of senior politicians, bishops and peers.

They advise the monarch on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative and act as a final court of appeal for many former colonies.

In the judgment, Lord Hope of Craighead said that the Trinity Cross was 'perceived by Hindus and Muslims living in Trinidad and Tobago as an overtly Christian symbol both in name and substance' and as such breached the islands' constitution of 1976.

It will be replaced with the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago - a circular medal featuring a sun, stars, water and a map of the islands.

Lawyer Anand Ramlogan of Hindu association Maha Saba said of the decision: 'It's a vindication of the 40 years of disquiet and unease silently suffered by the Muslim and Hindu communities whose legitimate grievance with the Trinity Cross was flippantly dismissed by successive governments.'

The implications of the ruling are being studied by lawyers in the Cabinet Office, which oversees the honours system.

Hugh Peskett, editor-in-chief of Burke's Peerage and Gentry, warned that changing the names of titles to remove Christian references would destroy hundreds of years of history. 'Part of the significance of an honour is its antiquity,' he said.

The Queen is due to visit Trinidad and Tobago - which won independence in 1962 - in November for the Commonwealth heads of government meeting.

U.S. defense chief lauds soldier in pink boxers

Soldiers from the U.S. Army First Battalion, 26th Infantry take defensive positions at firebase Restrepo after receiving fire from Taliban positions in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan's Kunar Province on Monday May 11, 2009. Spc. Zachery Boyd of Fort Worth, TX, far left was wearing 'I love NY' boxer shorts after rushing from his sleeping quarters to join his fellow platoon members. From far right is Spc. Cecil Montgomery of Many, LA and Jordan Custer of Spokan, WA, center.
(AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday praised an Army soldier in eastern Afghanistan who drew media attention this month after rushing to defend his post from attack while wearing pink boxer shorts and flip-flops.

In fact, Gates said he wants to meet the soldier and shake his hand the next time he visits Afghanistan.

"Any soldier who goes into battle against the Taliban in pink boxers and flip-flops has a special kind of courage," Gates said in remarks prepared for a speech in New York.

"I can only wonder about the impact on the Taliban. Just imagine seeing that: a guy in pink boxers and flip-flops has you in his cross-hairs. What an incredible innovation in psychological warfare," he said.

Army Specialist Zachary Boyd, 19, of Fort Worth, Texas, rushed from his sleeping quarters on May 11 to join fellow platoon members at a base in Afghanistan's Kunar Province after the unit came under fire from Taliban positions.

A news photographer was on hand to record the image of Boyd standing at a makeshift rampart in helmet, body armor, red T-shirt and boxers emblazoned with the message: "I love NY."

When the image wound up on the front page of the New York Times, Boyd told his parents he might lose his job if President Barack Obama saw him out of uniform.

"I can assure you that Specialist Boyd's job is very safe indeed," Gates said in the speech.

The U.S. defense chief was scheduled to deliver the speech at New York's annual Salute to Freedom dinner in Manhattan.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Baldwin apologizes for mail-order bride joke

MANILA, Philippines—American actor Alec Baldwin has apologized to Filipinos who were offended by his mail-order bride joke.

In his blog, the star of 30 Rock admitted that his reference to the Filipina mail-order bride is “dated.”

“While on the David Letterman program, I joked that I might need a ‘mail-order bride’ to achieve the goal of having more children in my life. I believe that most people understood that this was a joke and took it as such. (A dated reference, no doubt, and another sign of my advancing age),” he said.

At the same time, he said he plans to raise some money against child sex slavery and exploitation through an organization that was introduced to him by his brother Stephen.

Baldwin said the adverse reaction by the Philippine government and some politicians to his joke is understandable.

“Such anger and frustration about the issue of sex trafficking is understandable. The Philippines has suffered significant problems with the issue of sex trafficking,” he said.

Alec Baldwin apologizes for mail-order bride joke
The Associated Press


NEW YORK (AP) -- Alec Baldwin is apologizing for making a joke about getting a Filipino mail-order bride that provoked a sharp response in the Philippines.

The Emmy-winning actor quipped during a May 12 interview on "The Late Show with David Letterman" that he would love to have more children and that he was "thinking about getting a Filipino mail-order bride at this point ... or a Russian one."

On Wednesday, Baldwin posted on The Huffington Post that he was apologizing "to anyone who took offense."

He said, "I believe that most people understood that this was a joke and took it as such."

Philippine Sen. Ramon Revilla said Monday that Baldwin's comment was "insensitive and uncalled for." He threatened him with a beating and said the "30 Rock" star is apparently unaware that the Philippines has a law against mail-order brides.

RP immigration bans Baldwin
By Tetch Torres

MANILA, Philippines—The Bureau of Immigration on Thursday banned American actor Alec Baldwin from entering the country for his recent negative comments about Filipino women.

Immigration Commissioner Marcelino Libanan issued the order placing Baldwin in the Immigration blacklist a week after the actor appeared in a television talk show and talked about looking for a Filipina lover via the mail order bride.

By being in the bureau’s blacklist, Baldwin is considered an undesirable alien.

The Immigration chief said Baldwin’s remark is racial and discriminatory.

“I was thinking about getting a Filipina mail-order bride…or a Russian one. I don’t care, I’m 51,” Baldwin said last May 12 in the David Letterman show.

Libanan said Baldwin appears to condone the mail-order bride scheme, which is a criminal act that is prohibited and punishable under Republic Act 6955.

DFA protests Alec Baldwin slur
By Cynthia Balana
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—The Department of Foreign Affairs Wednesday conveyed to Hollywood actor Alec Baldwin the country’s objection to a joke he made in a television show last week about Filipino mail-order brides.

In a letter to Baldwin, Philippine Consul General to New York Cecilia Rebong told the actor that his statement was “derogatory, prejudiced, insensitive and stereotyped Filipino women negatively.”

Baldwin, star of the hit-comedy show “30 Rock” and ex-husband of actress Kim Bassinger, quipped in an interview on the “Late Show with David Letterman” last May 12: “I think about getting a Filipino mail-order bride at this point or a Russian one, I don’t care, I’m 51.”

Although it was delivered in jest, Baldwin’s remark caused the audience to break into laughter and prompted Letterman, to respond: “Get one for me [also], for later.”

“The general impression given by your statement was that Filipino women can be categorized as easy commodities for sale,” Rebong wrote.

According to Rebong, to label women married to United States nationals as “mail-order brides” simply because they are from overseas, whether from the Philippines or Russia, in particular, was offensive and prejudiced since all foreign nationals married to Americans residing in the US, regardless of how the parties met, have proven the truth of their union.

Rebong also reminded Baldwin that the Philippines was one of the leading countries in the effort to eliminate the trafficking of women and children.

She said that in 1990, Republic Act 6955, “The Anti-Mail-Order Bride Law,” prohibited the commercial trade of Filipino women.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Eight Dumbest Car Thieves
If you think it takes smarts to steal a car, you're dead wrong. Getting away with it — that's another story.
By Josh Condon
of MSN Autos

(© moodboard/Corbis)
A car is stolen every 28.8 seconds in the United States.**

Despite what Hollywood blockbusters such as "Gone in Sixty Seconds," "Heat" and "Catch Me If You Can" would have us believe, most criminals are not masterminds playing a well-orchestrated cat-and-mouse game with members of law enforcement, while working toward the heist of a lifetime. If movies were made about real criminals, the majority would be far more slapstick, like an episode of "America's Funniest Home Videos," but with guns.

Here are eight real car thieves who prove that those too lazy to get what they want through hard work and determination are prone to costly shortcuts and mental lapses when it comes to committing crimes.

8. Determined? Yes. Smart? No

(© Drive Images/Photolibary)
Carjacking is the felonious taking of a motor vehicle in the possession of another, from his or her person or immediate presence. According to Federal statute, carjackers can go to jail for up to 15 years, if convicted.**

It's safe to say that Tyrone Davis' problem was not one of grit but of focus. After all, he had a very long two weeks in December 2006, what with robbing two convenience stores, breaking and entering into a private residence, assaulting the 41-year-old woman who lived there and then stealing her car. And we haven't even mentioned the part that lands him on this list.

After crashing the stolen 1992 Dodge Shadow into a curb while fleeing from police in Titusville, Fla., Davis, brandishing a knife, attempted to carjack a Saab stopped at an intersection. He got as far as gripping the door handle before the driver sped away. The driver, however, took off with Davis still hanging on to the door. And with the type of dedication that would almost be commendable if it weren't so dumb, Davis held on for several blocks and at speeds of up to 45 mph. In fact, Davis was separated from the vehicle only when a police officer tackled him.

7. Too Smart to Be Caught

(© Jason Horowitz/zefa/Corbis)
Auto theft (stealing a car without anyone in it) is on the decline here in the U.S. Car thieves can receive a sentence of up to 5 years.**

The last time we checked, one important aspect of successfully committing a crime is evading law enforcement. Either things work differently in Duluth, Minn., or someone forgot to clue in an unidentified 23-year-old who took off with a boosted car, stole gas from a filling station and narrowly avoided being nabbed by police officers after crashing into a guardrail during a chase. Apparently he was so impressed with himself after his close call with the law that, after abandoning the vehicle, he repeatedly dialed 911 from his cell phone to brag about how he was too smart to be caught.

And he was right — at least for a couple of hours until the cops used such high-tech search tactics as tracking footprints in the snow to nab the thief in the shed where he was hiding.

6. Attempting Fraud . . . Using Real Identification Information

(© Pixland/Photolibrary)
Committing fraud can carry a possible sentence of 3 to 5 years.**

Brian Kauffield and his buddy had a plan: While Kauffield distracted the salesman at Riverchase Auto in Siloam Springs, Ark., by filling out a bogus loan application, his accomplice (an unnamed minor) would cop the keys to a 2007 Ford Mustang on the sly. Then it was just a matter of playing the waiting game until the dealership's co-owner, Brian Hutto, took his dinner break, at which point the two took off with the hot rod.

It was a solid plan that showed foresight, patience and execution, with only one minor problem: The loan application Kauffield filled out wasn't bogus. The genius had used his actual name and Social Security number, along with other real-life information that allowed the authorities to track the two down shortly after the incident.

In terms of criminal finesse, it's pretty much akin to writing a ransom note on your personal stationery. You can't make up this stuff.

5. What's My Name?

(© Reza Estakhrian / Getty Images)
According to a recent Michigan State University study, tattoos cannot uniquely identify a person (unless it is a tattoo of your own name). But it can help the authorities narrow down the list of potential suspects.**

Aaron Evans, 21, broke into a "bait car" in Bristol, England, sporting some incriminating "ink." A bait car is a vehicle that law enforcement officers use to entice car thieves to do their job. The car is positioned in a high-crime area by police and usually booby-trapped with a GPS locator, an automatic engine disabling device and — unfortunately for Evans — several hidden video cameras.

Obviously, Evans didn't know he was breaking into a honey-pot car (which is the point), but choosing a life of crime and having a highly visible neck tattoo of your name and date of birth seem like fairly mutually exclusive options.

Maybe he can get a cover-up tattoo — perhaps his National Insurance number (the UK equivalent of a SSN) positioned above a map to his house.

4. Lights, Camera, Action

The one thing separating Yusef Kaduji from the others on this list is that he was good at stealing cars. He and the other four members of his notorious crew were responsible for a 3½-year spree that saw a rash of luxury vehicles stolen from London's most posh neighborhoods. The list included Porsches, Mercedes-Benzes, Land Cruisers and even an SLR McLaren; all told, the 34 boosted cars were worth more than $2.18 million.

Kaduji was personally responsible for taking off with the SLR McLaren — a supercar worth about $508,400 — and was so proud of the fact that he used his cell phone to record himself behind the wheel of the stolen car. The video of him putting the SLR's pedal to the floor on a crowded street was later seized and used as evidence by the English authorities to sentence the 21 year old to two years in prison.

Too bad this guy didn't have a Twitter account, or Exhibit A might have looked like this: "OMG guys I'm totally stealing a car right now LOLZ!"

3. Failure to Overpower a Woman

(© Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc./Blend Images/Corbis)
While fighting back might sound empowering and heroic, it could most likely get you killed. All law enforcement sources we talked to said not to resist a carjacker because your life is more important than your car.**

This is not the sort of story a carjacker wants following him into prison.

As her daughter shopped at a Jacksonville, Fla., convenience store, Pat Wells sat waiting in the car outside. A man she had seen panhandling in the parking lot suddenly jumped into the driver's seat of the running car, demanded a ride and tried to put the car in gear.

Most people in that situation would think of their own safety and try to escape. Wells instead did what, say, Batman would do, and immediately tried to beat the living daylights out of the guy — attempting to push him out of the car, grabbing at the keys, yanking him around, and beeping the horn for help. The carjacker eventually got the car into gear and onto the road, which was a big mistake, because it apparently only enraged Wells even more. After forcing the car over to an embankment (to keep him from entering the interstate) and offering the carjacker $40 to stop the car, Wells pulled out a ballpoint pen and threatened to stab him in the eye unless he gave up and got out, which, marking his first smart move of the day, the man did.

2. We Can't Possibly Get Any Better

After Alan Heuss was forced to exit his BMW at gunpoint, he did what many of us would do: He got together with buddies to gripe about the theft, plus the cash and cell phone he had lost along with the car.

Luckily, Heuss has clever friends. One suggested texting Heuss' phone, posing as a friend who wanted to bring several hot women and drugs to a get-together. The carjackers, who seemed never to have heard the phrase "if it seems too good to be true, it probably is," amazingly saw nothing wrong with the set-up and proceeded to text back their location. Shortly thereafter, local law enforcement in Columbus, Ohio, showed up and caught the thieves red-handed.

To their credit, the dimwits did not ask the group of "hot chicks" to bring them pizza and beer along with the supposed drugs, because that would just be silly.

1. Man Steals Car From Police During News Interview

(© ColorBlind Images/Blend Images/Getty Images)
A video camera is the perfect witness to a crime. It's a truly unbiased witness to every event that goes down.**

Talk about chutzpah. This one happened in a police department parking lot, of all places, and in the background during an interview with a national news crew, of all times.

Gilbert, Ariz., police spokesman Sgt. Mark Marino was giving a statement to CNN on an unrelated incident when an unidentified suspect tried to steal a car from the police station's parking lot.

Call us old-fashioned, but the key goal of boosting a car is, you know, getting away with it. This guy wasn't out of the parking lot, or even first gear, before he had both a patrol car chasing him and an APB put out on the vehicle.

**Images do not depict the actual persons nor events discussed in this article.

Josh Condon has covered everything from nanotechnology to champagne and caviar for the likes of The New York Times, Popular Science, Men's Journal, Cargo and RL Magazine. He's recently relocated from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Los Angeles and is spending way, way more time in his car as a result.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

US vacations become victim of weak economy

Sunbathers enjoy the cool waters of the Atlantic Ocean Bradley Beach, New Jersey. The ailing economy is taking a toll on Americans' vacation plans, with more than a third of workers planning to forego their seasonal break, a survey showed Monday.

WASHINGTON (AFP) - - The ailing economy is taking a toll on Americans' vacation plans, with more than a third of workers planning to forego their seasonal break, a survey showed Monday.

The annual vacation survey by recruitment firm CareerBuilder found 35 percent of workers indicated they have not taken or will not take a vacation in 2009.

Among those skipping their vacation, 71 percent said it was because they could not afford it, according to the survey from February 20 through March 11 of more than 4,400 workers.

The survey found nearly one of five workers indicates they are either afraid of losing their jobs if they go on vacation or feel guilty being away from the office.

"While the current economy may be causing workers anxiety about taking a vacation this year, a break from work is essential for maintaining healthy productivity levels in the office," said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder.

"Workers should plan ahead and make it a goal to use their vacation benefits; 15 percent reported that they didn't use all of their allotted time last year. Utilizing your time off is even more important now due to the added responsibilities and pressure that some workers may be faced with due to the current economic situation."

The survey, released a week before the traditional Memorial Day kickoff of the summer vacation season, also found 50 percent of employers expect employees to check in with the office while they are away, especially if they are working on a big project or there is a major issue with the company.

Some 28 percent workers say they plan to contact the office at least once, regardless of what they are working on, while they are on vacation.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Park workers fired after peeing in Old Faithful
Yellowstone officials tipped off by webcam viewer
The Associated Press

Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser is next to the Old Faithful Inn at right. Two people who worked there allegedly urinated into the protected area.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. - Two seasonal Yellowstone National Park concession workers have been fired after a live webcam caught them urinating into the Old Faithful geyser.

Park spokesman Al Nash said a 23-year-old man on Tuesday was fined $750 and placed on three years of unsupervised probation for urinating, being off trail in a restricted area and taking items from the area. The man also was banned from Yellowstone for two years.

The second employee's case is pending.

The park's dispatch center was called after someone watching a webcam on the geyser saw six employees leaving the trail and walking on Old Faithful on May 4.

The geyser was not erupting at the time.

Xanterra Parks & Resorts general manager Jim McCaleb said the former concession workers were hired at the Old Faithful Inn and that such incidents were rare.