Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Last-minute reminder:
Super-easy way to make charitable donations, and maybe get a free vacation.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

1909: first airplane flight over English Channel

Louis Blériot (1872 – 1936) was a French inventor and engineer. In 1909 he completed the first flight across a large body of water in a heavier-than-air craft when he crossed the English Channel, receiving a prize of 1000 British pounds for doing so. He also is credited as the first person to make a working monoplane (single-wing airplane).

Blériot was a pioneer of the sport of air racing, invented automobile headlights and established a successful acetylene headlamp business, amassing a small fortune.

He used the money from his business to experiment with towed gliders on the Seine River, learning about aircraft and flight dynamics. His interest in aviation manifested itself when, in 1900, he built an ornithopter, which failed to take off.

Blériot and collaborator Gabriel Voisin formed the Blériot-Voisin Company. Active between 1903 and 1906, the company developed several unsuccessful and dangerous aircraft designs, which drained his finances.

Blériot then left and started creating his own airplanes, experimenting with various configurations, eventually creating the world's first successful monoplane, the Blériot V, but this model crashed easily. However, by 1909, he created the Blériot XI, which was more stable and was displayed at the Exposition de la Locomotion Aerienne in Paris in 1909.

After years of improving his piloting skills, Blériot decided to go after the coveted thousand-pound prize offered by the London Daily Mail for a successful crossing of the English Channel.

Blériot had two rivals for the prize, both of whom failed to reach the goal. The first was Hubert Latham, an Englishman residing in France. He was favored by both the United Kingdom and France to win. He had arrived first and attempted to fly across in July of 1909, but six miles from the shore at Dover he developed engine trouble and was forced to make a sea landing.

The other pilot, Charles de Lambert, was a Russian aristocrat with French ancestry, and one of Wilbur Wright's students. However, Lambert was injured in a major crash during a test flight, forcing him to quit the competition.

On July 25, 1909, the three rivals each arrived on the shores of Calais, France. Blériot had a badly burned foot from when a gasoline line broke during one of his trial runs, although he did not withdraw.

Before the trip, the French government allowed a destroyer to escort and observe his plane during the trip to Dover. Blériot used the Blériot XI, which was a structurally strong but simple and maneuverable monoplane of his design powered by a 3-cylinder Anzani radial engine with 25 horsepower and a 2-bladed fixed-pitch wooden propeller.

The flight started a little after 4:30 AM on July 25, 1909, when dawn broke. He reported that he throttled his engine to 1,200 revolutions per minute, almost the top speed of the engine, to clear telegraph wires at the edge of the cliff near the runway field. Then he lowered the engine speed to give the XI an average airspeed of approximately 40 miles per hour and an altitude of about 250 feet. Soon after, inclement weather began to form, with the Channel becoming rougher. Blériot lost sight of landmarks, and rapidly outpaced the destroyer escort. He stated: "I am alone. I can see nothing at all. For ten minutes, I am lost."

The landing was in turbulent weather, and Blériot encountered numerous problems: rain was cooling the engine, putting it in danger of being shut down, and strong wind was blowing him off course. As airspeed slowed for the landing, the gusts of wind nearly crashed his plane. The landing damaged his landing gear severely, along with the propellor, although the rest of the airplane was fine and the landing was deemed successful.

He flew 22 statute miles from Les Barraques (near Calais) to Dover. The trip took 37 minutes. Blériot gained immediate fame for this flight.

Meanwhile, Hubert Latham was idling when he found that Blériot was not making a test flight, and tried to pursue him to Dover. That attempt failed, and four days later he crashed into the Channel while trying to copy Blériot's flight.

Between 1909 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Blériot produced more than 800 aircraft, most of them being variations of the Type XI model. However, the quality of the aircraft was controversial, as inspections showed the numerous crashes with these aircraft. The British government put a temporary ban on them, for which Blériot himself investigated and solved the problems.

In 1913, a consortium led by Blériot bought the Société pour les Appareils Deperdussin airplane manufacturer and he became the president of the company in 1914. He renamed it as the Société Pour L'Aviation et ses Dérivés (SPAD). In World War I, his company produced the famous SPAD fighter aircraft flown by all the Allied countries, of which 5,600 were made for France.

He attempted to set up a British subsidiary through the Blériot Manufacturing Aircraft Company Ltd. 1916. Its listing was hijacked by a dishonest syndicate headed by Harry Lawson, leaving the company unable to meet its obligations, and it was soon shut down. In 1917, Bleriot tried again and built a factory in Addlestone, Great Britain. After the war, Blériot formed his own company, Blériot-Aéronautique, for the development of commercial aircraft.

In the United States, there was a legal patent battle for the invention of the aileron between the Wrights and Blériot: Blériot's airplanes were selling very well, but the Wright brothers did not receive any royalties from his profit even though the technology employed for controlling the planes, namely the aileron, was obviously from them. It was eventually decided that the Wrights devised the aileron first.

Blériot opened flying schools before World War I in at Brooklands, Surrey, and Hendon Aerodromes.

Blériot greatly contributed to the aviation community with his high skill and knowledge, and popularized aviation as sports activities. He remained active in the airplane business until his death in Paris.

In honor of his life, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale established the "Louis Blériot medal" in 1936. The medal may be awarded up to three times every year to record setters in speed, altitude and distance categories in light aircraft, and is still being awarded to record-setting aviators.

In 2006, Rivendell Bicycle Works introduced a bicycle model named the "Bleriot 650B" as a tribute to Louis Blériot. It features his portrait displayed on its seat tube. (info from Wikipedia)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

167 BCE: first rebellion for religious freedom

The Jewish festival of Chanukah (also spelled "Hanukka" etc.) commemorates the successful struggle for religious liberty, by Jews against Syrian oppressors, in 167 BCE (what Christians call "BC").

At around 200 BCE, Jews lived as an autonomous people in Israel ("Judea"), which was controlled by Syria. The Jewish people paid taxes to Syria and accepted its legal authority, and were free to follow their own faith and engage in trade.

By 175 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended to the throne. At first, little changed, but under his reign, the Temple in Jerusalem was looted, Jews were massacred, and Judaism was effectively outlawed. In 167 BCE Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple.

Some modern scholars argue that the king may have been intervening in an internal civil war between the traditionalist rural Jews and Hellenized (Greek-like) elite Jews in Jerusalem. They fought over who would be the High Priest, with traditionalists overthrown by Hellenizers. As the conflict escalated, Antiochus took the side of the Hellenizers by prohibiting religious practices the traditionalists had supported.

Antiochus' actions provoked a large-scale revolt. Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons (Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan and Judah) led a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabee ("Judah Maccabee," or " Judah the Hammer" in English).

By 166 BCE Mattathias had died, and Judah took his place as leader. By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt was successful, and the Temple was liberated and rededicated. The Chanukah festival was instituted by Judah and his brothers to celebrate the event.

After recovering Jerusalem and the Temple, Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built, and new holy vessels to be made.

Olive oil was needed to burn all night every night. It is said that there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil. An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate the apparent miracle. In recent years, some Jewish people have tied the holiday to energy conservation and using less oil.

The Hebrew word Chanukah can be translated as “dedication.” The holiday is also called the Festival of Lights, because candles are lit on each of eight successive nights. Menorah is a Hebrew word for "candelabra." The 9-socket menorah used for Chanukah is called a Chanukiyah.

Some people refer to Chanukah as "the Jewish Christmas," but the two holidays have nothing in common, except the time of year and (recently) gift-giving. Jewish comedian - actor - musician - screenwriter - producer Adam Sandler has recorded several popular editions of his Chanukah Song. First performed on Saturday Night Live, song variations share the theme of Jewish children feeling isolated during the Christmas season; and Sandler lists Jewish celebrities with often-corny rhymes.

Lyrics include: "David Lee Roth lights the menorah. So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas, and the late Dinah Shore-ah." and "Chanukah is the festival of lights. Instead of one day of presents, we get eight crazy nights."

The songs led to Sandler's 2002 animated musical comedy, Eight Crazy Nights.

In the American calendar, Chanukah can start on various dates from late November to late December. In the Hebrew calendar, Chanukah begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the day on which the Temple was reconsecrated. This year, Chanukah "overlaps" Christmas. It started on Monday, the 22nd of December and will continue for eight days until Monday, the 29th of December.

According to Jewish tradition, a “day” begins at sundown on the evening that precedes it. Therefore, the first candle is lit on the evening that starts the 25th day of Kislev. On each succeeding night of Chanukah, an additional candle is lit, totaling eight in all.

In addition to those eight daily candles, a "servant" candle, or Shamas (rhymes with "Thomas") is lit first, and it is used to light the other candles. The candles are added to the menorah from right to left — the direction Hebrew is read. They are lit from left to right — to honor the new one first. The candle lighting is accompanyed by prayers and songs. The lights should be lit as soon as possible after nightfall, with all members of the family present. Children often light the candles.

The dreidel is a famous symbol of Chanukah, a four-sided top with one Hebrew letter on each face. Each letter is the beginning of a Hebrew word in the phrase Nes Godol Haya Sham, meaning “a great miracle happened there.” Various games can be played with the dreidel. Another Chanukah custom is to eat potato latkes (pancakes) because they are fried in oil. (info from AdasIsrael and Wikipedia)

Adam Sandler's Chanukah Song lyrics (with some errors; scroll down on page).
See & hear the original.
See & hear part two.
See & hear part three.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

2008: first time Toyota loses money since 1938

Toyota, the Japanese auto giant, forecast its first operating loss in 70 years on Monday, more fallout from the severe slump in vehicle sales that has nearly claimed two Detroit automakers and raised questions over when the US market, Toyota's largest, will hit bottom.

Despite the setback, the automaker is still poised to pull ahead of its main US rival, General Motors to become the No. 1 world carmaker in 2008. Toyota reported it sold 7.05 million cars worldwide during the first nine months of the year, compared with 6.66 million for GM for the same period.

Toyota, which is committed to zero layoffs, will continue cutting production to weather the downturn. The automaker also lowered its global vehicle sales forecast for the second time this year and said it was putting ambitious expansion plans on hold, in large part because of a precipitous drop in demand in the US.

Sona Iliffe-Moon, a spokeswoman for the automaker's US arm., said the company has not had any layoffs since the 1950s. "As a result of that experience, it became a part of our culture to ensure employment and stability for employees," Iliffe-Moon said

Toyota had reported strong growth in recent years, boosted by heavy demand for its fuel-efficient models like the Camry sedan and Prius gas-electric hybrid. But a severe drop in demand, especially in North America, which accounts for one-third of vehicle sales, and profit erosion from a surging yen were too much. Overall US auto sales fell to their lowest level in 26 years last month.

Toyota said it expects an operating loss of $1.66 billion for the fiscal year ending in March, compared with an operating profit $25.2 billion a year earlier.

The company said it had no intention of drifting from its practice of avoiding layoffs for full-time employees either globally or for its 14 US factories located in the South and Midwest. Instead, it assigns other tasks for employees when it idles plants, such as training or community service. Employees can also take unpaid time off.

This practice has helped the automaker resist unionization at its factories, saving it from the high labor costs plagued its US counterparts. Earlier this month, the automaker announced production cuts at factories in Indiana, Kentucky and Canada, on top of other reductions in November, when Toyota also cut several hundred contract workers.

Toyota employs about 36,600 full-time employees in the US, a market that accounts for about a third of the 8.9 million vehicles it sold in its fiscal year ended in March.

The announcement Monday reflected a dramatic change of fortune for the iconic company, which in recent years had outlined ambitious expansion plans and weathered an industry slowdown much better than its US rivals.

Toyota, which started in business as a loom maker, began making trucks and passenger cars in 1937. Its first and only operating loss came the following year, before it started reporting formal results.

At the time, Toyota was still far behind the American automakers. With World War II, Toyota started a side business making aircraft engines, but that group company switched to making auto parts and sewing machines after the war.

In its forecast Monday, Toyota lowered the number of vehicles it expects to sell globally this calendar year to 8.96 million, down 4 percent from last year. Earlier this year, Toyota had projected worldwide sales of 9.5 million vehicles.

US auto sales aren't expected to start recovering until late 2009, and the dollar - already at a 13-year low against the yen - could lag further, he said. A strong yen hurts results because overseas profits must be converted into the Japanese currency.

Toyota is a relatively old-style Japanese company that offers lifetime employment, and only in recent years has hired and let go of temporary workers to adjust production. It said it was reviewing overseas jobs but had not reached a decision.

The automaker will focus on hybrids and small cars, and invest in environmentally-friendly technology to prepare for long-term growth.

While Japan's automakers are in far better financial shape than their cash-strapped American counterparts, the global slowdown is hitting them hard. Last week, Japan's No. 2 automaker, Honda, also lowered profit and sales forecasts and declined to give a vehicle sales goal for 2009.

Toyota's US sales plunged by a third over 2007 in November, when overall sales fell to their lowest level in more than 26 years. And there is little hope for a quick fix as consumers hold back big purchases amid a credit crunch, rising unemployment and fears about the future. (info from The Associated Press)

Monday, December 22, 2008

2008: first drop in Japanese exports

Japanese exports dropped at their sharpest rate on record in November.

Data released by the Finance Ministry showed exports declined 26.7% year-to-year in November to 5.327 trillion yen ($59.77 billion), showing that an escalating global economic downturn and a rising yen are taking a greater toll on Japan's export-dependent economy.

The drop -- the biggest since the ministry began releasing such data in January 1980 and the first two-month run of trade deficit since fall of that year -- was mostly due to falling shipments of cars and car parts to the US and Europe and semiconductors to China. Every region tracked by the data cut spending on Japanese goods last month. Exports to the US had their biggest fall on record. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, December 19, 2008

You can make history:
Give someone a Batphone for Christmas, Chanukah or Kwanzaa

Now everyone can have a flashing red phone like Batman

When there’s trouble in Gotham City, Police Commissioner Gordon calls caped crusader Batman, the secret alter ego of millionaire Bruce Wayne.

At Wayne Manor, the flashing red Batphone is answered by Alfred the butler, who tells Wayne about the trouble. Then Wayne and his young ward Dick Grayson put on their superhero costumes. As Batman and Robin, they race from the Batcave in the Batmobile to battle evil-doers, or rescue citizens in distress.

Now everyone can have a bright red flashing Batphone just like a superhero. When an emergency call - or even an ordinary call - comes in, a bright red light centered in a shiny chrome ring starts flashing to attract attention.

The Batphone has classic sixties styling, with heavy-duty construction, a two-year warranty, and is made in the USA. It gets all of its power from the phone line, and doesn’t require a power cord or batteries. It can work on an ordinary home phone line, or on an "analog extension port" in a business phone system.

The Batphone rings when the light flashes, unless a purchaser prefers the bell to be disconnected for silent signaling, or an optional high-pitched "BatSignal" or buzzer to be installed instead of the bell. Price with the bell is $122, including "ground" shipping to all 50 states. Fast shipping for delivery before Christmas is available at an extra charge.

Order online at www.GetABatPhone.com, or call toll-free 1-888-225-3999.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

2006: first amphetamine tests for baseball players

Under an agreement between Major League Baseball and the players association, players have been tested for drug use since 2006. In addition to testing players on each 40-man roster, the agreement provides for 600 random tests.

When a player tests positive for the first time, only the player, the union, baseball’s vice president for labor relations and a committee that oversees the testing program are to be informed. Under the agreement, players who tested positive a first time would receive counseling and six follow-up tests over the next 12 months. Any player who tested positive twice would be publicly identified and suspended for 25 games.

In 2006, no player tested positive twice, so no one was punished. The testing agreement for amphetamines does not allow baseball to report the total number of first-time positive tests even though no players’ names would be attached to the overall number.

In contrast, there are no shields for players who test positive for steroids, whether they are first-time or repeat violators. They are identified and suspended, under guidelines that have been toughened several times. In all, 15 major leaguers and 119 minor leaguers tested positive for steroids during 2006 and 2007.

San Francisco Gian star Barry Bonds, the most prolific home run hitter in baseball history, was identified as failing the amphetamine test. He has seen his record numbers shadowed by suspicions about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. During the 2001 season, Bonds hit 73 home runs, the most in a single season. Two years later, an investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, which worked with Bonds, found that it had distributed performance-enhancing drugs to several elite athletes.

The spotlight on Bonds only intensified during his chase of Hank Aaron's 755 career home runs, a record he broke on Aug. 8, 2007. In Nov. 2007, Bonds was indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges related to his 2003 grand jury testimony in the BALCo case. (info from The New York Times)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

2005: first face transplant

The world's first partial face transplant was performed in France in 2005 on a woman who had been mauled by her dog. Isabelle Dinoire received a new nose, chin and lips from a brain-dead donor. She has done so well that surgeons have become more comfortable with a radical operation considered unthinkable a decade ago.

Three others have received partial face transplants since then - a Chinese farmer attacked by a bear and a European man disfigured by a genetic condition. Both are believed to be doing well, though details, especially of the Chinese case, have been scant.

On Tuesday, the Cleveland Clinic announced the first face transplant in the US for a woman so horribly disfigured she was willing to risk her life to do something about it: a near-total face transplant.

Reconstructive surgeon Dr. Maria Siemionow and a team of other specialists replaced 80 percent of the woman's face with that of a female cadaver a couple of weeks ago in a bold and controversial operation certain to stoke the debate over the ethics of such surgery.

"There are patients who can benefit tremendously from this. It's great that it happened," said Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, a surgeon at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston who plans to offer face transplants, too.

Dr. Laurent Lantieri, a plastic surgeon at Henri Mondor-Albert Chenevier Hospital, near Paris, who did a face transplant on a man disfigured by a rare genetic disease, said: "This is very good news for all of us that doctors in the US have done this."

Unlike operations involving vital organs like hearts and livers, transplants of faces or hands are done to improve quality of life - not extend it. Recipients run the risk of deadly complications and must take immune-suppressing drugs for the rest of their lives to prevent organ rejection, raising their odds of cancer and many other problems.

Arthur Caplan, a leading bioethicist who has expressed grave concerns in the past about such surgery, withheld judgment on the Cleveland case but said the woman's doctors should give her the option of assisted suicide if they wind up making her life worse.

"The biggest ethical problem is dealing with failure - if your face rejects. It would be a living hell," said Caplan, bioethics chief at the University of Pennsylvania. "If your face is falling off and you can't eat and you can't breathe and you're suffering in a terrible manner that can't be reversed, you need to put on the table assistance in dying."

Siemionow's long and careful preparation should help prevent such a horrific outcome, those familiar with her said. Siemionow, a noted hand microsurgeon, has been testing the surgical approach and ways to temper the immune system's response in experiments for more than a decade.

She has considered dozens of potential candidates over the past four years, ever since the clinic's internal review board gave permission for her to attempt the operation, and has said she would choose someone severely disfigured as her first case.

"She's a leader in this field. She's been investigating this for a long time. She has done the most amount of research in small animals looking at this," said Dr. Warren Breidenbach, a surgeon at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Ky., who did the nation's first hand transplant, in 1999. Siemionow trained with him in Louisville.

In the Cleveland case, "it is very important what kind of recipient they selected," and how great the need was, Pomahac said. "Hopefully it will open the door both to the public and to other centers" wanting to do these operations.

Details of the Cleveland surgery are not known, but surgeons generally transplant skin, facial nerves and muscle, and often other deep tissue. That is done so the new face will actually function and not just be a mask.

In an interview at the Cleveland Clinic in 2005, Siemionow spoke of the terrible need she saw in people horribly disfigured, and how badly it scarred their social and emotional lives, not just their bodies.

"There are no really good alternative therapies for the severely burned or patients with a facial injury or damage," she said. Her task now is to prevent organ rejection while managing the risk of infection from taking strong immune-suppressing drugs.

Rejection is a possibility whenever someone receives an organ or cells from someone else because the body regards this as foreign tissue. Two types of problems can result.

The first is graft-versus-host disease, which could happen if the new facial tissue were to attack the recipient's body. The second is if the patient's body were to attack the transplanted face, causing inflammation and other problems at the site of the new tissue.

Either of these can be life-threatening. They can come on suddenly, within days or weeks of the operation, or set in slowly. (info from The Associated Press)

Monday, December 15, 2008

2008: first time no Heisman finalist is a senior

Football stars are getting younger. This is an odd year in the Heisman Trophy voting for the country’s most outstanding college football player. None of the three finalists were seniors, the first time that has happened in the award’s 74-year history. All three players could return next season.

Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford arrived on campus three years ago with modest hype and low expectations. But Bradford’s rise from relative obscurity to national pre-eminence was sealed Saturday night when he won the Heisman Trophy.

In leading No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1) to the Bowl Championship Series title game against Tebow and the Gators, Bradford orchestrated the highest-scoring season in college football’s modern era. The Sooners scored 702 points, the first modern team to break the 700 mark. They finished with a flourish, scoring more than 60 points in each of their final five games.

Bradford led the nation with 48 touchdown passes and threw only 6 interceptions. He finished with an average of 14.78 yards a completion.

Bradford will also hold a place in Heisman history in that he became the first American Indian to win the trophy since Jim Plunkett of Stanford in 1970. Bradford is one-sixteenth Cherokee and has become a role model in Oklahoma, a state with a rich American Indian heritage.

The third-place finisher, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, received more first-place votes than Bradford (309-300), becoming the first third-place finisher to do so since 1956. That did not seem to matter to Tebow, who last season became the first sophomore to win the Heisman.

Bradford’s victory set up a thick subplot in the title game Jan. 8. He will square off with Tebow, who led the No. 1 Gators to their second national title game in the past three seasons.

The last time two Heisman winners played for the national title came at the end of the 2004 season, when Southern California and Matt Leinart (the 2004 winner) blew out White and Oklahoma, 55-19, in the Bowl Championship Series title game. (info from The New York Times)

Friday, December 12, 2008

1984: last state votes for booze in bars

After a quarter century of illegal drinking -- what cynics called "liquor by the wink" -- in 1984 Oklahoma prepared to accept what it had been doing all along and voted to allow legal sale of liquor by the drink.

The third attempt in a dozen years to make it legal to buy a drink in a bar or restaurant was approved by 425,772 to 396,986, or 52 to 48 percent.

In two statewide votes on the same issue, in 1972 and 1976, constitutional amendments to allow sale of liquor by the drink were defeated by substantial margins. A third attempt, in 1980, never made it to the ballot stage because of a legal challenge. A similar effort to block the vote by legal means was made this time, but a court turned it aside.

The vote did not directly permit sale of liquor by the drink, but instead authorized the Legislature to draft enabling legislation to allow each of the state's 77 counties to conduct a separate referendum on the issue.

The vote was on an amendment to replace a provision in the Oklahoma Constitution that banned sale of any alcohol by the drink except for beer with an alcohol content no higher than 3.2 percent.

Even as voters were going to the polls Tuesday, "private clubs," served drinks throughout the day. Under law, such clubs are allowed to serve patrons from the patron's own bottle, purportedly bought at a state-licensed liquor store. But in practice the customer simply buys his drink and pays for it, thus "liquor-by-the-wink."

Proponents of legalizing barroom sales used the slogan, "Let's Be Honest," while opponents based their appeal on the dangers alcohol poses to health and society, particularly for drunken driving.

However, that argument appeared to have been blunted by statistics showing the state, under the present system, already ranks sixth in the nation in the number of highway deaths per capita, and 10th in arrests per capita for drunken driving.

Oklahoma was the last state to repeal prohibition, in 1959, and had never in its history as a state allowed open saloons.

The passage of the referendum, despite defeats in the past, may have been due as much to demographic changes as changes in attitude. Since the last vote in 1976, some 600,000 new voters have been added to the rolls, most either young or newcomers to the state from places where liquor laws are more liberal.

Also, Oklahoma had undergone a dramatic economic reversal because of the sharp decline in oil and gas revenues. Thus revenues from legal taxed sale of liquor by the drink and also from the increased tourism the change is expected to encourage, became increasingly important. (info from The New York Times)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

2009: first gay band marches at inauguration

Barack Obama’s Presidential Inaugural Committee has chosen the Lesbian and Gay Band Association, with members from across the country, to march in the inaugural parade in Washington on January 20, 2009. It will be the first time that a gay and lesbian band will be marching in a presidential inauguration.

“We are extremely pleased to announce that the Lesbian and Gay Band Association will be included as a marching contingent in the Inaugural Parade,” says a message on the band’s website. “This is the first time that an LGBT group will be represented in a Presidential Inaugural Parade, truly our chance to make history.”

The Washington Blade newspaper said that Bill Clinton allowed gay groups to perform music on the sidewalk during his inauguration but not to march in the parade.

There were a record number of applicants to march in the 2009 parade — nearly 1,400 — with only a few dozen being selected. During the 2005 Dubya inaugural, about 340 bands applied to march and 47 were selected. (info from The New York Times)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

November 2008: first drop in Chinese exports since June 2001

China's exports fell in November for the first time in over seven years as global demand weakened, adding to pressure on Beijing to reverse a worsening economic slump and avert heavy job losses.

The November trade surplus widened to a new monthly record of $40.1 billion as exports fell 2.2 percent from the year-earlier period and imports fell even faster, dropping 17.9 percent. Those declines are especially painful for China, where exports rose until recently at annual rates above 20 percent. Even in October, exports still grew by 19.1 percent as global conditions deteriorated.

The sharper-than-expected decline adds to pressure on Beijing, which has launched a massive stimulus package to boost consumer spending in hopes of insulating China from the global slowdown. Beijing unveiled its 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) stimulus package Nov. 9 after China's growth rate fell to 9 percent in the last quarter, down from 11.9 percent last year.

Moody's Investors Service warned in a report that the stimulus will not be enough to make up for the loss in foreign trade. "China is facing its most serious economic downturn in two decades," the rating agency said. The stimulus package, while large, "will not be able to offset fully the negative effects from the contraction in global trade."

China's economy is expected to grow by about 9 percent this year but forecasters expect that to weaken in 2009. The World Bank has cut its 2009 growth forecast from 9.2 percent to 7.5 percent, its lowest since 1990.

Chinese exporters have been hammered by a drop in foreign demand, leading to factory closures and layoffs. Communist leaders have warned that more job losses might fuel unrest and are pressing companies to minimize job cuts. China's trade slowdown is a setback for foreign exporters that hoped it might help to support global growth as the United States weakened.

November's exports fell to $114.9 billion, while imports dropped to $91.3 billion. (info from The Associated Press)

Monday, December 8, 2008

2008: first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress

Republican immigration attorney Anh "Joseph" Cao defeated disgraced Democrat William Jefferson on Saturday in an election postponed for a month by Hurricane Gustav. Cao is first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress

The victory for a 41-year-old child of Vietnam War refugees was greeted with amazement and drew parallels to last year's election of Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Indian-American Republican.

It also confirms a general shift to the GOP in Louisiana, where the Democratic Party dominated for generations and no Republican had represented New Orleans since 1890.

Cao was buoyed by low turnout, a lackluster campaign by Jefferson, strong third-party candidates and the election being postponed a month by Hurricane Gustav. State and national Republicans seized on the race with a well-funded and effective campaign, bombarding targeted neighborhoods with automated telephone calls, signs and flyers.

Jefferson faced some of the most direct attacks since 2005, when a wide-reaching corruption probe against him was made public and FBI agents found $90,000 in alleged bribe payments in his freezer. He currently faces trial on charges of money laundering, racketeering and bribery, but no date has been set.

In conceding the race, Jefferson blamed fatigue among his supporters. "I think people just ran out of gas a bit," Jefferson said Saturday night. "People today flat didn't come out in large numbers."

In many ways, Cao won on a protest vote by white voters from both major parties indignant about Jefferson's staying power. Analysts said white voters turned out by a ratio of 2-to-1 over blacks.

Nonetheless, Cao's win was viewed as improbable and important for the Asian communities of eastern New Orleans and the West Bank, a series of suburbs across the Mississippi River from the city.

The community - made up of war refugees from Southeast Asia who came here in the 1970s - has gained in strength since Katrina and it is widely viewed as a rebuilding model.

"They jumped onto it with nobody's help," said Pete Gerica, a commercial fisherman and industry advocate who lives near the Asian community, known generally as Village d'Est or Versailles. "It's a self-contained city," Gerica said. "They have steelworkers, carpenters, everything they need right there. They have shoe makers, they got people who make clothes. They are a very tight-knit family and that's what makes good people, when you put family first."

Cao (pronounced "Gow") is largely unknown, but his compelling life story attracted many voters. He was born in Vietnam and had to flee the country after Saigon fell in 1975 at age 8. His father, a South Vietnamese army officer, was imprisoned by Communist forces and later released.

He earned a degree in philosophy from Fordham University and moved to Louisiana in 1992 as a seminarian. He earned his law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans.

He has personally experienced the destructive powers of hurricanes in the low-lying region. His home in an upscale suburb outside New Orleans' levee system was flooded by Katrina and Gustav.

The congressman-elect describes himself as a political moderate with only one firm policy belief: He is against abortion. As a lawyer, he has worked for Boat People S.O.S., a national Vietnamese-American advocacy group for refugees. He became known in New Orleans in 2006 as a leader in an emotional campaign to close a new landfill for Katrina debris. In 2007, Cao ran for a state House seat as an independent and lost.

He said his win Saturday proved Louisiana is open-minded. "The people of Louisiana are very special, very progressive," he said, "and I think we will serve as a beacon for the rest of the country." (info from The Associated Press, photo from BBC)

Friday, December 5, 2008

2008: first solar car drives around the world

On December 4, after driving more than 32,000 miles through 38 countries, the Solartaxi arrived at the World Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland. It was the first time a solar powered car has made it all the way around the world. (It did not drive across the oceans.)

The Solartaxi is an electric vehicle with a 15-foot-long trailer covered with about 65 square feet of solar cells. The electricity is stored in a newly invented Zebra battery, so the car can drive without any sunshine, even at night. The solar cells on the trailer produce enough electricity to run the car over 60 miles a day.

If the crew needs to charge the battery with additional solar power to drive more 60 miles a day, they have a novel way of getting additional power.

They have a solar power plant on a rooftop in Berne, Switzerland. This electricity is fed into the grid, offsetting electricity generated by using fossil fuels. It's like depositing money into a bank account and withdrawing the money from another branch. They feed solar electricity into the grid and charge it into the battery anywhere in the world, from the grid.

CLICK for more.

1874: the spork is patented

It is believed that the modern spork, a combined spoon and fork made of disposable plastic, was introduced by Kentucky Fried Chicken for eating coleslaw in the early 1970s; but this fast-food fixture actually goes back to Medieval times. Ancient sporks, however, were not called sporks, weren't made of plastic, and didn't look like modern sporks.

In England, the Folgate Silver Plate Company made sporks sometime between 1875 and 1900. In the US, various patents for sporks and proto-sporks have been issued over the years. A combined spoon, fork, and knife closely resembling the modern spork was invented by Samuel W. Francis and patented in 1874. Other early patents predating the modern spork include a "Cutting spoon", granted in 1908 and a spoon with a tined edge in 1912. These design patents do not prevent others from designing and manufacturing their own version of a spork. Modern US patents for sporks were granted in 1978 and 1998.

The word spork originated in the early 1900s to describe such devices. According to a December 20, 1952 New York Times article, Hyde W. Ballard of Westtown, Pennsylvania filed an application to register "Spork" as a trademark for a combination spoon and fork made of stainless steel. The Van Brode Milling Company registered SPORK for a combination plastic spoon, fork and knife in 1970, but abandoned the registration.

While the most common sporks are plastic throwaways, some are more durable, including lightweight titanium sporks for camping. Several recent spork-like utensils have the spoon and fork on opposite ends, and others have knife-like cutting edges. (some info from Wikipedia)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

2008: last Christmas for MGA's Bratz dolls

After a four-year legal battle, a federal judge has banned MGA Entertainment from making and selling its hugely popular Bratz dolls in a sweeping decision that favors rival toymaker Mattel.

US District Judge Stephen Larson ordered MGA Entertainment to immediately stop manufacturing the dolls but said it can wait until the holiday season ends to remove the toys from store shelves.

The decision was a stunning defeat for MGA, which exploded onto the tween scene in 2001 with the edgy dolls and made hundreds of millions in profits, giving Mattel's doll diva Barbie a run for her money.

The ruling, filed Wednesday, followed a jury's finding that Bratz doll designer Carter Bryant developed the concept while working for Mattel. The same jury later awarded Mattel $10 million for copyright infringement and $90 million for breach of contract after a lengthy trial stemming from Mattel's 2004 lawsuit ended in August. It was unclear if MGA planned to appeal Larson's ruling.

A Mattel attorney said the ruling was a huge victory for the toy giant, which has fought to neutralize the Bratz line for years. The dolls - with their huge lips, pug noses, almond-shaped eyes and coquettish figures - were an instant hit with young girls. MGA had taken Bryant's original four dolls and spun out a line of more than 40 characters, complete with accessories and related toys such as Bratz Boyz, Bratz Petz and Baby Bratz.

The judge's injunction named all 40 dolls in the Bratz line, including the four originals - Yasmine, Chloe, Sasha and Jade. Larson also ordered MGA to reimburse its vendors and distributors for the cost of the dolls and all shipping charges for sending them back.

During trial, Mattel attorneys said MGA made nearly $778 million on the Bratz line since it was introduced seven years ago, and company Chief Executive Isaac Larian made $696 million through June - but MGA insisted the profits were much less.

The post-trial dispute that prompted Wednesday's ruling centered on whether the jury found that only the first generation of four Bratz dolls infringed on Mattel's copyright or whether all the dolls in the line are in violation. The jury verdict form only asked panelists to find whether there was infringement and assign a dollar reward, but did not ask them to specify which dolls among the dozens MGA made violated the law. MGA, which no longer makes the first-generation dolls, argued that the later toys in the Bratz line don't violate the copyright and it could continue to sell them.

Both sides had a lot riding on the judge's decision and had worried about the impact of any ruling during the holiday shopping season. Mattel has seen sales of Barbie - once a rite of passage for American girls - slide since the Bratz dolls first came on the scene. Domestic sales of Barbie were down 15 percent in 2007.

MGA is also in litigation with its insurers for nearly $63 million in legal fees spent during the battle with Mattel. It has also countersued Mattel, alleging the toy giant's popular MyScene dolls are a copy of the Bratz brand. (info from The Associated Press)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

1933: first Federal insurance for bank deposits

During the 1920s, an average of 70 banks failed each year in the US. After the crash, during the first 10 months of 1930, 744 banks failed – 10 times as many. In all, 9,000 banks failed during the decade of the 30s. By 1933, depositors saw $140 billion disappear through bank failures.

When new president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated in March 1933, banks in all 48 states had either closed or had placed restrictions on how much money depositors could withdraw. FDR's first act as President was to declare a national "bank holiday" – closing the banks for a three-day cooling off period. The most memorable line from the President's speech was directed to the bank crisis – "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Some economists and historians have argued that the bank crisis caused the Great Depression. But others have looked at fundamental economic factors and regional histories and argued that banks failed as a result of the economic collapse.

Whether the fear of bank failures caused the Depression or the Depression caused banks to fail, the result was the same for people who had their life savings in the banks – they lost their money. At the beginning of the 30s, there was no such thing as deposit insurance. If a bank failed, you lost the money you had in the bank.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is a United States government corporation created by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, inspired by the Massachusetts Depositors Insurance Fund (DIF). The FDIC provides deposit insurance which guarantees the safety of checking and savings deposits in member banks, currently up to $250,000 per depositor per bank.

On January 1, 2010, the standard coverage limit will return to $100,000 for all deposit categories except IRAs and Certain Retirement Accounts, which will continue to be insured up to $250,000 per owner.

The FDIC insures accounts at different banks separately. For example, a person with accounts at two separate banks (not merely branches of the same bank) can keep $250,000 in each account and be insured for the total of $500,000. Also, accounts in different ownerships (such as beneficial ownership, trusts, and joint accounts) are considered separately for the $250,000 insurance limit. Under the Federal Deposit Insurance Reform Act of 2005, Individual Retirement Accounts are insured to $250,000. (info from LivingHistoryFarm.org and Wikipedia)

Monday, December 1, 2008

1967: first time veterans protested Vietnam war

In the late 1960s, protests broke out all over the world in opposition to US involvement in Vietnam. In 1967, six Vietnam veterans marched together in a peace demonstration. When Vietnam Veterans Against the War formed, it was the first time that veterans joined activists and students to address the Vietnam War. VVAW was organized to voice the growing opposition among returning servicemen and women to the still-raging war in Indochina, and grew rapidly to a membership of over 30,000 in the US as well as GIs stationed in Vietnam. Through ongoing actions and grassroots organization, VVAW exposed the ugly truth about US involvement in Southeast Asia and their first-hand experiences helped many other Americans to see the unjust nature of that war.

In 1971, Vietnam Veterans Against the War held a Winter Soldier conference, detailing the atrocities of the war by those who experienced it. The film Winter Soldier is a documentation of the event.

According to Bob Fiore, one of the 18 filmmakers who worked on the project,"Around 1991, I showed the film in a class my daughter was taking at Sarah Lawrence on the history of Vietnam. The students saw it as an historical document because there was no war going on. The film didn’t have any immediate relevance. Instead, they mostly asked why the Vietnam War was such a passionate subject with their parents. With the Iraq war here has been an enthusiastic and renewed interest in the film. Milestone Films put the film in theaters, on television, and have made it available on DVD. It’s available on Netflix. Before, it was an effort to keep the film alive, but now it is thriving."

VVAW says, "VVAW quickly took up the struggle for the rights and needs of veterans. In 1970, we started the first rap groups to deal with traumatic after-effects of war, setting the example for readjustment counselling at Vet Centers now. We exposed the shameful neglect of many disabled vets in VA Hospitals and helped draft legislation to improve educational benefits and create job programs. VVAW fought for amnesty for war resisters, including vets with bad discharges. We helped make known the negative health effects of exposure to chemical defoliants and the VA's attempts to cover-up these conditions as well as their continued refusal to provide treatment and compensation for many Agent Orange Victims.

Today our government is still financing and arming undemocratic and repressive regimes around the world. Recently, American troops have been sent into combat in the Middle East and Central America, for many of the same misguided reasons that were used to send us to Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, many veterans are still denied justice -- facing unemployment, discrimination, homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder and other health problems, while already inadequate services are being cut back or eliminated.

We believe that service to our country and communities did not end when we were discharged. We remain committed to the struggle for peace and for social and economic justice for all people. We will continue to oppose senseless military adventures and to teach the real lessons of the Vietnam War. We will do all we can to prevent another generation from being put through a similar tragedy and we will continue to demand dignity and respect for veterans of all eras. This is real patriotism and we remain true to our mission." (info and photo from P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center and from VVAW.org)

Friday, November 28, 2008

1692: last execution for witchcraft in the US

The majority of witch trials in the US took place in New England, mostly in Massachusetts. The most famous trials were in Salem, MA in 1692.

The last witchcraft trial in Massachusetts was in 1693. The defendant was found Not Guilty. There were witching accusations in the South until 1709.

The last execution for witchcraft in the United States was in 1692. Witches were hanged, stoned, or crushed to death, not burned at the stake.

The last witch executions in European countries were:
Holland 1610
England 1684
Scotland 1727
France 1745
Germany 1775
Switzerland 1782
Poland 1793

(Info from The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology by Rossell Robbins

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

1977: first TV show jumps the shark

"Jumping the shark" is a colloquialism used by TV critics and fans to denote the point in a TV or movie series when the characters or plot veer into a ridiculous, out-of-the-ordinary storyline.

Shows that have "jumped the shark" are deemed to have passed their peak, since they have undergone too many changes to retain their original appeal, and after this point fans often notice a decline in quality.

The term refers to a scene in a 1977 episode of Happy Days when Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli literally jumps over a shark while water skiing. The scene was considered so preposterous that many believed it to be an attempt at reviving the declining ratings of the flagging show. Ironically, not only was Happy Days reflecting the superstardom of real-life shark-jumper Evel Knievel in the episode, but the series was wildly successful in 1977. Happy Days was the second most popular show on television that year, second only to spin-off, Laverne & Shirley.

Jump-the-shark moments may be viewed as a desperate and futile attempt to keep a series fresh in declining ratings. In other cases the departure or replacement of a main cast member or character or a significant change in setting changes a critical dynamic of the show. These changes are often attempts to attract their fans' waning attention with over-the-top statements or increasingly overt appeals to sex or violence.

The term has also evolved to describe other areas of pop culture including movie series, musicians, actors or authors for whom a drastic change was seen as the beginning of the end or marking the moment the subject is "past its peak." When referring to celebrities, the related term "jumping the couch" is often used if the moment is a personal act of "going off the deep end".

Even before "jumping the shark" was employed as a pop culture term, the episode in question was cited many times as an example of what can happen to otherwise high-quality shows when they stay on the air too long in the face of waning interest. The infamous scene was seen by many as betraying the Happy Days' 1950s setting by cashing in on 1970s fads of Evel Knievel and Jaws.

Producer Garry Marshall later admitted that he knew the show had lost something as the crew prepared to shoot the scene. As Marshall pointed out in the reunion special that aired in 2005, however, Happy Days went on to produce approximately 100 more episodes after the "shark" episode. During the special, question, Marshall introduced the notorious clip and noted that the show had inspired the term.

The first public use of the phrase as a direct metaphor is reported to have been in 1997, when the jumptheshark.com website was launched by Jon Hein. According to the site, the phrase was first coined by Hein's college roommate, Sean Connolly in 1985. The term first appeared in print in the May 29, 1998, Jerusalem Post newspaper article, "It's All Downhill," written by Jeff Abramowitz.

The phrase has been used more recently outside the realm of popular culture, representing anything that has reached its peak and has turned mediocre, such as a stock or a sports team.

Arrested Development has a character played by Henry Winkler, who played the Fonz in Happy Days. In the episode "Motherboy XXX", while conversing with other characters on a dock, he remarks, "I missed breakfast, so I’m on my way to Burger King," and then hops over a shark that's in his path.

That '70s Show had an episode in which Fez imagines jumping over a shark, thinking how cool it would be to be the Fonz. Hyde comments that not only is it the worst idea ever, but that it also was the worst moment in television history. Fez then says he never really watched the show after that episode. In another episode, Eric asks Pastor Dave how cool Jesus is compared to Fonzie, and asks if he can jump over a shark. The series often utilized 1990s points of view rather than reflect the actual 1970s view where the episode was a huge ratings success.

Mad TV reenacted a skit in which the infamous "jump the shark" episode was partially redone in mock Spanish, featuring dialogue such as Laverne saying "Aww, Shirl, Fonzie es jumpo el sharko!" (info from Wikipedia)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

1935: Hollywood's last silent film

The first commercial screening of movies with fully synchronized sound took place in 1923, and the first feature-length movie originally presented as a talkie was The Jazz Singer, released in 1927; but silent films continued to be made into the next decade.

The last silent film ever produced in Hollywood was released by Paramount International in 1935. Legong: Dance of the Virgins, was originally shown only outside the US due to concerns about female nudity in the film and the uproar it would cause. It was fiilmed in Bali, Indonesia.

The movie is a tragic tale of love denied. Poutou, a young girl who is a respected Legong dancer, falls in love with young musician Nyoung. Her father is delighted with Poutou's choice and wants to help her to conquer Nyoung's heart. But Poutou's half sister Saplak also wants Nyoung, and when he chooses Saplak, Poutou drowns herself. The movie displays Balinese culture including frenetic dances, mystical parades, the local marketplace, a cockfight and a mass cremation.

Finally in the late 1930's it was shown in theaters in Hollywood and New York City attracting thousands to see bare-breasted native girls. (info from BaliFilm.com, Milestone Films and Wikipedia)

Monday, November 24, 2008

1898: first use of hospital ship during wartime

In 1898, during the Spanish-American war, the US was the first country to dispatch a specialized hospital ship into a battle zone.

The hospital ship Solace remained with the battleships that were sent to Key West and Cuba. Solace was equipped and manned to care for sick or wounded sailors and soldiers.

Originally constructed in 1896 as the Creole for the Cromwell Steamship Lines, the vessel was acquired in 1898 by the Navy. Within 16 days, she was renamed Solace and fitted out as an "ambulance ship," complete with a large operating room, steam disinfecting apparatus, ice machine, steam laundry plant, cold storage rooms, and an elevator.

She could accommodate two hundred patients in her berths, swinging cots and staterooms. Her hurricane deck was enclosed with canvas to be used as a contagious disease ward. The vessel's fresh water tanks held 37,000 gallons of fresh water, and her system of evaporators and distillers maintained the supply.

She was given gifts of supplies and equipment from groups such as the Rhode Island Sanitary and Relief Association and the National Society of Colonial Dames, gaining an X-ray machine, a carbonating machine, etc.

Solace's crew included a surgeon, three assistant surgeons, three hospital stewards (one of which was a skilled embalmer) eight trained nurses, a cook, four messmen and two laundrymen. The ship and her crew had "the honor of inaugurating antiseptic surgery at sea.

The vessel was commissioned on April 14, 1898 and placed under the command of Commander A. Dunlap. Her first trip took her out to the Cuban and Puerto Rican blockading squadrons where she collected the few men wounded in the bombardment of San Juan, and other sick or wounded among the fleet.

On June 5, she arrived in New York with 57 sick and wounded men. She returned to the vicinity of Cuba in time take aboard the Marines wounded in the capture of Guantanamo, and then many Spanish wounded who had been taken aboard the Brooklyn after the Spanish loss in the naval Battle of Santiago. She also took aboard an additional 44 army personnel at Siboney. On July 16, she landed the 44 army personnel, 48 wounded Spanish navymen and an additional 55 sick navymen at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

After being resupplied and outfitted with an additional ice machine in New York, she again steamed south to the war zone. She picked up the navy sick from the waters aroound Cuba and those injured and wounded brought by the Gloucester from Puerto Rico. After transporting these men to Boston, she underwent some repairs and then went back to Cuban waters.

By now it was September and the fighting was over, but the need for Solace was greater than ever. With the outbreak of yellow fever and malaria among the troops in Cuba, the situation was quite grave. Solace was under orders bring home as many of the sick as she could accommodate.

In February of 1899, she steamed for California, going by way of Europe, the Middle East, Far East, and Hawaii, reaching Mare Island on May 27, where she was overhauled. From July of 1899 until October of 1905, she sailed the Pacific, carrying mail, passengers and provisions. In 1905 Solace was decommissioned at Mare Island.

Recommissioned on June 3, 1908, the vessel traveled in the Pacific, before steaming to Charleston, South Carolina to be decommissioned again on April 14, 1909. Recommissioned the following November, she served off the east coast of the US for the remainder of her career, with the single exception being a 1913 trip to France.

On Jannuary 1, 1919. the vessel aided in rescuing the crew of the Northern Pacific off Fire Island, New York, which was returning from Europe with wounded World War One veterans. Despite heavy seas, after several days the Solace removed 504 men and took them to safety at Hoboken, New Jesey.

The ship was 377 feet long, 44 feet wide, had a crew of 270, and one 3200 HP engine. It was unarmed and was the first US Naval vessel to be fitted out to the requirements of the Geneva Convention and to fly the Red Cross flag. Other countries including England and Italy, followed the American example and used hospital ships in other wars.

Solace was sold for scrapping to Boston Metals Co. in Baltimore in November, 1930. (info from The New York Times, Spanamwar.com and the US Navy.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

1907: first country let women run for office

According to Madeleine Kunin, a former governor of Vermont, 16% is the percentage of women in the U.S. Congress, a record high. Sixteen percent is also the percentage of women in top corporate positions as board members and vice presidents, despite the fact that women have comprised 50 percent of middle management positions for fifteen years.

The 16% figure emerged a third time, according to a 2007 U.N. study of the percentage of women in the lower houses of Parliaments around the world. In that same study the United States ranked 71st, out of more than 140 countries.

Even Iraq and Afghanistan have more women in their Parliaments. At the urging of the United States, their constitutions include a 25 percent quota for women - Iraq met it and Afghanistan exceeded it. The country with the highest percentage of women in its Parliament - 48.8% - is Rwanda.

Three countries have elected female presidents in recent years: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, Michele Bechelet in Chile, and Angela Merkel in Germany. None of these women were expected to win; all were a sharp contrast to the men who had preceded them.

Finland was the first country to permit women to run for political office in 1907. It has consistently ranked near the top in women's political participation and has a female president. Finland was recently lauded for having the best education test scores of 51 countries. (info from Vermont Public Radio)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

1983: first Missing Children's Day

In 1983 President Ronald Reagan proclaimed May 25 as National Missing Children’s Day. Each administration since has honored this annual reminder to renew efforts to reunite missing children with their families and make child protection a national priority.

On May 25, 2006, Missing Children's Day was commemorated by the US Postal Service with the issuance of the AMBER Alert Stamp.

The date marks the anniversary of the 1979 abduction of six-year-old Etan Patz from Manhattan. Etan was the first child to be pictured on the back of a milk carton. His case remains unsolved. Etan is still categorized as missing.

On the morning of Friday, May 25, 1979, Etan left his apartment by himself -- for the first time -- to walk the two blocks to catch the school bus. He did not reach the bus stop.

When he didn't return home from school that afternoon, his mother reported him missing. An intense search, with nearly 100 police officers and a team of bloodhounds, began that evening and continued for weeks.

In 1991, jailhouse informants claimed that Jose Ramos, a convicted child sexual abuser imprisoned in Pennsylvania, admitted to his murder. Ramos had been a friend of Etan's one-time babysitter. He promised that no body would be found, saying "It's too horrible. No one would ever represent me". The New York Post reported on October 23, 1999, that Ramos was the prime suspect in Etan's disappearance.

Etan was declared legally dead in 2001. His parents, Stanley and Julie Patz, pursued a civil case against Ramos, who was found liable for Patz's wrongful death in May 2004. They were awarded a sum of $2 million, which they have never collected because Ramos is serving a prison term for molesting boys in Pennsylvania. He will have served his full sentence in 2014. Without evidence, a body or a crime scene, some investigators do not believe they will ever be able to convict Ramos for Patz's death.

In the 1983 movie Without a Trace, starring Kate Nelligan and Judd Hirsch, a six year old boy disappears while walking to school in Manhattan. The Stanley Jaffe film was loosely based on the Patz case. (info from Wikipedia. MissingKids.com and North Carolina Dep't of Crime Control)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

2008: first American reached South Pole via historic route

Adventurer Alison Levine has become the first American to follow a remote route to the geographic South Pole pioneered by Italian explorer Reinhold Messner. Levine left in early December 2007 for the Ronne Ice Shelf in west Antarctica and finished the arduous 574-mile journey in just 38 days. Since Messner's expedition in 1989, only two Norwegian teams had completed this route - until Levine's trek.

Levine endured some of the harshest conditions known to man including -50 degree F temperatures, icy winds and dangerous crevasse fields covered with snow bridges that have been known to collapse under pressure. The extreme weather made the trip especially hard for Levine because she suffers from Raynaud's Disease, a neurological
disorder that affects her extremities in cold weather. As a result, she often lost the use of her hands and was forced to ski without poles because she could not grip the handles. In addition, she was born with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a life-threatening heart condition and had two surgeries to correct the problem.

"Antarctica definitely showed us her teeth," said Levine. "The wind and the cold really beat us up at times. My hands would freeze whenever I stopped for a short break which meant I would have to ski and haul all of my gear without using my poles, and that was pretty tough. In these kinds of situations, you have to keep pushing day after day. You have no choice. It's not like you can just pop into a ski lodge for a cup of hot cocoa. There is no escape. It's just you against the elements - but that's how I like it."

At 5'4, 112-pounds, Levine skied 10 hours a day with a sled containing 150 pounds of her own gear and supplies harnessed to her waist. Despite eating 5,000-6,000 calories a day, Levine lost 15 percent of her body weight due to the physical demands of the journey.

Levine retraced Messner's traverse to the South Pole as part of an international five-person team that included an Australian, who led the group along with adventurers from Canada, Norway and Holland. A record of her blog and pictures is here.

Alison Levine has climbed peaks on every continent, served as team captain of the first American Women's Everest Expedition and skied across the Arctic Circle to the geographic North Pole. She founded Daredevil Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in organizational effectiveness, leadership development and team dynamics. Levine is also the founder of the Climb High Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps women in western Uganda.

Levine earned her MBA from Duke University. During her 20-year business career, she held positions in healthcare, technology and investment banking. She is said to be the most requested female business speaker in the US.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

2008: first time a company lost DSL customers

The battle between cable and phone companies to sign up new customers for high-speed Internet service is heating up. Customers can save money and get faster service, and what used to be considered fast is now not so fast.

Earlier this year Verizon Communications became the first company ever to see a drop in DSL subscribers -- some of whom switched to its faster FiOS service. Verizon is now offering customers six months of DSL service free to people who sign up for the company's phone and Internet package. That makes the bundled package $45 a month, vs. $65 prior to the offer. AT&T is now guaranteeing its current prices, ranging from $20 to $55 a month, for two years.

Cable and phone companies have competed for broadband customers for more than a decade, but discounts have been relatively modest, mainly because the companies continued to add new customers at a healthy clip. Now the market is maturing quickly; some 60% of US households currently have a high-speed Internet connection.

Cable and phone companies added 887,000 new broadband customers during the second quarter of 2008 -- half the number they added a year earlier.

And while the new additions were long split roughly evenly between the two camps, the tide turned dramatically in cable's favor for the first time in 2008. Cable companies picked up 75% of the new customers, sending the phone companies into a scramble. As bandwidth-hungry applications like video downloads grow, customers prefer the generally faster speeds cable offers. Cable companies have also been marketing more aggressively in recent months.

Winning broadband customers has enormous strategic consequences for both cable and phone companies. It gives them a foot in the door to sell other services, such as TV and phone service. People prefer to get phone and TV services from the same company that provides them with their broadband connection. And broadband services are also the most profitable of the bundled services. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Time Out

I'm taking a few days off

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

1999: first state makes it legal to grow "grass"

North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer signed legislation in 1999 allowing local farmers to "plant, grow, harvest, possess, sell, and buy industrial hemp." North Dakota was the first state to remove criminal penalties for hemp cultivation.

House Bill 1428 reclassifies hemp containing no more than three-tenths of one percent THC as a legal commercial crop, and allows licensed farmers to grow it. The House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure before the governor signed it. The Legislature commissioned that determined locally grown hemp could yield profits as high as $141 per acre.

North Dakota's new regulations are modeled closely after Canada's, which legalized commercial hemp in 1998. Bill sponsor David Monson said that local farmers are eager to grow hemp after seeing the crop's economic success north of the border.

Farmers who wish to grow hemp must have no prior criminal history, use certified seeds, and allow random inspections of their crop for THC content. Farmers must pay a minimum $150 fee to apply for a hemp license.

John Howell, CEO of New York City's Hemp Company of America and a plaintiff in a 1998 federal lawsuit to legalize hemp cultivation, said that "the future of hemp in America now looks much, much brighter." He noted that federal permits to grow hemp require applicants to answer whether cultivation is legal in their state. "Until now, every applicant had to check 'no' and applications were denied. Now that Catch-22 cycle has been broken by North Dakota's action."

The Legislature also approved measures allowing university researchers who have federal permission to grow small quantities of hemp, and urging Congress to acknowledge legal distinctions between hemp and marijuana. About 30 nations, including France, England, Germany, Japan, and Australia allow farmers to grow non-psychoactive hemp for its fiber content. (info from NORML.org)

Monday, November 10, 2008

1961: first TV news stand-up in front of the White House

A television reporter standing in front of the White House is a familiar image, and the location is used almost every day.

In the early 1960s, television crews filmed reports inside the press briefing room, said Bob Asman, who worked for NBC News for 32 years. Not long after he arrived at the White House in 1961, someone at NBC had the idea to move outside.

"We found a spot near a tree on the North Lawn," Bob said. "It gives you a beautiful shot of the North Portico, which is a good shot day or night."

The other networks followed suit. Over time, however, the weight of all those journalists and their equipment started to damage the tree's roots and the press corps was asked to move a little west, to the other side of a driveway.

Here, the problem was mud. During the Monica Lewinsky saga, some camera operators wore boots to keep from sinking into the mire. The area was neatened up with crushed bluestone, prompting the nickname Pebble Beach. In 2002, the Park Service upgraded the area with paving stones, inspiring a new nickname: "Stonehenge."

Craig Allen, a University of Arizona journalism professor, is fed up with the clichéd White House stand-up. "The stand-up gives the impression that reporters are there ceaselessly digging out news when in reality they're there to get the next news release, pretty much," he said. "They have no access to the president."

Additionally, Craig thinks the North Lawn stand-ups can damage the reputation of US journalists abroad.

"You can imagine when [foreign viewers] tune into CNN and see the CNN correspondent standing in front of the White House, what the effect of that is," he said. "It makes it look like the reporter is a shill for the US government and is basically touting the party line. . . . It looks like the networks are part of the government and are espousing what the government wants as news." (info & photo from The Washington Post)

Friday, November 7, 2008

2010: first US president visits Cuba

Following the normalization of US-Cuban relations in 2009, US President Barack Obama visited Cuba in August, 2010. Obama met with new Cuban President Nicholas Santiago, the first non-Castro to head Cuba in 50 years, and was warmly greeted by the Cuban people in several public appearances.

President Obama was in Cuba with his wife and daughters for three days. They stayed at the US Naval base in Guantanamo, but visited Havana and several other cities. They even swam at the Playa Girón beach that was the site of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion during the Kennedy administration.

During a 2008 campaign speech in Miami, Obama promised to lift restrictions on family visits and remittances by Cuban-Americans seeking to help relatives on the island. He got 35% of the Cuban-American vote in Florida. Cuban-Americans' tough attitude toward their former homeland has gradually eased, in recognition that the hard line accomplished nothing to remove the Castros from power, and had hurt relatives still living in Cuba.

There is a generational divide among Cuban-Americans. Many older people were born in Cuba and came in the 1960s as political refugees in the early years of Fidel Castro's rule. Their American-born children, as well as refugees who came more recently for economic reasons, were more likely to support easing of sanctions.

A general trade embargo had been in effect since the Cold War in 1962. It was imposed after Cuba siezed properties of American people and businesses, particularly United Fruit and ITT.

The embargo was codified into law in 1992 with the stated purpose of "bringing democracy to the Cuban people", and is entitled the Cuban Democracy Act. In 1996 Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act which further restricted US citizens from doing business in or with Cuba, and mandated restrictions on giving public or private assistance to any successor regime in Havana unless and until certain claims against the Cuban government were met.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton expanded the trade embargo even further by ending the practice of foreign subsidiaries of US companies trading with Cuba in dollar amounts totaling more than $700 million a year.

The embargo was one of the few times in history that US citizens were restricted from doing business abroad, and was the most enduring trade embargo in modern history. Despite the existence of the embargo, the US is the seventh largest exporter to Cuba

The US relaxed sanctions during the Clinton administration, only to see relations become tense again in 1996 when Cuba shot down two unarmed planes flown by members of Brothers to the Rescue, a Cuban-exile organization. It was after that incident that the embargo became law rather than longstanding presidential policy.

President George W. Bush backed sanctions in 2004 and 2005 that restricted Cuban-Americans from visiting family on the island more than once every three years, and narrowed the list of family members to whom they can send remittances.

During the Spanish Ameircan War in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt was in Cuba fighting with the "Rough Riders" calvary regiment to help Cuba win indepedence from Spain, but this was before Roosevelt was president. In 2002, Jimmy Carter visited Cuba, but this was after he was president. (some info from Wikipedia and The Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

2008: first time Democrats gather in Chicago without being attacked by police

During the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, a peace rally in Grant Park ended when the police clubbed a teenager who was lowering an American flag, and others who tried to protect him.

Mayor Richard Daley called out 7,500 members of the Illinois National Guard to reinforce 12,000 police officers. They tried to remove everyone -- mostly party volunteers, candidate supporters and tourists -- from Michigan Avenue in front of the Hilton hotel, which was the convention headquarters. While the nominating speeches were being given at the amphitheater several miles away, people were pushed through plate glass windows when caught between Guard and police as they dispersed the crowd.

An official report later described the event as a "police riot."

In 2008, an estimated 120,000 supporters of Barak Obama gathered at the same park to await election results and cheer the president-elect. The cops didn't beat up anyone this time. (info & photo from JoFreeman.com)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

2008: assorted Obama election firsts & facts

First black man elected US president.

First multi-racial man elected US president.

First president born in Hawaii.

First defeated candidate born in Panama Canal Zone.

First Democrat to receive more than 50 percent of the popular vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Obama replaces president with least favorable rating since ????

First time a Democratic candidate won in Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

First time there won't be a Dole or a Bush in office in Washington since 1961.

Longest and most expensive presidential campaign in US history.

First senator elected to the White House since John F. Kennedy in 1960.

First presidential election with a female Republican candidate.

60% of voters said Palin isn't qualified to be president.

Highest voter turnout rate (64.1%) since 1908 (65.7%).

First election since 19?? without a former president or VP running for office.

No Republican ousted a Senate Democrat.

First time in 75 years that Democrats won major House gains in back-to-back elections.

Democrat Beverly Perdue became the first woman governor of North Carolina.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

2008: Barack Obama elected 44th president of the USA

2008: FL school board votes to keep mostly black school named to honor Klan leader

A Florida school board voted late Monday night to keep the name of a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader at a majority black high school, despite opposition from a black board member who said the school's namesake was a "terrorist and racist."

After hearing about three hours of public comments, Duval County School Board members voted 5-2 to the retain the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. The board's two black members cast the only votes to change the name.

"(Forrest) was a terrorist and a racist," argued board member Brenda Priestly Jackson, who is black. Betty Burney, the board chairman and the board's other black member, also voted against retaining the name. "It is time to turn the page and get beyond where we are," she said.

Board member Tommy Hazouri voted to keep the name and said it is difficult to know "who the real Forrest is."

The board listened to passionate arguments from those on both sides. More than 140 people crowded into the meeting room, with another 20 watching the meeting on a television in the lobby.

Many urged a name change, saying the Forrest name was an insult.

"Nathan Bedford Forrest was part of the Ku Klux Klan, no matter how you put it. Nathan Bedford Forrest needs to be changed," said Stanley Scott, who is black.

But several spoke favorably of the general, saying the perceptions that Forrest was an evil man who ordered the massacre of Union troops were incorrect.

Some had suggested naming the school after the street it sits on, or honoring a graduate whose plane was shot down in 1991 over Iraq on the first night of Operation Desert Storm.

Forrest High School, which has received two consecutive "F" grades on state assessment tests, opened as an all-white school in the 1950s. Its name was suggested by the Daughters of the Confederacy, who saw it as a protest to the US Supreme Court ruling that eventually integrated the nation's public schools.

But now more than half Forrest High's students are black.

Born poor in Tennessee in 1821, Forrest amassed a fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader, importing Africans long after the practice had been made illegal. At 40, he enlisted in the Confederate army at the outset of the Civil War, rising to general in a year.

Some accounts accused Forrest of ordering black prisoners to be massacred after a victory at Tennessee's Fort Pillow in 1864, though historians question the validity of the claims. In 1867, the newly formed Klan elected Forrest its honorary Grand Wizard or national leader, but he publicly denied being involved. In 1869, he ordered the Klan to disband because of the members' increasing violence. Two years later, a congressional investigation concluded his involvement had been limited to his attempt to disband it. (info from The Associated Press)