vendredi, septembre 28, 2007

the grammar police

Via Jason

the 'angel of ahlem'

Ken Burns' World War II documentary is in full swing, and NPR just aired a profile of Infantryman Vernon Tott, an ordinary American soldier who did extraordinary things.

Tott served with the 84th Infanty Division, which liberated the Ahlem concentration camp near Hanover, Germany on April 10, 1945. He had been taking snapshots during the war to help his family back home understand what it had been like, and he also took some photos at Ahlem. When he returned home, those photos found their way into a shoebox that sat in the basement for nearly 50 years, until he connected with one of the survivors in his photographs.

NPR : Holocaust Survivors Honor Camp Liberator
Morning Edition, September 25, 2007 · Vernon Tott quit high school and snuck into the military so he could fight for his country. Like many soldiers, Tott learned to accept the realities of war. His 84th Infantry Division fought in the Battle of the Bulge and lost a third of its troops. But, when Tott's battalion headed toward the city of Hanover, Germany, in April 1945, members of the 84th were totally unprepared for their next encounter.

"There was a road," says concentration camp survivor Ben Sieradzki. "And we saw soldiers. One of them brought out a ... baseball."

The barely alive survivors of the Ahlem slave labor camp realized the soldiers must be Americans.

"We started screaming, 'Come on up here, come on up here,' and some of them were just bewildered. They didn't know it was a concentration camp," Sieradzki said.

Tott, who died in 2005 from cancer, said he and the other soldiers were unaware of the existence of the camps and were shocked at what they saw.

"We were witnessing hell on earth," Tott said at an 84th Infantry reunion. "Piles of dead bodies. Men in ragged clothing that were just skin and bones ... Me and the soldiers with me, it made us sick to your stomachs and even cried what we seen there."

Forgetting the War
What the soldiers saw were wraithlike prisoners, some near death lying in their own urine, ravaged by dysentery, typhus and other diseases. A few days before, German guards marched hundreds of able-bodied prisoners to the Bergen-Belsen death camp. They left those too sick, like Sieradzki, to die.

Not quite believing what he saw and wanting to share his horrified disbelief with family back in Sioux City, Iowa, Tott pulled out his pocket camera.

"Actually, the infantrymen weren't supposed to carry cameras, but a lot of them did, so I got a lot of pictures during the war," he said.

After the war, Tott stashed his photographs from Ahlem in a shoebox on a shelf in his basement in Sioux City. He put the war behind him.

"I think so many people put away that stuff on a shelf and wanted to forget," said his stepdaughter, Donna Jensen. "I think our whole country's put it on a shelf."

Stepson Jon Sadler remembers rummaging through the basement with his friends and sneaking peeks at the photos.

"In junior high, we'd open up the box and think, boy, this is terrible," Sadler said. "Look what my dad saw in the war. We just always assumed nobody ... in those pictures [survived]. They looked so horrible and sick."

Searching for the Photographer
For 50 years, Tott held the same assumption. Then, in his army newsletter in 1995, Tott spotted an inquiry from Sieradzki, a retired engineer in Berkeley, Calif. Sieradzki was searching for whoever took photographs of himself and other prisoners when Ahlem was liberated.

Tott went into his basement and found his old shoebox. He called Sieradzki, who remembers, "The telephone rang. 'My name is Vernon Tott and I think you're looking for me.' And I said, 'Are you still a tall blonde fellow?' And he said, 'Not any longer.'"

The two men talked many times that day. Tott made copies of his black-and-white snapshots and sent them to Sieradzki. In one of the photos, Sieradzki saw dead bodies piled on the ground in front of some barracks. In the foreground, was a huddle of skeletal prisoners. On the extreme left he saw himself.

Just hours before that picture was taken, the prisoners were handed some civilian clothes. Sieradzki changed out of his striped, ragged uniform into a "funny looking" jacket, hat and pants, which were too long, so he stuck them in his socks. This is the only known photograph of Sieradzki at liberation.

Sieradzki was 18 years old and weighed less than 80 pounds. He had endured more than five years of unimagined misery. It started in 1939, when his family was forced to live in a rundown slum district in Lodz, Poland, with 200,000 other Jews, called the Lodz Ghetto.

During this time, Sieradzki's parents and one sister were taken away and killed. His other sister died in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Sieradzki survived three concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and eventually ended up in the slave labor camp called Ahlem, near Hanover, Germany. Near the end, his worsening health confined him to the barracks.

"They called people like me musselmen — goners," he writes in a short story about the war years. "Other prisoners started to steal my ration of food. There was no use to waste food on the likes of me."

An older cousin of Sieradzki's arrived as a new prisoner to the camp and urged him to eat. He says his cousin, a man who already lost his wife and young children in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, gave him hope.

When Sieradzki saw Tott's pictures of the Ahlem camp 50 years later, he was angry at first. The photographs released a flood of dark memories. But then Sieradzki was grateful, he said, "because I had no record of that horrible time, and here I am."

There were other official photographs taken at Ahlem. The Red Cross filmed the camp, but Sieradzki describes Tott as his true witness — and not because he helped liberate the camp. It's for what he did later with his photographs.

Tott realized there might be other survivors, like Sieradzki. And perhaps, he could provide them a piece of their past. So, he launched a quest to track them down.

The Angel of Ahlem
Eventually, Tott located nearly 30 Ahlem survivors, across the United States and in Canada, Sweden and Israel. More than 16 are in his photographs. In 2001, he returned to Hanover with three of those survivors to help dedicate a memorial at Ahlem. And he traveled to Poland for the 60th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto.

In 2003, Tott's name was inscribed on a wall of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

"To Vernon W. Tott, My Liberator and Hero," Ahlem survivor Jack Tramiel had engraved on the wall. Tramiel, founder of Commodore Computer, is also a founder of the Holocaust Museum.

"I have to make sure that this man is going to be remembered for what he has done," Tramiel said. "His family should know that he is to us, a hero. He's my angel."

Earlier this year, Tott's hometown, Sioux City, hosted the premiere of a documentary about him, called Angel of Ahlem, produced by the University of Florida's Documentary Institute. More than 1,000 people came to see the film at the historic downtown Orpheum Theatre, including some survivors. They also had the chance to walk through the first public exhibit of Tott's photographs.

In May, Angel of Ahlem was shown at New York City's Lincoln Center. Nearly a dozen survivors were there — reunited because of Tott, his pocket camera and his unwavering determination.

The documentary was introduced by another member of the 84th Infantry, who helped liberate Ahlem, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

"There's nothing I'm more proud of, of my service to this country than having been one of those who had the honor of liberating the Ahlem concentration camp," Kissinger told the audience.

Kissinger grew up in Germany and became a U.S. citizen in 1943. He said many articles have described him as being traumatized during his childhood in Nazi Germany.

"That's nonsense," he said, "They were not yet killing people. A traumatic event was to see Ahlem.

"It was the single most shocking experience I have ever had."

And then Kissinger made a special request. He invited the survivors to come up on the stage and have a picture taken with him.

Slowly, deliberately, the white-haired survivors — who'd been brutalized, then rescued from desperate circumstances, so many years before — made their way to the Lincoln Center stage. As they gathered, it was clear that the most important person missing from this one last photograph was Vernon Tott.

mardi, septembre 25, 2007

think before you pink

I've never liked pink.

It's not just the aesthetics, it's the commercialization of breast cancer that leaves me itchy. Barbara Ehrenreich's "Welcome to Cancerland: A mammogram leads to a cult of pink kitsch" essay for Harper's Magazine best summarizes the growing malaise I have about the business of breast cancer. Her article made me stop and question why mainstream cancer advocacy groups aren't doing more research into the environmental causes of cancer. It also made me think more critically about the infantilization of women (from pink clothes to historically limited medical options) around this issue. And it's nearly October (Breast Cancer Awareness month), when marketers go nuts with their pink campaigns.
Marketers Think Pink for Breast Cancer Awareness
by Tanya Irwin, Monday, Sep 24, 2007 5:00 AM ET
DOZENS OF COMPANIES ARE GETTING on the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October) bandwagon, creating special pink-themed merchandise and donating a portion of proceeds to breast cancer research.

Companies are increasingly using breast cancer cause marketing to reinforce their brand images and differentiate themselves from their competitors. Many marketers have partnered with Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which hosts the Komen Race for the Cure events.

Komen's corporate partners include those who are on the Komen Million Dollar Council. In addition to a financial contribution of at least $1 million, each commits to spreading educational messages. The companies include American Airlines, BMW of North America, Boston Market, Ford Division, Hallmark Gold Crown Stores, KitchenAid, Lean Cuisine, M&M Brand Chocolate Candies, Pier 1 Imports and Yoplait USA.
Don't get me wrong — I think that many companies do admirable things by connecting consumer altruism with their self-interest (the corporate bottom line). And right now, my former roommate's fighting for her life after her recent breast cancer diagnosis ... so it's very top-of-mind for me as we go into October and I see pink everything, everywhere. It's tempting to buy, buy, buy to help raise funds for this important cause. (Nevermind that there are more effective ways to fight this disease than shopping, for chrissakes.)

Sure, it sounds noble: a cosmetics company promises that if you buy one of its products, a portion of the sale will go toward “the fight against breast cancer.” But what if that cosmetic contains chemicals that might actually increase your risk of developing the disease? It kills me to see companies who are part of the problem (like cosmetics manufacturers who continue to use carcinogens like paraben and phthalates) wrap themselves in pink to make a buck.

Breast Cancer Action is a grassroots organization of breast cancer survivors and their supporters at the forefront of the breast cancer activist movement. It reminds consumers to question the amount of money being donated to breast cancer compared to the amount being spent on marketing, the types of programs the money supports and what a company is doing to ensure its products are not contributing to the breast cancer epidemic. This year, the group is focusing its efforts on what it calls "pinkwashers" —companies that promote a pink-ribbon campaign but manufacture a product that may be contributing to the disease.

In short, it's time to think before you pink. Ask these questions before you run out and buy a product because it "supports the fight against breast cancer."

Companies are increasingly using breast cancer cause marketing to reinforce their brand image and differentiate themselves from their competitors. Navigating the expanding sea of pink ribbon promotions requires consumers to ask a few critical questions:

How much money from each product sold actually goes toward breast cancer?
For example, Yoplait donates ten cents for every pink yogurt lid mailed back to the company—it would take 4 lids just to make up for the price of the stamp. If a company is not giving as much as you think it should, you might choose to give directly to an organization or charity instead.

What percentage of the purchase price does this represent?
Many companies are ambiguous about the amount they donate from each purchase. For example, Ralph Lauren’s Pink Pony Products range in price from $10 to $598, yet the only information given to consumers is that “a portion of the proceeds from Pink Pony products benefits the Pink Pony Fund for Cancer Care and Prevention.” The consumer has no way of knowing how much money from each product is actually being donated.

What is the maximum amount that will be donated?
Some companies place a cap on the amount they will donate, meaning that if you happen to buy the product after the cap is reached, your dollars will not go towards the charity. In 2005, Cartier’s Roadster Watch promised to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Although each watch cost $3,900.00, the maximum amount Cartier donated from the total sales was $30,000.00. That’s less than the price of 8 watches.

How much money was spent marketing the product?
In a 2005 PR Week article, 3M touted that its 2004 breast cancer awareness effort, involving a 70-foot-tall ribbon made of Post-it Notes in Times Square, reached more than 3 million people and increased sales 80% over expectations. The article reports that 3M spent $500,000 on the marketing campaign (no actual numbers on profits were released), but only gave a little over half of that amount ($300,000) to the cause.

To what breast cancer organization does the money go, and what types of programs does it support?
If research, what kind? Is it the same type of studies we’ve been doing for decades that already gets enormous financial support, or is it innovative research into the causes of breast cancer that always struggles for funds?

If services, is it reaching the people who need it most? Campaigns that are not locally focused may siphon funds away from the community and give them to larger programs that are already well funded.

If advocacy and education, do the programs make steps towards ending the epidemic? Programs supporting “breast health awareness” ignore that we are already well aware that cancer is a problem and it’s time to move from awareness to action.

What is the company doing to assure that its products are not contributing to the breast cancer epidemic?
Many companies that raise funds for breast cancer also make products that may be contributing to the epidemic. Is the promotion a golf tournament on a golf course sprayed with pesticides? Is $1 being given each time you test-drive a polluting car, as in BMW’s Ultimate Drive Campaign? Are the products being sold cosmetics containing chemicals linked to breast cancer?

Far too many marketing campaigns exist for it to be possible to trace the threads of profit for each, and it’s difficult to verify whether or not a promotion is legitimate while you’re standing in the store. Make the best choice you can with the information you have. If you have trouble getting answers or if you feel that a promotion is questionable, write to the company responsible, consider buying a different product, tell your friends, and/or contact BCA.

we all scream for ...

corn flavored ice cream? It's a big hit in China, which is a prime market for expansion.

Do the words "lactose intolerant" mean anything to Unilever and Nestlé?
A Worldly Treat: Ice Cream Around the Globe
By Mark Scott and Cassidy Flanagan
No longer made up of just quaint local parlors, this highly profitable global business is dominated by two European companies: Unilever and Nestlé

Things aren't what they seem in the global ice cream business. Formerly independent brands, such as Ben & Jerry's, Dreyer's, Häagen-Dazs, and Breyers, have been gobbled up by European food giants Unilever and Nestlé to create two rival ice cream behemoths. Now, the companies are fighting for supremacy in an industry that could be worth $65 billion by 2010. Both are expanding into the top-end luxury sector and fast-growing Asia Pacific region. And both have the financial firepower to take on the competition. But it's anyone's guess which will win the global ice cream wars.

The Chinese ice cream market is booming. The current industry leader is the Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group, which is also the only dairy sponsor of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Its most popular products are "sticky" ice creams: corn-flavored treats, such as the one pictured here, wrapped in a package shaped like an ear of corn. Yum! Foreign brands have targeted China as a key growth market, although Yili, which has a 17% market share, won't give up its top spot without a fight.

jeudi, septembre 20, 2007

the jena six

I heard about the Jena 6 on NPR last Friday, as an introduction to a story about a hate crime at the University of Maryland last week.
Ghosts of Lynching on a College Campus
All Things Considered, September 14, 2007 · Commentator Sherrilyn Ifill has fought racism her entire life, as a civil rights lawyer and as a mother. When a noose was found on a tree at the University of Maryland — where she teaches and her daughter is a freshman — she had to ask, "Will this ever end?
This week, there was a protest on my university campus about the Jena 6 that raised awareness (and outrage) about the situation. (I'm still not seeing much about it on the news, which is all the more disturbing given the play the Duke Lacrosse scandal got.)
YouTube - The Jena Six

the five-second rule, revisited

It turns out that it is true. Well, sorta ...
The Curious Cook: The Five-Second Rule Explored, or How Dirty Is That Bologna?
Published: May 9, 2007

A COUPLE of weeks ago I saw a new scientific paper from Clemson University that struck me as both pioneering and hilarious.

Accompanied by six graphs, two tables and equations whose terms include “bologna” and “carpet,” it’s a thorough microbiological study of the five-second rule: the idea that if you pick up a dropped piece of food before you can count to five, it’s O.K. to eat it.

I first heard about the rule from my then-young children and thought it was just a way of having fun at snack time and lunch. My daughter now tells me that fun was part of it, but they knew they were playing with “germs.”

We’re reminded about germs on food whenever there’s an outbreak of E. coli or salmonella, and whenever we read the labels on packages of uncooked meat. But we don’t have much occasion to think about the everyday practice of retrieving and eating dropped pieces of food.

Microbes are everywhere around us, not just on floors. They thrive in wet kitchen sponges and end up on freshly wiped countertops.

As I write this column, on an airplane, I realize that I have removed a chicken sandwich from its protective plastic sleeve and put it down repeatedly on the sleeve’s outer surface, which was meant to protect the sandwich by blocking microbes. What’s on the outer surface? Without the five-second rule on my mind I wouldn’t have thought to wonder.

I learned from the Clemson study that the true pioneer of five-second research was Jillian Clarke, a high-school intern at the University of Illinois in 2003. Ms. Clarke conducted a survey and found that slightly more than half of the men and 70 percent of the women knew of the five-second rule, and many said they followed it.

She did an experiment by contaminating ceramic tiles with E. coli, placing gummy bears and cookies on the tiles for the statutory five seconds, and then analyzing the foods. They had become contaminated with bacteria.

For performing this first test of the five-second rule, Ms. Clarke was recognized by the Annals of Improbable Research with the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in public health.

It’s not surprising that food dropped onto bacteria would collect some bacteria. But how many? Does it collect more as the seconds tick by? Enough to make you sick?

Prof. Paul L. Dawson and his colleagues at Clemson have now put some numbers on floor-to-food contamination.

Their bacterium of choice was salmonella; the test surfaces were tile, wood flooring and nylon carpet; and the test foods were slices of bread and bologna.

First the researchers measured how long bacteria could survive on the surfaces. They applied salmonella broth in doses of several million bacteria per square centimeter, a number typical of badly contaminated food.

I had thought that most bacteria were sensitive to drying out, but after 24 hours of exposure to the air, thousands of bacteria per square centimeter had survived on the tile and wood, and tens of thousands on the carpet. Hundreds of salmonella were still alive after 28 days.

Professor Dawson and colleagues then placed test food slices onto salmonella-painted surfaces for varying lengths of time, and counted how many live bacteria were transferred to the food.

On surfaces that had been contaminated eight hours earlier, slices of bologna and bread left for five seconds took up from 150 to 8,000 bacteria. Left for a full minute, slices collected about 10 times more than that from the tile and carpet, though a lower number from the wood.

What do these numbers tell us about the five-second rule? Quick retrieval does mean fewer bacteria, but it’s no guarantee of safety. True, Jillian Clarke found that the number of bacteria on the floor at the University of Illinois was so low it couldn’t be measured, and the Clemson researchers resorted to extremely high contamination levels for their tests. But even if a floor — or a countertop, or wrapper — carried only a thousandth the number of bacteria applied by the researchers, the piece of food would be likely to pick up several bacteria.

The infectious dose, the smallest number of bacteria that can actually cause illness, is as few as 10 for some salmonellas, fewer than 100 for the deadly strain of E. coli.

Of course we can never know for sure how many harmful microbes there are on any surface. But we know enough now to formulate the five-second rule, version 2.0: If you drop a piece of food, pick it up quickly, take five seconds to recall that just a few bacteria can make you sick, then take a few more to think about where you dropped it and whether or not it’s worth eating.

mercredi, septembre 19, 2007

fired for being gay

Take Action: End Workplace Discrimination
Do you know that in 31 states it's perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay? Or that in 39 states it's legal to fire someone for being transgender?

That's ridiculous. It's the 21st century, in a country that prides itself on equal opportunity, and millions of Americans can be denied a job or fired — not for poor performance, but for simply being themselves.

I just took action with the Human Rights Campaign to end this appalling injustice. I hope you'll join me today, by sending a message to your lawmakers in Congress urging them to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which will make this kind of discrimination illegal once and for all.

It's easy. To take action, go to:

mardi, septembre 18, 2007


"Like art, revolutions come from combining what exists into what has never existed before."
-Gloria Marie Steinem (b. March 25, 1934) is an American feminist icon, journalist and women's rights advocate. She is the founder and original publisher of Ms. magazine.

lundi, septembre 17, 2007

michael franti, children's author

"What I Be" is Franti's new book.
For the children in your life or the child in you, enjoy Michael's first children's book! Illustrated by Ben Hodson, 'What I Be', is a visual and musical journey about self acceptance. It’s okay to be just who you are and strive to be the best that you can be, by embodying the best characteristics of nature. Be as radiant as the sun, as healing as the rain or as generous as a tree. This story first appeared as a song on the Michael Franti and Spearhead album “Everyone Deserves Music” and has been adapted in this book as a life affirming tale for children of all ages, shapes and cultures. Includes a read-along CD that contains a hip hop and African musical collage of the story featuring the voices of Michael, his son Adé Franti-Rye, and Youssoupha Sidibe singing in his home language of Wollof and playing the Kora (Senegalese harp).

BUY NOW at or

jeudi, septembre 13, 2007

the end of america

I dig Naomi Wolf.

I got familiar with her work as an undergrad ("The Beauty Myth"), followed the debacle with Yale and Howard Bloom, and then was lucky enough to meet her on a few occasions. I especially liked what she had to say about ethical leadership, so I spent a weekend with her as part of the Woodhull Institute (a not-for-profit, non-partisan, non-sectarian educational organization that provides ethical leadership training and professional development for women).

I hope to pick up her new book soon and get my knickers in a(n even more) serious twist over the state of our nation. She's scheduled to be on the Colbert Report talking about this book next Wednesday, September 19.
"The End of America" by Naomi Wolf
In authoritative research and documentation Wolf explains how events of the last six years parallel steps taken in the early years of the 20th century’s worst dictatorships such as Germany, Russia, China, and Chile.

The book cuts across political parties and ideologies and speaks directly to those among us who are concerned about the ever-tightening noose being placed around our liberties.

In this timely call to arms, Naomi Wolf compels us to face the way our free America is under assault. She warns us–with the straight-to-fellow-citizens urgency of one of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlets–that we have little time to lose if our children are to live in real freedom.

“Recent history has profound lessons for us in the U.S. today about how fascist, totalitarian, and other repressive leaders seize and maintain power, especially in what were once democracies. The secret is that these leaders all tend to take very similar, parallel steps. The Founders of this nation were so deeply familiar with tyranny and the habits and practices of tyrants that they set up our checks and balances precisely out of fear of what is unfolding today. We are seeing these same kinds of tactics now closing down freedoms in America, turning our nation into something that in the near future could be quite other than the open society in which we grew up and learned to love liberty,” states Wolf.

Wolf is taking her message directly to the American people in the most accessible form and as part of a large national campaign to reach out to ordinary Americans about the dangers we face today. This includes a lecture and speaking tour, and being part of the nascent American Freedom Campaign, a grassroots efforts to ensure that presidential candidates pledge to uphold the constitution and protect our liberties from further erosion.

The End of America will shock, enrage, and motivate–spurring us to act, as the Founders would have counted on us to do in a time such as this, as rebels and patriots–to save our liberty and defend our nation.

mercredi, septembre 12, 2007

check out the sisters of GRL

Vanoosheh mentioned that the frat boys and sorority girls are out in full effect on campus. (I'm pretty sure it's Rush Week, but no matter how many times I walk past the booths, no one's approaching me to join their organization. Hmm.)

She also mentioned that she did a double-take when she saw the sisters of Gamma Rho Lambda (MySpace site here).
Gamma Rho Lambda is a queer-based social sorority focused on fostering a progressive environment for its members to excel in social academic and community settings. By providing a forum for diversity, expression, and understanding, future leaders will be empowered with the courage to affect social change.

The founding chapter of Gamma Rho Lambda is located at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Plans to begin a chapter for San Diego State began in the Fall of 2004. In the Spring of 2005 eight women became the first Gamma Rho Lambda pledges at SDSU. In August of 2005 six of these persistent women became sisters to the sorority. The GRL’s of SDSU have become a provisional chapter of the USFC (United Sorority & Fraternity Council) on campus. To date, Gamma Rho Lambda is located at Arizona State University, Georgia Southern and a new colony is forming at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
I still don't get how you fight the system by being in the system, but these GRLs are cool. I especially appreciate their efforts to ensure that LBT individuals are visible and to create a community for individuals of all stripes.

For the record, they are listed as an "Alternative Lifestyle Sorority" by SDSU's Greek Life Office.

And yes, I'm wondering how the brother/ sister organization thing works out. (As far as I can tell, the only gay fraternity types on my campus are the closet cases.)

p.s. Allison let me know that our school doesn't actually allow the brother/sister organization match-ups anymore.

mardi, septembre 11, 2007

not your average joe

The average American CEO makes 282 times what the average American worker makes. That's down from nearly 400 times more in 2000. (The rest of the world has slightly more reasonable — if you can call it that with a straight face — exec comp. Brazil only pays 52 times more, Argentina 48 times more, France 10 times more.)

Anyhow, the Financial Accounting Standards Board has tried twice (!) to change reporting requirements for corporations in order to require them to disclose how much exec comp comes in the form of stock options, etc. But those efforts have been killed by our Senators and Representatives each time.
Is a CEO worth 364 times an average Joe?

Here are four infuriating facts about the salaries and friendly tax rules that let executive fat cats cash in -- and what you can do about them.
9/5/2007 12:01 AM ET
By Michael Brush

In recognition of the just-completed Labor Day weekend, I'd like to offer a salute to American workers, who the United Nations just reported are second only to Norway's laborers when it comes to productivity.

And now, a bit of bad news for those same workers: You're not getting credit for that productivity. Instead, top executives at your companies are reaping the rewards in the form of increasingly fat paydays.

Here's a quick look at four ways in which workers are being shortchanged by their bosses.

No. 1: The chief executives at the biggest U.S. companies last year made as much money in a single day as the average worker made for the whole year.

Top execs at Fortune 500 companies averaged $10.8 million in total compensation in 2006. The average worker, meanwhile, made $16.76 an hour, which worked out to $29,544 for the year. Those numbers come from a report called "Executive Excess 2007: The Staggering Social Cost of U.S. Business Leadership" (.pdf file). The report was released last week by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy.

And it's not clear that all of their CEOs were earning their keep. Take the top earner last year, then-Yahoo (YHOO, news, msgs) CEO Terry Semel. He got $71.7 million, chiefly in options grants. He also cashed in $19 million worth of options. That's a lot of loot. From a shareholder perspective, it's tough to argue that Semel earned it.

Yahoo's stock is lower now than it was at the start of 2004, while the Standard and Poor's 500 index ($INX)has advanced more than 30% in the same time period. Semel stepped down as CEO in June because of shareholder dissatisfaction with his company's performance.

No. 2: The managers of the 20 top hedge funds and private-equity shops made more every 10 minutes last year, on average, than the average worker made for the whole year.

The top bosses at the top 20 investment shops earned an average of $657.5 million for the year, according to data cited by the "Executive Excess 2007" report. Renaissance Technologies' James Simons led the way, earning $1.5 billion. Steven Cohen at SAC Capital and Kenneth Griffin at Citadel Investment Group ran neck and neck for second place. Each got $1.2 billion.

"We are back to the gilded age of a hundred years ago," concludes John Cavanagh, the director of the Institute for Policy Studies and a co-author of the report.

No. 3: True, many workers got a break on July 24, when the federal minimum wage was increased to $5.85 from $5.15 -- the first increase in the federal minimum wage in 10 years. But the minimum wage is still 7% below where it was 10 years ago, adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, CEO pay has gone up 45%, adjusted for inflation, in the same period, according to the "Executive Excess 2007" report.

No. 4: U.S. CEOs enjoy supersized advantages in pensions and perks, too.

Thanks to generous contributions from their companies, CEOs at S&P 500 companies retire with an average of $10.1 million in their supplemental executive retirement plans, according to the Corporate Library. In contrast, only 36% of American households headed by someone over 65 even had a retirement account in 2004. Those accounts had an average value of $173,552, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Executive excess
A new study says society is paying a high price for those skyrocketing salaries.

The top U.S. CEOs enjoyed perks worth an average $438,342 in 2006, according to data cited in "Executive Excess 2007." They got money for everything from personal travel on corporate jets, to reimbursement for country club fees and taxes on bonuses.

An extreme example: Ryland Group (RYL, news, msgs) chief Chad Dreier got $6.9 million worth of perks last year for benefits that included private use of his company's jet and a $5.7 million "tax gross-up" to cover the taxes on his stock options.

Why the gap?
Apologists for highly paid CEOs argue they are merely getting the pay they deserve for their talents. Their pay is determined freely by the laws of supply and demand in the marketplace. Right?

There might be more to it than that. For one thing, U.S. execs make three times as much as their European counterparts, even though these European bosses manage companies that are 40% bigger. (The top 20 highest-paid execs at U.S. public companies made $36.4 million on average last year, while the same group in Europe got just $12.5 million on average.)

Yet, presumably, companies on both continents draw from similar talent pools in terms of education, work experience and cultural background. If that's true, it's hard to accept the notion that rich pay in the U.S. is the result of a scarcity of talent.

Next, CEO pay in the U.S. has grown to become 364 times the average worker's pay. It was just 40 times the average pay in 1980. It's hard to imagine that top leadership skills have grown so much scarcer in the past 37 years.

Many pay analysts suspect the bloated pay packages for U.S. execs are more the result of a marketplace failure than the basic laws of supply and demand from Econ 101. Exorbitant pay packages are often awarded by board compensation committees that are too cozy with CEOs, believes Paul Hodgson, an executive-compensation expert at the Corporate Library. They also fail to link pay to performance, which makes it easier for pay to spiral higher, he says.

Other critics point a finger at the consulting firms that advise companies on CEO pay. The problem is they have an incentive to recommend rich pay packages -- because they also get paid for doing other consulting jobs for the same company.

What you can do
"Executive Excess 2007" suggests supporting efforts in Washington, D.C., to reform the policies that Cavanagh and his think tank identify as contributing to overly rich pay for CEOs.

These reform efforts include:
  • Proposals to close the tax loophole that lets companies deduct as much executive pay as they want, as long as the compensation is defined as a performance incentive. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., is promoting a cap on deductions at 25 times the earnings of a company's lowest-paid workers. Financier John Pierpont Morgan thought the ideal ratio was 20-to-1 a century ago, says "Executive Excess 2007."
  • Proposals to tax the earnings of the top execs at private-equity shops and hedge funds as ordinary income instead of distributed capital gains. That would increase their taxes to 35% from 15%, in many cases. The loophole costs the federal government about $12.6 billion a year, says the Economic Policy Institute. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Michigan, is sponsoring legislation to make this change.
  • Proposals to limit the amount of income execs can roll into their retirement plans, where the money grows tax free. Rank-and-file workers face limits, but top execs do not. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Montana, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, of the same committee, are developing proposals here.
Executive excess
A new study says society is paying a high price for those skyrocketing salaries.

It's also important to tell your reps in Washington, D.C., that you want the Securities and Exchange Commission to take some action.

Tell them you want the SEC to loosen rules so that it's easier for shareholders to get their own slate of board members on company proxy statements circulated ahead of annual meetings, says Daniel Pedrotty, a corporate governance expert at the AFL-CIO Office of Investment.

When shareholders save on costs by having their slates distributed by the corporate proxy machine, they're more likely to propose board candidates who aren't management lap dogs on executive pay.
Via Leo

RIP, alex

I've written before about my love-hate relationship with African Grey parrots.

N'Kisi lives on, but Alex, a 31-year-old African gray parrot that knew more than 100 words and could count and recognize colors and shapes, is now dead.
Alex, a Parrot Who Had a Way With Words, Dies
Published: September 10, 2007

He knew his colors and shapes, he learned more than 100 English words, and with his own brand of one-liners he established himself in TV shows, scientific reports, and news articles as perhaps the world’s most famous talking bird.

But last week Alex, an African Grey parrot, died, apparently of natural causes, said Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist at Brandeis University and Harvard who studied and worked with the parrot for most of its life and published reports of his progress in scientific journals. The parrot was 31.

Scientists have long debated whether any other species can develop the ability to learn human language. Alex’s language facility was, in some ways, more surprising than the feats of primates that have been taught American Sign Language, like Koko the gorilla, trained by Penny Patterson at the Gorilla Foundation/ in Woodside, Calif., or Washoe the chimpanzee, studied by R. Allen and Beatrice Gardner at the University of Nevada in the 1960s and 1970s.

When, in 1977, Dr. Pepperberg, then a doctoral student in chemistry at Harvard, bought Alex from a pet store, scientists had little expectation that any bird could learn to communicate with humans. Most of the research had been done in pigeons, and was not promising.

But by using novel methods of teaching, Dr. Pepperberg prompted Alex to learn about 150 words, which he could put into categories, and to count small numbers, as well as colors and shapes. “The work revolutionized the way we think of bird brains,” said Diana Reiss, a psychologist at Hunter College who works with dolphins and elephants. “That used to be a pejorative, but now we look at those brains — at least Alex’s — with some awe.”

Other scientists, while praising the research, cautioned against characterizing Alex’s abilities as human. The parrot learned to communicate in basic expressions — but it did not show the sort of logic and ability to generalize that children acquire at an early age, they said. “There’s no evidence of recursive logic, and without that you can’t work with digital numbers or more complex human grammar,” said David Premack, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Pepperberg used an innovative approach to teach Alex. African Greys are social birds, and pick up some group dynamics very quickly. In experiments, Dr. Pepperberg would employ one trainer to, in effect, compete with Alex for a small reward, like a grape. Alex learned to ask for the grape by observing what the trainer was doing to get it; the researchers then worked with the bird to help shape the pronunciation of the words.

Alex showed surprising facility. For example, when shown a blue paper triangle, he could tell an experimenter what color the paper was, what shape it was, and — after touching it — what it was made of. He demonstrated off some of his skills on nature shows, including programs on the BBC and PBS. He famously shared scenes with the actor Alan Alda on the PBS series, “Look Who’s Talking.”

Like parrots can, he also picked up one-liners from hanging around the lab, like “calm down,” and “good morning.” He could express frustration, or apparent boredom, and his cognitive and language skills appeared to be about as competent as those in trained primates. His accomplishments have also inspired further work with African Grey parrots; two others, named Griffin and Arthur, are a part of Dr. Pepperberg’s continuing research program.

Even up through last week, Alex was working with Dr. Pepperberg on compound words and hard-to-pronounce words. As she put him into his cage for the night last Thursday, Dr. Pepperberg said, Alex looked at her and said: “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

He was found dead in his cage the next morning, and was determined to have died late Thursday night.


"I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."
Robert McCloskey (September 14, 1914 – June 30, 2003), was an American author and illustrator of children's books.

mercredi, septembre 05, 2007

no more venezuelan batmans

It looks as though Venezuela is following Malaysia's lead.
Caracas Journal: A Culture of Naming That Even a Law May Not Tame
CARACAS, Venezuela, Sept. 4 — Goodbye, Tutankamen del Sol.

So long, Hengelberth, Maolenin, Kerbert Krishnamerk, Githanjaly, Yornaichel, Nixon and Yurbiladyberth. The prolifically inventive world of Venezuelan baby names may be coming to an end.

If electoral officials here get their way, a bill introduced last week would prohibit Venezuelan parents from bestowing those names — and many, many others — on their children.

The measure would not be retroactive. But it would limit parents of newborns to a list of 100 names established by the government, with exemptions for Indians and foreigners, and it is already facing skepticism in the halls of the National Assembly.

“I need to know how they would define those 100 names,” said Jhonny Owee Milano Rodríguez, a congressman representing Cojedes State. “For example, why not 120? This seems arbitrary to me.”

Mr. Milano, 55, said his first name, Jhonny, spelled as such, was inspired by the international ambience of the oil town in eastern Venezuela where he was born. Owee, he said, was erroneously entered in the birth registry instead of Oved.

The bill’s ambition, according to a draft submitted to municipal offices here for review, is to “preserve the equilibrium and integral development of the child” by preventing parents from giving newborns names that expose them to ridicule or are “extravagant or hard to pronounce in the official language,” Spanish.

The bill also aims to prevent names that “generate doubts” about the bearer’s gender.

Some of Mr. Milano’s colleagues in the National Assembly, which is controlled by supporters of President Hugo Chávez, include Iroshima Jennifer Bravo Quevedo, Earle José Herrera Silva and Grace Nagarith Lucena Rosendy. Legislators need to approve the bill before it becomes law.

Whimsical names can also be found in other Latin American countries. Honduras has first names like Ronald Reagan, Transfiguración and Compañía Holandesa (Dutch Company), according to the newspaper El Heraldo. In Panama, local news media this year reported name-change efforts by an Esthewoldo, a Kairovan and a Max Donald.

But Venezuela’s naming tradition rivals or exceeds that of its neighbors, many people here say. Some first names in Venezuela include Haynhect, Olmelibey, Yan Karll and Udemixon, according to a list compiled by the novelist Roberto Echeto.

Other names here easily roll off the tongue in English, like Kennedy or John Wayne, or in Russian, like Pavel or Ilich, reflecting influences from the cold war era.

Municipal clerks’ offices, where parents register their children, have become forums for debating the possible restrictions.

“The children of my cousins are named Keiserlin, Jeiserlin, Keifel, Yurubi, Arol Kiling,” said Leidy Marrero, 29, a budget analyst. Ms. Marrero named her newborn daughter Mariángela, combining María and Ángela.

“It’s a question of taste,” she said in an interview at the clerk’s office in the San Bernardino district of Caracas, explaining her opposition to the measure. “It is a parent’s right.”

Some parents exercise that right more liberally than others.

The children in the Vargas family have names like Kleiderman Jesús, Yureimi Klaymar, Yusneidi Alicia, Yusmary Shuain, Kleiderson Klarth and Yusmery Sailing.

Software searches of the voter registry find more than 60 people of voting age with the first name Hitler, including Hitler Adonys Rodríguez Crespo; eight Hochiminhs, among them Hochiminh Jesús Delgado Sierra; and six Eisenhowers, including Dwight Eisenhower Rojas Barboza.

Unusual names in Venezuela are often grist for awe or humor, but the issue is also politicized, given President Chávez’s gusto for renaming things, with critics of the bill claiming it would enhance his government’s naming authority in a realm where the fancy of parents still holds sway.

One of the president’s first moves was to change the country’s name from Republic of Venezuela to Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Part of Avenida Páez here has been renamed Avenida Teheran in a nod to Iran. The currency, the bolívar, is to be called the “bolívar fuerte,” or strong bolívar, starting next year.

In an editorial, the newspaper El Nacional described the measure as “malicious.”

The authorities may yet bend to public will. Germán Yépez, an official with the National Electoral Council, said the measure originated after children were given names like Superman and Batman. Still, he said in comments broadcast on radio, he welcomed “this type of positive reaction and suggestions.”

Not everyone denounces the bill. Temutchin del Espíritu Santo Rojas Fernández, 25, a computer programmer, explained that his first name was inspired by the birth name of Genghis Khan, often spelled Temujin in English. He said he frequently had to correct the spelling of his name on official documents.

And in Venezuela, where the tax authorities require name and national identity number for every purchase needing a receipt, pronouncing and spelling out Temutchin del Espíritu Santo can get tiring, Mr. Rojas Fernández said. “With a name this complicated, you lose time,” he said.

“It also creates social problems,” he continued. “When interacting with others, not everyone can pronounce your name. I have to pronounce my name five times and spell it twice.”

José Orozco contributed reporting.

mardi, septembre 04, 2007

ode to global warming

You know it's gonna be a bad day when:
  • 7:24 a.m. You wake up for the 13th time, coughing and cursing your summer cold and the heatwave that means you're sleeping in a pool of your own sweat.
  • 7:50 a.m. A magnitude 4.0 earthquake hits just as you are stepping out of the shower.
  • 7:52 a.m. You decide to wear a long-sleeve shirt to work because your Spanish classroom is always *freezing.*
  • 7:56 a.m. It's so hot that you can't get your dog to go downstairs to pee without bribing him with a piece of chicken breast.
  • 8:26 a.m. You get a call on your way into work from your boss' assistant, saying an emergency notice needs to go out to the campus.
  • 8:36 a.m. You get to campus and your beautiful window-laden office is a sauna.
  • 8:42 a.m. The urgent message is that the campus air conditioning system is down for the next 36 hours.

america’s toe-tapping menace

I don't feel sorry for Senator Craig. In my opinion, if you make others' sex lives your business, then your sex life is also open to examination. But I still think it's a waste of taxpayer resources to entrap men or women who look for sex in public places.
Op-Ed Contributor: America’s Toe-Tapping Menace
Published: September 2, 2007

WHAT is shocking about Senator Larry Craig’s bathroom arrest is not what he may have been doing tapping his shoe in that stall, but that Minnesotans are still paying policemen to tap back. For almost 40 years most police departments have been aware of something that still escapes the general public: men who troll for sex in public places, gay or “not gay,” are, for the most part, upstanding citizens. Arresting them costs a lot and accomplishes little.

In 1970, Laud Humphreys published the groundbreaking dissertation he wrote as a doctoral candidate at Washington University called “Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places.” Because of his unorthodox methods — he did not get his subjects’ consent, he tracked down names and addresses through license plate numbers, he interviewed the men in their homes in disguise and under false pretenses — “Tearoom Trade” is now taught as a primary example of unethical social research.

That said, what results! In minute, choreographic detail, Mr. Humphreys (who died in 1988) illustrated that various signals — the foot tapping, the hand waving and the body positioning — are all parts of a delicate ritual of call and answer, an elaborate series of codes that require the proper response for the initiator to continue. Put simply, a straight man would be left alone after that first tap or cough or look went unanswered.

Why? The initiator does not want to be beaten up or arrested or chased by teenagers, so he engages in safeguards to ensure that any physical advance will be reciprocated. As Mr. Humphreys put it, “because of cautions built into the strategies of these encounters, no man need fear being molested in such facilities.”

Mr. Humphreys’s aim was not just academic: he was trying to illustrate to the public and the police that straight men would not be harassed in these bathrooms. His findings would seem to suggest the implausibility not only of Senator Craig’s denial — that it was all a misunderstanding — but also of the policeman’s assertion that he was a passive participant. If the code was being followed, it is likely that both men would have to have been acting consciously for the signals to continue.

Mr. Humphreys broke down these transactions into phases, which are remarkably similar to the description of Senator Craig’s behavior given by the police. First is the approach: Mr. Craig allegedly peeks into the stall. Then comes positioning: he takes the stall next to the policeman. Signaling: Senator Craig allegedly taps his foot and touches it to the officer’s shoe, which was positioned close to the divider, then slides his hand along the bottom of the stall. There are more phases in Mr. Humphreys’s full lexicon — maneuvering, contracting, foreplay and payoff — but Mr. Craig was arrested after the officer presumed he had “signaled.”

Clearly, whatever Mr. Craig’s intentions, the police entrapped him. If the police officer hadn’t met his stare, answered that tap or done something overt, there would be no news story. On this point, Mr. Humphreys was adamant and explicit: “On the basis of extensive and systematic observation, I doubt the veracity of any person (detective or otherwise) who claims to have been ‘molested’ in such a setting without first having ‘given his consent.’ ”

As for those who feel that a family man and a conservative senator would be unlikely to engage in such acts, Mr. Humphreys’s research says otherwise. As a former Episcopal priest and closeted gay man himself, he was surprised when he interviewed his subjects to learn that most of them were married; their houses were just a little bit nicer than most, their yards better kept. They were well educated, worked longer hours, tended to be active in the church and the community but, unexpectedly, were usually politically and socially conservative, and quite vocal about it.

In other words, not only did these men have nice families, they had nice families who seemed to believe what the fathers loudly preached about the sanctity of marriage. Mr. Humphreys called this paradox “the breastplate of righteousness.” The more a man had to lose by having a secret life, the more he acquired the trappings of respectability: “His armor has a particularly shiny quality, a refulgence, which tends to blind the audience to certain of his practices. To others in his everyday world, he is not only normal but righteous — an exemplar of good behavior and right thinking.”

Mr. Humphreys even anticipated the vehement denials of men who are outed: “The secret offender may well believe he is more righteous than the next man, hence his shock and outrage, his disbelieving indignation, when he is discovered and discredited.”

This last sentence brings to mind the hollow refutations of figures at the center of many recent public sex scandals, heterosexual and homosexual, notably Representative Mark Foley, the Rev. Ted Haggard, Senator David Vitter and now Senator Craig. The difference is that Larry Craig was arrested.

Public sex is certainly a public nuisance, but criminalizing consensual acts does not help. “The only harmful effects of these encounters, either direct or indirect, result from police activity,” Mr. Humphreys wrote. “Blackmail, payoffs, the destruction of reputations and families, all result from police intervention in the tearoom scene.” What community can afford to lose good citizens?

And for our part, let’s stop being so surprised when we discover that our public figures have their own complex sex lives, and start being more suspicious when they self-righteously denounce the sex lives of others.

Laura M. Mac Donald is the author of “The Curse of the Narrows: The Story of the 1917 Halifax Explosion.

four years clean

Four years ago today, Drs. D. Smiley and C. Spencer carved my right kidney out of my body. The surgery was a success, and the subsequent biopsy revealed a few malignant tumors, the largest of which was a scant 2.3 cm by 4 cm. There was no metastasis and no lymph node involvement. My diagnosis was stage-1 clear cell renal cell carcinoma.

Thank goodness for Drs. Smiley and Spencer and for my awesome primary care physician, M. LaMantia. They, along with a supporting cast of about fifty MRI and ultrasound techs, nurses, hematologists, and (oh yes, the) anesthesiologists saved my life and put an end to my nagging pain.

Susan A. coordinated fresh, home-cooked meals for me, Eric, and my family for 28 days after I went home, with excellent help from Susan G., Cass, Nolan, Tiana, Diana & Ophira, Diana L., Paul and Becki, Marta, Vanessa, Betsy D., Jeremiah and Karen, Georgia, Anne H., Maire and Bob, Lana and Rog, Ruth S., Jim and Dave, Sydney, Rick V., Jennifer B., Holly C., Harrison, Fred, Barb C., and Maureen H. Their food, visits, cards, flowers, and well-wishes propelled me on a path to health that I'm still traveling today.

Having cancer was the Krakatoa of my life. And there have been a few other crises along the way, most notably, my divorce and another cancer scare. But there's also been more joy, more adventures, and more passion in the last four years than in the entire 28 years before.

While I'm thrilled that it's only 365 days until I'm officially "cured," my thoughts today go out to Nancy and Steven, who are fighting bigger battles against uglier foes than I did. Stay strong and know that you are loved and very much on my mind. I plan to take each of you out for a celebratory glass of wine when you reach your four-years cancer-free milestones.

lundi, septembre 03, 2007

labor day

"If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play."
-John Marwood Cleese (October 27, 1939 -), English comedian and actor best known for being one of the members of the comedy group Monty Python and for co-writing the TV series Fawlty Towers.
Happy Labor Day! While the rest of the world celebrates it on May 1 and it's a worker's holiday, in the US, we're just too uptight and suspicious of appearing to celebrate socialists, communists, and other agitators (yes, it's true) to celebrate it on the right day. I find it incredibly ironic that the rest of the world commemorates the struggle and death of American workers at the Haymarket Riots, but that the US won't celebrate on that day.
Workers' Day celebrates the struggle of activist workers executed in the aftermath of the Chicago Haymarket Riots in 1886. The riots actually took place on May 4th.

Amazingly enough, only find two industrialized western countries refuse to recognize May 1 as a workers' celebration: the US and Canada. In the US, Labor Day is traditionally recognized on the first Monday in September, a date that officially commemorates "Not The Day In Which The Haymarket Riots Took Place, Leading To Activist Workers Being Hanged For Daring To Confront Their Corporate Masters And Demand Fair Labor Practices."

In Canada, Labour Day is celebrated in September, as well. The reason for this can be found in Section II, Article XVI, paragraph IX of the Canadian Constitution, which reads: "The US might get angry if we recognize May Day."
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