Monthly Archives: June 2008

Wealthy royal family subsidized by British taxpayers to the tune of $80 million

The well-heeled British monarch visited her wealthy cousin George Bush last year during her trip to the US which cost British taxpayers a whopping $820,000.

Independent | Jun 28, 2008

Taxpayers left with £40m bill to fund royals last year

By Robert Verkaik, Law Editor

The public cost of the monarchy rose by an inflation-busting 5 per cent last year, largely because of an increase in the upkeep of Buckingham Palace and expensive trips abroad.

This year’s royal accounts show the bill for the taxpayer was £40m, up £2m on last year. Royal spending over the past 12 months included the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall taking a £275,000 cruise around the Caribbean and the Queen paying £300,000 for double-glazing and new sash windows at Windsor Castle. The bill for hosting Buckingham Palace garden parties alone was £700,000.

But the Queen says she must have more money to help repair her crumbling palaces. Yesterday her advisers made clear that unless the Government provides further funds, the monarch faces the embarrassment of hosting functions in state rooms with leaky roofs and peeling wallpaper.

Palace insiders said the Queen had already expressed concern about whether she could afford to make the vital repairs needed to her properties. Sir Alan Reid, Keeper of the Privy Purse, said it was a cause of “major disappointment” that ministers had refused to increase public expenditure on the palaces which he estimated now required £32m of work in the next 10 years. He said most of the state rooms had not been redecorated or “re-presented” in the entire 55-year reign of the Queen.

But a spokesman for the Department for Culture Media and Sport said the Royal Household was just one of 70 public bodies, including the Arts Council and English Heritage, for which the Government provided state grants.

The spokesman added: “DCMS has not seen the information on which the Royal Household’s estimate of £32m is based on, and so cannot comment on its accuracy. Through DCMS’s property maintenance experts, Watts Plc, we are working with the Royal Household’s Property Services Section to ensure the maintenance work is prioritised to control the backlog.”

The Queen’s case for increased funding was partly undermined by some of the eye-catching travel expenses racked up by Prince Charles. Accounts show that the Caribbean cruise last year enjoyed by the Prince and the Duchess of Cornwall cost the taxpayer £275,000, of which £210,000 went on chartering a yacht. It cost taxpayers a further £18,916 for Prince Charles to visit the Black Swan Pub, in Cumbria, on a trip intended to highlight the importance of rural communities.

The total spent on royal travel rose to £6.2m up by £600,000 from last year. On the Queen’s state visit to America last year to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement a plane was chartered at a cost of £381,813.

And it cost nearly £800,000 to send the Duke of York to several foreign destinations, including Rio de Janeiro, Miami, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur, as the UK’s Special Representative for International Trade and Investment.

But Sir Alan insisted that the cost of the monarchy was just 66p per person which he said was still less than the price of two pints of milk or a download for an MP3 player.

The anti-monarchy campaign group Republic said the true bill to the taxpayer would be nearer £150m a year if the costs of police and army security were included. The group’s spokes-man, Graham Smith, said the Queen should have a fixed salary managed by the Government and that parliament should set an annual budget for the monarchy.

The Windsors’ expenses

£187,000

Salary of Sir Alan Reid, Keeper of Privy Purse.

£410,000

Cost of charter and scheduled flights during royal tour of United States, May 2007.

£40,513

Cost of Prince Charles’ use of the Royal Train, left, on visit to Liverpool and Aberdeen on official engagements, April 22- 24 2007

£700,000

Garden parties

£33,309

Cost of flights for the reconnaissance by the Queen’s staff in advance of state visit to Uganda last year.

£900,000

Cost of royal gardens.

£300,000

Cost of energyconservation.

£200,000

Legal advice, including advice regarding the Diana inquiry.

£300,000

Double glazing and new sash windows at Windsor Castle.

Master of the Mysteries: A new look at mystical Los Angeles and its high priest, Manly Hall

Manly Palmer Hall with part of huge collection of Christian medals in photo from 1962. In his lifetime, Hall befriended notables as disparate as Bela Lugosi and John Denver. For his writings alone he was made an honorary 33rd-degree Freemason (the highest honor), and even Elvis was a fan, sending Priscilla Presley to one of the world renowned orator’s lectures.

“Master of the Mysteries” by Louis Sahagun takes a trip back in time to early 20th century L.A.’s obsession with the occult.

Los Angeles Times | Jun 21, 2008

By Steffie Nelson

Last Sunday evening at the Silent Movie Theater, a clip from the 1938 astrological murder mystery “When Were You Born?” was shown as part of an “Occult L.A.” program curated by the author Erik Davis. In the clip, legendary occult scholar Manly P. Hall, who had also written the movie’s script, appeared on screen to introduce the concept of astrology. With penetrating blue eyes, thick dark hair and a rakish mustache, Hall had the looks of a silent film star, and he radiated intensity as he explained the various personality traits of the different sun signs — Leos are loyal, Capricorns are brave, and so on. But that’s not all: “Astrology can solve crime!” he exhorted. “It has solved many crimes in the past.”

At this the audience burst into laughter: Yet another absurd Hollywood twist. It wasn’t the late Hall’s finest moment — in fact, he’d done the scene reluctantly. But afterward he held out hope that “When Were You Born?,” the first major motion picture to treat the subject of astrology seriously, might help “open the way for a great cycle of occult philosophy,” he wrote.

The film was a bomb, but the fact that this obscure clip was being screened before a sold-out crowd of artists, intellectuals and spiritual seekers shows that the cycle of Hall’s influence continues. And it may grow in the coming months, for Process Media has just published “Master of the Mysteries,” the first biography of Manly Palmer Hall, written by Louis Sahagun (who is a staff writer at The Times).

In his lifetime, Hall befriended notables as disparate as Bela Lugosi and John Denver. For his writings alone he was made an honorary 33rd-degree Freemason (the highest honor), and even Elvis was a fan, sending Priscilla Presley to one of the world renowned orator’s lectures because he was afraid of getting mobbed himself.

Aimed to be ‘high priest’

Hall died in 1990 at age 89, and it wasn’t until a few year later that Sahagun, who’d written his obituary, began to delve deeply into his history and body of work — which includes more than 200 books, most notably his magnum opus, “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.”

“It turned out he was a pretty darn good writer,” Sahagun said. “His books were strange and absolutely fascinating, and his whole raison d’être was applying ancient philosophies to solve modern problems. . . . He wanted to be the high priest, the hierophant, of Southern California.”

The year Hall arrived in Los Angeles, 1919, was the year the city started to boom. “It’s a fascinating parallel,” Sahagun said. “Southern California in general was the last best place, a place of new beginnings.” To Sahagun, Hall’s journey was “the spiritual equivalent of the California dream,” and when he decided to write “Master of the Mysteries,” he wanted it to be as much a history of mystical Los Angeles as a biography.

Jodi Wille, the editor of “Master of the Mysteries,” said, “I learned so much working on this book. Not only was Manly P. Hall this incredible thinker, but Los Angeles was this remarkable city run by wild bohemian visionaries who were totally tuned in. It makes me just want to turn everybody on to it so we can know what our real roots are. Our roots are not Britney Spears.”

A junior high school dropout from a broken home, Hall was regarded by many as a magician, but to Sahagun he was really a “one-stop scholar of ancient ideas.” One of Hall’s first friends was Sydney Brownson, a phrenologist with a booth on the Santa Monica Pier, who shared his knowledge of Hinduism, Greek philosophy and Christian mysticism. Hall, who had a photographic memory, furthered his studies of ancient religions and soon was speaking at the Church of the People downtown. By 1920, only 19 years old, he was running the church and delivering Sunday lectures about Rosicrucianism and Theosophy, the mystical philosophical system founded by Madame Helena Blavatsky; as well as the teachings of Pythagoras, Confucius and Plato.

And he was not addressing some fringe contingent. At this time Los Angeles was alive with esoteric ideas and populated by spiritualists with names like Princess Zoraida and Pneumandros. As Sahagun put it, “Even flamboyant holy roller Aimee Semple McPherson, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1918, was milquetoast compared to others setting up religious shops in town.”

Hall became the beneficiary of Caroline and Estelle Lloyd, a wealthy mother-daughter duo from Ventura, and in 1923 their generosity enabled a trip around the world that would provide the inspiration — and the information — for his encyclopedic masterwork, “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” The publication of this lavishly illustrated, oversize text, which sold for $100 in 1928, turned Hall into an icon — no doubt partly thanks to the dramatic portraits done by his friend William Mortensen, a Hollywood cameraman who had also photographed Jean Harlow and Cecil B. DeMille.

Place for ‘truth seekers’

In 1934, Hall founded the nonprofit Philosophical Research Society. He purchased a plot of land near Griffith Park for $10 and commissioned architect Robert Stacy-Judd to design a Mayan-inspired center with a library and auditorium, which is still active today. A plaque in the courtyard, near where the current Sunday lecture schedule is posted, reads, “Dedicated to Truth Seekers of All Time.”

Yet for all his mental discipline, Hall was in terrible physical shape, with great folds of sagging flesh around his middle (Sahagun describes him as “avocado shaped”). According to Sahagun, Hall, when asked what he would wish for if he were given one wish, said that he would like to be placed in a swimming pool full of chocolate pudding so that he could eat his way out.

Nor did his vast knowledge help his personal relationships. Hall was married twice, the first ending with his wife’s suicide; the second, almost 20 years later, was to a woman who was emotionally abusive and was classified by the FBI as a certifiable nuisance. Both marriages were childless. Sahagun doesn’t believe Hall’s second marriage was ever consummated, and there were rumors that he might have been gay. Whatever the case, this was a man who lived primarily in the world of books and ideas, and also one, it’s important to note, who had always warned of the dangers of putting spiritual leaders on a pedestal.

“All followers who offer to adorn and deify their teachers set up a false condition,” Hall wrote in a 1942 essay. “Human beings, experience has proved, make better humans than they do gods.”

“That sets him apart from, say, a Deepak Chopra, who titles a book ‘Defying the Aging Process,’ ” Sahagun said.

Sadly, Hall and Los Angeles grew out of step with each other. His work might have been “the very soil that grew stories and myths like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ ” but by the time George Lucas came along, Sahagun noted, “Manly’s trove of ancient notions just seemed so dusty and out of touch.” (Not so today, when Tarcher Penguin’s 2003 reissue of “The Secret Teachings” is already in its 16th printing.)

In the ultimate, final tragedy, this man who believed in reincarnation and who had planned to leave the earthly plane consciously, might have been the victim of a greedy plot devised by his assistant Daniel Fritz, who rewrote Hall’s will. Hall’s body was found under suspicious and horrifying circumstances, apparently dead for hours and with thousands of ants streaming from his nose and mouth. The case was never solved.

Not surprisingly, this was the beginning of a low point for the Philosophical Research Society, which sold rare alchemical texts to the Getty to pay for some of the legal fees incurred by Hall’s widow.

Today, however, the center is on an upswing. In 2002, the society formed a distance learning university, offering a master’s degree program in consciousness studies, with faculty including Jonathan Young, a protégé of Joseph Campbell, and Vesna Wallace, a professor in the religious studies department of UC Santa Barbara. This January, the university received national accreditation. The library, featuring some of the rarest philosophical, religious and occult texts in existence (books on black magic and Satanism are stored under a Buddha to balance the energies), remains open to the public every Saturday and Sunday.

Explore with a book

“People are hungry for the material,” said society librarian Maja D’Aoust, who co-authored the alchemical primer “The Secret Source” with Adam Parfrey and lectures most Sundays.

D’Aoust conceded that some might find the prospect of thumbing through 30,000 volumes intimidating, and she suggested just starting randomly. “There are very interesting synchronicities surrounding the research that happens in this building,” she noted. “Just pick a book, any book. Even if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it will probably find you.”

Scientists seek to quell doomsday fears over atom-smasher

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN

Associated Press | Jun 28, 2008

by DOUGLAS BIRCH

MEYRIN, Switzerland – The most powerful atom-smasher ever built could make some bizarre discoveries, such as invisible matter or extra dimensions in space, after it is switched on in August.

But some critics fear the Large Hadron Collider could exceed physicists’ wildest conjectures: Will it spawn a black hole that could swallow Earth? Or spit out particles that could turn the planet into a hot dead clump?

Ridiculous, say scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French initials CERN — some of whom have been working for a generation on the $5.8 billion collider, or LHC.

“Obviously, the world will not end when the LHC switches on,” said project leader Lyn Evans.

David Francis, a physicist on the collider’s huge ATLAS particle detector, smiled when asked whether he worried about black holes and hypothetical killer particles known as strangelets.

“If I thought that this was going to happen, I would be well away from here,” he said.

The collider basically consists of a ring of supercooled magnets 17 miles in circumference attached to huge barrel-shaped detectors. The ring, which straddles the French and Swiss border, is buried 330 feet underground.

The machine, which has been called the largest scientific experiment in history, isn’t expected to begin test runs until August, and ramping up to full power could take months. But once it is working, it is expected to produce some startling findings.

Scientists plan to hunt for signs of the invisible “dark matter” and “dark energy” that make up more than 96 percent of the universe, and hope to glimpse the elusive Higgs boson, a so-far undiscovered particle thought to give matter its mass.

The collider could find evidence of extra dimensions, a boon for superstring theory, which holds that quarks, the particles that make up atoms, are infinitesimal vibrating strings.

The theory could resolve many of physics’ unanswered questions, but requires about 10 dimensions — far more than the three spatial dimensions our senses experience.

The safety of the collider, which will generate energies seven times higher than its most powerful rival, at Fermilab near Chicago, has been debated for years. The physicist Martin Rees has estimated the chance of an accelerator producing a global catastrophe at one in 50 million — long odds, to be sure, but about the same as winning some lotteries.

By contrast, a CERN team this month issued a report concluding that there is “no conceivable danger” of a cataclysmic event. The report essentially confirmed the findings of a 2003 CERN safety report, and a panel of five prominent scientists not affiliated with CERN, including one Nobel laureate, endorsed its conclusions.

Critics of the LHC filed a lawsuit in a Hawaiian court in March seeking to block its startup, alleging that there was “a significant risk that … operation of the Collider may have unintended consequences which could ultimately result in the destruction of our planet.”

One of the plaintiffs, Walter L. Wagner, a physicist and lawyer, said Wednesday CERN’s safety report, released June 20, “has several major flaws,” and his views on the risks of using the particle accelerator had not changed.

On Tuesday, U.S. Justice Department lawyers representing the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation filed a motion to dismiss the case.

The two agencies have contributed $531 million to building the collider, and the NSF has agreed to pay $87 million of its annual operating costs. Hundreds of American scientists will participate in the research.

The lawyers called the plaintiffs’ allegations “extraordinarily speculative,” and said “there is no basis for any conceivable threat” from black holes or other objects the LHC might produce. A hearing on the motion is expected in late July or August.

In rebutting doomsday scenarios, CERN scientists point out that cosmic rays have been bombarding the earth, and triggering collisions similar to those planned for the collider, since the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago.

And so far, Earth has survived.

“The LHC is only going to reproduce what nature does every second, what it has been doing for billions of years,” said John Ellis, a British theoretical physicist at CERN.

Critics like Wagner have said the collisions caused by accelerators could be more hazardous than those of cosmic rays.

Both may produce micro black holes, subatomic versions of cosmic black holes — collapsed stars whose gravity fields are so powerful that they can suck in planets and other stars.

But micro black holes produced by cosmic ray collisions would likely be traveling so fast they would pass harmlessly through the earth.

Micro black holes produced by a collider, the skeptics theorize, would move more slowly and might be trapped inside the earth’s gravitational field — and eventually threaten the planet.

Ellis said doomsayers assume that the collider will create micro black holes in the first place, which he called unlikely. And even if they appeared, he said, they would instantly evaporate, as predicted by the British physicist Stephen Hawking.

As for strangelets, CERN scientists point out that they have never been proven to exist. They said that even if these particles formed inside the Collider they would quickly break down.

When the LHC is finally at full power, two beams of protons will race around the huge ring 11,000 times a second in opposite directions. They will travel in two tubes about the width of fire hoses, speeding through a vacuum that is colder and emptier than outer space.

Their trajectory will be curved by supercooled magnets — to guide the beams around the rings and prevent the packets of protons from cutting through the surrounding magnets like a blowtorch.

The paths of these beams will cross, and a few of the protons in them will collide, at a series of cylindrical detectors along the ring. The two largest detectors are essentially huge digital cameras, each weighing thousands of tons, capable of taking millions of snapshots a second.

Each year the detectors will generate 15 petabytes of data, the equivalent of a stack of CDs 12 miles tall. The data will require a high speed global network of computers for analysis.

Wagner and others filed a lawsuit to halt operation of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC, at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state in 1999. The courts dismissed the suit.

The leafy campus of CERN, a short drive from the shores of Lake Geneva, hardly seems like ground zero for doomsday. And locals don’t seem overly concerned. Thousands attended an open house here this spring.

“There is a huge army of scientists who know what they are talking about and are sleeping quite soundly as far as concerns the LHC,” said project leader Evans.

Vatican accused over girl’s murder

Ms Minardi alleged that Miss Orlandi had been seized and killed on the orders of Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the then head of the Vatican bank. Marcinkus, (foreground), was the head of the Vatican Bank from 1971 to 1989.

The Vatican has been accused of ordering the assassination of a teenage girl who went missing 25 years ago.

Telegraph | Jun 23, 2008


By Malcolm Moore in Rome

Emanuela Orlandi, the daughter of a Vatican employee, was 15 years old when she disappeared after a flute lesson in central Rome. She was last seen at a bus stop on her way home on June 22, 1983.

The investigation into her disappearance was reopened this week following new evidence from the former girlfriend of Enrico De Pedis, a Roman mobster.

Sabrina Minardi, a recovering drug addict, alleged in a statement to Italian police that De Pedis had kidnapped Miss Orlandi, put her in a sack and threw her into a cement mixer in Torvaianica, an area of sand dunes on the coast near Rome.

Ms Minardi also alleged that Miss Orlandi had been seized and killed on the orders of Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the then head of the Vatican bank. Monsignor Marcinkus died in 2006 in Sun City, Arizona, after being disgraced during his spell in Rome.

The archbishop was investigated by the Organised Crime office of the US Justice Department after they found a request for $950 million of counterfeit bonds made on Vatican notepaper.

In 1982, Mgr Marcinkus was implicated in the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano and the murder of Roberto Calvi, the head of the bank whose body was found swinging from Blackfriars Bridge in London.

The archbishop is alleged to have had ties with Michele Sindona, a mafioso, and was forced to stand aside as head of the Vatican Bank in 1989.

Miss Orlandi was killed on Mgr Marcinkus’ orders “to send a message to someone”, said Ms Minardi, without revealing more. She claimed De Pedis had taken her to lunch in Torvaianica and told her he had two sacks in his car.

“He said he had the body of Emanuela Orlandi with him,” Ms Minardi claimed in her police statement.

De Pedis and his driver “went to a building site. I stayed in the car. They threw it all into a cement mixer. That’s how they got rid of all the proof”.

She added: “This was not a kidnapping for money, it was a symbolic kidnapping. They seized Emanuela to give someone a message.”

She also said she sometimes took girls to meet Mgr Marcinkus in an apartment in Via Porta Angelica.

“That happened four or five times. He was dressed like a normal person,” she said, adding that she took bags of money to the prelate as well in order to have the money laundered.

Miss Orlandi’s family said they wanted further proof before believing “any witness”.

The investigators also added that there were “some issues of incongruence, especially involving time periods,” with Ms Minardi’s statement but that “are also some details that are so precise and detailed that they deserve further investigation”.

Related

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
Vatican Politics, the Calvi Murder and Beyond.

St. Peter’s Squared
Roberto Calvi and the P2 Masonic Lodge Conspiracy

Vatican employee’s daughter ‘was thrown into cement mixer’

After the disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi in 1983, police put posters up on streets appealing for information

The Times | Jun 24, 2008

Richard Owen in Rome

An Italian girl whose disappearance 25 years ago baffled investigators was murdered and thrown into a cement mixer by the gang which kidnapped her, according to a new witness.

Police this week re-opened the inquiry into the disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, the daughter of a Vatican employee, in June 1983 following new evidence from a former mistress of the leader of the Banda della Magliana (Magliana Gang), Rome’s most notorious underworld gang.

The gang allegedly kidnapped Ms Orlandi as part of a plot to put pressure on the Italian authorities to release Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who tried to kill Pope John Paul II on St Peters Square in May 1981.

Some investigators have speculated that Ms Orlandi, who was 15 at the time of her disappearance, was passed by the Magliana Gang to the Turkish ultra right “Grey Wolves”, to which Agca belonged, and who are said to have organised the attempt on the Pope’s life in league with Bulgarian agents acting on behalf of the KGB.

According to this theory Ms Orlandi, who would be forty if still alive, came to identify with her captors and became a Muslim, living in either Turkey or Paris.

However the unnamed witness, the former mistress of Enrico De Pedis, the Magliana Gang boss, has told police that Ms Orlandi was killed. Her body was then put into a sack and thrown in a cement mixer at Torvaianica, an area of sand dunes on the coast near Rome.

Questioned by Rome prosecutors, the witness said Ms Orlandi had been held prisoner at a building near Piazza San Giovanni di Dio, not far from the Vatican, which had “a huge basement”. However the girl was later murdered because she had become a liability.

The witness said that De Pedis – who was known as “Renato” or “Renatino” – had taken her to lunch in a restaurant in Torvaianica, where they met his driver, who had two sacks in his car. “He said he had the body of Emanuela Orlandi with him. I don’t know what was inside the sack because I stayed in the car. He said though that in was better to get rid of everything, that’s what he thought.

Destroy everything so that there would be no evidence, nothing left. He told me that he had thrown those two bodies into that cement mixer.”

They had gone to a building site, where “at a certain point they started the cement mixer,” putting the sacks in it. “Afterwards I asked Renato: ‘Hey, what was in there?’. He said to me, it’s better to kill them straight away, get rid of the evidence straight away”.

The witness said she believed the body in the other sack was that of Domenico Nicitra, the eleven year old son of Salvatore Nicitra, a rival gang boss. However, the Corriere della Sera newspaper said Domenico Nicitra and his uncle Francesco had disappeared much later, in June 1993.

Ms Orlandi disappeared after taking flute lessons at a music school near Piazza Navona in the centre of Rome. She told her sister she had been offered a summer job by a cosmetics firm and was meeting its representative. She was later seen by eyewitnesses getting into “a dark BMW”, and has not been seen since, even though Rome was plastered with “missing” posters and Pope John Paul appealed for her release.

The Orlandi family subsequently received anonymous phone calls from the alleged kidnappers – some with rough Roman accents but one with “an American” accent – offering to release their daughter in exchange for Agca, who was imprisoned in a high security jail. Secret negotiations came to nothing however.

There have been reported sightings in Rome of Ms Orlandi, but none has ever been confirmed. While in prison in Italy, Agca, who has since been extradited to Turkey, told an interviewer he had no “direct knowledge” of Ms Orlandi’s fate, but believed she was alive and “living in a cloistered convent”.

The involvment of the Magliana Gang surfaced three years ago when an anonymous caller to “Chi L’Ha Visto?”,an Italian TV programme on missing persons, suggested the clue to the mystery lay in the fact that De Pedis – who was gunned down by rival gangsters near Campo de Fiori in the centre of Rome in February 1990 – was buried in the crypt of the church of Saint Apollinaris, next to the music school which Ms Orlandi attended. It remains unclear why a top criminal was given the honour of burial in a crypt normally reserved for cardinals, saints and martyrs.

Natalina Orlandi, Emanuela’s sister, said she would not believe that her sister was dead “until we have definite proof.” Maria Orlandi, her mother, said she hoped Pope Benedict XVI would now issue an appeal to other witnesses to “search their consciences”and “break their silence” about Ms Orlandi’s fate.

Hands-free cellphone use while driving won’t make the roads safer, studies show

Hands-free cellphone use while driving won’t make the roads safer, studies show. Why? Brain overload.

Los Angeles Times | Jun 30, 2008

California will put findings to the test with a hands-free cellphone law that takes effect July 1.

By Melissa Healy

YOU KNOW the shot: Seen from above, the hero (or villain) is hurtling down the freeway, top down, one hand on the wheel and the other clutching a cellphone to his ear. It’s Hollywood’s image of how deals are made, dates are broken and gossip is shared, at 65 miles per hour.

On Tuesday, that shot will be history. California motorists — as well as those in Washington state, where a similar law was recently passed — will be prohibited from talking on hand-held cellular phones while driving. Most, however, will likely continue their wireless business using headsets, speakers or other hands-free devices.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says the new law will reduce accidents. “Getting people’s hands off their phones and onto their steering wheels will save lives and make California’s roads safer,” he said earlier this month.

That, however, is not what the research finds. Scientists say that when mixing cellphones and driving, the number of hands available for the tasks is not the limiting factor.

Instead, it’s a driver’s attention and processing capacity. These are often stretched beyond safe limits when someone juggles the complex tasks of negotiating traffic and conversing with another remotely.

Worse than being drunk

“There are limits to how much we can multi-task, and that combination of cellphone and driving exceeds the limits,” says David Strayer, a University of Utah psychologist who has found that by many measures, drivers yakking on cellphones are more dangerous behind the wheel than those who are drunk, whether the conversation is carried on by handset or headset.

In a 2005 study, published in the journal Human Factors, Strayer put 41 adult drivers through four sessions in a simulator, re-creating realistic driving conditions along a 24-mile stretch of freeway.

Over three days, the subjects took the wheel in various ways: sober and off-the-phone; legally under the influence of orange-juice-and-vodka cocktails; while talking with a research assistant by hand-held cellphone; and chatting over a hands-free cellphone device. The result: Compared with drivers exceeding the legal blood alcohol limit, users of cellphones — hand-held or hands-free — reacted 18% more slowly to braking by the car in front and were more likely to get in a rear-end collision.

What’s more, the talkers seemed to compensate for their slowed response time by falling farther behind the car in front — a pattern likely to slow traffic and exacerbate congestion.

“And you don’t get any better with practice,” Strayer adds. In his lab, subjects who reported they use a cellphone a lot when driving “show every bit as much impairment” than those who do so infrequently.

Although no studies looked at the safety of cellphone chatter by drivers of manual-transmission cars, Strayer acknowledged that stick-shifters may reap immediate safety improvements by switching to a hands-free device for cellphone calls. But he cautions that, in principle, that would merely bring these motorists up to “the same level of impairment” as automatic-transmission drivers talking on cellphones.

He says cellphone bans that exempt hands-free devices “are half-measures that aren’t really taking into account the available scientific evidence. And it’s not just one source of evidence,” he adds; in recent years, dozens of studies, using a wide range of methods, have concluded there is no difference between driving performance of people using hand-held phones and hands-free devices.

For instance, in a 2005 Australian study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers interviewed, during a 27-month period, 456 hospitalized cellphone users who had each been involved in a crash. The scientists combed the drivers’ call records to see how cellphone use affected their driving. Whether they talked hands-free or with a phone clasped to their ear, the result was the same: During calls, and for 10 minutes after their completion, a driver’s likelihood of crashing shot up fourfold.

In the lab, multi-tasking drivers fare little better. A recent study showed powerfully how doing two seemingly simple tasks can overload the brain and cause errors of judgment.

Marcel Just, a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, conducted brain imaging of 29 young adults to gauge the cognitive demands of simultaneously driving and listening. Lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, the subjects steered a simulated car down a winding road. On a second run, they steered the car while listening to general-knowledge statements and identifying them as true or false.

The study, published in April in the journal Brain Research, found that subjects who were allowed to navigate undisturbed showed robust activity in the brain’s parietal lobe, a region long associated with spatial sense, distance calculations and judgments that require a person to calculate his whereabouts in a broader physical environment. When the task of listening to the sentences was added, blood flowed to different parts of the brain generally involved in the processing of language. As those language areas came alive, activity in the parietal lobe declined by almost 40%.

While engaged in the listening task, drivers simultaneously listening to sentences veered off the road and onto the shoulder almost 50% more often than those allowed to focus uniquely on driving. And all they had to do was steer the car forward: no cars veered into their lane, no children darted into the road, no construction site loomed up unexpectedly.

“Before we ever ran any of these studies, some thought, ‘Well, these were two independent tasks, performed by two independent brain areas,’ ” Just says. But certain brain regions are very likely critical to both tasks, he adds, and the flow of traffic in the multi-tasking brain appears to have slowed as a result. “It can only do so much at a time.”

Listening isn’t so easy

People mistakenly believe that listening is a light burden and readily adjustable when competing demands crop up, Just says. But he believes that spoken language is neither simple to process nor easy to tune out.

“For a driver, it’s insidious,” he says. “You think driving is kind of effortless, chatting is kind of effortless, so what the heck. And you can combine them and, mostly, you’re fine. But in hard driving, that can be a definite risk.”

If listening is demanding, talking appears to be even harder, especially when the other person isn’t in the car. In a study published in June in the journal Experimental Psychology, University of South Carolina psychologist Amit Almor put 47 subjects in a surround-sound console and had them detect visual shapes on a monitor or use a mouse to track a moving target on a screen.

When the subjects listened to prerecorded narratives, their attention to the visual task before them dipped significantly. But as they then answered questions about what they’d seen, or even just got ready to speak, their attention to the task on the screen didn’t dip — it plummeted.

“It has not anything to do with manipulating the phone or holding it,” Almor says. “It’s the attentional demands of conversation that matters.” Those demands shoot up, he adds, when drivers expect to contribute to conversations.

Some researchers, in fact, fear that the new law may cause more traffic accidents, not fewer, because they envision more distractions for many motorists. When ring tones chime and drivers scramble to find their newly purchased headsets — or, alternatively, scan the roadsides for police enforcing the new ban — their attention, already stretched, will be further taxed.

Strayer suggests, too, that motorists who believe they’re now safer because they’re not using a hand-held may now spend more time on the phone in the belief that cellphones’ safety issues have been addressed.

It’s clear many drivers agree with Schwarzenegger’s contention that the roads will be safer. Denise Spooner of Claremont says that although she has her doubts about other drivers, she’s pretty sure that hands-free-calling-while-driving has made her a less-hazardous motorist. A stick-shift owner — and a longtime user of headsets — Spooner, a 52-year-old historian at Cal State Fullerton, says having both hands available for rapid response “makes the difference.”

“What else,” she asks, “could it be?”

Stolen OnStar Cars Stop In The Name Of The Law

A message on the speedometer says “engine power is reduced.”

Tampa Tribune | Jun 11, 2008

By RICH SHOPES

TAMPA – General Motors says it has developed a technology to put the brakes on car thieves and came to Tampa on Tuesday to prove it.

Representatives from the automaker demonstrated their Stolen Vehicle Slowdown technology before the media, police and fire department officials. The system is designed to let an operator with the company’s OnStar service send a signal to a stolen vehicle to restrict the fuel flow and slow the car, truck or SUV to 3 to 5 mph.

Police and fire-rescue personnel took turns behind the wheel of two Chevrolet Tahoes equipped with the technology. When activated, the system sent a message to a screen that said, “Engine power is reduced,” then the vehicle coasted to a near standstill.

“Anything that will help us respond better is worth it,” said Hillsborough Fire Rescue spokesman Capt. Bruce Delk. “I’ve seen what can happen” at accidents.

Three hundred people are killed in 30,000 police chases each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

GM officials said the company came up with the technology after surveying OnStar subscribers and finding most wanted the theft-prevention technology. OnStar already offers GPS navigation to allow police to track stolen vehicles. The company gets about 700 stolen vehicle reports monthly.

“No system is bulletproof … but this is a huge stride,” said George Baker, manager for public policy at OnStar.

The automaker has talked about stolen-vehicle technology since late last year. Now, it’s going on the road to 25 U.S. cities to demonstrate to police and fire-rescue personnel how it works.

After receiving a stolen vehicle report, an OnStar operator can communicate with police about the vehicle’s location. To help identify the stolen vehicle to police on the street, OnStar can activate the flashers for 30 seconds.

In the case of a fleeing vehicle, when police say it’s safe, OnStar sends an electronic command to restrict the fuel flow. The brakes and steering will still work.

“It just seems like the car lost power,” OnStar spokeswoman Kameya Shows said.

The demonstration at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa came after stops in Miami and Orlando.

West Bank torturers funded by Britain

Palestinian Authority policemen wearing black ski-masks

Sunday Times | Jun 29, 2008

By Marie Colvin

Millions of pounds of British government money is going to Palestinian security forces which use methods of torture including hanging prisoners by their feet and putting them in “stress” positions for hours at a time.

Evidence to be published next month in a report by Human Rights Watch was corroborated last week in interviews by The Sunday Times with victims in the West Bank, ruled by President Mahmoud Abbas’s western-backed Palestinian Authority.

Prisoners who have emerged from Palestinian Authority jails – many of whom have never been charged with any offence or even seen a lawyer – said they had been subjected to mock executions, kicked, punched and beaten with sticks, plastic pipes and hoses.

The disclosures came at the end of a week in which a Berlin conference of 40 donor nations, including Britain, pledged £121m over the next three years to bolster the Palestinian security forces and judicial system in the West Bank.

Of this total, about £20m will come from Britain, which is already committed to spending £2.7m on the training of Palestinian security forces this year. A British brigadier based in the West Bank city of Ramallah is involved in the training. Britain has set aside a further £4.5m for reform, civil justice and public prosecution over the next three years.

A total of £4 billion overall has been promised to the government of Abbas, who is the commander-in-chief of the Palestinian security forces.

Western support for Abbas’s security forces is part of a strategy to isolate Hamas fundamentalists who seized control of Gaza last year.

However, many of those detained on suspicion of links to Hamas described a form of torture called “shabah” in Arabic – being forced to hold stress positions for prolonged periods.

Some have been made to stand with one leg and one arm raised for hours. Others have had to sit on the edge of a chair with their hands tied to their feet.

Amar al-Masri, 43, a Nablus businessman who is married to Kholoud al-Masri, an elected Hamas municipal official, has been held since last month in al-Jenid prison in Nablus. Last Thursday, his son Abdullah, 13, crossed off day 54 on a calendar on the family’s refrigerator.

“What is shocking me is that no charge has been addressed against my husband,” Kholoud said last week, sitting in her home in Nablus, a hijab (head-scarf) covering her hair.

“He is in a Palestinian jail, but we don’t know why.” She has been allowed to visit him only once.

“He said he was hung by his two legs by a rope connected to the ceiling,” Kholoud said. The prisoner’s lawyer said he had seen puffy wrists and legs that supported the testimony, as well as scabs on his legs and hands.

A former prisoner, interviewed at a coffee shop near his third-floor flat in Nablus after he was released at the end of a 50-day spell in prison, described similar experiences.

“They arrested me on fantasy charges that I had rockets,” said the 29-year-old law student, who did not want his name used out of fear the security forces would come after him.

“They tied my hands behind my back, and the rope was connected to a pipe,” he said. “They would stress the rope every 20 seconds. They said if they did it more I would be paralysed.”

He was eventually released without charge. “They [the security forces] told me, ‘You have been steadfast under torture so we have decided you are clean. We will not bother you again.’ ” The Palestinian Authority denied using torture in detention centres. “They are prisoners. We do not give them chocolate and roses,” said Akram Rajoub, head of preventive security in Nablus. “But I can assure you that we don’t use torture methods or shabah methods.”

The Foreign Office expressed concern at the Human Rights Watch revelations.

“The UK is concerned to hear reports of human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories,” a spokesman said. “We are committed to reforming the Palestinian security sector.”

British officials confirmed that the aid money pledged last week would be going to the West Bank security forces, which locals said were engaged in a crackdown on their political opponents in Hamas.

Although Hamas, a conservative Islamic party, was elected to power in January 2006, it has been largely shunned by the West because it refuses to recognise Israel or renounce violence.

Palestinian territory is virtually divided by internal disputes; Hamas’s writ runs in Gaza, while Abbas has appointed an emergency government composed mostly of officials from his Fatah party in the West Bank.

A spokesman for the Department for International Development, which administers the funds paid to the Palestinian Authority, confirmed that money was going to West Bank security forces but said some of it would be used to root out abuses.

“People are aware of irregularities in their behaviour . . . and that’s why we are investing in making them a more professional outfit and a more accountable police force,” the department said.

Human Rights Watch last week called for the aid going to the Palestinian Authority security forces to be made conditional on effective efforts to reduce arbitrary arrests and torture and on improving the system of justice.

U.S. escalating covert operations against Iran

Reuters | Jun 29, 2008

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. congressional leaders agreed late last year to President George W. Bush’s funding request for a major escalation of covert operations against Iran aimed at destabilizing its leadership, according to a report in The New Yorker magazine published online on Sunday.

The article by reporter Seymour Hersh, from the magazine’s July 7 and 14 issue, centers around a highly classified Presidential Finding signed by Bush which by U.S. law must be made known to Democratic and Republican House and Senate leaders and ranking members of the intelligence committees.

“The Finding was focused on undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change,” the article cited a person familiar with its contents as saying, and involved “working with opposition groups and passing money.”

Hersh has written previously about possible administration plans to go to war to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including an April 2006 article in the New Yorker that suggested regime change in Iran, whether by diplomatic or military means, was Bush’s ultimate goal.

Funding for the covert escalation, for which Bush requested up to $400 million, was approved by congressional leaders, according to the article, citing current and former military, intelligence and congressional sources.

Clandestine operations against Iran are not new. U.S.  Special Operations Forces have been conducting crossborder operations from southern Iraq since last year, the article said.

These have included seizing members of Al Quds, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and taking them to Iraq for interrogation, and the pursuit of “high-value targets” in Bush’s war on terrorism, who may be captured or killed, according to the article.

But the scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which include the Central Intelligence Agency, have now been significantly expanded, the article said, citing current and former officials.

Many of these activities are not specified in the new finding, and some congressional leaders have had serious questions about their nature, it said.

Among groups inside Iran benefiting from U.S. support is the Jundallah, also known as the Iranian People’s Resistance Movement, according to former CIA officer Robert Baer. Council on Foreign Relations analyst Vali Nasr described it to Hersh as a vicious organization suspected of links to al Qaeda.

The article said U.S. support for the dissident groups could prompt a violent crackdown by Iran, which could give the Bush administration a reason to intervene.

None of the Democratic leaders in Congress would comment on the finding, the article said. The White House, which has repeatedly denied preparing for military action against Iran, and the CIA also declined comment.

The United States is leading international efforts to rein in Iran’s suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons, although Washington concedes Iran has the right to develop nuclear power for civilian uses.

Robert Mugabe’s thugs run riot in election crackdown

From infants to the frail elderly, no one is safe as Zanu-PF killers hunt down the opposition

Sunday Times | Jun 29, 2008

Douglas Marle in Harare

There was a tremendous hammering on the door of her home. Realising that President Robert Mugabe’s thugs were hunting for her, Agnes Mabhena, the wife of an opposition councillor, quickly hid under the bed. It was too late for her to grab Blessing, her 11-month-old baby, who was crying on top of it.

“She’s gone out. Let’s kill the baby,” she heard a member of the gang say. The next thing she saw from under the bed was Blessing’s tiny body hitting the concrete floor with a force that shattered his tiny legs.

“It is just a baby – leave it alone,” another said, and the thugs left. All day Mabhena stayed at home with her screaming son, too terrified to move. Her neighbours, knowing that the family were regarded as opponents of Mugabe, were too frightened to help.

When all was quiet, she slipped out of the house with the baby to seek help in Harare. The 12-mile walk to Harvest House, the headquarters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), took most of the night.

The building was awash with fleeing victims of the terror. But in the chaos there was nobody to get her to hospital. With a relative’s help, she eventually reached the Parirenyatwa hospital, where Blessing, so named because she and her husband thought he was a gift from God, was x-rayed.

Now, encased in plaster, his little legs stick out at an odd angle below his blue romper suit. Unless he has orthopaedic help soon, he may never walk.

Agnes and Blessing squatted for two weeks in a park during the day and hid at Harvest House at night to escape the police and Zanu-PF youths. Her blanket stolen, she survived in a pitiful condition on one meal a day. Her milk dried up. Blessing had only water for three days. “When there is no hope of food, your hunger dies,” she said.

Last Tuesday her husband found her in the park. He told her their house had been burnt down and they were destitute. He tried to send election observers from the Southern African Development Council (SADC) to see it but they were turned back at a Zanu-PF roadblock.

Last night Agnes and Blessing were sheltering in a draughty church with 20 other women and 15 babies. The only furniture was three plastic chairs. The children had a little porridge to eat.

There was no guarantee they would be safe as the vicious crackdown on MDC supporters continued across Zimbabwe this weekend and victims were warned that if they sought treatment they would be killed.

These were no idle threats. Yesterday, as early counting of votes cast in Friday’s one-sided presidential election indicated a landslide win for Mugabe, 84, reports were reaching Harare of shallow graves in the countryside where unknown and unidentified victims of the violent campaign to keep him in power had been buried.

The Zimbabwe Herald reported that “peace and tranquillity” had reigned during the election and contrasted Mugabe’s victory – inevitable after his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, withdrew – with Gordon Brown’s “humiliating defeat” in the Henley by-election.

However, in Mudzi, a former Zanu-PF stronghold 100 miles north of Harare that backed the MDC in the first round of the election in March, secret burials had taken place.

It was there that Temba Muronde, an MDC supporter, was beaten with an iron bar in April. As his wife tried to carry him on a cart to a clinic, he was abducted and taken to a Zanu-PF torture base, where he was forced to eat rat poison. He did not die, so his tormentors gave him a pesticide. When he was still alive and in agony a week later, they killed him with an axe.

Although the reported death toll in the election stood at 87 at the end of last week, an MDC official said this was an “overly conservative figure” based on information from doctors who had certified the deaths. There were believed to be several other graves in Mudzi alone.

Government sources said last night they expected Mugabe to be sworn in today before flying to an African Union summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh in the hope of being greeted as Zimbabwe’s rightful president.

Leaders of Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia and Nigeria have all condemned Mugabe’s use of violence. Officials from Tanzania and Botswana have said they would be prepared to send in troops.

But with 30 of its 53 member states ruled by dictators, the African Union seemed unlikely to join in refusing to recognise Mugabe and calling for a government of national unity.

Mugabe, who declared during the campaign that only God could remove him, has already made it clear he will challenge anyone at the summit who dares to question his methods.

“Some African countries have done worse things,” he told the Herald. “I would like some African leaders who are making these statements to point at me and we would see if those fingers would be cleaner than mine.”

Any hopes that the violence might abate after the voting gave way this weekend to fears that it would intensify into an attempt to extirpate the MDC until the opposition party ceased to be a threat. Nelson Chamisa, an MDC spokesman, said: “They stole this election – now they are going to spill more blood.”

He said security forces planned to launch Operation Red Finger to track down people who had stayed away from the polling stations. Voters had their little finger dyed with ink.

In the farmlands around Chegutu, southwest of Harare, voting for the MDC was virtually eliminated, with 100% support for Mugabe reported at some polling stations.

This followed a drive to force local labourers on the dwindling number of white-owned farms – down from 300 eight years ago to 30 today – to attend a series of indoctrination sessions at which they were “taught” to vote for Mugabe.

The staff of one farm were ordered to go to a pungwe, or “reeducation” vigil, at 1pm last Monday. They did not return to their homes until Thursday. “All the way through the night they were not allowed to sit down once as they sang Zanu-PF songs and chanted slogans. Anyone who got it wrong was beaten,” one reluctant participant said.

They were then ordered to attend a second session immediately, in preparation for Friday’s vote. By the time they got to the polling station before 7am on Friday they were exhausted from sleep deprivation and in no doubt as to where on the ballot paper they should put their cross.

Just to be certain, they were assembled in groups of 10 outside the polling station. They were told the ballot papers were numbered and this would be matched with their identity details so that Zanu-PF would know exactly how they voted. One threat was that they would have their heads cut off if they did not support Mugabe.

The pungweswere held at militia terror bases on land seized from white farmers since 2000 and turned into resettlement areas. They were an ugly throw-back to the struggle to end white minority rule, when guerrilla fighters secretly gathered villagers together in the forest to indoctrinate them against colonial rule in the 1970s.

At least one man was reported to have been killed at one of these pungwes in the Chegutu area. According to an eyewitness, he knew he would be targeted because last Wednesday morning a militant banged on his mother’s door and told her that this was the last day she would see her son alive.

He had no choice but to attend the meeting to save his mother from punishment. When he tried to slip away, his escape was noticed and 50 youths were sent in pursuit.

After a chase through the fields they caught him. A witness said: “He fell to the ground screaming, ‘Please don’t kill me.’ They lifted him up and hit him back down again and then beat him again and again. At the end his body was covered in ghastly wounds. I think it was a slow death.”

At Chegutu, as elsewhere, the army was running Mugabe’s violent election campaign on the orders of the generals in the joint operations command. The local man in command was a Major Tauye, who wore civilian clothes but carried a sidearm and fired shots in the air.

A second key figure in the local terror structure was Gilbert Moyo, a 55-year-old war veteran wanted for stock theft, a crime carrying a nine-year mandatory sentence, who had recently evicted six white farmers from their land.

Last week he forcibly evicted Richard Etheridge, 71, perhaps Zimbabwe’s most successful citrus fruit farmer, with a multi-million-pound export business to the Middle East.

The intimidation by war veterans was by no means confined to the countryside. One terror base where offenders were beaten last week was a single-storey building on waste ground a few hundreds yards from the residence of the Dutch ambassador in Chisipite, one of Harare’s most upmarket residential districts.

Another was a shopping centre in the crowded suburb of Sunningdale, where vicious interrogations were taking place and a 65-year-old woman who was denounced by her lodger, a Zanu-PF supporter, for possession of MDC T-shirts was beaten. She feared she would be killed if she went to hospital. Instead, she suffered at home.

A well-known Aids activist and MDC supporter, Gertrude Ukomba, was evicted from her home and went into hiding with her 10-year-old grandson, who was being sought by local Zanu-PF militants to force his mother to return from America.

In the end, the campaign of intimidation was pressed so hard that instead of breaking Tsvangirai at the polls, as intended, it left him no choice but to withdraw.

When he toured Harare last weekend to gauge the popular mood, he was dismayed to find that nobody waved at him. Even though the city was an MDC stronghold, people were too afraid to show their allegiance.

“He did not want that translated into a national vote. He really sensed there had been a change,” a colleague said. “In addition, his national executive council told him they could not put polling agents into 75% of the polling stations, which would leave the vote wide open to rigging. All the blood and pain and violence made him decide it was best to cut his losses and pull out.”

Tsvangirai’s decision to seek sanctuary in the Dutch embassy wrong-footed the government, forcing it to give diplomatic assurances about his safety.

Yet despite the international condemnation – this week Britain and America are expected to call for sanctions at the UN Security Council, including an arms embargo – Mugabe remained defiant. Few expect him to bow to pressure from fellow African leaders for a power-sharing deal with the MDC. Tsvangirai himself said it was a “dream” to expect his MDC to join Zanu-PF.

Whatever is planned, the next few months are bound to be grim for Zimbabweans already faced with deepening economic hardship, hunger and unemployment. Thousands are expected to flee abroad.