Events Our coverage of worldwide events Wed, 24 Sep 2014 21:42:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Germany’s Oktoberfest price hikes risk shortchanging waitresses Wed, 24 Sep 2014 17:05:26 +0000 A waitress wearing wrist braces and a traditional Bavarian dirndl slams 20 kilos of beer onto a wooden table at Munich’s annual Oktoberfest. Her customers scramble for coins, debating how much to pay.

oktoberfest1.jpgIn past years, a 10-euro note would cover the cost of beer plus a roughly 10 percent tip. This year, the cost of a liter (slightly less than 34 U.S. ounces) of Oktoberfest beer increased to between 9.70 and 10.10 euros (about $13), depending on the tent. Without a practical default tip, many waitresses fear customers will skimp.

The price of beer at Oktoberfest has increased every year in the past decade, edging further away from the cost of brew anywhere else in Munich.

Susanne Hoffman, 47, works daily 15-hour shifts under grueling conditions to sell food and beer in the Bräurosl tent. She works on commission, earning 9 percent of each 9.95 euro beer she sells and whatever extra customers tip. This is Hoffman’s 15th year working at Oktoberfest, and she says the rising price of beer could cut into a main source of income.

“Maybe this year will be worse,” Hoffman said.

As the base price hovers around 10 euros, the math becomes more complex, requiring revelers to fumble with small change. Waitresses say evenings are worse as the tents become more crowded and the patrons become more inebriated.

Hoffman says 11 euros would provide a reasonable tip, but not all customers share her opinion.

Lisa Power, 27, was visiting Oktoberfest from Brisbane, Australia. She plans to leave 11 euros for 10.10-euro liter of Löwenbräu, but in tents where the price is closer to 9.70 euros, she says an even 10 euros makes more sense.

“Being a backpacker I’ve got to be a bit stingy,” she said.

Hoffman says visitors from some foreign countries are less likely to leave tips and may not understand that waitresses do not earn wages.

“The Munich people know we only work for tips,” she said.

Visitors toast with their one-liter beer mugs during opening day of 181st Oktoberfest in MunichOktoberfest is an endurance test. Hoffman shares tables with two colleagues who take breaks to circumvent labor laws mandating 10-hour work days. During the long shifts, servers navigate massive crowds and carry up to 12 liters of beer long distances, often while enduring sexual harassment. Several waitresses spoke of their colleagues taking drugs to stay alert.

“You need a strong nerve,” said Miri Kocevski, who has worked at Oktoberfest for five years.

But the work is lucrative. Hoffman expects to earn 5,000 to 10,000 euros for working  220 hours over the course of the event.

Last year 6.4 million Oktoberfest visitors drank 6.7 million liters of beer, and festival organizers say about 1 million people attended this year’s opening weekend.

Despite the working conditions, server jobs for the world’s largest beer festival are coveted.

Kocevski and her mother came from Cologne, about 280 miles across the country, to stay with her aunt and work in the Löwenbräu tent.

Like many waitresses, Hoffman takes time off from her usual job each year. At the end of the festival, she will return to running a juice shop in Munich.

Even if the price of beer cuts into profits, other factors affect how much waitresses earn.

“It depends on the weather,” she said. “You make good money if the sun is shining.”

Kocevski says the money is not as important as the experience.

“For me, it’s more important that the people are friendly.”

Clare Richardson is reporting from Germany on an Arthur F. Burns Fellowship.

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A waitress carries mugs of beer during the opening day of the 181st Oktoberfest in Munich September 20, 2014. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Visitors toast with their one-liter beer mugs during the opening day of the 181st Oktoberfest in Munich September 20, 2014. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

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‘Refugees Welcome!’ is more than a slogan in Germany Thu, 18 Sep 2014 17:31:51 +0000 Twelve-year-old Assrien arrived from Al-Malikiyah in northeastern Syria five months ago, but today she chatters away in German.

Assrien plays soccer with German children on a makeshift field at a community event in Berlin’s Reinickendorf district. There are live performances, children’s activities, and food stalls designed to bring together refugees and locals to promote friendliness between the groups.

The slogans “No one is illegal” and “Refugees Welcome!” appear in graffiti and on paraphernalia around Berlin. As asylum seekers increasingly flock to Germany, a solidarity movement not only demands that immigrants have the right to stay, but provides its own support through language classes, sports, and mentorship programs.

Twenty-six-year-old Gloria Amoruso co-founded kein Abseits! in 2011 to encourage education through sports and mentoring. The organization’s name means “not offside” and invokes soccer terminology as a metaphor for not straying into the margins of society. Last week the organization held its first soccer training for young refugee girls as part of a new project called Heimspiel, another play on words meaning “home game.”

As the first person in her family to finish high school and go to college, Amoruso’s own experience of feeling like an outsider motivated her to support refugees.

“Everything is new and you feel like you don’t belong,” she says.

assieren.jpgAssrien, whose parents asked that her last name not be revealed, used to play soccer at school in Syria; she taught herself, she says proudly. In a week her family will move from the shelter where they’ve been living for the past two months to the city Halle in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. Assrien says she likes Germany, except for the food.

“Children of immigrants are often treated like interpreters for family because they learn German more quickly,” Amoruso says. “They grow up fast so this is a way for them to be kids again.”

Last year Germany received by far the most asylum applications of any EU member state with nearly 127,000 requests, according to the statistics agency Eurostat. Although Germany granted the second-largest number of asylum permits after Sweden, critics say a country with the largest economy in Europe and a labor market shortage could accept more.

“We have a history where our own people needed to run from a fascist regime,” says Oliver Wolters, a digital media designer who lives in Reinickendorf just over the fence from where the event is taking place. “Now we should welcome people who are in need.”

Amoruso sees the problem both ways.

“The number of refugees we accept in Europe is not enough at all, but the administration is not prepared for so many either.”

kein menschTwo years ago, around twenty asylum seekers marched hundreds of miles from Würzburg to Berlin. They set up a protest camp in Oranienplatz, a square in Kreuzberg, the traditionally left-leaning neighborhood that became a home for many immigrants, including West Berlin’s Turkish guest workers in the 1960s and 1970s. The protesters are splintered into many groups with different legal statuses and needs, but their underlying demand is the right to stay in Germany. Authorities eventually demolished the camp and evicted its occupants, but Oranienplatz has become a symbol of opposition to Germany’s asylum policies.

“This protest couldn’t have lasted this long without a sense of solidarity,” says Jasmin Azar, who coordinates the soccer program for kein Abseits!

In a large, worn room not far from Oranienplatz, a dozen asylum seekers gather to attend free, two-hour German classes. Three young women stand before whiteboards hushing conversations in French, Spanish, Arabic, and Hausa. A disco ball hangs from cheap ceiling panels. The volunteer teachers bring out a plate of croissants, distribute textbook photocopies, and invite late arrivals to sit in mismatched chairs.

The lessons share space with a meeting of the Oranienplatz protesters, although they are not officially affiliated with any organization.

Not everyone appreciates the public welcome.

“I don’t want people to see all this,” says 22-year-old Ibrahim, gesturing toward an information stand in Oranienplatz with flyers, flags and slogans in support of refugees. He says he doesn’t like the attention — or sympathy — from passersby.

Like many of the men at Oranienplatz, Ibrahim came to Germany from the West African country Niger by way of Italy and Libya, where he worked at a supermarket. Ibrahim says he camped at Oranienplatz for three months before the government forced him to move. Now he sleeps in an abandoned building.

A man arrives carrying a plate of sandwiches, but Ibrahim ignores the handout. He wants to find work in a hotel or supermarket here. However, despite a national unemployment rate of 4.9% in July 2014, Ibrahim says there are no opportunities for him in Germany.

Some immigrants say the general attitude toward foreigners is far from a warm welcome. Though Germany has been host to asylum seekers and other immigrants from Asia and Africa for decades, plenty of Germans continue to resent their presence.

“I want to stay here but Germans don’t like me,” Ibrahim says. “They don’t like black people.”

German public opinion is closely divided on whether to limit immigration, according to a 2014 Pew report. Most Germans believe foreigners do not assimilate, and about half blame immigrants for crime.

Two years ago Oliver Rabitsch took up the newly-created post of Integration Commissioner for Reinickendorf district. He says problems with the local community arise from a lack of information.

Last year a citizen initiative tried to ban refugee children from neighborhood playgrounds. Rabitsch says that changed after the community hosted an event to introduce local residents to new arrivals.

“Now they wouldn’t do that,” he says.

Rabitsch warns that opening up institutions to refugees must be a long-term affair and more than a slogan.

“You have to be careful that it’s not just a trend.”

Clare Richardson is reporting from Berlin on an Arthur F. Burns Fellowship.

PHOTO (INSERT 1): 12-year-old Assrien waits to start a soccer game with neighborhood children in the Reinickendorf district of Berlin, Germany, on September 13, 2014. The match was organized by kein Abseits! and part of a festival to bring together refugees living in a nearby shelter and local residents.

PHOTO (INSERT 2): A sign saying “Kein Mensch ist illegal” – “No one is illegal” – is seen in a building where Oranienplatz protesters are meeting in Berlin, Germany, on September 10, 2014. The slogan appears in graffiti and window signs throughout the city as a show of solidarity for asylum-seekers in Germany.

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The Teflon NFL now looking to remove the egg on its face Fri, 12 Sep 2014 17:55:52 +0000 It’s Thursday Night Football at Manhattan’s Wharf Bar. Young professionals stream through the door to watch the Baltimore Ravens vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers at this unofficial “Ravens bar,” pulling NFL jerseys out of their backpacks and putting them on over button-up shirts and ties. A banner on the wall declares, “You’re in Ravens country.” A full hour before the game starts and it’s standing room only.

This display of fan loyalty comes despite the fact that just a few days prior, a video leaked to the public showing running back — and now ex-Raven — Ray Rice knocking a woman unconscious.

“Welcome to the madhouse,” a bouncer quips, observing the crowd.

NFL: Super Bowl XLVIII-Winning Team Press ConferenceIt’s this scene that the NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, are counting on: diehard fans willing to separate an ugly domestic violence case and allegations of a cover-up from their passion for the game. But while NFL fans may be forgiving, experts say the league needs to be proactive in reestablishing trust with its customers.

The NFL faces a Congressional probe over the claims that it lacked transparency in its handling of the case. And accusations of dishonesty on the part of Goodell and other NFL employees complicate the task of rehabilitating the league’s image. With millions of viewers – and their wallets – on the line, the stakes are tremendously high for the football business.

“The NFL has been in crisis mode now for a while,” said Daniel Diermeier, Dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and an expert in reputation management. “There were, of course, the concussion issues and now we have the domestic violence issues. They have been, despite their success with the public, really under fire.”

“You have to ask yourself why is that and what can they do to bounce back?”

If the second Rice surveillance tape had not been released, “it would have been business as usual,” said Leigh Steinberg, a sports agent often credited as the inspiration behind film character Jerry Maguire. “I think [Goodell] needs to explain why Harvey Levin and TMZ and the reaction to the tape are setting policy on domestic violence in the NFL.”

“The NFL’s policy in some ways echoed the problematic nature of how the rest of society deals with domestic violence,” he added, “which is, in a way, to sort of sweep it under the rug.”

And the negative reaction from some has been vociferous. On Thursday a bipartisan group of female senators sent a letter to the NFL criticizing its handling of domestic violence cases. The National Organization of Women has called for Goodell’s resignation, and has called for the appointment of an independent investigator to look into domestic violence within the NFL. The league has appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller to lead an investigation, but some have questioned his law firm’s ties to the NFL.

“What they need to do is accept and admit that they have a violence against women problem – they don’t have a Ray Rice problem,” said Terry O’Neill, NOW’s president. “They need new leadership that will confront that problem.”

Most U.S. companies do not have a set domestic violence policy. Around 12 percent of businesses have a distinct program or policy on the issue, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited by the Boston Globe’s Evan Horowitz.

But crisis expert Mike Paul, known as the “Reputation Doctor”, argues that instituting a clear-cut league policy is the only way forward.

“This is not a legal issue – this is not even a league issue – and it’s not even a sports issue,” Paul said. “This is a moral issue.”

“The only way out of this is to say ‘that’s an abomination, it’s never going to happen again on my watch.’”

PHOTO: Feb 3, 2014; New York, NY, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during the winning team press conference the day after Super Bowl XLVIII at Sheraton New York Times Square. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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Google and Rubik’s Cube: Puzzle unlocked Wed, 28 May 2014 15:15:59 +0000 It seems incongruous: A $350 billion Internet behemoth and a quaint toy that had its heyday in the 1980s.

And yet, when Erno Rubik, the 70-year-old Hungarian architect that invented the puzzle that bears his name, sought a partner to celebrate Rubik’s Cube’s 40th anniversary, Google was a natural fit. And the search engine company understood the connection.

rubik.JPG“We want to create order and they also want to create order,” Rubik said about Google. “The Internet, if chaotic, is useless. We need tools that can help us in the chaos.”

The result is a $5-million multimedia exhibition that debuted at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, NJ and will tour the world in coming years. What Google gets out of the project is an opportunity to connect with the next generation of talent.

“We were both born out of the desire to simplify something complicated,” said Robert Wong, Vice President of Google Creative Lab. “In the case of the cube, it was spatial geometry. In the case of Google, it was the Internet. We’re simple enough for young people to use, but also advanced enough to engage and satisfy the world’s deepest thinkers.”

Liberty Science Museum Chief Executive Paul Hoffman was already aware of Google’s long association with Rubik’s Cube. “There are 2 million entry level jobs that can’t be filled by… students, because they do not have the technological and scientific skills.”

Both the museum and Google thought the famous toy would get kids excited about science, math and engineering.

“Science is one part of it,” Google’s Wong said. “But the bigger thing here is sparking imagination, curiosity and confidence to tackle anything that comes their way.”

Rubik’s Cube is already part of the Google culture, he said. On May 19 Google had paid tribute to the 40th anniversary of the cube by a 3D interactive Rubik’s cube on its front page, as 5/19 refers to the 519 quantillion ways the puzzle can be turned.

 Over 350 million Rubik’s Cubes had been sold worldwide , according to its distributor SevenTowns Ltd.

Dan Shapiro, a former Google employee and inventor of the board game “Robot Turtles,” sees a strong connection between physical games and computer programming.

“Even the most digital, software-centered companies realize that there is something missing if you only look at the world of software,” he said. “The amazing thing about the Rubik’s Cube or a board game is that it takes these ideas and turns them into something you can feel with your hands, that you can turn over and you can turn around.”

The Cube is on the border between the digital and the analog world, Erno Rubik said, who also believes that the real charm lies in the physical nature of the toy. “There is no user for whom the virtual cube could substitute the real one,” he said. “It proves that we have to stay in touch with our world, our real world.”

PHOTO: The Empire State building is lit in the colors of the Rubik’s Cube to mark the puzzle toy’s 40th anniversary, in New York City May 8, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Segar

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College football fans tackle player-union debate Fri, 09 May 2014 21:43:52 +0000 “I just wiped tears from my eyes,” said Paul Elder, a fan who writes about Auburn University’s football team for a website called Track ‘Em Tigers. A clip from last year’s game-winning pass against the University of Georgia had just appeared on the jumbo screen at the school’s annual “A-Day” exhibition in April at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Elder is 65 and towers at six feet four inches tall. “It just brought me back to that moment when I was here to watch that play last year,” he said. “Moments like that are like a drug, you keep coming back for more.”

Many Auburn football fans, for whom following the team involves long drives, good barbecue and waiting for the nirvana of the gridiron, proudly say they are a “family.” The crowd at the spring game Elder recently attended hosted 70 thousand fans on a weekend that both overlapped with Easter and threatened to rain. They are also driving a business that is growing so fast, athletic regulating bodies can’t keep up.  Television contracts, ticket sales and wealthy booster donations place Auburn’s football program among the most lucrative in the nation.

Against the backdrop of this passion and the NFL’s draft this week, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) faces a challenge from a regional National Labor Relations Board decision that said in March that football players at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois qualify as employees who are eligible to unionize.

REUTERS/Heather Struck

REUTERS/Heather Struck

Labor rights advocates, too, have brought cases to court on behalf of athletes who are generating millions for their sports and never see a dollar. A case brought in California by a former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon and a handful of former college athletes is challenging the NCAA for the right to share the profits generated from television and video games using their likenesses.

Court victories for the athletes could shake up the athletic programs of many schools. “An overall reallocation of spending might take place, with low-revenue but high-expense men’s sports being targeted first,” said David M. Carter, executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute.

“Should athletes be able to unionize and eventually become university employees, the broad impacts on athletic departments may be even greater,” said Carter.

After the “A-Day” game, some fans sided with the players who are demanding money. “Yeah, they work hard, I think they should be paid,” said Darrell Fails, after the game.

Others, like Elder, argue that a union would destroy college football.  Unions may allow players to air legitimate grievances, such as the ability to get enough nutrition to sustain rigorous training schedules, excel in academics or win a competitive post-college career in football and keep it. However, the treatment of student athletes as employees rather than students would mar the ideal of a well-rounded student and athlete and the idea that the teams are teaching these students “how to be young men,” said Elder.

NCAA players are equally divided on the issue. Philip Lutzenkirchen, who holds the record for touchdowns scored by a tight end for Auburn, said on Twitter after the NLRB decision allowing players participate in a union vote:

“Athletes should be thankful for their free $200k education. … I agree there needs to be some sort of change but creating a union for amateur sports I do not agree with.”

Even Congress has joined the debate. On May 8, Minnesota Republican John Kline, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, held a hearing on the consequences of unionizing student athletes. Kline drew attention to concerns over the unionizing effort that are common among both schools and fans.

“There is no question the legitimate concerns of student athletes must be addressed, but doing so at the collective bargaining table will do more harm than good,” Kline said in prepared comments.

In order to protect the big-money athletics programs at Division I schools, the NCAA  approved a revamp one day before the Northwestern players union vote. The proposal refers to a “confused public sentiment” about the issue of player compensation and suggests that more autonomy be given to the Big 5 conferences – Pac 12, Big 12, SEC, ACC and Big Ten.

The question for Elder and all who live and breathe college football is how much these changes may affect the fans.

Ticket prices throughout the Division I field have climbed higher in recent years. An average ticket to a non-championship bowl game cost $162 last year, according to Seat Geek, an 18 percent rise from the year before. Game attendance has  also grown steadily  over the last decade, as schools expand their stadiums. The attendance for the highest Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) tier of Division I teams reached a record of over 38 million fans in 2013, up 8 percent from 2003, in part because the big conferences are playing more games than ever before.

The most profitable football school last year was the University of Texas, which brought in $34.5 million in revenue from ticket sales, according to Forbes. The team collected nearly that amount in contributions and capped off $109 million in total revenue with media deals and distributions from the Big 12 conference and the NCAA.

REUTERS/Heather Struck

REUTERS/Heather Struck

Auburn fans pay a preliminary donation to the Tigers Unlimited booster club to secure the right to purchase season tickets. Tickets were set at around $450 for regular season tickets for the 2014 season. The cost makes it an expense that many have to plan for, “like a vacation,” Elder said. But thanks to its conference championship and one extra game last season, Auburn led the nation in game attendance in 2013 and pulled in $27 million in ticket sales.

REUTERS/Heather Struck

REUTERS/Heather Struck

Tickets to big bowl games can generate big money when they are held in a football region like the South. An average ticket sold for $1,600 at the January, 2013 championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame, played in Sun Life Stadium in Florida, according to the resale website StubHub.

This year Auburn will open a $10 million practice building for the school’s marching band  to which the athletics program donated $1.5 million in 2013. With recent media deals, more money will be flowing through these athletic programs than ever before.

A 20-year partnership between ESPN and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) was announced last year. The ESPN deal will create a channel dedicated to SEC sports,  including 45 football games a year. John Mansell, a sports business expert in Great Falls, Virginia, estimates a 50 percent boost to the SEC’s broadcast revenue, making it more than $300 million a year.

A recently-released promo features a tracking shot through Toomer’s Corner in Auburn, which had been draped by thousands of toilet paper rolls after a win – a school tradition. “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” plays as the camera moves through the white forest of toilet paper. The scene simultaneously suggests emotional ebullience and deep seriousness. It belies a passion that is underneath the business of college football at many schools.

To glimpse that passion, one only needs to look to the fans. “I already have it made,” Elder says of his gravestone. It says “He was a Christian man, he was a family man, he was an Auburn man.”

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2014 Detroit Auto Show: Looking Ahead to the Past Wed, 15 Jan 2014 22:07:57 +0000 The organizers of the annual Detroit auto show rebranded the event 25 years ago as the North American International Auto Show. But the 2014 edition — my 40th Detroit show for those who are keeping score — takes me back to the early 1970s when local auto dealers hosted what was still a regional event focused largely on domestic brands. In fact, the hometown angle had been the dominant theme since the show originated in 1907 at Beller’s Beer Garden.

This year, the big news in Detroit is Ford’s redesigned F-150 pickup truck and a new crop of performance cars, including hot editions of the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Corvette. Guess what. I could have written that headline back in 1974.

Except there’s a topical twist: Contemporary sports cars — even the big F-series pickup — are redefining and expanding Americans’ concept of performance to include energy and environmental conservation. Strangely enough, the carmakers seem to have discovered that horsepower and fuel economy aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, as they once argued.

Take the Mustang, which has been around car shows even longer than me. The latest version, which marks the original pony car’s 50th birthday, still offers buyers the choice of a big V8 — or, for the first time in years, a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that provides much better gas mileage, but still packs a serious wallop.

You’ll still be able to order a big V8 this fall in the new 2015 F-150 truck. But it’s so much lighter, thanks to a switch to all-aluminum body panels, that a new turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 will furnish the same level of acceleration and speed as last year’s truck with a 6.2-liter V8. And you can expect fuel economy to go up by 3 to 5 miles per gallon.

The Detroit carmakers aren’t the only ones playing the performance card. Kia, an affiliate of South Korea’s Hyundai Motor, had its California-based design crew whip up a sexy little confection called the GT4 Stinger, a compact four-passenger coupe that sends more than 300 horsepower to the rear wheels from gas-sipping turbo four-cylinder engine. An affordable (think 25 grand or so) sports cars aimed at younger buyers, the Stinger, if given the green light for production, could put a crimp in demand for the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S.

Not every sports car on display in Detroit works. While not quite an epic fail, Toyota’s weird FT-1 concept — said to preview a neo-Supra sports car — looks like it was designed by and for 20-something video gamers rather than the aging Boomers who remember the old Supra and could more easily afford something in the $50,000-plus bracket. The same critique could be applied to Nissan’s Sport Sedan concept, a wacky four-door with way-too-busy styling that is said to foretell the next Maxima.

A sleeper at the show — I expect it will be one of the more talked-about debutantes — is the redesigned Chrysler 200, that company’s first truly competitive entry in the midsize family sedan segment and an honest-to-gosh rival to the longtime class leaders, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, as well as more recent stalwarts such as the Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima. Ironically, it took a Chrysler bankruptcy and subsequent takeover by Italian automaker Fiat to bring this “American” car to the market (its underpinnings are adapted from an Alfa Romeo).

Reflecting both the show’s more international flavor and its occasional focus on the future are a handful of concept vehicles — intended to present new ideas in design and technology and test the waters with showgoers — mainly from overseas manufacturers.

Audi’s Allroad Shooting Brake (the name is a quaint British term for “station wagon”) and Volvo’s XC Coupe are not intended for production. But they provide a preview of what may be the next trend in vehicle design — in effect, a convergence of crossovers and wagons that provide flexibility and functionality in a sporty package, along with clean and frugal plug-in hybrid powertrains.

Several big carmakers are betting heavily on hydrogen as the ultimate in future efficiency — ironic considering the idea of hydrogen as an automotive fuel dates back something like 200 years. A much newer spin, hydrogen fuel cells with electric motors, is showcased in Detroit in two vehicles: Honda’s Jetson-inspired FCEV, which still looks like it’s 20 years from production, and Toyota’s FCV, a version of which should hit California streets next year.

I believe I’ll become a true convert to hydrogen when Ford puts a fuel cell in the F-150.

It could happen sooner than you think. After all, the basic concept of hydrogen fuel has been percolating since, oh, about 1806.

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Syrian refugee schools flourish in southern Turkey Thu, 02 Jan 2014 20:53:26 +0000 Reyhanli, Turkey – In a classroom in southern Turkey, 8-year-old children proudly display their colored-pencil drawings. They include images of the things that make them happiest: hearts, houses and other images typical for children their age. They also show anti-aircraft missiles and revolutionary flags.

Syrian refugee children in soutehrn Turky

Syrian girls attending Al Salam school draw pictures in a workshop with the program Zeitouna in Reyhanli, Turkey, on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. (Credit: Clare Richardson)

In Reyhanli, a small town in Turkey’s southernmost province of Hatay, children who have fled the war in Syria attend school at Al Salam, where displaced Syrian teachers conduct classes in Arabic. Despite tensions with local communities, Syrian schools have cropped up in southern Turkey to serve a flood of refugee children in their native tongue.

When headmistress Hazar Al Mahayni opened Al Salam – or “peace” school – in October 2012, she expected to enroll about 300 students. In the first week of school, 900 turned up.

Al Salam is one of six Syrian schools operating in Reyhanli. Once part of Syria, Hatay became its own republic for one year before voting to join Turkey in 1939. Reyhanli’s position on the Turkish-Syrian border, a short trip from Aleppo, makes it a convenient destination for refugees. Many of the men cross back into Syria each day to work or fight, leaving their wives and children on the Turkish side, Al Mahayni says.

In Gaziantep, a city of over 1 million people in southern Turkey, the Levant Center opened a sparkling new facility this October to teach approximately 500 Syrian students from the age of 2 until adulthood.

Ahmad Chalati, the school’s director, used to run Academia Institute in Aleppo, Syria. He says the Levant Center is the first private school for Syrian children in Gaziantep.

Syrian refugee children in southern Turkey

Muna shows the paint on her hands from painting a mural on the wall of Al Salam School in Reyhanli, Turkey, on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. (Credit: Clare Richardson)

The heads of both the Levant Center and Al Salam say their schools are funded independently – Chalati’s through a private investor and Al Mahayni’s through private donations, charity drives and tuition from a sister school in Montreal. Both schools want to offer students an education in their own language without involving them in politics.

Syrian children arrive in Turkey unable to communicate in Turkish, a hindrance that isolates them from the local community.

“Children feel like strangers because of the language barrier,” Al Mahayni says.

Syrian teachers at the Levant Center teach lessons in English and Arabic, and students take a Turkish language class once a week.

Twenty-year-old student Safi left the University of Aleppo after his second year studying architecture. Now he prepares for the TOEFL at the Levant Center with the hope of winning admission to his school of choice, the University of Gaziantep. He hopes to continue his studies in architecture, a subject he considers important for the future of Syria.

“That will be very necessary to rebuild the country after the war,” he said.

From Saturday through Thursday, Al Salam school runs three rotations a day based on age group. Each child receives three hours of education each day, following a modified version of the Syrian school curriculum.

One year ago, Al Mahayni worked as a pharmacist in Montreal, Canada. On Saturdays she volunteered at École Al Salam, an Islamic Arabic school. When war broke out in Syria, she and her colleagues decided to open a branch of the school in Reyhanli.

“They come here singing revolutionary songs, and we try to teach them children’s songs,” Al Mahayni says.

Syrian refugee children in southern Turkey

Ahmad, Muhamah, Harun, and Abdulla pose in front of the gate they helped paint at the entrance to Al Salam School in Reyhanli, Turkey, on Friday, Dec. 13, 2013. (Credit: Nick St. Oegger)

The children did not escape Syria’s war when they arrived in Reyhanli. In May 2013, two car bombs exploded in the town center, killing more than 50 people in what was called the deadliest terrorist attack on Turkish soil.

Tensions between migrant Syrians and the local population rose afterward as locals blamed immigrants for attracting the violence.

Al Mahayni says the bombings added to Syrian families’ isolation in Reyhanli. Parents keep children inside for their safety, and as the demand for housing skyrockets, entire families often live crowded together in single rooms. Al Mahayni says many arrive in Turkey undocumented and try to keep a low profile in the community.

As a winter storm bore down on the region and the temperature plunged below freezing this month, Syrian children at Al Salam painted murals, played soccer — 20-kids to a side — and took lessons in storyboarding during a week of programming through Zeitouna, an educational mentoring program for displaced Syrian children supported by the Karam Foundation and funded by private donations from organizations such as the Syrian American Medical Society and the Sagar Foundation.

Syrian refugee children in southern Turkey

Royan, wearing a trash bag as a smock, holds up a victory sign while painting a mural in Reyhanli, Turkey, on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. (Credit: Clare Richardson)

Artists from AptART, an organization working to create art with children affected by conflict and commissioned by Zeitouna for the project, dressed students in makeshift trash-bag smocks to paint a skyline on the school wall. Turkish military convoys rolled down a road overlooking Al Salam’s courtyard, framed by the snow-capped mountains of Syria.

A team of dentists set up shop in a classroom to do sealants, give fluoride treatments and extract teeth on site. Children lined up nervously outside, several leaving the makeshift clinic with tears in their eyes, cotton wads in their cheeks, and dental hygiene kits.

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, the number of registered Syrian refugees has more than doubled since March. More than 2.2 million registered refugees have fled across Syria’s borders, at least 557,000 into Turkey. The agency predicts the number of refugees could nearly double again in 2014.

One year after its inception, Al Salam school serves 1,200 students in Reyhanli. There are 1,000 more on the waiting list, and Al Mahayni says new children arrive from Syria every day.

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Albanian ‘blood feuds’ force families into isolation Tue, 10 Dec 2013 12:09:59 +0000 Shkodër, Albania – Bilal Ademi remembers the day when 70 men in his family were forced into hiding. On May 18, 2010, Ademi’s cousin, a policeman, shot and killed another officer while on duty.

Bilal Ademi gestures while recounting the story of his family’s situation in his home in Mushan, Albania on Nov. 15 2013. Bilal’s cousin, a policeman, shot and killed a fellow officer in a dispute, sparking a blood feud with the victim’s family. (Nick St.Oegger)

The Ademi men are the objects of a “blood feud,” targets of retribution for the killing of Tom Jakini. According to a set of traditional Albanian laws dating back to the 15th century called the “Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini,” the family of the victim has the right to avenge Jakini’s death by killing one of the Ademi men.In Shkodër and surrounding villages in northern Albania, a country nestled on continental Europe’s western Balkan shore on the Adriatic Sea, these conflicts can drive entire families to confine themselves indoors out of fear for their lives. Absent a brokered peace, there is no expiration on vendettas. The Kanun dictates that even male children born into families involved in blood feuds become targets once they reach their teenage years. Women are supposed to be exempt, but in rare instances are not spared.

The Ademi family lives in Mushan, a village that lies half-an-hour’s drive from Shkodër down a single-lane road trodden by cows and sheep coming in from pasture.

Ademi men in 11 families once lived on a shared compound of several small homes and plots of farmland. Since becoming embroiled in a blood feud, they have sent away sons and brothers to distant parts of Albania. Some have fled the country, several to Italy. Now just five men remain under lock and key, self-imposed prisoners in their own homes.

Bilal Ademi, alternatively sitting and rising from a chair at the head of a circle of female relatives, spoke at his home about the anguish that his cousin’s crime has caused the family.

“I can’t express the mental stress we feel sitting still like this, unable to see our sons and daughters, being afraid,” he said.

His cousin, Ramiz Ademi, pleaded guilty to killing Jakini after an argument that began when Jakini arrived late to work. An exchange of insults escalated into a physical altercation before Ademi shot and killed Jakini with his service weapon.

Although Ademi is serving a 21-year prison sentence, his family feels they must stay indoors out of respect for the victim’s family — and because they fear being murdered if members of the Jakini family see them outdoors.

Gjylije Ademi speaks about the family’s situation in their home in Mushan, Albania on Nov. 15 2013. The Ademi women have had to bear the brunt of the physical labor required to support the family economically, but are finding it difficult to continue working as they age. (Nick St.Oegger)

Luljeta Ademi, the wife of Ramiz’s brother, told me how the family has collapsed on itself in poverty and misery. The women are ageing, too weak for physical labor that once supported the family economically. Parents miss their children and agonize over their safety.

How they might recognize their potential killers, the Ademi family cannot say. They have not met any of the Jakinis, who live in a village 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) away.

Blood feuds are not specific to one religious group, however the phenomenon exists almost exclusively in northern Albania. Citizens in the southern part of the country balk at the tradition held by some of their neighbors in the rural, poorer north. Geographically isolated by mountainous terrain, northern villages maintained more autonomy under 46 years of Communist rule and preserved more customary laws of the Kanun. After the regime’s fall in 1991, renewed disputes over land and weakened rule of law led to a resurgence of blood feuds. Free movement and migration became legal and citizens from rural areas flocked to cities, spreading blood feuds to bigger population centers.

The incidence of blood feuds spiked again in 1997 after the collapse of a pyramid scheme led to an uprising that forced the government’s resignation. Many Albanians had invested in government-promoted savings funds. When the funds failed, many were driven into bankruptcy. About 2,000 people died in violence from the resulting anarchy and thousands more fled the country.

The Justice and Peace Commission of Albania, an organization supported by the Roman Catholic charity Caritas France, collects data on blood feuds, lobbies government institutions for reform and runs public awareness campaigns. The organization also provides economic support for families unable to work outside the home.

According to Vladimir Banushi, a project assistant for the commission, a lack of faith in the legal system to prosecute murderers causes families to settle disputes themselves.

Albania’s criminal code provides for harsher sentences for homicides related to blood feuds than other murders. A reform package introduced in 2013 requires that convictions carry no less than 30 years and up to life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, there is a high level of corruption in the country, particularly among law enforcement agencies. In its 2013 progress report, the European commission reviewing Albania’s EU candidacy eligibility found that corruption in the country “remains a particularly serious problem,” identifying law enforcement as one of the troubled institutions.

Operation Dove, a project run by the Italian organization Pope John Paul XXIII, works with families to foster reconciliation. According to Marcello Requirez, coordinator for Operation Dove, “The law is good, but not applied.”

Even when the state does administer justice, Requirez recalls instances where men were murdered by rival families after completing prison terms.

Irena Kraja is the president of a psychological clinic in Shkodër that works with children from families locked in by blood feuds. It is the first such center in northern Albania, where public attitudes toward therapy are generally negative and speaking about relatives killed in blood feuds is often taboo.

The clinic aims to help children overcome stress and trauma associated with isolation, as well as address attitudes toward violence and aggression by teaching them to express their feelings. Altin Nika, a coordinator at the clinic, says children from families involved in blood feuds exhibit symptoms such as social withdrawal and irrational fears.

Kraja explains that the clinic’s work strives to stop violence from carrying on through generations. “Children from these families would inherit the blood feud, growing up in families with this mentality,” Kraja said.

Some government officials deny the existence of blood feuds, saying the phenomenon has died out. They accuse organizations working on the issue of inflating the numbers to obtain financial support for their work. Locals criticize foreign organizations for not resolving disputes.

Still, the Justice and Peace Commission’s analysis of official data on homicides in Shkodër district found there were 45 blood feud-related murders from 2006-2008. In its own investigation, the commission found 138 families self-imposed from blood feuds across the country. Both the Justice and Peace Commission and Operation Dove described a boom in blood feud-related murders in 2012.

Requirez says local media reports on blood feuds are “very influenced by political discourse,” citing the influx of opinion pieces before the Albanian elections in June 2013 and lack of coverage leading up to international meetings pertaining to Albania’s desire to join the European Union. Accession to the EU could prove an economic boon for Albania, where a 2008 estimate found 12.5% of people live below the poverty line and unemployment was over 13% in 2012.

Bilal Ademi’s family once made a living growing corn, watermelon, and beans. One relative worked for a milk farm delivering dairy goods on a horse-drawn wagon around the town. They earned enough to sustain themselves, and before the blood feud started they had just redecorated a living room with new furniture. Now they depend on distant family to support them.

Ademi has applied for government assistance, but says he has not received it because even though he cannot leave the house, he is considered able to work.

Reconciliation is possible but rare, and would require forgiveness from the other family’s most senior men.

Ademi blames the government for not providing his family with adequate security, saying the state does nothing to guarantee his family’s safety.

“Can you live all your life begging from relatives?” he asked.

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ICYMI: Top 10 stories, easily explained Fri, 20 Sep 2013 19:51:54 +0000 1. Navy Yard shooting leaves 13 dead, plenty of questions
A gunman identified as Aaron Alexis, a U.S. Navy Reserves veteran with a history of mental illness, opened fire at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, killing 12 people and injuring another dozen before being killed in one of several gun battles with police. The incident—the worst attack at a U.S. military installation since U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan fatally shot 13 people at Ford Hood, Texas, in 2009—prompted a review of security measures at the Navy Yard and renewed the national debate over gun control just five months after the Senate defeated a gun-buyer background check bill.

2. To taper or….oh, not to? OK
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke shocked, well, everyone by announcing that the central bank is not yet ready to scale back a quantitative easing program put in place back in 2008. The decision came just four months after Bernanke outlined a QE-reduction plan—known as “tapering”—that included trimming the bank’s $85-billion-a-month bond-buying by the end of the year and ending it by mid-2014 (by which time the bank anticipated unemployment falling to 7 percent). Bernanke’s announcement prompted criticism of the Fed’s communication strategy, and suggested the bank may have shot itself in the foot by outlining tapering in the spring, opening the door to reactionary economic conditions that made said tapering nonviable. The move also leaves Bernanke’s successor—increasingly likely to be Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen—without a useful QE roadmap.

3.  A Whale of a fail 
Onetime Wall Street darling JPMorgan Chase & Co. will pay $920 million to four regulators in two countries to settle liabilities from its $6.2 billion “London Whale” trading loss. The settlement(s) are notable for JPM’s rare admission of wrongdoing—though whose wrongdoing was left unanswered—but don’t mean the end of the bank’s Whale woes. JPMorgan still faces criminal probes into the scandal (plus probes related to energy trading, mortgage securities and bribery in China). Nor has the bank yet squared its Whale liabilities with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. But JPM swears it’s learned its lesson: CEO Jamie Dimon sent a morale-boosting memo to the bank’s employees on Tuesday, touting measures to prevent future Whales that include increased transparency, better reporting and a bunch of new compliance officers.

4. Weapons of mass discussion
A week after the U.S. and Russia brokered a deal to put Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arms stockpiles under international control, the fate of said compromise is still TBD. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China—have spent the week discussing a draft resolution, and Secretary of State John Kerry called on the U.N. to act when its General Assembly meets in New York next week. But there are still many details to be hashed out, including how much the plan would cost (Assad says $1 billion) and whether it could realistically be accomplished by the middle of next year. Nor is there consensus on culpability: A U.N. report issued Monday confirmed the use of chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack in Syria, but stopped short of blaming the Assad regime. Russia called the report preconceived and Assad maintains that any use of sarin gas came from the rebels.

 5. Déjà vu all over again
The White House and Congress are staring down an exceedingly familiar deadlock over funding necessary to keep the government running. The House of Representatives passed a bill Friday to fund federal agencies from October 1 to December 15, while also defunding Obamacare, despite admonitions from Democrats that they would kill the GOP-led initiative. (The vote marks the 42nd time House Republicans have tried to kill or significantly derail the health care initiative.) The Senate is expected to debate the bill next week but in the meantime, neither side is being particularly communicative. And time is running out: A budget deal is necessary by September 30 to avoid a federal government shutdown, and a separate agreement must be reached by mid-October to prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its national debt.

6. When it rains, it pours
Mexican resort town Acapulco is still grappling with food shortages, looting, electricity outages and flooded streets after a series of storms devastated the city, killing nearly 100 people and stranding about 40,000 visitors. Torrential rains were spawned by two tropical storms, Ingrid and Manuel, which converged on Mexico from the Gulf and the Pacific over the weekend, triggering the flash floods. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. National Hurricane Center warned that an area of low pressure over the southern Gulf of Mexico has a 60 percent chance of becoming a tropical cyclone, which could dump even more main on the beleaguered region. Meanwhile, Colorado is dealing with the after-effects of massive flooding that killed an estimated 10 people and has left another 140 still unaccounted for.

7.  I always feel like, somebody’s watchin’ me
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is not happy about revelations that the National Security Agency’s wide-reaching surveillance efforts—outlined by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in a slow drip of document porn—included spying on her personal communications and those of other Brazilians. Rousseff was mad enough to put the kibosh on a planned October meeting with President Barack Obama, despite a 20-minute phone call between the two meant to ease tensions. The meeting was expected to cover deals on oil exploration and biofuels technology, and Brazil’s potential purchase of fighter jets from Boeing.

8. The handshake heard round the world
When the U.N. General Assembly meets next week, all eyes will be on new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who may get together with Obama in the first U.S./Iranian presidential tête-à-tête since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. More likely is that the two will at least shake hands and exchange a few pleasantries. Obama is hoping to encourage Iran to make concessions in talks over its nuclear program, and Rouhani—most recently in an opinion piece in the Washington Post—has called for world leaders to “respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage in constructive dialogue.” An Obama/Rouhani greeting would be far from the leaders’ first interaction—they’re practically pen pals.

9. Drop everything—there’s a new iPhone
Die-hard Apple fans lined up on Friday for the release of two new iPhones: the 5C, a cheaper, colorful plastic model; and the 5S, a pricier option equipped with a fingerprint scanner that can unlock the phone with just a touch. Pre-orders of the phones were not “overwhelming,” a source at  U.S. wireless carrier told Reuters, but the 5S fingerprint reader received early plaudits from a handful of gadget reviewers. Meanwhile, a micro venture capital firm joined forces with a group of security researchers to offer $13,000 in cash, plus booze, Bitcoin currency, books and other goodies to the first hacker who could crack the fingerprint scanner.

10. Giant cruise ship rises from the sea via science
Giglio Island residents are likely to be seeing the Costa Concordia outside their windows for the next six months, but at least it’s upright. The 114,500-ton ship—which capsized in a 2012 accident that killed 32 people and resulted in criminal charges against captain Francesco Schettino—was raised from its 20-month resting place on the precarious ledge of an underwater rock shelf. The 19-hour operation is only the start of what is expected to be the most expensive maritime wreck recovery effort ever, and will end with the Concordia being towed away for scrap.

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On Syria, Congress asks the wrong questions too late Wed, 04 Sep 2013 21:46:10 +0000 Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters Corp.

Tuesday’s Senate hearing on Syria was essentially a success for President Barack Obama. Democrat Rob Menendez and Republican Bob Corker collaborated to draft a resolution that would limit U.S. military involvement in Syria to 60 days, with room for a 30-day extension. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the resolution, which will keep U.S. troops out of Syria, on Wednesday.

But the bar for success on Syria is low. Nearly 1,500 people are dead from an apparent chemical attack, most likely carried out by the government on its own people, including civilians. This comes more than two years after Syria’s fight with rebel forces began. Questions pitting the interests of the United States against humanitarian interests of preventing another similar attack in Syria are astounding, given that roughly 100,000 people have died in the conflict since March 2011.

A 15-year-old Free Syrian Army fighter takes position in a house in Salah al-Din neighborhood in central Aleppo, August 22, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

Yet the questions persisted in the Senate and the House of Representatives. At the Tuesday Senate hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey fielded questions on how to protect U.S. interests and on the integrity of global treaties, specifically one condemning chemical warfare. The administration officials answered on script: The United States must defend its credibility, U.S. interests must come first, and finally, what’s the point of having a global treaty banning chemical attacks if we don’t enforce it?

The one question worth asking was left unanswered – what is the goal of a military strike now, after so many lives have been lost? We don’t want a war with Syria, we don’t want an extensive engagement, and we don’t want to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from office. We want to issue a warning strike. To what end? Even if our objective in striking Syria were to remove Assad, Syria’s citizens would not be safe. Governance could fall to the most organized of the rebel factions – extremist Islamists, backed by al Qaeda and Hezbollah.

The most perceptive statement about the near absurdity of having debates on Capitol Hill of this nature, at this time came from Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio. After outlining in detail why Syrian security affects U.S. national interests, Rubio said:

Most, if not all of this, was true two years ago, when I joined other voices on this committee and in the Senate and beyond that advocated that at that time, when Assad was on the ropes, the United States should engage in trying to identify moderate elements and equip them so that they became the predominant rebel force in Syria, and not others.

Rubio is offering an interventionist stance that most liberals find viscerally disturbing. Still, he presents a perspective that is dangerously undervalued in shaping policy: preventative measures are the most effective, and short term solutions are given precedence over long-term goals. Acknowledging that the crisis in Syria is no longer surmountable points to a larger flaw in U.S. attitudes towards foreign policy – the idea that global humanitarian concerns are not germane to the U.S. until they pose an immediate threat, at which point it’s often too late to devise a solution.

The notion that the world’s humanitarian concerns are separate from U.S. interests was repeated throughout the hearing. Arguments in favor of a strike defend it for being “not only” essential for humanitarian reasons, “but also,” necessary for national security, implying that the motivations are mutually exclusive. But distinguishing between U.S. and humanitarian interests, making one course of action about selflessness and one about self-protection, is fundamentally wrong. Selflessness and self-protection merge when the definition of “self” expands to include a global community.

Shaping foreign policy under the assumption that the United States is remote from what goes on in Syria, Egypt or North Korea is dangerous, and leads to Senate hearings that come years too late and in which a positive political outcome is all but off the table. The question of whether the United States – in the name of national interest – can defend a non-interventionist stance in favor of allowing infighting in Syria to lead to the deaths tens of thousands is morally obscene. And the decision to only take action once the death toll is high enough should be more disturbing than it appears to be.

There is no way to win on Syria now – too much has already been lost. But there may be lessons to be learned in addressing other crises, by rethinking who should be included when we talk about “our interests.” The bar for success will be much higher when we start.


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