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A local resident shows a fragment thought to be part of a meteorite collected in a snow covered field last month outside the city of Chelyabinsk. Regional officials are currently weighing plans to capitalize on their meteor-related fame, including developing a meteor theme park or water park. (Andrei Romanov/Reuters)

How a cold, irradiated Siberian city hopes to cash in on meteor tourists

By Correspondent / 03.05.13

When life hands you lemons, according to the proverbial saying, make lemonade.

That message has been received by some residents of Chelyabinsk, an industrial city in the Ural Mountains that's famous for just two things – both of which were horrifying near-miss catastrophes of potentially biblical proportions.

They say the city should start cashing in on its most recent brush with disaster, a huge meteor strike that might easily have obliterated much of western Siberia, as a motif for theme parks and other tourist attractions that could pull the region out of obscurity.

"Space sent us a gift and we need to make use of it," Natalya Gritsay, head of the regional tourism department, told journalists.

"We need our own Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty," she added.

Chelyabinsk's first unwanted claim to fame was a nuclear disaster at the nearby Chelyabinsk-40 atomic reprocessing plant in 1957, in which almost 100 tons of high-level radioactive waste erupted into the atmosphere. That accident was eventually contained and then kept strictly secret by Soviet authorities for over 30 years.

The second was last month's ten-ton meteorite that slammed into the atmosphere and exploded in a series of fireballs almost directly above the city, injuring over 1,200 people but killing no one.

That event was filmed from almost every possible angle by hundreds of CCTV and dashboard cameras, and the videos transmitted around the world almost instantaneously via YouTube and other social media.

It spawned vast amounts of commentary, even some brilliant satire and, of course, plenty of wild conspiracy theories.

But it also, finally, put Chelyabinsk on the map. And many local citizens want it to stay there.

Reached by phone in Chelyabinsk Tuesday, Ms. Gritsay said there was no fully worked-out plan yet. But ideas include developing a tourist zone around Lake Chebarkul, where the biggest meteor fragments came down, along with a diving center where tourists could try their hand at searching the lake bottom for pieces of space rock.

"These ideas need investment," she said. "Right now we have plans organize a festival of fireworks near the lake," to commemorate the event.

Local media have reported scores of other suggestions, including one local official's scheme to build a "Meteor Disneyland," with full special effects so that tourists could relive the experience. Other ideas are a "cosmic water park" near Lake Chebarkul, and a giant, pyramid-shaped flaming monument on the lake's surface to mark the spot where the largest fragment hit.

"It's a good idea; it will help them develop their local brand," says Valery Markin, a regional expert at the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow.

"But it's not just about tourism. A big meteor strike is a very rare event, and this one hit at Lake Chebarkul, a traditional recreation zone for the population of Chelyabinsk.... People are already saying that some superior force saved them from total destruction. In earlier times, people might have designated this a 'sacred place,'" he says.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol-ju, waves to the crowd as they inspect the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground in Pyongyang, North Korea, in July 2012. After months of speculation over whether Ri was pregnant, there are now reports that the couple's first baby was born in secret. (Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/AP/File)

Did Kim Jong-un and his wife have a baby?

By Correspondent / 03.05.13

North Korea’s ruling dynasty could have its newest member.

After months of speculation over whether Ri Sol-ju, Kim Jong-un's wife, was pregnant, there are now reports that the couple’s first baby was born in secret. The reports have not been confirmed by North Korea or otherwise verified.

Speculation over the possibility of the North Korean first couple having a child hit a high point in January, when South Korean media closely analyzed photos of Ri where she appeared to have lost some heft around her midsection, suggesting that she might have given birth.

Ri appeared last week at a basketball game held during the visit of former NBA player Dennis Rodman. She was photographed standing and applauding. She showed no obvious signs of pregnancy or having recently given birth, and of course, did not have a baby with her.

Very little has been mentioned about this in South Korea, where the media are currently focused on new president Park Geun-hye’s efforts to establish her government. Much of the discussion has come from US media.

"If it was a boy, [the North Koreans] would have made an announcement," Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch, an online newsletter, told the Washington Free Beacon.

If a female baby was indeed born, she is unlikely to be pegged to take over leadership of the totalitarian state in her adulthood. The three member Kim dynasty has been all male and the country is still patriarchal; instances of women in positions of authority are not common.

Kim Jong-un is believed to be 30, and has been married for at least a year (the date of his marriage is not known, but Ri started appearing in public with him last year, which had not been common for the wives of North Korean leaders). It is therefore a natural time for the couple to look to have their first child, according to Korean convention.

Hereditary succession is a key part of North Korea’s leadership. Founder Kim Il-sung is the country’s leader in perpetuity, even though he has been dead since 1994. Indeed, in common parlance, North Koreans still refer to the country they live in as “Kim Il-sung’s country.”

The fact that Kim Jong-un is a direct descendant of his grandfather was an important part of what allowed him to take over leadership of the country at a young age and with minimal experience.

Barring any unforeseen shakeups like a war or a coup, Kim Jong-un would likely be succeeded by a son someday. But that is too far in the future to know, and as this speculation over the dynasty’s next member shows, it is hard to know anything with certainty when it comes to North Korea.

Lifetime Honorary Chairman of Telefonos de Mexico Carlos Slim Helu participates in the Wall St. Journal CEO Council on 'Rebuilding Global Prosperity' in Washington in this November 2009 file photo. Helu and his family topped Forbes list of the world's billionaires yet again this year, with a net worth of $73 billion. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File)

Forbes 2013 billionaire list: rich get richer, women ascend

By Staff writer / 03.04.13

Forbes released its annual ranking of the world's billionaires today, and they are $800 billion richer than they were last year. 

The magazine reports that 1,426 people made the cut in 2013, with 210 new names on the list. Their aggregate wealth totals $5.4 trillion, an all-time high and up from $4.6 trillion in 2012.

Mexican telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim Helu and his family topped the list yet again this year, with a net worth of $73 billion. Like last year, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates was at Mr. Slim's heels, with $67 billion in wealth. The two have partnered to build a $25 million agricultural research center in Slim's home country, Forbes reports.

And while Spain is stumbling under the weight of one of the deepest recessions in the European Union, retailer Amancio Ortega comes in at No. 3  He's behind the clothing retailer Zara – described by Reuters as "one of the dominant apparel lines in Europe." His wealth gain of $19.5 billion was the largest on the list, Reuters reports. 

Forbes determines the individuals' net worths by valuing their assets – including stakes in companies, real estate, etc. – and their debt. 

Forbes reports that Brazilian Eike Batista, who, according to the magazine, used to brag that he was on his way to overtaking Slim, was "the year's biggest loser." He lost $19.4 billion in the last 12 months, the largest drop in net worth on the list, as a result of tremendous stock losses.  

As in years past, the US dominated the list, with 442 American billionaires. The Asia-Pacific reason contributed 386 people to the list, followed by Europe with 366, the Americas with 129, and the Middle East and North Africa with 103. 

Parsing the rankings, The Los Angeles Times reports that Liliane Bettencourt, the name behind L'Oreal cosmetics, is the world's wealthiest woman. The total number of female billionaires grew from 104 to 138.

Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was dropped from the list because "his assets are hard to calculate," Agence France-Presse reports. He has been in hiding since 2001, although there were unconfirmed reports last month that he was killed in a shootout. 

"Although he is believed to likely be alive and living in Mexico, Guzman's whereabouts are unknown," Forbes wealth editor Luisa Kroll said.

"Also sketchy: how he's spending the illicit money he earns. Forbes has been unable to reach him to verify figures and believes an increasing chunk of money is going to protect him and his family.

"As the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, he is one of the most powerful people in the world, but no longer someone we are confident enough to call a billionaire."

CNN Money reports that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg suffered the biggest losses of any American on the list, with his wealth trimming down $4.2 billion in 2013. But before you sympathize too much, remember that he is still in possession of a solid $13.3 billion. 

RELATED:

Harvard Business School Professor Michael Norton and Duke University Behavioral Economics Professor Dan Ariely recently polled 5,000 Americans on how they perceived wealth distribution in the US. The following video is based on the results of their study.

The World Bags and Luggage Museum is home to the personal collection of the owner of Japan's Ace luggage company (the world's first producer of nylons bags). It houses more than 400 examples of handbags, travel bags, and trunks made from everything from Zebra to frog. (Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor)

How many frogs does it take to make a handbag? Tokyo museum has the answer

By Staff Writer / 03.03.13

Hidenori Hirosaki acknowledges that the museum of which he is the director is “unusual.”

He is proud, he says, that “it is unique. There is no other museum with this concept in the world.”

Mr. Hirosaki is the director and driving force behind the World Bags and Luggage Museum, a shrine that imbues the humble suitcase with a sacred quality.

On display, picked out like jewels by artful lighting, are satchels and steamer trunks, backpacks and portmanteaus, clutch bags and briefcases from around the world and down the ages.

The collection began with Ryusaku Shinkawa, the founder of ACE, a Japanese luggage manufacturer, who gathered many of the pieces that are now on show for the small and little-visited museum. The late Mr. Shinkawa, described in the museum brochure as “pursuing bag as divine vocation,” was clearly passionate about his business.

Hirosaki has inherited his enthusiasm, and his taste is eclectic. As a man who has worked for ACE and lived with leather all his adult life (“the first thing I notice about a man is his shoes,” he says), he cannot disguise his preference for perfectly tanned cowhide and the workmanship that went into classic Italian luggage in the 1960s.

But he is just as keen to show off a navy blue Panam flight bag, made in 1960, which Hirosaki explains in the descriptive panel alongside the bag, was “a longing symbol of overseas travel for us Japanese.” Japanese were not allowed to go abroad, except on business or to study, until 1964, he recalls.

The museum, housed on the seventh floor of the ACE corporation’s headquarters, owns about 600 pieces (and the collection is growing: Hirosaki bought the Panam bag last year on eBay for $150) but only half of them are on display. Even so, they encompass an extraordinary variety of things for putting things in.

Zebra, water buffalo, hippopotamus, oh my

There is a pair of zebra skin travel bags; an elephant hide suitcase that once belonged to a Kuwaiti emir; one attaché case made from rich yellow water buffalo hide, another of hippopotamus leather, and a third from deeply crevassed sharkskin.

There is a trunk covered with the black skins of 12 saltwater crocodiles, gleaming like patent leather; there is an elk-skin shoulder bag from Finland, a barrel-topped Saratoga trunk from the United States, and an elegant clutch made in Thailand from a patchwork of pale green and delicate yellow rectangles.

“A considerable number of frogs are needed to make a single bag,” a sign explains.

And did you ever wonder why a Saratoga trunk had that distinctive barrel-shaped lid? In the days of carriage and train travel when cases were piled on top of each other, a Saratoga trunk could only go on top of the pile, thus running less risk of damage.

The museum embraces the modern and the practical with as much ardor as it reserves for the exotic and luxurious. Hirosaki waxes lyrical in his description of the first Samsonite suitcase that ACE made under license, (the classic Silhouette, whose subtle wedge shape has defined the brand for half a century), describing it as “a flower on a lofty height.”

From Halliburton to Gucci

In another glass display case nearby is an even more prosaic looking item – a grey aluminum box with an orange Bakelite handle, secured by a couple of hasps.

This, it turns out, is the toolbox that Richard Halliburton designed for himself in 1938. The American engineer, scion of the oil-services giant bearing his name, “through his bitter experience in the Middle East that inside of a bag get covered in sand, decided to invent a case of his own satisfactory,” Hirosaki’s sign explains in somewhat fractured English.

A very similar, though somewhat larger, box was used by the Apollo 11 crew to store moon-rocks, says a sign. “The spec. was nothing special, with slight interior modification, which proved the case valid in universe.”

Valid throughout the universe. What greater praise could be bestowed on a travel accessory?

Just before the exit, the last display area in the museum shows off ACE’s current output – fairly standard pieces of lightweight, robust luggage in bright colors equipped with the casters and pullout handles familiar from airports the world over.

Hirosaki is proud that ACE is Japan’s only remaining luggage manufacturer, but he cannot hide his nostalgia for the glory days of luxury travel and the exquisitely crafted baggage that went with it.

“Today people put too much stress on rationality, functionality, and efficiency,” he sighs, admiring a strapped suitcase made from natural leather by the Italian company Franzi (where Guccio Gucci got his start) half a century ago.

The sign beside the case is simple and eloquent. “The same cannot be manufactured under the present circumstances of attaching too much emphasis to productivity,” it says. The World Bags and Luggage Museum is an unexpected reminder of how much more than a bag a bag can be.

(The museum can be found in the Asakusa district of Tokyo at 1-8-10 Komagata, Taito Ku, Tokyo. Phone 03-3847-5680)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (c.), his wife Ri Sol-ju (l.) and former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman (r.) talk in Pyongyang in this undated photo released on Friday. Before departing, Rodman told Pyongyang that leader Kim Jong-un, reported to have a great love for basketball, was 'really awesome' and that he and his father and grandfather were 'great leaders.' (KCNA/Reuters)

North Korea's special guests: First a Google executive, then Dennis Rodman (+video)

By Correspondent / 03.01.13

As former NBA star Dennis Rodman wrapped up his week-long trip to North Korea today, the latest high profile visit of a Westerner to North Korea, observers are asking if the visit suggests that North Korea is becoming a bit more open to the outside world.

Before departing, Mr. Rodman told Pyongyang that leader Kim Jong-un, reported to have a great love for basketball, was “really awesome” and that he and his father and grandfather were “great leaders,” according to the Associated Press.

Rodman, who has long had a reputation for eccentricity and questionable behavior, was traveling with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters and a crew from Vice Media, which was shooting an episode for an HBO series and had plans for “basketball diplomacy.”

The high profile visits come on the heels of Google executive Eric Schmidt’s tour to North Korea in January. And while they may look promising as they provide avenues for diplomacy that the US and the North have not seen before, in the short term it’s mostly just a public relations boon to Pyongyang at home, say analysts.

“Ultimately, they [North Korea] come out ahead because they can portray it as the world coming to pay tribute, or at least to be there,” says Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in London.

Mr. Foster-Carter is quick to point out that these visits do not likely represent a substantial change in the nature of the North Korean state, which is accused of serious human rights abuses, and ignores international condemnation with its tests of nuclear devices and long-range rockets.  

“It’s not a sign of a broader change,” he says. “If anything, it’s part of the process of the UN sanctions, showing that even though North Korea doesn’t care to talk to the US, high-profile Americans are willing to come to them.”

According to analysis of satellite images released this past week by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, one of the country’s main prison camps has expanded significantly over past several years, including the period since Kim Jong-un took over from his father, the late Kim Jong-il, after he passed away in late 2011.
 
The analysis found that Camp No. 25, in the difficult-to-access northeast of the country, has grown 72 percent since 2003 and now has a much larger number of guards.

North Korea is believed to have stepped up its security to prevent escape, both from prisons and across the border into China. Even as North Korea comes to allow more interesting characters in, there are still many who aren’t allowed out. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, left, and former NBA star Dennis Rodman watch North Korean and U.S. players in an exhibition basketball game at an arena in Pyongyang, North Korea, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013. Rodman arrived in Pyongyang on Monday with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team to shoot an episode on North Korea for a new weekly HBO series. (Jason Mojica, VICE Media/AP)

Friends forever: Rodman warms to North Korean dictator (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.28.13

Former Chicago Bulls basketball star and 1990s bad boy Dennis Rodman may not have run into K-Pop star Psy during his “basketball diplomacy” jaunt to North Korea this week, but he reportedly met secretive leader Kim Jong-un.

“You have a friend for life,” The Associated Press reports Mr. Rodman telling Mr. Kim today. The two men were watching the Harlem Globetrotters and North Korean basketball players face off on the court in front of a crowd of thousands, and later dined on sushi together, according to the news agency.

Rodman traveled to the isolated country along with three members of the Globetrotters and producers from VICE media to film an HBO series. The scene, described by VICE employees at the game, sounds like quite a sight:

Dressed in a blue Mao suit, Kim laughed and slapped his hands on the table before him during the game as he sat nearly knee to knee with Rodman. Rodman, the man who once turned up in a wedding dress to promote his autobiography, wore a dark suit and dark sunglasses, but still had on his nose rings and other piercings.

The high-profile visit comes at a precarious time for North Korea, which recently launched its third nuclear test, raising already sky-high tensions with neighboring South Korea and garnering condemnation from the international community.

Pyongyang has engaged in high-profile saber-rattling in recent weeks, including a warning this past weekend of "miserable destruction" if the United States and South Korea go ahead with a planned joint naval exercise next month,” The Christian Science Monitor notes.

“The North is trying to persuade the world – and in particular the United States – that it is a full-fledged nuclear power that can threaten others as much as it is threatened by them,” The Monitor reported in a separate story after the nuclear test.

That Pyongyang chose the day of President Obama's State of the Union address on which to conduct its test indicates how much the test was meant as a message for the US, regional analysts say.

The test was also directed at an internal audience. Leader Kim Jong-un, in power for just a year, is still establishing his credentials, observers say, and a successful test adds to his prestige and legitimacy, thus strengthening internal security.

The true aims of North Korea, however, remain officially unstated, and therefore open to speculation.

But Kim reportedly told Rodman that he hoped the former NBA player’s visit could help “break the ice” between the US and North Korea, VICE founder Shane Smith relayed to the AP.

“They bonded during the game,” Mr. Smith told the AP.

Rodman and the film crew reportedly returned the invitation, according to the Los Angeles Times, asking Kim to visit the US.

If Kim visits, and relations between the US and North Korea improve, will Rodman win the Nobel Peace Prize? Now that would be crazy.

The game ended in a tie of 110 all.

Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful for the last time from the balcony of his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo Thursday. Pope Benedict left the Vatican on Thursday after pledging support to whoever succeeds him to guide the Roman Catholic Church at one of the most crisis-ridden periods in its 2,000-year history. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

Benedict XVI pledges support to successor on his last day as pope (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.28.13

Pope Benedict XVI marks his historic last day on the throne of St. Peter today, before becoming the first to resign from the papacy in 600 years. Benedict gave his final public mass on Wednesday and today sent off his 39th and ultimate tweet from his official papal Twitter account before boarding a helicopter bound for Castel Gandolfo, where he will begin his retirement.

Benedict pledged his unconditional support for the future pope today, telling cardinals “May the Lord show you what he wants. Among you there is the future pope, to whom I today declare my unconditional reverence and obedience,” reports Reuters

Some 118 cardinals will commence the closed-door conclave to select the next pope in coming weeks. Only cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote, and given the controversy surrounding the Catholic Church in recent years – from sexual abuse scandals to diminishing congregations in many parts of the world to polarizing public health statements related to the use of condoms and the spread of HIV/AIDS – many observers are voicing their opinions on what kind of pope the church needs.

According to The Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana, those in the developing world are hopeful the next pope will come from Asia, Africa, or Latin America:

Latin America is home to 40 percent of the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics: Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, and Mexico is the second largest.

There has never been a non-European pope in the modern era, and naming a leader from Latin America, Africa, or Asia would be considered a radical new direction for the Eurocentric Vatican. But it would also reflect a new, and to many a long overdue, pragmatism within the institution. While nearly three-quarters of Latin Americans identify as Catholic, for example, only a quarter of Europeans do….

“The future of the global church is in Africa, parts of Asia, and Latin America,” [Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University] says.

Though Benedict will not play a direct role in choosing the next pope, his influence will still be felt, notes a separate Monitor story. He appointed numerous cardinals during his eight years as pope, all of whom walk a more traditional line.

[T]he outgoing pontiff has been so instrumental in shaping the policies and personnel of the Roman Catholic church that his presence won’t matter, analysts say.

For 24 years Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, ruled the roost in the Vatican as Pope John Paul II’s enforcer, the powerful head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he has overseen a tightening, not a loosening, of church doctrine.

Since 2005 he further consolidated power as pope. So the conclave of cardinals and bishops meeting in Rome next month are there precisely due to their loyalty to Benedict’s vision of the Roman church.

There’s also the unique challenge the church must face of having a living ex-pope, something it hasn’t had to deal with for centuries. Benedict’s retirement “raises a potential difficulty for the Vatican – that even after his retirement, he could become a lightning rod for dissatisfaction and dissent with his successor, whoever that might be,” reports Nick Squires for The Monitor from Rome.

Once the new pope is selected, Benedict will retire in a monastery within the Vatican City, providing ample opportunity for the old and the new to cross paths.

[A]ccording to the Vatican spokesman, Benedict will continue to write and publish treatises and essays – he is a noted theologian who recently completed a trilogy on the life of Christ.

That could produce a situation where the former pope says one thing on an important matter, while his successor says something different.

“Traditionally popes have not resigned because there is this question of what do you do with two popes,” says John Thavis, an American who has covered the Vatican for 30 years and recently wrote  an insider’s account of the Holy See – “The Vatican Diaries.”

“What should be the role of a former pope – does he have to stay quiet for the rest of his life? What if he speaks up and disagrees with his successor? You then have the prospect of the Church effectively having two popes.”

Benedict has never been regarded as a power-hungry political player and will probably embrace a return to a quiet life of study and prayer.

“I don’t think he will deliberately upstage or contradict his successor,” says Mr. Thavis. “But he’s not going to be behind a wall of silence. If I was the new pope, I would be paying attention to whatever he writes about.”

New 2013 Darts wait to be sold at a Dodge dealership in Littleton, Colo. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Good reads: the meteors we miss, Tesla's frigid review, car-buying woes, bionic eyes

By Staff writer / 02.25.13

A meteor blazed over Siberia on Feb. 15. As the rock punched through Earth’s atmosphere, it lit up the morning sky and produced a powerful shock wave. The meteor – the largest recorded space rock to hit Earth in more than a century – injured nearly 1,500 people and created a 20-foot crater near the Russian town of Chebarkul.

“Could anyone have seen the meteoroid coming?” asks Konstantin Kakaes in Slate. Probably not, at least not yet. The meteor was most likely too small for current instruments to detect. But as Mr. Kakaes writes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has made huge strides in locating objects before they reach our planetary backyard.

Countless chunks of rock and ice collide with Earth’s atmosphere each year. Most of them burn up on entry. NASA tracks roughly 5,000 “potentially hazardous asteroids” that measure more than 330 feet across. But the Russian rock was likely only 50 feet wide before it entered the atmosphere. Finding objects on that scale is much more difficult. “We now track nearly 100 times more PHAs than we did in 1993,” writes Kakaes, and much of those gains came from identifying small objects that were previously undetectable.

Still, space agencies have a long way to go before these fireballs are no longer a surprise. Roughly 10 meteors crash into Earth each year. Many hit unpopulated areas, such as oceans. Thousands of Cana-dians saw one in 2008. (For more on asteroids, see page 13.)

Cold shoulder for Tesla

Tesla Motors chief Elon Musk came out swinging with details he says will prove that a recent New York Times article about the Model S was “fake.” Times writer John Broder took the all-electric car for a test drive from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut. (See One Week, Feb. 25.) Tesla loaned Mr. Broder the car so he could try out the new fast-charging stations that now dot Interstate 95 and extend the range of the Model S beyond its reported 265 miles. But after a night of below-freezing temperatures, Broder says that the car battery prematurely ran out of juice, leaving him stranded beside the road and leaving many to wonder if Motor Trend’s 2013 Car of the Year can survive harsh winters.

As James Holloway writes in a play-by-play breakdown for Ars Technica, Tesla and the Times spent the next week hurling words and data at each other. After the BBC car show Top Gear showed a Tesla pooping out in the middle of a test drive in 2008, Tesla has logged the speed, battery charge, and performance of every car that it lends to journalists. The data shows that Broder routinely pulled out of Tesla fill-up stations without fully charging the battery, which Mr. Musk says is the real reason that the car petered out prematurely. Broder acknowledges that he did not top off the battery – a full charge can take more than an hour – but says he always “replenished more than enough energy for the miles I intended to drive.”

CNN ran its own test drive from Washington to Boston without incident. “However, without an overnight stop in below-freezing temperatures, this is far from a repeat of Broder’s test,” writes Mr. Holloway, “though it is arguably more representative of the way Model S owners are likely to drive the I-95.”

Protection for wily car dealers

In survey after survey, car salesperson ranks among the least trusted professions. Shoppers complain about the haggling, the seemingly manipulative sales tactics, and how difficult it is to accurately comparison shop. With 14 million vehicles sold in the United States each year, why is buying a car so awful? NPR’s Planet Money dug into the history of car dealers. Reporter Alex Bloomberg says that not only was our current system designed this way, but many local legislators want it to remain just as it is.

Practically every state has laws that protect car dealers. This legislation – mostly written back when US auto-makers had enormous power and no foreign competition – can prevent manufacturers from severing ties with problematic dealers and can carve out jurisdictions for dealerships, thereby limiting competition. While automakers have lost much of their influence over the past few decades, these laws have ensured that dealers “have become even more powerful,” Mr. Bloomberg says. “In each state, dealers contribute as much as 20 percent of sales tax revenue.” That gives lawmakers little reason to tinker with the current system.

A new aid for sight

The US Food and Drug Administration has just approved its first bionic eye. Trials show that the prosthesis, called Argus II, can restore partial sight among some blind patients.  

“This enables people who are completely blind to see enough to improve their mobility,” Mark Humayun, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, tells Technology Review. “It allows people to make out the sidewalk and stay on it without twisting an ankle, see unexpected obstacles like parked cars, make out a table, see someone coming through a doorway.”

The prosthetic eye consists of a video camera that mounts to a pair of glasses and a chip embedded near the retina. Second Sight, the California company behind the device, already sells the Argus II in Europe for roughly $100,000.

Private access gates surround multimillion- dollar homes in Dana Point, Calif. (Reed Saxon/AP/File)

Good Reads: Ideas for Obama, the creep of capitalism, millionaire count, work at the top

By David T. CookStaff writer / 02.21.13

US presidents traditionally turn to foreign policy in their second terms. The executive branch operates with greater freedom in the international realm than in domestic policy, and world affairs are an appealing arena in which to cement a presidential legacy.

The January/February issue of Foreign Policy magazine observes tongue in cheek that the paper required to print all of the white papers and op-eds urging President Obama to take various actions on the international scene “would probably require chopping down the Amazon rain forest.”

The magazine counters with 10 tightly written essays on what Foreign Policy editor Susan Glasser calls “ideas for what Obama could really accomplish in these next four years to make the world a better place – concrete, achievable goals that, for the most part, wouldn’t even require the cooperation of Congress.”

Among the recommended actions: having Mr. Obama send the Senate the 1997 treaty on banning land mines (as 161 countries have already done); taking a tougher stance toward allies – like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – with less-than-stellar human rights records; and working with Russia to reduce the hair-trigger, launch-ready alert status on both nations’ nuclear-tipped missiles.

Capitalism and North Korea’s leaders

With North Korean leader Kim Jong-un having just overseen his nation’s third nuclear weapons test, The Economist magazine’s Feb. 9 cover story takes a very timely look at how “capitalism is seeping through the bamboo curtain” with consequences the despotic Mr. Kim may not be able to control.

The North Korean famine of the 1990s, which killed up to 1 million people, triggered a breakdown in the government’s control over food distribution. So individual entrepreneurs began selling food grown in family plots. That market impulse has grown. “It has become clear that other merchants today operate on a far more ambitious scale, exporting raw materials to China and bringing back consumer goods,” the Economist reports. So, the magazine says, money talks in today’s North Korea in ways that have a variety of destabilizing consequences.

For example, traders bring in computers, radios, and mobile phones, which diminish the Kim regime’s control of information. That allows some North Koreans to have a more acute sense of how impoverished their lives are compared with those of citizens of neighboring South Korea.

The role of the sexes has changed as women, who run some black markets, have become the breadwinners in their families. And there is a widening gap between the lives of market-involved elites centered in Pyongyang and the lives of the chronically underfed rest of the country.

Who are the millionaires?

The debate over how to reform the US tax code will be one of the top political stories of 2013. Whether America’s richest individuals are paying their fair share will be a key aspect of the debate. So it is useful to get a clearer picture of the financially fortunate.

“[T]he common conception of millionaires, on whom so much of the nation’s long-term fiscal viability depends, is largely a caricature,” writes Graeme Wood in the conservative National Review.

The first step in understanding millionaires, Mr. Wood writes, is a matter of definition. One group of millionaires are those who have assets like homes, savings accounts, and pensions that are worth a million dollars. “The majority are working people,” Wood writes, and some 5.26 million households meet that definition.
The second group of millionaires consists of those who earn a million dollars or more a year. This much more rarefied group includes fewer than half a million households a year. Wood notes that many in this group are “lucky one-timers,” folks who won the lottery or inherited from wealthy parents.

Only the 200,000 households with $20 million or more in assets have “the financial equivalent of a perpetual-motion machine, capable of spontaneously replenishing itself and fairly reliably producing large amounts of money for its fortunate owner,” Wood says.

The window washers’ life at the top

The New Yorker provides a vicarious glimpse into the dangerous, silent, and exhilarating world of skyscraper window washers for readers whose own jobs may offer less excitement.

The advent of computer design software made it practical for architects to create buildings with a different window configuration on every floor, “turning Manhattan into a crystal garden of geometric forms and irregular shapes,” writes Adam Higginbotham. At the same time, the work of men with buckets and squeegees has remained just outside the reach of automation.

Thus it is that window washers still have to step out onto an 18-inch-wide walkway outside the 103rd floor of the Empire State Building.
When Mr. Higginbotham joined a window washer there, briefly, he writes, “I sank to my knees in what may have resembled an attitude of pure terror.”

Detective Hilton Botha sits inside the court witness box during the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing in Pretoria, South Africa. Botha is off the case, and now faces attempted murder charges himself over a 2011 shooting, police said Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Can South Africa's justice system handle the Oscar Pistorius case? (+video)

By StaffCSMonitor.com / 02.21.13

The lead investigator in the Oscar Pistorius murder case has been replaced. Why? Detective Hilton Botha himself now faces charges of attempted murder.

Yes, the detective investigating the murder of Reeve Steenkamp had attempted murder charges reinstated on Feb. 4 – some 10 days before the Pistorius case. Botha and two other police officers face seven counts of attempted murder in a 2011 shooting incident. The drunk policemen allegedly fired at a minibus they were trying to stop.

In an attempt to rebound from this setback, South Africa's National Police Commission Riah Phiyega said Thursday that a team of "highly skilled and experienced' detectives will now take over the investigation. South African Olympic runner Pistorius faces a premeditated murder charge for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva SteenKamp.

But this sudden removal of Botha, in addition to his testimony during three days of bail hearings, is raising questions not only about the quality of the prosecution's case but the effectiveness of South Africa's judicial system.

During Thursday's bail hearing, Pistorius's defense attorney Barry Roux cast doubt on the version of events given by Botha on previous days.  Prosecutors claimed Steenkamp had fled to the bathroom after a fight, fearing an enraged Pistorius. But Pistorius's version of events was that she had gone to the bathroom to relieve herself, and he didn't know it was her behind the door when he fired the gun four times. He thought she was an intruder.

On Thursday, Botha conceded that the angle of the shots was consistent with Pistorius's version of events.

As The Guardian live blog on the case reported:

"Defence lawyer Barry Roux said that Steenkamp’s bladder was empty when she died, indicating she had indeed got up to use the toilet. Usually at 3am you would not find an empty bladder, Roux said. Roux said Steenkamp’s autopsy showed no sign of defensive wounds or an assault. Botha said that was correct. Roux said that Steenkamp might have locked the toilet door to protect herself when she heard Pistorius shouting that there was a burglar. And he said that Botha could not say for sure that the shots were fired from 1.5m away and at the angle he described – and Botha admitted he couldn’t be sure about that. Roux also criticised Botha’s handling of the crime scene, saying the police had failed to find a bullet cartridge and that Botha had walked in to the house without protective feet covers on, contaminating the scene."

And there were other mistakes that came to light on Wednesday, as The Christian Science Monitor reported, "Police ... left a 9 mm slug from the barrage that killed Reeva Steenkamp inside a toilet and lost track of illegal ammunition found inside the house."

"Unfortunately there are too many instances of poor police work," Gerhard Kemp, a professor of criminal law at the University of Stellenbosch, told Reuters. "It's absolutely not CSI. It's a totally different world."

On Thursday, Desmond Nair, the magistrate in charge of the bail hearing, also raised questions about the competence of Botha's work, asking why the police hadn't acquired Steenkamp's phone records yet.

"Do you agree that [if] the deceased received SMSs or Phonecalls at 3 a.m., would it change the position of case?" the judge asked.

Pistorius's attroney, Roux pressed his advantage Thursday. "The poor quality of the evidence offered by investigative officer Botha exposed the disastrous shortcomings of the state's case," Roux said. "We cannot sit back and take comfort that he [Botha] is telling the truth."

Asked about Botha's court performance and handling of the investigation, National Police Commission Phiyega said South Africa's police force "can stand on its own" compared to others around the world, according to The Associated Press.

And Reuters reports:

With huge international media interest in the case against a global celebrity, many South Africans feel that apparent initial slip-ups by the police are hurting the country's image.

"Bring someone from outside to sort out this mess," said businessman Godfrey Baloyi. "The whole justice system needs an overhaul."

The bail hearing in Pretoria is scheduled to continue on Friday.

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