as a weekly practice I listen to npr and do a little sketch on one of the stories. take a look, you can click on the illustration to make it bigger!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

After 50 Years, Space Monkeys Not Forgotten

· In Huntsville, Ala., there is an unusual grave site where, instead of flowers, people sometimes leave bananas.

The gravestone reads: "Miss Baker, squirrel monkey, first U.S. animal to fly in space and return alive. May 28, 1959."

Fifty years ago, when Baker made her famous flight, she had some company in the nose cone of the Jupiter ballistic missile: a rhesus monkey named Able.

Able and Baker were shot about 360 miles up into space and experienced about nine minutes of weightlessness. Their safe return occurred two years before any humans flew into space, and it made them huge celebrities.

The monkeys appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and at a press conference, news correspondents "pushed each other and clambered over chairs to get closer," reported The New York Times.

Meanwhile, the newspaper noted, "the monkeys were far less excited than the humans. They munched peanuts and crackers."

Early Space Travelers

Able and Baker were not the first living creatures to return to Earth alive from space, although that myth seems to be out there, says Chris Dubbs, co-author of the book Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle.

In 1947, the United States sent up fruit flies, which were the first living things to travel into space, Dubbs says. "And then they started sending monkeys."

America's first attempt to send up a monkey was in 1948. For over a decade, all monkey flights failed for one reason or another, Dubbs says.

In one case, the rocket exploded. Another monkey died on impact when its parachute failed. After another parachute failure, a monkey plummeted into the sea and was never recovered. One monkey mission saw the animals return home safely, but their vehicle hadn't traveled high enough for them to actually reach space.

Meanwhile, the Soviets were sending up dogs and having success bringing them back alive from suborbital flights, Dubbs says. At least 30 of those animals returned alive.

The first animal who actually orbited the planet was a dog named Laika, though she did not survive the entire flight. She was launched in 1957 in Sputnik 2.

"Americans were aware of this," Dubbs says, "and the space race was clearly on by the time that Able and Baker came on the scene."

Two Tiny Astronauts

Able was a rhesus monkey, and Baker was a much smaller squirrel monkey.

Because the rhesus monkey is revered by some in India, U.S. officials stressed that Able had been born not in India, but in Independence, Kan.

The monkeys' missile blasted off in the early morning hours from Cape Canaveral and traveled 1,700 miles in 16 minutes, reaching an altitude of about 360 miles.

The bright missile lit up the dark sky, says Joseph Guion, who commanded the Navy vessel USS Kiowa that retrieved the monkeys.

"You could read a newspaper on the bridge of the ship, it was so bright," he says. "The nose cone arced down, almost like a shooting star, down toward the water. It just came down very rapidly and — boom — it was gone."

He and his crew at first thought it had sunk. But then a lookout spotted the nose cone bobbing in the water, and they struggled to get it on board.

Military personnel on the ship checked on the monkeys and then sent out a message: "Able Baker perfect. No injuries or other difficulties."

Guion says he was floored to see how tiny Baker's capsule was.

"It was about the size of a large thermos bottle," he says, recalling that Baker was "extremely easy to talk to and hold. She was like a little doll. Able was just the opposite. You could not get near her."

The two monkeys were taken to the officer's wardroom, where air conditioning had been installed for their comfort. Later, they were flown to Washington, D.C., under military escort, for the press conference.

A Hundred Letters A Day

Unfortunately, Able died just a few days later, during a medical procedure to remove an electrode. Her stuffed body is on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

But Baker lived another 25 years, mostly at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

"She would get 100 to 150 letters a day from schoolchildren," says Ed Buckbee, a former director of the center. Children read about her in textbooks and wanted to say hello. "She was very prominent in the story of our early spaceflight ventures."

The pioneering monkeys weren't forgotten, even after the first humans reached space in 1961.

More than 300 people attended Baker's funeral service when she died of kidney failure in 1984, Buckbee says.

And, he says, often at her grave at the entrance to the rocket center, "you'll see a banana or two laying there. You know, some youngster brought it or somebody heard the story and wanted to leave something in memory, kind of like leaving flowers over a person's grave."

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sotomayor: 'Always Looking Over My Shoulder'

Judge Sonia Sotomayor is a self-described "Newyorkrican," the daughter of parents who moved from Puerto Rico to the Bronx. In speeches to Latino groups, she has echoed some of the same themes as President Obama about growing up as a minority and feeling she never completely fit in anywhere.

"I am always looking over my shoulder, wondering if I measure up," she has said.

Sotomayor, 54, was nominated by Obama Tuesday to replace retiring Justice David Souter. If confirmed, she will be the first Hispanic justice — and third woman — to serve on the nation's highest court. As a judge, Sotomayor has earned praise for being thoroughly prepared and for her penetrating questioning, though some have described her courtroom style as overly aggressive. In announcing his choice, Obama praised her "rigorous intellect" and called her an "inspiring" woman with a "depth of perspective."

A Childhood In The Bronx

Sotomayor was raised in the New York City borough of The Bronx. She was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 8. Her father, a factory worker with a third-grade education who did not speak English, died a year later. Her mother, a nurse, raised her two children in a Bronx housing project near Yankee Stadium, working six days a week to send Sonia and her brother to Catholic school.

Sotomayor has recalled how her mother always kept a pot of rice and beans on the stove for friends, and how her family had the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood.

It was as a child that Sotomayor became intrigued by the law. She first wanted to be a police detective, inspired by Nancy Drew mysteries. But a doctor suggested that would be difficult with diabetes. So Sotomayor settled on being a judge instead, after watching an episode of the popular TV show Perry Mason.

"I realized that the judge was the most important player in that room," she said.

Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University and then Yale Law School. She has described her time at Princeton as life-changing, like "a visitor landing in an alien country," and said she was too intimidated to ask any questions the first year. Sotomayor married while in college, then divorced a few years later.

Judicial Experience

Obama administration officials say Sotomayor would bring more judicial experience to the Supreme Court than any justice confirmed in the past 70 years. She has worked in Manhattan as a prosecutor and then an attorney and has spent the past 17 years as a judge.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Sotomayor as a judge on the U.S. District Court in New York, making her the youngest judge in that district. She won Senate confirmation without dissent. But that wasn't the case in 1998, when President Bill Clinton named her to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Republicans delayed her confirmation for more than a year, in part because they believed that as a Hispanic she could well be chosen later for the Supreme Court. She was eventually confirmed, 67-29.

As Obama noted in his remarks Tuesday, one of Sotomayor's most famous rulings earned her gratitude from baseball fans, when she ended a Major League Baseball strike in 1995. "Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball," Obama said to applause. A lifelong fan of the game, she described her decision as being like "when you see an outfielder backpedaling and jumping up to the wall and time stops for an instant as he jumps up and you finally figure out whether it's a home run, a double or a single off the wall or an out."

Sotomayor also sided last year with the city of New Haven, Conn., in a discrimination case brought by white firefighters. After too few minorities scored high enough on a promotion exam, the city threw out the results. Conservatives have criticized that ruling and the case is, ironically, now before the Supreme Court.

The conservative Judicial Confirmation Network calls Sotomayor a "liberal judicial activist of the first order." Many expect that, like Souter, she would routinely side with the court's four-member liberal minority.

But not all her rulings can be so neatly categorized. In 2002, Sotomayor ruled against an abortion rights group that had challenged a federal policy prohibiting the denial of U.S. funds to foreign groups that supported abortion. In her opinion, Sotomayor wrote that the government was free to favor the anti-abortion position if it chose.

In other high-profile rulings, she ruled that The Wall Street Journal had the right to publish the suicide note of former Clinton White House aide Vincent Foster, and she ruled against a state prison regulation that prevented people from wearing beads to thwart evil spirits. She also allowed the display of a 9-foot-tall menorah in a suburban park.

A First For Hispanics

Until now, some Hispanics had been disappointed in Obama's failure to appoint more Latinos to his Cabinet and other high offices. But the nomination of Sotomayor may go a long way to assuage that.

Hispanics turned out in huge numbers for Obama in last fall's election, and they are the nation's fastest-growing minority. Sotomayor has spoken publicly about her pride in being Latina and admitted that it no doubt affects how she views cases from the bench.

"I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging," she said in a speech in 2002, "but I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."

-excerpt from npr

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A California Town Squeezes Water From A Drought

Tips From Bolinas-Stinson Elementary School

NPR.org, May 22, 2009 · 1. Put a bucket in the shower and use that to flush the toilet. — Orie Young

2. Don't leave faucets running while you're brushing your teeth. — Mara Kauffman-Puchall

3. I bring a water bottle to school because when you drink out of the drinking fountain, 25 percent of the water goes down the drain. — Ryder Wood

4. We fill up something in the sink with water and put soap in it and wash all the dishes in that. — Orie Young

5. Fill your dishwasher completely before starting it. — Eric Bell

6. If it's yellow let it mellow, if it's brown flush it down. — Ibarra Demmerle

7. At home, don't turn the faucet on full when you wash your hands. — Melea Emunah

8. My family puts coolers (or buckets) under the shower until the water gets warm and then we use that water to water the plants. — Zoe Zaleski

9. Clean your driveway with a broom instead of a hose. — Ariana Trubeyagnew

10. Wash your bikes less. — Eric Bell

11. This was a really hard thing for me to do, but I did it anyway. I took five minute showers instead of 11 minutes.

— Mariah Rose-Ives

12. Just shower when you need to. — Owen Bisson

13. A lot of people use way too much water when they're watering their garden. We got a new garden right around the time the drought started, so we couldn't use that much water to water our garden. Nothing really happened. The garden survived. — Ryder Wood

California is in the third year of a drought, and many cities and towns are calling for various forms of water rations. But the northern California coastal community of Bolinas had to learn water conservation the really hard way. That's because the town almost dried up earlier this year. The beginning of the rainy season turned into one of the driest winter periods on record for Bolinas. Every day, Bill Pierce, a 25-year veteran of the Bolinas Community Public Utility District, checked the town's main water source, the Arroyo Hondo Creek. But all he could do was pray for rain.

It's not easy finding the creek that slakes the village thirst. You drive up a narrow Jeep trail, then walk through dense stands of old growth Douglas fir until you stop in a clearing. It looks like an old swimming hole, 20 feet wide, about 28 feet long and 3 feet deep. It was created in the 1920s by a dam, only 15 feet wide. During those dry months, Pierce watched the creek flow dwindle to a trickle, when it should have been roaring. By the end of January, the town had completely drained one of its two emergency reservoirs. "We're in deep trouble here," Pierce finally realized. "Basically we were out of water, we just hadn't consumed it all yet."

Pierce figured, without any new rain, Bolinas would run out of water by the end of April. So he calculated the amount of water available, which needed to be spread out over 300 days until the next big rains were expected. And then he divided that number by the 600 households in town. He came up with 150 gallons per day per house. The average U.S. household of four uses about 400 gallons a day. Bolinas was already pretty good about water use, coming in below the national average. But now, residents had to be even more careful. Mandatory rationing went into effect immediately. It required that every household (or water hook up) use 150 gallons a day or less, regardless of how many people it supported. All businesses and the town's only school were told to cut usage by 25 percent, which is the more standard way of rationing.

Home meters were checked randomly every day. If you went over the limit, you got a written notice. You were allowed only two. The third time, your water could be shut off. That's pretty harsh. But Pierce says, "There's only so much water. We've never been here before. This is new ground for us. It's new ground for most water districts, everywhere." Before the rationing kicked in, a personal notification went out to every home that was already using more than the rationed amount, including the Zimmer-Demmerle family. "I was surprised because not everybody got the letter, hand delivered, to their house and we were one of them," says Maud Zimmer. Zimmer, her husband Bob Demmerle, and their two daughters, 9-year-old Ibarra and 5-year-old Zetana live in a house Demmerle built with water conservation in mind. They have low-flow toilets and a front-loader washing machine. But that wasn't enough. "I realized we were going to have to change," says Zimmer.

So the family started to watch every drop of water. Most of it was just common sense. Dirty dishes were soaked in a bucket of soapy water in the sink during the day. Water was turned off in the act of brushing teeth. Showers were shortened. Ibarra easily recites this saying, when asked about toilet flushing: "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down."

For the garden (filled mostly with low-water plants) Demmerle bought old olive barrels and placed them at all the roof downspouts. When rain finally did come, he was able to catch rainwater to nurture the garden. He covers all the barrels with screw-on tops and then transfers the water to a 1,500-gallon water tank. But most importantly, the family began to read the water meter, something few Americans ever do. Demmerle and the family walk outside to the front yard to show off the meter. First, Demmerle takes off the cement lid and points to the dial. It's in cubic feet. Many Bolinas residents have learned to make the conversion. If they use 20 cubic feet a day, they know that's equivalent to 150 gallons.

"I came out for about 35 days in a row and read the meter every morning," Demmerle says. Before that, he knew his meter was there, but never looked at it. "It's embarrassing," he says. "Mostly our family was letting water run down the drain." During rationing the Zimmer Demmerles dropped below the minimum. But now Demmerle is worried.

"We stopped reading the meter," he admits, because the rationing was lifted after some late rains restored the reservoir. Now the town is in voluntary conservation mode. "And I'm wondering if we're getting a little sloppy with our water use," he says.
The Zimmer Demmerles needn't worry. The utility district tells us they're now using 100 gallons less a day from the same period last year. While the ration was in effect, the town was 98 percent compliant. And since restrictions were lifted in mid-March, residents on average are keeping just below the ration amount.

That's very encouraging. But Seth Klein, who works for the utility district, says the town only had a reprieve with some late winter rains. He worries that if there's a major water main break or fire, the storage tanks could drain. "We're really one emergency away from a major crisis." Bolinas' best investment in protecting its future water supply may be its children. During the rationing, the elementary school reduced its usage by more than 35 percent, and it's stayed that way. The students made graphs about water conservation and posters with reminders to turn off faucets and flush less, even at school. They took field trips to the town's water source and its two emergency reservoirs. They talked about things they can do to save water, too, and compiled a list of tips on how to save.

Principal Leo Kostelnik posted the school's water usage by the bathrooms every day. He says the students got a good lesson when a tour group of 11 people dropped by for a bathroom pit stop. "In about 15 minutes they used more water than we use in two days," he says. "We're a public school," Kostelnik continues. "We understand that we're raising a generation of future citizens who are going to be running the place for us. And we want to help the kids understand that water conservation isn't a reaction to an emergency, it's a way of life."

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Senate Democrats Pull Funds To Close Guantanamo

Funding for closing down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba is being removed from the 2009 supplemental appropriations bill, a senior Senate Democratic leadership aide has confirmed to NPR. The Senate Appropriations Committee had included $50 million in the supplemental bill last week for the Guantanamo shutdown, while stipulating that such funding would become available only once President Obama had submitted a detailed plan for closing the facility and relocating inmates.

Senate Republicans have made the lack of a plan for closing Guantanamo and the prospect of inmates being sent to the U.S. a major point of attack over the past month. Senate Democrats themselves are divided over whether any prisoners should be sent to the U.S. Their decision to pull the funding just as the Senate was set to begin debate on the supplemental bill reflects a desire to avoid a floor fight over an issue that Republicans have successfully used as a wedge among Democrats and between Congress and the Obama administration.

The House did not include any of the $80 million that Obama requested for closing down Guantanamo in the House-approved version of the supplemental bill. The decision to pull the funding leaves Obama with three choices. He can veto the supplemental bill to pressure Congress to reverse its position; he can try to move ahead with his goal of closing Guanatanamo by Jan. 22, 2010, using funds from other sources; or he can reverse his decision to close the facility.

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

New York Tackles Wage Theft Against Immigrants

On a bustling sidewalk in the Dominican neighborhood of New York City's Washington Heights, Carmen Calderon reaches over a folding table to wave a pamphlet at a sandwich delivery man, shouting in Spanish, "You know your rights as a worker?" The man smiles and keeps biking. But in the course of an afternoon Calderon manages to lure others and deliver her message, part of a new effort by New York State's Labor Department to combat wage theft among this city's enormous immigrant workforce.

Calderon says it's amazing what immigrants don't know about: the minimum wage, overtime, lunch breaks or that labor laws apply to them even if they're in the U.S. illegally. Several people stop to confide about bad treatment at work, but want to know if they'll be deported if they complain. Even if they're legal, Calderon says, typically humble immigrants are unlikely to report abuse. "They don't want to ruffle any feathers," she says. "It's like, 'Wow, he's doing me a favor, he gave me a job.' But they don't realize they're being abused by the person supposedly doing them the favor."

With the foreign-born making up half of New York's work force, labor officials say wage and hour violations are stunningly widespread, from upscale restaurants where bathroom attendants are paid only in tips, to the city's car washes, where inspectors last year found three-quarters did not pay minimum wage or overtime.

Faced with such an overwhelming problem, the Labor Department has joined forces with immigrant advocacy groups for what they call "wage watch" — an approach taken straight from the concept of Neighborhood Watches.

On a cool evening, four teams of state investigators descend on the tony neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn. They no longer wait to respond to complaints. Instead, clipboards in hand, they're paying surprise visits to 22 restaurants. They scope out any basement exits first and post a member outside; this is in case kitchen workers mistake them for immigration agents and try to flee. At a family-friendly chicken place, one team heads inside and investigator Aristoteles Rodriguez slides his department ID across the counter.

"I work for the New York State Department of Labor," he tells the cashier. "We're basically conducting an investigation of your business, and we need to speak with some of your employees." The cashier looks wary and picks up the phone to call the manager. A few customers near the front window don't seem to notice anything. Rodriguez heads to the back bar to start interviewing waitstaff. "Sunday, what time do you come in?" he asks a nervous looking young man.

Rodriguez goes through each day of the week, asking about hours worked and then pay. The man says he gets $25 for an eight-hour shift, less than half of New York's minimum wage for waiters. He also works several 12-hour days, but says he gets no overtime.

Deputy Labor Commissioner Terri Gerstein has come along on this sweep, something she's been doing every couple of months as the department takes its more aggressive approach. On the sidewalk out front, an employee tells her he is paid in cash and describes a grueling workweek of more than 80 hours. "How many days off do you have?" Gerstein asks.

"I don't have time off," he says with a slight hint of indignation. "The only rest I get is three hours at most," once a week. The interview suddenly ends as the restaurant manager arrives, asking, "What's the problem?" Some workers scurry inside while others come out to watch. Gerstein explains they're investigating a number of restaurants in Brooklyn and after a tense exchange takes down his name and hands him her card. Then she adds, "I also just want to make sure you know it's against the law to retaliate against workers for talking to us."

The manager, Fernando Tisoc, says his accountant will call to clear up any problems. Later, he tells NPR his workers' tips make up for their low hourly pay. He insists the restaurant isn't breaking any laws, though says he isn't aware of any provision on overtime pay. After the sweep, labor officials will decide which restaurants to formally audit. They used to investigate individual employees' allegations, only to see some workers fired. Now, Labor Commissioner Patricia Smith says her department works hard to protect the identities of those who claim abuse.

"So we will go in and we will audit the whole establishment, so that the employer is much less likely to know who, if anyone, complained," she says. The department has also asked for higher penalties against businesses that retaliate.

Smith, who took over as New York's labor commissioner two years ago, says that for too long, labor enforcement both in New York and at the federal level was lax. Smith says the challenge isn't only that so many workers are vulnerable immigrants, but that many of their employers are also foreign born and may know little of U.S. labor laws.

"I talk to a lot of employers who are in violation of the law," she says. "And when you ask them what was the story they basically say, 'I bought the store from Joe X, and this is what Joe X did and so this is what I did."

Smith says education is key, and so as part of the Wage Watch program her department has teamed up with Make the Road New York and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Each week local activists in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn make their own workplace visits, handing out pamphlets on labor laws to both management and workers.

They're also on the lookout for possible violations to report to the Labor Department. Nieves Padilla of Make the Road New York says she can gather tips better than any labor department official. She knows this neighborhood, and everyone knows her.

"Even if I'm just in a store to buy something, all the managers think I'm investigating," says Padilla. "They say, 'Ah, here's the troublemaker!' They follow me around and try to keep me away from their employees. But the workers know me too, and actually, we have a way of communicating without even speaking."

Padilla demonstrates this knack in a health and beauty store, where one employee seems too nervous to talk with her manager nearby. As the woman watches, Padilla strolls into an aisle, slips a workers rights pamphlet between boxes of hair color and then leaves. The employee gives her a smiling glance as she moves to discreetly retrieve the pamphlet. The manager has seen nothing.

New York's Wage Watch is just a few months old, and officials say it's too soon to measure success. But the pilot program is set to expand across the state this summer.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, May 18, 2009

Candy Bar From Mars Aims For Women From Venus

The Snickers bar has a new sibling, and it's a girl.

She's sexual, uninhibited — and only 85 calories. The "Fling" is the first new chocolate bar Mars has introduced in more than 20 years. Wrapped in a shiny pink and sliver package, this delicate "chocolate finger" is intended for women. The word "finger" is an industry term for a long, slim confection, Mars spokesman Ryan Bowling says, but with ads that invite you to "Pleasure yourself" in pink lettering, consumers might come to other conclusions.

The tag line on the package is "Naughty, but not that naughty." A TV spot starts with what looks like strangers having sex in a store dressing room. Currently the candy bar can be bought only California and online, but if all goes well, Mars is hoping women will be having Flings all across the country. But is this hyper-feminine, hyper-sexualized marketing coming on too strong?

"The overall campaign feels weird," Lisa Johnson says. "It feels creepy." Johnson is the co-author of Don't Think Pink: What Really Makes Women Buy — and How to Increase Your Share of This Crucial Market. She describes the marketing as a "full-frontal attack."

"The language of it has so much sexual innuendo, you could pack it into a trashy novel." Johnson says marketers are taking the connection women often make between chocolate and sensuality too literally. "There are other things you can do that can hit this note without banging on it."Bowling says the campaign has been received well so far. Whether the Fling will keep calling itself a "finger," however, remains to be seen.

-excerpt from NPR

"Will the Fling bar be successful? Probably, for a while, based on curiosity alone. But the shadiness of marketing a bar to women who clearly aren't comfortable with food and therefore need to view their candy as a "secret" or something to be incredibly sneaky about is just disappointing and gross, and even if the chocolate below the wrapper is delicious, there's a sense of bad taste that already overwhelms the product. And besides, why have a Fling with a novelty bar when you can have a lifelong relationship with a Snickers? I mean, really."

- excerpt from jezebel.com

Friday, May 15, 2009

Olympic Medalist Michael Phelps Tests The Water

Olympian Michael Phelps is jumping back into competition this weekend. Even non-sports fans were wowed as they watched the swimmer with the 6-foot-7 wingspan dive into the pool at last summer's Beijing Olympics and emerge with eight gold medals.

But after he returned home, the news turned to the photograph of him toking from a marijuana bong and his three-month suspension from the sport.

"He's kind of had a midlife crisis at the age of 23," USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "Since we last saw him, nine months ago when he got out of the pool in Beijing, he's made millions of dollars, he's been photographed ... with the bong and been suspended for three months. One sponsor, Kellogg's, dropped him…. I think there's a tentative feeling about what's next."

And yet, Brennan notes, Phelps said in March that "he wants to go and swim for four more years. It's a very different challenge for someone who is turning 24 next month to go till he's 27 versus what he was doing, of course, as a teenager or in his early 20s."

Phelps' fans should not be disappointed if he loses this weekend — a very real possibility. But Brennan says this weekend's competition is akin to "spring training or early season baseball." She adds that it may be hard for the swimming superstar to stay focused as he shifts from the Cube at the Beijing Olympics to the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center in Charlotte, N.C.

But sports fans shouldn't start the countdown yet — this weekend is merely a training race to get warmed up for the world championships trials in Indianapolis in July and the world championships in Rome later that month. Looming over the Olympian like Big Ben? The 2012 London Olympics.

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Free Lipitor, Viagra, other drugs for jobless

Pfizer Inc. says it will provide 70 of its most widely prescribed prescription drugs — including Lipitor and Viagra — for free to people who have lost their jobs and health insurance. The world's biggest drugmaker said Thursday it will give away the medicines for up to a year to Americans who lost jobs since Jan. 1 and have been on the Pfizer drug for three months or more.

The announcement comes amid massive job losses caused by the recession and a campaign in Washington to rein in health care costs and extend coverage. The move could earn Pfizer some goodwill in that debate after long being a target of critics of drug industry prices and sales practices. The program also likely will help keep those patients loyal to Pfizer brands.

"Everybody knows now a neighbor, a relative who has lost their job and is losing their insurance. People are definitely hurting out there," Dr. Jorge Puente, Pfizer's head of pharmaceuticals outside the U.S. and Europe and a champion of the project, told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Wednesday. "Our aim is to help people bridge this point."

The idea for the program came just five weeks ago, at a leadership training meeting, as the workers discussed how many patients are struggling, Puente said. He said he urged top management to approve the program, presenting a recent Associated Press article about how newly uninsured diabetics are suffering serious complications because they can no longer afford the medicines and testing supplies. Approval came quickly. "It was my idea," he said. "I floated it, and the reception it got was so dramatic that it very quickly became our idea."

Colleagues suggested employees could donate to a fund to help support the effort, Puente said. He said some employees had tears in their eyes when discussing how they could help people who had lost jobs. Officials for New York-based Pfizer said they don't know how much the program will cost and haven't put a cap on spending for it.

Applicants will have to sign a statement that they are suffering financial hardship and provide a "pink slip" or similar employer notice. Applications will be accepted through Dec. 31, with medication provided for up to 12 months after approval — or until the person becomes insured again. Starting Thursday, patients can call a toll-free number, 866-706-2400, to sign up, and those whose drugs are not included in the program will be referred to other company aid programs. Starting July 1, patients can also apply through the Web site, http://www.PfizerHelpfulAnswers.com, which has information about the other Pfizer aid programs.

Pfizer and the rest of the drug industry are trying to have a voice in the debate over how to overhaul the U.S. health care system, partly by joining in a pledge this week to help hold down inflation of health costs. "There's a long-term benefit there, beyond the goodwill and the publicity," said David Heupel, health care portfolio manager at Thrivent Large Cap Growth Fund. "Pfizer is trying to maintain their (market) share, if not grow their share" by keeping people from switching to generic versions of its drugs to save money. "If you're already taking medication that's working, typically doctors don't push to change it," Heupel said.

Pfizer's program comes at a time when many drugmakers, including Pfizer, have been raising prices on their drugs, partly to offset declines in revenue as the global recession reduces the number of prescriptions people can afford to fill. The 70-plus drugs covered in the program include several diabetes drugs and some of Pfizer's top money makers, from cholesterol fighter Lipitor and painkiller Celebrex to fibromyalgia treatment Lyrica and Viagra for impotence. Drugs from several other popular classes such as antibiotics, antidepressants, antifungal treatments, heart mediations, contraceptives and smoking cessation products also are included. Cheaper generic versions are available for quite a few of the drugs. Pfizer said that from 2004 through 2008, its patient assistance programs helped 5.1 million people get 51 million Pfizer prescriptions for free or at reduced cost, with a total value of $4.8 billion.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

gone campin'.

check back tomorrow!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Airline Going To The Dogs ... And Cats, Too

Think your Fido or Boots deserves more respect when traveling? So do the founders of Pet Airways, who are launching their pets-only airline in July. All animals that fly will be called "pawsengers" and have a pet attendant to ease their travel, says airline co-founder Alysa Binder.

Pet Airways will start out in five cities — Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Chicago and Denver. The animals will fly on Beechcraft planes, constructed for 19 human passengers, Binder tells Renee Montagne. All the people comforts have been torn out and reconfigured with pet carriers. There are sections for cats and dogs, but there's no first class. When asked how she plans to manage in this economy, Binder says, "Folks are still going on vacation and would like to take their pets — maybe they're going to Grandma's house."

And, she notes, "In this economy, there's a lot of pet parents that are being relocated … so they need to take their pet."

Fares start at $149 each way — water and food included.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, May 11, 2009

Astronauts To Give Hubble One Last Hug

The Hubble Space Telescope is about to get a long-awaited makeover, as NASA astronauts head out on a final mission to repair the aging but beloved observatory. Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off Monday just after 2 p.m. ET. Atlantis is carrying with it 180 special tools — 116 of them designed just for this mission, which involves tricky repairs to two science instruments that were never intended to be fixed in space. The famous silver telescope hasn't been visited by an astronaut repair crew in more than seven years, and some of its instruments have started failing, diminishing the science it can do.

"I liken this to the situation of a champion athlete who is playing hurt, who has an injury, is playing through the pain, still doing very well, but now, by golly, it's time to go off, get our surgery, and get back to 100 percent," says David Leckrone, senior project scientist for Hubble at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Actually, he says, after this mission, Hubble will be even better than 100 percent: The 19-year-old telescope will be more powerful than it has ever been before. Astronauts will go on five spacewalks to install new science instruments, repair old ones and replace key items like batteries and gyroscopes.

The Most Devastating Day

This mission to Hubble was originally supposed to have happened back in 2004. But in 2003, space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth, killing the astronauts on board. "We were mourning, but then, beyond mourning, looking ahead, what did that mean for the future of Hubble and our servicing mission?" Leckrone says. "We figured, well, it would cause a two- to three-year postponement, probably." Instead of a delay, NASA's chief decided that astronauts were never going to Hubble again.

"To be told by Administrator [Sean] O'Keefe that he didn't think it was safe enough to do this mission, and he canceled it, was about the most devastating day I've ever had in my life," Leckrone says. Without routine maintenance, Hubble slowly breaks down in the harsh environment of space. Researchers didn't want to lose one of the most famous science instruments ever — one that has transformed their view of the universe. "I don't want to seem arrogant, but I truly believe that a hundred years from now, people will still remember Hubble and what it did," Leckrone says. The science community spent about a year thinking about a repair robot. That idea got the ax, too. But finally, the next NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, did a careful safety analysis and decided that astronauts could take the space shuttle on this last trip to Hubble. "The adrenalin is pumping far higher than it should be right now," Leckrone says. "We should be calmer."

The Next Generation Telescopes

If all goes well, the upgrades and repairs should keep Hubble going until at least 2014. After that, if it breaks, there won't be another repair mission, says Edward Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate. He says NASA is getting ready to retire the space shuttle program, so NASA will have no way of getting to Hubble. And the agency isn't building any new spare parts. "Nothing is being built for further servicing, because to spend money on that would mean we wouldn't be able to build the next generation telescopes," Weiler says.

For example, NASA is currently building the James Webb Space Telescope, a large new observatory that is scheduled to launch in 2014 and will orbit about a million miles from Earth. "As hard as it is for somebody like me who's worked on Hubble for 31 years to say that, you know, 'You've got to let go,' it's time to let go," Weiler says. "Not now. Not three years from now, hopefully not five years from now, maybe seven or eight or nine years from now."

'Hubble Needs A Hug'

NASA has assembled a dream team of astronauts for the Hubble repair. Three of the seven astronauts who will ride on space shuttle Atlantis have come face-to-face with the telescope before. Astrophysicist John Grunsfeld has been to Hubble twice and is glad to be going again. "Hubble needs a hug, and we're ready to go," he says. He notes that every astronaut who goes to Hubble leaves a mark on the observatory. "Even just putting your hand on the telescope affects the surface coating juts a little bit," he says, "and so you can see handprints and things like that, and so it's clear that people have been working on this telescope."

Another astronaut who will do spacewalks and repair work on this mission, Mike Massimino, says he recently saw a good friend who has worked on the Hubble project for a long time. "He said, 'Make sure, your last time on that telescope, you give it a pat for me,' " Massimino says. So, he will give Hubble a special goodbye pat on behalf of all the people who have worked with it. "I hope that that's going to be in my mind as I'm letting go of the telescope for the last time, my one last handshake with it," Massimino says.

The astronauts will spend about a week with Hubble. One of their chores will be to attach a kind of ring that a future spacecraft can dock with, to pull the telescope out of orbit when its long and celebrated life finally comes to an end.

-excerpt from NPR

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Economic Indicators: Clowns Want To Get Paid Too!

Whatever numbers the marketplace and government reports have been cranking out, Mandy Dalton found one economic indicator that matters to her recently in a newspaper story about the bankruptcy of General Growth Properties.

The paper reported that General Growth, the second-largest mall owner in the country, had filed for bankruptcy. It owed billions of dollars to banks, and $200 to her. Dalton's not a bank. She's a clown, a professional clown.

"I make kids laugh, I fall on my butt for a living," she says. "It's great."

Dalton performed at a family fun day at a General Growth mall near Baltimore. Now, if she wants to get paid, she'll have to stand in line with all the other people who say General Growth owes them money.

She has to decide whether it's worth her time to travel to New York City for the creditors' meeting, "where other people are going to be there for, if not millions, certainly in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, looking for payment. And I'm supposed to go to the judge and say I want my $200?"

For Dalton, that uncollected pay amounts to the cost of a single pair of clown shoes, Clown-so-port's Funky style. Then there are her other expenses, like liability insurance. What if she's juggling a ball, she says, and it ends up hitting someone in the head?

In Florida, Daniel Cross has an indicator of his own, too. His is five — as in five days. Cross designs electronic circuits, and in January his employer announced a round of unpaid time off. What exactly a furlough says about a company's financial state can be hard to interpret. Cross said he was glad he still had his job and he didn't necessarily mind the time off.

"I'm in the middle of a home renovation project," he said then. "We had a plumbing disaster, so this will give me an opportunity to finish that up."

But by April, the office had become a kind of Dilbert cartoon. "The rumor is that our site is going to be closed," Cross said. Management sent around an e-mail asking the staff to maintain good conduct despite the circumstances. Cross reads the e-mail message:

"All, there is no doubt that we are all living in an uncertain and difficult time, but we can not fall into nonprofessional behaviors, and there are things that cannot be tolerated on company property. For example, marker inscriptions in the boardroom about your career moving into smelly places, cardboard resumes in your cube saying will design circuits for food, sarcastic white board messages, etc."

Then Cross' indicator went from five furlough days to infinity. In April, the business closed up shop and he was out of a job.

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Inside The New Flu Virus

A crash effort to analyze the genes of the swine flu virus has revealed that it first emerged in humans last year — most likely last fall. "The consistent range we're getting out is the second half of last year — between June and December," says Oliver Pybus of Oxford University. "The best estimate is the middle of that range, kind of September."

That means the newly recognized virus has been hiding in plain sight for the past eight months or so. Researchers say it probably had been circulating in Mexico and causing disease there, but its presence was masked by cases of regular flu and the absence of lab tests to identify the newcomer.

A Dizzyingly Complex Virus

Genetic analysis of the swine flu virus is proceeding at a furious pace, abetted by the Internet. The research is not only yielding early insights about the virus's lineage and age, but scientists say the work will also be crucial in tracking how the virus is evolving and what sort of threat it may represent over the coming months. Pybus is one of 11 scientists around the world who've been digging through genetic data on thousands of animal and human flu viruses and sharing it with each other on a new swine flu wiki. This is the fastest a new flu virus has ever been identified and placed on a family tree that's dizzyingly complex.

"This has got to be the way this happens from this point forward," says Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona, another member of the spontaneous new collaboration, which includes groups from Hong Kong to Edinburgh and Tucson, Ariz., to Gainesville, Fla.

Where Did The Virus Come From?

The effort has already shed considerable light on where the new-found virus came from and over what period it evolved. Its great-grand-daddy was what flu scientists call a "triple reassortant" — a three-fer virus made up of genes from a seasonal human flu virus of the H3N2 family, a North American bird virus and a classic swine virus.

The three separate viruses got together in a pig somewhere. When all three ancestor viruses infected the same pig cell, that enabled them to swap genes, a trick flu viruses specialize in.

"Pigs are special because they are easily infected with swine viruses, avian viruses and human viruses," says Joan Nichols of the University of Texas in Galveston. "That makes pigs a mixing pot." The pot keeps boiling, genetically speaking, because flu viruses are notoriously mistake-prone as they replicate within a bird or mammalian "host."

"This virus doesn't have a proof-reading mechanism, so it makes a lot of sloppy little mistakes along the way," Nichols says. Some viruses with those "mistakes" survive and thrive because the mutations allow them to spread more efficiently or infect another species. Other mutations cause more severe disease in the virus's hosts.

A Flu Stew

Scientists say the swap meet that gave rise to the newly discovered swine flu virus happened 10 or 20 years ago. That "triple reassortant" spread among swine for years, but it wasn't yet able to spread among people. It acquired that ability only last year, when the old "triple reassortant" combined again with two other pig viruses that circulated in North American and Eurasian swine.

That created the virus that's currently bedeviling the world. The new collaborative group calls it A/California/04/2009 because it was first identified near San Diego in April 2009. It is, in fact, mostly a swine virus with human and bird elements.

Pybus says it really should be called the "gallimaufry" virus. That's a 16th century French word that means "stew" or "hodgepodge."

Finding Clues For Next Flu Season

Scientists will track genetic changes and correlate them with the kinds of disease it causes in the Southern Hemisphere, where the flu season begins this month. So far the swine flu virus has begun to turn up in Costa Rica, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala.

"We're going to be actively monitoring what it does as it moves through the population," says Joan Nichols. "As it turns around and comes back to us in the fall, we'll know much more about it."

If it starts causing severe and fatal disease at a high rate in the Southern Hemisphere, that will be obvious enough. Scientists will quickly analyze viruses from such cases to see if they can identify the genetic changes that correlate with increase virulence.

But unfortunately, the absence of such an obvious signal this summer may not mean the virus won't evolve into a pandemic killer in the fall. That's because researchers know relatively little about the genes that confer virulence.

Jeffrey Taubenberger of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases knows as much about virulence in flu viruses as anyone. He led an effort to reconstruct the killer virus of 1918, which has enabled scientists to probe what made it so dangerous.

Taubenberger says virulence doesn't appear to reside in a particular gene mutation. Instead it comes from the interaction of still-unknown genetic elements, which he calls "a constellation effect."

"Virulence and other behaviors are totally dependent on the overall makeup of the virus," Taubenberger says.

Nichols says the only solution is to watch the newly discovered virus obsessively in the coming months. "Remember," she says, "this virus hasn't stopped. It's just begun."

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Obama, Biden Make A Burger Run

It's like this: When you want a burger, you have to have a burger.

In this state of mind, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden took a short — but wholly noticeable — motorcade ride from the White House to the nearby Virginia suburb of Arlington and pulled into a small, independent burger joint called Ray's Hell Burger.

The two leaders went right up to the counter where the meat was being grilled and ordered. Each fetched cash from his pocket and paid, and then the pair stood like the rest and waited for their number to be called before going to a table.

The restaurant, which prides itself on premium aged 10-ounce burgers, sits in a small strip plaza. The burgers sell for $6.95.

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Lucha VaVoom: A Singular Cinco De Mayo Sensation

“There's wrestlers, and little people in chicken suits, and burlesque dancers changing, and everybody's in their underwear. ... It's as close to vaudeville as I think I'll be able to get, unless I find a time machine.”

Latin culture is big in Los Angeles — and on the eve of Cinco de Mayo, one way some Angelenos are planning to celebrate is with a whole lot of Lucha VaVoom. That's the hybrid name for a vaudeville-flavored variety show that's become something of a local sensation — and whose producers are staging one of the larger Cinco de Mayo celebrations in L.A. It's got two key ingredients. First, Lucha: That refers to lucha libre, the distinctly Mexican brand of freestyle wrestling in which masked contenders fly through the air, bounce off the mat and sometimes spill into the crowd. "We get a little bit hurt out there," says a wrestler who goes by the ring name Cassandro. "It's wrestling. It's not a beauty salon."

Lucha VaVoom's wrestling matches are shorter than traditional bouts in Mexico, largely to make way for the other part of the show, namely the VaVoom: American-style burlesque dancers, wearing tassels, peacock feathers and in one case, a giant cupcake. There's a lot of Old Hollywood and striptease in the burlesque part of the show. The wrestlers and dancers take turns on the stage for the two-hour show. Emcees take turns, too, pumping up the crowd in English and Spanish.

"I love being backstage at the theater," says Dana Gould, one of the English-language emcees. He's a comedian and former writer for TV's The Simpsons. "There's wrestlers and little people in chicken suits, and burlesque dancers changing, and everybody's in their underwear. It's really old-time show business. It's as close to vaudeville as I think I'll be able to get, unless I find a time machine."

What's The Appeal? 'Three Very Primal Things'

The show's co-producer, Liz Fairbairn, agrees. "It incorporates three very primal things," she says. "People get blood-lust, and they get lust-lust, and they laugh." Fairbairn, who works a Hollywood day job as a special-effects costume designer, got the idea for Lucha VaVoom when she dated a Mexican wrestler. She followed him around the lucha libre circuit for the better part of a decade, and she thought an American audience would enjoy the spectacle. Co-producer Rita D'Albert brought in what she called "neo-burlesque," and Lucha VaVoom was born. The American following for Lucha VaVoom does include fans of more traditional lucha libre, but there are a lot thrill-seeking hipsters, rockers and artists in their audiences. It's a mixed crowd, mostly Latino and Anglo, that enjoys cheering heartily and drinking heavily.

That diverse and enthusiastic fan base earned Lucha VaVoom a similarly diverse array of corporate sponsors for the Cinco de Mayo celebration. Banners for El Jimador tequila fly alongside historically Anglo-oriented sponsors such as the L.A. Weekly newspaper, KROQ radio and Miller beer. Porfirio Rodriguez, a Milwaukee-based brand manager for Miller Lite, says events like Lucha VaVoom attract an important slice of the Hispanic market that he calls "biculturals." "They're living in more than one world," Rodriguez explains. "We have to talk to them where they live. If we don't, we run the risk of irrelevance."

Lucha VaVoom fan Nicholas Sauceda, who turned up for a recent Ventura show to snag a seat close to the stage, isn't so worried about the larger cultural and marketing implications of the show. He just loves the wrestling and the dancers. "It takes you away from all the things you have to worry about in life," he explains. Indeed: Lucha VaVoom bills what it offers as sexo y violencia — a tried-and-true hybrid for hard times. The troupe has already taken its act to Amsterdam and San Francisco; now, producers are looking to secure the L.A.-based outfit a second home.

In — where else? — Las Vegas.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, May 4, 2009

Home Alone: Is Your Tween Ready?

Experts say there's no one-size-fits-all recommendation on the appropriate age to begin leaving adolescents home alone. "There's terrific variation in maturity among kids," says William L. Coleman, professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. If you look to the law for guidance, there are only a few states that set a minimum age for leaving children home alone. In Maryland, "a person has to be 8 years old or older to be left alone," says Lt. Paul Starks of the Montgomery County Police Department. Illinois has a similar law. Yet social norms suggest most parents are not comfortable leaving second- or third-graders home without an adult. In a University of Michigan survey, most parents said it was appropriate to leave children aged 11-12 home alone.

Ground Rules

Brian Ott, a 14-year-old ninth-grader who lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C., commutes to high school by himself using public transportation. He's accustomed to the independence now, he says, but when he first began staying home alone in the afternoons two years ago, it was for short periods of time. "My mom came home by about 5:30 or so," he says. And he had clear ground rules:

— A mandatory phone call to his mom when he arrived home.
— No friends in the house when his parents were not there.
— No video games until his homework was finished.

His mother says that when he continued to make good grades, it gave her comfort that he could handle the freedom. "If his grades were going down," says Margie Ott, "I would have to take some of that away." She recalls lots of conversations with parents of Brian's peers, and many discussions with friends and neighbors on the topic. "My mom was a stay-at-home mom until I was 13," Ott says. "And there were lots of other moms home. So the neighborhood homes were a little more tightknit back then." So, she says, she was a little more anxious when it came time to leave her kids home alone. There are also the threats within the home, such as access to the Internet. But passwords on the home computer helped limit her son's Internet access. "I did catch him changing the password," says Ott. "So I changed it back and limited access." Experts say devices to track screen time or set allowances can be useful, too. Child development experts say Ott is doing many of the right things. She's keeping lines of communication with her son open, clearly articulating her expectations, and also realizing that part of an adolescent's job is to push.

Risky Business

The conundrum for many parents is that they want to trust their kids to be home alone, yet many recall from their own teen years that inevitable tug toward the forbidden. "They're looking for trouble, and exploring and pushing boundaries" says pediatrician Coleman. "That's normal." It's important for parents to recognize that there's a lot of variability among kids.

Some will push the boundaries in reckless, dangerous ways, like experimenting with sex and drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System says that more than 75 percent of high school students have experimented with alcohol, 38 percent report that they've tried marijuana, and 48 percent have had sex. Coleman says the developing brain tends to get a little reward for risky business. "Getting that rush of adrenaline, and then talking about it to your friends," says Coleman, "that's huge." Coleman says one thing that's helpful for parents in trying to decide whether their kid is ready to be home alone is to figure out where on that scale of risk-taking and responsibility their child might fall.

30 Minutes To Start

Some experts recommend that parents start with some 30-minute trial runs. "Then come back and debrief," and talk about any safety concerns, says Matt Davis, a University of Michigan pediatrician. Simple steps such as knowing neighbors' phone numbers and reviewing emergency procedures are important. And experts say it's also a good idea for parents to establish logical consequences for good and bad behavior in their absence. Ninth-grader Brian Ott says the more he shows his mom he can handle being on his own, the more space she gives him. "When I first started staying home alone, I wasn't allowed to leave the house until my mom got home," says Brian. "Now I can, if I tell her." Margie Ott says she routinely finds herself saying to Brian, "I want to be part of your life. I don't want to control your life, but I want to know what's going on." And increasingly, as trust builds, she says she feels more confident about the freedom that comes with being home alone. It's hard to let go, says Ott. "But it's nice to see that maturity."

-excerpt from NPR