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!

Monday, May 3, 2010

In London, A Stirring 'War Horse' Of A Drama

In London, a drama adapted from a children's book took the theater world by storm when it premiered at the National Theatre in 2007 — and it's been enough of a hit in its current commercial run in the West End that a visit to New York's Lincoln Center is in the works. Set during World War I, War Horse is the story of a boy, Albert, and the farm horse he raises from a foal. Book and play alike track the two from the bucolic English countryside to the bloody battlefields of France, through the cataclysmic events of the Great War.

The book, though, is narrated not by Albert, but by Joey — the horse — who details his adventures for the reader. That made for some challenges when it came to bringing War Horse to the stage. In fact, playwright Nick Stafford's version is a very different animal from the book, according to two of the performers who help create the character of Joey.

"The horse was never going to talk," says Matthew Burgess.

And that's how Burgess and his colleague Toby Olie — both puppeteers — came to be involved.

'It Had To Be Done Visually'

The challenge was to create a believable character, to get the audience to invest emotionally in Joey's journey, without tipping over into pantomime — or indulging the anthropomorphic impulse.

"It had to be something that was done visually," Burgess says.

What they've done visually sent London's critics and audiences into raptures. The puppets are wondrous — life-sized, made of cane and canvas and metal, designed by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa and each manipulated by a team of puppeteers. They gallop and trot, snort and whinny, carry human riders into battle. They're at once highly realistic and completely theatrical.

"What's exciting about it is, you are aware of ... the human machinery, as it were, that's helping bring these animals to life," says Matt Wolf, critic for the International Herald Tribune.

Creating the illusion is complicated. Each puppet weighs well over 100 pounds without a rider, and it takes three operators to bring each one to life. Burgess plays what he and his colleagues call Joey's "heart."

"We have the 'head' — who is outside the horse — the 'heart' and the 'hind,' " he explains. "The heart being the front legs, and the hind being the back legs, [both] inside the horse."

Adrian Kohler, co-founder of the company that made War Horse's puppets, uses the techniques and tools of shipbuilding — his father was a shipwright — to build his creations.
The movement of ears and head, the flicking of a tail, the stamping of the hooves — these all communicate a horse's emotions. The puppeteers spent a great deal of time learning about horse behavior, says Olie, who depending on the night is either the head of Joey or that of a thoroughbred cavalry horse, Topthorn.

He ticks off the various ways he and his colleagues did their research: "Two weeks puppet training before rehearsals with the actors start. A lot of YouTube videos. Visits to the King's Troop stables. Monty Roberts, the horse whisperer, came into rehearsals."

And the puppeteers don't just set out to move like a horse. They have sound like a horse: whickering, knickering; whinnies. "Snorty, blowy stuff," as Olie puts it.

After a while, Burgess says, the teams kind of become the horse.

"There are hours of work that we do — predominantly with breath," he says. "Breath is the key to making the team work. ... When we change breath, or we change the rhythm of the breath, we know that the horse has changed its emotional state."

An Emotional Story For Those Steeds To Bear

Of course, none of the work spent getting the horse puppets to behave like horses would mean anything without an emotional story to tell around them. Robert Emms plays Albert, the boy who loves his horse so much that he runs away to join the Army after his father sells Joey to the British cavalry. Albert — like Joey — learns about the horror of war.

"He goes on a massive emotional journey to find the horse again," Emms says. "It's not a happy ending, by any means. ... They've both been scarred."

Yet Albert, Emms insists, is a symbol of hope and courage. His faith that he'll locate Joey gets tested severely on the battlefield, but it doesn't falter. And he makes real sacrifices to pursue that reunion.

"I know that sounds incredibly corny," Emms says. "But it's one reason that the show, for me, every night is a joy to do."

Albert's sacrifices aren't the only ones the story honors and mourns. World War I marked a pivotal point in the evolution of warfare. Mounted cavalry began to disappear, and trench warfare and tanks increasingly made their mark. Horses became more and more redundant, and animals like Joey saw their roles reduced to beasts of burden. And still they died.

"Eight million horses died during the first World War," says puppeteer Matthew Burgess. "And that shouldn't be forgotten."

If War Horse has anything to do with it, London audiences — and starting next March, their counterparts in New York — will remember it for a long time to come.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Life Without Fear

The drama class had just gotten out, and everybody was standing around talking when Jessica noticed her 9-year-old, Isabelle, making her way over to an elderly woman Jessica had never seen. The woman was neatly dressed, most likely just a well-meaning suburban grandmother who had come to retrieve a grandchild on behalf of an over-extended parent, most likely a perfectly harmless person.

Isabelle, as she usually did, exchanged hellos and struck up a conversation. It was the usual post-drama-class conversation until about two minutes in. Then Isabelle dropped the bomb.

"Will you take me? Can I go home with you?" Jessica heard Isabelle plead.

Driven To Trust

Jessica's daughter, Isabelle, has Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder with a number of symptoms. Children with Williams are often physically small and frequently have developmental delays. But also, kids and adults with Williams love people, and they are literally pathologically trusting. They have no social fear. Researchers theorize that this is probably because of a problem in their limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion. There appears to be a disregulation in one of the chemicals (oxytocin) that signals when to trust and when to distrust.

This means that it is essentially biologically impossible for kids like Isabelle to distrust. (NPR is not using full names in this story for privacy and safety reasons.)

"They don't have that kind of evolutionary thing that other kids have, that little twinge of anxiety like, 'Who is this person? What should I do here?' " Jessica explains. "They just don't have it. She just doesn't have that ... early-warning system."

For Jessica, there are good and bad things about parenting a child with this kind of personality.

For instance, when Isabelle was younger, she was chronically happy. She smiled at anything. She loved everyone: family, friends, strangers. She reached for them all, and, in return, everyone loved her. Strangers would stop Jessica to tell about how adorably loving Isabelle was.

In those days, Jessica says, she and her family were more or less tolerant of Isabelle's trusting and loving nature. "We would try to restrain her, but it was somewhat half-heartedly, because we didn't want to embarrass her by calling her on the carpet about how open she was," Jessica says.

The Danger Of Unconditional Trust

But as Isabelle got older, the negative side of her trusting nature began to play a larger role. A typical example happened a couple of years ago, when Jessica and her family were spending the day at the beach. Isabelle had been begging Jessica to go to Dairy Queen, and Jessica had been putting her off. Then Isabelle overheard a lady just down the beach.

EnlargeJesse Neider for NPR
Isabelle practices training the family dog, "Betsy," with her dad.
"She was telling her kids, 'OK, let's go to the Dairy Queen,' " Jessica says. "And so Isabelle went over and got into the lady's van, got in the back seat, buckled up and was waiting to be taken to Dairy Queen with that family."

Jessica had no idea what had happened to Isabelle and was frantically searching for her when the driver of the van approached her and explained that she had been starting her car when she looked up and saw Isabelle's face in the rearview mirror.

The woman, Jessica says, was incredibly angry.

"She said, 'I am a stranger, you know!' " Jessica says. Essentially, the woman blamed Jessica for not keeping closer watch on her daughter -- for neglecting to teach her the importance of not getting into a car with someone she didn’t know. But the reality could not be more different. "It's like, 'My friend, you have no idea,' " Jessica says.

In fact, because of Isabelle, Jessica has had to rethink even the most basic elements of her day-to-day life. She can not take Isabelle to the dog park. She tries not to take Isabelle to the store. And when the doorbell rings, Jessica will leap over a coffee table to intercept her.

It's not just Jessica and her family who must be vigilant. Every teacher at Isabelle's public school has been warned. Isabelle is not allowed to tell them that she loves them. Isabelle is not supposed to tell other schoolchildren that she loves them. And there are other restrictions.

"She's not allowed to go to the bathroom alone at her school, because there have been numerous instances of girls with Williams syndrome being molested at school when they were alone in the hallway," Jessica says. "And these are like middle class type schools. So it's a very real problem. And, you know, I'd rather her be overly safe than be on CNN."

Raising A Child With Williams Syndrome

Jessica spoke with me for over an hour in the family's home in their woodsy, suburban neighborhood while we waited for her three children to come home from school. Then, just after I turned off my recorder to take a break, I felt two small arms circle my neck from behind. It was Isabelle. She had crept in from school and was giving me a hug.

I turned around, and quite suddenly, the room was filled with questions. Who was I? What was I doing here? Which TV show did I like? Did I know the Muppets?

Then Isabelle took my microphone in her hands. She had decided to sing me a song:

"You're my friend ... You're my friend in the whole world," she crooned. "You look so nice and so beautiful and so sweet."

When Isabelle speaks, she has a slight nasal slur. She also has some cognitive issues. Though she goes to a regular school and sits in a regular third-grade class, her attention is very jumpy, and she needs aids to help her.

These cognitive issues make Jessica's job more difficult. Jessica has decided that the most important thing for her to do is to teach Isabelle how to distrust. For years, that has been her life project -- a battle pitched against biology itself.

Jessica and her husband have made Isabelle books about how to behave around strangers. They have rented videos, they have bought educational toys. They have modeled the right behaviors, constructed sticker charts and employed every other trick they could possibly think of. But distrust, it seems, is almost impossible to teach their child. Sometimes Isabelle manages to remember not to tell perfect strangers that she loves them. Mostly, she doesn't.

But Jessica is determined. "We just have to restart every time," she says. "It's just what we have to do."

It's what they have to do, Jessica reasons, because she won't be around to protect her daughter forever. And though Isabelle trusts the world completely, the world is not a place worthy of complete trust.

Even in their current life, Jessica says, there are moments when she realizes that she's just an instant away from something terrible.

"We live a very sheltered life, but I can think of times when we were at the pool and I turn around to talk to someone, and I see her practically sitting on some man's lap at the pool, and he looks very uncomfortable," Jessica says. "And I just think: This is not good."

Unconditional Love, And A Mother's Worry

Fortunately, Jessica says, the experts tell her it will eventually get better. She needs to just keep at it. One day, they tell her, Isabelle will be able to learn not to feel distrust, per se, but to master a set of algorithms that will allow her to safely navigate the world. She will learn, for example, not to get into a car with a stranger if she has become lost or disoriented, but to ask some person in a uniform for help instead.

In the meantime, Jessica says there are plenty of rewards to this life -- a life with a child with boundless love and trust.

"She'll ask me, 'So how are you today, my darling?' " Jessica says. "And it just makes you smile."

In fact, late in the afternoon on the day I visited, everyone in the family gathered in the kitchen to eat dinner. Isabelle, who loves music, decided to play a CD.

The CD player stuttered then came to life, and Isabelle approached her father.

"Will you dance with me, my sweetie?" she asked.

Her father picked her up in his arms. He spun her round and round.

-excerpt from npr

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Pollen Count Is At Its Highest In Years

Across the United States, the pollen count is at its highest level in years. Dr. Phillip Gallagher of Allergy and Asthma Associates of Northwestern Pennsylvania talks to Steve Inskeep about why the pollen count is so high, and what people can do to gain some relief.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, April 19, 2010

Anger, Frustration Grow As Travel Crisis Spreads

As air travelers remained stranded Monday across Europe, airlines grounded for fifth day by a volcanic ash cloud said EU officials had made a costly overreaction to the crisis.

At a meeting in Paris, the International Air Transport Association said European transport officials had shown "no coordination and no leadership" during the crisis. Over the weekend, Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines carried out test flights without passengers and reported no damage from the ash eruption originating from a volcano in Iceland.

Heard On Morning Edition
April 19, 2010
Airlines Question Flight Ban Due To Volcanic Ash
[3 min 7 sec]

April 19, 2010
Cost Of Canceled European Flights Adding Up
[1 min 50 sec]

"It's embarrassing, and a European mess," IATA CEO Giovanni Bisignani told The Associated Press. "It took five days to organize a conference call with the ministers of transport and we are losing $200 million per day (and) 750,000 passengers are stranded all over. Does it make sense?"

French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said at a series of meetings on Monday officials would "try to outline corridors, if we can, based on the evolution of the cloud, to allow the reopening of as large a number of flight paths as possible, as quickly as possible and in good security conditions."

However, a senior Western diplomat told the Associated Press that several NATO F-16 fighters suffered engine damage after flying through the volcanic ash cloud. The official declined to provide more details on the military flights, except to say that glasslike deposits were found inside the planes' engines after they patroled over European airspace.

Some smaller airports reopened Monday but authorities in Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands - home to four of Europe's five largest airports - said their airspace was still closed. Britain said it was keeping flight restrictions on through early Tuesday, while Italy briefly lifted restrictions in the north then quickly closed down again after conditions worsened Monday.

Britain's Royal Navy said it was deploying warships to bring its citizens who have been stranded in the continent for the past week back to across the English Channel. For them, returning to Britain by sea is the only option.

European carriers have been the hardest hit, but flights from around the world are routed through major airports on the continent and the crisis was estimated to be costing the global aviation industry at least $200 million per day. IATA officials say the costs are higher than the three-day disruption of air traffic after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

London’s Heathrow was the first major airport to shut down and British Airways said it was losing $30 million a day. The airline said carriers have asked the EU for financial compensation for the closure of airspace, starting last Wednesday.

Officials are concerned that the ash can damage jet engines and could cause commercial jetliners to crash.

Air freight, a mainstay of many "just in time" assembly lines, also has been hammered by the shut down in traffic. Kenya's fresh flower industry is losing $2 million a day and fresh fruit from Africa destined for Europe is reportedly rotting in warehouses. Still economists say Europe's economic recovery should not be derailed unless the disruption lasts for many weeks or months.

The loss of air transport to Europe has also wreaked havoc in countless other ways.

Some U.K. schools may not be able to reopen after spring break because teachers and students are stranded in holiday destinations.

Motorists cannot get their cars fixed because foreign parts can't be shipped in.

Kenya's fresh flower industry is losing $2 million a day and fresh fruit from Africa destined for Europe is rotting in warehouses. Still economists say Europe's economic recovery should not be derailed unless the disruption lasts for many weeks or months.

The airlines are pressing European governments to loosen restrictions, but there is no indication that aviation authorities will immediately comply. Airspace over Paris and the north of France remained closed until Tuesday and British Airways and Lufthansa cancelled all flights on Monday.

Eurocontrol, the air traffic agency in Brussels, said less than one-third of flights in Europe were taking off Monday – between 8,000 and 9,000 of the continent's 28,000 scheduled flights.

About 63,000 flights have been cancelled since Thursday.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines said it had conducted four successful test flights Sunday through a "gap" in the layer of microscopic dust over Holland and Germany.

Lufthansa flew 10 empty long-haul planes Saturday to Frankfurt from Munich at low altitude, between 10,000 and 26,000 feet, said spokesman Wolfgang Weber.

"We simply checked every single aircraft very carefully after the landing in Frankfurt to see whether there was any damage that could have been caused by volcanic ash," Weber said. "Not the slightest scratch was found on any of the 10 planes."

Scientists say that because the volcano is situated below a glacial ice cap, magma is being cooled quickly, causing explosions and plumes of grit that can be catastrophic to plane engines, depending on prevailing winds.

In 1989, a KLM Boeing 747 that flew through a volcanic ash cloud above Alaska and briefly lost power to all four engines. They were restarted at a lower altitude and the plane landed safely.

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Turning Chicken Poop Into Power

In a dimly lit chicken house, John Logan stands surrounded by thousands of fluffy, yellow, week-old chicks. They're among 275,000 chickens he raises on his farm in Prentiss, Miss. Every 38 days, he ships off a batch to the chicken processor Tyson Foods.

Every year in the United States, 9 billion chickens are raised and sold for food. Their poop has become a problem for the environment.

Several years ago, Logan noticed the phosphorus content in his groundwater had become too high, because of chicken fecal contamination.

"I said, 'I got to do something,' " the farmer recalls. "I can't be putting this on the ground. Now, I have a river right here. What's to happen when that phosphorus overload washes into the river, which then ends up in the Gulf of Mexico?"

Logan considers himself a conservationist. So he turned to the idea of a manure digester, which is something cattle ranchers have been using to turn cow manure into energy. In the past, chicken manure had been mixed with other manure types and then converted into energy, but it had never been used on its own.

Logan worked with researchers and scientists at Mississippi State University to develop and patent the first successful chicken poop digester.

Now, every day, 4 tons of chicken manure are fed into the digester, which resembles a silo. The poop is heated, then mixed with bacteria, which produces the methane gas that is then converted into energy.

EnlargeCourtesy of Greg Gibson, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation
A chicken digester on John Logan's farm heats chicken manure and mixes it with bacteria, producing methane gas that is converted into energy.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been promoting the use of manure digesters since 1993. But a complicated patchwork of local, state and federal energy policy rules has discouraged people from using them, according to Chris Voell, an EPA program manager. He says with some changes, "instead of 130 digesters around the country, there could be thousands of digesters."

Congress is also considering a fix to the Federal Clean Water Act, which would affect the way poultry operations deal with chicken manure. Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry trade group, says new rules would improve the way chickens are produced.

"The more options that chicken growers have in handling the manure in a proper and environmental manner, the better off they are, and the better off the industry is," he says.

As for Logan, he isn't just raising chickens anymore. He sells digesters through his company Eagle Green Energy. They cost $500,000 each, but Logan says they're worth it because the savings add up.

The month before he started using the digester, he says, his power bill was about $8,000. The next month, it dropped to about $200. And "the next month, I got a small check from the power company," he says.

Logan's operation has even gone global. In addition to four digesters operating in Mississippi, and two others in the works for customers in Maryland and Delaware, Logan is working with companies in Italy, Australia and India.

-excerpt from npr

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

India's Rag Pickers Compete For Lucrative Trash

In India's capital New Delhi, many impoverished people spend their days picking through garbage — looking for anything that can be recycled and sold. But now there is competition. A battle between rag pickers and new corporate "waste managers" is raging over the trash of the affluent.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, April 12, 2010

Why The Animal Critic Gives The Panda An F

For too long, Jacob Lentz thinks, certain animals have gotten by on good looks and charm, while more impressive species are ignored by children and stuffed-animal manufacturers.

A couple of years ago, Lentz and friend Steve Nash set out to right this wrong. They began a blog called Animal Review.

It's exactly what the name implies: reviews of critters, not unlike reviews of cars or new gadgets, complete with letter grades. The ladybug gets an A-. The bald eagle gets a C+.

Their blog has now become a book, also titled The Animal Review. Lentz tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that being a good animal critic is "more of an art than a science."

"It takes at least two years of blogging to really get good at this," he says. "I can't expect laypeople to just start judging animals accurately. It's probably best left to me and Steve."

Part of that professional skill involves knowing which animals not to tick off. "I'm not going to be the one who gives the king cobra a B+," Lentz says. "And I have no interest in upsetting a great white shark. I only have good things to say about those animals.

"If they're listening, I just want to tell them that I think they're amazing. And whatever they want to do is great," he continues. "There's a ton to recommend them to anyone, whether they're planning to kill you or not."

Panda: F
"Pandas have absolutely no interest in reproducing. They rarely mate," Lentz says. That goes against the raison d'etre of a species. "We spend all this money flying these animals around the world, trying to convince them to mate, and we could spend it on a lot of other stuff.

"Second of all, they eat bamboo. They're not supposed to eat bamboo. Their bodies are not adapted to digest cellulose, but they hang in there with the bamboo. But the result of that is that they have to eat a ton of bamboo," he says. "They don't have a lot of energy to do things, like to mate.

"That could be Nature kind of hinting around the fact that they should collectively shuffle off this mortal coil."

Octopus: A
"We gave the octopus an A because it would make a great superhero. They're supersmart, they can solve puzzles, they can remember things.

"They can change their bodies, so they can slip through tiny crevices," Lentz adds, "and they shoot ink. There's all sorts of cool stuff with the octopus that doesn't get talked about enough — because we're spending all our time talking about pandas."

King Cobra: A+
"The king cobra, largest venomous snake, makes nests. It's the only snake known to make nests, and good for them. I mean, great. I think that's amazing. They can inject enough venom to kill an elephant. You have to respect that."

Great White Shark: A+
"The great whites, they're the largest predatory fish," Lentz says. "They sometimes jump out of the water. They're one of two shark species that will get airborne, which, I'm pretty sure, is because they're trying to attack airplanes. But that's awesome."

Rhinoceros: Not Yet Graded
Rhinos have yet to receive their grade, but preliminary findings look good. "Prima facie, I'd give a lot of credit to the rhino because it has a horn. That's impressive. It's big. It's really big. I've also read that they hate fire, which I think is interesting. Like, they'll try to put out fires if they can, so you know, they're trying to help.

"I'd probably be inclined to give them a pretty good grade."

Alpaca: F
"Some people really like alpacas, but they're dopey, dumb animals," Lentz says. "The reason they fail is because I blame them for the conquest of South America."

To explain, "The conquistadors show up with less than 200 men, and they have horses. And somehow they overthrow tens of thousands of Incan warriors in, like, two hours. Because the Incans, you know what animal they had? The alpaca. Not much help in a battle with conquistadors."

Lentz notes a particularly negative reaction when he failed the alpaca on the blog. "We got a lot of angry, angry, angry comments from people," he says. "Including a few threats, which I found delightful — which I don't think is the right reaction to something like that."

Clam: C
The clam doesn't get a great grade, Lentz says, "but given it's a clam, that's pretty good. The more we learned about how clams exist and stuff, the more you had to hand it to them, because they just kind of sit on the bottom of the ocean, they filter plankton, they live forever — I mean, the oldest clam was over 400 years old.

"We should all calm down about complaining about our lives," he concludes. "The clam's OK with it. I mean, you wouldn't want to filter plankton for 400 years. And the clam does it."

Jellyfish: C-
The jellyfish is one of the latest entries on the blog. "You gotta give it some credit, because it's kind of gotten a lot done — without a brain," Lentz says. "It literally does not have a brain. And yet they're still chugging along. Hanging in there and killing a lot of fish. And terrorizing bathers."

North American Mountain Goat: B+/A-
"The one animal that we were sort of blown away with was the North American mountain goat," Lentz says, "which doesn't seem that exciting, because it's a goat. But the truth is, it has a lot going for it." He gives it particularly good marks for "high altitude procreation."

"Mountain goats in other parts of the world," he adds, "are really gaudy. It's just too much. They have giant horns that look like corkscrews.

"But the North American mountain goat has very understated horns, keeps just a plain white coat, and it's very understated."

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Brand Obama: A Hit Abroad, But What About Loyalty?

During the 2008 presidential campaign, efforts to brand Barack Obama were ubiquitous. T-shirts, music videos and posters declared "HOPE" in big blue letters. The opposition tried to brand him, too — as a mysterious untested outsider and, although provably false, as a Kenyan citizen and a Muslim.

Since the Obama family moved into the White House, the Obama brand-management project has become more complicated.

'A Person, Not A Product'

White House officials have mixed feelings about describing the president of the United States in terms usually applied to shampoo or chain restaurants.

Political adviser David Axelrod has privately described his job to reporters as managing the Obama brand. Yet Axelrod once chided another top White House staffer for openly discussing the Obama brand. According to The New York Times, he told former social secretary Desiree Rogers, "The president is a person, not a product."

Harvard business professor John Quelch understands this ambivalence. "You certainly don't want to market the president as if he or she were a box of breakfast cereal," says Quelch. "However, the principles are relevant in both spheres."

Quelch recently wrote an academic paper, "Can Brand Obama Rescue Brand America?" He argues that the Obama brand matters, whether the White House openly acknowledges it or not.

For example, President George W. Bush tried and failed to persuade dozens of countries to accept Guantanamo detainees. But in the past year, many governments across Europe and the Middle East changed their position and agreed to take prisoners. The American request did not change, but receptivity did.

One senior official, who has worked on closing Guantanamo in both administrations and refused to be quoted by name, believes this is unquestionably the effect of the Obama brand and the boost it has given America's brand internationally.

"The general international view seems to be that it's OK to admire America again," says Simon Anholt, who consults with governments on their national identities.

Anholt conducts an annual survey of national identities. In his most recent one, taken after the 2008 election, the United States had risen from seventh place to first. Anholt argues that standing brings tangible financial and diplomatic consequences.

"If the country's name is in good health, then people are more likely to invest, to buy American products, to visit the United States to study and to work there," he says.

The White House has worked hard to leverage Obama's life story into a strong national brand for America. In his first year in office, Obama visited 21 countries, more than any first-year American president before him.

In Egypt last year, he addressed the Muslim world.

"I'm a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims," he told an audience at Cairo University. "As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the Azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk."

The Brand Does Not Equal Approval

But selling a brand and building longtime brand loyalty are different things. A presidency is built on thousands of specific decisions, every one of which can alienate people who believed in the Obama brand.

Environmentalists were disappointed in the president's decision to allow offshore drilling. Peace activists decried his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

In Yemen, Khaled al-Anisi recently told NPR he lost hope when the president decided not to release any more Yemenis from Guantanamo prison.

If the country's name is in good health, then people are more likely to invest, to buy American products, to visit the United States to study and to work there.
- Simon Anholt, who consults on brand identities of various countries
"Obama give the people hope, and they live one year with this hope," said Anisi, who directs the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, a legal organization that is pressing for the Yemeni detainees' release. "Now the people start to think this is not Bush problem or Bush administration mistake. It is the mistake for all American people, Democrats or Republicans. All of them are the enemy."

The artist Shepard Fairey helped establish the Obama brand, designing the iconic red and blue poster of Barack Obama gazing into the distance with the word "HOPE."

"The brand is promised utopia almost," says Fairey.

He views a brand as a simplistic invitation to learn more about a complicated person or a product. Whether people like what they learn is a different question.

"When you look at all the different warring ideologies and complexities of different people's needs and agendas," says Fairey, "it is impossible to please everyone in the way that "Have a Coke and a Smile," or any other great slogan, can."

And Quelch of Harvard says that even if everyone identifies Barack Obama with "hope," "change" and "Yes We Can," "the approval rating and the strength of the brand may not be quite the same thing."

"When we're talking about brand, we're talking about what does the brand stand for," Quelch says. "And when we're talking about approval, we're talking about whether or not I approve of what the brand stands for."

If people believe that Obama equals change, that is good branding. If they hate the change that the health care overhaul represents, good branding could equal bad approval ratings.

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Pope Stays Silent On Sex Abuse Scandals

As allegations of child sex abuse charges continue to mount against the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict has avoided any mention of the scandal. There are allegations that the Vatican tried to cover up the abuse claims. At the start of Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square, the dean of the College of Cardinals said Benedict was the target of what he called "petty gossip."

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, April 1, 2010

New England Struggles After Record Flooding

Parts of New England are still underwater after heavy rains. March was one for the record books in much of the region.

Three days of steady rain in Rhode Island caused the Blackstone River to swell dramatically — sending waves of water crashing down Valley Falls in the town of Cumberland, just north of Providence.

"Wet, scary, rushing beyond my imagination of what a river can do," said Laurie Levebvre of Cumberland, who was stunned by the sight.

"This might impress some of these young guys out here that don't underestimate Mother Nature," Levebre added. "Mother of all mothers."

The Blackstone had crested at 15 feet by Wednesday and caused only minor flooding. But the situation was much more serious to the south, where the Pawtuxet River crested at a record of more than 20 feet.

The high water also shut down parts of Interstate 95, which links Boston and New York.

Schools and government offices have been closed for business, and some neighborhood roads remain submerged.

"We're setting new records as we speak," said Don Carcieri, Rhode Island's governor. "We have set a record for rainfall in the month of March — over 16 inches of rain. This is historic in our state."

The flooding ends a month of unprecedented rainfall across the Northeast. Boston, New Jersey, New York City and Portland, Maine, recorded record rainfalls in March.

In Cranston, R.I., David Alviano used a wet-vac to suck up water in his basement, which has leather furniture, children's toys and a new tile floor.

"Just remodeled it about a month ago," he said. "All new furniture, all the kids toys are soaking wet, all the new rugs — they're all trash."

Alviano has been fighting a losing battle against the water since Tuesday.

"It doesn't stop — it just keeps coming," Alviano said. "It's still coming through the floor. The ground's saturated and it's got nowhere to go, and it's just pushing through every little crack it can get through."

Those without wet-vacs or sump pumps have as much as 6 feet of water in their basements. Outside Alviano's house, the rain-swollen Pawtuxet River turned many lawns into lakes.

According to Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, 140 homes have been evacuated, and city workers have been working without a break since Monday.

"They've been sandbagging, making sure the residents have access to sandbags," the mayor said. "My fire department is exhausted. They've been on the go with a lot of rescues, moving people out of their homes. My police are exhausted too — so it has a big impact on all the services that we provide."

Then, in a cruel irony, a state that has seen nothing but rain and water for days is being asked to conserve water. That's because the floodwaters are overwhelming sewage treatment plants in several cities and towns.

Mayor Fung asked Cranston residents to cooperate. "We're asking them to try not to do their laundry, no dishwasher, try to limit toilet flow as much as possible — that can help out with conservation of water."

Elsewhere in Rhode Island, hundreds of people were evacuated from a neighborhood in Coventry because of fears that a bridge upstream would collapse.

That's just one of 185 bridges that civil engineers need to inspect. They'll be able to do that when the waters recede after some of the worst flooding the state has seen in more than a century.

-excerpt from npr