Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Living off the sewers of gold

By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Dhaka

Men panning for gold in Dhaka's sewers

The sewers of Dhaka, Bangladesh's overcrowded and polluted capital city, are as unpleasant as you could imagine.

But they are also an incredible source of income for a small group of men who do not mind getting their hands dirty.

They earn their living by finding tiny specks of gold that are accidentally brushed into the open sewers that run alongside the narrow streets of Dhaka's historic gold bazaar.

With the price of gold hitting $1,000 an ounce for the first time earlier this year, these specks are worth more than ever before.

The men pan for gold in the drains in exactly the same way as the treasure-seekers of the legendary Californian gold rush of the 1850s.

Mohammed Harun gave me a demonstration. He swirled his pan around, full of dirty black water, stones, sand and other matter. Then, he gently isolated bits he wanted a closer look at, using his orange-brown stained fingers.

'Some luck'

"I used to think that this work was really nasty," he said. "But I'm used to it now, its just my job, and it brings me money."

The morning I met Harun, he reckoned that he and his two friends, who all work together as a team, had found about $50 worth of gold, as well as some small bits of silver and even a tiny red jewel.

It is no fortune, but it is enough for the three men to feed their families for several days.

A gold jewellery workshop in Dhaka
There are 350 gold shops and workshops in Dhaka

"Today we've had some luck. We cannot work much during the monsoon as when it rains the sewers are washed clean," he said.

Further along the street, Salahuddin, an older man with white hair, was working alone. He crouched low over the stinking drain, and with one hand scooped out mud in a small metal bowl, and with the other took rapid puffs on a cigarette.

"I earn about $12 a day looking for gold like this, and if I'm lucky I'll also find some ear-rings or something else that people have dropped down here," Salahuddin said.

As he worked, a pipe carrying waste from somebody's bathroom emptied into the sewer and upstream a man urinated.

Meanwhile, over the road, boys in white caps gathered at the door of their religious school, men walked past with baskets of pineapples on their heads, and Hindu shopkeepers lit incense and muttered prayers.

The street is called Tanti Bazaar, and it is the centre of Dhaka's gold market.

Swept out

It is lined with shops selling gold jewellery, and there are dozens of small alleyways leading to workshops where the jewellery is made.

According to the local trade association, there are about 350 gold shops and workshops here in all, employing about 20,000 people.

They are mostly old family businesses, and little about them seems to have changed in centuries. The gold is softened over charcoal fires or gas burners, and then fashioned into necklaces and ear-rings by men bent over low wooden desks.

A gold jewellery shop in Dhaka
Because of the rising prices, jewellery sales have dipped

"Every morning all the workshops and gold shops are swept clean," Salahuddin, the elderly gold panner, explained.

"And somehow or other bits of gold and other precious things are swept out too. That is how it all ends up in our drains."

But the record high price of gold has been more of a curse than a blessing for Tanti Bazaar.

Fewer customers are now buying gold than before, even though no Bangladeshi wedding is truly complete without gold jewellery for the bride.

People are already worse off because the price of their staple food, rice, has doubled in the past year, and fuel costs have soared.

As a result, businessmen estimate that as many as two-thirds of all workers in the market have been sacked this year.

"We've had to lay off many of our employees because the high price of jewellery is scaring off our customers," shop owner Prodip Ghosh said. "This business is just no good anymore."

This means that much less gold is now finding its way into the sewers, so Mohammed Harun and Salahuddin complain that they are earning less than last year.

The streets of Dhaka are not, after all, paved with gold.

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Sudden death after arrest may be new syndrome

By Ben Hirschler

MUNICH (Reuters) - Young men who die suddenly after being arrested by the police may be victims of a new syndrome similar to one that kills some wild animals when they are captured, Spanish researchers said on Tuesday.

Manuel Martinez Selles of Madrid's Hospital Gregorio Maranon reached the conclusion after investigating 60 cases of sudden unexplained deaths in Spain following police detention.

In one third of the cases, death occurred at the point of arrest, while in the remainder death was within 24 hours, Selles told the annual meeting of the European Society of Cardiology.

All but one of the casualties were male and their average age was just 33 years, with no previous history of cardiovascular disease.

"Something unusual is going on," Sells said.

Just why they died remains a mystery but he believes young men, in particular, may experience surges in blood levels of chemicals known as catecholamines when under severe stress.

Adrenaline is one of the most abundant catecholamines.

"We know that when a wild animal is captured, sometimes the animal dies suddenly," he said.

"Probably when these young males are captured it is very stressful and their level of catecholamines goes very high and that can finish their life by ventricular fibrillation (cardiac arrest)."

Selles compiled his study -- the first of its kind in any country -- by scouring Spanish newspapers for cases of unexplained death after police detention over the past 10 years.

Only sudden deaths with no clear causes were included and autopsy reports were checked to exclude the possibility of mistreatment or past serious medical conditions.

Twelve of the victims were drug users but Selles said this was not thought to have contributed to their deaths.

Jonathan Halperin of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, who was not involved in the research, said the concept of a heart stress syndrome triggered by a flood of adrenaline or other chemicals was "a reasonable hypothesis".

"We all know stress is bad for you and this may be stress in the extreme," he said.

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Playing, and even watching, sports improves brain function

Hockey players as well as fans use a portion of their brain not usually associated with language development when they discuss the sport. That area is not activated however among non-fans when asked about the sport. Credit: University of Chicago
Hockey players as well as fans use a portion of their brain not usually associated with language development when they discuss the sport. That area is not activated, however, among non-fans when asked about the sport. Credit: University of Chicago

Being an athlete or merely a fan improves language skills when it comes to discussing their sport because parts of the brain usually involved in playing sports are instead used to understand sport language, new research at the University of Chicago shows.

The research was conducted on hockey players, fans, and people who'd never seen or played the game. It shows, for the first time, that a region of the brain usually associated with planning and controlling actions is activated when players and fans listen to conversations about their sport. The brain boost helps athletes and fans understanding of information about their sport, even though at the time when people are listening to this sport language they have no intention to act.

The study shows that the brain may be more flexible in adulthood than previously thought. "We show that non-language related activities, such as playing or watching a sport, enhance one's ability to understand language about their sport precisely because brain areas normally used to act become highly involved in language understanding," said Sian Beilock, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago. She is lead author of the paper, "Sports Experience Enhances the Neural Processing of Action Language," to be published Tuesday, September 2 in the on-line issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Experience playing and watching sports has enduring effects on language understanding by changing the neural networks that support comprehension to incorporate areas active in performing sports skills," she said.

The research could have greater implications for learning. It shows that engaging in an activity taps into brain networks not normally associated with language, which improves the understanding of language related to that activity, Beilock added.
For the study, researchers asked 12 professional and intercollegiate hockey players, eight fans and nine individuals who had never watched a game to listen to sentences about hockey players, such as shooting, making saves and being engaged in the game. They also listened to sentences about everyday activities, such as ringing doorbells and pushing brooms across the floor. While the subjects listened to the sentences, their brains were scanned using functioning Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which allows one to infer the areas of the brain most active during language listening.

After hearing the sentences in the fMRI scanner, subjects performed a battery of tests designed to gauge their comprehension of those sentences.

Although most subjects understood the language about everyday activities, hockey players and fans were substantially better than novices at understanding hockey-related language.

Brain imaging revealed that when hockey players and fans listen to language about hockey, they show activity in the brain regions usually used to plan and select well-learned physical actions. The increased activity in motor areas of the brain helps hockey players and fans to better understanding hockey language. The results show that playing sports, or even just watching, builds a stronger understanding of language, Beilock said.

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Doctor, no

Sarah Boseley

A doctor who said he could not help having affairs with his patients was struck off the medical register at his own request yesterday morning. "I have a fundamentally flawed personality which makes me permanently unfit to be in a position of trust as a GP," John Razzak wrote to the General Medical Council. "I have had affairs with patients over which I seem to have no control."

The formal end to 46-year-old Dr Razzak's career in medicine came just five days after Staffordshire GP Keith Bevan was thrown out of the medical profession for a 14-month affair with a farmer's wife, whom he seduced in his surgery while her husband was sitting in the waiting room. "She was avid for sex and her husband was happy to watch the telly," Bevan, 57, told the GMC hearing which concluded that his behaviour "undermines the confidence which the public is entitled to place in members of the medical profession and constitutes a gross abuse of your position."

In July, the GMC ejected Iain MacLeod, a 66-year-old GP who rode around Moffat in Dumfriesshire in a Jaguar with the number plate TSM 1T, which stood for "The Sexiest Man In Town". He was struck off over a 22-year affair with a woman he had been treating for depression which, it was said "contributed to the distress she has suffered over a significant part of her life". In February, Dr Anthony Leeper, 48, who admitted an 11-month sexual relationship with a patient, escaped with a two-year supervision order.

These are just a few of the doctors who have recently got caught. Typically they are middle-aged and male. Research in the US has shown that one-in-10 family doctors has had a sexual relationship with a patient. Having sex with a patient is completely off-limits. Every doctor, certainly in the UK, knows it is a career-ending offence.

Yet, medical students who were asked about whether they would have relationships with their patients, for a study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics this month, were equivocal. If they were a GP on a remote Scottish island and were asked, by a patient they had just about finished treating for a skin condition, to come to dinner, in a way that suggested her interest was more than conversation, what would they do? Nearly half (40%) said they couldn't see the harm.

Many of us might feel sympathetic. What's a doctor to do on a windswept rock where there might be more sheep than potential partners? But no. John Goldie, an Easterhouse GP and senior tutor at the University of Glasgow, who devised the study, is uncompromising. "There is a power imbalance in the relationship, it is not a relationship of equals and it can never be," he says. It is doubtful, he says, that any patient can ever truly give consent to a sexual relationship with her doctor.

This isn't about the sexy registrar with the white coat, gentle hands and impeccable bedside manner. It's not about Carry On Doctor frolics or seductive soap opera GPs. Fiction has frequently woven sex into the life-and-death tapestry of medicine, but the reality features men and women who go to their doctor because of physical and often emotional vulnerability. What they find, from their doctor, is sympathy, care and concern. It can be devastating.

Sigmund Freud noted that many of his female patients fell in love with him. He called it transference. What was happening, he said, was that they were casting him as somebody in their past life, projecting on to him the feelings of love and desire that they had experienced for other men.

"If you help a patient who is having problems, they are so grateful they sort of fall in love with you," says Claire Rayner, president of the Patients Association. "They are not, but they think they are. They transfer all their emotions to the person who has helped them.

"Doctors are attractive figures. They have all this knowledge and they care about you and you get the feeling they care more about you than they do. Getting a crush on them is easy. I did it. It has happened to me that I have been looked after really well and thought: 'Oh you are lovely.' "

It happens most with psychiatrists, gynaecologists and GPs - those doctors who spend most time with patients and are likely to talk over problems beyond the physical. But this is not a one-way street. The doctors most likely to have a sexual relationship with a patient are male, middle-aged and may have problems of their own.

The damage that can be done is clear from the GMC cases, which will only have got that far because they are the most serious. The woman with whom MacLeod had an affair over two decades was being treated for depression. Dr Leeper's affair was with a patient who came to him with anxiety and emotional problems. The woman Bevan seduced had marital problems and wanted him to prescribe Viagra for her husband, a farmer whose livelihood had been badly hit by foot and mouth disease.

In every case, the woman was vulnerable and looking for help. There can be no equal relationship if it is born in the surgery or consulting room, says Dr Goldie. He says there is no way out - asking the patient to switch to another doctor is also unacceptable. "It's a bit of a grey area," he acknowledges, but because the woman was once a patient, transference can have occurred and the power imbalance exists. "There is no evidence that it disappears," he says.

In an age when sexuality and sexual expression rule and when marriages last for ever briefer periods, it may be seen as a hair-shirted hard road for the doctor on the remote Scottish island, if not the rest of the profession. But Dr Goldie takes no prisoners: "With professionalism comes boundaries," he said. He says there is a need for much more education and discussion among doctors to help them deal with the doctor/patient relationship, including asking students their attitudes at the start of their training and, if necessary, attempting to change them. Because, at the end of the day, this is not about sex between a man and a woman, but potential - even if unknowing - exploitation of vulnerability. And as Hippocrates said, the first duty of a doctor is to do no harm.

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Key cancer enzyme gives up its secret

Telomere (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Telomere (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

At the heart of almost all human cancers is a rogue enzyme, telomerase. Now the structure of a key catalytic component of the enzyme has been discovered, paving the way to more effective anti-cancer and, perhaps, anti-ageing drugs.

Telomerase is responsible for adding unique repetitive sequences of DNA, called telomeres, at one end of chromosomes. These telomere caps ensure the chromosomes don't fall apart, but because telomerase is dormant in most adult cells each time a cell divides, its telomere loses a chunk of DNA. Eventually, when cells can no longer divide, they die – this protects against cancer.

When telomerase is more active than it should be, telomeres don't get shorter. Instead, cells continue dividing beyond their normal limits, and become cancerous.

This has made telomerase a prime target for anti-cancer and anti-ageing therapies, but a lack of information on the structure of its catalytic subunit, TERT, has hindered progress.

Beetle bonanza

Emmanuel Skordalakes and his team from The Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, finally cracked the structure when they discovered that a gene in an insect – the flour beetle – could be harnessed to produce the enzyme in massive quantities.

This enabled the team to analyse TERT using X-ray crystallography.

"Structural studies of telomerase have been extremely difficult due to the size and complexity of the enzyme, which in turn made it difficult to isolate the protein component of telomerase in sufficient, stable quantities for the proposed studies," says Skordalakes.

The structural analysis reveals that TERT (telomerase reverse transcriptase protein) consists of three domains, and forms a ring-like doughnut structure that creates a central hole. When the telomere is being built, this hole allows a nucleic acid template molecule about eight nucleotide bases long to fit inside.

Anti-ageing drug?

Previously scientists had thought that the structure of the enzyme is similar to HIV transcriptase and developed anti-telomerase drugs accordingly. The structural analysis confirms there is a similarity, but it also reveals that one of the domains in the TERT protein – called the carboxy-terminal extension or CTE – has a unique type of protein fold, never been seen before.

This feature could help develop anti-telomerase drugs that specifically target the fold.

"Now that they know what the structure of the catalytic subunit is, they can design drugs that can bind to the protein subunit and either inhibit its activity for anti-cancer treatment, or promote its activity as anti-ageing therapy," says Stephen Neidle, from The School of Pharmacy, University of London, UK.

Neidle says developing drugs to target the enzyme could be used in combination with existing anti-telomerase anti-cancer therapies currently in clinical trials, such as a class of telomerase vaccines.

Aubrey de Grey of the Methuselah Foundation says: "If we had a really cast-iron therapy against all cancers, it might well be a good idea to stimulate telomerase, with a drug, for example, that might have widespread anti-ageing effects."

Journal reference: Nature (DOI:10/1038/nature07283)

Cancer - Learn more about one of the world’s biggest killers in our comprehensive special report.

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Beer maker wins fight to market 'Legal Weed'

Jakob Schiller / For The Times

Brewer Vaune Dillmann stands near the metal entry arch in downtown Weed. Dillmann, whose family has deep roots in the community, helped erect the sign back in 1988 and is quick to note that he has never inhaled the illegal stuff.

Vaune Dillmann of Weed, Calif., who took on federal regulators when they ordered his Mt. Shasta Brewing Co. to stop using bottle caps with the slogan 'Try Legal Weed,' prevails on appeal.
By Eric Bailey, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- -- The brewer who dared market "Legal Weed" has won.

Vaune Dillmann took on federal regulators this year when they ordered his Mt. Shasta Brewing Co. in the Northern California town of Weed to stop topping beer bottles with caps bearing the play on words, "Try Legal Weed."

Regulators cited federal law prohibiting drug references on alcoholic beverages.

A plain-talking 61-year-old former cop, Dillmann refused to back down, and his high-spirited appeal drew widespread media attention as well as support from beer lovers and civil libertarians far and wide.

Now, facing a storm of bad publicity and the prospect of a drawn-out court battle, authorities at the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau have quietly reversed course. The agency finalized approval of Dillmann's controversial cap Thursday.

At first, Dillmann thought the fight might put his brewery out of business.

"They acted like Big Brother. They said I was guilty of a thought crime," Dillmann said of his six-month battle with the authorities. "But it's over. Weed fought the law, and Weed won!"

In a recent letter to Dillmann, the agency's assistant director conceded that the phrase refers to the brand name of the microbrew and said it does not mislead customers by alluding to a slang word for cannabis.

Art Resnick, an agency spokesman, said the switch in stance demonstrates the due process in the agency's appeal process, adding that "the system worked as it should."

Federal regulators, he said, "pride ourselves in working with industry members. We are not in the business of putting anyone out of business."

In fact, sales of Dillmann's brews have doubled in the six months since the controversy began. Dillmann said his small brewery -- located in the morning shadow of Mt. Shasta, just across Interstate 5 from downtown Weed -- now has to play catch-up just to fill all the orders.

But what's been good for business hasn't necessarily been good for the soul. Dillmann said his fight with the feds took a toll on his family -- in particular his wife, Barbara, who retired just over a year ago as Siskiyou County's superintendent of schools.

The fight with the regulators was "embarrassing and exhausting," he said. "It's been a whirlwind of ups and downs, frustration over whether we might be closed down or sanctioned."

Still, Dillmann conceded he took pleasure in the support his cause received.

He got 1,400 e-mails from beer aficionados and won backing from Weed's mayor, the city attorney and a county supervisor.

He also earned a lot more than the proverbial 15 minutes of fame, appearing on Fox News and in newspaper headlines as far away as Saudi Arabia. Among those who saw the reports and got in touch were his old high school football coach and two old girlfriends in his hometown of Milwaukee.

Most of the folks back home in Weed -- population 3,000 -- couldn't understand what the fuss was about. The little town has been marketing the double entendre of its name for years, with gas stations selling "High on Weed" T-shirts and a sign at the town's exit reading "Temporarily Out of Weed."

In fact, the town's name refers to Abner Weed, a local lumber baron and turn-of-the-20th-century state senator.

He's also the namesake of Dillmann's prized Abner Weed Ale, which is among those he plans to enter Sept. 13 in a brew fest in Sacramento. Last year, his Shastafarian Porter won first place.

Each bottle he brings to the festival will bear one of those shiny gold caps with the black-stenciled words that made Dillmann's last six months both harrowing and hilarious.

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Everything You Need to Know About Steak

By Francine Maroukian

Porterhouse Steak from Lobel's

Marcus Nilsson

Why Beef is Aged, and How: Beef must be aged to allow natural enzymes to break down fibrous connective tissue that holds the muscle together. There are two ways to self-tenderize: · Dry aging: Expensive and time consuming. The beef is stored in temperature- and humidity-controlled coolers for up to six weeks. Moisture evaporates, improving texture and concentrating flavor. Between the evaporation and trimming of the thin coating of mold that develops, there's weight loss of up to 20 percent. · Wet aging: The beef is refrigerated in vacuum-sealed plastic and allowed to tenderize in its own juices. No evaporation means no moisture is lost. Less waste but also less concentrated taste.

Some Types of Beef You Should Know About: Rare "red" cattle (the same breed that produces Kobe beef) raised in Texas by HeartBrand Beef--the only herd outside of Japan. They started with eleven head of cattle, which have been guarded by armed Texas Rangers for the past fourteen years while the herd has grown to more than five thousand. ( · Grass-fed: Healthier but, some say, less flavorful than corn-fed. Raised in open pastures. Not necessarily organic. (Grain-finished cattle--which are switched from grass to grain for the last few weeks before slaughter--develop more marbling.) · Heritage: From rare heirloom breeds, pasture-raised on small farms without the hormones or pesticides used in conventional agribusiness. · Angus: Aberdeen-Angus is a pure breed found in the U. S., England, Scotland, and Ireland. Certified Angus Brand is a brand name and may or may not include meat from Aberdeen-Angus.

The Grades of Meat: Prime: What you want. Typically found only at fine butcher shops, its interlacing of intramuscular fat--like a cobweb--assures tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. · Choice: Pretty good. More affordable and accessible than prime, moderate marbling still yields juicy, flavorful cuts. · Select: You're on a plane.

Generally Important Point (Cooking): Cooking times in recipes are predicated on starting with meat that's not too cold. All steaks should be taken out of the refrigerator at least thirty minutes before cooking.

The Pan: Lodge, an American maker of high-quality cast-iron pans for more than a hundred years, preseasons pans in the factory (its "Logic" line). The 10.25- and 12-inch, with 2-inch depth, are most practical--any larger and, depending on the size of the steaks, the oil could run off to the sides (where there's no meat) and burn. · The pan must be hot enough to sear the meat on contact, to prevent surface moisture from creating steam, which can prevent browning. · While some chefs say the pan should be "smoking" before adding oil, most call for the intuitive "hot but not smoking." Basically, really goddamn hot.

A Note on Salt: When you salt meat before cooking, you need a lot--and a lot falls off--so standard coarse salt will do. After cooking is the time to use fine sea salt. It's pricey, but the large, crackly flakes are intense, so you don't need much.

How to Use Oil: Before the meat goes in, the skillet should be filmed with oil--it should coat the surface without pooling. (You can add it when the pan is cold or hot.) At the right temperature, the oil will shimmer and gently ripple, as if you dropped a pebble into a pond. It shouldn't spatter or smoke.

The Finish: Meat's temperature keeps rising after cooking. Remove steaks from the heat when a meat thermometer reads 115 to 125 degrees. Then wait. During the all-important resting period, the temperature will rise to the medium-rare range, 120 to 130 degrees. · Get a good thermometer, preferably with a digital probe and large readout, like the Super-Fast Thermapen (four seconds with 1 percent accuracy). It is a potentially life-changing device. ( · Always start with a recipe's minimum cooking time. You can't cook a steak less. · If you don't have a thermometer and you don't want to cut into the meat, press the cartilage at the tip of your nose. That's what medium rare feels like.

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Stress and Class

Dalton Conley, chairman of the Sociology Department at New York University, has written extensively about race, poverty, and social class and was himself raised in a housing project on New York's Lower East Side. This ought to inoculate him against the popular notion, cherished by the professional classes, that the BlackBerry-punching haves experience more stress in their daily lives than the indolent poor. Apparently, it hasn't. In a Sept. 2 New York Times op-ed, Conley writes:

[I]t is now the rich who are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most. Perhaps for the first time since we've kept track of such things, higher-income folks work more hours than lower-wage earners do. Since 1980, the number of men in the bottom fifth of the income ladder who work long hours (over 49 hours per week) has dropped by half, according to a study by the economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano. But among the top fifth of earners, long weeks have increased by 80 percent.

Now, it may be true that the bottom fifth is working fewer hours while the top fifth is working longer hours. The authors of the study in question (PDF) claim no insight as to why this should be so and note that because the observed shift took place fully two decades ago, it "is not likely related to advances in communications technology (such as the Internet) that facilitate additional work from home." Scratch the BlackBerry and the easy availability of wireless Internet off your list of possible culprits. Remember, too, that these findings may be distorted by the survey's exclusion of women and the self-employed. Still, for simplicity's sake, let's assume that the haves are now working longer hours than the have-nots. How does Conley make the leap from saying the haves consume more time on the job to saying, "[I]t is now the rich who are the most stressed out"?

Such a connection may seem intuitive but only if you ignore the difference between the workweek of the typical high-earner and that of the typical low-earner.

For the haves, what does a longer workweek mean? More meetings, almost certainly. Meetings are often dull, but they are seldom stressful. More conversations with the people you manage. These may be exasperating, but when a boss addresses an underling, odds are it's the underling who's going to experience whatever stress the exchange generates. That stress tends to diminish as you work your way up the organizational chart, so an increase in a high-earner's conversations with his own boss won't likely fray his nerves very badly.

For the low-earner, the workweek is an altogether different proposition. It's much likelier to entail physical labor, which is more taxing and almost always more dangerous than mental labor. It's also likelier to involve more petty supervision, a policing of the quantity of the low-earner's output, the courtesy that the low-earner extends to the public, and the frequency with which the low-earner makes personal use of his phone and/or computer. If any of these are found wanting, the low-earner faces serious danger of being fired, because employees near the bottom of the organization chart are always easier to replace than employees near the top.

In stating that wealthier Americans are more stressed out than poorer ones, Conley cites two pieces of evidence. The first is a study (PDF) by economists Daniel Hamermesh and Jungmin Lee that found women with higher earnings reported experiencing higher levels of stress than women with lower earnings. The other is a poll of New Yorkers that found people earning more than $200,000 a year were likelier than those in any other income group to feel poor when "seeing other people with money." But the only thing these two data points really prove is that high-earners are likelier than low-earners to bellyache about whatever stress they experience, possibly because they feel more entitled. As Hamermesh and Lee point out in their conclusion, "Whether one should be concerned about these complaints or simply view them as yuppie kvetching is a matter of values." Scratch values and substitute common sense.

Twenty years ago, journalist John Tierney (whose politics skew libertarian rather than redistributionist) found a much more effective way to compare the stress experienced by America's haves and have-nots. In a classic piece for the New York Times Magazine ("Wired for Stress"), Tierney reported that scientists at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center's cardiovascular center had hooked up two people in high-stress jobs to a device that measured their blood pressure every 15 minutes. One was a 48-year-old Caucasian named Gianni Fidanza who worked on Park Avenue as a stockbroker. The other was a 34-year-old African-American single mother named Cathy Collins who worked at New York Hospital as a clerical aide.

By mere happenstance, the day chosen to record for posterity Fidanza's varying blood pressure was Oct. 19, 1987 ("Black Monday"). On that day, the stock market set a record for the largest one-day percentage decline: The Dow fell 508 points, or 22 percent. In all likelihood, it was the most stressful day Fidanza ever experienced in his working life. The day chosen to record Collins' blood pressure, meanwhile, was "a perfectly ordinary Wednesday." Yet during their respective workdays, the increase in blood pressure experienced by Fidanza as he watched the stock market crash matched that experienced by Collins as she went about her daily chores. And while Fidanza's blood pressure dropped back to normal once he got home, Collins' rose 10 percent after she returned home and started tending to her two children.

What did Collins experience at work that could match Fidanza's Black Monday stress? Tierney, who followed Collins around that day, recorded a typical stress-inducing moment:

At 10:26 A.M., she was standing, the phone cradled on her shoulder, and contending with the following:

* One patient at her desk, waiting to talk to her.
* One secretary with a question about another patient's chart.
* Two lighted buttons on her telephone, indicating incoming calls, and one buzzing intercom.
* Two forms on her desk, which she was filling out as she punched back and forth between phone calls.
* A three-inch-thick stack of paperwork in her ''In'' box, above which she had taped a sign, ''Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.''
* Her boss, who had just emerged from his office with a sheet of paper and said, ''Cathy, I need this Xeroxed right away, please.''

At that moment, a beep sounded, the machine at her waist started drawing in air, and the cuff on her arm tightened. The monitor showed her pulse, which had been 71, to be 82; her blood pressure was 116/72. (Researchers don't agree which of these three numbers is the best indicator of stress, but the one that has traditionally received the most attention is the diastolic blood pressure—the second figure given, in this case, 72—which is used to diagnose hypertension. It measures pressure in the arteries between heart beats; the other reading, the systolic pressure, here 116, measures peak pressure while the heart is pumping.) Collins's diastolic pressure had risen 26 percent, an even greater percentage change than Fidanza had registered that first hour of Black Monday. And, as it turned out, this wasn't even the biggest surge of the day for Cathy Collins.

There is no reason to believe that American working-class life has become more easeful since Tierney published this article in May 1988. Nor am I aware that respective health outcomes for rich and poor—surely a reasonable measure of stress—have altered since I cited Britain's Whitehall Study, a medical survey of British civil servants, in this column in 1999. That study (mentioned in Helen Epstein's excellent 1998 essay in the New York Review of Books "Life and Death on the Social Ladder") found death rates to be lower for civil servants in the highest ranks even when smoking and cholesterol were taken into account. As Epstein put it, "Simply being a senior assistant statistician, rather than chief statistician, increased one's risk of having a fatal heart attack nearly twofold, even if one led an apparently salubrious life."

It's altogether possible that claiming greater stress for economic haves is precisely what readers of the Times op-ed page want to hear. But that doesn't make it true.

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Bulger Case Changed FBI's Role With Informants

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First in a three-part series.

Morning Edition, September 1, 2008 · Confidential informants are the lifeblood of law enforcement's effort to fight crime.

But the best informants are generally very bad people — ruthless criminals — and while their information helps the FBI crack cases, the practice of using these informants is fraught with risk.

A single case in Boston changed the way agents work with these criminals.

Corrupted Agents

If you asked the FBI about their worst nightmare, it would be crooked agents being in league with a mob boss. So their nightmare came true in Boston during the 1970s.

That's when the godfather of the city's Irish mob, Whitey Bulger, became a confidential informant for the FBI and, in the process, he managed to corrupt two agents — John Connolly and his boss, John Morris.

Former FBI supervisor Jim Ring says that the idea that an agent could be turned shocked everyone when it was revealed. To this day, it still astounds him.

"I was asked a question at a civil trial. They asked me what my first reactions was when I heard that [supervisor] John Morris admitted taking money from them," Ring says. "My answer was: I started to throw up."

FBI's Unholy Alliance

FBI agent John Connolly's unholy alliance with Whitey Bulger all started with a "meet" at Wollaston Beach just outside of Boston. It was 1975, and he had asked Bulger to come to the beach parking lot for a chat.

It was not far from the housing projects in Southie where the two men had grown up. They had known each other as kids. It was late at night. No one was around. All that could be heard were waves slapping on the shore.

Connolly had driven there determined to convince Bulger that he should become a top echelon informant — someone who provides the FBI with firsthand information about high-level organized crime figures. Bulger had been an informant in the past, Connolly was determined to reopen him as a snitch.

Connolly didn't expect to convince Bulger to rat out the Irish mob that he was a part of, but he did think he could get him to provide information on Italian organized-crime rivals. Eventually, Bulger agreed to do just that.

An Unspoken Agreement

That meeting at Wollaston Beach was the beginning of a relationship that would end up fundamentally changing the FBI's confidential informant program.

From the moment Jim Ring came into the Boston field office and heard Connolly was working Bulger as an informant, he had an uncomfortable feeling. He called Connolly into his office to make sure there was no misunderstanding about how informants should be handled.

"I told him information goes one way," Ring said. "Informants are not consultants. They are not friends, they are informants. And the agent remembers that and treats them accordingly."

But, as he was to discover later, the information didn't go one way. For almost 30 years, Connolly and Bulger forged an unholy alliance. Bulger provided tips that helped the FBI tackle its top priority — dismantling the Italian mob — and Connolly protected Bulger from investigations by the FBI and other agencies.

It was an unspoken agreement, apparently, but an agreement all the same. Bulger knew that Connolly wanted to keep him out of jail so that he could keep providing intelligence about the Italian mob.

Repercussions From The Bulger Case

Valerie Caproni is the current general counsel at the FBI. She says the fallout from the Whitey Bulger case still haunts the Bureau.

"I think what the Whitey Bulger case did was it really shined a light on the relationship between the Bureau and informants," Caproni says. "They are killers, they are liars, they're cheaters and those are the people who are informants. So I think in part the problem with the Whitey Bulger case was people looked at the relationship and were appalled."

What is certain is that the case rocked the FBI to its core. The wave of negative publicity forced the Justice Department to take a hard look at the use of informants and how agents deal with them. That review eventually produced a set of guidelines that agents say are so strict that they practically gut the program.

"The unfortunate thing is that when you have something like this, there tends to be an overreaction," says former FBI assistant director Barry Mawn.

Detailed FBI Guidelines

Mawn arrived in the Boston field office when a federal judge started looking into the FBI's relationship with Bulger in 1997. The guidelines grew out of that investigation. He said the guidelines concerned him as soon as they came out.

"When you start to put a lot of guidelines and a lot more rules and make it very difficult, then the agents for that reason and some other reasons tend to shy away," Mawn says.

The guidelines are 28 single-spaced pages of rules and regulations for FBI agents working with informants. They cover everything from monetary payments to general provisions for deactivating a confidential informant.

Jim Ring flips through the guidelines, pointing out sections he says agents find particularly onerous. Consider the FBI's requirement that they authorize any crimes informants commit while working as a confidential informants.

Ring says the rule makes sense if you have a drug informant who needs to sell a nickel bag as part of a case. But for top echelon informants, he says, the rule seems naive.

"So if am going to have a capo as an informant in La Cosa Nostra, am I to assume he is going to say, 'Okay I won't commit crime?'" Ring laughs.

The whole reason top echelon informants are so valuable is precisely because they are in the middle of a criminal enterprise — crime is all around them. In most cases, they are violating racketeering statutes just for being a member of the mob. He flips to another section.

He reads a section from the guidelines:

"The United States government will strive to protect your identity but cannot promise or guarantee either that your identity will not be divulged or you will not be called to testify in a proceeding as a witness ..."

Ring throws up his hands and rolls his eyes.

"Now if you were considering doing business with me — as a member of al-Qaida or a capo in La Cosa Nostra — would you want to do business with me after I told you that?"

Agents: Rules Impede FBI's Work

More than a dozen current FBI agents echoed Ring's remarks. They say developing confidential informants is almost impossible if they can't protect their identities. In some cases, asking them to testify would be tantamount to giving them a death sentence. Their criminal organizations would have them killed.

The FBI's Caproni says the complaints are just agents grousing.

"Agents sometimes like to complain, and this is something they can complain about," Caproni says. "That the rules have changed a little bit, it is laid out much more clearly when they have to reveal a sources identity. But I think as a general rule we have a very good track record with maintaining the confidentiality of the identities of human sources."

Ring says the guidelines are hamstringing agents. If the FBI wants to get insiders from al-Qaida or the mob to help fight crime, they need to put what happened in Boston in the past and allow agents to use their own judgment.

"They have tried by legislation to make what Morris and Connolly did impossible," Ring says. "And I think that is impossible to do because corruption is a matter of the heart."

New attorney general guidelines on a variety of FBI procedures are expected to be released in the next couple of weeks. In spite of agents' complaints, Caproni says the confidential informant guidelines won't change.

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