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Sunday, December 20, 2009

“Do I have the right to refuse this search?”

Today’s guest author is Deirdre Walker. She retired recently as the Assistant Chief of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Department of Police. She spent 24 years as a police officer.

“Do I have the right to refuse this search?”

This is a question I heard many times during my law enforcement career. Often my answer was no. But occasionally it would be “yes,” followed by an admonition to have a good day.

For the last half of my career, I would have documented each interaction, whether or not it involved an arrest. I would have written down the nature and length of the interaction, the gender, race, and age of the person, and the outcome of the contact (arrest, citation, etc.).

I carry the baggage of this history with me as I’ve traveled over the last eight years, mindlessly placing my luggage on the conveyer belt and removing my shoes for TSA inspection.

Recently, something changed.

Within the last few months, I have been singled out for “additional screening” roughly half the time I step into an airport security line. On Friday, October 9, as I stepped out of the full-body scanning device at BWI, I decided I needed more information to identify why it is that I have become such an appealing candidate for secondary screening.

Little did I know this would be only the first of many questions I now have regarding my airport experiences.

Over these last few months, I have grown increasingly frustrated with what I view as an unjustifiable intrusion on my privacy. It was not so much the search (then) as it was the embarrassment of being singled out, effectively being told “You are different,” but getting no explanation as to why.

That frustration has been tempered by a combination of my desire to be a good citizen, and my empathy for the TSA screeners. These folks, after all, are merely doing what we, the American traveling public, have permitted and now expect them to do.

I am left to wonder whether my own passive acceptance of these evolving search procedures has contributed to a potentially fatal dichotomy: what we allow TSA screeners to do in order to maximize efficiency and enhance our perception of safety, or what we really need them to do in order to preserve our rights and dignity and enhance our actual safety.

We have asked TSA to find the tools terrorists use and prevent both from boarding a passenger plane. We have unintentionally created an agency that now seeks efficiency and compliance more than any weapon or explosive.

While returning my computer and shoes to their proper places, I watched the screening line at BWI. I thought about the haphazard events surrounding the security screening process. As I watched the screening officers, I wondered what information drives their decisions. Left only to my observations, I concluded that their decisions were entirely random, and likely based upon three criteria: passenger load, staffing, and whim.

I was left to conclude that I am not screened because I look like a terrorist. I am routinely screened because I look like someone who will readily comply. I decided then that my next invitation to enjoy additional screening would be met with more inquiry.

I did not have wait very long. On my return through Albany to BWI — Surprise! – I got “randomly selected” for additional screening.

This time, I was “invited” to step into one of the explosive detection machines, commonly referred to as a “puffer machine.” The traveller is exposed to short, intense bursts of air, which are then, supposedly, analyzed for trace residue.

I read an article awhile ago that suggested these machines are entirely ineffective. I have subsequently observed that they now sit idle at many airports where they were originally installed (Tampa International, for example). In recently renovated airports (San Jose) they have not been installed. At some other airports (like BWI), they have been replaced by the body-scanning technology.

When notified by the cheerful screener that I had been selected for additional screening (the screener’s tone reminded my of the announcer who tells the contestant that she has just won a TV on the Price is Right), I stepped reluctantly toward the machine and asked her quietly whether I had the right to refuse the search. I did not want to become a spectacle, or have to rent a car and drive back to Maryland.

The screeners face dropped and she appeared stunned, as if my question had been received like a body-blow. She asked me to repeat what I said, and I repeated my inquiry regarding whether or not I had the right to refuse this search, especially since it was my understanding that the equipment did not work. She responded defensively, “It sounds an alarm!”

What followed is what I can only describe as a process that left me with more questions and a hunger for something we need and something that has apparently been missing from TSA procedures since September 12, 2001: Data.

It is, again, important to note my general respect for the front line TSA screeners — with the exception of those screeners who feel that it is necessary to yell at people. In my experience as a cop, as a supervisor and as a manager, I know that yelling at people is the one method guaranteed to ensure sub-par performance and a collapse of any semblance of cooperation.

My motivation to write this piece is first, to vent, but then to take a stab at the windmill that has grown from flawed processes to become a barrier to achieving the real mission and ultimate goal: Passenger safety.

I believe, fundamentally, that our collective compliance with the current screening procedures has served only to undermine TSA, and has denied our screeners the tools they need to correct their course.

After realizing I was serious about refusing to step into the puffer machine, I was told that I would be subjected to a “full-body pat-down” and that all of my “stuff would be fully searched.”

I shrugged and waited while the screeners figured out what to do next. One of the screeners said “Who is the supervisor? Notify a supervisor.” I waited two to three minutes with two female screeners. I was then approached by a uniformed screener and the following exchange took place.

“She refused the puffer. We are supposed to notify a supervisor. You’re a supervisor, right?”

Apparently reminded of his role, the subordinate screener then said “We’re notifying you.” She said nothing further. The supervisor then informed me that if I did not step into the “puffer” I would be subjected to a full body-pat-down, that I would be “wanded” and that all of my belongings would be fully searched by hand.

By this time, my belongings had already passed through the x-ray and sat oddly unattended on the belt. They had aroused no suspicion, either as they passed through the x-ray or as they sat completely unattended. I thought it odd that my initial refusal to be subjected to the ‘puffer’ now rendered the x-ray examination effectively flawed. I was being cajoled and was then offered the opportunity to change my mind, which, again, I thought rather odd. If I posed such a risk by refusing the secondary screening, why would that risk be now mitigated, if only I were to change my mind?

I did not change my mind. So, I stepped between two glass walls and was subjected to what my police training would allow me to conclude was a procedural vacuum.

I had been told repeatedly I would be subjected to a “pat-down.” I correctly suspected otherwise. During the course of my police career, I have conducted many pat-downs on the street. The Supreme Court has described pat downs as a cursory check of the outer clothing of a person by a police officer, upon articulable suspicion that the officer’s safety is at risk of being compromised. My department’s procedure indicated that this pat-down was to be conducted with an open hand, gently patting the outer clothing of an individual, for purposes of officer safety only, with the goal of detecting weapons. In other words, it is not a search.

What happened to me in Albany was not the promised “pat-down.” It was a full search conducted in full public view. It was also one of the most flawed searches I have ever witnessed.

From the outset, it was very clear that the screener would have preferred to be anywhere else. She acted as if she was afraid of me, though given that I had set myself apart as apparently crazy, perhaps I cannot blame her. With rubber-gloved hands she checked my head, my arms, my legs, my buttocks (and discovered a pen that had fallen into one of my pockets) and even the bottom of my feet. Perhaps in a nod to decorum, she did not check my crotch, my armpits or either breast area.

Here was a big problem: an effective search cannot nod to decorum.

These three areas on a woman, and the crotch area of men, offer the greatest opportunity to seclude weapons and contraband. Bad guys and girls rely on the type of reluctance displayed by this screener to get weapons and drugs past the authorities. We train cops to realize that their life depends upon the ability to compartmentalize any apprehension about the need to lift and separate. Fatal consequences can and do result when officers fail to detect a secreted weapon which is later used against them.

At the Albany airport, I was left to wonder what kind of training the screener received. I was forced to conclude the answer might be “none.” At a minimum, she needs re-training, assuming there is any policy or training that governs searches. Further, after being repeatedly informed that I would be “wanded” by the metal detector in addition to the ‘pat-down,’ I was not.

Had I actually intended to move contraband past the screening point, my best strategy would have been to refuse secondary screening.

I am also forced to conclude that the purpose of the “pat-down” was not to actually interdict contraband. In my case, I believe I was subjected to a haphazard response in order to effectively punish me for refusing secondary screening and to encourage a different decision in the future.

All of this is admittedly subjective, based on my perceptions at the time. What is also entirely subjective is identifying which travelers are selected for secondary screening.

This is where I find myself now obsessing over TSA policy, or its apparent lack. Every one of us goes to work each day harboring prejudice. This is simply human nature. What I have witnessed in law enforcement over the course of the last two decades serves to remind me how active and passive prejudice can undermine public trust in important institutions, like police agencies. And TSA.

Over the last fifteen years or so, many police agencies started capturing data on police interactions. The primary purpose was to document what had historically been undocumented: informal street contacts. By capturing specific data, we were able to ask ourselves tough questions about potentially biased-policing. Many agencies are still struggling with the answers to those questions.

Regardless, the data permitted us to detect problematic patterns, commonly referred to as passive discrimination. This is a type of discrimination that occurs when we are not aware of how our own biases affect our decisions. This kind of bias must be called to our attention, and there must be accountability to correct it.

One of the most troubling observations I made, at both Albany and BWI, was that — aside from the likely notation in a log (that no one will ever look at) — there was no information captured and I was asked no questions, aside from whether or not I wanted to change my mind.

Given that TSA interacts with tens if not hundreds of millions of travelers each year, it is incredible to me that we, the stewards of homeland security, have failed to insist that data capturing and analysis should occur in a manner similar to what local police agencies have been doing for many years.

Some might argue that the potential for intrusion is not the same between police and TSA. I believe my experience this past weekend demonstrates otherwise. Currently, there is no way to know whether a certain male screener routinely identifies predominantly women for additional screening. There is no way to identify whether a Latino screener routinely isolates African-Americans, or vice versa. To assert that the screeners are highly trained and do not engaged in this type of discrimination, whether passive or active, is unsupportable because there is no data. You simply cannot solve problems that you do not want to identify.

Finally, I am most concerned about the “random” nature of my repeated selection for secondary screening. If there is no discrimination at work, and my selection is entirely random, then we have yet another, and probably more significant problem.

For years in policing, we relied on random patrols to curb crime. We relied upon this “strategy” until someone went out and captured some data, and did a study that demonstrated conclusively that random patrols do not work (Kansas City Study).

As police have employed other types of “random” interventions, as in DWI checkpoints, they have had to develop policies, procedures and training to ensure that the “random” nature of these intrusions is truly random. Whether every car gets checked, or every tenth car, police must demonstrate that they have attempted to eliminate the effects of active and passive discrimination when using “random” strategies. No such accountability currently exists at TSA.

As I left the screening check point in Albany, I looked over a few feet and observed an elderly Asian couple talking to “my” supervisor. I unashamedly eavesdropped.

I heard the man say that his wife had not been told that the machine would blow air and that she had been quite startled. The woman said she should have been informed and the supervisor agreed. He said he would speak to the screener (but again, who knows whether he actually did).

Then the man said “And she should have been told she can refuse.” The bells in my head were deafening.

I believe what we have here is the beginning of the end of complacency. It is now apparent to me that in the haste to ensure compliance with procedures that are inconsistent if not inarticulable, TSA has hastened the likelihood of failure. If we do not insist that TSA work to create articulable policies that make sense, procedures that are explicit and consistent and training that supports both, then we are complicit in what will inevitably be an ultimate compromise of TSA.

That compromise may come in the form of terrorist attack, or it may come in the form of a collapse of public support. Either or both are inevitable. Either or both are preventable.

"I'll have a bowl now - and a bowl to go please." (Pic)

Seven Things You Didn't Know About the 2010 Tesla Roadster

By John Voelcker's avatar John VoelckerJohn Voelcker

Tesla Roadster as used by videogame designers

Tesla Roadster as used by videogame designers

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High Gear Media has partnered with Tesla Motors on a new writing contest where YOU can win a tour and road test of the 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport. You can submit as many articles as you like and enter multiple times. Enter now!

Well, maybe you actually knew some of these seven if you're a true Tesla enthusiast. But we bet you didn't know every single one ...

# 7: ORB SEALS

What are OrbSeals, you ask? Why, they're special pellets pumped into the side rail of the Tesla chassis. When they're heat-treated, they expand in volume 50 times, to absorb noise and vibration.

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport

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2010 Tesla Roadster Sport

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport

Enlarge Photo
2010 Tesla Roadster Sport

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport

Enlarge Photo

# 6: LITHIUM-ION CELLS

It was the very first production car to use lithium-ion cells*, which pack roughly twice the energy into a given mass as do the nickel-metal-hydride batteries used in almost every hybrid car for the last dozen years. More energy = more power = more driving fun. Case closed.

# 5: TAKE 6,831 CELLPHONES AND ...

Those lithium-ion cells? The Tesla Roadster uses exactly 6,831 of 'em inside a big black battery pack that weighs 900 pounds. Unlike other electric cars that use larger lithium cells specially designed for auto use, Tesla bases its battery on "commodity cells" that are made by the millions and power such mundane items as mobile phones and laptop computers.

The plus: They're cheap, they're readily available, and they're a very well-known quantity.

The minus: It takes a hellacious amount of of wiring, cooling, instrumentation, control software, and safety features to ensure that even if one of them short-circuits, the others don't.

# 4: SOFTWARE THAT TEACHES ITSELF

The algorithm that calculates the state of charge of the battery pack--a very important number, since that's what gives you the "range remaining" number--in each individual Tesla keeps learning and gets more accurate over time, by comparing its calculations to the actual behavior of the pack as it discharges.

# 3: CARBON FIBER

A lot of enthusiasts don't realize that the Tesla's body panels are made of carbon fiber. You know, the lightweight, ultra-strong material used in fighter jets and other very fast moving objects.

# 2: ON-THE-FLY PERFORMANCE MODE

Sure, you can use the Tesla touchscreen to select the software mode for "Performance". But there's also a cool trick that only the Tesla cognoscenti know: Turn the key one extra click, any time, at rest or on the move, and it's on. Instantly. Which is very handy for those last-minute stop-light drag races with annoying Porsche owners who think electric power is for wussies.

# 1: NO MORE GOLF CARTS!

Even if the company were to vanish in a puff of dust tomorrow, Tesla's place in history would be secure.

Why? Because it accomplished something that a century of hapless green-car enthusiasts never quite managed: It got rid of the tiny, geeky, golf-cart image that came to mind every time someone said the words "electric vehicle".

Original here

How To D*Face A Skate Pool With A Thousand Skulls

view_if_pool_skaters_on_coping

In counter-cultural urban expression, there’s nothing more sublime than the sight of a skater achieving near weightlessness as they rip into a vertical transition before flying off the coping into thin air, clutching their board, while the concrete space from which they soared awaits their return. Ever since the early ’70s, when a legacy of past masters carved an ineffaceable groove in the concrete landscape with nothing but a plank and four wheels beneath their feet, the drained swimming pool has held a special place inside the ribcage of the street skater.

Environmental Graffiti talked to London-based street artist D*Face fresh from his return from painting an abandoned swimming pool for skateboarders in California.

aerial_view_of_Ridiculous_skate_pool

Ramp skating may win more prizes, it may even hit greater heights, but riding the beautifully curved 1950s pools of San Bernadino – aka the ‘Badlands’ – is skating to the core, harking back to the early days when air was first caught and bones first broken. D*Face recently took a trip to the skate community where it all started to paint the perfect pool.

Inspired by skate graphics and the street art scene that spawned him, D*Face helped create a skater’s dream spot with his design for a pool dubbed ‘Ridiculous’ by the guys who discovered it, MTV host Peter King and legendary skateboarder Steve Alba. The slightly cryptic name is a marker of its ridiculously perfect shape and curvature, from a skater’s point of view.

skater_catching_air_off_lip

San Bernadino was hit hard by the economic slump and subprime mortgage fiasco, so many of its properties have been left vacant. This gave the skating community the chance to mark their turf on an abundance of abandoned swimming pools – echoing the era when Alba and others took their hardcore style to the pools following the 1970s drought in Southern California.

The invitation to paint ‘Ridiculous’ was put out by MTV, but if that makes this sound more commercial than it perhaps should, remember that the guys who found it could, in theory, have been arrested for this stunt. And look no further than D*Face’s skull designs, hundreds of which litter the pool basin, to see that this is a graphic artist doing what comes naturally to him – and an artist who loves skating.

D*Face_sitting_on_edge_of_pool

D*Face was, in the vernacular, stoked to paint the pool and realise a dream of visiting the traditional Mecca of all skate scenes, where his early interest in the relationship between art and skateboarding first came alive – even if he was just a little too young to know it at the time. Nourished by a passion for hip-hop and punk music, cartoon animation and of course street art, his style fitted the bill well.

Asked how his art interacts with skating and the skate aesthetic in his painting for ‘Ridiculous’, D*Face told EG:

“I guess because my work can be seen in the public domain, for free, by any passers-by, and uses elements of repetition to build awareness and subversion and shock to provoke reaction. Skateboarders I believe are a different breed. They pay attention to the environment that surrounds them, they are often chased off spots they’re illegally skating, so there’s a synergy between my work, skateboarders and skateboarding.”

Steve_Alba_turning_back_into_the_pool

“The Ridiculous pool was slightly different in as much as I hadn’t seen the actual pool before, so only had a very vague idea of the size. Also it was going to be ridden by skaters who hadn’t seen or weren’t necessary familiar with my work, so I wanted to produce a piece that had instant appeal and impact and would tessellate, enabling me to cover as much or as little of the pool as time allowed and to allow me to work with the natural flow and line of the pool that the skaters ride.”

“Skulls or more importantly death plays a significant part in my work. It’s also something synonymous with skateboarding and skateboard art, so the idea was to cover the pool with over a 1000 life size skulls in various shades, as a tribute to the fallen skaters and past masters.”

looking_into_ridiculous

“My work in the public domain is also ephemeral, subject to ever changing elements, both natural and human. Much like the graphics on a skateboard they’re only temporary. As soon as the boards are ridden they start to decay and take on their own life. The same can be said for my work in the street. It’s this natural element of weathering and ageing that is beautiful and brings a new life to the piece. The exact same effect applies to the Ridiculous pool. It wasn’t complete until it had been skated hard. The lines, scrapes and scuffs that run through the painting bring a whole new life and texture to the pool that would be impossible to replicate.”

D*Face_lying_down_on_the_job

And what about the history of his love for skating? D*Face told us:

“Skateboarding changed my life. I was never the academic kid and didn’t take particularly well to the education system, so I looked to other means of ‘education’ and found what I can only describe as the manuals to my life; Subway Art, Spraycan Art and Thrasher Magazine.”

“I used to get Thrasher from the older kids at school, around ‘82 – ‘89. Those magazines and books were like eye candy to a visually starving child, particularly the adverts in Thrasher for various skate brands’ boards. Those struck me hard. I didn’t know who or how you’d get to create such amazing artworks to grace the bottom of a skateboard, that was essentially then going to get ruined, but they had a profound influence on my work. I later came to find out the skate artwork that I was particularly inspired by was by Jim Philips and Vernon Johnson.”

feet_looking_on_the_edge_of_the_pool

“I skated my teenage years away and at a time where skateboarding was seen as an outcasts’ thing to do. We had to be resourceful in finding spots to skate, particularly as England was decades behind the USA in building actual skate parks, so skateboarding taught me to look at the city differently – you know, what had been designed as an architectural feature became a skate-able object. This looking differently at our public domain is a key factor in my work now as an artist. A blank wall with high visibility becomes a prime canvas to display artwork on.”

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And finally, were there any other incentives for this gig? D*Face:

“Meeting Steve ‘Salba’ Alba who is a pool skating legend and a skater I’ve admired since a child. He’s a regular at the Ridiculous Pool, in fact the area San Bernardino where the pool is located is nicknamed Salba Land as he’s skated so many pools in that area. Also getting to fulfill a childhood dream of hopping backyards to skate pools with Salba and Peter King and watching amazing skaters session the pool was incentive enough.”

D*Face finally completed his creation after four, marathon 17-hour days of painting. As the sun set on the fourth day, over 100 skaters led by Steve Alba dropped in on the vertical backyard slopes, grinding the proverbial icing into D*Face’s creative cake: interactive street-art done good. Would other legends from back in the day have enjoyed the show? Only if they’d have been the ones to break in first.

With special thanks to D*Face for taking the time to answer our questions.

Original here

Friday, November 27, 2009

Google to immortalize Iraqi museum

by Tom Johansmeyer (RSS feed)



Google is taking Iraq's national museum global. Company CEO, Eric Schmidt, said Tuesday that Google is going to document what's in the museum and will share photographs of the war-torn countries museum holdings with the world. The museum, which reopened this year, was torn apart after Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in April 2003.
At a ceremony with Iraqi officials, Schmidt said, "The history of the beginning of - literally - civilization is made right here and is preserved here in this museum." He continued, "I can think of no better use of our time and our resources than to make the images and ideas from your civilization, from the very beginnings of time, available to billions of people worldwide." Already, Google has shot around 14,000 photos of the museum and its contents. They'll be up on the web for all to see early next year. As artifacts from the museum's vaults and from others across Iraq become available, they will be brought into the program. Some of these items date back to the Stone Age, as well as the Babylonian, Assyrian and Islamic periods.

Original here



Prediction: In 2015, fuel cell vehicles "will be cheaper than a Rolls-Royce"

by Sebastian Blanco (RSS feed)


2009 Honda FCX Clarity - Click above for high-res image gallery

A lot of automakers are targeting 2015 as the year to introduce fuel cell vehicles to the market, GM, Toyota and Honda foremost among them. This is fine and all, but there are still some serious questions about the cost of hydrogen fuel cell systems to figure out between now and then. A quote buried deep in a new UPI Asia article on Japanese leadership in FCVs gives us one researcher's prediction: "By the time FCVs are commercially available in 2015 they will be cheaper than a Rolls-Royce [$550,000], but it will be difficult to price them down to the level of a Corolla [$22,000]."

That's the view of Kenichiro Ota, a professor at Yokohama National University, and it flies in the face of what automakers like GM are claiming. Everyone seems to be coming into agreement that the cars are technologically solid – the distance they can go on a kg of H2 is increasing, for example – but that cost issue isn't going away.

Original here

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The best books of the ’00s

by Ellen Wernecke, Vadim Rizov, Donna Bowman, Zack Handlen, Genevieve Koski, Michaelangelo Matos, Samantha Nelson, Keith Phipps, Tasha Robinson, and Todd VanDerWerff

Anyone looking for trends in our selection of the best books of the ’00s might have a hard time finding them amid the wizards, 19th-century serial killers, dysfunctional families and such. Narrowing down our decisions was pretty tough, and the process required a number of back-and-forths about what was significant as well as beautifully executed, which book from a given author represented his or her best of the decade, and so on. So consider these alphabetically listed selections 30 of the many, many memorable books published this decade, and as always, let us know what we missed.

Non-fiction:

Devil In The White City (2003), Erik Larson
Devil In The White City (2003), Erik LarsonIt’s easy to imagine Devil In The White City as a historic true-crime novel, devoted to telling the chilling story of the serial killer H.H. Holmes, with the Chicago World’s Fair simply serving as a backdrop. But what makes the book so remarkable is the level of detail provided by Larson’s research into the setting and the protagonists. Architect Daniel H. Burnham wanted to parlay the fair into a forum that would make Chicago a global city; his quest gets as much page time as the grim details about how Holmes murdered more than 27 young women, and it’s just as compelling. The result is a non-fiction thriller, a tale of creation and destruction filled with bizarre facts and stories that expose the best and worst of human ingenuity.


Fargo Rock City
(2001), Chuck Klosterman
Fargo Rock City (2001), Chuck Klosterman The trouble with High Fidelity is that it’s a great book about relationships and a miserably anachronistic one about music: Nick Hornby’s steadfast, monolithic devotion to the super soul hits of the ’70s fails to get anything right about the intersection of ’90s music and love. Enter Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, the most trenchant book ever written about that ’80s punchline, “hair metal.” Over the course of his engaging, infinitely quotable discursus, Klosterman unpretentiously maps what music can mean, both within its own imposed narrative, and once it reaches the outside world. He veers all over the place: one moment he’s giving readers a detailed analysis of Guns ’N Roses’ Use Your Illusion video trilogy, and the next, he’s talking about why metal turned him into an alcoholic, and why it’s weird that Pavement never talked about the beer they were drinking. His passion is contagious: You don’t have to like (or even be familiar with) the music to be sucked into a world of beautifully argued, casually hilarious passion. In terms of books about what listening to music can mean when you love it to the point of idiocy, few are better.


Freakonomics
(2005), Steven D. Levitt and Steven J. Dubner
Freakonomics (2005), Steven D. Levitt and Steven J. DubnerThere’s often profit and acclaim in writing books that make abstruse fields of study accessible to the layman: Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History Of Time, for instance. But there’s even more glory in writing books that make those fields fun. The bestseller Freakonomics, co-authored by journalist Steven J. Dubner and “rogue economist” Steven D. Levitt, is an excellent example. By defining economics as “the study of incentives” rather than anything specifically tied to money or commercial interests, Levitt freed himself up for economics-style analysis of everything from dropping crime rates to the outcomes of sumo-wrestling matches. Like any mass-appeal, pop reevaluation of a scientific field, Freakonomics was controversial, with detractors questioning Levitt’s premises, processes, and conclusions. But just opening up the field to a wider consideration and discussion was a victory, and Levitt and Dubner’s lively prose and intriguing conclusions were icing on the cake.


Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America
(2001), Barbara Ehrenreich
Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America (2001), Barbara EhrenreichBarbara Ehrenreich’s exploratory journey through the struggling underbelly of American society, undertaken when she realized how many women were being forced into minimum-wage jobs, and decided to try some herself, is emotionally draining but intellectually illuminating. Now, after the great financial collapse of 2008, the work reads more and more like prophecy, as untold millions struggle to scrape up enough change to just make rent, to say nothing of trying to buy food, or care for their kids. Ehrenreich’s travels take her from waitressing to Wal-Mart, and at all turns, she feels desperate and belittled, a feeling many people rudely tossed atop the unemployment line now share. It’s rare that a social-issues book becomes more prescient as time goes by, but Nickel And Dimed is an urgent exception.


Nixonland
(2008), Rick Perlstein
Nixonland (2008), Rick PerlsteinThe long 5 o’clock shadow over American politics gets his due in Perlstein’s exhaustively detailed tome on how the 37th president shaped his country. Richard Nixon’s long-building resentment toward the privileged, plus his conviction that disadvantaged men like himself deserved to be in charge, allowed him to exploit a widening gap between the counterculture and the counter-counterculture, invoking the cues that built a majority to carry him to the White House. Rejecting facile explanations of the aftermath of the 1960s, Perlstein redraws the map of two turbulent decades and picks apart the faux-populism that still inflects political discourse today, drawing those parallels without emphasizing them.


Pictures At A Revolution: Five Movies And The Birth Of The New Hollywood
(2008), Mark Harris
Pictures At A Revolution: Five Movies And The Birth Of The New Hollywood (2008), Mark HarrisThis account of the making of the five movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar of 1967—Bonnie And Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, and the winner, In The Heat Of The Night—is one of the great Hollywood books: deeply reported, sharply nuanced, and hugely entertaining even when diving into production minutiae. Harris doesn’t caricature subjects even when the temptation must have been overwhelming, such as drunken, racist Dolittle star Rex Harrison, soft-liberal Dinner producer-director Stanley Kramer, and haughty New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, whose one-man crusade against Bonnie And Clyde cost him his job. And the great stories are innumerable, as when The Graduate director Mike Nichols breaks down the skepticism of producer Joseph Levine over Nichols’ multiple uses of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds Of Silence” in its first 40 minutes: “I ran it, and he said, ‘I smell money!’” says Nichols, “thereby endearing himself to Paul Simon for all time.”


Them: A Memoir Of Parents
(2005), Francine Du Plessix Gray
Them: A Memoir Of Parents (2005), Francine Du Plessix GrayIn a decade marked by the memoirs of angry children determined to mine some authorial gold from their unhappy early lives, Du Plessix Gray’s chronicle of growing up as an immigrant in mid-century New York relates history rather than agony, building subtly toward judgment while still acknowledging a debt of gratitude. Francine’s mother and stepfather, Russian émigrés who fell in love in Paris while they were both married to other people, were artistic geniuses and unrepentant social climbers, too exhausted or indifferent to be proper parents. With her eye to the keyhole, Du Plessix Gray weaves her early recollections into a riveting biography of two strangers she happened to live with, balancing memories of their often-irrational behavior with a sparkling account of their talents as celebrated by the world.


The Tipping Point
(2000), Malcolm Gladwell
The Tipping Point (2000), Malcolm GladwellMalcolm Gladwell’s bestseller looked to epidemiology to explain how ideas and phenomena blew up, and ended up becoming its own proof for the theory. Who doesn’t know what a tipping point is now? Who could have said that a decade ago, before Gladwell started playing with the idea, then saw others popularize and spread it? While some of Gladwell’s example have been challenged—The Tipping Point’s view of declining crime rates contrasts sharply with the one found in Freakonomics—the concept seems not only solid, but downright prescient, arriving as it did before talk of Internet memes became a part of casual conversation.


The Wisdom Of Crowds
(2004), James Surowiecki
The Wisdom Of Crowds (2004), James Surowiecki Crowdsourcing would have remained an empty dot-com buzzword if James Surowiecki, the perceptive New Yorker business writer, hadn’t put real-life example and surprising science behind it. His persuasive book shows how properly constituted groups outperform individual experts, even on tasks where no member of the group seems to contain the relevant expertise. From the very first example—a county-fair guess-the-number-of-gumballs-in-the-jar contest—through the much-maligned terrorism-predicting “markets” set up by U.S. intelligence in the wake of 9/11, Surowiecki cuts through common-sense solutions to show that our reliance on pundits and geniuses is misplaced. Together, we know more than Alan Greenspan knows separately, which reveals our culture of overpaid technocrats to be thoroughly backasswards. Pair this book with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and you have a blueprint for a truly enlightened democratic capitalism.


The World Without Us
(2007), Alan Weisman
The World Without Us (2007), Alan WeismanThe environmental-writing market boomed in the ’00s, as more and more people became convinced that climate change would doom us all within the century. But few environmental books have the terrific gimmick or evocative writing of Weisman’s The World Without Us. Weisman starts from an irresistible premise—how long would it take the planet to erase all traces of human society if we all disappeared tomorrow?—but bolsters it with a tremendous feel for place, sticking readers in the middle of the quiet solitude of the last old-growth forest in Europe, or the controlled chaos of an oil refinery, with equal ease. Weisman managed the rare feat of getting readers to consider their impermanence while also thinking about how it might be a good thing.


Fiction:

The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay (2000), Michael Chabon
The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay (2000), Michael ChabonBy the end of the decade, it had almost become a cliché for authors to wed pulp influences to the sorts of epic family sagas that defined American fiction. But when Michael Chabon tried it with Kavalier & Clay, it felt fresh and new. Though he wasn’t the first to dabble in blending these influences, his was the breakthrough novel that made the technique safe for others to try. And even now, after all the imitators, his book still feels alive in a way that few pulp novels or epic family sagas do, as it follows two boys in Great Depression New York City who invent a comic-book superhero. While the book’s occasional trips off into pulp adventure can seem a little goofy, its wistful, romantic heart and longing for Golden Age archetypes to chart a course for truth and justice remain potent.


Atonement
(2001), Ian McEwan
Atonement (2001), Ian McEwanOn paper, it sounds like the most boring novel ever: yet another examination of repressed Britons on the eve of World War II. Instead, Ian McEwan turned the story of a forbidden love affair and a young girl on the edge of comprehending adult interaction, but not quite there yet, into a moving examination of guilt, forgiveness, and the power of fiction. The novel’s opening passages—where said young girl makes a terrible mistake and accuses her sister’s lover of a crime he didn’t commit—are written with keen psychological insight and leisurely pacing that nonetheless remains tense. But in the book’s following sections, McEwan’s games with narrative structure and unreliable narrators become something else altogether, an increasingly sad look at how little power stories have over real life.


Bel Canto
(2001), Ann Patchett
Bel Canto (2001), Ann PatchettIn December 1996, a group of Peruvian revolutionaries began a hostage crisis in the official residence of the Japanese ambassador in Lima that ended violently more than four months later. Ann Patchett was paying attention, and her novel finds a bittersweet lyricism in a fictionalized take on the same event. Stuck together, hostages and hostage-takers find the factors dividing them—politics, language, and in one of the central relationships, the distance between a famous opera singer and a devoted fan—matter less than the needs that unite them. The grace they find can’t last, however, and like the music that helped inspire the novel, Patchett earns her novel’s heartache by suggesting the possibility of a sweeter, more beautiful world.


The Blind Assassin
(2000), Margaret Atwood
The Blind Assassin (2000), Margaret AtwoodCanadian author Margaret Atwood has shown a career-long interest in gender relations and generational changes, particularly how the past gives way to a present that only dimly and incorrectly remembers what came before. That obsession gets worked out in a number of absorbing ways in one of her most ambitious, artful novels to date: The Blind Assassin follows several interlocked threads, as Atwood plays games with identities, connections, parallels, and altered histories. In one thread, she explores the childhood of two sisters, Iris and Laura; in another, Iris is a cantankerous, elderly widow, and Laura is an apparent suicide whose posthumously published novel became an enduring classic. Atwood only gradually reveals what happened between these bookends, and she keeps readers guessing, as it becomes clear that what the world remembers about Laura has very little bearing on what actually happened. Like many Atwood novels, Assassin is a puzzle box, but luminous writing, well-drawn characters, and the keenly melancholy theme of generational amnesia have more to do with the novel’s success than the series of reveals Atwood puts her readers through.


Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao
(2007), Junot Díaz
Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao (2007), Junot DíazIt’s lonely on the corner between Hispanic slang and geek culture, but this 2008 Pulitzer-winner’s “lovesick nerd” Oscar de Leon can only dream about hanging out somewhere else. The frenetic multi-generational saga of family curses and the legacy of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo is a hero’s tale and a fantasy homage rising out of a thicket of bilingual wordplay and a glorious stew of cultural references. Oscar’s determination to overcome his fate, set into motion when his grandfather runs afoul of Trujillo’s wishes, captivates even the jaded sometime narrator Yunior, faithful to his memory even though he was unable to be to his sister.

Carter Beats The Devil (2001), Glen David Gold
Carter Beats The Devil (2001), Glen David GoldPopcorn fiction and historical fiction were both sneered at more often than not in the ’00s, as poorly written tales of the secret history of everything overwhelmed the bestseller charts. Enter Gold’s debut novel, a romp through early 20th-century San Francisco and the world of vaudevillian magic that makes few claims to historical veracity, and rockets along like the best page-turners. But Gold’s novel is about more than how a sad magician finds love and constructs the ultimate illusion while avoiding assassins and those who suspect him of killing the president. It’s also about moving on past crippling loss, overcoming depression, and learning how to feel again. Gold’s pacing makes Carter easy to read, but his sense of emotion makes it take up space in the heart.


The Corrections
(2002), Jonathan Franzen
The Corrections (2002), Jonathan FranzenThe Tolstoy-esque family novel got its 21st-century upgrade early, and has withstood all comers since. The Lamberts’ disintegration under the pressures of work, illness, and love unfolds with a cynical humor that strips the family’s pretensions away until only their most craven selves survive as they struggle to break free. As these unsympathetic characters go through the wringer, Jonathan Franzen outlines the symptoms of modern malaise, whose only cure is being able to see through the layers of protective self-delusion. The modern dysfunctional family wriggles under Franzen’s microscope, but its features are all too familiar. Oprah, take note: His next book, Freedom, is due to arrive next fall, just in time to inform the next decade.


The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time
(2003), Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time (2003), Mark HaddonWritten from the perspective of an autistic boy obsessed with detective work, Mark Haddon’s astounding tightrope act portrays his protagonist’s richly odd inner life and places it in the context of a suspenseful journey outside his comfort zone of numbers, routines, and maps. Plunged into an unfamiliar world of train travel and self-reliance, Christopher tries to find out who killed his neighbor’s dog, emulating his hero Sherlock Holmes, and trying not to be fooled by fake phantasms like Holmes’ creator. Not merely the finest fictional depiction of the autistic brain yet produced, Curious Incident is also among the best page-turning thrillers of the decade.


Empire Falls
(2001), Richard Russo
Empire Falls (2001), Richard RussoMuch of America made it out of the 20th century badly equipped to deal with the 21st. Richard Russo’s Empire Falls is set in just such a place, a rust-belt Maine town that’s kept going even though the industry that led to its creation can no longer sustain it. Russo brought his by-then-familiar command of memorable characters and comic moments to a novel more ambitious than any he’d attempted before. The book captures a time and place unnerved by a future that offers no reassuring promises of a better tomorrow beyond the comfort its inhabitants can give each other.


Fortress Of Solitude
(2003), Jonathan Lethem
Fortress Of Solitude (2003), Jonathan LethemMaybe Jonathan Lethem didn’t set out to create a magnum opus with Fortress Of Solitude, but that’s what he ended up with. The novel ties together a lifetime of obsessions—with music, art, fathers and sons, comics, and more—and grounds them in the 1970s Brooklyn of Lethem’s childhood. It’s a place of sadness, peril, and racial unease, but it’s also overflowing with the imaginative possibilities of childhood, at least until crises and looming adulthood start to shut them down. It’s a novel immersed in the past, but deeply distrustful of nostalgia and fully aware that the pain of youth has a habit of lingering, and even the presence of magic does little to secure happiness.


Gilead
(2004), Marilynne Robinson
Gilead (2004), Marilynne RobinsonTwenty-three years after the luminous Housekeeping, Robinson proved herself one of the greatest American writers of her generation, winning the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for literature for her equally heartbreaking Gilead. Few could have predicted that the same pen that channeled orphans Ruth and Lucille coming of age in rural Idaho could so masterfully evoke an aging Congregationalist minister, looking back over his life with wonder for the grace given him but regret for his namesake, the son of a good friend who never took the path his elders would have chosen for him. Replete with references to Calvin, Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach, and other thinkers with whom Reverend Ames takes respectful issue, Robinson’s novel serves as a gentle theological treatise, but it never loses the glow of human relationships.


Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince
(2005), J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince (2005), J.K. RowlingArguments for and against its place in the Great Western Canon aside, the Harry Potter series was undeniably the biggest literary phenomenon of the ’00s. Though the first installments from the ’90s were inarguably children’s books, beginning with 2000’s Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, the series began to morph into something decidedly more complex, reaching its apex in 2005 with Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince. The penultimate entry in the seven-part series is most notable for the shocking death at its climax, probably the series’ most unexpected, harrowing moment. But even more remarkable is the fact that it spends 650-plus pages basically filling in backstory and moving pieces into place for the series’ conclusion without sacrificing momentum or character development. (Though it perhaps attempts to cover too much ground at times, giving some elements short shrift.) In spite of whatever other limitations she has as a writer, J.K. Rowling is at her best in Half-Blood Prince, capably unspooling her epic yarn in the straightforward yet enthralling manner that accounts for the series’ unprecedented success.


Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
(2004), Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Susanna Clarke It's the kind of literary mash-up that’s simultaneously strikingly original and comfortingly familiar: Take a sort of idealized version of the Victorian-era novel, with all its drawing-room manners and morally repressed emotions, and insert some magic. And not the symbolic kind, either—actual magic, with rules, mysteries, and all kinds of difficult-to-fathom but impossible-to-ignore dangers. Susanna Clarke’s first novel is the warmly readable study of a frequently chilly world, a story to get lost in about the seduction of being lost, and an exhaustively researched tome on a subject whose research is entirely fictional. Ten years in the writing, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell still feels as light as a feather, and its tale of the friendship and rivalry of the two greatest magicians of their age has the ageless quality of all truly great fantastical fiction, reassuring without being entirely trustworthy, and utterly intoxicating.


Middlesex
(2002), Jeffrey Eugenides
Middlesex (2002), Jeffrey EugenidesJeffrey Eugenides’ long-in-the-making follow-up to The Virgin Suicides adds layer after layer around a kicky, potentially sensationalistic premise. Cal is born Calliope to a family of Greek descent, and spends years living as a girl, unaware of the intersexed condition that makes him genetically male. Jeffrey Eugenides follows the path of the gene that leads to that surprising revelation, tracing it back to Old World conflicts between Greece and Turkey while considering its place in the novel’s sharply realized 20th-century New World of 1970s Michigan. The past doesn’t die, it just mutates, and maybe, hopefully improves, on its way from one generation to the next.


Never Let Me Go
(2005), Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go (2005), Kazuo IshiguroMainstream authors of literary fiction self-consciously slumming it in genres of ill repute ended up being one of the surprising movements of the ’00s. While most of these novels and stories were too aware of their genre roots, Kazuo Ishiguro’s tale of two girls who slowly realize the true nature of their existence keeps what’s best about his writing—his sense of the world as an ephemeral place that could pop out of being at any moment—and weds it to the best dystopic science fiction’s sense of raw humanity breaking through in a sterile world. Like the similar literary science-fiction experiment The Road, Never Let Me Go ends up becoming a testament to the many ways love finds to stay alive.


The Road
(2006), Cormac McCarthy
The Road (2006), Cormac McCarthyA father and son travel through a post-apocalyptic America, half-starved, choking on a never-ending stream of ash sifting down from the sky, and with no hope for an end to their suffering beyond dissolution and death. Much has been made of the bleakness of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, but given its subject matter, the bleakness isn’t all that surprising. What is surprising is the way McCarthy manages to find a modicum of purpose in all that despair, creating a world in which all normal reasons for living—accomplishment, social structure, the possibilities of the future—have been ruthlessly stripped away, then showing how existence still struggles onward, in spite of all barriers against it. It’d be a stretch to call The Road uplifting, and the book has more than its share of horrors, but what makes it such a powerful, wrenching experience isn’t the aftermath of society’s collapse, but the suggestion that, even removed from sentimentality, the basic forward momentum of a dependent and his protector remains. Things don’t have to be good to continue, but they will continue, and sometimes that’s all that’s left.


The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle
(2008), David Wroblewski
The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle (2008), David WroblewskiWroblewski’s first novel retells the story of Hamlet on a farm in northern Wisconsin, and with some of the characters replaced by dogs bred by the Sawtelle family for extraordinary intelligence. And not a word of this lengthy, immersive journey into the struggle of young Edgar to break through the dangerous relationship between his uncle and his mother feels like a gimmick. Full of detail about the training methods that make the Sawtelle dogs special, and anchored by a fugitive quest for justice with only adolescent and canine wits to sustain them, Edgar’s story has the mesmerizing quality of great literature. It’s a world that feels found by accident, unknown to outsiders, and so beautifully tragic that readers will beg the pages to turn more slowly.


The Terror
(2007), Dan Simmons
The Terror (2007), Dan SimmonsIn 1845, Captain John Franklin led two ships on a hunt through the Arctic for the fabled Northwest Passage. Both ships became icebound in the Victoria Strait, and all 128 men were lost. It’s hard to imagine a more horrible way to die, starving slowly as the temperatures plunge and scurvy drives shipmates to contemplate murder and cannibalism, but Dan Simmons decided to make things worse in his 2007 novel, throwing a monster out on the ice and letting the blood flow freely. Telling the story through the perspectives of various real-life crew members, Simmons creates a tense, unrelenting narrative about survival pushed to its extremity, where an inexplicable dark god lurking at the edges isn’t nearly as upsetting as the dwindling food supplies and an actively hostile environment. As grippingly detailed as a true-life adventure narrative, with all the symbolism and tragedy that fiction can provide, The Terror is a rewarding, haunting read. Just make sure to check the thermostat before opening the cover, whatever the season.


The Time Traveler’s Wife
(2003), Audrey Niffenegger
The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), Audrey NiffeneggerThe decade was kind to debut novels of powerful imagination, and none were better poised to seize the American reading public than Audrey Niffenegger’s artfully constructed romance. Only in novelistic form could the emotions of her time-crossed lovers be fully appreciated. As readers proceed linearly through the book, Claire travels from birth to death in the normal way, while her husband Henry is yanked unpredictably through time. Told from their alternating perspectives, the story builds on the yearning and regret that comes from knowing the end before the beginning, and from being given glimpses of the future that others cannot know until it arrives. The Time Traveler’s Wife earns the tears it so copiously extracts, and creates an epic love affair perfect for the turn of the millennium.


White Teeth
(2000), Zadie Smith
White Teeth (2000), Zadie SmithFrom one of the most original talents this decade produced, White Teeth follows an unconventional friendship that becomes a portal into a world where every character’s story sounds truer than the last. The chance meeting of Archibald Jones and Samed Iqbal, fellow World War II veterans who reunite in 1970s London, are just the first brushstrokes in a richly detailed portrait of a neighborhood changing faster than its inhabitants can understand as they struggle to find meaning in a world radically altered from their forefathers’. In spite of its Dickensian spread, Zadie Smith’s debut novel never feels overstuffed or self-consciously stylish. Instead, its assured tone guides readers through genetic controversy, radical Muslim groups, and past-as-prologue, toward a profound commentary on assimilation and culture in the lives of her diverse subjects.

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Year after fatal Wal-Mart stampede, Black Friday gets makeover

walmart.jpgIn November 2008, Nassau County police examine the front of the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, N.Y., where a temporary store worker died after a throng of shoppers broke down the doors on Black Friday.


Victoria Rogers had originally planned to make an early stop the day after Thanksgiving last year at the Wal-Mart store in Valley Stream on Long Island. Her last-minute decision against it might have saved her life.

"We saw the mob, and we said no," she said. "Wal-Mart's not the store."

What she saw that day was no ordinary crowd of shoppers, but a throng police say jammed through the doors upon the store's opening in a mad dash for holiday savings, trampling a guard to death.

"No price can be worth someone's life," said Rogers, of the New York City borough of Queens, on a recent visit to the same store.

One year later, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is embroiled in lawsuits, appealing citations and instituting companywide changes, including staying open 24 hours on Thanksgiving, and has inspired voluntary federal guidelines outlining what other retailers should do to avoid the same result.

"What happened is tragic, and we're still saddened by it," said Daphne Moore, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores, based in Bentonville, Ark. "We are committed to looking for ways to make stores even safer for our customers and associates."

Joe LaRocca, senior asset protection adviser for the National Retail Federation, said the trade group worked with retailers to come up with its own guidelines for managing crowds during special events, including the day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday because it is traditionally considered the day stores break into profitability for the full year.

"Following the incident last year, retailers took another look at their crowd control and major event guidelines," he said. "Many retailers already had these guidelines; some enhanced what they had."

Best Buy ran rehearsals for Black Friday weekend, practicing lining customers up, placing products in the store, checking out overall flow and how the event may flow within the store.

Other companies have worked closely with mall operators on where to form lines and how they might better communicate with customers. They have been examining staffing plans and hiring extra security.

Wal-Mart signed off in May on an agreement with local prosecutors that required it to overhaul security for Black Friday sales in its 92 New York locations, but it recently said it is employing its new strategy nationwide.

The settlement also required Wal-Mart to consult with experts to develop safety plans for each store. Crowd-management staff will be deployed, and maps will show customers where the hot sale items are.

Stores will also place the hottest items -- marked-down TVs, toys and laptop computers, for example -- far apart to prevent big crowds from gathering.

Wal-Mart will also erect barriers to manage traffic flow and distribute wristbands to customers on items with limited inventory. Security monitors will help ensure procedures are being followed, officials said -- not just guards, like Jdimytai Damour.

At 6-5, 270 pounds, Damour was built like NFL linebacker, but he was no match for an estimated 2,000 people who broke down the doors when the Valley Stream Walmart opened at 5 a.m. on Black Friday last year.

Damour, who was 34 and described by friends as a "gentle giant," had been hired only days before. He was trapped inside the vestibule and died of asphyxiation. Several other people, including a pregnant woman, were injured.

A criminal investigation forced Wal-Mart Stores to revamp security planning for the holiday season and led federal regulators to issue safety recommendations for all merchants conducting special events like Black Friday sales.

Damour's family is suing the retailer and Nassau County officials, claiming police could have controlled the crowd better, although police contend that was Wal-Mart's responsibility.

Edward Gersowitz, an attorney for the Damour family, says "positive discussions" continue with Wal-Mart about a possible settlement.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Wal-Mart for inadequate crowd management, but the retailer is appealing.

The National Retail Federation, the industry's largest group, said Damour's death is believed to be the only instance of a store worker dying in the post-Thanksgiving rush.

Police said customers stepped over or on Damour's body as they forced their way through sliding glass doors.

"I think the people themselves were at fault because they were like animals, wild people," Joe Staskowski, of Valley Stream, said on a recent trip to the store. "And for a couple of dollars for people to get hurt or killed? It's a tragedy."

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice contended that had Wal-Mart been found guilty of a crime, the maximum penalty it could have faced was a $10,000 fine. Instead, the store agreed to a $400,000 compensation fund for victims and donated $1.5 million to county social services programs and nonprofit groups.

So far, only three people have qualified for payments from the victims' fund, a Rice spokesman said. They had to prove they were at the store that morning and provide documentation of any physical injury or damage to possessions.

Among the survivors last year was Leana Lockley. The 29-year-old Queens woman was five months pregnant when she was caught up in the stampede and found herself being trampled. Her attorney says she credits Damour with helping save not only her life, but also that of her daughter, Alicia Skye Lockley, who was born in April.

She, too, has sued Wal-Mart but is negotiating a possible settlement, said attorney David Sloan.

Lockley declined to be interviewed but issued a statement: "I believe that there are many lessons to be learned from this tragic incident and I do hope and pray that this year will bring a happy, festive and orderly time for all."

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

21 Secrets to Save on Travel

By Stacy Rapacon, Reporter, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

The travel industry continues to smart from the recession, so deals abound. You just need to know where to look. Search no further than our 21 tips to save on lodging, airfare, vacation packages and cruises:

Book a bargain stay

1) Check TripAdvisor.com for 25 million property reviews from real travelers and professional critics. For details on cozy and often less-costly venues, go to BedandBreakfast.com.

2) Visit Hotels.com every Thursday for its new last-minute deals. While you’re there, watch for other rate sales and package specials.

3) Book directly through the hotel's Web site. Many places offer special online-booking and prepaid deals. You can also opt in to hotels’ free rewards programs and receive e-mails about special promotions and discounts.

4) Book blindly for rock-bottom rates. The auction-style booking pushed by William Shatner’s “Priceline Negotiator” in the popular commercials really can cut up to 50% off regular hotel rates (and 40% off airfare and car-rental rates). And Hotwire.com’s “Hot Rates” can knock up to 60% off retail room prices. With either, you specify your length of stay, preferred neighborhood and a guaranteed minimum star class. But you won’t know the exact hotel or location until after you pay – an especially big risk when visiting unfamiliar areas, particularly overseas. (Blind booking is a safer bet for car rentals; a sedan is a sedan is a sedan. But it’s a big gamble for flights because you won’t know exact flight times or airlines.)

5) Call your hotel to confirm an online reservation, especially if you made one at the last minute, and ask about any additional fees you should watch out for. Most hotels are especially willing to waive fees for frequent visitors or rewards-program members. Also, request a copy of your bill the night before you check out so you have time to dispute any extra charges.

6) Consider specialty lodging, such as condos, villas and vacation home rentals, especially when traveling with a big group. These options often offer more space and amenities for prices similar to or less than hotel rates. HomeAway.com offers the biggest selection of rentals, with more than 176,000 listings worldwide.

Fly for less

7) Use Kayak.com to quickly scan hundreds of travel Web sites for the best airfares. And don't forget to check Southwest.com; Kayak does not include the discount airline’s fares.

8) Sign up with airlines’ free loyalty programs to get the best bargains delivered straight to your in-box. Or visit Airfarewatchdog.com, where the site’s employees join airlines’ rewards programs to snag those promotional codes and special offers to share with you.

9) Plan your purchase at Bing.com/travel, formerly Farecast.com. The site’s “price predictor” forecasts whether fares on major domestic routes will go up or down. Enter your itinerary and it will return a list of airfares with a recommendation to either buy now or wait for a fare drop.

10) Try flying at less-traveled times; flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturday afternoons typically see the least demand and therefore offer the best rates.

11) Choose your destination based on the cheapest flight. For example, if you’re interested in a Caribbean vacation but don’t have a specific location in mind, you can use Kayak’s Buzz tool to search for flights to anywhere in the Caribbean and then pick the place with the lowest fare.

12) Dodge flying fees. To avoid charges levied for buying tickets in person or by phone, book directly with the airline's Web site or with one of the big three online travel agencies – Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz- which recently dropped their flight-booking fees. . And pack lightly to dodge baggage costs. At FlyingFees.com, you can compare the baggage fees carried by 30 major airlines, and other types of fees charged by 20 major airlines.

Save a bundle on vacation packages

13) Online travel agencies Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz are well known for their bundled bargains. But don’t forget to check packages offered by airlines such as United Vacations and smaller operators such as Apple Vacations for some of the sweetest deals.

14) Check the cost of add-ons, such as rental cars, show tickets, tours and museum passes, when booking packages with online travel agencies. Sometimes the agencies offer those extras at a discount.

15) Get one price on your trips with all-inclusive deals from resorts such as Club Med and Sandals.

16) Add travel insurance to your bundle. With Expedia's Package Protection Plan, for example, you're ensured a refund if you need to cancel or change plans. You'll also be reimbursed for trip delays, baggage losses and medical expenses. The package costs $40 to $89, depending on your destination. If you're not offered this protection when you book, or if you need more insurance than what you are offered, go to TravelGuard.com.

Cruise to savings

17) The best deals are close to the departure date -- just don't expect the really cheap tickets to get you a stateroom with a view.

18) Understand the different elements of a cruise, including theme, cabin types and ports of call. CruiseMates.com provides useful reviews and advice columns to get you started. But if you're a first-timer feeling overwhelmed, consider using a travel agent.

19) Visit CruiseCompete.com, where you submit your cruise preferences and more than 300 travel agents compete for your business.

20) Book your flight separately. Using Kayak or Bing.com/travel, you can often find fares that are lower than what a cruise line will package in for you. Make sure you allow enough time to reach the departure port; the ship won’t wait for you if your flight is delayed.

21) Sail into big savings with a repositioning cruise. Ships need to take these one-way voyages in order to relocate for the season. For example, ships that cruise near Alaska in the summer head south once fall arrives, and cruise lines invite passengers aboard for the ride at deeply discounted rates.

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Save Money on Organic Food: Join a Natural Foods Co-op



Derek Markham

By Derek Markham

One common reason you might shy away from purchasing only organically grown food is the relatively higher price when compared to conventionally grown and sourced foods.

If your budget doesn't seem to cover it, then even if you know the importance of eating organic foods for your own health (and the health of the soil and water), you'll choose the foods you feel like you can afford.


Luckily for us, the tradition of natural food cooperatives still survives
. Many food cooperatives (co-ops) were formed out of necessity - natural foods and health food items were not readily available at the corner grocery store - but have survived because of the community-powered principles behind them.

The definition of a co-op, from the International Cooperative Alliance:

"A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise. Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others."

Co-ops are guided by the cooperative principles:

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership
  2. Democratic Member Control
  3. Member Economic Participation
  4. Autonomy and Independence
  5. Education, Training and Information
  6. Cooperation among Cooperatives
  7. Concern for Community


In essence, co-ops serve their member's needs. They aren't out to make huge profits for absentee stockholders, they're out to provide maximum value for their shareholders (the members). And one of the things they can do is save you money on food - sometimes on regular prices, but most often in the form of bulk purchasing.

Many co-ops have discounted pricing for bulk orders, for example, on bags of grains, beans, oats, even produce, personal care, and prepared foods. This means that by purchasing the foods you eat regularly in large quantities, you'll not only be assured of having your staples on hand, you'll also pay less per serving. You do have to come up with the cash up front, plus a place to store the food, but it's definitely worth it.

Other advantages of buying in bulk:

  • You may have access to other food choices that aren't carried on the shelf at the store.
  • It uses much less packaging than buying packaged goods.
  • The foods you usually eat will be on hand, making it less likely to eat junk food or go out to eat.
  • The less times you have to enter the grocery store, the better, as you're likely to purchase extras each time you go.
  • Whole natural foods purchased in bulk generally means fresher food.
  • By ordering ahead and keeping staples on hand, you will be better able to plan your food budget and stick with it.
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