Saturday, February 28, 2009

Italy to build the world's largest suspension bridge between Calabria and Sicily

By Nick Squires in Rome

Italy to build the world's largest suspension bridge between Calabria and Sicily
Photo simulation of suspention bridge, connecting mainland Italy to Sicily. Photo: AP

Critics say that at six billion euros (£5.4bn), the cost of the two-and-a-half mile bridge across the Strait of Messina is far too high and have questioned the wisdom of building such a giant span in a region which is prone to earthquakes.

Some engineers have given warning that the area's huge pylons would be vulnerable to high winds.

"It's true that it costs six billion euros but this is the project and we're not going back on it," Altero Matteoli, the public works minister, told Italian radio.

He acknowledged that it would be essential to improve the ramshackle roads and railways on either side of the bridge, in Sicily and the mainland region of Calabria.

"The bridge will oblige us to improve railway and motorway infrastructure as well as the ports. It's an enormous amount of work that will also increase tourism."

The project, which Mr Matteoli said could get underway this year, was first envisioned by Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, when he was in office in 2001-2006, but then ditched by his centre-left successor, Romano Prodi, amid concerns that it would mostly benefit construction firms run by the mafia.

Mr Prodi's administration labelled it a vanity project and "the most useless and harmful plan of the past 100 years."

Mr Berlusconi was re-elected prime minister last year and put the project back on track.

He insists that it will create thousands of jobs, boost tourism and improve transport links between the 'toe' of the Italian mainland and Sicily, replacing ferry services.

The bridge would be able to handle nearly 5,000 cars an hour as well as high-speed trains.

The dream of building a bridge across the narrow strait was first envisioned by the Romans and later considered by Sicily's Norman rulers.

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HoleInTheDonut Helps Man Find Long Sought Swiss Family Roots

by Barbara Weibel

A couple of weeks ago I received an email thanking me for posting photos of the old buildings in the village of Matten, Switzerland on my blog. The message, which was from a William Diesslin, read in part:

“You didn’t know it at the time, but you photographed my great grandfather’s store front! I’ve attached the photo for your reference.”

Matten was the town I stayed in when visiting Switzerland during the summer of 2007 and I had taken scores of photos of the intriguing architecture in the village. Curious, I downloaded the photo he had attached - an historical black and white image of an old storefront. I figured it would be a simple thing to find the present day photo among those I had published on the blog and began side by side comparisons. It was not as easy as I had assumed it would be, but by comparing things like the gables, roof line, and the horizontal strip that separated the first and second stories, I was eventually able to identify the correct structure.

Today the building is home to a hostel, the Balmer’s Herberge. The building is located on the same street as my hotel and I had even eaten at the Thai restaurant that now occupies the basement. Take a look at the photos below for a glimpse into the past and an idea of how well these old buildings have withstood the test of time.


Today one of the buildings comprising a large hostel,

the Diesslin store hides its age well


Historic Diesslin store; the man standing in the doorway is

Bill's great grandfather and the child to his right is Bill's



A closer look at the store from the opposite direction,

as it looks today

But that’s not the end of the story. When I emailed Bill to make sure I’d identified the correct building and ask permission to use his historic photo, I received the following stunning response from him:

“You are welcome to use the photo, but I would wait a few weeks. I’ve contacted the folks at Balmer’s to see if they can confirm this with deeds. The owner is out of country but will return before February.

My grandfather emigrated from Switzerland in 1920. His wife followed him two years later. The old photograph only recently came into my possession. It was sent to a distant relative many years ago. My dad (recently) went to a Swiss Society picnic and someone showed it to him. I have since obtained quite a few family records. My grandfather’s birth certificate indicates that his father (my great grandfather) had the occupation of “handlesmann” or merchant in English. That was the start of the link. (see the word ‘handlesmann‘ in the sign shown in the historic photo).

What threw me off is that I thought the sign in the old picture said J.C. Diesslin. The birth certificate indicated that he was Johann George Diesslin. Zoom in at the picture and see for yourself. It helps if you look at the “C” and “G” in tuchhandlug. The opening at the bottom of the “C” is different from the top. We are quite sure it says J.G. Diesslin, but Balmers will hopefully confirm that for me.

The story gets better, I stayed at Balmer’s in 1988! I had no idea that it was tied to my family. There is something else I want to confirm; my grandmother had a brother and he married a Balmer! This might be something big.

This will be a landmark for my family as my dad was orphaned at 14 years old, all family history was lost. Your photos may have opened up a long lost link to my ancestors.”

My jaw dropped when I read it! Imagine, my blog might have been instrumental in helping Bill trace the history of his family. I waited patiently for the next few weeks, then two days ago, I received an update:

“Hi Barbara,
The owners of Balmers have confirmed that the picture I have is the “old Diesslin house.” They purchased it in 1988. (I am the) great grandson of J.G. Diesslin in the picture; the little boy to his right is my grandfather. Your photo log helped me connect the dots of my family tree.
Kindest regards,
Bill Diesslin”

What are the chances? Think of just some of the things that had to happen in order for Bill to make this discovery:

  1. I had to go to Switzerland. I’d never had the least inclination to see this country and ended up there because it was the only direct flight I could get from Tanzania, Africa. Once there, however, I was absolutely enthralled by the scenery and architecture of Switzerland and stayed for more than two weeks.
  2. Of all the potential destinations in Switzerland, I had to go to the Interlaken/Matten area.
  3. I had to take a photo of this particular building, shot from an angle that would allow Bill to make an identification. Why this building? It was just one among hundreds of lovely old Swiss buildings.
  4. This particular photo - just one of hundreds of architectural shots I took during my stay in Matten - had to be featured on the blog.
  5. Bill had to discover my blog (I still have no idea how he found it), and examine all the photos.
  6. He had to stay at Balmer’s Herberge and I had to stay just down the street.

I could go on about the series of seemingly insignificant events that had to occur before Bill could connect his family dots. There is no doubt that we live in amazing times and that the Internet is an amazing tool, but I have to believe there was something more going on in this instance - somebody’s higher power was working overtime and I am thrilled to have been a part of it.

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Lifestyle changes could prevent a third of cancers: report

Exercise and diet play a major role in cancer prevention, and should be encouraged through infrastructure and food pricing policies, the report says.Exercise and diet play a major role in cancer prevention, and should be encouraged through infrastructure and food pricing policies, the report says. (Ryan Jackson/Canadian Press)

An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure when it comes to cancer, according to an exhaustive international report.

The report by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund was released Thursday in London, England.

It calls on governments to legislate healthy living, such as:

  • Mandate walking and cycling paths that encourage physical activity.
  • Support policies for better-priced, healthier food choices for consumers, such as reformulating processed foods to have less sugar, salt and fat.
  • Ban ads for sugary drinks and unhealthy foods aimed at children.
  • Require schools to provide built-in exercise opportunities for children.

After reviewing 7,000 studies, the report's authors concluded that in countries like Canada, one-third of cancer cases could be eliminated if people ate less fat and sugar, exercised more and reduced obesity.

Another one-third of cancers are due to smoking.

"We should have cancer risk and health as a main value in considering and reconsidering the policies that we already have in place," said Tim Byers, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Colorado and one of the 23 cancer experts who wrote the report.

The authors noted that individuals bear responsibility for health, but lifestyle changes can be difficult to achieve and maintain without support from other sectors of society.

"This is much more far-reaching than in the past, saying that we're recognizing that all of us may be relatively weak when it comes to individual efforts," said Kristan Aronson, a cancer epidemiologist at Queen's University who commented on the report.

"And [it says] governments should encourage healthy food — and discourage unhealthy food — through legislation and pricing. Oh my God, that's huge."

In Canada already, junk food including sugary drinks have been banned in many schools.

The report also included prevention estimates for many types of cancer throughout the world.

For example, eating healthy foods, keeping active and staying trim could prevent 75 per cent of esophageal cancer in the U.K., 52 per cent of endometrial cancer in Brazil and one-third of stomach cancers in China.

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What's the Best Diet? Eating Less Food

By Tiffany Sharples

Young woman eating a salad.
Michael A. Keller / Corbis

Low fat, low carb, high protein — there's a diet plan of every flavor. And if you're one of the millions of Americans who struggle with weight, you've probably tried them all, likely with little success. That wouldn't surprise Dr. Frank Sacks, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of a new study published in the Feb. 26 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, whose findings confirm what a growing body of weight-loss evidence has already suggested: one diet is no better than the next when it comes to weight loss. It doesn't matter where your calories come from, as long as you're eating less. (Read about environmentally friendly food.)

"We have a really simple and practical message for people: it's not so much the type of diet you eat," says Sacks. "It's how much you put in your mouth."

In the analysis of 811 obese patients from Massachusetts and Louisiana, participants were randomly assigned to one of four heart-healthy diets: low fat or high fat, with either average or high levels of protein. All four regimens also included high amounts of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and substituted saturated fat, found in foods such as butter and meat, with unsaturated fat, found in vegetable oil and nuts. The participants were encouraged to exercise 90 minutes a week. (See the top 10 food trends of 2008.)

On average, the study participants lost about 13 lb. after six months of dieting, or about 7% of their starting weight, regardless of which diet plan they followed. At the one-year mark, the dieters had regained some of the lost weight, and after two years, average weight loss was about 9 lb. Only about 15% of participants were able to lose 10% of their body weight or more. Across the board, however, patients lowered their risk of diabetes and reduced blood levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) while increasing good cholesterol (HDL) and overall heart health.

Catherine Loria, one of the study's co-authors and a nutritional epidemiologist with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which funded the study, was encouraged by the findings. "People do have to choose heart-healthy foods," she says, but "I think the beauty of the study is that they have a lot of flexibility in terms of the dietary approach."

But that's where the trouble begins. It's hard enough to figure out what to eat. Eating less of it is even harder. Researchers had hoped to get study participants to eat 750 calories less than they expended each day — an objective that proved unsustainable. Dieters adhered to the initial plan for the first several weeks, but by the six-month mark, they were consuming only 225 calories less than they expended — about a third of the goal — according to a calculation based on overall weight loss. "It's very difficult to reduce your calories enough to really sustain a lot of weight loss," Loria says. (See pictures of facial yoga.)

One failure of most diet plans is that people get hungry and quit, says Sacks, who acknowledges that the sudden reduction of 750 calories in his study was perhaps too steep. "I think what that teaches us is that maybe it's better to make a more gradual change in intake," says Sacks. "That's what I recommend to my patients: let's try to pick a gradual or realistic reduction in calories that's not going to make you really hungry a lot and that you can sustain day after day."

But eating less, however simple it may sound, is hardly a one-man job. Some nutrition experts argue that the balance of responsibility needs to fall more heavily on society at large. Martjin Katan, a professor of nutrition and health at Amsterdam's VU University, wrote an accompanying editorial that analyzed the merits of the diet study. He suggests that focusing on individual diet plans of any kind may be misguided, and that only community-wide change will truly be able to stem the tide of obesity. He points to a small town in France that tapped all of its residents to solve the problem — building more outdoor-sports facilities and creating walking routes, hosting cooking classes and even intervening with at-risk families. After five years, obesity among children was down to 8.8%, less than half the rate of neighboring towns. That success, he writes, "suggests that we may need a new approach to preventing and to treating obesity and that it must be a total-environment approach."

It's a useful lesson for American adults, two-thirds of whom are overweight or obese. Long-term weight loss has proved frustratingly elusive for many obese individuals, but study after study has shown that community and peer support help people take off weight — and keep it off. In this study, the participants who took advantage of group and individual counseling offered as part of the diets had far greater success than those who chose to go it alone. Over the course of two years, participants who went to at least two-thirds of the counseling sessions dropped about 22 lb., 13 lb. more than the average of the entire study population. "Losing weight and sustaining it for two years is difficult," Sacks says. "To help people do that, they need some level of support to keep their motivation and focus."

But the bottom line, according to most obesity experts, is to set realistic goals. Expect what is achievable: a 250-lb. person isn't likely to slim down to supermodel proportions in her lifetime, but she may be able to lose 10 or 20 lb. A moderate 5% or 10% reduction in body weight can significantly improve health, by lowering cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. For many doctors who work with obese patients, the goal is not thinness but well-being — and, ultimately for the patient, self-acceptance.

As for the secret to losing weight? There is none. "It's basic physiology," Loria says. "Eat fewer calories than you expend."

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Teenage abortions hit record as under 16 pregnancy rate soars

By John Bingham and Rebecca Smith

Pregnant teenager: Record teenage abortions as under 16 pregnancy rate soars
The number of under 16s getting pregnant leapt by 6.4 per cent Photo: GETTY

Official figures show that more than 21,000 girls under 18 chose to have a termination in 2007, the first time the proportion has reached 50 per cent.

Abortion providers described the landmark as a "positive sign" but pro-life campaigners said it was "frightening".

The number of under 16s getting pregnant leapt by 6.4 per cent, the figures from the Office for National Statistics show.

Meanwhile the overall rate for all girls under 18 rose for the first time since 2002.

It means that a Government target to halve the number of teenage pregnancies by next year now looks almost certain be missed despite intense efforts to promote contraception and more sex education in schools.

The figures come amid the furore over 13-year-old Alfie Patten, the schoolboy from Sussex who is said to be the father of his 15-year-old girlfriend Chantelle Stedman's daughter, Maisie Roxanne.

Among girls under 18, the conception rate increased from 40.9 per 1,000 in 2006 to 41.9 in 2007 - the first such increase since 2002.

When those under 16 were considered the rate rose from 7.8 per to 8.3 per 1,000 - an increase of more than six per cent in numerical terms - from 7,826 to 8,196 in 2007.

The proportion having an abortion rose to 50 per cent from 48 per cent in 2006 and as low as 40 per cent in 1996.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the charity the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the UK's largest abortion provider, said: "The fact that half of the teenagers in this position felt able to end their pregnancy in abortion is actually a positive sign."

She described the fact that there is less social stigma among young people about having an abortion as "an entirely good thing".

But Josephine Quintavalle, of the ProLife Alliance, said: "I think that is just utterly offensive ... I don't know how any woman could say that."

Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, added that the figures showing rising numbers of teenage pregnancies were just the "tip of the iceberg" and showed that the Government's teenage pregnancy strategy had been a "disaster".

Annette Brooke, the Liberal Democrat Children Spokesperson described the teenage pregnancy rate in Britain as "scandalously high" and said that earlier progress appeared to be being reversed.

"Instead of endless reviews and leaflets for parents, ministers need to ensure that all of our young people are getting the relationship and sex education they need," she said.

Andrew Lansley, the Conservative Shadow Health Secretary, said: "This is another Government target missed.

"Once again it demonstrates how pointless it is to set targets if the Government doesn't do what is needed to deliver on them."

The Government responded by announcing an extra £20.5 million to promote contraception in skills including a £7 million media campaign.

Beverley Hughes, the Children and Young People's Minister, admitted that the figures were "disappointing" and said that policies were being implemented in a patchy manner.

"There is no doubt that rates have come down where local areas have implemented the strategy properly, even in deprived areas," she said.

"The evidence suggests that more teenagers may have been engaging in risky behaviour and not using contraception, resulting in an increase in conceptions leading to abortion.

"Our strategy is to encourage teenagers to delay early sexual activity, but to use contraception when they do become sexually active."

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Jon Stewart Eats Pancake-Wrapped Sausage Dipped in Baconnaise

posted by: matt tobey

Every time I get together with my family, my cousins always convince me to eat something really gross. Like, last summer, they got me to eat raspberry cake topped with ketchup and onions. And yeah, it’s kind of embarrassing to be known as the cousin who eats gross things, but it was the only way to stop being known as the cousin who got drunk and tried to French grandma. At her funeral.

Still, sausage wrapped in blueberry pancakes dipped in Lite Baconnaise? That’s going too far.

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The World’s Greatest Restaurant

Forget about places like The French Laundry and Jean Georges, Chandler, Arizona’s Heart Attack Grill may be the best eatery in the U.S.

Tired of all the attention being paid to nutritional information and trans fats nowadays? Then you need to head out to the Heart Attack Grill in Chandler, Arizona. This hospital-themed burger joint has a menu featuring French fries cooked in pure lard, cigarettes and Quadruple Bypass Burgers, which packs over two pounds of meat and 8,000 calories. If you can finish one of these gargantuan sandwiches, you get escorted back to your car in a wheelchair by one of the Grill’s sexy nurses. That’s right. In place of traditional waitresses, the restaurant employs hot women in naughty nurse outfits. Check out the Heart Attack Grill’s Website for more info and check out some pics below.


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'Oldest English words' identified

Macclesfield Psalter (PA)
Medieval manuscripts give linguists clues about more recent changes

Some of the oldest words in English have been identified, scientists say.

Reading University researchers claim "I", "we", "two" and "three" are among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years.

Their computer model analyses the rate of change of words in English and the languages that share a common heritage.

The team says it can predict which words are likely to become extinct - citing "squeeze", "guts", "stick" and "bad" as probable first casualties.

"We use a computer to fit a range of models that tell us how rapidly these words evolve," said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading.

"We fit a wide range, so there's a lot of computation involved; and that range then brackets what the true answer is and we can estimate the rates at which these things are replaced through time."

Sound and concept

Across the Indo-European languages - which include most of the languages spoken from Europe to the Asian subcontinent - the vocal sound made to express a given concept can be similar.

New words for a concept can arise in a given language, utilising different sounds, in turn giving a clue to a word's relative age in the language.

At the root of the Reading University effort is a lexicon of 200 words that is not specific to culture or technology, and is therefore likely to represent concepts that have not changed across nations or millennia.

"We have lists of words that linguists have produced for us that tell us if two words in related languages actually derive from a common ancestral word," said Professor Pagel.

When we speak to each other we're playing this massive game of Chinese whispers
Mark Pagel, University of Reading

"We have descriptions of the ways we think words change and their ability to change into other words, and those descriptions can be turned into a mathematical language," he added.

The researchers used the university's IBM supercomputer to track the known relations between words, in order to develop estimates of how long ago a given ancestral word diverged in two different languages.

They have integrated that into an algorithm that will produce a list of words relevant to a given date.

"You type in a date in the past or in the future and it will give you a list of words that would have changed going back in time or will change going into the future," Professor Pagel told BBC News.

"From that list you can derive a phrasebook of words you could use if you tried to show up and talk to, for example, William the Conqueror."

That is, the model provides a list of words that are unlikely to have changed from their common ancestral root by the time of William the Conqueror.

Words that have not diverged since then would comprise similar sounds to their modern descendants, whose meanings would therefore probably be recognisable on sound alone.

However, the model cannot offer a guess as to what the ancestral words were. It can only estimate the likelihood that the sound from a modern English word might make some sense if called out during the Battle of Hastings.

Dirty business

What the researchers found was that the frequency with which a word is used relates to how slowly it changes through time, so that the most common words tend to be the oldest ones.

For example, the words "I" and "who" are among the oldest, along with the words "two", "three", and "five". The word "one" is only slightly younger.

William the Conqueror (Getty)
Time-travellers would find a few sounds familiar in William's words

The word "four" experienced a linguistic evolutionary leap that makes it significantly younger in English and different from other Indo-European languages.

Meanwhile, the fastest-changing words are projected to die out and be replaced by other words much sooner.

For example, "dirty" is a rapidly changing word; currently there are 46 different ways of saying it in the Indo-European languages, all words that are unrelated to each other. As a result, it is likely to die out soon in English, along with "stick" and "guts".

Verbs also tend to change quite quickly, so "push", "turn", "wipe" and "stab" appear to be heading for the lexicographer's chopping block.

Again, the model cannot predict what words may change to; those linguistic changes are according to Professor Pagel "anybody's guess".

High fidelity

"We think some of these words are as ancient as 40,000 years old. The sound used to make those words would have been used by all speakers of the Indo-European languages throughout history," Professor Pagel said.

"Here's a sound that has been connected to a meaning - and it's a mostly arbitrary connection - yet that sound has persisted for those tens of thousands of years."

The work casts an interesting light on the connection between concepts and language in the human brain, and provides an insight into the evolution of a dynamic set of words.

"If you've ever played 'Chinese whispers', what comes out the end is usually gibberish, and more or less when we speak to each other we're playing this massive game of Chinese whispers. Yet our language can somehow retain its fidelity."

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Racism bedevils Texas town

Hangman's noose

A noose inside Turner Industries in Paris, Texas. Racist graffiti, a hangmanÂ’s noose and a Confederate flag have reportedly been displayed for months to intimidate black employees. Photo taken in January by Karl Mitchell, 41, an employee at the Turner Industries plant who has also filed a formal EEOC complaint alleging a pattern of discrimination at the plant. (Photo by Karl Mitchell / February 24, 2009)

HOUSTON — Only a few weeks ago, race relations had reached such a low point in the troubled east Texas town of Paris that federal Justice Department mediators were called in to try to bring together black and white citizens, but the public meeting quickly dissolved into rancor.

Now fresh racial tensions are erupting inside one of the town's biggest employers, the Turner Industries pipe fabrication plant, where black employees charge that hangman's nooses, Confederate flags and racist graffiti have been appearing throughout the workplace for months.

One worker, Karl Mitchell, took pictures of the offensive symbols in early February and filed a formal complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last week. Other African-American employees assert that they've repeatedly complained about the racist symbols to their bosses, only to be ignored or told to keep quiet.

"Somebody had to step forward," said Mitchell, who also alleges a pattern of wage and promotion discrimination at the plant stretching back nearly two years. "They are so wide-open with [the racist displays] and so certain that African-Americans aren't going to say anything about it."

Officials at Turner Industries' headquarters in Baton Rouge, La., say they only learned of the discrimination allegations last week, when photographs of the racist symbols began circulating on the Internet. They say a noose and other inflammatory depictions and graffiti have been removed and a company investigation has been launched.

"All of us in management find all of that offensive," said John Fenner, the company's corporate general counsel. "We do not condone any displays of this type. I can promise you that in the event we uncover that any of our people participated in the display of any of those matters, they may very well lose their jobs."

Fenner also denied that blacks, who make up 11 percent of the Paris plant's 660 employees, are discriminated against in either pay or promotions.

The racial flare-up at Turner Industries comes just as Paris leaders were hoping to finally fall out of the spotlight after several troubling racial incidents focused national attention on the town of about 26,000.

"Obviously, this isn't going to play well," lamented Pete Kampfer, president of the Lamar County Chamber of Commerce, who said he e-mailed the troubling photographs to Turner officials in Baton Rouge last week as soon as he was alerted to them. "We've had a lot of recent racial discussions in Paris, and you better get a heads-up if you see another storm working."

Paris first drew national scrutiny in 2007, the year after a 14-year-old African-American girl, Shaquanda Cotton, was sentenced by a local judge to up to 7 years in a youth prison for shoving a hall monitor at Paris High School.

Three months earlier, the same judge had sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation for the more serious crime of arson.

Less than a month after a Tribune story contrasting the two cases triggered national civil rights protests and petition drives, Texas authorities ordered Shaquanda's early release from prison.

Then last year, a 24-year-old African-American man, Brandon McClelland, was slain, allegedly at the hands of two white men who authorities charge dragged him beneath a pickup truck until his body was nearly dismembered.

The accused men are awaiting trial for murder, but McClelland's family and civil rights leaders have pressed prosecutors to add hate-crime charges as well.

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Violence between repo men, car owners on the rise

Georgia Tanks pauses at the spot where her husband, Jimmy Tanks, was fatally AP – Georgia Tanks pauses at the spot where her husband, Jimmy Tanks, was fatally shot during a vehicle repossession …

HALSELL, Ala. – Alone in his mobile home off a winding dirt road, Jimmy Tanks heard a commotion at 2:30 a.m. just outside his bedroom window: Somebody was messing with his car.

The 67-year-old railroad retiree grabbed a gun, walked out the back door and confronted not a thief but a repo man and two helpers trying to tow off the Chrysler Sebring. Shots were fired, and Tanks wound up dead, a bullet in his chest.

The man who came to repossess the car, Kenneth Alvin Smith, is awaiting trial on a murder charge in a state considered a Wild West territory even by the standards of an industry that's largely unregulated nationally. Since Tanks' death last June, two other repo men from the same company Smith worked for were shot, one fatally.

"It's gotten to where it's a crazy world out there," said Smith, 50, an ex-Marine who preaches part-time and sings gospel music. Smith said Thursday that he fired in self-defense after Tanks fired a shot.

With the U.S. dealing with an economic slide that has cost millions of jobs, the number of vehicle repossessions is expected to rise 5 percent this year. That's after it jumped 12 percent to 1.67 million nationally in 2008, said Tom Webb, chief economist with Manheim Consulting, an automotive marketing firm. That followed a 9 percent increase in 2007, creating more opportunities for bad outcomes in an industry where armed confrontations and threats happen every day.

Joe Taylor, whose Florida-based company insures repossession companies, said licensing and training is the answer to avoiding such violence.

"If a guy is just put right on the street without training, the potential for violence is very, very high," said Taylor, who runs Insurance Services USA.

Federal law says workers can't "breach the peace" while repossessing items, but it doesn't go further to state just what that means, leaving definitions up to courts.

All three Alabama shootings were in the middle of the night, which an industry leader said was a sign of a problem.

"The smart operators aren't out there at 2 or 3 o'clock at night with people who can put you in a bad situation," said Les McCook, executive director of the American Recovery Association, a trade group for repossession companies.

It was June 26 that the repo man came for Tanks' car in Halsell, a tiny, rural Choctaw County town near the Mississippi line. Tanks already had filed for bankruptcy and was behind on his payments, court documents show.

Tanks heard a noise and went outside with a gun, something anybody would do, said Choctaw County Sheriff James Lovette, who knew Tanks for years. Smith was indicted Tuesday, but no charges were filed against a man and his teenage son who accompanied Smith, said Lovette.

Smith's defense lawyer, Rusty Wright, said Tanks came out of the trailer and fired, and that Smith "just wanted to stop him."

"This is not the gunslinging cowboy that people think about with repo guys," Wright said. "(Smith) wasn't out to kill the guy."

The sheriff declined comment on whether Tanks shot at Smith.

Lovette said Smith worked out of Birmingham with Ascension Recovery, a subsidiary of the Chicago-based Renovo Services. The same recovery firm employed a repo man who was shot and killed on Jan. 8 in Birmingham, as well as a third worker who was wounded while towing a vehicle in the city on Feb. 10.

The CEO of Renovo Services, David Cowlbeck, didn't respond to questions sent by e-mail about the fatal shootings. He called the unsolved February wounding of 30-year-old Jason Williamson "a random act of violence."

"We trust that the perpetrators are quickly apprehended and charged accordingly," Cowlbeck said in a statement.

Lovette is asking the Alabama Sheriff's Association to push a bill limiting the hours when repossession companies can operate and requiring them to contact local law enforcement before working in an area.

"There's a time and place for everything, and 3 a.m. is not it," said Lovette.

The three states that actively license and monitor recovery agents — California, Florida and Louisiana — report less violence than other states, Taylor said. But most state legislatures aren't interested in repossession law until people start dying, he said.

"You don't find many state legislators who have had a car repossessed. They are just unfamiliar with that world," said Taylor.

Tanks was killed just two weeks after he married Georgia Tanks, who keeps a floral spray at the spot where he died beside the car, which is long gone. She wasn't at home the night he was killed because she was away teaching Vacation Bible School in nearby Meridian, Miss. She has filed a wrongful death suit in the slaying.

"It's senseless," she said, wiping away tears as she looked at their wedding photograph. "The legal stuff I don't know anything about. I just know God is going to let justice be done."

Smith, too, is haunted by what happened that night.

"I've played it through in my mind a million times to see if I could have done something different," he said. "I couldn't have."

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Bentley Continental Supersports clocks 204 mph on road to Geneva motor show

Bentley Continental Supersports
A picture of Bentley Continental Supersports
Bentley Continental Supersports
Bentley Supersport

Bling may not be the obvious place to be for a luxury sports car maker today, but here's Bentley showing what the ultimate development of the Continental GT will be.

The Continental Supersports will be shown next week at the Geneva motor show as a production model. Its 630-hp turbocharged W12 will make it the fastest and most-powerful Bentley ever.

The headline figure is 204 mph, taking the Supersports into the stratospheric territory of production cars capable of eating up a mile in less than 18 seconds.

The Supersports can do this while drinking either standard pump fuel or E85, making it the first Bentley to be biofuel compatible, a step that all future Bentley models will make as the British company pushes toward a greener future.

Started as an under-the-radar project, the Supersports is likely to become the best-selling Continental GT if Bentley¹s experience with its Speed models is anything to go by--the Speed model now makes up 60 percent of coupe sales.

"The Supersports is something my engineers worked on amongst themselves, to create the ultimate Continental, and then we picked it up as an official project," says Uli Eichhorn, Bentley chief engineer.

The changes to make the Supersports run on E85 should not be underestimated, adds Eichhorn. As well as re-engineering the fuel system to cope with the corrosive ethanol, all the electronic subsystems had to be reprogrammed and revalidated.

With U.S. regulatory approval still to be cleared, the Supersports will go into production the fall, with North American cars becoming E85-capable by summer 2010.

The main change to the engine to increase power above 600 hp is extra boost from the twin turbos, whose airflow is eased by 10 percent larger intercoolers. The latest, quick-shifting version of ZF's six-speed automatic helps the higher-output engine deliver sharper performance. Bentley quotes a 0-to-60-mph time of 3.7 seconds and 50 to 70 mph in 2.1 seconds.

Billed as the ultimate "extreme" Bentley by the company, there are dozens of detailed underskin changes to ensure the Supersports delivers a special driving experience.

Most significant is a new, rear-biased 60:40 torque split from the center differential for the four-wheel-drive system, which is said to reduce understeer and increase chassis adjustability on the throttle.

But there's also a wider rear track, extended by 0.8 inch to enhance high-speed stability, and standard carbon-ceramic brakes to haul the Supersports down from its tarmac-ripping top speed.

Steering, suspension, spring and damper rates have all been revised, too, in line with the extended performance.

The lower front suspension arm is now made from aluminum, the antiroll bar is retuned and stiffer bushings improve steering responses.

Even Bentley doesn't describe the 4,938-pound Supersports as lightweight, but it is considerably lighter than the Continental Speed.

The rear seat is removed, a rear panel is made from carbon fiber and new lightweight 20-inch wheels save 5.5 pounds per corner. In total, the Supersports is 242 pounds lighter than the GT Speed.

There are styling differences, too. The wider rear track necessitates new rear body panels that beef up the Supersports's rear haunch. Extra cooling vents are needed in the hood and front airdam, features that increase aggressiveness.

A subtle change is new brightwork around the window openings, which now features a smoky-chrome look. Even this cosmetic change introduces new technology, the finish being applied for the first time to stainless steel using physical vapor deposition.

Inside is new carbon fiber trim, including a cross-cabin beam that looks like a body stiffener but is actually a luggage retaining bar.

There's plenty of substance to this reworked Bentley Continental, which is also reflected in a significant 20 percent price rise. The figure is not final yet, but if you've got around $250,00 to spend on a fabulous sports car, the Bentley Continental Supersports just jumped onto your wish list.

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Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid To Deliver V-8 Power, 26+ mpg

By Colin Mathews

Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid
Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid
Enlarge Photo

Pure electric propulsion is the name of the game for cutting gas/electric hybrid fuel consumption, and Porsche claims to have taken it to a whole new level with the upcoming 2010 Cayenne S Hybrid. Capable of traveling at speeds up to 86 mph solely on electric propulsion, the 5,000-some-odd pound full-frame SUV's thirst for premium should be cut dramatically.

Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid
Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid
Enlarge Photo

Economy estimated at 26 mpg or slightly greater (extrapolated from Porsche's claim of less than 9 liters/100 km fuel consumed on the European cycle) is very respectable for this behemoth, but it's a figure shamed by car-based crossover hybrids. Interesting will be the difference between city and highway mileage; typically, gas/electric hybrids attain their biggest mileage benefits in city driving where the electric motors are most helpful, but this Porsche system turns that paradigm on its head with stout electric highway capabilities.

The hybrid drive in the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid uses a parallel full hybrid design that sandwiches the electric motor between an Audi-sourced V-6 and an eight-speed automatic transmission. The V-6 is Audi's new 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 found in models like the 2009 Audi A6, itself surprisingly efficient considering the 333 hp and 324 lb-ft torque it yields. The electric motor will be supplied by a 154-lb. nickel metal hybrid battery that fits in the spare tire well.

Porsche promises no intrusions into cabin or cargo space, as well as a 0-60 mph sprint of just under 6.8 seconds. So drivers of heavy luxury SUVs may soon have their cake and eat it too. But aren't drivers of luxury SUVs quickly abandoning the segment? History will tell us the rest of the story, but let's not forget the miserable sales of GM's (Tahoe, Escalade) and Chrysler's (Aspen, Durango) well-engineered full-size SUV hybrids.

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The State of the Culture Is... Scared?

Wall Street isn't the only place with a fearful lack of understanding these days. Whether it's horror in Hollywood or Mumbai, the digital era has become boxed in to the unknown.

By Stephen Marche

scene from The Box movie

Dale Robinette

When we're all dead, when people are looking back at our time from a distance of 100 years, they're going to say that we lived in the age of dark matter. That's the fancy name physicists have given to the nearly 95 percent of stuff in the universe that they simply don't understand. It's also a good description of credit-default swaps and the other intricate financial instruments that caused the economic crash — "financial weapons of mass destruction," as Warren Buffett called them, explaining away risk by means of algorithms that no one, not even Warren Buffett, could understand. And how else to explain the niche following of a critically maligned show like Fringe, which isn't just about freaky paranormal stuff, flesh-eating poisons, babies born as old men, engineered parasites, and so on. No: All these fears are tied together into "the Pattern," a mysterious dark power evident everywhere but present nowhere. We're not entering a Great Depression so much as a Great Incomprehension: We just have no idea what's happening and no clue how bad things are going to get. Therefore we fear. Our spiritual condition of the moment, in our intellectual confusion, our down-spiraling economy, our various wars against we don't know who, is a fearful lack of understanding: Something is out there. We know it must be logical, but that's all we know.

Just look at our current slate of horror films. Scary movies serve the same function in the 20th and 21st centuries that fairy tales served the children of an earlier age — to make our broadest and vaguest terrors into something concrete and therefore confrontable. In the 1950s, radioactive mutation and the threat of nuclear annihilation became Godzilla, The Blob, the gigantic ants of "Them!" The McCarthy hearings gave rise to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the mindless consumerism of the 1970s to the zombies outside the mall in Dawn of the Dead. The 1990s saw Natasha Henstridge in Species become the cipher for brand-new anxieties about genetic manipulation. Horror movies purge us of the fears we inhale every day off the front pages of the newspapers. That's their job. So it should come as no surprise that this year's frights stem from knowing without understanding. And boxes. Stay with me here: In the new Nicolas Cage thriller, Knowing, the hero uncovers a time capsule, a container, in which he finds predictions of all the world's catastrophes. He knows but he doesn't understand: That's his and our terror. In The Box, out later this year from Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly, a married couple receives a plain wooden machine that provides them with $1 million every time they push a button, with the stipulation that every time they use it, someone they don't know, somewhere in the world, will die. These plain boxes, which in simpler times could've simply been sources of mystery or intrigue, become instruments of terror, but it's better our heroes confront fantasy boxes than the boxes that real people actually have to deal with, on the New York subway, on the beaches in Tel Aviv, hidden under a seat in a train station in Mumbai, which are much more terrifying: a nihilism that roars, a ferocious and empty hatred of the fullness of the world, unknowable but also unignorable.

Not unlike the terrorists themselves. In June 2008, the Newseum in Washington opened "G-Men and Journalists," an exhibit of FBI artifacts that includes the Unabomber's cabin. Ted Kaczynski's hideout was a modest affair, a 10-by-12-foot plywood cabin in Montana where he lived as a hunter-gatherer without running water or electricity. He objected strenuously to the exhibit. A legal brief that Kaczynski wrote himself and presented to the court claimed that the display violated the "victims' objection to publicity connected with the Unabom case." Kaczynski did not, however, object to Robert Kusmirowski's sculpture "Unicabine," which the New Museum in New York was showing at the same time, even though it was an exact replica of his cabin. The difference between the artifact and the artwork? You couldn't see inside Kusmirowski's sculpture; the cabin was entirely enclosed. He had made the Unabomber's house a box. Brilliant. Because that's what Kaczynski and the other terrorists are and would prefer to remain — dark matter, impenetrable and incomprehensible.

The funny thing is that we're supposed to be living in the golden age of information, when anyone can find any name, any date, any historical detail, any formula, with a click of the mouse. But unlike Socrates, who claimed to be the wisest man in Athens because he was the only one who knew what he didn't know, we choose to be freaked out by what we don't know. Doris Salcedo's "Shibboleth," a 548-foot gash created in the concrete floor of the Tate Modern in London last winter, was a huge hit with both audiences and critics because it reflected so precisely the feeling we're all having: a chasm opening up below us. Part of the attraction of the work was that the artist refused to say how it had been done. It ran through the building like a river of unknowing, and viewers let themselves be swept away in its currents.

Maybe that's the solution to all this. Maybe we need to lose our fear of the unknown and show a little humility about the limitations of knowledge. Because if nothing else, that might point us to the fragility and glory of the world we live in. After each bombing, we worry about the vulnerability of our cities, but we're also shown just how magnificent they are. One of the most exclusive Manhattan nightclubs in recent years has been the Box — $1,000 table service, celebrities, bizarre cabaret shows featuring acts of sexual daring, an attempt at maximum hedonism. The place chose its name well. The fleetingness of beauty and the ephemerality of materialism glitter more brightly in contrast with approaching darkness.

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