Thoughts Gallery March 2006
March 1
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US debt clock running out of time, space
NEW YORK - Tick, 20,000 dollars, tock, another 20,000 dollars. So rapid is the rise of the US national debt, that the last four digits of a giant digital signboard counting the moving total near New York's Times Square move in seemingly random increments as they struggle to keep pace. The national debt clock, as it is known, is a big clock. A spot-check last week showed a readout of 8.3 trillion -- or more precisely 8,310,200,545,702 -- dollars ... and counting. But it's not big enough. Sometime in the next two years, the total amount of US government borrowing is going to break through the 10-trillion-dollar mark and, lacking space for the extra digit such a figure would require, the clock is in danger of running itself into obsolescence. The clock's owner, real estate developer Douglas Durst, knew such a problem could arise but hadn't counted on it so soon. "We really expected it to be quite some time," Durst told AFP. "But now, with the pace of debt growth only increasing, we're looking at maybe two years and certainly before President (George W.) Bush leaves office in 2009." The clock was the invention of Durst's father, Seymour Durst, who nursed a keen sense of fiscal responsibility and believed government profligacy to be a national curse. The elder Durst, who died in 1995, originally thought of the idea in the early 1980s as the US budget deficit started to mount during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, but the technology was not immediately available to realise his vision. The original 11 foot by 26 foot (3.3 meter by 8.9 meter) clock was eventually erected a block from Manhattan's Times Square in 1989 when the national debt stood at 2.7 trillion.
For the next decade it tracked, odometer style, the government's red ink with an extra feature which, by dividing the main figure by the number of families in the country, offered an estimate for how much each family owed as their share. Toward the close of the millennium, with a booming economy fuelling annual budget surpluses, the clock began to slow and finally ran into its first mechanical problem. "It wasn't designed to run backwards," Douglas Durst explained. Believing that the signboard had served its purpose, the Dursts pulled the plug in 2000 with the debt total showing around 5.7 trillion dollars and the individual "family share" standing at close to 74,000 dollars. The clock was covered with a red, white and blue curtain, but not dismantled. "We'll have it ready in case things start turning around, which I'm sure they will," Durst said at the time. He only had to wait two years as the Bush presidency coincided with an upsurge in borrowing. The curtain was raised in 2002 and the digital readout flickered back to life showing a national debt of 6.1 trillion dollars with the numerals whizzing round faster than ever. In 2004, the old clock was torn down and replaced with a newer model which had optimistically been modified to run backwards should such a happy necessity arise.
       Instead the debt continued to rise at such a rate that the once unthinkable total of 10 trillion dollars veered from alarmist fantasy into the realm of impending reality.
"When it became clear what was going to happen, our first thought was to free up the digital square occupied by the dollar sign so that we could cope with a 14th digit," Durst said. The latest plan is for yet another replacement, involving a larger scale signboard. "We're not happy at the impact we're making with this one," he said. Durst insists that the clock is non-partisan in its effort to shame the federal government over what he sees as its willingness to gamble away the nation's future. "We're a family business," Durst said. "We think generationally, and we don't want to see the next generation crippled by this burden," he said.  Last week, the "family share" readout on the clock stood some loose change short of 90,000 dollars.
March 2
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Belgian artists practice for a performance of 'Flying Angels' during the X Annual International Arts Festival in La Sabana metropolitan park in San Jose, Costa Rica.
March 3
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A general view of a giant mine run by U.S. firm Freeport-McMoran Cooper and Gold Inc., at the Grassberg mining operation, in Indonesia's Papua province is seen in this July 22, 2005 file photograph. Indonesia will not hesitate to sue U.S. mining giant Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold if it fails to follow through on recommendations to stop pollution from its Papua operations, Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar said.
March 4
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March 5
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March 6
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Prostitutes retrain as nurses, tele-marketers
BERLIN - German prostitutes are signing up for a career change, training to become nurses to tend to the country's aging population or working phones as tele-marketers. Thirty prostitutes have enlisted in a church-funded project in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia and more are on a waiting list, project coordinator Gisela Zohren said. "Competition in prostitution is fierce and the days when one could make a decent living out of it are long gone, especially once you hit the thirties," Zohren said. She said prostitutes' fees had hit rock bottom and they were well suited to jobs on offer in the retraining program. "After years of prostitution, they know how to listen, look after people and are savvy in selling over the phone," she said. Experts in the care industry for the aged also welcomed the initiative. "We have more and more old and fewer and fewer young people, so there is a strong demand for people working in care professions," said Franz Wagner, head of the German association of care professions.
March 7
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A three-month-old baby pygmy hippopotamus swims by his grazing mother at Henry Doorly Zoo, in Omaha, Neb. Zoo visitors will be able to view the baby hippo for the first time.
March 8
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Vienna launches "driving licence for dogs"
VIENNA - Viennese dog owners can now get a "driving licence for dogs" under a new initiative by city officials who thought man's best friend's best friend could do with a bit of brushing up on canine conduct. Though voluntary, this new license, which takes about two hours to obtain and costs a modest 25 euros (30 dollars), has both written and practical "driving" tests to assess the owner's competence. For the written part of the exam, candidates must answer multiple-choice questions that check whether they know their responsibilities concerning their pet's health and behaviour. "When your dog wags its tail, does it mean it is happy, excited or bored?" is a typical question.
The practical part simulates a spin -- in this case a "walk" -- through town, testing the owner in a variety of predicaments such as putting a muzzle on the dog in the tram or underground or picking up droppings. "The Viennese are real dog-lovers," said the capital's environment councillor Ulli Sima who initiated the license project. "But they believe strict measures are necessary so that peaceful cohabitation between man and dog is possible in this city." Those happy owners who pass their "licence" -- or Hundefuehrerschein -- will be exempt from the annual dog tax of 43.60 euros (53 dollars) and will receive a few goodies for their pets, from vouchers for a new leash to bags for their pet's droppings.
The initiative was triggered by a survey of 500 Viennese residents in September 2004 in which a surprising 85 percent backed the idea of instituting a "driving licence for dogs". Vienna officially counts about 47,000 canines -- meaning those subject to a city dog tax -- but estimates say there could be up to 150,000 hounds for a population of 1.7 million humans. "This is not about pure obedience, but rather about social tolerance of the dog-owner team in the city," said Sima's deputy Karl Woegerer. This Viennese initiative "is unique in this form, although licences exist in several German states," he said.
A licence, following a test, is already required for guard dogs for security reasons, a measure in place in many countries. The new license is for the average street pooch, which many still find intimidating. In the 2004 survey, 34 percent of those questioned said they felt "personally in danger" in the presence of dogs, and 92 percent said dogs should always be kept on a leash and wear a muzzle. Thousands of parents have also signed a petition to force the city to find a solution to the five to 10 tonnes of dog excrement produced daily. Vienna's Mayor Michael Haeupl has promised personally to look into the matter. Twenty veterinary examiners have been accredited to carry out testing for the new dog driving licence, which was set up in January.
According to the Vienna-based non-profit organisation Animals as Therapy (TAT), at least 15 people are know to have passed the test but no official figures have been released yet. Elisabeth Karsai, a medical student associated with TAT who took the driving test with her big two-year-old grey poodle, told AFP she "felt like a pioneer and wanted to ensure that more people pass this licence." Another candidate, veterinary doctor Irene Thenmaier, said, "I am here to learn how to understand my dog," a two-year-old half-breed named Dina.  According to TAT director Gabi Glaser, the point of the Vienna driving test is to know the basic rules of how to lead a dog and to make life with canines as pleasant as possible in a city. "Dogs' social tolerance and ability to deal with a big city will be improved and in this way people's safety needs will also be satisfied," Sima was quoted as saying on the city's website. Dogs are proving to be less stressed than their owners during the testing notably with a bit of bribing -- in the form of doggie treats -- as they're put through the paces, including claw and ear inspections. For their two-legged owners not yet up to the challenge, the city of Vienna provides information and schedules for dog-training schools to help them overcome their hesitation.
March 9
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Republicans: Ports Deal Doomed in Congress

WASHINGTON - Republican congressional leaders told President Bush Thursday his plan allowing a company owned by the government of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to take control of some U.S. port operations faces certain defeat in Congreess, GOP officials said. Bush, however, insisted again that he would veto the legislation if it reaches his desk. The GOP leaders conveyed the news one day after a House comittee voted 62-2 to block the deal and Senate Democrats demanded a vote. The ports provision was added to a must-pass measure funding the war in Iraq and providing new hurricane relief. The White House expessed concern that the tactic could "slow down passage of vital funds and resources" but said Bush's veto threat still stood. "Our focus is on continuing to work with Congress to move forward on this issue," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters. "The lines of communication are open. There are members who have concerns. We believe it's important to work with Congress to address those concerns, and find a way forward." The House panel's vote spurred calls by Democrats in the Senate. "I admire what the House did," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on the Senate floor. "They said we know the president feels strongly about this. We know he said he's going to veto this. But we're going to do it because we think we have an obligation to our constituents."
Senate Democrats were trying to attach a measure blocking DP World's entry into the U.S. maritime industry to legislation designed to overhaul lobbying rules. Deep public opposition to the ports deal has made the issue a dangerous one for congressional Republicans. Despite their own concerns, Senate GOP leaders have been trying to help the administration ease congressional worries about the proposal and are hoping to avoid an early showdown vote on the issue in their chamber. "This issue should not be tangled up on the debate over whether or not to strengthen our lobbying disclosure laws," said Sen. Susan Collins (news, bio, voting record), R-Maine, who has been a leader on both issues. Sen. Charles Schumer (news, bio, voting record), D-N.Y., offered the ports amendment on Wednesday, saying the Senate must act because of public opposition to the ports deal. "We believe an overwhelming majority will vote to end the deal," he said. Senate Republican leaders were trying to block a vote on the ports deal through a procedural vote that could occur as early as Thursday. That tactic was likely to fail, which could prompt Republicans to temporarily pull the lobbying reform bill from the floor to avoid an immediate defeat on the ports measure. Bush has promised to veto any legislation blocking or delaying DP World from being able to operate U.S. port terminals as part of its takeover of Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., a British company that holds contracts at several U.S. ports. By a 62-2 margin, the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday ignored that threat and voted to bar DP World, which is run by the government of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, from holding leases or contracts at U.S. ports. The provision was added to a must-pass measure funding the war in Iraq and providing new hurricane relief.
Since House lawmakers attached the ports language to a must-pass $91 billion measure financing hurricane recovery and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush's veto threats may carry less weight with lawmakers. The imbroglio over the port operations deal overshadowed the substance of the funding measure for Iraq operations and rebuilding projects on the Gulf Coast. The underlying $91.1 billion spending bill provides $67.6 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and $19.1 billion in new money for hurricane relief and rebuilding along the Gulf Coast. The bill would bring total funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to $117.6 billion for the budget year ending Sept. 30. Total spending on Iraq and Afghanistan since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 would reach almost $400 billion. The Appropriations Committee plan largely adopts Bush's requests for the war, the bulk of which would fund operations and maintenance costs, replacement of equipment, and personnel costs. For hurricane relief, the House measure adopts Bush's $4.2 billion request but does not dedicate the money exclusively for Louisiana as he requested. The $19.1 billion for hurricane relief would bring total hurricane-related spending to more than $100 billion. The panel approved the underlying measure on a voice vote late Wednesday, and the full House could consider the measure as early as next week.

March 10
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Coca is better than milk for schoolchildren: Bolivian FM
LA PAZ - Coca leaf has more nutritional value than milk and should replace it in school lunches, Bolivia's colorful new Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told reporters. "Our children need calcium and the coca leaf has more calcium than milk," said the official, who in past interviews confessed to have stopped reading books since he discovered his Aymara heritage and claims to get his knowledge from reading the wrinkles of his ancestors. "Our children need phosphorous and the coca leaf has more phosphorous than fish," he said. "Perhaps instead of milk in school lunches, we should be giving coca leaf to our children," Choquehuanca mused. The official said his information on the nutritional value of the coca leaf came from studies done by the Bolivian Health Ministry and Harvard University, in the United States. Coca leaf is chewed by millions of Bolivians as a tonic and to stave off hunger. It is also processed into cocaine and sold abroad, chiefly in the United States, in a multi-billion dollar illegal trade. New Bolivian President Evo Morales, also of indigenous extraction, was elected in December with strong support from coca farmers, is under US pressure to repress the coca industry, both in its illegal and traditional roles. Asked to comment on Choquehuanca's proposal, opposition lawmaker and former education minister Tito Hoz de Vila said coca's would have a detrimental effect on schoolchildren. "Those poor students would be dozing off in the classroom instead of paying attention to their schoolwork," he said.
March 11
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Workers dye the Chicago River green as part of the city's annual St. Patrick's day celebrations in Chicago.
March 12
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'Devil' mobile phone calls spark panic in east India
BHUBANESWAR, India - Authorities moved to quash panic among mobile phone users in eastern India after a rumour that "devil calls" from certain numbers have led to death and illness. People started turning off their handsets after a rumour swept Orissa state of phones exploding like bombs killing their owners when they answered the calls. The random "devil calls" supposedly started Sunday from phones with 11 to 14 digit numbers instead of the regular 10, said an official from India's state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam phone company. "What I suspect is it could be the handiwork of vested interests to subsequently market anti-virus software for mobile phones. We will investigate," said Sunil Agarwal, general manger of Bharat Sanchar Nigam in Bhubaneswar city.
People in Orissa have told relatives and friends about other users becoming ill or even dying after receiving calls from mobile numbers with 11 to 14 digits. But a state government spokesman dismissed the story as rubbish. "We investigated and found out that no one was dead nor anybody taken ill. It was all rubbish," the spokesman said.A mobile phone user in Bhubaneswar, who was not willing to be named, said he had received a call early Monday that flashed an eleven-digit number. The caller warned him to switch off his mobile. "The caller told me if I continue to receive calls on my cell I could be receiving (a) virus that could blow up my phone. Interestingly, when I called back the number, the service provider voice said no such number exists. I simply switched off the set," he said.
March 13
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'Back conservation, eat a squirrel', British lawmakers told
LONDON - British politicians were urged to eat grey squirrels as part of a radical plan to prevent the indigenous red variety of the species from disappearing. The animal, made famous by the Squirrel Nutkin character in author Beatrix Potter's illustrated children's books, once thrived in Britain but is now battling for survival as imported North American greys run rampant. The unusual conservation method was proposed during a debate on the subject in Britain's unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords. Lord Richard Inglewood, the patron of conservation group Red Alert North-West, which works to save red squirrel populations in Potter's native Lake District, said action was needed soon to save Squirrel Nutkin's mates from being wiped out. "What about celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver promoting it for school dinners?" he asked. "Indeed the House (parliamentary) authorities could put it on the menu here. "I must confess that I have never actually eaten a grey squirrel... but I am prepared to give it a go." Inglewood said he wanted to invite government agriculture ministers to dinner with grey squirrel on the menu. He said there was little difference between eating squirrels and the "entirely loveable" other creatures that end up on the dinner plate. "More importantly it's not only me that's going to feel let down. It's going to be the red squirrels too. Unless something radical and imaginative is done Squirrel Nutkin and his friends are going to be toast," he added. The grey squirrel was introduced into Britain from North America in the late nineteenth century and has driven out the native red squirrel in many parts of the country. They are largely responsible for the red squirrel's decline because they are stronger and more adaptable. They also carry the Squirrelpox virus, lethal to reds. The grey population is thought to number around two million while under 200,000 reds are thought to be left, around three-quarters of them in Scotland.
March 14
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Bulgarians in space property buying spree
PLOVDIV, Bulgaria - Bulgarians were warned by a self-styled Lunar Embassy to hurry to buy real estate on the moon as only a limited number of properties were left for sale. "We have already had over 30 orders since we opened the embassy two days ago," its "coordinator" Denislav Stoichev said. "A one-acre property on the moon will cost you 40 leva (20 euros, 24 dollars)," although plots on Mars and Jupiter's moon Io were also available, he added. The Plovdiv lunar embassy is the first in Bulgaria but one of dozens around the world, licensed by the Galactic Government's CEO -- in this case, Celestial Executive Officer -- US entrepreneur Dennis Hope.
In 1980 Hope proclaimed himself the owner of the moon and all planets and satellites in the solar system (except for the Earth), by exploiting a loophole in the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty, which states space property "is not subject to national appropriation" but says nothing about private or corporate owners. "Most people here take it more as a joke, a funny present for someone's birthday," Stoichev said, adding, however, "in another 100 years we might be living on the moon or Mars and I want to be one of the first colonists." He is not the only one. The late Pope John Paul II, former US President Richard Nixon, pop icon Madonna and NASA officials are also proud owners of moon plots, Stoichev said. Some 327 Bulgarians have already bought lots through the Internet and orders are streaming into the Plovdiv Embassy. Only one billion lots are left for sale. The lucky owners will receive a lunar deed certificate, with the coordinates of their plot and their signature, as proof of their ownership. But there are certain lunar codes: "Absolutely no weapons shall be tolerated, ever!" on the moon and littering will lead to "exorbitant" fines, the lunar primary law reads. Last October, a lunar embassy in China was shut down as a government watchdog called its sale of space property fraudulent and illegal.
March 15
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Holy smoke! Chinese city turns cigarettes to medicine
BEIJING - A city in China, a country that's home to the world's most enthusiastic smokers, is crushing fake cigarettes to make medicine, Xinhua news agency said. The northwestern city of Xian is using the counterfeit cigarettes to extract solanesol, a compound found in tobacco which is used to treat cardiovascular disease, it said. "We used to incinerate the fake cigarettes, which is wasteful and causes air pollution," Xinhua quoted Zhou Yaqing, vice director of the provincial tobacco monopoly, as saying. A kilo of solanesol is worth about $200, and 30 tons of tobacco leaf can produce up to 120 kilos, Xinhua added. China is the world's largest cigarette producer, with a growing market of about 320 million. Chinese cigarettes are also among the cheapest in the world -- a packet can cost as little as 8 U.S. cents -- and smoking kills 1.2 million people a year in China, according to the World Health Organization. Fake cigarettes, made of poor quality tobacco and often topped up with wood chips, are commonly sold on Chinese streets.
March 16
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Students at Marseille's Luminy University launch their paper planes in the longest distance competition event. The winners will go to the French national championships in Monaco to compete against winners from eight other French cities hoping to secure a place in the world finals in Austria in mid-May.
March 17 
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Nguyen Thi Van Long, 20, with birth defects believed to be caused by Agent Orange, works in her classroom at the Friendship Village on the outskirts of Hanoi, Vietnam. Civilians and Vietnam war veterans from several countries held a two-day conference to plead for recognition of health problems they say are associated with Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant U.S. forces sprayed during the war.
March 18
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March 19
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The sun is reflected on a flower as the moon partially blocks it, forming a crescent, during a partial eclipse seen from the Jordanian capital Amman.
March 20
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A lone visitor watches the sun set on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii. Warning signs to keep out of the water were posted along part of Waikiki's world-famous beaches because of high bacteria levels from a massive sewage spill.
March 21
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Tourists look at the rupture of the leading edge of the Perito Moreno glacier as the waters of Lake Argentino open a tunnel in the glacier, widening it until its collapse in a massive explosion of ice fragments and water, near the city of El Calafate in the Patagonian privince of Santa Cruz, southern Argentina. The Perito Moreno glacier, part of the Los Glaciares National Park, a World Heritage site, is unusual in that it is still growing forward at the accelerated rate of between 30 and 60 cm per day.
March 22
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March 23
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March 24
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March 25
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March 26
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March 27
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March 28
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Pictures of the partial solar eclipse in Islamabad. Eclipses should never be viewed without good optical filters as ultraviolet light, which is invisible to the human eye, can burn the retina even when the sun is covered.
March 29
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March 30
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Gardeners plant about 2,000 pansies in a big Easter egg at the horticultural exhibition 'ega' in Erfurt, eastern Germany, Wednesday, March 29, 2006. The horticultural exhibition 'ega' is supposed to be one of the most beautiful parks in Germany.
March 31
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Tourists gathered in front of Apollo Temple to view a solar eclipse in the Turkish Mediterranean coastal resort of Side, Antalya. Thousands of skygazers gathered in an ancient temple of Apollo cheered as a total eclipse turned the day into twilight, casting an eerie blue glow across the sky and the nearby Mediterranean Sea.