среда, 4 июня 2008 г.

The top stories

1 Oxford university is planning to raise Pounds 1.25billion from donations to compete with the US Ivy League. The university has already raised Pounds 5.75 million of its ambitious fundraising target.

2 The NHS spent hundreds of millions of pounds to avoid a surplus before the start of the financial year. Hospitals were pressed into a spending spree to hide a Pounds 1 billion surplus.

3 Schools could be judged on how many pupils they send to university. The National Council for Educational Excellence will hear the proposals on using university entry data to rank schools next month.

4 Social workers are putting children at risk, according to Ofsted. It said a backlog of work had left children vulnerable in family breakdown cases.

5 The Government is preparing to publish death rates of patients undergoing major surgery in England. The information will be published on the NHS Choices website this summer.

6 Prisons have released 26,347 inmates up to 18 days early in the first ten months of a scheme to ease overcrowding in jails, against an official estimate of 25,500, government figures show.

7 The cost of mental healthcare is set to rise sharply, according to a report from the King's Fund. The cost of services provided through the NHS and social services is expected to rise from Pounds 22.5billion in 2006 to Pounds 47.48billion in 2026, mainly because of a projected rise in dementia cases.

8 Every school has at least one bad teacher, according to Jim Knight, the Schools Minister. The Government is trying to remove more underperforming teachers.

9 Parents are turning to relatives to look after children even though there has been an increase of half a million nursery places. Cost and availability were the main barriers to accessing nursery places, despite Gordon Brown's pledge of affordable childcare for all.

10 Independent schools have criticised the Government over its new national curriculum for under-fives. The Independent Schools Coalition claims that the new curriculum will deny parents the freedom to choose how they educate their children.

11 The Home Office announced an advertising campaign using shocking images as part of its move against the carrying of knives. London's own campaign has also stepped up a gear. More than 4,000 people were stopped and searched in the capital within a two-week period, in a Pounds 1m operation.

12 Plans to publish detailed maps of reported crime in London have been delayed, because of doubts over their legality. The London Mayor, Boris Johnson, wants to highlight problem areas and make commanders publicly accountable but the maps may breach data protection laws.

13 Britain is poised to sign a treaty outlawing the use and stockpiling of cluster bombs. Millions of pounds will have to be spent on destroying the existing stock, senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office sources said.

14 The Government has compiled a package of concessions over its proposed change to rules on the detention of terrorism suspects. The Prime Minister hopes to avoid a Commons defeat on a proposal to detain suspects without charge for up to 42 days.

15 The number of operations cancelled by the NHS at the last minute has increased in the past year, figures from the Department of Health show. In the three months to the end of March there were 16,800 cancellations, compared with 14,600 in the same period of last year.

Finally, a hopeful story emerges out of Afghanistan

In every niche of Afghanistan, there are horror stories.

Even in relatively tranquil regions, such as this one in the north, occasional flashes of violence - unspeakably ruthless, without any semblance of tactical purpose - remind that the insurgency remains vigorous and scattered, probing far beyond its throbbing core in the southern provinces.

A top Taliban commander was arrested by Afghan National Police here last month, a rare triumph for that benighted organization. But in the previous month, a teacher who had just finished condemning suicide bombings as un-Islamic, speaking at a public gathering, was ambushed and killed on his way home. Shortly afterwards, unknown gunmen attacked an open-air school for 700 students, setting tents alight and slicing off the ears of a watchman.

Of course, in Kunduz brutality is no stranger, although the bad memories have been diminishing.

This is where the repressive and loathed and foreign Taliban movement died, at least in northern Afghanistan, in a plateau town surrounded by plump brown hills pocketed with craters.

In late 2001, the last of the Taliban fighting forces was besieged in Kunduz by National Alliance troops. A ceasefire was negotiated and thousands were taken captive, sent mostly to prisons run by the notorious Uzbek warlord, Gen. Rashid Dostum. Hundreds died of suffocation while being transported in sealed freight containers.

Many more, mainly non-Afghan Taliban - from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Chechnya - were incarcerated in a Dostum prison in Shibarghan, two provinces distant. When they rose up against their guards, the U.S. launched an air strike that killed at least 300, some dying with their hands still tied behind their backs. It was a singularly damning event for the coalition campaign, sickening to the world.

But there's little sympathy for those victims here, even among the minority population of ethnic Pashtuns.

"They were murderers and they occupied us, just as the Soviets did before them," says Abdul Zaman, a Tajik, chopping off a lamb's head and securing the carcass to a hook in his meat stall. "Why should we pity them? They had no pity for us. Their ways were not our ways."

Kunduz city has bounced back as a farming and marketing hub, bright and lively with high-stepping horses - the area is famous for its quality of horse breeding - bedecked in jangles and scarlet pompons. Unemployment is distressingly high, however, with young men sitting idly outside the job centre.

It was here that the Germans opened NATO's first Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2004. UNICEF and the World Health Organization have offices in town and non-governmental agencies operate a myriad of services. Last week, a three-day workshop was held on "Human Rights and Support of Disabled Persons." There's a legal aid office, too.

The Star, unable to find a habitable guest house, threw itself on the mercy of UNICEF and was kindly provided with the entire fourth floor staff dorm of their building.

Downstairs, Dr. Abdul Nazar Ahmadi is proud to talk about the success of one particular project - polio eradication.

It was actually the mujahideen, back in the late 1980s, who first began advocating and enabling polio vaccination for children in the regions they held. In 1988, there were 350,000 documented cases of polio in Afghanistan; by 2006, under programs established by the central government through the auspices of the UN and the WHO, that number had been slashed to 1,956.

But Afghanistan remains one of four countries where crippling polio is still endemic. There was a huge outbreak in 1997 and again in 2006. Six cases have been found so far this year, though none in the north, where eradication has been declared complete.

"For every single case, that means up to a thousand have been exposed to the virus and have it in their system," says Ahmadi, who is in charge of the regional polio office. "It's like the iceberg phenomenon. We only see the tip of it."

Of the six cases this year, two are in Helmand, the rest in Herat, Kandahar and Farah.

"With the security situation in the south, accessibility for vaccination is very difficult," says Ahmadi.

"We need to vaccinate them at least three times over three years to completely control the disease. But in some conflict areas, the Taliban have shot at our volunteers or they have intimidated tribal elders so we can't go into villages."

A Taliban spokesperson has denied this, insisting volunteers have been guaranteed secure access to immunize children. They lie.

What is it? An emergency room emerges

Patients in beds in the hallways. Five patients a day who walk in and wait so long they walk out before being seen. Privacy at a premium. Storage space a luxury.

That's how it is today, but things are about to change.

MultiCare Health System and the emergency departments at Tacoma General Hospital and Mary Bridge Children's Hospital will soon enter the 21st century.

"It's physically impossible to see any more patients," says Audrey VanVeen, MultiCare's clinical project manager.

"We can't fit any more staff," says Sara Long, vice president of philanthropy at MultiCare.

"We're in a very old, small department that we outgrew more than 10 years ago," says Bob Stoecker, medical director of the Tacoma General emergency department and a director with Tacoma Emergency Care Physicians, which contracts to staff the department.

You may have seen the construction site along Martin Luther King Jr. Way at the site of the former First United Methodist Church. The church has been torn down, and the congregation has moved to a new location, while contractors have dug a hole to accommodate the hospital addition.

And from that hole they removed 83,000 cubic yards -- or approximately 3,320 dump-truck loads -- of soil.

From that hole will rise a new building four stories tall, with oncology treatment facilities on the top and bottom and a new emergency department, including an express care facility, in the middle.

--The emergency departments of Tacoma General and Mary Bridge will occupy the second floor with 41 "universal" examination rooms that allow simple and advanced care.

--The express care center will contain 32 examination rooms -- 17 for the treatment of adults, seven for pediatric patients and two for triage. Six observation rooms will allow for extended monitoring of patients. And where a current examination room at Mary Bridge offers 64 square feet, each new room will offer 175 square feet. All examination rooms will be private, so no longer will a patient be heard through a curtain describing his or her ailments and medical history.

--A second-floor trauma suite will contain six large rooms and 11 patient beds.

--The new department will have 88 percent more beds than the facility it replaces. The project will also nearly double the space available for patients awaiting treatment and for families who accompany patients to the emergency department.

--Space for ambulances will double, and valet parking will be available for drive-up patients.

--Both the express and critical care units will feature "continuous negative air flow" to segregate any airborne infectious agents or toxins.

--Overall, both departments will comprise more than five times the space currently available -- expanding from 13,000 to 73,500 square feet.

--A new ecumenical chapel on the third floor will offer space for small services, worship or simple meditation. All faiths will be welcome.

MultiCare has begun a fundraising campaign to secure $25 million of the total $72 million cost of the project. The balance will be financed through cash reserves, operational income and debt.

"At the end of the day, we're a nonprofit," says Long. "There are three sources of funding for any health care organization -- money we earn, money we can borrow and philanthropy. If you look around the country and find the highest performing institutions, they will be nonprofits, and they will be highly supported by philanthropy. You'll never be able to earn enough or borrow enough to be able to reinvest in the technology and services that we all want."

The $25 million campaign has already raised $16.3 million, primarily from local foundations and what Long calls the "MultiCare family" of employees and physicians.

The facility will be ready for patients in March 2010 -- but its design has already had an impact.

Stoecker said Monday that his group recently hired five physicians who will work in the new emergency department.

They were impressed, he says, with what's about to happen.

Chick lit author gives girls good read

Meg Cabot does chick lit, and she does it well.

She's had steady success with dozens of fun, sassy titles for women, including the Heather Wells mysteries and the recent "Queen of Babble" series.

Her charming book for young adults, "The Princess Diaries," spawned sequels and spinoffs in the double digits, including two Hollywood movies.

And it seems like every few months, she's produces another title for teen girls. A recent example is "Airhead." Its grabby premise: A down-to-earth New York City girl suffers an accident and wakes up in a model's body.

With "Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls: Moving Day," Cabot targets third-and fourth-grade girls for the first time, and she hits the mark.

Allie Finkle is edgy and interesting enough to engage bright, savvy 8- and 9-year-olds. But at heart, the story is wholesome and family-oriented.

The great cover is the first sign that this book will win over kids and parents.

Allie is represented by a photo. She's adorable, full of attitude and with cowgirl boots and beaded belt, she's clearly got style. But she's not dressed like a 25-year-old.

Even cooler, the cover folds out into a poster, with variations on Allie's outfit and some of her "rules."

Inside, each chapter starts off with a rule foreshadowing the contents. Some are goofy, some serious. Rule No. 1 will draw readers right in: "Don't stick a spatula down your best friend's throat."

Bad choice, but readers will empathize. The friend could be a spoiled brat.

Things get even rougher when Allie's parents announce the family is going to move. They've found a big old house in town.

It's one of those decisions that seems so right from a parental point of view. A glorious old Victorian to restore. More room for Allie and her two little brothers. A school within walking distance. It's only a half-hour away. Allie can see old friends.

The move seems all wrong to Allie. She'll trade pink carpet in her room for a house that looks haunted. She's leaving her modern suburban school for a rundown school in town. Plus, she'll be a new kid in fourth grade, a scary prospect in itself. But one teacher seems wonderful and the other, deadly dull. There's no telling which class she'll land in.

Cabot does a terrific job weaving many layers into Allie's story. She has friend troubles at home, so a fresh start has advantages, especially when she discovers a spunky girl lives next door to the new house. But the unknown is terrifying.

A funny, harrowing side plot deals with Allie's passion for animals. She rescues a turtle from a Chinese restaurant and a prize show cat that a classmate has shut in a suitcase, earning her both admiration and a heap of trouble.

Characters, both adults and kids, are multidimensional. Discerning youngsters will see that Allie's mom and dad aren't the bad guys. And readers will be as delighted as Allie when her parents unveil the pretty bedroom they've created for her in the new house.

Adults sometimes cast a rosy glow around childhood. For each of us who wishes we were 9 again when life was easy, there's a 9-year-old who knows it's not.

Polk students blaze trail in mariachi band

Eight middle-schoolers are setting a new tone for the Polk County School District.

Students at McLaughlin Middle School and Fine Arts Academy this year joined the first mariachi band class offered in the county -- and possibly the state.

Although school-based mariachi programs have exploded nationwide, they remain uncommon in Florida.

The Polk seventh-and eighth-graders practice the Mexican folk music during their elective class three times a week. They sing and play the violins, acoustic guitar, trumpet and Mexican vihuela [a five-string guitar].

"They're not just songs to enjoy; they're stories," trumpet player Jacob Keiling, 14, said. "They tell something about the [culture]."

School officials launched the mariachi program to reach out to the growing Hispanic population in the area, said Madalyn Walton, McLaughlin's fine arts coordinator.

"We felt this would be another way to have a buy-in with the parents," she said. "As they come see their children perform, you see them get more involved" in the school.

More than 150 of the academy's roughly 800 students are Hispanic, according to school officials.

Mack Ruiz, a violinist with Orlando's Mariachi Cobre, said programs are popular in areas with high Mexican concentrations, including Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. The McLaughlin program is the first he has heard of in Florida.

Ruiz, who serves on the National Council for Mariachi Educators, said, "Polk County is one of the first to catch on."

Ruiz's mariachi group, which has performed at Epcot for about 26 years, helped the school build a curriculum.

Erik Castillo, 14, who plays the acoustic guitar, said the band brought him closer to his parents and grandparents, who are originally from the Mexican state of Veracruz. The eighth-grader said they share stories about the country's history.

"I'm glad of what I'm doing," said Erik, who also plays other instruments, including the violin and piano. "It never came to me that it [mariachi] could affect me like that."

About half of the mariachi band members are Hispanic, said Gian Carlo Monacelli, who teaches the class.

He said students learn about the music and culture, which they otherwise wouldn't get a chance to learn in school.

Jacob, the trumpet player, knew little about Hispanic culture before taking the class. Although he still struggles with Spanish, he said he has learned about the meanings behind the folk songs.

Residents have embraced the group, Monacelli said.

The students have performed eight or nine times at nursing homes, country clubs and festivals.

In the next few years, Walton hopes to expand the program, adding folk dancing and mariachi suits -- as long as the students continue to embrace the music.

"The children choose to be part of this," Walton said. "Nobody is making them [enroll]."

Will Lito Sheppard show up?

It was an odd thing for Andy Reid to say.

The Eagles had just closed their first full-squad camp of the spring last month, and the head coach, before reprimanding the Philadelphia media for their inability to find a positive story, noted that the next time all his players gathered at the NovaCare Complex, they would do so on a voluntary basis.

"Again, this is not a mandatory camp coming up," Reid said. "These are OTAs [off-season training activities], and players have the option of being here or not being here."

Why Reid started his thought with the word again is a mystery because he had never said anything quite like that before.

Show up if you want? Stay at home if you'd prefer?

That's not the kind of thing any NFL head coach is in the habit of saying.

The player voted most likely to take up Reid on his invitation to stay away from the full-squad workouts that begin today is cornerback Lito Sheppard, who is feeling both underappreciated and underpaid these days.

With Sheppard having lost his starting job to prized free agent Asante Samuel, it wouldn't be surprising if the six-year Eagles veteran decided to boycott this camp. His closest friend on the team, however, said he thought the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback would take the high road and show up today.

"To be honest with you, I think he'll be there," fellow cornerback Sheldon Brown said yesterday.

Sheppard, who refused to say whether he would attend this camp at the end of the previous one, did not return a phone call yesterday.

Since we last saw Sheppard, there has been a report on ESPN-AM (950) radio that the Eagles would give him some repetitions at wide receiver during this camp.

"That wouldn't surprise me," Brown said. "Lito has wanted to play wide receiver since he came to Philadelphia."

Sheppard would probably prefer that the Eagles pass him some extra cash rather than the football, but maybe lining up wide on offense can appease him for one season.

Of course, a scenario that still remains a distinct possibility is that the Eagles will trade Sheppard before the start of the season. There have been reports that the Eagles are interested in Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor, and the team has not denied them recently. One team official did say during the draft that the Eagles were not interested in Taylor.

The dream scenario for Eagles fans remains the acquisition of a star receiver such as Detroit's Roy Williams or Cincinnati's Chad Johnson, but neither the Lions nor the Bengals have expressed an interest in trading their star players.

Johnson's situation could get interesting later this month. According to ProFootballTalk.com, the disgruntled receiver plans to attend the Bengals' mid-June mandatory minicamp, but he is likely to behave in much the same manner Terrell Owens did during training camp with the Eagles in 2005. Owens, of course, was sent home from that training camp by Reid.

For now, Sheppard is an Eagle, and a voluntary camp begins today at the NovaCare Complex. As Reid has said, the "players have the option of being here or not being here."

Turn of the Screw

Like the best ghost stories, "The Turn of the Screw" draws its power not from oversize effects, but from the intimacy and taunting plainness of its approach. That's true of Henry James' novella, and just as true of the intricate and beautiful chamber opera that Benjamin Britten created from it in 1954.

Intimacy and precision are the hallmarks of San Francisco Lyric Opera's splendid production of the opera, now playing at the Cowell Theatre in Fort Mason. Conducted with exemplary care by Artistic Director Barnaby Palmer and sung by a uniformly fine cast, Sunday's matinee performance allowed the audience to witness the work's magic right up close, without flinching or cheating.

That transparency is part of the challenge in this swift, crystalline masterpiece. Scored for just 13 instruments and a small cast - at least one of whom is a child - "The Turn of the Screw" is a fully exposed venture that leaves performers nowhere to hide.

Instead, the shadows and secret corners are in the story itself. As in James' original text, it concerns an unnamed governess who takes a job at a remote country house tending to two seemingly angelic, but mysterious, children.

Her assignment turns out to involve grappling with two malevolent specters for possession of her young charges - a struggle in which the children's allegiances are unclear. For that matter, the very existence of the two ghosts is a matter of speculation.

Britten and his librettist, Myfanwy Piper, necessarily bring things into somewhat crisper focus for the stage. They give the ghosts - the former valet, Peter Quint, and the former governess, Miss Jessel - music to sing, and they make far more explicit the subtext of sexual predation, including a portentous quotation from Yeats ("The ceremony of innocence is drowned!").

Still, the elusive quality of the original lives on in the evasions and ambiguities of the libretto, and especially in the haunting flourishes and mood changes of Britten's score.

Britten understood that the spookiest effects come from the presence of the otherworldly within the everyday. So his score is laden with images of childhood innocence - nursery rhymes, schoolroom mnemonics and the practicing of early piano lessons - alongside the eerie vocal swoops of the phantoms and the ghostly tinkling of the celesta.

Among the opera's difficulties, perhaps none is so daunting as the composer's expectations from his two child stars (although in other productions the role of Flora, the younger child, is sometimes taken by a woman). The Lyric's production is blessed with not one but two young artists who rise magnificently to the challenge.

Brooks Fisher, who plays Miles, boasts a clear, sumptuous treble whose pure tones don't interfere with either audibility or clarity of diction. He captured Miles' unnerving combination of innocence and darkness in a performance that always seemed, tantalizingly, to be holding something back.

He was well matched by Madelaine Matej as Flora, her singing bright and true, and her stage presence a compelling mixture of playfulness and turmoil.

The rest of the cast was no less fine. Soprano Anja Strauss brought vivid vocalism and a keen sense of anguish to the part of the Governess, and Kathleen Moss was a warm-toned, vivacious presence as the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose.

Tenor Trey Costerisan, doubling as Quint and the Prologue who narrates the premise of the story, gave a sensational performance marked by fluid phrasing, lustrous tone and uncanny accuracy. Soprano Lara Bruckmann's Miss Jessel was aptly dark and menacing.

Palmer led a crackerjack instrumental ensemble with assurance, if a bit too fastidiously. Director Heather Carolo's staging, helped along by the video projections of scenic designer Jean-François Revon, underscored the work's unknowable qualities.

Turn of the Screw: San Francisco Lyric Opera. By Benjamin Britten. 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Cowell Theatre, Fort Mason. Tickets: $18-$32. Call (415) 345-7575 or go to www.sflyricopera.org.

Trey Costerisan, doubling as Peter Quint and the Prologue, was sensational with phrasing and a lustrous tone.