Retirees barter work for a camping spot

A cold wind whipped down the Texas plains on the night last month that Sharon Smith, 68, and her husband, Bill, 73, arrived here to be work-campers.

In the dark, they had trouble setting up their camper. But Ms. Smith, a former teacher’s aide from Sioux Falls, S.D., said she looked up at the starry sky, shook off a few of the burrs she had picked up lying on the ground working on their truck, and told herself it would get better.

It did.

The life of a work-camper, volunteering in places like Falcon State Park in deep South Texas in return for free rent, is not without its bumps. But as Ms. Smith also quickly discovered, the rewards can be deep as well — like making cinnamon rolls as part of her job at the camp recreation center, where she and Mr. Smith are working as hosts through the end of March.

We’re here for three reasons,” she said, as she spread sugar on the dough. “No. 1, we like to travel. No. 2, we like people. And No. 3, we’re on a budget.”

An itinerant, footloose army of available and willing retirees in their 60s and 70s is marching through the American outback, looking to stretch retirement dollars by volunteering to work in parks, campgrounds and wildlife sanctuaries, usually in exchange for camping space.

Park and wildlife agencies say that retired volunteers have in turn become all the more crucial as budget cuts and new demands have made it harder to keep parks open.

RTFA. Reflect on the nation which to all intents and purposes invented national parks for the recreation and education of the people – now ruled by beancounters who care only for columns of profit and loss marching in obedient fashion through their budgets.

We have parks with no funds, retirees without adequate healthcare and a new generation left to fill out their American dreams with nonsense television and online myths.

Nutball crashes a plane into federal offices in Texas

Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

The long, rambling rant posted on a website eerily reflected the angry populist sentiments that have swept the country in the past year. In it, a Joe Stack inveighed against intrusive Big Brother government, corrupt corporate giants, irrational taxes, as well as the “puppet” George Bush. “I choose not to pretend that business as usual won’t continue,” he wrote. “I have just had enough. I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt.” And then Stack apparently got in a Piper Cherokee PA-28 at about 9:40 a.m. at an airport in suburban Austin, Texas, and flew the plane into a commercial building housing an IRS office, killing himself, seriously injuring two people on the ground and starting a conflagration that lasted several hours…

“It sure was hauling. It was a really speedy dive,” Jerry Cullin, a pilot, told KXAN, the local NBC affiliate. “It shot across the road going really fast.” Cullin had stopped to get his midmorning coffee at the local Marie Callender’s when he saw the plane swoop down. It was so low, Cullin said, he could see the plane’s belly and thought he might get hit. The plane almost clipped one of the tall light poles lining the freeway before crashing into the building.

After the fireball, Cullin said, the black-glass windows blew out and the venetian blinds starting flapping in the wind. The building houses regional offices of the IRS and other federal agencies. As one unidentified office worker from the building said, “If you have problems with the IRS, this is where you come in person to work them out.” According to news reports, 199 IRS employees work in the building, and all are accounted for. Toward the end of what appears to be his final note, Stack wrote, “Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well.”

RTFA. No doubt, the next Tea Party rally in Austin will eulogize this man and his suicide bombing.

US drug firm gives up libel action against scientist

A US corporation, GE Healthcare, has dropped the controversial British libel action it brought against a scientist who criticised one of its drugs, saying the firm did not mean to stifle academic debate.

Lawyers for leading Danish radiologist Henrik Thomsen said today: “He will be obviously relieved. Now he won’t have to worry about his future financial position, and won’t have to keep looking over his shoulder before he says anything.”

At a 2007 Oxford medical conference, Thomsen criticised use of Omniscan, GE’s best-selling contrast agent injected into patients so their tissues show up better during MRI scans.

Use of the drug, which contains a toxic metal, gadolinium, has now been halted for a small group of patients with previously malfunctioning kidneys, after hundreds of them developed permanently crippling side-effects from a condition called NSF.

The financial terms of the settlement were secret, Thomsen’s lawyer, Andrew Stephenson of Carter-Ruck, said yesterday. But the solicitors had defended the case on a no-win no-fee basis, so it is expected by observers that they will have gained a sizeable payment…

The company said it welcomed what it called a “principled debate” about safety issues.

A British NSF sufferer, Margaret Roxburgh from Glasgow, is attempting to gain compensation after she was injected with Omniscan in 2006. Her lawyer, Cameron Fyfe, says Scottish authorities are currently refusing legal aid on the grounds the case would be too expensive to pursue. She is one of 28 alleged British victims. A series of lawsuits are also being brought against GE in the US.

The use of British libel laws against scientists by commercial organisations has been the subject of increasing controversy, and a Ministry of Justice working party is considering reforms.

In their own polite way, bloody bureaucrats will trundle around the issues until sufficient political pressure is brought to bear on changing broken laws.

As it stands, a group of specialist British attorneys rejoice in their nation being the center of libel tourism for the Western world.

School used laptop webcams to spy on students

A federal class action claims a suburban school district has been spying on students and families through the “indiscriminant use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students,” without the knowledge or consent of students or parents. The plaintiffs say they learned that Big Brother was in their home when an assistant principal told their son that the school district knew he “was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the school district.”

The families say the Lower Merion School District issued Webcam-equipped personal laptop computers to each of its approximately 1,800 high school students: in Harriton High School in Rosemont, and Lower Merion High School in Ardmore. The schools issued the computers as part of a “one-to-one” laptop computer initiative lauded by Superintendent Christopher McGinley as an effort that “enhances opportunities for ongoing collaboration, and ensures that all students have 24/7 access to school based resources and the ability to seamlessly work on projects and research at school and at home.”

But the parents and students say that, without their knowledge, the access went both ways. Nowhere in any “written documentation accompanying the laptop,” or in any “documentation appearing on any Web site or handed out to students or parents concerning the use of the laptop,” was any reference made “to the fact that the school district has the ability to remotely activate the embedded webcam at any time the school district wished to intercept images from that webcam of anyone or anything appearing in front of the camera,” the complaint states…

The school district in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a student’s personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer.

Defendants include the Lower Merion School District [], the Board of Directors [] of the Lower Merion School District, and Superintendent McGinley [].

What a flock of bureaucratic creeps! It’s damning enough of our social and political culture that the Bill of Rights probably wouldn’t get through Congress, today. But, you would think that preservation of your boring little sinecure, some cardboard closet for administrative ditto machines, would suggest liberty and privacy are overriding concerns when considering a policy as abhorrent as this?

Fire the whole lot. Hold an election. Replace these reactionary dunces with someone who cares about the American Constitution.

Thanks, Cinaedh

France decides to deal with death

The French state is not famous for sensitivity and tact, but the parliament has voted unanimously for a remarkably imaginative measure to make dying easier there. People who take time off to look after a relative or partner close to death will be entitled to an payment of €50 a day for 21 days. At a time when English politicians argue about a death tax, the French have got on and established a subsidy for the dying.

At a time when American politicians aren’t even convinced we should be alive.

It’s not a huge sum of money. I don’t think that’s the point. There are incidental expenses and inconveniences when someone is dying but they are seldom immense. They matter far less than the grief and exhaustion which attend almost every deathbed. What the payment does is to register the state’s belief that to tend a dying friend or relative is a worthwhile activity, which should be honoured and not needlessly impeded.

This is a much more practical approach, and more compassionate, too, than grandstanding about principles and rights as we have been doing in this country for the last few weeks. Discussions about euthanasia in Britain are mostly conducted on the basis of individual hard cases, but the French law takes account of the fact that even a death that ends well can be hard and terrible for the people around. It is also work. To that extent a subsidy for the work done at the end of life is something the state – society – should pay just as it pays us around the time our children are born.

We don’t do that, either.

Like funerals, the French arrangement recognises that death affects the living all around the dead person, and they require help and acknowledgement to carry on. That may sound cynical, but I think it is purely realistic. We no longer have clear periods of socially supported mourning and this is thoughtless cruelty for the bereaved. Although the British like to think of themselves as pragmatists and the French as airy-fairy theoreticians, in this instance the balance is reversed; we should acknowledge this, and remedy it.

I think I’ll pass this post along to one [of the very few] American politicians who cares about humanity. I’m fortunate that Tom Udall represents me in the Senate. He carries on the family tradition of progressive politics, environmental activism – and backbone.

It won’t stand the chance of a snowball in Hell of getting anywhere in Congress.

Ready for hand swabbing before you’re allowed on the plane?

Guess what’s next?

To the list of instructions you hear at airport checkpoints, add this: “Put your palms forward, please.”

The Transportation Security Administration soon will begin randomly swabbing passengers’ hands at checkpoints and airport gates to test them for traces of explosives.

Previously, screeners swabbed some carry-on luggage and other objects as they searched for the needle in the security haystack — components of terrorist bombs in an endless stream of luggage.

But after the Christmas Day attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit, Michigan, the TSA began a program of swabbing passengers’ hands, which could be contaminated by explosive materials, experts say. The TSA will greatly expand the swabbing in the coming weeks, the agency said…

Under the new protocols, tests will be conducted at various locations — including in checkpoint lines, during the screening process and at gates. Newer, more portable machines make it easier to conduct tests away from fixed locations such as the checkpoint…

Because some legal substances — such as fertilizers and heart medicines — can result in “false positives,” Stanley said the ACLU also wants to ensure that people who test positive be treated respectfully.

“It’s important that the government treat people who do show up as a positive — fairly and with dignity — and not parade them off in handcuffs and treat them as terrorists, but do rational things to investigate what the problem might be,” he said.

How many people out there expect TSA rent-a-cops to behave rationally and not treat you as a terrorist? Raise your hands!

Man dies waiting 30 hours – after 10 phone calls for ambulance

In his first call to 911, Curtis Mitchell sounded calm, explaining to dispatchers that his “entire stomach [was] in pain.”

By the time his longtime girlfriend made a 10th call nearly 30 hours later, she was frantic. He wasn’t breathing. He was cold to the touch.

“Oh God, oh God,” Sharon Edge sobbed to dispatchers. “I’ve been trying to get an ambulance over here for three days…”

I sat up here with him, watching him die,” Ms. Edge said Tuesday, after city officials apologized to her and pledged immediate changes in emergency response after Mr. Mitchell’s death on Feb. 7. “They didn’t do their jobs like they were supposed to…”

Ambulances were dispatched three times on Saturday, Feb. 6, to the couple’s home in the 5100 block of narrow Chaplain Way, but couldn’t get there because of the snow. Paramedics twice asked whether Mr. Mitchell could walk to an intersection, even after he told them that he could not because he was in too much pain.

Emergency vehicles were within blocks of his home three times — once so close Ms. Edge could see the ambulance lights from her porch — but did not make contact with him. They finally reached the home on Sunday morning, Feb. 7, but Mr. Mitchell was already dead.

“We should have gotten there,” Public Safety Director Michael Huss said. “It’s that simple.”

Yes – you should have. Sometimes it takes an extra little bit of dedication to perform a simple act of humanity. That’s why it’s called “humanity” and not Grade 4 attendant or some such.