Monday, 30 March 2009

Smith's husband claims porn costs

The political future of Labour heavyweight Jacqui Smith, Britain’s home secretary, is in doubt after her husband Richard Timney has claimed the costs of two porn movies from her expenses budget.

Smith was said to be ‘mortified and furious’ when she found out that her claims included two adult movies. Her husband Richard admitted watching the videos on April 1 and 7, 2008.

Effectively, British taxpayers funded Mr Timney’s desire to watch porn. Speaking to the press outside their constituency home in Redditch (Worcestershire, UK), Richard Timney said yesterday: “I am really sorry for any embarrassment I have caused Jacqui. I can fully understand why people might be angry and offended by this. Quite obviously, a claim should never have been made for these films and, as you know, the money has been paid back.”

David Davis, the former Shadow Home Secretary, said: “I didn’t even know films were that expensive . . . claiming for porn movies? I just can’t believe it.”

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Chicago's Green River

Chicago is famous for many things; Oprah, the Sears Tower, blues, Obama, The Chicago Theatre, for being 'The Windy City', Jerry Springer, its Hilton Hotel and not to forget a spectacular annual event: dyeing the Chicago River green. The tradition started more than forty seven years ago, when pollution-control workers used dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges and noticed that the green materials used could be the basis for a unique way to celebrate the start of the St Patrick's holiday. In 1962, city workers released more than 100 pounds of green vegetable dye into 'Chicago river' (it is not hard to guess where it got its name from). It turned out to be more than enough to keep the river coloured for a week! These days, the city council tries to minimize environmental damage, so only forty pounds of dye are used, making the river green for just a couple of hours. Last Saturday, March 14, thousands of people headed over to the river banks to see the green spectacle, which is the start of the St. Patrick's festivities.,,

Monday, 16 March 2009

'The bookies': making a living out of hope

If you live in the UK, you can not miss them. Their typical white and yellow logo can be found in any major city and town throughout England. No High Street seems to be complete without having one; the William Hill betting shops have become an integral part of modern British society. After all, isn't money won twice as sweet as money earned?

Last week, I headed over to north London. Right outside my Camden flat there is a direct bus, the 29, which brings me – via Caledonian Road, Holloway, Finsbury Park, Manor House and Turnpike Lane – all the way to the northern borough of Wood Green. A forty five minutes ride and good fun actually, since I like to go to areas I normally hardly come, even though you cross some pretty dodgy London areas. Especially Holloway, Finsbury Park and Manor House are known for their late night police visits and the sound of an ambulance seems to be an integral part of the neighborhoods’ life. What is also a vital part of many people’s lives here are the betting offices; it is where William Hill is doing big business. Here in the capital, they seem to have found fertile ground in especially the more deprived and rundown parts of London, according to the Independent (March 23, 2008)

In my opinion, most of the company’s revenue, over £1 billion in 2008, seems to be made in areas like these. Many underprivileged can not get enough of the horse racing, gambling, golf, football and bookmaking ever since the company was set up by William Hill in 1934. Steadily the business grew to one of the country’s biggest bookmakers with branches in the UK, Ireland and Spain. A respectable achievement, and they always operated within the boundaries of the law. It bought 624 new betting offices in 2005; the acquisition took the company past Ladbrokes into first position in the UK betting market, with an annual profit of more than £150 million in 2008. CEO Ralph Topping – who took a Saturday job in Glasgow in 1973 and worked his way up – has many scheduled projects for the near future. He plans to expand the online betting business so people from all over the world can place a ‘bet-by-clicking’. Employing more than 14,600 people and with an average of 899,000 bets a day William Hill seems to be the model example of a successful company. But then I ask myself, do I agree with the American journalist Heywood Campbell Broun (1888-1939), who said 'the urge to gamble is so universal and its practice is so pleasurable, it must be evil'?

Because while I am passing these areas, it makes me wonder, how do they make their money and – even more importantly – out of whom? Didn't Arthur S. Reber once say in The New Gambler's Bible 'In every bet there is a fool and a thief'? I always believe luck never gives; it only lends, so it is here is where I become reluctant. Several publications, including a London School of Economics research report, have indicated that it is mainly the disadvantaged, the poor and uneducated, who fill William Hill’s, Ladbrokes', Coral's and all the other pockets. Is it true, like some former gambling addicts claim, that most betting offices seem to have developed a culture which is concentrated on squeezing the last penny out of their customers to generate maximum income? It is too early to say that, and one should not forget they are major private employers responsible for the economic well-being of many households, but the Independent and others seemed to have suggested the average William Hill visitor has had hardly any education and has often not a good idea how big – or slim – his chances of winning are. Or are just simply very young; an investigation by children's charity NCH concluded in July 2004 'children were able to gamble online.'

I believe the safest way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket, but for many it merely is a possibility to escape reality, even just for a minute. Because that seems to me to be part of the William Hill product; selling a ‘dream’. What if you suddenly win a million, a car, a pension? How life changing is that! Without any doubt William Hill, Ladbrokes and so on are the only shop in the area which sell such a dream ride; a way out of boredom, a ticket away from their run down, monotonous life. It is almost like we are in Slum Dog Millionaire.

Unfortunately, for most of us, that is an illusion. At first, casinos and bookmakers are like prostitutes; they are both trying to screw you out of your money and send you home with a smile on you face. Leaving you empty handed (VP Pappy). And for some it takes quite a while, if not forever, before they have realized this. There is little which can be done, since no one can accuse the bookmakers of breaking the law or ignoring regulations. Including me. Clearly the UK's Gambling Act of 2005 offers hardly any protection; no one forces anyone to place a bet or to spend thousands of pounds, if not even more. So if people walk in voluntarily it become quite difficult to force them to stop playing when they are on their way to bet away a small fortune, something they mostly do not even have. So what happened to the bookies' moral responsibility? When gambling has become an addiction or the last resort for people to make a fortune to pay off their huge debts, is that not the time for the bookmakers to step in and say 'no'? What if someone wants to open a new account, while he still owes WH thousands of pounds and it is not very likely he will be able to pay it back soon? Mostly not a problem.

A good example is Graham Calvert, a 28 year old greyhound trainer from Tyne and Wear, who became addicted to gambling and sued WH for continuing to take his bets and allowing him to lose more than £2 million on football, horse racing and golf. In 2008 he asked William Hill to bar him from their branches because of his compulsive habit. Over a period of 16 months, which started in the summer of 2005, he placed £7.5 million on the outcomes of sporting events, sometimes walking into the betting shop with bin liners filled with £100,000 in cash. He had been earning £30,000 a month and began betting £2,000 to £5,000 a time, regularly placing a single bet of £30,000, can be read in the London Times. After about a year, he started to recognize he was suffering from an addiction. In May 2006 he asked William Hill to ban him. However, later that summer he was able to open a new account and resume placing large bets. His biggest gamble was a £345,000 bet backing America to win the Ryder Cup. Unfortunately for Calvert, they lost. The result: his life in ruins. He owed William Hill an estimated £1.5 million and on top of that, his wife left him in 2008 with their two young children. No wife can endure a gambling husband, unless he is a steady winner. The case came just a few months after the mother of a mentally disabled man from Bournemouth, permitted to continue gambling after several local bookmakers had agreed to exclude him, called for gambling regulations to be tightened. Although her son Alex signed six-month self-exclusion agreements with a number of bookmakers in their area, he was subsequently allowed to gamble during the six-month period. It seems to illustrate just something: the only way to return from a casino with a small fortune, is to go there with a large one.

These examples raise questions about ‘responsible gambling’, as mentioned on William Hill’s website. Does the company stick to its own guidelines? On the website it mentions ‘one of the Gambling Act’s objectives are: to protect children and vulnerable people’. It is true I have not seen buses full of school children at the betting offices, but what about ‘vulnerable people’? There does not seem to be a clear definition about who these people are, and that is where it gets tricky. Morally you can argue whether or not a barman should serve someone a tequila shot when he is completely pissed and can barely walk; should a bookie allow someone to continue playing when he is running out of money, credit, steam and his healthy appetite for a bet turns into a horrible addiction? It makes you wonder, was Jeffrey Bernard right when he said: "why in most betting shops you will have nine or ten windows marked "Bet Here" but only one window with the legend "Pay Out."

Lawmakers, however, do believe very much in people’s own responsibility. Graham Calvert lost his case in March 2008. Judge Michael Briggs said: “William Hill has no legal responsibility to protect its customers from the consequences of their gambling.” So it is not possible to draw the conclusion William Hill breaks any laws or rules.

Just before I reached Wood Green, I passed by another bookmaker. A rundown, old building that could use some renovation. Just when I observed the place, the door opened and a guy came out. People always seem to adapt to their environment, as long as they stick around long enough. This guy illustrated that in every possible way. The non-shaved, untidy, long haired, overweight fifty something lit a cigarette and stared into the bus, at me. For a minute I started to feel uncomfortable and was about to wave at him when I realized; he did not even notice me. He was not looking at anything; he was just staring. It was obvious he had other things on his mind. How much did he lose today; how much will he lose tomorrow? And perhaps more importantly, where is he going to get some cash for his next bet? I wanted to get up, get out, scream at him that there is just one good throw upon the dice, which is, to throw them away. But I didn't, I just sat, looked and realised; whatever they make you believe, no dog or horse can go as fast as the money you bet on them.,,,,,,

Thursday, 5 March 2009

India's latest drink: cow urine

Overheated Indians can cool down with a very original new drink soon: a soft drink made of cow urine.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist movement in India, is planning to launch a new drink at the end of this year. The bovine brew is said to be in the final stages of development, according to the project leader Om Prakash. He is the head of the Cow Protection Department of RSS, one of India’s biggest and oldest Hindu nationalist movements. The new drink will be called ‘Gau Jal’, or ‘cow water’. Prakash: “At the moment we are doing some laboratory tests and the plan is to launch the drink hopefully by the end of this year.” Will it smell and taste like urine? “No, not at all, and it will have a nice taste too,” says Om Prakash from their brewery in Hardwar, one of four holy cities on the River Ganges. “Any toxins will be removed from the cow urine and it won’t be like carbonated drinks. It is going to be very healthy.” Cows have a holy symbolic status in India. To slaughter or eat a cow in India is illegal in most parts of the country. For many years cow dung is used as a fuel and disinfectant.
The drink is the latest attempt by the RSS – which was founded in 1925 and now claims eight million members – to cleanse India of foreign influence and promote its ideology of Hindutva, or Hinduness. Hindus revere cows and slaughtering them is illegal in most of India. Cow dung is traditionally used as a fuel and disinfectant in villages, while cow urine and dung are often consumed in rituals to "purify" those on the bottom rungs of the Hindu caste system. In 2001, the RSS and its offshoots – which include the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party – began promoting cow urine as a cure for ailments ranging from liver disease to obesity and even cancer.
The movement has often been accused of using more violent methods, such as killing 67 Christians in the eastern state of Orissa last year, and assaulting women in a pub in Mangalore last month. It also has a history of targeting foreign business in India, as in 1994, when it organised a nationwide boycott of multinational consumer goods, including Pepsi and Coca Cola. The cola brands are popular in India, now one of their biggest markets, but have struggled in recent years to shake off allegations, which they deny, that they contain dangerous levels of pesticide. Mr Prakash said his drink, by contrast, was made mainly of cow urine, mixed with a few medicinal and ayurvedic herbs. He said it would be "cheap", but declined to give further details about its price or ingredients until it was officially launched. He insisted, however, that it would be able to compete with the American cola brands, even with their enormous advertising budgets. "We're going to give them good competition as our drink is good for mankind," he said. "We may also think of exporting it."