Friday 31 May 2019

The preachers getting rich from poor Americans

Televangelist Todd Coontz has a well-worn routine: he dresses in a suit, pulls out a Bible and urges viewers to pledge a very specific amount of money. "Don't delay, don't delay," he urges, calmly but emphatically.

It sounds simple, absurdly so, but Coontz knows his audience extremely well. He broadcasts on Christian cable channels, often late into the night, drawing in viewers who lack financial literacy and are desperate for change.

"I understand the laws that govern insurance, stocks and bonds and all that is involved with Wall Street," he once said, looking directly into the camera. "God has called me… as a financial deliverer."

Larry and Darcy Fardette donated to many televangelists
Crucially, he always refers to the money as a "seed" - a $273 seed, a $333 seed, a "turnaround" seed, depending on the broadcast. If viewers "plant" one, the amount will come back to them, multiplied, he says. It is an investment in their faith and their future.

In 2011, one of those desperate viewers was Larry Fardette, then based in California. Larry watched a lot of similar televangelists, known as prosperity preachers, who explicitly link wealth and religion. But he found Coontz particularly compelling. He assured quick returns. He seemed like a results man.

And Larry needed some fast results.

The Fardette family was going through a tough time. Larry's daughter was seriously ill and he had health problems of his own. His construction business was struggling, and to make matters worse both his van and his car broke down irreparably within the same week. When a local junkyard offered him $600 for the van, he thumbed the bills thoughtfully and remembered Coontz's rousing speech.

Maybe he should invest the sum as a "seed"?

He instantly recalled the specific number that Coontz had repeated again and again: $273. It was a figure the preacher often used. "God gave me the single greatest miracle of my lifetime in one day, and the numbers two, seven and three were involved," he once said. It is also - perhaps not coincidentally - the number of Coontz's $1.38m condo in South Carolina, paid for by his church, Rockwealth, according to local TV channel WSOC-TV.

Larry has now come to realise there was no foundation to Coontz's promises that donated cash would multiply, but at the time the stirring speeches gave him hope. He did not see any other way out.

He sent off two cheques: one for $273 and another for $333, as requested. Then he waited for his miracle.
Todd Coontz claims to be a financial expert
Televangelists are not as talked about today as they were in the 1980s and 1990s, when many rose to fame and fortune through mushrooming cable channels.

But they have never gone away. Even after numerous press exposés, the rogue elements have often bounced back. Some have got even richer. Many have taken their appeals on to social media.

A number of those making the most persistent pleas for money tap into something called the prosperity gospel, which hinges on a belief that your health and wealth are controlled by God, and God is willing you to be prosperous. Believers are encouraged to show their faith through payments, which they understand will be repaid - many times over - either in the form of wealth or healing.

For followers, it is a way to make sense of sickness and poverty. It can feel empowering and inspiring amid despair. The hard-up donors are often not oblivious to the preachers' personal wealth - though they may not know the extent of it - but they take the riches as a sign of a direct connection with God. If seed payments have worked for them, maybe they can work for you too?

And if the seeds never flourish? Some are told their faith is not strong enough, or they have hidden sin. In Larry's case, he often interpreted small pieces of good fortune - a gift of groceries from a neighbour, or the promise of a few extra hours of work for his wife, Darcy - as evidence of fruition.

He estimates he gave about $20,000 to these operators over the years. A little here, a little there. A few years ago, he started tallying it all up. The list is like a who's who of all the established players, including those who have made headlines for their lavish lifestyles - those such as Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, who have asked followers to fund their private jets.

Larry's own life could not stand in greater contrast. These days he and Darcy live in the small town of Cullman, Alabama, about an hour's drive north of Birmingham. Their spartan living room is furnished with just a desk and four dining-room chairs. The monotony of the wall's bare magnolia paint is broken only by a couple of mounted crosses and a small, framed Biblical verse. "Be anxious for nothing," it reads (Philippians 4:6).

"Life is not easy but we are blessed," says Larry, in a rasping, lived-in voice. "We have food in the refrigerator, we have two cats that love us. My wife's got part-time work in a store and I get disability benefits."

Larry's painting and remodelling business fell apart when scoliosis started twisting his spine about eight years ago - roughly the same time he scrapped his van and car and made his donation to Todd Coontz. He and Darcy still lived then in his home state, California, and employed former drug users as workers. He was an ex-addict himself, and his Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous sessions had strengthened his religious beliefs.

After deciding to "follow Christ's path", he became an avid viewer of religious channels and specifically "praisathons" - fundraising events with multiple guest speakers. He became, in his words, "hypnotised" by the hosts. He was not just a passive spectator, he felt like he knew them.

Many of these pastors also ran prayer lines - where callers would speak one-on-one with an operator and they would pray together. If a request for money followed, Larry was happy to contribute - even if he did not have much to give. He was under the impression that the money was going to worthy projects at home and abroad, and he hoped that if he were ever in a desperate position, he would be helped too.

In 2013, that moment came.

His daughter's health, which had long been poor, had become critical. Larry had promised to help her financially, but his "seeds" had not flourished. He wrote a heart-wrenching, five-page letter to several ministries he had contributed to over the years, pleading for help.

"We had been faithful to these ministries. They called us partners, friends, family," he explains today. "We thought they'd be there for us."

In the letter, he detailed how his daughter's health insurance would not cover the extensive and costly treatment she needed. One doctor had suggested they waited for her organs to fail, as only then would he be able to intervene.

"As a father, I am presently helpless," he wrote. "Would you please consider sponsorship to save our daughter's life?"

The replies drifted in. Some were instant email responses, others came through the post after prompting. All were rejections. "They said things like, 'Our ministry mandate prevents us from helping you,'" he recalls. He remembers the reaction of one specific office manager, from a ministry that had publicised its funding of medical treatments in the US: "In a haughty voice, she took a deep breath and said: 'You know we get six or seven of these calls a week and if we help you, we are going to have to help everyone.'"

By summer 2014, Larry and Darcy had exhausted all their funds. They had sold all their belongings to travel from California to Florida to be with their daughter, and ended up homeless. Wracked with guilt for having failed to provide the promised help to his daughter, Larry couldn't understand why he had been let down.

It took another year for things to become clear. In August 2015, the couple were channel-hopping in a Jacksonville motel room, when they caught an episode of John Oliver's satirical news show, Last Week Tonight.

"I never watched John Oliver. I had never even heard of the guy," says Larry. But his attention was immediately caught by a skit that ripped into money-grabbing televangelists. Larry and Darcy sat up in shock, recognising all the names.

They say they felt as though God was lifting a veil. "We had been so ignorant," Larry says, shaking his head.

The next morning they went to a local library to find out more online. In just a few clicks, they came across the Texas-based Trinity Foundation, which had assisted Last Week Tonight with its research.

Larry called the phone number, slightly apprehensively, not sure whether a friendly voice would pick up.

The man on the other end listened patiently as Larry reeled off the names of the preachers he had come to know.

He told him they knew every single one of them. Not only that, they kept files on most of them, detailing what was known of their estimated fortunes.

Stunned, Larry stayed on the line talking through his experiences, relieved to find someone who understood.

In its early days, in the 1970s, the Trinity Foundation was a wild place.

It was a home church but far from the twee set-up you might imagine. Here Bible classes were so fiery they could end in fist fights.

The dominant figure was the foundation's extraordinary creator, Ole Anthony (pronounced Oh-lee). At 6ft 4in, with penetrating blue eyes, he was a former teenage delinquent who had dabbled in arson and taken heroin - and had gone on to become an Air Force intelligence officer, a failed Republican election candidate and the owner of a PR firm, all before the age of 33. Then he underwent a sudden religious conversion, renounced wealth and devoted his life to Christ.

A friend, John Bloom, later wrote that Ole had assumed old business colleagues would join his Bible study groups. "But Ole was a little too 'out there' for most three-piece-suit North Dallas Protestants," Bloom explained. He was also based in a "fleabag office" in a rough part of town. Consequently, he mostly attracted troubled characters with nowhere else to go.

Ole Anthony on his front porch in Dallas
It was during these sessions that Ole started to note a common thread. When people were on the verge of homelessness in the heart of the Bible belt, a surprising number offered the last of their cash to televangelists who promised them financial salvation.

Ole, who always had a have-a-go approach to problem-solving, felt an urge to step in. First, he tried approaching the ministries on behalf of the penniless donors, thinking he could explain the circumstances and get the money refunded. However, like Larry, he found no-one willing to talk.

So he took it to a Christian broadcasting association - but it didn't want to get involved. Then he approached local district attorneys, who explained that many preachers were protected by the First Amendment (guaranteeing freedom of religion and free speech), so there was nothing they could do. So he turned back to the media, this time major networks and publications, which said investigations would be too time-consuming.

Ole was faced with a multibillion-dollar industry built, as he saw it, on exploiting the poor - and it was completely untouchable.

And this is how a community church became an investigations office. The Trinity Foundation felt compelled to tackle the prosperity preachers because no-one else would.

It is hard to imagine brawls at the foundation these days. Most of its members are at retirement age - Ole himself is 80, and in failing health - and the operation has moved from its "fleabag" office to two adjacent houses in a sleepy part of east Dallas. On one side is the gentrifying Junius Heights neighbourhood, on the other rows of slightly run-down bungalows.

Every day there is an early-morning Bible study session, a group dinner at 5pm, and more theology in the evening, including prayers with guitar-led hymns. The mixed bunch of devotees now includes a Mexican economist and a veteran of Desert Storm.

"Our members have taken over a whole block," says Ole incredulously, as he smokes a pipe on the front porch. Their semi-communal way of living has led to allegations that they are a cult, but he dismisses this as nonsense. "A lot of people don't like me, you know," he says, more than once.

Ole's dogged work has steered the foundation into an unusual niche, forming a bridge between the Christian world and the media. Though journalists originally pushed him away, they later found his foundation could provide the springboard for their investigations. Gradually it morphed into a watchdog, maintaining detailed files on wealthy evangelists.

"We have done a lot of weird things," Ole concedes, between hacking coughs.

Over the years, they have gained a reputation for their gung-ho approach - diving into dumpsters outside ministry offices, in search of potentially incriminating paperwork, and going undercover.

Collaborating with ABC News in the early 1990s, Ole posed as a small-scale pastor trying to learn how big-money ministries work. Accompanied by a producer with hidden cameras, he went to a mailing company working for televangelist Robert Tilton and was told how posting gimmicky gifts to potential donors had boosted returns.

It was a well-known technique - sending things such as "vial of holy water" or even dollar bills to prompt people to send a financial gift back - but it was rare to hear someone admitting it.

When the TV reports aired on Diane Sawyer's Primetime Live show in 1991, Tilton denied wrongdoing and attempted to sue the network - but he failed and his TV shows were eventually cancelled.

(Today, the Tilton ministry is still active but on a much smaller scale.)

A couple of years later, the Federal Communications Commission reportedly came close to introducing a "truth-in-advertising" clause for religious solicitations. This would have meant that any claims of boosting finances or curing disease would have to be verifiable, and Ole took various trips to Washington to lobby for it.

Ultimately the idea was dropped, which Ole puts down to the fact that the Republicans won the House of Representatives in 1994, with the help of votes from the religious right.

"We've tried a lot of things, but we haven't been very successful," he says, ruefully.

He doesn't think much will ever change, but asked if this makes him frustrated or angry, he laughs. "Why would I make myself angry? That is all there is in this world, injustice."

The Trinity Foundation office - also a home for some members
Pete Evans - a bespectacled believer with a gentle, apologetic manner - is now the foundation's lead investigator. One of his specialities is tracking the movements of private jets, aiming to discover when pastors are using them recreationally, instead of for church business.

Pete took Larry's first phone call. He remembers being moved by it, and starting a crowdfunding page for him. It raised about $2,000. "Less than what we had hoped for, but enough to tide them over," he wrote on the website at the time.

Pete says that just over a decade ago there was great excitement within the foundation, when the US Senate's Finance Committee began to question whether evangelists were taking advantage of their tax-exempt status to break Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidelines.

While other tax-exempt organisations - notably charities - must at least fill in a basic form, known as the 990, churches don't have to. This means they are not required to detail their top employees' earnings or list how much is spent on philanthropic projects. Their inner workings can be entirely unknown.
Pete Evans joined the Trinity Foundation as a student in the 1970s
But in 2007 the Senate committee appeared to think that some ministries were abusing this privilege and violating an IRS rule that church earnings may not "unreasonably benefit" an individual.

The Trinity Foundation shared all its research with the committee, and attended meetings with its officials.

The group - led by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley - decided to focus on six well-known figures: Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn and Paula White - who is now President Trump's spiritual adviser.

All six denied wrongdoing. Four failed to co-operate satisfactorily, according to the committee (White, Copeland, Dollar and Long). Larry had donated to three of them.

"We really thought it was going to come to something," says Pete.

Yet by 2011, the investigation had lost steam. Senator Grassley drew no specific conclusions. Instead he asked an evangelical group - the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) - to study ways to spur "self-reform" among ministries.

"The whole thing frittered away," says Pete. He believes the 2008 economic crash played a part; the financial world suddenly had much bigger issues to deal with. "But we were extremely disappointed. After years of hanging on, it felt like they just punted the ball."

The ECFA refused a BBC request for an interview, but said it stood by past statements on its website. In 2009, it told Senator Grassley that filing full tax returns would be an "intrusion on the most intimate recesses of church administration".

The Senate committee has shown no sign of taking up the subject again, and no government agency has taken a strong interest in it.

Paid-for television channels also fall outside the remit of the national regulator, the Federal Communications Commission - unlike in the UK, where Ofcom might step in.

Meanwhile, an anonymous source at the IRS told the BBC that the service feels its hands are often tied. "We can't knock on doors because then it is 'government overreach'," he said. "And if you think someone is going to thank you for closing down their church..."

But, although it is rare, sometimes a pastor does come within the IRS's sights.

In 2013, one of Todd Coontz's neighbours called a local TV channel to complain that he was taking up too many spaces in the car park outside his luxury South Carolina apartment block.

"He was not a known name around here," says Kim Holt, who runs the investigations unit at WSOC-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina. "But the caller then started mentioning Coontz's church and the 'seed' giving. And that's when we got interested."

The channel got in touch with the Trinity Foundation, which provided background on Coontz and the prosperity gospel. The foundation also shared recordings of his TV appearances - it keeps an archive of televangelist broadcasts, taking notes on the programmes to monitor new techniques.

"There is a peculiar thing about people turning the TV on in the middle of the night," says Pete, adding that this is when many pastors broadcast their pleas for seed donations. "They are lonely or hurting. They might have medical condition or be unemployed."

When WSOC-TV's report on Coontz aired, it went far beyond the parking dispute, detailing his personal wealth and casting doubt on the legitimacy of his fundraising tactics.

Todd Coontz on his way to the courtroom
Todd Coontz is not in the same league as some of the other prosperity preachers. He does not have a megachurch, a private airfield or even his own jet. He preaches at other people's live events, rather than holding them under his own name.

But his lifestyle is certainly opulent. He has posted photos on Facebook of his stays in hotel rooms overlooking Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. He has spent tens of thousands on jewellery and diamonds. He also has, or at least had, a fleet of luxury cars, including three BMWs, two Ferraris, a Maserati and a Land Rover, plus a speed boat.

Meanwhile, he has continued to target his operations at those on the breadline. Under the title Dr Todd Coontz, he has written a series of books: Please Don't Repo My Car, Supernatural Debt Calculation, There Is Life After Debt.

In the same year as the TV report aired, a federal probe led by the IRS criminal investigation unit also began.

"That certainly does not seem like a coincidence," says Pete. "I think someone saw the report and thought, 'This is crazy. We can't let this go.' It was such a public display of the misuse of donor money."

The IRS did not delve into his "seed" operations or his tax-exempt church, Rockwealth, but into his taxes for various personal side projects.

He was making large profits from freelancing as a speaker for other ministries and his two for-profit businesses, selling his books, CDs and DVDs. For these, he had needed to file accurate tax returns.

Todd Coontz's website still encourages "seed" donations
During a four-year investigation, prosecutors dug up all sorts of irregularities, ruling that Coontz had been underreporting his income and exploiting expenses claims.

He had developed various ploys, such as flying economy but sending fake first-class invoices to the ministries he was freelancing for, so he could pocket the difference. He would also claim expenses twice, once from his own ministry and once from his client. He claimed for thousands of dollars spent on clothes (suits are not a permitted business expense) and for 400 cinema tickets, which the IRS also considered unreasonable.

On 26 January 2019, Coontz was sentenced to five years in prison for failing to pay taxes and assisting in the filing of false tax returns. He was also ordered to pay $755,669 in restitution.

He reported to jail in early April, but was freed by the judges, pending appeal.

Coontz did not respond to the BBC's request for comment, but he has previously denied wrongdoing. On his website, he also claims to have given more than $1m to charity.

His Twitter account is still posting daily (with no reference to his jail sentence) and he has taken to preaching - via the Periscope app - from the front seat of his Maserati.

"Are you calling to sow your $219 seed today?" was the immediate response when the BBC called Rockwealth's hotline. The operator was not able to share the significance of that figure and would not answer questions about how many people had called to pledge. "Not so many today, but there are several of us answering calls," she said. It is not clear whether the switchboard was serving only Rockwealth or other churches too.

The Trinity Foundation has recently filed a long report to the IRS, calling for Rockwealth to lose its status as a tax-exempt church. As always, it feels like a shot in the dark and it does not expect to hear back.

Both Ole and Pete says the work they do often falls flat - and not through a lack of effort at their end. They once helped a woman get her $1,000 donation back from a ministry, only for her to donate it all over again. "She called us afterwards, asking to get it back again," recalls Pete, saying they had to decline the second time. "My feeling is she was addicted. She just got hooked back on to the TV and believing what they said."

Ole remains disappointed that the authorities still allow the vulnerable to fall into these traps.

"We hoped for change," says Ole. "But it didn't work. I guess they didn't want change."

As for Larry and Darcy, they are also still donating, despite their meagre income, but only to their local church.

Cullman, Alabama, where Larry and Darcy Fardette now live
"Plant your investment of your time, talent and money into the local community and you are going to find people who need help," says Larry, adding that he knows his neighbourhood pastor personally.

Their daughter is alive, but, after Larry was unable to pay for her medical treatment, a rift arose between them and they now rarely talk.

The couple say they want to share their story with others to make them think twice about where their money could be going.

"We found out the hard way. These are money-making industries," says Larry vehemently.

Darcy, sitting on one of the dining room chairs in the middle of the empty room, nods in agreement. "You have got to see some of the houses they live in," she adds, pursing her lips together. "Must be nice."

(Source: BBC)

Retirement should be a right. But it’s in danger of becoming a privilege for the rich

The number of working over-70s has more than doubled. Older people shouldn’t have to choose between work and poverty

If, like many people, you dread your daily commute and the early mornings associated with work, why do it for more years than you have to? But for a lot of older people, that prospect is fast becoming reality – more than twice as many people over 70 are working now than a decade ago. Some people will naturally want to remain in the workplace on a full- or part-time basis, and enjoy their job, keeping active and spending time with colleagues. For many others, however, it is a necessity rather than a choice.

Like all of us, older people have been hit by the rise in living costs, and some are forced to keep working beyond the retirement age to avoid falling into poverty. The decision to retire is, for many, an individual one, and an awareness that your financial situation remains precarious, and that working while you can is your only prospect of topping up your savings and pensions, is likely to weigh heavily on any decisions to stop work. Pensioner poverty has fallen from its peak in the mid-1990s but has begun to rise again in the years following the financial crash, with 16% of pensioners living in poverty, despite benefits for over-65s having been protected against cuts.

 ‘Everyone should have the right to retire and stop work.’ Retired people in Paignton, Devon. Photograph: Alamy

There are benefits to working beyond the retirement age: the fact loneliness can be partially curbed by work is important – though it’s worth pointing out that many people in work feel deeply socially isolated – and keeping active is a boon to health. But rest is also beneficial, and time to explore personal interests or spend time with family should be a right afforded to everyone after a lifetime of work, rather than a luxury increasingly reserved for wealthier people. Our pensions should support us in later life, and society should be able to provide for people when they need time off, whether they’re sick, raising children or have reached retirement age. If more people are finding it hard to make ends meet in retirement, the government should act now, rather than simply extolling the virtues of working until you drop.

And if some people are struggling to retire now, how on earth will many manage in the future? The slump in home ownership, with people getting on the housing ladder later, and the rise in private renting, makes it much less likely people will reach retirement age with affordable housing costs. Far fewer people will have paid off their mortgages, more will be renting and the number of parents remortgaging to help their children with a deposit will have a further impact.

Auto-enrolment was designed to address low rates of pension saving and a growing fear that with people living longer, pensions wouldn’t cover the cost of retirement.

And if pensioners today are struggling, what hope for younger people who will be retiring with smaller pensions, or without any pension at all? Given the high cost of childcare, and how many people would be unable to make ends meet without family members helping look after their grandchildren, what happens when more grandparents have to work to cover their own living costs? The cost of childcare and adult social care are not negligible: with living costs rising inexorably and earnings failing to keep pace, a very finely balanced intergenerational pattern of caring is at risk of collapsing.

Everyone should have the right to retire and be able to stop work as they approach retirement age. We already know that your birthplace, social and economic class and earnings impact your life expectancy, but also your quality of life: working-class people tend to have a lower disability-free life expectancy – the expected length of time you live without considerable health problems. Rising levels of inequality mean richer people can retire whenever they see fit, and have the financial comfort to do so. But the poorer you are, the later you can afford to retire, and this comes on top of a shorter life expectancy. Overall life expectancy in the UK fell by two months between 2017 and 2018, in what actuaries called “a trend not a blip”. This year, data showed the gap is widening: for the poorest women, life expectancy fell by three months between 2012 and 2017, while it rose by almost three months for the richest women. In other words, least affluent older people are likely to enjoy shorter retirements.

Inequality isn’t just about earnings, but quality of life and the amount of time you spend with loved ones. Pensioner poverty should be stamped out through a fairer tax and benefits system, rather than expecting the poorest to work themselves to and until death.

(Source: The Guardian)

Why I won’t be joining the queue at the top of Everest

A startling picture of overcrowding near the summit shows the peril of turning the mountain into a form of adventure tourism

Mountaineering is a physical pursuit demanding an affinity for suffering. Where it is cerebral is in its requirement of good judgment, most importantly in extreme situations when the mind is most clouded and consequences of bad decision-making tend to multiply.

Considering risks requires being honest with yourself. At what climbers call the objective level, that involves assessing dangers you may encounter – weather, avalanches, poor rock, even whether there will be overcrowding on your route.

Subjectively, it means asking yourself searching questions. Are you capable of safely attempting your objective? Even if you are, will you be tempted to push on for the wrong reasons – because of ego, because you fear failure, or because you have spent large sums on the trip of a lifetime? For a climber, looking at Nirmal Purja’s picture last week of the queues close to Everest’s summit – delays that may have contributed to several deaths – is something that inspires dread.

Nirmal Purja’s picture of the overcrowded approach to the summit of Everest last week. Photograph: Nirmal Purja/Project Possible/AFP
It depicts an anxiety-inducing conga line in the death zone above 8,000 metres, where the body can’t properly function. Where movement forwards and backwards is seriously impeded. In a sport where efficient autonomous movement is regarded as crucial to safety, you want to ask, why would you put yourself in this position? The answer is to be found, in large part, in the commodification of the world’s highest mountain.

Everest has become largely detached from the rest of climbing and mountaineering. It has become a trophy experience, drawing too many otherwise without much interest in the sport, validated by media coverage that sees Everest as being endlessly “conquered” rather than passé.

The costs involved, in the order of £50,000 with a reputable company for a single trip, have created dangerously competing dynamics for would-be “conquistadors of the useless” to borrow from the great French mountaineer Lionel Terray.

 For Nepal the Everest season is a valuable source of foreign currency and there is little interest in limiting numbers
If you can only afford to attempt the mountain once, the need to succeed risks doubling – even trebling – down on what is already a risky bet. “Summit fever””, as the accomplished US mountaineer and chronicler of Everest and the Himalaya Alan Arnette told me last week from his home in Colorado, is a real thing. But the economics of Everest operate in more subtle ways as well.

The transactional nature of most Everest attempts has seen a shift in how aspirants view responsibility, moving it away from a question of an individual’s own judgment and subcontracting it to guiding companies, some excellent, some of them far less scrupulous.

For Nepal, where the spring Everest season is a valuable annual source of foreign currency, there is little interest in either limiting numbers or regulating the new cut-price Nepalese companies that have been set up to compete with the expensive foreign-owned guiding outfits.

Perhaps most worrying is that the business model of these newer companies, often charging less than half the price of foreign competitors, critics suggest, relies on the volume of clients and a tacit understanding that many of those signing up will not get very high on the mountain, meaning there is no imperative to check climbing credentials.

Rounding off the whole equation is the question of pricing and value. Western companies, having fixed a price – both cultural and monetary – for an Everest summit, having created a desirable product and a growing market, have also motivated cheaper operators to try to undercut them, making an overcrowded business riskier for everyone.

A quote attributed to one of the pioneers of Everest, the New Zealand mountaineer George Lowe, who helped establish the route up the Lhotse face that most commercial clients now follow, suggested that Everest – 40 years later – had become the “greasy pole of Asia”.

It is not quite true. Looking at Purja’s photo, it is not only dread you sense, but hubris, too. In the suggestion that its summit can simply be bought, a key point has been lost: that climbing is as much about judicious turning back and failure as it is about reaching the top.

(Source: The Guardian)

Modi Unites All: Did TIME magazine change stance after BJP's landslide win?

In a new article, the TIME magazine has called Narendra Modi the Prime Minister who has united India like no other PM.

With its May 10 issue, the TIME magazine, landed in a controversy by calling Narendra Modi India's "Divider in Chief". The TIME cover story came in the middle of the Lok Sabha elections and riled up Modi supporters across the country. Now, days after the election results gave Modi a thumping majority, TIME has come up with another article, but this time it says Modi has united the country like no other Prime Minister.

The opinion piece titled "Modi has united India like no Prime Minister in decades" has been written by Manoj Ladwa, who managed the campaign "Narendra Modi for PM" in 2014.

The latest article was published on the TIME website on Tuesday. The articles states, "A key factor is that Modi has managed to transcend India's greatest fault line: the class divide".

The writer, Manoj Ladwa, has credited Modi's emergence as a unifier to his origins in a backward caste -- a factor missed or deliberately omitted by Western media obsessed with what they call upper caste domination.

"Narendra Modi was born into one of India's most disadvantaged social groups," he explained. "In reaching the very top, he personifies the aspirational working classes and can self-identify with his country's poorest citizens in a way that the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, who have led India for most of the 72 years since independence, simply cannot."

"Yet despite the strong and often unfair criticisms levelled at Modi's policies both throughout his first term and this marathon election, no Prime Minister has united the Indian electorate as much in close to five decades," he said referring to Indira Gandhi's massive 1971 victory.

This story stands in contrast to the one published earlier this month. The story published by journalist Aatish Taseer slammed the Modi government for the several lynching cases, Yogi Adityanath's appointment as the Uttar Pradesh chief minister among other things.

The previous story turned into a major election issue as the Opposition sided with the author for calling Modi a "divider".

The BJP, on the other hand, picked on Taseer's background and said he is a Pakistani, nothing better can be expected of Pakistan.

However, in the latest story, Ladwa writes about Modi: "Through socially progressive policies, he has brought many Indians, both Hindus and religious minorities, out of poverty at a faster rate than in any previous generation."

Ladwa is the founder and CEO of Britain-based media company India Inc., which publishes India Global Business.

(Source: India Today)

Trump administration orders government agency to stop predicting long-term climate change impacts

White House condemned for 'blatant attempt' to politicise global warming science

The Trump administration has told a major US government department to end predicting what the long-term effects of climate change will be on the country.

Director of the US Geological Survey (USGS) James Reilly – a White House-appointed former oil geologist – ordered that scientific assessments only use computer-generated models that track the possible impact of climate change until 2040, according to The New York Times.

Previously the USGS modelled effects until the end of the century, the second half of which is likely to see the most dramatic impacts of global warming.

The order is likely to impact the US government’s National Climate Assessment, an interagency report produced every four years which outlines the projected impact of climate change in every corner of US society.

In the most recent report, produced late last year and dismissed by Mr Trump, scientists used computer models to predict the US would face devastating economic and health impacts from global warming by the end of the century.

In the next report, due for release in 2021 or 2022, worst-case scenario predictions will not automatically be included, in what one climate scientist, Philip Duffy of the Woods Hole Research Center, said was a “blatant attempt” to politicise science.

The move is just the latest in a concerted attempt by the Trump White House to undermine climate science and challenge attempts to address runaway warming, which is posing an existential threat to much of life on Earth.

Earlier this year, leaked documents revealed Mr Trump’s administration was creating a panel to challenge climate threat assessments, headed by a climate change denier who once compared the “demonisation” of carbon dioxide to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany.

William Happer, who also serves on Mr Trump’s national security council, is a beneficiary of Robert Mercer, a far-right billionaire who funds climate denialism.

Mr Trump has regularly mocked global warming, having repeatedly called for more of it during periods of cold weather.

One of his first moves as president was to unilaterally withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement, making it now the only country on Earth in opposition to the accords.

(Source: Independent)

Photographer 'overwhelmed' by response to bald eagle picture

A Canadian amateur photographer says he is "overwhelmed" by the worldwide response to a photograph he took of a bald eagle.

Steve Biro snapped the image of Bruce the bald eagle at the Canadian Raptor Conservancy and first posted it on some Facebook photography groups.

The image of the bird of prey "staring daggers" at the photographer with its piercing eyes has since gone viral.

The photo is one of several hundred Mr Biro took of the bird that day.

"He's squared up perfectly, both wings are touching the water," he told the BBC. "That [photograph] was the one that struck me as as little more special than the others. But I still didn't even know how it would resonate with people."

The photograph eventually made it to the front page of Reddit and has since been picked up by media around the world.

Birds are usually undisturbed by photographers visiting the Canadian Raptor Conservancy in Ontario. But Mr Biro says the eagle seemed irked at where he was positioned with his camera.

"He was actually trying to brush me away from where I was perched," he said.

"I could feel the breeze from his wings as he flew over me. The other people who were there were gasping as he came over my head. It was really quite exhilarating."

Mr Biro said as soon as he got up off the rock where he had been sitting, Bruce the eagle flew over and claimed the spot.

The amateur photographer began taking photos about 10 years ago as a hobby - "nature pics, landscapes, city pics, I love it all".

But he says he has a soft spot for capturing images of birds.

"There's something about birds that to me is captivating," Mr Biro said.

"The way they hunt, the way they interact. Sometimes you'll see them do things. They'll be playful, just like children. It's amazing how you'll see aspects of humanity in birds - and in animals overall."

Mr Biro says photography challenges him to see the world "like I'm a child again".

"I try to look at it like I'm in awe of it all the time, and in wonder of it."

Bald eagles are widely distributed across North America.

In the United States, where the bird is the national emblem, it nests in more than half the country. In Canada, it's more commonly found in British Columbia, across the prairies and in parts of Ontario.

(Source: BBC)

Thursday 30 May 2019

If you're dreaming of climbing Mount Everest, this is what it takes

Physical training and tens of thousands of dollars are just a few of the things adventure-seekers need to conquer Mount Everest. Experts say it takes much more than that to check it off your bucket list.

Hundreds of people from around the world travel to the Himalayas every year, dreaming of reaching the Everest summit. They spend weeks getting their gear, adjusting to the altitude and simply waiting for good weather.

Here's what you need to know if you are thinking of climbing Everest.

When is the best time to climb Everest?
Most mountaineers attempt to ascend the world's tallest peak in May. There's a brief window of time -- usually after May 15 -- when temperatures are warmer and the high-altitude winds known as the jet stream have moved away from the mountains.

It's also right before monsoon season. Climbers usually try to avoid visiting the Everest region if there's frequent rainfall, as it can make the trail conditions slippery and dangerous.

"It's the time of the year when you have the highest chance of getting to the summit," said Dale Remsberg, technical director for the American Mountain Guides Association.

Having good weather is crucial for climbers. Remsberg said climbers won't try to seek the summit without the right weather conditions. Many spent weeks at base camp just waiting without guarantee they'll actually reach it.

Where does the trip begin?
Mount Everest sits right at the border between Nepal and Tibet. There are many possible routes, but the majority of Everest climbers usually choose between two -- the south route in Nepal and the north route in Tibet.

Most trekking companies operate in Nepal, as climbing in Tibet has become more expensive and more controlled in recent years.

Those climbing on the south route fly into Nepal's capital of Kathmandu, then fly on to the village of Lukla, where travelers begin hiking to the Everest base camp.

How long does it take to climb Everest?
It takes about two months to climb Mt. Everest.

Gordon Janow, director of programs at Alpine Ascents International, a Seattle-based expedition company, flew a group of 12 climbers to the Himalayas in late March and doesn't expect them to come home until the end of May.

The climbers, along with staff members and Sherpa guides, would spend nearly two weeks hiking to the Everest base camp, which sits at an altitude of around 17,000 feet (5,200 meters).

They would then spend about two weeks adjusting to the altitude and waiting on good weather conditions before continuing for another four days, reaching other camps and finally ascending to the summit.

Most climbers spend months or even years before even thinking about making it to the Himalayas. Janow said his guides only take climbers to Everest who have successfully reached one or two other challenging peaks.

How much does it cost?
Going to Everest can be more expensive than buying a new car. Climbers can pay anything from $35,000 to more than $100,000.

The cost includes $11,000 for the climbing permit from the government of Nepal or Tibet, bottled oxygen and high-altitude gear that includes tents, sleeping bags and boots.

It also covers medical care, food and support from Sherpa guides and bottled oxygen for them, which is mandatory for every foreign climber.

Does anyone regulate how many people go up?
Yes, but there is no cap on how many people can make the climb.

A total of 381 permits were issued this year, just nine more than Nepal issued in 2017, according to Danduraj Ghimire, director general of Nepal's Tourism Department.

But Alan Arnette, who has climbed Everest four times, explained that many more people are trying to climb from the Nepalese side.

He believes that about 800 people could be making the journey up since each foreigner requires a Sherpa guide.

While most expedition companies review their clients' experience before helping them get a permit, Nepal does not currently require proof of climbing experience for those climbing Everest, Ghimire said. He said authorities are considering changing that practice.

(Source: CNN)

‘Walking over bodies’: Mountaineers describe carnage on Everest

Death toll grows on world’s highest summit as climbers face challenging conditions

An experienced mountaineer has described the “death, carnage and chaos” at the top of Mount Everest as climbers pushed past bodies to reach the world’s highest summit.

The death toll on the mountain grew to 11 in the past day after an American doctor was killed while descending from the peak. It emerged also that an Australian climber was discovered unconscious but had survived after being transported downhill on the back of a yak.

Elia Saikaly, a film-maker, reached Hillary Step, the final stage before the summit, on the morning of 23 May, where he said the sunrise revealed the lifeless body of another climber. With little choice at that altitude but to keep moving, his team – including Joyce Azzam, the first Lebanese woman to climb the world’s “Seven Summits” – made it to the peak a short time later.

“I cannot believe what I saw up there,” Saikaly said of the last hours of his climb in a post on Instagram. “Death. Carnage. Chaos. Lineups. Dead bodies on the route and in tents at camp 4. People who I tried to turn back who ended up dying. People being dragged down. Walking over bodies. Everything you read in the sensational headlines all played out on our summit night.”

This year’s Everest climbing season is so far the fourth deadliest on record, with mountaineers blaming poor weather, inexperienced climbers and a record number of permits issued by the Nepalese government, which, along with a rule that every climber has to be accompanied by a sherpa, led to there being more than 820 people trying to reach the summit.

“There were 200-plus climbers making their way to the summit,” Saikaly told the Guardian of his ascent. “I came across a deceased climber … that person’s body was fixed to an anchor point between two safety lines and every single person that was climbing towards the summit had to step over that human being.

 Mount Everest peak. Photograph: Niranjan Shrestha/AP
“It’s difficult for people at sea-level, who are not mountaineers, who have never been above 8,000 metres, to understand that particular scenario. When you are on Everest and you’re in the death zone and you can barely think … it becomes a very complicated situation and you realise in your mind that your fate could be the same. And with a line-up pushing you up the mountain there nothing you can do. You really have no choice but to carry on.”

The scene arising from the restricted chance to climb affecting large numbers of mountaineers was captured and widely circulated in a picture taken by Nirmal Pujra on the morning of 23 May. It showed more than 100 climbers waiting, some for up to 12 hours, for a turn on the summit. More than 200 people reached the top of the 8,848-metre peak that day.

Chad Gaston, another climber who successfully reached the peak, described the difficulty of passing incapacitated people as he ascended, including a man wrapped “like a mummy with ropes tied to him”. He wrote: “The climber was non-responsive and I never saw him open his eyes.”

Further up he saw a man “holding his chest and bent over”. Gaston said: “I waited for a moment and after he didn’t move, I approached him. He said he was having a hard time breathing, even though I saw his oxygen mask was fine. He was in really bad shape, pale faced, not coherent and shaking … I’m sad to say I heard he passed, that night on the mountain.”

Ten more people have died in the past month while trying to climb other Himalayan mountains, bringing the overall death toll to 21.

An Australian climber was found unconscious on the peak and was identified on Tuesday as Gilian Lee. The Canberra man, who survived the 2015 avalanche on the mountain, was attempting it for the fourth time without the use of supplementary oxygen when he was discovered on Wednesday by a Nepali team, said Mingma Sherpa, chairman of Seven Summit Treks. A yak carried Lee about 1,000 metres down the mountain to a vehicle stationed at about 5,600 metres. He was flown to hospital in Kathmandu and placed in intensive care.

Lee wrote of his experience in 2015 when the mountain was hit by an avalanche, on 25 April, triggered by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake. “I felt the ground shake, around 20cm lateral movement that unbalanced me inside the tent. We could hear an avalanche starting and it kept building … The biggest wall of vertical snow (guess 50m high of white fluff) was heading right towards us uphill.”

Ameesha Chauhan, from India, who survived dangerous overcrowding on Mount Everest, in hospital in Kathmandu on Tuesday. Photograph: Niranjan Shrestha/AP
The deaths have restarted a debate over whether better regulation is needed for Everest, especially on the Nepalese side, where 381 climbing permits were issued this year.

The number of people seeking to scale Everest has exploded in recent years, driven by surges in climbers from India and China. Dozens of cut-rate climbing companies have also sprung up in the past 10 years, with some accused of cutting corners or lowering requirements for clients’ fitness and experience levels.

Alan Arnette, an experienced climber and chronicler of the mountain, said that climbers waiting for hours on overcrowded peaks – putting pressure on oxygen supplies – was probably responsible for five of the 21 deaths so far this season; the remainder could have been due to poor training, inexperience, hidden health issues and inadequate support from guides.

“It is mainly due to the carelessness of climbers,” said a sherpa. “The government should ensure that prospective climbers should have prior experience of climbing peaks before trying to conquer the mighty Mount Everest.”

Saikaly said it may have been his last ascent of the mountain. “I was really turned off this year and I’m just worried,” he said. “I’m really worried for the years ahead of us and what the state of the mountain will be and how much more lives will be lost.

“I’m not sure if I’ll head back. I certainly know that as I was climbing up I was certainly doubting whether or not I would ever return.”

(Source: The Guardian)

'A white-collar sweatshop': Google Assistant contractors allege wage theft

Interpreting a spoken request isn’t magic, rather it has taken a team of underpaid, subcontracted linguists to make the technology possible

“Do you believe in magic?” Google asked attendees of its annual developer conference this May, playing the seminal Lovin’ Spoonful tune as an introduction. Throughout the three-day event, company executives repeatedly answered yes while touting new features of the Google Assistant, the company’s version of Alexa or Siri, that can indeed feel magical. The tool can book you a rental car, tell you what the weather is like at your mother’s house, and even interpret live conversations across 26 languages.

But to some of the Google employees responsible for making the Assistant work, the tagline of the conference – “Keep making magic” – obscured a more mundane reality: the technical wizardry relies on massive data sets built by subcontracted human workers earning low wages.

“It’s smoke and mirrors if anything,” said a current Google employee who, as with the others quoted in this story, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. “Artificial intelligence is not that artificial; it’s human beings that are doing the work.”

The Google employee works on Pygmalion, the team responsible for producing linguistic data sets that make the Assistant work. And although he is employed directly by Google, most of his Pygmalion co-workers are subcontracted temps who have for years been routinely pressured to work unpaid overtime, according to seven current and former members of the team.

These employees, some of whom spoke to the Guardian because they said efforts to raise concerns internally were ignored, alleged that the unpaid work was a symptom of the workplace culture put in place by the executive who founded Pygmalion. That executive was fired by Google in March following an internal investigation.

But current and former employees also identified Google’s broad reliance on approximately 100,000 temps, vendors and contractors (known at Google as TVCs) for large amounts of the company’s work as a culprit. Google does not directly employ the workers who collect or create the data required for much of its technology, be they the drivers who capture photos for Google Maps’ Street View, the content moderators training YouTube’s filters to catch prohibited material, or the scanners flipping pages to upload the contents of libraries into Google Books.

The workers who make Google Assistant possible are underpaid and overworked. Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters

Having these two tiers of workers – highly paid full-time Googlers and often low-wage and precarious workers contracted through staffing firms – is “corrosive”, “highly problematic”, and “permissive of exploitation”, the employees said.

“It’s like a white-collar sweatshop,” said one current Google employee. “If it’s not illegal, it’s definitely exploitative. It’s to the point where I don’t use the Google Assistant, because I know how it’s made, and I can’t support it.”

An ‘army’ of linguists
The study of language is at the very heart of current advancements in computing. For decades, people have had to work to learn the language of computers, whether they were trying to program a VCR or writing software. Technology such as the Google Assistant reverses the equation: the computer understands natural human speech, in all its variations.

Take, for example, the straightforward task of asking the Assistant to set a timer to go off in five minutes, a former employee on Pygmalion explained. There are infinite ways that users could phrase that request, such as “Set a timer for five minutes”; “Can you ring the buzzer in five minutes?”; or “Configurar una alarma para cinco minutos.” The Assistant has to be able to convert the spoken request into text, then interpret the user’s intended meaning to produce the desired outcome, all practically instantaneously.

The technology that makes this possible is a form of machine learning. For a machine learning model to “understand” a language, it needs vast amounts of text that has been annotated by linguists to teach it the building blocks of human language, from parts of speech to syntactic relationships.

Enter Pygmalion. The team was born in 2014, the brainchild of longtime Google executive Linne Ha, to create the linguistic data sets required for Google’s neural networks to learn dozens of languages. The “painstaking” nature of the labor required to create this “handcrafted” data was featured in a 2016 article about Pygmalion’s “massive team of PhD linguists” by Wired. (Ha did not respond to a request for comment.)

From the beginning, Google planned to build the team with just a handful of full-time employees while outsourcing the vast majority of the annotation work to an “army” of subcontracted linguists around the world, documents reviewed by the Guardian and interviews with staff show.

The appetite for Pygmalion’s hand-labeled data, and the size of the team, has only increased over the years. Today, it includes 40 to 50 full-time Googlers and approximately 200 temporary workers contracted through agencies, including Adecco, a global staffing firm. The contract workers include associate linguists, who are tasked with annotation, and project managers, who oversee their work.

All of the contract workers have at least a bachelor’s degree in linguistics, though many have master’s degrees and some have doctorates. In addition to annotating data, the temp workers write “grammars” for the Assistant, complex and technical work that requires considerable expertise and involves Google’s code base. Their situation is comparable to adjunct professors on US college campuses: they are highly educated and highly skilled, performing work crucial to the company’s mission, and shut out of the benefits and security that come with a tenured position.

“Imagine going from producing PhD-level research and pushing forward the state of knowledge in the world to going to an annotation type job, where all you’re doing all day is annotating data; it’s very click, click, click,” said a former project manager on Pygmalion. “Everyone was trying to prove themselves because everyone was trying to work for Google. The competitive edge that happened among colleagues as TVCs was severe.”

‘The definition of wage theft’
This dynamic created the incentive for temps to perform unpaid work. Managers took advantage by making it clear they wouldn’t approve overtime for contract workers, while also assigning unrealistic amounts of work, current and former employees said.

The pressure to complete assignments was “immense”, said one Googler. “In this mixed stream of messages, I think a lot of people had to make their own calls, and given the pressure, I think people made different calls.”

Behind the technology that makes the Google Assistant work is an army of Google-contracted linguists. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Googler described the overall effect as “gaslighting”, and recalled receiving messages from management such as, “If the TVCs want to work more, let them work more.” All seven current and former employees interviewed by the Guardian said they had either experienced or witnessed contract workers performing unpaid overtime.

“To my knowledge, no one ever said, you need to work TVCs above their contracts, but it was set up so that it was the only way to get the expected work done, and if anyone raised concerns they would be openly mocked and belittled,” said another current Googler.

“The 40-hour thing was just not respected,” said a former associate linguist. “It was made clear to us that we were never to log more than 40 hours, but we were never told not to work more than 40 hours.

“The work that they assign often takes more than hours hours,” they added. “Every week you fill out a timesheet. One person one time did submit overtime, and they were chastised. No punishment, but definitely told not to work overtime.”

A spokeswoman for Google said that it was company policy that temp workers must be paid for all hours worked, even if overtime was not approved in advance.

“Working off the clock is the very definition of wage theft,” said Beth Ross, a longtime labor and employment attorney. Ross said that both Google and Adecco could face liability for unpaid wages and damages under federal and state law.

‘They dangle that carrot’
The associate linguist was one of several who said that they took the position at Google in hopes that they could eventually convert to a full-time position. Several members of Pygmalion are former contract workers, including the current head of the team, who took over when Ha, the executive who founded the team, moved on to another project.

“People did [unpaid overtime] because they were dangled the opportunity of becoming a full-time employee, which is against company policy,” a current Googler said. “There’s a particular leveraging of people’s desire to become full time,” said another.

“When I was hired, I was very explicitly told that there is no ladder,” a current contract worker said. “‘This is not a temp-to-hire position. There is no moving up’ … But the reality on the team is very much one where there is clearly a ladder. A certain percentage of the associate linguists will get project manager. A certain percentage of project managers get converted to full time. We watch it happen, and they dangle that carrot.”

Google employees enjoy perks such as free meals, on-site yoga classes, free massages and generous benefits packages. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS

One Googler who successfully converted to a full-time position after working as a temp on Pygmalion said that at times the bargain was even made explicit. In April 2017, they recalled, Ha attended a meeting of outsourced Pygmalion project managers in London and “explain[ed] that the position was designed for conversion and that we should be proactive in asking for more work in order to achieve this”.

The Google spokeswoman said that it is company policy not to make any commitment about employment or conversion to temps, and that Googlers who manage temps are required to take a mandatory training on this and other policies related to TVCs.

‘Why do it?’
The disparity in wages and benefits between Google employees and contract workers is stark. Alphabet recently reported median pay of $246,804, and employees enjoy perks such as free meals, on-site yoga classes, free massages and generous benefits.

Amid increasing activism by Googlers and contract workers, Google recently announced improved minimum standards for US-based contract workers, including a minimum of eight paid sick days, “comprehensive” health insurance, and a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour by 2020. (A full-time job at that wage pays $31,200 a year; by comparison, Google charges its own employees $38,808 a year to place an infant in its onsite daycare facilities.)

Wages for contract workers on the Pygmalion team are well above the new minimum standard, usually starting around $25 an hour for associate linguists and going up to $35 an hour for project managers. But contractors complain about subpar benefits and other indignities.

The former project manager described Adecco’s benefits plan as “the worst health insurance I have ever had”. A current contract worker earning less than $60,000 annually said they were paying $180 each month in premiums for an individual plan with a $6,000 deductible. For families, the deductible is $12,000, according to documents reviewed by the Guardian. Google declined to comment on Adecco’s pay and benefits.

 Google workers have walked out over the company’s handling of sexual misconduct claims and its treatment of temporary workers. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP
Googlers earn significantly more, and those on individual plans contribute between $0 and $53 for their health insurance and have a much lower deductible ($1,350), according to documents reviewed by the Guardian. Googlers with families pay up to $199 every two weeks, with a $2,700 deductible.

Others complained of a lack of trust and respect. In 2018, Google revoked the ability for contractors on Pygmalion to work while riding Google’s wifi-equipped commuter buses, creating frustration for those who spent three to four hours a day traveling to the company’s Mountain View campus and could no longer work and count that time toward their shift. Google said it works to ensure that temps, vendors and contractors do not have over-broad access to sensitive internal information for security reasons.

“Why do it?” a former associate linguist said of working unpaid overtime under these conditions. “I didn’t want to lose the job. Having Google on your résumé is important to a career … Later on, I came to find out that you can’t say ‘Google’ on your résumé. You have to say ‘Google by Adecco’.”

A weekend assignment
Both Google and Adecco recently launched investigations into the allegations of unpaid overtime in Pygmalion.

“Our policy is clear that all temporary workers must be paid for any overtime worked,” said Eileen Naughton, Google’s vice-president of people operations, in a statement to the Guardian. “If we find that anyone isn’t properly paid, we make sure they are compensated appropriately and take action against any Google employee who violates this policy.”

The current investigation was initiated after the company received a report of a possible policy violation in February 2019, the Google spokeswoman said. The company will provide appropriate compensation if need be and will take action up to and including terminations if policy violations are found, she added.

The spokeswoman also acknowledged that concerns about unpaid overtime were raised to human resources in 2017, but said that the company investigated and did not find any such cases at the time.

“We are committed to ensuring all employees are compensated for all time worked,” said Mary Beth Waddill, a spokeswoman for Adecco. “Our longstanding policy is that every employee is required to report time accurately – even if that time isn’t pre-approved – and they should feel encouraged to do so by their managers. If we learn that this is not the case, we will work with Google to take appropriate action.”

On Friday 17 May, Adecco sent emails to current and former Pygmalion temps. Recipients were asked whether they reported all the hours they worked, and, if not, to estimate how many hours they worked unpaid. The emails requested a response by Monday 20 May, though a Google spokeswoman said this week that the deadline has been extended.

A Google employee reacted: “They’re asking people to work on the weekend to recall unbilled overwork. It seems like it’s designed to discourage people from responding.”

Indeed, one former contract worker who left the company many months ago said they received the email but did not bother to respond. “After I left, I didn’t keep records of the hours I worked,” they said. “Even if I wanted to report overtime now, how could I?”

(Source: The Guardian)

Eid Al Fitr holidays to start from June 2: Amiri Diwan

On the occasion of Eid Al Fitr, the Amiri Diwan announces that the Eid holiday will be as follows:

First: Eid Al Fitr holiday for the ministries, the other governmental organs and the general authorities and institutions will start on Sunday June 2, 2019 and ends on Monday June 10, 2019. State employees are to resume their work on Tuesday June 11, 2019

Second: Eid Al Fitr holiday for Qatar Central Bank (QCB) and banks and financial institutions working under the supervision of QCB and Qatar Financial Markets Authority (QFMA) will be determined by QCB Governor.

(Source: Qatar Tribune)

What little kids need to know about sex

I live in the Bay Area, where, according to my very unscientific estimate, approximately 8 out of 10 parents self-identify as enlightened. These are the moms and dads who broach thorny topics like race, poverty and sexism with their young children, undeterred by their complexity and high stakes.

Still, not all topics receive such a sensitive and nimble treatment. When it comes to talking about sexuality with young children, the majority of these otherwise open-minded parents become skittish and tongue-tied, wholly uncertain of what to say and how to say it. Private part exploration may be common and developmentally appropriate in little kids, but many of the grown-ups in charge of them would really rather not acknowledge it.

This, child development experts are increasingly realizing, is a mistake. Adults need to speak with their children about bodies and relationships openly and honestly, and from an early age. Doing so helps kids navigate their current sexuality-related curiosities and increases the odds that they will one day find themselves in satisfying and respectful sexual relationships.

More than just STDs and intercourse
For decades, school-based sex-education in the United States focused on preventing unwanted pregnancy and STDs, and it was only for teenagers. The big takeaway was how to avoid something bad, albeit with a massive blind spot toward sexual assault.

Today, curricula have begun to expand beyond the worst-case scenarios, explained Jennifer Driver, state policy director of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

More and more programs have begun to address relationships, sexual identity, biology, gender, boundaries and pleasure. As the scope has widened, so has the intended audience. Many experts now believe that preschool and early-elementary age kids should be learning about these topics as well, and a small but growing number of American school districts have begun to teach them in the classroom.

Even with all this progress, the United States still lags far behind the Netherlands. There, "comprehensive sexuality education" for young children in schools has been taught for decades. Preschool-age kids receive lessons about anatomy, with the help of dolls, and learn about the differences between male and female bodies and how bodies change over time.

The curriculum also includes lessons on friendship, love and how to communicate boundaries and desires. How do we touch one another? When is it appropriate to touch another? And when is it OK to be touched by another?

"It's easier to start with young people, because once they get older, they still giggle but are already used to it," said Elsbeth Reitzema, project leader for primary education at Rutgers WPF, a Dutch institute for sexual and reproductive health and rights.

"Also, it's important to tell children everything before they go through puberty, because you want them to understand the way their bodies will change and understand sex before they are getting into sexual relationships."

Research suggests that this approach works. A 2010 evaluation found that Dutch 10- to 12-year-olds who were exposed to sexual education from an early age were more knowledgeable about their bodies, more accepting of homosexuality and more assertive when it came to setting boundaries and expressing preferences around physical intimacy than those who weren't.

Teachers in the Netherlands report an increased openness toward sex and relationship talk among their students overall, as well as an increased willingness to call someone out for behaving inappropriately. Also, all that early sex talk did not turn the nation's teenagers into Caligula. Dutch teens have a high contraception use rate and a low teen pregnancy rate and don't have sex any earlier than those in other European countries.

How to talk about 'playing doctor' and more
Unfortunately, most American parents can't expect the words "penis" and "vagina" to be used in their local kindergarten classroom anytime soon. Until then, we're all home-schoolers when it comes to teaching our children about their bodies and relationships.

Books can help, but only to a point. Unfortunately, most of the age-appropriate literature focuses on how babies are made, leaving out everything else that the average little person is interested in. Their curiosities tend to drift south, to their anatomy and its mechanics. One part of their body feels different from the others and looks different than that of half the people they know. What's going on?

"Children are very curious about their bodies ... and curious about the other sex," Reitzema said.

"They want to look at other bodies, touch other bodies, and they want to explore the difference between boys and girls. It is all very innocent and part of the normal sexual development of children.

They don't have the same mindset as we do. They are just curious."

When body part exploration begins to happen -- and it is probably going to happen -- Reitzema encourages parents to begin with the positive. Teach them the correct name for their body parts, and tell them that it is OK if they find touching their penis or vagina pleasurable. Then get into the qualifiers. Explain that exploring these body parts should happen in private, and when it is done with friends, it is very important to make sure everyone is OK with it.

"You are teaching them about boundaries and that they can say no, that their penis and vagina is theirs, and they are in charge of who is touching it and seeing it," Reitzema said. They also learn about how to check in with their friends and vocalize concern.

Overall, a lot of early sexual education isn't really about bodies but relationships. We can teach kids how to express themselves and respect others. We can also teach them that there are lots of different types of relationships, some boy-boy, some girl-girl and some boy-girl, and that's OK.

"You have to lay the foundation early and show them how to communicate their likes and dislikes so when they get to high school and are in a sexual relationship, they are prepared," Driver said. "In kindergarten, this can mean talking about what it means to be a good friend and how to ask for a pencil or pen in a respectful way. It can be very basic and still teach them what consent looks like."

These conversations will probably be awkward but -- and here's the catch -- only for the parents. We are the ones for whom masturbation is taboo; we are the ones whose minds rush to the worst-case scenario when discussing consent. Many of us were raised during an era when sexual education came by the way of a condom on a banana in a health class and someone's dad's stack of Penthouse magazines. We are working without precedent.

The good news is that our little kids are likely to be pretty cool with it. They're soft puddles of clay, malleable, impressionable and clueless about the way sexuality has been blanketed by secrecy and shame. We're their first and most influential guides on the subject. If we present pleasure as something natural and boundaries as something everyone should voice and observe, the odds are that they will grow up to see them that way as well.

(Source: CNN)

Wednesday 29 May 2019

Ali Dorani: Iranian cartoonist on the drawings that saved his life

Cartoonist Ali Dorani fled Iran at the age of 21 before becoming trapped in Australia's controversial Manus Island detention camp for four years - but things changed after his artwork was posted online.

Here's his story - in his own words and drawings.

In 2013, I left Iran. I can't tell you why because it might affect my family's safety - but I knew my life was in danger.

I stayed in Indonesia for 40 days, and tried to get to Australia - I knew Australia was the best way for me to get to safety.

A people smuggler told me he could get us to Australia by boat.

When I saw the boat, I was afraid I would die. It was a fishing boat, not really well maintained, and there were about 150 of us. And I can't swim.

When the time came to get on the boat, I told myself: "This is it. If anything happens to that weak boat, I'm going to die."

The journey took us 52 hours - it was raining and the ocean wasn't normal. It was so scary.

The Australian navy intercepted us and took us to Christmas Island - a detention centre where Australia keeps asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

I had suffered from OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] for a number of years - but it got worse on Christmas Island.

I liked to keep my surroundings clean at all times - but I couldn't control it anymore because I was in a room with several other people.

At one point, I tried to wash my dictionary in the shower because I felt it was dirty. I kept telling myself I was going crazy - I was shaking and getting so nervous.

Doctors at the medical centre told me I had to take medication, or find some strategies to deal with my OCD.

I didn't want to take medication because I was worried the Australian government would call me crazy and blacklist me from entering.

But when I went back to my room I slowly remembered that I had a talent for drawing. So I started drawing again to deal with my OCD.

I've been drawing since I was five years old - it's one of my earliest memories.

I'd stopped a few years before I fled Iran, because I was so busy with work and life - but now I felt so sick that I started drawing again.

I didn't always have something to draw on. We could request materials from immigration officers, but they wouldn't always give us paper and pencils.

So I had to steal paper - I'd go into language classes, and take blank papers when the teacher was looking the other way.

Because I only had a limited supply of paper I couldn't make mistakes in my drawings - that also helped me improve my skills.

Drawing actually didn't help my OCD, which was still getting worse every day.

But I started showing my drawings to other detainees, and some of the immigration officers, and people got interested in my cartoons.

I drew about my life there - what happened when I lined up to get food, what it was like using dirty public toilets.

I remember the first time I realised people took my work seriously.

I drew a map of Australia on a white T-shirt, with two eyes crying, and the words "I am only a refugee".

Two immigration officers asked me why I drew on my T-shirt - they saw the drawing as a protest.

I hadn't meant it as a protest - I had no idea my drawing would be taken that seriously - but it made me realise that my drawings could affect others.

So I kept cartooning - drawing diaries about daily life in the detention centre - and getting lots of positive and negative comments.

I was afraid that my drawings could affect my asylum application - but I also thought there could be nothing worse than being kept in a detention centre. I was depressed and my OCD was really difficult - so I thought I was already in a nightmare, and there was nothing else to be afraid of.

In fact, Christmas Island was much nicer than where I went next.

I was moved to Manus Island after six months, in January 2014. They handcuffed us and I had five security officers around me.

It was my first time in a tropical country - it was really hot and it was difficult to breathe.

It didn't look like the detention centre on Christmas Island. It looked like somewhere where you would keep chickens, pigs or sheep.

We had tents, dirty rooms, dirty toilets, and horrible showers. There were hundreds of people crammed in a small camp.

Some of the guards tried to reassure me - they could see the shock on my face. They told me: "Don't worry, everything is going to be fine."

I felt I didn't have any choices left - I couldn't go home, couldn't stay in Australia, and didn't want to kill myself. I felt like a dead body who was forcing himself to stay alive.

I didn't have any pencils or paper when I arrived on Manus Island - they took away my pencils when I left Christmas Island - although I could keep my drawings.

At first, I didn't want to draw. When you're forced to live in a place, but don't know why you are there, or when it is going to end, you lose hope, you lose all motivation, and this, combined with the weather, the sun, the mosquitoes - all help to destroy you inside.

An incident happened on 17 February 2014 - some of the locals attacked the camp, smashing everything and beating people up. They killed one of the refugees as well.

For about a month after that, we didn't have access to much - no proper food, or services.

Then another company came to run the camp - they improved the dining room and brought different activities in the camp, including English classes and drawing activities.

I started drawing again, documenting life at the camp. I also drew the mosquitoes, the sun and the rain.

I chose EatenFish as my penname, because I was caught from the sea like a fish, "eaten" (processed) at an Australian detention camp, and then "thrown away" on Manus Island (the same way you throw fish bones into a rubbish bin).

In some of my pictures, I added graves for the refugees who had died.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault were serious problems on Manus Island.

It wasn't only me suffering from this - there were a lot of young people like me suffering.

I witnessed it a lot, but I couldn't do anything about it because I was already under too much pressure, suffering from OCD, panic attacks and anxiety.

We didn't have access to the internet at this time, and I didn't have any hope of sharing my drawings with the outside world.

However, the Australian government eventually decided we would each be allowed to use the internet for 45 minutes every week.

The connection was really slow, and was barely strong enough to get onto Facebook - but I started logging on, joining Australian humanitarian groups, and sending friend requests to each of the members.

I did that for 1.5 years - sending messages to thousands of strangers. No one replied.

However, it turns out a lot of the Australian workers and immigration officials at the camp were talking about my drawings, even when they got home.

An activist - Janet Galbraith - heard about my drawings and contacted me on Facebook - she said she was starting a gallery in Melbourne, and wanted to display one of my drawings.

It wasn't easy sending her my pictures because we didn't have access to a scanner, or cameras.

A few people had secretly kept their mobile phones, although most of the cameras weren't very high-quality.

Eventually, I managed to secretly take a photo of my drawing using a mobile phone, and sent it to her.

The drawing that was exhibited in Melbourne
After Janet displayed the photo in the gallery, one man working on Manus Island saw the picture, and told Janet he knew me and could help get my drawings out.

He was working for the government so I couldn't really trust him, but at the same time I didn't have many other choices.

He took photos of my drawings with his iPad and sent them to Janet - and then my drawings started getting published by news organisations.

In 2015, many of us went on hunger strike against Australia's policy, and conditions at the camp.

I ended up getting really sick - I had panic attacks, with muscle spasms, for almost 40 minutes. Sometimes I had panic attacks three times a day.

The doctors put me on different forms of medication, but there were days when I'd wake up and not be able to remember where I used to live or who I was. I was kept in isolation for almost one month.

After I got out of isolation, I contacted Janet again, and explained what happened to me. I also got in touch with Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), and was put in touch with the Guardian cartoonist First Dog on the Moon.

The Guardian started publishing my work, and in 2016, CRNI gave me their Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award.

That got me a lot of publicity - but I didn't really realise it at the time, because my internet access was so limited.

I would hear from people that I'd been published, or get sent links to my work - but I'd have to wait to use the internet room each week, and often the connection wouldn't work well.

I didn't think the publicity would help me - I saw it as a chance to show my drawings to Australians, but I didn't see how it would get me out of detention.

In 2016, artists around the world started drawing cartoons to show their support for me.

When I was a child, one of my wishes was to become a cartoonist, because I would read cartoons in magazines and wish my cartoons could be published too.

So when I saw that all these cartoonists that I used to worship and see in magazines had drawn cartoons to save me, it was a big honour for me.

Cartoonists who had been published in the Washington Post, New Yorker, and New York Times, all drew cartoons about EatenFish.

I felt extremely grateful.

The International Cities of Refuge Network (Icorn), a Norwegian organisation that helps writers and artists, also started working on my case.

I didn't know anything about Icorn at the time - Janet just told me they were looking at my case - but I didn't believe they'd be able to help me.

I went on hunger strike in late 2016, because I was being harassed by other detainees, and workers on Manus Island.

The strike lasted around 22 days. I was already sick, but felt I didn't have any other choice - and by the end of the strike I weighed 43 kilos.

After my hunger strike, I was moved to a hospital in Papua New Guinea for almost three months. While I was there, I got a message from Norway's immigration department, welcoming me.

I couldn't believe it.

When I got onto the plane to Norway, Janet was there with me. I couldn't stop crying for a few hours - I don't normally cry easily, but this time I couldn't stop. All my years in detention came up in front of my eyes - and I couldn't believe that it was the end.

I was so excited and so scared when I arrived in Norway. A few people came to the airport to pick me up, showed me where I would be living, and told me about the support I'd get.

It wasn't easy at first. For the first six to eight months I was in a deep depression - even stronger than the one I had on Manus Island. It still affects me now.

But I got good support from the government, and help from refugee organisations, especially Icorn. I don't think it's possible to get better support than what I got in Norway.

Icorn gave me an office in a public library in Stavanger, so I can work on my projects. A lot of children visit the library, and sometimes I hold drawing courses.

I also go to different schools to talk about Australia's refugee policy. Icorn also helps me financially, and helps me interact with different artists around Norway.

A lot of people ask me if I feel happy now. It's complicated.

I didn't choose to come here - I didn't have any other choices. But now, I love the city that I live in.

I think Norway has the best support and services for refugees - there are detention camps for asylum seekers, but they are not locked in - they can go out, interact with people, and see children playing in parks.
Ali Dorani (centre) at an exhibition of his work in Norway . pic: Al Dorani
I always say that art saved me - it helped the Norwegian government find out about my situation.

While I was in detention on Christmas Island, and Manus Island, lots of people liked my drawings but told me they wouldn't get me anywhere. Some of the detainees asked me: "What are you going to achieve with this? You can't help get us out of here with these drawings."

But now, I think I have the right to say that art actually saved me. I started drawing cartoons in detention, to try and control my illness, and eventually, cartoons saved my life. I genuinely believe that art can help bring peace, and that I have to look after my art and respect that.

What is Australia's asylum policy?

  • Australia has sent asylum seekers arriving by boat to processing and detention centres on Christmas Island, Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and Nauru in the South Pacific. They are not given the option of settling in Australia.
  • Australia argues its policy deters people from making the dangerous journey by sea. But doctors and the UN have criticised conditions on the islands.
  • At least 12 asylum seekers have died in detention on Manus Island. That centre was closed in 2017 after PNG's supreme court ruled it was illegal.

(Source: BBC)